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10Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have been married for years, but they have rarely recorded together. They have staked out their own careers in a similar musical field by following separate tracks. That’s why it seems so strange that the lovingest couple in Austin, Texas joined together to release an album of cheating songs. Not all the tracks on Cheater’s Game have to do with deceitful behavior or being wronged by a loved one. However, most of them are and several of them were penned by Robison. Don’t get the wrong idea. The close vocal harmonies on the hurting songs (and the happier ones) suggest that the two are still together for the long term. Their voices complement each other in phrasing and emotions. Unlike traditional male / female duets, these two don’t take turns singing. They let each lead on the various cuts and then weave their own voices through the tunes. The effect is that the two sound like one, albeit different voices from the same consciousness. The duo also has good taste in other people’s songs, which they make their own through their distinctive interpretations. For example, Willis turns Dave Alvin‘s “Border Radio” into the lament of the woman left behind, while Robison makes Robert Earl Keen‘s “No Kinda Dancer” into a plaintive celebration of a social world that used to be. The originals and the covers blend together well. The result is a cohesive album, which complements the concept of Willis and Robison joining together as one. Steve Horowitz
My Favorite Picture of You
It cannot be said often enough that Guy Clark is a songwriter’s songwriter, one of the trustiest musical craftsmen working in any idiom. You’ll find no cast-offs or filler here—Clark’s songs that carry the distinction of feeling loved, labored over, and lived in. Nowhere on this new album is that approach more evident than on the title track, “My Favorite Picture of You”, a song written for his late wife Susanna, who passed away in June 2012. The picture in question appears on the album’s cover, held up to the viewer by Clark himself. As he describes it, the photo catches Susanna in an emotional moment—having just walked out of their house with the thought of leaving him heavy on her mind. Clark, with inimitable honesty, uses the song to explore the ambiguities of the photo: “There’s a fire in your eyes / You’ve got your heart on your sleeve / A curse on your lips, / But all I can see is beautiful.” Like several of his other great songs, including “The Randall Knife” and “Step Inside This House”, the focus on an everyday object lays bare a much more complex emotional reality. Another picture crops up on “Heroes”, where an Iraqi War veteran keeps not only a picture of him and his buddies who died in the war, but also “a silver star and a pistol in a drawer.” Clark’s well-worn sense of cagey humor also makes an appearance on the album, in particular on the song “Good Advice”, which finds him reeling off observations that sound so intuitive that it’s hard to imagine you haven’t heard them before, notably “Funny thing about good advice / Everybody’s got some.” No advice for you, Guy. You’re doing perfectly well without advice from me. Taylor Coe
8The Devil Makes Three
I’m a Stranger Here
The Devil Makes Three are sort of late bloomers on the Americana scene. The two guitars/banjos and bass trio has been together since 2002, but it wasn’t until 2011’s excellent live album Stomp and Smash that the band really started to grow their audience. Similarly, it wasn’t until this year’s I’m a Stranger Here that the band put together a great studio album. Their three previous studio records all featured good songwriting from frontman Pete Bernhard, but the production kept the band firmly mired in “you’ve really gotta see them live to understand” territory. With veteran roots musician Buddy Miller on board as producer, I’m a Stranger Here crackles with as much energy as the band’s live show.
The album runs through an array of acoustic styles, but Bernhard’s distinct vocals and lyrical outlook make the record feel cohesive. Thus the Preservation Hall Jazz Band-assisted call-and-response of “Forty Days” isn’t too far away from the classic country stomper “Hallelu”, since the two share a Biblical appreciation served with a side of suspicion for those who purport to follow its teachings. The down-and-dirty blues of “Worse or Better” can sit comfortably next to the bright and bouncy “Spinning Like a Top” because both songs share a rueful nostalgia for being young and making bad decisions. Yet the two songs come at the topic from completely different angles. For his part, Miller knows exactly when to sweeten the trio’s sound with touches both subtle (kick drum and snare doubling the bass and rhythm guitar) and overt (electric guitar and fiddle solos) without pulling the focus off of the band itself. The end result is an album that’s both smart and a hell of a lot of fun. Chris Conaton
Alela Diane‘s Hemingwayesque vocabulary lets you know the vulnerability of her narrators without having to spell out the emotions. And like Hemingway, Diane also holds forth about whiskey and having too much to drink. Alcohol frees her characters to feel—good and bad—about their relationships. Mostly, they feel lost and overwhelmed. “Some things are best if kept in darkness,” she sings, and notes that one only tells fibs when awake. Sleep and alcohol keep one honest, and honesty is a virtue. It’s our conscious behaviors and motivations that are not to be trusted. The simple and spare acoustic musical arrangements reify her sincerity. So does her hauntingly beautiful voice. Diane went through a recent divorce and it is easy to see these songs as self-reflective, but who knows or cares if this is true. The music here stands apart from her biography. The stories she delivers, the details she provides, and the manner in which Diane carries it off seduces the listener into empathy. The pain itself comes off as convincingly real, and more importantly, so does her resolution to move forward. After all, this album is entitled About Farewell. Diane acknowledges what’s been left behind on songs like the wistful “Before the Leaving” and the gorgeous “Lost Land”, but she’s looking ahead. The title song in particular is more than a song about goodbye. The narrator knows not to look back. Instead, she describes the past as the foundation for what is next. Steve Horowitz
6The Band of Heathens
Sunday Morning Record
After the 2011 departure of co-founder Colin Brooks and the pursuant departure of the band’s rhythm section, remaining Heathens Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist were faced with some serious band rebuilding. Thankfully, the two were able to more than just put the pieces back together, coming out the other end of the near-dissolution for the better and turning out their best studio album yet. The opening track, “Shotgun”, says it all: pairing a warm, folksy melody to an ingenious set of time changes, common time verses against a waltzing chorus. Boasting a clean and polished sound, Sunday Morning Record is as smooth as Americana gets, harking back to the days when “AOR-ready” would have been just the right description. Strains of circa-1972 Eagles simmer under the surface of these songs, though Jurdi and Quist often do the original soft-rockers one better, digging into a thoughtful and serious vein of nostalgia that would have caused Don Henley to turn tail and run. The acoustic apology, “Since I’ve Been Home”, offers a bruising look at the itinerant lifestyle, the narrator observing as he settles back into being home, with all the sad weight of retrospection, “You know we almost had it good / We break like bad habits never could.” All in all, this fixation on retrospection serves them well—Jurdi and Quist look musically backwards, but don’t necessarily want to return there. Taylor Coe
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