Reviewed by Mae Hunt
Sarah Jarosz’s fifth album, World on the Ground, is bursting with contemporary folk and progressive country tracks. Created in collaboration with musician and producer John Leventha, the lyrics share reflections on Jarosz’s hometown of Wimberley, Texas. Wimberley, a small town with a population of only 2,626, inspires a string of reflective songs that show off Jarosz’s lyrical and vocal skills. Her voice, never overpowered by the instrumentals, carries each song while banjos, mandolins, and guitars dance in the background creating an intimate listening experience.
The highly personal album captures Jarosz’s storytelling abilities. Although I have never been to Wimberley myself, I can picture the small town from the vivid descriptions embedded into each track. The song’s opening track, Eve, begins: “A long, long time ago, in a little Texas town…” and describes “the wilderness and the cypress trees, and the night birds all around” that litter the landscape. Similarly, in Hometown, Jarosz depicts the “cedars and the oaks” and the “light above the hills” in a way that transports listeners to the quaint town.
In addition to the scenery, some tracks call out and describe various small town characters. In Johnny, Jarosz’s honeyed voice describes a local boy’s return to Wimberly as she sadly wonders: “How could a boy from a little bay town grow up to be a man, fly the whole world round, then end up back on the same damn ground he started.” In this track and in many others, subtle key changes and silky vocals draw the listener in as Jarosz wrestles with a contradicting desire to both stay and leave her hometown.
Maggie depicts a girl who yearns to escape the small town, perhaps emulating Jarosz’s eventual relocation to New York City where she now resides. Maggie hopes to escape the “football games” and “processed food” of the small town by driving “across the desert, in a blue ford escape.” The unique melody and guitar work in combination with Jarosz’s soft voice create a feeling of nostalgia that coincides with the departure of her beloved town.
The album’s finale, Little Satchel, speaks to the adventures that lay ahead. This bluegrass song is bursting with banjo strumming while Jarozs’s strong southern accent makes an appearance. This song depicts falling in love and dreaming of a full life beyond the little town, perhaps in California or Louisiana.
Despite a clear yearning to move on from her small town, a deep love for Wimberley is consistent throughout the album. This love is particularly strong in Orange and Blue when she says: “I think I found it now, and nothing else will do. A heart that burns so true, burning orange and blue.” Regardless of where life takes her, she will always find comfort for the place where she grew up. I don’t know about you all, but that sentiment speaks to me!
Buy World on the Ground here.
Reviewed by Mae Hunt
Lilly Hiatt’s Walking Proof is a classic country album with hints of electronic pop and waves of indie rock that distinguish it as one-of-a-kind. This Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s music strikes me as classic yet quirky, traditional yet unique. How is it possible to balance such extremities? Listen to the album here and see for yourself.
Abundant with vivid imagery, the album for some may serve simply as a dream-like escape from reality. However, while this Rolling Stones article states that Walking Proof is neither autobiographical nor social commentary, I believe there are both meaningful and intentional themes strung throughout Hiatt’s 11 tracks. The songs include themes of love, transition, and adulthood that I believe serve simultaneously as light, leisurely tunes and inspirational, sincere reflections.
I love the way the album begins, with a declaration of adoration for Hiatt’s younger sister, Rae. If you have sisters yourself, this song will hit home. In a sweet and twangy voice, Hiatt depicts the inexplicable connection between sisters: “Nobody gets it like you do Rae, I put so much on you Rae, ‘Cause nobody gets it like you do.” That platonic love is echoed in Brightest Star, which is an uplifting melody directed at someone overcoming innocent drama, such as boys and school. In this catchy and optimistic song, Hiatt writes: “The brightest star in my whole sky is you.”
In contrast to this platonic love, the album has many tracks that portray fleeting romances. P-Town, for example, shares the slightly humorous story of a romantic getaway gone wrong. Little Believer, one of the most rock-and-roll tracks on the album, is a classic tale of unrequited love: “I haven’t been there much for you, at least not how I’ve wanted to.”
Alright, enough about love. Despite the Rolling Stones article’s statement that the album is not social commentary, there are subtle messages about the world in which we live. For example, Candy Lunch begs the question, “Why does every boy I meet try to tell me how to live or what to eat?” Some Kind of Drug makes an explicit reference to both Nashville’s gentrification and homelessness problem, stating: “Who are these strangers in my town that just want to tear everything down? And I know it’s everybody’s dream but I swear to god I can’t hear a heartbeat.” While I don’t think the album is littered with social commentary, it is undoubtedly there, primarily speaking to Hiatt’s experience as a female artist and long-time Nashville resident.
Finally, there are moments of empowerment and self-love that bring the album home. Never Play Guitar is essentially a love song written for her guitar. In this soft rock song, Hiatt implies that men rarely understand her need for a room of her own to play guitar. The final song, Scream, depicts a woman moving on from a man who made her give up parts of herself. “I played my guitar softly for you” she declares in one of my favorite lines of the album. At the end, she states, “I’m moving on for nobody but myself.”
Interestingly, the almost-eerie nature of the final song is completely different from the upbeat bops of other tracks, perhaps implying some uncertainty in taking life’s next steps. Regardless of whether you are seeking a catchy escape-from-reality, melodious reflections on life, or something in between, Hiatt’s album is definitely worth the listen.
Reviewed by Mae Hunt
I have a deep appreciation for talented artists who do not shy away from controversy. In Good Souls, Better Angels, Lucinda Williams does just that, addressing head-on many contentious topics, such as mental illness, domestic abuse, and the devil. The unapologetically loud lyrics paired with a unique bluesy-punk pulse coincide to create perhaps the best album I have listened to in a long while.
Undefinable by just one category, the genre-hopping 12 tracks are versatile. At times, Williams emulates spoken word poetry (Wakin’ Up) and at others she echoes punk rock (Down Past the Bottom). Her raspy voice, which ranges from hissing to bellowing, is paired with pounding drums, electric guitars, and a velvety bass that generate a unique sound for each track.
Released in April 2020, in the midst of social movements, a global pandemic, and politically divided citizens, the album addresses the madness of our current world. In Bad News Blues, Williams voices the relatable inescapability of constant bad news – it satiates our TVs and magazines, reaching us in elevators, in the car, and at the bar. This despair is echoed in Man Without a Soul and, considering the political nature of the album, the unnamed man likely alludes to a man with an overwhelmingly recognizable name, our very own President Trump.
In Big Black Train, Williams shifts away from punk rock and offers us a soulful ballad narrating experiences with depression. Her voice fluctuates between broken and unwavering, as she declares: “I don’t wanna get on board…last time through it took me far away…didn’t know if I was ever coming back.” Not surprisingly, Big Black Train is followed by perhaps the most triggering and raw song on the album, Wakin’ Up. This angry, grungy, electronic track shares the experience of a woman escaping an abusive relationship. The song consists of short syllables and simple rhymes, somewhat resembling a spoken word poem in which the woman’s anger and fear is palpable.
So, yes, Williams undoubtedly ventures to the dark places many artists are unwilling to go. However, she does not simply take us there only to abandon us. Undeniable hope glimmers through many tracks. In the Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Williams sings about resistance and perseverance through inner turmoil. In the quiet and melodious When the Way Gets Dark, she offers inspiring and hopeful words of wisdom. Her croons, “la la laaa”, sounds tired, perhaps from fighting countless uphill battles, but the message is clear: “Don’t give up, hang on tight, don’t be afraid, it’s gonna be alright….”
I simply cannot get enough of Lucinda Williams. She uses her 42 years in the music industry, during which she has won three Grammy Awards and two Americana Awards, to create electrifying and thought-provoking music. Not only is she bold, daring, and unforgiving, but she is willing to display those characteristics in her music to create a downright inspiring album.
Reviewed by Mae Hunt
Listening to Lessons & Lovers in full is a journey – Wonky Tonk captures the realities of life and love in eleven short songs. The ups, the downs, the good, the bad, and everything in between. Listeners of all ages can relate to these visceral moments of desire, anger, confidence, and longing all captured in a folk album that I can imagine jamming out to in my car, windows down, on a hot summer day.
Before getting into specific songs, I have to say: man, can this woman sing! Her voice ranges from melancholy croons, like in Cryin’ Shame, to bellowing howls, like in Everyone’s Got a Brian. Her voice, paired with moments of overwhelming instrumentals, truly makes the album feel like a journey.
At closer listen, it is clear that there’s much more to the album than impressive vocals and instrumentals. Wonky Tonk’s lyrics share words of wisdom, grief, even comedy. Actually, Wonky Tonk’s persistent sense of humor struck me throughout the album. In Everyone’s Got a Brian, she curses out a helpless man named Brian, telling him: “Don’t be a dick, it’s easy.” She finds comedic relief in the stereotype that men can easily anger women and all I have to say is…well, I wouldn’t want to be Brian. The whimsical undertone comes full fledged in Suitors when she laughs about having too many suitors in her small town. It’s fun and goofy, which counteracts the desolate, longing tones in other tracks.
Somehow, Wonky Tonk makes moments of anxiety, depression, confusion, and loss palpable to listeners. In Cryin’ Shame, Wonky Tonk’s crooning mimics someone with a broken heart crying into the night over a lost lover. In Never Trust a Doctor, her soft and soothing voice juxtaposes the grief-stricken words of a recent heartbreak. She takes the traditional tropes of romance and throws them into a contemporary context, adding her own flare and uniqueness. In Stock Market, for example, Wonky Tonk asks the undying question: “Why does love bring me so much pleasure and so much goddamn pain?” Well, by the end of the album, it seems she has found the answer.
The album wraps up with Lessons which perfectly ties together the raw emotions of the other tracks with binds of learned wisdom. Considering the profound insight and reflection in these lyrics, I think Wonky Tonk must have aged a decade between writing Everyone’s Got a Brian and Lessons …. She seems to answer her own question posed in Stock Market, why does love bring me so much pleasure and so much goddamn pain? All the ups and the downs described on previous tracks have led her to the realization that difficult times make her stronger. With empowering vocals, she declares: “I’ve got all the love I need.” Rather than seeking love from others she has found it within herself.
I have all the respect in the world for Wonky Tonk for the cultivation of such a layered album. A strong, feminist country artist who speaks openly about personal experience with depression and anxiety? That’s what I like to see! More importantly, though, I admire Wonky Tonk’s depiction of her journey to self-love and acceptance, a destination that ends an uphill journey for many.
1. The Germs – Lexicon Devil
2. The Germs – ‘Round and ‘Round
3. The Byrds – You Ain’t Going Nowhere
4. Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers – All By Myself
5. John Lennon – Isolation
6. Sun Ra Arkestra – Nuclear War
7. Grateful Dead – Morning Dew
8. Bad Religion – Fuck Armageddon…This Is Hell
9. Bad Religion – We’re Only Gonna Die
10. Total Chaos – Babylon
11. Death Or Colorado – Waiting For Godot
12. DreadFul – Biological Warfare
13. The Cramps – Fever
14. Mudhoney – Here Comes Sickness
15. Townes Van Zandt – Lungs
16. Townes Van Zandt – Waiting Around To Die
17. Badfinger – It’s Over
Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
First and foremost, the book feels great in my hands. There is one material item that gives me immense pleasure, a hardback book. Those e-readers are fine for the airplane or train, but that doesn’t even come close to how a real book feels. This is no ordinary book. It’s called a coffee table book, but it is so much more. This book is an historical marker of events that transpired over 20 years ago. Luckily, this history is now preserved forever.
The cover image is striking, a solo photo of Marty walking forward with his eyes gazing at the ground. He is wearing a black overcoat with a black hat. The hat is adorned by a metallic skeleton. The photo is grainy and the absolute perfect symbol for this book. The back cover contains the sepia toned photo of a train rolling along the tracks. Such powerful imagery that really sets the tone of what is in between the covers.
I love surprises and I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that a CD of The Pilgrim (Deluxe Edition) is included! It is the perfect accompaniment to this beautiful, one of a kind work of art. So many great country music and bluegrass artists worked on this album including Johnny Cash, George Jones, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, The Clinch Mountain Boys, and Pam Tillis.
The book is packed with photos of so many iconic musicians with Marty. The list is too long to mention all of the legends that appear in this book but pretty much all of the big ones are represented in both country and rock and roll. The likes of Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. In addition to the famous folks that appear in the pages, Marty also includes many photos of the people that would normally be left out of such a book. That includes photos of hillbillies, hobos, an Elvis impersonator, circus performers, and go-go dancers.
Marty is part Choctaw Indian and he is rightfully proud of his heritage. He prominently displays photos of Marvin Helper, who is a holy man in the Lakota Tribe in South Dakota. In the book, Marty tells a story about the night before his wedding to Connie Smith. Marvin told Marty that if he saw an eagle before they were wed, “everything would be okay.” Marty confirmed that he and Connie did see an eagle on the way to the nuptials. They are still married after 23 years so Marvin was right. One of the most emotional moments in the book for me is when Marty wrote, ” Marrying Connie, is without question, the greatest event of my life.”
The book also goes through the songs on The Pilgrim and also the recording sessions. There are tons of pictures of both. This isn’t as much of a read as it is an experience. The emotion evoked from the words and pictures is a bit overwhelming. I felt many of the same chills when I watched Ken Burns’ Country Music. This is really the history of country music part two.
I don’t usually talk about the price of things, but in this instance, I think it is important. The book retails for under $30. I have seen books with less substance go for upwards of $75 bucks. This is a bargain of epic proportion. If you don’t have a coffee table to display this book, buy the book and a coffee table too!
Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
Before I get into the music, I want to address Tami’s look. It is a look that is quite familiar to me. This is Baltimore in the late 50s/early 60s. If Tami were around about 35 years ago, she would have been in serious consideration for a role in Hairspray. The original Hairspray directed by the one and only John Waters. The rockabilly tinged tunes on CHICKABOOM! also fit in with the look. This is not garden variety rockabilly. Tami’s voice makes sure of that. Her strong and powerful vocals are equally matched by her range. There is no stress in her singing, she grabs high notes like an acrobat reaching for the trapeze.
I am definitely in the mood for some straight up, old timey sounding rockabilly, which is why I am choosing Tell Me That You Love Me (Track 7) to be the first track I discuss. This infectious little ditty makes it impossible to sit still when listening. Tami’s strong vocals take first place in this contest. Let’s make it a four-way tie because the lead guitar, bass, and drums are also very important elements. That guitar solo is stellar and equally matched is the rhythm section that holds perfect time.
How about one that’s a little darker. When I say a little darker, I kid. It’s about as dark as a black hole in space. 16 Miles Of Chain (Track 6) is a song about heartbreak and betrayal and possibly murder. Yes, I said murder. I am not completely sure but something is brewing:
“Come on down from the roof, my dear, see what I have found
Into the chest that I love best, I pushed that black heart down
And in my lovers face I saw betrayal and the pain
And now I’m tied to that cold black heart with 16 miles of chain”
I will let the reader and listener be the judge as to how the story ends. Tami leaves us something for the imagination.
Call Your Mama (Track 1) is more blues influenced. No problem, Tami has the blues covered. Her voice is all encompassing and perfect on this track. Another song about betrayal and heartbreak. Tami writes from a strong woman’s point of view and will not tolerate any nonsense. Damn straight. Don’t mess with the victim in this story. Treat her right or you will be out the door. Or worse!
The common theme of CHICKABOOM! is pure rock and roll, the way it ought to be. No frills or overproduction, just great singing, writing, and musicianship. The songs are all very listenable and are begging to be played more than once. I for one have already followed my own advice.