When Richmond Fontaine singer/ songwriter Willy Vlautin announced, at the beginning of 2016, that the alt-country stalwarts were finally calling it quits, the news came as a complete surprise to all but the combo’s closest confidantes. Even though RF had taken a back seat, as Vlautin recorded a pair of sublime albums with his retro country-soul outfit, The Delines, it was assumed that the Portland-based band would pick up where they left off with 2011’s The High Country.
In truth, The High Country was something of an uneven and uneasy record that fell some way short of its author’s ambitions, leaving Vlautin doubly determined to make a final album that would allow the band goes out on a high. The result was glorious. You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To, a mesmeric Americana masterpiece surpassing, even, the group’s own indisputable landmark in the field Post to Wire (2003). So there was a silver lining to the band’s breakup after all, as Richmond Fontaine delivered a magnificent musical parting shot that will echo down the decades.
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Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life
Being promoted as a ‘phenomenal songwriter’ by none other than Ryan Adams certainly put pressure on Courtney Marie Andrews to deliver something truly out of the ordinary on her latest album, Honest Life. It’s fortunate, then, that Andrews isn’t exactly your average recording artist; for starters, she’s a workaholic – Honest Life is her sixth album in eight years (tellingly, though, it’s her first since 2013), she’s also released a six-track E.P Leuven Letters, and managed to cram in a globetrotting tour or two as a backing vocalist with her compatriots from Phoenix; Jimmy Eat World.
While Honest Life doesn’t actually get a European release until January next year, it’s been rapturously received stateside (not a review goes by without comparison to Joni Mitchell!). The wonderful leadoff single “How Quickly your Heart Mends” is every bit as good a country song as Margo Price’s magisterial “Hands of Time” and leaves no one in any doubt as to Andrews’ persuasive way with a lyric –
‘Empty promises and a broken heart / Hiding in the bathroom of this bar / Crossing out your name in my mind / I’ll cross out yours now that you’ve crossed out mine / The jukebox is playing a sad country song / For all the ugly Americans / Now I feel like one of them /Dancing alone and broken by the freedom.’
Other standout tracks on this country-folk classic are the lonesome ballad “Table for One” and the thinking woman’s toe-tapper “Irene,” but there really are no weak spots in what should be a career-changing album.
David Corley – Lights Out
When you have to wait until the ripe old age of 53 for your debut album to find its way into the shops, you’re not about to let the dust settle under your feet when it comes to re-booking the recording studio. It’s understandable, then, that not even a major heart attack suffered during an encore in Groningen 14 months ago could prevent Corley from laying down a quick-fire follow-up to last year’s astonishing Available Light (nominated for the best album on this very blog last year).
After the exceptional job in coordinating, producing, and playing on Available Light, Hugh Christopher Brown returned to oversee production and keep a watchful eye on our wayward hero. Highlights included the funky chug of “Lightning Downtown,” the rock ‘n’ roll rumble of “The Dividing Line,” and the feisty ballad “Down with the Universe.” These are strange and beautiful tracks, with the bonus that each is sung (sort of) in that singularly gnarled and guttural voice! Equally intoxicating but considerably edgier than its predecessor, Lights Out once again meshed together Dylan, Waits, and Springsteen in thrillingly off-kilter fashion.
Karl Blau – Introducing Karl Blau
Twenty years into a career that has, so far, diversified into indie-rock, campfire folk, and the odd dalliance with afrobeat, the maverick singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Karl Blau joined forces with in-demand producer Tucker Martine (The Decembrists, Sufjan Stevens & My Morning Jacket) to conceive an unlikely covers album that spanned everyone from The Bee Gees to Townes Van Zandt.
The order of the day here is a collection of easy listening earworms for country music devotees into eccentric geniuses like Bill Callahan and Terry Allen, with the highlight being the sorrowful, fractured baritone that Blau brings to bear on his heart-achingly sincere cover of the Tom T. Hall ballad “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Next, best is the ten-minute tour-de-force “Falling Rain.”
Aled Rheon – A Gorgeous Charge
2016 saw bilingual singer/songwriter Aled Rheon deliver his first English language recording. It proved to be an absolute joy, with a smattering of wonderful folk-pop classics to be found among its five superior tracks. The E.P. kicks off with a personal favorite, the tender-hearted ballad “September” (after a stiff drink, or two, I’ve even been known to tweet that “September” is the song of the century), so it comes as a real surprise to find its companion piece, “Wrap up Warm,” emerging as this collection’s high point.
When can write songs that, on first listen, barely seem able to support their own weight, yet soon reveal, layer by layer, an unsuspected gravitas? A prime example is “Wrap up Warm,” delicately embellished here by a well-appointed cello, which starts with Rheon touchingly dispensing all manner of practical, parental advice from ‘eat your greens’ to ‘call me when you get there, and ends with the singer adopting the role of mystic companion –
‘Find your friends, open your mind / take those books off the shelf and get a sense of yourself / Fool around, find what’s right / pick your boundaries and pick your fights… / Find your feet, or take flight / It’s a big world out there, so take a bite / Find the one, hold on tight / The future’s pulling, clocks are ticking.
It’s a beautifully judged lyric with a performance to match, as Ron’s wistful and fine-grained vocal manages to make James Taylor sound like Jello Biafra!
While a debut album may be some distance off, we should count our blessings; A Gorgeous Charge is a musical comfort blanket that will cosset the heart and soul against the long winter nights to come.
Margo Price – Mid West Farmer’s Daughter
Mixing honky-tonk hedonism and hard-nosed narrative balladry made Mid -West Farmer’s Daughter one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, notching up high-ranking positions at the end of the year polls at NME, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Mojo, and anywhere else you might care to look. It’s not hard to see why – Price is one sassy, soulful, shit-kicking country diva in the making (not that the deplorable, ultra- commercial, and resolutely non-country Country Music Association would agree). Price is a gifted songwriter, too, with an eye for a lyric that cuts right to the chase and a harrowing backstory that could provide enough material for a half-dozen uncompromising albums in the same vein.
The opening verse of “Since You Put Me Down” showcases her no-nonsense, confessional approach – ‘Since you put me down / I’ve been drinking just to drown / I’ve been lying through the cracks of my teeth / I’ve been waltzing with my sin / He’s an ugly evil twin / He’s a double-crossing, backstabbing thief’. Often compared to country legends like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, songs like the peerless opener “Hands of Time” justify all the press hype and more!
Dori Freeman – Dori Freeman
2016 has been a stellar year for countryside Americana. Dori Freeman’s eponymous debut is a damn near perfect example of why; there’s folksy integrity, a singer/songwriter’s frankness, and a country singer’s air of feisty defiance that cements these ten fine songs tightly together.
Late in 2014, Freeman sent an unsolicited song, via Facebook, to the esteemed musician Teddy Thompson who was knocked out by the track, recalling that it only took him ’10 to 12 seconds to realize that “Lullaby” was great’ and to determine that he wanted to get on board as Freeman’s producer. Just a few months and one Kickstarter campaign later, the 24 yr old from the small town of Galax, Virginia, was in Thompson’s New York studio laying down the demo for her startling debut.
The pick of a bumper crop is the aforementioned “Lullaby,” the heartbreaking “Where I Stood” (which features a harmony from Thompson himself), and the starkly beautiful “Go on Loving,” on which Freeman’s country quiver veers toward the vocal style of a certain Iris Dement now, if that isn’t recommendation enough!
Borders – Climbing Trees
Climbing Trees’ debut album Hebron (2013) was an eclectic masterpiece, blending elements of folk, gospel, alt-country, and indie-pop in a heady brew that the band, only half-jokingly, codified as “Cymru can.” Its long-awaited follow-up, the Welsh Music Prize-nominated Borders, was a more focused affair, with the direction of travel clearly towards the mainstream. Identifiable traces of the old Climbing Trees’ sound underpinned the record, though, especially on the poppy “Amber” and the ethereal, harmony-coated “Fall.” Still, it was the stupendously catchy “Lost,” with its super-size me chorus, that testified to the fact that there was an album with more killer hooks than a Chicago meat-packing plant at Christmas!