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(Fat Possum, $14.98)

Indie songman and violin virtuoso Andrew Bird whistles, sings and weaves a tapestry of sounds that sparkle like a freewheeling carnival. A classically trained musician, Bird’s “Noble Beast” combines his music education and pop sensibilities.

“Masterswarm” dips into a bossa nova groove while the pop beat of “Fitz and The Dizzyspells” breaks down into quizzical lyrics and sunny whistling. Bird delivers “Effigy” and “Nomenclature” with a warm intimacy and poetic precision. His songs have so many layers and seem planned to the edge of exactness yet they’re a delight to hear. So much so that you’ll enjoy listening over and over again to catch what you might have missed the first time.

With a voice similar to, but only slightly less dramatic than Rufus Wainwright and the late Jeff Buckley, Bird conveys joy, curiosity and sorrow as skillfully as he wields his violin. “Not a Ghost, Not a Robot” borders on techno while “Souverian” is classic Bird in its sparse, floating string-led beauty.
The full-court press is on to deliver this one-man band from his humble indie status to the pop mainstream so you’ll be hearing a lot from this clever, adventurous one-man band.

(New West Records)

In 1972, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock formed The Flatlanders in Lubbock, Texas. Together for only a year, the trio split off and launched three highly successful careers.  Yet over the past two decades, their friendship has drawn them back to being The Flatlanders to record several albums and even a song for “The Horse Whisperer” soundtrack. Now the highly regarded singer/songwriters return with “Hills and Valleys”, 13 tracks of authentic Tex-Mex country & western, inspired by their southwestern location. Several pointed political statements are made and seem most fitting for their inaugural 21st century recording.

The lead off track “Homeland Refugee” tells of home foreclosures, unemployment, Mexican illegals and how we’re all in the same boat (if you can afford a boat!), followed by “Borderless Love” where “there’s no need for this wall” among “the fearless who love and the loveless that fear”.
Produced by Lloyd Maines (pedal steel virtuoso and Dixie Chicks’ producer), The Flatlanders get sentimental over women (“No Way I’ll Never Need You“), the highway (“Thank God For The Road”) and adventure (“Cry For Freedom”). Not surprisingly, Gilmore, Ely and Hancock transform Woody Guthrie’s “Sowing On The Mountain” into a powerful edict for the masses.

(New West Records, $17.98)

Nashville’s much loved and much in-demand musical couple returns with their second release, 8 years after the first. Forgive them. They’ve been busy working with EmmyLou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Solomon Burke, Alison Krauss and more. On “Written In Chalk”, Buddy and Julie deliver a warmth and comfort that could only come from being married and playing together for over 20 years.

Touching on a variety of musical styles, Mr. and Mrs. Miller hit perfection with the old-timey opener “Ellis County” and the soulful “Smooth” and “Gasoline and Matches”. Julie’s sweet girlish voice shines on the heartfelt ballad “Everytime We Say Goodbye“ and smolders for the torch song “A Long, Long Time”. Special guests pop up throughout the disc. Buddy’s duet with Regina McCrary “Hush, Sorrow” will break your heart, while his teaming with Robert Plant on Lefty Frizzell’s “What You Gonna Do Leroy” will have you gettin’ down and dirty. Patty Griffin, whose stirring singing with Buddy on “Chalk”, will have you weeping and come to think of it, so will Julie and Patty together on the achingly lovely “Don’t Say Goodbye”. The disc ends most satisfyingly with Harris and Buddy on the battle-weary “The Selfishness of Man”.

(New West Records, $17.98)

One-time Jayhawks front men, Gary Louris and Mark Olson, reunite for a stunningly poignant album that launches their alt-country sound to poetic heights of longing, heartbreak and weariness. Seated in front of one shared microphone, the long-time friends strum their guitars and sing in unison to deliver an intimate performance made for back porch listening. Themes of home and garden (both literal and emotional) pop up, especially on the first cut "The Rose Society" and the wistful "Turn Your Pretty Name Around". The sadness swells on "Black Eyes" and diehard Jayhawks' fans will be beside themselves when they hear two cuts from the band's earlier days…the murder ballad "Bloody Hands" and the weeper "Precious Time". Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, who oversaw production of "Ready For The Flood", should be applauded for keeping Olsen and Louris free from clutter by adding just the slightest touches of harmonica, dobro, banjo and organ. "The Trap's Been Set" is ethereal folk-rock, offset by Olsen's Porter Wagoner-like spoken word break. The disc ends on the vintage "Cotton Dress", a song that sounds centuries old and cements Olson and Louris as a pair of exceptionally authentic American songwriters.


(Jagjaguwar, $10.98)

This CD-EP features four tracks from Justin Vernon, the Wisconsin singer/songwriter who’s critically acclaimed 2008 album rested atop plenty of critic’s lists. Brimming with arousing sparseness (“Blood Bank”) and gloriously sensitive guitar work (“Beach Baby”), Vernon hits the keys for the piano-driven “Babys” and extends his reach on “Woods” by manipulating his voice electronically, a la Kanye West. With just one refrain, Vernon uses only layers of his voice and a brief phrase to create this trippy cut.Although it’s a small release, it will satisfy Bon Iver fans until the next full-length disc is released

(New West Records, $16.98)
Not surprisingly, Ben Lee has dedicated his latest release to Venus, the Goddess of Love and Beauty. The Aussie singer/songwriter is a newlywed, having recently married film actress Ione Skye. His current state of joy abounds as Lee sings of accepting his human fallibilities  (“Surrender”), using music as a distraction to life’s ills (“I Love Pop Music”) and embracing his feminine side (“I’m Woman Too”). Lee’s Buddhist-laden, sensitive songs are infectious and beneficial…both emotionally and financially. A portion of the albums proceeds go FINCA’s Village Banking Program, which provides money to low-income women for their business endeavors.

(SubPop, $12.00)

The perfect accompaniment to the harsh, gray days of winter, Vetiver’s “Tight Knit” is a reminder of happier, warm spring days that will soon be ours! Singer/songwriter Andy Cabic has created a friendly and homey atmosphere reminiscent of 1970’s Laurel Canyon. California literally echoes on “Down From Above” with angelic harmonies over glittering guitars. Jaunty pop numbers like “On The Other Side” and “More Of This” are a delightful step in to 60s British invasion. Just when you think you’ve figured Vetiver out, the band dips a toe into 70s R&B tinged stylings on “Another Reason To Go”. Refreshing that something this “Tight Knit” contains so much.

(Yep Roc)

The voice of Loudon Wainwright III came rising out of my radio the other day, singing like a modern day Woody Guthrie about the current state of the economy. Wainwright comes out swinging with his guitar on “Times Is Hard”, a pointed commentary where he rails about “…losin’ your job, your house and your car./Hittin’ rock bottom don’t feel that far”. While he lays guilt on many, including one Ponzi-scheme crook (“Who’s at fault? Who’s to blame? Let’s string up Bernie what’s-his-name?”), Wainwright offers up not a drop of optimism to allay our fears. Just a shot of reality for what is destined to be Song of the Year. / Issue 99 - September 2018
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