Alt-Country, Roots Rock, Americana, Folk Rock or Country Rock – whatever you call it, I’m a fan. There’s just something about the combination of great song writing, soaring harmonies and the perfect mix of jangly guitars that has always drawn me in. One could argue that the genre was born in the early ‘90’s with a bunch of bands from the Midwest playing a brand of music that was outside the mainstream of Nashville-based country music. Bands like Uncle Tupelo, Old 97’s, The Jayhawks and Whiskeytown were all part of this movement but the sounds being created in the ‘90’s were building on the singer/songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s such as Tom Petty, James Taylor, Neil Young and John Mellencamp. But if you trace the lineage of all these artists, all roads lead back to Graham Parsons – the creator of a brand of music he referred to as “Cosmic American Music”, or the blending of country music with blues, folk and rock ‘n’ roll. This week, I was excited to wrap my ears around some great new releases by modern-day disciples of Parsons, all with their own spin on Alt-Coutry music.
Add It To The Collection… Ryan Adams is an incredible talent. I first came across Adams in 1997 with the release of Stranger’s Almanac. At the time Adams and Whiskeytown were being heralded as the saviours of rock ‘n’ roll by music magazines from coast-to-coast. I was actually at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern when the band played their final gig. That night Adams blew a gasket and threw his guitar thru the bass drum before walking off stage – up until then it had been a pretty awesome show.
Since the break-up of Whiskeytown, Adams has made his mark as a prolific singer/songwriter, releasing 12 albums in 10 years (there’s a lot more material that hasn’t been released). He’s also been a bit of a chameleon, going from angst-ridden alt-rocker to country crooner to Deadhead, and even all-out metal head.
This week, Adams is back with his 13th album titled Ashes & Fire. You could call this a comeback album – Adams all but ‘retired’ from making music or touring for a couple of years while he dealt with some medical issues, worked on other art projects and even got married to Hollywood sweetheart Mandy Moore. Ashes & Fire is a beautiful record, but I would call it more of a rebirth then a comeback. Adams appears to be embracing the softer side of his earlier efforts, including Whiskeytown material, on Ashes. The bursts of punk rock are gone on this record and replaced with introspective love songs with soulful lyrics that sound like Adams has finally found some peace with who he is and what he does well. Must-have track: Lucky Now
Add It To The Collection… Skyscraper Soul is the third solo album by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, and as familiar as Cuddy’s voice and style might be to fans of the iconic Canadian band, he manages to break some new ground with Skyscraper Soul. Cuddy’s latest is more of a pop record with a slew of catchy, toe-tapping tunes and, of course, the customary Cuddy ballads. The record also features some great string and horn arrangements that give the familiar Cuddy sound new sonic accents. This may be the best Cuddy has sounded since his tracks on Blue Rodeo’s quintessential Five Days In July recordings. Must-have track: Regular Days
Worth another listen…At some point last year I stumbled upon the 2009 debut release by L.A. band Dawes. North Hills is a throwback album in the tradition of 60’s and 70’s Southern-California artists such as CSNY, The Eagles and The Mammas & The Pappas. Lush vocal harmonies and beautiful melodies spread across the entire album. Dawes recently released their follow-up, Nothing Is Wrong, which is a step-forward for the band, who have been hand-picked to back-up both Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson on recent tours. Must-have tracks: “That Western Skyline´from North Hills and “A Little Bit Of Everything” off Nothing Is Wrong.
Worth another listen…I was pleasantly surprised with the latest release by 80’s pop princesses The Bangles. Another member of the Southern-California music scene, The Bangles are best known for their top-5 hits “Manic Monday”, “Eternal Flame” and (get your hands up in the air and look off to the side) “Walk Like An Egyptian”. A little more pop and punk then the aforementioned roots rockers, The Bangles actually got their start as a 60’s influenced psychedelic folk-rock act. Their latest, Sweetheart Of The Sun finds The Bangles playing homage to their early roots and influences – essential listening for any alt-country fan has to be Sweetheart Of The Rodeo the only album by The Byrds to feature future Flying Burrito Brother and alt-country forefather, Graham Parsons. The Bangles blend of cow-punk pop music is impressive as are the layered tremolo guitars and harmonies on their first official release since 2003. Must-have track: Anna Lee (Sweetheart Of The Sun).