Steep Canyon Rangers - Tell The Ones I Love
review by Freddy Jenkins
North Carolina-based bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers follow up their 2013 Grammy Award-winning Nobody Knows You with their second recording for Rounder Records, Tell The Ones I Love. The group’s profile has been raised in recent years by their collaborations with Steve Martin and this new recording showcases their many strengths.
Working with producer Larry Campbell at Levon Helm’s Studio in Woodstock, NY, the band continues with their blend of bluegrass, country and folk-pop, adding just a bit more percussion on this outing. They are fine instrumentalists and have a great vocal blend. And the songwriting of Graham Sharp and Charles Humphrey is first rate as well. A train song, “Tell The Ones I Love,” kicks off this collection of a dozen original compositions and is a highlight. Other notable selections include “Camellia,” which brings to mind Helm’s group, The Band, the shuffling “Mendocino County Blue,” and the somewhat melancholic “Boomtown.”
The Steep Canyon Rangers have come quite a ways from their formation in Chapel Hill in the late 1990s going from playing The Cave to The Hollywood Bowl. This latest offering finds the group continuing to successfully push the boundaries of bluegrass.
Some 25 years ago when I saw John Howie Jr. play the drums in a Chapel Hill indie rock band, Light in August, I thought he was a great natural-born drummer. I was a little disappointed when I later learned he'd switched to playing acoustic guitar and was singing honky-tonk and country songs. That disappointment didn't last too long. With each of his releases over the years his dedication to the classic country deepens and his execution grows more convincing and satisfying. Especially noteworthy have been his duets with Tift Merritt and his first outing with The Rosewood Bluff, his backing band.
Along comes Everything Except Goodbye, a new album filled mostly with originals and tunes co-written by John Howie, along with one cover, Mikey Newberry's "Why You Been Gone So Long."
Howie is again backed by The Rosewood Bluff: bassist and banjoist Billie Feather, steel guitar player Nathan Golub, guitarist Tim Shearer, and Southern Culture on the Skids drummer Dave Hartman. The quintet turn in a fine release of tunes that has some of the more upbeat sound that Howie's explored since teaming up with The Rosewood Bluff. However this new album also has more mournful and introspective moments, like "Blue," the tribute to Rosewood Bluff's first drummer, Matt Brown, who died unexpectedly in 2012.
The CD is an all-out North Carolina project with photos supplied by Billie Feather and recorded in Mebane, NC, with Rick Miller of Southern Culture on the Skids at the helm. The album is dedicated "with all our love" to Matt Brown. It's an album that's heartfelt from friends who are not fully ready to say a final "goodbye" to a good friend.
Robbie Fulks - Gone Away Backward
review by Freddy Jenkins
The latest collection from Robbie Fulks finds him returning to Chicago’s Bloodshot Records where he first recorded in the mid-nineties. Gone Away Backward also reunites him with producer Steve Albini. This recording is mostly acoustic and though Albini is primarily known for his work in the alternative rock field (like Nirvana, The Pixies and Superchunk), the mood here is quiet and clear, allowing the songs to stand out.
And the songs are great. The characters deal with love, luck and life. The first track, “I’ll Trade You Money For Wine” is a timeless song about, well, hard times. “That’s Where I’m From“ and “Sometimes The Grass Is Really Greener” are keen observations of place and the journey to or from - and the relative satisfaction with - the destination.
The musicians joining Fulks are outstanding. Mike Bub, Ron Spears and Robbie Gjersoe add great backing vocals and instrumental turns. And Jenny Scheinman’s fiddle shines throughout. Fulks is a bit of a rabble rouser and he has taken shots at the commercial country of Nashville over the years. And with good reason. This set has its roots in country before it was commercial. Country as the document of people and their lives, struggles and joys. Fulks is a masterful songwriter at the top of his game. This is an insightful and well-executed set and for my money one of the best releases from last year.
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