Going all the way back to releases from early last Spring, we play a bit of catch-up this week devoting the space to the latest batch of releases from indie label New West Records. Let’s get to it.
If, like myself, you’re a fan of the Drive-By Truckers, you may look at the band’s latest release called A Blessing and a Curse (New West Records NW6089) as a relief, or even blessing, in that it’s just a regular record. It follows three heavy-handed, conceptual affairs – the below-the-Mason Dixon trilogy of Southern Rock Opera from 2002, Decoration Day in 2003, and The Dirty South from 2004 – each of which rocked liked motherfuckers to the point they flat-out left listener’s winded by albums’ end, but ironically, were so alluring it had you firing things up soon after. The relief aspect of A Blessing and a Curse is that it proves that this band, one of the most fulfilling acts as far as the live circuit goes, can just go into a studio with a half-finished bunch of songs and come out with an album’s worth that have as much teeth as they rock. Professionals? You bet, but still in the everyday Joe kind of way that has adored them to fans. The fact the band can turn out something with as much of a satisfying groove in a song-at-a-time fashion as the near dozen comprising A Blessing and a Curse, that after being on a bit of a hiatus, proves to these ears they’ve got good Karma. Call it catharsis for the simple fact of spontaneity which some may have thought was forgotten in the DBT approach to record making. So what do we have here? Well first, I can think of few band that showcase three songwriters in their ranks. From that standpoint, tunesmith democracy is certainly at work where A Blessing and a Curse and the DBTs are concerned what with Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell all contributing material. It ranges from Hood’s “Feb 14” which leads things off in big rock fashion to the blitzed-out blood, butts, and Chrystal Meth stupor of “Aftermath U.S.A.” to the twang ‘n’ slide groove driving Cooley’s “Gravity’s Gone” to the acoustic simplicity of “Space City” to the subtle clout of Hood’s heavy duty “A World of Hurt” which sends things out on a country note. It’s been awhile since the DBTs made a regular old record. A Blessing and a Curse is such a beast, and a fine one at that.
Tim Easton made his way through these parts on a solo run not long after the May release of his latest solo longplayer called Ammunition. An album that marks yet another giant step in his progression as a songwriter of significant merit, maybe the most revealing thing about Easton during the course of the house concert he played one day in June was just how impressive his fingerpicking on the acoustic guitar was – Doc Watson, I’m thinking, is a big influence – and how the Beatles must also hold a special spot as snippets of Fab Four melodies creeped in and out of his songs. While easy to discern in the live solo side of things, it’s not always that obvious where Easton’s latest release called Ammunition is concerned. A somewhat stripped-down affair in comparison to his two previous releases for New West, Ammunition is more about the songs. The track “Black Dog” leads the record off and has all the sound and feel of some relic from the public domain, which it is not. An original composition, as are 12 of the 13 songs comprising Ammunition, Easton clearly shows his affinity for traditionally structured tunes. (Not ironically, the lone cover is “Sittin’ On Top of the World” written by the aforementioned Watson.) The segueing numbers, “Oh People”, “Next To You” and “Not Today”, each showcase Easton’s fingerpicking prowess while at the same time doubling as ear-cathcing acoustic pop songs. Easton also dabbles in blues (“News Blackout” is a definite nod to Dylan while the acoustic funk of “C- Dub” is nothing but down and dirty goodness), politics (“J.P.M.F.Y.F.” (“Jesus, protect me from your followers”) is a pointed commentary on the blatant misuse of faith here in the Bush era) and his love of Doc on “Sittin’ On Top of the World” which brings Ammunition to a satisfying close. The sum total is one of those diamond in the rough releases that all too often falls through the cracks. Highly recommended.
Whereas the album called This Old Road (New West Records NW6088) from newly ensrhined Country Music Hall of Famer Kris Kristofferson represents his first release since entry into those hallowed halls, don’t expect to be hearing it on country radio. Having just hit the 70 mark this past June, This Old Road is a thinking-man’s affair on which Kristofferson contemplates everything from his own mortality to the sad state of things in this country to a number that salutes some of his songwriting heroes. As literate a collection of songs as he has ever put on record, This Old Road proves that Kristofferson is as relevant today as he was back in the late 1960s when songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Me & Bobby McGee”, and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” were coming out of his tune bag. An album on which understated arrangements dominate, the rough-edged intimacy of This Old Road is in many ways remindful of the latter stages of Johnny Cash’s recording career, namely the American Recordings series on which he worked with Rick Rubin. Like Cash, Kristofferson also went with the high profile producer route tapping the services of Don Was. It pays dividends across all of the 11 songs comprising the somber This Old Road.
Also out recently from New West is the DVD of a 1981 Austin City Limits appearance by Kristofferson, as well as its companion CD (Live From Austin,TX – Kris Kristofferson, New West NW6098) which features the music portion from that appearance. For Kristofferson fans, each is bound to please.
While he has a number of solo albums under his belt, including the brand new Rich Someday (New West NW6101), Randall Bramblett has made his mark more as a role player whose talents span singing to songwriting to his multi-instrumental skills. Even though those credentials make him a much in demand sideman (Greg Allman, Steve Winwood), Bramblett’s own solo releases are not too shabby. Think of Rich Someday as yet another feather in his cap. Blurring the lines between rock, blues and soul, Bramblett’s talents on guitar, vocals, and songwriting are front and center across each of the album’s 13 tracks. To these ears he is at his best on Rich Someday on the ballads, songs like “Hate To See You Go”, “Beautiful Blur” and “Rainville”, while numbers like “Stupid Shoes” and “Oil Spot” demonstrate his crafty way with the pen.
Once upon a time there was a band called Slobberbone who released an album called Crow Pot Pie. A scruffy affair which had a number of writers convinced that principal songwriter Brent Best might just be the second coming of the late Gram Parsons, the critical praise heaped upon Crow Pot Pie and Slobberbone had many calling them the next big thing in what at the time was the blossoming alt country movement. Go back to that 1996 release and it’s pretty obvious to the ears that Slobberbone was miscast as an alternative country band. The band fucking rocked. Through subsequent releases, Slobberbone was never quite able to shake the alt tag while at the same time never being able to score big in rock circles. It all came to an end in 2005. The fallout of Slobberbone is The Drams. Fronted by Best and featuring Slobberbone guitarist Jess Barr and drummer Tony Harper, The Drams make their debut with the album Jubilee Drive. It is a hook-filled pop ‘n’ rock record, long-winded at that – most of the songs clock in at the 6 or 7 minute mark – owing as much to the Beatles as it does Neil Young. It also bodes well for what has the makings of a fruitful run. (New West Records, 9215 Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90212, or www.newwestrecords.com)
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)