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Saturday, August 11, 2018

Crack The Sky, Johnny Marr, The Jayhawks & introducing Caribou Run, Cosmic Strip

Another week, another very diverse selection of sounds in our New Music bin!

One of the greatest rock bands that too few people know is Crack The Sky, which won critical acclaim with its 1975 debut album - and then fell victim to a series of record company and marketing failures that limited its reach. Over the decades since, through ups and downs and personnel comings and goings, this thoughtful and inventive prog-rock band has released a couple dozen albums and maintained a devoted following, particularly in the Pittsburgh and Baltimore areas. Now, via a PledgeMusic campaign and indie label Loud & Proud Records, Crack the Sky is about to release an album of a new music called Living In Reverse, along with Crackology, a collection of re-recordings of songs from its back catalog. This week we're featuring one of the new tracks, "Talk Talk," which combines rock guitar and drums, frontman John Palumbo's distorted vocals - and Bobby Hird putting down his guitar to play a repeating figure on banjo.

Caribou Run is a six-piece band from Nova Scotia that's been described as "neo-folk" and "alt-country." But they stretch out in many directions on their sophomore album, Old Peninsula. After all, how many folk or country bands feature trombone? Canadian Beats calls the LP "a beautifully blended story of pain, celebration and reflections of past and present. ... Each of the 10 well-crafted songs offers listeners a chance to immerse themselves in these narratives." Drew Moores and Danielle Noble share vocal duties, and it's Noble taking the lead on our featured track, "Roll On."

Another alt-country band, perhaps more typical of that genre, is The Jayhawks. Their latest album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, includes tracks that frontman Gary Louris wrote with other artists. We've been spinning "Come Crying To Me," a co-write with Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of the Dixie Chicks. Now we're adding another, "Everybody Knows," a mellow cover of a song originally recorded by the Dixie Chicks in 2006.

Now we jump across genres, and across the Atlantic, and tune into the dream-pop/indie-rock of London's Cosmic Strip. Singer-songwriter Camella Agabaylan and company will soon release their debut EP, Heavenly, and we're adding the title single to our New Music bin. Agabaylan says the song is "dedicated to the addictive feeling of your first love." The Revue calls it "a perfectly constructed slice of dream pop," and we'll add that the propulsive beat, rocking guitars and gradually swelling sound keep it from being the least bit sleepy.

We round out this week's picks with another track from Call the Comet, the latest album from Johnny Marr. He describes "Day In Day Out" as "a celebratory song about an obsessive nature. You can either go under with that stuff or accept it as part of your personality, so this is about celebrating those qualities." As The Times of London wrote, on this track Marr "revives the shimmering guitar jangle he pioneered with the Smiths."

Saturday, August 4, 2018

This week's picks: Jeen, The Sea The Sea, Three Star Revival, Just A Jester, Snow Patrol

Toronto-based Jeen O'Brien has written songs for artists such as Serena Ryder and Great Big Sea, collaborated with Broken Social Scene's Brendan Canning in his side project Cookie Duster, and released her own music simply as Jeen. Ahead of her latest album, Gift Shop, she's just released "Any Moment," an energetic alt-rock-pop number featuring the co-producer of her project, veteran Toronto musician Ian Blurton, on guitar. "Lyrically this song, simply put, is about perseverance," Jeen said. "You will never know what might be just around the corner if you give up before you get there.”

The Sea The Sea calls itself an "indie folk-pop duo-band" -- that is, a band formed around the duo of Chuck and Mira Costa. The new album from this upstate New York group, From The Light, expands on their original acoustic sound to include additional vocals, synthesizer and percussion. Drowned In Sound calls it "folk-tinged pop of the highest order." We're featuring "Ricochet," a dynamic track that, as the DiS reviewer says, "skitters around, giving each member of the band the opportunity to truly shine."

We previously featured the sinuous "Move A Little Bit" by Tennessee's Three Star Revival, and now we're dipping back into the recent Fade Away EP for a funky number called "Wait." By all accounts this band puts on a great live show, but so far it has toured mostly in the U.S. Southeast. We're rooting for them to get more widespread notice and hit some bigger stages.

Just A Jester is the project of London singer-songwriter Timothy Daniel Whitaker, who has been part of the UK music scene since the 1980s. Over the years he formed a number of bands with his brother Simon, ranging from prog rock to acoustic outfits. The latest single from his solo project is "Make It Easier." It has a relaxed vibe and vocal style that puts us in mind of late-70s Gerry Rafferty.

We've been playing "Don't Give In" from Snow Patrol's latest album, Wildness, and now we're featuring another track, "Empress." It's an uplifting anthem extolling human connection - "hands just reaching out for hands" - in a troubled world. "Friends and foes and princes / are all just human in the end," Gary Lightbody sings. "This is so damn simple, yeah / It's so damn simple."

Saturday, July 28, 2018

New from Shemekia Copeland, Amy Helm, Crooked Weather, Jacobs Run, West Coast Feed

We have to admit to being unfamiliar with blues/soul vocalist Shemekia Copeland, but we're glad to have found her newly released eighth album, American Child. AllMusic.com says the LP demonstrates that Copeland, who released her first record twenty years ago at age 19, has become "a mature artist of vision and depth who could inhabit virtually any genre of music without sacrificing the power and passion that initially established her reputation." The album is a blend of Americana, rock and blues, with a cast of contributors that includes Mary Gauthier, Emmylou Harris, Will Kibrough (who produced it) and John Prine. Those and others join in the background vocals on the powerful opening track, "Ain't Got Time for Hate," now featured in our New Music rotation.

We're also pleased to have more new music by another powerful female vocalist in the Americana/roots vein, Amy Helm. The latest song to emerge from her upcoming album This Too Shall Light is "Odetta," written by Joe Henry, who also produced the LP -- recorded over just four days in a Los Angeles studio. “We just kind of set up, threw our stuff down and started playing without much thought, without much arranging, without much rehearsal and with lots of extra voices. That’s what we wanted the record to sound like and feel like.” Helm is currently on tour in Canada and the U.S., and we highly recommend catching her high-energy live show.

As we've mentioned before, the Americana label is often applied these days to bands from other countries, particularly England - sort of a backward twist on the fact that the genre owes a lot to English folk music. One such band, which we've previously featured on Birch Street Radio, is Crooked Weather, which describes its music as "steeped in the folk revival of the late 60's (with) a raw, modern edge." Their latest single, "Stoney Bay Blues," was written "at the end of a long gravel road on Coromandel Peninsula, New Zealand." It's a gentle, dreamy number, although Holly Blackshaw's vibrato-tinged vocal expresses the anxiety in the lyric about a person's struggle to fit in with society.

It's a mere 1,650 miles or so from Coromandel to Melbourne, Australia, the home of Jacobs Run. We've featured several of this indie rock trio's singles over the past year-plus, and now we have their latest, a sunny, upbeat and eminently catchy love song called "Better Days."

And just to shake things up, we're picking up "You Belong to Me" by The West Coast Feedwhich describes itself as "an eight-piece powerhouse band out of Seattle, Wash., who make their own style of swagger rock/soul music." Swagger rock? It's also been described as "high energy, blue eyed, boot stompin' soul." Sounds about right.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

New tracks from Muse, Richard Thompson; introducing Akiva, Lewisburg and La Force

"The song comes from when you do get a bit burnt out from being on the road for too long," Muse's Matt Bellamy said in an interview with Billboard about the band's new single, "Something Human." Muse began work on its eighth album as it wound down a long, grueling tour. The Drones album and road show "had a dark vibe, which is good, but when you’ve been doing that for a while the natural result was that as soon as I came off the road, [he wrote] “Something Human” ... a more tender, down-to-earth, simplistic song about ... wanting to get home to a more normal life after being on the road for a couple years."

Richard Thompson has been a major force in the folk-rock world since the 1960s. The guitar master and songwriter is about to bring out his 19th solo album, 13 Rivers. NPR writes that Thompson is "not stuck in any one era, and his solo records continue to influence younger musicians with [his] deft playing and the way he spins a tale." Two songs have been released so far, and our choice for the New Music bin is the tension-filled "The Storm Won't Come." The lyric speaks of a longing for dramatic change - a cleansing, transforming storm - that will only come in its own good time: "The storm must come to me / and the storm won't come."

English alternative-rock band Akiva draws on influences ranging from the Rolling Stones to The Charlatans, Primal Scream - and U.K. current-affairs programs like Newsnight and Question Time. "We were recently described as ‘George Orwell-meets-The Killers’ - which is not far off," frontman Dave MacKenzie said in an interview with Music Musings and Such. We're picking up Akiva's new single "Ammunition," a protest against "the decision makers in positions of power, who take lethal decisions with little care of the consequences."

For obvious reasons, commentary on current events is a frequent theme in music these days.
Lewisburg, a North London outfit led by singer-songwriter Ali Robertson, brings a gentle approach to a message of healing divisions, in "Clear The Air." Now that we've been introduced to this band, we'll be adding more tracks to our mix, including "Wasted," a reflective, acoustic number on which Robertson's vocal reminds us a bit of Jason Isbell.

La Force is the solo project of Montreal singer-songwriter Ariel Engle, who is also a member of the Broken Social Scene collective. From her forthcoming debut album comes "Ready to Run," a deceptively upbeat pop song which also has a serious message. "This is a song about the refugee crisis and the politicians who claim moral superiority while doing nothing to help their fellow humans," Engle says. "The crisis is biblical in scope, and yet even self-avowed Christian politicians are not moved by compassion. What does it take?”

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Freshly picked: Cowboy Junkies, The Jayhawks, Blues Traveler, Johnny Marr and The Magic Es

Still riding high after more than 30 years, the Cowboy Junkies are out with a new album, All That Reckoning. The languid melodies and contemplative lyrics that the Toronto-based band is known for are here in beautiful abundance - but one track stands out with sharper edges. On "Sing Me A Song," over distorted guitar and insistent percussion, vocalist Margo Timmins alternates between calls for love and forgiveness - and disturbing images of anger and grief. More than a typical CJ song, it reminds us of The Dream Syndicate's recent track "How Did I Find Myself Here."

In another case of a veteran band departing from its signature sound, we're featuring "Come Cryin' To Me" by The Jayhawks. The Minneapolis band's new album, Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, consists largely of songs that frontman Gary Louris co-wrote with members of other bands - in this case, the Dixie Chicks. And Louris turns over lead-vocal duties to other band members on some of the album's tracks - in this case, keyboardist Karen Grotberg. AllMusic.com says of the album, "despite the shifting outlook of the songwriting, the performances are sturdy and evocative throughout, revealing how well these musicians work with one another as they make the most of the dynamics of this subtle but resonant music."     

More in keeping with its typical style is Blues Traveler's new single, "Accelerated Nation." It's the first track to spin out from an album called Hurry Up & Hang Around, due in October. Frontman John Popper told Billboard the band considers it a 30th anniversary album -- although the group is now in its 31st year. "It kind of snuck up on us. At some point we realized, 'It's our 30th year and we have no plans to make an album.' We really should have done this ahead of time, but it was in our 30th year that we decided to make the album, at least."

The latest from Johnny Marr also fits well within the body of work of the former Smiths guitarist. His new album, Call the Comet, has an overall theme: In reaction to current political and social trends, he imagines an alternate reality where kindness, intelligence and art are what matters. In our New Music Bin is "Hi Hello," which The Guardian calls "shimmeringly brilliant." According to NME, Marr credits Patti Smith's "Dancing Barefoot" and The Smiths' "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out" as influences in creating the song.

Along with those four releases from veteran artists, we mix things up with a new single by a band that formed in 2014. The Magic Es are billed as an "old-school, anthemic rock band from the UK." Their latest single, "Wishing Well," evokes a longing for the simplicity of childhood. Frontman Pete Thompson says "it’s about the realisation that as you get older, what you want and the way the world operates can't be changed by a simple wish.”

By the way, listeners to our new Sunday program "The Detour" already heard "Wishing Well" on last week's edition. Take a ride with us each week as we turn off Birch Street and explore the back roads to hear new indie music, obscure older tracks and ... who knows what else! This one-hour excursion happens Sundays at 5pm Eastern Time (2pm Pacific Time, 9pm UTC) and repeats at 11pm Eastern (8pm Pacific, 3am UTC).