Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Uprooted Album Revue 3/22/2011

The Uprooted Album Revue highlights new releases, reissues, and my own latest discoveries. 

Maggie Bjorklund
Coming Home
(Bloodshot, 3/22)

Maggie Bjorklund's first solo album, Coming Home, is a rich, earthy listen, filled with gorgeous pedal steel guitar, and features contributions by an impressive list of guest vocalists and musicians. Ms. Bjorklund, who is originally from Denmark, and was a member of The Darleens and Miss B Haven, took up the pedal steel after going her own way, and headed to Nashville and Seattle to hone her craft. She has played with Mark Pickerel (formally of the Screaming Trees) and Exene Cervenka (of the band X) among many others.

Coming Home marks Ms. Bjorklund's true arrival, and allows her to step into the spotlight and out of the role of studio player. The guitarist really shines here, declaring her place as someone to watch, and does so both in her own performances, as well as from the performances she pulls out of her cast of players. Her virtuosic guitar playing drifts stylistically from haunting to achingly beautiful, and her collaborations here with members of Calexico give the album a dusty cinematic feel. Guest vocalists Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Twilight Singers, Gutter Twins), John Auer (Posies), and Rachel Flotard (Neko Case) all wrote their own lyrics for their appearances on Coming Home, and their distinct voices surface throughout the album. But make no mistake: it's Ms. Bjorklund's sensibilities and direction that lead the way on this brilliant collection.

This album is a creeper. It's a record by an artist that you may not be aware of, but once you hear the album, it's one that is hard to not talk about and recommend. Seemingly out of nowhere, Maggie Bjorklund has arrived. If you enjoy the seductive licks of the pedal steel guitar, a cold can of Corona with lime on a hot sunny day, and a sparsely-spoken outlaw western: pick this one up. Highly recommended for fans of Calexico, Mark Lanegan, and Neko Case.

Steve Martin & Steep Mountain Rangers
Rare Bird Alert
(Rounder, 3/15) 

The second album by Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers is full of surprises, and it continues to solidify Mr. Martin's positive contribution to the bluegrass community. Rare Bird Alert maintains all of the solid musicianship of Mr. Martin's Grammy-winning last album, The Crow, and builds upon his proper debut recording for the genre.

Rare Bird Alert sounds confident and assured, and is an impressive progression forward for the banjo player and songwriter. Martin comes across as completely at ease here, and lays to waste any claims of the "comedian-turned bluegrasser" chatter that may have caused listeners to hesitate giving his work a fair shake on it's own terms. The album strikes a fine balance between the hilarious anti-spiritual "Atheists Don't Have No Songs" and "King Tut" with fierce instrumental breakdowns such as the title track and "Northern Island". One of the most surprising turns here for me is Paul McCartney's vocal on "Best Love". When I read the liner notes that Mr. McCartney and The Dixie Chicks were each singing on a tune I was certainly unsure about the direction of the album. But I have to say, these are great numbers and each add a welcome and subtle shift in the record that is truly rewarding.

Rather than a funnyman trying to play it straight, Mr. Martin comes across as a talented and witty songwriter who can lure newcomers to the genre, as well as impress traditionalists with his songwriting and excellent collection of performances. The Steep Canyon Rangers are a stellar band of players that are an accomplished unit all of their own, especially when considering their discography and incredible live performances. Martin brings the band on board here once again, and lets them shine. 

Rare Bird Alert is an effort that begs for repeated listens, and is an example of a rare album that has the ability to appeal to a wide range of listeners. Whether you are a bluegrass traditionalist, a novice in the genre, or someone who gives it a listen as a fan of Mr. Martin's film and comedic career, you'll enjoy the remarkable musicianship as well as Mr. Martin's wit and songwriting.

J Mascis
Several Shades of Why
(Sub Pop, 3/15)

Several Shades of Why is a mostly acoustic album by J Mascis, the mastermind behind his band, Dinosaur Jr.  While Dinosaur Jr. is a largely loud, expansive, guitar-driven unit led by Mr. Mascis, Several Shades of Why finds the songwriting unplugging the amplifiers and singing. Rather than melding his fragile vocal performances within his sprawling guitar playing to create an emotional and sonically riveting jam as he often does in his band, Mascis willingly strips it bare and welcomes vulnerability. The results are compelling, and it's an album that casts a new light on the man and his work.

The songwriter and guitar virtuoso's brittle vocals crack, rattle, and split the tunes sometimes with a strain and other times with a whisper. This is not just a "singer-songwriter" turn by the electric guitarist jumping into a folk-revival or an indication of finally mellowing out. Instead, it's a bold move by Mascis to engulf the listener with a more intimate delivery, and allowing his lyrics to hang and float within the tunes. The variety of the arrangements here are subtle, and reveal themselves slowly, ultimately resonating with an undeniable attention to songwriting and fragility in equal measures.

Mr. Mascis has fleetingly hinted at a collection like this over the years. "Flying Cloud" off of Green Mind, "Not The Same" from Where You Been, and "We're Not Alone" off Beyond come to mind. But on Several Shades of Why, the songwriter gets to turn it down, but by no means ease back. There's lots of what Dino Jr. fans return for with each fuzzed out, distorted, and soaring guitar-album the band has released on this album, just with less static this time. On Several Shades of Why, the sentiments are not quite as buried, but unearthed and exposed. A surprisingly masterful turn by J Mascis, and one that rightfully deserves it place alongside your favorite Dino Jr. records.

Drive-By Truckers
Secret To A Happy Ending 
Directed by Barr Weissman
(Ato Records/ Red, 2/15)

Secret to a Happy Ending chronicles the history of the Drive-By Truckers rise from their humble beginnings in 1990 to their 2008 album Brighten Than Creation's Dark. I have to say- I'm always skittish about band documentaries and I have been going back-and-forth on watching this one. I love the Drive-By Truckers and every time I turned around and read something about this film, it was always praised. So I finally took a chance and checked out, and I'm so glad I did. I can now join the fans of this film, and endorse it myself as a film that every DBT fan should check out, and to anyone who enjoys well-made music documentaries.

Not a concert film by any means, the documentary begins with the story of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley's pre-Truckers days together and leads into the band's formation. From there, we follow the group from it's humble beginnings through it's struggles as an independent collective on the verge of collapse before breaking through with their epic Southern Rock Opera album. The film continues examining its memebers and their accomplishments and concludes with a brief explanation of the band's split with guitarist/ songwriter Jason Isbell, leading up to the release of their Brighter Than Creation's Dark album. This sounds simple enough, but there's a lot more to the story.

The strength of the film is the way it weaves the tale of this unique band that is driven by three singular and remarkable songwriters, and what drives them all as musicians and performers to push forward together. The film does a fine job of balancing interviews with acoustic performances and live footage. But most of the band's story, and the film itself, is focused on Patterson Hood's family roots and his upbringing in a southern family working within the music industry. Even though the film spends less time devoted to the band's other individual members equally, overall, the doc presents a comprehensive and enjoyable look at the band's work and history. Highly recommended for DBT fans and newcomers alike.

You can rent the film now via Amazon.com streaming video for only $2.99 here or purchase it through the band's website here.

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