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Talent, groove, craft, fully evolved songwriting, thoughtful lyrics and a real band. Sounds perfect ‘cause it pretty much is. Smooth arrangements and attention to vocal harmonies on songs like “One Good Friend” and “Maggie’s Lives” will remind you of Steely Dan’s work, but where Becker and Fagen are often emotionally inscrutable, Gallway’s laid back vocals and lyrics are warm and personal. In a video promo for Reach For It, Peter paradoxically and accurately describes the sound as full and spare. “This collection is about dreaming, about connection, about people, about reaching for your dreams and it’s about saying thank you.” Percussionist Andrea Re’s vocals are so strongly reminiscent of Steely Dan’s harmony singers that I had to check her discography to see if she actually recorded with them. Mark Wainer’s accomplished guitar work is smoothly complimentary to Peter’s, spot on for the mood and melody. The lyrics are full of details, compactly revealing multiple observations, “I wore that football jersey,/ With the number twenty-two./ You told me it looked so stupid/ But I was kinda cool.” “Motown” visits a favorite theme of youthful musical discovery, in this case “dreamin’ of steps and spins….” In fact, this is a constant in Gallway’s work; he frequently discovers a small memorable, joyful moment, sometimes an expression of something he didn’t have the words for when he was younger. “True” seems to be about a high school love in terms both cools and innocent. “What if you grow taller than me?” Delicious lines, as in “Cut Like A Diamond,” “You look like the cover of Italian Vogue,” or primal ones like “Uh uh, hey hey, no no, I don’t think so” in “No Dice Eddie” share the quality of being perfect for the moment and melody. If you have been looking for some full grown, sophisticated, honestly rocking music, reach for this! —Michael Devlin
2020, Disismye Music
Vance Gilbert is a musical renaissance man in an era of niches. Watching his YouTube isolation Monday Night Acoustic Pajama Parties, one is astounded by the breadth and size of his catalogue as he sings song after song that make you draw breath in a new way. On Good Good Man he bounces from style to style, comfortable and in command. Several of the tracks sound like they could have been at home on an early 80’s Al Jarreau album. (Vance has obviously heard of the man… witness his stunning cover of “Could You Believe.”) Though the styles of his songs won’t stay put in anyplace but excellence, his guitar work and vocals have always been informed by jazz. Even the most “singer-songwriter” tunes show that he is not satisfied with ho-hum guitar work. “Zombie Pattycake” with jazzy chords, upright bass and trombone strikes a perfect balance between whimsical and cool. The sheer artistry of his cover of “Wildflower” left me saying “Wow!” out loud the first time I heard it, reveling in the guitar work and the gorgeous phrasing of the vocals. I don’t know what made Gilbert write “Hitman” (not the musical kind), but he imbues his subject with unexpected pathos and complexity. The compression of detail and emotion in every line makes one fall in love with his word-smithing all over again. “Cousin Shelly’s Stationwagon” manages to be wistful while calmly observing the passage of time, “I’ve seen you work your magic up on the silver screen/ And play the part of the mother of the girl you used to be.” His bio on his website quotes him saying, “I’m black, I sing, I play an acoustic guitar, and I don’t play the blues,” which may explain why he enlisted the help of Chris Smither for “Another Good Day Above Ground.” Vance Gilbert’s shows are totally involving, with great songs and musicianship, comic moments, social commentary, but I always find myself eagerly awaiting the moment he puts down the guitar and dramatically sings “Spencer the Rover” or “King of Rome.” “The Day Before November” is a spoken word piece filled with the childhood pranks and chills of Halloween against a backdrop of the openly acknowledged bruises caused by one of the boy’s father. I’ll be waiting for this one the next time he comes to town. Good Good Man is a proof that this great, great artist is still the best of all imaginable Vance Gilberts! —Michael Devlin
2018, Red House Records
True in Time sounds like the work of a musician who has been perfecting his art since the late 1970’s… because it is. In three days in a studio full of fine musicians and with vocals by fellow singer-songwriters Lucy Kaplansky, Eliza Gilkyson and Jonatha Brooke, he has produced another masterful album of songs that must be considered to be among his finest. No matter whether the songs are whimsical or profound, Gorka’s rich baritone is still the perfect instrument, and his playing has never sounded better. The title track was written in collaboration with Pete Kennedy shortly after the consecutive deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Gorka quoted Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion” (“a mother and child reunion is only a motion away”), and Pete responded saying, “maybe all songs come true in time.” The song that sprouted from this topical seed grows into a reflection on the nature of truth in passing time. “Crowded Heart” is classic John Gorka, nailing a bit of truth and beauty with gentle humor, pondering what it feels like to be filled “with all that living brings.” “Fallen for You” recalls the alert system ads, “I’ve fallen for you and I can’t get up,” with a wry senior romantic twist. True in Time is an essential listen for anyone who finds truth in a crowded heart. —Michael Devlin
2018, Tracy Grammer Music
Low Tide, things have been taken out to sea, never to return, other things uncovered under the sky, and the promised return of a teeming flood—this is the shore that Tracy Grammer looks out from. After years of curating and completing her duo work with her late parter, Dave Carter, she has produced an album of mostly her own songs, finding her own voice and aural space. The work with Carter was somewhat wryly referred to as “post-modern, mythic, American folk music,” and was the product of soaring genius. Where to go from there? The love of language and finely crafted songs is still central to Grammer’s work, but she now sings her own story and observations. The album opens with “Hole,” a song with some very Dave Carterish touches (such as the use of the word “shatterlings”), but also a bold new sound, attitude and personal viewpoint. Romantic disappointment is the theme of “Daffodil Days” and “Were You Ever Here.” “Good Life” is a song from the point of view of her father who passed away in 2013. He reviews his life as its end approaches, acknowledging mistakes and lessons learned, still summing it up as a good life, enjoying a peach, “with the juice from that fruit dripping all down my face/there is only this moment, only this place.” The cover of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” will surely get stuck in you head with its string-laden arrangement and catchy chorus. The song is even more interesting upon discovering that it is based on Peter Reich's 1973 memoir, A Book of Dreams. The new recording of “The Verdant Mile,” a song that totters between despair and acceptance of her partner’s tragic passing, illuminates Grammer’s personal and artistic journey. Previously recorded for The Verdant Mile EP, the song has undergone a complete makeover. The original featured an uptempo beat and urgently emotionally vocals in an acoustic arrangement without drums. This version features a marching drumbeat complete with glockenspiel, a complex, moody arrangement and stylized vocals. Once one gets over the fact that Tracy has altered a song that was a part of the healing process for Dave Carter’s many fans, one can clearly see and appreciate that she is no longer looking at her grief from the inside. That point is more specifically made in the last song, “Free,” the last lines of which state, “whatever comes will be okay/ you know it will.” Low Tide is more than “okay,” with engaging songs beautifully sung and arranged. The rising tide is eagerly awaited! —Michael Devlin
2018, Gallway Bay Music
Cold Smoke was inspired by a friend who suggested that Peter Gallway and Annie Gallup write a song that was character driven, historic and melodic. It was a seminal suggestion, giving rise to an album of outstanding songs, stories in time with their narrators becoming fully formed as we listen. The first song, “Enola Gay,” is told from the point of view of a soldier looking back on his time assigned to the Quartermaster at the air base the Enola Gay flew from. He was not directly involved with the hand-to-hand island-to-island fighting in the Pacific, but he remembers how he felt, missing his family and his sons, and prays for “…all of the children who duck under their desks.” Another story from that era is “Lisa Blue,” in which a little girl struggles to accept that her dog was recruited for the K-9 corps in WWII. The Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy is told from the point of view of an Irish girl working there with her mother for thirteen cents an hour. The Celtic melody is as bright as the story is dark. In “Letters,” a soldier in Vietnam exchanges letters with his girl back home. As they write what they are feeling in the moment—snapshots of feelings, immediate and compelling—we get a sense of how difficult it will be to reconcile their experiences when he gets home. Although Gallup and Gallway each bring a distinct voice to their collaboration, they share a passion for expressing subtle emotions in poetically crafted lyrics. By grounding these personal and particular stories in specific moments in history, the listener gains a deeper connection to what the characters are feeling. As usual, the duo creates a sound that is at once rich and sparse, making the most of their mastery of various instruments including guitar, dobro, lap steel, accordion, banjo and mandolin. Deirdre Wood Becher’s fiddle is a lovely addition. Although Gallup and Gallway never seem to be at a loss for inspiration (regularly releasing solo projects in addition to their work as Hat Check Girl), their friend’s suggestion has given them a trove of subject matter worthy of their considerable talent. —Michael Devlin
2018, The Kennedys L.L.C.
The Kennedys have been the buoyant folk-rock heroes of the singer-songwriter scene since the optimistic mid-1990s, through the shattering early 2000s and on into our current WTF era. I am blessed to be within Pete and Maura’s frequent touring radius, hearing some of their songs within days of being written. Emerging into their set lists alongside songs from their twenty-plus years together, the new songs are among the best of their career. Even though I am very familiar with their sound, Safe Until Tomorrow still covered me with goosebumps from the thrill of their jangle guitars and Maura’s sparkling, pure voice. Several of the songs address issues of the day. The title track refers to California’s wildfires and mudslides, before broadening to a more universal appeal in the chorus, “If we can only keep you safe until tomorrow.” “Don’t Talk To Strangers” compares the dilemma of a five year-old lost in the city, who must ignore her mother’s advice to accept help from a kind stranger, with the story of refugees coming to New York in need of the welcome promised by Lady Liberty. “Be Silent No More,” “Sing The Chorus” and “Is Anybody Listening?” are less specific but no less a relevant to our times. “Dancing On The Moon” cleverly parodies “Dancing in the Street,” to satire our lack of regard for our planet. A cover of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” the elegantly poetic “Pistol Island” and the culinary ode, “Cayenne In My Coffee,” are all outstanding. Our culture may have lost the capacity to have it’s consciousness raised by popular music, but those who are alive to that sort of thing will want to make this album a part of their personal hopeful soundtrack.—Michael Devlin
2018, Free Dirt Records
Although the arrangements are a nice mix of country, honky-tonk, singer-songwriter and other contemporary sounds, the voice is of a young woman singing with a deep appreciation of traditional mountain music that goes well beyond her years. She yodels as easy and sweet as if she has been doing it all of her life, then it dawns on me as I look at her last name; Vivian Leva is the daughter of Carol Elizabeth Jones and James Leva, an incomparable traditionally influenced duo. I also realized that this was not the first time I had heard her voice. In July of 1998, I interviewed her parents by phone for The Music Matters Review, and as they were describing how she had already travelled with them to festivals, I heard her crying in the background for just a few minutes. On Time is Eveything Leva surrounds herself with excellent musicians, especially Riley Calcagno whose intuitive support on fiddle, banjo and vocals is an integral part of the music. She keeps the production uncluttered, true to the various forms of the songs. “Wishes and Dreams” is a simple waltz, carried by the sweetness of Leva’s voice and soothed by Calcagno’s gentle banjo. “Why Don’t You Introduce Me As Your Darlin’” sounds every bit like a classic honky-tonk country hit. Leva and Calcagno update traditional singer Texas Gladden’s “Cold Mountains,” with a simple banjo and guitar arrangement (click here for a charming live performance of this). An original recording of the song by Gladden can be heard here. Paul Burch’s “The Last of My Kind” sounds like a personal statement, perhaps commenting on the fragile continuity of the kind of music that springs from community and tradition. Time is Everything is somewhat of an Athena, a brilliant debut springing forth fully formed from a childhood filled with music. It is exciting to think of what the future holds for this deeply rooted musician.—Michael Devlin
2016, Compass Records
Claire Lynch has long mastered the art of loveliness—the gentle twang of her voice complimenting her easy way with the melody as she draws you into the songs. And what a fine collection of bluegrass and Americana songs this is…except that almost all of the songs are the work of Canadian singer-songwriters. You could describe these songs as simple, with their clear narrative and Alison Brown’s uncluttered arrangements and production, but that would overlook the sophistication of getting all of the little things right. It doesn’t hurt to have stellar studio musicians including Stuart Duncan, and headliners such as Jerry Douglas and Béla Fleck lending their talents. Lynch and company give Gordon Lightfoot’s “It’s Worth Believin’” country harmonies and a gentle mandolin and dobro sound that will henceforth be the only way you want to hear this song. J.P. Cormier’s “Molly May” uses a touch of accordion to invoke the Cape Bretton origins of this song, even as Lynch’s vocals and Bryan McDowell’s fiddle pulls it further south. Lynn Miles’ “Black Flowers” is as moody and dark as a place where “black flowers grow in my yard,” should be. Lynch’s own “Milo,” an upbeat love song, fits in well with the rest of these well-written, nicely arranged and produced tunes. It’s nice to see that this fine album’s easy going charm and musicality has gained it a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album. I’m not sure that is the right category, but I don’t think there is an award for Lovely North-Americana. —Michael Devlin
2018, MCA Nashville
The late Glenn Frey celebrated his peaceful easy feelings in song with The Eagles, but The Eagles were also the band that famously decried life in the fast lane and warned about “Hotel California,” where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” In contrast, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour will leave you feeling peaceful, and truly at ease. The thirteen songs are filled with a bevy of good vibes, much like a leisurely Sunday drive to grandma’s house, (as opposed to speeding down the highway to check into hell’s hotel).
Musgraves recent romance is most likely the power source behind her current musical vibes. Musgrave extols her new love in the title track. She also expresses optimism. (“I know everything’s gonna be alright.”) Musgraves has been criticized for experimenting with distinctly non-country sounds in her music. “Oh, What A World,” another feeling-good-in-love song, features vocals modified to sound robotic. (I don’t think Loretta Lynn done it this way!) Musgraves gets away with taking these brave sonic liberties because she writes such smart songs and sings with so much sincerity. She may give an aural nod to Daft Punk on the song, but it’s impossible not to become enraptured by her celebration of her happy place.
Musgraves reveals a knack for incorporating familiar cultural signposts to make her songwriting relatable. “Velvet Elvis” alludes to the kitschy roadside artwork; “Wonder Woman” finds her admitting she’s no superhero, and “High Horse” is about informing a guy that he’s no John Wayne.
Not all Golden Hour is giggles and grins. “Lonely Weekend” is about getting through the weekend without the company of friends and family. Musgraves sings of experiencing loneliness, but she’s not lonely. When your life is pretty good overall, a solitary weekend is a mere blip on the radar screen. On the other hand, lonely weekends for the truly lonely are emblematic of a relatively friendless life.
Artists such as Carrie Underwood blow you away with their powerful pipes. The songs are like rockets, created to show off vocal firepower. Not so for Musgraves. She engages with a gentle vocal spirit. Her songs are more akin to wildflowers arranged in an inviting bouquet. And it’s this beauty that contributes to the album’s overall peacefulness. Hers is the voice of comfort. When she tells you “everything’s gonna be alright,” you believe her. This is not a voice that lies.
Peaceful easy feelings are getting harder and harder to come by these days. But when you’re able to love and be loved, and sing about it with Musgraves’ gentle integrity, well, let’s just say she won’t let you down.—Dan MacIntosh
2020, Gallway Bay Music
Parker Gray, a partnership with keyboardist Harvey Jones, is an oddly natural extension of Peter Gallway’s oeuvre. Even with electronic instruments and loops expanding his usual palette, Gallway maintains his ability to make a cornucopia of instruments sound intimate. Gallway’s website describes the material on Luminous Darkness as “cinematic musical interpretations of 11 poems—spoken and sung,” from his 2011 collection, Big Mercy. “Poetry,” features sinuous synth and programmed drum driven groove, providing an aural landscape for the half sung, half dramatically spoken, lyrics. Pop culture is antithetical to art, “I’m giving up Hollywood for poetry.” The first track, “Romance Comes” is a languid reading over a hypnotic slow train-like clack that is actually the looped sound of a clothes dryer. “Breathless” features Gallway’s wife, Annie Gallup’s dreamlike spoken word. The deeply poetic mood will be familiar to their duo work as Hat Check Girl. The album is not just atmosphere and poetry. The opening lines of “Luminous Darkness” describe its flavor, “Miles Davis in the small hours, where muted dissonance pulses….” “Rolling Stones 1964” features the stripped down guitar riff of “The Last Time,” dressing it in an Asian trance-like aura. “Spanish Is Spoken Here” is sophisticated smooth jazz. “A Younger Man’s Hands,” is startlingly personal, seeking with gown-up understanding, the essence of a father, as seen through images observed as a youth. “My father has a younger man’s hands, fingers delicate and pure . . . .” This album begs for many a close listen, revealing a little more of itself on each play. —Michael Devlin
2019, Compass Records
This is Pierce Pettis’s first studio album in almost a decade. The album opens with “Wouldn’t Change It For the World,” an autobiographic look at the life of a songwriter and troubadour. He covers similar ground with Jesse Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life.” One could read some of the same theme into “Very Same Moon,” a song he sings with (and possibly too) his daughter, who last sang with him at the age of nine on 2009’s Everything Matters. In an interview for The Music Matters Review back in 2001, Pettis said of his songwriting, “Sometimes I feel like an idiot savant. I accidentally come across things that everybody knows. I have long since come to the conclusion that I have nothing to teach anybody, but the best I can do is to try to remind people of the things they already know.” [Click here for full interview.] He expresses this even more succinctly in “The Adventures of Me (and this Old Guitar), “So I just breathe in all the details/ And sometimes exhale a song.”
With his quiet vocal style and vibrato, his best songs are subtle, grounded in profound truth. “Your Father’s Son” is simple and hauntingly effective, letting us fill in the particulars of our own relationship with our fathers. Over the years Pettis has written songs that you will find yourself needing to hear at a significant events in your life. Set at a graveside, “More” is such a song. “This is not the hardest part of all/ This is just a seed that had to fall.” “Mr. Zeidman,” a memorial to a small town’s “one and only Jew,” tells his story through the eyes of people who did not know him well, yet reveals his essence between the lines. It is a masterpiece, enhanced by Andrea Zonn’s beautiful string arrangement. Pettis covers “Look Over Your Shoulder,” a beautiful song by his late friend, Mark Heard. The last track “Instrument” is a songwriter’s prayer, “So if anyone should pay me any mind/ Let them catch a little glimpse of you.” As one would expect from an artist who has devoted his life to his craft, you will find these songs in your head enriching your spirit and ready to turn to fully when you need them. —Michael Devlin
2019, Compass/Red House
The sound—roots music with banjo and guitar riding the edge of a driving beat. And then there is the thrill of the harmonies, with Cara Luft and JD Edwards blending their voices into a glorious third thing. “Long Long Moon” with its ancient theme of a lover lost at sea, embodies a lot of what makes The Small Glories unique and exciting. Even with a foundation of clawhammer banjo and body percussion, there is nothing “small” about the sound, with booming bass drum and layered vocals. Their songwriting works on many levels, triggered by details of story and place, shaping melodic songs full of hooks and melodies that echo in your head for days. The album takes its title from the confluence of two rivers in Winnipeg. Three of the songs specifically reflect their Canadian roots, “Alberta,” in which a lover comes in second to the allure of the province, “Johnson Slide,” a first person elegy set in the disastrous mudslide that befell a remote valley and “Winnipeg,” a whimsical song that could win a chamber of commerce contest conducted by the city. The rousing “Don’t Back Down,” with high register banjo, accordion and fiddle has a Celtic feel as it supplies a soundtrack to face down hard times. This song really needs to be in a stand up and cheer kind of movie! “Pieces of Me” stands out sonically with its guitar amp reverb cranked up enough to produce coiling artifacts to match the duo’s vocal vibrato. This album has something new to discover each time you listen, an unusual harmony, an idiosyncratic bend of a note, a haunting turn of phrase… and you will probably want to give yourself a lot of opportunities for such discovery! —Michael Devlin
There is nothing “waifish” about the sound of The Waifs. The Australian independent band, with sisters Vicki Thorn and Donna Simpson, and Josh Cunningham, has been making venue tested music for their enthusiastic fan base since 1992. They play with the confidence of a band that has been together for twenty-five years. They are master song creators who know how to blend their talents into each other’s songs. Their harmonies are intuitive, adding just the right touch to each song. Similarly, the arrangements give room for instrumental riffs to work their magic without needing to take a bow. The tracks each have their own mood and feel, in an amalgam of roots rock, pop and acoustic. The singers have the chops to range from James Taylor-like ballads to Bonnie Raitt R&B. They flow with chameleon grace through distinct flavors and styles. “Done and Dusted” is a jazzy guitar stomp, “Ironbark” has a South African lilt, “The Shack,” is an atmospheric talker and “Sugar Mama,” sports an upright-bass in a country string band rocker. There’s even a yodeling cowboy song, “Goodnight Lil’ Cowboy.” Twenty tracks in and I laughed out loud when Vicki Thorn belted out the first line of “Take Me To Town,” “Someone’s gotta wear a dress around here!” This would be a great cover for a singer who has the chops to handle a kickass song! There are twenty-five tracks, but the songs are all so different that the album seems more like a compilation than all the same band. The lyrics are worth a closer listen than you are likely to do playing the album through the first time, but that shouldn’t be a problem as you are likely to straight-spin this one several times! If you are new to this band, get yourself a copy of this album, fall in love with The Waifs, then dive into the back catalogue and do whatever you can to see them live! —Michael Devlin
2020, Thirty Tigers/Highway 20 Records
On a literal level, the album title does little to prepare you for what follows. Good Souls and Better Angels is more the music of a soul familiar with several kinds of hell, sung in a voice shaped by the jagged edges of blues, metal, punk and grunge. But it is also clear that you are listening to a woman, clearing a path for the better angels to follow. Inspired by a Memphis Minnie song of the same name, “You Can’t Rule Me” starts things off with a defiant attitude and grungy guitars as Lucinda stomps and struts the blues in a way that would make Minnie, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf proud. “Man I got a right, to talk about what I see./ Way too much is going wrong right in front of me./ You can’t rule me!” She goes topical in a non-specific way with “Bad News Blues,” but then it’s pretty obvious who she’s talking about in “Man Without A Soul.” The guitars screaming over power chords after she sings “How do you think this story ends/ It’s not a matter of how/ It’s a matter of when/ Cause it’s comin’ down,” are pure catharsis and hope. “I’m Waking Up” is a visceral telling of abuse in a nasty punk/rap aural space—a gut-punch of recovery. Williams channels Patti Smith in “Bone of Contention,” as she shreds someone as thoroughly as Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street. “Down Past The Bottom” “where the devil won’t go” sounds every bit like she has looked up from there, fronting a metal band. The quieter moments are no less impactful. In the quarantine times of the album’s release, it is hard not to be comforted by the soft vibe of “When The Way Gets Dark,” “Don’t give up, it’s gonna be alright, you’re gonna be OK.” The last song “Good Souls,” is spiritual and, as is the rest of the album, real in a way only Lucinda Williams can tell it. —Michael Devlin