Susan Werner Bio

Susan Werner

Susan Werner

Supporting Hayseed

By Emily J Ramey

Written for Susan Werner

Midwestern folk bard and “Empress of the Unexpected” as dubbed by NPR, Susan Werner is as unshakable as the earth and as unpredictable as the weather. It is fitting then that on her newest release, the downtown Chicago-based singer-songwriter set out to pay homage to American agriculture. On Hayseed, Werner lends her characteristically ardent voice to common agrarian themes like love for the land, patience for the rain, and the travails of farmers and their families. Each song dons a new perspective, sketches a different facet of true rural living, establishing Hayseed as a barbed but candid representation of the agricultural community.

Listeners will recognize Werner’s own brand of Americana roots sprouted on 2011’s Kicking the Beehive; however, the collection of sharp, passionate originals that appear on Hayseed hit much closer to home. “Everything was mandolin and banjo and upright bass and fiddle,” she says. “A sound that’s as (forgive the term, but it finally applies) organic as a sound can get.” The album itself was homegrown using a Pledge Music campaign to fund its production; Werner incentivized fans with rewards like handwritten family recipes and signed ears of corn. A percentage of the money raised was donated to farming charities as well: Practical Farmers of Iowa in Ames, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) of Spring Valley, Wisconsin, and The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.

Hayseed was produced by Crit Harmon (Martin Sexton, Lori McKenna, Mary Gauthier, Ed Romanoff), a songwriter and music producer from Boston. “I chose Crit to produce because he’s a songwriter himself; that was hugely important to me,” Werner says of Harmon. “And also because he grew up in Missouri and knows the business end of a honey wagon. I knew he’d get the spirit of the songs, the sense of humor and the sense of place in the songs. I also knew he’d assemble the best cast of players possible. This is the A list of the A list of the Boston area players.” That cast includes legendary guitarist Duke Levine, dobro genius Steve Sadler, and Red Molly’s Laurie MacAllister on backing vocals. “He totally got when I said this should sound like it’s being played on the front porch of a farmhouse,” Werner continues. “Iowa isn’t the south, but you can throw a rock and hit Missouri, and that’s about as urban as this album could dare get.”

Hayseed is the fourth in a series of concept albums, beginning with 2004’s I Can’t Be New, which features original songs in the style of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, followed by The Gospel Truth in 2007 and Classics in 2009. “I like concept albums because they give the audience and the artist a place to meet and something to talk about, right from the word ‘go,’” Werner states. “And it seems everybody has something to say about farms and farmers these days.”

Werner, a farmer’s daughter herself, is intimately acquainted with the trials and tribulations of American farm life. Her keen yet caustic perspective has led to the creation of the derisive, acerbic cast of characters that populate the album. “I wanted to show that farmers are just like everyone else,” Werner explains. “Honest, hard working, kind, generous, jealous, and capable of murder.”

Underneath its glib, satirical wash, Hayseed is tender and benevolent, Werner’s way of saluting her upbringing. “There’s something affectionate and at the same time wry about Iowans take on where they’re from and the world in general. Our worldview is sweet but cynical.” Werner’s next words serve as example: “Growing up on a farm is part poetry and part horror,” she says, “but it taught me that you can love a place as much as you can love a person.”

After all, it seems her pastoral childhood is what drove Werner to music in the first place. “I started playing guitar when I was very young. Like many farm families, we played music as a form of social entertainment. Boredom can be a kind of gift, and I think being out there in the middle of nowhere, we made the best of it by cultivating the ability to play music.”

At age five, farm girl Susan Werner made her debut, playing guitar and singing at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manchester, Iowa. At 11, she began playing piano. After earning a degree in voice from the University of Iowa, she attended Temple University in Philadelphia, performing in numerous recitals and operas while completing her graduate studies. Werner still on occasion closes any one of the 125 club dates she plays annually throughout the US and Canada with “Un Bel Di” from Madame Butterfly or “Habanera” from Carmen, but she ultimately opted to forgo a career as an opera singer, dedicating herself to songwriting instead, building a reputation at coffeehouses and folk festivals from DC to Boston.

After launching her career with the self-released Midwestern Saturday Night in 1993, her second recording Live at Tin Angel impressed executives at Private Music/BMG, which released her critically acclaimed major label debut Last of the Good Straight Girls in 1995. She also received critical accolades for her subsequent recordings Time Between Trains (VelVel, 1998) and New Non-Fiction (Indie, 2001). She has toured the nation with acts such as Richard Thompson, Keb Mo, and Joan Armatrading, and was featured in a 1998 Peter, Paul, and Mary PBS special as one of the best of the next generation of folk songwriters.

On Hayseed, Werner employs her shrewdest charm and duskiest wit to deliver an assortment of tunes as hilarious as they are insightful. “There’s a certain sense of humor that goes along with farming because things don’t always turn out the way you expected,” she states. “If you can’t laugh about it, you’re not going to be farming for long. It was important to me to honor that part of things with the songs. If the songs weren’t funny, then they missed the mark.”

Opener “City Kids” sets a tart, jocular tone its snarky commentary on what Werner refers to as “the Revenge of the Nerds.” “The character in this song is surprisingly resentful, but the truth of it is that if you grew up on a farm, you always did feel a little square, a little behind,” she explains. Over a lilting minor banjo melody, Werner channels the biting, brooding attitude of the farm kids, practically spitting the title phrase: “All the city kids, they had fluffy little dogs, a dog that sits and begs, a dog with all four legs, didn’t smell like hogs.”

The countrified, hyperbolic “Herbicides” is saturated with Southern-accented sarcasm. “It’s another fact of farm life that itself deserved a song, but I didn’t know what new to say about it,” Werner laughs. “And this is something entirely new to say. The song speaks for itself.”

“Something to Be Said” is quiet and reflective, one of the few tracks that takes a moment to say something serious. “I was doing some shows in rural Nebraska, and this little girl wrote a note that said, ‘Thank you for coming to this waste of cornfields,’” Werner says. “It made me so sad that this kid felt that way about where they were growing up. I thought that needed addressing. Kid, you’re overlooking something. It may have taken me many years to see it, but I really do see it now.”

And slipping effortlessly into yet another character’s voice, the viscous, plodding “Egg Money” slinks suspiciously, wading into the dangerous waters of marital discontent and the wrath of a woman scorned, charting the story of a farm wife’s revenge.

Other Hayseed highlights include the punchy, sweltering “Bumper Crop,” a track that struts and sways like a 70s-era rockabilly number, the hushed and silvery “Plant the Stars” written about Werner’s father, and “Ode to Aldo Leopold,” a lustrous, ebbing closer boasting traditional harmonies, molten slide guitar, and lyrics like, “The land will outlive us all, however long we all shall live, and when the future comes to find the legacy we leave behind, may they say of us that we’ve been kind; we left the land with more to give, for the land will outlive us all.”

“This record matters now because there’s a changing of the guard taking place in American agriculture,” Werner explains. “Farmers like my father and mother are retiring, and new farmers are starting out. I wanted to honor my parents and their way of life, and I want to be part of the conversation about what happens next, what farming looks like this year, next year, ten years from now.”

The ultimate purpose of making Hayseed, though, is broader, more light-hearted. “Maybe the reward of it all is just this simple: to write a song like ‘Egg Money’ or ‘City Kids,’ to see a song like that make my parents laugh, my brothers laugh, my cousins, my high school friends, and know people all across the country will laugh,” she says. “Well, there you have it. Mission accomplished.”

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The Delta Saints Bio

Supporting Death Letter Jubilee

By Emily J Ramey

Written for The Delta Saints

Photo by Melissa Madison Fuller

The Delta Saints

The Delta Saints are not what they say they are. Delta? Absolutely. But saints? One might call them “cautionary tales” long before the term “saints” ever came to mind; however, there is something devout about their bayou rock, a dirty, distinct sound they’ve zealously refined on their debut full-length, Death Letter Jubilee. Alternating between raucous melodies and slow-burning odes to the devil in his many forms, Ben Ringel (vocals/dobro), Dylan Fitch (guitar), David Supica (bass), and Ben Azzi (drums) explore themes of difficult love, the wanderer’s high road, and the moral low road using their unconscious fascination with the classical elements – earth, air, fire, and water – as a natural vehicle for their briny narratives.

With Death Letter Jubilee, The Delta Saints are blooming into life not as a pretty flower might, but perhaps a mushroom explosion from an atomic bomb or a feral thunderhead. After two self-released and well received EPs, Pray On and A Bird Called Angola, fans demanded a full length and happily burst through the band’s Kickstarter goal to get it. “That is a feeling like no other,” Ben Ringel claims. “It’s awesome and also humbling. And it’s good pressure on us to succeed. It’s the kind of pressure we were able to harness and strive off of.”

The members of The Delta Saints each moved to Nashville for college in 2007. They first found common ground as old-world-loving, good-bourbon-swilling musicians and began playing together around town before they had any plans to record. As the searing harmonica and howling vocals of their live show began garnering notoriety in a city known well for its indifference to anything less than worthwhile, The Saints rode their roots rock wave right into the studio.

On the heels of 2010’s A Bird Called Angola, the band toured tirelessly, playing more than 150 shows a year, including a slot at Arkansas’ Wakarusa Festival and two summers headlining in Europe during which they performed on the long-running, renowned German TV show Rockpalast. Road tested and weather worn, The Delta Saints have seen wholly organic growth, working diligently in the name of a roots revival alongside fellow up and comers Alabama Shakes and Gary Clark Jr., becoming The Black Keys of a bygone era, all the while harnessing the brackish delta current into something gripping and bold.

“Liar” opens Death Letter Jubilee with a swaggering bass line and a blazing guitar riff, the “Come on!” refrain in the chorus echoing like a command, beckoning listeners to settle in for the long haul. “’Chicago’ is just written about the first time I was ever in Chicago,” Ringel explains. “We were there for 18 hours, and there was a blizzard, so it was snow and wind and bitter cold. Right before bed, I looked out this big third story window, and all I could see was amber light from the streetlights and snow, and for some reason that image just stuck.” The song itself generates a heat fit to ward off that blizzard weather, featuring a rare but incendiary brass section and an immovable beat that marks the tune as an early highlight.

“Death Letter Jubilee” is by far the most magnetic track on the album. There’s something eerie about its cacophonous Orleans-inspired chorus, the warm buzz of harmonica, the tinny trumpet whine, and the way one can’t help but be swept away by the utterly irreverent revelry. “I love songs where sonically you get one emotion from it, and then you look at the lyrics and it’s not at all what you expected,” Ringel says of the song’s musical inspiration. “And everybody has certain emotions that they’re not proud of. The idea that you can be glad about somebody’s ultimate demise… it’s such a negative thing, but everybody feels something a little like that.”

“Jezebel” melts down into a sweltering lo-fi blues number, its minimal instrumentation muddled and viscous as though the song was written on an old front porch when it was just too damn hot to do anything but sing. And like water thrown over flames, the crackling and steaming “Out to Sea” cools the album with its haunting refrain: “Oh, oh, river run, straight out from the hurt that seems to pour from me, and oh, oh, river speak, just haulin’ ass down the Calabash, just headed out to sea.”

“It was a new direction for us on a lot of different fronts,” Ringel admits of the tune. “It’s quiet and it’s sweet and it’s sad. It explores the idea of that cheesy, sappy movie line, ‘I can’t live without you,’ but this is more like, if you’re going to say it, what does that really mean?”

“Sing to Me” starts out sluggishly, forlornly, a rusted locomotive gathering speed with lyrics like, “I come to you now with blood on my hands, the law on my tail, and my conscience be damned, my sweet little babe, my sweet honeybee,” before running off the rails completely, harmonica flashing, drums galloping. And “River,” a second listen gem, is a brief interlude deep into the album in which an ethereal female gospel choir seems to sway and billow in the breeze on balmy Sunday afternoon.

“The main thing we wanted for Death Letter Jubilee was for it to have movement,” Ringel states. “We wanted people to listen and have an emotional journey similar to the one we had while making it.” That journey has left them energized and confident about the future, while still enjoying each stop along the road: “We want to grow, and maybe even grow faster, but we understand that it’s all in due time. We want to fully realize the weight of our experiences, and be able to savor them too.”

The Delta Saints’ new album will be available January 2013. For more information about The Saints and Death Letter Jubilee, go to http://www.thedeltasaints.com.

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Paul McDonald Article

Paul McDonald

Idol‘s Lone Songwriter”

By Emily J Ramey

Written for BMI: MusicWorld

Paul McDonald draws musical inspiration from his life, which, if you’re up on your pop culture you’ll know, has been positively brimming with spectacular, whirlwind song material. The 26-year-old singer/songwriter placed eighth on season ten of American Idol, met, dated, and got engaged to Twilight starlet Nikki Reed, and toured the country, playing arenas, as part of the Idol tour… all within the first eight months of 2011.

This sort of dizzying fate is new to all American Idol contestants; however, unlike his bright-eyed, freshly scrubbed young competitors, McDonald was living a musicians’ life before the show, writing and touring endlessly as the front man of The Grand Magnolias, a Nashville-based Americana rock band.

The veteran songwriter in a cast of budding performers, McDonald has been a wild card element from the beginning, but Paul’s effortless charm, uncomplicated passion, and raspy tenor vocals promoted him to an easy favorite. “It wasn’t my goal to win American Idol,” he admits. “I kind of did it for fun, but we’ve met so many great people, and it’s opened up so many doors.”

Amid all these new avenues and opportunities though, his songwriting process has remained remarkably the same. Of his compositions, Paul says, “They come in different waves. Sometimes I’ll pick up my guitar and a song will just come out or sometimes I’ll write the guitar part or the piano part and then put lyrics over it later. It’s just kind of how they come out of my body, you know?”

“I’ve tried to open my mind to a lot of different kinds of records and experience different artists, make my writing a little bit better,” he elaborates. “And there’s a whole lot of stuff to write about right now because this is such a serious transition period.”

“I’ve got a lot of material to work with, and I’m just going to go into the studio and take my time, try to make something really good,” Paul states in a rare moment of solemnity. “To me, it’s really never been about anything more than making good music and playing good songs.”

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Bonnaroo Article

“Bonnaroo Superlatives and Overall Festival Wrap-Up”

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

the infamous arch

Well, I survived my first Bonnaroo… something that I wasn’t so sure of going into the weekend… but I came out okay on the other side, and what’s more is that I can honestly say I had the time of my life. I feel comfortable now saying that I was genuinely worried about the lack of sleep and the heat and the sweat and the dirt and the general lack of hygiene and everything else unpleasant that comes with a four-day camping festival in Tennessee in June (and I feel comfortable saying this now because they were in fact real concerns, not just the girly dramatizations of my mind), but no matter how much all of those things affected my experience, I (and I think it’s safe to say that 95% of my Bonnaroo peers would say the same) walked away with a smile and a sunburn and remained otherwise unscathed.

In general, my days (other than the day we actually got there and set up camp, which was slightly different if only in time frames) went like this:

8:00-8:30 — Wake up sweaty and hot as a result of the sun beating down on my tent, creating a tiny makeshift sauna; position myself directly under the oh-so-valuable tent ceiling fan (yes, they have those!!) to try to go back to sleep; wake up five minutes later, still burning up, and exit tent into the bright, dewy morning
8:30-9:30 — Trip to the nearest porta-potties/wash stations; back to the campsite to try to sleep just a few more minutes in a lawn chair; greet fellow campers as they emerge and do the exact same thing; eventually give up on sleep and grab the nearest Gatorade/bottle of water/liquid of any kind; make breakfast, which could range from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to an orange to a beer to instant grits
9:30-10:00 — Turn the car on to charge up my phone; use this precious 30 minutes to also change clothes in the car with the AC blasting

a lovely middle of the scorching day shot

10:00-11:00 — Sit around in lawn chairs and various other minimally physical activities to reduce the chances of sweating, some of which included reading, drinking beer, spraying each other with misty fans, making sandwiches, telling stories and reminiscing about the events of the previous day, cheeseball eating contest, etc.
11:00-11:30 — Get ready to leave the campsite for the day; pack backpack with water, coozie, power bars, flashlight, picnic blanket, wet wipes, toilet paper, sunscreen, schedule, phone, wallet, sunglasses, etc.; apply copious amounts of sunscreen; fill misty fans with melted ice water from coolers; grab road beer; zip up tent; lock car
11:30-12:00 — Walk into Centeroo; set lunch meeting time and place; split up for various shows beginning at noon
12:00-3:00 — Go to shows (approximately three); fill up water bottle (approx. twice); reapply sunscreen (approx. once); eat lunch or snack
3:00-4:00 — Find a shady place (if possible) to lay out picnic blanket and take a nap
4:00-6:00 — Go to more shows (approximately 1.5, depends on the day and the schedule); drink more water; maybe do a little shopping or just walking around (because the heat is somehow more bearable when moving as opposed to just standing or sitting and sweating)
6:00-7:00 — Lay the picnic blanket out again (probably near one of the bigger stages in order to sit and enjoy one of the bigger acts); take turns going to get dinner

a Bonnaroo summer sunset

7:00-10:00 — Rejoice in the setting of the sun and the resulting cooler temperatures; find a place farther up in the crowd for the headlining act; rock out to the headlining act
10:00-11:00 — Leave the headlining show a little early to beat some of the crowd; walk back to the campsite
11:00-12:00 — Spend some quality time at the wash stations with some freezing cold water, a bar of soap, a toothbrush, and some shampoo; lean head over sink to wash dirt, sweat, sunscreen, etc. out of hair; use giant cup to wash/rinse arms and legs; use washcloth to rinse rest of body as well as possible; resist wasting time washing dirty, dirty feet
12:00-1:00 — Sit around at the campsite, drinking beer, wiping dirt off feet with wet wipes, competing in a cheeseball eating contest (again), texting Mom to let her know we’re still alive and well, talking about what late night shows to attend
1:00-2:00 — Take a nap before going back to Centeroo for the late night show
2:00-2:15 — Wake up and realize the late night show is starting right now and also realize that sleep sounds like such a better option
2:15-8:00 — Glorious slumber in the cool, refreshing night

the 20-something people on stage for Mumford's encore

As far as the music goes, there were some good shows and some great shows. With the exception of The Black Keys ending their set 30 minutes early with no encore to follow, I was never disappointed by an act’s performance. It seemed like every artist I watched was throwing him/herself into the performance, despite the heat and the sun and all other circumstances. The best example of that fact was Mumford and Sons’ show. They played as if Bonnaroo 2011 was the last show they’d ever play, which is of course, far from the truth. And their encore consisted of a 7-minute rendition of “Amazing Grace,” sung and played by members of Apache Relay, Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Cadillac Sky, as well as the legendary Jerry Douglas himself. Yeah. So the Award for Best Encore goes to Mumford and Sons.

The Award for Most Eclectic Crowd goes to Primus.

The Award for Best Frontman goes to Robert Plant and Band of Joy.

The Award for the Best Sit Down and Chill While Listening Act is a tie between Amos Lee and Iron and Wine.

Bela and his banjo

The Award for Best Spot in the Crowd goes to Bela Fleck, not really for anything he did, except for the fact that I knew I could only enjoy a portion of the performance from far away, only being able to hear the music. To truly get the full experience at a Bela Fleck and the Flecktones performance, I knew I would have to be so close that I could see how fast and nimbly their fingers were moving. It was incredible, and well worth the elbowing and the extra sweat factor involved in standing among thousands of other hot, sweaty people. And I can now officially say that I’ve seen the original lineup of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, which is quite something in and of itself.

The Award for Best Main Stage Act is a tie between The Decemberists and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.

The Award for Best Big Name, Daytime Act is a tie between Alison Krauss and Union Station and Old Crow Medicine Show.

The Award for Best Act that Piqued My Curiosity and I Now Need to Look Up goes to Beirut.

David Mayfield and sister Jessica Lea

The Award for Most Surprising Act goes to The David Mayfield Parade. I had heard of the band before, mostly in relation or conjunction with Mayfield’s also musical sister Jessica Lea Mayfield, but knew very little about them beyond that. I went to their Thursday night show because friends of mine dragged me along. And wow! They are fantastic! We were right up front for all the action on stage, which included corny jokes and unbelievable guitar solos from the larger-than-life, boisterous bearded man that is David Mayfield himself, a tiny yet impressively adroit little fiddle player, a female bass player whose long blonde hair hung directly in front of her face 80% of the show, a ginger lead guitar player, and an equally as epicly bearded drummer with an unexpected but lovely singing voice. The band blew me away and in doing so, registered themselves as by far my favorite show of Thursday’s line up. I bought their album immediately after returning home (well, immediately after a shower, that is).

The Award for Best Up and Coming Act goes to The Head and the Heart.

The Award for Most Unexpectedly Large Crowd is a tie between Florence and the Machine, Neon Trees, and Sleigh Bells.

The Award for Oldest Crowd is a tie between Gregg Allman and Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers.

the six-piece from Music City

The Award for Best Local Act goes to Apache Relay, who just killed an all-too-short Sunday evening set. Theirs was the last show I attended before leaving Manchester forever (read: until next year), and it was one hell of a way to close out the festival. The six piece band had all the instruments for a bluegrass or Americana band, but these guys played nothing if not straight up rock. I actually have the privilege of being able to say that I know most of the members of Apache Relay, each of them being former Belmont students like myself, but even fully understanding how talented each of these guys is did not prepare me for their exceptional stage presence and raging, fiery, exciting set. Nashville can be so, so proud.

The Award for Best Introduction goes to The Black Keys for having Aziz Ansari.

The Award for Best Dance Show goes to Walk the Moon.

And the Award for Best Headliner goes to My Morning Jacket.

I could go on and on about Crazy Things That Happened at Bonnaroo, or Awesome and Unexpected Collaborations on Stage, or How I Managed to Get In on Thursday and Out on Sunday in Under an Hour Each, but truly, truly, the festival called Bonnaroo is an experience that you can only fully understand after having experienced it for yourself. And everyone’s Bonnaroo is completely unique. So, my final words on the subject are simply these: I will see you there next year.

The Low Anthem’s “Smart Flesh” Review

Album Cover

The Low Anthem

Smart Flesh

February 2011; Nonesuch Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

The Low Anthem is in my opinion one of the most overlooked bands in contemporary folk today. And what a travesty! The dreamy, rustic lo-fi Americana so characteristic of the Rhode Island trio is both pastoral and experimental. Instrumentation included jaw harp, musical saw, stylophone, oversized drum kits, and three antique pump organs that the band had found and restored. The exquisitely crafted refrains, the occasional achingly sparse arrangements, the sprawling, carefully laid tracks are uniquely charged with a glowing, ethereal quality that makes each song feel as if it is actually being played in a 19th century farmhouse by a few simple country citizens of frontier America and is merely being filtered into the present somehow.

Halcyon and lovely, “Apothecary Love” is as old-fashioned as it is ambrosial, a first listen find. “Boeing 737” is a personal favorite with its cacophonous ambience, a musical presence that can nearly be considered a supplementary instrument, a sonic background I later learned is a result of recording the album in an abandoned warehouse. The whirring, atmospheric “Matter of Time” is a mournful ballad of loneliness and mounting silence; the tenuous instrumental fraught with woodwinds “Wire” with its meticulous viscosity is a breath of vernal breeze on an otherwise autumnal album; and “Burn,” is a slender, ethereal tune that showcases the effortless and natural timbre of Ben Knox Miller’s vocals while remaining eerie, isolated, and cavernous.

I once read The Low Anthem described as “what Bob Dylan would have sounded like in the 1860s rather than the 1960s.” The phrase stuck with me, as does the music it’s describing. Give this one some time, and when listening, really study the notes; the subtleties on Smart Flesh are not to be missed.

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Truth & Salvage Co.’s Self-Titled Debut Review

Album Cover

Truth & Salvage Co.

Truth & Salvage Co.

May 2010; Silver Arrow/Megaforce Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

With Black Crowes’ frontman Chris Robinson producing their debut in addition to an opening slot on both The Crowes’ and The Avett Brothers’ most recent headlining tours, Truth & Salvage Co. seems destined for big things.  And as a six-man Americana rock band, they have some pretty distinctive chops to offer the music scene as well.

Prior to their conception, members of T&SC performed and collaborated with well-known acts like The Moldy Peaches, Ben Folds Five, Jack Johnson, The Squirrel Nut Zippers, and My Morning Jacket.  But after a few casual late-night jam sessions at the Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles, vocalist/guitarist Scott Kinnebrew, vocalist/guitarist Tim Jones, vocalist/drummer Bill “Smitty” Smith, vocalist/keyboardist Walker Young, bassist Joe Edel, and keyboardist Adam Grace were convinced of their collective creative potential.

Truth & Salvage Co. gets plenty of Eagles references, as well as frequent comparisons to The Band, Gram Parsons, The Allman Brothers, and even The Rolling Stones, but the truth is that despite their bold 70s alt-country roots and influences, the band’s work is robustly unique.  Exploring thematically everything from freedom to love to love lost, T&SC’s self-titled debut rings insightful and passionate on all accounts, and paired with the members’ electric vitality and hearty melodies, Truth & Salvage Co. is a must-have for one’s summer soundtrack.

“Hail Hail,” the album opener, rapidly becomes a contagiously anthemic tune, with balmy harmonies and chummy lyrics like, “Hail! Hail! The gang’s all here/With their heads full of reefer and their bellies full of beer/Sixteen years of livin’ the dream/We’re the pride of all our families.”  The current single “Call Back” is a warm, organ-rich ballad, complete with dynamic instrumentals and a generous melody.  “Welcome to LA” ironically twangs a little more eagerly than other tracks, but in a Beach Boys (not Randy Travis) sort of way.

“See Her” begins brightly with a sweaty, Allman Brothers-ish guitar riff and finishes with Dylan-esque heartbreak saturating the lyrics.  “Old Piano” smolders and curls upward like blue-grey smoke on a humid night.  The antique piano complements Katy Perry’s guest vocals in a resonantly melancholy fashion.  “101” is a dusty and subtle second-listen gem; “Rise Up” boasts a fantastically tight guitar-riddled instrumental section.  And album closer (and my personal favorite) “Pure Mountain Angel” is chillingly poignant, with lines striking an agonizingly humanistic core: “He was a drifter, farmer, and a singer./Had stories to tell, but he kept ‘em to himself ‘cause he knew that nobody would understand the anger./He asked for this living of concrete and wealth, singing ‘hi-de-hey,’ let the walls tumble in.”

T&SC has assembled a collection of full-flavored lyrical marvels, and on top of that, has powered these tunes with swampy instrumentals and spirited performances. As a debut album, Truth & Salvage Co. is a wonder, but more importantly, a stepping stone.  Keep a sharp eye for these boys; I feel an Americana revival a-brewin’.

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Jennie Arnau’s “Chasing Giants” Review

Album Cover

Jennie Arnau

“Chasing Giants”

April 2010; MRI Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

Jennie Arnau is not your typical twangy southern belle.  She’s not a folksy singer-songwriter, and she’s not an indie frontman.  Instead, the woman has nestled herself down into a niche somewhere in between.  Her roots are in South Carolina, but she lives in New York, and her gentle blend of Americana, roots, rock, and bluegrass formulates a dynamic and expressive musical foundation that has led more than one critic to describe her as a cross between Neil Young and Martina McBride, with common allusions to Patty Griffin and Ryan Adams as well.

With such weighty comparisons floating around, Jennie Arnau gathered an all star cast for her most recent work.  She paired producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Queens of the Stone Age, Emmylou Harris) with recording engineer Phil Palazzolo (Neko Case, The New Pornographers), and invited Noam Pikelny of The Punch Brothers, Kevin Kinney of Drivin’ N Cryin’, Al Schnier of moe., Skip Ward of Steve Martin’s band, and Pete Levin of Blind Boys of Alabama to play.  All together, with Jennie at the helm, Chasing Giants was forged.

And it is as open and honest an effort as ever.  Jennie’s vocals feel worldly and feminine, her words flowing and easy.  Overall, Chasing Giants is quiet, cozy, and mild, ranging from the velvety, impassioned “Bouncing Ball,” with lyrics like, “The cracks are showing all over the place/And I keep fighting things I’ll never change/I keep standing in the rain/While you’re safe inside” to the light-hearted “Beautiful Life,” a tune that hosts a playful theme, contrasting the ache of keen optimism in Arnau’s voice.

Other album highlights include “For the Winter,” a solid bluegrass-y opener, Kinney’s background vocals peppering in a little Decemberists-like charm; “Jack B Nimble,” which begins with delicate lines like, “Daddy says differences are settled with small lies,” and blossoms into a Jewel-infused verse, and a shimmering chorus of voices by the nursery rhyme refrain; and the title track, a raw, lustrous tune as simple and memorable as it is desperate.

Jennie Arnau can be proud of this most recent installment of acoustic designs.  Such confidence and sincerity requires bravado and a willingness to be molded by one’s audience, to share pieces of one’s heartbreak and happiness.  All we have to do is listen.

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