As the years have rolled on, I’ve found myself listening more and more to the mish mashed genre now known as Americana. I don’t know that I can accurately define it, but to paraphrase Justice Stewart’s famous comment on pornography, “I know it when I hear it”. It’s a pretty wide and varied spectrum including veteran artists like Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and the late (incredibly great) Levon Helm along newer ones like Ryan Bingham, Jason Isbell, the Drive-by Truckers and Lucero. It’s the flowering of what the late Gram Parsons was after when he blended folk, country and rock into what he dubbed “cosmic American music.” While artists like Harris have more in common with country music (at least the kind not molded in the Nashville factory), bands like Lucero have as much in common with the Replacements or the Hold Steady (and in fact Lucero and the Hold Steady are touring together). The Drive-by Truckers, meanwhile, have famously name-checked, Bon Scott, AC/DC and host of classic rock acts in their song “Let There Be Rock”.

What’s drawn me to this music is it’s generally high level of song writing, particularly in its lyrics. I think it’s some of the best to be found anywhere right now. As the calendar draws near the annual time for best of lists, I realized that many of my favorite releases this year have been from this sprawling genre. With that in mind, here’s a quick spin through a few releases you might have missed, but are worth a listen.

Shovels & Rope: O Be Joyful

Last spring I went to see Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, open for Hayes Carll at the Bowery Ballroom and was intrigued by the third act that opened the bill, Shovels & Rope, the husband and wife team of Michael Trent & Cary Ann Hearst. They came out with a couple of well worn drums and guitars (which they proceeded to take turns playing) and played a short set that sent me from thinking they were just some kind of hillbilly White Stripes to totally grooving to the joyful sound they were making. I put their name into my phone to keep an eye out for them

Fast forward to this past July, and the duo from Charleston, SC, released their first record appropriately titled O Be Joyful, an intriguing blend of country, punk, and bluesy rock and roll driven by Hearst’s powerful drawl up front over Trent’s more low-keyed vocal. Their sound is, as they sing in the semi-autobiographical opening track “Birmingham”, basically “two beat up drums and two old guitars” with touches of banjo, harmonica, keyboards and on “Hail Hail” and “Tickin’ Bomb” some nice and raunchy New Orleans style horns.

I’m drawn to the more blues stompers on the record like “Keeper” and the title track, as well as the country rave up “Kemba’s Got the Cabbage Moth Blues” (which starts with an introduction at a club where the emcee admonishes the crowd from talking during the show – I could write a zillion word screed on that topic). I find myself skipping through a couple of the slower songs on the album, but overall Shovels & Rope have a fresh, original sound. They’re still out there touring (I saw an interview where Hearst said they put 80,000 miles on their van in the past year). They’ve also begun to pick up a bit of buzz, debuting at the top of the Billboard Heatseekers chart and being named an Editor’s Pick on iTunes. This is a band that I’m very happy to have stumbled across.

Grade: B

American Aquarium: Burn.Flicker.Die

I’m just going to admit that I can’t be objective about this record. After getting turned on to it one lazy late summer Saturday night by Greg over at Captains Dead (a site I highly recommend), I’ve had it high rotation ever since. It’s my favorite record of the year.

Burn.Flicker.Die is the fourth release by the five man band from Raleigh North Carolina and was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and produced by Jason Isbell. It’s the sound of band coming of age and wondering if this all there is. As lead singer B.J. Barham says in a making of video on the band’s web site, it’s a record about consequences and realizing you’re 30 and don’t have a lot to show for it.

There are songs about small town life and getting out, break ups, and a life on the road. The road life here is decidedly less than glamorous, consisting of “gas station coffee, little bags of cocaine and phone full of women with cities by their name”. It sounds like the typical “weary of the road” theme, but there’s no glory here, just regrets, broken dreams, a whatever drug gets them through the night to the next gig. As Barham sings in “Casualties”, they bet big and lost everything, but they can’t stop.

Basically, this is the record I had hoped the new Gaslight Anthem record would be, filled with consistent and solid songs from start to finish. It’s honest, earnest rock and roll record filled with vivid imagery. There’s nothing flashy in the playing, just a pretty straight forward sound of guitars, keyboard and drums – the kind you’ve heard in hundreds of bars. But with the story they’re telling, American Aqaurium deserves be considered with bands like the Hold Steady and Gaslight Anthem as new standard bearers of American rock.

Grade: A+

Patterson Hood: Heat Lightning Rumbles In the Distance

The leader of The Drive-By Truckers released his third solo effort in September and like Burn.Flicker.Die, it’s also full of scenes of life in southern small towns, but Hood’s more focused on relationships, particularly failed or troubled ones.

There are songs of betrayal, particularly “(untold pretties)” which Hood speaks about his grandfather and the small town in Alabama where he grew up. It’s not until the end of the song why he reveals the woman he dropped off at the beginning isn’t the fiancé he’s crawling into bed with at the end. It’s a wonderful, masterfully told story as is the rest of the record. In “Leaving Time”, Hood also sings about the weariness of the road, but this time it’s about the impact on his kid and the angry wife he’s leaving behind.

My favorite tracks on the record are “Come Back Little Star” a beautiful duet with Kelly Hogan (who you may recognize as Neko Case’s – among others – excellent backup singer who released her own fine album this year, I Like To Keep Myself in Pain), and the title track. Both are beautiful, poignant tales of regret and longing. This probably isn’t a record you want to listen to if you’re already down.

I heard Hood do an interview with Mojo Nixon on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country a couple of weeks ago, and he said he was in his home studio listening to a playlist of demos and realized he had an album. The result is a more low key record than those Hood makes with the Truckers. And because it’s a quieter record than a typical Truckers’ disc, Hood said in the same interview that’s enabled him to play smaller venues on his current tour.

This is a fine, well-crafted record again with evocative lyrics that I’ve listened to a lot since its release. It hasn’t grabbed me quite as viscerally as some of the others in this review. I don’t think it’s an issue with this album per se, just that others are so good.

Grade: B

Ryan Bingham: Tomorrowland

Ryan Bingham’s fourth release, Tomorrowland, was at the top of my “can’t wait” list for months, and after an initial surprise, I haven’t been disappointed. Bingham burst into the national consciousness in 2010 when he won an Oscar and a Grammy for “The Weary Kind” from the Oscar winning film Crazy Heart. His subsequent album, Junky Star, was filled with world weary, mostly acoustic guitar based songs filled with characters caught up in the early throes of the burgeoning great recession. That album always reminds of late nights, and Bingham’s gravelly, weary voice only added to the mood of desperation. When I hit play on the Tomorrowland, I was expecting more of the same. Instead, I got most of what’s left of my hair blown back like the Memorex guy.

Tomorrowland still features songs of people caught up in hard times, but on this record Bingham’s songs are defiant and angry, backed by an assault of electric guitars. Here Bingham spits that he’s not going to stand in line and beg for bread (the opening track “Beg For Broken Legs”) and when he spits out “it’s me motherfucker, I’m knocking at the door” he fairly shouts it with an anger that most punk bands could only dream of, over a bank of by sledgehammer rhythm guitars, drums, bass and an eery, howling slide. On “I Heard ‘em Say”, a song inspired by the horrific slaying of James Byrd, Jr., killed by white supremacists in Texas, Bingham’s singing for everyone discriminated against by gender, color, sexual preference, etc.

There a few “lighter” songs, but even those are guitar driven rockers (“Heart of Rhythm”, “The Road I’m On”) while other tracks like “Never Far Behind” are so sonically layered, I checked to see if Daniel Lanois was involved in the production (he’s not, Bingham produced it himself along with Justin Stanley who’s worked with Beck among others).

Saw him at New Yorks’ Webster Hall a few weeks ago, and what the show lacked in length due to a venue curfew, it made up for in energy and intensity. I think Bingham’s doing some of the best topical songwriting out there today, and that includes a certain gentleman from New Jersey.

Grade: A

If you want to check out more Americana, Twang Nation is another fine blog. Over on SiriusXM, Franny usually spins a healthy amount on her weekday 6P Eastern slot on the Loft, and of course the Little Steven curated Outlaw Country will give you a fix, too.

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