Having tasted pop superstardom, Ed Roland settles down into his Georgia roots with his second project, the Sweet Tea Project. Here, he scales back the arena rock affectations of latter-day Collective Soul albums, but he can still operate on a cinematic scale — he has a knack for power ballads and has an innate sense of what would please a large audience — the only difference is, Devils ‘N Darlins, the first album by his post-CS outfit the Sweet Tea Project, knows when to pull its punches. Whenever Roland chooses to cut a love song, he doesn’t blow it up to dramatic proportions and he’s also happy to indulge his band in their various obsessions, whether its the reggae breakdowns on “Love Won’t Bring Us Down” or doing a bit of a folk hoedown on “Pile of Pearls.” Roland doesn’t hide his influences, not when he’s calling a song “Lennon’s Lullaby,” but Devils ‘N Darlins is interesting because he simultaneously plays up his Southern roots — both in regards to soul and to a foot-stomping country that’s not so far removed from Mumford & Sons, or other acoustic worshippers — and winds his way into dense, intricate pop. At his heart, Roland remains a populist, ready with simple, direct hooks, and eager to please. This creates some odd tensions — he’ll dig into some roots music then gussy it up to make it feel modern — but that’s why Devils ‘N Darlins feels livelier than almost any Collective Soul album: he’s had his success and now he’s ready to stretch out as he reconnects to his roots, and the result is one of his most satisfying albums.
More than one fan called The World Is Saved a perfect winter album upon its release, and that’s a good assessment even above and beyond its striking cover photo, showing Stina Nordenstam standing in snow at night. Nordenstam’s move over the years from polite, jazz-inflected pop to something far more unusual and haunting — even while retaining many of the same musical elements she started with — has been its own underappreciated tale, and The World Is Saved is a striking new chapter, as befits an album that begins with the line “They put a needle once in my spine.” Nordenstam’s ear for her own vocal gifts might well be the key to her work, using everything from close microphone singing to distanced, echoed sighing, sometimes in combination with each other. But most often it is all about the voice as it stands, taking the central role in a song while never dominating it; the many musicians helping her often create some tight grooves and performances (the slink of “On Falling” alone shows that this album is as much for dancing as contemplation, while “From Cayman Islands with Love” singlehandedly makes the idea of trip-hop interesting again) but always with a careful and calm air. The steady guitar part that opens “125” is a prime example on its own, it’s at once serene and stark, then suddenly silenced by Nordenstam’s singing. The textural combinations that result can be a delight, from the mix between Hammond organ and a slipping, sliding electronic cascade on “Winter Killing” to the nervous, just off-kilter-enough string arrangements on “I’m Staring Out the World” (an absolutely wonderful song title) and “The Morning Belongs to the Night.” The American edition adds some tracks from contemporary singles to the end of the disc.
On only their second album, native Texans the McKay Brothers already show an affinity for great Americana-music producers. Their debut LP was helmed by Gurf Morlix, the well-heeled producer and guitarist who has nurtured the vision of, among others, Lucinda Williams, Ray Wylie Hubbard (of “Redneck Mother” fame), and Robert Earl Keen. On this album they turn to legendary Texas producer Lloyd Maines (also a prominent steel player and father to a Dixie Chick). Maines captures a real, stripped down, live-in-the-studio feel for the brothers’ mix of guitar-lashed country, roots rock, and Tex-Mex tales of drinking, more drinking, love gone wrong, and drinking gone real wrong. “Bottle of Fire” is a slab of modern electric country (“I lost my license, I hopped on a lawn mower and I headed to the liquor store to get a bottle of fire.” That’s how the song starts, and you can imagine where it goes from there.) “Silicon Baby” is a caustic piece of roots rock that sounds more alt country than country (“Do they stand up when you lie down. How do they make you feel?”). The brothers also lilt into some Spanish-sung tracks on Cold Beer & Hot Tamales, an album that could be seen as trafficking in Texas lyrical clichés, were it not for the McKay Brothers commitment to, and belief in, their own little mythologies. Hollis and Noel have a charisma and simplicity that really come across here; they don’t possess the weighty poeticism or edginess of a lot of their Texas troubadour predecessors, rather they fit in that vein of earnestness and plain-spoken storytelling that Robert Earl Keen has staked out. While not exactly innovators, they do what they do well.
In the modern age of country music, where genre blending is the new normal, it’s difficult to find artists exploring their love of different types of music for artistic and not commercial gain. Steve Wariner, who’s back with his first full-length country album in eight years, is an exception to the rule.Wariner doesn’t succeed with every style choice, but the majority of tracks on It Ain’t All Bad are very good to excellent. He’s at his best on slower mid-tempo numbers where he’s able to show off the delicate nature of his voice. Steel and electric guitar backed “Arrows At Airplanes,” a co-write with Rocky Lynne and Mike Severs is a beautiful example about enjoying life, framed around the story of an old man “shooting arrows at airplanes, throwing pillows at freight trains” on the bank of a river.
01. Chicken Shack Boogie
02. Six Weeks Old
04. It’s All Over Now
05. Walking To New Orleans
06. Oh My Dear
07. Feeling Sad
08. Junco Partner)
09. That Little Ole Wine Drinker Me
10. TV Mama
11. Moonlight Rider
12. Don’t Take It So Hard