Campfire Tales: June (part 1)

The spring selection has a finely tuned balance of filler and killer amongst a swathe of new records. There are legends, established acts, newcomers - and a diamond or two.

Up first, some of the US medium hitters in the shape of Tyler Farr, Kristian Bush, and the heavyweight Zac Brown Band. Farr’s second release Suffer In Peace is a tricky beast to place - part decent modern country record, ‘A Guy Walks Into A Bar’ and part bro country relic (‘C.O.U.N.T.R.Y’ and the objectifying ‘Better In Boots’), much of it sounds like something Jason Aldean might put out and the man himself duets on ‘Damn Good Friends’, which is far better than you might think. It’s not bad, and at times it’s better than good (‘I Don’t Even Want This Beer’ is a heartbreaker) but it is indicative of how homogenised mainstream country music is becoming.

Certainly not homogenised is Jekyll + Hyde, the genre-busting fourth record from Zac Brown Band. With a bit of a steady hand on the edit button this could have been a straight-down-the-line country rock album; happily the lack of trimming of the 16 song tracklist has made this something quite different. Opener ‘Beautiful Drug’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ set the tone with banjo that bleeds into EDM and autotune, they’re more Ibiza than Nashville. From there Brown and his boys take in soft rock (‘Loving You Is Easy’), swing (‘Mango Tree’), big riffing hard rock (‘Heavy Is The Head’, ‘Junkyard’), Jack Johnson pop-rock (‘Castaway’) - something for everyone. Despite widening the horizons it’s somewhat of a mixed batch, more multiple personality than Jekyll + Hyde. Traditional country fans will find much to hate, newcomers will appreciate the range of influences.

Channelling the spirit of Jimmy Buffett is Kristian Bush’s Southern Gravity. As fifty percent of Sugarland, Bush released a stream of records up until 2010. Since then he’s chilled out and taken his time with his solo debut. And that shows in the record: it’s relaxed, blissed out, radio friendly, slacker country. ‘Feeling Fine California’ and ‘Flips Flops’ both bob along on happy vibes, ‘Trailer Hitch’ is dripping with a sunny outlook despite the chorus (“Never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch”), the whole album sweats positive vibes; hands down the winner of the perfect summer record award.

Grant Langston’s latest is a quieter effort than you expect to hear from the honky tonker; less electric, more considered. It’s also the purest country record covered this month and worth investigating if you’re looking for something more traditional and sure of itself.

On the more radio friendly country-pop side of the coin Dar Williams' latest is summarised best by the catchy, melodic charm of ‘FM Radio’ and its jaunty sun flecked refrain (“FM radio, everywhere I go”). It’s easy listening country of a high quality; ‘Mad River’ and the title track Emerald are obvious highlights. Also falling on the bright side of sunny is the pop-folk of Vanessa Peters who recorded her latest release with Scandinavian Americana band The Sentimentals. The resulting, and literally titled, With The Sentimentals is a lovely record in the nicest way. There’s a dreamy quality to the ten tracks, from the lilting melodies of ‘Pacific Street’ to the delicate vocals at the centre of ‘Getting By’.

Also entering a huge tick in the traditional box is the follow up to 2013’s Old Yellow Moon from Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Edging more towards Americana than pure country, The Traveling Kind is as good as their first collaboration: i.e. excellent. The title track is perfection, with the experienced duo complementing each other on harmonies. It’s not just harmonies though: ‘No Memories Hanging Round’ gives Harris the limelight, then Crowell, then both. ‘Bring It On Home To Memphis’ turns up the guitar; ‘I Just Wanted To See You So Bad’ is a touch trite but works through the strength of the partnership. Working both as a rollicking modern roots record, and as a nod to the past, The Traveling Kind finds these two genuine American music royalty still on fine form.

Sometimes a record comes along that should tick all the right boxes but somehow fails to ignite the musical flame; it’s good then that Monterey from The Milk Carton Kids is not one of those records. On an exquisitely performed album the Californian duo underplay almost everything, from the hushed delivery of perfectly pitched harmonies, to the care taken over the gently plucked guitar. Songs like 'Shooting Shadows' ("We're gettin' older / I hear your Grandpa died / I read it in the paper / Caught me by surprise / Made me think of when I lost mine") are deceptively deep, their simple lyrics and uncomplicated melodies leading to tracks like the sub two minute pleasure of 'Sing, Sparrow, Sing' or melancholy title track. It's a gorgeously sparse record.

Having garnered great notices from her collaborations with Joe Bonamassa Grammy nominated Beth Hart returns with her seventh solo record. More personal than before, Better Than Home brings Hart’s salty, grounded personality to the fore. Amongst the bluesy guitar riffs and gospel organ it’s the Californian belter's voice that stands out most; the strength and vulnerability on ‘Tell ‘Em To Hold On’, the raspy rock of ‘Trouble’, or the gentle beauty of lead track ‘Mechanical Heart’. There’s no denying the vocal talent then, but at times the songwriting holds this back from being something really special.

At around 30 years old, long time purveyor of old time music Pokey Lafarge returns with his most satisfying and rounded album so far. In keeping with his MO, the Illinois native mines the deep recesses of the American music songbook: blues, jazz, swing, and everything in between even spooky ghost house at the start of the title track. By Lafarge's own admission this is music from Chicago and the Midwest, recorded in the city and played by local musicians. 'Underground' is the sonic representation of a prohibition speakeasy, something that's true of much of Something In The Water. The real cleverness of Pokey Lafarge is how his original compositions accurately ape US roots music from the last 70 years perfectly, yet is uniquely contemporary. No mean feat.

Tyler Farr - Suffer In Peace 6/10
Kristian Bush - Southern Gravity 8/10
Zac Brown Band - Jekyll & Hyde 7/10
Grant Langston - Hope You’re Happy Now 7/10
Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - The Traveling Kind 8/10
Dar Williams - Emerald 7/10
Vanessa Peters - With The Sentimentals 7/10
The Milk Carton Kids - Monterey 9/10
Pokey Lafarge - Something In The Water 7/10
Beth Hart - Better Than Home 6/10

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