The Great Unknowns, Homefront
After a wait of seven years the Great Unknowns have a follow-up to their superb debut CD, and while Becky Warren’s new batch of songs have on the whole a little less melodic intensity than the earlier set, her soft alto retains its ability to soothe and wrench at the same time. The opening track, “Lexington,” is a high-energy roots-rocker in search of a strong chorus, but “Dead River, Lake County” fulfills the promise of Avril Smith’s tight guitar intro and Warren’s tersely sweet opening melody.
Images of traveling by highway, a country music commonplace, are thick all over this album as they were on the band’s last – in fact so ubiquitous that they become a deeply important theme. Added to that is a concern with communication woes: “You’ve got a way of saying something/That everyone wants to hear/In a way that no one wants to hear it,” goes the refrain of “Birmingham,” while the bouncy throwaway “Bad Way” treats similar subject matter with a lighter touch.
The title track, with its words of love and longing, its biting guitar, and its ghostly Wurlitzer arpeggios (by guest keyboardist Tyler Wood), acutely represents the unusual ability this band has always possessed to rock and sound plaintive at the same time. The slow closer, “Army Corps of Engineers,” fittingly wraps up the album with a sad but hopeful look at a family relationship traumatized by war: “Like a radio signal down a long highway/This too is gonna pass away.”
Arty Hill, Another Lost Highway
Speaking of road themes, this unprepossessing set of “modern honky tonk” zips by with an easygoing energy that carries good, solid songs played by top-quality musicians who make it sound easy.
Hill’s last album was a Hank Williams tribute, and the influence of Williams, Johnny Cash, and other greats of traditional country music is emblazoned on these 12 original tunes. Though the music fits securely in the country tradition, some of the subject matter has a wry, humorous twist, like the hospital scene depicted in “Omaha ICU” (“My baby she don’t come around/To see me in my paper gown”), or “King of That Thing,” about a pedal steel guitarist with “lightning hands/and syncopated smile on his face/Better hide your woman and her bestest friend.” It’s an appropriate sentiment, as there is quite a bit of notably excellent pedal steel playing on this disc, from several different musicians.
That’s not to slight Hill’s own electric guitar work (listen to the smoking solos on “Big Drops of Trouble” and “Blackwater Wildlife”), the fine fiddle work by Patrick McAvinue, and the contributions from the rest of Hill’s Long Gone Daddys and guest artists. The duet vocals with New York’s own Monica Passin on “The Time I’ll Ever Go Away” makes for an affectingly sad closer and a welcome variation in the color of the sound. Though I found a couple of the slower tracks less than inspiring, this is overall a winning, feel-good album with a fair deal of toe-tapping goodness.
Papa Juke, Out of the Blues
Colorado’s Papa Juke delivers raw, good-time, catchy blues which at its best bubbles with an effervescent energy that merits the band’s own term for their music: Juke. The punchy “Never Lost Love” leads into the monotonous “Sizzle,” which is that droning sort of song that probably works better live than on disc. But such flagging moments are few. “Well Babe” echoes the old chestnut “I Ain’t Got You,” but the singing sound a bit tired; Christine Webb provides more soulful vocals for the energetic “Love Ladder,” a raw danceable number that brings to mind something Big Brother and the Holding Company might have done in their early days with Janis Joplin.
Even the way the instruments and voices were recorded suggests the flat-but-tasty sound of 1960s blue-eyed blues. The rest of the disc continues in the same vein; “Grocery Store” yanks back “Willie and the Hand Jive” into a straight-ahead beat, “Delivery Man” delivers a bluesy sexual message as a satisfyingly dirty guitar-boogie, “Never Enough” is a rootsy funk number, and so on. The sheer sense of fun, almost palpable, shimmers through Papa Juke’s joyful throwback music.