These three new albums fit loosely into the Americana category but are all very, very different. Two are from artists who aren’t even (originally) from America.
Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs, Coulda Shoulda Woulda
Coulda Shoulda Woulda, the new album from Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs, is a brilliant mishmash of grimy blues, front-porch country, and cynical cabaret. Injections of raw gospel, punk energy, and even a hint of glam rock deepen the sound and sensibility.
Made with funny and smart lyrics, old-school dance beats, and expertly ragged musicianship, these dozen concise songs continue and expand the body of work English singer-guitarist Golightly and multi-instrumentalist Lawyer Dave have made since they teamed up in 2007. The rough country-rock of “Heaven Buy and Buy” and the grim cabaret-style “Apartment 34” set the cynical but rollicking tone. But even a gentle tune like “What He Does” is steeped in an attitude that’s sour in a mighty tasty way.
Lawyer Dave sings the lead vocals on several songs, including the reverse-gospel wail “Jump in the River” and the ’60s-style dance rave-up “Karate” – about, naturally, “the hottest dance around.”
“Karate” and the swampy folk dirge “Lonesome Grave” are about as different as any two songs on one album could be, but share a common sensibility that’s characteristic of the Holly Golightly style. Iconoclastic to the end, the pair declare “Ain’t no savior on the way” (from “No Judgement Day”) and “Christmas is a lie” (in a song by that title) as naturally as they urge you to do a fictional garage-dance you could imagine John Waters filming with glee. Both “No Judgement Day” and “Christmas is a Lie” end with little musical jokes that make me smile, too. So does the wry cover of the weird “Marijuana, the Devil’s Flower.”
Stephen Young & the Union, Eagle Fort Rumble
Ireland’s Stephen Young & the Union have an Americana style with a Celtic tinge, a little reminiscent of The Waterboys, on their new album Eagle Fort Rumble. All written by Young, the songs are more laid-back, stretched out, and folk-flavored than those on Holly Golightly’s album, but as compelling, in a more melancholy way, with smart lyrics and smartly muted atmospherics.
“Lately I’ve Rescued a Rose” is one of my favorite tracks. With its two distinct sections and what sounds like a mellotron, it leans progressive, the riff of its second part echoing Yes’s “Roundabout.” Another top track is “Land Leg Blues,” an acoustic slip of a song that digs deep.
“The Blind Leading the Blind” has an airy psychedelic-folk feel that reminds me a little of Donovan or the Grateful Dead’s early studio recordings. The stark feel of “Monsoon Season” has a bit of a Darrell Scott or Tom Petty vibe. And “Shadowman” puts me in mind of Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams.
While the album is sonically more or less of a piece, the strongest songs cluster in the first half; some of the writing near the end feels musically tired even as the lyrics remain interesting and literate. And throughout the album, I would have liked to hear the vocals mixed a little higher to better bring out those nicely-crafted words. But much of Eagle Fort Rumble is a strong effort and a rewarding listen.
Andy Hackbarth, Panorama Motel
Andy Hackbarth’s seven-song Panorama Motel tells a folk-pop story of a happy relationship that goes bad. His vocal and melodic style brings to mind any number of progenitors, from Paul Simon to Elliott Smith, but soulful harmonies and rhythms help him carve out a sound of his own. Above all, it’s a beautiful-sounding album, for which partial credit must go to producer John McVey.
The tale opens with the shiny “Mountains” and the thoughtful love song “Isn’t That Enough,” and climaxes with the dramatic pop-rock of the title track. It ruminates with the acoustic ballad of regret “What I’m Doing Here” – which reminds me of late-period Johnny Cash – and closes with the quietly arty counterpoint vocals of “Oceans.”
What do you call a seven-song, 24-minute album these days – an EP? a mini-album? Back in the early days of the Beatles, 10 or 12 songs would fit into those 24 minutes on two sides of an LP you’d never complain wasn’t a complete album. So I’m calling this an album – one that says what it has to say and no more, then says goodbye. It’s a small gem of folk-pop.