One benefit of reviewing records is that the job exposes you to artists you otherwise might never have encountered. Many of them are forgettable, but occasionally you stumble upon a soloist or group whose work is as stunning as it is obscure.
That’s the case with Jeb Loy Nichols, an American-born and -raised singer/songwriter who has lived in the U.K. since the 1980s and has been sporadically releasing albums for decades. He has reportedly built a cult following, but the new Season of Decline, a six-song, digital-only EP, is the first I’ve heard of him.
This expertly crafted album offers a reminder that you don’t need elaborate backup, fancy production, or a five-octave vocal range to impress. Nichols relies on his acoustic guitar and occasional harmonica to accompany his understated vocals; and the EP sounds as if it were recorded live in the studio with little or no embellishment afterwords. But it’s a winner from first note to last. And it’s as distinctive as it is good; though Nichols at times seems redolent of artists like Nick Drake, John Prine, and early Cat Stevens, nobody sounds quite like him.
The arresting first cut, “Dirt,” may be enough to make you want to sign up for Nichols’s fan club. The song begins with him softly confessing, “Every mistake that I ever made gathers round me now to keep me company /And I wasn’t equal to the task it seems / And though I try my best / Her ghost gives me no rest.” Concludes Nichols in a voice that conveys deep regret: “I promised all the earth to her / And all I ever brought was dirt.”
Several of the other tracks are lyrically just as melancholy, such as the midtempo “Am I the One for You,” in which the singer rejects the time-heals-all-wounds adage. “They say time can heal the terror / Of every common pain,” he sings, “But what they say is in error / True grief always remains.”
That may sound depressing, but Nichols balances the sadness that imbues many of his songs with bits of humor and lilting music, such as in the terrific title cut (see video below), which he has said focuses on “the bittersweet knowledge that everything passes, an acceptance of the ephemeral nature of beauty.” There, he sums up the pros and cons of aging by singing, “My taste is gone, my hearing’s bad, I’m slowly going blind / I never felt better in the season of decline.”
Also memorable are “I Don’t Want to Talk About Her with You,” a ballad addressed to a friend who doesn’t understand the protagonist’s romance; the sweet love story called “Apple Blossom Time”; and the moody “GTO,” where the guitar sounds particularly reminiscent of Nick Drake and Nichols sings, “I don’t need no airplane, I don’t need no bus stop / Just give me Merle Haggard on the radio, and a thousand miles of two-lane blacktop.”
Season of Decline’s sole shortcoming is that with a mere 22 minutes of playing time it’s over much too soon.
VickiKristinaBarcelona, Pawn Shop Radio. Faithful-to-the-original cover versions can be impressive but also rather pointless: If you’re not bringing something new to the table, why bother? That’s not a question you’ll need to ask regarding the New York City–based VickiKristinaBarcelona, whose name echoes the only slightly different title of a 2008 Woody Allen film. The trio—who offer three-part harmonies and take turns singing lead—pay tribute to Tom Waits on this debut album with inventively reworked versions of a dozen of his songs, including four that Waits wrote with his wife, Kathleen Brennan.
Even if the group hadn’t revamped the original versions, which feature Waits’s distinctive sandpapery vocals, these songs would have sounded very different coming from a female vocal trio. But VickiKristinaBarcelona’s arrangements and instrumentation shine a whole new light on the material, which includes “Jersey Girl” (a Latin-flavored rendition of a number that Bruce Springsteen has also memorably covered), plus “Cold Cold Ground,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” “Tango Till They’re Sore,” and six more Waits gems.
Kristen Grainger & True North, Ghost Tattoo. Folk meets bluegrass on this latest album from the Oregon-based Kristen Grainger and her band True North, which includes her husband Dan Wetzel (guitar, vocals, octave mandolin) plus Martin Stevens (mandolin, fiddle) and Josh Adkins (acoustic bass).
The musicianship is excellent as is Grainger’s vocal work, but the album’s greatest strength may be the material. The program features four covers, among them Peter Rowan’s “L.A. Cowboy” and “Mississippi,” which Brandi Carlisle cowrote; one song by Grainger and Wetzel; and seven numbers credited solely to Grainger.
The best of that latter group include “Ghost of Abuelito,” the first-person tale of a seven-year-old detained on the U.S./Mexico border; “She Flies with Her Own Wings,” which according to a press release was inspired by Grainger’s experiences as communications director for Oregon governor Kate Brown; and the infectious “Keep the River on Your Right,” which is good enough to be mistaken for the old classic that it may well become.