Johnson’s Crossroad, Mockingbird
The male baritone voice in rock ‘n’ roll is polarizing. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder is perhaps the best example of the divisive phenomenon: his guttural bellow provokes an innate reaction on first listen, and the response is usually either distinct love or intense hate. Creed’s Scott Stapp furthered the divide by making the low vocal range instantly parodic with his constant embellishments and gaudy style. The range itself has become a meme: say, if you want to make fun of Creed, you swoop and hold a deep vibrato. With the risk of sounding ridiculous, it’s an extremely hard voice to pull off, but Paul Johnson, lead vocalist for Johnson’s Crossroad, manages to do it with convincing gusto and compelling execution on his band’s latest album, Mockingbird. When you hear Johnson for the first time, be prepared for one of the most raspy, dirty growls known to the vocal fry register, the lowest of the low.
Moving between folk, bluegrass, blues and soul, Johnson’s voice is versatile and emotive, and its rough, unrestrained rumble benefits from an exceptionally clear recording that will keep you coming back to the album, exploring the depth of his voice and its intimidating yet endearing quality. “In the Breeze” tells the story of a homesick mountain man yearning for his home in the hills, a part that’s a natural fit for Johnson, and one that probably becomes all too real on tour. Keith Minguez’s mandolin playing shines on the album, particularly on “Storm Keeps Moving In,” where his constant alternation between fluttering, chopping and picking makes his one instrument sound like three. Every track brings in new instrumentation and the constant variation keeps the album fresh until its slow-burning climax, “Wait and See,” a calming “it gets better” refrain that makes Johnson’s bearish demeanor a lot more cuddly.
The Cheeksters, The Golden Birds
The Cheeksters, born of a love sparked by the chance encounter between two people on a London train, make music to be enjoyed. Twenty-two years into the band (and the couple’s) marriage, the latest release by Mark and Shannon Casson is another collection of familiar, fun and upbeat pop songs. The Golden Birds embraces the British Invasion sound with horn sections straight out of Magical Mystery Tour, a David Bowie vocal vibrato and a mix of dry, distorted guitars and Wurlitzer pianos, all backed by Mark’s thick British accent and clipped consonants.
“Who Said Life Would Be Easy” best represents the band’s ability to stir up classic sounds and conjure something redolent, but new and exciting in its homage. A phasered guitar riff drives the intro and the chanted lyrics give panache to the song. Even behind so many influences, you can hear The Cheeksters style develop under Mark’s kooky Englishman persona. It’s a nostalgia act, but that’s the appeal to The Cheeksters. The Golden Birds is full of radio-friendly sounds and its bubbly pace will probably make for a great car commercial aimed at hip 20-somethings.
Dehlia Low, Ravens & Crows
If you appreciate anything about bluegrass, Ravens & Crows and its top-notch musicianship and intricate vocal harmonies will soon become a part of your most-played collection. But you might want to keep your listening experience self-contained. The band has plastered a rather audacious statement as an unavoidable banner on everything from the top of its website to the “about” page to press releases and promotional materials: depending on which one you come across, it reads something like, “Dehlia Low pushes bluegrass squarely into the emerging Americana genre, combining their tenacious, authentic vocal style with extraordinary instrumental prowess…”
The band members have their chops, that’s indisputable, and I guess you can call vocalists Anya Hinkle and Stacy Claude’s country twang and restrained vocal style authentic. But to say that this straightforward bluegrass album has somehow broken through into clearly defined Americana is pretentious and an unfortunate contradiction. The statement itself makes a nice-sounding, epigrammatic selling point, but it’s ridiculous to present bluegrass as something else. The lines between the two genres are already fairly indiscernible – whereas bluegrass is a type of American roots music, Americana is just an amalgam of early traditions – and there’s nothing to suggest that Dehlia Low has pushed anything or gone anywhere but where they belong. It’s remiss to taint the band as Americana, an imitative and heavily derivative genre, when its style is so nailed-down and plainly and wholesomely bluegrass.
I think what the overzealous advertising means to say, in a more roundabout way, is that this album is accessible enough to be marketable to fans of The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons, and other artists in the “emerging Americana” genre. It’s come full circle. Americana music was once the antithesis to commercialized country music, and now that idea has been cannibalized and the anti-corporate aesthetic has become a neatly wrapped package for prospective fans and CD buyers. Ravens & Crows is a stunningly refined bluegrass album regardless of its misnomer/identity crisis. But it speaks to the coming overindulgence of the Americana genre: a bluegrass band is proving it’s now more profitable to mislabel yourself.
Albatross Party, Glass
Albatross Party isn’t a band that immediately identifies itself as progressive rock, but with polyrhythms, alternating meters and the type of frantic tom fills that Neil Peart dreams of, Glass has a lot of Rush Permanent Waves-era flavor. The opening track, “Fall” follows the adrenaline-fueled collapse of a relationship: “You were my first love,” sings vocalist, keyboard player and Geddy Lee-counterpart Tiziana Severse. When the bass hits a riff during the song’s anthemic chorus, you have no choice but to raise a single fist in the air and bob your head. Unfortunately, headphone-listeners might be miffed by the song’s mix: “Fall” sticks out from the rest of the album as washed-out, with the drums suffering from a robotic sound, like they were either recorded on an electric drum kit and perfectly quantized or just mastered completely flat. The dynamics are lost somewhere in the lossy compression or lack of humanization.
If you don’t mind, it’s worth sticking out. “The Alchemist” brings in a more coherent Omar Rodriguez sound with a trebly bass, bongo drums and the percussive pop of a cowbell. The song showcases the musicianship of Albatross Party with varying time signatures and adventurous guitar solos that work their way up and down the fretboard. The bass’ funky midrange slowly ducks behind the drums and guitar and returns in time for one final series of time signature changes. Albatross Party probably prefers to avoid the progressive rock label and its stigma (for the same reason jam bands don’t like being called jam bands), but what they’re doing is inherently progressive. Rarely does a band find a balance between musicianship, compositional intricacy and accessible songwriting. If you’re looking for a theme song to your summer, look no further than Glass.
Mimi Bell, You’re Not Loving Me
The story behind You’re Not Loving Me marks another chapter in Seth Kauffman’s bizarre history as a producer. It’s quite the departure from his prior collaborative work with Angi West’s Opportunity Cost. Mary Ellen Bush, the real Mimi Bell, recorded a few GarageBand demos with herself singing, playing guitar and harmonica, and sent them to Kauffman, a longtime friend. The Floating Action mastermind responded by saying he was going to play all the instruments on the album and Bush’s role was to be the singer. And so, Bush trusting Kauffman’s direction, Mimi Bell and You’re Not Loving Me was born.
The album is a series of broken love songs and stories of heartache. But its tone is far from sorrowful, and the repetitive, delicate percussion combined with Bush’s soft croon give a soothing, upward drive to the album. The title track brings a soulful confession from Bush, and matched with Kauffman’s backing vocals and mellow slide guitar, the song makes moving on effortless. Fans of West’s Opportunity Cost will enjoy the similar vocal melodies on songs like “Too Much” and the lo-fi, reverb-drenched production makes this album perfect for a set of laptop speakers. You’re Not Loving Me makes mourning a breakup or failed relationship uncomplicated.
— Joseph Chapman can be reached at email@example.com.