Review: Roots Rockers

Don’t know if you are going to hit the road this summer, but if you do don’t forget to pack a radio.  That would be a cheap entertainment addition for any $4-a-gallon road trip and if you avoid Clear Channel-owned stations you might get lucky and hear some new stuff.  While exploring America, try and explore “Americana,” usually found on the left side of the FM radio dial. 

Americana is a music genre that has strong elements of traditional country, folk, blues and classic rock: think Johnny Cash, the Jayhawks, Dave Alvin, Son Volt, Alison Krauss (with and without Robert Plant), Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, etc.  They all take the road less traveled, and if you do too, you might hear some of the following artists on your Americana vacation:

John Hiatt was pretty hot about 10 years ago when he wrote hits for people like Bonnie Raitt (“Thing Called Love”) and Jeff Healey (“Angel Eyes”).  Same Old Man is his 21st album, and it is pretty much the same old stuff – which is a good thing if you’re a Hiatt fan.  For those fans, the album is a treasure chest of laid-back observations on life and love; non-fans may find Hiatt’s voice a little tough to get into.  Some of the songs here can win you over, though: “Old Days” is Hiatt’s look back at when he was a struggling musician, “What Love Can Do” gets a boost from background vocals from Hiatt’s daughter Lilly.  “Love You Again” is perhaps the best song here, and you begin to wonder what it would sound like in Bonnie Raitt’s able hands.

T-Bone Burnett is hot right now as a producer (Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, the BoDeans) but he makes a misstep with his new album (as a singer) Tooth of Crime.   The songs here were written to accompany a Sam Shepard play, and Tooth of Crime finds T-Bone attempting to become Tom Waits.  He does not succeed.  The songs are long on weirdness and “Twin Peaks” atmosphere, and a bit short on melody.  “Kill Zone” (apparently partly written by Roy Orbison before his death) is the single highlight.  This is a tough album to like.

The Band of Heathens make a great first impression and they should – this group of veteran Austin players won an Austin Chronicle “Best Austin Band” award in 2007.  The self-titled debut, produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard, is a satisfying blend of jangly guitars and rock stylings.  “Heart On My Sleeve” leans more toward rock, while “Don’t Call On Me” proudly waves the country rock banner.  Lots of cool songs, great playing, nice singing – play this one at your summer barbecue!

Sonny Landreth is a Louisiana-based slide guitarist who has played with many people (most notably John Hiatt) and From The Reach, his ninth album, boasts an impressive stable of guest stars (Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett, Dr. John, Vince Gill).  Most of the guests engage in spirited guitar duels with Landreth and it’s often impressive.   On “Blue Tarp Blues,” a Katrina lament, Landreth mixes it up with Knopfler, and “Howlin’ Moon” rocks along with help from Dr. John’s piano and Buffett’s background vocals.  Very nice.

Justin Townes Earle has a lot to live up to – his father Steve Earle named him after Townes Van Zandt – and 25-year-old Justin gets his career off to a good start with The Good Life.  He brings a punk sensibility to a very old-timey sound, with great success.  The title song channels Hank Williams, and “South Georgia Sugar Babe” shows he knows his Little Feat.  “Turn Out My Lights” and “Lone Pine Hill,” a story song, both show the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  A very strong debut from an artist to watch.

In closing let’s take a chance to share another tune from James McMurtry‘s great Just Us Kids, and we would be remiss to not remind you that Jakob Dylan‘s solo debut Seeing Things (produced by Rick Rubin) is out on June 10. 

UPDATE: I should have thought of this when I first posted – “Holiday Road” from the new live album by Lindsey Buckingham, for the hell of it.  Enjoy your vacation!

MP3: “What Love Can Do” by John Hiatt

MP3: “Kill Zone” by T-Bone Burnett

MP3: “Don’t Call On Me” by the Band of Heathens

MP3: “Howlin’ Moon” by Sonny Landreth

MP3: “Turn Out My Lights” by Justin Townes Earle

MP3: “Just Us Kids” by James McMurtry

MP3: “Something Good This Way Comes” by Jakob Dylan

MP3: “Holiday Road” (live) by Lindsey Buckingham



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