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Drawing from the past and looking forward through country music

March 5, 2014

Country music, and we may be stretching the term in one case, from a few different perspectives is in the Ear Bliss spotlight this week. Through her own recordings and her weekly radio show at WFMU, which sadly came to an end five years ago, Laura Cantrell demonstrated an intrinsic fondness for the music of yesteryear leaning hard towards the country & western music past. No Way There From Here is her first album of original material in three years and it is as forward looking as it is in drawing from the past. Begun in the early 1990s as a collective of musicians of varying backgrounds and colors, the band Nashville was not soon after described as Nashville’s most “#$%ed-up” band. The quick and dirty was country music, but the oh-so-skewed brand of countrypolitan the collective delivered certainly lent itself to the previous description. The band’s 2001 release titled Nixon was Lambchop at its most skewed. It has just been reissued and we give it a look. Let’s go!

Laura Cantrell
“No Way There From Here”
Thrift Shop Records

I’ve always thought of the albums by New York city-based songstress Laura Cantrell as being about preservation. Be it a song about the Merle Haggard backup singer (and ex-wife) Bonnie Owens (“Queen of the Coast”), Appalachian songstress Ola Belle Reed (“Mountain Fern”), or taking it as far as an entire album in tribute to the songs of Kitty Wells (the album Kitty Wells’ Dresses), Cantrell‘s M.O. in her work has always been about preserving the past by casting those special artists in song in an understated, but modernized setting. She will never forget them and she hopes that by bringing elements of their lives to song, her listeners won’t either. In most cases, those listeners are oft-times enlightened for the first time to the stories and/or songs of these artists. With No Way There From here, she changes the focus. Cantrell has been described as a songpicker, but she also has never lost sight of the contemporary in her song pickings demonstrating a fondness for the works of her concrete country brethren near and around the New York City area where she is based. On her fifth longplayer titled No Way There from Here she stays the course. The album is simplistic in approach as far as the music goes. Recorded in Nashville, Cantrell deployed a small but tight collection of musicians and all lockstep with her muse. It features singers and players ranging from Jim Lauderdale to Kenny Vaughan (Marty Stuart) to Caitlin Rose to William Tyler (Lambchop) to Paul Niehaus (Lambchop, Calexico) to Paul Burch. The album features a dozen deceptively beautiful songs mixing Cantrell originals with covers and co-writes with a tasteful cast of lyricists including Amy Allison, Jennifer O’Connor and Franklin Bruno. The subject matter deviates little from her past records: loss, longing, recollections of the past, and hope. She paints them pretty and sad as the stories dictate with her sweet soprano voice. Beginning with the spot-on “girl” tune called “All the Girls are Complicated” written with Allison which draws its inspiration from their circle of friends as much as it does Cantrell’s seven-year-old daughter to the cowboy-styled barroom ballad “Letter She Sent”, Cantrell’s songs and music have a way of sneaking up on you with their careful pace, precision and genuineness. It’s special stuff. Highly recommended. Visit www.lauracantrell.com.

Lambchop
“Nixon”
Merge Records

Originally released in 2000, the recording Nixon was the fifth album from the Nashville-based collective Lambchop. A group which at its outset in the early 1990s drew inspiration more from the lush, countrypolitan side of the Nashville spectrum, the album Nixon was a critic’s favorite and continued the path of unpredictable twists and turns from a band that called Music City home. More appropriately, Lambchop used Nashville as a liftoff point than a foundation. The album begins with "The Old Gold Shoe" with its mid-song swell of horns and the delicate voice and uneasy falsetto of front man Kurt Wagner at its heart. The segueing song “Grumpus” heads off in a subtle, but cool beat soul direction and between the two, sets the pace for the record and Lambchop, in general. Funk, R&B, gospel, country, vintage folk, the Lambchop integrated all of it into its unique and discrete sound. Here it is 2014 and Nixon is back in all its quirky beauty sounding as fresh as ever. The Merge Records folks go the extra yard on this reissue with a double-CD version that includes the original album plus a bonus disc containing the “White Sessions 1998: How I Met Cat Power”, a remastered live solo session which front man Wagner recorded at Radio France in ‘98. Also available is a180-gram vinyl version of Nixon that also includes the CD of bonus material. Visit www.mergerecords.com.

LIVE SHOTS:
The Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston (3481 Kingstown Road) continues its “Courthouse Gallery Acoustic Series” on Friday evening with the singer/songwriter Brian McKenzie. Doors open at 7 and music begins at 8 pm.

The Sweetback Sisters play a citified brand of country and roots music and they are also highly entertaining at it. Head over to Portsmouth and the Commence Fence Point Community Hall (633 Anthony Road) on Saturday to see for yourself. The fun begins at 8 pm.

If you love the yesteryear sounds of vintage Vaudeville Jazz & classic blues from a songstress and her band who know how to deliver the goods, The Towers in Narragansett (35 Ocean Road) is the place to head on Sunday afternoon for Ursula George. Singer Lori Urso with her big band in tow knows all the ins and outs of the vintage styles. Music begins at the very appealing hour of 2 pm.

Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.

 

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