Leon III (featured)
Leon III features familiar faces from the Americana underground. Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent are members of Wrinkle Neck Mules—the Virginia-born, earnest but edgy alt-country act that’s never quite gotten its rightful due. With their new project, Stepanian and Brent take twang on a detour into the psych-folk wilderness; the songs on this self-titled debut are full of southern comfort, but the musicians sound like they’re under the influence of shroom tea. The opening “Maybe I’m Immune?” is a sprawling, desolate slow-burner with some searching guitar licks that would make Jerry Garcia proud. “The Strongest Medicine” gets out there, too, but this time down the Crazy Horse path of wide-open distortion. The record was produced by Mark Nevers, who has a history of helping idiosyncratic folk explorers like Bonnie “Prince Billy” and Lambchop. His touch is felt most during the hypnotic haze of “Paper Eye” and a cosmically filtered cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Jesus,” which sounds like Drive-By Truckers on a Beatles bender. Stepanian’s husky voice is a steady spirit guide throughout the album; it particularly brings things back down to earth when accented by plaintive pedal steel in “Faded Mountain.” These guys took a chance to get weird, and it works.
Roots contemporaries Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors and JOHNNYSWIM (the husband-and-wife folk duo featuring Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano) are skilled practitioners in crafting feel-good hooks and inspirational choruses. Here the two groups join forces for a brief five-song EP that offers a promising teaser for what will hopefully become a more-developed collaboration. Right out of the gate, gospel-rock opener “Ring the Bells” showcases impressive vocal interplay, as Holcomb’s sturdy Tennessee tenor holds its own with Ramirez and Sudano’s musical theater-ready pipes. The intertwined singing flows even more naturally on “Just Your Memory,” a delicate folk meditation with the building intensity characteristic of male-female groups like the Civil Wars and the Swell Season. Turning Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” into a ballad strips the dusty swagger from the original, but the version will still be a crowd favorite when the two groups support the effort with a brief summer tour. Southern stops include Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville, N.C. (July 6) and the Carpenter Theatre in Richmond, Va. (July 7).
Up-and-coming string band Twisted Pine went viral last year when video surfaced of the group’s acoustic mash-up of indie funk band Vulfpeck’s “El Chepe” and Bill Monroe’s “The One I Love is Gone.” The combo tune leads off the quartet’s new Dreams, a seven-song, all-covers EP that reimagines songs from a range of genres through the primitive dynamics of wood and wire. In general, bluegrass reboots of pop songs can be hit or miss, but Twisted Pine isn’t just churning out boot-stomping exaggerations of familiar favorites. The group subscribes to the school of sophisticated string arrangements purveyed by predecessors the Punch Brothers and Crooked Still, and accordingly the covers are delivered with nuanced layers instead of overblown solos. The biggest winners are a sweetly patient reading of the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the title track—a pastoral version of the Cranberries’ 90s hit that features vocalists Kathleen Parks and Rachel Sumner jointly nailing the late Dolores O’Riordan’s emotional lilt.
Things Change is an appropriate title for the seventh studio album from North Carolina alt-country act American Aquarium. After every member of the band quit last year, front man B.J. Barham recruited an entirely new crew to play behind him, but his blue-collar storyteller songwriting hasn’t lost its vigor. In fact Barham sounds ready to roll in the full-throttle bar rock of “Tough Folks,” an optimistic stomper written about the resilience of small-town farmers. Ditto in the rollicking “The World is On Fire,” a countrified positive protest anthem about feeling disillusioned by the country’s current political climate. In the latter, Barham sings, in a resolute cadence similar to that of activist folk bard Billy Bragg, the lines: “We can’t give in / We can’t give up / We must go boldly into the darkness / And be the light.” A great voice in Southern music has found a new spark.