New Madrid, New Truckers Album, and Some Alabama Soul

Continuing the lineage of killer underground rock bands coming from Athens, Ga., New Madrid is a fast-emerging upstart with a dynamic psychedelic alt-country sound. The four-piece band blends a gritty two-guitar attack and tuneful songwriting, resulting in some of the visceral garage power of early My Morning Jacket.

The group also stretches into some new-school jam exploration. Case in point the Southern-flavored groove tracks “Country Moon Pt. 1 and 2” from the 2012 full-length debut Yardboat, which was engineered by local Athens studio ace David Barbe, who’s known for his work with R.E.M., Drive-By Truckers, and Deerhunter. The sequel songs are bridged by a 10-minute ambient instrumental “Pond,” which offers a post-rock space similar to that of “Explosions in the Sky.” Later in the set the band settles into some cosmic folk with the chamber harmonies of “Shout Mountain.”

“It’s still developing,” said lead singer and guitarist Phil McGill when asked about the band’s versatile sound. “Right now it’s a result of the four of us playing and listening to music together.”

The band’s roots go back to Chattanooga, Tenn., where members grew up. When McGill, fellow guitarist Graham Powers, drummer Alex Woolley, and bassist Ben Hackett got settled in the line-up, the group relocated to Athens and broke into the scene playing house parties and bars like The Max Canada and The Flicker. The group opened for The Whigs at the storied Georgia Theatre on New Year’s Eve.

A new studio album, Sunswimmer, drops on February 25. To make the album, the band once again worked with Barbe at their hometown studio Chase Park Transduction. The release will come on the heels of another big Athens gig, when the band plays the famed 40 Watt Club on February 13, opening for Drive-By Truckers.

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Drive-By Truckers

On March 4, the seasoned Southern rock realists will unveil English Oceans, their 12th release. Fans of the band will quickly notice the increased output from guitarist Mike Cooley, who usually contributes just a few songs per record. This time, though, he splits duties equally with longtime songwriting foil Patterson Hood. In addition to their usual witty downhome musings from the rural underbelly, the duo also sharpened their political edge with some quips on partisan vitriol: Hood in the front-porch thumper “The Part of Him” and Cooley in the stormy, soulful “Made Up English Oceans.” The album ends on a poignant note with “Grand Canyon,” as the band delivers an epic rock ballad to remember Craig Lieske, a longtime member of the Truckers’ touring crew who passed away after a heart attack in January 2013.

The effort also marks the studio debut of the Truckers’ new lineup, as Hood, Cooley, and longtime drummer Brad Morgan are joined by bassist Matt Patton (formerly of The Dexateens) and Jay Gonzalez, who switches off between piano and guitar. Of the band shift Hood said: “We recorded with a stripped-down lineup that gave things a more primal and immediate feel. It’s a more turn-on-a-dime kind of thing, which suits these songs, and us as a band.”

The band will play three annual homecoming shows at Athens’ 40 Watt on February 13-15. In addition to New Madrid, support during the run will also come from St. Paul and the Broken Bones.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones 

The soul sextet from Birmingham, Ala., will release a highly anticipated debut album on February 18. Half the City delivers a fresh take on the sounds of ‘70s Stax heyday—in-the-pocket R&B grooves and complementary horn blasts. It’s led by the big voice of Paul Janeway, an authentic husky-piped singer who grew up immersed in gospel music on a path to a be a preacher in the small town of Chelsea, Ala. Janeway grabbed some edge after exposure to Tom Waits and Nick Drake, but his heart still resides with the Southern soul that came from Muscle Shoals, where his band recorded its debut. With production from Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes, the album was mixed at FAME Studios, apropos for a dynamic effort filled with a range of throwback influences from the relaxed lovesick cool of Sam Cooke (“I’m Torn Up”) to the deep funky emotion of James Brown (“Like a Mighty River”). Southern stops also include Atlanta (February 22) and Savannah (March 6).