Jason Isbell - Here We Rest
The former Drive-By Trucker's third solo effort is being hailed from all corners, and for good reason. It's a damn fine album. To me, it feels distinctly more mellow than his last two, but that's not entirely a bad thing. His songwriting has become has become even sharper, and his smoky, bourbon-on-the-rocks voice is in top form. Styles range from the straight-ahead rocker "Go It Alone" to the almost folky "Codeine" to the Department of Tourism-ready "Alabama Pines." Most songs are about loss and longing, but unless you listen closely to the lyrics, the melodies are generally sunny. It's another album that was born in Muscle Shoals, Alabama -- a place that's deservedly enjoying a nice resurgence in attention these days.
Turnpike Troubadours - Diamonds & Gasoline
This one came out late last summer, and it sort of fell off my radar until just recently. My loss. These guys are going to be the Next Big Thing to come out of Oklahoma -- if they aren't already. Literate and geographically astute lyrics are decorated with really great melodies and can't-get-it-out-of-your-head hooks. This is country music for people who say they're too smart for country music, and rock and roll for for those who think they've outgrown it. It probably didn't hurt that the record was produced by Mike McClure, a veteran of the Red Dirt music scene. I had the chance to see them recently, and they're every bit as good on stage as they are on Memorex.
I became a fan of the Allstars back during their Shake Hands With Shorty debut and 51 Phantom follow-up, but they kind of fell off my radar as they jumped on the jam-band bandwagon. Today, brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew are back in a big way with Keys To the Kingdom. Last year, the Dickinson boys lost their father Jim, a legendary Memphis session man, and his departure deeply influenced their latest release. Tinged heavily with southern gospel, soul, and blues, Keys to the Kingdom veers between mourning their father's death and celebrating his life. "Hear the Hills" is a poigniant tearjerker, while the irreverent "Jumpercable Blues" contains the awesome refrain of, "hey hey, well well, all y'all can go straight to hell... you have seen the last of me, pissin' in your wishing well." They even do a brilliant and uniquely original cover of Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again."
Eleven Hundred Springs - Eight the Hard Way
The long haired, tattooed hippie freaks from Dallas turn out another solid record full of "Hardcore Honkytonk." The album track by the same name is a dig at present-day Nashville, and "We're From Texas" is their obligatory salute to the Lone Star State. Nothing here is terribly original, but I think that's maybe the point. Over 13 years and 11 albums, these guys simply turn out great, timeless country tunes.
Band of Heathens - Top Hat Crown and the Clapmaster's Son
About the only thing that sucks about this album is its unwieldy and weird title. BOH started as sort of an Austin "supergroup" of individual talent from the likes of Ed Jurdi, Gordy Quist, Colin Brooks, and Brian Keane. Their first couple discs sounded great, but you could definitely tell they hadn't entirely gelled as a band. Their newest one (whatever the hell it's called) is definitely more cohesive and tight, and they've expanded their sound by drawing elements from soul, gospel, funk, New Orleans style jazz, and good old rock and roll.
Black Joe Lewis And the Honeybears - Scandalous
What a fun album. I've worn out their debut full-length album, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, thoroughly enjoying classic tunes like I'm Broke, Get Yo Shit, and Humpin'. They've followed it up with a blistering soul-funk-R&B opus that includes gems like "Booty City," "Black Snake," and "Mustang Ranch," in which Joe tells the story of visiting the renowned Texas whorehouse to get his "ham glazed." But beneath the outrageous, sweaty, slightly mysogenistic lyrics, there's some damn fine musicianship among the eight (or so) band members. This album is tighter and better crafted than the previous. It's Otis Redding, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett sprinkled with a little Rick James. And it's a hell of a lot of fun.