Laura Cantrell, No Way There From Here (Thrift Shop)
From her pleasant solo albums to her expert Kitty Wells tribute, nothing in this Nashville-born, Queens-based performer’s corpus suggested she had the resources for a country/folk-pop collection this remarkable. Yet there’s nary a duff track in sight. “Country/folk-pop” may seem a mouthful, but that’s what it is, crisply acoustic and hook-laden, replete with variety yet never once ostentatious (a tricky feat when one considers a jangly opener mixing clarinet with a guitar riff reminiscent of “Wish You Were Here”). Another quality lacking in ostentation: Cantrell’s vocals, so unadorned they risk merely pretty, yet capable of a simplicity and grace that can bring to mind none other than Dolly Parton (“Driving Down Your Street” is a sweet stalker anthem Dolly and Porter might once have traded verses on). And while her co-writes get bolstered by the not-inconsiderable likes of Franklin Bruno and Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, the dominant narrative voice is all her own - understated tales of smart women maintaining dignity in the face of disappointment. They drink black coffee, they write perfect songs, they send out unanswered letters and bemoan crummy set lists. In Cantrell’s able hands, even crying in front of the washing machine assumes a nobility. But she’s nobody’s victim, as made clear when she takes a stance against the casual calumny faced by her fellow sisters-in-heartbreak. “All the girls are complicated,” she avers. “They’re just working out who they are”.
Drive-By Truckers, English Oceans (ATO)
This isn’t the arrival of Mike Cooley - he’s been an able-bodied contributor for well over a decade (just try and imagine Brighter Than Creation’s Dark without him). Yet there’s still something unprecedented about his casual domination here, trading credits and vocal turns with Patterson Hood at a speed more appropriate to Mould/Hart, his observational details so pinpoint perfect (girls as plain as primer coats, the speed of a stream of tar) you hope songwriting rivalry won’t soon send him the way of Jason Isbell and Shonna Tucker. Musically, this is ragged-but-right, sloppy enough to justify those reckless Exile On Main Streetcomparisons (“Shit Shots Count” practically blushes at its brazenness), yet career-peak lovely on “First Air Of Autumn” or “Hanging On”. As always, their concerns remain rooted in working class southern gothic, “the moral lessons of a charmed life,” except for the many lives that aren’t charmed at all. Which means you’ll hear of cross-shaped swimming pools and doomed couch-ridden women drinking Tab by the liter. But both Hood and Cooley know uncharmed lives have root causes, and as proud relics of the once-Solid South, they put politics front and center. Not just the easy stuff, like bosses who aren’t nearly as smart as they’d like to be, but the roots of disenchantment and the cultural devastation wrought by divide/conquer. That’s why the title number outlines Lee Atwater’s calculated power grab, and why “The Part Of Him” follows with a present-day Atwater disciple whose own Nixonian tendencies prove his downfall. “Wingnut raised and corn fed / Teabags dragging on the chamber floor” - that’s Hood at his least generous. But as they say, shit shots count if the table’s tilted.
Hamell On Trial, The Happiest Man In The World (New West)
Like his idol Bill Hicks, one-man-band Ed Hamell can be a bit of a crank, and like too many men in general, his fascination with prostitution and strippers risks paternalistic sentimentality. Yet he loves whores for the same reason he despises lawyers, and harbors few illusions as to why individuals settle for demeaning jobs: that clerk who moonlights as a pole dancer has a special needs child. The homeless, charitable organizations, health care, unemployment, mastectomies, dementia - all get touched upon within these ragged tales of blue-collar blues. But Hamell’s sick jokes, dreadful puns, and sheer goodwill help ensure the triumph of spiritual uplift. And those wary of one-man-band limitations will be cheered by the full-band fiddle/drums/piano/etc backing that roughly grace the majority of these thirteen tracks. He’s disappointed in his fellow man, sure: “Ain’t it a stone-cold bitch what the country’s going through”. But a little fellowship helps, as when he pledges his retirement community heart to Kimya Dawson on the woozy folk-rap of “Together”: “I’m gonna love you ‘till your bones are weak / I’m gonna love you ‘till the veins show through your cheek”.