And then there were five. Last year Deep Roots felt beholden to name not one, not two but three albums to share Album of the Year honors, because they were all extraordinary albums but all very different. The same could be said of this year’s selections, except there are two more honorees. There are five because all of these are, in their own way, statements from artist working on a higher plane.

In the case of Michael Martin Murphey, Red River Drifter is this great songwriter’s serious probing the topic that has bedeviled, fascinated and inspired songwriters since song has existed. Here the cowboy songs are MIA, the bluegrass is toned down to a more traditional country backdrop, and love is in the air. No, Murph’s not revisiting his singing idol ‘80s incarnation but as a writer he is pondering love on this album—romantic love (or the dwindling and rekindling thereof, as on the aforementioned album opener), love between friends (even to the point of enduring beyond the grave) and, of course, love of God’s green earth (and as we’ve seen, how these aspects of love are linked). Herein is found some of the most exquisite melodies he’s ever crafted; some of the finest singing of his later years (age has given his tenor an appealing, lived-in huskiness that bespeaks a man of experience in the issues he addresses and the lifestyle he extols); unquestionably some of the most complex lyrics he’s ever composed, almost all of the songs having multiple layers of meaning; and tight, focused, emotionally resonant instrumental work. Murph, who’s made a lot incredible albums—he’s now up to 45 long players in his catalogue, and you’d want to hear most of them—has rarely been better from first cut to last as he is on Red River Drifter.

In their own way Habib Koité and Eric Bibb are ruminating on that crazy little thing called love on their Brothers in Bamako, quite possibly the year’s most unexpected gem. Theirs is a transatlantic meeting of souls but otherwise any attempt to describe it is akin to trying to grab mercury. It’s easy enough to say this week’s Album of the Week is magical, soulful, moving, riveting, beautiful, transcendent. Its DNA is in the West African tradition of which Koité is something of an international ambassador but it’s also in the roots music Bibb–son of a musician father whose friends included Pete Seeger, Odetta and Paul Robeson (Bibb is Robeson’s godson)–was immersed in during his formative years in New York City, where he came of age just in time to experience the folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s in full flower. Born in Thiès, Senegal in 1958 and now based in Mali, Koité is a modern-day griot, a repository of West African oral tradition and values.

So it is on Brothers in Bamako that these two gentle spirits make music on various stringed instruments (six-string banjos, seven-string guitars, eight-string ukulele, baritone guitar, acoustic nylon string guitar, electric guitar) with percussion help from Mamadou Koné and a haunting pedal steel guitar by Olli Haavisto on the duo’s hymn-like version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of only two covers among the baker’s dozen tunes. It could also be argued that theirs is more than music. Released a month after the Giving Tree Band’s provocative Vacilador (a previous Album of the Week honoree), a discourse in song on a society–a world–congratulating itself on its ability to connect via technology but seemingly incapable of sustaining personal relationships, Brothers in Bamako preaches fervently but gently for connection; it recognizes a fractured populace as an impotent populace, its divisive nature fomenting anger and intolerance instead of encouraging the embrace of each individual’s essential humanity. Theirs are songs of hope and conciliation, proving, as Belgian journalist/producer/world music authority Etienne Bours writes in his liner notes, “that the simplest song is often the most effective and that singing as they do is a universal necessity. We need this type of encounter across national frontiers, fashions and economic dictates. Because this song is alive, authentic and profoundly human.”

Driving the blues train to Album of the Year honors are two fellows who specialize in the electric variety: Mike Zito and Tim “Too Slim” Langford. Simply pput, Zito’s gripping Gone to Texas proves what his recent albums have suggested: he’s beaten the savage demons that bedeviled him for so long and threatened to capsize his career. Gone to Texas’s manifold strengths elevate it to a higher plane of spiritual quest. Its close-to-the-bone feel; his band The Wheel’s empathetic support; Zito’s effortless command of the blues and blues-rock idioms he employs; the conviction in his rough-hewn vocals; the frank, unvarnished portrait he paints of himself in his weakest hours–when paranoia creeps in, death wishes abound and a general feeling of inertia if not outright uselessness takes hold of him are the components of a masterwork.

In Slim’s case, the good news is that this most merciless of electric blues guitarists and rawest of blues singers seems to have been living on a ragged edge, which translates to some of the toughest music he and the Taildraggers have ever made. On Blue Heart Slim wends his way through noir-ish tales of bad romance, bad libations and bad vibes. Though he sounds like nothing so much as a tortured soul, he’s a tortured soul fighting to rise above his self-inflicted misfortunes. Give him points for his honesty—or his characters’ honesty—and never forget that Slim’s always had a heart.

Maybe someone close to James Justin Burke’s music saw this coming, this album titled Places, but not yours truly, not to this degree. After two albums very much rooted in philosophical musings on the nuances of personal relationships, especially those of a romantic nature, Burke, accompanied by his trusted musical mates Bailey Horsley (banjo) and Tom Propst (bass), with whom he has long performed as James Justin & Co., plus a smidgen of supporting instrumentalists, seems to have shelved relationships as an animating impulse for his songs. Instead, his focus is on the land, almost exclusively on the land, as inspired by what appears to have been an epic cross-country journey. With the basic James Justin & Co. trio augmented by a quartet of guest musicians, the group’s sound has never been richer, fuller and more gripping than it is here, where it’s the perfect complement to his intriguing lyrics. Although people do figure into some of these scenarios, Places is really about the effect the land, the natural world, had on him as he arrived at each new destination on his journey—that is to say, the land is as much a living, breathing character on this album as Burke himself. It’s time to rank James Justin Burke among America’s finest young songwriters, as he pulls away from the pack. –David McGee, February 2014

 

murph-red-river

RED RIVER DRIFTER, Michael Martin Murphey (Red River Entertainment)– At this stage, with so much history to rely on, you expect a new Michael Martin Murphey album to reflect the artist’s love of the land and the natural world. He doesn’t disappoint on Red River Drifter. Forty-five seconds into the frisky album opener, “Peaceful Country,” he’s singing in rapid-fire cadences, “little log cabin, we’ll go ridin’/singin’ in the mountain/eagle flyin’/out in the open, you and me livin’ wild and free in peaceful country…” It goes on, “Now that old moon is on the rise/I see the starlight in your eyes/where the lone coyote calls/beyond the city walls/in the shelter of the pines/with open hearts and minds, peaceful country.” Being about a couple trying to reignite their relationship, “Peaceful Country” nonetheless sees the key to that goal as being inextricably linked to their relationship to nature. Similarly, in the second number, a gentle bluegrass-tinged shuffle titled “Rolling Sky,” the existential questions Murph poses have no easy answers but he knows those are to be found “wandering under a rolling sky.”

Michael Martin Murphey and Pauline Resse duet on ‘Shake It Off’ from Red River Drifter

This is all quintessential Murph turf, as he’s staked out on 14 albums (excluding 2001’s Playing Favorites, re-recordings of a dozen of his earlier classics and two live albums) he’s released since 1990, when he walked away from a wildly successful run as a mainstream country balladeer and followed his heart’s desire to fully embrace the cowboy lifestyle—from being a real, socially and environmentally conscious rancher to dressing the part to doing what he was told was impossible, i.e., writing hit cowboy songs in the late 20th Century. He took a bit of a turn off that beaten path come 2009, when he cut Buckaroo Blue Grass, which was, actually, bluegrass-centric treatments of some of his old, beloved songs (“Carolina In the Pines,” for one, “Cherokee Fiddle” for another) as well as a couple of new originals with a band that included A-team bluegrassers such as Rob Ickes, Charlie Cushman, Ronnie McCoury, Sam Bush, Rhonda Vincent and Andy Leftwich, among others. Thus the pattern he followed on Lone Cowboy (2010), Buckaroo Blue Grass II (2010) and Tall Grass & Cool Water (2011), outstanding efforts all.


AUDIO CLIP: ‘Secret Smile,’ from Red River Drifter

On Red River Drifter, the cowboy songs are MIA, the bluegrass is toned down to a more traditional country backdrop, and love is in the air. No, Murph’s not revisiting his singing idol ‘80s incarnation but as a writer he is pondering love on this album—romantic love (or the dwindling and rekindling thereof, as on the aforementioned album opener), love between friends (even to the point of enduring beyond the grave) and, of course, love of God’s green earth (and as we’ve seen, how these aspects of love are linked). Herein is found some of the most exquisite melodies he’s ever crafted; some of the finest singing of his later years (age has given his tenor an appealing, lived-in huskiness that bespeaks a man of experience in the issues he addresses and the lifestyle he extols); unquestionably some of the most complex lyrics he’s ever composed, almost all of the songs having multiple layers of meaning; and tight, focused, emotionally resonant instrumental work.

Follow this link to the Deep Roots review of Michael Martin Murphey’s Red River Drifter, “Of Secret Smiles and Unfinished Symphonies.”

 

james-justin-places

PLACES, James Justin & Co. (James Justin & Co.)— Maybe someone close to James Justin Burke’s music saw this coming, this album titled Places, but not yours truly, not to this degree. After two albums very much rooted in philosophical musings on the nuances of personal relationships, especially those of a romantic nature, Burke, accompanied by his trusted musical mates Bailey Horsley (banjo) and Tom Propst (bass), with whom he has long performed as James Justin & Co., plus a smidgen of supporting instrumentalists, seems to have shelved relationships as an animating impulse for his songs. Instead, his focus is on the land, almost exclusively on the land, as inspired by what appears to have been an epic cross-country journey.

But on reflection, Places seems less anomaly than logical progression, a more expansive discourse on his heart’s stirrings than was revealed in the interior dialogues of his debut, Southern Son, So Far (2010), and its unforgettable followup, Dark Country (2011). And though people do figure into some of these scenarios, Places is really about the effect the land, the natural world, had on him as he arrived at each new destination on his journey—that is to say, the land is as much a living, breathing character on this album as Burke himself. Only those who didn’t see this theme hiding in plain sight in Burke’s 2010 and 2011 communiqués would be surprised by his new lyrical twists and turns. Yours truly should have known: in a review of Southern Son, So Far in the November 2010 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com I wrote, in part, “In the case of Southern Son, So Far, Burke revealed in a short online interview in Folly Beach Now (June 12, 2010) that his nine-song debut is ‘about my wife and how she changed my life.’ Those who are now rolling their eyes at that statement need to listen up: this is not a collection of simplistic, Hallmark greeting card ditties but a critical yet poetic examination of how accumulated experiences add up to something more than the sum of their parts that binds the participants in, well, holy communion. Which is to say that Burke views the affection he shares with his significant other as being as natural as the turning of the earth, and inseparable from the seasons.”

James Justin & Co., ‘Forever and a Day,’ the opening cut on Places

Uh-huh. Then in the September 2011 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com, concerning Dark Country, my review began: “The second communiqué from Folly Beach, SC’s James Justin Burke (billed with his band as James Justin & Co.), Dark Country only enhances the impression Burke made on last year’s debut album, Southern Son, So Far of being a songwriter scarily in tune with his own feelings and the turning of the earth.” The review goes on to, rightly, I believe, make favorable comparisons of Burke and Dawes’s brilliant songwriter Taylor Goldsmith, with one telling difference in Burke’s favor: “…like Goldsmith, Burke is heavily invested in understanding his own heart and learning how to connect, but Burke evinces a more pronounced sense of our common investment in the fate of the land under our feet. As he writes in a sleeve note here: ‘Dark Country is a sonic reminder to always be able to know the person in the mirror. To make your path, but preserve the land.’”

James Justin & Co., ‘Our Little Island,’ from Places

The one constant between those two albums and Places is an assertion I made in the first review and believe to be even more true now: A little bluegrass, a smidgen of traditional country, a dash of folk, the tiniest sprinkling of rock ‘n’ roll, a voice arising from the very earth he stands on and revealing a heart full of soul–thus James Justin Burke, native Virginian transplanted to Folly Beach, SC, one of those places known and celebrated (not least of all in these pages) for its energizing, historic beach music scene, and in whose environs Burke performs as James Justin & Co. with Bailey Horsley on banjo and Tom Propst on bass. Burke and his contemporaries, however, represent a new era in South Carolina music, advancing as they do a more literary and introspective style of writing built on a roots music foundation and rife with knowing nods to the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Band, and such.”

All those influences remain not only intact but, on Places, more pronounced and affecting with the band’s lineup bolstered by Dave Vaughan (mandolin), Jim Donnelly (drums), Howard Dlugasch (keys) and Zach Hood (trumpet), familiar names all from Burke’s previous albums. Without diminishing these fine musicians’ contributions to JJB’s first two long players, their playing here is more than technically proficient–they are so locked into what Burke is going for as to achieve a truly sanctified sound, one inherently spiritual in affect and impact. Even in its most expansive, widescreen formulation–as we hear in the table setting “Forever and Day,” the opening song that states the mission at hand and flowers from a meditative introduction into a galloping charge into the great unknown, the band remains scintillatingly contained–tight, rustic, subtle, understated, concise, without a wasted or indulgent note. This is music of great forbearance, as if Burke is purposely withholding some portion of what is clearly a winning sonic hand, as his lyrics, meantime, ascend to a loftier, metaphysical plane.

AUDIO CLIP: James Justin & Co., ‘I Don’t Know Anymore,’ from Places

Along the way we get a lilting, CS&N-style beauty, “Our Little Island,” replete with a tropical ambience, lush harmonies, catchy cascading guitar lines and the laid-back advice to “forget about your past and future/just let it go…”—live in the moment, which would be at least one of the sub-themes of Places. “Midwestern Sounds,” now deliberately placed, now breaking into a joyous sprint, finds Burke reflecting wistfully on a disappearing landscape as he ventures into a heartland fast becoming foreign to him, save for mere ripples of recognition as the miles roll by—“roll the hills between towns/green goes on forever/midwestern sounds/sounds we used to hear…hold your eyes upon/lonely fields forever/listen to a song/a song we used to hear…”  “Metal City,” featuring a gritty guest vocal by Yarn’s Blake Christiana complementing Burke’s intense guitar soloing and a discreet surge of horns, references the concert experience, and reveals a bit of weary defiance in Burke’s “roll the window and hope to see/this metal city is where we’ve come to be” refrain. With a sweet, irresistible curlicue guitar figure and horns gently emitting a silky moan behind him, Burke tells of the “Endless Road” where he’s putting one life behind him (“We made a sacrifice, gave up the perfect life/something inside me yearns/and God it burns/endless burn…”) and beseeching nature to make him whole again, to wit: “…out on the open road/letting the west winds blow/letting the new life breathe/in and out of me..” A triumphant burst of horns, banjo and acoustic guitars accelerates “Old New Mexico” into overdrive as Burke bids adieu to a lover and embraces the land’s seductive allure, singing, “I’m dyed in the wool/I’m pined away for you/old New Mexico, oh, darlin’, I gotta go.” In the hand clapping, foot stomping, organ-infused rock ‘n’ roll of “I Don’t Know Anymore,” he shrugs skeptically at notions of reincarnation, political fealty and the inevitability—and predictability—of change with “you may change the key/but Paul said let it be/sink the ship, swim the sea/well, I don’t know…anymore,” essentially bowing out of the mechanism-dynamism debate and thereby suggesting all we can do is roll the dice each day in hopes the outcome favors us. This seems an unusual position for the usually positive thinking Burke, but it might also reflect a revelation he experienced in his travels. The Celtic-flavored love song at the album’s end, “Limerick of Love,” fueled by Dave Vaughan’s sprightly mandolin work, closes things out on a cheery note but it’s like a postscript, not necessarily relevant to the main conversation but an interesting tidbit to add to it. On the other hand, “I Don’t Know Anymore” is where James Justin & Co.’s next album may well begin, and those following along in their scorebooks can now begin to wonder, like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, what is going to happen next. (Note: Places was officially released in October 2012. Deep Roots received its copy in the summer of 2013 and considers it a 2013 release. So there.) –David McGee

 

bibb-koite-brothers

BROTHERS IN BAMAKO, Habib Koité & Eric Bibb (Stony Plain)– Trying to describe the transatlantic meeting of souls on Habib Habib Koité’s and Eric Bibb’s summit session titled Brothers in Bamako is a bit like trying to grab mercury. It’s easy enough to say this week’s Album of the Week is magical, soulful, moving, riveting, beautiful, transcendent. Its DNA is in the West African tradition of which Koité is something of an international ambassador but it’s also in the roots music Bibb–son of a musician father whose friends included Pete Seeger, Odetta and Paul Robeson (Bibb is Robeson’s godson)–was immersed in during his formative years in New York City, where he came of age just in time to experience the folk revival of the ‘50s and ‘60s in full flower. Born in Thiès, Senegal in1958 and now based in Mali, Koité is a modern-day griot, a repository of West African oral tradition and values as defined by the revered blues and architectural historian Paul Oliver (who wrote the first authoritative biography of Bessie Smith in 1959 and is a contemporary of Bibb’s father, Leon) in his 1970 book Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues, who noted that the griot “has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable. Although they are popularly known as ‘praise singers,’ griots may also use their vocal expertise for gossip, satire, or political comment.” Seven years Koité’s senior, Bibb was immersed in Manhattan’s folk hotbed and has brought to his own music the griot’s ability to “extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene” while never forsaking either the enduring folk, blues and gospel fundamentals he learned in his youth or the necessity of speaking up and out about the passing scene, with powerful authority, devastating wit and a deep sense of history.

Eric Bibb and Habib Koité, live at the Harmonie in Bonn, Germany, November 11 2012, performing ‘On My Way to Bamako,’ from their album, Brothers in Bamako

So it is on Brothers in Bamako that these two gentle spirits make music on various stringed instruments (six-string banjos, seven-string guitars, eight-string ukulele, baritone guitar, acoustic nylon string guitar, electric guitar) with percussion help from Mamadou Koné and a haunting pedal steel guitar by Olli Haavisto on the duo’s hymn-like version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” one of only two covers among the baker’s dozen tunes. It could also be argued that theirs is more than music. Released a month after the Giving Tree Band’s provocative Vacilador (a previous Album of the Week honoree), a discourse in song on a society–a world–congratulating itself on its ability to connect via technology but seemingly incapable of sustaining personal relationships, Brothers in Bamako preaches fervently but gently for connection; it recognizes a fractured populace as an impotent populace, its divisive nature fomenting anger and intolerance instead of encouraging the embrace of each individual’s essential humanity.

Eric Bibb and Habib Koité, ‘With My Maker I Am One,’ live at Harmonie in Bonn, Germany, November 11, 2012. From their album, Brothers in Bamako.

To those who find these brothers’ vision too old-school idealistic in an era of deep partisan rifts and rampant incivility, ponder for a moment how bracing it is to be washed in their songs of hope and conciliation. There may be better albums than Brothers in Bamako coming in 2013, but those will have to be masterpieces to be more important than this one.

Follow this link to the Deep Roots review of Habib Koité & Eric Bibb’s Brothers in Bamako, “Alive, Authentic and Profoundly Human.”

 

mike-zito-gone

GONE TO TEXAS, Mike Zito (Ruf Records)– Few artists have battled demons as savage as Mike Zito’s once were and lived to tell the tale. He’s never tried to hide what we went through–which was not so long ago, mind you–and how he crept to the edge of the abyss before the abyss looked back and jolted him into sobriety. On his intense new solo album, Gone to Texas, his first for Ruf Records (heretofore, for Ruf, he had produced the Girls with Guitars project (see the June 2011 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com) and Samantha Fish’s impressive debut (see the September 2011 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com), and according to his own liner notes had long been itching to be on the label as an artist himself. It’s hard to imagine him delivering anything stronger or more bluntly confessional than the galvanizing performances here. With this, Zito hits the trifecta:  in 2011 he emerged triumphant on his third solo album, Greyhound (see the October 2011 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com), and last year he, Devon Allman, Cyril Neville, Yonrico Scott and Charlie Wooten banded together as the Royal Southern Brotherhood and introduced themselves with one of the best albums of 2012 (see Deep Roots, September 7, 2012). Good as those were, Gone to Texas’s manifold strengths elevate it to a higher plane of spiritual quest. Its close-to-the-bone feel; his band The Wheel’s empathetic support; Zito’s effortless command of the blues and blues-rock idioms he employs; the conviction in his rough-hewn vocals; the frank, unvarnished portrait he paints of himself in his weakest hours–when paranoia creeps in, death wishes abound and a general feeling of inertia if not outright uselessness takes hold of him are the components of a masterwork.

From Gone to Texas, a live version of ‘The Road Never Ends’ (a Zito-Devon Allman co-write) at Le Poisson Rouge, New York City, June 5, 2013

It’s hard to imagine him delivering anything stronger or more bluntly confessional than the galvanizing performances here. With this, Zito hits the trifecta:  in 2011 he emerged triumphant on his third solo album, Greyhound (see the October 2011 issue of TheBluegrassSpecial.com), and last year he, Devon Allman, Cyril Neville, Yonrico Scott and Charlie Wooten banded together as the Royal Southern Brotherhood and introduced themselves with one of the best albums of 2012 (see Deep Roots, September 7, 2012). Good as those were, Gone to Texas’s manifold strengths elevate it to a higher plane of spiritual quest. Its close-to-the-bone feel; his band The Wheel’s empathetic support; Zito’s effortless command of the blues and blues-rock idioms he employs; the conviction in his rough-hewn vocals; the frank, unvarnished portrait he paints of himself in his weakest hours–when paranoia creeps in, death wishes abound and a general feeling of inertia if not outright uselessness takes hold of him are the components of a masterwork.

Mike Zito & The Wheel, the title track from Gone to Texas

The title is key. It was to the Lone Star State that Zito, a St. Louis, MO, native, retreated in an effort to put body and soul back together, “where I confronted my problems and made a change that has saved my life. I met a woman who lived in Texas years before and was spiritually drawn to her. She has stood by my side through it all and has given me the love and support I needed to stand on my own two feet,” he writes in his liner notes. And so the album begins with the title track, opening with a wash of Zito’s slide guitar and Jimmy Carpenter’s heraldic saxophone before Zito slides in with that gritty voice and declares he’s Texas bound, where he’s “gonna start my life again/Gonna get down in the Lone Star/Wash away my sins.” Susan Cowsill joins him on a soaring chorus before the music falls away, leaving Zito to solemnly proclaim he’s “seen the glory, one step at a time” and “hope and redemption and a sky as big as God.”

Follow this link to the Deep Roots review of Mike Zito’s Gone to Texas, “Hope, Redemption and a Sky Big as God.”

 

too-slim-blue-heart

BLUE HEART, Too Slim and the Taildraggers (Underworld Records)– The good news is that Tim “Too Slim” Langford, that most merciless of electric blues guitarists and rawest of blues singers, seems to have been living on a ragged edge, which translates to some of the toughest music he and the Taildraggers have ever made. On Blue Heart you know something’s up with Slim when he kicks off the album’s first song, “Wash My Hands,” with a series of high-octane riffs, sputtering and anxious, to set the stage for his rough, whiskey voice announcing, “I used to be a sinner/yeah, and I liked it…” He goes on to explain how he was only out for self-amusement, “never wanted to hurt nobody,” but a regimen of “women and whiskey and bad cocaine” left him trying to literally clean up his act. Only one problem: “I washed my hands in the muddy Mississippi/this life of sin don’t wash off easy…tried to come clean but the dirty ol’ devil/left a stain on me.”

Too Slim and the Taildraggers, ‘Minutes Seem Like Hours,’ from Blue Heart

That his Mississippi ablution didn’t yield the expected results shadows the rest of Blue Heart as Slim wends his way through noir-ish tales of bad romance, bad libations and bad vibes. Though he sounds like nothing so much as a tortured soul, he’s a tortured soul fighting to rise above his self-inflicted misfortunes. Give him points for his honesty—or his characters’ honesty—and never forget that Slim’s always had a heart. We know this because we can feel it in full flower on the grinding B.B.-like blues ballad (with vocal support from Wet Willie’s Jimmy Hall) “Good To See You Smile Again,” a warm, assertive message from Slim trying to bolster the spirits of a gal struggling to regroup from a shattering breakup. When his thoughts turn to his own woman, Slim is less upbeat. “Minutes Seem Like Hours” is set against a spooky, heavily reverbed guitar plucked deliberately and sounding like an effect you might have heard in a Roger Corman horror flick, all the better to emphasize the nadir of hope Slim’s recounting when he considers the one that got away in a whispery, ragged voice that is as desolate as the thick-textured soundscape. Despite its title, “Make It Sound Happy” does not achieve the hopeful sentiment of its title, but rather stomps and pounds its way through five-minutes-plus of stinging guitar and a checklist of miseries that leaves Slim opining wearily, “Sometimes life just gets in the way/why can’t the sun just shine every day?”

AUDIO CLIP: Too Slim and the Taildraggers, ‘Angels are Back,’ from Blue Heart

By its title alone you would suspect “If You Broke My Heart” would be a tearstained ballad, but instead Slim and company romp through it over the insistent pounding of producer Tom Hambridge’s drums and Slim’s wailing upper neck sorties—arguably his most dazzling, electrifying soloing on the disc—as our man admits to fearing his fate if his gal should take a powder, to wit: “Why does love feel like pain/nothing but obsession running through my brain/don’t want to feel/wanna be numb/couldn’t stand the pain/if you broke my heart.” Conversely, and most humorously, on the fiery, David Duncan-penned “Shape of Blues to Come”—a rich track enhanced by the soulful support of Reese Wynans on B3–a more seasoned narrator entertains no illusion of a happy-ever-after, growling, Soon as you said/you’d love me forever/a chill went up my spine/I’ve ben through forever before/same thing happens every time/blue skies to a nasty downpour/love gets dragged through the mud once more…I got a real bad feeling about the shape of blues to come. No kidding. On the thumping “When Whiskey Was My Friend” Slim’s turned to the bottle for comfort (“no one to talk to except this dog”) while awaiting his woman’s certain return—or as he sings, “long for my woman, she’s gone so long she’s coming back/I think she will/that’s what she told me/I’m waitin’ still…”—seemingly oblivious to the shape of his blues to come.

Follow this link to the Deep Roots review of Too Slim and the Taildraggers’ Blue Heart, “Angels and Demons.”

Follow this link to the 2013 Elite Half Hundred Part 1

Follow this link to the 2013 Elite Half Hundred Part II

Follow this link to EPs of the Year 2013