Dent May expands his palette with 'Warm Blanket'
Dent May (Paw Tracks)
Mississippi native Dent May earned my undying admiration with 2009's “The Good Feeling Music of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele,” a indie pop gem that put the tiny stringed instrument front and center. He took things in a different — but equally effective — direction with last year's “Do Things” and continues to expand his musical palette with “Warm Blanket.” Again employing the DIY approach to making music, May plays most of the instruments on the 11-track release. Highlights include “Let Them Talk,” “Born Too Late,” “Yazoo,” personal favorite “I'm Ready to Be Old” and “Summer Is Over.” It's time you discovered this talented artist.
Black Joe Lewis (Vagrant)
Having crafted a pair of fantastic retro-soul albums in 2009's “Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!” and 2011's “Scandalous,” Black Joe Lewis dabbles more in electric blues on challenging new release “Electric Slave.” Unlike its predecessors, this 11-track slab isn't instantly accessible and it could take a few spins for you to figure out what's going on. But patience is rewarded with keepers “Young Girls,” “My Blood Ain't Runnin' Right,” “Come to My Party,” “Make Dat Money,” “Golem” and “Mammas Queen.” Kudos to Lewis for keeping things interesting.
‘Gone Away Backward'
Robbie Fulks (Bloodshot)
My first exposure to the folksy alternative country of Robbie Fulks came with the 2007 live set “Revenge!” and I've been hankering to hear more ever since. The 50-year-old York native finally returns with “Gone Away Backward,” a twangtastic set of tunes that finds Fulks getting back to his folk and bluegrass roots. With 10 originals and a pair of traditional covers (“Snake Chapman's Tune” and “Pacific Slope”), Fulks has rarely been better. Highlights abound, most notably “I'll Trade You Money for Wine,” “Long I Ride,” “That's Where I'm From,” “Imogene,” “Guess I Got It Wrong” and “The Many Disguises of God.” Enjoy, y'all.
The Paul McKenna Band (Compass)
Scotsman Paul McKenna and the band that bears his name are rising stars in their homeland and the foursome looks to make a splash on the American folk scene with the release of “Elements.” McKenna has a lovely tenor voice (laced with a distinct Scottish burr) and he uses it to great effect on the 10-track release. Opener “Lonely Man” sets the tone, and the PMB also deliver the goods on the traditional “Mickey Dam,” “Flying Through Flanders,” “Mother Nature” and “Michael Hayes.”
Austin Lucas (New West)
Alt-country crooner Austin Lucas has moved over to New West for his fifth solo album and “Stay Reckless” certainly ranks among the strongest entries in the Indiana native's discography. Mixing in elements of indie rock, punk, bluegrass with his trademark alt-country twang proves effective on the 11-track release. After getting off to a so-so start with “Let Me In,” Lucas hits his stride with keepers that include “Alone in Memphis,” “Small Town Heart,” “Rings,” the title track, “So Much More Than Lonely” and “Splinters.” Here's hoping “Stay Reckless” is the album that garners Lucas the attention his music deserves.
The Dodos (Polyvinyl)
San Francisco indie rock duo the Dodos stumbled with third full-length “Time to Die” in 2009, a sleep-inducing collection of tunes from a band that bore little resemblance to the one that knocked it out of the park with 2008's “Visiter.” Happily, Logan Kroeber and Meric Long righted the ship with 2011's “No Color” and latest effort “Carrier” continues the bounce-back. It's a dreamy gathering of 11 tunes from a group that seems completely comfortable in their musical skin. Standouts “Transformer” and “Substance” launch the proceedings, and the Dodos soar on “Holidays,” “Family” and “The Ocean.”
Sam Baker (self-released)
Texas folkie Sam Baker didn't record his first album, 2004's sublime “Mercy,” until he was 50 years old, but he's certainly making up for lost time. “Pretty World” and “Cotton” followed in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and Baker has outdone himself with his fourth full-length “Say Grace.” With a raspy voice and almost spoken-word delivery, Baker mesmerizes on this 14-track gem. Few albums can match the terrific opening salvo of the title track, “The Tattooed Woman” and “Road Crew,” and Baker never lets the momentum wane. Additional keepers include “Ditch,” “Isn't Love Great,” “Feast” and “Button By Button.” Good stuff.
The Big Sweet (self-released)
Even though none of the members are old enough to buy beer legally, Cleveland-based indie pop quartet the Big Sweet seem well on their way to big things. “Bicycle Nights” is their third full-length and displays a maturity that could give the 11-track platter some serious mainstream appeal. A known commodity in and around their hometown, the Big Sweet figure to expand their sphere of influence with tunes like “Casse La Fleur,” “Almost Saw the Sun,” “Bicycle,” “The Better Half of You” and “Happy Songs.” Keep an eye on these kids.
‘Meltdown: A Declaration of Unpopular Emotion'
Jail Weddings (Neurotic Yell)
After crafting one of 2010's most enjoyable debuts in “Love Is Lawless,” Los Angeles indie collective Jail Weddings kept the ball rolling with last year's “Four Future Standards” EP. The Gabriel Hart-fronted outfit has another winner on its hands in “Meltdown: A Declaration of Unpopular Emotion.” About the only misstep on the 14-track gem is the unwieldy title, as Hart and his supporting cast otherwise hit all the right notes. Highlights abound, spearheaded by “May Today Be Merciful,” “Why Is It So Hard to Be Good?”, “Summer Fades,” “You Are Never Going to Find Me,” “Obsession” and “Don't Invite Me to Your Party.” Highly recommended.
The music of eclectic — and I mean VERY eclectic — Brooklyn ensemble Barbez won't be everyone's cup of tea. Fifth full-length “Bella Ciao” is a celebration of ancient Roman Jewish music and the Italian Resistance movement. Seriously. Not surprising from an outfit whose last album, “Force of Light,” was an homage to Romanian-Jewish Holocaust poet Paul Celan. Like I said, eclectic. This 11-track release requires patience and rewards listeners with “Echa Yasheva Vadad,” “Yoshev Beseter Elyon,” “Yedid Nefesh” and the title track. Good luck.
‘Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions'
Will Lee (Sinning Saint Ltd.)
Twenty years have passed since Will Lee's debut (and only) album “Oh!” He's kept busy playing bass in the orchestra for David Letterman on CBS and NBC since 1982 and has recruited some famous friends to appear on his two-decades-in-the-making sophomore set “Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions.” Among those appearing on the 10-track release are Allen Toussaint, Pat Metheny, Billy Gibbons and longtime pal Paul Shaffer. Mixing originals with some well-chosen covers, Lee scores with “Get Out of My Life Woman,” “Miss Understanding,” “Shahara,” “Simple Way to Say I Love You” and “Natives.” Welcome back.
‘Sophisticated Lady: The Duke Ellington Songbook Collection'
Sarah Vaughan (Concord)
During a career that spanned some five decades, the late, great Sarah Vaughan established herself as one of the elite jazz vocalists of all time. She was at her best tackling the music of Duke Ellington and the two-disc “Sophisticated Lady” drives that point home. Combining songs from her two 1980 albums “Duke Ellington Songbook One” and “Duke Ellington Songbook Two,” plus six previously unreleased tunes, this is a must for her fans. There are a couple stellar recordings of the title track, as well as first-rate readings of “Solitude,” “Day Dream,” “Mood Indigo,” “It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” “I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” Simply fantastic.
‘Afro Blue Impressions'
John Coltrane (Concord)
The legendary jazz saxophone player was just 40 years old when he died of liver cancer in 1967, but his remarkable influence continues. The folks at Concord remastered and expanded the 1977 gem “Afro Blue Impressions,” itself a posthumous two-disc set of live recordings from 1963. In addition to the original nine tracks — including “Lonnie's Lament,” “My Favorite Things” and “Impressions,” there are three bonus songs on the reissue. The new tunes are alternate versions of “Naima,” “I Want to Talk About You” and “My Favorite Things,” and should appeal to Coltrane completists.
Butter the Children (Downtown)
Post-punk newcomers Butter the Children offer up debut EP “True Crime,” a blink-and-you-missed-it collection of three tunes that race by in less than seven minutes. It's a tasty appetizer comprised of catchy entries “Spit It Out,” “Loose” and “Dennis” that avoids unnecessary frills. Frontwoman Inna Mkrtycheva seems to be a budding superstar and I'm eager to hear more from this band.
Willie Sugarcapps (Royal Potato Family)
When pals Grayson Capps, Will Kimbrough, Corky Hughes and noted duo Sugarcane Jane got together to jam, there were no plans to make a record. But the chemistry was evident and soon country-leaning supergroup Willie Sugarcapps were born. The self-titled debut is a 10-track gathering of twangy tunes that find the five principals sharing lead vocals and creating some pitch-perfect harmonies. The title track launches the hoedown, and Willie Sugarcapps also score with “Mr. Lee,” “Magdalena,” “Mud Bottom,” “Gypsy Train,” “Trouble” and “Up to the Sky.”
Blue October (Up/Down)
Six or seven years ago, melodic post-grunge Blue October was selling millions of albums and charting with “Into the Ocean,” “Calling You” and “Hate Me.” Its momentum came screeching to a halt with 2009's creative misfire “Approaching Normal” and 2011's not-much-better “Any Man in America” and I wondered if that would be the last we heard of the Justin Furstenfeld-fronted outfit. Having regrouped and recharged its batteries, Blue October returns with “Sway,” a solid set of 13 tunes that improves upon its past couple offerings. If you like the band's hit singles, you'll probably enjoy the title track, “Bleed Out,” “Debris,” “Light You Up” and “Not Broken Anymore.” And you can check out Blue October live on Sept. 17 when it invades Mr. Smalls in Millvale.
Any time the word “ambient” is used to describe an artist's music, I have to take a deep breath and prepare myself. Such was the case with “Winterwell,” the sophomore set from ambient folk songstress Mree. No one was more surprised than me when I found the album to be quite enjoyable. Much more enjoyable, in fact, than I ever expected. Mree (nee Marie Hsiao) is a talented musician and she delivers some terrific tunes in “Into the Well,” “Night Owls,” “On Echo” and “Winter.” “Winterwell” loses some steam down the stretch — with 12 tracks clocking in at almost an hour, it overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes — but until that point, Mree mesmerizes.