Yes, I’ve been out of touch for a while – a vacation in Europe and some life changes (good ones, but ones which make blogging seem rather unimportant). But the ol’ critical brain likes to keep getting its exercise. And the new music keeps pouring into my mailbox, and some of it’s pretty darn good. So here you go:
The Stone Coyotes, VIII
Another year, another strong record from the Stone Coyotes. This one opens a little strangely, with the slightly hesitant "Tomorrow is Another Day." The rocking really starts with "Land of the Living," which has one of singer-guitarist Barbara Keith's trademark half-shouted choruses; in this one she brings it home with: "Through the Valley of Death I've been driven / Now I'm back in the land of the livin'." There's always been a stark naturalness to the Stone Coyotes' songwriting, which exactly matches their basic rock sound, and that combination is what makes them so good.
"Not Right Now" is a growly, crunchy rocker about mortality and music, while the softer side of Keith's songcraft makes an appearance in "The Lights of Home": "From gilded cities and crowded skies / To desolate highways that hypnotize / Rolling wheels sing a traveler's song / To the ones like us who've been gone too long." But the disc's best track may be "All for Angelina," a haunting blast about the scary and mystical side of love and fate. The absurdly obvious "Brand New Car" becomes infectious in spite of itself, and the cover of Merle Haggard's sad "Kern River" shows off the band's grasp of rock's country-and-western roots.
While the wife-husband-and-son band overall sounds as good as ever, with bassist John Tibble having become very accomplished as a lead guitarist as well, Keith's vocals seem a little lighter than in the past. I hope this doesn't mean her energy is weakening; I am always looking forward to the next Stone Coyotes album. But there's a fatalistic tone to this one, summed up in the tense closer, "Grey Robe of the Rain": "I call to the sun in the sky / Dry the silver tear in my eye / I feel the dig of the chain / I wear the grey robe of the rain." In the final verse the singer attempts to defy fate: "still I refuse / To wither, to bend, to succumb to the pain / Someday I'll throw off the grey robe of the rain." It's an image from Longfellow, but it sounds a bit like Cuchulain fighting the waves.
Peter Bloom Band, Random Thoughts (from a paralyzed mind)
This is one of the more accomplished debuts I've heard in a while. Straddling the border between a singer-songwriter vibe and energetic arrangements verging on power-pop, the Toronto-based Bloom and his band put across his well-constructed, catchy melodies and emotionally charged lyrics with easygoing confidence. Best of all, there's a nice variety of feels from song to song, from head-nodding pop-rock to sensitive balladry, and the ten tracks are solid throughout – it's not a case of one or two standouts and a bunch of filler. Bloom's high, liquid tenor is very appealing – boyish yet with depth of feeling.
Josh Preston, Exit Sounds
Josh Preston's third disc has a haunting mechano-acoustic sound, smart lyrics, and melodies that are both soothing and hummable. Preston has a sharper sensibility than the typical singer-songwriter working in this laid-back mode, and this gives his songs appealing depths beneath their pretty surfaces. That doesn't mean he's going to rock you; to listen to the disc straight through, you'll want to be in a quite meditative mood.
Sugar Blue, Code Blue
If you're in the mood for some spankin' new funky blues – and how could you not be? – harmonica man Sugar Blue delivers with this free-flowing set of politically charged soul-busters. The disc is worth having just for the smooth and inspiring "Let It Go" and the strange, dreamy "I Don't Know Why." But from the funked-up "Krystalline" and the rocking "Bluesman" to the slow blues shuffle of "Bad Boys Heaven" (with a guest solo from Lurrie Bell) and the showy pop-jazz of the slightly weird "Walking Alone," Blue's inventive, wailing harmonica, his tense, straight-up vocals, his tight band, and his mastery of the whole constellation of blues-rooted styles cast a powerful and uplifting spell.