Thanks to NPR and their ‘First Listen‘ series, I discovered two new artists this past week. I usually check in on Monday or Tuesday to see what new music is being released in the upcoming week. Most of the time the artists being featured are not mainstream, well-known pop icons, falling instead into the various ‘indie’ categories, or genres outside of what gets played on the average ‘Top 40’ format — on occasion this can include ‘country’ and ‘dance’ and things that are almost uncategorisable. Sometimes it actually features well-known people: Beck’s new album Morning Phase is currently available to stream, and last week best-selling country musician Eric Church had his new album The Outsiders available. I use it to keep abreast of new music, in part because each album featured includes a brief write-up about the music and musicians involved to help me decide if I actually want to listen to that particular style. Honestly, most of the time I don’t, but other times it seems worthwhile. This week I listened to two albums that I really liked.
The first is by St Paul and the Broken Bones, called Half the City.
The Alabama-based sextet has some of the most traditional sounding soul music I’ve heard since the likes of Otis Redding. The opening riff of ‘Sugar Dyed Honey Pants’, from their 2013 ‘Greetings‘ EP is almost a direct copy of the Temptations’ ‘My Girl’*. And that’s no bad thing, as it sets the tone for a rousing set of songs. That style continues in the new album. Paul Janeway’s soulful tenor evokes joy and happiness, hurt and sorrow, love and pain. The horns elicit feelings of road-weary musicians, smoke-filled rooms and romping parties, all at the same time. Backed with a solid rhythm section reminiscent of the great MGs (of Booker T and the MGs, Stax’s house band in the sixties), the album is great to start a party, end an evening, or anything in between. It grooves like the great albums of yesteryear, and would fit into any soul collection without missing a beat. Producer Ben Tanner, the keyboardist for the Alabama Shakes — another Alabama-based retro-soul outfit — managed to capture the feeling of a live band on one of their hottest nights. So here’s to hoping the band continues to sound great and make more classic-soul records; they’re off to a great start.
The second artist I discovered was Lydia Loveless, with her new album Somewhere Else, released via Bloodshot Records. The third full-length album from this 23-year-old Coshocton, Ohio native is immersed in the best alt/rebel-country traditions around — from Steve Earle (name-checked her previous album, Indestructible Machine) to Neko Case (though Lydia says she has never listened to Neko Case) — yet also has a pop sensibility that makes the songs accessible, including a cover of Kristy MacColl’s ‘They Don’t Know’. It’s also literary — there’s a song about French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud, and one about Chris Isaak — self-aware and rocking. The hard-drinking Loveless has publicly acknowledged her introverted nature, struggles with depression and boredom of Midwest winters. The title song and ‘Everything’s Gone’ both invoke ideas of travel, depression and desire to get away from it all, ‘Wine Lips’ offers a boozy take on sex and relationships, ‘Head’ poses depression and sex; the album has it all. In the finest feminist traditions, Loveless tackles her thoughts and feelings in a frank and open way, so much so that one interview mentions that she swears and has a ‘rough’ image. Loveless isn’t afraid to deal with anything, in any language she deems fit, and if that makes her a ‘rough’ singer, so be it. If doing so leads people to think she has guts or is a feminist, that’s fine too; I like to think of her as a good singer with a good album. Rolling Stone considered her to be one of the ‘10 New Artists You Need to Know‘ for 2014, so did Spin; I agree. She, too, has a bright future.
*A previous version of this post mistakenly thought it was Otis Redding’s ‘Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay’. This has been corrected.