Heavy Meta (New West Records)
There is something heartening about a kid raised in the ‘90s who doesn’t immediately track to the obvious pop punk or neo-emo clichés in making music. Ron Gallo’s New West Records debut (and second solo album), draws in from a deep well of garage rockers, psychedelic pop and classic punk and just about everything in between. The fuzz-laden guitar riffs on the first few songs sound like them came out of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s golden era of college radio rock. The themes here tend to center around self-empowerment, settling into to domestic life and abstaining from drugs and drink, all wrapped in catchy choruses and some heavy guitar riffs. He slows it down a bit on a Bluesy track like “Black Market Eyes” or the powerful “Can’t Stand You,” managing to sound just as forceful as when he steps on the fuzz pedal. Gallo appears much more confident as a solo artist compared to his two records with the more roots rock band Toy Soldiers. “Heavy Meta” finds him well on his way to decent career.
Ha Ha Tonka
Heart-Shaped Mountain (Bloodshot Records)
Since 2007, Missouri’s favorite sons have been churning out one great alt country/indie rock album after another and 10 years later they show no signs of giving up the ghost. “Heart-Shaped Mountain,” their fifth record is just as strong as anything they have put out before. Apparently, the band was already a week into recording this album when a hardware crash deleted everything they had recorded. The crisis forced the band to try different approaches to the song structures and brought about a new focus. You can’t help but cheer for modern day tech disasters listening to the album, as I can’t imagine a more powerful way to approach a song like “All With You” or “Going That Way.” The record is probably one of the band’s most optimistic releases, with relationships at the core of many of these songs. A decade into it, the band have established their own brand of indie country, layered with Southern rock guitars, piano runs that would impress Leon Russell and harmonies that stick with you for hours. “Heart-Shaped Mountain” is Ha Ha Tonka at their best.
R. Stevie Moore & Jason Falkner
Make It Be (Bar None Records/Lost Colony Music)
“Make It Be” is a Lo-Fi/Power Pop dream team mash up. The album pairs lo-fi legend R. Stevie Moore, who has played on hundreds of albums going back to 1969, with Jason Falkner, who aside from his solo work is best known for the brilliant and short-lived early ‘90s Power Pop band Jellyfish. The bulk of the songs here were written by Moore, with one by Falkner and one co-written by the pair. They even pull out a great cover of Huey Smith & the Clown’s “Don’t You Know It.” For those expecting more Jellyfish-esque pop music, “Make It Be” is going to be a shock to the system, but with an open mind you’ll realize just how beautiful and beautifully weird this collaboration is. Falkner still brings his jangly guitar to plenty of the songs here, but Moore’s influence is hard to ignore, in all its experimental glory. Despite cramming the record with 18 tracks, you can’t help but want to hear more as soon as the album ends going out on Moore’s odd, but just fascinating A Capella riffing on “Falkner Walk.”
Adios (Bloodshot Records)
The fact that Cory Branan is not on the tongue of every musical tastemaker around is proof that the system is broken. Across a half-a-dozen albums Branan spins out one brilliant story after the next blending in rock, folk, country and Americana for a gumbo that’s hard to resist. He is the heir apparent to folks like John Prine and Guy Clark. His latest, “Adios,” continues to hammer in that point. Nearly flawless from start to finish, “Adios” finds Branan showing off his knack for filling his songs with compelling characters, be it the guy who is falling in love at first sight (“Yeah, So What”) to the emotionally-stunning song about his father (“The Vow”). Whether it’s just him with an acoustic guitar or he’s drenching his music in swampy organ lines, Branan easily moves in and out of genres, deftly proving he could put out a record for just about any crowd. He brings in punk vets Laura Jane Grace and Dave Hause to guest with him on a couple of tracks here. The albums ends with the satisfyingly sweet waltz, “My Father Was an Accordion Player,” showcasing some of his best lyrics on the record. In a perfect world, Branan would be as big as Beyoncé.
Curse Of Lono
Severed (Submarine Cast Records)
Last year, London’s Curse Of Lono put out one of the year’s best EPs. With “Severed,” their first full length album, they prove that they were just getting started. Spread across 10 songs, the band combines folk, Americana, alt rock and goth for one of the most exciting things to come out of the UK in years. There is not a weak track on the album, that kicks off with the slow burn of “Five Miles” up through the beautifully melancholy “Don’t Look Down.” You can pick up influences as varied as Tom Waits and Radiohead, but still with an originality that defies obvious classification. The Curse Of Lono, which was formed after the break-up of British roots band Hey Negrita sounds nothing like the singer/songwriter Felix Bechtolsheimer’s other group. Last year’s EP, which served as a soundtrack to short film by Alex Walker, segues seamlessly into these new songs. This new collection only goes to bolster the argument that this band deserves a much bigger audience.