MUSIC REVIEWS

By John B Moore & Lee Valentine Smith

J.D. Wilkes
Fire Dream
(Big Legal Mess/Fat Possum)

As frontman for The Legendary Shack Shakers, J.D. Wilkes has been one of the loudest and earliest voices in the Bluegrass/Americana revival going back two decades now. And while it finally seems the rest of the music world is catching up with him, he pivots slightly on his impressive and impressively experimental solo debut.

"Fire Dream" builds on the roots and rockabilly foundation set up by The Legendary Shack Shakers and goes further, creating a delightfully odd hillbilly, cabaret gypsy vibe. Across 10 tracks, Wilkes creates a Southern Gothic masterpiece complete with hobos, trash barrel fires and even an eerie carnival (captured beautifully in the album's closing track "That's What They Say.") Playing banjo, harmonica and piano, Wilkes brings in friends like Drive-By Truckers bassist Matt Patton and Dr. Sick and Jimbo Mathus from Squirrel Nut Zippers, among others, to help set up this backwoods world divorced from the influences of modern music.

A native of Kentucky, there's an authenticity to this music here and an obvious homage to those before him that tends to get lost when collectives from Brooklyn or Portland attempt to create similar music. From the stellar self-titled opening track with the gypsy violin and stoic call and response vocals to the very last song, Wilkes crafts a moody album that is hard to resist.

Ruby Boots
Don't Talk About It
(Bloodshot Records)

One of the best new voices in Americana interestingly enough is Australian.

Ruby Boots (Bex Chilcott) made her way to Nashville from her native Perth years ago and has managed to record a remarkably powerful follow up to her 2016 full-length debut; the record is part Country, Southern Rock, Folk and Blues with plenty of attitude. It's hard not to draw comparisons to contemporaries like the equally-talented Nikki Lane (who co-wrote "I'll Make It Through" on this record) and Cory Branan, as all three know how to write everything from powerful, steady rockers (like the album opener "It's So Cruel") to more sublime, softer fare ("I Am A Women" or the fantastic Bluesy fuck-off that serves as the closer, "Don't Give a Damn").

Throughout the record, Boots' stellar lyrics are backed with a wildly impressive band, the guys from The Texas Gentlemen - who also happened to put out one of the best Americana debuts last year.

From start to finish, "Don't Talk About It" is Boots' most satisfying records so far in what will hopefully a long career.

Luther Russell
Selective Memories: An Anthology
(Hanky Panky Records Records)

Throughout his musical career, Luther Russell has been many things, but predictable is not one of them. Since going solo in the late 1990s (after leaving the Freewheelers), he has flirted with funk and soul music, power pop, punk rock and even hints of blues. The proof of this eclectic resume is all over the stunning two-disc anthology "Selective Memories." The set also includes Russell's work with the Freewheelers and The Bootheels).

This retrospective manages to serve both newcomers and longtime fans, offering the uninitiated a chance to learn about one of rock's best kept secrets and longtime Russell acolytes a best of and rarities collection all in one set. Among the highlights here - and there are many - are the infectious power pop ditty "Arthur Lee" and "Black Leather Coat," which sounds like a mix between harry Nilsson and Freedy Johnston.

Ben Miller Band
Choke Cherry Tree
(New West Records)

Man, five albums into it and Joplin, Missouri's Ben Miller Band is showing no signs of wear. "Cherry Choke Tree" is easily their best effort yet, an expansive mix of blues, folk, Americana and just enough swamp rock to make Leon Russell proud. The band has changed its line up a bit since the last record, but the group sounds as tight as ever. The addition of Rachel Ammos, who provides some strong co-vocals weaved throughout the album, is a definite plus here.

Across 11 remarkably satisfying tracks, Miller and his cohorts slip in and out of genres – often in the same song – with ease. There is not a single track here that doesn't have you hitting repeat, whether it's "Trampoline," with it's infectious singalong or a more straight-ahead rocker like "Life of Crime" (the best song ZZ Top never wrote).
The band has been at it now since 2004 and has managed to build on each stellar release with a slightly better follow up. It'll be interesting to see if they can top themselves on the next outing – a tough task given how solid "Choke Cherry Tree" is.

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