Jason Hawk Harris
Love & The Dark (Bloodshot Records)
"The Smoke And The Stars," the opening track off of Jason Hawk Harris's debut album is an impressive, emotional ballad, but one that belies what's to follow shortly. The building swell of strings and deeply personal lyrics sounds amazing, but ultimately (and thankfully), Harris devotes much of the record to a more stripped down, laid back, wink and a nod approach to Americana.
"Cussing At The Light," the very next song, kicking off with the line "Well, I think it's about time I had a drink â€¦ I'm probably gonna have more than a few," and is a far better representation of the album taken as a whole. The honky tonk piano and the sly lyrics are a perfect calling card for Harris. Based in LA now, but originally from Houston, Harris's knack for writing lyrics that manage to be both personal and deeply witty at the same time bring to mind a slew of fellow Lone Stare Staters, everyone from Rhett Miller and Lyle Lovett to Willie himself.
Covering everything from love and death, addiction and survival, all in the span of just nine song, there is absolutely no fat to trim off this record. And while there's not a weak song on this album, the distortion-laden, religion can be scary shit "I'm Afraid" is a tune Harris is going to have to close out his shows with every night from now until to the end of his career.
The Floating World (Self-Released)
It's been almost a decade since Rob Laufer last focused on his own music. In the interim, he served as a producer, songwriter, guitarist for hire and music director for Wild Honey Orchestra. While he was in high demand from others, his voice as a solo artist was sorely missed over the past nine years. The Floating World is proof that not a bit of rust set in on his own work.
The record, despite a slow start, quickly slips into some of the most compelling songs Laufer has ever committed to tape. The music swerves in and out of lanes, from lush dream pop (songs like the sublime "Fence") to solid power pop ("Left of Blue"), with hooks and ridiculously beautiful melodies. Laufer brings to mind a slew of brilliant pop-forward singer songwriters from the past few decades, everyone from Marshall Crenshaw to Michael Penn, and adds another solid album to the genre.
Based on the songs here it appears Laufer's two strongest muses this time around were The Beatles and Tom Petty. He clearly did justice to both influences.
Diesel Park West
Let It Melt (Palo Santo Records)
On Let It Melt, Diesel Park's ninth record, they are not ashamed to slather the album with their influences. From the opening title track and "Scared Of Time," both which borrow from some of The Stones' boozier blues rockers to The Kinks/Beatles pop on a song like "Pictures In the Hall" and "The Golden Mile" these British veterans of the alt rock world are putting some much needed guitar rock back into the world.
But while the songs are, for the most part, great rock tunes, the band has managed to lose a little of their own identity in the process. Their 1989 debut, Shakespeare Alabama, was a great introduction for the band, filled with jangly guitars and John Butler's powerful vocals. And while Butler's hasn't lost the knack for soaring vocals, the sound has evolved into an amalgamation of classic rock mainstays. That's not to say the record doesn't have its moments; The addictive rocker "Bombs Away" is one of the best songs the band has written in decades.
It's been seven years since Diesel park West last put out an LP and while they haven't entirely recaptured the glory of some of their earlier efforts, there are still glimpses of better things to come here.
Long Beach Calling (Self-Released)
Although Mike Jacoby offers hints of Americana and even rockabilly throughout his third solo offering, the record is still firmly planted in the world of rootsy rock and roll.
Jacoby cites folk troubadour Todd Snider as an inspiration for Long Beach Calling, but it's just as easy to pick out influences from folks like John Fogerty and The BoDeans here. The opening song, the rollicking title track with its Johnny Cash-like rumbling train guitar sound sets a high bar for the rest of the songs that follow. And while that one is easily the album's high mark, there are still plenty of other great songs spread throughout the record, like the lyrically savvy "Pine Box" and the superb "Just In Case," sounding like a long lost Kinks rarity.
The album gets weighed down a bit toward the end with a handful of less-inspired tracks (like the mediocre "BBQ Pit" or the unnecessary "Play Like Richards," an answer to Maroon 5's long-since forgotten "Moves Like Jagger"); But not so much that it takes away from the highlights that dominate the rest of the record.
Cover Your Tracks (New West Records)
Cover albums usually go one of two ways: They are either exhaustingly mediocre exercises in stalling while the performer buys time until a new record is finished or, in very rare instances, it's an example of an artist being able to stretch way beyond expectations and their relegated genre and deliver a satisfyingly compelling album. For Corb Lund, the latter applies here.
The only real downside to Cover Year Tracks, is that it's only eight songs. Lund lends his distinctively emotive Americana vocals to songs by Dylan (naturally), Willie Nelson (makes sense), AC/DC (what?!) and Nancy Sinatra (damn!), among others. The album opens with Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walking," a remarkably impressive gender twist to the song (others who have covered it include Ella Fitzgerald, Loretta Lynn and Spice Girl Gerri Halliwell). And Lund is able to nearly one up that song with what is easily the best cover yet of "The Cover Of Rolling Stone," best associated with Dr. Hook. It doesn't hurt that Hayes Carll sits in with Lund. Other highlights here include a beautiful take on the Willie Nelson/Ray Charles song "Seven Spanish Angels."
The only song here that really doesn't seem to rise to the level of the rest is his cover of Billy Joel's "It's Still Rock And Roll To Me." But Lund manages to recover nicely on the closing track, Dylan's classic "I Shall be Released."