This is a pick where the songwriter herself might not agree with me. Caroline Rose doesn’t play “America Religious” any more, nor any of the other songs from her first two albums. The singer-songwriter drastically changed her sound on most recent album Loner, from Americana to to a spunky indiepop. On the whole, her music might be better for it; Loner is the best record of her career*. But even if she might just as soon forget about a roots-rock gem like “America Religious,” we shouldn’t.
Two years before releasing “Don’t Let the Darkness In,” Anders Parker worked with Jim James, Jay Farrar, and Will Johnson to record an album of unheard Woody Guthrie lyrics (still enough left over after two Mermaid Avenues, apparently). One wonders if diving deep into Woody’s work affected the veteran artist’s own songwriting.
Greil Marcus first coined the term “the old weird America” to describe the strange sounds on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music collection. He connected those ’20s and ’30s folk and blues recordings to Bob Dylan and The Band’s “basement tapes,” which drew these dawn-of-recording-technology sounds and songs into the pastoral country-rock 1960s.
Adam Rabin – The Other Room
You’re going to want to sing along to “The Other Room” after a listen or two – but I wouldn’t. The sketches of plot offered sound like a sci-fi family dystopia, a Black Mirror episode for children.
The Cheyenne Brando – Samsonite
So thoroughly does Endtime Hymns evoke certain bands that one begins looking for echoes everywhere. Is the title “My Jean Sebring” a nod to David Bowie’s “Jean Genie”? Does “Poisonhead” reference ABC’s “Poison Arrow”? Was “Privacy of Lucy” inspired by The Cure’s “Pictures of You”? Each connection a greater stretch than the last, and likely none intentional. Christian Hahn does explicitly cite the heyday of post-punk and new-wave in his bio though, and, sonically, the comparisons are everywhere. His next song might as well be titled “Bizarre Love Triangle Will Tear Us Apart.”
Abby Sherman – Dreamcatcher
Abby Sherman released one of 2018’s best folk songs with “Wanting to Run,” and she’s returned with a catchy new single. Mandolin features prominently, joining her vocals to front a tight roots band on a song about looking back and accepting one’s own history.
Bishop LaVey – Romulus
Kane Sweeney’s last single addressed ancient mythology, and his follow-up stays in that old world, this time riffing on the Roman Empire. His thundering wail of a voice suits the subject, as does his “doom-folk” genre styling. If Game of Thrones were still going, he would have fit right in with the wildlings north of The Wall.
Looking at the track list for Vermont folk duo Cricket Blue’s debut album Serotinalia, one song leaps out: “Corn King.” It’s not the title as much as the run time: 11 minutes and 57 seconds. On a folk album, one imagines a song this long must be an epic ballad comprising dozens of verses, their “Desolation Row” perhaps. The reality is much stranger.
Though quiet and acoustic in its presentation, the song’s structure leans more progressive-rock than folk. Add drums and a fretless bass solo and “Corn King” could be a Rush song. Rather than a standard verse-chorus structure, the song breaks down into six distinct parts, with melodies and motifs that interweave, some borrowed from other songs on the same album. The combination of gorgeous, string-laden acoustic music with an odd structure echoes an artist the band claims as a key influence: experimental indie-harpist Joanna Newsom.
Barika ft. Erica T Bryan – Change Your Mind
Barika typically operates in the world-music space (leader Craig Myers plays West African string instrument the n’goni), but “Change Your Mind” points to an intriguing new direction for them. The funk and soul points more towards New Orleans than New Guinea, and the electronic production makes it sound modern, avoiding the relics-of-history feel of so much that gets marketed as “world music” these days.
When I first heard Kristina Stykos’ powerful new album River of Light, her singing leapt out as a highlight. Raw and plainspoken, like Lucinda Williams or John Prine, her voice presents an understated toughness. But I didn’t know the full backstory. Turns out, tough doesn’t begin to describe Stykos.
Stykos, who’s been making music since the 1970s (she used to tour with – and date – Béla Fleck), lost her voice in 2017 due to spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that singers from Linda Thompson to Alison Krauss have struggled with. She couldn’t even talk on the phone. It wasn’t the first time; she’d lost her voice for two years in the 1980s. But this time, it didn’t entirely come back.