Lucinda Williams, Wil Wagner and Steve Earle have had a gutful, but Casey Barnes brings the sunshine
Good Souls, Better Angels
The daughter of poet Miller Williams, Lucinda Williams sharpens her lyrics like a knife.
Which is not to say that she doesn’t have her moments of sweetness and light, it’s just that when she’s cranky it’s hard to know where to look.
Wakin’ Up, a song about domestic violence based on one of her ex-boyfriends, is both uncomfortable and irresistible.
The sight of him shooting speedballs is a searing image and by the time she sings “he was a bad man” you believe it.
There are a few bad men on this record including of course the US President. Her friends and colleague Ryan Adams comes under scrutiny after his sex harassment charges. And then there’s the other guy – Lucifer who crops up in a few places.
You can sort of tell from the husk in her voice that she has had a passing acquaintance with Diablo over her 67 years. Indeed, she sings of going “down past the bottom where the devil won’t go”.
Years of depression, of scuffling a penchant for the poppy and difficult men. All the experience that make for a country songwriter.
he subject matter has dictated the sound of the album which is gritty and bluesy. The kind of records that the Rolling Stones should have made. Death is everywhere in the shadows of this record, but she is not going quietly.
Ghosts of West Virginia
Steve Earle & The Dukes
The devil features prominently on the new record from Steve Earle.
Most of these songs were written for a play about the Upper Big Branch mining disaster back in 2010, in which 29 workers were killed.
Steve Earle puts on his full Woody Guthrie using the facts of this incident to make broader claims about capital and workers. Don Blankenship, the CEO of the company that owned the Upper Big Branch mine was sentenced to a year in prison. However, Steve avoids strumming polemics.
He puts himself in the shoes of the Trumpist working class and talks about hardship and physical strength and courage and community. The song It’s About Blood names all of the fallen and its kind a compelling.
The album was mixed in mono and many of the tunes have a work song tempo, while elsewhere he employs Appalachian bluegrass flavour on banjo and fiddle to site us into West Virginia.
The album opens with some gospel and soon moves into a country breakdown. Earle is a significant craftsman and he massages disparate style into a cohesive narrative.
Town of a Million Dreams
Being twice dropped from Australian Idol back in 2009 was probably the best thing to happen to country singer Casey Barnes, late of the Gold Coast.
This, his fourth LP since then, shows his popularity is just cresting. Producer Rick Price put his rock & roll heart into these tracks that glisten and pump with Barnes’ infectious enthusiasm like a long drive on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Each track is more radio friendly than the last.
Don’t Waste Your Anger
The Smith Street Band
Songwriter Wil Wagner reckons he named his outfit in homage to Springsteen’s E- Street Band.
That’s probably quite a bit of a stretch. Wagner does turn his attention to a couple of themes, one being his complicated emotional life and the other is to explore and celebrate suburban Australia.
Wagner’s heavy strine vocal style, which he projects with considerable force, is indicative of what is almost a movement amongst this generation plus they wear koala suits in one film clip.
This is the world of quarter acre blocks and trackkies and terrible band t-shirts.
Wagner never shies from turning the everyday into an epic, the triumphant message of the title track is arranged with horns and massed vocals as one crescendo crashes into the next. It’s sterling stuff. I would have preferred some more nuance.
Toby Creswell is a music journalist and pop-culture writer, as well as a former editor of Rolling Stone (Australia) and founding editor of Juice.