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Ghosts of West Virginia (New West Records)
Since 2009, Steve Earle has released six albums of his own, remounted two of his classic records, toured relentlessly and recorded a collaborative project with Shawn Colvin. He’s got damn good reason to work so hard but the artistic return has sometimes been diminished. Two of his records were tributes to songwriting mentors Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, and Terraplane was a genre recording, focused on blues. It could be convincingly argued that 2011’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive was Earle’s last great album. Until this one, that is.
Ghosts of West Virginia is a short collection — 10 tunes in just under 30 minutes — but it’s also a tack-sharp take on life and struggle in West Virginia’s Appalachian mountains. Most of the songs were written as part of a play called Coal Country by Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank, a project based on extensive interviews with miners and families involved in 2010’s Upper Big Branch mining disaster, and Earle performed seven of them solo as part of the New York stage production.
The commission clearly lit a fire under Earle, so it’s no surprise he hopped into the studio with the Dukes to lay down the tunes as quickly as possible. Ranging from rollicking rockabilly (Fastest Man Alive, about test pilot Chuck Yeager) to aching ballads (Time is Never on Our Side and If I Could See Your Face Again, sung by fiddler Eleanor Whitmore as the voice of a mining widow), Ghosts of West Virginia is a multi-faceted overview of life, culture, politics and music in the hollers and coal-shafts of an exploited part of the U.S..
It amounts to Earle’s most politically charged and empathetic material since the Iraq war, and it packs a helluva wallop. Whether he’s rewriting an old folk song to reflect the soul-killing gut-punch of capitalism (John Henry was a Steel Drivin’ Man), or reciting the names of the men who died at Upper Big Branch (It’s About Blood), Steve Earle means business this U.S. election year. It’s good to hear. ★★★★1/2 stars out of 5
STREAM THESE: Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere; Devil Put the Coal in the Ground; It’s About Blood
— John Kendle
White Owl Red
J.J. McManus (a.k.a. White Owl Red) is now four albums into his musical recordings career and it’s worth explaining why his work has been credited for being "better alt-country music.
Afterglow has heart and it has power. McManus delivers the kind of songs that resonate of a thoughtful life, and those feelings are crafted into songs with meaning and even playfulness. There is no forcing of the moods here, either. The musicianship is of the highest quality and the group McManus has engaged for his albums (Kyle Caprista, drums, Gawain Mathews, guitars, and backing vocals by Leah Tysee, Tonia Smith and Sage Gray) are outstanding.
The opening title track is essentially horrific in its subject matter, a sombre tale of abuse and death, yet in the hands of McManus and crew, the leisurely rhythm and sweet musical hooks draw you in. I Walk The Line For You is an idiosyncratic homage to Johnny Cash’s love for his wife, June Carter, and here McManus modulates his own appealing vocals just enough to sound like the Man In Black.
The rollicking Out on the Waters offers a country and Celtic swagger that rolls along, buoyed by a snappy beat, accordion and mandolin. There’s some humour shot through the organ-charged Tip Top Bob’s, wherein one regular patron of the titular, off-the-beaten-track watering hole advises another "don’t bring a knife to a gunfight" and "don’t piss off Red when he’s feeling blue."
The drifting country/folk of The Way I Feel would have been a perfect fit for Gregg Allman to sing on his way to the great gig in the sky. Always the worker’s union supporter, McManus delivers a worthy partner to Union Fight Song from his 2019 album, Existential Frontiers, with the dutiful and insightful Working Class Heroes.
Afterglow proves once again that McManus can create beauty from the residue of his life experiences and supply the kind of emotional immediacy that makes for a cool listen. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Through is Through, Tip Top Bob’s
— Jeff Monk
Night Devoid of Stars (Cellar Music)
Vancouver native Daniel Hersog is a well-travelled and accomplished trumpeter, composer and educator. Currently he teaches at Capilano University and is a fixture in the West Coast jazz scene. This ambitious new album features almost entirely original compositions by Hersog, with a 16-piece band made up of other solid West Coast musicians. Guest soloists are saxophonist Noah Preminger and pianist Frank Carlberg, friends from his student days at New England Conservatory, along with Capilano University colleague trumpeter Brad Turner.
From the opening track, Cloud Break, through other uptempo numbers to lush ballads like Makeshift Memorial, Hersog shows wonderful patterns of writing interesting melodies while leaving room for great solos. The writing is totally contemporary, in that harmonic changes and dissonances shift seamlessly with more straight-ahead moments. Preminger’s solos are especially effective, showing familiarity with Hersog’s intentions and style. The powerful title track, Night Devoid of Stars, has terrific solos by both Preminger and trumpeter Turner. Indelible is another example of their strength. The one cover tune is a beautiful arrangement of the old standard Smoke Gets in Your Eyes that gives pianist Carlberg an opportunity to really shine.
The writing and the energy and confidence at all tempos is impressive. If Daniel Hersog is not a familiar name to you, this is a terrific introduction. The sadness in this release is that there was a big release party planned, and a gig at the Vancouver Jazz Festival in June was already booked for this band. The COVID-19 crisis has claimed another non-medical victim, as the music business holds its breath and hopes to find a way out of virtual paralysis. We must all keep listening. ★★★★1/2 out of five
Stream these: Song For Henrique, Indelible
— Keith Black
Vadym Kholodenko plays Prokofiev (Harmonia Mundi)
From the strident opening chords of Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82, through three prior compositions that follow, this new release proves Ukrainian pianist and 2013 Cliburn Competition winner Vadym Kholodenko can, and does play Prokofiev like a lion on the attack.
The album features four diverse works that showcase the pianist’s technical mastery as well as renowned ringing tone. This is evidenced during the Sonata No. 6, the first of three Soviet-era "war sonatas" penned in 1939 which drives forward with its startling theme during opening movement, Allegro moderato, notably recurring during the finale, Vivace, to its equally sardonic, staccato-infused second, Allegretto. Kholodenko performs the more gracious eye of the storm, Tempo di valzer lentissimo with lyrical phrasing and a careful voicing of chords.
The much lesser performed Things in Themselves, Op. 45, dated 1928 and inspired by Kantian philosophy, provides another opportunity to hear the soloist’s ability to quickly shift between moods, although its two movements — both written in the composer’s favourite key of C major — don’t always compel, owing to their highly introspective nature.
Four Pieces for Piano, Op. 32 offers a fascinating glimpse into the creativity that would later fuel the composer’s famous ballet scores, inspired in turn by courtly dances. Of its four short movements, the Gavotte, often performed as a standalone piece, offers a jewel in microcosm, with Kholodenko bringing out its march-like rhythms and humorous touches with aplomb.
Finally, Visions fugitives, Op. 22, comprised of 20 short musical snapshots composed on the eve of the Russian Revolution, provides fleeting tastes of the composer’s stylistic trademarks, with Animato, Ridiculosamente, Feroce and Con eleganza becoming particular highlights, while sounding wholly contemporary and new. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 6 in A major, Op. 82, ‘Allegro Moderato’
— Holly Harris
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