Basically, this is all the new country music worth buying this week. (edit: there’s a new Betty Soo album out this week. It’s probably good too.)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the leader of Eleven Hundred Springs would put out a solo album of swaggering honky-tonk. The album opens strong with “A Little Less Whiskey” and stays the course from there- confident songwriting and twang from a veteran of all the smokey bars. What struck me most was the outright sentimentality of the lyrics, the unashamed, old-fashioned emotion Hillyer has no problem laying down. Even by country standards, he’s not afraid to wax nostalgic or get mushy. It’s a bit disarming at first, because where a lot of people are good at aping the sound of old country, Hillyer has flat-out mastered the heart-on-sleeve tenderness of Lefty Frizell in a way that is refreshing and as I said before, a little disarming. Speaking of mid-century softiness, if you love recitations, you’ll like “Dancing With The Moon,” which takes George Strait’s “The Chair” on one of the early Apollo missions. If you don’t like recitations, there’s lots more of the somewhere between Texas and Bakersfield sounds to soak in. If you like your country like you like your Chevy’s: dependable, sturdy, and thankfully not all that different from what your Dad tooled around in, here’s your man.
Zoe Muth, like many of the protagonists in her songs, has an appealing weariness in her voice, like she just got off a long shift in a five year stretch of them at a job she only meant to keep for 6 months. The mandolins and steel from previous albums are gone, and while still working in a country-ish vein, you’ll not find the two steppers you may be accustomed to. Organ, cello and some really punchy drums replace the honky-tonkier instrumentation from her earlier work. Once I spit out the haterade (I REALLY love mandolins and steel), I found all the qualities that I like about a Zoe Muth song; a gently unfolding story, sung in a sly voice. “Mama Needs A Margarita” is two minutes and a little change, while “Taken All You Wanted” clocks in north of five. I couldn’t tell you which one was shorter from listening, such is the way Muth draws you in to a well-worn world, one I will revisit again and again.
The last time this husband and wife duo put out a record it became one of my favorites (and the soundtrack for every time I’ve cleaned the kitchen since then.) While “Cheater’s Game” had a looser, “hey, let’s have fun playing some songs” vibe, “Our Year” is a little more studied in it’s approach, a little more locked into the groove. Which is to say, they do a really good job with “Motor City Man” and “Harper Valley PTA.” It seems to me that Robison sings more this time around, and harmonizes more with Willis. Or maybe the arrangements just highlight that more. The record ends with a resolute, banjo-studded cover of the Zombie’s “This Will Be Our Year”, replacing the disaffected, youthful cool of the original with a heartening touch of defiance, sung by folks who’ve seen enough years together to know. This is the perfect soundtrack for late afternoon patio drinks your s.o.
John Fullbright sings like the kinda guy who learned to play piano in church, then immediately got a job playing in the bar across the street. “Songs” also moves from the elemental conflicts between God and the Devil found on his earlier album to more domestic concerns. The songs have an intimacy you’d expect from overhearing your neighbors talk about big issues while trying not to break into argument. Which isn’t to say that this is a boring record just because John Fullbright the rollicking Dust Bowl prophet has become come in and have a glass of wine John Fullbright. There’s a reason reviewers keep mentioning Tom Waits and Randy Newman, not because Fullbright shoots word arrows from behind his piano, letting them fall where they may, but because he’s that good.