El Cortez Records
The band Richmond Fontaine gets a makeover, reborn as The Delines.
All that remains is Willie Vlautin, as well-known these days as a prize-winning novelist as he is an alt-country rocker, and drummer Sean Oldham.
As passable a country singer as Vlautin is, he wisely turns over singing duties to the terrific Amy Boone, whose low, sweet wail suits his bleary, floor-level view of America. It also doesn’t hurt that keyboardist Jenny Conlee of the Decemberists is also in the band.
Mostly, the songs are soulful, drifting boozily along over gentle electric guitars and pedal steel.
In the soulful shuffler, “Colfax Avenue,” an exhausted sister hunts in the dark alleys and bars of Denver for her brother, just back from the war.
“He wasn’t this way before he left / Now, he comes back and his mind’s a wreck,” Boone sings, repeating ”He’s just a kid / He’s just a kid.”
In “Wichita Ain’t So Far Away,” a woman pleads for her trucker husband to stay one more night. “The night don’t feel like a prison life when you’re with me,” she begs. In other songs, a newlywed husband gets drunk and throws a chair at his wife while she’s sleeping. A woman promises she won’t slip up again. A man walks home at sunrise, “past the girls still on the streets, going home undone and used up.”
This is Vlautin at his finest, and with the addition of Boone, it’s his finest work yet.
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters
Stony Plain Records
Ronnie Earl’s fireplace mantel must be getting pretty crowded.
Last month, he was named Best Guitarist during the 35th Annual Blues Music Awards in Memphis.
It’s an award he’s won twice before, and since 1987 he’s been nominated at least 26 times for various other blues awards. He has toured with The Allman Brothers Band and Santana, and he was a regular in the Roomful of Blues for nearly a decade until forming his own band.
He’s been called the “Stratocaster master” so many times it’s become like white noise.
Now, here’s the best part: After a health-related lull in his career, Earl has been making the best albums of his life.
On “Good News,” he pays respects to his mentors, sprinkling covers by Sam Cooke, Junior Wells and Hubert Sumlin.
It’s Cook’s “Change is Gonna Come” that highlights the album, a sweet, mellow, gospel-inspired version that vocalist Diane Blue lifts straight to heaven.
Wells’ “In the Wee Hours” smolders for more than 10 minutes, again with Blue adding vocals.
Earl’s originals are just as fine as any of the covers. His “Puddin’ Pie” and “I Met Her on That Train” are straight out of Muscle Shoals, swinging over a slippery Hammond B3. And his “Marje’s Melody” could pull some tears.
Sharon Van Etten
“Are We There”
Each of Sharon Van Etten’s albums since her 2009 debut have been hushed and restrained.
And, it seems, the more people raved about her remarkable voice and aching lyrics, the more she retreated behind songs so spare they all started to sound the same.
With her fourth album, “Are We There,” Van Etten finally steps out front, filling out her sound with a full studio band. It’s just what she’s needed. The songs are bigger, more dramatic, more suited to her voice.
As always, the songs are confessional without seeming precious or self-conscious. A drum-machine groove and twangy guitars shimmer under songs like “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” and “Taking Chances.” Songs like “Your Love is Killing Me” build over ringing guitars and synthesizer drones until they match her howling voice.
“Break my legs so I won’t walk to you / Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you / Burn my skin so I can’t feel you,” she wails without a hint of bitterness.
Van Etten doesn’t have to sing loud to sing with power. In the laid back “Nothing Will Change,” she sounds most like Joni Mitchell. Only the piano ballad “I Know” gets the unadorned treatment of her earlier songs, and it’s a welcome call back to the best of her early work.