Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers
“World of Strangers”
Country singer Zoe Muth left her Seattle hometown last year for the more twang-a-fied air of Austin, and left behind most of her original Lost High Rollers.
What she hasn’t left behind is the ache of her unrushed barroom weepers and the sweet drawl in a voice that has been fairly compared to Iris DeMent.
“World of Strangers” is her third album and is clearly crafted to be her well-deserving breakout album. With producer Greg Reiff playing bass — along with some Austin first-call session players — the songs of battered hearts, restlessness and bad decisions are clean and crisply played.
In the slow, swaying honky-tonker, “Mama Needs a Margarita,” a weary mother tucks her kids into bed and then slips out to a roadhouse where “The boys are standing in line to take me out of the dance floor/The two-steppers and the two-timers.” And the line-dance ready “Make Me Change My Mind” is about as uptempo as it gets.
Muth is best when she’s wallowing in little waltzes, and there are plenty of them here with the pedal steel sweetened “What Did You Come Back Here For” and “Waltz of the Wayward Wind.”
“I never the had the money or the guts to go,” she sings. “It’s six o’clock on a Friday and I’m finally half-blind/ I’ll take the nearest man standing.”
The album’s centerpiece is the slow-building, 5-minute ballad, “Somebody I Know,” where she duets with Bruce Robison, and the sweeping “Annabelle,” where the piano is joined by cello and violin.
“Wine Dark Sea”
What Jolie Holland does on her new album sounds messy, even for Jolie Holland.
There are two or three drummers on some songs, and as many as four electric guitar players. Sometimes the horns squall in a way that is so far outside free jazz that it makes “Bitches Brew” sound like a Christmas carol.
Since leaving the folky Be Good Tonyas, Holland has explored all kinds of musical frontiers, and her genius is in being able to keep it from sprawling out of control.
The songs range from gritty, low-fi grinders (“Dark Days,” “On and On”) to pretty Randy Newman-like piano ballads (“First Sign of Spring”), to slow, Crazy Horse garage rockers (“Saint Dymphna”) and the title cut, which sounds like something that might be rattling out of Tom Waits’ car stereo.
All of this Holland keeps surprisingly tight and tidy, tied together by her blusey and remarkably flexible voice.
“The Beautiful Bones”
Although she now lives in Kansas City, Kelley Hunt’s new album sounds like it comes from much further south, more like Muscle Shoals, Ala.
Hunt has long been a first-rate belter and piano pounder, and on her sixth album she turns up the heat even further, blending sweaty Southern R&B with funk and blues.
And when she goes to church, backed on several gospel numbers by the McCrary Sisters, you’d better hang tight to your pew. Hunt sets a fire to “Release and Be Free” that will cleanse your soul.
“I’ve Got a Good Feeling” and the horn-powered “When Loves is at the Wheel” are pure New Orleans boogie, while “Gates of Eden” veers closer to Bonnie Raitt’s 1980s rockers.
The songs here are all originals, and even when Hunt isn’t burning the place down, her voice on more thoughtful tracks like the title cut and “I Want You There” is equally mesmerizing.