Album Review: Shelby County Sinners – “6”

shelbycosinners_videoOn their new EP, 6, Indianapolis’ The Shelby County Sinners have thrown down their best recorded effort yet; a taste of Hoosier rock filtered through key 60’s and 70’s folk-rock influences.  It is rock and roll hillbilly country music, with lyrics that raise the stakes for the band.  Is this their peak, or is there more (and better) to come?

Eric Grimmett’s guitar jump out, song after song. Singer Shelby Kelley finds the pocket for his nimble, twangy voice, and has written a batch of songs that sound good with the band’s minimalist approach.  Mo Foster powers the songs with a forceful-yet-economic stand-up bass groove.

No song is very long, trading length for impact, paying homage to influences without losing creative spark.

“21st Century Bail Out Blues” opens the EP with Kelley spitting out Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisted-style lyrics.  A righteous electric guitar appears early, with barbed wire lines and a solo proves to be a harbinger of the sound and strength it will bring to the album.  The small but cracking band delivers – think Johnny Cash and The Tennessee Three in 2012.

The EP, smartly recorded (live, according to Kelley) at Pop Machine with Eric Klee Johnson, is punchy and full.  It plays without too many tricks (other than some megaphone vocal effects) and nicely straddles a line between backwoods party and studio gem.

The two standout cuts on the album show up near the back of the set. “Down the Road” splashes  Springsteen-esque harmonica while a pretty and gutsy Kelley vocal pushes the tune into anthemic territory.  Once of the most accessible cuts on the record, it’s instantly likable and lovingly played throughout, all the way to a sweetly abrupt ending.

shelbycosinners_band“Hey Old Man” feels like a old Byrds tune, recreated by a country rock band from Indiana, and radio ready for a WTTS spin.  A great surprise appears when the band rips into the opening lines of Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light”, near the end, perfectly placed and terrifically poignant.

“East Side” continues a rockabilly slant, with a hint of Todd Snider.

“Wuntz” (as in “wuntz I loved you) is classic corn country (written by Foster) with a smiling, tongue-sorta-in-cheek gang-sing about lost love set to a southern-drawling vocal.  A line about getting out of prison appears at one point, proving that the circle remains unbroken when it comes to sturdy country music cliches.

“Say Baby” bookends the record with another Dylan-style blues number. The band works a dirty guitar to great effect, with shouts of “blows your mind baby” neatly wrapping up a cohesive little album of Hoosier rock and twang.

Kelley emailed me and said they were working on a full-length release for 2013.  If they build on what is contained in 6, the rockabilly bar band may find themselves with a bunch more of critics as fans, and music fans as friends.

Album Review: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals – “The Lion The Beast The Beat”

gracepotter_lionNearly two minutes into the title cut of their new The Lion The Beast The Beat album, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals break into Who-like power chords and drop in a disco-like backbeat (“can’t stop the beat”). It becomes a huge sound, with a reaching-for-an-anthem quality – like Heart or Pat Benatar might do in their prime.

The new album is less of the blues, and more a full body leap into radio-friendly, pop music, with disco-like thumps and sweeping choruses. Yet it is still a record that rocks and can move listeners within the big sounds and lyrical turns, especially effective when Potter bares her emotions, mixing her strong female worldview with little girl hurt.

The Lion The Beast The Beat will either be a breakthrough album, or a overreaching stumble along the career path.

There’s no doubting Potter’s majestic voice – whether a whisper or a shout, hers is one of the great sounds in rock.

While her 2010 self-titled album featured Grace and the band in a black and white cover photo, the new record’s art is more art, less grit.  And that’s the sound of the music, especially compared to the pretty-and- loose outing the last record.

“Never Go Back” dives into programmed beats and loops, with Potter’s voice rescuing the piece with her cooing, razor-edged vocals.

“Stars” is a beautiful, acoustic–based tune of redemption, with gorgeous piano and soaring vocals.  It appears twice, the second time as a bonus track duet with Kenny Chesney.

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“One Heart Missing” is a winner, taking a  U2 arena rock trajectory to hurt and love.

“Parachute Heart” echoes Fleetwood Mac, sounding much like Nicks and Buckingham, circa Rumors.

Is this latest release a grasp at finding a more wide-ranging fanbase, or will it alienate her current fans?  Hard to say, because her voice is still something marvelous in rock and roll. In the end, music is always redeemed in the live performance, and Potter and her band are a great live band.

“Turntable” bites like the Potter of old, with an urgent guitar strapped to a disco beat.

The album is a pot of new sounds with a whiplash personality, breaking a blues and rock stereotype that may have existed with the band’s listeners.

Producer Jim Scott, best known as a go-to engineer and mixer for bands wanting an earthy, homegrown but polished sound (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Wilco, the Tedeschi Trucks Band), helms the majority of the record.  The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produced and co-wrote the track “Loneliest Soul”, “Never Go Back” (the first single) and “Runaway”, bring that band’s sound to Potter.

Looking universal truths, the lyrics are sometimes buried by more musical weight the songs can shoulder.  Much of the record feels like it is trying to make a “grand statement”; simplicity lost in the chase for a bigger sound.

Still, it is a record that blossoms through repeated listens, softening the new layered sound we get from the guitar-drums-and-keys rockers.

Potter closes the album with a duet with Willie Nelson on her song “Ragged Company”, originally from her 2005 Nothing But Water album.  The majesty of the song and the brilliance of Willie lend gravity to the music and the pairing serves as reminder that as Grace Potter and The Nocturnals are growing, they can do it without forgetting a simpler past.