On last year's Written in Chalk (New West), the second album billed to Buddy & Julie Miller (though they've been all over each other's solo records), the Millers demonstrate the mastery of country, rock, blues, and gospel they've developed over many years. They've got faultless taste and killer chops and have long made superb albums and written great songs (covered by the likes of the Dixie Chicks and Lee Ann Womack), and this is as strong as anything they've ever done. Buddy’s skill as a guitarist has landed him gigs with folks such as Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and, more recently, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, and both Harris and Plant return the favor here, making distinctive vocal contributions.
The essence of the record is its lean, scrappy arrangements, its gripping vocals, and its way of inhabiting decades-old musical forms, which feels natural and timeless. The honky-tonk of the Mel Tillis cover "What You Gonna Do Leroy" (with Plant) is transformed by a wonderful foot-draggy groove courtesy of drummer Jay Bellerose, delicately chill vocals, and a cracklingly direct recording—according to the liner notes, the song was cut "between soundcheck and supper in the band's dressing room in the Molson Amphitheater" in Toronto in summer 2008. The songs Julie sings tend toward the ethereal, but more than ever she has an appealing rasp at the back of her voice, giving even the most meditative, lyrical material a kind of serrated edge; the gorgeous "Long Time" contains another surprise, in the form of a trumpet solo. The Millers will never be Nashville stars, but their music endures because it's neither a period piece nor an attempt to hop on some contemporary trend. Buddy plays a set opening for Patty Griffin, who also sings some harmonies on the album; they'll share a band at House of Blues.Billy Childish, now lives in rural Madison, Georgia, but even before moving to this country she was expanding from her foundation in garage rock into blues and country modes, treating the music to a sly, transformative reworking. With the Brokeoffs (actually just one person, a fellow who goes by Lawyer Dave) she moved into a more acoustic space, dabbling in prewar styles with stripped-down arrangements. The pair's latest album, Medicine County (Transdreamer), departs from the duo's original pared-down sound with multitracked drums, electric guitars, and organ, and personally I find this a welcome development—neither Golightly nor Lawyer Dave has a strong enough voice to carry the music with just acoustic guitars as accompaniment. Golightly plays at Subterranean.
Africando, Vol. 1—Trovador (Sterns)
Kirk Knuffke, Amnesia Brown (Clean Feed)
Fitz Gore & the Talismen, Fitz Gore & the Talismen (Jazz Aggression/Plastic Strip Press)
Grand Kalle et L'African Team, Volume 3 (Syllart)
Torden Kvartetten, Devil's Last Call (Ninth World Music)