By Spencer. After a slow start, 2016 is finally delivering some great new music. So today we’re featuring a giant-size collection of March and April releases from old favorites and new revelations across every genre: Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, Natalie Royal, The Range, Kevin Morby, Matt Corby, Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, The Lumineers (pictured above), and Parker Millsap.
Margo Price – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter: We previously featured Margo Price on S&N Mix 23, so you already know what you’re getting with her: 70s-style country merged with funk and just a bit of garage rock rawness. That’s maybe due to Jack White’s influence, who signed her as the first country artist on his personal record label, Third Man Records, which to date has been more focused on indie bands and archival blues recordings. The association has brought Price a degree of hype and indie credibility uncommon for a new artist (culminating in an electric appearance on SNL last month), but when you hear the authenticity in her songs, there’s little doubt she’s earned it. “I’m just tricking people into listening to really sad things by putting happy compositions behind it,” she told NPR—and isn’t that what great country music has always been about?
Margo Price – “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)”
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth: Sturgill Simpson was also a centerpiece in our exploration of new country artists last month, but boy has he taken a left turn since then. A Sailor’s Guide To Earth isn’t an easy album to classify, taking Simpson’s vintage country sounds but layering on influences from Motown to grunge to old sea shanties. Drawing upon his years in the Navy, it’s a concept album written from the perspective of a sailor writing home about his travels. If that all sounds pretty heady, don’t worry, it’s also great fun to listen to; he even includes a cover of Nirvana’s “In Bloom” that shouldn’t make sense but totally does. Until now, Sturgill Simpson was primarily associated with the Waylon Jennings sounds of yesterday, but with this latest effort, no one can accuse him of looking backwards anymore.
Sturgill Simpson – “Keep It Between The Lines”
Natalie Royal – Harbinger: She may come from Nashville, but Natalie Royal is no country songstress. Like a young Joni Mitchell updated for modern pop radio, the songs on her sophomore release, Harbinger, sometimes defy categorization. It certainly starts with a folk backbone. But there are all these little rhythms and melodic turns where I swear she’s channeling anything from The Weeknd to Rihanna to Parquet Courts. It’s so subtle, though, that it all just sounds like music—no label needed. With a sweet voice that flies in the face of her biting lyrics, it’s a challenging work of songwriting hiding in a neat little Tiffany’s blue box.
Natalie Royal – “Misery Loves Company, Too”
The Range – Potential: Not quite electronica and not quite hip-hop, Potential lays claim to both tags—like a sonic mashup between Do The Right Thing and Tron. Brooklyn-based DJ James Hinton, on this second outing recording under the Range moniker, may be stringing this all together from samples, but that doesn’t make his music lazy by any stretch. You’ll hear fragments from late 90s raves, British rap, and a lot of blips and clicks that sound like they came from an 80s Nintendo game. Put through a blender and spliced back together in wholly original way, it’s a seamless patchwork of dark, fascinating sounds that are both new and nostalgic.
The Range – “Falling Out Of Phase”
Kevin Morby – Singing Saw: Fans of the Brooklyn band Woods have had a busy month. First Woods released a new album, and now comes this solo release from former bassist, Kevin Morby. The band is no doubt disappointed to learn, though, that Morby’s album is the far superior work. His mournful voice gives an almost Sergio Leone-like quality to these nine songs of acoustic chill. And while the slow stuff truly excels, you can also hear the influence of his former band on more upbeat tracks, like “Dorothy” and its jazzy horn line or the Flight Of The Conchords-like guitar strumming on “I Have Been To The Mountain.” It’s a diverse package of well-crafted songs that we’ll be hearing from again on our year-end lists, for sure.
Kevin Morby – “Cut Me Down”
Matt Corby – Telluric: Not to be confused with Kevin Morby, Australian songwriter Matt Corby is making music from the complete opposite side of the spectrum. Telluric sounds first and foremost like a modern R&B album; the vocals are soulful and melodically complex, with Hammond organs and saxophones and slithery rhythm guitars drenching the songs in atmosphere. There are also little bits of psychedelia and indie in the guitar work—think Grizzly Bear or Father John Misty—that make this a perfect album for the Pitchfork-friendly crowd. What’s shocking is how well these sounds all work together—and that so few have tried it before.
Matt Corby – “Belly Side Up”
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Talk Tight: Also hailing from Australia are the garage pop outfit Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever, whose 60s-throwback sound comes alive on this mini-LP of infectious melodies and danceable beats. You’ll hear everything from The Ramones to The Kinks to Tom Petty to Weezer in their high-pace vibe, but the standout track is actually the mid-tempo head-bopper, “Tender Is The Neck,” with its beach-like gloss and Jack Kerouac shout-outs. Picture driving through Big Sur with your Ray-Bans on and the top down, and you’ll pretty much have the idea.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – “Tender Is The Neck”
The Lumineers – Cleopatra: Success can breed problems. Namely, that between 2012 and 2015, we heard The Lumineers in so many commercials and TV shows and movie trailers that we basically have zero appetite for more. The Lumineers just aren’t cool anymore. And that’s a shame, because if there were a way to play Cleopatra in a vacuum with no prior knowledge of the band who made it, you’d probably find it a deeply satisfying album. They haven’t changed up their faux-Americana identity so much as they’ve enriched it, buffing it to a sheen with brighter production and more sophisticated melodies. The guitar work is downright intricate at times, filled with fingerpicking so pretty it can make you sick. Which is to say, it sounds exactly like what you’d expect from a Lumineers album. It’s too bad that’s become such a double-edged sword.
The Lumineers – “Long Way From Home”
Parker Millsap – The Very Last Day: If The Lumineers have become the face for the Starbucks brand of Americana, Parker Millsap is the craft, organic, locally-sourced version. Hailing from Oklahoma, he’s been putting out quality music for several years now, but The Very Last Day is shining a bright new spotlight on his talents. His raspy, octave-spanning voice recalls the early days of Ray LaMontagne, but his style is heavier on bluegrass and whiskey. There’s an almost celebratory mood that rings through it all, making this an album you’ll want to hear on your summer afternoons to come.
Parker Millsap – “Pining”