Live music has been gone for what seems like forever, and it may stay gone until who knows when. But the pandemic hasn’t stopped the flow of the recorded variety, and there’s been plenty of new music to listen to from various corners of the Boston roots-music world (with “Boston” capaciously defined, geographically speaking). Here’s a look at a handful of albums that have come out in recent months, and one, from Chris Smither, whose release date is just around the corner.
Their roots may be in bluegrass, but Twisted Pine has been more than a bluegrass outfit since their recording get-go, and that is even more so the case with their latest album, “Right Now.” The band has become a quartet, losing guitarist/vocalist Rachel Sumner and banjo man Ricky Mier while adding new member Anh Phung, and it’s her flute that is the locus of the sound of “Right Now”; it is all over their new songs to singular, exhilarating effect, whether in the poppy acoustic vibe of the title track, the dawg music-bossa nova cross of “Papaya” (which showcases just how good a singer Kathleen Parks has become), or the resonating, pizzicato’d, whistling beauty of “Dreamaway.” The one full-on bluegrass moment on the record — a cover of Tex Logan’s classic breakdown “Come Along Jody” — encapsulates what Twisted Pine is now. It starts off in driving, trad-sounding fashion, as if to say “See, we can still do that,” before flying off in new directions to proclaim “But see what we can do now!”
You could say that Grain Thief has traveled in the opposite direction to that taken by Twisted Pine. They’ve headed toward bluegrass: the band’s sophomore release, “Gasoline,” is much more thoroughly a bluegrass record compared with the general Americana tenor of their 2018 full-length debut “Starlight Lodge.” You won’t hear any drums here, or anything electric, just the sounds of a string band at work. The driving bluegrass propulsion of “Nightmare” and “Pedal Down” are balanced by the slow-rolling melancholy of “I Was Wrong” and “Sunlight,” and there’s a clutch of instrumentals to showcase the band’s picking as well. Sure, they throw in a wrinkle here and there (a Cajun one on “Tequila Bottle” and “Manche Mi Camisa,” courtesy of Zach Meyer’s accordion), but on the whole, “Gasoline” is the sound of a band getting its 'grass on.
Lori McKenna is nothing if not reliable. Album after album, she keeps on exploring the warp and woof of marriage and family life, and album after album, she keeps finding new things to say as time and her own experience add to her perspective and new ways to say what she’s said before. With songs about fighting the good fight with her husband (“Good Fight”), a tribute to her older sister (“Marie”), and life advice for her children (“When You’re My Age,” “'Till You’re Grown”), “The Balladeer” is no different. And yet, while songs that mine and articulate these concerns are McKenna’s enduring proclivity, they are never the singer-songwriter’s limit, as the beautiful extended simile that drives “This Town is a Woman” and the lover’s triangle elliptically sketched in “Two Birds” attest.
Kris Delmhorst’s “Long Day in the Milky Way” is a shimmering compendium of sometimes murmuring, sometimes urgent pop and Americana sounds and her languid vocals, which often come entwined in intricate harmonies or echoes from Rose Polenzani, Rose Cousins, and Annie Lynch. It opens with a song that seems made for our current situation. “Wind’s Gonna Find a Way” preaches resilience, persistence; “keep on pushing,” it advises, “and you’ll find a way through.” And there’s more where that came from; holding on to what you’ve got, keeping within yourself, enduring, are threads running through the album. “Nothing 'Bout Nothing” seems to offer a cautionary tale about human hubris, “Flowers of Forgiveness” explores a necessary ancillary of holding on to what you’ve got — letting go of what you don’t need — and closing song “Call Off the Dogs” travels similar terrain. While Delmhorst wrote the songs on “Long Day” months prior to the arrival of the pandemic, the fact of coincidence hardly lessens their timeliness.
Veteran bluesman Peter Parcek has just issued his third solo album, “Mississippi Suitcase,” which also serendipitously starts off in a fashion suitable to these times with “The World Is Upside Down.” What follows is in the main well-executed blues-rock that’s chock-full of Parcek’s guitar pyrotechnics and his hint-of-Clapton vocals. A couple of originals, including the title track (a leaving song that finds room alongside Parcek’s guitar work for some nice, extended Hammond organ playing from Tom West) combine nicely with covers of songs from Dylan, Peter Green, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Frankie Lee Sims. All are rendered in various shades of the blues, but Parcek is not afraid to color outside those lines, and when he does so with a marvelous, ringing take on “Waiting for My Man,” Lou Reed’s tale of an uptown heroin score, it turns into the album’s most engaging moment.
Chris Smither also plays the blues, but in a very different form than that essayed by Parcek; his is an acoustic folk-blues animated by the mesmerizing combination of his fingerpicked guitar, the metronomic percussion of his foot, and vocals that invariably call forth the word “gravelly” to describe them. He’s about to release a new album — his 18th in a recording career that began exactly 50 years ago — that isn’t exactly new. Rather, it collects tracks that he did not use on 2014′s remarkable double album “Still on the Levee” — hence the name of this record, “More From the Levee,” out Oct. 2. That 2014 record offered a retrospective via Smither’s retakes on songs drawn from across his career; this sequel draws on the same sessions for nine more, beginning at the beginning (“Lonely Time,” from his 1970 debut, “I’m a Stranger Too!”) and reaching the present via one new song, “What I Do,” a nod to New Orleans-cum-autobiographical rumination. “All my leaves are turning brown,” Smither sang on that 1970 song; 50 years later, his artistry is still evergreen.
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org