Here’s a look at half a dozen new EPs and full-length albums from artists you might not have heard of. They all merit a listen, and at least a few of them deserve standing ovations.
Sunny War, Simple Syrup. When Los Angeles-based folk singer Sunny War’s With the Sun album appeared in 2018, I wrote that it signaled the arrival of a major new talent. The 2019 release of Shell of a Girl and this latest CD have done nothing to make me doubt that assessment; on the contrary, Simple Syrup constitutes her best record to date.
War’s exquisite vocals combine the soulfulness of Joan Armatrading and Sade with a fragile quality that at times recalls Nick Drake. Her fingerstyle guitar work is terrific and so are her songs in this soothing all-originals set, which addresses topics ranging from romance (“A Love So True”) to Nina Simone (“Like Nina”) and an Iraq war veteran who suffers from PTSD (“Deployed and Destroyed”). The spare accompaniment, which includes moody cello on three tracks and saxophone on two, perfectly accents the vocals. Great stuff.
Cole Quest and the City Pickers, Self (En)Titled. Singer, songwriter, and virtuoso dobro player Cole Quest—grandson of Woody Guthrie and son of Arlo Guthrie’s sister, Nora—leads this Americana/bluegrass outfit, which features guitar, banjo, harmonica, bass, organ, and drums.
Self (En)Titled includes several of Cole’s own witty, up tempo compositions, such as “Ostrich Therapy” and “The Bitcoin Gambler,” along with a few covers, among them “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key,” which has been frequently covered since Billy Bragg added music to the Woody Guthrie lyrics in 1998. You get only 24 minutes of music on this EP but that will probably be enough to convince you that Quest has what it takes to carry on the family business.
Claire Kelly, The Scenic Route. This is the first full-length album from Claire Kelly, who has previously released four EPs, and it deserves a wide audience. Kelly—who hails from Wisconsin but has been Nashville-based since 2016—is an excellent songwriter and an even better singer. In an occasional jazz-inflected moment, she reminds me a bit of Rickie Lee Jones but a better reference point for her vocal work and emotional, heart-on-sleeve lyrics might be Melanie, the 1960s folk/pop singer/songwriter.
The well-produced The Scenic Route features complementary instrumentation that includes acoustic, electric, and bass guitar plus mandolin, piano, drums, cello, and violin. Among the CD’s high points are “Dandelion Wine” and “Sitting Still,” both of which feature lyrics about finding peace on a family farm in the pandemic’s early months; “Running Out,” where Kelly sings about missing a faraway lover; and “Grace,” an Irish folk song (and the only number she didn’t write or cowrite), which offers a fine showcase for her soprano.
Megan Lacy, Salvation. Austin, Texas–based Megan Lacy cowrote the title track on this 22-minute EP and penned the other four numbers by herself. For the most part, they eschew specifics about places, times, and people in favor of an emphasis on emotions and mental predicaments—including regret, longing, forgiveness, feeling lost, and coming to terms with one’s circumstances. Lacy has the kind of voice that makes you think she’s confiding secrets and singing just to you; and the spare backup, which incorporates pedal steel and dobro from producer Justin Douglas as well as percussion, guitar, bass, and keyboards, keeps the focus where it belongs.
The lyrics are vague enough to be open to multiple interpretations but the lead single, “Carolina,” seems to cover territory similar to that of Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day.” It appears to describe a daughter leaving a home where she felt misunderstood. “West of the pass and I’m already / Slowin’ down to speed,” Lacy sings, “If there’s a road I’ll take it / I’ll drive miles away / I never told her anything / I couldn’t think of what to say / She won’t listen anyway.”
Josh Caterer, The Hideout Sessions. Wedding pop standards that date from as far back as the 1930s to hard-rock/new-wave instrumentation may sound like a terrible idea but it works like a charm on this live (sans audience) recording, thanks to potent and inventive instrumentation and the inspired vocal work of Josh Caterer, the frontman of long-lived Chicago punk band Smoking Pipes.
The program includes six standards—“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “Goodnight My Someone,” “Rags to Riches,” “What Kind of Fool Am I,” and “My Funny Valentine”—alongside five excellent Caterer originals that fit surprisingly well with the older material. For the most part, the instrumentation consists of just Caterer’s guitar plus drums and bass, and it works just fine, but the sprightly trumpet and flugelhorn that pop up in Caterer’s “Writing a Letter” may make you wonder whether more brass would have been a plus. Be that as it may, this album is pretty close to a home run.
John Smith, The Fray. Just about everyone had a tough year in 2020 but British folk singer John Smith had a rougher time than many people: while he was dealing with the pandemic, his mother received a cancer diagnosis and he and his wife lost a pregnancy. On this sixth full-length album, says Smith, he features songs “about accepting that life is hard but just holding on and trying to enjoy it, anyway.”
That attitude comes across in this gently delivered music, which melds melancholy with acceptance and sadness with a sense of hope. A few of the tracks feel like filler but much of The Fray is simply gorgeous. Standouts include “Star-Crossed Lovers,” a duet with Smith’s frequent touring partner, Lisa Hannigan; the reflective title cut, which features the Milk Carton Kids, the indie American folk duo; and a love song called “The Best of Me” that incorporates backup by jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.