The Deadstring Brothers – Starving Winter Report
Imagine Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Gram Parsons in their primes, transplanted to Detroit, laid off from the Ford plant, pissed off and ready to pound longnecks (if not rednecks) at the local saloon, and you’ll have some idea of the emotional weight and sonic power of Starving Winter Report. The Replacements reinvented the Stones in the 1980s, and countless alt-country bands have paid homage at the shrine of St. Gram, but no one has combined The Stones’ bluster and energy and Gram’s cracked-vocal heartache quite as well as The Deadstring Brothers. Detroit native and lead singer/songwriter Kurt Marschke has mastered Jagger’s bluesy swagger on most of these tracks, and does a credible mid-sixties Dylan howl on “Talkin’ Born Blues.” The pedal steel sobs front and center, and the guitars absolutely rip throughout. It’s a short report, but give the band points for economy and brevity. There is no best song here; the whole album is great. It’s loud, loose, ragged, and not far removed from a stomping, beer-swilling masterpiece.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle – The McGarrigle Christmas Hour
Almost the whole dysfunctional Wainwright family -- aunt Anna, mama Kate, siblings Rufus and Martha, but minus papa Loudon (of course) -- shows up on this idiosyncratic Yuletide recording. Kate and Anna still harmonize beautifully after all these years, particularly on the traditional English and French carols that are frontloaded on this set. But things get seriously dark midway through, with the sisters’ fine cover of Jackson Browne’s “Rebel Jesus” (“So I bid you pleasure/And I bid you cheer/From a heathen and a pagan/On the side of the rebel Jesus”), Martha’s despairing “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” Rufus’s mournful Broadway croon on “Spotlight on Christmas,” and the spoken-word “Counting Stars,” which recounts the end of a love affair set amidst holiday gaiety. Emmylou Harris and Beth Orton sit in as family guests, add some fine vocals, and help lift the gloom. Fittingly, longtime McGarrigle collaborator Chaim Tannenbaum concludes the set with Elvis’ “Blue Christmas.” Happy holidays, and hide the knives and razor blades.
John Francis – Strong Wine and Spirits
Philadelphia singer/songwriter John Francis sounds like the reincarnation of Jeff Buckley here, but his soaring tenor cannot hide the malaise at the heart of his music. The songs on this debut album are transparently beautiful, and you’ll marvel at that sublime upper register. But the lyrics tell a different story. “Johnny Cash is Dead” is both a funeral dirge and a promise of hope, while finely realized portraits of urban decay and disconnected lives such as “Mercy for Cities” and “Love in the Fallout Shelter” are disquieting in their intensity and sadness. It’s choirboy despair seasoned with wisdom, poetic vision, and a dash of hope and mercy; music from a young Christian who lives in a broken world, and won’t pretend otherwise. We need more like him. The atmospheric production, a la Daniel Lanois, suits these unsettling songs perfectly.
The Gibson Brothers – Red Letter Day
There is something magical about brotherly bluegrass harmonies. And while Eric and Leigh Gibson don’t quite hit the heights of Ira and Charlie Louvin or Ralph and Carter Stanley, they make a strong case for sibling revelry. These guys sound like they’re having a great time singing together. Red Letter Day mixes well-written originals with bluegrass classics and unlikely covers from wide-ranging sources. It’s mostly straightahead picking and singing in the tradition of Red Allen and Jimmy Martin, but kudos are in order for the adventurous takes on Ray Charles’ early soul standout “I Got a Woman” and The Rolling Stones’ rollicking “I Used to Love Her (But It’s All Over Now)”. The harmonies, as always with a Gibson Brothers album, are the real reason to return. Along with Tim O’Brien’s and Nickel Creek’s new disks, this is as exemplary as bluegrass music has sounded in 2005.