I have lately been drawn to the musical equivalent of sweet 'n sour -- vocally ravaged singers backed by lush, romantic strings, as if a besotted Frank Sinatra had just escaped from a rehab facility and found refuge in a studio with Nelson Riddle.
Some new singer/songwriter favorites:
Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit -- Micah P. Hinson and the Opera Circuit -- Micah P. Hinson grew up in a strict fundamentalist home, ran away, ran afoul of drugs and the law, spent some time in prison, and emerged as sort of an alt-country Tom Waits. This is far from Christian music, but it's Christ-haunted in the way that Flannery O'Connor's stories are Christ-haunted. You can hear the Holy Spirit moving over the turbulent waters, and you get the distinct impression that these tales of debauchery and Too Much Fun are desperate cries for help. His ragged yelp sounds a bit like Tom Waits with a southern drawl, and it stands in marked contrast to the sweetly romantic strings and old-time oompah brass band accompaniment, which reminds me of some of the sepia-toned music Waits did in the mid-to-late seventies on albums like Blue Valentine and Nighhawks at the Diner.
William Lee Ellis -- God's Tattoos -- Ellis comes out of the tradition of Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson, bluesmen who want to share the gospel while sliding a broken beerbottle neck over the strings of their guitars. He's a phenomenal slide guitarist, and these mostly original blues/gospel songs are far better than average. The title track is a fine meditation on the role of tragedies/trials in our lives, and how God uses them to refine us.
Lambchop -- Damaged -- Lambchop is original misfit/growler Kurt Wagner and whoever else he can coax into the studio. The band ranges from three to seventeen members, and it's not uncommon to hear pedal steel guitars, saxophones, and xylophones on the same song. Mistakenly billed as an "alt-country" band (probably because they hail from Nashville), Lambchop is, in reality, unclassifiable. Soul music, country, indie rock, and lush chamber quartet strings all find a home here. Wagner is the most idiosyncratic of songwriters, finding subject matter in the mundane, inconsequential, and anatomically explicit, but he sometimes startles me with his images. One song begins, "Here we sit out this tropical storm/Burning pages from your notebook just to keep your hands warm." Another starts off with, "Here’s a little story ‘bout regret/Doesn’t have an ending, it’s not finished yet." That's the best couplet I've heard this year, and the entire album is full of little bon mots and epiphanies. The fact that Wagner "sings" like Lou Reed is irrelevant. He makes lush, strange, and compellingly lovely music.