AUK Shortcuts June 2023: Laura Zarougian, Just As Blue, Brian Kalinec, Mitch Hayes, Dean Mueller, Sanford, Spiteful Bum, Box Of Stars, Dustcart Collectors, The Nautical Theme

Our latest Short Cuts, an occasional feature where AUK casts a brief eye and ear on several albums we’ve received recently which just didn’t make the cut for a full review. Like most major music websites we can’t mention every album or EP we get sent but we reckon the picks below deserve a nod. Click on the links to hear a song.

Laura Zarougian calls her songs “Armenian Cowgirl” music after a childhood  sound tracked by a mixtape of sixties and seventies folk legends and the Armenian folk songs her grandparents passed down to her. On her debut album ‘Nayri’ she sits firmly within a country/folk idiom not dissimilar to that of Victoria Bailey on her debut album ‘Jesus, Wine & Patsy Cline’ although she’s as likely to be heard singing about the medieval streets of Piran (in Slovenia) as opposed to anywhere in Texas. ‘Back To Piran’ in itself is a gorgeous song, full of longing, and Zarougian excels on several other similar laments such as ‘Doubter’s Highway’, ‘Cairo’ and ‘Orono’. Highly recommended.

From Armenian cowgirl music to Swedish “grassicana,” well, that’s what Sweden’s Just As Blue call their brand of bluegrass music so don’t blame this writer. Anyhow, their album ‘Through With Falling’ is a fairly standard collection of songs which, in the long run, fail to capture this listener’s imagination. It’s well played but lacks any oomph factor. At their best, on songs such as Marbletown and ‘Lost At Sea’, the band try their best to kick up a storm and one reckons that it would be great to hear them played live but on disc they lack lustre.

From Houston, Texas, Brian Kalinec is a veteran of the local music scene there and has quite a storied past with numerous awards to his name. ‘The Beauty of It All’ features his fine writing talent and the songs are all superbly arranged although they tend to veer into middle of the road territory. One is reminded of James Taylor at times and if you’re looking for a nicely relaxed listen then it’s well worth pursuing this release. The standout track is ‘Redwood Fence which finds Kalinec recalling the segregation he grew up with while ‘Full Moon Window’ and ‘River Of Kindness’ have Kalinec in communion with nature, neighbourhoods and, essentially, the milk of human kindness.

On ‘Gentle Man’, Oklahoma’s Mitch Hayes also delves into the human condition. Central to the album is the powerful ‘Belly Of The Beast’ which sounds as if it were dredged from a ditch. Here, the land of the free and home of the brave is found to be quite a hell hole on a song written during the pandemic. The remainder of the album is much lighter in tone, ditching the growling guitars for a more acoustic sound. ‘Enemy’ is a call to down arms and behave more respectfully to each other despite different beliefs and ‘What I Pretend’ suggests we should be more upfront about our doubts and vulnerabilities as opposed to putting on a brave front. The titular ‘Gentle Man’ is an affectionate tribute to the singer’s late father and Hayes closes the album with a delightful nod to the late John Prine on ‘Dear John, one of the better tributes to him we have heard.

John Prine is one of the inspirations behind Dean Mueller‘s debut album, ‘Life Ain’t All Roses’ with producer  Kevin McKendree recruiting two musicians who played with Prine (drummer Kenneth Blevins and bassist Dave Jacques) for the recording. You can certainly hear Prine’s influence on ‘Movin’ On’ and on the title track, yet another tribute to a recently deceased father while his sly humour is reflected on the quirky ‘Sky Fallin’’ (which also reminds one of Johnny Dowd). There’s broader humour on the Shel Silverstein like ‘Burn One Now’ and the kooky ‘Dark Place’ and overall it’s an excellent album.

Sanford is essentially a one man band (Jay Sanford) who recorded the mixed bag which is ‘The View Changes’ in his apartment in what he describes as a DIY manner. A mixed bag as Sanford helpfully lists in his PR sheet the influences for each of the 13 songs here which include, aside from the usual Petty, Dylan, Prine et al, folk such as Frank Zappa while King Crimson get a name check in one of the lyrics. As such the album seesaws somewhat with ‘Anymore’ a pale reggified soul number and ‘Ain’t No Doubt’ (the Zappa influenced song) too cumbersome. However Sanford can also deliver a fine country song as on ‘Ball And Chain’ and ‘Can’t Lie’ while ‘Figured I’d Ask Anyway is quite a grand little song.

All we know about Spiteful Bum is that he/they come from West Virginia as there was no PR and, apparently no website. However, on Bandcamp there’s a blurb, “We sing about our lives, your lives, depression, love, lust, anger & even houseplants,” so that will do for now. Anyhow, the album, Worry The Boy, is a fine, spare lo-fi collection of acoustic songs which might be considered to be similar to some of Bonnie Prince Billy’s pared back efforts while the lyrics remind one of Willy Vlautin at times. If being miserable is your thing then this album is for you with songs such as Before Long and ‘In A Cowboy Tale’ a great wallow.

We do like blurbs which are somewhat amusing so to read of Vermont’s A Box Of Stars that they for “fans of Berman, Callahan, poached eggs, or some combination of the three” certainly made us want to listen to their latest album Somethinghood. Of poached eggs there is little to report but there are certainly elements of the Silver Jews and Smog woven into this delightful collection of introspective songs, Haunting and delicate, the songs seem to hover in a twilight world, barely rising above a whisper for much of the time. ‘Frankie Is Alive is a magical and fantastical account of landmark birthdays of the singer’s dog while ‘Big Hole In The Sky’ is five minutes of bliss. Another highly recommended listen.

AUK recently reviewed The Dustcart Collectors’ EP (giving it a whopping 8/10) and with most of the songs from the EP appearing on their latest album ‘Outside In’ there’s not too much to say here other than to echo the praise already heaped upon them. They have a very listener friendly country rock sound as heard on ‘Murder I Wrote and ‘Dandelion’ while they add a Celtic touch to the frenzied ‘Take A Dive’ which is a Pogues like wander into the life and death of a boxer who is on the ropes.

Finally, The Nautical Theme, a duo from Deyton Ohio offer up their latest EP ‘Get Somewhere’. The six songs portray the pair (Tesia Mallory and Matt Shetler) as well versed in harmonies and attractive, slightly poppy songs with shades of Paul Simon and Fleet Foxes in the writing. The standout track is ‘Trouble Tonight’.

About Paul Kerr 422 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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