We discovered Bella White soon after Rounder (re-)released her very bluegrass-inflected first record, Just Like Leaving, in 2021. Her voice – equal parts Sarah Shook and S.G. Goodman – immediately caught my attention and the album instantly went into heavy rotation. I especially remember listening to it a number of times in the car as we drove to NC and back for a long July 4th weekend, the first time we dared to take a post-pandemic road trip.
So it was with some excitement that I dropped the needle (so to speak) on Among Other Things, her latest album. To say the very least, I am not disappointed. Rooted solidly in the alt-country universe, this release offers only the faintest nod to the bluegrass tinges of the previous record, but all the elements of White’s wise-beyond-her-22-years songwriting are still intact: Deftly-observed ruminations about broken people navigating broken relationships and dreams in a casually indifferent world. The themes aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but that’s the whole point.
First up, I want to reiterate my recommendation that everyone check out Arooj Aftab‘s whole body of work. I mentioned her in my July post after having discovered her at Newport. She didn’t release a record in 2022, but I love her work so much I had to say something. I’m pleased to have noticed that one of her songs — “Last Night,” from her 2021 album Vulture Prince — has been getting some play on at least one SiriusXM channel. Understandably, it’s the one song on the record with lyrics in (mostly) English, but I hope it opens the door to more exposure for her overall. She certainly does deserve it.
One of the year’s coolest surprises was getting two new releases from Sarah Shook. First we got the Nightroamer album with The Disarmers in February, and then just eight months later came Cruel Liars from new Shook incarnation, Mightmare. The more I listen, the bigger Sarah Shook fan I become. Cruel Liars gets a little too synth-y and dance beat-y for me in a few spots, but I still keep dialing it up right along with Nightroamer and the rest of the Disarmers records. I can’t get enough.
I loved Wilco‘s latest, Cruel Country, right off the bat when it was released in May (and a week early for Solid Sound ticket-holders). I mentioned in my comments at the time that it was Wilco’s clearest acceptance of the “alt-country” sound they’d been labeled with from their beginning, but repeated listens over the next months have somewhat changed my perspective. What I hear now is more of the genre-bending that has long been the band’s hallmark. Without a doubt, the country elements and influences are there, front and center. But that’s just the framework on which the record is built. There’s so much more here than just Wilco’s “country album.” Stellar.
Finally, The Beths. There’s nothing quite like falling in love with a new song, or a new band, and both happened for me with The Beths. Their September release, Expert In A Dying Field, didn’t get my overall pick that month because Tyler Childers hit us with his triple-album experiment. But man oh man, I’m absolutely 100% smitten with The Beths. I’m guessing they’re the band I’ve listened to most since I discovered them. As I said in September, I think their previous record, Jump Rope Gazers(and especially the title song), is my favorite, but that’s splitting hairs. Every song on every record has something to offer. I don’t know if I’ve heard a power pop / indie rock band that I’ve loved this much this quickly since my friend and former bandmate Frank introduced me to Fountains Of Wayne sometime in the…’90s? Like Arooj Aftab’s “Last Night,” I’m hearing the title song “Expert In A Dying Field” pretty regularly on SiriusXM lately, so I’m hoping The Beths are better known than I think they are. I wish I had lots of readers so I could better spread the word about them. If you haven’t heard them, go seek them out.
Happy New Year, and get some music in your ears, everybody!
October was one of those weird months when most of the new releases didn’t really grab me, but there were three that will no doubt be in my rotation in the coming months.
Courtney Marie Andrews brought us Loose Future, with a somewhat brighter outlook than her previous record, Old Flowers. Produced by Sam Evian, the arrangements on this record are considerably more expansive than Andrews’ previous work, but without ever overshadowing the songwriting.
The month also saw the release of I Walked With You A Ways, the debut from the duo of Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson, who bill themselves as Plains. This is a record inspired by their mutual love for country music of the 1990s, and the record is steeped in those sounds. My own preference is for their more folk-flavored individual solo work (especially Crutchfield, who performs under the moniker Waxahatchee), but it is always interesting to hear artists you enjoy when they try something different.
Which brings me directly to October’s pick of the month, which is –and this is not a typo– Mightmare’s debut album Cruel Liars. Mightmare is the “band” name for the first solo effort from Sarah Shook (of alt-country’s bare-knuckled Sarah Shook & The Disarmers). Newly sober and coming off the release of The Disarmers’ third album, Nightroamer (see MotM, Feb. 2022), which was finished just before the Covid shutdowns, Shook spent the first year of the pandemic creating Cruel Liars almost entirely single-handedly, and the result could scarcely be more of a sonic departure. Swapping out foot-stomping honky-tonk licks for subtle synth textures, drum loops, and fuzzed out guitar lines, this is a pop record, through and through; only the occasional pronunciation of a word or phrase gives the faintest clue of Shook’s signature twang. I can’t say enough good things about it. Maybe you should just go listen to it. And spin up something by the Disarmers, too, while you’re at it.
Big Thief Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You
First thing out of the gate I want to say the new Spoon record, Lucifer On The Sofa, is all kinds of good. I have to confess that I’ve never really quite gotten on the Spoon train like seemingly everyone else. I’ve liked them just fine, but I haven’t ever fully understood how so many people were so blown away with them. Figured it was just different strokes, ya know. But I’m totally loving this. If this is what everyone else has been hearing in them all this time, I completely get the reverence.
But that said, coming into February I was pretty sure I already knew what was going to be my pick of the month. I’d been reading for some time that Nightroamer, the new record from Sarah Shook and The Disarmers, would drop on 2/18. I love their previous offerings so much, and was so looking forward to new music from them, that they seemed like a shoo-in for this go ‘round.
Well, the day finally came and, just as I suspected, I do love the album. In my opinion it’s a big step forward in their overall sound, both broader and more polished, but entirely retaining their ragged charm. And of course, Shook’s vocals are as good as ever, if perhaps the tiniest bit too soft in the mix.
What I didn’t see coming was Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, the latest release from Big Thief. Despite being a huge fan of Buck Meek’s solo work, I’ve never had more than a passing interest in Big Thief. As with Spoon, I liked Big Thief well enough, but that’s as far as it went. Well boys howdy, did this record ever blow the lid off that attitude. Recorded in multiple locations with different production crews, these 20 songs could have easily been a big mess. Instead, this is almost a study in how wide-ranging a record can be while remaining a consistent whole. So much to love here. Ultimately, I might have trimmed one or two songs for a slightly tighter program, but that’s a quibble, and this is a great record.