NEW YEAR, OLD ME The Barlow (independent) ****
In the land of twang there’s a new lane; Colorado country. The Barlow hails from Denver, and New Year, Old Me is more country than what’s coming out of Nashville. This is their 3rd full length album, full of mountain high harmonies, honest songs, deceptively relaxed playing and groovin’ that carries you away.
The Barlow is Shea Boynton on vocals, guitar and banjo, Troy Scoope on bass, Ben Richter on drums and Brad Johnson on guitar and vocals, plus there were several guests taking part too. Of the record’s overall theme, Boynton says “New Year Old Me is a nod to those who never change, for better or worse. While there are a few narrative pieces, the songs are based mostly on personal experiences.” The album was recorded between last December and March of this year and is full of songs written during The Barlow’s 2021 tour to support The Horseshoe Lounge and rehearsed during sound-checks. “We leaned into the guitar work a lot more on this record” Boynton says, “riffs, dual harmonies, bottler neck slide, etcetera.”
New Year, Old Me was recorded in a few different places, including Evergroove Studio. “The drums and bass were recorded (there) and we tracked everything else at my house” Shea says. “It allowed us to have the time to work at our (own) pace, try different things, rework parts, and throw stuff at the wall.” The method obviously worked well for the band as there is an overall relaxed confidence to these songs that would’ve been tough to achieve in a rental studio with your eye on the clock and the budget.
New Year, Old Me has a clean, uncluttered sound and the mix is delightful. Lots going on here song-wise too from the guitar fueled power of Josephine with its melodic chorus, the hard twang and bluesy undertone of Heart In A Sling and the title track, which has been described as “the most punk rock inspired slice of Americana you’ve ever heard, with frenetic twang and galloping rhythm framing Boynton’s vocals; it’s like two-stepping on steroids.”
Maybe it’s a good thing that The Barlow hail from outside the incestuous Nashville country scene; New Year Old Me is as refreshing as a mid-summer breeze rolling across the plains with an organic energy capturing the soul of country music as it should be.
HOT TRACKS: Obsessions, Heart In A Sling, New Year Old Me
PHANTOM THRESHOLD Steve Dawson (Black Hen Music) *****+
This is the second of 3 ambitious releases slated for this year by this frighteningly talented Canadian guitarist and producer. Phantom Threshold follows Gone Long Gone, covered here in March. The description of this haunting album is stated superbly in the press release; “A scarecrow cowboy at dawn. Lonely footsteps on a creaky wooden floor. Cars speeding down an empty highway as smoke rises from a burning roadhouse. Phantom Threshold is the soundtrack to the movie you’ve always had inside your head.” And that’s exactly what this is.
Steve spent the lockdown holed up in his Henhouse studios in Nashville creating music and ending up with three albums’ worth of material. Instrumental records are historically a tough sell; you’ve got to have a variety of textures and moods to keep the listener engaged and coming back for more. Whatever that secret may be, it seems that Dawson has discovered the key. Phantom Threshold is a record that makes you think, see and feel all at the same time. This is like country music with psychedelic undercurrents that stir the imagination.
Due to the circumstances of the times PT was recorded remotely with all the musicians involved, yet there’s a spontaneity and looseness to the disc that gives it a Paris, Texas era Ry Cooder feel, what has also been referred to as “an imaginary collaboration between John Ford and Federico Fellini”. If there is a lead instrument in all of this, it has to be Dawson’s distinctive pedal steel work, functioning at times almost as a vocalist. In country I usually find pedal steel a clichéd irritant, but I can’t imagine hearing Phantom Threshold without it.
Another beautiful description in the press info says this record is “like a mildly psychedelic summer Saturday afternoon; musical themes appear, insinuate themselves, shimmer, fracture, and flow away with a gentle tip of the hat as they make way for the next ideas to emerge.” While it’s certainly possible to listen to and enjoy individual tracks, listening to Phantom Threshold from front to back in one sitting is the straightest path to maximum appreciation. So, clear some time on your schedule, put this on… and dream.
HOT TRACKS: Lily’s Resistor, Burnt End, Phantom Threshold
ARE YOU BLIND? Mick Pini & Audio 54 (House Of Happiness Records) *****
Another delightful EP from this talented blues guitarist ahead of a full album release (Way Ahead) next month. At just 4 songs Are You Blind is a short but scrumptious taste of things to come, another collaboration with his pal Craig Marshall. I flat out love this.
“We’ve released another EP to illustrate the different material we’ve been working on” Pini says. “It also reflects my enjoyment of working digitally with Craig. It’s like collaborating on a painting… Craig pinged over some new ideas and I loved working on them, while Pete Feenstra’s lyrics really sparked something.” I’m not usually a fan of music created in this way, preferring the more natural energy exchange of musicians playing on the floor at the same time as the music ebbs and flows with a natural rhythm, but I must admit the rich and full sound here has captured my imagination. I suppose it doesn’t matter how you get the songs to the finish line, as long as you get them there.
“Mick asked me if I had any more tracks he could contribute to” Marshall says. “I had a reggae based track called Are You Blind which was a work in progress. I wasn’t sure Mick would be interested, but I was wrong as he loved it and his guitar playing completely transformed it.” Other songs on the EP include Hard Lesson In Love, Full Moon Blues (which I’ve already played on my blues radio show) and Late Night Blues. Fans of Pini’s expressive blues guitar playing will find much to enjoy in those 3 songs, and the title track here is a delightful left turn that manages to not sound out of place.
“(These other) tracks were the result of bouncing around over the internet” Craig says. “On Late Night Blues he shows his versatility and sensitivity” Craig says. Indeed, it reminds me very much in feel of the original version of Need Your Love So Bad by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. “On Hard Lesson To Love” Marshall continues, “he literally looked at the lyrics and recorded the track almost immediately.” Are You Blind is a wonderful blues snack to enjoy just ahead of the full meal of an album, which I look forward to eagerly.
HOT TRACKS; Late Night Blues, Are You Blind
RAW (That Little Ol’ Band From Texas) ZZ Top (Shelter Music/ BMG) ****
The latest from ZZ Top represents their last recordings with late bassist/ singer Dusty Hill. Billed as the soundtrack to their Netflix documentary (which I’ve watched several times), Raw features live performances without an audience as the band gleefully rips through a dozen of their (mostly) best known songs. ZZ had been about to start work on another studio record, but it remains to be seen if they will go ahead with new bassist/ old guitar tech Elwood Francis in Dusty’s place. If they do, I’m curious to see what if any effect Raw has on what’s to come.
ZZ Top has released live records before but Raw features the band playing just for each other, without studio overdubs or polish, just for the hell of it. It’s what Ultimate Classic Rock’s review calls “a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the rehearsal room”, and that’s exactly what lifts and separates this from previous live sets. The idea for this came from the band setting up for some still shots at historic Gruene Hall, known as Texas’s oldest continuously run dance venue but as the band’s gear was being set up, recording became inevitable.
Raw captures ZZ Top in their natural habitat. In a feature on the band for my blues radio show Hellhounds On My Trail airing this week I used an interview clip of Dusty explaining why he liked to play in the trio format, saying that “you have to stay on your toes” “there’s room to improvise” and “it’s a lot more fun”. Listening to this disc certainly supports his claims as the band feels more relaxed and into it here than they would be in front of a rabid crowd. Not sure who produced the album- possibly Gibbons and Beard- but the sound is rich and thick, with Hill’s rock solid bass lines more noticeable than ever before.
Raw includes many of the ZZ Top staples you’d expect such as La Grange, Tush and Blue Jean Blues, but the circumstances allowed them to go past the hits for some deeper cuts too like Certified Blues and Just Got Paid. Perhaps the prize at the bottom of this particular box of Cracker Jacks is hearing Legs and Gimme All Your Lovin’ outside of the synth-heavy Eliminator record from whence they came. It’s also telling that no songs from beyond that era are included. .
At the end of the day Raw is both a celebration of classic-era ZZ Top and a decent send off for Dusty Hill, who died July 28th, 2021. I have all of ZZ Top’s albums so you could say I already have these 12 classic numbers in my collection, but the songs on Raw have so much more meat on their bones. This is Texas boogie ‘n’ barbeque at its best.
HIT TRACKS: Gimme All Your Lovin’, I’m Bad I’m Nationwide, Blue Jean Blues