Tag Archives: Freakwater

My Favorite Un-Americana Music of 2017

Photo by Oliver Zühlke/Creative Commons

This is the season that I try to be the first kid on the block to beat out the barrage of those end-of-the-year lists from critics and pundits. At No Depression, and other like-minded music websites and magazines, the official music polls from readers, contributors, and reviewers will be coming in December. Had I been born a betting man, I’d lay down a few hundred bucks that there’ll be little variation or surprises between any of them. Ever since the term roots music has morphed into a more definable mainstream “Americana” tagline, diversity has seemed to have left the building. While you won’t get much disagreement from me on the quality and depth of music that has been released so far this year, it seems that I continue to find myself taking the road less traveled.

This year it feels as if I’ve been walking down the dark side of the street, whether we’re talking about  art, culture, politics, or simply life in general. There were health issues to deal with and the loss of a parent. I’ve found myself constantly concerned for my children that a madman lives in Washington who is one button away from annihilating the planet when he’s not chipping away at the fabric of our society by normalizing the abnormal. From the racist cries of “blood and soil” to an unjust justice system that tips to white skin and wealth to revelations of what we already know … that bad men do bad things to women and children … and to all the other natural and human disasters we’ve lived through so far, I’m only finding shelter by cocooning with music, books, and video.

So with that bright and shiny preamble, here’s some of my favorite aural oddities and mainstays for the year. As always, I use a different yardstick to measure and compile my list. This is what I have either discovered or gravitated to, undefined by such things as release dates. Whether it was brand new this year or merely recycled from the past, who cares?

The Entire Ry Cooder Catalog

I wish he would have titled one of his albums Pastrami on Ry, and I’m sorry that for most of his career I’ve largely ignored his solo work. Aside from a seemingly infinite number of songs he’s done session work on for others, the only albums I’ve really known inside out have been two from the ’70s: The Gabby Pahinui Band Volume 1 and his solo Bop Til You Drop. So now, thanks to the magic of touch and click streaming, I’m making my way through everything else. While skipping around and sampling from this era and that, I’m spending most of my time with Paradise and Lunch, Into The Purple Valley and Chicken Skin Music.

A Prairie Home Companion

While I know he’s trying his hardest and still growing into his role, Chris Thile’s voice reminds me of Opie Taylor and he’s yet to hone his comedic skills with timing and inflection. But on the other hand, he’s doing an amazing job at making great music with that killer band he’s assembled and presenting exceptional guests week after week. He’s going down the right path but one suggestion would be to please stop referring to Sarah Jarosz as “inimitable.” Why continually state the obvious? Finally, a note about Garrison Keillor. Over the years he’s entertained millions of us and his wit, humor and his support of musicians won’t be forgotten. And while it was sad to witness his termination played out in counterpoint to rapists and serial harassers , he had to go.

David Rawlings

I got a chance to see David and Gillian right before the release of Poor David’s Almanack, and it was the first time I’d ever seen them live in concert. Tickets have always seemed to get swallowed up the minute they go on sale and my budget doesn’t include StubHub. After 21 years of being a devout fan of their partnership, each and every note, song, and harmonic moment gave me a night of multi-orgasmic goosebumps.The album is simply perfect.

Freakwater and The Mekons

In September these two bands reunited as The Freakons and performed two nights in Chicago. Monica Kendrick for The Reader broke the news about a new album they’re now recording. She wrote that it’ll consist of “traditional songs about an industry that links the English Midlands, the Welsh valleys, and the ‘dark and bloody ground’ of Appalachia: coal mining. Haunting tunes in that vein came from both sides of the pond, and the Freakons take them on in the high-lonesome, rabble-rousing tradition of late West Virginian labor singer Hazel Dickens. Proceeds from the album, when it’s finished, will benefit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots organization that promotes voting rights and opposes mountaintop-removal mining.”

Rodrigo Amarante

Gotcha … right? A Brazilian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Amarante is a member of Los Hermanos, a band that still plays live but hasn’t recorded since 2005. He partnered with The Strokes drummmer Fabrizio Moretti and American musician Binki Shapiro, who in 2008 released an album on Rough Trade as Little Joy. In 2015 he wrote and recorded “Tuyo,” which has been used as the theme song for the Netflix series Narcos. It’s an earworm.

Tom Brosseau

The ten songs on Treasures Untold were recorded live at a private event in Cologne, Germany. The album features six American folksongs and four originals. Brosseau was born and raised in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where in 2007 the mayor awarded him the key to the city. I think about that often. Since 2003 he’s lived in Los Angeles, has recorded a bunch of albums, and toured Iceland. Well … other places too.


Valerie June

I don’t pretend to understand her and I don’t listen to her albums. But I’ve seen her perform twice and she is the modern-day Nina Simone. Undefinable and undeniable.

Tom Russell

He celebrated his 68th birthday last March and has released 29 albums, two of which came just this year. The first was his tribute to his old friends Ian and Sylvia, and now he is out on tour supporting Folk Hotel, a collection of originals. Two shots here: Tom playing with Max De Bernardi “The Last Time I Saw Hank” at Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, Missouri in  September 2017. And while I’ve been enjoying both new albums, I also want to share the song that was my first introduction to Russell and remains my favorite.


And to those who passed…

Down that dark side of the street we’ve lost too many folks this past year. I’m not going to list them all here, but we’ll close it out with this … a tribute to them all.


This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.

Easy Ed’s Favorite Un-Americana Albums of 2016

Last week the Americana Music Association released its year-end list of songs that got the most airplay on Americana radio, and in the next few weeks No Depression and other like-minded music websites and mags will publish their own music polls. If I were a betting man, I’d lay down a few hundred dollar bills that there’ll be little variation or surprises between them. Ever since the term roots music has morphed into a more definable mainstream “Americana” tagline, diversity has seemed to have left the building. While you won’t get much disagreement from me on the quality of music on AMA’s list since virtually all of the artists are located somewhere in my digital jukebox, it seems that lately I find myself taking the road less traveled.

Every year I designate much of my listening time on studying music from the past, and this year I dipped deeply into the catalogs of Norman Blake, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Delmore Brothers, Doc Watson, and a lot of jazz: Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb, and several anthologies from the 1920s and ‘30s culled from lost and found 78s. For a few weeks this summer I blasted through the box set This is Reggae Music: Golden Era, which covers only 15 years beginning with 1960, and breaks it down into mento, rocksteady, ska, R&B, early reggae and the birth of roots. Good stuff.

As for albums released in 2016, I’ve come up with a short list of my own favorites that somehow have failed to make the “official” Americana chart, and consequently may be missed in this endless parade of polls and lists that’ll stalk the internet with killer click bait titles. I’m choosing to call it Un-Americana … and that’s a name and a genre descriptor that just might stick.

The Handsome Family – Unseen

“Unseen finds Brett and Rennie Sparks two years after an unexpected spike in popularity due to True Detective fame, while simultaneously finding the duo displaying an outward reverence for the genre and subsequent fan base that has bolstered them to alt-folk antiheroes … one would be hard-pressed to find more true-blue progenitors of the darker side of American music who are still working hard to get you to question a bump in the night.” Jake Tully/Elmore Magazine

Jack and Amanda Palmer – You Got Me Singing

Amanda Palmer has long been divisive – dedicating poems to bombing suspects, dressing up like a conjoined twin, doing things that make outraged thinkpiece writers jiggle with glee. Her latest album, however, a collection of folk, blues, country, and contemporary covers with her once-estranged 72-year-old dad, Jack, strikes the right chord.” Kate Hutchinson/The Guardian

Marissa Nadler – Strangers

“Marissa Nadler, the galaxy-gazer of American somni-folk, is not of this world. She is an extraterrestrial unloved, a wanderer nonplussed, an inhabitant of a realm that aligns dissonance with wonderment. She is ethereal, moody, and dark like early morning, and with Strangers, Nadler’s seventh full-length album, our indelicate eyes are able to adjust to her clear, clairvoyant lens.” Cassidy McCranney/Slug Magazine

Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms – Innocent Road

“On their new album Innocent Road, Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms stake a claim as two of the finest traditional musicians in America. Their sound is a throwback to the heyday of rural American dance-hall music.” Jerad Walker, NPR Music

Tom Brosseau – North Dakota Impressions

“Tom Brosseau’s unique tenor is instantly recognizable, and it imbues his songs with a palpable feeling of loss, regret and nostalgia. His phrasing, the emotional quiver in his voice and the bare-bones production evoke the feeling of a late-night, working-class living room with friends sharing their most intimate secrets.” j. poet/Magnet 

Kaia Kater – Nine Pin

“The banjo’s recent return to favor has seen the likes of Otis Taylor and Rhiannon Giddens reclaim the instrument as part of African America’s musical roots. Twenty-three-year-old Kaia Kater from Québec studied mountain music in West Virginia and writes songs from the here and now. Her second album manages to triangulate bluegrass, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison.”  Neil Spencer/The Guardian

Dori Freeman – Self-titled

“For the love of God just let the songs speak out and choose their own path, and that’s what happens in this self-titled release. The sentiments are so naked and pure, and as potent to stirring the spirit as the smell of a baby’s head that it awakens more than just an appreciation for music, it awakens an appreciation for life.” Trigger Coroneos/Saving Country Music

Freakwater – Scheherazade

“The darkly austere alt-country group Freakwater has kept their simple, gothic sound consistent through the years, but on their eighth album they overhaul it almost completely. It’s their most cinematic album yet, with the music functioning almost as a soundtrack to their short, violent songs.” Stephen M. Deusner/Pitchfork