Mountain Ears

Winter Music Reviews – Album reviews by Ken Bays

Welcome to the first installment in an ongoing series that will look at some of the best new music by West Virginia artists. In each one, we’ll highlight a handful the latest album releases by musicians living in, originally from, or otherwise associated with the Mountain State. To have your CD considered for the next issue, please send a digital copy to [email protected] or mail a physical copy to Ken Bays, PO Box 262, Bradley, WV 25818.

tim obrien cdTim O’Brien, “Pompadour” (Howdy Skies Records)
When O’Brien performed as part of a rare Beckley taping of Mountain Stage in November, the audience was treated to several songs from his new album. The West Virginia Music Hall of Famer’s first project since winning his second Grammy (with the all-star bluegrass group Earls of Leicester), “Pompadour” has him alternating between mandolin, banjo, fiddle, acoustic and electric guitar — pretty much any stringed instrument short of a zither. O’Brien writes songs that are good-natured and light, combining the rural richness of Appalachian music with the plainspoken simplicity of vaudeville. The best of these are the story songs: “I Gotta Move,” about the joy and uncertainty of relocation, and the title track, in which O’Brien wakes up one morning with a stylin’ hairdo. Throw in covers of Billy Bragg’s “Go Down To The Water,” Dan Reeder’s “The Tulips On The Table” and a dazzling version of the fiddle tune “Snake Basket” and you have a solid addition to O’Brien’s three-decade catalog.

ona cdOna, “American Fiction” (Twin Cousins Records)
Named after the Cabell County community that singer-guitarist Bradley Jenkins once called home, Ona are a Huntington five-piece whose full-length debut is as casually engaging as any of the rootsy outfits riding the current wave of indie rock popularity. They’re a Mountain State band with national-level potential. “Rocks in the Basement” has the alt-country momentum of Son Volt’s edgier tracks. “Lemon Sea” evokes the slow-burning menace of “Zuma”-era Neil Young. “Ides of July” has a massive guitar hook and the kind of shimmering, soaring melody that makes you want to hit repeat as soon as the song ends. “Tornado Rider” and “Killing Hymn,” shot through with pedal steel and churchy organ, are epic, dreamy dirges that float toward their inevitable conclusions like an iceberg: slow but unstoppable. And because the group plants just the right amount of mystery in its lyrics, “Pipestem” turns out to have nothing to do with the southern West Virginia resort town. At least eight or nine of Ona’s 10 tracks on “American Fiction” are masterpieces; maybe they’ll do better next time.

bob thompson cdThe Bob Thompson Band, “Look Beyond the Rain” (Blue Canoe Records)
On his first album since 2010’s “Smile,” pianist Thompson radiates the same grace and elegance he displays as the centerpiece of the Mountain Stage Band, a position he’s held since 1991. Thompson doesn’t make music-snob jazz that’s easier to admire than it is to love; instead, “Look Beyond the Rain” focuses on warmth, emotion and the kind of effortless-sounding melodicism that connects immediately with whoever’s listening. That doesn’t mean he’s lacking in chops — check out the way he locks in tight with Doug Payne’s sax on “Hot Shot” or his inventive soloing on “Time 2 B One” — it just means that technique is secondary to sentiment on these 10 tracks. His band proves flexible enough to move smoothly between light funk, stately balladry and up-tempo workouts, thanks in part to the polished grooves created by drummer Tim Courts and bassist John Inghram (whose own group, Slugfest, has just released its own first album).

cashavelly morrison cdCashavelly Morrison, “The Kingdom Belongs to a Child”
On the inner packaging, Morrison is pictured with a soot-covered face and hands, and it’s a fitting metaphor: She’s not afraid to dig around in the emotional dirt, unearthing the hard truths that form the symbolic basis of the songwriting on her first album. A Beckley native who now lives in North Carolina, Morrison has endured her fair share of grief (the death of her father, a miscarriage, and the loss of a career in dance after breaking her spine), and a sense of melancholy definitely snakes through these 10 original songs. Musically, Morrison — a vocalist whose emotive, bell-clear soprano turns even the darker tunes here into lullabies — deals in Appalachia-tinged Americana not unlike the type that launched Gillian Welch’s career, with husband Ryan MacLeod in the role of David Rawlings, building a foundation of guitar (and sometimes banjo) to support songs like the delicate, backward-glancing “Pink Dress,” the ominous “Jesus Dies Every Time” and the beautiful, absolutely devastating “29 Bells.” Bonus: The art direction on the CD and limited-edition vinyl is incredible, making “The Kingdom Belongs to a Child” a feast not just for the ears, but for the eyes.

todd burge cdTodd Burge, “Live in Orlando” and “Imitation Life”
Music lovers might know Burge from his Mountain Stage appearances or from the “songwriter nights” he hosts periodically in his native Parkersburg. I first came to hear him, as did so many kids who attended WVU in the ’90s, as the singer for the Morgantown-based rock band 63 Eyes. His solo albums have found him following the path of a more traditional singer-songwriter, and “Live in Orlando” is a prime showcase for material that’s often funny, sometimes bittersweet, and nearly always filled with wit and wisdom. The live setting really plays to Burge’s easygoing, conversational lyrical style, especially on “Joseph’s Prayer to His Baby Son,” where he gets inside the conflicted mind of the Biblical figure who was Jesus’ earthly father, and on “Good Dog,” a sweet eulogy to his Weimaraner. Recorded in November at an intimate concert in Florida, this digital-only release is a fundraiser for the Food Allergy Network, which helps people who are, like Burge’s 9-year-old daughter, diagnosed with severe food allergies.
Back in March, Todd released his latest studio album, titled “Imitation Life.” Produced by Tim O’Brien, it features fuller arrangements of several songs that made it onto the live collection, like a marimba-infused recording of “Time to Waste Time” and a lovely version of the pleasantly loping “Change (For Clean Water)” with Kathy Mattea singing harmony to Burge’s reedy Appalachian baritone, as well as a bunch that didn’t, like the jaunty, Harry Nilsson-channeling “Ask Them To,” and “Longer,” a good old-fashioned love song.

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