Before the summer slips away there’s time for one last trip to the country. A decidedly rocking melodic bit of the country, that is. Today’s troubadours are stylishly intersectional in their musical tastes, interspersing a broad country élan with a load of other musical noise. Really good noise.
I got turned on to Seattle’s Oh Wells last May with the release of their EP Dakota. Halfway through opening cut “The Day We Kissed,” mesmerized by its buoyant, driving acoustic guitars and lovely vocal harmonies, I knew I was on to something special. Definitely going into the to-be-reviewed pile, I thought. But months later I am confronted with Alice, a whole new Oh Wells album coming out now, and I’ve yet to laud their previous recordings. So let’s play catch up. Dakota is defined by a broad, warm acoustic feel. “Angel of Mine” has a Elephant 6 low-key pop aura, very Apples in Stereo at times. “Wafflehouse Waitress” and “Loverville” muscle up the sound while “Without You” is more Crosby, Stills and Nash-influenced. Altogether the EP was a striking debut. Yet just three months later the band is back with an even more stunning sound. It’s like Oh Wells have caramelized the pop portion of their previous sound on their new long-player Alice, sweetening the hooks and filling out the sound. “Someone Walks Away” has the melodic pop sheen of Guster or Good Old War. “You Know the Way Home” is a more rocking in the vein of recent work by The Cactus Blossoms. The rest of the album then ably hits a variety of country rock marks: “Warmer Weather” and “Devil’s Bride” have a smooth Foster and Lloyd vibe while “Black and Bloom” and “Alice” dip more into traditional country territory. And then there’s “Oh Well,” a gorgeous, layered slice of country pop perfection. “Optimist Prine” rounds things out with a stripped-down tribute to Maywood’s modern Mark Twain. This is sweet, textured country-folk-pop of the highest order.
In 2019 I said Orville Peck was primed to explode and boy did he ever. His debut album for Sub Pop Pony caught on with an eclectic mix of fans, exuding a hip cool that can’t be bought or manufactured. Before you or I knew it, he was duetting with the stars and signing major label deals. The result is this year’s Columbia Records release Bronco. Now we’ve all read this script before and know how it can go terribly wrong. But Bronco doesn’t steer wrong. If Pony seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek, this record abandons irony. It really is a melange of great rock and roll and country styles delivered straight up: Elvis obviously, but also Roy Orbison and, as Peck admits in interviews, Dolly Parton. “The Curse of the Blackened Eye” is so late 1960s Elvis in smoky ballad mode. Peck’s voice is shiver-inducing and the musical backdrop is understated and alluring. Another standout track is “Lafayette” with its uneven tempo, great, dark story song demeanor, and killer chorus. “Bronco” and “Any Turn” are more like an early seventies Elvis stompers. “Hexie Mountain” draws on a more Gordon Lightfoot ballad style. And then the album wraps up with “All I Can Say,” a gorgeous ballad performed with bandmate Bria Salmena. Gonna be hard defying the magnetic persona that is Orville Peck after this record settles in on the public consciousness.
Somewhere in the dark north of England a band called Cowgirl is ready to defy your expectations. You might listen to a few singles and think ‘punky’ or sixties-influenced garage rock and roll. The band themselves lean on the Jesus and Mary Chain label as self-description. But there is so much more going on here. What appears to be the band’s debut EP Cowgirl gives off a fresh Travoltas-like rock and roll blast. Then their 2020 album X Tracks mines early 1980s new wave for some pretty sweet guitar excess. Take “I’m Always Lost” with its relentlessly Plimsouls-era sonic attack. The guitar lines are etched in my brain – in a good way! “Nothing to Say” is just a sunny poppy rock delight. “Could Never Explain” has a guitar that rings out with a Clash-like impatience and hookyness. Later in 2020 the double A-sided single featuring “Only Lasts a Moment” and “Hold Me” shifts between dreamy pop and jump-out-of-the-speakers psych rock excitement. Then a few months later “Caroline” is going all VU-meets-punk. Surprisingly the band’s most recent LP, also simply dubbed Cowgirl, has a consistent sound – and what a very good sound it is. Guitars to the front, melodies buried deep but never lost in the mix, and smooth vocal delivery. “Figure It Out” and “Without You” showcase this combo nicely, though in different ways, the first with clear, elegant guitar lines, the latter leaning on a more dirty guitar mix. Ok, Cowgirl may not be that country but they’re so good I feel I had to shoehorn them in here anyway.
Country or no, today’s acts are worthy of a trip to the far reaches of Bandcamp or Spotify or wherever you take your musical journeys.