GREG BROWN The Evening Call (Red House) Rating: NNNN
Greg Brown's been making minimalist, emotive country folk for 30 years, and he's not about to change his formula now. On the Iowa-born guitarist's 23rd record, he focuses on love, heartache and travelling the open road in his strange but intimate warble that's not only garnered him fans across the continent but a Grammy nod as well. There are some clichéd themes, but Brown's six-minute quasi-spoken-word story about his life as a wandering soul is a powerful missive to his fans. Helping the album is legendary guitarist Bo Ramsey, whose delicate slide work alone is worth a few listens.
ISOBEL CAMPBELL Milk White Sheets (V2) Rating: NNNN
While Isobel Campbell was waiting for Mark Lanegan to finish putting down his vocals for their collaborative project, Ballad Of The Broken Seas, the one-time Belle & Sebastian cellist recorded some new compositions along with versions of some traditional folk tunes inspired by Shirley Collins and Jean Ritchie. The resulting freak-folk set was originally going to be a super-limited giveaway with Ballad Of The Broken Seas but Campbell reconsidered and is giving Milk White Sheets a proper release. And you'll be glad she did once you hear her haunting takes on Loving Hannah, Are You Going To Leave Me? and O Love Is Teasin'. Fans of Anne Briggs and Vashti Bunyan will find a lot to love here.
JOANNA NEWSOM Ys (Drag City) Rating: NN
Being the only person on the whole freak-folk scene playing solo harp concerts makes for a boffo gimmick, but Joanna Newsom is sharp enough to realize that while indie rock fans might be dazzled by the novel instrument, she needed something more musically substantial for her sophomore album. So for Ys, she enlisted Van Dyke Parks to create some elaborate string and horn arrangements to complement the fluttery interplay of her voice and harp on which the album's fancifully florid song-poems (sans choruses) are based. Unfortunately, the grand concept appears to have been a bit too ambitious for the 24-year-old Newsom and her associates to pull off, since what she plucks and sings in her little-girl-lost warble never seems entirely integrated with the hovering orchestral parts that sound like bleed-over from a symphony rehearsal in the room next door. Nice try, though.
OLD CROW MEDICINE SHOW Big Iron World (Nettwerk) Rating: NNNN
The men of Old Crow Medicine Show fascinate me. They're all approximately 25 years old, some alumni of private schools like Harvard breeding ground Phillips Exeter Academy, so how did they come to be singing old-time country about working-class struggles, spiritual awakenings and backwoods life? Whatever the explanation, their newest album is another joyful kitchen-dancing explosion Willie Watson's vocals are authentically down home, especially on infectious tracks like the oft-covered (since 1928) Cocaine Habit, and roots scene MVPs show up (Gillian Welch guests on drums; her partner, David Rawlings, produces). A multifarious offering of raw ragtimey bluegrass, old country anthems and dirt-kicking gospel performed by kids birthed from punk rock. The result is genius.
KELLY JOE PHELPS Tunesmith Retrofit (Rounder) Rating: NN
Beyond his talent as a songwriter with an eye for subtle, powerful detail and his deft fingerpicking skill, the thing that made Kelly Joe Phelps's last studio album, 03's Slingshot Professionals, so engaging was jazz dude Lee Townsend's crisp production, which shifted focus to Phelps's tight arrangements and made his acoustic blues/folk fusion fresh. Sadly, folkie producer Steve Dawson doesn't bring the same outside energy to Tunesmith Retrofit, a collection of pleasant but unremarkable hippie-blues songs that bring to mind any given steel-string strummer at a Victoria coffeehouse. Oddly, the instrumental tracks are the real standouts: the shapeshifting MacDougal starts as breezy folk and meanders toward saloon piano, while Scapegoat is a raw, mournful banjo rumble. Too bad the more conventional fare lacks the same crackling energy.