Folk, Country & Blues Year in Review 2004

Folk, Country & Blues Year in Review 2004
Van Lear Rose (Interscope)
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in American life. The trick, it seems, is to do the best with what you started with, and never forget where you came from. In an age where singers are groomed from childhood, it's remarkable to think that a girl from Butcher Holler, Kentucky could become a superstar by singing about her dirt-poor upbringing, and other unsavoury topics like domestic abuse. Thankfully, we had Jack White to remind us of Loretta Lynn's greatness when few others had the audacity to. That's because, on paper at least, this collaboration shouldn't have worked. Lynn, although still a powerful performer, has never really strayed beyond the staid Nashville scene, while White has never proven himself beyond the blues/garage/ art-pop experiments of the White Stripes. Still, love conquers all, and White deserves full credit for assembling a crack band to complement his ragged take on country, and Lynn deserves full credit for realising that the young whippersnapper wanted what she does best: singing about her life. Because aside from kick-ass performances, Van Lear Rose works best as a re-evaluation of Lynn's iconic feminist image. The gritty realism in songs like "Family Tree" and "Women's Prison" is even more shocking with the knowledge that Lynn was basically singing about the same things 40 years ago. And, as with Johnny Cash's last recordings, the inevitable darkness that comes with age is ever-present on songs like "Miss Being Mrs." But as she says in describing the album's final track, "Story Of My Life," she has always been an open book through her music. Why reopen it now? Just because Jack White asked her to. "I don't look backwards, I look forwards. I lived it — let it go. When people think back of all the accomplishments they've done, and how great they think they are, that's what they spend their whole life on, and they don't do anything else. I ain't that way, am I?" Jason Schneider

The Tigers Have Spoken (Mint)
Her first live album, Tigers showcases how magical a Neko Case live show can be and avoids becoming another drab live album. With a spot-on supporting cast including the Sadies and Carolyn Mark, the 12 songs span Case's solo career to date, offering up two new tracks and some choice covers, like "Soulful Shade of Blue" and "Train From Kansas City," that Neko and band make their own. Sean Palmerston

Favourite Colours (Outside)
Five albums in, how many bands are continuing to improve, rather than just treading water? Happily, Toronto roots heroes the Sadies fall into the first category. Yes, Favourite Colours sounds just like the Sadies, but it is their most consistent and focused work yet. There's not a dud cut here, and their collaboration with Robyn Hitchcock, "Why Would Anybody Live Here?," is a gem. Kerry Doole

The Pros and Cons of Collaboration (Mint)
Months later, it's still difficult to determine what the cons of collaboration might have been for Carolyn Mark. The highly-underrated Queen of Canadian country released her most endearing album thanks in part to the gifted musical assembly that operated as her "New Best Friends." The joy of making the record is palpable but doesn't eclipse Mark's breadth as a singer-songwriter. She makes you laugh and cry, but most of all, she makes you feel like she'd be your best friend. Vish Khanna

Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)
All our days are numbered, but Iron + Wine's plucky acoustic album cuddles the personal prettiness of the reaper's work. How? Beard-of-bees singer Sam Beam lullabies us into bed with several soothers, yet never assures us we'll wake up the next morning, given such ideas as "when all tomorrows are gone, there will be teeth in the grass." Um, sweet dreams. Fish Griwkowsky

The Dirty South (New West)
The DBTs return to their Alabama roots with 14 songs that pack enough punch to collectively awake the spirits of Southern rockers long dead. The band chronicle the facts, fiction and the "faction" that is the American South. With three talented songwriters taking turns singing about their beloved homeland, these truckers hit no flats. David McPherson

Barnburners & Heartchurners (Kelp)
From frigid Maritime towns to parched urban landscapes, Jon Bartlett spins yarns of Thai tragedy, fat-bottomed girls, formaldehyde and the sweetest song about Red River flooding you ever did hear. From a guy whose rock'n'roll past can be accused of concept over content (the last GM album carried a hunting theme), this album proves that his heart is pure. No one can mistake Bartlett's genuine musical passions for shtick, because his aim is true. Michael Barclay

Drill A Hole In That Substrate and Tell Me What You See (Luaka Bop)
Jim White's third solo effort continues to perfect a singular pastiche of great American songwriters and storytellers, from Tom Waits to Souled American. Guests like Aimee Mann, M. Ward and the Sadies add variety to a record filled with more disparate themes than a Lynch film, but White's personality more than shoulders the album's narrative weight, weaving it all together into what is an often unbelievably compelling journey through his twisted psyche. Scott Reid

Escondida (Anti)
Escondida is a twisted bird: ragged, bare-bones Americana with a stately air. Every style Holland explores is mere suggestion: a sparse trumpet here, sensuous brushes there, but she paints a wondrous night time world soaked in constellations. Her clear voice is set apart by offbeat phrasing and jazzy inflections, and it stays with you, constantly at play with the lean instrumentation but never resting comfortably, perpetually inviting you in. Helen Spitzer

Jimson Weed (Nettwerk)
It's no fluke that the second album for Winnipeg's Nathan is named after a roadside weed that just happens to have hallucinogenic properties. The album is not only close-to-the-ground country with Americana-influenced tracks like "Red River Clay" and "Gasoline," its playful instrumentation and gypsy genre-mixing arrangements are mildly psychedelic, especially when you add Keri McTighe's sensual impish voice and harmonies that curl your toes. This Nettwerk debut is nothing less than intoxicating. Brent Hagerman

The South is Rising (Again)
It was hard to ignore the Southern U.S. this year, and not just because its votes were the primary reason that George Bush was re-elected. Yes, for most of us left-leaning Northerners the vast blanket of red we observed on the election night maps conjured up the old redneck stereotypes. But this year continued to show the South as a vibrant and complex music scene. The most potent example were the Drive-By Truckers, whose The Dirty South completed a stunning trilogy that began with Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day. Often described as "the thinking man's Lynyrd Skynyrd" (in my opinion an insult to the soul of Ronnie Van Zandt), head Trucker Patterson Hood paints a moving picture of rural Southerners still struggling to find an identity amid poverty, violence and changing values. The confidence that Bush won in the South will certainly not help to erase the stereotypes anytime soon, but Hood's songs have at least provided a contrary view that while the South may be insular, there are many who live there who are questioning many long-held principles.

The same can be said of Jim White, whose Drill A Hole In The Substrate And Tell Me What You See took a more darkly poetic approach. White has always been a songwriting enigma, but this release was his most vivid travelogue yet of trailer parks, single traffic light towns, and revival tent shows. Most halfway literate Southern songwriters get compared to novelists like Flannery O'Connor, but White is the only one to truly deserve the distinction.

Of course, what the South will always have over the North is that it invented rock'n'roll. And when given the chance to remind us of that, it never fails to come through. Just ask Elvis Costello, whose latest album, The Delivery Man, was recorded in Mississippi and exudes steamy Southern sweat on every track. Look for the new Kings Of Leon release, A-Ha Shake Heartbreak, to do the same, as well as the next My Morning Jacket album in the coming year. The fact is, the South can never be judged too harshly; it continues to do what it has always done: fiercely defend its culture for right or wrong. While politically it is most often wrong, musically it will always be right. Jason Schneider