It can be difficult keeping up with the weekly avalanche of new music, but if you’ve missed out on the recent crop of releases from ATO Records, you’re doing yourself a serious injustice. There’s the rollicking update on classic rock from 2012 breakouts (and recent Best New Artist Grammy nominees) Alabama Shakes, more warm-and-friendly country from Old Crow Medicine Show, Patterson Hood delivered songs that felt like gritty novellas and Alberta Cross infused roots music with epic grandeur. This is your chance to discover what you missed, with ATO’s recent releases and this this free sampler.
The chatter that southern blues-rockers Alabama Shakes have generated in the months leading up to their debut is usually reserved for legends twice their age, or at least groups with more than a couple of songs to their name. There have been Janis Joplin and Otis Redding comparisons, endorsements from the likes of Jack White and Adele, and fans talking about their raucous live shows like they're enough to convert you to a new religion. And — if you can believe it — the Athens, Alabama quartet's full length debut Boys & Girls lives up to the hype.
The first thing that will bowl you over is that voice. "Bless my heart, bless my soul/ I didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old," howls singer/guitarist Brittany Howard in the opening moments of stellar single "Hold On," showing off her gritty, soulful pipes and making those Joplin comparisons feel earned. But they're not the whole story, either: Boys & Girls finds the Alabama Shakes pulling from the greats of rock and blues (catch the Bo Diddley reference in the opening lyric?) into a distinctive, and occasionally downright personal, sound. ("Come on Brittany!" she hollers to herself. "You gotta come on up!")
From the barroom piano stomp of "Hang Loose" to the Stones swagger of "Be Mine," Boys & Girls sounds like the work of a group of weary, wizened road warriors who've been playing together for decades, rather than a group who formed a couple of years ago when its principle players were still in their teens. With all this talent and confidence already on full display on their debut, imagine all they can do with the years ahead.
Folk music purists might argue that Old Crow Medicine Show don't actually play traditional bluegrass, old-time country, or any of the other Americana labels they routinely get slapped with. There's a certain punkish disregard to the band's frenzied acoustic tangle — which nods to the last hundred years of American vernacular music, from the Carter Family through Black Flag — and spirit trumps nearly everything else. Carry Me Back, the band's latest LP, follows a substantial personnel change (Willie Watson, once a lead vocalist and guitar player, was officially replaced by founding member Critter Fuqua, who'd been notably M.I.A. for the last several years), but the band's heart is still intact: Carry Me Back is full of hometown longing (the album's title track), harmonica-honking odes to once-in-a-lifetime love ("Ain't It Enough"), and hard-time, pass-the-jug stompers ("Mississippi Saturday Night"). It confirms somewhat definitively that Americana is, in fact, more a feeling than a sound — and that feeling is something like joy.
The wistful Canadian indie-pop band Stars built its fanbase smushing dance music and indie pop into an endearingly awkward embrace. Set Yourself On Fire, their 2005 high mark, found the perfect midpoint between the squirm and the hip-shake. The North, the band's sixth full-length studio album, carries right along in this tradition. Beats range from pitter-pattering to hammering, while jangling guitars share space with synths. And the band's two singers, Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan, take turns singing lead when they're not delivering lyrics in conversational rounds.
The album on the whole has a vaguely retro bent. Awash in reverb and shot through gently with Millan's cooing vocals, the hazy "Through the Mines" sounds like vintage Mazzy Star. "Lights Changing Colour" could've been an old Cocteau Twins demo, while a rave-up called "Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Get It" has the soaring, synthetic thrill of Cut Copy at its best.
And yet it's the kicker, "Walls," that takes fullest advantage of Campbell and Millan's boy-girl interplay. Campbell has the kind of delightfully fey accent that turns "party" into "pahty," and Millan sings in a breathy coo that can melt a record clerk's heart, and together they come off as an indie-rock answer to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, singing back and forth. Him: "I had a secret." Her: "Yeah but I knew it, love." Him: "And we were children." Her: "We danced to 'Hand in Glove.'" On it goes, with a chirping keyboard and a beat that won't sit still and a relationship drama unfolding before your ears.
As a Swedish-English duo who met in East London and have now relocated to Brooklyn via an unsuccessful spell in L.A., it's no wonder that Alberta Cross sound a little like a lot of things. The Southern-rock twang of their 2009 debut Broken Side Of Time has been side-lined here, and there's a craning toward big, booming stadium epics of the kind once routinely delivered by Oasis (with whom they toured) or Kings Of Leon. Yet they're also adept at the more soulful strain of non-boring boogie mastered by Tom Petty, so the album avoids plodding and achieves plaintive liftoff.
Petter Ericson Stakee, who says that between the two albums he hit "rock bottom" in L.A., sings with sandpapery desire in his voice, elevating rote numbers (influenced by the Gallaghers' songbook) to something more affecting. Although Songs Of Patience involved a glut of producers and (post-L.A.) had to be re-addressed inNew York, it hangs together dramatically, from the opening percussion-led drive of "Magnolia" to the stripped-down, intimate "Bonfires," which boasts a dash of Neil Young. "Crate of Gold" crunches in on fuzzy, serrated guitar riffs and makes a belligerent, bruised blues motif of the Occupy movement, while the more leisurely "Lay Down" — again sounding oddly Mancunian — surges toward its sing-along chorus of self-betterment.
"Wasteland" is perhaps the best track, a well-crafted anthem blending falsetto and dynamics to tether the clichÃ©s and unleash genuine passion. In taking their time on the "difficult" second album, Alberta Cross has honed a new, subtly Anglicised direction.
Rodrigo y Gabriela have become unlikely stars, a pair of Mexican metal guitarists who reinvented themselves as wild flamenco players after moving to Ireland. They've carved an admirable niche for themselves, with fiery playing and adventurous ideas that draw heavily on their rock past. Area 52 takes that basic formula one step further, teaming the duo with a 13-piece Cuban orchestra for a fresh look at some of their older material that offers a vibrant, unusual union of Latin cultures, an imagined place where Mexico, Cuba and the sense of old Spanish culture swirl effortlessly together.
Opener "Santa Domingo" sets the tone for much of the album; beginning with a heart-pounding riff, the duo crank up the tension until there's an explosion of brass, all of the elements powered by the punch of the wah-wah pedal - almost a trademark of the couple these days - before sprinting to a breathless finish. The album is deliberately brash, laced with incendiary guitar work (listen to the electric playing on "Hanuman," for example), and Cuban rhythms making a loud, colourful wrapper around the songs.
But it's not all relentless; the group injects plenty of light and shade, as on "Diablo Rojo," where flute and guitar breathe softly together before spiralling through some intense, slick picking to a satisfying climax. Or "Logos," with its delicate interplay between guitars and piano, the calm before the whirlwind of the two final cuts. Area 52 roars with Latin fire throughout, full of passion and sweat, a workout for all the senses. Yet at the same time, this re-imagination of old material, not matter how adventurously it's done, feels like the end of a chapter. It's as if Rodrigo and Gabriela had one final statement to make with these pieces before moving on to something fresh and different, a new phase in their career. And they've done it in spectacular fashion.