Americana

MISS TESS

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When most people think of defiant music, they think of punk rock or outlaw country. But defying genres while transcending eras and resisting clichés is hard to pin down when it comes to artistry—unless you’re talking about Miss Tess, who does all of that and more on her new release, The Moon Is an Ashtray. Swinging for the fences and from the branches of jazz, country, blues and old school rock and roll, she has employed all of her influences and talents on a tour-de-force, while cleverly taking standard perspectives and ideas—like the definition of a love song—to task.

To help capture and shape her own unique sound, Miss Tess enlisted not only her trusty 1930s Weymann archtop, but also heavy input from co-producers Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff) and Thomas Bryan Eaton, her full-time bandmate and musical partner. Tess elaborates, “I think Andrija’s indie leanings were pivotal in taking these songs into a transcendent space, while still supporting my initial vision. He definitely pushed me in new ways and the three of us found a very interesting mix between bold experimentation and a more traditional approach.” Combining Thomas’ arranging ideas and skilled instrumental work with Andrija’s studio full of vintage mics, tube amps, keyboards, and tape machines, the resulting record has a rich, buttery warmth well-suited to Miss Tess's voice and authentic, retro-contemporary songwriting style. 

The album starts with the stinging bite of “The Truth Is,” a Dave Godowsky tune that Miss Tess delivers with an insouciance that simultaneously betrays and belies its kiss-off content. The only cover on the record, Tess has no problem making it her own. “I love the unexpected meanness of it,” she confesses. “He originally wrote it as a happy early Beatles-sounding tune, but I changed some of the chords and the melody a bit, then slowed it down to make it darker and way more crushing.” Saccharin sweetness need not apply. 

Lake Street Dive's Rachael Price joins in the fun for a duet on “True Flood,” which kicks open the old soul gates with its deep, rolling groove. Mid-way through the New Orleans-style rollick, Miss Tess steps up for a slyly swaggering guitar run showcasing her instrumental prowess. From the rapid-fire country-rock of “Gamblin' Man” to the laid-back jazz-blues of “Riverboat Song,” Miss Tess shows both the pluck and poise to fold a multitude of styles into her own. That's what happens when you grow up in a musical household giving the blues greats, big bands, and Chuck Berry equal weight.

The idea of defiance parlays itself into the tongue-in-cheek metaphor of the album’s title track, “The Moon is an Ashtray.” It’s not about what we look at necessarily, but what we see that matters. From our earthbound vantage and oft storied lore, the moon is a romantic and mystical entity; though as one looks closer, the moon is dusty, barren, and empty. Here, Tess breaks from the moon’s typical cliché to deliver a much more cynical, yet whimsical point-of-view, conveyed with her smoky vocals set against a swaying backdrop of bright guitar licks and yearning pedal steel. She sings, “The moon is an ashtray, catching dreams that have burned away / They couldn’t stand up to the flame, so they flickered and died.”

After over a decade on the road, now making her home in Nashville — by way of Baltimore, Boston, and Brooklyn — Miss Tess has found a creative community that encourages and embraces wide artistic exploration and expression as much as she does. Alongside Thomas (who’s been a full-time band member for seven years), local heavyweights like Dennis Crouch, John Pahmer, Jimmy Lester, Jack Lawrence, and Larry Atamanuik fill out the album’s liner notes, but the songs belong to Tess.

Throughout the record, Tess uses many of these songs to look at love from every angle she can think of, except the usual. There is the mysterious thrill of “One Little Kiss,” the quiet havoc of “If You Don’t Know How to Love Me”, the uncomfortable exhilaration in “Take It Easy,” and the deceptive psychedelic darkness of “Sugarbabe.” Of the latter, which initially takes the form of a traditional Piedmont-style blues, she says, “It might sound sweet at first, but the song actually speaks to an underlying intense sexual desire and yearning for someone who is either spreading their love around to many, or is simply gone. Despite these frustrations, you are still deeply obsessed.” The song then shifts into psychedelic overdrive with a swirling instrumental section that leaves the listener unsure of which way is up, or where the journey began.

As Miss Tess shows in every moment of The Moon Is an Ashtray, questioning the status quo while maintaining her unique identity and challenging our ideas of perspective, well, there's nothing more defiant than that.


NELS ANDREWS

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Although he was born by the sea, it wasn’t until he moved to the desert that Nels  Andrews began writing songs. He sang them alone in a house constructed of mud and tires on the sage-brushed mesas of Taos, New Mexico where he spent his 20’s, airing them occasionally around campfires. It wasn't until a move 90 miles south to the dusty yet curiously eccentric city of Albuquerque that he began to play them in front of strangers, and from there, to start collaborating. Andrews enlisted the talents of some inventive indie musicians he met at the Red Door, a creaky second-floor respite and practice space (and former railroad brothel) on historic Route 66 in the center of downtown. That initial collaboration began to shape his desert-infused folk/rock sound, pairing literary narratives of curious high desert outsiders with the psych-rock palate and electro-fuzz of his then band, The El Paso Eyepatch, and resulted in his debut album Sunday Shoes.

After his band dissolved, Andrews and his new wife moved back to her native east coast to set up a home in the freshly-blossoming bohemian enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There he crossed paths with bass virtuoso/composer Todd Sickafoose (Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco, Anaïs Mitchell) who offered to produce Andrews’ sophomore record, Off Track Betting (Reveal Records UK/Lucky dice NL). Sickafoose brought with him a whole new palette of musicians from NYC’s downtown experimental/new music scene, which lent new textures and shapes to Andrews’ increasingly impressionistic story songs. Third album Scrimshaw was gleaned from his time working as a chauffeur in Manhattan; he followed his literary heroes Melville and Yeats, as the songs drew on an earthy mysticism and a romantic look to the past.

Now, happily stationed near the sea again in Santa Cruz, Andrews has gracefully woven the morning fog, redwoods, and oceanside into his forthcoming record Pigeon and The Crow, produced by traditional Irish flutist Nuala Kennedy (Gerry O’Conner, Will

Oldham). A songwriter’s record in the spirit of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece with a breath of the texture, rhythm, and longing of Milton Nascimento’s Club De Esquina 1Pigeon and The Crow brims with literary wordplay, mixed with some sway, some shimmer, and some sand between your toes.

The bones of this soon-to-be-released fourth studio record was tracked live over three days at Whispering Pines Studio in Los Angeles.The studio was originally built for Sam Cooke in the 60s, turned into a funk/soul palace in the 70s, abandoned when the owner found religion in the 80s, and later rehabilitated by Indie rock outfit Lord Huron.

While recording, Andrews slept on the tracking room floor every night and dreamt in technicolor born of the vibes steeped into that well-worn musical space. Andrews, along with Kennedy, Sebastian Steinberg (Iron and Wine, Fiona Apple , Soul Coughing) on bass, and Quinn on drums/percussion (T-Bone Burnett, Eastmountainsouth), breathed life into the songs together in that one room—and then the international collaboration began. Producer Kennedy headed back to Ireland with the tracks in tow, and beamed them across the globe to the rest of the players—from the UK to the Azores. The album boasts a mix of traditional players from Kennedy’s past to some of Andrews’ newest old friends like Stelth Ulvang of The Lumineers, as well as some older old friends and collaborators from New York, including guest appearances by fellow songsmiths Anaïs Mitchell, AJ Roach, and Anthony Da Costa.

The result is 10 ethereal yet substantial tracks that assess life “mid-game,” a time that is less straightforward than youth imagined, where our strategies and gambits are yet unresolved—stories from a place past innocence but perhaps still before wisdom. These are songs written about that place: an actress in her sunset, a husband folding now-soft wedding sheets, a father meditating on love and selfishness, and the ghosts of former relationships. Pigeon and The Crow contains wistful resolve, a steady backbone, and a late afternoon light reflected off the sea.

Pigeon and The Crow is set to be released August 9, 2019.

EDAN ARCHER

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Gainesville, Florida-based outlaw Americana artist Edan Archer has announced the upcoming release of her new album Journey Proud, set for release on August 2nd. Archer, who performed at this year’s Stagecoach Music Festival for the first time, has been praised by Rolling Stone Country, American Songwriter, Wide Open Country, and more. Recently, Parade Magazine premiered the video for album track “Six Wing Angel.” Filmed in Florida by director Ed Agudelo using only an iPhone and a drone, the video is a beautiful visualization for the Appalachian murder ballad-style tune. Parade commented that Archer used the iPhone and drone “to amazing effect. With beautifully shot Southern footage and a mournful story, the song and video take Archer’s swampy sensibilities and roll them into a fingerpicked fable.”

“The six-winged angel is, in this song, acting as the angel of death, who comes to visit the main character as his time to die comes upon him,” Archer explains. “It was inspired by a cousin who, after a hard life of drug and alcohol abuse, died alone on my dad’s front lawn one night. In this song, the character is asking for more time, reflecting on his life, and taking comfort in the last friend he has left, his whiskey bottle.” 

Journey Proud was recorded at Atomic Sound in Brooklyn, New York and Magnetic Sound in Nashville, Tennessee and co-produced by Archer and Shayni Rae. The album's ten tracks explore ideas of love, loss, rebellion, and hardship--from substance abuse to refusing to conform to someone's idea of what a woman "should" be--including the retelling of a bank robbery committed by a friend in the tongue-in-cheek "You Shoot I Drive." Archer's music showcases rock and country influences combined with Appalachian folk as she gets gritty with dulcimer magic and casts spells with intimate ballads, skillful fingerpicking, alternate tunings, and rich effects. The songs of Journey Proud showcase Archer's compelling vocals and stringed prowess, touching on something primal, those ancient foundations that lie deep with the soul.