From the moment Murry Hammond’s world-weary drawl joins his faint strumming on his haunting rendition of “What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?” it’s clear that residing in Southern California has done nothing to alter his Texas roots. On his 17-song self-released solo debut, the Old 97’s bassist proves himself not only a superb interpreter of gospel and country-folk standards but also an immensely gifted songwriter capable of crafting rich, evocative narratives that peer deeply into the human experience through the lens of Americana.
In the time of shuffle and single-song downloads, I Don’t Know Where I’m Going But I’m On My Way is a cohesive album best appreciated from start to finish, with Hammond’s original material seamlessly woven among the traditional tunes. Each song sounds lived in, intimate. Whether he’s singing about wanderlust or Jesus, he clearly feels every word.
Tales of trains real and metaphorical permeate the album—“Between the Switches,” “Riding the Rods,” “Grainer,” “As You Roll Across the Trestle”—and serve as a fitting motif for Hammond’s reflections on physical and spiritual journeys. Many of the songs move with the steady beat of railcar clatter, including the album’s two most immediately catchy songs, “Lost at Sea” and “Wreck of the 97,” which both reflect the melodic sensibilities of his Old 97’s work.
The album’s finest moments, though, come at the close with a trio of songs that reinforce the themes of loss, death, and faith. Only a harmonium joins Hammond’s quavering vocal on Bob Nolan’s “Rainbow’s End” while on “Other, Younger Days,” ambient acoustic guitars whirl as Hammond offers his most direct ruminations on his parents’ recent deaths: “Last few years, we’d brought him home/ To ease the day that she sailed on . . . “He said, ‘Now, sons, as you pass by/ As you are now so once was I/ As I am now, so you must be/ Dead to rights and following.” The final track, Hammond’s modern-day hymn “I Believe, I Believe,” resonates with the hope of his faith while retaining the ache of struggle and yearning.
Ray LaMontagne - Gossip in the Grain
Joined in the studio by members of his touring band as well as Ethan Johns—once again producing and lending a musical hand—Ray LaMontagne takes a few stabs at broadening his sound on his third album, Gossip in the Grain. The album kicks off with the punchy horn blasts of the first single, “You Are the Best Thing,” a slice of Motown-flavored R&B that showcases his soulful, raspy-like-a-worn LP vocals.
Sometimes serious to a fault, LaMontagne reveals a lighter side on the country crawl “Hey Me, Hey Mamma” and the alternately stomping and trippy “Meg White.” On the latter, though, the playful nature of the song is offset a bit by LaMontagne’s gruff delivery sounding a wee bit stalkerish.
But a few genre diversions aside, the album is still very much in the brooding singer-songwriter vein of his previous albums. On several songs LaMontagne again (see Till the Sun Turns Black) falls prey to the idea that sandpapery, whispered vocals can make dull, meandering songs good. Whispered vocals matched with a gentle, coasting melody and deft finger-picking, however, is good (“Sarah”) even if it means sounding like you used “One of These Things First” as a template. The passionate ache of LaMontagne’s best work resonates on the ballads “Let It Be Me” and the gorgeous “A Falling Through,” on which a pedal steel and Leona Naess’s delicate harmonies enhance the song’s stirring melancholy.
Josh Rouse - Best of the Ryko Years
Josh Rouse’s Best of the Rykodisc Years compilation could just as well be entitled The Best of Josh Rouse. The two-disc set, culled from the first seven years of his career, offers a reminder of his ability to infuse gentle melodies with a subtle intensity, an intensity lacking on the lounge –flavored fair of his past two albums, Subtitulo (2006) and Country Mouse City House (2007). “Under Cold Blue Stars” and the selections from the retro concept album 1972 all have large traces of the overly insouciant tone of his recent work, but the folk rock-influenced tracks, particularly those from Dressed Up Like Nebraska and Home, sound as engaging as they did when they garnered Rouse critical acclaim.
On the gritty rocker “Directions” Rouse pushes his thin, smoky voice as close to a Westerbergian growl as he can, but more often his songs create an enveloping mood of melancholy rather than fiery angst as on the horn-punctuated “Laughter” or the sleepy waltz “100m Backstroke.” Bittersweet ballads like “Ugly Stories” and “Rise” from Under Cold Blue Stars and Nashville respectively exhibit an increased sophistication both stylistically and sonically but retain the emotional pull of his earlier material.
Disc 2, likely of more interest to diehard fans, offers all six tracks from 2001’s Bedroom Classics, Vol. 1 EP as well as a handful of outtakes and demos.