Because you don’t need one more person telling you how great DAMN is, I’ve decided to stick to my 5 Favourite Country & Folk albums of 2017 so far. If you’ve missed any of our series, you can catch up on the rest of our team’s top 5’s right here.
The Nashville Sound – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (16th June)
Jason Isbell has continued his run of great albums with The Nashville Sound, a Country Rock album that seems to perfectly capture this moment in time. There’s an almost Springsteen-like quality to his lyrics, giving voice to disaffected blue-collar America, such as in the album’s second song ‘Cumberland Gap’. The album’s roaring climax is a bittersweet rock piece about finding hope amidst Trump-era disillusionment, entitled ‘Hope the High Road’. The chorus goes:
I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
It’s rare for a song to so comprehensively capture the national mood – at least among liberals – and Isbell does so in a manner both honest and heartening. The Nashville Sound also features some great country love ballads, the best being, ‘If We Were Vampires’, and perhaps the lyrical peak of the album comes with ‘Chaos and Clothes’, which includes this lyric:
You’re in a fight to the death, my friend
Fight like you’re chained to the wheel
You’ve got the past on your breath, my friend
Now name all the monsters you’ve killed.
It’s terrific, sophisticated songwriting from Isbell, whose reputation as one of country music’s foremost artists is only growing. To top it off, the musicianship is first-rate. Isbell is an impressive guitarist and his band, The 400 Unit, navigate the tracklist with a dynamic, infectious energy. The Nashville Sound is a great album, undoubtedly one of the year’s best.
Honest Life – Courtney Marie Andrews (19th August)
Courtney Marie Andrews, a 26 year-old country singer from Arizona, is one of country music’s more visible up-and-coming acts, recently appearing on BBC 2’s Late Night with Jools Holland. Judging by the album she was there promoting, Honest Life, it’s easy to see why. Honest Life may be pretty straight-down-the-line country music, but what it lacks in invention it more than makes up for in insight, grace and style. Andrews’ vocals are rich, emotional and versatile; she performs slow, tender ballads like the title track ‘Honest Life’ just as well as up-tempo, uplifting numbers, the best of which being ‘Irene’, which takes the form of an empowering message to a girl in trouble. It’s well-trodden thematic material, but executed so very enjoyably.
Joan Shelley – Joan Shelley (8th May)
American folk artist Joan Shelley’s self-titled fifth album doesn’t quite hit the heights of her previous release, the outstanding Over and Even, but it comes pretty damn close. The songs are personal, sometimes seemingly in-character. The whole album is tuneful, in the truest sense of the term – and not just because of Shelley’s singing, pitch-perfect and crystal-clean. The lyrics are usually short, understated and repetitive, in a folk-song kind of way. Take this, for example, from the track ‘Wild Indifference’:
Can you even see me
Am I coming through
Ain’t it lonely
Ain’t it lonely?
In your wild indifference
It’s all centered around you
The song-writing is intelligent and knowing, framing big emotions with everyday simplicity. Jeff Tweedy’s production is also first-rate, lending Joan Shelley a layered, captivating sound, even as much of the instrumentation remains pared-down: one or two instruments accompanying Shelley’s vocals. This is of the best folk albums of the year – a mellow, thoughtful delight.
Semper Femina – Laura Marling (10th March)
Pretty much every Laura Marling is a reason for excitement; each of her five previous full-length studio albums have proved a unique, musically adventurous experience. Semper Femina is no exception. Marling takes the electric, rock-influenced sound she used to such tremendous effect on 2015’s Short Movie and makes of it something a bit more eclectic, a little looser. The unifying idea behind Semper Femina is less a sound than a theme, one exploring the variation and depths in the female experience. Some of the songs are excellent – ‘Wild Fire’, ‘Always this Way’, ‘Nouel’ – and others more forgettable, but the album is one that transcends the sum of its parts.
The Wide Afternoon – Jack Harris (20th January)
British singer-songwriter Jack Harris follows up the terrific The Flame and the Pelican with this collection of songs, a wonderfully lyrical mix of traditional and modern folk, imbued with timelessly poetic imagery. Harris has a comfort and originality with words that sets him apart from his contemporaries; consider the hook in ‘Bird in the Broken Clock’, for instance:
Baby I’m a bird in a broken clock
A few seconds shy of the functioning flock
The wheels are shot all about my head
By I’ll make my song above your bed
Harris has the lexicon of an 18th century novelist; in less steady hands, the efforts would likely spill over into pretention. But there’s no sense of that with The Wide Afternoon. The lyrics are dense but artful and rich with meaning. The lofty ambitions of Harris’ song-writing style land surely and naturally, due in part to the terrific musicality on show. The guitar playing is deft and communicative; Gerry Diver’s great backup instrumentation completes the sound. Many of the songs have the ring of folk traditionals while, almost paradoxically, sharing a distinct lyrical voice. Highlights include the Joyce-inspired ‘Molly Bloom’, the thumping ‘Drowned House’, and ‘Vanished Birds’, in which the songwriter imagines the sight of a crowd of extinct exotic birds walking through a London park. It’s a typically inventive way to close off a superb album that deserves to only grow in reputation.
Image: Southeastern Records; Loose Music; Joan Shelley; More Alarming Records; RootBeat Records