Here are some some of the San Francisco Bay Area's best country & twangcore (and oddball roots and acoustic) bands... A-C | D-L | M-Z & Links |
A sweet tribute to the heyday of the heart song, that style of weepy ballads perfected in '40s and '50s and '60s by the likes of Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and George Jones. First off, I love the graphics (an homage to the Columbia label's late 'Fifties look, back when Carl Smith was top of their country roster...) and the liner notes are a hoot, too -- a witty takeoff on the pretentiously written, pseudo-intellectual "essays" Nashville used to slap onto their LPs. Best of all, Armstrong backs up his obvious love for the style with a lot of talent, especially as a songwriter. All twelve tracks on here are original compositions, written with an intentionally old-time feel. The material ranges from goofy Howard Harlan-style paradox tunes ("Looking Forward To Looking Back") to abject weepers and loser tunes galore. The production is a little uneven, but the material is great. (This disc can be found c/o Hepcat Records distribution).
Yay! This album is twice as punchy as his debut, packed with a dozen top-notch original compositions, and one well-chosen cover tune. Armstrong clearly has a strong command over the range of his material -- plain old, straight-ahead hard country music -- and he has a remerkable ability to write modern honkytonk songs that are every bit as good as the '50s artists he's out to emulate. Mighty good stuff. (PS - This time around the album art parodies the cover of Jimmie Skinner's LP by the same name (but wait; wasn't that on Mercury?), a clever homage that, once again, tips Armstrong's hat regarding his artistic intentions and his strong grasp of country music's rich history. His website is also a lot of fun to poke around.)
The Baguette Quartette "L'Aire De Paris" (1998)
This San Francisco Bay Area ensemble plays French musette music along with the occasional tango, and is one of the coolest acoustic acts around. Expatriate accordionist Odile LaVault contributes driving accompaniment to dozens of faithful renditions of Parisian cafe music from the 1920s and '30s, performed with a compelling, enthusiastic love of the material, and plenty of sheer musical know-how. Her fellow musicians also have great feeling for the style, and both of these albums are a treat. Check out The Baguette Quartet webpage for more information.
The Baguette Quartette "Chez Moi" (2001)
Another nice album, with plenty of classic composition written by the likes of Gus Viseur, Charles Peguri and Paul Misraki. Bay Area jazz guitarist Will Bernard is on board for this edition of the band, and adds some nice, sleek touches. Stylistically, this has some new sounds, mainly a couple of swing-flavored tunes, including Viseur's "Matelotte," a snappy late 1930s nod towards the gypsy jazz giant, Django Rinehardt. Warm, original takes on this old style -- check it out!
The Bellyachers "Bottoms Up" (Gut Records, 1999)
Oakland locals with a pretty solid, straight-up honky-tonk sound (and especially nice pedal steel work by David Phillips...) The female vox are in the Emmylou Harris/Carlene Carter range, which may please more than a few... This 7-song EP has a few rhythmic quirks and rough spots here and there, but for a self-released effort this is pretty strong stuff. The songwriting is especially high-calibre, with very little of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink stereotypes which plague "alt-country" these days. Keep an eye out for these folks. (Website: http://www.bellyachers.com)
The Belvederes "Tin Pan Western Folk" (Cole Valley Recordings, 1998)
You gotta give these fellas credit for playing stuff few others attempt these days -- this sounds heavily influenced by Pete Seeger, and reminiscent of '80s roots-folkies the Muskrats, with banjo plunkin', accordion squeezin', dobro twangin' good-natured takes on various stringband and folk scene oldies. The problem is that the production sounds a bit thin, and the main lead vocals are, too. Still, it's cute, local DIY material. For me, the album's highlight is the locally-themed "Inner Sunset Blues," which hearkens back to the psychedelic jugband sound of bands such as the Charlatans and the Warlocks...
Big Blue Hearts "Big Blue Hearts" (Geffen, 1997)
Oaklanders with a sleek, Chris Isaak-like sound. This is smooth, soulful and easy on the ears; dunno what happened to these lads since they put this out, but it was a pretty nice album.
The Bootcuts "Awful Good" (Makewater Music, 2001)
More of them there snotty city kids using country music as an excuse for puerile humor... At least the picking is solid -- these San Francisco Bay Area hipsters can play their instruments, it's just that they're spending an equal amount of effort being "clever" with the lyrics, as well as their exaggerated hillbilly accents, and dopey nom de hick pseudonyms ("I know... let's call Lori 'Lurleen' and Ross will be 'Cletus!' Haw haw haw!!"). More lame white trash stereotypes; I wish folks could get this sort of stuff out of their system before they make a record... It's especially sad seeing a band with this much talent simply waste it on musical poo-poo jokes. (Website: http://www.bootcuts.com)
Chris Brashear "Wanderlust" (Copper Creek, 1999)
Well-crafted, low-key bluegrass heart songs, produced by Jody Stecher, who also plays and sings throughout, as well as Laurie Lewis plunking away on the bass. A nice, unassuming country-tinged set, similar to the sweet stuff Ricky Skaggs' recorded in the early '80s. Recommended.
A charming, lowkey honkytonk record with considerable debts to folks such as Buck Owens and Little Jimmy Dickens. Yes, this album has its flaws, but for the most part Bright is one of those performers -- like Cornell Hurd -- whose occasional awkwardness is part of their charm. His strongest suit is in songwriting -- almost all of these songs are originals -- and it's on top-notch songs such as "Golden Tears" or "Somewhere, Someone, Some Wine," that he sounds most relaxed and confident. If you're interested in records from local scenes, especially from artists who play it straight, and avoid the lame white trash/hick sterotypes that many bands think are so funny, then check this guy out. (For more info, check out their website
Richard Buckner "Devotion+Doubt" (MCA, 1996)
Originally from the local twangcore outfit, the Buckets, this fella broke out on his own and followed his own foreboding, brooding singer-songwriter muse. After a while, Buckner really is a bit of a downer, but his second album (Devotion+Doubt)has some thoroughly top-notch songwriting on it, and some great melodic hooks. I haven't heard the Rykodisc re-release of his first album (with extra tracks), but I'd recommend it with caution -- it has uneven patches, but several nice tunes.
Once apon a time, San Francisco's master of countrified mopecore had the world by the balls, but now he's just a dismal bore. Methinks, the early acclaim went straight into the fatty tissues of Buckner's brain, as he took himself -- and his musical mission -- with somewhat undue and lamentable seriousness. Now, we get his brooding equivalent of a Nick Cave-style rock opera, based on several chapters of Edgar Lee Master's turn of the century book, Spoon River Anthology, itself a work of bleak, fictional Gothic Americana. Backed by members of the Calexico/Giant Sand crew, Buckner solomnly mutters his way through the obituaries and character sketches of several dozen citizens of the fictional Midwestern backwater of Spoon River, Illinois... a town which seemed unusually prone to death by stick thwacking and skull bashing. The album is almost unbearably pretentious and overwrought -- I'm sure that there are tons of folks out there eager for this sort of overinflated, high concept wankery... I'm just not one of them. Give me a pedal steel and a chorus I can sing along to, and leave the depressing "real life" melodrama to the Times Best Seller list and Cops.
One of the most riveting and upbeat albums by this inventive instrumental combo. Guitarist Jim Campilongo and his pedal steel-plunkin' cohort, Joe Goldmark, pick up where Nashville studio legends Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West left off... This disc is packed with dazzling drag-racing guitar duets, many with a country twang but also an experimental jazzy edge. Percussionist Ken Owen and bassist Chris Kee are right there, alongside the string kings, providing spare, punchy accompaniment. A nice record, midway between the poppy tunes of Martin Medeski & Wood and the old-school hillbilly hot pickers.
An unusual roots album that blends old-timey themes (and even some remixed archival recordings from the Library of Congress, such as the original Leadbelly vocals on "Cow Cow Yicky Yicky Yea...") with oddball, modernized sonic backgrounds. Arrangers Conrad Praetzel and Robert Powell use a few electronic "beats," although many tunes seem more ambient or even world music-ish. It's certainly a novel approach to the material, reverential yet strikingly innovative. The opening tracks, particularly those featuring vocals by Bay Area honkytonker Tom Armstrong, are pretty cool, though the second half of the album seems to meander and lose focus. Still, this album opens up some really interesting possibilities for a new approach to this old-fashioned American music.
Praetzel and Powell refine their formula, adding electronic-ambient layering over old folk and blues field recordings. This could easily be a hippie-folkie cultural trainwreck, but it's not... it's actually pretty engaging and intelligently constructed. More consistent and solid than the first album, with some intriguing aural surprises.
The first album by one of San Francisco's finest old-time stringbands. Here the Jades emerge as amiable acoustic twangsters, along the lines of the Dry Branch Fire Brigade -- knowledgable, enthusiastic and relatively accessible to bluegrassers and other non-old timey fans alike. The vocal chores are evenly split between the guys and gals, and when they really get going, their clattering enthusiasm is a thing to behold. Also check out their website.
The soundtrack to a documentary film about several generations of an Appalachian family, this shows the band's intensified interest in the more rarified, stark and otherworldly strains of old-timey music. These city folks nail it right on the head... Sinking deeper under the tow of old-timey music's darker side, the Jades present the passionate fatalism of mountain music along with all its musical charm. Singing higher and more plaintively, playing tighter and more aggressively, this is clearly a band that has found its footing, and is setting off to make its own original mark on some old, traditional music. And when the hair starts to stand up on the back of your neck, that's how you know they've succeeded. Cool record -- check it out!
Under the guidance of their pal and guest producer, Richard Buckner, the Crooked Jades go even deeper into the Gothic side of the old-timey continuum. Once again, I'm not a big fan of high-concept country, but I am intrigued by their efforts to recast these foreboding old themes into an updated sensibility. There are lots of nice touches, such as their slowing an old barndancing standard such as "Ida Red" down to a near-crawl, and allowing the antiquated, somewhat saucy, lyrics to take on new twists and secondary meanings. The picking and plunking is pretty good, too -- these city kids know how to play a breakdown right -- although at times I have to struggle the vocals, particularly those that are most openly imitative of Richard Buckner. As with many alt.country artistes, the Jades have a tendency to sound a little stilted, but they back it up with a strong command of their material, and this record is several notches above the rest of the crowd. Particularly fascinating are their variant versions of traditional songs -- in the best folkloric tradition, they travel familiar paths, but they veer off into the forest from time to time, just when you least expect it. Great record -- highly recommended!
NOTE: This page is a work in progress. If you have suggestions
for bands that are not included here, or are in such a band,
please feel to write me and let me know... thanks!
PS - there's more! Local Yokels, Page 2 Awaits You!
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