This page is part of an opinionated overview of "alt.country" music, with record reviews by me, Joe Sixpack... Naturally, it's a work in progress, and quite incomplete, so your comments and suggestions are welcome.
This page covers the letter "J"
Carl Jackson -- see artist profile
Elana James "Elana James" (Snarf Records, 2006)
An absolutely captivating and lively record from fiddler Elana James (nee Fremerman), formerly of the Hot Club Of Cowtown. Given her illustrious swing-string pedigree, the mix of western swing and jazz standards is no surprise, but what's a delight is the album's focus and cohesion, and how gosh-darn well-produced it sounds. It just sounds like a pure, unfettered expression of what she wants to do, and with an artist this talented, that's a pretty cool thing. Throughout the album, James is clearly channeling the spirit of Bob Wills, but with a lively snap of the bow that's all her own; the vocals are also nice, as are the nods to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Eubie Blake. If you liked the Hot Club, you're gonna want to pick this one up... pronto! (Available through www.elanajames.com)
Ryan James "Back To The Wind" (Hightail, 2007)
(Produced by Tim Lorsch & Walt Wilkins)
Texas-based songwriter Ryan James flies under the radar with this fine set of half-alt/half-pop twang. It's an indie release, but your ears will perk up when you hear tunes like "Everything That Glitters Is Not Gold" (a Dan Seals oldie) contrasted with a cover of Waylon Jennings old hit, "Ramblin' Man." Although the album opens with a couple of tunes that seem tailormade for Nashville bigwigs like Tim McGraw, et. al., to cover -- "Goodbye Carolina" and "Home On The Range" -- James is equally comfortable with chunkier, more outlaw-ish material, and sympathetic backing from Walt Wilkins and his crew make this a pretty solid set. James is a perfect example of the current intersection between roots music and chart hits -- he could go either way, and he certainly should make some headway as a Music Row songwriter... Worth checking out, no matter which side of the fence you're on!
Ryan James "Directed" (Smith Entertainment, 2008)
Janet & Jeff "Jesus Built A Ship To Sing A Song To" (Kokopop, 1994)
A tribute to the duets of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, reprised here by Janet Bean (of Freakwater) and Jeff Lescher, of the Chicago-based indierock band, Green.
Sarah Jarosz "Song Up In Her Head" (Sugar Hill, 2009)
(Produced by Gary Paczosa & Sarah Jarosz)
On her opening track, "Song Up In Her Head," newcomer Sarah Jarosz namechecks the mighty Gillian Welch and then moves through a series of songs that easily put her on a par with her Americana-indie icon. While that track may seem imitative, the next, "Edge Of A Dream," is revelatory -- a moody, mystical tune with a drifting melody that can get stuck in your head for days on end. Jarosz, a multi-instrumentalist who is equally at home on clawhammer banjo, piano or mandolin, performs with immense confidence, which is all the more remarkable given that she was only seventeen years old when this record was made. In the last five years she has been performing onstage with some of the biggest names in bluegrass, including spacegrass elder David Grisman. Grisman's son Samson is in Jarosz's posse, playing bass on this album, alongside studio pros such as Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan, and former Nickel Creek-er Chris Thile. She clearly has an affinity for a wide range of bluegrass and other acoustic styles, from traditional/old-timey sounding songs in the David Rawlings-Gillian Welch mold to more exploratory, poetic songwriting, ala Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss. As a songwriter and performer, Jarosz is a marvel, penning "Broussard's Lament," one of the most powerful of the recent crop of modern topical folk songs about Hurricane Katrina, while tapping deep into the blues-gospel spirituality of "Come On Up To The House," and the Joni Mitchellesque melancholy of "Long Journey." On these songs, as on others, she sings with an emotional depth and level of understanding that belies her youth. Only on a couple of tunes, the goofy-gothy "Shankill Butchers" and the sprightly but amorphous "Left Home," is there the tiniest hint of her as a teenager learning her craft; otherwise, she reveals herself as one of the most powerful performers in her field, newcomer or otherwise. This is one of the best Americana albums of the year, and Ms. Jarosz is an artist to keep close track of, a real gem.
The Jayhawks "The Jayhawks" (Bunkhouse, 1986)
The Jayhawks "Blue Earth" (Twintone, 1989)
The Jayhawks "Hollywood Town Hall" (Def American, 1992)
Hmmm. I still gotta wonder: what was all the hype about? Back in the day, a lot of people went totally ga-ga over this album, and while this is a pleasant enough country-rock record, most of the songs are a bit on the long, lofty, stream-of-consciousness side (writer Mark Olson's specialty) and they often overstay their welcome. In general, few of these songs are actually that catchy or memorable, in a classic "pop" way, although the record is nice enough to listen to. It's nice, relaxing latter-day Neil Young-influenced stonerbilly stuff, but it's not really all *that* amazing. The band sure seems to have taken itself seriously, though!
The Jayhawks "Hollywood Town Hall (Expanded Edition)" (Sony Legacy, 1992/2011)
This upgrade of the Jayhawks' major-label debut includes five bonus tracks, including an obscure B-side and some other obscure material that'll be like catnip to longtime fans.
The Jayhawks "Tomorrow The Green Grass" (American, 1995)
Wow... what a leap in quality! This is a lush, expansively produced, very poppy album. I've always been obsessed by their outstanding, ebullient, George Harrison-y cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time," but the rest of this album is quite solid and captivating as well... Probably the highest realization of the Mark Olson-era band's ideals, and my favorite Jayhawks album... Highly recommended!
The Jayhawks "Tomorrow The Green Grass (Legacy Edition)" (Sony Legacy, 1995/2011)
(Produced by George Drakoulias)
Although this album was recently remastered and reissued (in 2008), this expanded 2-CD set is worth aiming for if you're a fan... There are nearly two dozen "new," previously unreleased tracks on here, including one B-side from a single and a ton of outtakes and other rarities. A great bargain and worth tracking down.
The Jayhawks "Sound Of Lies" (American, 1997)
The first post-Olson album opens as a lavish, unrepentant popfest, and while some twang creeps in from time to time, this is mostly a rock record, of the ornately arranged, grand vision variety. It's a bit much for at times, but proves more listenable than one might imagine: Gary Louris has a compelling vocal presence, one that leaps out at you and commands your attention, in a gentle, nudging, insistent kinda way. A nice rebound for a band that many assumed was on the way out after one of its principal songwriters had left... Worth checking out, but maybe not if you're of an anti-mainstream, no-sellout, alt.country purist frame of mind.
The Jayhawks "Smile" (Columbia/American, 2000)
About half the songs on here sound quite nice. With the band very much his own, Gary Louris sets up shop as sole songwriter, crafting a strong batch of mostly pleasant, easy-on-the-ears, electronica-tinged country rock zone-out tunes. Overall, the album has a facile feel, but only a few tunes (particularly in the second half of the record) are even remotely irritating. A couple of songs have blaring, somewhat generic, electric guitar leads that stand out like sore thumbs (given the general spacy mellowness of the album...) and sent me running for the fast-forward button... Sure, this disc is AOR-ish, but overall you can't complain.
The Jayhawks "Rainy Day Music" (Columbia/American, 2003)
A lovely, mellow soft-rock set that really lives up to its name -- this is the kind of stuff you'd want to have on while the raindrops pitter-patter, pitter-patter along the windowpanes. Of the rock-oriented Jayhawks albums, I'd say this is my favorite: there are several songs on it that are irresistibly tuneful (particularly "Eyes Of Sarahjane" and "One Man's Problems") and the album as a whole hangs together really nicely. Well-crafted, pleasantly listenable and quite hearftfelt. Recommended!
The Jayhawks "Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology" (Sony Legacy, 2009)
The twin legacies of Alex Chilton and Gram Parsons hover over these classic indie/billy twangcore tunes... This is a nice 2-CD retrospective tracing the band's various phases and expansions, with shifting lineups and changes in style. I've always heard the Jayhawks as more of a rock band, though the twang is definitely there. It's interesting to hear them move from the mystically-oriented early days with Mark Olson in the band into a more streamlined rock style when the band was led by Gary Louris -- the programming of Disc One (the studio "hits") does a remarkable job of making these changes sound like a cohesive whole. Disc Two features demo tracks and other rarities, and gathers plenty of goodies for longtime fans to enjoy. (I'm sad that they didn't include their sublime cover of Grand Funk Railroad's "Bad Time" -- one of the catchiest tracks they ever recorded -- but I guess you can't squeeze everything in on every best-of...) The deluxe package also includes a third disc of video material, which is also kinda fun.... Overall, this is a very good document of the band's first couple of decades, a fan's delight as well as a strong introduction to one of the key bands in the 1990s alt-country scene.
The Jayhawks "Mockingbird Time" (Rounder, 2011)
Horatio Lee Jenkins "Drunker Than Satan" (EP) (Drunkerthansatan.Com, 2009)
Shooter Jennings - see artist discography
Eilen Jewell "Boundary County" (2006)
Eilen Jewell "Letters From Sinners And Strangers" (Signature Sounds, 2007)
Eilen Jewell "Heartache Boulevard" (EP) (Signature Sounds, 2008)
Eilen Jewell "Sea Of Tears" (Signature Sounds, 2009)
Eilen Jewell "Butcher Holler: A Tribute To Loretta Lynn" (Signature Sounds, 2010)
Eilen Jewell "Queen Of The Minor Key" (Signature Sounds, 2011)
Jim & Jennie And The Pine Barons "Jim And Jennie And The Pine Barons" (??)
Jim & Jennie And The Pinetops "Little Birdie" (Overcoat, 2000)
This clattersome, Philadelphia-based quartet brings back some of the rowdy rambunctiousness of the old-timey stringbands... Their original material, about half of this album, is pretty strong, though it's also nice to hear them pay homage to their inspirations -- among them, the Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs and the Delmore Brothers. I have to confess that although he's a very strong songwriter, Jim Krewson's vocals irritate me in that he's too strained and exaggeratedly twangsome, a little too schtick-y, if you see what I mean. His partner Jennie Benford mostly sounds pretty nice, though, and the two harmonize in a pleasantly unruly fashion. Benford reminds me quite a bit of Hazel Dickens, and it's quite appropriate that she pays Hazel homage, in a version of "Won't You Come Sing For Me." Nice record, definitely worth checking out.
Jim & Jennie And The Pinetops "One More In The Cabin" (Overcoat, 2002)
It's hard to believe that these perfectly-crafted old-time-ish tunes were not in fact written by some mistily-remembered contemporary of the Carter Family or Grandpa Jones, but rather by a bunch of modern urban hipsters from Philadelphia who just happen to have an uncanny grasp of the oddball mountain music of the early 20th Century. They get the constrained emotionality and matter-of-fact narrative tone just right, as well as the subject matter -- song after song starts with a familiar set-up, and it's really only until you open the CD booklet that you can be sure that these songs were actually written by the band. These folks aren't hotshot superpickers, and they purposefully sing all raspy and off-key, yet unlike oh, so many of their twangcore contemporaries, the Pinetops don't come off as pretentious dilettantes. Rather, this is a band that is respectful and utterly in command of the genre they've adopted, and their material is emotionally resonant and entirely convincing. In fact, I'd say that if at least some of these songs don't work their way into the official bluegrass canon, something is seriously wrong in the world. Highly recommended!
Jim & Jennie And The Pinetops "Rivers Roll On By" (Bloodshot, 2005)
It was definitely worth the three-year wait for fans to get this new Jim & Jennie album... They've rosined up the bow and spun another enchanting set of bluegrass and old-timey stringband music. Oddly enough, even though they've moved from the artsy Overcoat label onto the ostentatiously altie Bloodshot, the Pinetops have actually inched away from the clattersome anarchy of their previous albums towards something closer to straight-up bluegrass and folk. The softer, more professional approach gives their work a more authoritative feel, yet just as they seem to be settling into a more mainstream bluegrass mode, they gently drift into space-rockish terrain on a couple of tunes towards the end of the album, which helps keep things a little freaky. There's something compelling about this band -- the group has a singular presence, exuding a freshness and enthusiasm unlike that of many mainstream bluegrass crews -- Jim & Jennie take respectful advantage of the mountain music style without subsuming themselves to tradition and, as always, they dazzle us with a remarkable blend of naifish simplicity and canny innovation. Recommended!
Whitey Johnson "Gary Nicholson Presents... Whitey Johnson" (Palo Duro, 2008)
(Produced by Colin Linden)
Groovy whiteboy acoustic blues, featuring slide player Whitey Johnson, who is apparently a pseudonym for Gary Nicholson, a six-stringin' pal of Delbert McClinton. Delbert blows the harp on a tune or two, while "Whitey" does some fancy pickin' and growls his way through a bunch of gritty original blues tunes, including several cowritten with modern blues dudes such as Colin Linden, Kim Wilson, Guy Clark -- and Delbert McClinton, of course! Sounds like they had a lot of fun recording this one.
John Train "Angels Turned Thieves" (Record Cellar, 1999)
John Train "Looks Like Up" (Record Cellar, 2002)
Nice record. First off, the title is a reference to a blues lyric that Richard Farina copped in the '60s, and any twangcore-alty band that wants to reference Farina -- or Furry Lewis -- is alright by me. This album is an interesting mix of really good, really catchy melodic alt.country and more rock-oriented jangly stuff. Songwriter Jon Houlon has a nice way with a tune, although on a few tunes he does slide into lamentably spiral-binder, earnest folkie terrain (particularly on the long-winded and self-righteous "Did You Come By Your Bitterness Honestly?") But the handful of strong songs on here are definitely worth checking out. Recommended.
John Train "The Sugar Ditch" (Record Cellar, 2004)
John Train "Mesopotamia Blues" (2007)
Norah Jones - see artist discography
Teri Joyce "Kitchen Radio" (Self-Released, 2009)
(Produced by Teri Joyce & Justin Trevino)
More great indie twang from Texas. This is one of those records that I find myself listening to over and over, and liking more and more... And there's a lot to enjoy. Backed by Americana stalwarts such as guitarist Dave Biller and pianist T. Jarrod Bonta, Joyce brings a pure DIY, indie-twang sensibility to this record, full of earnest feeling and pleasantly human imperfections. Best of all is her grasp of old-school country, although old-school of a certain variety... On the opening tracks, particularly on "Don't Look For Me 'Til You See Me Comin'," and "Belly Up," she magically captures the feel of the twangier end of the early '70s commercial country scene, the buoyant novelty songs you'd hear on the radio, circa 1972, sandwiched between the syrupy countrypolitan hits... Indeed, the album's title track is an ode to the old days, when country radio was less tragically prefab and predictable; she's also got an anthem to Austin and aching ballads, like the evocative "Bluebonnets For My Baby." Roger Wallace provides some fine, Haggard-esque harmonies and duet vocals on several tunes... All in all, a fine record from an artist worth keeping on your radar.
James Justin & Co. "Dark Country" (Self-Released, 2011)
Singer-songwriter James Justin Burke takes a few cues from American goth-nik Richard Buckner, but doesn't go as far down the gloom-doom rabbithole. This is an interesting and highly listenable mix of indie and twang, with some songs shedding the country vibe in favor of a more rock'n'roll sound, though for most of the album banjo and mandolin figure quite prominently. Definitely worth a spin, and as I said, this is a record you can play all the way through and kind of lose yourself in... Sounds nice!
Alt.Country Albums - Letter "K"
Hick Music Index