Wild Sweet Orange: We Have Cause to Be Uneasy

You’d think a band with a name like Wild Sweet Orange would offer up bouncy, immaculately produced pop music – you know, somewhere between Cheap Trick and blink-182 – but this Alabama four-piece draws its wild sweetness from Southern roots. This isn’t to say they sound like Skynyrd or Kenny Chesney – they’re far, far from either – but there’s a strong component of dark Southern gothic to the group’s full-length debut, reflected strongly in atmospheric, melancholy tracks such as “Land of No Return.” Frontman Preston Lovinggood has a bright, elastic voice with pleasantly ragged edges, and the band – rounded out by drummer Chip Kilpatrick, guitarist Taylor Shaw, and bassist Garret Kelly – does a fine job of building the sort of gloomy tension you’d expect from an album with a title like We Have Cause to Be Uneasy. Songs like opener “Ten Dead Dogs” hearken back to the best of the downcast mid-‘90s alt-rockers, and “Seeing Is Believing” proves they can pull off a power ballad with the best of ‘em. The album stumbles when the band shows off its dynamic range by veering into screechy emo territory, but otherwise, this is a strong opening statement from a band that – wonder of wonders! – actually has something to say. (Canvasback 2008)

Wild Sweet Orange MySpace page

Pas/Cal: I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke and Laura

Someone call the cops, because Dan Bejar’s been robbed. With I Was Raised on Matthew, Mark, Luke and Laura, Detroit’s Pas/Cal has assembled one gorgeous (but lengthy) love letter to the Destroyer and part-time New Pornographer, churning out song after song of ornate but odd guitar pop. “Glorious Ballad of the Ignored” seems to have five or six mini-suites all by itself. It’s immaculately done but also overdone, turning on themselves so many times that it’s easy to get lost mid-song. These guys clearly know their way around a melody, but one wonders what kind of masterpiece they could whip up if they forced themselves to keep it simple. (Le Grand Magistry 2008)

Pas/Cal MySpace page

Kessler: I Know Your Voice

Yes, there are a lot of bands that sound like Kessler. The Dallas quintet’s sound falls somewhere between Warped Tour and Family Values, but with songwriting chops that rival power pop industry benchmarks like Butch Walker and Fountains of Wayne. I Know Your Voice is the band’s debut and if you came to the table wanting to hate it, you’re going to walk away disappointed. Kessler isn’t doing something that hasn’t been done before, but you’ll be tapping your feet and grooving before you know what’s happening. Add to the equation producer Jim Wirt (Hoobastank, Jack’s Mannequin) and you probably already know what Kessler sounds like. But this is a strong debut, in particular the first single, “Outside Your Window,” which sounds like summer. Other standouts are the Goo Goo Dolls-ish “Dallas” and the blazing “The Missing.” (YMA Records)

Kessler MySpace Page

One Flew South: Last of the Good Guys

Much as critics tend to bellyache about it, there’s something to be said for music with a bit of cold, hard calculation behind it. Artistic purity is all well and good, but it’s also unruly – and it often doesn’t pack the same kind of punch as an album that’s been immaculately groomed and aimed at a target demographic. Case in point: One Flew South’s debut, Last of the Good Guys, a dozen tracks of hooky, harmony-drenched, kinda-country music that tosses all the most radio-friendly bits of the Eagles and CSNY into a blender, scoops in a dollop of Taxiride and the Thorns, and serves it up sweet and smooth. The band didn’t take any chances here, hooking up with producer/platinum songwriter Marcus Hummon and Nashville ringers like Kevin Welch, Billy Mann, and – nice touch – J.D. Souther. But as gritless as the results are, they’re also awfully hard to argue with; only the most hard-hearted of listeners will be able to deny the sunny vibes and tight-as-a-drum harmonies of tracks like “My Kind of Beautiful,” “It Is Good,” and “Blue Highways.” The absence of a lead vocalist might be disorienting for younger ears that have been weaned on the harmony-deficient stuff of recent years – even newer vocal groups like (shudder) Rascal Flatts don’t utilize the power of multiple voices this way – but for folks who still turn out to see Henley and Frey play the hits every summer, Last of the Good Guys will go down nice and easy. Nothing but good, clean fun. (Decca 2008)

One Flew South MySpace page

Sammy Walker: Misfit Scarecrow

“Sammy Walker is not Bob Dylan or John Prine,” says one Amazon reviewer, and though in most cases that would seem to be as pointlessly obvious a statement as pointing out that a high school quarterback isn’t Brett Favre, Walker’s music actually bears a spookily strong resemblance to early ‘60s Zimmerman. Misfit Scarecrow could be, as Nigel Tufnel might say, none more Dylan. But Walker’s no imitator – he was discovered by none other than Phil Ochs in the mid ‘70s, cut some fine albums for Warners early in his career, and this 16-song set marks his first domestic release in nearly three decades. You may not know his name, but he’s been at this for a long time, and it shows in the material – though most of Scarecrow relies on nothing more intricate than Walker’s reedy voice and a few well-chosen instruments, it’s frequently riveting; the 16 tracks stride along with the sense of purpose and easy economy that a songwriter only earns after spending plenty of time in the trenches. It isn’t going to take the place of Bringing It All Back Home in your collection, and it almost certainly isn’t going to change Walker’s status as a pop culture footnote – but it’s still a damn fine record, and probably the most authentic piece of old-school folk music we’re going to hear all year. Here’s hoping Walker’s next album arrives far more quickly. (Ramseur 2008)

Sammy Walker MySpace page

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