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  • Rich Kassirer

CD Reviews: Sarah Borges, Josh Ritter, Lori McKenna, Eilen Jewell


Sarah Borges, “Diamonds in the Dark”

When Sarah Borges signed with Sugar Hill Records, she joined Americana stalwarts James McMurtry and Robert Earl Keen, bluegrass legends Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowen, and young acts Nickel Creek and the Duhks on a label that’s not flashy, but is incredibly productive and has great taste in music. It is a perfect spot for the Boston 20-something and her bar-band mates, who dabble fit in nicely within the label’s genres. There’s nothing fancy about Sarah’s style. She takes honky-tonk and rockabilly and infuses it with a blast of Boston-rock energy. As the leader, she is sassy and full of fun. Her debut album, “Silver City,’’ which came out on the small Texas label Blue Corn Music and garnered attention for its rollicking songs like “Daniel Lee” and “Same Old 45.”

On “Diamonds in the Dark,” Sarah continues her rise from unknown to powerhouse performer. Her singing can be both tough (“Open Up Your Back Door”) and tender (“Belle of the Ball’’) and her band, the Broken Singles, provide steady and stellar backup, especially Mike Castellana’s electric and pedal steel guitar work. Bassist Binky and drummer Robert Larry Dulaney lay down a solid, raucous beat, right from the first song and album single “The Day We Met.’’ Tunes like “Stop and Think It Over’’ and “Diabolito’’ bristle with whiskey-soaked rockin’ energy. “False Eyelashes” shows off her honky-tonk side, and she even throws in, among her covers, “Come Back to Me,’’ from the punk band X. With “Diamonds,’’ Sarah proves she’s got the chops, but even more impressive is that she sounds true whether rocking out or finessing the more country numbers.


Lori McKenna, “Unglamorous”

When it was first announced that Lori had been lured away from little Signature Sounds to join conglomerate Warner Bros./Nashville to join the likes of the First Couple of Country Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, the Boston folk community was more than a little concerned that they would be treated like a spurned lover straight out of a country song. Would her wonderful quirky voice get lost amid the twang? Would the stories she weaves of small-town life take a detour into bland terrain? Would she exchange her modern mother image for something slicker?

We waited nervously for her first album on the new label.

Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief because “Unglamorous,” which came out in August, is still pure Lori. Yes, there are some changes, but the core of her songs is intact. The storytelling about family and blue-collar life are still here, and that voice… well, it is front and center, and surprisingly fits in well with her new “country” persona without losing its folk roots.

So what’s different? The songs are backed by a slick band of musicians making the songs sound more glossy than on past albums. Strings are even detected on a song or two, which adds to the new feel.

But for the most part, Lori remains Lori. The single and title song “Unglamorous” feeds the image of her as a real-life hectic mother of five telling of her life of “peanut butter on everything” and “one TV set, no cable.” And her new side is also well represented with songs like “Drinking Problem,” which sounds straight out of the “How to Write a Country Song Handbook” without straying too far from her own personal style. “I’m Not Crazy” perfectly straddles both worlds.

So we can rest easy and throw away our empty whiskey bottles, Lori hasn’t left us for another audience.


Eilen Jewell, “Letters From Sinners and Strangers”

We’ve learned to listen very closely when others offer opinions. And especially when it is the opinion of Jim Olsen, owner of the small Western Mass. label Signature Sounds. In May 2006, he told us about an obscure, young singer named Eilen Jewell (see Issue 10); he was impressed with her old-timey and ageless sound. Within months – no big surprise – she had joined his label.

As much as that was a great move for him, it was an even better move for Eilen. While we don’t spend a bunch of time praising record labels, Signature Sounds deserves every accolade. It supports singer-songwriters from Kris Delmhorst and Peter Mulvey, neo-bluegrass dynamos Crooked Still, and helped launch the ever-successful careers of Josh Ritter, Erin McKeown, and Lori McKenna.

As for Eilen, her first album, the self-produced “Boundary County,” was a nice album of low-key, Americana guitar and fiddle tunes. Her new album, “Letters From Sinners & Strangers,” has the one thing her last was missing – upbeat tunes. From the opener “Rich Man’s World,” and through the ’40s sounding “High Shelf Booze,” the jaunty “Heartache Boulevard,’’ and a cover of Dylan’s “Walking Down the Line,’’ the songs are filled out with the kick of fiddle and harmonica. “How Long” puts a Martin Luther King speech to a wonderfully slinky beat. Eilen’s band – Jason Beek on drums, Jerry Miller on electric and steel guitar, and Johnny Sciascia on acoustic bass – make the songs snap and sparkle.

That whole uptempo spirit is celebrated on the final track “Blue Highway,” a fun-loving rockabilly-like romp.


Josh Ritter, “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter”

Josh Ritter is a restless sort – restless in that he can’t let his musical vision stand still. On previous albums he’s written country songs of lost souls and hard lives; tapped into poetic verses about love and longing; and created darker, image-driven songs that ask political and philosophical questions. Now, with his latest release, “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” it’s the music, not the lyrics, that lead the way. As he sings in the rocking, beat-heavy “Rumors’’: “I lock myself in with the band but the music’s never loud enough.’’

When we reviewed Josh’s last album, “The Animal Years,” we implored V2 to release the album as quickly as possible. As it was, the label held it back for more than six months, waiting for the right time for them. We didn’t have to beg this time. Josh, who became a “free agent” when V2 went bankrupt, was allowed to shop his completed album to whichever label provided the best deal. The winner is Sony BMG – and Josh fans. The album was released in August and it is a blast to listen to.

“Conquests” is both daring and brilliant.

It’s daring in that it will shock even the most loyal Joshheads. Some will love it, some may not – because it strays even further from the young man who innocently tried to lure Kathleen into his car for a ride. But it also may attract new listeners and maybe even – gasp! – commercial radio.

It’s brilliant because, unlike “The Animal Years,” which mesmerized with its combination of imagery, cynicism, and anger, “Conquests” is much more upbeat, uptempo and fun. Josh’s lyrics, which are still as clever as ever, take a backseat to the beat. The album opens with “To the Dogs or Whoever” with Josh singing in a muted vocal backed by offbeat piano and strumming guitar. Then the song takes off in the chorus with heavy drumbeat, pounding piano and guitars. Trying to catch all the imagery in the lyrics is not easy. The album continues with cooking tunes “Mind’s Eye” and “Right Moves” before the first “singer-songwriter”-type song appears in “The Last Temptation of Adam.’’

“Conquests” continues the progression of a young songwriter and the melding singer and band into one. Gillian Welch always jokes that she and David Rawlings are members of a band called Gillian Welch. This may be true with Josh Ritter as well. His bandmates – bassist Zack Hickman, keyboard player Sam Kassirer, and new drummer Liam Hurley – provide the firepower. Sam also produced the album, adding inspired sonic touches throughout including violin, horns and backing vocals. Check out “Real Long Distance Love,’’ which ends in a blaze all of the above.

We’re not sure what the album’s title actually refers to (‘‘I just wanted something that felt big and cocky but funny,’’ says Josh in a recent interview), but it could be a shortened version of what was originally “The Historical Music Conquests of Josh Ritter” because to our ears we hear some amazing stylistic references to the past: Bob Dylan (we know, it’s there in every album); 1970s Paul Simon in “The Last Temptation of Adam”; John Lennon in “Rumors” (not to mention The Knack in the opening beat!); and the Beatles in the harmonies in “Wait for Love (You Know You Will).’’

There is something fun and new in every song here. It may take multiple listens to get the meaning of Josh’s lyrics but that’s only because it’s so hard to stop bobbing your head to the music.

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