A contender for “Song of the Summer,” a pumped-up power ballad and a welcome new release from a rising songwriter all figure in to this week’s list of the best country and Americana songs you need to hear right now.
Not a Scandinavian band, as their name might suggest, but rather a Portland-based collective of roots-rockers and indie-folksters, Casey Neill & the Norway Rats summon up the ringing guitar arpeggios of Merseybeat pop, the college-radio coolness of R.E.M. and the pure pop melody of the Beach Boys’ oddball years with “In the Swim.” It’s the sort of lushly arranged song that reveals new layers with each listen, shining light on the band’s longtime leader, Neill, whose songs mask their complexities beneath a simple, singalong-worthy surface. These swimming waters have serious depth.
Songwriter Levi Hummon takes a walk through his hometown, waxing nostalgic as he moves past the familiar pawn shops and mom-and-pop supermarkets. His strongest memories, though, are of the songs that filled that town years ago, creating the soundtrack for his adolescence. Buoyed by polished pop production, “Songs We Sang” is an ode not only to growing up, but to the music that binds us together.
Being in a terrible relationship can sometimes feel like being in a terrible band. Frustrated with the discord of her love life, Pennsylvania native Morgan Myles cut ties with a no-good beau and goes solo. “I’m better acapella,” she says by way of explanation. Armed with wordplay, wit and a voice that shines with raw might in its upper register, Myles turns her breakup speech into a mic-drop moment, even letting the band take a break during each chorus. She’s better acapella, after all.
A country-rocker raised on the FM dial, Ashley McBryde takes us back to her childhood years in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas – population 977 – where the right song on the right station could provide three-minute break from hometown boredom. Casey Kasem, Townes Van Zandt and the Police all receive shoutouts, while Bryan Adams’ “Cuts Like a Knife” gets an honorable mention in the second verse. Deeper and more diverse than the overplayed nods to Willie and Merle, McBryde’s references run the gamut from outlaw heroes to pop pin-ups. The result is a song that celebrates the full, genre-jumping power of the FM airwaves.
On the kickoff single from her upcoming Nostalgia Kills, Jill Sobule takes stock of the things she’s left behind. The track pitches its tent halfway between reflection and resolution, placing Sobule’s quirky voice in the foreground while a stripped-down indie symphony – a Rhodes piano here, an oboe there and plenty of acoustic guitar throughout – swirls up some quiet beauty in the back. A Gen X folkie who kissed a girl long before Katy Perry, Sobule keeps good company on her new release, with members of Jellyfish, X and the MC5 all making cameos.
Spacey Kacey is ready to turn on, tune in and drop out. A groovy guide to savoring the moment, “Slow Burn” – contender for “Song of the Summer” – smolders at its own pace, waiting until the 90-second mark to bring in the drums. When the percussion does hit, though, the effect is hypotonic. Acoustic guitar, swelling strings and Musgraves’ unforced voice all spiral together like a 1970s folk-pop soundtrack to a stoned afternoon, calling upon each listener to relax, reflect and pass the joint.
Still reeling from a messy breakup, Combs turns to music for a sort of heart-healthy rebound. “She broke my heart / Now all that’s left of me is beating in this guitar,” he sings during each chorus. A pumped-up power ballad that’s better suited for arenas than honky-tonks, “She Got the Best of Me” swings for the fences without losing its cool, thanks to an anthemic melody that begs you to hoist your lighter.
With its double-tracked vocals and kaleidoscopic pop twists, “Always Enough” channels the hushed, lo-fi symphonies of Elliot Smith’s Figure 8. Far from a mere nod to his influences, though, the song finds John Calvin Abney making peace with his biggest champion and simultaneous critic: himself. “Can’t you see that we were always enough?” he asks, turning the song into an ode to self-actualization.
A haunting, slow-burning blast of country-western bravado, “I Rode the Wild Horses” might’ve found its way onto the soundtrack for a Cormac McCarthy film if it weren’t already telling the true story of Ross Cooper’s days as a bareback rodeo king. “I’m a spitfire son of the road,” he says, rattling off the details of his cowboy past with the proud weariness of a bronc rider who broke bones and split skin. The best moment? When Cooper delivers the final line of the chorus in a voice that’s thick with vibrato and swagger, like John Wayne gone country.
Trading their blue-eyed, blustery soul for disco-ball dance beats and Prince-worthy funk, St. Paul and the Broken Bones enter a new orbit with “Apollo.” The song marks the band’s first release from Young Sick Camellia, an upcoming album produced by the same R&B heavyweight, Jack Splash, who helmed songs from CeeLo Green’s The Lady Killer and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. The Broken Bones weather their paradigm shift quite well, with frontman Paul Janeway howling toward the cosmos with all the ferocity of a man who’s lost his religion and found the good drugs.