Paul Brandt (featuring Lindsay Ell), “Bittersweet”
Backed by guitar hero (and fellow Calgary native) Lindsay Ell, singer-songwriter Paul Brandt shines a light on life’s great balancing act with “Bittersweet.” The song celebrates the ups, downs and in-betweens of our everyday existence, with plenty of anthemic, arena-ready atmospherics from Ell’s Fender.
Flatland Cavalry, “Honeywine”
Like the Turnpike Troubadours, Flatland Calvary mix Red Dirt roots-rock with fiddle-driven twang. The blend is particularly intoxicating on this amplified love song, which finds frontman Cleto Cordero singing the praises of a woman who’s sweeter than mead. Songwriter Kaitlin Butts makes an appearance, too, serving as harmony partner and overall muse to her bandleader beau.
Cassadee Pope, “One More Red Light”
Pope begs her guy to take the long way home, measuring their time together by the number of passing street signs. Mandolins and acoustic guitars fill the song’s intro, but the arrangement expands and electrifies as “One More Red Light” speeds along, eventually peaking with an open-armed, lighter-hoisting chorus whose pop-rock punch recalls Pope’s best work with the Warped Tour-approved Hey Monday.
The Last Bandoleros, “What Would You Be Doing”
Mixing Flamenco guitars, Tex-Mex twang and country-pop gloss into the same globetrotting song, “What Would You Be Doing?” pays tribute to Emilio, the Tejano star whose death left his two sons — Diego and Emilio Navaira IV — without a mentor. As the rhythm section of the Last Bandoleros, the Navaira siblings provide the rhythmic backbone for a song that’s heartfelt and bittersweet, aimed at mourning — and memorializing — a man whose musical influence reached far beyond his inner circle.
Carson McHone, “Sad”
Years after fronting the Thursday night house band at Austin’s White Horse saloon, Carson McHone nods to her honky-tonk past — and pushes beyond it — with the upcoming Carousel. It’s a coming-of-age album produced by Mike McCarthy, the same man who oversaw more than half of Spoon’s catalog. The result is an LP that ignores the rules of traditional country music, with “Sad” — the lead-off track, driven along by fiddle and electric guitar — gleefully speeding up and slowing down at its own pace. Filled with self-aware lyrics about McHone’s history of heartbreak, this is the sound of an artist making peace with her own unrest.
Aaron Lee Tasjan, “Heart Slows Down”
American heartland rock gets a British Invasion makeover with this power-pop gem. “Honey, if your heart slows down, I will always be around,” Tasjan reassures, soothing a worried lover’s mind over stacked harmonies and psychedelic guitar riffs. Woozily weird one minute and strikingly melodic the next, this stoned song is equal parts Full Moon Fever and Fountains of Wayne’s mid-Nineties debut.
Randy Houser, “No Stone Unturned”
The opening track from Randy Houser’s upcoming Magnolia finds its narrator in a nostalgic mood, poring over the vices and virtues of a life spent in a constant state of wanderlust. He’s been everywhere from Colorado dispensaries to Bourbon Street bars, never shying away from a detour during his own journey toward self-discovery. “I can always find one hell of a time while I’m out here looking for me,” he sings in a baritone that booms and barks.
Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, “Old Friends”
Featuring one of Merle Haggard’s final performances, “Old Friends” is the bittersweet sound of three outlaws riding together one more time, paying tribute to Roger Miller along the way. (The track appears on the new all-star King of the Road album.) Willie Nelson trades verses with his comrades and fills the bulk of the instrumental breaks with his loose, Spanish-influenced guitar playing, and Kristofferson takes a turn at the microphone, too. But it’s Haggard’s prayer-like verse — particularly the line “Lord, when my work is done, bless my life and grant me one old friend” — that packs the most emotional punch.
Move over, Voltaire — here, your intellectual match and oft-overlook partner Émilie du Châtelet receives her salute. With an unhurried gait that recalls Fleetwood Mac’s folk-pop glory days, the Brooklyn duo Tanbark pull off the near-impossible, turning this tribute to an 18th-century French mathematician into something breezy, bouncy and not the least bit overly academic.
JP Harris, “JP’s Florida Blues #1”
With its gonzo narrative, road-trip recollections and Fear and Loathing-worthy pace, “JP’s Florida Blues #1” finds Harris stumbling through the bat country of his own stoned mind. “I lost my mind out on the highway, seeking my inspiration with my nose,” he sings, while a country-rock band rips and roars in the background. Caught somewhere between humor and hedonism, this song reads like an R-rated tour diary, delivered by a road warrior who’s weathered his share of motel-room hangovers.