ERIC BIBB, “Dear America” (Provogue/Mascot): 3½
The Grammy-nominated blues-folk songwriter/guitarist leans into issues of social justice — a meaningful theme throughout his substantial catalogue — confronting racism and introducing the footstomp-punctuated title track by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jazz veteran Ron Carter’s resonant bass backbones “Emmett’s Ghost,” dedicated to teenage civil rights martyr Emmett Till (“Can’t move on ’cos hate’s still goin’ strong/ All over this country”), while Billy Branch’s harmonica tattoos Glen Scott’s hypnotic beats and Bibb’s Skip James-evoking fretwork during “Talkin’ ’Bout a Train (Part 1).” “Whole World’s Got the Blues” is a potent protest of our chaotic times, galvanized by Eric Gales’ electric guitar solos, Steve Jordan’s magnetic drumming and Bibb’s undeniable lyric: “Blues south of the border/ Blues in the Middle East/ Blues runnin’ through the alley/ Blues creepin’ up Wall Street/ …I pray we’re gonna make it/ But only time will tell.”
JON RANDALL, “Jon Randall” (Lonesome Vinyl):3
The award-winning songwriter/sideman’s first solo album since 2005’s “Walking Among the Living,” which follows his recent “Marfa Tapes” collaboration with Miranda Lambert and Jack Ingram, balances the latter’s heartfelt earthiness with the Nashville polish of hits he’s composed for Dierks Bentley, Lambert and Brad Paisley. The slick “Tequila Kisses” dances too close to disco but fits in a narrative arc recalling turnpoint moments from the past. The strongest tracks are the most intimate — “Streets of Dallas,” “Driving to Mexico,” the melodic Travis Meadows co-write “Velvet Elvis Buzz” — and hew to country’s storytelling traditions while showcasing Randall’s ear-friendly tenor, although the acoustic instrumental “Ranchero” is a welcome reminder of his guitar chops and bluegrass roots.
CHRIS ROBLEY, “A Filament in the Wilderness of
What Comes Next” (Cutthroat Pop):3½
The Oregon-raised, Maine-based songwriter and poet has a knack for melodies and compact storytelling that makes this dynamic set of “milltown Americana” as bracingly cathartic as it is timely. Shadowed by personal loss and political turmoil, “Love in a Time of Sharp Decline,” the refugee-focused “Lotus Eaters” and “Love Is a Four-Letter Word” (a smart rocker it would be interesting to hear Amos Lee sing) tuck meaty lyrics and potent images into guitar- and keyboard-fortified hooks. The highlight is “Filament,” a slow-building rocker that brilliantly connects Robley’s father’s fight with cancer to America’s political battles (“Here he is still sleepin’ like a shipwreck/ That doesn’t know it’s already gone down”).
MARISA ANDERSON/WILLIAM TYLER, “Lost Futures”
East Coasters accustomed to lush greenery often express shock upon first witnessing dusty, seemingly monotone Southwestern landscapes — and then marvel when they suddenly perceive subtle rainbows of color in those same scenes. Something similar occurs with these layered, absorbing instrumentals. Recorded in Portland during the pandemic shutdown as protests and wildfire smoke heightened tensions outside, the eight tracks swell and ebb in conversational rhythms. (Except “Something Will Come,” which thrums with electronic drama never resolved.) Anderson and Tyler masterfully channel complex moods with their guitars, and their harmonic interplay and articulate fingerpicking supply balm for weary spirits. Highlights: the title track, cinematic “At the Edge of the World” and hopeful “Haunted by Water.”