A power ballad by Southern rockers Bishop Gunn, a politically-charged rough-houser from the Felice Brothers and an intense performance by Emily Scott Robinson are among the must-hear country and Americana songs this week.
Julian Lage, “Crying”
It’s a bold move, covering a Roy Orbison song without singing an actual note. Instead, Julian Lage recreates Orbison’s otherworldly performance on the electric guitar, while an upright bassist and drummer keep time alongside him. His phrasing is elastic and unexpected, from jazzy runs to noisy bursts of garage rock.
Sunny War, “I’m Human”
Sunny War wrote “I’m Human” after watching a video of a black man being fatally shot by a police officer. The resulting song is a plea for balance in a world turned upside down by racism. The drums are light and the message is heavy, with the hammer-ons and pull-offs of War’s acoustic guitar driving everything forward. She’s a unique guitarist, mixing the grease of back-porch picking with a rhythmic, R&B-influenced strumming pattern.
Bishop Gunn, “Makin’ It”
A Southern-rock power ballad in the classic tradition, “Makin’ It” flies like a free bird and lets its Allman Brother-sized soul shine. The vocals are burly and bluesy, the electric guitar is played with a slide and the arrangement slopes upward at a steady pace, building into a finale that celebrates the buzz band’s work ethic and well-earned road scars.
The Felice Brothers, “Undress”
“Vice president and president: French kiss!” Ian Felice demands on the title track to the band’s new album. Filled with streams of half-cocked political poetry and a truly meteoric chorus, “Undress” is as bizarre as it is riveting — the sound of a band whose increasingly topical songwriting hasn’t lost its weird edges.
Emily Scott Robinson, “The Dress”
“I’m still running from that storm,” Robinson sings at the end of this heartbreakingly honest song about sexual assault. “The Dress” arrives several years after Robinson quit her job as a crisis counselor, and its lyrics — which, unfortunately, were inspired by a real-life attack — examine the guilt and confusion that an assailant leaves behind. The vocals, however, are lovely, shot through with a light tremble that sounds like vibrato one minute and a stifled cry the next.
Balto, “Black Snake, Mojave Blues”
Sounding like the twisted soundtrack to some 1960s beach party movie, this punky garage-rocker skewers the hedonism and hollowness of Los Angeles. There are handclaps, harmonies and a melody cut from That Thing You Do’s cloth of power-pop near-perfection. Toss a revving riff from Dan Sheron’s electric guitar into the mix, and you’ve got a sound built for sock hops and barrooms alike.
Maren Morris, featuring Brandi Carlile, “Common”
Morris and Carlile reach across the country-music aisle on this danceable duet, which leans more heavily in the direction of Morris’ poppy, club-friendly anthems than Carlile’s Americana epics. The belters’ voices stack together formidably, though, and this tribute to togetherness makes good use of its own advice to pair up and team together.
The Avett Brothers, “Neapolitan Sky”
The Avetts sing the wintertime blues, while acoustic guitars strum and fiddles hum in the background. “Neapolitan Sky” wields the sort of old-world grandness of a classic cowboy song, and the guitar solo — played bottleneck style — is campfire-perfect.
Kane Brown with Brooks & Dunn, “Believe”
One year shy of their 30th anniversary, Brooks & Dunn modernize their back catalog on Reboot, an album of reimagined greatest hits and all-star cameos. Kane Brown takes the first verse on this souped-up update of the duo’s early-2000s hit, whose thickly-stacked arrangement stands in contrast to the original. By the ending, the singers rustle up the gospel-influenced sounds of a Sunday-morning church service, driving home the song’s title one last time.
John Paul White, “The Long Way Home”
Back on the road as a solo artist, former Civil Wars member John Paul White sings about the highways and hallways of a life logged on tour. “I ain’t leaving; I’m just taking the long way home to you,” he promises his family in the chorus, which chugs forward at fast-lane speed. A pop/rock song with a Southern accent, “Long Way Home” finds White doing what he’s always done best: make roots music that draws a line between melody and melancholy.