The Lone Bellow’s joyful noise

The members of The Lone Bellow call their music “Brooklyn country” or “country soul,” but it’s got more of an edge than either of those descriptions completely capture. True, there are mandolins and violins and banjos that give the songs a definite roots feel. And the defining feature of the band’s sound has to be the amazing three-part harmonies of Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin, which are definitely soulful. But all this is propelled by driving percussion, exuberant dynamics and a willingness to mash up musical styles in a way that creates something truly unique.

As Williams has explained in several interviews, the band and album came together as a result of tragedy. His wife was injured in a 2005 horseback-riding accident, paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors doubted she’d ever fully recover. Williams poured his thoughts into a journal that he shared with close friends, and those friends told him that what he was writing were songs. His wife did recover, but the marriage hasn’t been a happily-ever-after experience, which becomes obvious while listening to the sometimes painfully honest lyrics, like these from “Looking for You”:

Slow regrets that live in the dark
I’ve written them down, but I know them by heart
I’ve counted the cost of this loneliness
I’ve paid for the crime and someday I’ll die
With you on my mind

This sometimes brutal honesty cuts both ways in “Tree to Grow,” a slow, droning reflection that builds in intensity as it goes. Pain and hope intermingle in the song, which includes lines about brutal smiles, wicked grace and the fear of abandonment, but ends with this vow, repeated as a talisman: “I’ll never leave, I’ll always stay, I swear on all that I keep safe.”

Several of the songs are in this melancholy vein, but a pervasive sense of humor and hope, along with several barn-burning anthems sprinkled throughout, keep the melancholy from weighing the album down.

The catchy “Green Eyes and  Heart of Gold” that opens the album captures the spirit of the album and the band well. An ode to the power of love, it’s upbeat, energetic and joyful, even as it acknowledges the difficulties:

Our wide-eyed ways may look like
A wreck where we’re from

It’s harder than we thought it’d be
We’re losing blood with every beat
Our song is not a dying dream
You’re not alone, you’re not alone

Driving percussion and a raucous rhythm guitar blend with a subtle pedal slide guitar and exuberant harmonies just this close to be shouted rather than sung. I’ll admit I’m not overly familiar with some of the bands The Lonesome Bellow has been compared to: Mumford & Sons, The Civil Wars and Lumineers, but this sounds fresh and completely original to me. As other critics have remarked, their sound seems incredibly well formed and confident for a first album.

I can’t remember the last time an album or a group caught my attention like The Lone Bellow has. Check them out.


The coolest piece of tech I’ve seen in a while

I remember back in the day when I was excited to get a tape deck in my car that featured auto-reverse. That gave me a full 90-minutes – two entire album’s worth! – of uninterrupted music. Then came the six-disc, trunk-mounted CD changer. Hours of uninterrupted music that even included a shuffle function so songs from all six – six! – albums would play in random order.

These days, I’ve got my iPhone, which has nearly 3,000 songs stored on it – literally days’ worth of music that I carry in my pocket. All I had to do when I got in the car was plug in a single cable (a Kensington LiquidAUX) that went to the charger, which had a cord that went into the auxiliary input for my car stereo. What could possibly be easier?

When the Kensington cable started becoming unreliable – after three full years of solid service – I found out. I ordered the New Potato TuneLink Auto. It’s similar to the Kensington in several ways. A cord from the unit that plugs into the charger goes straight into the auxiliary input for the car stereo. There’s a USB outlet that will connect to the iPhone dock, but only for charging. For music, the dock cable is completely unnecessary. The TuneLink pairs up with the iPhone via BlueTooth. That’s cool, but pretty unremarkable these days. What makes the TuneLink exceptional is how the free app you install on your phone works in the background. It elevates the TuneLink from cool to pure magic.

When you get in your car and start it, the TuneLink turns on and automatically pairs with your phone. That activates the app, which starts playing music where you left off. You never have to touch the phone. When you turn the car off, the music stops. (Auto Connect and Auto Start can be turned on and off in the app settings.)

The TuneLink app links up to the music app on the iPhone using AirPlay, so you can control the music either through the regular app or through the TuneLink app.

Sound quality is superb. I’m not an audiophile by any means, but I can’t tell any difference between a wired connection and TuneLink’s Bluetooth connection. If you have more sensitive ears, you might be able to hear some of the compression the Bluetooth stereo standard utilizes, but I can’t. By the way, even if you attach the charger to the iPhone, TuneLink still uses Bluetooth to transmit the music.

If your car stereo doesn’t have an auxiliary input, you can still use TuneLink, which also manages to fit an FM transmitter into its tiny package. The settings are controlled through the app, which will recommend the clearest channels available depending on your location. I haven’t tried the transmitter, but I know that even the best FM transmitter won’t match a wired connection. Still, if you don’t have an auxiliary input, this will at least get your music pumping through your stereo – without a single cord.

TuneLink also has an Android version.

TuneLink provides rock solid Bluetooth performance, but its real trick is the capability the app brings to let you enjoy your music when you get in the car without ever taking your iPhone out of your pocket.

The Rainmakers are back

Some bands evoke a time and place within particular listeners like nothing else can. For me, that band is The Rainmakers. Like me, the band hails from Missouri, and references to Kansas City, Columbia and other familiar landmarks are scattered throughout their work. In the mid- to late-’80s, they were a regional band that broke out into a national prominence – Newsday called them “America’s great next band”  – that ended all too soon. I was in graduate school in Columbia at the time and got a chance to see them live at a local bar before they broke too big. I’ve been a fan since.

Because their national heyday didn’t last long, though, I lost track of them after I left Missouri. In the late ’90s or thereabout, I looked them up online and found some of their original albums in CD format and even – gasp! – a new one: 1997’s “Skin,” which would be their last album until their release this year. Though they had fizzled in the U.S., it turns out they remained hot in Norway.

If you remember them, it’s probably for some of the hits they produced in late ’80s: “Let My People Go Go,” “Drinking on the Job,” “Long Gone Long.” Ironic, iconic songs with clever, provocative lyrics were their hallmark. One line from “Drinking on the Job” was awarded Music Connection’s Lyric Line of the Year: “The generation that would change the world is still looking for its car keys.” Musically, they were skilled but not too fancy: Loud guitar, drums, bass, the occasional piano and frontmanBob Walkenhorst’s distinctive, sardonic twang. But it was good, old-fashioned, refreshing straight-on rock-‘n’-roll at a time when synthesizers and pop were ruling the airwaves.

Twenty-five years after the release of their first album, and after a lengthy hiatus, Walkenhorst and friends are back with “25 On,” an album that proves that age has been good to them. “25 On” fits in well with rest of The Rainmakers’ catalogue. Put all their albums on shuffle, like I’ve been doing the last week or so, and songs from “25 On” don’t stand out. I don’t mean that in a bad way, at all. The Rainmakers’ music has always been timeless, and “25 On” is no exception.

The band, as always, produces a wide variety of songs, from fun rip-roaring tracks like “Turpentine” to songs with a message like “Like Dogs” to softer, deeper outings like my favorite from the new album, “The Last Song of the Evening.” This is song told from the perspective of a woman who led a simple life well-lived that is so beautiful and achingly sweet and tender, it can bring a tear to your eye if you pay attention to the lyrics. A couple of samples: Read more of this post