by Jordan Green
A lot of great music came out of North Carolina in 2014. Here are 10 albums that pleasured my eardrums.
Jeffrey Dean Foster — The Arrow
At least five years in the making, Jeffrey Dean Foster’s The Arrow is almost too good to be true. As the lead track declares, “Life is sweet, but it doesn’t last,” and practically every note of music and vocal utterance underscores the beauty of that transient notion. The Winston-Salem artist is a master at crafting music that imparts listeners with a distinct feeling seared onto their individual experiences. A sweet amalgam of Southern power pop-rock, The Arrow discretely honors its inspirations, from the Exile on Main Street-like horn break in “Life Is Sweet” to the lyrical nod to Patti Smith in “The Sun Will Shine Again.” There are too many good songs to mention, but the fierce blast of “Young Tigers Disappear” — an accounting of the wreckage of American military misadventures in the last decade — and the reckless release of “Hang My Head On You” bear special note.
T0W3RS — TL;DR
By the time TL;DR was released in November, most of the 10 tracks already sounded like classics, thanks in large part to T0W3RS’ rapturously received shows across the Piedmont throughout the year. It’s a mark of the artist’s talent that when someone mentions his name his music is immediately stuck in your head. His signature, and the most hummable song on the album is probably “The Situation,” a bittersweet meditation on lost love. The clattering drum track, the silken grooves and T0W3RS’ gorgeous baritone, it all combines to create an unforgettable experience. Considering how fine this record is, it’s all the sweeter that it was released by Phuzz Records, a Winston-Salem imprint with growing stature.
Ameriglow — A Heavy Heaven for Robby
The chemically warped Americana on the latest release by Ameriglow, primarily the project of Jacob Darden, yields up wonders, including the touching “Dream Pt. 1,” the harrowing “Runnin Out of Drugs” and the evocative “Your Postcard Wasn’t Funny.” Even the larks on the album — recorded at On Pop of the World Studios in Greensboro — like a tribute to Pavement and Broken Social Scene appropriately titled “While Licking Broken Pavement” and an odd little spaghetti Western soundtrack called “There Was a Party in the Bathroom,” sound inspired.
Molly McGinn — Postcards from the Swamp
Molly McGinn’s ambitious multimedia, interdisciplinary concept album takes the Great Dismal Swamp as its subject, but on a deeper level concerns itself with economic privation and challenging mid-life passages. There’s hardly anything more magnificent than McGinn’s treatment of “Rocking Cane,” inflected with the gritty gospel glow of the Staple Singers and graced with guest vocals from Logie Meachum and Robin Doby. At her best, McGinn’s voice matches the grandeur of Neko Case, and there’s not a weak track on the relatively abbreviated Postcards, whether it’s the Greensboro artist’s exquisite “Glass Hills/Steel Heels” or the rollicking “Great Dismal Swamp.”
Spider Bags — Frozen Letter
To make rock and roll this recklessly unhinged, you have to have been around for a couple decades, knocking around at dead-end jobs, falling in and out of love and picking up the pieces as best as you can. Nowhere is that sentiment better captured in “Summer of ’79,” where frontman Dan McGee sings, “Why you wanna be a rolling stone?/ Why you think your daddy’s the king of rock and roll?/ You weren’t born before ’79/ You weren’t there, you weren’t even alive.”
Andrew Eversole — The Cumberland Ghost
Concept albums are risky, but maybe even hitting the mark 50 percent of the time is enough. There’s a certain sincerity in starting with a concept and running with it as far as you can go, as opposed to assembling your best material and putting those wares on the market. And many of the songs on The Cumberland Ghost are really good. It doesn’t hurt that their creator combines an irrepressible mysticism with an abiding interest in his eastern Kentucky/Appalachian roots.
Laila Nur — Pocket Change
The most extraordinary facet of Pocket Change is its documentation of the artist’s self-invention. As a singer-songwriter with a warbling voice, alternate guitar tunings and revolutionary intent, Laila Nur is the most singularly unique artist from these parts. There’s the aching possibility of new love in “Pretty Dancer” and radical empathy in “Todos Somos Migrantes,” but it’s hard to beat a song like “Boy!” about the transgender experience that’s geared towards kids.
Mediocre Bad Guys — self-titled
Playing covers is the most remunerative if not always the most satisfying vocational path for a musician. The members of Mediocre Bad Guys (their name is a Jack Johnson song) have played more than their share of New Year’s Eve cover shows and corporate parties, so you sense that when they put their minds to original music they know exactly what they want to do. There are backing vocal references to Nazareth and a guitar riff that sounds like it came from Irma Thomas in “Cold Comfort,” the best track on the album. Steal only from the best.
Stephen Murray — The Backlot Sessions
This solo effort by Holy Ghost Tent Revival frontman Stephen Murray almost sounds tossed off, and the sleep-deprived abandon of Randy Seals’ all-night recording sessions at On Pop of the World Studios in Greensboro undoubtedly contributes to that perception. What should not be overlooked is that the record contains some great songs, including the raucous life manifesto “EIL,” the Beatlesque romp of “Sweet Stephanie” and the tender, worn regret of “Tears in the Mornin.”
Dex Romweber Duo — Images 13
The sensitivity, B-movie weirdness and caveman energy of legendary rockabilly guitarist and singer Dexter Romweber, ably accompanied by drumming sister Sara, displayed on Images 13 is not exactly a departure from their output on two earlier albums. That’s fine because they’ve
already established a great template. The snarling hurt and resilience of “Roll On” is a suitable banner for the album, with gems like the majestic instrumental “Blue Surf” filling out the disc. A cover of the Who’s power-pop gem “So Sad About Us” might seem counterintuitive for someone steeped in dark rockabilly mysteries of Link Wray, but it shines here.
I also saw some fantastic shows in Greensboro and Winston-Salem in 2014 by touring acts, including, in no particular order All Them Witches, Steve Earle, Peoples Blues of Richmond, Hiss Golden Messenger, Jim Lauderdale and the Drive-By Truckers.