By DAN FERGUSON
Ear Bliss plays catch-up this week focusing on a couple of 2021 releases which made our favorites list, but never made it into the Ear Bliss pages during the calendar year. Each is well worth seeking out. First up is the latest album from Austin-based Heartless Bastards called A Beautiful Life. It is the band’s first album in over five years and it marks a transition of sort from the hard-edged rock of its prior releases. In founder and front woman Erika Wennerstrom, you have one of the most interesting and pungent voices in the business. It is in the Ear Bliss spotlight this week along with an album from a newcomer to these ears, the young Eastern Oregon-based singer and songwriter Margo Cilker. An unknown prior to hearing this album, Cilker trickled out singles throughout 2021 and each one resonated in the Ear Bliss world. The full album titled Pohorylle (pronounced po-Ho-real) saw release in November and is excellent. Let’s take a look.
A Beautiful Life
Sweet Unknown Records
Vice going the song-here-song-there route to listening, A Beautiful Life, the latest album from Heartless Bastards, is an album best swallowed whole. It is a record all about the flow meant to drink from beginning to end. Founded in 2003 in Cincinnati by Erika Wennerstrom, rock gtoup Heartless Bastards found itself on a good roll for the next decade punctuated by a New York Times feature in 2009 for the band’s release The Mountain. The album Arrow would follow in 2012 and be its highest charting record and 2015 would see the release of Restless Ones. Call it a case of burning out after years of endless touring compounded by a point where the creative juices from Wennerstrom were just not flowing, Restless Ones would be it for Heartless Bastards. Wennerstrom would take a break to clear the head and collect thoughts, as well as travel including a backpacking trip to the Amazon jungle. She’d return as a solo artist with the 2018 album Sweet Unknown influenced in large part by that jaunt to the jungle. The recent A Beautiful Life is the newest album and just may be Wennerstrom’s most fully realized one to date. Originally planned as a solo affair, Wennerstrom reconsidered thinking that releasing it as a Heartless Bastards album would reach a greater audience and most importantly, she had much to say via the songs targeted for the album. With an almost entirely different band on hand, A Beautiful Life is grand in its sound, even cinematic at times, with flints of rock, pop, psychedelia, punk, Celtic and folk and all built around the unique and stirring voice of Wennerstrom at the soul of it all. Her messages are many from raising awareness about the environment (credit the Amazon trip there) to discovering things about her own self during her down time (the single “Went Around the World”) to a message as simple as just being nice to people. Says Wennerstrom, “For me music is a gift. I do it because I love it, and because it helps me feel more connected to the world. I think we all long for a deep connection, and I hope this record adds to the conversation on how we as a species can stop seeing ourselves as separate. I hope it helps everyone to think about how we can look out for each other, take care of each other, and lift each other up.” Highly recommended. Visit www.theheartlessbastards.com.
Fluff & Gravy Records
NPR labeled the singer and songwriter Margo Cilker one of “11 Oregon Artists to Watch in 2021” and from what these ears hear on her debut album for Portland-based Fluff & Gravy Records called Pohorylle, I am in total agreement. Frankly speaking, it was one of the best records I heard in 2021. When not in troubadour mode traversing the world, Eastern Oregon is base of operations for the California native Cilker and in particular, the community of Enterprise, Oregon which itself has a pretty solid collection of musical artists calling the place home. (An album from the singer and songwriter Bart Budwig, who also hails from Enterprise, made the Ear Bliss favorites list for 2020.) It was the early summer release of the first single from the album, a song called “Tehachapi,” that first caught the Ear Bliss ear. Recalling a romantic interest that didn’t quite pan out in that California locale mythologized in song by Lowell George’s classic tune “Willin’” from his Little Feat days. The song, both stylistically with plenty of sawing fiddle giving it a country folk feel and vocally in the voice of Cilker, recalled very early Lucinda Williams and in particular, the two albums Williams recorded for Folkways Records in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. It is one of many fine moments on this impressive debut from Cilker. Her restlessness and love for the road (Cilker spent a chunk of time in the Basque Country of Spain and busked her way all over Europe) and the memories that come with it are in full bloom over the course of the nine songs comprising Pohorylle and it is all buoyed by her refreshingly frank lyrical style and earthy singing voice. In producer Sera Cahoone, Cilker found herself a like-minded comrade as Cahoone’s own fine albums have a very similar feel in instrumentation and sound to that of Pohorylle. On the lookout for new talent to sink your ears into? Put simply, Pohorylle is well worth your listening time. Visit www.margocilkermusic.com.
Beginning in South County and nearby spots, Southern rock prevails at the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston on Saturday night via tribute band Sons of Skynyrd- A Lynyrd Skynyrd Experience. Show time is 8 pm. Saints In the City- A Bruce Springsteen Tribute Band is at the Courthouse on January 29. The Sonic Surfers featuring Steve DeConti, Dan Moretti, Marty Richards, and Lou Bocciarelli return to Pump House Music Works on Kingstown Road in Peace Dale on Friday night for a 7 pm performance. Groovin’ Confusion is there on Saturday evening. The Root Farmers play American roots music from Appalachian, Blues, Cajun and Celtic through Zydeco at the tap room at The Knickerbocker Music Center in Westerly (35 Railroad Ave) on Friday night. Old school funk, rock, blues & soul music is on The Knick menu on Saturday night with The Franklin Brothers performing. The wonderful Allysen Callery plays the Knickerbocker Tap Room next Thursday night. In the Northern reaches of the state, Confounded Bridge hits Chan’s Restaurant in Woonsocket (267 Main Street) on Friday night and Stefan Couture and friends perform on Saturday night with each show starting at 8 pm. The Blackstone River Theatre in Cumberland resumes programming January 22 with a performance by Boston-based Celtic group Fellswater. On Saturday night, the Stadium Theatre in Woonsocket presents “Songs in the Attic” a musical tribute to Billy Joel conceived and presented by singer/piano player David Clark. The Disco 54 Band brings the ultimate disco experience to the Stadium on January 21. Up next at The Met Café in Pawtucket is Providence-based rapper Spocka Summa on Friday night and Grateful Dead cover band-and-more Bearly Dead on Saturday night. All-female Black Sabbath cover band Black Sabbitch comes to The Met on January 21. It’s an Askew Winter Wonderland Jam at Askew in Providence (150 Chestnut Street) on Saturday night featuring Julie Rhodes & The Electric Co. with Ali McGuirk and Mary-Elaine Jenkins. The Columbus Theatre (270 Broadway) next presents music on January 26 with Citizen Cope. The Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River presents the venerable and always great singer/songwriter Chris Smither on January 21.
Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3.