Clusterpluck is an album review roundup feature meant to say more with less.
I’m aiming to publish two review roundups today, so hopefully my review backlog will be eliminated by the end of today … or significantly reduced; there’s always something new to listen to, after all. All reviews will be presented in alphabetical order by artist name, with this acting as the first of two roundups. Anyway, onward!
Adeem the Artist, Cast Iron Pansexual
This is an album that wasn’t on my docket until just very recently, and since this is the year of discovery for me, let’s discuss Adeem the Artist, a Carolina singer-songwriter who’s been active since the 2010s and has found a real breakthrough moment through this year’s Cast Iron Pansexual. And for those spewing notions that the hype has been based off of “identity politics” – stop that, because the quality is absolutely there. But it’s also an album exploring Adeem the Artist’s queer sexuality in a way that’s more pronounced and refined than their past projects. I’ve seen comparisons made to Katie Pruitt’s 2020 debut Expectations in the religious framing and how that very much affected the upbringing discussed here, but Adeem the Artist’s take comes from a slightly older perspective – where the damage done happened a long time ago and still leaves its scars, even if they’re now comfortable being who they are. Their focus is more on the present day than it is a complicated past, because as explained in the opening song and expanded upon in the excellent “Fervent For the Hunger,” they never had a “coming out” moment in an environment where that presented legitimate danger, even from (or especially from) family members. Exploring that past is a way of reclaiming it, in some way. And while that’s explored in the greatest detail on the heart-wrenching closer “Reclaim My Name,” this album almost immediately shifts to how that confusion impacts their actions toward love and relationships, like the unrequited love explored on “Apartment.”
Of course, on the note of content, there’s also the popular “I Wish You Would Have Been a Cowboy,” which criticizes Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (Angry American),” but is less about Keith himself and more about the industry’s exploitation of country music and the American South – specifically told through the 9/11 framing here and the effects it had on queer kids like Adeem the Artist growing up, but also universal in its note that exploitation like that mocks what the South can be and happens too often within the genre. Indeed, for as cheery and humorous as the writing can be through the shortened tracks like “Going to Heaven” and the title track that seek to recapture that lost time and frame their God as the all-loving one they’re usually cracked up to be and should have been for them a long time ago, that pain and hurt is what sticks out the most. That’s especially apparent on “Reclaim My Name,” where the self-awareness of that lost time is evident even though they yearn for it anyway, knowing full well that they’ll have the rest of their time left here in the present to be themselves. And even for a self-produced, mostly acoustic project, there’s a lot of little instrumental flourishes I do like that keeps the momentum rolling: the echoed chord progressions of “I Wish You Would Have Been a Cowboy” mirroring, well, “Should Have Been a Cowboy,” the bright, jangly acoustic riff driving “Fervent for the Hunger,” and how the two aforementioned shortened tracks are blazing-hot, banjo-driven tunes older in style yet modern in actual presentation. But I do think the production can be a little lacking in points, namely in the echoed vocal of “Honeysuckle Hipbilly Homo-Erotica” that’s a bit too sharp in the mix, or “Womyn Who Bartend,” which feels like it’s missing a verse to tie everything together. And it’s an album where the highlights stand out more than the album’s sequencing as a whole. But for as easy as it is to point out the names bringing those needed perspectives to the genre now, there’s still an audience out there that feels alienated by country music, and while that’s a highly complex discussion with multiple layers to it, it’s understandable anyway. Hopefully something like this helps to change that. Decent 8/10 – it’s empowering, it’s humorous at just the right moments, it doesn’t wear out its welcome, and it’s got some truly excellent songs.
- Favorite tracks: “I Wish You Would Have Been a Cowboy,” “Reclaim My Name,” “Fervent For the Hunger,” “Apartment,” “Live Forever,” “Going to Heaven”
- Least favorite track: “Honeysuckle Hipbilly Homo-Erotica”
Melissa Carper, Daddy’s Country Gold
This is another album I’m late to covering, and I’ll admit to it being all my fault. Melissa Carper is one of those acts who’s built her sound and following by crafting very distinctly vintage country music (mostly as part of the Carper Family and only recently as a solo artist), and while most critics have a tendency to go as far back as the 1950s with those kinds of comparisons, Carper has always drawn on something much older and refined and has sought to capture the time and feel of those eras. Daddy’s Country Gold is her latest effort in that vein, drawing more upon the earliest time periods of country music from the ‘20s and very early ‘30s when jazz and ragtime were still primary influences … and when it was just called hillbilly music, at that. And while I do love the opening lounge vibe and generally chipper, fun camaraderie between her and her bandmates on the opener “Makin’ Memories,” I’ll also admit to being a tougher sell for this kind of material.
On one hand, one has to respect the intent and execution, given that one wouldn’t have heard a female hillbilly singer’s perspective then (not as a solo artist on a commercial record, that is). But there’s also something about the actual commitment to capturing everything about the older era (right down to the recording style) that can be a little hit-or-miss for me at times, to the point where it can come across as kitschy. And I do prefer when the album has a brighter kick to it like on its opening track or the wildly fun “I’m Musing You” that’s less about the content and more about the instrumental interplay of the generally blissful, smooth jazz tones. This album can really lack in overall drive and punch at times, and it’s a really welcome moment. Still, I can also admit a lot of my personal issues with the album are mine alone for what is otherwise a very nice-sounding, vintage country project. Again, too, it’s an older project in style and presentation, so it’s also going to have tracks waxing nostalgia through various perspectives, like the faded embers of love circling around “Back When” and the self-aware musings of another re-worked track, “Old Fashioned Gal.” It’s also going to have tracks that dip into the cornier side of those earlier hillbilly tunes, like the re-recording of “Would You Like to Get Some Goats?” that provides something of a fun middle track but didn’t really need to be here otherwise, and the love letter to an old car on “My Old Chevy Van” that was a little overwrought for my personal tastes. It’s an album that has its target audience and has already hit its mark in that regard, and I do like the atmospheric, peaceful ending provided by “The Stars Are Aligned,” especially with its fantastic piano work. Light 7/10 – A lot of folks are ranting and raving about it, but I’m not quite there all the way, even though I want to be.
- Favorite tracks: “Makin’ Memories,” “I’m Musing You,” “The Stars Are Aligned”
- Least favorite track: “Many Moons Ago”
Katie Jo, Pawn Shop Queen
Katie Jo is one of those newcomers I’ve had on my radar ever since I stumbled upon “I Don’t Know Where Your Heart’s Been” through my Boom-or-Bust Jukebox feature. She’s thus far mostly been known as a Midwestern act that’s imbued those same influences into her work, with this acting as her proper debut project. Now, just coming off of the Melissa Carper review, this is another album made to sound vintage – this time through the ‘60s country-meets-rockabilly-meets-Bakersfield sound that was just starting to form around the time. But considering it only took three days to record, I like the general mood and ambiance of this project. It’s barely half an hour and moves at a brisk pace, but this is the type of album that’s a little moodier in its execution. Rather than a pawn shop, per se, this album feels like it’s being sung from the corners of a dimly lit bar, echoed by the darker brushes of chugging bass and pedal steel. And I really enjoyed the prominent fiddle anchoring “Little Bird” that ended this album on a good note.
Again, though, it only took three days to record, and that can show in the overall performances that feel a little lacking and unfinished. I don’t think Jo is a bad singer, mind you, but she often pushes toward her lower range more than she should, which is breathy, stiff, and not as effective, especially when she lets loose on the title track and proves she could branch out a little more. It doesn’t help that the overall production can feel a little cluttered at points and drown her in the mix, the most glaring example being “Good Luck Enough,” which is too tonally chipper to reflect the general tone of the content anyway. And I think Jo will have to grow into herself as a stylist on future projects, especially when some of the faster-paced upbeat tracks like “Bad Religion” and “Timber” can sound a little rushed and unconvincing. What gives me hope is the writing, which is equally as dark as its sound in framing a fairly blunt, heartbreaking picture of a woman used to being used, where the pain is so deep-seated that she comes to expect it with all new relationships. It’s why I love the title track so much – the one moment here that lets that huge hook soar off the liquid touches of piano and organ and is more of a cathartic plea for answers than anything else. And while she tries to gather answers for her significant other’s cheating and neglect through songs like “I Don’t Know Where Your Heart’s Been,” “Timber,” and “Are You Coming Home Tonight,” she doesn’t get them. Perhaps, again, an example of the project feeling a little undercooked as a whole, but I like that it ends with “Little Bird,” which uses the titular metaphor to describe her and how she too will fly again. It’s not so much optimism as it is a last-ditch effort and reminder that things always do eventually start looking up, and it ends the album on a realistic note I did appreciate. For now, decent 6/10 – Katie Jo will need to iron out the kinks with future projects, but this is a solid start.
- Favorite tracks: “Pawn Shop Queen,” “Little Bird,” “I Don’t Know Where Your Heart’s Been”
- Least favorite track: “Good Luck Enough”