As I mentioned in my post officially kicking off the year, this edition of Juke Joint Jumpin’ is going to be a bit different, in that I’m going to spotlight certain songs off of albums released in 2021 that I didn’t officially review. Some of them were releases I had been wanting to discuss for a long time and just couldn’t find the time or words to properly decode, and some are honestly just releases I checked out over the holiday break and still feel fresh to me; I think we have a fun mix ahead. Just a note, too, that this will act as an alternative review method in 2022 to discuss projects that aren’t necessarily for me but may have a song or two that really moves me. With that in mind, let’s get started.
Charley Crockett, “This Foolish Game” (from Music City U.S.A.)
I always feel bad when trying to approach a conversation about Charley Crockett or his work, mostly because I’ve always struggled to really love or discuss said work – and he’s released a lot of it in a relatively short time. It’s definitely a “me” problem; acts that play to distinctly retro textures tend to be hit-or-miss with me, but 2020’s Welcome to Hard Times was the moment that nearly won me over, and 2021’s Music City U.S.A., outside of a few gimmicky moments, came pretty close, too. And I certainly have to respect his work ethic and approach, so maybe there’s hope someday. At any rate, I think my favorite track on his latest album is “The Foolish Game,” if only for aiming a tad darker and nastier in its composition and content and absolutely nailing the execution. Not quite classic country, but for a low-key, scuzzy piece of blues, this absolutely kills. “Round This World” comes close, too.
Wade Bowen, “Trouble Is” (from Where Phones Don’t Work)
The thing I’ve always found with Wade Bowen albums is that, while they boast their share of well-written material, they’re always accessible listens. It’s like comfort food you can feel good about, in a sense, and that’s where I land on his latest EP, which splits the difference between Bowen’s Texas roots and the project’s recording in Nashville. Which is to say, it’s not quite as rough around the edges as his earlier work, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a lightweight, breezy listen that’s solid and provides a nice holdover until his next album, presumably to be released this year. Perhaps a little too straightforward to outright review, but it’s got its moments, like the penultimate track, a straight-down-the-line, tried-and-true country song with fantastic texture courtesy of the organ and burnished acoustics. Content-wise, it’s a simple breakup song, but one sold with Bowen’s usual weary exhaustion that works well for the sentiment. Not much to add beyond that – it’s just a solid song that, hopefully, signals more to come.
Jon Randall, “The Road” (from Jon Randall)
Considering that Jon Randall made my year-end list by way of his contributions on The Marfa Tapes project (alongside Miranda Lambert and Jack Ingram), you would think that his first solo project in years would have been a top priority for me … and it was, until all I found was a project trying to go for something road-weary in sound and content, yet feeling way too oddly cold and muted to click with me. And with added detours like that misplaced Jack Ingram duet on an already short album, it just wouldn’t have made for a pleasant review. And that’s a shame, because the one straightforward moment to highlight Randall’s excellent writing over odd production tactics is the closer, “The Road,” which is about … well, the road and the tolls it takes on the artist. But between the excellent burnished textures courtesy of the pedal steel and piano, it’s a sigh of relief that may not redeem the album, but feels like the perfect way to end it off, seeing as how Randall finally finds a sense of place after searching for it throughout most of the album.
Leah Blevins, “Beautiful Disaster” (from First Time Feeling)
Sadly, while I had seen some buzz for this project swirling around the past month or so, I didn’t take a chance on it until just very recently. And that’s a shame, because aside from an out-of-place opening track, Leah Blevins’ debut album is a really solid listen! Then again, I’m not the only one just coming around on her just now, so there’s always room to look forward to more. For now, though, while “Mexican Restaurant” is the track that’s been garnering the most attention for Blevins, I think “Beautiful Disaster” is an underrated highlight, if only for some sneakily well-balanced acoustic and bass grooves that carry the song effectively throughout that features some great fiddle interplay, to boot. I really love the writing, though, because while this is a tried-and-true breakup song, it’s so thoughtful and reflective in how much distance Blevins creates between her and her ex-partner, pondering both of their decisions and choices made that led to the split. It’s a thoughtful, mature take on the subject that’s made even sadder when, because there’s blame on both sides, it’s just an end that had to come, yet is still painted with regret for what could have been.
Aaron Lee Tasjan, “Up All Night” (from Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!)
Another song from a project I only recently checked out, and I kind of get why it passed me by last year. Aaron Lee Tasjan started in underground country by way of Americana but quickly pivoted toward something of a retro pop sound on later projects, with his latest being described as everything from ‘70s pop-country-inspired to synth-driven Tom Petty-inspired material. And … yeah, the latter description is basically the perfect fit for “Up All Night.” At the album’s best, the songs excel off of writing that’s incredibly off-the-wall in their humor and wit, and there’s a playful, jubilant air to this that, combined with that huge hook, has made for an easy highlight on the album for my first few listens. I need to let it sink in with me more, but this is the easy standout.