Sara Cox: Firewater

There’s a line off Golden Smog’s Down by the Old Mainstream that encapsulates alt-country lyricism: “I’m lonely when you hate me, you hate me when I’m lonely, but mostly I’m just here to kick around.” It’s a realization, a resignation, that sometimes life just sucks, but it doesn’t have to get you down. And only a certain kind of voice — a Gary Louris, Jeff Tweedy, Gillian Welch, or a Sara Cox — can pull it off without sounding like a (gasp) country music singer.

Here on Cox’s Firewater [released back in 2000, I can’t find a place to stream this, though two other Sara Cox records are on Spotify. Here’s where you can buy the record on eBay], a sadness pervades, but it’s not the sadness of self-pity. It’s the sadness you feel when you go back and visit a house you haven’t lived in for a while: You can’t help but miss everything that went on there, even if it wasn’t always good times and smiles. Every song is about a relationship that didn’t, isn’t, or won’t work, but somehow that’s okay, because it has to be.

The opening “Waste of Time,” appearing first on the Area Code 207, Volume 1 compilation, breaks your heart right away: “Well I’ve been thinking ‘bout the way you left that day,” Cox sings plaintively, “making jokes like it was not the end. And if I thought of something smarter to say, maybe now we’d still be friends.” Does anyone not have a relationship lurking in their past that ended that way? Or maybe that’s the relationship you’re in right now.

Cox sings about making do with what you’ve got on her contribution to Area Code 207, Volume 2, “Sticking (Not Stuck).” “Although your mouth is now closed when we kiss,” she emotes. “I know your head’s still open. Despite all the details that somehow we missed, I know our hearts still need them, oh yeah.” And when she sings “oh yeah,” it doesn’t sound like filler.

“Sticking” also showcases Cox with a full backing band of talented musicians including Nate Schrock — whose brilliant slide is all over this record — and drummer Ginger Cote, quite adept at keeping Cox’s morphine-haze-like pace. That’s impressive, but so is “SUGAR,” one of two songs where Cox is all alone. “Baby, don’t let your sugar turn hard,” she advises in the chorus. “It’s too hard to taste that way.”

One gets the feeling that Cox has had plenty of reasons for letting her sugar turn hard, but she’s used her music as a salve, and we’re the luckier for it.

Ghost of Paul Revere: Believe

The Ghosts are coming

Get ready to Believe in Paul Revere

Ghost of Paul Revere don’t waste any time on Believe, their debut full-length. From the very first vocal notes on the opening “After Many Miles,” they announce that this is the best collection of harmonies since Tumbling Bones’ Schemes in the summer of 2012 [this published in 2014]. They are tasteful, measured, precise, and sometimes thrilling.

This opener serves as both introduction and a flag in the ground, as they rotate through each of the three main vocalists – Griffin Sherry, Max Davis, and Sean McCarthy – with a solo a capella verse (well, there’s a stomp-clap rhythm by way of accompaniment) and then come together for harmonied chorus: “Oh, lover, I’ll see you there/ Waiting in the willows with your auburn hair.” If that doesn’t catch you attention, don’t bother with the rest of the disc. This is what they do and who they are and they’re all in.

Because they’ve got a banjo player (Davis), Paul Revere have maybe been pegged as bluegrassy, or at least tied in with the stringband locals, like the Tricky Britches and North of Nashville they played with on New Year’s, but they’re often much more in line with bands like Head and the Heart, or Typhoon, which put a lot more emphasis on vocals, have less traditional song structures, and are often more rooted in the rock tradition.

“San Antone” starts slow with a repeating guitar run that stays low and then arcs up for the harmonics behind a chanted, “I lost my love in the heat of San Antone/ I found my love in the cold of the great white north.” Right. Pretty trad. But then the tune ramps right up at the 1:20 mark into what you think is the chorus on the first listen, but never actually slows down, like quick indie rock without plugging in.

This is also our first introduction to Matt Young’s harmonica, which here is really bassy and low down for a mouth harp. The repeating “whooah-whoah” vocal bit it introduces will have those who’ve tired of Of Monsters and Men and what some see as the shambolic trend in dirty-hippy bands to cringe, but it suits me just fine, and when they ratchet the pace up yet again, it’s pretty damn hot:

“I watched my lover roll me over like a riverstone … You’ve got pain in your bones/ You know you are not alone.”

They shake things up a bit later in the 11-song album, though. “The Storm” would fit nicely on a Mallett Brothers record, opening with an isolated banjo and dressed-up vocals, but then settling into a guitar strum and transitioning to a song with a piece of grass in its teeth.

Sure, they walk an anachronistic line like a lot of other stringbands, but when they sing “my father died in his house/ It’s all he left to me,” you really do imagine a house bleached out on the great plains, with waves of auburn grass and rolling hills and just maybe a solitary tree next to it with an old tire swing, and a fading white picket fence around the whole thing.

It’s most obvious here, too, how the harmonica is often playing the shuffling role usually taken up by the fiddle in this kind of band. But Paul Revere seem to revel in throwing curveballs, like the up-stroke rhythm they introduce late in this song, reggae-bluegrass for a few measures.

And “Fire in the Sky”? It’s basically a Sabbath tune played with acoustic instruments, fueled by Southern rock and stuff about how when the flood comes he’s going to make it out alive and that the devil can come and take him and whatnot. There just aren’t any big stacks of amps and the a capella finish might be outside Ozzie’s wheelhouse, but that harmonica brings the whole thing back to metal’s bluesy origins.

If there’s a misstep here, it’s “Hey Girl,” probably the closest thing to contemporary country at least in its material (every top-40 country tune seems to have the phrase “hey girl” in it) and very similar to early Old Crow Medicine Show, with Young playing the role of Ketch Secor’s fiddle mania. The repeated three-part build of “hey” could use some subtlety and the fever they work up falls a little flat.

But they certainly have the feel of “Funeral,” with a particularly melancholy tone in the banjo and pretty falsetto in the finish of the open. At times, the vocal arrangements are as delicate as any string parts Dave Noyes is writing for Rustic Overtones. And while the electric bass doesn’t quite work perfectly for “Woodman’s Stead,” it’s still a great change-up for the album, a quick waltz with Celtic undertones and a staunch determination: “I’m going to tear down your walls, until I have you all.”

The cowboy giddy-up of “Andra” makes for a wonderfully sad loner tune, pulling off the difficult task of being simple and working class without being condescending, and it’s mirrored by the appropriately closing “This Is the End,” which has some shades of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, with Avett Brothers flavor.

Without question, this is an early contender for album of the year locally and if there’s any justice people will come to know this record far and wide.