NOW HEAR THIS! Best Album Reviews!

This week’s column leads off with reviews of albums by two of the finest acts on Americana/roots rock scene. That genre is also represented by one of its most promising newer artists, Max Clarke of Cut Worms. Elsewhere things go pop with excellent releases from Nick Frater and Ryan Allen.

Dawes: “Good Luck With Whatever” – Over the course of six previous albums, Dawes has frequently been compared to the ‘70s California country pop of folks like Jackson Browne or the Eagles. And the comparisons have fit a good number of songs, especially on recent albums where Dawes sound has grown more burnished and comfortably unhurried.

Those stylistic descriptions still apply to some songs on “Good Luck With Whatever,” including “Didn’t Fix Me” (a particularly poignant look at accepting one’s imperfections and the ups and downs of life) and “Between The Zeros And The One,” both of which bring the uncommonly graceful melodies we’ve come to expect from songwriter/frontman Taylor Goldsmith and his bandmates. But the new album also gets a bit more muscular and edgy on occasion.

“Free As We Wanna Be” swells nicely in the chorus and gets a little grandeur from piano parts that echo the playing of Roy Bittan (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), while the otherwise gentle “Me Especially” gets some sting from its lead guitar lines. “None Of My Business” threatens to rock, but settles for an effective tension. And both “Still Feel Like A Kid” and “Between The Zeros And The One,” while they amble along at a pleasant pace, boast a rather robust sound.

Even with these contrasts, “Good Luck With Whatever” will feel instantly recognizable to Dawes fans, which is fine because Goldsmith’s songwriting continues to grow more refined and consistently affecting with each Dawes album.

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Chuck Prophet: “The Land That Time Forgot” – Since his days in the 1980s in the acclaimed roots rock group Green On Red through his songwriting collaborations with the great Alejandro Escovedo through what is now a catalog of solo albums that numbers more than a baker’s dozen, Prophet has become one of the most literate, reliably entertaining artists on the folk-rock/Americana/indie rock — whatever you wanna call it — scene.

Prophet’s latest, “The Land That Time Forgot,” is arguably his most low key effort on a musical level, with most of the songs favoring acoustic instrumentation and deliberate tempos. The musical tone seems appropriate for an album that references some of America’s darkest days, spanning the Great Depression of the ‘30s, the years of President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War right up to the present-day turmoil of President Donald Trump.

Such times are put in personal terms. In “Best Shirt On” Prophet sings of his father, who lost his job in the Depression and set an example for work ethic by every morning dutifully showering, putting on his suit and looking for work. In “Nixonland” Prophet notes that he was born in Nixon’s hometown and goes on to chronicle growing up during his Watergate-fueled fall from grace.

On “Get Off the Stage” Prophet draws parallels and stark differences between his own line of work and the presidency, telling Trump in no uncertain terms it’s time to get the hell off of the oval office stage. In between those songs, Prophet covers a wide range of stories, some topical, some personal, as he creates some of his prettiest songs (“Meet Me at the Roundabout” and “Paying My Respects to the Train”), a little Tom Petty –ish balladry (“Waving Goodbye”) and a couple of fairly brisk rootsy rockers (“Best Shirt On” and “Marathon”).

“The Land That Time Forgot” may not please fans who want Prophet to rock, but his songwriting is as sharp as ever. And while he’s always done mid-tempo tunes and ballads, this album might be the best showcase yet for how truly effective Prophet can be working in a more understated and rough-hewn musical setting.

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Nick Frater: “Fast & Loose” – Frater’s latest effort starts out on what is a rare note for the power pop genre – with an instrumental for the title track. It’s a decent warm up (although the song easily could have benefited from some more inventive and complex solos and parts). After that opening track, there’s little reason for complaint, as Frater does what he’s done on three previous full-length releases – turning out a set first-rate power pop tunes rooted in the classic sounds of the ‘60s with a little new wave added for good measure.

“Let’s Hear It For Love” and “Luna” are farfisa organ-laced rockers with buoyant hooks. “Cocaine Gurls” and “California Waits” add a little grit to their rocking sound, while on “So Now We’re Here” Frater nicely filters some acoustic textures into this peppy gem. On “Would You Like to Go?,” the album’s most ’60s-retro tune, Frater tips his hat to the Beach Boys’ sunny sound.

“Moonstruck” and “That Ship Has Sailed” show that Frater’s perfectly capable of crafting pleasant pop ballads. Frater continues to set a high standard for his music with “Fast & Loose” – to the point that he belongs in any conversation about the best artists in power pop today.

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Cut Worms: “Nobody Lives Here Anymore” – Max Clarke, who records under the name Cut Worms, has made a bold move in making his third release, “Nobody Lives Here Anymore,” a double album. In an era in which the record industry seems to want to parcel out music in smaller and smaller bites, this 17-song album doesn’t feel overstuffed at all.

Instead, Clarke, working in a largely acoustic full-band setting in the tradition of Bob Dylan, the Band, or more recently, Dawes, reels off one song after another with memorable vocal melodies and just enough instrumental augmentation to provide the kind of musical color and contrast that brings a sense of variety to the album.

(In addition, a few songs, such as “Always On My Mind,” go in a poppier direction, which also enhances the flow of the album.) Clarke says this song cycle is lyrically about today’s throwaway culture and how everything feels. “Nobody Lives Here Anymore” argues against that thesis. This is an Americana album that’s built to last.

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Ryan Allen: “Song Snacks Vol. 1” – This acclaimed power pop artist pulls an Elvis Costello on “Get Happy” with “Song Snacks Vol. 1” – packing 20 songs into this 35-minute collection. The challenge with this is to write short songs that, first of all, are good and feel complete, not truncated or unfinished. Allen succeeds on both counts.

With no songs clocking in at more than 2:25 – the acoustic “Truth Surgery” lasts all of 1:03 – Allen delivers big hooks on the pop-rockers that make up most of the album, with “Airbursh The World” (which comes complete with a worthy guitar solo), “Luke Warm,” “Gem City,” “You’ve Been Electrocuted” and “Pregnancy Fantasy” (which feels longer than its 1:39) being among the many standouts.

Allen balances these uptempo tracks with several acoustic-oriented tunes (“Here Comes The Rain” is the highlight there) and the poppier plugged-in tunes “Raspberry Ghost” and the John Lennon-esque “I’m A Wizard Now” (think “Across the Universe”). Only a couple of songs – “Throw The S*** in The Shoot” and “You’re Lunch” — are throwaways, making “Song Snacks Vol. 1” an album that feels more fully formed and satisfying than the brevity of the songs might suggest.

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