by: Thomas D. Mooney
Hot Take: 2015 is the best year in Lubbock and Panhandle music ever. Ever.
- We’re just simply more aware. We’re well into an age in which nearly everything is within a Google search and you can hear basically every song via Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, etc. That’s helped musicians and bands in your own backyard just as much as those halfway across the country or world.
- Advances in recording music has gone a long way. The vast majority of these albums in the Panhandle have been made in modern recording studios within the area–Mount Vernon Studios, Amusement Park Studios, Route 1 Acuff Studios, MajorSeven Studios, Animal Kingdom Recordings, studios on campuses at Texas Tech University and South Plains College to name a few–and without breaking the bank or needing to travel.
- Songwriters, bands, and artists are all in sync with each other. They’re, just by chance, releasing all of these solid pieces within 12 months of each other. Of course, this could theoretically result in off-years in ’16 and ’17 when they’re all writing their next albums, etc.
In the first half of the year, we highlighted a handful of our favorites released from January to June. Now, we’re doing the same for July through September. While bands and songwriters like Flatland Cavalry, William Clark Green, Ryan Culwell, and No Dry County were releasing strong albums then, the likes of Red Shahan, Strangetowne, Joe Ely, and The Goners were readying their own 2015 efforts.
With three months left in the year, you can expect projects from Brandon Adams, Josh Abbott Band, John Baumann, Keegan McInroe, and Outlier still to come.
12. Where I Come From Medicine Mound Duo
Every year, there’s something that feels as though it comes from no where. It’s safe to say the Medicine Mound Duo–vocalist Kay Neal Covarrubia and guitarist David Covarrubia–could be that this year. Like the ghost town they’re named after, there’s a calm, airiness to their simple, but crisp compositions. They feel like a simple summer breeze. Vocally, Kay reminds you of Natalie Merchant. It’s especially apparent on opening tracks “Where I Come From” and “I’ll Wear You Down,” which have a wisp of crisp, fresh air reminiscent of Merchant’s contributions on the Woody Guthrie project led by Billy Bragg and Wilco, Mermaid Avenue.
Key Tracks: “Where I Come From,” “I’ll Wear You Down”
11. Home Pat Green
Pat Green’s 12th studio album, Home, has been billed as the return to his early form as a dancehall performer back in the late ’90s and early ’00s–the heyday for the Texas songwriter. In a sense, it’s slightly true. Home does have its’ moments that remind you of those Three Days Green days. Still, that was 15 years ago–which means there’s less “Take Me to a Dancehall” numbers and more Walt Wilkins-esque reflections. “Home,” “While I Was Away,” and other simple gems are where Green sounds and feels most genuine. Still, there’s some skipworthy songs that feel either dated or are last-ditch efforts to sound national radio worthy (“Bet Yo Mama,” “Break It Back Down”). “Day One” feels like the best of both worlds song on Home. It’s classic Green that feels like a long-lost composition that he’s only now bringing out.
Key Tracks: “Home,” “While I Was Away,” “Day One”
10. Demo Heavens Final War
Lubbock’s Heavens Final War sounds just as their name implies. It’s aggressive and bellicose thrash metal. It’s in your face and fast. It’s a pounding on the ears and gets the blood flowing. With songs in the two-and-a-half minute range, it gets to the point quickly. The screaming vocals throughout are still audible enough that you don’t discredit them for just being in the way. The four-piece recorded the six-track “Demo” album in Austin. Unlike lots of thrash and hardcore on the local and indie level, listening to Heavens Final War doesn’t feel like a struggling task. Often, there’s a loss in translation or a muffled mix. Here though, everything pops. You feel the wallops and thuds just as though you were at a live performance.
Key Tracks: “Blue,” “Love//Hell”
09. Llano Estacado Blues Levi Methvin
Singer-songwriter Levi Methvin recorded the sparse Llano Estacado Blues half way around the world–while living in Spain–this past year in the closet of his apartment bedroom. Though armed with only his acoustic guitar, the raspy-voiced Methvin breathes life into the airy arrangements on the five-track EP. In part, he achieves this with finger-picking accents and the occasional over-dubbed self-harmony vocals. On the opening “Drawing From an Empty Well,” Methvin plays it like a lulling personal post-breakup letter that never made its’ way to its’ intended destination.
Key Tracks: “Drawing From an Empty Well,” “Uneasy Lights”
For more on Methvin, click here.
08. PLAYA LAKE Playa Lake
Playa Lake’s debut EP feels as though it was secretly recorded during a band practice or something. It’s certainly the most laid-back, easy flowing collection of songs released this past year. With that, there comes a certain level of rough spots. Luckily for the Amarillo-based folk band, it only adds character to the songs and gives them their most unfiltered, pure, and genuine versions. The harmonies are simple and honest. The presence of banjo and mandolin give them a soft, easy aura and nods at bluegrass and Guthrie-era country-folk. Their accompanying upright bass and drums are felt, but never overwhelming. Still, on tracks like “Debt” and “Graves,” there’s a need to bring your stomping boots and shows that Playa Lake can have a mean streak and hardened grit to their performance and songwriting.
Key Tracks: “Debt,” “Graves”
07. Crystals for the Brass Empire The Diamond Center
It’s been six years since the last full-length album from The Diamond Center. For the former Lubbock band–now residing in Austin–it’s been well worth the wait for the seven-track psychedelic adventure. Vocalist Brandi Price and guitarist Kyle Harris continue creating a desert dream world of lush guitar tones, layered organ, and rhythms that feel organic and raw, but still refined and rich. On songs like “Bones,” they navigate a sound that’s both The 13th Floor Elevators while creating a rhythm that feels Native American in nature–there’s a desert drum circle vibe that the song revolves around. Possibly Price and Harris’ greatest trait as songwriters and musicians are their treatment of space within a song. Even though they’re armed to the teeth with talent at finding tones, textures, riffs, and reverb, it’s the subtly in songs that often create the most magical moments.
Key Tracks: “Message of Wonder,” “Bones,” “J & J”
For more on The Diamond Center, click here.
06. Dust and Wind: Flatland Murder Ballads & High Plains Hymns Charlie Stout
I don’t think there’s a songwriter I’ve encountered in Lubbock who tries to say more true and genuine to an ideal than Charlie Stout—outside of cowboy folk poets Andy Wilkinson and Andy Hedges—but Stout’s well within the conversation. Stout keeps a steady grip on trying to write material that makes you feel for flawed characters that wandered the Western Frontier a century-and-a-half-back. They’re grounded in a world that’s often bleak, depressing, lonesome, and pressing. Still, you often find yourself realizing these traits and situations remain intact in today’s world. With Dust & Wind, Stout went out to an abandoned church in Taiban, New Mex. The windowless First Presbyterian served as his one-man studio space for the day. On the eight-track piece (the first of a trilogy), you hear crickets chirping in the night, the highway that rolls by with the passing of vehicles, and the looming of thunderstorms off on the horizon. It’s void of any Stout banter that you’d find in a live show, but it’s undoubtedly the purest form of Stout you’d be able to ever find. It’s the way these songs were meant to be played—and more importantly, the way they are meant to be heard.
Key Tracks: “The Hanging,” “Resurrection Day,” “Set Your Eyes On Things Below,” “Sinner’s Prayer”
05. Over The Horizon DRAGG
DRAGG’s second album, Over the Horizon, is something that you really have to set aside some time to fully appreciate and digest. The three-piece sludge-metal outfit follows their promising 2014 self-titled album with a more sophisticated approach. While the band is staunchly one foot in the worlds of sludge and doom metal, the heavy-as-fuck DRAGG isn’t tied down to the limitations. They expand on their hints of post-rock of their first album often going off into psychedelic tangents that feel cosmic in nature. The 10-minute slow burning “Beyond Clear Light” is a clear standout piece that feels as sprawling as any piece of work could ever achieve. While DRAGG is only a three-piece, the baritone guitar, bass, and drums conjure up some of the heaviest riffs and pounding rhythms possible without being redundant or exhaustive. Like with “HABOOBSMEN” before, they’re still discovering the vast, empty space that covers the Western deserts and high plains of West Texas. At times, they work together as one escapable drone. At others, they break off into their own caverns of sound before joining back together to finish their raid on the vast desert.
Key Tracks: “Solifugid,” “Beyond Clear Light,” “Moonray Collector”
04. On My Side The Goners
On their second EP in as many years, The Goners start spreading the distribution of contribution with On My Side. Where last year’s self-titled EP was all Heath Tolleson penned and lead tracks, On My Side consists of songs written by three of the five Goners–Tolleson, bassist Sarah Duhan, and keyboardist Jerry Serrano. Their entire sound expands with the spreading of voices within the band. The Goners was never meant to be a single singer endeavor. In several ways, where The Goners was the band getting a foot in the door, their latest is the band showing more of their true intentions as multi-faceted alt-country band. While Tolleson still delivers steady Whiskeytownesque country-punk tunes on On My Side, it’s Serrano’s breakout that leads with the biggest punches. The melody driven revenge songs–“Gone” and “On My Side”–find Serrano playing the heartbroken victim of a poisoned relationship who has had enough playing the game. On the title track, he band finds a smooth, but pulsing punk rhythm that punches as hard as Serrano’s words. Guitarist Brian Duhan adds ’80s Tom Petty guitar jabs on the chorus-laden ear-worm.
Key Tracks: “Back to You,” “Blood & Dust,” “On My Side”
For more on The Goners, click here.
03. Panhandle Rambler Joe Ely
Joe Ely hasn’t sounded this mythical and mysterious in quite some time. He’s always sounded authentic. But here, Ely doesn’t just sound, but feels, as though he’s been drifting through the high plains and low deserts his entire life and only now is wandering to a campsite fire to tell his Dust Bowl ballads, Southern Gothic serenades, and Tex-Mex tunes. It’s both new and familiar territory for the legendary Lubbock troubadour. On “Southern Eyes” and “Here’s to the Weary,” he falls into honky-tonk nostalgia. It’s vintage Ely that feels worn-in. It’s a style that we’re more than acquainted with. But it’s on tracks such as “Cold Black Hammer,” “”Coyotes are Howlin’,” and “Burden of Your Load,” where Ely sounds most refreshed and excited. This is where his stable of guitar pickers and assorted sidemen (Glen Fukunaga, Lloyd Maines, Jeff Plankenhorn, Joel Guzman, and Warren Hood) go off into the Spaghetti Western desert territory that’s most intriguing, lively, and breathtaking. It’s here where the record goes from being another solid Ely album to being the best he’s done in 20 years.
Key Tracks: “When the Nights Are Cold,” “Wonderin’ Where,” “Burden of Your Load,” “Cold Black Hammer,” “You Saved Me”
For more on Ely, click here.
02. Hard Earned Love Strangetowne
Lincoln Youree delivers some of the most emotionally strained vocals this year. The Strangetowne songwriter doesn’t just sing a song; he pours his soul out and into the microphone. His words become more weighty and intense. Sonically, Hard Earned Love is one of the most vivid sounding albums to come from the region in years. The strum of acoustic guitars blends with the rhythmic minimalism of the drums, while electric guitars and mandolin pierce and poke through the top layers. There’s a warmth to the album when it comes to Youree and fellow guitarists Ben Cargo and Tyler Horning’s intimate compositions in an otherwise desolate world of piercing, stark, and often anthemic soundscapes the band has assembled. Great moments of handclaps, foot stomps, and gang vocals are scattered over the course of the album without ever becoming cliché or overdone. The bare, yet sprawling “We’ll Get What We Want” is both the band’s most intimate and inclusive moment on the album. The stellar ending piece gives you goosebumps like it’s the first time, every time, you hear it.
Key Tracks: “Hard Earned Love,” “Amarillo Girls,” “Money,” “You Don’t Belong to Him,” “Don’t Let Go of Me,” “We’ll Get What We Want”
For more on Strangetowne, click here.
01. Men & Coyotes Red Shahan
It’s safe to say that in and around Lubbock, there hasn’t been a more anticipated album to come out of the region since old Flatlanders reunion rumors of the ’90s than the return of Red Shahan. While the young songwriter has only a total of seven recorded songs to date, he’s arguably the most influential voice Lubbock has seen in the past decade. No folding under any pressure. Still, the 12-tracks are a reminder of just how far Shahan has come from his old Vityl days. Men & Coyotes works its’ way through the world of worn out cowboys, hard-working mothers, agonized loners, earnest sons, broken men, scorn lovers, and the ever searching and frustrations of a songwriter. Though he morphs in and out of character, there’s no doubt there’s a bit of Shahan nestled within the soul of each. Shahan shows an intensity and prowess to write about the difficult junctures within one’s life without sugar-coating or holding back. There’s a sense of desperation in Shahan’s voice throughout Men & Coyotes. It’s the struggle of a songwriter and man fracturing the wall between him and the listener. Gut-wrenching pieces pierce you in unsettling ways that you’ve only known when inside that isolated room in the dark crevices of your head. All the while, textured guitars and sharp drums are the landscape in which Shahan’s lyrics are able to take shape and form. There’s a story the music tells simultaneously to Shahan’s howls. On the title track, “Men & Coyotes,” Shahan plays the part of the lonesome and misunderstood cowboys of the Western world. It begins filling the crevices with subtle Spaghetti Western guitar, keyboards, and drums that expand to the horizon in a late-‘70s Fleetwood Mac kind of way. It’s anthemic and grand. Yet, makes you feel so small due to its’ vast size. You’re the one walking with a desert engulfing you. Shahan’s voice guides you like a looming ghost and reminder. He’s the howl of the moon and the roaring sun.
Key Tracks: “Men & Coyotes,” “303,” “Long Way To Fall,” “Black Veins Pt. 1,” “Drag You Down,” “Move Over”
“Amnesia” Josh Abbott Band
The lead off single with an album typically does a handful of things for an artist. It can show a shift in tone–subject wise and/or musically–for the eventual album. It can ready an audience as well as broaden the base. Josh Abbott’s “Amnesia” checks the boxes. It’s the least “Texas” thing he’s ever done, and while this may make some throw out the “sellout” term, it’s for the better. With it comes a maturation as a songwriter, vocalist, and bandleader. Banjoist Austin Davis takes the spotlight with an ear-worm that travels the full length of the three-minute sleek rock-pop number. While it may not convert the most die-hard anti-Abbottists, it’s certainly the best work of his career and proves you can grow past the college bar anthems. The rest of Front Row Seat will be released Nov. 06.
“Vices” John Baumann
“Vices” is the first we’ve heard of Baumann since last year’s hidden-gem High Plains Alchemy. Since then, he’s dropped the Edward and been readying the release of an EP called Departures, tenatively due out this October. He’s still armed with that identifiable West Texas drawl and noteworthy storytelling. But on “Vices” there’s more of an oompf on the sonic aspects of the album. The drinking beat of the chug-a-lug flows as Baumann goes from the highs of Saturday night drinking to the Sunday hungover state. The guitar and harmonica combination feel like a Texan cousin to Ryan Adams’ “New York, New York.”
“Space Camp” Mount Ivy
Earlier this year, dream-pop band Mount Ivy released a four-song EP while implying that their full-length would be following soon after. Mid-August found the Amarillo band sharing the first proper single, “Space Camp,” for the full-length debut, Wabi Sabi due out later this Winter. With “ Space Camp,” the spacey Mount Ivy becomes slightly more grounded outside the lush dreamworlds of The Wilted Day in this guitar-driven nostalgic night summer drive.
“Live, Laugh, Love” Charlie Stout
College freshman: Guys think they’re DJs. Girls think they’re photographers. The most ironic aspect of Stout’s “Live, Laugh, Love” is the fact that, while it is in part tongue-in-cheek and humorous in nature, it’s also his most real and undeniably honest character he’s written about–and maybe even his most tragically flawed and disturbing. Tragically for Stout, the ballad formally known as “Ballad of Basic Bitch” is at the moment, probably his most famous ditty to date. And while I’m sure he’s more than proud of the song, he’s probably also wanting more folks to know his murder ballads and high plains hymns. Still, in a lot of ways, he’s found and defined the latest generation of Texas country fans–something many a songwriter has tried and failed at in the last 10 years.