Album Reviews: Five Noteworthy Independent Releases

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Some of today’s best music isn’t issued by major labels and probably isn’t on your radio. Here are five new releases you could easily miss but shouldn’t.

Dwight Twilley, The Best of Twilley —The Tulsa Years, 1999-2016. A cult following and the occasional brush with the bigtime notwithstanding, Dwight Twilley remains one of rock’s great undiscovered pleasures. At its best, his power pop is five-star fantastic, propelled by jangly ringing guitars, Beatle-worthy beats, and productions that recall and equal the finest work of Jeff Lynne and his Electric Light Orchestra. You’ll have to look elsewhere for the early work of Twilley, who has been recording noteworthy material since 1975; but this 40-track, two-CD package does a good job of collecting highlights from 1999, when he returned to his native Oklahoma, to the present.

The album, which clocks in at more than two and a half hours, could perhaps have benefited from a little trimming, but not much: at least three-quarters of the program—including such shimmering ear candy as “Oh Carrie,” “Goodbye,” “It’s Hard to Be a Rebel,” “Everyday,” and “A Little Less Love”—is must-hear material. And the set ends with a nice bonus: concert versions of “I’m on Fire,” “Scuba Divers,” and three other Twilley favorites that prove he doesn’t need a studio to serve up the magic.

Jill Freeman, A Handmade Life. Longtime L.A.-area folk singer-songwriter Jill Freeman deserves loud applause for this musically and lyrically ambitious, imaginatively crafted collection. Classic fairy tales inspired its 13 selections, all of which she wrote. Some draw on the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen; elsewhere, Freeman garners inspiration from The Wizard of Oz and Russian folk stories.

A band that employs instruments such as dobro, clarinet, viola, cello, harmonium, harmonica, uilleann pipes, mandolin, and violin deftly executes the complex, frequently jazzy arrangements that complement Freeman’s intimate vocals. Listening to such standouts as “Walking on Glass” and “Letters from Murdertown,” you’ll feel as if you’ve walked down a shadowy, foggy backstreet and drifted into a dream.

As Freeman says on her website, “The dark world of fairy tales may strike some as an odd subject for an entire album…[but] I happened upon several books that explored the Jungian psychology buried within such tales, and I was suddenly entranced…I found I wanted to dive into those dreamy stories.” You’ll be glad she did. 

The Youngers, Picture of You. This Pennsylvania-based quartet opens its self-produced third album on a high note with the title track, which delivers nearly everything you could want in a country-tinged Americana/roots-rock single: twangy guitar, propulsive rhythms, addictive hooks, and a personality-drenched vocal by group co-founder Todd Notobartolo. Granted, the lyrics incorporate the occasional clichĂ© (“your smile could easily light up a room”) and awkward phrase (“your laughter was one that always stood out”) but you’re more likely to be singing along than complaining.

None of the other ten numbers quite equal “Picture of You” but several—including the folky “Fly Away” and such upbeat highway songs as “Let it Roll”—come close. Lead vocalist Notobartolo, who wrote all but one of the tracks, plays guitar, lap steel, and mandolin; the group’s other talented members include drummer Bruce Kissinger; guitarist Matt Thren; and bassist Randy Krater, who co-founded the Youngers with Notobartolo.

Jack Grelle, Got Dressed Up to Be Let Down. Jack Grelle displays a facility for storytelling and, as this CD’s title suggests, a penchant for wordplay. His music, which recalls the work of both John Prine and Tom Pacheco, is rooted in country and folk but clearly not bounded by those genres. Grelle, a veteran of the DIY punk scene, weaves elements of Cajun, rock, and honky-tonk into his songs, which are as diverse lyrically as they are musically: “Birthday Cards,” for example, is an affectionate nod to his grandmother while “Changes Never Made” chronicles the aftermath of the 2014 Mike Brown police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, only about 10 miles from Grelle’s St. Louis home base.

Lawrence Morrill Glass, Extended Play. This EP features only five songs and runs just 17 minutes, but that’s long enough to get a sense of Glass’s substantial talent. His strong, prominently mixed vocals and sharply honed folk pop songs reminded me immediately of veteran singer-songwriter Jake Holmes (“So Close”), but Glass has his own lyrical voice, as evidenced by such high points as the melancholy “No Christmas This Year” and the tongue-in-cheek “Tina Fey,” in which he declares undying love for the actress/comedian.

By the way, Glass is about the millionth new artist I’ve heard in the past year who hails from Austin, Texas. I’m starting to wonder whether there’s anyone in that town who doesn’t have a record out.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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