“Better Days” is the right name for Dolly Parton’s uplifting new album. The positive message begins with the country swing of “In the Meantime,” in which Dolly encourages listeners to “drop the doomsday attitude,” and continues with “Just Leaving,” in which she talks “big for someone so small.” But the stunning “I Just Might” comes close to recreating the drama of her hit “I Will Always Love You.”
On “The Party Ain’t Over,” country queen Wanda Jackson puts herself in the hands of the ubiquitous Jack White. But unlike White’s earlier collaboration with country songbird Loretta Lynn, this disc lacks cohesion. Some of the cover tunes selected are more inspired than others. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard this devoutly Christian 73-year-old singer wrap her mouth around Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.” She tears into “Rip It Up” and storms through Bob Dylan’s “Thunder On the Mountain.” But “Rum and Coca-Cola” isn’t as potent as It should be, and “Teach Me Tonight” is a lesson best avoided.
You can hear a bit of the influence of Wanda Jackson’s trademark growl on “Screws Get Loose” from Those Darlins. As they sing in “Be Your Bro,” they may have “girly parts,” but they’ve got “boyish hearts.” Their matter-of-fact approach to a variety of subjects may differ from Jackson’s, but that’s what makes them so, well, darlin’. The title track, about “going insane,” makes crazy appealing and “Bro” is one of the funniest looks at male/female friendships on record. “Hives” will have you itching to sing along. “Mystic Mind” puts a psychedelic twist on psychics and “$” is an interesting reflection on the love of money.
The Decemberists’ country-chamber opus “The King Is Dead” sounds like it could have just as likely been recorded in Nashville or Memphis as Portland, Ore. The presence of Gillian Welch and David Rawling along with a prominent pedal steel guitar and fiddle supply the disc with a country accent. Standout tracks include “Calamity Song,” “Rise to Me,” the harmonica-heavy “Don’t Carry it All” and “Down by the Water.”
Justin Townes Earle
Personal troubles aside, Justin Townes Earle must be doing his father Steve proud. His best record to date, “Harlem River Blues” sounds like an instant classic. Timeless compositions such as “Workin’ for the MTA,” “Wanderin’” and “Ain’t Waitin’” could find an audience in both the alternative country and Grand Ol’ Opry communities. Additionally, with “Rogers Park” and “Christchurch Woman,” Earle reinforces himself as a 21st century man. Speaking of Steve Earle, he’s back with “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
One of the more consistently fascinating insurgent country acts, the prolific Drive-By Truckers kick in with “Go-Go Boots.” The disc is full of songs about murder and brutality, infidelity, ugly divorce, Jesus and other drugs, family and absent friends. The exquisite “Dancin’ Ricky,” with vocals by Shonna Tucker, is particularly wondrous.
Kings of Leon
Easily the most successful of the new breed of Southern rockers, Kings of Leon achieved stardom with a pair of singles – “Sex On Fire” and “Use Somebody” – from their previous disc. So it’s easy to understand why the band, finding itself at a creative crossroads, might fumble a bit on the follow-up album “Come Around Sundown.” Now a full-fledged stadium act, KOL sound as if they are employing everything in their bag of tricks the fill the space. If that’s not your bag, expect to be disappointed by much of this slick disc.
Hayes Carll made quite a splash with his 2008 “Trouble In Mind” disc and he continues the momentum on “KMAG YOYO (& other American stories).” Carll, reminiscent of Steve Earle, glides effortlessly between the honky-tonk of “Hard Out Here” and the gentle drama of “Chances Are.” Centerpiece duet “Another Like You,” with Cary Ann Hearst, is an instant country classic.
As if to remind us that country music wouldn’t be what it is today without Johnny Cash’s contributions, we have the second installment in the Johnny Cash “Bootleg” series. The double-disc set “From Memphis to Hollywood” draws on Cash’s personal archives and includes demos, rarities, radio performances and more from the 1950s and 1960s.