Declaration of Independents from July/August 2021

Another gathering of releases by independent artists that deserve wider recognition. 

Videos by American Songwriter

Mary Karlzen | Shine | (Y&T Music

So it’s time for me to look back to see if what I did was true, Mary Karlzen sings on “Slowly Disappear,” the opening track of Shine, her first new album in 14 years. Of course that’s an extremely long time to be away, given that today’s music biz is generally dominated by current wunderkinds, and there’s a certain amount of skepticism that greets any effort deemed a comeback. Nevertheless, Karlzen proves her mettle, and her new album ranks among her best yet. It also marks a return to Y&T Records, the indie label that birthed her before she moved to the majors. Here again, she gathers an all-star group of contributors—Radney Foster, Garry Tallent, Kenny Aronoff, Ben Peeler and Mark Goldenberg, among them—but it’s Karlzen’s vocals—alternatively delicate and effusive—and the unrelenting enthusiasm shared through such songs as “The Burgeoning Road,” “You Still Belong to Me,” “Try To Find,” and “Moon & The Sky” that ensure an instant embrace.  

Bill Mallonee & The Big Sky Ramblers | A Clamoring of Ghosts | (Bill Mallonee Misc) 

Bill Mallonee is an overachiever. He puts out multiple albums in a single year, and a look at his vast digital catalog easily confirms his prowess. Even devoted fans and followers find it hard to keep up. That’s admirable of course; a wealth of riches always gives cause for celebration especially when an artist is as adept as Mr. Mallonee. The former leader of the Athens Georgia-based band the Vigilantes of Love formulates an easy, breezy country rock sound that imagines Donald Fagen sharing time with Neil Young in Harvest and Harvest Moon mode. Songs such as “Speakin’ Terms,” “Ameri-Cacophony (Time To Play)” and “You’re a Lucky Man Now” appear a bit more laid back than usual, all sprawling melodies that find Mallonee markedly mellow. The result of a particularly prolific few months, A Clamoring of Ghosts is supposedly a series of full band demos, although in truth, they sound fully formed…and, true to form, as engaging as always.

Sandy McKnight with Fernando Perdomo | San Fernando Blitz | (22 Records) 

Sandy McKnight’s second co-billed effort with Fernando Perdomo (a multi-talented musician and producer who seems to be everywhere these days) is a fine follow-up to the pair’s first collaboration, San Francisco Beat, an EP that established them as an impressive power-pop duo adept at churning out tuneful melodies and giving them a robust execution. Like their initial effort, the new offering boasts only six songs, but happily there’s not a dud in the bunch. Indeed, their upbeat approach and overall iridescent sheen make songs such as “Living on the West Side,” “Why Make Promises?” and “Pay It Any Mind” find easy comparison to the Shoes, XTC, Weezer, Big Star, and all the other ensembles who tend to go for big hooks and radiant refrains. As before, the two play all the instruments between them, while McKnight’s vocals ensure the prerequisite attitude and enthusiasm. Consider this a Blitz that’s all but impossible to resist.  

Mare Wakefield & Nomad | No Remedy  

Mare Wakefield’s musical journey began with a series of solo albums before reaching a new plateau when she teamed up with Turkish multi-instrumentalist Nomad Ovunc in 2014. Frequently compared to Dar Williams, Natalie Merchant, Shawn Colvin, Gillian Welch, and Dolly Parton, Wakefield effectively holds her own within that stellar company, but she also has the talent to stand out on her own. No Remedy, the latest effort by this genuinely dynamic duo, proves the point and ought to elevate their standing significantly. With a sound that touches on tender torch songs (“Almost Mine,” “Winter Rose,” “Safe Heart,” and “Outfield,” chief among them), rollicking revelry (“Give Myself to Love”) and an upbeat ode to a certain irascible individual (“Your Dad”), the album sets a consistent tone, thanks to a spirited blend of poignancy and personality. Hope, heartache and homespun homilies are of equal importance, and every single song becomes a singular standout. As one might guess, this is clearly a keeper.

Charles Ellsworth | Honeysuckle Summer | (Borro Borracho Records)

A New York City singer and songwriter by way of Arizona, Charles Ellsworth takes a sturdy musical approach which brings comparisons ranging from Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen to the heartland heroics of John Mellencamp. His latest album, Honeysuckle Summer, takes a rugged and sometimes rowdy approach to his craft, and the result is a series of songs that are anthemic in tone and uplifting. While several of the songs allow him to vet some personal issues, there’s little that hints at anything somber or sobering to any great degree. Ellsworth himself describes the album as “Arizona’s response to Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and in fact, that’s an apt comparison given the rugged and robust delivery shared in songs such as “Gripping Ohio Water,” the rollicking “Max & Geraldine,” an optimistically upbeat “Laundromat,” and the decidedly tender trappings of a ballad that’s aptly dubbed “Blessed.” That makes Honeysuckle Summer a well-seasoned set of songs, one that creates an immediate impression and resonates well beyond.

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