There’s an Americana theme with these three new releases. Jenn Wasner covers a lot of musical ground with her excellent second record as Flock of Dimes. There’s an unlikely Canadian-New Zealand Americana record from Kacy & Clayton & Marlon Williams, while Big Thief guitarist Buck Meek provides some home-spun charm on Two Saviors.
Flock of Dimes
Head of Roses
Jenn Wassner is known as a member of Wye Oak and Bon Iver, but she also releases her own music under the moniker Flock of Dimes. Baltimore’s Wassner covers a lot of ground on her second record as Flock of Dimes. While the primary mode of expression is Americana-tinged tracks like ”Walking’ and ‘Lightning’, she dabbles in rock and electronica as well.
Like a lot of current records, Head of Roses was inspired by the pandemic – Wassner experienced the end of a long-term relationship, and the ensuing lockdown gave her a lot of time to reflect. Most of the songs on Head of Roses were written between March and June 2020 as the world grappled with Coronavirus.
There’s an impressively strong triple punch to open Head of Roses. Wassner’s vocals are only accompanied by woozy synths on ‘2 Heads’, and it serves as a prelude to the epic rocker ‘Price of Blue’. The spiralling melody and moody guitars of ‘Price of Blue’ have shades of Neil Young with Crazy Horse or Built to Spill. The skittery electronica of ‘Two’ is tuneful and catchy despite the unusual 7/8 time signature.
The rest of the record tends toward gentle Americana, but it’s still lovely and tuneful. The pretty ‘No Question’ goes into sophisti-pop territory, while Wassner’s layered vocals sound beautiful over the electronica of ‘One More Hour’.
Wassner is adept in multiple genres on Head of Roses, and I look forward to exploring her catalogue further.
Kacy & Clayton & Marlon Williams
Plastic Bouquet was released in December 2020, but I missed it at the time. I saw Williams live a few weeks ago, where he remarked that he was just about the biggest tour in the world right now despite performing solo with a $150 acoustic guitar. His profile has been increasing, including a cameo in A Star Is Born, but he’s still the kind of niche artist you expect NPR to rave over but enjoy middling sales. His voice is a rich country croon, and his songwriting is often unpredictable and stays away from big choruses and cliches.
On Plastic Bouquet, New Zealand-born Williams collaborates with Kacy & Clayton. Kacy & Clayton are a duo of second cousins from Saskatoon – Williams contacted them after hearing them on Spotify. Like Williams, they bring a traditional country feel to Plastic Bouquet – Kacy Anderson’s voice resembles Emmylou Harris’ in its clear purity. The Canadian-New Zealand combination makes sense – Kacy told Bandcamp that “the three of us are just old timey kids.”
There’s a cross-pollination of cultures on Plastic Bouquet – the title track is bluegrass while ‘Arahura’ reflects Williams’ Maori heritage. When I saw him live, Williams told the audience about the album’s lead single ‘I Wonder Why’ – he was embarrassed by its straightforward nature and tried to excise it from the master tapes. Even more than most of Williams’ oeuvre, it sounds like a 1950s throwback, but it’s charming. It’s fun hearing Kacy and Williams duet on songs like ‘Light of Love’.
Williams’ music feels slight sometimes – he favours short songs and simple arrangements – but Plastic Bouquet is a charming record that sounds like it beamed in from 60 years earlier.
Buck Meek is best known for his work with Big Thief, playing Dave Rawlings to Adrianne Lenker’s Gillian Welch. While Welch and Lenker are quite different artists, Rawlings and Meek are much more similar, both with a laidback drawl. Lenker is the main songwriter for Big Thief, and Two Saviours is more relaxed than usual intensity. Two Saviours was recorded in New Orleans, with Meek and Big Thief producer Andrew Sarlo often capturing performances at first take. Meek’s brother Dylan plays organ.
It can be difficult to take Meek seriously – his gently rustic voice doesn’t always convey emotion effectively, and he seems most at home on trivial songs like ‘Ham on White’ (as it sounds, it’s about making a ham sandwich). The slow and mournful ‘Dream Daughter’ is lovely. Lenker receives a songwriting credit on ‘Candle’ – Meek wrote the rest of the song after she texted him the first verse.
In the hierarchy of Big Thief and its spin-offs, Meek’s a clear third behind the parent band and Lenker’s solo work, but I’m still glad that he’s making enjoyable records like Two Saviors.