By John B Moore

Jeff Plankenhorn
Sleeping Dogs
(Spike Steel Records)

One-time go-to gun for hire Jeff Plankenhorn has played guitar and lap slide for everyone from Joe Ely and Reckless Kelly to Hayes Carll and Kelly Willis. But as of recently he's walked back into the center of the spotlight with his own records. "Sleeping Dogs," his latest, shows why he was so in demand in his adopted home of Austin.

Across 11 tracks, Plankenhorn deftly churns out some of the most satisfying rock/Americana being played today. Starting with the opening, title track, he lays out an infectious hook-heavy jam that serves as a warning shot for the bulk of the songs to come. Elsewhere, he puts down a breezy, mellow vibe on tracks like "Love Is Love" and "Tooth and Nail," featuring Ray Wylie Hubbard on guest vocals. Plankenhorn also brings in Patty Griffin to help on the fantastic "Holy Lightening".

The only real surprise here is that Plankenhorn has stayed away from the mic for so long. Austin may have lost a reliable sideman, but the rest of us have gained a solid new musical voice.

Shakey Graves
Can't Wake Up

Shakey Graves (Alejandro Rose-Garcia) had only been in the public eye for about a year in 2012 when the mayor of Austin proclaimed February 9th, "Shakey Graves Day." A hell of an achievement so soon out of the gate, but six years and several albums later, Garcia is still living up to the hype.

On "Can't Wake Up," his sixth album, he and his band still keeps a base of Americana, Blues and Rock in most of the songs here, but this album is easily his most experimental one, with psychedelic tinges and atmospheric elements added throughout. The change is very noticeable early on, with the song "Dining Alone," which sounds like a haunting cowboy campfire singalong, being performed with aliens thanks to eerie slide guitar sounds. And then elsewhere he goes for more of a straight-ahead rick vibe on "Cops And Robbers."

Though the album's experimental sound may take a couple of listens to finally take, it's well worth the time. "Can't Wake Up" is a refreshing departure at a time when there are plenty of Shakey Graves clones out there trying to cop his old sound.

Parker Millsap
Other Arrangements
(Thirty Tigers)

Over the course of four records, Oklahoma native Parker Millsap has managed to deliver four distinctly remarkable albums without retreading much on his own musical ground.

His debut, "Palisade," is stripped down Americana; while Millsap dug deep into the evangelic religious childhood for a modern take on gospel and folk with his self-titled sophomore effort; 2016's "Very Last Day" found him investing in a more Blues-heavy sound. And, in the simplest of terms, "Other Arrangements" is Millsap's "rock record".

For the first time, Millsap plugs in and sticks mainly to electric guitar on most of the tracks. The voice is still distinctly Millsaps', it's just that the music is a little faster and louder for the most part. Despite being in his mid-20s, his influences here are still more obscure than most of his peers, with nods to '70s AM rock versus the typical '90s bands that are serving as the guide posts for most current rock outfits. The album kicks off with the remarkable "Fine Line," a raucous fight between Millsap's guitar and Daniel Foulks ferocious fiddle playing. The album also includes calmer moments, like the beautifully serene "Singing to Me" or the faultless title track and elsewhere it takes a brief Blues route on "Tell Me". Even though Millsap has a tendency to get feistier on "Other Arrangements," he never gets lax with his lyrical duties, turning in another perfect collection of character sketches and three-minute philosophy lessons.

It may not be exactly what you'd expect to hear from Millsap, but none of his records so far have stuck to a specific template. It's simply a stellar album from start to finish.

Hi Lo Ha
Ain't Gone Tonight
(Heavy Setters Records)

It's pretty apt that the San Francisco Indie rock band Hi Lo Ha decided to borrow the name of Dylan's Woodstock, New York home for their moniker. The group manages to draw deep inspiration from Dylan's onetime backing musicians The Band for their "Ain't Gone Tonight" EP. But far from being just another band stuck in the '60s, they also bring in some modern influences to round out their sound – bands like Wilco and Dr. Dog. The result is a fantastic blend of folk and rock, perfectly melding lush arrangements ("Cold Weather Clothes") with more straight-up rock guitars ("Radio") and Soulful jams ("Thinking 'Bout a Friend").

The fact that the band can cover so much ground musically in just six songs is a testament to their talent and proof that they deserve a much wider audience. The only real drawback to this record is that it's over way too soon.

Mike Ness
Cheating At Solitaire; Under The Influences [12" Vinyl LPs]
(Craft Recordings)

It's been just shy of 20 years since Social Distortion front man Mike Ness released his two (and only, so far) solo efforts, but they are finally getting a proper vinyl re-release.

Though there had always been winks and nods to Outlaw Country in Social Distortion's music for years ("Ball and Chain" is pretty much a country song with power chords and a distortion pedal), "Cheating At Solitaire" was his first real foray into the country/punk genre. The album served as a template for a slew of musicians that would follow proudly touting their Willie and Waylon influences as loudly as they praised The Clash and Sex Pistols. The record also boasts some pretty impressive guests like Bruce Springsteen, Brian Setzer, X's Billy Zoom, Josh Freeze and members of Royal Crown Revue. He doesn't completely turn his back on punk with this album but compliments it with plenty of country and rockabilly tunes; and it's those songs where Ness' hard to miss whiskey and gravel vocals pair perfectly. His take on Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" is quite possibly the best cover of that oft-covered song and the title tracks is a flawless tear in my beer singalong. He also does a great cover of Springsteen's "Misery Loves Company," with The Boss sitting in. There's also a Hank Williams tune, a great one from Al Ferrier and "Long Black Veil" (most associated with Johnny Cash), but the bulk of the songs here are Ness originals.

"Under the Influence" came out the same year but was not nearly as impactful as it's predecessor. While still a good record, it's almost exclusively old country and rockabilly covers, save for a very cool honky tonk version of "Ball and Chain". The inclusion of Sonny Curtis' "I Fought the Law," seems a little redundant after The Clash's brilliant cover. Elsewhere, Ness does justice to Hank Williams' "Six More Miles" and Marty Robbins' "Big Iron".
These vinyl re-releases have been a long time coming but prove to be well worth the wait – "Cheating at Solitaire" even comes with a bonus track "Company C". Though these songs have been around for almost two decades now, these albums are perfectly suited for the vinyl format, pristine sound played in the right sequence with no skipping or moving around.



Meet Our Sponsors