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By Gregg Shapiro
If you stick around in the music biz long enough, sometimes you return to the record label where you started. Paul McCartney will be doing just that after inking a deal with Capitol. Pure & Simple (Dolly/RCA), the new album from Dolly Parton, who recorded for RCA from 1968 until 1985, is another example of an artist returning to the roost. Pure & Simple is the absolute right name for this 10-track album that features eight new Parton compositions and two classics from the archives, with production that is respectful of the artist. Famous for timeless love songs (“I Will Always Love You,” for instance), Parton is still able to find new ways to express affection in songs such as “Never Not Love You,” “Outside Your Door,” “Head Over High Heels,” and “Forever Love.” Parton also puts her own spin on the cheatin’ tune with “Can’t Be That Wrong.” [Editor’s note: See Dolly Parton at Houston’s NRG Arena on December 5 at 8 p.m. More: dollyparton.com.]
In 1978, as Dolly was reveling in the early years of her mainstream crossover success, she also became something of a disco diva with the 12” dance single “Baby I’m Burnin’” (issued on pink vinyl, no less). Alternative country goddess Lydia Loveless may have the next-best thing to that Dolly tune on her new album Real (Bloodshot). Even without a DJ-sanctioned remix, the heavenly “Heaven” goes a long way in getting people on their feet and dancing. A country-funk number with a persuasive club beat, “Heaven” soars to new heights. Like Kacey Musgraves, Loveless brings a young, fresh, hip edge to the scene, and songs such as “Longer,” “Bilbao,” “Clumps,” and “Midwestern Guys” are just a few examples.
My Woman (Jagjaguwar) by Angel Olsen could be a 21st-century country classic with its woeful portrait of love gone wrong. But there are enough exotic touches, such as the synthesizer on the otherwise acoustic opener “Intern,” that moves the song cycle into a wider-reaching territory. Still, the girl-group mood of “Never Be Mine” veers toward a certain brand of Nashville pop. Regardless, Olsen does some serious palette-expansion here, especially on the visceral “Shut Up Kiss Me,” as well as “Not Gonna Kill You,” the soulful “Those Were the Days,” and “Pops,” making for a truly unforgettable album.
Remember when Olivia Newton-John was a country singer? In her own way, she helped clear a path for other Australian country artists such as Kasey Chambers and Keith Urban, as well as young singer/songwriter Julia Jacklin. Jacklin’s debut album Don’t Let the Kids Win (Polyvinyl) is a fine introduction to a talented new artist. Country-folk hybrid tunes (such as the title track, “Pool Party,” “Leadlight,” “Sweet Step,” and “Same Airport, Different Man”) would not be out of place on an alternative country playlist. Jacklin is also unafraid to rock out when necessary, as she does on “Coming of Age.”
On Weightless (Sugar Hill), the follow-up to her eponymous 2015 breakthrough album, Liz Longley puts the twang aside in favor of a more pop-oriented sound. It’s a wise move, as Longley—still in her 20s and a gifted singer/songwriter—has the potential to appeal to a broader audience. Opener “Swing” is a perfect example of the middle ground she found between pop and modern country. The same holds true for the title tune and the gorgeous ballad “Rescue My Heart,” as well as “Oxygen,” “What’s the Matter,” and “Only Love This Time Around.”
The fittingly titled To Tell the Truth (jaymaymusic.com), the second album by singer/songwriter Jaymay, is the kind of art borne from difficult times and tragedy. Surviving debilitating health issues and the loss of a sibling, Jaymay channeled her creativity into both aural and visual expression with her songs and CD artwork. The anti-folk/alternative country vibe of the disc, propelled by Jaymay’s distinctive vocals and her knack for writing catchy tunes, exemplified by “Baby Maybe One Day,” “I Was Only Lovin’ You,” “Enlighten Me,” “Today & Tmoro,” and “For Goodness Sake,” are honestly well worth your attention.
Canadian singer/songwriter Haley Bonar returns with her sixth album, Impossible Dream (Gndwire/Thirty Tigers), and it’s a knockout. Rocking a bit harder than any of the women mentioned above, on songs such as “Kismet Kill,” “Called You Queen,” and “Skynz,” Bonar still earns a place here with country-inflected numbers such as “Hometown,” “Your Mom Is Right,” “I Can Change,” and “Blue Diamonds Fall.”
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.