Murray McLauchlan- Steve Marriner- Afton Wolfe- more

Murray McLauchlan - Hourglass

This award-winning singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist is no stranger to social commentary and this time out he has, thanks to a world in such turmoil lately, plenty to sing about. McLauchlan wonders about the fate of future generations in light of what the fat cats are up to in "The One Percent," offers some give-it-some-time encouragement on "Pandemic Blues" and marvels at how fast time passes on the hopeful title cut, "Hourglass." Everything here is gentle; McLauchlan's voice and delivery, his guitar playing and the downbeat melodies that he favors throughout. While most of the commentary here is generalized, not all of it is; "I Live on a White Cloud" for example, is "for George Floyd" although the lyrics don't mention him by name. When all is done and said optimism shines through here; appropriate then that the set ends with "Wishes," a hope that mankind can make some positive changes.

Steve Marriner - Hope Dies Last

Fabled for his work with blues outfit MonkeyJunk, here Marriner taps into a roots rockin' sound, beginning the effort with the John Mellancamp-ish "Take Me to the City," a driving, electric guitar-fueled anticipation of the fun that awaits inside the city limits. "Honey Bee" is a swaggering, blues rocking seduction aimed at an apparently libertine lover while on "How High" Marriner channels the braggadocio of a self-assured lothario; the cut is reminiscent of music from the 1970s era when British acts were paying homage to American blues (Marriner is Canadian.) The arrangement on "Uptown Lockdown," a funky, grooving instrumental is a mash-up of Little Feat and the Grateful Dead; "Petite Danse" is definitely Little Feat influenced while high lonesome closing cut "Long Way Down" is quiet and a great showcase for Marriner's voice, although he waxes sad. A very strong effort here on Marriner's second solo album.

Afton Wolfe - Kings for Sale

Wolfe's voice is not that similar to that of Tom Waits but his phrasing is and you can hear it in many of this album's cuts, like the pedal steel backed story of "Carpenter," a sad tale of a relationship's dissolution with lines like "Christ knows you bring out the worst in me." And while many will find the Waits-ness to be the appeal here, Wolfe has a lot more going for him, like on the Leonard Cohen-recalling "About My Falling," another slow and sad cut where Wolfe plays ukulele and xylophone instead of his usual guitar and works some humor into his lyrics although mostly the words are those of a depressed man. "Cemetery Blues" adds fuzzed-out guitar to the mix, maybe representing the emotions of visiting a graveyard, "Steel Wires" is another Waits-like cut, eerie and a bit cryptic. Closing cut "O' Magnolia" is about how Wolfe's homeland of Mississippi needs to change a few things and vaguely references how the state has recently changed its flag.

Mary Hott with the Carpenter Ants - Devil in the Hills: Coal Country Reckoning

With a few exceptions, everything on this 11-cut song cycle about the hardship of coal mining in West Virginia is written or co-written by Hott. Hott's bright vocals belie the sinister underpinnings of life in company towns where everything was controlled by barons from afar in songs like "They Built a Railroad" with lyrics like "They were building empires from a distance/Monied men from the north and east/They called it progress, taming our wilderness/They left despair and poverty." Both "Annabelle Lee" and "Room of Lost Souls" touch on the horrifying fact that children were used in the mines. The album's title cut is slow as a dirge and decorated with percussive effects and stinging slide guitar parts that combine for an eerie soundtrack to the hell portrayed throughout the album. The story here is certainly not a happy one but there are a couple celebratory moments; one is the funky encouragement of "Rise Up, WV," the other is an album-closing take on John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads."

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