A trio of near-simultaneous album releases by Asheville-based artists highlight the rich diversity of the local music scene. Stephanie Morgan makes sophisticated pop, Laura Blackley comes from a classic country style (and occasionally ventures beyond it), and The Tills update 1960s garage/proto-punk for a modern-day audience. All three acts have live shows scheduled to celebrate their new albums.
Chrysalism by Stephanie Morgan
Stephaniesid, the former group of prodigiously talented singer Stephanie Morgan, had a kind of arty pop sound with the added interest of a strong jazz sensibility. Since the end of that project, Morgan has ventured out on her own, and, while Chrysalism should please longtime fans of her old band, it represents a decisive break from the past. More straightforward melodic lines are the order of the day, and the textures Morgan chooses to support those melodies — eerie Mellotron choirs on “The Minor Calling,” a shuffling disco beat on “I Hear a Symphony” — suggest that she’s found a recipe that allows her to pursue her ambitious ideas within a widely accessible musical framework.
The minimalist instrumentation of “Bones” is a model of subtlety, while “Easy” — built upon a simple enough musical foundation — manages to evoke the combined effect of Southern gospel, blues and jazzy torch songs, all in the space of just over four minutes. There’s an underpinning of sadness, melancholy and resignation to many of the song arrangements, but that ambience is leavened with a sense — in the form of Morgan’s vocal delivery — of indefatigable optimism.
Midway through the record is “In the Sunlight,” which — while not disavowing the more visceral emotions explored on other cuts — suggests that Morgan has charted a path forward and is supremely equipped to succeed in her ongoing journey. “Stardust” has a vibe that’s so unadorned and up-close that it’s almost uncomfortable listening, but Morgan somehow makes it work. In “This One,” she implores, “If you want to listen to one of my songs, listen to this one,” but anyone drawn in by Morgan’s expressive voice won’t wish to limit themselves. Stephaniesid is dead; long live Stephanie Morgan.
WHO: Stephanie Morgan with Les Amis
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, April 28, 9 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show
Tell It to the Darkness by Laura Blackley and the Wildflowers
An engaging Southern gothic troubadour, Laura Blackley is a beloved fixture on the regional live concert circuit. On Tell It to the Darkness, her well-honed strengths are on prominent display. Chief among her assets is a skill at crafting thoughtful lyrics — word pictures, really — that work as well on the printed page as they do within the context of songs.
The tasteful yet energetic musical backing throughout the album is reminiscent of classic country: judicious use of pedal steel and shimmering electric guitar; warm and inviting acoustic guitar; and a rock-solid rhythm section. But Blackley’s lyrics are the centerpiece of Tell It to the Darkness.
Most notable among the album’s 11 tracks is “Good Night Orlando,” a tribute to the victims of the tragic June 2016 attack on the Pulse nightclub that took the lives of 49 people. Rather than chronicling the events of that day, Blackley focuses on a slim glimmer of optimism as she repeats the refrain, “Love is all we ever have.”
As assured a vocalist as Blackley is, when she harmonizes — as on “Miss Nina” — she’s even more effective. And when she turns in a more rocking direction on “Mama Don’t Cry,” Blackley demonstrates that her songwriting mastery need not be contained strictly to country. Lyrics like “You don’t have the luxury to self-destruct / ’cause girl you got a baby to raise” will ring true to listeners, parents or not. “Black Mountain Sugar Babe” showcases Blackley’s facility at suffusing country-blues with humor (not to mention Andrew Scotchie’s tasty slide guitar solo).
The sole cover on Tell It to the Darkness is a reading of “No Expectations,” a deep cut off the Rolling Stones’ 1968 LP Beggars Banquet. Blackley makes the tune her own; unsuspecting listeners won’t even know it’s not an original.
WHO: Laura Blackley and the Wildflowers with Lo Wolf
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, April 28, 9 p.m. $10
Canon by The Tills
Hardcore 1960s pop acolytes hold a special place in their hearts and record collections for “Mr. Dieingly Sad,” a minor ’66 hit for New Jersey group The Critters. And while everything about that track — its vocal harmonies and gentle guitar strumming — suggest The Critters are a friendly bunch of guys, the surviving band members collectively threatened a lawsuit upon a local group using the same name. Rather than waste money on litigation, Asheville’s Critters became The Tills.
All that is just as well, really. Because while The Tills draw inspiration from the music of the ’60s, they seemingly don’t have much interest in the softer sounds purveyed by their former namesake. No, The Tills have more in common with groups like Chocolate Watchband, The Seeds and other bands whose work has been anthologized on collections like Nuggets and Pebbles.
Which isn’t to suggest that The Tills are slavishly derivative. The 11 tracks on Canon (released April 20 on Phuzz Records) are wholly original. That said, the group does wear its influences on its collective sleeve. “Rejection” sounds like Buzzcocks crossed with The Cramps. The clattering production aesthetic suits the songs perfectly, highlighting the insistent, high-energy tunes.
Unlike Howlin’, The Tills’ last record, Canon wasn’t produced by North Carolina musical icon Mitch Easter (Let’s Active), but was made at his Fidelitorium Recordings outside Winston-Salem. The noisy, raw sound of The Tills comes through on the compact tunes (most clock in under three minutes). Few bands capture the delightfully snotty vibe of ’60s garage rock without aping the sound that goes with it. The Tills succeed at that musical high-wire act, and Canon showcases the band at its best. The group’s record release show is also the Asheville FM spring fund-drive kick-off.
WHO: The Tills with Pie Face Girls and No One Mind
WHERE: The Mothlight, 701 Haywood Road, themothlight.com
WHEN: Saturday, April 29, 9:30 p.m. Free