- - Monday, May 7, 2012

From the Ground Up

John Fullbright

Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers

★★★½

Like Justin Townes Earle, John Fullbright writes Americana music with the sort of self-assurance and boozy weariness of someone twice his age. On this debut album, the 24-year-old Oklahoma native bounces between acoustic ballads, roadhouse rockers and neo-gospel rave-ups in equal measure, proving that age doesn’t really matter if you’ve got a song to sing.

Steeped in the Red Dirt traditions of his home state, “From the Ground Up” rustles up memories of Jimmy Webb and Merle Haggard, two legendary Sooners who laid the brickwork for Mr. Fullbright’s twangy, dusty path. These songs aren’t pale imitations of past performers, though. They’re the real deal, sung with conviction by a guy who’s clearly spent time in the juke joints and Bible Belt bars that his music evokes.

Mr. Fullbright doesn’t possess the country’s best voice — it’s a rough, rusty thing, preternaturally aged by cigarettes and hard living. And although he’s a fine instrumentalist — banging the piano during sad-eyed ballads like “Nowhere to Be Found” and finger-picking bluesy guitar licks on the fiery “Satan and St. Paul” — he rarely shifts his focus to incendiary solos or killer riffs. Put the whole package together, though, and “From the Ground Up” proves to be a killer debut, pairing sharply worded stories that resonate with confident performances that pop.

Fullbright goes acoustic

When you’re a traveling folk singer, you don’t always have the luxury of carting a four-piece band from town to town. If your songs are good enough, though, they’ll pack a punch without the extra personnel.

Mr. Fullbright will celebrate the release of his debut, “From the Ground Up,” by heading to Bob Weir’s California recording studio Tuesday afternoon, where he’ll play his debut album in its entirety. Each song will be stripped down to its basic elements, with most of the arrangements focusing on little more than vocals and acoustic guitar. For those who aren’t close enough with Mr. Weir to gain private admittance into the Grateful Dead guitarist’s studio, Yahoo has agreed to stream the performance for free.

Celebrating an upcoming release by playing a show is nothing new, but Mr. Fullbright’s live webcast represents something different. It’s a bridge between the vintage country-rock music he writes and the modern world he inhabits, and for those who didn’t catch any of the eight shows he performed at this year’s South By Southwest festival, it’s the next best thing to seeing him live.

Lovers

The Royalty

Victory Records

★★★

From Amy Winehouse to Adele, mainstream artists have been resurrecting the 1960s for the past half-decade or so, finding contemporary appeal in Motown beats and old pop melodies. The Royalty rolls those vintage influences into a sound that’s equally shaped by rock ‘n’ roll, too, a move that helps distance this Texas-based group from the rest of the retro pack.

Singer Nicole Boudreau is the group’s main attraction, a space-age girl-group vocalist reincarnated as a 21st-century throwback artist. Like Ronnie Spector and Shangri-Las leader Mary Weiss, she sings about heartbreak and young love with a voice that’s sweet, tender and slightly wounded, and she can’t seem to help falling for the wrong guys. “I’m in love with a bartender,” she states during the first song, sounding like a head-over-heels teenager, and you can’t help but be concerned for this moonstruck ingenue, wishing she’d set her sights on a nice accountant or something instead.

An element of danger runs throughout these 12 tracks. The Royalty is a modern rock band, after all, and this debut album doses its bright melodies and major-key chord progressions with plenty of guitar distortion, pummeling drums and punky tempos. Miss Boudreau doesn’t want her boyfriends to take her to the sock hop; she’d rather make a beeline for the craziest rock show in town, with her latest crush behind the wheel, speeding the whole time.

Miss Boudreau’s vocals were made for this sort of nostalgic music, and she’d probably do a killer version of “Rolling in the Deep” if any of her no-good crushes ever took her to a karaoke bar. When your own songs are this good, though, there’s no need to resort to cover tunes.

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