No, the Muddy Ruckus is not one of so many neo-bluegrass bands that populate regional scenes across the country. I mean, yes, there’s rootsy acoustic guitar and harmonies. But where others tread well-tread folkie ground, the Portland ensemble Muddy Ruckus employ a retro vibe, stellar musicianship and songwriting, and much more emphasis on the hot jazz, rockabilly and country side of things. Ryan Flaherty — who essentially is the Muddy Ruckus — owes a lot more to folks like Tom Waits or Mark Lanegan, or the deranged, delightful neo-swing of the Squirrel Nut Zippers, than he does the banjo-clutching hordes. Many of the tracks on this self-titled album zip along at a breakneck speed, like the 5-minute mini-epic “Ruby Red” or album opener “Crawl on the Ceiling,” propelled by the superb upright bass playing of Brian Durkin. Flaherty sings much of the album with a ragged roar, harmonizing with vocalist Erika Stahl, and offers up a take-no-prisoners style of songwriter: check out the hard life lessons learned in the lyrics of “Bulldozer,” the seething “Convalescent Angel” or the sexy poetics of “Butterfly Bullets.” A well-produced, highly entertaining, highly listenable album from a songwriter who has a clear vision, and knows how to execute it.
The four lads in Bangor band Rotating Taps have been playing together in one form or another for nearly a decade. Lead vocalists Sam Chase (also the drummer) and Yuri Trusty (also on keys) have played together as a duo since both were in high school, and guitarist Mike Wellington and bassist Jared Botting have been playing with the two of them almost as long. So it makes sense that the band’s new EP is as warm and relaxed as their friendships are. Blending Paul Simon-style guitar lines, subtle percussive rhythms and big, full-throated harmonies, the Taps don’t necessarily fit into any neat classification — sure, they play indie pop, but there’s just as much of a Coldplay influence in those melodies, and an easy-going, jammy vibe reminiscent of Guster or mid-period Wilco. “Take Your Time” is far and away the most mature and well-produced effort the four have ever released — and they can thank producer Joshua Strange for that, who rightly trained his ear on those harmonies and that rhythmic foundation when recording them. The one-two punch of the title track and “Always Learning” are equally suited to dancing and to straight listening; as cozy as sharing a pint with friends, but with surprising jolts of energy and insight to keep it interesting.
Dan Sonenberg references Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman in his influences, and boy, is that true — “Peaks Island Ferry” is full of piano-driven, classic songwriting, sung from the woozy, jaded perspective of a guy who’s been through some stuff. With the exception of one track on the album, Sonenberg plays everything, from drums and backing vocals to the crisp guitar lines on “Yoko Song.” Sonenberg, who also plays in the indie rock band Lovers of Fiction, recorded many of the songs on this album while living on Peaks Island in Casco Bay, and that Maine imagery is prevalent through many of these songs, like the melancholy “Bar Harbor” or the title track. You get the sense that Sonenberg is reflecting on a number of major changes in life — a failed relationship, perhaps, and he wears his heart on his sleeve because of it. He certainly has a way with melodies, in the same way Billy Joel might if he came of age in the 1990s. The album’s strongest points are when Sonenberg indulges in his inner bombastic 70s troubadour, like the Bowie-esque breakdown in “Resolution Time” or the tortured torch song “Target.” It’s a refreshing departure from the norm, in terms of Maine bands.
In the mid-2000s Waldo County’s Tree By Leaf were one of the best folk bands in Maine, releasing several albums infused with restless, intelligent Christian imagery. They slowly disassembled by 2011, however, and lead Leafs Garrett and Sirii Soucy haven’t been heard from since. As it turns out, though, the pair has been quietly releasing albums for the past few years, as Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy. “The Procession of the Ram,” just released, wouldn’t be out of place among the Tree By Leaf recordings, though it is even more spare and stark, intimately recorded by Roy Davis and Bernie Nye of the Coloradas. Still present is that searching, engaged spirituality — this is deeply Christian music, yes, but of the Sufjan Stevens or Pedro the Lion sort, as concerned with the troubles of the human soul as it is praise or worship. Though most of the album is comprised of not much more than acoustic guitar, gently strummed electric guitar, the couple’s singing and a few carefully placed, pared down percussive elements, it is as engaging as something with three times the instrumentation. It’s good to have the Soucys back.