Photo and text by Melanie Stangl
In December, I introduced this decade retrospective series of Pittsburgh music, and started the list with four standout country/folk/Americana releases of the 2010’s. Once again, my day job got in the way of a more timely follow-up, but here’s the next installment. There will be one more before we move on to other genres. Without further ado…
Best Country/Folk/Americana (Part 2)
Many singer/songwriters could also fall into these categories, but I opted to list them separately. In no particular order:
Andre Costello and the Cool Minors – The Rattling Arcade (2014)
Start With: “She Took My Hand”
Want More?: “Virgil (Easy Go),” “Took Our Cause”
Andre Costello has been active in Pittsburgh’s music scene for essentially the entire 2010’s. Over the first few years of the decade, “The Cool Minors” grew from a name for his solo project to a bona fide, multi-member folk/rock band. 2014’s The Rattling Arcade was their first full-length release on Wild Kindness Records.
It was worth the build-up. This album showcases both Costello’s staggering talent as a songwriter and guitarist, and what a tight musical unit the entire group is. (If you’ve seen them live, you’ll know what I’m talking about.) The lyrics tackle a myriad of subjects: self-conscious introspection (“Ceilings are designed to block the sky/You are who you are, but who am I?”), appreciation of another (“The interstate’s for ramblers/and that’s where I’ll be with you”), societal observations that still ring true now (“And the newspapers tell me what I should do,” “They took our cause/and turned it on us”), and more. Narrative arcs exist, but the style is less straightforward storytelling than it is a mosaic of illustrative, poetic turns of phrase that get at the emotional core of what he’s trying to say. Think John Cale or Neil Young.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structure. But Costello frequently twists and ventures outside of this formula: playing with pace, repetition, and instrumental builds in interesting (but not isolating) ways. Some songs are five, six, even seven-plus minutes long, but every second is well-spent. He’s not afraid to go for it, to take chances, to explore. The structures surprise you, but the transitions are well-connected enough to leave you thinking, “Oh wow, cool,” rather than, “What the hell was that?” Occasional additions of other instruments, such as harmonica and a horns section, are well-integrated gems. And Costello’s warm, welcoming, distinct vocals are a comforting complement to this experimentation.
The songs smoothly transition into one another, too—it works as both intentional listening and background music for a peaceful day at home. All these factors combine to make The Rattling Arcade a standout folk/rock release of this decade.
The band is still together and performs regularly. They released their excellent follow-up album, Resident Frequencies, in 2018. They’ve also partnered with Buhl Planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center twice, to put on performances with spectacular accompanying laser shows. They are currently working on new material, and you can find their releases on Spotify, Bandcamp, or wherever you get your music these days.
Boca Chica – Get Out of Sin City (2011)
Apologies for the poor photo quality–this was the only image file of the album cover I could find.
Start With: “Dear Audrine”
Want More?: “Afternoon Tea,” “Marlene”
For fans of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, Boca Chica was Pittsburgh’s answer. Their first album (self-titled) came out in 2005, and they had a few more releases over the next six years before their final full-length, Get Out of Sin City, dropped in 2011.
I’m grateful they were able to make it through to that decade, if just barely. Otherwise I might never have heard of them, and that would be a shame. Get Out of Sin City is a great record.
Boca Chica, led by songwriter Hallie Pritts, has warm, lovely, inviting vocals that evoke comparisons to Dido (with a light sprinkling of Pittsburgh twang and modern indie lilt.) The tone is relaxed, natural, but never bored. Both the music itself and the subject matter reflect this naturalness. Sliding pedal steel, pretty layers of keys, and well-placed backing vocals and harmonies combine sweetly with balanced, foundational guitar strums and percussion hits. Every now and then, clusters of classical strings provide gorgeous, vibrant texture (and some unexpected minor-chord intervals) that make their appearance extra special. The band also isn’t afraid to build up, slow down, or lean into a darker sound to emphasize an emotion or raise the tension before releasing it. They show a knack for musical textures that can be complex, but feel intuitive.
Lyrically, the album explores celebration and regret, nostalgia and hope, outward observation and inward reflection. They’ve got wisdom to offer (such as, among other suggestions, the titular phrase appearing in “Sin City,” advising you to leave “while you can.”) But this is interspersed with a sense of imagination and whimsy, like in the song “Afternoon Tea:” “She’s awake before the sun comes up/catching rain for tea in cracked cups/She can read your future in the leaves.” Such vivid details help immerse you in the songs’ worlds, and are an important part of their folk/storytelling charm.
Other subjects tackled include gun violence; the cyclical nature of pain; and one of my favorites, insistence on reciprocity in a relationship, in “Do Right Woman:” “You wanna have a do right, all day, woman/You better be a do right, all night, man…so long as we’re together, baby/better show some respect for me.” There’s even a cover of the Nik & The Central Plains track “You’re the Blues” too.
It’s pretty, but it’s not without depth and intricacy. It talks about a lot of different topics without sounding scatterbrained or disorganized. It’s comforting, but the risks that are taken pay off. Get Out of Sin City might have marked the end of Boca Chica, but it was a strong start to the 2010’s.
Unfortunately, the band is no longer active, but you can still find their music online. The full-length albums are only available on Spotify.
Dan Getkin and the Twelve Six – Feeling Good About the End Times (2018)
Start With: “At the Ivy Inn”
Want More?: “Feeling Good About the End Times,” “Strong Words”
Named after the lead singer and a baseball pitch, Dan Getkin and the Twelve Six embrace the Americana image right off the bat (ha.) And their second full-length album—powered by skillful, genuine songwriting and a well-oiled machine of a band—shows that they’re pretty damn good at it.
The group occupies the territory between rock, country, and folk/singer-songwriter. The story-telling tendencies of the latter two genres are skillfully blended with the instrumental focus and song structure of the former. Foot-tapping beats and killer, unapologetic guitar lines share space with gorgeous pedal-steel twang and classic wavering keys. Intermittent horns, double bass, and guest vocals add further dimension and warmth. Energetic, dance-friendly numbers are well-balanced with slower, moodier tracks. The result is heartfelt and welcoming—a little old-fashioned and damn fun.
Lyrically, Feeling Good About the End Times tackles themes of faith vs. doubt, health vs. illness, strength vs. weakness, and past vs. present. (The only “love song” in the bunch, a duet with Lauren DeLorenze, questions whether the speaker is too old for them.) Internal changes are grappled with in the context of a changing world, neither of which come easily.
And Getkin knows how to tell a story, intertwining vivid images (“I was walking ‘cross a bridge and I looked down/I am the muddy river and it’s turning brown/That’s who I was born to be”); humorous quips (“You want to clear out the bar, what do you do?/Here’s a bona fide tip, it’s tried and true/Go to the jukebox and play Sweet Caroline then play it/ten more times”); and vulnerable questions (“Maybe we’ll weather this moment and laugh/How do you look back when the darkness won’t pass?”)
It’s a searching, reflective album, one that’s about exploration as much as expression. And two years later, the title feels more appropriate than ever.
The band’s music is available on all major streaming/download platforms. You can catch Dan Getkin and the Twelve Six at their next show, playing with Chet Vincent and the Big Bend and Her Ladyship on Saturday March 14 at Howlers in Bloomfield.
Look out for part three of this list later in February.