“Southland Mission” is a fine blend of folk, blues and gospel enriched by the soulful spirit and musicality of its creator, one of the most compelling artists in the folk and Americana scenes, Phil Cook.
Cook has always been a hugely collaborative artist, crafting inspiring music with Justin Vernon in their Wisconsin band DeYarmond Edison, with his brother Brad and Joe Westerlund in the adventurous Megafaun, and again with Vernon in The Shouting Matches. He has also done recording and producing work for Hiss Golden Messenger, Charlie Parr and The Blind Boys of Alabama.
“Southland Mission” definitely feels like he rounded up a bunch of his closest musical friends and pressed record, the playing being both loose but highly nurturing to the sound and flow of the songs. But this album is entirely Cook’s vision and it is exciting to witness his sound continuing to grow deeper and richer in tone and emotion.
Throughout the whole album, you are embraced by the warm textures of the songs and swept up into the joyful melodies like a hammock strung along a hilltop in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The breeze from the valley can be felt plainly enough in “Ain’t It Sweet,” the “chk” of the guitar cresting into a pumping rhythm of piano, guitar, organ and Cook backed by full female vocals. Cook delivers a tightly coiled solo as the song barrels along the ridge and falls back into the lush meadow of the chorus.
The bright spirit of “1922” shines like a shimmering creek and builds in exuberance as Cook’s honeyed guitar rises and the harmonies grow in size and sound. It beautifully trickles into the stirring gospel-blues of “Great Tide.” “Tie those loose ends, place your bets/ Ain’t no way you ever gonna settle all your debts,” sings Cook, the glowing picked-guitar giving way to the anthemic boogie that carries you through the eddies and rapids of the verses. The flow is deeply moving and you are welcomed to do nothing more than let yourself fall in and float with it.
Cook’s musical sensibilities on this record are an evolution of what he has been doing throughout his career: remaining respectful of roots music yet always deconstructing it to fit his exploratory style. “Sittin On A Fence Too Long” is a lazy, acoustic-blues diddle that is bolded with Cook’s impeccable tone and organ and “Lowly Road” sounds like what a Baptist gospel band might sound like when they gather in secrecy to drink, smoke and play the blues at night.
“Anybody Else” rides a gentle groove carried by Cook’s passionate back and forth with singer Frazey Ford, formerly of the folk group The Be Good Tanyas. It is as intimate as pillow talk on a Sunday afternoon but still has a enough energy moving through to lead to some sultry swaying. It is a fine line to balance the personal nature of folk music with rhythm and blues, but Cook always finds a way to create something that honors all traditions while still remaining true to his unique point of view. Stylistically, he is coloring within the lines for the most part on “Southland Mission,” but he is coloring with some of the most vibrant tones of blues, gospel and folk put on record.
The cover of “Southland Mission” features a black and white photo of Cook with a relaxed grin on his face. The picture perfectly embodies how this record sounds and likely reflects the feelings Cook had when recording this album. Your mouth will probably curl into a similar grin after you listen to this album.
- Phil Cook
Release: Sept. 11, 2015
Notable Tracks: “1922,” “Great Tide,” “Anybody Else”