Release Radar: 10 Local Albums You Should Know

By Matt Wickstrom, SmileyPete.com

Mangolia Boulevard, Nitrosonic Studios, Sarah Cahill, Release Radar
Magnolia Boulevard recording at Nitrosonic Studios in Lexington. Sarah Cahill | KY Cahill Photography

Despite being largely sidelined from live performances since mid-March due to COVID-19, many central Kentucky musicians have continued to seek creative outputs. If anything, these past six months have yielded a wealth of time to write and develop new material, with many local bands and songwriters having released (or preparing to release) new albums of note. 

In partnership with Lexington music blogger Matt Wickstrom (Wick’s Picks) and our friends at University of Kentucky college radio station WRFL (88.1 FM), we’ve rounded up a diverse selection of 10 albums that were released recently or are coming soon.

All five of my album picks appear below. To see all 10 picks visit SmileyPete.com.

Magnolia Boulevard: New Illusion

Magnolia Boulevard, New Illusion
Grace Mayeur | Roadcat Press

Local rockers Magnolia Boulevard released their debut EP, New Illusion, a well-produced four-song collection of funky rock and soul ballads, on Aug. 7. Recorded, produced and mixed by Paul Reed Smith at Dragon Crossing Studio in Annapolis, Maryland, and mastered by Ted Jensen (The Eagles, Green Day, Norah Jones) at Sterling Sound in Nashville, Tennessee, the compilation offers up freshly polished interpretations of some of the band’s most recognizable songs. The new recording of “Ride,” the project’s lead track, features an upbeat New Orleans flair with horns and harmonious backup vocals that take frontwoman Maggie Noelle’s already audacious energy to new heights, as she sings of living in the moment and not taking the little joys of life for granted. The EP also shines a light on “Sister,” a heartfelt ballad describing the powerful bond of sisterhood that Noelle penned for her best friend. From upbeat and jam-driven sounds to soulful and bluesy breakdowns, with Noelle’s powerhouse vocals and guitarist Gregg Erwin’s soaring licks on full display, the EP does an excellent job of illustrating the band’s live sound and versatility.

“Of course I miss playing shows, but I think I speak for a lot of musicians when I say the break has been a breath of fresh air, almost like a reset button,” said Noelle. “You better believe everyone will be roaring and ready to go when touring and live shows are back to their regular beat. By releasing this EP during the pandemic, I hope people understand we’re still here and we’re still ready to go once it’s safe to do so.”

New Illusion is available to purchase at www.MagnoliaBoulevardBand.com and is available to purchase and stream on all major digital services. 

Recommended if you like: The Allman Brothers Band, Blues Traveler, The Tedeschi Trucks Band

Justin Wells: The United State

Justin Wells

Lexington artist Justin Wells has returned with the long-awaited and highly anticipated follow-up to his 2016 debut, Dawn In The Distance. Released at the end of August, The United State was recorded by Duane Lundy at the Lexington Recording Company and The Midwest Sound in Rockford, Illinois, and sees Wells joined by an impressive collection of collaborators, including members of Cheap Trick, These United States, and Miles Nielsen & The Rusted Hearts and others. The artist described the project as a “life album,” with each song portraying a different phase of the shared human experience, from joy, ecstasy and hope to sorrow, pain and fear, all amid a canvas of Southern rock arrangements. 

As the world continues to grow more polarized, Wells said he hopes The United State can be a beacon of hope and unity, reminding the listener that despite differences in opinions, Americans are united by common bonds and are stronger working together rather than tearing each other down.

While Wells said he’d love to tour the album and that it’s certainly his hope that folks connect with the songs, he’s focusing on being patient and riding out this pause.

“I’ll be at the shows when it’s time to be, and folks will be there too… In the meantime, let’s hunker down,” he said. “Let’s build some gardens. Let’s figure out the kind of people we want to be.” 

The 12-song album is available now on all major streaming services, as well as for purchase at www.JustinWellsMusic.com.

Recommended if you like: Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton

Dark Moon Hollow: Dark Moon Hollow

Earlier this year, Lexington bluegrass band Dark Moon Hollow was anticipating its biggest summer of festival performances. After COVID-19 put the kibosh on large gatherings for the year, the group opted to funnel its time spent cooped up in Lexington toward finishing its debut, self-titled album. Recorded locally with producer/engineer Jason Groves at Sneak Attack Recording Company, the 11-song effort features all original songs penned by guitarists Brett Horton and Trey Reinhart, including the rowdy bluegrass ballads “Drinkin’ Again” and “Little Lady,” the latter featuring local multi-instrumentalist, studio musician and producer J. Tom Hnatow (Vandaveer, Horse Feathers, These United States) on pedal steel guitar.

The album is slated for Oct. 31 release, with pre-orders available soon at www.DarkMoonHollowBluegrass.com

Recommended if you like: Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain, The Wooks

Restless Leg String Band: Seasonal Progression

Frenetic local jam grassers Restless Leg String Band are shaking a leg with the forthcoming release of Seasonal Progression, a full-length album due out by the year’s end. The project is the band’s third full-length album and the first studio recording featuring its newest member, Louisville-based mandolinist Chris Cupp, who joined in August 2018. The collection features 10 songs, from the title track, an instrumental co-composed by all members of the band, to “My Blood,” which was penned by banjoist Jonathan Bramel and features an edgy blues sound. Like with the band’s first two albums – 2016’s self-titled effort and 2018’s “Bigger Than A Feeling” – the album was recorded with Jason Groves at Sneak Attack Recording Company on Southland Drive.

Follow the band on Facebook (www.Facebook.com/RestlessLegStringBand) for information regarding the specific release date and pre-orders for “Seasonal Progression.”

Recommended if you like: Larry Keel, Rumpke Mountain Boys, Yonder Mountain String Band

Elizabeth Varnado: elizr

Multi-instrumentalist Elizabeth Varnado released her debut EP, elizr, on Sept. 24. Recorded with Duane Lundy at the Lexington Recording Company in March during the first week the COVID-19 pandemic hit Lexington, the whimsical six-song collection sees the artist breaking out of her shell, as she not only sings but also tracks all of the instruments on the project (violin, piano, acoustic and electric guitars) with the exception of bass, which was handled by her husband, Paul Varnado. The songs on elizr document Varnado’s experiences over the past decade, a time in which the musician, who is also a member of the popular local indie rock outfit Lylak, began to find herself and overcome the stage fright and vulnerability of performing and singing about her feelings in front of people.

“It isn’t a peppy record, per se, but I believe the weird, bittersweet and complicated feelings that the EP is full of are the most beautiful parts of life,” said Varnado. She gave the EP her own nickname, she said, because of how personal the production and songwriting are to her.

“I hope people who know me well will recognize my personality, and folks who don’t know me will get to know me,” she said. 

The elizr EP is available to purchase at www.elizr.bandcamp.com. The album is also available to stream on all major platforms.

Recommended if you like: Bedouine, May Erlewine, Joan Shelley


Read the full article, which also includes album spotlights from Saraya Brewer, Allison Pin and John Henry Reynolds, at SmileyPete.com.

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