Anger is an energy, sang John Lydon, and some righteous fury seems to have jolted Milagro Saints on the Raleigh band's eighth LP, Stranger Times. The record barrels open with "Shadow Man," which inveighs against rapacious fracking companies on personal terms and heaps ire on those who live to exploit the earth.
For a band that often occupies a musical space somewhere between jam-band comfort and folk-rock taste, the song deploys a welcome sense of urgency. A similarly righteous anger—married to a Bo Diddley beat and riveting slide work—animates a fiery cover of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee," written about a 1948 plane crash that killed mostly Mexican migrant workers. With all this talk of walls, the take is all the more powerful.
Milagro Saints formed in 1995, the same year Americana became an established radio format, and moved to North Carolina in time to catch the region's alt-country boomlet. As the genre has expanded, the band has steadily mined its growing permutations. Early works skewed toward the reverent, while more recent fare added baroque Band-style instrumentation and even straightforward pop. Stranger Times builds on this mastery of diverse styles accrued over years, the palette trending toward the grittier end of Americana.
It's not all gloom. The burnished vocals of romantic shuffle "Heart Painted Red" sounds uncannily like the once-lost legend Rodriguez and his clean Cali pop, lifted by a lilt borrowed from vintage Van Morrison. The blues stomp "Rail Rider" roars with passion, although it sounds as if the lyrics were added only to suit the mood. "Another Country," or what the band terms "cosmic Americana," keys on lovely glints of steel and phased mandolin. With a suitably tipsy groove, the New Orleans tribute "Ruby Moon" ends the LP with an excessive build—righteous energy spent, hair suitably let down, lolling in the fecund source of American musical tradition.