Archive for CD Review category
Every year I try and I try to cover the awesomest albums coming out in the folk/roots/world/indie roots/what-have-you genres, and every year I totally miss some great albums and feel bad about it. So this post is my annual tradition of repentance, a chance to wipe the slate clean and admit that I totally slept on some of the best music of 2013. This is kind of like my Top 10 list for 2013, only with more regrets.
Peter Rowan. The Old School.
Rounder Records. 2013.
Man, I’ve got no excuse for this one. I had it on my desk forever and just didn’t listen to it for some reason. My bad, because this is one of the must lively and entertaining bluegrass albums to come my way in 2013. Peter Rowan’s famous, of course, from his time with David Grisman, Old & In The Way, and even the father of bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe. Recently I’ve been hearing a lot about him on the Bay Area bluegrass scene from my friends Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman. With his new album, The Old School, he’s definitely back on the scene, and with a vengeance. Nothing old and stodgy about this album, it burns with bluegrass fire. Rowan’s crackly vocals easily hold the reins of this wagon train, which include riders like J.D. Crowe, Stuart Duncan, Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Michael Cleveland and lots more. Come for the killer bluegrass, yeah, but you’ll stay for the nearly perfect songwriting. “Keepin’ It Between the Lines” is a tour-de-force that touches on the harshness of politics today as well as the numbing world of constant travel and disconnect that most touring musicians experience. This whole album stands up as granite-solid bluegrass done the best way, the old school way.
Peter Rowan - Keepin' It Between The Lines
I’m game to write on just about anything coming from Joy Kills Sorrows, who in my eyes are one of the most promising next gen roots bands out there right now. I think they’ve inherited the mantle of Crooked Still, though they do cover more original music and territory. And just like Crooked Still’s lead vocalist, Aoife O’Donovan, who went on to great things, I hope the same is in store for Joy Kills Sorrow’s vocalist, Emma Beaton, should she move on at some point in the future. For now, though, she’s belting out some of the best music we’ve heard this year with a voice that can truly ring the halls. This is the first album since the departure of bassist/songwriter Bridget Kearney (who’s in Lake Street Dive now), but the band hasn’t missed a beat. New bassist Zoe Guigueno (who’d been playing with Canadian roots band Fish & Bird who we’ve written about before) picks up the torch and runs with it. And on the new album, it feels like the instrumentalists are coming more to the fore. The instrumentals on “Was It You” are sick, to use a technical term, and the arrangements on following track “Get Along” bring a structured intensity and focus chaos to Emma Beaton’s beautiful singing. Joy Kills Sorrow are still at the top of the game and the Wide Awake EP proves it.
Joy Kills Sorrow: Was It You
I laugh every time I read another blog from one of my colleagues condemning Mumford & Sons. I know it’s kind of the thing now to hate on them (and it’s always been the thing to hate on successful artists), but I’m not afraid to declare how much I love their anthemic folk and stompalong singing sessions. But then I heard the new album from Seattle’s Campfire OK and I started to get it. Campfire OK is what Mumford & Sons could be, but aren’t. Beautiful lyricism. Catchy songs that don’t rely on singalong chorus in the same way that Skrillex relies on the bassdrop to hook the listener. Banjo that’s not “shromming”, but rather creatively adapts traditional picking methods. Choruses that I have to sing along to, but don’t feel slightly depressed at my sappiness when I do. Vocal harmonies that swell like ocean waves, washing over the listener. And an album in which every song sounds completely different, and yet somehow linked. And totally Seattle. Campfire OK are like a more focused version of The Head and the Heart. Though they come out of the same scene, and though they’re key members of Seattle’s amazing indie roots scene right now (btw also check out Bryan John Appleby and Lemolo if you like this), they’ve got their own sound. It’s a kind of dreamy pop leavened by the serious edge of traditional folk music. It’s not easy to describe, but when you’re tapping your feet and singing along to this, you probably won’t care.
Sometimes the best albums come from folks we call “musician’s musicians.” These are the folks that the other scheduled artists flock to see at festivals, the kind of artists that guest on everyone’s album, bringing an uncommon tastefulness. Portland Oregon’s Scott Law is the perfect example of a musician’s musician. Most of the Northwest roots artists I know are friends with Scott and he’s played with most of them in turn. He’s a sensitive guitar picker, able to adapt to most any ensemble without overwhelming the others. So when time came to release his own album, it stands to reason that it would be chock full of collaborations. There are so many guests, in fact, that it’s hard to know who plays what on what track. It’s best to just kick back and enjoy the acoustic roots goodness here from folks like fiddlers Darol Anger and Mike Barnett, vocalists Nicki and Tim Bluhm and Aoife O’Donovan, The Clarridge siblings on fiddle, and banjo picker Greg Lizst of the Deadly Gentlemen. Special shout-out here to young Portland country fiddler Luke Price who I’ve been seeing pop up all over the place. Kid burns like napalm on the new tune “Five Pines.” Law’s a strong songwriter and singer, which I personally hadn’t realized, with fully-fleshed songs like “Leave the Leaving Up To You” and “Can’t Lie Awake” as stand-out tracks here. But really the joy in this album is finding out what awesome ensemble Law’s assembled for each track. It’s like a fully packed Christmas morning with all kinds of surprisingly cool presents to unwrap.
Scott Law: Can't Lie Awake
I met Grace at Folk Alliance earlier this year and had a great time hanging out and chatting with her. And greatly enjoyed her album as well, a subtle slice of country twang, so my apologies to her for not writing about it before. But let’s make up for that now: New England singer, banjo player, (and songwriter) Grace Van’t Hof unites the urban streets of country with the rural twanglands of America in her debut album. Her voice is thoughtful, much more thoughtful than most country singers, and that gives her music a kind of fragility and intimacy that’s lost in the brashness of country femme fatales. Grace has an incredible ear for bringing out the best in old country songs, and chooses carefully for her debut. Robbie Fulks’ “Each Night I Try” rubs shoulders John Hartford’s “Somebody’s Gonna Pay,” and even Dock Boggs shows up in “East Virginia Blues.” The album was produced by Laura Cortese, which helps explain the masterful arrangements and kickass fiddling (and if you slept on Laura’s amazing 2013 album, then that’s YOUR BAD and you should check out our Inside the Songs article about her). The album’s kind of a coming-together for a lot of folks in the New England roots scene, and clearly a chance for everyone to celebrate the old country sound. Here’s hoping for more from Grace Van’t Hof in 2014!
PS: Special love for Grace’s gorgeous instrumental album closer “Chasing Sara”. She pulls off a lovely delicate-as-lace banjo line here that’s a standout track.
The Garifuna are people of Honduras, Belize, and S. American/Caribbean beaches who are descended from shipwrecked or escaped African slaves. Their music is a beautiful and deeply compelling blend of Africa and Latin America, and under the guidance of record label Stonetree Records and producer Ivan Duran, Garifuna music has become some of the most compelling “world” music being put out today. The new album from The Garifuna Collective is no exception to this. Guitar lines sparkle like sunshine on turquoise waters, voices are raised to heaven in gorgeous harmony, and the heavy weight of the shakers and drums is the only thing to pull this music back from ascending to a higher realm. In a sense, this is the music of the Garifuna selected to be most compelling to Western audiences; other Garifuna traditions include straight percussion ensembles, or even punta rock, which is huge in Latin America. Duran and his company went deep to find the music of the paranderos, the guitar kings of the Garifuna who were good enough (people like Andy Palacio and Aurelio Martinez) to claim the title of “next Buena Vista Social Club.” This music figures at the center of The Garifuna Collective and you’ll quickly hear why it’s so compelling. There are Garifuna communities in the US, even a community in Seattle, so it’s not like this music is “foreign” to us. And when you listen to this album, you’ll feel as I did, that this beautiful roots music deserves every day it gets in the sun.
I’ve been meaning to write about Sam Moss for a WHILE now. He’s consistently put out interesting, innovative music that actively challenges American traditions. His work with old-time stringbands via The Howling Kettles brought a knife-raw edge to this usually conservative field, and his solo guitar work often borders on the American primitive school of thought. With his new solo album, No Kingdom, Moss unites these different models of roots music around his original songs, which are beautiful rebuilds and remixes of traditional tropes. “Hammer” references John Henry, John Hurt’s Pallet on Your Floor, and manages to sound like an entirely new creation. Man, this album hits all of my soft spots. Eerie and beautiful songwriting, ghostly banjo and guitar, Appalachian roots, and deeply softly enchantingly beautiful vocals. I thought that the Gothic Appalachia genre died with the end of 16 Horsepower and The Shiftless Rounders, but Brattleboro, Vermont songwriter and cutting-edge fingerstyle guitarist Sam Moss seems determined to bring it back better than ever. If you’re not paying attention to Sam Moss rolling into 2014, then you’re missing something great happening.
Karine Polwart. Traces.
Scottish singer-songwriter Karine Polwart is some kind of miracle. With the most beautiful Scottish brogue, she writes songs that are drenched in the heavy rains of the Scottish Highlands, but also reference and reinterpret thoroughly modern ideas. Her new album, Traces, opens with the lines “I was Farrah Fawcett, you were Steve McQueen, and we rode our silver grifter half the way from Aberdeen,” before turning into a chorus on the ebb and flow tides of the Scottish seaside. The natural world and the digital world rub shoulders here, in a strangely frictionless kind of relation. Beyond the songs, the arrangements here are a pure delight. The music clearly has folk roots, and Polwart’s acoustic guitar work throughout is soothing and beautiful and transporting, but there are keyboards and glockenspiels, and sweeping swells of sound. Honestly I think this album must be the closest thing you can get to visiting a windswept Scottish seaside town. It’s like the audio equivalent of that. Of course I say that because I’ve never been to Scotland and I live in America, so I’m free to stereotype all I want and I’m free to say just how enchanting I find Polwart’s Scottish accent. If I was a better person, I’d review this the way it should be reviewed in Scotland: this is an amazing example of how original songwriting can reinvigorate roots music. Period.
It’s funny, for me Pokey Lafarge is the hardest artist I know to write about. I think it’s because I see his music as impossibly retro, rooted in a vintage sepia-toned world of St. Louis blues and old 78s. But Pokey’s been quoted before as bristling at the thought of his music as retro. And he’s right of course. His music looks back at our past, but it’s firmly planted in this new century of ours. And though he’s clearly inspired by those old 78s, his new album, self-titled and out on Jack White’s Third Man Records in 2013, updates his sound with a host of new friends, bringing jazzy clarinet and trumpet into the mix and even adding folks like Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua of Old Crow Medicine Show and Caitlin Rose. The core trio The South City Three are still at the base of Pokey’s sound and come off as super pros on this album, no surprise, and Pokey’s voice sounds better on this album than ever. He seems to have expanded his sound to add a 1950s vibe, with subtle big band elements. Really, in my mind, Pokey can do no wrong. He could turns his music into a Dizzy Gillespie bebop big band and I’d still love it. He’s got his finger on the magic button and no amount of fumbling music writing on my part can obscure the fact that he just makes great music!
PS: Stay tuned at the end of the above YouTube video for a killer Iron Maiden acoustic cover by P0key and co!
Word on Facebook is that Peter Stampfel is working on an autobiography, and from the clips I’ve read that he’s posted, it’s gonna be amazing. Stampfel has long held the punk torch high at the heart of American folk music, from his early work with Harry Smith produced The Fugs to his later work with The Holy Modal Rounders that sounded like The Memphis Jug Band on acid, to his current work that blends fucked up old jugband tropes with totally modern TMZ topics. He’s an utterly unpredictable artist and every album he releases seems completely different. Probably his best recent album was his duo disc with Seattle folk weirdo Baby Gramps (reviewed HERE), but his newest album with New York anti-folk star Jeffrey Lewis is all kinds of great. It’s weird, and annoying, and confusing, and kind of disturbing, kind of like watching some half-drunk dude snap a treasured 78 in half. It’s also exactly the kind of folk music I’ve been missing recently. I love the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, but that stilted song “Please Mr Kennedy” is proof of how hard it is to write a funny, yet biting topical song. It seems like Mr. Stampfel snores out biting topical songs in his sleep, so maybe some of us young whipper-snappers should be paying more attention. On Hey Hey It’s… The Jeffrey Lewis & Peter Stampfel Band, songs touch on topics including Snookie from Jersey Shore, strange Japanese pop artifacts, Russian folk songs, the Beach Boys à la 1963, patron saints of Lower East Side New York, beatniks, bluegrass kingpin Don Reno, old fiddle tunes, Frankie Lane, and uncountable other strangeness. This album’s a lot of fun if you’re willing to take the risk of letting it into your house and alienating your spouse.
PS: The liner notes are brilliant, so buy the album rather than download. Quick sample from Stampfel: “the first person I ever thought was more fun than anyone was Little Richard in 1956–he seemed to be having more fun than I had thought it was possible for a human to have. Strangely, it’s only been in recent years that I realized that having as much fun as Little Richard seemed to be having was one of my main goals in life.”
By the way, THIS was the best folk album of 2013, but I'm so fuckin' tired of trying to convince people that The Crow Quill Night Owls are the best living jugband in the world. If you're not onboard already that's YOUR fault. This album BURNS WITH FIRE and everyone's too focused on covering the big names to notice this. RANT OVER. I’ll be doing a larger feature on these guys soon, so sit tight. In the meantime, here’s a great introduction to their awesomeness:
BUY THIS MUSIC! Click on any of the album covers above for a link to buy the albums. Support a great musician today and do your part to keep roots music rolling along!
12/20/2013 | comments (0)
There’s something deeply ancient in Emily Portman’s voice. The kind of ancient that used to trip my imagination as a young boy reading stories of the English countryside. There’s an undercurrent in British folk music of the pagan. It’s just beneath the surface, mostly unseen, and it’s in many aspects of traditional British culture. A glimpse of some old Pictish fire under the most staid British gentleman. On Hatchling, Portman’s voice walks the lost hedgerows of the countryside, peering into the bushes along the way, and scribbling down the old names and carven faces in the roadside stones. Songs like “Hollin,” a traditional song culled from the vaguely titled songbook Songs of the North, Vol. 1, reflects, in Portman’s own words, her childhood love of exploring English countryside.
Portman’s voice is beguiling, drawing the listener deeper and deeper into the songs, but I should make mention too of her scholarship and her wide-ranging curiosity. The songs on the album come from old manuscripts as well as they do her own pen, and are inspired by topics as diverse as Greek myth, Norse gods, the English countryside, and circus folks. Perhaps my favorite part of this album are the songs that Portman writes herself that are inspired by older songs or manuscripts. She’s not afraid to take an old setting of a song and rework it into something new, or even to pull ideas from old songs. And when she does cover a traditional song, she’s pulling at it, and turning it into the light so as to show the hidden corners of the song. Old Mother Eve, sounding for all the world like a gentle children’s song, hides a subversive message that must date back centuries: “Old Mother Eve she liked apples, and Adam, he liked them too.” Coded feminist messages like this in old songs lends me great amounts of hope for humanity.
I should make special mention of Portman’s incredible song, “Hide,” from Portman’s previous album which takes a disturbing old ballad that encourages domestic abuse and reworks it into a truly powerful song about feminine strength. This kind of deep subversion reminds me that even the most antiquated old songs can still have life to them.
The instrumentation on this album is rich, from plucked harps to clawhammer banjo, to possibly a theremin or musical saw somewhere in the background? The instruments bubble under the music, like a wooded stream, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the whole thing might have been recorded outdoors. Hatchling is an utterly enchanting album, rife with ancient folklore and half-forgotten old rituals, but still sounding utterly modern. Emily Portman should stand with Scottish artist Alasdair Roberts (who not coincidentally guests on this album) as one of the foremost traditional songwriters in the UK.
10/20/2013 | comments (0)
The albums are piling up here at Hearth Music HQ, so it's time to do a rundown of some of the great American roots music coming out recently. Check out some of our favorites and read more about each release. Have a listen yourself to be sure we're not blowin' smoke, and if you've got some money, kick it towards the artist to support them!
Jayme Stone. The Other Side of the Air.
Banjo master Jayme Stone is the very definition of an eclecticist (assuming that's actually a word). A far-traveling, passionately curious artist, his musical focus is like the light of a lighthouse: constantly roaming the landscape. In the liner notes for The Other Side of the Air, Stone talks about how this music is "a travelogue. A sonic chronicle of sounds I've discovered over the last two years." Most of Stone's music is a travelogue anyways, but what's interesting is that the new album feels like a real departure from the last album. Whereas the last album, Room of Wonders, was a romp through the wide world of folk dance music, The Other Side of the Air is a much more considered album, and ultimately it's an album of modern classical music, albeit for banjo.
Opening track "Radio Wassoulou" plays with familiar riffs from Malian music, passing the riff around like a joint. In "Soundiata," Stone's banjo ripples with the kind of beautiful ornaments found in West African stringed music, ornaments he no doubt learned while performing and touring with Malian griot and kora player Mansa Sissoko. The melodies on both these tracks are drawn from fieldwork trips to Mali that Stone undertook in 2007. "The Cinnamon Route" reminds me of today's work with banjos in jazz, but most of the material on this album seems more closely tied to classical compositions. The largest part of the album is given over to a four part Concerto for Banjo and Symphony from his longtime friend Andrew Downing.
This is a listener's album, no doubt. The tone and composition here is lush and beautiful and the production work by David Travers-Smith (he also did Ruth Moody's album) really stands out. Slip on this album with a nice glass of wine and plan to expand your brain a bit. That's my recommendation.
Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton. Tractor Beam.
I've been waiting for this one for a little bit now and it doesn't disappoint. Rosie Newtown is a truly monster old-time fiddler, and seems to be at the center of a real scene in Ithaca, New York. I first heard her fiddling as part of the New Young Fogies Appalachian compilation album. Not only is she a marvelously dextrous fiddler, pulling a huge variety of syncopated rhythms out of old-time bowing, but she's also a ferocious fiddler, tearing into a fiddle tune like a lioness tearing into a gazelle. On Tractor Beam, she's playing as a duo with songwriter/clawhammer banjo master Richie Stearns. Stearns is justifiably well known for his work with The Horse Flies, an alternative band with strong folk ties that was huge in the 90s. He's also toured extensively with Natalie MacMaster and Bela Fleck, scored an album for Pete Seeger, and worked with folks as diverse as David Byrne, Tuvan throat singers, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Tractor Beam is a blend of original and traditional, from a fiddle tune Rosie wrote ("Take It or Leave It") to three new songs from Stearns ("Ribbons & Bows", "I Am With You Always", "Tractor Beam"), even a Townes Van Zandt cover, which Newton sings in her pure ballad style. Her voice is high and soft, and crackles with the fragility of an ice sheet. It's beautiful singing! Stearns brings an element of worldliness to the music on this album, with a voice tinged by long experience, and a kind of weariness to his singing that draws in the listener. The traditional material here is rendered impeccably, from the straight-ahead versions of "Say Darling Say" and "Willow Garden" (oh and listen to their harmonies on those songs.....), to the wonderful Clyde Davenport tune "Lost Goose" and the always classic "Trouble in Mind." Stand-out track "Shirt Tail Boogie" features the lost art of clawhammer fiddling (inspired by the great Fred Cockerham), and it's great to hear Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson ripping it up on the last two songs, Ruben's Train and Hangman's Reel.
All told, Tractor Beam brings a lot of lift and life to the old traditions.
Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton: I Am With You Always (Stearns)
The Abramson Singers. Late Riser.
2013. Copperspine Records.
Following up her stunning debut album, Vancouver, BC singer Leah Abramson (aka The Abramson Singers) has crafted another intricate puzzlebox of an album, weaving vocal harmonies into a dense shroud that hangs over each song. There's a larger ensemble sound with the new album, and guest artists include Rayna Gellert, Jesse Zubot, and Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas. Used to be that Vancouver, BC was the lightning rod folk scene of the West Coast, bringing us groups like the Tanyas, Zubot and Dawson, The Paperboys, Outlaw Social (Pharis Romero's old band) and The Gruff. I haven't seen as many groups coming out of Vancouver these days as I used to, but from this album it's clear that there's still a great scene in the city. Look also to the album from Abramson's friend, Jenny Ritter, and you can learn more about Vancouver's roots scene.
On Late Riser, the songs whisper and twirl across a cracked wintery landscape. Vocal harmonies tense and resolve, and it's clear that Abramson loves to play with the timbre of the human voice. She arranges voices to hocket back and forth, and pairs a deeper voice with a high, almost falsetto voice. She's a sound poet first and a songwriting poet second. It's a great combination that lifts this album way above the herd of other singer-songwriters. Standout tracks include "Jack of Diamonds," which updates the old folk song trope of the gambling rounder, "Deja Vu," which is a gorgeous bit of songcraft,and "Liftoff Canon," which best shows off Abramson's vocal arrangements. Leah Abramson is one of the most eclectic and visioned artists in West Coast roots music and a name you should know.
Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally. House & Garden.
2013. Nell Robinson Music.
I've worked with Nell Robinson before, and she's one of the most positive artists I know in the music industry. That's because she comes to music late in the game, having started performing only in later life after growing up singing informally, so she brings an optimism and a fresh perspective to her work as a roots music singer and songwriter. There's something joyful about going along with someone as they discover and begin to truly develop their talents, and you can hear this magic in Nell's singing and in her songs. Teaming up here with ace bluegrass guitarist and singer Jim Nunally (of John Reischman's band, The Jaybirds), Nell delivers an album that feels like an effortless evening of singing in her home. And though her original home is rural Red Level, Alabama, her current home is near Berkeley and her current songs reflect the sunshine of a California garden. Besides the title of the album, House & Garden, Nell also includes an extra download card in each CD that can be planted in your own garden to grow some wildflowers. Of course, it's now our rainy season here in the Pacific Northwest, so I'm a bit late writing about this album and I seem to have missed the actual planting season. But 10 winters in Seattle have taught me the importance of thinking back on sunshine-y memories when the clouds roll in, and that's what this album excels at. As Nell and Jim sing in "Life in the Garden:"
"Life is full of many wand'ring pathways
Sometimes you know not where to go
Forget-me-nots in your garden
Will remind you of the places you have known"
Most of the songs on House & Garden are written by both Nell and Jim (with choice covers of Dolly Parton and George Jones), and they make a great songwriting team. "April Fool," "House," and "The Gardener" are both remarkably well-written, intriguing love songs, an all-too-rare thing today in a world drowning in lovesick songwriters.
Nell and Jim have a rare thing indeed, a lovely duet sound that pulls from both of their strengths. Turns out that when you tend your own garden, you can grow some lovely things.
Brian Vollmer. Old Time Music Party.
2013. Patuxent Records.
The title says it all here, really. Young East Coast fiddler/banjo player Brian Vollmer just picks the hell out of a bunch of great Southern old-time tunes. Honestly, was there really a point where we worried that this music wouldn't get passed on? Seems like my generation and younger have fallen hard for old-time music, and I think most of that comes from a desire for community and connection that goes far beyond the digital flickers of Facebook and Twitter. I know that's what got me into old-time; I just wanted to be part of these great all-night jams! A native of Washington DC/Baltimore, Vollmer's spent 10 years living in and around Asheville, North Carolina, picking up tunes from friends in the area before moving to Ithaca, where he's currently roommates with Rosie Newton (her album's covered just above!). I imagine the two of them probably shared "Lost Goose", a Clyde Davenport tune that appears on both albums. Vollmer actually learned it at Davenport's house, but Davenport got the tune from Dick Burnett of the truly amazing 78rpm-era duo Burnett and Rutherford. Damn it's a great tune. Kudos to Vollmer and Newton for their excellent taste! Other tune highlights on the album include French Carpenter's creepy-ass version of "Elzik's Farewell," a bombastic cover of the Roan Mountain Hilltopper's "Birchfield's Sally Ann," and the intriguing tune "The Green Door," which I'd never heard before. On the one-sheet for the album, they talk about how "this album is a tribute to anyone who has ever caroused until the break of dawn." Amen, brother. Amen.
Brian Vollmer: Lost Goose
Hannah Glavor and the Family Band. Halcyon EP.
I recently saw Hannah Glavor and the Family Band (spoiler alert: actual family band!) perform live at the beautiful Fremont Abbey in Seattle, opening up for Alela Diane, and her music completely impressed me. Her songs are beautiful and atmospheric, but what impressed me was that each note was so carefully considered. She has a powerful songcraft, in the most literal sense of the word. Each song sounds exactly hand-crafted, built in her Portland home, and tested extensively among her family before being brought forth to the crowd. There aren't too many artists these days who can do this, and I think it's really a blend of a natural performer and a master craftsman. Halcyon is Hannah's recent EP, released early this year, and it's just about perfect for a rainy Northwest night like the one I'm writing this in.
Hannah Glavor: Kingfisher
LISTEN to the whole album on Bandcamp!
Levi Fuller & The Library. Social Music EP.
Levi Fuller is a well known fella around Seattle's indie scene. A blogger for KEXP (where he chronicles the strange DJ comments pasted to old LPs), and a community organizer (his Ball of Wax compilations have involved hundreds of musicians and are far-reaching documents of many different NW sounds), Fuller is tied into many musical scenes in Seattle and beyond. His newest release with his band, The Library, is a short but sweet look at the music of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (plus a song from his buddies The Foghorns). Levi Fuller should know the music of Harry Smith's Anthology (I've written about this before HERE). After all, every year he and Greg Vandy (and me too, actually) organize a tribute to the anthology, drawing from an eclectic array of NW artists. What's surprising here is how sensitive he is to the music. He covers the songs here– "John The Revelator," "Dry Bones," "Since I Laid My Burden Down"– in such a way that he manages to tap into the wild heart of each one. His band is electric, and the music drives like a hammer, but this isn't some indie hipster covering old folk music. Levi gets what made these songs special in the first place, and the joy here is hearing his understanding come forth through a different musical palette. Another surprise? His great cover of local band The Foghorns' (no relation to Foghorn Stringband) song "80 Proof," a bleak song about alcoholism that's near perfectly written.
09/26/2013 | comments (0)
Various Artists. Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways.
2013. Smithsonian Folkways.
I've got to give big kudos to elder record label Smithsonian Folkways for putting out this eclectic and somewhat daring release of Celtic music from their huge archives. They've gotten some flack from other people about whether or not every track on this release is truly Celtic (the British folk and French-Canadian folk sections seem to piss some people off), but folks, you gotta remember that Celtic's an invented term. It works fine for what it is, but there's really no point in trying to cut people or traditions out of the pie.
What's interesting about this album is not only the performers or the performances, but also the field agents and the recording sessions that got the music down on acetate. Folkways Records in the 50s and 60s was an adventurous venue, with leader Moe Asch sucking in all kinds of cutting-edge folklorists and ethnomusicologists to record artists during their trips. So we hear Northumberland fiddler Bob Hobkirk recorded in Scotland by the great blues scholar Samuel Charters, who was vacationing with his wife. Charters also recorded another Irish legend: uilleann piper Willie Clancy, here performing a beautiful air "Trip O'er the Mountain" and really showing off his stature on the pipes. We hear the folk singer Jean Ritchie recording Sarah Makem, the mother of the great Tommy Makem, singing "As I Roved Out" in her home in Ireland's County Armagh. Ritchie was in Ireland and Scotland in 1950 to trace the roots of Appalachian music. Or we have the great old-time/bluegrass organizer Ralph Rinzler–the man who "discovered" Doc Watson–recording the legendary Irish sean-nos singer Joe Heaney in a London pub in 1958. Rinzler was one of the first people to record the London Irish session scene, and Heaney's singing here of "The Rocks of Bawn" is pure classic. Plenty of other classic Celtic artists appear here, like Shirley Collins, Ewan MacColl, Scottish singers Isla Cameron and Lucy Stewart, and Irish fiddler Denis Murphy.
I, of course, love this album for including Jean Carignan, in my opinion the greatest fiddler of the 20th century. A taxi cab driver in Montréal, Carignan is a somewhat controversial figure today in Québec and among Québécois artists, where his music is sometimes seen as old-fashioned, or overly virtuosic. But that snobbery ignores his amazingly charismatic playing and his huge contribution to the music. As a traditional Québécois fiddler he was without peer, but what makes Carignan interesting is his uncanny ability to learn other traditions purely from listening to 78rpm records. He listened extensively to Irish fiddle great Michael Coleman and Scottish fiddle great J. Scott Skinner, and could play their music effortlessly, though both were among the most technically brilliant fiddlers of their age. Folkways' could have made 4 albums of cool obscure artists from Ireland and Scotland, but props to them for including an artist like Jean Carignan who truly shows the polymath nature of today's Celtic music world.
Pete Seeger Interviews Jean Carignan
Classic Celtic Music is likely not intended for casual listening. But with the extensive liner notes, and the huge back catalogue of classic LPs (all of which are now available digitally) which each track references, this is the perfect stepping off point for a much larger exploration of what exactly Celtic music really means.
Classic Celtic Music, Louis Killen: With My Pit Boots On
Classic Celtic Music, Jean Carignan: Bonnie Kate/Jenny's Chickens
09/06/2013 | comments (1)
Shane McAleer. Long Time No See.
I've missed Shane McAleer! I knew him mostly as the impossibly fiery fiddler for Dervish back in the day. Always an Irish super-group, the core players of Dervish in the early days lit up every stage they were on purely through the sheer power of their musicianship and the speed and dexterity of their playing. And Shane McAleer was a real star then. I used to stay up at night trying desperately to learn tunes from his playing, only to find that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get the same life in the tune that he did. I had the notes, I had the ornaments, but I just couldn't make it sound the way he played. There was a core of life in his tunes that I couldn't copy. Of course, part of the issue is that the early Dervish albums were hard to learn off since they were all tuned up a half step, a common trick in Irish trad recordings from the 80s and 90s that helped the music seem just a little more frenetic. But really McAleer's playing just couldn't be easily imitated. He was one of a kind. He left Dervish after their punkest album, At the End of the Day, and I didn't hear from him after that. I assumed he left because of their heavy touring schedule, but turns out now that he left because of a drinking problem (a fact he's not shy to admit since he's now sober). Dervish got new fiddlers, like the excellent and eclectic Tom Morrow, and kept going strong, but I always missed McAleer and wondered what he was up to.
So now it's wonderful to hear his new album and to know he's back on the scene! With Long Time No See, McAleer delivers the kind of album that seems to have fallen out of style: nothing but tunes tunes tunes. It's great fun and his playing is as deft and light as I remember. He's lost some of his original fire, some of the burning flames of a wild youth that fueled him in Dervish, but he's exchanged that for a sure hand and a strong maturity that brings his playing to a new depth. His playing on the slow air, "Dunluce Castle," which he wrote, is deeply beautiful and unhurried in the kind of way that a well thought out and eloquent speech would be. On the creatively titled barndance "If there weren't any women in the world," he spins through the lilting melody with a careful ear to the subtle rhythms. The whole album is much slower than I remember his fiddling from Dervish, but that's kind of nice. I've got stacks of albums of fast fiddlers and though it's a bit of a rush to listen to that, there's more to McAleer's playing than just speedy fingering, and he shows it here. McAleer hails from Belfast but is originally from Omagh in County Tyrone. The album was produced by fellow Omaghite (is that the word?) Eamon McElhom of Solas, who also joins on guitar/keyboard/cello (!) throughout.
This is a thoughtful album in the best way, made by an artist who you can feel is just happy to be back playing music. Good on you Shane, it's great to have you back! Many happy returns on your new album and I hope we'll get to learn tunes off you for many more years.
Shane McAleer: Dunluce Castle/Paddy Fahy's
09/04/2013 | comments (0)
With her new album, 'Ukulele Dance, young Hawaiian ukulele prodigy Taimane takes her instrument far beyond the Hawaiian shores on which she grew up. As she says, "I don't look at the ukulele as a Hawaiian instrument. I look at it as an instrument just like the guitar or the piano, and I put it in my hands and then I just play music that I enjoy." Simple words, but with over a century in the American mainstream, the ukulele has indeed moved far beyond its origins first as a Portuguese sailor's instrument, and then as the highly animated "dancing flea" (that's what the word means!) in the hands of Hawaiian artists. On her album, Taimane goes out of her way to show the versatility of an instrument that's often seen as simplistic or limited. "When I first tell people that I play the ukulele," she says, "usually their reaction is, 'Oh, that's cute! That's nice!' But what I'm trying to show people is that the ukulele's not just a Hawaiian instrument; you can play any type of genre. And that's why I pick all of these really eclectic, different genres of music."
On her new album, Taimane covers music like "Stairway to Heaven," "Phantom of the Opera," even the James Bond theme, and if that sounds a little strange, it's all tied together by her sure hand on the ukulele and her strong sense of composition. "Stairway to Heaven," for example, which has been covered by SO many artists over the years, here sounds entirely new and refreshing in Taimane's hands. The pure sounds of the ukulele ring out and she draws new directions with the melody, bringing a very old and tired song into an exciting new place. She shows some of this artistic taste in her original compositions as well, like "Moon" (part of a suite of compositions inspired by the solar system), the irresistibly fun "Ragdoll Riches," and the atmospheric "Neptune's Storm."
Awesome video for Neptune's Storm
Just 23 years old, it's remarkable the kind of skill that Taimane shows on her album. Of course, it helps that she's been playing since she was 5 and was brought into Don Ho's ohana (family) at 13 after a member of his band discovered her busking on the streets of Honolulu. Since her discovery, she's been incredibly busy, playing for celebrities like John Travolta and George Clooney, and performing around the world. With so many high level performances and polished recordings under her belt already, it's great to know that she's developed her art beyond the "gimmick" level of a solo ukulele star covering pop songs. With Ukulele Dance, Taimane shows that there's a real depth to her music, and though her instrument may not always command the respect it deserves, she's clearly on a path to change this through her music.
Learn More About Taimane via this Hawaiian Airlines Interview:
'Ukulele Dream is available now through Mountain Apple Company.
Photos by Shaun Edward.