Archive for CD Review category
After the popularity of last year's regretful column, we're bringing back our list of shame from 2012. Each week we receive new music lovingly packaged, often by the artists themselves, and each week we fail to write about most of it and feel very bad about that. It's just a question of free time, really, and free time's short on everyone's list these days. We're so happy with the artists we DID get to write about in 2012, but here are 10 artists that we definitely should have written about and completely missed the boat on. With our apologies! And... in apology to these patient artistic souls who kindly refrained from sending us angry emails, here's Jenny Ritter's lovely song, "You Missed the Boat":
Jacob Miller & The Bridge City Crooners. East Side Drag.
Jacob Miller is probably the nicest guy in the Northwest's roots music scene, and also one of the most talented. But you know as well as I do that nice guys finish last, so it's up to you and me to keep that from happening. Build up some karma points and titillate your musical tastebuds with his 2012 country blues album, East Side Drag, and share it with your friends! If you're a fan of Pokey Lafarge, Woody Pines, or Old Crow Medicine Show, then this album is for you. Not only is Miller a wickedly talented country blues guitar fingerpicker, but he's got a voice of honeyed gold. He channels the old jugband greats with the same kind of cracked-pavement vocals that must have come out of the back-alley dozens popular in the 30s and 40s, but it's also a voice that wouldn't sound out of place opening up for Colin Meloy & Them Ol' Decemberists. Well, anyways, in a world with justice that would be the case. But here I am, having booked Jacob already twice for awesome shows in the Northwest, and I still haven't got around to writing about his album. Damn, nice guys really do finish last.
East Side Drag is either a short album or a long EP, but either way it's a great taste of more to come from this wickedly talented musician and his merry band of pickers from Portland, Oregon. A few of the songs are hand-picked from old sources, and there are some excellent gems here, my favorite being "Ragtime Millionaire." It's a rollicking F The Man comin' out of the first Great Depression (courtesy of ragtime guitar genius Bill "The Barber" Moore) and still sounding great in our New Great Depression. Miller draws out the raw edge of this song, with its biting satire, "I brush my teeth with diamond dust/And I don't care if the banks go bust". Part of the fun of listening to and studying American roots music are these moments when the past seems impossible present. Miller also KILLS "Hesitation Blues" with one of the best covers I've ever heard of this song (and whoowee I've heard a lot!). The other songs on East Side Drag are all originals, and it's honestly pretty hard to tell them apart, which is a huge compliment to Miller. He's writing songs that sound like they came out of some Kansas City dice game, so full of old-school hokum and ragtime finger-picking, that they'd do any old 78 collector proud.
I've been following guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps pretty much since his first album, recorded in Portland and featuring revelatory takes on old country blues songs. He's gone to some pretty cool and sometimes pretty strange places with his music, usually based on lap steel traditions, but also recently fingerpicked guitar. But I wasn't prepared for his newest album, Brother Sinner & The Whale, at all. It's not so much a throwback to his earlier, more traditional work, it's actually almost a prequel. It sounds like the album he could have started with, but that's really more of an auditory illusion than anything else. The key to Phelps has always been his remarkable subtlety as a musician, and the illusion of his new album is that he's able to make completely new music sound impossibly old. Maybe not as old as Jonah, the biblical tale that inspired some of the songs on Brother Sinner & the Whale, but certainly as old as the gospel blues 78s that inspired the folk revival. The songs on Brother Sinner and the Whale tap that always-rich crossroads of biblical old world mystical doom with the music of the steamy American South. It's a crossroads that's inspired about a million singers and it's also one of the richest veins in our hybrid American society. Over a century ago, classical composers struggled to find a sound that was uniquely American, bringing in Native American chants, or old-time fiddle tunes to their orchestral works, but the South had already invented the quintessential American sound by bringing the stormiest parts of the ancient Bible into the hottest parts of the Southern states. Standout tracks on Phelps' new album include the rolling rhythms of "Goodbye to Sorrow," the softly gentle "Pilgrim's Reach," the lovely melody of "Spit Me Outta the Whale," and the old-school Phelps fingerpicked guitar on "Hard Time They Never Go Away." It's impressive that by going completely back to his roots, Phelps has managed to find something completely new to say with his music. Only the best artists can pull that off.
PS: If you want to know more about Phelps' perspective on the new album, be sure to check out this excellent interview, "Playing With All Ten Fingers," with No Depression's Doug Heselgrave.
Cedric Watson et Bijou Créole. Le Soleil est Levé.
Ok, technically this came out in 2011, but I didn't get hip to it until 2012, so I'm counting it for this past year. Hope you don't mind!
Cedric Watson is proof-positive that traditional music can still have amazing power and can still plumb new depths in the hands of a younger generation. He's the kind of artist that grew up with his feet in two worlds, both the old-school world of his elders, where he learned humility as a student of Creole fiddlers like Ed Poullard, and the new-school world of the digital generation. He projects an aura of detached cool as a performer, with his aviator shades and mohawk, but offstage he's an excitable traditionalist, happy to talk for hours about obscure aspects of Louisiana Creole culture and language, and more than a little bit outspoken as well. Ever the student of the elder generations, his new album features the equally outspoken scholar of Creole fiddle, D'Jalma Garnier, on bass. D'Jalma also tours with Cedric and company, and brings a great older generation perspective to the group. With young Cajun Charles Vincent on drums, and Creole washboard player Desiree Champagne, Cedric's group Bijou Creole is hot hot hot. Proof positive: their KEXP in-studio on The Roadhouse with Greg Vandy:
Cedric's new album, Le Soleil est Levé, was released in 2011 and features a refreshing, new sound for the band. Following his interest in Creole culture around the world, and following his travels around the world learning from other Creole musicians, Cedric is the only young Louisiana Creole artist bringing a larger world perspective to the music. On "A Kiss Ain't A Contract," he channels the Dominican Republic's merengue accordion traditions that he's been learning from Montreal artist Joaquin Diaz, on "La Danse Kalinda" he takes Louisiana Creole music back to its African roots through the famous "kalinda" dance, and "Tu Vas Jamais Me Comprendre" has some kind of smooth Latin soul that I wish I could label more accurately. It's a dizzying journey through Cedric's travels and influences and it's a remarkable feat for such a young musician to be able to bring a cohesive new sound to the old traditions. Of course, his prime influences are still very much on display, with the looping Zydeco accordion riffs of "Jour par Jour," the hardcore Creole la-la of "Allons Nous Autres," and the eerie-as-fuck fiddling that the Cajuns and Creoles love so much with "I'll Live Til I Die." With Le Soleil est Levé, Cedric cements his place as the brightest light among the next generation of Louisiana Creole musicians, AND he shows that he's got music the world needs to hear.
Zachary Lucky’s new EP, Saskatchewan, makes me sleepy. In the best way. Not sleepy because I’m bored, but sleepy as if someone I loved was giving me a nice back rub, or the kind of sleepy I get when there’s a fire in the hearth and the sun has set and I just don’t care what’s on tv and all I want to do is close my eyes and soak in the warmth. I think this must be a familiar kind of sleepy, since I first heard Zachary Lucky's music through the equally sleepy folks at Slowcoustic. They, like me, revel in acoustic folk songs sung with the deep weariness of a harsh Canadian winter. The EP as a whole has a light country bent, but when is a pedal steel ever unwelcome? Zachary’s voice cracks ever so lightly when singing about the loneliness and wistfulness of relationships lost and the cold of the snow. Winter is her, and though I can’t stop thinking about the little bit of Seattle summer we got, this is indeed the perfect album to welcome wintertime.
Packwood. self-titled EP.
I learned about Packwood from the excellent Australian roots music blog Timber & Steel, who are big fans of this songwriter and zen banjo master from down under. But you don't need to know much about Packwood to fall head over heels in love with this new album. All you need to know is this: Banjo + 50-Piece Symphony Orchestra+ Gorgeous Songs. Got your attention now? It sure got mine! Honestly, this is one of the most original albums I've heard all year. The combination of gently built clawhammer banjo melodically thatched huts and the rich lushness of a full symphony is a wonderful game changer that I hope will encourage other artists to branch out. This is the kind of music guaranteed to soothe your soul and lower your heart rate, which I think has a lot of value in this tense 2012 holiday season. The songs are burbling little streams of thought that touch on songwriter Bayden Packwood Hine's upbringing in rural New South Wales. Word is that Bayden made a big splash in the Australian folk scene with his debut album, and wanted to greatly expand the sound for his new EP. Working closely with Sydney-based composer Ella Jamieson, the two sculpted the symphonic arrangements around Bayden's hushed songs and deeply thoughtful banjo playing. The only drawback is that the EP is relatively short at about 20 minutes. But there's no doubt that I'll be watching Packwood closely for a hopefully upcoming full-length and to see what direction his new music will take.
Check out the cute claymation video for my favorite song from the album, "Bats":
The Lost Brothers. The Passing of the Night.
2012. Bird Dog Recordings.
The buzz this year was all about singalong Americana acts like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, The Stray Birds and Shovels & Rope, so it may not be a surprise that the The Lost Brothers, who tread a similar path but with just as many lovely harmonies and catchy folk songs, got a bit lost in the shuffle on my, and perhaps other reviewers', desks. From the lovely singing on the opening track "Not Now Warden" that reminds me of the old Western music classic "Cool Drink of Water", to the frenetic banjo-uke and old-timey country blues lyrics of "Bird in a Cage," I could certainly make the case that The Lost Brothers are actually folkier than the aforementioned other acts. But however you cut it, The Lost Brothers' new album, The Passing of the Night, easily stands up to any other Americana success released this year. Formed by two Irish musicians, Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, who met in Liverpool, the duo formed up in UK dive bars before making the leap to the US. They toured nationally in October of this year, opening for well-loved Irish roots musician Glen Hansard, so I'd hazard to say that they likely built a strong fan base in the States. This 2012 album, The Passing of the Night, was produced in Nashville by Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs and released on his Readymade label. Evidently the album was cut in a quick five days. Sometimes that's how you make hte best music. Without thinking too much, just enjoying each other's company and rolling your way through some beautiful songs. The Passing of the Night is a great showcase of their songwriting, and on this album the two clearly wear their American roots music influences on their sleeves. Well done, lads!
The Lost Brothers: Not Now Warden
The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra. Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow.
Victoria, British Columbia collective The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra really earn the "orchestral" name with their new album, Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow. I did a double take when I looked at the credits and saw only five people in the band. It makes me kinda laugh at all those classical orchestras that need about a hundred players just to fill up an auditorium. These guys kill it with just five guys. At times it sounds like there's a whole string section, and even when it's just one instrument (fiddle or accordion especially), the sound is impossibly full. It might be a combination of excellent recording engineering and hot musicianship that makes it like this. Regardless, these guys put out a great sound! It's hard to pin down all their influences, but I guess I'd think of them as an indie-folk bluegrass stringband, if that helps at all. They're definitely part of a larger scene of Canadian roots musicians making beautiful progressive music, and share some similar qualities to another great Vancouver roots dance band, The Paperboys. I can imagine they're a hit on the Canadian festival circuit. I hope they get a chance to come down the American festival circuit soon!
OK, it might be a bit strange to add a hip-hop album to this list, but the beauty of Seattle-based DJ/producer OCNotes is that he transcends these kind of labels. I've talked to him about it and he really doesn't give a shit who likes his music, or what we call it. And with his staggeringly diverse use of samples, you start to wonder if this really is hip-hop. The guy's a mad genius, and pretty much everyone knows him in the Seattle scene. His reputation comes from his ability to mix up any genre that tickles his fancy into a delicious beat stew. I first saw him live at THEESatisfaction's CD Release party in Seattle. I got there a bit early and was thinking of taking a walk around the neighborhood until the main group came on (yep, I'm THAT kind of dickish music reviewer), but OCNotes' opening DJ set rooted me to the spot. I kept telling myself I'd leave after the next track, but each track was better than the last, and he kept spinning the energy in the room up and up. I was enraptured by his music, after already having fallen in love with his art through his killer online remix of The Jungle Book's "I Wanna Be Like You" from Louis Prima.
With Moldavite, OCNotes has put out another hoppin' Seattle beats epic. It's a whirlwind tour through his insanely cluttered mind, kind of a garage sale of blendered music. There are 33 tracks, mostly ranging around 3 minutes. OCNotes touches on classic soul ("Towers"), gritty Seattle doom-and-gloom ("Brick House"), creepy Hitchcock strings remixed ("Himalayan Trader"), cool jazz horns ("Floor Dust") and even spins off into impossibly weird directions like remixing an Inuit(?) song for the opener, "Weight of the World." If you're wondering what the streets of Seattle sound like today, this record is the key. It sounds like a burbling rain gutter on a dirty urban street, backlit by neon light. You know, musically speaking. Moldavite is for sale on Bandcamp and you can't preview the music much, but if you want to really get into his music, hit up the very excellent earlier albums Secret Society or Doo Doo, or especially The New Generation, a surprisingly beautiful all-guitar based album. Or hit up OCNotes remix of the soundtrack to the old Michael Jackson film The Whiz, Emerald City Sequence. Or jeez hit up his two new albums since dropping Moldavite, Pre Future Post Modern Love Songs: Aka AlienBootyBass, or the quick EP What's Your Sign. Clearly this guy has creativity exploding out of his being, and you'd do well to hitch up to the OCNotes train in 2013 to see what new, crazy music he can come up with.
The story of Memphis Minnie often gets overwhelmed in writers' desires to highlight her as an anomalous "female" blues artist, despite the fact that the first recorded blues artists were women, and women have a huge place of pride in early blues. These same people keep insisting that singers like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ma Rainey and others aren't really blues. Wikipedia defines "classic female blues" as an early 20s mix of folk blues and urban theater, and lays the weight of this made-up genre on some of these early women blues singers. But what the hell is that supposed to mean? That it's not blues unless you lived in the deep country? That male blues singers are still empirically blues even if they spent time in medicine shows or urban theater genres like vaudeville? Memphis Minnie is a great example of a blues singer straddling the lines between the city and the country, and a great example of urban blues, whether or not she's considered so or not. It's past time we started looking at these early African-American musicians as savvy entrepreneurs and entertainers looking to move old traditions into the neon noise of the cities, rather than reluctant tradition bearers. It's past time we started looking at Memphis Minnie as an amazing blues artist primarily, rather than some kind of "outlier" because she's a woman.
Maria Muldaur's new album, ...First Came Memphis Minnie, is a wonderful portrait of Minnie as a fully-fledged artist of grace and power. Muldaur sings her songs with a voice that sounds part cabaret, part blues shouter, part hokum. The opening track, "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," is a key Memphis Minnie song that Muldaur infuses with the same edgy grit that made Minnie famous. Since it's a tribute album, Muldaur also cedes the lead to other great blues singers who are indebted to Minnie's music and legacy. Bonnie Raitt nails down "Ain't Nothin' in Ramblin'", Alvin Youngblood Hart duets with Muldaur on "I'm Goin' Back Home," and Rory Block brings out a seriously spicy side to "When You Love Me." There's even a intense cut from Koko Taylor, evidently recorded in 2007 before her death. But Muldaur is the star here, and it's wonderful to listen to her dive into Memphis Minnie's repertoire with such relish. She doesn't try to copy Minnie, or to copy her style, but sings it like she loves it, bringing in urban and rural blues influences alike and mixing it all together into a great brew. It's a masterful tribute album and surely something that will help spread the Memphis Minnie gospel even farther.
Mike Cullison & The Regulars. The Barstool Monologues.
Joedog Records. 2012.
By and large, the world of singer-songwriters is a world ruled by ego. It may be tough to hear, but many singer-songwriters are so focused on their own music and their own world, that it feels at times like there's hardly a viable community among the lot of them. That's why artists like country singer-songwriter Mike Cullison are so important. Artists with a larger vision than their own songs, and more love for the music than desire to be the center of attention. For his new release, The Barstool Monologues, Cullison generously opened up his songbook and his album to a good number of other Nashville singer-songwriters, and asked them to be a part of his idea of his vision, ceding lead vocals to them in most cases, something I found surprisingly unusual. It's all part of the album's vision: a dark night at a Nashville bar, with Cullison narrating the various characters that come through the front door.It's a great formula too. Before each track, Cullison comes on with his deep Southern drawl and introduces the character of the next song (for "Good and Evil" he introduces the character Ruby with the phrase "This girl is built like a brick outhouse with no bricks missing, a ball of fire if I've ever seen one"). Then one of his songwriter friends bursts into the song, and each song here is a finely crafted country classic, let me tell you.
Highlights include Tiffany Huggins Grant's stunning vocals (a master class on pitch-perfect country singing) on "As the Cold Sets In," some great lyricism on "Prayin' for Rain" ("Let forgiveness fall, wash away the stains/ Yeah, we all got reasons to pray for rain"), and Cullison's own gritty vocals on the stellar opening track "Wish I Didn't Like Whiskey." Not every track is perfect of course, but huge kudos to Cullison for allowing so many other artists to be a part of his fascinating vision. Because of this, the album as a whole is a joy to listen to, and definitely the kind of music you'd want to listen to again to get all the nuances. Country music writer Juli Thank at Engine 145 has called this album "country music's version of The Cantebury Tales," and I think that's a wonderful way to characterize this album. With The Barstool Monologues, Mike Cullison shows that master songwriting can't be bought or bartered, but must be earned, and the powerful cadre of friends he brings along is proof of Music City's respect for his craft.
01/01/2013 | comments (0)
I was just complaining today about "limp-wristed" modern interpretations of hard-edged Southern roots music. This music wasn't made for a bunch of Northerners to dress up in hokey costumes and sing "quaint" songs about the good ol' days in the country. This is hard-won music from hard-working folks. So I was more than a little surprised to hear just how intense and gritty this album is from Swedish bluesman Bror Gunnar Jansson. I don't honestly know too much about him, but good goddamn his music sounds like it's bubbling out of the deepest pits of human anguish. He plays the kind of fractured, cracked, disturbed Mississippi hill country blues that I've always associated with artists like R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, and I still can't figure out how some kid in Sweden can sound like this. I guess that's the beauty of our modern age. True interpreters of Southern roots music can come from anywhere! If they can tap into the molten core of the music, the red heat that made this music so deeply compelling in the first place, then they've got my attention for sure!
On his debut album, it's clear that Jansson belongs in the same company as other young channelers of dark Southern roots, like Frank Fairfield, C.W. Stoneking, and The Dust Busters. Sending the liner notes through Google Translate didn't help too much, but the album seems to be a mix of original and traditional songs. Opening track "Dead Cold Hands," is an eerie, smoldering wreck of a blues song, and from just this starting track it's clear that Jansson's figured out the secret of great blues - don't be afraid to come close to derailing the song in order to express the emotion. For me, though, the real standout here is a near 7-minute long exploration of "Pretty Polly," one of the most common Appalachian old-time songs. But I guarantee you've never heard it like this. In the hands of Jansson, the song bubbles and roils like lava, almost hot to the touch. I don't know how well known Bror Gunnar Jansson is in the States, but from listening to this album, I think he deserves to be at the top of the heap of Dark Blues interpreters today. He certainly won't be stuck in the frozen North of Sweden for long. Not with songs this hot! Seriously, people, book this dude in the States. I want to see him play live!
12/07/2012 | comments (1)
We just wrote about Eugene, OR-based singer-songwriter Jeffrey Martin a few months ago with an Inside the Songs feature, but now he’s back with a new EP that proves once again what a natural talent he has for writing great folk songs. Martin’s EP, Build A Home, is a stripped back affair, just his singing and guitar with beautiful harmonies from Portland-based multi-instrumentalist Anna Tivel. They make a great duo, heck they should be touring together! Here’s a look at Jeffrey and Anna singing the song “Angeline” from Jeffrey’s EP:
Jeff Martin's EP, Build a Home, weighs in at 6 songs, a little bit longer than most but not long enough to be a full-length. It’s a sweet little gem of an album, and should serve as a great introduction to Martin’s songwriting. For me, the standout track on the album is “Thief and a Liar.” It’s the best song I’ve heard yet written about the Wall Street debacle that’s still crippling our country. It’s not ostensibly an “Occupy” song, but it should be. Especially with a chorus like this: “I’m a thief and a liar of the very worst kind/I sell to the broken and I rob them blind/I’ll build you a house with my own two hands/and then burn it to the ground as quick as I can...” It’s not hard to rail about our country, which seems to be institutionally constructed to allow the rich to rob us all blind, mostly with our own permission. But the most chilling line from the song is this: “When’s the 99% gonna wake up and see/power is your finger on the trigger, not a head full of dreams.” I don’t think he’s necessarily writing this line as if he believes it; it seems more like something his anti-hero song narrator is saying. But after interviewing popular Northwest songwriter Laura Love last year about her brutal arrest and beating at the hands of Oakland police, it sure seems to be a cold-blooded statement of our times and of my generation.
There are about a million-and-one singer-songwriters out there plying their age-old trade, and truth is that it’s hard these days for the really great writers to stand out. But what can you do? The only thing is to keep making the best music you can and to let the great ones filter to the top. Hopefully Jeffrey Martin’s on the road to receiving the accolades to come. For now, you can say you knew him “when”.
PS: Congrats to Jeff on his second-place finish at the Mountain Stage New Song Contest!
Jeffrey Martin: Thief and a Liar
11/12/2012 | comments (0)
It's hard to keep up with the Celtic music worlds here in the United States. Seems the market has shrunk so much that many bands aren't even releasing or selling their albums over here. But I'm lucky enough to be on some mailing lists, so here are some sweet delights that have floated over to my mailbox, all of which are perfect for early Xmas shopping, I might add! Enjoy!
Nuala Kennedy. Noble Stranger.
Compass Records. 2012.
I've been hearing Irish flute player and singer Nuala Kennedy's name around for years, but this is the first time I've really sat down with one of her albums. I can't speak for her previous albums, but with Noble Stranger, Kennedy is plowing a most interesting new row of Irish trad music. She incorporates some very light indie touches (like Postal Service-esque blips and bloops), but the album is really focused on her beautiful voice and her swift flute playing. She covers plenty of traditional material, including old-fashioned classics like "The Banks of the Roses" and the really beautiful "Matt Hyland," but it's her original songs that push her music into interesting territory. Opening song "Gabriel Sings" is a real revelation for me, bringing in some tight songwriting with a fun, well-crafted melody and arrangement. Overall, this album balances well with itself, devoting time to newly composed tune, old ballads, and fun new songs from Kennedy's own pen. It's eminently accessible Irish trad, and Kennedy seems to be having quite the time searching for new horizons and new friends.
Nuala Kennedy: Gabriel Sings
the olllam. self-titled.
Compass Records. 2012.
I'm usually incredibly averse to albums that mix Irish trad and jazz, but the olllam is one of the rare exceptions that manages to have something new to say in both genres. It's not really jazz, per se, or at least the unaccessible modern jazz that can alienate listeners. What the olllam is really doing here is fracturing Irish tunes into kickass riffs, mostly on Irish whistle, then mixing in hard drum beats, guitar that alternates between sad wistful acoustics and some serious shredding, and bubbling Rhodes atmospherics. The album drips cool, and it's a really really listenable album. Uilleann piper and whistler John McSherry seems to have an endless array of fascinating projects (we wrote about his album with At First Light HERE), so it wasn't a surprise to see him leading this. The other two artists are Irish by way of Detroit, and are Tyler Duncan on pipes, whistle, guitar and Rhodes, and Michael Shimmin on drums and percussion. Don't go into this album looking for some cerebral blend of jazz and trad, it's really just an album of three powerhouse musicians having fun breaking and rebuilding the Irish traditions into pleasing sounds. To my ears, it sounds like the next progression from Lunasa. Where Lunasa created the smooth, polished sound of Irish trad-jazz, these guys are bringing in a sweet edge from the guitar and drums. Great album, I recommend this highly for listening. Try the first track, "The Belll", it is absolutely irresistible.
the olllam. the folly of wisdom.
Calum Stewart & Lauren MacColl. Wooden Flute & Fiddle.
Make Believe Records. 2012.
It's not too often that I get an album of all Scottish fiddle tunes, so this new album from wooden flute player Calum Stewart and fiddler Lauren MacColl is a very nice treat. Their instruments mesh beautifully, and there's something deeply satisfying about this kind of hand-made traditional music made on old wooden instruments. I've always held Scottish fiddling to be either too virtuosic and flashy, or too formalized, but the tunes on this album sound really alive and vibrant. There's no J. Scott Skinner arpeggiated strathspeys here, and there are some tunes that hardly sound Scottish at all, like the beautiful slow tune "Tomnahurich." Maybe that's because both players are from deep in the Highlands, and are connected more to the true Scots Gaelic roots of this music than the more urban forms of trad in Scotland. Or maybe it has something to do with their ties to Irish and Breton trad as well, since some of the tunes and ideas from these traditions seemed to have seeped in. Whatever the case, this is a gem of an album, full of fresh-sounding tunes and thoughtful musicianship.
Calum Stewart & Lauren MacColl: Rise Ye Lazy Fellow
Québec may be one of the most artistically inclined provinces of Canada, but it's still hard to get this music over here in the US, and by virtue of the language barrier, it can be a bit hard at times to connect with the music. Happily, young traditional musician Nicolas Pellerin et Les Grands Hurleurs has us covered on both counts. His new album, Petit grain d'or, is available as an mp3 download on Amazon, and it's one of the most accessible Québécois roots albums we've heard in a while. While we here at Hearth Music are huge Québécois folk music nerds and are happy to listen to scratchy archival recordings for hours, Nicolas Pellerin's blend of chamber string music with drop-dead gorgeous French vocals means that anyone will enjoy this album on first listen. Particular standouts include the title track, a clever restructuring of an old children's lullaby into an eerie adult tale, the opening track, "Tregate," a Breton traditional song given a tight string-fueled groove, and the West African influenced sounds of "De Fil en Chanson," inspired by a collaboration between Nicolas and bandmate Simon LePage with Malian masters Amadou et Mariam in Edmonton one year. Overall, this album pushes Québécois traditional music in interesting new directions and succeeds in showcasing the beautiful vocals of Nicolas Pellerin.
Nicolas Pellerin et les Grands Hurleurs: Petit grain d'or
The Paul McKenna Band. Stem the Tide.
Mad River Records. 2011.
I may be a bit biased here, since I worked as a publicist for the Paul McKenna Band's first tour through the Pacific Northwest, but I liked his music so much that I feel fine writing up a quick review of his newest album, Stem the Tide. Honestly, this album's got it all: fine songs, both original and modern; a killer band of instrumentalists with great taste in tunes; tasteful arrangements; and most of all, Paul's captivating voice. His thick Scottish accents shines through, bringing a gruff lilting quality to the songs, but the key is really his charismatic passion for the song. In any kind of traditional singing, I wonder if there isn't some kind of usual distance between the singer and the song. A kind of drawing back from the heart of the song's message in order to better convey the ornaments, or the trappings of authenticity of a traditional singer. Not so with Paul McKenna, he commits to every song and he sings them hard. The bitter politics of Scottish songwriter Lionel McClelland's song "Silent Majority" is brought to a fever pitch with McKenna at the helm, fairly spitting the words out in his rage, but never sacrificing the beautiful melody of the song. It's no small feat to maintain a high level of both musicianship and ferocity at the same time, in fact this balancing act is the sign of a true artist. McKenna's got it, and this intense charisma elevates the whole band. But it's not all raging vocals here, and McKenna turns in some deftly beautiful slower songs, without losing any of his vocal focus, as for example "The Lambs on the Green Hills," which I first heard from Irish band Dervish. McKenna is a huge talent to watch in Scottish and Celtic trad and this album proves it.
The Paul McKenna Band: The Lambs on the Green Hills
Aw jeez, how did I miss writing about this album? I think it fell into the crack between the seats of my car for about a year. I guess I don't clean my car enough. Whatever the case for my failure, this 2010 album of traditional Irish music with a modern bent is extremely worthy of wonderful reviews. Shannon Heaton is an Irish flute player based out of Boston, and on her album she brings together not only her husband's crack guitar and bouzouki work (Matt & Shannon Heaton have recorded a number of really great albums together), but other friends like harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and Irish bodhran prodigy Paddy League. It's a delicious album, perfect for repeat listenings on sunny days while swinging in a hammock, and it's eminently accessible even if you're not a huge Irish trad music nerd (like I am). It just sounds great. The tunes are perfectly arranged, Shannon's flute playing is impeccable, and each track sounds refreshingly different. This album is highly recommended.
Shannon Heaton w/Maeve Gilchrist: 44 Mill Street
11/09/2012 | comments (0)
Martha Redbone's Journey to William Blake
Guest Blog by Zach Hudson
The amazing thing about singer-songwriter Martha Redbone’s new album, The Garden of Love, which sets to music twelve poems of English poet William Blake (1757 – 1827), is how well everything fits. It was as if the two were made for each other. Redbone herself tells of a similar feeling in an interview with NPR's Robert Seigel:
"We had his book of poetry out, and the first song that jumped off the page was ‘A Poison Tree.’ Just the title sounded so naturally Appalachian, which is where my family is from... To me, it was just almost as if the song had always existed in the words.” On The Garden of Love, Redbone draws on American folk, country, blues, bluegrass and gospel to orchestrate Blake’s poems, and her ability within these genres is incredibly varied, moving from foot-tapping melodies to lullabies to gritty laments backed by dobro.
This connection shouldn’t be too surprising. Blake drew heavily on the English folk ballad tradition, and much American folk music came from English ballads. In a way, Redbone’s album is like distant cousins meeting for the first time. They still share much in common—for instance, a love of meter and rhyme, so much so that an awkward or archaic phrasing (“does arise” instead of “arises”) for the sake of the beat or the rhyme is not only permitted, but customary. They share thematic interests: love, suffering, salvation, journeys, and music itself. There is a certain mystic weirdness, often involving metaphor, that American folk music inherited from the English ballad (I think of songs like “Wedding Dress”, “The House Carpenter”, “Wild Hog in the Woods”), and Blake shares this mystical quality. Consider “A Poison Tree”:
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I water’d it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears...
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
Although the lines of may seem foreign to the pop charts, they certainly aren’t out of place in Appalachian song. Curiously, “A Poison Tree” has been put to music by many other songwriters, such as Benjamin Britten (classical), Greg Brown (folk), Blur (rock), singer-songwriter Beth Orton and the Finnish a capella group Rajaton. In my opinion, Redbone is the only one to have really nailed it.
It often feels like Blake was writing lyrics in the first place. Alongside the fact that he entitled his most famous books “Songs of Innocence” and “Song of Experience”, his poems are written clearly in a verse structure, with even lines in multiples of four. This makes the transition much easier to folk music, but Redbone doesn’t simply take what she is given. She adapts her material to create something spectacular. For the first part of “The Garden of Love”, for example, Redbone uses two stanzas from another of Blake’s poems to round things out. The poem she chooses fits the theme and meter perfectly, and no one would think they were separate poems unless they knew beforehand.
Some lyrics fit song even better than recitation: “No, no! never can it be! / Never, never can it be!” sounds overdone when spoken, but when sung it becomes a punchy refrain. Redbone uses this ability to great effect, giving herself license to edit and reposition lines. She is faithful to the poetry, but that doesn’t mean she sticks to the plodding rhythm of a written line. If a note needs to be held for an extra beat, or if a four line stanza needs six measures to sing, she lets it happen.
This power that singers have—something poets on the page can never have—is significant. Singers can dictate the exact rhythm they want, instead of leaving it up to the natural rhythm of speech. Whereas we read a line of Blake’s like this:
Oh my children! do they cry,
Do they hear their father sigh?
Redbone can re-imagine it as this:
Oh my child- (beat, beat) -ren! do they cry (beat, beat, beat)
Do they hear their fath – er – sigh?
The effect is wonderful. It breathes life and vitality into the line. Kyle Alden found success for a similar reason with his 2011 album Songs from Yeats’ Bee-Loud Glade, which undertook a project similar to Redbone’s with the poetry of the Irish writer W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939).
The music can also change the feeling of a poem. “The Echoing Green” used to seem a bit trite to me. It’s a calm, pastoral poem about remembering the enjoyments of youth, but Redbone sings in a minor key, unaccompanied, and it sounds straight out of the Appalachian hills.
One aspect of American folk music that connects particularly well with Blake’s poems is religion. Redbone uses the tradition of hymns and gospel music to re-envision some of Blake’s spiritual poems. In “Hear the voice of the Bard”, the lines
…Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walk’d among the ancient trees,
Calling the lapsed Soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!
are perfect for a country gospel arrangement, and would be impossible to tell apart from this tradition. Blake was intensely spiritual. As much as he ranted against the established church, he was deeply religious and rejoiced in the compassion of Jesus and the promise of salvation. On “I Rose Up at the Dawn of Day”, Redbone goes whole-hog and gets a gospel choir to back her up. I can’t help but sway and clap my hands. I wonder if Blake would have done the same. It’s hard to get a sense of what Blake would have been like in person. His works and his biographers paint him as intense, opinionated, quirky, compassionate, and reverent. He was alternately (or concurrently) a loving husband, an obsessive artist and a social reformer. If he was anything, though, Blake was into Art, and Rocking the Boat, and the Common People, so I like to think he would have appreciated Redbone’s music.
I remain amazed at how Redbone can give such a perfect slice of Americana even when introducing a foreign element to it. This album could serve as a sampler of styles within American folk music, and Redbone hits each one squarely on the head. My only regret for the album is that it does not cover even more songs. I now wonder what some of my other favorite Blake poems, like “The Tyger”, “London” or “The Chimney Sweeper”, would sound like after Redbone has worked her magic on them.
Martha Redbone Roots Project: Hear the Voice of the Bard
Martha Redbone Roots Project: A Poison Tree
Thanks to Zach Hudson for this guest blog. He was the perfect person to write this review because he reviews both roots music (for the Victory Music Review), and poetry (for his blog New Poetry Review). Zach is a teacher, author and square dance caller in Portland, Oregon. You can find his new children’s book The Banjo on Amazon.
10/30/2012 | comments (0)
Language barriers can make it a helluva hard time to really understand a music, so it’s no surprise that most reviewers and music writers think of Cajun music as being something separate than country music. If you listen to the lyrics though, Cajun music is as country as they come. All these old Cajun songs that people think are based on some medieval French ballad are really mostly just made up of phrases about lost women and lost men. Whether they’re lost to the oilfields of East Texas, or lost to the arms of another man, Cajun music is made for drinking beer and trying to forget your latest breakup… by reveling in it. That’s not where new Cajun outfit The Revelers draw their name from, but it could be. Cajuns love to revel in their own culture, and thank god for that.
The Revelers are drawn from the ranks of the Red Stick Ramblers, one of the best young Cajun bands around. But the Ramblers are known as much for pushing the envelope, bringing swing and jazz into the music with a ferocity that’s made them the darlings of roots music festivals everywhere. Now these members of the Ramblers have put together a true Cajun country band in The Revelers. Sure, the accordion rides front and center, and sure most of the songs are in Cajun French, but the first and last thing you hear is the country twang and swamp-pop sizzle of Southwest Louisiana.
The Revelers are coming out of a red-hot scene around Lafayette, Lousiana. A scene known not just for awesome bands (Feufollet, The Givers, Pine Leaf Boys, Cajun Country Revival, Lost Bayou Ramblers) but also for cutting-edge community arts work. Glenn Fields, the Revelers’ drummer, organizes the much-buzzed about Black Pot Festival, a model for community-based roots music festivals. Seems like everyone I know these days is asking “Are you going to Black Pot this year?” And it’s not like the rest of the US hasn’t noticed this scene. Anthony Bourdain recently made the trip out to Southwest Louisiana to take part in a boucherie (hog butchering party) with Linzay Young and Joel Savoy, and the big news here is that The Red Stick Ramblers were just added to the cast of HBO’s New Orleans epic “Treme” as recurring characters. Why is this scene so hot? Because the musicians involved are massively talented and totally committed to making music for fun, rather than for profit. A lot of people could learn from this example.
But back to the album. The Revelers debut full-length is just a hell of a good time. They're a tight band, featuring two fiddlers: Daniel Coolik and Blake Miller (who also plays accordion throughout), with guitarist Chas Justus and bassist Eric Frey, plus drummer Glenn Fields. Opening track “Des Fois” by Miller is a great example of Cajun country music. It’s a remarkable well written song, and big thanks to the digital liner notes for translating the French. “Je me lève dans le matin aves des larmes aux yeux des fois/Des larmes aux yeux quand même je voudrais sourir/Un cigarette et un whiskey me fait sentir mieux/Je crois cette vie va me fair mourir” (I wake up in the morning with tears in my eyes sometimes/Tears in my eyes even though I want to smile/A cigarette and whiskey makes me feel a little better/I believe this life is gonna kill me”). The next two tracks, “If You Ain’t Got Love” and “Cry for You” sound like 70s country, with just the right kind of rhinestone bling. They’re in English too, a relative rarity for the new breed of Cajun musicians. The Revelers also channel some good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, and by old-fashioned, I mean closer to rockabilly than Springsteen. “Kidnapper” is a killer rocker from Jewell and the Rubies, and “Jukebox Blues” is vintage swamp pop from Louisiana songwriter Tommy McLain. Of course, traditional Cajun music pops in, with the great Dennis McGee fiddle tune “Wang Wang Blues” and the classic “La Valse de Cadiens.” Really the songs are as eclectic as they can be, but all are anchored by the unflinching fiddle/accordion chore of Cajun music, and by a remarkable amount of tasty twang.
If you want a litmus test for what’s going on in SW Louisiana these days, try out The Revelers. They’re paving a new path with their old school take on Cajun and Country music.
The Revelers: Des Fois