Archive for CD Review category
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
10/15/2012 | comments (0)
Having just written about Daytrotter's upcoming Justin Townes Earle / Dawes vinyl split and interviewing founder Sean Moeller, I 'd moved on to other writing projects and wasn't paying a lot of attention when they first announced a large, exclusive Daytrotter session with Mumford & Sons. Plus, I'm that horrible kind of hipster that wears a T-shirt like "I listen to bands that don't even exist", so I rarely listen to roots music groups that are actually hugely popular (Old Crow Medicine Show being my only exception). Plus, I kind of thought they were part of this new movement of poorly played roots music, where the banjo's more of a prop than an actual instrument. But good goddamn I was SO WRONG about them. I wish I could apologize for how wrong I was, so this article will have to be like a kind of apology for my wayward thoughts.
Recorded during their Gentlemen of the Road Stopover tour (a really cool project that saw them settling into a town for a full day of music and fun before their evening shows), the Mumford & Sons Daytrotter sounds incredibly relaxed. This only makes the excellent musicianship all the more evident. You can fake it all you want in the studio, but when you kick back for some late night picking with your buddies on a tour bus, you've got to be great to make it sound this good. Cool buddies too! Two of the tracks are covers of Appalachian old-time songs "Little Birdie" and "Angel Band" with renowned banjo player and singer Abigail Washburn. Bringing her on as a stroke of genius, and her swift banjo picking and beautiful singing helps define these two songs. Also joining the session are Rounder records songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. But the real focus of the albums is the songs. I love Daytrotter, but what I love most about what they do is how they encourage bands to take on adventurous covers. I always feel a little cheated when a session goes up with just the songs on the band's album. I LOVE when an artist on Daytrotter takes a huge leap to cover something really unusual. Case in point, the new Sarah Jarosz session has a crazy cover of Joanna Newsom's classic "Book of Right On". Check that out!
Despite starting off with a song ("Not with Haste") from their new album, Babel, the rest of this session is dedicated to carefully chosen, totally awesome acoustic covers from interesting sources. Bob Dylan's there of course, but with a song I'd never heard, "I Was Young When I Left Home". It's a beautiful folk song, appropriately recorded in 1961 at an informal session at a friend's house and released only much much later via his Bootleg Series vol. 7. I'm no Dylan expert (much more of a neophyte), but I hadn't heard this before. What a great song! Warming my cold heart, Mumford & Sons sweet, mellow cover of " Not in Nottingham" is easily one of my favorite tracks from this session. Anyone who's seen the excellent Disney movie "Robin Hood", remembers this beautiful song, one of the highlights of many-a childhood. I hadn't realized that Roger Miller wrote the songs for this movie, nor that he was the narrator and voice the part of the minstrel rooster. Mumford & Sons follow this Roger Miller song up with another, perhaps better-known, Roger Miller song: "Reincarnation." I'm a totally newbie to Roger Miller's music, but recently fell head-over-heels for his songwriting, at once funny but also touchingly poignant, after hanging out with O'Brien Party of 7, who just recorded the first tribute album of Miller's songs. Check out the interview and article on this album HERE. The penultimate track of the Daytrotter session is a beautiful Guy Clark song, "Partner Nobody Chose", and the final track is perhaps the strongest, an acoustic version of the Bruce Springsteen ballad "Atlantic City".
Bob Dylan's "I Was Young When I Left Home"
Roger Miller's "Not in Nottingham" (if that raccoon chain gang doesn't melt your heart....)
Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City"
It's one thing for Mumford & Sons to fill an album with well written songs, in fact it's what we'd expect. But I kinda think it says more about their songwriting that they're so able to recognize great songs in such unheralded places. And it's certainly a testament to their ability to play American roots music that they can draw from so many sources while still sounding wholly original. Mumford & Sons carry a very real authority with their music, and I don't think I really realized this until I listened to their Daytrotter session. If you haven't already hopped onboard their train, this might be the perfect stop to hitch a ride.