Let’s be honest: traditional folk music doesn’t always share women’s stories in the best light. In fact, finding a traditional song in which the woman isn’t woefully oppressed, forced into marriage, killed, or completely absent can be challenging. Because of this, Québécois chanteuse Mélisande decided to examine the plight of women in traditional Québécois music with passion and creativity, resulting in her innovative new project, Mélisande [électrotrad], that creatively merges past and present. Bringing in electronic beats, a feminist perspective, and the cutting- edge music of modern Montréal, Mélisande re-interprets some of the oldest songs from Québec’s musical history. Songs where the women of Québec’s past struggle against the heel of traditional culture, finding clever ways to assert their own identity as mothers, lovers, wives, and leaders. Joined by her husband, renowned Québécois bassist and flute player Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand (of Genticorum), master producer Mark Busic on keyboards and beat programming, and violinist/ mandolinist/banjo player Robin Boulianne, Mélisande has polished the mirror of folk music’s past to reflect both her own heritage and her place in modern society.
Coming from her early background as a popular Québécois singer-songwriter, Mélisande stepped into Québécois traditional music with the express purpose of modernizing French-Canadian women’s role in trad-folk, while at the same time making music that was both current and honest. By using her songwriting skills, Mélisande skillfully updates the traditional songs, as in “Sort de vieille fille” (The Role of an Old Maid)–in which a woman is complaining about her lack of a husband–by adding verses that give the woman the power of choice. “I wrote some verses that explained that she wasn’t married because she had ‘opinions,’” Mélisande says. “It makes her a woman with a head on her shoulders, and it could be a good reason to not have a husband rather than just ‘Oh well, I don’t have a husband’.”
Not every song she found needed updating, however. “L’ivrognesse” (The Drunken Woman) portrays a woman who makes her husband stay home with the children while she goes out to have a good time at the bar. Other songs just needed a little touch, like “Je fais la difficile” (I’m Being Picky), which features a young woman trying to decide which husband to take and ranking them according to how annoying their work is. “The original versions always ended with the women wanting a big merchant” Mélisande says. “I added ‘I want a musician because he is handy with his hands.’ Also in this song we had some fun with the verses, adding: ‘We don’t want a politician because we can’t trust him and his hands are not clean.’ We made some changes like that; they were changes that ‘updated’ the song.”
On the debut album from Mélisande [électrotrad], Les Métamorphoses, you’ll hear all the key elements of traditional Québécois music here: la turlutte (lilting mouth music), les complaintes (old ballads), les chansons à répondre (call-and-response songs), and the beautiful melodies from old world France; but you’ll also hear elements of alternative rock and pop, even prog rock. As Mélisande continues to dig deep into the traditional music of her heritage, she proves that the past isn’t cast in stone, that our musical identity is our own to create.
Mélisande [électrotrad] - Je Fais la Difficile
Mélisande [électrotrad] - La Vin est Bon
02/14/2015 | comments (0)
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys
On their new album, Ionia, blazing hot Michigan roots ensemble Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys rest on the cusp of change, poised at that moment where everything shifts into high gear and time rushes forward. As a tight-as-hardwood stringband, these ace players know how to sustain this moment expertly, relishing the tension between the past, which keeps pulling them backwards, and the future they’re about to rush into. You can hear this tension musically on their new album, especially on the leading song “Hot Hands,” which rabbits playfully between off meters, rapid-fire picking, stop-and-go bass lines, and steamy vocals that surge back and forth. There’s incredible kinetic motion in this music, a sense of movement so exacting and precise that it’s almost architectural.
Over the course of four days during a Michigan autumn, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys holed up in their home to record their new album. Gathered in a circle, each member leaned in closer and closer, blending vocals and instruments organically, to listen with the kind of musical precision that’s all too rare these days. “We didn’t leave the house for those four days except to walk around the block and get some air,” Lindsay explains. “Fall in Michigan is something to behold. Some of our favorite moments were standing on the big wrap around porch (pictured on the album cover) and watching the rain come down in sheets taking gusts of orange and yellow leaves with it.” Holed up against the elements, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys turned to each other for support, and this closeness is easily evident in the uncommon depth and sensitivity of their ensemble playing.
Listen to the new album from Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys and you’ll hear a band at the very top of its game. A band uncommonly attuned to each other, the product of near-constant touring and live shows made legend by their infectious, high-energy performances. Performing live, the Flatbellys delight in swapping instruments back and forth, and this is preserved on the album as well, with each band member taking turns on each other’s instruments. There’s a great sense of play and warmth in their music as well, just listen to the fantastically sarcastic “Criminal Style” or the lovely housewarming long “House Together.” But much of the power of this interplay comes from the impressive mastery each member shows over their instruments. Mandolinist Joshua Rilko picks with a careful precision that turns surprising when he slams into speedy power chords, dobro player Mark Lavengood is remarkably deft at matching melody lines with quick responses, and bassist PJ George creates bass lines cleverly crafted to uphold the whole structure of the songs. Leading the group, Lindsay Lou has the kind of voice you can get lost in. One part jazz singer, effortlessly transitioning octaves, one part blues shouter, soaring over the band like a clarion call, and one part folk singer, rousing them all together in song.
The instruments and the bedrock of the band may come from bluegrass, but the music that Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys present on their new album Ionia can best be described as Americana. This is music that’s caught between the pull of the past and the push of the beckoning future, ready to leap forward bursting with new ideas and youthful energy.
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys: "Hot Hands"
Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys: "The Fix"
02/05/2015 | comments (0)
Jayme Stone's Lomax Project
An acetate disc-cutter and cactus needle stylus. The rutted roads of eastern Kentucky and the Georgia Sea Island coastline. Kitchen din and street noise. Songs everyone has come to know— and the storied singers nearly everyone has forgotten.
These snapshots guided banjo innovator and musical instigator Jayme Stone and his collaborators—Grammy-winning songsmith Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky, Margaret Glaspy, Moira Smiley, Brittany Haas, Julian Lage, Eli West and more—on a years’ long journey to research and recast nineteen carefully chosen songs collected by iconic American folklorist and field recording pioneer Alan Lomax. “I’m not a preservationist,” Stone emphasizes. “We’re here to renew this material.”
The material in question—sea shanties, cowboy ballads, ox- driving songs, Southern spirituals—helped shape the mid-century folk revival and more recent Americana. Stone and company have delved into the vast, worldwide trove of Lomax recordings and found a deeply emotional access to these tunes and songs on Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project (Borealis Records; release: March 3, 2015).
The songs hail from sea captains, cowhands, fishermen, homemakers, prisoners and farmers: “extraordinary, everyday folks making homemade, handmade music,” Stone notes. Homemade does not mean quaint or precious, however. This is intense music, drawing on sometimes harsh, sometimes bittersweet experience. From Appalachia to Trinidad, rural communities to juke joints, the musicians we have forgotten reverberate in Stone and company’s beautiful renditions.
Jayme Stone's Lomax Project:
02/03/2015 | comments (0)
Wood, Wire & Words
The new album from American roots music legend Norman Blake is out January 20 on Plectrafone Records. It's his first album of original songs in 30 years!
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A living legend, Norman Blake has influenced multiple generations of roots musicians with his uncompromising vision of American roots music. Acclaimed by the greatest artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, Blake has become a touchstone for the guitar in American folk music in the forty+ years since his first LP was released. Throughout his long career, Blake has been at the forefront of multiple revivals of American roots music: in 1969, he brought Johnny Cash’s early Americana to millions as Cash’s house guitarist; the same year he joined Bob Dylan’s exploration of country roots, playing guitar on Nashville Skyline; in 1971 he helped create newgrass via John Hartford’s influential Aereo-Plain album; in 1971 he accompanied the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s homage to early country roots as part of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken sessions; in the 80s and 90s, Norman’s albums with his wife Nancy Blake set a new standard for acoustic roots music; in 2000, he was invited by T Bone Burnett to be a key part of the ground-breaking soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and he’s since appeared on the soundtrack of Hollywood films like Cold Mountain, Walk the Line, and Inside Llewyn Davis. Few artists can claim the influence that Blake has had, but throughout he’s never varied his formula, staying true to the roots of the music and to the stories that the old songs tell.
On January 20, 2015 Plectrafone Records, (The Old Time Country Division of Western Jubilee Recording Company), will release Norman Blake’s new album, Wood, Wire & Words. It’s his first album of all original songs in over 30 years! Wood, Wire & Words is a stripped-back acoustic album, just the way Blake likes it, featuring Blake’s vocals and guitar, with Nancy Blake joining on a song. The songs paint intricate and moving pictures of a rogue’s gallery of American outlaws and country folk. Black Bart and Joseph Hare (the outlaw of the Natchez Trace) appear here, as does ill-fated Mexican president Francisco Madero, assassinated in 1913, and the hapless postmaster of Cedar Springs, TN, Audrey Conda, who was gunned down on the job. Blake lays these story songs over a rolling riverbed of turn of the century ragtime guitar picking, his specialty. Born from a time when blues and hillbilly music were just beginning to be marketed to the masses, early ragtime guitar wasn’t afraid to pull in influences from continental Europe or down South in Mexico. On Wood, Wire & Words instrumental rags and a jaunty march rub shoulders with Blake’s nostalgia for an older, more innocent America. Blake has an uncanny ability to remix the roots of our American past and his songs on this album delve deep to tell these stories. He’s chronicling hard lives and bitter tales, but throughout there’s a strain of hope that maybe this time around we’ll learn from our mistakes; maybe we’ll learn from our past.
Our modern world teams with ghosts, with visions of remnants of our collective American past. Few people know these ghosts better than folk guitarist and songwriter Norman Blake, for few people have traveled as far on the back roads of American music as he has. With Wood, Wire & Words he returns to the roads around his home in Sulphur Springs, Georgia, drawing from a lifetime of performance to craft new songs on very old themes.
01/20/2015 | comments (0)
John Reischman & The Jaybirds
On A Winter's Night
To celebrate the deepening of winter and the coming of the holiday season, all-star West Coast bluegrass/roots ensemble John Reischman & The Jaybirds are releasing their new EP, On A Winter’s Night. It’s a lovely romp through the snowy backwoods of American roots music, inspired in part by the classic American Folk Songs for Christmas by composer Ruth Crawford Seeger (stepmom to Pete Seeger). First a book, then an LP and CD, the music Seeger compiled has inspired generations of musicians, but it also gave John Reischman a focal point for a new recording. It was a chance for John to showcase the talents of his stellar band, breaking The Jaybirds into different small ensembles for each track and giving each vocalist and instrumentalist a chance to shine. Staffed by some of the best acoustic musicians in North America, The Jaybirds weave an acoustic music tapestry behind these wintry songs and tunes.
On a Winter’s Night features John Reischman & The Jaybirds in fine form, each member clearly relishing the opportunity to turn in a new vision of these beautiful and evocative old songs. Bassist and vocalist Trisha Gagnon, a well-known solo roots artist in Canada, opens the album with her stunning take on the old spiritual “I Heard From Heaven Today,” and continues with the Child Ballad The Cherry Tree Carol (“Joseph and Mary”). Respected bluegrass guitarist Jim Nunally brings his vocals to the Doc Watson classic “A Roving On A Winter’s Night.” Ace fiddler Greg Spatz and masterful banjo picker Nick Hornbuckle clearly delight in one of the album’s instrumentals (“Breaking Up Christmas”), spinning banjo and fiddle lines around each other. The Jaybirds break into a quartet for a rousing bluegrass rendition of the classic “Oh Mary, Where Is Your Baby” and then close the album with John shining on mandolin for “Shine Like A Star in the Morning.” With so much talent, The Jaybirds operate as an incredibly tight unit, while John Reischman’s clear, cool playing on mandolin, mandola, and octave mandolin rings out as a beacon.
In a marketplace flooded with virtuosic ensembles, John Reischman & The Jaybirds have found a recipe to stand out from the rest: they go back to the roots of bluegrass and old-time music for their inspiration, then spin these roots into a new sound.
John Reischman & The Jaybirds: I Heard From Heaven Today
John Reischman & The Jaybirds: Breaking Up Christmas
12/09/2014 | comments (0)
The Sweet Lowdown: Chasing the Sun
There’s something about living on the edge of the Western world that tends to encourage far-reaching perspectives. Canadian roots trio The Sweet Lowdown certainly understand this. All three members (Miriam Sonstenes, fiddle; Amanda Blied, guitar; Shanti Bremer, banjo) hail from Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island. With the rough waters of the Pacific behind them and the wilds of the Canadian North above them, The Sweet Lowdown have developed original acoustic roots music that draws from earth and sky for their third album, Chasing the Sun. Earth in the form of the Appalachian old-time stringband music that underpins and fuels their music, and sky in the form of the soaring that uplift their songs. This is mountain music to be sure; mountains tied to the natural environment of the Canadian Northwest. As such, you’ll hear influences in this music as far-ranging as Celtic jigs, Scandinavian fiddling, and that particularly Canadian blend of driving tradition and ground-breaking originality made famous by groups like The Duhks and The Wailin’ Jennys. The Sweet Lowdown draw from these influences, but are not beholden, instead blazing a new trail with original songwriting and innovative instrumental arrangements.
Each member of The Sweet Lowdown contributes creatively to the group, writing songs and tunes and trading off lead and harmony vocals. Each member also brings their own background in other forms of traditional music, contributing a creative diversity that accounts for the innovative and beautiful arrangements you’ll hear on this album: fiddler Miriam Sonstenes’ background as both a classical violinist and a purely traditional fiddler; guitarist Amanda Blied’s passion for Appalachian music as well as her early background in Balkan song; and banjo player Shanti Bremer’s love of hard-driving bluegrass banjo and her study of the darker tones of old-time clawhammer banjo. This whirling blend of influences could throw off any other band, but The Sweet Lowdown have a focus to their vision that fuses these disparate ingredients into a totally cohesive whole. This is old-time music with very new sensibilities.
Living so close to the natural beauty of British Columbia, the songs on Chasing the Sun stem from encounters with the natural world and from worries about the future of our environment. The opening track “River Winding Down” was inspired by the shocking sight of a flooded downtown Calgary as seen from an incoming plane, while “Fallout” was written about the continuing tragedy of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant. Other tracks on the album channel the wonder and grandeur of nature, from the title track which refers to a stunning sunrise seen when leaving Victoria, to the song “You Can Find the North,” which uses astronomy to chart a path out of the confines of the modern city. The music of The Sweet Lowdown comes from a generation of powerfully talented young roots musicians who have taken the music on as their own as a shield to protect the creative spirit from the crushing pressures of the 21st century. This is music as memory and as a force for change, and as The Sweet Lowdown sing in “Leaving”: “I’ll hold on to one sweet memory, singing songs until the dawn.”
The Sweet Lowdown: "Chasing the Sun"
The Sweet Lowdown: "River Winding Down"