The “Western” in Country & Western Music rarely gets mentioned, but country music today owes a great debt to the realities of open-range ranching and days and nights spent on the vast North American prairies; to an age-old celebration of cowboy living. The Canadian prairies have always loomed large in this vision, and today Canada’s Western provinces boast some of the most cutting-edge country roots music. While artists like Kentucky’s Sturgill Simpson or Nashville’s Rosanne Cash craft their own signature country sound, now from Western Canada comes Leaf Rapids, a powerhouse duo who frame their music on a continuum that stretches from the Manitoba grasslands to Nashville’s modern streets. Leaf Rapid’s debut album Lucky Stars is a soundtrack for the modern cowboy–part Canadian trucker, part Manitoba Motown. Lucky Stars brings the deep roots of North America’s great plains into the new millennium.
Fronted by husband & wife Keri & Devin Latimer, Leaf Rapids came out of their popular indie folk band, Nathan, which spent the early 2000’s signed to major label Nettwerk. Winning 2 Canadian Folk Music titles and the 2008 Juno award (Canadian Grammy) for Roots Traditional Album of the Year, Keri and Devin’s outstanding talents grabbed the attention of industry heavy weights, including Canadian roots music producer Steve Dawson. Dawson, a prodigious multi instrumentalist, was eager to work with Keri and Devin on their new project Leaf Rapids via his renowned record label Black Hen Music. As a five time Juno award-winning producer, Dawson brought his powerful talents on a wide variety of instruments, from pedal steel to electric guitar, crafting a full band sound for this duo that borders on indie roots.
Named for a small Manitoba town, Leaf Rapids is primarily a reflection of landscape – miles and miles of grass or snow in any direction, and the northern lights dancing above. Their sound resembles the Canadian grasslands, as beautiful as they are harsh, taking notes from Canada’s soft tones and tough seasons. From Keri Latimer’s sweet, Dolly Parton-esque vocal styling, to Devin Latimer’s slow-and-steady bass lines, and Steve Dawson’s ruff-rider Nashville guitar riffs, Lucky Stars wears a three-piece searsucker suit that’s been rubbed in the mud. Featuring Dawson’s dazzling dobro and electric guitar, songs like “April” and “Healing Feeling” are as much country roots as they are atmospheric pop while “Vulture Lullaby” and the title track find focus with a more cosmopolitan Americana sound. “Welcome Stranger” and “Everything in Between” even incorporate a doo-wop sound that drives home the band’s refreshing sonic diversity.
On Lucky Stars, Leaf Rapids shows a far-ranging vision of country & western music that stretches from Manitoba to Memphis.
Leaf Rapids: "Virtual Machine"
Leaf Rapids: "Galaxie 500"
03/30/2015 | comments (0)
Brighter Every Day
Historically, mountain ranges have been formidable barriers for civilization. But for the first settlers who passed through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, those features gave way to a unique sense of independence and became insulators from the rest of civilization, with collaboration, rather than competition, as the prime virtue. Flash forward to 2015, and you can hear this dynamic at play on BRIGHTER EVERY DAY, the newest album from Denver indie-mountaingrass quintet TROUT STEAK REVIVAL. Produced by Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters, Trout Steak Revival’s new album comes on the heels of their breakout win at the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival and showcases the band’s virtuosic original songwriting and masterful musicianship.
Trout Steak Revival’s five members – Steve Foltz (mandolin & guitar), Casey Houlihan (standup bass), Will Koster (dobro & guitar), Travis McNamara (banjo), and Bevin Foley (fiddle) – each contribute vocals and songwriting in their post-modern approach to American roots music. Their collaborative songwriting process operates more like a collective than a traditional band, with one member bringing an idea while the others flesh out the arrangement with personal touches of instrumentation and harmony. Where it’s easy to use the cold technical language of “tightness” to refer to the arrangements, a better descriptor here might be “close-knit.” Trout Steak Revival’s concise yet multi-layered arrangements are derived from their years of experience playing with and nurturing each other creatively. Like the many bends in the Colorado River, each of the instruments diverge and run their own course, but always end up curving back around to the same destination.
Most of the members of Trout Steak Revival originate from the Midwest, having moved west to settle in Colorado. Many of the songs on Brighter Every Day center on storytelling and the varying places and experiences they’ve each come from, echoing a tension between rootedness and wanderlust. The album opens with a petition to the Union Pacific railroad, reflecting on having seen everything from the “Mojave Desert” to “San Francisco Bay,” pining for home and pleading: “Won’t you take me down your track, let your whistle blow, and bring me back.” “Ours For The Taking” was originally written by Houlihan for his fiancé while “Wind On The Mountain” is about getting caught in a snowstorm during a backpacking trip. The title track, written by McNamara on piano for the wedding of two friends, was later brought to the band and arranged for a five-piece. While the piano is retained here, Trout Steak Revival turns what might have been a meditative processional into a full-fledged celebratory dance. Finally, the album closes with “Colorado River,” a gorgeously raucous ode to their Rocky Mountain home – “I’m swimming’ in my sleep, in the Colorado River deep.”
It’s not hard to see how integral the Rocky Mountain communal tradition is to the listening experience of Brighter Every Day. Grown out of fertile ground, Trout Steak Revival represents a sense of community that has become as unshakeable as the mountains themselves. In Colorado, the air is just a little thinner and colder, making Trout Steak Revival’s unique brand of bluegrass take on an exciting and pioneering timbre that is poised to keep listeners breathless for years to come.
Trout Steak Revival: Union Pacific
Trout Steak Revival: Get A Fire Going
03/27/2015 | comments (0)
Norah Rendell: Spinning Yarns
As every year passes, the material items of life begin to age and wear, but the songs that we carry with us only grow stronger. That’s the power of memory, the power of music making, and it’s a power that Canadian folk singer and flute/whistle player Norah Rendell knows well. Her interest in the pathways of old songs led her throughout Canada searching out the roots of the many Irish, Scottish, and English communities that have kept songs from the Old World close to their hearts up to the present day.
On her new album, Spinning Yarns, she presents twelve songs from her research, many drawn from rare archival recordings. Each song is lovingly arranged with her husband, Celtic guitarist Brian Miller (Bua, Chulrua), who writes eloquently of the fascinating singers associated with each song. The stories of these singers, stretching across the Canadian provinces, is the story of Canadian immigration writ large. It’s also the story of the amazing music you can find when you look to your own communities. As Rendell explains, “My return to North America as a touring musician brought me into contact with traditional music communities in eastern Canada. Inspired by these living traditions, I embarked on a journey to learn more about the oral song tradition of Canada. This album is the fruit of that journey, and a very modest representation of a massive store of songs that are waiting to be rediscovered.”
On Spinning Yarns, Rendell’s beautiful tenor carries the weight of these old songs effortlessly. She’s a masterful interpreter of tradition, and deeply passionate about the truths these songs can uncover about our lives today. From the tragedy of youth cut short in Ontario lumberjack song “Lost Jimmie Whalen” or the seafaring song “The Sailor’s Bride,” to songs made to charm a lover (“Letty Lee)”, to songs about love turned cold (“Pretty Susan”), even songs about ribald women (“Biddy Rooney”), the clear theme throughout this collection is the trials of love. An age-old trope, lost and found love rings as true today as it did when these songs were first sung on Canadian soil, or even first committed to memory. Around Rendell’s lovely vocals, Brian Miller’s deft and subtle bouzouki and guitar work cradles the songs with deep empathy. On the album, Rendell and Miller are also joined by Irish traditional music legend Dáithí Sproule, Scottish harpist (Rendell’s bandmate in their cutting-edge Celtic ensemble The Outside Track) and Miller’s musical partner guitarist Randy Gosa. Most of the songs on the album come from the Irish tradition, and of particular note is the inspiration of the now-deceased singer Angelo Dornan of New Brunswick, from which Rendell draws four powerful songs.
Laying each song into its proper setting like gems in a ring, Norah Rendell takes care to pay tribute to the Irish and Celtic roots of this music. For though the songs stretch across the provinces of Canada, they are drawn from existing communities with deep roots overseas. The fact that the songs have been so well cared for in the many decades, even centuries, since they made their way over the water, is a testament to the power of these old words and the great joy that can be given when you share a song.
Norah Rendell: "Lost Jimmy Whalen"
Norah Rendell: "The Sailor's Bride"
03/25/2015 | comments (0)
Le Vent du Nord : Têtu
Deep in the wintery woods of Quebec, Le Vent du Nord huddles around a few microphones, putting the finishing touches on a heart-wrenching song about a prisoner recalling his loved one, with their trademark vocals, interwoven like strands of pure wool. Their musical intimacy comes from over a decade of being one of Quebec’s most popular, award-winning bands. Since the group’s founding in 2002, the quartet has racked up several prestigious awards, including two JUNOS (Canada’s Grammys), two Canadian Folk Music Awards, one Grand Prix du Disque Charles Cros (France) and Artist of the Year at Folk Alliance International’s annual gala (USA).
With their eighth album, Têtu (Determined), Le Vent du Nord hold to a steady course, staying faithful to their Québécois roots while at the same time taking an unyielding approach to innovative new ideas. From the opening atmospheric “Noce Tragique,” to the biting politics of “Confédération,” to the moving “Pauvre Enfant,” the new opus contains 15 tracks covering politics, love, and satire, plus many foot-stomping dance tunes. With stripped-down a cappella singing coupled with sophisticated arrangements including a string quartet, Le Vent du Nord’s music is getting sharper, more refined, and ever more thoughtful.
The band’s members are Nicolas Boulerice (hurdy-gurdy, piano, voice), Olivier Demers (fiddle, feet, voice), Réjean Brunet (accordion, bass, jaw harp, voice) and Simon Beaudry (bouzouki, guitar, voice). Along with its terrific musicianship, Le Vent du Nord has brilliantly connected Québécois musical tradition to a larger musical world and in doing so have turned lost traditions into new and intense dynamic performances.
Têtu is an album that buzzes with heavy grooves while leaving room for good times, smiles and honesty. It proves that Le Vent du Nord is absolutely determined to continue making exceptional music, holding steadfast to their roots while remaining uncompromising in their identity as movers and shakers in the tradition.
Listen to Le Vent du Nord: "Noce Tragique"
Listen to Le Vent du Nord: "Pauvre Enfant"
03/23/2015 | comments (0)
Anna & Elizabeth
“Each song has a story,” says Elizabeth LaPrelle of Anna & Elizabeth. “Sometimes it’s right there in the words. Sometimes it’s in who we heard it from and how they learned it. That story, the story of why the songs endure, feels important for us to tell.”
ANNA & ELIZABETH (comprised of multi-instrumentalist and singer Anna Roberts-Gevalt, and acclaimed Appalachian ballad singer Elizabeth LaPrelle) come from a rich tradition of singers in the Appalachian mountains and have studied at the feet of the masters. In traditional Appalachian music, the voice—unaffected and pure—is seen as a servant to the songs. There’s no maudlin emotionalism in the singing, no melodramatic tension and release; the unleavened sound of the singer’s voice is the key to delivering the chilling messages of struggle and redemption at the heart of these songs. LaPrelle and Roberts-Gevalt have honed in on that spirit, creating work that is born of tradition, yet is so personal and so passionately executed, that it speaks volumes to the modern ear.
A collection of 16 traditional songs thoughtfully gathered and interpreted, Anna & Elizabeth’s new, self-titled album (via Free Dirt Records) guides listeners through the duo’s intense personal connection with each song, for a warm and intimate experience. With minimal guests and arrangements, the focus remains on the rich and subtle interplay between Anna & Elizabeth’s own harmonies and instrumentation. Fiddle and banjo lines intertwine in an age-old dance, and Elizabeth’s powerful vocals are matched by Anna’s softer timbre in their remarkably rich harmonizing. The songs are drawn from Anna & Elizabeth’s frequent visits to elder musicians in Appalachia, as well as their research on Southern old-time music. These are rare, beautiful, wondrous songs that they’ve collected from deep in the tradition, and they present the songs without artifice.
A student of elder singers like Grammy nominated Alice Gerrard (who guests on the new album) and Sheila Kay Adams, ELIZABETH LAPRELLE is the best young Appalachian ballad singer today. She has mastered the old technique of Appalachian vocalizing, which was designed in an age before amplification to cut through crowds, to cut across a crowded dance floor, to nearly cut through bone. Her musical partner ANNA ROBERTS-GEVALT has a beautifully burnished voice that softens the hard edge of LaPrelle’s singing, often shimmering above in a delicate soprano. A master fiddler, guitarist, and banjo player, Roberts-Gevalt is a tireless student of folk arts and a dedicated song collector.
Both women honor the roots of the music, but don’t see themselves as revivalists. “Everything serves the voice and the story,” Anna explains. “We try to be direct storytellers—to express these songs in a way that people of today can feel connected to. We aren’t trying to transport people to the past-- rather we are trying to bring the past back into the room, bring history into our understanding of the present.” As Elizabeth says, “The song will always travel far from the source. But we remember.”
Anna & Elizabeth: "Little Black Train"
Anna & Elizabeth: "Voice From On High"
03/17/2015 | comments (0)
Pharis & Jason Romero
A Wanderer I'll Stay
You’ll hear it immediately, but what makes Canadian folk singers Pharis & Jason Romero so different from the many other young roots musicians plying their trade today is that this music doesn’t just inspire them, it haunts them. Pharis & Jason find themselves compelled to explore the backroads of American roots music, driven to push deeper and deeper into the tradition to try and get at the cold, remorseless universal truths these old songs hide. They’re not dilettantes trolling through Pete Seeger’s back catalogue, they’re psychonauts exploring the lost landscapes of American thought and creating handmade acoustic roots music so original and intelligent that they’re almost mapping a new country.
Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion heard this immediately when they played his show, and invited them back on the spot for a second appearance. He also included them on his new Duets album along with luminaries like Gillian Welch, Sara Watkins, and Sam Bush. Major media outlets like NPR Music, who said “their chemistry is undeniable,” and The Huffington Post, who praised their “powerful close-harmony singing” have also been singing Pharis & Jason’s praises, and it’s not due to any legerdemain from a fancy publicist, it’s purely because the music they make as a husband-and-wife duo is deeply honest, pure, and affecting.
A Wanderer I’ll Stay, the new album from Pharis & Jason Romero, was recorded in their home in the woods in the tiny town of Horsefly, deep in the interior of British Columbia. Pharis is a fifth-generation resident of this town, and comes from a family of musicians and mountain folks. Most of their year is spent in their workshop building banjos; the J. Romero Banjo company makes some of the most beautiful and powerful banjos on the market today. The same craftsmanship that bends them over their worktables late at night, scrutinizing their instruments down to the millimeter, is brought to their songs and songwriting. That their music sounds so natural and effortless is the surest indication of the work of masters.
On the new album, Pharis Romero moves even more to the forefront as a songwriter, bringing songs that draw from the tropes of American folk song, but have a hard, modernist edge. She uses the tools of folk song: simple, hard-bitten characters, eminently singable melodies, and verses that tell captivating stories. Listen to the sadly touching refrain of “Ballad of Old Bill”: “It’s a wicked world when you’re all alone”; or the opening words of “There’s No Companion”: “There’s no companion like the misery of an unfilled desire”. These lines bite deep, and come from a long line of folk songwriters who knew how to cloak ancient truths in new words. On A Wanderer I’ll Stay, Pharis & Jason Romero have rebuilt some of their favorite folk songs, like the enigmatic “Cocaine Blues”, or the Civil-War era “A Dying Soldier”. Jason Romero’s also written more of his beautiful banjo-driven instrumentals, once again proving that there’s more beauty in the humble banjo than some people would have thought possible.
Together, Pharis & Jason Romero make the kind of music that endures. That’s because it’s built by hand to last, and made with a kind of love and care that’s nearly been lost in this world.
Pharis & Jason Romero: Ballad of Old Bill
Pharis & Jason Romero: Backstep Indi