We're incredibly proud to be working with venerated American old-time ensemble Foghorn Stringband. They've been leading a new roots music revival out of their homebase of Portland, Oregon for over a decade now, and in fact they're the band that turned us on to old-time music. We'd never heard old-time played with such ferocity and power, and it came as a revelation. With their new album, Outshine the Sun, Foghorn Stringband has added a new member to the lineup–Bellingham country singer Reeb Willms–and they're continuing to explore not only Southern old-time music, but also vintage country and even Cajun music. We love that they've been at the forefront of today's best roots musicians for years without ever compromising their vision. They play the music the old way, gathered around one microphone belting out the old tunes and songs they love so much.
Foghorn Stringband. Outshine the Sun.
Foghorn Stringband is the shining gold standard for American stringband music, with seven albums, thousands of shows, over a decade of touring under their belts, and two entirely new generations of old-time musicians following their lead. Through all this, they’ve never let the music grow cold; instead they’ve been steadily proving that American roots music is a never-ending well of inspiration. With their new album, Outshine The Sun, Foghorn Stringband has returned to the forefront of American roots music.
From their origins in Portland, Oregon’s underground roots music scene, the core duo of Foghorn Stringband, Caleb Klauder, whose wistful, keening vocals and rapid-fire mandolin picking have always been the heart of the band, and Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind, perhaps the best old-time fiddler of his generation, have spread the old-time stringband gospel all over the world, but they’ve also brought in new influences and inspirations from their many travels and fellow bandmates. Vintage country and honky-tonk became a staple of Foghorn Stringband thanks to Klauder’s intense passion for the music, and frequent visits to Louisiana have inspired the group to bring Cajun songs into the repertoire. As the music has changed, the band has changed and reformed as well. Canadian singer and bassist Nadine Landry, from Québec via the Yukon, joined the band in 2008, bringing a wealth of experience as an internationally touring bluegrass musician. New member, singer and guitarist Reeb Willms, came down from Bellingham with a suitcase of old, vintage country songs and a powerfully beautiful, pure voice born in the farmlands of Washington State.
To produce Outshine the Sun, Foghorn Stringband went back to the source of their music, gathering around a single microphone and a roaring wood stove in Caleb’s Portland, Oregon home. The rainy winter nights pulled them even closer, and if the music sounds both wildly virtuosic and intimately hand-crafted, that’s the kind of paradox on which Foghorn thrives. The songs and tunes on Outshine the Sun come from rare and wonderful sources like old-time masters John Ashby, Dwight Lamb, and The Stripling Brothers, but also from well- known sources like The Carter Family, Charlie Poole, The Stanley Brothers, and Hazel Dickens. Outshine the Sun is a glorious explosion of stringband music, with members trading instruments as quickly as harmony lines. Caleb Klauder is known for his rapid-fire mandolin picking, but is also featured here on fiddle. Sammy Lind is an amazing fiddler, but brings some deft banjo picking to the album, and all four members trade off singing leads and swapping harmonies. Over all, there’s a rough-and-rowdy, hell-for-leather attitude to the album, the same spirit that made Foghorn Stringband an inspiration for multiple generations.
It’s a new Foghorn Stringband these days, but the music is as furiously compelling as ever. For the group that first broke the good news about Southern old-time music to a new generation, the new album is both a return to form and a fresh new start.
Foghorn Stringband: Sweeter than the Flowers
Foghorn Stringband: Indian Ate the Woodchuck
09/19/2012 | comments (0)
For me, indie roots music has been a bit dry recently. Maybe I miss those old "freak folk" days when Joanna Newsom and Alela Diane were making such pretty acoustic roots music, but these days every other indie roots band seems to want to channel the 70s California folk rock sound. Which is fine, don't get me wrong, it just ain't my thing. There are plenty of other reviewers writing about these Fleet-Foxes apostles, so I'm gonna sit back and go after the more acoustic-oriented bands hitting the indie-wavosphere these days. Here are some of my new favorites!
Lost Lander. Drrt.
This is the kind of album I always have trouble reviewing. Because really I just like it a lot. Portland ensemble Lost Lander have great songs, and more importantly great song construction. Their music is catchy and at times lightly informed by acoustic folk and country blues. It's the kind of music that I like humming and singing along too. But to get more specific about why I like it is tricky. I think the key here is that Lost Lander bring together two important elements: great songwriting from Matt Sheehy, a respected Portland singer-songwriter, and a band made up of awesome Portland sidemen and women. Lost Lander the band bring a whole slew of instruments and complex arrangements to the table, bringing a level of intellectualism to the pop-wash of the songs. It's a great combination, and I've found myself totally intrigued by the music of Lost Lander. And the lead songwriter too. Matt Sheehy is a forester for his day job. I thought that meant lumberjack, since this is Portland, OR we're talking about, but forester is a much cooler job. He's a scientist of the forest, studying trees and humping across the wilderness to understand the forest, but a forester is also a rough job spent close to the company of any number of forest crazies in the Oregon wilderness. In medieval times, according to Wikipedia, a forester was also the sheriff of the forest, stopping illegal poaching and organizing armed gangs to hunt down escaped criminals. I imagine nowadays Sheehy has to watch out for pot-growing mafias and survivalists, so it's still a roughneck job for a scientist. My point here is that the music of Matt Sheehy and Lost Lander carries real weight, perhaps even the weight of a dense, Northwest forest. Check them out!
More about Matt Sheehy the Forester:
The Native Sibling. The Tinderbox Sessions.
Why, oh why is The Native Sibling not one of the best known indie roots bands around? They've got it all: gorgeous, honey-drenched vocals, beautiful songs, lush harmonies, stripped back acoustic guitar work, and the kind of salt-air, windswept treeline atmosphere you only get from growing up in Santa Cruz. Well, for one, they should probably release an album! So far we've only got three tracks (that I could find), starting with this February's stunning "Follow Trees" (available HERE for free download). Though they're saying they have an EP coming, they followed their first single with two songs released on Bandcamp from live sessions at Tinderbox Studios in Santa Cruz. Equally stunning, the second song, "Weather Veins," had my heart forever when it unexpectedly slipped into a totally new take on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken". Evidently The Native Sibling really are siblings–brother and sister duo Ryan and Kaylee Williams. I'm not sure if they tour much, since I don't think they have a website (just Facebook), but I hope they'll drop that EP soon. This is DEFINITELY a group to watch for in the near future!
Hope for Agoldensummer. Life Inside the Body.
2012. Mazarine Records.
Hope for Agoldensummer is the kind of band I don't want to know more about. I just want to listen to their gently floating harmonies and shimmery twangy instruments and imagine them a trio of hippie siblings from Vermont readying their house for the incoming Fall and toiling over jars of preserves from the summer harvest. Reality? They're based out of Atlanta, GA. I didn't want to know that. I was sure it was Vermont. I've actually been following this indie folk band for a while, mainly through my intense, vertiginous love of their old song "Malt Liquor" which I think I listened to about 100 times over the past couple years. Their new album, Life Inside the Body, is full of strange, half-whispered lyrics, lo-fi glockenspiels, and oodles and oodles of vocal harmonies. I always fall flat trying to write about their music because this isn't music for critical listening, this is music for daydreaming. This is the kind of music that should accompany a late summer evening staring up at the stars and wondering if you should try and kiss the sweet lady nestled up next to you. Their new album is full of lo-fi goodies, all done up with bows and delivered with love. It's the kind of music we could all probably use more of.
09/18/2012 | comments (0)
We’re backstage at the Voice Works festival in the bucolic seaside town of Port Townsend, Washington, and I’m about to start an unexpectedly ambitious project: interviewing five members of O’Brien Party of 7. What seems like a simple interview quickly spins into a rowdy dinner-table conversation, as each member of this extended family band spins off the other, interrupting at will and cracking wise in the background. A few months later I’ll be struggling to transcribe this, trying to parse out who said what and which voice belonged to whom. But that’s what it’s like in a family, nothing’s ever quick and easy, and even the simplest interaction can easily roll into chaos.
Of the musical families I’ve interviewed or visited with, the O’Briens are some of the closest and happiest, at least in this moment. They’re about to go on stage to sing a whole repertoire of songs that they’ve recently rediscovered: the songs of country-pop troubadour Roger Miller (you can hear these songs on their debut album, Reincarnation: The Songs of Roger Miller). O’Brien Party of 7 is not one of those family bands that tour the country out of a modified RV; they’re certainly not some kind of gimmicky family band. They’re just a real family that’s found a great way to get together more often to enjoy each other’s music on stage. Backstage now in the giant converted hanger that constitutes this festival’s mainstage, four members gather around a table to talk about the new album. Husband and wife Mollie O’Brien and Rich Moore start the conversation, joined by their daughters Lucy and Brigid (pronounced with a hard ‘g’) Moore. After a few words, Rich says “Call your uncle over,” and Tim O’Brien (Mollie and Tim O’Brien are siblings) puts down his iPhone to slide into a chair at the table. We’re missing two members of O’Brien Party of 7: Tim’s two sons Jackson and Joel. “They’re out parking the van,” quips Rich, but really they’re back at their homes in Minneapolis and Asheville. All the kids in the O’Brien families are grown and have left the house, and it’s easy to see how glad Mollie, Rich, and Tim are to have their kids back playing music with them.
I want to know what it was like growing up the children of Grammy-award winning roots musicians like Tim and Mollie O’Brien. Were there lots of great artists coming through the house? Did Mollie and Rich let their daughters listen to whatever they wanted? What was their musical education like? I ask them if they grew up with a lot of music in the house, and Brigid replies “Yeah, all kinds of music.” “We got to grow up—“ Lucy begins, before her father interrupts: “Who’s the best bass player, girls?” and both Lucy and Brigid immediately reply, at the same time and in the sweetest chorus, “JAMES JAMERSON!” “That’s my girls,” Rich replies, beaming proudly. “I knew I had done well when Brigid called me from a music appreciation class in college. And she said, ‘Dad, today we covered soul music and this guy didn’t even mention James Jamerson.’ (the bass player in Motown) I thought, aw, what am I spending my money on this for?” Laughing, Lucy continues, “Yeah, we listened to all kinds of music. We listened to everything that our parents listened to. Old stuff, all different kinds of things.” “Then you started bringing stuff,” Rich says, “like when you started listening to your own music. Ace of Bass…” Ace of Bass, I ask? “Remember them?” Mollie asks me.
I sure do, and I’m a bit surprised our conversation has led down this path. But we’re here to talk about O’Brien Party of 7’s first album, a tribute to country-pop songwriter Roger Miller, so I should be expecting a light dose of irreverence. And how did they get into Roger Miller anyways? Aside from a few major hits, mainly “King of the Road,” he’s not exactly at the forefront of people’s minds these days. I ask Mollie if she grew up listening to Roger Miller, and while she’d heard his music back in the day, she admits to being more of a Streisand fan in her youth. Rich listened to Miller years ago as well, but he doesn’t describe himself as an old-school fan. So how did the idea for the album come about? “We were at a dinner somewhere,” Rich remembers, “and there was a Roger Miller song on and someone, I think Mollie or Tim, said ‘oh maybe we should do some of these tunes, maybe do a whole album of them.’ It kind of morphed from there.” “It was a good place to meet,” Tim adds. “It seemed like everyone was interested in it. It was sort of like ‘how are you going to make a frame with all these divergent tastes?’ It seemed like if we did this we’d have a frame.” “There’s something for everybody in Roger Miller,” says Lucy. “Funny songs, sad songs,” says Brigid. “Really sad songs,” adds Mollie. “Super goofy songs,” says Lucy. “They’re modern too,” adds Tim, “what’s cool about him is that they’re still modern. They’re still quirky and unusual… and they’re unknown, a lot of them.” I wonder out loud if recording and performing so many Roger Miller songs has brought any Roger Miller “super-fans” out of the woodwork. They all laugh, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. “I met his widow,” Tim says. “She came out to a gig. She thought the family band was gonna play. It was the day the record came out and I was playing a show in Nashville, and it was in the paper that this record had just come out, so she came out [to the show]. I got to meet her, she was real nice. She was very excited! She had been out of town, but she got the CD and she listened to it that day.” “Did she like it?” asks Mollie. “ “She really liked it. She really liked the harmonies,” says Tim. “Oh, good” Mollie says, relieved. “It’s funny,” Tim says, “no one’s done a tribute record or a compilation of his. No one’s done a set of his songs other than him.” “Why do you think that is?” Mollie asks. “I don’t know,” Tim replies, “it’s weird.” “He’s kind of an underdog, maybe,” says Lucy. “I mean maybe he wasn’t pigeonholed enough in one category because he did so many different things.” “He was a country singer,” says Tim. “When he hit, country music endorsed him again, but he wasn’t making it in country music, and he was giving it up and going to Hollywood to be an actor… he went to Hollywood and he was on Johnny Carson a lot. He’d just sit on the couch and sing his songs. Johnny Carson really loved him.”
Listening to the album, it’s true that the songs are all over the map. From funny protest song “Guv’ment” to the strange ditty “Hand for the Hog,” Miller’s humorous songs are so well written that they rise above novelty. And the more poignant songs, like “Tall Tall Trees” (sung beautifully by Lucy), or “In the Summertime” are heartfelt pop songs crafted from simple materials and lyrics, but clearly made by the hand of a master songwriter. Honestly, O’Brien Party of 7 is one of the few bands that can pull off the musical diversity that Miller’s songs require. Tim brings an acoustic roots music pedigree to the songs, but Mollie and Rich fill out the showy, Streisand-like swing blues of the more dramatic songs, like “Reincarnation” and “Train of Life.” The stand-out track, no surprise, is Miller’s biggest hit, “King of the Road.” Mollie and Tim trade lead vocals and the whole group joins in to transform his signature song. It’s a triumph, and hopefully a version that would do Miller proud.
As we talk, I start to realize how far apart each family member lives from the other. Tim lives in Nashville, Lucy and Brigid in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, Mollie & Rich in Denver, and Tim’s two sons in Minneapolis and Asheville. How on earth do they manage rehearsals before shows? According to Molly, they’re lucky to get in a rehearsal the day of the gig. “It’s rolling the dice, I tell you,” Rich chuckles. Still, I say that it must be great getting so much family time. At the least, the band’s a great excuse to get together more often, right? “It’s the most time we’ve gotten to spend straight through together,” Lucy says. “Last summer we spent a couple weeks doing the shows and festivals, and we spent time in Nashville to record. It was so much fun, we got to eat dinner together every night. There were a lot of challenges, but we all ended up putting it together.” “The glue is the younger generation,” Rich says. “It really is. The three of us [Tim, Mollie, Rich], well, y’know… The four of you kids, when you get together you’re all so excited to see each other, it just pulls the rest of us together. “Well we all just get along,” says Lucy, “and if we weren’t family, I think we’d still hang out together.” “We all like each other,” says Rich. “Some families can’t get through dinner, y’know, but we got through an album.” “We have a lot of fun,” says Mollie. “That’s the main thing.” I’m sure Roger Miller would have agreed.
09/15/2012 | comments (0)
So yeah, I kinda made up the genre "alt-stringband", but I think it fits well. There are a good number of groups taking the old stringband idea and ramping it up with avant-garde arrangements inspired by jazz listening and conservatory training. These two bands are some of the best examples of where traditional stringbands have been taken today.
Black Prairie. A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart.
2012. Sugar Hill Records.
By now, most people should know that Black Prairie is the "stringband" side project of Decemberist members accordionist Jenny Conlee-Drizzos (Sparklepony from Portlandia!), dobro multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, and bassist Nate Query (plus drummer John Moen). Portland roots scene stalwart John Neufeld (Jackstraw, Dolorean) rounds out the band, and Portland fiddler Annalisa Tornfelt steps up to the mic on the new disc, assuming lead vocal duties. She's got a gorgeous, ethereal voice, so it's great to hear Black Prairie bringing her more to the fore. Though the arrangements and compositions on the new album are notably complex and nuanced, really the key to Black Prairie is their insane blend of a hundred different cultural influences. In the space of one song, say "Dirty River Stomp," you can hear barrelhouse piano, old cartoon musical accompaniment, Parisian cafe nuances, and some grooved-out Zydeco accordion. "Taraf" features guest musicians Paul Beck on cimbalom (Hungarian hammered dulcimer associated with Roma music) and Irish pennywhistle player Hanz Araki and sounds like a full-blown Eastern European party. Perhaps the most interesting track conceptually is "34 Wishes," a riff-based folk jam that started off, according to Nate Query, as an attempt to put Mastodon's crushing heavy metal jams on to folk instruments. Hunting out strange musical influences in this new Black Prairie album becomes something of a fun game as you progress through it. But this hides the fact that only the best players can unite so many strange ideas into a cohesive whole. Don't try this at home folks, otherwise you end up with the gypsy-jazz-klezmer-slam-grass hybrids that seem to proliferate everywhere. Throughout all these madcap musical melanges, Annalisa Tornfelt's voice floats supreme. And the best tracks on the album are definitely the songs. "How Do You Ruin Me" got a ton of plays at our house before we got the advance copy, mainly because it's such a gorgeous, catchy song. "Little Song Bird" is another keeper, a great folk song that could fit on a lullaby album. "Rock of Ages" sounds like it could have come off a Sarah Jarosz album. Which makes sense since they're labelmates and have collaborated before. I guess the main point here is that Black Prairie is clearly having far too much fun rifling through each other's record collections for cool ideas to bother coming up with some kind of new genre definer for their music. Good thing too, who needs those phony genres anyway!
Black Prairie: Nowhere, Massachusetts
Real Vocal String Quartet. Four Little Sisters.
2012. Flower Note Records.
From the opening track of their new album, Four Little Sisters, Real Vocal String Quartet bring a stunning vision to their arrangements. The first song is an acoustic stringband re-envisioning of Regina Spektor's song "Machine," and I guarantee you haven't heard a cello, violin, or viola played this way before. Machine-gun stutters, growling, rippling rhythms that sound almost harmful to the instrument, and floating ethereal vocals. Sounds a bit out there, but these four women are grounded by the traditions and the instruments they've chosen, and the album has a remarkable consistency. The cello buzzes along, often treated like a bass instrument (actually this is a tradition itself from Appalachia, where early stringbands couldn't afford or couldn't carry around full string basses, so used cellos), the fiddles soar together in twin flights, and the viola spins between both axes, pulling down grumbling rhythms and smooth melodic runs at the same time. This is definitely the kind of band that must have formed at a music conservatory from virtuosic musicians who were chafing from the strictures of classical music. I can see them all gathered in a rehearsal room in the stuffy conservatory, happily poring over their lists of favorite songs from any genre and dreaming up ways to arrange these songs for the quartet. I've met two of the four members of Real Vocal String Quartet actually, both at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, and they're dedicated roots musicians with the kind of chops to pull off these lush arrangements. Nice folks too!
Four Little Sisters is all over the map in terms of influences. Malian wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare is given a tribute track, Brazilian songwriter Gilberto Gil is featured as well with an arrangement and translation of his song "Copo Vazio", there's a nod to Cajun music with a cool remake of the common song "Allons à Lafayette," Swedish roots crossover band Väsen gets a nod as well with "Falling Polska", and there's even a cover of David Byrne's "Knotty Pine". Fiddler Alisa Rose's composition, "Elephant Dreams" is another standout track, matching a lilting Celtic-ish melody with some really cool harmonies and counterpoint.
There's no doubt this is a masterful album from a group with great vision and a lot to say. Search it out for yourself and you'll find that these four musicians leave few stones unturned in their quest to bring new traditions into their chamber stringband.
Real Vocal String Quartet: Elephant Dreams
09/11/2012 | comments (0)
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West are, simply put, two of the most innovative and subtle roots musicians today. Their music draws from old folk sources, but it sounds vibrantly alive. Cahalen Morrison writes songs that sound like a Cormac McCarthy novel: simple, beautifully crafted, and seemingly formed from raw natural elements. Eli West brings jagged, angular arrangements based in bluegrass and old-time, but refracted through a 21st century lens. Like Ansel Adams’ photography, their music is instantly accessible and built from the simplest materials, but at the same time seems to transcend its base fundamentals. Together, Cahalen and Eli tap the root of the old country and bluegrass duets. As the sparse landscapes of Cahalen’s vocals reflect the warm glow of Eli’s voice, it’s clear that this duo was made to sing together.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West’s new album, Our Lady of the Tall Trees, is a stunning example of the power of great songwriting and musicianship. And we’re not the only ones saying this. They’ve been building buzz first and foremost among the top echelon of roots musicians, with Tim O’Brien, Dirk Powell, and Aoife O’Donovan actively singing their praises and spreading the gospel. Cahalen & Eli can easily back up that kind of expert acclaim, as they show on album standouts like the title track, “Our Lady of the Tall Trees,” or the opener, “Stone to Sand.” Their stripped-back cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” has been gathering early praise as well. Cahalen Morrison & Eli West’s music sounds eminently familiar, for they’re drawing from our common love of American roots music, but it also sounds entirely different. Even on the classic, or traditional covers on the album like “Church St. Blues,” or “Poor Cowboy,” they sound totally unlike the many, many roots music bands covering this same hallowed ground. Gone are the twangy accents, gone the overplayed search for the “old, weird America,” and gone the banjo-as-a-prop theatrics. This is music built on the joy of the craft, made by hand by two young masters with love for the traditions, but a bold vision for how the old sounds can fit into new soundscapes.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Our Lady of the Tall Trees
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Stone to Sand
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West: Church Street Blues
09/06/2012 | comments (0)
Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros have passed the only kind of test there is for true country music: the dancers. Liam cut his teeth playing the hardcore country taverns in Seattle that you never hear about in the tourist brochures, and the dancers there don’t mess around. You’d better have a rock-hard beat, an ace pedal steel player, songs as honest as they are direct, and a voice with just the right amount of twang. You can fake your way through country music to the rest of the world, but when you play for dancers, they’ll see right through any kind of trickery.
Liam Fitzgerald grew up around country music in his hometown of Klamath Falls, a small town nestled into some of the rougher natural territory of Eastern Oregon. He comes from a large family of cattlemen, shepherds, and rodeo stars that dates back generations to the Wild West, but despite this upbringing, Liam didn’t start playing country music until he’d moved to Seattle. Hooking up with a like-minded group of players, he started writing country songs, obsessing over old vinyl country records, and opening for all the hot country bands coming through town. Liam’s talent as a roots country songwriter was immediately apparent, and he moved to the upper echelon of Seattle country dance halls, playing sets at the Little Red Hen, The Shanty, and Darrell’s, all dive-bar, insider venues where the last remnants of Seattle’s working-class past still remain. Don Slack at KEXP was an early adopter of Liam’s music as well, featuring him frequently on his tastemaking show “Shake the Shack.” Those who know true country music in Seattle knew Liam very well.
With the second album from Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros, titled Last Call, this crackin’ Seattle crew of country pickers is poised to move into a much larger spotlight. With just 10 songs, Liam chronicles the bad break-ups, late night bar tabs, hard-luck ramblers, and drunken jokers that typify the Golden Age of country music. The band is hopping, with Russ Blake and his remarkably agile pedal steel solos, Tyler Johnson on hard-rock country bass, Johnn Mercury on the shimmery, reverb’d out electric guitar so key to the old country sound, and Donnie Staff laying down the kind of dancefloor country beats on the drums that made The Rainieros’ name. Plus Liam invited in the best fiddlers in Seattle’s old-time scene (Joe Fulton of the Tallboys and Greg Canote of the Canote Brothers) to lay down some Western swing fiddling. Last Call positively crackles with a vintage, analog sound, and Liam takes this aspect of the album very seriously. He sent the album to mastering twice, striving to get the kind of analog sound quality that he loved so much from his extensive collection of country music vinyl albums from the 1950s and 60s. One listen to the opening track, “What Would You Do,” and you’ll hear he succeeded!
As soon as you hear Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros, you know they’re different. There’s no “alt” here, no “indie” attached to their country music, this is the real deal, straight no chaser... old-school roots country songwriting born from a remarkable talent.
Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros: What Would You Do?
Liam Fitzgerald & The Rainieros: I'm Always Gonna Be in Love With You