I've been asked recently to write reviews for various publications and sometimes asked to limit myself to 150 words. This is not easy. It's quite hard to tell an album's story in such a small space. But it's also great practice for keeping my writing brief and readable. So I'm debuting a new blog type here: 150 Word Reviews of some of the artists we've been listening to. It's a quick way to find new music, so help us spread the word!
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile: The Goat Rodeo Sessions
I may be strange, but as a fiddle nerd, it was Stuart Duncan's name that made me buy this album in Starbucks. Sure, Yo-Yo Ma's the most famous cellist in the world, and Chris Thile redefined the mandolin much like a young Bill Monroe once did, and Edgar Meyer's a bass God. We know all that. But Stuart Duncan is one of the best American roots fiddlers alive. I love him because he slips between bluegrass and old-time fiddle effortlessly, and can fiddle anything else under the sun. This album is a great listen, an essential part of the new wave of "chamber folk" music. The tunes are half-composed, half-improvised, and sound like a perfectly balanced blend between folk and classical music. Only these artists could pull it off, and it's a great sound. Don't expect covers of old folk songs, but do expect to enjoy this listening experience.
BUY THIS ON AMAZON
Windy Hill. Let's Go to the Fair.
I'm always on the look out for the new bluegrass music that harkens back to the classic days of the genre's formation. The sound that Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs birthed in the American South in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I'm not looking for a stale recreation, but that kind of red-hot, fire-in-the-belly picking and keening harmonies that made the old classics so perfect. Impossibly young bluegrass band Windy Hill have this in spades on their new album, Let's Go to the Fair. Their music fairly crackles with hot picking and burning fiddling, and their harmonies are deadly accurate. Somehow they manage to make the music sound entirely new without compromising the smallest smidgeon of respect for the true tradition. This isn't bluegrass handled with delicacy, it's a blazing brand of bluegrass pulled forth from the fire with cool iron tongs.
Windy Hill: I'm Leaving Town
(Two Notes: 1) They wrote this song, and 2) Good goddamn that is a hot fiddle solo opening this track!)
At First Light. Idir.
Though I'm a longtime fan of Irish traditional music, I've never been too familiar with the Northern Irish traditions. So I'm thankful that At First Light have been presenting their beautiful Ulster music to world audiences. On their new album, Idir, the core trio of uilleann piper/tin whistler John McSherry, fiddler Donal O'Connor and multi-instrumentalist Francis McIlduff are joined also by the beautiful singer Ciara McCrickard. If they sound a bit like Irish super-group Lunasa, that may be because McSherry was a founding member. In fact, McSherry's got to be the busiest uilleann piper around! In addition to a recent solo album and an album with Bob Brozman, he also released an EP with Bellingham, WA songwriter Robert Sarazin Blake (that we helped promote). On Idir, tunes and songs rush together like a babbling Irish brook, and you can easily imagine yourself in a Belfast pub, enjoying truly beautiful music.
At First Light: Ar Thóir na Donn
Dana Falconberry. Though I Didn't Call It Came.
2012. Crossbill Records.
I met Dana Falconberry a few months ago when she was touring with my favorite indie-roots artist, Matt Bauer. I hadn't realized then that not only is she a respected member of the Austin, TX music scene (no small feat), but she's also got her own intriguing projects. On her new EP, Though I Didn't Call It Came, released on Crossbill Records, her music is as delicate as a deep-sea diatom. Carefully performed, beautifully arranged, this is the kind of hand-made music that's almost a family heirloom. Woven vocal harmonies, softly plucked strings, a cracked patina voice; it's beautiful and fascinating and something you'd like to keep to yourself rather than share around. At four tracks and fifteen minutes, it's a tiny vignette EP that's hopefully a preview of more to come.
Dana Falconberry: Petoskey Stone
01/19/2012 | comments (0)
We're pleased to welcome back guest blogger Dr. Squeeze with reviews of two amazing Irish trad albums. Sorry we didn't get to these earlier, but it's not like this music is going to get stale. It's still gonna be great even five or ten years from now. So slap on your headphones and have a read-through! Thanks to Dr. Squeeze for the guest blog.
Two Irish Trad Albums Reviewed
Guest Blog by Dr. Squeeze
Danny O'Mahony. In Retrospect.
I just got my hands on the recently released first CD of master Irish button box player Danny O’Mahony and it’s like a breath of fresh air. The album was released in May 2011 after many years of Danny saying he wouldn’t make a CD – thank goodness he changed his mind. Here we have a master box player, several times All-Ireland champ, playing straight up classics with flawless technique on priceless vintage accordions. Danny comes from Ballyduff in North County Kerry and earned a performance degree from University of Limerick. He has toured throughout Europe, North America and Australia and has a weekly radio show, ‘Trip to the Cottage’, which features Irish Traditional Music and Song on Radio Kerry. He also performs with the Shannon Vale Ceili Band who won the 2011 All Ireland Band title. On this his first CD, he is joined by some good friends and great performers such as Cyril O’Donoghue on bouzouki, Patsy Broderick on Piano and Johnny McDonagh on Bodhrán and Bones, but it’s really the accordion that dominates here and what a beautiful sound!
Danny plays three different accordions on the recording: a 1940’s vintage grey 3 voice B/C Paolo Soprani, another 1940’s grey 3 voice Paolo Soprani in D/D#, and finally the Ioria 6 voice D/C# box of the late great Tom Carmody from the 1930’s. The Ioria was bequeathed to Danny by Tom’s widow and Danny is presently doing research on the life and music of Tom Carmody and The James Morrison Band that dominated recordings of Irish Music in New York in the 1930’s. In Retrospect takes us back to those days of early Irish music in New York, with a faithful reproduction of the sound and the tunes. Custy’s Traditional Music Shop in Ennis says: “This album rates up there as one of the best accordion releases over the last ten years”. Definitely.
Danny O'Mahony: An Pointe/Cronin's/Come West Along the Road
Danny's Website (only way to purchase the album)
Excellent Video on Comhaltas
As an added treat: here's a great video of Danny and Micheál Ó Raghallaigh together on box and concertina. Enjoy!
When the folks at Hearth Music asked me if I would like to review the new CD by the Innisfree Ceili Band, I jumped right unto it. I am always interested in anything that involves accordions and I am also a member of the Shilshole Bay Ceili Band here in Seattle. Not only does the Innisfree Ceili Band boast two accordion players, both button and piano, but they also have four flute players, three fiddlers, a piano player and a drummer. One of the fiddlers, Oisín Mac Diarmada is already well known as the founder of the Irish Christmas in America show and a member of the famed Irish group Téada. The Irish Times praised them for « keeping the traditional flag flying at full mast » and the Innisfree Ceili Band carries on the tradition. All the players in the group grew up playing together in the North Connacht region of Ireland and represent the styles of Sligo, Leitrim, and Roscommon. Following in the footsteps of the great Ceili Bands of yore, such as the Tulla and the Kilfenora, the Innisfree Ceili Band plays with the smoothness and drive of a great dance band.
The word ‘Ceili’ in Gaelic means a social gathering or a party. In the early days, most Ceilis hosted singing, dancing, and story telling. Ceili dances became popular after the Public Dance Halls Act in 1935, passed to discourage the wild house parties and crossroads dances, replacing them with licensed, regulated and government-controlled dances in larger venues that could afford the license fees. This led to larger dance bands in a more formal setting, often dressed in suits or tuxedos and hiring drummers, pianists, and even saxophone players. The glory days were in the 40’s and 50’s, then declined with the new ‘Seisîuns’ involving smaller groups in pubs, playing for their own enjoyment or as background music to drinking your Guinness. The Innisfree Ceili Band is helping to bring back the tradition of the old Ceili Bands and were the winners of the 2008 All Ireland Ceili Band Competition.
Sit back and listen to this collection of jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, and marches. This is music that will set your toes tapping and lead you to the dance. Their blend of flutes, fiddles, accordion, piano and drum set is seamless and flows like a well-oiled dance machine. You will hear some great tunes handed down from legendary musicians such as Michael Coleman, Father Charlie Cohen, Michael Gorman, James Morrison, Paddy Kiloran, and Denis Murphy. And the dance goes on…..
Innisfree Ceili Band: The Real Blackthorn Stick/Trim the Velvet
01/16/2012 | comments (0)
2011 was an intense year in music. There were so many great albums released and so many critics, reviewers and journalists working their asses off to keep up with everything. I tried to be part of this, writing as many reviews and articles as I could squeeze into my schedule, but I fell behind and I feel bad that I wasn't able to write about all the artists that I felt deserved to be covered. So here's my last-ditch effort to make amends by writing about 10 Albums I Totally Should Have Blogged About in 2011 (in no particular order):
Joy Kills Sorrow: This Unknown Science.
2011. Signature Sounds.
I feel extra bad about this one, since Joy Kills Sorrow's new album, This Unknown Science, is their most advanced release yet. They're still a stringband at heart, but the arrangements are channeling a new pop sensibility with remarkable acumen. All of the musicians in the band are virtuosos, and as a whole their arrangements are stunningly intricate and creative. There's been a big push in the chamber-folk world this year, with releases from Noam Pikelny, Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile, and Joy Kills Sorrow deserve to be right at the top of this heap. Their last album, Darkness Becomes the City, sounds like a great album from a bunch of precocious youngsters coming out of Boston's crazy-talented roots music scene. With This Unknown Science, the gang have grown up and have grown into a sound that embraces the handmade intricacy of indie bands like Fleet Foxes, without losing sight of their roots in folk traditions.
I've said before and will say again that Emma Beaton's powerhouse vocals are still the heart and soul of the band, but listening to the new album, I'm also struck by the songwriting of Bridget Kearny, who writes or co-writes all but one of the songs on the album. Her lyrics are somehow overly confident and endearingly insecure. It's a charming combination that makes for some sexy, and sassy, and sometimes sensitive songs. Instrumentally, the band is top-notch, and the interplay between Wes Corbett's complex banjo lines and Jacob Jolliff's frenetic mandolin is also a major highlight. Throughout the whole album, Emma Beaton's voice carries and defines the band. At turns soaring and powerful, or soft and deeply sensitive, her vocal range (not just in terms of octaves, but in terms of artistic sensibility) is astounding. This is a masterful album from a masterful band, and if you've been sleeping on Joy Kills Sorrow, now it's time to wake up!
Joy Kills Sorrow: Reservations
Charlie Parr: When the Devil Goes Blind.
2010/2011. Nero's Neptune Records.
Recently, I've had to suffer through some pretty whitey-white renditions of country blues, plus books that talk endlessly about the crossroads, and how you have to have the blues to play the blues. Yech. Thing is, the blues is about more than just feeling bad and putting on your walking shoes. It's also about kicking ass. The mellower side of country blues always comes to mind when I think about Mississippi John Hurt, but most of the country blues was rough-and-tumble juke joint music from experienced traveling musicians. It was drinking and dancing music, something that belonged to the unwashed masses. The blues singers who focus on the blues stereotypes cultivated by detached white scholars miss out on the real heart of the blues. Charlie Parr isn't one of them. His blues is eerie, hair-raising, other-worldly. The kind of sound that made those old scratchy 78s so compelling. Parr's driven by something so deep inside and so universal that his blues makes us stand up and listen immediately. It helps too that he knows the traditions so well. It means that the songs he writes are almost totally indistinguishable from the traditional songs on his album. I figured all the songs on his new album, When the Devil Goes Blind, were traditional on first listening, but turns out only two of the eleven tracks are trad. And there are some real new classics here that I hope will start passing into the folk tradition, like the beautiful gospel blues "Where You Gonna Be (When the Good Lord Calls You Home)," or the train-hopping ditty "I Dreamed I Saw Jesse James Last Night." But honestly this entire album is worth it for the utterly shocking cover of "Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down." Starting off a cappella, this is the kind of song that sounds like an echo from the grave. It will send a chill down your spine. Turns out Parr has covered this song a couple times on various albums, but this is unquestionably the best version. Wow. I mean really WOW.
Parr's been incredibly prolific recently. I can't even keep track of which of his albums came out when, and I think this album is actually from 2010. He's been collaborating with alt-stringband The Black Twig Pickers, and previews of his upcoming 2012 album are quite promising. But I'd wager that When the Devil Goes Blind is the perfect album to get to know his music. So start here!
Charlie Parr: Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down
Charlie Sizemore: Heartache Looking for a Home.
2011. Rounder Records.
There seems to be a divide in modern bluegrass between the deeper country side that harkens to the Monroe/Stanley/Flatt/Scruggs foundation with a strong tendency towards Nashville country, and the chamber-grass virtuosity of Thile/Punch Bros etc. Sometimes I think of this as a red state/blue state divide, or a North/South divide, but that's quite the oversimplification. Whatever the case, bluegrass veteran Charlie Sizemore's new album is a delicious slice of country bluegrass (maybe "countrygrass"?), delightful in the way he takes a Nashville sound and blends it with the pure drop tradition he learned growing up as one of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys (Sizemore replaced Keith Whitely in 1977 at the tender age of 17!). Heartache Looking for a Home is polished, and though I usually shy away from this kind of polish, Sizemore's got such a great gift for choosing cool songs, and his band is so hot, that you won't be able to resist humming along and having a great time. Standout tracks include a gorgeous duet with Ralph Stanley on the forbidding "Red Wicked Wine", a pretty hilarious send-up "No Lawyers in Heaven" (funnier when you know that he's actually a lawyer himself), and the title track "Heartache Looking for a Home," which is the best country song I've heard since Zoe Muth's "If I Can't Trust You with a Quarter." What's extra nice is that Sizemore's got the skill and taste to be able to nail traditional bluegrass as well. "Red Wicked Wine" works both as a hard-drinking country ballad and as a bluegrass song that Ralph woulda sung in his prime. Traditional songs like "Poor Rambler" and "Gone to Georgia" even have an old-timey feel to them, with a bit of clawhammer banjo thrown in.
If you've been despairing about the modern state of bluegrass today, this album will remind you just how far you can go with great taste and amazing chops. It's a helluva lot of fun to listen to and I can imagine Charlie Sizemore must have had a blast making it. Well done!
Charlie Sizemore feat. Ralph Stanley: Red Wicked Wine
Ben Fisher: Heavy Boots & Underwood.
Ok, I feel really bad about this one. Not only did Ben Fisher manage to take his work as a pro busker (super powerful voice, engaging stage presence, and kickass street cred) and spin that into a love affair with Seattle's indie press, but he's also the genuinely nicest guy around. Plus all my blogging buddies were writing about him, so the least I could'a done was send some good words his way. Sorry, Ben!
On his new album, Heavy Boots & Underwoods, Seattle busker king Ben Fisher puts all his cards on the table. He's refreshingly honest, and not afraid to stand simply behind his voice and his guitar, an admirable trait. As he sings on the opening song, "Thunderbird," "I'm giving away everything/I'm starting anew/Look out for my rings and strings/I'll come back for them soon." You get the impression that he really is so dedicated to his music that he'd give up pretty much anything for it. But more than an honest bard, Fisher is a great storyteller, not only able to weave narrative into his music, but also able to weave a sense of place into his songs. His music practically drips with Northwest rain, and his ode to the humble Ballard locks ("Hiram M. Chittenden") brings back some of my best memories of living in Seattle. Maybe that's his talent as a busker shining through; his ability to grab your attention with a great story, familiar memories and a twist of words. Whatever the case, we're not the only ones appreciating Ben's music these days. Though he's confessed that he's used to playing for a handful of strangers on the street, he's now playing in-studios for the likes of KEXP and Daytrotter, and getting coverage on great blogs like our friends Sound on the Sound, SSG Music, and Common Folk Music. He's definitely a talent to watch in 2012 and I predict his next album will be big!
Ben Fisher: Thunderbird
BUY Ben's album Heavy Boots & Underwoods on BANDCAMP
T-Model Ford and GravelRoad. Taledragger.
2011. Alive Records.
I've been a fan of T-Model Ford's down-and-dirty Mississippi hill country blues for a while now, but his new album, Taledrigger, with his Seattle-based backing band GravelRoad is easily the best one yet. GravelRoad not only round out Ford's rough edges, they also add a layer of psychedelic blues to his music that makes it all incredibly compelling. Ford and GravelRoad've played together before, and on record, but this is the first time they've really gelled perfectly. The tracks buzz with Mississippi heat, and growl along like a runaway train. This is the kind of blues I can listen to all day long. Somehow they've even found a killer horn section, and when the brass kicks in on the second track "I'm Coming Home," well look out!
T-Model Ford's quite popular these days, which is great. Sure, he traffics in a pretty old image of the violent, drunken bluesman, but I like to think there's an element of irony there. And beyond that, he's got such a great raw style with Mississippi blues that he's always a lot of fun to listen to. If you've given up on the blues recently, or if you tend to listen to the Black Keys more than Son House, give this record a listen. It will renew your love of the grittier side of the blues.
T-Model Ford: I'm Coming Home
Noam Pikelny. Beat the Devil and Carry A Rail.
2011. Compass Records.
So I know everyone and their dog have written about Noam Pikelny's new album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, and with good reason. Not only does he have the chops of one of the best modern banjo players, coming out of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers, but he also nailed the coolest viral marketing campaign I've yet to see in bluegrass. His Funny or Die video with Steve Martin is a must watch, and I'll live in constant jealousy of Compass Records' PR coup: a New Yorker cartoon of the album. And yeah, the album's a fun romp through today's chambergrass sounds, maybe not as classically oriented as the much-buzzed about Goat Rodeo album from Thile/Yo-Yo Ma/Stuart Duncan/Edgar Meyer, and that's kind of the nice point about the album. A good number of the tunes on the album are original, but Pikelny's also got some great old-time numbers here. Not "Cluck Old Hen," which is a rather tired old chestnut (though Pikelny's brass-balls cover goes a long way to redeeming the tune), but I'm thinking speifically of the excellent old-time song "Bob McKinney" (with Tim O'Brien on vocals!) and a great version of Art Stamper's "Piney Woods" featuring Stuart Duncan on bluegrass fiddle. Part of the reason the album's so listenable is thanks to Pikelny's insanely hot backing band, including Jerry Douglas, David Grier, Mike Compton, Tim O'Brien, Stuart Duncan and lots more! Ultimately, it's this same listenability that's the album's only downside. It's a bit "composed" at times, meaning that tunes don't really stick in your head or carry you along all the way. So while it's not necessarily a great album for intense listening and copping banjo licks, it's a great album for listening on a warm summer day while working in the garden. Oh how I miss those warm summer days...
Noam Pikelny feat. Tim O'Brien: Bob McKinney
Gregory Paul. Two Albums! The Fremont Abbey Session and Lonesome Valley.
Seattle busker Gregory Paul has had quite the prolific year, releasing three albums in the last six months of 2011. Two of these albums (the third is straight old-time banjo) are beautiful renditions of original and traditional music, drawing from old-time and early country traditions, but also spinning out into intriguing directions in indie roots music.
The Fremont Abbey is a beautiful venue in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood. It's a refurbished old church, and the natural resonance of the venue is one of the hallmarks of its sound. Greg plays to this resonance in the echoey, sparse album The Fremont Abbey Session. Made up mostly of original material, the songs are quite beautiful, and channel some of the darker corners of the old-time Appalachian music that's long been an inspiration to Greg. He plays guitar, banjo and bowed banjo on the songs, and is joined by Holly Merrill on vocals and piano. I don't think I really get all of Greg's songs, but they're so intriguing that I want to. I want to understand more about his songwriting and his artistry and why his music is so deeply haunting to me on this album, and so I listen harder each time and get drawn deeper and deeper in. PS: The closing track on this album is a fascinating cover of Erik Satie's "First Gnossienne" with piano and bowed banjo!
Greg's second album, Lonesome Valley, is a duet with another well-known Seattle busker, Annie Ford. Annie used to play with Slimpickins, a great street folk band that also included Gill Landry's brother Jake Landry. Together, Annie and Greg cover some of the chesnuts of the old-time tradition, but bring a stunning new sound to them. Their harmonies on "Rain and Snow" totally redefined the song for me, and.. Usually I like my old-time fiddlers to be closely tied to the tradition, but I like that Annie Ford has such disparate ideas in her fiddling. Sometimes she sounds like an eerie Swedish fiddler, other times a dusty jug band fiddler, and sometimes a Blue Ridge Mountain fiddler. It gives the album a diverse feeling and really draws the listener in. This album is rough as hell, which is half the fun. I love that there's so many great ideas in this album, hidden under a layer of rough-hewn handcrafted music.
Gregory Paul: The Day We Met (from The Fremont Abbey Session)
Gregory Paul & Annie Ford: Rain & Snow (from Lonesome Valley)
BUY The Fremont Abbey Session on BANDCAMP
BUY Lonesome Valley on BANDCAMP
Leroy Lytel: Swarm of Doves.
It took me forever to figure out who Leroy Lytel is and in fact I'm still not too sure. My original blog post on his album was going to be titled "Who the Hell is Leroy Lytel," but just before publishing the blog he managed to get up a website and some basic info (like the fact he lives in New York). Prior to that, all I'd had to go on was a one-sleeve CD album sent to me from an address that I promptly lost. Heck, even now that he has a website up, there still isn't a photo of him available anywhere. Whoever Leroy Lytel is, though, he managed to secretly put out one of the best indie-folk albums of 2011.
Based around Leroy's soft guitar picking and slightly ethereal vocals, the album unfolds like a gently waving field of grass, which curiously is the only picture he has up on his Facebook profile. It's clearly part of a larger indie roots music scene, but he veers away from the softly rambling themes of Iron & Wine, or the dense arrangements of The Head and the Heart, instead making a simple batch of beautifully written songs with easy to understand structures. It's totally accessible, and surprisingly masterful for someone so new to the scene. The title song, which opens the album, is a great little earworm that feels gently hopeful, like the first moments of an infatuation. Songs like "Flat World Blues" or "Lord of the Flies" sound almost like a redux of Mississippi John Hurt, channeling his gentle care in songwriting and guitar playing. What I love most about the album, though, are Leroy's gentle turns of phrases in his lyrics. Like the opening line for Her Eyes: "Walking around with my head to the ground/looking for answers we've already found./My hands in my pockets are the only thing holding me down./I don't talk much/sure could use the sound." Throughout Swarm of Doves, Leroy's deftly sincere songwriting and sweet melodies helps this album rise above the stacks of other worthy CDs on my desk.
Leroy Lytel: Swarm of Doves
Danbert Nobacon & The Bad Things. Woebegone.
2010. Verbal Burlesque Records.
Ok this one is technically from late 2010, but I've just gotta include it. Danbert Nobacon is one of the crazy British anarchists that formed folk-pop icons Chumbawamba back in the 90s. You'll remember them from their insanely catchy "Tubthumping": (I get knocked down/but I get up again... You're never gonna keep me down). I always thought of this as a pop song, since I first saw it on MTV as a teenager. But Nobacon and the Chumbawamba crew came out of Britain's anarcho-punk underground and were serious counter-culture heads. Nobacon is famous for pouring a jug of ice water on the British prime minister's head during a state dinner. My kinda guy! Anyways, after leaving Chumbawamba he eventually moved to the picturesque and isolated little town of Twist in Eastern Washington. He was signed to Bloodshot Records for a while, but his most recent album is a self-released little wonder with Northwest cabaret-punks The Bad Things. Titled Woebegone, it's a romping mashup of Tom-Waits-style cabaret riffs with the edge and snarl of an aging punk rocker. You'll like it for sure if you like Tom Waits, but it's a lot of fun even if you're unfamiliar with that kind of music. It's rough and raw and angry and funny all at the same time. There's something compelling about Nobacon's gravelly voice and working-class British accent, and he delivers a host of interesting vignettes with this album. Kudos to The Bad Things, who bring a foundational structure to the album that lets Nobacon do his thing with great support.
Danbert Nobacon & The Bad Things: Other Country Blues
01/11/2012 | comments (0)
Seattle alt-country star Jesse Sykes recently wrote an interesting article in City Arts Magazine on our musical culture of consumption. Her take was that there's simply too much music being turned out these days for us to adequately absorb great art. You can read the article HERE. I don't totally disagree, and it echoes one of my favorite quotes from Seattle indie rock pundit John Roderick: "The people making records are still spending months and years on them, while the people buying them are munching through them like corn chips. Slow down." It's certainly true that the amount of music being turned out right now is staggering. I can't keep up, and I don't think anyone of us can really keep up. It's just too much! HOWEVER, I've found that even though I spend 80 hours a week listening to music, and even though I have stacks of CDs I need to listen to and review on my desk, I do keep coming back over and over to the really special, stand-out tracks. That's why I started the "Songs We Can't Stop Listening To" blog. Because even though I'm swamped with music, somehow this only makes me want to listen to more, and when a really wonderful song comes across my desk, I'm not afraid to hit the repeat button and spend half a day (or more) with it. Check out some of these songs now:
Tim Eriksen: "O Come, Emmanuel"
from Star in the East, 2011.
Like everyone else, I have a love/hate relationship with holiday music. I love the thoughtful, beautiful acoustic renditions, and loathe the inevitably stale and horrific covers. But when I heard that acoustic song grandmaster Tim Eriksen had released an online album of holiday songs, Star in the East, I knew I was in for something special. And this track is special. Tim's voice is soft and rough at the same time, his accompaniment is dark and eerie, as belies his punk-rock goth roots, and the lyrics are so deeply beautiful. It all comes together to make a perfect sound. I'm not really into the "Jesus is the Reason for the Season" stuff (Christmas is a pagan holiday, folks), but this would make a believer out of me. This is what religion should be about, something so deep and beautiful that it accesses our minds at a deeper level, touching on what makes us universal.
Ralph Stanley: "Lift Him Up, That's All"
from A Mother's Prayer, 2011.
Dr. Ralph Stanley's new album, A Mother's Prayer, is another home-run for this venerable bluegrass elder. No surprise really, Stanley taps the coal-black heart of Appalachian music unlike any other artist before or since. He breathes the music and lives the music and knows it inside and out. I hope his latter-day recordings (which he's been releasing regularly) end up like Johnny Cash's last series of recordings: an indelible portrait of true Americana. On A Mother's Prayer, he brings back the song "Lift Him Up, That's All," an old hymn from Washington Phillips, which he'd previously recorded on his last album. But here he adds the most sublime and wonderful guitar accompaniment I've heard in a long, long time. I don't know why the guitar is so perfect. It's so simple, yet so powerful. I swear this song is gonna give me a religious experience if I keep listening to it!
Johnson, Miller & Dermody: "The Rain Don't Fall On Me"
from We Heard the Voice of a Porkchop, 2011.
It's pretty easy to make me fall in love with your country blues. Just cover Blind Willie Johnson. Don't try and mimic his playing (nobody can), but take his songs, which are all beautiful vignettes of country gospel, and play 'em straight. I guarantee I'll love you forever. NW country blues super-group Johnson, Miller & Dermody nail this out the gate on the first track of their new album, We Heard the Voice of a Porkchop. They take on my favorite Blind Willie Johnson song too: the critically underrated "The Rain Don't Fall On Me". Of course, this has special meaning to me as we slide into another rainy Seattle Christmas. But it's also one of his sweeter and least-covered songs. On the original recording, it's a simple plea, asking for trouble to move along elsewhere. His wife, Willie B. Harris, sings the refrain behind him. I've always loved the recordings he made with her, and it's a shame she gets written about so infrequently. Here, Orville Johnson, John Miller, and Grant Dermody deftly cover the song, bringing the kind of weary resignation to rain and trouble that only a life in Seattle can lend us. It should be noted that I'm currently promoting Grant's solo album, but I didn't even know he had a new one out until I saw it for sale at the Seattle Folk Festival. What a nice surprise! The whole album is a great romp by three master players through the back alleys of the country blues.
Elizabeth LaPrelle: "Cold Mountains"
from Bird's Advice, 2011.
Elizabeth LaPrelle is one of the best young Appalachian ballad singers today. She's learned from the masters, and soaked up the culture, having been born in Virginia in a musical family. On her new album, she brings this family together for some beautiful known and unknown ballads. We brought her out to the Seattle Folk Festival a few weeks ago and she was one of the highlights. There's something so deep and eerie about her voice. She really taps into the soul of the mountains through her singing. This is a song off her new album, Bird's Advice, from Texas Gladden. It's a fragment of a song, but the lines "Cold mountains, they are here around me/Cold waters gliding down the stream" is just so beautiful. We've got a longer article coming on Elizabeth, but this should be a nice sample for now...
12/24/2011 | comments (0)
What a great year we've had here at HearthPR! We're so proud of all the artists we've worked with and all the coverage we've gotten for them. And we're so thankful for all the support we've had from our many friends in radio and media.
To close out 2011, we're excited to promote the new album from Northwest/Colorado songwriter Katya Chorover. We've been aching for some Northwest country music with just a hint of singer-songwriter lyricism, and Katya sure delivers. Her album was a stand-out for us and we think you'll enjoy her beautiful voice and great songwriting skills. Out here in Seattle we're looking at another rainy Christmas, so this will help take the edge off.
Katya Chorover: Big Big Love
It took a move from the rain-drenched Pacific Northwest to the dry, high deserts of Southwestern Colorado for songwriter Katya Chorover to find the inspiration she needed to complete her first album in ten years, Big Big Love. That’s a long time to wait for any artist, and though she was busy writing and living her life, she’d taken a long hiatus from performing. But the sounds of country music radio that rolled through the canyons of her home in Cortez, Colorado, subtly infused her new songs with a kind of dusty, rusty twang. With a long history of songwriting in the Northwest, where her insightful lyrics and beautifully crafted melodies helped her stand far out from the pack of singer-songwriters, Katya returned to Portland, Oregon, to produce Big Big Love, inviting the best acoustic roots musicians in a city that’s known as a hub for a new folk music revival. The result is an album as delicately balanced as a desert rock pile, with one foot in the acoustic country music Katya’s grown to love, and another foot in the innovative Northwest roots music scene that she helped build years ago.
Though Katya Chorover’s songs are rooted in strong country tradition, they’re also a personal testimony to her growth as an artist and a person. In 2006, she traded a view of the San Juan Islands for a view of the San Juan Mountains, which she can see from her living room in Colorado. With a new job and a new home, Katya stopped performing to focus on family, but the songs didn’t stop coming, and when the time finally came to put them on record, she knew she had to return home. So Katya flew to Portland, OR to work with producer Casey Neill, an acclaimed songwriter himself. For Big Big Love, Neill helped line up a host of Portland’s hottest roots musicians including two early members of the Decemberists, Jesse Emerson on bass and Ezra Holbrook on drums, and current Decemberist Jenny Conlee-Drizos on piano. Other musicians include Annalisa Tornfelt (Black Prairie) on fiddle, Matt Brown (She and Him) on guitar, Dan Tyack on pedal steel and dobro, and Zak Borden on mandolin. The full band sound showcases Katya’s beautiful, crisp vocals, surrounding her voice with a forest of acoustic instruments and electric steel guitar. As she opens with the words “Big big love, big big heart, big wide spirit sets you apart,” we can only feel the same big, big love right back at her, and we’re sure you will too.
Katya Chorover: Big Big Love
Katya Chorover: Little Bird
12/21/2011 | comments (2)
Kentucky artists Matt Bauer, Ben Sollee, and Daniel Martin Moore talk about their heritage..
Nestled into a circular booth in Seattle’s 100-year-old, local-favorite bar Hattie’s Hat, we’re getting ready to order the chicken-fried chicken, a dish so delicious that it occasioned a wistful chain of emails between me and Kentucky indie songwriter Matt Bauer. Matt’s here in Ballard, Seattle’s old Scandinavian working class neighborhood, to play the Tractor Tavern, and we’re eating dinner with the band and chatting about his new album, The Jessamine County Book of Living. We’re in the heart of Seattle’s hipster Americana movement, and the whole area is full of half-remembered history and urban yearnings for rural life. By the time the chicken-fried chicken arrives (worth every email), we’ve settled into a comfortable conversation about childhood roots, about the things we experience as kids that burn a place into our minds. This isn’t idle talk; this is an attempt to understand Matt’s dark, almost terrifying new album and how his childhood in Kentucky influenced the imagery of his songs. Matt grew up in Eastern Kentucky, but his parents were both from New York and he currently lives in Brooklyn. His accent is ever so slight and only noticeable when he starts talking about his Kentucky home. Bauer’s the perfect example of today’s urban roots music, at once informed by a hazy, almost mythical rural connection, but also by cities full of new influences, new ideas and new sounds.
Matt Bauer: Useless Is Your Armor
On his new album, Bauer returns to the woods of his native Kentucky for inspiration, tapping into the eerie, heartless aspects of our natural world for his inspiration. He traveled to Kentucky to record half the album. “I could see a lot of the places I wrote about out the windows as I was recording,” he says to me. But talking to him about his influences, I start to realize how much he’s soaked up from living in a more cosmopolitan world. Trying to understand his intense use of natural imagery, we touch upon the work of Japanese filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki, who’s famed for using Japan’s animist religion, Shinto, to animate the natural world. “These weird animal / god things in Princess Mononoke to me are wildly beautifully imagined embodiments of the natural world that have nothing at all to do with the way we see things as Western-thinking human beings,” Matt says. “There’s no such thing as good and evil, just life spilling over so much it’s destroying things, and death that’s creating things left and right instead of being a destructive force.” The single off his new album, “Blacklight Horses,” features this kind of imagery, as well as the haunting vocals of indie folk artist Jolie Holland. Talking about his banjo accompaniment, we touch on his love for the interlocking melodies of Indonesian gamelan, which he emulates in the song “When I Was A Mockingbird.” In a departure from his previous albums, he incorporates avant-garde classical strings into his sound, and does it to stunning effect. The strings do more than flesh out his music, in the opening track, “Useless is Your Armor,” they actually unsettle it, at times even disturbing the listener. But despite all of these urban and global influences, Matt’s childhood in Kentucky is still the muse he draws from the most. The surroundings he grew up in, as much as the music of Kentucky, has inspired Matt’s music. “No matter where else I go, it’s the original version of what the world is to me. My reference point for everything. There’s something in music that moves me in a really similar way home does.”
Matt Bauer’s part of a new renaissance of Kentucky roots music. But where he draws from his childhood memories while living in Brooklyn, other artists are working in the heart of Kentucky’s music communities. Nowhere is this more evident than the fiercely regional music of Kentucky cellist and songwriter Ben Sollee. Calling from his tour van on the road between Asheville and Carrboro, North Carolina, Ben talks in a slow drawl about how growing up in Lexington, Kentucky’s second-largest city, influenced his music: “My family is of the mountains, but I’m very much of the city and in the way of being honest to my own story and the story of Appalachia… I got to tell it from that perspective. I grew up listening to hip hop while I was learning folk and that’s what this music for me is all about: it’s contemporary folk produced now.” A classically-trained cellist, Sollee had troubles bringing classical music back home to his family, especially to his grandfather, a noted old-time fiddler in Kentucky. “I had this kind of dual life, where I would be studying cello, playing classical music and all that stuff and then I would go home and hang out with family and friends to play music and they’d be like, ‘Well, that’s real pretty but I can’t play that along with you.’ I kinda had these two things talking to each other; I had this social music background and then, an institutional music life.” These two worlds came together with Ben’s first major gig, playing cello for Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet. Formed by banjo-playing spouses Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck, the Sparrow Quartet toured the US and China, and was a critically acclaimed success. But for someone who’s so connected to a global music community, Sollee has always been deeply tied to local communities. He’s best-known for his collaboration album, Dear Companion, with fellow Kentuckians Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Daniel Martin Moore. Released by Sub Pop Records in 2010, the trio recorded the album to call attention to the controversial practice of Appalachian mountaintop removal mining. This form of coal mining literally decapitates mountains, dumping huge amounts of earth into surrounding valleys and vastly polluting the surrounding communities. It’s an issue that affects many people living in the mountains of East Kentucky, home to a long history of coal mining. Dear Companion proved to be not only a critical success, but it also proved to be a showcase for new roots artists in Kentucky. The album’s star power came from Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, but the real star of the album was the subtle interaction between Sollee and young songwriter Daniel Martin Moore.
Calling from his home in Cold Spring, Kentucky, a town of a few thousand that lies along the border with Ohio, Daniel Martin Moore’s soft voice has little trace of an accent, and he speaks with slow, measured words. “Ben sent me an email when he heard the song, FlyRock Blues,” remembers Daniel. “I posted it on My Space just when we recorded it... He had been thinking a lot about mountain top removal and had written a couple of songs and we live very close–we live like an hour and a half away from each other.” Flyrock Blues is a remarkable song. It sounds for all the world like a simple folk ditty, but it’s actually a reference to the huge rocks that come flying out of mountaintop removal explosions, occasionally flattening houses and killing people. Of course, songs about the plight of coal miners aren’t new to Appalachia, and Daniel himself came to the struggle against mining companies through the traditional route: he was inspired by the songs of Kentucky’s folk bard Jean Ritchie. A seminal figure in the folk revival, Ritchie was born in the tiny mining town of Viper, Kentucky, but became a star after moving to New York and sharing her many Appalachian songs and ballads with urban folkies. Daniel’s clearly a big fan of Ritchie, and credits her for her lifetime of work representing Kentucky mountain music and culture. “She’s a hero of mine. A musical hero and you know, just an outstanding person. She has worked so hard to use her influence and use her knowledge to be a positive force in the world and project Kentucky and lift it up and show people how wonderful it is. She’s been an outspoken opponent of mountain top removal coal mining and strip-mining in general since it really started in Appalachia in the late ‘60s. She’s been on the vanguard since then.” True to Ritchie’s legacy, Dear Companion was critically acclaimed and it helped Moore and Sollee take the issue of mountaintop removal mining “beyond the choir,” as Sollee says.
Following the success of Dear Companion, Moore and Sollee have returned to their respective Kentucky homes and released two deeply personal solo albums in 2011. It may seem like a retreat from the political nature of their first collaboration together, but Sollee sees it as a more connected process. “All the social issues in these songs have always been personal. You know, they come from a very personal place. I always try to write as personal as I can, because I feel like, if you do that honestly, you will achieve a more universal accessibility to the song.” Ben Sollee’s new album, Inclusions, is full of personal stories, of people he met on the road or of friends and family. But the album’s also a chance for Sollee to personally flesh out his musical vision, to showcase his fractured folk take on the urban sounds of R&B and funk. It’s strange to hear a crooned song like “Close to You” (I want to be close to you/But you’re miles away), that would fit easily into any Motown playbook, with raggedy strummed mandolin and a shattered brass arrangement based on a field recording of Basque folk music. Sollee’s percussive cello playing informs the album as well, but his voice overrides everything else as the album’s shining light. It’s so soft and light, with an element of quavering heartbreak, and it fits perfectly with his stripped-down songwriting. On “Electrified,” he sings about our digital world (“If you’re old-fashioned, you will be modernized / Everything is electrified”) and you get the feeling that unlike most folkies, he’s happy to embrace a new digital era of American roots music.
Ben Sollee: Electrified
For his 2011 release on Sub Pop Records, In the Cool of the Day, Kentucky songwriter Daniel Martin Moore returned to the gospel folk songs of his youth for inspiration. Some of the songs are taken from traditional sources, songs Moore remembers hearing his parents sing when he was a child, but others are written by Moore himself. It’s a testament to the timelessness of his writing that we frequently can’t tell the difference. He keeps his softly sweet vocal delivery–a voice that almost whispers at times but never loses its rich, singing timbre–to draw us into the songs. He originally conceived the album as a gift for his parents, a thank-you for bringing him up with these old songs. “I had been thinking for a while I wanted to make some recordings just to give to my family,” he told me, “Some of the old songs that we all love… Those ended up making their way to Sub Pop. They were into the concept, so they decided to make an album, an actual album with a barcode... But I still think of it that way, I still think of it as a gift.” Moore’s album has real substance. This isn’t another hipster adopting old gospel songs in an attempt to tap into the ‘old, weird America.’ This is a young songwriter who grew up in the folds of the tradition and who’s able to translate the old ways of Appalachian culture into new sounds. And he does this without losing sight of what made the music powerful to begin with.
Daniel Martin Moore: In the Cool of the Day
Bauer, Sollee and Moore are just three examples of artists who’ve been able to translate their Southern roots into a new brand of urban folk. It’s a talent shared by their peers in Kentucky, like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Jim James, and Cheyenne Marie Mize, and it’s a hallmark of this new community of rootsters. “There’s a strong community of musicians that have grown up with all these traditions, kind of floating around them, fiddle music and all this stuff. But we’re also, some of us, trained classical musicians and some of us grew up listening to a ton of indie-rock and hip hop and soul music… It’s a crossroads, physically and culturally in Kentucky. It always has been and will remain so.” Sollee couldn’t be more right; Kentucky’s always been a place where the roots of the music have informed any new adventures. From Bill Monroe’s bluegrass to Merle Travis’ innovative guitar picking, to Loretta Lynn’s progressive rural ballads even to Nappy Roots Southern drawl hip-hop, Kentucky has historically been a musical crossroads, a hotbed of innovation. And today’s community of roots-minded urban folkies have taken this legacy to hand.
Purchase the Music in this Article (support the artists, support Hearth)
Matt Bauer. The Jessamine County Book of the Living.
2011. Crossbill Records.
Ben Sollee. Inclusions.
2011. Thirty Tigers.
Daniel Martin Moore.In the Cool of the Day
2011. Sub Pop Records
Daniel Martin Moore & Ben Sollee. Dear Companion.
2010. Sub Pop Records.