Thursday, December 29, 2011
More polished than on his debut, Landry brings 10 more songs from the South. He's walking in some sort of Faulkner meets Waits zone, bringing a nice southern spin on songs from outcasts, losers, & ramblers. Highly recommended.
It's hard for me to think of Scott Miller without thinking of Steve Earle. First, there's the connection with the V-Roys (they were signed to Earle's label). Then there's the songs themselves. Miller's country/rock hybrid seems to be mining much of that same vein that Earle worked in the 80s & early 90s. Unfortunately Miller gets the worst of the comparison.
That's not to say that Miller's work is bad. Far from it. But there's nothing here that makes you stand up & take notice the way a song like "Copperhead Road" did.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Barry's songwriting has grown in the two years since "Manchester". He seems more confident, more open. There's a stronger narrative sense, with Barry exploring his past, his heritage, & what it means to be middle aged.
This is a solid garage revival album, but one that relies a bit too heavily on gimmickry... the guitar effects, the reverb added to the vocals. Coming so late into the game, the bar has been raised quite a bit, & a record needs more to really stand out.
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
One of the aftereffects of the "freakfolk" trend of the early part of the decade was the liberation of folk musicians from a rigid template of songwriting and arranging. It became ok to have long songs without the traditional structure. It became ok to use electrified instruments to arrangments.
"Beasts of Seasons" takes advantage of this liberation. On the opening track, "Shadows on Parade" you hear subtle electric instruments in the background adding tension to the organic sounds mixed up front. The song itself is over 7 minutes long (take that Peter Paul & Mary!)
This all succeeds because Gibson doesn't allow herself to drift off into some totally freeform space that ignores the tradition. There are still strong traditional bones to the piece that carry it.
Monday, December 19, 2011
What could sound more comforting on a dark winter night than a collection of traditional ballads about murder, death, & other unpleasantness? "No Earthly Man" continues where "Farewell Sorrow" left off, with slight modern production touches, but not enough to detract from the songs themselves.
Once upon a time, there were idiosyncratic songwriters who were nominally grouped as "rock", even though the music itself didn't seem to derive from any part of the Beatles/Stones/Dylan axis. I'm talking about people like Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Billy Joel (this is before the 80s hits).
Despite the Old Crow Medicine Show affiliation, Landry's music has more in common with the people above than with Old Crow. Low lifes in dangerous places, heartbroken & alone.
This is a good record, but not a great one. Landry is one to watch.... hopefully the great one will come down the road.
Thursday, December 15, 2011
When you sit down & start to listen to numerous releases from a single artist, you start to notice the changes. In some cases, it's experiments gone bad. Other times, it seems like the technique shows improvement over time. Of course we don't always know the whole story -- were the songs written over a long period of time? were there issues with drugs or alcohol? But even without the complete context, it's interesting to hear what changes & what stays the same.
"One Day Our Whispers" covers ground similar to Gibbs' later releases. But the songs aren't quite up to the level of what he created later. There are some definite high spots, but the consistency is missing.
Wow. What happened here? Polenzani decides to add a more "rock" feel, giving most of this record that slow but loud vibe. I'm all for artists trying new things, but sometimes it detracts from what they do well. In this case, the songs are obscured. Suddenly she's trying to compete with PJ Harvey et al.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
For the Boomers, the question of aging seemed to be answered by denial. Hence Mick Jagger prancing & attempting to do "relevant" dance music at age 60+. I don't really know how the Boomers feel about this, but for me it's always been embarrassing. Remember when you were a kid & some other kids' parents would try to be cool & try to use slang? It feels like that.
Now we're getting guys who spent their 20s in punk bands growing older. What do they do? Quite a few seem to be adapting their styles. Attempting music that is less aggressive, but no less true to their core values.
For me the advantage of a mellower format means that Tim Barry's songwriting is highlighted. He mines the same sort of vein as Otis Gibbs -- songs about blue collar Americans, growing older, & trying to get by. It's hard not to relate to that.
It's odd how sometimes music brings up associations with people, even when you don't have a direct connection between that person & the music. As I was listening to this record, I was struck with how much a distant friend would love this record. It's beautifully fingerpicked guitar accompanying ruminations on humanity, love, salvation. It's one of those startling debuts, where you wonder how someone can emerge with this sort of craftmanship.
Sometimes an album cover tells you everything you need to know about the album. The hazy dreamlike photo here matches the quiet dreamy quality of the music. Accompanied just by longtime sideman Scott Carney, Kozelek plays acoustic versions of songs going back to his days in Red House Painters. This ambient melancholy isn't for everyone or every setting, but when it works, it really works.
So it's a couple of years after "The Crook of My Arm", & when Roberts goes back into the studio, this time around he uses more musicians & instruments. The added complexity to the arrangements is a huge improvement. The music is still rather simple & sparse -- the arrangements don't detract from the songs, only help focus our attention.
To my ears it's rather similar to the Bonnie Prince Billy records recorded around the same time. There's lots of space for the songs to develop.
This is a lovely album, & highly recommended, especially for the winter months.
Friday, December 9, 2011
Well, I tried.
Sometimes you listen to something & while all the elements are there, it doesn't do anything for you. Good songs, well played, nice vocals. Yet I kept feeling like I was trying to connect, but just couldn't do it.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
This is one of those odds & sods collections that you'd be tempted to accuse the label of releasing to grab some cheap sales, or that the artist released to fulfill a contractual obligation. But in this case, Kozelek owns the label, so that gets chucked out the window.
Anyway, it's a collection of (primarily) covers that were released on various compilations, etc... There are certainly some interesting moments, but it's really just for completists.
The question is asked, though, why cover "Send in the Clowns"?
The popular narrative is that women prefer to play old time music over bluegrass because bluegrass is too competitive. Going back to Bill Monroe, where he encouraged his band members to compete against each other, the sense is that bluegrass fosters that hot lick loving male dominated mindset. Old time, in contrast, places an emphasis on cooperative play, where individuals are to subsume themselves to the larger group effort.
I think this overlooks the social context of the music. (Here's where I start speaking in generalities, & certainly I realize that there are exceptions to this.) Old time music tends to have a more progressive group of followers (as counterintuitive as that initially sounds). Think about the historical progression for a moment. The great popularizer of old time was Pete Seeger (& his brother Mike, via the New Lost City Ramblers). It filtered through the counter cultural folk scare, & ultimately became the modern old time scene of today. The lack of commercial viability for the music in the 40s onward virtually guaranteed its status as a countercultural signifier.
Bluegrass, on the other hand, was a minor style within the broader banner of country music. It never (entirely) lost its original fanbase. This base is much more conservative than that of old time. (While eventually there did become a more culturally progressive fanbase for bluegrass, it still is much more traditional, even than mainstream country music.)
All of that brings me to thinking that perhaps it's the cultural context here that is limiting of women in bluegrass as opposed to old time music. Certainly for many many years it was disreputable (at best) to be a musician. Young women were discouraged from those aspirations. The more progressive environment embraced the old time music, & those women's aspirations were not as discouraged.
All that leads me to say that The Stairwell Sisters are an all female old time group from San Francisco. (See what I did there?)
What really sets them apart on this recording is their vocal harmonies. The close harmonies used just aren't that common in old time music, where the vocals tend to be ragged at best. The harmonies are beautiful, & IMHO what makes this collection of fiddle - driven tunes really stand apart from the pack.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
For some bands seem to be in it for the chicks. Or the drugs. Or because the cool kids are doing it. For others, there's a sense that they have this physical hunger to Rock. That only through their music can they realize any sort of personal peace. Their demons are too strong for them otherwise.
Titus Andronicus has to Rock. They aren't afraid to be ambitious, to nod to their elders while at the same time playing with the tropes ("Tramps like us, baby we were born to die"). Don't be mistaken, this is not the irony heavy indie rock that has become so prevalent in the last decade or so. Titus Andronicus don't distance themselves from the emotions powering their music.
This is a charming indie folk take on traditional material. While the arrangements have not been substantially changed, the modern instrumental touches & vocal style show it's contemporary nature. (I would say that it's closer to Sufjan Stevens than Elizabeth Cotten).
In late 2011, when I listen to these Otis Gibbs records I'm struck by how he anticipates the Occupy movement. Gibbs is writing songs for the 99%. As the title indicates, he celebrates the working man & the history of the labor movement. But the more personal songs speak to the same issues as well. "No one choses to ride in a Greyhound, the only reason you're here is because you're too broke to fly". The stories are sad, but honorable.
Monday, December 5, 2011
There's something about relaxed versions of traditional songs that really appeals to me. Perhaps it's that I feel like the music has in a way returned to its source, just good songs sung by and for people. The enjoyment of the song itself then takes precedence over technique, or perfection.
This is a loose collection of traditional songs originally recorded to be sold at merch tables. It has that loose feeling, that you are hearing musicians play just for the joy of playing. Highly recommended.
Friday, December 2, 2011
Looking back on this record, it almost sounds like you can hear it engaging with The Canon (tm). The consensus seems to be that Radiohead is the last entry into the canon (the exact album seems to be up for debate), but I would nominate this as one of the entries from the aughties. Adams steps away from the garagey sounds found on the Whiskeytown records, focusing instead on his ballads. They are more polished than before, & David Rawling's production smoothes out the rough edges. Listening to "Heartbreaker" now, you hear the blueprint for the myriad singer-songwriters of the last few years (not all of them are named Josh, but sometimes it does seem that way). Songs like "To Be Young", "Oh My Sweet Carolina" & "Damn, Sam" are among the best he's ever written. The songwriting & track selection show an efficiency that were unfortunately soon abandoned. But future rock enthusiasts will be looking back on this record as one of the better releases of its time.
Thursday, December 1, 2011
Once again we're encountering folk music from the UK. And again, I feel like I should be more enthusiastic about this record than I actually am.
Initially Roberts' Scottish accent is a bit off-putting, but after a track or two that distancing fades, & I'm left with beautiful traditional ballads sung with only simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. This is absolutely a lovely record.
The Woody Guthrie comparison is all too often used. It's a lazy music critic's shorthand for some vague socially conscious lyrics. Woody, of course, is seen as a giant in American folk music, & the comparisons are most often a stretch at best.
Otis Gibbs' music seems to be firmly rooted in the working class experience. Songs of people on the margins, who are working hard to get by, or in some cases unable to find work.
In this year of the Occupy protests, his songs seem even more topical & relevant. It's a shame that more people aren't familiar with his music. This is a fabulous album.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Why is it that every band who says they're influenced by the Stones references Exile or Sticky Fingers? The Dutchess & the Duke reference the Stones from an earlier time. Subtle hints towards psychedelia or blues, but this is more "Mother's Little Helper" than "Rocks Off". Simply played with ragged but right harmonies, this is good stuff. And like those old records, this one clocks in at just over 30 minutes, so it doesn't overstay it's welcome.
Have you ever gone with a friend to a party where everyone else has known each other for many years? And they all seem to think that they are all hilarious & fabulous, but to any outsider they're just odd & slightly irritating? Sure, if you had gone to grade school with these people you might understand the jokes, but no other people on earth would understand.
That's what listening to this record feels like. Sure, if I put in the time & work I might love it. But there's nothing to pull me in, & persuade me that it's worth the effort.
One of the hardest things any artist can do is to find his or her own voice. It's comparatively easy to do work in the style of someone else. Yet how many people can produce works that clearly couldn't have been produced by anyone else? Will Oldham seems to be one of the few contemporary musicians who has found his voice, and is completely comfortable with it.
This isn't the best album under the Bonnie Prince Billy nom de rock, but when it works, it is sublime. Simple songs about the quiet pleasures of domestic life. A real gem.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Sammy just keeps on going, playing his own brand of music. It's rooted in bluegrass, but he's not afraid to experiment with reggae, rock, & whatever else strikes his fancy. That eclecticism can make for uneven recordings, but when it works, it works. This is one of the better ones. High points include "Eight More Miles to Louisville" & "A Better Man".
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
The 80s were a strange time. Corporate culture was giving us images of happy shiny people with big hair & dubious fashion choices. It's music was peppy, with big drum sounds. Sonic Youth was one of the bands that seemed to speak to the disconnect that many of us felt with that culture. The anger, the alienation.
Some critics have commented on the record's title as a metaphor for their audience, saying that it was a rallying cry for the alternative/college community. I'm not so sure that I agree. Sonic Youth's music has always been aggressively East Coast urban. If NYC & LA are hypermodern, existing a few years in the future, large portions of the country were (& are) slightly premodern, existing a few years in the past. The implicit artiness & futurism (albeit a dystopian one) of Sonic Youth's music distances them from the day to day experience of much of their audience, especially in 1988.
At the end of the day, this is a great record. Perhaps my favorite by Sonic Youth.
I would've thought that driving in the dark, in the rain would have been a great time to listen to this album. But somehow, any connection with it just seemed impossible. There's a starkness to the guitar/vocal interplay, drawing you in but ultimately pushing the listener away. Is it too arty, or not arty enough? I'm still not sure.
Monday, November 21, 2011
Looking back over this album's reviews, it's interesting how many times The Living and The Dead is referred to as alt-country. Not only do I not hear this as alt-country, I don't even see or hear the signifiers. If the use of traditional rock instrumentation qualifies as alt-country, then I suppose that this is that. To me, it's a rock record, albeit one more interested in songwriting than in rocking.
Holland seems more comfortable than on her earlier albums. Her voice seems more confident, & less buried in the mix. It's a clear step forward from where she had been.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
I'm surprised that more contemporary folksingers don't look to the catalog of John Prine. Great songs, but the bones are simple -- there's room for interpretation and change. And unlike Dylan, for example, covering one of these songs is not a cliche.
Foucault does a great job with these songs. The arrangements are changed slightly, but not in ways that are not true to the spirit of the originals. He strikes a nice balance in terms of being different from the Prine versions, but not changed too much.
Friday, November 18, 2011
This record exists on a spectrum between They Might Be Giants & the Avett Brothers. Acoustic-based rock songs, played for yuks. As you might gather, I don't really find them amusing, or illuminating, but I do enjoy the Louvin-derived harmonies. I don't understand why these guys are not more popular, as the elements seem to be in place for more success.
This seems to be a fairly recent trend -- artists doing cover versions of much loved albums, start to finish, with track order intact. I suppose that it's a fairly logical extension of the tribute album concept that has been an ongoing trend since at least the 1950s (Nashville must have had some sort of local ordnance -- it seems that every singer had an album released called "Sings Hank Williams" or something like that.)
In all honesty, I'm not really sure what I think of the trend. I like covers as much or more than the next guy. But the entire album? I've yet to hear such a project that seemed to add anything to the original material.
If you are going to go this route, this seems the way to go. Internet only, released for free to your fans. That's not so different from Phish's Halloween tradition of covering entire albums in the middle of their concerts. And that's a fun tradition.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
In all honesty, I had totally forgotten about this record. I can immediately tell why I have it -- history, banjos, a purported modern folk slant on songwriting. Unfortunately, the songs are more rock songs with some banjo (I see you Mr Mumford) than songs from the folk tradition. While the subject matter is generally historical, it's more often true in a third hand post-Dylan sense of wandering jumble of historical figures.
Wednesday, November 16, 2011
If I were to consciously design an album to be rock critic bait, it just might turn out to be something like this. A concept record that both supports and deconstructs Big Rock tropes. For example, while the band is rocking away (playing music so informed by Classic Rock), the lyrics nod to Lou Reed's "slice of street life", while avoiding traditional song structure (verse/chorus/verse).
My guess is that these transplanted Midwesterners grew up on Classic Rock, and on many levels love it, while at the same time want to use more modern takes on the genre.
Strangely enough, while the whole is better than "Boys & Girls", I don't think that the high points are as high. Still a very very good record.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
There's a certain austere beauty in this record. It's so simple -- just Tillman & his guitar. Given that the playing is more functional that ornamental, & that his voice is the same, so much comes to rest on the songs themselves. Unfortunately, they fail to connect. At times narrative, at times hinting at the mythical, they ultimately seem empty.
I'm no expert on British folk music. A couple of factors immediately reduce my enjoyment -- the heavy reliance on ballads in the repertoire, & the style of singing. The combination seems to make the music seem .... well, soft. It's interesting to me that there doesn't seem to be a British equivalent to bluegrass. Hyped up, modernized versions of traditional material. My shot from the hip explanation is that the UK folk scene developed more from a strictly preservationist perspective. Without the commercial impetus for change, the music never really got modernized a la folk music in the US.
At any rate, this record by Nancy Wallace is a very nice example of contemporary British folk. There's a mix of traditional & contemporary pieces, combined with simple arrangements. There's a contemporary feel without the additional of electronic or other instruments that signify "hey I'm modern & hip".
Tuesday, November 8, 2011
A few months ago I was revisiting some old Kate Wolf records & I was struck by how much her work is reflected in that of Alela Diane. I suppose it's not surprising that a young folksinger from Northern California would be influenced by Wolf, who was the major folksinger from the same area in the 1970s.
Anyway, I love this album. It says a lot for the album that I felt the same sort of enthusiasm a couple of years removed from its release.
In particular I love the way that Diane's lyrics combine the physical & the natural worlds. For example: "Thinking I'd like to look at your teeth/lined up in perfect rows/a maze of children's feet in orchard trees/where the flat lands stretch inside your mouth/and when you laugh all of the star thistles tumble out"
2003 seems to be a sweet spot in Calexico's development. They are still firmly entrenched in a regional sound, with nods to their earlier existence as the band providing the soundtrack to imaginary Westerns. But by 2003 their sonic palette has widened, showing more jazz & electronic elements. A bit of pop has been added to the mix as well. They sound a bit like Los Lobos' younger brothers, less dependent on blues structures, but clearly from the same neighborhood.
Sunday, November 6, 2011
Steve Earle has probably done more to promote Townes Van Zandt's album sales than any of his record labels. It's only natural that sooner or later Earle would get around to recording a full length tribute to his good friend.
For a songwriter less prolific than Earle, the suspicion would be that he had hit some sort of fallow patch, & was using the tribute as a stopgap to cover his lack of productivity. For Earle, it just feels like "oh yeah, I've finally got time to put this together"....
Earle does a great job, the songs fit inside the context of his own catalog, yet still seem true to Townes' originals.
Saturday, November 5, 2011
For me, this record is inconceivable without the existence of Stephen Merritt & the Magnetic Fields. The indie purveyor of fractured classic pop tunes seems to have created the template for this ukulele playing singer. That's not to say that this isn't an enjoyable, amusing record. But at times it does feel like you're listening to some sort of Magnetic Fields outtakes, or perhaps the 73rd Love Song.
Friday, November 4, 2011
In theory, J Tillman functions as the Neil Young to Fleet Foxes' Crosby Stills & Nash. In practice, there's really not that much Neil Young on this record. There are some hints of AOR rock, but they are a couple generations removed. It seems more in line with the "quiet is the new loud" aesthetic, especially when the lofi production is taken into account.
While I do like some of the pseudo-philosophical lyrical musings, on the whole this record doesn't seem to do much for me.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
There was a phenomenon that I noticed when I worked at Amoeba. All the hip kids would come in & buy certain cult hit records. Then two or three years later, you'd start to hear records being released that were clearly heavily influenced by these same records. In this case, you can hear the influence of Nick Drake. Simon Reynolds would probably consider this an example of "record collection" rock, but I don't see what the problem is. After all, the early punks spoke openly about their obsessive listening to the "Nuggets" compilation. And the Stones (among others) openly copied the Chess blues records they could find.
In many ways Gonzalez what you'd expect from a 21st century recording artist. Argentine - born, Swedish -raised, recording in English, & heavily influenced by Nick Drake & other older English folk artists. The world is getting smaller & smaller, & these sorts of counterintuitive cross-cultural influences seem appropriate.
This is a beautiful & delicate record. It may be among the best of this new century. I think that people will be listening to it many years from now.
Saturday, October 29, 2011
Lambchop carry a lot of weight in indie circles, comparable to Will Oldham or Bill Calahan. This record is thought of highly, but for whatever reason really doesn't do much for me. It's not that there is anything objectionable, I don't run to take it off the stereo, but it never seems to grab me.
Saturday, October 22, 2011
Springsteen is normally the comparison that you hear regarding The Hold Steady. I suppose it's all about young people yearning for more than what they've got. Thematically, that does seem to be a connection between the two. But the R&B that is such a presence in Springsteen's music is not a factor in that of The Hold Steady.
I think that the better comparison is to Bruce's counterpart, Patti Smith. Both Finn & Smith have a penchant for chanting/speaking their vocals. They are both somewhat obsessed with the Beat Generation. And there's an edge to their songs that doesn't seem to exist for Springsteen. In Springsteen's world it feels that the worst thing that can happen is that the characters in his songs are stuck in that same town. But with Smith (and also THS) there's a sense that death is really the fate of some of these characters. There's a real sense of stakes in play, even if the people in their songs don't seem to be aware of it at all times.
While I never felt a great deal of affinity to the people populating Springsteen's New Jersey, I can relate to the people in The Hold Steady's songs. Twenty-somethings who don't seem to have direction other than drinking, drugs, and (hopefully) a bit of sex to spice things up. Terrible girlfriends. I wonder how much I would have loved this band had they been around 20 years ago.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
I'm sure that I ended up with this album because of the Sufjan Stevens connection. He produces this album, and it certainly shows (that may be good or bad, depending upon your opinion of his music). It has that same orchestral folk/pop sound as "Illinoise". Thematically, it's more akin to "Seven Swans", in it's earnest appreciation of the Christian tradition. Still, if christian rock sounded more like this, I'd be a fan.
Initially this sounds like what we used to call "4AD music". As it settles in, it's obvious that they've absorbed more modern influences -- Radiohead, the Krautrock revival, etc... While pleasant enough on a rainy day, there's really nothing on this album that really touches me. In fact, I don't know why I have it.
An interesting album that moves across the spectrum between rock & country at will, sometimes within the same song. Unlike most of the Handsome Family's catalog, this is a fairly upbeat affair, in subject matter if not in tempo. Conceived as a celebration of the Sparks' 20th anniversary, their love seems to exude from the tracks.