Thursday, December 29, 2011

Gill Landry "Piety & Desire" (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.

Scott Miller "For Crying Out Loud" (2009)

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

Laura Gibson "If You Come to Greet Me" (2006)

A wonderful intimate collection of modern folk songs.  The focus is on Gibson's voice & gentle guitar playing.  As literate as you would expect from the Portland folk scene.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tim Barry "28th & Stonewall" (2010)

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.

The Ettes "Look at Life Again Soon" (2008)

As much as I disdain identity politics, it's hard for that spectre not to emerge when thinking about this record.  The band name alone sort of invites it.  What is remarkable to me is that it is not particularly remarkable in terms of gender statements.  While the trope of the "rocking woman" is still a minority, it's clearly more than a novelty in the 21st century.  So The Ettes powerful female voice leaves me saying... "so what?".

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

Laura Gibson "Beasts of Seasons" (2009)

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

Alasdair Roberts "No Earthly Man" (2005)

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.

Highly recommended.

Gill Landry "The Ballad of Lawless Soirez" (2007)

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

Otis Gibbs "One Day Our Whispers" (2004)

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.

Rose Polenzani "self titled" (2001)

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

Tim Barry "Manchester" (2008)

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.

Rose Polenzani "Dragersville" (1998)

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.

Mark Kozelek "Lost Verses Live" (2009)

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.

Alasdair Roberts "Farewell Sorrow" (2003)

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

Rose Polenzani "August" (2004)

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

Mark Kozelek "The Finally LP" (2008)

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 Stairwell Sisters "Get Off Your Money" (2008)

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

Titus Andronicus "The Monitor" (2010)

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.

Laura Veirs "Two Beers Veirs" (2008)

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).

Otis Gibbs "Joe Hill's Ashes" (2010)

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

Laura Gibson "Six White Horses" (2008)

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

Ryan Adams "Heartbreaker" (2000)

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

Alasdair Roberts "The Crook of My Arm" (2001)

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.

Otis Gibbs "Grandpa Walked a Picketline" (2008)

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.