A band is not just the sum of its parts. It’s how those parts — the band members — come together to create something unique that wasn’t present before they started playing with one another. That’s why supergroups often don’t sound any better than a regular collection of average Joes and Janes: no matter how much songwriting talent a musician has, connecting with their fellow band members requires a completely different skill set.
When supergroups do work, it’s often the case that the members go in directions that their main bands don’t really allow for. Take the case of Southwire, a supergroup from Duluth, MN. The band is made up of Jerree Small, a singer/songwriter, who has been crafting excellent folky type songs for years, Ben Larson (aka Burly Burlesque), the front man for indie hip hop band, Crew Jones, and Sean Elmquist, keyboardist and fellow MC in Crew Jones.
In Southwire, Ben plays guitar and takes an occasional turn at the mic, Sean mans the drums, and Jerree transforms herself into a pop diva. (Well, maybe not a pop diva, but she certainly sounds closer to Zola Jesus than Lucinda Williams.) As I hinted at earlier, their resulting sound doesn’t resemble its component parts. Rather, it’s something closer to a Califone dirge fronted by a female funeral singer. The only sad part of this story is that they haven’t recorded an album yet. They’ve put out a couple of truly amazing songs, but no album. Maybe if we all ask The Great Pumpkin?
Of course we are all familiar with Detroit “Rock City,” but in recent years it has become clear that Detroit isn’t the only place in Michigan with a musical reputation. With cities like Lansing, Flint, Ann Arbor, and artists like Small Houses, Chris Bathgate, and Frontier Ruckus, an extremely talented indie-folk scene has begun to emerge taking the nation by storm. Recently, I featured Small Houses’ well-crafted album, North, which I highly recommend. Small Houses is the sole project of Flint, Michigan native Jeremy Quentin, whose talent exudes on North. And, although Jeremy’s talent is prominent, he wisely employs the skills of other Michigan musicians to enhance the album. Just last week, I was granted a Q&A opportunity with Jeremy where I asked him about Small Houses, Michigan, and North.
CFM: When and how did you become interested in music?
SH: I found some Neil Young and Paul Simon records on vinyl when I was a kid that immediately captured me. Pretty soon after I had visions of myself playing the guitar and singing.
CFM: What’s the origin of the name Small Houses?
SH: “Small Houses Blue” was the name of a song I had written about the homes of Lansing, MI. I think a lot of my tunes are written about that particular area or ones just like it.
CFM: Michigan is a state burgeoning with music, why do you think this is? How has living in Michigan and its artistic atmosphere affected your music and your personal taste in music?
SH: I’ve seen a sort of domino effect in the state of Michigan. It only took one band to release a great album and that influenced all of us to do the same. It’s either that or there is something odd in the water making us overly sentimental.
CFM: What kind of music are you drawn to? Are there any particular local artists/bands we should be listening to?
SH: I’m into the likely suspects. Richard Buckner, Springsteen, Waits, etc. Locally, I think Samantha Crain, Frontier Ruckus, Hezekiah Jones, and Gifts or Creatures are the some of the most outstanding artists that might not be recognized by everyone, but without a doubt, these people really match up to the greats.
CFM: Do you think you have you grown since releasing Our Dusking Sound? If so, how has that growth affected your new album North?
SH: I definitely think there is a lot of growth in both the songwriting and the approach to working in the studio. In my opinion, I think that North takes more modest instrumentation while allowing a bigger sound through a more strategic approach to the full band dynamic. On top of that, I think I’ve had some of the most talented artists at my disposal (Phil D’Agostino, Kevin Killen, David Jones, Andy Catlin, etc.). For that, I’m very grateful.
CFM: Describe North. What inspired the album?
SH:North came to me when I was living on the east coast and dreaming of home. When you really long for a place that you’ve once been, you tend to exaggerate how great it was. This nostalgia often took me to some
interesting places in my writing.
CFM: Is there one song that is more personal or one you’re more proud of than the others? Why?
SH: I find more meaning in “Country Flowers” every time I sing it. I think I was being honest with myself, and that’s what I like most about writing.
CFM: What does the future hold for Small Houses?
SH: Once this tour is over, I’m producing an album for a young group called Del Brutto at Double Phelix Studios in Kalamazoo, MI. Small Houses will be recording a split 7 inch with one other songwriter and a backing band (the names of which I’m not ready to tell). In January, I plan to hit the road again for tour and land in Tennessee for a few months of writing and preparing for another album.
I have friends who love listening to the same album for hours on end. For the most part, I’m not in that camp. It just doesn’t strike me as fair to all of the other albums waiting to be heard. Plus, I’m fickle. What sounds good to me now, probably won’t in an hour. But there are exceptions, like Sharon Van Etten’s Because I Was In Love from a couple of years ago.
Mostly I reserve the repeat function for albums that: 1.) retain a very similar vibe from one song to the next; 2.) are really good; and 3.) fit with my mood and/or the season. All of these criteria are met when it comes A.A. Bondy’s Believers. What’s funny, is that even after fifty-plus times through Believers, I can’t name one song. In fact, after the album has been cycling through for a couple of hours, I can’t even remember which song is first.
The magic happens in the atmosphere of the music, rather than the melody or the lyrics. Which wasn’t what I was expecting from Bondy, who has two previous albums full of catchy songs with compelling lyrics. The vibe of Believers is cold, wet, and cloudy. Not the kind of crap you get stuck in riding your bike home from work or class, but the kind of crap you look at from the comfort of your warm kitchen while making some tea. It’s a very comfortable album that sneaks beneath the conscious level of listening.
In a way, Believers reminds a bit of Richard Hawley’s work but with more of an Americana flavor to it. These hints of country are brought out by Bondy’s vocals, the slide guitar parts, and plenty of reverb. There’s also a lot of distortion sprinkled throughout Believers but it never comes off as loud or bombastic and instead, adds to the texture of the album.
When Thanksgiving rolls around in a month, I hope it is grey and rainy because this is the album I want to accompany me into triptophan bliss.
After 2010′s debut Our Dusking Sound and the aptly titled EP Just Before the North, Small Houses released his second full-length album, North. A rootsy folk album filled with attractive vocals, charming instrumentation and great harmonies, it’s clear North is a record that should be heard. Its modest beauty is something special.
Small Houses is the folk music project of 23-year-old Michigan native, Jeremy Quentin, who approaches and creates songs with a poet’s pen and a musician’s ear. Combining elements of country, folk and indie, Quentin wonderfully melds these styles with restraint in North. And, despite North’s somewhat minimalist arrangements and no-frills quality, it is more polished than the live, one-take production of its predecessor, Just Before the North.
Written and arranged by Quentin with the exception of the gospel hymn, “I and My Maker,” which was written by Jeremy Cassar, North features help from other talented musicians such as Chris Bathgate on mandolin, Davey Jones of Frontier Ruckus playing banjo and Samantha Crain lending her voice to the harmonies. It’s these contributions that compliment Quentin’s writing and vocals adding to the album’s appeal.
On a song like the country-tinged “Country Flowers,” the rural instrumentation and Quentin’s emotional voice beautifully describes a bucolic journey through life, love or both. The upbeat “In the Lawn” features a catchy melody reminiscent of a hoedown showcasing the banjo, fiddle and Samantha Crain’s lovely vocals. My personal favorite, “Late in July” with ringing piano chords and a gentle pedal/lap steel guitar resonating in the background is a piece of music that aches with love. And, finally, the title track is the perfect mix of a homesick pedal/lap steel and a joyful banjo reflecting the song’s theme of missing the North, which in Quentin’s case is home.
North is an album I highly recommend. It’s a quietly captivating album with lovely music and thoughtful lyrics that leaves even this Southern mountain girl wanting to follow Small Houses North.
And the Giraffe is made up of best friends, Nick Roberts and Josh Morris, who spent most of the summer recording their 6-track album, Something for Someone. The end result of this hard work is an excellent collection of ambient dream-folk that melts away the existing pressures of the day and sends you into a trance-like state. Oh yeah, and if Nick Roberts’ name sounds familiar, CFM previously posted a short review on his similarly tranquil but equally great side project, Summertime Kids‘ EP Table Manners. So, find the time to listen to both.
In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we don’t have bedroom musicians or closet musicians. Instead, we have sauna musicians. They’re the ones that hide out at their homesteads, alternating between tending the sauna fire and recording song after song into old four tracks. We’re talking about people like Scotty Alan, who lives off the grid in a log home that he built himself nearly 20 years ago. Which is impressive. But the thing you gotta know about Scotty Alan is that he dug his basement with a shovel. A frickin’ shovel. He’s not a macho guy, just a man who appreciates simple living and the DIY ethic. So, whenever it came time for Scotty to record a new batch of songs, he’d fire up the generator, plug the four track in, and get to work. The product of those recordings were collections of great songs that sounded like they were recorded on a four track powered by a generator.
Now, have you ever heard a musician who wrote really good songs but whose recordings were rough around the edges, and then wondered what they would sound like if they got a decent band behind them and some quality time in a real studio? As you might have guessed, that’s where this story is heading.
Scotty Alan’s new album, Wreck and the Mess, is a departure. In every sense of the word. Back in January, Scotty made himself a suit case, packed up his stuff, and then flew to L.A. to record at a proper studio with electricity and running water. That alone would be enough to get most folks from around here out of their comfort zone but you have to remember, we’re talking about a dude who dug his basement with a shovel.
What happened next is the kind of thing that could only happen in L.A. Scotty asked his friend and producer Bernie Larsen to find him a backing band. Larsen, who has been making music since the early 80’s with El Rayo-X, Jackson Brown, Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, and his own band Cry On Cue, started making calls. By the time Larsen was finished, he had rounded up eight musicians, including a portion of Lucinda Williams’ backing band, to play behind Scotty. Oh, and then Larsen got his old El Rayo-X bandmate David Lindley — who has recorded with everyone from Curtis Mayfield to Dolly Parton — to stop by and play fiddle on the album.
As someone who has been listening to Scotty’s music for ten-plus years, I was not prepared for what I heard when I finally got a review copy of the album. After all, I am firmly rooted in the lo-fi camp of production quality and was under the smug assumption that if you wanted to let a song rest on its own merits, just record it with as little fanfare as possible. I was wrong. All of those knobs and dials actually make a hell of a difference. The resulting product of Scotty’s L.A. trip is a perfect showcase for his tunes. There are no facades here, just songs with the right amount of instrumentation and production to bring them to life and let their best elements shine through.
Scotty’s music is alt country but not the kind that evolved from the same family tree as Gram Parsons, Uncle Tupelo, and Wilco. Rather, the genealogy here can be traced back to 80′s folk bands like the Waterboys. It also has that particular combination of well-written lyrics, melody, and rhythm reminiscent of The Rave-Ups. For instance, in “Ain’t Much,” the band drops out except for the kick drum and Scotty delivers his lines in that “Positively Lost Me” staccato style:
Like a sunflower growing on the side of the road
Standing proud no place to go
You’re the hand that reaches from the truck and picks me
It ain’t much but it’s all for you
I may be late, I’m a wreck and a mess
Standing undone on your front steps
Corks and stems for my lady
It ain’t much but it’s all for you
The driving country rhythm also shows up in the album’s closing song “Looking for Someone to Fight.” While the title suggests a bar fight waiting to happen, the song slowly reveals itself to be a recruitment song for Scotty’s battle against the mundane. He doesn’t want to start a brawl, just a revolution.
What’s evident throughout Wreck and the Mess is that Scotty Alan is someone who is happy to be alive. On his previous recordings, this thirst for life was always hidden behind a curtain of murky production but now that curtain is gone. For instance, on the standout track, “Barn Dance,” there’s that same kind of thank-god-I’m-alive-right-this-very-instant vibe that emanates from the best Waterboys songs like “Fisherman’s Blues.” The Waterboys comparison is also helped along by Lindley’s fiddle, which takes a prominent role in the song, as well as Scotty’s almost brogue accent that he picked up during his punk rock days with The Muldoons.
Other highlights include “Long Ways From Laughin’,” a cry-into-your-beer-song minus the beer which somehow makes being depressed sound kind of okay, because hey, at least you woke up today, right? Also, his tounge-in-cheek ode to bachelorhood, “Do It Alone” and “Says Lately,” with its refrain of “I feel alive, I feel alive, I feel alive…” make you, well, feel alive.
Wreck and the Mess has easily made it onto my best-of-the-year list. It’s the product of a songwriter who, for the first time in a fairly long music career, has backing musicians and production quality equal to his songwriting. The album is also a reminder that the 90′s alt country revival was the result of a fairly narrow range of country and folk influences and that the genre is still ripe for exploration and discovery.
Just in time for the fall, Canadian folk-rock band, The Belle Comedians, will be releasing a 4-song EP entitled, Autumn Ought To…, on October 18. A strong set of songs, the EP begins with “Break + Enter,” which is a fantastic mellow acoustic number swelling with vocals, drums, and keys at the end. “Fewer Lights” offers one of the best lines I’ve heard, “I’m obsessed with breaking into broken hearts.” It isn’t anything mind-blowing, but it is clever like the song’s catchy hook. ”The Weight You Hold” is heavy with percussion and key, while “North Winds” rises and falls leaving you with a lasting impression musically.
Out of the gate, bluegrass records have an enormous sonic hurtle to jump: They have to be able to capture the listeners attention on the merits of the music alone. This sounds strange. Of course, any good record needs to do that — but bluegrass all the more. I’ll try to explain: Bluegrass shows are fantastic because of the spectacle — or, more precisely, the experience. It’s the experience of seeing Tony Rice or Chris Thile or, more recently, Sarah Jarosz or Andy Hall masterfully play their instruments that brings the real thrill in the genre. Virtuosity has that kind of “see-it-to-believe-it” element. These performances are almost always more exciting than the recorded versions which become, usually, representations of — anticipations for — the next time you can see the band or artist play. Almost always.
Greensky Bluegrass’s new record Handguns operates in much the same way. Indeed, there is some really astonishing playing on a few tracks — especially Anders Beck’s dobro and Michael Arlen Bont’s banjo shine on nearly every track — but on many of the others, well, it’s tough not to pine after one of their fantastic shows.
Starting with fairness, Greensky Bluegrass are a Kalamazoo, MI band without gimmicks. They play an easy mixture of bluegrass and alt-country that plays nicely on record — mandolinist Paul Hoffman’s voice fills out most tracks in a similar casual way. Indeed, they are certainly an easy band to listen to. Bands like Greensky have a tough row to hoe, however, for the same reason: there’s is no gimmick. No progressive tilt, no super-star player. This speaks a lot about their success as a group, then, and puts them in league with other bands cut from a similar cloth — Trampled By Turtles come to mind. And while not gimmicky, there are a few really cool things about Handguns: The title track “Handguns” has some really sweet lap-steel playing on it, and “I’d Probably Kill You” has a New Orleans-y horn section that feels, again, really at home on this otherwise grassy record. Also, don’t miss the kazoo and parlor playing on the penultimate track, “Hot Dogs (On Parade)”.
But, as their own press-release points out, Handguns may be best suited as a buy-at-the-show kind of release. To be clear, I really like this record. I’ve seen Greensky Bluegrass play two or three times and they are a fantastic live band. As such, Handguns is a well-produced representation of that great live sound. Fans will find this record a reminder of what they love about the band and new fans who find themselves at a Greensky show will find the purchase of Handguns at the merch table a great way to give the band the support it deserves.
New London Fire is taking their third album, The Dirt The Blood The Faith, in a completely different direction with a modern western sound and well-crafted stories. Frontman, David Deibak said, “We wanted to tell the story about the struggles of the working man, woman and child of the industrial revolution while simultaneously reminding the listener that these struggles still exist, right here, right now.” The first single, “The Other Side of Town,” exemplifies the album with its modern indie rock and classic western sounds combined with its revolutionary tale of class struggle. The Dirt The Blood The Faith is an excellent release you should look for in stores on November 22.
This must be Goth Week for me. Earlier I wrote about the Family Band, who describe themselves as “goth prom music.” And now, I introduce to you the The Deep Dark Woods who have been described as “prairie gothic,” which is apt given that they hail from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Their new album is called The Place I Left Behind and it’s kind of a strange thing to get your head around.
Have you ever been witness to one of those days where the wind is blowing hard and one moment the sky is filled with dark clouds, and then a moment later, the sun will shine through and it seems like it might turn into a glorious summer day? It’s that kind of rapidly shifting weather that The Place I Left Behind reminds me of. Mostly its dark and gloomy with haunting melodies a la Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, but every once in a while, the clouds part and there’s a hazy Americana song reminiscent of The Band or The Flying Burrito Brothers.
That’s not to say The Place I Left Behind is a bad album. There are plenty of really good songs here: “The Banks Of The Leopold Canal,” the title track, “Mary’s Gone,” “Never Prove False.” However, it is rare that I will think the same couple of songs sound good from one listen to the next based on whether I’m feeling nice and smiley or whether I’ve got the big lip disease.
Now that’s it October — the month of Halloween and the last month with any real color — gothic-tinged country is just about perfect. As for the warm sunny days, I’m sure there’s one or two left of those as well. And if you need one album for both kinds of weather, The Place I Left Behind will suit you fine.
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