Although I’ve been listening to In A Wild Deep’s A Small Collection of Folk Tales EP since November, I still find myself with brain freeze every time one of the six songs shuffles to the top of my iPod. Which for me, is kind of weird. I may not be able to remember my own phone number but once I’ve heard a band, it’s permanently imprinted in my brain. Thus, the paradox of being intrigued enough to want to know who’s singing the song — while repeatedly forgetting who sang the damn thing — has me a bit stumped.
Part of my problem may be the complex stew of different styles and influences in the music. The opening bars of “Before the Desert Night Was Cold” are reminiscent of Jim White’s Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Later on in the album I hear Animal Collective-like textures and a banjo that sounds like it could be from a Sufjan Steven’s album. Despite the multiple comparisons, there’s something very original going on here, especially in the complexity of the arrangements and song structures.
A Small Collection of Folk Tales is based on a book of stories that was handed down to singer-songwriter Black Reed by his grandfather. On the In A Wild Deep Bandcamp site, Reed says, “…I can only hope this music lets you feel a little bit of the way I felt reading them over and over again.” While the production never lets the lyrics and stories come through in a clear way, there’s a very distinctive atmosphere that gets created here… one that is a bit dark but also gentle and compelling. Consequently, the EP makes a perfect backdrop to the grey days of winter and reminds me a bit of the Icelandic band Slowblow with its layers of strange ambient sounds.
A Small Collection of Folk Tales passes in less than 25 minutes. Since I often find myself wanting more, I usually resort to listening to the EP more than once. What would be really nice, however, is a full In A Wild Deep album. The news section of their website is rather sparse so it’s hard to say what they have in store for 2012 but with great songs, vocals and arrangements, In A Wild Deep is definitely a band to keep an eye on.
The Avett Brothers have brought me plenty of joy over the past few years. Their live show is an authentic and raucous experience that exudes a love of both music and people. So this next bit of news from Avett bassist Bob Crawford broke my heart when I read it:
One month ago today my wife found our 22 month old daughter, Hallie, in her crib having a seizure. Paramedics rushed her to the hospital where an MRI revealed a brain tumor approximately one quarter of the size of her brain.
Surgeons were able to remove 90% of the tumor and decided to stop there as her vital signs were unsteady. Following surgery she suffered a stroke. Her condition was critical for the next several days as her brain continued to swell. In an attempt to save her remaining good brain she was placed in a coma for five days.
Since being removed from the coma, Hallie has undergone a second brain surgery, has been waking up, and is doing her best to recover quickly so she get ready for the next phase of her fight against cancer.
The tumor is a Grade 3 Ependymoma. This is a very rare, but deadly brain tumor that effects roughly 100 children a year in the United States. We do not know what Hallie’s next step is in her treatment. Her situation is very fluid and there are a number of complicating factors, but we do know that she is fighting hard every day.
My wife Melanie and I would like to thank everyone for their love, care, and support during the most difficult time in our lives. I would like to thank everyone for their understanding of the gravity of this situation and ask for respect to our privacy. When people ask us what they can do to help, we ask them to pray for Hallie’s recovery. We feel that God has already worked
miracles through Hallie and we pray they keep coming.
Someday I will return to the stage with my brothers. When that will be I can not say. We are truly living one day at a time.
Thank you again for your love and support for my family during this time.
I look forward to seeing you all again soon.
The experience prompted Crawford to curate a collection of holiday music in conjunction with Ramseur Records. My Favorite Gifts includes contributions from The Avett Brothers, Jessica Lea Mayfield, The David Wax Museum, Wood Brothers, and Jim Avett (Papa Avett). All profits from the sale of the record will go to benefit the Vickie S. Honeycutt Foundation, an organization that aids families battling cancer.
My Favorite Gifts offers a stocking full of new holiday tunes and a means to practice some end-of-the-year philanthropy. For you last minute shoppers, there is always the “gift this album” option at the iTunes store.
David Wax Museum – Everything Is Saved
The Wealthy Orphans – A Little Piece of the Pie
A.A. Bondy – Believers
Bjork – The Crystalline Series – Omar Souleyman Versions
Case Studies – The World Is Just A Shape To Fill The Night
Dawes – Nothing Is Wrong
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
Gold Leaves – The Ornament
Lauderdale – Moving On
Low – C’mon
Chris Bathgate – Salt Year
Scotty Alan – Wreck and the Mess
The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
The Soft Moon – The Soft Moon
The Deep Dark Woods – The Place I Left Behind
At some point during this year, each of these albums was my favorite. It seems like Dawes’ Nothing Is Wrong and Lauderdale’s Moving On are the two that I keep coming back to the most but I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ll be listening to A.A. Bondy’s Believers for years to come. Chris Bathgate came as a surprise to me and so did Bjork. I had heard Biophillia and played around with her new iPhone app but wasn’t really that moved. Then I heard the Omar Souleyman remixes and was blown away. The crazy instrumentation, percussion and riffs that Souleyman infused into Bjork’s songs instantly re-wired my brain. I had no idea that liked that I liked eastern music until I heard it.
The Deep Dark Woods was another album that snuck up on me. Usually after I review an album, I’ve listened to it enough that I’m kind of through with it. In the case of The Place I Left Behind, it still grew on me for another couple of months.
Michigan did itself well this year with some great releases. However, it was only Chris Bathgate’s Salt Year that got much press (and really, in comparison to how fantastic that album is, it wasn’t much). Scotty Alan and The Wealthy Orphans both released outstanding albums that so far, have stayed under the radar.
I wasn’t sure about David Wax Museum. I saw them at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this past summer and didn’t really know what to think. Everything is Saved, though won me over pretty quickly. From the upbeat “Broken Hearted Boy” to the dirgey “Night Was A Car,” they keep things interesting with great percussion, catchy melodies, and harmonies that melt your socks off. Their song “The Least I Could Do,” still destroys me every time I hear it.
It was sad to see The Dutchess and The Duke break up but Jesse Lortz’s new solo project, The Case Studies, is just as strong as his previous work. The song “Silver Hand” seems like it could be a classic 70’s cut from Glen Campbell.
I’ve been a Low fan for over a decade and a year with a new Low album is always a good one. I’m continually impressed how the band continues to evolve.
If you read my reviews this year, you probably know goth music holds a special place in my dark heart. The Soft Moon is one of the more exciting bands in this genre. Their self-titled LP came out early in the year when the earth was still frozen and everything looked bleak, which was entirely appropriate.
It took me awhile to appreciate Helplessness Blues by the Fleet Foxes. The title track is amazing and sounded like it could have come from their first album but the rest of Helplessness Blues sounded a more pastoral with hints of Fairport Convention. I did end up loving this album but first I had to give up wanting part two of their debut.
The Ornament by Gold Leaves is an excellent album. It’s suave. It’s gentle. It exists beneath a haze of reverb, tremolo, and washes of organ like many “it” indie bands like Girls and Beach House. But that’s where the similarity ends, because at its core, Gold Leaves seems more like country lounge music. If Nancy Sinatra had a little brother who was into indie rock, this might be the kind of music he would make.
One genre of music that’s never made much headway with me is prog rock. Despite loving most Decemberists albums, they lost me for a few years while they exercised their inner Rush and Yes demons. So for me, The King Is Dead was a welcome surprise as they returned to their folk and country roots.
Uncle Bengine and the Restraining Orders make me happy. It’s partly their dirty punk rock take on country music and it’s partly because they remind me of an early 90’s punk band called “23 More Minutes,” a group that has always been dear to my heart. 23 More Minutes mostly did the loud punk thing but they also threw in some acoustic numbers which, given the genre, seemed pretty risky at the time.
Comes In Nines is the first full length from Uncle Bengine and the Restraining Orders and they fit a lot of piss and vinegar into the album’s 33 minutes. Like 23 More Minutes, this Harrisonburg, VA trio is not afraid of genre bending. In some songs they mix the old Bay Area pop punk sound with more traditional country instrumentation, like in “Jesse Lee and Daniel D” and the title track, “Comes in Nines.” On other songs, such as “Devil’s Blood,” they follow in the footsteps of The Gun Club and inject that lonesome desert sound into the musical stew. The album also has some pretty fantastic cover art.
One of my favorite things about listening to new bands is discovering how they ingest previous forms of music, chew them all up, and spit them out again. And since we’re quickly coming up on Thanksgiving, I just gotta say that I’m grateful for genre-bending country and western punkers from the east coast.
Here’s a song to help you get through Monday. It’s called “Belle Guitare” and it comes from Corinna Rose’s new self-titled EP. It’s a good ol’ barnburner of a tune that slowly builds before erupting into a three alarm blaze. By the time the third verse rolls around, the whole band has joined in and you’ll likely want to start kicking holes in your cubicle. Proceed with caution. The rest of the EP is worth picking up as well, especially at its name-your-own-price rate. “Born on a Mountain” has a similar vibe to “Belle Guitare,” whereas the other two tracks — “Amanda” and “Hymn for a Heartbreaker” — tend more towards indie and are reminiscent of early Ida.
Rose’s previous musical project, the Rusty Horse Band, also has a single up on Bandcamp called “Green Mountain State.” The track is a catchy little number that exists at the intersection of indie and folk and is used in Sarah Polley’s new movie Take This Waltz.
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?
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.
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.
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.
One of my favorite albums from last year was the Family Band’s Miller Path. Centered around excellent vocals, their music is dark, has slide guitar, and makes for good “goth prom music.” While it’s still too early to expect a follow-up, the Family Band recently went into the studio with Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen to record one song for Shaking Through, a new music incubation project from Weathervane Music and WXPN. The result is a great video, documenting their song writing process and a free download via the Weathervane Bandcamp page.