It has been about two months since Shaker Steps launched their take away video blog, and already they’re getting a lot of buzz for their work showcasing Lexington, KY in an unique and creative way. Recently receiving mad props from Lexington radio station WUKY, the guys from Shaker Steps were interviewed as well as their guest artist Justin Paul Lewis who was in town to play Natasha’s Bistro in support of his upcoming EP, Rinse, Repeat, Rewind.
Produced by Ben Sollee, Rinse, Repeat, Rewind is an eclectic mixture of rock, soul, jazz and more making it hard to accurately describe. However, this four-song collection contains what is probably the most repeated song at my house — “Salt.” It’s my jam, and, if I didn’t already love the studio version, Justin Paul Lewis makes me love the following version more.
“Salt” (album version)
While in Lexington, Justin met up with the Shaker Steps crew to shoot a session at the Barrel House Distillery. Featuring trumpet player Michael Felker, these videos beautifully capture this rare occasion and in Justin’s words: “It was nice to play intimately with Mike like that. We are usually on stages with mics and monitors feeding us with sound. At the distillery it was just us and a bunch of bourbon.” Nothing exemplifies this more than this particular performance of “Salt.” In this video, Mike’s trumpet lends a sultry jazz quality creating a sexier version that I just can’t get enough of. It’s hot. Usually leaving me wanting a cigarette afterwards and I haven’t smoked in years.
The next video, “This House Is Ours,” is a sentimental little tune with more excellent jazz trumpet paired with Justin’s rich voice and laid back guitar making it as smooth as the bourbon served that day.
Justin Paul Lewis is finishing up a small tour supporting Rinse, Repeat, Rewind, which is due to be released sometime in the near future, so keep an eye out and an ear to the ground.
Justin Paul Lewis: Website; Facebook; Twitter
Shaker Steps: Website; Facebook; Twitter; Youtube
Barrel House Distilling Company: Website; Facebook
WUKY: Website; Facebook; Twitter
I told myself that I would “fast-track” a review for Mike Tod’s new album The California Recordings, but, then, I thought that I wanted to give it a thoughtful and worthy write-up, which obviously isn’t happening. I can try my damnedest to write something thoughtful, but why give too much thought to an album this excellent? What is there to think about? The California Recordings speaks for itself. It really is a great piece of folk music that showcases the songwriting and spirit of the true troubadour within Mike Tod. Written during his trek through the rugged and forested lands of Northern California, this album was recorded live on tape on a single afternoon capturing the essence of his free-spirited folk and travels. And, as y’all already know, I’m a bit partial to the Appalachian folk music of my home, but Tod’s woodsy folk brings about a new appreciation for the rustic music of the Pacific Northwest. His ability to bring to life the romanticism of traveling on the road feeds the desire of my heart as a wannabe rambling woman and makes me want to pack up and head to the Sierra Nevada and the redwooded wilderness of Northern California.
Stream & Buy The California Recordings
Mike Tod: Website; Twitter; Cabin Songs
Cabin Songs: Website; Facebook; Twitter
“Songwriter’s Point of View” is an ongoing segment we try to keep going on a regular basis, but that’s a hard thing to do. Regardless, it’s always worth it when I get something as insightful as this piece from Pickering Pick. For as long as I have been listening to his albums, I have always heard and felt some kind of spiritual mysticism that I haven’t been able to extract from other albums and now I know why.
I have long since given up trying to categorize my favourite records or rationalize why I like them. I don’t walk around my house trying to decide which piece of furniture I like best, and I don’t sit on my patio and compile a Top Ten of trees in my garden. The green Moroccan armchair my wife bought twelve years ago is comfortable, and I love my guavas, especially in the late spring time.
Similarly, I listen to a lot of different albums from different musicians and I don’t have a favourite, but if I did, it would be Pour Down Like Silver. This is probably the single album which comes closest to connecting with me on all the levels which matter.
The Richard Thompson I hear on Pour Down Like Silver is an altogether different fellow from the Richard Thompson who wrote “The End Of The Rainbow” less than two years earlier on I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. That song is a profound slice of cynical pessimism, concluding an album peopled with drunkards, beggars and whores. Pour Down Like Silver could not be more different; in the course of eight songs (and four in particular), Thompson announces his arrival at a sort of spiritual gatehouse, a new home which finally allows him some emotional respite.
I am very fond of spiritual recordings, especially when they come from musicians more generally known for secular songwriting. Several of my most-loved LPs are by artists who have undergone some sort of spiritual transformation, and who explore their new religiosity in their songs: Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming, The Waterboys’ This Is The Sea, Sufjan Stevens’ Seven Swans and The Innocence Mission’s Christ Is My Hope have all been played many hundreds of times in my house, and I find the mystical energy of those records immensely appealing. The fragile intensity, or the furious conviction, of a new convert can turn a simple song into a powerful, honest experience.
Some time after finishing I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and during the recording of Hokey Pokey, Richard & Linda Thompson adopted the esoteric, mystical Islamic tradition of Sufism, and it is that conversion which informs the entire atmosphere of Pour Down Like Silver. The arrangements are familiar — if sparser — versions of Richard’s Anglo-Scottish folk-rock, bisected at times by his incandescent electric guitar playing, but despite sounding very much like a Richard & Linda Thompson record, there are elements which set it apart from anything that came before, or anything since; something only hinted at on the lovely 1974 song, “A Heart Needs A Home”, from Hokey Pokey.
There’s a sense of solace and rest which permeates Pour Down Like Silver, a feeling of belonging, maybe, or a sigh of relief. It is more palpable when you hear it in relation to the nervous anxiety and grim pessimism of the previous albums, but even standing alone, the songs on this record flow with a new-found ease which speaks to a calmer mind, a release from fear and worry. “Night comes in like some cool river”, Richard sings on the epic fourth track, opening up a prayer book of desire and regret:
Oh the songs pour down like silver
They can only break my heart
Drink the wine, the wine of lovers
Lovers tired of being apart
The song aches with longing for a spiritual union — the lover this time being Allah, or God, or whatever you want to call it. In “For Shame Of Doing Wrong”, Linda’s voice plays chase with Richard’s voice, round and round in circles, repeating the same refrain: “I wish I was a fool for you again”. Regardless of what eventually became of their marriage, I have little doubt that Richard and Linda loved each other once, but even so they refrain from addressing each other on this album. These songs are devotionals to the object of their faithful spiritual desires; mantras at time, love songs and songs of thanksgiving, and they are never less than compelling.
“Dimming Of The Day” is probably the best-known song from the album, primarily because it has been covered by so many notable musicians: Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and Dave Gilmour have all had a crack at it, but whenever I hear a cover all I hear is a pretty melody and a nice lyric. In the mouths of Richard and Linda, however, the song takes on a far greater significance. Linda ploughs the verses, and Richard joins her on the refrains. In the final verse, we almost imagine Allah finally speaking back to his devotees:
I see you on the street in company
Why don’t you come and ease your mind with me?
It is almost unspeakably lovely just like that, but when the song fades away and segues into Richard’s solo instrumental coda, a re-imagining of James Scott Skinner’s “Dargai”, I am compelled to stop doing whatever it is I am doing and just listen. Shivers down my spine every single time.
“Dimming Of The Day” is extraordinary, but the towering achievement of Pour Down Like Silver is the quiet, reflective devotional “Beat The Retreat”, which features a solo Richard Thompson on a woody-sounding acoustic guitar, with some almost imperceptible overdubs and a sturdy, solemn percussion line.
I’m trailing my colours back home to you
I’m trailing my colours back home to you
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
This world is filled with sadness
I’m running back home to you
The song is a study in simplicity, a heartfelt apology and an acknowledgment of his desire to be reconciled with his spiritual companion. Richard’s vocal delivery is always interesting, but on “Beat The Retreat” it displays a humility which matches his restrained guitar playing. People that know Richard Thompson know that he’s capable of superhuman feats on the guitar. He is simply the greatest living British guitar player, and he has been so for forty years. So to hear him play with such reserve and grace actually adds to the impact of the song. To take the best composition on your record and then play it with modesty and humility takes the sort of discipline that most artists don’t have. And how old was Richard when he recorded this? 25?
For me, it is probably the most perfect example of the marriage of substance and arrangement, lyric, delivery and emotional honesty by any musician on any record. It’s what I hear in my head when I think about what I’d like my own music to sound like. And to a lesser extent that is true of the entire album. The arrangements are solid, but sparse, with great peaceful spaces in between the percussion, guitars, vocals, and the lovely accordion which at once conjures both a British folk atmosphere and a reedy, diaphanous eastern element which serves to enhance the aura of quiet mysticism.
Having said all of this, and listened to the album through a few more times this morning, I’m still not sure how to quantify my love of this record. I’m profoundly grateful to have discovered it all those years ago. I don’t know what I would do without it. It is peace and grace and humility and harmony and honesty, and if you don’t crave those things, then perhaps it will never reach you on the level it reaches me. But give it a try anyway.
Prolific songwriter Pickering Pick has just released a new album and follow-up to last year’s Prayer Flag titled (Tropic). And, with an Audubon-influenced insect lithograph reminiscent of those large, antique nature books used to showcase a species’ raw perfection, (Tropic) is a perfect example of folk music. An Englishman turned Californian, Pickering Pick’s music is everything you would expect from a songwriter who has made this kind of transition — warm, serene, poetic, and organic. Like his previous albums, listening to (Tropic) is a spiritual experience. It’s not spiritual in a religious sense, but it does affect and stir the spirit. His gentle performance and restraint allows you to meditate and focus on what is important — the eloquent lyrics, exquisite fingerpicking, and beautiful vocals — while becoming one with the songs. Pickering Pick is a rare talent who has the ability to create gorgeous, minimal music that makes you long for his longings and dream his dreams completely absorbing you into his words and world.
The dry air and high altitudes of Colorado must be good for the new breed of young bluegrass bands. In the same company as other mountain state champs, The Lumineers and The Hackensaw Boys, Jonathan Warren & The Billy Goats play a catchy, high energy version of bluegrass. Their new song, “GreyHound,” has that cold and lonely feel that brings to mind the minor key winter classics “Hazy Shade of Winter”and “California Dreaming.” They’re a string band, yeah, and they have some of that old timey vaudeville thing going on but they mix it with some great pop sensibilities and end up with a unique sound. I was also tempted to say that Jonathan Warren & The Billy Goats have totally skirted any jamgrass tendencies but when I heard the wah-wah pedal on the violin at about 3:15 into the song, I realized that must have been wishful (and admittedly, biased) thinking. Regardless, it’s a great song that makes me anxious to hear more.
Word has it they’ll be heading in to the studio in February and will have a new album out sometime this spring. In the meantime, you can check them out on tour (head to their website for details).
Last fall I received an email from various members of the indie-folk group Balto announcing their newest EP, Monuments. The follow-up to their hugely popular album October’s Road, Mounments is a huge step forward for a band that has quickly established a reputation for great songwriting, warm harmonies, and catchy sing-a-longs. Now expanding their sound with a full-band, Balto has created something exciting, powerful, sprawling, and soaring with their lively combination of mandolins, banjos, guitars, pianos, and drums. Monuments is a progressive collection of songs in what I’m sure will be a great series of future albums that will stand as a testament to Balto’s evolution and growth as well as evidence of their brilliant potential.
Stream & Download Monuments
Balto: Website; Facebook; Twitter
Marshall Pass is a mountain pass in the Sangre de Cristo Range in Colorado. It crosses the Continental Divide as part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad’s transcontinental route from Denver to Salt Lake City. Completed in 1881, the railroad line saw the daily Shavano passenger train until its closure in 1955. Sounds innocent enough, right? Wrong. Lurking on these tracks is the sinister legend of the phantom train that loomed over the Pass until its last day.
Train engineer, Nelson Edwards, who was operating a passenger train in the early 1880s thought that on this particular night the night appeared to be blacker and the air felt colder. Feeling anxious Edwards continued despite hearing an earlier report of a defective rail and hazardous bridge. Edwards heard a train whistle echoing among the rocks, snow, and ice, and applied the brakes. Annoyed, the conductor asked Edwards, “Why?” Edwards then sanded the tracks and continued on his way.
Still hearing the whistle of what he thought was a wild train, Edwards opened the throttle to climb the mountain to avoid a collision. He told the conductor to warn the passengers then chanced crossing the defective rail. Before crossing the pass, Edwards looked back at the wild train and saw an engineer leaning out of the engine’s window with an evil grin upon his face. As Edwards approached the dangerous bridge, he crossed without trouble while the other train continued racing toward him. He passed through switch nineteen without a problem, and looked back again at the coming train. At that moment, he saw the train topple down the canyon. He heard no cries from passengers so he assumed there weren’t any.
When Edwards pulled into town he saw this haunting and misspelled message written in the frost of his cab window: “A freight train was reck as yu saw. Not that yu will never make another run. The engine was not under control and four sexshun men wor killed. If yu ever run on this road again yu will be recked.” Needless to say, Edwards resigned from the Denver & Rio Grande that morning, thus creating the legend and myth of the phantom train.
With their debut EP, Phantom Train, The Marshall Pass is creating a legend of their own. A duo from Worcester, Massachusetts, consisting of multi-instrumentalist Duncan Arsenault and singer Craig Rawdings this seven-song collection started as Arsenault’s personal project after the passing of his friend and singer/guitarist, Scott Ricciulti. Deeply effected by Ricciulti’s death, Arsenault gave the tracks to friend Craig Rawding who wrote the lyrics which led to the creation of Phantom Train.
Phantom Train is a wonderfully textured soundscape that brings to life the landscape and environment of the west and Marshall Pass. It echoes, whistles, and glides like a ghostly train through the spacious and pristine sound of rugged folk. Rawding’s edgy vocals and Arsenault’s crisp instrumentation also help to mirror the pass for which they take their name; taking the listener on a journey through the peaks and valleys, or in this case, canyons of life, and climbing out of the depths of despair without ever hitting a musical low.