What originally attracted me to both folk and punk music was the simplicity of the production. There’s a lack of pretense in those genres that allows songs to stand naked and be enjoyed without any added fluff or bluster. It’s this rawness that immediately caught my ear when I first heard the new album from The Far West, Any Day Now. The album’s opener, “On The Road,” has a relaxed western atmosphere and you can nearly feel the dry heat of Los Angeles as Lee Briante sings, “I can see the mountains out my window. The Hollywood sign is out there too.” The whole album is chock-full of solid songwriting, great arrangements that bring out the darker elements of the songs, and production that fits the band’s aesthetic just right. Let a little California sun into your life on this cold February day and check out Any Day Now.
Spotify has gotten a lot of press this year. Some positive, some negative. But as Jeremy Sroka pointed out in his article “Why U No Talk About Bandcamp,” Bandcamp is the bomb. From the get-go, they have put musicians first. Now, after five years of service, they’re beginning to make headway in providing a top notch experience for music consumers.
On that note, I received an email from Bandcamp today notifying me that Haley Bonar released a new EP called Wntr Snds. Haley is a woman who knows about the winter. Although she now lives in balmy Minneapolis, she grew up in Duluth, Minnesota where the high temp for tomorrow is forecasted to be zero. Or, as some say, “a high of nothing.” Wntr Snds consists of a handful of instrumentals and a couple of her more traditional folky tracks. It’s pay-what-you-like, so you can’t go wrong. My favorite is “like ice and cold.” Take a listen:
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).
Hunnabee & The Sandy Tar Boys are a new band out of Athens, Ohio. I got to see them at Nelsonville this past spring and they played a couple of great sets full of youthful energy while kicking it old style. They were also passing out some free CDRs that weekend of songs they recorded around a single microphone and while it captured their vibrancy, the production quality didn’t match the rest of their abilities. The good news is that they are making plans to head into the studio and do it up right. And they need your help. Not much, mind you. For a measly three dollar pledge to their Kickstarter campaign, they’ll send you the digital release. For ten, you get the digital album and a CD when it comes out.
The Nelsonville Music Festival is a relative newcomer in the festival scene. It began in 2005 as a single-day event in downtown Nelsonville, Ohio and is organized by Stuart’s Opera House. In 2010, the event expanded to three days. This year’s festival was well curated with a focus on indie folk and alternative country, genres which fit well with the rolling hills and the small rough-hewn cabins that make up Robin’s Crossing.
My wife and I have been trying to hit one good festival a year and chose this one because we really wanted to see Shovels and Rope. Nelsonville seemed to be one of the few big events that they were scheduled for this year, plus it had the added bonus of the Dawes and Iron & Wine.
Unfortunately, we were not able to make it for the Thursday night kickoff event which featured Southeast Engine who released a very fine album called Canary last year. We also missed Those Darlins which about broke my heart but I started a new job last week and taking my first Friday off didn’t seem like the best way to make a good impression. Anyway, here’s a quick summary of the shows I did catch.
Iron & Wine. We rolled into town just as Iron & Wine was getting started. Sam Beam is a great songwriter… one of the best of his generation. He has a great voice and is a darn fine guitar player. But a rock star he is not. His new band sounded something like the Range a la Bruce Hornsby and the Range. They weren’t bad musicians, just a really bad fit. They amplified all of his weaknesses and drowned out all of his strengths. People were respectful — he is Sam Beam after all — but looking at Twitter afterwards, I don’t think I was the only one left feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Hunnabee and the Sandy Tar Boys. This was one of the first bands we saw Saturday morning. A group of five young bluegrass players out of Athens, Ohio that had the best group harmonies of the weekend. Good energy too. Look for a review of their self released album sometime soon here.
Jordan O’ Jordan. Jordan O’ Jordan was the first artist I got to see in the No-Fi Cabin venue, a 10′ x 14′ structure with just a handful of benches for seating. All No-Fi Cabin performers had to do their show without any sound support. What they lacked in volume, however, the performers made up with intimacy and sweetness. I was immediately taken in by Jordan’s storytelling and melodies. His music exists somewhere between the Decemberists and early Of Montreal when Of Montreal used to be a folk band.
Todd Burge. Todd Burge may look like a normal straight-laced gentlemen but when he starts singing, his underlying mischief immediately becomes apparent. He sang a series of songs about Harry Camping, the nutjob who said the world was going to end last year. This was another No-Fi Cabin show and Burge benefitted from the venue’s opportunity to engage with the small crowd by telling some of the song’s background stories.
Michael Hurley. Dude’s a legend but at 70 years old, you can’t expect him to rock out. Amazingly, though, he can still hit those high notes just like he could in the 60’s. On the downside, however, he didn’t do too much old stuff. You could feel the respect for this guy from the audience, which seemed to surprise Hurley. At one point, he said something like, “If you like listening me to so much, you should come to Portland. I play for hours.” Well, if he wears out his welcome in Portland, there seemed to plenty of Ohio folks who would gladly offer their spare bedroom.
Shovels & Rope. As I mentioned earlier, this is why we chose to come to Nelsonville. They’ve got to be one of the best kept secrets of the alternative country music scene. Composed of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, they recently changed their name to “Shovels and Rope” and have been touring relentlessly for the past couple of years. They’re absolutely phenomenal, the real deal, etc. Why they’re not as big as Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers, or Fleet Foxes is one of those mysteries that makes me think I’m pretty out of touch with the rest of the world. Anyway, their last album (Shovels & Rope) came out in 2008 and got very little attention. Subsequent to that, they released an EP under Cary Ann Hearst’s name and one of the songs (Hells Bells) was featured in True Blood… the closest they’ve gotten to getting any mainstream attention. At Nelsonville, they were the only band that got to perform at all three venues and each show was fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I saw people have so much fun on stage and rock so hard. Cary Ann Hearst is full of southern charm and monkey business. Michael Trent is her straight man who can stick right with her as she tears the house down. They have a new album coming out July 31 called O’ Be Joyful. Definitely look for a review here. Some of the new stuff they were playing sounded at least as great as their earlier songs so watch out.
Andrew Bird. To be honest, the best part about seeing Andrew Bird was his soundcheck at 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning where he was just fiddling around (both figuratively and literally) and singing snippets of songs, including a verse or two of the Handsome Family’s Too Much Wine. His Saturday night show was good too but by then, I was feeling old and tired.
Matt Bauer. Matt did a great set in the No-Fi Cabin. Unfortunately the main stage act was incredibly load and came close to overpowering Matt’s quiet playing but he never got distracted, lost his rhythm, or missed a note. Dude was like a rock. He did a great cover of the old Pretty Little Horses song and a mix of older and newer originals. Poplar Trees sounded particularly good.
Hayes Carll. When you’re at a festival, sometimes it’s just musical overload. You try to fold the time space continuum so you can see it all but eventually you have to attend to your bodily needs. As I was wondering around trying to take care of some of the necessities, I gave up seeing Hayes Carll. Luckily, though, he was at the main stage so even from a half mile away, I could hear him doing Another Like You, which sounded great.
The Tillers. Never heard of them until I saw them. Three guys who can bluegrass with the best of ’em. They shared one mic and sang about broken hearts and whiskey, mixing up traditional numbers with originals. Definitely a band I’ll come back to.
Hope for a Goldensummer. Another band I never heard of until I showed up at Nelsonville and looked at the schedule. Two sisters and a banjo player. Hell, what more do you need? Did I mention the banjo player occasionally used a violin bow? And it sounded good? It’s true. They also had beautiful harmonies that can only happen because of shared genes, funny between song banter and an accapella song where they kept time by doing a Miss Mary Mack-style clapping game, a spectacle which nearly made me lose my mind. I’m beginning to think that some people have brains divided into four sections and not two like the rest of us mortals.
Horse Feathers. I caught a few songs by Horse Feathers. They were going on about 30 minutes before the Dawes were starting so I didn’t stick around too long. They struck me as amazing musicians who can put on a heck of show. I was a bit worried because sometimes strings don’t work out well in a live setting. Either they seem too stiff and formal or they’re too subdued. Not so with the Horse Feathers. The three strings players gave it just the right amount of kick to keep the show hopping.
Dawes. Well shit. There’s not much I can say about the Dawes without sounding like an evangelical nutjob myself. I highly doubt that there’s a better live band right now. This is the third time I’ve seen them and each show has been one of the most memorable days of my whole year. If you like their albums, I would recommend you do whatever it takes to get your hiney in front of them because as good as their records are, they pale in comparison to the live experience.
And then we drove home and I went to work a few hours later. All-in-all, a great weekend at a well run event, a fact that was evidenced by the large number of musicians who mentioned on stage about how well they were treated. My experience as a concert goer was similar: the volunteers were helpful and kept the place looking good. April is promising to attend next year so keep your eye out for a Common Folk Music booth!
P.S. Happy Birthday Common Folk Music!
Last year, someone had the brilliant idea to slow down a Justin Bieber song to 1/8 of its normal speed. The result was a beautiful soundscape, similar to those intentionally created by the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. However, slowing the tempo or eliminating feedback and crashing symbols doesn’t always result in such a transformation. Sometimes you can do all of that and still make intense music with a sense of immediacy. Which is the case with Bry Webb’s new album Provider.
In his past life, Bry Webb fronted the band The Constantines, a Toronto group that sounded like they could have been a part of the early 90’s Dischord Records scene in Washington D.C. Now, though, Webb is a married man and a father. And that’s where his priorities are. When The Constantines broke up in 2010, Webb took to working construction jobs, forgoing the music world completely. However, a call from fellow Canadian Fiest, requesting that Webb provide a guest vocal on her new album got him going again. Then, another offer from Fiest to open for her on her latest tour had Webb’s label put out his finished recordings in two months flat.
There is no mistaking Provider for anything other than an album by the former frontman of the Constantines even though sonically, it doesn’t sound a thing like the passionate fury of Webb’s old band. The commonality between Provider and Webb’s former work — and what Feist must have heard as well — is Webb’s singular voice, which conveys as much emotion hushed as it does turned up to eleven.
The opening track “Asa” was written for his son of the same name and is a gorgeous countrified lullaby showcasing Webb’s vocals with just a minimal amount of guitar and bass thrown in. It may be an odd reference, but “Asa” has that same haunted feeling as The Edge’s “Van Diemen’s Land” on Rattle and Hum. “Rivers of Gold” is another beauty centered around Webb’s vocals and some tasteful slide guitar work. There are few drums on Provider but they’re hardly missed.
Every once in a while, that Constantines’ bombast begins to erupt, like on the songs “Zebra” and the appropriately titled, “Ex Punks.” But just as suddenly as the fury begins to emerge, Webb taps it back down again, like he remembered his son was napping in the room next to him. In a way, Provider is not a great departure from Too Slow for Love, a low-key best of collection that the Constantines put out near the end of their run. The surprising thing here is that Webb was seemingly ready to walk away from the music world in such an absolute manner. Luckily for us he didn’t.
Bry Webb – Viva
I like surprises. They remind me that there’s still a world of wonder despite the late onset of adulthood. I’m not so cynical to think that I’ve seen and done it all. Rather, I take responsibility for causing the mundane in my life: I get stuck looking at the same things from the same perspectives. Autopilot may suffice for lawn mowing and driving but it’s definitely not the ticket to a full human experience.
Which brings me to Matt Bauer’s The Jessamine County Book of the Living, an album full of wonder and magic. It’s surreal lyrics, dark tone, and ten-piece orchestra all work together to make dark and creepy forest music. Think of Peter and The Wolf rewritten by Gabriel García Márquez.
There are plenty of artists and musicians who use the surreal in their work to surprise or even shock their audience. But the surreal shouldn’t just leave you thinking that the piece is weird. When used effectively, the surreal constructs a new reality around a scene that would otherwise make no sense. Bauer’s “White Lake” is a perfect example of this:
When I was the white worms
In the rabbit’s side
The only way that I could move
Was eating toward the light
And when I saw what I had done
And saw just what I was
I thought “My word! My word!”
Despite the implausibility of a worm ever considering the spiritual implications of its actions, there is still an emotional impact as we’re drawn into the worm’s perspective. Being able to connect on an emotional level with something as repulsive as a maggot is surrealism executed to its best effect.
Magical realism, surrealism’s first cousin, is a tool often used by anime master Hayao Miyazaki. And the album’s closing track, “Flowering Deer,” is about a character from Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. The song, with its dark-sounding strings and its magical lyrics, is creepy enough to scare the bejesus out of you, just as the Great Forest Spirit did in the movie.
The Jessamine County Book of the Living is also one of the most ambitious albums I’ve heard lately. Bauer rounded up a host of guest singers, including Jolie Holland, Angel Deradoorian from Dirty Projectors, Mariee Sioux, and Jay and Alex Foote from Welcome Wagon. Further, his orchestra of strings, woodwinds, brass, and vibraphone doesn’t just accompany him but often takes center stage. To pull off a project of this size — on what was likely a shoe string budget — is pretty remarkable. Also, musically, there’s just a lot of depth here. And imagine the time it took to arrange all of those different parts.
Another intriguing element of the album is that it retains a folk music feel despite the heavy reliance on the orchestra. Perhaps it’s Bauer’s voice, which can sound as deep and full as Richard Buckner’s while also sounding as emotionally raw as Sufjan Stevens. I would like to say that this is my favorite album so far this year but alas, I’m way behind the curve in reviewing it and it was actually released last June. Regardless, this is a very fine album worthy of a heck of a lot more attention then it’s received so far.
Video for “Flowering Deer”
“Morning Stars” by Matt Bauer