Hey! I made you a mix! It’s chockfull of killer tunes featuring quirky female led vox. Jump on in and make a mess…Read More
Happy Father’s Day! In celebration of the day and my Vinyl Me, Please article about parental music influence…I Made You A Mix! Jump into some parental nostalgia with songs that remind me of my dad!Read More
John Prine (that old so-and-so) is back in action with his first album of new material in 13 years. It’s a quirky cool drink of lemonade that’s perfect for shade sittin’ on the cusp of summer.Read More
I wasn’t born yet when The Breeze first blew through town… but I love digging down into some Musical Archeology to discover artists who influenced musicians I admire. Hint: J.J. Cale had some sway on Eric Clapton…Read More
What’s in the water in Sweden? I can’t answer that… but as long as First Aid Kit keeps drinking it and making beautiful music I guess I’m ok not knowing. FAK’s newest album “Ruins” is my Pick o’ the Week… #checkitout.Read More
Janis Joplin, Harry Potter and Beth Ditto walk into a bar…
Sure it’s an unlikely intro to a music review but that’s just the way it has to be. Get down to the fiery voiced Beth Ditto and her latest album “Fake Sugar.” It’s my Pick o’ the Week! #checkitout #listenloveshareRead More
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats: Tearing at the Seams is Musical Musing’s premiere, numero uno, debut, very first ever Pick o’ the Week! Enjoy, and let me know what you are digging on this album!Read More
***3 Albums was a semi-regular music series I wrote for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library between July 2016 and January 2018.
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
Holy Smokes and Auld Lang Syne!
Look around folks, we’ve unbelievably made another full trip around our star.
Congrats! You made it to a fresh new year.
2017 was a year that didn’t pull any punches. It hit us with everything it had. As I spent the year writing about beloved music for you all, I kept being reminded of the high-octane undaunted power that music holds for us. It comforts. It strengthens. It freely gives endless repeating amounts of joy with each listen.
So before we put last year firmly in the rear view, I wanted to glance back one more time at 3 albums from ’17 that impacted me in a positive way. In the spirit of a new year’s fresh hope and optimism, I can’t think of a better ending/beginning than pulling the last bit of good from the old and holding it up high as we venture into the new:
John Cusack/Say Anything style! Boomboxes up!
Humming House – Companion (2017)
Once in a great while you come across a “Millisecond Song.” The audio has barely escaped out of the speakers and you can immediately sense it:
I. HEART. THIS.
If it serendipitously happens to be a track 1 on a brand new album then it’s infinitely more exciting… because just maybe, if the magic can hold out for 10-12 songs, you’ve found a new kindred spirit.
Such was the case as I proverbially put the needle to the groove on Humming House’s Companion. A 3-part-harmony-army of voices ring out into the soundless void acapella-style and declare boldly and unabashedly: “I wanna be your companion! Yeah!” Ten seconds later the band comes up to flank them with a thumping bass line and methinks: “Yep, this one’s gonna do it for me.”
Humming House’s previous album Revelries held a lot of promise and put them on my radar. They have an interesting mesh of genres that keeps them from being too easily pinned down. You think pop-rock or indie folk but then they will throw a mandolin/violin combo at you and you have to reevaluate. I dig a band who firmly knows who they are but can still keep the listener guessing.
Companion is an album of pure positivity. Luckily it’s not the over-the-top kind of annoying positivity. (We all know that one person who is just TOO positive). No, Humming House has a contagious kind of joy and optimism. You feel good while they bounce ’round the room in “Takin’ Over” or while they head out into the pines for some peace of mind in “Sign Me Up.” Even in it’s darkest contemplative moments there is a glowing thread of unrelenting hope that winds through the tracks of Companion.
And man, unrelenting hope is a much needed, perfect theme for the onset of a new year.
Give this one 10 seconds and let Humming House win you over in 2018. Money back guarantee if you don’t like it! *Rimshot* (Library joke, folks… cause… uh… you see… it’s free… to check out).
Faves: “Companion,” “Make It Through,” “Sign Me Up” and “Wishing Well.”
Josh Ritter – Gathering (2017)
“And oh, my little heart’s in trouble – Feels like it just might explode
Why do they call it love when – Oh, it feels like lightning?” – “Feels Like Lightning”
It’s dang near criminal that I have reviewed 36 albums for this series and not a single solitary one of them has had “Josh Ritter” on the front of it.
Seriously, break out the tar and feathers. I deserve it.
Josh Ritter’s music is in my bone marrow. Some artist’s songs feel more like heartbeats. So elaborately interwoven into your own life experiences that there aren’t proper words to describe the relationship.
I’ve followed along with Josh’s words and sounds for 13 years now and never have I been more proud of him then when I first heard the storm-laced sounds of Gathering. Josh Ritter is an artist who refuses to plateau. Each new album finds him reaching higher and making better art.
So, Gathering is a one of America’s greatest living songwriters at the peak of his game. Woah! That sounds serious and I mean every darn word of it. He’s the real deal.
Josh is an old soul. He doesn’t write songs he spins yarns. He rolls like a tumbleweed through forgotten times and spaces. He puts on a new hat every song, sometimes he’s the villain sometimes the hero. He is the best-spitfire-rapid-delivery-songwriter out there and he turns words and phrases that no one else would ever think to put into song. (Find me another songwriter sneaking in stuff like: “I took off south like the beat of a bat wing,” “I’m the favorite of babies and society mavens,” “nasturtiums,” and “wisdom Solomonic”).
Gah! I could go on and on about what makes Josh Ritter a unique gem of a songwriter but I’ll leave it be and just add that Gathering also makes a really fantastic new year companion:
When you grapple with keeping resolutions, songs like “When Will I Be Changed” and “Train Go By” will be a comfort.
When you think about leaving the past in the past, songs like “Friendamine” and “Cry Softly” will help you let go.
When you laugh at all the absurd and interesting people that cross your path each day, songs like “Showboat” and “Oh Lord, Pt. 3” will curl your lip upward.
When you forget how much love is all around us, songs like “Feels Like Lightning” and “Strangers” will fill your heart.
When you think about old endings and new beginnings the chorus from “Thunderbolt’s Goodnight” could not be more appropriate:
“All my life before I met you when I was trying hard in love.
I thought the sun was going down, but the sun was comin’ up.”
Faves: “Friendamine,” “Train Go By,” “Cry Softly” and “Oh Lord, Pt 3.”
Beck – Colors (2017)
“I’m so free now – I’m so free now and the way that I walk is up to me now
And if I breathe now I could scream now –
You can hear me from Topeka to Belize now” – “I’m So Free”
By far, the most disappointing musical moment of my 2017 involved Beck. However, it had nothing to do with the infectious, dancable, celebratory album Colors that he released this year. (More on that later after I share my epic sob story).
I had heard that U2 was touring on the 30th anniversary of their iconic Joshua Tree album and they would be stopping at Arrowhead Stadium in September. No doubt this would be a spectacular concert. It’s U2. It’s the Joshua Tree. No Brainer.
Still, I was on the Edge (Pun intended – ZING!). I saw U2 back in the early oughts and it was a magical concert experience. The past decade has pulled me away from fervent fan status with the Dublin rockers. I still gots U2 love, but it’s gravity has lessened.
Then Beck slipped into the opening slot on the Arrowhead ticket.
Beck has been on my mental-concert-bucket-list for a long while, so coupling him up with the closest I’ll ever come to a late 1980s U2 concert pushed me several light years over the fence. I’m all in! My wife and I grabbed up some nosebleed tickets, invited some good friends and anxiously anticipated an arena-filled evening of audio awesomeness.
Then a whole bunch of anti-awesome things happened.
Work schedules had us running late. We’re the type of folks that prefer small venue concerts so we are rarely trying to get to concerts that cause traffic jams. Oops. Beck started his set while we were creeping slowly down the highway.
We miraculously got parked as Beck was finishing his first song. We could hear him drifting over the top of the stadium like a muffled radio. We ran-walked to the entrance: wrong entrance (floor seats only). We ran-walked halfway around Arrowhead to the cheap seats entrance.
This is when a ticket taker made my very pregnant wife cry. Seems her across-the-body purse style was considered a bag and couldn’t be admitted. (C’mon man! It’s the smallest purse this lady has ever owned!) My wife sits sobbing as she jams into her pockets all the stuff a very pregnant lady might need in any given 3 hour period. I try to console her and tell her to go in with our friends.
I sprint back across the parking lot to deposit this “bag” in our car. Since we are now on the opposite side of the stadium and I am already beyond panicky… I’m soon lost in a sea of cars. None of which look like mine. I hear strains of “Soooooy un perdedor” drifting out over the parking lot and I relate. Hard.
Finally find car. Deposit “bag.” Sprint back to the far side of the stadium. Give ticket taker the stinkeye. Climb the seemingly endless circular ramp to the stadium’s pinnacle. Find my seat entrance. Burst into the open air of the arena… right as the last few measures of “Where It’s At” sparkle and fade into the night. It could have been in a movie: My first glimpse of Beck is as he is waving to the crowd and saying “Thank You! Goodnight!”
It was a facepunch to the gut of my heart. I understand those words don’t make sense when placed together, but just let me feel my feelings!
Of course, U2 put on a great show. The night still ended up being pretty good. (Despite the fact that seated directly in front of us was the only guy for miles who felt it necessary to stand and sit 5-10 times throughout the course of every song).
Beck was kind enough to leave me with a great album to soothe the sadness of my botched concert attempt.
Colors is a sharp departure from 2014’s Morning Phase. Beck lets it all loose in a flurry of foot tapping ear worms. He keeps his wonderful quirkiness fully intact while simultaneously putting out one of his most accessible albums.
Two random bits I must mention:
He name-checks Topeka in “I’m So Free.” It makes me happy. You don’t hear us showing up in songs that often. I mean, the classic traveling song “I’ve Been Everywhere” name-checks no less than 91 towns, 5 are in Kansas and it still misses us!
The title track “Colors” has a killer pan flute solo! I could swear I recently claimed I’d probably never get to use that phrase again. (I’m getting strong pan flute deja vu…was 2017 the year of the pan flute? Was that a thing?!)
I’ll keep a Beck concert on the bucket list and for a while I’ll keep Colors in heavy rotation. It’s got the spirit of a New Year’s Eve celebration and that’s the kind of thing that fades too quickly as life keeps rolling on.
Faves: “Seventh Heaven,” “I’m So Free,” “No Distraction” and “Up All Night.”
Happy 2018 audiophiles! I wish you all health, happiness and many great new tunes in the year ahead!
***3 Albums was a semi-regular music series I wrote for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library between July 2016 and January 2018.
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
Ahoy, fellow music explorers!
It feels like forever and a day since I got behind the keyboard and waxed musical with you fine folks! I’ve been waylaid by some pesky use-it-or-lose-it vacation time and the tending to of other top secret library matters. (Sounds important, right? Mostly it’s just putting stuff people want into their hands… which IS kinda important!).
While I’ve been away, this blog series managed to hit a nifty milestone: 3 Albums recently turned 1 year old!
*Out of nowhere a full marching band appears and fireworks explode in the sky!*
ALL TOGETHER NOW! And ah1, ah2, ah1,2,3 GO!:
Happy Birthday to yoooou!
Happy Birthday to yoooou!
Happy Birthday, 3 Allllllbuuuuuums…
Happy Birthday tooooo yoooooou!
Y’all sound positively marvelous. Thank you to the two people who humored me by actually singing awkwardly at your computer and/or mobile device screens. (Mom and Dad, I’m looking in your general direction).
The fact that I’ve been writing a music series for more than a year now sometimes makes me chuckle to myself. Occasionally like a maniacal cartoon villain, but more often just the garden variety laughing lizard meme “hhhehehe” kind of laugh.
I say this because although I do devour a lot of different music, I tend to be behind the curve in many ways. Not exactly swimming in the mainstream. Perhaps not the most likely choice to be telling people things they should be listening to.
I’ve written plenty about my particular peculiar musical niches. (Queue up a year-in-review montage):
My moth-to-the-flame draw to quirkiness.
My interest in songwriters over radio friendly pop icons.
Unique Christmas music and my obsessive compulsion to seasonally theme my listening.
But hopefully my odd place on the bell curve has aided you in discovering some new tunage or at the very least given you the inspiration to keep searching out sounds you love.
So let’s do just that: dive into the far end of the bell curve and find you some new audiowaves!
Arcade Fire – Everything Now (2017)
“Born in a diamond mine – It’s all around you but you can’t see it.” – “Creature Comfort”
Arcade Fire is a primo example of my life on the slow side of the bell curve. Very few bands of the modern music era have enjoyed such immediate and sustained critical and commercial acclaim. Every note this band has played since their debut album in 2004 has received praise that is as dang-near universal as a mortal band could hope for.
Which is why it is not surprising that the first Arcade Fire album to really thunderbolt me would also be the first one in their acclaimed discography that has drawn the dreaded “mixed reviews.” This actually sums up my musical sophistication pretty spot-on: Late to the party… and it’s not even the awesome party that everyone’s raving about.
Not that I haven’t tried my darnedest to love this band. Their past albums have just never overwhelmed me like they did other people. Nor did they underwhelm me, they simply whelmed me. But this year’s release Everything Now hit my bright red bullseye. It’s the spaghetti that finally stuck to my wall.
Like all of Arcade Fire’s work, Everything Now is music with a message (or rather onion layers of messages):
It’s about having too much and still wanting.
It’s about an ever connected world feeling claustrophobic as it closes in on us and dictates our choices.
It’s about having too many choices to pick from and whether or not that’s a good thing.
Arcade Fire deliver their social commentary in tight, well crafted and sometimes brilliantly executed audio gifts. I think part of the reason this album wasn’t as well received is that they became a little more musically adventurous on this album. Genres leap-frogging all over the place from track to track, which to me helps reinforce their overall statement. Sometimes diehard fans have trouble with “different” and that may be where the disconnect lies. It doesn’t quite feel/sound like normal Arcade Fire fare so it’s harder to still see their brilliance behind it. But trying new things is how good bands grow and acquire new fans (Like me!).
So I’ll leave you with a few quirky musical observations about this album to hopefully encourage you to give it a try:
There’s a killer pan flute sample in the swirling title track “Everything Now.” (How often in life does one get the chance to utter the phrase “killer pan flute sample?”).
The bass work this album is fan-dang-tastic fun. I read a review that called “Chemistry” the worst Arcade Fire song ever… but I just gotta say: Dat bassline tho.
There are two back-to-back tracks called “Infinite Content” and “Infinite_Content.” It’s a gag to prove a point about our Netflix’d existence where everything under the sun is at our disposal. I won’t give it away, but I laughed out loud when I put it together their use of genres. Point well made, Arcade Fire.
What do you think? Am I way off base in my love for this album over their others? Perhaps. But that’s life out on the curve for ya. I’ll continue loving what I love (and secretly hoping you do too!).
Faves: “Everything Now,” “Signs of Life,” “Peter Pan” and “We Don’t Deserve Love.”
The Offspring – Smash (1994)
“Live like there’s no tomorrow – you ain’t gonna waste this life
There’s no tomorrow – you ain’t gonna live it for me” – “Nitro (Youth Energy)”
If you were a fly on my bedroom wall circa 1995 you might be curious why my ear is pressed against the wall as I stand precariously perched on my bed.
Simple: My older brother’s bedroom was on the other side of that wall and he was listening to music. It was the undeniably unique rhythmic drum click intro to “Come Out and Play” that segues into a knowing voice who advises: “You gotta keep ’em separated.”
I never owned the Offspring’s breakthrough album Smash, but my brother sure did. Since I am ninja-sneaky/a typical little brother that definitely means I often slipped into his room while he was gone and “borrowed” many an album. Meticulously replacing it when I was done listening (Belated apologies for this privacy invasion, Todd!).
I have to pause and give mad props to one of our Collection Developers: Perry Hartmann. He does a stellar job curating the library’s music and movie collections. I especially love that he routinely sneaks some older gems in with the new stuff. When I saw Smash on the “On Order” list I cracked a huge teen-aged sized smile. Don’t you love it when a lost musical friend from your past pops back in to say “Hey”?
Listening to Smash now more than 20 years later feels like a strange sort of homecoming. I know every track just like I knew exactly how to perfectly re-stack Todd’s CDs every time way back in the day.
Smash is a powerhouse album. Anchored solidly by the smash-hits (pun intended) “Come Out and Play” and the ode to self-loathing, “Self Esteem.” It boils over with youthful angsty energy and Pop Punk sing-alongs (My fave is the “Woah-OO-oh!!” in “Something to Believe In”). “Bad Habit” also includes the most cathartic (albeit absurdly inappropriate) string of road rage expletives ever recorded. (Put the earmuffs on the kiddos for this one! Well, actually for the whole album!).
Of course, the album is not without it’s missteps. “Killboy Powerhead” sounds precisely like a strange throwaway track you would expect from an unknown early 90’s rock band. Which, to be fair, the Offspring WAS an unknown early 90’s rock band when it was recorded.
But on the whole this album holds up to the years. I always like backtracking to those pinpoint albums that propel a band into stardom. They are always so raw and honest and full of promise. I feel like a lot of bands never can tap back into that well once they break through.
Maybe that’s kind of what happened to The Offspring in my eyes. They went on to have a string of hits after Smash. They were pretty fly singing “Nah nah why don’t you get a job!” But in my ears this would always be the album that they never were able to match.
Slide down the curve into this 1990’s time machine that’s primed and ready for your ears.
Faves: “Gotta Get Away,” “Something To Believe In,” “Come Out and Play” and “Self Esteem.”
Dr. Hook – Greatest Hooks (2007…but really the 70’s)
“Well we’re big rock singers – We got golden fingers
And we’re loved everywhere we go.
(That sounds like us!)” – “Cover of the Rolling Stone”
Question: Is it cheating to recommend a Greatest Hits album?
Answer: (Since I’m making the rules here) “No!” because Greatest Hits albums can themselves be great albums (Duh Kyle, it’s in the name) and they can also spur on musical discoveries.
This was another album I came across while perusing the library’s recently purchased selections (A great way to find and take risk free serendipitous chances on new music).
The entirety of things I knew about Dr. Hook prior to listening to this disc:
They had a huge hit about being on the cover of the Rolling Stone that actually led to them being on the cover of the Rolling Stone.
That song was penned by beloved quirky children’s author Shel Silverstein.
That’s it. Literally all I knew.
I wasn’t alive in the 70’s, so I missed out on the fact that Dr. Hook actually had a pretty good run during that decade. Unfortunately, time has whittled that run down to mere one-hit wonder status but I was pleasantly surprised to get some education on the remainder of Dr. Hook’s hooks. This is where the power of the greatest hits album lies.
I often wonder what music I would have been listening to if I was alive in certain time periods. Would I have been a fan of the light-rockin’ Dr. Hook jams or would I have been Led-Zeppelin-heavy or bust? Hard to say for sure, but my 2017 self thinks this funny band of freewheelin’-hippie-looking-fellas would have been right up my musical alley. I mean, they’ve got a member who sported an eyepatch for goodness sakes! I’m in!
So whether you were a fan way back when or are in the “Dr…Who?” camp, I encourage you to take this album for a spin. Here’s three reasons why:
They clearly don’t take themselves all that seriously. “Cover of the Rolling Stone” is perfectly delivered and hilarious but to my surprise they actually had a long working relationship with Shel Silverstein. He wrote many of the tracks on this album and this band lands his quirky offbeat humor every time.
They’ve got more then just one side. Though their humorous songs are pitch perfect (“Sleeping Late” is an ode to a pillow) they can also do serious (“Carry Me Carrie”) or love sick (“Sylvia’s Mother”) or just plain groovy 70’s (“Walk Right In”).
“Carry Me Carrie” has one of those great breakdowns at the end where the singer just short circuits in the emotion and goes all vocally haywire. Think Paul at the end of “Hey Jude” screaming “Jude-ay-Jude-ay-Jude-ay-Jude-ay!” #winning.
While I’m waaay beyond the time curve on this one, I’m glad Dr. Hook finally came around my way.
Faves: “Cover of the Rolling Stone,” “Carry Me Carrie,” “The Millionaire” and “You Make My Pants Want To Get Up and Dance.”
***3 Albums was a semi-regular music series I wrote for the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library between July 2016 and January 2018.
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
There’s a nugget of ancient wisdom that has waltzed its way around the world for as long as we have walked upon it. Words whispered between mother and child and chiseled into caves by our Neanderthal forefathers. It’s passed through the pen of Shakespeare and been reiterated by scholars, shaman, mystics, crackpots, well-meaning strangers and Joe-schmos the world over.
4 simple words: “Blogger: Know thy Wheelhouse.”
Maybe that’s my muddled modern misinterpretation of some ancient wisdom. Nonetheless, it can never hurt to play to your strengths right?
Though I love to sample from the great buffet of musical delights, there is one tasty treat that always makes its way back on my plate.
The singer/songwriter is my wheelhouse. My bread and butta’. My sonic happy place. It’s the comfy chair in the musical room that perfectly fits my post-EAR-ior. (Are gluteus maximus/hearing organ puns a thing or did I just break new ground in the pun world? Either way, I’m giving a written self-five for that stellar wordplay. *right up top!*).
The singer/songwriter is the ultimate one person army. (For purposes of metaphor just ignore the fact that they usually have a loyal backing band behind them.) Armed with only a pen and an instrument they set forth to document and challenge the world around them. I usually try to restrain myself in this web-series from overindulging in my love for singer/songwriters but it’s high time I let loose and give a hearty 3 Albums salute to these modern day musical troubadours!
Care to join me for a spin in my wheelhouse?
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound (2017)
“But wherever you are I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in…” – “Hope the High Road”
On paper, I should have been listening to Jason Isbell for years. I am a casual fan of the Drive-By Truckers that he fronted during the two-thousand-oughts and he’s always populating my Amazon recommendations: “Oh you’re a fan of (enter any of Kyle’s fave artists here)? Obviously you should buy this Jason Isbell album.”
Alas, we have always been two gears of differing sizes: we just never clicked.
I love how one album can crack an artist wide open for you. Like the right key in the lock of a musician’s sound. This album turned all the tumblers for me. I’m a certified Jason Isbell fan now.
What I expected from a record titled The Nashville Sound is not what came out through my earbuds. For me the phrase evokes black and white images of the Grand ole Opry. In reality the title is more a declaration of what Nashville is evolving into, with artists like Isbell leading the charge. He (and his Southern drawl) are well steeped in his country roots but his sound is fleshed out with Americana, folk and rock elements that make it extremely palatable to those of us who aren’t too keen on anything straight-up country.
Lyrically and thematically is where Isbell truly shines the brightest. He turns any number of couplets on this album that made me literally shake my head and curse my sorry glute/ear-pun-makin’-wordsmithitude.
A few of the many stellar moments on this album:
“If We Were Vampires” turns the entire love song genre on its ear by supposing that the greatest thing about being in love is that someday it has to end.
The spot-on lyrics of “Anxiety” are book-ended by two frantic feverish instrumental build-ups that feel like a tight chested panic attack in musical form.
The whole delivery on the verses in “Hope the High Road” is inspired. It’s pure grit and determination for something better.
“Something To Love” is a beautiful gift of everything a dad could hope for his newborn baby girl.
Basically, The Nashville Sound is as though a parallel-universe-smalltown-Southern-doppelganger of me with better lyrical aptitude compiled many of my feelings into songs and recorded them. Maybe it’s a life stage perspective (Isbell and I are both mid-30’s dudes with toddler aged daughters). Perhaps our paths finally grew together or maybe this album is just fate telling me to trust those Amazon algorithms more.
(How do they know me better than I know myself?!)
Faves: “Anxiety,” “Chaos and Clothes,” “Hope the High Road” and “Something To Love.”
Aimee Mann – Mental Illness (2017)
“Stuck in the past like drawing rings around Saturn
The shadow is cast but now it follows a pattern” – “Stuck In the Past”
It is perfectly possible that in the entire known universe of album titles there is not one more apropos then Aimee Mann naming her latest release Mental Illness.
I say this not to imply anything negative about the inner workings of Mann’s cranium. (My own noggin is a grey matter rat’s nest so I’m not gonna be running my lips). It’s just that few songwriters have amassed a body of work that so clearly illuminates the teetering unease of a mind that has turned against itself.
As someone who wages war on the mental health battlefield, I greatly appreciate anyone who eases the struggle by simply giving it a voice. Especially when the voice is as honest and poetic as Aimee Mann’s.
Accordingly, this album is not easy listening. Aimee Mann isn’t a songwriter who just cuts to the bone…she finishes the job by slicing straight through the marrow. (Not unlike her cameo character in one of my desert island fave films The Big Lebowski. The film is almost 20 years old so I don’t mind giving this minor plot point SPOILER ALERT: Mann’s character cuts off her own toe expecting a handsome ransom reward but instead ends up with 9 toes and some lingonberry pancakes).
While Mental Illness may lack easy-listenitude it is nevertheless sonically breathtaking. Sparse and delicately desolate as Mann layers her voice over just a handful of instruments. It’s an interesting dichotomy between the haunting beauty of the melodies/instrumentation and the overtly melancholy lyrical content that wades neck deep (or maybe cerebrum deep) into the waters of disappointment, tragedy, betrayal and regret. The album probably wouldn’t work without these two opposing forces battling it out in such a precarious game of tug-of-war.
Just as in real life, Mental Illness doesn’t offer any easy answers to the mind’s unease. But I don’t imagine that the characters that populate its 11 tracks are doomed to a continuous audio loop of mental anguish. There’s some hidden power in simply talking (or singing) about it. The act shines a flashlight into the depths of the darkness. Equally powerful is the knowledge that no matter what the state of the space between your ears, you are definitely not alone in the fray.
That’s truly the gift that gifted songwriters give.
Faves: “Stuck in the Past,” “Rollercoasters,” “Patient Zero” and “Simple Fix.”
Sean Rowe – New Lore (2017)
“Maybe the mountain in our eyes
Looks more like a molehill from the other side…” – “Gas Station Rose”
I’m exceptionally proud that I played an itty-bitty-teeny-tiny role in this album seeing the light of day and because of that (and the fact that it’s a terrific set of songs) I’m excited to share it with y’all.
I first stumbled onto Sean Rowe’s gruff growly timbre via his catchy, soul-infused 2014 single Desiree. It’s the kind of voice that indelibly embosses itself on the metal foil of your memory.
Fast-forward a couple years and he was mounting a crowdfunded effort to independently release his next album sans-label. I decided to contribute to the cause since I’m compelled that there is a special spark glowing within his music. He sealed the deal by offering a custom mix CD as a reward option. I got to choose the theme [I picked “Autumn” of course] and now I have a handpicked mix of Sean Rowe’s fave Autumnal tunes! (I know, we’re practically besties, right?!)
Some random points of interest about the man Sean Rowe:
The dude has a splentaculuminificent beard. (Yes, I just made up a new word to talk about this fella’s facial hair because certain beards cannot be adequately described in the existing limited lexicon of our language.)
His vocal chords reach down deep. His vocal range formally resided amongst yet-undiscovered prehistoric sea creatures in some unexplored cavernous depths of the Marina Trench. It’s low, okay?
Rowe is an avid woodland forager. You can see evidence of that on New Lore’s amazing cover art. He’s one of those guys who could probably cut ties with the modern world, go live in the forest and never be heard from again. If the grid ever goes down: go find Sean Rowe.
Lyrically, Rowe weaves words with the invisible strings that tie all of us together. New Lore plays out like a series of vignettes exploring the spiderweb of relationships within Rowe’s reach.
“Gas Station Rose” is two people leaning into one another regardless the road or the roadblocks upon it.
“Promise of You” brings the hopeful gravitas of a gospel choir to a loved one’s absence.
“I’ll Follow Your Trail” is a proud father’s declaration of dedication to the wee sprouts in his keep.
“Newton’s Cradle” is one of the foot-tappiest grooves about a marital spat that you’ll likely ever come across.
New Lore is another aptly titled album as it encapsulates what we are all doing in our day-to-day — Writing new chapters in the tale of our life with the people around us.
The new lore of life are the moments that are captured by great singer/songwriters like Rowe.
(Can you see why I love them so much?)
Faves: “The Salmon,” “I’ll Follow Your Trail,” “Newton’s Cradle” and “To Leave Something Behind.”
PS: That last Fave listed (“To Leave Something Behind”) is only available on the Hoopla deluxe version of the album. If you haven’t tried our Hoopla streaming app this song is definitely more than worth the price of admission.
PPS: (Psst… the price of admission is FREE with your library card!)
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
Dang y’all, it’s hot out.
Like picnic-on-an-electric-blanket-in-a-volcano-on-the-surface-of-the-sun-whilst-eating-ghost-peppers level hotness. This heat might be making me severely prone to hyperbole…or maybe just sweat induced dehydration.
Either way, I’d better grab a beverage and put tires to blacktop.
Certain albums are at peak performance out on the open road. Song sounds spilling out open windows and colliding with the haze of the heat waves hugging the highway. Summer is an adventure and every adventure requires the perfect soundtrack.
Throw on some shades, cue these three bad boys up and let’s hit the gas. It’s summertime, we’ve got nowhere to be and all the time in the world to get there… GO!
The Shins – Heartworms (2017)
“Then a kid in class passed me a tape
An invitation, not the hand of fate…” – “Mildenhall”
Like 98.6% of the movie-going world, I first experienced The Shins at the exact same moment as Andrew Largeman (AKA: Zach Braff’s character in the [indie] classic film Garden State).
Although the scene is decidedly drippy with cheese, it manages to capture what is all too familiar to anyone who is passionate about spreading beloved sounds. Natalie Portman’s character offers him some oversized headphones and the promise of a life-changing bit of audio. (And it really does change his life!)
It’s probably the biggest “Hey, you’ve got to check out this band” coup in recorded history. Viola! The Shins instantaneously crashed onto the cultural landscape and became standard-bearers for a new golden age of indie rock. No pressure, right?
Flash-forward 13 years (through a couple of solid albums, some long hiatuses and a band shake-up/firing or two) and The Shins are back this year with an album full of indie-pop goodness that’s primed for the summer months. Well, more precisely, James Mercer (the heart/soul/body and [Shin]bones of the group) is back with said goodness.
Heartworms offers a nostalgic look at Mercer’s formative years. In “Rubber Ballz” he describes himself being “In a larval state – Drinking a minimum wage.” That line is a time machine back to summers that were heavy on freedom and low on responsibility. It was those pre-adulting-dayz when a summer could be filled to the brim with so much crucial nothing at all.
“Half a Million” and “Fantasy Island” dive into figuring out which parts of your personality are in fact actually you (and just how much of yourself should be shared with others).
“Cherry Hearts” and “Heartworms” detail those youthful relationships when you were still getting your foothold on romance and a kiss could roll your head right out the door (or leave you with a wiggling metaphorical heartworm that still hasn’t left you after all these years).
In a nod to that life-changing Garden State scene, “Mildenhall” describes formative music moments full of exchanged mixtapes, road-tripping to concerts and starter chords clanged out on his dad’s guitar.
It’s all primo summer nostalgia fodder of the highest caliber.
Plus, since this is a Shins album you will also be treated to plenty of caramel-coated- catchy hooks that will be swimming ’round the pool of your cranium all summer long. Mercer has a gift for crafting sticky wordless melodies. Think about that haunting “Ooo-oo-OOO Oo-oowee-oo-oo” that hit Andrew Largemen upside the head at the start of “New Slang.” Heartworms contains plenty of these and I will now attempt to accurately type two of my faves while simultaneously attempting to pry them from the record player in my mind:
“Painting a Hole” opens with a great monotone drone:
“Rubber Ballz” bounces off the walls with a spastic:
“Bah-da! BAH-da! Bah-da! bah-da!”
I mean, Heartworms! More like Earworms! Amiright?!
Sorry, gang. I’m pretty sure that was the heat talking.
Faves: “Fantasy Island,” “Mildenhall,” “Half A Million” and “Heartworms.”
Dan Auerbach – Waiting On A Song (2017)
“I gotta keep my Ray-Bans on – So my eyes won’t burn
While they shed new light upon – My number one concern” – “Shine On Me”
If the name Dan Auerbach doesn’t immediately clang your noggin’-bell there’s still a good chance your ears are acquainted with him. His day job is being 50% of the rock outfit The Black Keys.
When he’s not busy being a Key he’s playing music-biz-musical-chairs: sitting in as producer (Lana Del Ray, Cage the Elephant, The Pretenders), mixer, sound engineer, composer and studio guitarist. Throw in an occasional side project and it’s surprising he has time to release solo material. (But he does, cause Dan Auerbach is a BOSS).
Don’t be fooled by the bed of autumn leaves on the cover of Waiting on a Song. This new set of tunes definitely wears flip-flops and sips tropical drinks by the side of the pool. It’s a summer album incognito.
This time around, Auerbach gives a pass to the fuzzed-out-grungy-thump-rock that the Black Keys are known for and exchanges it for sparkling clean guitar sounds, heavy reverb and well placed glockenspiel twinkles. There’s a groovy surf rock feel to much of it. It’s an album that feels seamlessly comfortable jumping between modern times and the sunny 1960’s.
Some summery elements from Waiting on a Song:
“Malibu Man” is an ode to the beach city transplant that becomes all beard and bare feet. It may make you glad that we’re not anywhere near the ocean and it’s beach bums…but it may also make you secretly want to drop everything, buy a boogie board and join them.
“Shine On Me” is pure sunshine. Breezy and bright with a chorus that demands to be sung at high volume in a moving vehicle with your hands tapping the steering wheel.
“Never in My Wildest Dreams” has a gently lethargic sway that will put your mind’s eye in a shady hammock staring at shape-shifting clouds.
I’m sure the ever busy Mr. Auerbach is already knee deep into 10-15 new creative ventures, but I secretly hope he takes a quick break to hop behind the wheel and cruise around listening to this album with the breeze in his hair and his elbow hanging out the open window. I don’t know how often legitimate artists do this kind of thing with their own music, but the thought of it makes my summer heart happy.
Faves: “Livin’ In Sin,” “Shine On Me,” “Cherrybomb” and “Show Me.”
Haim – Something To Tell You (2017)
“Some things are long forgotten – Some things were never said
We were on one endless road -But I had a wandering heart…” – “Want You Back”
Summer is tailor-made for radio ready pop. It’s the reigning king/queen/jack and ace of summer music and each year we collectively search for that candy-coated behemoth of a pop song that will dominate our radio airwaves for three months as the official “Song o’ the Summer.”
I clicked off the knob to my radio almost two decades ago, having decided that I could do a better job finding music that I love on my own. This was an easy decision since straight-up modern pop tunes never did much to excite my eardrums, but it does put me at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recommending summer music. I keep my big toe dipped in the ocean of pop but I’m not one to do a running cannonball into it.
Luckily for me, three sisters with the last name of Haim are creating interesting, catchy, dynamic pop music that can bridge the gap between a curmudgeony-ol’-indie-singer-songwriter-lover like myself and folks who don’t mind hearing the same 10 sugar sweet auto-tuned songs once an hour on pop radio.
Haim is one of many bands in the 20-teens (Twenteens? 2-Oh-ones? This decade is almost over and I’m still not sure what we’re supposed to call it) that are successfully pulling inspiration from the 80’s music of their childhoods. 20/20 hindsight has allowed them to distill out the criminally insane bits (like seagull haircuts) and just focus on marrying those synth sounds that dominated that decade with a modern pop aesthetic. It doesn’t take much of a mental leap to imagine Haim tracks like “Little of Your Love” or “Ready for Love” fitting in as a perfect B-side to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
Speaking of ladies having fun, you can really tell these sisters thoroughly enjoyed making this album in the studio. Though their subject matter tends to veer toward the serious aspects of relationships and/or heartbreak, there is a thread of playfulness that runs through the mix. It’s most apparent in the creative use of background vocals and the unusual bit-part instrumental runs that are perfectly sprinkled like seasoning on the backyard grill. I’m particularly in love with the fuzzy slap bass that grooves in behind the final chorus of the opening track “Want You Back.” It’s only there for 30 seconds but it makes the song for me.
Something To Tell You flows like a summer day. The first half of the album is packed with radio-ready-sing-along-singles meant to be sung in the full blaze of the summer rays. As the album plays out the songs become more suited to a late drive at dusk during the dog days. Right before the neon gets turned on when the world is covered in long shadows and the ember orange glow of the setting sun. It’s a perfect mix of the freedom and fun of summer and the creeping-back-of-the-mind-knowledge that summer (like all the seasons) comes and goes much too quickly.
Better soak it up and sing it out while it lasts.
Faves: “Want You Back,” “Little of Your Love,” “Ready For You” and “Right Now.”
PS: I hope you’re able to get out and spill some sound waves out of open windows. Hit me up in the comments below and let me know what music is helping you keep the summer heat bearable!
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
They say old dogs aren’t keen on new tricks. They also say our brightest stars tend to live fast and die young. Recent history has painfully reminded us that the latter adage is far too often true.
BUT! Sometimes the greats just keep on keepin’ on. Like an Energizer Bunny with a record contract they continue bangin’ that proverbial (and literal) drum. Some old dogs even continue to do new things along the way.
The three artists-turned-legends featured this time ’round have racked up an impressive combined longevity up on the stage that clocks in just shy of 160 years. Egads! 160 years!
From the looks of it, these three seem to still be far from the finish line.
Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome (2016)
“You put poison in my coffee instead of milk or cream
You’re ’bout the evilest woman that I ever seen…” – “Commit A Crime”
One famous question can effectively sort the entirety of rock music fandom. Beatles or Stones?
It’s a strangely revealing query that will get to the heart of what plucks your rock n’ roll strings. For me, the answer will always be the former. I’m #beatles4life. Surprise! You didn’t expect that in a Rolling Stones review did ya?
BUT! (And it’s a big one)…
It’s virtually impossible not to concede that The Stones are THE quintessential rock n’ roll band. They embody it. While the Beatles burned phosphorous bright and quickly imploded, the Stones managed to keep their musical spark glowing through six long decades. I’m firmly in the Beatles camp, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have some mad love for the Stones.
It’s exciting to see that infamous tongue (turned blue) on something new — their first studio outing since 2005’s A Bigger Bang. It’s also their first album of 100% cover songs with tracks pulled straight from memory lane as they tear through the old blues catalog that first drew them together as a band.
And it clicks really well.
Blues is one of those genres that prerequisites life experience as fuel to thrive. Remember back in the 90’s when there was that string of way-too-young teenage blues prodigies? Kenny Wayne Shepard, Jonny Lang and their ilk were always such a musically disorienting phenomenon to me because those guys had the guitar chops to SOUND like the blues but they didn’t have the years behind them to really FEEL like the blues.
It’s probably similar here. A 1962 Rolling Stones show was probably a blast and loaded with kinetic, youthful energy. However, I’m willing to wager that we got a better blues album by waiting 60 years.
I mean, imagine an 18-year-old Mick Jagger delivering the aforementioned deadly java line from “Commit A Crime.” I would be more than a little skeptical: “C’mon chap, you prolly still live with your mummy! Is she serving you killer coffee? Time to find a new flatmate, bloke!” (<– My sincere apologies to the British people. Even in print I manage to royally butcher your accent).
Now, when an 80-year-old Jagger growls out that same line you know that something this crazy HAD to have happened to him at least once in 60 years of rock n’ roll! The blues sharpens when it rings true.
Mick is hands-down the highlight of this record. His voice is still strong and his harmonica spits dragon fire. The boys behind him keep it locked down and the entire effort feels loose and unforced.
Hopefully, we’ll get to hear some more original material with the Jagger/Richards byline in the near future, but Blue and Lonesome is a perfect nostalgic pause for this legendary group.
Faves: “Just Your Fool,” “I Gotta Go,” “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” and “Just Like I Treat You.”
Van Morrison – Keep Me Singing (2016)
“Head on down the roadside – Well I’m singing, playing my songs
Doing just what I know how to do – Right here where I belong.” – “Keep Me Singing”
Van Morrison has one of those voices. Earthy yet ethereal. Carved out of the Irish winds and dipped in honey by some otherworldly mystic spirit.
For me, he’s one of a very exclusive club (with the likes of the imitable Johnny Cash) whose members possess a certain magic in their vocal chords. His very soul seems to seep in and spill out with the words.
Van is also one of those rare artists who’s managed to keep his muse in the neighborhood for the entire length of his career. This is an exceptional feat. Age seems to steal creativity and inspiration from a lot of music artists. The distance between albums gets stretched further and further apart and other songwriters’ songs often overshadow original material.
Not Van the Man, though. His quill dips into a seemingly inexhaustible inkwell. He has rarely gone more than a couple of years without releasing new original material. He’s certainly well aware of this fact and proudly wears it on his (album) sleeve. His 2012 studio release carried the appropriate mantel: Born to Sing: No Plan B. Last year he followed that up with the thoroughly enjoyable Keep Me Singing.
Throughout his career, Van has explored a wide swath o’ styles often bending and blending rock, pop, folk, celtic, soul and R&B. So it’s hard to fault Keep Me Singing for not breaking much new stylistic ground. He’s at a point of mastery where he can simply mix and match across his genre palette and come up with a seamless blend of flavors.
Lyrically he continues to utilize his usual suspects to write engaging sentiments. Nature (“Every Time I See a River”), romance (“Let It Rhyme”), spirituality (“Holy Guardian Angel”), creativity (“The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword”), his homeland (“Going Down to Bangor”) and the seasons are all old friends that pop in for a visit. Van and I share an affinity for Autumn and over the years he has penned a small platoon of songs revolving around the season (“Autumn Song,” “Moondance,” “When the Leaves Come Falling Down” and “Golden Autumn Day,” just to name a few). This go around he adds the bittersweet “Memory Lane” to that Autumnal army.
Van is one of those true troubadours who will probably keep right on performing until the very end of the line. Hopefully, right now somewhere in Ireland he’s busy whispering to his muse and stoking the fire of another collection of tunes to bring into the world.
Faves: “Every Time I See a River,” “Memory Lane,” “Look Beyond the Hill” and “Too Late.”
Bob Dylan – Triplicate (2017)
“Never thought my heart could be so ‘yearny’ – Why did I decide to roam?
Gotta take that sentimental journey – Sentimental journey home” – “Sentimental Journey”
*Imaginary phone convo between Bob Dylan and his People:*
Bob Dylan’s People: “Bob, great to hear from you. How are things going in the studio?”
Bob Dylan: “We’re almost done. It’s gonna be my first ever triple album.”
BDP: “Fantastic! You know, on your last two albums you exclusively covered Frank Sinatrian-American Songbook-crooner tunes and then you became the first musician to win a Nobel Prize for Literature… so, I’ve got a good feeling that the world’s gonna go nuts over a triple dose of long-awaited new original Dylan songs…”
BD: “No, no… no original material. It’s a triple disc of 30 more American Songbook tunes.”
BDP: *Exasperated silence* “…but Bob… why?!”
BD: “…Because I’m Bob Dylan.” *click*
I’m not sure how often Bob Dylan utters the phrase “Because I’m Bob Dylan,” but I secretly hope that it’s on a near daily basis. Bob Dylan is the only human being who has ever perfected the art of being Bob Dylan and it would be a shame for him not to cash in on the perks that come along with that.
I realize that statement is weird, but so is the enigmatic life and career of Bobby D. When an artist has spent 50-some years defying categorization, zigging when he should be zagging, and keeping critics and fans alike in a constant guessing game, you shouldn’t be too surprised by anything he does. Even so, this newly released triple-decker sandwich of old American standards can only be categorized as blatantly Bob Dylan.
Let’s get the obvious argument out of the way: these songs were penned for the silky smooth vocals of Rat Packers or lounge lizards and not the rusty old gravel road of a voice that occupies Dylan’s throat. Truth-be-told Bob’s vocals sound better on “Triplicate” than they have on any album he’s put out in the last decade, but that’s still a far cry from saying these tunes are built in his wheelhouse. However, in some Dylanesque-sleight-of-hand-magic his weary voice adds glimpses of hidden emotion to many of these tunes. Subtle moments of melancholy, nostalgia and even joy shine through on the wings of his trembled delivery.
“Triplicate” also demonstrates Dylan’s immense talent as an arranger. It’s often overlooked in the gargantuan shadow of his original writings, but Dylan really has a great eye (I mean ear) for putting a spin other folks’ work. “The Best Is Yet To Come” is an excellent example. Dylan starts it out super-low-key and lets it simmer on the stove through the first few minutes. By the end of the piece the whole thing has boiled over in a beautiful brass-filled bonanza of a hopeful lover’s pure optimism. It’s my favorite arrangement of a song that has been through the mill about as many times as Dylan himself!
Dylan tends to work in sets of three. Many of his albums can be thematically or stylistically grouped into unofficial trilogies. (Think: Bringing It All Back Home/Highway 61 Revisited/Blonde on Blonde or in more recent years Time Out of Mind/Love and Theft/Modern Times). So it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he shifts gears after this trilogy of Songbook albums. Then again, he is Bob Dylan. So a four disc set of more crooner tunes wouldn’t really surprise me either!
You do you, Bob. You. Do. You.
Disc 1 Faves: “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plans,” “The September of My Years” and “Trade Winds.”
Disc 2 Faves: “Braggin’,” “Imagination” and “The Best Is Yet to Come.”
Disc 3 Faves: “Day In, Day Out,” “These Foolish Things” and “You Go To My Head.”
PS: Be on the lookout for new albums from some other legendary long-time greats later in 2017. Rumor has it we can expect new tunes from Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, a postmortem set from Chuck Berry and a final retirement album from the one and only Aretha Franklin!
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
Ah, the idiosyncratic. The charmingly odd. The place just a little left of the usge.
In a word: Quirky.
I’m magnetically drawn to music that doesn’t mind showing off some quirk. In fact, the quirkiest song on any given album will probably be the one that I end up playing a zillion times on an infinite loop. So, I feel like we should take a moment and give a hearty “Hurrah!” for some artists making music in the Key of Quirk. I affectionately call this the ol’ “3 Albums 3 Cheers!”
Because, truth be told, quirky is a tough nut to crack. It takes a special squirrel. Overshoot and you end up in the uninhabitable terrain of the”weird.” Reign in your idiosyncrasies too far and you’re stuck in the wide suburban expanse of the “passably normal.” There’s a slim little sweet spot where the quirk-magic happens and I tip my hat to all the artists that build their home in the sacred space of the lovably different.
So, let’s serve it up hot: 3 quirky albums from 3 quirktastic artists… GO!
Lake Street Dive – Side Pony (2016)
“I got a parrot of hair on my shoulder – It’s apparent it’s there, and it’s bolder.” – “Side Pony.”
OMGoodness ya’ll, it’s been a long dang while since I stumbled upon a new (to me) band that I dig as much as Lake Street Dive. I feel somewhat fashionably late to the party, since these cats have been garnering a growing level of well-deserved attention over the past few years.
A good deal of that acclaim has come in the wake of the super catchy album Side Pony. Yes…the album is named after a (quirky) hairstyle but these good folks also turned the phrase into a mantra for being yourself as well as a new slang term for a lover on the DL (Youths: are we still using “DL” … No? Ok, thanks).
My 3yo daughter is a superfan of the opening track. “Godawful Things” may be it’s official title but she lovingly refers to it as: “Huh!” because it kicks off with a cathartic deep-in-the-gut grunt. That’s thing #1 to love about them: Their bgvox are ON POINT and you’ll find yourself tempted to join in on the action (and you should absolutely submit to this temptation).
Once lead vocalist Rachael Price starts singing it’s a little difficult to focus on anything else. She’s got this unique/smokey/powerful set of pipes that is equal parts stunning and engaging. Feel free to lose yourself listening to her. Just remember to come back and recognize that the other three are doing equally cool stuff around her.
A perfect example of said cool stuff: “Godawful Things” ends with a dramatic tempo-change-slowjam-breakdown that eventually bursts back to the original “Huh!” hook to close things out. This band formed at a jazz conservatory so they’ve all got mad musical chops and they sprinkle these more complex maneuvers into their songs with aplomb.
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of other quirky things I love about Lake Street Dive:
Bridget Kearney plays an upright bass which is unicorn-level rare for a rock-pop outfit. The subtle but distinct difference adds a metric ton to the band’s unique aesthetic.
The guitarist/trumpeter goes by the handle “McDuck.” Enough said.
Completely unrelated to the music: Drummer Mike Calabrese bears a passing resemblance to Nick Miller from the TV series New Girl (which is also infused with the quirk). Since Nick Miller speaks to the very depths of my soul I can’t help but think that Mike Calabrese is probably awesome. (I fully acknowledge the 100% illogical nature of this line of thinking).
For Halloween they dress up like classic bands and put out videos of cover songs. Here they are as Queen (complete with Freddie ‘stache).
Don’t panic if you haven’t found the Lake Street Dive party yet. Here’s the address: Side Pony. Now, get over here and get your quirk on!
Quirky Faves: “Godawful Things,” “Spectacular Failure,” “Side Pony,” and “Hell Yeah.”
Regina Spektor – Remember Us To Life (2016)
“‘Enjoy your youth’ – Sounds like a threat… But I will anyway.” – “Older and Taller.”
Regina Spektor is a bonâ fide patron saint of the quirk. She’s certainly one of the first artists my head conjures up when tasked to ponder music à la quirk.
She so consistently bends her songs in a million little ways that make her just a smidgen different from everything else out there. Quirk seems to be embedded in her musical DNA and it manifests itself in style arrangements, lyrical choice, and her oft unorthodox vocalizations.
Some songwriters are really great at building worlds with words. Regina is a song world constructor. Each track has its own space and identity but yet they all flow together on the river of her unique Regina-ness.
Here’s some of the worlds you can find on Remember Us to Life:
The teenage outcast’s daily torment as viewed through the lens of someone whose strength has grown out of similar experiences (“Bleeding Heart”).
The perfect getaway spot is not what it appears to be on the surface…since it was built on a tunnel to hell (“Grand Hotel”).
An infinite amount of possibilities await you as you open your eyes to the first rays of sunshine on your pillow (“The Light”).
An imagined topsy-turvey place where “those who don’t have lose and those who got get given more, more, more, more.” (“The Trapper and the Furrier”).
Ok, maybe that last one is a bit more rooted in our real world than Regina’s imagination… but this album is certainly a little more hard-hitting than some of her past offerings. It’s tracks contain an air of wisdom that only comes from someone who is learning with every step of her journey. Regina certainly seems to be doing that and speaking out truth to fellow travelers.
So here’s 11 tracks of her quirky wisdom: Absorb as needed for what ails ya.
Quirky Faves: “Bleeding Heart,” “Older and Taller,” “Small Bill$,” and “The Light.”
Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now (2017)
“You mouth out ‘I love you’ – The way a parent spells out ice cream:
‘I-L-O-V-E-Y-O-U,’ like there’s kids in the room.” – “Our First Fight.”
Quirkiness keeps things loose and interesting. It’s an antidote to the typical. So it’s particularly interesting to see a musician inject quirk into ordinary occurrences and use it to expose the extraordinary there within.
That’s the best description I’ve got for Swedish artist Jens Lekman. He can wrangle a song around the smallest passing moment or uttered phrase. Once he’s done wrestling with it… something profound (and surprisingly danceable) remains.
Consider some brief moments that became tracks on this album:
A friend 3D prints a replica of a recently removed tumor to have a concrete reminder of the little thing that caused so much fear (“Evening Prayer”).
A passing whiff of a ex-lover’s scent sets off a samba dance chorus of memories (“What’s That Perfume That You Wear?”).
That beautiful moment when you realize that your relationship might be stronger than a big blow-up (“Our First Fight”).
The genesis of a relationship gets a full-blown cosmic treatment when Jens rewinds the tale all the way to the Big Bang (“How We Met, the Long Version”).
This album feels like a fresh start for Jens Lekman. It’s his first proper album since 2012. In the years in between he wrestled intensely with songwriting and identity. This self-induced cage-match eventually led to a 2015 project/resolution where he wrote, recorded, and released one song each week of the year (Postcards). It would seem this arduous exercise stripped away most of his creative self-doubt because it cleared the way for this truly lovely (and quirky) piece of work.
But… just in case any of that pesky self-doubt still remains:
Jens: I-L-O-V-E-T-H-I-S-A-L-B-U-M. Keep putting your quirky self out there and I’ll keep listening (and encouraging others to do the same).
Quirky Faves: “To Know Your Mission,” “Evening Prayer,” “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel,” and “Wedding in Finistère.”
PS: All right gang, don’t forget to keep it quirky out there. If ya got a favorite band or album full of the quirk that I need to hear please drop it for me in the comments below.
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
To borrow a phrase from an upcoming season of a mildly popular television program: Winter. Has. Come.
Ya’ll know that, in my world, music and the seasons go together like sleet on snow. Though winter can be a bit slippery in this regard (might be all the ice).
Here’s a comprehensive list of what I associate with “wintry” music:
Melancholy, bare-trees-stripped-down acoustic music.
There are folks that go full-tilt into wintry music. My brother is one of these strange creatures who make it through the coldest 1/4 of the year on a sonic diet of what I can only describe as “really freaking depressing tunes.”
On the other (gloved)hand, a lot of us don’t have the mental fortitude for this full-immersion technique. What with the cold. The snow. The boxed-indoors blues. Some of us definitely need some joyful mood-altering musical happiness to offset the season’s natural slant towards gloominess.
Since we all cope differently with the winter months, I’m gonna divvy up this post to let you winter the way that best (snow)suits you.
It will be *almost* exactly like those Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a kid that put you in control of the story’s destiny. (I say “almost” because a wrong decision here won’t get you eaten by a snake or ejected from the capsule in deep space. Man, looking back, those books were hardcore treacherous!).
I present: The 3 Albums: Choose Your Own Ad-winter-e (<– See what I did right there?)
For those of you who prefer to spend a balanced winter by the fire sipping equally from a steaming mug of happy and a stingy shot of somber: head out on the Shovels & Rope Little Seeds path.
For those of you who like to dive headfirst into the bleakness of the bare boned season until you are engulfed in an avalanche of your own thoughts, slide down the ice-covered mountainside of Conor Oberst’s Ruminations.
For those of you who need to ball up your mitten’d fists and fight back against the soul-crushing-bittercold wind with a bright-shiny-dancing ray of musical sunshine: journey along with Pink Martini’s Je dis oui!
It’s all up to you: Pick a path and… GO!
Shovels & Rope – Little Seeds (2016)
“I need more fingers to count the ones I love – This life may be too good to survive.” – “St. Anne’s Parade.”
Option 1: Congrats on sticking to the middle of the road this winter (kept clear by the snowplows). But playing it safe doesn’t have to be boring!
There is an exciting dynamic at play when you have a music duo who also happen to be a couple offstage. Might be the synergy of a relationship that’s deeper than the music.
Whatever magic is at play: Shovels & Rope have it in spades.
Wife/husband duo Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent were each talented solo artists prior to forming S&R but like the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers or the Planeteers, their full potential is only on display once they combine their powers.
Things I love about Shovels & Rope:
They almost always sing in tandem. Their voice combo kinda transforms into its own unique voice and you start to miss it when you hear them sing solo.
They’re unafraid of dark subject matter, but usually do it with a twinkly wink in their eye that hints at the other side of the coin. The silver lining always feels present even if not explicit.
They are an Americana band that doesn’t sound exactly like an Americana band. They skirt all the edges of the genre and flirt with all the sounds that live nearby.
They are also extremely deft at one of my all-time favorite musical devices: Gatling-gun-fire lyric delivery – when it feels like someone cranked the cap off a word-hydrant inside the singer’s mouth and the lyrical flow just cascades out somehow dropping in Tetris-like perfection as coherent thoughts.
“Botched Execution” is a primo example. I’ve listened to it numerous times just trying to figure out where they take time to breathe. My conclusion: these two must each have a third (and possibly a fourth) lung.
Little Seeds swings through the whole gamut as it plays out. It’s a sip of sorrow and a swig of happy and that will keep you right down the middle this winter.
Favs: “Botched Execution,” “Buffalo Nickel,” “Invisible Man,” and “This Ride.”
Conor Oberst – Ruminations (2016)
“‘Cause the mind and the brain aren’t quite the same – but they both want out of this place.” – “Gossamer Thin.”
Option 2: You are indeed a brave soul… ready to jump into the thought-labyrinth of your mind this winter and (hopefully) come out stronger on the other side.
You have an apt guide in Conor Oberst.
Conor is a bit of a musical enigma. I can’t pull him up in my mind without seeing Bob Dylan in the same mental room. NOT that they are exactly the same (only Bob has the Nobel Prize) but there are distinct lines you can draw between them:
I consider both to be the most unique musical wordsmiths of their generation
Both have singing voices that should not have found acclaim in the music industry (but for the fact that they were singing the aforementioned stellar words).
Both squirrel out of any attempts at musical pigeonholing. You can’t nail either down.
Conor’s new album Ruminations certainly helps reinforce said parallels. For the first time in his genre-swapping career we hear him stripped down to the bone. It’s 100% guitar or piano, harmonica, and voice (Dylan legally holds the rights to any mental association drawn from the guitar/harmonica combo).
However, Oberst’s brain is clearly not wired like any other human brain on this earth (even Bob’s) and it produces spellbinding trains of lyrical thought. He goes deep-sea-dark in dreamlike fashion through the course of any given song tying together strings of thoughts and words that have never before co-existed.
His trademarked warble voice delivery further lets him bend the English language to his will. For instance, the words “hot” and “bazaar” shouldn’t and don’t rhyme. Except when Conor sings “Barbary Coast (Later).” His songs are overpopulated with these unique rhyme pairings.
Ruminations was written last winter in Oberst’s hometown of Omaha. He spent the season recuperating after a hospitalization for laryngitis and exhaustion spelled an early end to his tour with his rock/punk outfit Desaparecidos (did I mention Conor likes to genre-bend). The album has the full barbell weight you would expect from a snow-covered midwest winter spent musing about life and career and where you are headed.
In short, my brother will love it. Maybe you will too, brave soul.
Favs:”Counting Sheep,” “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch),” and “A Little Uncanny.”
Pink Martini – Je Dis Oui! (2016)
“Tu chasses mes ennuis. Tu peins de ta main les couleurs de ma vie”– “Joli Garçon.”
(Translation: “You chase away my troubles. You paint with your hand the colors of my life” – “Pretty Boy”).
Option 3: You’re optimism is inspiring! Hopefully, with the right music the sun will be shining wherever you go this winter…
Pink Martini is unique. You can say that about many a band… but, seriously, though: Pink Martini is unique.
Some fun Pink Martini factoids to share at your next cocktail party:
They are a band from Portland, but really band is not the correct word… mini-orchestra is more appropriate (12 members).
They are about all things global and collaborative. They have recorded songs in more languages than I have fingers and toes (and I have all 10 of each). This album alone features songs in 8 different languages.
They make truly joyful music! (punctuated with an exclamation point because I feel everything Pink Martini does should end with a great big “!”)!
That last factoid is the thing that grabbed me about this band: They exude JOY. That’s something you just can’t fake or have the producer add to the mix in post-production (as of yet, there’s no “Joy” nob on the mixer).
So, to get an idea of what you’re in for with Je Dis Oui! (French for “I Say Yes!”… note the exclamation point!), think pop-orchestra meets jazz meets musical theater meets a trip ’round the world meets dancing meets, of course, JOY. Oh, and to truly tip the scales: Rufus Wainwright stops by and sings “Blue Moon.” #winning.
Now to be fully honest with you: The World Music genre is not my typical go-to. I think it’s because lyrics are my #1 musical draw. I love lyrics that I can sink my teeth into and that’s why singer/songwriters are my musical bread and butter. I can appreciate the aesthetics of lyrics in a language I don’t comprehend but it’s not quite the same.
Thankfully, there are bands like Pink Martini that crossover this gap for me and can make me truly enjoy something I’m not typically drawn to. It’s the joy that does that for me. It’s always refreshing to listen to pure audio-joy.
So, if this album can’t beat back the winter blues then we’re all in trouble. We might have to just hunker down and wait it out!
Favs: “Joli Garçon,” “The Butterfly Song,” “Segundo,” and “Pata Pata.”
Don’t worry gang…all paths through winter (eventually) lead back to spring! Let me know in the comments below what musical remedies are getting you through the coldest days of the year!
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
3…2…1… HAPPY NEW YE…
Wait! Hold your horses, folks! 2016 still has to burn through a few more hours before we regroup, rewind and restart the whole shabang over again. “From the top” as those musician-types are so fond of saying.
Any music commentator worth their salt is using the dying year’s dwindling days to formulate a list of great music that has been released during the last 365 days. Sifting through the rubble and rubbish to bring to light their glorious gleaming BEST OF 2016 lists!
SPOILER: I don’t have a BEST OF 2016 3 Albums for you.
GASP! For shame, Kyle! Think of the children!
I know, I know. I’ve always struggled to come up with year-end best-of lists. I have plenty of good excuses though:
I’m just too wishy-washy to nail it down. (Truth!)
I’m not linear enough for the task. Many of my favorite “new” finds of this year weren’t released in 2016.
The sheer numbers game makes it too much of a daunting task. Hold on for some math kids!
Now-a-days, it’s impossible to accurately estimate how many albums are released each year. The music world is broader and wider than it’s ever been and artists have a plethora of different avenues to get their music out. A ballpark-edumacated-guesstimate would easily put the number of yearly album releases over 100,000.
EGADS! A best-of edition of 3 Albums would consist of what I consider the upper-stratosphere-tip-toppiest 3/100,000. That’s insane… there’s just too much fantastic music out there to make such bold declarations! What I am comfortable doing is giving you 3 releases from this past year that spent a lot of time in my ears and brought me a good deal of musical joy. It may not be definitive but I promise they’re definitely good!
So here’s approximately 0.00003% of this year’s music that I think you should hear before starting in on 2017’s tunes. GO!
Sara Watkins – Young In All the Wrong Ways (2016)
“I’m going out to see about my own frontier” – “Young In All the Wrong Ways”
Speaking of math and fractions: 8 is the number of years Sara Watkins had spent on this Earth when she became 1/3 of a little seminal-progressive-bluegrass band named Nickel Creek.
(8 years old! What?! Who does that?! Sara Watkins does.)
In the 25+ years since, she’s kept busy making lots and lots of quality music. I’ve kept an ear tuned to most of it but nothing has knocked me upside the head quite like her third solo album which came out this summer.
There has been a steady shift in the role Sara has taken in her musical endeavors. She has always been a great arranger, singer and violinist. It is in more recent years that she has fully begun to embrace her role as a Boss (with a capital B) songwriter. This is the first time she’s had a hand in writing 100% of the tracks on a record and as they say: The proof is in the pudding.
The album starts with a well executed red herring: a timid, almost apologetic, hushed voice repeats the titular phrase a couple times before giving way to a clangy electric guitar against an aggressive drum backbeat. It soon becomes clear that Watkins WAS young in all the wrong ways, but she ain’t talkin’ present tense.
This album is a confident declaration and the courage to change is the message. Even musically this theme is clear: Sara only picks up her signature violin for 2 or 3 of the 10 tracks. Like a bad dye-job (ZING!), the traces of her bluegrass roots are scattered here and there but her sound has become something more.
The whole album balances precariously in the present, in the strange way things do when you have one eye focused in your past and one eye fixed on the future horizon (something we all like to do around the New Year). One thing is clear, though: Sara will probably keep changing it up as she puts down her next step and I will be along for the listen wherever she ends up.
Favs: “Young in all the Wrong Ways,” “One Last Time,” “Move Me,” “Like New Year’s Day”
Ladyhawke – Wild Things (2016)
“Let it roll… Let it roll… Let it roll like a newborn soul” – “Let It Roll“
Anyone that’s taken a peek at my previous recommendations will catch on pretty darn quick that I’m drawn to the plucky buzz of an acoustic guitar over the bleeps and bloops of a synthesizer. So Ladyhawke‘s Wild Things is probably a somewhat unusual choice for me to feature (curveball ya’ll!).
I think strong songwriting can easily cut through your particular genre preferences if you’re open to it.
The strong songwriting on Wild Things is courtesy of Phillipa “Pip” Brown, the New Zealander behind the Ladyhawke moniker. She’s one of a growing group of songwriters from recent years that are producing modern music that have there feet strongly rooted in the 80’s sonic landscape.
As a child of the 80’s, I find it downright awesome that she includes 8-bit video games among her list of influences. It certainly comes through in the music: Close your eyes during the intro of many of the songs on this album and you may find yourself thinking “Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start!”
In addition to the quirky, catchy grooves it was Ladyhawke’s heartfelt lyrics that drew me in. She has the ability to turn quite a wonderful phrase. One that caught me completely off guard shows up in “Wonderland” when she describes something as being “like that heart shake feeling from your favorite band.”
There’s a unique emotion that is evoked by hearing the music that resonates most closely with the particular beating of your heart. I think “that heart shake feeling” comes pretty close to zeroing in on it and I recommend this phrase to anyone in the serious business of gushing about bands that just click.
So in that spirit: Check out Ladyhawke and maybe (just maybe) you’ll feel that beautiful heart shake feeling residing in the bloops and bleeps.
Favs: “The River,” “Let It Roll,” “Golden Girl,” and “Wonderland”
The Shelters: The Shelters (2016)
“Yeah it’s all what you make it – Everything I touch turns gold.” – “Gold”
Every musician is molded by their influences. They peek through the cracks in the new songs a band creates. Music artists walk a very thin tightrope of wanting to create what they already enjoy but also letting their unique voice come through. Often times it falls flat and a band sounds like they are trying too hard to imitate the greats that came before them.
Occasionally, you get an album that is steeped in all the band’s influences without sacrificing what feels like a fresh authentic voice. Enter: The Shelters.
According to their bio, The Shelters were given the dream opportunity that would make any aspiring musician’s jaw drop. Tom Petty was at one of their early performances and saw enormous potential. He invited them to record their debut album at his studio. Talk about a great endorsement (+ about 100 metric tons of pressure to produce!). However, Tom Petty probably has a pretty reliable gut feeling for these things and the Shelters rose to the occasion and made a really bang-up debut.
The self-titled The Shelters album almost serves as a course study: Rock n’ Roll 101. Every song feels like a different chapter in music history. You get traces of rootsy folk/blues (“Nothin’ In The World…”), hints of late 60’s Beatles (Dandelion Ridge), 70’s stadium rockers (“Birdwatching” & “Liar”), and several tracks that could be pulled from the broad spectrum of the past three decades of indie-rock (“Ghost Is Gone” & “Gold”).
In the most appropriate homage, the opening track “Rebel Heart” would have fit in perfectly on any vintage Tom Petty album.
Yet throughout the track listing you don’t get the sense that these songs are trying to be something they’re not… they are just the collective product of four guys that obviously have deep love for the entirety of Rock history. Stranger still, you never feel that all these different Rock genres are ill-fitting as a whole.
It’s an album that makes you excited to hear what this band will do next. Hopefully, The Shelters will dive further into their unique voice that is separate from but also a distinct product of all those that came before.
Favs: “Rebel Heart,” “Birdwatching,” “Gold,” “Never Look Behind Ya”
PS: So long 2016. Happy New Year and Auld Lang Syne and all that jazz! Here’s to more music to come… and kudos to you if you’re bold enough to have a definitive BEST OF list for 2016 – leave it for me in the comments below!
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
FA-LALALA-LAAAA-LA-LET’S TALK TUUUUUUNES!
As per usual, with blatant disregard to our degree of readiness, the holidays have snuck up on us again. The change comes ninja-quick and odds are your first clue will be that the music you listen to 11/12ths of the year has been stealthily swapped with the shiny jingle of sleigh bells and glockenspiels. (Kudos to the holidays on this… it’s insanely difficult to be stealthy whilst carrying jingle bells).
Full confession: I have a big ol’ soft spot for Christmas music but it disappoints me that so much of it gets churned out as tired cookiecutter fluff. Slap that new voice over the oft-used arrangement and ship it out to be downloaded and distributed.
Bah Humbug to that, good sir or madame! Put something unique under my tree, please! I love artists who take the time to add something new to the Christmas canon or at least bring a different groove to that centuries-old carol.
Now, I know that tradition is the bright ember that gives the holidays a good deal of its warm fuzzy glow…
So, don’t fret Bing, Burl and Lee’s both Brenda and Peggy: traditional holiday music will always occupy a fond, fire-lit room in our collective hearts. However, if I’ve learned anything from classic Christmas movies, it’s that our hearts have the capacity to grow (sometimes up to 3 sizes in one sitting!).
So in that (Christmas) spirit:
Here’s 3 non-cookiecutter albums that dare to trod outside the well-reindeer-hoof-beaten path of holiday tunes… GO!
1. Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (2006)
“Santa Claus is coming! Hear the banjos strumming!” – “Come on! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!”
It’s rare when you come across an album that you get to designate as “Life Changing.” It’s even more rare for it to be a Christmas album. Strange as it may seem, Songs for Christmas literally altered the trajectory of my life.
Sufjan Stevens seems to be custom-made for Christmas music. His music effortlessly seems to weave the ordinary with the divine and the joyous with the somber. Similarly, Christmas is a crossroads where so many unusual traditions and feelings intersect.
So it’s not surprising when heartbreaking songs like “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” occupy the same tracklisting as rapturous sing-a-long anthems like “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!” With the Sufjan treatment, even traditional hymns like “Come Thou Fount” feel just as Christmas-y as over-the-top original numbers like “Get Behind Me, Santa!”
Stevens is known for being an multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire and he brings out all the bells and whistles and banjos and kitchen sinks for the celebration. Amidst the slew of original songs and unusual arrangements he plants short traditional instrumental numbers to keep this crazy Christmas train from going too far off the rails.
So, how did this collection of songs change my life? Back in 2006, Songs for Christmas inspired me to put on a Christmas concert that tried to embrace all the wacky wonderful faucets of the season like Sufjan’s album does. It became an annual event and over the years it grew in size and pageantry and quickly became my favorite part of the holidays. This album also inspired me to write original Christmas music and some of those songs I consider to be my best songwriting efforts to date.
This year will be the 11th Annual incarnation of that concert and it’s turned into a bonafide cherished holiday tradition for myself and many of my family and friends. Odds are this album won’t change your life quite as dramatically as it did mine. Then again, anything is possible come Christmas time…
(Fav Originals: “Put the Lights On the Tree,” “Come On! Let’s Boogey to the Elf Dance!,” “Hey Guys! It’s Christmastime!,” “Sister Winter.”)
(Fav Covers: “I Saw Three Ships,” “O Holy Night,” “The Friendly Beasts,” “Joy to the World.”)
2. She & Him – Christmas Party (2016)
“It’s the holiday season so whoop-de-doo and dickory dock and don’t forget to hang up your sock!” – “Happy Holiday”
Oh Christmas Twee, Oh Christmas Twee! The ever-so-quirky Zooey Deschanel caroled her way into our collective Christmas consciousness via an unknowing duet with Will Ferrell in the now modern-classic film “Elf.” Since then, she’s continued spreading plenty of holiday cheer with her pal M. Ward under their band moniker She & Him.
This year they released their 2nd Christmas collection and I approve. Given that this is only their 6th album total… you can assume these cats have some intense love for Christmas. I mean, Bob Dylan was 33 studio albums deep before he even put out one gravelly holiday album.
It could easily be argued that this album isn’t exactly non-cookiecutter:
Exhibit A: There are no originals.
Exhibit B: The sound is an easily accessible modern-vintage vibe that has flavored all their music.
Exhibit C: Zooey Deschanel isn’t exactly under the radar.
Valid points, Mr. Imaginary Criticizer that lives in my head! However, what I think makes Christmas Party (and to a lesser degree their first holiday album, A Very She & Him Christmas) unique is their attention to song selection.
There is a small pool of maybe 30-40 Christmas songs that repeatedly show up on a bulk of Christmas albums. This very small group of songs get an unfair amount of our holiday attention, but those songs are hardly the only presents under the tree. I raise my cup of eggnog up high to musicians like She & Him that gravitate to some of the more rare Christmas tune treats.
So settle in for this low-key Christmas Party (the close-friends-clutching-warm-mugs-while-laughing-’round-a-cracklin’-fire kinda party). Party entertainment provided by Zooey and M. taking on an oft-overlooked Sinatra gem (“Christmas Memories”), the most under-rated winter song (“A Marshmallow World”), a way better/not so creepy version of the “Baby, It’s Cold Out There” premise (“The Coldest Night of the Year”) and even a version of “All I Want for Christmas Is You” where the singer doesn’t try WAY-too-hard to be Mariah. Yeah, I’ll take an invite to that party please!
(Favs: “Must Be Santa,” “Happy Holiday,” “Christmas Memories,” “A Marshmallow World.”)
3. Nick Lowe – Quality Street (2013)
“Another Christmas Eve I was needing some proof and Brother, that’s when I heard the hooves on the roof…” – “Hooves on the Roof”
Nick Lowe is like a snowman. By that I mean he’s one cool dude. The guy’s first solo album was titled Jesus of Cool for pete’s sake! So, its no surprise that Lowe spent 40+ years making music before he put out a Christmas record. Christmas music isn’t exactly known for its high degree of hip factor.
That’s exactly why we need artists like Nick Lowe making it.
Word on that street is that Lowe balked when his label asked for a Christmas album before having the thought (I’m paraphrasing of course because I was not inside Nick Lowe’s head circa 2013): “What if I made a Christmas album that I would actually listen to? Throw out the sleigh bells and the traditional Christmas playbook and see what happens.”
And thus Quality Street came to be.
The result is a fantastic little record that doesn’t look or sound quite like any other holiday album out there. The aforementioned small pool of typical tunes is nowhere to be found. Instead, Lowe put his focus on originals, forgotten gems from the 40’s/50’s, obscure kids songs, and reimagined folk ditties. Oh, and “Silent Night” snuck in there too… but only because they came up with a rollicking shuffle version that is just too good to ignore. It’s got a horn section… it’s not exactly silent.
There’s a wide assortment of unusual genres that somehow all end up playing nice with each other. Skiffle beats alongside jazz fingersnaps alongside rockabilly stompers alongside lounge crooning. It’s the perfect respite for those who love Christmas but don’t mind dialing down those jingly-jangly bells. And of course since it’s Nick Lowe… the whole thing is cooler than the North Pole.
(Favs: “Christmas At the Airport,” “Hooves on the Roof,” “Silent Night,” “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.”)
P.S. So open yourself up to some different Christmas music this year and let the library be your Santa (we won’t climb down your chimney… but we can get new holiday music into your frost-nibbled ears).
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
Ahhhh snap! The air is crisp as a freshly picked apple and the dying leaves have turned the world into a walk-in kaleidoscope.
It is my absolute favorite time of the year… for music!
Divvying up tunes by their seasonal feels and curating seasonal mixtapes has become a full blown hobby for me. (An unusual hobby for sure… but not flat-out weird like taxidermy or ultramarathon running). Most songs find their way somewhat neatly into one or two of the four seasons because every year is a mini-journey through the whole gamut of human emotion: from the bleak, introspective winter to the freewheelin’ splashy summer and everything in between.
Autumn is deceptive though. It’s the proverbial joker in the seasonal deck.
It’s arguably the most beautiful time of the year: the mosaic landscapes, the merciful end to the summer heat, the bounty of harvest… and of course there’s Pumpkin Spice [insert almost any noun here]. But there’s more going on with Autumn than its golden glowing surface sheen might suggest.
That’s what makes Autumn music really captivating: It tugs me in all directions at once.
So here’s 3 Autumnal-y albums to put in your ears this season… and GO!
1. Field Report – Marigolden (2014)
“We are marigolden, dropping orange and umber… just barely hangin’ on…” – “Home (Leave the Lights On)”
Marigolden. A beautiful made-up word that grabs many of my Autumn feelings and crams them perfectly into 10 letters. And daggum… does this aptly-titled album do a bang-up job of capturing the aforementioned pull inherent in this season.
Simply put – this album is gorgeous through-and-through, especially in the lyric department. I have a very slack-jawed awe for songwriters who can consistently rearrange the human experience into previously unthought and unheard phrases. Field Report’s Christopher Porterfield is one of those rare songwriters. I mean, listen to some of his lines:
“Jane caught me roll my eyes and we made up constellations – of unicorns with Roman candle horn approximations.”
“Chasing sundogs to believe – I miss you more than tongues miss pulled teeth.”
Every one of his lyrics has a sort of hazy glow that reminds me of the sun rising on a dewy October Saturday morning. Everything is “gilded ’round the edges” (if I can borrow yet another of Porterfield’s lyrics).
Fair warning ya’ll: this one will pinball you through all the feels, but it’s a trip worth taking. Just as things start to seem bleak towards the middle of the album the title track lifts off over the russet landscape. As Porterfield repeats the mantra-turned-chorus: “I started to believe it”… all will be right in your leaf-carpeted world.
(Very Autumnal Tracks: “Decision Day,” “Home (Leave the Lights On),” “Marigolden”).
2. Lee DeWyze – Oil & Water (2016)
“So for awhile… just awhile… let me feel at home again.” – “Again”
Lee DeWyze had never crossed my radar prior to me happening upon this amazing humanoid-landscape album cover. That’s probably because I gave up on voice driven talent shows around the time Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken were battling it out. (Fact check: that was circa 2003). So, I missed out on a decent singer/songwriter who ended up winning American Idol during the 9th season back in 2010.
I’m part of a somewhat dying breed who still have a soft spot for great album artwork. I will give completely unknown albums a spin based on a great cover image. When I stumbled upon this one on our Hoopla app I was instantly intrigued. As an Autumn Enthusiast, my seasonal spidey senses were a-tingling.
At first glance it might not look like this pic is set in the Fall, but don’t be deceived… this cover is very Autumn. Note:
The leaves are all still somewhat greenish, but it’s a tired-barely-holding-on kind of green. It’s the last week of September green. The kind of color seen right before the yellows, oranges, and reds go gangbusters. Those leaves are losing the fight of their lives.
The birds in the background are headed south. How do I know they are headed south? Science! Look at Lee’s moss goatee. (Mosstee?). Moss tends to grow on the cooler north-facing side of things. If the mosstee is pointing north and the birds appear to be headed the other way, then we can assume it’s Autumn!
Okay, okay… maybe as an Autumn Enthusiast I’m reading too much into the cover. But I was happy to officially know that my assumptions were correct when I put on the album and 10 Autumn-tinged tracks came tumbling into my ears.
One theme really dominates this album: home. Both homecoming and home-leaving. Two somewhat contradictory themes that somehow live together in my mind during the Autumn (huh, imagine that!). It’s probably tied up in memories of leaving for college in the Fall and Homecoming pep rallies, bonfires and football games. Both concepts can stir up anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Which is just another one of those Autumnal paradoxes at work. Leave it to a road weary singer-songwriter to weave those paradoxes into words and music.
Put on Oil & Water and think about going home to see your family or setting out on an unknown adventure. Either direction you’re headed will be lined with fantastical flashy foliage.
(Very Autumnal Tracks: “Again,” “Stone,” “Learn to Fall,” “West”).
3. Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)
“There are things that drift away like our endless, numbered days
Autumn blew the quilt right off the perfect bed she made.” – “Passing Afternoon”
Finger-plucked strings and hushed whisper-sung vocals make Iron & Wine’s highly acclaimed breakout album the perfect companion to this season. It doesn’t hurt that Autumnal subject matter keeps dotting the countryside landscape of these 12 sparse but beautiful tracks.
Imagine a golden leaf saying farewell to its summer perch high up amongst the colorful canopy. Slowly it meanders in loop-de-loops and swinging arches down to its final winter resting place on the ground. Now press play on track one and let the plucky guitar strings and Sam Beam’s warm cautious voice provide the perfect soundtrack to your leaf’s final hoorah. It’s a match made for this time of year.
Autumn lives in the bones of this album. So much so that it is explicitly mentioned numerous times through the course of the album. Furthermore, the fall imagery and many themes I connect to this season crop up in nearly every song:
Birth and death.
The quick and slow passing of time (this album’s title phrase is another apt Autumnal phrase).
“Ravens in the corn,” “Birds are leaving,” and the smell of “cinder and smoke” are just a few of the harvest-time sights and senses that Beam weaves into the lyrics.
For longtime Iron & Wine fans: dust off this indie-classic album as the perfect compliment to your season. If it’s new to you: please treat yourself to the the gentle autumnal magic that is Sam Beam.
(Very Autumnal Tracks: “Naked As We Come,” “Cinder and Smoke,” “Love and Some Verses,” “Passing Afternoon”).
P.S. – As a collector of Autumn tunes I’d love to hear what music you’re listening to during this fairest of the seasons. Chat me up below, yo!
All 3 Albums posts can be found in their original published form HERE***
Alright-alright-alright…take a gander at that! Slick new artwork for the new and (hopefully) improved 3 Albums Blog!
Let’s get to it and talk some tuneage!
Man, the task of recommending tunes to ya’ll really sets my music mind a-spinning. My thoughts keep drifting to one question:
How do we come across the music we end up loving?
The answers to that question seem infinite. I can imagine the giant spider web of my musical connections that crisscrosses through the years and all around me. All gloriously interconnected to me and my friends and my experiences. Every song and artist in my web carries the potential to lead to the next great discovery.
Think about the myriad ways you stumbled upon the music you love and keep around. How did those strands get woven into your soundtrack? It’s mind-boggling to think that your next favorite musical discovery could be right around any corner… maybe even in a lil’ ol’ library music blog. (Here’s hoping!)
3 more albums I’m stuck on that you should spin into your web and WHY… GO!
1. Twin Forks – Twin Forks (2014)
“I can sing the lead and you can sing the harmony
We can play out on the porch… let it blow off in the breeze” – “Can’t Be Broken”
It took approximately 15.25 seconds into Track #1 to know I was likely going to become a Twin Forks fan. 30 seconds later they doubled-down and tore into a good stomp-clap chorus and I handed over my heart.
I can’t fully explain what it is about a stomp-clapper that I love so much. Such a simple beat, but it can rattle you down in your bones and stir up some fire. (“Fire Bones” is awesome when it is musically induced, however, if you are experiencing Fire Bones outside of a great stomp-clap chorus, consult your doctor immediately.)
Twin Forks is pure Americana-Folk-Pop-Rock bliss. Seriously – consult the Americana-Folk-Pop-Rock-Checklist:
Hand claps/Foot stomps (check)
Quirky percussion (check)
Engaging lyrics (check)
A string of sing-along choruses belted loud above the buzz of acoustic strings (Affirmative)
This album reminds me of losing time with your friends around a blazing bonfire…singing songs and telling stories. It’s Bonfire-Rock: the perfect tunes for this post-summer/pre-autumn cusp of a season that we currently find ourselves in.
If the lead singer’s voice sounds vaguely familiar you are certainly astute. Twin Forks is a side project of Chris Carrabba who is also the voice of Dashboard Confessional and Further Seems Forever. The Emo scene that Dashboard helped create in the early oughts never managed to win my affection. (Hey, the heart doesn’t want what the heart doesn’t want!)
Luckily for me: you take a talented Emo artist, age him about a decade, and put some Americana-tinged tunes in his head and Voilà! Another strand woven into my web.
(Favs: “Can’t Be Broken,” “Cross My Mind,” “Scraping Up the Pieces,” “Something We Just Know”).
2. In The Heights – Original Broadway Cast Recording (2008)
“Everybody’s got a job – everybody’s got a dream” – “In the Heights”
Musical anthropology can add stellar threads to your musical web.
Musical anthropology 101:
Find an album that really hits the sweet spot.
Compulsively go back and dig up everything that artist has ever done.
Increase your musical enjoyment by seeing where this artist came from.
Start this right now with Lin-Manuel Miranda.
I’m a fan of musical theater but I wouldn’t say I regularly have my finger on the pulse of Broadway. So I missed the fact that the creator of Hamilton actually first made a splash on the scene back in 2008 with his Broadway debut as both the songwriter and lead actor of In The Heights.
It netted the Tony for Best Musical that year and gave Lin-Manuel Miranda his first Tony for Best Score (which, of course, he would repeat in 2016 because Hamilton won basically all things Tony this year.). From the very first line of In the Heights, Ham-fans will recognize that distinct voice and style as Miranda does what he does – fusing freestyle hip-hop with every other genre of music out there to tell a compelling story.
In the Heights takes place in the NYC neighborhood Washington Heights during a few (HOT-HOT) summer days. This is Miranda’s real-life old stomping grounds and he expertly weaves the tales of its Dominican and Puerto Rican inhabitants into the larger story of the American Dream. There’s blossoming romances, a game-changer lotto ticket, memorable characters, and plenty of Latin American flavor and culture.
Observant listeners will catch plenty of similarities between In the Heights and Hamilton:
Thematically. I mean, does immigrants from the Caribbean working non-stop to rise up and not throw away their shot for a better life ring a loud Hamilton-sounding bell?
In addition to Lin in the lead role you also get the fabulous Chris Jackson (AKA: Here comes the General! George Washington) playing Benny the rapping taxi dispatcher.
For theater buffs: Miranda always includes a lot of self-referential theater humor. Consider the opening line: “Lights up! on Washington Heights…” This is very present in Hamilton as well: “Don’t modulate the key then not debate with me!”
It’s clear why Miranda was drawn to the story of Alexander Hamilton. He was busy telling his version of this very American tale when he first read Ron Chernow’s Hamilton bio. His experience creating In the Heights allowed him to push farther and deliver the masterpiece that is Hamilton. So if you are in Lin-Manuel Miranda withdrawal and need more of his unique Broadway magic give In the Heights an immediate spin.
(Favs: “In the Heights,” “Benny’s Dispatch,” “$96,000,” “When You’re Home”).
3. Ryan Adams – 1989 (2015)
“Love’s a fragile little flame… it could burn out… it could burn out…” – I Know Places
In my debut blog o’ music, I lambasted Train for doing an exact replica cover album of Led Zeppelin II. (I’m still cringing). But cover albums aren’t always a bad idea. It’s what you do with the songs that matters. Don’t copy… create.
Like a crafty kid with some Legos, a good musician can break apart a song and then rebuild something totally new and awesome with the same pieces. Here is a perfect example.
No one in a million years would have expected brooding singer/songwriter Ryan Adams to cover a bunch of Taylor Swift songs. Not only did he do just that but he transformed each of her songs into something new. He didn’t release a Taylor Swift cover album… he released a Ryan Adams album that happened to be written by Taylor Swift. THAT is how you make a cover album great.
2015 was a very Taylor Swift year in general, and unexpectedly so for myself. Our library did a T-Swift inspired parody video for National Library Week ’15 (perhaps you were able to #checkitout!). While we were producing and shooting, I was busy injecting over 100 nods to Ms. Swift into our video. Our hope was that this abundance of Easter Eggs would aid in our video going viral and possibly being seen by Taylor. While our video did not make it to Taylor’s eyes (that I know of) it did reach 170,000 other sets of eyes which is still pretty darn cool. (Taylor, if you’re reading this: It’s not too late… we’d still love to hear from you.)
Although I wasn’t remotely a Swiftie before #checkitout, I listened to A LOT of Taylor during that process and I did come to have a fondness and appreciation for her 1989 album. Say what you want about her (anything and everything has already been said); Taylor Swift is a great songwriter and with 1989 she made a terrific pop record.
So when I heard that one of my favorite artists was working on a cover album of 1989 I was confused but excited.
Ryan Adams makes music that lives on the corner of beautiful and melancholy. He’s one of those artists that can create magical art from gloomy places. At the end of 2014, as Taylor’s album was blowing up the world, Ryan Adams’ marriage was falling apart and he found himself alone at Christmastime taking solace in an unexpected place – recording some rough demos of songs off of 1989.
Knowing that this was the origin of this project, the difference in mood becomes quite apparent. 1989 (like most of Taylor’s music) focuses on relationships. Typically these relationships have gone south, but I would never call Taylor’s album melancholy. It’s infused with pop beats and has a bounce-back-move-on quality. She sings “Shake it Off” like it’s her new official life mantra. Ryan Adams sings “Shake it Off” like it’s something he’s praying he will be able to do at some point.
2 records that are saying the same words with the same melodies, but they are speaking from two different places and somehow communicating very different things. That is a well done cover album (Train… take note.).
For added effect: Listen to Taylor’s 1989 too.
(Favs on Taylor’s 1989: “Out of the Woods,” “Shake It Off,” “I Wish You Would,” “I Know Places”).
(Favs on Ryan’s 1989: “Welcome To New York,” “Blank Space,” “Style,” “I Know Places”).
PS: Keep those webs spinning ya’ll… and if you catch an album you love that you think I’ll dig send it my way in the comments below!