***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!)