***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***
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!