Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Happy Birthday to Me

Oliver di Place was born on December 23, 2008. I’m celebrating a little late this year. That happens during the holidays. In this third year, I have reached the point where the blog is almost what I imagined at the beginning. This is a place where you might hear folk music, singer-songwriters, Americana, or jazz singers. This year, I was able to add my first musical love to the mix: blues. I also opened the Oliver di Place Cabaret for business this year; this is where you can hear music that defies categorization. For this year’s birthday celebration, let’s hear some of all of that, and see how it connects or doesn’t.

Mitchell & Harris: The Canyon


From the folk/ singer/songwriter camp comes the duo of Anna Mae Mitchell and G Pat Harris, known collectively as Mitchell & Harris. Mitchell plays mostly rhythm on acoustic guitar and is the voice of the duo. Harris plays basses and does all of the writing. They are joined by a small band, playing a mix of electric and acoustic instruments. The sound is based on folk, but not bound by it. The Canyon is a fine example of how this album works. It is a haunting ballad that fits Mitchell’s voice perfectly. The musical setting beautifully enhances the mood while leaving Mitchell’s voice front and center, where it belongs. As a writer, Harris shows himself to be a fine storyteller, and also a great mood setter. His narrator has fled to the desert, and you can feel not only the heat rising off the sand, but also the loneliness of a place where not another living thing can be seen.

Bert Deivert: Kid Man Blues


Ask me for two countries where I would not look for blues music, and I might name Sweden and Thailand. Actually, now that I have heard Bert Deivert, I can’t say that anymore. Deivert was born in the United States and lived there until he was 24, but his recording career started after he moved to Sweden. The acoustic blues styles from before World War II are his main inspiration, and that comes through loud and clear in his playing and singing. But Deivert is seeking and finding something that transcends historical recreations. He makes this music his own, and, by the time he gets to Thailand, Deivert has created a powerful new dialect for the blues. This album was recorded in Sweden, Thailand, the Mississippi Delta, and Germany. Deivert makes unique connections in each place. As fascinating as this is, it wouldn’t mean much if Deivert didn’t have the passion of a blues player and singer. He does, making Kid Man Blues, both the song and the album, a wonderful blues discovery for me.

Beau Hinze & the Back Porch Shufflers: Thunderstorms & Dominoes


I suppose the music of Beau Hinze falls in the alt-country or Americana category. But this is acoustic music, and it is played and recorded in a way that dispenses with the layer of artifice that is so common in country-based music. Hinze sings in a rough manner that drops into spoken word for a moment here and there. This makes it all more real. Hinze is an imaginative writer. In Thunderstorms & Dominoes, he places a group of hard-working cowboys in a cabin together, and he has them stuck there due to a flood. What could be a calamity proves instead to be a rare opportunity to relax and enjoy each other’s company. In Hinze’ hands, the sense of comradery is almost a living thing.

Elizabeth!: Melting Snow


On Brainchildren, Elizabeth! is usually a jazz singer. The are a couple of ventures into pop territory, but the jazz creeps in even there. There are also a couple of instrumentals. Her instrument is the trombone. Usually the trombone is a brash instrument, and you might expect a singer who plays one to be similarly brash. I have heard that done in jazz to good effect, but that’s not what happens here. Both as a singer and on trombone, Elizabeth! brings a quiet intensity to her performance. Her emotional expression is definitely subtle, but her songs are filled with emotion. She and her band go more for texture than improvisational fancies, making this a good album for people who are just discovering jazz. For the rest of us, Brainchildren is the work of a subtle artist backed by a responsive and talented band.

Don Ryan: Tangle Town


Tangle Town, the album, is conceived of as a performance at a music hall in a fictional world, with slightly different natural laws than we are used to. It is a studio album, but there is a brief moment of “audience noise”, followed by an “encore” to close the album. The music makes reference to folk, country, and blues, but Ryan never lets us quite hear what we expect. The song Tangle Town starts off sounding like folk, but halfway through the band comes in, and we are suddenly in a woozy version of country. Similar things happen in other songs on the album. None of this is for show. Allow this music to take you where it will, and you will find the album to be a rich emotional experience. You will also find Ryan to be an artist of rare originality.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

For a Song Christmas Eve Special: Chelsea Boys

Spottiswoode and His Enemies: Chelsea Boys


Christmas is often referred to as the season of love. Jonathan Spottiswoode takes that to heart in Chelsea Boys. In a wonderful role reversal, he places a straight couple in the minority amidst a group of gay men. It’s not a problem at all. “They won’t care that you’re a girl”, he sings. In this season at least, love is love, and they all join in the celebration with singing and dancing.

As a bonus, this one has a beautiful video. It’s an animated short, with art by the Brazilian illustrator Maria Eugenia. Eugenia has more of her work available for viewing on her blog here. She has done wonderful work for books both for grownups and children. Just make sure you have plenty of time when you follow the link, because you will want to stay a while.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

For a Song Solstice Special: Solstice Night

Michael Lewis: Solstice Night


Sometimes in winter, there is a magical moment. It has snowed enough to completely cover everything, so the familiar world has been replaced by the mystery of smooth white shapes. The storm is over, the clouds have skittered away to their burrows for a winter’s nap, and the whole scene is lit by the full moon that wasn’t there a moment ago. Most of these images are not in Michael Lewis’ song Solstice Night, but he captures the same feeling in music as this scene does in in vision and feel. Lewis has only our sense of hearing to appeal to convey the full range of sensory and emotional response, and he succeeds brilliantly. No wonder he places this magic on the night of the winter solstice.

Lewis is the songwriting half of Traveler’s Dream, but The Natural World needed to be a solo album, because Lewis is after a different sound here. Some of the arrangements are a bit fuller than Solstice Night, but this music is rooted in the relatively young tradition of singer-songwriter music, rather than the British Isles folk stylings of Traveler’s Dream. The songs on The Natural World are personal, detailing the comfort Lewis draws from nature, and the awe it inspires in him. Where the Traveler’s Dream material is shaped by traditional forms, here Lewis can shape is words however he wishes. The result is every bit as much a collection of poetry as of music.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Sometimes a post tells me how it wants to be written. My last post, about Stanley Greenthal, was absolutely intended to lead into this one. Here then is a feature about music from the British Isles, with four examples with roots in Ireland, and one from England. But, as I was putting all of this together, I was struck by how three of the album covers, including the Greenthal, feature water imagery. And then I realized that none of this music is purely traditional. All of it has roots in tradition, but some of it crossed the sea, while some stayed home and had musical influences come to it across the water. So, even though some of the artists here live and work inland, this is music that lives on the shore, and grows and is nourished by what comes in with the tide.

Beannacht: Lovin‘ Ain‘t Ever Wrong


Only one band name and album title in this post are in Irish Gaelic. Beannacht means “blessing”, and they hail from County Hunterdon. Now maybe you are an expert on Irish geography, and you are surprised you have never heard of it. That’s because County Hunterdon is in New Jersey. The music of Beannacht combines an Irish lilt in the background with American folk music closer to the surface. In the remarkable case of Love Ain’t Ever Wrong, the result is an Irish blues song, and it works. The most noticeable Irish part of this music is the vocal approach of Deardre Forrest. The Irish are rightly famed especially for the beauty of their female voices, and Forrest’s is no exception. The other half of Beannacht is Forrest’s uncle, Tom Johnston. He also sings, and provides a solid rhythm on guitar at all times. Johnston wrote almost all of the music here. Both members of the group write lyrics, with Forrest being the stronger lyricist at the moment. But Beannacht is a new act, and they are only going to get better. That is certainly something to look forward to.

Queen Elvis: Round and Round


So, now let’s actually go to Ireland. There we meet Queen Elvis, a group that takes its name from a song by Englishman Robin Hitchcock. Hitchcock tends to ignore the rules in his songwriting, and so it is here as well. Round and Round is a waltz, featuring acoustic guitar and cello. The cello is plucked at first, making an almost percussive sound. Then we hear the amazing voice of Caroline Stanley. She sings powerfully in a low alto, with smoky tones. The only clear influence here of traditional Irish music comes in some of the bowed lines in the cello. Over all, Round and Round is a song of war, given a stern beauty by this performance. Little World is the only release so far from Queen Elvis, and it is just a three-song EP. I haven’t heard, but I hope there is a full length album in the future.

Fling: Ballyshannon Bends


I had reported about Fling’s debut, also an EP. That one has become impossible to find, but no matter; All of the songs on it and much more are here on their debut album. The EP was all instrumentals, but there also three songs here with vocals. Curiously, those are all American songs, and they are performed that way, although with a slight Irish accent. But the instrumentals take inspiration from everywhere. Yes, there are a number of traditional Irish airs and dances here, but some tunes remind me of the folk-punk of the Pogues. And then there is Ballyshannon Bends. This one might have been at home on the Stanley Greenthal album; it sounds to me at first like it could have come from Greece. But the song is named for a road with perilous curves, located in County Donegal, and it speeds into folk punk territory by the end. It is performed, like everything on this album, with the irresistible combination of fine musicianship and high energy.

John Doyle: Selkie


John Doyle may be the musician in this post who is most steeped in traditional Irish music. Even though the songs on Shadow and Light are all originals, they show a strong love of Irish storytelling. But Shadow and Light was recorded in Nashville. On Selkie, Doyle plays electric guitar, the other instruments are lap steel and stand up bass. The bass player is Todd Phillips, who I know best for his jazzy playing with David Grisman. Elsewhere on the album, more traditional instruments are heard, like fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and concertina. Doyle plays acoustic guitar and sometimes bouzouki. But even there, the fiddler is Stuart Duncan, who I first heard playing western swing. So there is no doubt from the sound that Shadow and Light is the work of an Irish musician, but Doyle finds common ground with other traditions throughout, and the result is an album of rare beauty.

Anthea Neads & Andy Prince: River of Lights


Anthea Neads sings in a beautiful English folk soprano. She has a light tone, but the emotion of each song comes through wonderfully. Her musical partner here is bass player Andy Prince. Usually, a bass is heard in the background, as a supporting instrument. Not here. Prince is a melodic player, and the tone he gets from his instrument makes it a second voice, intertwining with Neads to make a greater whole. There are other instruments here, mostly for color, but Neads and Prince are the stars. English folk and folk-rock are the foundations here, but Neads and Prince are unafraid to go adventuring from there, and the results are well worth it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

For a Song: The Waves

Stanley Greenthal: The Waves


The bouzouki is an instrument that is often heard in Celtic folk music. But the word bouzouki is not any form of Gaelic. In fact, the instrument comes from Greece, and the word is also Greek, possibly derived from Turkish. So maybe that explains the mix of musical influences in the work of Stanley Greenthal. there are Celtic songs and dances, from Ireland, Scotland, and Brittany. But there are also instrumental pieces from Greece, Macedonia, Crete, and even Turkey. The Waves is an original song, sung in English, but inspired by the songwriting techniques of Crete. So words and phrases repeat, like the rhythm of the water gently lapping up onto the shore. The result is hypnotic and beautiful. The water’s caress of the sand becomes a powerful metaphor for love. First Song is an album with many such treasures. It makes unexpected connections, and finds a common beauty in varied traditions.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Cabaret

The Oliver di Place Cabaret is pleased to announce the line up for this year’s holiday shows. Prepare to go on a musical journey to parts unknown and unimagined. Prepare to have your ideas of holiday music stretched to the limit. But most of all, prepare to smile and laugh and dance. Welcome.

Chris Bauer: I‘ll Be Home For Christmas


To start off the evening, let’s ease in with some holiday jazz. Now this kind of thing, even when it’s instrumental, can easily get syrupy. But Chris Bauer leads a solid straight-ahead combo here, and he sidesteps the musical traps of the season. In a Yuletide Groove is a set that reveals a sincere love of both the season and its songs, with no sweetening needed. It helps a lot that Bauer gets such a full and rich tone from his harmonica. From the sound, I assume that he is playing a chromatic harp, which has a wider tonal range and is better for chording than a regular harp. It is also harder to bend notes on a chromatic, but Bauer mostly doesn’t need to. He finds the richness of his instrument, and his band provides a solidly swinging backdrop. Yuletide Groove is a generous program of holiday favorites that has a mellow vibe, but also great energy.

Doug Munro and La Pompe Attack w Cyrille-Aimee Daudel: Santa Claus is Comin‘ to Town


Doug Munro and his band are playing what is called gypsy jazz here, the style pioneered by Django Reinhart. Singer Cyrille-Amee Daudel appears on three songs, including the one I have chosen. Elsewhere, the melody is heard on fiddle or clarinet. There are lead and rhythm guitars and bass, but no drums. They are not needed, because Munro and his rhythm guitar player get a sound that is both percussive and melodic, and they and the bass player power the music along nicely. The tightness of the band makes this album a joy to listen to. Daudel contributes a nicely understated sweetness to the songs she sings, and she gets to cut loose in brief scat solos that are emblematic of the pleasure these musicians were obviously having as they made this album.

Asylum St Spankers: Red Nosed Reindeer Blues


I was always taught that holidays were the time to ask questions, to help you gain a better understanding of your culture, heritage, and faith. Here’s one: what would Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sound like if it had been written by Muddy Waters? The Asylum St Spankers answer that question brilliantly here. Elsewhere, there is a version of Silent Night played on a musical saw, but over all, this is a collection with a jazzy and bluesy flavor, and the joy and cheer of all of the musicians is abundantly evident.

The Invincible Czars: Trepak (Russian Dance)


Having asked about Rudolph and Muddy Waters for the last song, it’s only fair to present this puzzler: what would The Nutcracker sound like if it had been the result of a collaboration between Fishbone and The Pogues? You’re kidding, right? Nope. The Invincible Czars have created this work of mad genius, and there is an entire album of it. It works surprisingly well, even when things go off the rails for a bit, as they do in the bridge of Trepak (Russian Dance). I won’t say any more. Just listen, and prepare to be tickled.

Everett Bradley: Holidelic


If you haven’t gotten up to dance yet, our last act of the evening should fix that. The song Holidelic is a holiday anthem in the style of Parliament/ Funkadelic. There are even P-Funk references in the lyrics. Everett Bradley nails this style, and creates an irresistible dance number for the holidays. Holidelic the album functions as a survey of 1970s and 80s soul and funk styles. Bradley obviously loves this music, and understands its workings perfectly. But more than that, he provides the boundless energy necessary to pull this kind of thing off. For the most part, that don’t make records like this anymore, but Bradley does. There is also an annual live version of this, and it must be quite something to see.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Holiday Folk

The image above is actually a wine stop, available from Strika Distribution.

Here is the first of two holiday posts this year. Originally, the plan was to split it into a post of mostly acoustic holiday songs and another post of a wild mix that might turn out to be the Oliver di Place Cabaret Holiday Party. This is the acoustic post, but something interesting happened while I was putting this together. This post wound up being a celebration of the varying traditions that are celebrated at this time of year. I chose the songs I liked best from five wonderful albums, but I am also thrilled that it worked out this way.

Laurelyn Dossett, Rhiannon Giddens, Mike Compton, Joe Newberry, and Jason Sypher: Gathering Night


The Gathering started out as a six song cycle by Laurelyn Dossett, commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony. These are the first six songs on the album, and they do not have an orchestra on them as recorded. Instead, there is a five-piece folk ensemble. Rhiannon Giddens, from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is the only one I had heard of before, but on the strength of this album, I am going to have to fix that. The six songs that start the album The Gathering are the original cycle, and Gathering Night is the opener. The cycle tells of a woman who is anxiously returning home after a long absence, on a winter’s night. The symbol of the candle in the window is evocative of many winter holidays, including Solstice, and the power of this symbol comes through beautifully in this haunting performance.

Once Dossett had assembled this fine band to record the six songs, they decided to expand the recording to a full length album by adding seven Christmas songs. These include a stunning rendition of O Holy Night arranged for just a single voice and stand-up bass, and a joyous version of Christ Was Born on Christmas Day for the full band, that closes this wonderful album on a high note.

Traveler‘s Dream: Holly and the Ivy Revisited


Traveler’s Dream is the duo of Michael Lewis and Denise Wilson, but each plays several instruments, so they often sound like a larger group. Cold Blows the Day is an album of Christmas songs, mostly familiar. There are many such albums, of varying quality. Aside from the quality of the musicianship, what makes an album like this work is a set of performances that make it clear that the artists care about the meaning of the songs. Lewis and Wilson deliver. There appear to be very few Solstice songs, but there are more than most people realize, and they are hiding in plain sight, as Christmas songs. The Holly and the Ivy is one of these. The line in the chorus about “sweet singing in the choir” almost certainly replaced earlier words as the song became Christianized. But Lewis and Wilson, with Holly and the Ivy Revisited, put the song back in the woods that it came from. Their lyrical changes are not restorations of lost text, but simply an attempt to restore the original spirit of the song. The care for the roots of this music comes through beautifully in their performances throughout the album.

Robin Greenstein and Cecelia Kirtland: Hanuka (Ladino)


On Songs of the Season, Robin Greenstein and Cecelia Kirtland joyously perform some of the familiar Christmas songs. But the real gems here are the less familiar songs. There is a set of Kwanzaa songs here, and also a wonderful set of Hanukkah songs. When most people think of Hanukkah, they think of the celebrations in the Ashkenazi tradition of the Jews from eastern Europe. But another group of Jews turned west instead of east, and settled for a time in Spain. These are the Sephardic Jews, and they developed their own traditions, and their own language, Ladino. Hanuka (Ladino) is one of their songs, and the performance here is just beautiful. I know most of this background because my uncle is Sephardic, but I never learned the language, so I don’t know what the song means. Can anyone help in the comments?

Louise Taylor: Let‘s Make a Baby King


Wonderland is one of many multi-artist samplers with a holiday theme. Often, this kind of album forces the listener to sift through the chaff to find the few good songs. But this collection comes from the Signature Sounds label, so the talent level is very high, and no sorting is needed. That said, Luoise Taylor’s performance of Let’s Make a Baby King is a standout. Jesse Winchester wrote the song as a pop-gospel number, but Taylor transforms it into a spiritual with a bluesy flavor and real power. Taylor plays guitar and adds African-sounding percussion and little else, but that’s all she needs.

Danaher & Cloud: Santa Claus, I Believe in You


I featured Danaher & Cloud’s last album here, and you can look for coverage of their next one after the new year. But, in between, they have released The Holiday Album. This collection is almost evenly split between familiar songs and originals. The album opens with a haunting rendition of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I have never heard of Gretchen Guard before, but based on the wonderful cover of her song Follow Now, O Shepherds, I will need to find out more. And an original song, The Little Birds in the Snow, is an eloquent reminder of the true spirit of the season. But I settled on Santa Claus, I Believe in You for its classic sound. This is a frothy and jazzy number that needs only to be heard by the right person in the music industry, and it will become a massive hit in a big, overblown arrangement. But I like it just as it is here, with a small combo, a spot-on fizzy vocal, and a wonderful lead part on fiddle.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Folk to Blues

A big thank you goes to my daughter Caitlin for creating the image above.

Folk music, in its broadest definition, is music that is handed down within a given tradition. This can apply to Tuvan throat-singing, Mexican polkas, or even English murder ballads. Or to the blues. Indeed, many American folk singers include blues songs in their repertoires, and some show the influence of it in everything they do. Still, there is a qualitative difference between a folk artist performing a blues song and the performance of a blues musician. To me, the difference is the approach to the song. A folk artist emphasizes the song in their performance. The lyrics are clear, and the playing likewise. This can be done in an emotional way, and I thoroughly enjoy these kinds of performances. But a blues artist takes a song, any song, and focuses on the emotion of the piece. The performance is raw, with everything out in the open. Subtlety comes from the shades of emotion in a performance, in conveying a glimmer of hope amidst the sorrow, or love amidst the anger.

The above makes it sound like there is a sharp line between a folk performance and a blues one. But life is rarely so neat, and so it is here as well. There are degrees of “folkness” and “bluesness” in the performance styles of most artists who plow the ground where the two meet. Let’s meet some of these artists, and I’ll show you what I mean.

Ernest Troost: Real Music


Ernest Troost was a New Folk winner at Kerrville a while back. He plays acoustic guitar, and his playing style shows that he knows well the styles of the great pre-war blues masters. As a writer, Troost’s work is informed by the blues, but not bound by it. His approach to vocals is folk all the way. His words are important, and he is emotionally invested, but he’s keeping some for himself as well. Live at McCabe’s presents a selection of Troost’s songs from his three studio albums to date. The show begins with just Troost and his guitar, and the band members join him one by one. So some of the songs are presented in sparer arrangements than the studio versions, while others have a fuller arrangement than before. Over all, Live at McCabe’s is a great introduction to the bluesy folk of Ernest Troost. He is new to me, but I will be keeping an eye on him from now on.

Grant Dermody: First Light


Thank you, Marco Prozzo, for the cover image. You can see more of Prozzo‘s work here.

Two of the best know acts working this ground between folk and blues would be Eric Bibb, from the folk side, and the duo of John Cephus and Phil Wiggins, from the blues side. Grant Dermody has worked extensively with both. His album Lay Down My Burden has liner notes by Phil Wiggins, and Eric Bibb plays on several songs. Dermody is a singer and Harmonica player, and he has the Piedmont blues style down. Dermody also knows how to write in this style. And his choices of covers include many of the old masters. But Lay Down My Burden closes with a Tibetan chant, and the album also includes a wonderful version of Amazing Grace. Dermody is also a creative arranger. A couple of songs here feature just two harmonicas and voice, and other songs have a four piece band, but with mandolin where you would expect a guitar. So First Light is solidly in the blues tradition, and a Dermody original, but elsewhere, Dermody explores the boundaries of the blues, and sometimes steps outside of them. Over all, he shows himself to be a confident musical explorer. He is also a generous band leader, sometimes stepping back and giving the lead vocals to someone else. If you buy only one album from this post, it should probably be this one, because Dermody most eloquently sums up the theme of this post in his album, and it is a thrilling trip.

Mary Flower: I‘m Dreaming of Your Demise


Mary Flower is here for a couple of reasons. She likes to open her songs with just her guitar, before adding her voice and a second instrument, and those guitar intros are pure blues playing. Also, I’m Dreaming of Your Demise add the piano of Dave Frishberg, so the song makes a good bridge to the piano blues in the rest of this post. But Mary Flower’s singing is a wildcard here. This is neither a folk nor a blues approach to the song. Instead, Flower is a jazz singer. Dreaming is a song sung by a wronged lover seeking revenge, but it is even more chilling because it is delivered with a wink and a smile. The structure of the song, with its extended lines in the vocal part, also place it in the jazz tradition But Flower’s playing is blues all the way. The best measure of her enormous talent is that she makes this combination sound completely natural, even though I’ve never heard anyone do it before.

Big Joe Duskin: Get Out of My Way


Big Joe Duskin was a throw-back. Born in 1921, Duskin began performing before World War II, playing piano in the classic boogie woogie style, and singing in a manner that is pure blues. However, Duskin did not make his first album until 1978. By then, he was living representative from another world, that of pre-war blues. Duskin died in 2007, and Big Joe Jumps Again! Was made three years before that. In all, Duskin only made three studio albums and two hard-to-find live ones. Boogie woogie is usually thought of as fast music, but I chose Get Out of My Way to show how Duskin could burn up a slow number as well. I love the ornamentation, played mostly in the right hand, that changes from verse to verse. Duskin’s voice had to have been stronger when he was younger, but all of the emotion this song needs is there. I can imagine the then 83-year-old Duskin shouting to the drummer and bass player on these sessions, “Try to keep up!”.

Eden Brent: Ain‘t Got No Troubles


If you haven’t listened to Ain’t Got No Troubles yet, hold off for just a second. Forget that this is a blues post, and look at the picture of the woman on the album cover shown above. Try to imagine what her voice must sound like. Got it? OK, now listen. Wow! Where did that come from? Eden Brent is an old fashioned blues belter, and a fine one. She is also a New Orleans blues pianist in the tradition of Professor Longhair and Dr John. That said, she has a wonderful light touch on her solos, dancing across the keys while never losing the backbeat. She is surrounded by a great band, including George Porter Jr of The Meters. Some people may think of the blues as depressing music, but this album is a fine example of how exciting this music can be, and why such a wide variety of artists are drawn to it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


The time between now and the turning of the year is the season of visits. In a good year, every weekend is carefully divided between shopping expeditions and social obligations. Either someone has asked you over, or you have asked them. There are many opportunities to catch up with seldom seen family and old friends, but there are also new people to meet. This post is a musical version of this activity.

One Alternative: Consider the Source


Sometimes, you get invited to a friend’s house, and there is someone you haven’t seen in years, someone you lost track of and thought you would never see again. I met the three musicians in the original line up of One Alternative in 1987, at a small folk coffeehouse in New Brunswick NJ. I don’t even know if I introduced myself, but I doubt they would remember me in any case. Jill Haley plays oboe and English horn, and Mark Oppenlander and David Bozenhard play acoustic guitars. The music they made had elements of folk, classical, and jazz. A year later, they were recording with additional musicians on electric bass and drums. The sound was heavier, sometimes too heavy, I thought. Still, I always wondered what became of them. I use a couple of services that connect musicians and bloggers, and I was pleasantly surprised recently when I was contacted through one of these services about the new One Alternative album, Air Sculpture. A drummer and bass player are now part of the regular line up, but the sound is better integrated. There is more of a jazz influence than there used to be, with improvisations in the midsections of songs that can be pretty wild. To give you an idea of where they are coming from, the two covers on this album are of songs by Weather Report and Frank Zappa. But Consider the Source is the song I have chosen, because it takes me back to the sound I first heard from them and liked so much. The song is entirely acoustic, and the rhythm section drops out of this one. The original trio casts a beautiful spell here. The interplay between these three musicians is a wonderful thing to hear. By the way, Air Sculpture is a generous package, with a full length CD of music, and a second disc with videos of a couple of live performances and a history of the group.

Postcard Comets: Drown


I have never been invited to an internet party, but there should be such things, and this would be the right time of year for it. At an internet party, you meet people you have only known up to now online. In person, the friendship could deepen as you learn more about each other. I met David Partridge of Postcard Comets on a forum on MySpace. Earlier this year, I featured a song from their latest album, Super Normaal. They have settled into an acoustic-based sound that works very well for them. Bodies of Water is their first album, and here they hit a 70s rock vibe that I wouldn’t have expected to work, but it does. Drown has a great groove that gives the song its power. The song I chose from Super Normaal has a similar groove, but it works in a completely different way.

Sam Llanas: Fare the Well


At one of these holiday gatherings, you may meet someone who you have only known as part of a couple, but who shows you another side of himself now that he is single. The Bodeans were originally a four piece roots-rock band, but they withered to a duo. Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas were writing all of the songs together. Both Neumann and Lllanas play guitar, but Neumann also adds a host of other instruments. For their albums, they would add whatever studio musicians they needed. Earlier this year, Sam Llanas left the “band”, and now he has released his first solo album. For 4AM, Llanas is working in a full band again. Bukka Allen, who played keyboards on the last Bodeans album, is here playing accordion, and this gives the album a special feel. Llanas is making soulful rock here that borders on classic R&B. Fare the Well is a fine example. Lllanas’ vocals on this album are the most emotionally invested performances I have ever heard from him.

Kathy Sparling: Love Song


Somewhere during the season, you will meet someone entirely new. As You Believed is Kathy Sparling’s debut album. On Love Song, Sparling shows herself to be a writer to keep an eye on. She is explaining to a lover why she doesn’t want to marry him. It becomes clear that she loves him, and wants them to grow old together. No, her issue is with the rituals and hassles of a wedding. Sparling alternates between tender expressions of love and humorous descriptions of the potential wedding from hell. it’s a wonderful juggling act, and Sparling pulls it off perfectly. Her performance here and throughout the album shines with sweetness and warmth. Sparling’s main instrument is the ukulele, and she surrounds herself with a collection of musicians that swells to a folk orchestra at times. But even when the band includes eight other ukuleles strumming along with her, as it does on the song The Moon is Coming With Us, the music is rendered with a light touch that serves the songs beautifully.

Pharis & Jason Romero: Lay Down in Sorrow


Of course, the one kind of visitor you only see at this time of year is a caroler. People you have never met show up at your door, and sing songs which are instantly familiar. Pharis & Jason Romero are not singing carols here, but their covers are old songs that evoke older, simpler times. They also perform original songs, but these have that same classic feel. Lay Down in Sorrow is a secular song that has the quality of a hymn. It is one of the originals here. The performances here are quiet but passionate. Pharis Romero plays acoustic guitar and sings, while Jason plays mostly banjo and also sings. One of the remarkable things about this album is the sound of Jason’s banjos. A banjo usually has an almost abrasive or percussive quality, ringing out, and certainly not blending with only an acoustic guitar. But Jason gets a sweet, almost mellow tone from his instrument that I have never heard before. I believe he makes his own banjos, so that may explain it in part, but surely some credit goes to his playing. The result is a group sound that can be powerful when needed, but is always unified, and always heartfelt.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Looking Back

There are times in a musician’s career when they take a moment to reflect on the past. Joni Mitchell twice summed up phases of her career with live albums, before making her next bold leap. A greatest hits or “best of” album can be a contractual obligation at times, but sometimes it can be an artist taking stock of their work to date. And a reissue, especially if it comes with extras, can allow an artist to revisit a moment in time, and sometimes even fix mistakes. Recently, enough albums like this have come my way to make a post, and here it is. When I set out to do this post, I neglected to take into account that albums like this often have generous amounts of music on them. So, where most of the albums I deal with have just over a half hour of music, four of the albums heard here are over an hour long each; that’s why this post is so late, and I would like to thank my regular readers for your patience. Consumer warning: three or four of the artists in this post, depending on your musical taste, make musical sense together, but then things go off the rails. All of these artists are here because I really enjoy their work. I hope you will keep an open mind, and enjoy them too.

Slaid Cleaves: Broke Down


Slaid Cleaves’ album Sorrow & Smoke is not only a look back, but also a homecoming. The Horseshoe Lounge in Austin Texas is where Cleaves made his breakthrough. At a pair of shows there last year, Cleaves played many of the songs from his breakthrough album Broke Down, including the song Horseshoe Lounge. Music from three other albums is included here, as well as some choice covers of other Texas songwriters. On his studio albums, Cleaves is usually accompanied by a full band, but here he has just another guitar player and a keyboard player with him. The keyboard is usually either a piano or the accordion heard here. So the songs are presented here in an intimate setting, and Cleaves’ talents as a singer and songwriter shine through. I chose the song Broke Down as much for the fact that it was the title track of Cleaves’ breakthrough album as anything else. The quality of the music is remarkably consistent over the length of Sorrow & Smoke.

Guy Clark: The Cape


On Songs and Stories, Guy Clark looks over his career with the help of his full band. The “Stories” in the album title are mainly song introductions, but the songs are more than enough to make up for that. Some of the older songs here got a country treatment in their original studio versions, but now the arrangements are more on the folk side of things, and the songs are better for it. Guy Clark turned 70 this year, and you can hear his age in his voice. But he takes the gravelly sound he makes now, and makes use of it. The Cape is one of many songs here that sound different when sung with the voice of experience. It says a lot about Clark’s strength as a writer that his age has caught up to his material, but he was able to write these songs when he was so much younger. Wisdom, warmth, and humor all come through wonderfully. Clark is a generous host, letting his bandmates Verlon Thompson and Shawn Camp take the lead on two songs each. Overall, Songs and Stories is an album that leaves me feeling that I have spent just over an hour in some very good company.

Paul Geremia: Lovin‘ Sam (The Sheik of Alabam‘)


For Love My Stuff, Paul Geremia went through recordings of his live performances throughout his career, and compiled an album from them. This is a generous sampling of 18 songs, most of which have never been on an album before in either a live or a studio version. Geremia is an old style blues artist. Before World War II, most blues artists lived and worked in the American South. The music was acoustic. In blues, musicians do what is called bending notes, which is sliding a note sharp or flat for emotional effect. Those old blues players would bend time the same way, stretching or compressing a musical phrase. To modern ears, this can sound sloppy or like a mistake, but it is done on purpose, and it is a powerful technique once you know what you are listening to. Paul Geremia is the only modern blues artist I have heard who plays this way, and he does it very well indeed. Geremia applies this technique to folk blues and to jazzier numbers as well, and either way, it works beautifully.

[purchase Persuasions of the Dead]

Sometimes, there are second chances. In 1999, The Persuasions went into the studio and recorded the tracks for their album Might as Well. This was a set of songs that the Grateful Dead had become known for, so it might have seemed to be an odd project for the legendary a capella group. But the Persuasions had previously done an album of Frank Zappa songs, and they were never afraid to add unusual songs to their repertoire. Normally, The Persuasions took pride in the rich sounds they made with just human voices, but Might as Well had guest musicians, including not only more voices but also instrumentalists too. Producer Rip Rense was never quite satisfied with the resulting album, but group leader Jerry Lawson left the group in 2003, and that seemed to be that.
Fast forward all the way to this year. Somehow, Rense managed to reconvene the entire group, including Lawson, and create a new version of the album. It has a new name, given by Tom Waits: Persuasions of the Dead. The new name is warranted, because the album has been resequenced, with songs that never made it onto the original album. Some of the original instrumental parts have been toned down, but there are also entirely new instrumental parts, some by musicians who were not even part of the earlier sessions. The Persuasions and the other singers on the album have redone some of their parts, and the whole thing has been remastered. The results sound glorious. With all that goes on here, the album shines the spotlights in the two places they belong: the singing sounds full and rich, and the quality of the songs shines through.

Sadly, I do not have permission to share songs from Persuasions of the Dead with you. The same thing happened when I reviewed the last Persuasions release, Live at McCabe‘s Guitar Shop. Happily, I do have to permission now to share some of that music, so here it is. You can buy Live at McCabe’s at the link below, but there is also a combo deal on the site for Persuasions of the Dead, if you would like to buy both albums together.

The Persuasions: Peace in the Valley

The Persuasions: Under the Boardwalk

[purchase Live at McCabe‘s]

Ljova: Midnight Oil Change


What have we here? Midnight Oil Change opens with the most haunted accordion part you may ever hear, just two chords alternating, like the beating of the Tell-Tale Heart in its effect.. That is soon joined by an electric guitar. The third instrument you hear is a viola being plucked. For lack of a better term, and taking the album this comes from as a whole, this would be considered classical music. The composer and violist is Ljova. It isn’t too hard for me to imagine a more conventional orchestration for Midnight Oil Change, especially once the strings and brasses enter. But Ljova isn’t about conventional. Lost in Kino is a collection of music Ljova wrote and recorded for films during the years 2006 to 2011. Most of these are what might be called “deep independent films”, the sort you would have to dig to find. They include short films, animation, and documentaries. I doubt that many of them had soundtrack albums. So Ljova wanted to preserve this music, but also focus on pieces that would work without their visual context. The songs in the first half of the album were recorded with the gypsy band Romashka, who I need to find out more about. Much of the second half is Ljova playing multiple parts on the viola and the famiola, (like a viola, only with six strings where the viola has only four). Throughout the album, Ljova draws on folk music, mostly from eastern Europe, but also from Apalachia for one track, and China for another. The result is a wonderful document of Ljova’s work for film, but also an album of music that really works beautifully as a whole, and out of context. There is much here for the more adventurous fans of folk music to enjoy, and Lost in Kino is also a fine continuation of a classical music tradition of composers including folk melodies and motifs in their work.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Songs to Look At

The image above comes from a music video by Brian Jin, called Memories of a Song. You can see the whole thing here.

I am old enough to remember when MTV was new. It first went on the air in cities, and I didn’t see it until two years later, when my local cable system finally picked it up. I can’t remember the first video I saw, but I remember the excitement I felt. I was thrilled that artists and bands who would have been unknowns only a few years earlier were getting their music heard, and the best videos were also an amazing new form of artistic expression.

Of course, things are different now. MTV hasn’t been music television in many years. The big budgets that major labels once gave artists for their videos are long gone, and they wouldn’t make business sense now. So, that means that the artistry of music videos is gone forever, right? Actually, no. Budgets are much tighter now, but creativity still thrives. In fact, it may be that tight budgets are forcing artists who want to make artistic videos to be more creative than ever. This is the first time I have ever shared music videos on Oliver di Place, and I probably won’t do it often. But these five examples of the art demanded to be shared. Each shows a different way of marrying sound and vision. The music is quite a mix of styles. But the visuals, or visualizations if you like, are the point this time out. Let’s take a look.

Hilary Grist - Tall Buildings

Hilary Grist: Tall Buildings


I never thought I would be posting any videos here, and I don’t think this one had been released yet when I posted the song Tall Buildings before. But you can see why I had to repeat myself. Grist got some friends together, and built a miniature city out of recycled cardboard. The amount of detail is truly astounding, with cardboard people in at least some of the windows who can move by means of stop-motion animation. This city is such an astounding creation that it is being displayed this month at the Beaumont Gallery in Vancouver.

dogbrain - My Reprieve

My Reprieve from Jason Kessler on Vimeo.

dogbrain: My Reprieve


The video for dogbrain’s song My Reprieve is a short film, directed by Jason Kessler. I hadn’t heard of Kessler before, but he is apparently well known in the world of independent film. My Reprieve has the quality of an old Twilight Zone episode. This perfectly fits the song, about a man about to be executed, who is hoping for a last-minute phone bringing his pardon. The music has a woozy, disoriented feel, which is perfectly mirrored by the quick cuts in the film. The song comes from the album Nest, which includes a remarkable mix of musical moods, from classic R&B to songs that hint at Delta Blues. There are also a few more unclassifiable songs like this one. I will have more to say about this album in a future post.

Christine Leaky - Lovely

Christine Leakey: Lovely

[Not yet released, preorder here]

The video for Lovely shows a different approach to matching visuals to music. This one has images that are recognizable, people, flowers, and such, but there is no attempt to tell a story. Instead, what you get is a perfect matching of visual and musical mood. Christine Leakey’s songs have a breezy feel and a Brazilian lilt. The gauzy and sometimes abstract look of the video works perfectly.

Danaher and Cloud - Hey Banker, Hey Banker

Danaher and Cloud: Hey Banker, Hey Banker

[purchase new album here when released]

Hey Banker, Hey Banker is a protest song. Where a well wrought political song will tell a story to make a point to someone who may not have seen it that way, protest songs are written to energize a crowd that shares your position. The video is a slide show. The pictures do not move, but their sequence is brilliant and powerful. Images from the Great Depression, in black and white, alternate with color images of the here and now. The result is an statement of greater eloquence than even words and music can achieve. The song is a worthy accompaniment. It will be found on Danaher and Cloud’s forthcoming album Late Bloomers, which I will also have more to say about in a future post.

Drew Smith - Love Teeth

Drew Smith: Love Teeth

[purchase Fossils as a download]

I love well done animation, and Love Teeth, while clearly not made on a big budget, is a fine example. The video is the work of Korean animator Sohee Jeon, who I hadn’t heard of before. But, based on this example, I want to know more. Love Teeth, both visually and in the story it tells, has a marvelous fairy tale quality to it. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but this one needs to be watched all the way through. Drew Smith’s album The Secret Languages is due out early next year. Love Teeth represents the quieter side of Smith’s music. Based on a few advance tracks and what I have heard of Smith’s previous album Fossils, this will be one to keep an eye out for.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Bread and Bones - Could Have Been a Dream


In Bread and Bones, the whole is greater than the sum of some very good parts. The group is a trio, with Beth Duquette on lead and harmony vocals only, Mitch Barron providing subtle support that is always right on a variety of basses, and Richard Ruane on lead instruments and lead and harmony vocals. Ruane wrote all of the original songs here, but when Duquette takes lead vocals, she inhabits her narrators so completely that it’s hard to believe that they were created by a man. I don’t think it was intentional, especially since the original songs were written over the course of nine years, but Could Have Been a Dream winds up being a set of songs about physical, emotional, and spiritual dislocation. I think the sequencing of the songs was probably intuitive, because Ruane is an intuitive songwriter, but the intuition was dead on, and the album winds up making an eloquent and powerful statement.

What you hear on this album is Ruane’s playing, and Ruane and Duquette’s voices. Barron’s bass parts do not announce themselves, but they add texture and enhance the emotion of the songs. Ruane usually plays acoustic guitar, but sometimes he switches to mandolin, ukulele, or even banjo on one song. That song, Emily Sits By the Window, is the one time I heard instrumental overdubs, with Ruane playing banjo, guitar and mandolin. But mostly, the songs sound they way they would live. There are no lead parts on the instruments; every thing is in support of the vocals. The group does show their prowess instrumentally in the way they vary the textures from song to song. Ruane sings in a range that straddles the line between baritone and low tenor. He rumbles a bit on the low notes, but he knows how to use that to his advantage. He has a folk style, direct and full of feeling, without much ornamentation. Duquette sings in a bluesy alto, and I have the feeling she could really belt one out if it suited the material. But the two of them blend masterfully, with their different styles meeting in the middle, and always in service of the song.

Ruane’s songs are about moments captured. There isn’t much storytelling here, although what happens in these moments sometimes tells a story of a kind. So the song Could Have Been a Dream presents a woman who remembers the mother who gave her up into fosterage when she was two or three years old. She has a collection of scattered impressions, filtered through the awareness of a young child, and her one clear memory is the refrain of a lullaby her mother sang to her. The song hints at why the mother had to give her up, but a child that age could never have understood all of the details, so the narrator of the song doesn’t either. It’s a great piece of writing that really hits home. You can tell, listening to Emily Sits By the Window, that this is an older woman; her memories come to her as she watches the sky outside, and then slip away again. We end up knowing some details of her life, but we can’t put her full story together, and we don’t need to. In the Air has a narrator who is probably a trapeze artist in a carnival. The song is about working at love without a net, and the metaphor works that much better because Ruane does not press the point. These are some of the songs of emotional dislocation. Physical dislocation is described best in North Along the River. Here we meet a group of fugitives who can not settle down, or even move about in daylight. The song does not say why they are fugitives; it simply and eloquently describes the rootlessness they feel. Will I Be Welcome and Breakwater are both about the idea of home. Welcome has a narrator wondering if he still has a home, while Breakwater tells of a man who knows he will always be able to find his home again. Who Do You Think It Was is a cover of a Charlie Sohmer tune, and finds a man in the midst of a test of his spiritual beliefs. The song has a gospel feel to it, with a great vocal blend. The album concludes with No Angels. This one says that we as human beings must rely upon ourselves and our intelligence, not on a higher power. It is a fitting conclusion to the journey this album has taken us on, and it feels in context like a message of hard-won hope.

I have nothing against flashy playing, but Bread and Bones don’t feel that they have to prove anything like that on this album. Could Have Been a Dream is a collection of finely written songs, with wonderful vocal performances, and solid instrumental backing to put the whole over with eloquence and grace.

Bread and Bones: Could Have Been a Deam

Bread and Bones: Emily Sits By the Window

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bump in the Night

Halloween music. I don’t think it can be called a musical genre, but you know it when you hear it. Or do you? A few years ago, I put together a one-hour set of Halloween songs for myself and my family to enjoy. I was greatly surprised when I played it for my wife, and she kept saying, “that’s not a Halloween song.” So I guess it’s a personal thing. In assembling this year’s Halloween set, I put out a call far and wide for submissions. Maybe some artists did not have a song they thought was appropriate, but I might have disagreed. One thing that makes it difficult is that most songs don’t appear on Halloween albums. That is true of all but one of the songs I chose for this set. (The exception will be obvious when you get to it.) To me, a Halloween song needs to have a creepy ambiance, and either take place at Halloween or have supernatural elements. Enter if you dare, and let me show you what I mean.

Bob Malone: So What If It‘s Halloween


Is Halloween the scariest day of the year? Bob Malone may not think so. In So What If It’s Halloween, he explains that people are often scarier when they are not wearing their costumes. Malone is a very talented musician who works in jazz, old-style R&B, and Americana, for starters. His refusal to stay with a single musical genre has probably kept him from being better known, which is a shame. Because he is such a musical chameleon, one song doesn’t do him justice. I have in mind to fix that soon. Stay tuned.

Mark Tulk: Ghosts


Ghosts has the quality of an incantation, as if the singer is summoning a spirit back from the other side. The song can be taken as a literal invocation, or as a summoning of old memories. Mark Tulk makes music that is richly textured, and he communicates his passions with hushed intensity. The textures vary enough to make his album Central State a richly varied listening experience, one that only gets better with repeated listens.

Susan James: Cold Moon on the Highway


Cold Moon on the Highway is here for the mood of the piece, but it also belongs in this set unambiguously for the lyric. Musicians sometimes say, “this place is dead tonight”, and they talk about “gigs from Hell”, where there is an audience that doesn’t care about the music, and where the band has trouble getting paid at the end of the night. James takes these two statements to their logical extremes, and tells of a show that may well have happened at this time of year. Her album is a solid work of Americana, with folk, rock, and country elements. James is a fine lyricist, displaying great sympathy for her narrators, as well as a wonderful imagination and sense of humor.

Andrew McKnight: Chemical Voodoo


Chemical Voodoo is an acoustic blues song that suggests that there is a monster in the swamp. Andrew McKnight takes the premise seriously, and, in the manner of the best horror films, he suggests rather than shows. This may be a straight supernatural tale, or an environmental fable, and that ambiguity makes the song that much spookier. Andrew McNight is a fine guitar player, equally at home playing solo pieces on acoustic guitar, working with a mostly acoustic band playing songs with a bluegrass influence, or working with a mix of electric and acoustic instruments making a more pop-influenced sound. In all cases, McKnight creates original songs that sound like something you must have heard before. He knows his various traditions well, and makes classic sounding music in varied settings. Look for another one of his songs on Star Maker Machine next week.

Southern Culture on the Skids: Idol With the Glowin‘ Eyes


Southern Culture on the Skids has made a career out of celebrating the earthiest, (I’ll say it that way), people of the Amaerican South. Zombified is their “tribute to the horror and exploitation movies that populated Southern theaters and drive-ins during the 60s and 70s”. For some reason, the album was originally released only in Australia as an eight song EP. Now, for the US release, five more songs have been added, and the whole thing has been remastered. The music is crunching Southern rock, done by the modern masters of the genre. Idol With the Glowin’ Eyes is a song of an enchantress who captures the hearts of men with her sinister magic. It is very much in the tradition of songs like Black Magic Woman. Like the album as a whole, this one is a treat, although it is also something of a guilty pleasure for me.