Sunday, February 27, 2011

Back Towards Normal

Having just spent a week immersed in the music of Mikel Rouse, I find that I need to readjust how I hear music. This will not permanently change the music I present here, but it may have affected my selections for this post. We are back to the traditional verse-chorus song structure, but I still hear interlocking patterns of rhythm and harmony. And the songs that appealed to me this week all have unusual instruments or combinations of instruments. Still, in a way, what Rouse does is to strip down the pop song form to its most basic elements; here are five artists who build that form back up, each in their own way.

Liam Singer (with Wendy Allen): The Brief Encounter

[listen to samples of more songs and purchase here]

The Brief Encounter has piano, hammered dulcimer, and fiddle. I believe there are also some electronically processed sounds, but if so, that is done with great subtlety. The song tells the story of a man who has an encounter with a ghost, and the song itself floats along, wrapped in beauty. The arrangement has hardly any low end, so the sense of floating described in the lyric is perfectly stated musically. But the ghost wants to show the narrator something, and suddenly the music becomes briefly dissonant. The moment is gently jarring, and the narrator floats back to himself, somewhat shaken. It’s subtle but powerful, and that could also describe the rest of the music on this album. Liam Singer presents a mix of vocal and instrumental songs here. The textures vary just enough to make the album as a whole a wonderful listen. The album was produced by Scott Solter, and the female vocalist is Wendy Allen; both are from the group Boxharp. It looks like I need to know more about them as well.

F&M: I Tripped, You Smiled


F&M is the duo of Rebecca and Ryan C Anderson, plus a shifting cast of supporting players. Their last album featured subdued vocal performances which suited the meditative quality of the songs. But Sincerely, F&M is a set of more emotional songs, and so the Andersons really cut loose here in their vocal performances. I was already impressed with Rebecca’s voice last time, but in this new setting, Ryan’s voice is a revelation. I Tripped, You Smiled features both of their voices, with different musical settings when he sings and when she does. The song depicts an argument between lovers, and this musical device puts a distance between them that helps to put across the uncertainty and yearning of the situation. The substance of the argument is not important here, but the conflicting emotions of the situation come through perfectly.

Hilary Grist: Tall Buildings


Tall Buildings is based on a chiming figure on the piano, plus an interesting rhythm in hand claps. In the course of the song, Hilary Grist will take this basic figure, and change the arrangement in various ways, enhancing it with additional instruments. But that simple figure never quite goes away, although it sometimes exists as a mere shadow. It gives the song an insistent power. Elsewhere on this album, Grist switches up the arrangements considerably, even using a small marching band on one song. It all holds together beautifully, and shows Grist to be a wonderfully passionate and imaginative musician.

Robert Steel: Goodnight to My Childhood


Robert Steel’s album The Calm Waters of Youth is probably as close to being folk as the music in this post gets, but there is still a ways to go. The title of the album is meant ironically, as the emotions here are quite turbulent. In the song Goodnight to My Childhood, the narrator finds himself in the neighborhood where he grew up. He finds his old house, and sees that all traces that he and his family ever lived there are gone. This causes him to experience a flood of memories of his lost childhood. This is rendered completely without cliché, and with a specificity that makes the song powerful indeed. The music is based around Steel’s acoustic guitar, and has a tolling quality that only enhances the mood. The song is good taste of what to expect from the album as a whole. Calm Waters feels like the work of a man who is exorcising some personal demons. The musicianship is high throughout, making this one of the most emotional albums I expect to hear this year.

Bekah Kelso: Bang Bang


Bekah Kelso has the talent to go in many different musical directions. Bang Bang is a soulful folk-jazz piece that also puts me in mind of Fiona Apple. Elsewhere on this album, Kelso sings quieter ballads, and invests them with a full range of emotion. The album concludes with a spoken word piece that suggests that Kelso could also make it as a rapper if she wanted to.

Mud Blossom was Kelso’s debut album two years ago. Her next one will be called Departures, and for good reason. This time, Kelso says she will be emphasizing her “hip hop/ world music flavor”. That is how she described it to me. So Bang Bang doesn’t give an accurate taste of what Kelso is up to now. But the song is a blast. Kelso is doing a fund drive on her own to get Departures made. She is raising the money in stages. I will have a formal post about the drive as soon as I have new music from the album to share. For now, you can get more details and donate here. As always, thank you for whatever you can do to help.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mikel Rouse - Corner Loading volume 1


Let’s talk about the blues for a moment. Before World War II, many blues musicians played guitar and sang, maybe they accompanied themselves with a harmonica, and that was it. Blues was a musical form that was still taking shape. The conventional 12-bar structure we know today had not yet taken hold, so these old-time blues players were free to manipulate time in their songs. Lightning Hopkins, for one, used to add or subtract measures, stretching or condensing time as the mood struck him, but in a way he always controlled. Also, there were blues songs that had numbers of bars, or even time signatures, that just wouldn’t make sense to today’s blues audience. Think also about John Lee Hooker. Most of his music was made after the war, and he mostly used the 12-bar structure. Hooker would play intricate patterns on the guitar, but a pattern would go on unchanging for the length of a song, without even a key change. In the hands of many artists, this would be deadly dull to listen to, but Hooker makes the repetition insistent and powerful.

Mikel Rouse shows, on his album Corner Loading Volume 1, that he knows this history, and that he has the skill to apply it in his own work. On two songs, Rouse accompanies himself only with handclaps in unusual rhythms. For the rest, It’s just Rouse and his guitar, plus harmonica on two songs. Unlike any of the music I featured in my last post, all of these songs could be recorded in one take, with no overdubs. And here we learn that Mikel Rouse is a great guitar player. He creates intricate patterns and plays in a rhythmic style that frees him from the need of a band. So Corner Loading can be considered to be his first solo album. (Technically, as I discussed last time, that would Quorum, but Corner Loading is the first album I have heard from Rouse that would require neither a dance troupe nor other musicians to perform live). The rhythmic experimentation of the early blues artists is here, and so is the insistent power found in John Lee Hooker’s music. Years is one song that sounds more like early jazz to me, with its clustered notes making unusual close harmonies.

The lyrics are another matter. Rouse is not one to tell his own story, as blues musicians do. Rouse can filter someone else’s story through his own perceptions, or he can create a character and tell his story in a long form work. But Rouse is usually looking at a bigger picture, even in these cases. Corner Loading is not a long-form work, but simply a collection of songs. So here, Rouse is not telling a story at all. Even so, these songs are heartfelt. Beginning with Active Denial, and ending with Ad Man, Rouse is commenting on the state of the world. He is interested in how people are able to deceive themselves, or be deceived, so that they can pursue their self-interest, and somehow not see the pain of others. Lonesome Shoeshine has wealthy and powerful men wondering why the man who used to shine their shoes cannot now find work. The chorus is a single line, and the only mention of the title character, but it gives the song all of its power. Made Up, Oh Lord is the lyric that is closest to the blues in the lyric. The song is a prayer and a cry of pain, and Rouse’s performance really puts it over. There are two songs that have minimal lyrics, and they are together on the album. The only words to Be Real Bad are, “ You know I ain’t gonna be real bad ,” sung over several times. This has a certain hypnotic power, but I could see someone adding additional lyrics for a cover version, and that could really work, because Be Real Bad does have a great melody. The lyrics of Trouble Making are slightly less skeletal, but the shifts in musical mood are what make this one work. Elsewhere on the album, Rouse shows himself to be an economical but eloquent lyricist.

The last piece of the puzzle on Corner Loading is Mikel Rouse’s voice. This is an album that Rouse could not have made when he was younger. His voice used to be high and smooth, and that would not have worked. But now, Rouse’s voice has deepened somewhat, and it now has a gravelly quality, and that is what this album needs. Rouse sing s these songs in his weathered voice, but with great emotion. The title of the album implies that there will someday be a volume 2. Rouse’s career indicates that there may be several fascinating detours before that happens. Either way, I will be looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Mikel Rouse: Years

Mikel Rouse: Lonesome Shoeshine

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Spotlight on: Mikel Rouse

[purchase all albums in this post here]

Take a look at the picture above. That’s Mikel Rouse. He looks like he just finished playing a folk or blues song, and everything went right and the audience loved it. Maybe this was at a folk festival, you might think. Well, not exactly. Mikel Rouse looks this way nowadays, and there are certainly touches of folk and blues in what he does now. But the journey that got him here is one of the most fascinating tales I know. In introducing Rouse to you, I am limited to five songs, one from each of five albums sprinkled throughout Rouse’s career. In his case, that isn’t nearly enough. Rouse began in a band that once opened for Talking Heads, he has composed for full orchestras and chamber ensembles, and used both electronic and organic instruments, separately or in combination. Rouse is so prolific that only about half of his music has even been recorded. And there is an important side of his artistry that I am unable to present: Rouse has been not only a musician but also a film maker, and much of his music is meant to be presented with a visual component. I can tell you that Rouse’s album Quorum is a work for solo drum machine, but that’s not quite true. Quorum is the music for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s piece Vespers. The music can only be properly appreciated in combination with the choreography of Ulysses Dove and the performances of the six Alvin Ailey dancers. (You can search You Tube for video of this by looking for Alvin Ailey Vespers; the video quality could be better, but it will give you the idea.) Nevertheless, what I can share with you is a suitable taste of Mikel Rouse. I hope you will come away from this post inspired to explore further.

Mikel Rouse Broken Consort: Winter in Wyoming

I mentioned that Mikel Rouse once opened for Talking Heads. The band was called Tirez Tirez. I must have read about them in the New York Times, because I actually bought one of their albums back in the 1980s. Now, they are all but impossible to find. There are three songs on You Tube to give you an idea, but only one of their albums was even released on CD, and vinyl copies are in the hands of collectors. Tirez Tirez built their songs on grooves which had interlocking parts, but didn’t seem to change much in the course of a song. The vocals were high and thin, really just another instrument in the ensemble. But you could listen to a song at the beginning, and then part way through, and you would be amazed that you got from the one place to the other. This is a layman’s description of Minimalism, and, technically, there is a lot more to it. Minimalism was pioneered by Phillip Glass, and in his lengthy pieces, the changes come very slowly, and try the patience of the listener. But, in the shorter form of a pop song, time is compressed, and the gradual change becomes fascinating. Also, because of those interlocking parts I mentioned, it is possible to listen to this music from different angles as the song progresses. To my ear, this is what Tirez Tirez was after, and they largely succeeded.

But soon enough, Mikel Rouse formed his Broken Consort. The vocals are gone, and the instrumentation is a mix of classical instruments and electronic ones. Winter in Wyoming has the interlocking patterns as its foundation, but there is also a longer theme and variations on top of this. This makes the song a good introduction to the music of the Mikel Rouse Broken Consort.

Mikel Rouse: A Brief History of My Boy‘s Life

There was a great deal of music in between, but ten years later Rouse created Failing Kansas. All of the instruments and voices you here are performed by Mikel Rouse. Failing Kansas is a work that is best appreciated as a whole, but I can only present one song. In A Brief History of My Boy’s Life, I can hear harmonica, guitar, flute, and some electronics. Rouse is still laying down an interlocking pattern, but now he is starting to find connections between Minimalism and blues. The vocals on the album are all spoken, with overdubbed voices seemingly having uneasy conversations. Boy’s Life has a definite lead vocal part, but the background vocal comes first. The traditional call-and-response is turned upside down, with the background vocal becoming a sly prod. Rouse sees the interaction of voices as part of the ensemble, and he calls this vocal technique counterpoetry. It sounds technical, and possibly off-putting, but don’t let it scare you.

Truman Capote’s In True Blood was what he called a “nonfiction novel”; it was based on a true incident, but filtered through Capote’s sensibilities. Failing Kansas, in turn, is based on In Cold Blood, and it introduces another layer of distortion. Rouse assumes that we are familiar with the original story, and that frees him to extrapolate further. Boy’s Life finds Perry Smith’s father trying to rationalize the horrifying things his son has done. The vocal technique amplifies his uncertainty, and really helps the whole song to connect emotionally.

Mikel Rouse: Beautiful Murders

Mikel Rouse called Dennis Cleveland an opera, but that may surprise you when you hear the music. It was staged, with different singers in different roles, but once again, all of the instruments and voices on the album are Mikel Rouse. Dennis Cleveland is the host of one of those TV talk shows where the audience members become participants and things sometimes get out of control. Life as presented on these kinds of shows is a distortion of the real thing. This theme of truth and distortion is one that comes up over and over in Rouse’s work. In the story of Dennis Cleveland, the talk show host is made to reexamine his own life as a result of his interactions with his guests. In performance, each of the verses of Beautiful Murders is sung by a different guest, with Cleveland and the talk show audience singing the chorus. Once again, Rouse uses the interplay of vocal parts to powerfully create dramatic tension. Musically, Rouse makes another surprising connection here, this time between Minimalism and funk.

Mikel Rouse: Johnny Dollar

I am tempted to call Johnny Dollar a blues song. It certainly has that flavor. There is a bluesy guitar that is prominent in the mix. But there is also a rhythm section that is playing a part with a cyclical African feel. Sunny Ade meets Son House? In any case, the song comes from an album called Music for Minorities, which is, of course, part of a larger work. In fact, the album comes with a CD of just the songs and a DVD of the full work. Rouse conducted interviews with people in New York City and Louisiana, and he also uses television footage and just things that caught his eye. I’m sure the whole thing was more thought out than that makes it sound, particularly since I didn’t have time to view the film all the way through. What I saw made this impression: fragmentation is another kind of distortion. Interviews trail off and bleed into parts of others. The opening footage of a news cast is cut in such a way as to strip the spoken word of meaning. It’s also interesting to listen to the songs first, and then find them on the DVD. They gain and lose meaning because of the images they are juxtaposed with. Johnny Dollar plays over images of superhero figurines, and we are made to question our notions about money. Because the visual component is part of the package, Music for Minorities may be the best introduction to the artistry of Mikel Rouse.

Mikel Rouse: Silence of Sound

Gravity Radio is a work from 2009, and things are changing in Rouse land. Rouse’s voice now has some grit to it, and that makes it a more emotive instrument. Silence of Sound is actually moving towards a more conventional song structure of verse and chorus; there is even a guitar solo. Once again, there is an African feel to the rhythm part, but the guitar plays a countermelody.

I read in the New York Times a review of a recent performance of Gravity Radio, and that was the original inspiration for this post. Rouse calls it a song cycle, and there are six radio news reports interspersed between the songs. These reports change every time Gravity Radio is performed, to keep current with the latest news. There is also a visual component of course. What I take from the songs on the album and what I know about how it is performed live is that Gravity Radio is all about people trying to sort through the noise of daily life and make connections with each other. The title Silence of Sound is at once a play on Sounds of Silence and a reiteration of this idea of attempted connections amid the noise. For me at least, the lyrics bear that out.


So now I have brought you almost up to date on the career of Mikel Rouse. My next post will finish the job. It will be a review of Rouse’s most recent album. Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

For a Song: Lullaby of Birdland

George Shearing: Lullaby of Birdland


"I have been credited with writing 300 songs. Two-hundred-ninety-nine enjoyed a bumpy ride from relative obscurity to total oblivion. Here is the other one." - George Shearing, introducing Lullaby of Birdland

George Shearing died earlier this week. He was 91. Shearing was a jazz pianist and songwriter. His career, starting with the obscurity and oblivion he talks about above, began in 1937, but did not take off until 1949. The years immediately following the end of World War II were an interesting time in jazz. Suddenly, the big bands were no longer economically feasible. Musicians like Benny Goodman adapted by shrinking their bands down to small combos, and some exciting music resulted. But swing would never again enjoy its prewar levels of popularity. Newer artists also had small groups, but they took the music in new directions, first with bebop, and then with cool jazz. Increasingly, jazz was changing from mass entertainment to more of a niche product. George Shearing was not known for his work before the war, so all options were open to him. Swing was his model, but his quintet was unusual because there were no horns. The Shearing quintet had drums, bass, and piano, of course. But a vibraphone was used to double the parts that Shearing played on the piano in his right hand, while an electric guitar doubled the left hand. This gave Shearing’s music the big sound he wanted, but with a small group. I know of no other band that did this, either then or since. Shearing debuted this sound in 1949, and had a hit album with it right away. So he must have had imitators, but I’ve never heard or heard of them. This new sound launched a career that would last more than fifty years. Shearing would go on to work with some of the great jazz singers, notably Mel Torme. But Lullaby of Birdland is still his best known composition, and a fine example of the sound that made him famous.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Rachel Harrington - Celilo Falls


You could be forgiven for thinking that Celilo Falls must be somewhere in the American South. In fact, the falls were once to be found on the Columbia River, dividing the states of Oregon and Washington. In the early 1950s, the Dulles Dam was built on the river, and now those falls are gone. Progress? Perhaps, but something precious was lost, and metaphorically, Rachel Harrington wants us to hear what it was. The songs on this album are Harrington’s idea of what country music was about when it was still country. You will swear that these are traditional tunes, but they are not. Yes, Harrington performs Pretty Saro here, but she has given the song completely new lyrics. Spokane is a cover, but that one was written in Washington state in 2005. The rest of the songs are Harrington originals, but their evocation of the folk music of the American South is uncanny.

Bury Me Close is like a microcosm of how this album works. The song starts with Harrington singing and accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Her voice is a fine folky alto with a Southern twang in the accent, and just a hint of smoke in the texture of her voice. Her singing is understated, but the emotions of each song come through loud and clear. On guitar, she picks her notes rather than strumming, and she gives herself solid support. You could say that this is all the song needs. But the lyric is very brief, and halfway through the song, Harrington has sung all of the words. At this point, a fiddle enters, and is soon joined by the rest of the band. From there, she sings the entire song again with the full band. So, in the space of one song, there are two arrangements, and each one is just what the song needs. Pretty Saro is done here as an a capella number, and it proves that Harrington can carry a song beautifully with just her voice. But there is a band on this album, and Harrington can add dobro or banjo, fiddle or pedal steel, mandolin, and/or stand-up bass. Here in My Bed has slide guitar, and You Don’t Know has a gentle harmonica part that is a wonder of delicacy. So Harrington sometimes uses all of the band, sometimes only some of it, and sometimes it’s just her and her guitar. In each case, Harrington makes the perfect choice of what the song needs.

Most of the lyrics sound traditional as well. He Started Building My Mansion in Heaven Today expresses a personal relationship between a Christian believer and his savior; the song was inspired by a remark that Harrington’s grandfather made. House of Cards concerns a card game turned sour, and is a wonderfully spare piece of story telling. The lyrics for Pretty Saro are new, as I mentioned, but they sound like a lost version. Only the lyrics of Goodbye Amsterdam sound new to me; here, Harrington describes traveling to old haunts throughout Europe without the company of a former romantic partner, and having to explain where that person is. It’s a beautifully rendered song, full of heartache, but it is the only one that does not sound like an old song. You’ll Do sounds traditional, but it belongs to a different tradition than the rest. This one sounds like a sultry old blues number. Harrington needs to sing this one a little differently than the rest, and she pulls it off beautifully. The album has a number of sad slow songs; You’ll Do provides a little breather, and it helps the whole album work better.

Next time out, maybe Harrington will start from the territory of Goodbye Amsterdam, and do an entire album of more modern-sounding songs. Or maybe she will start from You’ll Do, and do an entire album of jazz and blues flavored numbers. Or maybe she will continue to mine the rich vein of traditional-sounding songs heard here. Whatever she chooses, Celilo Falls proves that the results will be well worth hearing.

Rachel Harrington: You‘ll Do

Rachel Harrington: Bury Me Close

Saturday, February 12, 2011

That 70s Vibe

In the picture above, we are looking at a riot of flowers in a garden. But the natural texture of the plants has been eliminated, replaced by day-glo colors. The resulting image is loud and may produce a strong emotional response, but the simple natural beauty of a single flower is nowhere to be seen. For me, a lot of the music of the 1970s was like that. The Beatles showed everyone how the recording studio could be another instrument in a band, and then the record producers of the 70s abused that lesson. There were layers of strings masking genuine emotions. Bombast was the order of the day for guitar players. Chorused vocals were used by singers who weren’t up to the task of emoting on their own, while other singers mastered the art of over singing, just so they could be heard above the din. To be sure, it wasn’t all bad. Steely Dan’s music was densely layered, but it needed to be to create the pop-jazz textures they were after. Earth Wind and Fire, in their predisco days, had a huge sound, but it served to make them a glorious funk orchestra. But compare Jackson Browne’s album Late For the Sky to its follow-up, The Pretender. The song The Pretender makes it clear that Browne was being pressured by his label to make hits. The arrangements are awash in strings that sound all the more forced, knowing what had come before. The real emotion of Late For the Sky is lost, replaced by responses that are forced by the heavy-handed production of The Pretender.

All of this comes to mind because of a realization I had while selecting the songs for this week’s post. These are all modern artists, and some may not even have been born in the 70s. But I wound up with five songs that have a 70s feel, but are not marred by the production excesses of that era. And it made me wonder how many of the songs I’ve always hated from those years were actually good songs wearing really bad make-up. Let me show you what I mean.

Jaime Michaels: Wish on the Moon


Wish on the Moon is a perfect pop song. Jaime Michaels gets a wonderful breezy feel, and the call-and-response with the background vocals gives the whole thing a wonderful gospel feel. The pop song craft that I praised last week is certainly here, but, given that, the production is done with a light touch. The song is allowed to fly on its own, and it does. As a bonus, the harmonica player heard here is John Popper.
Elsewhere on this album, the songs quiet down, and Jaime Michaels proves that he can deliver his emotional messages at a lower volume as well. He also is a very fine songwriter.

Susan Anders: Love Beats Time


The title Love Beats Time warns you to expect a love ballad, and that’s what you get. In places, Susan Anders is going to elongate syllables, and she will make use of changes in volume. But Anders doesn’t need a wall of strings or anything like that. This expression of love is so much truer because Anders puts it across with such graceful subtlety.

Swimmer has songs with country, jazzy, or even a bossa nova feel to them. Anders makes subtle adjustments in her approach that make all of this work. She can sing in a sultry purr or add and bit of a bluesy growl, always in service of the song. It all makes Swimmer a nicely varied collection.

Casey Abrams and The Mysterious Strangers: It‘s Rained Every Day Since They Closed Down the Zoo


Casey Abrams has a way of crafting new music that you could swear you’ve heard before. But a careful listen will reveal an odd note here or there that makes the whole thing more memorable, even if you’re not conscious of it. On It’s Rained Every Day Since They Closed Down the Zoo, he sings in a high tenor, and conveys all of the emotion he needs. The song has a wonderful bittersweet and wistful quality. A delicate arrangement is called for, and Abrams and Co deliver it. Other songs here have just guitar and vocal, and there are also times when the band plugs in for a light rock sound. Abrams and Co know just how to make this work.

Terence Martin: Down From Sacamento


Terence Martin does not have a pretty voice. There is a gruff quality to it, a voice that has been lived in. But it is a musical voice, and there is no need for arrangements to pretty it up. The music comes from that odd borderland between folk and country. What makes this kind of thing work is a fine singer and equally good songwriting. Martin is a master of small details, giving his songs great emotional resonance, but in a way that may sneak up on you with repeated listening. Down to Sacramento is one of many fine examples on this album.

Jenny Arch: Black Barns


For Jenny Arch, there is no need for a full string section, when a single cello will do. Black Barns is the kind of song that paints pictures in my head as I listen, (and not in day-glo colors either). Vocally, Arch sounds like a more intimate and contemplative version of Natalie Merchant, and her small-scale, mostly acoustic arrangements emphasize this beautifully.

Call for help:

Walking Home (Samantha Kushnick and Anna Fritz): Remedy

[donate here]

Samantha Kushnick has been a member of the Portland Cello Project, which is a sort of chamber orchestra made up entirely of cellos. They make quite an amazing sound. In 2009, Kushnick was in a cello duo with Anna Fritz, called Walking Home. That was where she made her debut as a songwriter, with the version of Remedy heard above. The twin cellos are sometimes bowed, and sometimes plucked, but cellos are the only instrument you hear. Now, Kushnick is ready to step out on her own. We already know that she is a wonderfully imaginative cellist, but she plans to work with other instruments as well, so I look forward to hearing her skills as an arranger blossom. Kushnick is asking for $1000 on Kickstarter to make her album, and she is already well along towards her goal. But I have a feeling she will need more, so I ask you, my readers, to do whatever you can to see that she has it.


As I write this, Daniel Levi Goans has three days left to make his goal, so it’s crunch time. An angel or two would get it done, but, of course, smaller donations will also help.

Meanwhile, the String Bone campaign on Kapipal is just getting underway, but even a small donation is needed now to really get the ball rolling. Take Hold of the Line is going to be one of my favorite Americana albums of the year, assuming it gets made.

On behalf of all of these artists, thank you for whatever you can do.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Grant Peeples - Okra and Ecclesiastes

[scroll down to preorder]

The title Okra and Ecclesiastes comes from a line in My People Come From the Dirt, which is the first song on Grant Peeples’ new album. The song sounds like it’s going to be one of those country pride songs. The classic song of this type is I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool). But this isn’t an anthem of redneck pride; rather, Peeples portrays his people in a realistic light, as people who live unglamorous lives, but who make the best of it. There is a sense of solidarity. For the rest of the album, Peeples expands on this theme. He presents these kinds of people in contemporary and historical settings, as well as in folklore. Some songs are about others, while some are personal songs in the first person. Finally, although the title must seem unlikely, Peeples closes with High Fructose Corn Syrup, which proves to be a closing prayer and amen. Peeples tells all of this with both humor and sympathy.

Grant Peeples plays acoustic guitar. Add drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitar, and keyboards. There are also male and female background vocals, and accordion on a few songs, as well as pedal steel. So some songs sound like rock, others have a mix of electric and acoustic instruments and sound more country, and still other songs are mostly acoustic. Peeples’ voice is a gravelly baritone, and he half sings, half speaks his way through these songs. Both in the vocals and the instrumental sounds, this is by no means pretty music. This music has dust, sweat, and cigarette smoke coursing through it. But that suits Peeples’ songs perfectly. Peeples’ voice would seem to be a limited instrument, but he knows exactly how to use it. He is passionate on Powerlines, loving on That Kinda Woman and Empty Cup, and on John L and Helen and Cowboy Gothic he plays the storyteller who is more affected by his subject matter than he wants to be. He never raises his voice, going only from quiet conversation to a cracked whisper. But he covers a remarkable emotional range.

These are the songs of a man who has lived a bit. Peeples has seen love fade. He sees the relative importance of things through the eyes of someone who is well beyond the zeal of his youth. And he can appreciate small miracles in a way that comes with experience. So It’ll Never Be Love Again describes a couple who realize that they are no longer in love, but decide that they can live with that. Cowboy Gothic feels like it takes place in the old West, and it tells of a curious incident with out offering an explanation; it is enough to hear what happened. Elisabeth sounds like a paean to a woman the narrator has loved, but he is trying to live with the idea that they can never be more than friends. Powerlines finds two people, each married to someone else, having an affair; the song does not give all of the details, because it doesn’t have to.

And that is perhaps the key to what Makes Peeples such a good writer. He is a master of omission. He leaves out details for his listeners to fill in as needed, but he focuses only on the aspects of situations that he wants to talk about. This could be frustrating in the hands of a lesser writer, but Peeples makes it work beautifully. Okra and Ecclesiastes is both a wide ranging and a tightly focused set of songs, and an album that I can see getting more and more out of with repeated listening.

Grant Peeples: Powerlines

Grant Peeples: Cowboy Gothic

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Pop Music

Here are five fine examples of “pop music” by five artists you may well not have heard of. How can this be? Isn’t “pop” short for “popular”? Well, yes, but unpopular music can still be “pop”, as I see it. And not all music that becomes popular is pop music.

Think about it. Pop music can be made in country, grunge, folk, or even the ska genre. “Pop” is not a musical genre. It is instead an approach to making music. The idea in pop music is to take the limitations of a genre, and work within them to create well crafted songs. These songs are bound by the rules of the genre they represent, and this gives the listener the comfort of familiarity. But that should not mean that the song lacks emotional resonance. Too much pop music leeches out the emotional content of a song altogether. The great trick is to preserve the emotional content of a song, but comfort the listener by placing it in a familiar context. Put another way, pop music done well must be finely crafted, but the artistry of the performers must also be there. The ability to balance craft and art is what makes great pop music. Let me show you what I mean.

Dawnya Clarine: He‘s a Cat


He’s a Cat is the perfect place to begin. Here is Dawnya Clarine, solidly within a pop-jazz zone, wishing she could break out and do something wild. The song can be taken as a statement on her own artistry. Elsewhere on this album, Clarine’s band provides her with a light fusion jazz backing to sing with. Walking on Water does not take many musical risks, but Clarine and her band show a rock-solid commitment to this music. Most of all, Clarine’s vocals really put this one over.

Steve Poltz: License Plate Eyes

[purchase Dreamhouse and other Steve Poltz goodies here]

Take a sunny. optimistic lyric. Add a strummed acoustic guitar, and a band, plus some sound effects and a little reverb on the vocals, and you have one of the most derided forms of pop music ever: psychedelic folk-rock, as done in the early 1970s. There are artists nowadays who present this kind of music in an ironic manner, but Steve Poltz is not one of them. He plays it straight here, and what shines through is his complete belief in the material. You can make as much fun as you like of Poltz’s 1970s counterparts, but the best of them meant every word, and they offered hope and comfort in a very difficult period in history. The world could use that kind of offer now, and Steve Poltz provides it.

Seth Swirsky: Summer in Her Hair


As Summer in Her Hair opened, I was reminded of the singing of Elliot Smith. But, soon enough, we are in Burt Bacharach/ Hal David territory. Summer in Her Hair is an innocent paean to a beautiful woman, and the song has strings, brass, and I think there may even be some woodwinds in there. What is remarkable is how natural Seth Swirsky makes this all sound. All of this instrumentation never comes close to overwhelming the song. Swirsky delivers a fine vocal and really puts this one over.

Jordan Galland: Search Party


Jordan Galland remakes 1980s dance-pop here. Search Party has a coolness, an aloofness, that was so popular in those days. Galland, however, does this without featuring synthesizers. Here are regular drums, bass, guitar and piano. There is also a braying trumpet part that gives this a wonderful edge. Galland’s vocal, complete with reverb, is perfect here. What is clear from this song is that Jordan Galland loves this kind of material, and he completely does it justice.

Kori Pop: Shooken Up

[purchase in digital or “tactile“ format, (you‘ll see what I mean when you get there.)]

Naturally, if you have music by an artist named Kori Pop, and you’re doing a post on Pop music, she has to be included. All kidding aside, here’s how it works. R & B music these days is distinct from the rhythm and blues music of the past, and I will have more to say about that in a future post. Kori Pop creates a minimal groove and sings over it. In this, she reminds me of Sade and Erikah Badu. The groove here is made by acoustic guitar, drums and bass, with splashes of piano for color. It’s a great sound, but Pop’s vocal is the highlight, as it should be. Pop sings in a breathy alto, and she clips her phrases at the ends of lines for emotional effect. It’s a device that she knows exactly how to use, and it means that this one really hits home.

Call for Help:

String Bone: Midnight Train

[Listen to more String Bone songs here]

[Donate here]

[purchase nadir here]

Barry James Payne is raising money on Kapipal to make his next album Take Hold of the Line. His band is String Bone. Kapipal looks at first like Kickstarter; there is a goal amount, and a time limit for the end of the drive. But Payne will receive whatever money is raised, whether or not he makes his goal. Kapipal is not specifically designed for music, or even for arts projects, so I have provided a link where you can hear more of String Bone’s music. What you will hear is solid Americana. Payne has a low-pitched voice that he uses for quieter numbers, and also a higher pitched voice for the louder songs. Remarkably, Payne can achieve a full range of emotional expression in either voice. The writing is as good as any I have heard in the Americana field. My comments here are based on listening to String Bone’s first album, called nadir. I want badly to hear the new one. Please do whatever you can to help Barry James Payne get Take Hold of the Line made. Thank you.


As I write this, Daniel Levi Goans has 9 days left to make his goal on Kickstarter, or he gets nothing. From what I’ve seen, that could be enough time, if enough people want to help. Still, an angel or two capable of making a large donation would really help. Goans, to remind you, is a folk artist, and a solo act with the ability to make you hear a full band. Hank you for whatever you can do.

Since I last reported on them, Allison Tartalia, Leannan Sidhe, and Urban Sun have all successfully completed their fund drives. Congratulations to all, and thank you to al of my readers who were able to help. Unfortunately, The Scarlet Furies were not so lucky. They missed their Kickstarter goal, so they do not get paid. I will be getting in touch with them to find out what they want to do next. I will pass that information on to, as appropriate, when I have it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

For a Song: Complainte Pour Ste Catherine

Kate and Anna McGarrigle: Complainte Pour Ste Catherine


Last week, our theme on Star Maker Machine was Saints. Our assignment was to post songs either about or addressed to various saints, and I immediately thought of this one. The title translates as Lament for Ste Catherine, so I seemed to be on the right track. However, since I don’t speak a word of French, I thought I had better look at the translation of the lyrics as well. It’s a good thing I did. It turns out that Ste Catherine is the name of a street in Montreal, (shown above), and the song is a sketch of a stroll down that street, and the people the singer met there. I can’t say how good a translation I saw, since I don’t speak the language, so I would welcome more information from my French-speaking readers. So, it didn’t fit our theme, but it’s a beautiful song. Not knowing the language, I was always drawn to the sound of it, with the light reggae feel mixed with French-Canadian folk touches, and topped with the sweetest singing you ever heard. So, here it is.

Incidentally, I recently found out that Kirsty MacColl did a cover of Complainte Pour Ste Catherine on her album Kite. If any of my readers can share that one, please get in touch or post it in the comments. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Carrie Elkin - Call It My Garden


Last week, I reviewed Danny Schmidt’s new album, and I mentioned that Carrie Elkin sang background vocals. This time, it’s Carrie Elkin’s new one, with Danny Schmidt singing in the background. The two are currently touring together, and in fact, they are a couple. But they are two very different people, a fact which Elkin celebrates in some of the songs here, and Elkin makes this album her way.

Call It My Garden is an appropriate title. It implies that it is not perfect, but it is what I wanted. There were weeds to be pulled, and there will be again, but there is great beauty, at least some of which will endure. The phrase implies to me that the gardener has reached a sense of peace about the fact that the tending is not done. So the album is a set of heartfelt songs, but the performances have a looseness that lets the listener in. Sometimes Elkin or one of the band members counts off the beat at the beginning of a song. The album ends with a bit of chatter between the members of the band that might refer to the song or the album as a whole.

The basic band here is Carrie Elkin’s acoustic guitar, plus banjo or mandolin, dobro, and electric or acoustic bass. Sometimes there are drums, other times an organ part or an electric guitar joins in, and there is sometimes a cello. Edge of the World closes the album with a martial drumbeat and an accordion part which combine to create a carnival atmosphere. You could combine most of these instruments and wind up with something with a bluegrass feel, and that happens on Jesse Likes Birds, which opens the album. But, after that, the sound changes. These are songs which were written on guitar and then the mood was embellished and amplified by the inclusion of the other instruments. On top of all this is Carrie Elkin’s voice. She sings in a twangy alto, and her voice is strong and clear most of the time. But she has a little quirk that could be a disaster for another singer but really works for her. Sometimes, usually at the end of a phrase, Elkin lets all of the air out of her voice, and finishes a phrase in an almost spoken whisper. For Elkin, this is a way of adding emotion to her singing, and she really makes it pay off. Her voice is certainly good enough to carry a song by herself, but Elkin uses a lot of background singers as well. This can be a single male or female voice harmonizing with her, or there is sometimes a chorus of voices.

The garden metaphor I mentioned earlier also applies to the lyrics. Jesse Likes Birds opens things in an emotional comfort zone. The song interpolates Mocking Bird, A song which I always think of as being song by a parent to a child, as a promise to make things right. But that is followed by Guilty Hands. Here the singer is questioning her religious faith. In the garden metaphor, seeds have been placed in the ground, but nothing grows yet. Will it? Those first young shoots are the appearance of love, but here the lovers must be apart at times, and there is the both the ache and the insecurity that separation brings. Lift Up the Anchor captures this perfectly. From here, the love ebbs and flows. Obstacles appear, weeds, if you will, and are not so much overcome as compensated for. Landeth By Sea is the hopeful expression of the sense that the differences between two lovers can complement each other, beautifully expressed. In St Louis, Elkin’s narrator thinks about how her previous relationships haven’t lasted, and seeks reassurance that that won’t the case this time. Shots Rang Out would seem to be from another album at first; it is a telling of a dark and harrowing episode that had nothing to do with the current relationship. But isn’t there a dark moment like this in all of us, and isn’t there a moment in a new relationship where you take the risk of telling your partner about this dark time? I think that’s what this song is doing here. Edge of the World concludes the album, and here there is almost a humorous tone, as the narrator reaches the conclusion that the relationship isn’t perfect, because that kind of perfection doesn’t exist, but that’s OK. There is enough there to dream of a shared future, and that is love, really. There will be more weeds in the future, but it’s OK.

It is possible that I have no idea what I’m talking about here. I am not a gardener myself. But I do know that Call It My Garden struck an emotional chord with me. And that is what good art should do.

Carrie Elkin: Landeth By Sea

Carrie Elkin: St Louis