Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Eliza Gilkyson - Roses at the End of Time


I saw Eliza Gilkyson perform at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival last year. I remember that it was hot, and their were lots of people around. I don’t remember the songs she performed. But the next time I see her, it will be different. Roses at the End of Time is the first Gilkyson album I have ever heard, and I will not forget these songs. They are marvels of subtlety, and fine examples of the art of songwriting. It’s just that Gilkyson’s art is intimate, and a festival is probably not the best place to hear it for the first time.

On Roses, Gilkyson plays acoustic guitar most of the time, and she when switches to electric on some tunes, she does so for the difference in tone, but stays with the same technique. Most songs have a second guitar, either electric or acoustic, a bass, likewise either stand up or electric, and all but two songs have some kind of drums or percussion. No one steps out to take a solo, and neither are these songs driven by hooks. Instead, the band creates a set of textures that are completely in synch with the intent of each song. So Slouching Towards Bethlehem has a sort of gut bucket gospel feel, sort of like a Tom Waits song with the rough edges smoothed out some. Death in Arkansas sounds like an old time bluegrass song that is in danger of succumbing to modernity, which perfectly suits its subject matter. Belle of the Ball has an appropriately haunted sound. In short, the band here shows an astonishing tonal range, and Gilkyson shows a great gift for creating diverse musical settings that perfectly suit her songs. On top of all this is Gilkyson’s voice. As the album begins, it would be easy to Gilkyson a limited singer. She sings in a slightly scratchy alto, and she does not appear to have a wide range in terms of notes. But the more I listened, the more I came to marvel at her tonal and emotional range. She doesn’t raise her voice much, but she uses subtle shadings to put over a wide range of material. Blue Moon Night conveys a sense of wonder, 2153 is gently mocking, and Belle of the Ball and Vayan al Norte tug at the heartstrings in different, but equally powerful ways. Elsewhere, she conveys love, longing, and road weariness with equal eloquence.

Of course, the writing has something to do with it too. Vayan al Norte is an amazing piece of songwriting. Gilkyson presents Mexican immigrants in the United States. She begins the song in English, but Spanish words begin to slip in, and then take over completely. Thanks to a full English translation on Gilkyson’s website, I can tell you what’s going on here. The narrator of the song starts out emotionally in the US, but slowly their consciousness returns to Mexico, and what they had to leave behind to come here. The music also shifts subtlety to become more Mexican sounding. It’s a brilliant device. Once I Had a Home starts out sounding like it is about someone who became homeless when their house was foreclosed, but later it sounds more like it is about Native Americans who were forced from their lands and onto the reservations. The song ends up making a powerful connection between the two without explicitly stating either one. Other songs are more direct. Blue Moon Night captures a fleeting moment in time. The song has great beauty, but also a wonderful wistful quality. And Slouching Towards Bethlehem rides a great groove to spell out some of the evils of the world. It manages the trick of having a gospel fervency without sounding preachy in the least.

Blue Moon Night was great way to open this album. Its momentary bliss drew me in, and kept me listening long enough to discover more of the treasures on Roses at the End of Time. I suspect that I will find more of these treasures each time I listen to the album. That’s all I could ask.

Eliza Gilkyson: Blue Moon Night

Eliza Gilkyson: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Friday, August 26, 2011

For a Song: Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)

BR5-49: Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts)


Things are kind of serious around here, as we await the arrival of Hurricane Irene on Saturday. So I wanted to lighten the mood. To my ear, Little Ramona (Gone Hillbilly Nuts) could not be more of a country song. But, even though BR5-49 recorded the song for Arista Nashville, they received minimal support from the label. The lyrics tell of a former punk rocker gone country, and the tongue is firmly in cheek. But the idea is not really that far fetched. There was a musical sub-genre in the 1980s and 90s known as cow punk. Jason and the Scorchers and Rank and File were two of the better known bands in this category. Also, John Doe and Exene Cervenka of the punk band X went on to form The Knitters as a side project, and an outlet for their form of country. So I find it easy to imagine that fans of punk might have traveled the same road. Little Ramona dons leather boots and western wear as a rebellion from the conformity of punk fashion. I find the irony of that irresistible. From Monty Python’s Life of Bryan: “Yes, we are all individuals!” “Eh, I’m not.”

Monday, August 22, 2011

Theme and Variations

The starting point for much of the music that I post here is one man or woman with an acoustic guitar. Sometimes, they are seated at a piano instead. Either way, from this basic set-up a song emerges. Maybe the artist performs that song exactly the way it was written. But maybe they take the song and add a few other instruments. Maybe they take it to a working band, and a fuller arrangement is created. Or maybe that original guitar or piano part disappears, to be replaced by a full arrangement for a large band. Whatever happens, the original spark of inspiration must be present, and must survive the process, and hopefully be improved by it. The five songs I am presenting show a progression of how this can work out. All of the artists here had great songs to start with, and those great songs thrived under the treatments they were given. And each artist reached a different conclusion about how to make this happen.

Cam Penner: Cool Cool Nights


Cam Penner plays enough different instruments to record a rock album without needing a band, although he still has one on Gypsy Summer. Most of the album falls on the rock side of Americana. Cool Cool Nights is an exception to the overall sound of the album, and it was clearly written on the acoustic guitar. At first, all you hear is Penner’s voice and guitar, and the bass and drums enter quietly and stay that way. There is a harmonica solo on the break, and that’s it. Arranging the song this way brings Penner’s words and voice to the fore, and they stand up to the scrutiny beautifully. Penner’s voice has some weather in it, and that’s perfect for this song of longing and separation. The writing hits home, as it does throughout the album.

Lisa Jaeggi: Empirical Science


Lisa Jaeggi is an interesting case for inclusion here. In 2009, her album Oh Lady You Shot Me came out. It was a collection of nine songs, arranged for voice, acoustic guitar, and stand up bass. But, when Jaeggi’s current publicist contacted me about Epic Epic, she told me that it was Jaeggi’s debut album. Digging a bit further, I discovered that Epic Epic contains six songs from Oh Lady, and six new songs. So what gives? Apparently, Oh Lady was successful enough to allow Jaeggi to rerecord those older songs the way she actually heard them in her head. So, Oh Lady may be regarded as a set of demos, and Epic Epic would be the debut album. Clear?

In any case, this gives the listener the ability to hear how the arrangement of the song developed, and how it affected the sound of the song. Empirical Science was on Oh Lady, and it had a fierce groove, but it also sounded sparse. Now, the stand up bass is gone, replaced by an electric one, drums kick the beat along and really put this one high gear, and additional guitars thicken the texture and help to put the emotion across. The full band is particularly effective in making the transitions between verses and choruses. Jaeggi has a somewhat deadpan delivery, which works for her, but the full band arrangement really helps to put the full emotion of the song across. Ironically, in my original review of Oh Lady, I chose two of the three songs that did not make it onto the new album. Those songs did not need the full band treatment, but the rest have benefited greatly by it, and the new songs are of a piece.

Levi McGrath: By Your Side


Levi McGrath uses folk-pop arrangements to powerful effect. The basic arrangements here call for drums, bass, and acoustic and electric guitars, plus keyboards. String parts are added to some songs with a very light touch. McGrath’s voice reminds me of Duncan Sheik’s, and his arrangements are somewhere between Sheik’s and Luka Bloom’s. So the music leads you to expect well written love songs. To begin with, you might think that is what is happening in By Your Side, but then you find out that the song is sung to a twelve year old boy, and your world shifts under you. The album title Children of War, it turns out, is meant literally. This is a set of songs about child soldiers in the Ugandan Civil War, and the pop trappings give the music great power by playing with the listener’s expectations. Given that McGrath uses field recordings and performances by Ugandan musicians on some of the album’s songs, it is safe to say that Children of War is a powerful eyewitness account of a tragedy. McGrath tells the tales of individuals, so he never rants, and his sympathy for his characters makes the listener care as well. What could have been a depressing, or even horrifying, set of songs is inspiring instead.

Gwendolyn: American Gothic


Gwendolyn’s album Bright Light may be described as Americana, but it sounds like it doesn’t quite fit. She likes unusual tones and instruments, which add texture in subtle ways that you might only notice if they were pointed out to you. American Gothic is a fine example of this. Once the song gets going, it becomes clear that the musical basis for it is bluegrass. But the drum part is the obvious element that sets the song apart. There are also some more subtle additions, including electric guitar and glass harmonica. On top of this is Gwendolyn’s sweet voice. She is the center of attention, and everything comes together beautifully to support her.

Pinataland: The Death of Silas Deane


Like Gwendolyn, Pinataland favors experiments with musical textures. But where Gwendolyn uses a subtle approach, Pinataland’s approach is deliriously up front. The songs here depict characters whose emotions are unsettled, and the music reflects that. These songs are cowrites by the band’s male lead singer and keyboard player. Although there is an acoustic guitar part on The Death of Silas Deane, that part is really just transposed piano chords. The song has parts that sound like circus music, and others that sound like eastern European folk music. This all serves as a powerful backdrop to a tale of a man who is dying either of poison or of a severe stomach ailment. The music is a fascinating mixture that serves the lyric well, and it is a tribute to the band’s talent that it all holds together and makes a powerful impression. Incidentally, Silas Deane was a real person, a contemporary of John Adams and George Washington. Deane would become a spy in France, and finally die, either of poison or natural causes, during a voyage that would have returned him to the United States after a long absence. There is a lot more to the story, and it is quite interesting. For details, go here

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kris Delmhorst - Cars


Starting in 1978 and running through most of the 80s, there was a new sound in popular music. Prior to that, your standard pop-rock band had drums, bass, and rhythm and lead guitar. There was a lead singer who sang sincere and heart-felt lyrics of the vicissitudes of love. A fifth member of the band, if there was one, played piano or organ or both, and sang back-up. But in 1978, a new band arrived, with great hooks, a lead singer who sang with ironic detachment, although the subject matter had not changed, and with a keyboard player who played synthesizer. The band had great writing, with some of the best hooks anyone had ever heard, and with lyrics that began with tales of teenage lust, and progressed to more mature tales of love as the band matured. The band was The Cars, and you may have guessed that they were favorites of mine. So I’m going to be touchy when someone covers one of their songs. Kris Delmhorst has covered an entire album of them.

The album is Cars. I have to believe that this project started back in the 80s, with Delmhorst learning each new Cars album by heart, and singing along with the records in her bedroom when she thought no one was listening. I say that because her phrasing throughout is perfect, just the way I remember the originals. Now, I don’t go for people who cover a song by reproducing the originals note for note. But, what saves Delmhorst’s vocal performances here for me is the fact that she understands that she is not Ric Ocasek. The notes and the phrasing are here, but the tone is new. Delmhorst does not come off as ironic at all, but the lyrics can support a sincere reading as well, and Delmhorst projects a wonderful warmth that works beautifully. The fast songs, like You Might Think and My Best Friend’s Girl have a playful quality that really works. But Delmhorst especially shines on the ballads. Drive was a big hit in the original version, but it was one place where I always thought that the ironic approach didn’t work. Here, Delmhorst gives a completely sincere reading, and I hear what I was missing.

But I have saved the best for last. Those great hooks are all here, but Delmhorst has arranged the songs for a sort of folk orchestra. On top of a solid foundation of drums and bass, there is an army of mostly acoustic instruments. Those synthesizer line from the original songs might be played here on accordion, fiddle, penny whistle, or even clarinet. On Drive, the original had a wash of synthesizers as the key to the sound of the song, but here it’s a combination of accordion with some bass clarinet added as the song progresses. This really warms the song up, making it more emotionally resonant. Delmhorst also loosens up the arrangements at times. The cello parts on Why Can’t I Have You add depth to the song. Listen closely to the bass line on My Best Friend’s Girl, and you will hear the wonderful playfulness of this album. And the banjo part in Hello Again is a great touch. The background vocals are a mix of high female voices and low male ones, and the push and pull between the two is a device that is used here to great effect, especially on Shake It Up.

In sum, Kris Delmhorst shaows that she loves these songs, and the album gives me fond memories of when I first heard them. But the songs have been revoiced, both vocally and instrumentally, which makes Cars an album that is full of delightful surprises.

Kris Delmhorst: Why Can‘t I Have You

Kris Delmhorst: Drive

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Joy of Jazz

Critics sometimes talk about transcendent performances. I think that these happen when an artist is having fun. Everything else falls away, and the sheer pleasure of making music shines through. Jazz, with its freedom, lends itself to these kinds of performances. Here are some of them, from five jazz singers.

Mark Winkler: Sweet Spot (w Barbara Morrison)


I’ve talked here before about how I find it so difficult to find to find male jazz singers to feature. The model for many is the brat pack sound of Frank Sinatra and his cohorts. I find that sound heavy handed and overdone. Here’s why. Mark Winkler has all the emotion of any brat packer, but Winkler’s comes off as genuine, because he sings with a marvelous light touch. Sweet Spot the song has a bonus: Winkler is paired with Barbara Morrison, who has a great bluesy voice. Their voices are well matched, and this song sounds like it was a blast to record.

Incidentally, it may be a cliché, but Barbara Morrison is one of those great musicians who can’t afford emergency medical care. In researching her for this post. I learned that she recently had to have a leg amputated due to her diabetes. There is a fund drive on her website to raise money for her medical expenses, and you can donate here. Please help if you can.

Deborah Pearl: Doozy Blues


Deborah Pearl is one of those singers who uses her voice like a horn, in this case a tenor sax. On ballads, she skips around the beat but never loses it. She also has great dynamic control, going from loud to soft with the same emotional intensity. On the faster songs like Doozy Blues, Pearl is off and running, throwing in some scat singing along the way, and just completely celebrating the music. Souvenir of You is a tribute to Benny Carter, with Pearl’s original lyrics set to Carter’s tunes. Pearl knew Carter personally, and counted him as a friend. Souvenir of You then is a labor of love, and it sounds that way.

Audrey Silver: Exactly Like You


Where Deborah Pearl is a sax, Audrey Silver is a trumpet. There is a brashness in her delivery that gives her songs a bit of sass. I’ve heard this sort of thing taken too far, and it can really kill a performance. But Silver hits it just right, it pays off beautifully for her. Exactly Like You has both excitement and warmth as performed here. Silver likes to elongate her notes and phrases at times, pulling against the beat as laid down by her band; this creates a dramatic tension that works beautifully to get her point across.

Danielle Reich: This Year‘s Kisses


You have to listen for Danielle Reich’s voice above the band. She sings in a soft purr, caressing her songs. It seems at times that she is going to be overwhelmed by the band, but it never happens. Singers in this style can go off the rails if they are not precise about the rhythm. Reich has that down. At the end of the song This Year’s Kisses, she stops on a dime. Her voice has a quality of playful enticement, and she does a great job of finding songs that play to her strengths.

Cinzia Spata: Carlos


I started off by talking about the freedom of jazz, but singers are, of necessity, bound by the words they sing. However they do it, they must honor the emotion of their text. This is as true of Cinzia Spata as anyone else. Into the Moment is a mix of standards and more modern songs, But where the musical models for the other songs and singers in this set date from the swing era, Spata draws from bebop and the cool jazz of Miles Davis in her approach. The band is looser, and Spata has a playful quality in her voice to match. And then there is Carlos. There are no lyrics here. Spata sings scat throughout the song, and she can do whatever she wants. There is a middle section that is almost free jazz, and Spata gets some sounds in this section that a human voice should not be able to make. But she and her band never lose their sense of musicality, and they find their way back to the original melody in breathtaking fashion. In the end, this is one of the most exciting feats of vocal gymnastics I have ever heard.

Friday, August 12, 2011

For a Song: Galileo

Indigo Girls: Galileo


I bought a book from Amazon a while back, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, by Charles MacKay. The book is well known in the world of finance, particularly for its account of the Dutch Tulip Mania. It also discusses alchemy, dueling, and supposed holy relics, among other things. The book dates from 1841, so the use of language is somewhat archaic, and MacKay rambles, so it’s not exactly an easy read.

Well, it got to be early May, and I got an e-mail from Amazon asking me if I wanted to sell back my text book. Huh? What text book? And then I read the rest of the e-mail. Apparently, Extraordinary Popular Delusions is used as a text book for some college courses. And apparently, no one at Amazon can imagine anyone in their right mind reading the book for fun. And that is exactly what I am now doing, and I am having fun. I don’t what that says about me, but there it is.

What does any of this have to do with music? Well, Galileo is one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs, so I decided to share it this week. The song opens with an interesting percussion sound, which carries through whole song. The vocal features the wonderful harmonies of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, aided in this case by Jackson Browne and David Crosby on backing vocals. The fiddle part sounds like an entire string section, but used really well. And if you think from all of this that I never completely heard the lyrics before, you’re right. So, now I have, and that’s what reminded me of the book. One of the major themes of the book is that a society can get an idea in its head that just grows and grows, regardless of the fact that it never really made sense. This can also happen to an individual, and in the song, the idea is reincarnation. The narrator gets into her head that she has had a number of past lives, and these past lives become both an excuse and a burden. For her, being responsible for just one life was burden enough. But as I said, the idea grows and grows. The whole thing is delivered in a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek way. Maybe reincarnation is real, but it doesn’t follow that every person would be better off for knowing that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


A group of woman gets together to make a patchwork quilt. The rules of the game say that each is to bring a patch of cloth with something beautiful on it. None of the others is to know what she brings. The result is a new kind of beauty, fascinating in its variety, and yet somehow of a piece. Musical genres can be like that. Each artist works within or around the conventions of the genre, and the genre is richer for it. Here are five women who each bring their scraps of cloth to country music. Country can perhaps be more stale and cliché ridden than any other genre. What makes it work, when it does, is that the artist is fully invested in it emotionally. These women are, each in their own way.

Leslie Krafka: The Best For Me


Leslie Krafka understands the form of country music very well. Her sound comes from Texas wing of the genre, where productions have a little more space in the music, and instrumental touches like the wonderful mandolin part heard here are not unusual. Krafka has a fine voice for this too, warm with an occasional sense of wonder. But what stands out for me are her words. Wandering Troubadour won Kafka a Song of the Year award from the Houston Songwriters Association for its contemporary take on gypsy romance, and The Best for Me is just as good. This time, Krafka presents a kind break-up song. The narrator knows that it is time for her to spread her wings, but she also expresses love and gratitude to the partner she is leaving. It’s a refreshing change from the bitter break-ups that are so much a part of country music, and Krafka makes it completely convincing.

Susan Cattaneo: Fall to Fly


Fall to Fly presents a woman who is just at the point of daring to love. The winter imagery here is a great touch. Susan Cattaneo has the perfect soaring voice for this, with quiet moments coming at the perfect times in the song. The key here is the production. Do too little, and a song like this sounds almost like a caricature, with the vocal unsupported. Do too much, and the message gets buried in a wall of sound that makes the whole thing sound artificial. Cattaneo and her producer Jan Stolpe get it perfect here, and the result is a soaring love ballad that is utterly convincing. Bonus: Jake Armerding, who long-time readers here have heard both solo and with Red Molly, does the background vocals here.

Kate Redgate: Cold November


Kate Redgate has a voice with some wear in it, and that works perfectly here in a song about a relationship gone cold. Late autumn and a house in disrepair serve as metaphors for a relationship the narrator can’t quite bring herself to talk about in direct terms. The wound is still too raw. The honesty comes through loud and clear, and Redgate conveys the emotions perfectly, and never overdoes it. The drummer uses mallets instead of sticks on this one, which gives the song an unusual sound that works perfectly.

Amy Black: One Time


If Amy Black ever does an album of acoustic blues, I hope someone lets me know, because she has a great voice for it. The beginning of the song One Time is blues, and that’s just what I mean. But then the song goes country, and Black shows how the two forms are connected. The song has the narrator advising a friend to leave a man who mistreats her. This kind of song is common to the blues and country genres, so a great performance is what makes it worth doing. In terms of production, the harmonica and fiddle are both used beautifully here.

Kathryn Caine: The Fall


On The Fall, Kathryn Caine is not backed by the David Grisman Quintet, circa 1979. But that’s the sound the band gets, and it’s as exciting now as it was then. With that kind of jazziness going on underneath, Caine could have chosen to do some kind of jazz singing over the top. The vocal delivery that Caine chooses is what places the song on the country spectrum. Her performance has grit and swing, but she hits the beat straight on, without the rhythmic ornamentation that would make this jazz. The combination is completely unexpected, and it works beautifully. The song opens with the narrator warning a new lover that she won’t allow herself to be hurt this time. Then she realizes that he feels the same way. They decide that neither one will be hurt, and the song becomes a statement of determination that this relationship is going to be the one. The trick to putting over this kind of song is to avoid stridency, and Caine succeeds brilliantly.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Acoustic Guitars

I have some unstated rules for Oliver di Place. One is that I don’t post instrumental music, especially not music for a single solo instrument such as, oh say, the acoustic guitar. I enjoy this music when it is done well, by say John Fahey, Stefan Grossman, or Martin Carthy, to name a few. But I feel somewhat at a loss to say why. There is a lot of technical language that other guitar players would know that describes this music, but I don’t speak the language. Maybe you don’t either. All I know is what I hear and what I like.

Having said all that, I heard from a guitar player from Israel at the end of last year, and I enjoyed what I heard. Next thing I knew, I had an album for Oliver di Place that I didn’t know what to do with, so it sat. That was Yair Yona. Then, more recently, a British guitar player named Sean Siegfried got in touch. Again, I didn’t know what I would do with it, but I soon had another album. Finally, I connected the two, and decided I had better find some more guitar players and get it over with. I’m glad I did, because these five players certainly deserve to be heard.

Sean Siegfried: Apples in Winter


Sean Siegfried takes his inspiration from great British and Celtic guitar players, notably Bert Jansch. Siegfried’s tunes are original, but he succeeds in capturing the flavor of traditional songs, and I can hear one of those wonderful British folk baritones in my head as I listen. Siegfried sets up a strong rhythmic foundation on the lower string, and harmonizes his melodies using the middle strings. To my ear, it sounds like he is using a lot of minor keys for his songs, but those could also be open tunings. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it. Just sit back, and let Siegfried take you down the beautiful country lanes of his native land.

Chris Proctor: The Anniversary Waltz


When someone says of an instrumentalist that he is a musical storyteller, I usually roll my eyes. But Chris Proctor really is a storyteller with his music. He plays with a light touch, his fingers gliding across the strings. His melodies take the listener from a definite start to finish, with an interesting plot and wonderful characterization along the way. The melody is in the top string, with countermelodies and harmonies in the rest of the strings. The rhythm comes from the song as a whole. It all falls into place beautifully.

Eric Loy: Catbird Seat


On the cover of Eric Loy’s new album, you can see a variety of guitars, including some electric ones. There is a similar mix on the album. Loy even plugs and rocks out on two songs, with drums and bass accompaniment. But the treat here for me is the solo acoustic material. Ragtime is the basis for this music, with exciting and complex rhythms played on all of the strings at once. Loy plays chords sometimes that threaten to fall apart. These are jazz chords, I think, and some sound strange to a listener who is more used to folk. But get used to that, and you will hear just how thrilling this music is. Catbird Seat is one of the most accessible songs here, so it makes a good introduction to Loy’s artistry.

Patrick Woods: Evening in the Village


The title of Patrick Woods’ album, Vortex of Discovery, as well as the cover art, suggest a new age album, with gentle ripples of notes easing you into a meditative state. So this may be the most misleading album cover ever. Woods has a percussive playing style. He slaps the body of the guitar for drums, and he attacks the bass string like a funk player might. Evening in the Village shows how this works out on a ballad. On the top strings, Woods plays multipart melodies that stay with you. As assertive as Woods is in his playing, he also displays great dynamic range. All of this is secondary to putting over the emotion of the song.

Yair Yona: Pharaoh


Yair Yona is actually the ringer here. He plays guitars of various sorts, including electric. Qn Remember, he also plays some banjo and synthesizer. Yona uses overdubs on many the tracks, and there are even guest musicians helping out on two tracks. So, I think I have chosen a solo guitar track with no overdubs, but I could be wrong. In any case, Yona’s music makes a connection between the blues and the modalities of middle eastern music, with some eastern European influences showing up on some tracks as well. Pharaoh is a perfect example. In the opening slow section, I can see in my head the sun rising, either over the Delta or the desert. The faster section is tremendously exciting. Yona alternates these sections that shouldn’t fit together but do. In the process, he shows himself to be both a fine player and writer.