The Lord Binds The Broken: Sessions With Ivy, Beck & Neill

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It’s All Happening….

I first (partially) meet up with the band Ivy, Beck & Neill and it’s principal members Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Neill out on the laid back city streets of Park Slope in Brooklyn. Ivy and Neill are both leaving work on this particular late season evening, and the plan is to drive over to Beck’s studio “The Refuge” in Gowanus to tour the setup, talk a bit about the band’s debut release Live at Rockwood Music Hall, as well as delve back into the history of what brought this tightly tuned trio together.

Think of it as two parts tell-all, and one part gentle mediation.

Anyway, after some debate about our plan for the evening (and a stop to a McDonalds and gas station later), we arrive at Refuge Recording in the ex-industrialized Gowanus area of Brooklyn with plenty of necessary equipment in tow. Quality beer being right at the head of that list (it’s an excellent interview aid after all).

Shortly after Beck lets us in and shows us up the stairs, through a bustling apartment of lights, activity and a nearly movie theater quality projector screen, and into a small yet charmingly assembled studio space. It’s nearly the complete opposite mood of what we walked through just moments before, and at once feels as peacefully contemplative as it is creative. Looking around I notice how instruments of all shapes and sizes fit in neatly like stacked puzzle pieces against hardwood floors, monitors, a comfortable couch and enough tech to keep any musical gearhead salivating.

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From that point on it was easy to break the ice and ease into our back and forth for the evening after initially comparing notes on small town living, the cost of upright bass players, potential podcasts, and debating the gig the group had played the evening before. Oh, and figuring out who the person was that had even brought us all together in the first place. But that’s another story.

Introductions & New Beginnings

Once the floor had gotten past it’s opening banter for the night, it was time to discuss what makes this band tick. Namely, what were the origins that took three individual musicians and made them into the fluid country/folk Voltron Transformer that they are today?

Live At Rockwood Music Hall

Well according to Ivy, IB&N was initially started as a backing band blueprint to further her solo career after cutting a record down in her hometown of Nashville at the time. She had already known Beck following some previous musical excursions together, and Neill was a friend of a friend coming courtesy of another local Brooklyn musician named Jamey Hamm.

With a show for her solo material fast approaching and the need for a band imminent, Ivy got together with Beck and Neill at Refuge with the idea being that Beck would play (along with a drummer and bassist), and Neill would sing backup as she tended to do with a lot of area bands. However when the initial trio came together the first time to simply rehearse vocals, they found not only an immediate sense for harmonies, but also an existing electricity in their unison that extended well past a simple backing band and it’s solo artist.

Or as Ivy succinctly put it, “We just nailed it.” 

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And that “it” quickly turned into deciding to create a song together that very first night. So as they sat together writing on the floor of Refuge (allegedly aided by a fair amount of whiskey), both Ivy and Beck were taken aback when Neill was gradually coaxed into revealing an excerpt of a gorgeous song idea she’d been holding onto previously called “Blame It On The Whiskey”. And while it was initially thought that Ivy would sing it as a part of her originally planned show after it was complete, as time went on the only vocal that worked on the cut was Neill’s.

Listen to “Blame It On The Whiskey”

As Ivy explained it, “The way that she sings that song, you believe her. And while it meant something to us all in a different way as we wrote it together, it was her initial story that it came from and was meant to come from her voice. And it just made it so, the way she sang it was the way it was meant so be sung. And that was the first time I’d really felt that in a collaboration before.”

Beck adds, “It was the first moment it felt like we were a group”. 

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Having written lyrics in large part since high school, Neill was well-versed in the subject but was discouraged in the years after by the amount of writers around her. Thus, she only considered herself a singer and would simply make audio recordings of her lyrical ideas that would get gradually discarded. Fortunately “Whiskey” was one of her then-latest that not only led to it being the first song of IB&N’s infancy, but also proved to be an outlet where Neill’s unexpected writing skills could freely flex their creative muscle. 

Music & The Ties That Bind

It became a full fledged writing addiction after that for the newly forged group, as a later full-band noodling around session led to delving into Beck’s personal story and the creation of “If You Ever Leave Me”. The song features each of the trio on lead vocals separately dealing with some post-breakup blues (“I like that those lyrics truthfully came from our separate stories”, Neill says), and if nothing else one of the greatest things about listening to the band talk about their process is the amount of real, honest-to-god backstory.

Take a listen to “If You Ever Leave Me”

There’s so much honesty infused into everything they do, both lyrically and emotionally.

As Beck describes it, “Our songs are like therapy sessions for us”. And that immediately becomes evident as the three describe early writing sessions that “might take other bands an hour” stretching into five or six as they would not only write, but bond over the experiences that led to each new song’s respective creation.

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“It was the year of a thousand tears”, Ivy jokes, but behind the humor is a sincerity and a deep familial connection formed between the three as a result. That same connection and therapeutic sense of catharsis hangs heavily on their Live at Rockwood release as well, though that didn’t come without it’s fair share of learning in the process and growing pains felt both together and individually.

“We had our dark moments, but it’s nice cause it’s not fake,” Neill says quietly, “It was all part of it, cause we’ve all seen the bad sides of each other. That’s part of the beauty of when the good times are great, because it makes the good times that much better.”

For Ivy, it all came down to learning to let go. “It was really difficult for me because I’d been doing solo work for such a long time, and I’ve had bad collaboration experiences in the past. I love collaborating. It’s just easier when you can control everything yourself and you don’t have to worry about playing well with others or having to mutually decide what direction a song is going in. It was difficult to relinquish control and trust we were all going to go in the same direction at some point and trust that we all had the same goal for the song. Which was honesty and vulnerability and that sort of magic which makes it something different that people need to hear”. 

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Afterwards we talk about the defining musical influences for the band, and that sense of relinquishment and need for mutual connection comes up again in Ivy’s love of Patty Griffin. “The first time I heard Patty Griffin I thought to myself, ‘I want to write songs that make people feel what that made me feel like'” she says, “and that’s kinda carried me through and played a part in every song I’ve ever written. You just don’t know if they’re gonna get that along with you, but I’ve been lucky enough to find people who have the exact same goal in mind. And that control got easier to let go of, the more I got to know them.”

For Neill it was the opposite issue, as she’d never really had that type of platform before or the freedom to really state what she wanted her goals to be musically. “Trisha always says I was never jaded about the process. I’m just always grateful, ya know? I guess for me the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do is songwriting. And despite the two of us being women songwriters in music, we’ve never clashed over that because we’re two totally different sounds and styles. I think that’s why we work together, because we aren’t trying to do the same thing and we’re still not the same.”

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Where’s a Music Nerd When You Need One….

While when it comes to Mike Beck, his more cloudy swirl of influential sounds seems to coincide well with his role as the musical glue holding the trio in place. At first he mentions having parents who were into listening to musical theatre, and as a result growing up around a lot of the Great American Songbook.

“He loves piano bars,” Neill jokes.

But then he mentions really being a quote unquote “music nerd”, who traveled through a big phase of blues (and playing in blues bands), covering James Taylor’s Greatest Hits on his 4-track in high school (“the first time I was really moved into playing folksy sounding guitar”, he explains), and having a deep love of classic rock.

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“Almost every single time we bring up a song and start writing it, Mike will play the chords and then go into a classic rock song,” Ivy says, miming Poison’s “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn”, “Oh, this song but it’s also this song!”

“Well you guys do seem to write “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” a LOT”, Beck retorts jokingly.

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All joking aside though, Beck is musically trained with a degree from Berkley and has a strong instinct for bonding composition and arrangements to the lyrics of both Ivy and Neill.

As Neill explains, “One thing I feel so fortunate to have is that if I ever have an idea for a song, I’ll ask Mike what he thinks and he’s so talented instrumentally that he quickly takes that idea and makes it into the beginnings of a song.”

“He just has a vision for where a song should move. It’s really nice to have.”

It’s quite an interesting relationship in that way for the three, as Beck laments being “too technical” at times and having perhaps a bit too much musical education when it comes to working on new ideas for the band. While on the other hand, Ivy admits that it’s nice because it helps keep she and Neill working within a logical hemisphere of music when they need to be “wrangled in”. Eventually they often just meet in the middle anyway.

“I’ve sort of learned how to understand what their weird ideas are through the lens of what people are used to hearing”, Beck says.

Ivy adds, “He kinda basically makes our ideas that we can’t musically make happen on our own… happen. He’s the Bridgeman. He just loves making music, he’s the quintessential producer that way. That’s how his mind is geared, and that’s a lot of what you hear in his work producing Live at Rockwood.”

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The Science of Production

And when referring to Beck’s inner “music nerd”, there was no bigger moment to see it emerge then when he lit up talking about Rockwood and those very production aspects.

“So… well Rockwood is such a fancy venue, Ken Rockwood spares no expense in making the place sound beautiful and having the best gear,” Beck says, “So not only can they get great sound but they have a fancy rig up in the back to record shows with. So if you pay like $100 or something they’ll just press record and put it on a thumb drive and give it to you.”

“So I got that, and it sounded pretty good but it’s live so it’s not perfect. But after doing some tricky stuff with my gear here (as he gestures to the consoles) I could just sorta goose it up and make it sound polished and pro. The hard part is that all the drum and bass parts are in all the vocal mics too, so if you do anything to the those or vice versa… it all becomes sort of a juggling act. Fortunately there are ways around that.”

He continues, “Initially the thought was we were going to use the bare bones of the recording and build stuff or fix stuff to make it sound more like a record. But in the end we just ended up using what happened that night, cause it was more than good enough. All it really came down to was technical and audio fixes to make it sound full and like a record, but like it was still right in the room where you could sense the audience and that big space.”

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When The Willow Stops Weeping

After a bit more bantering with the band (and another beer or two being passed around) we once again go further into the emotional depth of the record, and arrive at probably one of the most poignantly meaningful exchanges of the night. At first, it begins with favorite songs for each of the band on the Rockwood release

For Neill, “To be honest, my favorite of all the songs are the slower sad ones. Like the ones that get real honest. While the other ones are fun I would cut them out entirely if I could. The most upbeat one I enjoy is “Texas”, but it still starts the way that I like best. It just always feels right.”

Adds Ivy, “I think that “Texas” is probably my favorite song on the record too.”

And Beck chimes in, “I love “Blame It On The Whiskey” because it was our first song together, and it makes me love you guys. And I love “Play Me A Record”. I think it’s just very well constructed from a songwriter-y perspective. But I also love “One Day at a Time”, because the slow stuff is really where we’re at our best.”

Listen to “Texas” & “One Day at a Time”

But truthfully the best may still be yet to come for this trio song-wise, especially when I pose a question to Ivy about an older song of hers called “Weeping Willow” and it’s recent sequel “When The Willow Stops Weeping”. “When The Willow Stops Weeping” is a bonus track that originated after Rockwood was finished and has not yet been formally recorded. But the story behind it makes needing it in the world that much stronger and more deeply essential.

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As Ivy explains it, “Weeping Willow was the first song I ever wrote with Brian Elmquist. I wanted to learn how to play guitar, he wanted to write songs, so I suggested writing songs together and he could teach me to play guitar. That never happened, we just ended up getting carried away in writing songs together instead. And I had just been through a heinous breakup, and as a songwriter I’d kinda written some…. stuff. But I had not yet figured out how to write what I was going through in the moment. I could write how I wanted to with things that had happened in the past, but if it was happening to me now I couldn’t do that.”

She adds, “I would give Brian most of the credit for pushing and teaching and pulling that out of me, because I had gone and sat under a willow tree in Park Slope and just written pages and pages of lyrics and all this stuff to do with this breakup. And, I got into this writing session with Brian and flipped past it. But he got it out of me and pushed me into being able to open and unlock that door in my songwriting. And so we wrote Weeping Willow.”

“Fast forward to now and a few months after cramming for the Rockwood record. We were exhausted and had taken a month off. We were burnt out essentially. And we were doing a bunch of shows later to play out the record, and some friends of ours had things happen. Two stories basically, the first being my little cousin dying in an accident, which wrecked my whole family. And my grandmother had died in the last few years, my brother had passed…. it was just a lot of heavy losses in my family. And it was just too much.”

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“And not being with my family (back in Tennessee) I couldn’t go to the funeral, and just knowing my family was falling apart and not being able to be there…. and then, a couple of friends of ours Kanene and Katherine had their friend from college kill himself. And them just kinda sharing their story with us and how hard and swift that had hit them… out of the blue. They had no idea. And all of that kind of happening at the same time… my family had gotten together at the time. And my cousin’s Mom asked me to write a song following her passing.”

“I was anxious about it because we weren’t very close and I didn’t really have a major connection with her, but after a while this other stuff with our friends came up and I just started thinking about it all over again. Family, friends…. people who had lost. That can’t be replaced, and how sad life can be. And when we first started writing the song, it was really depressing. I mean as it starts out, but I feel like we had come to a certain place and a maturity in our songwriting where there was still hope.”

Neill interjects, “You have a chance to speak life into people. You’ve been given the platform of the stage and you can use it for whatever you want. But you have a chance to speak life…. to do something for somebody that’s true and good. And leave them with some kind of hope. And that’s like the best feeling in the world.”

Ivy continues, “It was that way with “Texas”, and “With The Willow Stops Weeping”…. it started out just sadness. And then we decided where we wanted it to go.”

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“The Lord binds the broken, he won’t leave you the same”, murmurs Neill, quietly singing a line from “Willow”.

Ivy concludes, “And writing a different story, and a different ending. That song is one of the most honest things I’ve ever written. It’s definitely very true to how my life is completely different from what it used to be. Different from the darkest of times, and that song in three or four minutes was just the way of telling someone else the story of my life. And how everything was taken, and somehow…. I was able to see that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Not everything good has to always end.”

Sit and behold a live Rockwood version of “Willow”

Fun With Stupid Questions…. And The Road Ahead

And that was like listening to a statement that puts all other statements to shame with it’s power and sheer… soul-wrenching honesty. Eventually though (much like what I’d been talking with IB&N about all night) we did emerge from that emotional darkness and ended the night on something a little lighter.

Namely, the Stupid Question Lightning Round. And while that may seem, well, stupid, I ended up learning a lot from the fine folks in Ivy, Beck & Neill. Such as there being a majority preference in the group for the Rolling Stones over the Beatles, that dragons held the vote over zombies in which was more awesome, that Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, and Elliott Smith were top choices in favorite 90’s bands, that no one particularly cared for either the Mets or Yankees, which Jonas is Beck’s favorite (Joe… it’s a long story), and memories of Michael Jackson’s death that either evoked great stories or no recollection at all.

Or an MJ joke that I can’t repeat here in print.

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Hint: Garfield wasn’t responsible.

But all in all, it was an evening of great storytelling, music, and something that by the end felt less like an interview and more like friends sharing equal dosages of their light and dark in how they got to this point.

As Neill put it as our interview was winding to a close, “ I wanna do music for the rest of my life. It’s more than therapeutic, it’s like-“

“-becoming who you were supposed to be. That this… was always going to be.” Ivy finishes the thought, and ends it on a note of stark truth that rings equally strong for the both of them.

And as for LP number two?

“We’ve got about five or six songs up our sleeve” Neill says, adding with a laugh, “It’s just too much fun!”

And if it’s one thing I learned this night at Refuge Recording as I later leave and head back out into the quiet of a New York City night, fun is a big part of when you’re around these three.

Too much fun, indeed. 11816281_480369432127080_379973624232207851_o

Photos are courtesy of a variety of sources including myself, Mara Schwartz (for whom I dedicate this piece to), and bits and pieces from the band. For more on Ivy, Beck & Neill search them on Facebook, tweet their Twitter, and buy their record on Bandcamp, iTunes, and any sensible retailers that digitally carry “Live at Rockwood Music Hall”. Available now. 

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2015: It’s The Greatest Hits Edition!

Well, it’s that time again. The Christmas decorations have been put away, the food and sweets have been consumed in exhaustive amounts, and the trash has all been swept out from another Times Square New Years Eve celebration. It’s January of 2016 now, and usually that’s the time people have prepared their quick-to-be-broken resolutions, trim the caloric leftovers caused by all those food and sweets, and prepare for the long road of despising much of the year ahead.

But enough about my intended plans.

These earlier days of the new year are also an excellent time to look back. To take a wistful glance at the greatest hits and a look at the best of what was in a 2015 with plenty of was nots. And when it came to music, while the content may not have quite been as strong as the year before, my choice for the Top 10 Albums of the Year was certainly still just as difficult.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter now, starting off with….

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10. Tobias Jesso Jr, Goon

2015 was a big year for the Canadian-born singer-songwriter, who rose from the ranks of several years of struggling obscurity to co-writing songs for Adele’s new album 25 by year’s end. But in between that the biggest springboard to Jesso’s newly risen star has been none other than his stellar solo debut Goon, which took Jesso’s recently learned piano wielding skills to wounded heights akin to the likes of John Lennon, Carole King and Harry Nilsson. And while not exactly blessed with the strongest of singing voices, Jesso makes up for that with a keen sense of winsome poetry, a touch of wry humor, and an embodiment of the soul of Brill Building songwriters past.

And if 2015 has been anything as we start off this list, it’s a great reminder that this generation of talent hasn’t forgotten the power of what made the musical past so potent. And for Jesso, well… talk about a hell of a year.

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9. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free

I was first introduced to Jason Isbell back in 2013 with the release of Southeastern, and while it didn’t immediately capture my attention the album was ultimately a soul-destroying reflection on death, sobriety, and the burning up of the skeletons in Isbell’s closet. It marked the strongest solo album to date from the newly-clean and focused artist, and Something More Than Free came along this year as the next logical chapter in that train of thought.

The record doesn’t quite carry the dark potency of Southeastern, but being once again reunited with super-producer Dave Cobb and a brighter point of view has done nothing to slow the brilliance of Isbell’s creativity. He still writes with all the intricate lyrical nuance of one of the best country folk musicians in the business (i.e. a modern Kris Kristofferson in many ways), and has the acumen to jump from folk to blues and rock n roll and back again, with the vocals to match.

I do maintain that Isbell’s live performances surpass his albums overall, but Something More Than Free marks the continued strength of passage of an artist coming up from the darkness and back out into the light. And I for one, am ready to hear each story all along the way.

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8. Gary Clark Jr, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

When Gary Clark Jr hit the scene with his 2012 debut record Blak and Blu, it was a revelation to the world of blues. Hailed by the likes of Alicia Keys and other such luminaries, Clark’s mixture of blues, R&B and soul seemed like the next recipient of the scepter as older artists of the craft such as BB King, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton have either died too soon or started to slowly fade into the sunset (with King unfortunately passing away this year).

And while some have called Clark’s blues credentials less than “authentic” because of his genre-ranging style, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim laid some of those unjust criticisms to rest (at least from my perspective). Clark brought his sound closer to the bone on this one with the gospel of “Church” and the croon of “Our Love”, while still showing how much he could shred on tracks like “Grinder” and “The Healing”. It may not have come in at number 1 on this list, but it is the latest in some of the finest work that young blues still has to offer this world.

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7. Glen Hansard, Didn’t He Ramble

In 2015 there were certainly a number of surprises that ranked on this list, and while Glen Hansard was right up there he wasn’t the most unknown to me by any means. In 2007 the Irish-born former street musician and member of The Frames was brought to prominence when he and Marketa Irglova starred together in the John Carney music film Once, and probably broke a few million hearts in the process with the tender wrenching ache of breakthrough single “Falling Slowly”.

This time around Hansard went solo with the gentle grace of Didn’t He Ramble, and while some longtime fans didn’t necessarily agree with some of the instrumentation present, in my opinion it was impossible to ignore Hansard’s usual penchant for songwriting as well as sheer accessibility. “Grace Beneath The Pines”, “Paying My Way” and “Stay The Road” kept that highway to the heart lines wide open, while “Wedding Ring” and “Lucky Streak” painted those same lines with a lighter brush of charm along the way.

It’s music like this that keeps my heart searching for just a little more. Just a few more stories please, as long as they’re as good as this.

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6. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts

This year featured a lot of wonderful music, wonderful songs, and as I just mentioned in that Glen Hansard bit a moment ago, a lot of stories. But none perhaps more beautifully poignant than Butch Walker’s emotional masterpiece Afraid of Ghosts.

Inspired by the death of Butch’s father Butch Sr, Walker’s traditionally pop-rock oriented sound took a broad left turn into a lo-fi, bare bones mosaic of textures the likes of which Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska might certainly appreciate. And with Ryan Adams at the helm producing the kind of sound his own records lack for currently, Walker couldn’t have found a better set of companions to take this cathartic journey alongside.

As a result, Ghosts shines with the kind of magic that’s as deeply prolific as it is personal, and shows off the deepest and darkest light of Walker’s creative career after his more than 20 years in the industry.

Thankfully (much like a story we’ll get to later), Butch Walker stepped out from behind the shadow of the producer’s chair to give us this. It’s deeply sad that it comes from this place of remembrance and eulogy, but Ghosts is undeniably relatable and immersive all the same. Don’t let this one pass you by.

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5. Wilco, Star Wars

In the years since becoming a Wilco fan (around the Sky Blue Sky era), I began to slowly wish for an album that could be as diverse and bizarrely odd-rocking as staples Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. Sure, Sky contained the kind of roots-rock and quieter moments that lead man Jeff Tweedy could pull off in his sleep, but after muddy retreads Wilco (The Album) and The Whole Love it felt like the band was past due for a record that felt… more cohesively dynamic. More sure of the direction it wanted to take.

Then in June of this year, the group rediscovered that spark with the surprise release (and curiously titled) Star Wars. And while it isn’t a Yankee or Ghost (or an intricate concept album about Luke Skywalker and the Sith Empire), it was a shot of electricity hearkening back to the band’s knack for exploration. From the moment “EKG” and it’s opening clatter of explosive instrumental defibrillation kicks in, Star Wars is an adventure of Lou Reed-esque Velvet Underground psychedelics, caffeinated jitter-rock, and lyrics that dash from off the wall to that same quiet still Wilco has made it’s specialty amidst all the tumult.

It’s the type of album that takes the muscle of the past and breathes the life of where the band is now into it’s every ligament. And coming from this sole perspective, it was eagerly missed.

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4. The Lone Bellow, Then Came The Morning

In 2013, a little country-folk trio out of Park Slope in Brooklyn started to come out of the woodwork of the still-newly relevant folk scene popularized by the likes of Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers with their initial self-titled debut. And while they’ve progressed and started to show the world their electrifying stage persona, the comparisons might still remain but Zach Williams, Kanene Pipkin and Brian Elmquist have begun to forge into a realm entirely their own with 2015’s Then Came The Morning.

With The National’s guitarist Aaron Dessner at the production helm as opposed to well known Civil Wars producer Charlie Peacock, the shiny folk-based residue of their first LP was replaced by instrumentation that wiped off the polish in favor of something more organic and…. flavorfully ornate. Morning edged much further towards bigger sounds in retro rock, country and gospel while splitting singing duties between all three vocalists this time around, and as a result the band looks poised to take their success onward and upward in 2016. All while helping to define a little “Brooklyn country” along the way.

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3. Adele, 25

With powerhouse albums 19 and 21 already under her belt since her debut in 2008, Adele Adkins had already easily reached the echelon of mononym status reserved for the likes of Prince, Cher, and Sting. And while she may not have made any doves weep with envy (yet), one had to wonder if the third time would still be the charm with this past year’s release of 25.

Well luckily, despite a four year wait the British balladeer had no plans of settling into a slump. Buoyed by the strength of monster singles “Hello” and “When We Were Young” and backed by strong co-writers Tobias Jesso Jr, Bruno Mars, Greg Kurstin and Ryan Tedder, Adele once again owned every note to come out of these 11 tracks. Whether it was wrapped in jazz, stripped to the nuts and bolts acoustics, or soaring on gilded wings into the highest heavens, 25 was one of the most impressive this year simply because of how controlled every ounce of it’s strength was. Rarely do albums come along that feel so perfectly grasped, and as usual Adele makes no question when it comes to owning her music. In fact, she doesn’t own it…. she dominates every fiber.

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2. Ivy, Beck & Neill, Live at Rockwood Music Hall

This year offered several boosts to the Brooklyn country music scene, and arguably one of the best was the debut of Ivy, Beck & Neill’s Live at Rockwood Music Hall. It was the first proper recording for the band (and the only live album on this list), and ranks in this high for good reason.

Featuring a sparsely acoustic backing band, the trio of Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Neill dazzle the New York City room with twining harmonies and as much sense for gleeful energy as gorgeously dusky gloom. Listening to Ivy and Neill sing together is like finding the kind of blues-folk collaborative spark Melissa Ethridge and Natalie Maines would be jealous of, and when you add on the band’s talent for songwriting and a rare kind of chemistry to go along with it… well, as IB&N’s song “Texas” goes, you got all you really need.

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1. Chris Stapleton, Traveller

Going into the category of both my biggest surprise of the year as well as biggest breakthrough, Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is a powerhouse album of country music that reminds me of why I’ve never lost faith in the genre. Despite the presence of so-called “bro country”, despite the nasal goose-honk vocalizing, beer swilling, tractor riding mainstream stereotypes that litter today’s excuse for the charts…. Chris Stapleton flies in the face of it all. And not only that, he’s written with great success for many of these artists as he’s had notable collaborations with the likes of Luke Bryan, Brad Paisley, Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker with plenty still to spare.

Thankfully, Stapleton finally stepped out from behind the shadows of ghostwriting this year to deliver a debut that had all the heart and soul of what made old school country music so relevant in the first place. Plus, unlike his “peers” from today’s industry Stapleton brings to his writing a sense of gritty hard soul with a killer voice to match scenes of whiskey, women, religion, having the blues and getting stoned. Not to mention having his extremely talented wife Morgane alongside to harmonize, which is just icing on the cake.

In closing I’ll say this much, Chris Stapleton’s coming out party performing with Justin Timberlake at the CMA’s earlier this past year was just the overdue match to light the hot streak he was already on. And if you don’t believe music can save your soul, just put on Traveller and it’s closing track “Sometimes I Cry”.

Something tells me, you might just change your mind.

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Ivy, Beck & Neill’s “Rockwood” Burns Bright as Powerhouse of Brooklyn Country

Live At Rockwood Music Hall

Brooklyn country music. It’s a genre phrase I was entirely unaware of up until a couple of years ago when I first started visiting this vast borough of New York City. The term began with some of my first musical learning experiences down there (as oh so many things have for me), and only grew in it’s shape and scope as I peeled down through the layers.

It’s been a fascinating study ever since, and one of the sweetest fruits to come out of this gradual enlightenment has been none other than the band Ivy, Beck & Neill. In fact since I first saw them perform down at Rockwood Music Hall back in August, the days and weeks since have simply been a (less than patient) exercise in waiting for their debut release Live at Rockwood Music Hall. 

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Thankfully that waiting came to an end on August 29th, and was well worth each second. The record finds the power trio of Trisha Ivy, Mike Beck and Amanda Simpson Neill tuned up and in top form for this release; filling out their largely low key lineup with bassist Zach Lober, drummer Mason Ingram and outstanding pedal steel work from Gerald Menke. This gives IB&N even more room to stretch their wings musically, and as a result these nine tracks pop off the speakers with an even deeper and more well-honed significance.

Whether it’s Lober’s bass work giving “5-Foot Chain” an extra drag from a slinky jazz hall cigarette, Menke’s pedal steel shedding unbreakable tears on an unhealthy love gone cold on “Blame It On The Whiskey”, or Ingram’s percussion skillfully leading the band across the triumphant tapestry of  “All The Way Across Texas”, it’s a joy just to listen to every line of the journey that makes these songs whole. Every tire and emotion tread is a chemistry…. an energy… a force that will fill you with nothing more than belief. Belief in sadness, belief in joy, belief in your soul, belief that there is good and bad and that there may be darkness in every light.

There’s a Warren Zevon song called “Desperados Under The Eaves” that says but except in dreams, you’re never really free. Yet when I listen to a song like “Texas”…. I believe I’ve already made it there.

And that’s the magic of a release like Rockwood. While every ounce of Mike Beck’s superb production places you next to the bar lights, the hardwood floors and the intimacy of one small room in one big bustling city, it’s the songs that take you out of it.

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“Buckshot” is bullet-riddled murder balladry at it’s classic country finest, while “One Day at a Time” is a yearning Kris Kristofferson-esque phone call hoping for a shot at redemption. Both tracks are buoyed by the sheer vocal presence of Trisha Ivy, whose versatile croon is somewhere between the beauty of a Skeeter Davis and the snark of a Natalie Maines. And just like those classic voices, Ivy’s power resides in how she can make your heart feel every note of her musical emotion. Whether it’s in the whisper of a wry smile or a voice made heavy by a sobriety of sadness, she paints a palette that holds your hand down every road she’s taken and all the feelings experienced on the way back again.

And the same proves true for Amanda Simpson Neill, who plays the bluesy soul-assassin murmuring regrets and confessions into the darkness of “Whiskey” in one moment, and the girl with her arm out the car window triumphantly blasting Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” in the next on “Texas”. And while Mike Beck may not jump on lead vocals very much, his Johnny Cash-ish saloon ball swagger on closer “Strong Place Brawl” with Ivy and Neill acting as his June Carters may be one of my favorite moments of the whole record.

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But ultimately, whether apart or together on moments like “If You Ever Leave Me” or the insanely infectious “Play Me a Record”, listening to IB&N and Rockwood is just simply about listening to the stories. Listening to the heart. I’ve heard major rock bands play sports arenas who could never pray or dream to have as much soul in the tips of their guitar fretting fingers as this band has altogether.

So listen, and behold. Because this is the essence of Brooklyn country music, and it’s not going away anytime soon.

You can buy Ivy, Beck & Neill’s album Live at Rockwood at their Bandcamp link below:

http://ivybeckandneill.bandcamp.com/

Ivy Beck & Neill Prepared To Wow; Break Hearts at Weekend Release Show

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As some of you who’ve read this blog in the past may know, I have a great deal of affection for the sights, sounds, and beautiful experiences that have been my adventures into the land of Brooklyn underground music.

There’ve been the eye-opening discoveries, the intimate venues, the music that’s stirred my soul, and the wonderful friends that have come out of having all three. This weekend’s event is certainly no exception to those rules, and happens to feature my latest loves Ivy Beck & Neill.

Earlier this month I first had the pleasure of seeing the country/folk power trio play a brief set in support of their upcoming release Live at Rockwood Music Hall. Now you’ve likely already read my lavish praise on the musical talents of one of IB&N’s lead vocalists Amanda Simpson Neill. Neill also plays in an edgier folk/rock band called Barefoot & Bankside, and her gravelly, Janis J meets Melissa Ethridge croon played a prominent part in my review piece a couple of months ago raving about their respective set at Rockwood.

However when I saw IB&N in August, those edges were softened a bit as Neill instead paired up on three part folk harmonies with Trisha Ivy and Mike Beck. And while Neill still brings that bluesy growl, Ivy complements it with something that I can only begin to describe as…. blissfully angelic. A voice that can soothe you to daydream then tear apart your emotions with it’s power by the next line in the verse.

The two together (with Beck being the glue that holds it all in place) are like fire and ice. Thunder and lightning. Elements that begin and end each other like that’s what they were meant to do since time began. Voices so strong and so filled with purpose that even the noisiest room would sound like a pin was dropping just to clear the way for it.

And when all three get to harmonizing (as with the unbearably gorgeous “When The Willow Stops Weeping”), the windows and walls of your emotional center will be blown open with a rocket launcher. Apart the three are talented, but together…. they make me glad that music is a thing that’s still as alive and well in this world as it’s ever been.

Go and check out Ivy Beck & Neill at their Live at Rockwood Music Hall joint record release show with the Alex Mallett Band in Brooklyn this weekend. They’ll be playing at 7:30 PM Saturday at the Jalopy Theatre. You’ll be sad if you miss out!

 

 

 

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