Thinking of a “Peaceful Dream” to end 2017 without a “Walk Into a Storm”…

As 2017 winds down to its final few hours, I feel like its the perfect time to continue posting more of the end of the year album countdown segments I participated in with Lee Rayburn over on the radio side of my creative work at WHCU. For this first one I chose to bring Mavis Staples’ latest, while Lee did the same with Jason Isbell. More below…

My notes…

If All I Was Was Black continues the run of dark horse brilliance between soul legend Mavis Staples and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, who once again trade musical statements as natural and as free flow as conversation. Whether its Tweedy’s folk guitar mechanics adding warmth to the earthy gospel of “Peaceful Dream”, Staples beautifully empathetic delivery on the contemporary charge of the title track, or the two doing what feels like an overdue vocal duet on the sweet friendship of “Ain’t No Doubt About It”, the pair’s chemistry remains at a strength usually only held by decades long collaborators.

Though despite this Tweedy’s impact remains strictly as the crafty man-in-the-shadows, while Staples is allowed to shine with every bit of the wisdom, poise, and tenacity she’s held in her lengthy career. And in the state of a world today that has drifted further and further into complete upheaval, having a voice like Staples’ preach for love, tolerance and equality is one of the more comforting moments 2017 could actually provide.

We’re lucky for that.

Moving on to #2, where we compare my choice of The Lone Bellow, while Lee brought Big Thief to the conversation…

My thoughts…

Walk Into a Storm finds The Lone Bellow continuing to build off the momentum of prior release Then Came The Morning, which saw the band work with The National’s Aaron Dessner on a bigger sound that didn’t quite abandon their folks roots (see: Mumford & Sons) so much as expand them into new territories.

Now with Nashville producer extraordinaire Dave Cobb at the helm, third album Storm didn’t try to go even bigger and risk ruining the essence of whats in the band’s wheelhouse (again, see Mumford & Sons). Instead, its content with punching in the best of the band’s new material which crackles with bristling energy (“Deeper in the Water”, “Feather”), brakes appropriately for the introspective moments (“May You Be Well”, “Long Way To Go”), and shows that Storm is another essential listening moment on The Lone Bellow’s musical journey.

Whether its StormMorning, or the band’s self-titled debut, to truly understand them best requires reading each chapter carefully. They won’t make you regret it.

Keep an eye for #1 on the list in just a few days! 

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Ryan makes waves on breakout debut “Currents”

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Andrew Ryan and I have crossed paths many times as our journeys through separate sides of music have progressed. And while I would say that his has been the more interesting route, regardless I’m just appreciative to have played a journalistic spectator to his creative and musical evolution.

And no period in all that time has been more significant for him than the one here today. Since I’ve known him, Ryan has been a drummer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, writer and versatile jack-of-all-trades. But with his debut solo album Across Currents, we find him out of the support role and instead thrust directly into the spotlight.

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And thats not just because his name comes first on the bill, either. With this album Ryan is now the creative center line on the map drawing all the pieces his way, and Currents gently reflects the care of an artist who is very much aware of that. Much like we all do on a daily basis Ryan is figuring it out as he goes along here, but he manages to do so with a carefully enriching level of honesty.

Singing with a voice somewhere in the gentle timbre of an Elliott Smith or Mark Linkous mixed with a twist of slack-rock drawl, Ryan’s vocals are often more musing than momentum-filled. But that’s a very effective style for him, as tracks like “Take Aim” and “City Lights” demonstrate so well. “Out Of My Head” and “Gwyneth” show even further potential for Ryan down that road, as mourning the death of someone close and celebrating the love of his daughter brings out some of the most moving moments this record has to offer.

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And those effects are boosted when they’re brought together by Ryan’s deft hand for production. Where musicians like Smith or Linkous might be more content with tape-crackled landscapes with the ribs brought through, Ryan has a much warmer campfire to pull up a chair to. Currents generously sprinkles in horns, keys, drums, guitars and vocal layers (among other things) to dot the terrain with constant levels of shifting interest. On many occasions I found myself doubling back to a song just to catch a fragment of saxophone or winking of piano or harmonica that managed to sneak a cameo into the arrangement.

In a way, sneaking in is the best thing that Across Currents does. The tone of the record may not hit you on the first listen, but thats the thing about art built around introspection: it doesn’t just reveal itself after a few minutes. As a recovering introvert myself, this kind of storytelling takes time to reveal but means a lot if you just make the time to sit and listen to it.

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Its also the type of storytelling that can be very difficult to willingly tell (especially publicly), and for that I give Ryan a lot of praise.

He’s created a fine start to what I hope is a long solo career still waiting to be heard.

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For more, visit andrewryanandthetravelers.com. Photos courtesy of the site. 

Phan uses “Fear” to succeed on stellar latest LP

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Fear is the Teacher.

Those are the first four words to greet you when discussing emerging singer-songwriter Ben Phan’s latest LP. The phrase is the title of the album, but also in some way acts as the mission statement for it as well.

Phan has described the album as a collection of his own varied fears, and that is a truth this record upholds quite emphatically. The emotional tenor of Teacher is a skillfully introspective landscape that gazes thoughtfully at the up’s and down’s of worries of the day to day in human life. The record has all the folk-side campfire warmth of the Fleet Foxes, matched by a sense of energy and camaraderie similar to Old Crow Medicine Show or early-day (AKA: best day) Mumford and Sons.

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The genuine honesty of the album’s storytelling is as equally genuine as the chemistry Phan has with the musicians crafting with him in the studio. The group sounds seamless as they bob and weave through bluegrass jangle, ramshackle gypsy waltz, soft-hearted folk balladry and every stop of the train in between. The time signature shifts on tracks like “Beast of Desire” and “No Pain” alone are an impressive display of musicians riding a chromatic wave together in lockstep, no easy feat by any means.

Gazing further into the arrangements, one of my favorite colors spread onto the canvas is the consistent presence of Molly Barrett on the fiddle. Ordinarily, I feel the instrument is often used as a background appetizer in music and less of the main course. On Teacher however it has the chance to flourish, one moment seizing the terrain with grateful strokes before being able to hover between something I can only describe as Kentucky get-down and Classical reserve.

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But ultimately, this record boils down to the beauty of what Ben Phan has done here. You could chalk that up to instrumentation, the words behind the beat, the production in the mix, but in the end… there’s undeniable soul wrapped into this album’s pores. To begin to tap into that, fast forward to the end of Fear is the Teacher and its closing track “Be Still My Beating Heart”.

There are a lot of sights to see before you get to the end, so by no means should you skip those chapters for long. But “Heart” deserves special mention here, for many reasons I won’t be able to explain with entirety. Suffice it to say, with it’s plain-hearted richness and layered harmonies stripped back to one of Phan’s most stirring vocal declarations… the song will leave you in shivers.

But enough from me. Go check this out on http://www.benphanmusic.com, and start writing your own mental stories.

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(Photos courtesy of benphanmusic.com) 

 

 

2016’s best… in March

I know, I know it’s a little late in the game at this point for a Best Of albums list as we’re several weeks into March of 2017. I’m still so shocked by where the time is gone that I initially typed February into the title before I realized my mistake.

But since my last post, I feel like it’s time to do some catching up and to broadcast many of the thoughts I’ve had about the best of music from the last year. I get a lot of time to listen to albums these days since I’ve started working as a full-time news reporter with an equally full-time commute to match it. So it goes without saying, there’s certainly a lot of time for thinking.

But without further ado, let’s get into it. First up…

Honorable Mention: Run The Jewels, Run The Jewels 3

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RTJ’s latest only gets an honorable mention on this list as it’s technical wide release occurred in January of 2017. The reason it gets a mention though is, as they’ve done in the past the duo of Killer Mike and El-P dropped their latest for free early on their website in 2016 as a “Christmas Fucking Miracle” to hip hop fans everywhere.

Not only did it make for a great gift for (some) of the whole family, but in a year marred by the passing of many beloved cultural figures and a Trump presidency it couldn’t have emerged at a more needed time. RTJ 3 is a mesmerizing, unrelenting sledgehammer of an album that’s political without being preachy, fiery with a greater maturity, and as cohesively strong as anything they’ve done to date.

Plus, despite the maturity it still knows when to be an absolute smartass. You’re gonna be seeing this one on the 2017 list no question.

10. Brent Cobb, Shine on Rainy Day

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In the last few years, super-producer and rising Nashville music icon Dave Cobb has had a massive string of hit albums with the likes of Chris Stapleton, Anderson East, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and the brilliant country music compilation Southern Family. Well if you listened thoroughly enough to Family, you might have also heard Cobb’s musician cousin Brent.

Much like Stapleton, Brent Cobb was originally more widely-known in music circles for writing songs that went on to large scale success with other country music artists. And also similar to Stapleton’s 2015 smash TravellerShine on Rainy Day is Cobb’s chance to finally shine the spotlight on himself.

Rainy Day is subtle, melodic, heart-wrenching and just oozes goddamn talent. Cobb hits the ground running from the first track, and whether he’s solo or going with a full band he’s unstoppably one of the best things happening in country music today.

Whatever he sings, I believe in every note of it.

9. Bonnie Raitt, Dig In Deep

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Listening to Bonnie Raitt is like going home again or sitting down for lunch with a long-unseen friend. Not just in the sense of reconnecting to the comfort of her music or the place it’s had in my life, but also in just how timeless her style and voice has remained despite the fact she’s now well into her late 60’s.

Even after 40 years of making music, Raitt still shreds like a Zen blues master on the guitar and sends chills up my spine with her husky rasp of a vocal. She hasn’t lost a step, and Dig In Deep just emphasizes that at every turn. Whether it’s covering INXS with “Need You Tonight”, breaking out the full blues brash, or bringing it down to the heart and soul of “Undone” or “The Ones We Couldn’t Be”, Bonnie Raitt is just as much a force still to be reckoned with as any time in her history.

The blues is still alive and well.

8. Butch Walker, Stay Gold

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Butch Walker first broke into my consciousness during a joint tour with Ryan Adams in which Butch was promoting songs that later became one of my favorite albums of 2015 Afraid of Ghosts. I felt like Ghosts showed Walker in a more vulnerable position, ready to ditch the uptempo rock n roll abandon in favor of a singer songwriter who could let his songs speak without a guitar workout to guide them.

And while Stay Gold does return to Walker’s more familiar center, it’s yet another reminder of why this is what Butch does best. Songs like the title track, “Irish Exit” and “East Coast Girl” are just unhinged levels of gleeful fun, while “Descending” with country starlet Ashley Monroe still shows the songwriter Ghosts put such an emphasis on.

Cause you gotta stay gold, pony boy.

7. Bon Iver, 22, A Million 

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Justin Vernon’s mysteriously titled (and mysteriously coded) return to the spotlight as Bon Iver after 5 years away on 22, A Million may have been as equally welcomed as rejected depending on who you ask. The record found Vernon taking the more experimental notions of prior release Bon Iver, Bon Iver and letting it become the main focus.

Gone were most of the guitars and folk-rock sentiments, replaced by an almost Kanye West-like lean towards synths, samples and a sense of struggle in one’s own skin. It takes time to grow into and listen to all the layers on 22, but I can tell you with the right ear and some patience it makes sense. Added kudos to Vernon for sampling one of the great under-appreciated Irish folk singers Fionn Regan on this record too.

6. A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

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When A Tribe Called Quest rolled out their first record in 18 years in 2016 with We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service, I was immediately intrigued enough to listen given the musical backstory as well as the hype behind their long-awaited return. As an utter newcomer still to both the rap and hip-hop world I was not at all familiar with Tribe’s musical past, but the story of it all was hook enough for me. And the hooks didn’t stop there.

We Got It From Here… keeps up hip hop’s reputation as music’s most blunt purveyors of truth. Whether political (“We The People”, “The Space Program”), pointed (“Kids”, “Melatonin”), or sentimental (“Lost Somebody”), folk music has a long way to go to reclaim its Woody Guthrie roots from the genre that’s taken Woody to the next level of protest.

Oh, and don’t miss “Solid Wall of Sound”. Wrapped in a slinky groove, an Elton John sample from Benny & The Jets and sinuous rapping lines it’s one of many standouts in this standout of a return.

5. Brian Fallon, Painkillers

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Following The Gaslight Anthem’s 2014 release of Get Hurt, the album received a less than stellar reaction from fans and critics. At one time my girlfriend and I claimed we were the only people who actually liked what that record did. But still, it raised the question: did frontman Brian Fallon and the rest of the band need some time apart?

Well take time apart they did, and that led to the Butch Walker-produced Fallon solo album Painkillers. It felt like the most faithful pursuit of Fallon’s original aborted solo effort with Molly & The Zombies, as well as a truly honest expression of the loss of Fallon’s marriage that didn’t quite hit an emotional resonance on Get Hurt. And while the Springsteen elements of Gaslight still shine through (A Wonderful Life”), a Lou Reed “Pale Blue Eyes”undercurrent of gentle ambition flies here too.

I think it was the best career choice Fallon could have possibly made for himself.

4. BJ Barham, Rockingham

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Speaking of Bruce Springsteen, American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham took a slice of Springsteen’s American storyteller dirge Nebraska and adapted it in 2016 into his own realm of lovers and losers on his first solo record Rockingham. Unlike Brian Fallon and The Gaslight Anthem, Rockingham is less of a need for a break and more for a switch of tone.

It’s hard to imagine this aspect of Barham’s creativity meshing with his traditionally country-rock outfit American Aquarium, so what better place to let these songs breathe? As solo tracks songs on Rockingham are free to tell their stories with vague tracings of guitars, bass, banjo and brush drums giving the words their distance. It gives Barham free reign to become his characters and live out their stories for you in his world-weary growl, and that’s the best place to live within this record.

Its true folk music doing devastatingly strong work.

3: Hard Working Americans, Rest In Chaos

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I still consider Todd Snider to be one of the greatest artist recommendations I’ve ever been randomly granted. The lengthy catalogue of brilliantly strong music is one thing, and the on stage stories are CERTAINLY another (there’s quite a book that can fill you in on that in fact). But what I’ve also really enjoyed is Snider passing me an invitation into another genre of music: jam bands.

Of course Dave Matthews Band has helped me with that a lot already, but the Snider-helmed Hard Working Americans are right up there as well. With heavy hitters like Neal Casal, Dave Schools and Duane Trucks in tow, HWA went from a one-off covers album project debut into a full fledged, hard-hitting followup in 2016 called Rest In Chaos. This album not only rocks and knows how to jam, but are some of the closest lyricisms that touch on the collapse of Todd Snider’s recent marriage.

I mention it because I feel it fuels a greater passion here, and Rest in Chaos reaps the benefits.

Adele, 25

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Now TECHNICALLY the album 25 had already come out by late November 2015, but it feels like Adele has remained such a part of our musical consciousness through 2016 (and into 2017) that she’s worth including one more time. Some might say that 25 is weaker than her prior albums, but I beg to differ towards the opposite. 25 not only continues to flash Adele’s startling consistency in her recorded work, but shows that she’s capable of adapting herself in ways that continue to adhere to the roots of her style.

And true, while I could see Adele play a simple instrument and croon beautifully on every record every time out, variation is the key after a point. Some fans might not see eye to eye with that, but I feel like 25 is her most appealing record to date that’s rife with hooks, piano lines, smoky sentiment, and that signature voice that could turn water into wine and back again.

And “When We Were Young”… one of the best songs in her whole catalogue. Take that to the bank.

1. Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide To Earth

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Much like several of the other artists I covered on this list, we conclude this Top 10 for 2016 with yet another musician who experimented by taking their sound to the next level. And no one better exemplified that within this past year than Sturgill Simpson and his Grammy-nominated record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Written on behalf of Simpson’s still newly-born son, Sailor’s Guide feels like an almost voyeuristic look at a father trying to prepare his son for the world he still has yet to experience. And I only say voyeuristic because it does feel like such a deeply personal reveal in a style that travels far from Simpson’s country rock familiars and lands deep into string sections and horn fills. And while some fans of Simpson have expressed relief to see him ending this period of his music, I’m just glad we got to witness how truly versatile Simpson is as a musician.

Look no further if you wish to see one of Nashville’s truly great last of the outlaws. And not at all a tough choice for this year’s #1 slot.

 

Babcock Brings “5A” To Our Floor For New Video Debut

Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of collaborating with smooth-folk troubadour Stephen Babcock in order to discuss his current LP Said & Done. Babcock was a new face to me at the time, and I found myself immediately charmed by his music.

For one thing, it’s often easily straightforward without being stereotypically indie or coffeehouse. No offense to the Bon Iver’s or St Vincent’s of the world, but it’s often pleasant to just go back to the bare essentials of music’s bedrock beginnings. The era when folk music felt like an innocence rapidly turning cloudy, or… ya know, when a man named Dylan came along and changed the game forever.

Babcock has that same stripped down charm to his sound, as well as a sense for songwriting that combines to make for a hard punch in a velvet glove. It was a prominent force on Said & Done, and also makes a fresh appearance for Babcock’s latest song “5A”.

Shot in Central Park for A Remote Session, “5A” finds Babcock directly in his element. With just a guitar slung across his shoulder and a song on his sleeve, he strolls casually singing about a relationship gone on a downward bender.

He opines, “She was an hourglass, she could spare no time” with a gentle reserve some might spare for conversation eased into the picture frame of a moment. In a sense the cinematography of the video fits that conversational tone as well, painting Babcock as the everyman’s example of making the difficult look easy.

It’s a reminder of a simple adage that seems relatively forgotten nowadays: less is more. A reminder that yeah maybe you can’t get a bank of synthesizers or a quartet of strings, but you can still take out a guitar and make it sing.

Check out the video for “5A” up above, and be sure to go find Stephen on social media if you like/want to hear more of what you see! And be sure not to miss the line in this song “is it bad that I miss her mother more than I miss her?”.

It might not jump out at first, but it’s a deceptive killer.

 

 

 

Calhoun “Takes Me Away” In A Storm of Ethereal Uplift

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Kohli Calhoun is on the cusp of hard-fought creative perseverance. With debut album Take Me Away on the horizon and a single of the same name already born into the world, one might imagine Calhoun as a fresh face ready to artistically blossom. But while those seeds are indeed set and in place, the last eight years have been something more equivalent to a Spartan without the spear for the Brooklyn-based musician.

Initially expected to release her first batch of music in 2008, frustrations with a producer left Calhoun album-less and bounced out of music. Left as a castaway burned by a downward twist of fate, she contemplated never coming back after such a setback. But, like a chapter unfinished and a verse left undone…. the art never truly stops. It merely waits for the writer to recapture their flame once the time is right again.

And so the bug returned for Calhoun (along with a helping hand from the Brooklyn musical community), and by 2014 she had begun writing for what would become the Take Me Away sessions. A journey, at last fulfilled.

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Perhaps it’s the power of Calhoun’s artistic sensibilities as a songwriter or just those past experiences still looming raw, but this initially released single makes the strong emotions of her personal Dark Age seem as fragile as though they were yesterday. The first notes ring with the innocence of an arpeggio-ed lullaby, quickly turning to an effervescent confessional comparative to a more ragged St Vincent or Regina Spektor at her most breathlessly world-weary.

Calhoun can literally bring the motions of this song up to an angelic procession before plunging down to little more than a single vocal right on the cusp of cracking. Right on the fringe of falling apart. Drowning in the gentle drone of a synthesizer. It’s just the right mix of technology and fragility that brings to the mind the indie masterpiece of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A modernistic art piece that still knows how to breathe on the weight of it’s impassioned human lungs.

And ultimately it’s that level of humanity that makes this track sparkle as much as it does. The notion that yes we may not know the reason why Calhoun sings so starkly of this emotional weight, but we can still understand her need to escape it. Her need to move by the demons biting just outside the periphery.

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Being able to relate to others is one of the most human qualities we have. And when it comes to Calhoun, I’m ready to be taken away to the land this song promises. Let it be a journey we can all gladly take together.

Listen here:

http://www.imposemagazine.com/bytes/new-music/kohli-calhoun-take-me-away

Brent Cobb “Shines On” In LP Debut

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Country music is such a funny thing. Mention it to the average person and odds are they’ll either wrinkle up their nose at you in disgust, or name a favorite artist. The odds also state that favorite artist is probably from the list of Nashville industry regulars who made the first person do all that nose-wrinkling in the first place, which is really quite the interesting phenomenon.

Rarely can I think of a genre that either inspires so much blind love of retread stereotypes, or blind hate of a style that’s way more than meets the eye. For every Toby Keith or Brad Paisley there’s a Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson out there folks, and for every trailer park-loving, beer-swilling, tractor-obsessed milquetoast songwriter…. there’s another out there stabbing at their own heart just so you can listen to it bleed.

Isbell and Simpson are just two examples of that along with many others (The Lone Bellow, Chris Stapleton, and Ryan Adams when he still cared about country music to name a few). But today I’d like to focus on a young Southern artist who much like Stapleton paved his initial way as a songwriter before bringing his quiet, rough-around-the-edges style to his first major label LP.

And while I can’t say if this album is going to turn out as well for him as Traveller did for Stapleton, regardless it’s a pleasure to welcome Brent Cobb and Shine On Rainy Day into the world here in 2016. Cobb is another break of blue light in the cloud bank of business as usual in the industry of country music. He is every bit the soft-spoken, pastorally-minded singer-songwriter who may not dominate a room vocally, but still captivates it in just his debut the way guys like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson have their whole careers.

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Just listening to Cobb’s songs (led by his accent-heavy minimalist croon) is like taking a step back in time to the beauty of early country and folk music and what made them tick. I mean before there was “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” there was “She Thinks I Still Care” after all. There was “Sunday Morning Coming Down”. There was the real time honest sentiment from both male and female artists that made country music so relatable, because so much of it was just about the strong emotions tying us to our day to day existence.

And when it comes to Cobb, he eagerly joins the club that keeps their eye firmly fixed on that keyhole of a mentality. Take the title track for instance, which incorporates a basic backing arrangement and leaves all the soul-stopping up to just Cobb’s vocals and lyrics alone. The song forces you to take notice, feeling as fresh as today yet as priceless as a 1960’s era masterpiece B-side you find abandoned in a stack of old vinyl.

It’s certainly not alone in that regard. “Solving Problems” is an easygoing toe-tapping strummer that would get along well with the songwriting of Isbell and Josh Ritter, while “Country Bound” has all the sepia-washed innocence of a walk through the woods listening to John Denver songs.  Pair that with the strength of tracks like “South Of Atlanta” and “Diggin Holes”, and you’ve got a record that’s already preparing to blast into the stratosphere of the next generation of country music artists.

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Add the fact Cobb teamed up with country music super producer cousin Dave Cobb on this one, and Shine On Rainy Day has got a little bit of everything your roots loving heart could ask for. A little cheatin’, a little bleedin’, a little done me wrong, with a slice of a heart born as a result of living through the world as garnish on the side.

You know, just a few of the problems of the world. And that’s nothing to wrinkle your nose at.

Snider Emerges With Brilliant “Bulldog” Of A New Solo Album

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Todd Snider has always been a musician who simply seemed to let conventional labels slide off of him like oil to water. He is a folk singer yes, but he’s also been a rocker, a country crooner, a stoned out hippie jam band leader, and a storyteller not expecting to be around long so it’s time to party fast and party hard.

He’s a novelist, a comedian, a joker, a smoker, and a midnight toker. That last bit was just a Steve Miller Band lyric, but you see what I’m getting at here.

The point is, Snider has been around long enough to be able to call the shots his own way. Already this year (back in March) his jam band Hard Working Americans released the superb Rest In Chaos, an LP of nearly all original material. It saw the band evolving from a simple fun-loving cover group into a unit that not only SOUNDED tighter, but felt like it as well. It didn’t hurt that Snider brought along some of his best (and most openly vulnerable) songwriting too following a messy divorce and a lot of personal unrest swirling around in his own life.

Now: enter Eastside Bulldog. It’s classified as the first solo album for Snider in four years following 2012’s Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, although technically the honors go to Elmo Buzz for this one. Buzz is the alter ego Snider concocted years before to play shows in Nashville when contractual obligations would have otherwise prevented it, while Eastside Bulldog is a band name/now album title that came from the school mascot Snider made up to represent his home of East Nashville.

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If Rest In Chaos was top notch blues/acid rock cut with a fair dosage of levity and wit, Eastside Bulldog is it’s sloppy drunk cousin after finishing a joint and a stack of rockabilly records. It’s Snider at his screwball finest as he and his band of Bulldogs plow through lyrics made up on the spot, all while trying to play in the style of recordings like “Louie Louie” and “Wooly Bully”.

On paper, it’s the type of arrangement that seems almost destined to be a highly uneven mess (or just an all out trainwreck). But this is Todd Snider we’re talking about, and I highly doubt there’s an artist more qualified to not only come up with such a scenario after being given free studio time, but to make it into something worth listening to.

And Bulldog more than delivers on that. With it’s blasts of saxophone, funky Jerry Lee Lewis pianos and party-like reckless abandon, the album is flat out one of the most entertaining pieces of music in 2016. Not because of it’s precision or a lengthy lyrical monologue on the human condition, but just because it’s a damn fun time wrapped into a turbo-sped 25 minutes of stoned out Buddy Holly-esque good time rock n roll.

Bulldog makes you feel like you’re right in the room with a group of people who are just clearly enjoying the hell out of playing music. And honestly, amidst all the Pitchfork reviews and critical album darlings that emerge in this era of music, it’s important to not to forget what makes it all so fun (and not so serious) in the first place.

So sit back, relax and crack open a cold one. It’s time to get down with “The Funky Tomato”, and Eastside Bulldog.

Grade: A

Standout Tracks: “Ways And Means”, “Enough Is Enough”, “37206”, “Come On Up”

Walker Shines Bright On Glitteringly Fun “Gold”

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Following the somber, introspective tinge of Butch Walker’s 2015 statement piece Afraid of Ghosts, the question loomed large…. what would followup Stay Gold entail just a year later? I mean the Georgia-born singer-songwriter had just stripped down and bared the ragged grief of a son losing his father on Ghosts, so it was hard to foresee just where Gold would take Walker creatively going forward.

Could he be as intensely raw once again?

Not exactly. While Stay Gold does possess some moments of darker frailty (“Record Store” and the wonderful Ashley Monroe duet “Descending”), Walker is once again back to turning up his amps and shaking off the dust and demons in the process. Gold is much more dominated by joyful, E Street Band style rockers (“Irish Exit”, “East Coast Girl”, “Wilder In The Heart”) that recall the Gaslight Anthem during a year in which their frontman Brian Fallon ironically leaned away from that sound on his debut solo record Painkillers.

Even more ironic considering that Walker himself produced that album, but that’s a different point for another post.

The stories and lyricisms of drunken nights, hookups gone wrong and lifelong debauchery remain, but with an undertone of greater maturity beneath them. The realization of getting older, having back problems, grey hair, craving a Porsche (to quote “East Coast Girl”)… it’s a common problem rockers face with age, but one that Walker doesn’t happen to shy away from.

He’s not so much Green Day as Prince, who always knew “life is like a party, and parties aren’t meant to last”.

Walker may bring the party with Stay Gold, but he knows how to make the moments last too.

Stay gold, ponyboy.

Grade: B+

Standout Tracks: “East Coast Girl”, “Irish Exit”, “Descending”, “Record Store”

Bon Iver Weaves Intricate Sonic Tapestry On Dynamic “Million”

22, A Million

When I first got wind of the band Bon Iver and frontman/figurehead Justin Vernon, it was around the time of the Bon Iver, Bon Iver record and the much-acclaimed solo piano take of Vernon’s spin on Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It was very much the For Emma, Forever Ago version of Vernon stripped down to the very roots, though I remember being puzzled at the time by this strangely ultra-high falsetto coming out of this… burly Wisconsin woodsman of a guy.

To put a long story short, I really didn’t understand Bon Iver’s rising upswing of appeal amongst the alternatively-minded people in the music community at first. I remember buying Bon Iver, Bon Iver on vinyl while on a vacation because of the rave reviews, the beauty of the cover work done by artist Gregory Euclide, and the need to just want to understand it. And the record did sit unplayed in my collection for a while. I remember looking at the lyric booklet that came with it and enjoying it’s poeticism (once I could understand what Vernon was saying, a problem I still have to this day). But it still hadn’t clicked.

Now I don’t remember the day when all the puzzle pieces finally settled into place, but once they did it was easy to appreciate Vernon’s mystique as well as his ability to say so much behind what was essentially a veil. Puzzling at his falsetto was replaced by the discovery of his early work solo and in DeYarmond Edison, which switched out curiosity for marvel at the vocal range Vernon has employed across his entire time in music. Rarely have I ever heard someone as equally capable of being a baritone as well as an uplifting falsetto.

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But I digress (so much for that long story short thing). I eventually grew to admire Vernon for his sense of that aforementioned veil while still managing to relate. He was an entirely unique character tearing at the heartstrings. Being as brutally broken up as he was on For Emma as he was anthemic with bigger tracks from Bon Iver like “Towers” and opener “Perth”. Whatever he put his touch to just seemed to work.

So when it was announced that Vernon was taking a hiatus from Bon Iver-related projects and was going back into the shadows for a while, I read into it with understanding even if it was a bummer to hear. The more I listen and learn and read into the music business the more I can respect the need to take breaks. As a writer, as much fun as it is to be creative you can never force that process or try to exhaust it for all that it’s worth. That only ends up making a freeing thing that much more like a shackle (which in hearing the backstory for this album seemed to be exactly the problem and stress Vernon was running into personally).

And so that’s where Vernon retreated to for a whole five years. He would appear from time to time with singles or collaborations or an album with side project Volcano Choir, but otherwise no plans seemed on the immediate front.

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Fast forward to this year and the sudden appearance of Bon Iver again along with live sets, new songs, and an album title. 22, A Million. A mysterious album title of mysteriously titled songs that seemed to be buried even deeper beneath…. what exactly? It was hard to say in a release that seemed to be characterized by strange symbols, mythologies, binary and hashtags (yep there’s one in there).

Well, many listens later I can tell you that it all does eventually make sense. This isn’t any season after 3 of the TV show Lost we’re dealing with here (or most any JJ Abrams project after it’s been allowed to spiral out a while). I think taking this extended break of just about five years was one of the finest moves Justin Vernon could have made, along with working at the side of guys like James Blake and Kanye West.

Yes despite the hatred many people have for West, he is regarded the way he is musically for a reason and 22, A Million showcases a lot of influence from that. He and Vernon have been tight for years (right up to JV thanking him in this album’s liner notes), and I don’t think Vernon’s deft sense of sampling, digital orchestration and autotune could have been done quite as well as it is here without that working relationship.

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I know what you’re thinking now that you’ve read the word autotune, and no this isn’t a ridiculous viral Youtube video or pumped out pop song. As much as the use of autotune has been well overcooked since guys like rapper T-Pain emerged with it years ago, it still has a legitimacy when used from the experimental side of the fence.

Tracks like “22 (Over S??N)”, “33 “GOD””, “715 – Creeks” and many more benefit from this, with a blending of digital and organic thoughts that create a deeply gorgeous sense of contrast. At times it feels like songs are on the very verge of slipping away into collapse, or are aging as you listen to their stories. Like an old record being put on that’s just a bit warped and being played a fraction out of tune as the needle slides across it. It’s almost jarring, yet warmly welcoming as untouched banjo, saxophone and piano runs play up against corrosively echoed vocals and the hammer of pulsing bass.

The sampling is brilliant as well, with nods across the record to the likes of Stevie Nicks, Paolo Nutini, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Graham, and my personal favorite Irish folk singer Fionn Regan. To my knowledge it’s a very rare thing to even hear Regan’s name mentioned on this side of the pond despite “The End of History” being one of the most underrated folk albums of all time (seriously, look into it if you haven’t). Yet here’s Vernon sampling a line from Regan’s song “Abacus” on closing track “00000 Million”, and doing it in the most hair-raisingly perfect way to boot.

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The song continuously gives me goosebumps every time I play it.

For some Bon Iver fans (especially those who desire another For Emma) some of these effects might prove a bit too much to bear, but that’s the thing about 22, A Million: it automatically requires patience.  Much like Wilco’s return to form on last year’s Star Wars, this isn’t an album made for digesting on the first try or song by song. It’s a complete composition unto itself, and I hope that Vernon will treat his as Wilco treated theirs and play it front to back onstage. It just doesn’t make as much sense any other way, especially with the knack many of these tracks have for slipping into and out of one another.

And it will still reward most any fans if they stick around long enough. Vernon’s folk-embracing side hasn’t disappeared from his work within Bon Iver; rather it’s become more of a cog in the machine of a greater tapestry of creative energy that’s at work here.

And wouldn’t you prefer that over just trying to pave over the dirt roads you came down in the first place? From the indication of things Vernon was not only frustrated with his sound but also his own image, so it’s a relief to hear him sounding as fresh as the time these five years have given him.

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I could go for paragraphs and paragraphs about what I hear out of this release every time I listen to it, but now you simply need to go listen. You’ll receive no better education than what your ears will tell you, and there’s a lot to learn on 22, A Million. Some may not be able to stick out the ride and that’s okay, but for those who can…. you’ll be in the midst of what may be the year’s best album.