#FridayFinds: Crowdsourcing 2.0, Female Folk-Rockers, and West Coast Chamber Pop

Up and Coming Folk-Rock Coolgal Sarah Dooley
photo courtesy of sarahdooley.com

It’s been a good week. Birds are singing in the trees, Sunsets are getting more golden by the day, and temperatures have been agreeably, consistently springy in nature. Perfect for excellent adventures in the outdoors, long, rambling walks around parks, and spur-of-the-moment exploration and discovery. Here are the three things I found that added just the right extra dose of summer sun into the overall ambience of the week.

1. It’s the Jelly that Holds the Internet Together

And that jelly is crowdsourcing. Some questions you can Google and some questions you can ask your friends and mere acquaintances on Facebook. No doubt you’ve seen an awful lot of silly questions pop up over time: what shirt to wear, what movie to go see, or perhaps what albums make for an excellent road trip (what silly person does does that?). That’s all well and good, but what if you want to ask your question your way and get some quick, mostly-accurate answers?

Enter Jelly, a new crowdsourcing app launched by cofounder of Twitter Biz Stone. It allows you to ask questions and gain answers and consensus from other users on the internet using your connections on various social media platforms. Simply open the app, ask a question, and wait for the responses to pour in. You’re encouraged, of course, to answer questions as well as ask them, and it’s neat to see the range of questions people are asking. It’s a cool concept and a fun way to learn about things you didn’t even know you had questions about.

So far I’ve used it to get some ideas on where to see free shows in Boston and how to infuse more female folk rock into my playlists. Which brings me to…

2. Artist to Watch: Sarah Dooley

Another point for the internet and the wondrous ways it introduces us to cool new things. She’s midwest born and Columbia University educated, but the sonic product is otherworldly. It’s a sound that’s Regina Spektor vocals and instrumentation over Leonard Cohenesque / Tom Waitsian storytelling. They’re lovely, whimsical melodies and stories that at once disarm you and then hit you in the gut with a two-punch count of driving drums and sarcastic wit– and that’s just in the first 30 seconds of the first and title track of her debut Stupid Things that was released earlier this spring. The whole album moves that way like some beautiful, undiscovered broadway show, so it’s no surprise she studied theatre and playwriting at school. Achingly honest story lines brought to life. That’s the gift she brings.

Speaking of magnificent story telling meant for the stage…

3. Have you heard of… Ages and Ages?

Last weekend I saw Lake Street Dive at the Royale in downtown Boston. Naturally they did not disappoint, playing a fantastic hour-and-a-half-long set of selections from their two current full length records and one or two additional even newer tunes (both of which will be available in participating stores on a limited edition 7″ record during next weekend’s Record Store Day festivities). But the tip of the hat for me goes to the opening band, Ages and Ages, a six-piece folk-rock outfit from good old Portland, Oregon. Tremendously talented and endlessly entertaining. Trying to guess just which piece of equipment Ms. Sarah Riddle was going to choose was entertaining enough, but that’s only the beginning. They back it up with fantastic vocals and story lines on top of enthusiastic and exultant chamber rock. By now it’s obvious that I’m a sucker for good stories and well-placed harmonies and these guys deliver both and more. Check’em out ASAP.

What are you guys listening to these days? What’s on your recent playlists?

Hope all’s well with you guys. Have a great weekend.

 

Spring Cleaning and that Fresh Feeling

do you have your ducks in a row?
are your ducks in a row? (photo courtesy coyotemercury.com)

Cleaning. It’s not just a way to help you find a quick, uninhibited pathway to the nearest exit in case of emergency. It’s a process that can inspire a renewed state of purpose, satisfaction, and accomplishment. It can be as mentally and psychologically refreshing an activity as it is a physically involved task.

It’s been a good few days of spring cleaning around here. Clearing out the mental cobwebs and making space and time to reassess, reorganize, and recommit to the people and things that are important. Like the physical upkeep of a home, it’s not so easy to get at every inch, crevice, and crag of the space at once, and somehow you tend to underestimate the amount of time you’ll need to complete the job. But eventually you make it.

Just like cleaning the house it’s good to check in with yourself from time to time as new furniture is added and new challenges arise. And just like cleaning a house, it’s important to have a few helpful tunes to give you some extra sage words of wisdom to carry you through the process.

1. Nickel Creek – Rest of My Life

Nothing like waking up the morning after a rocking good party to the sight of trashed couches and smell of stale beer to make you reassess what your priorities are. Often times, if you haven’t swabbed the deck recently– If you haven’t had that personal check-in for a while– you might feel like this too.

First things first: get yourself a fresh glass of water, assess the situation at hand, and then start picking up the place.

“It’s one of those endings / No one claps ’cause they’re sure that there’s more.” Turns out that life doesn’t stop or take breaks. Dreams and sleep aren’t even breaks: they’re more like connectors between conscious moments– and pretty active ones at that when you consider the sorts of complex situations they conjure up. The best thing we can do is roll with the punches. The blemishes and missteps are part of the continuum, and, if we’re smart, we might even learn something from them. “The battle is over / We lost but we’ll live to call off the war.” It’s not about sweeping up every speck of dust– it’s about getting to somewhere that feels like progress.

2. Father John Misty – I’m Writing A Novel

This one’ll definitely get you going. Heck you may find yourself even whistling while you work. Equal parts “Paperback Writer ” rockabilly sensibilities and “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”-esque mashup of images and metaphors this wild romp of a tune makes quite the statement about what’s really “normal” in this life. The world’s a spinning mess of curious, crazy creatures, and what’s normal to you might actually be ridiculous to someone else. Likewise, what’s crazy to you may be status quo for someone else. All we can do is accept the madness, be ourselves, and keep our own reality together. And keeping track of the stories that come about (read: keep a journal… maybe even a blog!) is a good way to do this. “I’ll never leave the canyon ’cause I’m surrounded on all sides / By people writing novels and living lives that look like mine.” Everybody’s got stories they’re trying to tell, but nobody can tell our own stories better than we can.

3. Leif Vollebekk – Cairo Blues

This song’s as airy and light as a breezy spring day making it a fitting companion for all manner of housekeeping. The story may focus on the careless indecision and the mounting insecurity of one unfortunate girl he left back in the sleepy midwest,  but he’s got a good head on his shoulders, preferring to look ahead to better, brighter days. She may not clean up well, but at least he can. Though he may not soon be able to completely let go– “it don’t drown out those Cairo blues for good”– he’ll ride on, kicking out the cobwebs bit by bit and making room for sunnier, more promising plans on the horizon.

And speaking of easy and breezy…

4. Earth, Wind & Fire – That’s The Way of the World

Oh yeah. Even when taking on the toughest tasks, the deepest stains, the hardest truths– turn this one on and see those troubles lessen just enough to make it manageable. How can you argue with these guys? Their musicianship and groove alone should be enough to take you to a higher place. But if that’s not enough: just remember: “Looking back we’ve touched on sorrowful days / Future pass, they disappear.” You’ll pull through. You’ll get there. “Plant your flower and you grow a pearl.”

5. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – We Get Along

And remember- you’re not alone. Taking the more straight-forward, narrative approach, the message here is plain: we’ll make it through. We will. We all have tough days, tough months– tough years even. But we’ll make it. We’ll muddle through somehow. And if we can find a way to muddle through together– actually working together to make things better for ourselves and for others– well then we’ll all benefit. Enough great visionaries, thinkers, and doers have said it, so there must be something to it: do well for others, be good to others, work with each other– and we’ll all succeed. Sounds good to me.

#Friday Finds: New Stuff From Nickel Creek, Big Stuff from Small Speakers, etc

Nickel Creek
photo courtesy Nonesuch Records

A little something to wrap up the week. It’s been a wild one to say the least, and I’m looking forward to the leisure and low key lounging that the weekend brings. As tough as this week was at times, here are three little musical moments that kept things moving along the right track.

1. New Album from Old Favorite = Bliss

This week Nickel Creek released A Dotted Linetheir first album in almost 10 years, and it’s fantastic. Surely they’ve all grown artistically and personally since their hiatus in 2005, and no doubt they’ve kept themselves busy in the intervening time in which each of the three bandmates taking on various solo and side projects that reflect of varying colors of folk, rockalternative, and even classical soundscapes. But a large part of what makes this album so refreshing is how, with perhaps the exception of the tune “Hayloft,” the album eschews those influences in favor of a more simple, crisp, and nonetheless rollicking bluegrass flavor. A Dotted Line is a lovely little ride and one that I plan to take over and over for a good long while.

2. Big Sound from a Little Speaker

You know that wonderful feeling you get when you find $20 in your pocket you didn’t know you had? Well multiply that 10 fold and instead of cash make it a Verizon Wireless giftcard. Okay so it’s not as gratifying as, say, winning the lottery, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless. Maybe you’re still not impressed, but it’s a lesser-known fact that Verizon has a decent assortment of fun audio accessories for the devices it offers, and one of those is the Logitech UE Mini Boom portable bluetooth speaker. When they say “mini,” take them at their word, and when they say “boom”– ditto. This thing packs a punch for its preciously diminutive size. It’s no longer or wider than your smartphone and no taller than a beanbag frog, but this thing rocks. I’m looking forward to getting some good mileage out of this thing this summer. And for the price, I might just go back and get a second one. Could be crazy.

3. Getting the Lead Out By Putting it in the Mix

One unexpected side-effect to all the silliness and craziness of the week: it seemed to be a lovely little boon to my creative side. I found myself writing more, playing guitar more, and making playlists for friends more. I love a good mixtape from friends and I love making’em. It’s great for starting and continuing conversations, setting the mood, and catching up with friends you’ve been meaning to get back in touch with. While these benefits may seem obvious, they’re worth recognizing. I’ve got a few more up my sleeve before the weekend’s out. Maybe there’s one in there for you if you ask nicely.

What are you guys listening to these days? What’s on your recent playlists?

Hope all’s well with you guys. Have a great weekend.

Heavy Rotation: Gregory Alan Isakov – Second Chances

gregory alan isakov
(photo courtesy American Songwriter Magazine)

As I said a week or so ago, this guy has been spending a lot of time on my playlists lately, and thus his lyrics have spent a whole lot of time between my ears.

Around the new year I realized that it’d been an awful long time since I’d really connected personally with the words of any given song. Up to that point songs would end up on playlists mostly by the merit of whichever artists I was currently obsessed with and how the songs sounded when played together. This still made for decent playlist making– with excellent ebb and flow, I might add, of sound, rhythm, and pacing– but not great playlist making, as most of them were comprised of songs that really had no business being right next to each other, immensely contradicting each other in terms of their meaning and purpose.

This isn’t to say that I chose songs solely by virtue of their rocking-good-time-iness potentially thinking a song is about one thing when it’s clearly about something else, nor do I deny the inherent complexities of life and thus understand that really, in the grand scheme of things, it’s quite fine for three love songs to follow one or two about deceit and rejection or some variation of that order.  It’s just that I could be thinking a little bit harder, listening a little bit closer, and connecting a little bit deeper with the songs that I’ve been enjoying lately. Obviously there’s something in a given song that makes me say, hey man, I like you and I’m gonna put you on a playlist or three.. I just need to be more aware of what it is that compels me to make that determination.

If ever recently there’s been a song that’s spoken to me in a deep and meaningful way, this would be that song. This beautifully crafted, meticulously phrased story by Mr. Gregory Alan Isakov.

The song centers around a man who’s had it fantastically rough of late. Nothing he does seems to go right. Certainly his personal relationships are tanking, but it’s just as possible that he’s feeling the sort of self-doubt and anguish that extends to other aspects of his world as well.

It’s not clear what events precisely led him to this moment, but regardless of whether he’s just gotten the latest bit of bad news or just awaken from a particularly long night of restless, anxious sleep, he’s beginning to acknowledge the full, weighty sadness that’s come over him, bones, mind, and all.

It’s also clear he feels frustrated and even betrayed. Frustrated by the saints and do-gooders he’s tried to emulate and the way they always seem so serene and confident as they gaze gently down and off camera, as if meditating on their next wonderful move (“all of my heroes sit up straight / they stare at the ground / radiate”), and betrayed by the ebb and flow of nature that so many have told him time and again is lovely, rosy, and on his side (“mumbling in the kitchen for the sun to pay up”, “cupping my ear to hear the wind confess”).  Even as he feels wronged and slighted by these human and natural forces like some modern-day Job crying out against the elements for the wrongs they’ve committed against him, part of him at least seems to know that these things really are not to blame. It’s really all up to him.

However bleak things seem and however difficult his current situation is, “my heart was all black / but I saw something shine.” Somewhere in darkness of his “black sinkhole” self he can see the faintest shimmer of a silver lining. At the moment it’s like the cheery, fleet-footed, and brief sounds of guitar fills over the otherwise deep, resonant, and somber tones of the background track; it’s a molecule of hope that appears in the sole repeated line of the refrain:

“If it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone.”

Indeed, if it weren’t for second chances, there’d be little reason to go on.

But we do. We get up and go at it again. And again. And again.

At some point we’ll do something right again. If we truly learn from our mistakes as well as from the situations for which we have some, little, or even no control, we’ll probably get there a little sooner. Hopefully we’ll be a little wiser too.

As despicably low as we may feel and as difficult, meddlesome, and dark as the days may get, we can make it. Every day is another chance to turn it around. A chance to take a sad song and make it better, bit by bit.

#MondayMixtape – The Promise of the Open Road

photo by Mark Swick
the road to endless possibility (photo by Mark Swick)

This is the 2nd installment of our ever-so-often series on Songs About Travel and Far-off Places.

Healthy, free, the world before me
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.
- Walt Whitman

The thrill of exploration, the promise of something new. When everyday is filled with this sort of perspective, it gives us reasons to wake up in the morning and make every day count. Perhaps that’s why there are so many songs about the promise of the open road and the shining potential of what lies just beyond the horizon. There’s so much out there to be discovered. You just have to get moving and be open to whatever comes. Even the most distant milestones and goals can be made all the more attainable by the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and taking your first steps in their direction.

All that potential, all that promise– all that traveling– can also take its toll on even the most hardy of explorers.  We may get too comfortable with a routine, lose track of the spark that set us out on the path to begin with, or maybe we’re blown off course by forces out of our control. But the potential for adventure and discovery is always there. It just might require a different approach– a different route– to find it.

These songs speak to the promise of new discovery that open roads– and open minds– inspire us to believe in.

1. Bruce Springsteen – Thunder Road

No song rivals this one in terms of brilliance and gusto– the sound of joy uninhibited. Such promise… such potential… It’s a “do you remember when we were wild and free” moment that’s running on a super-charged, turbo engine of love and burning, yearning desire. “These two lanes will take us anywhere.” All that power– all that potential– encapsulated in the long, emphatic delivery of that final word: “Anywhere.” Springsteen’s signature vibrato practically shivers with nervous excitement and anticipation of a man ready to take on whatever comes his way.

It’s the soundtrack starter to any James-Dean-esque drag racing scene. A start your engines moment, and feel those lions purr underfoot. Look out at the road as far as the eye can see and start dreaming.

2. Elton John – Tiny Dancer

Dial back the pulse pounding, sweat inducing pace and a massage in a little more dreamy, misty remembrance of those bygone days and you get this Elton John classic. A tender ode to a love that once was and frenzied, frantic setting that made that made it all possible– out there on the wide open road. It’s a mad world out there, filled with some crazy, zany characters, John sings. People trying to sell you everything including those things that can’t be measured like businessmen selling love or “Jesus freaks” selling God and salvation. They promise quick fixes and cure-alls but are then gone as quickly as they’ve arrived and the problems still remain.

The only sure refuge, John sings, is to put your trust in the ones who really love you– the ones who will always be there. “Count the headlights on the highway / You’ve had a busy day today…” Let me take the lead for now, and lay back in the comfort of this trusty, rusty, and warm old jalopy. It’s heading on to somewhere fresh and new, on a course for somewhere, moving south by south-wherever. The chance for a new start is there just over the horizon so long as we’re together.

3. James Taylor – Riding on a Railroad

For all the positivity and promise that time on the open road affords, some days are just tough no matter where you are. Those days where time seems to fly by even as you feel it’s slogging along and that you’ve just been sitting in place for hours on end; those days you think about how much time you spend promoting other people’s visions and wish you had more time to spend on the things you care about; those days you aspire to your pinnacle best but simply end up chipping at the weeds below. This is the song for those days.

It’s the soliloquy of a man reflecting on his lot and wondering how it got this way. What happens when you’ve worked hard all your life only to realize that you’ve just been playing a supporting role to someone else’s succes “singing someone else’s song” (and that the higher power you always believed in might just be another with “chains upon his hands”– a mere mortal passenger in this life just like you)?

That’s what this song’s all about, and it says it all in just over two and a half minutes.

Some days are like that. But even as your beliefs may feel shaken or rattled to the core– that life’s no simple dichotomy of black and white, fair and unfair, or right or wrong– the best thing you can do is hold on tight, “sing along,” and believe in yourself to get through. You’ll get there. One trip at a time.

4. U2 – Angel of Harlem

Other times there’s a certain comfort derived from those tried and true melodies. Songs like the one remembered that’s exulted and celebrated here. These weary travelers could just as easily have been on another routine trip to New York, but it wasn’t. Because of this song. It’s a jubilant exhalation of finding security and contentment that can shine its way through any gloom and withstand all earthly elements and the test of time weather it’s a “cold and wet December day” or an ability to “see the truth behind the lies.” And as the song builds towards its zenith, it’s clear that like finding “salvation in the blues,” hope and joy can be found anywhere. Anywhere.

5. Paul Simon – Under African Skies

When the situations aren’t so rosy and bright, when we are compelled to get up and go by those aforementioned outside factors, this song reminds us that we never need feel alone in our situations. Our story– our song– is inextricably linked to the ones who have come before, connecting us all as part of that great wide, wandering world. “This is the story of how we begin to remember” and this is an appreciation to the power of music as both constant companion to us as we are now as well as the link to our history and place in time.