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 Line, their 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, rock, alternative, 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.
This weekend I listened to Gregory Alan Isakov’s latest album The Weatherman about five or six times. It’s a stellar piece of low-fi, melodic folk-americana that can fit just about any occasion, and I highly recommend it.
Each time the first track “Amsterdam” came on I found myself thinking of the sorts of trips I’d taken, and it occurred to me how much of the folk-rock contemporary musical canon centers not just on the basic idea of traveling and the locations at either end of the journey, but also the complex, often conflicted reasons for wanting to go in the first place.
Then I started putting together a playlist of all the songs I could think of that had travel or escape as a central motif, and I noticed that many of the songs that I’d been listening to most often lately also centered on these themes. Breaking the list down by sub themes, I noticed that these were the three most oft discussed:
Making a break and craving escape.
Heartbreak as a catalyst for change.
Nostalgia. Pure and simple.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at some of the other themes that songs of this sort evoke, what places and cities in particular seem to be most popular with different generations of songwriters, and how different people connect to these songs differently (another question to ponder: why are so many wistful, dreamy songs of travel and escape told in 3/4 time? Three of the tunes selected below do and it was all I could do not to use the word “waltzy” to describe each of them).
For now, we start with travel as a means of escape. As a way to make a new start. The most basic tales of being out on the road sound like this.
1. Leif Vollebekk – Southern United States
This is the other song that got me thinking about how travel and songcraft go hand in hand. Its breezy, dreamy tempo and freewheeling guitars and drums have that sound that’s reminiscent of revving engines and the joyful first miles on the highway while also hinting at certain nostalgic sadness and longing for what’s been left behind. And it has a rambling storyline that’s ripe with beautiful contradictions that portray the inherent complexities of life. Being on the road affords an escape from prior worry and freedom from previous troubles, but you’re only as free as you allow yourself to be. “I was following my heart / Like I hadn’t for years…”Just make sure to keep alive, awake, and alert wherever your travels may lead.
2. The Doobie Brothers – Black Water
Maybe you’re looking less for an escape from the complex contradictions of life and more for just a good reason to play hooky one day. That’s what this one’s all about. This one says life’s fine, but a trip on a lazy river would make it that much finer. There’s no harsh realities to be found here. Leave your negativity at the door– er, at the banks of the river– and hop on board. Nothing can touch you. Not poor weather, mosquitos, or the possibility of rising floodwaters. None of it. This song invites you to get back on the bare necessities boat for an afternoon and remember that life can be genuinely good.
3. Cake – Mexico
There is no stronger inspiration for hitting the open road than fresh heartbreak and heartache, and nowhere is this more apparent than in this deceivingly simple little tune. It’s part mariachi waltz and part achingly forlorn cowboy ballad and the lyrics are as corny and as clichéd as they come, but perhaps that’s the most honest way to tell the tale. When once fond relations turn weathered and gray from years of human error, it’s time to go out, put your hands on the wheel, and leave the destination up to fate. And O what dazzling, gleaming potential that crossing that southern most border brings… Just over yonder where the air is lighter, the spaces are wider, and the adventure is fresh and limitless.
4. Sufjan Stevens – Chicago
This one strikes a similar story to the song preceding it with one striking difference: this is the song of a man in control of his destiny. Certainly this narrator feels regret and remorse for past misdeeds and misconduct, but now “all things go, all things go.” Time to get back to living and get back to life. Also, do yourself a favor and reacquaint yourself with this song. The album on which it appears, Come On Feel the Illinoise, is itself an excellent testament to all sorts of travel-related themes, and it’ll remind you of all the times you yourself ever wanted to get up and go and do the same.
5. Gregory Alan Isakov – Amsterdam
The song that started it all. A haunting, affectionate remembrance of time spent in a distant town. Not just any town either. A town that treated him well, that felt like a knowing friend. A town that gave him the sort of warm, familiar feeling he knew he’d forever be hoping to return to if only he could figure out how. It’s hard to trust the historical authenticity of fond memories, or any sort of memories for that matter, since they’re so often accompanied by the disarming scent of rosy nostalgia. Of course nostalgia offers its own sort of escape, retreat, and release from the pressures of life, and it’s easier to take a trip down memory lane than it is a flight on an airplane.
Still, as the singer declares over the swell of voices and soft melodic distortion, “Churches and trains / They all look the same to me now / They shoot you someplace / While we ache to come home somehow.” Escape in any form, whether through spiritual elevation or mechanical locomotion, can only provide temporary relief. At some point we have to face those less than ideal circumstances head on. Pressing on with strength derived from the fond remembrance of theses times instead of as the shelter with which we shield ourselves.
For New Englanders, the anticipation of warmer temperatures and more agreeable climes around this time of year rivals that of the Christmas season. After a long, cold, hard winter fraught with swirling snow, arctic air, and some of the most woefully wicked, bone-chilling winds seen yet this century, it’s really starting to look like spring is on its way.
You know its coming the way birds and buds are returning to the trees; the way the maple sap has begun to flow in the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont; the way runners have taken to the street in droves after their long winter’s exile to the recesses of their local gym. The great thaw is on and soon local restaurants and watering holes will be putting out their patio furniture, local schools will be planning their end-of-year pool parties and field day gatherings, and back lawns across the state will be filled with the smells of seared and grilled American pride.
It’s a wonderful time of year, though it all happens too fast up here. No sooner do temperatures reach that coveted, agreeable 65 – 72 degree sweet-spot than some sadistic sprite in the boiler room decides to crank it full throttle sending temps into the hot, humid, and heavy upper 80s – 90s and sending us racing to retrieve our AC units from dark, dusty basements across the land. And as we fan ourselves for relief as we wait for artificial electric relief we wearily wonder how on earth it ever could have been as cold as it was just a few months ago.
But for now all is good. All is pleasant. All is just beginning. The gradual warming trend, the longer days and more agreeable nights, the long walks in the great outdoors, evenings spent dining on verandas, and lighter, more liberating feelings all around. So let’s thank our lucky stars and rich, beaming new blades of grass for the return of these blissful moments, and rejoice in the coming of the season with a bouquet of perennial spring-appropriate tracks.
1. Poor Old Shine – Weeds Or Wildflowers
You know that moment when you realize that warmer weather is here to stay? That’s what this song sounds like. It’s the feeling of being reinvigorated and rejuvenated. Everything seems to have been given new life, the gray of winter fades further from your memory, and you start to remember what colors look like. You’re ready to take on the world again. It’s the perfect tune for putting the, ehm, spring back in your step.
2. Chicago – Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is
This song is as pleasant and as familiar as a late spring walk in the park and carries an easy-going attitude to match. You can’t help but listen to this track and think, ah to be the narrator of this delightful piece of sonic euphoria… Well, stop imagining it and walk a few miles in his shoes. Try it. One beautiful day in the near future, turn it on, listen good, and then take the afternoon off for a long, leisurely stroll in the park. Thank me (and the band) later.
3. Steve Miller Band – Swingtown
This band seemed to know the secret to crafting relaxed chill and good cheer in 3-minute increments, and this track is a wonderful example of that. It’s the perfect kick off song for long car rides and trips up to the high country with family or friends. You spend the day hiking, biking, and swimming, and then– since “we’ve been working so hard” all day– you retire to an old, unassuming country pub with a dynamite buffet. It’s the perfect reward for many hours of cold winter toil.
4. Grace Kelly – I’ll Remember April
What’s spring without a few good rain showers? The rhythm and tempo alone paint the picture of the first mid-afternoon downpour of the season in the big city. It’s coming down steady and strong as the human parade darts to and fro under umbrellas, raincoats, and makeshift newspaper rain guards hoping to avoid the puddles on cracked sidewalks, the waves of water drummed up by the wheels of passing traffic, and other umbrella-blind pedestrians coming their way. It’s a sea of black, gray, and wet, soggy newsprint, but even with the wet, wild weather, it still feels good and refreshing.
5. The Tallest Man On Earth – Pistol Dreams
And then, gradually, the storm moves on. The last residual drops make their descent onto the freshly washed streets, and the clouds begin to lighten and part revealing skies of awesome composure and color. Buildings shine anew in the late afternoon sunlight that leaps out from behind the gray, and people slowly shed their heavy waterlogged layers as they head on home, looking forward to a relaxing evening at home and another lovely day tomorrow.
One look at Dietrich Strause and you know he’s got some terrific new story taking shape in that great big mind of his. It’s the eyes. Gentle, disarming, playful… ever on the look out for the next dash of inspiration. The man has stories enough to fill his diminutive yet sturdy frame. All beautifully rendered, lovingly crafted vignettes.
His 2011 first independent release, Laborsongs and Barkingdogsis a wonderful example of this sort of storycraft. As the the title suggests, the songs tell the tales of everyday workingmen and women of America. Many songs take place somewhere in the hills of Appalachia and rural Pennsylvania, paying homage to Strause’s boyhood home of Lancaster, PA. The settings may be pastoral or even remote, but the themes are universal.
For his second album, Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart, Strause continues this tradition of expertly crafted songs with vivid, expressive scenes that are at once simple in their structure and delivery.
Judging from the material covered on the album, Strause has been rather busy since 2011. While some tracks tread familiar territory, painting loving scenes of rural America and the people who live there (“Our Lady Ponderosa,” “Bootlegger”), many others take place on exotic even fantastical environs and show the extent of his growth as a storyteller.
There’s “Unsinkable,” which uses the classic folk song theme of an ill-fated seafaring adventure as the backdrop for the story of a man who pursues the object of his affection through three such doomed voyages– including The Titanic– even though his chances of winning his the favor of his beloved are probably only as good as his chances of making it safely to port on the same ship he sailed out on. And there’s the playful reimagining of the story of David and Goliath (“Sling & Stone”), which suggests that David’s motives for taking on the giant might not have been as selfless and virtuous as first thought (read: boys will do anything for a pretty face).
Taking well-known stories and blending them with contemporary perspective and humor. That’s where the album really shines.
In addition to Strause’s songwriting, the success of the album would not be possible without Strause’s warm, steady tenor voice or the delicate blend of accompanying voices and sounds (tip of the hat to Strause’s fellow Boston-based producer Austin Nevins, who also provides some wonderful lead guitar riffs and flourishes to the album itself, for putting it all together).
In the sea of cacophonous, muddled noise that seems to comprise much of the popular and indie music scene these days, Dietrich Strause possesses a clear, consistent tone. In a desert of over-produced, cloying and often inauthentic story lines that are heard in these other genres of music, Strause represents an oasis of clarity and sincerity in song craft and delivery that refreshes and delights.
On Monday it was cold, by Wednesday it was nearing 50, and now we’re looking at the chance of snow this weekend. And just when I was ready to talk about how things were “really heating up.”
Oh well. It’s better this way I suppose. More seasonal.
I don’t really mind the colder weather anyhow, though the uncontrollable shivering that starts from the moment I step out the door in the morning and lasts until I’m just minutes away from my destination is a little much. Perhaps that’s more a function of having an aging, rickety car… hmm…
Of course, if you’re like me, you can’t necessarily afford to jet yourself to a different festival each weekend beginning in March (or, as in the case of the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, starting two weeks from now). Lucky for us there’s no shortage of great musical acts coming to towns near us this season, allowing us to save on hefty travel costs and protect us from the temptation of raiding hotel minibars the nation over.
To this end I’ve added a concert calendar page to the site so you can get a taste of what’s coming up on the Boston-area scene and what concerts I’ll be heading to. If you’ve got a concert you’d like to suggest, promote, or go to with someone– let me know, and we’ll be in touch.
In the meantime, here’s a sampling of the shows I’m most looking forward to seeing this season.
1. Swear & Shake – Friday, January 17 @ Great Scott in Allston, MA
I’m tremendously excited to see these guys tonight. They’re a fun little foursome out of Brooklyn whose brand of peppy, genre-bending indie rock has been pounding the pavement of the northeast for the last few years, gaining them a number of followers and admirers. It’s admiration that’s well placed as they’re wonderfully talented songwriters and versatile musicians, emulating, shifting, and combining musical formats from bluegrass to grunge to driving dance pop rock. The track above is from their forthcoming album Ain’t That Lovin’, due out sometime early this year.
2. A Great Big World (w/Secret Someones) – Tuesday, January 28 @ The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA
If 2012 and 2013 were any indication, these guys are on target to have a bang-up 2014 as well. The last two years have seen them playing some shows, putting out a few singles, and catching the interest of Ms. Christina Aguilera, who brought them on NBC’s The Voice to perform one such single, “Say Something,” with them. This subsequently catapulted both track and these two lovable, recent NYU grads into the hearts and minds of TV producers and loving public nationwide (not to mention adding thousands of views to their YouTube channel). They’re also releasing their first full-length album next week. Their music is nothing if not catchy and the messages are universal, making it understandable how their other song “This Is The New Year” got its share of national airtime as well (the track conveniently fits in perfect with a New Year / New Beginning theme, so if you’re still looking for that one last track to put on your New Year 2014 mix… I highly recommend it).
3. Josh Ritter – Wednesday, March 5 @ The Somerville Theatre
In March Ritter released The Beast In Its Tracks, arguably his most personal and reflective release to date, dealing as it does with his recent divorce, the isolation that ensued, and the slow, bumpy road to normalcy, new beginnings, and new love. Then he went out and toured it mercilessly in true Josh Ritter fashion.
Ritter is the consummate performer, and his shows never fail to delight and entertain. I’ve seen him 5 times over the last 3 years— twice last year alone— and each time it’s like seeing him for the first time. Euphoria, love, and compassion— these are the hallmarks of his every show. Touring has always been profound catharsis for him, and is no doubt one of the big reasons that’s he’s now able to face 2014 with open, loving arms and continue sharing his stories with all who wish to be a part of the story with him.
4. Snarky Puppy – Friday, March 14 @ The Berklee Performing Arts Center
As much as I’m looking forward to these other shows, I might be most excited, if not most intrigued and downright curious, to see this group in action. This impressive crew of marvelously talented musicians is known to put on a show that is a full-on hyper-sensory experience. With that in mind, although you can probably get a decent taste of by listening to the track above, you really need to see it to believe it.
Just think: if they can fill your computer speakers with such beautiful grace and form— imagine it live. In my mind, I’m already at the show, cheering in uncontrollable gratitude and ovation.
5. Milk Carton Kids – Wednesday, April 30 @ Brighton Music Hall
Still want a little more? That can be arranged. Comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel and the Everly Brothers are well placed, even if the “Kids” themselves would have you believe they don’t know what you’re talking about. Comparisons aside, these guys are ridiculously talented flatpickers in their own right. Both of their albums are lovely stories, concise yet vivid tales accompanied by dueling arpeggios and galloping runs. Just two balladeers, their instruments, and their delicately wavering voices. It’s a performance that’s perfectly suited for the intimate atmosphere that a small venue like the Brighton Music Hall provides.