Tag Archives: folk

#MondayMixtape – Songs to Get You Out-of-Doors

take on the worldThis past weekend was glorious. Saturday was particularly so. A few of us headed up to Stage Fort Park in Gloucester for a midday barbecue and the conditions were perfect. Not too warm,  not too cold, with blue skies all around and nary a cloud in the sky.

After a nice leisurely lunch, we headed down to the beach and took a walk along the rocky shoreline. It was incredibly therapeutic to see everything in such vibrant, brilliant color and so full of life after all those months of cold. The leaves on the trees looked fuller and greener, the water in the bay looked even fresher and even bluer, and the whitewashed seaside chapels further off in the distance seemed to give off a warm, radiant glow. And to think all this lay just one hour from Boston. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Excellent.

It got me thinking about songs that sing lovingly of the great outdoors. Songs whose verses could compel even the laziest of Johns to get outside and smell the roses. Songs that speak fondly of good times had out in nature and of the promise of more good times ahead.

These are a few such songs, summarized in five lines or less (because hey, this list isn’t about you sinking in more to your seat– it’s about getting you outside to enjoy everything the great outdoors has to offer!).

1. John Denver – Rocky Mountain High

Ask anyone– if you’re making a list of songs made for exploring and extolling the wonders of the natural world, this song is going to be on it. It’s one of John Denver’s greatest hits, and for good reason: feel that leisurely, zen-like tempo, dig that lightly twangy, tangy flatpicking– that gentle, buttery voice!– it’s no wonder this song recently became one of Colorado’s official state songs. And with its underlying message of man’s responsibility to be good, mindful stewards of the earth’s natural treasures, it’s not just an ode to the Rockies– it’s a song of love and appreciate of the great outdoors everywhere.

2. James Taylor – Copperline

From a song that looks with immense fondness and love at all natural palaces and sanctuaries to song that focuses on a fondness and love of one place in particular: the strange, wonderful parkland just a short distance from the narrator’s boyhood home. It was the sort of place that would have always captured his imagination even if he hadn’t spied his father dancing in a drunken display of bliss and inhibition or got the  “first kiss I ever took” there. But ah, so it was, and so it is, and so it shall ever be. “Day breaks and the boy wakes up and the / Dog barks and the bird sings / And the sap rises– and the angel sighs..” Such powerful, lasting memories can be made out there, even just a few miles from home.

3. Jakob Dylan – Something Good This Way Comes

As it happens, four of the five songs selected this week are written in the key of E. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, on the guitar, an open E chord is one of the lucky few that uses all six strings. It gives the chord a particularly fresh and open tone, a quality that each song really embodies. And this one, from the Wallflowers frontman, is no different. A talented, prolific songwriter in his own right, the younger Dylan also knows how to take it easy and play a simple, breezy tune, and this is a great example of that. A good tune to accompany you on any adventure  you so choose.

4. Nickel Creek – Ode to a Butterfly

Continuing on our secondary theme of Songs in the Key of E, here’s one to really get you up and at’em. The title lends itself beautifully to the sort of imagery that it conjures up: a butterfly flitting and floating about a wide open field with corn and buckwheat swaying in the breeze. But it’s just as suitable for getting you up the side of a mountain, exploring the hidden spaces of a forest, or simply sitting around a campfire roasting marshmallows. It’s a reminder that even the smallest things are full of some of the coolest, most intricate and wondrous stuff in the world.

5. Special Consensus – Carolina in the Pines

Our little tour of song and nature now complete, we return east to the land of green Appalachian hills (and whaddayaknow– there’s a key change too!). It’s the perfect mix of sweeping instrumental breakdowns and simple but deeply affectionate lines about the comfort that comes from just being out there among the mountains, the forests, and all of nature’s splendor. “There’s no guesswork in the clockwork / On the world’s part or mine / There are nights I only feel right / With Carolina in the pines.” With all the uncertainty in life, it’s nice to know that whatever happens, we can always find time to get back to basics, with earth, wind, and sky.

#NewMusicTuesday (on a Wednesday) – Summer 2014 New Music Preview

Clockwise from Top Left: Neil Young, Felice Bros, Allen Stone, Common, and The First Aid Kit
Clockwise from Top Left: Neil Young, The Felice Brothers, Allen Stone, Common, and The First Aid Kit

(photo credits clockwise from top left: theguardian.com, americansongwriter.com, hipstervrealworld.wordpress.com, houstonpress.com, vogue.com)

Summer’s upon us, and though the memorable, sure-to-delight summer blockbusters of old have been on their way out for quite a while, summer music releases never fail to delight. These may not be on any big, honkin’ billboard list, but these are a few of the titles I’m most looking forward to hearing this season.

1. Neil Young – A Letter Home (Released 5/27)

I’ve been listening to a lot of Crosby, Stills, Nash and this guy lately, and it’s fantastic stuff to use up an afternoon with. Each member of this iconic foursome found success in their respective solo careers, and Mr. Young was no different. His last few albums, however, left much to be desired. Call me a stubborn traditionalist, but I preferred his songs more when the political jabs and searing social commentary was folded in like good metaphors ought to be, not just piled on like some over-sugared meringue.

That said, lately Young has been getting back to basics, though not necessarily of the original lyrical sort. Instead he’s turned his attention to the basics of sound production and the impact it has, good or bad, on our listening experience. One way he’s done this is by becoming something of a sonic evangelist, making sure everyone can hear music properly. That is, high quality (192 kHz). “The way it was meant to be heard” (As opposed to the compressed versions of the tracks heard on CDs or MP3s– less than 40 kHz– that sound as good as if you were, as Neil puts it “underwater”). The result is Pono, a new music service that gives listeners the ability to purchase and play high quality sound versions of their favorite songs.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s his new album, A Letter Home, which features a decidedly more low-fi– but not low quality– sound. The album features 12 covers of popular folk, country, and rock tunes from the last 70 years, all performed by Young himself and recorded using a 1947 Voice-O-Graph Recording Booth. Once a staple of carnivals and county fairs nationwide, Young recorded the album on one of the few remaining models, owned by fellow sound enthusiast and music nostalgist in the best way Jack White and his Third Man Records label in Tennessee.

It’s just Young, his guitar, sometimes a harmonica, and the sparse, warbly sounds of an old vinyl record machine making beautiful music. Sounds good to me.

2. First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (6/10)

The Swedish folk duo that brought you the 2012 sleeper hit “Emmylou” is back with another round of spooky, mysterious late-60s-era psychedelia folkie stuff. Expect more beautifully haunting vocal harmonies, sweeping, arpeggiated strings, and stories of estranged lovers getting their just rewards. If you’re still unsure of what to expect, think She and Him minus the Him part or Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros minus Edward and the other boys of that posse. Or just take a peak at the advert for their new disc / homage to 70s B-movie wonderment.

3. The Felice Brothers – Favorite Waitress (6/17)

Now take the male half of the bands previously mentioned, add to the mix the raucous bluegrassy, folksy stylings of The Lumineers or the roots-rock vibe of Kingsley Flood, and you’ll have these guys, The Felice Brothers. They are to bluegrass and roots what deviled eggs and turkey bacon are to brunch: slightly updated standards, but still satisfying. These guys are also a ton of fun live. They opened for Josh Ritter during his spring tour last year and got the crowd plenty ready for a long evening of good tunes and good times. Go see them when they come by this summer.

4. Common – Nobody Smiling (TBD)

I’d lost track of this guy for a time, so I was excited to learn that there’re plans on the table for a new full length release sometime this year. A Chicago-based MC, this album is inspired by and dedicated to the young people of the hometown he loves so much. It reflects its troubles while also celebrating its successes. In the artist’s own words it’s meant to be a “wake-up call” for those who haven’t been part of the positive solution. It has been some time since anything else was mentioned about this project, though he has been awful busy supporting his nonprofit’s community events and initiatives around town. Can’t be mad at an MC with a track record of doing good in his community. No doubt it’ll be worth the wait.

5. Allen Stone – Title TBD (TBD)

Talk about much anticipated releases. Back in November of 2013, this golden-voiced soul singer announced plans to drop his next record sometime this year and soon thereafter released the first single from that album “Million.” Since then, however, it’s been relatively quiet. Like Common he’s also been rather busy with a world tour, spreading the love and good vibes through his music, his Instagram account, and his ridiculously wide grin, so it’s understandable that he may not have had the time to let the people know when to expect his next release. Still, with pipes like that, it’s surprising that he wouldn’t have had things ready to go by now. He’s got the sort of voice that’s made for summer beach mixes.

For now, we’ll just have to wait like good boys and girls and let treats like these hold us over.

#FridayFinds: Music Memoirs, Dollar Bin Discoveries, Lip Syncing to Styx, Saxy Tunes, and Getting it Right on the First Take

photos courtesy (clockwise L to R): consequenceofsound.net, robsheffield.com, liveandbreathing.com, nbc.com
photos courtesy (clockwise L to R): consequenceofsound.net, robsheffield.com, liveandbreathing.com, nbc.com

Friday! Weekend! And the ides of May are nigh. My goodness. How time doth move.

It’s been a good week. Lots of action and activity in all the right areas, particularly in the area of personal/professional growth in music adventure and experience. Solid stuff all around.

And here for you now are five of the things that have added that extra dash of excellent these last few days.

1. Rob Sheffield’s Book – Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke

I picked up this fun little read over Christmas and heartily enjoyed it from the get go, but it wasn’t until just last night that I was able to find the time to finish it. Ah time… thou art a flighty and fickle mistress.

For those familiar with Sheffield’s other work, this book will offer a welcome and decidedly more hopeful conclusion to his previous stories of love and loss and the music that brought him to adulthood (Talking to Girls About Duran Duranand got him through the tragic, untimely end of his first marriage (Love Is a Mix Tape).

That said, the book isn’t off limits or full of anything that would make it difficult to understand for those not familiar with those stories, and Sheffield’s musings on music, karaoke, and life in general are honest and sincere and thus effortlessly universal.

For Sheffield, music is a labor of love in and of itself. He’s self-deprecating and humble about his own shortcomings as a performance artist (how many different ways can you tell people you’re not the most on-key singer? There’s at least 20, judging by the number of times it comes up in the book) and has an unabashed admiration for anyone who puts themselves in the limelight. The karaokes lifers, the career session musicians, the up-and-coming musical prodigies and wunderkinds– the David Bowies, Neil Diamonds, and everyone in between.

But it’s not all karaoke and musical jargon either. There’s really something in here for everyone. From the awkward 20something to the purportedly less awkward 30something, and from the new husband learning the ropes to the old professional romantic– and certainly the shower singer and the closet musical mastermind– everyone can find something to identify with in this collection of vignettes.

2. Discovering the Untold Pleasures of the Dollar Used Vinyl Bin

So I may have mentioned that I recently inherited a lovely little record player. It’s amazing, and I’m still very much in that “new father with newborn babe” stage wherein I take extensive precautions to ensure proper handling of turntable, records, and all related paraphernalia that the listening experience entails. With great power come great responsibility, after all.

But of course, with great responsibility comes great temptation to stock up on whatever things you don’t have but think you might need to have the best possible experience. Record brushes and cleaning fluid, plastic covers for each individual record sleeve, and a whole new arsenal of albums to play loud and proud.

Anyone who’s considered themselves an enthusiast in anything can tell you, having a hobby is expensive. Comic books, photography, stamps even– shout out to the quiet, the proud, the esteemed few stamp collectors still among us– every endeavor comes with quite a costly price tag if you really want to get serious.

Which is why the dollar bin at your friendly, neighborhood record store is all the more dangerous. One moment you’re leafing through the sea of titles thinking nothing of it, and the next you’re on your way out the door with half your day’s pay in the friendly, neighborhood record store’s till. But at least you got that Gordon Lightfoot album you never knew you always wanted, right?

Jokes aside, there’s generally a lot of decent items among the stacks. You just have to be willing to dig. In my first two visits, I spent just under $30 on seven albums that would have, at their original list price, probably gone for $100 all told (estimate adjusted for inflation, naturally).

P.S. If you’re looking for the perfect birthday gift for that special music blogger in your life, consider getting him (or her… what do I know… June 10, people) a handful of dollar bin delights. What better way to expand one’s musical horizons. Thoughtful and fun too.

3. Tonight Show Lip Sync Showdown between Jimmy Fallon and Emma Stone

Though I’m overall on the fence about The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, the man and his staff definitely have one thing down: a fantastic assortment of musical segments. They’ve done barbershop quartet renditions of popular hip hop tunes and spot-on impersonations of everyone from Neil Young to Bruce Springsteen to Tom Petty. And pretty much every Jimmy Fallon / Justin Timberlake collaboration you can find from the show is both uproariously enjoyable and musically inclined. Excellent stuff all around.

This isn’t the first lip sync battle that he’s done either. It started with an energetic face-off against Joseph Gordon Levitt while he was still at the 12:35 Late Night spot and then continued with a moderately silly one against Paul Rudd, but this one is the best thus far, particularly in the area of visual accuracy in lip sync lyric delivery.

Honestly it’s over at the end of the first round when Ms. Stone delivers a stupendously articulated rendition of Blues Traveler’s other hit from their 1994 breakout album Four– “Hook.” I think John Popper would approve.

4. Getting Saxy with the Saxyderms

Last weekend I went out with some friends to see the spring concert of a Tufts University-based saxophone ensemble called the Saxyderms (the Tufts mascot is an elephant, they play saxophones… Saxyderms…. get it? good). I’d seen them once before while on a mid-summer’s afternoon stroll through the Boston Common, and they were fantastic. Plus it turns out that my friend Jason is not only a Tufts grad but also a member of the band himself. Surprise, surprise. The guy’s got some chops.

With all the rock, roll, and other fun sounds out there on the airwaves today, it’s always nice to remember that music doesn’t need words, a raucous, romping guitar line, or even a cowbell beat to be enjoyable (though the cowbell doesn’t hurt). And these guys and gals prove it.

The program was a lovely mix of chorale pieces, jazz hits, and even one or two pop covers. All were beautifully arranged and delivered, but my hands down favorite of the afternoon was their rendition of the Dizzy Gillespie tune “A Night in Tunisia.”

And speaking of sexy saxes and pop music, check out this little mash up of great rock songs that feature that lovely sound. I’m hard pressed to think of any recent hits that really showcase that sound, but now I’m going to keep my ears dutifully peeled for it.

5. Bring the Band to Your Living Room: Live and Breathing Sessions

These days there are a lot of ways to find out about new music on the internet. And just about every day it feels like there’s a new YouTube channel devoted to enterprising young videographers looking to capture your favorite or soon-to-be-favorite bands in a new way with crazy camera angles, exotic locations, and all matter of color and light filters.

Enter Live and Breathing. They showcase well-known and up-and-coming bands, recorded with a few cameras, yes, but done all in one take, and without too much crazy camera mishegas or ridiculous, over-wrought lighting. They put the emphasis on capturing the essence of the performance, placing the premium on the musicians and their craft, not suped up production.

I learned about a lot of cool groups from their videos like The Wood Brothers and St. Paul and the Broken Bones (listen to those guys now). It’s also how I solidified my obsession with The Lone Bellow and Lake Street Dive. Check out their stuff today, and make yourself a little country/blues/folk-rock-americana in-house concert playlist this weekend. And enjoy!

#MondayMixtape – Oh Brave New Wegmans-Accessible World

a boy and his ice cream. a love story.
a boy and his ice cream. a love story.

I want to first apologize for the long, unannounced hiatus I’ve taken from writing these last two weeks. I’ve become overly distracted of late, and I know I need to be better. I’ve definitely found myself thinking of fun ideas and new material for the blog, but the next thing I know, I’m wandering around the new Wegmans supermarket that opened up just down the street from the apartment, and everything else seems to take a back seat. It may be half the size of its sister locations, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get lost in it.

Certainly doing one’s weekly errands is important, but there’re other much less important things that end up eating my time. Time that I could otherwise be using on writing and exploring. It’s a constant struggle. But I press on.

And I digress.

But yeah. Wegmans. It’s kind of great. If you’ve never been to one before, let me break it down for you in the simplest terms I can think of. It’s a large, New York-based supermarket that is known for its wide selection of goods, obsessively competitive prices, wonderfully friendly staff, and equally wide and impressive selection of prepared foods. And they boast the sort of following that’s usually reserved for just boy bands or Oprah: the announcement of an opening within 100 miles of your town will send devotees racing to clear their calendars for the entire week of its inaugural operations, and when the big day arrives the parking lot and all major traffic arteries will be clogged with pilgrims from the world over yearning to– if nothing else– walk its long, cavernous, yet uncannily warm and well-stocked aisles.

That said, my personal experience with The Wegs, as it’s affectionately called by its adoring supporters in the 20 to 30something demographic, is limited at best. They opened a few locations in the DC area only after I moved up to Boston, and although this isn’t the first on to open in Massachusetts (that blessed honor goes to the town of Northborough, MA), it’s the first one that I’d actually make any plans to visit regularly since it’s much closer. As in it’s just down the road. As in I can walk to it from apartment. As in it’s maybe 5 minutes roundtrip at a leisurely pace on foot. As in nanner, nanner, boo boo.

And now, after joining the teeming masses yesterday to get a sense of the place and then returning today for my first official grocery run, I have to say that while there’s no denying the appeal of the place- it’s overwhelming. It’s a full sensory overload kind of experience, and in many ways that’s all right (cheese! bread! bagels! bialys!); but in other ways it’s exhausting (they make fruit-flavored bialys? Look at all the different kinds of bread! Ten types of Camembert? What’s with the electric train over the dairy case?).

It’s all lovely, magical, and beautifully laid out for you. But sometimes, don’t you just want some good ol’ black beans and rice, and not this French-imported, bourbon-soaked, twice-baked, thrice-refried edamame-type beans with the short-grain, naturally-blanched, humanely-treated basmati rice?

Where have all the good [read: simple] beans gone?

Okay, maybe it’s not quite like that, but you get it: when you’ve been sent to the market for a hunk of regular, ol’ brie, and you find yourself in the cheese aisle trying to discern the difference between Buttery, Creamy, Buttery and Creamy, Earthy, and Rich varieties… you wonder if maybe we’ve gone a bit too far with our segmentation of dairy products.

But of course, in many ways it’s the freedom to choose and explore that makes our lives so rich and colorful to begin with. So here are five songs that seem to typify our current relationship with the food and food providers we depend on to sustain us from day to day.

Some of them playfully sing about how detached we’ve become in our understanding of the processes that bring these products to us, whether by prioritizing, even sardonically, the loss of the food over the loss of life due to the perils of its movement around the world (“30,000 Pounds of Bananas”) or by forgetting about the people and processes  entirely (“Peaches”). Then there are the odes to excess. Songs that sing the wonders and delights of the instant gratification that comes from a good chocolatey substance. Even as “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” concedes that there’s (probably) more to life than those things that supply us that quick fix, the devil on the other shoulder (“Chocolate Jesus”) smiles wryly and reminds you that there couldn’t possibly be anything better (“only a Chocolate Jesus / Can satisfy my soul”).

And then, to tie it all together, there’s Weird Al’s early 2000s gem and tribute to life in fast food lane “Trapped in the Drive Thru.” I’m a firm believer that parodies can oft be more spot-on in terms of subject matter and overall tone than the original, and this one does just that. It cuts to the core of every man’s desires and reminds you that some days, you really just can’t help yourself. Some days all you want– all you really need–  is a thin, juicy burger-like substance with all the trimmings (just hope to Ronald McDonald they don’t skimp you on the onions).

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.