Tag Archives: singer-songwriter

#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.

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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.

New Music Tuesday: Dietrich Strause – Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart

dietrich strause - little stones to break the giant's heart

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 Barkingdogs is 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.

Dietrich Strause – Little Stones to Break the Giant’s Heart
Independent
Grade: A+
Listen Now: “Annie Dear”, “Our Lady Ponderosa”, “Tell Me Mary”, “Sling & Stone”