Monday, July 21, 2008

New (old) Music

In every group of friends there is that one person who seems to always know the next biggest thing in music before it hits...They were downloading mp3's when the rest of us still bought music on cassette...listening to the Shins long before Garden State...etc etc etc.

I'm not talking about the kind of music geek who can only feel good about themseleves if they're listening to the most obscure thing possible, so they can look down at anyone else with some sort of assumed indie cred..("You liked Cash's cover of Hurt? Yeah, I like the Oedipus and the Mamma's Boys version better..the one from the Icelandic import in '87, they only made 4 of them, on vinyl. You've probably never heard of them")

No, what I'm referring to is the audio shaman. The guy who always has the coolest new stuff and shares his bounty with you. You never know how he knows...he (or she) just does.

I am not that guy.

I am the guy who gets all my music suggestions FROM that guy, like unto a planet orbiting a sun, soaking up its musical radiance. I guess I'm ok with being the orbiting guy as compared to the guy who grew up in the 90's and hasn't listened to anything new since unless it was blaring over top 40 (even though we all know music achieved perfection in the mid-late 90's).

That's a long and overly elobarate way of saying here are some music suggestions that are going to be old news to the magical music folk among you, but somewhat new to me and hopefully very enjoyable to people like me who do not dwell on the cutting edge of the new:

1) The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
- It's been out for some time now, but it still amazes me that more people haven't heard of/been turned on to the Decemberists. Take equal parts Neutral Milk Hotel and the Shins, add a dash of the History channel, and voila. Fun, well composed songs about...well...a lot of things. There are very few period dramas of any genre for which there is no corresponding Decemberists song. With vocals that are at first odd, but rapidly become oddly endearing, and a catalog that ranges from sea shanties of revenge (The mariner's revenge) to sparse and disarming love songs (Here I dreamt I was an architect) to poetic looks at the effect of war (16 Military wives). Some dismiss them as being a gimmicky version of NMH and other similar bands. The Crane Wife should lay some of those criticisms to bed. This, their latest effort, gels more as an album than any yet, and even in the ubiquitous "period pieces" (O Valencia) there is a subtle humor and word play that is evidence the band has furthered refined their captivating writing style. Who else could write a touchingly sorrowful ballad based on a japanese folk tale in such a way as to lend itself to form, with its separate chapters, the backbone of an album that is already strong with out? Definitely worth a listen.

2) Band of Horses - Cease to Begin (2007)/Everything All the Time (2006)
Having released "cease to begin" in late 2007, I'm still counting it as new to me. Band of Horses combines elements of sparse and atmospheric guitars similar to Minus the Bear and others, with tight, layered and evolving sounds and wonderful overlapping harmonies. The range of material they cover on these two albums is pretty fantastic...everything from the spartan but rich harmonies of St Agustine to the more straight ahead rock of "Great Salt Lake" and indie quirkiness of "is there a Ghost". In a sea of music that is starting to wind down in uniqueness from the middle of the decade, band of Horses stands out with not only a unique sound, but a careful and well executed application of that sound to a set of well written songs.

3) The National- Boxer (2008)
I'm still making my way through this pretty dense recording. Nothing soul-inspiring to say about it, just some great straight ahead "indie" rock tunes. It reminds me a lot of the lyrical content of REM mixed with some of the down and out blue collar sound of Springsteen. The album features folks like Sufjan Stevens, so you know already there's going to be a pretty interesting mix of sounds. very layered and satisfying album so far. If you're not a fan of the media fanfare for this latest album, their last album was also pretty stellar.

4) Dar Williams - My Better Self (2005)
Having grown up in the northeast, it wasn't hard to get an appreciation for Dar Williams. Even if you weren't into folksy singer songwriter stuff, her songs overflowed with raw emotion in a way that was still compelling, playfull, and sometimes in a manner that cut to the bone before you realized you were bleeding. I still find it, embarasingly enough, almost painful to listen to the bittersweet "Southern California wants to be Western New York" because it captures a sense of the place I'm from in a way that is inherently real. I really got into Dar during the late 90's, listening to tracks like Mortal City, As Cool as I Am, and Iowa on the albums from that period. i was already impressed with the sheer density of material on her albums. A mix of irreverence (Christians and the Pagans) and reverence (Are you out there) that really strikes a chord, in a very self-aware way. Her "latest", which I have just gotten through, is the same warm, mix of the playful (teen for God) and more serious (Empire), though neither side lacking in depth and quality of composition. For newcomers, start with Mortal City, but when you've gotten hooked, pick this album up too.

5) Slaid Cleaves- Unsung (2006)
This recommendation is probably a little more obscure than the others, but well worth a chance. When we came down to Houston, some friends introduced us to the music of Mr. Slaid Cleaves. Our first reaction was, "his name is...what?". Our second reaction was, "damn, this is pretty good. " Slaid Cleaves is the archtype of the Austin music scene folk/alt-country sort of singer. not country in the manner of yeehaa good old boy mainstream country, and not folk in the manner of "I gave my love cherry" type of folk, but about the best combination, with a touch of springsteen esque ballads mixed in. A New England native, Slaid lacks the Texas twang, but his voice cuts through the tracks ranges from an urgent whisper to a road-dust saturated woot, to even the occasional, oddly fantastic, yodel. His previous albums are winding roads of hard-luck stories, ranging from singular personal tales of loss (Lydia) to epic storytelling type songs(Below). I think storyteller is perhaps the best description for Slaid. He specializes in stories that don't necessarily have happy endings, but it tends to make them all the more compelling in their bittersweet subtlty and honesty. I find it hard to think of anyone to compare him to, outside of the greats (Cash, W. Nelson) who don't really fit him anyway. I have comapred him to Kathleen Edwards, but it's more honest to say "kathleen Edwards sounds a bit like Slaid Cleaves" than vice versa.

Unsung is a reflection of the vibrant Austin music scene, where collaboration among emerging artists is just part of the tapestry of the lifestyle. It's a collection of "covers" of friends' songs, although one could easily argue that among the artists that occupy Slaid's musical corner of the world, he played as much a part in their creation as they did the tracks of his previous album. I especially recommend "Flowered Dresses", "Call it Sleep" and "Another Kind of Blue". Simple, poignant pieces stripped down to their essentials. They pretty much define his style, and why we keep going back to see him every time he's in town, usually playing small crowded pubs like McGonnigals' "Mucky Duck" even after the success of several albums in a row. Slaid is still the half-road-weary and unassuming poet, and is all the more appealing for it.

Bonus: My somewhat abstract (long exposure for light trails) shot of Slaid in concert.
Fiery Slaid

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