Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Of Banjos and Men: Music recap 2012

I started out to write a somewhat delayed recap of music from 2012, but realized in the doing that I had little to say. I have never been that in-the-know guy when it comes to new music. For several years, though, as my organic connection to new music has diminished with age[i], I have made a concerted, if somewhat delusional, effort to sample new things each year. Admittedly, it’s less often a direct recommendation[ii], and a review of best-of-the-year lists[iii].  This year…well, this year got away from me a little bit. As perhaps one of the last years before my musical world is dominated by grown adults singing songs about boogers, beluga whales, and sharing[iv], I am a bit sad about this.

decon banjo
Deconstructed Banjo

One likes to think of one’s self as still being out on the battle lines of whatever it is we spend our youth rocking against. However, the sheer volume of banjo in this year’s picks betrays the fact that I have become relegated to the role of veteran telling tales on a porch well behind enemy lines.  Even from my distanced view, this seemed like a pretty decent year in music, with a plethora of offerings. However, a lot of the things I was supposed to like[v], like Lana del Rey (hipster Brittany Spears), Of Monsters and Men (Arcade Fire Goes to Iceland), the Jay Z/Kanye collaboration from late last year (or, “In Which Jay Z Waters Down His Brand”), Regina Spektor (Hi, I’m a thinking, and boring, man’s Kimbra) and the Lumineers (Can we be an even blander version of Fleet Foxes? You bet your ass we can) just didn’t do it for me.  Regardless, I did stumble into some interesting things along the way (or interesting things make it through the gauntlet of the popular and find their way to me) this year.  Here’s my top five for 2012(ish).

A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart – Black Prairie
I simultaneously sampled BP’s 2010 Feast of the Hunter’s Moon and the new 2012 A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart[vi] and was excited by both. Black Prairie is essentially a Decemberists side project, which guarantees some degree of eclectic/awesome/Portlandy edge to it. However, this album of what I can only describe as apocalyptic bluegrass (probably heavier on the latter than the former) has some serious chops. It mostly skips past Meloy’s somewhat pretentiously anachronistic bent, and goes straight into just really great roots/folk music. Alt-bluegrass maybe?  Regardless, good stuff.  To be honest, as much as I love the Decemberists, if they broke up and Black Prairie kept going, I’d be pretty ok with that[vii].  

Babel – Mumford and Sons
It seemed to me a somewhat of an odd turn of events when English folk/alt-rock/bluegrass band Mumford and Sons exploded on the US scene. Mostly, this was because they are a fairly straight ahead folk/bluegrass/roots sort of group who may not even know what auto-tune is, are pretty much guaranteed to represent the largest portion of old-timey vest wearing folks in any given room, and give the distinct impression that prior to recording that morning they may have been down at some country pub for a pint or milking a sheep or some other equally bucolic English pursuit. When Babel came out in 2012, I had high hopes for repeat awesomeness, which were mostly realized. Not as driving or directly striking as Sigh No More in some regards[viii], it also outshines it at moments in complexity and nuance of sound.  In an odd way, Mumford reminds me a bit of the Beatles…Englishmen who fell in love with an American style, and then went on to be really, really good at it to the point that they advanced the “scene” and paved the way for a lot of similar acts. But with less Ringo.

Voyageur – Kathleen Edwards
I discovered Kathleen Edwards quite by accident when we saw her open for Guster about 8 years ago.  Her style definitely has meandered between Neil Young-y alt-country, Dylan and Springsteen-esque working class blues, and now with her latest release, Dar Williams-esque singer-songwriter influences. She’s a bit of a chameleon, blending into each album to the extent that it’s hard to describe her very well. 2003’s Failer was whisky-rich and gritty like Joplin, 2005’s Back to Me  had a little more Bonnie Rait twang, 2008’s Asking for Flowers channeled more Joan Baez-y moments. 2012’s Voyageur has a distinct Canada feel to it, and at first I literally thought I had put in Dar William’s new album by mistake. However, it has a distinct voice and is wonderfully nuanced and layered. It’s much more contemplative than the down-and-out hard luck stories of Failer, but is just as compelling.  At first I was a little disappointed, but it grew on me more than I expected.

Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars
Yet another bluegrass/folky entry. I am feeling really old at this point in the list[ix]. Well, nothing to do but soldier on. Barton Hollow is a stripped down but powerful country/folk/bluegrass offering with a very contemporary feel. Its focus is on relationship discord, and it dances between delicate understatement and fire-and-brimstone. I like to think of it as Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion grew the hell up, had some heartbreak, and finally started making some decent music.  It’s an inherently intimate album, even if in a predominantly tragic way. Sadly, as acclaimed as Barton Hollow was, it looks like it may have been the last we’ll hear from the Wars. According to wiki, they have “gone on hiatius” due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”[x].

Stray Ashes - JBM
Another entry, another folky singer songwriter. I wanted to go out with a bang and list something more contemporary, but honestly, 2012 was a folky year.  JBM, Mr. Jessie Marchant to his friends, is what I can only imagine is the product of Neil Young and Nick Drake adopting a child, then abandoning it at a particularly dreary orphanage in Saskatchewan.  And maybe they had Ani DiFranco and the prime minister stop by now and again to tell him what a disappointment he was, and not letting him have any of their poutine. In other words, this sophomore effort from yet another Canadian singer song-writer is pretty bleak.  However, it is also compelling and honest singer-songwriter fare and has moments of beauty shining out of the grimness. The sound is less traditional folk, and has touches of reverby sound, like Minus the Bear covering Iron and Wine. Best of all, I found this album completely randomly; it was a free track available on a day when I said to myself “I’d like to try some new music” and downloaded the top 25 free/new tracks from Amazon.   

There were a lot of offerings this year that were decent, or which I really didn’t get a chance to listen to enough to put in the top five. Honorable mention goes out to Dar Williams for In the Time of Gods, Frank Ocean for the appreciated if not loved Orange Channel, Fun. for the inescapable Some Nights[xi], Delta Rae’s alt-country-gospel-folk? eponymous release, Neil Young/Crazyhorse for their retake on classic Americana songs, Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas, and even Of Monsters and Men (when allowances are made for being Icelandic). I also have yet to give a listen to a backlog of 2012 albums that include efforts from The Shins, Meiko, Sigur Ros, Jukebox the Ghost, Bloc Party, Green Day, Grizzly Bear, Deadmaus, and perennial fave Ben Folds who apparently is incorporating his Five again.


[i] Our parents didn’t become total social outcasts when they had us, they just lost their connection to the evolving soundtrack of the world. I thought in this era of interconnectedness we would not be plagued in the same way…that we would not be stuck with our college playlists for the rest of our adult lives. But being out of contact with people actively driving the entrance of new music, and no longer having the endless golden afternoons of youth to spend listening to new things, my musical space is no longer in the main channel of the worldstream. I, like most of my contemporaries, have been borne by the floodwaters of the years out into the delta, and am spinning in the eddies.
[ii] Hint hint I would love more direct recommendations, musically-inclined friends
[iii] This is hampered to an even greater degree by being a gourmand, rather than gourmet, of music. I can get excited by a pretty wide array of stuff, but am bored to death by the thought of being overly critical/selective like some hipster friends. There are plusses and minuses to this. I actually go to NPR for a lot of music recommendations.
[iv] I had intended to conjure up images of the seemingly omnipresent music for children scene most recently lampooned on Portlandia. However, I find it odd that without clarifying, that description could also fit many contemporary indie bands.  
[v] According to Pitchfork, WBER, even NPR.
[vi] Skirting Fiona Apple territory dangerously close with that rambling title, fellas.   
[vii] Though it would help f they occasionally write a Decemberists-esque song or two, maybe in a bluegrassy bent. Like a ballad about an old-timey banjo man bemoaning the loss of his wife/sheep during the Whiskey Rebellion.
[viii] Like its dark, allusion-heavy, driving tone, and reliance on strength of message through repetition.
[ix] Even worse, this was released in 2011. I’m counting it for the purposes of this list because I picked it up in 2012, and because they may not be around any longer.
[x] Which would also make a good title for the next Fiona Apple release…
[xi] Which managed to be a surprisingly strong blend of Vampire Weekend and every pep rally you’ve ever been to.

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