Slumber takes you, and as time passes, you slip into a vivid dream. You are at a heavy metal concert, and thrill to the first deep and doom-laden, viscerally crunching chords. Then you realize that what you thought were guitarists have morphed into cellists, and as the tempo shifts into double time a saxophone adds a frenetic melody. As you look around you find that you are actually sitting outside a cafe in Eastern Europe, and what started as a metal band is now playing klezmer. Some villagers are dancing – somehow it doesn’t strike you as odd that they are dancing the tango, or that evocative middle eastern melodies drop in and out of the tune. You glimpse palm trees, and then hear a jazz ensemble playing somewhere behind you as a marching brass band passes in front, with heavy metal riffs returning to punctuate their melody. But as you turn to watch, you are sitting in the corner of a deserted café in which the pianist is playing his way plaintively towards closing time. In your dream all of this makes sense; the transitions are not jarring but part of an oddly continuous dream logic in which you are in constant movement toward a destination that is ever on the tip of your tongue, yet each passing location is oddly right and vivid.
Such is the experience of listening to an album by Finnish band Alamaailman Vasarat (which translates as “Hammers of the Underworld”). Alamaailman Vasarat create hugely entertaining instrumental music that draws from a bewildering variety of world music genres and fuses them within a progressive-rock-like inclination towards ever-shifting rhythms and bombastic flourishes.
“I have no doubt that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music.” – Jimmy Webb
“[At SXSW], this young Oklahoman’s name was on everybody’s lips.” – American Songwriter
In a graveyard on the north side of the small rural town of Okemah, Oklahoma, where 23-year-old John Fullbright was raised (and still resides) are two tombstones marking the graves of two very different men. One is on the east side of the cemetery; the other on the west. In between the two is where Fullbright says he’d like his own tombstone to be placed. Why? Because the two tombstones bear the names of the two most influential people in his life – his grandpa and Woody Guthrie. It is the subject of a song Fullbright wrote called “Tombstone,” one of the standout tracks on a live recording of a concert he performed three years ago at the Blue Door in Oklahoma City bearing the simple title of Live at the Blue Door. It was not promoted nationally, but it was an attention-getter for those who heard it (it set sales records at the 2009 Woodyfest, the annual folk festival honoring Woody Guthrie), and Fullbright has continued to promote the album through a heavy touring schedule with his shows steadily gaining him a growing fan base one gig at a time.
The recording project was simple – a one-man show with just a voice, a guitar, and a harmonica, but lest you are thinking (like I was) that this by definition spells ‘boring’, think again. I was surprised at the depth and fullness that is generated by this one-man band and captured in the live recording. Thirteen of its 17 tracks are Fullbright’s own compositions, and he writes surprisingly insightful and mature lyrics that belie his youth (he was a mere 21 years old then, but had already become a favorite at outdoor music festivals before he was out of high school). He is able to create quite a sound all by himself, slapping the guitar strings with such fervor that the lack of a drumset is not even noticed, and gives a unique vocal delivery that makes the listener stand up and take notice.
When I wrote a recent review on Kate Campbell’s last album, Two Nights in Texas, I predicted that we would be treated to a new one from her any time. Well, the time is here – the new CD, 1000 Pound Machine, was released April 3, 2012, on Kate’s independent Large River Music label, and it’s a beauty filled with all the Southern folk charm that fans have come to expect in a Kate Campbell album. Her unique stamp is imprinted all over the tracklist, including songs about the American South of Kate’s youth, people of the South (famous and not-so-famous), gospel tinged spirituals, a love song, a Mississippi delta blues piece, and a couple of instrumentals. This time around, though, the arrangements are sparser and the music more subdued. It is a beautifully cohesive album held together by an overall “lay-your-burdens-down” kind of theme offering rest for the weary and peace for the troubled soul. This is comfort food at its most palatable, served up in classy southern soul fashion.
“To me, it’s bogus that art can only be in museums. The real art is what goes on when people don’t expect it. My idea of a good time is getting in front of an audience and giving them more than they expected. That makes it a worthwhile, fulfilling thing to me.” – David Olney
Townes Van Zandt’s short list of favorite music writers included Mozart, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bob Dylan, and … his buddy, David Olney. Obviously Olney keeps pretty good company, and deservedly so (except Eric Taylor once said, “Townes must have had a drink or two when he said Olney was up there with Mozart – Olney’s about as good as it gets when it comes to writin’, but he don’t sing like Mozart.”). With a career spanning more than four decades, he’s had time to polish his art to a fine shine. Whether performing blues, jazz, country, or folk ballads, Olney excels in them all – not to mention he can seriously rock. In short, David Olney is one brilliant artist – even if he doesn’t sing like Mozart. I am constantly amazed at what he comes up with next.
His latest venture is a unique series of thematic mini-album EPs on his own Deadbeet Records label, two of which have been released so far. Each EP consists of reinterpretations of some of Olney’s classic catalog tunes combined with brand new songs to create its own unique theme. The series capitalizes on Olney’s special talent for spinning a tale, which has made him one of the most original and impressive storytellers in the music business.
“Something happened. Back there all those centuries ago. Something not easily believed or easily dismissed. Two thousand years of glory and horror, of love and hate, of beauty and violence have only made those long ago events more murky and more enigmatic. But nothing comes of nothing. Something happened. The Stone is an attempt to address those events. From varying points of view (a con man, a donkey, a murderer and a soldier), a story is told. A picture struggles to emerge. Nothing is proved. Nothing is denied.’” (From the CD cover)
When country/folk-roots singer songwriter Kate Campbell opens her mouth to sing, you definitely know she’s from the Deep South – telltale signs ooze from her every syllable. But this southern bred artist from Mississippi is no country bumpkin. Her inherited country twang is tempered by a polished refinement and beautiful expression that adds irresistible charm to her voice, captivating audiences and drawing them into her southern world which is the birthplace of such notable writers as Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. Kate’s formative years were spent in Sledge, Mississipi during the height of the civil rights movement and much of her music is inspired by her coming-of-age experiences as a young middle-class white girl during those tumultuous times. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, she was exposed to a heavy dose of spiritual singing, having grown up singing hymns out of the Baptist Hymnal that proclaimed a love for God and fellow man at a time and locale where paradoxical community attitudes abounded. She also grew up listening to a melting pot of music on the radio, including country, folk, pop, R&B and southern rock – all played on the same radio station. Her songwriting is a hodge-podge of all these diverse influences. Many of her compositions are autobiographical yet presented in a way that reveals the bigger picture of universal humanity, and her talent for singing her stories is every bit as evident as the talents of the authors previously mentioned whose works she admires and to whom she is often compared. Her CD booklets frequently include some of her favorite quotes from these literary giants and others.
When approaching Gareth Dickson’s new record it seems almost obligatory to dwell for a moment on the fact that it is released on 12k records, a label that does not usually deal with music that has lyrics, let alone releases by singer-songwriters. Dickson has toured extensively as a guitarist with folk singer Vashti Bunyan. His own music combines acoustic guitar finger-picking with an attention to atmosphere, resulting in what one might call ambient folk songs. (You can stream one of his previous albums, the lovely Collected Recordings, here.) Quite a Way Away is certainly something new enough in 12k terms to catch the eye, but it is less of a radical break than it might seem. Listen to the acoustically oriented ambience of Illuha’s recent gem Shizuku, and its inclusion of the spoken word in the form of Japanese poetry, trace the gentle contours of Ballads of the Research Department by The Boats, which also included some singing, and focus on the gently plucked guitar of Kane Ikin’s Contrail (review here), and it will be clear that while Quite a Way Away is something of a shift of genre for 12k, it has a great deal in common with its immediate predecessors in terms of aesthetic. All share a careful hush, a gentle attentiveness to delicate, small, mostly acoustic sounds. Listening back over these releases brought to mind a haiku that appeared on the sleeve of Tetsu Inoue and Carl Stone’s 2001 collaboration pict.soul on the Cycling ’74 label:
The soft breeze that stirs
this vast undulating field
deafens the spider.
Those lines capture for me 12k’s approach to music, music made for the spider rather than for the stadium, inviting the listener to find expansive worlds of sound in the rustle of a soft breeze through grass.
I was never more surprised than when I saw the self-titled album Burlap to Cashmere on a recent list of Top 100 best albums of 2011. I knew this band. Discovered by an agent who heard them playing in a New Jersey coffeehouse, Burlap to Cashmere had independently released a live record in 1997 and the following year signed with A&M to release their major label debut, Is Anybody Out There? (an award-winning unconventional Christian music album). Within a few years, they had disappeared without a trace. They were a high-energy folk/rock band with a unique sound, thanks to the band’s talented songwriter and lead singer, Steven Delopoulos, and his cousin’s (John Philippidis) quick-fingering flamenco guitar riffs. That combination created their one-of-a-kind Mediterranean-influenced folk/rock sound of Greek rhythms and world beats that reflected their Christian Greek Orthodox heritage.
That was 13 years ago. Now an album bearing their name appears on a 2011 best albums list and I’m thinking it must be a re-issue or something. But, no. It is indeed a brand new album with 11 brand new songs. And it is creating quite a stir:
No, this is not about the old American television sitcom series that stations occasionally re-run late at night. It is a series, though, and the sitcom title is fitting. This is about a different ‘70s Show – a “music show” that was inconspicuously (at least to me) being performed just outside the limelight during the 1970’s. It is only recently that I came to discover some of the outstanding works from a few stars of that ‘70’s show. In a completely just world, their albums would have received the full recognition they deserve. Even now, some 30+ years later, they are remarkable. Here’s one of the best of them (more albums will be discussed in Part 2):
Silent Passage – Bob Carpenter, Warner Reprise 1975 (re-issue 1984 by Stony Plain Records, and 2007 by Riverman Music) “Bob still lives within all who hear his unforgettable Silent Passage.” – Ed Ochs, former music editor for Billboard Magazine (from Rising Storm).
I first learned of Silent Passage by the inclusion of its title track on Midlake’s 2011 album, a mixtape contribution to the Late Night Tales series. Late Night Tales is a series (ongoing since 2001) of “music and stories worth staying up for” in which one artist is invited each year to compile a mixtape of their favorite songs or inspirations. The contents of each Late Night Tales album are the original pieces by the original artists, with one cover chosen and performed by the invited artist. GQ Magazine describes the series as “the Rolls Royce of compilations.” Midlake’s mixtape opens with Bob Carpenter performing his song, “Silent Passage,” which immediately sent me scrambling to find Carpenter’s original album. Here’s what I had heard:
This is part of a series on music that has influenced contributors to Music is Good.
I was a bona-fide “grown-up” before I realized there were all kinds of good music hidden away in a vast array of genres I never took the time to investigate. I suppose I am not unique. During our teen years, while some adventurous listeners may follow the beat of their own individual drum, most of us at this stage of life are typically influenced by what the airwaves are playing from the latest top-40 charts. None of the music from that early part of my life was, however, what I would call influential in defining my lasting musical preferences. It was only much later that some albums began to seep into my ears and, in hindsight, I see how they proved to be landmark albums for me – albums which encouraged me to branch out into other genres, and once on that unbeaten path, find all those undiscovered treasures that awaited me. Here’s the ones that did it for me:
I received this CD as a gift from a friend many years ago and, while I had vaguely heard of The Waterboys, I was not at all familiar with their music. From the moment I popped this CD into my player and heard those riotously glorious fiddle notes that open the first song, “Fisherman’s Blues,” I was hooked. This was a sound very different from anything I had been musically exposed to previously. It was my springboard to the discovery of a whole new world of folk-rock with touches of traditional-sounding material by performers outside the U.S., which in turn, led me to more traditional folk tunes recorded by the likes of Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, Steeleye Span, etc. Fisherman’s Blues is still a CD I play often.
My compatriots have done an excellent job highlighting music that restores the seriousness of Christmas. As a Jew (a Reconstructionist, the lit-crit version of Judaism), I don’t feel like I have a stake in this game. Outside of a few songs, there aren’t any great Hanukkah albums. My holiday music tends be Klezmer, which can be played any time of the year.
There are a handful of Christmas songs I do enjoy. Wassails and winter songs aren’t necessarily Christmas songs: they are seasonal, coinciding with the Holidays. Indeed, “Jingle Bells” was written for Thanksgiving. There are carols that are based on excellent folk tunes that can get me moving (I will play “We Three Kings” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” as jigs). What tends to bother me about some Christmas songs is the repeated use of the same chord progressions, composed of I-ii-Vs and IV-iii-ii-I turnarounds (see “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”). Popular Christmas tunes tend to sound alike, which in my opinion reflects the composers’ laziness.
Among my favorite Christmas songs is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which could either be seen as deep and dark or over-the-top, the alternative version of It’s a Wonderful Life or the Christmas version of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. From the production standpoint, the song is impeccable: soaring strings, perfectly timed transitions, even a big dropout to give power to “the bells were ringing out on Christmas day.” From a more cynical standpoint, the song is a crass attempt at a big commercial hit: the duet with Kirsty MacColl could be construed to be a gimmick, and the New York theme and the stadium sound are things a band might employ to try to crack the American market. It’s everything to be expected and dreaded from a Christmas song.