Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Voice of A Ghost

Josephine - Magnolia Electric Co.

I have been a devoted fan of Jason Molina since I first spun the Songs:Ohia side two of a split EP with My Morning Jacket. I was drawn of course by the split billing with Jacket, assuming I was to discover another band of the same elk, which at the time was rare (unlike these days). What I found did not resonate with me immediately. There was a familiarity with their music and the voice, well the voice is undeniable. Cutting, foggy, sorrowful and real.

I soon purchased Songs:Ohia and then worshiped Farewell Transmission for about a month. The way that song unfolds itself it still downright awing to me. It's nothing flashy but it draws and draws until you are smothered and smoldering.

After the stint with Songs:Ohia, Molina soon regrouped and formed Magnolia Electric Co., a name he had previously toyed with, naming an Songs:Ohia album the same. The movements and arrangements changed subtly, but there is a distinct enough before - after that the artists music can be well defined by the changing of nomenclature.

Magnolia Electric Co. are in many ways a music snob or artists band. They aren't easy to wrap around and celebrate. Like Califone, most can offer a passing listen and think little of it, but those that linger discover so much below the surface and decide to stick around for a bit. Ben Bridwell, of Band of Horses, has been a major flag waver of the MEC fanbase, often seen at the shows and promoting Molina in interviews. Bridwell claims Molina has the best voice around, bold words coming from the man that sings The Funeral.

Magnolia Electric Co. made a big hit on my Essential List of 2007 with Sojourner, a double album that explored beyond the straight forwardness of What Comes After the Blues. It's an amazing collection, but bloated and muddy to get all the way through. My review wasn't the best, I simply ran through the album twice at work and noted the songs that stood out. I then arranged these songs into a playlist and credited that as what the album should have been. Don't tell Molina.

Sadly, this practice is one I still found myself wanting to take with Josephine. But before I say anything negative allow me to start with the praise. As soon as the horns are swept in on the opening track O! Grace, a new confidence with this band is announced. It's a direction they should have been exploring more over the years and it's more than welcome. O! Grace is great but then we get more standard Molina in between songs. Let me clarify this last statement as I know it reads as a bit of a contradiction after attempting to preach for this band the last few paragraphs. MEC writes great music, they just might write too much music and on the whole you'll find more songs without strong legs than those that stand tall. I firmly believe that Molina is a victim of the same burden that artists like Spencer Krug, Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst suffer, don't release so much damn music and focus more on that which you do!

Anyways, Josephine gets back on track fast with Whip-poor Will, the best of the album in my opinion. The lyrics here are the strongest both in terms of the emotion and imagery as well as how well they fit his voice and the stylings of the band. Josephine continues it's ups and downs until the end, and when it all finishes out I am glad to say I find more tall pines than scraggly shrubs.

Molina and Co. have a unique place in music and perhaps one of the lesser know and under appreciated voices around. What they need is a friend like Bridwell to nudge them along a stronger path. Getting bigger and bolder is not always bad in this genre as we will soon see with the latest Avett release, which just might be the best I've heard all year.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

Well Runs Dry

Upper Air - Bowerbirds

I am going to go ahead and warn Jejune, this review is not going to be glowing.

Bowerbirds are a bit of the 'it' band in new folk. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I find myself bored when I listen to this album. All the elements are there to make this a great album, most people are raving about it, but it is bland to me.

The male singing to female companionship is not so interesting and a little overplayed these days. The songs aren't bad by any means, several are quite good and a few really good, maybe one great, but strong together and I just can't get through this album.

I enjoy Ghost Life but by the time Northern Lights hits I have grown tired and it's unknown what really transpires beyond. Here I fall victim to wanting more and not appreciating what's their. I love the challenge of learning to listen for new sounds, respect what I may not know or appreciate, but here it's not a complexity I have to wrap my head around, it's simplicity.

I know that a lot of this style of music is probably simple to listeners. Sometimes that's a good thing, I like that Iron and Wine can be bare bones and I love that The Avett Brothers can be over the top, i find this album sowhere in between, maybe a little off to the left; wherever it is, I'll leave it be. Maybe Jejune can show me the light.

Dust of Your Caps

Oh My God, Charlie Darwin – The Low Anthem

While I am on the topic of superior second albums let’s dive into The Low Anthem’s bold leap forward. The Low Anthem is not my new favorite band and they underwhelmed me in a hostile crowd at bonnaroo this summer, but there is a profound directness and dusty happiness to their world.

OMGCD shows a major versatility for a young band, especially a band that does wear the tag of new folk…shoot they flat out rock at times and other times it simmers like a bluesy jazz number. In the middle of the whole thing is pure goodness.

Ticket Taker may be the first song to hit you when you realize the band has evolved (or revolved?, I’m kinda confusing myself of late) but by the time The Horizon is a Beltway comes galloping through, it’s almost impossible not to swagger your stride.

As has been their strongest suite to date, Low Anthem’s lyrics are worthy of written prose. They swell with life and vigor; storytelling through song as it should be. I find myself daydreaming to almost every track here, picturing myself in a more rustic world, working the earth and being a little dusty myself.

I am excited to see where this band is headed for the future. For now, they have released one of the better albums of the year.


A Second Wind Comes

Welcome Joy – The Cave Singers

Earlier this year I was knocked over by this band’s initial release, Invitation Songs, unbeknownst to me at the time a 2008 release, it was brooding, harrowing and had a sacred spirit and darkened soul about it. Folk music of the bottle as much as the heart. About a month ago I got my hands on the newest release and I am even more engrossed than before.
There is nothing complex, overwhelming or even new to be discovered here. But just like Deer Tick, the critics focus on the lack of music evolution being displayed by the Cave Singers, but in so doing they miss the most obvious and essential aspect of the music. It sounds damn good.

The new album parallels in almost two many ways. I can swear the same riffs and arrangements appear on this album, but somehow they sound better here. They have scrapped but a bit of the doom and gloom and the religious overtones are few and far between. The range is tighter here but there is more of the good stuff. A few tracks on their original release felt fuzzy, under thought and not attention holding. I find myself engaged with every track on Joy. Beach House plays as their most ambitious song to date, but it still has a welcoming understated quality to it. I find that I Don’t Mind is the song I can’t get enough of. The album gains traction the deeper in you are willing to go.

Not to say anything is outstanding, just good music, done well.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Tempo Changers

So where does this 'twang' or 'southern swagger' reside in Indie these days you ask, well it seems almost everywhere.

Ryan Adams, Beck, Wilco and Kings of Leon have all garnered massive success from altering variations of the country-pop-rock formula, which is often condoned by the Brooklyn type Indie snobs, but which often yields the biggest commercial success. Jack White is a huge advocate of the southern folk sound because he respects the purity of it, the blues lyrics, rock rythyms, simple time changes and the walking basslines that, once again make ya move and make ya feel good and enjoy what you are listening to.

My Morning Jacket's Jim James has managed to cover the full spectrum of music it seems (some more succesfully than others I'll add) and he's done it all southern style. But often it is not as obvious to others what that sound is.

Earlier this summer I read a review from Bonnaroo that included a quotation from Yeah Yeah Yeahs Karen O, in which she exclaimed "there are a lot of country acts here." I went to Bonnaroo, and yeah it's southern, but it hadn't hit me until I read that how much of the music I witnessed and currently listen has that country-southern-folk thing going on, music that to the likes of Karen O, probably sounds a little country and mabye a lot redneck.

Some bands of late embrace the sounds, The Avett Brothers and Band of Horses along with Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Ben Kweller, Drive-By Truckers (and variations thereof), almost exploit it, making music that stresses the twangy side and rockabilly. The music sounds amazing to me, but to a passive listener it can be too much.

Like it or not, it's gotten big.

Fleet Foxes, Blitzen Trapper, Elvis Perkins, Bon Iver and Joh Ritter have all recieved huge critical aclaim in the past few years for their 'new approach' to music and have been tagged as bands to watch for the future. It's almost amzing to me to see how succesful Fleet Foxes has become with such a tried and true formula, how many bands do you think are green with envy that they were the Indie darlings of 2008 and all they play is folk music...that stuff has been around for over a 100 years!

I can list endless bands that fall under this scope (Black Keys, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Great Lake Swimmers, Iron and Wine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Yonder Mountain String Band, Vetiver etc.) and I know this piece is running dry so I'll wrap up the preface here and I'll move on to review albums from the bands of 2009 that are best embracing this movement.

Friday, September 11, 2009

So Pick Up the Tempo Just a Little and Drive it on Home

I don’t exactly know how it all came about, but sometime in the past 9 months I fell asleep and music revolved. I’ve been plugging ahead in my own life oblivious to this monumental happening unfolding one crucial element at a time. A few posts back I made a satire of sorts of the current state of Indie music, numbering its essential days until the likely evolution of ‘next’ occurred. Perhaps why I find myself so dumbfounded is two-fold in explanation.

First, this is exactly what I thought was going to happen; I just didn’t really believe that it would.
Second, everything that I love about music is more ‘now’ than ever.

Somewhere between Miley Cyrus, Lil’ Wayne, Rascal Flats, Radiohead, Whitney Houston, Kanye and Animal Collective lies one fundamental truth: music is derived from a multitude of various sources, created for a multitude of various consumers who will listen and interpret in a multitude of various ways all for a singular reason – music makes us feel good and people like to feel good.
I feel best when I am hit by music that is rough around the edges, with soul, grit, inspiration, voice, story, ambition and hint of southern twang…with smidgen of pop sensibility and punk nonchalance. It seems of late that I am not alone.

I’ll start big and work my way down. The most popular band in the world of date is The Bealtes. I’m not talking a ‘best ever in the world ever’ ranking of soci-economic-pop importance, I mean there are more people in 2009 buying Beatles albums than any other band. How fucking crazy is that! Just who do these Brits think they are? Don’t they know that the Black Eyed Peas have an album out right now!?!

Think about this. A band that emerged from England in the late sixties playing teen bob diddies and r and b covers who eight years later called it quits from an utter internal collapse and loss of meaning is the best band in the world 30 years later. For all intensive purposes The Beatles are a boy-band. They made some of the most rudimentary music into anthems and the most complex music seem mundane. So what’s the draw? Why are people still turning it on? Have we not masterfully evolved enough in the last 30 years to find no such use for some acid dropping, girl chasing, Elvis Disciples - Dylan wannabes? No, my friend, we have not.

Why? Because the Beatles are good. Really good. People like feeling good. People LOVE to feel really good.

In an age where auto-tune and Adobe slabs have sucked the virtuosity and life out of most music, fans are headed back to where they once belonged. Folks will never forget how good songs from The Beatles make them feel, just like we’ll never forget the way Michael Jackson makes us want to dance. What people need is a reminder that what was good yesterday is still good today. It’s been coming for years now. Ray Charles and Johnny Cash re-entered the American conscience and people began to look for sounds that were more pure, basic and with heart. In the past year America has been through a lot. Nowadays we just wanted to be reminded of what makes us happy. We don’t always need to be challenged, alienated, assimilated or bored, we just need something that hits us the right way.

To get to my point, music is going back to its roots and so far it sounds great.
More dead on for my readers, Indie hasn’t died, She’s Gone Country.

Think I am ridiculous? Here’s a list of some of the most exciting bands in Indie today: The Avett Brothers, Elvis Perkins, Heartless bastards, Felice Brothers, The Low Anthem, Bon Iver, … What do they all have in common? Admit it, they all sound like they are playing music from the 60’s and 70’s. It’s pop, sure, but more than anything it is southern in spirit and it plays like the folks songs we were raised on.

I don’t think I’m crazy, I just think every aspect of music that was so great in the 60’s and 70’s became so pasche that it was abandoned and when it tried to resurface in the late 90’s it became so commercialized that any music fan with any dignity turned away. Problem is, the essence of this music is undeniable, it’s in our blood and like the Beatles, it makes us feel good.
I told you so!

So, who’s doing it the best these days?

We’ll discuss next week…

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Time For Livin'

Time to Die - The Dodos
It took a few spins to see what was already before me, just set to a focus I didn’t know to see at first.

When I first let my eyes listen to Visiter I was drawn to the off kilter, almost catastrophic clambering of beats and sounds. The drawn came in the slightness of the sound; direct, hard hitting pop-rock thrown off by altered timing and tilted ambition. It was Califone meets Animal Collective stripped down to a bare bones duo and it is one of the best albums of 2008.
I struggled with Time to Die, but not for long.

The addition of a full-time third member of the band obviously changed the complexion in arrangements and angling of the soundscapes. Where the songs were wanting to wander off into the unknown and odd with previous material it is now syncing in and tightening up. It seem so many bands these days are finding ways to layer more, arrange more, fill voids, introduce depth and complexity (St. Vincent and Andrew Bird to Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear), here the Dodos do just the opposite. The easy way to introduce a new member would be to simply add more noise to your sound, needed or not. The opposite becomes the case.

What my eyes are hearing is a dynamic duo diggin deeper within themselves and their sound to deliver a bit of a post-punk new age pop rock on a grassroots, blues level. Minimalism through added experimentation, if you will.

Taking a note from the band, I’ll trim back the wordiness of this review to state what needs to be said.

The Dodos are fast positioning themselves as one of the more worthy bands in the next generation/direction of music. Theirs is a sound that will continue to grow and I look forward to keeping keen eye on their work.