10 Albums I Totally Should Have Blogged About in 2011
2011 was an intense year in music. There were so many great albums released and so many critics, reviewers and journalists working their asses off to keep up with everything. I tried to be part of this, writing as many reviews and articles as I could squeeze into my schedule, but I fell behind and I feel bad that I wasn’t able to write about all the artists that I felt deserved to be covered. So here’s my last-ditch effort to make amends by writing about 10 Albums I Totally Should Have Blogged About in 2011 (in no particular order):
Joy Kills Sorrow: This Unknown Science.
2011. Signature Sounds.
I feel extra bad about this one, since Joy Kills Sorrow‘s new album, This Unknown Science, is their most advanced release yet. They’re still a stringband at heart, but the arrangements are channeling a new pop sensibility with remarkable acumen. All of the musicians in the band are virtuosos, and as a whole their arrangements are stunningly intricate and creative. There’s been a big push in the chamber-folk world this year, with releases from Noam Pikelny, Yo-Yo Ma and Chris Thile, and Joy Kills Sorrow deserve to be right at the top of this heap. Their last album, Darkness Becomes the City, sounds like a great album from a bunch of precocious youngsters coming out of Boston’s crazy-talented roots music scene. With This Unknown Science, the gang have grown up and have grown into a sound that embraces the handmade intricacy of indie bands like Fleet Foxes, without losing sight of their roots in folk traditions.
I’ve said before and will say again that Emma Beaton‘s powerhouse vocals are still the heart and soul of the band, but listening to the new album, I’m also struck by the songwriting of Bridget Kearny, who writes or co-writes all but one of the songs on the album. Her lyrics are somehow overly confident and endearingly insecure. It’s a charming combination that makes for some sexy, and sassy, and sometimes sensitive songs. Instrumentally, the band is top-notch, and the interplay between Wes Corbett‘s complex banjo lines and Jacob Jolliff‘s frenetic mandolin is also a major highlight. Throughout the whole album, Emma Beaton’s voice carries and defines the band. At turns soaring and powerful, or soft and deeply sensitive, her vocal range (not just in terms of octaves, but in terms of artistic sensibility) is astounding. This is a masterful album from a masterful band, and if you’ve been sleeping on Joy Kills Sorrow, now it’s time to wake up!
Joy Kills Sorrow: Reservations
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Charlie Parr: When the Devil Goes Blind.
2010/2011. Nero’s Neptune Records.
Recently, I’ve had to suffer through some pretty whitey-white renditions of country blues, plus books that talk endlessly about the crossroads, and how you have to have the blues to play the blues. Yech. Thing is, the blues is about more than just feeling bad and putting on your walking shoes. It’s also about kicking ass. The mellower side of country blues always comes to mind when I think about Mississippi John Hurt, but most of the country blues was rough-and-tumble juke joint music from experienced traveling musicians. It was drinking and dancing music, something that belonged to the unwashed masses. The blues singers who focus on the blues stereotypes cultivated by detached white scholars miss out on the real heart of the blues. Charlie Parr isn’t one of them. His blues is eerie, hair-raising, other-worldly. The kind of sound that made those old scratchy 78s so compelling. Parr’s driven by something so deep inside and so universal that his blues makes us stand up and listen immediately. It helps too that he knows the traditions so well. It means that the songs he writes are almost totally indistinguishable from the traditional songs on his album. I figured all the songs on his new album, When the Devil Goes Blind, were traditional on first listening, but turns out only two of the eleven tracks are trad. And there are some real new classics here that I hope will start passing into the folk tradition, like the beautiful gospel blues “Where You Gonna Be (When the Good Lord Calls You Home),” or the train-hopping ditty “I Dreamed I Saw Jesse James Last Night.” But honestly this entire album is worth it for the utterly shocking cover of “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down.” Starting off a cappella, this is the kind of song that sounds like an echo from the grave. It will send a chill down your spine. Turns out Parr has covered this song a couple times on various albums, but this is unquestionably the best version. Wow. I mean really WOW.
Parr’s been incredibly prolific recently. I can’t even keep track of which of his albums came out when, and I think this album is actually from 2010. He’s been collaborating with alt-stringband The Black Twig Pickers, and previews of his upcoming 2012 album are quite promising. But I’d wager that When the Devil Goes Blind is the perfect album to get to know his music. So start here!
Charlie Parr: Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down
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Charlie Sizemore: Heartache Looking for a Home.
2011. Rounder Records.
There seems to be a divide in modern bluegrass between the deeper country side that harkens to the Monroe/Stanley/Flatt/Scruggs foundation with a strong tendency towards Nashville country, and the chamber-grass virtuosity of Thile/Punch Bros etc. Sometimes I think of this as a red state/blue state divide, or a North/South divide, but that’s quite the oversimplification. Whatever the case, bluegrass veteran Charlie Sizemore‘s new album is a delicious slice of country bluegrass (maybe “countrygrass”?), delightful in the way he takes a Nashville sound and blends it with the pure drop tradition he learned growing up as one of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (Sizemore replaced Keith Whitely in 1977 at the tender age of 17!). Heartache Looking for a Home is polished, and though I usually shy away from this kind of polish, Sizemore’s got such a great gift for choosing cool songs, and his band is so hot, that you won’t be able to resist humming along and having a great time. Standout tracks include a gorgeous duet with Ralph Stanley on the forbidding “Red Wicked Wine”, a pretty hilarious send-up “No Lawyers in Heaven” (funnier when you know that he’s actually a lawyer himself), and the title track “Heartache Looking for a Home,” which is the best country song I’ve heard since Zoe Muth‘s “If I Can’t Trust You with a Quarter.” What’s extra nice is that Sizemore’s got the skill and taste to be able to nail traditional bluegrass as well. “Red Wicked Wine” works both as a hard-drinking country ballad and as a bluegrass song that Ralph woulda sung in his prime. Traditional songs like “Poor Rambler” and “Gone to Georgia” even have an old-timey feel to them, with a bit of clawhammer banjo thrown in.
If you’ve been despairing about the modern state of bluegrass today, this album will remind you just how far you can go with great taste and amazing chops. It’s a helluva lot of fun to listen to and I can imagine Charlie Sizemore must have had a blast making it. Well done!
Charlie Sizemore feat. Ralph Stanley: Red Wicked Wine
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Ben Fisher: Heavy Boots & Underwood.
Ok, I feel really bad about this one. Not only did Ben Fishermanage to take his work as a pro busker (super powerful voice, engaging stage presence, and kickass street cred) and spin that into a love affair with Seattle’s indie press, but he’s also the genuinely nicest guy around. Plus all my blogging buddies were writing about him, so the least I could’a done was send some good words his way. Sorry, Ben!
On his new album, Heavy Boots & Underwoods, Seattle busker king Ben Fisher puts all his cards on the table. He’s refreshingly honest, and not afraid to stand simply behind his voice and his guitar, an admirable trait. As he sings on the opening song, “Thunderbird,” “I’m giving away everything/I’m starting anew/Look out for my rings and strings/I’ll come back for them soon.” You get the impression that he really is so dedicated to his music that he’d give up pretty much anything for it. But more than an honest bard, Fisher is a great storyteller, not only able to weave narrative into his music, but also able to weave a sense of place into his songs. His music practically drips with Northwest rain, and his ode to the humble Ballard locks (“Hiram M. Chittenden”) brings back some of my best memories of living in Seattle. Maybe that’s his talent as a busker shining through; his ability to grab your attention with a great story, familiar memories and a twist of words. Whatever the case, we’re not the only ones appreciating Ben’s music these days. Though he’s confessed that he’s used to playing for a handful of strangers on the street, he’s now playing in-studios for the likes of KEXP and Daytrotter, and getting coverage on great blogs like our friends Sound on the Sound, SSG Music, and Common Folk Music. He’s definitely a talent to watch in 2012 and I predict his next album will be big!
Ben Fisher: Thunderbird
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T-Model Ford and GravelRoad. Taledragger.
2011. Alive Records.
I’ve been a fan of T-Model Ford‘s down-and-dirty Mississippi hill country blues for a while now, but his new album, Taledrigger, with his Seattle-based backing band GravelRoadis easily the best one yet. GravelRoad not only round out Ford’s rough edges, they also add a layer of psychedelic blues to his music that makes it all incredibly compelling. Ford and GravelRoad’ve played together before, and on record, but this is the first time they’ve really gelled perfectly. The tracks buzz with Mississippi heat, and growl along like a runaway train. This is the kind of blues I can listen to all day long. Somehow they’ve even found a killer horn section, and when the brass kicks in on the second track “I’m Coming Home,” well look out!
T-Model Ford’s quite popular these days, which is great. Sure, he traffics in a pretty old image of the violent, drunken bluesman, but I like to think there’s an element of irony there. And beyond that, he’s got such a great raw style with Mississippi blues that he’s always a lot of fun to listen to. If you’ve given up on the blues recently, or if you tend to listen to the Black Keys more than Son House, give this record a listen. It will renew your love of the grittier side of the blues.
T-Model Ford: I’m Coming Home
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So I know everyone and their dog have written about Noam Pikelny‘s new album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, and with good reason. Not only does he have the chops of one of the best modern banjo players, coming out of Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers, but he also nailed the coolest viral marketing campaign I’ve yet to see in bluegrass. His Funny or Die video with Steve Martin is a must watch, and I’ll live in constant jealousy of Compass Records’ PR coup: a New Yorker cartoon of the album. And yeah, the album’s a fun romp through today’s chambergrass sounds, maybe not as classically oriented as the much-buzzed about Goat Rodeo album from Thile/Yo-Yo Ma/Stuart Duncan/Edgar Meyer, and that’s kind of the nice point about the album. A good number of the tunes on the album are original, but Pikelny’s also got some great old-time numbers here. Not “Cluck Old Hen,” which is a rather tired old chestnut (though Pikelny’s brass-balls cover goes a long way to redeeming the tune), but I’m thinking speifically of the excellent old-time song “Bob McKinney” (with Tim O’Brien on vocals!) and a great version of Art Stamper’s “Piney Woods” featuring Stuart Duncan on bluegrass fiddle. Part of the reason the album’s so listenable is thanks to Pikelny’s insanely hot backing band, including Jerry Douglas, David Grier, Mike Compton, Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan and lots more! Ultimately, it’s this same listenability that’s the album’s only downside. It’s a bit “composed” at times, meaning that tunes don’t really stick in your head or carry you along all the way. So while it’s not necessarily a great album for intense listening and copping banjo licks, it’s a great album for listening on a warm summer day while working in the garden. Oh how I miss those warm summer days…
Noam Pikelny feat. Tim O’Brien: Bob McKinney
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Seattle busker Gregory Paul has had quite the prolific year, releasing three albums in the last six months of 2011. Two of these albums (the third is straight old-time banjo) are beautiful renditions of original and traditional music, drawing from old-time and early country traditions, but also spinning out into intriguing directions in indie roots music.
The Fremont Abbey is a beautiful venue in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. It’s a refurbished old church, and the natural resonance of the venue is one of the hallmarks of its sound. Greg plays to this resonance in the echoey, sparse album The Fremont Abbey Session. Made up mostly of original material, the songs are quite beautiful, and channel some of the darker corners of the old-time Appalachian music that’s long been an inspiration to Greg. He plays guitar, banjo and bowed banjo on the songs, and is joined by Holly Merrill on vocals and piano. I don’t think I really get all of Greg’s songs, but they’re so intriguing that I want to. I want to understand more about his songwriting and his artistry and why his music is so deeply haunting to me on this album, and so I listen harder each time and get drawn deeper and deeper in. PS: The closing track on this album is a fascinating cover of Erik Satie’s “First Gnossienne” with piano and bowed banjo!
Greg’s second album, Lonesome Valley, is a duet with another well-known Seattle busker, Annie Ford. Annie used to play with Slimpickins, a great street folk band that also included Gill Landry’s brother Jake Landry. Together, Annie and Greg cover some of the chesnuts of the old-time tradition, but bring a stunning new sound to them. Their harmonies on “Rain and Snow” totally redefined the song for me, and.. Usually I like my old-time fiddlers to be closely tied to the tradition, but I like that Annie Ford has such disparate ideas in her fiddling. Sometimes she sounds like an eerie Swedish fiddler, other times a dusty jug band fiddler, and sometimes a Blue Ridge Mountain fiddler. It gives the album a diverse feeling and really draws the listener in. This album is rough as hell, which is half the fun. I love that there’s so many great ideas in this album, hidden under a layer of rough-hewn handcrafted music.
Leroy Lytel: Swarm of Doves.
It took me forever to figure out who Leroy Lytel is and in fact I’m still not too sure. My original blog post on his album was going to be titled “Who the Hell is Leroy Lytel,” but just before publishing the blog he managed to get up a website and some basic info (like the fact he lives in New York). Prior to that, all I’d had to go on was a one-sleeve CD album sent to me from an address that I promptly lost. Heck, even now that he has a website up, there still isn’t a photo of him available anywhere. Whoever Leroy Lytel is, though, he managed to secretly put out one of the best indie-folk albums of 2011.
Based around Leroy’s soft guitar picking and slightly ethereal vocals, the album unfolds like a gently waving field of grass, which curiously is the only picture he has up on his Facebook profile. It’s clearly part of a larger indie roots music scene, but he veers away from the softly rambling themes of Iron & Wine, or the dense arrangements of The Head and the Heart, instead making a simple batch of beautifully written songs with easy to understand structures. It’s totally accessible, and surprisingly masterful for someone so new to the scene. The title song, which opens the album, is a great little earworm that feels gently hopeful, like the first moments of an infatuation. Songs like “Flat World Blues” or “Lord of the Flies” sound almost like a redux of Mississippi John Hurt, channeling his gentle care in songwriting and guitar playing. What I love most about the album, though, are Leroy’s gentle turns of phrases in his lyrics. Like the opening line for Her Eyes: “Walking around with my head to the ground/looking for answers we’ve already found./My hands in my pockets are the only thing holding me down./I don’t talk much/sure could use the sound.” Throughout Swarm of Doves, Leroy’s deftly sincere songwriting and sweet melodies helps this album rise above the stacks of other worthy CDs on my desk.
Leroy Lytel: Swarm of Doves
Danbert Nobacon & The Bad Things. Woebegone.
2010. Verbal Burlesque Records.
Ok this one is technically from late 2010, but I’ve just gotta include it. Danbert Nobacon is one of the crazy British anarchists that formed folk-pop icons Chumbawamba back in the 90s. You’ll remember them from their insanely catchy “Tubthumping“: (I get knocked down/but I get up again… You’re never gonna keep me down). I always thought of this as a pop song, since I first saw it on MTV as a teenager. But Nobacon and the Chumbawamba crew came out of Britain’s anarcho-punk underground and were serious counter-culture heads. Nobacon is famous for pouring a jug of ice water on the British prime minister’s head during a state dinner. My kinda guy! Anyways, after leaving Chumbawamba he eventually moved to the picturesque and isolated little town of Twist in Eastern Washington. He was signed to Bloodshot Records for a while, but his most recent album is a self-released little wonder with Northwest cabaret-punks The Bad Things. Titled Woebegone, it’s a romping mashup of Tom-Waits-style cabaret riffs with the edge and snarl of an aging punk rocker. You’ll like it for sure if you like Tom Waits, but it’s a lot of fun even if you’re unfamiliar with that kind of music. It’s rough and raw and angry and funny all at the same time. There’s something compelling about Nobacon’s gravelly voice and working-class British accent, and he delivers a host of interesting vignettes with this album. Kudos to The Bad Things, who bring a foundational structure to the album that lets Nobacon do his thing with great support.
Danbert Nobacon & The Bad Things: Other Country Blues
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog and Online Listening Lounge to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.