Best Roots Albums of 2011 (so far…)
I’ve recently been thinking about the sheer volume of albums released per year, even within the genre of roots music, and the relative small number that speak deeply to individual listeners. For me, I’d guess that only about 5-7 albums per year, at most, become integral, important parts of my library with extended listens for years to come. Others get dumped in my collection and pop up occasionally in shuffle mode met with varying degrees of interest and excitement as the Darwinian struggle within an ever growing iTunes library plays out. Of course, some albums grow on a person over time while others grab one’s attention quickly only to fade way into the oblivion of neglected files. Thus far, I’d say 2011 has been a pretty damn good year in my eyes, given at least six albums are already strong contenders for that hallowed place of sustained influence. Here are my picks:
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West – The Holy Coming of the Storm
What a treat it was to stumble upon this young duo from the great Northwest almost by accident. Since getting this album earlier in the year, it has been in heavy rotation on my iPod. From my full review earlier this year:
Morrison & West’s debut album, The Holy Coming of the Storm, takes elements of old-time, bluegrass, and folk to craft a sound that relies on tradition but stakes out its own territory. I’m tempted to describe the songs as pensive and austere, but that implies this is music for the head more than the heart. That is definitely not the case. It is both, as witnessed by my unconsciously tapping toes when listening to “Won’t Be Long,” an up tempo tune full of fiddle riffs, bluesy mandolin runs, and some head-shaking high-lonesome harmonies. Perhaps “elegant” is the word I’m looking for? No, that makes the music sound a little too precious, leaving a wholly inaccurate impression. This music has a rugged, earthy quality but also an organic polish. It reminds me of a rough stone turned smooth from years of exposure to the bustling currents of a mountain stream. Similarly, the melodic notes spilling from Morrison’s clawhammer banjo have the effect of sporadic water drops splashing amidst the steady rush of West’s guitar rhythms and runs in “My Lover Adorned.” The song’s wistful narrative sounds as ageless as any English folk ballad passed down through generations. I suppose I should resign myself to the fact that most adjectives are too limiting to attach to this music, in part because the duo does so many different things well.
Carolina Chocolate Drops & Luminescent Orchestrii (EP)
This four song EP leaves me feeling a little cheated in that I’m craving more than four songs from this wonderful hybrid of backwoods old-time Gypsy fiddle hip-hop. From my full review earlier this year:
The final track, “Knockin’” is a sultry tune that teases its melodies forward with the patience of a knowing seductress. The gloriously indulgent vocal glissandos somehow manage to make refrigerated chicken and leftover wine sound erotic as all hell. The bridge provides a delicious release of urgent fiddle riffs, much like an overheated bystander swiping a handkerchief at his brow during an arousing burlesque performance. The song proves that double entendres and subtler expressions of carnal desire are infinitely sexier than the boringly explicit booty tunes so prevalent in contemporary pop music. This is certainly no pop album, despite the fact it deserves widespread acclaim.
More than anything, this collaboration is a tribute to the power of music to bring people together. This is social music, made for backyard barbecues in the country, rooftop romps in the city, and block parties the world over. No matter the locale, put on this disc and folk will be dancing, laughing, and, if they’re lucky, maybe even sharing some chicken and wine later in the night.
Chris Thile & Michael Daves – Sleep With One Eye Open
From the first few seconds of the opening track, “Rabbit In A Log,” it’s obvious that the collaboration between virtuosic pickers Chris Thile and Michael Daves is a musical partnership born of emotional intensity and joyful expression. Oh my, how nice it is to hear this less restrained side of Thile. As much respect as I have for Thile’s main band, The Punch Brothers, and their experimental flights of technical fancy, I do wish a little of this raw intensity could surface in their compositions. I credit Michael Daves with bringing this more intuitive side to the fore. The more I learn about Daves and his grounded philosophy of music as a professional pursuit, the more I respect him. I also find his unbridled, stylized tenor full of breaks, dips, and glides a perfect compliment to the rapid-fire picking on Sleep With One Eye Open. An album full of well-curated standards, recorded here in Nashville at Jack White’s Third Man Studios around a single mic, this collaboration is the pure, distilled essence of bluegrass music as explored by two of today’s most talented musicians. If you don’t love this album, I’m not sure I like you anymore.
Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest
After eight years of creative frustration and an excellent side project in The Dave Rawlings Machine, Gil & Dave are back under the Gillian Welch banner. I joked on twitter that June 28th should be declared Gillian Welch Day given the explosion of Welch related tweets, facebook posts, blog reviews and pant-wetting anticipation from the roots music community prior to the release date. I’m still digging into the album and find it undeniably good. However, I need to spend more time with it to fine tune my analysis. The cherished sweet spot for these musical partners seems to be slower tempo, melancholy tunes that often weave the lyrical ethos of American folk traditions within more personal narratives. These are the songs that dominate the Harrow and the Harvest. What they do, they do exceptionally well. I can’t help but feel, however, that there is a Welch template that, no matter how worthy of repetition, could use a little more shaking up as found in the Rawlings Machine. Perhaps I should respect a distinctive artistic voice and its constant honing above experimental risks. The album is great and will likely satisfy malnourished Welch fans, but I’m not sure it isn’t yet another variation on the same theme, albeit one executed beautifully.
Hayes Carll – KMAG YOYO
I can’t decide whether or not Hayes Carll or Todd Snider is my favorite songwriter working today. Lucky for me, the two team up on one of KMAG YOYO’s tracks, “Bottle In My Hand,” along with Canadian troubadour Corb Lund. It’s an embarrassment of riches like much of Carll’s fourth album. From my full review earlier this year:
In the opening track of KMAG YOYO (& other American stories), Hayes Carll croons, “I’m like James Brown, only white and taller.” While Carll may not be the Godfather of country soul, his fourth album certainly solidifies that he’s a made man in the honky-tonk cabal. For someone whose songs infer the persona of an erratic slacker, the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s output has been awfully damn consistent. He has not released a throwaway tune yet, and, at his best, has penned some outright sublime songs. Carll is not blessed with a golden voice, but he knows how to make the most of his scratchy drawl as he swerves between Texas-sized swagger, self-mocking one-liners, and heartfelt vulnerability. More than anything, KMAG YOYO is a reminder that country music is not dead yet, despite Nashville’s best efforts to smother it in hair gel and software plug-ins.
Carll is a sort of Charles Bukowski in the age of anti-depressants. He’s a poet for thoughtful roughnecks and ne’er-do-wells, but the seething rage and contempt of earlier generations is replaced by a world-weary shrug of the shoulders at life’s absurdities. That’s not to say that Carll is wholly apathetic, because his songs have often flirted with politics, albeit through some hazy, last-call beer goggles. That drunken haze is sharpened with a bump of speed in the album’s rollicking title track. “KMAG YOYO” (a military acronym for “Kiss My Ass Guys, You’re On Your Own”) tells the story of a young soldier in Afghanistan who finds himself manipulated by Pentagon suits and disillusioned with the war. Carll’s civic sensibilities tread more familiar ground later in the album as his Dude-like Zen recognizes a drunken fling can be as politically enlightening as a C-Span symposium. In the duet, “Another Like You,” Carll’s barfly liberalism leaves the raspy spitfire Cary Ann Hearst unimpressed as she calls him “Taliban” before admitting “I gotta hand it to you, there’s a chance I’m gonna screw you.” Hearst’s sassy, gravelly delivery is a song-stealing performance, and Carll seems to be comfortable sharing the spotlight as KMAG YOYO invites some songwriting friends to the party.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band & Del McCoury Band – American Legacies
I am still disappointed that I missed the Del & Pres. Hall set at Bonnaroo this year due to a work conflict. I did take some small consolation in tagging along with the Pres. Hall second line parade late in the wee hours of the Sunday morning. I can’t say enough good things about this collaboration both as damn fine music and a fascinating cultural dialogue. From my full review earlier this year:
The album is book-ended by tunes which allow some rollicking playing amidst self-referential celebrations. The album’s first track, “The Band’s in Town,” is a recurring set of down-home, earthy riffs allowing most of the collaborators an opportunity to solo a few bars while being name-dropped by their co-conspirators. The closing track “One More ‘Fore I Die” has a similar ethos as it, too, cleverly name-drops each soloist. In both of these tracks, it is an absolute treat to hear competing breaks traded between unlikely partners such as trumpet, banjo, clarinet, mandolin, and piano. This is not just the essence of American music but the essence of what the larger American experiment has become, a collision of disparate cultures rubbing shoulders and mixing ingredients to develop a character that is somehow uniquely recognizable even though its most fundamental element is its wild variety.
This is a paradox of sorts – the unifying characteristic of American art is the diversity of its influences, especially with respect to cultural and ethnic traditions. It is no surprise that the pairing of these forms, jazz and bluegrass, would lead to such a successful project. Each are uniquely American art forms imbued with the character of their national identity. Both art forms share the spirit of American individualism as found in the emphasis of solo breaks and the pioneering spirit as found in the reliance on improvisation. Each art form is heavily influenced by worship music and they both include old church spirituals in large chunks of their respective canons (as illustrated by the aforementioned “I’ll Fly Away.”) Each form also has at its core the ideas, concerns, and philosophies of impoverished and disenfranchised populations, struggling to carve out a cultural legacy on their own terms with what they happen to have at hand. Lastly, each is a hybrid of European and African musical forms, both providing a living anthropology of this country’s history. Regardless of all this socio-cultural navel-gazing, the bottom line is that both of these bands are smoking-hot, and when the two join forces, the result is one hell of a barnburning good time. When all is said is done, that will probably be the most important legacy of American Legacies, as it should be.
Dustin Ogdin is a freelance writer and journalist based in Nashville, TN. His work has been featured by MTV News, the Associated Press, and various other stops in the vast environs of the world wide web. His personal blog and home base is Ear•Tyme Music. Click below to read more and network with Dustin.