Three new CDs I love: Sarah Jarosz, Buddy Miller, and Grand Hallway
I get a lot of music in the mail. Generally, I immediately weed through and decide what’s top priority, and what goes in a pile designated for slow, rainy days when I’ve completed everything else and am looking for something to do. For the most part, albums get listened to a couple of times and then moved past for the next thing. But, every now and then, something leaps out of the stack and affixes to my…phone and laptop (?). That is, after all, how I listen to most of my music these days. Seems odd to refer to those things as my music players, but alas. 21st century, and all.
As I was saying, though, every once in a while, something new will strike me as so good, it’s even further toward the fore of my mind than my usual Patty Griffin, Billy Joel, Band of Horses, and AKUS standbys (the albums I listen to when I’m not working). This year has been pretty productive for new releases, and already there are three which have struck me more than all the others. Beware, there’s a whole lot of praise below.
Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down
I reviewed this disc at About.com, and you can read my full review there (they’re not fond of me cross-posting stuff to other sites). But it bears mentioning that I can’t yank this record out of my earbuds lately. Jarosz’s first disc, Song Up In Her Head, was a solid effort. Considering she was just a teenager when she made it, it was hard to not hold it up next to efforts from others in her age bracket – folks like Miley Cyrus, for example, bless her heart. But, such a comparison isn’t really fair. It wouldn’t make sense to compare a release by Lucinda with that of, say, Bono, simply because they’re roughly the same age. (Gratuitous Bono mention for you, Easy Ed.)
Still, as Mandy Moore might tell you, youth doesn’t necessarily always lend itself to the best artistic decisions. Given this, we find it necessary to applaud folks like Jarosz and Sierra Hull, who find their way to some level of conscientious artistic integrity before they’re even old enough to drink a beer. In the case of both Hull and Jarosz, these kids are surrounded by some of the greatest instrumentalists and producers in contemporary roots music. Without listening very deeply to the music, it might be easy to disregard the integrity of their recordings as being some kind of glorified puppetry. But there’s more here. The reason some of the best folks in this field have surrounded these kids is because they recognize the talent oozing from their every pick and strum. Listening to Follow Me Down makes me a little afraid, honestly, of where Jarosz’s work will take her ten years from now. In the good way.
She covers Dylan and Radiohead which, if you read my post last week about Dylan covers, would otherwise be enough to make me fast-forward or move on altogether. But, she does her covers the right way – the way where you have to pause for a second to remind yourself someone else wrote these songs. Jarosz may seem to be wrenching them straight from her soul, but that’s just a testament to her intuition as a performer.
She’s at the New England Conservatory these days, studying world music, if I understand correctly. That should inform years’ worth of recordings to come. I’m thinking she’ll be to multi-instrumentalism what Bela Fleck as been to the banjo. (Fleck, of course, is on this record too.) I know it sounds like I can’t give this record enough praise, and that’s almost true. There are flaws, to be sure. She’s not yet a completely perfect artist. But she’s headed there at full-throttle. And, even with the moments in the record which strike me for a split-second as incongruous or sonically confusing, I still can’t stop listening. Take that for what you will.
Buddy Miller’s Majestic Silver Strings
I’ve been stuck to this record since Cayamo, back in February. What more can I possibly say about it? (I reviewed it at About, too.)
Buddy Miller is arguably one of the best artists at work doing what he does, and here he’s surrounded himself with Bill Frissell, Greg Liesz, and Marc Ribot. Patty Griffin is on there, too, as is Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris, and other guests. At the risk of overly gushing (I’m a critic – we’re supposed to be very, very serious, right?), I’m inclined to say the songs are perfectly performed. But, it’s perfection in the context of what it is, which is to say a raw and honest delivery of classic-style country songs. “Dang Me” nails it. The George Jones cover (“Why Baby Why”) rocks so hard. (Again with the well-done cover songs.)
It’s frankly one of those records I feel requires little explanation, beyond “You’ve got to hear this shit.” So, here’s a video:
Grand Hallway – Winter Creatures
This record won’t be out til June 10, and I’ll admit I have a bias on this one – Tomo Nakayama and Shenandoah Davis are two of my favorite Seattleites. But, the fact that they can destroy me at ping pong has nothing to do with their imaginative, incredibly emotive music. Besides, good music is good music, whether it comes from friends or strangers.
Last time around, on their ’09 release Promenade, the band had something like seven members and its music was along the lines of organized chaos. They were doing that thing so many Northwest bands have been doing – collecting as many members as possible, throwing in a small orchestra, an accordion, five or six syncopated vocal parts, etc. But, Grand Hallway was just doing it better than everyone else. I didn’t know them then, so I can say that was my unbiased opinion at the time, and remains as such now.
This time, though, they pared down to the bare essentials. Davis came more to the fore (her solo work is incredible in its own right, and she has an album of her own coming out this summer, which is so pretty and honest, it’s made me tear up more than twice). There’s one moment in “Father’s Clothes” – a song which revisits the childhood game of playing dress-up in your parents’ clothes from a much more sobering, complicated adult point of view – when Davis’ voice takes over for a verse. Her almost warbling soprano sends a fist to my chest when she sings about someone’s dying day. Nakayama’s voice entering against it to retrieve the melody (with Davis still going on harmony) feels like someone’s warm arms wrapping around the emotional moment. And all that just within the course of about ten lyrics.
There’s so much happening on this record, so tightly wound and beautifully arranged. Nakayama’s compositional instincts are, as on Promenade, impressive and surprising. He’s realized a fuller restraint this time around, which makes the explosive moments of cacophony much more provocative. And then there’s “Roscoe (What a Gift),” with its energy that feels almost like silence. Here’s a video of that: