Sunday, January 28, 2007

To journey out and back

The road home
The Road Home, Rana Muller

The Saddle Song - Mary Epworth and the Jubilee Band

This past grim week of waning January rewarded me with two brief bursts of unexpected joy. One was Wesley Autrey's appearance at the State of the Union address. I'd prefer not to consider the cynicism attached to an invitation to Laura's gallery parlor, but I think it's safe to say Autrey, this wondrous embodiment of living, overspilled any container the Bush camp might have expected he'd fill. As he bowed, flashed the thumbs up, mouthed what seemed like you're the man and wouldn't sit down, I laughed so hard my face might have cracked open. It's nice to laugh in this way -- not in irony or rue or at the expense of anyone or anything, but just in the knowlege that some people are very good and brave and sometimes they're recognized for it. It's too rare.

The other was when I heard "The Saddle Song." It's a breakup song perhaps -- Mary Epworth waves words such as "bitter," "toil," "tedium" like small pointed sticks. But it's also one so exuberant in its ragged glory that you would be very hard-hearted indeed if you weren't moved to smile, to join its rutted rolling procession, its pilgrimage, its parade of smashing cymbals, shivering violins, clamorous voices and a horn section just roused from sleep, but game for the journey to Rome, to Damascus, Samarra, Mecca or simply the end of a cobbled London street. Suddenly it seems, every female vocalist has her own brass band to dust the attic and brighten the corners of dark corridors. I don't sing (or I do, but you wouldn't want to hear it) but I wonder where I can get one of these brass bands. Because they seem so useful when you need to twist trouble and disappointment into some small kind of success. Without it, I suspect, Epworth might not be so confident to sway-sing a line like Knuckle down and buckle up/ So is life and so is love.

There's a stream on Mary Epworth's Myspace of "The Saddle Song" performed live. Not ideal, but gives you some sense of how fantastic this tune might be before your own eyes and ears.

Don't Walk Another Mile - In The Country

This might well be the opposite of "The Saddle Song," or as close as ambivalence comes to being opposite of anything. Just a measured repetition of keys, clip of wood block, brief brush of tambourine, a solitary walk after a thunder storm, one slow foot in front of the other, and tree branches drip-dripping the minutes. Its pace picks up almost indiscernibly, as your feet do when home comes into sight and you're there before you know it.

From Losing Stones, Collecting Bones (Amazon, iTunes).
In The Country on Myspace.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Banjo pickin' girls

Banjo girl

If they hadn't already existed, someone would've had to invent this clutch of banjo picking, fiddle playing, guitar strumming mountain women, these Coon Creek Girls. And, in fact, someone did: a Chicago radio (WLS) man named John Lair. It was the 1930s, and a nascent country music industry knew that packaging and marketing old-timey music to the Appalachian diaspora, in the midst of tectonic cultural and economic shifts (agrarian to urban, subsistence farming to industrialized mining), was profitable. But the nostalgia peddlers struggled to find enough talent to populate its on-air barndances and road tours; many acts were plucked from thin mountain air.

Lair rustled up real country gals -- a pair of sisters from Kentucky (Lily May and Rosie Ledford), and two regional talent contest winners, one from Ohio (Evelyn Lange), another from Wisconsin (Esther Koehler). All singers, all multi-instrumentalists. He renamed a couple (to the more authentically rustic Violet and Daisy), clothed them in calico, saddled them with the unfortunate Coon Creek Girls moniker and introduced them to Cincinnati radio station WLS' barndance stable. They were a hit. The Girls wasn't Lair's only, or even most ambitious, exercise in cultural false consciousness. His grand scheme, one that took many frustrating years to realize, was the Renfrow Valley Barn Dance entertainment complex in his own home state of Kentucky:

a community in 'the valley where time stands still,' preserving mountain culture for future generations. It would include authentic buildings, native people, and, as one might guess, a radio show featuring traditional music. (John Lilly, Old Time Herald, Winter 92/93)

Decades before Dollywood, Lair attempted a simulacrum of 19th and early 20th century mountain life, an idealized recuperation of a half-remembered past -- a kind that continues to inform our own representations and readings of "Appalachia."

But the Coon Creek Girls were no mere commodities. Enormously talented musicians, they wrote many of their own songs and arrangements of traditional standards. And if the wanderlusting whoops and hollers and greyhounding rhythms of "Banjo Pickin' Girl" are any indication, they had fun doing it. The song mocks its own parochial weltanschauung, conflating Arkansas with Europe, Chattanooga with Cuba, North Carolina with China and toys with the man they've outgrown: If you ain't got no money/Get yourself another honey. It's a wink, a show of seams by cool-headed, ambitious women who have no intention of getting stuck in some cold water cabin, but don't mind participating in the production of barefoot-and-fresh-scrubbed-sass if it's gonna be their ticket out.

Banjo Pickin' Girl - The Coon Creek Girls

Poor Naomi Wise - A'nt Idy Harper and The Coon Creek Girls

"Naomi Wise" is, of course, an old, unhappy American murder ballad. A'nt Idy Harper delivers it with disconcerting cheer. And her backing band of Coon Creek Girls play it like an afternoon tea dance.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Thaw of sorts


Oh January! No sun, weekly snowfall, endless football. Oh miserable month! I spent my Sunday pouting over the iniquity of January and napping on the sofa, rereading Joan Didion's White Album and listening to the new (in March) Low record, trying to understand why, in the middle of this somber, serious LP, the band drops one rather silly track ("Hatchet"). This is exactly why I prefer songs to albums. Like the bunch I downloaded this last week from Seekers Who Are Lovers and got around to listening to more intensely yesterday. Side project to Monterrey, Mexico's Angel Sanchez Borges' regular gig, Antiguo Automata Mexicano (no, I wasn't familiar with it), the Seekers catalogue holds spectral electronic folk songs. Love songs, Borges claims, though I haven't spent much time with the words. The sound though, is captivating. Just listen to the keyboard's modal bagpipe drone in "Blended," and how Borges' plaintive voice weaves through its fog. And listen especially (well, how could you miss it?) to the wonderful glitched loop of what sounds like a needle scraping vinyl. But also like dry, rasped breaths, and you hanging on each one.

Blended - Seekers Who Are Lovers

Seekers Who Are Lovers' website.
Buy You Are The Pride Of Your Street EP (Amazon, Darla)

And: With a lotta blood, sweat and other yucky body stuff (read the intro) Heart on a Stick completed a massive 2006 Music Bloggregate aggregating the top 10 albums of 640 (!) music bloggers. Exactly one of my 10 favorite made the bloggerate top 10. Which sounds about right.

Friday, January 19, 2007


We Made This Ourselves

Haze - Essie Jain

"Haze" starts like a secret prayer, a soliloquy, a slow grace of piano and voice. If that's all there was, it would be a very pretty song.
Essie Jain's (full name, Essie Jain Wilkinson) hand is steady and her voice is keen and deliberate. She's restrained the way a singer who has operatic training is -- knowing it's all in the potential to push limits, but not necessary to constantly do so. And confident how women who daily navigate New York are (though she's originally from England). But something even more wonderful happens in "Haze," beginning just under a minute. Her voice thickens and pleats and the keys pick up their feet, lose their moorings, and gather plucked strings. It's a flowering that's torpid at first, but soon reveals brass that blazon brighter, chorus on chorus. Cymbals shower sparks. And as Wilkinson's voice rises and beams, "I am right behind you," it unpetals like a vivid pink rose open full to the sun. The song, in its bold, chromatic denouement, offers itself not just soul, but body.

Hear another song, "Glory," on
Essie Jain's website.
Buy We Made This Ourselves early from Ba Da Bing. The official release is in February.
Dusted has a good profile of Essie Jain.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Renegade shopper

Hermit crab mosaic
Image: Joe Moorman

Thanks to a long, strenuous web crawl session last weekend, including hours logged on Myspace (the things I do for you), I have an accordion file folder full of songs in need of distribution to willing ears. So this is probably the beginning of a series of single-track posts. Please don't get used to such frequent missives.

Feel Good Factor - The Hermit Crabs

When asked, The Hermit Crabs, a sunny pop group from Glasgow, was kind enough to send me two songs. I had a hard time choosing which one to post. But ultimately, while I think you should stream their fiddlin', cowbellin' Scotland-by-way-of-San-Antone "Bad Timing" (and then buy their EP), "Feel Good Factor" seems to best breathe the essence of the band. After all, it offers a warm tribute to their hometown's Sauchiehall Street, and a cloudless view of singer Melanie Whittle's crystalline voice. You might be reminded of Camera Obscura's Tracyeanne Campbell. Because I remember the early 90s, I think of Velocity Girl's Sarah Shannon. Whatever the point of comparison, it's a quality -- a certain pitch, timbre and inflection -- sometimes found in women fronting retro-ish indie-pop bands. And one that I've always privately thought of as a thrift shop voice: simple as a geometric-print A-line dress, bright and uncomplicated as Fiestaware, grin-inducing as a rare first edition (dustjacket pristine, naturally) discovered in a box of junk. Charmingly old-fashioned, of course. Whittle conveniently literalizes my invented thrift shop idiom when she sings, Gonna be a renegade shopper /Gonna get my clothes from the charity bin and the band unclutters her path with a clip of drum, jaunt of bass, scrape of violin. Cha cha cha, aye aye aye.

The Hermit Crab's website.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ooh ah

Wuthering Heights - The Sweptaways

A cover by (brace yourself) a
30 member a capella choir named after the regrettable Madonna movie, "Wuthering Heights" is a silly, saucy, slightly gaudy performance that does Kate Bush -- who can be silly-saucy-gaudy herself -- proud. With arrangements and singing talents no more spectacular than your average high school choir's, the song's a gleeful fan note writ in large looping, girlish script. On their new record, Ooh Ah, these Swedish gals also turn their attention to Lesley Gore, Black Sabbath, Kiss, Jenny Wilson and The Pet Shop Boys and are contributing backing vocals to Jens Lekman's next album. Brace yourself again for the video: The Sweptaways also dabble in choreography.

Preorder Ooh Ah from
The Sweptaways'

Cut Your Hair - Blake Miller

From its title, you expect Blake Miller's song to be a Pavement cover. It isn't. But in a sense, it pays low-fi homage to the band. Like Pavement, Miller, a 19-year old home taper from Columbus, Ohio, pieces "Cut Your Hair" with scissors, scraps and glue. It's all about texture. But where Pavement slapped together its early, crooked collages with killer melodies, production noise and a smirk, Miller assembles his dreamy decoupaged work of (at least) quintuple-tracked vocals with tweezers and a white-knuckled sincerity. He doesn't allow his arresting voice to be upstaged by other instruments; acoustic guitar is wisely limited to infrequent strums. The better to hear harmonies cascade and pool like slow-poured molasses.

From Together With Cats (Exit Stencil Recordings, iTunes). Blake Miller's Myspace.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Of abundance

Baaba Maal

Miyaabele - Baaba Maal

I can cobble together songs sung in French, but most Afrobeat music offers me the luxury of listening and not understanding a word. Comprehension is overrated. I'd just as soon invent my own meaning, even if I risk cross-cultural accidents. "Miyaabele" from Senegalese popstar Baaba Maal is as gentle as a love song, but so deep and plush and abundant -- harp scales drape acoustic rhythm guitars, a backing chorus swells with successive lines, the balafon flutters insistently -- that it seems a song about abundance, but a wider-ranging abundance. About an entire village, maybe even a whole city, that has enough and just a little more. When I read Allmusic's entry, I find that "Miyaabele" is in fact a plea for African unity. Which means I'm not far off -- unity of one-from-many being the most elusive, fragile and profound kind of abundance.

From Missing You (Amazon, eMusic, iTunes). Baaba Maal's Web site.

Also: Gnomonsong Records (the label recently founded by Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic) has a shivery sad, lost-sounding, stunning new song from the forthcoming Papercuts album called "John Brown." Download it and mark your calendar for February 5. Going on this and a couple other songs I've heard from the album, I think it's going to be very, very good.

Big Rock Candy Mountain is soliciting suggestions for the greatest drinking songs of all time. Pull up a barstool and spill it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Glass of Russian tea

Scattered Pages

Chicago took a turn for winter again this week, then, abruptly, about-faced (it was 52 degrees F this morning!). Tomorrow, if the forecast's to be believed, we plunge again. Bye-bye 50s, hello 30s, 20s, below and beyond. No matter. I have my own handwarmer, my own hot jelly jar of Russian tea (what my mom often used to hand me when I came in from the cold or was sick in bed). Lazy Are the Skeletons (Three Ring Records, eMusic) is a couple-months-old record by The Scattered Pages, a three-piece band from Houston. It's alternately smooth and grainy, teeming with ideas and instruments and lots and lots of words (but not, thank God, in the Decemberists sense).

Iris - The Scattered Pages

"Iris, " a song that shimmers, jangles and soars, is the prettiest on the record. Too pretty, perhaps -- with verses and choruses, windups and breakdowns, pillowy guitar solos and a waltzing mid-track interlude all competing for the prize of liltiest lift and hookiest hook. Oh, and it stars my favorite percussive instrument, the shaker, for just the right amount of jitter. On the face of it, "Iris" is about a girl, bookended with the sweet ache of I fell in love with a girl from the countryside. So you know this is a story and you think this is a folk ballad. Except, it's really more of a epic about a life -- a life that includes life before birth and life after (We lived a lifetime before we had eyes/And we lived a lifetime alone). About all manners of wonders and mysteries. About the sea and disease and a home where Iris refuses to stay. Actually, I don't know what it's about. Does it matter? It's a song to understand implicitly and to pull out on a day like this. Whatever this day might be.

We Could Have the Lot - The Scattered Pages

"Lot" has a little gypsy, a little country and a lot of circus. Unprepossessing in its shambling start (wha? setting up their amps?), it gets rollicking real quick with some nifty drum rolls, a bouncy bass line and dancing dogs in pink tutus and cowboy hats. No, no dogs. But it's that kind of song.

The Scattered Pages' Web site.

And then:

I recently started reading KinoSport. It's another mp3 blog, but a lot better than just another mp3 blog. It's like someone's (fascinating, well-designed) diary and a good example of why I like blogs vs. zines and other kinds of Web content: You can hear the breathing human being behind it.

Rome returns Sunday night. I'm still deliberating over whether I care and trying to remember if, historically, things got more interesting after Caesar's murder. But I'm actually looking forward to the second season of Big Love, whenever that happens. And because I don't subscribe to Showtime, I recently Netflixed the first season of Weeds. Riotous! The best line of any television show in recent memory: Nancy to her whorish, scheming brother-in-law Andy, "You've made your bed, now fuck in it." Perhaps funnier in context. And no, I don't watch The Wire. I will eventually catch up with it, I promise. So get off my back already.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Lights on the highway

Night Highway
Night Highway, Orvar Atli Thorgeirsson

Soft Soft War - The Hotel Alexis

This song has circled me (or I have circled it) for weeks since I heard it on Paper Thin Walls. Like a smiling wolf, like a charming serial killer (have I ironically watched too many Lifetime movies, or is there any other kind?) asking if I'd like a ride in its convertible. It's still an enigma, but my gut says the stranger's intentions aren't honest: Will she come willing/Or should I drag her down. But those sweet doo doo doos and that satisfied sigh of pedal steel -- they're warm, clean sheets turned back and I'm oh so tired. And the dream of lighted highways wreathing dark towns is a deep and perfect sleep.

Preorder Goliath, I'm On Your Side with coordinating t-shirt from Broken Sparrow Records.
The Hotel Alexis' Myspace.

Sheost - Theo Angell

No no. No menace here. Just boisterous games. Voices volleying like balls off handball court walls, colliding and repelling. Arms-out dash-and-grab tag on wide lawns. Bobbing matches of Marco Polo in indoor pools. Vast, reverberating and inarticulate as joy. The entire, very unusual Theo Angell album, Dearly Beloved (Amish Records, eMusic), is a shiny, messy magpie nest of appropriated and recontexualized folk sources: jittery bluegrass banjo stomps, sad acoustic guitar sobs, faux-innocent gospel gestures, sweetly sung trad-English airs. The above song isn't representative; each is its own rough, hand-carved figure.


Some hahas in Bookslut's January issue: The worst book covers of 2006. (Why is it, I wonder, that awful book sleeves are almost always worse than awful album art, which can be very awful indeed?) And good news for Chicago residents/bookish types -- the reading series at the Hopleaf recommences January 17!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Say amen somebody

Tent revival
Tent revival

Memphis Flu - Elder Curry and His Congregation

I always sort of pity people who grew up without any kind of religious service-attending. Not just because they missed the benefits of fellowship and communal identity, but also because some of the music could be great. That's what I liked, anyway -- belting those hymns to a booming pipe organ. Granted, Charles Wesley's Easter standard "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" is about as passionate as the Congregational hymnal got, and vocal zealotry was (still is, I asume) rare at the polite, theologically progressive end of the Protestant spectrum.

It's been a long time since I've set foot in a church for any reason other than a wedding or neighborhood event. But I might be tempted if the music were anything like that of Elder Curry's 1930 Jackson, Mississippi assemblage. Curry, et al roll a tavern piano into a tent revival meeting, the player drunk and cigarette smoke-sooty, congregants still dolled up and duded out in Saturday night threads, stomping, clapping, hollering like rowdy sinners. I only wish "flu" referred to the infectious joy of music. Dogged barrelhouse piano and spontaneous shouts of praise don't quite obscure the song's vengeful spirit (He killed the rich and poor/And He's going to kill more/If you don't turn away from your shame) -- words that blame 1918's catastrophic influenza epidemic on the faithless. And there, I suppose, you have the us-and-themming downside of a lot of organized religion. Still, I'd like to believe that one of the gentlemen with a drooping carnation in his buttonhole delivers those lines with a wink and the leading lady with the generous voice swishes her skirt as she sings and maybe briefly flashes a red garter.

From How Can I Keep From Singing, Vol 2: Early American Religious Music and Song (Amazon, eMusic)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

More at stake

Shellac on a hand, Jim Dine
Shellac on a hand, Jim Dine

Say What You Like - Jar

"Say What You Like" enters unassuming: a muted, circular round of keys, a demure voice, measured, recitative. The song shares an aesthetic kinship with Cat Power, and most pointedly with "Maybe Not." But its spiritual ancestor is Liz Phair's "Divorce Song" -- in the cruel, slow unraveling, in the offhand unkind words and ungenerous thoughts that slide through open hands and spool at unsteady feet. What's left is mirthless sarcasm and false acquiescence, the (barely) going along to get along:

Say what you like, I won't complain
I'll bite my tongue, I will refrain
I will not correct your grammar or pronunciation just this once.

This would be a good song if all it offered were deft verbal lacerations and a deceptively simple (but really very artful and dynamically played) arrangement. But "Say" is moving, even devastating, because Jar -- performing name of a Bristol, UK songwriter/musician named Jen -- understands when to drop the defenses. It starts happening about 1:20 in. The bass line blusters down the keyboard, octave by octave, and Jen's voice lows dusky and hurt: There's more at stake then there's been before/Either that or I no longer care anymore. It's a respite from casual cruelty, a humane wave of white flag. The end is nigh, and sometimes -- this time, certainly -- the only words worth saying are it's over.

Jar's Myspace

Monday, January 01, 2007

In the morning

Morning, Sally Hazelet Drummond

In The Morning - Leafcutter John

An earthworm, divining moisture, twists and burrows black soil, slow rupturing to the surface. Above, dew-drenched leaves click and clack and birds hop on spiny spindle legs. The soft thwack of early-shift driver's tires beat periodic on the distant road. A broad-breasted robin spots movement in the grass and, abrupt flurry and flutter of wings, seizes worm end in her beak and pulls. Struggle ensues, worm-terror-bird-glee, then snap! The robin's spoils only a short piece (the worm limping its war wounds back to its bunker), it flies the short distance to a window ledge to better gulp, swallow, digest. Its gold satisfied eye blinking at gingham curtains in the glass. Rain starts to fall.

Chamomile - Royal Wood

Through the curtains, a man sits at a kitchen table twirling a spoon through a custard colored cup. La da he sings to himself, woozy, la da. Uncertain he's as confidently nonchalant as to say la di da. Has he lost her? Does he care? Rain clips the windowpane. Bright purposeful piano says yes. Breezy, swaying horn isn't sure: maybe yes, maybe no. May the luck fall where you lie, in the sapphire shoes, it advises. He steps to the window and peers out. The rain has stopped.

Fabula - George

Outside again, the sun climbs the sky rung by rung by rung.

The Forest and the Sea, Leafcutter John (Amazon, iTunes), Myspace
Chamomile, Royal Wood (iTunes), Myspace
A Week of Kindness, George (Amazon, eMusic)

Around the internets:

If you think you can squeeze just a little more Christmas music in, David of Digital Audio Insider has posted all three tracks from his band The Layaways' Christmas EP. Be sure to grab the poptastic "O Christmas Tree"!

Perhaps old to you, but I've just seen Fields' brilliant video for its "Song For The Fields." Inspired by the film Wicker Man, its attenuated metallic reapers are like Giacometti's sculpture come to eerie life. Also black crows and fire and all-together apocalypse.