Monday, February 29, 2016

The Haymarket Squares -- Light It Up

They Haymarket Square have a certain rogue-ish charm that makes the harsh medicine of their lyrics -- incisive, biting political commentary -- go down easily. It was love at first sight with the band's gospel take on "Heaven," with an oily-smooth crooner testifying:

I was moved one Sunday morning
By the songs of Sister Tharpe
To wonder ‘bout salvation
And when it’s going to start….

There ain’t no heaven, got to make one here
There ain’t no heaven, got to make one here
No father, no son, no heavenly choir,
Just hearts and hands and our desire
There ain’t no heaven, got to make one here ("Heaven")

The Haymarket Squares, however, deal primarily in punk-inspired bluegrass, which makes a good deal of their music sound somber. But hey, we live in serious times.

The band's as adroit at four-part harmony as they are at penning lyrics. That's what makes for political music that is both immediate and enjoyable. (Hopefully, however, these songs won't be timeless, though I suspect the yokes of unemployment, racism, nationalism, and neoliberalism will burden us for a long time to come.) The Haymarket Squares are clearly rooted in the protest songs of the early 1900s, but sometimes that works against them. Frankly, there's something a little grotesque about a group of white(-seeming) guys singing

Welcome to your new home the rent is cheap
There’s only one catch you can never leave
Mandatory minimum extended lease
10-20 years and then you’re finally free

But nobody’s hiring and your life’s a wreck
You’re never gonna pass that background check
Do what you have to do to survive
But they’re breathing down your neck so now you’re looking at life

Welcome to the land of freedom
You know that was a lie
The only freedom that you get
Is the freedom that you buy ("High Demand")

when, as I'm sure the members of the band knows, the population of those who are incarcerated is disproportionately people of color. On the other hand, the band is aware that sometimes, writing great music isn't always enough to help the movement:

Well it’s easy to stand on a soapbox
And tell the world what’s going wrong
But in court or the street, in this miserable heat
You need more than just catchy songs

I want to inspire, not preach to the choir

So let’s stop depending on some happy ending ("Part of the Problem")

I'm not sure what the Haymarket Squares do at shows other than deliver an amazing concert (as is all too clear on their performances in the recording), but I hope they also educate their audiences. Nevertheless, when these songs are listened to carefully, they'll inspire you to get off your soapbox and take some action.

The Haymarket Squares -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Friday, February 26, 2016

Faith Evans Ruch -- "Sugar"

I'm very excited to hear Faith Evans Ruch's new tunes. She dazzled me with After It's Said and Done and is ready to blow us all away with her next release. For the new batch of songs, Ruch has drifted away from Nashville and landed square in Memphis for some soulful tunes. Regardless of genre, any musician would be thrilled to back such a dynamic singer. These songs absolutely speak for themselves.

Faith Evans Ruch -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Ernest James Zydeco -- Automatic

I imagine this is an odd time for musicians in New Orleans. They're coming down off the high of Mardi Gras but are about to gear up for Jazz Fest (which I am quite excited to attend this year.) So to keep the party going, the Kansas City-based band Ernest James Zydeco has taken residency in my stereo. The album was released late last year, and I regret that it's taken me this long to put it in your ears here.

Automatic Harvester is a bombastic, high-octane cruise through the bayou music. First and foremost, James' band is a reminder that zydeco has a rich tradition outside of Louisiana. It features some of the finest talent in Kansas City, including my favorite fiddler, Betse Ellis. The band also bears a solemn tradition. As James tells it, his father, like many others, left the South for California in the 50s and 60s, which is where the tradition was passed on to him. If you close your eyes, you'll hear New Orleans, but if you listen close, you'll realize the songs are firmly rooted in Kansas City.

 More importantly, you'll find that these aren't party songs at all. "Automatic Harvester," the band's blistering statement of purpose, proclaims that the band can't stop partying, because that's what makes them alive. The final track, "Woah Bye," invites Death's cold hands to close over a life well-lived. But hey, don't worry about that right now. Throw back a Hurricane and get out there and dance.

Ernest James Zydeco -- Official, Facebook, Purchase on iTunes, Purchase on Amazon, Purchase from CDBaby

Monday, February 22, 2016

Grant Gilman and Truckerspeed -- Knock Down Drag Out

If you're looking for some honest, dirt-kicking music, Grant Gilman is your man. I was drawn to his band's obvious enjoyment of the music they were playing, as well as Gilman's impassioned delivery. Gilman is more clearly on the country side of the alt-country line, but his all-or-nothing delivery betrays his punk roots. The band's horn section also adds some flare to the proceedings.

I wanted to feature Gilman more for what I think he and his band could become rather than where they are now. As the album promises, a lot of these songs are about fights with exes, soon-to-be-exes, and former bandmates. It gets a little exhausting. (Also, next time, I dunno...use "I statements"?) But in terms of commitment and lyrical prowess, I think Gilman and company have the potential to become something truly special, in the same way Two Cow Garage has. I look forward to the band's future releases and their using their obvious talent to find something important to say.

Grant Gilman and Truckerspeed -- Facebook, Bandcamp

Friday, February 19, 2016

Jay Woodward -- Good Grief

Good Grief, Woodward's sophomore album, is not for the faint of heart. Composed in response to the loss of several people close to Woodward, Good Grief is much more ambitious in scale than Letters We Told. The album begins with a requiem that envelops the listener in layers of strings and drum loops.

Woodward starts big but ends the album softly, as if to evoke the initial flood of emotions and their eventual ebb. Throughout the album, Woodward demonstrates his control as well as his folk roots, often building his powerful songs off of simple guitar riffs. To me, it allows Woodward to build sonic space within his music that is deeply anchored in something simple and honest. His stream-of-consciousness lyrics rise and fall from great heights to simple, everyday observations. On "Sparrow's Song," the final track, Woodward lands us back to Earth as gently as returning a bird to its nest. Good Grief is rife with emotion and ambition, but Woodward never muddies his message with self-indulgence. This is indeed a momentous work.

Jay Woodward -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Rick Hart -- City Lights AND Levon Helm

Australian troubadour Rick Hart has brought us two more EPs of well-honed country rock. City Lights operates as a triptych of songs: three odes to a woman who left the outback (or at least that's what I'm imagining) for the siren song of a more exciting life in the city.

By contrast, "Levon Helm" reveals the true nature of the/a breakup. "Levon Helm" stands out from the six for its careful attention to detail, with Mr. Helm as the focal point for the many demons and insecurities that beset us all. The other two tracks on Levon Helm or live recordings, which showcases Hart's gentle singing and his band's craftsmanship on stage.

Rick Hart -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, February 15, 2016

Freakwater -- Scheherazade

Listening to Scheherazade, Freakwater's first album in 9 years, is an immersive experience. Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin, the band's founding duo, have worked together on and off for over 25 years. That shows in Scheherazade's rich tapestry of storytelling and music. I know it'll take me a few more months of listening to puzzle out most of the themes, but I wanted to write about the album now to encourage you to get your paws on it. Like the storyteller in the Arabian Nights, these songs have urgency -- as if Bean and Irwin's lives depended on telling these tales. On the other hand, they also have the seductive guile of someone who is confident in their ability to impress.

Freakwater works on dualities: as the pair trade vocals throughout the album, the songs are delivered on two levels -- the narrator's straightforward approach, and the background vocalist's primal, barely-controlled wails. The music itself chugs along as fairly straightforward roots, but every so often a lyric will appear out of nowhere that snatches your breath away. Like any good story, Freakwater takes us down familiar paths, always surprising us with twists that keep the tale fresh.

Scheherazade -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records

Friday, February 12, 2016

Lela Sophia -- "NeoB"

I've been sitting on this one for a while now. I've written about Lela Sophia in the past. I appreciate her minimalist approach to songwriting, which creates a trance-like aura around Sophia's dreamy lyrics. This is very much Netflix and chill music -- but who doesn't need a little of that in their life?

Lela Sophia -- Website | Facebook

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Michael Cerveris -- Piety AND Support Chicago Blues!

It seems fitting to review New Orleans native Michael Cerveris' debut album while everyone's nursing their Mardi Gras hangovers. And considering half of the city of New Orleans was involved in the making of this album (see the "Labels" for this article,) Piety is as much a celebration of Cerveris' home as it is of his own creative labors. If you've seen Fringe or are a Broadway nerd, you will certainly recognize Cerveris as The Observer or Alison Bechdel's dad, respectively. So it's exciting to see (and hope) that Piety will give a national stage to some of the country's best and least known talents.

Piety, recorded on New Orleans' Piety Street, is a collection of Cerveris' gentle rock. His music is similar to Paul Sanchez's -- a folk backbone that's fleshed out by zydeco, jazz, and country elements. These songs have an easygoing nature that can best be described as pure New Orleans: a melange of music that coalesces into something delightful. Standouts are the playful love song "Tenth Grade" and, as a teacher of tenth graders, they are every bit as self-possessed and dorky as Cerveris describes. The final track, "Phoenix," is a gorgeous testament to healing and survival. That Cerveris can sell these extremes so easily speaks both to his humane approach to music as well as why he won a Tony for Best Actor.

Michael Cerveris -- Official, Purchase on iTunes

Speaking of cities with amazing musical heritages, help fund Chicago Blues: A Living History's latest album, Alive and Kicking. CBALH is a supergroup of the finest blues players in Chicago, and they're about to put out another album. Be a part of Chicago history and donate below.

Click here to donate

Monday, February 8, 2016

INTERVIEW: Animal City -- Party City EP

Animal City's Bump Head Go Home was easily one of my favorite albums last year. The band has just released an EP of B-sides that they didn't want to part with. Each song on Party City is a unique glimpse into the band's strange humor and piercing observations on every day life. Here to tell you about the EP is the band's most expert interviewer...themselves.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA -- I walk out of my apartment and blindfold myself. I bend forward, put my head down, and spin around a baseball bat ten times really fast. So fast I’m sick. I take my blindfold off and walk back inside my apartment. There he is, on my couch in the living room, drinking one of my beers, co-founder of the traveling rock-n-roll outfit Animal City. His name is Salvatore “Chico” Cassato, and he’s smoking a cigarette I gave him mere minutes earlier. He’s who I’m here at my house to interview today, and he’s pointing an Airsoft gun in my general direction.

Salvatore: Shoot.

Dakota: Have you ever interviewed someone in your own band before?

S: No. But I guess I interview you a little bit every day. Writing songs with

someone usually uncovers some funny stuff.

D: Well, I’m always asking you stupid shit.

S: And that’s great. It’s amazing how you can know someone for so long and still be getting to know them... Alright, ask me a question.

D: What are you doing here?

S: (Dustin Hoffman impression) I’m working here!

D: I think he says, “I’m walking here!”

S: In Drugstore Cowboy?

D: No, I meant what are you doing in LA?

S: We just shot a video for Animal City directed by our pal Josh Jolcover. It’s for the song “Friend in Florida” off our last LP Bump Head Go Home out on Sophomore Lounge Records. The two of us are about to do a quick tour up the coast in February, we’re making our way up to Oregon.

D: Yeah, we’re recording up in Portland with our homies Milk and Dust and the Making New Enemies crew.

S: That’s really exciting. Run me down the list, what else are we supposed to talk about?

D: The new EP that’s coming out, Party City.

S: Oh yeah, tell me about the Party City EP.

D: Party City is a collection of weirdos and orphan tracks from a bunch of different Animal City recordings we did over the years. They’re songs that didn’t make it onto any of our records, but they’re just too good to get rid of. We’re really stoked that these songs we love finally have a place to live.

So this EP is really special to us.

S: Dude, I’ve thrown away so many songs. It’s crazy.

D: It happens.

S: Yeah, to me... a lot. So tell us how we get a copy of the Party City?

D: You buy it, at ANIMALCITY.BANDCAMP.COM, or you can buy a CD or digital download from us in person at one of our shows.

S: You bet your ass we do.

Animal City -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dori Freeman -- Dori Freeman

Freeman's album was listed in Rolling Stone's most anticipated country albums of the year. Get a gander of 5 seconds of a Freeman song and you'll know why. The quality of Freeman's voice is just not something that exists in country music these days. She brings to mind the greats of the golden age -- Dolly, Loretta, Emmylou -- without sounding like a wan imitation.

Freeman's got some songwriting muscle, as well. "You Say" launches the album with a powerful folk verve. While the press materials like "Fine Fine Fine" to 60s pop, I'd say her voice is too classically country for Freeman to fall into any other category easily. Her sensibility of three chords and the honest, bitter truth pervade the album, giving all of the songs that most elusive of qualities: authenticity. "Ain't Nobody," an a cappella masterpiece, will send shivers up your spine as it simply describes the intersections of capitalism, poverty, and racism and its brutal impact on the lives of those who are most exploited. Freeman is a powerful addition -- not just to the country world, but to the American lexicon of songwriting.


Dori Freeman -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Free Dirt Records

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Anna/Kate -- I Run With You EP

Should you need convincing that queer country and folk (that is often fueled by radically liberal teachers) is totally A Thing, may I present you with Anna/Kate? As a fellow pedagogue, I am always excited to feature the artistic pursuits of humans who have a whole lot of other stuff on their plates. Anna and Kate bring us songs with an idiosyncratic mix of jazz- and blues-influenced vocals, folk-informed lyrics, and poppy melodies.

I Run With You, the duet's studio recording, is an enjoyable, idyllic diary of my idealized twenty-something life. The SubRosa EP addresses more explicitly queer themes, such as "Find Your Beautiful," a compassionate meditation on the travails of gender non-conforming folks. What strikes me most throughout the music is the pair's warmth and humanity: these are songs of celebration, that focus on being present in the moment. Those are lessons to take with us no matter how old we are.

Anna/Kate -- Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, February 1, 2016

Alex Culbreth -- The High Country

Alex Culbreth's last album, Heart in a Mason Jar, was released in 2013 which, for me, is one apartment and almost all of my girlfriends ago. Like myself, Culbreth's narrators aren't necessarily less of a mess than they were three years ago, but they're more somber and reflective. That doesn't mean the album is a downer: songs with titles like "The Moustache Ride" and "Choke That Chicken" remind us of Culbreth's playfulness (and remind me why I'm a lesbian.)

But The High Country shines in its quieter moments. "Stagnant Waters" reaches back to the genre's gospel roots for a reminder that evil is alive and well. "Trucker's Lament" paints a nice portrait of the long, lonely road. "Vagabond Blues" ends the album with a contemplative note. These three songs allow Culbreth to focus on storytelling, rather than hot-doggin' guitar and double entendres. It's these stories that ground Culbreth as an important voice. And since he'll be opening for John Moreland and Scott H. Biram in the coming months, he's keeping good company.

You can download the album at whatever price you're willing to pay. But drop a few bucks in the hat and see Culbreth if you can.

Alex Culbreth -- Bandcamp