Monday, September 26, 2016

Chris Stalcup and the Grange -- Downhearted Fools

We've seen it a million times over -- when an artist hits it big, they change their sound so they can either be taken seriously or garner mass appeal. Chris Stalcup isn't interested in that. (Though he isn't necessarily "big" yet, he's signed to DirtLeg records.) Downhearted Fools is an honest-to-gosh meat and potatoes country rock album, and it's everything you want from a bar band.

Stalcup is a master at the hook. The title track, "Downhearted Fools" has been running through my head for days. What makes this record jump out, though, is the drive behind the music. Downhearted Fools finds Stalcup taking the plunge and pursuing music full-time, the disruption of a long-term relationship, and his forays into recent single-dom. The second half of the album is rife with ambiguity about the end of this relationship and blistering breakup songs. But Stalcup shows his hand with the final track, "However You Want Me," in which he reconciles his anger with an honest examination of himself, his regret, and his well-wishes for his ex. Stalcup could teach a master class on writing catchy, sincere songs. But for the non-musicians out there, Downhearted Fools is instructive for anyone who's slogging through the many stages of post-relationship grief.

Chris Stalcup -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Shondes -- Brighton

I was 13 on September 11, 2001. As a Jewish kid in private schools, that mean that my weekends for the next two years were dominated by bat and bar mitzvahs. We'd go to synagogue in the morning, the kid would give a half-hearted speech about the values of Judaism, and then the rabbi would give a sermon. It goes without saying that, on the Upper East Side, these congregations were fairly politically conservative.

It would not be unfair to say that two years of my life were dominated by the Cuban Shuffle, catered food and, even more toxic, unabashed pro-Zionist Islamophobia spewing forth from the mouths of people who positioned themselves as moral authorities. My twin sister and I found ourselves, three months after the attacks, delivering speeches about learning from Jacob and Esau (somebody thought it would be cute to give the twins a reading about twins...who couldn't fucking stand each other?) and drawing a distinction between the hatred of those who committed the attacks and the vast majority of Muslim people, a nuance that we had not heard from a single adult's mouth in those two years. As I delivered my speech on the bima (dais), I found myself losing my faith. If Judaism's ethical system centered around a place I had never been to and that I couldn't even trace my ancestry to, then I was out. There was also, of course, Judaism's stance towards homosexuality (which at the time was "depends on who you ask" and now is "go for it!" unless you're Orthodox.) But, man, if the Shondes had been in my life when I was a kid, they would have had just as much airplay as Sleater-Kinney and I probably would be spending Saturday mornings down at Kolot in Park Slope.

For the uninitiated, "shonde" is Yiddish for disgrace (as in your mom telling you "Don't dye your hair green! It'll be a shonde for the neighbors!") It's a great name for Jewish punk band, but Brighton, at least, is not at all about shame. A live show about the Shondes is what any religious experience should be about: celebrating the potential for transformation, liberation, and joy. Louise Solomon's voice is strident, reminiscent of a young Ani diFranco minus the angst. While some songs deal explicitly with Jewish themes, like "True North"'s reminder that

When we [they?] say
Next year in Jerusalem
We say every day is revolution

A direct reference to the conclusion of the Passover seder (the hope that next year, we will be able to celebrate Passover in our "birthright" homeland), I see this as a reminder that Judaism is often oriented to a utopian time that may or may not come (the coming of the messiah), but it really should be (more) focused on making the world better around us now. However, most of the music on here, like "Everything Good," are more general reminders of how great life actually is, and that it's worth sticking around for.

The Shondes -- Official, Facebook, Purchase on Bandcamp

Monday, September 19, 2016

VIDEO PREMIER: Slim Cessna's Auto Club -- Commandment #3

Before we get into the video, I'd like to announce that I'm changing the update schedule to Monday, Wednesday, Friday since it hasn't been daily in quite some time. Last year, teaching took over my life a little too much to work on the blog. This year, I've got a life and I'm busy living it (hence my going to two different concerts yesterday.)

Anyhoo, here's Slim Cessna's Auto Club latest video for "Commandment #3," a quirky song with an undeniable groove.

If you haven't listened to it, The Commandments According to Slim Cessna's Auto Club, is an intriguing pastiche of music that reifies SCAC's place in our musical canon as some of the most gifted musicians out there.

Slim Cessna's Auto Club -- Official, Facebook, Purchase

Friday, September 16, 2016

M. Lockwood Porter -- How to Dream Again

It's an election year, so it should come as no surprise that there's going to be a lot of political music floating around out there this year. You can have your opinions about that, but I'm always down for a good protest song. M. Lockwood Porter, recently emancipated from his classroom duties, has armed us with a some truly great ones. For me, the political songs that resonate the most are the ones that strike that perfect balance between immediacy and timelessness. (For example, I'm not such a huge fan of Two Cow Garage's new "History Now!" because it's not going to stand up past this election. Hopefully.) Porter also interweaves a few personal songs like "Strong Enough" ("I told myself I'd never write a love song but I lied/I hope I'm strong enough to keep you by my side.")

The greatest achievement of this album is that it's a truly cohesive piece. No song on here is a dud, to be sure, but it's important to listen to the whole thing, in order, all the way through. Porter starts us off with "American Dreams Denied," a country punk rocker that has all the intensity of a Two Cow Garage performance with half the bitterness (which is not necessarily a bad thing.) Of the more politically-oriented songs, "Reach the Top" is surely one of the finest songs Porter has written, and -- I'm gonna say it -- probably will write. That's not a comment on his limitations, it's just the kind of song that you can tell found the writer, not the other way around. Chris Prunkle does a great job of breaking it down over at Wannabe. It certainly captures the political moment for a certain group of people (which I'll get into) while contextualizing the fallacy of the American Dream in this country's history.

 At first, the balance between the personal and political felt a little confusing, but Porter wraps this up neatly in a bow in the final track. "How to Dream Again" is a masterful song that describes Porter's personal journey through overcome his fears and loneliness to a desire for connection and, ultimately, political consciousness (which I see, personally, as the highest form of human connection.) After 40 minutes of frustration, isolation, and desire, Porter quietly ends his album with the words "But there's so many poor and dying/If there's a God He sure ain't trying/Or maybe God was in us all along."

While How to Dream Again isn't flawless, as a political piece Porter does everything right. I tend to be suspicious of political posturing with folk music, particularly by straight white men. (Sorry, dudes.) I don't know much about Porter's upbringing, but he and I do have a few things in common -- we both attended elite universities (he went to Yale), he spent some time teaching in an inner-city school. So where does he come off talking about getting cheated by the American dream? But throughout the album, Porter acknowledges his privilege quite explicitly without apologizing for it. "American Dreams Denied" talks about being raised with a "glass-half full" outlook, only to have that taken away. The song feels more directed towards white middle- and upper-middle class people like myself, for whom the Great Recession made our lives harder than we had anticipated. Of course, there are plenty of other people who have known for a long time that this country's ethos is a scam.

Porter gets into this in "Charleston," in which he declares his outrage at Dylan Roof's murders, but describes his own internalization of white supremacy and his determination to be an ally. If you know someone who doesn't get the #BlackLivesMatter movement, or the assertion that all white people reproduce racism whether or not they display Confederate flags, this is the song to play for them.

I tip my hat to Porter, for accomplishing a feat that few are able to achieve. I'm very excited to see where he'll take us next. His previous album, 27, is one of my favorite albums period, but I think I'm going to have to make a little more room in my heart for How to Dream Again.

M. Lockwood Porter -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

VIDEO: Mia Rose Lynne -- Real Thing

I'm dipping out for a sec, but before I do, here's a song I came across some time ago. "Real Thing" is a simple song that captures an experience that should be a whole a lot easier than it is. Lynne's voice delivers her message with clarity and grace, while her careful guitar work drives home the delicacy of love in its first stages. The full album, Follow Me Moon, came out in January.

Mia Rose Lynne / Real Thing from Cardboard Films: The Warehouse on Vimeo.

Mia Rose Lynne -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Mia Rose Lynne

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Kate Vargas -- Strangeclaw

Kate Vargas' distinctive voice has already been featured here several times. Her singles have been fun, glossy interpretations of Americana music. I was very excited to listen to her newest album, Strangeclaw, so I could hear her stretch out to her fullest extent. Strangeclaw does not disappoint.

While Vargas uses her gravelly voice to full advantage in Halloween-appropriate songs like "Second Skin" and to throw down in rockers like "Who Knew What," or slinky numbers like "Good Stuff." And these all make sense -- what makes Vargas alluring is that her voice feels suited to a jazz lounge, but instead she's struck off for the rough and tumble of dirt country roads. However, she shows her true colors in the ballad "Rise the Moon," a contemplative song to which she brings an extra dose of world weariness. Strangeclaw is as fun as it is expansive, a tour through a truly gifted singer's interests and range.

Kate Vargas -- Official, Facebook, iTunes, Bandcamp

Monday, September 12, 2016

Cricket Tell the Weather -- Tell the Story Right

Recently I've received a number of submissions claiming to be "urban folk." That's a headscratcher, considering that a lot of modern folk music is indebted to Bob Dylan and the Village. Turns out, it's generic hipster fluff with acoustic guitars and synthesizers. Boring. But if anyone were to reclaim the title and refashion it properly, it'd be Cricket Tell the Weather.

I'm going to do my best to explain this, but listening to Tell the Story Right, I took a step back and realized, "Oh -- this is about me." A lot of the music featured here ranges from the Midwest to the South, which is a beautiful thing. But I didn't have a rural or even suburban upbringing, so listening to songs about throwing rocks at girls' windows or making out in cars only goes so far with me. While Tell the Story covers a lot of song with several originals, two spirituals, and a few covers, I feel it captures the rootlessness of an urban twenty-something, wraps it up neatly, and ties it in a bow.

But what makes this a folk album? After all, there are lots of kids from "nice" families who can play bluegrass out there. First of all, you can hear the band's emotional investment in their music. Bluegrass is not some kind of lark for them; this is a form of expression that speaks deeply to its members. If winning the 2013 FreshGrass award doesn't assure you that the experts agree with me, take a listen and hear it for yourself. Cricket Tell the Weather's thoughtful arrangements, careful lyrics, and gentle innovation in old time-y music assure us that the future of folk music -- urban or otherwise -- is in good hands.

Cricket Tell the Weather -- Home, Facebook, Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Amythyst Kiah -- Dig

Amythyst Kiah is going to be famous. That's the first thing Karen (of Karen and the Sorrows) told me, and when I heard her perform life this past Friday I knew it to be true. No less than Toshi Reagon was in the audience. I'm sure she felt the torch had been passed. Kiah's exquisite voice is matched by her guitar work. The blues fit her like a glove.

Dig showcases Kiah's brilliance. She gives Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face" a weighty dignity. "Myth", which as far as I can tell is an original, soars as Kiah shows the full extent of her vocal range. But Kiah doesn't confine herself to old timey music -- her interpretation of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees" brings the house down. While Dig serves primarily as a calling card for Kiah, the best way to experience her music is in person. I don't think it's an understatement to say that Amythyst Kiah will remind you what it is to love live music. I'm excited to see her name on a marquee very soon.

Amythyst Kiah -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, iTunes, Amazon

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Slim Cessna's Auto Club -- The Commandments According to SCAC

Slim Cessna's Auto Club is an alt-country institution that, sadly, I'm not familiar with. Fortunately, The Commandments According to SCAC is an excellent introduction for slackers like me. The Commandments feels like a full-throttle ride through a Stephen King novel. Familiar Americana musical tropes shift like quicksand, revealing lyrics that sound like they were written at the height of a fever (or whatever.) There does not seem to be a 1:1 relation to the Ten Commandments (unless a three-verse rumination on death's heads moths is a symbol of a vengeful Jehovah), but the overall effect reminds me of sitting in synagogue: much like Hebrew music, the songs on The Commandments feels dreary but seductive, simultaneously conveying awe, dread, and gratitude for the gift of life.

But above all else, this album is fun. While the subject matter might not appeal to you, SCAC's sense of experimentation will. This is a group of people who have been playing together for twenty-four years. You can hear them pushing each other to their limits, but at the end of the day, they navigate tempo changes, mid-song genre changes, and strange time signatures together. The Commandments According to SCAC is Slim Cessna's Auto Club's party -- and we're very fortunate to have been invited.

Slim Cessna's Auto Club -- Official, Facebook, Purchase

Friday, September 2, 2016

Jamie Lynn Vessels -- Cassanova No More

After a short detour north, let's continue our trip to New Orleans. A few days into Jazz Fest, my sister and I rolled into a bar on Frenchman Street to check out Jamie Lynn Vessels, whom a number of people I'd spoken to heartily recommended. As we made our way into the bar, I thought, "Hm -- that bass guitar sure sounds like a Sonia Tetlow riff." My eyes adjusted to the dark and lo, it was she.

What I'm saying is, musicianship aside, Vessels is a great judge of character.

But let's talk about the important stuff. Vessels is a powerhouse guitarist, and her live performance is 500% rock'n'roll. Cassanova No More, her second recording, shows Vessles equally at ease with straightforward rock'n'roll (the title track) and country swing ("I'm Holding Up"). Vessels has a voice that would sound perfect while singing the dictionary. This is an unfortunately short review for an unfortunately short EP, but it's worth your dimes and nickels. While the sound quality isn't great, I thought I'd include a video rather than a song clip so you can see Vessels in her element.


Jamie Lynn Vessels -- Official, Facebook, Purchase

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Lynn Drury -- Come To My House

When Paul Sanchez tells you that someone is the best rhythm guitarist they've ever played with, you pay attention. Due to the events referred to in my previous series, Your Twenties Are a Motherfucker, etc etc I'm only just now getting to write about the new-to-me artists I met at Jazz Fest this past March. I met Drury at a songwriter-in-the-round with her, Sanchez, and journeyman New Orleans fixture Alex McMurray. This entry is really meant to raise awareness of Drury's music in general -- Come To My House was released in 2014 and is her most recent, but I'm more familiar with her previous release, Sugar on the Floor.

Drury is the songwriter's songwriter. While I'm a dabbler in writing stuff myself, the pros I spoke with afterward agreed with me -- as I listened to Drury's set I kept kicking myself for not writing these songs first. Not that I think I can approach her skill, but because she's just so damn good at capturing universal experiences. I know that, writing that out, that's a stupid thing to say about a songwriter -- I think you'll just have to listen to see what I mean. I don't know if anyone ever feels this way, but there are times when I hear a song for the first time that resonates with me so much, I feel like I already know the words. That was my experience during the entirety of Drury's set.

If you want to get an idea of her music before you listen, I hear influences of folk singer-songwriters like Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls, with, of course, some New Orleans swagger. But the music feels like a backdrop to Drury's real talent: connecting with other people.

Lynn Drury -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, CDBaby