Friday, December 23, 2016

Hanukkah, Elves, a Premier, and Fuck This Year!

I'm going to be taking the week off through New Year's. I'm planning on using the time to get ahead on entries and to hopefully start updating daily again in 2017.

In the meantime, I don't typically post holiday music because although my assimilated family makes a to-do of Christmas, I'm Jewish. Hanukkah is only as big a deal in America to help Jewish kids feel assimilated included. It is a well-known fact that Hanukkah does not stack up particularly well with Christmas. It is also well-known that most Jewish music is dreary. But this week I learned that Woody Guthrie wrote not one but two Hanukkah songs because he married a Jewish woman, further intertwining Hanukkah in the American fabric. Nefesh Mountain's renditions are quite beautiful. I wish I'd had them growing up, but now my future kids can.

Nafesh Mountain co-founder Eric Lindberg arranged this one, but the peppy "The Hanukkah Dance" is Woody's creation.

Here's where you can learn more about Nefesh Mountain.

Another Hanukkah miracle is a new song from American Thread! When we last heard from them, Songs From a War was a somber reflection on working-class hardships. "Elf on the Shelf," by contrast, is a truly delightful (and I mean that sincerely) kids' song about the ubiquitous Christmas toy that inures kids to the surveillance state. This project is much less sinister, though, as the proceeds from the song will be donated to cystic fibrosis research, which lead singer Brendan Ahern's niece has.

You can purchase it here.

Lastly, Adam Lee's got an acoustic punk-rocker that sums up 2016 well. You can download it for free. You'll want to listen to it over and over -- it's a banger.

Learn more about Adam Lee here.

Here's to a 2017 of courage, resilience, and resistance. Be well and have a happier new year, whatever you celebrate!

EDIT: This post was updated to remove a song at the artist's request.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Adam Lee -- Sincerely, Me

When an artist drops you his music and points out that he's been going to the same shows you've been (though in different cities), it's hard not to give him a chance. Adam Lee gets it -- in every way. His silver tongue landed him a role in Chicago's production of Million-Dollar Quarter (I'm going to guess he got Johnny Cash) and that classic country vibe wends its way through the whole record. Lee's debut solo album, however, does a good job of showing Lee's versatility.

Lee guides us in to the album with some classic country-style crooners, but the album takes a sharp turn at "Sing With Me" where he blasts his punk roots to eleven, earning himself a seat at the alt-country table. Lee's songs are stories like the best country writers, focusing on small lives as if fascinated with their isolation. And like the best of 'em, Lee points a magnifying glass to his own self-destructive tendencies, fully acknowledging that at least it makes for great rock'n'roll. Lee's voice is beautiful, and seems to fit best with the rockabilly it was made for. But overall, the album is a strong showing from a voice who will become increasingly important in our little nook.

Adam Lee -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Adam Lee

Monday, December 19, 2016

Kate Tempest -- Let Them Eat Chaos

When I first heard a track from Let Them Eat Chaos on NPR's All Songs Considered, I appreciated the wry wordplay and drive behind Tempest's performance. A little later I heard a second song and thought, "Okay -- even though I don't usually listen to rap, I should give it a shot." But neither of those tracks could have prepared me for the onslaught of brilliance, creativity, and intensity that is Let Them Eat Chaos. I'm shocked it hasn't shown up on more year-end lists, but I assure that oversight won't be made on mine.

The album opens with a stark spoken-word piece, one of the many talents Tempest is known for, that inexorably transforms into rap. The album does not slow down after that. It follows seven neighbors' sleepless nights on a London street in a "gentrifying" part of town. At 4:18 AM, they are simultaneously awake, running through their laundry list of worries. Tempest compassionately explores these characters' stories, even as their long-term goals are at times at odds with each other. They soon learn that they're not as isolated as they might have thought. Tempest's East London accent colors her commentary on personal fears of failure and the macro-level socio-political forces that impact these individual lives. The album is novelistic, simultaneously an intimate character study and condemnation of our social structure. In short, my kind of art. Even if this type of music isn't something you typically listen to (though I am increasingly), it behooves you to take a few minutes to listen to a truly remarkable collection of music.

Kate Tempest -- Official, Facebook, Purchase on iTunes, Amazon

Friday, December 16, 2016

Carrie Rodriguez -- Lola

If you get a chance to, I strongly encourage that you listen to Carrie Rodriguez's set on Mountain Stage from a few months ago. It'll give you a lot more insight into this beautiful, multi-layered album. Shortly after the election, I posted a new mission statement to the left of this review.

 If country music is considered the most American of American music (it's not but okay) then it must be recognized that country music is not the sole domain of white folks -- never has been, and it can't be moving forward. This mission statement was in large part inspired by this album. Lola is named for Lola Beltran, a Mexican actress and recording artist. Lola calls attention to the Chicanx* experience. "Llano Estacado" relays the experience of migrant farmers in an isolated town in North Texas. "The West Side" reminds us that in suburban communities, Latinx people still face discrimination. But the most triumphant song of the album, "Z," weaves these themes together as Rodriguez puts her stake in the ground (to use a colonial term.) "Z" is a big country number that reifies Rodriguez's pride in her history and asserts her place in a white-dominated genre. After all, lots of Texas music has been influenced by centuries of cultural exchange with Mexico.

Since many of the songs are in Spanish, I only catch about 70% of their meaning, but it doesn't matter. To appreciate the album, Rodriguez simultaneously challenges the audience to actively learn about the cultural references in her songs if they're not already familiar with them while inviting others into a form of music they might not ordinarily listen to. (I had to look up Lola Beltran.) This is, after all, what American society demands of all newcomers. That being said, it's not difficult to catch the meaning, nor is it difficult to admire Rodriguez and her band's consummate skill and passion. Lola is one of those rare albums that can capture the many facets of the person behind it and is one of my favorites this year. 

*Chicano is the term for US-born people of Mexian descent. It is also written as Chican@ to be inclusive of men and women, or, increasingly chicanx to be inclusive of all genders

Carrie Rodriguez -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Carrie Rodriguez, Amazon

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Paisley Fields -- "Gay For Christmas"

As a godless Jew, I tend not to like Christmas songs. But as a footsoldier in the War on Christmas, I can't help but admire the Paisley Fields' chutzpah in their new single, "Gay For Christmas." If you've ever had to spill a secret to your family on the holidays (see Alex getting shwasted in last week's Supergirl), you'll be able to relate.

And on a more serious note, check out Ninebullets' review of Two Cow Garage's Brand New Flag. There's a lesson for all of us in there.

The Paisley Fields -- Official, Facebook, Purchase "Gay For Christmas" on iTunes


Monday, December 12, 2016

Big Shoals -- Hard Lessons

Another long-time favorite, Big Shoals recently released their follow-up album, Hard Lessons. I liked the previous album, Still Go On, a good deal. But when I went back to it recently in preparation for this review, I realized I had sorely underestimated its quality. Howell is a powerful songwriter, and Hard Lessons is a worthy successor. This time around, Big Shoals swings for the fences with a heavier country rock sound, enlisting the help of Glossary's Todd Beene to fill out the most emotionally touching songs with his tender pedal steel guitar.

Hard Lessons delivers what it promises, searching for happiness in islands of loneliness and doubt. While there are the standard songs about finding love (or a poor approximation) on tour, breakups, and loneliness, the best are the songs that pull out small moments of life. "Only God Knows" observes a friendship that has faded over time, lamenting how people drift apart in spite of best intentions or desires. This album sees the band taking stock of their lives and wondering what to keep and what to toss -- fitting, considering that there were a few years between the band's two albums. But Hard Lessons overall is a keeper, and I hope it fuels more music from Big Shoals.

Big Shoals -- Official, Facebook, Purchase

Friday, December 9, 2016

Jo Wymer -- SLG

It seems fitting that, shortly after the fifth birthday of the blog, I get to write about Jo Wymer's second release, SLG. Wymer was one of the first artists I wrote a review of. She was the first artist to put me on their guest list (I subsequently reviewed the concert, of course) and to give me free swag. I had literally started the blog only a month before and felt like a huge imposter, but I appreciated Jo's enthusiasm and had a great time at her concert. I've missed her music and am thrilled with her latest release, SLG.

Like many folks over the past few years, Wymer has shifted from her brash (but melodic) '80s rock sensibility to soul. I feel like this is a good move for her -- Wymer's voice is rich and full, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to hear it in more tranquil settings. It speaks to her range, of course -- "Shoebox," an ode to her son, sits somberly next to "Addiction" -- a reaffirmation of self-determination in the midst of many distractions. SLG also demonstrates the depth of Wymer's songwriting. While Living With Scars had a more upbeat feel, SLG puts a more reflective spin on the same things: survival and perseverance. Given the world around us today, albums like SLG can arm us with a little more courage than we had before.

Jo Wymer -- Official, CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Happy Fifth Birthday!

Today marks the official fifth anniversary of this blog's first post. I began this blog shortly into my grad school career, which means this blog has accompanied me throughout adulthood. Through excitement, heartbreak, tragedy, pride, and failure, I've had this music to hold me up. Thanks for reading. Thanks to this blog I've met and befriended my heroes, been inspired to try my own hand at songwriting, and have met amazing people around the world. I've been invited to music festivals and received a top nod the Daily Boast (if only Howard Wolfson's taste in mayors was as good as his taste in music.) I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Von Cloedt at Americana Rock Mix and Charles Hale of Ajax Diner Book Club (and formerly of Ninebullets), and David Horton of Popa's Tunes for their early advice and support; Neville from a band I didn't write too much about called Thee Shambels who encouraged me to post on No Depression, and Kim Ruehl for selecting my work to appear on the front page. (I promise I'll begin reposting to the site routinely again!) Of course I'd like to thank the artists who have given so freely of their art and time and, of course, you (whoever you are) for reading.

Nothing's going to change much -- maybe the genres of music I cover. Also, by the time this is done you should be reading this at our new URL -- I'm hoping to throw a fifth anniversary bash sometime in 2017. No plans to change the site layout for now but watch this space. As much as I loved posting every weekday, my new job means I get to catch up on the last four years of having a social life. Perhaps my rhythm will change next semester. For now, I'm sticking with the MWF schedule.

Below are my favorite albums from the last five years. These are the albums I turn to when I'm sad, angry, affirmed, all of the above. I'm grateful for the opportunity to have listened to them. They've changed my life for the better and I hope some of the music you've heard on here has done the same for you. They're presented from oldest to newest. (I didn't include anything from this year.):

John Moreland, Everything the Hard Way -- Right before he got all weepy with his acoustic guitar (Huh? I'm not crying, you're crying!) Moreland kicked ass with this collection of heartland rock.

State Champion, Deep Sheet -- Five years later, I'm still finding new layers in this album. Incredible.

High Dive, High Dive -- Fantastic queer punk from Indiana. Makes me proud to be a queermo. Check out "Tennesee."

The Sparklers, Crying At the Low Bar -- I don't think we'll be hearing from these guys anymore, but that's a shame. The best bar band I've ever featured.

Two Cow Garage, The Death of the Self-Preservation Society -- The band's devastating takedown of neoliberalism and single-minded individualism is, in my opinion, their best record to date.

Anchor Bends, First Four Songs -- Unfortunately, there weren't too many more songs after this. But these songs' combination of yearning and drive help me feel invincible.

Against Me!, Transgender Dysphoria Blues -- Like many people, I was not super familiar with the band until Laura Jane Grace transitioned. I love this album for its defiant, joyful, angry sense of self-determination. It doesn't matter how I feel when I listen to it, I always feel empowered after.

Karen and the Sorrows, The Names of Things -- I have set it many times before and will say it again. If I could liquify this album and mainline it I absolutely would. Karen's gorgeous lyrics and soulful vocals give a slightly gothic tinge to heartbreak, but leave us with my favorite love song in the world, "Star."

NQ Arbuckle, The Future Happens Anyway -- Gorgeous prairie rock. Another album for all seasons, but particularly comforting in your darkest moments.

Animal City, Bump Head Go Home -- This album feels like an accurate recap of my 20s, minus the drugs.

Joey Kneiser, The Wildness -- Kneiser's zen approach to life makes all of his work -- with Glossary and by himself -- a true pick-me-up. Kelly Smith's vocal talents make The Wildness an almost spiritual experience.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Tumbling Wheels -- The No Counts

I learned of the Tumbling Wheels through my pal in music and fellow Redwall enthusiast Gabe di Chiara (of Ninebullets and Ajax Diner Book Club superstardom.) The Tumbling Wheels embody all of the good stuff about the "new" New Orleans with none of the horseshit. If five-part harmony country is your jam, the Tumbling Wheels is your new favorite band. The No Counts opens with a gently swaying ballad that serves as a primer for the rest of the album. The Wheels are in no rush, reveling in their beautiful vocal arrangements and understated but masterful musicianship.

But this is a New Orleans band, so, to be clear, they know how to have a great time. While the band writes ballads to great effect, songs like "Oh Shit!" and "On Account of Me" are sublimely silly. (There's also a song in there about a mafioso boss.) Mostly, I'm impressed with the way the Tumbling Wheels can pull off slyly humorous old-timey music without affectation or parody. I'm excited to see where they go.

The Tumbling Wheels -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Friday, December 2, 2016

Gui Gui Sui Sui -- Wu Xing

I've taken this blog with me all around the world, so to speak. I think probably one of the coolest things to happen since I've been working on it was meeting Dann Gaymer (nee, Gui Gui Sui Sui nee Gui Gui), a British expat in China, at a concert in Tokyo. If, for whatever reason, you find yourself in Beijing, check to see if he's playing somewhere. Gui Gui Sui Sui's cocktail of dirty blues guitar, punk, and Game Boy music is a heady brew. For Wu Xing, he appears to have expanded his sound by transforming the act into a duet with someone whom I've yet to meet who goes by Susu. Gaymer is pushing his own boundaries by further exploring electronic music -- not something generally found on this blog, but his is enthralling.

Wu Xing will be the first of three EPs that explore a pair of characters -- Lord Kamehameha and Lady Chakra [I'm so hoping that this is a Dragonball Z reference and not to the Hawaiian royal family] as they eulogize neoliberalism. If that sounds a bit heady, don't worry about it and dive in -- most of the album appears to be in Chinese anyway. The opening track, "Low Interest Salvation," is a rascally ode that taps into Gaymer's British punk roots. As the album spirals out into more abstract musical realms, it feels to me that Wu Xing invites us to consider the possibilities -- both musical and political -- beyond what we can currently conceptualize.

Gui Gui Sui Sui -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp