Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Rating: B-

I just reviewed Ritter's latest offering, So Runs the World Away, but I enjoyed his performance at The Festy so much that I had to go back to the well. As a fan of music, it's often hard for me to get into a second album by an artist / act / band if I really loved the first one; even if the album is strong, it tends to suffer by comparison, even if just in my head.

The first track, "To the Dogs or Whoever" (the title oddly doesn't appear in this song but does appear in later track "Empty Hearts"), is a great example of what Josh Ritter is capable. Each line is peppered with words, syllables, and imagery. The opening line "Deep in the belly of a whale I found her" grabbed me right away with the staccato stops of the "b" and "p" sounds, then stretching out the long vowel sounds in "whale" and "found" - it's aurally appealing. "To the Dogs" doesn't have a linear plot, instead overwhelming the listener with different scenes: a woman trapped in a whale, Joan of Arc, contrasting images of fabled engineer Casey Jones and fabled baseball player Casey At the Bat. This lyrical montage spans through time, and is offset against less romantic, er, romantic imagery: "I love the way she looks in her underwear." Finally, the chorus explodes in an exuberant "I though I heard somebody callin' in the dark." It's driving, joyful, dense, and wonderful.

The rest of the album has its moments, but nothing approaching the brilliance of the first track or of the best moments on So Runs the World Away. More typical are solid pop songs like "Real Long Distance" or "Rumors": lots of energy, some clever but repetitive lyrics, a nice enough meolody, but ultimately forgettable. The album is also intermittently plagued by the production. "Right Moves" has some clever lyrics and a catchy melody, but the strings that run through the chorus and some of the verses coat the song in too much shellac. Even in "To the Dogs or Whoever," Ritter's vocals have an odd distortion on them that's distracting. This also shows up in "Next to the Last Romantic." Ritter's at his best when his lyrics and voice have a simple, clear production to shine through, as in the gentle acoustic guitar picking on "The Last Temptation of Adam" or the a-little-bit-rough-but-not-too-much barroom stomp of "Wait For Love."

I have to keep asking myself if these are fair criticisms and if I'm holding The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and Ritter himself to a standard above what I would hold an ordinary album too. But I've given myself a lot of time with this album, waiting for something to grab me, and it hasn't yet. It's still a good pop album, with one stellar track, but I can't recommend it unequivocally like So Runs the World Away.

Josh Ritter official site

Friday, November 26, 2010

Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Rating: A

Because the world needs another review of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I had a running conversation with a friend this summer about Kanye West and Jay-Z. My friend was in awe of how cool Jay-Z is. There's no doubt that Jay-Z is cool but what I argued is, not only "Who cares?" (and let's face, I wasn't one of those "cool" kids in high school, the last time anybody talked about coolness), but that Jay-Z's coolness not only doesn't make him interesting, it makes him particularly uninteresting. What do we really know about Jay-Z?

On the other hand, Kanye West is not cool. He would love to be cool, he has a lot of cool associates, he does a lot of cool things (and, certainly, some not-so-cool things), but he's just missing something. When he tries to be cool, it comes off like he's trying to be cool. That sounds uncomplimentary, but it isn't: Kanye comes through in everything he does. Whether or not he's telling the truth at any given time, he's so transparent that it comes off as honesty. And when deliberately tries to let us in to his world - like in "Big Brother" off Graduation (coincidentally, about his relationship with Jay-Z), or his entire last auto-tuned masterpiece 808s & Heartbreak, it can be amazing art.

In MBDTF, we get both the putting-on-an-act-but-we-can-see-right-through-it Kanye and the honest and heartfelt Kanye. He puts on an act in tracks like "Gorgeous" and "Monster," where he seems to relish the villain role that his controversial comments on George Bush and his much-mocked interruption of Taylor Swift have cast him as. But as much as he would like us to believe he's thick-skinned, it's obvious he's not - his dig at the South Park writers who mocked him is funny ("choke a South Park writer with a fish stick / dick," but you can tell it really rankles). When he lets down his guard, it's devastating. He tears the entire hip-hop scene apart in "So Appalled," criticizing the "champagne wishes, thirty white bitches" scene for being "fuckin' ridiculous" while people are "going through real shit man - they outta work." It's backed by legitimately creepy electronic sounds.

Then there's "Runaway," which is both wrapped into one. I thought "Jesus Walks" was the most important song made in the last ten years, but now it might not even be his best track. "Runaway" hits on all levels - the spare, haunting piano, the relentless beat, Kanye lyrically just opening a vein about his own insecurities ("I always find something wrong / You've been putting up with this shit just way too long / I'm so gifted at finding what I dislike the most"), and finally embracing his villain status ("Let's have a toast for the douchebags") and ultimately pushing away those who care about him, advising "I got a plan / run away as fast as you can." It's heartbreaking, and it would be painful to listen to if it wasn't so fucking beautiful; the denouement is him singing the melody so distorted through a vocoder that it's indecipherable. It's braggadocio and vulnerability swaddled in psychedelia and a beat, and it stretches for nine minutes. Honestly, it's so good I could write about it for ten times that long.

Usually I need to listen to an album several times before I form an opinion on it. 808s and Heartbreak took my months to get into. But MBDTF is accessible right away, immediately grabbing you with its beats and unique sounds. Still, it rewards several listens; every repeat makes me appreciate a new song or catch a new lyric or sample or beat. Say what you want about Kanye - whether he's embarrassing himself in public or making the best album of the year, he's multi-dimensional and never boring.

One last note: it's only $4 in digital form on Amazon. You're crazy not to get it.

Kanye West official site

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Live Review - 11/23/2010 Jerks of Grass and The Lowbrow Boyz at Cantab

It's been too long since my last visit to the Cantab Lounge, which has the premier weekly bluegrass showcase in the Boston area every Tuesday night. Last night I made it out to see The Low Brow Boys and Jerks of Grass.

The Low Brow Boys are a trio of Dans playing old-time style music. Dan Spurr plays clawhammer-style on the open back banjo, Dan Fram plays rhythm guitar, and Dan Thompson gets a workout on the fiddle. I mean he gets a workout; in their hour-long set, he only stopped playing fiddle during two songs. The group had a lot of energy, tapping their feet in time as they played. They played a mix of traditional songs (including favorite "Sitting On Top of the World") and originals in that vein. It was an entertaining opening act; I might check them out again but I probably wouldn't go out of my way to do so.

I reviewed the new CD by Jerks of Grass just a few months ago, and that review still stands up as a summary of their music, but I wanted to emphasize again how talented the quartet are as musicians. Fiddler Melissa Bragdon makes it look incredibly easy and never hits a wrong note. Bassist Kris Day plays some of the best bass solos I've ever heard, even on fast banjo tunes like "Foggy Mountain Special." Jason Phelps is one of the fastest guitar flatpickers I've seen and plays a fine mandolin as well. And utility man Carter Logan plays banjo and dobro with equal aplomb, and even threw in some fine bluesy guitar licks on "Deep River Blues." They stuck pretty much to the uptempo numbers and had great energy; the crowd was really into it. They're one of my favorite local bluegrass / roots bands and I'm definitely keeping an eye on them going forward.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Live Review - 11/17/2010 Crooked Still at Passim

OK, I just reviewed Crooked Still Live, so it seems a little silly to go review Crooked Still, live. Also, Second Cousin Curley just wrote a great preview of the show that covers a lot of the bases with respect to the Boston-based quintet and their sound. Still, I couldn't help but add a few observations, since I was close enough that I actually felt like I was staring at them creepily as I watch them:
  • Brittany Haas' fiddle has five strings. It was hard to tell what the fifth string did for her (maybe helped her with rhythm vamping?), but it was pretty cool.
  • In that vein, I learned at Grey Fox that Dr. Greg Liszt, banjo man extraordinaire (also the banjo player for the recently-reviewed-here Deadly Gentlemen) not only plays a Scruggs-style three-finger roll, he also plays a four-finger roll at times, with an extra pick on his ring finger. So if you're ever listening to him play an absurd number of notes per second, that's one of his secrets.
  • While we're on Dr. Liszt, I also saw him throw some slide banjo on there in Rolling Stones cover "You Got the Silver," drop some banjo harmonics in, and use his tuners to alter sound partway through a song. What an inventive player!
  • Seeing them live really gave me an appreciation for what Tristan Clarridge's cello adds to the rhythm section. Crooked Still plays without a mandolin, but Clarridge gets such a sharp chop out of the cello that the bluegrass back beat is still very much present in their music.
  • Double-bassist Corey DiMario is the unsung hero of the group, whether it's just thumping the beat (sometimes in very slow tunes where it seems impossible to keep the time), throwing some bass runs in there, bowing a few notes, or providing a little levity with hockey jokes.
  • And the only one I haven't mentioned yet, Aoife O'Donovan, has the best voice ever.
  • It's worth mentioning that the show was at Passim, formerly Club Passim, formerly Club 47. I was reading up a bit on the history of the club earlier today; it really is an important institution in the Boston / Cambridge folk / roots music scene. It's cramped, tiny, and the only serve vegetarian food, but you get to see artists really up close in personal in a way you can't anywhere else in a setting where great musicians have played for years.

Crooked Still official site
Passim official site

The Bluegrass Album

Rating: B+

Bluegrass is a funny genre in a lot of ways. It would seem beyond egotistical if a rock 'n roll band decided to name itself "The Rock 'N Roll Band" and release an album called "The Rock 'N Roll Album." But we ascribe no such hubris the quintet that comprises The Bluegrass Album Band. Maybe that's because the name is largely an accident (the group was originally supposed to be a backing band for a Tony Rice album); it's similar to how The Band got their moniker. Maybe it's because the name seems a bit tongue in cheek. Or maybe it's because no one could begrudge this group of all-stars - legendary flatpicker Rice, five-string master J.D. Crowe, mandolin and singing virtuoso Doyle Lawson, ex-Bluegrass Boy fiddler Bobby Hicks, and bassist Todd Phillips, an original member of David Grisman's band - calling themselves whatever they wanted.

At The Festy, Infamous Stringduster Jesse Cobb gave a mandolin workshop, and he was asked about playing rhythm mandolin. He said, "Go out and buy The Bluegrass Album and listen to the rhythm played by Todd Phillips and Doyle Lawson." It's hard to say Phillips and Lawson are a tighter rhythm section than, say, Bill Monroe and Howard Watts, but it's indicative of not just the excellence this group has, but the kind of excellence - it's a tight professionalism. This is a band's band, and they get the little things right, not just the breaks and the leads, but the rhythm, the harmonies, and the fills.

There aren't any originals on here, but it's a terrific selection of covers. Bill Monroe is present here extensively, from racehorse classic "Molly and Tenbrooks" to finale "River of Death." Flatt and Scruggs are also well-represented, with opener "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" and two other Flatt-penned tunes. There's a definite bias towards the up-tempo numbers; only a mid-album interlude with waltz "I Believe In You Darling" and slower gospel number "Model Church" lowers the BPM. There are several songs lyrically on the "I'm heartbroken theme" - "I Believe in You Darling," "Chalk Up Another One," and Monroe's classic "Toy Heart" followed immediately by the Osborne Brothers' "Pain My Heart" in a curious bit of album sequencing.

The sequencing is maybe the funniest thing about the album; the two slowest tunes are back-to-back, two songs with "heart" in the name are back-to-back, it's almost half Monroe covers - it feels like they just played a bunch of songs together and then just took a random chunk of 11 and threw it on an album. The other complaint is that the biggest strength is it's greatest weakness - it's so tight it feels about contrived. J.D. Crowe's banjo sounds remarkably like Earl Scruggs', Doyle Lawson's mandolin solos are Monroe-esque, and most bizarrely Tony Rice, one of the greatest flatpickers of all time, primarily confines himself to just rhythm guitar.

Those are nitpicks, though; you need this album in your collection. If you're not a bluegrass fan, this is a fine introduction to the form. If you are a bluegrass fan, you need to see why one band called itself "The Bluegrass Album Band" - and why that wasn't silly at all.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Live Review - 11/10/2010 Infamous Stringdusters and Trampled by Turtles at The Middle East

I've written about the Infamous Stringdusters more than any band in the history of this blog, most recently here, so I will spare you another several-thousand-word paean to their greatness.

I hadn't seen opener Trampled by Turtles, however, so I wanted to put a few words down about them and their performance. I thought they were terrific. They describe themselves as "thrashgrass," and it's easy to see why - many of their tunes are mile-a-minute blazing, with an old-timey looseness complementing their dexterous playing. Even their slow stuff had a real drive and feeling to it, thanks in no small part to Tim Saxhaug's clever bass lines on the acoustic bass guitar. They were at once very iconoclastic - banjo player Dave Carroll flatpicked the 5-string, which I've never seen before - and traditional, with three-part harmonies between Carroll, Saxhaug, and lead singer / guitarist Dave Simonett.

There are a lot of mostly-bullshit ways to divide bands into two groups - I've thought about having a "rock dichotomies" running column in this blog - and one is between psychedelia and punk in bluegrass. Psychedelia and punk probably aren't the most common words one hears associated with traditional acoustic music, but most great bluegrass bands have quite a bit of one or the other. The Stringdusters are masters of psychedelia in bluegrass - they create note just notes but rich soundscapes with their music, blazing through five parts at once and then dropping down to one fiddle drown, ideas and notes and words bouncing off each other, creating some new ephemeral sculpture out of music. The 'Dusters often say soundman Drew Becker is the seventh Stringduster, and it's easy to see why - he's distilling all this sound into a balanced, cohesive dram.

TBT (as their fans, who were out in surprising numbers last night, call them), are not like that. They are rooted in the punk tradition of bluegrass, which has been there since Bill Monroe and even before. It seems crazy to call a master instrumentalist like Monroe "punk," but the looseness that pervades old-time music was always present there. Monroe would often eschew single note picking for violent strikes of two, three strings at once, and he made the loud, percussive woody thumping of the mandolin not only something accepted but something embraced by all prospective bluegrass mandolinists. He was a gifted technical player, of course, but it wasn't about technique, it was about drive and feel. Trampled By Turtles has a punk urgency, a point driven home by their cover of Boston-area indie punksters The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" which sounded completely in place with acoustic instruments, with mandolinist Erik Berry miming Frank Black's snaking guitar part and Ryan Young aping Kim Deal's haunting moans so well I had to keep looking over at him to make sure he was still playing the fiddle and not singing.

Both traditions are great and glorious, but is there any overlap? There is, if the Stringdusters' encore is any indication. They closed the show just after midnight, leaving the stage and piling on to the floor with TBT to play, without mics or pickups, The Band's classic "The Weight" and blues standard "Sittin' On Top of the World." It was a fine finale, two modern bands with different sensibilities finding common ground, not only with each other but also between the past and future of American acoustic music.

Trampled by Turtles official site
Infamous Stringdusters official site

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Joe Val Bands!

Just yesterday I noted that the The Boxcars' website said were playing at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival even though the schedule hasn't been announced yet. Well the fine folks at Joe Val threw us a bone, listing four bands:

Exciting stuff!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

More Upcoming Festival News!

The lineup for the 2011 Saddleback Bluegrass Festival hasn't been announced yet, but Ricky Skaggs is already confirmed per his website.

The Boxcars

Rating: B-

Loosely-organized thoughts while listening to The Boxcars' self-titled debut:

The album kicks off with "December 13th," which is its high point - an atmospheric tune that touches on a lot of the great folk music themes - murder, betrayal, revenge, guilt, and memory. The verses are driven by Ron Stewart's banjo, giving the tune an urgency you don't typically get in murder ballads. The song has a real darkness and dramatic flair.

Some of the other tunes don't fare as well. "In God's Hands" is slow, plodding, and overly sentimental and mawkish. "Hurtin' Inside" is similarly sappy. Other than "December 13th," the best moments are uptempo songs keyed by Stewart's banjo: "You Can Take Your Time," "Log Cabin In the Lane," and closer "Take Me On the Midnight Train" have an energy that isn't always there in this album.

One of the things that drew me to pick up this album is the presence of Adam Steffey, who I was familiar with from Mountain Heart and who recently one his fifth IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award. I'm a sucker for great mandolin and Steffey delivers it, whether a bluesy break on "Old Henry Hill" or a more traditional blistering bluegrass solo on instrumental tune "Jump the Track." He always gets a clean sound, and is a master of subtlely shading the tone and pace to sad, bouncy, woody, or whatever he needs. A fine example is in "Never Played the Opry" - another mandolinist probably would have used a lot of tremolo on this slow number, but Steffey's staccato notes seem to mimic teardrops and fit perfectly with the tune. Steffey also has one of the most distinctive singing voices in bluegrass, a very deep baritone he puts to good use in "The Hard Way."

Overall, this is a good album with some definite high points and some low points. It's not breaking any new ground. It sounds great, very clean, but I wish there was a little more edge to it.

Note: Per the Boxcars website, they're going to be playing at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, which is the closest festival to me here in Boston. They haven't announced the full Joe Val lineup, but I'll update the blog if I they do or if I notice any other bands that are schedule to play.

Buy it from Amazon:
The Boxcars (only $6.99 right now)
The Boxcars official site

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Deadly Gentlemen - Carry Me To Home

Rating: B

The "high lonesome sound" has been synonymous with bluegrass since Bill Monroe first assembled his Bluegrass Boys. Vocal performs from Monroe to Jimmy Martin to Del McCoury have continued the tradition of plaintive, mournful tenor vocals and high harmonies. Even modern acts that expand quite a bit beyond the traditional bluegrass sound are enamoured with the classic vocal stylings, from Tim O'Brien to Jeremy Garrett of The Infamous Stringdusters. There's something about the way a high, sad voice cuts through the rhythmic bass thumping and percussive chops and provides a human edge to the technical prowess of bluegrass music.

The Deadly Gentlemen ... yeah, they're doing something completely different. When you first hear Carry Me To Home, it is downright jarring. The band's website describes their vocal style as "three-part harmony singing, group shouting, really dense rhymes, and an almost rap-like phrasing." The clearest example of the oddity in their vocal delivery is the track "Police." The chorus is a call-and-response: "POLICE!!!," shouted by several band members, followed by "are bangin' on my door this morning!," which is neither quite sung nor shouted. Later on we get the band shouting "BANG BANG BANG BANG! BANG BANG BANG!!!" In other words, it's not how Jimmy Martin woulda done it. "The Road Is Rocky," a riff on Bill Monroe's "Rocky Road Blues" is even subject to this treatment, with low harmonized call-and-response and vocal meters that wouldn't be out of place in hip-hop. "Sadie's" vocals consist of alternating spoken whisper and falsetto harmonies against a backdrop of Mike Barnett's weird fiddle sounds and percussive rhythm guitar from Stash Wyslouch.

Perhaps tellingly, the title song, and also the album's best song, has the most conventional vocal delivery. It's not sung the way Monroe would have sung it, but it's the one tune where there's a conscious effort to sound pretty. This probably makes it stand out even more: the harmonized chorus "Someone pick me up and carry me to home!" comes through as really earnest. The chorus is really accentuated by the swell in Barnett's fiddle and Dominick Leslie's mandolin.

In light of that, there's the very good question: does the odd vocal style work? It's high-energy, which keeps the album engaging. It's pretty diverse; for five guys who don't sing (much), they get a lot of different sounds out of the voice as an instrument. All in all, I still love the high lonesome sound, but I respect what The Deadly Gentlemen are trying to do here.

The album as a whole ... hmm. It's interesting. I don't mean that negatively. The unusual vocal sound and feel means it's going to take a while for some of the subtler elements to sink in - I didn't even mention Crooked Still's Greg Liszt and his always-amazing banjo, or David Grisman's son Sam Grisman rocking the bass - and this could be a favorite of mine three months from now. But I'm writing this review today, not then, and so I say: download it now! It's free, for goodness' sake. What are you waiting for?

Download for free at The Deadly Gentlemen official site!