Sunday, January 30, 2011

White Mountain Murder Circus

I noted in my New Year's resolutions that I'm working on a musical project with some friends.  This weekend was our first recording session for an as-yet-untitled "bluegrass rock opera."  It's ten songs telling the story of a man chasing a train across the country - a train that contains a dark secret that may be related to his brother's death.  We holed up for two days and laid down most of nine of the tracks.

Recording is hard work.  We didn't do tons of takes of things, and there are some points that are pretty rough, but it still took the full two days.  Because our act is largely acoustic, we didn't do a lot of experimentation with effects; I can't imagine what the recording process is like for bands that rely heavily on effects.  We'll end up re-cutting some stuff later, like my out-of-tune fiddle breaks.  It was a ton of fun though, and I feel pretty good about what we put together.

I'll post further updates here, but our Facebook page (linked below) is the authoritative place for WMMC news.

White Mountain Murder Circus Facebook page

Friday, January 28, 2011

Charlie Louvin R.I.P.

Charlie Louvin died on Wednesday.  His work, both solo and as a member of the Louvin Brothers was extremely influential in country, alt-country, bluegrass, and Americana music.  There are a ton of articles on the Internet that can elaborate on his life and musical impact in greater detail.  I'd like to tell a story of the time I saw him live.

It was two or three years ago, and he was opening for the Old 97's at a medium-sized club in Boston.  I knew his music by reputation, and I had heard a few old Louvin Brothers songs, but I didn't realize he was still out touring.  He played eight or ten songs.  I remember vividly only one, a cover of Glen Campbell's "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," and I could tell he loved the song and really wanted to do a great job on it.  His voice had acquired quite a bit more grit through the years from the days he and Ira were singing "If I Could Only Win Your Love," but there was still a power there.

I ended up leaving early because I had work the next morning and I was exhausted.  On the way out, I passed Charlie Louvin himself, slumped down in a chair, asleep.  I wish I knew he was touring over the last ten years because he wanted to, because he got the itch, but it's very possible it was largely financially motivated.  That doesn't make me feel great, but selfishly, I'm glad I got a chance to see this American legend before he went.  Rest in peace, Charlie.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

J Kerr - Spring Sheds

On this 8-track EP, indie rocker J Kerr shows off his versatility, both playing every instrument on the album, and also by spanning several different genres - from sparse electronic music on "Kind Girl" to jagged blues rock on "Hollow."

The strongest moments are the most rock-'n-roll, the bluesy numbers "Dies Irae," "1000 Cuts," and closer "In Your Head." On these tracks, Kerr is able to combine his sharp electric guitar riffs, Trent Reznor-ish singing, and dark lyrics into an appealing package. The guitar work especially stands out; he has a great feel for how much axework to put in a track. "1000 Cuts" shows this really well; the verses are backed by chunky power chords, but the chorus has a snaking guitar line. Later, he busts out a solo that almost sounds like slide guitar.

"Kind Girl" is the oddball track on the EP, with its dancy electronic backing and high keyboards. Electric guitar makes only a minor appearance in the chorus, and drums are eschewed in favor of electronic percussion. The cut is catchy, and it works, but it's a bit jarring in the middle of more rock-oriented songs.

Spring Sheds is an interesting debut, catchy, diverse, and well-produced. I'm excited to see what J Kerr has in store for the future. It's just a dollar, so pick it up today!

Download it from Bandcamp (for just $1!):
Spring Sheds
J Kerr / Spring Sheds Facebook page

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Live Review - 1/17/2011 Mary Lou Ferrante at Cantab

Those of you who follow this blog know I go to The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge quite a bit, but I almost always go on Tuesdays for their bluegrass night. Last night I wanted to check out their open mic night.

Geoff Bartley, who runs both the open mic and Bluegrass Tuesday at the Cantab, kicked off the set night with a few songs in finger-picking guitar style, doing a couple of his own tunes (including the lovely Nelson-Mandela-inspired "Letter From Prison" in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) and a couple covers. He's got a nice baritone voice and a real love of American roots music, whether folk, blues, country, jazz, or bluegrass.

After that came the open mic performances, almost exclusively on acoustic guitar. Some folks did covers, some originals, some vocal, some instrumental (notably a beautiful fingerpicked version of Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection"). Things were fairly low-key, and it would have been nice to hear some punchier numbers.

Mary Lou Ferrante was the headliner, billed as playing "pre-World-War-II country blues." By modern standards, such music is very sparse and stark, but Ferrante had a performing charisma that helped carry it, smiling as she played and filling gaps between songs with stories of Memphis Minnie and Charlie Patton. Personally, I love blues in any format, and I thought Ferrante's adroit picking (at resonator guitar, acoustic guitar, and even ukulele for one song) and rich voice captured the feel and sound of those early delta blues in fine fashion.

Geoff Bartley official site
Mary Lou Ferrante MySpace page

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Ryan Adams - III/IV

Rating: D+

I'm a Ryan Adams apologist.

For years now, I've seen sites like Pitchfork give each subsequent Adams album a 77%, or a B-, or some other mediocre rating. And I've gone out and gotten the album anyway, and loved it. Jacksonville City Nights, his country-drenched 2005 album, was in heavy rotation on my playlist for over a year.

But with III/IV, he's lost the plot. It's his first album since 2008's Cardinology, which doesn't sound like a terribly long time but Adams is known for his prolific songwriting and recording. He makes up for it by making this a double album. "Makes up for it" is too strong, because while certainly a lot of time went into recording the 21 tracks that comprise III/IV, at no time does it feel like a lot of effort does. Either that, or Adams is actively trying to mine the most generic rock n' roll he possibly can.

Take "Typecast," the sixth track on disc two. Its arrangement and chord structure apes the worst "Best Of My Love"-era Eagles. "Stop Playing With My Heart" starts off with with the line "Stop dragging my heart around," which sounded better when Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty did it 30 years ago. Everything is suffused with generic bass lines, power chords, and drum beats. It feels like they recorded it in one session, never playing with any of the sounds or trying to do anything interesting with the songs (two exceptions: the prog-rocky "Numbers" and "Star Wars"). The final track, "Kill the Lights," reprises the riff from disc two opener "No," which suggests a) that there is some sort of concept tying the disc together, and b) that the riff is worth reprising (it's almost a rip-off of The Cars' "My Sharona"). He ends it with a third reprise of the riff with joke lyrics like "I've been downtown all night looking for my Wookie." This shit was cute when he followed up a silly exchange with David Rawlings with "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High" on his solo debut Heartbreaker. It's not cute when it follows the most mediocre effort of his career.

Go ahead and skip III/IV, even if you're an Adams fan.

Ryan Adams official site (no, I don't know why it's like this. This is the sort of crap that I would defend in the past)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Railroad Earth

Rating: B+

When I reviewed Toubab Krewe a couple months ago, I lamented the aimlessness of jam-band music and how it often feels like meandering noodling without a point. In a similar vein, I heard an interview with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem where he likened much indie music to baking really impressive models of cakes which no one could eat. Railroad Earth could be categorized as jam music, but you can eat it. Well, maybe not eat it, but it does have substance.

Take the second track on their latest, eponymous album, "The Jupiter and the 119": it's a stirring take on the two trains that first met at the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. It's a little more educational than one expects on a music album, but don't let that fool you - it's catchy as heck, with a great bouncy melody. It's followed by the much darker "Black Elk Speaks," which is keyed by a jagged electric guitar riff that runs throughout the track. Eleven-plus minute instrumental jam "Spring-Heeled Jack" (which again, is catchy), is followed by the gorgeous, slow "On the Banks," which features pretty harmonies over the chorus. These are songs, not just excuses to jam out.

Railroad Earth plays a lot of bluegrass festivals (I saw them at Grey Fox and The Festy last year), but they're not really a bluegrass band, despite the presence of traditional instruments like the mandolin and the fiddle. They announce that loud and clear on Railroad Earth, with opener "Long Walk Home" kicking off the album with a burst of electric guitar. Even tracks more driven by the fiddle or mandolin, such as "The Jupiter and the 119," sound more like rock songs with a slight bluegrass tinge.

Ultimately, whether I classify Railroad Earth as a rock, bluegrass, or jam band, I like their music, and this album is a fine example of their work. There aren't too many acts that blend strong songwriting with instrumental wizardry, creative arrangements, and a distinctive sound, but Railroad Earth is one of the few.

Railroad Earth official site

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Northeast Festival Updates

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Live Review - 1/1/2011 Genre Whores at Lucky Dog

Court in Chaos - the Athol-based quintet showed some musical chops as they moved through prog- and metal- influenced rock. At times things got derivative, but the twin guitars carried the extended tracks.

The Blue Moves - The other acts on this night were harder and heavier, so it was fun to hear this band that had a surf rock / 50's vibe. The five-piece act alternated lead singers between lead guitarist Andy Reed, rhythm guitarist Michael Porciello, and Megan Brown, who also played some hand percussion. The group's vocal harmonies were tight and it was clear they had worked on them. A fun moment that showed off the group's diversity was back-to-back covers of the Clash's reggae-tinged "Rudy Can't Fail" and The Cure's "Just Like Heaven." The rhythm section consisted of Ben Walworth on bass and Eric Zawada on drums. I was impressed with their set.

Burns From Within - How much charisma can a lead singer have if he sits on a stool the whole set? In the case of Burns From Within frontman John Lamonda, quite a bit. He's a big fellow with an even larger voice, shifting ably between deep rich tones and metal-style screaming. He was backed by some talented axemen with extra strings - Jefferson Bourguignon was blazing fast on the seven-string guitar, and Eric Corbett rocked the five-string bass. Rounding out the quartet was Rob Dexter keeping the beat. I'm not a huge fan of the heavy metal style the group played, but they played it quite well and made their set a fun time.

Genre Whores - I reviewed the trio's EP "Frequently Banned By Content Filters" about a year ago, but this is the first time I've had the chance to see them live. The Worcester-area group played virtually all the EP, and they've added some tunes since then, including creative covers of The Charlie Daniels Band's "Long-Haired Country Boy," Kansas' "Dust In the Wind," and, most improbably, Taylor Swift's "You Belong To Me." The diversity of these influences (also as implied by the name "Genre Whores") shows up in the music, an aggressive blend of punk rock, classic rock, folk, and country. The group has a definite presence; even though the Lucky Dog was pretty sparse (as one would expect for a day-after-New-Year's show), they kept things hopping with energy. No 12-minute guitar solos here, just Jim the Drummer, bassist Tom Dumont, and frontman / rhythm guitarist Dave Leary pushing the tempo and cranking the volume.

Court In Chaos Facebook page
The Blue Moves Facebook page
Burns From Within Myspace page
Genre Whores Myspace page

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolutions 2011

New Year's Resolutions are always a bit silly. If one was really resolved to do something, one would be doing it already, no? So the best resolutions are just solidifying goals one is already pursuing. In that vein:

1) I'm working on my musical playing. I've played guitar and mandolin for a few years and have just picked up the fiddle as part of a project (White Mountain Murder Circus) with some friends and members of Free Toaster Media. We've written about 8 songs as part of a song cycle, and are planning to record at the end of the month. Moreover, I want to push my musical skill to the next level. I've just read Drive and Talent Is Overrated and so I'm focused on developing specific skills through deliberate practice. Hot Licks For Bluegrass Fiddle will help me with improvisation, licks, reading music, and general tone, rhythm, and technique, but I'm also pushing myself to transcribe music and looking into taking classes.

2) I want to read more. I just got a Kindle and I love it. Last year I set a life goal of reading all of Time Magazine's top 100 novels; I read seven last year and I'm now at 29/100. The Kindle will help me make even more progress.

3) Continue the blogging. I really focused on bluegrass music in 2010 so I'd like to continue that specialty. I averaged blogging more than once a week; I think I can average 1.5 / week in 2011.

Good luck to all of you and any resolutions you may have.