Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Punch Brothers - Punch

Rating: B

Just before the Infamous Stringdusters last came to Boston, banjo player Chris Pandolfi blogged some controversial thoughts on the future of Bluegrass.  Or maybe it was just on the marketing of bluegrass.  Or the word "bluegrass."  Ted Lehmann, one of the best bloggers in the bluegrass community, followed up with his thoughts shortly thereafter.  Lehmann sums it up as the "big tent vs small tent" argument, and it basically boils down to the question, "what do we want to define bluegrass music as."  To traditionalists, it isn't bluegrass unless it's done in exactly the same vein laid out by Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs; to Pandolfi and others, that definition limits artists in their creative expression and closes off the genre as a narrow niche doomed to only appeal to those living in the 1940's.

I don't propose to resolve that question here.  Suffice it to say, the Punch Brothers are "big-tenters"; bluegrass purists would not consider them "real bluegrass."  Did they plug in electronically?  Did they bring in non-traditional bluegrass instruments, like *gasp* drums?  No, nothing that crazy ... if anything, the problem is that some of their influences are too old - pre-dating the Carter Family and Bill Monroe and hearkening back to classical music.  Because the bulk of the album is taken up by a four-part classical-inspired suite, "The Blind Leading the Blind."

"The Blind Leading the Blind" is beautiful, melodic, and dense, the kind of piece that undoubtedly will reward repeated listenings but makes an immediately impression with the musical lines and riffs thrown out by frontman Chris Thile's mandolin, Gabe Witcher's fiddle, and Noam Pikelny's banjo.  All five members of the band (including guitarist Chris Eldrige and bass player Greg Garrison) are impeccable instrumentalists, but it's the obvious feeling behind the tracks that makes it hang together; there's a theme and a feeling, not just mindless noodling.  Learning that Thile wrote the suite to chronicle his failed marriage just gives it additional emotional oomph.

The rest of the album shows off the Punch Brothers' range; opener "Punch Bowl" is a romping fiddle tune; "Sometimes" is an elegant instrumental; "Nothing, Then" is a bass-driven number that borders on the emo; closer "It'll Happen" is a gentle psychedelic waltz.  Each track seems both polished and skilled and also intuitive and improvisational; the album seems both organic and orchestrated at once.  It's really an advertisement for what "big-tent" bluegrass can be, taking elements from traditional music and also from pop, jazz, and classical.  If the "small-tent" folks want to say it's "not real bluegrass," it's their loss.

Related posts:
Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic

Friday, May 20, 2011

Okkervil River - I Am Very Far

Rating: B

I Am Very Far is the sixth and latest offering from Okkervil River, an Austin-based sextet that has carved out something of a niche partway between the pagan folk of Fleet Foxes and the earnest, literate punk of Neutral Milk Hotel.  So it's a bit surprising that I Am Very Far is most notable for its grooves.

It hits you right off the bat with "Valley" and its relentless snaredrum pounding through the track over frontman Will Sheff's typical nearly-off-the-rails vocals.  "Piratess" is danceable, backed by a bass groove and keyboard lines.  "White Shadow Waltz" is anchored by repeated piano chords.  And it's not just the music that indulges in hypnotic repetition - "Valley," "We Need a Myth," and "Show Yourself" conclude in almost chanting.  Most of the time, this works, but some of the faux-African percussion in "Your Past Life As a Blast" almost sounds like a CD skipping, and "The Rise" has similar arrhythmic percussive touches that distract.  Still, the grooviness is an interesting twist on Okkervil River's music and something to watch going forward.

What gets crowded out are some of the ballads that marked some of their stronger tracks in the past - "Yellow," "Maine Island Lovers," "A Stone," "A Girl In Port" - there's nothing like that here.  Even "Lay of the Last Survivor," "We Need a Myth," and "Hanging From a Hit," which start soft, build to a dense, loud climaxes.  There's nothing wrong with that, and few bands use dynamics better than Okkervil River (witness the cacophonic endings on "Show Yourself" and album closer "The Rise"), but I miss the intimacy of some of the gentler tunes in the band's catalogue.

The final result is that I Am Very Far is a very listenable album, solid throughout with some fine moments, but it doesn't match the transcendent heights of some of Okkervil River's earlier work.  If you're already an Okkervil River fan, pick up this album; if you're just getting into them, there are better places to start.

Okkervil River official site

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Flatlanders - More a Legend Than a Band

More a Legend Than a Band is at least a bit of an ironic title for this compilation of 1972 Flatlanders recordings; certainly to most people, the Texas group is most known for singer / guitarist Jimmie Dale Gilmore's turn as the pacifist Smokey in The Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski. In outlaw country-rock circles, The Flatlanders have taken on near-mythical status, both for the tracks that have leaked out over the years and for the success of Gilmore's solo work and that of bandmates Joe Ely and Butch Hancock.

More a Legend isn't a proper album but a series of unreleased songs that were intended for release as album called All American Music, until demo track "Dallas" flopped commercially and the record company pulled the plug.  That tune, which kicks off the record, features both the band's strengths and the likely reasons they never took off in the mainstream.  The song is catchy as hell, and features Gilmore's twang backed by acoustic guitar, harmonica, and a musical saw.  But Gilmore's twang isn't for everybody, and while the musical saw sounds terrific on "Dallas," it's not used as effectively elsewhere on the album.  An example is "One Day At a Time," where it adds a discordant comic tinge to a pretty dirge-y tune.

The Flatlanders straddle the fine line between having a distinctive sound and having each song sound the same.  Part of that is the composition of the group; Ely and Hancock later become formidable singer-songwriters in their rights, but More a Legend is Gilmore's show.  The sound is very polished but not over-produced; each song is a tight country tune, ranging from "Rose From the Mountain," the shortest track at 2:03, to the the bouncy Jole Blon, the longest track at a still-not-very-long 3:30.  Any instrumental breaks are brief and just serve to augment the songs.  This isn't the most diverse set of songs ever, but at 35 minutes it doesn't wear out its welcome.  If you're not into country, skip this album, but if you enjoy some twang, More a Legend Than a Band is a good listen.

The Flatlanders official site

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

Rating: B+

What is it that makes indie music "indie?"  Obviously the label is a primary determinant, but why is it that a band like Ted Leo and the Pharmacists or Spoon doesn't achieve major-label success but a Coldplay or Dave Matthews Band does? And how is that an occasional Radiohead or Arcade Fire crosses over?

I've come to the conclusion through the years that a major determinant is the lead singer's voice.  As much as I love Colin Meloy and his voice, it's too nasally and idiosyncratic for The Decemberists to hit it big on Total Request Live (is that show even on still?).  Which brings me to Fleet Foxes. I didn't have this blog back in 2008, but if I did there's no doubt that their eponymous LP debut would have been my album of the year.  When I did my Top 10 Concerts Ever list, they clocked in at #3.  Their amazing work, combined with their almost-complete anonymity in conventional circles, made me question my Unconventional Voice Theory of commercial success.  Because honestly, if these guys, led by the precocious and angel-voiced Robin Pecknold and featuring gorgeous backing harmonies ne'er seen since The Beach Boys and Eagles, can't make it ... what the heck, right?  It almost seemed like Fleet Foxes' fatal flaw was being too beautiful: the harmonies too magical, the melodies too perfect, the acoustic backing too pretty.  That's a depressing thought, if modern taste has drifted away from music for being too gorgeous.

Helplessness Blues, the three-years-in-the-making follow-up, finds a bit of an older, wiser, more cynical Pecknold; despite only being 25, he starts the album with Montezuma, boasting the refrain "Oh the man I used to be."  In the title track, he pans not only the "rock star" mythos but even the very idea of artistic expression; "If I had an orchard / I'd work 'till I'm sore," he sings, glorifying the pastoral lifestyle at the expense of believing he's "a snowflake distinct among snowflakes."

Ultimately, Fleet Foxes tunes aren't about the lyrics, which serve more to create a poetic backdrop for the melodies, harmonies, and acoustic instrumentation.  Here's where Helplessness Blues deviates from its predecessor; on the plus side, it shows greater dynamic range - witness the hypnotic finger-picking guitar that opens "The Shrine / An Argument," only to degenerate into dissonant brass over pounding drums in the last half of the track.  The album is full of these touches, which gives it a lot of substance to chew on; on the other hand, the suite-songs aren't as immediately catchy as "White Winter Hymnal."

As a big fan of the group, I'm happy to see Helplessness Blues is a strong followup to Fleet Foxes and I'm looking forward to more excellence in the future.

Fleet Foxes official site

Saturday, May 7, 2011

White Mountain Murder Circus - Murder Train

It's done.  After months spent songwriting, practicing, trying to learn fiddle, imbibing various forms of whisky, working out breaks, scrapping fiddle parts, overdubbing with various instruments we had lying around, etc., we have completed Murder Train, a 10-part bluegrass-ish rock opera.

There's a lot that I wish we could have done better, notably virtually all of fiddle breaks, but for today I'm stoked that we got it done.  On to the next project!

Related posts:
White Mountain Murder Circus

White Mountain Murder Circus Facebook page
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Friday, May 6, 2011

Live Review - 5/5/2011 Infamous Stringdusters at Brighton Music Hall

I've said plenty about the Stringdusters on this blog over the years, so not much to add about last night's stellar show.  I would like to link to banjoist Chris Pandolfi's terrific blog post on the Boston music scene, however.

The Two Man Gentleman Band was a great opener, with really high energy and stage presence that kept the crowd engaged.  They've carved out a unique niche; highly skilled old-timey-jazz music with anachronistic lyrics touches on drugs, drinking, and sex.  The songs are up-tempo and feature harmony vocals, scatting by lead vocalist / four-string guitarist Andy Bean, and kazoo by upright bass player The Councilman (who wears a top hat).  Very theatrical, very fun.  An hour-and-a-half of these guys might wear, but 45 minutes was perfect.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Josh Ritter - Hello Starling

Rating: B

The hardest part about writing these reviews is "the angle."  How can I write a story about an album that's fresh and compelling?  What unique insight can I bring to an artist's work (particular one that, in the case of Hello Starling, is eight years old)?  I always think the song-by-song breakdowns are indulgent and silly, but at the same time, one has to talk about the music when writing an album review.

When I evaluate Hello Starling, my tendency is to compare it to the other Josh Ritter albums I own: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and his most recent effort, So Runs the World Away.  With respect to my concern about a fresh, appealing angle, it seems like nothing could be less interesting than my saying "I liked it better than Historical Conquests, but not quite as much as So Runs the World Away."  That said ... yeah.

Ritter is a big fan of the idea of "jubilance" (his blog is called The Book of Jubilations) and, like in Historical Conquests, his best tunes here are in that vein.  "Kathleen" takes a typical emo unrequired love scenario ("I know you are waiting / And I know that it is not for me") and finds a small victory ("Both our hearts have a secret / Only both of us know / 'Bout the night I drove you back home Kathleen").  The song manages to hold a devastating candor - "Every heart is a package / Tangled up in knots someone else tied" - without even the barest hint of cynicism, and impressive feat.  "Snow Is Gone" is similarly joyous, and "Man Burning" has a bouncy feel despite some rather dark lyrics about penitence.

Where Hello Starling exceeds Historical Conquests is the slow tunes don't fall flat, most of them, anyway.  "Wings" features one of Ritter's best vocal performances to date, stark over finger-picked guitar and dark lyrics with a religious theme and a twist ending.  "You Don't Make It Easy Babe" is also sung quietly over acoustic arpeggios, but in this case it's almost an ironic counterpoint to the violent imagery in the lyrics.  Some of the later tunes on the album - "California," "Bone Of Song," "Baby That's Not All" - are pretty forgettable, but all-in-all this is an album Ritter fans will want in their collections.