Thursday, September 15, 2011

Del McCoury - Deeper Shade of Blue

Del goes emo.  Actually, Del is often kinda emo, but in this case he's making a whole album out of it.  This isn't a recent release - A Deeper Shade of Blue was released back in 1993 - but it's new to me, as they say.  Nobody epitomizes the high, lonesome sound better than Del McCoury, so this album largely choc-full of sad tunes is right in his wheelhouse.  There are fully five songs with the word "blue" in the title, so the album name is appropriate (though, oddly enough, son Ronnie takes the lead vocal on the title track).

Despite blue theme the band does get to show off its versatility, both in terms of the presentation of the songs and the sources of inspiration.  There's the requisite blazing Ronnie McCoury mandolin instrumental ("Quicksburg Rendezvous"), the weepy waltz ("More Often Than Once In a While"), and the propulsive opener "Cheek To Cheek With the Blues."  The band draws from rock (a terrific version of Jerry Lee Lewis' "What Made Milwaukee Famous"), country (Lefty Frizzell's "If You've Got the Money Honey"), and gospel ("I Know His Voice").  In a lot of ways, this is a paint-by-numbers Del McCoury album, but his is a group known more for delivery and passion than originality anyway.  Delivery and passion aren't a problem here; a great example is the tragic "Cold Cheater's Heart," where Del's mournful delivery is bolstered by atmospheric dobro.

Sure, the album does get blue at times, but there's always a bright moment around the corner, even when the lyrics are sad.  "I'm Lonely For My Only" is no cryin' in your beer tune; it's almost rock n' roll with bluegrass instruments, including a bluesy Ronnie McCoury mandolin solo that would make Keith Richards proud.  This is the great tension of bluegrass music; the high lonesome sound with the rhythm and blues backbeat.  Nobody hits that balance better than The Del McCoury Band.  This isn't their most perfect album, but it's plenty good.

Del McCoury Band official site

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Della Mae - I Built This Heart

It's appropriate that this reviews follows my review of Greg Kot's Ripped, a book focused on how the Internet has changed the music business and giving examples of paths bands might take to get their music to fans in the Internet/MP3 era (and hopefully, make a bit of money in the process).  As I noted previously in this blog, Boston-based Della Mae used Kickstarter, a startup company that allows artists and entrepreneurs to raise funds directly from patrons or their potential audience, to fund the production and release of new album I Built This Heart.  Della Mae was able to self-release their album, raising almost $12000 from 240 backers (for rewards at various price points) and without giving up any artistic control to a record company or investor.  It will be interesting to see how many bands, especially in niche genres like bluegrass, opt for this sort of approach rather than the traditional route.

I would like to be post-feminist enough to make it through this review without mentioning that Della Mae is entirely composed of female musicians, but it really is core to their identity.  The cover songs on the album were both written by prominent female musicians - "Bowling Green" by Cousin Emmy, and "My Heart's Own Love" by Hazel Dickens, to whom the album was partially dedicated.  The guest stars - Laurie Lewis and Emma Beaton on harmony vocals, Alison Brown on banjo, and Brittany Haas on fiddle - are women as well.  But this ain't no knittin' circle - the characters peopling this album are strong, from the determined walker of "Down To You" to the burned out drunkard of "From the Bottle" to the late wanderer of "Sweet Verona."  There's also a sensuality to the lyrics, but it's more womanly than feminine - the besotted narrator of "The Most" wants to "make love with the windows open / So everyone will know."  No wilting violets, here.

The lyrics wouldn't have such weight if they weren't backed up by songwriter / guitarist Celia Woodsmith's powerhouse singing.  She's a dynamo, with range and passion, capable of cutting loose with a rock n' roll sensibility but also capable of subtlety.  A great example is "Aged Pine," the chorus of which gives the album its title.  The song is a slow waltz that demands both a real vulnerability - it was written during the terminal illness of Woodsmith's father - but a core of emotional strength; if the narrator's heart breaks, she'll "build it back again."  The rest of the band is up to the task of matching Woodsmith's intensity.  Kimber Ludiker is one of the feistiest fiddlers around.  Mandolin player Jenni Lyn Gardner and sometime flatpicker Courtney Hartman also display serious chops, and bass player Amanda Kowalski keeps the whole thing moving.

I Built This Heart is a terrific album, one of the best of the year, and you should pick it up if you like bluegrass, if you like rock, if you like strong female artists, or hell, if you just like music.

Della Mae official site
This review is based on a preview copy of I Built This Heart; the album is not yet available for general release.  Follow this blog or the band's official site for updates on its release.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Greg Kot - Ripped

One of the most fascinating questions in modern times is, with MP3 downloads readily available and folks swapping files left and right, how is anyone going to make money in the music business.  Greg Kot's book Ripped may not have a concrete answer (does anyone?), but it does raise a number of possibilities as well as provide history on how we got here.  Along the way, he tells how many of the most interesting bands in rock / indie today - Wilco, Radiohead, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie - took advantage of some of the changes in music technology and in the industry to achieve a level of success that might not have been possible for similar bands in the pre-Internet/MP3 era.

My complaint with the book is that Kot repeatedly casts the record companies, and corporations in general, as evil capitalist overlords that only do harm to consumers and artists.  And hey, let's face it - the record industry has not covered itself in glory over the past twenty years, missing the boat on the Internet despite numerous opportunities and making every wrong move when it comes to adapting to the digital music era.  It's clear that the industry is going to need to be re-molded to meet the needs of fans, artists, and distributors; what's less clear is that the record companies have no role to play in this process, which seems to be the position Kot is taking.

Still, while the book has few answers to what the future does look like, Kot covers an admirable breadth of possibilities in his examples.  Wilco was famously catapulted to "stardom" after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot leaked on the Internet.  Radiohead self-released album In Rainbows.  Death Cab was given huge exposure when they were featured on teen dramedy The O.C.  Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah were jump-started by exposure through web 'zine Pitchfork.  These routes to success may not be open for every band, but they're interesting examples of how bands can reach a wide audience, often in a short period of time, independent of the model that has largely sustained the music business over the last half-century.

I'd recommend Ripped to anyone interested in the music industry and what the business of music looks like over the next couple decades.  There isn't anything earth-shattering for folks who have been following what's happened over the last decade, but Kot's writing is engaging and the anecdotes and quotes that fill the book are fun and interesting.  Kot continues to follow developments on his blog and on radio show / Podcast Sound Opinions.  You should check those out and if you enjoy them, Ripped is a great summary of how we got here and where we might be going.

Greg Kot official site