Hey, internet. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve become a bit more of an occasional blogger than anything else, but there’s one very special time of year where I still have thoughts and feelings about music that I need to impart to you, and that’s during what I’ve previously dubbed Birdmas, that delightfully cozy yet brutally cold time of year when Andrew Bird comes to town for the Gezellegheid shows.
The true highlight of these annual shows is that Bird isn’t trying to sell us anything, so he’s free to go a little off-book in what he serves up to us. Granted, he’s always been fairly unorthodox when touring in support of a new album — he engages in monstrous, lengthy tours, sure, but strikes an excellent balance between showcasing the new material and mining his back catalog — but the Gezellegheid shows are something else. Although Bird recently released a mostly-instrumental EP, I Want to See Pulaski at Night, these annual shows are a time for him to experiment, and they’re usually a good indicator of where his sound is going to go in the future. We’ve seen songs grow and change and mature over the years – Break It Yourself‘s “Eyeoneye” mutated over several years of being an instrumental tune called “Oh Baltimore”; “Pulaski at Night” debuted at last year’s Gezellegheid shows — and have gotten very early previews of works that haven’t even completely taken form yet.
This year, with Bird in between major albums and perhaps at a point in his life where he can sit back and be a little retrospective, he’s revisiting older material, and when Bird revisits something, you never quite know what form it’s going to wind up in at the end. “Darkbreads” is the latest permutation of “Dark Matter” and its predecessor “Sweetbreads”. “Dear Old Greenland” and “Waiting to Talk”, both Bowl of Fire tunes from 2001′s The Swimming Hour, have both been revised into country-inflected romps, further solidifying the notion that when Bird doesn’t know what direction to go in with his music, he defaults back to Americana. He might be an indie superstar, and he might have classical training, but his real roots are in, well, roots music. While I’m always excited to see what Bird comes up with next — he teased a possible Handsome Family covers album, although whether that’s true or just an off-the-cuff remark remains to be seen — I treasure these moments where he strips back the covers and gets back to basics.
As an aside, a pedantic trivia note from yours truly. Bird played frequent fan favorite “Why?” at the beginning of the show, as he often does (this time complete with mid-song complete-lyric-meltdown), and mentioned that he didn’t think he’d played it before at a Gezellegheid show. That’s not quite true; he did “Why?” during the 2010 run of shows here in Chicago. Sorry, Bird.
We’ve got three more nights of Birdmas, so stay tuned for more thoughts from yours truly.
Hole in the Ocean Floor
Lit from Underneath (instrumental)
Darkbreads (w/ Tift Merritt)
Three White Horses (w/ TM)
Pulaski at Night (w/ TM)
Set Two (all w/ TM)
Dear Old Greenland
Waiting to Talk
Cathedral (Handsome Family cover)
Give it Away
Orpheo Looks Back
If I Needed You (Townes Van Zandt cover)
When the World’s on Fire (Carter Family cover, possibly?; w/ TM)
Well, when there’s an outdoor festival, you’ve always got to expect the unexpected, and for a second year in a row, Forecastle got the unexpected shoved at it. Thanks, weather. But more on that later.
The day started uneventfully enough as I went to see Sarah Jaroszperform. There was quite a sizeable crowd for her, the first act of the day, and many of them in costumes and weird body paint. I consulted my schedule and realized the Flaming Lips were playing that stage later in the day. I spent most of the time, covered in sweat, wondering how these people with face masks and reflective silver capes and wigs and silver body paint weren’t absolutely dying of the heat. Props, y’all. In her early 20s, Jarosz is another artist who makes me feel epically old with how talented and accomplished she is. With a fiddle player and a cellist, she delivered a fantastic set of bluegrass and country tunes, including a cover of a Joanna Newsom song, and mentioned that she’s just wrapped up work on her third album, so hopefully we will have more from her in the future.
Shovels and Rope
After her set, I made my way to the main stage to check out South Carolina-based husband and wife duo Shovels and Rope. Embarrassing factoid time, I picked up their album when I was in Minneapolis last year, and then it promptly went into the pile of “stuff I’ll listen to eventually” and now seven months later, I’d never gotten around to it. Well, don’t I feel dumb, because they were amazing! Take Matt and Kim and swap the synths and indie rock for a great rootsy, rockabilly vibe, and you’ve got Shovels and Rope. The duo, Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst swap roles easily, with one on guitar and the other on drums and keyboards. Hearst is a real powerhouse on vocals, and I look forward to seeing more from them… and finally listening to their album.
After their set, I wandered around for a bit, got some food, and tried to figure out how I was going to spend the rest of the day, whenever an announcement came that due to impending inclement weather, the festival was being temporarily evacuated. Last year, there were such severe thunderstorms and torrential downpours that the start of one day of the festival was actually delayed for a few hours. I’m guessing that I just bring bad weather luck to Forecastle. I trudged back to my home base and waited around for a while. No weather materialized and the festival was repoened within about an hour or so. I continued to laze about until later, though, as the midday portion of the fest didn’t have much of interest to me.
I finally wandered back in time to see Freakwater perform. They had a smaller crowd, facing stiff competition from The Alabama Shakes on the main stage, but Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin served up their excellent authentic alt-country. Bean has a vocal style that I would love to aspire to have. Her mouth opens and these amazing, big songs come out. Their set felt natural and heartfelt and comfortable, the kind of stuff that I really connect with. They haven’t released an album in years, but have been working on new material, so I hope to see something else from them soon.
I spend most of the rest of the day wandering about, half-listening to bands, including Nosaj Thingand The Joy Formidable, who I’d actually wanted to see, but didn’t have the energy for battling the crowd at that stage, so listened from afar instead. I made my way back to the main stage in time to catch most of Jim James‘ set, and while I haven’t heard his new album, I will say that this man never appears to get tired. Ever. At all. I don’t think he stood still at all for the 90-minute set. He alternated between vocals, saxophone, and guitar, and was a madman, a whirling dervish of hair and beard and flailing that was to be admired. Towards the end of the set, he slowed things down with a more acoustic section, including his closer, an acoustic cover of “Let It Be”. And while I doubt James knew this when he played the song, the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial had just been released. I was sitting on the lawn, scrolling through tweets from friends of outrage and heartbreak, hearing James softly croon, “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” I don’t know, I don’t aim to inject politics in this post, but it felt poignant, and also sad and troubling at the same time.
Matt and Kim
I debated whether or not I wanted to stick around any longer after James’ set, and aimed to just wander for a bit more when I came across Matt and Kimperforming. And no matter how meh I feel about their music, especially recorded rather than live, they put on such an energetic, non-stop show that I found myself standing there for most of their set. Their enthusiasm and sheer joy at playing is infectious, and the crowd loved their antics. Is it the cleanest, slickest, most intellectually challenging music I heard all day? Nope, but Kim’s huge smile as she pounds away on her drums is worth standing there watching for a while. I’m glad that they’ve never lost that sheer joy of performing.
Coming next: day three, wherein I have a whole lot of tough choices to make in what sets I see.
Here’s some brief recapping of my time at the Forecastle Festival in Louisville, KY, which is rapidly becoming one of my favorite festivals around. The park isn’t oversold, for one, so there is plenty of room to spread out and enjoy yourself, and you also can still have a pretty good shot at sneaking your way through the crowd during a headliner’s set to get a good view. Try that at Lollapalooza, friends.
While last year, I came mostly because Andrew Bird was on the bill, this year, I just bought a ticket and hoped the lineup would be excellent. A lot of bands I don’t know, or have only sort of heard of, sure, but so far I haven’t been let down.
Here’s a brief recap of the first day, now with added photos!
Roadkill Ghost Choir
I started my day out with Roadkill Ghost Choir, who reminded me a lot of My Morning Jacket, especially with lead singer Andrew Shepard’s vocals. They had a sound that was half southern rock, half indie-psych-rock. There was a guy rocking a banjo and a pedal steel, but there were also a lot of guitar riffs and distorted sounds. Incredibly enjoyable!
The Pimps of Joytime
I didn’t have anything else on my agenda for a while, so I wandered around and found myself drawn in by The Pimps of Joytime, playing on the main stage. Funk is not necessarily always my thing, but, man, outside on a hot summer day, it’s pretty impossible not to find yourself moving to the beat. There were two women playing percussion and singing backing vocals, which was what caught my attention in the first place. If these people weren’t inspired by Prince to at least some extent, I will eat my shoes. Their music isn’t the kind of stuff I would have sought out on my own, but I’m definitely going to do so now.
Next up were local-to-Louisville indie/folk rockers Houndmouth, who I can’t believe I’ve never heard of before! They’ve got an awesome sound — they reminded me of The Head and the Heart in a way, especially with the mix of male/female vocals. I wish I’d discovered them earlier — they’re doing a small aftershow on the Belle of Louisville during the festival and I would have really liked that. At one point, everyone in the band got up and switched instruments to sing a fantastic cover of “I Shall Be Released”. It really highlighted the versatility of every member of the band; you’d never know they weren’t playing their primary instruments at all.
Old Crow Medicine Show
After that, I stayed in place at the main stage for Old Crow Medicine Show, who I somehow have never seen before, despite their jam being, well, my jam precisely. There are legitimate criticisms about them and their music — some of which have been aired right here on this blog — but it is undeniable that they put on one hell of a show. It’s constant energy from start to finish, and every member has some serious bluegrass chops. Frontman Ketch Secor is a joy to watch as he runs and dances about stage playing his fiddle, and wails on the harmonica. Also, short of seeing Mumford & Sons at Lollapalooza a few years ago, when they were just starting to get big (*sob* I remember seeing them in a 500-some capacity club and now they’re headliners *sob*), I have never seen so many people — including the dudes next to me unironically wearing shirts for various metal bands — go apeshit over bluegrass.
Fireworks during Young the Giant’s set
I ended my evening by listening to Young the Giant. I say “listening” because I was sprawled out on my blanket on an empty stretch of concrete, eating my chili cheese fries and enjoying not being standing. They make some great indie rock and tried out several new songs for the crowd. The band reported that they’ve been recording and hope to have a new album out in January. The crowd was really into it, and their set was punctuated by some fireworks from the riverfront, which made for an awesome end to the day.
For new faces around here, or those just checking in for the first time in a while, let me remind you about my love of quirky covers – ones that give a new spin to the original, where the covering artist takes it and makes it his/her own. New York singer-songwriter Scott Bradlee has been doing this for a while. He gained notice a couple of years ago for his Motown tribute to Nickleback; this time, Bradlee and company are back with a jazzy cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”. Vocals are by Robyn Adele Anderson. Check it out, and then download the track at Bandcamp.
Ben Taylor is an artist who I’ve kept tabs on over the years, albeit casually, so I missed the fact that he’d released a new album, Listening, in mid-2012. I picked up a copy when I was traipsing about the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis (one of the best music stores I’ve been to in ages) and finally got around to listening to it today, and it is fantastic. Taylor, of course, is the son of James Taylor and Carly Simon, and has some big musical shoes to fill. He is largely his own musical creature, but sometimes he sounds so much like his father that it’s eerie. On “Oh Brother”, he pays homage to his father both lyrically and in vocal styling, in a way that makes me smile a whole lot.
no man is a hero every day and even a champion loses the day before the race try not to be sleeping when you’re wide awake and when your chance comes, have fun, don’t be afraid
So, as we’ve previously established, I am absolutely terrible at making Best Of Anything lists. The lists are either unwieldy or never get finished. But as I was sitting around trying to come up with some songs to play on my year-end CHIRP Radio show, I figured that I might as well make up a list of albums that I liked.
Here are my top 11 choices of Albums I Actually Got Around to Listening To and Enjoying this year, posted in alphabetical order.
Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
Mitchell followed up her 2010 mythology-themed folk rock opera project Hadestown with Young Man in America, an album which honestly took some time to grow on me, for no real reason, because it’s a superb release. Mitchell has an interesting voice which she uses to full effect here. This is a very modern folk album, firmly rooted in the world today. Her songwriting is divine and she manages to find a very emotional center for her works which may pass you by if you’re not listening carefully.
Young Man in America was released February 28 on Thirty Tigers.
With each release, Andrew Bird edges closer to mainstream music, but never quite loses the eclectic charm that’s been gathering him fans since the mid-90′s. His lyrics are slightly less cryptic, but he hasn’t stopped making up words, either. “Danse Caribe” manages to seamlessly fuse traditional Irish fiddle with African themes he’s been playing with. Annie Clark (St. Vincent) provides vocals on “Lusitania”, a song about relationships and conflict (and also history and electricity: this is an Andrew Bird album after all). “Fatal Shore” is both an extension of the Orpheus myth and a riff on an old Charley Patton song. A friend described Bird’s last album, Noble Beast, as “a breakup album about nature”, which sounds absurd but is true. Break It Yourself is the logical extension of that album: it’s about coming through on the other side, finding joy again.
Break It Yourself was released March 6 on Mom+Pop
Andrew Bird – Hands of Glory
Shameful admission time: it actually took me a very long time to listen to and fully appreciate Hands of Glory. This is dumb, and I know it’s dumb, because a) Andrew Bird superfan b) folksy sort-of-alt-country-sort-of-bluegrass album c) come on seriously why wouldn’t I like it. But I needed to be in the right mindset to appreciate it, and even then, there was still something missing. Until Birdmas this past week, I was on the fence here — I liked Hands of Glory, but I didn’t love it. I wanted it to be fleshed out more, to exist as a full album rather than something just slightly longer than an EP. But now… now I get it, and I wonder what I was missing. If you’re looking for the true, authentic Andrew Bird, the performer who exists when the stage lights are off and the curtains are drawn, this is as close as we’re going to get. These simple, unadorned folk-tinged songs are what have been driving Bird’s music for 15+ years now, only he’s never put them down on an album in this pure a form. He has now, though, and I hope every Bird fan out there gets to come around to loving this album as much as I do.
Father John Misty is the newest project from former Fleet Foxes drummer J. (Josh) Tillman, although the album for the most part doesn’t sound particularly Fleet Fox-y, which is probably the sound that Tillman was going for. The album bounces between several different sounds — dreamy, high harmonies; straight up country rock; your stereotypical jangly indie rock — and seems to be struggling for an identity just as much as Tillman is. Fear Fun is an album with meandering, tortured beginnings; in press for the album, Tillman talks about sinking into a deep depression, doing lots of drugs, driving aimlessly down the west coast, and holing up in a California house to make some demos. It’s an interesting twist on the standard indie rock narrative of “sensitive guy holes up in cabin to write sensitive songs”, and the album is better for it. The lyrics can be a bit too precious at times, but the overall sound is good even if the words sometimes struggle.
Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg return with their second full-length album, a collection of simple indie-folk songs which feature their well-matched vocals above all else. Beyond the lyrics and the songwriting — none of the lyrics are particularly groundbreaking — their voices are the real draw on this album. They’ve been previously compared to a female version of Fleet Foxes, which is understandable, given their tight harmonies and simple backing music. Most of the tracks fit that model of gentle but mostly upbeat folk-rock songs. “Emmylou”, a sweet tribute to country greats like Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, is heavy on lap steel and could easily be mistaken as a track from any of the current Americana-inspired US bands rather than a pair of Swedes. “Dance to Another Tune” starts off slower and more moody than the rest of the tracks, if you need something a little less uptempo. “King of the World” features a guest appearance on vocals by Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes).
The Lion’s Roar was released January 24 on Wichita.
Canadian alt-country singer Kathleen Edwards returns with her first album since 2008. Voyageur was co-produced by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and features guest appearances by numerous other artists, including Norah Jones, Phil Cook (Megafaun), Sean Carey (Bon Iver), Brian Moen (Peter Wolf Crier), and, of course, Justin Vernon. Voyageur is less rootsy-sounding than her previous releases, a result of Edwards working and cowriting with many others. There’s not a single bad song on the album, and only a hint of country twang, if you’re twang averse. “Going to Hell” is mostly a full-on rock song, with some jangly guitar riffs that aren’t usually found on alt-country albums. RIYL: Neko Case, Sharon Van Etten, Gillian Welch
This one is a bit of an unorthodox choice for a best-of list which is otherwise full of alt-folk and indie rock picks. I got turned on to R.A.P. Music when it made its way into rotation over at CHIRP, and I was impressed with how smart and savvy the lyrics are. Rap music (the genre) isn’t something I feel I’m well versed enough in to talk about at length, but this album has been one which I’ve kept in constant play since first discovering it.Anyone who says that all rap music is dumb and unsophisticated and [insert other stereotypes here] needs to pull up this album, stat.
R.A.P. Music was released May 15 on Williams Street
Let’s be honest here, John Darnielle could put out an album where he is singing lines from the phone book and I’d like it. But Transcendental Youth is more than that, and we are better off for it. Darnielle consistently writes about people who don’t always get voices in popular music – his subjects are people who are broken, damaged, moderately self aware, and trying to come out through clean on the other side. There are few artists who can reduce me to ugly sobbing upon the opening track of an album, and fewer artists still who I feel it is a privilege to be in the presence of. Darnielle manages both of those, and my life somehow feels more full whenever his music is in it. Let’s also not forget the contributions of the other 2/3 of the Mountain Goats: bassist and all-around dapper dresser Peter Hughes, and Jon Wurster, one of the best drummers in the business. Darnielle might write the words, but Hughes and Wurster help bring those words to life.
Transcendental Youth was released October 2 on Merge.
Look, if you like Mumford & Sons, you’ll probably like Babel. If you don’t like them, you are probably rolling your eyes and muttering something about inauthentic hipster sell-outs or something. I don’t know. I love it, I can’t help it. I have a sort of hipster music snob fondness for them, the I liked them when they were still playing itty bitty rooms thing, and now they’re selling out stadiums. Yes, the songs are all very samey-samey; the band has a formula and the formula works well and so they do it for most of their songs. I think their lyrics are top-notch, and I enjoyed watching the songs of Babel grow and take shape over the past few years. Haters to the left, I loved this album.
This is a fairly upbeat-sounding album from the Bloomington, IN-based band, all things considered. Their sixth album finds them on a new label home, Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, and it’s a perfect fit for their brand of moody alt-country. Despite being a bit less overtly morose than in the past, the songs are still modern day murder ballads, soaked in alcohol and dread. The tracks don’t linger or meander, instead moving steadily forward thanks to some high-energy, driving percussion. Songs are frequently punctuated with horns, cello, and accordion RIYL: The Handsome Family, The Waco Brothers, O’Death
Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon was released September 25 on Bloodshot
Sera Cahoone’s third album is a bittersweet collection of stories about growing up and moving on. There’s something deep in here, past the twang and the heartbreak. It’s about wondering what home is whenever you’ve left the place you grew up in; it’s about wondering if you can ever go back again. The album is titled for the area in which she grew up, and the title track is very evocative of those central themes. The songs are built on Americana and roots music, with a bit of banjo and fiddle running throughout, although there are hints of more modern pop sensibilities every so often. The best songs, for me, are the ones where she doesn’t stray too far from her roots. RIYL: Kathleen Edwards, Kelly Hogan, Gillian Welch
Deer Creek Canyon was released September 25 on Sub Pop