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On the new 'Strange Trails,' Lord Huron picks up right where 'Lonesome Dreams' left off... with impossibly catchy melodies, emphatically fanciful lyrics, and intriguingly hazy production. Lord Huron has a very specific, radio-ready sound that emerges somewhere between the crisp acoustic guitars and Ben Schneider's layered vocals, and which owes a solid debt to My Morning Jacket, Fleet Foxes, and Animal Collective.
As on that predecessor, the songs here find their singer traversing the land and brooding about love in the most cheerful way imaginable. Heck, even their titles betray that underlying theme -- "Meet Me in the Woods," "The Yawning Grave," "Frozen Pines," and "Way Out There." To really drive it home on songs like "La Belle Fleur Sauvage," "The World Ender," and "Cursed," chunky guitars chug like steam engines headed out of western towns in search of big, blue skies and wide open plains to help that same singer forget about the loveliest little gal either side of the Rio Grande.
To be sure, 'Strange Trails' is a pleasant and pleasing record, an easy, folk-rock listen teeming with potential singles and gleaming platitudes. And, maybe, that's enough. It was certainly enough for 'Lonesome Dreams' to catch on like wildfire. After all, not everyone has to be Neil Young or even Justin Vernon -- indeed, not everyone can be Neil Young or Justin Vernon. Some people get to be Ben Schneider.
'Strange Trails' comes out April 7 and can be ordered HERE.
Laura Marling, the British songstress who released four records in five years, returns with her fifth, 'Short Movie.' After the earlier flurry of activity, Marling spent a couple of years in a self-imposed exile in Los Angeles surrounded by people who made art for art's sake and nothing more. The experience recalibrated and renewed her dedication to her own art, and resulted in this album.
Marling admits that she's not a skilled enough musician to craft exquisitely simple songs. That's why her exquisitely complex compositions meander to and fro through intricate arrangements and varied signatures. Because of that, Marling has, in the past, drawn comparisons to Joni Mitchell. Here, that influence is evidenced on songs like "I Feel Your Love" and "Easy," though Marling's interpolation of Mitchell's style is not as true as on, say, Eva Cassidy's records. Marling uses Mitchell as a mere starting point before veering off in all manner of directions.
Once she gets going, Marling channels her inner Chrissie Hynde on "False Hope" and "Gurdjieffs's Daughter," then does her best Lou Reed-inspired talk-sing on "Strange" to craft some of her edgiest pieces. A little further in, "Don't Let Me Bring You Down" feels like classic Ani DiFranco (though not without a small injection of Hynde-style swagger). That song's opening lines sum up so much of what L.A. life was like for Marling -- and anyone else, for that matter: "Living here is a game I don't know how to play. Are you really not anybody until somebody knows your name?"
On the folkier, acoustic bits, Marling readily allows Nick Drake's ghost to haunt "Warrior" and "How Can I" to great effect. Wonderful songs, both. Plugging in, Marling puts a plodding pulse and a tempered electric vibe on "Walk Alone," "Howl," and "Worship Me" -- all of which recall M. Ward or, maybe, Iron & Wine. They are moody and muted, and some of Marling's best works. As a follow-up to 2013's critically acclaimed 'Once I Was an Eagle,' this set may not clear that record's bar, but it holds its own.
'Short Movie' was released through Ribbon Music on March 24 and is available HERE.
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Sometimes, on a record, individual tracks stand out on the very first listen -- for better or worse -- but the collection, as a whole, takes a few more spins to really sink in. Even then, it might not fully come together as a cohesive listening experience although it might still be enjoyable when taken in fits and starts. Such is the case with Brandi Carlile's'The Firewatcher's Daughter' (and, indeed, her last two records, as well). There are some absolutely, immediately stellar pixels on this album, but the bigger picture takes a minute to come into view.
Buzzing with excitement -- like their parents are out of town -- Carlile and the twins (Tim and Phil Hanseroth) get things going with the wildly insistent "Wherever Is Your Heart." But, just as quickly, they rein it all back in on the very next cut. If "Wherever Is Your Heart" is their Saturday night, then "The Eye" is their Sunday morning. With three-fold harmonies that stick together for the entire piece,"The Eye" holds in it so much of what makes Carlile and the twins so very special, in both style and substance. Lyrically, it digs into one of the band's recurring themes, that of drinking as an escape and an excuse, but always written with the hand of forgiveness and the hope of redemption.
A little further in, "Mainstream Kid" stands as the edgiest thing Carlile and company have ever done. Gritty, vintage guitars (including a blazing solo) drop off about halfway through, but the petulant kick drum keeps the drive going as Carlile brings it down just enough to then let everything cut loose and carry on. It's going to be a thrill seeing them rock this one live. Though "Beginning to Feel the Years" has the unenviable job of following it in the sequence, it gets its job done, serving as a respite, a recovery from the pummeling -- albeit a pleasing one -- that is "Mainstream Kid."
On the proverbial side two, "Blood Muscle Skin & Bone" and "Alibi" pick up, somewhat, where "Mainstream Kid" left off, while, deeper still, "The Stranger at My Door," from which the album's title is drawn, may well be the musical synthesis of Carlile's influences. Here, a dusty, cowboy bluster collides with Queen-esque background vocals that come out of nowhere -- and somehow still work -- proving that Carlile really is the musical love child of Johnny Cash and Freddie Mercury. And proudly, rightfully so.
Though there's an awful lot of heart on this album, the last entry, a cover of the Avett Brothers' "Murder in the City," is pretty magical, particularly when comes Carlile's subtle injection of emotion on the last few lines about her wife and daughter. That moment will surely resonate with so many who are only just beginning to enjoy the ability to share their name with the ones they love.
As on her previous efforts, Carlile uses 'The Firewatcher's Daughter' to explore the various closing and opening of doors that make up a life worth living. And, as always, she does so with an obvious gratitude for both.
'The Firewatcher's Daughter' was released on March 3 via ATO Records, and is available - HERE.
Martin Sexton is one of those guys who has been slugging it out on the singer/songwriter circuit for 25 years. Though he dangled his toe in the major label waters in the late 1990s, Sexton has been, by and large, a fiercely independent artist. Defying anyone and everyone's attempts to pin him down -- and confounding those who might expect him to be a typical folkie -- Sexton has long-asserted his artistic independence by being one of the most soulful cats to ever sling an acoustic guitar. And, on his new 'Mixtape of the Open Road,' he takes that dismissal of genres to a whole new level.
KM: There's a lot of talk lately about middle-class creatives -- musicians who can make a decent living without ever "breaking." Seems like you fit in there. Has that always/ever been enough? Or would you have preferred to go big?
MS: I don't think I quite fit that category. I am blessed with, and continue to be amazed by, the fans who keep coming and growing in number... and, yes, what a wonderful time it is to be an independent artist. To call it a "decent" living is not only inaccurate, but does not honor the gift I'm so grateful to have.
You've been a pretty consistent road dog for the past 20 years. Does it get to a point, somewhere in there, that the road feels more like home than home does?
As a recording artist and a touring artist, I feel very at home on the road, naturally, but nothing could compare with being with my family on the Upper Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains. That's where my heart lives. And although our house recently burned down, it's like church -- the hallowed ground remains and we will rebuild our beloved camp.
The varied conceit for your Mixtape record... did it come before or after you had the songs?
It came after I had the songs. The songs dictated to me that the concept of this record would be that of a mixtape as they were pulling me in 12 different directions. There are some throwback-feeling tunes on Mixtape that recall a simpler, seemingly more joyful time in the world.
Do you feel like we, collectively, need to be reminded to just slow down and enjoy life? Music is certainly a great way to communicate things like that, even subliminally.
Yes. I made this record in a joyful space and, if that reminds people to stop and smell the roses, then that's a beautiful thing. While I kept some of the subject matter light or simple, I also wanted to retain the message -- unity, hope, and dream chasing -- what I've always strived to convey through my music.
People describe you and your music in all sorts of ways. How do you describe what you do?
To describe myself... hmm... I'd have to say soul music, as the music is coming from my heart and soul. It comes from an honest place, and I genuinely mean it.
'Mixtape of the Open Road' was released on February 10th on Kitchen Table Records and is available - HERE
Austin's Alejandro Rose-Garcia is professionally known as Shakey Graves, and with his new record, 'And the War Came,' he extends the ground - emotionally and sonically - broken by his 2011 self-released debut album, 'Roll the Bones.' That album brought him national acclaim and, three years later, still ranks near the top of Bandcamp's digital best-seller charts.
"The first album was me wanting to burn down my life, cut my hair off, and run screaming into the woods," says Rose-Garcia. "This (new) album is the trials and tribulations of becoming domesticated, letting people into your world and letting go of selfishness-the story of becoming a pair, losing that, and reconciling with the loss and gain of love."
Rose-Garcia knew that he wanted the follow-up to achieve something different. "With the first album, I didn't have any expectations except my own," he says. "This time, I was making something people were going to listen to out of the gate. I tried to maintain everything I enjoy about recording, the weird homemade aspect, but I was seeking a new, shining sound quality. The concepts for the songs are a little bigger. This is not the 'Mr, Folk, Hobo Mountain' album - it's more of the Cyborg Shakey Graves. It's definitely the next step in the staircase."
NPR Music's Ann Powers called 'And the War Came' one of the Top 15 Albums of 2014.
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Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell have both enjoyed lengthy, prolific, and acclaimed careers in the singer/songwriter world. Even as solo artists, though, they shared an artistic kinship that neither could deny... nor could their fans. So, when the two finally realized their long-time dream of collaborating as a duo, the Pine Hill Project was born. Gathering up some Kickstarter funds and Larry Campbell as producer, the two were off to the races. The result? 'Tomorrow You're Going,' their new album of cover tunes that will be released on March 17 via Signature Sounds.
How did it feel to raise more than twice your Kickstarter goal? That must have signaled that you were on to something.
LK: Based on the turnouts when we perform together, and emails from fans asking when we were going to record together, we knew there was interest from our audiences in us working together, but we didn't have a clear idea how MUCH interest there was. I mean, it's not an easy thing to measure. And, honestly, we were nervous that we wouldn't meet our Kickstarter goal at all. After we launched the campaign, we sat by our computers for the next 24 hours and watched the numbers come in (pretty exciting and very addictive). When we met our goal after 27 hours, we felt a combination of amazed, relieved, and very grateful to our fans for supporting us.
When the numbers continued to climb over the next 30 days, it told us a few important things: it meant we had enough money to make exactly the album we wanted to make and to promote it and not have to skimp on anything; it confirmed for us that there really was a sizable audience for a duo project from us; and it told us that the landscape of our musical world had truly changed since we both started out more than 20 years ago. That is, in a world of streaming services where fewer and fewer people are buying CDs and where record companies have little money to offer for recording budgets, people who do what we do can still make the records we want to and get them out to the world. It's really a new paradigm.
You guys have thought and talked about doing a project for over 20 years. Was it always going to be covers? Or was that just where you landed at this juncture in time and space?
RS: Yes, it was always going to be covers. We love wallowing in other people's songs! Always have.
LK: And we've always loved the same kinds of songs. It's kind of uncanny. Over the years, when one of us brought a cover song to the other, like when we've done occasional shows together, almost invariably the other one would like it just as much. Not always, but mostly. So making an album of songs we love was always the project we wanted to do.
The statement that your "voices have always understood each other" is such a thoughtful appreciation of your shared artistry. Let's get into that a bit more... is it an emotional understanding or a more technical, tone thing? Or, maybe, a bit of both?
RS: The voices naturally try to accommodate each other. Technically speaking, it's a really complex phenomenon. But it mostly comes down to note choice, phrasing, vocal weight, and timbre. With two-part harmony (as opposed to, say, three), the question of note choice is fairly open. There's lots of room for the second part to jump around in the intervals. Our harmonic choices each make sense to the other -- even if sometimes there are surprises... especially when there are surprises.
As for timbre, I can't explain how that happens (when it does happen). But it's something we're both looking for: a certain kind of unity in the blend. The only thing I can compare it to is the effect that vacuum tubes will have on the sound of an electric guitar. I think the word is saturation. That happens with voices, too. Adjusting vocal weight is also something that happens naturally. In our case, the person singing the harmony will adjust in order to not overwhelm the melody voice. As for phrasing... well, that's the tough part. We're both used to singing lead vocal, where one can phrase away with impunity. Not so if there's a second voice. A consensus has to be reached! We're working on it. My people are talking to her people. In general, we just come from a very similar place in terms of the kind of music we grew up on. What sounds good to one generally sounds good to the other.
LK: I heard Emmylou Harris, one of the great singers and harmony singers, say something once: that the harmony is really another melody. That's so true and is part of how I think about singing harmony with Richard -- the harmony part is not just adding to the main vocal; it's a whole other, central musical element in and of itself. That's part of why singing harmony with Richard is so fun and so creative -- the sky's the limit in terms of what I can choose to sing. I've had plenty of experiences being hired to sing harmony with other people when they told me the specific notes to sing. That was no fun at all.
When you're doing cover songs, how do you decide which way to lean it... which elements to stir up in a particular tune and how to make it your own?
RS: It happens naturally. We have our own way of doing things. I'll play a song over and over again -- usually beginning with an approximation of the original (or another version). At the start, I'm usually uncomfortable with the song. I know I like it, but can't find a way in. So I play it over and over, trying different approaches (tempo, key, meter signature, instrumentation, etc). Little by little, I move away from the original. Without evening knowing it, I'm moving toward something that makes sense to me -- how I might have played it had I written it. Not only is this the only way I can go about covering a song, it's also more interesting than simply copying someone else's version. What's the point of that?
LK: I started singing songs I thought were great when I was a kid, at the piano after school, songs from that book Great Songs of the Sixties. Singing songs I love has always been one of my very favorite things to do. From the start, I've never given much thought to how to sing it or play a song. I just did it. If I eventually recorded the song, that's when I started to think about how to do it differently from the original. And often that's where my producer and my band came in with arrangement ideas. And, also, I've tended to cover songs written and recorded by men. It hasn't been planned; it's just sort of happened. So, immediately, my version will sound different than the original by default.
Now that you've realized this dream collaboration, where do you set your sights next? Will there be more PHP to come?
RS: Right now we have no specific plans for any other projects together. We'll see what happens with this album and take it from there. Whether or not there's another Pine Hill Project album, I'm sure we will keep singing together.
'Tomorrow You're Going,' will be released on March 17 on Signature Sounds. You can stream the album in its entirety in the player below until then.
Few artists have as sly and sardonic a musical wit as the Decemberists' Colin Meloy. That point is evidenced so clearly on 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World' in which Meloy delivers a simultaneous acknowledgment and confession in "The Singer Addresses His Audience": "We know, we know, we belong to ya. We know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn't change. But we had to change some, you know, to belong to you."
And change they did. Some. Just enough, it would seem. That bit of change comes in the fact that, even though they continue to gather elements of folk, jazz, blues, and pop, the band, this time, wrapped everything up in concise little musical packages. Previously casual listeners taken back by the meandering baroque escapades may well become devoted fans, with this album. That's how on point it is. In a roundabout, Decemberists kind of way.
Colin and company recorded 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World' over the course of 18 months starting with "Lake Song," a schedule which could easily have made for a disjointed and disoriented record. But, even as the peppier numbers ("Calvary Captain," "Philomena," "Make You Better") get sprinkled betwixt and between some lower-key moments ("12-17-12," "Till the Water Is All Long Gone," "Carolina Low"), the overall set feels perfectly cohesive and coherent. Wonderfully, shockingly so. It's dynamic, but never jarring -- a mark not everyone hits even with a more focused process.
Quite simply, no one sounds like the Decemberists... and it's not just that Meloy has a thoroughly distinct voice, literally and figuratively. It's that they have fun with their music, wandering to and fro across an incredibly wide artistic gap, while never forsaking the homeland that is good songs and interesting production.
'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World' is out now on Capitol Records and available HERE.
Quinn Bachand - Lady Be Good - Brishen - Beacon Ridge Productions
I Draw Slow - Goldmine - Redhills - Pinecastle
Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear - Silent Movies - (single) - Glassnote Entertainment
Natalia Zukerman - Little Bird - Gas Station Roses - Weasel Records
The Gibson Brothers - Long Gone - Brotherhood - Rounder
Nashville Mandolin Ensemble - Star Trek-where no mandolin has gone before - Plectrasonics - CMH
Alison Krauss - Gentle River - Too Late to Cry - Rounder
The Pine Hill Project - Lately - Tomorrow You're Going - Signature Sounds
The Pine Hill Project - Wichita - Tomorrow You're Going - Signature Sounds
Robert Earl Keen - I'm Troubled, I'm Troubled - Happy Prisoner - The Bluegrass Sessions - Dualtone
Tara Nevins - Troubles - Mule to Ride - Sugar Hill
June Tabor & Oysterband - Bonnie Bunch of Roses - Ragged Kingdom - Topic
Rhiannon Giddens - Up Above My Head - Tomorrow is My Turn - Nonesuch
Joe Pug - The Measure - Windfall - Lightning Rod
Kate Rusby - The Outlandish Knight - Ghost - Pure Records
Martin Simpson - Ghost In The Pines - Righteousness & Humidity - Red House
Passenger - Start A Fire - Whispers - Nettwerk - Black Crow
Andrew Combs - Rainy Day Song - All These Dreams - Coin Records (Thirty
The Weepies - Please Speak Well of Me - Be My Thrill - Nettwerk
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Hear It First - Pharis & Jason Romero, 'A Wanderer I'll Stay'
March 6, 2015
When you're putting together your list of the best duos in folk and roots music, it will probably include names like Johnny & June, Emmylou & Gram, and Gillian & David. Well, here's another for your short list: Pharis & Jason Romero. The couple from Horsefly, British Columbia (pop. 1000, in the foothills of the Cariboo Mountains) writes and sings modern day folk ballads - tales of wandering, loneliness and "local characters" with an independent spirit - that will challenge you to identify which are original compositions and which come from long-forgotten songbooks off a dusty shelf. All this deftly played on vintage and newly handcrafted instruments (Pharis plays a c. 1943 Gibson J-45; Jason plays his J. Romero banjo #10250, a gourd banjo and a c.1934 Gibson L-00) and sung with sublime vocal harmonies that blend and intertwine effortlessly. Seriously. What more could you ask for?
On the heels of their acclaimed 2013 release, 'Long Gone Out West Blues,' Pharis & Jason are now set to release 'A Wanderer I'll Stay.' It's their third album together as duo, and once again they deliver. The new 12-song collection was recorded at their rural home studio - where they also build finely crafted custom made banjos in their J. Romero Banjo Co. shop - and was co-produced by David Travers-Smith (The Wailin' Jennys, Jayme Stone, Oh Susanna, Jaron Freeman-Fox and The Opposite of Everything).
'A Wanderer I'll Stay' will be released in the U.S. on Thursday, March 12 and you can stream the album in its entirety until then in the player below.
Click HERE to pre-order at iTunes or order directly from Pharis and Jason's website - HERE.