Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best Of 2012

Once again it is my favorite time of year where Larry and I get to look back at our favorites this year in music. Over the two years that we have been blogging this has been our most popular post as many people are looking to find what people are listening to all over the world. We both spend time looking at other “best of” lists. Once again we want to thank our readers for taking to time to visit us this year.

We always hope we are exposing you to new bands and styles over the year. We hope you really do take the time to listen to these bands, for even they may not be your own personal style, we hope you can appreciate them for being good at what they do. We have gone all over the board this year in looking at some bands from Baltimore to electronica to a punk rock musical. Even though Larry and I don’t always see eye to eye on music, that diversity is what we hope to expose our readers to. We really enjoy the comments from many of our friends (even though we would love to encourage you to comment on our blog) and enjoy when people tell us about bands that they like. So anyway here we go:

Fletcher’s Best of 2012 picks
So here are my top five albums with my two favorite songs from each one. I have spent a lot of time putting underlined links for every song, so please take a while to explore and enjoy them. I want this to be interactive and for you to spend some time with the music!

Top Albums of the Year (listed alphabetically by band)

Cloud Nothings, Attack on Memory—this band from Cleveland just explodes on stage. Their live show is so full of energy you are exhausted from watching them. My favorite song of the year is the live 14 minute version of "Wasted Days". It is killer so stay with it until the end. Also love "Stay Useless".
Delta Spirit, Delta Spirit—this third album from the band from California has a more studio polished sound, but it still rocks beautifully. Check out "Tear It Up" and "California".
First Aid Kit, The Lions Roar—who would have thought this Swedish sisters act would produce the best country tinged album with their beautiful chilling harmonies. Listen to "TheLions Roar" and "Emmylou". Yes it is a tribute to Emmylou Harris.
The Lumineers, The Lumineers—This breakthrough band of the year exploded from touring small rooms to opening for Dave Matthews this month in arenas. Enjoy "Stubborn Love" and "Submarines". I still think Submarine is the best song on the album.
Scars on 45, Scars on 45—Had the honor of working the merch table of this band from England. Love these songs and beautiful male/female harmonies. Listen to "Hearts on Fire" and "Give Me Something". You will be a fan.

Top Songs of the Year (listed alphabetically by band)

Alabama Shakes, Hold On—Great tune by this up and coming band from Athens, Alabama. Brittany Howard sounds like she has been at it for years. Just in her early 20’s. So much soul, passion and truth about her lyrics and voice.
Black Box Revelation, High On A Wire—Got to work this two piece Belgian garage band. Wow. Lot of sound for drum and guitar.
Dirty Projectors, Gun Has No Trigger—Saw this influential American band in Denver. Their time and chord changes are amazing. PS-Their web site goes right/left not up/down. Cool like them. Dig this live version with amazing vocals.
The Dunwells, So Beautiful—This British folk-rock band really had a strong year. Gaining in America with their version of their brand of beautiful harmonies and roots music.
Heartless Bastards, Marathon—Another strong album from Erika Wennerstrom and her band from Austin. This is the way to open an album. Love the way the song builds throughout.
Here We Go Magic, Make Up Your Mind—This Brooklyn band calls themselves “psychedelic electro-folk”. I say they get amazing grooves that will have your feet tapping.
Kindness, Gee Up—Who would have thought that Adam Bainbridge, a tall white guy from England would give us this amazing no-fi, electro-funk pop under the moniker of Kindness. This song is short but will stick with you all day long. My second favorite song of the year.
Ben Kweller, Jealous Girl—This American songwriter just keeps putting out amazing memorable pop tunes.Great hooks. Don’t know why is isn't bigger than he is.
Langhorne Slim, Song For Sid—I have worked the table for Langhorne many times. This year his song about his recently passed grandfather had everybody talking about it. A beautiful tribute.
The Shins, Its Only Life—Even though I wrote a post on this band this year, I am still in love with this album. Such a great song.

Best Musical Moment- For me it was getting to work for and talk to The Lumineers. You just know when you are in the presence of greatness. You can feel it, the crowd feels it, and I sold more merch in one night then I ever have. That tells me a lot. Magical moment.

Looking forward to in 2013- There are four albums I can’t wait for. Three are from bands I have a lot of personal connections with and love their music. Birds and Arrows, Goldspot, and Ha Ha Tonka. Can’t wait for music to drop!! The other is a guy I always look forward to but you never know what to expect. That would be Beck.

Larry's Best of 2012 Picks

Top Albums of the Year (listed alphabetically by band)

Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls—What a treasure this group is. This debut album is rich with many delightful songs, elegant in their simplicity and memorable.  Many thanks to Fletcher for turning me on to this group. Hold On (one of Fletcher's top songs of the year) and "Hang Loose" are two standouts.

Avett Brothers, The Carpenter—How can one not but be impressed with the song writing and harmony of "The Once and Future Carpenter" and "Live and Die"?

Diana Krall, Rag Doll—T Bone Burnett has brought out of side of Diana Krall we've not seen before: an earthy, bluesy quirkiness.  It's a joy to hear the edge in her voice and the music.  Listen to "I'm a Little Mixed Up" and "Wide River to Cross" and you will begin to get the idea.

The Lumineers, The Lumineers—Another example of elegant simplicity.  The passion of these three musicians flies off of this album.  "Stubborn Love" and "Hey Ho".  "Hey Ho" is as popular as it is because of its beautiful simplicity and "Stubborn Love" is drop dead gorgeous.

Rufus Wainright, Out of The Game — As promised in last month's blog post, this terrific album is on the list. Enjoy the terrific melodies and wonderful scoring on both Rashida and Montauk

Top Songs of the Year (listed alphabetically by band)

Allah Las, Tell Me What's On Your Mind  —This band has the classic sound down cold!
Rose Cousins, The Shell— This song just blows me away.  I just discovered this artist and downloaded her album, We Have Made A Spark, prior to this post. After a couple of listens, I suspect that I'm going to regret not listing this album as one of the year's best.  
Django Django, Default —I really enjoy Scottish psychedelic music that makes me want to dance.  The video is fun too.
Tift Merritt, To Myself — I love the way Tift is branching out in this song.
The Shins, Simple Song—This terrific anthem deals with self-doubt.
Tedeschi Trucks Band,  Everybody's Talkin' Nilson's cover, of this Fred Neil song, that won an Academy Award for Best Song in Midnight Cowboy is its classic cover.  This cover, but this super band stands on it's own. Talk about cooking!  This just rocks! This band is amazing live.

Best Musical Moment- What an exciting year for new artists. As you can see I listed several in both my favorite albums and songs. 

Looking forward to in 2013- Rumor has it that Robert Plant will be releasing a new album in 2013.  His new stuff has been terrific. I'm also looking forward to Ra Ra Riot's new album Beta Love.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Out of the Game: Rufus Wainright

When exploring the work of a songwriter who is new to me, I look at several components of how he or she crafts music:
  • Melody:  Is this work truly original?  Why does the songwriter move the melody in the direction it's going?  Why do the notes go higher or lower?  Why do they go faster or slower? Is the melody beautiful?  If not, is it not supposed to be beautiful? Is the music alone telling a story, or is the music subordinate to the lyrics for that purpose? What is the musical range of the melody?  Is the difference between the low notes and the high notes huge, or is it minimal?
  • Lyrics:  Is there a compelling story?  Do I care? Am I paying attention to the words, or do they just seem to be an afterthought? Do the lyrics make me think?
  • Scoring:  Is the music scored minimally, such as with a simple accompaniment by a piano or acoustic guitar, or does the score call for a greater number of instruments and layers?  Why was the scoring designed as it was?

Discovering songwriters who succeed at their craft is truly a joy: Rufus Wainwright does just that. While Wainwright has been around for some time, with the exception of his brilliant cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," for some reason I had not paid attention to his work before. Rufus is the son of the singer/songwriter, actor, and humorist Loudon Wainright III

Noting superlative reviews by sources I respect, such as Paste, for Wainwright's Out of the Game, his seventh studio album, I decided to check it out.

It's a terrific work.  The songs are all carefully constructed, layered, and performed.  Not nearly enough can I enjoy listening to complex pop music and enjoy having a wonderful melody in my head hours after having heard it. The stories in the songs are compelling. While the music is new and original, I can hear echoes of the pop music songwriting giants: Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and David Bowie, upon whose shoulders Rufus Wainright stands.

The musicianship on this album is stellar.  The Dap Kings do a fantastic job serving as Wainright's backup band.  And the guest artists on the album,  including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, Wilco's Nels Cline, Martha Wainwright, and Sean Lennon do more than just show up.

Here is the clever studio video of Out of the Game's title track, featuring actress Helena Bonham Carter:

In a few weeks Fletcher and I will be sharing our "Best of 2012" lists.  Don't be surprised when you see this album on my list.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Dan Deacon-Underground Look at America

Dan Deacon, the electronic musician, is on stage getting ready to perform the most amazing technological musical experience I have ever seen. As the audience came in for the show, earlier in the evening, he asked that everybody who owned a smart phone to download the Dan Deacon app. Dan is well known for his interaction with his audiences, so most everyone did what he asked. They wanted to be part of his experience (in the 60's we called them happenings). At a particular song he asked everyone to open the app. They did. All of a sudden all the phones started changing colors. Then a strobe light came through the phones. All of the stage and house lights went out and Dan launched into a song. Everyone held up their phones and the phones became the light show. Colors changed and strobes went off all to the beat of the song. It was a truly amazing experience. Welcome to Dan Deacon's world.

Dan grew up on Long Island N.Y. and studied music at the highly acclaimed Music Conservatory at SUNY-Purchase. He was interested in computer music composition and this was where he focused his study. He started performing his own composition during this time as well as playing with other bands like Langhorne Slim.  After he graduated he moved to Baltimore with others from college and started the Wham City Collective. This was an arts and music collective doing underground shows here in Baltimore. The collective got great reviews and press in the underground scene. They started touring the country and all of a sudden Baltimore got a great reputation for our music and art scene. Dan was behind a lot of this with his high energy shows, where audience participation and interaction are integral to how he sees music as being. At the show I worked his merch table, not only did I see the smart phone light show, but got the chance to watch lots of people just having a great time. I think it was the show that I saw the most amount of very sweaty people as they left the venue.

Dan writes experimental compositions and combines it with electronic music. His high energy live shows consists of two drummers, a keyboard and Dan’s combination of computer, keyboard, vocoder and a whole lot of other gadgets that process and manipulates his voice. Honestly the machine he performs with looks like a bomb from a 1950’s Hollywood B movie. It’s got wires all over the place. Despite all the weird look, I can tell you his music is not only fun but amazing. He has just released a brand new album America on the Domino Records label. It combines Dan Deacon sense of fun and his seriousness of music. I am in love with the final 22 minutes of a 4 part suite "America" number. As you listen he takes you across the landscape of our country. It is truly stunning for it combines his electronic composition and orchestration into one piece. This is his new single from America "True Thrush".This captures Dan's humor in a great and funny way.


All I can say is Dan is a serious musician who loves to have fun with his audience. He travels the world and the world travels with him. He learns from his experiences and puts them into his music. I can’t wait to see what he will do next. I also can’t thank him enough for all he has done to put the Baltimore music and arts scene on the map.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Lumineers- A Band On The Rise

Let's go back 18 months ago to Denver, Colorado. We are in a small club with a few hundred people listening to The Lumineers. Fast forward to the summer of 2012 and they are now touring the country playing for thousands and selling out venues nightly. When I met them working their merch table, I posed to them the question about their year, and they said it has been somewhat surreal.  Their rise has been meteoric and they are enjoying and appreciating the ride. This is a band that has blown up in a very short period of time. They have taken it in stride and are enjoying the people they play for and have met.

The band consists of three people: Wesley who plays guitar and lead vocals, Jeremiah on drums, vocals and mandolin, and Neyla on cello, piano and vocals. Wesley and Jeremiah grew up together in New Jersey and started writing songs in 2002 with Jeremiah’s brother Josh. Josh died of an overdose and Wesley and Jeremiah moved to Denver after struggling to make ends meet as musicians in NYC. They met classically trained Neyla who added the final touches to this alternative folk-rock band.  The band refers to their music as “heart swelling stomp-and-clap acoustic rock”. They released an EP in 2011 and signed with Dualtone Records  which released their self titled album in April of this year. The record did incredibly well topping out at #17 on the best selling albums on the Billboard  charts. Their first single “Ho Hey” continues to do well on the charts as of this writing.

What makes a band have this rise so quickly? They are a band of creative and fantastic musicians. Their songwriting is intelligent and very catchy. What I found that sets them apart is their rapport with their audience. They make a large crowd feel like they are playing personally to each one of them. You can see and feel the joy they have playing their music for their fans. Their songs are almost arena anthems with catchy choruses that the audience always can sing, stomp, and clap to. This to me is the real charm of the Lumineers. I think you will see it in this live video of "Ho Hey". Feel free to sing along with the chorus.

For me it was a thrill to work their table and have the opportunity to meet them. They are down to earth people who have the “it” factor to write great songs and make the audience feel like they are on the front porch listening to this band. Everyone I have told about this band has loved the CD. Go out and get it now, for you will also love it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Apocalypse Town

Throughout my life I have been fascinated by the fusion of music, lyrics, spoken word and story. As a child I was exposed, by my music-loving parents, to popular musicals and opera, both live and recorded. Although I have become much more discerning as an adult than I was when I was a child, particularly with regard to musicals, I still am entranced when these diverse but related means of expression can be fused well.

In an earlier post I shared how much I  loved the film Once when it first came out. On the other hand, while I am a fan of much of Neil Young's work, I was completely repulsed by the cliches of his 2003 rock opera Greendale. That said, I admired the attempt. So it was with great trepidation that I decided to attend Anthony Barilla's Apocalypse Town at Houston's D!verseWorks. My unease was even stronger because a couple of colleagues of mine, whom I respect and admire, were involved in the writing and production of this work. How awkward -- what if I didn't like it?

Fortunately, I was able to lay my fears to rest. The production was a success. Apocalypse Town tells the story, through monologue and song, of what living in Kosovo in the aftermath of civil war has done to its culture. Because of the extensive use of monologue in the play's staging, Barrilla sits behind a desk. I was immediately reminded of Spaulding Gray's theatrical work, Swimming to Cambodia and others. I expected the evening to continue as a kind of Spaulding Gray tribute when suddenly Barrilla got up from his desk and rocked out with a group of accomplished local Houston musicians. What a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

As Barilla tells his story, he weaves an eclectic tapestry of original and stylistically diverse musical compositions into his work. Barilla's muse for his story is the punk band Hosenfefer.  Hosenfefer is from Mitrovica, the town he lives in. However, in Apocalypse Town Barilla also provides musical examples of Kosovo's traditional folk music, pop music, blues, hip-hop, and good old American country music.

 Enjoy this cut of Hosenfefer performing "Gimme Some Air."

I've heard that Anthony Barilla is hoping to take Apocalypse Town on the road so that it can find a larger audience. I hope that happens. Apocalypse Town's message about the lasting impact of war on a community is powerful and should be seen. Although many Americans may have forgotten, America was heavily involved in Kosovo's civil war. And it is that act of forgetting our involvements in foreign wars, by us as Americans, that is the unforgettable message of this work.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Best of Baltimore-Part II

I am going to continue my series looking at the breadth of music and bands in Baltimore. Today I will focus on three different bands and styles. I want to reiterate and let you know that I do a lot of merch work for these people and consider them all friends, but as you will hear they are all excellent musicians first, for the purpose of this blog. I want to repeat that they are not all available in your local independent music store, but if you click on the highlighted name you will be led to their web sites, which will tell you how to purchase their music.

The first person I am going to focus on is ellen cherry (yes it is in lower case letters). ellen is another Baltimore based singer-songwriter who is also an amazing human being. I must tell you that I am in love with the sound of her voice. It is so pure and honest that I am inspired every time I get to listen to her. When you hear the clarity of her voice you know you are in the right place. ellen grew up in Texas and has been recording her own music since 1997.  She worked and did music until 2004 when she decided to pursue music full time. She hasn’t looked back since and we in Baltimore are very happy. She has her own recording studio and label; Wrong Size Shoes. I can tell you that she has a love for shoes and has bought me sneakers to show her appreciation for working her shows. I wear those gray Converse All Stars as my lucky merch table shoes every show I work. ellen has scored films, licensed her music to television shows, written a promotional song for a local news station, and been an artist-in –residence for local art organizations. She has recorded 5 albums of her own music. I love her album (New) Years which meshes her love of music and history. She took different historical events from different years and wrote songs about events. This is “2003: I Hope To Dream Of You Tonight”:          

The next band I want to introduce you to is Small Sur. It is hard to put a label on their style. I call it “slo-coustic”. All I can really tell you is that it is beautiful. The core of the band is Bob Keal who writes and sings the songs. The band plays in different forms but most include Andy Abelow on sax/banjo/keys and Austin Stahl on drums. They create dreamy and peaceful folk music that takes you along with it, in a meditative flow. I love experiencing the minimal sparse arrangements that let you reflect on the sound and takes you to a place that Bob wants you to experience. Bob grew up on a farm in South Dakota and lived for a time in California and you can hear the natural landscapes that influenced him in the music he creates. After college he came to Baltimore through an AmeriCorps assignment and has never left. We are a better city for this. Please relax , take a deep breath and enjoy this video.

The last band I am going to focus on today is the Americana roots-rockers June Star. They are led by Andrew Grimm who formed the band in 1998. He named it after a character in a Flannery O’Conner short story. This fits the band to a tee in that Andrew’s lyrics are very literate. He writes stories that could stand on their own, but thankfully puts them into his music. Stories about love, loneliness, struggle and triumph liter his music. He sings his songs with a drawl that emotionally fits the images of his lyrics. The band June Star has seen many people go through it in its existence.  Many players have passed through the band, learned from it, and moved on to form their own bands. June Star can play as a full 6 piece band or as a two piece with acoustic guitar and the extraordinary pedal steel of Dave Hanley. I enjoy all versions of June Star but for me personally the June Star of Andrew and Dave is my favorite. I feel this version brings out the true meaning of Andrew’s incredible lyrics. June Star has released eight albums as a band and Andrew has released other solo efforts. He is a prolific writer and observer. I love that he can go and play whatever the occasion calls for. He can open for rock bands coming through town or play a solo date at a house concert. The constant is you get his finely crafted songs that stick with you long after the show. Here is a video of "Undertow" from the newest album Slow Dance:

I hope this short series on Baltimore music has given you a good insight as to what is going on in our fine city. The past four bands I have chosen are only the tip of the music scene here. I have tried to show you different styles of music through these four bands. Trust me in that there are many more and from time to time I will share others with you.

Update: Two of my favorite bands that I have previously written about, have just released new albums. Jukebox the Ghost has just released another amazing album titled Safe Travels. They are traveling the country to support the album. I encourage you not only to pick up the album, but support them by seeing them live when they come to your area. Tell them Fletcher sent you. Also another of my favorites Langhorne Slim has also put out a fine new album titled The Way We Move. He is also touring this summer supporting the new disc. Two great bands that I hope you can support.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Best of the Scene-Baltimore

We in Baltimore are fortunate to live in a city with a great music scene. A few years ago Rolling Stone  magazine named Baltimore the “Best Scene” in the country.  I know I am prejudiced (I live here) but I agree with the Rolling Stone declaration. We do have an amazing music scene here. Ten years ago this may have not been a correct statement, but today I believe that we do have a flourishing scene. We have many smaller venues that have opened up the past five years or so. Many of these venues support local bands writing and playing original songs or smaller touring indie bands. We have also had some larger clubs open that support a variety of larger touring acts. Ten years ago the larger touring acts wouldn’t come to Baltimore, but now many of these acts want to play here. A lot of this is because Baltimore supports all kinds of local music. It is a city that encourages the type of creativity that allows a band to be itself. Because of this attitude we have had a number of bands over the past five years signed onto major labels and are doing very well. The list ranges from Dan Deacon to Wye Oak to J. Roddy Walston to Beach House. All very different musically and style wise from each other, but all have the same roots and support in Baltimore. The signing and success of these bands has brought many music people and labels to Baltimore to check out the music and try and sign some new bands.  Lower Dens and Future Islands  are two bands that have been recently signed to larger labels.

I have had the fortune of working the merch table for many of these bands. Today I want to share some other bands currently working out of Baltimore who I think you should pay attention to. This represents a shift in our blog because all the bands we have previously written about, you could go to any good independent music store and purchase. These next bands you would have to dig a bit deeper to find. I will highlight their web sites so if you interested in buying their music, you can do so from their websites. I will also give a disclaimer in that all of these are bands I have worked on multiple occasions and all of them I consider friends. For you however, they are great musicians who are very talented and creative. They will also show you the depth of the music scene here in Baltimore.

The first Baltimore musician I want to highlight is singer –songwriter Caleb Stine. I feel Caleb is the heart and soul of the Baltimore music scene. He tirelessly helps others in the beginnings of their career. He offers advice, encouragement, and support to all who ask for it. He has helped a number of local bands by having them open for him and introducing them to the venue owners. Having Caleb’s stamp of approval can go a long way in this city. However, he is first and foremost a remarkable musician. Caleb is one of the most honest songwriters out there. This Colorado transplant has written songs about things he cares about whether it is homelessness or a lost love. His songs are deep, honest, and thought provoking. Enjoy a song from his last album “I Wasn't Built for a Life Like This” titled My Service Isn't Needed Anymore:

While his main style is Americana and folk, he is much more. He has played with a full band, solo, and plays with other groups as a guest artist. He spent part of last year in an Off-Broadway show in NYC about Woody Guthrie and has even worked with a local hip-hop artist Saleem Heggins. WTMD radio put these two together and challenged them to write 4 songs in 6 weeks. They not only did it successfully but put a full album together called "Outgrown These Walls". Their collaboration has produced one of our cities favorite songs titled (of course) Baltimore. Enjoy.

I hope these two videos show Caleb’s diversity. Who would have ever thought a singer-song-writer and a hip hop artist would ever get together and write music. They not only put out a album but have become the best of friends. This is who Caleb is in his heart and soul. He is always looking to the next musical step that makes sense for him. We are fortunate to have him in this city.

My next post will be a Part II  and look at some other Baltimore bands you should know about.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Shins- Not So Simple

The Shins  became well known due to a line in the 2004 movie Garden State  when Natalie Portman turns to Zach Braff and says “this song will change your life”. That is a lot of pressure for any song, but “New Slang” gained a whole lot of new fans and exposure for this band. I will admit to not knowing a lot about this band until I heard the Garden State soundtrack. I have been a huge fan ever since. The front man and songwriter James Mercer, has created his own sound that combines great melodies and a refined production. They had not put out an album in five years until the newly released Port of Morrow. A lot of fans couldn't be happier to have them back.

The Shins were formed in 1996 as a James Mercer side project. They became a full time band in 2001 when they were signed to the SubPop  label. They released Oh, Inverted World the same year to great critical acclaim. The band moved from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Portland, Oregon and lost some members along the way. They recorded the much-admired follow-up Chutes Too Narrow in 2003. Between two highly regarded albums and the Garden State soundtrack, the band was at another level. The band then went back into the studio and recorded Wincing the Night Away in 2007. It was largely a solo James Mercer recording, for the band underwent some more personal changes. I loved this album. It was my favorite album of 2007 by far. It even got a well earned Grammy nomination. After touring the album the band went in different directions. Mercer teamed with Danger Mouse in 2010 and released an album under the name of Broken Bells . It was quite a surprise to hear last year that Mercer was putting more Shins music together with Port of Morrow, which was just released. He has a new backing band but the music is as incredible as it has always been. It was released on Mercer’s own label Aural Apothecary. Please enjoy the single from the new album “Simple Song”

I am thrilled that Mercer has decided to put out some new Shins music and I hope that the next record doesn’t take another five years. Many fans can’t wait that long. I encourage you to listen to the band “that will change your life”.

Update: One of my favorite bands and people, Harper Blynn has just released a new album. It is fantastic and available for free on their web site if you click the link on their name that I provided. Even though they are offering it for free, you should donate to the cause. They have just come off the road opening for Ingrid Michaelson and I am positive that they now have a whole new legion of fans.

Larry adds:   If you are interested in learning more about what is going through James Mercer's head as he crafts his songs check out this terrific article in which he explains his thinking regarding each  Port of Morrow song.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

No Joke with this band- Ha Ha Tonka

I first met the band Ha Ha Tonka on possibly one of their worst nights ever. They had been on one of their long tours across the country that a band needs to do to make a living. The van they had used on the tour had died a few days earlier and was 5 states away. They had put all of their equipment and bodies into the vans of the other bands on the tour. As you can imagine they were at the end of their patience. They had to make a decision as to whether to put a lot of money into the van or start the process of buying a new one once the current tour finished. I had been contacted by their manager Frank Hill to work the merch table for them in Baltimore. They had so much going on that I just tried to stay out of their way. I had never heard their music but figured that the show that evening wouldn’t be very good, with all that was on their minds. I thankfully couldn’t have been more wrong. From the moment they got on the stage, all that mattered was their music. From their kick ass songs to their beautiful harmonies they had the crowd right with them. They gained a number of fans that evening and a lot of respect from me.

The band formed in 2004 in Springfield, Missouri and are named after a state park in the Ozarks in Missouri. In 2007 when they signed with Bloodshot Records and released Buckle in the Bible Belt and followed it up with Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South in 2009. Their music combines elements of Americana, Southern Rock, Folk and some twang of Alternative Country. This is combined with a lot of sweet four part harmony. Usually during their shows they will lay down their instruments and send chills up your spine with their voices. But trust me these guys can rock and lay down a strong beat. They have toured with bands like Langhorne Slim and the Old 97’s. Their newest album Death of a Decade is their strongest to date. It really shows off their musicianship and diversity in their roots. It was one of my top 5 albums of last year. I know it is good because I am still listening to it months later. The songs build you up and take you with them. Enjoy this video of “Usual Suspects” from Death of a Decade. I chose this video to show off their harmonies but trust me this song can also rock out. Enjoy.

I have had the privilege of working the merch table for this band a few more times since we first met. Not only are they incredibly talented, but they are some of the nicest people I have ever worked with. They are always so gracious and I feel lucky to know them. They also have my favorite band tee shirt ever. Do yourself a favor and pick up some of their music and make sure to see them live when they come to your town. They write great songs and put on an amazing live performances. Everyone I have ever told them to see their shows, has agreed that their live show is outstanding (and usually end up buying a tee shirt because they are so cool).

Update: Two of my favorite bands have released new albums recently. Delta Spirit released a self titled album even though it is their 3rd release. Heartless Bastards just released Arrow. Both are amazing and worth the purchase. You won’t be disappointed if you like either of the bands.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Old Friend, So Beautiful

When I started playing guitar in 1970, the first two songs I painfully (I can still feel my calluses burning) attempted to play with the record spinning were Paul Simon's "A Most Peculiar Man" and "Richard Cory," songs with which I could keep up with the basic chord changes....

I've been a devoted fan of Paul Simon's music ever since. All of Simon & Garfunkel's albums  had a huge influence on me.  From their work, I learned the importance of crafting intelligent lyrics with flowing melodies and beautiful harmonies. After their break-up, I continued to follow Paul Simon's music.  However, after his brilliant Graceland, I began to lose touch with his work.

I was optimistic about his 2006 release, Surprise, a collaboration with Brian Eno, another artist I've admired for a long time. However, I found the music disappointing.  It was not the best work of either artist.  To me this album sounded forced because their styles are so different.

So I ignored Paul Simon's April 2011 So Beautiful or So What release until December when it started showing up on several Best of 2011 lists that I respect.  Still, not tempted enough to purchase it for myself, I purchased it as a gift for my wife, an even more devoted Paul Simon fan than I am.

It's a wonderful album.  If I had a chance to redo my top 10 of 2011, it would be a part of that list (sorry, I don't know which album I'd drop).  Paul Simon's songwriting is in top form, and includes a new and most welcome edge. Simon, getting up in years (aren't we all), deals with heavy subjects, such as the question of the existence of God, with a whimsically dark humor.  Musically, the album brings in a cornucopia of the sounds of world music, all performed by top-notch studio musicians.  Further, the songs on the album are well designed with regard to placement, so that the songs flow musically well from one song to the next.

Enjoy the title cut, "So Beautiful or So What":

The lesson I take away from this experience is that while I enjoy hearing new young voices, I should never assume that the voices of mature "old  friends" no longer have anything to say musically.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Triple A Radio- Radio For Music People

I am very fortunate to live in Baltimore and have an incredible radio station to listen to. WTMD is an amazing station that plays a wide variety of music. It focuses on an eclectic mix of music that totally boggles the mind and pleases the ears. It has very knowledgeable disc jockeys who are passionate and educated about many styles of music. To top it all off, it is commercial free and broadcasts 24/7.

The format WTMD plays is known as Triple A which stands for Adult Album Alternative. It is a wonderful format that will play everything from new current indie rock to a heritage artist to blues to soul. That is what you may hear in just one hour on WTMD! I had the pleasure of sitting down with Scott Mullins who is the Program Director at TMD. He told me that Triple A is a descendent of free form radio which was very popular in the late 60’s and early 70’s with stations like the legendary WHFS. The free form and progressive radio of this era had disc jockeys playing whatever pleased them. Many did not have a play list and they played whatever music struck them at that moment. You might hear Frank Sinatra followed by a deep cut from Steppenwolf. All of this was a reaction to the spirit of the times and a rebellion against Top 40 and Pop radio with very tight play lists.

In the 80’s this free form radio had all but died out due to having to pay bills through commercial advertising as dictated by a few companies like Clear Channel. They bought up a ton of radio stations, many in the same city or market once deregulation was legalized by Congress. Radio formats became tighter and it was harder for new bands and music to break in to get radio play. Triple A radio stations started around this time which made it possible for people who really love new, interesting, and intelligent music to be exposed to new bands. It gave bands some insight into the local music scene and helped them build an audience. REM and the Counting Crows are bands that come to mind that early Triple A stations helped build an audience for.

While currently many Triple A stations are commercial, there are some great stations that are Public Radio Stations. WXPN, WYEP, WFPK, KCRW, and WFUV are some of the best known ones. Scott said that many of the non commercial stations have much more open play lists than the commercial stations. He said that they are not beholden to sponsors and have the freedom to play a wide variety of music. There are many variations of non commercial Triple A stations. Most will customize to their local communities needs. Therefore a station like WFUV out of NYC will focus more on folk music while WXPN focuses on a more diverse musical universe. WXPN also produces one of the most successful syndicated national programs called the World Cafe. These stations are the only formats playing local bands in a meaningful way. WTMD plays the locals right with the national acts and also has a program Baltimore Unsigned that interviews local bands every week. Here is a short video produced by Maryland Public Television about Baltimore Unsigned.

Scott said that a song in heavy rotation at WTMD will get played about 15 times a week while a Top 40 station might spin a song up to 50 times a week. You can see which station you will get more of a musical variety.

For those of you who are reading this and are jealous of a WTMD, I have great news for you. In this age of technology you can stream most of these stations on your computer. Many of these stations also offer an app for a smart phone. I know that WTMD offers one for free, so even when I leave Baltimore, WTMD is still with me. I encourage you to download this app and become a member of the station. You can click here to get to the home page of WTMD. Scroll to the bottom of the page and you will see links for the free mobile apps. This way you will always have great music to listen to no matter where you are. Who needs satellite radio when you can have a WTMD right at your fingers? WTMD’s slogan is “Radio for Music People.” They can easily be your music station also. Tell them Fletcher sent you.