Archive for the ‘Sounds’ Category

MathomIn keeping with a Tolkien “tradition” that I’ve loved since I first read about it years ago, where Hobbits give small presents (or “mathoms”) on their birthday rather than receive them, I’ve curated a short playlist of the best songs to come my way over the last few months. It ranges from older hard rock, to newer hard rock, to acoustic, to un-categorizable. Here’s some info about what and who are included.

American WrestlersKelly – American Wrestlers

I don’t know anything about these guys – where they’re from, how long they’ve been around, nothing. All I do know is that the first time I heard this song I really liked the groove of it. (I also thought they were singing, “Kill it…” instead of “Kelly”)

Stoic Resemblance – The Helio SequenceHelio Sequence

I’ve heard and liked stuff from this band in the past but have never given them a deep dive, album wise. Still haven’t, but this tune makes me want to. Will report back once that’s accomplished.

RocksCombination – Aerosmith

I rarely go this far back when making compilations like this, but having just discovered that the album Rocks was finally available on iTunes (and I’ve been checking over the years…) I had to get it. I always remembered that this was my favorite collection of theirs, but I’d forgotten how strong these riffs are. “Combination” is the best, most visceral one of the lot, though it’s hard to rank them – they’re all killer. This was, to me, right in the middle of the band’s most fertile period – Toys in the Attic and Draw the Line were put out around the same time, and though hugely impacted by the band’s increasingly inhuman intake of all sorts of drugs, all three albums remain their strongest true rock and roll for me.

Methodrone – The Black CadillacsBlack Cadillacs

Just found these guys – total accident thanks to social media. On first sight, and even first listen, they may be easily dismissed as simply a good time bar band, bluesy and light. Far from it. Their song structures, lyrics, and busy rhythm guitars make what should be old hat sound like new again. Highly recommended.

musee mechaniqueThe Lighthouse and the Hourglass – Musee Mecanique

I found Musee Mecanique a year or so ago and love all of their long instrumental pieces. This is one of the rare tunes with lyrics, and it’s a strong one. Check out their Daytrotter session here.

Witness – Mewmew

Mew is one of those deceptively deep bands who sound, at first, like a hundred bands you’ve heard before – light piano or acoustic guitar intros reminiscent of Coldplay, Fallout Boy and the like. I find them a little more substantive than that, and it was hard to pick just one of their tunes. This won by a narrow margin.

BushBreathe – Bush

Almost all of my compilations include at least one good cover. This one was a big surprise from Bush’s recent Daytrotter session – didn’t even know it was included until I heard it on random in the car. Pink Floyd was a colossal influence on my musical growth, consciousness expansion, and – to be honest – my delinquency. Very interesting to note how differently these lyrics (and almost all of their others) hit me at 51 than they did when in my teens and twenties…

Bath Salt – River Whylessriver whyless

Interesting sound from this band, who I’m planning on seeing in July. To these ears, there’s a definite Chinese influence to the fiddle pieces; would love to find out if they’ve ever heard or played with Abigail Washburn, who also shows those influences.

tree machinesF**king Off Today – Tree Machines

Deceptively loud and sloppy, I was captured by this band’s entire Daytrotter session, too. (Pardon the profanity, but I figured we’re all old enough to take it, and if the kids are in the car when you’re cranking this one – and it needs to be cranked – you can always skip to the next one. It’s a little tamer.)

Full Circle – Xavier RuddXavier Rudd

Nice and calm after all the previous noise, this one is in keeping with the rest of Rudd’s canon – mellow and deep, inextricably sad and uplifting at the same time. (Bonus: when’s the last time you heard a didgeridoo on a song like this? Or anywhere?)

young buffaloSykia – Young Buffalo

I’ve been familiar with this outfit for a few years now. Good to see that their progression continues – familiar enough to the older stuff, new enough to sound fresh.

Cumin – The AcornMerlin by Richter

Another nice acoustic piece, this time with an almost Afro-centric beat that offsets it nicely. From a great collection called Oh! Canada 25 from The Line of Best Fit.

leisure societyWhen It Breaks – The Leisure Society

This felt like a nice bookend to the beginning section, and a softer way to wrap up.

I used to make these collections every few months – the above represents only new stuff from the last 60 days or so – but it’s been awhile now. Depending on how these are received, maybe I’ll get back to a more regular schedule. Let me know what you think, and thanks for listening/reading!

A little longer than usual between posts, but lots of stuff happening on the work, family and living situations kept me away – not away from the beauteous sounds, which thankfully remain plentiful, but from the ability to rate and write about all of the best ones. That said and there being no shortage of good stuff to pass along, let’s get to it.

I’d heard of Admiral Fallow a few years ago, even follow them on Twitter, but until last month had never really downloaded and listened to them with the attention they deserve. What a waste of a few years. Like their countrymen (with whom I’m sure they’re tired of being lumped), Frightened Rabbit, Bell X1, and the many other beautifully lilting Scottish rockers that have crossed my transom in the recent past, their geography informs their message in almost every instance. I hear defiance even in the softest ballads, poetry in the simplest phrase, lines that would sound sung even if they were spoken instead, and I picture the North Sea, and Glaswegian streets, and earnest glances between beautiful faces, and honesty. Those are probably all just the Scottish stereotypes I’ve picked up over the years – likely as mashed as bangers with the Irish ones – (sorry, lads) but most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. I get a sense of the foreign nestled comfortably alongside the familiar. Rock is rock, no matter where it’s mined, and I like imagining that we’d have something in common in that appreciation, even with all the myriad differences that have made us what we are.

Long way of saying: check these guys out quickly. Their harmonies, their plaintive lyrics, their groove and their vibe all combine to leave you smiling, even if the subject matter may not be handled quite so deftly in other hands. Favorites from their latest, Tree Bursts in Snow, include the titular track – one of the examples of successfully painting a beautiful picture of a horrifying subject – warfare and explosions “all orange and Halloween red…” – the high energy of “The Paper Trench”, and the rousing pub sing-along of “Isn’t This World Enough??” [Pardon the ads on some of these video inserts – it’s getting harder and harder to find stuff without them…]

I wrote a few months back about seeing Jesca Hoop open for Punch Brothers, and how she totally enthralled many of the crowd (myself happily included) but left many spouting dismissive nonsense about her short and typically eclectic set. Still baffled by that, but was stoked to get both her new album and a new Daytrotter session from her on the same day. The House That Jack Built is at least as loopy and nonsensical as her last outing, charmingly so, and as full of the mescaline-esque  imagery and lyrical twists and turns that I’ve come to love and to expect from her. “Hospital” is cute and quirky, “Peacemaker” slow and deceptively dirty, “When I’m Asleep” imported from some mythical Middle Eastern harbor town (Qarth, maybe?) where local strictures become a relaxed pastiche of the many external cultural influences passing through.

Her Daytrotter session astounds, as well. I don’t know why she keeps surprising me – after multiple exposure to her unorthodox and impressive play with words and sounds it seems like that shouldn’t be the case. Shouldn’t be. Though short at four songs, each resonates. “Born To,” from the new one, shines.

At the other end of the awesomely different / differently awesome spectrum sits The Lion, the Beast and the Beat, the latest offering from the ever-touring Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Having seen them four times now – fifth show in October at the incredible Tabernacle downtown – and collected their tunes over the last few years, I’m not too surprised that each outing gets infused with a little more carefully crafted pop, a few less rough edges and a little more polish. Part of me totally understands and is happy that the relentless touring and the well-honed songcraft is resulting in ever larger audiences and greater success, but part of me misses the band I saw performing a drunken-seeming, acoustic-and-wine-bottle-and-ice-bucket rendition of my first favorite song (“Paris“). In concert they remain, without doubt and without comparison, one of the best true rock bands touring at that level; the sludgy weight of the guitars on the slow ones, the builds, the blistering speed on the quick ones, and yes, even the more pop influenced turns are all performed masterfully and with enough improv and stage antics to keep them from becoming, for me, completely radio friendly wannabes. The duet with Willie on an older GP&N song, “Ragged Company,” is a great pairing but left me wanting more from the parts that had them singing at the same time. There wasn’t really any harmony, but the individual verses carry the same sense of deprecation as the original, and Willie’s gravelly delivery matched the phrasing perfectly.

Her forays into the Country realm leave nobody doubting her ability to do so (witness the Grammy nom on her very first outing,) but at the same time I wonder, “Why?” I know she’s having fun, and making a good living (I hope), and no artist wants to stay the same – evolving is as much a part of the process for them as it is for us mere mortals – but it feels like she’s pulling away, just a bit, from some of the stuff I initially loved best about her and the amazing band of gypsies in her traveling family. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, as evidenced in my first listening to Lion: just when I was starting to sense that pulling away sensation, the title track came on. It’s so layered, almost progressively so, and any doubts I was nurturing were temporarily and successfully allayed. The song rocks. The band rocks. The woman rocks. Please keep it that way, Grace.

I’m Jonesing for some live Madi Diaz. Hearing her recent Daytrotter session both helps soothe that urge and makes it stronger. I’ve only seen her live once, at the excellent listening room environment of Eddie’s Attic here in Atlanta, and she was enthralling. She’s both playful and deadly earnest in her performances, and just FUN to see and hear. She has a great knack for choosing covers, too- as evidenced in this session, where she takes Paula’s “Straight Up” and turns it from frothy pop to a darker, more plaintive and painful cry that cuts to the quick. Brilliant. (The rest of the cuts are just as strong.)

I haven’t ever written about Rush here, I think, probably because once I got started I may never stop. They were the first band I totally immersed myself in. Sure, I cut my teeth on the likes of Kiss, Aerosmith and others, and kidded myself into thinking they were great, heavy rock, but hearing Rush’s live set on “All the World’s a Stage” with my cousins at the beach in Charleston, SC totally changed me. Without exaggeration, that was the first time that music sliced into the heart of me, grabbed my head in both of its metaphorical hands and screamed, “Hold still! And LISTEN TO THIS!!” Those songs, and the albums they led me to, seemed to be the perfect response to my parents and others who were saying, “Turn that down! It’s just a bunch of noise anyway!”

Because it was anything but noise.

Without launching into a repeat of my senior thesis (high school, anyway) which was all about Rush and its influences, both given and taken, suffice it to say that they were my first favorite band, and I read every liner note, every scarce interview (no Internets back then, friends and neighbors,) anything and everything I could get my hands on.

So when they came out with Snakes and Arrows last time around, and this new one – Clockwork Angels – each of which hearkened back to the Rush that first yanked me away from mediocrity – I felt exactly like I did on that beach in ’77 or so.

Clockwork Angels is nothing if not ambitious. Like 2112, the gateway album for so many fans (including this one,) it tells a complicated but ultimately simple story. Draped in the accoutrements of Steampunk, another favorite genre, Neil Peart – drummer and lyricist extraordinaire – partnered with noted SF writer Kevin Anderson on a novel with the same name. The album tells the story in parallel with the novel, apparently – I haven’t been able to get a copy of the book yet – and there are definite reminders of 2112 sprinkled throughout. Even the intricate album art, something they’ve never skimped on, takes me back to those heady early days and all of those albums that I spent so many hours listening to, headphones tight and volume maxed.

The songs rock, the music is big, almost thick enough to grab onto and ride. The story is sound, if familiar: young man, anxious to leave his mundane day-to-day existence behind, travels the world, falls in and out of love, all while coming to terms with the Watchmaker, who controls the whole world and all of its clockwork machinery (angels included.)

I can easily envision them playing these tunes live in a few months, in the same arena we’ve seen them in three other times now, no opening act, one 15-minute break in their 3+ hour set. They make deep, heavy, intricate rock as pounding and as stirring as ever, and they make it look effortless. Keep it up, guys – it’s still a lot of fun to listen to.

Ryan Monroe was an accidental find – a very happy one. Part of the Band of Horses, his new solo album, A Painting of a Painting on Fire, may be the single best display of multi-genre expertise I’ve ever heard. So much so that all thought of genre – “What is this one? Funk? But that last one was 70’s California Country, wasn’t it?” – go happily out the window.

I heard “Turning Over Leaves” first, thanks to Paste’s awesome mPlayer, and couldn’t figure out why I liked it. It had everything I usually actively dislike in my rock and roll: a funky drum beat, a weird but infectious jazzy bass line, super deep Barry White-ish verses followed by a falsetto chorus. And I love it. It’s one of the only 5-star songs on my iPod at the moment, and was easily enough to make me want more.

There not another song like it on the whole album.

In the rest of those songs I hear James Gang-era Joe Walsh (and who else is channeling that awesome sound these days?), the 70’s CA sound referenced earlier, ELO (what?!), prog rock, and other majestic, multi-instrument, multi-layered Rock with a capital R. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake, nor do I ever get the feeling that he’s simply showing off his considerable musical prowess. I DO get the feeling that, when putting together a collection of his own songs, he played what he’d written, unrestricted by the pigeon hole people may put him in, and then had a blast laying them down. At least it sounds that way. Current favorite is “The Darkness Will Be Gone.”

Best, funnest all-the-way-through album I’ve heard in years. Even got a Twitter reply from him when I tweeted my fanboy pleasure after the first listen; asked him to please come to Atlanta or its nearby environs, and he basically said, “Hope so!”

I hope so, too.

In the meantime, I plan on catching him with his day job as they begin the steel breeze that is the Railroad Revival Tour, mark II. The last one featured Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and others as they traveled in 1940’s rail cars from California to NOLA, playing all along the way both on and off the train. This year’s crew included Band of Horses, Willie Nelson & Family, John Reilly’s band (yes, that John Reilly) and more, and they start the trip about 10 miles from my current location. Think I’m missing that? Not a chance.

That’s all for now – keep in touch and let me know what’s tickling your eardrums these days.

Later-

Note: I came across this piece I wrote back in April for someone’s “Remembered” column, and thought it worth reposting here. – MMD

In the waning days of 1969, a half-Black, half-Irish bass player and his drummer bud started a band, like so many of their generation were doing at the time. They met up with a couple of guitarists – the beginnings of a legion of them – and called themselves Thin Lizzy.

Phil Lynott was the driving creative force behind everything they wrote and recorded, and provided some of the best bass playing heard before or since. His smooth and slightly menacing vocals lent the tunes an authenticity absent from many of the bands of that period, and he always seemed to be sharing a joke with the listener – I was convinced that he could break out laughing at any time during almost any given song.

Lynott and original drummer Brian Downey met said guitarists, the Erics Bell and Wexon, who’d recently been backing up Van Morrison as Them and off they went. The Erics were used presumably used to mercurial, hard-drinking Irishmen, it seems, so they meshed well with Lynott from start. At least at first.

For the next five or six years success was elusive. Virtually nothing they recorded charted in either the UK or the States, and it wasn’t until the release of 1976’s “Jailbreak” that people began to take notice.

By this time they’d nearly perfected the twin guitar approach that was to become their signature, and which would be emulated by many of the metal bands to follow. But for most of the next decade they’d chase the level of success brought on by Jailbreak singles “The Boys Are Back in Town” and its titular track, and would never quite get there again.

I came to Lizzy late in the cycle – around 1984, when the bassist in one of the bands I mixed for in college turned me onto the live “Life” double disk. Although up to that point I’d pretty much confined my musical intake to hard and heavy rock (anything less was dismissed out of hand at the time,) it was my first exposure to the modern dual guitar attack that would so dominate my favorite music for the next few years.

We didn’t really consider them heavy metal at the time though their influence has been felt in some of that genre’s seminal bands, from Metallica to Mastodon. They were just good, hard rock and roll, using interesting and arcane subject matter and funkier arrangements than any of us, to date, had learned to appreciate. Iron Maiden was peaking at that point, and while some of the guys in our band were into the more mainstream metallurgists like Ratt, Poison, Skid Row and the like, none of those bands were for me – I used to joke that they were more like stainless steel compared to the truly heavy metal being mined by bands like Deep Purple, Maiden, and Thin Lizzy. (I didn’t consider Zeppelin as being heavy metal at the time, either – still don’t – but in many ways they were just as heavy, and they occupied a lofty spot in my pantheon, too, even if they weren’t producing anything new at the time. They didn’t really have to, with a canon like theirs in the vaults.)

I’d kid myself that I liked Lizzy because of their more literate and unusual lyrics, the historical Irish references, the outsider-ness of liking the unknown and the unloved, but when it came down to it I liked them for the simple reason that they ROCKED, and they did it harder and better than almost anyone I’d heard up to that time. Even those slow, tasty numbers like “Still in Love With You” and “The Sun Goes Down” have a weight and a lurking but unmanifested menace waiting just out of earshot. I couldn’t get enough, and the louder it got, the better I liked it.

The band and the bassist that first brought them to my ears ended up being the ones I lived, mixed and traveled with for the next several years, and we covered many cornerstone Lizzy pieces like “Angel of Death,” “Thunder and Lightning,” “The Sun Goes Down,” and others, and even if we didn’t play some of the outliers live they’d still make it into the practice sets because they were just so much fun to play, and to hear. I remember “Cowboy Song” as one of those – a romping good bit of fun that was basically a metallic take on a raunchy Country tune, and we liked it so much it often made its way into the live set, as well.

Coming late to the Lizzy game allowed me to miss much of their mediocre period, I think. Starting with the live recordings “Life” and “Live and Dangerous,” which are essentially greatest hits compilations on what some critics have called the best live recordings of the era, was a somewhat biased primer, to be sure, but it intrigued me enough to seek out some of the more esoteric meanderings from the earlier records. Like many who did the same, I found that some of it merited its relative obscurity, but there were definitely gems amongst the rubble, and I found them all.

The band had more guitarists – many more – than Spinal Tap had drummers. Some lasted longer than others, some left and came back, some were better than others. There were bar brawls between and among themselves and other bands, many featuring broken bottles and broken bones, and more than one tour-ending injury. The best and most enduring of this cadre included John Sykes, who would go on to play with Whitesnake and Blue Murder, and Brian Robertson, who would later play with Motorhead and others. My favorite of the lot, Gary Moore (RIP), joined Lizzy after stints with Blues masters B.B. and Albert King, then left Lizzy and came back numerous times. Lynott appeared onMoore’s solo album just before Phil’s death.

I remember that night very vividly; it remains one of the clearest memories from that time in my life.

Our drummer’s room was next to mine in the slightly ramshackle house we lived and practiced in, and around 4 AM one night in January of 1986 he came in and woke me up.

“Whaddaya want? What time is it?”

“Don’t know. But I just heard Phil Lynott died tonight.”

I was instantly and fully awake. We found a bottle, and went into the practice room and spun some Lizzy, waiting for the others to hear and come in. They did, and we played til the sun came up. And then we played some more.

I have yet to find as solid and as heart-pumping a finale to an album as the fourth side of the “Life” album. On it, Lynott brings back some of the band’s former guitarists to play on their signature songs: Brian Robertson for “Emerald;” Gary Moore for “Black Rose;” John Sykes on “Still in Love with You;” and Eric Bell for “The Rocker.” What I liked most, though, was that Lynott called them all out onstage at once, at the beginning of the side, and they all played each song together, the myriad disagreements and pettiness of the previous years forgotten for a moment, lost in the joy of the song.

On another tune from that ironically titled album Lynott sings that he has got to “Give it up. . . ooh, that stuff.” He was never able to do it, and it killed him.

All these years later I still get chills listening to that last side, and I can’t give them up yet, either.

Let’s get right to it.

So far this year I’ve found few albums that are stellar from start to finish. (Exceptions: Of Monsters and Men’s My Head is an Animal, Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America, Port of Morrow from The Shins and Chevelle’s Hats Off to the Bull.)

But now I can add to that list: Silversun Pickups has released an album at least as good as Swoon, their last effort, which I loved. Neck of the Woods has plenty of familiar sounds and feels, but enough that’s new to make it feel like a true step forward and not simply going back to the same old well. Favorite cuts include “Mean Spirits”, “Dots and Dashes”, and “Simmer”. Comparisons to Smashing Pumpkins aside (and they’re still out there, rightly) I’ve kept the entire thing on heavy rotation for the past few weeks, and find more to like about it every time I hear it.

Sara Watkins’ latest, Sun Midnight Sun, has many bright moments, to be sure. Guest spots abound, a great producer in Blake Mills (this generation’s T-Bone Burnett? A case can be made…) and some nice and shiny tunes all make for another pleasurable listening experience from the sweet-sounding siren. The first one that grabbed me by the ears and shook me to attention was the instrumental “The Ward Accord”, which plays to one of Sara’s great strengths: making new and modern music sound like it was written at the turn of the last century, and that she’s only recently discovered it and made it her own. This could easily have been played around the Rebels’ campfire in early July of 1863, the night before they wandered into town looking for some shoes. . .

As usual, I found a new band through their Daytrotter session in May. This time around it was Deaf Club, and their set in the Horseshack is wondrous. Don’t sleep on this one. (Decent Twitter presence, too, so tag along for the ride there, too. Follow them @DEAFCLUBmusic)

Rosie Thomas‘ Daytrotter set is also not to be missed. “Much Farther to Go”, which I’ve always loved, stands out in particular but the whole session is great.

As for the rest of the time since last I scribed, there seems to have been a dearth of great stuff – either that or I haven’t had enough time to unearth enough new sounds to rate and report on. I suspect it’s the latter, having logged close to 15,000 miles in the air for work in May. I’ve got close to 50 unrated new tunes in the bank, still, so hopefully the next time I’m here there will be more to share.

Until then- keep listening, and don’t forget to share some of your favorites, too.

In the first installment of what turned out to be a too-long attempt to recap the month of April I closed by saying, “… I didn’t even get to how Anais Mitchell’s album transformed me one morning while working last week, or how discovering honeyhoney’s Daytrotter session was one of the best surprises ever, and prompted me to buy their album, too (AND contribute to one of the great causes with which they’re affiliated, Feed Them With Music – check them out and give here), so they’ll all have to wait until next time.” It’s next time.

There really aren’t any words powerful enough to describe Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America, her latest full-length. Singing sometimes as the titular young man, sometimes as a character singing to or about him, and sometimes as someone seemingly unrelated to the storyline, the songs intertwine, weaving a tale at once tragic and beautiful. At several points it reminds me of her masterfully collaborative so-called “folk opera”, Hadestown – stark, simple, aching. The raw strength of these songs is belied by her soft, sometimes almost childlike tone and phrasing, which really only lends even more power to some of the more poignant lyrics. I dare you to listen to “The Shepherd“, for instance, and not be moved.

Finding honeyhoney was one of those very happy accidents that come along all too rarely. I’d gone to the Daytrotter site to grab another artist’s leavings, and scrolled down as I always do, sampling here, dropping in there, and for some reason listened a little longer to some of the honeyhoney tunes. I downloaded the short session and was promptly blown away, even though it was a little more twangy than I generally like. The lead singer reminded me of an even more drawl-ly Grace Potter – that same whiskey-soaked strength and honesty – but with banjo and fiddle behind it. I looked them up, hesitated not at all in buying their complete LP, and found a few really fun-looking videos. One of those was recorded as part of a Project called Feed Them With Music. Many artists are taking part in this effort, so check it out and see if you can help a little, too. Each song, it seems, has at least a few clever lines, like this one from “Don’t Know How“:

“I sold all my clothes to get rid of your smell

Smashed all the clocks that had the right time to tell

Me how long it has been since we parted ways

Don’t know how to leave you when I want to stay.”

One of the other finds I skipped last time has been right under my nose, metaphorically, while in reality being on the other side of the world most of the time. Robin Nievera is my nephew, and usually lives and records in the Philippines, like his famous parents and many other family members. He’s mastered the electric guitar at a relatively young age, and his first full album is a wonder, showcasing his songwriting, singing and performing talents in their best possible light. (I’d say that even if he wasn’t related. And anyway, what’s a little nepotizz among friends?) Check out “In 3’s” below, and then get, and dig, the whole collection, called Overwait. (And try to get that riff outta your head. You’re welcome.) Hopefully that title doesn’t refer to the period between now and his next offerings.

More recently, I’ve downloaded Silversun Pickups’ newest, Neck of the Woods, and while I haven’t rated the whole thing yet, I’ve heard enough to know it’s at least as good as Swoon, or anything else they’ve done. I also know that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve wished my car stereo went to 11 when one of these new tunes popped up. I’ll probably have more on them next time after I’ve fully digested the entire album, but for now check out “Make Believe”, “Mean Spirits”, “Simmer”, and “Gun-shy Sunshine”.

Also just secured Sara Watkins’ most recent collection, Sun Midnight Sun. I’ve only heard one song: “The Ward Accord” just popped up on shuffle and its instrumental loveliness told me right away that it could only be Sara. She’s long been a favorite of mine, from Nickel Creek days to being able to see her on tour, alone and in the Decemberists’ traveling band, and I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. She and brother Sean have been podcasting some truly wonderful shows from sunny CA, enlisting a motley and fun-loving (and sounding) crowd of like-minded and uber-talented friends to help (like Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench from Petty’s band, Jackson Browne and others), several of whom appear on the record. More on that one next time, too.

Sara Watkins, The Ward Accord from Sun Midnight Sun

Looking forward to Luka Bloom’s latest, as well, fresh off the mojo wire, and I’m sure I’ll be summing that one up here. (And since this site’s see-saw was been tilted WAY too heavily toward the Sounds section, I’ll have a Visions post up soon – my take on Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole, a novel set in the Dark Tower universe, somewhere between books 4 & 5. Don’t miss it.)

Until then keep listening, and don’t forget to share the sounds that have been spinning in your heads. Others wanna ride, too!

Here we are on the eve of the first of May, and my April recap starts with two instances that build from singles mentions last time out.

I’d only heard Of Monsters and Men’s track “From Finner” when last I wrote, but it was enough to pry a tweet from me, and to make me delve deeper. I sampled My Head is an Animal, their debut LP, and just a few seconds of a few songs was enough to convince me to buy. I haven’t regretted it since. “Little Talks” is the lone official video from the collection, and as if the music wasn’t charming enough the video totally enchants. I’ve yet to find a song on the album that makes me feel any differently, and it’s been in very heavy rotation of late.

 

I also wrote a line or two about the weirdly prolific and carefully eccentric Jack White last time, citing “Sixteen Candles” as being everything I’ve always liked about his quirky brand of unpolished rock. Once I heard Blunderbuss in its entirety I found much more to like, and for almost completely different reasons in every instance. As expected, I didn’t love every outing; by my rough calculation about two thirds of the tracks hit me with that inimitable blend of “Holy shit…” and “Haven’t I heard that somewhere before?” that always astounds and amazes me, and his warbling Tiny Tim-like croon pulled more than one appreciative laugh outta me on first listen. Standout tracks for me include “Weep Themselves to Sleep”, “On and On and On”, “Hypocritical Kiss” and the title track, which may be my favorite. Jack gets it, and whether he’s displaying his effortless prowess and understanding or being purposefully obtuse or goofy he’s one of the truly genuine artistes making relevant and unique sounds these days.

But thankfully not the only one, or this would be a much shorter entry.

April represented a high water mark for the number of shows I had scheduled – and included two more that I hadn’t planned – so Spring in Atlanta (and elsewhere) continues its string of such cornucopian seasons.

Early in the month I drove to The Melting Point in nearby Athens to see Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch, sans Village, and was once again amply rewarded for the effort. New two-person arrangements of songs I was familiar with, along with some new stuff and some novelties (like Abigail playing a kick drum while standing at the mic with her banjo, and Kai drenching the very air with aural torrents that pulsed and wove a lush backdrop for the two to play on), not to mention the Sweetwater Exodus on tap, made the drive totally worth it.

Kai & Abigail at The Melting Point in Athens, GA (4/06/12)

The Boxer Rebellion did some sound-drenching of their own at Center Stage in the middle of the month, and did not disappoint. The most pleasant surprise of the night for me, though, was how much I enjoyed their opener, Grouplove. I liked the only thing I’d heard from them prior to this, but had little expectation and no idea how energetic and just plain happy their music is. I caught myself laughing more than once at their onstage antics – they are obviously having the time of their lives, and it shows in every move they make.

The following week welcomed the Punch Brothers to the Variety Playhouse on what was a very busy day in Little Five Points. The Sweetwater 420 festival was happening just a few blocks away, and it was Independent Record Store day to boot, so hippies and hipsters abounded, and car traffic had to take a back seat to all of it. (Snagged some wicked cool vinyl, btw, at Criminal Records before the show: Sara Watkins’ single with Fiona Apple, pressed on sweet green vinyl; Bowerbirds; Grouplove; and Good Old War’s full length).

The Bros were, as I’d hoped, completely amazing. Consummate showmen and individually virtuosic on their respective instruments, playing as a unit they were near faultless. Exhibiting the same sense of fun and lightheartedness as Grouplove had the week prior, when they got serious we all felt it immediately, and they virtually smoked from the stage. Some choice covers, including a moving version of “The Weight” to close in honor of Levon, and a healthy representation from their latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? made it easily one of the best shows, start to finish, I’ve seen this year.

Opener Jesca Hoop was equally inspring, at least for me. Surprisingly, given the abundance of the hippie ideal in sight earlier, her brand of ethereal imagery and unusual (but achingly beautiful) delivery seemed lost on much of the audience. It was doubly surprising to me given that everyone was there to see Punch Brothers, the very representation of unorthodox, non-traditional approaches to traditional instruments and sounds. I was baffled, but I didn’t let it keep me from being transported to whatever space it is that Jesca calls home, or at least inspiration. Playing a white Les Paul with no other accompaniment (with the exception of Mr. Thile joining her on mandolin for one of hers – they sounded amazing together vocally and instrumentally) the songs I’d come to love from her fully fleshed-out album sound were made new, and were no less moving for it.

 

The first of the unplanned gigs presented itself while I was in Toronto for business. I always check Songkick and a few other sites like that when traveling, and every so often I get lucky – like finding the Girlyman gig while in Denver a few weeks ago, and finding out Death Cab was playing at Massey Hall while I’d be in Toronto.

This one is kind of tough to write about for a couple of reasons.

I loved the idea of seeing them at Massey – I have a decent live Neil Young album from the 70’s that was recorded there – and this would be the third time seeing them in the last two years. Both of the other shows (one at The Fox, one at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater with my girls) were stellar.

This one wasn’t, and I so wanted it to be.

They’ve changed up the setlist pretty drastically, presumably to accommodate their touring with the Magik Magik Orchestra, a 7-piece ensemble who played beautifully, and who opened the show with a nice long piece of stringed heaven.

I’m usually more than into it when bands dig deep into their backlog and play some of the more obscure, fan-friendly stuff, but that night it seemed like that’s all they were playing. I finally heard “Cath…”, one of my favorites, about 8 or 10 songs in, and I remember thinking, ‘OK, now we’re getting there…’ And we promptly went right back where we were before. I normally love Ben Gibbard’s writing and performing, and all of the band’s playing, but not long after that I did what I very rarely do – I can’t remember doing it in years.

I left.

I had a briefly magical moment on the walk back to the hotel, though, that redeemed the evening.

The show was on the same Thursday that brother Levon was called back home. As I was strolling along through a very nice Toronto evening I passed the local Hard Rock and figured I’d have a drink and pickup some swag for the crowd back in Atlanta. As I was checking out in the merch area I asked the very nice sales girl if she’d heard about Mr. Helms’ passing. “No!” she said, seeming to be genuinely taken aback. “Oh, man. You know Dylan first met the band here, right?”

“In Toronto?” I asked.

“No. In this building.”

Sure enough the first window of memorabilia on the way to the bar was a full case of albums, instruments and photos celebrating The Band, opposite a similar display of Bob Dylan pieces.

So I had a whiskey or two, toasted the man and the memories with a couple at the bar, and made my way back to the hotel.

The other unexpected show was a much more pleasant surprise.

Just last week I went to The Masquerade to see a band I knew nothing about, opening for a band I’d heard of but never from. Why? Because one of my daughter’s best friends in Atlanta is seeing the drummer for the opening band. Duh.

I’d met John from Concord America weeks before, and didn’t know he was a drummer, or in a band, or even Kate’s boyfriend. He seemed cool and we always made polite small talk. So to find all of that out about him, all at once, meant that I HAD to go to the show.

And, man, am I glad that I did.

They rocked. Hard. Borderline punk, but much more deep, fast hard guitar rock that at times reminded me of Zeppelin after a heavy session at Starbucks – I heard some Sabbath references in there, too, oddly enough – with some jaw dropping time changes that belied their years and experience.

But John himself was the biggest revelation. He was a beast on the drums, and I told him so afterwards. Pure energy – I was a little surprised his body could hold all of it without imploding. All of it was channeled into his kit, though, and pounded out the rhythm of the night for us, sometimes in a machine-gun staccato, sometimes painting softly with the brushes (but usually gunning…), always providing a solid backbone for the other guys to build on, which they did in high style. Check this one out – it’s more towards the punk end of the spectrum but represents their sound well, I think.

Another thing I told John that night: I will see them whenever and wherever they play again. Any time at all. You should, too.

That’s way too much for one entry, and I didn’t even get to how Anais Mitchell’s album transformed me one morning while working last week, or how discovering honeyhoney’s Daytrotter session was one of the best surprises ever, and prompted me to buy their album, too (AND contribute to one of the great causes with which they’re affiliated, Feed Them With Music – check them out and give here), so they’ll all have to wait until next time.

Keep your ears and eyes open til then, and let me know what’s been turning you on lately, too.

SOMEWHERE OVER PENNSYLVANIA – Sitting on a plane, en route to Toronto via Charlotte, having just read a slew of tweets about the impending passing of one of the pillars of old- and new-school Rock and Roll, has gotten me thinking. Nothing too morbid or macabre, just pondering the value we as a society sometimes place on a life lived in the spotlight. My tweeted response cited not one of his Band’s tunes, but one of Elton’s: “And he shall be a good man…” Be at peace soon, Levon.

Levon Helm has apparently led both a charmed and cursed life, if the media machine is to be believed. What we know or think we know is, of course, tainted by those machinations, and can probably never provide a completely accurate picture of a person’s life, but based on the ripples that sometimes appear indirectly, not reported by their handlers and consultants, Levon’s effect on his fellow musicians and countless fans has been an overwhelmingly positive and lasting one.

Like many, I suspect, I first heard his distinct and gravelly pipes on Scorsese’s cinematic homage The Last Waltz, chronicling The Band’s final show and playing host to a bevy of colleagues and admirers. As a whole I thought the movie and the majority of the performances somewhat mediocre. Having not heard or seen any of them in at least ten years or more, I can still list the few standouts, in my humble opinion:

Neil Young’s “Helpless”
Emmylou’s “Evangeline” (try not to hear Levon on the BGVs on that one, even when he’s not handling a verse on his own)
Clapton’s “Further on up the Road”
Joni’s “Coyote”

And two from The Band’s own canon:

Up on Cripple Creek“, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and of course, “The Weight“, all sung by the inimitable Helm.

The rest were, for me, OK. “Stage Fright”, “Carnival”, and the other Band songs were listenable, but never really lit me up. They sounded like what I always imagined they were: Dylan’s former backing band playing some of their own stuff, which frankly wasn’t stellar. (And how unfair to ever compare their non-Dylan work with his. Who could ever live up to that?)

The individual playing, like some of the songs themselves, had its high points. Robbie Robertson’s guitar was never less than adequate, but always seemed to me to be playing catch-up with whoever else was onstage with them. Garth Hudson’s keys were a presence, but an obvious one. Danko’s voice stood out well, but I can’t remember much about his playing.

(I promise this didn’t start out to be a Band bashing session, and still isn’t.)

But obviously, The Band had an effect on many of that and future generations, not least of all Martin Scorsese. I realized even then, and nothing has changed my opinion since, that had Scorsese not made his paean to this band that he so loved many people would likely never have known their names, or be able to cite more than a couple of their songs.

But that level of adoration and the turnout of their contemporaries made me wonder, was there more here than I was getting? Did I need to explore some more before so haughtily dismissing them?

I got Music from the Big Pink, their seminal album and a bellwether for the rest of the hippies of the time; more than one artist that I came to love has cited that album as being a major influence on their sound and recording techniques. It was… OK for me. I liked that they lived, partied and recorded in the big pink house, and you could definitely hear the organic nature of the sessions in every tune. Aside from the now-known pieces, though, again I was struck by how average it all sounded. (Granted, listening to it years after it was recorded, it was filtered through the many bands and performers who built on that sound to craft their own; perhaps it would have been more impactful had I heard it when it first came out, before those influences had taken hold and become the new norm.)

But one thing about the music always stood out for me, and always will.

Levon’s voice, so compelling and so real, even when he was keeping them all on the rails with his metronomic, polyrhythmic beat- maybe especially then. Here was this mostly Canadian band, self-professed and quite obviously of the 60’s movement in dress, music, politics and overall style, and then here’s this Southern-sounding boom coming from behind the kit, singing about everything from Yankees laying his relatives in the grave to girls named Bessie living up on Cripple Creek. The juxtaposition was profound, and for me the tunes helmed by Levon were the ones that rose above the rest.

He looked old even then, like he could be everyone’s Dad – just as we had no problem suspending our disbelief when, a few years later, he played Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Over the years that followed I kept trying to get into their solo stuff, thinking that with so many of the musicians I liked and respected showering them with kudos it must be me, I must be missing it. Some of Robertson’s collaborations were worth dropping in on. Danko did some interesting things. Manuel and Hudson popped up every now and again in the music media, but usually not for anything musical.

I remained underwhelmed.

Then, within the last ten years or so, I started reading about Levon’s now legendary Midnight Rambles, where he’d invite a select few musicians and an even more select group of listeners to his farm in upstate NY for what was in essence an old-fashioned guitar pull, albeit with decent sound systems and presumably great acoustics. Artists from Elvis Costello to Warren Haynes to Emmylou Harris to Donald Fagen played there, and the genre-crossing, egoless collaborations must have been wonders to behold in person. I hope to God that someone was recording those and that someday we’ll get to hear them.

That’s the sort of thing that’s always enthralled me: seeing and hearing some of my favorite artists in unusual environments, playing with people you might not have imagined them working with, and seeing what new sort of mojo comes out the other end. Covers, new arrangements of old tunes, shout-outs from the crowd – whatever they chose, the strange configuration of players and played-to always make for a special kind of spell, a renewed appreciation of the artists, and more importantly of Music with a capital M, reminding us why its magic will always have the power to move us so profoundly, and (sometimes) so surprisingly.

So if Levon passes soon, as seems to be the case, and at long last gets the peace he so deserves, he won’t get the coverage of a Whitney or a Michael, and that’s probably a good thing. He’ll be missed and mourned by those who truly knew and loved what he did: the musicians who played with him and those who were changed by his life and his tunes, and the fans of roots Music, of real Rock and Roll, played by real Rock and Rollers.

If, as the song says, “you know they got a Hell of a band…” in Rock and Roll heaven, you also just know they’ll be standing up and clapping him on home, making room on the riser and at the mic for a new voice. Keith and Bonzo can take a break, for a bit, or maybe they’ll play in the style of the truly Grateful Dead and the Allmans and have multiple drummers. Jimi, Jim and Janis will welcome the harmonies and the sentiments he’ll bring, and The Ox will enjoy working his beats into the new rhythm section. Jerry, Brian and Buddy will trade some licks on lead and rhythm, and though Rick Wright might be laying the bedrock with his spacey keys, I feel sure Richard Manuel will be at the head of the line, waiting to hug his bandmate and to play the old songs once again.

While many of those players burned bright and fast, leaving too soon and cementing their legendary status too young, Levon managed to burn long, sometimes smoldering just under the surface, sometimes blinding with brilliance, always making himself heard.

Good thoughts and positive vibes to his daughter, Ollabelle’s Amy Helm, so ably continuing in the family business, and to his wife and family and friends. You must be so proud of your daddy, Amy, and relieved that he’ll soon be free from pain at last.

Peace be with you, Levon. Thanks for everything, all through the years – and see if you can slip a recorder or two into some of those Elysian sessions for us, where surely you’ll shame the angels with your sound. We’d love to hear more.