I’ve been transfixed lately by a beautiful new album by Virginian couple Lauren and Daniel Goans, otherwise known as Lowland Hum. If you’re in the mood for some Van Morrison or Cat Stevens, play this instead. The music is simple and unadorned with lyrics focussed firmly on the outdoors. As they aptly note in third track In Flight, ‘sometimes a walk is all you need.’
Every month Rolling Stone magazine recommends ten new country/Americana artists to hear. It’s a good read and covers the whole spectrum of the massive country genre – from the traditional sounds of Hank Williams/Loretta Lynn to honky-tonk that is pushing right up against other genres, such as funk and soul. The writing has some refreshingly gentle humour in it too: Newcomer Devin Dawson is described as sounding like ‘John Mayer, if he’d grown up listening to Garth Brooks and worried more about other people’s feelings’; and Lucas Hoge as ‘easygoing, optimistic pop-country that won’t upset any delicate constitutions.’ The link is at the bottom of this post.
We’ve got some very talented alt-country/alt-folk artists in the Southern hemisphere too – here are a few I’ve been listening to lately:
Julia Jacklin, from the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, is a classically trained singer who produced a debut album last year full of confessional, bittersweet alt-country gems. It doesn’t surprise me that she loves Fiona Apple. She’s in concert in Auckland on May 27th at the Tuning Fork – go see her if you can.
Aldous Harding and Marlon Williams – both Kiwis, both immensely talented singer-songwriters. This creative couple live in the artsy hub of Lyttleton. Williams blew everyone away with his debut album Marlon Williams. He’s got huge stage charisma and a resonant arresting voice. Harding is equally mesmerising. She is incredible in concert, as if her life depends on the delivery of each song.
Another Kiwi to watch is Nadia Reid. Music critics all over the globe are smitten with her music, largely due to her warm, intimate voice. Her latest album ‘Preservation’ is a spare listen, just her voice and an acoustic guitar, but it’s full of interesting utterances that can catch a listener by surprise. Nadia is touring NZ end of March, early April and tickets will be selling fast. Click on this for info http://nadiareid.com. Sing on NZ!
….warned Virgil in his poem The Aeneid. Laura Marling, a talented British singer-songwriter with both wisdom and a voice far beyond her 27 years, found the quote hilarious and had part of it tattooed on her thigh: ‘Semper Femina’ in Latin. Over the years the phrase grew into a nine track album. On it Marling sings
‘Oh Nouel, you sit so well
A thousand artists’ muse
But you’ll be anything you choose
Fickle and changeable are you
And long may that continue.’
Semper Femina is Marling’s sixth album and one of her best. The spotlight is on female friendships – relationships that have saved her, others more fractured and complex, all meaningful in some way. You can hear Marling’s influences at play: Joni Mitchell in ‘Nouel’; Nick Drake in ‘The Valley’; Neil Young in ‘Nothing Not Nearly’. But it is the close of the album that has stayed with me – the sound of determined footsteps, a slammed door. These mirror the sounds in the closing act of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Dolls House, as Nora Helmer leaves her husband and children in order to find herself. The year was 1879.
Although Semper Femina doesn’t hurl its message full throttle at the listener, there is certainly a clear statement running through it – that woman can be as fickle and changeable as she wants, as she is free to be.
The British 3-piece are back with the first single from their forthcoming album – and it’s very lovely – a full minute of woozy instrumentation before we hear the almost Gregorian voices of Gus Unger-Hamilton and Joe Newman. I love the classic soft rock in the chorus at around the 2:38 mark (think REO Speedwagon), and of course Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowtree making a cameo appearance in the last minute of the song. Bliss.
Blond, Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean has been MIA since 2012’s excellent channel Orange. Well, this is what he’s been up to in the interim. Blond is an exceptional album, managing even to rise above the public pressure preceding it. Listening to Blond you can hear a myriad of influences but it all ends up sounding fresh and original. Ocean is indefinable as an artist, unlike many of his contemporaries, although don’t expect the songs on Blond to end up on a top 40 chart anytime soon. There are no anthemic hits or big bangers but the feel of the entire album is wondrously moody. There are also some hilarious cameos: his mum; a friend burnt by Facebook; his 11 year old brother. Brilliant.
Highlights: Nu-RnB ‘Pink + White’ with backing by Beyonce, the Beatle-esque ‘White Ferrari’, gorgeous ‘Godspeed’ featuring gospel legend Kim Burrell.
Blond is not on Spotify. You gotta buy!
Love and Hate, Michael Kiwanuka
Michael Kiwanuka’s album Love and Hate is a glorious, sprawling sophomore release from the talented North-Londoner. It’s a big departure from his ‘safe’ debut album Home Again that, although it showcased his warm soulful voice and superb guitar skill, kept within the traditional boundaries of RnB and soul. This album is another thing altogether.
Highlights: Epic opener ‘Cold Little Heart’, Gospel-infused ‘Black Man in a white World.’
I have to admit I’ve been solo day-dancing to this. It’s an ode to all of you who were teenagers in the real 80’s. So is Roosevelt authentic? I couldn’t say it better than excruciatingly-hip Pitchfork magazine: Roosevelt is ‘a cocktail of disco, French touch, Ibiza house, yacht rock, and electropop that evokes some crowded Tiki-torch dancefloor lost on the Mediterranean coast. Even the artwork plays the part: Roosevelt (aka Cologne-based producer/DJ Marius Lauben) stands awash in purple light, his name displayed in a sharp, 1980s cursive. It looks like something you’d find on a poolside coffee table of a Malibu mansion after a massive rager, slightly stained with suntan lotion and margarita mix.’
‘Yacht pop’ – wow, there is such a thing!
Highlights: You’ll find your own depending on your stamina but mine – ‘Fever’, ‘Wait Up’, ‘Night Moves’
The cover art of James Blake’s wonderful new album ‘The Colour in Anything’ is a visual representation of the musician. It was painted by the other Blake, 83 year old Sir Quentin, and shows Blake donned in an overcoat in a wintry English park, the sparse trees inhabited by menacing black crows.
The artwork reflects the musical world in which James exists – a moody, colourless, smudged sonic palette. This is not to say that his music is dreary. Rather, he has humanised electronic dance music, by adding in elements of R&B, soul and folk. And then there is his warm choir boy voice which he uses as another instrument by cutting it to pieces and layering it so we often hear a multitude of Blake’s on one song. The last track on the album, the reflective ‘Meet You in the Maze’ showcases this.
I’ve loved Blake’s voice ever since I first heard him on his self-titled debut album in 2011. He followed this with ‘Overgrown’ in 2013 for which he won the Mercury Prize. Never a truer line was sung than ‘suddenly I’m hip’ on the atmospheric ‘Retrograde.’
Just as Blake lent his voice to Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’, so have Bon Iver and Frank Ocean collaborated with Blake on ‘The Colour of Anything.’ You’ll hear Bon Iver’s unmistakeable voice on ‘I Need a Forest Fire.’ Try to ignore the whoop at the start of the song – it’s really got under my skin!
Album highlights: All of it but if I had to pick – ‘Radio Silence’, ‘Put That Away and Talk To Me’, ‘Modern Soul’, ‘Meet You in the Maze.’
The Milk Carton Kids are a folk-duo from California whose music has been likened to Simon and Garfunkel, The Everly Brothers, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. They are known for their gorgeous harmonies, clever guitar work and near-perfect song craft. To date the Milk Carton Kids have released four albums, all to critical acclaim, and bagged a grammy nomination and an Americana Music Award for their efforts.
Can’t get these guys…
..out of my head when I listen to this track:
Three of their four albums are on Spotify. You can check them out here:
Notoriously private singer-songwriter Ray laMontagne has released his 6th studio album, the gorgeous ‘Ouroboros’. It is recorded in two parts and deserves to be listened to in its entirety. Continue reading
It’s somewhat presumptuous to be naming this year’s best album in April but, let’s be realistic, Sufjan’s ‘Carrie and Lowell’ could only be toppled by something earth-shatteringly magnificent.
Dad and I have just returned from the UK, a two week holiday to mark his 90th birthday. One night, over a bottle of sauvignon blanc, I asked him if he wanted to be young again. ‘Of course,’ he said without hesitation, ‘I wish I could go back to being 48.’ I was surprised, being only a couple of years north of that myself and already feeling somewhat ancient. He saw my reaction and smiled. ’48 is the age when the last of you was born’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t want to be alive if you weren’t.’
Early the next morning, as I was rambling around the country lanes in Rye while Dad slept, a song by Father John Misty came on my playlist. This one:
It’s from Misty’s album Pure Comedy which was released in April. I had listened to the album a couple of times but, missing the rich vaudeville feel of his previous albums, I’d left it at that. But this time was different. Whether it was seeing the world through a 90 year old’s failing eyesight or not, the song got to me. And that’s all you need with music isn’t it – to affect you in some way – to make you move or sing along or have a bloody good long sob (the latter in my case as I understood there can never be a magic mountain). The rest of the album followed easily.
Father John Misty, a self-described ‘sarcastic Michael Buble’, is an outlier in the indie music world as he is possibly more fascinating than his music. He was once the drummer for the sleepy Fleet Foxes before he busted out with a rakish performance on Letterman’s Late Show singing ‘Bored in the USA’.
On Pure Comedy he espouses 70 minutes of home truths which could be sanctimonious if the songwriting wasn’t so damn brilliant. He delivers biting, cutting lyrics in a voice so smooth it’s easy to forget he’s ranting about climate change, social media, religion and politics. I had a nagging sense of deja vu all the way until I realised what I was really listening to was a millennial Elton John in the midst of a depressive episode. It’s on stalks in this track:
If Pure Comedy gets under your skin, have a listen to Misty’s previous albums: Fear Fun and I Love You, Honeybear. He has also released a number of songs under his real name, Josh Tillman. They’re exceptionally maudlin. I love them but many don’t.
Another beautiful and thought-provoking album is Sampha’s Process. It’s honest, intensely melodic and moving. You may have already heard Sampha’s husky soulful voice on albums by Solange, Kanye West, Drake, FKA Twigs and Frank Ocean. Now, with his debut album, he has come into his own.
One of many highlights is ‘(No one knows me) like the piano’, a gorgeous ode to his mother who passed away during the recording of the album:
Rounding out this clever trio is Aldous Harding with her second album Party. I can’t stop listening to it and I’m wickedly envious of anyone lucky enough to get tickets to see her this June (http://www.undertheradar.co.nz/news/12568/Aldous-Harding-Announces-Two-Intimate-Shows-At-Aucklands-Historic-Pah-Homestead.utr).
Harding has two voices – one reminiscent of Kate bush or Joanna Newsome, the other PJ Harvey – and each as captivating as the other. What astounds me about this album is both its quiet power and Harding’s deft control as she unfolds her thoughtful lyrics. Party is not something you’ll want to dance to, but it is a mesmerising and addictive listen.
I admire those couples who can both live and work together harmoniously. Given there are a swag who can barely coexist, these star twosomes deserve a happy stamp on each hand. It’s even better when the fruit falling from such compatible pairing is in the form of one magical album after another. So who are these rare and envied beings? And do they write songs about who forgot to put the rubbish out? Continue reading
Breakup albums. I’ve got a fair few on my ‘Albums I Listen to Incessantly and Never Tire of’ list: Ryan Adams’ ‘Heartbreaker’ is one, http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/36-heartbreaker/, and Beck’s ‘Sea Change’ another, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/100-best-albums-of-the-2000s-20110718/beck-sea-change-20110707 . I like these particular albums, not because I have schadenfreude tendencies, but because unexpectedly raw beauty has been created by two artists, neither of whom were previously known for their overly-sensitive sides. Beck sat on his twelve songs for two years not wanting to ‘strew his baggage across the public lobby.’ I suppose with track names like ‘Guess I’m Doing Fine,’ ‘Lonesome Tears’ and ‘Already Dead’ there could have been accusations of wallowing self-indulgence. Although the album is awash with lush string arrangements, the lyrics are so honest, so stricken yet delivered in a deadpan detached tone, that any hint of sentimentality doesn’t get a look in. Continue reading
Recently I attended a reader’s and writer’s session given by Patrick Ness, author of the fantastic young-adult ‘Chaos Walking‘ trilogy, six novels and a collection of short stories. His most recent novel, ‘The Crane Wife‘ is a damn good read. When I first saw ‘The Crane Wife’ in my local bookshop, I didn’t immediately think of the Japanese fable but rather of the album of the same name by indie folk rock band, The Decemberists. I picked up the book and, on the first page, these lyrics:
‘And all the stars were crashing round
As I laid eyes on what I’d found.
In the R & W session Patrick talked about his love of music and how he endeavoured to create stories that have the same feel and mood as the songs he loves. Each one of his books is crafted with a particular song in mind and, in the case of ‘The Crane Wife’, it is The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife Part 1 & 2. Here it is here – hang in until the 5.35 minute mark when the languorous and melodic second part starts:
I find a lot of new music from public or student radio stations that can be streamed into my living room from all over the place. A couple I listen to regularly are: The Current, Minnesota Public Radio http://www.thecurrent.org/listen; and, because I’m a Kiwi and like to hear what’s going on in my back yard, Radio Active, Wellington NZ http://www.radioactive.co.nz/. If I like a song, I’ll jump onto Spotify on my computer and listen to the artist’s top tracks (Spotify lists them in ‘popularity’ order), and entire albums if I love what I’m hearing.
Listening to radio ad infinitum can be very time consuming, particularly for the frantically busy individual. This is where Spotify is brilliant. All you need is the name of a band, or even a song, that you’ve recently heard and like – perhaps a friend’s recommendation or one from this Blog, let’s say ‘Death Cab For Cutie‘ – plug it into ‘Spotify’ and it will throw a whole bunch of similar artists right back at you.
Here’s how you do it:
First you need to download the Spotify App. which you can do by visiting the official Spotify website. I recommend the ‘Premium” service simply because you can then listen to songs on your mobile phone – perfect if you’re trying to multi-task by combining listening time with dog-walking/running/power-walking/supermarket shopping/traffic-crawling…. The Premium service costs NZ$12.99/US$9.99 per month. There is a free service (with limited listening hours) and an ‘Unlimited’ service but then you are chained to your desk.
Once you have Spotify up and running on your computer, find and click the ‘radio’ button in the menu on the left of the screen. Now, click the ‘Create new Station’ on the top right. In the search box that appears, type in ‘Death Cab For Cutie’. Click their name when it appears under “Artist” and, voila, Spotify will start to play music that is similar (by genre and decade) until you decide enough is enough and press ‘pause’. You can also make playlists of all the songs you hear and like, share songs with friends or listen to specific genre radio stations.
Two important thoughts:
- If you like what you hear please buy the album, particularly if you have subscribed to the free service.
If you have linked your Spotify account to your Facebook account (or joined Spotify through Facebook) everything you listen to will be up in lights on your FB friends’ news-feeds. If you don’t want people to see what you’re listening to, go into the settings menu and check ‘private session’. You’ll need to do this each time you use Spotify.
I’ve included a link to an article (courtesy of Mashable) comparing Pandora and Spotify for those in the US: http://mashable.com/2013/03/01/spotify-vs-pandora/
Staying on the computer, there are a myriad of excellent music sites to browse – here’s a few I like: Pitchfork; Drowned in Sound; The Quietus; Stereogum; and Sputnik. These sites have ‘Best of’ lists of albums and songs which are a quick and easy way to get started. A helpful site to investigate, when you’d like to know more about a particular album, is Metacritic. It usefully collates all the critic reviews in one place and provides an overall rating for the album.
A lot of people use the Shazam app. for songs they hear and like. Shazam identifies the artist/band and song name.
The more traditional ways of finding new music generally involve moving away from your gadgets. It’s all very well sitting in a darkened room in front of a screen, comfy in your shabby dressing gown and polyester sox but it can be hard on both your vitamin D levels and rapidly-waning social skills. Trust me, I know. You can save yourself a post head-phones headache and go and see a band you’ve never heard of. If you don’t like them, well, at least you’ve had a night out with some real humans. You may become an obsessive fan. I talked to a classical pianist the other day who had just discovered Radiohead. He now knows their entire back catalogue, every lyric Thom Yorke has ever uttered and every instrument they’ve ever played – I’m impressed by that sort of commitment.
I know it seems obvious but if you hear something you like, in a cafe or at someone’s house, ask (or download Shazam). Commit it to memory (aka put it in ‘Notes’ on your phone) and check it out later on Spotify. I discovered Gillian Welch years ago in cafe in Wellington (thank you, Deluxe). A lot of my music recommendations also come from friends – the ones who are mad about it – and I mean ‘mad’ in an entirely unhealthy way. Talking to people about music can be a revelation in itself and a helluva lot more interesting than house renovations, university deadlines and badly-behaved pets.
Compelling and unconventional with a memorable voice, 33 year old Natasha Khan has been likened to Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Bjork. However Khan, more commonly known as Bat For Lashes, is carving her own track with her emotive, and sometimes theatrical but never ordinary, indie-pop/dream-pop songs.
Khan had produced three albums since 2006: ‘Fur and Gold‘; ‘Two Suns‘; and last year’s ‘The Haunted Man‘. What I love about her music is that it’s unpredictable and catchy all at the same time. There is a jubilance, an exhilarating freedom, in many of the choruses to her songs that grabs you unexpectantly (especially given the raw subject-matter). Khan’s voice is the centrepiece of everything and its authentic quality holds us steady amongst the noise – the stirring orchestral strings, the all-male backing choirs, the emergence of unusual instrumental sounds that are purely electronic in origin. And, somehow, it all seems to work.