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 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.
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
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.
Someone has asked me if I could do a post on music that would complement a dinner party. While I muse on this, I’ve decided to write about music that would, instead, go down like a lead zeppelin over the creamed celeriac and braised pork belly (this is an easy job as the bulk of my collection falls into this murky category(!)). Continue reading
I have been carrying on an unrequited love affair with Ryan Adams for many years now. It all started in 2003 when I was listening to a Beth Orton song, ‘Concrete Sky’. I found myself focussing on the voice supporting her. It was a voice I wanted to climb into, the perfect foil to Beth Orton’s quirky Londontown sound.
The track is here if you’d like to listen to it (try and hang in there until the 2min, 33 mark):
[spotify id=”spotify:track:3YztNqzvjF7MKI3Rm40qfo” width=”300″ height=”380″ /]
It’s the middle of winter, with perfect storm conditions brewing outside. You’ve settled yourself on the couch in your comfy, ‘at-home’ clothes (more commonly known as pyjamas) when you remember you’re meant to be downtown meeting friends at a bar. A no-show is out of the question and you’ve used the flu-card too many times lately. Now would be the time to put some music on that actually makes you feel like getting out there. I’ve used this technique many times and, apart from a spot of concentrated pre-loading, it’s the next best thing to ensure you fling off your slippers and head on out.
But what to listen to? Continue reading
So, who’s up today?
First, the name – Bon Iver. It’s from the french phrase bon hiver, meaning ‘good winter’. I, of course, mispronounced it for quite a long time, saying it loudly and confidently until a kind and sympathetic soul whispered the correct pronunciation in my ear. Since then I’ve found I’m not alone: