Archive for November, 2009

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #9 – Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks

Posted in The Jayhawks, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 16, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

The Jayhawks are one of the most respected acts to come out of the early days of the alt-country movement. Led by Gary Louris and Mark Olson, The Jayhwaks won a legion of fans with their Byrds inspired jangle pop/country sound and their extremely tight vocal harmonies. The formula worked to perfection on three wonderful albums… 1989’s Blue Earth, 1992’s Hollywood Town Hall, and 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass.

Despite the band’s success, founding member Olson left the group following the Tomorrow the Green Grass tour to pursue other projects. With the departure of his songwriting and vocal partner, Louris could have called it quits as well, but decided to keep the band together and keep releasing albums under the Jayhawks name.
Critical reviews were split on The Jayhawks first two post-Olson releases… 1997’s Sound of Lies and 2000’s Smile. On these releases, Louris seemed to abandon the group’s signature rootsy blend to explore a sound that drew from more pop and rock influences. Without Olson by his side, Louris took the opportunity to experiment a bit and try to expand his sound. He did so even while many fans were waiting and and hoping for a return to The Jayhawks sound of old.
In 2003, that return came in the form of the album Rainy Day Music.
The album’s opening track, “Stumbling Through the Dark,” begins with a finger picked riff that clearly recalls the band’s Byrdsian influences before settling into a loping country beat. The band’s trademark harmonies reappear here as well. This time, however, Louris blends with drummer Tim O’Reagan instead of Olson.
The next track is “Tailspin,” a song that adds an element of rock to the proceedings all while still featuring banjo (played by Bernie Leadon) and steel guitar. This track, along with the folksy rockers “The Eyes of Sarahjane” and “You Look So Young” go the furthest to remind me of the sound The Jayhawks so masterfully captured on Hollywood Town Hall.
The quieter moments on the disc play well here too. “All the Right Reasons” features harmony vocals from alt-popster Matthew Sweet (who also co-wrote “Stumbling Through the Dark”) and is a touching love song without being saccharine. The album closing trio of “Tampa to Tulsa,” “Will I See You in Heaven,” and “Stumbling Trough the Dark (Acoustic)” also provide a nice easy bookend to the proceedings.
Rainy Day Music doesn’t quite stand up to the level of the work The Jayhawks were doing when Olson and Louris were still a pair, but it does hearken back to that sound. This was also one of the albums that was very instrumental in shaping my appreciation of the Americana genre in the early part of this decade. For that reason, it belongs in my Top 10.
The Jayhawks: Tailspin (Buy Album)
The Jayhawks: All the Right Reasons (Buy Album)

Random Weekend Post: How to Play Guitar

Posted in Luke Doucet, The National on November 14, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably spent some time at some point trying to figure out how one of your favorite artists plays a certain song.

Ofcourse, if you’re really like me, then you have no idea how to play any musical instruments, and the endeavor of trying to figure out something like that makes your head hurt and is ultimately fruitless.

Luckily, two of my favorite artists have posted some YouTube videos to tell us all how to play a few of their songs. Blog favorites Luke Doucet and The National have posted a couple of handy tutorials on how to play a couple of tracks.

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade: #10 – Back to Me

Posted in Kathleen Edwards, Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 12, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Released in 2005, Kathleen Edwards’ sophomore effort Back to Me had some big shoes to fill in attempting to live up to her debut album Failer. All that album did was get nominated for “Album of the Year” at the Americana Music Awards (Kathleen lost to Johnny Cash), prompt the AMA to create a “Best New/Emerging Artist” category the following year, and place the Canadian songwriter on the map as a new and important voice in Americana music.

Fortunately, Back to Me was able to live up to expectations and deliver on the promise shown by Kathleen on her debut disc. The album opener “In State” sets the tone for the proceedings by giving us a glimpse at the hard edged persona that is so often present in her songs. This track serves as a warning to the singer’s no good man that he needs to clean up his act before she tells what she knows and gets him locked up in a state pen. As Kathleen puts it, “I know where the cops hang out./I know where you’ll be found./I know what you’re all about./I know when you’re going down.” We’ve all been warned that Kathleen is not to be messed with.
The attitude shows up again on the album’s title track in the form of a scorned lover who is determined to use every trick at her disposal to make her man come back. The attitude turns to incredulousness on “What Are You Waiting For?” (a song I recently featured in my “Songs I Can’t Play on the Radio” post) when the subject of the song tells Kathleen he likes her better in his memory. Her response is classic.
Of course, the album has its tender moments as well. “Copied Keys” is a very heartfelt song about picking up roots and moving to a strange place to be with someone you love. It’s not hard to feel displaced at times in a new town. Kathleen captures those feelings perfectly.
Musically, Kathleen creates an inviting roots-rock sound that brings a sense of warmth to her often confrontational lyrics. I’ve described her sound before as as what you might expect if Tom Petty and Lucinda Williams had a daughter who grew up in Canada listening to Neil Young. Kathleen herself has cited Petty as the biggest influence on her sound. That’s never more apparent as in the guitar solo on the title track. The fact that Heartbreaker Benmont Tench appears on the album certainly doesn’t hurt that comparison either.
I could have easily placed any of Kathleen Edward’s three albums on this list. I love all three. There’s something about this one though that just puts it over the top for me. Here are two of the tracks that I mentioned above.
Kathleen Edwards: In State (Buy Album)
Kathleen Edwards: Copied Keys (Buy Album)

Top 10 Americana Albums of the Decade 2000-2009

Posted in Top 10 Americana Albums: 2000-2009 on November 12, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

It’s getting to be that time of year again. As we get closer to December the stream of new releases starts to slow, and we start to look back at the music of the past year to determine which releases were the most vital and essential. I’ve been paring down my list and will share it with you as we get closer to the new year. Keep your eyes peeled for info on a massive collaborative list that a few bloggers (myself included) will be working toward over the next month as well.

The thing that makes this year unique (as my wife reminded me recently) is that the end of this year also marks the end of a decade. That makes this an excellent time to look back at the last ten years and share my favorites with you. Over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to share with you a few albums from the last ten years that really defined the decade for me musically.
This year also marks the 10th Anniversary of The Americana Music Association. I think it only fitting then… since this is the decade that gave rise to the Americana movement… that my list be limited to the Top 10 Americana releases of the decade. The list will combine my favorite albums and the albums that meant the most to me as I discovered and devoured the sounds of Americana over the last ten years. The only rule is that an artist can only make the list once… no multiple entries from the same artist.
Feel free to discuss and disagree with my choices. I hope to have the first installment posted later today.

Brandi Carlile: Give Up the Ghost

Posted in Brandi Carlile on November 11, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Before I get into my review of Brandi Carlile’s new album Give Up the Ghost, I want to share a bit of my personal history with Brandi’s music.

I first became aware of Brandi back in 2005 when my Music Director at Morehead State Public Radio gave me a copy of her self-titled debut. My boss was already pretty excited about the album herself and wanted to make sure I didn’t overlook it when I was checking out that week’s new releases. She didn’t have to worry. After one spin, I was immediately charmed by Brandi’s voice and confident swagger on songs like “What Can I Say” and ” Throw it Away.”

The songwriting was mature, the songs were fully realized, and the sound was huge. The chorus of “Throw it Away” was especially explosive with multiple vocal tracks, a driving backbeat, and a tidal wave of guitars that blended into something Heavenly.
The song that really pulled me in, however, was “Closer to You.” At the time, I lived in Kentucky, and my wife to be lived in Tennessee. I found this song really helped me make it through all of my late night drives to Knoxville. The shuffling drum beat propelled me down the highway in my own attempt to be closer to the one I loved.
Brandi Carlile: Closer to You (Buy Album)

When Brandi’s sophomore album The Story was released in 2007, my wife and I were on vacation in Myrtle Beach. We knew we wanted the album, but weren’t sure where to find it in a strange city. We drove around Myrtle Beach looking for a record store where we could buy a copy. After an unsuccessful search for a local shop, we ended up grabbing a copy at a place I normally avoid… Best Buy. I’m glad we did, because the album quickly became a large part of the soundtrack for our trip.
Soon after, it became part of the soundtrack for a large portion of the country as well when a couple of the tracks for the album were optioned for use in major national advertising campaigns by General Motors (“The Story”) and J.C. Penny (“Have You Ever”). The Story also got a major push from the TV show Grey’s Anatomy. It wasn’t the first time Brandi’s music showed up on Grey’s (three songs from the debut album were used on the show), but this time the show was used as a vehicle to launch the World Premier of Brandi’s new music video. It was a move that helped Brandi reach a larger audience and helped place her firmly in the public consciousness as an artist to be reckoned with.
The standout track here is the title cut. Brandi’s vocal is especially raw and highlights why Paste Magazine recently called Brandi’s the “Best Voice in Indie Rock.” Producer T-Bone Burnett recorded the vocals live in one take and kept some imperfections in the mix that help bring the track to life. Notice the crack in Brandi’s voice during the song’s cathartic climax (just before the 3:00 mark). It adds a notch of vulnerability and helps to ground the track.
Brandi Carlile: The Story (Buy Album)
All of this leads to Brandi’s new record Give Up the Ghost.
Of course, we got this one the day it came out last month, and I’ve listened to it several times since then in an attempt to get a full sense of the album before reviewing it.
The verdict? I like it… quite a lot really. The highlights are plentiful.
We’ll start with the album’s opening track, “Looking Out.” It starts out with Brandi’s trademark acoustic guitar strums and a search for answers…
“And when I asked the corner preacher,
I couldn’t hear him for my youth.
Some people get religion.
Some people get the truth.
I never get the truth.”
The whole thing seems rather ominous and bleak until the chorus comes along to serve as an affirmation and shine a light on the darkness. Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls adds some brightness to the proceedings as well with her wonderful harmony vocals.
Other highlights include guest appearances by Elton John on the rollicking piano driven “Caroline,” Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) on the sombre “Pride and Joy,” and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith popping up in multiple spots… most noticeably alongside John on “Caroline.” Elton John even loaned his musical collaborator Paul Buckmaster to Brandi for the project. Buckmaster arranged the strings on “Pride & Joy.”
As diverse as the guests are… the music covers a wide spectrum as well. In one four song stretch in the middle of the album things flow from the pop flavored, drum driven single “Dreams” to the delicate “That Year,” a song about the suicide of one of Brandi’s high school friends. From fragile to fabulous, the proceedings then immediately move on to the bouncy “Caroline” and the slow-building arena rocker “Before it Breaks.” Brandi shows tremendous range in both her songwriting and her vocal performance. Expect her to stay on the scene for a while.
I’ll leave you with the opening track from Give Up the Ghost, a song I mentioned earlier, “Looking Out.” I think it’s also worth mentioning that Brandi has started her own charitable foundation called The Looking Out Foundation that raises money for a variety of other charitable groups. Brandi donates one dollar from each concert ticket she sells to the foundation. You can find out more at Brandi’s website.
Brandi Carlile: Looking Out (Buy Album)
Edit: I have removed the mp3 links from this post due to a copyright infringement claim against this post. By the way… I still have the email from Brandi’s record label where I’m given permission to post links to the mp3s and another email where they tell me how much they love the post and thanking me for writing it. Not that any of that matters to the people who keep filing these claims…

Random Weekend Post: WDVX Blue Plate Special

Posted in Blue Plate Special, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Jay Clark, Mike Farris on November 7, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Here are a few videos of performances at the WDVX Blue Plate Special. This is a live concert series that takes place every day at noon in down town Knoxville. Every day, people gather downtown to socialize, have lunch, and watch some live music. Did I mention that the shows are free to attend?

We’re in the middle of our Fall Fund Drive at WDVX. We are a listener supported radio station, and we rely heavily on listener donations to stay on the air. By making your tax deductible donation to WDVX you support programs like the Blue Plate Special and 24-7-365 programming of bluegrass, classic country, blues, folk, alt-country, and Americana music. You also help make sure that I have a job.

Sorry for the sales pitch… please enjoy some music from Mike Farris, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and local favorite Jay Clark.

Jay’s performance took place on Halloween last year if you’re wondering. He doesn’t always dress like Elvis. He’s also joined onstage by a couple of other Knoxville favorites… Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies on the Mandolin and Wade Hill on the banjo.

Gram Parsons & Ryan Adams: Birthday Post

Posted in Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Ryan Adams, Whiskeytown on November 5, 2009 by AmericanaPulse

Today is the birthday of two of my favorite musicians… Gram Parsons & Ryan Adams.

For more of an in-depth look at the two birthday boys, you can check out last year’s post. For now though, I’d just like to wish a happy 35th birthday to Ryan Adams and a happy would-have-been 63rd birthday to the late Gram Parsons.
Here’s one track featuring Gram with the Flying Burrito Brothers and one featuring Ryan with Whiskeytown.
The Flying Burrito Brothers: Christine’s Tune (Devil in Disguise) (Buy Album)
Whiskeytown: Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight (Buy Album)