Archive for January, 2010

Top 20 of 2009: 3-1

Posted in Andrew Bird, Band of Heathens, Bombadil, Top 20 of 2009 on January 9, 2010 by AmericanaPulse
#3 – Tarpits and Canyonlands by Bombadil

The album coming in at number three on the list is one of the most stylistically diverse albums I heard this year… and one of the most fun. The members of Bombadil claim that the core of their sound has its roots in Bolivian folk music. Having never heard any Bolivian folk music before, I’ll have to take their word on this one. It is clear, though, that band culls their influences from a myriad of different sources. When it’s all mixed together, their sound is a whimsical stew that pulls from several ingredients without letting any one flavor overpower the rest.

Whimsical may be the best word to describe this record… but that’s not to suggest that it is in any way childish or immature. It’s quite the opposite. When I first reviewed the album in June, I made mention of how the ebullient music often concealed darker subject matter. The album hooked me immediately with… well… a ton of hooks and a sense of wonder that just isn’t found on many records anymore. This song, “Honeymoon” is one of those tunes that catches you off guard with a catchy beat and lays you flat with lyrics that deal with life once the Honeymoon is over.

Bombadil: Honeymoon (Buy Album)

#2 – One Foot in the Ether by The Band of Heathens

The Band of Heathens are a collective of songwriters from Texas who originally started playing together as part of a songwriter’s night at Momo’s in Austin. Ed Jurdi, Colin Brooks, and Gordy Quist each started out doing solo sets… then occasionally sitting in on each other’s sets… then adding a rhythm section and playing as songwriters in the round. A local music reporter made reference to a group of “heathens” that had started playing regular sets together and a legend was born. The guys have now released two albums as The Band of Heathens, and both can be considered essential listening for fans of intelligent, roots flavored Americana songwriting.

What makes The Band of Heathens so special is the three pronged songwriting force that almost assures the well of tunes will never run dry. The three guys share songwriting credits on this album so it’s difficult to tell exactly who is responsible for what, but it is easy to see a healthy range of styles and sounds on this record. Despite the variety, there is a strong gospel feel to most of this set including the call-and-response of “Shine a Light” and the distorted rodeo gospel of “Golden Calf.” The bottom line is that this album is full of top-notch Texas songwriting and is one of the finest releases of the year.

Band of Heathens: Shine a Light (Buy Album)

#1 – Noble Beast by Andrew Bird

No matter how much I may love his music, I always find it difficult to write about Andrew Bird. His songs just seem infinitely complex and layered, and they don’t really sound much like anything else that I listen to. After watching Andrew play a set at the Bijou Theatre in October (my wife’s anniversary present to me) I became even more convinced of the complexity of his sound. Andrew played guitar and violin. He also sang and whistled and used any number of foot pedals to record and playback loops of various instruments, whistles, and vocal lines.

All of Andrew’s various skills come into play on this album as well. Andrew is a classically trained violinist and quite the impressive whistler. I know it’s an odd combination, but the two play so well together that it’s very easy to forget how strange what you’re listening to actually is. This album is incredibly melodic and infectious, and Andrew’s whistling just seems to burrow into your head and take root. I often find myself whistling one of the melodies from this album when I’m washing the dishes or walking the dog. These songs have imprinted themselves on my brain… and that is why Noble Beast by Andrew Bird is my #1 album of 2009.

Just try to resist the urge to whistle along with this one…

Andrew Bird: Fitz and Dizzyspells (Buy Album)

Top 20 of 2009: 6-4

Posted in Levon Helm, Scott Miller, Shane Nicholson, Top 20 of 2009 on January 5, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

#6 – Electric Dirt by Levon Helm

Levon Helm was a legend long before he revived his solo career in 2007 with the critically acclaimed Dirt Farmer. As a member of The Band in the 60’s and 70’s along with Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson, Levon was responsible for creating some of the most beloved Roots Rock music of all time. His sharp drumming and weathered voice helped to define The Band’s sound and continues to shape his music today. Electric Dirt is Levon’s second album since returning to the music business following a battle with throat cancer.

This album picks up almost exactly where Dirt Farmer left off, and finds Levon covering several classics such as The Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” Randy Newman’s “Kingfish,” and Pops Staples’ “Move Along Train.” Levon covers some new ground as well. The most inspired piece here is “When I Go Away,” a gospel flavored tune written by the album’s producer and fiddle player Larry Campbell. The song is also very representative of the album’s overall sound that blends a bit of soul into Levon’s country framework.

Levon Helm: When I Go Away (Buy Album)

#5 – Familiar Ghosts by Shane Nicholson

Here’s where this list deviates a bit from the one I turned in to The Bird List. Although it was a 2008 release in Shane’s native Australia, and it still hasn’t been issued in the U.S., this album was a big part of my year and needs to be included here. I told the story of how I obtained this album back when I wrote my review of it in August. What I didn’t say was that I started playing the record at WDVX (the only person in the States to do so?) and had several listeners email me to find out how to get a copy (iTunes). One listener even found a way to have a copy imported to him from overseas. I’d say this album is worth the extra effort it might take to find it.

The album is a continuation of the sound found on the collaborative album Shane released last year with his wife Kasey Chambers. The songs are all built around acoustic grooves and float from standard singer/songwriter fare to bluegrass flavored rambles and back. The result is a classic sound that also has a strong footing in the present. There was a time before I became familiar with Shane’s work when I thought he was merely a complimentary player piggybacking off of his wife’s name and acclaim. I no longer hold that belief.

Shane Nicholson: Easy Now (Buy Album)

#4 – For Crying Out Loud by Scott Miller & The Commonwealth

Again, I can’t have a list without putting Scott Miller on it. In fact, this album may even deserve to be higher on the list than it is. I certainly think I listened to it more than anything else this year. I know I played it more than anything else on the air at WDVX. The truth is that Scott is one of my favorite artists, he’s based out of Knoxville, and this site is named for one of his songs. I don’t want to appear too biased by placing him too high on the list. I interviewed Scott about the album when it was released in the Spring, and finally got around to posting my review in the Summer.

As I said in my previous review, don’t believe Scott when he starts the album with the lyric, “I’ve got nothing for you.” It’s just not true. What this album does is illustrate exactly why I love Scott Miller as a songwriter. He can write about both the ridiculous and the sublime and make both work extremely well. “Sin in Indiana” is a song based on Scott’s theory that uptight Midwesterners actually send all of their sin down the Mississippi River where it is released in the people of New Orleans. It features characters with teeth made of limestone and church deacons who hide pornography in cornfields. Ridiculous. It also features “I’m Right Here My Love,” a touching song about a married couple saying goodbye. Sublime. The song I’m sharing here is an older tune that has its origins in Scott’s days with the V-Roys.

Scott Miller & The Commonwealth: Heart in Harm’s Way (Buy Album)

Happy Birthday: Michael Stipe

Posted in Michael Stipe, R.E.M. on January 5, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

Today is the birthday of Michael Stipe of R.E.M. I wished him a happy 49th last year, and this year he is celebrating the big 5-0. I would break out a special birthday post again today, but Whitney Matheson at USA Today’s Pop Candy Blog has already beaten me to it.

As the frontman for R.E.M., Stipe is one of my favorite musical figures of all time. I didn’t have a favorite artist before I was introduced to Berry, Buck, Mills, & Stipe in high school. Maybe I wouldn’t be such a musical freak if I hadn’t been.

Follow this link to see Pop Candy’s tribute to Stipe in the form of ten amazing YouTube videos. Here’s one more video featuring Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant.

Random Weekend Post: Josh Ritter

Posted in Josh Ritter on January 2, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

A few videos today from one of my favorite songwriters… Josh Ritter.

Top 20 of 2009: 9-7

Posted in Buddy and Julie Miller, Neko Case, Those Darlins, Top 20 of 2009 on January 2, 2010 by AmericanaPulse

I’ve fallen a little behind over the Holidays, but I’m going to try to get back on track and get the list finished up soon. We’ll start back today with #9.

#9 – Written in Chalk by Buddy & Julie Miller

Based solely on critical acclaim and awards, this would be the number one album on the list… hands down. Buddy & Julie nearly swept the Americana Music Awards in September. The husband and wife team captured awards for Duo/Group of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year for “Chalk” (with Patty Griffin). Buddy also walked away with the Artist of the Year trophy as a solo prize. I obviously liked the CD when it came out back in the spring, but it was amazing to see just how this thing took off. It was the most played album on Americana Radio this year.

The album is not simply a Buddy and Julie Miller duet project as the title would suggest. They do, however, sing together in a few places… including the wistful “Ellis County” and the lustful “Gasoline & Matches.” There are other collaborations here as well, and they are what makes this album stand apart from Buddy and Julie’s 2001 self titled release (also an Americana Album of the Year winner). Patty Griffin lends her angelic voice to the previously mentioned “Chalk” with Buddy and “Don’t Say Goodbye” with Julie. Emmylou Harris and The McCrary Sisters pop up in a few places too. I’ll share one here with you featuring a duet with Buddy Miller and Robert Plant… two iconic voices.

Buddy & Julie Miller (feat. Robert Plant): What You Gonna Do Leroy? (Buy Album)

#8 – Those Darlins by Those Darlins

What can you say about Those Darlins? The band is fronted by three country gals with a punk rock spirit who go by the names of Jessi, Kelley, and Nikki Darlin (not their real surnames). They are known for raising ruckuses, inciting riots, and causing general chaos whenever and wherever they perform. In fact, their recent tour to support the release of their self titled debut album was called the “Dare America Tour.” During shows they openly encouraged their audiences to abandon all inhibitions and enjoy themselves as much as possible (they talked about it a bit when I interviewed them back in August). This record is about as fun as music can possibly get.

Musically, Those Darlins are a near perfect blend of X and The Carter Family. They even cover the Carter Family’s “Cannonball Blues” on this album. I described them once before as sounding like a female Uncle Tupelo or a slightly unhinged Loretta Lynn. The girls (along with their drummer, Sheriff Lin) have as much fire as Loretta ever did, and their Middle Tennessee roots (they hail from Murfreesboro, TN) lend a certain authenticity to their twang. I don’t know if Loretta ever got drunk and ate an entire chicken, but I like to think that she could have.

Those Darlins: The Whole Damn Thing (Buy Album)

#7 – Middle Cyclone by Neko Case

Neko Case utilized one of my favorite publicity gimmicks of 2009 to promote the release of Middle Cyclone. She made a financial donation to an animal rescue organization called “Best Friends” for every blog that posted the lead single from the album. She garnered a ton of attention for the album (and the single “People Got a Lot of Nerve”), and raised $4,000 for a very worthy cause. Of course, Neko has never needed any gimmicks to get my attention with her music, but I’m glad I was able to help expand her audience a bit with this one.

In what was, at times, a surreal interview with public television personality Tavis Smiley, Neko described this album as being mostly comprised of songs about “love and nature.” Many of the songs here actually do come off as love songs to the natural world. Neko sings of magpies and killer whales… owls and glaciers, and even titles one song “Never Turn You Back on Mother Earth.” The track I’m sharing here is one of those nature tracks as well. In “This Tornado Loves You,” Neko plays the roll of a tornado trying to express itself to a human. Yeah… I don’t really understand it either, but it’s a good song… and a good album.

Neko Case: This Tornado Loves You (Buy Album)