Neutral Milk Hotel in concert

I first heard “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” on a mix CD that a high school friend made for us. I felt lucky to be in the small group that received these carefully-crafted mixes, and I will never grow tired of that Neutral Milk Hotel song. The yearning, strained quality in Jeff Magnum’s voice almost mimics the singing saws in the background, and his warbling ups and downs seem discordant but somehow capture the fleeting beauty of those autumn days when we were just a bunch of teenagers, making up plans as we drove around town, letting the music wash over us: “What a beautiful dream / That could flash on the screen / In a blink of an eye and be gone from me.”

I’ve been lucky to make new friends in D.C. who are passionate about music, even though our day jobs have nothing to do with it. Earlier this month, one of these friends attended Neutral Milk Hotel’s show in Richmond and offered this lovely, thoughtful write-up as a guest post. Enjoy.

Remember when you were younger and you first heard an album that really moved you? When you would sit in your room with your headphones on and just listen to it over and over again? Those of us whose adolescence predates the use of computers would record a single song over and over again on the same cassette – that way you could hear it six times in a row without having to hit rewind. Where does that single-minded obsession go as we get older? Are we simply too distracted and too busy to commit to an hour’s devotion to four minutes worth of guitars and drums? Or is it the case, as Daniel Levitin argues, that the extreme emotional impact of music on our adolescence is a holdover from our early childhood’s focus on learning new languages and movements?
Either way, the pull of our personal listening histories is undeniable. I first came across Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” in the new music bin at WUSC, with a little Post-It note on the jewel case from the Music Director. Normally he’d annotate new albums including such important information as which tracks were instrumental, and which ones contained profanity (and therefore couldn’t be played over the air at most hours of the day). Occasionally he would star a track, identifying in advance what could turn out to be a hit. This Post-It was different. It just said “You Need This.”
He was right.

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David Wax Museum: Harder Before It Gets Easier


The government is open for business again! In celebration of the return to normalcy — or what passes for “normal” in these mad times — I think we all need a little David Wax Museum. Polarizing rhetoric is rending the nation, with tea-sodden reactionaries warning of the death of democracy. In response to that movement’s antagonism toward immigrants (I mean, really?), I offer the sonic syncretism that is David Wax Museum’s music, which draws from American and Mexican folk traditions to create something that is more than the sum of its parts.

A while back, I was chatting with a friend who had not heard of The Lumineers. I directed him to “Stubborn Love” and “Flowers In Your Hair,” and after giving the band a listen, he asked if I knew David Wax Museum. I didn’t. And I had been missing out on what NPR’s Bob Boilen aptly calls “pure, irresistible joy”.

Donkey jawbone, or quijada — the cool kids’ percussion instrument.

Before I launch into an exposition of the awesomeness of this band, I’ll provide a little context. I tend to react to new music in one of two ways. The songs that immediately get stuck in my head (think “Blurred Lines”) tend to lose their appeal after a few weeks. The music that takes more work at first — for instance, Alt-J’s intricate, morphing textures, or Bon Iver’s falsetto murmurings of impenetrable lyrics — ends up rewarding my effort by revealing an unfamiliar but gorgeous soundscape.

It’s not often that a band falls in the overlapping space on the Venn diagram of my short- and long-term music fixations. But David Wax Museum was both love at first listen and a love that has, so far, withstood the test of time. Initially, I was hooked by their Appalachia-meets-Veracruz rhythms and harmonies, and the accordion-pumping, jarana-strumming exuberance. But the more I listen, the more I am drawn to this rich tapestry of American folk and Mexicon son, with sprinklings of rock (the electric guitar makes an appearance in their latest album). There is an infectious joy in David Wax’s singing and Suz Slezak’s harmonies combined with fiddle-playing and quijada-rattling.

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Jake Bugg: tunes for a troubled town

Jake Bugg

Thursday found me cloistered in a Midwestern hotel room preparing for a court hearing. Complete silence is oppressive, but I can’t work with a TV or radio on. Solution: play Jake Bugg’s “Trouble Town” on repeat. Sometime between dusk and dawn, it occurred to me that this song has to be on my mix in honor (lamentation?) of the shutdown:

Stuck in speed bump city / Where the only thing that’s pretty / Is the thought of getting out.

Jake Bugg is a nineteen-year-old British singer-songwriter who has been compared to Bob Dylan (including by the friend who introduced me to Bugg’s music). But when I offer this comparison as a shorthand for describing Bugg’s sound to friends, I am met mostly with skepticism, even outright indignation: How could anyone compare anyone to the great Dylan, the pillar of Americana? I know you’re scoffing, but hear me out. I’m not saying the Nottingham teenager is the next Dylan. But I am saying that his warbling, rough-around-the-edges voice and world-weary lyrics combine to form something that is really quite special.

Yes, everyone sings about heartbreak and hard times. But Bugg has a knack for condensing a scene into a single line and weaving those lines into a story: “He’s down in the kitchen drinking White Lightning / He’s with my momma, they’re yelling and fighting / It’s not the first time praying for silence / Something is changing, changing, changing.”

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South Rail: Music for wandering souls

“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”

Oscar Wilde’s reflections on music came to mind as I was practicing a Chopin prelude earlier today. What he describes is part of what I love about music — its power to communicate emotions that burst through the confines of mere words, to transmute sorrow into something beautiful to be shared.

South Rail’s music has that power. When I put their self-titled debut EP on, I’m swept away by Lara Supan’s rich, dusky voice, which is captivating both alone and in harmony with Jay Byrd, who plays guitar. South Rail’s sound is part folk, part alt-country — think Neil Young meets Wilco meets Eva Cassidy. I saw South Rail over the weekend at Gypsy Sally’s in Georgetown, and I’m excited both for the future of the band and the new live music venue.

South Rail blog1

South Rail typically performs as a trio with Ben Potok on drums, but they were joined by bassist Wes Christenson for the evening. Watching the quartet banter during sound check, it’s clear that these guys love music and love performing together (they met when responding to a Craigslist ad for a band that they didn’t join).

Up-tempo songs like “Everybody Knows It” made me wonder why nobody was dancing (my excuse — knee surgery). But the song that really caught my ear is “Wandering Soul,” which Lara introduced as a song about being on the road and reflecting on the life that you’re missing back at home. The song opens with keyboard and unfolds slowly and deliberately, with Lara’s soulful voice interspersed with plaintive guitar solos. Combined with gentle percussion, “Wandering Soul” evokes the image of a weary traveler, the color of his clothes made indistinguishable by dust, placing one boot in front of the other, following the railroad tracks back home.

This is a song about long winding roads and finding home in a face and an embrace. “I spend my days dreaming of what’s yet to come” — but even in times when we don’t know where to go, a good song can remind us that others share this seemingly lonely road.

South Rail blog2

South Rail is about to start recording some new music, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for this band. In the meantime, if you live in the DC area, sign up for their mailing list so you can catch one of their local shows.

Vandaveer: Spite

Vandaveer Photo by Sarah Law

Day four of the shutdown. As a reminder that not everything in Washington is dysfunctional, I’m placing this amazing song from D.C.-based Vandaveer on my current playlist. If you like folk/Americana, you need to give them a listen.

Lately, music reviewers have been criticizing bands for unimaginatively riding the Mumford & Sons wave, but that is certainly not the case with this alt-folk duo. There’s an honest rawness in Vandaveer’s sound and storytelling that sets them apart. Take “Spite,” for instance. The song features a primal dance between percussion and guitar, punctuated by strings. I love how the straining, tormented undercurrent in Mark Charles Heidinger’s deep vocals is complemented by the sweet, delicate voice of bandmate Rose Guerin.

In addition to constructing hauntingly beautiful harmonies, Vandaveer pays attention to words and knows the power of allegory. “Spite” is poetry — an unvarnished representation of the (il)logic of a man who “cut out his sleep to spite his dreams, picked all the flowers to spite the bees.”

Hm, does this description fit certain ideologues who closed national parks and Head Start education programs for low-income children (the list of impacts is a long one), all because they couldn’t get their way on a piece of legislation that, as imperfect as it is, makes health care more affordable for more people — a law that was championed by a President this country later reelected, and which was upheld by the Supreme Court? Please, someone send a copy of Schoolhouse Rock’s “How a Bill Becomes Law” to these legislators.

But, I digress. To return to the music — “Spite” is a smart, well-crafted song, and a reminder of what happens when we cede our better selves to the base instincts of vengefulness and vindictiveness: Life becomes a “wretched affair,” in which we “hold our breath to spite the air.” Check out the cool video. As the band says, they “went a little Kafka on this one.”