Fold the map, mend the gap // 2016 in review

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Hey, friends – it’s been a while, so I’m dusting the cobwebs off this little cyber-nook. While my writing has been focused elsewhere, I’m maintaining this space for material guided by my crooked heart rather than commercial dictates.

I recently revisited John Berger’s essay on the rhythms of listening. (The art critic passed away earlier this week.) He writes that “songs have another dimension, which is uniquely theirs. A song fills the present, while it hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, farther and farther. Without the persistence of this hope, songs would not exist.”

The persistence of hope. In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. As we ready for transition, I selected some lyrics + image pairings from special shows over the past year. I leave the “best of 2016” pronouncements to the establishment, though there’s overlap here. This is the music I reach for when I need a reminder that our ability to create outstrips our tendency to destroy.

1. Unorphaned // Bon Iver: This Justin Vernon neologism appears in 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ , on 22, A Million, an album organized around numbers.

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The numerology of travelers. Reset the odometer at the beginning of tour and send me a dashboard photo at the end. Put your hand inside an old coat pocket and draw out a crumpled baggage claim stub. Flight numbers, train numbers, numbers on a gas station receipt.

Decode it (or dedicode, to use another Vernon-ism) – does it make blurry memories more comprehensible? The trial of miles, miles of trials – like distance running, coasting on the endorphin rush and pushing the outer limits of exhaustion. It makes you weary. It’s the only thing that sets you free. I may be orphaned by geography and by choice, but it’s shows like these, moving through a lush forest of variegated textures, guided by an eerie falsetto manipulated through samplers-sequencers-synthesizers – where I can be un-alone, re-moored.

2. Rain on a strange roof // Anthony D’Amato: In solo shows, Anthony’s wit and incisive lyricism shines through.

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When backed by a full band, the folk-rock tunes are propulsive, textured, and lightning-bright. Song after song, I’m struck by his ability to assimilate raw materials into unique wholes. “Rain On A Strange Roof” has touches of mythology (Sisyphus), of Faulkner (listening to rain on a strange roof), of the postmodern condition (checking your phone for the text that never comes). It’s a standout track on the noteworthy Cold Snap.

3.  Ready to crack // Lydia Loveless: There’s a place for pop princesses, but I prefer self-rescuing country-punk heroines.

LL.JPG Lydia Loveless’s “Real” is an album with swagger and smarts, all framed around a commanding voice.

Hers was the first show I caught post-election. Lydia let loose some choice words about the state of affairs and said that it’s good for us to wake up, ‘cos for a lot of people, it’s not gonna be ok. Unfiltered and raw – that’s the medicine we needed. We’re here to stay, if it’s the same to you.

4.  Reaching for the live wire // Miles Nielsen: I walked in during soundcheck. Miles and his band, The Rusted Hearts, were midway through “High Street.”

mnThis line pierced straight through my armor: “Spending most of my days reaching for the live wire that I couldn’t hold.” Sometimes we go it alone, but we’re not without friends and signposts. I came to this music not via Cheap Trick (Rick Nielsen is Miles’ dad) but through producer Duane Lundy, the guiding ear behind much of the music that soundtracks my days.

Heavy Metal is one of my favorite albums of 2016. I think of it as a traveler along parallel tracks to Sturgill Simpson’s Sailor’s Guide To Earth (more on that below) –  painting something wholly new from a palette of rock, soul, and country colors.

5.  Astronauts at the arcade // Vandaveer: The harmonies are protean and silver-bright, the arrangements supercharged with pop acumen. And frontman Mark Charles Heidinger pens lyrics with a control of cadence and assemblage of imagery that has few equals in contemporary songwriting.

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The stories in The Wild Mercury are fine-grained yet universally relatable. I love the opening vignette in the title track — astronauts downtown at the arcade, running high scores on Asteroids. It’s apt for a year in which we said goodbye to a Starman, one of the Mercury 7, and a warrior princess from a galaxy far, far away.

6.  Don’t want to lose touch // David Wax Museum: This is genre-bending, border-crossing music – joyous and heartfelt. David Wax and Suz Slezak started the band as friends. They’re now married with a toddler in tow and another child on the way. And their latest album, Guesthouse, reflects the changed stakes – it’s both poignant and sonically adventurous. During Josh Ritter’s set at the New England Festy, I glimpsed David and Suz sidestage, dancing with their daughter. Afterward, I caught this moment.

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What do you remember? The arena shows, the boozy afterparties? Sure, I love the lights and the spectacle and the adrenaline rush. But this, right here, means everything to me. The life of the traveling musician distilled to these moments, the bonds that grow stronger with the miles and years.

“My life’s a film, but I haven’t seen it,” DWM sings on “Lose Touch With the World.” Whether we think of family as one we are born to or ones we find along the way, we mustn’t take for granted the time we share.

7.  Fables // David Ramirez: “I fed you fables and fooled you with words from my tongue,” David relates on “Harder to Lie.” The song is part promise, part warning.

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We had just enough light left for a few shots out back at this crazy townhouse run by a candy company. I said something about the songs he played for us the night before – about a book I just finished (Stone Arabia), about memories corrupted by regret, about personal mythologies – about fables.

I’ve come to think of photography as less about documentation and more about co-creation. And I’m grateful for everyone who shares with me their early mornings and dusky evenings – the coffees, the whiskeys, and the unguarded moments.

8.  Sinners and saints in a civil war // Don DiLego: I reckon it’s the melding of Americana nostalgia, the pop-inflected melodies, and the warmth of the horn section that reels me in – that, plus the gossamer tone and texture of pedal steel, which is always a bonus.

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Rolling Stone calls Don “alt-country’s next poster boy,” and while I’ve bandied about with that genre label, I’ve never been quite sure what it means. All I know is that this year has taught me to follow my ears. Have faith that where you are broken, there you are open. Let the songs and the images they evoke seep through the cracks – a wishful poem, dark and dreamy.

9.  Careful fear and dead devotion // The National: What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this band?ntnl

Matt Berninger has odd posture and mumbly delivery and we love him despite it / because of it. The Dessner brothers are geniuses (have you listened to the Transpecos film soundtrack?). Watching the Devendorf brothers krautrock-out as part of side project LNZNDRF was as much fun as I’ve ever had watching a rhythm section at work.

But it comes back to this song for me. I need somewhere to be, but I can’t get around the river in front of me.

10.  Measure a man by how much he loves // Sturgill Simpson: Sailor’s Guide To Earth is framed as a song cycle from father to newborn son. Saccharine as that premise may sound, the result is anything but, with sonics that owe as much to outlaw country as to Stax-era Elvis, New Orleans funk, and psilocybin visions.

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Family comes with unlikely inheritances. These are stories that pivot between tough and tender, in which the grittiness of hard truths serves as sandpaper polish to reveal the gentle love beneath. This is spectacular, groundbreaking work – and now the Grammy committee has anointed it with an album-of-the-year nomination.

11.  The more I seek, the more I’m sought // Joe Pug: I have no words adequate to explain what this man’s poetry mean to me. Take these lines, for instance: I say the more I buy the more I’m bought … and the more I’m bought the less I cost.

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Listen to Hymn #101 (and then Hymn #76 and Hymn #35) and come back and we’ll talk about Joe’s uncanny ability to tap into both the dark recesses and sweet yearnings that animate the human condition. For all the wry turns of phrase, the tangled meanings that invite repeat listens, there’s a luminous quality to the arrangements – bright piano, harmonica, and the superlative Greg Tuohey on electric guitars.

12.  Propelled by some mysterious drive // Rhett Miller (Old 97’s):

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A friend introduced me to the Old 97’s on some halcyon high school day driving down Highway 121, the newly-released Fight Songs blaring. We had no fixed destination – we just chased the horizon ’til we could get all the words right. Gas was cheap and we were barely sixteen, singing a song about being only nineteen. The future felt as open as those Texas roads.

That high school self feels like a stranger now. The past increases, the future recedes. But sometimes we remember what it’s like to dare and dream. Years later, I find myself standing on the stairs between the dressing room and the stage, talking to an artist I’ve long admired.

It didn’t feel real. It never does. I walk away with a handful of images. It’s all a lucid dream.

And now it’s 2017. Be kind. Be hopeful. See you out there.

Finding Roots: Carolina Chocolate Drops in Concert

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This post is about the superb show last Tuesday by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and openers Birds of Chicago and David Wax Museum. But I would be remiss if I did not first acknowledge that last week, the world of folk music lost two beloved artists: singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester and Brown Bird’s David Lamb. Newspapers have eulogized Winchester as “a honey-voiced singer who wrote thoughtful songs with deep Southern roots[,] . . . plain-spoken and succinct,” and a “tunesmith of lyrical, sensitive ballads.”

Less well-known but no less admired by friends and fans was David Lamb, half of the indie-folk duo Brown Bird. A tribute concert for Lamb, held last week in the band’s home base of Providence, Rhode Island, drew, by one estimate, a thousand people. The tattooed troubadours (as NPR dubbed them), who toured last year with Trampled By Turtles, mixed American folk with eastern European rhythms, crafting songs both haunting and high-spirited.

I will leave the tributes to the professionals and simply remark on the enduring power of music — including the music of these two men — to remind us of home and propel us through tough times. Louisiana-born and Memphis-reared Jesse Winchester wrote “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind” in Canada, where he had moved to avoid the draft. The song conveys a yearning for the south he left behind — not sugar-coated and romanticized, yet romantic in its embrace of the tumbledown, ramshackle parts of the place that was home: I think I hear a noisy old John Deere in a field / Specked with dirty cotton lint, and beyond that Field runs a little country creek, and there you’ll Find the cool green leaves of mint.

Continue reading “Finding Roots: Carolina Chocolate Drops in Concert”

David Wax Museum: Harder Before It Gets Easier

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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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