Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Savory Collection

This article from today's New York Times about a treasure trove of jazz recordings recently taken into the collection of the National Jazz Museum is worth a read.

(HT: Steve Winters.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

New Finest Kind CD: For Honour & For Gain

A few years ago, I put Finest Kind's magnificent recording of "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses" on my New Year's CD, and my friend Claudio e-mailed a thank you note for the disc in which he said, "Finest Kind are the finest kind indeed!"

It's a sentiment that I heartily endorse. This Canadian trio -- Ian Robb, Shelley Posen and Ann Downey -- are three of the best singers that you can find out there, and their songs are filled with wonderful harmonies, arranged to bring out the lyrics and meaning of the songs. Next year, they will start their third decade together as a band.

The e-mail came from Ian Robb last week that a new Finest Kind CD was available, so I sent him the money through my PayPal account and within the week had the hand-packed package from Ian in my mailbox.

The disc is another great one, a mix of traditional English songs, sea shanties, American country music tunes done with an Anglo-Celtic twist and more.

The group opens up with "Bay of Biscay," a song with roots in County Donegal that Ian first learned from Tim Hart and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span. The song is Finest Kind at their best. About a woman who has waited seven years for her sailor husband to return, when "a knock came to her bedroom door / saying, 'Arise, arise, my dearest Mary / just to earn one glance of your Willy-oh," and there is her dead husband's ghost at the door. The band soars on "arise, arise," and when she "spied young Willy standing." The song is sung in stacked harmony with Shelley's voice occasionally dropping out and then coming back in for emphasis. And they hesitate just right on the last verse -- "If I had all the gold and silver / and all the money in Mexico / I would grant it all to the King of Erin / Just to bring me back my Willy-oh" -- lingering on the second-to-last note before resolving.

"Claudy Banks," a folk classic associated with the Copper Family (indeed the first song ever collected for the English Folk Song Society, back in 1897), "The Lass That Loved a Sailor," collected in Newfoundland, and "By the Green Grove" are similar.

Midway through the album, they bust out the old stalwart "Lowlands Low," also known as "The Golden Vanity" or the "Merry Willow Tree" or about five or six other names. On the first listen, I sort of shrugged at this one, thinking that I would opt for the version that John Roberts and Tony Barrand put on 2003's Twiddlum Twaddlum or Bruce Molsky's treatment on Soon Be Time. (In fact, I thought it was the counterpart to Roberts and Barrand recording Rudyard Kipling's "A Pilgrim's Way," a song that never needs to be recorded again because there is no hope of improving on Finest Kind's version on Lost in a Song.) In particular, I didn't think that the chorus was quite as rousing as it usually is. But the twist in the story in this particular version makes it a worthy and valuable recording to have. It turns out that it's a Canadian version that Shelley learned frmo an Ottawa Valley singer named Loy Gavan.

For a bit of fun, the band has included "John Barleycorn Deconstructed," which is not so much a textual exegesis of the classic song but rather a blow-by-blow account of how Finest Kind arrangements work.

The second track of the disc -- after the classic "Bay of Biscay" opener -- is "She Thinks I Still Care," written by Dickey Lee and associated with George Jones. With Michael Ball on fiddle and Shelley on guitar, the band drives it along, taking it a little faster (and happier) than the Possum does, but it comes off nicely with a soaring vocal ending. The Jimmie Rodgers' song "Why Should I Be Lonely?" comes later in the set.

Ann takes the lead vocals and plays the banjo on "Short Life of Trouble," the Appalachian entry on the disc. Associated with Grayson and Whitter and Burnett and Rutherford -- two groups that recorded the song in the 1920s -- and now with Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson, Finest Kind gives it a nice treatment, again with an emphasis on the harmonies that they weave into the song, capturing the lonesomeness that runs through the song.

The real treasures, though, on the CD are tracks six through eight. First up in this trio is "Bully in the Alley," a "raucous work song" (as the band describes it) that was sung by men loading cotton into boats in the ante bellum South. With the ever-terrific James Stephens on fiddle and Jody Benjamin on triangle, the song has a ton of energy in it, and the singing, under Ian's lead, is right on. It's a favorite of mine, and they get it just as spot-on as I would have hoped. (The other sea shanty on the CD is a modern one -- 1988 vintage -- "From Dover to Calais," about hovercraft that crossed the English Channel.)

From all of that energy, Ian's concertina and James Stephens' fiddle walk us into U. Utah Phillips' "He Comes Like Rain (Like Wind He Goes)." Bruce Phillips wrote this song for the many hobos that he met in his travels. The Finest Kind version makes it more lonesome and heartfelt than even the Phillips original (recorded with guitar and mandolin). It is a great version, and it's a pleasure to find it here.

It is followed by Ian's setting of an 1850s poet written by Chartist Ernest Jones called "Song of the Lower Classes." The following verse is typical:
We’re low —- we’re low —- we’re very very low,
Yet from our fingers glide
The silken flow and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride.
And what we get and what we give
We know, and we know our share:
We’re not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear!
Back to an a capella setting and again with Ian's lead vocals, the song is powerful. Lest it get you too down, though, Ian has added a slightly more upbeat conclusion to the original poem.

All in all, it's another winner from Finest Kind. If you're a fan of classic English-style folk singing, this disc is a must-have.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Arcade Fire and Analog Recording

I was just reading Jon Pareles's article from late July about The Arcade Fire's new album, The Suburbs, which I have enjoyed on a couple of listens but not yet fallen in love with.

He describes the band:
The band is simultaneously a throwback to a more heroic age of rock and a glimmer of hope in a digital era that forces musicians to fend for themselves. It prizes the sounds and methods of a disappearing era: hand-played instruments, analog recording, albums made to be heard as a whole.
(In today's paper, Ben Sisario questions whether they can still be an "indie rock band" if they're hitting #1 on the charts.)

And later, he describes their recording process:
The band took its time recording “The Suburbs,” working and reworking songs for much of a year in homes and studios, using 24-track tape. “I’d hate to take a guess at the budget,” Mr. [Win] Butler [the main singer and lyricist] said, but he added that part of the cost was equipment the band would continue to use, including a 1940s mixing console with vacuum tubes. Each completed song was pressed onto a 12-inch disc, and the vinyl playback was recorded for the final digital master.

“We recorded it on tape, we press it to vinyl, and the digital is the archive of this physical thing that exists in the world,” Mr. Butler said. “We’re preserving it and using digital as a mode of distribution, but ultimately there was something real that was made.”
A few things are interesting here. First, why bother with the vinyl pressing? Why not record the digital straight from the tape? The tape would still be the desired 'physical thing that exists in the world,' and the sound quality would be higher on the digital edition because of one less step in the production process.

Second, what ends up being rather ironic is the fact that the album went to #1 on the Billboard charts because of a special MP3 download deal on Amazon (which is, in fact, how I purchased the album).

At any rate, I do admire their music and their sound, and I -- as I've discussed here, for instance -- am a big believer in the album format: a long-form collection of not-necessarily-long songs. So I appreciate their sentiment on the topic:
The Arcade Fire is determined to maintain the album as an artistic format, a physical object and an emotional experience. On “The Suburbs,” as on the band’s two previous albums, the songs cross-reference and comment on one another, gathering depth and resonance as a whole.

“I’ve been moved by albums a lot more than I’ve been moved by singles, and we’re an album band,” Mr. Butler said.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Problems That White People Have

Urbana-Champaign's Pygmalion Music Festival -- to be held at the end of September -- posted its schedule today.

The first problem with the festival is that it's the same weekend as the C-U Folk and Roots Festival. Now, I'm guessing that the audience overlap is relatively slight, but this is Champaign-Urbana, so the audience is also relatively slight in general, so it might have been better for someone to catch on to this fact and have these on different weekends.

But more to the point, the Pygmalion Festival has scheduled two of its headliners in opposition with one another. On Wednesday night -- the opening night of the festival, which does not conflict with the C-U Folk and Roots Festival -- Janelle Monae and Of Montreal will be playing at The Canopy Club, while a little ways away, Built to Spill will be playing at the Highdive (where I recently went to a show for the first time).

Down in the comments section of the announcement, an early poster questioned this decision:
Could someone please explain why on earth they would overlap two of the headliners on a f*cking Wednesday?!
To which the next poster replied:
Perhaps their touring schedules only permitted them to play on Wednesday night, and it would be silly to put them on the same bill as they both deserve a headlining spot. It sucks, but this is totally a white person’s problem.
I don't even know what that means, yet I somehow think that he is right.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends (1972)

I've just finished watching the wonderful 1972 documentary Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends. The movie follows Earl around as he plays with a variety of different music stars, very much in the vein of The Earl Scruggs Revue shows.

The show opens with Earl, his sons Randy and Gary and Bob Dylan all playing together, first on "East Virginia Blues," which Dylan sings in a fairly straightforward voice and which sounds really good. Then Earl asks to pick "Nashville Skyline Rag," and it's a bit awkward to watch Dylan, who doesn't seem to quite be able to jump into the song the way that Earl and the boys do.

That's not a problem in the next scene, where Earl and Randy are picking in Doc Watson's backyard, along with Merle Watson. Doc says, "Let's do 'John Hardy,'" and everyone just jumps right into it, perfectly in time and ready to burn through their solo when their turn comes up. The level of musicianship just makes my jaw drop in awe!

And then we're in Flint Hill, North Carolina, and Earl has dragged the Morris Brothers, Zeke and Wiley, away from their auto repair shop to play some music with him for the first time in years. They run through their classic "Salty Dog" without a hitch, play along with Earl on "Flint Hill Special" and then bust out a really beautiful version of "On Top of Old Smokey," which Wiley croons in grand fashion.

Things get a little more modern as Earl joins The Byrds for two numbers, the second of which is Dylan's "You Ain't Going Nowhere."

The movie drags a bit in the middle, although high-school-aged Randy plays a terrific version of "Black Mountain Rag" on guitar.

There's then a great scene backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. (You follow Earl to the Opry from his house -- I was surprised to see that the speed limit at the time was 75 mph!) Earl and Randy join Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, as Monroe spins out a medley of his hits -- without, it seems, having told anyone that it's a medley! Earl has no problem keeping up with the Father of Bluegrass Music though -- he knows these tricks. When Earl, Randy and Gary are on stage at the Opry, Monroe, the MC for the segment, lurks around in the background. (There's also a female piano player in the Opry band -- anyone know who that is?)

The movie concludes with an extended visit with Joan Baez. Her singing is terrific; unlike Bob Dylan, she seems to be able to hang with Earl and Randy; and she even gives us her Bob Dylan impersonation on "It Ain't Me Babe," which she sings with Randy while holding her baby. Joan charmingly talks about having a crush on Earl and describes how the first six times that they met, he would come up to her and say, "Can you sing this one...?" while picking out the opening of "Wildwood Flower." She sings a stunning version of "Love is Just a Four Letter Word."

It's a great film.

You can find nearly all of it on YouTube, it seems. I'll give you this small portion with Spanish subtitles:

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mother Banjo and Vicky Emerson in Chicago

Two Thursday ago, I made the drive up to Chicago to Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville -- wearing my St. Louis Cardinals hat as part of an unintentional data-collection effort on the friendliness of Chicagoans. I arrived with a little bit of time to spare before Mother Banjo took the stage.

MoJo played a solid set of music, bringing up Vicky Emerson to play keyboard and sing harmony vocals on a couple of songs. She even debuted a U2 cover that she has added to her repertoire: "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World." Thinking that I would certainly be able to help her out if she missed any of the lyrics, I was surprised to discover how I actually did not know the lyrics without the familiar recording playing!

Vicky Emerson's set was terrific, as well. She opened up -- on guitar -- with her surrealistic "Wheat Fields," a dream of Midwestern crop circles that is relayed with a neat little slide on the bass string and a heavy mute on the strum. It was an appropriate opener for a woman who is originally from Elmwood, Wisconsin, the UFO Capital of Wisconsin. Vicky, sporting a stylish space-alien guitar strap, indeed was once the UFO Queen.

But these days, she lives in New York City, and a good part of her stage patter was from the perspective of a Midwesterner arrived in a land with strange new ways and norms. (I was identifying in reverse.) She described all of her New York friends being single and talked about how aggressive the dating scene was. (Vicky herself is married, and her husband was in the audience.) So what she does in order to get song material is to invite those friends over and give them some wine, and the thematic material just comes pouring out! In this vein, her song "Every Shade of Blue" contained the perfectly sung lyric, "I sit still, / I sip my wine, / And I think about you / 'Cause I got the time."

In another New York-inspired song, Vicky paid tribute to the brand of woman that can be found prowling the bars and knowing exactly what they want from young men -- that's right, cougars. It had a great chorus on it, but I unfortunately did not scribble it down. You'll have to request it!

And she told the story of being ill with morning sickness for days and driving through the Midwest. Upon seeing a brat stand, she screamed out, "Pull over now!" and got herself a hearty Midwestern brat. It set her system and soul aright and stopped the morning sickness for good. But of course, people in New York don't understand this story because they don't know what a brat is! (Oh, how recently I was one of them, my friends!)

Vicky encored -- by request -- with "The Hey Hey Song," written for her husband. A nice end to a solid show.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Music and African Football

Jessica Hiltout is a photographer who went to Africa and tried to capture the spirit of African soccer as played in the streets and the fields (and not the World Cup stadium).

Her photographs are being published in a coffee table book called AMEN: Grassroots Football.

A number of them have also been set to music in a series of videos. They make for enjoyable listening and interesting watching!

(HT: Aid Watch.)

Hot Tuna Signed to Red House Records

Just sent out a press release about this so this is breaking news about the legendary Hot Tuna. As you can see here, both Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady are pretty proud of their newly signed contract!

And if you missed it, check out this review of their recent New Haven show with Steve Earle.


Thursday, August 5, 2010
Contact: Ellen Stanley, (651) 644-4161, promotions@redhouserecords.com

Red House Records Signs Hot Tuna!

ST. PAUL, MN -- Red House Records is very pleased to announce that they have signed iconic blues-roots band Hot Tuna to the label. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna in 1969, when taking a break from touring with Jefferson Airplane. Since then the band has been performing their unique mix of acoustic and electric blues, cultivating an extreme fan following. In addition to Jorma and Jack, the band includes mandolin virtuoso Barry Mitterhoff and legendary drummer Skoota Warner. Hot Tuna just wrapped up a tour with Steve Earle and is going into Levon Helm's studio now to record their first studio album of new material in 20 years. Hot Tuna's album is scheduled to be released in early 2011 on Red House.

Founding member Jorma Kaukonen has released two solo albums with Red House and is looking forward to releasing a Hot Tuna album with the Grammy winning indie label. "We are so excited about signing with Red House Records and joining their fine roster of artists," he says. "The label promotes true freedom of expression."

For more information and to set up interviews, please contact Ellen Stanley at (651) 644-4161 or promotions@redhouserecords.com.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Classical Music Sans Anti-Depressents

Kudos to Vivien Schweitzer for the following description in her review of the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen's appearance at the Mostly Mozart Festival:
Schumann, an unstable man who attempted suicide and died in an insane asylum, composed the overture as music for Lord Byron’s dramatic poem about a transcendence-seeking, Faust-like sorcerer.

This was a Xanax-free performance, the music raw and unprettified and its bipolar underpinnings highlighted with sharp contrasts and unexpected accents. The musicians, perched on the edge of their seats, played with enormous energy and illuminated violent mood swings within a single measure.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Study in Contrasts

Some marvelous writing from Jon Pareles in today's review of the performance at Radio City Music Hall by Jason Pierce (ne J. Spaceman) and his band Spiritualized of the 1997 album Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space:
The album is cherished as a magnum opus and grand oddity: solitary yearning expressed by a platoon of musicians, derangement mapped with architectural thoroughness, diffidence on a monumental scale.