Thursday, July 28, 2011

July 26, 2011: Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter
Music Farm (Charleston, SC)
July 26, 2011

My road as a Josh Ritter fan has neither been smooth nor short. But on Tuesday night, it led me the rain-washed Music Farm here in Charleston for Ritter's live set, backed by his Royal City Band.

First, a little on my history as a Ritter follower. The aforementioned road began in around 2005, when I bought Hello Starling at the behest of some Ryan Adams fans who habitually fawned over Ritter. Perhaps soured by their irritatingly persistent praise of the guy, I thought the album was pretty terrible. In fact, it remains the only CD I've ever traded for store credit. Of course, it's not that bad a record, and returning it was essentially grandstanding. I still don't think it's anything special, but I'll throw it on once a year or so. Regardless, I proudly ignored Ritter for the better part of two years. It was during those two years that he happened to release one of the better singer-songwriter albums of the 00's in The Animal Years. The buzz was immense. But with Ritter fans, it always was. They'd cried wolf before, so the chatter went in one ear and out the other.

Finally, in 2007 a friend offered to buy the album for me. It was an admirable gesture, and one I've certainly extended before. Admittedly, I downed a 32 oz. bottle of blood-red Haterade before I listened. I was content with my role as cavalier anti-Rittite, and I aimed to maintain it. But damn it--I couldn't deny The Animal Years. It's a warm, majestic folk album with rich arrangements and a cinematic flow. It soundtracked the twilight of my college years in Columbia--in fact I had it on repeat while I somberly cleaned out my old college house, rolling up posters and boxing records mere hours before I hit the road to Charleston and embark on adulthood.

2008 brought The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which I largely ignored due to some major releases that occupied most of my listening hours that year (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver's For Emma Forever Ago, Sun Kil Moon's April, and TV On the Radio's Dear Science.) But I wouldn't overlook Ritter's most recent release So Runs the World Away, due in large part to its inclusion in last year's Indie Music MAYhem. It's not as grand an achievement as The Animal Years, but it's an impressive album nonetheless, highlighting Ritter's penchant for historically charged story-songs and lush arrangements. 

While I've grown out of disliking Ritter on principle, there are still a handful of singer-songwriters who I'd rather hear on a regular basis. Maybe if Ritter took his storied live act to Charleston, he'd climb the ranks a bit. For years I've kept an eye on his touring schedule, only to find that he rarely wanders outside the northeast, save for his homestate of Idaho. Indeed, he informed us it had been 12 years since he'd played Charleston last, and that's before he was on anyone's radar. But a few months ago, it happened: Ritter booked a gig at the Music Farm.

As expected, the crowd was far under capacity. I don't think I know anyone locally aside from my girlfriend who know Josh Ritter, so this wasn't a surprise. Still, there were enough warm bodies to consider it a decent draw. We showed up a few songs into the Yellowbirds' set. The Brooklyn bands' sound is that of a more upbeat Cass McCombs (the lead singer's voice is a ringer for Cass) so I quite enjoyed the set. I've already found the Yellowbirds' 2011 debut The Color, and so far so good. Look forward to covering them a bit here.

Anyway, Josh Ritter snuck onto the stage with virtually no one noticing. A bunch of heads spun when Josh took the mic with a cheerful greeting. I'm going to be patchy on the setlist--played a lot of songs I wasn't immediately familiar with. I was a bit dismayed at the lack of Animal Years material. "Wolves" was soaring and "Lillian, Egypt" invited full participation on the "da-da-da" portion following each verse. Josh opened the encore with a solo acoustic version of "Girl In the War", dedicated to "the folks in Norway". Aside from that, he relied heavily on his past two albums. Many song of the night candidates, but the final one-two punch of "To the Dogs Or Whoever" and "Change of Time" was mighty impressive. Even though it's a bit too sacharine for my tastes, it was nice to hear Josh belt out fan-favorite "Kathleen". Archaeological fantasy "The Curse" was eerily beautiful. I was a tad bummed we didn't hear the chilling "Another New World", but it might not have flown with the type of chatty crowd the Farm so reliably draws.

The real takeaway from the night was Josh's stage presence. It's always what you hear about the guy, that he never stops smiling. It's pretty much true. He'll table it during the more serious tunes, but he'll still punctuate the final strum with a hearty, "Woo!" You've got to hand it to the guy: he's about the happiest stage performer I've ever seen. And it's not that he's basking in the attention, or playing humble at the hollers of swooning girls (there were many). The impression is that he's just excited about his music, no matter if he's playing in front of a thousand, a hundred, or a handful of people. Hell, he might grin his way through lone practice sessions. Whatever the case, his demeanor made for a joyful environment. I was legitimately sad to see him leave the stage.

Thankfully, he promised it would be less than a dozen years before a return trip. Genuine statement or stage pandering? Who knows, but I hope he comes back soon. I'm still hesitant to deify Ritter, especially until he releases at least one more truly brilliant record. But Tuesday night, he won a larger share of my fandom. To paraphrase Ritter: if I was cursed, I think that I'm cured.

No setlist online yet--there may never be, unfortunately. But some pics:

Other Music Farm Reviews:
Dr. Dog
The Hold Steady
Modest Mouse
Andrew Bird

Monday, July 18, 2011

What's on tap for the second half of 2011?

I recently put a bow on this blog's fifth annual Midway Through the Year Awards, cataloging the best (and rest) of what the first stretch 2011 has had to offer. Having done that, let's swivel the viewfinder 180 degrees and see what's on the horizon. Who's got new music ready to roll out in Q3/Q4

The Black Keys
Status: Confirmed to exist; release is slated for late '11.
Never a band that will be accused of underproducing, the Keys look to build on the success of last year's immense Brothers. Funny anecdote: I waschatting with a buddy of mine about the merits of the Black Keys. "I don't know how anyone could truly dislike the Black Keys. I understand not being infatuated, but outright distaste?" My buddy just stared at me, sporting this look of confused disbelief. "Really?" he said. "I mean...some of their songs are pretty bad." I was caught off guard for a moment, struggling for damage control in that excruciating situation when you realize you've been stating as fact an opinion that another party completely disagrees with. But, thankfully, it turns out he misheard me. He thought I was staunchly defending the Black Eyed Peas. Talk about getting retarded in here.

Blitzen Trapper
Status: Dropping on September 13.
American Goldwing is BT's fourth album, following up last year's sprawling Destroyers of the Void. The title-track and first single is out there. It's got harmonica, key changes, and frontier rock with some digital sounds mixed in. In other words, it's Blitzen Trapper...

The Duke and the King
Status: Self-titled sophomore album comes out August 2nd.
Why am I excited about the follow-up to one of the worst albums of 2009? Because Simone Felice wrote "Don't Wake the Scarecrow," dammit, and that's a song so perfect he's earned a lifetime exemption. It's like how John Daly keeps getting to play the British Open despite...being John Daly.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Status: Mirror Traffic comes out August 23
I've never really checked out Malkmus' solo stuff, but August is looking kinda thin for new music, so I may give it a go.

Status: Confirmed. Father, Son, Holy Ghost is out September 13.
I direct you to this.

Status: September 20 is circled on my calender!
Will the Whole Love be a return to form for Wilco after two good-but-not-great LPs? Early indications are positive. Let's hope it's carried out over the course of the album.

Ryan Adams
Status: Unconfirmed, unless you count Ryan's own internet blather.
He's not one for keeping secrets, but he's also not one for following through on things. Since 2004, Ryan's been quick to share with his fans any number of intended releases (including box sets, back catalog, etc.) He claims there will be new music out this year, released on his own label. He has been playing a handful of new songs on his recent Euro-swing, so maybe he'll come through this time. I'll believe it when it happens, though. I've been hurt before!

The Avett Brothers
Status: Likely early 2012, but we may at least hear it by the end of the year.
Since 2009's I & Love & You came out, the Avetts have gone from a beloved regional act to a full-blown nationwide sensation. Unfortunately, I wasn't head over heels for I&L&Y--I prefer the light and loose days of Four Thieves Gone and Carolina Jubilee. Alas, they're working with Rick Rubin again, so look for more of the same.


As always, I'm sure I'll stumble upon a few unexpected treasures along the way. Looking forward to a second half as and enjoyable as the first!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Poll Results 14: Who made the best album of the first half of 2011?

Lest you believe I was neglecting that expired poll at the top right of the page, here's the breakdown of the Midway Through the Year poll. What did you think was best?

15 (32%) - The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
3 (6%) - Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean
16 (34%) - Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
6 (13%) - Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo
4 (8%) - Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pine
2 (4%) - The Strokes - Angles
1 (2%) - My Morning Jacket - Circuital
6 (13%) - The Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida
1 (2%) - The Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
8 (17%) - Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Man, you guys love the Fleet Foxes. It's the fourth HSW poll they've taken, as well as the second consecutive. They jockeyed with The Decemberists for most of the polling period, sneaking ahead at the last minute for a win. But anyway, they've certainly earned their popular acclaim.

This wraps up the Midway Awards! Excited to hear what the next half brings us...stay tuned!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Midway Through the Year 2011 Music Awards: Pt. 3

That anyone could compile a list of 50 Favorite anything is a laughable concept, but I decided to give it my best shot and roll out my top 50 songs from the first half of 2011. If you're curious (and I know you aren't), my process was steadily whittling down my list of all songs from 2011 until I had 50. I then segmented them into 5 tiers based on how much I liked the songs. After a bit of tweaking I had them sectioned off in five ten-song clusters. From there, it was a matter of ordering by comparison. I'd steadily ask myself "Do I like this song more than that song?" until I deemed the order acceptable.

A few thankless hours later, and here's how the chips fell. 50 songs from 25 artists.

50. Drive-By Truckers - "Mercy Buckets"
49. James Pants - "Clouds Over the Pacific"
48. Black Lips - "Family Tree"

47. The Low Anthem - "Matter of Time"
46. Bright Eyes - "Beginner's Mind"
45. Death Cab For Cutie - "Doors Unlocked and Open"
44. My Morning Jacket - "First Light"
43. The Strokes - "Under Cover of Darkness"
42. Toro y Moi - "Good Hold"
41. Okkervil River - "Your Past Life As a Blast"
40. Middle Brother - "Wilderness"
39. TV On the Radio - "You"
38. Okkervil River - "White Shadow Waltz"
37. Emmylou Harris - "Goodnight Old World"
36. The Low Anthem - "Boeing 737"
35. Bright Eyes - "Halle Selassie"
34. Smith Westerns - "Fallen In Love"
33. Bon Iver - "Beth/Rest"
32. Cass McCombs - "County Line"
31. Fleet Foxes - "Blue Spotted Tail"
30. Black Lips - "You Keep On Running"
29. Iron and Wine - "Godless Brother In Love"
28. Middle Brother - "Portland"
27. Bon Iver - "Perth"
26. Gillian Welch - "Silver Dagger"
25. Felice Brothers - "Fire In the Pageant"
24. Man Man - "Life Fantastic"
23. Fleet Foxes - "Montezuma"
22. The Decemberists - "Calamity Song"
21. Kurt Vile - "Society Is My Friend"
20. Fleet Foxes - "Helplessness Blues"
19. Okkervil River - "Wake and Be Fine"
18. Gillian Welch - "Tennessee"
17. Man Man - "Steak Knives"
16. Toro y Moi - "How I Know"
15. The Decemberists - "Rise To Me"
14. Man Man - "Dark Arts"
13. My Morning Jacket - "Circuital"
12. Smith Westerns - "Still New"
11. Kurt Vile - "Baby's Arms"
10. Bon Iver - "Holocene"
9. Washed Out - "Eyes Be Closed"
8. Felice Brothers - "Ponzi"
7. Man Man - "Haute Tropic"
6. Tapes 'n Tapes - "Freak Out"
5. TV On the Radio - "Keep Your Heart"
4. Gillian Welch - "Hard Times"
3. Iron and Wine - "Glad Man Singing"
2. Kurt Vile - "Runner Ups"
1. Felice Brothers - "River Jordan"

Some stats:
  • 50 songs from 25 different artists. I'm no math major, but I think that's about two a piece on average.
  • With four songs on the list, Man Man appears more than any other artist.
  • The highest spot for an artist with only one song on the list is "Freak Out" by Tapes 'n Tapes.
  • Not far behind is "Eyes Be Closed" by Washed Out. I only just got my hands on his/their record a few days ago, so it wasn't in consideration for the album lists. But "Eyes Be Closed" is not only good enough to sneak into this list, but to leapfrog 41 others.
  • The Felice Brothers and Kurt Vile both have 3 songs in the top 25. Curious as to which one could boast the higher average spot, I did the math and discovered that both come to an average of 11.33. Whoa!
So I urge you to hit Youtube or iTunes and check some of those songs out if you haven't heard them. To finish up the MTTY2011MAs, we'll look at what you said was tops. Just, uh, don't read that poll on the top right if you want to be surprised.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Midway Through the Year 2011 Music Awards: Pt. 2

Disappointments of the Year:

With few exceptions, it's been a pretty lousy year for regular old Americana music. I'll admit there's been a bit of a paradigm shift in my tastes over the past few years. Still, I find myself shrugging releases from the snap-shirted guitar slingers I used to revere. Gillian Welch may be the exception to prove the rule, but it also shows that I'm not a lost cause for folky/Americana stuff. They just have to deliver the goods.

To wit: I was less than impressed by the 2011 releases from The Drive-By Truckers (2nd consecutive year on this dubious list,) Jason Isbell, Columbia natives Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Lucinda Williams, and Dawes. The Low Anthem doesn't belong on this list, but I think Smart Flesh wasn't particularly well-produced, and therefore some of the band's intimacy was lost.

I'd also be remiss not to mention Cass McCombs' Wit's End, which is his follow-up to HSW's Favorite Album of 2009 Catacombs. I actually spun Wit's End the other day during a night drive, and my ears seemed to welcome it a bit more readily. Still, the album is undynamic and painfully slow-paced. Hopefully it'll continue to reveal itself in some way, but unfortunately, it may just lack the rib-sticking appeal of Catacombs.

Best Live Experience:

Iron and Wine w/the Low Anthem

Of the six shows I've caught this year, the only one that I wouldn't write home about was the Old Crow Medicine Show gig here in Charleston back in May. But that was about the venue/audience, as the band was exemplary. But of the other five, I've give the edge to Iron and Wine over the Fleet Foxes. It's close, but the Low Anthem's opening set and the plush theater seating warrant placing Sam Beam's set slightly above the Fleets in my book. This is not to say the Fleet Foxes didn't play an awe-inspiring show in Atlanta.

New Discovery Award:

Would you believe I'm only now diving into David Bowie's catalog? Sure, I know all the hits,  "Changes"and the "Ziggy Stardust" and so on. But I tired of the inadequacy of hearing my favorite musicians reference the guy as an influence, and so I decided it was time to explore the world of the Thin White Duke. I've spent a great deal of time with Hunky Dory, and I'm about ready to move on to another of his celebrated early LPs. Any suggestions?

The "Most Likely to Crack the Top 3 Before 2011 Is Over" Award:

The obvious choice is Wilco, but their last two albums haven't even cracked our top five, so I'm a tad hesitant. Girls just, and I mean just announced a new album (due out in September). As much as I loved their last one, I'd say there stands a chance this one could chart higher. And why not Bon Iver? Sure, his self-titled second LP is sitting at #9 right now, but when I give the album the attention it deserves, I anticipate it will ascend the rankings.


I'm having fun with this, so I choose not to end it at two posts. I'll be on a company retreat for the rest of today and tomorrow, so next week we'll do top 20 songs of the year and a poll recap.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Midway Through the Year 2011 Music Awards: Pt. 1

Plenty has changed around here since we went live back in 2007, but this feature has held strong. A year is a long time, so late June/early July always seems like a germane opportunity to take stock of what's been accomplished this year. There's plenty to write about: releases, live shows, things to look forward to. We'll cover it all over the next few days.

Like last year at this time, I've spent some time with just north of 30 new albums so far. I'll roll out a top 10 today, and tomorrow we'll get into some categorical stuff. Here are last year's posts if you'd like a time capsule. And now, on to the top ten of far:

10. Man Man - Life Fantastic

Man Man straightened up a bit for this record, thanks to the production talents of Mike Mogis. That's not to say they didn't embrace their loopier inclinations regularly (the catchiest tune revolves around Kiwanis/piranha wordplay.) As expected with Mogis, it's a tightly-packaged affair that never sutures off the band's fiery musicianship. 

9. Bon Iver - s/t

While I've yet to fully immerse myself in this one, I've given it enough time to recognize its meticulous beauty. Bigger and bolder than Bon Iver's storied 2008 debut, it retains that crystalline precision and and unfiltered emotional delivery that defined For Emma, Forever Ago. And I don't care what anyone says: I think "Beth/Rest" is a knockout closer. 

8. Toro y Moi - Underneath the Pine

There are plenty of words to bandy about when referring to the Palmetto State hero's second LP proper: danceable, wiggly, chillwave, etc. Those are all valid, but it shouldn't be overlooked that Chaz Bundick displays some tremendous songwriting chops throughout. And as he continues to transition the project from bedroom producer to full bandleader, that song-centric aspect will likely be magnified.

7. The Decemberists - The King Is Dead

The D's were getting pretty far out there, going full-on concept in 2009 with Hazards of Love. Colin Meloy scaled things back this time around, opting for a slate of shorter, independently functional folk rock tunes. This was a wise move: not only is the album is great on its own, but it's also a unique entry into the band's catalog. Says a lot for Colin and crew that the act of simplifying things is what proved their versatility.

6. Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Edging out the Decemberists in the battle of the Kings, Radiohead once again took a stealthy approach to an LP release, announcing the new one five days before it dropped. It's sequenced in two distinct halves, starting dense and digital before giving way to more straightforward fare. But there's a steady trancelike beauty to the eight-song album, and despite its brevity, most of its songs stand up to the band's best work.

5. Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo

I sense a great deal of desperation and defensiveness in this album. Vile sings with a Lou Reed sneer, delivering his spacious downer anthems in a disaffected, earnest tone, flirting with spoken word. I particularly like the hurried fingerpicking on tunes like "Baby's Arms" and "Runner Ups", and the way Vile's singing sort of lags behind the pace of the song. 

4. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues

The Seattle indie heatseekers didn't disappoint on their sophomore LP. Like the debut, it's rife with lush harmonies, complex arrangements that don't overwhelm, and quality musicianship. But it almost seems a little more cohesive than the first, dwelling on particular ideas and encouraging the songs to lean against one another. Will it be remembered as a better album than its predecessor?

3. Iron and Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean

I'm an unabashed supporter of their expanded sound. Sam Beam is proving to be something of a guru when it comes to arrangements. The songs on Kissing Each Other Clean are even fuller and more uptempo than The Shepherd's Dog. Sam still makes room for a few ballads, doing well to remind longtime fans why the old stuff was so good. 

2. Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest

In a year when I've been largely underwhelmed by Americana (more on that tomorrow), Harrow is a warm reminder of why roots music can achieve an organic beauty unattainable to synthesizers and drum machines. Gillian (and David Rawlings) return with an album we've been waiting eight years to hear, and avoid a Chinese Democracy-style letdown. There are themes of mortality and nostalgia borne out by some of Gil's most magnetic songwriting to date, including the sleepy singalong "Hard Times" and the eerie "Tennessee".

1. Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida

Accuse me of lingering in the honeymoon phase, but I still love this album and play it ad nauseam. The Felice Brothers took a huge risk in introducing digital sounds into their most anticipated release to date, and I'm as shocked as any that they managed to pull it off. But there's more to Celebration than random synth-lines and electrobeats. It's a deftly arranged album, showing a level of foresight and tight musicianship previously undisplayed by a band who seemed to succeed with simplistic, almost cobbled-together songs. I'll admit that part of the reason I hold this album in such high regard is that it does play to my tastes (Americana meets ballsy rock meets synth-pop, maybe?) But what's wrong with that? Nothing compares to the sense of satisfaction one gets from watching a band grow into an act that seems customized to your tastes. 

Honorable Mentions:
Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde
Black Lips - Arabia Mountain
My Morning Jacket - Circuital
Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
Middle Brother - s/t
TV On the Radio - Nine Types of Light
Bright Eyes - The People's Key

Will this order remain consistent at year's end? I can almost guarantee that it won't. Who will make up ground and who will fall off? Find out in December!

Tomorrow, we'll look at a variety of subject matter, including disappointments, best live shows, most likely to crack the top three, and more. Hope you had a happy and safe July 4th.