Monday, December 16, 2013

Favorite Records of 2013

In the hours I spent parsing through my "2013" Spotify playlist en route to compiling this list, I've determined, with certainty, that I am extremely white. This list is just a bunch of white guys. Hip-hop? Soul? Blues? Dude, I don't deserve to enjoy that stuff. That said, I listened to more of it this year than ever before, and even though that still comprised a very small portion of my overall music consumption, it's a step towards my perpetual effort to expand my tastes. But as the blog description states, we specialize in Americana and indie rock 'round these parts, so I suppose it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

For the first time in a while, I can't land on a discernible favorite, so WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, here are Thirteen Records I Really Enjoyed This Year and Some Stray Thoughts On Each™.

Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City

I tried to dislike these guys on principle when they debuted in 2007, but I found it terribly difficult. They're just too good at crafting eminently likable indie-pop anthems. And Ezra's a damn fine singer with a kind of Midas touch that transmogrifies things that should be grating (like a mouse-pitched voice singing "Ya hey!") into a charming earworm. God, so many good songs on this album. And "Diane Young" is the perfect single, right? Like, that ideal has been achieved so the rest of us should turn to writing rock operas? OK, cool.

Jason Isbell — Southeastern

Remember when Jason Isbell first left the Drive-By Truckers and we were all excited to hear a solo LP because his precious few Truckers credits were so damned good and we figured we'd get a slate of A+++++ songs on an LP? Then his first album came out and it was like, "Yeah, this is pretty good," and then he released a kinda mediocre follow-up and then an even more mediocre third album? Then Southeastern came out and everyone was like, "OH SHIT HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEW ISBELL?" and I listened and it was actually pretty goddamned good? And how I celebrated the fact that Isbell to was writing some gritty Southern gothic shit and aching ballads instead of schmaltzy blue eyed soul and MOR adult-contempo?

That was awesome.

Local Natives — Hummingbird

God, this band. I remember when I first heard Gorilla Manor and was staggered by how sturdy and developed it was for a debut and how many songs I was completely in love with. "Wide Eyes" is still one of the better opening tracks I've heard in years. After three years spent building a fanbase, Local Natives released Hummingbird in January and it was about all I listened to until March. These guys can write the hell out of a hook-laden single, but won't hesitate to crush your ass with a ballad if you look at 'em wrong. "Colombia" is a song about singer Kelcy Ayers' mother passing, and it will absolutely destroy you when you hear it in that context. My one gripe with the record has to do with pacing. The momentum picks up in the back half, but it starts out choppy. But hey, basically a nitpick—this one's been in steady rotation all year. Oh, and if this record came out when I was nineteen, I would have had "Mt. Washington" on repeat and felt sorry for myself about how hard I had things (I didn't). Thankfully, "Come Pick Me Up" was available.

The Letter Show—Brokenhearted Stumblers EP

Yes, I am in this band but it totally would have shown up in this list even if I wasn't. YES NO YOU SHUT UP.

Arcade Fire — Reflektor

Perhaps it had to do with the enormity of The Suburbs, but fans and detractors alike came down hard on Reflektor seemingly the moment that first stream was available. Regardless, if you're willing to tweet out a dismissive review of any record after a passing listen, you're a terrible fan and don't deserve good music.

I'm a salty vet with the Arcade Fire, so I dignified 'em with an Actual Listen™ prior to pulling together my verdict. After some dozens of spins, I'm comfortable deem it another triumph, although maybe not quite so triumphy as any of the band's first three LPs. I think Reflektor could have been trimmed down to a single LP, but I still love pretty much all of it. By the way, I've got a ticket for their DC show in August 2014, and am feeling pretty good my prospects of doing The Electrocution* during the breakdown of "Here Comes the Night Time". (*The Electrocution is a dance I invented by proxy because it's the only form my dancing takes. As you've likely gathered, it's resembles a person being electrocuted by a stupid amount of voltage. It's not a good look. Did I mention my whiteness?)

Mark Kozelek/Desertshore—s/t

While Mark Kozelek's recent output has seen musical arrangements whittled down to almost nothing, his collaboration with Desertshore (comprised partially of former Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon bandmates) gets back to the spacey alt-rock histrionics of latter-era RHPs and early SKM. Lyrically, Kozelek's in a wacky place, in as much as Kozelek can be wacky. His lyrics are a bit sillier and more self-deprecating, although still contextualized by the somber, deadpan delivery that defines much of his canon. The album's ten songs are strung with mundane descriptions of what Kozelek's doing or thinking. "I got up and I went to the studio / got stopped by a crackhead named Jerome / he had a lot to get off his chest / he wanted some money and he was homeless" he muttersings on "Livingstone Bramble". The chorus ends with the declaration "I hate Nels Cline" followed by a Cline-esque guitar run. Sensing the wackiness? But lest you think Kozelek's shelved his penchant for more crushing turns, he reminds us why he's the face of '90s SLOWCORE. Par example, piano ballad album closer "Brothers," about the death of each of Kozelek's father's three brothers, which occurred over a span of some 70 years. The song (and album) ends with the lyric, "And my dad, he's still around / and I'll miss him like hell when I can no longer hear the sound / of his voice givin' me advice and telling me the latest news / when we can't sit around and watch old movies in his living room." Suffice it to say this isn't exactly a pick-me-up record, but it's got a relatable warmth to it if you're feeling a bit blue and reflective.

Kurt Vile—Wakin' On a Pretty Daze

I just want to talk about "Shame Chamber", which is a way groovier song than we're used to hearing from KV. Actually, I don't have much else to say about it except that I peck my head like a nerd to the electric piano lick and may or may not shriek along with each "WOO!" when no one is in earshot.

Richard Buckner—Surrounded

A supremely underrated songwriter who seems to be finding a lot more joy in exploring the studio space with his recent material. Buckner's bailiwick is writing heady, spacey neofolk songs, which are kinda my shit. Also, remember how Mark Kozelek's lyrics are a little wacky? Buckner's are stone serious, delivered like he's making mad eye contact while sliding you a stiff whiskey. Don't ask questions—just drink it and listen.

Neko Case—The Worse Things Get...(etc.)

Look, Neko. I know you probably don't want a husband but if you're wanting for company, I'll totally come live on your farm in Vermont and help you with whatever. I won't even ask for a room; I can sleep in my car or a tent—I have a zero degree bag so I should be fine. And I'll try not to gush about how much I love your music, but I can't promise a bit of fanboy shit won't slip out. By the way, your album rules. That song "Night Still Comes", I love it...and you. I LOVE YOU NEKO PLEASE LET ME LOVE Y[is dragged off by security]

Phosphorescent—Muchacho

Will Houck could read an Arby's menu into a microphone and I'd be like, "Ah, man, there's a delicate pain belying his chummy delivery and also he really likes Market Fresh Sandwiches." Thankfully, he opts to sing a spacious brand of Americana that'll wash over you like a warm Mojave sunset. Is "A Charm/A Blade" my favorite song of 2013? Answer: IT IS CERTAINLY UP THERE.

The National—Trouble Will Find Me

It seems bonkers that the epic Boxer, my first exposure to the brooding indie rock collective, was released seven years ago. While I don't think they've topped it with either subsequent LP, the good news is the National doesn't make a habit of putting out bad records. Nor do they stray from their formula, but it's distinct enough that they don't really have to. Push play on a National record and you're gonna hear pounding, moody anthems. You're gonna hear weaving interplay between verbed out guitar arpeggi and tumbling drumbeats. You're gonna hear Matt Berninger mumbling curious wordplay like, "She's a griever, not a believer, it's not a fever, it's a freezer." Ironically, these same touches that distinguish the National from garden variety indie acts have a congealing effect as far as their individual songs go. But I'm not listening to National records to hear a batch of staggered singles. Trouble Will Find Me, as with most National records, feels like one long, thoughtful spin on a starlit highway.

Dexateens—Sunsphere EP

ENOUGH WITH ALL THIS MAUDLIN INDIE BULLSHIT, LET'S CRANK SOME FUCKIN' GRITCAKED SOUTHERN ROCK IN THIS BITCH. FOXHOLE ROCK!



(Fun fact: I'd never listened to these guys before I saw them open for the Alabama Shakes in September. Their 2007 album Hardwire Healing is the truth.)

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& The Duchess)—The Low Highway

As a person who writes music, there are a few artists whose songwriting chops are so inspiring that they're contagious. Hearing their stuff sets my creative gears in spin, and generally results in me grabbing a guitar and ripping them the hell off writing my own tune in a similar vein. Bob Dylan, obviously, is one of these people. Steve Earle is another. There's an appeal that exists in both these dudes' music that's borne out of the fact that it feels both effortless and inspired, which are extremely difficult qualities to maintain in balance. But when you hear a Steve Earle song like, "Love Is Gonna Blow My Way", you want to call him up and say, "Dude, I bet you wrote that in like three minutes and it's better than anything I've ever written. I hate you." And then he'd be like, "Gee thanks, um, how'd you get this number?" And then you'd snap your phone in half like a burner in Breaking Bad, because that'd be a pretty cool way to tie up that scenario. Speaking of which, there's a song about meth on this record. It's okay.

Other albums I liked:

Dr. Dog—B-Room
Man Man—On Oni Pond
Yo La Tengo—Fade
Daft Punk—Random Access
Phoenix—Bankrupt!
Deer Tick—Negativity

Mild Disappointments:

Iron & Wine—Ghost on Ghost: Even as a champion of Iron & Wine's steadily expanding sound, I found this one uneven and regularly flirting with schmaltziness. I really like "Grass Widows" though.

Okkervil River—The Silver Gymnasium

Agree? Disagree?* What'd I miss? Feel free to leave your opinions below.

*You're wrong

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Catching Up: 2012

2012: Catching UP

Last week, I posted for the first time in two years. You'll recall from that post that 2012 was the year I focused on my own musical endeavors, which left little time for sponging up others' music in the way I normally would. But here's a review of what I did manage.

Music 


As far as new music goes, 2012 was a lost year. The rigors of leading an active band simply didn't leave the time to devour new tunes in the way I had in years past. Additionally, it was something of a quiet year for my top bands. However, I made time for a handful of records, including:

Grizzly Bear—Shields

Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel (etc.)

Andrew Bird—Break It Yourself and Hands to Glory

Dinosaur Jr.—I Bet On Sky

Jack White—Blunderbuss

Father John Misty—Fear Fun

Beach House—Bloom

Dirty Projectors—Swing Lo Magellan

I'm forgetting some, but really, that's what 2012 was for me. And of that slate, I've only steadily revisited Shields, Fear Fun, I Bet On Sky and Hands to Glory. Speaking of Fear Fun, this is where I get to push my thick-rimmed glasses up my nose and say, "Yeah, I've been a J. Tillman fan since like 2009" (proof!) Of course, J. as Father John is a different animal than the understated folkster with whom I was familiar. But it's always nice to see an artist switch gears to a positive end. Which, by the way, is why I glommed onto Andrew Bird's latter 2012 release. While it still retained many of Andrew Bird's trademark idiosyncrasies (whistling, quirky lyricism, soaring vocals, whistling) the album swaps the baroque histrionics that typify much of Bird's solo canon with a more straightforward Americana approach.

But overall, I was spread so thin that new music fell by the wayside. I did finally get into War On Drugs' Slave Ambient as well as this delightful folk anthology. I know I discovered a handful of other older releases, but they're escaping me at the moment. This is why steadily updating this blog is helpful, you see.

Shows


Similarly, my 2012 live music intake suffered due to my personal musical commitments. I probably played 30 rock shows last year, but only caught a handful worth mentioning. Among them:

The Avett Brothers at the North Charleston Coliseum
February 12, 2012


When I was in college, The Avett Brothers used to play New Brookland tavern, a grimy dive in West Columbia. I saw Band of Horses there right after they released their first album. But I never saw the Avetts there, despite my multiple invitations to do so. This will haunt me forever. By the time I got into the Avett Brothers in 2005 when Four Thieves Gone came out, they were on the cusp of graduating to slightly larger venues. I finally saw them at the Music Farm, then at various performing arts centers, and then finally at the Coliseum. With each graduation, the Avetts' live show had to sacrifice some of the wily stage antics. Of course, the actual music was sounding better because of the advantages that more sophisticated audio bring, but we can all relate to the bittersweet realization that a band you used to tout as the next big thing has become just that. You're thrilled for the band—especially when it's guys like the Avetts, who toured relentlessly for years and gleaned a following the old fashioned way before breaking out. They're now doing GAP commercials and play custom guitars and headline festivals. Good on 'em! But it's all happened in tandem with what my ear considers to be a dramatic dropoff in quality—at least the quality that drew me to the band in the first place. But, what can you do? The kids love it!

By the way, the show was phenomenal—third row seats helped, but the Avetts still exude a passion for performing that few bands can match. It was funny to see the folks around us become relatively disinterested with any song that predated I & Love & You, only to sing full bore when a newer song popped up. But thankfully, the band closed with "Talk On Indolence" and I got to bounce around like an idiot while the n00bs wondered what the hell was going on.

In conclusion, to any college kids reading this: if a band from out of town is playing a dive bar and there's a bit of buzz surrounding it, go see the show. You may never hear from them again, but if you skip it and they blow up, you'll kick yourself. Forever. [kicks self]

Beach House at the Music Farm
May 6, 2012


It was hot as hell. We had a terrible view. They played a fine show. We left before the encore.

Wilco at the St. Augustine Amphitheater in St. Augustine, Florida
May 19, 2012


It was the closest they've come in some time, so an overnight trip to America's oldest town was in order. Our tickets were second row center, which I believe is the best ticket I've ever had in 9 Wilco shows. Also memorable: the power went out during the middle section of "Shot In The Arm". The band just gazed at one another amidst the darkness, but Glenn kept the beat going while the audience repeated the line "Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm!" until several minutes later when the power came back on and the band picked up right on cue. Teamwork!

My Morning Jacket/Band of Horses at the Time Warner Cable Town Amphitheater
August 25, 2012



Unfortunately, my buddy and I missed BOH's set because of traffic, but were rewarded with the revelation that our tickets were for the stagefront pit—we'd assumed we'd be embedded in a swath of generally admitted masses. But not so! We had plenty of elbow room and actually ran into a buddy of mine from my days as a Ryan Adams show mainstay.

Anyway, MMJ's performance was magnificent—I'd wager it was one of the top three live performances I've ever seen. This is a band tailor-made for playing on a crisp, starlit night. Band of Horses stood stageside and watched the performance in awe. Mind you, they'd been on tour with MMJ for a stretch already, so they'd been privy to this performance many times. But I can't blame them—I'd drink it in nightly too, if I had the opportunity. The show performance of "Steam Engine" cemented it as one of my favorite songs, and led to a months-long MMJ kick that hasn't fully subsided.

Andrew Bird at the Charleston Music Hall
November 5, 2012


This was the night South Carolina demolished Georgia. I watched the game at a nearby bar and missed the first couple of songs because I couldn't tear away, even though it was well in hand by the 4th quarter. I eventually made it over to the CMH for my second Andrew Bird experience. Specifics are foggy, but I just remember smiling the whole time and that it was an excellent show. He played much of the Hands of Glory album I wrote about earlier, perhaps why I've become so fond of it.

***

There were a few other smaller shows—Shovels and Rope at a local beer festival comes to mind. But as has been the theme, I can't quite remember what shows I attended as a spectator amidst all the shows I played.

The goal is to get a 2013 catch-up post going next, although I've been a bit more conscientious fan this year so I may split it up into multiple posts. Until then!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

So. How ya been?

The last time I posted to HearSoundsWrite—almost two years ago, as the timestamp on the post below this one indicates—I was at the precipice of something new. In fact, I'd already begun a transition from largely ignored music blogger to largely ignored musician.

Early in 2010, I was bored. I mean that in a musical sense—I'd grown sick of playing acoustic guitar by myself, sometimes taking to a coffee shop to play the twenty songs in a cleared out corner for kindhearted friends and the occasional onlooker. Every now and again, I'd have someone ask if I was in a band—"Nope, just me"— or if they could buy a CD—"I don't have one."

Perhaps I felt insignificant or as though I owed myself something, but I developed an itch to address these voids. I posted a Craigslist ad in March of 2011 in search of a likeminded musician interested in collaborating on...anything, really. It's through that listing that I met a songwriter, who introduced me to a guitarist, who passed my demos along to a drummer, who shared them with a bassplayer. And that, more or less, is how my band fell into my lap. After the first songwriter and I played together for a few months, she became involved in another project. Then, in July or August, that I found myself in a shed with the other three musicians, feeling simultaneously exhilarated and in over my head.

I'd also begun to explore the possibility of recording an album. I had a batch of songs of which I was relatively proud, and a few bucks in the bank—why shouldn't I indulge in such a worthwhile adventure I've long coveted? I knew a guy whose band had hired a local producer to record their album, so I asked for his information. We set up a meeting, and the producer agreed to work with me on a ten song record. While my initial plan was track everything on my own, I chose to recruit my newfound musical comrades as session players to expand the album's sonic reach. It was an opportunity they eagerly embraced. We rehearsed for several months before tracking the songs. These rehearsal sessions led to two new songs (one each from the bassist and guitarist) finding their way onto the record.

The recording process wasn't always smooth. Our producer was sometimes tough to nail down, and we probably blew his budget which resulted in a bit of tension. Because of this, there were takes I wanted to scrap but had to live with, and they still sting to hear. But I'm still tremendously proud of what we put together, and it was an invaluable learning experience for future studio ventures. I'll never forget the day the printed CDs arrived. Still one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

I spent most of 2012 gigging with the band. I'd only ever played with a band in high school, and since then, my performance experience had consisted almost exclusively of tame coffee house gigs. Now, I was playing dive bars on weeknights amidst drunks and partiers, all the while scrambling to learn about pedal boards and amplifiers and how to sing over a rock band. I had a lot of sore throats in 2012. I was also the band's de facto manager, publicist, point of contact, problem solver and HR director. All the while I was working an 8 to 5 job. And now you realize why the blog fell dormant.

We did OK for ourselves. We were never as tight as we could be, but we were a happy stage band and rarely had trouble winning over a bar crowd. But things eventually fizzled. Some tension between band members compounded by my growing desire to scale back led to a semi-amicable dissolution in December 2012. We played a final gig at a favorite dive bar in downtown Charleston, to a raucous reception. After loading out and driving home, I crawled into bed at 2:30 AM. Despite the screaming tinnitus and still-pumping adrenaline, I slept as hard as I can remember.

It was an eventful run. We played to packed bars and we played to empty houses. We appeared in local papers and on local television. We played on some fairly impressive local stages and played in sticky bar corners. We even hit the road a couple of times (Myrtle Beach counts, right?) Just like with the recording process, it was an eye-opening and educational experience. More than anything, I felt initiated.

About a month after the band parted ways, another unique opportunity emerged. The songwriter I'd initially met on Craigslist contacted the guitarist and me to help her with a folk project. A connection had encouraged her to submit for a slot in at a major festival in Virginia, and she asked if we'd round out the act. So we gathered and recorded some demos on a laptop. And believe it or not, we were accepted. Figuring we needed something to sell, we planned a weekend trip to Nashville to record at the guitarist's cousin's home studio. The cousin, an engineer who's worked with some impressive names, was gracious to lend his expertise and impressive arsenal of equipment to our project—pro bono, no less. The result was a five song EP with dazzling sound quality.

The festival was a bit of a letdown. It was clear from the onset that our little act was an afterthought. Perhaps we should have expected it—after all, we essentially BS'ed our way into a lineup filled with some heavy hitters. We were naive enough to think we'd at least get a stage and a PA; we got neither. But, hey, on the bright side: free VIP festival ticket! After all, it was another unique experience I certainly don't regret. Plus, the project gave us the magical Nashville recording experience and forced me to become a better mandolin player.

I never forgot about the blog, though. I've come back and reread old posts and often had the urge to update, but something stupid happened: I let my ownership of the domain expire, and some prospector snapped it up. I guess I take that as a compliment, since it means the domain was worth something. Anyway, this crushed my motivation since who wants to operate with the ignominy of a .blogspot URL? But a recent exchange led me to check on the status of the domain, and lo and behold, it was available. Yesterday, I repurchased the domain. And here I am, back on the horse. For now, anyway.

I doubt I'll update as often as I did back in the day. My duties as a musician haven't completely subsided—I'm still playing, writing and recording music, and in fact am traveling back to Nashville in a few week's time. I'm also writing for a prominent South Carolina Gamecocks blog. Plus, there's that job thing. That said, my brain's got a backlog of musical rumination, observations and lamentations that need a home. And even though it's been a few years, that's exactly how this place feels.