Kacey Musgraves catches lightning in a bottle — “Same Trailer Different Park” is country’s best album of the year so far
If you ain’t got two kids by 21
You’re probably gonna die alone
At least that’s what tradition told you
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe
Come Sunday morning you best be there
In the front row like you’re supposed to
Same hurt in every heart
Same trailer different park
Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay
Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane
And daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
We get bored so we get married
And just like dust we settle in this town
On this broken merry-go-
Round and round and round we go
Where it stops nobody knows
And it ain’t slowing down
Talk about a shot to the gut. This is one of those songs which could apply to just about everyone I’ve known in small-town Indiana at some point in our lives. It’s a touch of downwardly mobile Americana as we settle for less than we’re worth because we don’t believe we deserve anything better than just a chance at treading water.
Kacey Musgraves doesn’t have the thundering “shoot for the high notes” vocals of a Carrie Underwood, and though she could out-hustle Taylor Swift in any songwriting competition, you’ll be unlikely to find her drawing the same kind of frantic, obsessed crowd. All the better, because we can take in the wonderful songwriting on Same Trailer Different Park, 2013′s first flat-out fantastic country album, without having to worry she’ll be overexposed by September.
“Merry Go Round” may be the strongest introduction to her sound, but “Dandelion”, “Stupid” and “It Is What It Is” reiterate that this young woman is Nashville’s best lyrical hope, suggesting that country can mean a hell of a lot more than just by-the-numbers button pushing. This is the real America … it is what is is ’til it ain’t anymore. Here’s hoping listeners aren’t too stubborn to give her the chance she so richly deserves, because there’s nowhere better you could be than listening to this album a few times through.
Rench, producer of the up-and-coming band Gangstagrass, wants to redefine how we look at American music, starting with an innovative blend of hip-hop and bluegrass on his collective’s sophomore album Rappalachia, due out June 5th on his own label Rench Audio. It’s a daring blend of innovative modern swagger and classic Americana cool which dares listeners not to come along for the ride.
“I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know,” he says. “But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.”
Rench sat down to talk to “Hear! Hear!” about the process behind his music, what continues to inspire him, and why sometimes it’s better just to listen to something because it sounds good, meaning be damned.
Elmore Leonard has said that Gangstagrass created a whole new genre of music from polar opposites. But I wondered, do you think the two genres – rap and bluegrass – are really such opposites in the first place?
Only in certain ways. The thing is, they’re perceived to be polar opposites and right now there’s a cultural divide, but definitely under the surface there’s plenty of common ground where hip-hop, bluegrass and country music are all coming from a very American tradition. Each genre is built upon aspects of communities coming together to tell their stories, about the hardships and the heartache, the pain of surviving hard times. That, and there’s always been the American tradition of combining various types of music.
Country music and bluegrass grew out of the combination of the folk music which had come up in Appalachia from European immigrants, and the gospel music which was coming from the south with the slaves. The banjo was an African instrument brought here through the slave trade, and combined with the fiddle from the European traditions, bluegrass was born. And hip-hip started literally through the cutting together of different records to make something new.
So there’s definitely enough common ground for you to look at both genres as coming from similar places. But I think in this country there’s defniitely a conception that there’s a separateness: there’s black music and white music. But that’s something which has been perpetrated by the industry more than anything else. For decades they’ve had separate charts, markets and radio stations.
It’s interesting that you should say that. I live in southern Indiana and over the last fifteen years stations which used to be pop and rock have shifted to more of an urban hip-hop format, going up against the regional country stations. So there’s a sense that the two genres are being set up as diametrically opposed: the country fans hate the rappers, and the rap fans hate the country people. What do you think it is about the two genres which inspires such a love-hate relationship?
They’re seen by people as the most central musical elements in this urban versus rural divide people perceive, the whole “red state / blue state” thing. But I think we’re going to get over that. I think that’s something which has to be reaching its peak. Eventually we have to appreciate the overlap, how much purple there is out there.
Do you think bringing the two genres together bridges that gap and makes them more mainstream than they otherwise would be?
That’s yet to be seen. I’m not sure. I’m doing it because I like it, and whether it’s going to be become mainstream and what effect it might have on music in general, I don’t know. But that’s certainly something I’ll be glad to find out. I know that, aside from the people who say “I like country and I hate hip-hop” or “I like hip-hop but I hate country,” those appear to be the extreme cases. There are a lot of people out there who have Johnny Cash and Jay-Z on the playlists on their iPod.
You’re just bringing those two worlds together.
Yeah, and I’m doing some integrating of different styles the same way American music has always been made, by people taking genres which already exist and then combining them in new ways. That’s been “progress” through American musical history, as people pulled together the disparate streams of the culture which came before.
As I listened to other interviews you’ve done, I learned you were raised in California but your father was from Oklahoma. That got me thinking about Bakersfield country. That hybrid was nomads bringing country music with them as they traveled west during the Depression, eventually merging it with Rockabilly. So is Gangstagrass doing that same thing in the 21st century, taking what we already have and making it new?
I’d be happy to say yes to that, to take that on! I’m definitely, myself, a big fan of the Bakersfield sound. I love those guys like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard. They were part of this outlaw movement which definitely bucked the trend at the time of country music getting really soft: “country-politan” as they called it. Like I said, I don’t know where this is going to go, but if this brings in a new direction, I’d be happy because I personally feel what’s happening with hip-hop and country in the mainstream – what’s at the top of the charts – is not that exciting in terms of the potential of those two genres. There is a lot of exciting stuff happening with hip-hop and country music, but you’re not going to hear it on the radio.
Both country fans and rap fans have for years wanted their music to be mainstream. But now they’ve both gotten their wish, it seems perhaps many wish they hadn’t because mainstream success stymies what you can do creatively.
I think there are people doing really creative things. Outkast has done incredibly creative things with hip-hop, so that’s one example and there are plenty of things I listen to in terms of people doing interesting things with hip-hop, like the producer Dan the Automator, who I think has really great sounds going on. But the stuff they’re doing isn’t what hits the charts. The mainstream of hip-hop in general is pretty bland. The same goes for country. The Nashville country music industry has been putting out pop music with drawl, which is all that distinguishes it from pop music. Now and then you’ll get some fiddles mixed up in there, but I’d definitely like to see more out there with people getting back to the real country sounds in a way which isn’t backwards looking. Pedal steel and banjo are where it’s at, but we can use those to go forward in an exciting way as opposed to what happens now: “Let’s just make it sound like a rock record with drums, electric guitar and a singer with a southern accent.”
How do you go about writing music for Gangstagrass? Does the music come first, or is it more of a fluid collaboration between musicians and lyricist?
A lot of it is a managed chaos which I do as a ringleader, and I bring in these different people at different times and I orchestrate the way it all fits together. I’ll have the bluegrass guys come over and do some playing, and sometimes it’s just a matter of having them get together and do a bluegrass jam and see where I can take that by adding beats. Other times I come up with the beats first and see what they decide to play on top of that. I try to mix it up so that each song doesn’t sound like exactly the same thing. On Rappalachia, which we’re putting out in June, you’re going to hear a lot of different ways of mixing things together. Because of that, the songs come out with a different feeling depending on which we started with on that particular track, the beat or the bluegrass music and the rapping.
Speaking of Rappalachia, hearing the album in sequence, I liked how you kept some of the songs as pure instrumentals. But songs like “Honey Babe” stand out, with Brandy Hart singing as Dolio the Sleuth lays down his rhymes over the bluegrass picking. Everything blends so perfectly it’s as though you recorded it live on the spot. I know that’s not how it works, but the illusion is there.
I take that as a compliment, because that’s certainly one of the skills that I try to bring as the producer. One of the goals is to really make it flow together to where everything sounds fluid. Even when they are recorded separately, I definitely take pains to get that feeling right. If it’s not flowing together and feeling like a jam,
then to me it’s not working at all.
On your previous album, Lightning on the Strings, T.O.N.E.z was the main MC, but there’s more variety on Rappalachia because there’s a rotating group of rappers and singers. How did you decide to expand that Gangstagrass collective?
Gangstagrass was initially conceptualized as something where I could be working with different rappers on different tracks. My initial experimentation with that idea was on something called Volume One, which is not available anymore, but we had lots of different rappers on that. But when we did the theme song for Justified, and I knew Justified was about to start airing, that I thought: “Let’s do an album with a bunch of tracks with T.O.N.E.z so we can have more material with this same sound, the same lineup, as the Justified theme song for people who are going to come looking for that. Now that we have that out there, the idea on Rappalachia was to get back to the idea of opening things up to work again with the other rappers I enjoy collaborating with.
Has the association with Justified and the success of “Long, Hard Times To Come” made it easier for you to mainstream the bluegrass-hip-hop fusion?
It has definitely given us more opportunities to get out there where we otherwise wouldn’t have. Being nominated for an Emmy is nice to be able to mention when you’re approaching people. It definitely helps get phone calls returned when you can say you have this theme song on a hit show and it’s nominated for an Emmy. People tend to listen a little bit more. And it’s certainly great to have the exposure every week when Justified is on. Millions of people get thirty seconds of Gangstagrass in their ear, and we see the weekly wave of people on Wednesdays, new Facebook fans who tuned in to Justified and thought: “What the hell was that I just heard?”
Do you ever still come up against audiences who aren’t prepared for what you’re doing?
Online, yes. In terms of live shows or anything like that, no. The people who come to our shows are generally the ones excited about what we’re doing. There are purists, and in that respect it’s more on the bluegrass side of things.
I could have guessed. I’ve seen what they’ve done to guys like Chris Thile of Nickel Creek / Punch Brothers. They’ve run him up the flagpole and here he is the most innovative guy who just loves what he’s doing.
Yeah, there are the people for whom bluegrass is only in this particular formulation, and you can’t mess with it. For people who do something a little bit differently with it, they’ll say “that’s just not bluegrass.” But putting rap on it, that’s more of a crime against nature! It’s just really unacceptable. And there are people out there in the bluegrass community for whom if there’s swearing on a song it’s just not music anymore. But I would say that’s a thin slice of the community. That’s a particular set of traditionalists, but a lot of the bluegrass fans out there are really open to the ideas we bring to the table. We hear from people who say it’s great to have people expanding the genre, doing new things with it. You still have the authentic bluegrass there.
Have you heard any other bands building on your sound?
Not specifically bands which are doing it to imitate Gangstagrass. But in a way I hope there are bands doing that. I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled for more than a decade as I’ve been doing this stuff, and there have been plenty of people trying it. But it’s very rare that someone does it well. Usually it’s pretty disappointing when I hear of something: “So and so’s doing country and hip-hop!” And I’ll look it up and they just have a boring 808 hip-hop beat with a loop of dueling banjos.
What would you say to people who think Gangstagrass is just a novelty, or that you’re somehow violating the history of either bluegrass or hip-hop?
Those who say we’re violating the history, they just want a certain thing and aren’t interested in us doing new things with it. But that’s not something for me to worry about. Violating the way a genre works is the way American music has always been made. When people move into new ideas there are always going to be people who don’t like it. That’s not going to concern me.
How did the collaboration with Kool Keith come about on “Western”?
We just approached him. He’s someone I was really into, in terms of how creative he is with his lyrical approach. I mentioned it to people we were working with on reaching out to get guest musicians, and he responded positively as I’d thought maybe he would. If there’s anyone who’s going to be into weird stuff it’s Kool Keith.
As a producer, how do you know when you’ve hit on something worth keeping?
You just have to go on the feeling that it gives you. It’s a matter of going with your gut. When I’m in the studio I’m either really excited about something or, if I’m not, I’m saying: “OK what’s wrong here that I’m not freaking out over this yet?” The tracks I put out are the tracks that, while I’m working on them, I’m thinking: “Hell yes! Let me just listen to that again!” Sometimes I’ll end up not getting much work done for a while because I have to hear that particular track one more time. Then there are other tracks I might work on and think: “it’s okay … but it’s not hitting hard enough, something’s missing.” I’ll either take a step back and find something else to do with it, or I move on and leave that one off to the side.
What would you say makes for meaningful music?
Right now “meaning” in the music is not something I’m totally focused on. For me it’s about the feeling more than the meaning. It’s about the experience invovled in creating something that grabs you and makes you feel like dancing or stomping around. I’m very much focused more on that visceral reaction to the process. You’re experiencing and living the music more than you are thining about it. It’s the turn it on, turn it up and rock out approach, which goes back to that gut feeling I was talking about. It has to feel good. Think about food for a second. I’m looking for something with a whole lot of sugar on it. I’m not concerned about whether it’s good for you, I just want to know: “Does it taste good when you put it in your mouth?”
Where would you like to take the music of Gangstagrass in the future?
Well, I’d like to keep making it, first and foremost. I think there’s still plenty of potential to keep exploring new ways to do it, and plenty more music yet to be written. And there are plenty more people to attract to it, people who are going to love it. One of the stumbling blocks promotion-wise for us is that there are plenty of people where if you just say this is bluegrass and hip-hop put together, it’s going to turn them off as much as it’s going to turn them on. They hear it described and think: “That’s not what I’m looking for!” But when they just hear it, Gangstagrass as it is, they say: “Whoa! This is actually pretty cool!” It’s hard for us to go out there and promote with words what we’re doing, which is why Justified is the perfect promotion for us. It just comes on and people hear it. There are still plenty of people out there who simply don’t know that this is something they’d be into until they get to hear it. So we’re just going to keep on trying to get that exposure out there. We’re getting to the point where we can do some more touring and do more promotion of the music we’re putting out, to hopefully reach out to a wider audience.
Counting Crows – “Underwater Sunshine” (2012, Collective Sounds)
Counting Crows completed their deal with Geffen Records in 2010 with the release of Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, which revitalized their career and featured the band sounding as good as ever. Two years later – which is an incredibly quick turnaround for the band, all things considered – they’re back with Underwater Sunshine, a live album which manges to sound as good as any album of original material the band has produced thus far as they enter a third decade of recording.
The secret? Adam Duritz has been unleashed to cover his favorite songs, but with only a few exceptions he’s chosen to focus on hidden gems. The songs on Underwater Sunshine are, for the most part, songs you probably haven’t heard a lot in recent years. Hearing them together in one extended listening session, however, reveals instantly just how brilliant Duritz is at taking any song and cutting right to the quick. Whether he’s doing a relatively by-the-numbers version of Pure Prairie League’s “Amie” (the most recognizable song on the album by a long shot) or rocking the hell out of “Untitled (Love Song”) by relatively unknown act Romany Rye, he’s immediately able to become part of the song through his unique vocals. And the band picks up the pace right behind him, developing this song cycle of covers into a cohesive Crows album on par with the best work the band has produced.
In today’s musical climate the important thing is the music. If the music is good, fans will spread the word and even a band like Counting Crows can survive as independents, free of the constraints a label places on what music eventually is released. In Duritz’s case, leaving Geffen and setting his own course could be the best thing to happen to the band since Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings brought their music full circle back to the rock of Recovering The Satellites and the roots-inspired sound of their debut August and Everything After. Here’s hoping the band’s next album of original material keeps going in this same direction, because for one happy moment it sounds like Duritz has put aside his fear of mainstream success and simply started having fun for a change.
Above: Counting Crows perform “Like Teenage Gravity” by Kasey Anderson, featured on Underwater Sunshine.
If you’re among those who feel a new Emerson Hart album can’t come soon enough, this new single from Nashville songwriter Jameson Elder comes along just in time. A sunny melody propped up by hook-infused vocals, “Take Me Back” would have been a surefire mainstream hit in the 90s, but should still warrant word-of-mouth praise even in this “here today gone tomorrow” music climate. “It’s taking me back again from my heart down to my skin,” Elder sings, and his praise of second chances seems fitting, considering the nostalgia these days for hook-filled pop without hidden motives. With summer looming months ahead of schedule, this is the perfect track to play with the windows down and an arm out the car window, a breezy example of alt-pop done right. Whether you’re into roots-rock, pop or Americana, Jameson Elder’s got somethign for you; The Home I’ve Never Known, his upcoming studio EP, can’t come soon enough.
Year of the Album — #075
Kasey Chambers – “Little Bird” (2011, Sugar Hill)
For those of us already initiated into the Cult of Chambers, Little Bird is immediately accessible as a reintroduction to her already tried and true formula of Australia-tinged pop-country Americana. But with songs like “Little Bird” and “Someone Like Me” populating this record, it’d be a shame if she found herself simply singing to the already converted. Chambers has always had a soft touch when it comes to crafting intimate, honest songs of rare beauty but she’s stepped it up a great deal in the hook department, making this an album which should push her closer to the same audiences who already love current superstars in the Taylor Swift vein.
“I don’t want you that bad,” Chambers sings to a lover who insists if she just changes herself enough, he’ll want her back on that titular single, speaking to everyone who has ever kept quiet and suffered rather than be true to oneself. It’s the perfect song for the current teen generation, speaking of believing in yourself rather than expecting anyone to do it for you. “Somewhere” tone down Chambers’ vocal eccentricities on an exceptional ballad which hones in on themes of depression and desolation: “Somewhere there’s somebody waiting for the day to come / Somewhere there’s somebody on the wrong end of a gun / Somewhere a word is spoken meant so unkind / Somewhere a promise is broken for the hundredth time / And I’m all cried out.” But there’s a sense that hope still abides, even if you have to look a little deeper. When you’re all cried out, what’s next? You fight to find something to believe in.
Chambers is one of those artists you can put your faith in, and Little Bird only builds that reputation. Album in, album out she manages to produce music of the highest caliber, and her output over the last decade, from 1999′s The Captain onward, has been beyond reproach. If you’re already a fan, relish this effort as proof that Chambers is pushing into the new decade head-on, ready to continue crafting amazing music. For neophytes, this is just as good a spot to settle down and get your feet wet. You’ll soon be glad you did.
Americana fans, rejoice, because Gwyneth & Monko have arrived to provide us all with our fix! For fans of Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch, this is music which is at once modern and original, while paying proper respect to the classics of the genre. Their self-titled debut has been out since February, the northern California duo sounds like they’ve been born and raised in the Tennessee hills. “Down” (free mp3 download, right click to save) is an amazing example of their work, a slow-burning groove featuring some of the best mournful female vocals not to be prominently featured on a Rosanne Cash or Lucinda Williams album — and Monko’s guitar solo midway through the song’s seven minute length will hook you if the vocals haven’t. Download the song and then check out the full album — if you’re an Americana / folk / indie junkie you won’t be disappointed.
And if that’s not enough to stoke your musical addiction, check out the band’s live performance of “Wishbone” below.
Year of the Album — #048
Johnny Mainstream – “Shipwrecked” (2011, Sling Slang Records)
Judging by what Johnny Mainstream offers here on Shipwrecked, the music scene in and around Manchester, Conn., must be alive and well. This is Americana music done particularly well, considering the band doesn’t have big label money behind them. Instead, they’ve built their chops the hard (and, dare I say, right) way — by touring relentlessly through the local bar scene, which earned them the growing respect of local musicians, earning a deal with local indie label Sling Slang Records. And though Shipwrecked was released in February and made little splash outside Connecticut, the band’s still out there putting in the hard work to find success. That’s how good music’s supposed to be done, particularly in the indie vein.
But if the music itself wasn’t up to snuff, it wouldn’t matter how hard the band worked at it. Thankfully, the music on Shipwrecked shows a band which is comfortable in its alt-country inspired vein, crafting a simple, unassuming album of indie folk pop confections which quietly assert their dominance the more you listen. “Mobile Phone” is a standout, with a dominant bass line which allows the acoustic guitar and harmonized vocals to have more heft than they otherwise might had the song been strictly acoustic … “you say the word, I’m gonna stick around,” Matthew Maynes sings as a tornado siren wails in the background, giving the song something a really apocalyptic sound, even if beyond the elemental ideas you can’t tell exactly what this song’s really about. What really matters is, once the hook gets in your head, you won’t really care.
This album’s probably not going to blow your mind, but Johnny Mainstream has accomplished a lot here by working hard and stretching their songwriting to the max, creating an album that plays well as a collection of songs you’d expect to go over well in a bar setting. This isn’t the kind of band that’s going to be booed for playing originals rather than covers. And based on the overall depth of Shipwrecked, it wouldn’t be too much to expect these young journeymen to make an impact beyond the Connecticut scene. They’d certainly deserve it.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been left nearly speechless by a songwriter and his guitar, but this is one of those moments. Joe Pug is the real deal, one of those true lyrical greats in the making. He’s all but certain to be one of those American songwriters who will stake their claim on what it means to be a truly expressive musician. He’s already built a name for himself touring with Steve Earle and others of that ilk, but what’s so mindblowing is how effortless it all seems. He’s crafting pure moments of Americana eloquence, a rare combination of honesty and grit, which few other artists can match. And he’s barely breaking a sweat. Imagine what he’s still yet to create, and the possibilities are endless.
Revel in “Hymn 101,” the best song Townes Van Zandt didn’t write:
Year of the Album — #028
L’Altra – “Telepathic” (2011, Acuarela Disco Records)
Chicago’s L’Altra have released their fourth studio album, Telepathic, and it’s the band’s strongest work to date. The album showcases a band fully at home within their musical element, and it’s well worth checking out. My review of the album ran at Stereo Subversion this weekend. You can read the entire review here. The bottom line, however, is that in the end, L’Altra manages to craft the perfect fourth album, music which does as much for new listeners as it does for the already converted, making it one of the more interesting indie releases of the year thus far.
If you get to go to Austin and check out James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards play a midnight set at The Continental Club on Wednesday nights, you may get to see this legend, Jon Dee Graham, opening for him. (I haven’t had the chance, being that I’m blind as a bat, don’t drive none, and had the misfortune of not landing in a music city like Austin post-College, but there’s always the bucket list.)
As for this song, “Not Beautifully Broken,” which is included live here with “Giliad” as well, I think Graham sums the tone up just fine:
“This song is purely fiction, let’s get that out of the way right now. Fictional character has a fictional … let’s call it a breakdown … has to go away to a fictional “institution,” for a fictionally-mandated 110 days, with a fictional happy ending.”
Doesn’t that sound like a fun piece of “fiction”? I’m starting to sense a theme building in today’s posts
If you need an Americana pick-me-up, and Lord knows we all do this time of year in the midwest) here’s something new from Railroad Earth — the “edit” of “The Jupiter & The 119″ (with the intro suite taken out to keep it a manageable seven minutes in length). It’s the (albeit accidental) story of the transcontinental railroad by Todd Sheaffer, which — to quote their press release — “recounts the hammering of the Golden Spike as a metaphor for national unity in today’s highly charged political climate.”
Okay, or it could just be a really great song about the great trains that built this nation — either way’s good enough for me. Give the track a listen, it’s addictive!
Streaming Link: Railroad Earth – “The Jupiter & The 119″
To further quote the press release, the band’s new album is getting rave reviews — Railroad Earth “evokes Full Moon Fever-era Tom Petty,” according to Vanity Fair. And the album landed at #5 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart, for bands which have never been inside the top 100. But with music this good, you just have to listen and trust us. Or we’ll keep heaping on the hyperbole.
I’ll lead you out with another classic Railroad Earth slow-burner:
With a husky voice very much akin to David Gray, Chris Pureka hits us full-tilt with “Wrecking Ball,” a cover of the Bob Dylan/Ketch Secor original, assuring the uninitiated listener through her impressive arrangement that her third album, How I Learned To See In The Dark, is the real deal. Pureka’s been working the fringes of the folk scene since her debut EP in 2001, but she’s shown a remarkable willingness to develop her sound incrementally on her subsequent two albums and an EP, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this third effort is a multi-layered Americana album to rival anything you’ve heard in the Americana vein this year.
Beyond the opening cover, which is certainly impressively developed, Pureka varies her musical brush strokes as she fills this aural canvas with originals in the same vein, focusing on stories of relationships and interactions between people trying to make a living and stake their claim on the American dream. “Hangman” speaks for itself lyrically, so she arranges the musical backdrop to be a bare-bones guitar melody, which allows the mournful vocals to shine even as light strings accent the story of a relationship in tatters. And “Lowlands” features a more upbeat arrangement as she sings of living life on a ledge, looking for a way to survive as a world unravels, somewhat echoing (at least musically) Langhorne Slim’s “In The Midnight.”
For fans of everything from Brandi Carlile to Langhorne Slim, Pureka’s take on folk music is one that deserves wider exposure. She’s never going to be a pop songwriter, but there’s definitely a niche beyond the Boston scene for an album this varied and addictive.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.
Let me get this out of the way early: Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is what it’s advertised to be, a tour de force example of how the world of operatic music can and, upon occasion will, translate across genres.
Mitchell has been reportedly working on this “folk opera” based on the Greek mythology involving Orpheus and Eurydice since 2006. But despite being able to launch the opera on in a live setting during two different indie theater runs, her ability to have her full vision realized was not possible until she got a little help from her friends.
With the aid of Ani DiFranco, who had, years prior, signed Mitchell to her Righteous Babe label, Mitchell was able to put together a master-class of musicians. With special guests Greg Brown, Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Ben Knox Miller (Low Anthem) along with the not-to-be-underestimated orchestral skills of Michael Chorney, Mitchell decided to head into the studio to record the opera in all its glory, including detailed aural characterization and a full libretto, ready to be dissected by the avid music junkie in all of us.
The album is almost certainly going to draw comparisons to The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, which was one of last year’s most critically acclaimed albums. On the surface such a comparison might seem fitting, but when one delves deeper into Hadestown it’s possible to hear why her album is able to fittingly be called a true “opera.” The meticulous craft put into both the lyrics and the full-band orchestral arrangements allow this song cycle to flow magnificently as a complicated whole. Though the Decemberists came close to reaching that level of perfection, their album occasionally verged on the melodramatic, and the libretto was a mess — it took whole paragraphs to explain just what the hell was happening from point A to point B.
Hadestown, conversely, is a model of efficiency. The story could seem complicated in less skilled hands, particularly if the musicians had succumbed to the pressure to be overdramatic since that’s what many expect in “operatic” music. Instead, each song plays a distinct role in the progression of the story. There’s no added drama; the characters are allowed to fully develop without becoming overwhelming. And in less than an hour the entire album plays out its wrenching tale, coming to a distinct and fitting end — one which I suspect will leave more than a few listeners physically drained.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus and Eurydice are young lovers, husband and wife. Orpheus is called “the father of songs,” son of the river god Oeagrus and the muse Calliope. Eurydice is seduced by Hades into being bitten by a serpent, and is drawn down to hell. Orpheus is given permission by the Gods to go to rescue her, and legend has it that Hades is actually “moved” to give him her freedom, if he’s able to leave Hell with her behind him, trusting she’s there… no looking back. When he fails, looking backward before both are safely beyond the gates of Hell, she’s forced to return and he must spend the rest of his life pining for her through his music, never able to be with his true love as the Gods won’t let him go back, humilated by his failure.
Mitchell has chosen to set Hadestown during what may or may not be the Great Depression of the 1930s, a post-apocalyptic wasteland where humans are starved for even the most basic needs in life, and Hades is right there to provide them with work, if they’re willing to give up their very humanity.
The guests on Mitchell’s album bring this story to life in stunning clarity. As Eurydice, she’s willing to play a role, taking something of a backseat to her guests, while still imbuing the character with a great deal of depth. Her Eurydice goes beyond the myth, succumbing to Hades out of pure desperation, unsure that Orpheus will be able to provide for her, something she regrets through song for the remainder of the tale. Her “Flowers” is one of the album’s most heartbreaking songs.
Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon proves to have far more artistic range than many may give him credit for, breathing so much life into his character that we’re left on the edge of our seats as he’s tested by the fates. A lesser musician would have struggled with songs like “Wait For Me” and the album’s most stunningly raw moment, “Doubt Comes In,” when his fear has to show through nothing but the vocals. They require an incredible amount of vocal depth, something Vernon provides time and again.
But the real star of the album is Greg Brown, a folk artist with more than two dozen albums to his name. Brown’s deep-throated growl thunders through the album, providing a deep sonic weight to the entire opera. He also happens to take part in three of the album’s biggest showstoppers.
“Hey, Little Songbird” sees Hades alternately tempting and taunting Eurydice, luring her into his version of hell on Earth, but he brings down the house with “Why We Build The Wall,” a brooding catechism in which Hades indoctrinates his newest souls, in what is perhaps the strongest lyrical point on Hadestown. A meditation on freedom versus necessity, it’s such a timely song as to almost demand further discussion among listeners. And his debate with wife Persephone (DiFranco) on “How Long?” pulses with raw emotion: fear, hate, frustration, all thrown into a seething kettle as Hades must decide what must be done with this troublemaking Orpheus.
What results from all these forces coming together is, hands down, the strongest single folk music album I’ve found this decade. Mitchell’s four years of work put into this project show more clearly than anything that she values this as her masterwork. Having listened to the rest of her catalog, it becomes even clearer that, though she’s always been a talented member of the folk community, Hadestown is indeed a marked improvement, one which almost certainly will go down as her finest work. Blending blues, jazz, country and other folk idioms into one work of complex beauty, she’s stumbled on a potent blend which should help introduce folk and Americana to a wider audience than ever before.
For that reason, it’s an album which deserves to be heard and heard again, studied and shared, and above all, treasured. I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that no other album this year is going to match it for sheer audacity and, ultimately, for superb artistic merit. Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown is going to be an album around for the long haul, and should become a lasting example of where folk music can go when the right musicians take hold of history.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.
For fans of Americana and alt-country music, there’s no better time than the present to dig into some of the more solid material to come out in 2009.
Chris Knight’s Trailer Tapes continues where he left off with The Trailer Tapes, which reissued his raw, elemental initial recordings prior to signing with MCA in 1996. These recordings, far from scraping the bottom of the barrel, actually build on what we heard on the first series of demos, showing that Knight is one of America’s top country songwriters when he focuses on simple melody and lets the lyrics do the real talking. If you haven’t heard Knight before, check out The Trailer Tapes and Trailer II and then dig into his most recent studio effort, Enough Rope. You’ll soon agree he’s the only real heir to Steve Earle’s throne.
Robert Earl Keen is more of a contemporary to Earle, and he’s spent the last three decades writing great Texas alt-country. His latest effort, The Rose Hotel, features eleven new tracks which build on his reputation, including “Throwin’ Rocks,” which features a steady blues groove and vocals which sound like John Hiatt meets James McMurtry. The album’s also got some of his trademark oddities, including the likely-to-become-classic “10,000 Chinese Walk Into A Bar” and “Wireless In Heaven.”
The best of the bunch would have to be Mason Jennings’ latest offering, Blood of Man, which may well be his finest album to date — and that’s really saying something, when you’ve got a catalog as deep as his after only a decade. Think Springsteen’s Nebraska electrified if you fight for comparisons, but give the album a few listens on its own merits. With “City of Gold,” “Pittsburgh” and “The Field” opening the album, you’ll be hooked in ten minutes. “Pittsburgh” is one of Jennings’ strongest character sketches to date, and “The Field” is the most wrenching (and strongest, rhetorically) anti-war treatises I’ve heard come out of the Iraq war. The album plays through quickly and demands repeated listening, revealing layer upon layer the more deeply you listen. Not bad for an album of raw lo-fi electronic recordings. This album could sneak onto my top ten for 2009, which is saying something.