The Wood Brothers’ fourth album The Muse brings jazz-infused folk-rock back to its roots

For those among us who lament the cookie-cutter direction folk-tinged Americana has taken in the current decade’s “pop folk” era — that of the Lumineers or Mumford’s Babel — you may now rejoice in that which is The Muse. The fourth album from Boulder’s the Wood Brothers revels in everything blues, jazz, gospel and, yes, folk. The opener, “Wastin’ My Mind,” will stun fans of the Band who are likely to marvel that this song wasn’t produced forty years ago, and from there it’s a great ride through track after track of genre-bending songs which prove to be more than folk revivalism or obsessive attempts at recreation.

Any album with the one-two-three punch of “Wastin’ My Mind,” “Neon Tombstone” and “Sing About It” is already worth a listen. But the album’s boozy, horn-soaked finale “Firewater” wins the day, that slow-burn melancholy certain to fuel many a full-album restart or furious clicks to repeat the track itself.  The rest of the album more than lives up to the gauntlet the band has thrown down, proof that there’s still room in today’s musical landscape for albums which challenge the listener. With three months to go, the Wood Brothers have produced this year’s best Americana album by far.


First Listen: Matt Sanderlin & the Ageless Dreams – “The Order”

Full disclosure: Matt Sanderlin has posted reviews at “Hear! Hear!” This new song, however, was too good to ignore. Off his upcoming The Homemade EP, “The Order” merges the songwriter’s deep-seeded love of Fountains of Wayne’s melodic structures with a folk arrangement deeply focused on its varied layers. Opening with bare guitar, the song builds to include lightly picked banjo along with mandolin and harmonized vocals, all tied together to make something akin to Bon Iver if he’d come up playing the seventies Bakersfield scene.

What do you think? Is this song ready for a mainstream push? Follow the band on Facebook for regular updates.

ALBUM REVIEW: Sci-Fi Romance – “The Ghost of John Henry”

Sci-Fi Romance

“In the cracks there’s beauty,” sings Vance Kotrla, and taken in context with the rest of Sci-Fi Romance‘s latest album that’s quite the apt statement. This band isn’t the most fine-tuned machine you’ll ever hear. But this is honest folk-pop music in its rawest glory, and there’s a lot to be said for being willing to present the music in this version rather than polish away everything interesting in a studio setting.

I’ve been following this band since their last album, And Surrender My Body To The Flames, and their upcoming album The Ghost of John Henry continues to push the envelope creatively. The musicians fight to keep up with the concept, and at times the individual songs, divorced from the remainder of the album, don’t have the same impact as they have when heard as a complete song cycle.

Still, even if Sci-Fi Romance falls short of giving John Henry’s legend a deep emotional core through folk music, at least they’re out there swinging that hammer for all its worth. When John Henry beat the steam-drill it killed him. They’ll be around for another go, and there’s plenty to be glad for about that.

ARTIST TO WATCH: Russell Howard

Russell Howard

Singer-Songwriter Russell Howard

Like a cross between early John Mayer and the seasoned songwriting chops of Josh Rouse, Russell Howard’s “Home Sweet Home” is one of those rare folk tracks which immediately sinks in and demands further exploration of an artist’s songwriting in general. It’s astounding that this songwriter, who fully embraces the vintage folk roots which inspire his music, hasn’t gotten more widespread press for his latest album City Heart. This is folk music with enough pop edge to ensure fans will keep coming back for more — the hook in the chorus is impossible to deny. “Home sweet home is in your arms,” Howard sings. “I did not ask to cross my stars with you.” We may not have known to ask for music from Russell Howard, but one listen is enough to guarantee he’ll have an audience for life. This is the kind of music internet word of mouth was made for!


Dare Dukes

Dare Dukes, live at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, Kentucky, January 28 2012

Dare Dukes – which stands as both the name of the band and the lead singer who fronts said band – plays music which challenges listeners from just about every angle. These are songs with detailed, often bordering on convoluted, lyrics which are anchored to earth by deft arrangements which require repeated listens to fully sink in. But that’s really the crux of what he’s going for in the first place. Dukes, who hails from Savannah, Ga., says he strives to find the beautiful moments in the everyday, pulling from the margins the eccentric characters and bizarre events which form the heart of his adventurous blend of folk and pop. Put that music on stage and it’s a veritable powderkeg of creativity which, even when playing as the opening act for a Louisville native the crowd’s itching to see, is fully capable of getting a small crowd of early birds to sit up and take notice.

I got the opportunity to talk to Dukes face to face when he finished playing his band’s January 28th set at Headliners Music Hall in Louisville,. He spoke of meaningful music, his quest to write a great pop song, and why “it’s really fucking hard to write songs with really good hooks.”

What would you say is “meaningful” music for you?

Wow, that’s a hard question. I definitely prefer arrangments that, whether it’s hardcore or light folk, are “thoughful” arrangments. I enjoy arrangements that are surprising, so people who use weird instrumentation, stuff like that, is really enjoyable to me.

We saw a lot of that tonight, with all the instruments your band was working in. Is it harder to put all that onto a CD and then work it into your live show?

Yes, it’s very hard. There’s a ton of horns on the record (Thugs and China Dolls) and of course we don’t have any with us now. I wish we could, but that would mean two more people to bring with you. But the accordion can make up for a lot of that stuff.

The new album, Thugs and China Dolls – where’d that title come from?

I don’t know … sometimes music really pops out for me without me thinking about much, and the lyrics are harder to come by. But often when I have a melody and a chord progression that I like, I tend to mumble-sing to it while I’m working out the melody, and lyrics will just pop up. I’m pretty sure “thugs and china dolls” came out that way. So I built the song around that. People ask me what that song is about, and all I can tell you is that it’s a song about innocence: “watch out for these bad things in the world.” Thugs and china dolls are descriptions of people who are going to take advantage of you in one way or another.

I know I’ve compared you to John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats, but who are your other influences?

I like the Mountain Goats, but I wouldn’t call them an influence. There are a lot of musicians I realized I had an affinity with after I’d already found my sound. I’d say Laura Veirs is one of them. You may not hear Laura Veirs when you listen to my music, but particularly the way she and her producer, Tucker Martine, arrange her songs – that’s a huge influence because they are very thoughtful arrangers. But I totally love the Mountain Goats. He’s an influence in that he makes it okay to be as wordy as I want to be.

I got so sick of having to “score” music after a while; I was wondering if you think it is possible to quantify what is “good” music. Is there actually such a thing as good or bad art?

That’s another extraordinarily difficult question. My wife is a cultural anthropologist, and that’s been one of her subjects recently, the art market and how art is valued. There’s fancy-schmancy high falutin’ New York art, versus art that is considered crap by the people who decide these things. Not “found art,” because that’s got its own niche. But I would say, to a certain extent, I think the listener has to have a lot to do with saying whether music is good or bad. However, I do believe that there are people who work hard at their craft and make little miracles happen. By that, I mean they open up connections to things which move them past the daily world. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding pretentious, but I mean it.

And then you see sites like Pitchfork with the 0.0 review, which implies there’s no artistic or social merit to a piece of music.

The media does work really hard to push buttons. I’d say ninety percent of what the mainstream media does is decide who’s on the top of the hill this week. That’s what Pitchfork is doing – they’re not really serious reviewers. They’re just tagging. They’re saying who won the Superbowl of Music this week. And then there’s always amazing stuff which flies under the radar. You can’t get around it though, because I’m influenced by stuff like that all the time. But what can I say?

For people who haven’t heard your music, how would you describe your music? What should listeners expect from you the first time around?

They should expect songs about subjects which are kind of out of the box for pop music. Weird characters, weird moments – I like writing about weird people, not in a derrogatory way, but weird in the sense that people are surprising. People who resist the forces that want to homogenize or disenfranchize those of us who are strange. Because they’re strange, they represent that miracle I was talking about, those meaningful art moments. And even though the subject of my songs may be atypical when it comes to pop music, I really do love pop music. I’ve done art forms which are strange and I’m into that too, but I find it phenomenally challenging to write a good pop song. I love the challenge of trying to write a good pop song. I want to write songs with really good hooks because I love songs with really good hooks. But it’s really fucking hard to write songs with really good hooks!

UNDER COVER: Hannah Peel – “Head Over Heels”

Hannah Peel

Hannah Peel brings new life to an eighties classic!

There’s something overtly ballsy about covering “Head Over Heels” by Tears For Fears, but Hannah Peel takes it to new levels of indie folk awesomeness by bringing the Pin-Barrel Harp (Sharpsichord) one step closer to mainstream acceptance, creating a haunting, original cover in the process. It’s positively mindblowing that fewer than 2,000 people have to date seen this video on YouTube, because Peel is an artist with theatrical vision and a willingness to push the folk-pop envelope in ways music fans in 2012 would be smart to quickly and vehemently embrace. The cover is a great way to get your feet wet, but her original songs are just as ready for global consumption. Just try “Song For The Sea” on for size and tell me there’s nothing here worth shouting from the rooftops.

ARTIST TO WATCH: Chris Bathgate

Chris Bathgate

Chris Bathgate

For fans of Alexi Murdoch and Josh Ritter, it’s only necessary to go as far as the music of Chris Bathgate to find your next big fix. Recently named one of 2011’s “Best of What’s Next” artists by Paste Magazine, this Michigander’s surprisingly evocative sonic portraits of what was one of the darkest periods of his life will dig their way into your soul and refuse to let go. This is folk-pop of the highest order. Bathgate poured every dollar he had into the recording of his latest effort Choking Down A Salt Year, but recording the album took a toll emotionally as well. Consider it a concept twin with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, which proved cathartic for Justin Vernon. Regardless of how it came to exist, one thing is crystal clear: Choking Down A Salt Year is an album you have to hear — it will quickly prove to be one of the most memorable folk-pop albums of 2011.