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bro country schlock

The Intersection of Patriotism and Bad Power-Pop

In the most recent New York magazine, music critic Jody Rosen penned a lengthy, insightful essay on “schlock” music—the hyper-earnest, overwhelmingly emotional, often clichéd songs (and the artists who pen/sing them) cringed at by critics and “serious” musicians and often ridiculed while simultaneously ascending charts and working their way into the cultural zeitgeist. He explains:

Schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art. Schlock is music that subjugates all other values to brute emotional impact; it aims to overwhelm, to body-slam the senses, to deliver catharsis like a linebacker delivers a clothesline tackle. The qualities traditionally prized by music critics and other listeners of discerning taste — sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality, “experimentation” — have no place in schlock. Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures.

He opens with the example of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which was almost universally panned upon its 1981 debut but has since become one of America’s most enduring anthems. Others include Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” Guns and Roses “November Rain,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” and even “Thunder Road” (decry, but it’s true).

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I discovered Valerie June by a happy accident and am now completely enthralled by her and her self-titled “organic moonshine roots music.” The Tennessee native has a plaintive, piercing voice unlike anything I’ve ever heard—the heart of Aretha Franklin wrapped up in a boondock twang and supplemented by truly skillful guitar work. It’s that farmhouse, front porch pickin’, but with surprise slides thrown in here and there—sizzling with her high, LOUD notes to send shivers down your spine. I’ve had her album on repeat for over a week with no getting sick of it in sight. From the lonely “Somebody To Love” to southern homage “Tennessee Time” to the perfection ladies anthem “Workin’ Woman Blues,” it’s all gold.

I’m not the only one who’s in love with her unique sound, either. She recorded her most recent album, Pushin’ Against A Stone, at Dan Auberbach’s studio, who co-write some of the tracks. She’s also recorded with Old Crow Medicine Show, and toured with Jake Bugg, and made an AMA appearance. With her Medusa-like dreads and hawk-like eyes, she’s as much a visual force as a vocal one; I’ve found myself caught in YouTube wormholes watching her play and sing over and over.

Listen for yourself and tell me it’s not the damn most wonderful female voice you’ve heard all year.

Two new excellent Americana tunes that I’ve been listening to on repeat, and you’ll want to get right on: A first release from a new band, and a new release from an old band.

1. Wild Feathers

A Nashville five-piece that shares their spotlight a la The Band, from whom they cull mucho inspiration, along with ’70s Stones, Zeppelin, Ryan Adams, Allman Brothers and that ilk. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s authentic; something sorely lacking in American-inspired music these days. (Thanks, Mumfords). That truism got them noticed while they were still bumming around Nashville a few years ago (they formed in 2010) by none other than Willie Nelson, who invited them to open. Not bad for a band with no album and no record deal. Since then they’ve signed to Warner Bros and cut an eponymous album, released in summer 2013, that’s the kind of all-in rock ‘n’ roll played by their predecessors: Many-part vocal  (each band member has, at one point, been a lead singer of former bands) and acoustic harmonies that show their strength as collaborators, rich and slow riffs, a touch of organ and harmonica here and there. Perhaps a bridge between the many-member, radio-friendly, indie-folk bands and the music they’re trying to emulate? Maybe. But if not, that’s fine—Wild Feathers are content to just play. As it should be.

2. Blitzen Trapper’s seventh album release, VII

The prolific band has its ups (2008’s Furr, 2011’s American Goldwing) and its… not necessarily downs, but let’s say less cohesive, slightly stranger albums. Or, the albums that not everyone likes (I like them all, but that’s just me). Their brand of Americana has been around long before it was cool, paving the way for bands like aforementioned Wild Feathers to be able to sign to a label. With VII, singer/songwriter Eric Earley finally got down and dirty. It’s the most down-home of all their albums, simultaneously soulful and hick—the BEST type of country/blues. The first song, “Feel The Chill,” opens with electronic blips, record scratches, and white noise, scissored in between with a electric riffs to prep you for the madness, then unleashes into that recognizable twang with “I used to stay down South of town where the road runs crooked and the lights are down.” There’s a lot of finger-pickin’ (“Don’t Be A Stranger”), and the amazingly named “Neck Tatts, Cadillacs” with the lyrics “Neck Tatts, Cadillacs, the girl’s got style/ When I walk up from behind I just gotta smile” in a  near-indecipherable clip. Add floating, haunting organs and plentiful banjo and you’ve got yourself a very diverse and fantastically Southern album. While everything Blitzen Trapper does is, to some degree, “American” or “americana” or whatever you want to call it, they’ve never felt quite so regional—not that VII is place-specific, but rather that they finally sound like a band born in bayous or backwood porches. There’s a very rustic sentimentality here that they’ve never owned across a whole record before, only in (well-done) fits and spurts (ex: Wild Mtn. Jam, Black River Killer). It might be their best effort yet, if only because it all, finally, fits together.

TFNH_HOOKY_COVER_HIGH_RESYou can find a lot —really, too many—of musicians in Brooklyn. At least half the people I know are in bands. Which is great! Unfortunately, a lot of these talented folk all… kind of play the same thing. Or iterations of the same few genres: Shoegaze, garage rock, electronic indie, indie folk. The one thing you can’t seem to find is pared down sounds. Gentle acoustic lullabies are rare in NYC’s coolest borough.

Which is why brother-sister team This Frontier Needs Heroes is a breath of fresh air in the local music scene. The two started writing songs and playing together—Brad on guitar, Jessica on tambourine—and toured all over the world trying to make a name for themselves with classic unplugged strums and endearing harmonies.

That didn’t quite catapult them to fame, and the siblings eventually parted—Brad now lives in Jacksonville, Florida (a city with a very vibrant burgeoning music scene of its own), while Jessica stayed in Brooklyn. Turns out getting out of this music-saturated city was all it took to really propel their sound forward.

Their latest album, Hooky (released Aug. 27), is an intricate composition recorded in Philadelphia with a full band. The two-man folk sound is elevated to something more akin to Andrew Bird meets The Decemberists than Woody Guthrie. Most notable is the use of haunting violin and winding organ—take the climbing intro to “Down on the Farm” followed by introspective lyrics “When I turned 21/ my grandpa showed me how to shoot a gun/ At first I thought that it was fun/ then I heard that the sun would die/ and so would I.” Also worth a mention: The sad and vaguely funny, ode to loneliness that is “George Clooney” (below). It’s richer and more elaborate but polished to leave you wanting more, not borne down by skittering instruments. The best use of a full band to emphasize a small outfit when recording is this exact kind of subtlety. Many, many current artists could take note. Especially in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, the siblings geographic differences means no tours are currently planned outside of Jacksonville. Until then, keep Hooky at the top of the playlist—it’s reminiscent of (and a prefect soundtrack for) long walks in early fall dusks.

I thought I was ahead of the curve when I stumbled upon this Australian 5-piece band the other day. With hand claps and coed back-and-forth sing songs, they’re spot on the nostalgic ’80s radio sound that’s become popular lately. (Ok, let’s just get it out of the way—they sound a lot like Haim, who borrowed a lot of Fleetwood Mac. We over that? Cool.) But, alas, Pitchfork caught on to them about two weeks ago, which means I’m woefully behind. Whatever; back to the music.

Attention is being paid currently for the shiny new single, “Is This How You Feel?” (of the same-name, just-released EP) which is the definition of groovy. Lots of bops and more hand claps and repetitive, car-singalong  lyrics. It really does sound like something pulled from the end credits of, say, Never Been Kissed. And definitely not in a bad way.

But the Sydney-based band has a lot more going on than reductive comparisons to bygone coed bands or girl-group contemporaries. Their first EP, Shaking Hands, has a shadowed moodiness that’s palpable even on the first listen, and deepens after multiple runs—note that tonal belly-drop singer Isabella murmurs on the choral pause in “Pale Rider,” the menacing chords punctuating behind the chorus in “Threat”, the Iggy Pop waver to male vocalist Gideon’s opener in “Take A Car.” A little bit country, a little bit soulful funk. A lot of new rock goodness.

Take a listen to a perfect mix of their old and new songs on Soundcloud—perfect late summer listening. And cross your fingers they’ll make it out of Oz for a tour some day.