Wednesday, December 03, 2008

RIP Odetta

Very sad news.
Odetta, the singer whose deep voice wove together the strongest songs of American folk music and the civil rights movement, died on Tuesday at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. She was 77.

The cause was heart disease, said her manager, Doug Yeager. He added that she had been hoping to sing at Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Odetta sang at coffeehouses and at Carnegie Hall, made highly influential recordings of blues and ballads, and became one of the most widely known folk-music artists of the 1950s and ’60s. She was a formative influence on dozens of artists, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Folk legend Odetta hospitalized

Say a prayer for Odetta, who hopes to sing at Barack Obama's inaugural. Her Odetta Sings Dylan album has long been a favorite. Via Pollstar, a letter from her manager:
Dear Friends of Odetta,

On behalf of Odetta's adopted daughter Michelle Esrick and her niece Jan Ford (in California), I would like to share with you - Odetta's large extended family of brothers and sisters - the current health crisis in her life. On Saturday, she went into Lenox Hill Hospital for a check-up and IV nourishment. However, on Sunday evening she went into kidney failure, and we were told that the next 24 hours would determine if she would survive.

Miraculously, she made it through that emergency, but is still listed in critical condition. I was on the road when she went in the hospital and rushed back on Sunday. Jan and I are thankful that Michelle was here and has been by Odetta's side every moment of this ordeal.

Odetta believes she is going to sing at Obama's Inauguration, and I believe that is the reason she is still alive. She has a big poster of Barack Obama taped on the wall across from her bed. Her old heart has already outperformed and lasted far beyond the expectations of the heart specialists who treated her in January-March 2007 when she had her last health crisis while touring out West. Now compounded with the kidney failure, the doctors at the hospital are trying to do everything possible to stabilize her system and prevent the weakening of her other organs. They have her on dialysis now to rid the body of the toxic poisons that have built up, and it seems to be slowly working. She is sleeping a lot, but after a dialysis treatment and some food, she is coherent and talking. She is not in pain. We are told that she will be in the ICU Unit for at least another week, and that we'll just have to wait and see after that.

All of you are well aware of Odetta's indomitable spirit. Accordingly, I wouldn't bet against her singing for Barack in January!

If you would like to send a card, I know that she would love to hear from you (address of the hospital is below).

Ms. Odetta Gordon
Room # 719, 7th Floor ICU Unit
100 East 77th Street
New York, NY 10021

Warmest regards,
Doug Yeager

Friday, October 03, 2008

Ballboy: Living in my own wee world

This late in the game - their fifth record, and a lineup whittled down to two members, nominally - Scotland's Ballboy have issued their best record yet in I Worked On The Ships.

It's quieter than their last, 2004's The Royal Theatre, and from the admittedly far-off vantage point of America, the band seems to be all but dormant. Their website lists no tour, and if not for an eMusic new-release RSS feed, I wouldn't have known this record existed. Things might seem to be winding down for Ballboy, but from the sound of Ships they're finally hitting their stride.

Take the album's centerpiece, "Songs for Kylie":
A love affair

You loved me then, I was almost sure
And now I write it down
Put it on a TDK in a jiffy bag
And seal it up
And send it off
Mark on it in thick pen

Songs for Kylie

Before the desert there’s a moment
You can change your mind.

Anchored with a rolling, hypnotic piano line, this little paen to musical and romantic obsession and wistful paralysis is one of those tunes you can accidentally listen to for hours, unconciously hitting replay time after time. Go listen on MySpace.

"A Famous Victory" is more queasily dead-on confessional, managing to find that magic songwriting space where irony meets sheepish honesty, where hazy delusions of grandeur don't quite obscure sad reality: "We drink ourselves stupid/On the tennis court/That’s overgrown/In the private grounds of the crumbling house/Your parents own".

Get the record at their site, or download from eMusic.

MP3: Ballboy - Let's Fall In Love and Run Away From Here (Peel Session)
MP3: Ballboy - I Lost You But I Found Country Music

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Weekend Shorts

The Guardian surveys a raft of new folk (Loudon Wainwright III, Noah and the Whale) and issues a general "meh", but they like the new Joan Baez the best. The album, "Day After Tomorrow", carries the name of its Tom Waits cover.

Trolling the Live Music Archive, scrolling through page after page of Disco Biscuits concert upload, has its benefits. I unearthed a few new show uploads with some interesting covers. Spoon's recent show at the Prospect Park Bandshell saw them cover Paul Simon's "Peace Like a River" and close the set with the Stones' "Rocks Off".

MP3: Spoon - Rocks Off (Rolling Stones)

Meanwhile, a Quasi show from 1998 at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill sees Elliott Smith apparently guesting on a straight, rousing cover of the Zombies' "This Will Be Our Year".

MP3: Quasi - This Will Be Our Year (The Zombies)

Flemish Eye, Chad VanGaalen's Canadian label, has some teasers about the super-deluxe vinyl for his upcoming third album, Soft Airplane. If you haven't already, start get excited with lead track "Willow Tree". The page also lists a handful up upcoming dates in Canada and NYC.

MP3: Chad VanGaalen - Willow Tree

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Donovan Quinn & the 13th Month

It took three or four listens, but the charms of Donovan Quinn's new record grew each time. The melodies are strong in composition but doggedly low-key in delivery, hiding in rich, aching, sweater-warm arrangements. They require close listening, at least until you've got yourself familiar, but the payoff feels especially sweet in the age of music oversaturation, when dozens of songs whiz by a day, and too often the shallow pleasures of the flashiest hooks get all the attention.

For the indie-folk enthusiast, Donovan Quinn & the 13th Month serves as a fine antidote to the overpraised new Conor Oberst album: while Oberst bends over backwards to craft a mellow, post-adolescent pose for a now-huge audience he's only too aware of, Quinn delivers the roots-folk shamble and cryptic confessionals with subtlely and grace to spare. He's got the help of Papercuts' Jason Quever, whose piano and organ playing fills in all the right spaces; Quever also produced.

An all-too-obvious touchstone here is Dylan, but there's a serious Robyn Hitchcock influence as well, particularly on "Quarantine", which could almost be an outtake from I Often Dream of Trains - complete with that psych-folk-down-the-rabbit-hole vibe that's so completely transporting. Like Hitchcock, Quinn writes downbeat, introspective songs that explore sadness and confusion while steering completely clear of typical diary-entry confessionals. Elsewhere, the simple love song "Hollowed Candles" delivers a chorus so sneakily good it should make most songwriters madly jealous. On this and other tracks, the use of strings and the thick, half-sarcastic melancholy air almost achieves the magic of Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers.

Donovan Quinn & the 13th Month is out September 13th on Soft Abuse - don't miss this one.

MP3: Donovan Quinn - Holy Agent

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Karl Blau's Nature's Got Away

If indie rock was baseball, Karl Blau would be the best journeyman utility player around - the Jamey Carroll of the underground. Blau hustles, turning out several albums a year to subscribers of Kelp Lunacy, his audio zine. With infectious zeal, he incorporates increasingly disparate influences into his music, the way Carroll might do time at every infield position, and act as your emergency third catcher, with a smile. He's not flashy, and will never be a superstar, but once in a while he'll get the big hit.

On Blau's new album, Nature's Got Away, that hit for me is "Two Becomes One", a slow-building masterpiece of tension and release. Channeling Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, Blau lulls you with clipped, wry asides, carefully carries you away on narcotic guitar lines to make Dean Wareham proud, and when he closes things with the line "all the hardships fade away", you're not sure whether to feel comforted or bereft. Without question, one of the best songs I've heard this year.

Elsewhere, on "Ghostly Appearance", Blau turns out bent garage psych straight out of a bizarro-world Nuggets. "Mockingbird Diet", which K is making available for download, is a good example of why Blau has been getting Bill Callahan comparisons. Beyond the similar dry baritone, he manages to mash up the prickly lofi tension of Julius Caesar-era arrangements with the more relaxed, organic sentiments of Callahan's last two records.

Stream the whole wonderful album here. It's available September 23rd on K.

MP3: Karl Blau - Mockingbird Diet

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Joel R.L. Phelps

Where has Joel R.L. Phelps gone? His music, with Silkworm and especially the solo albums recorded with the Downer Trio, has always carried a remarkable, almost offhand intensity. It's a bit baffling how Phelps has not managed to maintain a following and profile along the lines of, say, Mark Eitzel or Vic Chesnutt, because he's every bit as talented and singular. Nowhere is this more apparent than what is sadly his most obscure release, the Inland Empires EP, a mostly-covers affair from 1999.

Phelps delivers stunning, simple versions of songs by Townes Van Zandt, Fleetwood Mac, Iris Dement, and Steve Earle, as well as a driving cover of the Go-Betweens' "Apology Accepted". His original, "Now You Are Found", has been celebrated by practically everyone who's written a word about this EP; the lone reviewer on the EP's Amazon UK page does a creditable job:
'Now That You Are Found' is a eulogy to his sister who died in 1999. Phelps leads the listener through various points in their relationship from childhood to the point of her death; finally he captures the emotions he experiences after her death. "And I'm stuck here now with the living, with my mother and my Dad, I remember about the past and it's meaning and what we might have had." At points it sounds as if he's going to breakdown, and the emotion in the song almost brought this listener to tears. The track does not trivialize death, rather it expresses issues and feelings in a painfully honest way not often dealt with in contemporary music. One can only hope that it acts as some form of catharsis for Phelps himself. This may all sound thoroughly downbeat and best avoided, but there's joy to be found in these songs. Thumbnail sketches of everyday life, each one a tiny epiphany.
Honestly, that Amazon UK page might be the only place on earth one can order the EP. There's not even a page for it on Amazon US or Insound, nothing on eMusic or iTunes. Its UK label, 12XU - which I believe was founded explicitly to release this record! - will only sell it to non-US addresses. Fortunately, the label does make a few downloads available.

Joel last surfaced in late 2006 to open a benefit show in Seattle. His web page has since disappeared. Come back, wherever you are.

MP3: Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - Apology Accepted
MP3: Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - Now You Are Found

Friday, July 25, 2008

Motel Blues

Loudon Wainwright has gotten a burst of late-career exposure through the good graces of the Judd Apatow comedy juggernaut, culminating in the soundtrack to Knocked Up (whose best song is written by Peter Blegvaad, of all people). Now Wainwright is going the rerecord route with the Joe Henry-produced Recovery, which will feature new versions of some of his earliest songs. The first 250 pre-orders at the Yep Roc store get their copy autographed. Tracklist:

Black Uncle Remus
Saw Your Name In The Paper
School Days
The Drinking Song
Motel Blues
Muse Blues
New Paint
Be Careful There's A Baby In The House
Needless To Say
Movie Are A Mother To Me
Say That You Love Me
Old Friend
Man Who Couldn't Cry

The ones that stick out to me are "Motel Blues" and "The Man Who Couldn't Cry", since I first heard them as covers, by Alex Chilton and Johnny Cash, respectively. Chilton's version, from the Big Star Live album, is especially effective, telegraphing the direction things would go in Third/Sister Lovers and making twentysomething world-weariness not only bearable but almost unbearably stark and sad.

Here's Loudon performing it recently:

For the download-inclined, here's a pretty good version from the Live Music Archive, performed by Reed Foehl.

MP3: Reed Foehl - Motel Blues (Loudon Wainwright III)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Liz Durrett looked for your bones in the woods

Eric Bachmann, well established as a singer-songwriter in indie circles, should be getting more calls to produce and arrange. He does wonders with the work of Liz Durrett, whose alluring voice and sturdy songwriting has gotten a bit lost amid similar post-Cat Power sadcore female folkies like Alela Diane and Jana Hunter. Durrett's work is a bit less freaky and desolate than those two, and her ability to hit familiar buttons while barely skirting MOR convention is a nice trick, even transporting on songs like "We Build Bridges".

The orchestration on Durrett's new Outside Our Gates (due 9/9 on original Crooked Fingers home WARM) always plays to the songs' strengths, drawing out groove and lament from lyrical stanzas that are built to last. On lead-download "Wild as Them", the folk-song-standard, AABA lines are enervated by bursts of horns that never rise too much in the mix. Durrett's perhaps best known for being Vic Chesnutt's niece, but it might be the Bachmann connection that ends up being the real coup.

MP3: Liz Durrett - Wild as Them
MP3: Liz Durrett - All of Them All

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mother's Milk: Who Loves Ron Paul?

During my exile, when I wasn't in crisis over the death of the maxi-single and liner note shout-outs, I often found solace in the mostimportantelectionofourlifetimes, campaigning for Mr. November and refreshing a few thousand times on certain early mornings.

Now that the thrill of watching demographic groups fight it out has died down a little, it's as good a time as any to have some fun with the Huffington Post's Fundrace database and see which music industry folks of note have ponied up for the various campaigns this cycle. The list is long and includes everyone from Herb Alpert to Jimmy Thackery, Jon Bon Jovi to that guy from Fall Out Boy. There's even the iff Obama dream team:

Awesome musician/donation to Obama
Phil Spector: $3422
Conor Oberst: $2300
Kim Gordon: $1750
Joe Henry: $500
Joanna Newsom: $279
Bruce Kaphan (ex-American Music Club): $250
John Prine: $250
Elvis Perkins $250
Britta Phillips: $250
Then you have the ambiguous entries...musician J.W. Oldham from Louisville? Where is Bonnie Billy living these days? Or the make out/fake out of Mr. Matthew Kahane...

The database also lets you search by other occupations, so you can find out where the welders of America stand this election season. Get to it.

Heading out tonight with a copy of the new Liz Durrett to absorb. More on that soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this lovely, hypnotic cover of Cat Stevens' "How Can I Tell You".

Mp3: Liz Durrett - How Can I Tell You (Cat Stevens)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A boatload of free songs from Hush

I have two Hush t-shirts, the simple "cross" logo and the hush-bulance special, which are well-worn with pride. Back when small labels were harder to pull off, the Hush folks persevered, from humble CD-R beginnings to the beloved Portland institution they are today. Pure indie folk integrity, folks, now made available in a bulk buffet of free and (mostly) previously-unreleased goodies to celebrate their hard-earned 10th anniversary. Check Hush Records on Tuesday, July 15th for the feast, DECA: A HUSH 10th Anniversary Compilation.

Here's the tracklist (brilliant, but where's Mr. Barnett? Kind of like curious omission...); listen now to the incomparable "Broke Down" from Amy Annelle, originally on the must-have School of Secret Dangers album.

mp3: Amy Annelle - Broke Down


"Hollow Notes" - Novi Split
"Refining" - Peter Broderick
"Come By Storm" - Laura Gibson
"The Afterlife Pt. I" - Run On Sentence
"Winding Sheet" - Nick Jaina
"Coo Coo Bird" - Shelley Short
"Hiding Home" - Norfolk & Western
"Spring Bird" - Rauelsson
"Space And All Dead Things" - Corrina Repp
"Elephants & Little Girls" - Loch Lomond
"Sharra" - Kaitlyn Ni Donovan
"Wii Oui" - Podington Bear
"Broke Down" - Amy Annelle
"The Wagoner's Lad" - Colin Meloy


"Song # 4" - Fun With Friends
"Petting Zoo" - Graves
"Your Smile" - Fancie
"Ridin' For A Fall" (Young Dub) - Bobby Birdman
"These Blues" - Super XX Man
"Egg Hunt" - Reclinerland
"Asleep At The Wheel" - Casey Dienel
"The Bane Of Progress" - Jeff London
"Flight Cub" - Velella Velella
"Oh Darlin" - Blanket Music
"Big Eye City" - Operacycle
"Elysian Fields (We're Dead, We're Dead)" - Parks & Recreation
"Humm-na" - Dat'r
"Sleep At Last!" (Live) - Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ron Sexsmith fades into you

Ron Sexsmith albums used to be mini-events, and I still remember driving back from Baltimore after snagging a pre-release copy of Cobblestone Runway at the venerable Soundgarden, letting "Former Glory" flow over me. It's a certain kind of genius that can turn such simple lyrics, so many cliches, into songs that so wholly comfort and envelop you, take you inside Ron's little world, where the ghost of Tim Hardin is drug-free and Canadian and everything will be just as you remember, things won't be as bad as they seem. This wonder reaches what must be its logical conclusion on Cobblestone's "God Loves Everyone", a seemingly surefire clunker taken way beyond listenable in Ron's wistful, knowing hands. My relationship with the Sexsmith catalog has been gradually fraying ever since, with subsequent albums getting less and less spins before being relegated to the shelf, but the new Exit Strategy for the Soul is sadly the sign of a whole new stage.

The super voice is still there, of course, but the alchemy falls apart without just the right phrasing, and tune after tune on Soul seems to expose the seams with labored line readings. And the lack of a killer tune is only underlined by muted, dinner-party arrangements. In short, nothing really works for me, and some even rankles, in the way of especially inoffensive music looped at Starbucks or a particularly tame afternoon block on a genteel non-com AAA.

That said, the disc came with a download code redeemable for a "Here Comes My Baby" cover that is pretty nice. Ron, I love you, but you're bringing me down.

MP3: Ron Sexsmith - Brandy Alexander

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Back in the saddle

So it's been a while, and a (small) number of folks have perhaps wondered if this blog is gone, but how could I let such a name brand expire? What's been happening is that I've been coming to terms with digital music, the end of liner notes as we know it, and life after Tuesday trips to the record store.

See, for the longest time I was the rare bird: a blogger stubbornly clinging to the physical media standard of my youth. I still wanted pretty much everything on CD, and had a sense of my physical collection as distinct from my digital one, and more important. I had a clunky old RCA mp3 player for walks or the car, but didn't manage my digital music using any sort of program, long a point of pride but eventually a recipe for chaos. Digital bonus tracks or live gems from online sat in this fuzzy, tenuous, other world from the real collection.

It's tough for a collector like me to give in. As much as I love music, I always loved the act of collecting music almost as much. The bin-digging, the new releases every week, the score of the out-of-print record you'd been looking for for years, the nabbing of the tour-only rarity. The sheer joy of the physicality, the sense that you owned something that was not unlimited, that took effort to obtain. The memory of where you got every disc. I still buy CDs and vinyl, but as soon as you regard a single digital album as a legitimate ownership of that album, the mystique falls apart all at once.

Record collecting has always been fetishistic, but it was legitimized by its utility. You needed those pieces of plastic to listen to the music, or at least to claim legitimate ownership of them. That first digital album you regard as your copy of that album instantly makes every CD you own, and every future purchase you consider, purely a different, and far less practical, means of owning the music. And that's just sad. But after many months of huddling down with iTunes, and looking long and hard at piles of plastic encroaching around me, I'm ready to deal with the new world order. Even one that, somehow, seems happy to abandon liner notes altogether.

So, very soon: thoughts on the new Ron Sexsmith, and playing catch-up on some of my favorites this year. Hayden, Okay, being regaled by Peter Hammill in person! Oh man.