Hearth Music's 10 Albums We Definitely Should Have Blogged About in 2012
After the popularity of last year's regretful column, we're bringing back our list of shame from 2012. Each week we receive new music lovingly packaged, often by the artists themselves, and each week we fail to write about most of it and feel very bad about that. It's just a question of free time, really, and free time's short on everyone's list these days. We're so happy with the artists we DID get to write about in 2012, but here are 10 artists that we definitely should have written about and completely missed the boat on. With our apologies! And... in apology to these patient artistic souls who kindly refrained from sending us angry emails, here's Jenny Ritter's lovely song, "You Missed the Boat":
Jacob Miller & The Bridge City Crooners. East Side Drag.
Jacob Miller is probably the nicest guy in the Northwest's roots music scene, and also one of the most talented. But you know as well as I do that nice guys finish last, so it's up to you and me to keep that from happening. Build up some karma points and titillate your musical tastebuds with his 2012 country blues album, East Side Drag, and share it with your friends! If you're a fan of Pokey Lafarge, Woody Pines, or Old Crow Medicine Show, then this album is for you. Not only is Miller a wickedly talented country blues guitar fingerpicker, but he's got a voice of honeyed gold. He channels the old jugband greats with the same kind of cracked-pavement vocals that must have come out of the back-alley dozens popular in the 30s and 40s, but it's also a voice that wouldn't sound out of place opening up for Colin Meloy & Them Ol' Decemberists. Well, anyways, in a world with justice that would be the case. But here I am, having booked Jacob already twice for awesome shows in the Northwest, and I still haven't got around to writing about his album. Damn, nice guys really do finish last.
East Side Drag is either a short album or a long EP, but either way it's a great taste of more to come from this wickedly talented musician and his merry band of pickers from Portland, Oregon. A few of the songs are hand-picked from old sources, and there are some excellent gems here, my favorite being "Ragtime Millionaire." It's a rollicking F The Man comin' out of the first Great Depression (courtesy of ragtime guitar genius Bill "The Barber" Moore) and still sounding great in our New Great Depression. Miller draws out the raw edge of this song, with its biting satire, "I brush my teeth with diamond dust/And I don't care if the banks go bust". Part of the fun of listening to and studying American roots music are these moments when the past seems impossible present. Miller also KILLS "Hesitation Blues" with one of the best covers I've ever heard of this song (and whoowee I've heard a lot!). The other songs on East Side Drag are all originals, and it's honestly pretty hard to tell them apart, which is a huge compliment to Miller. He's writing songs that sound like they came out of some Kansas City dice game, so full of old-school hokum and ragtime finger-picking, that they'd do any old 78 collector proud.
I've been following guitarist Kelly Joe Phelps pretty much since his first album, recorded in Portland and featuring revelatory takes on old country blues songs. He's gone to some pretty cool and sometimes pretty strange places with his music, usually based on lap steel traditions, but also recently fingerpicked guitar. But I wasn't prepared for his newest album, Brother Sinner & The Whale, at all. It's not so much a throwback to his earlier, more traditional work, it's actually almost a prequel. It sounds like the album he could have started with, but that's really more of an auditory illusion than anything else. The key to Phelps has always been his remarkable subtlety as a musician, and the illusion of his new album is that he's able to make completely new music sound impossibly old. Maybe not as old as Jonah, the biblical tale that inspired some of the songs on Brother Sinner & the Whale, but certainly as old as the gospel blues 78s that inspired the folk revival. The songs on Brother Sinner and the Whale tap that always-rich crossroads of biblical old world mystical doom with the music of the steamy American South. It's a crossroads that's inspired about a million singers and it's also one of the richest veins in our hybrid American society. Over a century ago, classical composers struggled to find a sound that was uniquely American, bringing in Native American chants, or old-time fiddle tunes to their orchestral works, but the South had already invented the quintessential American sound by bringing the stormiest parts of the ancient Bible into the hottest parts of the Southern states. Standout tracks on Phelps' new album include the rolling rhythms of "Goodbye to Sorrow," the softly gentle "Pilgrim's Reach," the lovely melody of "Spit Me Outta the Whale," and the old-school Phelps fingerpicked guitar on "Hard Time They Never Go Away." It's impressive that by going completely back to his roots, Phelps has managed to find something completely new to say with his music. Only the best artists can pull that off.
PS: If you want to know more about Phelps' perspective on the new album, be sure to check out this excellent interview, "Playing With All Ten Fingers," with No Depression's Doug Heselgrave.
BUY THE ALBUM ON AMAZON.COM
Cedric Watson et Bijou Créole. Le Soleil est Levé.
Ok, technically this came out in 2011, but I didn't get hip to it until 2012, so I'm counting it for this past year. Hope you don't mind!
Cedric Watson is proof-positive that traditional music can still have amazing power and can still plumb new depths in the hands of a younger generation. He's the kind of artist that grew up with his feet in two worlds, both the old-school world of his elders, where he learned humility as a student of Creole fiddlers like Ed Poullard, and the new-school world of the digital generation. He projects an aura of detached cool as a performer, with his aviator shades and mohawk, but offstage he's an excitable traditionalist, happy to talk for hours about obscure aspects of Louisiana Creole culture and language, and more than a little bit outspoken as well. Ever the student of the elder generations, his new album features the equally outspoken scholar of Creole fiddle, D'Jalma Garnier, on bass. D'Jalma also tours with Cedric and company, and brings a great older generation perspective to the group. With young Cajun Charles Vincent on drums, and Creole washboard player Desiree Champagne, Cedric's group Bijou Creole is hot hot hot. Proof positive: their KEXP in-studio on The Roadhouse with Greg Vandy:
Cedric's new album, Le Soleil est Levé, was released in 2011 and features a refreshing, new sound for the band. Following his interest in Creole culture around the world, and following his travels around the world learning from other Creole musicians, Cedric is the only young Louisiana Creole artist bringing a larger world perspective to the music. On "A Kiss Ain't A Contract," he channels the Dominican Republic's merengue accordion traditions that he's been learning from Montreal artist Joaquin Diaz, on "La Danse Kalinda" he takes Louisiana Creole music back to its African roots through the famous "kalinda" dance, and "Tu Vas Jamais Me Comprendre" has some kind of smooth Latin soul that I wish I could label more accurately. It's a dizzying journey through Cedric's travels and influences and it's a remarkable feat for such a young musician to be able to bring a cohesive new sound to the old traditions. Of course, his prime influences are still very much on display, with the looping Zydeco accordion riffs of "Jour par Jour," the hardcore Creole la-la of "Allons Nous Autres," and the eerie-as-fuck fiddling that the Cajuns and Creoles love so much with "I'll Live Til I Die." With Le Soleil est Levé, Cedric cements his place as the brightest light among the next generation of Louisiana Creole musicians, AND he shows that he's got music the world needs to hear.
Zachary Lucky’s new EP, Saskatchewan, makes me sleepy. In the best way. Not sleepy because I’m bored, but sleepy as if someone I loved was giving me a nice back rub, or the kind of sleepy I get when there’s a fire in the hearth and the sun has set and I just don’t care what’s on tv and all I want to do is close my eyes and soak in the warmth. I think this must be a familiar kind of sleepy, since since I first heard Zachary Lucky's music through the equally sleepy folks at Slowcoustic. They, like me, revel in acoustic folk songs sung with the deep weariness of a harsh Canadian winter. The EP as a whole has a light country bent, but when is a pedal steel ever unwelcome? Zachary’s voice cracks ever so lightly when singing about the loneliness and wistfulness of relationships lost and the cold of the snow. Winter is her, and though I can’t stop thinking about the little bit of Seattle summer we got, this is indeed the perfect album to welcome wintertime.
Packwood. self-titled EP.
I learned about Packwood from the excellent Australian roots music blog Timber & Steel, who are big fans of this songwriter and zen banjo master from down under. But you don't need to know much about Packwood to fall head over heels in love with this new album. All you need to know is this: Banjo + 50-Piece Symphony Orchestra+ Gorgeous Songs. Got your attention now? It sure got mine! Honestly, this is one of the most original albums I've heard all year. The combination of gently built clawhammer banjo melodically thatched huts and the rich lushness of a full symphony is a wonderful game changer that I hope will encourage other artists to branch out. This is the kind of music guaranteed to soothe your soul and lower your heart rate, which I think has a lot of value in this tense 2012 holiday season. The songs are burbling little streams of thought that touch on songwriter Bayden Packwood Hine's upbringing in rural New South Wales. Word is that Bayden made a big splash in the Australian folk scene with his debut album, and wanted to greatly expand the sound for his new EP. Working closely with Sydney-based composer Ella Jamieson, the two sculpted the symphonic arrangements around Bayden's hushed songs and deeply thoughtful banjo playing. The only drawback is that the EP is relatively short at about 20 minutes. But there's no doubt that I'll be watching Packwood closely for a hopefully upcoming full-length and to see what direction his new music will take.
Check out the cute claymation video for my favorite song from the album, "Bats":
The Lost Brothers. The Passing of the Night.
2012. Bird Dog Recordings.
The buzz this year was all about singalong Americana acts like Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, The Stray Birds and Shovels & Rope, so it may not be a surprise that the The Lost Brothers, who tread a similar path but with just as many lovely harmonies and catchy folk songs, got a bit lost in the shuffle on my, and perhaps other reviewers', desks. From the lovely singing on the opening track "Not Now Warden" that reminds me of the old Western music classic "Cool Drink of Water", to the frenetic banjo-uke and old-timey country blues lyrics of "Bird in a Cage," I could certainly make the case that The Lost Brothers are actually folkier than the aforementioned other acts. But however you cut it, The Lost Brothers' new album, The Passing of the Night, easily stands up to any other Americana success released this year. Formed by two Irish musicians, Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, who met in Liverpool, the duo formed up in UK dive bars before making the leap to the US. They toured nationally in October of this year, opening for well-loved Irish roots musician Glen Hansard, so I'd hazard to say that they likely built a strong fan base in the States. This 2012 album, The Passing of the Night, was produced in Nashville by Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs and released on his Readymade label. Evidently the album was cut in a quick five days. Sometimes that's how you make hte best music. Without thinking too much, just enjoying each other's company and rolling your way through some beautiful songs. The Passing of the Night is a great showcase of their songwriting, and on this album the two clearly wear their American roots music influences on their sleeves. Well done, lads!
The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra. Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow.
Victoria, British Columbia collective The Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra really earn the "orchestral" name with their new album, Follow My Lead, Lead Me To Follow. I did a double take when I looked at the credits and saw only five people in the band. It makes me kinda laugh at all those classical orchestras that need about a hundred players just to fill up an auditorium. These guys kill it with just five guys. At times it sounds like there's a whole string section, and even when it's just one instrument (fiddle or accordion especially), the sound is impossibly full. It might be a combination of excellent recording engineering and hot musicianship that makes it like this. Regardless, these guys put out a great sound! It's hard to pin down all their influences, but I guess I'd think of them as an indie-folk bluegrass stringband, if that helps at all. They're definitely part of a larger scene of Canadian roots musicians making beautiful progressive music, and share some similar qualities to another great Vancouver roots dance band, The Paperboys. I can imagine they're a hit on the Canadian festival circuit. I hope they get a chance to come down the American festival circuit soon!
OK, it might be a bit strange to add a hip-hop album to this list, but the beauty of Seattle-based DJ/producer OCNotes is that he transcends these kind of labels. I've talked to him about it and he really doesn't give a shit who likes his music, or what we call it. And with his staggeringly diverse use of samples, you start to wonder if this really is hip-hop. The guy's a mad genius, and pretty much everyone knows him in the Seattle scene. His reputation comes from his ability to mix up any genre that tickles his fancy into a delicious beat stew. I first saw him live at THEESatisfaction's CD Release party in Seattle. I got there a bit early and was thinking of taking a walk around the neighborhood until the main group came on (yep, I'm THAT kind of dickish music reviewer), but OCNotes' opening DJ set rooted me to the spot. I kept telling myself I'd leave after the next track, but each track was better than the last, and he kept spinning the energy in the room up and up. I was enraptured by his music, after already having fallen in love with his art through his killer online remix of The Jungle Book's "I Wanna Be Like You" from Louis Prima.
With Moldavite, OCNotes has put out another hoppin' Seattle beats epic. It's a whirlwind tour through his insanely cluttered mind, kind of a garage sale of blendered music. There are 33 tracks, mostly ranging around 3 minutes. OCNotes touches on classic soul ("Towers"), gritty Seattle doom-and-gloom ("Brick House"), creepy Hitchcock strings remixed ("Himalayan Trader"), cool jazz horns ("Floor Dust") and even spins off into impossibly weird directions like remixing an Inuit(?) song for the opener, "Weight of the World." If you're wondering what the streets of Seattle sound like today, this record is the key. It sounds like a burbling rain gutter on a dirty urban street, backlit by neon light. You know, musically speaking. Moldavite is for sale on Bandcamp and you can't preview the music much, but if you want to really get into his music, hit up the very excellent earlier albums Secret Society or Doo Doo, or especially The New Generation, a surprisingly beautiful all-guitar based album. Or hit up OCNotes remix of the soundtrack to the old Michael Jackson film The Whiz, Emerald City Sequence. Or jeez hit up his two new albums since dropping Moldavite, Pre Future Post Modern Love Songs: Aka AlienBootyBass, or the quick EP What's Your Sign. Clearly this guy has creativity exploding out of his being, and you'd do well to hitch up to the OCNotes train in 2013 to see what new, crazy music he can come up with.
The story of Memphis Minnie often gets overwhelmed in writers' desires to highlight her as an anomalous "female" blues artist, despite the fact that the first recorded blues artists were women, and women have a huge place of pride in early blues. These same people keep insisting that singers like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ma Rainey and others aren't really blues. Wikipedia defines "classic female blues" as an early 20s mix of folk blues and urban theater, and lays the weight of this made-up genre on some of these early women blues singers. But what the hell is that supposed to mean? That it's not blues unless you lived in the deep country? That male blues singers are still empirically blues even if they spent time in medicine shows or urban theater genres like vaudeville? Memphis Minnie is a great example of a blues singer straddling the lines between the city and the country, and a great example of urban blues, whether or not she's considered so or not. It's past time we started looking at these early African-American musicians as savvy entrepreneurs and entertainers looking to move old traditions into the neon noise of the cities, rather than reluctant tradition bearers. It's past time we started looking at Memphis Minnie as an amazing blues artist primarily, rather than some kind of "outlier" because she's a woman.
Maria Muldaur's new album, ...First Came Memphis Minnie, is a wonderful portrait of Minnie as a fully-fledged artist of grace and power. Muldaur sings her songs with a voice that sounds part cabaret, part blues shouter, part hokum. The opening track, "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," is a key Memphis Minnie song that Muldaur infuses with the same edgy grit that made Minnie famous. Since it's a tribute album, Muldaur also cedes the lead to other great blues singers who are indebted to Minnie's music and legacy. Bonnie Raitt nails down "Ain't Nothin' in Ramblin'", Alvin Youngblood Hart duets with Muldaur on "I'm Goin' Back Home," and Rory Block brings out a seriously spicy side to "When You Love Me." There's even a intense cut from Koko Taylor, evidently recorded in 2007 before her death. But Muldaur is the star here, and it's wonderful to listen to her dive into Memphis Minnie's repertoire with such relish. She doesn't try to copy Minnie, or to copy her style, but sings it like she loves it, bringing in urban and rural blues influences alike and mixing it all together into a great brew. It's a masterful tribute album and surely something that will help spread the Memphis Minnie gospel even farther.
Mike Cullison & The Regulars. The Barstool Monologues.
Joedog Records. 2012.
By and large, the world of singer-songwriters is a world ruled by ego. It may be tough to hear, but many singer-songwriters are so focused on their own music and their own world, that it feels at times like there's hardly a viable community among the lot of them. That's why artists like country singer-songwriter Mike Cullison are so important. Artists with a larger vision than their own songs, and more love for the music than desire to be the center of attention. For his new release, The Barstool Monologues, Cullison generously opened up his songbook and his album to a good number of other Nashville singer-songwriters, and asked them to be a part of his idea of his vision, ceding lead vocals to them in most cases, something I found surprisingly unusual. It's all part of the album's vision: a dark night at a Nashville bar, with Cullison narrating the various characters that come through the front door.It's a great formula too. Before each track, Cullison comes on with his deep Southern drawl and introduces the character of the next song (for "Good and Evil" he introduces the character Ruby with the phrase "This girl is built like a brick outhouse with no bricks missing, a ball of fire if I've ever seen one"). Then one of his songwriter friends bursts into the song, and each song here is a finely crafted country classic, let me tell you.
Highlights include Tiffany Huggins Grant's stunning vocals (a master class on pitch-perfect country singing) on "As the Cold Sets In," some great lyricism on "Prayin' for Rain" ("Let forgiveness fall, wash away the stains/ Yeah, we all got reasons to pray for rain"), and Cullison's own gritty vocals on the stellar opening track "Wish I Didn't Like Whiskey." Not every track is perfect of course, but huge kudos to Cullison for allowing so many other artists to be a part of his fascinating vision. Because of this, the album as a whole is a joy to listen to, and definitely the kind of music you'd want to listen to again to get all the nuances. Country music writer Juli Thank at Engine 145 has called this album "country music's version of The Cantebury Tales," and I think that's a wonderful way to characterize this album. With The Barstool Monologues, Mike Cullison shows that master songwriting can't be bought or bartered, but must be earned, and the powerful cadre of friends he brings along is proof of Music City's respect for his craft.
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog to discover your next favorite artist! We're dedicated to presenting today's best Roots/Americana/World musicians.