Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Kath Bloom – Loving Takes This Course

April 6, 2009

Kath BloomLoving Takes This Course 2xCD tribute/compilation
(Chapter Music – April 7, 2009)
By Matthew Ralph

When a link to a downloadable two-disc Kath Bloom tribute/compilation showed up in my e-mail several weeks ago, I almost deleted it. The name didn’t ring any bells and the prospect of listening to two CDs worth of music didn’t seem all that appealing, especially considering how little I was listening to any music at the time.

Fortunately, names like Mark Kozelek, Scout Niblett, Corrina Repp and Devendre Banhart on the track listing made me reconsider discarding the e-mail like most of the others promoting some “hot” new release.

Getting past the unknown factor and my general disinterest with tributes and compilations, I quickly discovered why so many artists, even ones with household names, jumped at the chance to pay tribute to the Connecticut-based singer-songwriter who began releasing limited edition recordings in handmade sleeves in the ’70s.

Kath Bloom’s songs are simple, catchy and low budget affairs, featuring a melancholy croon weaving sad tales of longing over minimal instrumentation. By including her original versions of the songs covered on the first disc, the two-disc collection gives listeners a chance to compare and contrast her original takes with those of the diverse roster of tributers.

“Forget About Him” probably represents the most drastic departure between the two discs. A getting over a guy song packaged in a cheerful, even goofy, campfire sing-a-long in its original format the song is transformed into a soulful Velvet Underground-esque garage band song by freak-folk icon Devendre Bonhart. As distinct as the two versions are, the song demonstrates the strange appeal of a two-disc set with nearly identical track listings.

“Come Here” has similar charm in all three of its incarnations. In the hands of the Marble Sounds, it’s a quirky indie-pop song that blows any originals the band has on its MySpace site out of the water. The Concretes sound like they are covering Fleetwood Mac on their take. Bloom’s version, meanwhile, lacks the  edge or production values of the other two but her voice is as equally strong as the Marble Sounds’ male singer/The Concretes female crooner and her harmonica a match for the subtle plugged in sounds on both covers.

Descriptions of the other 15 songs in the collection would follow a similar format. Bill Callahan, Mark Kozelek, Josephine Foster, Scout Niblett and company all turn in worthy renditions that won’t disappoint their collective fan bases but the one whose name will probably attract the least attention to the project is still the one who shines most. Simply put, Kath Bloom’s criminally underappreciated songs, even when repeated two and three times on a two-disc set, steal the show.

Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels

March 30, 2009

Great Lake Swimmers Lost Channels
(Nettwerk – March 31, 2009)
By Matthew Ralph

After releasing three albums that mostly blend together with what has become the signature contemplative snowed in Great Lake Swimmers sound, the Canadian band returns with an album that deserves to garner at least a portion of the hype levied on Bon Iver last year.

Foreshadowed by the single “Pulling On A Line” and its accompanying video, Tony Dekker, Erik Arnesen and their accompanying musicians have taken somewhat of an up-tempo turn on this recording, calling to mind on a couple tracks at least the alternative music of my youth with the jangly guitars and up-tempo beats tossed into the atmospheric country-tinged folk mix.

This is most evident on “She Comes to Me In Dreams,” which I almost mistaked for a Smiths cover when I first heard it – its jangly guitar and toe-tapping beat poppy in a way that Great Lake Swimmers has never really been before. Think the jump Mojave 3 made album to album from songs like “Hard To Miss You” on Spoon and Rafter to “Breaking the Ice” on Puzzles Like You.

“The Chorus in the Underground” follows with a banjo and fiddle-driven barn stomper that has a Sujfan Stevens at the county fair feel to it. “Still” and the album’s opener, “Palmistry,” also take a livelier approach but this is hardly a case of what we used to call a band selling out for radio in the old days (perhaps selling out for mp3 blogs is the modern equivalent?)

Mixed in between the attention grabbers are the songs that will probably still be moving the careful listeners for weeks to come, songs like “Concret Heart,” a smooth operator that is both heartbreaking and hopeful in the same breathe and instant classic “Everything Is Moving So Fast,” a poetic treatise firmly planted in the soil of times when people didn’t seem to mind that life wasn’t moving at such a rapid pace. “What does it feel like to fall, in slow motion, despite it all” Dekker sings with the familiar airy vocals that have made Great Lake Swimmers a heavy rotation regular of mine in recent years.

The album ends with two similarly infectious songs, “River’s Edge” and “unison Falling Into Harmony,” that ultimately rescue the album from being pegged as a move in the wrong direction. I haven’t found anything to top “Moving Pictures Silent Films” from the band’s self-titled debut – the song that almost instantly made them a favorite – but I’m going to hang onto this one long after I’ve stopped annoying my wife with my singing of the album’s catchier fare.

Long live gravity

March 27, 2009

By Matthew Ralph

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary
some in the wrong direction
Practice resurrection”

When I heard these familiar lines of poetry recited in the opening moments of a play celebrating the farmer, author, poet and activist Wendell Berry on Thursday, I felt a chill come over me like I have seldom experienced watching a stage production.

Practice resurrection. Two words of the 1973 poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” that, repeated while a hammer dulcimer played softly in the background, nearly moved me to tears as I pondered the deep meaning behind a simple, yet insightful turn of a phrase.

The poetry of Wendell Berry is full of moving moments like that, times where a simple phrase, a humorous anecdote or an observation of the natural world triggers the so-called light bulb of our minds to ever so gracefully turn on.

Wild Blessings, a new play based on Berry’s poetic works, is billed as a celebration of a faithful steward, a friendly neighbor, a loving husband and a kind of modern day prophet claimed by environmentalists, literature enthusiasts, Christians and conservatives alike. But the 75-minute play is as much a celebration of the things Berry has inspired readers for decades to appreciate, enjoy and protect. 

Aided by the lurid sounds of a hammer dulcimer and the striking photographic and video images visible through a large wall resembling a bay window in the middle of the stage and an even larger screen behind it, the play features four actors – an older couple and a younger one – dramatically reading Berry’s words. The actors march in circles, dance, play violin, guitar and percussion and sing. The hammer dulcimer player also sings, but the music mostly provides the soothing backdrop for the words that indirectly weave (using only words from Berry’s pen) a narrative of a slightly mad farmer, out of place in the city who falls in love, returns to the fields, raises a family and fights to hold onto the simple, beautiful things in life like family, friends and God’s creation.

Following along, even for someone familiar with many of his works, was somewhat dizzying at times. Unlike reading the words on a page, the combination of stunning visuals, soothing music and dramatic acting gives little time for you to completely digest. Breaks in the action do occur and the topically connected transitions are generally well played (he titles of poems flash on the screen as the images change), but as the play inches intermission-less toward the finish it does make you wish you could hit pause or maybe rewind on a few of the scenes.

An outline in the playbook might have been helpful as a guide, but in the end Wild Blessings succeeds in maintaining a lot of the subtlety, humor and vivid description that make reading Wendell Berry’s poetry such an enriching and life-giving experience. It doesn’t tell you how to think or lecture about why mountain top removal, conspicuous consumption or infidelity should be avoided. It shows you what you are missing when you trade in natural beauty, elegance and grace for artificial comfort, perceived safety and reckless convenience.

In other words, it shows you what it means to practice resurrection.

Wild Blessings is appearing until April 26 at The Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Click HERE for more information.

Bosque Brown – Baby

February 28, 2009

Bosque Brown Baby
(Burnt Toast Vinyl, March 3, 2009)
By Matthew Ralph

Like the great Brian Wilson, Mara Lee Miller just wasn’t made for these times. At least in the way she delivers her rickety dust bowl tunes as the vocalist of the where-the-heck-have-they-been-for-the-last-four-years Texas band Bosque Brown.

Forgetting for a moment that the advance copy of Baby, Bosque Brown’s sophomore album, came digitally and has been playing repeatedly on my iPod for the past two weeks, it’s not hard for me to imagine Miller’s hypnotic voice and the subtle instrumentation layered behind it playing on a tube radio in a dimly lit parlor in some no name Texas town as tumble weeds rustle outside a nearby window with the passing of a steam locomotive.

Like a good storyteller, Miller’s voice inspires the imagination to run wild like that, putting you in a different time and space where so much of the excess we’ve grown accustomed to in life is stripped away.

She doesn’t accomplish this alone. Like on the band’s debut, the instrumentation plays the supporting actor to Miller’s command performance, eloquently complimenting her star appeal with just the right punch of the snare, touch of the piano or crash of the high-hat.

Baby isn’t one of those recordings that will win listeners over with a 30-second soundbyte or light the mp3 blog world on fire with a flavor of the week song you have to listen to to maintain your hipster cred (though “This Town” and “Train Song” are really catchy). For the unitiated, the 12-song recording might even come across as being too slow to the punch, too sparse in its delivery, a black and white movie in a High Definition color world.

I started to think this of the band’s first record until I saw them live and was completely blown away by the raw talent and charisma of more than just the leading lady. This time around, I knew better than to write off too quickly a record that can’t be fully appreciated in a hurry, a record that wasn’t necessarily made for these times.

Loney Dear – Dear John

January 26, 2009

Loney DearDear John
Polyvinyl Records – Jan. 27, 2009
By Matthew Ralph

“With you inside my ears, with your words print to my eyes. And it’s so hard to change, from wrong to everything O.K. It’s so hard to change, when everything turns to you. Violence, come closer. Believe in me. I’m rowing, on a sea so wide. Dove into a river, wider than we had seen. And you, you.”

I usually chalk it up as a good sign when a song at the back end of an album ends up being the song with the most plays on my iPod.

The above lyrics, from the song “Violent,” capture what for me is a culminating moment of Emil Svanangen’s latest Loney Dear recording. While the caffeinated opening track, “Airport Surroundings,” is the song making the Internet rounds in promotion of the album, it is the next-to-the-last song “Violent” that provides a clearer window into a record that should earn plenty of high marks. The song starts with the sound of a woodwind, gives way to a tender harmony and slowly budding percussion that is driven home with the soaring falsetto delivery of the word violence. Words like enchanting, cathartic and hypnotic come to mind as it plays over my headphones.

All are words I’d use to describe an album with a presentation similar to when Mr. Svanangen’s handle still had a comma — a graceful blend of richly textured keys, woodwinds, percussion and horns backing Svanangen’s falsetto-prone tenor. The difference might be more experience in the studio or a more ambitious effort and grandiose vision because the Sub Pop debut Loney, Noir doesn’t sound quite as heady or mind-boggling by comparison now.

Whether it’s the soaring chorus of voices on “Distant,” the distinct pipe organ intro and harmonica sounds throughout “Summers,” the techno vibe of “Under a Silent Sea” or the build-up from single-voice lullaby to full-blown instrumentation of “Harsh Words” this an album populated with moments where those of us who appreciate heady and aesthetically provocative music can rejoice.

Repeated listens (the album has basically been on repeat since I received an advance copy last week) have done little to diminish the overall impact of an album that for me at least has pleasantly surpassed expectations. Of course, the fact that I can recite lines from the end of the album almost as easily as the beginning probably already gave that away.

Bon Iver – Blood Bank EP

January 21, 2009

Bon Iver Blood Bank EP
Jagjaguwar, Jan. 20, 2009
By Matthew Ralph

Because I didn’t really listen to a whole lot of new music for the first part of 2008, I didn’t catch onto the exploding phenomenon that is Bon Iver until late in the year.

By the time I did finally add it to my iPod playlist, I had read so much about For Emma, Forever Ago that it was almost guaranteed to disappoint. It’s hardly the John Mayer-esque record some anonymous idiot tagged it in an end of the year list published in Velocity (a Louisville-based weekly paper), but I’m not so sure it’s grown on me enough to be considered a top 5 or top 10 record of the year either. It’s for sure a good record, but I’d still rather listen to Great Lake Swimmers or Iron & Wine. I’d also much rather call the dude by his real name, but that’s another story.

Fresh off the hype and the overkilled story of his retreat to a cabin in the woods, Justin Vernon is striking the iron while it is plenty hot with a mini four-song EP that is an appropriate wintertime companion to the aforementioned debut full-length.

It doesn’t carry the intruiging backstory or barren solitary feel of its predecessor, but Blood Bank does shoot pretty straight in what-you-would-expect territory with the first three songs.

After a first few listens to the title track, I had to double-check that it wasn’t on the record, it sounded so familiar. It’s not, but it would be a standout track even if it was. In fact, it might even serve as a good introduction to someone who is an even more belated adopter than I have been to Mr. Vernon’s intricately moody and hypnotic tunes.

“Beach Baby” features an infectious slide guitar and “Babys” an are-the-notes-ever-going-to-change repetitive piano intro that set them apart from previous output, but on both songs its Vernon’s falsetto that drives the songs and give them a wintery feel not necessarily consistent with lyrical references to the beach and the approaching summer season.

The wheels come off on track four when Vernon does a little Imogen Heap/Cher auto-tuner imitation that chaotically burries his voice in cheap effects. It leaves plenty to be desired on such a short EP but on repeated listens isn’t so bad that it renders an otherwise worthwhile musical acquisition useless.

In other words, save yourself a buck and stick to the first three songs.

Jai Agnish – Awake When You Dream

December 23, 2008


Jai Agnish Awake When You Dream
Self-released, Nov. 5, 2008

One of the joys, shall we say, of working for a small-town daily (something I still do on a part-time basis) is covering town planning meetings where professionals talk about drainage and traffic studies and mobs of people articulate their NIMBY protests.

As a reporter/newspaper editor in North Jersey, Jai Agnish has experienced his fair share of local land squabbles. That’s obvious when you listen to “Shopping Malls,” a song that almost immediately became my favorite track on his latest full-length album.

Agnish had me the first time I heard him sing, “Whose land is this anyhow/not mine, not yours, not anyone’s.” The song, like the album as a whole, is presented in a sparse arrangement of lightly strummed guitar, quietly repeating keyboard and Jai’s melancholy sing-songy storyteller voice.

The electronic elements of his debut – hard to believe it’s been eight years since Automata – have been traded in for a simpler, more organic approach but much of the material is still unmistakingly Jai Agnish.

When he sings about the sanitized tour guide in India, the love he’s found with the woman he now calls his wife, lightning bugs, local politics and shopping malls it’s hard not to imagine sharing a cup of coffee or a beer with Jai as he ruminates about all the things that have happened in his life since a younger, single, less traveled and perhaps less cynical man started screwing around with the nobs of switches of his four-track.

Agnish doesn’t possess the strongest singing voice and may not have carved enough a new path to win over those dismissive of his previous offerings (Automata, a split EP and some compilation appearances), but like a good conversation where ums, long pauses and split infinitives are easily ignored, the endearing quality of Jai’s music outweigh his shortcomings.

The best news for the recession-minded among us is that Jai decided this one would be on him. I couldn’t buy this one at a shopping mall even if I wanted, but thanks to Jai I won’t look at NIMBY squabbles quite the same again. If anything, I’ll be tempted to scream out, “give it back to the animals, give it back to the dinosaurs.”

Welcome To The Welcome Wagon

December 18, 2008

The Welcome Wagon Welcome to the Welcome Wagon
Asthmatic Kitty – Dec. 9, 2008
By Matthew Ralph

It apparently only took about a week for Asthmatic Kitty to sell out of its in-house stock of the first printing of Welcome Wagon’s debut full-length “Welcome To The Welcome Wagon.” Something tells me the glowing reviews and suggestion by some that it is essentially the latest Sufjan Stevens record may have had something to do with it.

Having written glowing reviews myself – both about the two rare live performances several years apart that they gave after first appearing on an Asthmatic Kitty compilation way back in 2001 – I was anxious and fortunate enough to get ahold of a copy from the first pressing.

The album, which is really worth buying in non-digital form because of its clever Sunday School-kitsch-style packaging, shouldn’t really offer too many surprises for anyone fortunate to have caught them live. What is does offer – other than the obvious Sufjan stamp of approval – is an enjoyable collection of quirky covers and tender-hearted originals executed in that chaotically visionary way that has endeared so many to Sufjan’s style in recent years.

Whether it’s the soulful choir of voices backing “Deep Were His Wounds, and Red” and “Jesus,” the retro showtune-esque renditions of The Smiths ‘”Half A Person” and Danielson’s “Sold! To The Rich Man” or the sparse banjo-led hymn sing of “He Never Said A Mumblin’ Word,” the record offers a puzzling blend of gospel-fused Americana, perky Jesus Movement nostalgia and freak folk experimentation.

Explicitly Christian in approach and content – Sufjan’s fans might recognize the name of the husband of the married couple duo, Presbyterian minister Vito Auito, from “Vito’s Ordination Song” – The Welcome Wagon remind me of the soul-lifting quality and sincerity of the old-fashioned hymn sings of my youth (with the addition of several instruments, of course). Listening to their sing-along version of Lenny Smith’s “But For You Who Fear My Name” it’s hard to not grate on my wife’s nerves by clapping and whistling along.

Given the hype surrounding The Welcome Wagon’s introduction to a much wider audience, there are bound to be plenty of detractors who won’t appreciate the explicitly church-y quality of it or find the quality of the instrumentation and vocal stylings up to snuff. But for those of us already sold on this not-so-little-anymore band, no amount of fanboy hype, however annoying it can be at times, could spoil what has been a long seven-year wait time coming.

Sentenced to death for committing suicide

November 30, 2008

By Matthew Ralph

As far from being New York City as even the progressive pockets of Louisville may be, I felt like I was was in New York City again for about 20 minutes when Daniel Johnston showed up to play some songs at a local folk art festival earlier this month.

The king of pre-Internet self-promotion back when he was a novelty act conning music critics and concert promoters to make his off-kilter lo-fi pop known to Music Television viewers and hipsters the world over, Johnston drew the kind of crowd to a converted meat packing plant that only two decades of being name-dropped and a popular documentary film exposing his genius and madness to a wider audience could have produced.

Like a NYC flash mob, people came out of the woodwork just before the clock struck two to get a glimpse of Daniel with his guitar. Along with his presence at a booth for his artwork, his appearance was by far the most hyped feature of the three-day festival. The very capable and entertaining bands preceding him – The Parade Schedule and Centralia Massacre – were mostly regarded by festival goers as Bush leaguers to Johnston’s major league event. As much as I enjoyed both bands – there were a slew of others I missed – they weren’t what drew me either. I was there with a friend in tow to see someone whose music I’ve appreciated since the movie “Kids” had everyone in my high school talking and “Casper the Friendly Ghost” repeatedly cranking on my brother’s crappy factory car radio.

I knew enough from the more awkward parts of the “Devil and Daniel Johnston” DVD – especially the extra scenes of him at Sundance – and his interactions on camera in the Danielson documentary that it would be foolish to assume I would be hearing anything closely resembling the hundreds of recordings I have on my iPod. The unpredictability of it all though still probably had me more excited than I should have been.

When he took to the plywood stage with his binder in one hand and his bottle of Mountain Dew in the other, I was struck more with curiosity than I was with his star status in the indie-rock world. There’s something about watching one of your favorite songwriters spill Mountain Dew on his already stained version of the made-famous-by-Kurt-Cobain-shirt that puts things in perspective.

That a guy as unpolished as Johnston can be the centerpiece of a festival where the mostly young, image-conscious crowd is anything but unpolished, is refreshing even if his popularity does produce the kind of claustraphobic crowd and blog-driven documentation response that has become typical of indie shows everywhere.

His set was four anything but epic songs long. Daniel, notorious for playing nerve-wracking stage fright-shortened sets, hammered through his songs with his beat the hell out of the strings on the guitar style and promptly busted through the crowd with guitar, case, binder and Mountain Dew in hand and made for the exit.

He also told a joke from an old song of his – twice because he messed it up the first time – about a dream he had that a guy was being sentenced to death for trying to commit suicide. The first time he said it it came out that the guy was sentenced to death for committing suicide. It’s apparently a standard ice-breaker he uses from the stage.

That’s about all that can be said about the show itself. Short and too the point the way opening acts no one in the crowd knows should, but rarely ever do it.

If someone had stumbled into the show and not known about Daniel Johnston’s back story or had heard any of his songs on record or covered by artists like Wilco and Bright Eyes (“Devil Town” has been featured prominently in the Friday Night Lights TV show) they may have thought it was a re-creation of Improv Everywhere “Best Gig Ever” because the crowd, my fanboy self included, was soaking up a performance that billed under anyone else’s name would probably be dismissed as pure drivel than it was in reality.

Out of the 200 or so people packed into the tight space, there were probably close to two dozen people, counting me with my crappy camera, taking photos. By Monday, the local Metromix page had a gallery of 30 photos almost exclusively taken during the show. My sun-glared glasses and intense face were in five of them.

And here I am blogging about it all, perpetuating the phenomenon of an experience that looks way cooler on Metromix and YouTube than it was in reality. Don’t get me wrong, getting to see Daniel Johnston in person for the first time was great, but the show itself was probably the most underwhelming aspect of an art and music festival that despite being too big for its space featured fantastic music and art that would have been worth checking out even if Daniel Johnston hadn’t been landed as a headliner.

Heavy meal parking lot

November 23, 2008

By Matthew Ralph

There are probably few sights in my mind more symbolic of problems with the American diet than watching a teenager with a baggy white shirt and crew cut folding a cheese-oozing quesadilla in half and shoving it long-ways into his mouth on the way to a minivan where the rest of his family is eating dinner in the parking lot of a Taco Bell.

Unfortunately, scenes like this are all too common when the nearest bus stop to your work is in front of a Taco Bell and the sounds of a McDonald’s drive-thru are audible all hours of the night in your second floor home office.

Fourth meals (as Taco Bell advertises them) like the one crew cut kid and his family partook of are only one example of how we consume food within a government-subsidized industrial complex that makes it economically wise (in the short term at least) to see how fast you can recklessly shovel food-like substances into your mouth.

As much as I cringe at the sight, crew cut kid and his family are not alone in their eating habits. According to an unpublished study cited in Michael Pollan‘s 2008 book “In Defense of Food,” a fifth of eating among 18-to-50-year-olds takes place in cluttered minivans, luxury sedans and other motor vehicles.

When grease-peddlars can park their hot dog stands outside the Emergency Rooms of hospitals and still make enough money to keep coming back day after day, it’s obvious that the simple advice given by Pollan in the subtitle of his aforementioned book is not taken seriously by a lot of Americans:

“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”

This so-called economic swoon we find ourselves in and tempting ads like the truth-stretching one for KFC’s $10 meal challenge it has spawned are only making Pollan’s food gospel less and less appealing to the average American.

Why take your time to cook a balanced meal at home when you can eat greasy fried chicken and biscuits for less money in way less time?

Pollan has a lot of good answers for that question in his 205-page follow-up to his stomach-turning revelatory best-seller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” One is to imagine your great-grandmother is walking with you as you push your cart down the aisles of the grocery store. If she recognizes a product and the ingredients contained there’s a good chance it’s more food than food-like substance. If she doesn’t, there’s an even better chance it’s a cocktail of sweeteners, additives and preservatives.  

A quick and worthwhile read, “In Defense Of Food” supports the practical advice with more stomach-turning realities of the government’s sordid history of missteps that allowed so much of what we put in our grocery cart or order in drive-thrus to have more in common with the periodic table of elements than the whole foods our grandparents enjoyed.

As the story unfolds, Pollan forces readers – even supposedly healthy ones – to look closer and more intentionally at the way clever marketing and government inaction has created a society either completely ignorant to the contents of their food or overly obsessed with eating by numbers and nutrition that is fatter and less healthy than it has ever been, something Pollan refers to as the American Paradox.

While it’s unlikely that crew cut kid and his family will be pondering the unpronounceable ingredients of his cheesy quesadilla any time soon, the practical advice to eaters and more importantly moms and dads who will have the power to influence future generations of eaters either by feeding their families High-Fructose Corn Syrup-laced crap in their car or taking some extra time to prepare and serve food around a dinner table holds the power to upset the apple cart.

For that, Pollan’s words are worth heeding carefully even if the result falls short of the easy to do if you’re in the upper-middle-class utopian picture he paints.