On Letitia Vansant and the Bonafide’s “Parts & Labor”

Since the time when Letitia Vansant released “Breakfast Truce” (review here) in 2012, the Baltimore-based songstress has expanded her band to comprise a trio of male musicians, including Tom Liddle, Will McKingley-Ward, and David McKindley-Ward. Known collectively as Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides, the group released their first joint effort entitled “Parts & Labor” today. The new album still resonates with Letitia’s folksy sound and her heart for social justice but shows greater depth and complexity with the inclusion of the Bonafides.

With “Parts & Labor,” Letitia Vansant and the Bonafides strike the perfect balance, treasuring both the old and the new in equal measure. To the casual listener, some of these songs might sound like tracks off one of grandma’s old bluegrass records. Belying the traditional folk sound, however, are the group’s acutely relevant lyrics, tackling head on some of the modern world’s most pressing issues, and an infusion of cross-genre influences. Vansant excels in metaphor, subtly channeling this skill into nearly every track but never to the point of exhaustion. This group of talented musicians blurs the boundaries between folk, country, bluegrass, and americana with effortless ease. The dichotomy between their old-fashioned leanings and the incredibly current, spot-on content of their lyrics makes this compelling album quite the rare find.

“Parts & Labor” deals largely in human heartache and suffering. But Vansant and the Bonafides approach heavy topics as varied as terminal illness, environmental degradation, poverty, and homelessness with a deep empathy rarely seen in the musical arts. The album is like a series of intimate portraits, each one highlighting the story behind a particular type of struggle. Taken as a whole, the tracks from “Parts & Labor” issue a sharp challenge to the notion that we are all simply disposable cogs in an indifferent machine, an image that Vansant brilliantly plays on throughout the album.

“Step in Line” opens the album with plucky banjo sounds, the twang of the slide guitar, and intriguing harmonies. Singing of the monotony of endless days spent working, the band likens time consumed with labor to a prison in lyrics like “the lines on the calendar are the bars on my cage.” But this tune also speaks to the promise of escape and the “green pastures of plenty” that await, an undercurrent of hope that finds refrain throughout the entirety of this album.

The first track I ever heard from “Parts & Labor” was “Rising Tide,” a song featured on Baltimore’s local independent station WTMD with gusto. Though track deals with the heartache of cancer, Vansant makes strong allusions to the profit over people mentality that wreaks devastation through means as varied as chronic illness, violence, and greed. The song swells to a beautiful, plaintive cry in which all members of the band join: “I am a cog in this machine that ruins lives of people unseen/I can’t stop it but Lord let me try/It’s a sad sad feeling comes to visit at night.” Not only are these lyrics endowed with beauty and hope, they’re delivered on the back of a remarkably unforgettable melody. One of the things I find so compelling about Vansant is her advanced wisdom, and the track’s most resonant line comes as she sings about acquiring that very thing: “As a measure of time, well, what good is age/It takes so many years to learn to hold on the days.”

There are plenty of remarkable tracks on this release, like “Tea Still Sweet,” a ballad that meditates on our increasingly urban nature, the resultant longing we feel for the countryside and the damage done to our family ties, and “When I Was Your Age,” a song full of nostalgia for an irretrievable past long before the singer’s own lifetime and ripe with regret about a lost future we can never hope to recover. But in my humble opinion, “Parts & Labor” is the showcase track off this album. I never thought a song with such a highly developed social conscious could be as gorgeous as this record’s title song. Every aspect of this ballad feels heavy and exhausted, the band’s mournful playing a perfect complement to Letitia’s weary vocals. While this may not sound like the stuff of conventionally beautiful music, I love that the song itself so perfectly reflects the feelings Letitia’s lyrics evoke as she meditates on injustice, her heart burdened by the way we take the comforts of our lives for granted. She considers the laborers down the lines of production that yield these comforts, a population far too often overlooked in all mediums of art. Letitia poignantly captures the tragedies of inequality and helplessness on “Parts & Labor” with lines like: “Is there anywhere on God’s green earth that I can pull my weight/A place for everyone and everyone in his place” and “I built a house of mud and straw/It cracked in the freeze and thaw/So I retreat on my knees/To the city I withdraw.” And like any great work of art, each time I revisit this song it reveals yet another layer of depth and beauty.

Then there’s “Go Darling,” the tongue-in-cheek tune of a deserted husband hoping for his “ungrateful woman” to return home. Armed with the knowledge that this was a song about marital abuse, the lightness of this little ditty surprised me at first. Letitia’s clever composition plays from the naively optimistic perspective of the bad husband, his false confidence reflected in the track’s upbeat tempo and carefree feel. While decrying his wife’s domestic shortcomings, the husband fails to do a single thing for himself in her absence, believing she will be back any minute. Lyrics like “Go darling go, it’s a long lonesome road/But the fire in your heart, and the trouble it would start/Would burn this old house down” hint that the struggles this broken woman will undoubtedly face for leaving are far less than what would come to pass if she returned home. It’s a refreshing variation on the classic country themes of a broken heart and desertion.

Despite the heaviness of the subjects Vansant and the Bonafides boldly tackle, there is still a strain of optimism through the end. The final track “Promised Land” critically examines the fearful way that we isolate ourselves from one another: “We’ve all been told there’s not enough for everyone/We guard what we hold dear with laws and with guns/Instead of all these walls, let’s build the kingdom come.” The brilliant simplicity of the song’s final two lines proposes a return to a more communal and generous time: “Now we build our own house/One with no walls that will shelter us all.” Part traditional folk ballad, part incisive social commentary, “Promised Land” is the perfect conclusion to a record so evenly steeped in both the modern and the days of yore. 

The album is available today. Learn more about how to get your hands on a copy here.

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On Father John Misty’s “I Love You, Honeybear”

Under the alter-ego of Father John Misty, John Tillman, former Fleet Foxes drummer, has firmly established himself as a ground-breaker within the indie, folk-pop cannon with his remarkable album “I Love You, Honeybear.” Tillman’s sophomore release is an intimate and personal but consciously unsentimental exploration of love. The album speaks to the singularity of any couple’s love story, specifically that which he shares with his wife, while respecting the universal experience of exclusivity two people share when falling in love.

I surmised that the album was largely inspired by the goings-on of Tillman’s own life since so many similar themes are explored with such honesty, vulnerability, grit, and richly lyrical detail. After a little research, I found this to be true. Honeybear’s eleven tracks predominantly chronicle the lead up to his marriage to Emma Elizabeth Tillman, capturing the rush of their chance meeting in a parking lot to their first night together to his desire for her to take his name. A few songs also touch on life before meeting his honeybear, contrasting the emptiness of loveless sex and his past sins with the total fulfillment he feels with Emma, the weariness he feels in the face of this messed up world with the meaning he finds in love.

Tillman adapts the love song to suit the intimacy of his own unique experience and quirky aesthetic. He has unapologetically created a collection of distinctive songs on love and connection that transcend the modern indie-folk genre in sound, branching off into pop, punk, synth, soul, and even mariachi, and lyric. His instrumentation and arrangements are constantly surprising, both in the pairing of lyric with sound and in the progression of the songs themselves. But what I love most about the genre-bending, strange beauty that is “Honeybear” are Tillman’s moments of gritty disclosure and his lines of brilliantly lush imagery (my particular favorite – “the Rorschach sheets where we make love”).

In dramatic fashion, the opening track and title song paints a glorious picture of falling in love despite the depravity and destruction of the world. A dreamy chorus of “I love you, honeybear” circles around lamentations of death filling the streets, suspicious neighbors, inherited mental illness, and all range of social malaise. It’s an oddly romantic song in which Tillman juxtaposes the strength of his love and commitment with the inevitable downfall of the world in lyrics such as “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.”

I was first turned on to Father John Misty when I heard “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)” by chance on the radio. It felt, quite simply, like THE definitive song about falling in love. I was immediately swept up in the playfulness of the mariachi band and Tillman’s sweet lyrics, absolutely reeking of tenderness and infatuation and loving abandon. Now I’m already married, but as soon as I heard this song, I instantly wanted to go back in time to my wedding day and dance my heart out to this tune with my husband. Albeit, the tempo isn’t really appropriate for any kind of conventional dancing, but the images “Chateau” evokes are of love’s purity and joy and exaltation – the very things I want my wedding day and subsequent marriage to constantly evoke. “Chateau Lobby #4” is one of those rare songs that spectacularly captures the complete essence of the remarkable experience of falling in love.

We get a taste of Tillman’s take on soul in “When You’re Smiling and Astride Me,” a song about loving someone with honesty and full disclosure. I adore how Tillman ponders on loving someone for who they are: “I’ll never try to change you/As if I could, and if I were to, what’s the part that I’d miss most?” Although lyrically the song is relatively straightforward and short in length, Tillman draws this one out to its maximum emotive potential, making the simplicity of the sentiment all the more powerful and unmistakable.

The lyrics of “Nothing Good Ever Happens at the Goddamn Thirsty Crow,” a song which recounts with shame the singer’s drunken mishaps, seem like the perfect fit to a fast-paced, country-infused tune. While I certainly hear more country strains on this track than any other from “Honeybear,” Tillman surprisingly slows this one down to a ballad of sorts. It becomes a mournful lament on his mistakes in judgment and action and it works remarkably well.

“Bored in the USA” is Tillman’s largest departure from love songs, turning instead to witty social commentary set to piano and a laugh track. The restrictions, obsessions, and emptiness of middle class American life are all subject to Tillman’s harsh critique in the lead single off of “Honeybear.” It’s at once an interesting satire, a conventionally appealing song in the vein of piano men everywhere, and a plea for something deeper.

Tillman closes out his album by recounting the very event which inspired it all: meeting his wife by chance in a store parking lot. “I Went to the Store One Day” narrates their initial encounter and the absurd role chance plays in it all. The choice to end with this song is wise, as though Tillman explicitly withheld a description of the circumstances that gave way to the love expressed on “Honeybear” until his very last chance. But it also ends the album on a note of hope, with this great meditation on the future that is equal parts sardonic and endearing: “Insert here a sentiment re: our golden years.”

 

 

 

 

On Alvvays

It’s that time of year again when Best of 2014 lists pop up all over. After overindulging in a month-long musical smorgasbord of Christmas carols and holiday classics, revisiting some of the past year’s best releases offered a welcome change of pace. I’ve been pleasantly reminded of the year’s most unfairly forgotten albums, with Alvvays’ self-titled debut at the top of that list. Like a welcome day of sun-kissed summer air, Alvvays surprisingly and to much delight popped up on my radar again, audibly transporting me out of this December’s rain and drear.

Though Alvvays hails from Toronto, their sound blends polished, vintage southern California surf rock with modern low-fi, indie pop. Lead singer Molly Rankin’s brooding vocals drip with equal parts sincerity and disinterest, an endearing and enticing combination. The entire album is worth a thorough and uninterrupted listen to, the way they used to do in the old days. Here are just a few of my thoughts on my three favorite Alvvays tracks.

The album opens with “Adult Diversion,” a song you can’t help but imagine as score for a grainy home video depicting lazy summer day antics and grungy late night parties. I was delighted to discover that the group’s music video for this track encapsulated my vision exactly as, if not even better than, was pictured in my own imagination. But contrary to the carefree tone of “Adult Diversion,” the song’s lyrics express longing, insecurity, and even darkness: “If I should fall, act as though it never happened/I will retreat, and then go back to university/If I should fall, act as though it never happened/I will retreat and sit inside so very quietly.” This contrast, like that between Rankin’s dark vocals and Alvvays’ breezy instrumentation, is just the thing that keeps you coming back for more. 

From the first time I heard the single “Archie, Marry Me,” I was addicted to the sound. Alvvays perfects the indie pop hook on this track about desiring the rite of matrimony despite our most rational arguments against it. It’s a call to screw the man and buck convention in the very act of getting married. Maybe contrast doesn’t play such a big role in this tune but it still satisfies, begging to be heard and shared.

“Party Police” is a more subdued track in both lyric and sound. The song is a plea for keeping things simple, if not downright carnal, in spite of the confusion clouding the relationship between singer and subject. But Rankin doesn’t let the track end without tagging on the disclaimer “if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.” I love the rawness of this sentiment, how her insecurity is so honestly and frankly felt, even after suggesting to her lover/subject “we could find comfort in debauchery.”

I first fell for Alvvays during a rough summer, a season when I didn’t have the time or energy to feel the way this album made me want to feel (content, youthful, bold, free… the list goes on and on). But now, finally, as 2014 comes to a close, the lyrical accessibility, listen-ability, and optimism of Alvvays feels just right. Enjoy!

 

On Ingrid Michaelson

Now I know this album is long past relevant for most, but to me Ingrid Michaelson’s 2007 release Boys and Girls still stirs that undefinable something inside which music is supposed to unsettle. Maybe it’s just that I was going through a way pivotal time in my life when I first listened to the album on a daily loop, or maybe it’s something more implicit to Michaelson’s unapologetic honesty and her songwriting ability. I’m hoping it’s the later so that this post isn’t entirely in vain.

Michaelson’s songs on her second release distill the complexity of heartbreak into such effortlessly poignant music that I almost feel inspired to try my own hand at songwriting whenever I listen to them. She makes it seem so easy to turn stories of love and love lost into a resonant and coherent album. Although her songs make reference to the specifics of Michaelson’s own relationships and heartbreaks, from too-small hand-knitted hats to jokes about Rogaine, implicit in each and every quirky lyric is the understanding that anyone who has ever been in a relationship shares certain universal emotions and experiences. Her songwriting is thoughtful but playful, demonstrating a witty intelligence that is never self conscious or takes itself too seriously.

Though “Breakable” isn’t the most remarkable cut from this album, I still can’t quite get over the verse “Have you ever thought about what protects our hearts?/Just a cage of rib bones and other various parts/So it’s fairly simple to cut right through the mess/And to stop the muscle that makes us confess.” I think this lyric sets the tone for the entire album, offering a theme of sorts about the delicacy of our hearts and the myriad ways in which they can be broken and repaired.

“The Hat” is Ingrid’s reflection on first love, her own being a winter romance that she struggles to remember in its ending. She captures all the bitter-sweetness of a first love, of feeling impossibly special and carefree when you initially find yourself in love with someone, of the tenderness and wonder you will always hold for that person tinged with the sadness that he or she will likely just remain a memory: “I have come to learn I’ll only see you interrupting my dreams at night/And that’s alright.” It’s a song about coming to terms with the fact that first loves do end. But Michaelson recognizes the vital importance of letting someone know just how much they figured into your life story, even if they have long fallen out of the plotline. I can’t think of a better word to encapsulate that type of feeling than “fondness” and Ingrid gets it just right.

And then there’s “Glass” which reflects on a different type of lost love, one shaded by regret and hurt. I doubt there are many song lyrics more gut-wrenching and on the mark than “I am blind/I can not find the heart I gave to you.” The austerity and simplicity of these lines (obviously a skill with words that I have yet to master) contains a whole host of emotions that are impossible to ignore when you lose yourself so completely in another person that you can’t even figure out who you are. It’s a very cinematic song, the type I would envision as score in a movie during a scene when a woman leaves her lover and begins to gain strength in moving on.

By far my favorite track is “Starting Now,” a break up song about committing to a new start even when you still long for someone. Before the song crescendos to the point where Ingrid wishes she never even met her scorned lover, she sings about the lengths to which she would go to rid herself of the man that so badly damaged her life, ie wanting to “crawl back inside my mother’s womb” and “burn the sheets that smell life your skin.” Something about driving around and singing this song at the top of your lungs until your throat is so sore you can barely speak is really satisfying after your heart has been trampled on. Thanks for giving me those moments of rage and recovery, Ingrid!

Contrary to what I seem to be portraying, there are more than sad, angst-y break up songs to be found on Boys and Girls, but I think these songs shine a little bit more. That’s not surprising to me; I think happiness is much harder to capture in a moving way and much harder to be moved by. We all want someone to share our sorrows and listening to Ingrid makes me feel like I’m hashing it out with a best girlfriend. I’ve laughed and cried and danced and sung along to all twelve tracks back in the day and still find myself moved to do the same when I listen now, even from a happier and more settled place in my romantic life. And while I recognize that certain pieces of art will feel particularly timeless to an individual person because of whatever they were going through in their life when said art was first encountered, I believe that Boys and Girls represents something a bit more widely universal.

On Lydia Loveless

From the first twangy guitar riffs on the opening track off Somewhere Else, Lydia Loveless wormed her way right on in to the alt-country corners of my heart. The Colombus, Ohio-based singer songwriter has proven musically irresistible with her fourth album, a brilliant blend of country straight out of the honky tonk and unapologetic punk rock. It’s damn hard not to compare Loveless’ vocals to those of Stevie Nicks or Bonnie Raitt, but her sound is unmistakably original and her big voice comes as a huge surprise once you see the petite 23-year-old it comes package in. Lyrically the album proves that the young but mature performer doesn’t take herself too seriously despite all the heartache and experience she’s got to sing about.

Unfortunately I can’t say that I’ve given the whole album a proper listen; so smitten as I am with the first six tracks, the remaining four see far fewer rotations. The 25 minute timing of my commute doesn’t help, especially since I love to both start my day and blow off steam on my ride home with the album’s rocking opener “Really Wanna See You Again,” a tune about the temptation, made worse by drug-induced emotionalism and lack of judgment, to contact an old, now-married lover. Another favorite about unrequited love is “Chris Isaak,” a deceptively optimistic song about remorse and doing things differently. “To Love Somebody,” the most poppy track on this release, is a meditation on the meaning, pains, responsibilities, and inconsistencies of being in love.

Despite the fact that most of these songs dwell on love lost and the hurting after a relationship goes awry, Somewhere Else isn’t an album just for the love-lorn. Rather it’s an intelligent, ambitious, and even fun reflection on intimacy that anyone can enjoy for both its songwriting and the musical joy it brings. More than that, it stands as another example of excellent  up and coming female singer songwriters worth paying close attention to.

 

 

 

 

On San Fermin

San Fermin’s self-titled debut album is a surprising bounty of sounds as varied as anything available in the musical market today. Though the main man behind the album’s beautiful, intriguing, and wonderfully over-the-top compositions is Ellis Ludwig-Leone, the use of multiple lead vocalists wisely increases the depth of San Fermin’s catalog. A 17-track release, the San Fermin album covers an impressive range of variations on orchestral pop musical styles connected by a delightfully eccentric aesthetic and a common storyline.

It’s extremely difficult to isolate any of these 17 tightly knit songs, each one serving as a crucial scene in the development of San Fermin’s theatrical composition. The album is an interplay between a male and female character involved in an “almost-romance” as described by their composer. Developed over the course of the album, this relationship allows listeners to experience the highs, lows, insecurities, melodramas, and tensions of love in an originally cinematic musical form.

But if we must evaluate the album’s tracks individually, there are certain songs that stand out for their emotive power, objective beauty, and pure originality. “Crueler Kind” is an easy favorite, the second track on the album and the first to feature female lead vocals. The song unassumingly opens with a Lorde-like, rhythm-fueled vocal riff, quickly blooming into a joyous but moving opera of female vocals. “Casanova” comes as a mournful strings-driven turn, with vocals as deep and brooding as any song by The National. Apart from the undeniable similarity between lead male vocalist Allen Tate’s voice and that of The National’s lead singer Matt Berninger, justifiable comparisons between the two bands could also be attributed to the fact that Ludwig-Leone worked on arrangements for the latter in the past. But The National isn’t the only band to have influenced San Fermin’s efforts (or maybe, like me, you’d rather consider that The National was influenced by San Fermin first through Ludwig-Leone’s prior work with the band). I couldn’t help but find hints of Sufjan Stevens as well, another performer with prior ties to Ludwig-Leone. Reminiscent of Sufjan Steven’s best efforts, the penultimate track “Daedalus (What We Have)” is introduced by a few stark notes from the horns and isolated vocals from Tate but grows into an ambitious cacophony of percussive sounds, a flourishing chorus of female back up vocalists, and whimsically layered instrumentation.

Even with the most cursory listen to just a smattering of tracks from San Fermin, it is explicitly clear so many bastions of high musical taste consider this debut album to be one of last year’s most remarkable releases.

On Frank Turner

The older I get, the less proficient I prove to be at seeking out new music. So the NPR year end, best of lists are a highly anticipated event in my book, as multiple curated lists are released at once, containing dozes of the most current and cutting edge music, much of it falling into those genres I prize above all others. Alongside the genius of Spotify, NPR takes so much of the work out of discovering new artists. And I relish it.

I decided to dig into my NPR Suggestions playlist while cleaning house the other night. Things started off with Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart album… and didn’t really get much further. I was familiar with his popular single “Recovery,” a song that spanned multiple genres to receive airplay on indie, traditional rock, and mix radio stations. It was catchy and upbeat, but by no means one of my favorite songs of the year. So I skipped said song, the opening track of the album, to “Losing Days,” whisking right on through the hefty 16-track record. I’d say 16 songs is quite a lot to see on a single album these days, but I found myself wishing Tape Deck Heart was even longer. For once in my life, I was sad to finish my cleaning duties since there was still so much music to listen to.

Though I would originally have categorized it as pop-rock, Turner’s music touches some of my pop-punk heartstrings, which were conditioned to instantly love a certain musical aesthetic made popular during my high school years. I hear strains of the emo sounds of yore most on “Plain Sailing Weather,” a brooding, moody, fast-paced song of self-loathing and regret. Turner’s overall vibe is far from emo; in fact, his tunes are by and large peppy and upbeat, driven by guitars and confident vocals, falling more accurately under the folk-punk genre. But I not-so-secretly relish the punky darkness that emerges from time to time, reminding me of a simpler time in my life, when my musical tastes were much more simple too.

“Four Simple Words” – those words being I want to dance – starts out as a sweet little pop ditty about the connections between performer and artist. Pretty soon the songs kicks things up a notch, channeling an Irish rock sound in a fun, driving, and almost angry tune about authenticity in the music world, the experience of a rock show, and being fueled by nothing more than a love of music. Another shining moment on Turner’s album comes in the final minute of “The Fisher King Blues,” when the song soars into a beautiful round, anthemic and perfectly suited for a big ol’ live sing-along. “Polaroid Picture” was a quick favorite of mine, a tune about childhood nostalgia and dealing with change which showcases Turner’s mastery of the swelling chorus effect. Then there’s the Mellencamp-esque melody of “We Shall Not Overcome,” another great sing-along song of uncertainty and figuring out the messier parts of life with lyrics that are bound to instantly stick in your head after a single listen.

Lyrically, Turner is very accessible and straightforward, sophisticated but not veiling his meaning with too much metaphor or vague imagery as other artists are frustratingly wont to do. Musically, the Frank Turner sound is similarly wide in appeal, abstaining from anything overly complicated or pretentious but retaining a unique edge. It’s patently clear that Frank Turner deeply loves music, the experience of creating and sharing it with others. And that is something that draws people to an artist, crossing boundaries of genre and taste. Plus the songs are just plain fun, begging to be played full volume with the car windows rolled down on a sunny spring’s day.

 

 

On Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps

I was first drawn to Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps’ 2011 album Little Wind. Because I was streaming Sarah Jaffe’s Suburban Nature album on a near-constant basis, Spotify recommended Caroline Smith to me. I’m almost alarmed at how accurately Spotify seems to predict my taste these days. Maybe I’m simply lacking in musical variety lately, which may explain why I feel a mixture of writer’s block and deja vu when writing music reviews as of late. But I digress.
Songs such as “Shoulders Strong” and “Tanktop” snuck up on me with their subtle instrumentation and catchy melodies, proving Spotify to be 100% correct. While the Little Wind album is inherently easy to listen to, it has more cool and personality than that phrase might originally suggest. “Eagle’s Nest” has a soulful but anthemic quality to it as the chorus builds and swells in a beautiful round. “Scholarships” always sneaks up on me as the introduction of twinkling bell sounds transforms into a full indie jam. Full of sass and attitude, the penultimate track, “Denim Boy,” hints at the new direction which Smith’s music has taken with her most recent release. Smith’s quirky sense of humor certainly places its mark upon her lyrics but fails to undermine the sincerity of her songs. Little Wind is a cohesive and continually satisfying little piece of musical craftsmanship that I can’t help listening to again and again.
Her most recent release sheds the Goodnight Sleeps backing band and adds a little more soul and R&B to the mix. I wasn’t immediately drawn to this change since it was such a departure from the sound I had only recently fallen for. But once I found a few videos of Caroline’s new tunes performed live, they grew on me and filled a girl-power void in my heart that I didn’t realize was there. There is plenty of heartbreak and heartache in these songs, satisfying the blues component of that R&B label. But a defiant streak of female empowerment underlies all the tunes, further fueled by the addition of two ladies singing back up.
The title track “Half About Being a Woman” is just one such song – and it was the first one that really hooked me to the new turn in Caroline’s musical aesthetic. I’m a sucker for those intense vocal crescendos, when a singer puts all her raw emotion and talent into belting out the lyrics she so perfectly composed. Though the highly polished album track wasn’t an immediate favorite of mine, one particular live video (posted below) captivated a side of this song that rang more authentic to me. And then I couldn’t get it out of my head. The first single “Magazine” also highlights Caroline’s brilliant arrangement of back up vocals and the lady power sensibilities of her new album.
Though I only discovered Ms. Smith two weeks ago, I took advantage of the opportunity to see her perform a few days ago at World Cafe Live at the Queen in Wilmington. Caroline took the stage with just an acoustic guitar and her two back up singers. Despite the seemingly meager arrangement, she captured the intimate room with her surprisingly vibrant sound, cool harmonies, and general adorableness. From her palpable presence onstage to her ability to draw so much musical entertainment out of so few accompaniments, it was plainly obvious to me that Caroline Smith is heading for even better things in a big way. 

On Sarah Jaffe

It’s remarkable how much context can influence taste and perception. Sarah Jaffe’s single “Clementine” has received pretty heavy rotation on the local college radio station. But since I mostly heard the song in my car while stuck in traffic, it was, to me, just another overly played indie hit of sorts. Once I listened to Jaffe’s debut album Suburban Nature in full, however “Clementine” took on a whole new sound, meaning, and specificity.

The whole of Suburban Nature has an autumnal quality to it, rounded out by Jaffe’s not overly feminine vocals and moody melodies. But that’s not to say that her music is somber. The album has a darkness to it that is hard to capture in words; not quite melancholic nor angst-ridden, Jaffe’s debut album has an indefinable dark beauty, a harder edge to her sound that I’ve found all too alluring. Though her sound is reminiscent of the broodingly simple songs of Jessica Lea Mayfield, Jaffe’s music has a more full and appealing richness to it.

I have been so taken with Jaffe’s debut release from back in 2010 that I’ve barely even touched on the more recent portions of her impressive catalog. I’m currently too preoccupied with all the gems on Suburban Nature to explore any other Jaffe tunes.

“Before You Go” was a great selection for the opening track slot – its anthemic, pulsing beat, though relatively upbeat, sets the tone for the entirety of the forthcoming album. And we get of taste of Jaffe’s talent as a lyricist right from the first verse of this 16-line song: My heart pretends/not to know how it ends/yes, hello self-esteem/we shall finally be free.

A few tracks later comes “Clementine,” a melodious tune that swells into beautiful, catchy, and perfectly dance-able indie pop. It’s a heavy rotation favorite for me – the kind of song I listen to on repeat, the soundtrack to housework and impromptu dance sessions. Content and sound are delightfully fused in this one – the very sound of the song evokes just those feelings induced by the lyrics. It’s a pretty perfect song in my book and I have yet to grow tired of listening to it endlessly.

“Summer Begs” highlights the more feminine side of Jaffe’s sound, as well as her talent for penning wonderfully unpredictable melodies.

It took me a while to discover “Watch Me Fall Apart” as it comes so close to the end of the album – I was caught up repeating earlier tracks before allowing myself to even take a first listen to this most fast-paced, folksy song. It’s probably one of the more widely accessible songs on Suburban Nature, but that’s not to say it isn’t emotionally driven and raw.

If you need further evidence of how completely smitten I am with Sarah Jaffe, I actually purchased a copy of this CD. I don’t have an ipod or any other means of listening to music digitally in my car and this is an album that yearns for some drive time. So I caved and actually purchased a physical CD, something I have not done for more years than I can count. And that fact alone has got to mean something.

On Harry Chapin

When trying to explain to a friend of mine who Harry Chapin was, I used this analogy – Harry Chapin is to my mom as Jeff Tweedy is to me. I’m a devoted fan of Wilco, the band for which Tweedy is frontman, a band whose fan base is fiercely loyal despite their lack of mainstream success. Wilco is by no means aching for more listeners, but they’re also not a group that everybody knows. And the same goes for Harry Chapin – though much beloved by fans in his heyday, Harry Chapin was not a household name except among my family.

Most people don’t know who Harry Chapin is when I mention his name in passing, so I use this analogy often. Citing Chapin’s most famous song “Cat’s Cradle” usually provides a frame of reference as well, and some music fans even remember “Taxi,” the epitome of Harry Chapin’s trademark story songs (a song so famed among Chapin fans that it has it’s own sequel entitled, appropriately enough, “Sequel”). But few people know more than the late artist’s name and a song or two.

Lucky for me, I grew up the child of two devoted Harry Chapin fans. We’d listen to Harry Chapin’s two-disc Gold Medal Collection cassette tapes while driving around in my father’s old maroon station wagon, and I never found it the least bit odd to do so. I thought everyone knew and loved Mr. Chapin, that his songs were common cultural knowledge among people my parent’s age and their kin. When I realized that Harry Chapin wasn’t a household name, that he wasn’t considered one of music’s classic performers, I was more than a little disappointed. It’s hard to separate my love for Harry Chapin from that of my parents – is his music intrinsically good or do I feel a fierce loyalty to the Chapin catalogue because it’s what I grew up listening to? Hard for me to say, though my husband would probably argue for the latter. When the real world’s idea of Harry Chapin finally hit me, it hurt.

But, after all, this blog is named after one of Chapin’s songs (one of the perks of enjoying little-known 70’s folk artists: the url’s referencing their music haven’t been snatched up yet). And he had more integrity and demonstrated more sincere generosity than nearly any other musical artist I’ve ever come across. While I’ll allow the critics, my husband, and Chapin fans to battle over the merits of his musical career, I thought it was due time to share Harry Chapin’s story since it contributed more than a little to the shaping of this blog.

My mother always told me that Harry Chapin did more to address world hunger than anyone else. While this point may be up for debate, he definitely charts somewhere in the top ten. He was a cofounder of World Hunger Year, an organization devoted to addressing the causes of hunger and poverty. Nearly a third of the profits from Chapin’s concerts were routed to social causes and he lived a remarkably modest lifestyle because of the generosity with which he spread his money to others in greater need. Though he died at the young age of 38, Harry was recognized for his philanthropy posthumously with a Congressional Gold Medal. And his work even inspired others – Harry’s manager initiated multiple anti-hunger programs following Chapin’s death in an effort to continue the cause that the artist had worked so tirelessly to address.

Apart from his charity work, Chapin was a prolific musicians whose songs were infamously narrative in style. I grew up listening to “I Wanna Learn A Love Song,” the story of a guitar teacher who falls in love with one of his married students. Come to find out upon reading Chapin’s controversially-released biography, the premise for the song was entirely true – and the object of Harry’s affection ended up becoming his wife Sandy. There’s also “Taxi,” the story of a cab driver who picks up a glamorous woman on a rainy San Francisco night, only to discover that the passenger is an old flame. “Tangled Up Puppet” gives voice to a father’s struggles with his daughter growing up (yes, this was the song playing during the father-daughter dance at my wedding – and I thought quite appropriately so). One of my favorites, “Story of a Life,” plays like the final minutes before we die when our whole lives are said to pass before our lives. Harry supposedly composed this one on a plane about to crash – luckily, the pilot regained control or the crash was not fatal, I don’t remember which. It harps on the centrality of Harry’s wife in the arc of his life, a sentiment that I’d argue is beautifully shared.

And finally, there’s this blog’s namesake “Remember When The Music.” An ode to idealism and musical inspiration, the song’s lyrics read like a true folk ballad. Since this song explores the role that music can play in our lives, the change that great art can inspire, and the beauty of inspiration itself. The title seemed a fitting one for this blog as well – a space where I hoped to explore issues of social justice and change, but also to relish and celebrate art in its many forms. “Remember When The Music” reflects the very inspirations that stirred me to create this blog. Borrowing the title seemed the perfect means to pay respects to an often overlooked artist/activist, while defining my writing as a continuation of what Chapin worked so hard to do.

Sadly, it’s difficult to find Harry Chapin’s songs and performances on YouTube. But I’ve done my best to offer a small mix of his music below.

 

 

 

On Letitia Vansant

I love for music to surprise me. It’s quite a rarity these days, when so much of what we hear on the radio is highly formulaic and over-produced. So it is a treat of the best order when you come across a true original, an artist whose refreshingly unfamiliar sound defies genre-classification and comparisons to similar artists. Although I wasn’t initially smitten with the first Letitia Vansant song I heard called “Macy’s Parking Lot,” I was hooked not even halfway through my first listen to her album.

Once again, I’ve got to hand it to local Baltimore radio station WTMD – true to their word, they helped me discover an incredible artist that I cannot imagine having discovered by any other means. Letitia Vansant’s album “Breakfast Truce” was featured on the independent station as their January Album of the Month, offering the Baltimore-based singer-songerwriter plenty of much deserved airplay all month long and beyond. Though “Macy’s Parking Lot” was her most popular cut on WTMD’s playlist, it wasn’t until I caught the tail end of “Brother Left the Mine” that I decided to listen to the entirety of this album my favorite radio station couldn’t stop plugging.

Following the Macy’s song, Vansant’s album opens with the plainly beautiful “Brother Left the Mine,” a track whose simplicity showcases Vansant’s abilities as a songwriter. Though the ensuing tracks have a cohesive flow, Vansant’s debut release demonstrates her wide range in both style and sound. “As I Was Told” rings with innocence and a poppy lightness, only to be followed by the darker haunting tune “The Bits and the Pieces.” A few tracks later, the folk-meets-country “Crick in My Neck” highlights the raspier side of Vansant’s vocals over a strings-driven tune. “The Notion” has an intriguingly French feel to it, plucky and sophisticatedly flirtatious. It’s remarkable that a song with so much personality features just Vansant’s lone guitar and vocals for its entire duration. And then the full musicality of “Man Enough” shortly follows, with its vaguely 90’s melody and more nuanced instrumentation. “Breakfast Truce” ends strong with the title song, a mournful track that draws on the soulfulness of Vansant’s voice. The cut sounds like a live lo-fi recording – I can’t help but picture Vansant belting it out from atop a stool on an otherwise bare stage in some dark basement bar.

Much as I have grown to adore the entirety of Vansant’s diverse album, my favorite number is undoubtedly “Parajita,” one of the most interesting tracks I’ve heard in far too long. Unlike many songs nowadays where you can sense what notes, sometimes even what lyrics, are coming next, this tune kept me on my toes, continually surprised by the instruments, sounds, and chord changes introduced. My first listen was a totally refreshing and addicting experience, and it has become the one song I jump to each and every time I power up Spotify.

With Letitia Vansant’s “Breakfast Truce,” I’ve discovered a brilliant female artist with a bright future, a catalogue of new songs to relish, one for nearly any mood in which I might find myself. Vansant’s raw talent is undeniable and, paired with her master  songwriting skills, allows Vansant to hone in on many of a wide range of emotions with remarkable musical precision.

On Mike McFadden

I’m pretty damn lucky to live in Baltimore, where the radio waves from Towson, Maryland’s independent radio station WTMD come through strong and clear. The reasons I love WTMD are myriad – no commercials, musical variety, frequent airplay of my not-quite-commercial-radio-friendly favorite band Wilco, free events, complete listings of their playlists, and local music coverage. If not for WTMD, I might never have heard Baltimore native Mike McFadden’s song “Heart on Heart,” I might never have fallen head over heels in love with said song, I might never have played it on endless repeat, I might never have heard the rest of McFadden’s impressive catalogue (four albums and he couldn’t possibly be a day over 26), and I might never have realized the importance of sharing his music here.

McFadden’s most recent single “Heart on Heart” is a driving, pop-infused rock tune with a speedy percussion beat whose pace I can never match when drumming on my steering wheel. As explained in my ode to WTMD, I first heard it on local radio and was instantly hooked. Thank God for Spotify (which you should definitely download for free if you have not done so already as it is one of the most delightful ideas since the invention of the internet) – I easily satisfied my craving for “Heart on Heart” all that night and was able to discover more of what Mr. McFadden is all about. From this opening track, his Heartbeat/Rapture album bleeds into more full-bodied, suitable for summer drives, and perfectly just-but-not-over-polished singer-songwriter numbers as promised by the first single.

When I delved into the archives of McFadden’s career, I fell hard again, this time for his 2007 self-titled release. Much like the 2012 album, Mike McFadden starts off strong with “Girl Like You,” a song that creeps into my head and stays there for days without any complaint from me. Though the album is less produced and has a more amateur feel than Heartbeat/Rapture, it certainly delivers with its light, summery tunes.

McFadden’s career is definitely booming as he recently landed a song in a Coke commercial. He recently relocated from Baltimore to New York, probably on account of his surging success. And while I don’t blame him for the move, I sure as hell will miss having him around to call our own and catch live once in a while too.

On The Lumineers

At this point in time, it’s pretty hard to have avoided hearing The Lumineers’ debut single “Ho Hey” on radio airplay or as background music for a popular TV commercial for some product I have managed to forget. Their sound falls easily into a currently popular genre of polished indie folk alongside bands such as Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers. Though the band’s self-titled full length album is not as completely satisfying as the first single, there are moments of pure folk brilliance. It is these few songs, which will get your feet tapping and make your heart melt (at least a little bit), that have made this album a quick staple in my current CD rotation.

The opening notes of the Lumineers’ first tune, “Flowers in Your Hair,” instantly reminded me of Jeff Tweedy’s solo cover of an Uncle Tupelo tune  called “Wait Up” (listen here). Tweedy fan that I am, I was immediately hooked. As the Lumineers’ tune picks up, it becomes increasingly engaging and ultimately serves as a wise and satisfying choice for the album’s opening track.

 

The tune that I have found most irresistible is “Classy Girls,” a simple song about trying to steal a kiss from an alluringly elusive girl in a bar. The first few lines are reminiscent of a classic Irish folk ballad, just string and vocals over the quiet cacophony of a bustling pub. But the song transforms into a rousing melody as the lyrics narrate a particularly flirtatious game of hard to get. Maybe its the careful incorporation of background chatter or just the storyline of the song, but the most natural setting in which I can imagine enjoying “Classy Girls” is live in a comfortably crowded bar. I’ve been listening to this track nearly nonstop whenever I find myself in the car and it hasn’t gotten old yet.

 

And then there’s “Ho Hey,” another melodic love song that begs for a sing-along session. The chorus of voices that chime in on this tune make it an mid-tempo anthemic folk tune. The sentiment of the Lumineers’ first single is sincere and its simplicity matched by the effortlessness with which this one will get stuck in your head.

 

Though there are some songs that I routinely skip while listening to the album, there are just as many tunes that I know will become tried and true favorites of mine long after the Lumineers have expanded their catalog.

On Female Vocalists and Healing

I’ve always found great solace in books, probably more so than most people. At times when I’ve felt most lost, alone, and confused, I’ve regained a sense of myself by revisiting those books with which I’ve most identified, a firm reminder of who I am. But when I experienced my first heartbreak – my first real, gut-wrenching, hopeless phase of inconsolable sobbing and impending doom at the thought of being without he who I had come to know so well – no piece of fiction could provide me with even a modicum of comfort. I’ve always been a lover of music, but never more so than when I was despondent and broken-hearted. It was during these times that songs provided companionship to me, more than any written word or kindly offered shoulder could.

Prior to my first heartbreak, female vocalists generally held little lasting appeal for me. It wasn’t that I categorically refused to listen to women singers, but rather that the songs I was most interested in were of a style that doesn’t lend itself to the female voice as well. It was mostly indie rock and alternative for me, but not yet the folksy ballads and substantial pop of artists like Laura Marling or Regina Spektor. I wanted music that moved me through beat and rhythm, rather than vocal beauty and lyric. My limited world experience barely resembles that of adult female artists. Since I didn’t relate to musicians of my sex, I stuck to what I knew – the omnipotent male voice of independent, alternative rock. Maybe it was my youthful immaturity or maybe I just hadn’t yet found the right voice from among the female offerings, but it wasn’t until my first broken heart that I could rightfully place any female artist among my favorites.

In the mournful words and music composed by Feist, Rachael Yamagata, and the like, I learned that my feelings of complete despair, false hope, and futile torment were not as unique as I had heretofore imagined. To most, that would seem all the more reason to lose hope, but not I. In finding their songs about unrequited love, imagining one’s ex-lover everywhere, and indulging oneself with mythical mental reunions, I learned that my heartbreak was not earth-shattering, in fact it was nothing new at all. I needed to hear a female perspective to recognize that successful and content women could emerge from the wreckage of long-term relationships fully intact. No male voice could cure my lonesomeness,  but these distinctive female songs of heartbreaks true and deeply felt allowed the intolerable pain of my experience some meager outlet. I gorged on the music which indulged these emotions without guilt or remorse. Finding these songs was like having arrived upon my own holy grail, a journey on which I never knew I had embarked until I arrived at my destination. These were the people who most fully helped me recover, find my own two feet again, and recognize that my heartbreak was nothing the world hadn’t seen before. The world was only going to continue turning and I had to keep up.

In time I was able to heal without fully relying upon those ladies in which I first found such grand solace. From the consolation within and the truth behind these women’s songs came the strength of solidarity, no matter how intangible and imaginary. Though I never spoke to these women directly, never confided in or personally encountered them, I drank up their empathy like a magic elixir to stimulate the healing process.

Now when I hear those songs, I grow nostalgic for that time of grief, recovery, and healing. It is not a sadistic notion but rather a longing for those formative months when I thought I was lost and broken. As cliche as the point is, out of heartbreaks come the most pure versions of ourselves. After a thorough period of nurturing and cleansing, we are left with an amazingly stunning picture of ourselves, a more clear and focused image with which we can better understand and identify our own nature. The important part is finding a consolation in someone or something, anything that nurtures and heals, and regaining the clarity of mind of finish that healing process for yourself. And I’d like to thank some of the following ladies for that.

On The Alabama Shakes

There’s something about the bluesy, Southern rock sounds of Alabama-based band The Alabama Shakes that I find irresistibly fun and carefree. They were the perfect band to discover during the summer, for listening to on road trips to the beach and on sunny afternoons de-stressing on the drive home from work.

While their sound has a certain nostalgia to it, reminiscent of both classic rock and soul artists, Brittany Howard’s distinctive and at-times funky lead vocals place The Alabama Shakes in an genre entirely their own. The sound this band produces is distinctively their own, but luckily they don’t fall into that category of musical acts whose songs all sound the same. Though “Hold On” got plenty of alternative radio airplay, I wasn’t completely hooked on The Shakes until I heard the irresistibly danceable “Hang Loose” (and played it on repeat during my commute to and from work for a week).

Here are just a few samplings of songs from their debut album Boys & Girls.

And here’s an entire 13-song live set from The Alabama Shakes, courtesy of Pegasus Records via YouTube.