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 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.