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.

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 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 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.