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.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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 I Am Not A Hipster

I was initially drawn to I Am Not a Hipster purely because the title piqued my curiosity. Scrolling through the OnDemand offerings in search of Seven Psychopaths, I noticed this film’s name, imagining it was some farcical story of trendy young people. The brief synopsis of the film indicated some hipster-elements, but conveyed the sense of this film as more of a drama than an ironic comedy. Though the movie’s title does little to convey the gravity and subtly of the movie – in fact, I’d argue it is completely at odds with the tone of the film – it certainly caught my attention and helped me discover this gem in the first place.

I Am Not A Hipster centers around Brook, an Ohio-born singer songwriter transplanted to San Diego. Though he achieved great indie success with his first album released one year ago, the brooding musician is questioning the whole notion of creating art while tangible needs are not being met elsewhere in the world. Brook is tied to a video clip of a tsunami effortlessly sweeping away houses and destroying lives. This simple cinematic device conveys the intensity with which Brook experiences the suffering of others.

Brook’s three sisters and father come to visit him in San Diego, the hometown of their late mother. The trip is a happy reunion for the four siblings, but also an opportunity for the grieving family to spread the ashes of their beloved wife and mother in the place where she was born. When Brook’s at times obnoxious but ultimately endearing sisters take over his life for a week, he becomes visibly more comfortable and at peace. The pain in their goodbye is subtle but visceral, as Brook obviously struggles with his decision to desert his family and their mid-Western home after his mother’s death.

I’m a fan of simple movies, of films that are rather austere in their plot lines but still resonant. There’s an art to simplicity, a beauty in the economy of words (something I obviously have yet to master), a talent to creating that which is boiled down to its essence. While movies in this vein can feel slow and are often downright arduous to watch (like Sofia Coppola’s 2010 movie Somewhere was for me), certain films of this sect shine by virtue of their simplicity. Once, Spooner, and I Am Not A Hipster all fit this mold, for there is enough authenticity to ensure that viewers care about the characters in these films, but not too much complexity as to sacrifice the universality of their stories. Brook’s relationship with his father is one such element to which anyone could relate, an example of family tensions simultaneously strained and strengthened by family tragedy.

I actually anticipated that I Am Not A Hipster would a Southern California take on the movie Once since the trailer focused more heavily upon Brook’s musical career. But what starts out as a film about one member of the San Diego music scene instead becomes an earnest exploration of creativity and family. Although Brook is never the most likable character to follow, we are still drawn to him by virtue of raw musical talent, his self-righteous doubts about creating art, and the plain love that emerges when he is surrounded by family.

The mystery remains as to the meaning behind this movie’s very forward title. I imagine that it stems from some of Brook’s contentions about art – as he questions the meaning of creativity, he also denies the importance of image that so many trends bank on. It remains hard for me to agree with the film’s title given the abundance of hipster-elements peppered throughout, from incredible underground bands you’ve never heard of to fixed gear bikes, from the way people talk and dress and to the art shows and concerts they attend, the look and feel of this movie screams hipster. But in a satisfyingly good way.

 

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 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 Glen Hansard

I’ve long considered Glen Hansard, front man behind the bands the Frames and the Swell Season, to be something of a musical genius. From the first scene in the film Once when I was introduced to Mr. Hansard performing an acoustic cover of Van Morrison’s “And the Healing Has Begun” on the streets of Dublin, I knew that this Irish singer-songwriter had an inordinate amount of talent. He quickly earned his place among my favorite musicians and has remained there ever since.

After hearing news that Glen was releasing a solo album entitled Rhythm and Repose this summer, I anxiously counted the days until its release date on June 19th. In the meantime, YouTube offered me some musical solace with these little gems. The first two tunes posted below made it onto the album, a beautiful if not melancholy collection of compositions that stray a bit from the signature Hansard touch but demonstrate his versatility and songwriting brilliance. No matter how listeners respond to the album, it is hard to watch any of these videos and not be moved by Hansard’s raw talent and his raw passion for music.

 

 

 

On Dan Mangan

Canadian musician Dan Mangan is quickly becoming one of my new favorite artists (and not just because he reminds me of a charming Seth Rogen). With soaring compositions reminiscent of Mumford and Sons and melodies comparable to those of Josh Ritter, Mangan’s sound could be described as polished folk, indie singer-songwriter, or alternative acoustic rock. His songs quickly get stuck in my head in the best way possible and I have yet to hear a single song of his that I dislike.

I’m pretty new to Mangan’s whole catalogue, but I was glad to see that my local library carried both of his CDs. Mangan’s most recent album, Oh Fortune, won a Juno in Canada and his debut full-length release, Nice, Nice, Very Nice, has quickly become on of my favorite albums. Here are just a few of my favorite tracks from these two albums and there is plenty more to listen to on his website. Enjoy!