You reach a certain vintage to find your peers lamenting the lack of good Music these days and waxing nostalgic about the incredible songs of their youth. “Good music”, of course, was the stuff made in the 60’s and early 70’s, an amazing period of exploration and invention, after which music took a hiatus from which it never returned. When I hear a friend or coworker expressing this opinion, I can’t help but recall how my parents’ generation responded to the very music which they revere. “It’s not music; it’s noise.” “How can you listen to that garbage? I can’t even understand the words.” And the constant request… pleading… demand: “Just turn down the volume.”
Back then, it was frustrating that the adults had closed themselves off to new music, and it surprises me that members of the very generation that ushered in so many vibrant and fertile musical trends are now following in the footsteps of their parents. Because the truth is if you are willing to explore a bit you will find that there is always good music being made. But you’re probably not going to hear it on the radio. And you will not see one of these talented, independent performers of serious music climbing up the podium to receive a GRAMMY Award. Perhaps, thankfully not.
Primarily, I rely on word of mouth to discover new music. Whenever I sit down with someone whose judgment I respect, one of the first questions I put to him or her is: “So, have you been listening to any interesting music lately?” You’d be surprised to learn how effective this kind of communication can be. My other source of information is the written word, articles and reviews, which I come across in magazines or on the internet. Depending on the quality of the writing and the esthetics's of the reviewer, relying on the recommendations of a stranger can be a hit-and-miss proposition, but luckily the internet provides ample opportunity to listen to recordings and watch live performances. It’s easier now than ever before in my lifetime to explore the labyrinthine cellars of the music world to experience the work of nonmainstream artists. Perhaps my opinion that there is a lot of good music being produced at this time results from this improved accessibility or maybe music simply cycles like the stock market, but I feel strongly that right now we are experiencing a musical renaissance that without doubt rivals the achievements of the 60’s and 70’s. Certainly, the ability of little known and financially strapped musicians to produce, independently, high quality recordings that can be disseminated on the internet has fostered a fertile environment for new talent to develop and produce work that explores creative avenues that may not have been commercially viable a decade or two ago. There is so much good material out there and so many talented artists just starting their careers that I am often inspired to marvel at how lucky I am to be experiencing this incredibly rich period in music history.
I thought I might take a moment to introduce my readers to some of my recent finds. I will limit myself to contemporary folk artists because if I didn’t limit the scope of my sampling this could become a year long project. I must admit I’ve had a weakness for folk music ever since, back when I was in my teens, a musician friend introduced me to traditional folk music, songs about milkmaids getting knocked up by unscrupulous lords and starving poachers getting hanged in the town square, all performed on authentic instruments. Almost concurrently, I was becoming interested in a new breed of folk musicians that was producing original material that addressed social, political and personal issues of the present day. I was listening to people like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, June Tabor, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, John Renbourne, Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Nick Drake and Robin Williamson. Since those days, I’ve witnessed folk going through many transformations, some good and some bad. Somehow the stars all seem to have aligned in the last decade or so to establish an environment that embraces a new sensibility in folk, one that prioritizes creativity and expression over commercial concerns. The result has been some really great music.
The White Buffalo – Jake Smith, who performs under the name “The White Buffalo”, is a singer/songwriter from Southern California. With a voice I sometimes mistake for that of Eddie Vedder, Smith can produce folk with a barroom brawly, rock-rooted edge to it, or he can sing a gentle, sensitive song accompanying himself on solo guitar. He’s written and performed a lot of music, and I’ve yet to come across a song I didn’t consider “listenable”. He’s at his best when he sings about rebellion and loss. I haven’t heard a song that better captures the sense of disillusionment and betrayal that pervades our lives today than “Wish It Was True”.
Mother, I tried to do right by you,To do what you asked me to.I did wrong, and I knew.
Mother, I tried to behave for you.Now I'm a-diggin' a grave for you.It was all I could do.
Find a way back home, make everything new.I wish it was true.(Jake Smith, "Wish It Was True")
Link to "Wish It Was True": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOyqfQDKX7A
Joanna Newsom – Another Californian, Newsom was born in 1982 and began studying harp and piano at a very early age, the harp being the instrument for which she holds the greatest affinity. Her debut Album, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), left me pretty impressed. The music was spare and innovative with the harp predominating, and Newsom’s voice was unique, high-pitched and squeaky, somewhat reminiscent of traditional Appalachian singing, but always clear and precise, which is critical since her lyrics are complex and dense.
|Ys Album Cover|
I purchased Newsom’s second album, Ys, as soon as it became available in 2006. Something happened when I first listened to this album which had never happened before and has not happened since. I played the album through in its entirety, in total silence, without saying a word, and then listened to it a second time. I turned to my wife after our second listen and declared in awe, “Music will never be the same!” Ys is an incredible accomplishment. The sparse orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks are magnificent, intensifying the emotional content of the songs without overpowering Newsom’s vocals and harp playing. I cannot recall ever hearing words more complex, beautiful and evocative, Newsom’s lyrics being reminiscent of, at least for me, the poetry of Sylvia Plath. The themes of the songs are timeless, strangely modern and archaic simultaneously. My favorite song, “Emily” which is addressed to Newsom’s sister and wrestles with cosmic themes, is unquestionably a masterpiece.
There is a rusty light on the pines tonight
Sun pouring wine, lord, or marrow
Down into the bones of the birches
And the spires of the churches
Jutting out from the shadows
The oak and the axe, and the old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow
And everything sloped like it was dragged from a rope
In the mouth of the south below
(Joanna Newsom, “Emily”)
Link to “Emily”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ak8S8FN3ycA&feature=kp
Of course, Ysdidn’t change all music going forward. I don’t believe the album got much attention at all. But, unfortunately, Newsom did change. An operation on her vocal cords left her voice deeper, huskier and not so clear. Her “independent” credentials took a hit when she married an SNL comedian. And her third album, Have One on Me (2010), a 3 CD set comprising about 3 hours of recordings, was a disappointment. The arrangements, cloudy, clunky and deliberately, I think, reminiscent of saloon music, are uninspired and repetitive. The lyrics, so critical to Newsom’s art, are unintelligible and overpowered by the music. I kept coming back to this album, thinking I had to be missing something, hoping to detect a spark of Newsom’s former magic, but to no avail. I can only hope that future efforts will reaffirm the genius that Ysrevealed.
Angel Olsen – From St. Louis, Missouri, Angel Olsen is just beginning her music career but is already a powerful presence in contemporary folk. On an early EP, Strange Cacti (2011), and her first full length album, Half Way Home (2012), Olsen sings in her incredibly mournful voice accompanying herself on solo guitar, probably the best format for her music. Half Way Home, in particular, is a great album, containing some of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard, addressing themes of loneliness, rejection and desire. “Safe in the Womb”, included on Half Way Home, is one of the first songs Olsen ever wrote, surprisingly innovative and confidant for an early work.
Subtly shedding back the years
And after it all we soon disappear
Yes, into the dark depths we all soon disappear
Out of this labyrinth that makes our, our world
How do we ever know the light inside ourselves?
To know that the skin that we wear is raw
That we can be anything if we know anything at all
Yes, we can be anything if we know anything at all
(Angel Olsen – “Safe in the Womb”)
Link to “Safe in the Womb” (you’ll need to crank up the volume): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akL1_X6SD48
As with the work of many contemporary folk artists, the lyrics of many of Olsen’s songs can be vague and ambiguous but, all the same, strike a powerful emotional chord in the listener. When I listen to her music, I have no doubt that I’m receiving the intended message; this is part of the illusion, the magic, of her art. Olsen is very open about this aspect of her song writing:
“So I’m sitting there in the middle of a song and thinking, ‘I write songs! That is so weird.’ How did I write all of these songs? I don’t even know what they mean! And I’m singing them with meaning, sort of. I enjoy singing the songs a certain way, but I don’t even know how the writing even began.”
(Angel Olsen – Pitchfork Interview January 24, 2014)
Just last month, Olsen released Burn Your Fire for No Witness, an album on which she is accompanied by a full band. At my first few listens, I was disappointed in the new sound, finding the bigger, jazzier arrangements distracting from Olsen’s voice, which is really a treat to experience, but with further exposure, I’ve come to really admire most of the songs. By the way, not to mislead you, there are also a lot of pared down songs on the album, which should satisfy early fans, like myself, who want to hear Olsen’s vibrato without competition from a host of instruments.
Basia Bulat – Her mother being a piano teacher, Bulat, a Canadian of Polish descent, began studying music at a very early age, which may serve to explain how she’s been able to master so many instruments (autoharp, piano, guitar, banjo, ukulele, sax and flute) at such a young age. Though she studied English while attending the University of Western Ontario, she continued to hone her music skills. While she received her education her apartment became a gathering place for musicians. It was these early jam sessions that led to reluctant public performances and then to a recording session from which most of the songs which formed the album Oh, My Darling were to come. Bulat has a powerful, husky voice which exudes an irresistible joyous energy. Often her singing will peak in a crescendo that conjures up images from nature, the wind sweeping down a mountainside or a wolf baying in the night. Her music certainly seems based in wilderness, a feeling of wide-open spaces is unleashed in all her songs. She usually accompanies her singing on the autoharp, an instrument with a simple, twangy voice anchored in North America’s settlement era. With her second album, Heart of My Own (2010), Bulat really hit her stride. An energy and rawness in the music creates a mood of a pioneer hootenanny which Bulat tames at will, backing away from the full band sound and permitting a tinge of vulnerability to enter her voice. A week spent in the Yukon playing at the 2008 Dawson City Music Festival has been credited by Bulat as having had a profound influence on her music. Without a doubt, the songs that comprise Heart of My Own embody the spirit that drove urban city dwellers of the East to venture into the harsh, unsettled environs of Alaska and Canada’s Northwest, the mad craving for mythic gold playing the metaphor for the yearnings of the human heart for love and companionship. For Bulat, these quests, however destined for disappointment and disaster, do not justify regret and mourning; instead, she revels in the spirit that sparks the desire to take risks, to place all one’s chips on a single bet.
you found it in the deepest thorns
got it out from the darkest wells
bring your heartstrings with the bales
up there on the hills they're climbing on
and if I hadn't drowned up there
in the night before the storm took hold
I know I would find them gold
up there on the hills they're climbing on
(Basia Bulat – “Gold Rush”)
Link to “Gold Rush”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hANYD0_qQl4
At the end of last year, Bulat released Tall Tall Shadow, a successful album that continues to address themes, musically and conceptually, that were taken up on Heart of My Own. The album is very listenable, with more complex arrangements and a greater variety of instruments backing up Bulat’s voice. Tall Tall Shadow certainly represents a more finished product than either of Bulat’s prior albums. It may be only a matter of taste, but I missed the immediacy, energy and rawness that make Heart of My Own such an exceptional album.
I now realize that this entry is getting a bit long with my still having several more artists to cover. So, I think it best to address this theme in two entries. Part II will follow next month.
As always, I welcome any comments you wish to make here. If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: [email protected]