EVERYONE WHO thought last year’s Let England Shake from PJ Harvey the greatest thing since sliced bread, return to the table. Anais Mitchell‘s Young Man In America is the whole loaf. Multi-grain, with seeds.
It’s not only tastier and more filling, it doesn’t need a professional critic to explain what it is.
Young Man In America is, unreservedly, the best album in the last 10 or 20 years, and one of the best of all time.
Why? Because it is the musical equivalent of The Old Man And The Sea, the fishing story that isn’t; a piece of popular art that is simultaneously other worldly and set in present tense. Like parables from the Bible, there is always the simple story, the clear lesson and the greater meaning.
That is it’s genius. It is an album for Everyman. Each song is a gently flowing text of narrative, social observation and morality play set to soft and sweet folk. Undulating layers of guitar, violin, piano and mandolin relax, intrigue, stir and comfort as needed within the rhythm of the words.
It is brilliant on every level. A major literary and musical accomplishment that won’t get stuck up on the top shelf with your Satanic Verses and Let England Shake.
A weekly musical hobby is Readers Recommend at UK newspaper The Guardian‘s music site. Readers suggest songs on a topic, which this week is losers and failure. Seems a good opportunity for a wee playlist that’s hopefully a bit of a sampler for them without re-inforcing stereotypes too much.
I listened to 100+ new albums this year, and these are the ones that, to butcher Shania Twain, doth impress me much. I’ll keep my write-ups short to limit further wordicide and to let you listen to the playlists in peace. If you like the one or two songs I’ve selected, chances are you’ll like the album. I hope they bring you as much enjoyment as they have for me.
1. TOM RUSSELL - Mesabi If a magazine writer was assigned a feature on drugs in America, s/he would come back with a series of profiles and stories showing the vicious circles involved; how we define ourselves through the heroes we create, what can happen when our applause fades, how invasive drugs are in our communities, our families .. even our sports (Jai Alai). Most troubadours create representational characters but Russell doesn’t need the luxury of changing names and places to fit a rhyme scheme. The stories on Mesabi are all true – making Russell a singer-journalist – well-told and deftly punctuated by U.S.-Mexico border band Calexico. [16 UK dates announced for January]
2. OVER THE RHINE – The Long Surrender Well-written, deceptively simple songs about learning to deal with the varied kinds of grief life brings. Songs for the times, and for the ages. Earlier Tincanland post HERE.
3. GHOSTPOET - Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam Sounds like hip hop, feels like blues. Earlier Tincanland post HERE
4. DEEP DARK WOODS - The Place I Left Behind A masterpiece from the band I’ve spent the most time listening to the past few years. Think The Band meets Otis Redding meets Howling Wolf meets The Grateful Dead. ”We only listen to the good stuff,” says singer and lead writer Ryan Boldt (interview HERE), who is one of life’s natural, thoughtful wanderers. Three-part harmonies, Hammond organ, that Rickenbacher sound and Boldt’s low, slow voice mesh seamlessly for something you’ve never heard before. UK tour anon.
5. JOE LOVANO / US FIVE - Bird Songs Did Charlie Parker need any further interpreting or exploring? Until now, the answer appeared to be no. Forty minutes with rising bass star Esperanza Spalding is an added bonus.
6. BILL CALLAHAN - Apocalypse Oh to have the music vocabulary to write about this album. It is a slow-paced, mellow song circle with lots going on musically, but quietly. All is secondary to Callahan’s warm seductive voice, though, as he half-narrates, half-sings thoughts, observations and wry asides that might well be diary entries. It has the casual, somewhat idiosyncratic feel of that. Most ‘serious’ albums scream ‘PAY ATTENTION, THIS IS ART.’ Callahan has the confidence to speak quietly and still engage you.
7. CHARLES BRADLEY - No Time For Dreaming A hard question from a soul singer unsigned until his 60′s: Why is it so hard to make it in America? [if you are black, Hispanic, poor, female....] Earlier Tincanland post HERE.
8. GILLIAN WELCH - The Harrow & The Harvest Pairings that look good on paper often underwhelm the ears, much as star pairings often leave Wimbledon early. Not so with Welch and life+musical partner Dave Rawlings, and crediting this album solely to Welch is a case for the mislabelling police. It is the class of folk this year; as soulful, rootsy and delightful as Kate Wolf. And it is a credit to them both.
9. RICHARD BUCKNER - Our Blood Meticulously crafted and cared for genre-less songs. ”Decidedly cohesive, in turns lush and ghostly, with musical and lyrical themes that wind delightfully through the album to reward patient listeners.” Who said that? Oh, yeah, I did HERE (bonus video interview).
10. DECEMBERISTS - The King is Dead There has been much speculation about a sudden change of direction to jangly pop after a series of concept albums, but surely the band’s loyal fans – and they are loyal – know Colin Meloy isn’t going REM-lite (Peter Buck guests), Americana (Gillian Welch guests) or HITS radio (it is catchy stuff). No, here is a band stretching it’s wings a bit – and still producing one of the year’s best albums. Superior songs well-played; it rocks. There’s maybe a handful of bands out there who can make an album so good and make it seem so effortless.
HONOURABLE MENTIONS (no particular order) to: Diana Jones, Gregg Allman, Aaron Neville(links are to earlier posts & playlist), Amanda Shires, Deer Tick, Greencards, Sean Rowe, Black Joe Lewis, JP Soars, Betty Wright & The Roots, Glossary, Adam Cohen (one UK show), Feist, Marissa Nadler, Austin Lucas (UK dates announced), Richmond Fontaine.
FAVE NEWCOMERS: Gary Clark Jr, an Austin bluesman being passed the torch of Stevie Ray and Jimi, and Alabama Shakes, a rock band fronted by a soul singer [UK tour].
AND 4 BONUS SONGS: Natalie Zukerman – Little Bird, Marcia Ball – This Used To Be Paradise, Reverieme – Get To Know Me, and Centro-matic – All the Talkers
IT’S HARD NOT to believe in a higher power while listening to Aaron Neville sing. No earthly co-incidence of biology could be responsible for that angelic voice.
Neville’s latest, I Know I’ve Been Changed from earlier this year, is a collection of his favorite gospel songs. The words thus proclaim a love for Jesus Christ, but the music – a seemingly effortless bluesy gospel backing from his New Orleans peers – brings a sense of peace and hope that transcends a particular faith.
It is not, in other words, an album to shy away from because you don’t happen to like religion. It is an album that makes troubles go away. Credit God, credit Aaron Neville or just accept a well-meant gift.
The good news for organizers of last weekend’s Americana 10 one-day musical festival in Liverpool was that it sold out. The asterisk is, capacity was 250.
Americana, that indefinable mixture of country, blues, folk and indie, remains a niche genre in the UK. But it also remains a niche in America, Americana-uk founder Mark Whitfield notes. While there are now stadium-filling bands that call themselves Americana, the roots of roots music are hardly household names in the U.S. either.
They are revered in their genre, however, which in the UK centers around the close-knit volunteers behind Americana-uk, the country’s biggest and most influential americana web site. It launched in 2001 with a party and some bands in what became known as Americana 1, and on Nov 12 celebrated its 10th year with Americana 10, a showcase of 11 UK bands and three acclaimed Americans: Richard Buckner, Richmond Fontaine members Willy Vlautin and Dan Eccles and Mark Eitzel.
Regretfully, I could not attend all day. The word on the UK bands from people who had been there all day was highly complimentary. I can certainly recommend Case Hardin‘s new album; Every Dirty Mirror has been in my iPod for months. (They may seem to be aping an American country sound, but further listening will dispell that notion.)
The ‘big names’ also delivered as expected. All three are lauded as the pick of current American songwriting, and a good representation of the breadth of musical styles that can fall under the Americana umbrella. Buckner’s set was folky and rocking (see album review below), Eitzel’s felt like a Tom Waits show (see my Why I’m Bullshit video) and Vlautin’s boozy set (see my $87… video) gave a taste of the bad boy side.
As for·Americana in the UK, is it going strong? Will there be an Americana 20? And where’s the women and children? Hear what Americana-uk’s Whitfield has to say above.
A common reaction to the death of Jackie Leven this week was ”oh yeah. Sorta heard of him Always meant to give him a listen.” Richard Buckner’s career seems destined for the same result; he has spent a remarkable amount of time on the periphery of the music industry for a man so admired and respected by those who have met him or heard him.
He’s been labelled alt-country, folk, alt-rock, experimental…and you can hear elements of all that and more on his ninth and latest album, Our Blood. It is decidedly cohesive for all that; restrained, in turns lush and ghostly, with musical and lyrical themes that wind delightfully through the album to reward patient listeners.
Despite his lack of commericial success – his best selling album didn’t break the 30,000 mark – and a run of bad luck that delayed Our Blood for five years, he remains upbeat. There’s no bitterness in the man, and this is probably his most confidentally-sung album. He doesn’t push his voice, such a warm, lovely instrument at low volumes, as he sometimes has in the past.
There is fraility and bone-weary resignation in his writing – he puts music to prose – but also hope and joy, and it is each and all of these elements that make Our Blood one of the better records released this year regardless of genre. I’m not sure how to put this, but it feels absolutely like the perfect record for 2011.
But let’s let the man himself tell you about that. The video interview above was at the Nov. 12 Americana 10 music festival in Liverpool, where he needed no introduction.
There have been many impassioned anti-war songs written since Dylan was in his prime, but no one can touch Joe Pug. The ‘next Dylan’ comparisons don’t stop there, but it’s Remembrance Day/Veterans Day/etc so we’ll limit this playlist to his three best anti-war songs; my bet is the first two will be cited years from now by someone writing about ”the next Pug.”
NEIL YOUNG has always known that many of his best songs would never fully come to life in a studio, which is why his albums have routinely included a couple of live tracks. His latest release, A Treasure, loosely revisits his 1985 country album Old Ways through 10 live tracks culled from his mid-80′s tour with the International Harvesters.
No Neil Young collection is complete without the simple and soulful Old Ways. A Treasure is a welcome companion, with Neil perhaps conceding as he continues writing his own musical epitaph that he could have let loose a little more on parts of Old Ways.
THE BLUES community needs no introduction to Hans Theessink or Terry Evans; acclaimed alone, their one collaboration, Visions , is a collectable of stripped-down blues created by artists and recorded by craftsmen in the way Tincanland loves: come prepared, find a groove, and leave before a producer can overthink it (playlist above).
The pair met 20 years ago on the festival circuit but because Theessink lives in Vienna and Evans in L.A. they are rarely in the same place at the same time. They’ve recorded once – in a 2-day session – and perform together rarely. Sunday at a small arts and music festival in Harrison Hot Springs, B.C., they played together in North America for the first time. Afterwards they sat down with Tincanland for a chat, first about Visions and then about blues in general in 2011.
IN THE 60′s Joni Mitchell gave voice to a new branch of folk music that was more about her own feelings than other people’s activities. That confessional transformation is now being applied to hip hop by young London ‘rappers’ like Jamie T, Speech Debelle and now Ghostpoet, who’s debut Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam is styled more by Ian Dury meets talking blues than street corner rap (although it takes a few songs to find its way). The path paved by Mike Skinner’s (The Streets) tales of nightlife derring do is becoming well travelled, and welcomely widened.