Thursday, December 06, 2018

Record Roundup: Cornucopia Of Folk And Americana

I hate to feel that I’m keeping music from people, so before I start my Best Of 2018 series, here are quick takes on some excellent albums in the realms of folk and Americana. I think you’ll find some of them perfect for wintry nesting as the sun sets early and snow brushes the window panes. Others may be good for the family gatherings that can define this time of year.

Raoul Vignal - Oak Leaf It’s rare that you hear an album as assured and accomplished from a well-known artist. But when someone flying under the radar presents such an exquisite piece of work as Oak Leaf, it feels even more astonishing. On this second album by the French singer-songwriter, finger-picked guitars weave a spell alongside occasional shimmering vibes or a gentle sax. Drums tick away minimally in the background. Over it all is Vignal’s hushed voice delivering (in English) introspective confessions and musings. I see a danger of Vignal becoming a “musician’s musician” or a “best-kept secret.” It's up to you not to let that happen.

Olivia Chaney - Shelter Both the production (by Thomas Bartlett) and Chaney’s voice are so polished that I was at first turned off by this, her second album. But then it dawned on me that there was a flood of emotion being held back by a levee of glassy perfection. The key to this is her stunning version of O Solitude, a 300 year-old song by Henry Purcell. The feeling in it is baked into the lyrics and Purcell’s haunting melody, which is the standard she’s set for her own songs. Her lofty ambition is more than repaid, making for a special listening experience. I also wouldn’t complain if her next album was entirely Purcell, John Dowland and other centuries-old British luminaries. 

Ocean Music - Jorge Marco Turino, Beach Captain, Etc. I’ve written before about the wondrous music of Richard Aufrichtig, which he usually puts out as Ocean Music. While he has been fairly prolific in 2018, I have it on good authority that the best is yet to come. The first of these is a five song EP of originals, played solo with either piano or acoustic guitar. It’s a beautiful recording and his expansive songs are easy to get lost in. Beach Captain is mostly covers, some old, like Bird On A Wire, and some newer like Joanna Newsom’s Clam Crab Cockle Cowrie. He always goes deep, making them his own, no more so than in a mournful take on Someday by The Strokes. We’ve also been graced with shimmering, powerful version of Aufrichtig’s Ghost Song with a full band, the closest any recording has yet come to the Ocean Music live experience. Finally, we have two songs from a recent concert at Baby’s All Right - I was there so you can trust me when I say this is just a hint of how great it was. But it’s par for the course for Aufrichtig to drop hints; here’s hoping we get the full story in 2019. 

Phil Cook - People Are My Drug Spending time with Cook’s music is like feeling the sun on your face after a week of rain. This is especially true in concert, as a recent show at Bowery Ballroom (with Andy Jenkins opening!) proved yet again. He draws you in with his smile and seals the deal with his killer guitar and sweet voice. Those last two elements are present on this follow-up to 2015’s  Southland Mission, as well as an increased interest in gospel fervor. That means the album is plenty inspiring, even if the songwriting is a little less sharp. My only other quibble has to do with the inclusion of Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso on several songs - but that’s just because I don’t really like her voice or her band. I guess the divine Alexandra Sauser-Monnig wasn't available! If you feel differently, you will likely be thrilled with her contributions here. Either way, it’s a fine album and if you get a chance to see Cook on stage, don’t hesitate!

The Dead Tongues - Unsung Passage I first caught wind of Ryan Gustafson, who performs under this name, when he opened for and played with Phil Cook at Rough Trade. He quickly lodged in my mind as a master of all things stringed, as well as a fine singer and songwriter deep in the American vein. Now we have his most assured record yet, weaving a spell through a variety of country and folk-tinged textures and settings. To my ears he’s most effective when he pushes it furthest, as on the haunting Ebb And Flow or My Other, which, with its flutes and strings, is the first song that’s reminded me of Nico’s magisterial Chelsea Girl since I first heard that record. It’s fantastic, easily one of the most gorgeous songs of the year. But this whole record deserves your attention. If your give it that, you will likely become a fan of The Dead Tongues. 

John Calvin Abney - Coyote Go take a look at issue #116 of Off Your Radar for a kaleidoscopic look at Abney’s last album, Far Cries And Close Calls. Done? Good. Now, believe me when I say this one is even better. The production alone is worthy of note, burnished and warm, like an old oak table - and the songs are just as solid. Abney’s voice has a touch of Wings-era McCartney and he’s learned a few songwriting lessons from the former Fab as well. These aren't annoying earworms, though, but rather songs that employ sophisticated and unexpected chord changes in a relaxed and naturalistic fashion. This makes for songs that are memorable but also nourishing, repaying repeat and close listening. If Coyote doesn’t significantly expand Abney’s audience, I don’t know what will. 

Anna St. Louis - If Only There Was A River Every once in a while something in my Spotify Discover Weekly playlist will floor me, causing me to stop what I’m doing and make sure to find out all the W’s: who, what, when. Last week it was a song from St. Louis’s previous album, First Songs, something with hypnotic fingerpicking, beautiful singing and a shapely melody. That came out in 2017 and just as I was cursing Spotify and the world for keeping it from me, I noticed she had a new album out. This is a more fully produced affair, but thankfully Kyle Thomas and Kevin Morby have nurtured St. Louis’s talents rather than blanketing them in their own ideas. The songs are exquisite enough on their own - the task is not to ruin them and at that Morby and Thomas more than succeed. Numerophiles who own Catherine Howe's What A Beautiful Place may find a point of reference. This is an album people will be talking about - don’t wait around for an algorithm to deliver it to you.

Billy Joseph & The Army Of Love - You Know Which Way To Go This is my first cousin, OK, but that's not the only reason I've had his latest record on repeat. This is just an excellent collection of soulful rock & folk - and sometimes just plain soul in the Al Green and Robert Cray stylings of Second Time Around. The production is expansive and well-tailored to every song, including a very original take on Suspicious Minds. Stinging guitar leads (either by Nick Kirgo or Billy himself) are lavished on the album with an almost gustatory pleasure and the horns on Holiday Song are sublime. The lyrics can cut to the quick, as on that last song, as honest a depiction of holiday loneliness as has ever been written. "Bing Crosby's on the TV set, I can see him through the window of a furniture store," Billy sings in a line worthy of a scene from a Douglas Sirk classic - just one of the gems to be found on this impressive record. If you live in L.A., he's probably playing somewhere tonight so go out and see him do his thing.

Jeff Tweedy - Warm For the last few years (maybe since the excellent Sukierae) it’s been a bit of a toss up whether or not a Tweedy product is going to truly touch me or just be another expression of consummate competence to be admired and put away. While it’s early days yet with Warm, which is his first true solo album in a 25-year career, I’m pleased to report that I believe this is one of the former. As always, the songs are well-written, but the sense of intimacy, the feeling of someone hoping their hard-won truths will help get you through, is welcome. The musical settings are spare, sensitive - listen to the drumming on From Far Away - and lived-in, harkening back to John Wesley Harding or Plastic Ono Band. Tweedy’s mastery of the pithy lyric is also on full display, using a few words to carry heavy freight, like the chorus of the title track: “I don't believe in Heaven/I keep some heat inside/Like a red brick in the summer/Warm when the sun has died.” There’s enough wisdom on Warm to fill a book - and Tweedy has one of those, too! Listen, read, and and celebrate one of our master artists hitting a new peak. 

Don’t these albums sound like they would be fodder for a great playlist? Gotcha covered (except for Oak Leaf)! See below or click here. What else would you add?

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