Saturday, November 12, 2011

Six bluegrass artists you should pay attention to

With the rise to prominence of bands like Mumford & Sons, people are paying more attention to bands that play good ole' acoustic instruments, like banjos, mandolins, resonators, etc.  It has yet to become the flavor of the week, so there's still time to hop on that bandwagon before it gets moving too fast.  With that in mind, here are a few projects worth checking out, in no particular order.

Abigail Washburn
Washburn is known for her mastery of the clawhammer technique of banjo playing.  Her music is not traditional bluegrass, but it is very traditional.  Her original backing band, The Sparrow Quartet, was assembled to put into music some of the ideas she came up with as a result of her time spent in China, and the Chinese cultural influence on the music is profound.

Washburn has two solo albums, Song of the Traveling Daughter (2005) and the superb City of Refuge (2011), and The Sparrow Quartet has The Sparrow Quartet EP (2006) and Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet (2008).

Check her out if you like rich, textured, traditional music.

My favorite tracks: "Divine Bell," "His Eye Is On The Sparrow," "Chains."

Trampled By Turtles
This Duluth quintet will play you right into a frenzy.  My personal theory is that they have to play as fast as they do in order to stay warm all the way up there in Northern Minnesota, but whatever the reason, they are blazing fast.  A Trampled By Turtles show has the energy of the most amped up metal or punk show, but with more melody and strictly acoustic instruments.  In the olden days, TxT was not as adrenaline-saturated, and used some electric guitars and a drum or two (check out their Trouble album for this version of the band), but since Duluth, it has been all acoustic, all the time.

These gentlemen have quite a unique thing going, and it is a lot of fun.  They have five studio albums: Songs From A Ghost Town (2004), Blue Sky and the Devil (2005), Trouble (2007), Duluth (2008), and Palomino (2010).

Check them out if you like your music blazing fast.

My favorite tracks: "Never Again," "The Darkness and The Light," "Wait So Long," "New Orleans"

Yonder Mountain String Band

Yonder Mountain String Band is a jambgrass quartet out of Nederland, Colorado.  One thing you don't do is listen to Yonder for their studio output.  A Yonder Mountain studio album only exists to tide you over until their next show, where the real entertainment happens.  Here you'll hear classic bluegrass standards, their own compositions, and extended jam sessions sometimes up to a half hour long.  You'll also get a different performance every night, and you'll probably hear some songs you've never heard before (I've never counted, but they have to have at least two hundred songs in their repertoire).  You'll hear excellent playing on every instrument, and maybe even some vocal improvisation from Mr. Jeff Austin (mandolin).  

Yonder Mountain String Band have five studio albums, Elevation (1999), Town By Town (2001), Old Hands (2003), Yonder Mountain String Band (2006), and The Show (2009), as well as five live albums, and about a billion live shows available for download.

Check them out if you like jams, live bands, and catchy hooks.

My favorite tracks: "Must've Had Your Reasons," "A Father's Arms", "Peace of Mind," "Out Of The Blue"

Crooked Still

Crooked Still are a traditional-yet-not band out of Boston, which plays a delicate flavor of bluegrass highlighted by Aiofe O'Donovan's textured voice and a somewhat prominent banjo.  I'm not sure what it is I like about this band; they're nothing groundbreaking about what they do.  Perhaps it is just the soothing quality of O'Donovan's voice.  At times the sound coming out of her mouth is barely more than a whisper.

Crooked Still have four studio albums: Hop High (2004), Shaken by a Low Sound (2006), Still Crooked (2008), and Some Strange Country (2010).  Each successive album seems to have more original compositions than the last, which is a positive trend (though I can't complain about a Rolling Stones cover).

Check them out if you like soft vocals, banjos, and delicate, unassuming arrangements.

Some songs I like include "Distress," "Sometimes In This Country," and the gospel tune "Calvary."

Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers are a progressive blueglass outfit currently based in New York City.  Led by Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek fame), they are breaking new ground in the area of progressive music with acoustic instruments with elements of classical composition and rock-influenced vocals.  Every member of this band is a virtuoso on his respective instrument, yet they don't overplay.

I've caught these guys live three times now (I even drove all the way up to Moab, UT to see them), and it's not nearly enough.  This is, in my mind, the most exciting thing happening in music right now.

Punch Brothers have two or three studio albums (depending on whether you count How to Grow A Woman From The Ground): How to Grow A Woman From The Ground (2006), Punch (2008), and Antifogmatic (2010).

Check them out if you like challenging music, with great harmony and musicianship.

My favorite songs include "You Are", "Don't Need No," "This Is The Song (Good Luck)", and "The Blind Leaving The Blind."

Yo Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, and Chris Thile

Yes, this one is brand new, and who knows if it will remain a thing going forward.  But they just made an album, and it is spectacular.  Here you have four musicians playing what sounds on the surface like bluegrass, but is really more a sort of a Celtic-jazz-grass thing.  I never thought I could be so entertained by an album that is nearly completely instrumental (there are two tracks with vocals by Aiofe O'Donovan and Chris Thile).

Here's hoping these guys go on tour, come to Phoenix, and continue to record music together.

They have just one album, The Goat Rodeo Sessions (2011), although Ma has collaborated with Meyer on a couple of albums, and Meyer with Thile on one or two. 

Check these guys out if you like instrumentals, strings, and chamber music.

Some songs I like include "Here or Heaven," "Where's My Bow?," and "Franz and the Eagle" (which features Edgar Meyer on piano).

Sunday, November 6, 2011

#1: Neil Young - Tonight's The Night

Release Year: 1975

If you were to compile a list of the top 10 Neil Young songs, would any of them be found on Tonight's The Night?  Doubtful.  Why, then, is it my favorite album ever?  I think it is actually partly because of that.

When Neil made this record, he was hot off his most successful record ever, Harvest.  He was at the height of popularity, but he was completely depressed.  He had lost two close friends to substance abuse, and he was dealing with substance abuse problems of his own.  This album captures that mood better than perhaps any other album ever made.  It is a clinic on tone.

As a display of incredible songwriting and musical talent, this album is not Neil's best.  There are certainly some excellent tracks, but it is so raw that Neil doesn't even bother to clean up his voice cracking or his completely missing notes.  But as a work of art, it is transcendent.

Standout tracks:
  • Lookout Joe
  • New Mama
  • Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown

Saturday, November 5, 2011

#2: Pain of Salvation - Remedy Lane

Release Year: 2002

Simply put, this album is perfect.  It has tightly structured songs, texture, dynamics, excellent melodies, and it is personal.  Here, Daniel Gildenlöw's melodramatic vocals shine, and his creativity and musicianship are in the forefront.

This is, in my mind, not just the greatest progressive metal album ever, but also the best metal album, and the best progressive rock album.

Since this album, Pain of Salvation hasn't made an album that can really be considered progressive metal.  Since Remedy Lane, each album seems to be an experiment with something new... Because once you've made a progressive metal album that can't be surpassed, why would you make another one?

Standout tracks:
  • A Trace of Blood
  • Ending Theme
  • Rope Ends
  • Waking Every God

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

#3: King Crimson - Islands

Release Year: 1971

Islands is regrettably considered by many critics to be King Crimson's worst album from the first era.  I, for the life of me, can't figure out how anyone can appreciate King Crimson, yet consider an album with "Formentera Lady", "Islands," and especially "Sailor's Tale" to be subpar.

This album is definitely different.  It has more flute, saxophone, and mellotron than electric guitar.  It has many delicate passages, and if you're listening to it while driving, you're going to miss half the music.

Islands also features Boz Burrell on vocals, one of my favorite King Crimson singers.  Burrell brought a dynamic to the band that fits this album like a glove; it's hard to imagine anybody else taking his place.

It really doesn't bother me that Islands is not very popular.  I myself didn't fully appreciate it until I heard it in surround sound.  This album is 40 years old, and nobody has dared make anything else like this.  Not even King Crimson.

Standout tracks:
  • Ladies of the Road
  • Sailor's Tale
  • Islands 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#4: Punch Brothers - Antifogmatic

Release Year: 2010

This is a controversial album for a top 5 pick: it is relatively unfamiliar to most, and, being just a year and a half old, has not withstood the test of time.  I didn't like it at first; it took me three or four listens before it really grabbed me... But once it did, it just started getting better and better.

Antifogmatic is an album not like any other.  It strictly adheres to a five-piece traditional bluegrass instrumentation, yet there is nothing traditional about it.  It was made by five of the most talented musicians on their respective instruments, yet it doesn't sound like they are overplaying.  It is musically diverse, with influences as broad as classical, bluegrass, and rock.

Punch Brothers are one of the most exciting bands in music right now.  There is nobody else who is doing what they are; they have managed to take a traditional music genre and move it into the next generation.

Standout tracks:
  • Don't Need No
  • You Are
  • This Is The Song (Good Luck)