Saturday, July 12, 2008

Continued: The Year in Review So Far: Folk Music

I got a little excited with the last post and it was longer than I thought. So I'll continue with the last three albums I intended to review.

The Mountain Goats - Heretic Pride (***1/2)

The Mountain Goats is led by John Darnielle; actually, he pretty much IS The Mountain Goats. However, "Heretic Pride" sounds much more like a full-band effort than some of his previous releases. Even classifying this release as folk might be a stretch, but I think it's probably the most appropriate genre.

Your enjoyment of the The Mountain Goats will probably rest on how much of Darnielle's voice you can stomach. It's high, it's nasely, it can be a little much. As much as I enjoy the music, I sometimes can only take a track or two at a time. Having said that, those who are willing to get past or get used to the vocals will be richly rewarded by some very strong storytelling and great melodies.

It's enthralling to hear songs like "Heretic Pride," which tells the story of a martyrdom from the martyrs perspective. As the subject is dragged through the streets and buried alive, his positive outlook and confidence in eternal justice fit the bouncy drum and bass line. Sounds a little morbid, I know, but it's great. Other songs tell stories of lake monsters, lost love, cults; it's a variety show. Not every song is a hit, and listening to the whole thing at one time gets a little grating, but there are some real gems to be found here.

Favorite Tracks: Heretic Pride, Tianchi Lake, San Bernardino

The Weepies - Hideaway (****)

If you're a sucker for male-female harmonies, like I am, you'll probably love The Weepies. Not to say that's all they have going for them, because it's not. The weepies are good lyricists, and they know their way around a great melody. Also, Deb's voice has a simple, child-like quality to it, which doesn't sound like a compliment, but it is. That's really what keeps them from being one of a dozen other folk duos out there.

I loved The Weepies' previous album, "Say I Am You," and I don't feel like Hideaway is quite up to the standard (which is quite high). It's probably a more even and consistent album, but that's partly what makes it a bit boring. I blame the production, mostly. It's a little too shimmery and shiny, which I found to be an unnecessary touch. The songs sometimes blend and a few tracks don't add much to the whole.

With that gripe out of the way, now I can say how much I really do enjoy listening to "Hideaway." It's not especially inventive or incredibly unique, but that isn't really the point. The point is that you will have a tough time NOT singing along by the second half of every song. And if you let the sweet lyrics and beautiful harmonies sink in, you might just find it difficult to stop listening.

Favorite Tracks: Orbiting, Antarctica, How You Survived The War

Sun Kil Moon - April (****)

Sun Kil Moon is more of a stage name for singer/songwriter Mark Kozelek than a band. I'm unfamiliar with the rest of his catalog, but apparently it's fairly lengthy; he's been around for a while and the critics generally like what he does. On his latest release, "April," Kozelek has created a beautiful album that, despite it's VERY long run time (11 tracks, 73 minutes!), is rarely boring and usually captivating.

You'll have to be in the right mood to listen to "April." It's a low-energy affair for the most part, with songs regularly stretching to seven or eight minutes, some of which are fairly repetitive. Luckily, Kozelek never runs out of things to say and throws in just enough musical twists that each track serves as more than just background music. His voice can take a little getting used to as it meanders around finger-picked guitar lines and soft percussion, but everything comes together for an interesting and intimate sound that demands the listener to pay attention. It's hard to say what exactly makes this album a success, which I think is what makes it worth a listen in the first place.

Favorite Tracks: The Light, Harper Road, Like the River

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The year in review so far: Folk Music

I love folk music and I think it's a shame that many people's understanding of this fantastic genre starts with Jack Johnson and ends with...Jack Johnson. There's so much more out there, but it can be hard to find.

So, in order to educate my readers (it sounds much more official than, "that one guy who accidentally came across this blog"), I am going to give some short review of the folk albums that I've purchased this year. All reviews are out of five stars.

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (*****)

It's hard to describe how amazing this album is, or exactly what it's so absolutely captivating, but it has become one of my favorites for the year. It's actually just one man, Justin Vernon(?), who apparently went to his father's cabin in Wisconsin and brought some guitars along for the ride. Who knew that isolation could be such a great muse?

The music is fairly simple, generally using just guitar and vocals. Vernon's double-tracked voice, often in falsetto, is his strongest weapon, breaking every heart within range even when you can't understand what exactly he's talking about. The songs are soft and quiet, but carry an emotional weight. This is what loneliness sounds like, and it's beautiful.

Favorite Tracks: Re: Stacks, Skinny Love, Lump Sum

Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (*****)

They hail from Seattle, but you might picture the members Fleet Foxes living in a cabin in the woods, making friends with the animals and wearing homemade clothes; yearning for a time when horses were the primary mode of transportation. I'm exaggerating, but it's rare to hear music this removed from popular culture. It sounds both as old as the hills, and like nothing you've heard before. Fleet Foxes have made some serious musical magic on their debut album.

The band, while still very young (the singer/songwriter is 21) have made a remarkably mature set of songs that channel the sounds of the Beach Boys, The Byrds, and CSNY (the list is incomplete, add your own references). Somehow, while Fleet Foxes remind me of so many familiar musical styles, they sound completely unique and just plain wonderful. The songwriting here focuses mostly on nature; painting pictures of tall grasses waiving and suns rising, while the gorgeous harmonies and beautiful music bring it all to life. This is one of the best albums of the year so far.

Favorite Tracks: White Winter Hymnal, Your Protector, He Doesn't Know Why

The Dodos - Visiter (****)

The Dodos are a drum/guitar duo very much the opposite of groups like The White Stripes, and The Black Keys. The make music frequently referred to as "freak folk," which I think is a fairly accurate genre title. I purchased "Visiter" (yes, that is spelled correctly) on a bit of a whim after hearing a few songs and hoping for the best; I was not disappointed. What I got was a surprising mix of well-crafted melodies and creative execution.

"Visiter" starts with with the lovely "Walking," lulling you with gently played guitar and banjo, before jumping into a more frantically paced set of tracks with pounding drums, acoustic guitar, and eager, sometimes shouted, vocals. The songs rarely go where you expect, pulling tricks on your ears and making your head spin. The melody holds everything together, so even when things get too over-the-top, you can still enjoy the ride. If you're looking for something a little on the experimental side of the folk genre, The Dodos might just hit the spot.

Favorite Tracks: Walking, Red and Purple, Winter

Whoa, that's a long post already. I'll give some brief reviews of last three albums in a couple days.

Friday, July 4, 2008

To post a post

Now that I've gone to all the work of creating a blog, I'm not 100% sure what to do with it. Will anyone want to read it? Will I want to write in it? What WILL I write? These questions, and more, remain a mystery. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion...

But seriously, I'm going to try to be good about writing in here, but I make no promises. I think this blog will be part music-related (hence the name) and part whatever-I-feel-like-writing-about...related. Those of you who know me (probably anyone who might actually read this) know that music consumes a great deal of my life, maybe too much. I also might stick some work-related topics in here, about online video and marketing, but I'm worried that this will be supremely boring for everyone except me. But hey, this is MY blog, right?

So with that, I'll leave my first entry and a wish for everyone to have a happy fourth of July!

Oh, and I'll leave with you a suggestion for some grrrrrrrrrrreat music...

Wolf Parade - At Mount Zoomer (bonus points - check out the album art work, terrible!)