Timid, The Brave – Firesale
Timid, the Brave is the artist formerly known as Tim Selles. Straight out of Hamilton, Ontario, he has a new record, Firesale, out tomorrow. It’s early days, but it’s perhaps my favourite release of the year so far. It’s thoughtful, but tuneful. Spare, but not cold. Quiet, but not insipid. There’s the haunting sound of pedal steel. Some achingly beautiful strings. And melodies that insinuate their way into your very consciousness. These are songs that, according to Timid himself, capture that moment when “you muster up the courage to step back outside with fresh perspective”. Well, I’m glad to be back out there and in the company of such great music. Sometimes you luck out. Firesale found its way to me ahead of time and it’s been on repeat ever since. Did I mention it’s out tomorrow and that you can get it here?
Strand of Oaks – Hard Love
Strand of Oaks’ previous album, HEAL, marked the final instalment of Timothy Showalter’s transformation from the shy indie folk artist of Pope Kildragon to the muscular, tattooed, angry-sounding noise maker of ‘Goshen ’97’. In fact, the change in style was so profound that it raised the inevitable question ‘what could possibly come next?’ A ten-track homage to Mickey Rourke? A concept album about WWF? ‘Hard Love’ provides the answer. In some respects, things have been toned down a little. There’s a quiet piano-led ballad, ‘Cry’. And on songs such as ‘Salt Brothers’, there’s a reminder of the distinctively fragile quality that Showalter’s voice can have, something which had gotten a little lost over time. That’s not to say there isn’t a fearsome aspect to some of the sounds. ‘Everything’ being a case in point. But this time the energy tends to be channeled to a Springsteen-like end, with ‘Radio Kids’ sounding like it was born in the early 1980s, while ‘On The Hill’ is a truly great workout. With Hard Love Timothy Showalter has found a sweet spot between the fey indie artist at an open mic night in a university town and the hard-living, loud-playing ’70s rock ‘n’ roll star. For the listener, it’s a good place to be. Hard Love it might be, but it’s his best album yet.
Dr. Dog – Abandoned Mansion
Last year, Dr. Dog released a reworked version of their very first album, The Psychedelic Swamp. It was bright, playful, and, well, full on swamptastic. This year (technically, the end of last year), the world’s most well educated musical canines have dropped a very different sort of album. There’s a clue in the title. Abandoned Mansion stands high and proud, but there’s an unmistakably darker and generally more foreboding atmosphere. “You search through the dark of your deserted heart, To return to the splendor again.” But it’s not all cobwebbed ceilings and dusty drapes. For every slightly disconcerting image, there’s a wonderfully uplifting hook. “I’m on both sides of the line, Bitter on the fruit and sweet on the rind”. In fact, for an album that evokes Miss Havisham, this is a surprisingly sing-along proposition. If the refrain from the seemingly mournful title track doesn’t turn around in your head when you’re trying to get to sleep at night, then it’s possible you’ve never watched Sunset Boulevard. Could it be that after nearly 20 years of already excellent music making the Dog Drs. have produced their best album ever? It sure is. Abandoned Mansion isn’t just worth a visit. It should an essential stop on the magical Dr. Dog mystery tour.
Wives of Farmers – Excellent Happiness Forever
Thanks to Wives of Farmers who directed me towards their new album. It’s well worth checking out. There’s a certain David Gedge quality to some of the vocals and an insistent guitar sound that’s immediately appealing. Standout tracks are perhaps ‘Gruff’ and ‘Modern Song’. In Helen Weeks, WoF share a band member with The Equatorial Group, who appeared on these very pages not so very long ago. Her vocals are a nice foil to the lead on a number of tracks. Excellent Happiness Forever is available at the appropriate Bandcamp page.
Her Harbour – Go Gently Into the Night
Thanks to everyone who has sent me their music in the last few weeks. I listen to everything and I’ll post some other nuggets in the near future. In the meantime, one album that has really stood out is the new release by Gabrielle Giguère, who records as Her Harbour. It’s one of the most minimalist albums that I’ve heard in a long time. Wintry-sounding. It’s perfect for the northern hemisphere season that’s in it. More than that, set against the backdrop of death, hence the allusion in the title, these are songs that weigh heavily on the psyche. Happily, though, some of them come with the most beautiful melodies attached. My favourites, if that’s even an appropriate term in this context, are ‘Chime and Knell’ and ‘Memento Mori’. The album is available from 3 February from Her Harbour’s Bandcamp site. Highly recommended.
Tift Merritt – Stitch of the World
Tift Merritt has been on the road with Hiss Golden Messenger. And it shows. And in a good way. On her fine new album, there’s more than a hint of that soulful, comforting, MC Taylor sound. It’s particularly evident in the first two tracks, ‘Dusty Old Road’, and ‘Heartache Is An Uphill Climb’. The upshot is that if ever you’ve longed for a band called Tift Golden Messenger, then you’re in luck. Mostly, though, there are variations on more typical Tift Merritt themes. ‘My Boat’ is the quintessential singer-songwriter composition. An acoustic-led story that turns on the lyrics in the very last line. It’s a classic Janis Ian trope. The title track itself would be at home on any previous Tift Merritt album. But it’s not all. The final three tracks all feature Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame. His input is recognisable, but nonetheless restrained. These are still Tift Merritt tracks. Yet the two artists complement each other beautifully. Indeed, the combination is perhaps more rewarding even than Beam’s recent full-length collaboration with Jesca Hoop. It’s been five years since Tift Merritt was Traveling Alone. Stitch of the World shows that she’s found some new friends and influences along the way. And good ones at that.
Pinegrove – Elsewhere
The mighty Pinegrove have just made available a live album. Most of the tracks come from their award-winning release, Cardinal. Well, it should have been an award-winning anyway. With songs full of wistful lyrics. “I keep going over it over and over, My steps iterate my shame, How come every outcome’s such a comedown?”. And all played in a wonderfully raggedy, sometimes slightly punky style. It was one of last year’s highlights. Whereas Cardinal included a little banjo and even the plaintive sound of old-time pedal steel, Elsewhere features no fewer than three guitars and the ripple of keyboards. So, there’s a nice variation on some familiar Pinegrove favourites. And recorded with hundreds of gigs already behind them, the wonderfully raggedy playing is down pat. For those who, like Pinegrove, experience the world as a sequence of “solipsistic moods”, both Cardinal and Elsewhere are both highly recommended. As a bonus, all the proceeds from sales at their bandcamp site are currently going to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Flo Morrissey/Matthew E. White – Gentlewoman, Ruby Man
There’s a basic formula for a great cover version. It’s when a well-known song is so totally transformed that it’s turned into what amounts to a new composition. Bob Dylan and Neil Young are masters at doing this to their own songs. Here, Flo Morrissey and Matthew E. White have a go with other people’s. Of course, what counts as a well-known song is highly personal. If you’re of a certain age, then you’re probably more familiar with Tales From Topographic Oceans than Frank Ocean. In which case, the cover of ‘Thinking Bout You’ here might sound like an original song in the first place. And a good one too. There’s a similar formula for a disappointing cover version. It’s when a song is so well known that no matter what’s done to it you can’t get the original out of your head. And there are some culprits here in that regard. The cover of ‘Grease’ can’t dispel the iconic image of tight black leather trousers and slick-backed hair. ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Sunday Morning’ elicit an equivalent reaction, though without the thought of the leather trousers. On Gentlewoman, Ruby Man, the best moments are when the signature late-night, ’70s, white soul, Spacebomb sound creates something a little unexpected. Top of the list is the closing track, ‘Govindam’, a traditional Hindu song that came to a certain prominence in 1971 on an album that was produced by George Harrison. Here, the original influences are clear, but the track has been Spacebombed just enough to make it sound like a fresh composition. And that’s the secret of a great cover version.
Angel Olsen’s MY WOMAN was one of top 5 albums from last year. Here’s one of its fine tracks, ‘Give It Up’, performed in a pew and filmed by NPR. Just click on the photo below.
Courtesy of NoiseTrade, a sampler found its way into my in-box this morning. It was by a band called Steep Ravine. They’re from California and they sound like it too. And in a really good way with their mix of folk, rock, and newgrass. Turns out that their third album has just reached its funding target over at PledgeMusic. So, with luck, we’ll hear some new music from this later in the year. In the meantime, the sampler is available at a leave-you-own-tip rate over at NoiseTrade. And here they are recording a session at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone studios in Oakland.