This is a time of looking forward. To the familiar artists that will return. To the new artists that will be discovered. This year, like any other, comes with a wish list. Some albums will never materialise. Others will slightly disappoint. A few will remain life-long friends. Fingers crossed for the latter. In no particular order, apart from alphabetical, my 2018 wish list includes new releases by Alela Diane, Anäis Mitchell, Bill Callahan, Caitlin Harnett, Cat Power, East River Pipe, Field Report, First Aid Kit, Jacob Golden, Jenny Lewis, Jessica Pratt, Jim White, Jonathan Wilson, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Pearl Charles, Phosphorescent, Pinegrove, Richard Edwards, The Delines, Vetiver, Wooden Shjips, Wye Oak and the artist formerly known as Young Man.
And yet, there is a special place in the 2018 wish list for a new album by Kramies (pronunciation to be determined). With rumours going back at least a couple of decades, there are unconfirmed reports that an album is finally on its way and that Ireland had some part to play in it. We wait with fingers crossed, though we have learned not to hold our breath. The hard way. In the meantime, here’s a wonderful feature by Shon Cobbs and his Behind The Scenes colleagues from Denver. It features Kramies answering questions and sometimes asking them too. Plus a lot of laughing.
Happy New Year. Surely, 2017 can only be better than 2016. But who knows at the moment? What’s for sure is that music will always be a comfort. In that spirit, highly anticipated 2017 releases include confirmed albums from Elbow, Fleet Foxes, Foxygen, Grandaddy, Grizzly Bear, Horse Thief, Nadia Reid, Nikki Lane, Real Estate, Ryan Adams, The Shins, Son Volt, Strand of Oaks, and Sun Kil Moon. And then there’s always the H-LM wish list. This year, it includes Adrian Crowley, Alela Diane, Anaïs Mitchell, Bill Callahan, David Vandervelde, Feist, Field Report, Fionn Regan, First Aid Kit, Israel Nash, Jason Isbell, Jim White, Laura Veirs, Lewis & Clarke, Noah Gunderson, and Phosphorescent. Mind you, some of these artists were on my wish list this time last year. So, fingers are tightly crossed. Whatever happens, let’s start the new year with some good news. Word is in that Kramies is recording new demos. I can’t wait to hear the end result. In the meantime, here’s Kramies (feat. Jason Lytle) with ‘Clocks Were All Broken’.
Printer’s Son is the great new album by Kalispell, which is the brainchild of Shane Leonard, who is a member of Field Report, which is headed by Chris Porterfield, who used to be in DeYarmond Edison, which included Bon Iver, who often has track titles such as ‘Bracket, WI’, which is the same sort of title as ‘Gary, IN’, which can be found on Printer’s Son, which is the great new album by Kalispell, which is the brainchild of Shane Leonard, and so it goes on. There is indeed a lovely circularity to Shane Leonard’s wonderful new album. The instruments breathe life gently into the songs, which reveal their secrets slowly and organically, before coming to a gentle, but satisfying end. And then the instruments start up again. In the liner notes we’re told that Printer’s Son “eschews the stomp-clap boom-chuck trends of indie-folk”. Sure enough, at times percussion is almost verboten. Instead, over gentle banjos, woody acoustic guitars, and earthy bass, the melodies weave their way into your sub-consciousness. Highlights include ‘Beautiful Doll’ with its female vocal accompaniment, and the aforementioned ‘Gary, IN’, where the musical palette is just a little bit broader. There are similarities between Printer’s Son and Field Report’s most recent release, Marigolden. Both comprise songs with a wide-open sense of space that’s filled with beautiful melodies and personal lyrics. Marigolden was a highlight of 2014. Printer’s Son will surely figure likewise in 2016.
Part 2 of the year’s best albums. We’re counting down in reverse order.
First Aid Kit – Stay Gold
The Söderberg sisters have voices made in heaven. But is everything tickety-boo in their Swedish paradise on earth? Last time, the Lion Roared. This time, it expressed more than a little self doubt. Perhaps it was the influence of that Conor Oberst chap. More of him next time.
Miranda Lambert – Platinum
The songs were no more spontaneous than the cover photo. But the lyrics were genuinely amusing at times. And there was a greater confidence to the song-writing than before. Yes, it’s cheesy. Yes, it’s artificial. It’s the CMA’s best album of the year for goodness sake. But don’t hold that against it. Too much.
The Delines – Colfax
The Delines did not win anything at the CMAs. Late night stories of relationships gone bad long ago. Jobs that are barely worth the name. And all told against the background of a mournful guitar. This was Willy Vlautin in a different incarnation, but still at the top of his game.
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
Rosanne Cash took us on a very personal journey. Memories tinged with all sorts of emotions. But the highlight was the playing, which was, unsurprisingly, top notch. And ‘A Feather’s Not A Bird’ was one of the year’s great songs.
Field Report – Marigolden
Field Report tell serious stories. And they tell them very slowly and deliberately. All of which should be a real downer. But no. Chris Porterfield and Co. wrap the stories up in lovely melodies. And this time, they added a little hint of electronic jiggery-pokery to their more traditional Americana.
Field Report have a lugubrious quality to them. Über-lugubrious, you might even say. The basic format is traditional. Gentle Americana. Yet sometimes the songs are played so slow and the vowels are extended so far that you fear something might just break. It creates a nice tension as well as a huge mid-Western-style space in which tall tales can be told and at quite some length. ‘30,000 feet I am seated by a surgeon”, we hear on the title track. “Said he fixed the dicks of Shah’s sons”. A likely story. Highlights in this vein on their second album include ‘Pale Rider’, ‘Michelle’ and the lovely closer, ‘Enchantment’. The worry is that it could all get a little bit samey, but Field Report are not afraid to mix things up just enough. A Neil Young-inspired piano ballad here. Some female backing vocals there. The biggest change from last time, though, is the introduction of the merest hint of electronica. Taking a leaf out of the magnificent Matthew Houck’s book, there’s an undercurrent of inorganic burblery on a few of the tracks. It works really well, speeding things up on occasions and allowing ‘Wings’ to take flight and soar and ‘Cups and Cups’ to make you want to come back to the table and fill up with more. While these sounds point towards new horizons, for now Field Report are still roaming across pretty much the same musical territory as bands like Dawes and Fossil Collective. There’s plenty of room for everyone, but Field Report know how to carve out their own special space.
Here are my top 5 favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:
She can’t sing. The lyrics were phoned in by a bunch of hacks. There are a couple of really dire sub-X Factor numbers. And yet. This is a great album. ‘Off To The Races’ is utterly compelling throughout. The way the song swoops to a close for more than a minute is just sublime. There are moments on the title track, on ‘Carmen’, ‘Blue Jeans’ that transcend the usual pop schlock. They create a world. A humid, slightly seedy world. It’s not Lana’s world. Or mine. But, so what? It’s about the power of imagination. A total fabrication, but a wonderful example of where music can take you.
John Murry was the total antithesis of Lana Del Rey. This was the most real album of the year. Many of the songs come straight from Murry’s own experiences. They weren’t pretty. He nearly died of an overdose and he recounts the events in some detail. The results ought to be morbid, but they’re not. They’re magnificent. Flawless. Life-affirming. The sound was full. The pace often brisk. And it was clever. “What keeps me alive will kill me in the end”, he sings on ‘¿No te da ganas de reir, Sènor Malverde?’.
‘The strings sound good, Maybe add some flute”. Mr M had the lushness of It’s A Woman. The songs were slow. And there was room in them to let them utterly envelop you. But they were all tinged with sadness. Scrap that. They were thoroughly marinaded in it. The album was dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt. Maybe it took such a loss to produce one final great Lambchop record. If that was his last act, then he can surely rest in peace.
This album should not work. Apart from the fact that after nearly 30 years of writing songs, and at a furious pace, there should be nothing left in the tank, this was officially billed as a country rock opera. Well, maybe it did work precisely because Howe Gelb is such an experienced songwriter and also because it sounded nothing like what you might imagine a country rock opera would sound like. Eclectic. Individual. Simply unique.
Field Report are a serious proposition. It’s hard to imagine them having much fun, or even smiling. But, if that’s the price of such a wonderful listen, then so be it. The songs on this album lingered. They were given plenty of space in which to develop, evolve. Nothing was hurried. Sure, the lyrics were a little pretentious at times. But these were genuine, organic, hand-crafted songs.
In 2006 DeYarmond Edison released an album that was noteworthy only for the fact that there were no capital letters in any of their song titles. They soon split. Musical differences were cited. One of its members retreated to a remote cabin and returned with an album called For Emma, Forever Ago. It was a hit. Others formed a band called Megafaun and started to experiment with sounds. Recently, they have experimented rather less and have become much more pleasant to listen to. Now, the remaining member of DeYarmond Edison, Chris Porterfield, has re-emerged with a new album. It’s magnificent. The foundations of Field Report (geddit?) are straightforward enough – strummed guitars, piano, some synths, percussion, and vocals. But what defines the album is the immense sense of space in the songs. The opening track sets the scene, taking off slowly, swooping around, and landing softly. “This is the one”, Porterfield sings, “in which I miraculously pulled out, Of a free-fall dive over Fergus Falls, Minnesota”. The whole album is full of long, languorous vowels. “You and me were not built to be”, he sings on ‘Evergreen’, with the last syllable extending to over 10 glorious seconds. There are plenty of stories, but they’re always told unhurriedly. ‘Chico The American’ is a tale of hard drink being taken, but it’s no quick visit to the bar. It’s a month-long, gin-soaked bender. On albums like this, there’s always a thin line between space and just plain slow. On some of their recent live sessions, Field Report have passed that line, stretching some of the songs so thin that they break. Here, they hold together perfectly. It’s invidious to compare Field Report with Bon Iver. Justin Vernon’s first album was unique. He sounded so different. Porterfield and Field Report are not unique. They sound much more conventional. But what they have created in this space is quite beautiful, and in the long run that’s what matters.