Staff Picks: Music
It took two tries, but I’m hooked on the music of the Fruit Bats on their cd The Ruminant Band. I hear touches of Neil Young and country rock “Waiting on a Friend” era Rolling Stones accompanied by a prog rock-voiced lead singer.
I was thinking that I should mention something about what the songs are about, but I realize I have no idea. I mostly listen to music while I’m doing something else so it’s the music that affects me more than the words.
Check it out, maybe twice. It grows on you.
Fruit Bats “The Ruminant Band”
As a senior in high school I heard a cover of Madonna ’s “Like A Prayer” by the singer John Wesley Harding and was immediately hooked by his version of folk, or as he sometimes calls it “gangsta folk.” I immediately dived into Harding’s catalog and discovered a plethora of brilliant songs that were intelligent, witty, tender, historical and sardonic. In college, I was fortunate to see him live and experienced not just a concert, but what felt like a dialogue between Harding and me. I scraped up the money to purchase a concert shirt (I still have it) and that summer my future wife approached me while I was wearing it because she was also a fan.
Throughout the years I have traced the path of who I consider one of the most underrated musicians of the past 20 years. I have read the two fabulous novels he has written under his real name, Wesley Stace, and purchased every new CD. Imagine my surprise when he agreed to participate in our long running concert series and speak about his books the following night.
I encourage you to come to hear Wes speak about his music and books on February 17 and 18 . You will discover an extremely talented musician who has shared the stage with such greats as Bruce Springsteen and has been praised by literary critics for his writing. Space is limited at both FREE events, so come early.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
The Malian duo Amadou & Mariam have been in nearly constant rotation on my ipod and home stereo since I became aware of their music with the 2005 release of Dimanche a Bamako. I knew little of the couple’s inspiring story then, but responded immediately to the music they create. Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayokothan, who are both blind, met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, 30 years ago and have been making amazing and infectious music ever since. Already huge stars in West Africa and Europe; in recent years Amadou & Mariam have gained a large following in the indie rock world where they have become a show stealing staple at large festivals, which has helped spread their popularity across the glode. The duo’s latest title, Welcome to Mali, has received almost universal, and I would say very well deserved, critical acclaim and I can't stop listening to it. Even without the faintest clue as to what the lyrics of the songs are saying (the couple sings primarily in French), it is easy to hear why the global spread of Amadou & Mariam's hypnotic sound cannot be stopped.
Welcome to Mali
The other day while listening to online radio at last.fm, I heard the sweet voice of Jazmine Sullivan singing to a funky, rhythmic beat. I was tapping my foot before my brain engaged with what the lyrics actually were: "I bust the windows out your car..." I then had to laugh that a song so fun and upbeat to listen to was about getting even with a cheating boyfriend.
Then, I remembered a song I heard on a country radio station by Carrie Underwood called "Before He Cheats" (on her album Some Hearts). That one is all about knives and ball bats intended to help men stop their cheating ways! So, it seems this topic is universal enough that it spans genres of music from country to rhythm and blues.
(By the way, each of our branch libraries has a different collection of music. I found Sullivan's Fearless CD at our Eastwood Branch. Our online catalog has a special link for searching music selections. Go to the catalog then select "Music Search" on the black navigation bar near the top.)
Andrew Bird’s music is in many ways unremarkable, in the sense that he like so many other musicians working today, crafts quirky, folk-pop with lyrics that strike you as urbane and literary. What differentiates Bird’s sundry brand of high-indie folk within this excessively saturated genre, packed full of overhyped, one-dimensional signer songwriters, stems from his classical music training, specifically his employment of the violin and other non-traditional rock and roll instrumentation (whistling and glockenspiel e.g.). Such an eclectic background provides Bird’s music with so much more compositional depth and textural nuance than his contemporary peers. Sample some of Bird’s material in this video clip at Pitchfork Media. If you’re a fan, Bird is slated to play the Kalamazoo State Theater on October 18th.
Noble beast [sound recording]
Before well known groups like Wilco, Neko Case, Ryan Adams, and a bevy of other artists known for their fusing of folk, rock and country elements rose to popular attention in the late nineties, there was a band from Minnesota called The Jayhawks. Influenced by late sixties folk rock idols like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan, Minneapolis-based The Jayhawks formed in 1985. Led by two primary songwriters, Mark Olson and Gary Louris, The Jayhawks are still considered a bit of a cult band that never achieved the kind of commercial success that the above mentioned musicians have enjoyed. If you enjoy the intersection of rock, roots music and infectious hooks, then check out the Jayhawks’ influential discography. Officially on hiatus, the band known for influencing the sound of Alternative Country continues to perform on occasion as well as working on studio projects.
Watch a clip of their performance on Austin City Limits.
Rainy Day Music
Dead at 26 of an overdose of prescription drugs, British singer songwriter Nick Drake left behind a small yet influential body of acoustic songs layered with subtle pop and jazz sensibilities. Developing a fragile brand of spare and plaintive folk songs during the late 1960’s, Drake’s three albums went almost entirely unnoticed until an automobile commercial reintroduced a new generation to Drake’s quietly evocative songs in 2000. Drake’s music serves as an antecedent to the melancholic musings of contemporary artists like Belle and Sebastian, Devendra Banhart, Elliott Smith, and Iron and Wine. Pink Moon, his most realized album serves as a haunting reminder of what may have been had the young singer survived his bout with depression.
Way to blue [sound recording] : an introduction to Nick Drake
While I don’t often listen to country music, there are a few artists walking the fine line between country and rock who pique my interest. Neko Case is one of those artists; her music is an alternative rock-country hybrid that appeals to fans of both genres. I highly recommend her new album Middle Cyclone. If you’re a fan, you may want to check her out live at the Frederik Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids on July 16th.
Members of the Irish band Clannad have been making music individually and collectively since the mid-1970’s. Deeply rooted in traditional Irish and Celtic folk tradition, Clannad (Gaelic for “the family from Dore”) have expanded over the years to define the contemporary Irish genre. Purists will recall the aural simplicity of their early albums, which were very much in the vein of such contemporaries as Pentangle and Planxty. Their scope (and popularity) expanded greatly over the years, however, to include elements of worldbeat, jazz, adult contemporary, new age, pop, and progressive rock. U2 fans were introduced to Clannad during the mid-80’s when the haunting “Theme from Harry’s Game” was used as a concert pre-show opener. The same tune was later featured the film Patriot Games. The current popularity of Irish mega-shows like “Riverdance” (and Flatley’s spinnoff “Lord of the Dance”), Celtic Woman, and others owe much to Clannad’s groundbreaking work.
From the KPL collection, their Grammy Award winning Landmarks (1997) is typical of the latter-day Clannad style, combining elements of Irish folk with contemporary jazz and pop themes – think Sting meets Dire Straits somewhere in County Kerry. After nearly a decade of independent projects, the original members of Clannad reunited for a brief UK tour in 2008 and are reportedly working on a new album.
Apart from the collective Clannad, individual members have achieved a significant degree of success on their own. Lead singer Moya Brennan (Máire Ní Bhraonáin) has achieved a great deal of acclaim as a contemporary vocalist. Máire’s style very much mirrors the band, but further emphasizes her lush vocal harmonies. From the KPL catalog, Whisper to the Wild Water is a terrific place to start.
And in case Máire Brennan's voice and cover image seem somehow familiar, rest assured, there’s good reason. Though she left Clannad early on to pursue a solo career, Máire’s sister Enya (Eithne Ní Bhraonáin) should be no stranger to anyone who is a fan of contemporary Celtic music. KPL holds the majority of Enya’s solo works, including Paint the Sky with Stars, a compilation released in 1997. Call me old school, but for me, Watermark (1988) still remains the essential (quintessential?) Enya recording.
Bain sult as. (Enjoy!)
"Landmarks" by Clannad
Sometimes you listen for fun, other times you listen to learn. The Library of Congress recordings of Jelly Roll Morton offers a little bit of both – actually a LOT of both. Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax is an amazing eight disk set, which presents for the first time, the complete recordings (including the spoken word segments) fully restored, speed corrected and remastered, along with a series of interviews and performances from 1949 conducted again by Alan Lomax, exploring the roots of jazz with Morton’s contemporaries. Rounder has long been acclaimed for presenting traditional American music with great attention to detail, and this is certiainly no exception. With 128 tracks in all, the set includes lavish liner notes, photos, letters, notes and more in both printed and digital form.
Recorded in 1938, these recordings offer more than nine hours of music and conversation with one of the self-proclaimed inventors of “jazz, stomps and swing.” Aside from great spontaneous performances of early jazz, ragtime classics, and a little dose of “them dirty blues” (hence the parental advisory), Morton tells the stories behind many of these tunes, and describes the people who inspired them. In what is perhaps one of the first true oral histories, it’s a fascinating first-hand account of the evolution of popular music, told (and played) by someone who not only witnessed it, but actually lived and breathed it. The following dialog is typical and opens the set…
”When I was down on the Gulf Coast in nineteen-four, I missed going to the St. Louis Exposition to get in the piano contest, which was won by Alfred Wilson of New Orleans. I was very much disgusted because I thought I should have gone. I thought Tony Jackson was gonna be there, and of course that kind of frightened me. But I knew I could have taken Alfred Wilson. So then I decided that I would, uh, travel about different little spots. Of course I was down in Biloxi, Mississippi, during the time. I used to often freq— frequent the Flat Top, which was nothing but a old honky-tonk, where nothing but the blues were played. There was fellows around played the blues like Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete, Old Florida Sam, and Tricky Sam, and that bunch.” (excerpt from The Story of “I’m Alabama Bound”)
How fortunate we are to have documents such as this, which allow us to explore the roots of contemporary music and culture. It’s a fascinating set and well worth the time.
Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax