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Staff Picks: Music

The Rough Guide Series

For those looking to expand their knowledge and appreciation of the wide range of musical traditions, styles and instrumentation found beyond the borders of the United States, look no further than our World music category and our collection of The Rough Guide series. Here is just a sampling of some of the titles that this unique series offers:

The Rough Guide to Klezmer
The Rough Guide to Fado
The Rough Guide to Bhangra
The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Brazil
The Rough Guide to Bollywood Disco
The Rough Guide to Congo Gold

And many more…

A Touching Tribute

I’ve never really gravitated toward the wispy folk pop of musician Sufjan Stevens. His previous ‘concept’ albums seemed a bit too precious, a little too cloying. But his newest album, Carrie & Lowell is a powerful work of melancholy that proves you can link creative expression with grief and not have it come off as an exercise in showy, self-absorption. Stevens has always made albums that are arranged around a particular narrative theme and his newest is no different. This time around, it’s personal, very personal and that's why it's the rawest, best work of his career. This is a heartfelt tribute to his mother who recently passed away from cancer. Beautiful, touching, lyrical, poignant are all words that will be used to describe this album that explores Stevens’ sometimes troubled relationship with his mother who suffered from mental illness.  One of the best of 2015.

Tony and Bill

Sometimes I'll judge an album by its cover. I know I shouldn't but when terrible hairdos, wide ties and 1970's polyester are involved, c'mon, can it really be worth listening to? Well, look beyond the corny cover photograph and you'll find a lot to like about this album which pairs two musical heavy weights together as they make their way through sorrowful laments and heart-felt longing. This album cobbles together two previous titles, The Tony Bennett and Bill Evans Album (1975) and 1977's Together Again. Bennett, at the time of the recordings, was not considered a "jazz singer" as much as troubadour of Broadway tunes and American Songbook Standards and these recordings certainly suggest that his enthusiasm for jazz was greater than his skill set. He did however correctly choose to marry his vocal strengths with a talented piano player who can more than hold his own when Bennett takes a breather from the mic. The results are excellent and jazz listeners will eat up this classic if they haven't heard it already.

Tallest Man On Earth

Honestly, I’m a bit exhausted with the saturated landscape of sensitive singer songwriters who wear their earnest blues and sorrows on their cowboy shirt sleeve. Most are decent if not completely unspectacular at crafting sometimes catchy tunes but whom nevertheless fail to breathe any kind of new life into the tired folk singer formula. But then comes along an album like Tallest Man on Earth’s Dark Bird Is Home and I’m humming along to a first world angst channeled by an earthy sneer that probably originated somewhere in the Delta about 80 years ago but now is sung by this Swedish lad and pretty much every other bourgeois troubadour obsessed with Bob Dylan. There’s nothing new here, nothing of a particularly terrible nature either. That’s both a problem and not really one at all I suppose.

Nina Simone

A new Netflix documentary titled What Happened, Miss Simone? has recently generated interest from film and music critics. Simone was a true original in every sense of the term. Her resume includes being a classically trained musician who attended Julliard, a vocal civil rights firebrand who wrote songs memorializing MLK and the young victims of a church bombing in Mississippi (Mississippi Goddamn), and an innovative Jazz vocalist who often mixed her classical training into her renditions of Jazz and Blues standards. She was also a complex human being who suffered from mental illness and butted heads with the music industry throughout much of her career. She’s widely considered one of the great musicians of the 20th century. Check out her music from the library’s music collection or stream the albums through Hoopla and Freegal.

Rainy Day Music from Ireland

Soak is the moniker used by the precocious talent Bridie Monds-Watson, a sensitive, singer songwriter from Derry, Ireland. Only a teenager, her debut album Before We Forgot How to Dream is a collection of moody folk/pop that can feel like a perfect soundtrack to a rainy day. The production of the album is crisp and polished with her thick Irish accent submerged within boundless reverb. As far as first albums go, Soak's gloomy portraits of teenage anxiety exhibits promise for this emerging artist.

Giving Dawes a Second Chance

Sometimes re-engaging the work of an artist, musician, or filmmaker that you had previously disliked can be a great exercise in reassessment. The first time I heard the Los Angeles area band Dawes, I was pretty bored with their brand of easy going, laid back folk rock that echoed the Laurel Canyon tradition that they seemed to be mining without much concern for originality. I also found the singer’s voice a wee bit unremarkable, diluted if you will. If you didn’t know otherwise, you might hear a Dawes album and think to yourself, how did I become transported back to a 1984 Jackson Browne concert? They make no apologies for their love of Mr. Browne’s middlebrow but thoughtful soft rock—in fact they embrace it in full.

Having said that, there’s just something about their very un-hip, back-to-basics sound that is comforting these days, especially now so as their music often comes at you like a late night soundtrack, windows down, driving into the dark toward the big lake. They’re not going to blow you away with the sophistication of their tunes but if you’re looking for some sensitive, sometimes catchy summertime rock and roll with decent lyrics, give them a shot. They’re newest album All Your Favorite Bands is available to stream through Hoopla but will also be here in compact disc format soon.

Best of 2015 (So far...)

I think it is never too early to start compiling your “Best of” list. This year is shaping up to be a pretty strong year for music. As we enter summer, here are my favorite five.

No Cities To Love by Sleater-Kinney– They are back. The original riot girls have released the record that everyone in my family enjoys. (Check out my previous post.)

Beat the Champ by The Mountain Goats – John Darnielle has produced the greatest record about professional wrestler ever. You would not think this would work but as you should expect, Darnielle infuses each track with the emotion that makes him an amazing talent.

Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens – By exploring the rocky relationship with his mother, Stevens has crafted a record that is reminiscent of 2005’s Illinoise. Be prepared for some raw emotional stuff.

Kindred by Passion Pit – Michael Angelakos has yet to release a weak record. I’m amazed at his ability to write about topics like his own bi-polar disorder against a strong, driving dance beat. Listeners will be surprised at how such up-tempo record contains so much pain and struggle.

Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes – Mercy! If you have yet to be blown away by the power of this band, then do yourself a favor and check them out. A combination of southern rock, soul and blues is excellent summer soundtrack.

The rest of the year looks to be just as amazing! Be sure to check out KPL’s stellar music collection or stream many of the above right now on Hoopla.

The Bark of Dr. Dog

Dr. Dog is just a straight up, rock solid group from Philadelphia whose catchy songs are rooted to the 1960’s but that nevertheless embody their time. They’re hardly an adventurous group and critics will point to their refusal to advance their sound but for the casual listener, they have created a respectful discography of sometimes raucous, sometimes tender tunes of soul, Motown and indie pop. One can hear in their tuneful melodies and tight harmonies the echo of The Beatles, Beach Boys, and The Band and that’s ok by me. Check out one of their best albums (Shame Shame) on Hoopla, the library’s streaming service.

Too Much Karaoke

Cover albums that attempt to remake your favorite music rarely produce results that could impress an aficionado/fan like yourself (how could they mess with perfection right?). I was cautiously optimistic when I learned that the music of Elliott Smith was going to be reinterpreted by Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield. I’ve always enjoyed the mixture of beauty and velocity of the Avett Brothers rollicking ballads and so I hoped for the best. Unfortunately, like most tribute albums, Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith suffers from Karaokeitis. The two talented singers mean well but the project would have been better served having chosen to cover the songs of someone less beloved and known. There are a couple of nice reinterpretations of Smith's forlorn repertoire but for the most part, they play it safe, rarely pushing the songs in a different direction than the original. If you had picked up the album never having heard of Elliott Smith, chances are you’d have found a great deal to like about the album. Few singer songwriters possess the indelible, legendary talent of the late troubadour and while it’s nice to see his name circulating again, possibly attracting some new devotees in the process, his singular voice really doesn't require a make-over, even one crafted from good intentions. Still, petty slights aside, this album is still worth checking out given the great singing and playing.