I wrote last June about the cult of greatness that mellow music often defies. Quiet dignity does not win Grammys or end up on year-end lists. (Or does it?)
Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is almost aggressively self-aware about its unassuming station. From the title to the tape hiss to the spare instrumentation, these 8 songs unfold in an uncomplicated way. It genuinely seems like a guy sat down with an acoustic guitar and set out to document his songs. The earnest, authentic feel calls to mind early Mountain Goats or early Iron & Wine: there’s nothing here but song, and song is all that is here.
Lest I become obsessed with form over function, the songs rule. The vocal melodies are memorable, and the songwriter shows a striking aptitude to convincingly elicit multiple moods out of the same guitar while still composing a coherent album. This is so rarely accomplished that even its best attempts are now maligned and under-appreciated. “Like a Rosie” is a pensive, walking-speed folky tune, while “Hoorayhooray” is a pleasant little pop tune. “Everything’s Been Said” foregrounds the vocals and lyrics in a stately and mature piece, while “Lost Highway” features an alt-country weariness. (The only bum moment is the blown-out album closer “Theme,” which leans a bit too heavily on the lo-fi.) None of these songs come off as appropriations or stiff attempts at form; they all feel like different moods of the same man.
Or, put otherwise: I love almost everything about this album.
It’s rare to find a singer/songwriter offering up this much quality songwriting in one release. Summer of Sam’s A-Okay is the sort of album that used to quietly make the rounds, passed from friend to friend. I don’t know if it works like that anymore (who was the last real groundswell singer/songwriter? Bon Iver? Iron & Wine?), but I hope it does for Summer of Sam’s sake. A-Okay is far too brilliant to languish unappreciated.
I’m heading back to hipster Christmas SXSW this year, freelancing for the Oklahoma Gazette with talented chap Matt Carney. I’m scouring through the announced bands so that I’m ready when it comes time to suit up make my schedule. Here’s some A’s and B’s that I hope to check out in Austin:
The Black and White Years play indie-rock with electro influences, but it’s their insightful lyrics that really hooked me. Okay, and the melodies.
The Barr Brothers. Josh Ritter’s gravitas + The Low Anthem’s transcendent beauty + Avett Brothers’ brotheriness. This is solid folk gold, people.
Adam and the Amethysts. Gleeful folky/calypso/whatevery goodness. Givers and Lord Huron should be all up on them as tourmates.
The American Secrets. You know this band as the FreeCreditScore.com Band. But did you know that all five are long-time indie-rock vets? And one of the members is in Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.? And that they write pretty brilliant songs when not composing ditties for commercials?
There will be oh so many more to come. I hope to post these weekly until SXSW.
The essays in Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs come off gleefully: even when discussing sordid or depressing material, there’s an underlying enthusiasm which I have chalked up to “WHOA, I GET PAID TO WRITE THIS!” His second collection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur, contains a larger number of memorable and insightful pieces than the first book, but it’s not as manic in its style. The excitement of the format has worn off, and now the arguments are foremost instead of the style. Eating the Dinosaur is better, but it’s not as much fun as the first one. This is very nearly the same situation that Cosmonauts find themselves in with The Demise of Daniel Raincourt.
The Cosmonauts’ previous EP The Disfiguration of Emily Malone established the central part of a story that the new one starts and finishes. Emily Malone is a hyperactive blast of My Chemical Romance-esque rock, complete with huge riffs and hooky vocal melodies. If it’s the middle of the story, then the whole tale is a crescendo to and decrescendo from the center: Daniel Raincourt is a more calculated, atmospheric take on Cosmonauts’ sound.
The five songs contained in this EP espouse songwriting that gives the instruments a great more breathing room. “The Slow Decay” has a preamble that goes on for 1:28; “Emily’s Surprise” is introduced by a forlorn guitar line and strings. The predominant emotion of the tunes is not adrenalized passion, but brooding.
The songs doesn’t stray too far from the previously established sound, but there’s a definite emotive shift that precludes the “BURYMEBURYMEBURYMEBURYME!” bravado of previous work. Even the upbeat Latin rhythms and sounds of “The Heritage Day Parade” manage to sound ominous (the roared vocals in this particular tune help, of course). This isn’t to say these songs don’t rock; it’s merely that the point of reference is different. These songs sound more like No Devolucion-era Thursday than MCR.
As a full album, the tunes of the previous EP would compliment these to complete a wide, satisfying range of moods. The idea of producing a concept album over three releases (two EPs and a vinyl) is the sort of ambition and forward-thinking that I love to see in bands; a) for even attempting a concept album, and b) for acknowledging the fact that distribution models are changing. This alone is enough to praise.
The songs deserve their props as well, especially the genre-morphing of “The Heritage Day Parade”; the growth in depth to Cosmonauts’ songwriting suggests a dedication to craft. Although I miss some of the ecstatic chord mashing of the previous EP, the change is good. Bands that change survive and thrive, while bands that stay static get tossed aside quicker than ever in this day and age. The Demise of Daniel Raincourt establishes Cosmonauts as a thoughtful, engaged rock band on both the musical and business fronts.
Bass saxophonist extraordinaire Colin Stetson’s New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was IC’s 2011 Album of the Year. When I informed Colin’s camp about this, they sent back an e-mail with the following list and no other explanation. (I added the links and album art.) Colin Stetson, everybody:
Never in my knowledge has there been a lasting example of a single piece of music framing the entirety of one’s life and career so completely as these recordings. They are perfect snapshots of a man and his vision, heart, and mind, both at the beginning and end of his all too short life and have always been precious to me.
When I was growing up, my father had only a few records in the house and most of them were Jimi Hendrix. It was no mystery that I found myself years later learning his solos, attempting to mimic them in every way, but on the saxophone. The translation of sound and technique across instruments is something that has always been exciting to me and in this case was absolutely formative to almost every aspect of my sound and musical approach.
Goodbye Babylon is a six cd set of american pre-war gospel music, transferred from the original vinyl, and it is a priceless archive of a singular time in history. The music captured in these recordings embodies all of the suffering and hope that has defined humanity for all our history and I feel is essential listening for understanding who we are,where we come from, and what we could do to make a better world for eachother.
This record absolutely destroyed me. On first listen, it was simultaneously a thrilling surprise and a familiar comfort, feeling like some sort of inevitable epiphany. Liturgy’s is the most exciting music I’ve heard in recent years and you can hear it’s influence already in my last EP, Those Who Didn’t Run.
Tom Waits’ music came over me like a conquering army, populating every inch of my mind. From first hearing Bone Machine I was in a fever for everything he had made and I didn’t come up for air until I had experienced it all.
Not just a scene from 8 Mile, hanging out in Detroit, driving a long, brown oldsmobile and listening to this record was how I used to roll back in the mid-90’s. There was something limitless to that town back then, like some vast old ruins. Like this record, It was hard and unapologetic and is forever etched in my memory.
When I first heard the song Icefall I was about 19 and had just started to scratch the surface of what the saxophone was capable of. Immediately, the sounds that comprise this song translated effortlessly onto the saxophone. The cd skipping clicks turning into key noise in my head, the frenetic post minimalist cascade of melody and repetition fell idiomatically perfect onto the instrument. It is perhaps still the single track that has had the most influence on my music.
This is a rare and patient beauty that has no equal in my mind. It is music that stops the machinations of the world and inhabits you so fully that if there is such a thing as “what it means to be human”, your understanding of it is deepened.
Nusrat throws the best parties out there. He’s put out what seems like hundreds of records, but this one was my first and maybe for that reason or maybe just because it’s awesome, it has always been my favorite.—Colin Stetson
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.