Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Uprooted Album Revue 7/5/2011

 The Uprooted Album Revue highlights new releases, reissues, and my own latest discoveries. 

As a full-time teacher who balances music writing and playing the mandolin on top of employment responsibilities, sometimes it can all just get a little overwhelming. I have been fortunate enough to share a wealth of exciting artist interviews during the last few months time, but sadly, writing album reviews and posting news features have just gotten away from me during the conclusion of the school year.

So with summer officially here, and with school being out until August, I’ve been able to devote myself to picking back up where I left off on music writing as well as increasing my studies of the mandolin (with the goal of feeling confident enough to attend one of the many excellent local jams in NYC/ Brooklyn before September arrives).

The first bit of business I have chosen to settle is to return with an overdue installment of my Uprooted Album Revue, since the last one was posted way back on May 9th. A lot has been written about some of these releases during the absence of my last crop of album reviews, so I’ve taken the expected overlap into account.

Rather than cover all of my bases for the sake of staying current and thorough, I have decided to use this edition of Uprooted Album Revue to discuss the recent releases that have been in my steady rotation. This batch of records includes some of the more popularly discussed albums as of late, along with others that have not received the same extensive press exposure.

Gillian Welch
The Harrow & The Harvest

Without question, this is a record definitely worth picking up (if you do not already have it!). A lot has been said about how long it’s taken Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings to return with a new studio offering (under “Gillian Welch”) since their last one, Soul Journey. The excellent Dave Rawlings Machine album, A Friend of a Friend, excited fans as much as it increased anticipation for a new “Gillian” album.

Well, the wait is over. The Harrow & The Harvest makes a great companion to all of the duo’s recorded work, and adds another uniquely singular chapter to their discography. As far as calling it their “best album ever”, as many fans and critics have boldly been doing, I’ve decided to not go quite so far. Only time will tell regarding any kind of consensus on this. It’s been a long wait since Soul Journey, and for fans that picked that one up when it was originally released (myself included), it has felt a like a long wait for a follow-up. But when it comes to great art, it’s a process. And sometimes, it simply just takes as long as it takes.

I for one am glad that THIS is the record that has arrived from Welch and Rawlings. It may have taken close to 10 years, but now that it is here, I will say that this album, as much as each of their previous recordings, absolutely maintains the timelessness, heartfelt sincerity, and virtuosic mastery that fans cherish. The notion of declaring one of Gillian & Dave’s albums "the best" over another could not be more of an individualistic preference, especially with performers of this caliber. But that said, I believe that you can’t blame anybody for being overly-excited for these new recordings, especially since its release was paired with the news of an extensive upcoming tour.

Bottom line: The Harrow & The Harvest is essential listening.

Black Swans
Don’t Blame The Stars

The Columbus, Ohio-based band, The Black Swans' have recently released their stellar new album, Don't Blame The Stars (Misra Records). Singer/ guitarist Jerry DeCicca described the band’s album as "concept album about being agnostic and placing your faith in music and friendship instead of a higher power, with nods to R&B, country, and rock and name-checking".

The record covers DeCicca’s love for listening to records as well as making them. With nods to some of his musical heroes, favorite TV shows, and autobiographical narratives, Mr. DeCCicca and his band casually deliver an album that is filled with songs that will make you smile and keep your feet and fingers tapping. It’s a fun, smart, funny, and sincere album that references rock, country, and DIY aesthetics.

Don't Blame The Stars is one not to be missed, and is already placed on my own short list of the best releases of 2011. You owe it to yourself to give it a listen- and to continue to spread the word to your friends. If you're interested, you can also read my recent interview with Jerry DeCicca here.

Frank Fairfield
Out In The Open West
(Tompkins Square)

Frank Fairfield may live in Los Angeles, but his heart and soul belong to the mountains, dusty roads, and open lands of another time. He was discovered on the streets, picked to open for the Fleet Foxes, and put out an excellent debut album on Tompkins Square Records, filled with 11 traditional tunes. Since his first record, he has toured extensively around the globe and is even the subject of a new documentary film.

Out In The Open West is Mr. Fairfield’s second full-length release, and it showcases a whole new dimension to the man’s work, most notably, as a songwriter. His debut was filled with traditional tunes, and without a doubt proved his genuine love for the material, as well as his masterful versatility as a multi-instrumentalist of guitar, banjo, and fiddle.

For Out In The Open West, Mr. Fairfield delivers up a handful of traditional tunes, but fills the bulk of the set with his own original compositions. Mr. Fairfield mostly went it alone on his debut, but here he brings in some heavyweight collaborators such as guitarist Tom Marion, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Willie Watson. With the added personal, the scope of Mr. Fairfield’s appeal just increases, and becomes irresistible listening.

I would recommend Out In The Open West to fans of Doc Watson and Old Crow Medicine Show, as well as to anyone who owns records released by Smithsonian Folkways and enjoys the field recordings of Alan Lomax. We are very fortunate to have Frank Fairfield in our midst. Get this record, go see him perform, and keep this music alive.

Old Calf
Borrow A Horse
(No Quarter)

Ned Oldham, brother of Will Oldham (aka Bonnie Prince Billy), is a multi-talented artist that is followed closely by longtime devoted fans and critics alike. Mr. Oldham has recorded and collaborated with his brother (both as Bonnie Prince Billy and Palace Music) on several albums, has released his own solo material, and has delivered a rewarding collection of long-players with his previous band, Anomoanon.

According to a recent interview I conducted with Ned Oldham, Old Calf began with Mr. Oldham pairing up with accordionist Matty Metcalfe in Charlottesville Virginia last summer. The duo quickly expanded with the inclusion of Michael Clem and Brian Caputo, and along with guest appearances by Alex Caton, Sarah White, and Dave Heumann, the band produced their excellent new album, Borrow A Horse.

Borrow A Horse, which has been released by No Quarter, is a rewarding listen that conjures both southern myth as well as genuine hospitable storytelling. It is an album that invites you to come inside, and one that you find yourself digging a little deeper into with each listen. I'd recommend Borrow A Horse to fans of Ned and Will's previous work, as well as for newcomers to Ned Oldham's work. It's a collection filled with casually rural arrangements that welcome, sway, and ease you along throughout its carefully crafted song cycle.

Sarah Jarosz
Follow Me Down
(Sugar Hill)

Multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz has upped her ante with her sophomore full length, Follow Me Down. Her first album, Songs Up In Her Head, marked an arrival of a young prodigious songwriter, joined by a virtual honor roll of bluegrass and roots musicians. Ms. Jarosz matched her good company with an impressive range of virtuosity and songwriting, resulting in a memorable and lasting record that is hard to toss aside, and almost too easy to replay.

Follow Me Down continues the trend of pairing great songwriting with masterful performances, however this time out, the studio itself seems to have played a much larger role in crafting the record. Sonically, Follow Me Down is a much more nuanced, layered, and lush sounding effort than it’s earthier predecessor. Side by side, each album contrasts the other, but it is easy to pick out the threads that connect the two.

One of the things I enjoy most about Ms. Jarosz’s albums is her willingness to include covers among her own originals for her releases. Sure, a lot of artists perform covers live, but I find it refreshing and rare when I stumble on a familiar tune in a new context.

Keeping with her passion for interpreting the work of some of her favorite artists on her releases, Ms. Jarosz brings some noteworthy covers to the table this time around, including Bob Dylan’s “Ring The Bells” and Radiohead’s “The Tourist”, which features Chris Thile and Punch Brothers.

For those interested readers, I recently interviewed Sarah regarding Follow Me Down here, as well as last year before she released The New 45 EP here.

Neil Young
A Treasure

It’s hard to deny that the 80’s were not easy for Neil Young, or Neil Young fans. But A Treasure, which is an album largely composed of unearthed live recordings from his non album-supporting tour efforts, captured between 1984-85, is exactly what it’s title implies.

The live album collects twelve songs in all, five of which are previously unreleased, and all performed by Mr. Young along with arguably, some of the best country musicians of all time: Ben Keith (steel/ slide guitars), Rufus Thibodeaux (fiddle), Spooner Oldham (piano), Hargus “Pig” Robbins (piano), Tim Drummond (bass), Joe Allen (bass), Anthony Crawford (mandolin/ guitars), and Karl Himmel (drums), as well as many others.

A Treasure is the latest in a string of Neil Young's high quality archival releases to surface, and stands as one of the most unique. I personally place A Treasure alongside the stellar Live at Massey Hall as the best of these releases. A Treasure stands apart because it captures Young during a span of his career that is mostly remembered for his battling with record company executives, while artistically, pursuing a traditional country sound.

As a live document, it is a singular and equally rewarding addition to Mr. Young’s other live releases, namely Live Rust, Unplugged, Weld, and Live At Massey Hall. Sure, comparisons can be made between this release and such studio recordings as After The Gold Rush, Harvest, and Harvest Moon, but A Treasure also connects strongly to Young’s much-overlooked country studio album Old Ways. A Treasure is an unearthed gem that fits surprisingly well among this icon’s discography, and is another example of an artist following his muse, wherever it takes him.

Nothing Is Wrong
(ATO/ Red)

I’m late to the Dawes party. I got turned onto these guys after picking up the self-titled Middle Brother album (which features member of Deer Tick, Dawes, and The Delta Spirit). Deer Tick has never really grabbed me enough to consistently revisit their albums, but the Middle Brother record was a different story. That has been an album I have really enjoyed and kept me craving some more.

So based on my affinity for that album, I took a chance and gave the last Dawes LP, North Hills, a spin. I just could not stop listening to it. I was sold on these guys instantly. Needless to say, Nothing Is Wrong is now sitting proudly on my shelf besides their last effort and the Middle Brother album.

Although I discovered these guys in between albums, I have been going back and forth between these two albums, enjoying them as a pair. Nothing Is Wrong dropped just in time to become a classic “summer album” for 2011, but I can easily see myself playing this one when the leaves brown and begin to fall, as well as throughout many more seasons to come and go.

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