Monthly Archives: July 2020

Dogwood Tales

I mentioned a few weeks back that I’ve been making mix CDs from purchases made during Bandcamp’s fee-free Friday events. Part of the intent there is to contain the chaos — to retrospectively slow down a blur of new albums, rarities compilations, and live sets. It’s also part commemoration, since these Fridays feel meaningful to me. I love the idea that everyone’s stopping what they’re doing to acknowledge the value of music. We’ve been criminally undervaluing songs since file sharing took hold, and I’m genuinely hopeful that what Bandcamp is doing can evolve into a framework for sustainably funneling funds to musicians who so clearly deserve it.

It’s ironic, given that I’m buying mp3s like I haven’t in years, but my fetish for physical media has flared up in the process. I made my share of mix CDs during and after college, when iPods weren’t yet commonplace, but I never put much effort into the track lists, aside from writing on the discs themselves. Now I’m tearing pages out of magazines, borrowing my daughter’s glue stick, improvising insert design schemes, and hand-numbering to create limited runs nobody even knows about. I’m typically on the other end of that dynamic as a collector, so it’s fun to be the one writing “# ___ of ___” and deciding whether to make, like, five copies or four.

The first of these mixes was called “Still Here” and began with the poised and poignant David Shultz tune of the same name. (I ended up writing about it for the Auricular.) The title was also a nod to the fact that, even in May, it felt like we’d been cooped up in our houses for ages. Hilarious, in retrospect, though it doesn’t exactly inspire laughter. I kept that theme going by taking the title of my second mix from the fantastic calvin presents/Sam Reed collaboration “here,” which was released on Juneteenth. While counterintuitive, the fact that “here” follows “Still Here” in this little series makes me smile. Reminds me of that scene in Empire Records where Ethan Embry’s character describes naming his band after a misspelling of his own first name. “Always play with their minds.”

The third and most recent installment is called “Hard to Be Anywhere,” and it opens with a track from Closest Thing to Heaven, the new LP from Harrisonburg-based Americana/country outfit Dogwood Tales. It’s an incredibly moving song, and it’s no exaggeration to say I needed to hear it right now. The start of the chorus certainly hits home, no pun intended:

It’s hard to be in the right place for the right thing all the time

The more connected we all are electronically, the more it can feel like you’re never where you’re supposed to be. (Quick pause to acknowledge Jason Isbell’s own crystallization of that idea.) Even now, at a time when my family is swimming in, ahem, quality time, that sense of togetherness is short-circuited by the strange shape of this situation — limitations on where you can go and what you can do, daily risk assessment, constant stress, and the fortunate-yet-crazy-making task of folding parenting into working from home. At any given moment, it’s hard to know whether “the right place” is at my laptop, being the work version of myself, or in our backyard, pushing the kids on the saucer-shaped swing I hung from a sturdy branch of our maple tree near the start of this mess.

Then again, the “hard” part isn’t always about prioritization. Sometimes you know what the right thing to do is, but following through is what’s difficult.

Of the members of our household above the age of three, I’m probably the most content with settling into a groove around the house, carving ever-deeper ruts in the paths between my desk, the fridge, the downstairs bathroom, the couch, and the sink. (It can’t be coincidental that I’ve formed a close connection with the albums that comprise Neil Young’s “Ditch Trilogy,” as well as his recently released lost Ditch-era gem Homegrown.) I know that carefully planned and appropriately distanced activities — picnics, walks, drives — are a crucial component of our bubble’s collective sanity, but I’m not great about initiating them, and I’m trying to kick my habit of opting out when given the opportunity to do so. As hard as being out in the world is right now, I have to remember that the “rightness” of other places is diminished by my electing to stay home. This dynamic truly came into focus as a result of hearing “Hard to Be Anywhere” in the car at the start of a family outing I had mixed feelings about. Meditating on the song’s lyrics transformed my outlook on the trip completely. It was like the opposite of a dad yelling “I’LL TURN THIS CAR AROUND RIGHT NOW” at his screaming kids — more like “I’LL CONTINUE DRIVING THIS CAR AND MY MOOD’S SUDDENLY IMPROVED.”

WarHen Records already sold out of vinyl copies of Closest Thing to Heaven, but I wholeheartedly recommend heading to Bandcamp and downloading the album. It’s winner from start to finish. And Bandcamp has announced that they’re going fee-free on the first Friday of each month through the end of the year. I’m excited to see how this initiative grows and changes, and I’m hopeful that fans will continue to show up and demonstrate a growing collective conscience around the value of the music we love. And you better believe I’ll be making more mixes.

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John Prine

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been paying closer attention to musicians’ birthdays lately. I’ll see a tweet or Instagram post about whatever legend was born that day, think about whether I have a record of theirs to spin, and if I do, I’ll host my own little social distancing celebration that way. Santana’s is today! Herbie Hancock’s (April 12) was fun; I made sure to spin my two favorite albums of his: Maiden Voyage and Mwandishi. The other day I gave Live at El Matador a spin to mark Bola Sete’s birthday (July 16) after seeing a video — posted to social media by the the Dust-to-Digital reissue label — of the Brazilian guitarist performing alongside jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. If you’re not already following Dust-to-Digital, I recommend doing so highly. Best birthday party on the Internet, as far as I’m concerned.

I have to admit that, before the whole coronavirus shitstorm started, posts marking musicians’ birthdays mainly registered as eye-roll-worthy — an excuse for opportunistic vinyl collectors to show off. (Probably says as much about me as it does about them.) Lately it’s been a way to add definition to days that feel uncomfortably similar to the ones that preceded them, like mile markers on a flat stretch of road where the horizon is the only thing worth looking at.

Deaths are the grim and unavoidable other side of this coin. So many deaths. Ellis Marsalis. Bill Withers. McCoy Tyner. Emitt Rhodes just yesterday. Too many to list. You see the news, sigh, check whether it was COVID-related, curse the virus either way, curse our pathetic president, wash your hands for 20 seconds, then play something by the deceased to join the fractured observance already in progress online. That last part could also feel performative before the quarantine started. Now? Grief is so plentiful and valid — the rules on how to process it seem to have shifted.

I’m still really sad about John Prine. In the days following his passing, I read beautifully written postscripts and kind remembrances penned by the people close to him. I watched the touching and star-studded “Picture Show” streaming remembrance. I listened to the albums of his that I had on the shelf, and picked up one that I didn’t — a copy of the hard-to-find The Missing Years that became available online via Nashville record store Grimey’s. I’ve also made a handful of pilgrimages to the new tribute outside Black Hand Coffee Company on Patterson Avenue, created by the brilliant Richmond-based street artist Nils Westergard and pictured above. (Westergard met and photographed Prine last November in preparation for painting a mural in Chicago. If you’re a customer of Prine’s Oh Boy Records label, you may have gotten a postcard version of Westergard’s tribute in the mail. I rushed to the little library that serves as the tribute’s canvas when Westergard posted to Instagram about dropping a few copies inside, but they were gone by the time I got there.)

I’ve cried at a handful of points along this virtual funeral parade (looking at you, Brandi Carlile), and each time that happened, I wondered whether it makes sense to shed tears over the death of someone I didn’t know personally. Someone whose physical location I shared only once — his November, 2017 show at Altria Theater. He’s not family, and I’m extremely lucky in that my family members have dodged the virus, as far as we know. But Prine isn’t separate from my family, either. Alongside the Band and Allen Toussaint, he’s one of the foundational musical reference points on which my father-in-law and I built the great relationship we have today. Our interests overlap and diverge in a zillion other ways — we’ll never see eye-to-eye on Bob Dylan, that’s for sure — but we both hold the Singing Mailman in the highest esteem. We’ve also bonded over Prine’s good friend Steve Goodman; I remember picking up a copy of Tribute To Steve Goodman at a record store in Colorado and immediately looking forward to showing it off the next time the in-laws came to Richmond. How many other families and friendships are glued together in this way? Just as the people in a John Prine song feel exceptionally real, a mutual appreciation for Prine is the stuff of genuine, lasting connection. If you know someone likes John Prine, there’s a really good chance they’re worth knowing.

When listing my life’s happiest moments — kids being born, getting married, really good sandwiches — I’d have to mention that 2017 show at the Altria Theater. It’s not just that I saw some of the greatest songs ever committed to verse-chorus form performed by the person who wrote them, though that certainly was a thrill. I remember particularly enjoying “Lake Marie,” and getting a kick out of seeing this old man dance around the stage despite having been to hell and back, health-wise. What I remember most, though, is how I felt sitting next to my wife that night. It was as if something had encircled the two of us and started glowing — a profound goodness that didn’t come from the stage, exactly, but that grew from inside us as a result of being in that room, in that moment, in Prine’s presence, together. I’ll never forget it. By writing uncommonly disarming, incisive songs, John Prine drilled way, way down, through the stuff we typically worry about, through the many rotten and rocky layers of this life, so far down that he tapped into the wellspring of humanity that connects us. And being at the Altria Theater that night was like dipping our hands right in and taking a sip. I’m so glad my wife and I were able to share that experience. I believe it brought us closer.

I’ll never know what it was like to share a stage with John Prine, or to call him a friend. And I can’t begin to imagine how hard it would be to have that taken away — after having gone swimming in something other people feel fortunate to have sipped from. Still, I’m sad. So many of us are these days, and for so many reasons. It’s hard to know where to put all that sadness. It sloshes around, bubbles over, crashes into other people’s overflow, and turns into anger when we’re not careful. That’s one thing Prine knew how to help with: He could take something ugly — loneliness, despair, addiction, jingoism — and turn it into art that, in addition to being beautiful, was useful. He boiled suffering down to a pocket-sized truth you could carry around with you, in case you ever found yourself in need of it. The nugget I find myself reaching for most often these days is from “Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)”:

You can gaze out the window, get mad and get madder
Throw your hands in the air, say ‘What does it matter?’
But it don’t do no good to get angry
So help me, I know

For a heart stained in anger grows weak and grows bitter
You become your own prisoner as you watch yourself sit there
Wrapped up in a trap of your very own
Chain of sorrow

These lines have become a mantra — a way to hit the brakes when I feel my sadness metastasizing. I say them when I think about what we’re going to do about sending our daughter to school in the fall, and when I think about how John Prine would probably still be with us if we didn’t have a con man in the Oval Office. Maybe these lines will help you when you’re feeling frustrated and helpless. I gave my father-in-law’s old copy of Bruised Orange a spin while I was writing this and found a number of other spots to be helpful, as well. (“That’s the Way the World Goes Round” resonated in some new ways.)

I won’t go so far as to say John Prine will cure all that ails you, or that there’s nothing worth getting angry about. But if we’re going to make it to the other side of 2020, we’re going to need reminders that deep down, beneath the mess that’s been made of this country, we’re all connected. John Prine may be gone, but that river is still down there, flowing as strong as ever, and always will be. Now it’s up to us to drill down there.

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Eric Slick

The cover. The suit. The fog. The fonts. Everything here screams “Pre-order Wiseacre as quickly as you can,” so that’s just what I did. And I’m very excited about it.

In truth, the real reason for putting in your pre-order isn’t the cover art; it’s Eric Slick himself. The Dr. Dog drummer has repeatedly shown his versatility as a creator in his own right, whether you’re looking at his work with with Lithuania, the Palisades LP he released via EggHunt Records, or the dark and evocative Bullfighter EP that followed. Where Slick’s creative impulse leads, compelling art follows.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Slick around the time Palisades came out, and while that “I had the pleasure” expression is used so commonly you probably zoomed right past it at the start of this sentence, my chat with Slick truly stands out as a joy. We talked about meditation’s role in the writing process, balancing darkness and light as a performer, and the grace we have to give ourselves to improve as people. I walked away from that conversation feeling like I’d been given something important, and I feel the same way when I hear a new piece of music he’s made.

“When It Comes Down To It,” the lead single from Wiseacre, is a great example. Direct and indelible, the song represents an elegant marriage of form and function — a beat that shines via understatement, and a lyrical hook that elevates the elemental: “I’m a simple person / When it comes to down to it.” It’s an idea that expands as you spend more time with it, and it ends up (for me, at least) taking on an aspirational quality. There’s peace in being able to say those words with confidence, and getting there can involve lots of hard work.

Early in 2020, Slick started posting drum cover videos to his Instragram, and while there’s been plenty of complexity to marvel at, from Rush and Zappa to CAN and Outkast, my favorite clip of all might have been his take on Andy Shauf’s “The Magician.” In the caption, Slick described the song as “deceptively simple,” and he praised the album it’s on (The Party — a favorite of mine as well) in saying “you can hear the hours of rewriting to make it effortless.”

I hear that exact same magic in “When It Comes Down To It.” Take a listen below, and click here to pre-order Wiseacre.

Update: Here’s the second Wiseacre tune to be released, “Closer to Heaven,” which features vocals from the great Natalie Prass:

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Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

It’s that time again! Bandcamp is waiving their fees today, so it’s a great time to fill up an electronic shopping cart and support the musicians you know and love. (And maybe discover some fun new tunes along the way.) I haven’t seen whether Bandcamp will keep the fee-free events going after today, so I’m planning to party like it’s 1999/leave it all on the field/go big or go home. Well… stay home, would be more accurate, I suppose.

Here are a few YHT-approved Bandcamp buys:

Lonnie Holley — National Freedom

Songs Lonnie Holley recorded with the late Richard Swift between 2013 and 2014. As it happens, today is the second anniversary of Swift’s passing. If you’ve heard Holley’s outstanding 2018 album MITH, you know these two make amazing music together.

Roberto Carlos Lange — Kite Symphony, Four Variations

My heart did a dance when I learned that Roberto Carlos Lange remixed selections from Trey Pollard’s Antiphone album, and my ears followed suit when I heard the empathetic brilliance that Lange layered on top of Pollard’s already-stunning pieces. (I was so jazzed that I ended up writing a quick review for The Auricular.) It was a great introduction to Lange’s non-Helado Negro output, and I’m thrilled to have another opportunity to explore that universe so soon. These pieces were conceived in partnership with visual artist Kristi Sword in an effort to visualize nontraditional musical notation. The liner notes are fascinating — take a look here. According to Lange, this collection “invites the listener to open their ears to the sky, the sound of cacti, and the feeling of the wind on their skin.”

Anteloper — Tour Beats Vol. 1

Jaimie Branch’s FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise album feels more essential with each passing day, and while I know it came out last year, it feels so connected to the moment we’re in right now that it might as well have come out yesterday. It’s made me a Branch fan for life, and I’ve started getting to know her Anteloper project, in which she partners with drummer Jason Nazary. (A collaborator of Roberto Carlos Lange’s, incidentally.) I snagged a copy of Anteloper’s Kudu tape (supplies running dangerously low on that), and I’m planning to grab Tour Beats as well.

Bonny Light Horseman — Green​/​Green

When you release one of the year’s very best albums, and then you go on to release songs that were recorded for that album but were cut for whatever reason — in this case “to keep the record simpler (and higher quality for vinyl)” — I am going to be deeply interested in hearing those songs.

Yves Jarvis — “Victim”

I learned about Montreal-based musician Yves Jarvis from a tweet posted by Citrus City founder Manny Lemus:

This is excellent advice. Good Will Come to You is such a powerful album, full of healing energy, variety, and beauty. When it’s spinning, I’m inclined to think there’s no more beautiful album in the whole wide world. I’m so grateful Lemus sent out that recommendation, and I’ve been enjoying “Victim” as well, which Jarvis released near the end of June.

Various — A Little Bit at a Time: Spacebomb Family Rarities

If we’re going by Prince’s example — and we all should, right? — the way you amass an awe-inspiring musical vault is to combine a deep well of musical ability with an exceptional drive to create. Those traits are Spacebomb in a nutshell, and it should come as no surprise that the Richmond-based label, management, publishing, and production powerhouse can assemble one hell of a rarities album. I don’t even know where to start here — there’s so much to dig into, from unreleased music by the Spacebomb House Band and an all-star assemblage of in-town favorites to renowned out-of-towners like Dan Croll, Laura Veirs, and Pure Bathing Culture.

And here’s a quick list of the other releases on my radar. I’ll aim to keep this updated as the day goes on:

Father John Misty — Anthem +3
David Shultz — “The Sea
Dogwood Tales — Closest Thing to Heaven
DarkTwaine_ — The Hainted
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol. 3
Animal Collective — Bridge to Quiet
Kenneka Cook — “My Universe” (Lefthnd Remix)
Philip James Murphy Jr — “althea & juniper
DJ Harrison — Vault Series 10 : Covered

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