Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

I’m currently knee-deep in some non-bloggy writing that I’m excited to share soon, but I couldn’t let a glorious spring Bandcamp Friday like this pass without sending out a few recommendations. Without further ado:

Opin — Hospital Street

Opin Tweeted out a heads up about this release on Wednesday, saying “38 minutes of hard techno/drone/soundtrack explorations on deck for Bandcamp Friday.” My reaction? An immediate and unequivocal “Yes plz.” (Sometimes there’s too much excitement for typing out whole words.)

DJ Harrison — Pen Eyes 💨

New DJ Harrison = another immediate “Yes plz.” (The emoji in the album title might be a YHT first. I’ll have to do double-check that, but I love that it’s handwritten in the album art as well 👌)

Curt Sydnor — The Consort

Been enjoying getting to know this album from Richmond-based pianist and composer Curt Sydnor. So dreamy, and so wonderfully off-kilter. A limited supply of transparent, hand-cut, 10″ lath-cut copies are available.

Stray Fossa — With You For Ever

Speaking of dreamy, With You For Ever — courtesy of Charlottesville’s Stray Fossa — promises to be a 2021 highlight in the realm of dream pop. There’s a textural fluidity to these songs that makes them feel so beautifully built-out and multi-dimensional. Each listen hits a little differently. Full album out next Friday, but four songs are streaming now. (Cheers to Andrew Cothern for the heads up about this one in his excellent RVA Playlist newsletter!)

Gerycz / Powers / Rolin — Beacon

We don’t always get second chances in life, but the kind folks at the Centripetal Force label managed to secure a few more vinyl copies of the dulcimer-drenched drone-y excellence that is Beacon, the handiwork of a trio formed by Jayson Gerycz, Jen Powers, and Matthew J. Rolin. Don’t snooze. I bet these will go quick.

More fun stuff on my radar today (check back for updates):

Avery Fogarty — “until tunnels
Jones/Kuhl/Harris/Clarke/Pharr/Parker — 08​.​06​.​2013
Marisa Anderson/William Tyler — Lost Futures
Carlos Niño & Friends — More Energy Fields, Current
PJ Sykes — Fuzz (preorder just went live!)
Ohbliv — Rugged Tranquility Volume 1 & 2 (white vinyl still available)
tangent — “Rate Your Heart
Borrowed Beams of Light — No Cover Covers vol. 7

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

A quick 6-pack of recommendations for your March Bandcamp Friday. Cheers to directly supporting amazing art!

Elkhorn — Southern Star

Can’t resist including Elkhorn here, given the great conversation we had recently about their new live album and the group’s creative process. Hope y’all will give that interview a read if you haven’t already. Today is a great day to grab a copy of Southern Star on cassette. Just 200 copies were made, so act fast. (Also of note: Jordan Perry, one of the guest musicians on Southern Star, has a new collection of fretless guitar improvisations out today. And have you snagged Drew Gardner’s self-titled jam yet? You should!)

Shovels & Rope — Busted Jukebox Vol. 3

Did y’all catch the infomercial-style album announcement Shovels & Rope did for this? Too good. Volumes 1 and 2 in the Busted Jukebox series have been winners in my book, and I’d just been wondering — hoping — if and when they’d release another volume.  So excited they have, and the subject matter hits especially close to home after the past year. Definitely looking forward to auditioning “My Little Buckaroo” as a possible lullaby replacement for the PJ Masks theme song. (Take a quick listen and imagine yourself sweetly singing that to someone in the dark to try to get them to fall asleep. It’s consistently the strangest minute of my day.)

Ross Gay — Dilate Your Heart

Two quick thoughts on Dilate Your Heart. First, if you haven’t heard “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” please set aside 15 minutes for an uninterrupted listen as soon as humanly possible. You will walk away a changed person. I promise. Second, I thought I’d started lucid dreaming when I initially scanned the list of musicians who collaborated with poet Ross Gay for this album. Bon Iver. Mary Lattimore. Angel Bat Dawid. Gia Margaret. Sam Gendel. I know deep down that this crew wasn’t assembled with my specific musical interests in mind, but it certainly feels that way.

Matthew E. White & Lonnie Holley — Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection

I was lucky enough to be there at the Broadberry in 2017 when Lonnie Holley opened for Matthew E. White. I was in attendance at the VMFA in 2019 when White and an all-star group of frequent collaborators joined Holley for a set that followed a screening of Holley’s directorial debut, I Snuck Off the Slave Ship. You better believe I’m showing up for an album Holley and White made together. So excited for this. As Holley might say, “Thumbs up for Mother Universe!”

More Spacebomb-related excellence: If you haven’t yet put in your preorder for McKinley Dixon’s upcoming LP, here’s where you can fix that.

Sara Bug — Sara Bug

I love the way “Die With You” starts — the way Sara Bug’s voice emerges from the swell of guitar and strings that precedes the songs first lyrics. It gives her voice an uncanny quality that lingers throughout the rest of the song. Really cool. Another great album on the way from EggHunt.

Lance Koehler — “Datura Summer

Speaking of amazing song openings, I love the way Lance Koehler’s latest sets a beatific stage before blasting off in a number of intense sonic directions. It seems especially fitting given the lyrical references to the Mississippi River, which has its own twists and turns, and which is placid from afar but far from gentle once you’re in it.

Also on my radar today:

Jake Xerxes Fussell — “Hills of Mexico
Nick Mazzarella / Quin Kirchner — See or Seem: Live at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival
Carlos Niño / Sam Gendel — Raindiance / You’re Suspended
Damon Locks/Black Monument Ensemble — NOW
Book of Wyrms — Occult New Age
Radio B & DJ Mentos — “Fan’s Choice
ragenap & the Barnaby Bennett Players — “like a hurricane

An Interview with Elkhorn

For Drew Gardner and Jesse Sheppard, the who, what, when, where, and why of music are inextricably and inspiringly linked. 

The two guitarists have been on a shared journey to the heart of improvisation since the mid-1980s. Since 2013, they’ve performed and recorded as Elkhorn, with Sheppard laying down a foundation of 12-string acoustic guitar for Gardner to build 6-string electric structures atop and around, resulting in adventurous pieces that create space for the listener’s own internal exploration. I’m always surprised and delighted by the places I travel when I close my eyes and let Gardner and Sheppard’s playing do the navigating. But place is much more than a byproduct, and the duo’s new live album offers a window into how unique spaces and the people who inhabit them are intentionally woven into the fabric of their creative process.

Southern Star arrives this Friday, March 5th, via WarHen Records, compiling performances from the spring 2020 tour leg that the group completed before the pandemic put a halt to live music everywhere. It’s not the first time they’ve made the most of a change in itinerary. Their previous two releases, The Storm Sessions and the follow-up Acoustic Storm Sessions, were recorded at Gardner’s Harlem home studio during a blizzard that wiped out a show they were scheduled to play in Brooklyn. I leaned hard on those albums throughout 2020, a time when isolation and canceled plans became the norm. Those albums embodied a type of lemons-to-lemonade optimism that I needed in my life, while offering reassurance that even when we’re temporarily kept separate from one another, the art we make connects us in the long run, and always will. 

As Southern Star documents beautifully, Elkhorn’s music thrives on connection. Five of the album’s six tracks feature guest collaborators — musicians who themselves are deeply connected to the areas in which their guest appearances took place, from “Harmonica Dan” Balcer and the Philadelphia Record Exchange to Mike Gangloff and his deep Virginian roots. (Head to the Southern Star Bandcamp page and you’ll notice the track names are venues and dates instead of song titles.) It’s not uncommon for bands to share bills with local performers, but in Elkhorn’s case, the people, places, and music are intertwined to an exceptional degree — one where the borders surrounding those elements melt away and the art is truly one with the circumstances in which it was made. 

I had the pleasure of learning a few weeks back that Gardner and Sheppard are just as open and generous in conversation. Over Zoom, we spoke about the end to their 2020 tour, the experience of listening back to those records, and how they approach the art of improvisation. While you read, enjoy this premiere of the second track from Southern Star, which was captured at Rhizome in Washington DC on March 7th, 2020, with Mike Gangloff and Nate Scheible as guests.

You Hear That: At the risk of diving right into pandemic talk, Southern Star is the product of a tour that was cut short, correct? 

Jesse Sheppard: With this tape especially, you kind of can’t get away from it. In a nutshell, we had this tour planned, which was two legs. One was southern, focused around Virginia, and we were going to tour with the Eight Point Star guys. Then we were going to do a northern leg that was centered around Massachusetts with Glenn Jones… 

We went on the road and you could sort of hear about the pandemic coming during the first days of that first leg. But actually, and Drew will confirm this, when we got off the road, we weren’t sure if Massachusetts was going to happen or not still, because these were all small-sized gigs, and we had just seen the big festivals get closed down… Then the smaller gigs started closing over the course of a week between the two legs, to the point where we were just like “What’s happening here?” 

When that second leg got canceled, it left us with some time to do what we normally do over a long period of time after we tour, which is go through the tapes and listen back to what had happened.

YHT: When I’m in the audience at a show, I’m always hoping it’s being taped for a live release down the road, so I can relive that moment later. Is recording shows a regular part of Elkhorn tours?

Drew Gardner: We tend to be tapers, and connected to taper culture a little bit. For this tour, I brought what’s kind of a classic Grateful Dead bootleg microphone intentionally to capture it — this AT822 microphone. We’re definitely into taping everything…

One of the cool things about what [this] tape represents is that, for each of these gigs, the music is really affected by the spaces that we’re in — the physical spaces that we’re in, and the social spaces that we’re in. It’s unique physical spaces, and it’s unique combinations of people… The human vibe around the communities that we’re playing in makes a big difference on what you’re hearing in the music. And obviously with the guest musicians as well.

JS: Which goes back to your point about taping, and how taping, and especially this tape, really, reflects all these different environments. So that Black Swan tape is a bookstore environment, [and] then you’ve got that salt cave, which is a totally different live performance space from any other, and the tape takes you through all these different physical spaces, as well as a little bit through time. 

Elkhorn with Mike Gangloff at Oddfellows Hall in Blacksburg, VA on March 8th, 2020. Photo courtesy of James Adams.

YHT: This release is a big milestone for WarHen Records, given that it’s their 50th release. How did you link up with Warren?

JS: We just linked up at that show. He did the poster for the show, he knew the store, and honestly I really don’t know exactly what his relationship to our music was prior to that. Kind of like you, he heard it, it hit a groove, and off he went. 

That is really the kind of central piece of this whole conversation we’re having with ourselves, because we’re finding out the ways in which the music responds to not having an outlet, or how you create outlets without audiences, or all the stuff that’s going on in the pandemic. But prior to that, that’s what was so powerful. It wasn’t just moving through these spaces, but moving through these social interactions, like Drew was saying. Meeting people on the road, building up relationships… that’s really what touring was about, and making music was linked into and wrapped in that. 

Now we’re sort of like “What else is out there? How does the music evolve without those interactions, or how do you maintain those kinds of interactions? 

YHT: In a sense, the Storm Sessions albums managed to build a pre-pandemic framework for making those types of remote connections.

JS: That’s actually almost thin ice in a way. When the pandemic hit, and we had these two almost concept albums in the can about how you process experiences like this, we didn’t want to make that connection overtly, but it was right there in front of us. 

I think what we did is what we always do, which Drew talks about a lot, actually, which is double-down on the piece of the music that’s healing. Because that’s really where we’re at. We’ve suffered some mortal wounds as a community and as individuals, and everyone’s processing those all the time — pandemic, pre-pandemic. And so it all fit together really powerfully.

YHT: On that topic of healing, I found your music to be essential in 2020 in part because of how it manages to transport you mentally. It’s a way of traveling while staying in place. Do you feel transported when you play, or is staying present too important to the process of improvising? 

DG: I think there’s a couple of interesting things there. First of all, the thing about the Storm Sessions reflecting the pandemic situation is strangely true. To me, that was about “Hey, this is not a great situation, this is a negative situation” and focusing on “What we can do to make this constructive?” Which is a thing I’ve needed during the pandemic for sure. Every day you have to focus to be like “OK, this is bad, but I gotta make this constructive.” It can show you that if you can have a constructive philosophy, you can improve things. 

What you say about being present is the main thing for improvisation. But the other thing is letting yourself dream a little bit. In life and the social world, there’s not a lot of space to dream in. But if you can get a protected musical environment, I like to be able to create a music where other people can dream when they’re listening to it… That thing of allowing yourself to dream is essential, to me, for the improvisation, and for connecting to the listener.

JS: I feel like that piece Drew was talking about, about trying to be constructive, actually goes to what you were saying, Davy. Without a performative context for the practicing that I’ve been doing, I feel like it’s allowed me to get more involved with the centered, present space of improvisation in a way that I always wanted to, or always needed to. That’s always been the goal, but now I feel like I actually, through the past year, have gotten closer and closer to it, and I’m hoping that I can bring that into my practice once we’re out in front of each other again.

Elkhorn at Oddfellows Hall in Blacksburg, VA on March 8th, 2020. Photo courtesy of James Adams.

YHT: Do you remember the first time you took that leap of faith and improvised together?

DG: We’ve been doing that since high school… I can’t give you a date, but it was in the mid 80’s sometime, and it was a jam we did in a band called Mayfirst we were in at the time that was in a church. And it was really a jam. That would be the earliest one. It was us doing post-punk music, but it was still improvised.

JS: It was like Joy Division meets Sonic Youth, or something like that. 

YHT: In terms of the trajectory of your collaboration, does it feel like you’re exploring further and further afield, or like you’re getting closer to something essential?

DG: I couldn’t really say. The band has its own evolution, which we just kind of try to follow. I always feel like I’m trying to follow the music, and I’m trying to find out where it’s going. That’s how I think about it.

JS: Touring creates a lot of movement and evolution. Even in the history of global evolution, there are periods where things speed up in the evolutionary process, and slow down, and that’s true with this music that Drew and I are creating as well. And it’s been interesting to see how it’s ebbed and flowed, and touring kind of speeds it up, but it’s definitely been evolving, even during this period where we haven’t been playing together, in a variety of interesting ways… 

And yes, the answer is we’re trying to find more and more and more freedom, but I think both Drew and I appreciate that freedom is not just energy music at full blast to your face all the time. Freedom for us is the freedom to be really beautiful and pastoral and explore things that are very organized and almost proggy, and then move back to things that are very spacious and open and improvisatory, and trying to find where this music and our music hits in all those places is what I think we’re moving towards. 

YHT: Were you aiming for that type of range when choosing tracks for Southern Star?

DG: We do like the recordings to have a journey aspect to them where you go from one place to another place to another place. Certainly variety and contrast, too.

JS: The sets, too… One of the ways that we refresh the listener’s ear in a setting is to specifically make sure that we do hit a few different tones throughout a set. But another way we do it [is] interacting with different musicians. Every time we tour, we look for opportunities to do that in different places we hit as well. And I have to say first and foremost, one of the most transformative things about this tour was hanging out with Mike Gangloff, and seeing how he interacts with music, which is really powerful. That went for all the players that we hung with at various points.

YHT: Was there anything that surprised you as you first listened back to the recordings?

DG: One thing I like is that with the guest players, we’re often throwing them in without a huge amount of practice. I like the sound that produces, because people are focusing, you know what I mean? So you can get a novel sound out of some of those songs, and when you’re coming back and listening to it, you’re almost listening to somebody else’s song, because an unpredictable element has been introduced into it.

JS: Jordan [Perry] was a perfect example of that. We had never played with him before. I had never even heard him play electric guitar. But at the same time, I just knew how his brain worked, and I knew he could follow where Drew was going to go. I knew he would be able to stand up in the music. 

Elkhorn with Mike Gangloff at Oddfellows Hall in Blacksburg, VA on March 8th, 2020. Photo courtesy of James Adams.

YHT: How do you balance leading and following when improvising with a guest performer?

DG: Trying to give them some structure [and] give them a context where they can feel comfortable and where they can say what they want to say is the main thing for me. Make an arrangement where they can do what they want.

JS: The idea is to create enough structure so everyone knows where they are, but have it loose enough that anyone can say what they got to say. We’ve actually worked on how to do that through the set construction process over time.

DG: And there are decisions you can make in it. I often take on the audio engineer role in various ways in the band, and one thing I did in the Harmonica Dan set was that I could mix his volume while we were playing. I heard something when we were playing, and I intentionally turned him up louder than he would have been normally because that’s what I was hearing, and I liked the way that sounded. So I could mix while I was also playing. That’s a thing that’ll happen sometimes.

YHT: What’s the setup like that allows you to do that in real time?

DG: That was at the Philadelphia Record Exchange, and it’s a tight space, so I could control all the guitar stuff and also reach over and be able to control the balance, which is somewhat random. I would normally be thinking in terms of mixing anyway. What you’re going for is a collective sound that works — of people being together.

YHT: That’s such a cool example of the environment making its way into the music.

DG: That’s why each track is unique. It’s in its physical space and its social space. I would hope that you get that sense of traveling through these unique spaces.

Southern Star is available digitally and as a limited edition cassette via WarHen Records starting this Friday, March 5th.

Many thanks to Drew and Jesse for the fun and insightful conversation, to Warren at WarHen for helping to coordinate, and to James Adams (host of Aquarium Drunkard’s outstanding 10-part Dylan bootleg program Pretty Good Stuff) for his photos, research assistance, and encouragement.

 

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

Merry Bandcamp Friday, y’all! It’s that magical day when kids of all ages rush downstairs and check to see if the cookies and carrots they left out overnight were eaten before opening their laptops and showing the world that supporting art meaningfully and directly is not a thing of the past.

(Wait… y’all don’t do the cookies and carrots thing? Just me?)

It wasn’t clear if these would continue when I posted about December’s fee-free event, and we went without one in January, so it’s great to be back in action.

As we all know, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in this case, it would appear that how much fonder is directly proportional to the length of the absence. Having twice as long to look forward to the next Bandcamp Friday has translated to twice the usual number of recommendations.

Hope you find something you enjoy below:

Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights

Speaking of back in action, are you signed up for the RVA Playlist newsletter yet? (If not, fix that immediately!) I love having Andrew’s music recommendations in my life, and one he shared in Issue #2 that I’d cosign wholeheartedly is the upcoming Wild Pink album. This is shaping up to be one of 2021’s musical high water marks. I’ve been so entranced by the songs out so far from A Billion Little Lights that I’ve been turning to 2018’s Yolk in the Fur for supplemental listening, and that’s another gem. And also available on Bandcamp!

Yasmin Williams — Urban Driftwood

Me last Thursday: Oh interesting — a guitarist from Woodbridge, VA was reviewed by Pitchfork. This album looks interesting, and lead single is really gorgeous.

Me last Friday: THIS ALBUM IS MIND-BLOWING AND INNOVATIVE AND AFTER REFRESHING THE BANDCAMP PAGE 12 STRAIGHT HOURS IT’S BECOME CLEAR THE FIRST PRESSING IS GOING TO SELL OUT WITHIN THE DAY THANK GOD I GOT MY ORDER IN H$^#*F*ZSA)^@

Life comes at you fast, y’all. If you’re vinyl-inclined and missed out, there’s good news: Williams’ label is taking orders for a second pressing that will be available in 4-6 weeks.

Tucker Riggleman & The Cheap Dates — Alive and Dying Fast

I’ve been spending a bunch of time with this one. There’s music you get, and then there’s music that gets you. Let’s just say I feel seen by the chorus of “Void,” which goes a little something like:

And I just want to listen to “Let It Be”
Westerberg not McCartney
I just need some attitude
To sing along to
Every night while I shout into the void

There are all these moments on Alive and Dying Fast where the lyrics perfectly crystallize a thought or experience I’ve been having. “I never know how to pray” at the start of “Spill The Blood” is one. Another is “I gotta try to love myself a little better this year,” from the chorus of “Manic.” In truth, serendipity isn’t the sole reason these lines resonate. Riggleman pairs moments of clarity with the everyday mayhem that surrounds them, such that you earn those rare realizations as you listen along. It’s beautifully immersive writing — highly recommended for a nightly shout into the void.

Patricia Brennan — Maquishti

Another one I’ve been spinning non-stop. It’s subtle. It’s daring. It’s soothing. It’s surprising. It’s at home both in the foreground and the background. When I’m not listening to this, I’m thinking about the next time I can. I’m completely in awe of what Patricia Brennan has created. Nearly an hour of solo vibraphone and marimba — a journey whose twists, turns, cliffs, and clearings have completely rewired my connection to these instruments.

Jones/Hopkins/Pollard — Kaleidoscopic Haze

Some Bandcamp pages are like worlds unto themselves — places that make you want to set up camp and explore every sonic nook and cranny.  (Can you tell that Mrs. YHT and I recently made our way through The Mandalorian?) I landed on the Bandcamp page belonging to Richmond-based jazz drummer Brian Jones on a weekend in late January, and my immediate thought was “I never want to leave this place.” My currently plan is to work backward through the 30+ releases there, starting with this killer four-song set entitled Kaleidoscopic Haze, with Jones on drums, Adam Hopkins on bass, and Trey Pollard on guitar. The force is strong with these three.

Madlib — Sound Ancestors

If you haven’t read the The New Yorker article entitled “The Obsessive Beat-Making of Madlib,” I recommend giving it a look. It’s a depiction of devotion as true as you’ll find anywhere. One line in particular has stuck with me: “For Madlib, making music is as elemental as eating or sleeping, though he claims to do very little of the latter.” He’s in that rarified air where you’re not just playing music, in the sense of playing an instrument or a melody. He’s playing music itself, in the same way people often describe Brian Wilson using the studio as an instrument. As you can hear so clearly on Sound Ancestors, Madlib’s love of music is zoomed-out and all-encompassing.

Scott Clark — This Darkness

I was so moved by This Darkness (and by Scott Clark’s work in general) that I worked up a review for The Auricular. A quick snippet:

Clark’s music stands out in its willingness to forge pathways to those places where introspection is needed most. The neglected places. The shameful places. There is just so much of that to contend with right now. It’s encouraging to think somewhere in there is a seed of progress waiting to grow. It’s equally encouraging to have music to turn to when you want to work toward cultivating it, and This Darkness is exactly that.

Opin — Media & Memory REMIXED

Opin and FM Skyline on the same track?

[Nods furiously in agreement.]

Koncept Jack​$​on & Ohbliv  — JET MagaZINE ’21 Reissue

Koncept Jack​$​on and Ohbliv together on an entire album?

[Continues nodding furiously in agreement.]

Hotspit — “Obsessive Care

Hotspit’s toolkit is a diverse one, and recently released single “Obsessive Care” provides an excellent overview. It ranges from ethereal to crunchy, pensive to powerful, restrained to riotous. It’s a seriously action-packed 5-minutes. (Also exciting: It’s the first single to be released from an EP that’s on the way.)

Clever Girls — Constellations

Speaking of range, the three songs released so far from the upcoming Clever Girls LP shine in such different ways, and I’m totally hooked. “Baby Blue” is especially arresting, with an opening riff that sets a vivid vibe, and a chorus that takes your breath away.

More great options for this month’s Bandcamp Friday:

Helado Negro — Dormído En La Sílla
Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
Colleen — The Tunnel and the Clearing
John Calvin Abney — Wildfire Suite
DarkTwaine_ — The Psychodynamics Of Self Realization 
Alan Good Parker — Fakie
Sam Gendel — Fresh Bread
Drew Gardner — Drew Gardner
Michael Millions + DJ Mentos — “Steel Blue
Jake Xerxes Fussell — “Copper Kettle

“He’s Gone”

Yes, Wednesday was mainly significant because of the inauguration of a new president and vice president, but I have to imagine it’ll also go down as a truly great Internet day. The text chains with friends and family.  The wonderment at Amanda Gorman’s recitation of “The Hill We Climb.” The first wave of Bernie memes. Truly top-shelf stuff.

That said, one moment of celebration stuck with me longer than the rest, and that was the cover of the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone” that M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger posted to Instagram. Click here to have a look, if you haven’t already seen it. I can’t embed it here, but it’s well worth a watch.

Coincidentally, I also started Inauguration Day with the Dead. I asked my three-year-old son to pick an album for us to listen to while I made coffee, and he ran over to my records and grabbed the “Skull and Roses” album. I dropped the needle and quickly got a chuckle out of how fitting it was to greet the last day of Trump’s presidency with “Bertha,” given the last line of its chorus: “Bertha don’t you come around here anymore.” It’s quite possible, I learned later, that the song was playing at the very moment Trump was boarding Marine One. Now that’s a happy thought.

M.C. Taylor’s restrained but undeniably joyous version of “He’s Gone” was much more meaningful, though, and it’s an illustration of how flexible songs are when it comes to meaning. (That can be a bad thing, as we know all too well from Republicans’ use of “Born in the U.S.A.” at campaign events, but that’s a whole other story.)

The Dead debuted “He’s Gone” on a Danish TV show in April of 1972, and a performance of it from less than a month later would appear on the celebrated Europe ’72 live album. It was written as a sardonic tribute to the band manager (drummer Mickey Hart’s father) who absconded with more than $100,000 of the band’s money, and it sounded jauntier out of the gate than it would become. Over time, the tempo slowed, and that spaciousness lent sincerity as the song became a vessel for mourning. March 19, 1973 was a turning point in that sense — that performance of “He’s Gone” followed Pigpen’s death by less than two weeks, and the song’s significance began to swell. (“It became an anthem for Pigpen,” Dead lyricist Robert Hunter noted in 1991, and some fans would even erroneously peg Pigpen as its inspiration.) The version from the Mississippi River Festival in August of 1980, less than a month after Keith Godchaux died, is another moving one, as is the “He’s Gone” on Dick’s Picks Volume 9, which featured one of the first shows after the 1990 death of Brent Mydland. It’s hard to imagine being in the audience those nights and not thinking about those (very) recently departed one-time band members, even without an explicit dedication. The verses don’t address mortality directly, and they’re less sympathetic than an intentional elegy might be, but the chorus packs a serious punch when it comes to confronting loss:

And now he’s gone
Now he’s gone, Lord he’s gone
He’s gone
Like a steam locomotive rolling down the track
He’s gone, gone, and nothing’s gonna bring him back
He’s gone

Within the context of death, the directness there is almost jarring. “Deal with it,” it seems to say. It’s even more brutal in light of all the experience the group accrued in the area of forging ahead while grieving bandmates who died young. But there’s a kindness to Jerry Garcia’s voice that blunts the impact, giving it the feel of a come-to-Jesus conversation with someone who’s been though this before, and who cares deeply about you. The tough love you needed, whether you were ready for it or not. We don’t often get to choose when we say goodbye, and “He’s Gone” is the rare vehicle for collective grief that challenges listeners at the same time that it comforts them.

Fortunately, we do get to choose when we say goodbye to presidents. (Democracy! It’s pretty great!) Things may have felt a little less certain than usual in the hours leading up to President Biden’s inauguration, given Trump’s refusal to concede and the insurrection, but therein lies the unique pleasure of singing this song in this moment. “How could I not play this song today,” Taylor asked before beginning his rendition. And how could I not watch several times in a row, grinning along to the “Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile” line, and taking comfort in the chorus’ embrace of absolutes? The repetition scans differently right now — less like frankness and more like pinching yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. The erosion of objective truth has taken its toll on everyone, not just the neighbors and uncles who have been ensnared by conspiracy theories, and it’ll take time to recover from four years of having to labor — often in vain — for acknowledgement of that which is plainly obvious. Hearing the words “he’s gone” sung over and over is a little like a bearded Robin Williams hugging you and saying “It’s not your fault” until it finally sinks in.

Taylor’s Instagram post did take issue with the “Nothing’s gonna bring him back” piece, saying, “It’s all too clear that that everything the so-called former President embodies, the cancerous cells present in our political system, will definitely come back if we’re not diligent.” As much as it feels like we can breathe more deeply with an actual adult in the White House, it’ll take time to tune out the baseline hum of concern that became a constant companion these last four years, especially with the pandemic still raging. And I’m with Taylor in thinking that we need to put in the necessary interpersonal, political, and legal work to ensure he’s truly gone for good. Still, it’s pretty damn satisfying to sing along with the chorus of “He’s Gone” and allow yourself to believe every single word of it, even if it’s just for the length of the song. (Conveniently, the running time regularly surpassed the 10-minute mark.)

A little later in the day, with texts and memes still rolling in, I got ready to go for a run. The Grateful Dead have been a regular part of my running routine since the early days of the pandemic, when I started making my way through the 36 from the Vault podcast — an in-depth, album-by-album companion to the 36-volume Dick’s Picks series. I’m currently on Dick’s Picks Volume 15, and before picking the album up where I’d left off from my last run, I thought about how amazing it would feel to hear “He’s Gone” on this particular night. I try not to look ahead at the track lists, in hopes of replicating what it would have been like to experience the shows in real time, but I was tempted to look this time. I’m so glad I didn’t. After making my way through few leftover minutes of “Eyes of the World” and an energetic “Samson and Delilah,” I heard exactly the intro notes and tempo I was looking for, and a glorious, 14-minute “He’s Gone” unfolded like an overly generous gift from the universe. Talk about needing to pinch yourself.

About halfway through my last mile, I hit the song’s coda, in which the the lyric M.C. Taylor urged caution over — “Nothing’s gonna bring him back” — is sung repeatedly in three-part harmony. Dick’s Picks Volume 15 pulls from a show that took place in Englishtown, New Jersey on September 3, 1977, and that night’s crowd came ready for the “He’s Gone” coda, clapping and singing along, becoming part of the song in a way that reminded me of the function of community in making good on the new meaning of that phrase. “Nothing’s gonna bring him back” is a promise we have to make to one another. While reflecting on that, I neared a house that I knew had kept its Trump 2020 flag up well after the election had been called, wondering if that too would be gone. It wasn’t. We are still firmly in the “broken American moment” Taylor described in his moving song “I Need a Teacher.” Putting things back together — beating the pandemic, restoring a commitment to facts, rebuilding burnt relational bridges — will be hard work. And that work will require all of us.

Maybe not you-know-who, though. He’s gone.

Listen below to the Englishtown rendition I encountered on my run, click here to check out M.C. Taylor’s version, and be sure to also give a listen to the recently released Hiss Golden Messenger single, “Sanctuary.”

Four Tet

The Baader-Meinhof phenomenon is feeling pretty phenomenal at the moment. Four Tet is everywhere I look.

It all started with the two (very good) songs he released in collaboration with Thom Yorke and Burial in mid-December, “Her Revolution” and “His Rope.” I’ve listened to “Her Revolution” countless times since. It’s a Lay’s potato chip song; I can’t listen to it just once. I need to hear it again the moment it ends. It’s too good.

Around the same time, I read about Four Tet’s work on the upcoming Madlib album and got similarly hooked on the two tracks they’ve shared from that so far, “Road of the Lonely Ones” and “Hopprock.” (Feeling very fortunate to have squeezed an order in amid the hailstorm of web traffic when the presale went live the other day.)

I also saw that Four Tet released two new albums of his own over Christmas, and I was in the process of checking one of those last weekend when the strangest thing happened. While I was making my way through the first track, I hit pause to check out a YouTube link DJ Mentos had kindly sent my way — a haunting and groovy tune called “Tales Of Mystery” that appeared on a 1981 compilation of Hawaiian high school bands. (Mentos is a master of unearthing that type of buried treasure.) When that song was over, I restarted Spotify and sunk back into the sounds of Four Tet, not realizing for several minutes that I’d left YouTube open to autoplay another video. What did YouTube choose to play next? The very same Four Tet album Spotify was playing; I was unknowingly hearing different parts of the same song on two different laptop applications. Weird, right? What are the algorithmic odds? Then I remembered the name of the album I was checking out. It’s called…

I shit you not…

Parallel.

If you’ve heard its spacious, atmospheric first track, entitled “Parallel 1,” you might understand how that accident could fly under the radar. It’s gorgeous, with tones that appear and disappear like fireflies, and two layers of it can coexist beautifully, depending on where you drop in with the second. I’ve included both Bandcamp and YouTube embeds below so you can perform your own parallel listening experiment. If you’re reading this on a phone, it probably won’t let you play audio from multiple apps at once, but “Parallel 1” is well worth putting in your ears either way.

Ohbliv

Important merch alert: The Ohbliv beanie is back.

If you’re like me, you’ve been scouring the Internet on a regular basis for restocks of those legendary green and blue winter hats bearing the great Richmond beatmaker’s name. Maybe you were even periodically searching eBay, hoping someone decided to sell theirs. If so, good news: Thrash Flow’s site has version 2.0 in stock now, complete with a new color scheme and an EP of new music as part of the purchase price. The three-track Visions You Can Hear EP is officially the first 2021 album I listened to in full, which feels appropriate given how big a role Ohbliv’s work played throughout the course of last year’s listening.

Beanie order in, new EP downloaded, copy of Sprit Medicine in the mail… It’s great time to be a fan of timeless instrumental hip hop coming out of Richmond. Act fast, though; I imagine the beanies will sell fast, and being left out in the cold in this case is both figurative and literal.

2020 in Review Part 8: 31 Favorites

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites (You are here!)

Here we are. The last list in this series — 31 uncategorized favorites from 2020. I’m not a big Baskin Robbins person or anything; that’s just the number I ended up with after shuffling between lists and writing as much as I could over the last few months to pay tribute to the music that mattered to me this year. That makes 87 blurbs and 13,083 words across eight posts. If you’ve been following along, I hope you’ve found something new to put in your ears, or a perspective that opened up new avenues of enjoyment. And I know I’ve said it elsewhere, but if you made one of the albums below, thank you for making a difficult year significantly better. I’ll close with an excerpt from the intro to Amanda Petrusich’s year-end list, which communicated this specific sense of gratitude so beautifully:

I’ve always believed that some amount of optimism, conscious or unconscious, is inherent to the art-making impulse—that to dedicate oneself to something as difficult and thankless as creative work, one has to believe that the world is still good enough and open enough to be transformed, even briefly, by beauty. The musicians who managed to hold onto that feeling—to go on believing in the essential decency of humankind and the various ways in which art can elevate us—kept me afloat through some strange days.

John Calvin Abney — Familiar Ground

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

This is another one where anticipation runs high. How high? So high that my very first act after gaining consciousness on Tuesday morning was checking the Black Mesa Records site to see if the preorder was available. You know you’re excited for an album to be announced when you literally can’t and don’t wait for the announcement to go out.

Fiona Apple — Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I cut way back on TV watching in 2020, and the last hour or two of my night is now typically spent at my desk instead of the couch. Sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s music writing. Lately I’ve been squinting at runout lettering while retroactively building my Discogs collection. (Currently working my way through my Beach Boys and Beatles sections. Send help.) One fun side effect of this shift is that I’m usually at my laptop at midnight on Thursday night/Friday morning, which means I can listen immediately to new albums I’m especially excited about. I’ve never forget my Fetch the Bolt Cutters midnight listening party. It was momentous. It was fun. It was everything I could have hoped for and more. No reviews to bounce what I was hearing off of. No worrying over which vinyl pressing I’d get my hands on. Just me and a new set of mind-meltingly good songs by one of the most brilliant musicians of our time.

Kate Bollinger — A word becomes a sound

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

If there were ever a chorus to keep in the front of your brain in order to maintain sanity during a global pandemic, it would have to be:

Grey skies, they don’t scare me
I find them unnecessary
There’s no tellin’ when the bad’s gonna come around
And it’ll come around no doubt

It’s like a badly needed pat on the back from a friend who’s reassuring you without bullshitting you. And Kate Bollinger’s gift for phrasing means the words slide through your consciousness so gracefully the toxic parts of your psychology don’t have a chance to play defense.

Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman

I called this a “perfect album” on Instagram and I stand by that 100%. It was very rewarding seeing this get as many Grammy nods as it did. So stunning. It’s not just that they’ve given new life to old songs; I hear something in the combination of vocals by Anaïs Mitchell and Eric D. Johnson — a space they carve out that’s not old or new but separate from time, and endlessly inviting. The rare instant classic that will continue to grow on you, no matter how much you love it right away.

Phoebe Bridgers — Punisher

“Garden Song” is my song of the year. The experience of hearing the first verse for the first time was wild. I was already blown away by how gracefully she incorporates the idea of killing and burying a skinhead neighbor — like one does — but then I got to “I grew up here till it all went up in flames / Except the notches in the doorframe” and did one of those blinking-while-shaking-your-head-slightly double-takes, like “Well hello there, One of the Greatest Song Lyrics of All Time. Nice to meet you…” That line is totally transcendent — the layers go on and on, from the the words themselves and the way they’re delivered to the exquisite connection between their literal and figurative truths and the bittersweet irony you’re left with. I’m in awe.

True story: I was listening to this on a run and passed by a house with a raised garden bed with prop feet sticking up out of the dirt. A glitch in the matrix, if I’ve ever seen one.

Dogwood Tales — Closest Thing to Heaven

Back in July, I wrote a few words about “Hard to Be Anywhere,” a song from Closest Thing to Heaven that means a lot to me:

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… 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.

Bob Dylan — Rough and Rowdy Ways

My relationship with Bob Dylan’s music changed significantly this year, mainly owing to a fantastic limited-run Aquarium Drunkard radio show called Pretty Good Stuff. Run by central Virginia’s own Bob Dylan scholar James Adams, the show compiled bootleg live cuts from various points in Dylan’s career, and I found myself totally transfixed by Adams’ combination of keen curation and intriguing narration. Dylan is famous for being unknowable, but Pretty Good Stuff made the mystery seem so much more approachable than it had in the past.

Case in point: The first time I heard “Murder Most Foul,” I couldn’t get past the absurdity of it — the way the lyrics seemed to drift, the length… It felt like something it was easier to set aside than to contend with. After several hours of Pretty Good Stuff, and several more spins of “Murder Most Foul,” I’m convinced it’s totally groundbreaking. If you consider things like melody, narrative, and form to be elements that help ground music in a listener’s expectations, this song is like grabbing a big bundle of balloons and floating off into the stratosphere. It’s also deeply romantic, in the non-sexy sense, such that it reminds me of the love for early rock and roll that my father maintained late into his life. There’s something in this fever dream of a song that I think I could stand to be reminded of, and even though I can’t exactly put my finger on it, I know I’ll keep coming back to try to find it.

Fleet Foxes — Shore

Another Glitch-in-the-Matrix moment, and I swear this is true: I was about to start writing a blurb about how I feel like I’ve only started scratching the surface of this album’s wonderfulness, and how I’m looking forward to getting to know it even better when my physical copy arrives early next year, and Mrs. YHT walked into the room and handed me a postcard she’d just retrieved from the mailbox. On the front was a pretty design made of two shades of blue, in the bottom left corner were the words “Fleet Foxes,” and in the bottom right is the word “Shore.” On the back was a message from Robin Pecknold thanking me for my pre-order, and for my patience. Really. That happened. At this point, it seems abundantly clear that we’re all living in a simulation, and that whoever’s in charge of the simulation is drunk. That or Robin Pecknold is just really thoughtful. One of the two.

Tim Heidecker — Fear of Death

I cracked open my copy of this album on a chilly December morning — one where I was feeling especially low. Imagine you’re out getting ice cream, and there’s not much of your flavor left, yet the person doing the scooping reaches way down in the tub and scrapes together a perfectly shaped confection that makes your day. That’s what Fear of Death did on that December morning; the bright sound and wry gallows humor scooped a soul that was stuck to the bottom of its container and made it feel new again. (Coffee also helped.) To truly beat this analogy into the ground, I’d compare the countrified opening of “Let It Be” to the moment when you’re finally handed your cone and pure joy floods in. I hadn’t heard this upbeat version of the Beatles classic for a month or two, and when it kicked in, I felt such gratitude for the fact that this album exists.

Lilly Hiatt — Walking Proof

I owe Lilly Hiatt, big-time. Walking Proof was my first curbside pickup purchase — the first album I bought from a store here in Richmond after the pandemic took hold. In a very real sense, this album got me out of my house at a time when I was profoundly freaked out, and it was such comfort knowing there was a way I could safely patronize record stores again. Not unlike the album’s color-your-own insert art, Walking Proof helped me start repainting a map of the outside world that had turned grey and ominous in early March. It did the same for the household throughout the year, as the brightness of Hiatt’s songwriting changed the mood in the house for the better every time I put it on the turntable.

Horse Lords — The Common Task

You often see music described as experimental, but not many bands feel as connected to the scientific method as Horse Lords. They take a mathematical approach to elements like time and tone, and while that may sound dry or clinical, The Common Task is a wildly fun and energizing album. I would typically put this on around 4 p.m., when I needed a musical boost to get me through to the end of the day. In fact, it’s about that time as I’m typing this, and I’m going to go spin it again right this minute.

Yves Jarvis — Sundry Rock Song Stock

I loved this interview Yves Jarvis did with Jason P. Woodbury for the Aquarium Drunkard Transmissions podcast. That conversation spent a fair amount of time on Jarvis’ creative process, and it made evident that the talented Canadian multi-instrumentalist and producer harbors a rare and highly intuitive artistic integrity, one that pushes him into territory that’s unbound by typical conventions of form and songwriting. He’s a true original, as you’ll hear immediately if you give Sundry Rock Song Stock a listen.

Lianne La Havas — Lianne La Havas

One of my weirdest musical memories of 2020 is contained on this album. My family spent an afternoon in Hampton, VA, attempting a socially distanced beach day fairly early in the summer, when it wasn’t all that clear how distanced was distanced enough. I was incredibly anxious, to the point where I was getting on everyone else’s nerves, and at one point I stayed in my beach chair while the rest of the family went down to the water to enjoy themselves. I didn’t have headphones, but I put on Lianne La Havas’ version of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” anyway, holding my phone up to my ear so I could hear it over the sound of wind and waves and other people having a great time. I won’t say I was comforted — more validated in my discomfort. Despite the fact that the song mentions fish and the ocean, it’s not exactly something you’d put on your fun in the sun playlist. Its lyrics talk about a devotion so intense you fall off the side of the earth, hit bottom, and disappear, and listening to “Weird Fishes” in that setting did feel a little like a disappearing act. I won’t say I ended up having fun afterward; it was a stressful experience. But good music is big enough to absorb something like that and keep you coming back, and I’ve returned to Lianne La Havas’ self-titled album many times throughout the year. (Thankfully in the comfort of home.)

Adrianne Lenker — songs and instrumentals

I mentioned that I enjoyed not having reviews in mind when listening to Fetch the Bold Cutters — I had the opposite experience with songs and instrumentals. Philip Sherburne’s review for Pitchfork points out something I’d missed, which was that by listening to this album from start to finish and thinking about one side of a vinyl pressing at a time, you’re witnessing a disappearing act. The first side is the most layered/produced, the second is more stripped down while still featuring words and singing, the third features just Adrianne Lenker’s guitar throughout, and on the final side, guitar gives way to wind chimes, and then the silence that follows the album’s conclusion. I’m a big fan of trying to put yourself in the artist’s shoes when it comes to why songs are presented the way they are, and I love the idea that Lenker had this idea of vanishing in mind. It’s made the album an even more rewarding listen.

Also rewarding? This profile of Lenker penned by Amanda Petrusich. In truth, “rewarding” is a dramatic undersell; I’m not sure I’ve read a more compelling and meaningful profile in my life.

Blake Mills — Mutable Set

The fact that Mutable Set rarely operates above a whisper makes it easy to underestimate, but don’t be fooled — as far as melody, harmony, and overall musicianship go, there’s a riot going on. I don’t know enough theory to pick up on the subtleties just by listening, but I did follow along with some Instagram live sessions Mills did around the time the album was released — sessions that essentially amounted to high-level guitar classes where he calmly and quietly walked through the complex chords he used. The techniques, the rationales, the implications. His mastery is astonishing, but not flashy in the slightest. He’s fiercely disinterested in making the same record twice, yet Mutable Set sounds more like him than anything else he’s made. Maybe it’s a type of innovation via interpolation. What I do know is that if Blake Mills is whispering, it’s worth listening extra closely to what he has to say.

Mink’s Miracle Medicine — Thumbs Up Angel

I’ve never managed to get a set of Spotify Wrapped stats that seemed accurate. For years, I shared an account with a brother-in-law more interested in metal than I am, so that would result in some hilariously disjointed results. Then there’s the Frozen factor; “Into the Unknown” was my song of the year in 2020 for reasons that will be immediately clear to anyone with a six-year-old. But the other big factor this year was Bandcamp — the fact that I started downloading music again, and that I spent as much time listening to those downloaded songs as I did Spotify, especially when they were singles made available before the release date of something I’d preordered. Thumbs Up Angel is a great example. I snagged this near the end of October’s Bandcamp Friday, then spent the rest of that evening listening to nothing else but “Spots on the Sun” and “Watch the Horses Run” over and over and over, marveling at how great they both are. And I spent part of the following day doing the same thing. I may not have stats that reflect the great Mink’s Miracle Medicine binge of 2020, but it happened, and it was glorious.

John Moreland — LP5

The cover art and title of LP5 may fly under the radar, its impact is anything but ordinary. His songwriting is so sharp, singular, and affecting — to the point that it feels like we can go ahead and save a best-albums list spot for any full-length he releases.

The Mountain Goats — Getting Into Knives

So much of what I said about John Moreland applies to John Darnielle. According to Wikipedia, Getting into Knives is the Mountain Goats’ 19th studio album, and I’m amazed at the consistency with which Darnielle’s writing draws me in. He’s got such a gift for building imagined narrative spaces, and I love how he changes the scope from project to project; sometimes the album itself represents a narrative universe like with Beat the Champ or Goths, and other times he gives individual songs more space to form worlds of their own. My favorite in that respect on Getting into Knives is “Picture of My Dress,” which grew out of a tweet by poet Maggie Smith.

Aquiles Navarro & Tcheser Holmes — Heritage of the Invisible II

I’m wildly impressed and inspired by the versatility Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes of Irreversible Entanglements exhibit. So many styles are represented on Heritage of the Invisible II, from free jazz to soul to Afro-Caribbean — it’s like getting to explore parallel universes within the same timeline. I’m not sure I’d ever seen “imagination” among the instruments in a set of liner notes, but it’s entirely fitting here.

Nadia Reid — Out of My Province

I almost put this on my RVA list, because the in-town ties run deep on Out of My Province. The Spacebomb House Band, an illustrious list of additional Richmond instrumentalists, production from Matthew E. White and Trey Pollard, engineering from Adrian Olsen… all in support of stunning songwriting — conversational and incisive, inviting and arresting. Reid’s voice comes through so clearly on Out of My Province — sonically, narratively, and artistically. A triumph all around.

Gil Scott-Heron — We’re New Again: A Reimagining by Makaya McCraven

Should this have been on the Blasts from the Past list? I certainly would have guessed that’s where this would end up, but what Makaya McCraven has done feels so fresh and… well, there’s no way to avoid saying it… new. The source material itself — Scott-Heron’s inimitable voice — is made new by McCraven’s knack for sonic recontextualization via the editing process. (Fans of McCraven’s work on the International Anthem label know all about that.) And We’re New Again is so colorfully rendered, with such caring attention to detail, that I hear new things each time I listen. What an achievement this is. McCraven is one of the most thrilling musicians to follow right now, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Andy Shauf — The Neon Skyline

Another brilliant builder of narrative spaces is Andy Shauf, and his imagined dive bar, The Neon Skyline, is absolutely bursting with life. I’d love to know more about Shauf’s process — how his personality sketches start, and how he fills them with such uncanny detail. Just as I eagerly ate up both novels John Darnielle has written, I would be first in line for a copy of anything Shauf decided to pen down the road.

Shormey — God Bless Bob Ross: A Collection Of Low Fidelity Recordings

A snippet of a post I published in June:

The hardest thing about making a mix in honor of Bandcamp’s June 6 event was deciding which track from God Bless Bob Ross to include. The whole thing is stellar. I ended up going with “honeydipper,” which is intoxicatingly propulsive and wildly inventive in how it builds and releases its kinetic energy.

Sturgill Simpson — Cuttin’ Grass – Vol​.​1 (The Butcher Shoppe Sessions)

Yes. Just… yes. The album art, the sound, the playing, the line of sight into Simpson’s songwriting… Happy camper over here. And Vol. 2 kicks (gr)ass in all the same ways.

Skyway Man — The World Only Ends When You Die

Weird story, fitting for an album about death: I was listening to this while sitting in my car outside Walgreen’s waiting to get a drive-thru COVID test when I saw a tweet calling the presidential election for Joe Biden. It wasn’t a news source I was familiar with, but I figured those would follow suit shortly thereafter, and during the 20-minute ride home after my test, I thought I was enjoying my first real taste of the post-45 era. The air felt lighter and clearer, and The World Only Ends When You Die was a great companion for that delightful (albeit illusory) experience. The real call didn’t come until a day later, when I was visiting my mom in Norfolk. We’d taken my daughter out for a run/bike ride around my old neighborhood, and someone stringing Christmas lights shouted down from the top of the ladder, “Did you hear? They called Pennsylvania!” It felt like a movie scene — something from 100 years ago. So much better than a tweet in the Walgreen’s drive-thru. We celebrated by letting my daughter stay up late to watch the acceptance speeches (she decided immediately that she wanted to visit Vice President Harris), and on the drive back to Richmond the next morning, I listened to The World Only Ends in full, the air feeling nice and light once again.

Eric Slick — Wiseacre

From a post I wrote back in July about the first single to be released from Wiseacre:

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.

Bartees Strange — Live Forever

As I did in October’s Bandcamp Friday post, I want to thank Steven Hyden for the recommendation here. It’s been so fun watching the accolades roll in for Live Forever from my cozy seat I snagged on the Bartees Bandwagon™ a few months ago. This album is a demonstration of a bold and broad artistic skill set, and it’s an invitation to connect with so many strands of your own musical universe. I also count this among the most versatile albums in terms of what I was doing when I spun it — cooking, puttering around in middle of the afternoon, running, hitting tennis balls against a wall… I’m pretty sure there’s no bad time to listen to Live Forever.

Moses Sumney — græ

The level of artistry here is just astounding. The overall concept, the songs themselves, Moses Sumney’s voice, even the packaging for my physical copy… it’s all so next-level. Overwhelming, even. This is another album where it feels like the full picture will continue emerging over time, and I’m in no rush.

Sunwatchers — Oh Yeah?

I mentioned in my live albums post that the list of bands I got to see perform this year is short but illustrious, and Sunwatchers is on that list. What a gift it was to see them live. Tons of energy, intensity, and complexity, and Oh Yeah? does a great job of bottling those traits. Did I mention it includes a 19-minute song called the “The Earthsized Thumb.” Can we all agree that’s just tautologically awesome?

William Tyler — Music from First Cow

From August’s Bandcamp Friday post:

I’d totally planned see this movie before I bought the soundtrack. That seemed like the right order of events — as if there were a “wrong” time to buy a William Tyler album. (There’s not.) Then I listened to Music from First Cow a third time, and a fourth time, and I feel hard for how beautiful, musically economical, and evocative these pieces are, and I started to develop the kind of emotional responses you might expect to have after actually having seen the film, like how “The Arrival” triggers the kind of nostalgia you feel when something’s not even over yet but you already miss it… I’m still going to see this movie, but I’m not waiting to but its soundtrack a moment longer.

Waxahatchee — Saint Cloud 

Yielding my time to share this bit from Steven Hyden’s best of 2020 list for Uproxx:

In a year of so much chaos and tragedy and idiocy and fear, listening to Saint Cloud felt like hanging out with that friend who always manages to put things in perspective. No matter what happens today, the lilacs keep drinking the water, marking in the slow, slow, slow passing of time.

More 2020 albums I enjoyed:

Anteloper — Tour Beats Vol. 1
Matt Berninger — Serpentine Prison
J.R. Bohannon/Ben Greenberg/Ryley Walker — For Michael Ripps
Bright Eyes — Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
The Budos Band — Long in the Tooth
Bill Callahan — Gold Record
Car Seat Headrest — Making a Door Less Open
Ian Chang — 属 Belonging
Tyler Childers — Long Violent History
Drive-By Truckers — The Unraveling
The Fearless Flyers — Tailwinds
Futurebirds — Teamwork
Lonnie Holley — National Freedom
Christian Lee Hutson — Beginners
Jason Isbell — Reunions
Pokey LaFarge — Rock Bottom Rhapsody
Roberto Carlos Lange — Kite Symphony, Four Variations
Hamilton Leithauser — The Loves Of Your Life
Kevin Morby — Sundowner
Nathan Salsburg — Landwerk
Sylvan Esso — Free Love
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down — Temple
Jeff Tweedy — Love Is The King
M. Ward — Migration Stories
Sven Wunder — Wabi Sabi

2020 in Review Part 7: RVA

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past
Part 7: RVA (You are here!)
Part 8: 31 Favorites

Think about a place that’s especially meaningful to you. It isn’t just a place, is it? It’s a feeling too, I bet. Maybe it’s a sound or a taste. A mode. A chapter in your life. You often don’t notice those associations until after the fact — until you’re away for a while, or until you’ve moved on. It’s hard to process meaning when you’re busy. I don’t know about you, but the life-on-hold stillness of 2020 has resulted in waves of meaning cresting and crashing constantly, and as the year comes to a close, I’m flooded with gratitude for Richmond music. It’s been a lifeline. A source of joy. A way to locate myself in the world. A way to remember that the world is still, in fact, out there. A reminder that community boils down to something more essential than physically being together. Charlottesville singer-songwriter Devon Sproule called that “The Gold String,” singing:

I’m imagining a golden string that is connecting
Everything but especially, beings where love has been.
I’ve imagined it again and again so often,
It isn’t even imagining, it is making it happen.

That’s exactly the pull I’ve felt when spending time with the albums below. I bet you’ll feel it too if you give them a listen. You’ll notice there are a few more in this list than the others I’ve posted before. Like I said — it’s been a flood. And my sincerest thanks go out to the artists mentioned below. 

addy — Eclipse

I am so happy Eclipse is in my life. There’s a specific sense of joy in putting it on the turntable and knowing that Adam Watkins’ voice is going to be drifting through the house, carving graceful and distinctive contours around their songs’ lyrics. I love this album, and while this may sound obvious, it seems uniquely worth saying that I love listening to it. It’s wonderfully layered and immersive, and Watkins’ singing is a big reason why. If you haven’t heard Eclipse yet, treat yourself to an enjoyably enveloping experience.

Saw Black — Horsin’ ‘Round

Looking back, it seems fitting that Saw Black was the first artist I posted about after the pandemic started getting truly scary. I’ve turned to his music during other difficult times and have found comfort and joy when both seemed hard to come by. In what’s either coincidence or fate, I spent a few sentences in that post playing up Bandcamp as a way to support artists — just before Bandcamp held its first fee-free Friday. The next such event isn’t until February, but there’s not a bad day to buy music at Bandcamp, and while this Horsin’ Around EP may be sold out, the WarHen Records page has plenty more Saw for sale.

Butcher Brown — #KingButch

In a year that was as eventful as any I can remember, this album shone like an event unto itself. The build-up, the singles, Mothership Mondays, finally getting to hear the whole thing… these were some of my fondest musical memories of 2020. That’s one reason why I put together a bulleted recap of those milestones on the week #KingButch was finally released. In a year that was deeply upsetting in so many ways, everything Butcher Brown did was a reason to celebrate. I feel lucky to be living in Richmond during the Butcher Brown era. If I have grandkids, I’m going to be bragging to them about that fact one day. I’m certain of it.

Deau Eyes — Let It Leave

I didn’t publish many interviews in 2020, but one artist I had the great honor of chatting with was Ali Thibodeau of Deau Eyes. Here’s a snippet from the intro I wrote for our Q&A, which was published by The Auricular:

Over the course of nine beautifully rendered songs, Thibodeau demonstrates vocal skills and versatility that were shaped by a past in musical theater, while giving listeners every reason to celebrate her decision to leave that world behind to pursue her songwriting. It’s an inspiring listen, whether you’re rocking out with the wry and retrospective lead single “Some Do,” or soaking in her soaring anthem to freedom, “Autonomy” — a live set staple that ends, simply, “Let’s begin.”

McKinley Dixon — The House That Got Knocked Down

Did y’all see this teaser clip announcing a 2021 McKinley Dixon/Spacebomb project? Mind blown. Details are scant, but whatever they’re working on, I can’t wait to hear it. In the meantime, I’ll keep spinning this excellent EP, which came out in early 2020. “Sun Back” is on one of the first mix CDs I made from my Bandcamp Friday purchases, and as a result, it’s been a constant — something I’ve come back to again and again to recharge and reset.

DJ Mentos — The Maxell Tapes Volume 2

It was so rewarding seeing this on Bandcamp Daily’s list of the best beat tapes of November. DJ Mentos’ work has an off-the-charts consistency when it comes to quality and impact. His beats hit hard, and the Bandcamp write-up confirmed as much:

The Maxell Tapes bumps from the middle of a boom-bap and trip-hop Venn diagram. These were beats for fans of Da Beatminerz and DJ Shadow, DJ Premier and Portishead. The Maxell Tapes Vol. 2 picks up where Vol. 1 left off, further mining and moving around that middle ground for more skull-cracking downtempo beats.

FM Skyline — liteware

Love this album. A few words from the very first Bandcamp Friday post, which, by my calculations, went up approximately 175 years ago:

With the backing of the 100% Electronica label, Pete Curry’s vaporwave project represents one of Richmond’s most ascendant acts at present.

Angelica Garcia — Cha Cha Palace

2020’s concert calendar was short but illustrious; I made it out to only a handful of performances before things shut down due to COVID, but the ones I did see were phenomenal. The release show for Angelica Garcia’s Cha Cha Palace was one of them. It was as magical and dynamic as the album itself, with decorations around Gallery5 that turned the venue into a living representation of the album’s visual identity. Take a look at that cover art, and imagine being immersed in that beautiful assemblage of personal history. It was so generous of Garcia to invite us in like that, and the energy she brought onstage was utterly unforgettable.

Gold Connections — Ammunition

Another artist I feel very fortunate to have spoken to for The Auricular this year (read the interview here) was Will Marsh of Gold Connections, who is as gracious in conversation as he is adept at writing songs that stay with you — both because they’re endlessly relistenable and because they pull zero punches lyrically. The material on Ammunition was written before the lockdown, but the EP feels as pointed and vital as anything I heard this year.

Hotspit — Hotspit Live Session

From October’s Bandcamp Friday post:

If you’ve been following this Bandcamp bonanza from the very beginning, you might remember that my very first Bandcamp Friday post included music by Avery Fogarty, who fronts the Richmond band Hotspit. That group just released a three-track live session, which is very exciting. I’m especially fond of the first track, which illustrates the range the group has, and how great they sound in exploratory mode. Well worth a download.

The Hustle Season — Volume 1

A quick snippet from my November Bandcamp Friday post:

I’m a relatively new listener [the The Hustle Season podcast], so I’m in that honeymoon phase of familiarizing myself with all the regular segments and recurring jokes, but no additional research is needed to know that the show’s hosts (Reggie Pace, Gabriel Santamaria, James Seretis, and Kelli Strawbridge) bring a super-deep pool of musical talent to the table, and their Volume 1 LP provides a kaleidoscopic glimpse of those varied interests and abilities.

Kids Techno — The Harmony of Spheres

While the creator of The Harmony of Spheres remains mysterious, the album’s impact has become familiar over the course of 2020, given its release right around New Year’s. With apologies to Radiohead, another fine purveyor of mystery, I put this on when I want to disappear completely. It’s such a great way to zone out or zone in — whatever you’re looking for. 

Lefthnd — ad mausoleum

From my review for the Auricular:

The album packs an abundance of ideas into 28 minutes, grabbing your attention from the outset and keeping it over the course of eight songs that form an exceedingly rewarding encapsulation of Lane’s talents as a player, songwriter, and producer.

Lonely Rooms — Until We Have To

From September’s Bandcamp Friday post:

I love this album. It’s remarkably poised, capturing moments of quiet turmoil and questioning made crystalline by melodies and structures that make you want to sing along and stay in the moment, however difficult it may be. And while there’s tremendous weight to the lyrics, closing track “Comeback” leaves you with a hopeful mantra I plan to return to repeatedly:

No alarms. No attacks.
Today wasn’t that bad.
I can take some comfort in that.
Try and figure out where my head is at.
I need strength and I find that I can
Feel it coming back.

Erin Lunsford — The Damsel

The chat with Erin Lunsford that I mentioned ahead of my covers list followed an earlier interview we did for an issue of James Magazine that came out in March. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a hard copy, but you can read the piece here. In it, she previews a solo record that would embrace her musical roots, and The Damsel is the extraordinary result of that sonic rediscovery. Lunsford has a rare vocal gift, and she pairs that power with generous, intimate storytelling for a totally distinctive set of songs — an album only she could produce. No matter where her path leads — and hers is clearly among the most promising of anyone’s in Richmond — this is an album future fans can return to when seeking a more complete understanding of her artistry.

Philip James Murphy Jr — bummer is icumen in

From the last Bandcamp Friday post of the year:

Philip James Murphy Jr has been a Bandcamp Friday MVP throughout this year… His music has a sense of melodic detail I enjoy, as well as a lived-in feeling that I’ve found to be comforting. Great winter listening.

Given that last bit, the song below may seem like an odd choice (the middle-English song it’s derived from references summer), but give credit where credit’s due: You can’t get much more right than releasing a song called “bummer is icumen in” in January of 2020. Come to think of it, WHAT DID MURPHY KNOW AND WHEN?!? We need answers.

Noah-O — DEADSTOCK VOL​.​1-8

Tremendous respect is due to Noah-O, who released an album a week from late April to mid June. Eight straight Fridays putting music out into the world, with sorely needed stories of perseverance and growth. Just incredible. A true inspiration.

Oneness of Juju — African Rhythms 1970​-​1982

Plunky Branch is another 2020 MVP. His front porch concerts were a staple of Byrd Park life for months. What a beautiful scene that was — lawn chairs, dancing, strollers, actual live music… I only made it out a couple of times, and didn’t get to stay long either time. When I did, I wished I could bottle those moments and carry them with me.

On that same day I got to see my first Plunky porch concert, I picked up a copy of this new comp from Deep Groove. The timing was impeccable; I’d just started to get into his music, and I wanted to snag something to spin at home, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Strut Records to the rescue with this excellent sampling of Oneness’ output.

Ophelia — Ophelia

From October’s Bandcamp Friday post:

A big part of past Bandcamp Fridays has been music that’s resurfaced — extra copies of pressings that had sold out, or albums that are seeing the light of day after spending some time on the shelf. This Ophelia album is such a glorious example of the latter, as it hit Bandcamp a couple of weeks ago after having been recorded back in 2010. After hearing it and enjoying it tremendously — including a magnificent listen all the way through on a long run at dusk — it’s hard to imagine this not being out in the world. 

Opin — Media & Memory

From October’s Bandcamp Friday post:

There’s a specific anticipatory joy that floods in just before you hear a new Opin song for the first time. Their track record of adventurousness means you’re never sure where they’re about to take you. It’s exhilarating — especially when, time and time again, you end up thrilled with where they’ve decided to go with their sound…

PANGEYA — PANGEYA

While exceedingly deserving of a place on this list on its own, the self-titled PANGEYA tape also stands in for the many other amazing 2020 releases from Ohbliv’s various pseudonyms. Here’s a list of the ones that were on my radar:

Bradford Thomas — Bradventure III
DarkTwaine_ — Shadow Work
DarkTwaine_ — The Hainted
DarkTwaine_ — BLACKRADIANCE
DarkTwaine_ — L’enfants Savage
Ohbliv — Foreverpayingdues
Ohbliv — LewseJoints Number 8 (a)
Ohbliv — LewseJoints Number 8 (b)
Ohbliv — Spirit Medicine
Ohbliv — Spirit Medicine B Sides

Only a legend like Ohbliv would warrant his own list within a list like this. And we’re not even factoring in the beats of his included on other amazing albums. Speaking of which…

Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin — FlySiifu’s

From December’s Bandcamp Friday post:

I already have my copy of FlySiifu’s, but I thought I’d include the album here for two reasons: 1. It’s excellent and well worth your Bandcamp bucks, and 2. The merch associated with it is A+. Can’t-miss holiday shopping right here. The work shirts are mostly sold out, sadly, but there are still long sleeve shirts and sweatshirts, among other items. Consider it a rule going forward that if your album invents/takes place in a fictional record store, and you then start selling merch for said fictional record store, you have my undivided attention. (Especially when said album happens to be one of the best released all year.)

Ruth Good — Haunt

I got more into cassettes this year, and was thrilled when I saw the Citrus City notification about this Ruth Good EP getting a release on tape. It’s a quick but super-substantive 4-song listen, with contributions from A-plus instrumentalists like Alan Parker and Eric Slick. (Not the last time you’ll see that name on one of these lists!) I’m especially fond of “All My Life,” which has a monster chorus that hits like something that would have been on a Traveling Wilburys album — big and memorable, the kind that makes for a killer live singalong. Hopefully one day.

Sons Of The James — Everlasting

I’ve spent a ton of time with “Things I Should Have Said” — to the point that the song’s distinctive fade-in has become a piece of music I look forward to in and of itself. No surprise there, given the mastery of sonic texture and detail that DJ Harrison brings to everything he produces. 

Spacebomb House Band — IX: The Best Played Lands

I’ve been a fan of these Spacebomb House Band tapes since they were released under the “Library Music” banner. They’re uniformly excellent and consistently surprising, and 2020 saw three new volumes added to the series. Picking a favorite out of those three is tough, since they collect so many unique moments and vibes, but I have to single out “The Bigs” from the ninth installment — a super-fierce beat that would have been right at home on Liquid Swords. So good.

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

Speaking of Spacebomb, this comp is an absolute gold mine, showing how multifaceted the outfit’s impact is, from management and publishing to production. There are gems here from local and non-local artists alike, but I was especially thrilled to see an unreleased Sleepwalkers song on here. As someone who spent the years between Greenwood Shade and Ages eagerly awaiting more of their music, I value new Sleepwalkers tunes very highly, and the sudden appearance of “Why Am I So Sad” was a real treat.   

2020 in Review Part 6: Blasts from the Past

Part 1: Duos
Part 2: Covers
Part 3: Survival Sounds
Part 4: Jazz
Part 5: Live
Part 6: Blasts from the Past (You are here!)
Part 7: RVA
Part 8: 31 Favorites

So many excellent compilations, reissues, and lost albums came out this year. And they were right on time; who didn’t want to escape the present in 2020? Then again, the more the archival release market heats up — and it shows no sign of cooling off — the more essential this category feels each year. There’s so much to learn from albums like these, whether they’re filling in a musical blind spot (as is the case with Light in the Attic’s endlessly awesome exploration of 20th century Japanese music) or helping you delve deeper into an album or artist you already loved. I’ve chosen five to highlight, but be sure to comb through the bonus list below them. So much retrospective fun in there.

Brother Theotis Taylor — Brother Theotis Taylor

I would recommend this to absolutely everyone. The joy it brings — the way it changes the air in your house when it starts spinning — is in a class all its own.

Various — How the River Ganges Flows: Sublime Masterpieces of Indian Violin, 1933​-​1952

I look at compilations curated by Chris King much the same way I look at John Coltrane’s work — I may not hear all of what more trained ears are able to hear, but the mere fact that I’m engaging with the texts and working toward a deeper understanding of them makes me feel like I’m growing. Like I’m inching taller by continuously grasping at something just out of my reach. I may jokingly call King’s earlier Third Man comps “stressful Greek music” to get a laugh out of Mrs. YHT, but I spin them often and am constantly amazed at the depth of feeling in the recordings. How the River Ganges Flows inspires and amazes in the same way.

Various — Pacific Breeze 2: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1972​-​1986

Dancing in the kitchen. Dinner on the stove. This is the stuff that comes to mind when I see the (totally gorgeous) cover art for this second installment in Light in the Attic’s excellent Pacific Breeze series. It’s so fun. This has been my go-to album for celebrating something, whether it’s actual good news or just the elusive event that four cooped up family members are in a good mood at the same time. LITA’s ongoing reexamination of 20th-century Japanese music is truly a gift that keeps on giving.

Various — The World Is a Cafeteria: American Soul Music (and one song from Ghana) 1955-1998

Time and time again, Cairo Records manages to put together soul collections that are otherworldly in terms of their impact. These compilations hit hard, in a way that reminds me of the supernatural quality folks often cite when describing Harry Smith’s work on the American Anthology of Folk Music. It’s like the tracks gain power by being next to one another. This is the fifth comp from Cairo, and while each one is utterly brilliant, the last side of this set is a cut above — the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down” gone Ghanaian, Nina Simone’s version of “Suzanne,” and a downtempo version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that may actually eclipse the original version Prince’s estate finally released a couple years back. Don’t believe me? Listen below:

Gillian Welch — Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs

This would be a stunning set of songs regardless of how they came to be. But once you know the backstory for Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs — how these compositions were whipped up quickly to satisfy an unwanted publishing contract (Hanif Abdurraqib’s New York Times piece is a great place to read more) — listening to them is like looking directly at the sun, or trying to imagine how many times you’ve blinked in your life. The scope of her talent is just incomprehensible.

Case in point: I picked “Here Come the News” as the opening track for one of my Bandcamp Friday mixes simply because it has the word “here” in the title and therefore fits a dumb naming scheme I’ve been trying to keep going each month. I’ve since gotten to know “Here Come the News” inside and out and am convinced of two things: 1. It could be the best song on just about anyone else’s album from the last 50 or 60 years, and 2. I would reach that same conclusion if I were to arbitrarily obsess over any of the other 47 songs on Boots No. 2.

While I eagerly made my way through Vol. 1, I’m taking my time with the second and third. The sun lets you look a little at a time, right?

Other reissues/archival releases I enjoyed this year:

Robbie Basho — Songs of the Great Mystery
Bon Iver — Blood Bank (Having the whole thing on one side at 33 1/3 RPM with live versions on the other side is A+.)
John Coltrane — Giant Steps 60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition
Bill Evans — Live At Ronnie Scott’s
Joni Mitchell — Live At Canterbury House – 1967
Oneness Of Juju ‎– African Rhythms 1970-1982 (more to come on this one)
Tom Petty — Wildlflowers & All the Rest
The Replacements ‎– The Complete Inconcerated Live
Various — A Little Bit at a Time: Spacebomb Family Rarities
(more on this to come on this one as well)
Wilco — Summerteeth
Neil Young — Homegrown