2020 in Review Part 3: Survival Sounds

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

It’s no secret or revelation that music has been a balm for many during 2020. (Big year for the word “balm” in general.) I think everyone had their own survival sounds this year — albums they held especially close, or turned to when things were rough. These are mine. These were the albums I’d spin first thing in the morning in an attempt to inoculate the day against stress and fear, knowing full well they’d come anyway. Day after day, this music would fill me with hope — a fleeting and irrational yet powerfully meaningful hope that I might not have found otherwise. I can’t possibly express the gratitude I owe these artists, but this list is my way of trying.

Alabaster DePlume — To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals, Vol. 1

I found out only a few weeks ago that the material on To Cy & Lee isn’t new — that this set represents the culmination of years of work and creative community building. (For more on his process and inclusive mindset, take a look at this Aquarium Drunkard interview.) To have that fact sneak up after so much listening was a jolt, but it also falls in line with the openness of this music. These tunes feel infinite, like I could keep finding new things in them forever. They make time and space seem less restrictive. Each song becomes a place to vanish into. That’s something the creators of the next album on this list know a thing or two about as well…

Elkhorn — The Acoustic Storm Sessions

A quick snippet from the review I posted back in September:

…I was so thrilled to learn that The Storm Sessions has a companion album on the way. Elkhorn has teamed up with the Centripetal Force and Cardinal Fuzz labels to release an addendum in the form of The Acoustic Storm Sessions — another pair of side-long pieces improvised at Gardner’s home studio during that fated blizzard, captured the night before the recordings that made up the original album…

If there were ever a time when we needed internal experiences that have the power to transport and connect us, this would be it. I suppose it’s ironic, then, to be so thankful these gifted improvisers were stuck in place when and where they were, but I am. Doubly so, now that we have these new acoustic sessions.

Mary Lattimore — Silver Ladders

It’s hard to put into words just how much Mary Lattimore’s music has meant to me during 2020. I’d guess that she’s second only to the Grateful Dead (looking at you, 36 from the Vault) in terms of listening time this year. I’ve spun the albums she’s released with Mac McCaughan (New Rain Duets and AVL) repeatedly. I scooped up a copy of her collaboration with Elysse Thebner Miller when a cache of copies became available on August’s Bandcamp Friday. I paid in British pounds to have her Luciferin Light cassette sent across the pond, and then spent the next handful of nights listening to nothing else. And then there’s the main event: an instant-classic of a new full-length — the first under her own name since I started exploring her output in earnest.

It could almost go without saying that Lattimore’s music has healing powers, but I want to say it loud and clear, for the whole interweb to hear, and for her to hear, should she stumble across this tiny corner of the blogosphere: Mary Lattimore is a true 2020 hero. The “music as balm” idea has become a cliché at this point, but that doesn’t make it any less true, and Lattimore’s music, which is just as daring as is it comforting, made this shitty year better. I’ll be forever grateful.

Gia Margaret — Mia Gargaret

Here’s what I wrote for my May Bandcamp Friday post:

Speaking of music that’s helping right now, I’ve found ambient music to be an essential part of my daily listening diet these days, and I can’t wait for this full album to be released. The first two tracks are meditative gems, and I could see this getting a ton of turntable time when my copy arrives.

I saw right. I’ve spun this one countless times since it arrived. “body” has been especially essential during a year in which I’ve tried to develop healthier habits while fighting the near-constant urge to interpret any off-kilter signal from my system as evidence of illness’ onset.

Joe Westerlund — Reveries in the Rift

Joe Westerlund goes deep. As the drummer for Megafaun, he carved out the pulse for an updated take on roots music — not unlike another drummer whose bearded profile bears a striking resemblance. As Grandma Sparrow, he mined the depths of some truly sublime weirdness to create the wackiest children’s album you’ll ever hear. (I wish y’all could have seen it come alive as I did here in Richmond in 2014. It was wild.) And on Reveries in the Rift, he’s plumbed percussion itself to collect sounds and rhythms that feel closely connected to the very act of being alive. It’s one of the albums I regularly reach for after waking but before making coffee. I’m a worrier by nature, but I’m not a pessimist; I’m certain of that because in that moment where I pick the first album of the day, I’m always hopeful that by choosing the right one, I’ll be setting the day off on its ideal course. In that sense, Reveries in the Rift may be the album I trusted most in 2020.

2020 in Review Part 2: Covers

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

Covers were such an important part of the musical landscape in 2020. I’d say this was most evident in the spring and summer, when bands started launching video series in which individual members would record their parts remotely and piece them together to create one bittersweetly fractured whole. I hope you were following Butcher Brown’s Mothership Mondays during that time. So good. Another great series was Erin & the Wildfire’s, and I spoke with Erin Lunsford about those clips for a piece that didn’t end up being published. She encapsulated the meaning of these videos beautifully:

“We miss each other a lot,” the group’s leader and vocalist Erin Lunsford said. “And it’s really hard to collaborate on original material when we’re not together, because that’s usually where our good ideas come to light — when we’re jamming and fleshing stuff out in a group setting… But these covers feel really good. It feels like we’re still doing something creative.”

Some of the cover albums listed below were motivated by that same drive to create in the face of unprecedented challenges. Others, like the Aquarium Drunkard comp, were already in the works. But all of these albums reminded me of the determination it took to make it through 2020 as a musician, and of the ingenuity I saw and so admired.

Lambchop — TRIP

You had me at “13-minute version of a Wilco song.”

Wesley Schultz — Vignettes

Lots to enjoy here, from Springsteen to Sheryl Crow, and Schultz does a characteristically excellent job of tugging at heartstrings throughout, but his rendition of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” is a tour de force. It’s one of Mrs. YHT’s favorite songs, and she and I had a conversation while listening to this version in the car about the decision to drop the tempo and highlight the story’s mournful side. Doing so makes the most of lyrics like “The price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings,” and while Schultz did some editing to keep the length down on an already-long song that’s been slowed down, what’s left is a take on the song that feels essential — something that needed to be in the world.

Various — Lagniappe Sessions Vol. 2

Aquarium Drunkard was a crucial sanity-maintenance agent during this bonkers year we’ve just had, and it’s gotten to the point where you can sign me up sight-unseen for just about anything they write about or make, Lagniappe Sessions very much included. Picking a song from the Lagniappe Vol. 2 comp to embed below was very, very tough. I’m in awe of Joan Shelley’s take on “I Would Be in Love (Anyway),” and I’m a sucker for just about any recording of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” but I love it when a cover song brings me closer to an artist I’d been hoping to learn more about or understand better, and that’s what Erin Rae’s version of Scott Walker’s “Duchess” has done.

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings — All The Good Times

Back in September I wrote the following in a review of Elkhorn’s The Acoustic Storm Sessions:

The most compelling music I’m hearing these days reflects the moment we’re experiencing, not just by addressing current challenges and opportunities lyrically, but also by letting our broken, unvarnished humanity show through. Whether it’s a collection of covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment, or experimentation with new techniques and tools, I’m finding the most fulfillment in music that dares to document — faithfully — who we are after we’re knocked down but before we’re back on our feet. That’s certainly where I find myself these days.

All the Good Times is what I had in mind when I typed that part about “covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment,” and it’s a big part of what helped that idea crystalize. Feeling overrides precision for a listening experience that echoes the countless unseen acts of creativity and endurance that have helped us make it through the year, from songwriting to sourdough starters. Speaking of unseen, one of the clear highlights here is “Hello in There.” Rest in peace, John Prine.

Whitney — Candid

I’m not typically one to suggest certain songs are “off-limits” when it comes to covers, but “Hammond Song” gets close. The vocals that are as distinctive as they come, the production makes brilliant use of understatement… how do you add to that? (Did y’all know Robert Fripp produced the Roches’ self-titled album? I didn’t until just now.) But Whitney succeeds by grounding their version in their own falsetto-focused vocal distinctiveness, and by gently building outward to fill in some of the areas in the arrangement the original version intentionally left blank. High risk, high reward — and they nailed it.

Other cover albums I enjoyed:

Christian Lee Hutson — The Version Suicides (no longer available online)
Bonny Light Horseman — Bonny Light Horseman (sort of counts as a cover album, but its rightful spot is on another one of these lists)
Sam Gendel — Satin Doll (more to come on that one as well)

2020 in Review Part 1: Duos

Part 1: Duos (You are here!)
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

Don’t get me wrong: I’m as ready for 2020 to be over as the next citizen of planet Earth. So why, a reasonable person might ask, is there a table of contents above showing that seven more year-end lists are on the way after this one? Why would I spend extra time memorializing a year most of us can’t exit fast enough?

First of all, I don’t want to forget 2020. It sure was rough, but I think we learned a lot this year. I learned a lot about myself, and many Americans have a clearer picture than ever of who and what this country is. Toasting to a fresh start in 2021 would risk having to relearn many of these hard, important lessons about injustice and structural inequality, and I for one don’t intend on starting over in that sense.

Secondly, my relationship with the music I heard this year was especially intense. You often hear about how, for many people, the willingness to absorb new sounds and follow new artists calcifies between the ages of 30 and 40. There are a number of reasons why, and neuroplasticity is one, but I’d guess that another is that the music you hear when you’re young soundtracks a wild, tumultuous time. So many ups, downs, fears, and frustrations. You’re trying to gain control of who you are and who you’ll be, yet so much is out of your control. It seems reasonable to believe that emotional extremes imprint themselves onto the songs that drift through our lives during difficult times like those. Like this time we’re living through right now. I may not remember which albums came out in 2007 vs. 2008, but for the rest of my life, I’ll know the cover of an album that came out in 2020 when I see one. That leads me to my last reason for blurbing more titles than I ever have in one of these silly retrospective extravaganzas…

I am so deeply grateful for the music that came out this year. Despite the crushing weight they were forced to shoulder as a result of a pandemic we weren’t prepared to fight and a federal government that has decided to shove its head in the sand (among other places) day after day, the musicians on these lists managed to put beautiful, life-affirming art out into the world. And I leaned on those new albums like never before — reading reviews daily, building and trimming my playlist of recently released singles, pre-ordering from artists I was familiar with, tracking the location of records as they made their way from some other part of the country to my doorstep, doing curbside pickup at the stores here in Richmond. To say that all that helped me keep going this year would be a vast understatement. In addition to financial support (you’ll notice most of the links throughout these eight posts lead to Bandcamp pages, and I hope you’ll chip in when you hear something you like), I owe these people my sincerest thanks.

Of the eight lists I’m planning to share, three categories are new, and I thought I’d start with one of those: albums I enjoyed by artists working together as duos. Without further ado…

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger — Force Majeure

This has to be the quintessential 2020 duo album. Culled from a series of streaming concerns bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger performed together from their living room during the lockdown, the performances on Force Majeure are as revealing as they are resplendent. There’s so much life in these recordings. Words of motivation. Hellos to friends who were following along in real time. Verbal cues between the two performers. So often, recorded music aims to filter those things out, leaving only the purest musical distillation. Force Majeure is so not that. It’s is a work of radical transparency — a document of two honest and accomplished performers letting the world in. And it’s a high water mark for good that can result from bad.

Gunn-Truscinski Duo — Soundkeeper

I remember when Fleet Foxes’ Shore came out, everyone noted that the early-autumnal timing was too good to be accidental. The same seemed true for Soundkeeper, released on October 9, which happened to be the day Mrs. YHT and I took off work to take the kids apple picking in Charlottesville. Okay, so we ended up picking up two pumpkins and some donuts and gave up on the whole “picking apples” part of the trip, but it sure as hell felt like fall that day, and I played Soundkeeper while driving down I-64 and feeling thankful for a rare and restorative respite from the pre-election ugliness that seemed to be everywhere you looked.

Leo Kottke & Mike Gordon — Noon

“Interplay” is a word you might expect to see in a blog post about duo albums, but Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon make collaboration seem truly playful. They combine virtuosity with a deep confidence in one another (check out their Talkhouse podcast episode for more on that), giving these songs an uncommon sense of freedom. As masterful and complicated as their respective techniques may be, Noon is as bright and fun as anything I heard in 2020 — perfect for a spin on the weekend when everyone’s in the kitchen mixing it up before obligations intervene.

Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson — Chicago Waves

Was tough deciding which posts this one should end up in. It’s a live album — an improvised set recorded when percussionist Carlos Niño and violinist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson opened for Jeremy Cunningham as a duo in late 2018. It’s also on a short list of the most curative music I turned to in 2020. (A hint at another new category in this year’s retrospective.) But this list is where Chicago Waves seems most at home, given how remarkable it is that it’s the work of just two people. These pieces feel fully realized and three-dimensional — more narrative than you’d expect improv to be and wonderfully evocative. Yes, it’s soothing, but the more you zoom in, the more your close listening can be rewarded.

Jim White and Marisa Anderson — The Quickening

Something clicked when I heard The Quickening. Don’t tell Steve Gunn and John Truscinski, but I actually needed to hear this before I jumped into G-T Duo’s work with both feet; I had tried out Bay Head a couple of times, but felt like I was on the outside looking in. It was locked. The Quickening was the key that allowed me to access this form — this stark pairing of instruments maneuvering boldly without bass to anchor the whole endeavor — more meaningfully. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment when the door handle finally turned, it was probably when I heard “18 to 1,” a song that’s among the album’s calmest musically, but don’t be fooled — it packs an emotional wallop, producing a heady mix of emotions ranging from relief to regret. Proof of just how much you can do with just drums and guitar.

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

Here we are. The last Bandcamp Friday of the year. Maybe the last one ever. (Has anyone heard if they’re doing more next year?) It’s been a trip, y’all. If you’ve been following along with these posts, I hope you’ve found some fun new tunes here and there, and I hope you’ve been using these monthly events as a way to take stock of how important it is that we support the art that matters to us. Since it’s December, this month’s list includes a few extra merch alerts, in case you’re on the hunt for holiday gifts to send the music-loving cousin/niece/cousin’s niece on your shopping list.

Without further ado…

Iris DeMent — “Going Down to Sing in Texas

Learned about this powerful protest tune (proceeds benefit the Poor People’s Campaign) from Spencer Tweedy’s email newsletter. Are you subscribed to Spencer Tweedy’s email newsletter? I’d recommend it highly. Merch alert #1: His new book on home recording would make a great gift, if there’s anyone in your life who’s into that sort of thing.

Dezron Douglas & Brandee Younger — Force Majeure

Pure bliss in the form of bass and harp. One of the categories I decided to add for the 2020 year-end list extravaganza was duo albums, and this epitomizes why those are so relevant this year: musicians leaning into the way circumstances unavoidably inform scope, thereby making something that’s in perfect harmony with this far-from-perfect moment. One quick note about the label that’s releasing this one: International Anthem is running a deal on bundled 45s that may already be sold out by the time you read this, but if it’s not, it’d make a great gift for any vinyl-spinning jazz lover in your life.

Landlady — Landlady

Pre-orders going live for a new album from one of my very favorite bands on the entire planet would be an event unto itself, but that happening on Bandcamp Friday is like when a fast food restaurant or state fair booth finds a new way to combine two of your favorite foods into one exceedingly delightful thing. So I guess that makes Landlady’s self-titled album the Luther Burger of Bandcamp Friday — only without the ignominious distinction of being dubbed “a cardiologist’s worst nightmare.” In truth, I don’t believe the medical community has issued any findings at all relating to this album, but in my non-medical opinion, lead single “Supernova” is very good for your heart, as all of Landlady’s music is. Can’t wait to hear more of the new tunes.

Philip James Murphy Jr — darkness seen and the sound in between

 

Philip James Murphy Jr has been a Bandcamp Friday MVP throughout this year, and it feels fitting to end the year by recommending his latest, which I believe will be his most fully realized release of 2020 in terms of running time — a nine-track album entitled darkness seen and the sound in between. I’m excited to get to know this one as I have the singles and EPs he’s shared 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.

Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin — FlySiifu’s

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.)

Esther Rose — “Keeps Me Running

I’m late to the Esther Rose party, but the buzz around her recent covers EP started echoing when I saw Father/Daughter Records’ notification about the release of “Keeps Me Running.” Really glad I listened to those echoes. This chorus is going to help me make it through what I’m sure we can all agree is going to be, with apologies to the Counting Crows, a long-ass December.

Other releases on my radar today:

DarkTwaine_ — Shadow Work
Lee Han — PIWA PI
Bryan Hooten: Solo TromboneIsolation
Mdou Moctar — Mdou Moctar Mixtape Vol 8
Eric Slick — “Can We Still Be Friends” (Todd Rundgren cover)
Nathan Salsburg — Landwerk No. 2
Various — Going to Georgia (Merge Records comp to benefit the Georgia senate run-off)
Alan Good Parker — “Johnsburg, Illinois” (Tom Waits cover)
The Mountain Goats — The Jordan Lake Sessions: Volumes 1 and 2
Ohbliv — Foreverpayingdues

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

How’s everyone’s week going? Anything eventful happening? In all seriousness, if you’re like me, you could use a reason to stare at something other than election results. Bandcamp Friday to the rescue once again. In truth, Bandcamp waiving its fees for a day is more than an excuse to stop doomscrolling. We seem to be entering a new phrase of the pandemic-prompted pause on live music, given that case numbers are climbing to record highs, and I’m more motivated than ever to send love and support to the artists who are releasing new music out into a world that’s desperately in need of the kind of fulfillment only art can provide.

This time around, I thought I’d zoom in on folks with Richmond connections. I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen with the election, but I know that looking out for one another listening more deeply are going to be crucial along the road ahead. As I said in my post on election day, I love you all, and I think you’ll find some new music you love below:

Gold Connections — Ammunition

I posted back in June about Gold Connections’ previous release, a searching standalone tune entitled “Iowa City” that was recorded in isolation during The Year of Our Lord 2020™. These tunes, on the other hand, came from sessions that predated COVID, and while these have a full band feel that distinguishes them from “Iowa City,” it feels like it’s all part of one big winning streak in which Gold Connections is releasing one crisp, memorable tune after another. If tapes are your thing, be sure to grab one of these before they’re gone. I certainly will be.

Sons Of The James — “Everlasting

The full-length debut from this dynamic duo of Rob Milton and DJ Harrison is due 11/19, and I can’t wait to hear the whole thing. All the singles (including “Things I Should Have Said,” which was featured on HBO show Insecure) have been excellent, and this last one, “Everlasting,” is no exception.

Bradford Thomas — Bradventure III

When I started making mix CDs that compiled select Bandcamp Friday downloads, I decided on a no-repeat artists rule — as a way to keep things fresh, and as an extra incentive for being adventurous when the next Bandcamp Friday rolled around. Beat craftsman Ohbliv has sidestepped that rule repeatedly thanks to his many pseudonyms — I’m pretty sure only one or two mixes HAVEN’T included sounds he made. This is my first purchase on his Bradford Thomas page, but I bet it won’t be my last.

Big Kahuna OG — HOW TO MOB, Vol. 1

More brilliance from the Mutant Academy contingent — this time a beat tape from Big Kahuna OG, who is half of the combo that brought you standout 2019 LP Holly Water. I’ve been enjoying all of HOW TO MOB, Vol. 1, but “SCHEME THRU THE VONAGE” is an early favorite, with layer upon layer of sound inviting you to lose yourself along the way. So good.

The Hustle Season — Volume 1

The Hustle Season podcast has been my go-to auditory coping mechanism during this unfathomably tense week. Speaking of losing yourself — it’s been such a relief disappearing into discussions of Phil Collins’ relationship troubles, magician-shaming, and the surprising awesomeness of the AC/DC comeback. I’m a relatively new listener, 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. I definitely recommend giving “The Day The Nationalists Came” a listen as a way to process the week’s political news. In that sense, the Hustle Season has helped me both escape from and engage with this challenging and historic time. I’m deeply grateful.

tangent — “gone in your eyes

More Kelli Strawbridge! The versatile member of some of my favorite Richmond groups (including Mekong Xpress & the Get Fresh Horns) has shared a new song under the stage name tangent. Love the feel and flow of this one. Looking forward to hearing more tangent tunes.

Mitchel Evan — “Leeches

Richmond singer-songwriter Mitchel Evan has kept a steady stream of new music coming throughout the quarantine, including a seven-song EP entitled Don’t Tell Me It’s Gonna Be Alright that was released in April. (Also available on Bandcamp!) His latest is called “Leeches” — alongside previous single “Band-Aid,” it heralds an LP that promises to be one of the city’s 2020 Americana highlights.

Other releases on my radar for today:

Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol. 7
Jaimie Branch — SOS sessions 3
ragenap & the Baked Growhouse Orchestra — “the national anthem
DJ Mentos — The Maxell Tapes Volume 2
Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell — Live at the Shoals Theatre
Angel Bat Dawid & Tha Brothahood — LIVE

VOTE

Today’s the big day, y’all. I know a lot of folks have already voted, which is awesome. And heartening. But if you’re reading this and haven’t yet made your voice heard in this incredibly important election, please drop what you’re doing and go vote. And if you know someone who’s considering sitting this one out, send a friendly reminder. I don’t know what the next few days will look like, but I do know that the future will look a whole lot brighter a whole lot sooner if a whole lot of people go to the polls today with love in their hearts.

A few voting resources that might come in handy:

Polling place locator
What should I bring with me to the polls?
Election Protection Hotlines

I thought I’d also share a song worth taking with you (literally or figuratively) when voting today. I’ve been enjoying the cover of Neil Young’s “Lotta Love” that Helado Negro put out last week — with contributions from Flock of Dimes, Devendra Banhart, and Richmond’s own Trey Pollard. Win or lose, these lyrics chart a clear path for the road ahead:

It’s gonna take a lotta love
To get us through the night
It’s gonna take a lotta love
To make things work out right

If you’re reading this, whether you’re hopeful, confused, stressed, or just eager for this election to be over with, I want you to know that I love you. And I promise whatever happens, it’ll help to have this song in your heart.

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween, y’all! I hope everyone is able to find ways to celebrate that are safe, spooky, and surpassingly sucrose-soaked.

A quick recommendation on the spooky side of things: Pumpkin, the new musical radio-play from Adam Schatz of Landlady.

In addition to being one of my favorite musicians on the planet (follow the Landlady tag at the bottom of the post for more on that), Schatz is one of my favorite writers on the planet, having penned a number of incisive essays for The Talkhouse that address heavy stuff — COVID-19 isolation, the perils of South by Southwest, and the creator-creative dichotomy — with humanity and generosity, and a clarity that can make it feel like he’s speaking directly to you. His honesty is consistently inspiring. I always leave Landlady shows feeling changed for the better, and I feel the same way after reading something he’s written.

He’s also hilarious, and Pumpkin — which takes the form of a scary bedtime story in which humans and monsters live (and die) side-by-side, parents strive to connect with their kids, and serial killers sing about crafting — is bursting with levels of moment-to-moment brilliance and silliness that only Schatz is capable of. It had me literally laughing out loud multiple times while running around my neighborhood this past week. I’m already an unsettling sight when jogging these days, thanks to COVID and early sunsets; my mask and headlamp make it look like I’m late for a surgery that’s happening just down the block. Add in laughter and you’ve got something truly special. Happy Halloween, I guess?

Per Schatz’s request, my favorite Pumpkin joke has to be the self-doubting student reporter singing “They call me a loser just because I always lose / Maybe they’re right.” Kills me every time. (Halloween pun very much intended.)

Much like his last festive radio-play, The Holiday Party, Schatz largely wrote, recorded, and edited Pumpkin himself, though it comes to life via a wildly talented cast of voice actors (Charlyne Yi is the fear-craving title character), and a band that includes Richmond’s own Pinson Chanselle on percussion. It runs about two hours — perfect for a leisurely Saturday early in-person voting experience. Did I mention it’s the last day for early voting in Virginia? Please vote, y’all. And if you end up enjoying Pumpkin, you can download the soundtrack over at Bandcamp for $10, with proceeds going to the The Okra Project.

You need a Stitcher Premium account to listen, but free trial options are available, and a few of the songs are streaming on the Bandcamp page. Hear “Pumpkin’s Fears” below:

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

Happy Bandcamp Friday, y’all! I’ve been eager to get this list out into the world since the first item hit the ‘camp a couple of weeks ago, so without further ado, here are this month’s recommendations. Remember, fees are waived, so it’s a great day to show your support.

Ophelia — Ophelia

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. It immediately feels canonical, given the strength of these tunes and the involvement of two Richmond favorites: David Shutlz (a Bandcamp Friday favorite) and Jonathan Vassar, who you might remember from the excellent Lonely Rooms album I wrote about last month.

PJ Sykes — “Rain in to the Sea”

Speaking of David Shultz, I absolutely love the “Rain in to the Sea” cover PJ Sykes released today. What a perfect illustration how a song can vibrate harmoniously on wildly different wavelengths. (Ocean pun fully intended.) Halfway through this new version, it’s easy to imagine the song having been written with this arrangement in mind, especially when it comes to the delivery of the central metaphor. So cool. And can we all agree this cover art wins Bandcamp Friday?

Opin — Media & Memory

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, from their self-titled full length in 2017, to the EPs they’ve released since (including a cover of Mariah’s “Shinzo no Tobira” that I’ve listened to approximately 1.5 million times since it came out). I’m on pace to catch up with that play count when it comes to the first two songs from their upcoming LP, Media & Memory — out 10/30 on WarHen Records. I couldn’t decide which to embed below, so they’re both there. And while I don’t know where the other seven tracks on the album will go, I know by now to sit back and enjoy the ride, because Opin’s sense of sonic navigation is as good as it gets.

Bartees Strange — Live Forever

We’ve all heard “You are what you eat,” but “You are who (whom?) you hear” seems increasingly applicable the more time we spend with earbuds in catching up on the podcasts that reflect and shape our thinking about the world. The voice that’s been bouncing around my brain most during the pandemic has been Steven Hyden’s; his 36 from the Vault podcast about the Dick’s Picks Grateful Dead live album series has been my primary means of auditory escape. As a result, the line between his thinking on music and mine is starting to blur, and when he tweeted the following, I was eager to snag my own seat on the Bartees Bandwagon™:

Live Forever promises to be one of this year’s most celebrated albums, and today’s the big release day. I’m 100% in. It’s so good. The “Half Orange/Half Bone” pressing I snagged is sold out, but he recently added a “Red with Bone & Orange Splatter” variant, and copies of that are still available. Don’t sleep. As a side note, the Hyden-Strange connection came full circle with the publication of this Uproxx interview. Don’t sleep on that either. No sleeping whatsoever, ok? It’s Bandcamp Friday!

Hiss Golden Messenger — School Daze: A fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students

This is the second live album Hiss Golden Messenger has released during the pandemic — click here for my post about the first one. Proceeds are going to the same great cause — the Durham Public Schools Foundation — but not a single song is repeated from his previous live release, which is fun. One other Hiss-related recommendation: If you’re not already signed up for M.C. Taylor “Kitchen Table Speculator” mailing list, I recommend it highly. He includes poetry, books and music he’s been enjoying, and words of hope like these:

I realize that life is chaotic and complicated right now. I’m trying to remember to take some time each day or week to thank the folks that keep showing up, nose to the grindstone, every day. I’m trying to give back to my community with emotions as well as dollars. If you have the bandwidth, please consider donating your time, money, or other resources to an organization doing good work in your community. I’ve found it’s the best way to alleviate feelings of hopelessness.

I plan to heed that excellent advice by downloading School Daze right about now.

Hotspit — Hotspit Live Session

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.

Other items on my radar today:

Sam Gendel — DRM
Spacebomb House Band — X: Kernel Eternal
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol 6
Phil Cook — From the Kitchen: Winston​-​Salem, NC – 10​/​27​/​​2018 @ Ramkat
ragenap — “masters of war” (benefits Sustain Chicago Music)
Various — Good Music to Avert the Collapse of American Democracy, Volume 2 (benefits Voting Rights Lab)
John Moreland — Live at The Grey Eagle – Asheville, NC – 6​/​9​/​19
addy — re call/bug (benefits MAD RVA)
Durand Jones & The Indications — “Power To The People
Avery Fogarty — “sunken cities

Elkhorn

I’ve been leaning on music like never before these last six months. The records I’m spinning at home have been helping to drag my soul from one anxiety-ridden day to the next, and my copy of Elkhorn’s The Storm Sessions, which came out on physical formats in February, has been doing quite a bit of that heavy lifting. Its origin story is tailor-made for this frightful time; two side-long improvised pieces that represented the lemonade made when life gave the guitar duo of Jesse Sheppard and Drew Gardner lemons in the form a gig-killing blizzard. Snowed in with multi-instrumentalist friend Turner Williams, Elkhorn made magic. In turn, I’ve made it through this ordeal more emotionally intact than I might have otherwise.

Speaking of accumulation, I was recently organizing the records I’ve bought during COVID era — definitely more albums than usual, given the way ordering online provides a boost both in the present and the future — and I stopped when I got to The Storm Sessions. Should it sit with 2020 live albums, maybe next to that excellent Joan Shelley Live at the Bomhard set that came out a few Bandcamp Fridays ago? Should it hang out with conventional studio albums like Waxahatchee’s masterstroke, Saint Cloud? The sessions did take place at Drew Gardner’s home studio in Harlem, yet their searching sound and the circumstances that brought them about seem antithetical to the premeditation that defines the latter end of the live-studio continuum. Improvisation requires real-time reaction. It’s singular. There might not be an audience, but it’s as “live” as it gets.

Does it really matter where I file my records? No, but improvisation does matter. It’s what we’re all doing right now. Faced with a global pandemic, an economic downturn, and more time at home than even Daniel “I Like to Be With My Family” Tiger knows what to do with (don’t worry, he’s working through it), we’re being forced to adapt on a near-constant basis. Each day, we scan the most up-to-date dimensions of this weird and difficult situation, and we adjust, because not doing so would be like wishing the sky were green instead of blue, or wishing that it hadn’t snowed so much on the night you had a gig you were really looking forward to. Maybe it’s unsurprising that skilled musical improvisers made the most of a bad situation. (Maybe we could stand to follow musicians’ lead more often.)

To be clear, this isn’t about force of will, or about grinning and bearing it. Quite the opposite. It’s about a type of strength that can only grow out of an appreciation of one’s vulnerability — of the fact that being in the world means being changed by it. The most compelling music I’m hearing these days reflects the moment we’re experiencing, not just by addressing current challenges and opportunities lyrically, but also by letting our broken, unvarnished humanity show through. Whether it’s a collection of covers captured imperfectly on home recording equipment, or experimentation with new techniques and tools, I’m finding the most fulfillment in music that dares to document — faithfully — who we are after we’re knocked down but before we’re back on our feet. That’s certainly where I find myself these days.

It’s why I continue to find comfort in The Storm Sessions, and it’s why I was so thrilled to learn that The Storm Sessions has a companion album on the way. Elkhorn has teamed up with the Centripetal Force and Cardinal Fuzz labels to release an addendum in the form of The Acoustic Storm Sessions — another pair of side-long pieces improvised at Gardner’s home studio during that fated blizzard, captured the night before the recordings that made up the original album. This is Elkhorn’s first entirely acoustic album, and while Turner Williams does appear on these recordings as well, the tighter instrumental focus remains a compelling facet — a narrower passageway for a two-stage journey that’s no less ranging. The way the guitarists are able to draw in close to one another in spots affords the moments of contrast a whole other richness, and their expansion and contraction along that axis makes for rewarding listening wholly distinct from where they end up traveling.

Still, as with all of Elkhorn’s work, the “where” is such a gift. Oh, the places you can go while sitting and listening to Sheppard and Gardner (and Williams, in this case) build musical landscapes and chart winding, serendipitous courses through them, all while leaving you room to fill in your own imagined details along the way. I have a silly, wordless ritual for when I put on an Elkhorn album: I tend to imagine myself settling into a dream alongside one of the architects from Inception, ready to experience a world that transforms in front of my eyes. (The fun parts of the movie, minus all that stressful corporate espionage.) That ritual started as a result of an Instagram comment penned by James Adams of the Aquarium-Drunkard-hosted Bob Dylan bootleg show, Pretty Good Stuff. He concluded, “It’s like you can walk around inside this music and find new and instant friends. It’s a tonic.” So well put. If there were ever a time when we needed internal experiences that have the power to transport and connect us, this would be it. I suppose it’s ironic, then, to be so thankful these gifted improvisers were stuck in place when and where they were, but I am. Doubly so, now that we have these new acoustic sessions.

Click here to snag a copy of The Acoustic Storm Sessions in the US, here for the UK/Europe, and check out samples of both sides below.

Butcher Brown

So much is happening in the Butcher Brown universe, y’all. Every time I try to start a post, more stuff happens, so I’ve put together a bulleted list to keep track of it all, starting back in January, when the conversation around an upcoming album started getting louder…

  • Butcher Brown has long represented a creative North Star amid the beautiful universe that is Richmond music, and in early 2020, they started shining brighter than ever. A new partnership with the prestigious Concord Jazz label. Intriguing tweets like this one. Confirmation of an upcoming album, and a lead single that hit in early March. (I stayed up until midnight that night to hear it, and “Tidal Wave” did not disappoint.)
  • Unfortunately, we all know what else hit in March. Nevertheless, this impossibly versatile and endlessly proficient group kept the momentum going with their “Mothership Monday” video series — covers ranging from Bob James’ oft-sampled “Nautilus” to “African Rhythms” by Oneness of Juju. (Here’s a news story on the series.) They played a surprise show at the reclaimed Marcus-David Peters Circle. They announced their upcoming album was called #KingButch, and when preorders were made available, I ordered my copy just about as fast as is humanly possible.
  • Over the course of the six months that followed, they released three more songs from #KingButch — “Cabbage (DFC),” the title track, and most recently, “Gum in My Mouth” — and yet, with the album’s release day in sight, they blew everyone’s mind in a whole other way when it was announced that they’d lent instrumentation to the song that would replace Hank Williams Jr.’s Monday Night Football intro music — a new version of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up.” It debuted just a few hours before I typed this sentence, and the world was a better place for it.
  • Micro-Chop just published an excellent piece entitled “Visualizing the Process of DJ Harrison.” Not directly related to Butcher Brown, but still very much worth a read.
  • That brings us to present day. Whew. It’s a lot to look back on, and I’m sure I’ve left plenty out, but it’ll all come full circle this Friday with the release of the album we’ve been looking forward to since January. Click here to snag a copy. Or a hat. Or a slipmat. As I mentioned, my preorder is in (still gold vinyl variants left!), but there’s not a single thing in that merch store I don’t want.

A quick personal note: I had the honor of interviewing Butcher Brown guitarist Morgan Burrs in January for a magazine article. The idea for that piece was that I’d speak to a few of Richmond’s leading musical voices and get a sense for the scene at that point in time, and one thing that struck me was how often Butcher Brown came up — not just in my conversation with Morgan, as you’d expect, but outside of it. They are a true source of inspiration and collaboration for so many other musicians in town, and it’s incredibly rewarding to see their innovative influence spreading so broadly. In that sense, their new album has one of the most fitting titles I’ve ever seen.

Long live #KingButch.