2019 in Review: Instrumental

Let’s get this retrospective party started, y’all. Once again, I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew and am attempting to blurb more albums than is remotely reasonable, but I thought I’d get rolling with a list of nine favorite non-jazz, non-RVA instrumental albums. Four posts will follow this one — Jazz, Audiovisual (new category this year, though I guess “Instrumental” is new too), RVA, and 25 Favorites. As has been the case the last few years, these are presented in alphabetical order. No ranking. Just sending love letters out to the albums that meant a great deal to me in 2019.

Phil Cook — As Far As I Can See

I wrote in the last Off Your Radar issue of the year about my connection to Phil Cook’s music, and how it distills the joy I have for the creative community that links Richmond, Durham, and Eau Claire. As Far As I Can See provides a zoomed-in view of Cook’s genius, narrowing the focus so we can see how he builds songs and melodies when words aren’t on the table. I’ve played this a zillion times since it came in the mail, often first thing in the morning on weekends or when I’m working from home. Pair with hot coffee and feeling hopeful about what the day will bring.

Ebony Steel Band — Pan Machine

I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk all wrong this whole time. In truth I haven’t spent a ton of time with the German band’s albums — just exploratory listens here and there. But I’ve always focused on the mechanical stuff. The beat. The synth sounds. The blunt vocals. This wonderful album of steel drum covers pushes melody to the foreground. Mind blown. I had no idea how gracefully these songs move. I can’t wait to get to know the original versions even better — now with a better listening toolkit.

Elkhorn — Sun Cycle/Elk Jam

Two fearless, searching albums, with approximately two million avenues for your mind to travel down while listening. Sun Cycle and Elk Jam remind me of the note Zooey Deschanel leaves Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous about spinning Tommy and seeing your future unfold — press play on either of these, close your eyes, and let your imagination run wild. You may end up in a forest. You may communicate with dead relatives. Elkhorn’s music is as infinite as your capacity for wonder.

Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan — New Rain Duets

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when I walked into Richmond Music Hall in May to see Steve Gunn, I had no idea that the “Mary & Mac” who would be opening were Mary Lattimore and Mac McCaughan, who released this gorgeous ambient album just a couple of months earlier. As far as supporting act surprises go, it doesn’t get much better than that. Mrs. YHT and I sat and ate dinner in the back of the hall while Mary & Mac painted some seriously dreamy soundscapes, complete with nature imagery projected onto the back of the stage. What a gift that was.

Ryan Lott — Pentaptych

I learned fairly early on in my Son Lux fandom that frontman Ryan Lott was also a composer, and Pentaptych has been an excellent introduction to that side of his musical brain. Quick story: I grew to love the way the piece — originally composed as ballet accompaniment — carved out musical space. The low end and high end are noticeably distant from one another, leaving this vast, vacant middle area. Turns out (and I can’t seem to find where he said this), Lott was intentionally setting the stage for the dancers, creating an openness where visual aspects of the performance could be foregrounded. I’m amazed at how clearly he was able to articulate that vision.

Bill Orcutt — Odds Against Tomorrow

Gave this a listen after Mark Richardson wrote about it for Bandcamp Daily. My first rodeo with Bill Orcutt’s music. I’ve found Odds Against Tomorrow to be richly rewarding for both the head and the heart; it forces you to flex preconceptions relating to time and dynamics, and it contains a delicately rendered version of “Moon River,” the song I often sing my kids at bed/naptime.

Rosenau & Sanborn — Bluebird

I put in my pre-order for this while on vacation in the Outer Banks. I can remember stealing a few minutes to myself and using them to listen to “Saturday,” only it was too long to get through, so I listened to it in pieces the first few times I heard it. My copy came in the mail a few months later, on a day when I really needed something wordless and nurturing and engaging. Bluebird was both figuratively and literally there for me.

Various — Industry/Water

One of 2019’s most welcome developments was Jonny Greenwood starting his own label, Octatonic Records. I’m a big fan of the Radiohead guitarist’s soundtrack work, and it’s great to know he’s planting deep roots in the realm of modern classical. The announcement of the label’s founding was accompanied by two initial releases, and I snagged the second — an LP that pairs one of Greenwood’s own compositions, “Water,” with a delightfully dissonant piece by Michael Gordon called “Industry.” Both are beautiful and challenging, and I can’t wait to see where Octatonic goes next.

William Tyler — Goes West

I get a sense of warmth from this record that goes beyond notes, chords, and instruments. It’s an atmosphere. It’s a statement of belief, rooted in a genuine appreciation for his Cosmic Americana forbears — including a Windham Hill universe that he’s helped me connect with over the past couple of years. While Goes West is certainly a fun listen, it feels as deep as anything William Tyler has made to this point.

More 2019 in Review:

2019 in Review: Jazz
2019 in Review: Audiovisual
2019 in Review: RVA
2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

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Black Friday Buying Guide

I’m away from Richmond this Black Friday, so instead of doing the Record Store Day thing, I’m taking this opportunity to scoop up a few items I’ve had my eye on online for a while. Doesn’t hurt that most labels are sending out discount codes via email. I’ve compiled a bunch of those below, along with a handful of albums I’m set on snagging.

Fiona Apple — The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

I’ve been waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for someone to repress this thing, given the $100+ price point of the existing copies available on Discogs. Vinyl Me, Please to the rescue. “Every Single Night” remains one of my favorite songs from the last decade or so, and I was lucky enough to see Mountain Man do a cover of “Hot Knife” when they recently came through Richmond. Won’t soon forget it. Not for nothing, VMP is doing a site-wide 30% off sale today…

Saw Black & The Toys — Christmas in the Background

Saw Black. War Hen Records. Christmas. Count me in. Just 100 copies were pressed, so don’t sleep on this one.

The Congress — The Loft Tapes

I had my eye on a Loft Tapes ebay listing ever since I interviewed Scott Lane of the Congress and American Paradox Records. While the resulting piece zoomed in on his role as founder of AP, I learned a ton about the Congress’ early days, including how The Loft Tapes served as an on-the-job education when it came to producing albums. It’s a killer collection. Out of print, but there’s one for sale on Discogs, and it’s available for listening via streaming services.

DJ Harrison — Vault Series #9: Thanksgiving Dinnerz

According to Bandcamp, this nine-song set is available for only a limited time. Listened to it on the way out of town yesterday morning, after “Alice’s Restaurant” and before my car’s Bluetooth connection stopped working. Fun times!

Spacebomb House Band — VI: Connected by Birth and Employment

I learned a while back that Mrs. YHT keeps one of those little packets of two saltines in her glove box, just in case some sort of apocalyptic traffic situation unfolds. My first thought was “That seems a little alarmist,” but I realized I do the same thing by keeping a walkman, an aux cord, and the latest volume in the Spacebomb House Band’s cassette series in the car at all times. And guess what? That’s what we listened to when my car’s Bluetooth crapped out on Friday! I’m late in snagging Volume VI, so I plan to remedy that over the next few days.

As promised, here are a few limited-time discount situations I’ve seen marketed. Hope they help you start the holiday season off right.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all. Make sure you spin some Ohbliv today. I’m sure as hell thankful for all the time I’ve spent with his music this year.

Oh yeah, and if your extended family isn’t yet on board with impeaching the president and removing him from office, dinner tonight is a great time to work through that.

Cheers!

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VOTE

Step 1: VOTE.

Step 2: See that Steady Sounds is offering 10% off to shoppers wearing their “I Voted” stickers.

Step 3: Zoom on over and gleefully pick out a Vince Guaraldi/Bola Sete live album you didn’t know existed.

Step 4: Thank Marty for supporting democracy.

Step 5: Write a blog post encouraging others to vote, go to Steady Sounds, and thank Marty for supporting democracy.

In case you’re not clear on Virginia’s (shameful and transparent) voter I.D. laws, here’s the rundown of what you bring with you:

And here’s a delightful version of “Black Orpheus Suite” from Vince and Bola’s Live at El Matador album:

 

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Bonny Light Horseman

Very much looking forward to this Bonny Light Horseman album. My pre-order is in, two A+ singles are out so far — “Bonny Light Horseman” and “Deep in Love” — and M.C. Taylor has declared it “the best album I’ve heard in years.”

The group is made up of Tony collector Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson (of Fruit Bats, which I’ve been getting to know quite a bit this year), and producer/instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, and they’ve set their collective sights on traditional songs that have been kicking around the British Isles for generations — super exciting if you’re like me and enjoy the conversation between the past and present this kind of album can generate. I love the sense of dimensionality you get from hearing how songs have been interpreted over the years. It’s not about judging or comparing or picking favorite versions. It’s about finding the thread that connects them, and grasping it as a means of revealing how much we have in common with people who lived before us, or who live on the other side of the world.

In that spirit, I thought I’d share a couple other versions of “Bonny Light Horseman” and “Deep in Love” I’ve been bouncing back and forth between. I can’t speak to how prominently these renditions sit lineage-wise, but I think you’ll get a kick out of them. In each case, we’ll start with the newest version and work our way backward.

Bonny Light Horseman — “Bonny Light Horseman”

Just stunning. Mitchell singing lead, saxophone adding color throughout by echoing the narrator’s displacement. I’ve listened to this dozens of times. Feels like I’ve always known it.

Siobhan Miller – “Bonny Light Horseman”

Here’s a very nicely captured live version led by Scotland’s Siobhan Miller, who recorded the song for her 2017 album Strata.

Planxty — “The Bonny Light Horseman”

Enjoying this lament but lamenting that it’s not jauntier? Planxty’s got you covered. (Recorded in the late 1970’s, from what I can tell.)

Bonny Light Horseman — “Deep in Love”

Johnson takes the lead here, and what an ideal vehicle this is for his singing. The flexibility and understated expressiveness that distinguish his voice are in full force here. Message and messenger in perfect alignment.

Matt Quinn — “Deep in Love”

An a cappella version from Sussex-based folk singer Matt Quinn. Released in 2017. A great glimpse into the source material BLH pulled from.

Gladys Stone — “Deep in Love”

This one’s for my real folk nerds. I see you over there flipping through the Folkways section, trying to decide whether you need field recordings of seagulls and butter being churned. (You do. We all do.)

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Fiddlin’

Y’all make it out to the Folk Festival this weekend?

Our weekend was packed, but I made it out for two sets I was especially invested in: Petroloukas Halkias and Vasilis Kostas playing traditional Greek music from the Epirus region (the style Christopher C. King focuses on in his book Lament from Epirus), and a performance by the Galax, VA-based Willard Gayheart Family, which included a mini-set from the namesake patriarch’s granddaughter, Dori Freeman. (If you haven’t heard Freeman’s excellent new album Every Single Star, make that the very next thing you treat your ears to.) Both groups were excellent — well worth the hectic micro-scheduling that seeing them required. As a side note, if you happened to see a grown “adult” running in plain clothes around the festival grounds in the neighborhood of noon on Saturday, Sunday, or both, just know that he felt exactly as undignified as he looked, and that he regrets nothing. (Keep an eye out for YHT-branded “Will Run for Folk Music” bumper stickers.)

As luck would have it, we’re zooming toward another opportunity for Richmond-based old-time fans to enjoy the sounds of Galax. Tomorrow (Oct. 15) evening at 7:15, the Byrd Theatre will be showing a new documentary about the Old Fiddler’s Convention, the multi-day competition that brings old-time instrumentalists from all over — and outside — the country to Galax each August. The film is called Fiddlin’, and it’s billed as “a foot-stomping celebration of true Americana and artistic expression.” I’ve never been to the convention myself, though I’ve seen a few clips and spoken to folks who are involved. It’s already on my Virginia music bucket list, and I bet it’ll be a few notches higher after tomorrow. Did I mention Dori Freeman is listed among the Fiddlin’ cast?

The showing is free (presented by JAMinc) and open to the public. Best of all, if you leave your house early enough, you won’t have to run from your car to the theater to catch the start!

Hope to see you there.

 

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Sherman Holmes

If you’ve been reading this here blog for a minute, you know I’m a big fan of the work done by the folks at Overcoast — especially their collaborations with Virginia Tourism. I loved the videos they made with Mighty Joshua and Dharma Bombs, and I’m transfixed this clip featuring singer Sherman Holmes, formerly of the Holmes Brothers Band.

Just vocals and guitar, the tune (I couldn’t find a title — maybe you know what it’s called, dear reader?) unfolds deliberately. In concert with the immeasurable depth of Holmes’ voice, the pacing leaves you hanging on each word, and it provides space for you to envision the details the lyrics describe, like the intricate scene painted in the second verse:

A gilded frame and your picture
A covered lane and your rapture
A crowded room and your laughter
A band of gold on your finger

It’s amazing how a collection of objects — a lyrical still-life — can convey such an affecting sense of time.

If you enjoy the clip, be sure to check out Holmes’ 2017 album The Richmond Sessions, which was recorded at Montrose Studios with the help of an outstanding collection of collaborators, including dobro legend Rob Ickes, Devonne Harris of Butcher Brown, and storied Richmond gospel ensemble the Ingramettes.

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Carl Broemel

Happy 4th of July? I’ll probably say that handful of times today, but this one doesn’t feel so happy. It’s hard to dial the patriotism up to 11 when your country is doing this, and your president is celebrating like this.

I put Carl Broemel’s beautiful and largely subdued 4th of July album on the turntable this morning, thinking that spinning it meant marking the occasion with an appropriate level of exuberance. The cover art certainly hits the mark, with damp coloring and a Statue Of Liberty that registers as distant and off-balance. Still, I didn’t expect to find lyrics that spoke so directly to the current political moment:

So many people are awake in the city
I see ’em walking up and down the road
Think eventually they will be sleeping
Try to find a quiet place to go
But there’s a limited number of spaces
With comfy mattresses and soft pillows
Whether your bed is just a spot on the pavement
Or an apartment on the eighty-fifth floor

You’re gonna end everyday of your life
Lying there in the dark

I’ve always thought “In the Dark” was a very pretty song about insomnia and/or death and/or the way solipsism actually unites us in a weird way. Now it feels like a meditation on conscience — the idea that at the end of the day, and at the end of our lives, we all have to reckon with what we’ve done to that point. Maybe that’s a good way to “celebrate” this year’s Independence Day.

(Might I also suggest streaming Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” a few times, or directly supporting the organization to which Apple has pledged two years of “Criminal” royalties?)

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Deau Eyes

We’ve grooved with the Budos Band. Illiterate Light lit up the night. Now it’s very nearly time to say goodbye to the 35th Friday Cheers series, but not before a finale I’ve been looking forward to since this season’s schedule was announced: Lucy Dacus. Deau Eyes. Is it tomorrow yet?

There’s a unique poetry to tomorrow’s lineup that’s worth noting before you head down to Brown’s Island. For starters, this will be Dacus’ second Cheers performance; her first came in 2016 when she opened for Kurt Vile. And while you often hear the word “triumphant” used when artists return to venues they’ve played before, it’s especially fitting here, given the rave reviews she earned last year — both for her Historian album and for the EP she released with Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers under the name boygenius — and given that hers is the headlining set this time around.

The lineup is made even more meaningful by the fact that Ali Thibodeau of opening act Deau Eyes was there in the crowd during Dacus’ 2016 show, standing front-and-center and celebrating her friend’s Friday Cheers debut. I recently had the good fortune of speaking with Ali Thibodeau of Deau Eyes for a River City Magazine article, and here’s how she described that moment in relation to this one:

Did you grow up going to Friday Cheers?

I love Friday Cheers. It’s really cool. It’s one of my favorite things that happens in Richmond. I’ve felt really privileged to have been able to have watched my friends up there doing their thing. I know when Lucy played with Kurt Vile, I was in the front row, and was so stoked. My face hurt from smiling the whole time. I feel kind of full circle because it’s definitely somewhere we would go and hang out, around Belle Isle and Brown’s Island and all of that during the summer and stroll into Friday Cheers. I’m thrilled to be a part of it this year. It feels like a real hometown accomplishment.

Thibodeau and I touched on a number of other topics in our conversation, from her upcoming album’s lead single “Paper Stickers” (embedded below) to running a successful Kickstarter campaign and creative control more generally. Click here to check out the full article and here to snag a ticket for the Cheers finale. This show is special, y’all.

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David Shultz & the Skyline

A lot can go wrong when a record is delivered to your house. Loose packaging. Careless handling. Somehow sun and rain are both problematic, which seems wildly unfair, given that those are, like, the two main things weather does.

By contrast, WarHen Records just raised the bar for how right a record delivery can go. A bag of crab chips. A Northern Neck ginger ale. The snazzy new pressing of David Shultz & the Skyline’s 2009 Rain in to the Sea album I preordered after playing it repeatedly via Bandcamp during a long weekend on the Jersey Shore with family. Here’s a shot of everything Mrs. YHT found on the porch in the early morning hours of June 14:

For context, Shultz’s recent show posters have featured a scene nearly identical to the one pictured above:

Just amazing. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of pure delight at seeing that poster come to life. It was a truly indelible moment — something I’ll smile about every time I spin Rain in to the Sea, and not just because I FUCKING LOVE CRAB CHIPS. (They were gone before the weekend was out.) WarHen has always overdelivered when it comes to shipping records, from thank you notes and stickers to bonus downloads. I’m proud to call myself a loyal customer of theirs, and I recommend heading here to pick up one of the last few available copies of Rain in to the Sea. And if you haven’t already, be sure to snag Butcher Brown’s AfroKuti: A Tribute To Fela — another dynamite WarHen release.

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