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.

 

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.

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.

Buy from Bandcamp today!

I posted earlier this week about how buying from Bandcamp is a great way to support artists right now, and today is an excellent day to act on that. Bandcamp is waiving their cut of all transactions today, meaning more of your dollars will go directly to artists, many of whom have seen steep declines in income as a result of COVID-19.

Here are a few recommendations, based on my buying plans:

FM Skyline — Liteware

Been looking forward to putting in a preorder for this since a few Thursdays ago, when I stayed up until midnight for the live YouTube premier of “polygon park.” With the backing of the 100% Electronica label, Pete Curry’s vaporwave project represents one of Richmond’s most ascendant acts at present. The first pressing of his Advanced Memory Suite album sold out, so if vinyl is your thing, I’d recommend acting quickly.

Avery Fogarty — #​(​$​%​&​@​*​&​)​!

Fogarty is the frontwoman of Hotspit, another ascendant Richmond act. When we’re on the other side of all this craziness, I recommend seeing them in person ASAP. Their live show is nothing short of arresting, characterized by big dynamic swings and complex guitar work. Forgary’s solo material focuses more on studies in mood and texture, and I do a joyful dance inside every time a new one shows up on Bandcamp.

The Blue Hens — Heavenly Sunlight

Brand new gospel EP straight outta Galax, Virginia, courtesy of Dori Freeman and husband Nicholas Falk. I had the chance to see them perform the title track at the Richmond Folk Festival. It’s gorgeous, not to mention rhythmically hypnotic.

Elkhorn — The Storm Sessions

A snowstorm caused Elkhorn to cancel their show, so they decided to make an impromptu album, making this a real-life manifestation of making the most of being stuck indoors.

Philip James Murphy Jr — bummer is icumen in

Murphy is a friend of a friend, and I’m so glad the intermediary introduced me to this album earlier this year. Really beautiful and varied. (How about that prophetic title?)

Whether or not you dig the tunes above, what’s important is that we keep finding ways to support musicians right now. For a way more extensive list of Bandcamp options, check out the Auricular’s amazing rundown.

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

2017 in Review: Americana

My first time splitting Americana out into its own category. It’s an admittedly nebulous distinction that’s useful in this case because it means I can list a bunch more albums that meant something to me this year. Here they are:

Bright Eyes — Salutations

Combine a wildly positive Friday Cheers experience this summer with the fact that the Felice Brothers provide a different backdrop than I’m used to hearing in Bright Eyes tunes, and you have an album that feels distinctly 2017 to me. The Felice Brothers even served as his backing band at that Cheers show. Just excellent. And yes, I did grab an official Conor Oberst harmonica at the merch table. The inscription: “Sorry for everything.”

Bright Eyes — “A Little Uncanny” [Spotify/iTunes]

Elkhorn — The Black River

A late-breaking addition. Grabbed this at Steady Sounds with Christmas money. Didn’t know it included a Coltrane number until I had a copy in my hands and could peep the back cover.

Elkhorn — “Spiritual” (John Coltrane cover) [Spotify/iTunes]

Dori Freeman — Letters Never Read

Wrote about this album on Thanksgiving. It was the kind of peaceful moment you wish for and rarely experience:

Was just in a crowded kitchen, mashing potatoes, listening to Dori Freeman’s new album, and thinking about how great a Thanksgiving soundtrack it makes… Her arrangement of “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog” is as simple as it gets — just her voice — like an old recipe rendered with care. It made for a moment of calm contentment amid a chaos for which I’m very fortunate.

Dori Freeman — “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog” [Spotify/iTunes]

Jake Xerxes Fussell — What in the Natural World

Year-end list are silly, but they can produce meaningful moments of agreement. Seeing this on Amanda Petrusich’s top-10 made me jump up and down on the inside. And if I’d gotten my shit together in time to do a top songs post, I would have put “Furniture Man” in it.

Jake Xerxes Fussell — “Furniture Man” [Spotify/iTunes]

Hiss Golden Messenger — Hallelujah Anyhow

If you’ve been to a Hiss show, you know leave about 157% more hopeful than when you walked into the venue. This album comes as close to instilling that feeling from afar as anything he’s recorded.

Hiss Golden Messenger — “When The Wall Comes Down” [Spotify/iTunes]

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — The Nashville Sound

“If We Were Vampires,” y’all. Kinda feels like that’s all you need to say, right?

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — “If We Were Vampires” [Spotify/iTunes]

The Kernal — LIGHT COUNTRY

From the cover art to the name “Kernal” to the fact that Taco Bell figures so prominently in the lyrics to my favorite song on the album… I have no idea what’s going on here. And I don’t want to know. I just want to spin this album and be happy. Light Country is about as quick a route from wherever I am to my musically induced happy place as I’ve found.

The Kernal — “At The Old Taco Bell” [Spotify/iTunes]

John Moreland — Big Bad Luv

Deep emotional intelligence. Earnest introspection. A testament to how profoundly sad music, when made honestly, can be a force for healing. Looking forward to his show at The Camel on January 14. Saw Black opening. Should be outstanding.

John Moreland — “Sallisaw Blue” [Spotify/iTunes]

David Rawlings — Poor David’s Almanack

I’m posting “Money Is The Meat In The Coconut” below because my daughter and I sang it together a few times and thinking about that makes me smile, but listen to the lyrics to “Yup.” Knocked me back when I saw it live at the National earlier in December.

David Rawlings — “Money Is The Meat In The Coconut” [Spotify/iTunes]

Willie Watson — Folksinger, Vol. 2

Got way into this after seeing Watson sing “Samson And Delilah” at that David Rawlings show in November. He also sang “Keep It Clean,” which is the last track on Vol. 1. I love that Rawlings passes the mic around like that.

Willie Watson — “Samson And Delilah” [Spotify/iTunes]

More 2017 in Review:

2017 in Review: Live Albums
2017 in Review: Blasts from the Past
2017 in Review: RVA
2017 in Review: 25 Favorites