Tag Archives: Joan Shelley

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.

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2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

Last one, y’all. I promise. Here are 25 non-instrumental, non-jazz, non-audiovisual, non-RVA albums that meant a great deal to me in 2019. Counting the other posts, I believe this sets a new high water mark for number of albums I’ve blurbed at the end of the year. I want to thank my mom for editing the RVA post, and Mrs. YHT for understanding why this quixotic quest to document the year’s listening is so important to me.

As with the other posts, these aren’t ranked. Alphabetical order. See y’all in 2020.

African Acid Is The Future – Ambiance II

This was a gift from Mrs. YHT. Les Filles de Illighadad remixed? With some additional Afrobeat thrown in? Sign me up. The best part — I ended up getting to see Les Filles in person at the University of Richmond later in the year. What a gift that was, and spinning this album is how a prepped for that performance.

Bedouine — Bird Songs of a Killjoy

This whole album is written, arranged, and played beautifully, but do me a favor and spend some time with “Echo Park.” Put on headphones and really listen to the details. The effect on the backing vocals. The winding instrumental journey that runs from 1:16 to 1:43, and the mesmerizing breakdown that follows it. It’s like a painting that’s stunning from a distance and even more compelling up close. Then zoom back out an enjoy the rest of the album, because each track is rewarding in its own way.

Better Oblivion Community Center — S/T

I keep coming back to this record. It’s sad. It’s sturdy. It’s comforting. It’s been a good friend throughout 2019, and “Chesapeake” is an all-timer. In fact, I’m adding it to my “All Time” playlist, which is home to the songs that mean the most to me in the whole wide world. That image of parents and children both coming together and growing apart with music as the backdrop — it’s so wrenching, yet the song’s tone is so gentle. Could be my favorite song released this year.

Big Thief — Two Hands
Big Thief — U.F.O.F.

There are times when you look back and realize you’d experienced something incredible. Raising kids is that way. It’s hard to know how special a time is until it’s gone. Other times, you’re knee-deep in incredibleness and you know it. That’s what it’s been like to follow Big Thief this year. An A+ album in U.F.O.F. A surprise unmarked 7-inch mailed to those of us who pre-ordered U.F.O.F. Then another A+ album in Two Hands. I like to imagine this is what it was like to be a Stevie Wonder fan in the early 1970s — amazing music coming at you at a furious pace, and a constant sense of amazement that it’s happening.

James Blake — Assume Form

I remember the jolt generated by seeing Rosalía’s name among the contributors to Assume Form. She and Blake have both mastered the art of haunting understatement, and while there’s lots to like about this album, “Barefoot in the Park” has been my main takeaway.

Bon Iver — i,i

A memory that will stick with me for a long time: Listening to the “Holyfields” Song Exploder while cleaning out my childhood bedroom.

Bill Callahan — Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Just gonna leave this here:

True love is not magic
It’s certainty
And what comes after certainty
A world of mystery

Chris Cohen — S/T

I won Small Friend’s anniversary grab bag drawing back in March, and an advance CD copy of Chris Cohen’s self-titled album was part of the haul. I listened to it over and over in the car, marveling at the way it marries folk music and modal jazz. At least I think that’s modal jazz I’m hearing. I almost put this in the jazz post, but thought that might be going too far out on a limb, given my limited understanding of music theory. But give it a listen and tell me you don’t hear shades of Kind of Blue — the way the songs shift from one musical space to another with tremendous grace.

Jake Xerxes Fussell — Out of Sight

A highlight of 2019: getting to shake Jake Xerxes Fussell’s hand and buy a record from him when he opened for Mountain Man at Richmond Music Hall back in March. I thanked him for his music, and we chatted for 30 seconds or so. Seemed like a nice person — his demeanor is an easy one, just as his delivery on his recorded material seems effortless. But seeing him perform was totally thrilling; there’s a sense of significance around the songs he sings, because of the way he bridges the musical past and present, and because of how proficiently he draws on tradition. I was standing near the back, and I remember being thankful I couldn’t see his guitar work — it made what he was doing seem magical. I feel very lucky to have been there for that show. (Mountain Man was excellent as well.)

Steve Gunn — The Unseen in Between

You how you know an album is good? When it comes out and you listen to it a whole bunch, then you see the artist later in the year and think you’re hearing songs you love from previous albums, only to realize they’re the new songs you fell in love with earlier that year. That’s exactly what happened when I saw Steve Gunn at Richmond Music Hall in May. The songs on The Unseen in Between have become old friends in no time at all. “New Familiar” indeed.

Helado Negro — This Is How You Smile

The grace and goodness of This Is How You Smile are immeasurable. The air in the room changes when this is playing, like you’re being invited to pause your life and hop on a wavelength of hard-earned peace and clarity.

Hiss Golden Messenger — Terms of Surrender

I start to feel healing happen the moment a Hiss Golden Messenger song starts playing, so a new Hiss album being released is like being handed a go-bag of medicine and provisions that can will me get through another year in this sad, nutty political environment. Like, “Here, you’ll need this.” I’m so grateful for the music M.C. Taylor makes, and Terms of Surrender is another winner in my book.

Brittany Howard — Jaime

A major regret of 2019 is not having caught Brittany Howard on her Jaime tour, but I did catch a full performance that was streamed online. So damn good. And I got downright giddy when she launched into “Breakdown,” my favorite late-career Prince song. This album is brave, varied, immersive, and affecting. Side note: I’d recommend her Broken Record interview with Rick Rubin. It’s as clear a window I think I’ve gotten into Howard’s process as a musician, and they talk about ghosts and aliens at the end.

Jr Jr — Invocations/Conversations

This double album would be a miracle based on the songs alone. Tracks like “Day In, Day Out,” “Low,” “NYC,” and “Big Bear Mountain” are evidence that Jr Jr is reaching a rarified level when it comes to crafting pop songs. But knowing what they went through on the business side — having to fight for song rights, waiting years to release the album they wanted to release — makes Invocations/Conversations seem even more miraculous. It’s a gem.

Mdou Moctar — Ilana (The Creator)

Loved his previous electric albums. Loved his acoustic album. Loved seeing him live. Loved his Third Man live album. It’s all fantastic, yet somehow, his true studio debut is still a revelation. It’s like when Jim Carrey reaches the wall in The Truman Show and walks through the door into this whole other world that’s waiting for him. The sky is the limit for Mdou. Can’t wait to see where he goes next.

Nivhek — After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house

There’s music that’s comforting, and then there’s the stuff you listen to at your lowest — stuff that keeps you afloat when it feels like you’re about to sink. “dlp 1.1” from William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, for example. It’s like I’m carrying around a life preserver, accessible by opening up Spotify on my phone. (Easier to carry around than a real life preserver. Less bulky.) After its own death / Walking in a spiral towards the house was my Spotify life preserver this year. I listened to it over and over, and I when I did, it felt like I was disappearing into it.

Daniel Norgren — Wooh Dang

If I gave out an annual award for the album that felt like I’d heard it a million times before upon the very first listen, this one would be the clear winner. I can remember going running with this and zoning out and in with the album’s flow, which is easy and organic. I ended up snagging the fancy-pantsy Vinyl Me, Please version because I love it so much. A used standard copy was on sale at Plan 9 for weeks and weeks. If it’s still there, go pick it up immediately, for the love of all that’s good and decent.

Angel Olsen — All Mirrors

“Lark,” y’all. Holy shit. I picked up a copy of All Mirrors on its release day, which happened to be the day Mrs. YHT and I were traveling to Asheville, NC to celebrate our 10-year anniversary. I asked if we could stop by Harvest Records real quick — not to look around, just to get this — and was surprised to see how many they had in stock. It was the kind of quantity you’d have if the artist were doing an in-store performance. When we got to our B&B, I set up my portable record player, started spinning the album, and pulled up Olsen’s Wikipedia page. Sure enough, it lists Asheville as her (current) hometown. Weird, eh?

Jessica Pratt — Quiet Signs

So spooky. So beautiful. I re-listened to side A today and marveled once again at the uniqueness of the mood set by Quiet Signs. It’s unlike anything else I heard all year — not sad, exactly, and not trippy. It’s interstitial, like she found a dimension in between this world and another. (Come to think of it, the album cover does kinda look like when Matthew McConaughey was floating behind the bookcase in Interstellar…)

Joe Pug — The Flood in Color

It’s too late for Christmas/Hanukkah gift recommendations, so put this in your back pocket for a vinyl-loving family member’s birthday — Joe Pug sells a bundle of his whole discography, including his debut Nation of Heat EP. Color vinyl and everything. My in-laws got it for me last Christmas, and it’s brought me a great deal of joy this year. Speaking of 2019, the Big Pug Bundle (it’s not really called that, I promise) grew by one excellent album this year, as Pug released The Flood in Color, which contains some of his sharpest writing yet.

Joan Shelley — Like the River Loves the Sea

That thing where you a song grabs your attention and puts a songwriter on your radar, and then the next new album wallops you with a whole new set of songs, each delivering on what you loved about that original song? This is one of those. “Wild Indifference” put Joan Shelley on my radar in 2017, and Like the River Loves the Sea has been an incredibly generous second chapter in getting to know Shelley’s music. Were I to make a top songs of the year post, “The Fading” would be on it.

Shovels & Rope — By Blood

Dunno about y’all, but to my ears, By Blood is indicative of a leap in songwriting, placing Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst in a whole other echelon of lyricists. These stories are so richly rendered, and while you still get their signature sound and energy, you get to live through fully formed narrative experiences. “Mississippi Nuthin'” may be my favorite of this set. So powerful. So uncanny. Like they’re talking about a friendship from your own past that you’re scared to confront.

Bruce Springsteen — Western Stars

This album has a cinematic quality that grabbed me, and I’m not surprised Springsteen turned it into a documentary film. Maybe I’m saying this because I listened to it a bunch while at my mom’s house in Norfolk, but I think my dad would have loved Western Stars. He loved old movies, and romanticization of the American West was right up his alley.

Vampire Weekend — Father of the Bride

My personal AOTY. I made more memories with this album than any other in 2019. Excitedly listening to the first few tracks, celebrating with friends via text on release day, delightedly opening my copy when it came in the mail and finding the band had signed it, seeing the band at the Norfolk stop and marveling at their merch operation, making videos of singing “2021” with my kids, spinning the album during family dinners… Father of the Bride soaked into so much of my 2019. I can’t imagine the year without it.

Whitney — Forever Turned Around

My daughter loves Whitney, and for the first time, I got to share the excitement of a new album rollout with her. Listening to singles in the car ahead of release day. Opening up our vinyl copy when it came in the mail. Spinning it at home a bunch of times over those next few days. Together, those moments form a memory I’ll hold onto dearly.

A few more albums I loved in 2019 (I’ll probably keep adding to this):

Tyler Childers — Country Squire
Justin Townes Earle — The Saint of Lost Causes
Dori Freeman — Every Single Star
Itasca — Spring
Durand Jones & The Indications — American Love Call
Anna Meredith — FIBS
The Mountain Goats — In League with Dragons
Panda Bear — Buoys
Sharon Van Etten — Remind Me Tomorrow
John Vanderslice — The Cedars

More 2019 in Review

2019 in Review: Instrumental
2019 in Review: Jazz
2019 in Review: Audiovisual
2019 in Review: RVA

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American Tunes: “Wild Indifference”

[Editor’s Note: American Tunes is a series of posts dedicated to songs that address America’s social and political challenges. For more information on the series, click here.]

This one goes out to anyone in Congress thinking about casting a yes vote today for this selfish dumpster fire of a health care plan:

In your wild indifference
It’s all centered around you
Ain’t it lonely?

Joan Shelley — “Wild Indifference” [Spotify/iTunes]

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