Three cheers for Bandcamp, y’all! Once again, the impressively benevolent music community and sales platform is waiving its usual 15% cut to generate extra revenue for artists, so many of whom have been hit hard by the effects of COVID-19 and social distancing. The last event like this was hugely successful — $4.3 million in sales in one day — and it’s so great to see they’re running it back. Sounds like they have a couple more planned, as well — on June 5 and July 3.
Charlottesville’s WarHen Records recently launched a series of digital singles called “No Cover Covers,” kicking things off with a great take on Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues.” Looking forward to more of these. (Volume 2 is out now.)
Satin Doll is described in its Bandcamp liner notes as (and I love this description) a “simultaneous synchronized sonic construction/destruction of well-known jazz standards.” It’s singular. It’s innovative. It sounds like the past and the future at the same time. I’ve wanted to snag a copy for a while now, and today seems like just the day to do it.
Andy Jenkins — “Far Away From Here” (feat. Erin Rae)
The age-old alchemy of masking complexity with breeziness has a worthy standard-bearer in Andy Jenkins. “Far Away From Here” seems to hang in the air effortlessly, yet the accompanying instrumental version provides a peek into the jazz-informed intricacy involved. Such a beautiful conversation between Alan Parker’s guitar and Jacob Ungerleider’s piano, echoing the A+ pairing of Jenkins’ voice with Erin Rae’s. A masterstroke of a musical still life painting here.
left.hnd — Mira
This is so beautiful. Grippingly so. I listened to this while running, and I was so wrapped up in it I don’t think I took in visual information during those eight minutes. It was like being spatially transported. The vocals and strings work together to play with your expectations for tension and release, keeping you in this perpetual state of needing the next note to happen. In terms of atmosphere, Mira makes me think about Frank Ocean. The boldness. The use of space. It’s really something. (Kudos to Calvin Brown on those amazing string arrangements.)
While you’re on left.hnd’s Bandcamp page, be sure to grab “Vessel” as well. It’s been a beam of positive energy for me throughout the last month.
Gia Margaret — Mia Gargaret
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.
Pearla — Quilting & Other Activities
This one came out last year, but I recently got a copy and have been falling in love with it all over again. These songs stick with you in a really interesting way — hours after I’ve spun the album, specific moments tend to drift around my consciousness and resurface periodically, like vivid memories that steal you away from the moment you’re in. (Then you put the album back on and start the cycle over again!)
David Shultz — “Still Here”
Very exciting — this tune wasn’t due out until next week, but it’s a Fee-free Friday miracle! I posted about Shultz’s song “Spring Forward” not too far back, when it was time to set our clocks forward for daylight savings. More recently, I’ve been spending a bunch of time with his wonderful Rain in to the Sea album — keep an eye on Off Your Radar and you’ll find out why. “Still Here” is another bright spot — life affirming, defiant in the face of fate, and demonstrative of Alan Parker’s deep and wide instrumental skill set. (That makes two mentions of Parker in this post. Is this turning into an AP fan blog? Trick question! It already was.) If you don’t have a copy of Rain in to the Sea, I’d recommend heading to the WarHen Records Bandcamp page and snagging that as well. Just a few copies left! (Yes, this is a WarHen fan blog as well.)
Various — Sahel Sounds Label Sampler 2
Sahel Sounds is making all of their downloads pay what you want, and if you’re new to their catalog, I recommend this new sampler. Mdou Moctar, Les Filles de Illighadad, Luka Productions… so much great stuff here. (If you dig Mdou, he’s got a new mixtape of live recordings and demos out today as well.)
Thought I’d throw in a few other intriguing options, lifted directly from Bandcamp’s list of participants:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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?
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…)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
What a batshit crazy week. I need a nap. Some good/fun/tuneful stuff did happen, however:
There’s a new Kendrick album! What?!? I haven’t listened, but that’s going to be my reward after I get through today’s workday and tonight’s gig.
I went on a Bandcamp binge on Tuesday. It started when Steady Sounds posted about Les Filles de Illighadad, a Sahelsounds album (great label — check out Music from Saharan Cellphones if you haven’t yet) of Tuareg music recorded in rural Niger. Listening to this — the first side especially — was probably the most peaceful thing about this entire week.
The binge continued when Spencer Tweedy posted something about chris cohen (always styled that way, it seems, like e e cummings) releasing a new album. I went to check out his last one and am now bonkers for its first track, “Monad.” The bass is really interesting, I think. Makes it a totally different song.
I’d really like to find time to write about the Patty Griffin/Sara Watkins/Anaïs Mitchell and Son Little shows — both were excellent — but in case I never do: Both were excellent.
Clair Morgan sent out a note saying his Monday Meetup at Don’t Look Back is switching from weekly to monthly. I haven’t made it to a single one of these, which I feel like a jerk about, but I am going to rededicate myself, because I think it’s a really great idea, and he’s a really great person in a really great band. Also… tacos.
Every week, Rough Trade pushes back the vinyl release of Natalie Prass’ Side by Side EP, which makes me feel like this. Maybe next Friday will be the week. Fingers crossed.
Were I not playing a gig tonight, you know damn well where I’d be — at the Broadberry, helping Lucy Dacus celebrate the release of her triumphant debut album. I’m jealous of all you lucky people who get to go, but I hope y’all have a fun night.