Tag Archives: NPR First Listen

Friday News and Notes

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Late-breaking Friday News and Notes!

  • Happy reissue day to Lucy Dacus, and happy release day to The Head and the Heart! Also to Wilco, though I grabbed a copy of Schmilco at BK Music’s listening party on Tuesday. It’s excellent. It sounded more understated and mellow when I was listening at BK, but listening at home was a whole other story. Very tense, like bottled up emotions slipping out a little at a time, with more fun weirdness and ornamentation than I heard at first.
  • Speaking of BK, while I was there on Tuesday, I flipped through their amazing new bluegrass/country section and found a copy of Tony Rice’s Manzanita. I’ve been looking for his stuff since I learned that the cover of Daniel Bachman’s Miscellaneous Ephemera and Other Bullshit album was an homage to one of Rice’s. Is Manzanita a good Rice starting point? They had a couple of others, but I kept seeing Manzanita described as a landmark/watershed album when I looked it up, so it seemed like a good bet.
  • Enjoying Amanda Shires’ new album — check out the First Listen over at NPR.
  • Another First Listen worth a… listen… Blake Mills produced Dawes’ new album. I’ve only heard a few songs, but they’re wildly interesting so far. Mills is a brilliant dude.
  • Insane run of shows coming up. Car Seat Headrest at the National on Monday, The Lumineers at RIR on Friday, then The Mountain Goats at the National the Monday after. There’s even a Willie Nelson show somewhere in the middle, though that one’s sold out. Someone please hold me to this promise: I will see him next time he comes to town.

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Pops Staples

Pops Staples

The Grammys were weird, right?

Don’t worry, I’m not here to whine about the Beck/Beyoncé thing. I’m pretty sure I’d achieve more asking my computer printer for a car loan than I would blog-complaining about who won the Album of the Year Grammy. It’s the ceremony in general I can’t stop thinking about today. Parts were OK — I liked the heartfelt tributes to victims of police violence, and I thought Sia’s Kristen Wiig assist was imaginative and fun  — but so much of the show felt like it was devised and executed by people who’d been orbiting the planet for the last year. Like organizers had been observing the music made on Earth from a distance. The awkward pairings. The myopic focus in the major categories (seemed worse than usual). The relentless and often stilted use of the word “friend” when celebrities were introducing each other. Just really, really strange.

You know what else is strange? Life. I’m not being facetious — it is.

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Asaf Avidan

Asaf Avidan

This album is a many-splendored thing, but good lord. What a voice.

Hearing Asaf Avidan’s voice for the first time is a jolt. Halfway through Gold Shadow, it sounded as natural as could be — versatile and expressive, too — but it seemed almost improbable at first. The combination of flexibility and gritty texture. He’s a reminder of something that’s easy to take for granted — that even though voices are like fingerprints, getting to hear something wholly distinct is rare and valuable.

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PHOX

PHOX

I’m keeping a list of all the new (released in 2014) albums I listen to this year. I started keeping track to make the process of picking my year-end top 10 easier, but it’s turned into this great motivator — how many can I get to by December 31? It’s shallow to view someone else’s art as an opportunity to drive up a personal statistic, but I’d guess (this is the first time I’ve kept track like this, so I can’t be sure) that I’ve already surpassed the number of new albums I listened to last year, so this whole list-keeping thing can’t be all bad.

My biggest ally in this effort has been NPR’s First Listen series. A fresh handful of albums becomes available for streaming each Sunday night/Monday morning, which tends to make the transition out of the weekend a little more pleasant. And NPR’s been on a roll — First Aid Kit, Hamilton Leithauser, Conor Oberst, Sylvan Esso, Sturgill Simpson… it’s been a gold mine lately. It’s grown into a vital wellspring, and the fact that I’ve never made it all the way through a week’s offerings gives it a bottomless feel (as does the stylistic diversity).

I was excited to see that NPR posted PHOX’s self-titled debut this week. I heard a little about the band during a recent episode of Sound Opinions, but not much, and I dove into the First Listen without reading the accompanying write-up, which makes what happened next so remarkable.

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Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis

I’m hunkering down to get a bunch of non-bloggy writing done this week, but I wanted to tell you about the A+ album I’ll be listening to while I’m working — Lights From the Chemical Plant by Robert Ellis. NPR’s doing a First Listen right now, which is how I heard about it, and I’d recommend checking it out.

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Villagers

Villagers

I’ve said it before, but it’s been a while, so I’ll say it again… I love listening instructions. Having someone tell you what music to try is great, but even better is being told the how, where and when, as well. That’s just what Villagers frontman Conor O’Brien has done with his latest album, {Awayland}. On the Villagers website, he lists the following instructions…

Maybe try it on headphones first, without interruption. I hope you enjoy.

Truth be told, by the time I saw his note, I was already 3/4 of the way through the album, and I was indeed listening through headphones. This barely qualifies as coincidental, given that new music is almost always debuted this way, for me and, I’d guess, for a lot of other people. But the second part — the “without interruption” corollary — that’s a bit more interesting, because I’d had the very same thought mere moments after I clicked play on NPR’s First Listen of the album. Almost immediately, I felt the need to hunker down for the full-album experience, despite being 30 or so minutes away from reading O’Brien’s instructions. Now that’s a coincidence worth digging our teeth into.

So why’d that happen? Why did I instinctively know that {Awayland} would be a great cover-to-cover read?

[cue Carrie Bradshaw voiceover]

Why would one album be better suited for uninterrupted listening than another?

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Youth Lagoon

Youth Lagoon

Until now, I’ve associated Youth Lagoon with time.

One of the first things I learned about Trevor Powers was that he was young — 22 when I started listening to him in September of 2011. There was also his debut album’s title — The Year of Hibernation. And then there was the fact that, despite his youngness (sorry, I can’t type “youth” and let you all think I’m the kind of person who would make that pun), it was clear that Powers’ songs looked backward in time, with nostalgic glances toward “fireworks on the 4th of July” and his ’96 Buick. In fact, “nostalgia” became something of a buzzword for the album. A sticky descriptor. A consensus adjective. Here was this 22-year-old pining for the past, while so many of us sit around pining for our early 20’s. (The idea certainly drew me in.)

I don’t mean to suggest that this analysis wasn’t/isn’t apt. Powers himself has said that the name of his project is based on feelings of nostalgia. But I wonder if his years, or relative lack of them, caused this one quality to loom overly large in people’s minds. There was more to The Year of Hibernation than longing for the past. There were brilliant dynamic relationships… memorable melodies… uplifting builds… Besides, nostalgia, by nature, isn’t totally positive. It’s unavoidable — enjoyable on some levels — but it’s also passive. It’s ineffectual. You can’t travel back in time, and there’s nothing sadder than people who are incapable of coming to terms with that reality.

That’s why I was so thrilled when I started making my way through the NPR First Listen of Powers’ follow-up, Wondrous Bughouse. Whereas everything to date has felt like it was related to time, these songs, to me, are all about space.

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