2017 was fucked up in a truly barf-inducing cornucopia of ways, but I can point to one way in which it was unreasonably generous — how many of this city’s talented and creative musicians I had the opportunity to meet and interview. It’s an honor to experience so directly the warmth and kindness of this city’s creators. These conversations mean the world to me, and each one makes me want to redouble my efforts and get the word out about the amazing things this city’s musicians are capable of.
Speaking of what #rvamusic is capable of, here’s my list of favorite Richmond albums, with quotes from the folks I chatted with. To those people and everyone else on this list: Thank you for giving me the gift of inspiration throughout a truly messed up year.
Afro-Zen Allstars — Greatest Hits
From my River City Magazine interview with Afro-Zen bandleader George M. Lowe:
“I do this stuff to increase the amount of joy in the world. Nothing brings people together quite like music does, and being exposed to the musical culture of some other place can result in understanding more and grasping the fact that people are much more alike than they are different.”
Saw Black — Azalea Days
So you know how Spotify spits out stats at the end of the year? My top songs were all from Moana or the Trolls movie, because I’m no longer the boss of my own car stereo. Also the Monster Mash. Halloween never really ended, as far as my daughter is concerned. The first real song on my Spotify list was “Rosie’s Comin Home.” A true crossover hit — dad and daughter singing along in the car to something not voiced by an animated character. Thank you, Saw Black. There are only so many times you can listen to the Monster Mash before you start unraveling. Yes, that was a mummy pun. I really need a break from the Monster Mash. By the way, what other song requires “the” before its title and therefore looks prohibitively strange inside quotation marks? I’ve gone back and forth about how to punctuate this paragraph for longer than I’d like to admit.
Butcher Brown — Live at Vagabond
RVA Magazine was kind enough to let me review this one. Here’s a snippet:
Live at Vagabond captures both the energy of the crowd and the virtuosity of individual instrumentalists with remarkable clarity, giving listeners a taste of Devonne Harris’ compositional gifts, his adventurous approach to keys, and the ensemble’s knack for seizing the moment.
Camp Howard — Juice
The title track is a true jam. I heard the band say they approached the instrumental work on “Juice” like they might have if they were using sampled sounds. It’s a neat thought experiment, and it resulted in a really great tune.
Dazeases — Local Slut
From my RVA Magazine interview with Dazeases:
Nevertheless, her performance style is self-made and singular. She prefers low lighting; just the night before, at a show in Charlottesville, she improvised her own ambiance using lamps she found at the venue. “Any photos — if you see a lamp on a chair, that was me.” And she described an approach to organizing set lists that involves front-loading upbeat material. “It’s really cool to watch that tone change or make that tone change happen,” she said. “I usually do an emotional slope in my sets, so it’ll start out as positive as I get for my music — it’s not really positive or happy by nature — and then just drag it down. Down, down, down. Like, unrelenting.”
DJ Harrison — Hazymoods
RVA Magazine let me review this one as well. It truly is an honor to document Devonne Harris’ brilliance as it unfolds. Here’s a section of that review:
Newcomers to the respected RVA collaborator’s solo work will get a sense for his keen ear — how he can blend disparate sounds, often from his own storied output as a producer and multi-instrumentalist, and make a cohesive musical moment.
Thorp Jenson — Odessa
Another one RVA Magazine let me blurb:
It plays like an expertly crafted survey of styles from the last 60 years, from Stones riffs and heartland rock to country waltzing and soul not unlike Matthew E. White’s. Well-worn and world-class, right out of the gate.
Sid Kingsley — Good Way Home
I was also fortunate enough to interview Sid Kingsley this year. What a brilliant, friendly, and humble person. If I were to assign a Revelation of the Year, it would be Kingsley’s voice. Arresting in the best way imaginable.
People assume that I’m influenced, and I’m trying to emulate some of these [singers]. Singing is totally a newer thing for me. It’s even newer than the piano, because I was definitely just playing piano and not singing at all. Super-bashful about it. I haven’t tried to emulate anyone vocally. Saxophone – I used to try to emulate Charlie Parker, Joshua Redman. But with my voice, I just sing. This is what I sound like.
Minor Poet — And How!
I’ve written a bunch about And How!, and Andrew Carter was kind enough to call an article I wrote the definitive retelling of how the album took shape. Here’s a link — hopefully it gives you a sense of Carter’s love for the recording process. It was a truly inspiring conversation.
That curiosity led to years of experimenting with the recording process, and if there’s one thing And How! makes perfectly clear, it’s that Andrew Carter loves to record. You can hear it in the album’s opening moments — his knack for molding off-kilter sounds by manipulating sub-par equipment. “[In] that first song, ‘Plot Devices,’ there’s that weird, lo-fi stringy sound. It’s this little toy Casio run through a shit-ton of weird effects. That was part of the fun of making it. ‘What cool sound can I make that doesn’t exist?’”
Opin — Opin
I find myself coming back to this record time and again, finding new reasons to love it. There’s one constant, though, and that’s “Lift Canal,” which is at or near the top of the Best Songs of 2017 list I’m too overwhelmed to make. Speaking of overwhelm, “Lift Canal” has been there for me in some tough moments this year. Very thankful it exists.
Positive No — Partners in the Wild
The first tape I bought after being gifted a cassette player for Christmas. So begins a new era of jamming out in the car. Exceedingly psyched about this development.
Skinny-E — Brown Paper Bag
From the post I wrote after seeing Evan McKeel perform at In Your Ear studios late last year:
His set at In Your Ear was short, but he needed only sing a few lines for me to hear what millions of fans of The Voice had already heard — a truly incredible singing voice, able to ascend with ease and smokier than his years, with a natural distortion that provides texture and complements his precision. When I thought about the literal and figurative stage that he’d occupied on TV, sitting in that studio listening to him seemed like such a gift. It quickly sank in that he could sing pretty much any song he wanted to, which begs the question: What do you do when you can do anything?
Eric Slick — Palisades
What a joy it was to speak with Eric Slick over the phone for this River City Magazine article and then shake his hand at the Richmond Symphony’s RVA Live! night. Two quick tangents: Did you know he hosts a truly awesome podcast called the Strange America Radio Half Hour? Or that his other band Lithuania (remember, he’s also the drummer for Dr. Dog) just released an album? Dude never stops. A few words about Palisades:
“These songs were birthed out of learning how to meditate. I started meditating and my creative life began, outside of drumming. So, it’s all still really new to me, and I’m still navigating how to be at the front of a stage, and how to be a performer. I feel like I’m juggling when I’m up there, but it’s really challenging and exciting and it’s a necessary part of my creative process. When I do go back to the drums now, I have this whole other perspective on how to play drums.”
J. Roddy Walston & The Business — Destroyers of the Soft Life
Being the first to snag a copy of Destroyers of the Soft Life at Plan 9 was exceedingly rewarding, as evidenced by the test pressing pictured above. Digging into the liner notes in my companion copy was rewarding as well, as finding out that Michael York of Sleepwalkers played on “The Wanting” turned a song I already loved into a multifaceted celebration.
Matthew E. White & Flo Morrissey — Gentlewoman, Ruby Man
White and Morrissey played four cities in support of Gentlewoman, Ruby Man: Paris, London, New York, and Richmond, Virginia. Their show at the Broadberry kicked off the tour, and I feel very lucky to have been there to see it. An all-star Spacebomb backing band, including Devonne Harris. A set of stunningly rendered cover tunes. I was especially thrilled to hear their take on Leonard Cohen’s legendary “Suzanne.”
More 2017 in Review: