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.

 

Buy from Bandcamp today… again!

Happy Bandcamp Friday, y’all! I’ve been eager to get this list out into the world since the first item hit the ‘camp a couple of weeks ago, so without further ado, here are this month’s recommendations. Remember, fees are waived, so it’s a great day to show your support.

Ophelia — Ophelia

A big part of past Bandcamp Fridays has been music that’s resurfaced — extra copies of pressings that had sold out, or albums that are seeing the light of day after spending some time on the shelf. This Ophelia album is such a glorious example of the latter, as it hit Bandcamp a couple of weeks ago after having been recorded back in 2010. After hearing it and enjoying it tremendously — including a magnificent listen all the way through on a long run at dusk — it’s hard to imagine this not being out in the world. It immediately feels canonical, given the strength of these tunes and the involvement of two Richmond favorites: David Shutlz (a Bandcamp Friday favorite) and Jonathan Vassar, who you might remember from the excellent Lonely Rooms album I wrote about last month.

PJ Sykes — “Rain in to the Sea”

Speaking of David Shultz, I absolutely love the “Rain in to the Sea” cover PJ Sykes released today. What a perfect illustration how a song can vibrate harmoniously on wildly different wavelengths. (Ocean pun fully intended.) Halfway through this new version, it’s easy to imagine the song having been written with this arrangement in mind, especially when it comes to the delivery of the central metaphor. So cool. And can we all agree this cover art wins Bandcamp Friday?

Opin — Media & Memory

There’s a specific anticipatory joy that floods in just before you hear a new Opin song for the first time. Their track record of adventurousness means you’re never sure where they’re about to take you. It’s exhilarating — especially when, time and time again, you end up thrilled with where they’ve decided to go with their sound, from their self-titled full length in 2017, to the EPs they’ve released since (including a cover of Mariah’s “Shinzo no Tobira” that I’ve listened to approximately 1.5 million times since it came out). I’m on pace to catch up with that play count when it comes to the first two songs from their upcoming LP, Media & Memory — out 10/30 on WarHen Records. I couldn’t decide which to embed below, so they’re both there. And while I don’t know where the other seven tracks on the album will go, I know by now to sit back and enjoy the ride, because Opin’s sense of sonic navigation is as good as it gets.

Bartees Strange — Live Forever

We’ve all heard “You are what you eat,” but “You are who (whom?) you hear” seems increasingly applicable the more time we spend with earbuds in catching up on the podcasts that reflect and shape our thinking about the world. The voice that’s been bouncing around my brain most during the pandemic has been Steven Hyden’s; his 36 from the Vault podcast about the Dick’s Picks Grateful Dead live album series has been my primary means of auditory escape. As a result, the line between his thinking on music and mine is starting to blur, and when he tweeted the following, I was eager to snag my own seat on the Bartees Bandwagon™:

Live Forever promises to be one of this year’s most celebrated albums, and today’s the big release day. I’m 100% in. It’s so good. The “Half Orange/Half Bone” pressing I snagged is sold out, but he recently added a “Red with Bone & Orange Splatter” variant, and copies of that are still available. Don’t sleep. As a side note, the Hyden-Strange connection came full circle with the publication of this Uproxx interview. Don’t sleep on that either. No sleeping whatsoever, ok? It’s Bandcamp Friday!

Hiss Golden Messenger — School Daze: A fundraiser for Durham Public Schools students

This is the second live album Hiss Golden Messenger has released during the pandemic — click here for my post about the first one. Proceeds are going to the same great cause — the Durham Public Schools Foundation — but not a single song is repeated from his previous live release, which is fun. One other Hiss-related recommendation: If you’re not already signed up for M.C. Taylor “Kitchen Table Speculator” mailing list, I recommend it highly. He includes poetry, books and music he’s been enjoying, and words of hope like these:

I realize that life is chaotic and complicated right now. I’m trying to remember to take some time each day or week to thank the folks that keep showing up, nose to the grindstone, every day. I’m trying to give back to my community with emotions as well as dollars. If you have the bandwidth, please consider donating your time, money, or other resources to an organization doing good work in your community. I’ve found it’s the best way to alleviate feelings of hopelessness.

I plan to heed that excellent advice by downloading School Daze right about now.

Hotspit — Hotspit Live Session

If you’ve been following this Bandcamp bonanza from the very beginning, you might remember that my very first Bandcamp Friday post included music by Avery Fogarty, who fronts the Richmond band Hotspit. That group just released a three-track live session, which is very exciting. I’m especially fond of the first track, which illustrates the range the group has, and how great they sound in exploratory mode. Well worth a download.

Other items on my radar today:

Sam Gendel — DRM
Spacebomb House Band — X: Kernel Eternal
Mdou Moctar — Mixtape Vol 6
Phil Cook — From the Kitchen: Winston​-​Salem, NC – 10​/​27​/​​2018 @ Ramkat
ragenap — “masters of war” (benefits Sustain Chicago Music)
Various — Good Music to Avert the Collapse of American Democracy, Volume 2 (benefits Voting Rights Lab)
John Moreland — Live at The Grey Eagle – Asheville, NC – 6​/​9​/​19
addy — re call/bug (benefits MAD RVA)
Durand Jones & The Indications — “Power To The People
Avery Fogarty — “sunken cities

Dogwood Tales

I mentioned a few weeks back that I’ve been making mix CDs from purchases made during Bandcamp’s fee-free Friday events. Part of the intent there is to contain the chaos — to retrospectively slow down a blur of new albums, rarities compilations, and live sets. It’s also part commemoration, since these Fridays feel meaningful to me. I love the idea that everyone’s stopping what they’re doing to acknowledge the value of music. We’ve been criminally undervaluing songs since file sharing took hold, and I’m genuinely hopeful that what Bandcamp is doing can evolve into a framework for sustainably funneling funds to musicians who so clearly deserve it.

It’s ironic, given that I’m buying mp3s like I haven’t in years, but my fetish for physical media has flared up in the process. I made my share of mix CDs during and after college, when iPods weren’t yet commonplace, but I never put much effort into the track lists, aside from writing on the discs themselves. Now I’m tearing pages out of magazines, borrowing my daughter’s glue stick, improvising insert design schemes, and hand-numbering to create limited runs nobody even knows about. I’m typically on the other end of that dynamic as a collector, so it’s fun to be the one writing “# ___ of ___” and deciding whether to make, like, five copies or four.

The first of these mixes was called “Still Here” and began with the poised and poignant David Shultz tune of the same name. (I ended up writing about it for the Auricular.) The title was also a nod to the fact that, even in May, it felt like we’d been cooped up in our houses for ages. Hilarious, in retrospect, though it doesn’t exactly inspire laughter. I kept that theme going by taking the title of my second mix from the fantastic calvin presents/Sam Reed collaboration “here,” which was released on Juneteenth. While counterintuitive, the fact that “here” follows “Still Here” in this little series makes me smile. Reminds me of that scene in Empire Records where Ethan Embry’s character describes naming his band after a misspelling of his own first name. “Always play with their minds.”

The third and most recent installment is called “Hard to Be Anywhere,” and it opens with a track from Closest Thing to Heaven, the new LP from Harrisonburg-based Americana/country outfit Dogwood Tales. It’s an incredibly moving song, and it’s no exaggeration to say I needed to hear it right now. The start of the chorus certainly hits home, no pun intended:

It’s hard to be in the right place for the right thing all the time

The more connected we all are electronically, the more it can feel like you’re never where you’re supposed to be. (Quick pause to acknowledge Jason Isbell’s own crystallization of that idea.) Even now, at a time when my family is swimming in, ahem, quality time, that sense of togetherness is short-circuited by the strange shape of this situation — limitations on where you can go and what you can do, daily risk assessment, constant stress, and the fortunate-yet-crazy-making task of folding parenting into working from home. At any given moment, it’s hard to know whether “the right place” is at my laptop, being the work version of myself, or in our backyard, pushing the kids on the saucer-shaped swing I hung from a sturdy branch of our maple tree near the start of this mess.

Then again, the “hard” part isn’t always about prioritization. Sometimes you know what the right thing to do is, but following through is what’s difficult.

Of the members of our household above the age of three, I’m probably the most content with settling into a groove around the house, carving ever-deeper ruts in the paths between my desk, the fridge, the downstairs bathroom, the couch, and the sink. (It can’t be coincidental that I’ve formed a close connection with the albums that comprise Neil Young’s “Ditch Trilogy,” as well as his recently released lost Ditch-era gem Homegrown.) I know that carefully planned and appropriately distanced activities — picnics, walks, drives — are a crucial component of our bubble’s collective sanity, but I’m not great about initiating them, and I’m trying to kick my habit of opting out when given the opportunity to do so. As hard as being out in the world is right now, I have to remember that the “rightness” of other places is diminished by my electing to stay home. This dynamic truly came into focus as a result of hearing “Hard to Be Anywhere” in the car at the start of a family outing I had mixed feelings about. Meditating on the song’s lyrics transformed my outlook on the trip completely. It was like the opposite of a dad yelling “I’LL TURN THIS CAR AROUND RIGHT NOW” at his screaming kids — more like “I’LL CONTINUE DRIVING THIS CAR AND MY MOOD’S SUDDENLY IMPROVED.”

WarHen Records already sold out of vinyl copies of Closest Thing to Heaven, but I wholeheartedly recommend heading to Bandcamp and downloading the album. It’s winner from start to finish. And Bandcamp has announced that they’re going fee-free on the first Friday of each month through the end of the year. I’m excited to see how this initiative grows and changes, and I’m hopeful that fans will continue to show up and demonstrate a growing collective conscience around the value of the music we love. And you better believe I’ll be making more mixes.

WarHen Records

Passing along a quick heads up about a great way to support those seeking justice for George Floyd’s death.

(If you haven’t yet watched the video, please stop and do that now. I firmly believe that being a person of conscience means absorbing these images and giving yourself the opportunity to be affected by them.)

WarHen Records just released a name-your-price label sampler via Bandcamp, and they’ve pledged all proceeds to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. The MFF is a community-based 501(c)(3) that “combats the harms of incarceration by paying bail for low-income individuals who cannot otherwise afford it.” Given the demonstrations underway, you can imagine how crucial those resources are right now.

Donating directly to the fund is an option as well (here’s a link where you can do just that), but I applaud WarHen for providing another avenue for people to get involved. It’ll take all of us to effect the kind of meaningful changes that make videos like George Floyd’s a thing of the past.

 

2019 in Review: RVA

Why do people make year-in-review lists? Why do I make them? I make sure to ask myself those questions each year when I start this process, because it’s easy for these things to feel competitive or exclusive. It’s worth making sure you are (as they say on the reality shows) here for the right reasons. For me, it boils down to two things: 1. Wanting a record of the music that mattered to me in the preceding year (I refer back to these posts all the time to jog my memory about what happened that year), and 2. Lifting up artists who have helped me survive another trip around the Sun via their creativity. I’m so grateful for the Richmond music community, and while I know that this is just another list on a blog, I can’t not take this opportunity to send out a message of thanks.

It feels extra fitting publishing this post on the same day President Obama shared his favorite songs from 2019 — a list that included Angelica Garcia’s “Jícama.” So thrilling and well-deserved. You can bet her upcoming LP will be on next year’s list of favorite RVA albums. In the meantime, here are the Richmond releases that meant the world to me in 2019. No rankings — they’re listed alphabetically, with a few exceptions where multiple albums from the same artist are grouped together.

To the folks who made this music, you have my deepest gratitude. Thank you for doing what you do.

Analog Suspects — Transmission 001
Noah-O x Fan Ran — Dirty Rice: Deux

The perpetual motion machine known as Noah-O had another big year, with two full-length sequel LPs as highlights. Transmission 001 started the year off in style, giving a name — Analog Suspects — to his partnership with DJ Mentos. The duo picked up right where 2016’s The Rain left off, with generous doses of introspection and inspiration, and a number of piano-based beats that set a no-nonsense tone (“GAS” stands out in this respect). Dirty Rice: Deux dropped in October, adding a second chapter to his collaboration with Fan Ran, this time with vinyl courtesy of the recently founded Fantastic Damage imprint. Both albums are excellent — evidence of Noah’s relentless drive and dexterity. Or, as he puts it during Transmission 001 track “Gary Webb,” “I’m leading by example / See, I practice what I preach.”

Butcher Brown — AfroKuti: A Tribute to Fela

I love this so much. I have a fuzzy memory of either Devonne Harris or the official Butcher Brown account posting a question on social media a while back about whether anyone would be interested in a Butcher Brown Afrobeat album. I can’t find the post now, but I remember nodding vigorously and responding as quickly as humanly possible with a gesture of support. One reason that exchange has stuck with me is that the answer to “Do I want a Butcher Brown ___ album?” is always yes. You can fill in the blank with anything, because their combined mastery means they’re capable of making compelling music in any genre. They certainly sound excellent here, paying tribute to the great Fela Kuti.

Lucy Dacus — 2019

Each time Lucy Dacus releases a song or album, we’re given new angles from which we can observe her mastery of language, and I’m in awe once again. “Fools Gold,” y’all. Holy shit. The brevity. The pound-for-pound weight of each word. The way you can both picture and taste champagne when she sings “coppery coins.” I’m not sure I’ll ever see or sip that substance and not think of that line. I love this EP so, so much, and while I cherish its cover tunes dearly, I have to agree with Pitchfork, which said of the original compositions on 2019, “These are among the best songs she’s ever written.”

DJ Mentos — Fresh Air
DJ Mentos — The Maxell Tapes Vol. 1

I had the great fortune of interviewing DJ Mentos for River City Magazine, and I consider that conversation to be a top musical moment of my 2019. I have the utmost respect and admiration for his craft, especially his ear for incorporating jazz. (His “Flute Funk Volume 1” mix will change your life. Seriously.) In addition to the Analog Suspects LP mentioned above, he released two top-notch instrumental albums this year: Fresh Air over the summer, and then The Maxell Tapes Vol. 1 on the same November day he appeared on SiriusXM’s Sway in the Morning show. I asked him during our interview about where that tenacious drive to share music with the world comes from:

My dad played a lot of music for me when I was really little, and I cherished that. But growing up and listening to hip hop, there’s a real shared camaraderie between old school hip hop fans. When we talk about the early Def Jam days, or the golden era Native Tongues time to Wu Tang and Biggie, we all shared something really special. There’s a love of that shared musical experience. But I also love talking to people about music that I don’t even necessarily like… I think there are people who love music, there are people who are sort of indifferent, and then there are people like me who are obsessed. I wouldn’t compare it to a drug. I wouldn’t compare it to love, or food, or shelter. I guess for some of us it’s spiritual… 

There’s a lot of music to discover. That’s the other aspect — there’s music to listen to again and again, and then there’s that high of finding something that first time. That I would compare to a drug, because when you discover something that you had never heard and seen and it resonates with you on that deep level, that’s so exciting. That’s what I want to share with people. So whether I’m DJing, or making beats, or texting a link to a friend, I’m trying to give you that high that I got.

Landon Elliott — Domino

Speaking of River City interviews, I had the opportunity to chat with Elliott last year, before he’d started sharing songs from Domino, and I could tell way back then that something truly special was on the way. We got to speak again closer to the album’s release day, when he was getting ready to put “Hurricane” out into the world — that was another special moment to be part of.

Domino is an impressive achievement from an artist whose star will continue to rise. I’m as sure of that as I was that Elliott’s initial excitement about the album was justified. What I couldn’t have guessed at is how varied the album would turn out to be — how many styles, techniques, and modes of articulation Elliott and his American Paradox collaborators would display on one disc. I’m wildly impressed, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.

Fly Anakin & Big Kahuna OG — Holly Water

Revolt of the Apes reviewed this better than I ever could (and in haiku form, no less) earlier in December:

Can’t argue with that.

FM Skyline — Advanced Memory Suite

Pete Curry achieved a rare feat in 2019 via his vaporwave nom de guerre — releasing an album that generates such high demand that it’s re-pressed to vinyl and re-released within the same calendar year. I missed out on the first pressing, but snagged the 100% Electronica version the moment I saw it became available. Really neat to see Curry making his mark this way.

Andy Jenkins — The Garden Opens

Andy Jenkins made his full-length debut with last year’s Sweet Bunch, and he’s kept the winning streak going with a four-song EP that contains one of my absolute favorite songs of the year, “Starfish Fever.” It’s fast, both in terms of track length and pace, with quick picking and lyrical imagery that appears and disappears in the blink of an eye. But that’s “the end of beauty” in a nutshell, isn’t it? There and gone before you know it.

Sammi Lanzetta — Ceiling Mirror

On the day 6131 Records started accepting pre-orders for Ceiling Mirror, I showed up at their store on Patterson Avenue looking like Fry from Futurama in that “Shut up and take my money” meme. Turns out they were instituting a new in-store pre-order system, and I was the first one to try it out. I’ll say this about the 6131 store: They are such friendly people, and even when I don’t end up walking out with a record, either because I was pre-ordering a disc or because I was looking for something they ended up not having, I leave feeling happy I stopped in. If you haven’t been there, I recommend making a trip there soon. I’d recommend Ceiling Mirror just as highly, and for some of the same reasons, interestingly. Lanzetta conveys this amazing sense of energy, and tapping into it is like electrifying your day.

Tyler Meacham — Property

Meacham’s lyrics are affecting, and her delivery is timeless. I can imagine these songs sounding excellent in a zillion different styles, which is what you might say about standards that eventually enter the pop canon. The title/closing track is especially powerful. While I’m on record as praising dynamite first lines of songs, “Property” has a stunner of a closing lyric: “You don’t have to burn the house down to move all your property out.” Her words echo and dissipate, leaving you space to apply them uniquely to your own life. That’s pop music’s highest calling.

Minor Poet — The Good News

On his Sub Pop debut, Andrew Carter expands on the sunny, lyrically substantive sound that made his 2017 And How! full-length such a success story. At just six songs, it zooms by, making it a great candidate for repeated listening. And if you haven’t seen the amazing “Good News Hunting” video for “Museum District,” it’s embedded below. You’re welcome.

 

No BS! Brass Band — A Decade of Noise

I consider seeing No BS! for the first time one of the most significant milestones in my introduction to Richmond’s music community, and A Decade of Noise is represents a vital milestone in the band’s discography. Their studio albums are exquisite, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about them, but sometimes you want to close your eyes and transport yourself to an imagined room where Richmond’s brass powerhouse is lighting up the stage as only they can, and that’s the gift this album gives you. It also acts as a de facto best-of, given how much of the group’s history is packed into these four vinyl sides. Speaking of vinyl, when I bought my copy, they were bundling records with t-shirts for just $5 more. Easiest decision I’ve ever made.

Ohbliv — Soulphonic
Ohbliv — Give Thanks

When I pulled this album up on Bandcamp and gave it a listen back in January, I couldn’t have known just how much time I’d end up spending with Ohbliv’s handiwork in 2019. I went from owning zero albums of his (nobody should own zero Ohbliv albums, to be clear), to owning three within this calendar year. I pre-ordered Soulphonic right away, then went down to Plan 9 with my daughter when the man himself was signing copies of Give Thanks. (“Enjoy the vibes,” he wrote on my copy. I certainly have.) I also snagged a copy of the Retrospective compilation during BK Music’s closing sale. That’s eight total sides of beats by the iconic Richmond producer, and while they’re great in just about any situation, I make it a point to spin them when we have friends visiting from out of town, so they can hear what Richmond sounds like at its best.

Alan Good Parker — Everything’s Normal

One of my favorite albums to come out of Richmond this year. This decade, for that matter. The playing (Parker is as complete a guitarist as you’ll hear), the way the collection moves from beginning to end (no two tracks set the same mood), the song selection (a Big Thief cover y’all!)… It’s outstanding at every turn. I’ve spent a ton of time with Parker’s playing over the last handful of years, given his work with the Spacebomb House Band, and hearing him featured like this is tremendously rewarding. If you enjoy jazz and haven’t yet given Everything’s Normal a spin, make it the very next thing you listen to.

Saw Black & the Toys — Christmas in the Background

On a basic, physical level, music is all about wavelengths. The air vibrates with a certain frequency, your ear and brain work together to translate those vibrations, and bing-bang-boom, you got music. But wavelengths matter on a whole other zoomed-out level involving moods and people and time. Sometimes you find an artist who’s writing the songs you need to hear at a particular moment. That’s how I feel about Saw Black in general, and about Christmas in the Background especially. When you look at the album as a whole, there’s a beautiful ambivalence — an acceptance of the fact that the holidays present a complicated stew of emotions for many people. That’s the wavelength I was vibrating on this Christmas, and being able to spin this record made finding that sense of acceptance a little easier.

Sleepwalkers — Ages

I didn’t do much writing on here as much as I would have liked to in 2019, but when the first tracks from Ages were made available, you can bet I got off my Blog Butt™ and put up a post in celebration. I looked forward to this album more than just about any other in recent memory, from basking in the afterglow of Greenwood Shade’s brilliance to interviewing the band for River City Magazine to getting a preview of some early mixes out at White Star Sound to seeing that the group was partnering with Spacebomb. Ages is exactly the Sleepwalkers album we’ve been dying to hear, and it’ll stand for years as one of the city’s great musical achievements.

Spacebomb House Band — Known About Town: Library Music Compendium One

I am a devoted disciple of the Spacebomb House Band tapes, and I was so thrilled when they announced they’d be compiling some of the best cuts for a Record Store Day release. I mentioned this in my Black Friday post, but I’ll repeat here that I keep the latest tape SHB tape in my car at all times, ready to provide groovy driving music in all sorts of situations. Hauling off to an errand that’s kinda far away. Zooming down the highway with a full tank of gas. Driving just to give myself time and space to think. I can’t recommend these tapes — and this compilation — highly enough. (Small Friend still had a copy last time I was there. Just sayin’.)

Various — All Together Now: 15 Years of the Richmond Folk Festival Live

I can’t imagine what it was like to select tracks for this compilation. So many performances over the years. So many genres and traditions. (Spacebomb’s site mentions sifting through 1,300 hours of recordings.) But isn’t that the folk festival in a nutshell? It’s this monster exercise in curation, and thanks to the hard work and great musical taste of the organizers, it turns out to be a successful celebration of kaleidoscopic talents, year after year. All Together Now is just that — a wonderfully ranging collection of styles, beginning with the joyous reggae track below by Clinton Fearon and the Boogie Brown Band.

More 2019 in Review

2019 in Review: Instrumental
2019 in Review: Jazz
2019 in Review: Audiovisual
2019 in Review: 25 Favorites

David Shultz & the Skyline

A lot can go wrong when a record is delivered to your house. Loose packaging. Careless handling. Somehow sun and rain are both problematic, which seems wildly unfair, given that those are, like, the two main things weather does.

By contrast, WarHen Records just raised the bar for how right a record delivery can go. A bag of crab chips. A Northern Neck ginger ale. The snazzy new pressing of David Shultz & the Skyline’s 2009 Rain in to the Sea album I preordered after playing it repeatedly via Bandcamp during a long weekend on the Jersey Shore with family. Here’s a shot of everything Mrs. YHT found on the porch in the early morning hours of June 14:

For context, Shultz’s recent show posters have featured a scene nearly identical to the one pictured above:

Just amazing. It’s hard to put into words the feeling of pure delight at seeing that poster come to life. It was a truly indelible moment — something I’ll smile about every time I spin Rain in to the Sea, and not just because I FUCKING LOVE CRAB CHIPS. (They were gone before the weekend was out.) WarHen has always overdelivered when it comes to shipping records, from thank you notes and stickers to bonus downloads. I’m proud to call myself a loyal customer of theirs, and I recommend heading here to pick up one of the last few available copies of Rain in to the Sea. And if you haven’t already, be sure to snag Butcher Brown’s AfroKuti: A Tribute To Fela — another dynamite WarHen release.