Music Of The Month: August 2021

Liam Kazar Due North

Due to the way the dates fell, plus some unusually busy weekends, I’m late getting my August recommendations posted. But just like July, there were not a lot of releases in August that really grabbed me.

Having inexplicably jettisoned their clever and memorable band name Mandolin Orange, the duo (and married couple) Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz brought us their first record under their new more pedestrian moniker, Watchhouse. The album is self-titled, and it’s a good one.

James McMurtry’s new record, The Horses And The Hounds, also came out this month. I always look forward to new music from McMurtry; for my money one of the best lyricists out there today. This latest entry does not disappoint, and the song “Canola Fields,” in particular, is a real winner.

This month’s top recommendation, though, is the album Due North from singer/songwriter Liam Kazar. Throughout I hear notes of Talking Heads, classic soul, and bubble-gum pop. Here and there just the tiniest glimpse of a Jeff Lynne flourish. I find a few of the tracks to be a bit over-produced for my personal taste, but every song is a toe-tapper, and it’s also great music for driving. (Trust me on this; my daily commute is 90 minutes each way.) It’s far and away the new release I’ve turned to most often this month.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

The “Circle” Album

Once upon a time The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was flying high on the popularity of their cover version of Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles. In 1971 the recording eventually climbed all the way to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. While that was happening, the band tried something unusual. Band member John McEuen asked Earl Scuggs if he’d be willing to record with The NGDB, and Scruggs accepted. Soon after, Doc Watson accepted the same invitation, and from there the party kept growing.

Fifty years ago this month (that is, August 1971), the band entered Woodland Sound Studios in Nashville along with Scruggs, Watson, “Mother” Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Junior Huskey, Norman Blake, and Pete “Bashful Brother Oswald” Kirby, among others, and they spent six days recording together. Heading into second grade at the time, of course I knew absolutely nothing about it. Probably very few people did. But the result of that session was the landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken triple-LP set, released in November of the following year.

There was never a time in my life when I didn’t have at least a passing interest in all sorts of music, but in those days my friends and I had our heads wrapped up in the Beatles, Animals, Rolling Stones. Some of us were starting to dip our toes into Led Zeppelin. In my house country and bluegrass ruled the roost because that’s what my Dad liked, and the rest of us, including myself, were totally fine with it. I was just too cool, or at least too concerned about the appearance of coolness, to admit it.

Anyway, sometime in (I’m guessing) late 1973 or early ’74 my cousin, Lee Templeton, paid my Dad a visit one Saturday afternoon with a new record in hand. I’m pretty sure Lee was aware that my Dad had recently recorded a bunch of (8-Track) tapes of old, rare-to-unknown country songs from a stash of records a friend of his had removed from a broken jukebox, which made Lee think my Dad might be interested in his new find.

So off they go the basement, to the ol’ console record player. Something pretty similar to this baby:

Upstairs, my afternoon loped along like any other 4th- or 5th-grader’s Saturday does, until my mom asked me to go to the basement and get something from the freezer. I headed down, paying no particular mind to my Dad, my cousin, or the music, and dug around in the freezer for awhile to find whatever I was looking for. As I was about to go back up, from the stereo I heard what I now know is Doc Watson’s voice say “…I’ll start it out like this” just before they blasted into (again, what I now know is) Black Mountain Rag. I was dumbstruck. I don’t know why, really. Doc was a big figure in our house; it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard him play. It probably wasn’t the first time I’d ever heard him play that tune. But it was definitely the first time it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

I was still way too preoccupied with my self-perceived notion of my coolness to let on what was happening. I went back upstairs like nothing was going on, but that was the moment in my life when I realized there was much more to this music my Dad loved so much than I had ever given it credit for.

That summer I went to spend a week with my aunt June in Raleigh, a tradition that had started a year or two before. She took me shopping, and the first thing I got was my own copy of the Circle album. My aunt was NOT a fan. I imagine when it was time for me to leave that year, she was well ready to be rid of me.

By the time I went off to college, I had been playing regularly in my bluegrass band for over five years and my copy of the Circle album was worn out. I bought it again. Sometime in 1988, Suzy and I converted our music collection over to CDs, sold our turntable, and traded in all our vinyl. I kept one copy of each of my band’s three records, a copy of John & Yoko’s Two Virgins, and the Circle album. But since we no longer had a turntable, I bought the Circle album yet again, this time on CD. Today, all our music lives in The Cloud, so I likely won’t ever have need to buy it again. But it never leaves my rotation for more than a few months at a time.

If you don’t know this record, give it a spin. If you haven’t heard it in awhile, spin it again. It’s perfect.

Music Of The Month: July 2021

Yola Stand For Myself

I wasn’t exactly bowled over by a lot of this month’s releases, so it was relatively easy to make a pick this time around.

Jackson Browne brought us a good batch of new material on his new album Downhill From Everywhere. We also got a new record from Son Volt, Electro Melodier. I always love Son Volt’s sound, although I will readily admit I’m pretty sure I couldn’t distinguish any one album from another.

Early on, my favorite contender for this month was an album called Click Click Domino by the husband & wife duo who call themselves Ida Mae. I hadn’t heard of these guys before, but I very much enjoy their bluesy sound and for several weeks I thought this record might be this month’s pick of the litter.

But then, on the last Friday of the month, along comes Yola’s Stand For Myself. Suzy and I have been big fans of Yola since we found out about her a couple years ago, but I’ve always personally been of the opinion that her records –as much as I enjoy them– haven’t effectively showcased her voice to its best advantage. Well, look no further. This is the album I’ve been waiting for. Great from start to finish.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: June 2021

Amythyst Kiah Wary + Strange

Some of the best music I heard this month, by far, was in the form of live streams from Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY. On Saturday, June 12, Stephane Wrembel performed two shows that were streamed for free, and both were extraordinary (as his shows tend to be). Both the early show and the late show are available to watch on YouTube. If you want to see a true master plying his trade, click on these links and enjoy.

But this is my monthly record recommendation, so it seems more appropriate —call me crazy— to recommend an actual record. Luckily there are quite a few good ones to choose from this month.

There were new records from a couple of people I wasn’t familiar with. K.C. Jones brought us Queen Of The In Between, and Rachel Baiman released Cycles. Both achieve the accomplishment of offering up intensely personal lyrics, often about very dark subject matter, without ever becoming maudlin or melodramatic. Well worth repeated listening.

The month also saw new material from a few familiar faces. Hiss Golden Messenger’s new Quietly Blowing It stands as a bright light as we begin to make our way out of the trauma of the pandemic. I have similar thoughts about Tim O’Brien’s latest, He Walked On, though this record is a bit more pointedly topical. And Amy Helm continues to impress with What The Flood Leaves Behind.

Early on I was pretty convinced that Lukas Nelson & Promise Of The Real were probably going to win my recommendation this month for A Few Stars Apart. Back in the day, I was firmly of the opinion that Willie could do no wrong. Lukas is currently making it pretty clear the same is true for him. Alas, this month his record got edged into runner-up position because…

Amythyst Kiah’s new record Wary + Strange is off the hook good. Big, bold, butt-kicking good. Like a lot of folks, I learned about Kiah by way of 2019’s Songs Of Our Native Daughters album, on which she was featured alongside Rhiannon Giddens, Layla McCalla, and Allison Russell. Kiah definitely stood out on that record, which is no small feat for anyone working next to Giddens. But even so, I did not see this new record coming. I can’t say enough good things about it, so I’m not going to try. Just go listen. Now. What are you waiting for!? Go!!

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: May 2021

Lord Huron Long Lost

There was a LOT of good music released this month, once again making it very hard to pick just one record to recommend. The Black Keys dropped a pretty much straight forward blues album called Delta Kream which, front to back, might be my favorite record from their catalog. I’m also really digging Rising Appalachia’s latest, The Lost Mystique Of Being In The Know. Oliver Wood (of The Wood Brothers) delivered an excellent solo record, Always Smilin. And another new solo album, Start It Over, from The Deslondes singer/songwriter Riley Downing, is also great.

As much as I like all those, my runner-up for May’s pick of the month is another blues record: Little Black Flies by Eddie 9V. Every single track on this record will make your toes tap and your head bob. So. Much. Fun. Neither Suzy nor I had ever heard of this guy before, but we will definitely be keeping an ear out for him from now on.

But in the end, my #1 May recommendation is Lord Huron’s new release, Long Lost. I hear a little of everything on this record. It’s folky, of course. (Who would imagine me recommending anything that wasn’t?) But in addition to that, there are huge helpings of Spaghetti Western, some psychedelia, a smattering of ’40s -’50s era American Songbook-like stylistic flourishes, not to mention any number of passages straight out of the Angelo Badalamenti / David Lynch toy box. And I don’t mean that I hear all this from one track to another; these influences are all stirred together in different combinations on every song. Hopeful. Mournful. Melancholy. Optimistic. It’s really good.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: April 2021

The Brother Brothers Calla Lily

My April recommendation is a really close call. I very strongly suggest you check out Carsie Blanton’s new album, Love & Rage. It could easily have been my pick for the month and I’d have been perfectly happy with that. But in the end, I have to got with The Brother Brothers’ new release, Calla Lily. This record is like discovering a previously unreleased Everly Brothers album. Amazing. And I’m a complete sucker for that kind of close harmony singing and the kinds of songs that show it off.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: March 2021

Valerie June The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers

Valerie June captured our hearts from the very start (with her 2013 debut album Pushin’ Against A Stone) and, like Buck Meek, she’s always great, a bit off the beaten path, and a little unexpected. But man oh man, this record is sooooo, soooo good.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: February 2021

Edie Brickell & New Bohemians Hunter And The Dog Star

Could be that I like this so much mainly because I kinda lost track of these guys over the years and haven’t heard them in a long time. Regardless, it’s the February release I’m returning to the most.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: January 2021

Buck Meek Two Saviors

Finding ourselves at home so much during the pandemic, Suzy and I unintentionally started a habitual Friday night review of the week’s album drops. About once a month we find something we really like. Eventually it occurred to me to post our monthly recommendations on Facebook. Which I have since been doing. But this morning I got thinking that I should post them here as well because a) it will make them much easier for me to find and refer to and b) I mostly hate Facebook.

Our January pick was Buck Meek’s Two Saviors

I love Buck’s unusual songs structures and oddball lyrics and subject matter. We’ve been big fans for several years now, but this album is off the charts good. Can’t say enough positive things about it. There isn’t a single dud anywhere on the record, but for me “Second Sight’ is a real standout.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Sunday Kitchen: Spicy Pasta e Fagioli with Rotisserie Smoked Chicken

Sometime over the years we started adding chicken to this basic pasta e fagioli recipe from Fine Cooking magazine (issue #11, 1996). Sunday I decided to try making it on my grill as an entry to this month’s soup challenge on one of my online BBQ communities.

So here goes:
First, I spun a chicken on the rotisserie. I made a simple injection of melted butter, salt, and garlic powder, and then sprinkled the outside with salt and pepper.

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I also tossed half a lemon and two cloves of garlic into the cavity of the chicken before trussing it.

I put it on the rotisserie at 325°F, with three small chunks of cherry for smoke.

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While the bird was spinning I gathered all my soup ingredients, chopped half an onion, and boiled one cup of ditalini pasta.

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When the chicken was done, I dismantled the rotisserie, added more lump to the firebox, set in my heat deflectors and grill rack, and put my cast iron pot in to heat. While the grill came up and settled at around 350°F, I shredded half the chicken (and vacuum-sealed the other half for another day), and got everything set up in easy reach of the grill. 

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Now for the soup part. First, I sautéed 1 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, and two cloves of finely minced garlic in 1/4 cup of olive oil for about half a minute or so.

Then I added the chopped 1/2 onion, and cooked it until tender, maybe 2 or 3 minutes.

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In with two cans of great northern beans, plus the cooked pasta.

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Then three cups chicken stock, plus the meat.

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With the lid on the pot and the grill dome closed, I let it come to a boil, which took about 30 minutes.  Then I moved the pot lid sort of cockeyed and (again) with the dome closed, let it simmer for another 10 minutes.

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Finally, I stirred in 1/8 cup parsley flakes, 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, and a tablespoon of lemon juice.

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For dinner, we served it with some leftover greens and Brussels sprouts, and a good chunk of bread.

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