Music Of The Month: July 2023

Joni Mitchell Joni Mitchell At Newport

Well folks, due to prepping for, attending, and catching up after the Newport Folk Festival, it took me longer than normal to listen through the month’s new releases. So now that we’re halfway through August, I’m finally getting around to posting the July episode of my little monthly reviews.

Cut Worms released a new self-titled album I enjoyed. Straight-ahead pop-y tunes delivered in comfortable arrangements, it’s an easy listen for a summer afternoon. Similarly, Colter Wall’s new record, Little Songs, retains his signature lived-in vibe throughout. As I’ve said before about Charley Crockett, I’m not 100% sure I can distinguish one Colter Wall album from another, but I really do love his sound when I’m listening to it. Also on point in the relaxed listening category is Dream Box, the latest from guitarist Pat Metheny. Sorted from a forgotten folder Metheny found on his computer while on the road last year, these are ultra-stripped-down versions of standards, covers, and original compositions played on two guitars: Metheny with Metheny, adding overdubs to the tracks in the found files.

July also brought us Elizabeth Moen’s new release, For Arthur. This five-song EP is a tribute to Arthur Russell, a musical prodigy, cellist, pianist, hippie, and spiritual seeker who passed away in 1992. Russell’s music came across my radar via The Tweedy Show, the nightly Instagram show put on by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his family during the pandemic shutdown, as they often covered Russell’s songs. Moen’s record shows these songs in a new light, without losing any of the very personal nature of the originals.

Speaking earlier of the Newport Folk Festival, however, this month’s pick absolutely has to be Joni Mitchell At Newport. I’ve been fortunate to experience an awful lot of indescribably transcendental musical moments in my life, many of them at Newport Folk, but very few even remotely compare to the moment Mitchell walked on stage in 2022. Fifty-three years after her last Newport Folk appearance, 22 years after her last public concert, and 7 years after having been stricken with a brain aneurysm, a live performance from Joni Mitchell seemed, at best, entirely unlikely. And yet that’s exactly what happened. The experience was so profoundly moving that Suzy and I struggle to talk about it to each other even today.

Now, I’m not going to claim that this album will convey that same experience to you. I can guarantee it won’t. In fact, I’ll admit that I will almost certainly listen to all the other records I listed above more often than I listen to this one; Joni Mitchell At Newport is a good record, not a great one. But it’s my pick of the month because it is the best document available of one of the best moments of my life, plain and simple.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

(click to go to artist’s website)

Music Of The Month: June 2023

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit Weathervanes

Before I mention anything about Isbell’s new album, I’ll take a minute to point out that Dan Tyminski released a new record, God Fearing Heathen, this month. It’s his first straight-ahead bluegrass record in something like 15 years, and it’s a good one. Tyminski always has a top-notch band, and if there’s a better singer in bluegrass music today I don’t know about it. If you have any love at all for bluegrass music, give this one a listen.

I think it’s pretty safe to assume that anybody who’s taking the time to read my little reviews every month is probably already familiar with Jason Isbell, so there’s probably not much I can say about his latest release, Weathervanes, except that it’s another solid collection of great tunes. That famous quote from Tom Waites, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things,” always comes to mind when I listen to Isbell. His melodies are great and he’s an absolute master at using just a few simple words to capture the plight of the downtrodden, including whatever vague notions of hope they might harbor. But I’m sure you already know this. You don’t need me to point it out. Just go listen.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: May 2023

Parker Millsap Wilderness Within You

The first time I heard of Parker Millsap was when he opened a Lake Street Dive show at Terminal 5 in November 2014. I enjoyed him well enough –probably even more than usual for an opening act– but I wasn’t exactly bowled over by him. Over the years, though, he’s popped up more and more, especially on the few SiriusXM channels I listen to most, and his work has steadily improved and steadily grown on me. In September of 2021 I touted his version of Vigilante Man, from the Woody Guthrie tribute album Home In This World, as the best song that month, even though the album itself was not my pick.

Well, this month I’m going all in on Millsap’s new release, Wilderness Within You. Gotta admit, the first time I heard the first few lyrics of the first tune, Greetings and Thanks, I thought to myself ‘okay, this is not going anywhere good.’ And to be honest, I still think it’s the weakest song of the bunch. But for what it is (which is Millsap’s take on a traditional prayer of the Iroquois Confederacy), it’s better than it should be, and it serves well enough as a springboard into an album thematically focused on the natural world and our modern-day relationship to it. Or lack of relationship, as the case may be. The range of musical styles, while impressive, results in a slightly-less-than-cohesive record overall. But the individual songs are generally so strong, and the production so well done, that I completely forgive any nitpicks I might have. This record makes me look forward to whatever Millsap does next and, when it comes down to it, that’s all you can ask for.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

(click image to go to artist website)

Music Of The Month: April 2023

Bella White Among Other Things

We discovered Bella White soon after Rounder (re-)released her very bluegrass-inflected first record, Just Like Leaving, in 2021. Her voice – equal parts Sarah Shook and S.G. Goodman –  immediately caught my attention and the album instantly went into heavy rotation. I especially remember listening to it a number of times in the car as we drove to NC and back for a long July 4th weekend, the first time we dared to take a post-pandemic road trip. 

So it was with some excitement that I dropped the needle (so to speak) on Among Other Things, her latest album. To say the very least, I am not disappointed. Rooted solidly in the alt-country universe, this release offers only the faintest nod to the bluegrass tinges of the previous record, but all the elements of White’s wise-beyond-her-22-years songwriting are still intact: Deftly-observed ruminations about broken people navigating broken relationships and dreams in a casually indifferent world. The themes aren’t exactly groundbreaking, but that’s the whole point.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: March 2023

Rachel Baiman Common Nation Of Sorrow

This month I’m calling attention to three distinctly different new releases, either one of which could have been my pick for the month. It’s tough to choose one over the others; splitting hairs, to coin a phrase.

If anyone is reading these little write-ups regularly, they will already know how smitten I’ve been with Arooj Aftab since discovering her last summer. This month she has released a new collaboration, Love in Exile, with pianist Vijay Iyer and bassist/mutli-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily. Recorded live in the studio and with little editing after the fact, it is a true document of the interplay between the three. The results are lush and lovely, bordering (but just short of) the line into ambient music. Perfect for Sunday morning or a rainy afternoon, for sure, but for everyday listening I’m still going to be spinning up her previous records, Bird Under Water and Vulture Prince,

Moving toward the decidedly not-ambient end of the spectrum, March brought us the new boygenius release, The Record. This is one of the most lyrically interesting albums in my recent memory, and the variety of songs here span the gamut from hymn-like a cappella tunes to hardscrabble power pop. And while I applaud that range, and there’s certainly not a bad song to be found here, ultimately there are two or three that seem far enough afield from the others that they make the record seem less cohesive than it might have been.

So it is that I arrive at this month’s pick, Common Nation Of Sorrow from Rachel Baiman. I briefly mentioned Baiman’s previous record, Cycles, back in June of 2021. At the time I remember thinking she sounded like Gillian Welch singing pop music. Well, this time the album steps further into country-flavored sounds and, in the case of one particular song, Bitter, squarely into the Gillian Welch vibe. Fiddles & banjos figure prominently throughout the record, on unflinchingly clear-eyed songs addressing subjects like oppression, depression, broken dreams, and other not-exactly-cheerful aspects of modern life. But they never become maudlin, and there’s no self-pity here. As I said in my few comments about Cycles, Baiman has a real gift for infusing hope and light into the despair and darkness she sings about. 

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: February 2023

Free Range Practice

Quite a few good new releases hit the streets in February. Ron Sexsmith, one of my favorite songwriters, brought us The Vivian Line. Andy Shauf released his latest, called Norm. We got Working On A World from Iris DeMent, which includes what I think is my favorite song of 2023 so far, “Goin’ Down To Sing In Texas.” And Sunny War launched Anarchist Gospel. All these are worth your time, and any one of them might have been my pick of the month, so check them out.

Early on in the month I was pretty happy to see that Yo La Tengo had a new record, This Stupid World. But after a few plays over a couple days, it mostly just revealed to me that I’m really not so much a YLT fan as I am a Georgia Hubley fan, and she’s relegated to just two songs here. Having established that, the very next thing I heard was Practice, the debut album by Sofia Jensen, who bills herself as Free Range. I’ve never heard of her before, and (perhaps refreshingly) I can’t find hardly any information about her online. But for me her music scratches the same itch Hubley’s does. I’m not saying they sound alike; they don’t. Free Range leans toward a sparse, generally more acoustic sound, heavily reliant on pedal steel. But they share a similar vocal style and a casual, loose feel that I love. And with Free Range I get a whole album’s worth of it all at once. So, so good.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: January 2023

Eddie 9v Capricorn

Margo Price released a new album, Strays, this month. It’s probably overall my favorite of her records, consistently good throughout. Price’s lyrics often feel to me like they could’ve used one more pass, and the same is true again here. On the other hand, this record has a certain urgency that balances any shortcomings I might find. Of course I have no inside knowledge, but it feels like this is a record she needed to make — like it was bubbling up inside her and had to get out.

I’ve spotlighted several bluegrass records in the last few months, and January brought us one called Details, by Nick Dumas. This is a rock-solid collection of traditional-style bluegrass, and I’m loving it. My only nitpick is that the few instrumentals in the collection all sound like variations on the fiddle tune Big Sciota (or “Scioty,” depending on who & where you ask). On the other hand, Big Sciota is one of my favorite fiddle tunes, so I can forgive it.

But there are zero nits for me to pick with Eddie 9v’s latest, Capricorn. This is a blazing album of bluesy soul. Or maybe it’s soulful blues, depending on which end of the telescope you’re looking through. Either way, it’s good for whatever ails you. Every track is a winner. Recorded at, and named for, the storied Capricorn studio in Macon, Georgia, this record soaked up every drop of mojo that space has to offer. It’s gonna be in heavy rotation around our house for a good, long while.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

(click image to go to artist’s website)

Music Of The Year: 2022

First up, I want to reiterate my recommendation that everyone check out Arooj Aftab‘s whole body of work. I mentioned her in my July post after having discovered her at Newport. She didn’t release a record in 2022, but I love her work so much I had to say something. I’m pleased to have noticed that one of her songs — “Last Night,” from her 2021 album Vulture Prince — has been getting some play on at least one SiriusXM channel. Understandably, it’s the one song on the record with lyrics in (mostly) English, but I hope it opens the door to more exposure for her overall. She certainly does deserve it.

One of the year’s coolest surprises was getting two new releases from Sarah Shook. First we got the Nightroamer album with The Disarmers in February, and then just eight months later came Cruel Liars from new Shook incarnation, Mightmare. The more I listen, the bigger Sarah Shook fan I become. Cruel Liars gets a little too synth-y and dance beat-y for me in a few spots, but I still keep dialing it up right along with Nightroamer and the rest of the Disarmers records. I can’t get enough.

I loved Wilco‘s latest, Cruel Country, right off the bat when it was released in May (and a week early for Solid Sound ticket-holders).  I mentioned in my comments at the time that it was Wilco’s clearest acceptance of the “alt-country” sound they’d been labeled with from their beginning, but repeated listens over the next months have somewhat changed my perspective. What I hear now is more of the genre-bending that has long been the band’s hallmark. Without a doubt, the country elements and influences are there, front and center. But that’s just the framework on which the record is built. There’s so much more here than just Wilco’s “country album.” Stellar.

Finally, The Beths. There’s nothing quite like falling in love with a new song, or a new band, and both happened for me with The Beths. Their September release, Expert In A Dying Field, didn’t get my overall pick that month because Tyler Childers hit us with his triple-album experiment. But man oh man, I’m absolutely 100% smitten with The Beths. I’m guessing they’re the band I’ve listened to most since I discovered them. As I said in September, I think their previous record, Jump Rope Gazers (and especially the title song), is my favorite, but that’s splitting hairs. Every song on every record has something to offer. I don’t know if I’ve heard a power pop / indie rock band that I’ve loved this much this quickly since my friend and former bandmate Frank introduced me to Fountains Of Wayne sometime in the…’90s? Like Arooj Aftab’s “Last Night,” I’m hearing the title song “Expert In A Dying Field” pretty regularly on SiriusXM lately, so I’m hoping The Beths are better known than I think they are. I wish I had lots of readers so I could better spread the word about them. If you haven’t heard them, go seek them out.

Happy New Year, and get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: December 2022

Willie Nelson Live At Budokan

Back in the ‘80s when I was learning to play guitar and how to be in a band, Willie Nelson was becoming such a force in the music industry, and such an influence on me, that it’s hard even now for me to talk about him with any measure of objectivity. All I can say is that back then, he was a god to me and most of my friends.

My pick of the month for December, Willie Nelson Live At Budokan, is a snapshot of Nelson and his band —or “Family,” as they were known— at the pinnacle of their powers at that time. For my money, this was the best-ever lineup of the Family: older sister Bobbie (piano), Paul English (drums), Mickey Raphael (harmonica), Jody Payne (guitar), Grady Martin (guitar), and Bee Speers (bass), and this record captures them at the top of their game, Willie himself is also in top form, in great voice and with his signature near-total disregard for the beat on full display. You can hear him having fun.

And speaking of hearing, I want to point out that the sound quality on this recording is outstanding. As a rule, I’m not a fan of live recordings. I mostly prefer listen to studio albums, and to experience live music live. But this album sounds GREAT.

If you had the pleasure of seeing Willie and Family during their heyday, this album will take you back to that time. If you didn’t, it will give you a real taste of what it was like.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

Music Of The Month: November 2022

Sam Bush     Radio John: Songs of John Hartford

There are several releases I want to mention this month. For some pure pop-y folk goodness, I recommend you spin up Palomino, the latest record from First Aid Kit. This is a duo that often flies under my radar for whatever reason, but I enjoy them every time I hear them. And a couple wildly different November recommendations for my fellow guitar nerds: You can’t ever go wrong with Bill Frisell, and his newest, Four, is no exception. Great from start to finish. And for some straight-ahead bluegrass with a giant heap of flatpicking virtuosity thrown in, get your ears on Billy Strings’ new one, Me/And/Dad.

My November pick of the month is Sam Bush’s tribute to his mentor and friend, Radio John: Songs Of John Hartford. Bush is widely known as “The Father Of Newgrass,” and certainly he’s the person most singularly identified with the genre. But he has been quoted as saying “Without [Hartford’s landmark album] Aereo-Plain, there would be no newgrass music.” Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to quantify John Hartford’s extraordinary contribution to newgrass, and folk music more broadly. For this record, Bush has reached back through Hartford’s extensive catalog and selected songs that are of personal importance, and then added a tribute song of his own (co-written with John Pennel), celebrating Hartford’s colorful life as a steamboat captain, musician, songwriter, and performer. This collection is truly a labor of love, as evidenced by the fact that Bush himself plays all the instruments on the record, except on the one original tune, which features the current lineup of the Sam Bush Band.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

(click to go to artist’s website)