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)

Music Of The Month: October 2022

Mightmare Cruel Liars

October was one of those weird months when most of the new releases didn’t really grab me, but there were three that will no doubt be in my rotation in the coming months.

Courtney Marie Andrews brought us Loose Future, with a somewhat brighter outlook than her previous record, Old Flowers. Produced by Sam Evian, the arrangements on this record are considerably more expansive than Andrews’ previous work, but without ever overshadowing the songwriting.

The month also saw the release of I Walked With You A Ways, the debut from the duo of Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson, who bill themselves as Plains. This is a record inspired by their mutual love for country music of the 1990s, and the record is steeped in those sounds. My own preference is for their more folk-flavored individual solo work (especially Crutchfield, who performs under the moniker Waxahatchee), but it is always interesting to hear artists you enjoy when they try something different.

Which brings me directly to October’s pick of the month, which is –and this is not a typo– Mightmare’s debut album Cruel Liars. Mightmare is the “band” name for the first solo effort from Sarah Shook (of alt-country’s bare-knuckled Sarah Shook & The Disarmers). Newly sober and coming off the release of The Disarmers’ third album, Nightroamer (see MotM, Feb. 2022), which was finished just before the Covid shutdowns, Shook spent the first year of the pandemic creating Cruel Liars almost entirely single-handedly, and the result could scarcely be more of a sonic departure. Swapping out foot-stomping honky-tonk licks for subtle synth textures, drum loops, and fuzzed out guitar lines, this is a pop record, through and through; only the occasional pronunciation of a word or phrase gives the faintest clue of Shook’s signature twang. I can’t say enough good things about it. Maybe you should just go listen to it. And spin up something by the Disarmers, too, while you’re at it.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

click photo to go to artist’s website

Music Of The Month: September 2022

Tyler Childers Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven?

Lots of good new music this month. A posthumous release from Dr. John, Things Happen That Way, is especially good. Featuring guests like Willie and Lukas Nelson, Katie Pruitt, and others, it’s a collection of standards and originals that spotlight all the different facets of his music that we’ve loved over the years; funk, soul, jazz, etc. It’s a very welcome surprise on this month’s list.

The record I’ve been listening to most this month is The Beths’ new offering, Expert In A Dying Field. I’d never heard of The Beths, but this is the New Zealand band’s third record, and it made me go back and listen to the previous two. I probably prefer the second — Jump Rope Gazers — to this newest one, but since its release I’ve listened to Expert nearly every day on my commute. Definitely a little more rocking than my usual fare, but I’m loving it. 

My main pick for the month, though, is Tyler Childers’s ambitious new project, Can I Take My Hounds To Heaven? I’ve never encountered this kind of concept album before. It’s a three-record set comprised of the same 8 songs recorded in three different versions. The Hallelujah versions are more somber, and fleshed out with organ. Then we’re given the Jubilee versions, which are stripped down, funky, and perhaps more like what we may have expected from what we’ve heard of Childers in the past. Finally, the Joyful Noise versions treat the songs with all manner of audio samples, loops, spoken word passages, etc. Childers is easily among my favorite artists today, and I find this release to be nothing short of fascinating. 

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

(click photo to go to artist website)

Music Of The Month: August 2022

Valerie June Under Cover

There weren’t a whole lot of new releases that really captured my fancy this month, so winnowing down to my favorite was easier than usual. Sometimes it’s like that.

Eli Winter released a new self-titled record of instrumental guitar music. Chock full of special guests such as Ryley Walker, Yasmin Williams, and jaimie branch (who, sadly, passed away much too young, just days after this release), this is one of those albums that seems to fit every mood. Give it a close listen, or spin it in the background. Play it when you’re driving, or while you’re cooking up some dinner. It’ll work anywhere.

My pick of the month, though, is Valerie June’s Under Cover. Probably not a surprise, given that any new music from Valerie June is going to immediately skyrocket to the top of my priority list. Reviews are calling this release an EP, but for me, at eight songs it kind of straddles the line of a full album. Be that as it may, as the title might suggest, this is an album of cover songs, a couple of which have been released prior to this collection. June doesn’t stray far from the path on these tunes, opting for essentially straightforward, even understated, arrangements that allow the lyrics and melodies to stand on their own. Then again, her voice is really all it takes to make her own statement on a song.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

click image to go to artist’s bandcamp page

Music Of The Month: July 2022

Tami Neilson Kingmaker

I’m getting to this a little later than usual this month, but here we are:

Right off the bat, it must be said that the best thing that happened in popular music during the month of July has to be the surprise return of Joni Mitchell to the Newport Folk Festival.  Those of us in attendance had already been treated to the unannounced appearance of Paul Simon on the previous night. Even so, we all expected Brandi Carlile to have an ace up her sleeve to close things out on Sunday, and there was rampant speculation that it might be Joni. But I don’t think any of us realized just how powerful the moment would be when she actually walked onto the stage. Read about it here, and seek out all the videos on YouTube.

Before leaving the subject of Newport, let me point you toward Arooj Aftab, who came to my attention when she was announced as part of this year’s Friday lineup. Aftab is a Pakistani vocalist, producer, and composer, and I am now completely in love with her work. Do yourself a favor and give her a listen.

Another thing that hit my radar in the month of July was the album Good Woman by Becca Mancari. The song “Summertime Mama” popped up on the radio (The Loft, on SiriusXM) on my way to work one morning, and as soon as I got to my desk I searched for the album. If I had been writing these little monthly reviews in October 2017, this would have been my pick of the month without a doubt. I love every note of every song on the record; can’t stop playing it.

So now onto this month’s new releases:

The Deslondes put out a great new album this month called Ways & Means. Apparently the band had been on hiatus for five years, and I would say if this is the result of taking such a refresher, it was well worth it. Not a bad song on it. For most of the month I was expecting this record to be my July pick, and it would have been perfectly deserving of the honors.

But then, along came Kingmaker, from Tami Neilson. As far as I know I’ve never heard of Neilson before, but I can assure you I will hear more of her from now on. What a voice! If I had to describe this particular record in only one word, that word would have to be “cinematic.” Listening to it for the first time, I was convinced (mistakenly) that Neilson was the lounge singer from the casino in the third season of Amazon Prime’s legal drama, Goliath. It also strikes me that almost any song on the record would be right at home in almost any David Lynch project. And there are several passages throughout where the string arrangements seem like they may have been lifted directly out of the Sean Connery era James Bond movies. All that said, I think it’s really a rockabilly record at heart. But whatever it is, everybody needs to hear it.

Get some music in your ears, everybody!

(click image to go to artist’s website)