And here’s about the opposite of “nice” singer/songwriter music (see previous review): a rough-edged country stomper that functions simultaneously as a celebration of coal miner grit and an indictment of an industry racked by tragedy and exploitation.
Built upon a plaintive, insistent banjo riff, “The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” finds the prolific and genre-bending Earle in backwoods mode, putting the instruments of bluegrass in the service of fierce country blues. Earle sings with his harshest growl while the fiddle and banjo articulate a rather terrifying jig. I warned you, it’s not very nice. But it’s arresting.
The lyrical motif is as deft as the situation described is insidious: the idea that coal was placed in such a difficult and unsafe location by none other than the devil himself. The devil of course exists in the human imagination as a being intent on making human life (and afterlife) as miserable as possible, often through the tragic force of temptation. For the sake of coal’s value as a resource, not to mention its role in generating diamonds, mankind has paid a price, at both the individual and the collective levels—there are the various calamities that befall coal miners on the one hand, and the environmental devastation wreaked by the mining industry on the other. And yet there have been benefits too, from a miner’s pride in his challenging line of work, to the way coal powered what has often been framed as “progress.” All this is covered, by implication, in the course of this less-than-three-minute song.
“The Devil Put the Coal in the Ground” is the third of 10 songs on the album Ghosts of West Virginia, released last month on New West Records. The music was inspired by the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, and was initially created for a theatrical production at the Public Theater in New York City. Entitled Coal Country, the play opened in early March but shut down prematurely due to the pandemic. Earle was the music director and performed his songs on stage during the play.
Steve Earle I trust you know already but if not, please do give his catalog some attention. He has been one of America’s most talented and uncompromising singer/songwriters of the last 30 years, and one who seems always interested in growing as an artist and a human being. I’m partial to his early- to mid-’00s work, most of all Transcendental Blues, but you’ll find rewarding music on pretty much every release.
MP3 via KEXP.
There’s something in the vibe here, at once relaxed and kinetic, and the instrumental mix (note the lack of a rock-style drum kit), that feels like nothing a purely American or British band would create or deliver.
An Italian, a Mexican, and an Austrian walk into a bar…well, okay, not a bar, but a music school, in London. And so this is not the beginning of a joke but the beginning of the band Vadoinmessico, a multi-national quintet that remains based in the UK. And you can really hear the non-English-speaking sensibility here, even as front man Giorgio Poti (the aforementioned Italian) sings in English. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something in either the vibe, at once relaxed and kinetic, or the instrumental mix (note the lack of a rock-style drum kit), or both, that feels like nothing a purely American or British band would create or deliver.
And wow I’ve been bumping into these songs with banjos and/or pedal steel guitars in them lately and here’s another one, this time with both, and if some blogger somewhere calls this a country song I shall emit an electronic scream. Vadoinmessico offers up the self-description of “mediterranean alternative folk,” and sure, why not? I love the easy-going assurance of the melody, which is at once amorphous and ear-grabbing. There’s not a clear hook, there’s no immediately obvious verse/chorus division, and what does in the end amount to the chorus (heard just twice, the first time from 1:00 to 1:15) slips by without fuss and without resolution. What’s more, the verses themselves are hard to differentiate, and seem to center upon a repeated melody that is launched off the second beat of the measure with a string of repeated notes. The wonderful allure of the piece has first of all to do with the slight variations this melody undergoes after the consistency of the opening two measures, and then to do with the cumulative, almost hypnotic effect of this not-quite-repetition.
Note in particular the new melodic upturn we hear first at around 1:17, with a match at 1:25. We take it in as pleasant enough at that point, but when this particular variation returns as Poti sings (2:38) “Everybody please wait for me here by the river,” with the half-step ascent on the words “here by the,” we seem somehow to have arrived at the muted epicenter of the song. It feels like a payoff as long as you don’t concentrate too much, like something you can see only with peripheral vision.
“Teeo” is the third single released by the band, which has yet to put out an official album or EP.
Jacquelyn Beaupre’ sings as if placing each note in a favored location—a bright windowsill full of keepsakes, perhaps, or a tree-trunk altar along a wooded, late-summer path—and then letting them go, no big deal.
I’ve got another banjo song for you, somehow. Another wonderful one. Go figure.
“Stinging Nettle, Honeysuckle” is sold to me via singer Jacquelyn Beaupre’ (apostrophe included), whose sweet, determined voice blends breathy innocence with grounded certainty. She sings as if placing each note in a favored location—a bright windowsill full of keepsakes, perhaps, or a tree-trunk altar along a wooded, late-summer path—and then letting them go, no big deal. There are always more notes to sing. And don’t get too attached to her anyway because she’s likely to wander away sooner than later.
The banjo this time is plucky and thoughtful. The ambiance is ancient-folky, as the title too suggests, even as there’s likewise something snappy and contemporary in the melody and presentation. I especially like the way a certain kind of lo-fi reverb is used to scuff the background without taking over the sound. The backing vocals receive this treatment, and it turns out there’s also some persistent underlying white noise in the mix which becomes audible only when the song comes to a full stop around 2:21. Pay attention to Beaupre’ right after that as she gives us a dainty cough before continuing. I really like that cough.
Blessed Feathers is a trio that was founded as a duo. The band bio begins: “Jacquelyn Beaupre’ plays everything. Donivan Berube plays everything else.” Beaupre’ and Berube are also girlfriend-boyfriend. The recently-arrived third player is Jordan Knowles, who handles percussion. “Stinging Nettle, Honeysuckle” is from the album From the Mouths of the Middle Class, the band’s second, released this week on Listening Party Records. You can buy the digital album for whatever price you’d like or you can buy a limited-edition vinyl album for $15, both via Bandcamp.
Banjo-driven, but w/ nuance and grace
Truth be told, I don’t tend to be too happy with the banjo. Oh, I don’t mind it as a one-off, informal means of entertainment; in someone’s living room, a banjo can be likable enough, if the banjo player doesn’t overstay his or her welcome. On a recording, in the context of other instruments—that’s when I get the banjo willies. So right away I’d say Tamara Lindeman, who does musical business as the Weather Station, has to me accomplished something wonderful indeed simply by recording a banjo song that I really like.
Part of this has to do with how she manages to tame the instrument’s tinny-twangier voice (which I realize many people may well enjoy!), playing instead in a tone and bearing that intertwines with rather than muffles the folk-style acoustic guitar that shares the instrumental stage here. I also think that Lindeman’s subtle subversion of banjo music convention further tempers the instrument’s tendency to dominate. (Which isn’t all the banjo’s fault, having little to any capacity for dynamic range.) With Daniel Romano playing guitar and, intermittently, singing alongside Lindeman, the song on the one hand utilizes a familiar sort of duet singing characteristic of bluegrass, yet, as with the banjo-playing, ratchets back the brassiness of tone as well as the formal rhythmic lockstep that seems intrinsic to songs driven by banjos. Here, the melodic structure itself undermines the song’s banjo-iness: listen to how, in the chorus-like section, first heard around 1:00, the duet singing coincides with a thoroughly asymmetrical section of the song: a higher, upward-reaching melody tails off downward, followed by a lower melody that ventures upward but then into an unresolved minor key before properly resolving in the major; note too how we first get two lyrical lines (the aforementioned higher melody) leading into the “All of it is mine” refrain (the lower melody), but three lines leading into it the second time. More complex to describe than to listen to; the end result, almost magically, is a banjo song with nuance and grace.
“Everything I Saw” is the quasi-title track to the second Weather Station album, All Of It Was Mine, which was released in mid-August on Ontario’s You’ve Changed Records. You can listen to the whole thing for free, and/or buy it via The Weather Station’s Bandcamp page. Lindeman is also a relatively new part of the eclectic Canadian ensemble Bruce Peninsula, itself due for a new album come October.