Graceful, commanding gothic tale
I am never quite sure when and how musical simplicity transmutes into timeless musical power. It is certainly true that most simple songs are neither timeless nor powerful and likewise true that many powerful songs are not especially simple. But Cashavelly Morrison’s graceful and commanding “Long-Haired Mare” not only serves as evidence of the eternal potential of folk-like music but functions as an aural balm for any ears that might be feeling overstuffed with 21st-century musical commotion just about now.
The particular beauty I hear in this song is grounded in the acoustic guitar, in particular the supple notes slipped in after the first four iterations of the traditional strumming pattern on which the song is based. At once fluid and discrete, this understated motif (first heard in the introduction starting at 0:11), recurs throughout the song, between verses, and each time it comes around it sounds like a would-be confidant, a repeatedly viewed stranger with kind eyes, and if it is partial illusion to sense that the song’s poised unfolding and subtle accumulation of textures (heartbreaking drums, outcast steel guitar) is built entirely on the foundation of this humble motif, it is also partial non-illusion. The ear knows what it knows. Add to the aural amalgam Morrison’s country-air voice and instinctive, subtly syncopated phrasing and from humble roots—gothic tale, guitars, percussion—I sense a growing majesty and am myself humbled before it.
And the payoff for waiting patiently for each return of the sad and deft guitar motif? A full-fledged guitar solo, beginning at 3:26, as gripping as a resolutely self-effacing acoustic solo can possibly be.
Cashavelly Morrison is both the stage name taken on by the singer/songwriter Melissa MacLeod and the name of the musical project co-created and -peformed with her husband Ryan MacLeod; he is the masterly guitarist we’ve been hearing here. Cashavelly and Morrison are family names from Melissa’s side, lost in marriage. “Long-Haired Mare” is from the debut Cashavelly Morrison album, The Kingdom Belongs to a Child, self-released at the end of October. You can listen to the album via SoundCloud, and buy the album at the CM web site.
Easy-going, folkie-ish shuffle with a discursive air and a sneaky kind of charm.
Easy-going, folkie-ish shuffle with a discursive air and a sneaky kind of charm. Acoustic guitars strum and pluck their way through a rhythm at once sure and waffly—the melodies solidify in and around a fair amount of blank space, while 4/4 measures appear either to get expanded (6/4) or tacked onto (2/4) in patterns that defy casual comprehension. Even so, “Decision” rolls along with a bemused unflappability, employing along the way one of the better non-hook hooks I’ve heard recently—the “you can use a kick in the back” line in what appears to be the chorus (first heard at 1:15). I love the harmonies on “you can use” and I love how the melody drops abruptly on “the back” the first time; and then I love how it doesn’t drop down the next time we hear it (2:12). Note too how the song concretely embodies the angst of decision-making via the very structure of the song, as the music and lyrics combine to prolong, in a fetchingly awkward way, the words “to make the right decision.”
In the process, this is a good example of a song that you can understand without really understanding. I have no idea what’s going on subject-wise even while I kind of do. I don’t think it’s possible for a bad song to affect this, so if nothing else, that proves that this is a good song. Music appreciation made easy! Kind of.
This Much is a self-identified “musical project” based in the Boston area, spearheaded by singer/songwriter (as well as guitarist, pianist, mixing engineer, and recording technician) Terrence Mulhern, with friends John Stricker and Denny Kennedy on bass and drums, respectively. “Decision” is from a self-released two-song EP the band issued in July. You can listen to and download both “Decision” and the second song, “Spiral,” via SoundCloud, and comment there directly to the band. “Decision” is also, of course, available above in the usual manner.
A song about leaving, evoking bygone folk music but with a 21st-century attitude.
There’s something tender and unfinished about “Only Skin.” Fading in at the beginning, the musical setting (piano and percussion, and a bit of guitar later on) is a tentative one, the instruments sketching rather than fully painting the scene. The feeling is not minimalist—there is a full-fledged sense of musical warmth here—but the restraint feels introductory, as if we are waiting for something larger to happen.
It turns out that what is larger that happens is Heather Robb’s voice, a wise and honeyed instrument itself. The arrangement leaves her so exposed you can hear her breathing. She sings about leaving, and the lyrics evoke bygone folk music, both for the way the verses begin and end with the same lines (hey, M. Ward did this last week too) and for some of the lyrical conceits, notably the way the song’s narrator urges the lover she is leaving behind to “Remember me with yellow hair and freckles on my nose.” And then the song takes an abrupt and delicious turn into the 21st century: “Remember me in purple shoes and turquoise pantyhose.” The lover who is leaving is determined to the point of harshness; the titular phrase arrives in the guise of one of the greatest lyrical kiss-offs I’ve yet heard: “Your name is just a noise now/Your face is only skin.” (Ouch.) And yet it comes wrapped in that careful melody, and embellished by those aching, wordless harmonies. Does the narrator mean it, or is she trying simply to convince herself? One can’t be sure, but the bittersweet gentleness of the nearly nursery-rhyme-like music suggests heartbreak under the bravado.
The Spring Standards are three musicians who have been playing various instruments together since their teenage days growing up along the Pennsylvania/Delaware border. They are now located in New York City. “Only Skin” is a track from their double-EP release yellow//gold, which is coming out in May on Parachute Shooter Records.
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.
Pleasantly off-kilter and yet still lovely folk revivalism from a pair of sisters from the English countryside.
Pleasantly off-kilter and yet still lovely folk revivalism from a pair of sisters from the English countryside. “Queen of Hearts” is a traditional song, first recorded by Cynthia Gooding in 1953 and brought to a wider audience by Joan Baez 10 years later, and the Unthanks honor the song’s heart but expand its soul with their uncanny gift of arrangement.
From the glockenspiel’s carefully tinkled opening notes (and note the odd tension the trumpet quickly introduces) it is clear that we are in exquisite musical hands. Keep your ear on the bottom of the mix, as it’s the drumbeat—resolutely minimal, reinforcing the song’s rapt sway—and its bass partner that lend the song its peculiar sense of magical menace, or maybe menacing magic. The interaction of the players—piano, trumpet, strings, percussion—is all but three-dimensional; they sound like they’re playing with each other both musically and spatially. Notes and chords are both thrillingly precise and yet seemingly just come upon. (A favorite moment: the chord that appears on the word “my” smack in the center of the song, at 2:13, on the line “If my love leaves me what shall I do?”)
And let’s not forget the central lure, which is the two sisters’ voices. Becky takes the lower road, Rachel, eight years senior, the higher, and the intertwining is such that they are hard to separate. Thankfully there is no need to. Unthank is their actual last name, by the way. And also the name of a village near where they grew up, west of Newcastle.
“Queen of Hearts” is from the album Last, the Unthanks’ fourth, which will arrive on the Rough Trade label in the US next month. MP3 via the Beggars Group. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the lead.
Not many lo-fi, reverb-drenched songs sneak through the Fingertips filter (certainly not as many as are out there) but this one struck my ears as a keeper, for at least a couple of reasons.
Not many lo-fi, reverb-drenched songs sneak through the Fingertips filter (certainly not as many as are out there) but this one struck my ears as a keeper, for at least a couple of reasons. To begin with, there’s that appealing acoustic guitar riff in the introduction–appealing because it moves musically (many lesser songs will use an acoustic guitar as a kind of place-keeper, via monotonous strums) and because the chords themselves are refreshing (i.e. not just basic chords, but inversions, which are played higher up the neck). Second, there’s Neveu’s cloud-like voice and the layered way she’s recorded it; such soft tones she sings with, but that doesn’t keep her from experimenting with some intriguing harmonic intervals. Third and maybe best of all, this is one sturdy melody, from the ancient undertones of the folk-like verse to the distilled beauty of a chorus that hinges, poignantly, on a suspended chord.
The 26-year-old, Berkeley-based Neveu has played in the bands Calico Horse, Clock Work Army, and Indian Moon. She is currently preparing a solo album, on which “My Cosmonaut” is slated to appear. She offers a nice assortment of free and legal MP3s–both her unreleased solo stuff and band songs–on her web site. And Radiohead fans may also want to check out her charming, front-porch cover of “Idioteque,” via Lefse Records. When it emerges, the solo album will be out on Lefse.
Orenda Fink returns, not long after her technologically experimental O+S project, with a solo record that grounds her firmly back in a world of acoustic instruments and evocative songwriting. “High Ground,” with its minor key orientation, purposeful picking (both mandolin and banjo, from the sound of it), and group vocals, unfolds with the offhand seriousness of a back-country folk song. The title, and the central metaphor therein, implies both threat and survival; Fink’s lovely, careful singing voice, is, by song’s end, all but swallowed by the vocal wave around her, but she keeps singing, and doesn’t raise her voice. And we still hear her, all the more so because we have to try.
“High Ground” is a track from Fink’s forthcoming album, Ask the Night, to be released next month on Saddle Creek Records. And the ever-active, prolific Fink has also been playing with Maria Taylor as Azure Ray again this summer; the word is that a new Azure Ray album is in the works for next year.
“If Eilert Loevborg Wrote A Song, It Would Sound Like This” – Broken Records
We begin with a mournful folk melody, played on cello and accordion, full of sad old-country wisdom. An added mandolin leads to a tempo shift, and now we’re tapping our toes, but we’re still sad. Music is like that sometimes. Tragedy is in the air; Eilert Loevborg (or Ejlert Løvborg) is in fact Hedda Gabler’s flawed, doomed ex-lover in the Ibsen play. I haven’t been able to discover why this seven-piece Scottish band chose to write a song from the point of view of this particular character, but ours is not to question why. Listen instead to Jamie Sutherland’s commanding, rough-edged baritone and the unerring ensemble playing, led by the swift, crestfallen cello.
There’s a Northern air about all this—some elusive mix of Nordic and Scot, perhaps—but also something Eastern European, and then dawns the realization that at heart, old-country music blends nearly into one, from many different cultures. This might have to do with the violin (or fiddle) that lives in the center of so many folk traditions, or it might have to do with something deeper and more primordial in the human spirit. All I know is this band—whose members also play piano, trumpet, and glockenspiel in addition to guitar, bass, and drums—has a full and satisfying presence, the song a cumulative power. By the time Sutherland, with convincing torment, sings, “And does your husband know the lies that we’ve kept?/And has he ever felt that warmth from your bed?” (1:31), I feel that inner shift that happens when musical notes and instruments and voices combine in a way that touches the soul. We can sometimes point out when it happens but never can we ever truly say why.
“If Eilert Loevborg Wrote…” is from Broken Records’ debut CD, Until the Earth Begins to Part, scheduled for a May release on 4AD Records. MP3 via 4AD.
Alela Diane (born Alela Diane Menig) is associated with the so-called “psych folk” and/or “New Weird America” movements, but as with the previously featured Marissa Nadler, similarly associated, there is nothing freakish or discomfitingly idiosyncratic about this young California-raised, Oregon-based singer/songwriter. On the contrary, “White as Diamonds” strikes me as solid as a genuine folk song, with the added benefit of a great—if offbeat—hook. This hook isn’t part of the chorus (there is in fact no chorus), it’s not even a particular turn of phrase or melody; instead, it’s her ongoing use of what is officially called melisma, which is when a singer uses several notes to sing one syllable of a lyric.
Rooted in ancient, sacred music, utilized in classical music, and rendered histrionic by most American Idol contestants, melisma can be not only aurally engaging but emotionally powerful in the hands of the right singer. Diane nails it so well that, as noted, the melismatic recurrence is, really, the song’s great hook. Listening to her singing “white as diamonds” (0:16) or “I was sifting through the piles” (0:51) (melismas on “sifting” and “piles”) or “a tangled thread” (1:01) (check out that upward flutter as she stretched the second syllable of “tangled” out, briefly but indelibly), something inside me opens to her, completely. The song has both a homespun feel, accentuated by the plaintive fiddle accompaniment, and a solemn rhythmic throughline, almost like an old Civil War song, but—in part because of the repeated melisma—is buoyed by a curious sense of the unexpected, which comes to the fore during the bridge (2:04), when the song’s beat is overtly disrupted by a shift in the drumming.
“White as Diamonds” will be found on Diane’s To Be Still CD, coming out on Rough Trade in February. MP3 courtesy of the Beggars Group web site.