Sixty years on, there continues to be no other festival that promises unity and unforgettable moments as well as Newport Folk Festival does.
10. Julianna Barwick - Nepenthe
When an artist known for idiosyncratic, personal work hits the big time, there is always some concern that success, and the expectations that come with it, will somehow spoil their work. Fortunately, fresh off of the critical success of The Magic Place, Julianna Barwick was able to avoid these pitfalls and leverage her newfound resources to create an intriguing new album. Working with collaborators for the first time and using more complex production techniques allowed her to expand her unique ambient soundscapes, making them more elaborate without losing the personal touches that have always made her work unique.
The Newport Folk Festival, one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) and most successful festivals in the US turned 54 this year. With that much legacy, this festival has a lot to live up to. And with the very definition of “folk” changing, traditionalists are still ready to shake their heads with disapproval to any deviation to the established ways. But it’s not just the genre that’s changing: everything is changing. Festivals have become a major draw for both audiences and bands as a way to gain broad exposure to well-established and up-and-coming bands alike, so it’s with no surprise that Newport is changing as well.
Father John Misty opened his set on Saturday witah a sarcastic rant saying that he’d been invited because he was white, had a beard and played a few acoustic guitars on his record, yet before his performance was even halfway over you could wander to another stage to catch the decidedly un-folky Trombone Shorty. The following day, soul crooner Michael Kiwanuka, delivered a thrilling set, Cold Specks astounded the crowd with herself described “doom soul, and Tuareg guitarist/singer/songwriter Bombino gained a whole new legion of fans with his high-energy guitar rock. All of which is to say, that on the grounds of Fort Adams the term “folk” can indeed mean many different things.
2013 will officially go down as they year I felt old. Not out of touch, per se; I kept up with new music and listened to just as much as I always have. But as every major release came and went, I found myself asking what it was I was missing. People raved about Daft Punk and all I heard was glorified disco. People freaked out about Vampire Weekend and all I heard was grating, cutesy pop that for whatever reason reminded me of those four douchebags singing “Constance Fry” in Trading Places. Worst of all, people flipped their lids about the National – a band that I truly loved at one point – and all I heard was exceedingly dull music that was only appropriate for a therapist’s waiting room. “It grows on you,” people said. So does fungus and flesh-eating bacteria.
All that said, while I seem to have developed a Chunky Kevin-esque “get off my lawn” streak, man there’s been some good music this year. Granted, it’s a bit on the lighter side than my favorite album of last year (and the last five years), Celebration Rock, and two of my ten selections were released just this month, but these are ten of albums I’ll have a hard time bumping from my year-end list.
10. Savages – Silence Yourself
Yeah, I’m on board. A brilliant amalgamation of blistering punk and 80’s goth sensibilities (a little Mission UK mixed with singer Jehnny Beth’s Siouxsie-sounding caterwaul) make for a furiously wonderful romp.
9. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park
Perhaps you’ve shied away from this album because of an inherent hate of any country music made after 1990. I get it. But there’s something about these 12 extremely confident, well written tunes that make Musgraves sound much older than her 25 years. This is less Taylor Swift and more John Prine or Lucinda Williams.
8. Speedy Ortiz – Major Arcana
As much as Savages are a throwback to the 80s, Northampton, Massachusetts’ Speedy Ortiz is a throwback to the 90s. Sadie Dupuis’ vocals channel Liz Phair, or to make a more 90’s reference, Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon. Combined with nift sounds-sloppy-but-is-actually-brilliant rock reminiscent of Pavement or Built to Spill, Major Arcana marks the arrival of a fantastic new band.
10. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I can’t honestly say that Sigur Ros breaks any new ground with Kveikur and, if anything, it feels like a throwback to their earlier work more than a continuation of the new direction they embarked on with last year’s Valtari. But for two good albums in a 12 month span, I’m inclined to forgive the lack of originality.
9. Frightened Rabbit – Pedestrian Verse
The themes (hook ups, boozing, love, more boozing, passing out drunk after boozing) haven’t changed for the brothers Hutchison but with each successive album their execution has improved. On Pedestrian Verse, the lads again craft booming power pop anthems and acerbic ballads to make the ladies swoon and the gents nod ruefully. Maybe they will need to change their game to stay relevant going forward but, for now, Pedestrian Verse serves as a fitting companion piece to previous standout The Winter of Mixed Drinks and should stay in their fans’ rotation for years to come.
8. Grouper – The Man Who Died in His Boat
Liz Harris’s latest album as Grouper is an extension of the brooding path she has traced over the past several years that took five years to come to fruition. As usual, she layers her haunting vocals over dark, ambient chords, creating soundscapes steeped in foreboding and creeping dread. It is a chilling and sublime collection of atmospheric music.
Another South by Southwest (SXSW) has come and gone, leaving a wake of fuzzy memories, ringing ears and a few triumphant “finds” to keep us listening for another year.
Even as music festivals are growing in popularity across the country, SXSW, which is in fact a conference not a festival, holds a special place in the musical landscape, providing a forum for acts and bands of all sizes and degrees of notoriety to perform their latest creations in the hopes of drawing the attention of someone, or everyone. Prince played. Justin Timberlake played. And, thousands of other bands played, too, in over a hundred clubs in and around Austin, TX for five days in March.
Clearly, it’s impossible to see every band, so a strategy is required. My focus was to see bands I’ve never seen before over acts or bands I’ve seen, or would see soon in DC. To prepare, I listened to as many SXSW bands in advance as I could, which was about 175. That resultant list, augmented by other sources, guided my decision making over the course of the festival. But serendipity and attachment to some of my favorites played a role, too. All in all, I saw 60 bands over 5 days.
Still, despite best-laid plans, for some line-ups, you simply have to change your strategy. Thursday night’ Belmont Warner Sound Nikon showcase was one such night, and as a whole, accounts for my favorite overall night. The lineup? Guards, Surfer Blood, Atlas Genius, Frightened Rabbit, The Joy Formidable and The Flaming Lips. A strong bill that was the perfect mix of beloved bands and new contenders. The Belmont isn’t a large club and the line wrapped around the block, preventing many people from getting in that night, but fortune (in the form of a badge and some kind Austin friends who let me in the line) helped me find my way to the front of the stage.
SOUNDS LIKE: The Tallest Man on Earth and M. Ward walk into a half-empty dance club at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday…
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE: Clocking in at over six minutes, it’s a beautiful soundtrack for your Valentine’s Day edition of Seven Minutes in Heaven.
Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, recently released this first track from the forthcoming Muchacho, and like the best sort of ear worms it’s been seeping into the crevasses of our brains ever since. Loosely borrowing lyrics from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” Houck’s transcendent voice echoes out of a morass of drum kit and string tracks, producing a song that is both morose in its description of lost love and powerful in its resolve not to let that loss crush the remaining life out of the singer.
It’s rumored that Muchacho was created in response to a breakup-induced freak out, and if “Song for Zula” is any indication of what’s to come, expect an album that veers wide from the 70’s alt-country sound of 2010’s Here’s to Taking it Easy — slide guitars and vocal harmonies are replaced by far more sophisticated electronic accompaniment, generating a dreamy, off-kilter sound with more in common with Talking Heads “Naïve Melody” or drowning in the Pacific Ocean than with anything Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan ever put out.
That’s how Phosphorescent front man, and for the most part only man, Matthew Houck described his usual voice to the near sold out crowd Tuesday. Poking fun at himself and his vocal “issues” about midway through the set, it was an endearing moment that was typical of the night. His voice noticeably cracking throughout, Houck and his Taking It Easy band tore through a mostly ferocious hour and a half long set that ranged from the quietest of songs (“My Dove, My Lamb” performed solo”) to outright feedback breakdown at the end of “A Picture Of Our Torn Up Praise” that echoed the best moments of Crazy Horse and their legendary band leader.
Because the show was so good Tuesday night (review coming this evening) and because a year ago today my best friend, who was a cat, passed away, we're going to double up on the Phosphorescent this week. This song, taken from his 2005 album Aw Come Aw Wry is as calmingly maudlin on record as it was when he performed it with Family Band's Kim Krans the other night. It's also freaking great, so excuse me while I go put this on and be sad for a little while. Promise I'll be all good by the time The Besnard Lakes hit the stage tonight.
Phosphorescent - Endless Pt. 1
Phosphorescent is playing The Red Palace in DC tonight and you should be too. The brain child of Brooklyn transplant Matthew Houck Phosphorescent is a rotating cast of musicians that come together to bring you some of the best alt-country style rock going today.
Why is he playing a place this small? We have no idea. Especially after the awesomeness of his second album for the Dead Oceans label, To Willie, which is nothing but Willie Nelson covers done right. Like I said, we don't know why he's playing a place as small as The Red Palace (although maybe it's because it is one of the best rooms in DC) but we'll take it!
If need convincing or just have never heard of the band, check out the opening track of their excellent album Here's To Taking It Easy and let the music do the talking.
At $12 a ticket, how could you possibly go wrong.
"It's Hard To Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)