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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mixed-Tape Emotionalism

The mixed-tape is truly a lost art. I guess these days you could say we have playlists, or even the smart playlist a la Pandora and You Tube.  But there's something lackluster and impersonal about a computer generated list in comparison to a carefully chosen and recorded mixed-tape, sometimes with handwritten song lists and images, handed over in sweaty, eager palms.
Or the dramatic music gesture; John Cusack standing outside my window, boom box held high.  An offering.  When I look back on that I think, man his arms must have been really tired, that boom box is huge, but also...I miss the emotionalism of music.  I want to go back to when music meant as much as hand-crafted art, when it meant as much or sometimes more than words.
When I listen to pop music and the radio these days it's just noise.  It leaves little to think about, little to do or to be inspired by.  So in an effort to make you my own mixed-tape, I've complied a list of bands who I've been listening to this past year and who I think will continue to do great things in 2011. Most of them are not bands you will hear on the air-waves, are relatively new, or at least have a CD coming out this year.  If I were to hold a concert in my backyard tomorrow, this is who I would potentially invite.  This music means something.  At least to me.

1) The Head and The Heart
This band out of Seattle has been on everyone's radar as of recently, and just signed with Sub Pop records which should mean some great future albums to come.  They are near overwhelming live with their harmonizing vocals and six-piece instrumentals.  It sounds like family-driven folk with mostly an upbeat sound, but not lacking for emotionally driven lyrics and sporadically haunting sounds.  Their voices mesh like carefully woven fabric and the female vocals are simply epic, an almost record-played vintage sound.  I expect them to get much more recognition this year and anticipate their album under Sub Pop.

Radio Jam: Lost in My Mind
On My Tape: Down in the Valley, Winter Song (it's an agonizing tie)

2) Breathe Owl Breathe
Another band with male and female vocals.  Breathe Owl Breathe has an incredibly appropriate name for it's sound in relation to it's mysterious namesake.  Quiet, intelligently whimsical and restrained.  Micah Middaugh's vocals are somewhere between full singing and almost speaking.  It lends a heartbreaking tone to the music, as it manages to sound casual and strained at the same time.  And then there are songs like Dragon where he actually does speak, and speaks of a dragon being pen pals with a princess and the dragon's incredible penmanship.  It's just too weird for me not to love it.

Radio Jam: Dogwalkers of the New Age
On My Tape: Own Stunts

3) The Cave Singers
Another band from Seattle, a weakness of mine I suppose.  Getting a away from my tendency towards more contemplative  Folk-Rock, The Cave Singers lean more towards Classic Rock, but almost stripped and with roots.  While you still have classic folk instruments like the fiddle and tambourine, there is a very gritty plugged-in sound to their new album, No Witch.  Strong, raspy lead vocals get me every time, so it's no wonder I'm a fan.  And if that's not enough, they are under my favorite label, Jagjaguwar.  I'm  not sure what they are feeding people over there, but I want some.

Radio Jam: Swim Club, Dancing On Our Graves
On My Tape: Gifts and the Raft

4) The Middle East
It's hard to describe the sound of The Middle East.  It's emotional, intense, and often transcendent of a musical genre.  Male and female vocals are also present here, a little bit of a soft quality but never lacking strength.  It's almost unbalanced moving in waves, at times quiet and whimsical and other times violent and forthcoming, but this rounds out to create something that sounds even and epic.
The first time I heard Blood, I literally stopped in my tracks.  Though they only have an EP out at this point, I'm incredibly excited to see what comes next.

Radio Jam: Blood
On My Tape: Blood, it's just that good

5) Drew Grow and the Pastors' Wives
Another band from the Northwest.  Yeah, it's true.  There's something about those dark wet days, and green, green trees.  Personally, I think it's the moss.  It has to be, right?
This one is just simple math: you take a guy with strong, acid-like vocals, add soulful electric guitar (think Jeff Buckley), throw in some female vocals, add a baritone slide guitar (sigh), gospel-inspired harmonizing and a upright bass, and perhaps a horn or two, just here and there.  How could you go wrong?  Well folks, you can't.  It's like gospel music, but for white people.  Kind of makes you want to put your hands together and well, clap.

Radio Jam: It's All Comes Right
On My Tape: Friendly Fire

6) The Mountain Goats
This band is certainly nothing new, but their new album has reminded me how much I enjoy them.  I was sold with their release of Tallahassee, in 2003, which told an incredibly sad story of a couple's slow demise.  The musical and lyrical ups and downs were described in a review as "visions of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald crashing a party hosted by Tennessee Williams."  Those are my people, so I was sold.
Their new sound has moved away from the static-like, I recorded these songs in my bedroom sound.  Which I read that John Darnielle actually did in the early days.  A boom box, his vocals, and a guitar.  The sound is, even now that it's been refined, is as stripped as the lyrics are.  These are the most honest and heartbreaking lyrics you will ever hear, and from a guy that doesn't really have a very good voice.  It's all honesty here.  And since there's little to no dissonance between the sound of his voice and the horror of some of the lyrics, it makes the songs incredibly moving, but sad.  A lot like that joke you shouldn't be laughing at.
Their new album will be released on March 29, and from early listens it sounds like it's a bit softer around the edges than some of their previous releases but still reminds us that "we are young supernovas and the heat's about the break."

Radio Jam: No Children
On My Tape: High Hawk Season

7) Lia Ices
I have a few patterns going here: another from Jagjaguwar records.  And if I'm being really honest there are few female vocalists out there that I really enjoy (calm down Regina Spektor, you totally make my list) but Lia Ices is incredibly talented.  Her voice is beautiful and expertly trained.  She sings with the strength, tone and grace of a timeless singer of a bygone era, singing by a piano in a bar that has frosted glass doors and smoke rising from tables.  But within this melodic music there is experimentation, playfulness and profound intellect.  It's incredibly refreshing.

Radio Jam: Grown Unknown
On My Tape: Daphne

8) Strand of Oaks
This is the definition of Indie singer-songwriter.  Like those that have come before him, he has all the proper tools.  Beard: check.  Acoustic guitar: check.  Burned-down house, broken engagement, and living on park benches in Philadelphia writing sad songs: check.  While his first album, Leave Ruin, was written in the aftermath of the aforementioned tragedy his newest album, Pope Killdragon, is still mournful, but delivers near absurd mythologically driven lyrics in an incredibly thoughtful way.  And you have the admit the name of the album pulls you in a little, doesn't it?

Radio Jam: I'm not sure there is one.
On My Tape: Alex Kona

9) David Ramirez
I must admit that Joe Pug would have been my first choice here had David Ramirez not been coming out with the next great music movie (fingers crossed), Between Notes.  But he's from Austin, worthy of points alone, and is an incredible songwriter.  Just a twang of Texas is there in his sound, but the words are worth a listen.  And if I learned anything from Once, I think we'll be hearing quite a bit from David Ramirez in the years to come.

Radio Jam: Shoeboxes
On My Tape: Try

10) Anything by Justin Vernon or Will Sheff
Enough said.  These two are just brilliant and cannot be left off of my list.  With all that Justin Vernon has done recently to keep us on our toes (Auto-Tune, GAYNGS, Volcano Choir, a solo album and of course Kayne West), I imagine there's more where that came from in 2011.  Okkervil River will be releasing a new album this year.  The single they released thus far, Mermaid, is breathtaking.  That's not even the right way to say it, the first time I heard it I was reminded of Jack Nicholson.  Why you ask?  Because it made me want to be a better (wo)man.  Might I also mention that both of these artists are under Jagjaguwar.

Honorable Mention (Side B):
Chris Bathgate
Joe Pug
Great Lake Swimmers
Blizten Trapper
Horse Feathers
Frightened Rabbit
Angus & Julia Stone

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