I learned recently that my dad and his musical partner Will Branch have "been together" for 16 years, so I guess that's about the amount of time that I've known Will. Like most people - audience members, fans, casual acquaintances, long-distance stalkers - I associate Will pretty closely with the kind of music he plays: traditional American folk and old-timey music. Every once in a while, though, my dad will give me an update on Will's current musical obsession. By my tracking, these have included: TLC, Taylor Swift, and (currently) Metallica. Checking out Will's Guest List, it's clear that, in keeping with the times, eclecticism is more the rule than the exception for him. Still, I think he does a pretty extraordinary job of taking that to it's logical limit. A fantastic musician, thoughtful songwriter (his song "Checkpoint" is a knockout!), dedicated teacher, and reliably deep thinker, Will lives with his wife and daughter on Milwaukee's hip East Side. You can hear both his solo recordings and Fox & Branch on Spotify, buy it on CD Baby (you know, if you like supporting independent musicians and stuff like that), and check out the Fox & Branch website for performance schedule, etc. Fox & Branch's latest, Let Us Get Together, came out last month.
When I play music for an audience, I am considering a lot of factors – how to reach people, what the particular moment in the set calls for, what’s appropriate stylistically, etc.
When I listen to music, sometimes it’s for purely selfish reasons – for how it makes me feel. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. Like most musicians, I listen to styles other than the styles I actually play.
So, this is a self-indulgent list of random music that I like. It’s not a list of what I think is the best music I’ve ever heard in the styles that I aspire to – that would end up being a very Catholic list of old-time and blues musicians.
Personally, I really like: aggressive guitars, blunt lyrics, pentatonic melodies, funky rhythms and strong voices. I definitely believe that most instruments sound best when they are hit hard, including the human voice.
I think song lyrics are an art form uniquely suited to expressing both very specific, quotidian emotions and also extreme, power-fantasy imaginings. Songs are definitely their own art form, completely apart from instrumental music and poetry. A great song is such a great thing. I have never lost that feeling of excitement when you hear the perfect match of words and music.
The McCalmans – Jock Stuart – I found this version of the song on a compilation I bought on my honeymoon. We were staying in Edinburgh. I would believe it if scientists found evidence that we are genetically wired to react to certain music – my great-grandfather came over from Scotland, and this music – and a lot of other Scottish traditional music - moves me like nothing else. There are many versions of the song out there, but none of them can touch this one, as far as I’m concerned. For such a pretty song, the lyrics are about power – a kind of quiet, Godfather power: “I’m a man you don’t meet every day.”
Meschiya Lake and The Little Big Horns – Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down – Ms. Lake is a force to be reckoned with. 21st Century New Orleans music. There’s a great version of her singing it with Tuba Skinny, a great New Orleans band, on the street in the French Quarter. It’s on YouTube.
Patton Oswalt – Creative Depression – Stand-up comedy seems to be serving a special role in our current culture. We’re all so isolated and we suffer through so many strange situations, nobody but a very smart and very funny person can do it justice. This bit is tangentially about music – it takes a mean swing at the band Toto.
Tristen – Monster – Tristen is one of the best songwriters working right now, in my opinion. Her voice kills me. This song is a very honest assessment of a relationship’s chances when one of the people has their focus on something else, like being an artist. A little Arsenio Rodriguez in the guitar part.
Rebirth Brass Band – Rebirth Groove – If you are in New Orleans on a Tuesday night, go see them at the Maple Leaf Bar.
Fugazi – Waiting Room – Still one of the best anthems of frustration ever written, and man, does it still sound good.
Anais Mitchell – Old Fashioned Hat – With Tristen, one of the best songwriters out there. This song is less ambitious than some of her work, but I think it so perfectly captures being out on the town with someone you love. Such a pretty song.
Ted Hawkins – Stay Close To Me – I love songs that hit on the real emotions that are involved in a relationship, and not just the swoon of being in love. Ted Hawkins sings about the fear of losing someone, about trying to be good enough for someone. I wouldn’t use the word “heartbreaking” for too many songs, but Ted Hawkins recorded several that deserve that term.
Larry Penn – Come Bugle Blow (Milwaukee Road) – Larry Penn is one of the greatest songwriters and singers anywhere. I am proud to know him. Every one of his songs is built with the skill of a fine craftsman, but he is never precious. He is also someone who is always verbally and mentally on his game – you need to be on your toes to hang out with him: if you don’t say what you mean, or back up what you say, he’ll call you on it.
Kate Rusby – Matt Hyland – Incredible singing and incredible accompaniment – the music on this song breathes in and out of several different time signatures. This is from her album Little Lights, which is a masterpiece. I know a guy who thinks Rusby’s voice is too pretty – he prefers singers like Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins. While I think they are great singers, too, I don’t think Kate Rusby is inferior to them. There is a nakedness and honesty to Rusby’s singing that is deceptively simple. Some British folk is meant to be mysterious and mystical – and some of it is meant to be about real people, and it’s in those kinds of songs that Rusby shines.
The Magnetic Fields – You Must Be Out of Your Mind – Another relationship song that captures things most songs miss – the power struggle, the edge. You can indulge emotions in a song that would be toxic in real life – vindictiveness, for instance. That one word, “son,” is as macho as anything in “Jock Stewart.”
Mal Sharpe & Jim Coyle – Feast of Patience – I admire and listen to comedians as much as I do musicians. These guys were geniuses. The older I get, the more I value being able to laugh. I am deeply grateful for people like Coyle and Sharpe. Their specialty was hidden microphone, man-on-the-street gags but this is a rare, in-studio skit.
Metallica – The Four Horsemen – This song just makes me happy – there are at least a half-dozen different riffs, including a minor key version of Lynrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
The guitar solo at 3:50 is wonderful. I find a lot of overlap between the best metal and more traditional music – they share a belief in the guiding power of pure sound itself. In other words, there are lots of moments where the music stands or falls based only on how good the playing is and how soulful or engaging the tone of the instruments is.
I discovered Metallica when I was 19, and some of their music kept me going through some very difficult times. So it made me feel genuinely old to see a band I love become pariahs of the digital age, due to the stance they took against Napster. I’m old enough to remember when Metallica were underdogs – but money changes everything.
Metallica are a kind of band that probably couldn’t exist in today’s musical landscape, period. The days when a band could become absurdly wealthy with one album are gone – Metallica’s 1991 “Black Album” sold 30 million copies, went platinum 16 times, and is “the best-selling album of the SoundScan era,” according to Wikipedia. They toured the world for 2 and ½ years! I think they hit Milwaukee 3 times, but I never went to see them. Now, as I hit my mid-forties, I’d love to go see those guys. They feel like the older brothers I never had, and I forgive them all faults. Maybe I’ll catch them before they hang it up.
Amon Amarth – Valhall Awaits Me – Viking Death Metal. I am actually coming to appreciate metal more and more as I get older. As you start to realize how much daily life can rob you of a sense of power, it can be nothing but healthy to pretend you are a Viking warlord once in awhile. One of the great things about this kind of music is that it has zero cultural references to today’s world. It’s escape. Fun fact: the singer is actually Tom Waits’s dad!