February 2015: Fluent in Folkistani

Pedestrian at Best - Courtney Barnett After falling in love with her collected EPs, called A Sea of Split Peas, in 2013 I had the chance to go see Barnett play at the Empty Bottle. Almost exactly a year ago, actually. It was at that show, watching her on stage, with her left-handed Strat and her guitar-drums-bass trio, that I first had the strange idea that she reminded me of Kurt Cobain. It's a thought that surprised me, and didn't make a whole lot of sense at first. Cobain was kind of a gloriously miserable person, while Barnett's vibe is pretty sunny. Cobain screamed and gargled, while Barnett seems hellbound on leeching all but the most basic emotions from her voice. If you wrote out the lyrics to Cobain's songs, it would hard to find one that filled an entire page, while Barnett streams words like a verbal Niagara. Yet, lyrically they both betray a kind of eye-winking, nuanced sarcasm. They're both working with a pop-savvy tool-kit of musical references that lurks around in the back of the music. After a while it started to make more and more sense. Then this banger from her new album pops into the world, and the comparison not only makes sense, but seems inevitable. Ratcheting up the crunch, biting down on the vocals, and wringing all wrist floppiness from her guitar strumming, from the feedback squeal that starts the song it's clear that Courtney Barnett is on a mission to wed her verbal precocity to an atavistic mosher's wet dream of a stomp. My favorite part of the whole song is how, through sheer devotion to a Dylanesque monotone, she manages to make the 3-4 notes she kind of sings at the end of the chorus sound like high melody. Well, I guess we all know where Cobain ended up, being reincarnated as a wise-ass lady from Melbourne, Australia. I say good for him. 

Sudakaizbeautiful - DJ Raff Typically, I try not to repeat artists from month to month on the blog, but this album has been playing so frequently in my ears for the last two months that it would seem like a lie not to include a song from it. DJ Raff manages to make some great electronic music, incorporating plenty of Latin sabor, but never so much that it seems like a gimmick. Sometimes slamming, sometimes crooked, always fun, always fresh.  

Somebody Was Watching - Pops Staples A little gift from the NPR Music crew, this pared down song just slays me. The last music recorded by this legendary band leader, the recent album comes more than ten years after his death. Apparently the title of the album, Don't Lose This, is what Pops said to his daughter Mavis when he gave her these tapes shortly before he passed. Smooth, smoky, and just genuine as hell.

Blue Mountains - Sam Amidon Gabe and I went to the see Mark Dvorak and Olivia Chaney at the Old Town School of Folk Music this month. A young Brit, Olivia Chaney plays gorgeous piano and sings songs with a Joni Mitchell-like tendency toward filigree. At one point, between songs in her quiet intimate set, she expressed her insecurities about fitting in in the folk world. In a place like Old Town, where folk doesn't mean simply "acoustic," but is understood to be about traditional music, her worry is not unwarranted. Yet, in the midst of her beautiful, but slightly half-baked, originals she sprinkled in a few traditional songs that demonstrated that, although Folkistan may not be her native home, she can speak the language fluently. One of those was a superb rendition of Blue Mountains, covered here in a completely different way by another young artist whose relationship to folk is also complicated. Amidon is making a career of completely inhabiting traditional music while refusing to dress it up in period costume. This album features the scribbly guitar voodoo of Bill Frissell, and the result is a sullen, soulful batch of mood music that my favorite ten year-oldl asked to be turned off because it was depressing her. No, was the answer. No, we can't turn it off. 

Don't Wanna Fight - Alabama Shakes Gawdamn this is a band to be reckoned with. Britanny Howard is a mighty force. Another artist whose music is ripe with references to old music, Alabama Shakes don't have a single speck of dust on them. Can't we somehow create a temporary time-warp so there's a world where they play a concert with Creedence Clearwater Revival and Otis Redding (backed by Booker T and the M.G.s)? 

Superstition - Stevie Wonder I won a small, but incredibly satisfying, victory this month when my favorite 4 year-old came up to me randomly one evening before dinner and whispered in my ear, "Can we listen to Stevie Wonder?" As we matched each other completely ridiculous dance move for completely ridiculous dance move, an even smaller voice from deep inside whispered, "My work here is done."

Exactly Like You - Django Reinhardt & Stephan Grapelli A Reinhardt and Grappelli record has been hanging around Gabe's place for a while now, and one night I thought "Oh, what the hell" and slapped it on. Man. I mean, I knew it before, but these dudes can play their butts off. So fun, so confident, so completely original. And the recording sounds really damn good, too. Super music to do many things to. Including, maybe most of all, just sitting a listening. 

Rock Island Line - Leadbelly This song got stuck in my head early in the month. I'm not sure from where or why. Maybe my spirit just needed Leadbelly's voice for courage against the ungodly cold. About a week later Leadbelly was all over music news with a new collection from Smithsonian, apparently the first full career Leadbelly retrospective ever released. If there was ever music that can accomplish the same eye-opening warm-up as a good shot of whiskey, this is it. Keep on trucking. 

Gunshowers - Badbadnotgood & Ghostface Killah Making my Wu-Tang mission surprisingly even more sweet, this collaboration between the Canadian instrumental and Ghostface dropped late this month and immediately floated to the top of my listening list. I love how Badbadnotgood's music often feels like a RZA track come to life, like a watching a classic painting pop into 3D and start moving around. For me, the simplicity of the whole endeavor (songs without choruses, no stupid skits) comes off as classy and classic, rather than undercooked. Music and rapping. Music and rapping. What else is needed? 

EarthEE - THEESatisfaction More 21st century voodoo grooves from the Seattle scene that also spawned Shabazz Palaces. 

Gissié - Zap Mama and Dirty Money - Antibalas For Valentines Day this year I faced a difficult dilemma: Take Gabe to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo at Old Town, or Zap Mama and Antibalas at Park West. Remembering how much fun the inviting opulence of Park West is, and catching on to the fact that Zap Mama and Antibalas wouldn't just be playing together, but actually playing together, the choice seemed clear. They did not disappoint. It was a master class in musicianship and showmanship, improved of course by hopping on the dance floor. 

Picture You - The Amazing From the Swedish "supergroup's" second album. Actually, these days it seems like every new Swedish group you hear about is a "supergroup," cementing my impression that Stockholm is like a rats nest of hyper talented (and highly motivated) musicians. As great as the beginning of this song is, the really great part doesn't start for me until around 5:15, when Moussa Fadera's delicious drumming magically saves the song from being swallowed by U2ish pretentiousness, and again at 6:33 when what I think is an autoharp adds just the right fairy dust, and then again around 8:00 when the most perfect congas ever invented start holding hands with Fadera's kit. A 4-minute build that goes nowhere and everywhere all at the same time.