Lost Leaders: Volunteer

One of my favorite authors right now is Myke Cole — he wrote books like Control Point and The Armored Saint / The Queen of Crows — who I highly recommend, if you haven’t read anything by him. Every now and again, he plugs the work of his brother, Peter Cole, one half of a band called Lost Leaders.

I was doing a bit of traveling earlier this week, and needed a new band to listen to, and picked up the group’s 2017 EP Heavy Lifting. It’s a really great little album, with six excellent tracks that I ended up listening to over and over again over the course of this week.

The EP kicks off with the radio-friendly ‘Volunteer’, heads into a more lyrical (and vaguely-José González sounding?) ‘Gienevieve’, and a relaxed ‘A Million Little People’ that has a great chorus. ‘I Feel It Coming On’, ‘April Snow’, and ‘The Righteous Path’ round out the record, and what strikes me is that the duo doesn’t really settle into one sound — they go from indie/alt-rock sound to relaxing ballad, and does it really well. I really like harmonies, and these guys hit a really good balance with that and their guitar work.

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The group just wrapped up a crowdfunding project on PledgeMusic called Promises, Promises, which is over its goal and should come out sometime in February 2019. It sounds like it’ll hav a similar vibe and sound as Heavy Lifting, and I’ve already backed it. If the music on the video is any indication, it’s going to be a good one. Next up on my list is to check out their self-titled debut, which came out in 2014.

Zero 7 — Mono

This is cool: Zero 7 has released a new single, Mono, featuring Hidden. It’s a very cool track, and I hope that it means that they’ve got a new album coming at some point. On their Facebook page, they indicated that “the hiatus is back off, again.”

This is good to hear: the duo’s last album was Yeah Ghost back in 2009, although they’ve done a little work here and there in the years since. I’ve been a fan of these guys for… years — I think I first came across them through the Garden State soundtrack in 2004 with “In the Waiting Line,” a hypnotic and really beautiful piece featuring Sia. But it was their first album, Simple Things where I really sunk into their work. Their song “Destiny” is something that I listen to often, but the entire album is just sublime. They’re also one of those rare bands where their followup work is uniformly excellent. 2004’s When It Falls, 2006’s The Garden, and Yeah Ghost were all great albums, each with their own really great set of collaborations with artists like José González, Sia, and Tina Dico, artists that I’ve discovered through Zero 7 and continued to listen to on their own.

Carbon Leaf: Gathering

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I've long been a fan of Virginia-based band Carbon Leaf, and they recently released a new, short album called Gathering — the first of a projected quartet. With it, they've returned to form, harkening back to some of their best albums. 

Those albums were published in the early 2000s: Echo Echo (an indie record), Indian Summer, Love Loss Hope Repeat, and Nothing Rhymes with Woman. What really set them apart was their songwriting: full of vivid imagery and emotion that evoked nostalgia, and a longing for a sort of rural America. Their sound is hard to pin down: Their songs range from indie-folk-country-rock to pop-traditional Irish. They split from their record label after Nothing Rhymes with Woman and did a big campaign to re-record all of their work under their own indie label, which slightly improved the songs and brought them back to their own sound. 

Since that split, they've meandered a bit. 2010's How the West Was One was supposed to be the start of a short album series, which captured a lot of that feel that made them so great, but while 2013's Constellation Prize and Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle have their notable tracks, they're pretty forgettable records. 

Gathering feels more like a return to form for them. It's a short album — only five songs, that come in at 20 minutes — but each one feels like it packs an outsized punch, bringing that great sense of nostalgia, folksy feel, and loneliness through their songs. I've always sort of thought of them as bringing the feeling you get while returning to a home you haven't been to in a while. Songs like "Gathering," Bow & Arrow (Shore Up Love," and "Gifts from the Crows" feel as though they'll be future classics. 

The only bummer is that this is a short album: it's easy to cycle through it, and hopefully, the short length will mean that the band will churn these out at a bit of a quicker pace than the typical one-album-every-couple-of-years-rate. 

Tell Me, Xenia Dunford

I haven't written a whole lot about music in recent years. For a while after college, I was obsessed with trying to discover new artists and music, and in another world, I might have become a music journalist. I don't come across nearly as much new and cool artists these days, but I did stumble upon Xenia Dunford the other day, and I'm really digging her work. 

Xenia is a local artist out of Burlington, Vermont, and a bar I follow on Facebook advertised that she was going to play playing this weekend, so I gave her a listen. Her style is folksy —a bit like Marian Call, Marketa Irglova, or Dawn Landes. 

She's recently released a pair of EPs: Flesh and Bone (& Everything Within) A and B, (You can listen to A here, and listen to B here), and they're quite good! I'll be watching for more from her. 

Lissie - Catching a Tiger

The song 'Everywhere I Go' was my first introduction to Lissie's music, during an episode of the television show Dollhouse. It's a fantastic song, one that's quiet, stripped down to guitar, lyrics and an incredible vocal performance from Lissie: it's a heart aching song, one that soars during the chorus with an impressive range from the singer. Tracking down her EP, 'Why You Runnin'', I was introduced to more of her music, but it didn't really stick with me.

Lissie's first album Catching A Tiger is a work that caught me completely off guard. Initially, I wasn't sure what to think of it: her music still didn't catch me: my introduction of a quiet, thoughtful song initially didn't prepare me for the sheer range of style that Lissie exhibits over the course of the album.

Record Collector, the first track off of the album, is a good example of what the album feels like as a whole. There's an eclectic sound, with an infectious, steady beat that slows to a crawl before an infusion of energy that blasts away: its an extraordinary track, and one that represents the album as a whole.

What impresses me the most, I think, is the range at which Lissie seems to operate: she's sentimental without wallowing in grief (When I'm Alone), pointed but not angry (Bully), nostalgic (Cuckoo), and wistful (In Sleep). Catching A Tiger is an album that has a lot to give to a lot of people: there's something for everyone here, and I'm sure that given any number of periods in my life, I'd see the album in a lot of different ways.

Also impressive is the raw energy that Lissie is able to bring to the table for tracks like In Sleep, Loosen the Knot, Cuckoo, but can turn around for tracks like Oh Mississippi or Everywhere I Go, naturally. She feels like she's right at home rocking out on stage (and it's worth checking out videos of her performances online), or singing solo in front of a crowd. It's something that I've heard other artists attempt, but I'm not sure that I've really heard anyone pull it off as convincingly as she seems to be able to, at least on the record.

Catching A Tiger is a fun, exciting album, one that I've been playing the car: much of the album is perfect for blasting around the highways of Vermont during the middle of summer: vibrant, rich and surprising, all at once.

Echo Echo

St. Patrick’s day is a good day to listen to one of my absolute favorite albums, Carbon Leaf’s Echo Echo. Released in 2001, this was one of my early introductions to the band, alongside their first major record label album, Indian Summer (also quite good). Amazon.com had released the album as a free download while I was in college, and the album became a regular on my rotation of songs on my iPod and computer playlists. Interestingly, it’s remained there since, and one of the few albums that I return to again and again.

Echo Echo is a perfect balance between sound and lyrics. There’s a certain comfort that the band seems to have across the board here, listening to the album from start to finish. ‘The Boxer’ opens up with a quick start, with a rich blend of instrumentation and vocals from both Barry Privett and the rest of the background group. The rest of the album falls into place nicely after that, through to the end, with songs like ‘Wanderin' Around’, ‘Shine’, ‘Mary Mac’ and ‘Desperation Song’ injecting energy to the thing, while ‘On Any Given Day’, ‘Torn To Tattered’, and ‘Toy Soldiers’ balance it out with something a little slower. The album ends up with ‘Maybe Today’ and a hidden track ‘My Dear’, to close out the album softly.

It’s difficult to explain some of the hows and whys of how the sound works for me. I don’t have a background in music, but I suspect that there’s something to do with the chords, but to my untrained ear, the album feels fresh, full of air and very spring like – it conjures up images of bombing along some of Vermont’s back state routes with the windows down, the music high up on the speakers. Particularly, ‘The Boxer’, ‘Toy Soldiers’, and ‘Lonesome Pine’ all help there, evenly spaced along the album.

Lyrically, the album holds up well though out, particularly ‘Toy Soldiers’, as I keep coming back to it year after year with reaffirmed meaning and understanding of the lyrics:

We find the people of our dreams We find that they're not what they seem I've learned that people come and go I've learned that families break and grow Toy soldiers brave away those tears Toy soldiers hope for better years Today I strike out on my own The dog is dead. We kids have grown.

Other songs hit me in much the same way, with the same weight. 'Wandrin’ Away' speaks to me as someone who’s travelled a bit, while 'Torn To Tattered' has comforted me when I’ve been down more than once. The lyrics are stories, complicated ones, and their meaning still comes out and speaks to me years on.

I seem to always find myself listening to this album around St. Patrick’s day. While the album doesn’t have any particular ‘Irish’ theme, there are subtle influences throughout, especially in ‘The Boxer’ and ‘Mary Mac’ (although Mary Mac is really a Scottish song). The band has been known to play covers of Irish songs at their concerts (including a recent one known as ‘Irish Song’), and amongst their instrumentation, their use of the Tin whistle also helps add in the flavor to a number of songs.

At the end of the day, Echo Echo just works. Balanced between an excellent sound and lyrics, Carbon Leaf’s never quite managed to top the album, for which I’m thankful. Their growing collection of songs is impressive, and they’ve put together some great albums, but none quite feel as consistent and click in quite the same way.

The Decemberists' The King is Dead

"Beneath this bold and brilliant sun!," sings Colin Meloy in the opening track of The Decemberist's latest album, The King is Dead. It's a surprisingly upbeat and bright feel for what typically comes from the group. Their last couple of releases, such as The Crane Wife, had dead Civil War soldiers, heartbroken lovers and mass murderers throughout the tracks, while The Hazards of Love was a gloriously dark affair throughout, with a sound to match. The King Is Dead, however, has a far more upbeat and sunny disposition.

The King is Dead is a fantastic collection of tracks from the group, one that breaks out of some of the more intense elements of their recent work, which saw complicated stories and themes throughout, and gives them a chance to scatter a little and enjoy themselves. This is a fun album, from the opening track Don't Carry It All to Rox In The Box to the fantastic Down By The Water and This Is Why We Fight. Tracks such as June Hymn and Dear Avery both have their own nostalgic, '70s feel to them that reminds me the most of Gordon Lightfoot and other folk-singers from the same point in time.

The end result is a different album than I'm largely used to from the group, reminding me the most of their collection of singles, Always The Bridesmaid from a couple years ago, to Picaresque from 2005. But, where the group had a really eclectic sound from their earliest albums, they've taken the tone and feel of their later efforts and combined this with what's truely made the group a great one: their focus on the songs, lyrics and style. Their strange sound that they started with was one that I've never been a huge fan of, and it was really only with 'The Crane Wife' that I was able to get into their music and enjoy the stronger parts of what they've released, and most of everything since then.

Albums such as The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love both blew me away with their overarching storytelling (The Hazards of Love moreso), but The King is Dead comes as a welcome change in style, at least for now. The newer sound is excellent, and the group feels like it is exploring some of their deeper roots and are working on material that they weren't able to do for a while. It's refreshing, as is the sound and tone of the entire album, and it's an album that I'll be listening to for months as spring comes to Vermont. I can't think of a better album to drive to when the temperatures begin to rise and summer returns.

The best Music of 2010

I've largely fallen out of the music blogging stuff that I once was heavily engaged in. Too much writing, not nearly enough reward, and it got to a point where it interfered with other projects that I've wanted to do, and the things that I write about when it comes to music are fewer and further between. I've not stopped listening to music, however, and there's been a number of really good albums released this year. Here's what I liked the most.

Kirby Krackle, E for Everyone

Kirby Krackle was a discovery that I made earlier this year via a musician friend of mine, John Anealio, and it's easy to bill these guys as some of the best all around Geek rockers out there. With their prior self-titled album, they've got an excellent backlog of songs that run the line from comic books (There's a lot here - Iron Man, Green Lantern, Wolverine, Great Lakes Avengers and more) to zombies (what self-respecting geek musician doesn't have a song about zombies?) to things like conventions and geek romance.

E for Everyone is an album that hits all the basic, rich chords, combined with lyrics that I find impossible not to sing along with loudly in the car. The set is a fun one, and I hope to hear more from them at some point in the near future.

Ray LaMontagne, God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise

Ray LaMontagne is a long favorite of mine from college, and his latest album hasn't disappointed as he's changed up his style over the past couple of years. This latest outing is one that carries with it a particular country style with some of the songs, and looks to the virtues of a simpler, uncomplicated existence. The best song on the album is easily Beg Steal Or Borrow with its steady beat, perfect sound and breezy feel that makes me perk up a bit whenever I hear it on the radio.

LaMontagne has kept up with a good habit of not repeating his successes, nor does he change so drastically that his new music is something totally unexpected. God Willin' is an album that retains the best of his past, and changes as needed, and almost always for the better. While the album hasn't quite topped Gossip in the Grain, it's an excellent work by an excellent musician.

Goodtimes Goodtimes, Goodtimes Goodtimes

Franc, of Goodtimes Goodtimes, has been on a roll lately. He's just released a second music video from this album for 'Magic Hour' (Fortune Seller Song is the other, both excellent). Glue, the first album from Goodtimes Goodtimes, was a favorite of mine, but it absolutely pales in comparison to this self-titled album that's just been released. It's almost as if a filter has been removed and Franc's been unleashed. The music is polished, rich and textured, and the songs are superb. Each song on this album is excellent, strong and together, allow for a great album.

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, Grace Potter And The Nocturnals

Grace Potter & The Nocturnals starts off with a bang with their reworked version of Paris (Ooh La La). It's a blast of energy that Grace has been known for on stage, and it's a good thing to see retained in their latest (and largest to date), self-titled album. The album's not their best: there's a certain flavor that seems to have been lost from their original work, but the band has retained their fantastic songwriting skills, new sounds and still a great energy and vibe that work with Grace's voice wonderfully.

Anais Mitchell feat. Justin Vernon, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, The Haden Triplets and Ben Knox Miller, Hadestown

I've described this album as a indie-folk retelling of the myth of Orpheus set in a post-apocalyptic fiefdom. Yep. It's also completely fantastic, an upgraded version of a production that Anais Mitchell worked on a couple of years ago. Hadestown is a rocking good time: it's akin to a stage soundtrack, with various (well known) singers taking on different characters. Justin Vernon (aka, Bon Iver) takes part, and we follow a great story of romance, betrayal, greed and revenge. Musically, this album is diverse, rich and fascinating, and every time I listen to the tracks, I'm intensely reminded of Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker, with it's dark atmosphere, twisted characters and foreboding surroundings.

Jed Whedon and the Willing, History of Forgotten Things

Whedon is a name that all geeks should know. Not only the name of Joss (who did Firefly, Dollhouse and Buffy) or Zack (Screenwriter for Fringe, Deadwood, and Dr. Horrible), but Jed, for his work on not only Dr. Horrible, but for his fantastic History of Forgotten Things, which is easily one of my top favorites of the year. This well composed alternative-pop album is one that is both smooth and ethereal. There's a real SF/F feel to the album as well: Drones was used in the show Dollhouse (as well as Remains, a single that he's released), as well as Last Man and Ancestors. Is this music that we'll see more of in the future? I hope so.

Holy Fiction, Hours from It

Hours From It is a product of the west, and it feels like it. This was an unexpected album from Holy Fiction, and one that I completely fell in love with after a single listen. It's been on a regular rotation while I take long car rides, and it's perfect for blasting down the roads of Vermont. Each song has a fantastic beat and sound that's been based off of that, one that's not too overpowering. Songs like Exit demonstrate the real shifts capable from the musicians, and where Iron Eyes gives me a nostalgic feel for cross-country trips that I've taken in the past. The album's single downside is its length: it's far too short, and I'm chomping at the bit for more.

Carbon Leaf, How The West Was Vol. 1

One of my all-time favorite bands is Carbon Leaf, and as they've left the major record label Vanguard, they've begun to rework how they release music and tour around the country. I'm sad to have missed them this year, but I'm hopeful that I'll see them again in the state at some point in the future. How the West Was... Vol. 1 is the first of their new strategy to record and release music as an independent group. This short effort is a fun one with songs that I've wanted to hear on a record for a while, such as Native America. The album feels very much like a classic Carbon Leaf record, and it feels far more like an honest look at their songwriting, without the polish and production that's typically required of a major record. Their older stuff is great, and this is a great addition to it.

Hans Zimmer, Inception (Music from the Motion Picture)

This list isn't limited to bands. As such, Hans Zimmer's Inception soundtrack deserves some high praise. I loved the movie, and it's easily one of the best Science Fiction films that I've seen in a very long time, and that comes in no small part as a result of the soundtrack. The music compliments the film nicely, with a number of tracks, such as Half Remembered Dream, We Built Our Own World and Old Souls resonating with the emotional parts of the film, while Dream Is Collapsing, and Mombasa ratcheting up the tension where needed. The album's something I've listened to dozens of times, and it's a constant companion when I'm writing.

Ferraby Lionheart, The Jack Of Hearts

This album by Ferraby Lionheart is one that I'm somewhat split on. Some of the songs are ones that I'm not all that fond of. But the other half of the album is one that is just absolutely stunning: tracks such as Harry & Bess are ones that retain a nostalgic beat that feels like it wouldn't be out of place in the 1950s, and when the chorus kicks in, it's absolutely one of the best songs that I've ever listened to. There's other good ones here too: Arkansas and Sweet Tanzini retain a great Lionheart sound, and on the whole, it's a good, solid follow up to his first album.

Laura Veirs, July Flame

This album was one that I first heard about while driving home from Pennsylvania. Laura Veirs was an artist that I'd heard of, but hadn't listened to extensively - I'd actually seen her in person, opening for The Decemberists. I remember being unimpressed. July Flame, however, is a very good reintroduction to her, and I've found that this is a fantastic indie-rock album. Viers has a great voice and some great songwriting skills here, and July Flame is a quirky, fun listen.

Fictionist, Lasting Echo

Lasting Echo feels like something out of the 1970s, from the front cover of the album to the science fiction nature that some of the songs take on. This was a fun album to listen to, and moreover, it feels ... cool. Fictionist's songs are laid back, interesting and free: the song Human Wings exemplifies this, while Blue Eyed Universe is a neat little song that has taken to space with its music video. The sounds here are well balanced between the vocals and guitar work, which lends itself very well to my ears.

Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More

Recommendations from friends are the best sorts: my friend Laura pointed out Mumford and Sons to me, and it's clear that this album is going to land them on the map. With a short tour of sold out dates, the proof is in the pudding that they'll be growing a bit. Songs like The Cave, Roll Away Your Stone and White Blank Page bring in the energy that works well with their vocals. These guys sound like they're off to a great start. Can't wait to see how they turn out a couple albums from now. In the meantime, Sigh No More will have to do.

Josh Ritter, So Runs The World Away

Josh Ritter's latest album is a stunning piece of work, with some of my absolute favorite songs by him to date. The tone is set with Curtains, an instrumental, before launching into a set of songs that are rife with stories of mummies, killers, explorers and train rides. Ritter's songs are absolutely fantastic, with a rich blend of instrumental wonder and lyrical delights through out. My favorite songs off of this album are easily The Curse, about a mummy who returns to life, and a Southern Pacifica, for its smooth, train travelling song, Rattling Locks, with its harsh edges and Folk Bloodbath, the story of a, well, folk bloodbath. I'm desperately hoping that the band will be back in the area at some point soon - their live act is even better.

The Apples In Stereo, Travellers In Space And Time

For a bit of fun, listen to Travellers in Time and Space, an album that I came across while looking up songs for my geek music playlist. The Apples in Stereo have a slick synth-pop sound and feel that is bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. Songs like Dream About The Future, Strange Solar System and C.P.U. all feel very geeky with their titles and subject matter, and feel full of movement and bright sound that is both over the top and a bit like Electric Light Orchestra.

Cary Brothers, Under Control

Cary Brothers wrote one of my all time favorite albums: Who You Are, which I discovered in college. While Under Control doesn't quite live up to the same heights for me, it's still a very good album. Brothers has refined his sound during the break, and we're left with a lot of the great parts of his older work, along with an even better sound. Ghost Town, Break Off The Bough and Someday rank as my favorites off of this track, and there's a nice blend of fast/fun and softer/serious songs across the eleven tracks. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

This year felt like a good year for music, and at points, I feel like I've not listened to as much new music as I have in the past. Half of the albums that I listened to this year were from bands that I've liked enough to listen to again, while another half were new discoveries, recommendations and stumbled upon records that I'd never heard of before. I'm happy with that, and if you're looking for something to listen to that's reasonably new, these albums are all ones that I highly recommend.

Marian Call

Earlier this year, I met up with a friend, John Anealio, who at one point, said: "If you like what I've done, have you heard about Marian Call?" I hadn't, and soon thereafter, looked her up. Marian Call, a singer-songwriter out of Anchorage Alaska, has embarked on a 50 state tour, largely with the support of her fans. Last night, she popped in to Montpelier Vermont, and I was finally able to listen to her live, after listening to a couple of her albums and following her exploits on twitter.

If you haven't seen or heard of Marian, you should do yourself a favor, and check her music out. As I've gotten more interested in geek music, her name comes up with some of the real rock stars of the genre: Jonathan Coulton, Paul and Storm and w00tstock, and it's clear that she's on an upward trend when it comes to this sort of music. Judging from the article on Wired that John Anealio posted recently, it's clear that she's really done a good job in her own self-promotion by visiting each state. (There's just a couple more left in the tour)

The nice thing about Marian is that her music doesn't just cater to the geek community, unlike artists like Anealio, Coulton and Paul & Storm, who's music doesn't stray out too much beyond the boundaries. Over some of her albums, she's got songs like Ave Maria, Flying Feels Like (about a dislike of flying), Love and Harmony (about Karyoke), Ancorage (about the Alaskan City, alongside songs like Dark Dark Eyes, It's Good to Have Jayne On Your Side and Vera Flew the Coop, all inspired by the TV show Firefly, as well as the fantastic song I'll Still Be a Geek After Nobody Thinks It's Chic (The Nerd Anthem). In that, her songs are display a measure of subtlty, and even if you're listening to some of the more obvious geek songs, it's not as obvious as songs like 'It's Going to be the Future Soon' or 'A Stormtrooper for Halloween'. (No digs at the aforementioned artists)

In person, I arrived at Montpelier's Langdon St. Cafe unsure of what to expect. What surprised me the most was that Marian, largely unsupported, still has a voice, and in person, she's a stunning performer, and her songs were just as impressive live as through my headphones. Very clear, very strong, and very dynamic, all at the same time. The show was certainly a memorable one, and it was a pleasure to meet Ms. Call as she worked the room during her short intermission - it's always a pleasure to speak with artists directly, and as Anealio says, she's the real deal. Hopefully, we'll see Marian back in the state at some point in the near future (she noted several times at how much she liked the state) for another great set.

If you haven't seen her yet, you should really check out her music, or check in with her website to see where she's playing next. It's well worth your time.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs: God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise

Ray LaMontagne is one of the exemplary singer-songwriters of the last decade, with albums such as Trouble, 'Till the Sun Turns Black and Gossip in the Grain, where he's continually stunned me with a number of songs, ones that have shook me to the core, while massive changes between albums has kept the music fresh, interesting and invigorating throughout. Throughout the albums, however, LaMontagne has kept steady feel and with his works, especially when it comes to the lyrics themselves.

God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise retains a lot of the best sounds of LaMontagne, but he once again stretches into very new territory. Opening with Repo Man, there's a harsh, accusatory sound to this, and it sets off a series of songs that are fairly dark, compared to some of the other songs in their repertoire. There's a real shift, which gives an entirely new dynamic to the sound and feel to LaMontagne. There are some standout songs, such as Beg, Steal and Borrow, which ranks amongst the best songs that the singer has put out with a steady country beat driving the song forward. This Love Is Over is another song that feels different: less moody, but more thoughtful as LaMontagne, accompanied by guitar, sails over the lyrics.

Old Before Your Time is possibly one of the songs that really helps to define this album as a whole. Fused with LaMontagne's great sound, there is a subtle country punk to the entire album, one that feels far more at home in rural country than in the urbanized ones (this image might help, as there's a song title New York City's Killing Me, which talks about the depressing and impersonal nature of the city: I just got to get me somewhere, / Somewhere that I can feel free, /Get me out of New York City, son, / New York City's killin' me.)

Indeed, a lot of the feel of this album seems split between where someone is and where they want to be in life, which is a fairly constant idea throughout life, with people separated from everything. Armed with the Pariah Dogs, LaMontagne sets up with a country and indie-rock feel that at points feels juxtaposed between styles. The result is a fantastic mix-up of sound and style that represents some of LaMontagne's best work to date.

A Stormtrooper for Halloween

When the Star Wars Special Editions were released in 1997, I came out of the theater wanting to be one of the storm troopers from the films, and within a couple of years, dressed up as a Storm Trooper for the 501st Legion and for Halloween on a number of years. (And the past couple of years - you're never too old for fun like that). That's probably the reason why I've been listening to John Anealio's song, 'A Stormtrooper for Halloween' nonstop since I downloaded it this morning.

John Anealio has captured a lot of what I feel about putting on my armor whenever I go out to troop or for Halloween. There is an enormous amount of nostalgia that I feel, taking me back to a couple of special moments for me: seeing Star Wars with my Dad in Montpelier, seeing my first 501st trooper up close and personal as a senior in High School, attending Celebration 3, and the numerous troops that I've been on over the last couple of years.

I first 'met' John on Twitter, where we talked off and on about related topics, and when I attended ReaderCon, he mentioned that he would be there as well, and we hung out for part of the convention, chatting about various science fiction things and his music. He generously gave me a copy of his CD, Sci-Fi Songs, which was released a year ago, and features a wide range of topics, from Blade Runner to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica to Firely and quite a bit more. It's a great little album, and since then, I've diligently listened to just about everything that he's put out on his website. This song, A Stormtrooper for Halloween, is one of his best songs to date, adding to a really great list of songs that speaks to the geek community as a whole. These songs are also not the slicked up pop songs that seem to be coming out, with a wikipedia list of geek topics. Anealio's the real deal when it comes to appreciation of the genres, and this song just goes to prove that just a little more.

A Stormtrooper for Halloween suits John's style quite well - Sci-Fi Songs has a really good, laid-back style that focuses on the core subject of any given song. A couple of songs that it really fits with would be Rachel Rosen, Cylon #6 and The Millennium Falcon For Christmas, all on that album, as well as a couple of the songs that he's since released through BandCamp and his website.

If you haven't checked out John's music, you really should, especially if you're a SciFi/Fantasy geek like I am.

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Goodtimes, Goodtimes

 

In 2008, Franc Cinelli released his first album, Glue, under the moniker Goodtimes Goodtimes, which blended great acoustic and free feel, along with Cinelli's fantastic voice and strong guitar work. The album has remained one of my favorites over the past couple of years, and since then, Goodtimes Goodtimes has been at work on his second album, which has just been released in the U.K.

The self-titled album opens quietly with the song Point One, and straight from the get-go, it's clear that you're about to listen to an evolutionary change. Where Glue really impressed me throughout, Goodtimes Goodtimes absolutely blew me away. Point One is the first indication, as it slowly grows and grows, adding on layers as the song progresses into a gorgeous wall of sound and vocals.

Over the past two years, I've heard various versions of songs as they were worked on and released, and was generally impressed with the styling and sound that came with each one. Let It Begin is the only song that seems to have made it onto the new album from this initial batch of demos, and the demo that bears the same name demonstrates that there were some changes to come: expected changes, from Glue to the next major effort. The album is a perfect example of where a band or singer/songwriter has taken their already notable music and figured out what needed to change. The result is an exceedingly superior effort, and I'd struggle to see what would come next that could be better.

Listening to the new album version of Let It Begin however is an entirely new experience. Frank comes out of the gate at a flat out run, with a blast of guitar, bass and vocals. Turning the volume up, there's an incredible richness to the sound that simply didn't come through before, from the guitar strumming in my right ear, the background vocalist in my left, with a speed and urgency that just didn't exist before.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aUi6wtG17aA]

This continues through the album as a whole. Magic Hour and Love display the a slower tone, but the same level of richness through the vocals and music, and the album's first lead single, Fortune Seller Song, brings the same casual level of energy and depth throughout the song. Burn and Diamonds in the Sky bring back the fast pace of the album, while other songs, such as By Your Side and Sweet England put together a sentimental feeling.

Looking between Glue and Goodtimes Goodtimes, it's astonishing at how much better the latest album is. Listening over tracks such as Temporary Freeze and Kids, the supporting and basic elements that inform tracks such as Magic Hour and Fortune Seller Song. Going from track to track, I'm reminded of a beginning photographer learning to take pictures, but only later learn how to manipulate their results in subtle ways to bring out a better picture by correcting the colors and applying filters as needed. Goodtimes Goodtimes is an incredibly well polished, tight and exciting album that surpasses his prior works by miles, which says a lot, and makes a really good thing even better.

The best element of Goodtimes Goodtimes isn't what has changed, however. The sound is together, polished and bright, but the core element that drew me to the group in the first place, the soul and songwriting has remained exactly where it was. The same, breezy free feel that has kept me listening to Goodtimes Goodtimes is intact and only improved by its actual execution over the course of the album.

The good times are back, but they've never really gone away. They've only gotten better and better.

You can listen to the entire album here.

Kirby Krackle and Nerd Rock

There is a growing music scene that I've been hearing more from lately, Nerd Rock. There's been several artists that I've really liked: 'Weird' Al Yankovich, They Might Be Giants, Jonathan Coulton, Paul and Storm, John Anealio, The Decemberists, amongst others. A new find of mine, Seattle-based duo Kirby Krackle, joins this genre with their two albums, their self-titled debut disc (Kirby Krackle, 2009) and their latest release, E for Everyone (2010).

E for Everyone is possibly one of the best examples of Nerd Rock, with a great alternative – rock sound that sounds incredibly polished and energetic, with songs about superheroes, comic books, video games and geek life. Within minutes of finding the band’s name on twitter, I was able to listen to a couple of their songs off of their website, and within minutes, I had both of their albums off of iTunes. Of all of the bands that I’ve listened to, they’re one of the more exciting, with a great sound and some fantastic lyrics.

The album starts off with Vault 101, about the video game Fallout 3, with a good kick, but the really good start comes with On and On, a song about Wolverine from X-Men, and his own struggle with immortality, thanks to his rapid healing. The rest of the album is a fairly diverse grouping of songs that is much better than their first album. Secret Identity is as it sounds (about a guy with a secret identity – it’s not specific to any one superhero), Roll Over feels like a party song that references just about every 1980s cartoon that I can think of, while Henchman follows a character trying to be a henchman for a super villain – asking some good questions: what are their hours, and what can they offer for health insurance? – Ring Capacity opens with a bright sound and looks to Green Lantern for inspiration. Can I Watch You? Is a funky song about Uatu and Take it from Me is about Mega Man. The last three songs on the album, Great Lakes Avengers, Dusty Cartridges and Long Boxes and Going Home are some of the best songs on the album, if not Nerd Rock in general. Great Lakes Avengers is plain fun: a character tries to join the X-Men, Justice League, Fantastic Four, Green Lantern Corps, (amongst others), while trying to avoid the eye of the Great Lakes Avengers, who are apparently a disaster, being some of the worst superheroes of all time. The album turns from lighthearted fun to more serious fair with the light ballad Dusty Cartridges and Long Boxes, a sweet story of a geek in love with a geeky girl. Going Home ends E for Everyone on a great note about the joy of attending a convention, describing it in the best way that I’ve heard: “We're on the road, we're going home/To the place where wild nerds roam/With pretty girls and dudes in capes/Going to cons is our escape.” The sound is chalk-full of energy and feels perfect for blasting over the speakers as one drives over to any given convention. For all of those thinking of attending the upcoming Celebration V or Dragon*Con, this will be a good one to start off with.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqtjJOsLGYs&feature=player_embedded]

Nerd Rock is something that I’ve been looking for, and as I’ve looked, there’s a good variety of material out there. The internet is a good medium for aspiring artists, and in a number of cases, there’s a lot of material that wouldn’t normally work its way through the music industry: as people are able to make music on their own, there seems to be a greater variety of music, which bodes well for the larger geek-community. Artists such as John Anealio and Jonathan Coulton both have had success with their own music, self-released, about various subjects in the speculative fiction genres. Kirby Krackle doesn’t seem to have the same exposure to the fan community, but has gone with their own route, essentially self-publishing their music and selling it through iTunes and their own website, gaining fame in their own circles.

The album succeeds on its own because it’s not a gimmick. Singer-songwriters in general are at their best when they’ve put together a song that they and their audience can get behind and relate to: that’s exactly what Kirby Krackle seems to have done with their two releases, and E for Everyone feels like a refinement over their first album. They’ve found exactly what they want to sing about, and people who will listen to, and they’ve taken off from there. This album exudes confidence, skill and some very good songwriting behind the sound.  The duo, Kyle Stevens and Jim Demonakos, have some serious geek credit with them: Demonakos founded Emerald City ComicCon and has penned a graphic novel and founded a chain of comic book shops in Washington, while Stevens has released six albums with other groups. More importantly though, it sounds like they’re having a good time on stage.

This sub-genre of Nerd Rock is a positive thing for fandom: music is a fantastic venue for telling stories on its own (and Kirby Krackle does this with a couple of songs: Henchmen, Great Lakes Avengers, Dusty Cartridges and Long Boxes and Going Home) but is also a good venue for humor, reflection, and something in the music world for fandom to relate to. The inclusion of science fiction and fantasy elements in songs isn’t a new thing: just look at some of Iron Maiden’s songs for music about Dune, Lord of the Rings, D-Day and quite a bit more, but new artists bring fresh air to fans. I’ve gotten a kick out of a number of songs about some of my favorite things, and a new venue for speculative fiction is a very good thing, because music tells stories differently than prose or video.

The bottom line is: Kirby Krackle is on a roll with E for Everyone, and they’re a band that I hope to hear a lot more from in the coming years. In the meantime, they’ve left me with a fantastic album to listen to over and over.

She's Got the Medicine that Everybody Wants: Grace Potter and the Nocturnals

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, the band's self-titled release jumps off a cliff with its opening track, Paris (Ooh La La), a remake of the hidden track If I Was from Paris from their prior album, This Is Somewhere. At least, that's what it feels like - a rush of adrenalin followed by fun beat that gets one moving to the song. With their fourth album, the Nocturnals have undergone some changes. Last year, the band lost its original bassist, Bryan Dondero over some creative differences, which in turn allowed the band to bring bass player Catherine Popper, as well as rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco.

With the new lineup comes a new sound for the Nocturnals. While this isn't something that's really unexpected (Original Soul and Nothing But The Water differed a bit, while This Is Somewhere also pulled away from their sound for a more mainstream classic rock sound and feel), it's by far the bigger departure for the group, sound wise. The guitar work is far bolder throughout the album, the lyrics more evocative and overall, this effort feels far more personal and intimate; Goodbye Kiss hits the listener right to the core, much like Apologies did in her last album. Most of the songs on the album really work well with the lyrics, coming out of the speakers with a nice, easy flow, songs like Oasis, Medicine and One Short Night.

Moreover, where her last album felt like a classic rock homage, this one veers into a new direction, inserting funk and soul into the album once again. Hot Summer Night exemplifies this sound excellently, as does That Phone, Oasis and Goodnight Kiss, which gives the album and band a bit of new flavor, which has been seen in some of their reworking of their older songs in recent concerts. There are some anomalies here though: Tiny Light feels free and light, with a real '70s feel, while Things I Never Needed feels a bit like a country ballad. Paris (Ooh La La) is in a class of its own, but then again, it's always been.

Like her last album, there is a good mix between the tone and feel of the album between songs - Paris starts off with a rush of energy, followed by Oasis and Medicine, but songs like Tiny Light and Colors draw the lights down for a closer, slower and more personal feel. This variety and range of sound is a trademark of the Nocturnals, especially at their concerts: They can jump, very easily from slow to fast, bringing out a wall of sound and rhythm. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is a further effort towards this image, and it does so wonderfully.

The strongest part of the album, and the band's music in general, has long been with their lead singer, the wonderful Grace Potter. Surrounded by the new sounds, musicians and songs, her voice is the one thing that really carries the band along, along with her fantastic lyrics. This album contains a number of gems from the group, which both highlight her songwriting and vocal talents: Oasis, Medicine, Tiny Light, Only Love, One Short Night, That Phone and Hot Summer Night, all fantastic songs that fit well within the growing catalog of songs that the band has been producing steadily over the past couple of years. While the sound feels different, Potter is the connecting point between albums, and while I focus on her voice and lyrics, a lot of the differences fall away between her old and newer songs.

What Grace Potter and the Nocturnals does for the band, however, is give them an incredible amount of face time with a sound that fits very well with the mainstream rock and roll scene, but there's just enough color and texture to the songs that they produce to push them over the top of quality. Where her last album was the breakthrough into the popular markets, this album feels like they've regained some of their footing and are beginning to push back with their own sound, which makes this album extra special. While I really loved This Is Somewhere and still constantly listen to it, it felt like there was something missing at points – looking back, it felt as though the band was reaching for something, and found a good compromise. Listening to this album though, it feels much like the color has flooded back into the room, and the sound's been turned up as high as it'll go. The Nocturnals have found what they’ve been looking for.

At the end of the day, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals is simply a stunning album from a stunning band. Not content to recycle their prior successes, the band has once again reinvented themselves to attain a better, brighter and richer sound throughout their new album, with songs that are truly inspiring, interesting and most importantly, fun to listen to. It’s clear that they’re on the upwards path, but this new lineup shows that the group is maturing, and they’re bringing out a whole new sound that will really make heads turn.

So Runs The World Away

If I had to pick an artist that was my all time favorite, the choice would be fairly easy: Josh Ritter. I first came across his music when I heard him opening for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at the Waterfront in Burlington, Vermont. It was a fantastic concert, and something about his music really stuck with me when I first heard it. His concert was part of a warm-up for his latest (at the time) album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which had been preceded by Animal Years, two excellent albums, both stellar examples of singer/songwriter folk-rock. I was hooked on his sound, and all of his albums remain on fairly constant rotation in my own music library.

Ritter's latest album, So Runs The World Away, needless to say, has been a highly anticipated album on my part. When I saw him for the second time last year at UVM, he played a number of new songs which have since made it onto the new album, which only made the anticipation grow. Like The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, this album delves heavily into the storytelling roots that Ritter's been known for, combined with a rich background of sound that makes the album stand out from the pack.

What makes the album even more interesting is the macabre and somewhat gothic nature to the lyrics and sound for So Runs The World Away. Songs like The Curse, Rattling Locks, Folk Bloodbath, The Remnant and Long Shadows really give the album a delightfully darker nature. Out of the entire set of songs, the best song (and it's hard to pick just one), is The Curse, a quiet waltz that tells the story of an Egyptian mummy who awakes when an archeologist discovers him, and he falls in love with her as she takes him to New York City. He learns English and speaks to her, and the two fall in love, but as he gets stronger with new life and pulls away from her, she grows older, and dies, while he lives on. It's a touching story of love and destiny, one that is expertly played out by Ritter and his band, and it's certainly going to be one of my favorite songs from the group.

A couple of other songs on the album carry through with some extremely hard hitting stories: Folk Bloodbath, the story of a, well, bloodbath with a haunting gospel sound to it, while Another New World, the story of an explorer, forced to break up his ship for firewood has a very delicate, chilly sound with some fantastic lyrics. Beyond the story-style songs, other songs on the albums deal with slightly less-concrete themes, such as Change in Time, Southern Pacifica, Rattling Locks and Lantern, each with their own distinctive sound and feel. Ritter has excelled at albums that vary so much in their tone and style, and this album is no different: there is an enormous amount of variety and a certain richness to the sound that makes it a wonder to listen to time and time again.

This also isn’t to say that the album is an overly dark one: Lark sees Ritter positively channeling Paul Simon with his voice and guitar work, Southern Pacifica has a nice, easygoing feel to it that recalls an older, nostalgic time in history, Lantern is a bouncy, exciting song that really carries a lot of Ritter’s energy, and Orbital is full of movement that flows nicely towards the end of the album. The darker elements of So Runs The World Away simply tends to be a bit more interesting, with some very cool stories that really mark Ritter as an expert singer/songwriter, who’s only grown stronger with each successive album that’s come out. Musically, this album blew me away. There’s a real diversity to the sound here, from horns to piano, to a bass clarinet at one point, which both makes the song sound a bit different, with more depth, and demonstrates that there’s a bit more thought put into the album and songs, but not enough to be overwhelming or really take the listener out of the experience. Moreover, the album feels different, as The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter felt different from Animal Years. In both instances, there’s certainly a progression in the sound and experience that the band wants to impart, and I’m thrilled that they haven’t gone back to rely on what worked last time: they continued forward and found what worked this time.

What really stands out for me with So Runs the World Away is the storytelling, something that fits nicely with other songs on older albums. Songs like The Temptation of Adam and Lillian, Egypt, among others, hold to the greatest things that a song can do: tell a story, and in that, give something for a listener to relate to and learn from. This particular album is full of science fiction and fantasy like elements, either in the lyrics, themes or song titles, but moreover, the emphasis on songwriting, and exploring beyond a really simple concept, like in most rock & pop songs out there. That’s not to say that those songs don’t have their own place: they do, but what makes Ritter really stand out is that he’s one of the few that really goes beyond that, telling stories of silent film stars, a couple in a nuclear missile silo at the end of the world, a mummy come to life: these are fun concepts, putting these very common concepts into different contexts, which makes someone think a little differently about something that they may have taken for granted: one of the strongest points of the speculative fiction genre.

This collection is easily the best set together that has been released by Josh Ritter and his group – certainly all of the songs on the album hold a lot of appeal with their somewhat geeky nature, but there is a general level of quality and care that a lot of other albums really don’t hit when released. Ritter has hit that mark already, and surpassed my expectations.

Anias Mitchell's Hadestown

Last night, while driving home, I came across a radio report of a local artist who had embarked on a recent musical concept project, Anais Mitchell. Mitchell is a Vermont artist who's gained quite a name for herself with her unique voice and music within the state, and it seems as though this album is going to be a good one to launch her to quite a bit more attention.

The project, entitled Hadestown, is a retelling of the story of the Eurydice and Orpheus myth from Greek stories. The original story has to do with the death of Eurydice, and distraught, Orpheus travels to Hades to win her release, singing so mournfully that they release her, but with a condition: she must follow him out from the underworld, but if he turns to look at her, she will vanish.

In this retelling, Mitchell has taken the story and reworked it. Set in a 'world of poverty', she sets up a sort of feudal, post-apocalyptic world in which Orpheus is a poet and musician, and Eurydice his unhappy wife. Coming to the entrance of Hadestown, she's seduced and whisked away by Hades, the town's company boss, and he travels to Hadestown to win her release, largely following some of the major elements of the original myth.

What has come together is a facinating musical project, combined with a wonderful, complex and challenging story. Originally begun in 2006 as a stage production put on by Mitchell and Bread and Puppet veteran Ben Matchstick, the entire thing has been re-worked for an album, titled Hadestown. Characters are sung by an impressive cast of characters, including wonderful performances from Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver as Orpheus, Mitchell as Eurydice , Greg Brown as Hades, Ben Knox Miller as Hermes, The Haden Triplets as the Furies and Ani DiFranco as Persephone. What made me really sit up was Vernon's participation - his album For Emma, Forever Ago, is one of my absolute favorite works in the past decade, and will likely remain a classic in folk music. The rest of the cast, however, works wonderfully, and the album comes together as a rich and diverse group ensemble that pushes the story forward far better than if any single singer had attempted it.

Hadestown is a concept project with a high bar to hit: another band has accomplished similar things, The Decemberists, with their albums The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, which tell a complete story over all, or most of the album. The Crane Wife includes a couple of myths that are incredibly similar to what's said in the Hadestown album, and it goes to show the power and widespread nature of common stories around the globe. On an album level, this is extraordinary, and where it leaves an album a bit harder to sell in the digital market of single songs, this album is sure to do well in Vermont with Mitchell's fan base, especially when the album stands out with this level of quality, the singers involved and the coverage that it's been receiving.

On one level, this album is highly appealing simply because any album that's marketed as a sort of folk-opera, post-apocalyptic retelling of Greek myth just sounds too awesome to pass up. I was a very big fan of The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists, because of the overarching storyline and complex storyline that wove its way through the album, not to mention bringing in other artists to sing different parts. It elevates music to theater, telling a fantastic story that really stands out by going to the roots of what makes things interesting: characters, motivations and conflict. Hadestown does this remarkably, setting characters and story into motion. The characters themselves are 'cast' brilliantly, and often, almost outshine Mitchell at her own game, particularly Vernon and Brown with their respective characters

Moreover, it's an interesting story, firmly within the realm of speculative fiction that combines the best of several worlds: the roots of Greek tragedy, modern day relevance, grim futures and characters that significantly add onto the plot of the album by their own actions. This album is fantastic on all levels: interesting, thoughtful, subtle, and entertaining.

Holy Fiction - Hours From It

Rarely am I floored by an album that I've received to review, but let me get this out of the way right now: Holy Fiction's debut album, Hours From It is a stunning masterpiece of sound, and is already one of my favorite collection of songs from this year. The album has been on a constant rotation between my iPhone, computer and car, and it's one that I'm going to be listening to for months to come.
Holy Fiction's start seems to be like a lot of other bands: A pair of musicians started to collaborate in their spare time from work with their regular bands, and when their bands folded in 2008, this current lineup formed as more of a priority. The original lineup up Matt Geissler and Evan Lecker later expanded to include Jordan McCune, and later grew to six people with Asher Pudlo, Sally Wafik and Sam Lee. This diverse group of people came together, bringing their own voices and styles to the group to what it is now.
Hours From It opens with Iron Eyes, which has a summer-like, rich sound that just seems to hit the right notes with a sound that falls right into place for me. There's a certain vibe that I get from Vermont in the springtime, and for some inexplicable reason, this reminds me much of that feeling. The rest of the album gets better, with Exit, More Than Ever, Golden City Lights, Song 10 and Yes, They Were Here. Two Small Bodies and the title track, Hours From It serve as the album's weaker moments but even then, this hardly registers, and they're both easily stronger than a lot of other songs out there. As a whole, the album reaches near perfection for me.
The more tangible elements of the album are clear when you closely listen to this album. The lead vocals from Evan Lecker are set apart from other indie bands in that you don't really have to get used to his voice first before enjoying the music. The supporting players layer on the sound, with a great ambient sound from the keys, guitar and strings, while the drums and bass in particular deserve to be singled out, for their exemplary work over the course of the album. My biggest complaint is that this album is about four songs too short for this to be a full album: I'm left with wanting a lot more, and I desperately hope that the group will be working on new material soon.
While listening to the music and lyrics, I'm even more impressed with some of the wordplay and how the group worked the music and words together. In Exit, one line is: "Of undiscovered lungs/lay your hands down, breathe deeply", which is laid out smoothly and lyrically in a manner that works well, and is repeated later on in that same song - lines move from one to another effortlessly in the lead up to the launch of the chorus. This is something that's repeated often throughout the album. While I read through the lyrics from the songs, then listen to them, I'm amazed at how evocative they are - there is some great imagery here, with implied stories throughout, but just enough to prompt some ideas, leaving things open-ended throughout.
Listening over the album once again, it's clear that this is a remarkably consistent and interesting album that has just enough differences between songs to avoid the photocopier effect when it comes to lyrics, tone and the sound, but they're not so far apart from one another that there's disorganization and chaos from this. The end result is an absolutely stunning debut album from an unknown group, one that will hopefully put them on the map over the next couple of years. Mostly, though, I appreciate the fact that this album just feels right, soothing, interesting and exhilarating all at the same time. This is by far and wide the best album that I've listened to over the year thus far, and I have a feeling that there will have to be a lot of effort for others to impress me just as much as Hours From It has.

Listen to two tracks here:

Iron Eyes - Holy Fiction Yes They Were Here - Holy Fiction

 

John Mayer - Battle Studies

John Mayer is an artist whom I have quite a bit of respect and a bit of disdain for over the past couple of years. With the recently released Battle Studies, I've been listening over and thinking back on some of his older works while listening to review this album. The end conclusion that I've come up with is Battle Studies is an highly mixed album: one with a strong musical component, but one that is at the same time severely lacking when it comes to substance and variety.

My main complaint with the album, as a whole, is that while Mayer has had an impressive talent curve when it comes to instrumentation, this album dwells far too much on just a couple of themes - loneliness, abandonment; far too much on a 'Woe is me' theme that makes me want to throw the something at the guy. While a themed album that deals with these sorts of things is generally a good thing, I found the tone and feel of this album to be far too depressing. It felt self-pitying and at times, a bit pathetic, which might have been part of the point, but those were never traits that I've found admirable.

To be fair, several of Mayer's songs on this album rank amongst some of his best ones:Heartbreak WarfareHalf of My Heart and a cover of Robert Johnson's Crossroads, while there are couple additional mediocre songs, such as Who Says and Assassin. As the title suggests, a number of songs liken the quest for love as something akin to warfare. As someone who's studied the history of war and gone through heartbreak, it's a pretty unbalanced perspective. I can see this comparison sitting well with the twenty-something crowd, bobbing their heads while listening in their apartment, a nicely sanitized anthem for our generation.

But that is part of the problem: Mayer's sound, while greatly improved over the past couple of years, is too soft and easygoing to meet up with anything close to his album title or some of the thematic material therein. Where Mayer is likening heartbreak to Clouds of sulfur in the air/ Bombs are falling everywhere/ It's heartbreak warfare, there's a disconnect between the sound and what he's talking about. Regardless of whether heartbreak is as devestating as warfare (a debatable topic, depending on one's relationship status), a soft mellow song just doesn't connect the lyrics to the emotions in the song. Here, it just feels like a dud. In 'War Of My Life', Mayer doesn't sound like he's fighting for his life or conveying that sort of song; it feels more like he's strumming along like the rest of the twenty-somethings who think that they know the devestation of war by what they see on the television screen. In the end, it just feels like this album is called in, not like an air strike, but by the $10 pledge for any number of causes that pledge to end the violence, where it really doesn't mean that you're helping the issue beyond missing a little extra cash at the end of the month.

Laura Veirs and the July Flame

Late last year, I wrote about the Decemberists and noted that I wasn't terribly impressed with their opening act, Laura Veirs and the Hall of Flames. I'm prepared to eat my words, especially after doing a little more research on the group as I've listened to Veir's latest album: July Flame.

Here I said she sounded like a newer musician, I couldn't have been more wrong - July Flame is her seventh album, with a music career beginning back in 1999, and also has worked closely with the Decemberists, contributing to their fantastic album The Crane Wife, on the track Yankee Bayonett (I Will Be Home Soon). It comes as no surprise then, that Colin Meloy has come out to announce that this is the best album of 2010.

July Flame is an interesting, but solid album all around. It took a couple of listens to get adjusted to Veirs, but this album soars with excellent lyrics and some very rich background work by the instruments supporting her. What we get is a wispy, elegant effort from a singer/songwriter. Some songs, such as the opening song I Can See Your Tracks, are essentially just a girl and her guitar, along with some Bon Iveresque background lyrics. The title track, July Flame, brings a deeper sound - rather than the girl and her guitar, it feels like Veirs is surrounded by the bass, drunks and electric guitar here, with her lyrics just punching out through the sound.

The rest of the album shifts between these two mentalities somewhat, giving the album a sound that is not necessarily predictable, but shifting. It's far from boring, and provides for quite a few listens to fully take in all the small facets of her sound. In particular, I I've grown to absolutely love Life Is Good Blues, particularly because the sound is so mixed, from singer/songwriter guitar to some chilling background vocals. There are points, such as in the song Make Something Good, where Veirs lets the instruments take over, for a really beautiful piece.

While the album is overall very strong, there's a number of points where I felt that Veirs just needs to be supported by something stronger - her voice is fairly high, elegant, but there are a couple songs, such as When You Give Your Heart, where the addition of bass and background vocals could have been used. For the most part, Veirs is able to avoid any larger trouble by putting these sorts of things in, but in a larger sense, it's hard to think of this album as a solo album, simply because the background work is so essential here. With that in mind, however, July Flame is a superior album - it's well organized, with an incredible sound and feel.

Grace Potter and the New Year

Where the rest of the world has New York City's epic ball drop in Times Square, Vermont has Grace Potter to ring in the new year. It's rapidly becoming an annual event, with several lead-up concerts at the Higher Ground to meet demand, and the overall event has become a highly anticipated run of concerts. I wasn't able to attend the New Year's Eve show, but I was able to attend the second concert on the 27th, with Alberta Cross opening up for the Nocturnals. All in all, I came away from the show pretty disappointed. The Nocturnals sounded great, played a number of newer songs, several covers and re-arranged songs and a bunch of old classics.

The group has been a popular one here on Carry You Away, and I've followed their rather extraordinary rise from small, local group to major-record-label one, and it's been a fun ride to watch. Their last album, This Is Somewhere, was absolutely fantastic, blending modern and classic rock, fantastic songwriting and with an incredible energy throughout their album and their live shows.

This show wasn't bad, it just wasn't what I expected, and it wasn't as good as other shows that I've seen from them. Part of this, I think, is because it was the lead-up to the really good show: New Year's Eve. With additional concerts added on, I have to imagine that the show was a bit toned down (even then, the energy was high), and that some of the really good material was saved for later.

The show that I saw, while good, was scattered. With a new album coming out later this year (from what I know, it's called Medicine), and with a new lineup, changes are to be expected, and some of the results were here - the band is certainly straying into more directions musically, which is very good, but with this concert, the group felt all over the map, from Classic Rock to Jam Band Raegge to Soul and regular rock. I'm interested to hear where they go, but the overall concert felt incoherent, poorly planned out and overall, that affected the entire evening for me. Music such as this is far more than just the musicians - it's their presentation, the quality of their music, how they play it, and how well thought out each concert is.

This leads me to two of Grace's opening acts, Alberta Cross and Josh Ritter, whom I've seen both open for the Nocturnals, and a good example of presentation. Alberta Cross, opening for Grace became a band that I'd rather not see again. I have their latest album, The Thief and the Heartbreaker, and I've liked a couple of the songs, but live, in person, the band seemed lax, sloppy at points and just not all that exciting to watch. On the other hand, when I was Josh Ritter in 2007, and recently again in 2009, they presented a far different appearance - they coordinated dress (and actually didn't go for the grungy rock star look), played a great set of music and clearly looked like they enjoyed themselves and put a bit of thought into what they were doing. This wasn't something that I got a good sense of with Alberta Cross, I'm sorry to say.

Similarly, I have to wonder if this was sort of the same deal with the Nocturnals, coupled with their rapid rise to local and national fame, and leaves me a bit worried for the future of the group. In 2009, the band's bassist Bryan Dondero left the group over creativity issues, leading the band to add on a new bass player Catherine Popper, as well as rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco- with new directions in mind. This sparked some worries that the group is going to be departing far more from what they've done before as they've become a major label band. Fortunately, the concert on the 27th, despite some of the issues that I had with it, seem to show that the group is still churning out good music, abit with a much larger variety of sound.

To be very fair, after listening to the NYE show, there were some improvements over the Saturday show - they were still a bit scattered, but sounded better, with much more energy and with a lot of good material to play. Here's to hoping that they will continue that trend in 2010.