Tag Archives: folk

Ys

Ys_cover

This was a tough one to create a genre tag for. Joanna Newsom is not for the pop music junkie but rather for the indie music connoisseur. If that sounds snobby and hipsterish…well, it kind of is. But at least there are no pretenses about what to expect. Newsom’s weapon of choice is the Celtic harp. Also, Pitchfork adores her. That will tell you whether you want to give her work a go or not.

So let’s say you’re sort of into indie. The reason I make the distinction of connoisseur is because Joanna Newsom is very much an acquired taste. I think would be easier for a new listener to get into her more recent work. But the further back you go, especially to her early early work, the more difficult the task becomes. Joanna Newsom’s voice (pre-vocal cord nodule-removal) is very harsh and untamed. Personally, I still enjoy it because it has a lot of raw emotion in it. I like that it’s unbridled. Though that may be why she got vocal cord nodules in the first place…

Okay, so now let’s say you’ve accepted that and are ready to get into Ys (pronounced like the -eece in Greece). This is not an album you just throw on and listen to. It’s something you have to set aside time for. With just five tracks totaling about 56 minutes, this is no easy listening. Every song is like an epic poem. The shortest track is 7 minutes and 17 seconds. The longest, just 6 seconds shy of 17 minutes. Listening to Ys is like settling down to read an entire novel start to finish, or watching all 3 Lord of the Rings films back-to-back without pausing. Okay, it’s not THAT long, but you get the idea.

I’m not making this album sound very appealing, am I? But it’s really good! It’s was highly acclaimed when it was released in 2006. It’s like a musical work of art. Joanna’s vocals, while still a little wild at times, improved from her earlier work (The Milk-Eyed Mender was just 2 years prior). She moves gracefully from feral yelping at times to angelic warbling. And the orchestration is just perfect. It does a great job of providing the background scenery while Joanna and her harp take center stage. It’s not distracting at all. Everything blends together wonderfully.

The first track “Emily” was the first Joanna Newsom song I ever heard. It swept me up, emotionally. Not just with the melodies but with the lyrics too. I’ll never forget the first time I heard “And everything with wings is restless, aimless, drunk and dour/The butterflies and birds collide at hot, ungodly hours” or how it made me feel. The whole song is about her sister Emily and her relationship with her. As Emily is an astrophysicist, themes of astronomy come up consistently throughout the song, something I really enjoy, even if she does mix up meteorites and meteoroids.

“Monkey and Bear” is another great epic. Right away, it sounds like a children’s story. The playful flute and backing orchestra seem to support this. This is one worth really listening to for the progression of the story because it becomes a dark cautionary tale by the end. It’s like a classic Grimm’s fairy tale, not the Disney version. The structure of the melodies perfectly match the lyrics. It really is built like a story.

“Sawdust & Diamonds” is beautiful, but I am always at a loss when I try to think about what it’s about. I tend to just stop and listen. It might be because it’s so minimal compared to the rest of the album. It’s just Joanna and her harp. I do have to say, though, that my favorite lyric is “I wasn’t born of a whistle or milked from a thistle at twilight./No, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright.” It’s just so vivid. I picture Joanna as some kind of faun stumbling into existence. It’s very fantastical.

“Only Skin” is the longest song and the one that requires the most dedication. It feels like a series of stories – That is to say, there is a LOT going on here. I really don’t know how to sum this one up. But these are some of my favorite lyrics:

“The sky was a bread roll, soaking in a milk-bowl.”

“Scrape your knee; it is only skin/Makes the sound of violins.”

“I have washed a thousand spiders down the drain/spiders ghosts hang soaked and danglin’/silently from all the blooming cherry trees.”

It’s easy to get lost in this one. The music shifts just as much as the lyrics. It can’t be said that it’s lacking in depth. You kind of just have to let this song take you by the hand, and you must go willingly.

We close with “Cosmia,” a really dark and bitter-sounding song. It’s sad and angry at the same time. It’s paranoid and deranged. There’s a lot of emotion going on here, and it’s all very pushy and pleading. She sings “Can you hear me? Will you listen?/Don’t come near me, don’t go missing” with just the right amount of indecisive psychosis. Supposedly it was about the loss of a good friend of hers, and the mental toll it had on her. I’d say she did a pretty good job of conveying that.

To summarize what I’ve said since the start, Ys is not an album to be taken lightly. It is a masterpiece, but I wouldn’t recommend it to beginners. Instead, I’d say start with Have One on Me and work your way backwards. I think you’ll appreciate Ys a lot more.

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Come on Up to the House

I’d like to thank Orange Is the New Black for introducing me to Tom Waits. Well, I mean, I knew he’d been around awhile. I knew his name. I knew he was something of a folk music legend. I knew he was known for his distinctive voice. I have a cover of one of his songs, performed by Cat Power. I’d just never really been formally introduced to his music.

Orange Is the New Black changed that for me. I’ve always felt that when a TV show of movie chooses a song that was not written for the production, the song they choose and the way it flows with the scene is crucial. It has to have to the right emotional impact. “Come on Up to the House” had that impact for me when it played (minor spoiler, but I dunno, I don’t really think so) when Piper is having a burger and a bottle of liquor on a bridge in the middle of the night. It was something about the down-but-not-out feeling of the song, along with Piper fulfilling her pure and simple wish for a burger and booze.

But even removing the song from the scene, it still fills me with this sense of hope. I just love the sound of Tom Waits’ growling howling voice with the bluesy piano, steady drumbeat, and the harmonica. It stirs up that wandering spirit in me.

It definitely feels like it was meant to be heard on a record player. Ever since buying Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone LP (which I wanted just to get it framed), I have this curiosity for hearing music on LP. I know next to nothing about records or the right terminology (are record and LP interchangeable?), but something about it just feels right for folk music. A record player may be in my future soon…

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Middle Cyclone

I completely forgot to mention the Neko Case concert in my Music Tidbits post last week! Well, rest assured it was amazing. I actually guessed correctly on a majority of songs (maybe 70-75%) and there were a few surprises! She talked to the audience and her band quite a bit, and her backup singer was a regular chatterbox. And Neko was sassy alright. She told someone to put their phone away just a few lines into her first song without missing a beat. The theater went crazy over that. And she did not one, but TWO encores, which no one was expecting. She gave us some sass for that too (everyone had begun to leave after the first one).

So overall, it was a fantastic concert, but I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to review an album I didn’t realize how much I loved until after that concert: Middle Cyclone. It was always kind of just A-OK on my list, but now I think that it might be my favorites – lyrically at least. Blacklisted  is still my favorite soundwise, though without personal bias, I still admit Middle Cyclone is the stronger album.

Let’s start with the album cover:

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How badass is this album cover?!? It’s on equal footing with the cover for Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell for me. Seriously badass. It’s been my desktop background for awhile now. I decided yesterday I needed to get it as a poster. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this specific picture, but I found a similar one!

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It doesn’t have the text, and it’s only 11×13, but I can’t wait to have it framed and on my wall. These two pictures make me feel like I can do anything. I want them forever.

But enough about these amazing pictures! On to the album! As I mentioned before, the album opens with one of my FAVORITE Neko Case songs, “This Tornado Loves You.” I just love everything about this song. I’ve never experienced a tornado (not counting the Twister ride at Universal Studios Orlando anyway) but the opening guitar riffs sound like the closest interpretation to the spirit and sound of a tornado that I can imagine. Somehow, that guitar sounds like it’s spinning. And then those opening lyrics: “My love I am the speed of sound./I left them motherless, fatherless.” The whole song is just so metaphorical. I could post the entire song’s lyrics, I love them so much, but I’ll spare you. Other standout lyrics include “I carved your name across three counties/And ground it in with bloody hides.” Also “I have waited with a glacier’s patience.” And even “When I’d rake the springtime across your sheets.” The whole song, of course, is just one big metaphor, with Neko describing herself as a tornado wildly chasing after the person she still loves even after they’ve left her. (Neko did play this song in concert, but at a faster tempo than the album version. Which was a bit sad, because it felt like they were rushing through it and I wanted to savor it.) The whole song sounds like it’s being played inside a spinning tornado. It’s just brilliantly crafted, every bit of it.

“The Next Time You Say ‘Forever'” has the complete opposite message. In it, she wants nothing to do with this pathetic person who wants her to stay, well, “forever.” “The next time you say ‘forever,'” she sings “I will punch you in your face.” And in the end: “You never know when I’ll show you the never.” A great, great song. As someone who grew up moving a lot to have it result in some occasional wanderlust in my adulthood, I can feel for her in this song.

Next is the song I’m surprised wasn’t used in the movie Blackfish,considering it’s all about that sort of thing, “People Got a Lotta Nerve.”

I mean, you can’t hit it on the head any harder than

You know they call them “killer” whales?!

But you seemed surprised when it pinned you down

To the bottom of the tank

Where you can’t turn around

It took half your leg and both your lungs.

This song was actually written and released BEFORE the 2010 death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau, which makes it incredibly uncanny going back and listening to it.

Neko admitted she hadn’t played the next track in a long time: “Polar Nettles.” I usually skipped it before if it ever came up on my playlist, but after hearing it in concert I think it’s a song worth appreciating. It’s got this marching, contemplative, solemn sound to it. It’s appropriate considering it seems to be about death. Neko’s voice sounds downright creepy as she chants “Someday soon…Someday soon.”

“Vengeance Is Sleeping,” thematically, reminds me A LOT of Björk’s “Possibly Maybe.” Specifically in that it’s about someone who isn’t quite over an old flame and is wondering where they are and what they’re doing. Neko sings “If you’re not by now dead and buried/You are most certifiably married.” But my favorite part of this song comes later on:

My love has never lived indoors

I’ve had to drag it home by force

Hired hounds at both my wrists

Damp and bruised by stranger’s kisses on my lips.

It’s so visual and metaphorical at the same time. I just love the idea about her love never living indoors. Something about it speaks to me.

Next comes a very hippie-ish anthem, which is a cover, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth.” It’s a very good choice, because the whole album has themes of nature throughout. And she sings it beautifully. Good choice, Neko! Good choice!

After that comes the title track, “Middle Cyclone,” which carries the main theme of the album: reconciling the fact that she needs love rather than continuing to live the way she grew up, with a stronger attachment to nature and animals than people. She shows what a brilliant songwriter she is with lines like “Can’t scrape together quite enough/To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” My absolute favorite part though (and it might stand as one of my favorite lines/lyrics of all time) is this:

I lie across the path waiting

Just for a chance to be

A spider web trapped in your lashes

For that, I would trade you my empire for ashes

If you’ve ever felt that way about someone, then her hushed voice speaks volumes to you. It works as the title track, and being smack dab in the middle of the track list, it works for the entire album.

I love the opening imagery in “Fever”:

In an open field at dusk

To footfalls I awoke

Marching ants across my temple, oh

Their feet had no intention

They followed some magnetic drum

Prisoners of their destination

The wobbly opening notes and the rest of the lyrics that follow make this sound like a song you would hear in a fever dream (or maybe it was inspired by one), so the song was named rather appropriately.

“Magpie to the Morning” may have sneaked it’s way onto my Neko Case favorite songs list without me knowing…She didn’t play it at the concert, sadly, but I’ve still discovered a new found attachment to it. I think it’s the way she sings it combined with the theme of the song. I feel like there might be a little wordplay with the “Morning” in the song…Though it’s spelled one way, it could be heard as “mourning.” Later she sings about how a vulture “…Laughed under his breath/Because you thought that you could outrun sorrow.” It’s a lot about having to be encouraged by nature to dig herself out of the dark pit she’s buried herself in.

“I’m An Animal” goes on with the main theme of the album. When she sings “I love you this hour, this hour today,” I can’t help but think of Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like A Bird.” Now that I think of it, these songs make a great pairing, thematically. I love when, speaking about her fears, Neko sings “But my courage is roaring like the sound of the sun/’Cause it’s vain about its mane and will reveal them to no one.”

“Prison Girls” is an odd song, in that I can’t figure out if Neko is really in prison or is just dreaming about it. It’s ambiguous like that (or maybe it’s just me). But it’s a fantastic song. I love it when she sings “I love your long shadows and your gun powder eyes.” I’m kind of waiting to see if they ever use it in Orange is the New Black, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of song that would show up there, somehow.

“Don’t Forget Me” is another cover song, and another great choice. I guess there’s not much to say about it, but I love the way she sings “I’ll miss you when I’m lonely/I’ll miss the alimony too.” She sings it very bluesy, but very sassy too. Very Neko.

The next track she played in concert, which was a surprise to me, and that was “The Pharaohs”! I just love love loooooove the way she croons “You said I was your blue, blue baby…and you were right.” It sounds so pained, but not in an overly dramatic emo way.

“Red Tide” is the final song on the album. It’s a rather cynical track to end with, but she played it at the concert too and it sounded amazing.

Actually, I lied. The final track is “Marais La Nuit,” which is just a 31-plus minute-long track consisting of the nighttime sounds around a pond on Neko Case’s farm in Vermont. It’s truly an appropriate ending to an album she recorded in a barn on her property (which explains its big, almost echoing sound throughout).

Looking back on my past reviews, I think I might have to change what I’ve said and recommend Middle Cyclone to first-time Neko Case listeners. The whole album is just so well produced and lyrically brilliant. It’s a real treat to listen to, and I mean really listen to, not just treat as background noise (unless we’re talking about “Marais La Nuit”). If you value good songwriters, give Neko Case and Middle Cyclone a go.

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Neko Case

I’m going to see Neko Case on Thursday, you guys, and I’m so excited! I’ve been going over in my head which songs she’ll probably perform and which ones I hope she’ll perform. So here are my predictions, keeping in mind I’ve never seen her in concert before, so I don’t know what kind of songs she favors performing live.

It’ll be a lot of The Harder I Fight, of course. I think “Man” is guaranteed, which is good because I’m betting it sounds awesome live. It certainly sounds like it was meant to be performed live. I think we’ll probably get “Night Still Comes” which I actually really want to hear. The likelihood is fairly high — they’ve been playing it in the theaters at my local AMC before they start the pre-movie stuff (not the previews, but the commercials. If you’ve been to an AMC, you’ll know what I’m talking about).

“Bracing for Sunday,” “City Swan,” and “Local Girl” are likely. I wouldn’t mind hearing “Calling Cards.” I’m hopeful for “Ragtime” because I really like it as an album closer, though I don’t think it’ll be a concert closer. (That might just be “Man.”) And I really, really LOVE the dressed-down version of “Magpie to the Morning” on the deluxe version of The Harder I Fight. I’m really hoping she plays this version because I really like the way it sounds with the banjo and the guitar.

Moving chronologically backwards to Middle Cyclone, I would be THRILLED if she played “This Tornado Loves You.” It’s my favorite song off of that album, and one of my top five favorite Neko Case songs of all time.

I’d like to hear “The Pharaohs” but I don’t think it’s likely. However, “People Got A Lotta Nerve” is very likely. Possibly “Red Tide” and “Prison Girls” too.

Moving on to Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, I would absolutely LOVE to hear “Margaret Vs. Pauline” (another top 5 favorite) If she played that and “This Tornado Loves You” that would be wonderful. I’d like to hear “Hold On, Hold On,” and I think the odds of that are pretty good. “Lion’s Jaws” would be nice, but maybe not likely. I’d like “Maybe Sparrow” too, and I think that’s more likely. Other than that, I think the title track “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” might be played, maybe.

Next up is my favorite (and first) Neko Case album, Blacklisted. If she played “Things That Scare Me”…Oh my goodness, if she played that one along with “Margaret Vs. Pauline” and “This Tornado Loves You” I think THAT might my perfect Neko concert. She can play anything else. I would just love love LOVE to hear “Things That Scare Me.” It was love at first listen for me. Instant favorite. I knew I was in for the long haul with Neko when I heard that song. Can’t say the likelihood of that one though…

Other than that one, “Deep Red Bells” just might be played — and that’s okay because I really like it! I love “Outro With Bees” but I’m not holding my breath. “Lady Pilot” is a maybe! “Stinging Velvet” would be lovely, and possible. Overall, the odds for anything on this album are pretty low. I’m guessing she’ll play very, very few songs from this album, if any.

If she plays anything else, it’ll be a puzzle to me! I don’t have any of the albums she made with Her Boyfriends, though I’ve been meaning to get them. In any case, I’m really looking forward to it! And I hope she’s a talker. (If she is, I’ll bet she’s sassy.) I love it when performers talk to their audience. I’d love the know the meaning behind “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” That song haunts me when I hear it.

In any case, I’m looking forward to her setlist, whatever it may be! And don’t worry, I’m not one of those people who shouts requests at the stage. I can’t stand those people. It’s like, I don’t know what hole-in-the-wall dive bar you go to see that band with the homeless, drunk drummer, but professional artists have setlists and they have them for a reason. Sheesh.

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I Win!

I have a little confession. I used to watch American Idol–and not just for the bad auditions. I didn’t watch it every season, but when I did, it was with a fair amount of loyalty. I’ve always wanted to be exposed to new music at every opportunity though, so I’m not sorry for it. After all, I never would have discovered Lilly Scott otherwise.

For those who don’t remember (or never watched), Lilly Scott was was a semi-finalist on season 9 of American Idol back in 2010. She was eliminated the night they announced the Top 12. I still remember the look on her face when it came down to her and another girl. They both looked like they were waiting for Lilly’s name to be announced. But they read the other girl’s name instead. Everyone was shocked, including the other girl herself. (Sorry I can’t remember the name, but if I remember correctly, she didn’t even make it to the top five, so I don’t care too much.)

I remember Lilly saying something like her fans weren’t watching the show, which was more of a slight against American Idol than her fans. I think that was the moment where she must have realized that her destiny was for her, not a random TV audience, to decide.

That was the season I stopped watching American Idol. I was outraged for all the right reasons. That season was one of many that would make up the “white guys with guitars” streak. (No, seriously: Google it.) And I’ve never looked back.

I kept checking up to see what became of Lilly Scott though. It turned out she had a band called VARLET. I snatched up their EP (ironically titled) I Win! as soon as I found out about it. I think it may have come out around the same time as when she appeared on American Idol, but considering some of the lyrics, it feels like it could have been written about her American Idol experience.

Consider these lyrics from “Jello Plate”:

Watch out for me

That’s what they say

But do you know who I am?

…No I can’t take these fuckin’ people, yeah

What a goddamn joke

My heart is here wide open

But I don’t wanna get choked

Anymore

I thought for the longest time it WAS about her American Idol experience, but like I said, a little research shows it might not have been, unless she was singing about her audition/Hollywood week. Even then, that would still be pretty punk of her, giving a big (and, soon enough, well-deserved) middle finger to the mainstream music and television industry.

I Win! is very low key and, admittedly, a little indulgent in an almost hipstery kind of way. It sounds like something that would be performed at your local fair trade anti-Starbucks co-op coffee shop. But the minimal instrumentation really allows Lilly Scott’s vocals to shine. She’s the kind of musician who really knows how to use her voice as an instrument, and that’s my favorite kind of musician.

I still think back to her first Idol performance, when she sang one of my favorite Beatles songs, “Fixing A Hole.” It remains one of my favorite Beatles covers ever to this day. Just take a listen and you’ll understand why she was robbed (though she was not eliminated on this song):

You know, now that I think about it, maybe it was better that she didn’t make it into the competition with the other finalists. Onward and upwards, Lilly Scott.

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