Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Return & A Review

I can't believe it's been a year since I've last posted! A post of all the happenings in between will come later. But mostly it's been this: I changed my name to Heather Storey because I met a really awesome kid and we want to hang out together all the time for the rest of our lives! Hip Hip Huzzah!

For my triumphant to blogging, I've chosen a really spectacular album to be released on Tuesday and my review to go with it.

Laura Veirs is a truly spectacular musician and this album is a little more rockin' than her previous ... 8! But it's so good. So intelligent and a great palate cleanser, in case you thought most of the music being made these days is self-absorbed and lame.

Tuesday marks the release of Laura Veirs’ ninth album, Warp & Weft on her own Raven Marching Band Records. Written during her second pregnancy, the album is, as Veirs says, “an exploration of extremes -- deep, dark suffering and intense, compassionate love.” There is an upfront simplicity to the album that is endearing and attractive. Veirs’ generally raw and imperfect vocals are much more polished on this album, but still have significant lightness contrasting to the craft and presence of the rest of the instruments that give it interest and credibility. It’s the craft and intelligence of this album that are most astonishing.

A prolific musician, Veirs is joined by other giants of indie folk fame on this record – Jim James (My Morning Jacket), kd lang, Neko Case (The New Pornographers) and Brian Blade (The Fellowship Band and studio jazz drummer) amongst them. Together they create a tapestry of sounds and colors blurring the lines between Veirs’ thoughtful lyrics and the inventive instruments surrounding them. The album’s title comes from a weaving term referring to the two kinds of threads used to create a piece – the warp being the stronger, horizontal threads that form the framework for the whole and the weft being the lighter vertical thread that creates the color. Which part of the album is the warp and which is the weft is up for debate, but what’s certain is there is an intricacy in design and a continual balancing of sounds and themes.

Characteristic of Veirs’ music, Warp & Weft prominently features instrumental breaks in nearly every song and one track (“Ghosts of Louisville”) is only 29 seconds of instruments and wordless voices. The opening track of the album will be familiar to anyone who’s walked into a Starbucks recently as “Sun Song” has been on regular play and showcases Neko Case’s recognizable voice in the background. The album then moves from one up-tempo tune to another, but this time “America” is characterized by lower guitar tones and darker lyrics. The sounds of this track are striking as well – organs, distorted guitars, keys, and some choruses as well. The third track is a tribute to Howard Finster – an American folk artist and Baptist minister whose mission was to spread the Gospel through his paintings and garden museums. He’s come to be also a pop icon for his collaborations with R.E.M. and the cover art for their Reckoning album. The Veirs’ tune “Finster Saw the Angels” is a simple & beautiful reflection on Finster’s life and work – tender and honest it asks “Finster saw the angels, why can’t I? Oh, Hand of Love, come guide me.” The track has strong blues influences, with a great breakdown in the middle, that hearken to Finster’s southern background. The album again takes a darker turn in “Dorothy of the Island” where Veirs’ reworks Clapton’s “Motherless Children” as the chorus lamenting “motherless children have a hard time when mother is dead,” especially poignant as Veirs’ was pregnant with their second child at the time. In the seventh track, “Say Darlin’ Say,” Veirs’ vocals finally take a prominence and clear leading, appropriate with the simple structure of the tune, but it definitely opens up and rocks out, ending with a grand deconstruction of all the sounds where literal bells and whistles hearken back to a wild west landscape. And there are handclaps. Who doesn’t love a good handclap section? The album closes with a swinging jazz tune reminiscent of some of Solomon’s words of wisdom “Even in the lean times/I take pleasure in the wind chimes//and in the moments of excess/I try not to overdo it.”

In a world where so much music produced talks only of personal feelings, momentary crises or sheer nonsense, it’s invigorating to listen to Veirs’ songs of real people, legends outside of herself, and universal existential musings. In a genre typified by cynicism and self-interest, it’s refreshing to hear an honest, humble voice. From a purely musical standpoint, the production of Warp & Weft brought to the table by Veirs’ husband and longtime collaborator Tucker Martine is of the highest quality. All the sounds are pure and crisp, even the distortions are delivered well and not compromised. The structure of the songs is traditional, but the sounds and themes are unusual and twisted. This is a very intelligent album and a pleasant surprise.

By the way, Veirs’ & Martine’s son, Oz was born on May 2nd.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Lumineers - Carriers of Light, Stompers of Feet

the Denver-based trio is hand-clapping & foot-stomping
their way into hearts
Even though Cleveland can't seem to make up its mind, I truly believe summer is on its way. Sunshine can only be denied for so long before eventually winning the war against the oppressive unicloud.

With that in mind, I have a great summertime band for you this week. This band has literally kept me up at night with its goodness. I was laying in bed, already several hours past my bedtime, perusing the NPR music app (a must-have for any iPhone/smartphone user) trying to figure out what music I wanted for my dreamscapes when I came across a performance of The Lumineers at KEXP. The subtitle reads "Heartfelt Energy and Musical Grace." It seemed sincere enough, I had to check it out. Plus the photo is the band standing goofily between library stacks. I was hooked from the first note out of them. They're a little bit folk, a little bit rock, a little bit bluegrass, a whole lot of heart. If you know Mumford & Sons or The Head & The Heart, this band is what would result if the two had a child. The Lumineers feature prominent vocals, but driving drums with piano and guitar filling in the fairly sparse arrangements plus a healthy dose of cello & mandolin. The tunes are catchy and the lyrics are poetic and compelling.

The Lumineers' story is one of "stubborn hopefulness" as two of the members, leader Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites, moved from New York/New Jersey to Denver, CO with a car full of instruments and hearts full of sorrow after losing a friend & brother to a drug overdose. Like any good story, hardship has bred victory and strength. Once in Denver, the boys put out a call for a cellist and the duo became a trio with the addition of classically-trained local Neyla Pekarek. Together the three create music characterized by vulnerability, heartfelt emotion and a commitment to honest optimism, which is pretty refreshing in a world filled with conflict and ever-lessening faith in humanity.

With lyrics like "you told me I was like the dead sea/you'll never sink when you are with me," they're more than just a foot-stomping, hand-clapping good time, too ... even if their intonation/pitch & balance leave a little to be desired.

If these kids continue in the trajectory they've currently set for themselves, we're talking second-star-to-the-right-and-straight-on-till-morning for them. And it seems that they're willing to take you with them. You want this album. Trust me.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

a small lesson of the difficult type

So I made the mistake today of going back through my published reviews on RELEVANT. I didn't think it was a mistake when I made that choice. And I suppose it wasn't really a mistake until I decided to go all the way and read the responses to the albums. Turns out, I don't think the same things other people think. Lots of people got upset with my reviews and thoughts. Especially the one for Florence + the Machine. Whooee! And even though that one seems to garner the most negative feedback, I am pretty sure I still stand by my take on it. And I'm proud of that. I just hope I stand by it because I actually do and not just as a defense mechanism. I think it's because Florence fans tend to be pretty die hard, and the same for my most recent review of the new Miike Snow album.

The specifics aren't particularly important at this point though. What is important is the overall lesson I am learning here. You really can't please everyone. Sometimes you really can't even seem to please anyone. But if you (and when I say "you" what I am really trying to say is "me" or "I") do things with an intent to please people and not out of your own personal conviction, you open yourself up for all sorts of emotional attack - even when people aren't actually attacking you, but daring to disagree. Even if you do things with personal conviction, contrasting opinions can rock your conviction enough. I suppose this is why Shakespeare (it was him, right?) said "To thine own self be true." If you are true to your own self, even if no one else is on your side, at least you have yourself. But if even you betray yourself, you will find yourself quite alone ... even if other people do find themselves on your side. You are not even on your own side! Ack!

So as a lesson to myself I am telling myself that I am allowed to say whatever I want in my reviews - I can gush about its brilliance or lament its shortcomings - but the most important thing is that I believe what it is I am saying.

I'm hoping that's what I have done already, but I am now making a note to myself to be sure to do that intentionally every time from here on out.

Have any of you had to learn this lesson yet? How have you dealt with it? Thought about it? Approached it? Effectively implemented it into your life? What other hard lessons have you had to learn?