Saturday, October 9, 2010

Discoveries: Not Pretty Enough

Kasey Chambers: Not Pretty Enough


I've told this story a hundred times over.  I've told it on my own site more than once.  I even got the chance to tell Kasey Chambers this story in person backstage at the Bijou Theatre in Knoxville in August of last year.

Still... for this week... for this theme... I feel the need to tell it again.  It's not just the story of how I discovered Australian songbird Kasey Chambers, it's also the story of how I came to discover Americana music in general, start working as an Americana DJ, start writing an Americana blog, and generally become obsessed the genre in general.

Here's what I wrote on my site back in September of 2008.

In the spring of 2002, I was working as a Graduate Assistant at Morehead State Public Radio in Morehead, Kentucky. I mostly worked in the newsroom writing news and sports copy and anchoring the occasional newscast. On Friday nights, it was my job to sit in the broadcast studio and make sure nothing went wrong while we aired a few nationally syndicated music programs. Essentially, I would introduce a program, do nothing for an hour, and then introduce the next program.

I spent most of those Friday nights chatting with friends on line, making fantasy baseball trades, or just reading and doing classwork. Every so often, however, I would actually listen to the shows I was airing. One night, on a show called E-Town, I heard the voice of an Australian country singer named Kasey Chambers. The down under twang in her voice was unlike anything I had ever heard before. I wasn't sure what I was hearing... but I knew I liked it.

The next week, I asked the music director at the station if he had ever heard of this Kasey Chambers person. He started raving about this thing called "Americana Music" and how great it was and how great Kasey Chambers was, and he gave me a copy of her CD, Barricades and Brickwalls that had just been released in the U.S. I still wasn't sure what this Americana thing was he kept talking about, but I took the CD home for a listen. I had no idea at the time what that CD would lead me to.

I pushed play and was immediately met with the ominous guitar riff of the title track followed by Kasey's distinctive vocal twang. I was immediately hooked. The song itself is a meditation on obsession. Kasey runs through a laundry list of things that have been placed between her and the object of her desires. Barricades and brickwalls, iron bars and big ol' cars, locked doors, screaming and shouting... nothing will hold her back. In the chorus, she makes her intentions clear by declaring, "I'll be damned if you're not my man before the sun goes down."

The rocking title track is followed by the softer "Not Pretty Enough" (the song that got my attention from the E-Town broadcast) and continues to mix ballads like "On a Bad Day" and "Nullarbor Song" with country weepers like "A Little Bit Lonesome" and "Still Feeling Blue" and alt-country blueprints like "Runaway Train" and "If I Were You."

Each time I listened to the disc and read through the liner notes, I heard something different and discovered something new. The album became my gateway drug into Americana music. It was my introduction to Buddy Miller, who provided backing vocals on "Runaway Train." I heard Lucinda Williams for the first time on "On a Bad Day." The album also introduced me to Gram Parsons with Kasey's cover of Parsons' "Still Feeling Blue."

Not long after I fell in love with the album, I discovered that Kasey would be appearing at a taping of The Mountain Stage just a few hours up the road in Charleston, West Virginia. Of course, I wanted to go see the show. I didn't even care that I also had to sit through listing to four other artists who I had never heard of. Of course... those artists turned out to be Laura Cantrell, Dar Williams, James McMurtry, and Rodney Crowell with Kenny Vaughn.

Holy Cow! How could one artist and one album expose me to so many other artists who would all become such staples of my music collection just a few short years later? I don't know... but Kasey Chambers did it.

I first heard Kasey Chambers and Barricades and Brickwalls in the early months of 2002. That summer, I began hosting Morehead State Public Radio's nightly Americana program one night a week. The story goes on from there. Who knows what might have happened to me and my musical tastes without this album?

Discoveries: You're Aging Well

Joan Baez with Dar Williams:
You're Aging Well


Dar Williams: You're Aging Well


I am the coordinator/booker for my UU church concert series in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (this is my sixth year)... and last Saturday night was beyond special for me - here follows my introduction of that evening's headliner, which speaks for itself regarding my discovery:

Everyone who knows me realizes I am not a 25-words-or-less woman and, given my love for the music and spirit of tonight's performer, I could easily wax poetic and forever – tonight... I promise brevity!

We all have those epiphany moments... when the metaphorical light bulb goes off over our heads and our lives are forever changed – mine occurred when I bought Joan Baez's Ring Them Bells CD in 1995 and listened to Joan duet with a then-unknown-to-me songwriter, who taught me that aging well was not an oxymoron. That song led me on a stepping-stone journey into the world of contemporary folk: involvement with my local folk community, making and meeting friends through music discussion lists, crossing state lines for shows and festivals, hosting house concerts in my living room... and these days presenting the Labyrinth Cafe. Tonight is a blessing and a joy and an honor... as well as a personal and professional dream-come-true – finally... the six words I've waited 15 years to say: Please help me welcome... Dar Williams!

[ The picture above is of the Barnes & Noble in Plantation, Florida, which was where I bought Joan Baez's CD when it was first released - I now have a B&N about 3 miles down the road, but at the time, this was the closest... and I had to drive 30 minutes to get my music fix! ]

Discoveries: A Sinful Life

Timbuk 3: A Sinful Life


I was in middle school, a loser and a loner; my best friend that year was a kid who lived down the street, a year older and just as socially maladjusted - but his home life was better, so we always went there after school. PJ was into a particular sort of eighties drum-machine-driven echo-harmony new wave music: he introduced me to The Thompson Twins, Everyone But The Girl, and Wang Chung, too, though I seem to remember that Howard Jones was all mine. And when this song and album came to me, it was my first step as an audiophile from mood to songwriting, and one of the first moments in my life that my attention shifted from song-at-a-time to LP and catalog.

Oh, sure, I must have heard The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades on the radio that first year, though truly, I was 13, and my tastes were running more towards even cheesier popsongs that year. But I didn't really discover one-hit wonders Timbuk 3 until their sophomore album, Eden Alley, which PJ brought to my attention when it emerged the following year... and though by then Timbuk 3 was already fading from public view, it was this album that stuck, a perfect collection that held and still holds together track by track, falling into place in my ears somewhere between Suzanne Vega and The Boomtown Rats.

Today, PJ is a reluctant lawyer, playing a couple times a month at a local open mics, hoping ever-after to make it as a musician so he can leave the legal life behind. He's moved on from that suburban house which you can see above, angled to show it as it always looked as I approached it, from my own home from down the street. But his own songwriting echoes those 80s bands more than most folksong, most especially in its quirky intellectualism, polysyllabic meter and rhyme, bittersweet cynical worldview, and tongue-in-cheek, high-metaphoric, commonground concreteness. And hearing Timbuk 3's slower, folkier side, which crops up on this album here and there, is a key indicator of where that sensibility came from.

Oh, and full disclosure: I have a co-write credit on one of the songs on PJ's long-shelved debut album I Know What You're Made Of, which you can check out and purchase here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Discoveries: Cold Wind to Valhalla

Jethro Tull: Cold Wind to Valhalla


If you have read a number of my posts, you know that I grew up listening to FM radio in the 1970s. If you remember those days, you may want to know how I can call Jethro Tull a discovery. Isn’t that like saying you discovered breathing? And why didn’t you post Aqualung? Surely that was the first Jethro Tull you heard? Indeed it was. Let me explain.

This week, we have seen that there are a number of ways to discover music. A song can follow you around. You can read about it in a newspaper or magazine. You can win tickets to a show. Or a friend can make introductions. In my life, there was another route to musical discovery, a big one. I married it. If you care deeply about music, you are going to marry someone who does too, at least to some extent. Or so it was for me. When we decided to join our lives together, we also joined together our record collections. Now I had heard Aqualung long before, as I mentioned. I didn’t like it. I dismissed the song as hard rock, and I never bothered to find out what else Jethro Tull might have done. But my wife did before we met. As she learned my musical taste, she began to insist that I had to hear their albums Songs From the Wood and Minstrel in the Gallery. Finally, I did, and I was amazed. The lyrics, while not strictly authentic, were steeped in the mythology and folklore of the British Isles. And the music took the ideas of folk-rock as pioneered by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, and took them to the next level.

Cold Wind to Valhalla starts as a folk piece, and then turns electric. But notice how the electric guitar is mirrored by a fiddle. It sounds kind of hard-rockish, but there is more to it than that. Cold Wind is on Minstrel in the Gallery, and musically, it is the perfect bridge from what I thought I knew about Jethro Tull to what I discovered.

Incidentally, the image I have chosen for this post is obviously an album cover, but it’s an odd shape. That’s a cassette cover. To this day, we only have Minstrel and Songs on cassette. Luckily, we still have something that will play them.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Discoveries: Rid of Me

PJ Harvey: Rid Of Me


I have a confession...

I don't have a time line of discovery and growth like many of you. Since I was old enough to sing along with music I've liked the same thing...catchy pop or rock songs, preferably with female vocals. I often am frustrated with myself because I can't seem to go the extra length to give the same effort to finding good new music with male vocals as I do to the ladies. I try to quell my frustration over this by remembering that there's a lot of people that are the opposite of me, that discount musicians because they ARE female, and therefore it's good to have a few people like me around to even the score. As it is, when I visit blogs I often will scroll through and pause the longest for those with band photos with women in them. I've even found some male vocal bands simply because there's a female in their band and therefore I gave them a try...sad, I know, but when there's as much new music out there on the internet as there is these days, you find whatever ways you can to narrow down the search for something you'll enjoy. And hey, maybe that's just my thing, and everyone has their thing.

There was a time when I didn't even realize this about myself. It took a male acquaintance in high school to bring it to my attention. It's senior year, the seniors have a lounge area to themselves where they can spend their free periods, otherwise known as study halls, and I have my CD folder out and am paging through. The guy asks to look at it. He pages through at it and says "so you only listen to girls?" and I am surprised, why would he say that? And he continues "every CD in here is by a woman". I seriously hadn't noticed. So he says he only has one female artist in his collection but that she's amazing because no other female artist he's heard has the seething power he likes (his favorite band was The Jesus Lizard) as this lady and asks if I've heard of her, it's someone named PJ Harvey. I hadn't. So he gave me his headphones and played me a song. At the time I wasn't sure what to think, I hadn't heard anything like it before. It took me a few years to finally get one of her CDs, and then another, and get the idea. This was the song he played me.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Discoveries: Empty Pages

Traffic: Empty Pages


I hope FiL doesn't mind me copying his flow chart - a good idea is a good idea, so here's mine:

Bee Gees / Elton John > The Clash / The Specials > Dylan & the 1970's > Everything Else

Each of these periods has discovery moments that I could write about and talk about for hours. For this post I'm going to focus on the third phase of my musical development. I was introduced to the music of the late 1960's and early 1970's when I was a freshman in college. I had been steeped in all things punk, post-punk, and new wave for the previous several years, and it was time for a change. The music scene was getting stale as the edge wore off of bands like The Cure and R.E.M. and other bands like The Smiths simply broke up.

At this time a couple of us took a road trip to Salt Lake City to visit a friend who had previously lived in my hometown of Fresno, California. While we stayed at this friend's house we got to know his incredibly cool father. I couldn't believe a dad could be like this! He watched the best movies, he listened to great music, and he had an excellent and decidedly irreverent sense of humor. He may not have been the best dad in the traditional sense, but he sure was fun to hang out with.

At one point during our visit my friend's father gave us a cassette tape of Traffic's album, John Barleycorn Must Die. As we drove north on I-15, at almost exactly the point pictured above, we slid the cassette into the car stereo.

Most everyone reading this is familiar with the feeling that you occasionally (rarely, actually) get when you hear new music: Oh man, this is good. I'm going to want to pursue this!

That's the feeling I got when I heard track one of John Barleycorn. I purchased the album the moment I returned home. This album led me to Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, The Who, and eventually to our blog-mother Joni Mitchell. I spent the next several years listening to music produced from about 1968 to about 1974. John Barleycorn was a deep vein that paid dividends for years to come.

Discoveries: Hungry, So Angry

Medium Medium: Hungry, So Angry


I haven’t listened to the radio in quite some time. Do they still have those contests where the seventh caller wins a prize? In the 1980s, I listened to college radio, courtesy of WPRB out of Princeton University. In those days, they played a lot of punk, which I didn’t like and still don’t. But they also played some new wave that was strange enough that even MTV wouldn’t touch it. (For our younger readers, yes there was a time when MTV was all music videos, and they played things commercial radio tried to ignore.) Anyway, WPRB had those give-aways I mentioned, and usually the prize was an album or tickets to a show. They started playing this song by a band no one had ever heard of, Medium Medium, The song was Hungry, So Angry, and I loved it. Looking back at it, I can describe it as a funk song with new wave style vocals and a dissonant sax part. At the time, I just knew that it really cooked. So, one day the DJ had a contest. The prize was Medium Medium’s album, but there was a catch. To claim the prize, there was also a show ticket, and you had to go to the show to get the album. The show was at City Gardens in Trenton, and that is the beautiful structure you see above. City Gardens was a converted warehouse on the outskirts of the city, and it was known to attract a bad element. Also, I only knew one song by the band. Did the rest of their songs suck? I had been burned that way before. Still, free is free, so, with more than a little anxiety, I went. And you know what? It was great! The energy that I so loved on the record was all there in person. The band had incredible energy, and the rest of their songs were just as good as this one. And I went to a show in big scary Trenton, and nothing happened to me. After that, I became a regular there whenever they had a new wave show.

Epilogue: I have no idea what became of Medium Medium. The album was called The Glitterhouse, and the purchase link above will take you to that same album, but it has been repackaged and retitled Hungry, So Angry. City Gardens lasted a number of years after that, but it is gone now. But this song is available, so I can’t be the only one who remembers it. And it still sounds as good to me now as it did then.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Discoveries: Starship Trooper

Yes: Starship Trooper


Let me give you an abbreviated history of my teenage musical obsessions:

The Beatles -> Heavy Metal -> Prog Rock -> Everything Else

For this post, I'm going to feature the third element in this flowchart. It was 1986, and I was a freshman at Rutgers. I had been deep into heavy metal for the past two years, but college was already expanding my musical horizons. One of my dorm mates was, like me, not really part of the "in" crowd. And like me, he was very into his music. However, while I was banging away to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, he was deep into ELP and Yes. We both influenced each other musically, but i definitely got the better part of that deal. For while ELP have not aged particularly well, Yes has become one of those groups I always find myself going back to, like visiting an old friend.

And I remember the exact moment I fell in love with Yes: I was laying on the floor of his dorm room--possibly in a bean bag chair--with headphones on, listening to The Yes Album, bathed in the warm sunlight shining through the dorm room windows. No mood-altering drugs were involved, yet it all seemed so...blissful.

Fragile, Yessongs, and the then-recent 9021Live: The Solos soon followed, and I was hooked. I got my hands on every Yes album I could, then expanded into ELP, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Genesis, and King Crimson. And they led to the whole pantheon of "classic rock" and jazz artists that made up the bulk of my listening time in college. It really wasn't until the end of my college stay that I started getting interested in more contemporary music.

But so much contemporary music is "hear" today, gone tomorrow. A song like "Starship Trooper" I could listen to forever.

The photo accompanying this post is a shot of my dorm room circa '86-67. Hard to believe but at the time, those cassettes you see there were my entire music collection. Oh, how times have changed!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Discoveries: Lovers in a Dangerous Time

Bruce Cockburn: Lovers in a Dangerous Time


I always wanted to be a writer. My mother was a reporter for a local newspaper, and she always told us what a chore it was to write up the meetings she had to cover. But she would sometimes get a feature assignment, and then her eyes would light up, and we would hear all about what she was working on. My father was not that interested in writing. His thing was making things work. We were the last family in the universe to own a working black-and-white TV, and that was my father’s doing. He also liked to get numbers to do his bidding, and he dreamed of me becoming a mathematician. But he ruined that, and he was the one who inspired me to write. That’s because my father expressed his love for me by sharing stories. He made sure I read all 14 of L Frank Baum’s Oz books, and he introduced me to the Andrew Lang fairy tale collections. So I took to writing science fiction and horror stories.

Of course, I also grew up surrounded by music. So most of my nonfiction reading was about music. I was lucky to have access to some of the best music writers, including Robert Palmer in the New York Times, and Timothy White and others in Musician magazine. And I always read the reviews. So, I remember reading about a musician from Canada who was new to me. Palmer wrote about how Bruce Cockburn had spent time in Nicaragua living among the Sandinistas, and had written an album about it. And then I saw the review in Musician, and I knew I wanted the album. Stealing Fire opened with Lovers in a Dangerous Time, and I knew my sources had led me to something good.

Putting all of this together, I realized that I was on a path back then whose nature I did not fully realize at the time. I was on my way to becoming a music writer myself. I don’t know if I will ever be as good as Robert Palmer or Timothy White, but that is what I strive for in my writings here and on Oliver di Place.

Pipes and Woodwinds -> Discoveries: So Flute

St. Germain: So Flute


For our new theme this week, we'll be sharing discovery stories - those tales of sudden connection, when a new artist or song arrives in your ears so strongly that the moment becomes fixed in your memory. Sharing those few defining moments in the development of an audiophile's development should prove to be a great way to glimpse into the minds and souls of our little band of bloggers, and expect it's going to be an interesting week.

I shared this particular story last year, but it bears repeating - and not just to introduce a song that has turned out to be the greatest road trip soundtrack-starter ever.

My first trip to Amsterdam was as an adult, in March of 2000; my wife had just miscarried after several years of earnest attempts at bearing a first child, and although the doctor advised against flying, we really needed to get away from it all. I have fond if somewhat inevitably hazy memories of a week museum-hopping and roaming the castles and small rustic villages of the countryside, sitting by the side of canals eating bread, cheese, and salami -- about all we could afford on my teacher's salary.

But my strongest memories from that week are of St. Germain's Tourist, an album whose jazz-informed rhythms, jazz-club instrumentation, and long, trance-inducing tracks emanated from what seemed at the time like every coffeeshop and bar, providing the perfect atmospheric soundtrack to what otherwise could have fast become an insular and morose period in our lives. I bought the disc at overseas prices -- a comparative fortune, back then -- and have kept it with me ever since. Rose Rouge is one of the shorter pieces on the album, but it really blows away the blues, even now.

...and so does So Flute, come to think of it.