For me, it’s always about great songs, pure vocals, impeccable harmonies and innovative fusions of genres that touch me. In 2009, here’s how my choices breakdown:
Pure Vocals/Great Songs
David Mallett’s latest (just out) “Alright Now” is full of the honest poetry and impeccable songwriting that has touched people for over three decades now. This time out, my instant faves are the Mark Knopfler/Dylanesque ‘Ten Men’, the Obama-campaign inspired, ‘North Meets South’ and an ode to his daughter called, ‘Beautiful’.
Mindy Smith released her fourth CD this year called, “Stupid Love”. Her powerful, pure emotional vocals are remarkable here and the songwriting, as always, is at a higher level than most of her contemporaries. What’s different about this new CD is a move to make the production a little more poppy, less sparse. It works great from my standpoint, with help from folks like Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Thad Cockrell, Leigh Nash and Daniel Tashian, it still feels like a Mindy Smith album, just a little more developed. Try ‘What Went Wrong’, ‘Telescopic’ and the Fleetwood Mac-inspired, ‘Love Chases After Me’.
Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers – Seattle-based, Americana artist, Zoe Muth released her wonderful debut CD this year. Comparisons to Emmylou and Lucinda are obvious, but I think her voice and album remind me of one of the truly great Americana CDs of all time, “What I Deserve” by Kelly Willis. The CD has been produced perfectly for her voice and band. It is sparse, organic and real. I love her songs, especially, ‘Hard Luck Love’, ‘The Running Kind’, ‘My Old Friend’, ‘Hey Little Darlin’ and ‘Wasting My Time’.
Eric Bibb – “Get Onboard” – I always look forward anything new from Eric Bibb. Raised in the folk tradition (his father was folk singer/actor Leon Bibb), he grew up around the world and subsequently his folk music has melded into a distinctive mix of folk, blues, gospel and soul for a new generation. His Get Onboard CD celebrates all those traditions with new songs like ‘New Beale Street Blues’, ‘Get Onboard’ and ‘Pockets’. The sparkling production recorded in both Nashville and Sweden, focuses on Eric’s rich voice and guitar playing, but the horn arrangements, organ, harmonica and percussion add tremendous musical depth. PlayNetwork was fortunate to have Eric perform for us as part of the PlayLive Music Series this year and it was one of the highlights of the year for me.
New York-based singer-songwriter, Leslie Mendelson released a marvelous debut CD this year called, “Swan Feathers”. Leslie unapologetically shares her love for singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, Carole King and James Taylor with songs that reflect the style and sound of that era, with solid contemporary instrumentation and production. At the heart and soul of what she does is great songs, a lovely voice and a charming stage presence. She won me over this year in a big way after one listen to the CD and topped it off with a solo PlayLive show that turned me into an even bigger fan. For starters, check out ‘I Know You Better Than That’, ‘Easy Love’, ‘Rest of London’ and her quiet take on the classic, ‘Be My Baby’, ironically, because had Leslie been around during the Brill Building days, she would have fit in perfectly.
Impeccable Harmonies/Great Songs
The Refugees – “Unbound” – Combine three women, with decades of experience as songwriters, performers/players and production chops and you have the Refugees. Wendy Waldman, Cindy Bullens and Deborah Holland combined forces a few years ago at a music conference and began a collaboration that has seen them traveling the country non-stop ever since. This year, they released their first CD together, a collection of Refugee’s interpretations of some of each of their best known songs as well as new tunes they wrote together. In addition to the great songwriting, the harmonies are truly flawless and it feels like they have been together for decades as a group, not just a couple of years. If they come to your town, do not miss them. Watch how it’s supposed to be done.
Sometymes Why – Like the Refugees, here’s another group of women from various contemporary groups who decided it would be fun to work together in between touring and recording with their other bands. Sometymes Why consists of Kristin Andreassen (Uncle Earl), Ruth Ungar Merenda (the Mammals), and Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still). Their 2009 release, “Your Heart Is a Glorious Machine” is full of radiant three-part harmonies, warm melody lines, clever lyrics and enough edge and cool instrumentation to take it above the fray of other modern folk CDs. Try these tracks out first: ‘Slow Down’, ‘Glorious Machine’ and ‘Joey’.
Genre Bending/Great Songs
James Yuill – If James Yuill simply sang the collection of songs on his latest CD, “Turning Down Water For Air”, with his guitar only, one would be impressed with his song writing skills and he’d join the ranks of one of the better contemporary folk singer-songwriters. However, when James adds his carefully crafted electronics, loops and effects to those same songs, he creates something spectacular. The official movement or genre is called “folktronica“ and James is one of the artists pioneering this sound. I loved the CD when I heard it, but watching him perform it live was also wonderful. For those of you, like me, who love hearing well-crafted songs and admire artists who take it to another dimension, you will love James Yuill. The best of the best are: ‘Over the Hills’, ‘Head Over Heels’, ‘No Pins Allowed’ and ‘No Surprise’.
Lusine – “A Certain Distance” – Lusine’s music has always been a wonder to me. He is able to create moods that are warm, rhythmic, complicated and compelling all at the same time. I am amazed at what he does and in my quest to understand the electronica/ambient/techno genres better, I use him as a benchmark for all that is good. That’s why I was thrilled this year when with the release of A Certain Distance and the success of the track, ‘Two Dots’, his notoriety increased significantly. Guest vocalist Vilja Larjosto is the perfect voice for ‘Two Dots’, adding an Imogen Heap/Frou Frou feel to this terrific, catchy track. I have listened to this track and watched the accompanying video many, many times. All the tracks here are very accessible, whether for the hippest dance floors or as innovative soundscapes of energy and well-crafted melodies. In addition to ‘Two Dots’, my faves are ‘Twilight, Baffle’, ‘Gravity’ and ‘Crowded Room’.
Finally, under the genre bending category, I can’t leave out the Portland-based band, Musee Mecanique, unknown to me until this year, and their song, ‘Our Changing Skin’. From their CD, “Hold The Ghost”, I don’t think that any song moved me as much this year as this song, nor any CD as much as this one. Mixing delicate layers of folk, electronics and indie rock with hushed vocals and strong melodies, this band creates a magnificent, beautiful sound. Definitely, begin by listening to ‘Our Changing Skin’ and spend some time watching the lovely video they created for it from a Max Fleischer cartoon. Other wonderful tracks include, ‘Like Home’, ‘Two Friends Like Us’, ‘Under Glass’ and ‘Nothing Glorious’.
ONE LAST CHOICE:
Steve Martin‘s, “The Crow: New Songs For The Five String Banjo” rises way, way above an actor’s vanity music project. Steve Martin has always loved music and the banjo was often used as part of his comedy act. But, at the same time, he has always taken bluegrass music and the banjo very seriously. This album is an amazing collection of 16 original songs, 15 of which Martin wrote himself. On The Crow, Steve joins forces with some of the premiere musicians of the genre including John McKuen, his old friend and founder of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bela Fleck, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton and Earl Scruggs. It sounds like the band enjoyed playing with each other and the music that they created I predict will be awarded a Grammy this January. It is beautiful and timeless. Listen to: ‘Pretty Flowers’, ‘Pitkin County Turnaround’, ‘Wally On The Run’, ‘Daddy Played the Banjo’ for starters.
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