Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Wonderful Ruckus of Music and Lyrics

Late summer. The air hangs close with humidity, the cicadas riot in the trees and the world seems overgrown from some sort of mad crush of production before fall arrives. A perfect time to talk about Frontier Ruckus. With songs that are thick with harmony, a full, backwoods acoustic folk sound and crammed full of lyrical poetry, this indie folk band from Michigan provides a bounty of sound and imagery that seems to revel in the physical and natural world while simultaneously worrying about the inevitable changes of season, spirit and time.
The album in question here is The Orion Songbook released in 2008 which you can pick up over at Quite Scientific Records. There is also an extended version with new songs an additional EP available on vinyl over at Lower Peninsula Records and there are lots of other songs for the listening over at their MySpacey Place.
I will say right off, that had I stumbled on FR last year, they would have definitely been on the list of albums from 2008 to pick up. That said, these guys are either a "like 'em or leave 'em" band for most I imagine and that has much to do with front man Matthew Milia who also writes all the songs on this album.
Let's start with the lyrics (which makes me wish we had a poet here in The Room to help with the analysis). Milia's songs, while not all the same by any stretch, are primarily a free form set of images on a theme. Some songs do have verse and chorus, but many are much more like blank verse starting with an image and pushing that forward with smart connections and related imagery. I don't think it is unfair to suggest you may think of Dylan when listening to the lyrics here (no, Dylan fans, I am not saying he is Dylan, but the form and approach is similar).
Themes are focused on love and relationships, growing up and family, religion and (to my delight) these are often overlaid with a good deal of Michigan imagery and references. As I have suggested, Milia seems very focused on the physical and natural and there is a whole lot of animals, bodies, fluids, love, plants, smell, decay, death and the everyday physicality of life (perhaps Whitman is the better reference here than Dylan?).
Now the music needs some discussion, because I imagine this will have more to do with your reaction to them. First, Milia has a very warbley, tenor voice and you gotta dig that if you are going to like this album--think Colin Meloy from The Decemberists or even Pat McDonald from Timbuk3 at times. Of course, most songs also enjoy the harmonies of Anna Burch which are key to the music (and their voices together are what made me think of Timbuk3). The two together have a wonderful sound and they sing with such sincerity it is hard not to get caught up in their singing.
Milia also plays some wonderful guitar on this album. His musical partner in crime here is David Jones who plays banjo throughout the album, providing both a steady rhythm to many tunes, and some nice fills and leads, particularly on the upbeat tunes. There are a variety of instrumentations here with harmonica, dobro, piano and trumpet added in, but we cannot finish this post without discussing the saw. Yes, the saw.
I don't think that I have another album where the singing-saw plays such a role (or any for that matter). Now not to pick on Zach Nichols who plays the saw, but it is a bit overdone here. There are songs where it is understated and add a haunting texture to the song, but then there are others where it seems like more novelty than anything and I would have preferred another instrument. But this is a small complaint in the end compared with the overall strength of this album.
Okay, so I have already told you where to go get the album, so let's check out a couple tunes. As usual with discs I really enjoy, choices are difficult. I probably could have given you a couple others to convey the full range, but here are two that I really like both musically and lyrically.
And as an added bonus, here is one more of those great wandering around Michigan videos that made me want to hear more of this Ruckus. This also happens to be one of my favorite tunes on the album.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Dexateens Serve Up The Summer Album of 2009

Earlier, I hinted that you would be hearing about the album I thought was the find of the summer, but really all the credit goes to LD over at the The Adios Lounge who has been carrying the Dexateens torch and got me to pick up their latest effort Singlewide. I suggest that you do the same. First, a little background for those of you, who like me until three months ago, didn't even know this band.

The Dexateens are based out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and are centered around the writing, singing and playing of John Smith and Elliott McPherson. They have actually been around for a decade in one form or another and Singlewide is their fifth album as far as I can tell. A big question will be where to go in terms of other albums since this outing is so strong in my opinion. But first to the album at hand.
First off, this album hit at just the right time. The great garage country sound was perfect for the summer. The tunes are toe-tappers and laid back all at the same time. The duo sings like a southern version of the Jayhawks with their southern accents coming through loud and clear.
But this is not just a simple summer album either. The songs are varied enough in tempo and sound to keep you interested all the way through and the lyrics, while not overreaching, are solid. I mean anyone who can draw a line from Charlemagne to Jesse James through to Bob Crane has got it going on--the connection being the devil who shows up a couple times on this album. There is definitely a sense of these guys finding themselves and learning to accept who they are. The highlights in that vein are the two slow tunes "Singlewide" and "New Boy."
Ultimately, this is one of those albums I keep finding fits my mood whether I am driving, hanging out or dancing about in the kitchen while whipping up a meal.
Let me leave it there and let the music speak for itself. First up in the samples is the opener which exemplifies both the live feel of the recordings (you have to wait a moment until someone in the booth suggests they get going). Second up is perhaps my fav song, "New Boy" which captures a feeling I often have of wanting to change, but also accepting who we are: "I want to be a new boy, but I can't regret." Lastly is Charlemagne with it's intricate lyrics looking at forces that drive behavior that might be thought of as a bit on the deviant side. Could have picked just about any of the songs, so you are just going to have to pick this one up to hear it all.
Dexateens / Singlewide (Buy Album)

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Hiromi Makes Me Smile

So I realize that I haven't been bringin the love lately on the albums I have reviewed and I had every intention of posting about what has been my favorite find of the summer tonight (and promise I will in the next couple of days), but truth is it just wasn't in the cards today. I just returned from taking the family up to Cleveland this weekend where they are going to hang a few days before we head up for vacation on the big lake and had to return for a few more days of work and that just put a damper on the mood.

But while finishing up some work around the house and dealing with the prolific garden, I heard a great interview on WPFW with Hiromi Uehara who is playing at Blues Alley this weekend. Now Hiromi is someone who has been getting a lot of attention for the last few years as a young jazz/fusion piano player because one, she can play the ivory right off of the piano keys and two, because she is a young phenom who seems to attract some of the greats of jazz--Ahmad Jamal, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and more. But I am a bit stodgy about jazz, so I have my reservations.
But in her interview today, Larry Applebaum asked her what she thought success was for an artist and she said she just wanted people to smile--and was she was so damn sincere and innocent sounding, you had to believe her. So a little poking around on the tubes led me to some various tunes, and watching and listening to them, I could not help but, well, smile. And that is truly a wonderful thing. So while I am not able to offer up much critical reflection on her music (happy to hear it, if you got it), I am going to share a couple videos that will hopefully make you smile as well.
First up is some totally funked out jazz.

Next up, Oscar Peterson meets Tom and Jerry.