Best of 2012: Sharon Van Etten and Little Scream

Tramp (2012, Jagjaguwar)

Two of our favorite indie pop/folk chanteuses, Sharon Van Etten and Little Scream made the most of 2012. Van Etten’s Tramp was a “breakout” album, but one in the best sense: it raised her public profile while compromising none of her musical integrity and ingenuity. Check out videos below of her performing single “Serpents” at Studio Q and killing it at SXSW 2012. You can view her (NSFW) video for “Magic Chords” via YouTube here.

Golden Record (2011, Secretly Canadian)

Little Scream’s Golden Record was a 2011 release, but continued in heavy rotation this year; its beguiling song “The Lamb” got appropriately beguiling video treatment (below). And lots and lots of touring.

Finally, one of our favorite covers of 2012, courtesy of the Onion’s AV Club: Sharon Van Etten and Little Scream supply a re-conception of Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy.”

Hirundo Maris

Hirundo Maris
Arianna Savall and Petter Udland Johansen
ECM New Series 2227 CD/Digi

Swiss soprano and harpist Arianna Savall pairs with Norwegian folksinger, Hardanger fiddle player, and mandolinist Petter Udland Johansen on Hirundo Maris (Latin for “Sea Swallow”), a recording on ECM’s New Series. They are joined by Sveinung Lilleheier (guitar, Dobro, backing vocals),  Miquel Àngel Cordero (double-bass, backing vocals), and David Mayoral (percussion, backing vocals) in an outing that combines folk material from multiple traditions (from both Northern and Southern Europe), early music instruments and performance practices, and improvised original pieces.

This is one of the recordings that we keep playing: at home, in the car on the way to work; I’ve even inserted it into a classroom lecture. Like many ECM releases, the overall ambiance is lovely: spacious yet detailed with each voice and instrument able to be pinpointed in the sound field with crystalline clarity.

The material is heavily weighted towards ballads, including particularly lovely versions of  ”The Water is Wide” and the Catalan traditional song “El Mestre:” a showcase for Savall’s lustrous soprano. But the program is punctuated by livelier selections too; the Sephardic song “Ya salio de la mar” and the Norwegian folksong “Ormen lange,” a terrifically syncopated tour de force for both Johansen and Mayoral. This is certain to be on many “best of” lists of recordings at the end of the year: ours included.


Alexander Tucker: Third Mouth (CD Review)

Alexander Tucker

Third Mouth

Thrill Jockey

Alexander Tucker’s career began rustically and experimentally, with reference points ranging everywhere from folk inspired alternate tunings for acoustic guitar to doom metal drones. For a while during the aughts, it seemed as if his output was inexorably drifting further and further away from the immediacy of conventional song format in favor of more extended and out there meditations. Over the past couple years, as evidenced in his 2011 release Dorwytch (Thrill Jockey), Tucker has been seeking a rapprochement between aspects of popular song and the psych-drone cum prog-folk aesthetic he’s cultivated.  He takes this approach on Third Mouth, his latest recording for Thrill Jockey, as well.

A particular way in has been an expansion of his use of vocal harmonies, including overdubbed vocals and the participation of vocalists Frances Morgan and Daniel O’Sullivan (the latter also plays a variety of instruments on the recording). And there are even two cuts that clock in at three minutes with memorable choruses. No one will mistake them for straightforward pop; the layered arrangements still hold true to Tucker’s penchant for sumptuous timbral complications. That said, there’s a beauty in the simplicity of their melodic construction, which proves to be a unifying thread and straightforward thrust in the midst of various textural peregrinations, however lovely sounding these may be.

Those devotees of Tucker’s earlier work who may be fearful that this modification of his approach inherently means an adieu to freeform experimentation needn’t worry. Third Mouth also contains several longish compositions, and “Amon Hen,” an aphoristic piece of Waits/Partch inspired experimentation, too. “Glass Axe” has a pastoral cast while “Rh” indulges a more psych-drone ambience. And while both of these can also be said to be led by the vocals, in the former taking on the presence of a bona fide hook while in the latter being framed as an almost chant like refrain, the instrumental touches – glorious chords in alternate tunings, spacey reverberation, long held drones, and flashes of dissonance nicking each piece with slight distressing around the edges – remind one of the totality of Tucker’s sonic journey.

Bensh: “Doubt” (Video)

“Doubt” by Bensh is a good song: moody, folksy indie pop with a loping bass-line and a chorus that, while catchy enough to sing along with, still provides the appropriate dosage of angst.

But, when you add a video (filmed in Berlin and directed by Lynn Kossler) that’s influenced by M.C. Escher: now that was the extra ingredient that grabbed my attention!

Bensh’s LP Clues is out now.

Carrie Newcomer: “Everything is Everywhere” (Video)

Proceeds from Carrie Newcomer’s latest CD, Everything is Everywhere, benefit the Interfaith Hunger Initiative (IHI), an all-volunteer not-for-profit organization bringing together two dozen faith communities in the Indianapolis area who work together to end child and family hunger. Buy the recording on her website.

M. Ward at SXSW (Video)

Love ‘em for the accessibility they’ve supplied for many listeners to streaming music or doubt their advocacy for fair compensation of labels and artists, Spotify has fast become a force in the music industry. Thus, it is unsurprising to see them set up house at SXSW in Austin, painting a dwelling bright green and inviting artists over to jam. Below is M. Ward’s lanky acoustic session for ‘em.

Ljova’s Lost in Kino (CD Review)

Lost in Kino
Various Artists
Kapustnik Records CD

Probably most of us have sat through a film where the music seems to clash with the onscreen visuals; one that seems disconnected from the plot and just generally uninspired. Then there are film scores that, even without the movie playing, allow us to ‘see’ the scene; we’re transported. This is the kind of music one finds on Lost in Kino, the third CD release from the versatile Ljova. Violinist, violist, composer, and arranger Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin shares twenty-four musical sequences from film scores he composed in the years 2005-’11. Arranged programmatically to have a light music “A side” and a more serious “B side” (with the “obligatory” happy ending for a final “closing credits” cut), Lost in Kino draws upon many musical styles: all of them adroitly arranged and energetically performed by Ljova and a host of collaborators.

Ljova’s experience performing Eastern European folk music looms large. Romashka, a band devoted to the performance of Gypsy music, appears on a dozen of the CD’s selections and master cymbalomist Kalman Balogh provides a memorable guest turn on the track “Satul Dintre Noi.” Other styles represented include a country-inflected piece titled “Old Men,” with flourishes from banjo player Mike Savino, as well as a downright bluegrass hootenanny on “Pickle Porker Polka,” courtesy of Ljova fiddling alongside the alt-country band Tall Tall Trees. Asian music adorns the track “Doctor Wrong,” with guest appearances by my favorite pipa player, Wu Man, and shakuhachi player Kojir Umezaki. “The End (Baby you Got to Get Up)” is a rousing way to close the proceedings, featuring boisterous singing from Sarah Natochenny and a chamber orchestra sized cohort of musicians.

Forget those film scores supplied by racks of sythesizers. Ljova has got the right idea: capture the scene using live musicians as actors in sound. As the principal performer and as a composer/arranger, he shines on Lost in Kino. Recommended.