GREAT ALBUMS series

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school dadysJazz fusion is fun music to listen when you’re working. There’s enough of a groove to keep your feet moving, and on the best albums a lot to keep your brain working, too. A lot of it was controversial at the time, and for some jazz fans it still is.

Some of our favorites are really tough albums to find today, while others which were big-sellers in the seventies are fairly common (you won’t have to dig too long to find most of the Crusaders albums, for instance, or the Weather Report albums after Mysterious Traveler). Some of the rare ones are in print today as reissues — for instance we’ve been stocking reissues of Miles Davis’ On the Corner for a while and it’s been very popular.

Fusion is, in so many ways, beset on all sides by irony — the subgenre so inspired by commercial pressures created some of the most “un-commercial” jazz of its era. Miles Davis’ response to the popularity of Sly & the Family Stones’ funk-heavy act led to hard-sell albums like On the Corner, (which had as much to do with musique concrete and avant-garde classical music as it did with jazz or funk) while at the same time Herbie Hancock response was the highly commercial and popular Headhunters. And really, who doesn’t love “Chameleon”?! People who don’t like jazz fusion dismiss it as simplistic or sell-out-istic, but some of the most innovative and talented soloists of their generation recorded fusion records that were complex and anything but commercial.

Stanley Clarke is certainly regarded as a living legend, one of the best bassists performing today, whether acoustic or electric. He really belongs to the second wave of jazz fusion albums, having cut his teeth playing double bass with an astonishing array of bop legends like Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon and Art Blakey. By the time he recorded School Days (which was his fourth album as a leader) his recordings were almost entirely on electric bass — for many he was best-known as a co-founder of Return to Forever, even though his previous three albums were pretty awesome.

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“School Days”

School Days is one of the most infectiously fun records to come out of 70s fusion — the title track alone blends the funk-infused fun side of fusion with its expansive potential. There is more variety on this album than other sort-of comparable albums like the Crusaders’ Chain Reaction, because Clarke varies the backing from track to track. David Sancious, as the most constant player, alternates between organ, electric piano and mini-moog, and guitarist Raymond Gomez plays mostly backing parts to Clarke’s lead (kind of the opposite of the guitar/bass relationship on most records). George Duke and Billy Cobham join just a single track, “Life is Just a Game,” on the second side and Clarke, on acoustic bass, jams with John McLaughlin in the quiet mini-masterpiece “Desert Song.”

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“Desert Song”

On a lesser album “Desert Song” would stand out — it might fit more handily on a record like the Sam Rivers/Dave Holland duos or even a Leo Kottke album from the same era. Clarke reminds listeners he can still pluck and bow a string bass with sensitivity and drive, and McLaughlin offers a hypnotic accompaniment. His part was was sampled on the 1995 Courtney Pine album Modern Day Jazz Stories. — another album that explores new jazz territory by fusing turntable work with conventional jazz performers.

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“In the Garden of Eden” by Courtney Pine

One thing that always bugged us about School Days is the cans of paint on the cover — what’s he going to paint with the yellow one?

“Hot Fun,” with Steve Gadd on drums, take Clarke’s bass to the dancefloor and the last track, “Life is Just a Game” hints at the Stanley Clarke/George Duke collaborations to come. Our favorite groove on the album is “The Dancer” from the first side, which features Gerry Brown and Milton Holland on drums and percussion and a couple solos on the mini-moog by Sancious — Clarke plays a solo on the piccolo bass, too.

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“The Dancer”

The reason we’ve been jamming to School Days for the past week is that Stanley Clarke is currently touring the entire album — he’ll be performing next Thursday night at the Cedar Cultural Center (details here). The program will also include tracks from his epic catalog of music; we’ll bet a couple songs from his various collaborations with George Duke will be in there, as a tribute to the great fusion keyboardist who passed away last summer. We’d also enjoy hearing a couple of the spacier tracks from Clarke’s 1973 debut as a leader, Children of the Future.

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There’s Martin Devaney, all twenty-one years of him, with a wry nod to Nashville SkylineTony Nelson took this and several other photographs of him for the City Pages‘ first feature (here) on the fella who went on to become the unofficial Mayor of St. Paul and put a half-dozen discs between himself and Whatever that Is. The story was all “new Dylan,” the sort of thing people have been writing about other “new Dylans” since the Boss or before, aptly applied as it is here– find a copy of that debut disc and you’ll hear what I mean. Devaney’s homages to our favorite son from Hibbing are described as “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”

Devaney claims his mother once mistook a framed copy of New Morning for a new photograph of him, and I have to admit I myself saw Devaney in this picture inside the latest “Bootleg Series” collection, Another Self Portrait. It’s not just the fuzzy hair, it’s the way he holds himself.

dylan another self portrait

And last month I found myself writing City Pages’ second feature on Devaney (in today’s paper and online here), listening to Another Self Portrait while talking to my old friend about twelve years of making music, and of his desire to leave his latest album, House of Rust, somewhere in the past. Abandoned as it is even on the eve of its release, Devaney’s sixth full-length album is his most individual, singular work yet — the first, he tells me, where you can’t play the “what was Martin listening to” guessing game. It is as distinctly Devaney as Dylan’s enigmatic Self Portrait was entirely his own, though House of Rust is unlikely to be greeted with the same widespread disdain (“What is this shit?” asked Rolling Stone in 1970). In fact, Devaney has never sounded more at ease, turning phrases with a casual confidence, and — as always — “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”

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“You Can’t Win”

House of Rust was recorded way out at Rich Mattson’s retreat-like Sparta Sound with, he says, friends and girlfriends and dogs all along for the ride. It was the fall of 2011. The entire project coming together with the ease of a lazy breeze through changing leaves — “My girlfriend asked when I had written all these songs,” he explains, because they seem to have come together suddenly, smoothly, in incidental moments like waiting for her to get dressed for an evening out. Another — which became the album’s closer — started with some chords he’d been strumming for years and a couple lines he sang while waiting for fiddler Jake Hyer to head out to a gig. Short and simple, “Fountain Cave” refers to Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant’s 1838 settlement on the Mississippi River — yep folks, the founding of the city of St Paul — as much as to the tranquility of Devaney’s life that fall.

Maybe there was a prescience to the album that seemed to flow so naturally — I wrote as much in a passage I ultimately cut from today’s story in the City Pages. House of Rust‘s lazy opening sets a slightly ominous tone. Devaney described the song as a continuation of “Nashville by Nightfall,” which closed his 2010 album The West End. An amalgam of real and fictional settings on either end of I-35, “Magnolia Diner” hints at a “couple in the break-up booth” with, you guessed it, a sweet, familiar clumsiness.

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“Magnolia Diner”

House of Rust may have been his most domestic work to date — distinguished by “Crosby Block,” a Pogues-y paean to the Prior Avenue apartment where his father’s family first lived when they came to America — but the feeling is tenuous, uneasy. Devaney describes the album as “a spiritual sister to West End,” but it’s more of a sequel, a second act that follows storylines to uncertain conclusions. The outlaws of a song like “Wise Blood” have become bitter — “Sometimes you get the feeling that you can’t win,” Devaney snarls in House of Rust‘s sharpest chorus. He takes an even darker tone near the end of the album with “Keep it Dark,” an intense performance where our “familiar, sweet and clumsy” Mayor sounds less like the Dylan of Self Portrait and more like the Dylan of Time Out of Mind.

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“Keep it Dark”

Throughout these tracks are tightly constrained in arrangements that — contrary to Devaney’s live performances of the past year — are hardly, if ever, guitar-driven. Despite the excellent musicians contributing to House of Rust (including our favorite fiddler Jake Hyer of Pocahontas County, Ol’ Yeller’s Mattson, and a great piano player I feel like I shouldn’t name) there aren’t any extended solos on the album. Taken as a whole it’s a rich ensemble piece, consistently held together by the rhythm section of Steve Murray (bass) and Mick Wirtz (drums). These guys back Devaney’s rockers with jaunty confidence, and the laid back tracks like “Magnolia Diner” with quiet grandeur. Having a backing band this good is one of the benefits of working in the same city for twelve years.

Elsewhere the restless souls of West End return simply resigned, as in the last track on side one, which pulls the album’s conflicting comfort and unease together. In the City Pages story I compared “Weddings and Funerals” to my personal favorite Dylan song, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” because it captures the very same weariness. Devaney delivers some of his best character descriptions in a third verse, and he parts with the past with peace. “It could be one of us next time around,” he sings in the voice panned by one local critic (I won’t say who because I love his writing) as “flat.” I prefer to think of it as “familiar, sweet and clumsy.”

So the short version is that the relationship which had buoyed his life and music two years ago came to an end. I could find you a picture of them singing together at the first Record Store Day we hosted — in the basement of the old Hymie’s. I could write about how worried I was about him the night we ran into each other at the Triple Rock and he said his life was coming apart at the seams, or that it got worse from there. I felt uncomfortable not crediting her performance in the duet “Lowertown,” in the story I wrote about the album, because it was really awesome. There just didn’t seem to be a nice way to say it. It all seems too close to the bone. Devaney says he’s going to release the record and then put it all behind him — but we all know you don’t walk away from the past so easily, especially in St. Paul. House of Rust nearly became Devaney’s own Basement Tapes, and I for one am glad it didn’t. From the first time I heard “Magnolia Diner” in Devaney’s car behind the Turf Club, I argued against shit-canning something so “familiar, sweet and clumsy.” After all, we’d end up visiting it someday in the Martin Devaney “Bootleg Series.”

You can’t just walk away from your past — you’re going to run into it at a funeral, or a wedding, or at the Triple Rock. Somewhere, anyway. If nothing else you’re going to see it every time you look in the mirror — it made you the person you are. This became the unintentional theme of House of Rust, a great album nearly unheard. And since it’s all but certainly never going to be played again, let’s have a listen to “Lowertown.” Thanks for reading — hope to see you at the release show at the Cedar Cultural Center on Friday night (Ol’ Yeller and the Cactus Blossoms will open).

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“Lowertown”

Some years ago I was told that the french composer Oliver Messiaen was an ornithologist, and that he often worked his own transcriptions of bird songs into the chamber music he composed. Inspired by this I walked over to Hymie’s – I was not yet in any way employed there – and bought this album, based on its trippy artwork on compelling title.

quartet for the end of time tashi

I listened to his Quartet for the End of Time one time but didn’t read the liner notes. The unusual clarinet part satisfied my curiosity, and  The recurring “Louange a l’eternite de Jesus (Praise to the Immortality of Jesus)” caught my ear, but I only played the record once, as it quickly became buried in my disorganized collection.

messiaen quartet for the end of time angelFast forward to last week, when this recording of the same piece on Angel’s “Music of Today” imprint came into the shop. Again, the jacket caught my eye, but this time for different reasons. Somebody’s making a pretty bold choice when there’s a swastika on an album cover, after all. It depends somewhat on the context — Thelonious Monk’s Underground, for instance, portrays the pianist as a freedom fighter of the French resistance, and so the Nazi flag draped over a radiator represents the opposite of an association.

Old albums on Angel do not credit an art director or cover artist, but they often have very interesting covers (this is one of the things I have always enjoyed about the classical section of any record shop). The fractured swastika may represent the broken world created by Nazism, or maybe it’s ultimate failure to unite the people. I can’t say, being an even less qualified as an art critic than I am a music critic.

Here is the story behind Messiaen’s Quartuor pour la fin du temps: Messiaen was thirty-one years old when Germany invaded France, but his poor eyesight kept him from the front line. Instead he served in the medical auxiliary, but was nonetheless captured by Nazi troops in Verdun. While held at Stalag 8-A in lower Silesia (in what is today Poland), Messiaen met several musicians, including a clarinetist, a violinist and a cellist. He composed a trio for them which was eventually expanded to include a piano. That work, his Quartet for the End of Time, was debuted on January 15th, 1941 before an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners.

Messiaen later recalled his impromptu audience with great fondness. “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension,” he wrote. Hollywood (or the writers of Hogan’s Heroes) could never dream up a story so extraordinary and inspirational. Even if the Quartet were never again performed, it’s debut in a POW camp was a powerful condemnation of Nazism.

Messiaen’s manuscript was accompanied by a preface by the composer, and a paragraph explaining each of the eight movements. Messiaen, a devout Catholic, explains that the work was “directly inspired” by this passage, the opening verses of the tenth chapter of the Book of Revelations:

And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….

Apocalypticism aside, the title may also refer to the compositions unique approach to musical time. “Particular rhythms existing outside the measure contribute importantly toward the banishment of temporalities,” he writes in his original score. Many passages expand and contract conventional time, and the unique piano arrangement in the first movement, “Liturgie de cristal (Crystal Liturgy)” has an ethereal and unbound quality. It’s methodical repetition of a simple seventeen tone phrase through nearly two dozen chords is hypnotic.

The debut performance at Stalag 8-A relied on any instruments that could be found. The Quartet has since been recorded a number of times under much more comfortable circumstances. The album I first bought was by the Tashi Quartet – Ida Kavafian, Peter Serkin, Fred Sherry and Richard Stoltzman – a group originally formed for the purpose of recording Messiaen’s piece. Over the next several years they recorded other chamber works ranging from Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet to new pieces by Toru Takemitsu. They re-formed years later to celebrate what would have been Messiaen’s 100th birthday with a tour. Their 1977 recording for RCA/Victor’s Red Seal imprint is the one you’ll hear below.

Messiaen was released from the camp not long after the performance, and he returned to France where he took a prominent position at the Paris Conservatory. I have always found it hard to imagine a place like the Paris Conservatory going about its day-to-day business during the war, but indeed that’s what they did. Messiaen’s students in the coming years would include Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and he continued to compose as well. It was in the sixties that he more actively began to incorporate bird songs into his work, as I had been told years ago by a friend. A 1953 piece Réveil des oiseaux consists almost entirely of bird songs heard in the dawning of a day in a region of the western Alps called the Jura Mountains.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Messiaen’s compositions is his consistent use of palindromic rhythms. These, combined with extended harmonic sequences, would theoretically (if played indefinitely) exhaust all potential variations, and return to their relative starting points. The interaction between the cello and the piano in “Liturgie de cristal” is one example of this concept. In presenting only a portion of this elaborate and epic interaction, Messiaen is providing the listener only a glimpse of something beyond the scale of a human lifetime. What we hear performed is a tiny snapshot of something eternal.

We live again in times of great apocalyptic fervor, yet we seem to be turning away from the natural world in circumstances which drove artists like Messiaen into its refuge. Ironically, the most extreme example of this, and the most famous quartet of recent decades, was composed by a former student of Messiaen. Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett (Helicopter String Quartet) calls for the performers to be in walk outside after their introduction and ride in four separate helicopters above the hall for the duration of their performance. The entire spectacle is presented to the audience on a series of video monitors.

If you’re thinking that sounds absurd, I submit it is no more so than the way we separate ourselves at every chance by listening to our own private music on earbuds. We buy our groceries at self-checkout counters and nearly everything else online. For many of us in the only thing more actively avoided than human contact is interaction with the natural environment. There are many artists like Messiaen, to be sure, whose work draws upon faith and deeper relationships (His Quartet for the End of Time) was written to be performed by friends he had made of fellow POWs, for instance). When I think of how musicians like this must fit into an increasingly commercial and alienating industry, I recall the ending of Heinrich Böll’s novel about post-war Germany, The Clown. Hans (a clown “who collects moments”) finds himself with nowhere to turn. In the end he takes a guitar to the train station and plays as people drop change into his case.

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Liturgie de cristal
(Liturgy of crystal)

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Vocalise, pour l’ange qui announce la fin de Temps
(Vocalise, for the angel who announces the end of Time)

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Abime des oiseaux
(Abyss of the birds)

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Intermede
(Interlude)

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Louange a l’eternite de Jesus
(Praise to the eternity of Jesus)

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Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes
(Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets)

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Fouillis d’arcs-en-ciel, pour l’ange qui annonce la fin du Temps
(Cluster of rainbows, for the angel who announces the end of Times)

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Louange a l’immortalite de Jesus
(Praise to the immortality of Jesus)

So it’s come to this – we have been posting our favorite local LPs of 2012 for the past couple weeks, along with a separate list of our favorite short releases. Included on that second list is the Places EP by Pennyroyal which is, yes, our favorite local record of the year. This link will take you to their bandcamp page where you can hear it and then buy a copy and then ask them when their next show will be. We hope you’ll click on it and do all those things.

Compiling our list of favorite records was more difficult than ever this year – there were so many too choose from and the quality of local music was consistently very high this year. We recalled an editorial in the Star Tribune by some woefully peripheral “Prairie Home Companion” contributor that argued we in the Twin Cities take too much pride in our music scene, and we couldn’t disagree with the author more.

The Twin Cities has an extraordinary legacy in popular music dating back decades – the Secret Stash compilation of 60s/70s funk and soul released this year is just a slice of that legacy. The enormous diversity of record stores and venues (yes, some smaller than the *yawn* Fitzgerald Theater) is further evidence. Instead of “dial[ing] down that pride” we here at Hymie’s think we oughta dial it up!

Our “top 10″ list is below, followed by our favorite album of the year, Songs to Love and Die to by Southside Desire. Sometime soon we’ll post a few tracks from other albums just as good as these ten – including this year’s debuts by BNLX and the Prissy Clerks, the long-awaited realization of El Le Faunt and his Traveling Circus on vinyl, and albums that we just discovered a little too late this year, like Chastity Brown’s Back Road Highways and Charlie Parr’s just-out Barnswallow.

Here are the records that spent an awful lot of time on our turntable (and in our cd player) at the record shop in 2012:

Unclouded Day by Adam Keisling
Cos – The Original Motion Picture Score by Grolar Bears
Witching & Divining by Swallows
Story of the Sea
Magic Castles
Colored Emotions by Night Moves
For my Mother by Big Cats
III by Is/Is
Mississippi Roll by Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers
Songs to Love and Die to by Southside Desire

And here is our favorite record of 2012. We’ve already worn out our copy, which gets almost daily play here in the shop and has been brought out to several venues for a spin DJ nights and between sets at shows  – even at a wedding!

Craig Drehmel – known to many as “Pabst Craig” – is a pretty astute critic of pop music, although he’d probably deny it. While Marvel Devitt and her incredible new band Southside Desire were performing here in the shop he said to us, “There’s going to be a lot of bands that sound like this next year.” He’s probably right, but we’re pretty confident another band isn’t going to “hit the spot” in the same way Southside Desire did with their album, Songs to Love and Die To.

So here’s the record you’ve been looking for ever since you started asking why nobody writes good songs anymore; why bands don’t cook like the Stax rhythm section anymore; and why digital recordings might sound better on the surface but miss something your old 45s have.

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“When I Was Your Queen”

You might have heard “When I Was Your Queen” on the Current recently. It’s pretty awesome that a self-released and self-promoted band is getting good airplay, and it’s a testament to how good the song is, too! Southside Desire bills themselves as “Femme-fronted Northern Soul … from the littered alleyways from Southside Minneapolis,” but they derive their sound from a wider range of music than the overused misnomer “Northern soul” (a term, faithful reader, you know Hymie’s already despises – it’s a term used by people in a different country to refer to a uniquely American form of music, which we should be proud of and which were happy calling simply “Soul” for decades) – Devitt and her husband Trevor E (an over-booked member of about a half-dozen bands) both grew up watching parents in Strange Friends, whose first disc, Fireside Recordings, we happened by and listened to this week by strange coincidence. Devitt’s back-up singers, Gloria Iacono and Jenny Hatfield Blonk, are old friends. Her taut rhythm section features husband Trevor E, Paul Puleo and Damien Tank, have all played together in various settings for years.

The result is a band that works together intuitively, and one of very few bands that could have recorded an album like Songs to Love and Die To, which has a spontaneity and drive that deserves our earlier comparison to the legendary Stax rhythm section. Fitting, too, because the album was recorded by Mike Wisti in his mysteriously magical analog studio, Albatross. The band was recorded in one room, leading to a lot of bleed between tracks and forcing them to hone their performances down to clean, tight arrangements. The result has the sort of sound you could get lost in, the kind of album you could climb inside of and stretch your arms. You can hear it all here, by the way. You could even, while you’re there, buy a copy of it direct from the band and it will be delivered to your door (though probably not in time for Christmas).

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“Tired of Worrying About You”

Rhythm section and rich backing vocals aside, Songs to Love and Die To, is really built around the fabulous voice and captivating songs of Marvel Devitt – a genuine soul diva one moment, rock and roll star the next. Some tracks are hilariously confrontational (“The Will,” “Tired of Worrying About You”) and others achingly personal (“Keepsake,” “The Ballad of A Flickering Flame”). The original songs and the band’s great arrangements would be lost without her performances, as much Mary J. Blige or Lauryn Hill as Dusty in Memphis or Lady Soul. Throughout the album, even on the torchy ballads, Devitt is a really fun singer to listen to.

Songs to Love and Die To is the sort of music that made us love records in the first place – each track jumps out at you like the awesome song you’d been waiting to hear on the radio while you’re stuck at work hearing “Baracuda” for the goddamn millionth time. And there’s something very fun about the beginning and the end – Trevor E plays the same bass line at the end of “The Ballad of a Flickering Flame” as he did at the beginning of the album (“The Will”). The album ends just as it started, or as Marvel sings in another track…

“Thank you, come again.”

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“Keepsake”

[Here's a strange fact: the reason Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music is a rare item on 8-Track is because there is no gap between the programs, so you can play it continuously. We don't really understand who would want to do that (but the guy who bought a copy here and explained this to us was REALLY EXCITED). We'd rather create an endless loop of Southside Desire. Hopefully they're planning an 8-Track reissue.]

Could Songs to Love and Die To have been better recorded? Maybe. Their entirely analog approach doesn’t appeal to everyone – we personally prefer the implicit intensity that comes from a more “live” sound of a band recorded in one room on actual tape, but there’s certainly record collectors who don’t agree. Could the jacket be a good deal fancier? Certainly. Now the really heavy question: Could the music be any better? It’s hard to imagine how they could. And if you’re buying records for the “sonics” or the fidelity you’re going to be disappointed by this one – you’ll probably want to stick with albums that sound like Genesis, or worse, albums by Genesis.

Songs to Love and Die To has an endearing DIY aesthetic, and even though it’s (thankfully) pretty removed from punk rock, it has the same “back to basics” appeal. Here’s an album to make you laugh and cry, and give you reason to shadowbox or dance or bounce around because it’s fun to listen to. Or if you just need to listen to a friend pour her heart out for a little while, here you go. You’re going to love this record.

 

Starting last Monday we’ve been posting our top ten favorite local albums of 2012 – you can read our first six choices by scrolling down. You’ll also find Saturday’s post, a round-up of our favorite local EPs (which includes our favorite local release of the year.

The past twelve months saw so much great Minnesota music that this list has been re-written and revised a dozen times since we started working on it after Thanksgiving. Without a doubt there are ten more LPs or CDs of new music by Minnesota artists worth the same recognition.

This list represents not just ten of the best local albums of the year, but ten albums we listened to here in the shop A LOT. The comments section on our site hasn’t been working lately because of the abundance of spam comments, but we welcome your additions to our “top 10″ list. Send ‘em to dave@hymiesrecords.com, and if there’s a few gems we missed we’ll add them to our list next week!

Of all the records on our “top ten” list of local favorites, Big Cats‘ For my Mother is one of the few that has been played the most here in the shop. The album bursts out of the stereo from its dreamlike opening through the following nine instrumental jams. It is a surprisingly rich work based on the relatively simple sampling aesthetic, filled with the fervor of live music and the hypnotic appeal of classic hip hop. It keeps our feet moving while we’re working around the shop, and as an instrumental album it keeps our imaginations running.

for my mother

The album was recorded in honor of Spencer Wirth-Davis’ mother, who passed away after battling ovarian cancer. Wirth-Davis was awarded a composer’s fellowship grant from the McKnight Foundation – an unprecedented accomplishment for a hip hop producer – and set out to create the sort of music his mother enjoyed listening to when she was undergoing grueling (and boring) chemo treatments. To this end he recorded more than ten hours of Motown-style classic R&B with a diverse group of musicians and sampled the sessions. The end result is a beautiful tribute to the person who encouraged Wirth-Davis to play music (and as an additional tribute he has donated 75% of the album’s proceeds to Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance, who you can learn about here).

The extraordinary group of musicians even performed the final Big Cats arrangements at an October release show at the Cedar Cultural Center, one of the most memorable live performances here in town this fall. Performers with rock, hip hop, jazz and classical backgrounds came together to realize Wirth-Davis’ dream. This incredible, moving performance was captured on video.

Aside from his successful solo album, 2012 was a watershed year for With-Davis, who as Big Cats produced sweet beats for K. Raydio and City Pages “Picked to Click” winners the Chalice, as well as entire albums with longtime collaborators the Tribe and Guante. One might be underwhelmed by his quiet solo project if it weren’t a work of such unusual grace and depth. It is, after all, amazing how much can be expressed without words (or at least with very few of them).

As noted up above, there is a dreamlike quality to the first track, “One” (the album’s ten tracks, by the way, are simply titled in numeric order, adding to the album’s open, zen-like feeling) The keyboards and vocals are effervescent and airy, while the beats are firmly grounded. This introduces an ongoing conflict between the keys (and later the saxophones and guitars) and the beats that move the music, as though the light melodies have to be held down.

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“One”

Wirth-Davis spent years performing classical music on the string bass, and his experience comes across in several arrangements, like the dramatic string arrangement in “Seven.” He also has a musician’s sense for finding and using keyboard parts along with string arrangements, as in the album’s shortest track, “Five.” The piano here has the same beautiful sound as some of the gritty sampled piano parts he used on Space, his most recent album with the Tribe.

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“Seven”

There has already been one remix of a track from For my Mother (here) and we’re fairly certain there will be many more. As it is this album really bursts out of the turntable with a warmth and energy that one can’t easily put into words. We hope hip hop producers take heed of Big Cats’ distinctive, laid back sound but we doubt any one else could have made a record like For my Mother. Not only a tribute, it captures Wirth-Davis’ genuinely good-natured personality and his ability to collaborate with musicians. It seems likely that his work in the future will only get better.

(You can hear the entire album on the Big Cats bandcamp page here.)

One of the best perks of running a record store is that sometimes I come into the shop and find an awesome new album. Here’s one that greeted me a couple weeks after I read a great story in City Pages about the band (here it is) and had been meaning to find a copy.  Rob van Alstyne really captured Story of the Sea’s confident, easy-going attitude in his interview. “I’d rather work my day job and get to do what I love at night than be in a [commercially successful band] making something I felt no connection to,” says drummer Ian Prince, at the end. Fortunately, Prince, his brother Adam and John McEwan have kept at their labor of love, releasing for their third album an audacious double disc of instrumentals and outtakes, and fortunately for me there was a copy waiting on my desk.

Story of the Sea presents an the instrumental program on the first disc and a White Album-like series of varied but complimentary tracks on the second disc. Like yesterday’s pick, the awesome Magic Castles double LP, this self-titled semi-retrospective features tracks recorded years apart sequenced together to have a cohesive ‘album’ feel.

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“E Major Tom”

After a forty-second noisy introduction (recorded “on a boombox circa 2002″) the first disc really takes off with “E Major Tom,” a grungy rocker that moves forward like a perpetual motion machine driven by Dinosaur Jr. There’s still a lot of 90s rock in Story of the Sea’s sound – Pixies, Nirvana, even a little Fugazi a la Instrument (in “Argo Pelter”) – but they’ve picked up a capacity to create compelling vamps since 2008′s Lunar Co. LP. In spite of the variety of recording sources (ranging from the boombox for “Launching” to a spare bedroom and one actual recording studio) Ian Prince’s drums sound great throughout, just as they did on Lunar Co. The simpler, instrumental arrangements push him to the forefront.

One of Prince’s best contributions to the double disc is the hits-the-spot combination of live drums with a machine track on “It’s Real Science” – absolutely everything about this track comes together perfectly.

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“It’s Real Science”

The instrumental disc also features a huge range of guitar and bass work, from the suspenseful “Coffin Dodger” and “El Nuevo” to the evocative and beautiful “Unicorn,” before closing with the experimental, Man or Astroman?-ish “Landing.” You can stream the entire album on Story of the Sea’s bandcamp page here.

The first disc of Story of the Sea calls to mind a claim made by one of the Twin Cities’ most impressive instrumental acts, Wizards Are Real, that instrumental music doesn’t need to be “melodramatic, bombastic or apocalyptic.” It should just be good.

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“West Bank”

The second disc is a career-spanning compilation of alternate recordings and unissued tracks, including rockin’ gems like “West Bank” and the anthematic “Better Off” as well as a couple of acoustic tracks recorded this year, notable a re-recording of “Future Subterfuge” from the band’s debut, Enjoying Fire. Where the band on that 2004 disc was all tenacity and drive, the remake sounds tenacious but no longer needing approval.

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“Future Subterfuge Alt”

Story of the Sea had a sense of “next big thing” about them as the 00′s wound down, especially with the release of the radio-friendly Lunar Co. There’s a sense of resignation to the self-titled . Commercially doomed, maybe – Nobody expects a mostly-instrumental album to propel them to stardom. Story of the Sea is an artistic triumph. Few bands would find so many gems on the floor of their practice space.

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“Better Off”

Mellow psychedelic rockers Magic Castles were just featured on the Hymie’s blog a few weeks ago, but that was because I accidentally posted a draft of this “top ten” piece about their album instead of clicking “save.” I guess the music was so good I was distracted. Some of what follows is a “re-run” but the songs themselves are surely worth another listen.

Magic Castles is a sort of early retrospective on the bands’ brief career of relatively obscure releases. The dreamlike, hypnotic “Songs of the Forest” was the title track of the band’s sole release for the awesome cassette-based label, Moon Glyph (who were rightfully named the Twin Cities’ best record label by City Pages in 2012), and I assume a number of the remaining tracks come from Magic Castles’ earlier, self-released albums (the band also appeared on Moon Glyph’s awesome, entertaining compilation LP, Regolith Vol. 1, in 2010, but that track is not here).

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(“Songs of the Forest”)

The double LP is consistently reminiscent of my favorite 60s psychedelic albums without becoming bogged down in outdated styles or weird instruments. In fact, most of the album is the standard instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums and farfisa or hammond organ. Okay, there’s a trombone on one track, but as another local psych rock band (Panther Ray) proved earlier this year, trombones are fun!

“Now I’m a Little Cold” was my favorite track the first time I heard this album – it could have come off an obscure record like the teenage psych trip Suddenly One Summer by J.K. & Co, and the wispy vocals throughout could have been lifted from the Gandolf album (both rare records recently revived by reissue label Sundazed). In a couple of other tracks Magic Castles could be compared to the  70s Beach Boys albums we were listening to on the blog this fall (here‘s one of those posts).

Not everything feels like it’s from four decades ago – “Imaginary Friends” and “10 100″ are in the same style as Lambchop’s lush chamber pop, and “Emery Memories” could be any of a number of contemporary garage pop bands, most of whom spend a lot of time and money trying to sound this genuinely lo-fi.

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(“Imaginary Friends”)

I didn’t keep a copy of the Magic Castles tape when we had it in stock and I wish I had. I always take for granted that we won’t sell out of the Moon Glyph cassettes and then when I want to listen to them they’re not only sold out, but out of print! There were only 100 copies so I guess its not easy to find or likely to just turn up around here. Some types of music are just destined to become fleeting and rare, I guess (Fact: People take tapes for granted but they treasure LPs. Tapes are sadly only a little bit above CD-Rs).

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“Big Sur”

The sort-of garage-y, sort-of lush and Beach Boys-y “Big Sur” slowly became my favorite track after I’d listened to the album several times – I think it’s because of the second half, which starts with a driving drum and bass riff and grows, keeping my feet moving along the way.

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“Ballad of the Golden Bird”

But the track that captured the attention of A Records, who released the double LP, was “Ballad of the Golden Bird.” That starts with a long, spooky vocal introduction (a minute and a half altogether) before jumping into the band’s brightest, catchiest melody. It’s sort of amazing to imagine one song bringing such a great opportunity as having a mid-sized label make and distribute your album and the support that comes with that (A Records is the pet label run by the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe). Magic Castles makes great use of that opportunity.

If the band has the opportunity to produce a second A-distributed album, it will be very exciting to see what they do starting from scratch with new songs and perhaps a single series of recording sessions. As with the first few records on our “top 10 favorites” of 2012, this one leaves me eager to hear what’s next.

We’re posting our favorite local albums of 2012, adding a new one to the blog each day until we reach #1 next Friday. The past twelve months saw so much great Minnesota music that this list has been re-written and revised a dozen times since we started working on it after Thanksgiving. Without a doubt there are ten more LPs or CDs of new music by Minnesota artists worth the same recognition.

This list represents not just ten of the best local albums of the year, but ten albums we listened to here in the shop A LOT. The comments section on our site hasn’t been working lately because of the abundance of spam comments, but we welcome your additions to our “top 10″ list. Send ‘em to dave@hymiesrecords.com, and if there’s a few additions we’ll add them to our list next week!

Here is an album we praised on the Hymie’s blog after its release (here), and a band long ago adopted as a local favorite. Swallows are Minneapolis music veterans,  when it was a band long ago adopted as a favorite. This band is good enough to have survived being called Swallows for more than four years, and on Witching & Divining, they’re a band that’s settled successfully into an impressive, original style.

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“Roam”

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“The Winnowing”

 

A little prog rock, a little classical, a little old Sabbath-type metal, a little Old World folk. Here’s an album with the same feeling as a 70s classic and the same sound as a 90s epic. It has the best and worst features of each, and reminds this record nerd how much fun the worst can be. Even the overwrought, melodramatic moments on Witching & Divining are invigorating. The album is an amazing alchemy of roots music, often dark but never depressing and consistently exciting.

Our review linked above mentioned the album’s production as an improvement over the band’s previous releases, but it’s worth mentioning again. Swallows produced the album themselves (with assistance from Randy Gildersleeve at GilderSound in Forest Lake) – capturing their unconventional instrumentation very smoothly. Throughout the album cellos and guitars work together, rather than playing over each other; you really get a sense of the collaborative sound in “Roam.” Drummer Justin DeLeon’s integral performance is captured perfectly, and it is often the drums that make the arrangements so exciting. This is an album that sounds great on vinyl and on a big stereo. “Roam” and the albums bombastic opener “Long Hard Road,” for instance, are fun songs to hear loud.

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“Long Hard Road”

If Noiseland produces another compilation LP like last year’s American Buffalo to capture the great-sounding albums they’ve made for local artists, I hope they will consider including a track from Witiching & Divining.

Also worth a moments’ consideration is just how good this band sounded at their release show in October. Swallows, like a lot of local bands, suffers because their sound relies on a member who lives out of town.Tyson Allison’s multi-instrumental contributions are integral to the band’s sound, especially in the songs from this new album.

The band perfectly frames Crandall’s rootsy lyrics and give rise to his moving performance. Witching & Divining never really feels like it’s his show but he is often at its heart – he is handily compared to Tom Waits at times, although the songs have an older, folkier feel. In places Crandall croons like a 70s arena rocker, and he certainly has the passion and emotion of Robert Plant or Roger Daltry, if not the range. He and cellist Aaron Kerr have been playing together for around a decade, but neither has sounded as good on record as they do here.

The Star Tribune compared the album’s sound to “autumnal weather” but as we’ve passed into winter it seems less to me about a season and more about our relationship to the natural world around us. It seems like an album you should listen to in the woods, but I guess it would be a lot of work to drag your stereo out there.

We’re posting our favorite local albums of 2012, adding a new one to the blog each day until we reach #1 next Friday. The past twelve months saw so much great Minnesota music that this list has been re-written and revised a dozen times since we started working on it after Thanksgiving. Without a doubt there are ten more LPs or CDs of new music by Minnesota artists worth the same recognition.

This list represents not just ten of the best local albums of the year, but ten albums we listened to here in the shop A LOT. The comments section on our site hasn’t been working lately because of the abundance of spam comments, but we welcome your additions to our “top 10″ list. Send ‘em to dave@hymiesrecords.com, and if there’s a few additions we’ll add them to our list next week!

“You can’t make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire, all you’re doing is recording it.”
-Art Buchwald

When I first heard about this project from a mutual friend I didn’t expect we’d ever see the actual record – after all people come into the shop with all kinds of wild-eyed schemes and dreams, and this one sounded entirely too complicated to reach any kind of completion. A soundtrack? Is there a movie? No, just a trailer, but the soundtrack is real. And there’s fifteen or twenty people playing on it, and it’s going to sound like a 70s blaxploitation score. Impossible.

 

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“Dr. Afwho’s Strange Adventure”*

But producer and arranger Jonathan Kramer finished the project and the album he made is really fun for a lot of reasons. It’s recorded in an unusual way, it’s an instrumental album with great performances, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Using a portable recording studio he called “the suitcase” Kramer captured the talents of a total of nineteen young local musicians, recording in practice spaces, auditoriums and churches. Kramer and keyboardist David Afdahl wrote choral and string arrangements and several artists turned in remarkable performances – notably Owen Tucker, saxophone and Andrew Myers, percussion.

Cos claims itself “pay[ing] tribute to the scores of early 70s Blaxploitation movies,” but often crosses from tribute into satire. Bernard Rogers’  melodramatic spoken role and the sometimes bombastic arrangements feel very much like a lampooning of the genre, while at other times Cos sounds like an awesome, unheard sequel (Son of Son of Shaft, perhaps? Cos and the Casino of Gold?). Not as good as the original, but at least it’s something. It’s hard enough to love movie soundtracks (there are woefully fewer awesome records in the soundtrack section than any other), it’s harder to find fun ones anymore. Here’s a fun one that’s as much Quincy Jones as you’re going to find in a movie score anymore.

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“Turtle Revenge”

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“Peachy PG”

The mostly-instrumental album sounds very much like Shaft or Cotton Comes to Harlem, but doesn’t seem entirely grounded in the short-lived genre (Incidentally, we all learned how Shaft composer Isaac Hayes felt about satire a few years ago when he left South Park over concerns with the cartoon’s lampooning of scientology, even as previous religious satires didn’t offend him – here‘s a story from before Hayes’ passing in 2008). Myers’ creative percussive contributions suggest a wider range of 70s soul and funk influences in bands like Osibisa and Mandrill. Kramer’s production which uses various recording sources without stumbling, calls to mind the 60s albums and soundtracks produced by David Axelrod and Quincy Jones.

What distinguishes Cos where a similar project might fail is the enthusiasm behind it. Kramer offered a brief description of the recording process in his an interview (here) and reading it give the impression of a labor of love more than anything else.

Cos brings elements of pop, classical, funk and jazz to the table without really putting one to the fore above the others. As a result each performer is captured doing what they do best. Kramer tells us Grolar Bears have started recording their next project – a series of 7″ singles – and that he’d like to continue to play the same kind of music (they are sure to appear here on their Bandcamp page). We hope the new records will be as much fun as this.

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“Funk Brothers and Sisters”

We’re going to post our ten favorite local albums of 2012 starting today. The past twelve months saw so much great Minnesota music that this list has been re-written and revised a dozen times since we started working on it after Thanksgiving. Without a doubt there are ten more LPs or CDs of new music by Minnesota artists worth the same recognition.

This spring there was an editorial in the Star Tribune by some bitterly peripheral Prairie Home Companion contributor about how we in the Twin Cities are too enthusiastic about our music scene (you can read it here or you can just type “a few minutes with Andy Rooney” into google). There’s no way I could possibly disagree with the writer more – we should be proud of the diversity and originality of the music we can hear in the Twin Cities on any given night.

This list represents not just ten of the best local albums of the year, but ten albums we listened to here in the shop A LOT. The comments section on our site hasn’t been working lately because of the abundance of spam comments, but we welcome your additions to our “top 10″ list. Send ‘em to dave@hymiesrecords.com, and if there’s a few additions we’ll add them to our list!

Our choice for #10 is certainly one of the quietest local albums of 2012, even as it has a feeling of epic grandeur as timeless as the vintage Library of Congress photographs that grace its package. Adam Kiesling released Unclouded Day, his second album, with characteristic modesty in May and it created little stirring in the huge and fractious Twin Cities music scene. Fortunately for us a copy made its way to Hymie’s Records and became a mainstay in our CD changer until someone broke it (pretty sure it was this guy).

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“Black Dog Blues”

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“Down in North Carolina”

We wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of this disc, although if you’ve been around the record shop the second half of this year there’s a good chance you’ve listened to it. Kiesling is best known as a member of Pert Near Sandstone and Corpse Reviver (a group that isn’t named for the super-gross cognac cocktails old timers drink in the morning, but because they exclusively perform songs found on the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music). He performed here at Hymie’s on Record Store Day 2011 as part of the East Lake Pavers, a one-off band formed out of members of the Town Hall Stompers. You can see him perform on Thursday evenings this month at the Dubliner Pub with Corpse Reviver, and if you’re familiar with the fabled Anthology the band may be able to perform your request (we’d suggest following Adam’s facebook page if that’s sounds like fun). You certainly can’t go wrong with happy hour at the Dubliner.

Earlier this year I posted a link to the Bandcamp page for Unclouded Day and wrote: “If some dinosaur rocker released this as his ‘back to roots’ project Rolling Stone would be swooning over it. He’d tour and it would cost thirty-five bucks to see him.” I still think that’s true although after watching ticket prices this year for big-name artists I’ve come to the conclusion that thirty-five bucks is unrealistically cheap.

Unclouded Day identifies sixteen of the seventeen tracks as “traditionals” but further identifies source material old enough for an old timer like our own Papa John to consider it a classic.

The only non-traditional is Bob Dylan’s “Hollis Brown,” a ballad from The Times They Are a-Changin‘, its melody based on an English ballad popular in Appalachia called “Pretty Polly” (according to Michael Gray, author of the gigantic and surprisingly-no- boring Bob Dylan Encyclopedia). That song is not on the Folkways Anthology, but it was recorded for the label by veteran folk singer Doc Boggs around the same time, and Dylan performed it at the Gaslight in 1961. Bootleg collectors are probably familiar with that performance on “The First Gaslight Recording” (it is not on the officially released Gaslight performance that you had to buy at Starbucks). In a sense, even that track is part of an ongoing, evolving tradition.

On “Hollis Brown” Kiesling plays a banjo much as Boggs did in his recording of “Pretty Polly,” although the tempo is very different. In many ways it’s a recording that leapfrogs over Dylan into the past. That’s what makes Unclouded Day such an impressive contribution to the ongoing tradition. I’m proud to have met Adam Kiesling and sold him some records from time to time because one day a musician maybe not yet born will adopt “Stepstone” or “Get Up in the Morning” having heard his performance. The songs will survive and probably sound more alive and vibrant to me than “I Want to Hold Your Hand” ever will.

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“Old Parnell”

Unclouded Day is not a “solo” album in the specific sense that it features additional musicians Kiesling has performed with in all of these settings. Some of the most memorable moments are Kiesling’s performances on the banjo and guitar, often as not unaccompanied by even his own voice. Two of these – “Half Shaved” and “Get up in the Morning” – are taken at a uniquely leisurely pace. Kiesling’s credits the source material for his “Get Up” to “most likely Bugs Bunny” and it’s certainly removed from the jaunty “Git Up” as presented in the mid-nineteenth century Briggs Banjo Instructor. In Kiesling’s hands the melody is so achingly beautiful and well-played as to make me want to throw my banjo away, like the composers who simply quit trying after they heard Beethoven work (don’t worry, I didn’t – I’ll keep torturing the poor thing).

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“Half Shaved”

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“Get up in the Morning”

These fine tracks do not distract from the feeling of lively collaboration that distinguishes the disc. Meghan Dudle plays fiddle on a number of songs and hers is the only voice besides Kiesling’s that is heard – It is impossible to imagine this album without her contribution. On “Down in North Carolina” and “Old Parnell” her playing is so fun and dance-able as to jump out of the stereo at you, and on the title track she is subtle and supportive of Kiesling.

Kiesling’s co-producer Dakota Dave Hull is heard playing his distinctive baritone guitars on two tracks, as are a number of other outstanding local musicians (Eric Lind, Gary Powell, Liz Draper and Collin Harris). Nowhere on the disc, however, are more than two or three musicians playing at once, giving the album the casual feeling of a get-together of old friends.

Traditional music is not only alive in the Twin Cities but over the past couple years it has flourished, as shown by the huge crowds of college kids that turn out for Charlie Parr and Trampled by Turtles and the various venues that eagerly host up-and-coming bands like Jack Klatt and the Cat Swingers or the great Jake Manders. Kiesling’s music is rooted more deeply, given his enthusiasm for the Folkways Anthology and the classic melodies and stories found in it, but not so far into the past as to be inaccessible – in fact, quite the contrary, Unclouded Day makes the music more accessible and alive than ever.

 

Tomorrow we’ll post our #9 choice, and another each weekday until we’ve shared them all – this should leave just enough days to post some hilarious and weird Christmas records before the holiday. Thanks for reading!

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