Monday, February 8, 2010

Writer’s Jukebox – Regina, Country, and More Country

I had grand plans to present a trifecta of Steph, Gene, and Jordasch this week.  Steph’s always good for name-dropping artists I had no idea she’d be interested in.  Jordasch often serves up unique takes on bands I’ve gotten complacent about.  And Gene…I treat his stuff like an exciting fantasy novel, filled with kickass groups whose names I’d swear weren’t real.  Too bad Gene got a big fat job and couldn’t participate (congrats?).  While I can’t even begin to fill his ginormous Italian shoes, I will attempt to fill his slot for this week’s Jukebox.

Of course, the week I replace a writer is the week I’m the odd man out.  Both Steph and Jordasch are riding the country train this week, while I’m off in the indie songstress world.  Weird, right?

CraigIs it possible to get tired of Regina SpektorMmm…nope.

I spend a lot of time in transit listening to podcasts, so I don’t move through new music as often as I’d like.  On the occasion that I spend more than five minutes in a car, I usually end up just choosing something I’m familiar with.  Example: I threw on Them Crooked Vultures today.  I believe I’ve said more than enough about them.

Would it surprise you (given the prevalence of TCV) that another artist getting regularly play on my iPod is Regina Spektor?  I picked up her latest album Far in the fall, and I circle back to it about once a month.  Some of her vocal theatrics – glottal stops, what might as well be yodeling, adorably amateurish beatboxing – can be excessive, but she makes up for it with clever metaphors and soulful crooning.  “Two Birds” tackles its central image from every possible angle, painting a heartbreaking image of an all-too-common relationship.  The chorus of “One More Time With Feeling” - “Hold on, one more time with feeling/Try it again. Breathing’s just a rhythm” – gives me chills.  I can’t imagine anyone who’s had a loved one in the hospital wouldn’t be similarly affected.

My favorite track on the record by far is “Dance Anthem of the 80s.”  It runs the gamut of Regina’s tricks, from a weird Sibelius voice interlude to stuttery vocals to athletic melismas.  It’s silly, epic, and endearing.  On her previous record, Begin to Hope, I could listen to her sing the word ‘better’ forever.  On Far, it’s how she sings ‘sleep’ in this track.  Just beautiful.

Stephanie – Who knew Alison Krauss had protégés?

My boyfriend has been trying to balance out my musical preferences by exposing me to Metal, and so I naturally have to balance out his Metallica with my Bluegrass -- my secret long-time love.  Being a devoted fan of 27-time Grammy darling Alison Krauss, I’m willing to give anything she produces or endorses a reasonable chance. This attitude is what led me to discover an album called Secrets by Sierra Hull, the new 16-year old sensation of the picking world.

Hull is a precision mandolin player who is highly talented while still having enough baby fat on her cheeks to be cute rather than pretty. Her vocal and instrumental talent is shocking for someone so young, though it’s hard to accurately judge the quality of a young artist that is backed-up by one of the most established bands in the genre. Supported by Alison Krauss and her Grammy-winning band Union Station, it was hard for me to believe that the album wouldn’t sound good. Hull is clearly vocally influenced by Krauss, singing with a clear voice that has a gentle simplicity and strength.  I have always appreciated how Alison Krauss hit her notes without an over-excessive amount of vibrato (often with none at all), and this is a talent that Hull has set out to imitate in her music.

I would recommend this album to those who appreciate and enjoy strong female vocals and the gentle harmonies of bluegrass, but Sierra Hull is still quite obviously young. More interesting for me will be seeing where her career goes from here.  Will it follow in the footsteps of her sponsor and mentor with a successful long-term career brimming with awards, or will she fizzle out and fade into the recesses of time?

Jordasch – T. Bone Strikes Again

I'm of two minds when it comes to country music:  I grew up listening to it with my dad in the car on the way up to our lakehouse, but it's not a form I've been comfortable with until recently.  I'm still not completely at home with it; I went to my first country concert this past summer and felt, more like anything else, like I was at the zoo.  Except all the animals drank Miller Lite.  Incidentally, I enjoyed the hell out of myself.

So although I regard country fans (and some country artists) from a nebbish, This American Life-esque perspective, because of my upbringing (and the fact that country aims almost unfailingly at familiarity) there's something about the genre that feels natural to me.  I was understandably excited, then, when I heard about Crazy Heart, a tantalizing bit of Oscar bait featuring a Waylon Jennings-like outlaw country star played by Jeff Bridges.  The movie's not perfect, but the soundtrack nearly is.  In addition to a introductory course of classic country music going all the way back to honky tonk pioneers like The Delmore Brothers and the Louvin Brothers, the Crazy Heart soundtrack features some of the best original music since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (not coincidentally also written by T. Bone Burnett).  Tracks like "Fallin' and Flyin'" feature the kind of plain-spoken wisdom that has characterized great country music since its inception.  Jeff Bridges' voice possesses just the right amount of grit and whiskey to be completely appropriate for the material.  A truly outstanding listen that also happens to feature the front-runner for the Best Original Song Oscar ("The Weary Kind").  I'm smitten.

That and a bunch of Spoon.