Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ani does New Orleans

Oh, what's that? Ani DiFranco is releasing a new album this summer?

Oh... and it's going to deal with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath?

And it's going to be really, explicitly political? Huh. How surprising.

Rolling Stone has the scoop on this album. Having enjoyed DiFranco's last record, Knuckle Down-- mostly thanks to the involvment of producer Joe Henry-- I'm curious to hear what musical direction she takes here, though I'm afraid it sounds like the lyrics will appeal mostly to Ani's baser, preachier instincts. We'll see.

Shaken by the storm and its terrible aftermath, DiFranco has put together Reprieve, an unflinchingly political album, due in August, that expresses her frustration, sadness and sense of displacement. The way she tells it, after Katrina DiFranco could not wait to return to New Orleans, which she did as soon as possible. The serene, crisp sound of Reprieve's thirteen-song cycle sonically reflects her travels over the past year.

Monday, April 24, 2006

More on Springsteen: Pitchfork weighs in.

Geez... this new Sprinsgteen album is sounding better all the time. As if the rave review from Stephen Thomas Erlewine wasn't enough, now there's Amanda Petrusich, who heaps praise on the album over at Pitchfork Media-- a publication that isn't known for being especially kind to Americana releases. Says Petrusich:

On The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen growls, warbles, groans, and gags, sounding often like Tom Waits (check the scratchy, ominous vocals on "Erie Canal") or later Bob Dylan. It's a stark contrast to Seeger's crisp, clear pipes, and it reinvigorates a handful of ancient American tracks. Like any good folk record, The Seeger Sessions tackles the tangle of war, strife, poverty, and unrest, but does so without sacrificing joy or release (really, the very reasons people began singing in the first place). The resulting collection happily drowns out echoes of Springsteen's underwhelming recent efforts, and just might be the very best and most inspiring album Bruce has produced in more than a decade.

Embracing early E Street shuffle and ditching the solemnity of 2005's Devils and Dust, The Seeger Sessions culls from a century of rich, gritty Americana tradition, from bluegrass to country to rhythm and blues to gospel, rock'n'roll, Zydeco, Dixieland, and more. Springsteen is an obvious descendent of folk tradition, but, as he writes in the record's liner notes, this is "street corner music, parlor music, tavern music, wilderness music, circus music, church music, gutter music." Or: The Seeger Sessions is a party record.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

New releases this week: Bruce! Mark and Emmylou!

You know, it's funny-- I wouldn't really call myself a Bruce Springsteen fan, and the idea of an all-covers album rarely appeals to me, and yet I find myself immensely enthused about We Shall Overcome, the Pete Seeger covers album that Bruce is releasing on Tuesday. That enthusiasm is in large part due to the rave reviews that are pouring in-- like this one from Stephen Thomas Erlewine.

While the songs featured here adhere to no one specific theme -- there are work songs, spirituals, narratives, and protest songs -- it is possible to see this collection of tunes as Springsteen's subtle commentary on the political state of America, especially given Seeger's reputation as an outspoken political activist, but this record should hardly be judged as merely an old-fashioned folk record. We Shall Overcome is many things, but a creaky relic is not one of them. Springsteen has drawn from Seeger's songbook -- which he assembled in the '40s, '50s, and '60s from traditional folk songs -- and turned it into something fresh and contemporary. And even if you have no patience for (or interest in) the history of the songs, or their possible meanings, it's easy to enjoy We Shall Overcome on pure musical terms: it's a rambunctious, freewheeling, positively joyous record unlike any other in Springsteen's admittedly rich catalog.

Meanwhile, James Christopher Monger is slightly less excited about the new Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris duets collection.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Bird is back... and busy!

Great news via Pitchfork Media-- it seems that Andrew Bird, the man responsible for my favorite album of 2005, is not only embarking on a major tour this summer, but he's also hard at work on a new studio album, and plans to release a live set later this year! According to Pitchfork:

What we're curious about is how Bird, who's in the midst of knocking out a new record, is setting aside the entire summer for this jaunt, especially when the yet-to-be-titled follow-up to last year's The Mysterious Production of Eggs is slated for an early 2007 release. Looks like Andy B. has some stellar time management skills... or he's practicing his fresh tracks on tour. According to, who spoke with the Chicago musician, Bird has delivered new songs "Dark Matter", "Plasticities", and "Sycophants" to live audiences, and will likely continue to do so throughout his summer adventures. Also on the album is the tentatively-titled "The Armchair Apocalypse", which serves as the record's centerpiece. That name should be set in stone, in Pitchfork's humble opinion.

Of the record's style, Bird commented to Billboard, "I'm writing stuff that's big and spacious, with long, stretched out phrases, a sense of large, open air. But it's also really concise. I'm trying to keep it to 10 songs, but short is pretty hard to pull off when you're trying to create space. I did a recording session in the barn where I opened all the windows and miked everything, just recording three hours of ambient noise. Now I just have to find a way to work it in."

Haley Bonar and Chris Morrissey, who worked backup on The Mysterious Production of Eggs tour, and of course, Dosh, are contributing to the effort, which is being recorded at Bird's barn in rural Illinois, Electrical Audio in Chicago, and various studios in Minneapolis. Producer Ben Durrant has been working closely alongside Bird as well.

Also on the agenda are a live album (featuring both Bird and Dosh), set for self-release in the fall, and a September tour.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

New album updates: Knopfler! Harris! Costello! Toussaint! Enigk!

Good news galore today-- just check out these updates on three exciting upcoming releases:

1. Emmylou Harris's Web site has the details on All the Road Running, the new album of duets she recorded with Mark Knopfler, due out on April 25.

2. Music Remedy has some exciting details about The River in Reverse, the new Elvis Costello/Allen Toussaint collection due out in June. (Did I mention that Joe Henry produced it? That the Imposters played on it?)

3. Paste bears the sad news that The Fire Theft is no more, but don't fret-- frontman Jeremy Enigk is busy at work on a new solo disc.

Stipe on Katrina, music, faith

Even after the abomination that was Around the Sun, I'd still call myself an REM fan-- at least for now. Thus, I was rather fascinated by BeliefNet's recent interview with Michael Stipe, in which the singer discusses hurricane relief efforts that he is involved with, his ideal America, the power of music, and the nature of faith and spirituality. It's an interesting read from a usually-provocative pop star.

Friday, April 07, 2006

You guessed it... more new album news: Sufjan Stevens!

Another day, another press release:

Sufjan Stevens set to release The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album in July

Asthmatic Kitty Records has announced plans to release a new collection of songs from Sufjan Stevens, titled The Avalanche: Outtakes and Extras from the Illinois Album which will hit shelves on July 25, 2006.

The little secret behind the Illinois record is that it was originally conceived as a double album, culminating in a musical collage of nearly 50 songs. But as the project began to develop into an unwieldy epic, common sense weighed in—as did the opinions of others—and the project was cut in half. But as 2005 came to a close, Sufjan returned to the old, forsaken songs on his 8-track like a grandfather remembering his youth, indulging in old journals and newspaper clippings. What he uncovered went beyond the merits of nostalgia; it was more like an ensemble of capricious friends and old acquaintances wearing party outfits, waiting to be let in at the front door, for warm drinks and interesting conversation. Among them were Saul Bellow, Ann Landers, Adlai Stevenson, and a brief cameo from Henry Darger's Vivian Girls. The gathering that followed would become the setting for the songs on The Avalanche.

Sufjan gleaned 21 useable tracks from the abandoned material, including three alternate versions of Chicago. Some songs were in finished form, others were merely outlines, gesture drawings, or musical scribbles mumbled on a hand-held tape recorder. Most of the material required substantial editing, new arrangements or vocals. Much of the work was done at the end of 2005 or in January the following year. Sufjan invited many of the original Illinoisemakers to fill in the edges: drums, trumpet, a choir of singers. The centerpiece, of course, was the title track—"The Avalanche"—a song intended for the leading role on the Illinois album but eventually cut and placed as a bonus track on the vinyl release (also on iTunes). In his rummaging through old musical memorabilia, Sufjan began to use this song as a meditation on the editorial process, returning to old forms, knee-deep in debris, sifting rocks and river water for an occasional glint of gold. "I call ye cabin neighbors," the song bemuses, "I call you once my friends." And like an avid social organizer, Sufjan took in all the odd musical misfits and gathered them together for a party of their own, like good friends.

A careful listener may uncover the obvious trend on this record: almost every song on the Illinois album has a counterpart on the outtakes. Carl Sandburg arm-wrestles Saul Bellow. The aliens landing near Highland salute Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto. The loneliness of "Casimir Pulaski Day" deepens even further in the foreboding soundtrack to "Pittsfield." At its best, The Avalanche is an exercise in form, revealing the working habits of one of the most productive songwriters today. As an illustration, the avalanche refers to the snow and rubble that falls off the side of a mountain, or, in this case, the musical debris generously chucked from an abundant epic. It's unlikely you'll find a mountain in the Prairie State so the metaphor will have to do. Also, Sufjan has still not made an official decision on the next state he'll tackle in his epic 50 States project, but we will definitely keep you posted.


1. The Avalanche (3:14)
2. Dear Mr Supercomputer (4:40)
3. Adlai Stevenson (2:34)
4. The Vivian Girls Are Visited In the Night by Saint Dargarius and his
Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies (1:49)
5. Chicago (acoustic version) (4:40)
6. The Henney Buggy Band (3:16)
7. Saul Bellow (2:53)
8. Carlyle Lake (3:15)
9. Springfield, or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in his Hair (4:17)
10. The Mistress Witch from McClure (or, The Mind That Knows Itself) (3:24)
11. Kaskaskia River (2:15)
12. Chicago (adult contemporary easy listening version) (6:06)
13. Inaugural Pop Music for Jane Margaret Byrne (1:25)
14.No Man's Land (4:45)
15. The Palm Sunday Tornado Hits Crystal Lake (1:38)
16. The Pick-up (3:23)
17. The Perpetual Self, or "What Would Saul Alinsky Do?" (2:24)
18. For Clyde Tombaugh (3:43)
19. Chicago (Multiple Personality Disorder version) (4:35)
20. Pittsfield (6:41)
21. The Undivided Self (for Eppie and Popo) (4:59)

(Total 75:55)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Josh's Listening Journal, 4/6

This year has already been a steady parade of intriguing new music releases, and the most exciting stuff is still to come. And though I've only heard one album that I'd call a shoo-in for this year's Top 10 list-- Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat, which is actually sounding more and more like Top 5 material-- there have been plenty of new albums that have captured and held my attention. Here's what's been in my player this month:

The Little Willies, Little Willies

How cool would it be to have a feisty, laid-back, slightly inebriated bar band playing classic country gems in the comfort of your own living room? Pretty cool, I think—which is why I’ve fallen in love with the Little Willies, a terrific new five-piece outfit that includes Norah Jones and four of her country-loving musical cohorts. The Willies’ debut is a modest, low-key affair, but it’s also warm, loose, and improvisational, the sound of five musicians performing without ego, clearly having a blast playing music together. There are surprising moments of pathos and humor here, but mostly it’s just plain fun; and as great as the covers are, it’s the four originals that prove the Willies are a band to watch out for.

Josh Rouse, Subtitulo

Recorded in his newfound home of Spain, Rouse’s new album has some surprising Latin influences in the melodies and instrumentation, but mostly it’s more of the intimate, earnest folk-pop he’s become known for. Imagine if Ron Sexsmith was more heavily influenced by 1970’s AM rock, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what this guy sounds like. The melodies here will grab you on the first listen, and the beautiful, pristine production will keep you coming back.

Cassandra Wilson, Thunderbird

Working for the first time with producer extraordinaire T-Bone Burnett, genre-bending powerhouse Cassandra Wilson dresses up in her boldest, most cinematic colors yet on Thunderbird. There are keyboards and drum loops aplenty, and a couple of songs even sound like they could swim in Top 40 waters. Purists and longtime fans are already arguing over how well these new colors fit onto Wilson’s palette; personally, I think it’s the most thrilling thing she’s done in many years, perhaps even the boldest experiment of her career. You won’t believe how well she can pull of the pop-radio diva routine on songs like “Go to Mexico” and “It Would Be So Easy,” but, as always, Wilson’s greatest strengths lie in her abilities as a song interpreter, as evidenced by the smoking, smoldering blues numbers like “Easy Rider.”

Elbow, Leaders of the Free World

Take the soaring, euphoric melodies of Coldplay; the soaring emotional peaks of Arcade Fire; the twisting, mutating song structures of Andrew Bird; the instrumental innovation of Radiohead; and a lead singer who sounds for all the world like a young Peter Gabriel. That’s kinda what Elbow sounds like. If you enjoy any of the band above, just wait ‘til you hear these guys.

Sarah Harmer, I’m a Mountain

Huh… who would have guessed that Sarah Harmer’s finest work would come when she traded in her slick folk-pop sound for back-porch bluegrass? These are laid-back songs by a performer who sounds completely comfortable in her skin, with zippy, nimble performances and suitably simple production. Lyrically the album is largely inspired by a growing concern for our environment, but there’s also a heartbreaking ballad about a man suffering with AIDS, as well as an irresistible Dolly Parton cover.

The Weakerthans, Reconstruction Site

Andy Whitman was right, gosh darnit—thanks to him I’ve made a new discovery that has me running back to revise my Best of 2003 list. On the surface the Weakerthans sound like another rough-and-rowdy pop-punk band in the vein of Green Day or current radio darlings Relient K, but pay attention. There are some subtle musical complexities here, as well as some remarkably assured flirtations with country, folk, and good old-fashioned rock and roll. This is an irresistible rock record, perfect for driving or starting your day off with a bang, but the most impressive thing of all is the songwriting. These lyrics are astoundingly literate, brimming with character and creativity. Even the song titles betray something of the cleverness on display here—“Plea from a Cat Named Virtue,” “Psalm for the Last Call at the Elks Lodge,” “Over Retired Explorer”… this album gets an A-rating for the lyrics alone.

Even more new album news: Bruce Cockburn






Cambridge, MA – Legendary singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn and his longtime manager Bernie Finkelstein were honored by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) at the 2006 JUNO awards in Halifax, Nova Scotia this past weekend. Cockburn was the recipient of the inaugural JUNO Humanitarian Award, recognizing the positive social, environmental and humanitarian contributions made by Canadian artists. Finkelstein, founder of Canada’s oldest independent record company True North Records and Cockburn’s manager for over 35 years, was honored with the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have contributed to the growth and development of the Canadian music industry.

“I am deeply touched that CARAS is honoring me as their first recipient of the Humanitarian Award,” said Cockburn. “I hope that the introduction of this award will inspire as many artists as possible to participate fully in the global community.”

A critically-acclaimed singer, songwriter and respected music activist, Cockburn has been honored with multiple awards throughout his thirty-five year career, including the Tenco Award for Lifetime Achievement in Italy and 20 gold and platinum awards in Canada, where he is also an Officer of the Order of Canada and inductee into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. He is also the recipient of honorary degrees in Letters and Music from several North American universities, including Boston’s Berklee and Toronto’s York University. Cockburn’s songs have been covered by such diverse artists as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, Barenaked Ladies, Jimmy Buffet, Maria Muldaur, k.d. Lang and others.

On July 11, Rounder Records will release a new studio album by Cockburn entitled Life Short Call Now. The album follows-up 2005’s Speechless – Cockburn’s first-ever instrumental record which garnered rave reviews from numerous publications including Acoustic Guitar, Guitar World Acoustic, Performing Songwriter and others. Life Short Call Now was recorded just outside of Toronto and includes 12 Cockburn originals (track listing below). More details to be announced soon.

Track Listing for Life Short Call Now:

Life Short Call Now
See You Tomorrow
Beautiful Creatures
Peace March
Slow Down Fast
Tell the Universe
This is Baghdad
Jerusalem Poker
Different When It Comes to You
To Fit in My Heart
Nude Descending a Staircase

Founded in 1970, Rounder Records is America's premier independent label. Rounder and its Zoë, Heartbeat, Philo and Bullseye Blues imprints have a catalog of over 3000 albums, representing a wide variety of folk, roots, rock, blues, and reggae music.

(Thanks to Thom for this one!)

Monday, April 03, 2006

Still more new album news: Gillian Welch

Yet another exciting piece of music news, via Jeffrey Overstreet: Billboard reports that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are back in the studio, with another album due by the end of the year!

Man... come December, I'm gonna be BROKE.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Listening Closer

Well, he quoted me, so I guess I should point you folks to Jeffrey Overstreet's music page, where he's just posted some first impressions of three new albums-- Elbow, The Minus Five, and Sarah Harmer. Quick, concise capsule reviews, but just as thoughtful and descriptive as ever-- nice job, Jeffrey.

For what its worth, I've heard all three of those albums-- two of them thanks to Jeffrey's raves-- and I more or less agree with his take on all three. Hopefully I'll have a chance to post my thoughts on the Elbow and Harmer discs later this week. (Promises, promises...)

Morph the Cat-- the review is up!

Just a quick note to say that I've finally posted my review of this...

Donald Fagen's new album, Morph the Cat-- my favorite album of the year thus far.

Hopefully I'll have another couple of reviews posted later this week, so stay tuned!