2016 May

Ouroboros by Ray LaMontagne

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If you had told me a week ago I’d be featuring the latest album titled “Ouroboros” from Ray LaMontagne, I would have likely responded that you must have mistaken me for someone else.  I had heard a little bit of LaMontagne here and there, he’s shown up on various soundtracks from TV and motion pictures (most recently Sawyer Fredericks who won the Voice last year cited him as a key influence).  I didn’t dislike him, but nothing ever really stood out enough for me to ever listen to one of his records.  Then I saw a write-up someone did about the new album, heavy praise, discussing the change in his sound and how this is the type of record that you put on and sit down and shut out the rest of the world as you absorb it.  The praise was sincere enough for me to note the album and actually listen to it when I had a chance earlier in the week.  Needless to say, even though I was only able to hear a few songs the first time I played it, I was intrigued.  It was definitely a sound that was unique and without any commercial aspirations.  You could tell he was playing music that he wanted to perform and it would simply be a bonus if other people also enjoyed it.  LaMontagne plays this music like he’s floating by on clouds, there’s a big sense of space and an ethereal quality to most of the album – the sound hangs all around you.  Most of his vocals are quiet and hushed as he strays away from his sandpapery vocals reminiscent of Van Morrison and Jeff Buckley. 
 
Whatever he set out to accomplish, I liked it.  His album is very different from most of the other music I listen to, so it provides a breath of fresh air.  Intrigued on why/how he changed up his sound, I found out his new album was produced by Jim James (My Morning Jacket).  Oh, well that explains a lot of the sonic differences and I’m a fan of James so I could see one reason why his new album appealed to me.  The two work well together.  LaMontagne had worked with the same producer on his first three albums, self-produced his 4th and worked with Dan Auerbach (Black Keys) on his 5th.  It wasn’t like LaMontagne hadn’t been experiencing success, his 5th album topped the Billboard rock chart and charted as high as #3 on the album charts.  Previous releases charted in the top 3 on American charts and he even earned a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  Nevertheless, he proceeded to forge a completely new sound on “Ouroboros”.  This is a record that is meant to be listened to as an album.   The 8 tracks are split out into Part One and Part Two.  There are no aspirations of hit radio singles here.  But if you don’t have a chance to listen to the album in its entirety, here are a few tracks for the curious to check out.
 
“Hey, No Pressure” – Of course I pick the “heaviest” song on the album to feature first, but it’s still my favorite at the moment.  And it still has an overall chill vibe.  I love the guitar line on this track and the often repeated title phrase.  This song could probably go on for 20 minutes before I got tired of the groove.  Throughout the track is some very cool instrumentation, plus the song has a good message.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HukIAJjCFUM – live version on Colbert’s late night show (and it looks like playing on stage with him is the bass player, drummer and keyboardist from My Morning Jacket)
 
“In My Own Way” – Here’s a very mellow track that kicks off Part Two on the album.  You can identify some of the impact Jim James had on the record listening to this track – reverb, the big space this song seems to float around in and the dreamy, ethereal quality of the music.  Nothing is going to hurry this song along so just let it unfold and it will fade out whenever it’s ready.

‘Never forget you’ by Zara Larsson

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I just recently heard this song this morning; I fell in love with it.  I feel as if it’s a more of a contemporary/techno song, but it sounds so good. 

Both of the artists have amazing voices and know how to range their tones. 

It’s really talking about how a happy couple’s relationship ended.  The girl fell head over heels for him and she was sure he was the one.  The male starts singing and he explains how happy he was with her and thought some kind of connection was there.  They are just explaining that relationships can be hard to commit to but things fall through sometimes.

I just love the lyrics to this song.

A sailor’s guide to earth by Sturgill Simpson

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Sturgill Simpson, in my opinion, is currently the most exciting artist in the country music periphery.  Granted, I’m not a big country music fan but there are a few artists I like to listen to.  There are two things I admire most about Simpson – 1) his vocals – he has a classic country sound that is reminiscent of Waylon Jennings and 2) he is pushing boundaries within genres – Simpson strays outside the normal country music sound, bringing in elements of rock and soul and being much more liberal in his songwriting. 
 
Simpson hails from Kentucky, but moved out west to Oregon while in his late teens.  He first formed a band called Sunday Valley back in 2004.  However, Simpson eventually decided to take on a solo career, releasing his first solo album 3 years ago titled “High Top Mountain”.  This album embraced a sound that harkened back to the ‘70s but Simpson’s lyrical content kept it modern.  After touring behind the record, Simpson started working on his next album.  This is when he started stretching the boundaries of country music, delving into topics like physics and evolution on “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” released in 2014.  This is the album that first caught my attention.  Simpson was a breath of fresh air in the country scene, and he was rewarded with a top 10 album on the country charts, a Grammy nomination for best country album and winning best emerging artist at the Americana Music Awards and then artist of the year in 2015 from the same foundation.
 
That brings us to the release of Sturgill’s 3rd solo effort “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”.  Mentioned in my new releases blurb last week, this album was pretty highly anticipated by me and it doesn’t disappoint.  It’s a loose concept album based on a sailor writing letters back home to his wife and family while he’s away at sea.  Simpson manages to bridge sounds of classic ‘70s albums but expands the palette of what you would have heard back then.  Horn sections pop up on many songs, there’s rock, progressive folk, soul, strings – you name it.  Simpson does not shy away from bringing in any musical elements he wants to explore; he will not be pigeonholed.  Simpson self-produced this album, and was able to indulge in all of his whims.  I love this album, and it’s much bigger as a sum of all of its parts compared to isolating individual tracks.  Given that, I’m going to share a couple of tracks that fall in the middle of the album.  I highly recommend listening to “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” from start to finish though.  Also, an added bonus is the gorgeous cover art, one of my favorite album covers in quite a while. 
 

 
“Brace For Impact (Live A Little)” – Probably the song with the best groove on the album, this song brings out a lot of different instrumentation.  Ringing guitars, a solid bassline, horns, organ – it’s all here on this track. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sz7cBnlhhG4 – live version on Colbert’s late night show
 
“In Bloom” – If this sounds familiar to you, it’s a cover of Nirvana.  But the only part that would sound familiar are the lyrics.  Simpson makes this song his own, completely changing up the arrangement and it sounds perfectly at home within the context of his album.  The soft approach with the lyrics is very effective.  Sturgill grabs a hold of this song, wrestles it down and completely makes it his own.

More Rain (Favorites) by M. Ward

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M. Ward, based out of Portland, OR, released his 8th studio album this month titled “More Rain”.  His music brings a West Coast vibe to an Americana-influenced sound.  Listening to his albums is like pulling a nice warm blanket over yourself and settling in on a rainy day.  His guitar playing is exceptional and understated and his vocals fit his music very well.  Ward spent six years playing in the folk rock trio Rodriguez before embarking on his solo career.  His first solo effort “Duet for Guitars #2” came out in 2000.  Ward got some positive critical buzz and some attention from the underground scene and did some touring in the U.S. and Europe.  It was Ward’s third solo effort in 2003, “Transfiguration of Vincent” his first release on Merge Records, that got him some mainstream attention.  His next two albums “Transistor Radio” and “Post-War” (my favorite) set him up as a major player in the indie folk/adult alternative rock scene.  Then in 2008 after collaborating on a soundtrack song with Zooey Deschanel (yes the actress), the two recorded and released an album as a duo – She & Him.  Ward continued to work on solo efforts while also recording 4 more albums with She & Him (who have charted as high as #6 on the album charts).  Ward also recorded an album with folk-rock super group Monsters of Folk (Ward, Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes).  Ward’s musical talents are also in demand from other artists; he has performed on albums by Neko Case, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Jenny Lewis, Bright Eyes and My Morning Jacket.  He clearly is a musician that is well-respected by fellow musicians.  His 7th solo album which came out 4 years ago, was his highest charting solo effort rising up to #21 on the Billboard Chart.
 
That brings us to album #8, “More Rain”.  Ward brings together the familiar elements of his sound across the 11 songs on the album (the first track is basically a recording of rain for one minute).  He features a few guests including Neko Case and Peter Buck (REM), covers a Beach Boys song and mixes things up enough to keep the listener engaged.  While maybe not his best album, it’s another solid release from Ward.  Here’s a few of the best cuts from “More Rain”.
 
“Girl From Conejo Valley” – The first single from “More Rain” highlights is an example of a classic M. Ward song.  Guitar driven with some other interesting sounds in the mix (in this case a Moog synth stands out), quieter verses and a chorus with a nice hook. 

 
“Temptation” – Ward pushes the intensity level up a bit on this track, getting some additional guitar work from Peter Buck to beef up the sound.   This is a short and efficient song that works very well in the context of the album.

 
“Confession” – Another classic example of an M. Ward song with some nice guitar but this one also has some bass playing a bigger role in the sound.  There are some nice background vocals during the choruses as well as a trumpet solo playing a prominent role at the end of the song.

Imani, Vol. 1 (Favorites) by Blackalicious

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Blackalicious are a Bay Area rap act that got their start back in ’87 when founding members rapper Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel met when they were students at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento.  When they graduated in ’89 they went their separate ways but were reunited 3 years later in Davis where Xcel was a student at UC Davis and Gift of Gab moved to Davis to form Blackalicious with him.  A little bit of trivia for those of you who listen to some hip-hop, at Davis Xcel was working with a hip-hop crew named SoleSides, whose members included DJ Shadow, Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker – pretty illustrious group.  Anyway,  Blackalicious released their first single in ’94 that got the attention of alternative rap audiences.  The next year they released an EP and followed that up two years later with another EP.  Finally in 2000 they released their first proper album, “Nia”.  This led to the duo being signed by a major label, MCA, 8 years after they formed.  Their first major label release in ’02 “Blazing Arrow”, had guest appearances by Zach de la Rocha (RATM), Questlove (the Roots) and Gil Scott-Heron.  Both albums received plenty of critical acclaim but they were not commercial hits.  The two then worked on some solo projects but then got back together to release their third album “The Craft” in 2005.    Fast forward 10 years later after multiple solo releases from Gift of Gab and Xcel working on some other projects and the duo put out their fourth album “Imani, Vol. 1” last year.
 
One of best things about Blackalicious is their overall positive vibe, they focus on being more spiritual and uplifting which is a breath of fresh air for rap music.  You hear a lot of old school rap, some jazz, plenty of funk and plenty of grooves they lock firmly into throughout each of their albums.  You can even play them with kids around (so rare for rap music).  I always enjoy listening to them because they put off such a great vibe and Gift of Gab is a very talented rapper.  “Imani, Vol. 1” is the first of a planned trilogy, which hopefully they’re able to eventually complete.  There are many solid songs on the 16 tracks that make up “Imani, Vol. 1”, and here’s a sampling of 3 for you to check out.  Give these guys a chance, they’re a great go to when you want to listen to something different or want to pick your spirits up a bit.
 
“Escape” – This track is all about the piano line that anchors the song.  Match that up with some strings and you have very atypical music for a rap track.  That piano is utilized exceptionally well, I was blown away the first time I heard this track.  Besides the excellent music, Gift of Gab spins an interesting tale about the struggle a guy faces as he struggles to evolve from an OG to a real man.  Then the song ends with a nice instrumental section that sounds nothing like hip-hop except for the beat.  There’s a little interlude section that plays over the last minute that can just be skipped.

 
“The Sun” – This track immediately follows “Escape” on the album and it’s a very uplifting positive song.  The keyboard riff, the chorus which is beautifully sung by guest Imani Coppola and how well Xcel blends the sounds together make this a monster track that should pick-up almost anyone’s spirits.  Who the hell writes a rap song about the sun? ( I love that they did it though).  They really leverage the spiritual side of the band with the lyrics.  If you’re feeling a bit down, throw on “The Sun” and pick your spirits up!

 
“Alpha and Omega” – This track is a little more hard hitting and shows some of the form Gift of Gab has for his fast rapping style that he featured more prominently in his younger days.  Xcel deftly uses some horn samples on this song to add some brassy accompaniment.  This song also features Lyrics Born and Lateef who Xcel played with back in his days at Davis with SoleSides.  This song is a lot of fun and brings a little bit of funk.