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3/19/18

Is it true what they say, that all good things must come to an end? It’s at least half right; all things must end, at whatever time their end is met, whether they’ve been good things or bad things or anything in between. So it is today, from a one-room home in Phoenix, that I will write a final entry in this here blog, nearly 10 years after beginning it from a tiny third-floor bedroom in a Georgetown row house.

This ending is not meant to signify an end of my love for music, songwriting and active listening — nor will I end my exploration of these things in written form or otherwise. But this blog, this forum, this means, is something I can no longer commit creative energies to. And that’s OK.

I thought today was the right day to write this farewell because I listened to the new record from The Decemberists, and was immediately hooked on the opening lines from track one: “Oh, for once in my/Oh, for once in my life/Could just something go/Could just something go right?” Backed by acoustic guitar, highlighted with harmonies the second time around with a quick pick-up from the tambourine, it’s a beautifully crafted and powerful song — and such a perfect sentiment to hear put to music as I begin a new chapter, with so much ahead of me and so much to leave on the cutting room floor. I’m taking the best from the old world while I begin the new, as we do with any change in life, and to be accompanied by greats like The Decemberists is a warm comfort. The record, I’ll Be Your Girl, is rich and layered, edgy and nerdy, in true Decemberists form, and I’m looking forward to playing it again and again.

I’m still forever struck by these moments of musical magic, even if I no longer write about them. I like to think I’ve reserved a special place in my heart and mind for hearing the right song at the right time, and that I’ve documented enough of these moments in a decade to see some through-lines. Like what it means to be stilled to the bone by someone’s work, how it feels to be frozen in your tracks when something fits just right. How the proper amount of sadness can somehow cure yours. How the loudest volume on earbuds can hurt so good. How the right words and the right notes can turn your outlook around on a dime.  These moments have stunned me, surprised me and saved me — and even if I’m not writing about them anymore, I’ll be looking for them on every next listen.

Until we meet again,
MD

 

“Oh, for once in my
Oh, for once in my life
Could just something go
Could just something go right?

I’ve been waiting all my life
I’ve been waiting all my life
All my life
My life
All my life
All my life.”

~Once In My Life

The Decemberists, I’ll Be Your Girl

8/8/17

One of my favorite things I’ve always remembered about Josh Ritter was that he majored in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music” at Oberlin College. I learned this about him in high school and it stuck with me as one of the coolest things I’d ever heard, smacking of dedication and promise. History! Narratives! Folk Music! I love all these things, and I instantly loved Josh Ritter, who got away from me in recent years as my Americana/folk listening expanded to many other artists.

I rediscovered his catalog this weekend when the hook for “Still Beating” came into my head, a beautiful song about the nature of persistence, and from their his catalog sucked me back in. “Girl in the War” is one of my all-time favorite ballads, a song I’ve cried to and sung to in many capacities, while his later work on So Runs The World Away reminds me of more placid, pensive times. I think he’s one of the best songwriters of his generation, able to encapsulate a feeling and paint a scene with the same phrase, while building really complex, stunning instrumental parts around it.

Today, a day when history seemed to burst at the seams with unbelievable statements that could threaten our safety, it was an odd and beautiful coincidence to have “The Temptation of Adam” queued up on Spotify on my walk to work. It’s a morbid song, a tale of love found in some bunker safe from nuclear fallout, a song that I loved back when and somehow moves me even deeper today. It’s poetic and dark, the way Ritter paints the scene of the lovers in hiding, with crossword puzzles and cots and rations, with names carved into a warhead. And that part always appealed to me, in a literary and lyrical sense, but hearing it today moved something else me. Maybe I understand more about than I did back then, the kind of love where you’d risk everything to freeze the moment. The kind of love that seems to mean more than the very earth itself.

“I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb
She just came along and started to ignore me
But as we waited for the Big One
I started singing her my songs
And I think she started feeling something for me

We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside
What five letters spell ‘apocalypse’ she asked me
I won her over saying “W.W.I.I.I.”
She smiled and we both knew that she’d misjudged me”

~The Temptation of Adam
Josh Ritter, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

4/13/17

I didn’t hear of Wild Pink until this week, but their new self-titled debut is taking me by storm. It’s reflective from a generational perspective, using the details of one’s singular surroundings and relationships to opine on our greater struggles and cultural traumas. And they are a great fit at Tiny Engines, a label I have loved for their work with The Hotelier, Look Mexico and Restorations.

The lyrics in their songs are what grabbed me first, they write the the kind of songs that are jam-packed with words. The stories aren’t so much flushed out from start to finish, but snapshots of scenes interspersed with observations. There’s references to  “a vigil for a kid that died too young,” a repeated call to “put your phone down,” and the cryptic message to “I wonder if the next mass shooting will be here.” But none of these words and messages really feel melodramatic or like overkill; there things any millennial one who grew up with bomb threats at their high school could understand. There are references aplenty — one of my favorite tracks, “Great Apes,” manages to reference both the World Trade and Tim Robbins — and long, thoughtful phrases that dive into the depths of being introverted, anxious and relatively exhausted at the life one is living in the face of all the world has to show for itself.

Musically, they have a mellow emo/emo-revival thing going on, with guitar tones that remind me of American Football and Pinegrove and muted, mellow, harmonic-style vocals that could appear in a variety of indie rock bands. Wild Pink have a style that sounds like something I’ve heard before and yet their approach, their ability to purge emotional demons and ferret out the ugly parts of living in today’s world, are something new. It’s a fluid feel, and a garage-band vibe that come together to make their particular brand of indie . Though the record as a whole is pretty serious — I wouldn’t recommend it for moments when you want to hear something uplifting — it is full of movement, like sudden changes in time and lots of steady, sharp snare drum.

“Good times sneak and fleet
Your friends wanna spend some time with you tonight

Read about a poem that someone knows about your sign
They say when you were born the stars soared

Calm
Calm down
Put your phone down…”
~Wizard of Loneliness
Wild Pink, Wild Pink

3/7/17

One of the best things about getting older? You start caring less and less about what people think of you and your tastes. So it is without a shred of shame I admit I have almost exclusively listened to Ed Sheeran since his billion-views busting Divide album came out Friday (OK, with some Japandroids, The Menzingers and Laura Marling thrown in there, too) and I still think he’s one of the best pop songwriters of his generation.

Sheeran’s spoken word delivery can be construed as annoying to some, but I dig the rhythms and phrases he finds. His guitar playing is distinct and often innovative. And lord, those ballads — he can break hearts and mend them with a refrain with the best of them. “Photograph” and “Tenerife Sea” held the place as my favorite love songs of his last record while “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and “Dive” are the ones I’m most into this time around.

My favorite song on the record, though, the one that I go back to play before skipping among the others, is “Castle On The Hill,” a dedication to the friends Ed grew up with and the times they shared. It’s a familiar story for anyone who spent their teenage years with a tight knit group who inevitably broke away from each other as they grew up and life pulled them in separate directions.

Not only is the musicality of the song gorgeous and moving and triumphant, but the topic is one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Maybe it’s living across the country from those who know me best, maybe it’s wishing we were better able to share the activities and interests of our lives together again. Maybe it’s wishing I had more reunions to look forward to. All I know is when I hear Ed Sheeran sing about driving down country roads, singing to “Tiny Dancer” with his friends and watching sunsets, I think about wandering the city long past our bedtimes, meeting up on a grassy hillside and watching the stars preside over our dreams as we wished upon each and every one of them we’d never have to grow up.

“I’m on my way
Driving at ninety down those country lanes
Singing to “Tiny Dancer”
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill…”

~Castle On The Hill
Ed Sheeran, Divide

 

3/2/17

One of the albums that’s really snuck up on me this year is Eisley’s I’m Only Dreaming, a record shepherded by Sherri DuPree Bemis. The band once featured three DuPree sisters, but Sherri’s stuck with it alongside other family members and new players, bringing their ambient-pop quality into a new era. I was never a huge fan though I never heard anything I disliked — and Currents had some really beautiful parts — but this one has stuck out to me for having some moments that just seem strikingly honest, raw and realized.

It’s dark, but just dark enough, it’s sweet, but just sweet enough, it’s confident and edgy. Sherri’s lyrics live in that space of just-vague-enough, bringing plenty of imagery and feeling without laying it on too thick. It’s a pleasant listen, if a rather monochromatic one, with every song striking this unique balance of strength, yearning and sensitivity. “Louder Than A Lion” has been my favorite, with “You Are Mine” and “Defeatist” as close seconds.

I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Sherri’ voice (one of the main reasons I dug the Perma record she did with husband Max Bemis). She has such a lovely soprano quality and can hit some insane notes in insane ways with a ton of power behind them, while somehow still sounding angelic. That brightness and lightness carries through the entire album, but I like how she lets herself get into more deeper and softer tones here and there, too. Listening to her, I just get lost in the sound and the way she enunciates what she’s saying, as if every phrase is a little missive from her truest soul (Bonus: listen to her on a recent episode of the Lead Singer Syndrome podcast for the story behind how Eisley came to be, and her utterly cool attitude about her sisters leaving the band and understanding how everyone’s path is different. Not to mention her life touring with small children. She’s totally inspiring!)

I’ve seen Eisley criticized by music writers for being too one-note, for not having enough of an edge to them, but I love the way Sherri’s voice carries the songs, the way the lyrics are sparse, and the way the guitars always seem to have just enough distortion to sound a little off-kilter. No matter how much it feels like it wants to rock harder, Eisley songs have always had such a beautiful, dreamlike quality to them — a reminder that’s OK to sit still, it’s OK to hang back, it’s OK to get lost in the moment, even if the world thinks you should do something greater.

“We fall backwards faster than the speed of sound
If you want to fly we’re able
If you want to flee I’m stable
I’ll stand and fight when you’re out…”
~Louder than a Lion
Eisley, I’m Only Dreaming

1/30/17

Ever see a project or a performance and think to yourself, “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?!” Last last year, punk news outlets bubbled up with postings about a fellow who wrote a screenplay off of one of my favorite albums: On the Impossible Past by The Menzingers. What a concept! OTIP is a deeply literally, emotional ride of a rock record, and writer Adam Reiss took its core meaning and messages to develop a plot and  characters for “On the Impossible Future.”

I read through his screenplay and immediately reached out to Adam, wanting to learn more about how he let his imagination run away with him to create a love story between Greg, a down-on-himself Philly boy and Casey, the spirited waitress who gives him something to live for and love, inspired by these songs that have come to mean so much to me over the years. I was also curious about the feedback he received to this project, knowing that fans can be pretty touchy about their sacred songs.

Talking with Adam (who turns out to be quite the intrepid world traveler) over the past few weeks was a treat — what follows is a lightly edited transcript of a Q&A. Check out his screenplay, or at least play “After the Party” real loud while reading this. Thanks to Adam for opening up to me and for The Menzingers for bringing us all together.

First off, how did you discover The Menzingers/On the Impossible Past? What spoke to you in their music? 

I first heard the Menzingers when “A Lesson in the Abuse of Information Technology” came on my Against Me! Pandora station and I was into it because it kind of reminded me of old AM! But I didn’t get super into them until OTIP came out. I remember checking out the punknews.org stream (which, by the way, was terrible quality) as a casual fan, more curious than anything, and when I got to “Casey” I had a “woah, this is something special” moment.

I was 22 at the time, in my last year of college. It was an emotionally turbulent time for me and all of the themes of the album fit with what I was going through — feeling like good things only fall apart, getting high all the time, self-loathing, falling in and out of love, drinking a lot, going to shows, constantly wanting to escape to somewhere far away. “Casey” is probably my favorite track because it has all of those things and wraps them up in a way that is painfully romantic. And man, what a catchy chorus. Favorite non-OTIP track and criminally underrated Menz song: “My Friend Chris.”

When you first started working on this, what came easily? What was a challenge?

The easiest thing was probably creating Chris’s character. He’s such an outrageous person, always saying something vulgar — and he’s kind of a dick to be honest. But I’d like to think he’s a lovable dick and he serves to off-set a lot of Greg’s mopiness. I partially modeled him after a friend of mine, so a lot of writing his dialogue was just thinking “What would so-and-so say here?” Any scene with Chris was a blast to write.

The challenge was figuring out the plot. I really wanted to tell the story that I felt was in OTIP and spent a lot of time studying lyrics as if I was trying to crack a code, to decipher the plot secretly kept inside the songs, but obviously it doesn’t work that way.

My first draft was about 40 pages shorter than it is now and there just wasn’t much story there, I think because I was too focused on directly translating the album into a movie rather than developing a story. Subsequent drafts were each a bit better, but it took a long time for me to feel satisfied with the plot.

How often did you listen to the album for inspiration/what role did it play during the process of writing?

Man, I listened to the album non-stop. I’m honestly surprised I still haven’t worn it out yet. It’s one of those albums where I found myself putting on a specific track to listen for something in the lyrics/to get inspiration and then I’d find myself listening to the whole album all the way through.

Like I said before, I initially tried too hard to translate the album directly into a film. I really, really wanted a scene with Chris and Greg in a CVS parking lot, for example, but couldn’t figure out how to work it in. I also had Casey quoting Leonard Cohen in bed in one draft a la Sun Hotel. Eventually, I moved past trying to make “On the Impossible Past: The Movie,” and started using the album as more of a mood board, as a guide of overall themes and emotions, and that really helped me develop the plot a bit more.

Your description of this project sounds like it was a labor of love. How did you motivate yourself to keep writing? 

I started the project in my last quarter of college and had to complete the first fifteen pages for my screenwriting class, so for the first bit (which sometimes is the hardest part, getting a creative project off the ground) I was lucky to have an entire class pushing me.

After graduation I moved back in with my parents and struggled to find a job. The pairing of these two things left me feeling pretty worthless. I used this project as something I could do every day, some semblance of routine that would also be rewarding and help me feel like I wasn’t just wasting my days as an unemployed piece of shit. And of course, searching for a job, I was hoping that the screenplay would be my ticket to my dream career — getting paid to write. Thinking “this will help me achieve my dreams” is a good motivator, turns out.

Which themes from the album did you want to focus on the most? What lines/verses really drove your plot? 

Definitely the theme of having a relationship based on drugs, alcohol, and punk rock and then having things fall apart. In fact, seeing that written out, that’s basically a summary of the entire screenplay. Also, the theme of escape in various forms.

Going through the lyrics, I really latched onto every line about Casey (anything to do with a waitress, diner, most of the title track’s lyrics) and going to Mexico — and these were probably what made me feel like there was a story threaded throughout the lyrics, what made me want to dig deeper and feel like it was possible to write a screenplay based on the album in the first place.

How did you feel when this was done enough to share for public consumption? What’s the response been like? 

I went through a lot of stages of loving and loathing this project over the past few years. I wanted to move past it and start working on new things, but I also just couldn’t let the thing go. So finally, it reached a point where I felt I absolutely couldn’t work on it anymore without getting outside feedback. I was too close to it and needed a fresh perspective. It felt like it was 90% finished and the last 10% couldn’t be accomplished without feedback (and feedback from strangers, people who don’t care about my feelings).

In that sense, posting this online and getting a response has been incredibly helpful (and cathartic). I’ve gotten a full range of responses, ranging from one guy who went through each song on OTIP and wrote about how he felt the screenplay connects to it, to a girl who told me the entire thing is extremely sexist. I’m nearly ready to work on my next (and potentially final) batch of edits using all of the comments and criticism I’ve gotten so far, which I’m pretty stoked about.

I’m amazed at how attached some people are to the project and I think that speaks volumes for just how meaningful OTIP is for so many people, which in and of itself is a heartwarming experience — to connect with people around a shared appreciation of art and to also feel like my work is having the sort of impact that inspired me to start this in the first place. Even people who have something negative to say, we can still find common ground with how much we love this album and usually something constructive can come from that. No one has just been like “this sucks, quit” and left it at that. Which is encouraging.

Anything else about what you learned as writer/listener?

I learned I really, really like vibrato in punk songs. I learned I love writing dialogue but hate writing action and descriptions. I learned to let go of my babies and cut scenes or jokes that don’t add to the screenplay even though I think they’re amazing. I learned Menzingers fans are super helpful and willing to go out of their way to connect with total strangers. I learned a lot of completing a project is just sitting down routinely and doing work. Even if it’s a little bit each day, that’s still progress. And recently I learned how to make small adjustments to make sure that women readers/audience members don’t feel demonized. All valuable lessons, I’d say.

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1/18/17

News of an upcoming Mutemath album has me on pins and needles, in a good way. This band is such a force to be reckoned with, bringing a bold, brassy and proggy sound to alt-rock. Lately they’ve gone into this really electronic/sample-sounding space and while at first I was hesitant, I’ve come to embrace the atmosphere. Overall, it’s still an ensemble effort with every player giving their all and playing their strengths — Darren King continues to hold down intricate grooves and Paul Meany’s introspection is at a peak. Mute Math songs have always had a self-empowerment, self-reflective bent to them; often they wonder about ways to get by, or how to transform an ordinary life into one that’s extraordinary. It’s why they’re one of my go-to bands when I need a little motivation.

Last year’s teaser of a single, “Changes,” wound up leading off a bunch of remixes and reinventions to songs from 2015’s Vitals, an album I’ve really come to love for its smooth confidence and sophisticated parts. But the remixes were good, too, and “Changes” is novel and noteworthy in its own right. Is there any rock band who is as good as playing around with delay, echoing effects, back-up snaps and ringing, resonant bell tones? The latest batch of Mutemath songs are a little bit 70s, a little bit 80s, and a little bit now, always wrapped up with a hook or two. The prominent piano line harkens back to their earlier work — and so does the overall theme and message, about being stuck in a place while seeking more on the other side. Their latest press release pledges yet another evolution in their sound on their fifth studio LP, and I’m really looking forward to it, and in the nearer term, pouring over their catalog all day and letting their bright, bold sounds add some color to a grey day.

“I can hear pallid choirs sing
From their headstone hymnals now
I’m just suffering from changes
Locked outside for good
Paper cut by turning pages
Sitting under dust cause
I’m not understood…”

~Changes
Mute Math, Changes

12/21/16

Another year, another end-of-the-year list. I’m getting in the habit of these things now, and also getting familiar with the sense of pressure and dread at shuffling my favorite music around.

Meriting a spot on this means it was music I couldn’t tear myself away from, that I binge-listened to on dull afternoons, evening walks or morning workouts. I turned to these albums when I couldn’t turn to anything else, when their hooks and chord progressions ran their way through my mind all day, or when I needed to hear that heartbreaking line one more time. I felt like I listened to more new music in 2016 than any other, mostly due to a reviewing side-hustle as well as getting Spotify premium on my phone, so narrowing it all down to 10 was hard. Obviously this year also saw incredible, groundbreaking releases from the likes of Bowie and Beyonce, and that song from The Chainsmokers hooked me as well as anybody, but these are the records that really resonated with me. I hope when I listen to them in 2017 and in years to come, I’ll be able to close my eyes and remember the place I was in when I first heard them, blanketed in sunshine settling into my Left Coast skin.

10) Kevin Devine – Instigator


One of my favorite songwriters, who in my opinion just keeps getting better with time. I regret that I was unable to catch him on tour this year, as the rocking and rolling songs on Instigator promise a great show. But I love it for walks around the city and morning jumpstarts, too, as the way Devine phrases his thoughts, feelings and societal observations are ripe for pondering. Though KD likely has one of the biggest catalogs of artists of his caliber/generation, I’d say that Instigator is a standout that could be presented to show a new listener what he’s all about.

9) Miranda Lambert – The Weight of These Wings


Ms.Lambert takes the crown for my favorite record to sing this year. Though it was a fourth-quarter release, I haven’t stopped listening to this record since the day it came out, and it pushed me back toward regular guitar practice. Lambert really tells a story, and gives so much context to heartbreak, growing up, moving on and self-exploration, all with a wry smile and whiskey glass by her side. For that, and for the bold vulnerability, I bow down.

8) Moose Blood – Blush


These guys came out of seemingly nowhere to quickly become one of my favorite UK rock groups — and Blush burst forth this year as a collection of edgy heartfelt anthems. Nothing better than seeing them live at The Fonda opening for The Wonder Years, too — I love their cynicism in spite of youth, and their energy in spite of the cynicism. I love their obvious romanticism on songs like “Knuckles” and “Honey” and the aching regret on tracks like “Glow” and “Sway.” Also like how all the song titles are one word. Blush is as upbeat as you could want from a 2016 pop punk band, and as smooth and sweet as its namesake.

7) Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial


Hearing Will Toledo’s voice for the first time is like hearing a memory you can’t place — you don’t know where, but you swear you’ve heard it before. He’s just that ubiquitous. As a brilliant guitar player and subtle, wry lyricist, Toledo is chock full of talent and has a substantial following behind him. This year’s Teens of Denial was a stunner, in its own depressing and over-it way. Gems like “Vincent” and “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” show how hard Car Seat Headrest can rock without abandoning pensive sensibilities, one of my favorite lines rock musicians can walk. Toledo has tapped into a raw rock and roll vibe that used to only exist in bands you had to go backwards to find, but this record showed how alive and well the genre can be.

6) Bon Iver – 22, A Million


God this album! I don’t have it on vinyl yet, but of all the records on this list, it’s the one I have my eye on the most. Justin Vernon has established himself as the kind of musician who pushes boundaries, and this eagerly awaited album shows that he does not make waves for their own sake, but rather because he has developed something to say. They heavy reliance on vocal manipulation and other-wordly echoes made 22, A Million an unforgettable listen, if only because it sounds like *nothing* else out there. But it has the same beauty as Bon Iver’s breakthrough work, with a few more levels of abstraction thrown in. I fell in love from the start, and this is now one of my favorite “focus” records when my mind starts running away with me. “8(circle)” is my favorite, although I’m probably not alone there. Three cheers for artistic expression, and those stay their path.

5) Joyce Manor- Cody


If I had to recommend an album for anyone to listen to this year, it’d be Joyce Manor. Hands down. For me, they’ll be up there with TWY and Brand New, carrying that mantle in their own sharp style. But we already knew that; the best thing about Cody is the way they’ve harnessed their aggression and thrash into polished hooks and climatic builds. “Last You Heard of Me” was my anthem upon release of the single, and it exemplifies the meaning and message these guys can cram into what on the surface one excepts to be a silly little pop punk song. Joyce doesn’t take themselves too seriously, which I love, but there’s nothing silly or little about them at this point.

4) The Hotelier – Goodness


Deep and resonant, heartfelt and literary….The Hotelier’s much -anticipated follow-up did not disappoint, nor did it simply satiate. Goodness is lush and full and while it doesn’t have the same sadness as their breakthrough record Home, Like No Place Is There, it has the same existential darkness and rock-solid progressions. Songs like “Piano Player” and “Soft Animal” channel the turmoil that we’ve come to know and love from The Hotelier, while pushing musical boundaries with different kinds of builds and busts. There’s a lot of depth here, and the shower of critical reception on Goodness gave me hope that it was recognized by not just niche audiences but the music world at large. After playing this album to death upon release, I can still put it on and get lost in it — damn right, they did it again.

3) Jimmy Eat World- Integrity Blues


Getting to listen to Integrity Blues for the first time felt like getting a phone call from a friend you haven’t talked to in awhile. You knew what they were up to, you knew they were doing OK, but you hadn’t heard the ins and outs yet. With this record, the singles were promising, but a part of me held my breath thinking this could be an album full of filler. Not so! Integrity Blues is likely the best album JEW’s put out since Chase This Light, and though my adoration for Invented is a very real thing, the songs on this record are true and honest alternative rock that embrace maturity in melody and meaning…the closer, “Pol Roger,” is easily one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World songs of all time, and not just for those sweet, sweet Jim Atkins harmonies.

2) case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs


This album got under my skin so quick, it was like falling in love at first sight. I think I read about the famed, talented trio just a couple days after the album dropped, and got right in on the ground floor with it. And it blew me away, with its stunning harmonies, poetic effort and lush sonic landscape. There’s not a song on this record that doesn’t feel like a breath of fresh air to me. There’s a sweetness and a strength, an assertive foot forward and knowing shy smile. Every song paints a picture of people, places and things, and eloquently describes intricate emotions with excellent harmonies and beautiful, lithe guitar parts. “I Want To Be Here,” “Supermoon” and “Best Kept Secret” all became instant classics for me, and the perfect songs to soundtrack my first summer in LA.

1) Pinegrove – Cardinal


I had trouble figuring out what was my favorite of my favorites, but I think I knew it had to be Pinegrove. I made an instant connection with Cardinal for its unique sound and literary qualities, but the album’s staying power really went above and beyond anything else this year. Pinegrove was the easiest band for me to bring up when talking music with friends, as I knew they were likely to be a spot-on suggestion for anyone who likes alt-rock, folk-rock or anything in the indie vein. When you hear songs like “Aphasia” and “New Friends,” you’re struck by not only their honesty but their plaintive innocence, as if you’re having a conversation with a thoughtful friend about your lives and feelings. That familiarity makes Pinegrove instantly accessible, even before you get into their slightly quirky and innovative ways of structuring songs. Seeing them at The Echo was one of my most memorable concert experiences of the year, too, if only because the way they layered up their sound with extra synth & auxiliary really brought their songs to life. There’s a comfort in knowing that if I heard this album when I was an emo teenager, I would’ve loved it for the same reasons I do now — and it gives me hope that today’s emo teenagers are being introduced to quality indie rock. Pinegrove also delivered one of my most definitive favorite lyrical truisms of the year — “I am outta my goddamn mind and out to California,” which sums it up as well as anything. So looking forward to continuing to wrap myself up in Cardinal, and see where this band goes next.

And as a little bonus, here’s a playlist of my favorite songs of the year, added in no particular order than how I remembered them. I kept it to one per artist, off of albums that dropped this calendar year (so you can expect that new Ryan Adams’ tune here next year). Looking over it, I’m really struck by the variety of the artists, and how despite their differences, they all managed to strike the same chord in me.

11/21/16

From the low and rumbled opening tones, Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” is one of the best country offerings of the year, and I’ve been losing myself in its beauty daily.

A double album is a rare and risky move, as who can put out that much work that merits attention all at once? It seems like you’re asking for filler. But here, every song offers a little bit more of the unfolding story, and it’s solid start to finish. After hearing the lead single “Vice” earlier this year I looked forward to what kind of soul-searching Lambert would offer up. I love the tones, topics and narratives she shares, the kind that clearly raise her from the radio country throne she once occupied into a higher plane of performers.

The opening track “Running Just In Case” is a slow burn, the kind that color most of the album. “I guess no one ever taught me how to stay,” she says, just one of the many poignant observations to come. “Getaway Driver” struck me as an instant favorite, with its harmonies and cyclical chords and ballad-style perspective. Then I found out it was a newly anticipated collaboration with Anderson East — I would say there’s some magic brewing in that pairing.

Lambert is bluesy and bold, and as assertive as we’ve come to expect, but she’s not just belting for its own sake. To the contrary, there’s more soft tones than there are loud ones. While this record is fueled by heartbreak (songs like “Tin Man” chronicle the pains of love) it doesn’t feel like a break-up album as much as come-back-together one. It’s Lambert’s spine, strength and vision for her life to come that ebb and flow, and she filters her many relationship reflections through a lens of moving forward as a whole person. It’s so much more motivational and introspective than maudlin or mushy as one might think “country” to be. And it’s not all bad news. Our narrator is a girl-about-town who travels and creates and believes in herself, and even love, despite its failings. “Pushin’ Time” is the romantic peak of the album, and it’s taken the mantle of my favorite Miranda track (previously held by “Bathroom Sink”).

While it’s the slow jams that steal the show, the upbeat tracks are still miles beyond what we heard on “Platinum.” They embrace lots more instrumentation and a folksier sound that’s more Willie Nelson or Bonnie Raitt than the radio country mainstays like Jason Aldean or Kenny Chesney that Lambert usually shares the charts with. Musically, there’s excellent choices and production on this album that keep it elevated but accessible. Acoustic guitars, horn sections, pedal steel, muted drums…it’s a very Americana lexicon paired with Lambert’s confessionals that make for a mature, full-fledged sound. She lets her voice crack and fall in very natural ways, instead of belting out pop-star style, though there’s tons of power in her voice seen on tracks like “Good Ol’ Days” and “To Learn Her.” At a time when excellent folk and country has captured modern audiences through the likes of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, Lambert looks to pivot from an established female artist who can command those same indie, picky audiences. To be fair, Kasey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe have done this too, but from a different angle, as Lambert already has a big following. Bottom line: “The Weight of These Wings” has eternal qualities that will appeal to listener beyond her core audience.

Lyrically, there’s plenty of moments that are either heartbreaking, cutting, comforting or inspiring. “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart,” she sings on the closer of the first album, just one example of many well-crafted lines in a song flooded with gorgeous steel guitar parts. I think I read somewhere that this is the most co-writing Lambert has done on a record, and it speaks beautifully to her self-aware and poetic. “I was born a bull in a China cabinet,” she says on “Things That Break,” kicking off 3:48 worth of metaphor and vivid imagery. “Keeper of the Flame” is a rallying cry to all those who has ever been called to be the kind of somebody who accomplishes something. Then there’s the bookend songs about highways that start and finish the album, with plenty more journeying in between.

Spout off her name to high-minded listeners and it might conjure up images of flashy sequined dresses, songs about trashing cheating ex’s cars with baseball bats and celebrity romances. But with all its beauty and poetry, “The Weight of These Wings” shows us a version of of Miranda Lambert that’s a far cry from the reputation or stereotypes. Instead of any trope, she’s simply herself, and as authentic, true, powerful, talented and strong as a woman, artist or woman artist ought to be.

“I didn’t plan on fallin’ fast;
I didn’t know I could be kissed like that.
No I’m tradin’ miles for minutes.
This bed’s too big without you in it.

Sometimes love acts out of spite,
And good things happen over night.
Can’t take it slow cause you and I are pushin’ time
You and I are pushin’ time.”
~Pushin’ Time
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Songs

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