Thursday, April 11, 2013

Eric Lichter – Elks in Paris

The cover of Elks in Paris declares in large type “Produced by Ken Stringfellow”, giving it almost equal standing with “Songs by Eric Lichter”. For this Kickstarter-funded project, they flew to Paris and recorded there. Besides a drummer (Mike Dumas), the two played all of the instruments. If Stringfellow’s name is on the cover because of how collaborative the LP is, I understand. But if it’s an attempt to grab the attention of music buyers with a better-known name – because the Posies and REM are more famous than the almighty cult favorites the Green Pajamas – it’s unnecessary. This is a fine collection of songs that can stand on its own. Sweet, humble songs with power-pop melodies and a thoughtful tone.

The sometimes dreamlike – very, very lightly psychedelic – mood and the general in-your-head perspective of the songs perhaps does jibe well with the idea of traveling to another country, but the lyrics most often look back to Lichter’s home country, to New York City and the Pacific Northwest.  There’s one great quiet moment where Lichter describes listening to bees buzzing around sugar trees, contemplating what they’re making for free versus what rich businessmen produce. “Maybe it’s time to leave our money to the courtesy of trees.”

This is soft music with a general sense of optimism, but, as that moment shows, there are doubts about the world in here too. The first song asks, “How can a plan so beautiful / go so pitifully bad?” He’s singing about a botched crime spree, but as a hook it resonates beyond that story.

Lichter has an almost hushed way of singing that meets the music at a place of beauty and also helps channel many of the songs’ emotions – their worry and their sense of wonder. There’s humor, too, or at least playfulness, in the way the songs look at the world. Like in “Posh”, where he’s looking at the world around him with the fresh eyes of a child.

On the flipside of that are the moments where those thoughts in his brain get overwhelming, or where the world itself seems too much, like on “I Still Insist”, where there’s too many sights, thoughts, wine, time, dreams. Everything is too much, but still there’s some unifying force behind it all that he can’t quite get to.

For all the personal thoughts expressed on the album, it ends with more of an outward turn, as Lichter sings of trying to cross the lines that exist between people. “Tell me one thing that you think I am”, he asks, eventually revealing a greater distance between he and the person he’s questioning that you first thought. It makes you think back and wonder the extent heartbreak is playing within the album’s distinctly thoughtful, light but heavy climate.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lisa Germano - No Elephants

On Lisa Germano's ninth LP No Elephants, the main dynamic is between a dreamy/hazy sound and very direct, focused, intense lyrics. That's been true of all of her albums, especially the most recent ones -- Magic Neighbor (2009), In the Maybe World (2006) and Lullaby for a Liquid Pig (2003), all of which were produced, like No Elephants, by Jamie Candiloro.

That dreamy/intense dynamic seems even more pronounced here, especially in comparison to her last two albums. The music is more unified, less varied, than on Magic Neighbor, with more piano, just a little guitar, a little violin, and samples and other atmospheric elements that cast the same mood across all tracks. The lyrics seem especially fierce, driven overall by a deep sense of dismay at the continued environmental devastation of our time, and particularly tragic effects on animal populations.

It’s a deceptively polemical album; the drifting, elusive qualities of her music overall tend to make cover for the fact that she’s making pointed statements against animal abuse of all sorts – from poaching elephants for their tusks to eating meat. The song “A Feast”, one of the prettiest piano songs here, in part chronicles her disgust at menu items, with references to foie gras and suckling pigs in between expressions like “how in the world?” and “God help us all”.

The feeling of the album, like all of hers, is internal. We’re inside someone’s head, hearing the pain in her thoughts but also the glimmers of hope. Mainly we’re hearing someone try to cope with what they see as a world filled with tragedies. “I need four stomachs to deal, to deal”, she sings on the first track “Ruminants”, named after the types of mammals who have four-compartment stomachs.

Germano’s focus in some ways is on capturing the perspective of someone who sees murder and abuse which others don’t recognize as such. In other words, on human indifference to the suffering of animals.  Ignoring is an action, too. “It’s only apathy and the devil / they like to hang around paradise,” she sings on “Apathy and the Devil”.

The thing about No Elephants is that it’s easy to listen to it without identifying it as an animal-rights missive – because of the music’s beauty, the way she sings in whispers and murmurs, the way the music mimics those qualities. But once the lyrics reach you, it’s hard to listen to the album without its messages on your mind. That’s to her credit. It’s a stealth attack, even when her feelings are as out in the open as possible.

No Elephants is also a majestic musical portrait of deep sadness, one built of strange sounds and comforting ones. In some ways the instrumentals carry her outrage and disappointment in the world as clearly as her singing does.

The album has a power that more naked ‘statement’ albums don’t, mainly because of how the music and lyrics are designed to pull you into someone’s thought process. She’s not making statements, she’s thinking aloud, and her thoughts can be as certain and as strange as our own. The album is also above all else a work of beauty, which means you can find yourself so lost in the sound that her thoughts slide into yours in a gentle, quiet way. 

{"And So On" Mp3}

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Interview: Jason Anderson on piano

In the 17 years since his first album (then as Wolf Colonel), Jason Anderson has released somewhere around a dozen albums and played countless shows all over the place. 
He’s done state-specific tours and tours on bicycle. He’s played by campfire, played in people’s houses, played in proper clubs. He’s played with bands of various sorts, though most times I’ve seen him it’s been him alone with a guitar, perhaps standing on a chair in the middle of the audience, most certainly leading enthusiastic singalongs and playing like it’s the last show of his career, or the last night that any of us will be able to experience on this earth.
Right now he’s on a piano tour, meaning he’s playing pianos (or piano-like instruments) while singing his songs. He took a few seconds to answer my questions about pianos and the tour.  
What do you like best about the piano as an instrument (as a performer and/or listener)?
The piano was the first instrument I learned. My grandmother taught me, when I was in third grade. I've always had a special connection with it. To me, there's something lovely about the sound and the feel, the response of the keys and pedals. I am by no means an incredible piano player, but there is a marked difference in the way I emote on that instrument, versus, say, strumming a guitar and singing. I also think there is something irresistibly special, cozy, and quaint about a group of folks sitting or standing around a piano and singing together. It definitely touches on something sweet.
What qualities do you look for in a piano?
It it's (reasonably) in tune and has a working sustained pedal, we're in business. I am certainly no connoisseur. In fact, for much of this tour I am playing a Yamaha digital keyboard (with weighted keys) that my friend Juliet was nice enough to let me borrow.
How does playing the piano change the nature of your performances (for example, can you bring as much energy to it as you do when it's you and a guitar jumping around)?
This is an interesting question as I often get asked the same thing, re: full-band shows vs. solo, acoustic performances. Whatever the set-up, I will always be endeavoring to give the same amount of energy while creating, hopefully, the same amount of intimacy and connection. What is different, as I mentioned briefly above, is the way the songs are shaped on the piano (vs. the guitar). There is something about the piano that, for me, seems to showcase the stories and lyrics in a different way.
It's inspired all sorts of different set lists, covers, etc.
How does playing piano (and, presumably, playing other people's instruments) affect the experience of touring?
Well, shoot, this digital piano is a heavy one, so I get a nice amount of exercise bringing it in and out of venues. I also don't have to change strings on my guitar, which I do a lot because I am always breaking guitar strings (sometimes every show). Other than that, there is not much difference, except, perhaps, for the excitement of showing up to a venue and realizing that they have an actual piano there.
You've only done a handful of piano songs on your albums, never a whole piano album that I can recall. Would you like to do more?
I would love to, and I would also like to make a concerted effort to book the next tour only at venues containing pianos. That would be so special; I love the idea of a tour being shaped by piano-ready places (churches, art spaces, living rooms).
Do you have favorite piano players and/or piano songs?
In the pop pantheon, Page McConnell from Phish is a real favorite. He's so melodic and tasteful. I also love Roy Bittan from The E Street Band.
Are there any other instruments you'd like to build a whole tour around?
That's a great question. Drums someday? That could be weird, but totally awesome.

The rest of the tour dates:

Monday February 4 / Jacksonville FL / 2135 Dellwood Ave
w/Paul Baribeau

Tuesday February 5 / Savannah GA
w/Paul Baribeau

Wednesday February 6 / Atlanta GA / WonderRoot
w/Paul Baribeau

Thursday February 7 / Bloomington IN
w/ Paul Baribeau

Friday February 8 / Chicago IL / Swerp Mansion
w/Paul Baribeau

Saturday February 9 / Madison WI / Indie Coffee
w/Paul Baribeau

Sunday February 10 / N. Manchester IN / The Firehouse

Monday February 11 / Nashville TN / TBA

Tuesday February 12 / Asheville NC / WWC House Show

Wednesday February 13 / Durham NC / Duke Coffee House

Thursday February 14 / Greensboro NC / 711 N Greene St

Friday February 15 / Washington DC / First Trinity Lutheran Church, 309 E Street NW / 7 PM / FREE

Saturday February 16 / Williamstown NJ / 1619 House, 
1619 Herbert Blvd

Sunday February 17 / Skidmore College

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Josephine Foster - Blood Rushing

Two of the most riveting albums of the last couple years that I didn’t write about, in part because I didn’t feel historically/culturally equipped to, were Anda Jaleo and Perlas, two collections of Spanish folk music that Josephine Foster recorded with the Victor Herrero Band.

Foster’s latest album Blood Rushing definitely bears traces of that experience – Herrero plays guitar on it, for one, but the overall sound is less geographically specific, more engaged with folk music in general as an approach to music. Her voice is just as distinctive, unforgettable in how it soars and twists. It can be soft and delicate, but also jarring in its heights -- and even close to operatic. That’s on purpose, an act of drama and purposeful artificiality.

Blood Rushing walks a line between traditional folk music and eccentric pop. It sometimes seems to have its own fantasy/mythological world, yet also seems obsessed with the tangible, earth and skin. Musically it gets bare, too, sometimes with just her voice, some skin drums and a roving violin. It feels in touch with the elements. The lyrics, too, have dirt and the body at the forefront, along with related feelings of yearning, comfort and dreaming.

The first song finds her dreaming of a waterfall. Elsewhere she looks to other bodies of water (“Geyser”, “Underwater Daughter”), but also to the stars (“O Stars”, “Sacred Is the Star”) or to internal processes, be it feeling “a wave of love” or feeling more scientific bodily systems in action. For example, the flow of blood within our bodies is at the center of the title track, one of the best songs here. She goes from listening to the sound of blood to a feeling of rebirth: “We’ll begin to begin again.”

That song’s neighbor “Child of God” is more pessimistic, but doesn’t sound like it. It seems to be about human beings’ place in cities, and carries the realization that we’re all cogs in a machine.

There’s freedom here in thinking, about ourselves and the greater cycles and systems we dwell in. The final song title “Words Come Loose” represents for me the way she thinks broadly and journeys in many directions. Yet the song might be the most dour, reminding us there is sadness in these songs even when they feel light and airy.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Closing the book on 2012 (favorites)

2012 was a year. There was music in it. I listened to hundreds of albums and liked probably half of what I heard. I found a handful of albums that felt truly special to me, that either instantly or over time came to mean a lot to me – albums that I played and replayed in cars, houses, rooms, outdoors and inside my ears, that I sang along to, that I thought about, dissected and daydreamed about in quiet moments. And I enjoyed a lot of other albums that I’d be a fool to overanalyze or overpraise.

Near the end of the year, hastened by the music-critics’ end-of-year season (which, like the Christmas shopping season seems to move earlier every year), I spent way too much mental energy organizing and re-judging my favorites of 2012. I did it to such an extent that I bored myself on the effort before we had even reached the last day of the year.

Now it’s 2013 and I’m ready to move on to the new, but not before indulging my compulsion to put somewhere in electronic stone my list of favorite albums from the year. This is presented without comments; they all cry out for an indepth explanation, especially the ones that readers might say “huh?” about. But too many words have been spent on 2012 by now. So talk to me about the why if you will, and I’ll happily engage you about it. Or listen to the music and let yourself imagine what I might find of value in it. I’ve linked to videos or songs from these albums (a good album doesn't necessarily make for a good video, so for some of these you might prefer closing your eyes and just listening).

25 favorite albums of 2012
1. Allo Darlin' - Europe (Slumberland)
2. The Coup - Sorry to Bother You (Anti-)
3. Taylor Swift - Red (Big Machine)
4. Advance Base - A Shut-In's Prayer (Caldo Verde)
5. Cat Power - Sun (Matador)
6. The Black Swans - Occasion for Song (Misra)
7. Iris DeMent - Sing the Delta (Flariella)
8. The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth (Merge)
9. Yuichiro Fujimoto - Speaks Melodies (Audio Dregs)
10. Guided by Voices - The Bears for Lunch (GBV Inc.)
11. Landing - Landing (Geographic North)
12. Hallelujah the Hills - No One Knows What Happens Next (Discrete Pageantry)
13. Roc Marciano - Reloaded (Decon Inc.)
14. Tennis - Young and Old  (Fat Possum)
15. Peter Broderick - (Hush)
16. Windy and Carl - We Will Always Be (Kranky)
17. Apollo Brown and Guilty Simpson - Dice Game (Mello Music Group)
18. Dan Deacon - America (Domino)
19. Miguel - Kaleidoscope Dream (RCA)
20. Bowerbirds - The Clearing (Dead Oceans)
21. Josephine Foster - Blood Rushing (Fire)
22. Grass Widow - Internal Logic (HLR)
23. Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill (Reprise)
24. First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar (Wichita)
25. Strand of Oaks - Dark Shores (self-released)

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My Website Is Not a Blog (but why not?)

I’ve always been adamant that I am not a blogger.  “You have a blog, right?" “I have a website where I write about music but it’s not a blog really. It’s more of an online magazine. There’s no commenting, the articles are longer, I try to think them out more.” ”Hmm…Ok.”.  

For at least three years I’ve considered writing a piece for my website titled “Erasingclouds is NOT a Blog”, but every time I started thinking it out it seemed too bitter, too anachronistic, too narcissistic. Besides, since I’ve managed to update the site only a handful of times during the last two years, why would anyone want to hear my thought process on what I’m not doing? Just do the thing, for chrissakes.

My main issue with music blogs is that I’ve read too many (most of them, it sometimes seems) that just put up a links to a song and write a few not especially thoughtful sentences about it. I also collapse the rise of blogs together with some general negative trends I see in music writing: listening to an album just once or twice before writing about it, focusing exclusively on finding the newest thing (and then forgetting about it a year later, when it’s no longer the newest), not taking the time to understand the historical context for music before making declarative statements about it, not listening closely enough, and getting too swayed by hype/buzz/trends.

Yet I hate being the old curmudgeon. It doesn’t suit me. And here I am, setting aside my precious “magazine” for a while and starting a cursed blog. Instead of standing on some ethical high ground against the blog format, I’m embracing it. Why? It seems like a no-brainer right now.  I don’t have as much time as I want for writing, and it’s a format that allows for not having much time, since it privileges brevity and spontaneity.  The lack of free time I feel in life is partly related to being a parent of a two-year-old, partly to increased responsibilities at my job, partly to being a home owner and partly some mysterious disappearance of time that I can never rationalize or grab hold of.

As a Christmas gift I received a book by a French food scientist/writer named Edouard DePomiane. The book is titled Cooking in 10 Minutes or The Adaptation to the Rhythm of Our Time. It was first published in 1930. I love the second half of that title; it resonates with me. I feel like life is moving fast. I don’t think people have time to read long articles about music on the Internet. I still gladly write them for another website, but I don’t have the time to write them in more than one place. And I definitely don’t have time to write them about all or most (or even a respectable share) of the hundreds of new albums I hear each year.

I need to plan less, do more. The Internet seems all about that right now, so I’m adapting to keep pace with the rhythm of our time.

I’m still old-fashioned. I miss seeing films on film. I miss taking photos on film. I wish I wrote more letters and put them in the mail.  I subscribe to magazines. I walk out to my front yard every morning and pick up my newspaper.  I own, and buy, records, cassettes and CDs. I have a landline phone. I read books printed on paper, and I hope to one day write one. With that hope I place all of the big, unfulfilled ideas I have for articles and article series – everything I imagined I was doing with my website but never did, or only did halfway.

Meanwhile, on this blog I’ll be doing my best to track my year in music, 2013, in all the directions that goes.  I’ll be making up for all the times last year where I meant to write about a great album and never did. I’ll be indulging my interest of the moment, new or old. Above all else, I’ll be writing more often. I’ll be keeping things flowing. I won’t be disappearing for months. I won’t over-analyze my next move. I’ll be a blogger -- figuring out what that means to me and whether I can live with it.

I’m excited about this right now. I tell you, it's not going to be the hippest or snazziest blog, but it is going to have a lot of ideas, it is going to go all over the place (music-wise), and I am going to have fun writing it. At the start of DePomiane’s book, he writes this, and I feel similarly:

“First of all I must tell you that this is a lovely book, because I have only got as far as the first page. I have just sat down to write. I am happy, with the happiness of beginning a fresh task.”