Tag Archives: Sarah Jarosz

Top albums and artist discoveries of 2011

Once again I had a hard time counting to 10 as I started thinking about my favorite albums of 2011, because I continue to commit the sin of buying whatever music I want, without considering whether it’s new or not.

So, here are my here are my top five albums:

1. Tune-YardsWhokill
Unique album from a talented and creative artist. There’s something naive and complicated at the same time about Tune-Yards’ African-influenced indie rock. It’s as if Merrill Garbus found some uncontacted tribe in the African rainforest and instead of going the Deep Forest ethnic-ambient direction, turned it into something off-kilter and funky. I guess I would have to say this is not for everyone, since a couple of people I tried to turn onto this album didn’t seem to take to it. Maybe they’ll come around.

2. Rebirth Brass BandRebirth of New Orleans.
This was an impulse buy at Waterloo Records. I picked it up last July and I still can’t seem to get enough of it. It’s a jazzy mix of New Orleans second line, funk and hip hop. Mostly instrumental, but with some great shouted choruses, in songs like “Why Your Feet Hurt” and “I Like It Like That.” I gushed about the the band a little bit in in a blog post which includes an awesome video of the band in the streets of New Orleans.

3. Sarah JaroszFollow Me Down
Very impressive sophomore album. I love her voice. Her original material continues to impress me, but her covers are amazing, especially her cover of Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” I also love “Annabelle Lee,” adapted from the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. She also has some really good bluegrass musicians backing her up.

4. Pickering PickTiger Balm

This one caught me off guard. Sam released this in June, but I just discovered it a few weeks ago. As always, excellent songwriting, beautiful melodies and sweet vocals. This time he had a new studio and you can really hear it in the production. He’s busy updating the equipment, so the next album will sound even better. I love every song on the album, but “Like a River” is truly amazing.

5. Daughters of the SunGhost with Chains
Nice album from one of my surprise discoveries at this year’s Psych Fest. And by the way, they are very impressive live. It’s partly psych, partly ambient, but with tribal-sounding percussion and shoegaze vocals. To look at them, you expect some kind of heavy metal, but instead you get this hypnotic psychedelia. Catch them if they come to your town.

And here are my top five artists discovered in 2012:

1. Sleepy Sun. I found this group at Psych Fest in Austin back in April. Awesome, trippy, acid-drenched blues. Fever has become one of my favorite albums and it would’ve made my top five of 2010 if I had discovered it in time. Check out their website which has an embedded live version of “Marina.”

2. Atash. Kickass Austin-based group I discovered almost by accident during SXSW. I was hunting for free and cheap shows and was just about to give up when I found them giving a free performance at Central Market on North Lamar. They put on a HELL of a live show. Their music seems to have Gypsy, Persian, Indian, and other influences. I downloaded Republic of Love off Amazon.com and I’ve really been enjoying it.

3. Chubby Knuckle Choir. A great local find. As I said about them in June, they have such an odd fusion of sounds, yet they sound like roots music, like roots music from a country that never existed – but should have. They are performing in Bastrop, Elgin and in the Austin area. You can hear what they sound like and download some of their tuns on their Reverbnation page.

4. Dana Falconberry. One of the musicians featured in the wonderful documentary Echotone. There were actually several new artists in that soundtrack that impressed me (Belaire was another), but Dana’s “Possum Song” was especially wonderful. I got a free soundtrack album from Paste Magazine (I think it still works – enter your e-mail and see) and I’ve been playing the hell out of it for months. She just came out with an EP, Though I Didn’t Call It Came, which I have yet to get my hands on.

5. Jogja Hip Hop Foundation. This was a recent discovery, one of those truly startling discoveries. The idea of melding hip hop with gamelan music never even occurred to me. They’ve created something unique and vibrant and I think we’ll be hearing from these guys for years to come.

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Archive.org – a musical smorgasbord and all for free

Have I ever used the word smorgasbord before in my life? I can’t remember. Anyway, this time it fits. I’ve known about Archive.org for a long time now, but it’s been a while since I visited. Frankly, there’s so much stuff there that I find it a bit overwhelming, but if you ever have a little free time and want to dig around for some musical gems, you can’t ask for a better place.  They have a lot of live recordings – some of them surprisingly high quality. Some by bands and groups you know, a lot by people you never heard of. You can search by artist or you can browse. Some of the recordings have been reviewed, which will give you an idea about the sound quality and performance. You can download in a variety of formats – mp3, flac, ogg – or you can stream in a little radio on the page and judge whether you want it or not.

I found some nice concert recordings  from Robyn Hitchcock, Sarah Jarosz and the Asylum Street Spankers. Something else I just recently found is a collection of digitized 78 rpm and wax cylinder recordings. You expect those to sound a bit scratchy, but some of them are quite clear. Lots of old ragtime, vaudeville and stuff like that. Just found a singer named Sophie Tucker that I really like. I’m going to spend a lot of time downloading those songs, especially Tucker’s.

Music is only one part of Archive.org, which is a non-profit organization creating a digital library, archiving all kinds of material – art, culture, websites, written material, podcasts, you name it. Kind of like a private, all-digital Library of Congress. I could literally immerse myself in this thing for days at a time.

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Thrift store finds

Got three CDs at Goodwill yesterday:

Cool Blue Outlaws. A compilation from Sugar Hill Records (Sarah Jarosz’ label). Pretty good stuff, if a bit harrowing. It consists of bluegrass murder ballads and tales of what guys did to wind up at the gallows or in prison breaking rocks for life. One thing I find interesting is the contrast. To me, the banjo is a happy-sounding instrument. It’s kind of amusing to hear that sound coupled with stories about killing and retribution. Some of those songs – traditional in folk music I realize – make no sense to me, but I suppose it happens: What’s up with the guy who was making love with his sweetheart down by the creek and just kills her for no apparent reason, then sings about how sad it was that he lost his beautiful bride? The ones where he catches her fooling around and kills her and her lover – those have a certain logic. Guys get pissed off and do things they later regret. But the ones who do it for no good reason other than that they were alone and she was beautiful, WTF? I guess the idea is you have a character who has done something so heinous that he knows he’s going to hell after the hangman gets through with him. Kind of a cautionary tale for society. Come to think of it, maybe it’s meant to scare young girls away from making out with guys down by the creek before they get married. He might love you, but he might kill you in addition to knocking you up, so you better hold onto that V-card or else.

(I’ll list the artists from the comp in the tags.)

U2 – Pop. I already had this one, but it was out of its CD case and all scratched up. This was a good clean copy. I could just download it of course, but I like having the CD on hand to play on the road and don’t feel like ripping and burning. That’s worth a couple of bucks. For some reason a lot of people don’t appear to respect Pop, but it’s one of my favorite U2 albums. I know they had problems getting the album out on time and didn’t sell as much as they hoped, but I thought their creative powers were at their peak.  I like it better than the Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. Zooropa and Pop are my favorites.

Gladys Hardy – I Love Jesus But I Drink A Little. You might remember the old lady who called into Ellen DeGeneres’s show a few years back and had Ellen and her audience laughing hysterically. Supposedly she’s an Austin woman who is “88 years old and holding,” but I understand there’s some doubt about whether she’s for real or not, some speculate that she might be a professional comic pulling some kind of hoax. Anyway (she?) can be pretty entertaining. She has called in to local radio stations, read her commentaries and bantered with the hosts, and sometimes her phone calls will turn up in radio commercials for Rudy’s BBQ. There were tons of these at the Goodwill. I think some church group was giving them away and wound up with a bunch of leftovers. It features a bunch of phone calls (including the one to Ellen), commentaries, and recordings of her talking to her family. Not all as funny as the Ellen episode, but still fun. Definitely worth $2.

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Sarah Jarosz vs. Taylor Swift – industry is obviously tone deaf

I first saw young country bluegrass singer Sarah Jarosz perform at the Old Settlers Music Festival in Driftwood, outside of Austin. She couldn’t have been more than about 12 or so, but she was already a whiz on the banjo and mandolin and had a gorgeous voice. I knew she was going to wind up huge and sure enough, she’s already been nominated for a Grammy and she’s only 18. I was blown away by her first album, Song Up In Her Head. Especially her cover of the Decemberists’ “Shankill Butchers.” Very impressive. I predict her upward trajectory will continue. Who knows how high she will go?

My only question is, why isn’t she even bigger right now? Why do I constantly have to hear about Taylor Swift, a nice enough girl, but far, far less talented?

There’s no use posting the video of Taylor Swift singing that embarrassing off key duet with Stevie Nicks at the Grammys because folks from the Grammys and Swift’s record company keep sending take-down notices to YouTube. It pops up again for a while and promptly gets removed again. You can probably find it yourself if you care to look, but trust me it’s awful. I don’t know why Stevie put up with it. I didn’t watch it live myself – I have  better things to do. But it points out a painfully obvious problem with the music industry. Swift, who apparently cannot sing on key and has to be using auto-tune in the studio, somehow got four Grammy awards. Sure, she’s young and cute, but there are a million cute young things out there.

Why did the supremely talented Sarah Jarosz, also young and cute, come home with no Grammys?  She was nominated for her song, “Mansinneedof,” which is still an honor – but it was an instrumental. Why did a girl who knows how to sing get beat out by someone who obviously can’t? I almost wonder if the industry favors people who have less talent, because they are easier to control. They want music to be a commodity that they can sell like rice or flour. They don’t want artists out there listening to muses and creating. That’s way too unpredictable. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that she’s on Sugar Hill Records, which is an independent label.

Play this and tell me I’m wrong:

If you’re as charmed as I was when I first heard Jarosz sing, check out her MySpace page (her wide-ranging list of influences is quite telling) and her homepage, and consider buying her album.

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Downloads vs. record stores – the digital and the personal

Waterloo Records

The Digital

Sometimes I’m not sure where I stand on this digital revolution business. When I told my brother I was about to go on a CD run yesterday, he asked me why I still bothered. “You can download it cheaper and get it right away. Then you don’t have to drive anywhere.” True enough. I do buy mp3s online and it is cheap and convenient. I love the fact that high quality digital downloads are an option now on both Amazon.com – which gives access to more mainstream artists, and CDBaby.com – which lets me get my indie music fix. I can get instant gratification and don’t even have to get out of my chair.

(I’m avoiding the iTunes store for now because everybody else is doing it and that always annoys me, plus I hate Apple and don’t want to give them my money. But yeah, they’re definitely an option for digital downloads and they kind of got the ball rolling for paid digital downloads. Might as well mention it.)

In fact, you can get an awful lot of music on the Internet for free if you want, we all know that. The RIAA might bust you and sue you for  everything you’ve got, but they probably won’t. I downloaded my share of songs off peer to peer and torrent networks, till I realized I now have several stacks of easily-scratched CD-Rs, most of which will never see the light of day. I won’t remember what most of it was and it’s doubtful I’ll bother to slot them into my computer and find out. Pointless and not especially fun anymore.

Also, as much as I hate the RIAA for its tactics, I can’t really stick up for music piracy anymore the way I used to.  I know that many “pirates” do spend money on music. And back when I was still trying to download the whole Internet, I was constantly buying CDs. But I have talked to people who feel entitled, who don’t think they have to pay for anything and couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the artists. If the artist they “like” goes out of business, there’s still plenty of other music to steal. I find that terribly depressing. Downloading wasn’t about never having to pay. For me it was always about variety and choice. I don’t really give a crap if Universal or EMI or BMG, et. al., get paid, but I do want to pay the artists  I love. Many, maybe even most of the artists I’ve been enjoying lately are either on independent labels or self-releasing their music anyway. Indie artists operating on shoestrings. Your favorite indie band might be as good as the Rolling Stones, but they’re not making the Rolling Stones’ kind of money. Even though I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention, I want to make sure they get paid so they can keep making music. When I can afford to pay, I want to do it.

I like the download options on Amazon and CDBaby because I can get that quick fix AND support the artist. The files are high quality and DRM-free, so I can put them on my mp3 player (which is not an iPod!) and play them on the road. I bought Sarah Jarosz’ album that way off Amazon and got “e-albums” by Mat D & the Profane Saints  and Micropixie from CDBaby.

I also thought the old T61 (before they ruined it) was on the right track with their purchase features. Getting cover art on your page based on purchasing music, having your name change color, getting points and hearts from buying music back when the game was fun and we still thought it mattered… It set a good example, fed that gaming addiction and appealed to our vanity. Also the fact that you bought credits in blocks made you feel a bit like you weren’t spending real money even though you were. It used human nature for the musicians’ benefit. If someone who knew what the hell they were doing could take some of those concepts and run with them it might do a lot of good.

The Personal

I am not someone who clings to the old ways just because “we always did it that way.” If I was, I would still only listen to what they now call classic rock, cussing the whippersnappers and that noise they call music. Obviously, I’ve embraced the new. There’s still a lot of great music being made, and I think the new ways of distribution have a lot of promise. Convenience and instant gratification are very attractive.

However, there are some really neat things I’m afraid we might lose as we travel down that road. While on some level, searching in person for the physical copy of an album is inconvenient, it is also something I have enjoyed a great deal over the years. When I was a kid, I spent my lawn-mowing money on 8-track tapes of albums by bands like Van Halen, Boston, Cheap Trick. Later on I graduated to cassette tapes and vinyl records, and finally to the compact disk. I combed through record stores, ordered out of catalogs. To save money, I’ve bought used CDs from record stores and pawn shops. I’ve hit up thrift stores and garage sales. I used to go through the cut-out racks. All in all, not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

The chain stores were terrible of course. A lot of them have since gone out of business and good riddance, but for the last 10 years or so, I’ve had access to Waterloo Records in Austin, a store that does everything right. I think if there had been more stores like it, the mp3 wouldn’t have kicked so much Internet ass. There’s a huge selection of new CDs, a wall full of employee picks – and those guys know their stuff. They’ve also got quite a few used CDs. And there’s a huge World Music section. You can find all your favorites and tons of stuff you never heard of that might turn out to be your favorites. They have listening stations featuring music the store thinks are going to be hot, or at least should be. Anything else, you can still listen to on one of several stereos. There’s always something good playing over the speakers. The employees can always answer questions or recommend a band. Several are in fact musicians.

They also have a little stage and have hosted some great in-store concerts. I saw Sonic Youth do a great one where they mainly clowned around and acted silly. I enjoyed it better than the actual concert later that night, to be honest. I also enjoy checking out the used CD store down the street, Cheapo Disks. It’s a chain, but it’s run like a local store. I’ve found some great bargains there over the years.

Plenty of times I have thought about driving down to Waterloo Records and decided, nah, I’m too tired to fight the traffic. But anytime I go, I enjoy myself, and I love that “aha!” moment when I finally see that album I’ve been trying to find for years, rubbing shoulders with other music lovers in a store that is also run by people who love music… I will really miss that if it goes away.

But before you get all nostalgic and start crying about the end of an awesome record store (or envy me because you live someplace besides Austin and are stuck shopping at some sucky chain store), check it out: Waterloo Records has also expanded into the Internet and also offers digital downloads. I have yet to give it a test drive, but you can bet I will. If their digital store is as good as the brick and mortar version, there’s no telling how much dough they’ll end up getting out of me.

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