The Barr Brothers: Artist to Watch

The Barr Brothers are finally flying above the radar. That, and I’m admittedly a year behind with this discovery. Thanks to the Line of Best Fit, I stumbled across this Montreal-based band after reading a lovely “Folk Innovators” review. Their self-titled album dropped in 2011, but siblings Andrew and Brad Barr, accompanied by harpist Sarah Page and multi-instrumentalist Andres Vial, have made consistent appearances at various Canadian jazz and folk festivals and toured with the Low Anthem and Alexi Murdoch. In a time where indie folk outfits dominate the airwaves, the Barr Brothers take a similar sound and soar above the limits of folk music.

Their music is extremely well-crafted, from dreamy, endearing singles like “Beggar in the Morning” and “Cloud” to a bluesy, stomping “Lord, I Just Can’t Keep from Crying.” My favorite is the dark “Deacon’s Son,” featuring Psapp-inspired percussion, steel drums, and an aggressive harp solo (never thought I’d ever see that combo!)  It seems disjointed, but in fact, the Barr Brothers prove their versatility and innovation around a rich Americana sound.

In the lively “Give the Devil Back his Heart,” the Barr Brothers summon “every moth barreling towards a flame.” After a year of cultivation, the Barr Brothers can count on a trusted fanbase barreling towards new music.

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Top 10 Holiday Songs: Tis the Season

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Now that the end-of-the-semester hiatus is over, I’ve been busy cramming a month’s worth of holiday cheer into a few days. Sure, it sounds like the least joyful way to celebrate, but luckily these songs easily make days merry and bright. This post is brief because my brain is still mush, but here’s a Spotify playlist for are my Top 10 Holiday Songs for the most wonderful time of the year.

Highlights include:

    • “The Christmas Song” by Catherine Feeney and “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” by Sufjan Stevens (one of his 5,000 sing-along Christmas jams): Breathless and simple Christmas wishes
    • “White Christmas” by Otis Redding (from Love Actually): A cozy sweater. A warm fire. A cuppa hot cocoa.
    • “Christmas TV” by Slow Club: Charming and quirky, with lyrics  that say, “hoping something good might grow out of this mistletoe.”
    • “Fairytale of New York” by Gianni and Sarah (of Walk Off the Earth…aka the 5 people who used one guitar to play Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used to Know”): Not only is this one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, but they use ukeleles and whistle. Natasha of Paper Crown’s Blog sums the song up nicely, saying: “It’s bitter and it’s hopeful, and it’s sad and it’s romantic, and it’s screwed up and it’s human. It’s just real. That’s what makes it such a great Christmas song.” Amen.
    • “Skating” by Vince Guaraldi: Fluttering and festive piano chords

Do you have any to add? What are your favorite holiday songs and albums?

*Bonus (because it’s sadly not on Spotify)…Party Hard by Little Isidore: For your Kris Kringlin’ and do-wappin’ enjoyment

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Matthew E. White: Baroque-soul-gospel-psychedelic-jazz-awesome?

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Matthew E. White ‘s album Big Inner is baffling the music industry. White’s name is that of an aspiring teen trying to distinguish himself from the other crooning Jason Mrazes. His long hair/Jesus-beard combination channels Alexander Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. And his music is, well, tough to describe. So difficult, that music publications are combining words like ‘baroque,’ ‘soul,’ ‘Americana,’ and even ‘reggae’ to try and grasp his unique sound. They’re also comparing White to well-known names like Randy Newman and Sharon Von Etten, so it looks like his album Big Inner measures up to some big players. I first scoffed at the absurdities of some of these descriptions, but finally understood after watching his debut video “Will You Love Me” (below). White has crafted an amazing, and equally confusing, gospel/folk/jazz/soul/etc music formula. And it’s working.

Big Inner is an album of many firsts; it marks White’s debut release and the start of  his record label Spacebomb. The label gives artists the opportunity to record in the relaxed setting of a Virginian attic, along with White and his band members…and their house choir. In addition to these endeavors, White also runs an “avante-garde jazz band,” Fight the Big Bull.

Matthew E. White’s soothing bass voice supports a (for lack of a better word) big sound. Big Inner opens on swaying, horn-infused “One of These Days,” and is followed by a cosmic, grand “Big Love.” A mix of Beck-inspired instrumentals, with Justin Vernon vocals…and that awesome gospel choir (again- always goes back to the gospel choir). My repeat-track is “Steady Pace,” for it incorporates a Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” funk with sweet bells and strings. Although people aren’t sure where to categorize White on the genre book(music)shelf, that’s probably for the better. Why place a book back on the shelf when you can’t stop rereading certain passages? His sound is too intriguing to put away.

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With a Little Help from my Friends: Fall Folk Playlist

Nothing says fall like folk music and friendship. Too Hallmark? Too bad- you’re stuck with me. Maybe I really like alliteration, but maybe I also really like my friends and their rad taste in music.

To me, fall conjures warm, twangy, and acoustic melodies. Well let’s be real, this blog wouldn’t exist if I felt differently. But while summer is meant for punchy rock chords like the band Free Energy, spring is poppy and jingly like Allo Darlin’, and winter is slow jazz stylings of Peggy Lee, fall is soothing, sometimes biting, and overall pretty contemplative. What are some of your favorite seasonal songs?

Before Thanksgiving I polled a few friends to find out their impressions of fall music. Turns out we all came to the same conclusion: folk and fall are the perfect pair. From The Lumineers to I Am Oak, here’s what they had to say. (Shout-outs to Kelly, Swanson, Bethany, Alys, and Colin for being my muses and for You Won’t for the background music.)

Folk Selections for Fall from Alison on Vimeo.

Eager to hear these songs for yourself? Below is a Spotify playlist to meet your autumnal needs. Quick! Go listen before it’s December.

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Mumford and Sons: Lover of the Light

Earlier this month, British folk outfit Mumford and Sons released their video for Lover of the Light. I’ve owned their sophomore release Babel since it dropped on September 21, and have listened to it religiously like a good little fangirl. Yet, for some reason, “Lover of the Light” failed to transfer into my iTunes music library. There are far greater problems in the world, I know, but I still feel cheated by technology for separating me from this beauty.

Sure, the vigorous and angry banjos of Mumford and Sons sound repetitive when you listen to their albums straight-through and they spend too much time on grand declarations then cultivating thoughtful, toned-down verses. However, this stunning video caught me way off-guard and left me misty-eyed. Now I just want to share this with everyone.

Directed and performed by actor Idris Elba (from Prometheus, Thor, and American Gangsters), “Lover of the Light” follows a blind man through his daily routine. Midway through the video he ditches his cane and seeing eye dog, quite literally running into the light. Sprinting through a forest and picturesque Welsh peninsula  Elba’s character finally experiences the world without being hindered by his disability. It’s an incredibly empowering and moving piece, showing that we can use senses other than sight and still be “lovers of the light.”

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Little Green Cars: Artist to Watch

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Excellent folk-rock music is hitchhiking across the pond. Little Green Cars just signed with Glassnote Records, joining the impressive ranks of Mumford and Sons, Phoenix and Daughter in the US. The Irish group is working with producer Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Mumford and Sons) to record their first release Absolute Zero, which is scheduled to drop in the new year. They’re barely 20-years-old and, according to CMJ, one of the most anticipated up-and-coming bands of 2013.

Little Green Cars single “The John Wayne” opens with thumping drums, paired with the endearingly sweet lyric of “it’s easy to fall in love with you.” They maintain pleasant harmonies throughout, looping them into powerful rock chords. Guardian music reviewer Paul Lest says Little Green Cars are “not afraid to stretch out and mess with the formula,” for they can to experiment with folk influences, adding a dash of gospel and electronic nuances. For now, sadly we must scrounge live YouTube recordings and blog reviews for hints of their album. Lucky for us, Little Green Cars give phenomenal and passionate live performances, as emphasized by this OtherVoices acoustic recording of “Grow” that channels  Head and the Heart harmonies…with a little more punch.

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At Last: From Etta James to Gavin James

“At Last” is one of my favorite songs of all time. I went through an Etta James phase (RIP gurl) in 8th grade and listened to that song on repeat for most bus rides to and from school. The string intro provokes instant goosebumps, and James’ first utterance of “At Last” is this beautiful sigh of relief. The song is soulful and powerful, but not overbearing. And at two minutes long, it’s way too short for only one listen.

As faithful as I am (and always will be) to the James original, I recently found a rival version. And no, I don’t mean the first recording of the song, which was featured in the 1942 film Orchestra Wives

I’m also not referring to the PHENOMENAL and emotional Beyonce serenade, as seen at President Obama’s 2008 inaugural ball (which still leaves me in tears).

Nor am I trying to dig up an underground Jason Mraz rendition, or, better yet, one from the late Eva Cassidy (another one of my favorite acoustic, female singer/songwriters).

Long story short, I’d like to introduce you to Gavin James. This Irish crooner originates from Dublin and joined Ingrid Michaelson for some of her UK tour dates. His album is apparently No. 1 on the Irish iTunes charts, however since the US is generally slow to catch on to great European acts…we sadly won’t hear his EP Say Hello in the States for awhile. James is signed to Believe Recordings, the same label as his fellow Irish songwriter James Vincent McMorrow. However, while McMorrow is acclaimed for his raspy, soft, and moody melodies, James has a smoky soul that melts all over you. To take the analogy a ridiculous step further, his voice is the saccharine frosting on a cinnamon bun, filling pores like a sponge of warm and gooey happiness. It’s fitting that he has the same last name as the woman who made At Last famous. However, I like the contrast between the two. Etta’s is a strong, female ballad; a declaration of love meant for grand stages like the Inaugural Ball. Gavin’s is an intimate poem, geared solely towards some extremely lucky lady.

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