[Rusted Blue; 2013]
The more autobiographical an artist, the more we, the audience, get to see them grow up right before our eyes. Such is the case with Alela Diane who first gained attention with her debut Pirate’s Gospel back in 2004, the 21-year old Portland native singing innocent songs of companionless pigeons and Pirate’s prayers of “Yo Ho Ho!”
In 2009 she came into her own with To Be Still, an album that combined her tranquil vocals with lyrics that focused on the splendors of nature. The combination of the vivid imagery and the pure wonderment in her voice results in an album that would make John Muir blush. For me, the music stirs the humbling and exhilarating experience that is venturing into the wild. On the album, Alela seems to be at peace with the world, an inner hope flowing out with each note, pure and calming like the mighty Columbia. The production on both early albums was warm and quaint, as if you are sitting in the corner of a log cabin while Alela and her dad, who sang and played on both albums, serenade you by the fireplace.
When Deerhunter first burst onto the music scene in 2007 with their über-hyped Cryptogram, I was a bit skeptical. Every review/interview focused on the back story of Bradford Cox, a young man suffering from Marfan syndrome writing songs about isolation and loss over the echoing madness within the cacophonous guitar cavern that is Cryptogram. Add to the storyline the death of former bassist, Justin Bosworth, and you have all the trappings of a music journalist’s wet dream. I had seen artists like this come and go in the blogger rat race to discover the next big thing, and I figured Deerhunter and its quirky back story would be forgotten within months.
As a true testament of Bradford Cox and company’s talent, the band returned with more focus and a more refined sound on the following two albums, Microcastle and Weird Era Cont (released together as a double album). Deerhunter were officially more than a cute little anecdote; they were the real deal. In 2010, Halcyon Digest solidified their place atop the indie rock hierarchy, proving that they could take their wandering, spacious spirit and rein it in for their most accessible album to date.
Ghostface Killah & Adrian Younge
Twelve Reasons to Die
[Wax Poetics; 2013]
Rap music lends its self naturally to the narrative form, so it’s no wonder that many modern MCs have created conceptual albums focused around an overlying story. The problem is that these attempts at concept are usually failures in terms of following the traditional story arc. Tyler the Creator’s psychiatry session Goblin was a haphazard, sloppy mess; Kanye West’s mental breakdown on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was entertaining but a little bit too self-absorbed (go figure), and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city lacked any sense of character development or maturation. Maybe they could all learn a thing or too about storytelling from the legendary raconteur Ghostface Killah with his 2013 masterpiece Twelve Reasons to Die.
[Dead Oceans; 2013]
When Phosphorescent first broke onto the indie-folk scene in 2003, comparisons to Bob Dylan were a given with Matthew Houck’s knack for writing imagery-laced lyrics over jangly guitars, hints of Freewheelin’ Bob abound. 10-years later with his latest release Muchacho, Houck is still redefining one of Bob’s concoctions, but this time around his inspiration comes from a much different section of Dylan’s cookbook. No, it’s not country-fried Nashville Skyline nor is it the late night munchie snack of Blonde On Blonde. Instead, Muchacho takes on the essence of the seminal Infidels.
In late 1983, Infidels was heralded as Bob’s return from grace (a return from the “grace of God” in this case after two panned “religious albums”). Infidels is often considered his best album since 1975’s Blood On the Tracks. The album marked a definitive change in Bob’s approach. Rather than strumming away on his acoustic like he’d done for the better part of the past two decades, Bob stepped back and allowed the organs and synths to broaden space and time. With Mark Knopfler fiddling around on his guitar, the songs often feel spacious and airy. Of all of his albums, Infidels is his most 80s album to come out in the decade of post punk and new wave.