When folks ask me about my favorite albums of the year, I find myself delivering the disclaimer “I didn’t listen to much music made outside of Kentucky this year.” This is thanks to my job of overseeing WRFL’s Kentucky Music Playbox until August, but lucky for me 2013 has been an excellent year to be a musician in the Bluegrass. Some musicians had been storing up music for years, waiting for things to come together before releasing their albums. Others sprung their music upon the world without even a moment’s notice, but pleasantly surprised us with such a sudden gift of song. Regardless, the quality of music in 2013 has been incredible, and I consider myself lucky to have been an agent of support for the work that so many people have done so creatively.
I’m not always one to listen to rap or hip-hop, but after meeting Devine Carama and Sheisty Khrist through WRFL’s Trivial Thursdays and hearing the stories of their music, I was excited to give this album a listen. Rather than boasting exaggerated claims of materialism – money, drugs, fast cars, and the like – Devine spends the length of the album fighting for positivity. He urges for a shift in the attitudes of others in the genre, asking them not to continue misleading America’s youth, but challenges them to empower them through their music – something that No Child Left Behind is able to accomplish with ease. It’s not just something he preaches on the album – his Twitter feed is one of my favorites to follow, despite his knack for spewing out the occasional ten-tweet spiel, he’s unfaltering in his positivity.
Another Trivial Thursday’s find, Ford Theatre Reunion’s Famous Monsters was an excellent part of my 2013 Independence Day. Spanning twelve tracks, the album is a tour of the band’s strange and goofy sounds, but showcases some serious songwriting chops. Famous Monsters is centered around the theme of (not surprisingly,) monsters, and each track is about a different monster – some are even are presented as songs sung from the point of view of the monster. Perhaps not the album with the most serious subject matter of the year, but one that is unfailingly creative and fun to listen to.
As far as uniqueness goes, there aren’t many albums that I’ve heard this year that do better than MrWimmer’s Once More Unto the Breach. For years, Alex Wimmer, the singular force behind MrWimmer has been accessing the soundcard on his little, yellow Gameboy Color to orchestrate soundscapes of “bleeps and bloops.” Pairing the music from these pre-written tracks with little more than his guitar and voice, MrWimmer sets out on his first full-length album with the story of a girl and her dreams that take her away from the sadness of her reality. Importantly, Once More Unto the Breach is able to stand on its own two feet as a great album – it keeps from using chiptuning as a gimmick, but rather as a tool that fits the music perfectly.
Not many albums in 2013 were as surprising as Mercurial Rites – not as much due to the content of the music on the album, but because of how unexpected it was to be released at all. After remaining pretty quiet as a group since 2008 (though the members of the group have ended up finding plenty of things to keep themselves busy,) Hair Police dropped this album with hardly any notice at the beginning of February. It is overflowing with cacophony and grit – inhuman vocals, screeching feedback, droning electronics, and a healthy dose of static and distortion – but for all the discomfort that it holds, it has a surprisingly “acoustic” sound to it. Mercurial Rites is easily the most challenging listen on this list for the casual, non-acclimated listener, but it turns out to be the one I find most dense and meditative.
I was surprised to see how much press and attention this album received when it first released, but I really shouldn’t have been. Jim James is easily one of the best known musicians from Kentucky, and probably made more appearances on the late-night circuit than anyone else from our state in 2013 (shy of Jennifer Lawrence, perhaps.) Regions of Light and Sound of God is James’ first solo album of original music, and while it shares a lot of sound with My Morning Jacket, it is unmistakably a solo expedition. The music, for all its electronics and reverb, becomes difficult to place – it sounds equally likely to have come from the future as it does to have come from the past. When all of this is taken together, it creates an album that paints a picture of Jim James, and of nobody else.
Lexington’s own Graham Tucker is to credit for the music of fleece, and while Present Pleasures is one of the least assuming albums of 2013, it’s one of the best. The album is full of forty-six minutes of music, but the thirteen songs don’t claim to be about much of anything – the music is just good. As far as ambient electronica goes, fleece has managed to do a lot of work on this album to let his ideas play out well. Though some of the tracks break the five minute mark, they keep from getting stale by slowly adding complexity in texture and motion. The entire album plays quite a bit like a live deejay set, as songs morph into each other and create a listening experience that is relaxing and on par with more famous folks like Ryan Hemsworth.
There aren’t many musicians in Lexington that I found so immediately interesting as Idiot Glee, and I found myself alongside many Lexington residents eagerly awaiting the release of this EP. Though James Friley stands at the core of this record, he is joined by some of the best, most talented musicians and artists around town throughout. The songs on the album are not only some of the better songs he’s put out, they’re some of Idiot Glee’s nicest sounding songs in terms of fidelity and production. “Pipes” is a dizzying track that asserts Friley’s maturity, but there might not be a better song out of Lexington this year than “Little Berlin.” The EP’s final track is heavy, swooning with depth and reverb, and accompanied by a breathtaking guitar/saxophone duel from Trevor Tremaine and Matt Duncan.
As a classically trained trombonist, I don’t find myself listening to music for its lyrics too often, but the opposite has always been the case with Lexington’s Englishman. Unsafe & Sound is somewhere between an EP and an LP, but the seven songs that comprise its twenty-six minutes are nothing but quality songwriting. Andrew English and his accompaniment perform songs that have a distinctly nostalgic, “Kentucky” flavor to them – English explains that the album is one that explores the “feeling that the ways in which we participate in the human experience are changing too rapidly to process.” Though there are some definite departures from the sound of Englishman’s self-titled debut, the music is lush, and the lyrics remain clever and sincere.
2. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
I wish I could say I knew more about Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but the truth is that I happened to walk into CD Central a few hours after he had dropped copies of this record off in person. Armed only with the knowledge that a lot of people really liked his music, I picked up a copy on vinyl and took it home to listen. The album is an incredibly intimate, sparse, and sincere ten-song work that features only Will Oldham and his acoustic guitar, and I immediately knew I had made a good purchase. I don’t think my record player has ever played a record as much as it has played this one, and for good reason – if you’re looking for a good way to get into Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s music, this one has effectively introduced me to his work in a big way.
Soft Times was Lexington’s most hotly anticipated album of 2013, and it delivered on the excitement that people had for it. Spanning twelve short pop songs, the album is perhaps the best representative of the town it came from – with artwork from Robert Beatty (like numbers three, four, (and maybe seven?) on this list,) performances from some of the towns most talented musicians, and a unique pressing on a record label started in Lexington. Matt Duncan has always shown a knack for meticulously crafted, perfect pop songs, and somehow manages to get it right on each song on the album. Like many others on this list, Soft Times gives a great, personal look into the life of the artist that produced it, but somehow manages to capture the spirit of an entire time in Lexington, Kentucky.
What album was your favorite?
Ben Southworth – December 26th, 2013 – Mt. Horeb Pike
Genre: Dreamy Folk-Pop
When I started programming shows at WRFL – my first regular spot was a much-fought-over 3-6 AM slot on Saturday mornings – one of the records I found myself playing the most was Englishman’s self-titled LP. Early in 2013, knowing that he had an EP on the way, it’s safe to say that I’ve been waiting on Unsafe & Sound with a healthy dose of anticipation since the last time it was cold in Lexington. Finally in November, it was a sudden release, but I find myself more than happy to have waited until now.
Sonically, Unsafe & Sound is a bit of a departure from the band’s last release, but they’ve certainly departed in the correct direction. Although Englishman’s music has always had a bit of added texture from various found sounds and electronics, this album expands the flavor – songs like “More than Insects” and “Fiercest Warrior” are swimming in it. The lead off track, “Fill a Silo,” has a certain “Kentucky” feel to it, perhaps due to its opening lyrics: “Mountains and minerals take years to unravel, the people who love them don’t often travel. They don’t get flu shots, don’t have TVs, live by the weather and the honeybees” – it’s the best first track to an album I’ve heard in a long time.
All seven songs on this EP are solid tracks, making it pretty difficult to say which is the best – on my first listen through, I was at a loss on which to choose. The pacing, ordering, and substance of the album and each song it contains truly makes this one of the most solid collection of songs that has been released since I started paying attention to Lexington music a couple years ago. “At 25” and “We’re the Monsters” are both big-sounding songs that I could listen to on repeat, and (as mentioned before,) “Fill a Silo” is masterfully written. “We’re the Monsters,” though, is wonderfully strange and at the same time, it’s everything a pop song should be – between verses of stark dissonance, are chorus sections that ring with the voices of what sounds like a full choir. It’s my favorite at the moment, but the simple beauty of the tune that follows it – “Dear Life,” a track that features mostly Andrew English with additional instruments padded softly below – is perfectly placed as the album’s closer.
An album that explores the “feeling that the ways in which we participate in the human experience are changing too rapidly to process,” the album will leave you feeling the need to slow down. Perhaps it embodies a sense of intentionality, but certainly a sense of self-awareness in thinking and digesting the experiences that life offers. Though it bears the label of an “EP,” Unsafe & Sound is a work that contains more than enough substance to feel like a majorly strong release.
Tracks I Liked: Fill A Silo!!!, Kids and Bipolars!, More than Insects!!, Fiercest Warriors!, At 25!!, We’re the Monsters!!!, Dear Life!!
You can also hear the music live at Cosmic Charlie’s this Friday, November 22nd. Find out more here.
Ben Southworth – Tuesday, November 19th, 2013 – Maxwell & Hagermann
I imagine that this is a topic I’ll be blogging about more than once – especially as it seems like I hear about plans for a new album to come out almost every day – but here’s the first installment. Let me tell you about a few local albums that I’m looking forward to.
And you should be too!
Englishman – Unsafe & Sound
If you read the blog very often, you’ll know that I’m particularly fond of acoustic/singer-songwriter music. In fact, it’s what first drew me to Englishman’s eponymous LP. Since my first impressions of his first album – which was both a uniquely and beautifully recorded piece – my tastes have changed quite a bit. I’ve retained my love for the “easy-listening” that made up much of his first few releases, but have also learned to get excited for stuff with a little more grit. From the sounds of the first-released track on this upcoming EP, it sounds like English has too – there’s heavy synth-basslines and distorted guitars all around, things that definitely didn’t make it onto his first albums. That said, his recognizable sound and lyric-writing are both still strong here, and I’m very excited to see where he’s going with the rest of the songs. That, plus artwork from Robert Beatty (that I think is somewhat different from the image to the left,) as well as a few other things, make this a really exciting release.
Hear “More Than Insects” –
Warren Byrom & Fabled Canelands
A lot like Englishman, Warren Byrom and the Fabled Canelands were one of the first groups from around here that I got into – both of them are still favorites of mine. Though I’m not super sure what exactly it is that Warren and the boys have in store for us, from the last couple of times I’ve heard them – I think it’ll be good. Warren has been hinting around (and downright telling us) that they’ll be going into the studio to record eleven new songs within the next month. If I heard him correctly at his show with Joan Shelley on Friday, they’ll be doing their work at Shangri-La – Duane Lundy is a talented engineer, and Warren, Jose, Seth, and Robby have all got no shortage of chops. If you liked their first album, one that did a great job of sounding clean, while retaining the energy of their live performances, I think that this upcoming release will be great as well.
Hear their first album, “The Fabled Canelands”
In addition to these two, there’s some more that are on their way – I’d write about them now, but I don’t know much about them at the moment – I’ll have some words about them soon!
- Mayonnaise – 7-Song Demo
- The Rough Customers
- They Yearn For What They Fear
- Cheyenne Mize – Among the Grey
- Everyone Lives, Everyone Wins
- And yes… The WRFL-Live! Summer 2012 Compilation (keep your eye here and on our Facebook page, I promise we haven’t forgotten about it!)
I’m sure I’m forgetting something, and there’s always more to come, so I ask you this:
“What local releases are you looking forward to??”
– Ben Southworth
Lexington, Kentucky may not be known for its music scene, but Andrew English and co.’s project Englishman has recently grabbed a lot of my attention. Starting off with a soft-spoken count off to the project’s first song, his eponymous LP certainly reaches its grand arrival points, but even at these moments it manages to keep that same calm feeling throughout. The album starts with a gorgeous track “Planted,” a song about the promises of love, and by the end it makes its way to a big, beautiful, ambient end. “Angels and Earthworms” escapes the concrete sidewalks and the traffic of Nicholasville Road, preferring to paint the scene in a more rural setting, while “Boy T-Rex” takes a melancholy trip back to the memories of youth. All these songs move along at about the same, slow-burning, pace, but each has a different crunch to the particular sound or idea that it conveys. The mellow and ethereal sounds lend these songs a very autumnal feeling, and they mix these sounds with romanticized stories of summertime memories, leaving the listener content and relaxed.
Englishman opted to record their album over the course of ten days in a converted barn that they had a hand in remodeling, and technically speaking, this album sounds great for having been recorded where it was. Each of the many instruments speak with certainty and are equalized very well, but are always light enough so that English’s clear voice is always sitting perfectly on top of the stack. The vocal harmonies are tender and never too loud, and even the fuzzy background noise from the less than ideal recording situation lends its own charm to the sound. There are the predictable “folky” techniques (guitar, bells, and field recordings) but there are also well-placed and less familiar instruments to the folk music canon (a large variety of percussion and even electronic samples.) They keep things light and tastefully balanced, giving you a lot to listen for in terms of complexities and nuance of the layers, even after several listens of this record.
After a sweet, but slow first five songs, the album picks up the pace when it gets to “Pet Cactus.” This song plugs in some electric guitar and harnesses a driving kick drum, and has a pretty heavy feeling to it in terms of its lyrical statements. It meanders through a couple of songs, before it arrives the gorgeous and Samuel Beamesque track, “Classically Trained.” This song, as well as the remaining two, is nearly the perfect way to end the album. “The Sticks” has a chorus that invokes feelings similar to a mix of Death Cab for Cutie and Sigur Ros, and the final track, “Funnel of Love,” has some of the most perfect lyrics I’ve heard in a long time.
Kentuckians are known for their tall tales, and Andrew English, despite his origins in Texas, is not immune to this affliction. His ability to create stories that feel like they borrow from dreams and folklore makes this album’s lyrics some of the strongest and most accessible I’ve heard. This album is not only beautifully written, performed, and recorded from start to finish, but the nuances and thoughtfulness makes it the kind that is very easy to listen to many times. Of course the album isn’t perfect; the tracks sometimes take a few measures to get tow where they’re going, but they’re always heading in a certain direction. The melancholy of the album could be lightened up by a couple more songs like “First Prize” (which isn’t coincidentally one of the best tracks of the album,) but it’s this feeling that gives the record a very tender and sincere feeling to it. When it comes to the local music scene from around these parts, I’d put Englishman right up there with Ben Sollee. It’s releases like this that make me proud to be a musician from Lexington, Kentucky.
– I give Englishman’s Englishman an 8 out of 10 –
Click here to listen to and download Englishman.
– Ben Southworth