Dreamy Baroque Folk
Self Released – April 21, 2017
Last summer, Austin Wilkerson made his residence in an old farmhouse and recorded this album. Altruisms is largely his invention – the record is ten songs of refreshingly creative and personal music. It opens with “Come to the Garden,” a track that very effectively sets the tone and color of the album to come. After a quick, rich intro, Austin’s voice dances lightly over an odd meter as he sings “life never is what we want it to be, I’ll never know all the secrets it keeps.” “Worthy” bounces back and forth from a hazy, finger-picked guitar and a more upbeat feel – the transition into the final verse is almost startlingly rich. The world appears from nothing on “Creation Song,” as Austin joyously sings “I can hear the oceans forming, I can see the mountains rise, I know it’s good, oh yeah!”
“Memory Harp” begins with ringing bells before layers and layers of acoustic guitar form the song’s foundation – each section flows seamlessly into the next, constantly evolving so that no moment is wasted. Austin’s string accompaniment is used most effectively on “Elegy,” where the double bass echoes the melody of his lyrics after he sings “in my dreams I follow soundlessly down to the water, there I spy your body shimmering beneath the moonlight.” “Called from Above” begins with sounds of nature set behind an acoustic guitar, before the song leads the listener through another set of delicately placed sections of dreamy music. As an album, Altruisms never settles into a single sound for more than a minute or two – even several times through, I am still hearing new things on each listen. The music is beautiful and personal: it breathes air of compassion and beauty.
Tracks I Liked: Come to the Garden!!, Worthy!!!, Creation Song!!, Towers by the Sea!, Memory Harp!!, Jeremiah!, Elegy!!!, Called from Above!!, Valley of the Bees!
Ben Southworth – June 4, 2017 – Post Road
Bubbly Electronic Pop
Desperate Spirits – June 2, 2017
Big Fresh (and its leader, John Ferguson) are icons of Lexington music. They’ve released a handful of albums since their start in the late 90s – the most recent full album, Moneychasers, came out in 2011 (and was one of the first Lexington-made records I ever bought), they put out a couple songs in 2016, and now have plans to release a pair of EPs in 2017. The first of those, Fall Preview, is a five-song trip through the band’s style and musicality – each with its own personality and a different guest singing lead.
“Tongku” is fronted by Beijing’s Bianbian, opening with a trio of guitar, piano, and shakers that give the track the feel of a ticking clock. The vocals here are in Mandarin (Google Translate tells me that Tòngkǔ means ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’), but the song’s lovely vocal melody conveys a balanced mixture of joy and melancholy. Robert Schneider, Ferguson’s bandmate in The Apples in Stereo, sings on “Paralyzed,” the EP’s first single. The song is a fast-moving pop track, buoyant with whirring synthesizers and horn lines, covering Ferguson’s upbringing in rural, Christian Kentucky as Schneider sings “I used to sing of a heaven far way, where no one ever dies.”
Former Big Fresh singer, Kate Pope, takes the lead on “Yes Yes Yes,” which feels the most like songs from Moneychasers to me: it’s a funky track with pulsing synth bass and quick stabs from trombone and saxophone. ATTEMPT’s Trevor Tremaine takes us through “Rock ‘n’ Roll Beans,” a short, ridiculously fun track that name drops Bruce lee, Lee Iacocca, and the Ayatollah (among others). The EP ends with “Like Swayze,” sung by Lexington’s Michelle Hollis. It’s a smoky, piano-driven slow jam that crescendos through a heavy second chorus before descending into a disorienting haze.
Fall Preview covers a great range of sounds, thanks in larger part to its many guest singers, but it’s tough to imagine these songs without Ferguson and the other constant pieces in Big Fresh’s sound. The group continues its reputation as one with a knack for unusual (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) pop songs, but the musicality, fidelity, and colors on this EP elevate the music to a new level. Fall Preview is full of substance while remaining fresh and hugely fun – it’s a great EP, and Big Fresh is a listening experience I can’t recommend enough.
Tracks I Liked: Tongku!, Paralyzed!!, Yes Yes Yes!, Rock ‘n’ Roll Beans!, Like Swayze!!!
Ben Southworth – May 25, 2017 – Kenwick Place
Lo-Fi One-Man Punk
Twin Cousins Records – June 17, 2017
J. Marinelli is known well around Lexington for his quick songs and only-the-essentials stage-setup – a guitar on his lap and drums set up at his feet. Though songs on Stray Volts move by quickly, Marinelli doesn’t use this as an excuse to phone it in with his lyrics. “The Dead Don’t Need Us” is a laid-back, slow track that uses ideas of vanity and fixation-with-life-on-earth to set up the repeated “the dead don’t need us.” Following immediately is the sub-one-minute-track, “Humble-Brag Man” – the shortest and fastest-moving track on the album. Despite the rapid-fire delivery of the lyrics, Marinelli packs the song with a harsh critique of the ‘humble-brag man’ (we all know one), ending the bridge with “his false modesty is such a drag.” The delivery on “Cocaine Activist” is more pronounced and pointed, where J. describes a ‘pat-yourself-on-the-back’ kind of guy taking advantage of us, the bridge ending in “with rhetoric so desperate, intentions that they motivate are less than pure, they’ll always leave you sore.” At four-and-a-half minutes, “Creak and Sway” is nearly twice as long as any other song on the album – it’s a dark song full of pain, and with a lot of room to breathe, it serves as a nice break from the intensity of much of the rest of the album. Stray Volts is J. Marinelli at his finest – catchy, lo-fi rock with great melodies, clever lyrics, and nothing else that isn’t needed.
Tracks I Liked: Brand New Glasses!, Madison Girls!, The Dead Don’t Need Us!!, Humble-Brag Man!!!, Cocaine Activist!!, The Evil of Two Lessers!, Creak and Sway!
Ben Southworth – May 15, 2017 – Kenwick Place
By Hillary H. McGoodwin
A few months ago, I was in my humble office at the local homeless shelter; listening to Jimmy Smith with Metric up next (gotta keep social work zesty, ya know). I was filling out paperwork for a veteran with whom I was helping to find housing. As I play the air-organ, an elderly man appears in the doorway. The Christmas lights that adorn my office doorframe made him smile, and then the hearing of Jimmy Smith from my ancient PC speakers made his face light up. I invited him into my office. After collecting basic information from him, like his name, branch of military service, what brought him to the shelter, etc., I ask him if he likes music. The 56 year old Navy veteran lit up again and said: “Music is my savior”. I replied “Me too”.
We discussed his stroke, the subsequent abuse by his spouse, and how he had contemplated “checking out early” many times before but he knew that he just needed to leave and seek shelter elsewhere. This man arrived in my doorway with nothing tangible and only the clothes on his back but he was a walking well of musical knowledge. Part of my therapy with him was to explore music to get a better understanding of his life. It was not long before I learned his life is one long playlist.
Every event, positive and negative, is tied to a song or record. Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew eased his mind when his father killed his mother in front of him. Django Reinhardt was his grandfather’s hero and he remembers decorating the table for Thanksgiving with gypsy jazz filling the air, a week before he deployed for war, and that was the last time he saw his grandfather again. He remembers easing his war-torn soul with the funky bass-lines of Larry Graham. He remembers (and now loathes) Al Green for being the singer of his wedding song. He remembers Up on Cripple Creek playing on the taxi ride from his abusive home to the shelter. “Music is my savior” he said. “Music haunts me and helps me. Music helps me remember the good so the bad is endurable.” Music is embedded in his being. Music is his soul.
I have had the pleasure of watching this man rise up from unsurmountable odds to now being well on his way to living independently with a refueled sense of self. I have introduced him to new music so that he can make associations with them as he embarks on this new beginning. (He has taken to A Fine Frenzy). He told me the other day that Jimmy Smith’s My Funny Valentine will forever be associated with the day he came alive again. ♦
Hillary McGoodwin is a native Lexingtonian audiophile who coordinates a transitional housing program for homeless veterans at Hope Center.
Three Lobed Recordings – May 5, 2017
I almost wasn’t going to write about this album – in trying to stick to a blog about Kentucky music, I wondered if it were right to write about Wooden Wand after James Toth had moved to Virginia. However, upon receiving my preorder of the CD in the mail and hearing how good it is, I felt it appropriate. Aside from being a stunningly rich and beautiful album, its roots still stretch throughout Kentucky – a combined four tracks were recorded in Shelbyville and Lexington, and many feature the talents of a handful of Kentucky musicians. Despite being made from these many collaborations and stitched together from a few recording sessions, Clipper Ship is cohesive, intimate, and retains a feeling of Toth’s singular vision.
“School’s Out” is the record’s second single and opens the album with shimmery acoustic guitar and Toth’s reverberating vocals. The first two verses are divided by interjections from a glowing pedal steel and satisfyingly rich bass; on the second verse, Toth asks a deceptively enticing volcano to spare his only daughter, that “she was not made to be a martyr.” These conjured images of human sacrifice are hinted to again on “Sacrificial,” a song orchestrated simply by finger-picked acoustic guitar and voice – the richness of the previous song’s thick instrumentation is replaced by the intimacy and fidelity in this one’s recording. “Mexican Coke” features droning strings from James Elkington and Jim Becker, as well as the rustling percussion of Glenn Kotche. The track expresses appreciation for antiquity, and contains the album’s most immediately understood lyrics on the fleeting nature of time and one’s best intentions going awry.
“Mallow T’ward the River” and “One Can Only Love” stand tall as lengthy centerpieces to the album. The former is a ballad about an Uncle Perry – a man who “cheated many women and murdered men for gold.” When our narrator asks the uncle if he has any fears about what might come of his misdeeds, the track’s texture blossoms as Perry responds confidently “nephew, you are such a foolish one / I’ll be here tomorrow, same as river, same as sun.” Eventually, age, his enemies, and nature itself catch up to Perry – “they beat uncle like a beast / the river changed direction and the sun set in the east” – Toth personifies our world beautifully, imbuing it with supernatural power. “One Can Only Love” is the most sonically striking track of the album, and its three droning sections push forward past the eight-minute mark. Throughout the breathtaking first section, the musicians assembled feel entirely unified as if they were a single instrument; the latter two sections – both instrumental – are equally stunning as the first.
The album’s title track features the talents of Lexington’s Joshua Wright and Seth Murphy (of Bear Medicine), as the trio conjures imagery of a clipper ship moving fast across the water, “cracking through the dawn like a horsewhip.” Finally, an instrumental reprise of “Mood Indica” (the second of the three sections of “One Can Only Love”) brings the album to a close. Though the album originates from four recording locations and thirteen musicians, its seven songs fit together as one long breath, and Toth’s voice feels clear and intimate throughout. Clipper Ship is a fabulous album of beautiful, haunting stories with vivid imagery.
Tracks I Liked: School’s Out!, Mexican Coke!!, Mallow T’ward the River!!!, One Can Only Love!!, Clipper Ship!
Ben Southworth – April 23, 2017 – Kenwick Place