The Big Sip – Two Hips / One Night
When an album features the credit “Tenor Sax (Track 5),” you know I’m starting with Track 5. And the sax doesn’t disappoint when it finally arrives on this arty-jam-funk journey, but there is so much going on beforehand you forget it’s coming. Crazy keyboard sound effects, off-kilter Phish rhythms, and some insistent melodies that push through the chaos. It’s off the band’s debut EP Sip Responsibly.
Bison – Paper Blade
I already lamented the premature demise of Vermont post-punk revivalists Bison when they released the single “Arkansas” last month. Well now the final EP is out, with three additional tracks that only reinforce what a bummer is that they’re disbanding so soon. Take your pick, really, but I’ll go with opener “Paper Blade,” which condenses everything that makes them great – an infinite array of catchy guitar hooks, plus a restrained falsetto’d croon that can break into a scream at the drop of a high hat – into a tight package.
Dan Johnson – I Will Be Here For You
Dan Johnson’s new bio compares him to John Prine, and rarely has promotional material nailed it so precisely. Like Prine, Johnson’s language is casual but exact, not a word wasted in deceptively simply songs that make it look easy. Also like Prine, the music serves the lyrics: simple melodies, sung plainly. This song contains little gems like “I could have been an outlaw / Because i know what my time is worth / I could have been a judge / I still don’t know which is worse.”
David Rosane & The Zookeepers – Judgment Day
A song repeating “I’m afraid” over and over again seems very appropriate to this political moment. And sure enough, Rosane and co.’s new album Book of Zoo comes with a healthy dose of activism. But they don’t wave the national banners so many artists do these days. Instead, they look closer to home by raising money for Vermont’s rural libraries. Vermont has more libraries per capita than any state in America, and all pre-order money and live ticket sales go towards keeping these invaluable civic institutions thriving.
The Devil Makes Three – Paint My Face
All the writeups are calling “Paint My Face” the Americana trio’s first original song in five years. That’s technically true, but undersells the fantastic gospel-blues 2016 covers album Redemption & Ruin. And they’ve clearly learned something from diving into those old spirituals. Produced by Ted Hutt who helmed the Gaslight Anthem’s The ’59 Sound, “Paint My Face” sounds like a peppy modern take on an old Blind Willie Johnson number.
Eastern Mountain Time – Darker Now
Sean Hood released a (great) full-length as Eastern Mountain Time only last November, but he’s already returned with a new single, and one as good as anything he’s done. Hints of The War on Drugs reverb-rock move him beyond the Americana box, with a little Doors-y organ adding a nice psychedelic flair.
The Filters – Wavelord
When I awarded songwriter Sam Morris the second-best song of 2017, I kept comparing his writing and performance to Leonard Cohen. That would not the comparison you’d make for his new band The Filters. Rather, they blend Pavement slacker-rock with Death Cab for Cutie melodies. Good touchstones both, and especially impressive being such a giant leap from what he was doing last year.
Henry Jamison – Through a Glass (Quartet Version)
On a new EP, Jamison reimagines three songs from his breakthrough debut The Wilds with a string quartet. Wisely, he eschews his biggest songs like “Real Peach” (currently sitting at 35 million Spotify plays) for three relative deep cuts. “Through a Glass” slows the song down to an ambient mediation, making great use of the swooning strings.
The Limes – Lightswitch
Vermont’s Cabot high school only has 172 students, so having a full 20 of them in one band is not an insignificant percentage. They must be teaching them something right, because this teenage collective sounds shockingly polished, and ready for bigger stages beyond the cafeteria. Every song on their new EP The Last Slice is jam-packed with horns (they have not one but two credited flautists) and background singers; clearly no one’s sitting on the bench here. But the tunes don’t sound overstuffed, with strong lead singers and melodies keeping things approachable.
Max O’Rourke – Anything With Moon
The phrase “jazz guitarist” brings to mind the musician you try to ignore in the restaurant’s back corner. That’s not Max O’Rourke. On his terrific album Disquiet, he leads his trio to some decidedly un-smooth places. He claims “gypsy jazz” inspiration, which brings to mind Django Reinhardt, though O’Rourke can get unexpected loud. His website boasts praise from John Jorgenson, hardly a household name, but for a gypsy-jazz guitarist that’s like a trumpeter getting props from Wynton Marsalis.
Question The MC & ILLu – Textbook
I’d love to know the origins of the samples producer ILLu incorporates here. In the same month Kanye West released an album that, sonically, took him back to his home base with manipulated soul records, “Textbook” seems to be pulling the same trick – and quite ably. Question The MC is a new rapper, this being his first single. So far, so good! The full album of the same name comes out July 6 on new Vermont indie label Equal Eye Records.
Rough Francis – Procession 1
Rough Francis’s punk blasts rarely top three minutes, so a track pushing 5:30 is practically a Grateful Dead jam by comparison. At certain points, “Procession 1” hits as hard as anything in their catalog. At other moments, they slow things down – something this band practically never does. Turns out, they’re pretty good at dynamics, peeling layers away just to ratchet up the tension with a lacerating scream. There’s an outro and everything, and one that feels a little – dare I say it? – jammy.
The Smittens – Cats for Cats
I already wrote about this Tinder-meets-Tigger pop song at some length, so I’ll entice you to click that length with a choice quote from songwriter Max Andrucki: “When I had it written out in my head, I thought it was going to be my Hall & Oates song. But we ended up with a Duran Duran song. Less syncopated and jazzy and with those intense ’80s keyboards.”
If you missed it, here’s our Best Vermont Songs of 2017 post.