A Box of Stars – Cornfields
Never before have I Googled a mixing engineer’s name, but Josh Druckman’s work feels as vital to building such a pristine, delicate beauty of a record as the actual musicians (who, for the record, are Macaulay Lerman on guitar and vocals; Claire Londagin on vocals; Jens Hybertson on violin; Eben Schumacher on bass, piano, and guitar; and Tim Halteman on drums). Take “Cornfields.” Enigmatic lyrics swirl around minimalist instrumentation, subtle percussion delicately balancing with windy violin. It’s not flashy music, and folky slowcore of this sort often lands in the background-music category. But the band’s just-so playing, presented perfectly, demands attention.
Bad Rat? – Horrible Death
What, you thought “Horrible Death” would be a cheery song? It’s as dark as you’d expect, and more mysterious, the minimalist lyrics never totally revealing their hand beyond some Stephen King-esq hints about frogs who tear bodies apart. Barely-sung lyrics built tension with slow-build rhythms, a touch of Joy Division mixed with the slowest track on a Nine Inch Nail album.
Ben Dunham feat. Sara Grace – Why We Build the Wall
Ben Dunham titled his new album Collaboration, and he offers two sorts of collaborations on this track. Sara Grace steals the show with a bravado vocal performance, yes, but another Vermont artist lurks in the background: Anaïs Mitchell, who wrote this song for her 2010 album Hadestown (now a Broadway musical). Dunham and Grace make it their own on a powerful and viral performance that draws from gospel as much as it does the folk tradition.
Ben Patton – Maybe I Live to Make You Happy
Few make music with as much ambition as Ben Patton. His new album blends dozens of genres – often all within the same song. See if you can count how many genres he draws from in the one minute, eleven seconds of “Maybe I Live to Make You Happy” alone. I hear doo-wop, 1950s rock and roll, and Broadway musical. Then, in the next song on new album Meaning What, he veers away to Ben Folds-style power-pop. The schizophrenia would grate from a less talented genre juggler, but in Patton’s hands you just let him lead you on his weird and joyous journey.
Bow Thayer – A Better Version of the Truth
I already wrote about the tragic backstory to folk-blues vet Bow Thayer’s new song and album, but the song can be felt just as deeply knowing none of that. Justin Guip’s organ leavens Thayer’s slide guitar on this heavy Delta-blues rocker.
Cole Davidson – Hold Me Down
Cole Davidson has been posting beautiful solo videos for the better part of a year, and now has a more intricately produced musical project to his name: debut EP Fable. His songs hold up in both formats. Take “Hold Me Down,” a tender slow-burn that gets complicated by yearning backing vocals on the EP. That’s the version I’ve embedded here, but his solo performance on YouTube (here) is equally moving.
Henry Jamison – Gloria
Henry told The Fader: “I realized that I was writing a parallel story about the ways in which boys in our culture are “recruited” into a toxic fraternity, by each other, by their fathers, by video games etc. I try to sing myself and others out of a simple resistance to the nefarious male ego and into a sense of inviolate self-worth… The song serves both as a kind of title track and as a loose thesis statement. The record itself often seeks to bring nuanced understanding to the current state of (white, American) men, but Gloria’ is it as its most unapologetically aspirational.”
Levi Barrett – Mann Gulch Fire
“Mann Gulch Fire” sounds like a Gordon Lightfoot number, retelling the story of a tragedy from yesteryear. The style of music, once popularized by stars like Johnny Cash and Joan Baez, has fallen far out of fashion. But throughout his terrific debut EP, Barrett’s baritone and spare guitar playing save his songs from feeling like artifacts of ye olde ballad cannon.
The Matter Men – Enigma
Last fall, a New York Times Magazine article about – a love letter to, really – The Necks made me obsessed with the improvisational jazz trio from Australia. Turns out, we have our own Necks much closer to home: The Matter Men. Like The Necks, this Vermont trio improvises their pieces from scratch, then cherrypicks the best bits. On “Enigma,” they add some prog-rock flourishes with some effects that sound like they’re emanating from Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s wall of keyboards.
Miss Guided Angels – Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Drawing on the long history of I’m-leaving-you-for-the-road country weepers, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” teases Americana quartet Miss Guided Angels’ The One That Got Away, out October 25. The vocal blend of George Nostrand’s low drawl and Lisa Gardner’s high harmonies makes this one worthy of a cry in your beer at the Ryman.
PREECE – Girl In My Bed
Sean Preece cites Social Distortion, The Descendents, and Bad Religion, and I hear every one of them in his band’s music (the latter especially). But, at times, it reminds me equally of a band I followed before I had ever heard of those punk pioneers: Blink-182. I hope PREECE don’t take that comparison as a dig, because it’s not. Lyrically, sure, PREECE has far more to offer than grandfather’s-dick jokes, but musically they prove equally adept at distilling decades of punk mayhem into immediately accessible holler-along hooks. PREECE launches just a couple months too late to ever play the Warped Tour (RIP), but once upon an era they might have been one of those sidestage bands drawing the post-Hot-Topic crowds for a smarter take on pop-punk.
Willow Ash – VVitches ov the Great North VVoods
I love Alvvays as much as anyone, but I’m getting sick of the “vv” naming trend. Prince’s catalog changed music in thousands of positive ways, but spelling things funny was not among them. I’ll forgive Willow Ash the titling eccentricity, though. The heavy-as-led, slow-as-molasses stomping of “VVitches ov the Great North VVoods” more than earns them their doom metal label. Or, as Prince might spell it, D00^^.
Wool See – Thorium
Bandcamp description of the month: “Wool See isn’t back because they never left. The elusive rap band has just been creepily lurking in the shadows and auditioning new members on the dark web where the only question that gets asked is ‘you got that fire?’ (the answers are almost always terrible).”
If you missed it, here’s our Best Vermont Songs of 2017 post.