Mar 222019
 
hallowell

Don’t call Hallowell’s debut album “Christian rock.”

For one, it’s not really rock (though, like “indie rock,” these days the term “Christian rock” encompasses an array of genres). But more importantly, the label pigeonholes the music. Joseph Pensak, the man behind Hallowell, may be a a Presbyterian pastor singing spiritual songs, but his music wouldn’t really fit on any modern CCM playlist. He says that, though he likes some of the music contained within, he disdains reductively labeling a genre simply “Christian”: “It makes my skin crawl and sadly some amazing bands got unhelpfully placed in that genre and thus didn’t get heard by the much larger audience they deserved. As Sufjan said somewhere, ‘Christian’ is a terrible adjective.” Continue reading »

Mar 052019
 

The new compilation album Live from Robot Dog Volume Two serves as an excellent introduction to the best of Vermont’s independent musicians. But it also chronicles a deeper story, one of grief and healing for the man behind it.

Local Vermont music superfan Tim Lewis hosts a weekly show on WBKM, bringing a band into Robot Dog studios every week to record a short live set. The detailed notes he posts online tend to be as good as the music, and for this batch of shows (a song from almost every session he recorded in 2018), his notes revealed a story listeners wouldn’t hear on air. 

“2018 was a tough year for me,” he begins the liner notes. His mother had gotten sick in the fall of 2017. Her health quickly declined. She moved into hospice care by February, and passed away two months later.

A son’s grief goes without saying. Throughout the heartbreaking journey, though, Lewis found some solace in the music he was recording. Though not widely known outside of Vermont, these local bands brought moments of joy during a terrible time. For instance, he writes about a January set by post-rock band The Mountain Says No, “Their powerhouse music filled my soul, which was needed, since my mom was not recovering as expected. I remember being so happy that day.”

The music he recorded (alongside studio engineer Ryan Cohen) also provided moments of connection with his mother in her final months. Lewis describes a beautiful moment visiting his mother in hospice and showing her a video of his latest session, with electronic duo Bad Smell. “I’m not sure mom liked it,” he elaborates in an email (he says she preferred classical and country music), “but she liked that I did and helped make it happen. In the middle of the song, one of the nurses came in and said something about us having a jam session. [The nurse] seemed to really like the music, and mom just sat back and smiled. It was one of the many lovely days I had with her until late March when she really turned.”

One night in March, minutes before a session booked with 9-piece cumbia band Mal Maiz, the hospital called to let him know to prepare for the worst. “I’m sure I cried a little, then took a breath and walked into a room of people playing joyous music,” Lewis says. “I think I had done so many previous Robot Dog sessions that I was able to fall into my role of staying out of the way, chatting with the bands, and doing the interview. I was able to focus on the event and let everything else go. It was so nice to get away from it for that couple of hours.”

Carol Lewis passed away on April 2nd, 2018. The next band Tim brought to the studio was metal quartet Doom Service. “The heavy loud melodic music became a focal point that I could hold on to,” he writes, elaborating in an email: “Having Doom Service let loose some rock fury a couple of days after she died was cathartic.”

The entire Live from Robot Dog Volume Two – with Tim’s liner notes – is available for free at Bandcamp. Top photo by Brittain Shorter.

Feb 282019
 
best songs february
Barika ft. Erica T Bryan – Change Your Mind

Barika typically operates in the world-music space (leader Craig Myers plays West African string instrument the n’goni), but “Change Your Mind” points to an intriguing new direction for them. The funk and soul points more towards New Orleans than New Guinea, and the electronic production makes it sound modern, avoiding the relics-of-history feel of so much that gets marketed as “world music” these days. Continue reading »

Feb 192019
 
kristina stykos

When I first heard Kristina Stykos’ powerful new album River of Light, her singing leapt out as a highlight. Raw and plainspoken, like Lucinda Williams or John Prine, her voice presents an understated toughness. But I didn’t know the full backstory. Turns out, tough doesn’t begin to describe Stykos.

Stykos, who’s been making music since the 1970s (she used to tour with – and date – Béla Fleck), lost her voice in 2017 due to spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder that singers from Linda Thompson to Alison Krauss have struggled with. She couldn’t even talk on the phone. It wasn’t the first time; she’d lost her voice for two years in the 1980s. But this time, it didn’t entirely come back.

Continue reading »

Feb 132019
 
eastern mountain time different tomorrow night

All those artists supposedly “saving” country music often do so by bringing in non-country elements, from Sturgill Simpson’s psychedelia to Kacey Musgraves’ disco flair. But on new single “Different Tomorrow Night,” Eastern Mountain Time saves country music by playing the genre right down the middle. Songwriter Sean Hood describes Eastern Mountain Time as only a “sorta-country band,” but on this track (and on my favorite song from his last album), he leaps all the way in. Continue reading »

Feb 082019
 
fever dolls adeline

Vermont quintet Fever Dolls’ debut single “Gennifer Flowers” ranked second on our Best Songs of 2018, and now they’re back with a follow-up: “Adeline.” Never short on ideas, the band packs a lot into under three minutes. In this case, an entire piece of musical theatre written in miniature, plotted around a husband and wife both in love with the same woman.

“[Singer Renn Mulloy] and I spent years playing in different bands with people that wanted to make Radiohead’s Kid A,” says songwriter Evan Allis, “while we were trying to make Disney’s The Kid.

Continue reading »

Jan 242019
 
danny and the parts
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about young revivalists like Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton bringing back “real” – or, at least, more traditional – country music. Add Danny LeFrancois to that list. On Driving All Alone, the new EP he recorded as Danny & the Parts, LeFrancois channels Waylon and Willie: catchy country with some heavy themes. Continue reading »
Jan 152019
 
katie trautz

Vermont multi-instrumentalist Katie Trautz has been recording other people’s music for a decade. But, until now, never her own.

She plays fiddle in a host of of local bands, from country music group Wooden Dinosaur to Cajun duo Chaque Fois. She sang in vocal choir The Bright Wings Chorus, and wrote a book a couple years ago teaching harmony singing to kids. She co-founded the Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture in Montpelier, and teaches violin in her spare time.

Continue reading »
Dec 172018
 
best vermont 2018

This summer, Nine Inch Nails released Bad Witch, originally billed as the final EP in a three-EP trilogy. Only Trent Reznor said upon release that, even though it only contains six songs, it wasn’t an EP after all. “Want to know why it’s being labelled an LP instead of an EP?” he wrote in response to a fan questioning the change. “EPs show up with singles in Spotify and other streaming services = they get lost easier. EPs feel less important in today’s music-isn’t-as-important-as-it-once-was world. Why make it easier to ignore?”

In the digital-music era, the boundaries between an LP and an EP are porous at best. Bands can mostly decide for themselves what to label a release. Some artists have begun calling their EPs “mini-albums” (which is not a thing). Kanye West produced a series of seven-song projects this summer, few topping 25 minutes. None were labeled EPs. In the physical media era, there were concrete differences between an album, EP, and single: size, price, etc. Now it’s a free-for-all.

Continue reading »

Dec 142018
 
the giant peach i-89

Rock has a storied history of songs about life on the road, from “Turn the Page” to “We’re an American Band” to half the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog. But these chronicle the journeys of successful touring artists. You won’t find as many road songs by baby bands nowhere near their first Odyssean mega-tour.

The Giant Peach has stepped in to fill that void. Their new song “I-89” is less life on the road than life on road: Interstate 89, which runs through band leader Harrison Hsiang’s Burlington, Vermont home base. “I-89” chronicles a less-celebrated – but more common – side of live performance: the hustling young musician’s lone drive home late at night after a one-off gig in some remote outpost.

Continue reading »