Jan 312018
 

best songs january

I try to write about as much great music as I can here, but I inevitably fail to get to everything deserving. So I’m inaugurating a monthly-ish series rounding up Vermont’s best new songs. It’s not ranked and I’m not aiming for any firm number; it’s just some songs that were still rattling around my head as the month came to a close.

A few of these I wrote about already, but most I didn’t get to. Either way, whether you follow the site or just stumbled upon this, whether you’re a Vermonter yourself or have zero local connection, this collects some of the best music the state’s been producing recently.

Also, full disclosure: This series is starting with a lie. A few of these actually came out in December, after I’d finished my Best Songs of 2017 post. Close enough. Continue reading »

Dec 192017
 

best vermont albums

After counting down the Best Songs and Best EPs last week, our year-end look back comes to a close with the Best Vermont Albums. This list could easily have been twice or three times as long, but for the sake of concision – and offering a brief scene intro for outsiders – I limited it to ten. The cream of the crop, the albums with not an ounce of flab or filler.

Genre-wise, they run the gamut, from instrumental bass funk to snappy power-pop, from horn-flecked Americana to roaring slacker-punk. Some tackle current events with wit and insight. Some focus more on chilling, eating sweets, or doing laundry. The only unifying characteristic here is quality. Continue reading »

Dec 122017
 

best vermont music 2017

What is an EP?

I don’t mean that as a philosophical question, but a practical one.

Back in the vinyl era, the EP had a clear reason for existing as a stand-alone format from the album. If you had enough songs to fill a 12-inch, 33RPM record, you made an album. If not, you put what you had on a 10-inch, 45RPM record and called it an EP. They looked different; they felt different; they cost different amounts.

In the digital era, free of physical limitations, the distinction has blurred. An artist’s latest collection of music can be two songs or two hundred. The idea that a 60-minute collection of music constitutes an “album” and a 15-minute one constitutes an “EP” is purely artificial.

Yet the EP hangs on, because musicians like the format. Nowhere more so than in Vermont, where the EP offers new bands a way to test the waters and experienced bands a way to toss out a few songs between “proper” albums. In a musical climate where local musicians rotate constantly around new bands and monikers, the EP offers a low-stakes way to try out a new sound or collaboration.

As a result, this list is no ugly stepchild to the Best Albums list we’ve got coming next week. There may be no more practical reason to keep the EP designation, but these ten EPs justify their own reasons for existing. Continue reading »

Nov 272017
 

near north most every night

An immediate standout on Americana trio Near North’s full-length debut Most Every Night is the holler-along brawler “Good About You.” The song channels the best of classic rock, bringing to mind bands like Thin Lizzy. But the artist that actually inspired the song couldn’t be more different: Adult-Contemporary pop singer Anna Nalick.

The song’s story begins a decade ago in frontman John Nicholls’ music class. His teacher assigned the students the task of writing a new song based on a current pop hit’s chord structure. Nicholls selected Nalick’s “Breathe (2 AM),” on constant radio rotation at the time. “I banged out a verse, pre chorus and chorus, just enough to satisfy the assignment and never thought about it [again],” Nicholls says. Continue reading »

Nov 032017
 

As anyone who read last week’s Best Vermont Cover Songs posts knows, I held an event in Burlington this week to promote my new book Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time (locals who missed it: I left a bunch of signed copies at Phoenix Books!). And rather than give a dry book talk, I recruited some of Vermont’s finest musicians to cover songs from the book alongside conversation with expert moderator Brent Hallenbeck of the Burlington Free-Press.

I wrote about the event at length over at Cover Me, so here I will just say that both Swale and Madaila frontman Mark Daly delivered some truly amazing covers. Swale kicked off the event with a beautiful acoustic version of “Unchained Melody,” followed by Daly nailing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a “Gin and Juice” both hilarious and haunting. Watch videos of all three below. [Update November 8: Plus a long video of the full thing, including my conversations with Brent] Continue reading »

Nov 022017
 

emma cook questionable company

Taking the bus doesn’t usually feel like a particular inspiring experience. Not enough to inspire a song, anyway. But the Beatles, Hollies, and Who all had 1960s hits about buses, and Billy Joel turned a Greyhound ride into “New York State of Mind.” Some bus rides are so good, they’re worth remembering.

Or so bad, in the case of Emma Cook. On her new album Take It Home with backing band Questionable Company, “Nashville” details a road trip gone wrong. “Slept through the night heading north / Tossing and turning, sweating and burning it out of me,” she sings. It sounds even worse than the typical bus ride, a low bar indeed. And for good reason. Continue reading »

Nov 012017
 

eastern mountain time

When I first saw the Eastern Mountain Time song title “Berlin After the War,” I wondered if it was a reference to Randy Newman’s “In Germany Before the War.” It isn’t. It doesn’t even refer to the same war. The clue comes right in the first line: “Berlin after the war / Street speed and Zeppelin IV.” You don’t have to be a music-history major to realize they probably weren’t rocking “Black Dog” at the Potsdam Conference. Continue reading »

Oct 272017
 

michael roberts wooden dinosaur

If you hear the phrase “a song about animals,” you probably think of Raffi. But I’d wager Raffi never wrote about an essay exploring how humankind’s transition from agricultural life to capitalism centuries affected our relationship to the animal kingdom (unless I am seriously misreading “Baby Beluga”).

On his new song “Something Free,” Vermont singer-songwriter Michael Roberts picks up Raffi’s slack. Roberts usually records great country-rock music under the band name Wooden Dinosaur (including one of my favorite albums and songs of 2016), but for this new single he took a $20 tape recorder and did it all himself. Which isn’t to say this is tossed off – not even close. Over what he ably terms a “laid-back lo-fi country choogler” of a tune, he sings dense lines like “I want something free I can call my own / Domesticated animals brought to my home” and “The smell of the hunt, the patience, the scenery / A blood Jackson Pollock sprayed on the leaves.” Intriguing to say the last, and I wanted more information. Continue reading »

Jul 282017
 

swale there's no one here

Back in 2005, guitarist Eric Olsen termed Swale “Vermont’s premiere slo-core band.” Twelve years later, this label has proven ludicrously inadequate. But it’s hard to come up with an equally pithy tagline to replace it. The quartet’s journey has taken them from their origins as a burlesque show house band recording EPs of ambient slow-burns to the sort of rock-soul-funk-pop-country hydra that can credibly cover both Sonic Youth and Tom Jones.

Not only will Swale’s third full-length record There’s No One Here easily be one of the best Vermont-made albums of the year; it’s sure to be one of the best albums period. A sprawling double-LP calls for an equally in-depth look behind the scenes, so we reached out to the band members to talk about every track. Continue reading »

Jun 292017
 

jack labbe

The first thing you notice at Jack Labbe’s Bandcamp page – before you even listen to the music – is the odd album description. It begins:

-Be aware that horses are mirrors. If you are angry, they will be difficult or scared.

-Some horses are difficult whether you have a good attitude or not. Sometimes this is genetics, how their mother raised them, or how a human has handled them in the past.

-Trust is everything. If you trust that you can take a wild, abused mustang from pasture and turn it into a well-mannered, happy, trusting show-horse in the next one or two years, then it will most likely happen.

Wait, what? We thought Bandcamp only sold music. They do, and the music at Labbe’s page is great, beautifully performed acoustic ruminations on love and loss. And we’ll get there. But first, what’s the deal with the horses? Continue reading »