When I first heard Ben Patton and Michelle Sudarsono’s new album Our Follies, I assumed it was covers of old showtunes. I don’t follow the musical-theater world closely, so the fact that I didn’t recognize any of the titles didn’t strike me as odd. Titles like “Take Her to Hear Some Jazz” and “If They’d Had Flappers (Back in Shakespeare’s Day)” don’t exactly leap out as modern. I figured these peppy and polished songs were just slightly deeper cuts by Cole Porter or whoever – he does have another song about Shakespeare, after all.
I only stepped foot in Vermont once this year.
That’s the dirty little secret of this blog (well, not that secret; it says it right on the About page): I don’t live there. Haven’t since I started doing this last year.
That’s going to change when I move back in the spring, but the aim of the site won’t. I conceived of County Tracks as helping to expose the best music created in Vermont to non-Vermonters. In the digital era, it’s easy for an expat dedicated enough to follow any local scene from afar. What’s trickier is getting great local music heard by people who have no reason to care about the category of “Vermont music.”
This ties into a broader problem. The glut of choice of streaming, rather than leveling the playing field, has mostly helped the famous get more famous. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a Billboard staffer claiming Drake was “bigger than the Beatles” because all 25 tracks on Drake’s new album appeared on the Hot 100 simultaneously. I won’t even get into the “bigger than the Beatles” nonsense (come on). The more important point is that, overwhelmed by choice, listeners are gravitating towards what they know. No matter how many times a digital music CEO says the word “discovery,” actual music discovery seems harder than ever.
I don’t know if any of the artists below are blowing up Spotify playlists, or whether any computer algorithm is pushing them on users. But they deserve attention. Great music happens beyond the big cities and big labels; it just needs exposure. In my small way, I hope these lists help a little. There’a lot of great music being made in Vermont. More people outside Vermont – people like me – need to hear it.
I tried to discern some overarching theme with this year’s Best Songs list. One has to write something in these intros, after all. I never came up with one (other than that the songs are all, you know, good). But maybe that diversity itself offers a narrative thread.
The only thing many outsiders seem to associate with Vermont music is jam bands. Mostly one jam band, really. Now, I’m sure learning that Vermont has other genres wouldn’t surprise any outsider. But learning that the music being created in those genres is equally vibrant – and equally supported by the local music scene – might.
Singer-songwriter-composer Ben Patton crams a lot into the 32 minutes of new album Meaning What. After starting with the vocal doo-wop of “Maybe I Live to Make You Happy,” it quickly careens into garage-rock, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, showtunes, and beyond. Throughout the frequent genre swerves, though, one apparent inspiration kept jumping out at me: The Beatles.
It’s clichéd to note that the Beatles’ music influenced pretty much every popular music act of the past 60 years. That may well be true in a broad sense – what they did has seeped into every genre – but little current music actually sounds all that much like the Beatles. Meaning What does, though and from all the band’s phases too. On different songs, Patton channels the Broadway covers of their first albums (“New Love New Love”), the increased studio experimentations of Sgt. Pepper’s (“For All I Know”), the White Album’s crunchy drug puns (“Do the Math”), even the ambitious Abbey Road medley (“The Jebidiah Mustache Suite”).
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.