In anyone else’s hands, the “bojotar” might be a pricey parlor trick. The inventor of this hybrid instrument, Vermont singer-songwriter Bow Thayer, combined a banjo, resonator guitar, and electric guitar into one axe. But this is a far cry from one of those one-man bands busking in the subway with some ramshackle contraption strapped to his back. The bojotar doesn’t look or sound particularly strange, but it gives Thayer a twangy slide/picking combo impossible to achieve with a traditional instrument.
Bishop LaVey – Romulus
Kane Sweeney’s last single addressed ancient mythology, and his follow-up stays in that old world, this time riffing on the Roman Empire. His thundering wail of a voice suits the subject, as does his “doom-folk” genre styling. If Game of Thrones were still going, he would have fit right in with the wildlings north of The Wall.
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.
Bow Thayer – Looney Brook Road
The first song we featured from songwriting vet Bow Thayer’s latest album found him right in his bluesy Americana pocket. “Looney Brook Road,” also off the just-released A Better Version of the Truth, pushes him in some quite different directions. Ambient and spacious, this sonic tour de force takes its meandering time getting to anything like a lyric. When words finally arrive, they sound like the Beatles at their trippy late-period peak, part Sgt Pepper and part White Album and part Paul side-eyeing Yoko in the corner.
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.
“A Better Version of the Truth was the toughest record I have ever made,” Bow Thayer writes on Bandcamp – and that’s saying something from a man who once battled an ice storm with Levon Helm to record.
But that can’t be compared with the tragedy Thayer encountered during the three-year journey towards his latest album. First, his drummer suffered multiple strokes, rendering him unable to play during two years of physical therapy. Sadder still: This past March, his bassist Alex Abraham took his own life at just 28 years old. (Read his obituary at the Vermont Standard, which includes details about how to donate to the Alex Abraham Musical Excellence Scholarship at Woodstock High School).
Thayer writes about the tragedy quite movingly in the album’s liner notes. My paraphrase won’t do his words justice, so I’ll quote that part in full:
Classic Vermont Albums digs up great records from Vermont’s musical past.
Bow Thayer’s Wikipedia page reads like a who’s-who of New England’s rock and roots scene over the past 25 years. His first Boston-based band Seven League Boots shared bills with Fugazi and Beck. When that band broke up, his new trio Still Home toured with Pearl Jam, who opened for them! “We didn’t even know who they were – nobody knew who they were,” Thayer told Mountain Times last month.
As the 1990s progressed, Thayer moved away from grunge (as did the rest of the country) and towards Americana and bluegrass, swapping cargo shorts and headbanging for slide guitar and banjo. He cycled through a few bands in that mold – Elbow, Jethro, The Benders, all popular in the New England area – before finally releasing the first album under his own name in 2004. A tight alt-country songwriter had by this point fully replaced the grunge guitarist, complete with mandolin flourishes and references to rivers and conifer trees (literal roots music, in that case). His musical touchstones moved from Nirvana to The Band – though, frankly, he loved the Band even when he was touring with Pearl Jam.
“I was a big fan of the Band,” Thayer says today. “During the eighties I was uninspired by the plastic and over-processed music coming through the airwaves. The Band was accessible and still playing around the area where I grew up. I think I used the lyric to ‘Life Is a Carnival’ as a senior quote in my high school yearbook.”