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.
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.
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.
The Rear Defrosters’ “Gentleman Farmer” sounds like an old-time country hoedown, the sort of thing that Hank Williams might have written, or that Levon Helm might have goofed around with in the Woodstock barn. It’s not, but the similarity is no accident. The Rear Defrosters is a country covers band that plays Jimmie Rodgers and Dwight Yoakam tunes for beer-drinkers. It features an array of acclaimed southern Vermont players and associates honkytonking it up, including a ringer on guitar: the great songwriter and finger-picker Sam Moss, who I’ve written about before.
But leader Michael Roberts is primarily a songwriter, and a good one – I’ve written both about his band Wooden Dinosaur and his solo work before – so he challenged himself to write a few original songs they could slip into live sets so seamlessly the crowds wouldn’t notice. “It seemed like a good challenge to try and write songs that could fit alongside the canon of classic country music covers we usually play,” Roberts says.
Aviation – Invisible Boy
In 1980, Queen delivered one of the great superhero themes of all time with “Flash.” If the Invisible Boy were a real superhero, Aviation gave him an equally bombastic theme song, a six-minute epic complete with piano crescendoes, scorching guitar solos, and canned applause. He’s not real, though. In fact, as you discover over the course of the song, he’s not exactly a superhero after all, just a lonely kid who sits by himself at lunch. Well, now he’s a lonely kid with an epic piano-prog theme song.
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.
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.
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.
There must be something in the water. Earlier this week, we posted a song inspired by Wren Kitz’s job at a sewage treatment facility, and now we have another killer track inspired by water work.
The song is “Via Champlain” (as in Lake Champlain, on the Vermont-NY border) by new Americana trio Some Hollow. Band frontman and songwriter Jason Lee used to work as a deckhand on the Grand Isle Ferry, shuttling passengers and commuters back and forth across the lake.