At first listen, Vermont singer-songwriter Allison Fay Brown’s debut EP Cardinal is a warm and winning collection of folk-rock songs. But the EP boasts depths not immediately apparently skipping over the pleasant sonic surface. Take the title. The word “cardinal” signifies more than the arrival of spring, or the cover’s red lettering. “In astrology, cardinal signs signify the creators, and the beginning of things,” Brown says. “Myself, my mother, and my sister are all cardinal signs of different elemental zodiacs, and I wanted to pay homage to our strong feminine collective.”
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.
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.
Abby Sherman – Wanting to Run
Great little details abound in the final song off Abby Sherman’s debut album: “The callused fingers fumble over the strings. / Do you only find me beautiful when I sing? / In a dark bar where the lights are kept low. / Nothing better to do and no where better to go.”
Baby Brush – Dinos
I feel I wasted a good Frank Zappa comparison in last month’s list. Vermont expats Baby Brush – Christopher Davis, Peter Housekeeper, Theodore Housekeeper, and Ryan Kochalka (James‘ nephew) – sounds far closer to Zappa than anything I’ve encountered so far, twisting and warping just about every genre in popular music on their debut album. Opening track “A Tribute to Foot” turns doo-wop on its head, with the only lyrics being “foot foot.” Then “Dinos” alternates wild guitar with wonked-out synthesizers over lyrics about nipple tassels, sounding like five song ideas crammed into one. Like Zappa himself, it’s a delicate balance that occasionally falls off the edge of insanity – but succeeds far more often than it should.
Chazzy Lake – The Next Day
I’ve raved about Bison and J Bengoy, two of Vermont’s best rock bands, a lot on here (in fact, scroll down for a little more J Bengoy raving). And as if playing in both those bands wasn’t keeping him busy enough, singer Charlie Hill debuted a new solo project called Chazzy Lake. Debut EP Goodbye V.D. Baby kicks off with him playfully arguing with his backing singers on “A Stranger Time” (“Hey Charlie, you’ve got to get yourself a job!”) and builds to “The Next Day,” the album’s catchiest track, a beach song as filtered through college rock radio.
We’re finally at about the six-month mark at what has been a long and deeply stress-inducing year. But there’s perhaps some small comfort that 2017 has so far been a great year for music. So to celebrate being halfway through – as well as County Tracks’s own six-month birthday – we’re rounding up some of the best Vermont-made songs we’ve heard this year so far.
We narrowed the list down to a dozen for the sake of sanity, but couldn’t go without mentioning some of our other favorite tracks, which we listed at the bottom. We also rounded up as much as we could in a Spotify playlist. Enjoy!
The controversy over Bob Dylan going electric seems quaint now. History has more than vindicated him, to the point that even Pete Seeger began claiming he only tried to axe through the Newport mic cable due to poor audio quality. It’s a cliché that Dylan going electric changed everything, fusing poetry with rock and roll, you know the story. So does the Nobel committee.
Dylan electrifying folk music to some degree also signaled the end of the era of the truly acoustic singer-songwriter album. Sure, there are plenty of guitar-strummers in the folk and Americana worlds today, but these days even “stripped-down” albums are rarely that stripped down. A tasteful violin here, some brushed drums there. Fewer now follow the template of Bob’s early albums – truly solo acoustic, not acoustic-plus-some-other-stuff.
On his latest album Smoke The Fire Gives though, Burlington songwriter Eric George keeps the solo-acoustic tradition alive. He told the Burlington Free-Press he road-tested these songs while busking on the street (similar to Erin Cassels-Brown’s recent EP came about). Then, when a full-band recording space fell through, just recorded them thes ame way.
Last weekend, Fantastic Negrito won his first Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Blues Album.” It’s a safe bet that few Grammy voters would have ever heard of him had he not won another award two years prior: the NPR Tiny Desk Contest. And if the future is just, last year’s winner, the wonderful violinist Gaelynn Lea, will soon be collecting Grammy statues of her own.
Fantastic Negrito hails from California, and Lea from Minnesota. So as this year’s contest continues, we think it’s time for the Northeast to – to quote Lea’s winning song – linger in the sun. To aid in that effort, out of dozens of locally-made videos, we’ve picked our favorite Vermont entries in the 2017 contest.
The only real rules for a Tiny Desk Contest video are that the song has to be an original and a desk should somehow figure in (it doesn’t even need to be tiny). But many of the state’s finest musicians went beyond the bare minimum, one dragging a not-so-tiny desk to a mountain summit, another finding a tiny church to match the desk. The songs span from folk to prog, soul to punk to classical piano. There’s also a song about dinosaurs, and a special celebrity entrant: Officer Clemmons from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!
So read on to discover our dozen-plus favorite Vermont entries. Then head to the Tiny Desk Contest website to browse other entries from Vermont and beyond. Our favorite non-Vermont find: this bizarre David Lynch fever-dream masked performer.