Dec 132018
 
reid parsons

Reid Parsons wasn’t nervous by the time she stepped on to the competition stage. Sure, she was nervous before her slot in the (deep breath) 2017 Advance Music Acoustic Singer/Songwriter Contest Finals. Her solo performing experience was pretty sporadic, the occasional gig for tips here and there. Few knew her songs, since she couldn’t afford to record them. Then, on top of that, contest organizers told her minutes before that she’d have to fill fifteen minutes instead of the five she’d prepared. But she regained her confidence and sang some of the songs she’d been carrying with her for years.

“I knew I’d slayed it,” she says in an email. “That’s not being conceited or proud; that’s knowing what a good performance is. I have my fair share of poor performances, but I love performing under pressure and rising to the competition, and I did that night. I wanted that prize so bad.”

She won it, and, if the songs she performed then sound anything like they do now, I can’t imagine anyone else was even close. And without her victory that evening, we might not have one of the most fully-formed debuts of the year. The prize included two free days at a local Vermont studio, and the Reid Parsons EP she recorded there sounds like someone preparing half their life for this moment – which this 25-year old has, writing songs since age 13.

Though she hadn’t recorded before, Reid Parsons hardly sounds like the work of a first-timer. One song (“Charlie,” which I’ve already raved about elsewhere) features Faulkner-esque shifts of narrative perspective. Another (“Not Ready to Return”) switches genres halfway through, beginning folk and ending somewhere close to gospel. 

Parsons cites some standard influences for a singer-songwriter, artists like Jason Isbell and fellow Vermonter Grace Potter. But a more unusual influence seems equally informative: slam poetry. Through high school and college, Parsons competed in slam competitions on a national level before growing disillusioned with the scene. So if the songwriting chops on Reid Parsons bely her professional inexperience, she has deeper wells to draw from. Just listen to the opening lines of “Not Ready to Return”:

One by one, all my bones break
Ashes start rising up like hell’s snowflakes
Somehow I’m not reborn
Just standing in the wreckage of this unnatural storm

Three original endings got discarded before she landed on that song’s cathartic finish: a repeating gospel chorus that may be the single best moment on the EP. “I hate strong resolutions in songs, because they’re so final,” she writes, “so [producer] Yasmin Tayeby and I worked really really hard on the ending to come up with something that was powerful but didn’t have all the instruments/voices resolving simultaneously.”

Having been amassing songs in notebooks since she was barely a teenager, the EP her contest prize enabled her to record show only the beginnings of her promise (and one of the songs she performed at the contest still awaits a proper recording). She’ll surely be playing bigger stages, and winning bigger prizes, soon. 

Buy the ‘Reid Parsons’ EP here.

Oct 292018
 

dave richardson

When I first wrote about Vermont folk singer Dave Richardson’s new album Carry Me Along, I highlighted his wonderful song about squids. His latest single, just in time for Halloween, tackles a darker subject. Richardson covers “The Unquiet Grave,” an English folk song hundreds of years old narrated by a woman in her grave. It’s kind of a murder ballad for someone already dead, a man metaphorically killing a ghost by mourning so relentlessly her soul can’t finding peace.

“The first version I heard of this song was a recording by Jean Ritchie,” Richardson says. “The ghostly imagery of the woman speaking from within her grave, her ‘earthly strong’ breath, hooked me. It is an achingly beautiful and sad depiction of grief and loss. That combination of graphic imagery and devastating grief got into me and stayed with me. But both of those things are big in my life. I love scary stories, horror, and spooky ballads. And I really, really love sad songs that penetrate down to the deepest fibers of your being. I relate to the idea of being so deep in depression that it becomes consuming and habitual and really needing someone to say ‘hey, you have a life to live, get to it while you can.'” Continue reading »

Oct 012018
 

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

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. Continue reading »

Sep 012018
 

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best new songs august

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. Continue reading »

Jun 042018
 

xenia dunford

The pictures say it all. Xenia Dunford’s press photos for her last album featured all manner of her posing with a jaunty fedora, leaning on brick walls, sitting on train tracks. Five years later, she’s done joking around. In her new press photo, she stares straight into the lens, unsmiling in black and white.

It’s a more serious, mature look befitting a more serious, mature sound. A lot has changed in the five years since one of Vermont’s most promising young songwriters disappeared just as her career was getting going. The ensuing period, she writes, was “marked by depression, self loathing and the destruction of people and ideas I held very dear yet were completely out of my control.” Continue reading »

May 242018
 

emma back little world

Many prominent artists are recording “political” albums these days. But almost inevitably, the lyrics tend to paint a blurry picture. Musicians have over-learned the lessons of 1960s protest singers, who wrote songs so timely that they became dated within days. Is anyone’s favorite Dylan song really “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”? Today’s overcorrection leads to broad generalities about “the fight” and “resistance,” without speaking to the times in any direct way.

Emma Back’s fantastic new album Little World is a political album too, but Back has something specific to say. No, she’s not chronicling the Iran deal’s dissolution. There’s no “Talkin’ Bob Mueller Blues,” and the word “Trump” does not come up once. Little World succeeds where others have failed because, rather than attempting a sweeping statement about “our times,” Back drills into one specific subject: war in the Middle East. Continue reading »

Apr 092018
 

kelly ravin pretend

“Keep calm,” read the letters tattooed on Vermont singer-songwriter Kelly Ravin’s knuckles. In a sense, that’s the advice delivered on his new song “Pretend.” It’s advice aimed at a specific audience: soldiers overseas. And it’s not always easy to follow. Continue reading »

Mar 052018
 

dave richardson

Dave Richardson’s new album Carry Me Along includes songs about love and loss and life and death. And they’re all wonderful.

But we gotta start with the squid.

The album opens with an acoustic guitar strumming what sounds like your standard plaintive Americana ballad. Then Richardson begins crooning:

Squid, giant squid
Hanging like a hanged man
In this building right downtown
An impressive specimen

It goes on like that, talking about sperm whales and Iceland and 5,000 gallon tanks of water. Not exactly your typical folk-song subject matter. Is this the first squid song ever? I had to learn more. Continue reading »

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 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 »