When I saw Vermont-based guitar wizard Tom Pearo deliver a masterful album-release show recently, he made a comment about how I Am A Mountain soundtracked a movie playing in his head. Something in the way he said it made me think he had more in mind than a band’s standard promo line about how cinematic their new album is. Sure enough, Pearo has a very specific story in mind. Think a coming-of-age road journey as told by J.R.R. Tolkien (which I realize basically describes Lord of the Rings, but most of the battles in Pearo’s movie are internal).
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.
Adam Rabin – The Other Room
You’re going to want to sing along to “The Other Room” after a listen or two – but I wouldn’t. The sketches of plot offered sound like a sci-fi family dystopia, a Black Mirror episode for children.
The Cheyenne Brando – Samsonite
So thoroughly does Endtime Hymns evoke certain bands that one begins looking for echoes everywhere. Is the title “My Jean Sebring” a nod to David Bowie’s “Jean Genie”? Does “Poisonhead” reference ABC’s “Poison Arrow”? Was “Privacy of Lucy” inspired by The Cure’s “Pictures of You”? Each connection a greater stretch than the last, and likely none intentional. Christian Hahn does explicitly cite the heyday of post-punk and new-wave in his bio though, and, sonically, the comparisons are everywhere. His next song might as well be titled “Bizarre Love Triangle Will Tear Us Apart.”
Abby Sherman – Dreamcatcher
Abby Sherman released one of 2018’s best folk songs with “Wanting to Run,” and she’s returned with a catchy new single. Mandolin features prominently, joining her vocals to front a tight roots band on a song about looking back and accepting one’s own history.
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 Big Sip – Two Hips / One Night
When an album features the credit “Tenor Sax (Track 5),” you know I’m starting with Track 5. And the sax doesn’t disappoint when it finally arrives on this arty-jam-funk journey, but there is so much going on beforehand you forget it’s coming. Crazy keyboard sound effects, off-kilter Phish rhythms, and some insistent melodies that push through the chaos. It’s off the band’s debut EP Sip Responsibly.
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.”
Russ Lawton and Ray Paczkowski have been members of the Trey Anastasio Band for over a decade, but with Anastasio busy on Phish’s never-ending tours, they may have some free time on their hands. The duo has recorded their debut album as jazz-funk duo Soule Monde, Lawton on drums and Paczkowski on Hammond B3 organ. And from the sound of the first two songs they’ve released, Must Be Nice is a corker.
In Haitian Creole, “soule monde” translates to “smashed world” (the title of their first EP), though the moniker is sort of a coincidence – “Soule” is Lawton’s middle name while “Monde” comes from Paczkowski’s first name Raymond. “Smashed world” makes a good description though. While there are definitely world-music rhythms in the mix here, they’re smashed with funk, jazz, and far-out soul. Like Booker T. jamming with Ginger Baker, Paczkowski and Lawton make instrumental music of the most exciting sort.
On certain songs on Stuart Ross and the Temp Agency’s debut album Wandering In The Wild, you’d swear the band hailed from New Orleans’ second-line tradition. On other tracks, the Tex-Mex horn spurts might make you wonder if they hail from further west, sending lonesome signals from the borderlands. Well, they are in fact from a border, but it’s the one between Vermont and New Hampshire.
Though they’re closer to Canada than most of their influences, their sound pulls from musical traditions across the map. Wandering In The Wild is “Americana” in its broadest sense. It draws not just from the alt-country sphere that genre tag is often a synonym for, but from blues (“Devil’s Stomping Ground”), mariachi (the instrumental “Wandering in the Wild”), and big-band jazz (“Spiders”). Sprawling and ambitious, it’s one of the best debut albums we’ve heard in a while.