When I wrote an introduction to Burlington’s music scene for Vice in fall of 2015 – it was peak Bernie and the country seemed very interested in what the deal was up there – the first band I spotlighted was Madaila. Though barely a year into their career, Madaila seemed poised to be Vermont’s next big breakout, the dance-pop Phish or Grace Potter (though I guess these days the dance-pop Grace Potter is Grace Potter). The band earned millions of Spotify streams and garnered national attention from places like Paste and Relix. It seemed only a matter of time before they got a song placed in the right ad or an opening slot on the right tour and went supernova.
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.
When I first came across Vermont singer/songwriter/producer Zak Kline’s personal-empowerment single “I Will” in January, his gorgeous falsetto and intricate production immediately grabbed my attention. Like a Bon Iver song, it managed to sound intimate even buttressed by string sections, backing choirs, and huge crescendoing choruses. Compared to the earlier material I found on his Bandcamp, “I Will” leapt out. I assumed it was a bold new direction for a musician who’s been quietly releasing music for a few years.
Allison Fay Brown – Summit
I’m going to try to write something longer about Allison Fay Brown’s marvelous new EP later this week, so I’ll just leave the lead track here as a teaser. Like a good short-story writer, Brown offers just enough narrative details to intrigue while leaving plenty of gaps to fill in yourself. For instance…what’s in that box on the doorstep??
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.
Vermont quintet Fever Dolls’ debut single “Gennifer Flowers” ranked second on our Best Songs of 2018, and now they’re back with a follow-up: “Adeline.” Never short on ideas, the band packs a lot into under three minutes. In this case, an entire piece of musical theatre written in miniature, plotted around a husband and wife both in love with the same woman.
“[Singer Renn Mulloy] and I spent years playing in different bands with people that wanted to make Radiohead’s Kid A,” says songwriter Evan Allis, “while we were trying to make Disney’s The Kid.“
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.
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.
This summer, Nine Inch Nails released Bad Witch, originally billed as the final EP in a three-EP trilogy. Only Trent Reznor said upon release that, even though it only contains six songs, it wasn’t an EP after all. “Want to know why it’s being labelled an LP instead of an EP?” he wrote in response to a fan questioning the change. “EPs show up with singles in Spotify and other streaming services = they get lost easier. EPs feel less important in today’s music-isn’t-as-important-as-it-once-was world. Why make it easier to ignore?”
In the digital-music era, the boundaries between an LP and an EP are porous at best. Bands can mostly decide for themselves what to label a release. Some artists have begun calling their EPs “mini-albums” (which is not a thing). Kanye West produced a series of seven-song projects this summer, few topping 25 minutes. None were labeled EPs. In the physical media era, there were concrete differences between an album, EP, and single: size, price, etc. Now it’s a free-for-all.
Rock has a storied history of songs about life on the road, from “Turn the Page” to “We’re an American Band” to half the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog. But these chronicle the journeys of successful touring artists. You won’t find as many road songs by baby bands nowhere near their first Odyssean mega-tour.
The Giant Peach has stepped in to fill that void. Their new song “I-89” is less life on the road than life on a road: Interstate 89, which runs through band leader Harrison Hsiang’s Burlington, Vermont home base. “I-89” chronicles a less-celebrated – but more common – side of live performance: the hustling young musician’s lone drive home late at night after a one-off gig in some remote outpost.