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.
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.
The first song we featured from songwriting vet Bow Thayer’s latest album found him right in his bluesy Americana pocket. “Looney Brook Road,” also off the just-released A Better Version of the Truth, pushes him in some quite different directions. Ambient and spacious, this sonic tour de force takes its meandering time getting to anything like a lyric. When words finally arrive, they sound like the Beatles at their trippy late-period peak, part Sgt Pepper and part White Album and part Paul side-eyeing Yoko in the corner.Continue reading »