Mar 222019
 
hallowell

Don’t call Hallowell’s debut album “Christian rock.”

For one, it’s not really rock (though, like “indie rock,” these days the term “Christian rock” encompasses an array of genres). But more importantly, the label pigeonholes the music. Joseph Pensak, the man behind Hallowell, may be a a Presbyterian pastor singing spiritual songs, but his music wouldn’t really fit on any modern CCM playlist. He says that, though he likes some of the music contained within, he disdains reductively labeling a genre simply “Christian”: “It makes my skin crawl and sadly some amazing bands got unhelpfully placed in that genre and thus didn’t get heard by the much larger audience they deserved. As Sufjan said somewhere, ‘Christian’ is a terrible adjective.” Continue reading »

Mar 052019
 

The new compilation album Live from Robot Dog Volume Two serves as an excellent introduction to the best of Vermont’s independent musicians. But it also chronicles a deeper story, one of grief and healing for the man behind it.

Local Vermont music superfan Tim Lewis hosts a weekly show on WBKM, bringing a band into Robot Dog studios every week to record a short live set. The detailed notes he posts online tend to be as good as the music, and for this batch of shows (a song from almost every session he recorded in 2018), his notes revealed a story listeners wouldn’t hear on air. 

“2018 was a tough year for me,” he begins the liner notes. His mother had gotten sick in the fall of 2017. Her health quickly declined. She moved into hospice care by February, and passed away two months later.

A son’s grief goes without saying. Throughout the heartbreaking journey, though, Lewis found some solace in the music he was recording. Though not widely known outside of Vermont, these local bands brought moments of joy during a terrible time. For instance, he writes about a January set by post-rock band The Mountain Says No, “Their powerhouse music filled my soul, which was needed, since my mom was not recovering as expected. I remember being so happy that day.”

The music he recorded (alongside studio engineer Ryan Cohen) also provided moments of connection with his mother in her final months. Lewis describes a beautiful moment visiting his mother in hospice and showing her a video of his latest session, with electronic duo Bad Smell. “I’m not sure mom liked it,” he elaborates in an email (he says she preferred classical and country music), “but she liked that I did and helped make it happen. In the middle of the song, one of the nurses came in and said something about us having a jam session. [The nurse] seemed to really like the music, and mom just sat back and smiled. It was one of the many lovely days I had with her until late March when she really turned.”

One night in March, minutes before a session booked with 9-piece cumbia band Mal Maiz, the hospital called to let him know to prepare for the worst. “I’m sure I cried a little, then took a breath and walked into a room of people playing joyous music,” Lewis says. “I think I had done so many previous Robot Dog sessions that I was able to fall into my role of staying out of the way, chatting with the bands, and doing the interview. I was able to focus on the event and let everything else go. It was so nice to get away from it for that couple of hours.”

Carol Lewis passed away on April 2nd, 2018. The next band Tim brought to the studio was metal quartet Doom Service. “The heavy loud melodic music became a focal point that I could hold on to,” he writes, elaborating in an email: “Having Doom Service let loose some rock fury a couple of days after she died was cathartic.”

The entire Live from Robot Dog Volume Two – with Tim’s liner notes – is available for free at Bandcamp. Top photo by Brittain Shorter.

Feb 282019
 
best songs february
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. Continue reading »

Jan 312019
 
best new songs january
Adaline – Genese’s Song


“Genese’s Song” sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel tune recorded on the Mountain Goat’s early tape deck. Like Adaline Bancroft’s entire album, there’s a hiss and fuzz (the songs were indeed recorded on a four-track tape machine) that adds a haunting distance from the music. It feels like unearthing a dusty old recording, weathered with time, but with the tenderness and beauty shining through the decay. Fellow folkie Eric George joins on upright bass for this song, though that’s an instrument the tape recorder can’t really capture. Continue reading »

Dec 202018
 

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.

Continue reading »

Dec 182018
 
best vermont songs

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. 

Continue reading »
Dec 172018
 
best vermont 2018

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.

Continue reading »

Nov 132018
 

the jobz die

In my short time running this blog and my 11 years running Cover Me, I’ve read a lot of promo blurbs from bands, publicists, and record labels. But in all that time, I’ve never read an album description quite like this:

“Part Greek play, part book of Job, the high concept story should also appeal to casual listeners of punk, indie alternative, cabaret, and hardcore.”

And here’s the really crazy part: That’s actually a pretty succinct description of The Jobz’ wild new album Die. Continue reading »

Oct 312018
 

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best new songs october

Adam Rabin – Trains That Never Come


Is progressive rock due for a comeback? The Washington Post‘s David Weigel released a well-reviewed book on the subject last year (I still gotta read that thing), which seems like it might auger a renaissance. But other than that… let’s just say Pitchfork hasn’t started reviewing Rush reissues. Adam Rabin, of proggers Elephants of Scotland, makes his own argument for the genre on new album The Badger Flies at Dawn. He brings in pop and orchestral melodies in sweeping arrangements that nod toward Genesis and… I suppose I’m part of the problem, as I have few other points of reference. If, like me, you need a genre introduction, “Trains That Never Come” offers an easily accessible place to start. No 7/5 time signatures required. Continue reading »

Oct 172018
 

ben patton

Singer-songwriter-composer Ben Patton crams a lot into the 32 minutes of new album Meaning What. After starting with the vocal doo-wop of “Maybe I Live to Make You Happy,” it quickly careens into garage-rock, Tin Pan Alley, jazz, showtunes, and beyond. Throughout the frequent genre swerves, though, one apparent inspiration kept jumping out at me: The Beatles.

It’s clichéd to note that the Beatles’ music influenced pretty much every popular music act of the past 60 years. That may well be true in a broad sense – what they did has seeped into every genre – but little current music actually sounds all that much like the Beatles. Meaning What does, though and from all the band’s phases too. On different songs, Patton channels the Broadway covers of their first albums (“New Love New Love”), the increased studio experimentations of Sgt. Pepper’s (“For All I Know”), the White Album’s crunchy drug puns (“Do the Math”), even the ambitious Abbey Road medley (“The Jebidiah Mustache Suite”). Continue reading »