Dec 192017
 

best vermont albums

After counting down the Best Songs and Best EPs last week, our year-end look back comes to a close with the Best Vermont Albums. This list could easily have been twice or three times as long, but for the sake of concision – and offering a brief scene intro for outsiders – I limited it to ten. The cream of the crop, the albums with not an ounce of flab or filler.

Genre-wise, they run the gamut, from instrumental bass funk to snappy power-pop, from horn-flecked Americana to roaring slacker-punk. Some tackle current events with wit and insight. Some focus more on chilling, eating sweets, or doing laundry. The only unifying characteristic here is quality. 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 »

Oct 272017
 

michael roberts wooden dinosaur

If you hear the phrase “a song about animals,” you probably think of Raffi. But I’d wager Raffi never wrote about an essay exploring how humankind’s transition from agricultural life to capitalism centuries affected our relationship to the animal kingdom (unless I am seriously misreading “Baby Beluga”).

On his new song “Something Free,” Vermont singer-songwriter Michael Roberts picks up Raffi’s slack. Roberts usually records great country-rock music under the band name Wooden Dinosaur (including one of my favorite albums and songs of 2016), but for this new single he took a $20 tape recorder and did it all himself. Which isn’t to say this is tossed off – not even close. Over what he ably terms a “laid-back lo-fi country choogler” of a tune, he sings dense lines like “I want something free I can call my own / Domesticated animals brought to my home” and “The smell of the hunt, the patience, the scenery / A blood Jackson Pollock sprayed on the leaves.” Intriguing to say the last, and I wanted more information. Continue reading »

Sep 082017
 

michael hurley vermont

Michael Hurley is the sort of artist who inspires memorable descriptors. He’s been called “a vestige of the old, weird America” by the Boston Globe,” an “old-timey existentialist” by Robert Christgau, and “folk’s Boo Radley” by Pitchfork. My favorite, though, comes from roots-music magazine No Depression: “a crazy backwoods Vermont folkie, singing about werewolves and maids, drinking weasel piss, and enduring sausage farts.”

Hurley did not start out a “Vermont folkie” though. A lifelong traveler, he lived in California, Florida, New Orleans, Mexico, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Boston, before moving to Vermont in 1967 at age 25 – probably some other place I missed too. He remained a moving target even once he was in the state; he estimates he lived in 35 different towns in his two decades as a Vermonter (he dubs his strip of central Vermont “the insanity belt”). Hurley stayed in Vermont, but he certainly never settled.

The music he recorded and released in those 35 towns stands among his greatest, and his weirdest. There are songs about pork chops and hula hooping. There’s a song where he spents much of the time imitating a crow’s call. There are two different songs about monkeys, and one song about a werewolf that he recorded twice.

Hurley’s Vermont story is almost as strange and wondrous as Hurley’s Vermont songs, so we’re going to dive into each. Take a deep breath. It’s going to get weird. Continue reading »

Jun 292017
 

jack labbe

The first thing you notice at Jack Labbe’s Bandcamp page – before you even listen to the music – is the odd album description. It begins:

-Be aware that horses are mirrors. If you are angry, they will be difficult or scared.

-Some horses are difficult whether you have a good attitude or not. Sometimes this is genetics, how their mother raised them, or how a human has handled them in the past.

-Trust is everything. If you trust that you can take a wild, abused mustang from pasture and turn it into a well-mannered, happy, trusting show-horse in the next one or two years, then it will most likely happen.

Wait, what? We thought Bandcamp only sold music. They do, and the music at Labbe’s page is great, beautifully performed acoustic ruminations on love and loss. And we’ll get there. But first, what’s the deal with the horses? Continue reading »

May 152017
 

wren kitz

NNA Tapes is probably Vermont’s best-known record label, an über-hip curator that has helped spearhead the recent cassette revival. Their catalog of experimentally-minded musicians extends from the out-there to the way-out-there. And their latest signing, fellow Vermonter Wren Kitz, can operate in both modes.

His first release with the label, Dancing on Soda Lake (out June 2), counts as relatively conventional – for him. Unlike some of his more experimental releases of ambient rumbles or Eraserhead nightmares, Dancing on Soda Lake is reasonably song-based. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t weird. Continue reading »

May 032017
 

waking windows vermont

We normally don’t do concert previews here. My goal with this young blog is to spread the gospel of Vermont music to an audience beyond the state’s sometimes-confining borders. And writing about regionally-specific events generally goes against that mandate.

This weekend’s Waking Windows festival is an exception.

Waking Windows is the Vermont music scene in microcosm. In some respects the Burlington equivalent of SXSW, Waking Windows surrounds a few bigger names (Real Estate and Dan Deacon this year) with dozens of the state’s best local bands. Naming the best Vermont artists playing the festival almost doubles as naming the best Vermont artists period. And that is exactly our mandate. Continue reading »

Mar 282017
 

Though he’s only 22 years-old, Vermont songwriter Erin Cassels-Brown has packed in a lot of living since he nearly died.

When he was in college, a burst appendix sent his body into septic shock, landing him in the hospital for an extended stay – he says he left “12 pounds lighter and a million life thoughts heavier.” His brush with death made him reevaluate his purpose, dropping out of college and leaving work at his father’s solar company to pursue music full time.

“I decided to get on a bus and try to be a street performer for a while,” he says. “I went to Asheville, North Carolina and Charlottesville, Virginia. I didn’t make much money, but I made some amazing friends and it gave me a new lease on life, both physically and emotionally.”

Cassels-Brown traveling around busking on the street, trying to scrape together a life from tips tossed into his guitar case. On his debut EP Northern Lights, Vol. 1, the song “Virginia, Bring Me Light” traces his Kerouac-ian journey. “That might be the saddest song on the album,” he says. “It certainly doesn’t include the happy ending of the real life adventure, but I was trying to write from the place I was in right before I got on the southbound bus.” Continue reading »

Mar 242017
 

concrete jumpers

In the early 2000s, “emo” was a label that few musicians wanted stuck to them. Even Dashboard Confessional’s Chris Carraba – as much the poster boy for the genre as anyone – disavowed it. “I didn’t think it was an appropriate name for grouping us together, but it stuck,” he said a few years back. “It’s like the term ‘hipster’ that was very cool but is now meant as an insult. That’s what happened with ’emo.'”

Carrabba prefers the less charged “singer-songwriter,” which would also apply to Vermont musician Sam Wiehe – but he doesn’t mind if you call him emo. “I know it has a certain stigma and can be attached to ‘sad boys’, but to me, emo music just means music that is emotional,” Wiehe says. “And that really is all I wanna make.”

The 20-year old Wiehe records as Concrete Jumpers – or, rather, recorded. His new album Dear Madison is his last under that name. It’s a breakup album filled with heart-on-sleeve emotion and sometimes devastatingly personal lyrics. So…emo. Continue reading »

Mar 162017
 

Cricket Blue

Roots music fans know that when you’re listening to an album by “Gillian Welch,” you’re really listening to the musical partnership of Welch and her longtime collaborator David Rawlings. Ditto for an album released under the name “Dave Rawlings Machine.” Rawlings and Welch share one of the strongest and most enduring musical partnerships in Americana music. Their albums arrive infrequently though, so Welch and Rawlings fans impatient for more would do well to discover Vermont-based duo Cricket Blue.

Last year we named Cricket Blue’s “Angela Carter” one of the Best Vermont Songs of 2016 and they’re already back with a best-of-2017 contender. Though they haven’t released a studio version yet, “The Milkman” is available via a beautiful live video (below). Continue reading »