Dec 132018
 
reid parsons

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. 

Buy the ‘Reid Parsons’ EP here.

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 »

Sep 012018
 

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best new songs august

Abby Sherman – Wanting to Run


Great little details abound in the final song off Abby Sherman’s debut album: “The callused fingers fumble over the strings. / Do you only find me beautiful when I sing? / In a dark bar where the lights are kept low. / Nothing better to do and no where better to go.”

Baby Brush – Dinos


I feel I wasted a good Frank Zappa comparison in last month’s list. Vermont expats Baby Brush – Christopher Davis, Peter Housekeeper, Theodore Housekeeper, and Ryan Kochalka (James‘ nephew) – sounds far closer to Zappa than anything I’ve encountered so far, twisting and warping just about every genre in popular music on their debut album. Opening track “A Tribute to Foot” turns doo-wop on its head, with the only lyrics being “foot foot.” Then “Dinos” alternates wild guitar with wonked-out synthesizers over lyrics about nipple tassels, sounding like five song ideas crammed into one. Like Zappa himself, it’s a delicate balance that occasionally falls off the edge of insanity – but succeeds far more often than it should. Continue reading »

Jul 022018
 

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best songs june

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. Continue reading »

Jun 042018
 

xenia dunford

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.” Continue reading »

May 312018
 

See previous monthly Best-Of lists here.

best new songs may

Addy Sechler – Make Home to Me


One of the best albums of 2017 was Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me. It was also one of the toughest to actually listen to, being a songwriter frankly grappling with his wife’s sudden death. When you want that same quiet, hushed vibe, but don’t have the emotional bandwidth to sink into that weighty subject matter, Addy Sechler’s new album will suit just fine. Continue reading »

May 242018
 

emma back little world

Many prominent artists are recording “political” albums these days. But almost inevitably, the lyrics tend to paint a blurry picture. Musicians have over-learned the lessons of 1960s protest singers, who wrote songs so timely that they became dated within days. Is anyone’s favorite Dylan song really “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”? Today’s overcorrection leads to broad generalities about “the fight” and “resistance,” without speaking to the times in any direct way.

Emma Back’s fantastic new album Little World is a political album too, but Back has something specific to say. No, she’s not chronicling the Iran deal’s dissolution. There’s no “Talkin’ Bob Mueller Blues,” and the word “Trump” does not come up once. Little World succeeds where others have failed because, rather than attempting a sweeping statement about “our times,” Back drills into one specific subject: war in the Middle East. Continue reading »

Apr 092018
 

kelly ravin pretend

“Keep calm,” read the letters tattooed on Vermont singer-songwriter Kelly Ravin’s knuckles. In a sense, that’s the advice delivered on his new song “Pretend.” It’s advice aimed at a specific audience: soldiers overseas. And it’s not always easy to follow. Continue reading »

Jan 312018
 

best songs january

I try to write about as much great music as I can here, but I inevitably fail to get to everything deserving. So I’m inaugurating a monthly-ish series rounding up Vermont’s best new songs. It’s not ranked and I’m not aiming for any firm number; it’s just some songs that were still rattling around my head as the month came to a close.

A few of these I wrote about already, but most I didn’t get to. Either way, whether you follow the site or just stumbled upon this, whether you’re a Vermonter yourself or have zero local connection, this collects some of the best music the state’s been producing recently.

Also, full disclosure: This series is starting with a lie. A few of these actually came out in December, after I’d finished my Best Songs of 2017 post. Close enough. Continue reading »

Jan 302018
 

peter burton

In 2008, as many people were suddenly finding themselves unemployed, a dream job landed in Peter Burton’s lap: Director Of Animation Development at the Fox television network. He would be charged with finding the next Family Guy or The Simpsons.

A daunting task for anyone, and Burton, by his own admission, wasn’t really qualified. An old friend had pulled some strings, and Burton found himself quitting his law firm clerical job in Philadelphia and moving to Los Angeles with his girlfriend. “I was in way over my head,” he says now. “Some days, I felt great about my job. Other days, I felt nauseous and my palms dripped sweat, my heart pounding through my chest at every meeting.”

As if he didn’t have enough cause for anxiety already, his boss would tell people Burton had worked on South Park for three years before coming to Fox. “Everyone who met me – agents, actors, writers, producers, animators, co-workers – asked ‘How was it working on Southpark?'” Burton recalls. (He spells “Southpark” as one word, underlining the fact that, yeah, he never worked on South Park.) He says he felt “like a complete fraud” trying to back up his boss’s lie. Continue reading »