The Decemberists’ “The King is Dead” Review

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The Decemberists

“The King is Dead”

January 2011; Capitol Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

I’m pretty proud to be able to say I’ve been following The Decemberists and their musical endeavors for the majority of the band’s existence. Of the now six full-length albums they’ve produced, I’ve watched and waited for and loved five of them, discovering the Seattle sextet in my junior year of high school. The Decemberists’ efforts since then – the epic Picaresque in 2005, the major label debut The Crane Wife in 2006, 2009’s rock opera The Hazards of Love – have each been valiantly ambitious and wholly unique while keeping true to the band’s organic sound and colorful flair for the dramatic.

And the band’s most recent work is no exception. The King is Dead is a bold, tightly knit collection of smoothly woven, rustic tales of love and guilty consciences. This time though, The Decemberists are folksier and more effortless than ever, straying from their characteristically extravagant stylings for subtler, sleeker tunes. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and singer/songwriter Gillian Welch, both of whom are featured prominently throughout, seem to keep Colin Meloy and company tethered without stifling the band’s sensational themes or erudite prose.

Rollicking opener “Don’t Carry It All” maintains a familiar swagger, wild with harmonica and brazen violins, but “Calamity Song” settles into an easy, upbeat melody with something almost countrified lingering about the chorus. The sea shanty-ish “Rox in the Box” boasts a blustery, minor tonality, complete with a saucy accordion and darkly esoteric lines like, “Of dirt you’re made and to dirt you will return.”

The single, “Down By the Water,” is well chosen; The Decemberists have never been so radio-friendly as on this balmy, churning melody. And “This is Why We Fight” is a brawny and cavernous track, spinning brooding words into bravado: “And when we die, we will die/With our arms unbound/And this is why/This is why we fight.”

Today, The Decemberists are well seasoned and comfortable without sacrificing charisma or radiance. The King is Dead is perhaps little less fanfare than we have come to expect but remains well contrived, expertly accomplished, and stunningly felt. Bravo, Meloy; bravo.

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She & Him’s “Volume Two” Review

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She & Him

“Volume Two”

March 2010; Merge Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

Zooey Deschanel is unflinchingly carefree in all of endeavors, but as the “She” in the duo She & Him, Deschanel simply radiates bliss.  Her delicate soprano glides so lightly over Volume Two’s collection of sunny refrains, the album practically personifies spring itself.  Acoustic guitar virtuoso M. Ward, aka “Him,” completes the magnetic pairing, accompanying Zooey’s lyrics with warm, cheery instrumentals.  On Volume Two, She & Him experiment with eclectic, vintage tunes, more along the lines of Volume One’s “I Was Made for You,” which sounds like the soundtrack to a 60s beach movie montage, than the folk rock-infused “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” (from their debut album as well).  Channeling the likes of The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, and The Mama and the Papas, She & Him has assembled a sweet and breezy anthology that seems meant for a long drive on an April afternoon.

Volume Two begins with a thoughtful, rolling tune called “Thieves,” in which the line “I’ll see you sometime, sometimes lonely isn’t sad” stands out as most poignant.  The shimmering single “In the Sun” is dazed and sprightly, charming in its simplicity.  The chorus goes: “Well alright/It’s okay/We all get the slip sometimes every day.”  The tune finishes with a few fantastic and unexpected guitar riffs.  “Don’t Look Back” is a deliberately and delightfully 60s melody, but with lovely literary opening lines: “Orpheus melted the heart of Persephone/But I never had yours/I followed you back, to the end of the path/But I never found the door.”  Deschanel gently showcases her piano instrumentation in the otherwise pleasantly frivolous tune.  “Gonna Get Along Without You Now” is a favorite of mine – it’s ironically dainty harmonies counterbalance jaunty lyrics like, “Got along without you before I met you,/Gonna get along without you now./Gonna find somebody that’s twice as cute,/Cause I didn’t like you anyhow.”  Volume Two closes with “If You Can’t Sleep,” a blushing and beautiful ballad so graceful and blithe it’s almost sad.

As unlikely a pair as Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward are, they’ve capitalized on luminous melodies and exquisitely lyrical folk music, and it works because together as She & Him, they are dynamic.  Volume Two is a perfect playlist for a balmy afternoon on sun-drenched porch in spring, so if you need me, that’s where I’ll be.

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Norah Jones’ “The Fall” Review

Norah Jones

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Norah Jones

“The Fall”

November 2009; Blue Note Records

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

Those of us immersed in the music world knew Norah Jones from her debut album Come Away With Me, which blew up after it claimed no less than five Grammy awards back in 2002, and despite the release (and commercial success) of two subsequent albums, we still think of her with that jazzy “Don’t Know Why” on her lips.  However, on her most recent effort, The Fall, Jones has made a point of starting over and stepping out.

If you think Norah Jones sounds a little different on this album than any of her previous work, you’d be spot on, because Norah Jones is a new woman these days.  She and her longtime boyfriend – who also filled the roles of co-writer and bassist of her band – split up at the end of her last world tour, and she’s clearly in a different place.

But let me clarify here, different means good…, really good.  Everything that we loved about Norah is still there: her mellow, smoky vocals, charmingly lyrical songs, and natural musicianship.  However, we sense a new fiery attitude in Jones, who poses in a feathery Victorian gown and tilted black top hat, smirking coyly and showing off her cute new pixie cut, on the cover of her fourth LP.  The singer/songwriter hired on tight session musicians, including guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Joey Waronker, to record with her, and modified her sound a bit – flawlessly transitioning from her signature jazz acoustic pop to this new contemporary folk rock on The Fall.

The single, “Chasing Pirates,” starts off the album with a smooth, rich flow and crafty lyrics like, “Now I’m having the squeams, while the silliest things/Are flapping around in my brain/And I try not to dream of the impossible schemes,/That swim around, wanna drown me in sync.”  “Light As a Feather,” cowritten with well-known folk fiend Ryan Adams, is a subtle acoustic masterpiece, deliberate and notably paradoxical: “We’re light as a feather/Heavy as the weather/If it was raining stones.”  “It’s Gonna Be” is the highlight of the album: it’s groovy and somehow dusty, if you know what I mean… just a little distorted in that old dive bar accompaniment kind of way.  “Back to Manhattan” sounds just like the best of bluesy Bonnie Raitt, sedate and effortless, soft and low.  Country-influenced “Stuck,” cowritten with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, is a sturdy melody that contradicts the pair’s tender, broken-hearted lyrics.  And “Man of the Hour” is totally in the style of fellow female crooner Fiona Apple, its sparse instrumentation and playful lyrics closing the album with a delicate triumph, its opening lines sharp and quirky: “It’s him or me/That’s what he said/But I can’t choose/Between a vegan and a pot head/So I chose you, because you’re sweet and you give me lots of lovin’ and you eat meat.”

So Norah Jones has reinvented herself.  She’s strayed from her slightly swoon-y, silver-tongued jazz goddess bit and flourished into a full and velvety contemporary rock knockout, and as much as I loved those mild, piano-infused ballads, I could really get used to Norah’s brand new tune.

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The Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You” Review

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The Avett Brothers

“I and Love and You”

September 2009; The Avett Brothers and AR

By Emily J Ramey

Click Here to See the Published Version on American Music Channel

The title of the newest Avett Brothers’ album seemed a little nonsensical at first, then I listened to “I and Love and You,” and the meaning, striking and sentimental, became clear and admirable.  With one line, I understood The Avett Brothers to have assembled another exceptional body of work: “Three words that became hard to say/I and love and you.”

I’ve heard people say that The Avett Brothers are changing their sound with I and Love and You, from their twangy, wholly bluegrass roots to this new folksy rock, but I think they are following a natural progression of musicianship and composition.  Listeners complain when two albums sound alike, and some complain when they sound too different, but I think the major point to be made here is that there were a lot of people who knew about and loved The Avett Brothers before this album, but there are also a lot of new listeners who are learning to love them based on this album, and that is what one calls a success in the music industry.

The Avett Brothers are confident and fun.  Every track is spunky and strong, with clever lyrics and a few of their previously characteristic rampant bluegrass jams, but more often on this album, the focus is on the song as a whole, their riotous banjos and fiddles fitted into accompaniment instead, which, by the way, does not make the album any less exciting or fun to listen to.

The stand out tracks on I and Love and You aren’t clustered at the beginning of the album, which too often is the case, but spread graciously from beginning to end.  The title track, mentioned before, could probably be considered the best song about Brooklyn in recent history; “January Wedding,” should be restricted to front porch performances with its old school bluegrass simplicity, honest and sweet with lyrics like, “No longer does it matter what circumstances we were born in/She knows which birds are singin’/And the names of the trees where they’re performin’ in the mornin/And in January we’re gettin’ married;” and “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise” possesses a beautiful dichotomy between the smooth, graceful piano and violin melody and stony, seasoned vocals.

“The Perfect Space” is classical and poetic, with poignant lines like, “I wanna fit in to the perfect space,/feel natural and safe in a volatile place./And I wanna grow old without the pain,/give my body back to the earth and not complain,” with a peppery change of pace midway.  “Kick Drum Heart” is a throbbing new tune, its accompaniment, with quirky piano and percussion combination, sounds like a Regina Spektor song, if I didn’t know better.  Instead, The Avett Brothers raise her one with their alternate scream vocals and brotherly harmonies.  “Slight Figure of Speech” is Beach Boys meets The Clash, and “It Goes On and On” is a little bit Elton John and a little bit The Shins, but mostly just catchy as hell.

I and Love and You is a fabulous compilation of everything we knew The Avett Brothers do best, and some exciting new things we didn’t know they were capable of, with their courageous broadening of horizons.  The Avett Brothers are new to national fame, but no one deserves to explode into musical rock-stardom more than they do.  We all need a little more bluegrass in our lives.

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Oscar Anthony and the Westfolk Article

“The Telling of the Westfolk Band”

By Emily J Ramey

Written for The Belmont Vision

John Shaw, Ross Bridgeman, Jared Ziemba, Oscar Anthony, Houston Mathews, Brady Surface

John Shaw, Ross Bridgeman, Jared Ziemba, Oscar Anthony, Houston Mathews, Brady Surface

Oscar Anthony and the Westfolk is a Belmont band that can boast of a live show like no other.  Six guys, all performing with such fervor, can saturate a room.  With every break in the music, the band intakes their respective breaths simultaneously.  The beat courses through each of their bodies, provoking an infectious kinetic energy and revealing the otherwise imperceptible bond uniting these players.  Later, one begins to realize that this connection is simply the band’s collective Bohemian soul professing its existence to their audience.

Perhaps in contrast to their melodic chemistry onstage, the band itself was formed as arbitrarily as any I’ve ever spoken with.  The band now consists of Oscar Anthony (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) and the Westfolk Band, which is John Shaw (lead guitar), Brady Surface (bass), Ross Bridgeman (keys, vocals), Jared Ziemba (sax, vocals, percussion), and Houston Mathews (drums).  However, reaching their current line-up was apparently a rambling, roundabout story in and of itself.  Shaw recollects,

“Oscar and Houston got together.  And I got a call February of our freshman year.  Houston left me a message that just said, ‘call this number.’  He didn’t give me any details whatsoever; just hangs up.  I got my bass player to play with us for a little while, and Ross was his roommate….  He played keys and sang, so we needed him.  Then, we went to RCA to record, and Jared, you were there for some reason.  Did you bring anything to play?”  He laughs.

Brady Surface came on the scene a little later.  Anthony and the guys saw him play at a house party and had to have him on their bill.  With Surface on bass, the Westfolk Band finally settled in – but only as far as the members.  Their music was another matter altogether.

“I have recorded with this band more than I’ve recorded with any other band I’ve been in, and we still don’t have anything out, but that’s just because we’re constantly evolving our sound,” Shaw says.  The band’s MySpace describes their music as reminiscent of “blues, jazz, country, folk, metal, earth, and oceans.”  The guys themselves don’t have a much straighter answer:

“I’d say we’re… country rock,” Anthony asserts.

“A lot more jammy,” Surface adds.

“Bob Dylan meets Radiohead,” Mathews finishes.

I feel the need to inject here and clarify.  I realize how the evolution of the band’s sound could appear indecisive, but my insight has proven that Oscar Anthony and the Westfolk are genuinely adept in every genre they try their cumulative hand at.  They aren’t scrapping their previous work, but rather taking it with them and moving forward.  With six members, each as musically immersed as the next, their interests and influences are forever shifting, and so their music goes with them.

And when I say ‘musically immersed,’ I mean these boys are surrounding themselves as musicians, primarily through individual side projects and multiple obligations.  Ziemba is in a band called Skylion; Surface is in Biscuits and Gravy as well as a jazz ensemble.  Anthony has some solo stuff going on, and Shaw has his own band, The John Shaw Group, to name a few.  Contrary to what one might think, these other commitments have compelled Oscar Anthony and the Westfolk to become more regimented in their practice schedule.  They’ve turned more resolute and less cautious.

They’re next steps are logical, yet ambitious ones.  Oscar Anthony and the Westfolk are working to release their first EP and at establishing fan bases in proximate cities.  The band is more comfortable and confident now than ever before and is ready to expand.
“If you can survive in Nashville, you can thrive anywhere else,” Shaw concludes optimistically.

Oscar Anthony and the Westfolk have a show tonight at Exit/In with fellow local acts Heidi Feek, Andrew Combs, and Milktooth.   Other upcoming shows include May 8th with Moon Taxi at The Fishtank in Lexington, KY and Belmont’s own Latin Street Festival on May 9th.  For a full list of future shows, sample tunes, other info on the Westfolk or their newest venture SoundForest, check out their MySpace:

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Fiction Family’s Self-Titled Debut Review

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Fiction Family

“Fiction Family”

January 2009; ATO Records

By Emily J Ramey

Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek have come together to create Fiction Family.  The seemingly unlikely duo met a few years ago at a show featuring Wilco, R.E.M., Nickel Creek, and Switchfoot.  Both Watkins and Foreman are vocalists and multi-instrumentalists; they took turns singing lead vocals, both playing several instruments on each song.  Together their sound is a seamless blend of their respective backgrounds, the finished product an amalgamation of acoustic melancholy refrains reminiscent of Ben Lee’s “Awake” or Nashville’s own Jeremy Lister contrasted by Moldy Peaches-type sunny declarations of love.  “When She’s Near,” “Elements Combined,” and “Closer Than You Think” provide a cheery, magnetic energy, while songs like “Out of Order,” “Not Sure,” “Betrayal,” and “Please Don’t Call It Love” radiate dusky vibes, with germane lyrics about infidelity and love lost.  Occasionally, a dissonant electronic segment acts as an obvious attempt to step outside expectations, but mostly Foreman and Watkins stick to what they do best.  Overall, Fiction Family has proved more than just a lighthearted side project, but an earnest venture on a fresh and promising frontier.

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Ingrid Michaelson’s “Be OK” Review

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Ingrid Michaelson

“Be OK”

October 2008; Cabin 24 Records

By Emily J Ramey

Ingrid Michaelson has achieved notoriety in an innovative and novel way.  Michaelson’s name flowered into the proverbial musical realm after the song “The Way I Am” from her second album Girls and Boys was featured on ABC’s drama Grey’s Anatomy.  Don’t think Ingrid’s journey has been an easy way to the top though.  Michaelson played hundreds of local shows in the northeast and even created her own label, Cabin 24 Records, to gain footing in the business.  Still, in the end, it was Ingrid’s delightfully clever tunes coupled with down-to-earth lyrics rooted in simple, universal truths that made her an indie marvel.  Be OK is a compilation of old and new, which in some ways should classify it as an EP; five of the eleven tracks are either covers or acoustic or live versions of previously recorded songs.  However, the originality and expression of Ingrid’s new material makes the album worth the purchase anyway.  Quirky, blithe tunes like “Giving Up” and “Keep Breathing” are blended with melodic adaptations of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Oh What a Day,” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” on Be OK, while the title track, along with “Lady in Spain” and “You and I,” demonstrate Ingrid Michaelson’s distinguishing fusion of indie pop and folk.  The most impressive tune, however, is decidedly “The Chain,” a sinuous canon recorded live at a performance at Webster Hall in New York.  Overall, Ingrid has gracefully remained true to the unique quality of music that won her so many indie hearts, and that alone is something she should be proud of.

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