My 2014 Mixtape

Another New Year’s Eve has come and gone, but I’m only slightly past due for the posting of my 2014 mixtape. It probably won’t help your hangover, but maybe give it a listen anyway.

This year’s mix was tougher to put together than last year’s, since while I bought or was gifted over 50 albums this year, only a handful actually came out in 2014—I bought a lot of back-catalog stuff and classic country (Dolly Parton, Pee-Wee King, Buck Owens, etc.). As a result, I threw in a couple of tunes released in 2013 by bands I saw live in 2014 to fill it out (there were also a couple bands I would have added in if they were on Spotify, so you should definitely check out the Jumbo Shrimp Jazz Band and Sarah McCoy if you’re ever down in New Orleans).

Turns out there’s a heavy New Orleans influence in this mix, even without the two artists just mentioned—it includes two acts out of the Crescent City (Big Freedia and Hurray for the Riff-Raff), as well as several tunes that mention NOLA. It wasn’t on purpose, but seems fitting given that the city seems to have become our go-to vacation spot.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, and here’s to another year of great music.

A 2013 Mixtape

Yes, friends, it’s that time once again, the time where everyone and their mothers list their year’s favorite everything. As usual, here is a playlist of some of my favorite songs of the past year.

The YouTube playlist below includes at least portions of each of the songs on my list, though some of them are fragments of live performances; you can also check out the Spotify playlist below that, which includes studio recordings but is missing four of the tunes included in the Youtube list (this modern media economy is confusing, innit?).

Anyway, I hope you’ll enjoy and let me know what you think of my selections in the comments. Have a great 2014!

My 2012 Mixtape

From the “Better Late Than Never” file comes my annual best of the year mixtape. I made a conscious effort in 2012 to only buy music that came out that year, so I had a bit of an embarrassment of riches to choose from; as a result, I didn’t include tunes from several just-ok albums here. Did I leave of your favorite song of the year? Probably. Let me know what I missed in the comments.

  • Jack White, “I’m Shakin'” from Blunderbuss

  • The Coup, “My Murder, My Love” from Sorry to Bother You

  • The Avett Brothers, “I Never Knew You” from The Carpenter

  • David Wax Museum, “Harder Before It Gets Easier” from Knock Knock Get Up

  • Best Coast, “Why I Cry” from The Only Place

  • Amadou & Mariam, “Wily Kataso” (feat. Tunde & Kyp of TV on the Radio) from Folila

  • Justin Townes Earle, “Movin’ On” from Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

  • Japandroids, “Fire’s Highway” from Celebration Rock

  • Kelly Hogan, “We Can’t Have Nice Things” from I Like to Keep Myself in Pain

  • Alabama Shakes, “Hold On” from Boys & Girls

  • Rhett Miller, “Marina” from The Dreamer

  • Norah Jones, “Say Goodbye” from Little Broken Hearts

  • Dr. John, “Big Shot” from Locked Down

  • Heartless Bastards, “Parted Ways” from Arrow

  • Cowboy Junkies, “Unanswered Letter” from The Wilderness

This One Time, on Bandcamp…

I have finally gotten around to creating a Bandcamp site for my music, which will allow me to sell individual tracks or albums for download. I’ve been toying with the idea for a while, and now that I’ve finally done it I can’t believe I waited so long. It has a fairly intuitive interface for artists to upload their work, and a simple (allowing little customization) but elegant end result that also allows me to embed tunes on the music page of my website. At the moment, I have only two songs posted (two tunes I recorded as promos for an upccoming production of Assassins, including a brand-new one, “McKinley’s Gone“), but I intend to add some of my older songs as well as tunes from a new solo project I have in the works.

My 2011 Mixtape

It’s the most magical time of year. Yes, I’m speaking of the time of year when every armchair music critic, myself included, starts reeling off their “best of” lists. Since with last year’s list I finally gave up pretending that I ever listen to full albums anymore, here is a mix of the songs from 2011 that captured my attention. If you’re on Spotify, you can listen to the whole thing there.

  1. “A Candle’s Fire” by Beirut from The Rip Tide
  2. “Born Alone” by Wilco from The Whole Love

  3. “Tree By The River” by Iron & Wine from Kiss Each Other Clean 
  4. “Gangsta” by Tune-Yards from WHOKILL
  5. “Barton Hollow” by The Civil Wars from Barton Hollow
  6. “Get Lost” by Tom Waits from Bad As Me 
  7. “Two Against One (feat. Jack White)” by Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi  from Rome
  8. “Mustache Man” by Cake from Showroom Of Compassion
  9. “Screws Get Loose” by Those Darlins from Screws Get Loose
  10. “Fixin’ To Die”  by G-Love  from Fixin’ To Die
  11. “White Port” by Old 97’s from The Grand Theatre Vol. 2 
  12. “Calamity Song” by The Decemberists  from The King Is Dead
  13. “Hanging from a Hit” by Okkervil River  from I Am Very Far

An Alt.Country Critique

I have recently been reading Old Roots, New Routes, a collection of academic essays about the cultural politics of the musical genre known as alt.country. While I have read dozens (maybe hundreds) of such studies of (sub)cultures from Bombay’s Zoroastrians to Wicker Park’s hipsters, this is the first such work I’ve read that turned the critical eye on a cultural community with which I feel a close affinity.

The party line among alt.country fans and (slightly less so, I think) musicians is that they are hearkening back to, as Jay Farrar puts it, a “a truer sound,” an authentic country music free of the corrupting market influences of the Nashville industry, though necessarily performed with a knowing wink of irony. The essays in Old Roots New Routes, while ranging in focus (and, alas, coherence) rightly point out that country music has always been market-driven, and they question alt.country’s notions of authenticity, suggesting that a music based originally in working-class life, performed by over-educated, liberal, urbanites not raised on country music smacks of appropriation and minstrelsy. I would argue that the authors largely fail to interrogate the notion of what “working-class” means (does being working-class require undertaking manual labor? Is it a matter of income, or education? After all, many of those over-educated urbanites hold decidedly working-class day jobs in the food industry while pursuing musical careers), but overall the book is a refreshing reminder of the value of critically examining any and all cultural assumptions — particularly those we hold dear.

As I mentioned, I feel a close affinity to alt.country. While I would not consider myself a full-on scenester, it is the genre of music within which I tend to write and perform, and it makes up a large portion of the music that I purchase and to which I listen. Understandably, then, reading these essays has led me to interrogate my own involvement and investment in this cultural community. I grew up in a rural area, though in the Northeast, rather than the South or Appalachia. The rented house where I grew up had no running water in the winter, but I went to excellent schools, including a private high school (on scholarship), a well-regarded liberal arts college and a world-class graduate school. My mother worked at auto parts stores when I was little, then became a landscape gardener (is that a working-class job? I have no idea) and a partner in a landscaping business, while my stepfather worked for much of my childhood as a freelance illustrator (perhaps the working-class job of the art world, but unlikely to be counted as such by most observers), and later in advertising and higher education. Both had only briefly attended college, and though neither earned degrees until my stepfather did so many years later, books were everywhere in our house. My father, who held the undeniably “working-class” jobs of machinist and truck driver, and whom I visited in the summers, had actually come from a well-off family (my grandfather was an engineer and the son of a doctor).

I did not grow up listening to country music, though my father did own a lot of what are now considered precursors to alt.country, such as 1960s and 70s country-rock and outlaw country (I much preferred to listen to his Huey Lewis tapes), and my mother and stepfather were avid listeners to Prairie Home Companion (I loved the stories, hated the music). It wasn’t until I moved to a large metropolitan area that happened to be home to one of alt.country’s premier record labels that I started paying any attention to country music, whether alt or otherwise, and looking back I see the roots of my interest in it being a logical extension of previous musical interests, namely delta and ’50s Chicago blues and traditional Irish music (country, of course, is in many ways the offspring of African-American blues and Scottish/Irish balladry).

Where would all of that leave me in the eyes of Old Roots, New Routes‘ critics? I’m not sure. Even mentioning the above facts sounds like an embarrassing bid for a type of working-class identity that I would never consider claiming, as I far more closely identify as an over-educated liberal urbanite.  But when I ask myself what drew me to this music, my answer has very little to do with a longing for an idealized rural past in which men were men, singers were always sincere, and people made everything they owned with their own two hands; hell, I hate manual labor. Rather, what I see in alt.country is a commitment to narrative songcraft and lyrical wordplay that is today really only matched in one other genre of American popular music, namely hip-hop (and one can imagine the cultural negotiation that would have been involved in my becoming a hip-hop artist). It’s a genre where words matter, and words were what got me hooked on music in the first place. Perhaps the critics’ points might be taken closer to heart by the people who need to hear them if they were put in a song.

My 2010 Mixtape

It’s time to stop living a lie.

Over the last few years I’ve indulged in the annual ritual of posting a list of my top albums of the year. But the truth is, in this age of internet-induced ADD, of shuffling iPhones and thousands of tracks at my fingertips, I rarely listen to a given album all the way through more than once, and it has gotten harder and harder for me to say a given album is better than another.  The atomic unit of music has once again, as in days of yore, become the song rather than the album. While I don’t disagree that a set of songs can become more than the sum of its parts, as a songwriter my fundamental appreciation for my beloved medium rests at this very basic level — does this song, standing on its own, result in head-nods, pulse-throbs, or eye-sobs?

To that end I’ve put aside the pretensions of a top albums list and gone back to my roots: the mixtape. You can take a listen to a sample of each of my favorite songs of 2010 in the playlist below, and if you are so inclined, purchase each track individually (I should mention that doing so will also send a small pittance in the direction of your humble author).

Alternatively, if you value speed over supporting your friendly neighborhood blogger, and don’t mind spending $18.03 to feed the Apple monster, you can buy all 17 tunes with one click on iTunes.

Schubas on Sunday

Just a quick note that my Lost Cartographers collaborator, singer Gabrielle Schafer, and I will be playing a duo set this Sunday (Dec. 12) at Chicago’s most lovely small music room, Schubas. We’ll be opening for the forlornly beautiful sounds of Jill Andrews, formerly of The Everybodyfields. Luluc will also play. The show starts at 8, and tickets are just $10 — get ’em now on the Schubas website.And if you’re planning on coming, let us know on Facebook!

Write What You (Don’t) Know

In July, I played a duo show with one of my Lost Cartographers collaborators (singer Gabrielle Schafer) at the venerable Chicago club Schuba’s. The show went really well, but our melancholy, often-dark alt.country was perhaps not the best complement to the earnest pop of singer-songwriter Katie Todd, the headliner for the night. After the show, one of Katie’s fans was chatting with Gabrielle and asked something along the lines of, “What’s up with that guy and all the depressing songs he writes?” Gabrielle fumbled out something about how she thought maybe I had written most of those songs before I had gotten married, and that’s why they were so sad. “Well,” replied the stranger, “maybe he just needs to get laid.”

I smile every time I think of this story, because it holds up to the light one of the assumptions that we often make about the relationship between artists and their art, namely that art is a direct reflection of the thoughts and emotions of the person who creates it. This is particularly true in the often overly-confessional genre of singer-songwriter fare, but I’m sure the same is true in other musical genres as well as in other art forms.

The advice to “write what you know,” of course, is famously imparted to every Creative Writing 101 class, and is quickly internalized by most fledgling writers. As in most clichés, there is plenty of truth to be found in this advice — the surest way to create “authentic” art is of course to explore the characters, settings, and situations that surround you every day. There is just one glaring problem with this practice.

Writing what you know is, after awhile, deadly boring.

Yes, some of those sad songs I write *were* written from personal experience, and deeply-felt emotions. But generally, as a happily married thirty-something with a good job and a life marred by very little personal trauma, I really don’t have much to be sad about. I suppose I could write songs about the joys of a blessed life, but I suspect I would not be alone in finding such songs utterly tedious.

I’m reminded of a discussion I once saw on the Sound Opinions message boards, where someone had posted about how they found Tom Waits (incidentally, one of my favorite artists) to be annoying, because it seemed to them that people just listened to Waits so they could “feel like barflies.” My immediate reaction to this was incredulity; even if that were why people listened to Waits, why wouldn’t that be a good reason? If you only listen to music that reflects your own personal experience, you might as well sit around listening to the recorded hum of your kitchen appliances.

We consume art, I believe, to travel to places we’ve never been, experience things we’ve never seen, felt, or heard, and the best art transports us to another being, without our even noticing — and that is why I, at least, also create art. To conjure — from the flotsam and jetsam of everything I’ve ever read, everyone I’ve ever spoken with, and all the other songs I’ve heard — the mind of a character whose story is very different than mine is a fascinating and satisfying alchemical enterprise.

Certainly there are dangers to this approach; when I write a song from the perspective of, for example, a spurned woman or the engineer of a doomed train, I do not know what it is actually like to be a woman or a train engineer, and I risk misrepresenting those experiences. But good art, I think, can — and should — accept those challenges. If Homer or Shakespeare or Bob Dylan had only written about what they knew, would anybody care about the work they produced? I certainly wouldn’t put my three-chord ditties on par with the masters, but hell — I’m the one who has to live with them for the rest of my life, so they better at least be interesting to me.

P.S. If you’re interested, Gabrielle and I will be back at Schubas on December 12 (tickets on sale now!), opening for Jill Andrews.