Archive for March, 2012

Album Review – Punch Brothers – “Who’s Feeling Young Now”

March 26, 2012

The Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

* * * * 1/2

With Who’s Feeling Young Now, the Punch Brothers have completed the musical trifecta (which also includes For The Good Times and Hello Cruel World) shaping my current listening experience. There’s a joy and delight to this album that only becomes deeper and further realized with each play though.

As a rabid Nickel Creek fan, I’ve understood Chris Thile’s genius for more than a decade. But I was hesitant in diving into the Punch Brothers after feeling alienated by his How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Thile’s knack for high-pitched singing was foreign to my ears and his experimental nature jolted me too far out of my musical comfort zone without smooth transition. But that didn’t stop me from diving into Who’s Feeling Young Now, my first foray into his latest musical creation.

Like any great musical work, the album transports the listener into a world all its own, a place nonexistent on the geological map. The mix of mandolin and fiddle ground the record in a post-apocalyptic meets gypsy-like setting (think “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss), and the instraments used throughout fuse together to create a sound completely unique and original.

This is most obvious on the opening track, “Movement and Location,” a rousing mix of mandolin, upright bass, and haunting fiddle inspired by former Major League Baseball Player and Cy Young Award recipient Greg Maddux. Thile uses the range of his talents to full effect and brings an otherworldly element to the track by going places with his voice I never dreamt possible.  You’re not likely to hear a more interesting song this year.

Another example of the band’s animalistic prowess is “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a weirdly off-beat traveling circus-like number that opens with a downward fiddle crescendo that leads into Thile’s dazzling manipulation of the mandolin. But the combination of his outlandish yet ordinary vocal delivery proves he’s mastered the comedic undertones of the lyrics, but isn’t trying to reach parody in his delivery.

Going even further into this eccentrically experiential universe is “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” in which strokes of mandolin gel beautifully with frantic bursts of fiddle and touches of banjo. The track benefits greatly from a lack of fullness musically, as the darkness of Thile’s vocal and the harmonies with his fellow band members shine through.

But for all the improvisation going on, Who’s Feeling Young Now has its fare share of “normal” moments, too. The art of Progressive Bluegrass, which the band is categorized under, is to sound completely modern in your approach to the acoustic stylings of Bluegrass while still maintaining a sound mixture familiar to purists. While there isn’t anything traditional about their approach, they hit this melting pot head on. A few of the tracks seem to evoke a touch of pop/rock almost like a roots version of Mumford and Sons.

My favorite of their less funky numbers is the bouncy “This Girl” which elicits the joy of young love and the rekindling of a father/son relationship. The driving mandolin blankets the song in a sunny warmth and the rapid-fire lyrics bring fourth the intensity of his feelings towards the prettiest backslider in the world.

Another standout is the title track, the most pop/rock influecned on the whole album. The opening mix of mandolin and acoustic guitar is heightened by the introduction of fiddle to create a layering of instruments giving the listener the feeling of a full band. It’s my other favorite song on the album because I’m drawn to the receptive nature of the lyrics, in which Thile repeats they tried to tell us and at times we tried to listen to almost primal screams in the final moments of the song. But beyond that, the lyrics, written by the band, are genuinely crafted. The way they’re able to string words together is a work of art.

As much as Who’s Feeling Young Now is an upbeat, full of driving beats, and not-much-heard musical manipulations, there are a few slower moments that add depth to the overall sound. “No Concern Of Yours” may be the closest thing to Krauss’s trademark style, while “Soon or Never” brings back found memories of Nickel Creek’s early days (i.e. “When You Come Back Down” and “The Reason Why”). Of the slower songs, “Clara” is easily the most progressive, and showcases Thile’s higher register, which in the six years since How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, has become a taste I’ve happily acquired.

Like any great acoustic band, time to show off your instrumental abilities is key when giving the audience the fullest picture of yourselves as a band. Plus, its the time to let loose and just play for playing sake. That’s almost unnecessary here, though, because every song more than accomplishes that directive. But, nonetheless, we have “Flippin (The Flip),” a rousing number that gives ample time for Thile to showcase his skills as a mandolin prodigy, Gabe Witcher a spotlight for his fiddle playing, and Chris Eldridge another chance to blend in his acoustic guitar. The less straightforward “Kid A” is also in the mix, and brings the album back to its gypsy-like beginnings.

Overall, in pinning the three albums in the trifecta against each other, Who’s Feeling Young Now comes out on top. Without a doubt, its the most exhilarating album I’ve heard in quite a long time and, in my book, the best country/bluegrass/roots album of 2012 so far. I’ll be quite surprised if any mainstream country release will be able to top this in the coming months.


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Three more names cemented in bronze: the class of 2012

March 7, 2012

As winter slowly turns to spring and the chill begins to exit, a celebration is brought fourth where more than a century of tradition is whisked back into the spotlight, if only for a brief time.

The importance of this commemoration knows no bounds as the past and present collide to bestow an honor upon three worthy individuals whose contributions have been revolutionary.

This recognition, which concludes with a medallion ceremony later in the year, elevates greatness, yet sparks fierce debate among those who object to this honor coming too soon or far too late.

But one ideal will always rise victor – the highest professional honor in country music is induction into the Hall of Fame. And in 2012, that prestigious mark of upmost respect shines a light on Hargus, “Pig” Robbins, Connie Smith, and Garth Brooks.

In three unique and different ways, each inductee has left a stamp on country music not likely to be erased with time. Through his paino-playing on iconic songs such as “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” and “White Lightning,” Robbins has redefined the essence of the studio musician.

With “Once A Day,” a little tune pinned by Bill Anderson, Smith did the impossible – becoming the first female artist to log eight consecutive weeks at #1. That feat, accomplished more than forty years ago, has yet to be topped.

And Brooks took our notion of what a concert tour could be, turned it on its head, and ran with it.

Hargus “Pig” Robbins

I must admit that before this morning, my young age prevented me from knowing Robbins and his contributions to country music. But after listening to his introduction by Kix Brooks, I found familiarity with most of the songs he played on.

Especially this day and age, with digital sales rendering the dust jacket obsolete, the ideal of the studio musican has nearly gone out the window. No longer do we care who backs up our favorite singer as long as said artist releases new music.

But the studio musician is the backbone of all music. Without session players, as they’re also called, albums would never be released. We need these professional musicians who can learn a song on a dime (often without sheet music, thanks Kix) and execute them flawlessly.

Robbins was one of those such people and arguably one of the best the genre has ever seen.

Connie Smith

Unless you are far too close to mainstream country music, the release of Long Line of Heartaches last August brought fourth much joy. It was Smith’s first album since 1997 and an excellent reminder of country’s rich past.

At 70, Smith sounds better today than most female singers in the business. I was recently scanning the television channels when I came across The Marty Stuart Show on RFD-TV. A homage to all the great variety shows from the 60s and 70s, The Marty Stuart Show is a shining example for classic country music in a world in which country rock knows no bounds.

Marty’s guest that evening was none other than Smith, his wife. For half an hour she took to the stage and sang from Heartaches. She performed more than half of the album and even brought her three daughters on stage for “Take My Hand.”

The show can be “hicky” at times, but Smith’s voice shined loud and clear. It was so nice to have an outlet from which to see her perform and I knew I was witnessing something special.

My first vivid memory of Smith came in 1997 when I watched her perform on the Grand Ole Opry from my grandparent’s living room. I don’t remember what she sang, but I remember it airing after she married Stuart. Being young and naive, I didn’t understand what I was watching and thought she looked “tough.”

The next time I remember paying attention to her was during a duet of “Once A Day” live on the Opry with Martina McBride in 2005. That performance is on YouTube and very good, although Smith steals the show (as she should have).

Like Jean Shepard last year, Smith’s induction is long overdue. Her importance to country music may be quiet in comparison to the likes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton, but she belongs with them in a class of her own.

With a better understanding of her importance, and a deep love of Heartaches, I now can say I’m a bonafide fan.

Garth Brooks

Being a 90s kid, (oh how I loathe that term), I have the most vivid memories of Brooks. It’s funny, as a child, I first came to know him trough his famous stage show and always viewed him as larger than life; some unapproachable giant force. His image of flying over rafters and gliding on his back through rows and rows of fans only magnified it for me.

I remember, once, not “getting” him. This idea of his popularity being something overblown. I don’t know when I woke up and got a clue but it came pretty fast.

In 1997, when I was also first learning about Smith, my grandfather turned 75. So my mom had an idea – I would sing “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” at the party. I’m not a singer or guitar player, so I did my best to pull it off. I remember having to learn the song for weeks before hand and feeling pretty cool that I could use the word “damn.” It was a special moment and I can still see myself sitting on the stool in the middle of the dance floor.

That same year, like the rest of the world, I tuned into the famous Central Park concert. Being young, I really had no idea the magnitude of what that show really symbolized for country music. I remember how happy everyone was that Garth was sticking only to old material.

Watching from my grandfather’s basement, I can see clear as day, his inability to get the VCR to work so we could tape the show. I was mad but it was just so cool to be able to watch it. Funny thing, when he brought Billy Joel on to sing “New York State of Mind” I had never heard of him (or at least really knew who he was). I always thought he should’ve been wearing a cowboy hat.

Apart from his concerts, yes I also saw his 1998 show from Ireland, and a concert of my own in 1996, I have vivid memories of Brooks’ music. More than any other artist, he was a true marketing genius.

Getting a new Garth Brooks album was always a treat because there would be multiple covers and “first editions” to choose from. I have first edition copies of SevensDouble LiveThe Magic of Christmas, and Scarecrow.

I remember listening to a radio show, in 1998, when they played every cut off of The Limited Series with commentary from Brooks. It was so cool, at that time, to think he was releasing a boxed set of his material with one new cut on each album.

I also rushed out and bought everything he had for sale during his “Wal-Mart Only” years. Sure, you could say I’m a sad sap for buying into all this, but for some reason you had to – it’s Garth Brooks. (Along those same principles – I also own In The Life of Chris Ganes).

In his day, Brooks had it all. The mammoth concert tours, hit singles, and everything in between. And with Trisha Yearwood he had the tabloid love affair we all love to speculate about (did they hook up in the 90s or not?).

But the truly remarkable aspect of Brooks’ career are the songs. It isn’t very often that an artist can back up their success with such memorable and iconic records. There isn’t a single superstar today – from Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift, to Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, or Tim McGraw who can match Brooks song for song. His is music of substance, class, and grace.

For instance, on 9/11, I remember singing “The Dance” to myself on the way home from school. When I got home, the first song I turned to was “The Change.”

There isn’t anyone who can match him. I remember people would take the day off from school or work to stand in line at their local CD store on Garth Brooks release day. His albums were events.

But Brooks’ induction came so soon, ahead of the more deserving Randy Travis and Ricky Skaggs (who he singled out in his speech), because of one aspect – touring. His concerts were revolutionary for elevating the stage show to heights previously unknown in country music. Like his albums, his shows were happenings.

Before Brooks, you didn’t have fans rushing online at 10:00am to secure their seats to a show. Country artists may have seen sellouts aplenty, but never in places like the Staples Center and Madison Square Garden. He brought country music to a whole new level; one not surpassed until Chesney’s stadium shows in the 21st century. Brooks drew the blueprint that made the mammoth country shows we all go to today, possible.

All and all, If Brooks is anything, he’s his own man. He was the first to announce a retirement (via a silver covered Country Weekly cover in 2000) at the height of his fame, and remains the staunch holdout for a presence digitally. He doesn’t even have any vintage clips on YouTube.

But like any great artist, the songs will always live on. I was listening to my local country station just last week and what came on? None other than “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” Singing along to his first #1, it felt comfortable, right. Just like his entrance into the Hall of Fame.

Looking Ahead

As we look back at the legacy Robbins, Smith, and Brooks bring to the Hall, the debate over future inductees rages on. Brooks may have gotten in ahead of his time, but no one exemplifies the “90s boom” better and as the forefather of the country spectacle, he made the stadium shows of today doable.

But here’s my list of who should welcome the exit of winter’s chill in some upcoming March and allow us to have a celebration in their honor:

Modern Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Randy Travis
  • Alan Jackson
  • Gene Watson
  • Brooks & Dunn
  • Hank Williams, JR
  • Ricky Skaggs
  • John Anderson
  • Dwight Yoakam
  • Clint Black
  • The Judds
  • Alison Krauss
  • Patty Loveless
  • Marty Stuart

Veteran Era Category (In order of importance):

  • Kenny Rogers
  • Ronnie Milsap
  • David Allan Coe
  • Johnny Paycheck
  • June Carter Cash
  • Tanya Tucker
  • Anne Murray
  • Rose Maddox
  • The Browns (and/or Jim Ed Brown)