Musical Finds

2016-12-23

Just about thirteen years ago I posted a list of "desert island dics" that I couldn't do without (yes, this was back before streaming music services took off, so forgive the anachronism - though I still prefer to own and listen to physical albums). Looking at that list again recently reminds me that I've been meaning to post about some other recent musical finds.

First is a band named Hem, which I learned about from a mention in my friend Kurt Keefner's book Killing Cool. Although Hem is somewhat hard to categorize, they mostly fall into the tradition of American folk-rock, albeit with more advanced orchestrations. Through the prodigous musical talents of their members (I am most impressed by songwriter Dan Messé and singer Sally Ellyson), they have created some of the most gorgeous music of the last twenty years. Hardly a week goes by when I don't listen to some or all of Rabbit Songs (2000), Eveningland (2004), and Departure and Farewell (2013). However, my very favorite of their songs (it's really hard to choose!) is probably "He Came to Meet Me" from Funnel Cloud (2006).

In a similarly folkie vein I have found a few fairly young bands to like, including The Wailin' Jennies (a fine Canadian trio that writes interesting songs and sings in beautiful, close harmonies) and The Fair Rain (an English septet formerly known as The Old Dance School, along with related groups The Froe Quartet and McNeill & Heys). On the other end of the age spectrum, I've grown to appreciate the country singer Don Williams, who retired earlier this year after some sixty years of performing (although he's best known for early 80's hits like "I Believe in Love", my favorite of his albums is his penultimate release, And So It Goes...). Somewhere in the middle is the inimitable Tim O'Brien, also lead singer of the progressive bluegrass band Hot Rize - his 2003 album Traveler is filled from front to back with songwriting and performing of the highest quality. An early 70s band with a slightly harder yet still progressive sound that I found last year is Wishbone Ash, especially their album Argus (1972). And just in the last few weeks a friend of mine tipped me off to an extraordinarily powerful and talented singer/instrumentalist named Rhiannon Giddens, who performs everything from spirituals to jazz to Bob Dylan with tremendous authority.

Long ago I bought (on vinyl!) George Winston's "rural folk piano" album Autumn when it was first released, and ever since I've enjoyed what you might call intelligent new age music. Unfortunately, there is a lot of unintelligent new age music - meandering, shallow, and downright boring. You have to wade through a lot of dross to find the gems, which include the guitar music of Jeff Wahl (Meditative Guitar from 2007) and Steve Erquiaga (Café Paradiso from 1998), as well as pianists Tim Glemser, Masako (her two albums combine flavors of east and west with some of the most fluid piano playing I have ever heard), and Kristina Welling (her album Wreath of Wind is the epitome of intelligent and deserves to be much better known).

At its best (as in Erquiaga and Welling), such "new age" music - if we can even call it that - borders on contemporary classical. In the realm of art music proper (not that I'm insistent on hard-and-fast lines in such matters - I like good music no matter what the genre), one of my favorite recent recordings is Catrin Finch's revelatory rendering of the Goldberg Variations on harp from 2009. Although I've written about this album before, I continue to enjoy it immensely. (The Goldberg Variations is one of the works for which I collect recordings - another one that I like a lot is a jazz version by the Jacques Loussier Trio.) Another recent favorite is lutenist Jakob Lindberg's 2012 album of pieces for the chittarone (also known as the theorbo and essentially a lute with some low bass strings); there is some absolutely gorgeous music here from the Italian Renaissance.

The foregoing is just a sampling of the music I've discovered or grown fond of over the last five years or so (I even like some recent pop, especially Pentatonix). I'll endeavor to write more about music in future installments of this weekly journal.

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