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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
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The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
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No Age - Everything in Between
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Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum

January 22, 2008
According the exhaustive music encyclopedia All Music Guide, the genre of Americana doesn't even exist. There's Heartland Rock and Alternative Country-Rock, not to mention Sadcore and Queercore. Yet the ubiquitous term that critics love to throw around, especially when waxing Wilco, is nowhere to be found on their list of dozens of rock genres. Wikipedia, far more democratic but far less authoritative, loosely defines Americana as a subset of American roots music. Fair enough, but for my own sake, I am going to freely borrow the sentiment of former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: I know it when I hear it.

Perhaps no artist in music today captures the Americana vibe as well as Will Oldham, who has worked under a number of aliases, perhaps most notably as one Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Through his career, the man from Louisville, Kentucky has created music that is as mellow and potent as the finest of his home state's bourbon. Oldham's prolific output plays like a tumbleweed blowing across a ramshackle range: it's easy to spot his distinct style, yet there is always an air of elusive mystery and effortlessness about it. And let's face it, the man simply looks the part of a biblical heartland troubadour.

Last October saw the release of two excellent albums by indie stalwarts Castanets and Phosphorescent; this winter comes a debut by relative newcomer Bon Iver. The common thread of these long-players is that, knowingly or not, they all manage to uncannily channel Oldham's rambling spirit. This holds forth not simply in their musical styles, but also in the intriguing back stories of the recordings; each one involves a personal journey, that of a wayward traveler, that permeates the album's artistic slant. The process and result are inextricably knotted together, a recurring trademark in Oldham's output as well. It's no wonder that all three records sound distinctly Americana, which can perhaps be best described as "rootless roots music."



In The Vines
Asthmatic Kitty
Rating: 8.7/10 ?

Dead Oceans
Rating: 8.8/10 ?

Bon Iver
For Emma, Forever Ago
Rating: 8.0/10 ?

Ray Raposa of Castanets was working on his third album, In The Vines, when he was mugged at gunpoint near his home in Brooklyn, the unfortunate climax of a year filled with sadness and nomadic dislocation. The ensuing album became an attempt to reconcile the fear of the spaces between the journeys. Notes Raposa, "There is a definite rootlessness. Not so much pursuit, as just waking up somewhere else, and then somewhere else again." Indeed, Raposa's life as the child of expatriate journalists has been like an endless road trip of back seats and rest stops. This wandering forms the basis for about half of the record, the other half inspired by a Hindu fable of being trapped in an inescapable fate.

In The Vines is centered around the songwriter's yearning and earnest vocals. "Rain Will Come" opens the album on a dark, minor note; the constant strumming of an acoustic guitar playing the same chord is eventually washed away by a fit of noise and distortion. These "inescapable' trappings, however, quickly give way to the freedom of "This is the Early Game." When Raposa, with a front-porch cluster of backup singers, lets the words "let me live" tumble from his mouth, you can almost feel the relief. The soft piano, brushed snare and slide guitar perched over picturesque lyrics are enough to make even the slickest city-dweller want to dangle a blade of buckwheat from their (yellowed? missing?) teeth.

Although thematically staked on fear and a kind of timidity, In The Vines dynamically moves from dark to light, and back again, throughout its succinct ten tracks. Raposa, like many great storytellers, knows how to work within both minor and major keys to affect the matter at hand. The brooding "Strong Animal" and "Sway" employ this dynamic in ways that again suggest feeling ensnared. Yet "Westbound, Blue" is as American as the freedom George Washington slew Brits for, a standard blues road ditty that even name checks Philadelphia. Strong throughout, "The Fields Crack" is the album's centerpiece, a poignant cut that meanders like its lyrics, which find Raposa was ready to settle down in places as far-flung as California, Florida and Spain. It also illustrates another major strength of Castanets: superb arrangements of sparse instrumentation. Like the stylistically similar Califone, Raposa knows exactly where and when to place each note and noise, a talent used to masterful effect on closing ballad "And the Swimming," which starts with just a pounding and bare bass drum kick, before slowly adding gorgeous female harmonies, slide, bass and percussion, then ending with the solitary kick drum, perhaps knocking on fate's door. If Will Oldham sees a darkness, Raposa has lived it in the year that led to the superb In The Vines.

Hailing from Americana-rhyming Alabama, Matthew Houck has been recording and releasing his solo work under the name Phosphorescent for the past several years. Houck's sound, steeped in the Southern gothic tradition of American folk, stretched its legs on the Warm-released debut A Hundred Times or More, but only came into its own on the excellent 2005 release Aw Come Aw Wry. Now, having left the muggy South on a journey northward to Raposa's Brooklyn halfway through writing of last fall's on his magnificent follow-up album Pride, the troubadour shows no signs of looking back. Whether the move to hipster heaven set Houck free from something or not, the end result is a staggeringly beautiful ensemble of songs that seemingly have no beginning or end; they almost exist outside of time and place altogether.

Like Castanets, Phosphorescent is anchored by Houck's warbled vocals, which shake and almost break, yet are resoundingly planted and sincere. Similar to In The Vines are Pride's spare arrangements of traditional journeyman instruments, of which Houck plays them all. The album begins with Houck breezing though his vocal range on "A Picture of Our Torn Up Praise," pleading, "tell me where you've been/ and I will tell you where I've been/ it will be all ok." The tone is set: we may all be rootless in life, but there is comfort to be found in acknowledging that fact. "Be Dark Night" harkens back to the Southern gospel flavor of Houck's home; the short poem of three verses could easily flow from a house of worship, and the words have an almost biblical sense: "all rise/ speed and alight/ speed and blind/ be not bright/ be dark night."

In an another biblical gist, Phosphorescent employs the use of animal metaphors. On the aching "Wolves," Houck, like Raposa (who actually guests on backing vocals), speaks to the palpable feelings of being trapped, "Mama there's wolves in the house/ mama they won't let me out." But with artists like Raposa and Houch, freedom is always on the horizon, and the ominously circling Canis lupus of "Wolves" eventually give way to the promising "My Dove, My Lamb." Playing like a musical Odyssey, replete with a makeshift choir, the longing and loving ballad is one in which hope springs eternal, "she will wait to greet me/ where it meets dry land/ my dove/ my dove/ my lamb."

Justin Vernon, who uses the nom de plume Bon Iver, itself a play on the French bon hiver, or "good winter." Continuing the theme of uprooting oneself, Vernon takes it to the extreme. Instead of heading to say, Brooklyn, Vernon moved from North Carolina to a remote cabin in his native Wisconsin, at the onset of winter, and lived there alone for months. The self-imposed hibernation was his self-prescribed salve for a six year period that was stockpiled with personal trouble, loss, longing, love, and vanishing perspective. Between hauling firewood and trips on the tractor, Vernon spent entire nights recording his debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, which will be re-released by Jagjaguwar next month (Vernon tabled it himself in limited quantities last year).

Bon Iver's coming out is a gentle waltz set to tightly knit suite of solo acoustic numbers that focus on not simply moving, but moving on. Vernon, who sounds uncannily like TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe, gets a lot of mileage from his simple but soulful songs. Opener "Flume" sets the stage with its rambling poetry, the Badger Stater singing "only love is all maroon/ gluey feathers on a flume/ sky is womb/ and she's the moon." Every song thereafter continues in that vein of stream of consciousness ruminations. Listening to For Emma, Forever Ago is like sitting around a campfire with Vernon himself, embers of music glowing with warmth, growing with meaning, and a handle of Wild Turkey warding off the elements.

Although having come up in disparate locations, Ray Raposa, Matthew Houck, and Justin Vernon have found a common guide in the meandering spirit of Will Oldham. The catalogue of the musician-cum-indie actor's past work - through Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonny "Prince" Billy, not to mention collaborations with Matt Sweeney, Tortoise and others - is an unequivocal Polaris for these roaming releases. Be it the dark-to-light of Castanets, the haunting mysticism of Phosphorescent, or the lonely triumph of Bon Iver, each album finds the artist turning to American "roots" music as a way to anchor themselves during deeply personal travails and travels. At the end of the day, these are strong artists, who are liberated by their singular visions. Perhaps that is what Americana is all about - the itinerant tumbleweed blowing aimlessly across a dusty range only to eventually take hold of something, stopping peacefully, seemingly at random, but with some undisclosed purpose.

SEE ALSO: www.palacerecords.com
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/castanets
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/phosphorescent
SEE ALSO: www.myspace.com/boniver

Ari Shapiro
A staff writer for LAS, Ari Shapiro mixes up pretty unique smoothies at XOOM in hot Tucson.

See other articles by Ari Shapiro.



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