Friday, December 8, 2017

Six Water Grog's Best Albums of 2017

Albums have been around for 70 years, but this list is only about ones that came out in 2017.

Courtney Barnett / Kurt Vile - Lotta Sea Lice
This one ended up being my favorite of 2017.  At first I laughed at it sounding exactly as expected: witty yet abstract observational songs about writing songs and playing guitar.  Then it grew and grew into something warm and fuzzy all over - just what was needed this year.  It's debatable as to whether Lotta Sea Lice is more like a Courtney Barnett album or a Kurt Vile album.  Let's just say it's the perfect mixture of both influences.  The drumming on here is great, by the way.

The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
A Deeper Understanding could pass for an ahead of its time 1986 album by a German band trying to sound American.  Its expansive, 66-minute running time follows a pretty consistent path throughout, relying more on atmosphere and sonic delivery than on variations in song form and time signatures.  The overall mood is one of cautious optimism.

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan - Small Town
Small Town might now be my all time favorite Bill Frisell record on account of song selection, demeanor, instrumentation, arrangements, and more.  This is an intimate live album of just Bill Frisell, guitar and Thomas Morgan, bass from a March 2016 run at the Village Vanguard.  The sound is clean and sparse, occasionally adorned by the clinking of cocktail glasses.  Not since East/West has Bill's artistry been so clear.  Thomas Morgan's impeccable bass accompaniment is subtle and psychic.

Ches Smith's We All Break - We All Break
Primarily a percussion album, We All Break combines traditional Haitian drumming with the avant-garde. The band/concept of We All Break is the creation of Ches Smith, a New York city based jazz drummer. Smith composed this music for drumset, two hand percussionists and acoustic piano, and recruited Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz - two of his early traditional music mentors - to play the rada and petwo tanbou (Haitian drums) alongside adventurous piano player Matt Mitchell. Success!

Jenny Scheinman - Here on Earth
It is one thing to compose new fiddle tunes, it's a whole 'nother thing to do so from a place of legitimate inspiration that elevates such a traditional practice into an artform.  The music on Here on Earth was inspired by footage captured between 1936 to 1942 by a North Carolina photographer who traveled across the Piedmont, taking short movies of ordinary, small town folks living through the Great Depression.

Conor Oberst - Salutations
Over half of Salutations is a re-do of 2016's brooding solo demo Ruminations. All ten songs from Ruminations plus seven additional ones make up Salutations, now with more polished full-band folk-rock arrangements (thanks to the Felice Brothers).  It's boozy, dark and druggy.  Not really a background music kind of album.  Best for listening with your full attention, hanging on every word.

Afro-Zen Allstars - Greatest Hits
Ready to groove? Then check out this release by Richmond, Virginia's Afro-Zen Allstars. Despite its title, Greatest Hits is the studio debut by this 8-piece+ that channels the psychedelic-soul sounds of 1960's/70's Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. With horns at the forefront, Afro-Zen Allstars' tunes frequently jump out out of the gates with arresting melodies, but also have a way of settling into reflective jams - hence the "zen" part of the band name. The all star band members are cut and pasted from several renowned RVA groups of the past and present, including Bio Ritmo, No BS! Brass, Hotel X, Rattlemouth, and more.

Greg Saunier/Mary Halvorson/Ron Miles - New American Songbooks, Volume 1

Recorded for the magazine Sound American, this concept album documents a first-time meeting between cornetist Ron Miles, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier, and guitarist Mary Halvorson.  The idea was to suggest new standards for the American Songbook: songs with simple, catchy and easy-to-sing melodies that were open to interpretation.  Selections include pieces by Elliott Smith, the Partridge Family and from the score to Star Wars.  The instruments function well together and no one musician outshines the other.

Yazz Ahmed - La Saboteuse
I had a thing for trumpets, world fusion and vibraphones this year.  All three of those elements combine on this album by London-based trumpeter Yazz Ahmed.  On La Saboteuse, Ahmed takes modal style jamming and applies it to middle eastern scales, and then adds a level of modern production acumen beyond what you might expect from jazz.

WOLF! - 1-800 WOLF!
This actually came out in October 2016 but I didn't hear it until this year.  On record, WOLF! explores guitar driven micro-jams over simple themes inspired by surf rock and spy movie / spaghetti western soundtracks.  Nothing too complex here or overly serious.  Lots of fun.  I bet they can really take these out there live.


Saturday, December 2, 2017

Seven November Tunes

Back in June I set a goal of writing 50 tunes in a year's time.  With 7 tunes added in November, I'm now up to 33 total - on the way to having 50 tunes by the end of May 2018.  Calendar-wise, this is the half-way point (6 months in).  The act of writing tunes is now more familiar, however, the concern over when is this going to get difficult is now apparent.  Am I repeating myself?  Falling back on repetitive patterns, characteristics, or intervals?  Is that wrong?  I had these concerns a few times in November.

The first November tune was actually written on November 1st.  To compose it I took some personal catchphrases from my childhood and added melodies to the rhythm of those nonsense sayings.  That supplied an A and B part.  Then I tacked on a winterish melody I had been playing around with to make a C part.  I don't always care if parts go together musically or thematically.  If I was writing them both around the same time then they fit together for other reasons.

Fall Winter Cold

After writing Fall Winter Cold, which arrived almost effortlessly, most of a week went by with no tangible results.  For several days I played around with an idea inspired by the sound of a children's TV show theme and/or a 1950's girl singing act.  I almost gave up until I realized that I might have something there.  What I arrived at was almost too minimal - more of a jingle than a fully fleshed out tune - but I really like it. 

Virginia Fur

I have a book called Musical Scales of the World by Michael Hewitt.  If/when I run I run out of ideas, my thought was that I could refer to that book and see if any melodies could be derived from an unusual scale.  On the morning of November 14th, I had about ten minutes to spare before I had to leave for work so I opened the book randomly to the page on the Major Blues Scale, which, believe it or not, was brand new to me.  The very first thing I played upon looking at that scale has become the A-part to The Sparrow Blues.  It seemed good enough to me.  I wrote down those notes before leaving for work.  By the time I had gotten home that evening I had an idea for the B-part: take a Russian folk melody and alter the notes to conform to the Blues Scale.  I walked in the door, got out the banjo, and within 30 minutes had the B-part.

The Sparrow Blues

The Sparrow Blues was ridiculously easy to come up with and it is super fun to play.  A tough act to follow.  Whatever I came up with next was going to be my 30th tune, so that made things a little more difficult.  It took a few days of ruminating, but I pieced together an odd, chilling melody called Change for a Thirty.  Something I've been doing recently, which really helps, is to quickly make up words to go with the melody.  In this case those words are (A part) "hey now how 'bout you, have you had enough to do, did the seasons change, be the change you're looking for", and (B part) "take it easy don't look back, it's the same old song, be the change you're looking for".

Change for a Thirty

There's a screw in my bed roll isn't anything I had to write - it was just....there.  Words and melody.  It was a non-premeditated improvisation that I played on 11/20/17 in real time out of the blue by thinking/singing the words "there's a screw in my bedroll" (whatever that means) while simultaneously playing a melody to go with it.  Without pausing I added "and it's nailed shut doors ten fold", then "all the people there complain about things that they don't know", then returning to "there's a screw in my bedroll".  I played that part again and knew I needed to go higher for the B-part, so without hesitation I went higher and improvised the words/melody "there's a brighter side I know, through open doors once closed, not ev-ry one needs another one, there's a brighter side I know".  Done.  I played it again, and again, and again to make sure this could legitimately be a composition.  Then slept on it.  I might have ultimately changed one note.  Will this ever happen again?

Screw in my Bedroll

At this point I was good for the month of November.  Five tunes.  I felt pretty sated, but the inspiration kept coming.  Change for a Thirty and Screw in my Bedroll are both pretty dark and cold, so I pulled a switcheroo with a cliche Jamaican-style melody called Job To Do. (formula = melody first > then words > name of tune taken from words).  Before I decided to write and play my own tunes, I had been learning and playing Caribbean melodies.  The 5th tune I wrote - Bougainvillea Moon - is a Caribbean melody, but Job To Do might be the first overtly Caribbean feeling tune since then.  I try to write melodies without any discernible relation to a style of music other than my own, but with Job To Do it's inevitable that it sounds Jamaican.

Job To Do

I was home sick on November 30th with a cold, but not too sick to play the banjo.  So with instrument in hand and the general sound of three songs in my head (I'm A Lonesome Fugitive by Merle Haggard, As I Went Out One Morning by Bob Dylan and Greenville by Lucinda Williams) I started plucking out a melody, with no intention of actually composing a tune on the last day of the month.  Four hours later, after having being sucked down the creative wormhole and forgetting to eat or drink or dwell on the fact that I was congested with a sore throat, I had something.  I love that feeling of churning out a melody.  After letting it sit for 48 hours, I just played through Night Time To Day again this morning and it can stay, having gotten in on the last day of November.

Night Time Today

That was the November re-cap.  I'm 66% of the way at the half-way point.