Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Morning Jacket - Circuital Review

Circuital by My Morning Jacket is a relatively solid album, but one that doesn't really stand out, as their previous three studio releases did. Absent are the guitar anthems of It Still Moves, the brilliant songwriting of Z, and the transcendent funk of Evil Urges.  What is left this time is a more conventional, easy going, mellow, pop approach.  Still, when I focus on the music I tend to enjoy it.  It's when I listen to the lyrics that it starts to lose me.  I almost wish Jim James was singing in Swedish or something so I could just hear his voice as an instrument and enjoy it simply for the sound it makes and not have to focus on what he's actually saying: stuff like a day that is coming, finding your own inner light, getting your ya-yas out - all fairly common, cliche subjects for such grandiose songs.

However, focusing on the music also has a tendency to make apparent the band's capabilities as well as its limitations.  The not-Jim-James members of MMJ are definitely a talented group of musicians, but here their contributions to the jamming and expression feel a bit stifled and routine. The drummer definitely has a fall back beat they get into more often than they should; the keyboards don’t add enough to the dynamic, and the guitars are kept to a subdued, accent role.

Here are some song by song notes.

Victory Dance – Good opener.  Nice vibe.  Sneaks up on you.  Begs the question: where is this victory dance taking place?

Circuital –  This song is too long and tries too hard to be "big".  Doesn't really build to anything profound.  Comes across as kind of silly.

Day Is Coming – Not this again?  Somebody claiming that a day is coming? Hmmm...what day is that I wonder?  There is no depth to this cliché-ridden song.  It falls flat. On the bright side: has good reggae beat.

Wonderful (The Way I Feel) – The long-awaited classic song finally makes it onto one of their major records.  Jim James wants to go to a place where all this wonderful stuff happens like no disease, no police, and only spirits at ease.  Good for him.  It does contain some memorable lyrics, including “I can learn from way back when and still live right now”.

Outta My System – Is this something a rock band needs to be singing about?  Yes, we all come of age.  Correct.  As I said before, the subject matter = not as epic as its musical treatment suggests.

Holdin’ On to Black Metal – Probably the best track on album.  The only one I would call really good or very catchy.  Sounds like a mix of Owner of a Lonely Heart and Shakedown Street.  Fun and cool in a similar way to Highly Suspicious from Evil Urges.  There's a nice section at the end of song. 

First Light – As in first light I've seen tonight, star bright.  There's not enough to this song.  Singing about searching for something and finding your own inner light.  Really?  Another quasi-epiphany that is actually basic self awareness.  Behind all this is a rock song ready to break free, albeit one that is mismatched for its message.  I don't really see how that premise inspires a song to sound like this?  It’s almost formulaic…singing about an inner light while rocking real hard.

You Want to Freak Out – Reminds me of a Toby song from Dr. Dog.  It does have some nice steel guitar licks.  One of the albums better songs.

Slow Slow Tune – Kinda like a Stella Blue or Don Dante.  Builds to a decent crescendo.  Not a bad song.  I mean tune.  I mean song. 

Movin’ Away – More of the mellow and then you're done.  That's it?  Hey wait a minute - there hasn't been a spine chilling jam, total freak out moment, tribal war whoop, or shamanistic release.

In Summary:
Some of the things we've come to expect  from MMJ - both good and ill - are to be found on Circuital while some other things - mostly the good things - are missing.  It's a more mellow approach that works better as background music than as an upbeat, in your face, inspirational meltdown (like their live Okonokos DVD for example). It is a dissapointment?  Depends on what you're looking to get from one of America's premiere rock bands.  For me I don't think it's ultimately going to make much of an impact; I can take it or leave it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A 6 mile/10K walk around Ashland, VA

Here's a walk I like to do in the town of Ashland, VA.  It's about 6.5 miles or 10.5 kilometers. It mostly uses minor roads, sidewalks and pathways/greenways.

Map of Route
Start at the intersection of Henry Street and Route 54/England Street near the Randolph-Macon College Welcome Center, across from the Ashland post office. Walk north on Henry Street past the RMC library (on your right) and football field (on your left).  Continue walking on Henry Street.  At the end of Henry St. make a left onto Vaughan Road (this is approximately 1 mile from the start of the walk).  Walk along Vaughan Road a short distance until you cross the railroad tracks.  Immediately after crossing the railroad tracks, turn left onto the Railside Trail.
Railside Trail

 The Railside Trail is a 1/3 mile paved path and open space that runs alongside the railroad.  Walk the Railside trail until it ends, then continue straight onto Center Street, which also runs parallel to the railroad.  After walking about a third of a mile on Center Street, look for a winding sidewalk path near RMC's Rhodeen House.  Follow this winding sidewalk toward RMC's new tennis complex.  The parking lot of the tennis complex exits onto Henry Clay Road, where you will make a right to continue your walk. 

Tennis Court Sidewalk
Walk .2 miles on Henry Clay Road, then make a left at James Street.  You'll walk about .7 miles on James Street, crossing Route 54/Thompson Street.  James Street ends at the trailhead for the Stony Run Trail, a walking/jogging trail along an eight-acre tract  following Stony Run Creek.  

Stony Run Trail
The other end of the Stony Run Trail puts you out near the intersection of Ashcake Road and Center Street.  Cross the railroad tracks at this intersection (use caution) and continue along Ashcake Road.  Look for a road called Maple Street,which is near a park.  Make a right onto Maple Street, heading south.  There is no sidewalk here so be careful.  After a short distance Maple Street veers off to the left, but you'll want to continue straight onto Walder Lane.  After you've walked a short distance on Walder Lane you might come across a closed gate.  I always just climb around this gate and keep going. 

Ashland Trolley Line Trail
After climbing around the gate, continue on Walder Lane and soon you'll come upon the Ashland Trolley Line Trail.  This greenway currently extends for about a half-mile along the Old Trolley Line Right of Way from Ashland to Richmond.  There are tentative plans to extend it farther, but currently it is just a half-mile one-way trail (one mile up and back).  Walk along the Ashland Trolley Line Trail until it ends at a small parking lot, passing some swampy areas along the way.  At this point you're going to backtrack some of the way you go back up the Trolley Line Trail to Walder Lane, climb around the gate, and keep going on Maple Street until you get back to Ashcake Road. 

At this point you've walked about 5.5 miles and only have about one mile to go!!!  Once you get back to the Ashcake Road, you have a couple options. 

Option 1 (shown on map): Continue along Maple Street for the entire last mile until reaching the finish at the intersection of Route 54 and Maple Street (this will put you at the post office, across the street from where you started).  If you walk this way there is one section between the cross streets of New Street and Mac Murdo Street that is pedestrian only - no cars could fit through here. 

Option 2: A more scenic and slightly more lengthy detour is to backtrack a few more steps by taking a left at Ashcake, heading back toward Center Street.  When you get to Center Street make a right before crossing the railroad.  By going this way you get to walk past all the beautiful old homes that line Center Street and the historic Ashland town center.  Stay on Center Street until you get to Route 54, just after Cross Bros. grocery store, and make a right.  Walk along 54 a short distance until you get back to the start/finish.

I sometimes like to take a brief break at this point and then do the walk all over again in the opposite direction for a total of about 13 miles altogether!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Banjo Uke in Oldtime Music - the little drum with strings

In the past week I've reached out via email to noted banjo uke players including Linda Higginbotham, Jeff Claus, Sean Ruprecht-Belt, Gretchen Kerndt, Mike Manfredo, Erynn Marshall, Bruce Hutton and Lori Nitzel.  I wanted to get their thoughts on the banjo uke in oldtime music: technique, tuning, scale length and anything else that would be helpful.  Most everyone I reached out to responded with useful info.  Here's a synopsis to what I've learned - the majority of which I can attribute to Linda Higginbotham who supplied me with her very detailed facts on how she plays banjo uke. 

Tuning - Most use the (re-entrant) g-C-E-A tuning while some use "key of D friendly" tuning of a-D-F#-B. It's a matter of personal preference. I've thought about both approaches and I don't see much of an advantage with a-D-F#-B, so I'm sticking with GCEA for now.  One thing I prefer is a low G for the 4th string.  This gives you more range and bass.  It's not necessary if all you're doing is playing chords, but I also intend to occasionally play melodies so this tuning will come in handy for that.  Most of the banjo uke players I polled were not familiar with the low 4th string method.  This is not as surprising as it may seem since the role of banjo uke in oldtime music is rhythmic, driving the backbeat, and it's not necessary to play a single melody note.

Strings - Most everyone said they used regular nylon uke strings, except Jeff Claus uses heavier nylon guitar strings.

Picks - Thankfully, for oldtime banjo uke playing, most players use a very thin nylon pick - .38mm to .60mm.  This is good because I had already planned on using a pick to play no matter what. 

Banjo Size - most didn't know what size banjo uke they used, although I suspect that it's either soprano or concert scale in most cases.  Soprano is a 13" scale, while concert tends to be about 15" from bridge to nut (7.5" from 12th fret to bridge).  I'm going with a concert scale of about 14.75".

Rhythm - They all agree that rock solid timing is key.  The banjo uke is like a little drum with strings, more percussive than tone, driving the pace. Linda Higginbotham strives to create a seamless, mesmerizing yet energetic sound that gives the music an extra lift.  She provides a droning quality by continuously strumming “down-up-down-up” and hitting all the strings each way. You can emphasize the second down strum (the back beat) so it sounds like “down-up-DOWN-up”. If you tap your foot on the beat, every “down-up-DOWN-up should equal one tap of the foot.  The tap of the foot coincides with the first “down” while the emphasized “DOWN” occurs while the foot is in the raised position.  The idea is to perfect this strum so it sounds effortless. 

Chords - Linda Higginbotham also recommends uding open chords (as opposed to bar chords) whenever possible for oldtime music.  I've been trying to familiarize myself with open shapes for the I, IV, and V chords in the keys I mostly play in (A, D, G, & C) and the most commonly used minors (this seems to be Am, Bm, Dm & Em.  Probably F#minor too!).  I also want to learn the 7th form of all the major chords (for example A7, D7, C7).  Some uke chords have given me trouble so far - particularly the notorious E and Bminor chords.  I've found a power chord way to make an E chord that omits the 3-note (G#) and uses the 1 and the 5 -- two E's and two B's. This seems to work well enough for me.  (An alternative is to make the E7 chord which is easier than E).  I think I can make a Bminor chord with some practice, or at least a quasi-version of it.  One advantage of switching to the A-D-F#-B tuning is if it avoided the chord shapes required to make E and B-minor, but it wouldn't since those would occur for the F and C-minor chords.

Choosing and Substituting Chords - There is always more than one way to chord a tune. The chords chosen should express the overall feel of the tune.  I mostly go from fakebooks and tab that already have the chords suggested without deciding for myself.  At some point I hope to personalize this technique once my understanding grows.  For substitutions, the general rule is that you can substitute a chord for one that it shares 2 notes with. So, you can switch out a G with an Eminor. The G chord contains the notes G-B-D, while the Eminor chord has the notes E-G-B.  Both contain the notes G & B.  There are other rules of thumb and things you can do like using double stops/dyads, drones, and so on; my approach is definitely going to evolve as I learn more.  For oldtime music you don't need to change chords that often, in fact, too much chord changing makes it sound busy and non-traditional.  However, I hope to draw from other accompaniment techniques, such as the world of Celtic bouzouki backup, for reference.

Other tips - Stuff a t-shirt, plastic bag or piece of foam behind the dowel stick in the back near the neck to dampen the sound.  Strum at different places on the neck and head to vary the sound by moving the strumming arm in a figure 8 pattern - stroke the first “down” on the neck and the second “DOWN” on the head. The “ups” will fall in transitional places as you move back and forth. Finally, carpal tunnel is a concern with this style of repetitive playing.  You have to be careful with your strumming and try to avoid using the wrist.


Friday, May 13, 2011

June Apple and Almondo Boswell Polka

I had not played any banjo uke for several weeks but this evening I decided to record a couple tracks. My playing was inspired by the oldtime banjo uke playing of Jeff Claus from the Horse Flies and Linda Higginbotham of Leftwich & Higginbotham.  They both have a propulsive, percussive, rhythmic approach to uke playing.  I'm still very new at this so I chose two uke-friendly tunes with easy to play open chords in them: June Apple and Almondo Boswell Polka.

June Apple is the well known old-time tune. Almondo Boswell Polka is a combination of the A-part to Almondo's Polka from Dix Bruce's Mandolin Uff Da! book and the B & C parts from Boswell's Fancy, which is a tune found in the Portland Collection. Key of G. Both tunes were recorded using banjo uke for the chords and tenor banjo for the melody.  Recorded using iphone 4-track app on Friday, May 13, 2011.

Here's June Apple.

Here's Almondo Boswell Polka.

No uke bass this time.  Need to practice that instrument some more.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What I've Been Listening to in 2011

Here's a rundown of some of the new (to me) stuff I've been listening to in 2011.

Hammer No More the Fingers - Black Shark
Despite being released April 5, 2011 I actually had a copy of Black Shark last year, so technically it's not a 2011 discovery for me.  However it was my personal pick for best album of 2010 and it is still growing on me now that I have an official copy of the CD with lyrics. This is the only release of the last couple years that I would consider an "all time favorite".  At approx. 34 minutes it's short with absolutely no fluff.  I'm really pleased with this selection of songs.

Floating Action - Desert Etiquette
I've already done a full-review of Desert Etiquette on this site, but it's still my leading contender for best new album so far this year.  The overall sound is appealing - great musicianship, expertly layered production and in the now lyrics that certainly bypassed the normal editing process.  Knowing that Floating Action (AKA Seth Kaufman) basically recorded every note himself using various instruments really adds to the enjoyment of these tracks.  And then seeing Floating Action as a full band opening for Dr. Dog only solidified that appreciation.

David Byrne and Brian Eno - My Life In the Bush of Ghosts
Recorded in 1979 and released in 1981; this still sounds hip today.  Okay, it sounds a little dated (hints of Ghostbusters, Axel F, 80's type sounds).  Although it could pass for a current band or DJ who wanted to sound sorta retro. I actually had this album at some point a decade or more ago. I must not have been ready for it then.  For whatever reason, it recently occurred to me to give it another go.  Tribal, spooky, found vocals, chants, relentless beats, synths and bass lines.  How cool it must have been in the early 80's to have heard this.  I don't know that it influenced the music that came after it so much as it predicted where music was going.  David Byrne + Brian Eno = Musical Nostradami.

Del McCoury Band with Preservation Hall - American Legacies
We pretty much knew this one was going to be good, right?  And of course it is.  I'm sure it basically wrote itself.  Just put some great players in a studio, give them some good songs to do, and hit the record button.  Done.  Even though I can't think of a previous bluegrass/trad jazz collaboration, this pretty much sounds the way I thought a combo like that might sound. No real surprises here, just good plain picking.  This is a fun, easy to listen to album that is instantly likeable. A refreshing dose of clarity - a sound you want others to hear.

Local Natives - Gorilla Manor
I do and don't like this album. Do: I always prefer to think that I have the ability to recognize something really good when it comes along (as this could be).  I don't want to simply fall for indie-rock conventions.  It almost seems like Local Natives took a poll on how a cool band should sound in the year 2010 and then went out and made exactly that sound. While it is similar to some of the bland soft-rock that's popular these days, it also connects on a more visceral and tribal level that is to my liking.  I'm just not sure that overall they make a sound that I am in need of.

O'death - Outside
The previous output by O'death has been exceptional, automatically putting any new album by them into must hear status.  Their last one Broken, Hymns, Limbs and Skin was my favorite album of 2009.  However they kinda dropped off the map this past year (due to the illness of their drummer) so I didn't know they were putting out a new record until just days before the release date, only to discover that it was already available for streaming.  That left no time for build-up, hype or a wait.  All of a sudden it was just there and as I was hitting play I had the feeling that I was in store for some much needed musical nutrition. Unfortunately I can't really say that it blew me away or even bowled me over.  It doesn't suck, but the fact that it's not mind blowing sucks.

Cowboy Junkies - Demons
The Cowboy Junkies are sort of an anomaly for me.  Their Black Eyed Man album has resided in my all-time top-five for over 15 years now without fail, however, nothing else from them has floated my boat.  Primarily I've just been satisfied having Black Eyed Man be the extent of my Cowboy Junkies listening.  But recently I've been streaming their new album Demons, which is a tribute to Vic Chesnutt.  I am not familiar with Chesnutt's music.  It might as well be an album of original songs as far as I'm concerned.  I like the first two tracks - "Wrong Piano" and "Flirted With You All My Life" - and then a few more after that.  Getting all the way through it without losing interest has been a challenge though.  .

Surfer Blood - Astro Coast
This is in the same boat as Local Natives as far as a finger on the pulse of current indie rock, but I'm even less convinced.  Surfer Blood falls far enough outside of my normal tastes that it just isn't winning me over.  I sorta like the overall sound and it's got a lot of guitar hooks.  Ultimately I'm left wanting more. 

Akron/Family - S/T II: The Cosmic Birth And Journey of Shinju TNT.   
Yeah, whatever. Are they having a laugh?  Is it at my expense?  Weird.  Up 'til now Akron/Family has put out albums with some incredibly brilliant, catchy songs mixed with songs that made you scratch your head.  A couple years ago I culled all their really good songs (IMO) and made a "best of" Akron/Family mix that was a pretty damn awesome 70 minute epic journey.  Now that I've heard this new Shinju TNT thing-a-ma-jig, I'm not sure if any tracks on it are worthy of adding to that 2009 best of mix. Not to say that this album is any worse than their previous ones.  I could argue that overall it's actually more consistent than anything they've put out.  While there aren't any stand out tracks to make you hit repeat, there really aren't any that I would call awful either.  So yeah maybe it's their best album so far without having any great individual songs on it.  Or something like that.  Or maybe I just need to listen to this when I'm 12 miles out at sea.  Or standing on my head hopping on one foot rubbing my belly and patting my head.

The Tradition Lives: Yiddish-Moldavian Music of German Goldenshteyn
Here's one that's fun and as traditional as they come.  Klezmer Music...directly from the expert musicians of Klez Kamp, performing the tunes of the little known Moldavian Jewish clarinetist German Goldenshteyn.  Somehow I had the first German Goldenshteyn CD, which was recorded a few years ago while German was still alive.  I really like that recording even though Klezmer is something I rarely listen to and know little about.  Recently the musicians on that first recording got together and made a follow up, so I ordered it from the Living Traditions folks as soon as it was available.  This may be traditional but it doubles as demented, circus-like music.  Quite frightening.  Can't listen to this all the time but it's a nice in small doses.

Flaming Lips - 4 Song Gummy Skulls EP
I'm not even sure if that's the official title.  Over the last few weeks word surfaced that some new tracks by the Flaming Lips were available.  I checked it out and it sounds like drugged-out dub-style Flips, a continuation of the groove they were hitting on their last album Embryonic, minus any really noticeable lyrics.  Riffing and jamming...kinda similar to Bitches Brew Miles Davis or perhaps the Akron/Family. This is the kinda experimental stuff I wish Phish would do more of when recording.  Gotta hand it to the Flaming Lips; at least they try to keep it interesting.

Others to watch out for...well My Morning Jacket has a new album called Circuital coming out 5/31.  If the first two new songs available from Circuital are any indication, this isn't one to get really excited over.  But I'll still check it out.  Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three have a new album coming out in July.  Expectations remain high for it.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Registered As the Other



I awoke still registered as the other when my gimwack collapsed under the weight of the terrain of mistaken glow in the dark play things

drawn off my shelter to the unyielding jungle of pines

a bug could have crunched under foot of snow

why it must have been a hundred the day I rolled up my trousers farther than most decent gents and was caught off guard by gonzales when it said sure sign of rain yessir

I sensed a dilemma

change was coming over me

clinging to long lost perceptions I gestured to the nearest plum withholding reaction time as I once again noticed the soaring height of the peaks and the rapidly expanding width of the channel gutted effortlessly in a niche chiseled with reckless abandon and spontaneous planning that has now been told