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Seven years ago, songwriter Fletcher Tucker went to Big Sur.

Settling into the rugged landscape, where the Santa Lucia Mountains jut sheerly before the Pacific Ocean, Tucker had an idea in mind: inhabitation. He did not want to live on the land, he wanted to live with it. To hear him tell it, his aim was mystical, primal, and psychospiritual. After studying farming at the famed Esalen Institute, he and his wife made a home in Big Sur, and it was there he gathered up the naturalistic drones, field recordings, and psychedelic folk songs that make up his new lp, Cold Spring.

Calling it an album about nature feels limiting. It is, more so, a reflection of an artist’s total immersion in the idea of “place,” its spectral songs often swallowed up in the shadows of giant redwoods, the coos of owls, and the howls of far-off coyotes. “I trek this trail hunting for songs,” Tucker sings lowly alongside the high clear voice of Molly Erin Sarlé of Mountain Man on “I Become Smoke,” “But the mountain’s song consumes me as I limp along.”

Tucker assembled the record over the course of four years, building on foundations of pump organ, acoustic guitar, banjo, saxophone, synth, human voices, and percussion. But the album’s roots stretch back further, to his youth, when he spent summers at Big Sur. A native of Northern California — he was raised in a town called Pacific Grove — the wildness of Big Sur spoke to Tucker, like it has so many artists before him, from ethnomusicologist Jaime de Angulo and poet Robinson Jeffers to writers Henry Miller and Richard Brautigan. The place has haunted his music for some time, lingering over the recordings he’s made as Bird By Snow, but with Cold Spring he fully explores the terrain.

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Elkhorn is just two guys with guitars — Jesse Shephard on acoustic 12-string and Drew Gardner on electric — but the duo packs a lot of music into The Black River, an excellent new collection of six exploratory instrumentals. Takoma School fingerpicking, psych-ed out jams, brooding pieces that call to mind Neil’s Dead Man soundtrack, some hints of West African trance blues … Shephard and Gardner seem to have absorbed it all (and more), emerging with a beautifully unclassifiable blend. Riskiest of all here is their cover of Coltrane’s masterpiece of mood, “Spiritual.” But it’s an unqualified success, matching the original’s deep heaviness, as Shephard holds down an immovable center for Gardner to dance around. This is a River you’ll want to follow wherever it flows. words / t wilcox

Elkhorn :: Spiritual

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“Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy/they were all my friends and they died,” Kevin Morby sings on “1234,” a punk-influenced gem from his new album, City Music.

In Morby’s mouth, the recitation of the departed Ramones’ names becomes something like a mantra, his interpolation of Jim Carroll’s most famous song signaling that City Music is in part, like his debut Harlem River, a “New York” record. Though the native Midwesterner calls Los Angeles home these days, N.Y.C. holds a particular fascination for him. You hear the city in the record’s grooves, in its nods to Lou, Patti, Bob, and Joni.

Recorded at California’s Panoramic Studios and completed with producer Richard Swift in Oregon, the record presents Morby’s Cohen-esque folk with rock & roll underpinnings, balancing the sparseness of previous records with the energy of his live shows. Tellingly, it features a studio version of the Germs’ “Caught In My Eye,” a cover originally cut for Aquarium Drunkard’s Lagniappe Sessions, transmuting the punk screed into something tempered but driving.

Kevin Morby :: Caught In My Eye [Lagniappe Sessions Version]

Actual cities inspired City Music: Morby compiled a pamphlet for his label Dead Oceans called, “A Guide To The Cities That Inspired City Music,” focusing on Kansas City, New York, and Porto, but the spirit goes deeper than specific locales. The record swirls around the big idea of a city as a setting for human dramas, full of stories and disparate characters contributing to a whole. Writing about cities and the people in them, Morby inevitably winds up giving voice to his inner self, illustrating the way our relationship with our surroundings and those around us make clear our own hearts. One of City Music‘s best moments features singer/songwriter Meg Baird reading a passage from Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, but the whole of the record reflects O’Connor’s assertion from Wise Blood: “In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.”

Morby sat down with AD to discuss the record. That conversation below, edited for clarity and cohesion.

Aquarium Drunkard: The last time we talked, one of the things we centered on was how your last record, Singing Saw, was an album very much rooted in finding and settling into a place. City Music seems like it’s about something else — about moving around, finding a lot of places. Yet they feel very connected, almost like two sides of the same coin. Do they feel that way to you?

Kevin Morby: Absolutely. Singing Saw was very much about one thing, and it’s almost like one-half of my brain realized what it was creating and decided to play devil’s advocate and say, “I’m going to create the opposite.” It’s just the way I operate. I get restless easily. The moment I realize I’m doing one thing, I’ll see that through to completion, but by the time I get there, I’m already half-way through with the next thing.

AD: This album, musically and lyrically, references a lot of rock & roll music: Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Jim Carroll, the Ramones. Was it fun to tap into that freewheeling spirit?

Kevin Morby: That’s something we’ve always done live, but now we really get to explore that. We just played our first two shows and playing the songs off this new record has opened up a whole new world. We can kind of go off the rails a little bit. We were playing “1234” last night and it’s completely different than anything we’ve ever played. That’s the fun part about being a solo artist — I get to explore all these realms.

VAN MORRISON

Rather than introduce a bevy of unearthed material or special-features, The Authorized Bang Collection retells a chapter of Van Morrison’s career in a reframed light using existing material. Famously, Morrison did not approve of 1967’s Blowin’ Your Mind, nor the collection of outtakes and half-serious sessions that followed it. The time preceding 1968’s groundbreaking Astral Weeks has come to be seen as a false start in Morrison’s solo career, and the artistic shift post-Bang as a kind of unshackling.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the 3-CD collection comes in the form of Morrison’s own essay, which starts off the collection’s booklet. In it, Bang founder Bert Berns decision to release Blowin’ Your Mind is recalled of thusly:

“I thought the recordings were going to be issued as four singles, at least that’s what I was told. But after the first single, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, hit Top 10 that summer, Bang issued the eight songs as an album… At the time, the whole ‘concept album’ was coming in and singles were going out. The whole concept of an album completely changed then… If I had thought it was an album, I would have approached it a whole different way.”

Berns is painted after that as a man consumed with his work, too busy for Van but also serving as an early kindred spirit, with Morrison complimenting Berns’ songwriting throughout the essay.  Morrison later states that the second set of sessions with Bang were limp because of the Berns-picked musicians inability to “gel” with what Van was bringing to the table.

The third disc of the set, the aptly titled “Contractual Obligation Session,” is wholly uninspired, and showcases an angry, cheeky and hurried Morrison. But where there are more than a dozen tracks that feel like salvos, a ditty like “You Say France And I Whistle” shows that Morrison was at least pulling from some creative place while he clanged away on an acoustic guitar, desperate to get out of the room.

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Our weekly two hour show on SIRIUS/XMU, channel 35, can be heard twice every Friday – Noon EST with an encore broadcast at Midnight EST.

SIRIUS 483: Jean-Michel Bernard – Générique Stéphane ++ Pierre Cavalli – Un Soir Chez Norris ++ Françoise Hardy – Je N’Attends Plus Personne ++ The New Creation – Countdown To Revolution (excerpt) ++ Bob Desper – The World Is Crying For Love ++ Re-Creation – Music ++ John Scoggins – For You ++ Wilco – More ++ Caetano Veloso – You Don’t Know Me ++ Lee Jung Hwa – I Don’t Like ++ Willie Wright – Nantucket Island ++ Les 5 Gentlemen – LSD 25 Ou Les Metamorphoses De Margaret Steinway ++ Aberdeen – Freedom (Hourya) ++ Jacques Dutronc – Je Suis Content ++ The Walkmen – Canadian Girl ++ Dara Puspita – To Love Somebody ++ Robert Lester Folsom – Written In Your Hair ++ Los Freddys – It’s Only Love ++ Richard Swift – The Bully ++ The Gories – Casting My Spell ++ Mel Brown – Eighteen Pounds Of Unclean Chitlins ++ Los Sleepers – Zombi ++ Thee Milkshakes – Gringles And Groyles ++ Todd Rundgren – International Feel  ++ Willie Loco Alexander – Gin ++ Ultimate Painting – Kodiak ++ Jack Cooper – Sandgrown Pt. 2 ++ Jonathan Richman – That Summer Feeling ++ Woods – Sun City Creeps ++ Grant Union High School – Ain’t No Sunshine ++ Mulatu Astatke – Mulatu ++ Balek – Placebo ++ Can – Sunday Jam ++ Abstract Truth – Moving Away ++ Sroeng Santi – Dub Fai Kui Gun ++ Stomu Yamashta & East Wind – Rain Race ++ Blur – Out of Time

*You can listen, for free, online with the SIRIUS three day trial — just submit an email address and they will send you a password.
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Lagniappe (la·gniappe) noun ˈlan-ˌyap,’ – 1. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit. 2. Something given or obtained as a gratuity or bonus.

One of our favorite albums of the year, the self-titled Joan Shelley is not only the artist’s best record to date, but her most necessary. High praise considering the impact of her previous work. Despite appearances, Shelley’s selections for this installment of the Lagniappe Sessions are not entirely disparate. The Sinatra cover is culled from the much-obsessed over Watertown lp from 1970; an album penned by lyricist Jake Holmes, who said of the track “I guess it’s that you can’t regret where you are even if life takes you someplace where you don’t want to be.” A sentiment not unfamiliar to the Leonard Cohen oeuvre, Shelley’s cover of Cohen’s “Night Comes On” is aided on vocals by fellow Louisvillian Will Oldham — a tribute the two had previously worked up in a live setting late last year.

Shelley on her selections, in her own words, below . . .

Joan Shelley :: I Would Be In Love (Anyway) (Frank Sinatra)

I have always had a sweet-spot for Frank Sinatra. This song is from the album Watertown. It’s a concept album that totally flopped, and I guess he never tried anything like it again. But it’s the one studio album of his that I am in love with as a whole. The story is from the perspective of a man whose wife has left him, and the particulars are vague. It is devastatingly sad (and I say that with affection). But there are also these little lifts throughout, glimpses of compassion and resilience. This song in particular shimmers with that kind of farther-seeing love.

Joan Shelley :: Night Comes On (Leonard Cohen) ** w/ Will Oldham

There’s a live performance in which Leonard Cohen introduces this song by saying “this is a song about everything.” Many of his songs feel that way. Various Positions is my favorite album, just based on the writing. The arrangements are kinda wacky, and initially it didn’t appeal to me. But I was house-painting one time and I put this on again in headphones. I ended up painting long into the night, listening over and over and over. It could have partially been the paint fumes. But this song is transfixing.

sam-amidon-the-following-mountain-450Sam Amidon possesses the traits of an archetypal American songster: fiddle and banjo mastery, as well as a lifetime spent among his repertoire of deeply rooted folksongs. His interpretations of traditional tunes and ballads are often expansive reworks that set his singular voice and deft accompaniment amidst a frontier of harmonically rich orchestrations or a chatter of burbling jazz. He radiates a wondrous enthusiasm like John Hartford, and channels the tuneful grit of Bruce Molsky. Just as with those charismatic song-collector/performers before him, Amidon’s most compelling and definitive instrument is his singing. His unmistakable voice makes a bald coo, delivered with composure, sans vibrato. It’s akin to the high and lonesome sound, but with none of that idiom’s aloof distance. Amidon sounds disarmingly present.  That quality is, perhaps, at the core of his art: the ability to transform something timeless into something present, to alchemize a well-worn melody into a beautiful, mysterious sound.

This idea extends to the formation of his personal canon. His repertoire of “folk” music is remarkable in that it extends to contemporary pop songs and can move convincingly from the traditional “Short Life of Trouble” to Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” to R. Kelly’s “Relief.” Any distinction of authenticity between a communal folk song and a pop star’s hit is eclipsed by Amidon’s ability to pluck the essential sentiment and beauty out of his selection and send it billowing into the air, like making a wish with dandelion.

The Following Mountain marks a departure for Amidon, however. It is his first record to focus on original material rather than interpretations of folk songs. Traditional songs had been the peaks from which Amidon surveyed the aesthetic expanse of his musical world. The Following Mountain is a new summit. It was largely improvised, the songs culled from an epic jam session with an eclectic cohort of players: free-jazz legend Milford Graves, percussionist Juma Sultan, saxophonist Sam Gendel, as well as Amidon’s most frequent collaborator and mainstay of the NY improv scene, Shazad Ismaily.

In line with the folk ethos, Amidon has always been keenly collaborative. Most notably, the composer Nico Muhly has conjured ebullient arrangements for many Amidon renditions. On his most recent studio album, Lily-O, Amidon worked with the guitarist Bill Frisell, the gentlest, prettiest player in the often-fiery free-jazz set. Both collaborations elicited a profound, harmonically complex Americana in the vein of Copland’s mythic rodeo. The old-time tunes–these well known traditional forms–are jumping off points for Amidon and his pals, but also sturdy, well-worn vessels to be filled with (new) contemporary meaning. This is important cultural work! It allows the artist to speak with and build upon a shared song that is transpersonal and transhistorical. But where Amidon’s articulations of folk songs come alive are in his inspired nuance: a cracking warble in his voice, a slippery trill of his fiddle, a candid remark in the studio that sticks to the record. It is this ephemeral, improvisational sinew, however, makes up the kernel of The Following Mountain. Amidon bypasses known forms (folk song/pop song) to conjure an “original” form through improvisation: the closest act to pure creation, to our mystical urge, to our divinity… It’s a bit contradictory, but so is the nature of human existence.