Music

Breathe Owl Breathe: Magic Central

Quirky workhorse indie-folk band land a cut above contemporaries like Horse Feathers and Bowerbirds in this engaging and unique label debut.


Breathe Owl Breathe

Magic Central

Label: Home Tapes
US Release Date: 2010-09-28
UK Release Date: 2010-09-28
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Last summer I saw Breathe Owl Breathe live at a McMenamin's Pub in Bend, Oregon. Even though they were playing a small venue in a small town hundreds of miles from their native Michigan, they seemed totally at home. Lead singer Micah Middaugh told hilarious, incoherent, rambling stories; cellist Andrea Moreno-Beals impersonated (if I remember correctly) a tiger. All three band members wore capes. The audience was good-sized and diverse: shy indie kids, couples with children, grandparents. All told, Breathe Owl Breathe played for three hours, and we were entranced. We sang and clapped along at the band's direction to songs we had never heard before; at one point in the evening, every kid in the house under 12 years old was seated in a semicircle at the band's feet.

That's the kind of generous stage presence Breathe Owl Breathe have. They've gathered a larger following than you'd expect given their idiosyncratic, niche-y folk. Middaugh kind of sounds like Bill Callahan, and he kind of writes like him too -- elusive little story-songs that follow their own unpredictable logic. It's good stuff, but not something you'd expect to be crowd-pleasing. The band's strength on stage is that, through contagious energy and audience participation, they invite even the most uninitiated listener into their strange little world. It's a refreshing reminder that even the most out-there music can be accessible when a performer crosses the boundary and connects with the audience.

On their first two records and one EP, Breathe Owl Breathe weren't quite able to duplicate that energy. Though good, those records are more austere and distant; their riches are for those who dig pretty deep. One can hardly blame a band who's toured Alaska for prioritizing their live show over their records. But their latest album, Magic Central, is their first for a label, Portland's Home Tapes, and it's clear that the band is shooting for a more accessible recorded sound.

In short, they totally nail it. They've reshuffled and tightened their sound and produced something catchy, engaging, and unique. The two catchiest tunes are also the best: "Dragon", which starts with one of Middaugh's trademark rambling introductions, soon launches into a snaky cello groove over which Middaugh relates the story of a princess and a dragon (!) who are pen pals. This, naturally, leads into a call-and-response between Middaugh and Beals (dragon and princess, respectively) in the album's strongest vocal hook: "How do you stop loving someone?" It's a great example of one of Middaugh's strengths as a songwriter. As the song shifted gears from the bizarre and specific to the vulnerable and universal I found myself strongly and unexpectedly identifying with the dragon. "Swimming", on the other hand, is all universal, as Middaugh, Beals, and drummer Trevor Hobbs sing "I wish I was swimmin'" over and over again in joyful, repetitive harmony. Both "Dragon" and "Swimming" are endlessly replayable, not to mention mix-able, which hopefully bodes well for Magic Central's reception.

The rest of the album is less immediate, but no less good. Each part of the trio makes a lot out of a little, giving the album a conversational feel. Still, if Breathe Owl Breathe have an MVP, it's Beals. She provides nearly every hook on the album, from the cello flourishes on "Dogwalkers of the New Age" to the "bom-bom-bom"s of "Board Games". Her more prominent role is a big part of Magic Central's accessibility. Just when Middaugh's songwriting starts to meander, Beals is usually there to steal the focus.

After numerous listens, Magic Central starts to reveal some of its best secrets, like the lovely vocal interplay on "House of Gold" and the ambient racket in the coda of "Across the Loch". The last and best secrets here, though, are Middaugh's. Take, for instance, his elliptical poetry in "Dogwalkers of the New Age": "This city is alive / It blinks its eyes / When you turn on and off your lights". Lovely moments like that somehow don't contrast with the strange ones -- I'm unsurprised when a song about parrots biting each other turns into a rumination on mortality and loss.

If this is all starting to sound too quirky, suspend your disbelief. For years, fans have watched Breathe Owl Breathe make the far-out hit very close to home. On Magic Central, though they take some winding backroads, they always meet us in the same, entirely human place.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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