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Music

Norman Blake: Wood, Wire & Words

Calling an album consisting of a dozen original songs traditional may seem strange, but Wood, Wire & Wood surely is. Blake pens story songs about past events and composes instrumentals with roots in an earlier period.


Norman Blake

Wood, Wire & Words

Label: Plectrafone
US Release Date: 2015-01-20
UK Release Date: 2015-01-20
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Artist website
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Most acoustic music fans know Norman Blake from his early days the late sixties and early seventies. He served as a regular on the Johnny Cash television show, recorded with Bob Dylan on his seminal country release Nashville Skyline, belonged to John Hartford's revolutionary bluegrass band, and received a gold record for his participation on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's renowned, Will the Circle be Unbroken album. While Blake has released over three dozen records during the past five decades and contributed mightily to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, he's an unknown hero. He is one of the few masters who have been able to recapture old style American roots music and make it sound fresh and vital.

Calling an album consisting of a dozen original songs traditional may seem strange, but Wood, Wire & Words surely is. Blake pens story songs about past events and composes instrumentals with roots in an earlier period. The music recalls a darker time. It may have been simpler technologically, but it was not always a bucolic paradise. Consider "Joseph Thompson Hare on the Old Natchez Trace", which concerns a bold highwayman who "had a way with the ladies" but ends up hanged in the gallows for his thieving ways. And then there's the outlaw "Black Bart", who robs with dignity and behaves as a gentleman who would never hurt a lady. These were real life bandits whose criminal activities reveal that not everyone was happy in their place back in the day.

Blake sings in a conversational voice that has worn with age. This makes his old time music sound authentic without retro–style conventions. He's an old guy singing about earlier times. Blake is 76 years of age, but the past he sings about is often long before his birth in 1938. He comes off as someone who has lived through previous eras. The imaginative effects he employs to convey this attest to his skill as an artist.

That's especially evident on the instrumentals. He composed three rags for this disc that move at a steadfast pace without being rushed. His flatpickin' acoustic guitar style recalls the finger work of past masters like Mississippi John Hurt. The rags move slowly without seeming slow and evoke a quieter pace of life. Blake understands the importance of being graceful. There's something charming about the leisurely tempos that compel one to relax in the best meditative manner. That's especially true of the last number on the disc, "Cloverdale Plantation March", whose antebellum antecedents invite spiritual reflection.

The song with the most modern message ironically captures a theme that has been at the heart of civilization since the beginning. "There's a One Way Road to Glory", Blake sings, with the accompaniment of his wife Nancy, and that begins with laying down one's arms and having war no more. It also means to share with others and not be greedy as there is enough for all. The religious sentiments convey a social truth. To get closer to god, one has to find love and friendship with other people. We are compelled to value each other in order to improve our collective lot. Blake may be intoning words of ancient wisdom, but they are just as true today no matter what belief system one has.

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Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

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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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Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

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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.

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Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

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Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

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