Hybrid species.

When Sierra Hull arrived at Berklee College of Music on a full ride at age 17, she didn’t fit the profile of a typical incoming freshman. First of all, instead of spending her weekends exploring Boston and hanging out in the dormitories, the school’s first Presidential Scholarship bluegrass musician was heading to the airport to take off for performances at clubs and festivals all around the country with her touring band.

There was also the fact that she couldn’t read a note of printed music. “Not at all!” Hull laughs, speaking by phone from her Nashville home.

Hull’s reputation as a virtuoso mandolinist began from a very young age. She released her first all-instrumental album, “Angel Mountain,” at age 10 in 2002. The same year, she took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with her idol, fiddler and singer Alison Krauss. It was onward and upward from there.

But bluegrass music is an aural tradition, learned at the knee of more experienced players or by osmosis at campfire jam sessions. Most bluegrass teachers don’t include reading music or theory, says Hull, 26. Describing her experience in a Berklee sight-reading class, she recalls: “I don’t know what note that is on the staff without taking a minute to go ‘Wait! Every Good Boy Does . . .’ ”

Read more in the Boston Globe!


Now Listen Here! – Trembling Bells

Scottish folk group Trembling Bells has released their first track off upcoming album Dungeness, and it is nailing me right in the Fairport fangirl feels.

My New Year’s Resolution…

…well, I’ve got a few, like this being the year I stop being scared of personal finance, biking to work once Boston ceases to be a salt-stained frozen waste, and updating this blog more!

But one resolution I have every year is to dive deeper into the endless musical kaleidoscope that is Bandcamp. For some of the most adventurous, thrilling music and alive music writing that the Internet has to offer, look no further.

Today I’m exploring this list, featuring a ton of excellent music I missed (and you probably missed as well) in 2017. Sites like Bandcamp are one reason why I never believe best songs/albums lists can be truly adequate snapshots of a time period’s music. There’s just so much more out there that you’re going to discover in a year, or two years, etcetera and so forth. (My best songs of 2017 list is still coming, though. Not to worry.)

If you’re already on Bandcamp, find me here.   If you’re not, sign up, start collecting, and find me there!

Awash in the Caspian Sea: a personal pondering on post rock and powerlessness

Where was Caspian when I needed them? – I have been wondering since hearing their 2009 LP Tertia, nestled in a friend’s playlist of propulsive, melodic music without lyrics, which I used to get through a pile of emails last week when I was the only one in my department. Tertia blazed into being the year I turned sixteen, the year I was introduced to the genre the world has decided to label “post-rock.” I sifted through Mp3 blogs (remember those?) devoted to post-rock and its distantly related predecessor shoegaze, but I never came across this Beverly, MA-based leviathan.

If you peruse the Wikipedia page, you’ll see how much controversy there has been over what the word “post-rock” means. Over the past few decades, it has been used to describe everything from the bubbly and jazzy friendly-robot music of Stereolab to the umbral orchestrations of Godspeed You! Black Emperor  Here are some of the characteristics typical of the post-rock music I blasted as I wandered the streets of Maplewood, NJ: lengthy, non “radio friendly” compositions – six minutes on the short end, over a half an hour on the long. When Explosions in the Sky’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care released in 2011, people had nervous conniptions over the fact that “Trembling Hands” was under four minutes. Two, three or even four guitars, heavy drumbeats, sometimes unusual meters. Loud, very loud. Lyrics, especially intelligible lyrics, are rare.

Caspian performing at Boston’s Old South Church.

Albums are usually best taken in whole doses. Listening to a good post-rock album is like plunging into a river; it sweeps through you, lifts you up and pulls you down. There is usually little conscious effort required to be carried along. Taking Tertia as an example: “Mie” floats on a glass lake of ambient synthesizers and quiet samples of what sounds like police scanner radio, fading out into a short piano interlude laced and threaded with feathery electronics. The guitar main line of “La Cerva” explodes like a flower from a calyx. By the next track, “Ghosts of the Garden City,” the waters are rising, harmonic tributaries pouring in and adding to the rush, carrying you forward through rapids and rocks. Experiencing it at a civilized volume is criminal.

Listening to Tertia, I felt the same tug forward that I felt during Music for 18 Musicians, or Elena Ruehr’s Ladder to the Moon, or Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, or the fifth movement of the Turangalila – Symphonie.  I felt I was being pulled, one filament of nerves attached to the back of my throat, and one right behind my heart. When I heard those pieces of concert music, I didn’t make the connection to my listening past, but Tertia’s similarity to the music that first tapped those nerves brought memories crashing back.

My teenage years were the perfect time to find post-rock. Perhaps it was easier for “Hún Jörð,” or “East Hastings,” or “Catastrophe and the Cure,” to lash against a vulnerable spot in my brain when everything in the world was raw and new. I spent a lot of time on trains to and from New York City as a teenager, and post-rock was perfect music for pressing my forehead against the window. The Meadowlands oozed past, a reminder that the stately brownstones and steel-and-glass spires in the distance are standing on borrowed swamp. I blasted Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Rós, 65daysofstatic, Mono, on full volume.

The creators of this music were not required to be charismatic or aesthetically appealing: qualities greatly valued at high school, qualities which I could not begin to grok. Still, they troubled the air and disturbed the universe, and I couldn’t get enough of what they offered. I was sixteen, on the cusp of independence yet still dependent on my parents, simultaneously scared of facing the world on my own and railing against the internal and external forces holding me back from trying to do so. I turned up the music and imagined myself harnessing momentum and motion. My body may have been a cage (with one leg or another actually caged in a surgical brace at some points, following corrective surgery to stop my kneecaps from dislocating) but my mind was free.

In the fall of 2011, I arrived at Oberlin and started devouring every concert I could fit in. My legs were healed, my life mine to do (largely) what I wished, without supervision. That rush of catharsis was no longer something I needed to tap frequently, and I had tired of hearing the same songs again and again. Like with any drug, I had developed a tolerance. I delved into the unfamiliar musical worlds in front of me, and the sensations that those spheres offered me were enough. A month after I arrived in Boston, I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor live as the moon passed through the earth’s shadow, but my plan to poke around to see if there was any exciting and new post-rock out there was forgotten in the wake of other obligations.

Two days ago I found Caspian’s chimerical 2015 LP, Dust and Disquiet. It is maybe the most musically diverse post-rock album I have heard in a long time. Released after the death of the group’s bassist, the album’s contours follow grief but do not wallow. “Separation No. 2”, eliding into “Rioseco,” evoke walking in slow motion, a morning a few weeks after a loss when the pain has not yet faded, violins trailing behind through the leaves. “Echo and Abyss” incorporates veiled vocals, and “Run Dry” is – of all things – a softly lush lullaby that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Sufjan Stevens outtake, the album’s most explicit expression of grief. A percussion mosaic, a droning industrial synthesizer, and unusually glitchy guitars construct “Darkfield“‘s wall of sound out of slightly different bricks, while “Aeternum Vale,” a short transition track, plays with melancholy blues riffs.

“Arcs of Command” is the album’s post-rock monolith. A minimalistic six-note cell forms the piece’s spinal cord, initially wholly exposed to the air, supported by pulsing drums. Other guitars wash it in shimmering waves and wrapping it in different colored threads for three minutes before it kicks into high gear, whipping up to a shattering storm of shifting tempos and behemoth open chords. The title misleads – unlike “Dust and Disquiet,” or “Sad Heart of Mine,” there are no arcs in “Arcs of Command,” just a harrowing, exquisite slow build to a peak that never seems to end.

I’ve been feeling powerless lately. My job at Hachette is being eliminated in January, so job searching has become my second full time job. As I said in a Facebook message to a new friend a few days ago, some kinds of stress make for good stories, but this kind grinds down, day after day. The country is probably more safe than it is not w/r/t the outcome of this election, but neither can I look at a Clinton presidency without a quiet sense of foreboding. My friends are hurting, for various reasons, and I feel like I can’t do anything to help them. Maybe it was the right time to come back to post-rock.

March 6, Julia Holter

Julia Holter made her evening’s first entrance onto Great Scott’s tiny stage Sunday with no fanfare, tiny glass of white wine in hand. Opening act Circuit des Yeux (Haley Fohr) had sailed the audience through a pulsating maelstrom of acoustic-guitar distortion to arrive at her set’s last song, a cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Fruits of My Labor.” Holter’s crisp tones harmonized above Fohr’s bold, audaciously deep contralto. The two voices fused into a bittersweet raw-honey sound.

In the past, Holter has collaborated with such names as freak-folk progenitrix Linda Perhacs and experimental composer Michael Pisaro, her teacher at CalArts. Last year she released her fourth studio album, the critically acclaimed “Have You in My Wilderness.” Her latest songs are delicately mazy: wandering through keys and meters, yet still compact. Here, the album’s lush orchestrations were stripped down and compressed for superb violist-vocalist Dina Maccabee, manic bassist Devin Hoff, and drummer Corey Fogel (who entertained the crowd with spookily spot-on Bernie Sanders impressions). Holter sang from behind a candy-apple Nord keyboard, twisting her long mane of hair into ephemeral elegance between songs.

read the rest at the Boston Globe

Best Songs of 2015: Part 2 (17-1)

Here’s Part 2, part the final.


17. Animal Mask – The Mountain Goats
When Beat the Champ started streaming, someone I knew from Oberlin said “The Mountain Goats are officially dad rock. We’re the dads.” John Darnielle isn’t the messy punk of 20 years ago, and his reflections on his childhood and abusive stepfather in “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” taste different, more composed, than the rebel wail of “This Year.” “Animal Mask” is literally dad rock: it’s a song celebrating the birth of a child, wrapped and masked in wrestling metaphors. He’s a dad now, obviously a much better dad than he ever had. And with him, we’re the dads.

I drove to Columbus from Oberlin one Wednesday night near the end of the semester with my friend Robert to see the Mountain Goats. I skipped class after we got back at 2AM. Some things stay sweet forever.


16. FloriDaDa – Animal Collective

Speaking of dad rock: The cutoff-wearing mustached Bushwickers who fell in love to “Summertime Clothes” almost seven years ago, who have started to reproduce or will soon, are not going to be able to get away from this song. Their toddlers are going to latch onto this refrain and not let go.

I can’t think of a quirkier way to drop an album than these guys did with Painting With, blasting it on the speakers in the fifth circle of hell a.k.a. an airport on the day before Thanksgiving. Airports have to be some of the world’s least cool places (exceptions: Narita and Phoenix) but for a few hours on the worst travel day of the year, Baltimore Airport was too cool for the rest of the world.

(15.5) Little Lights – The Punch Brothers
I very nearly left this off the list because I first heard it in 2014, lying on the floor of Clonick Hall at Oberlin during an advance listening party a few days before finals.

15. Queen’s Speech 4 – Lady Leshurr
“Brush your teeth” has to be the best burn I’ve heard all year. It’s so simple and ingenious. Those three words are something you heard probably every night from your parents or other authority figure until you didn’t have to be told. Lady Leshurr turns her haters back into sniveling five year olds with bad breath with three words and doesn’t even imply anything about their sexual prowess while she’s doing it. And yes, she does dance around with a toothbrush in the video, strutting down a Birmingham street and blocking traffic, neon graphics and all.


14. La fuite – Alphatra
(excerpt from my journal, July 30 – Miss Hall’s School)
The beds here are so small and the floors so thin and I can hear the guys screaming at the pool table late into the night. It would be almost impossibly cramped but what I’d do to spend the night with someone I wanted to spend the night with. I’m hungry for physical contact, and the heat of the day and the mists of the night aren’t tempering my appetites. I went running and made a whole playlist but just ended up listening to Alphatra’s “La fuite” on repeat. I hoped it would do something to level me out but I’m strung even tighter than ever. Fucking hell.

13. Anecdotes – Joanna Newsom
“Anecdotes” is an apt title for a Joanna Newsom song. I started being able to really appreciate her voice just recently and I can’t fathom her capacity for imagery and wordplay. Divers; life-risking birds, scuba suits, the promise of life held in an egg.

(“Anecdotes” is sadly not available online.)

12. Wyoming – Heather Woods Broderick
Heather Woods Broderick finally steps into the spotlight after singing behind Sharon Van Etten and others. If she was waiting this long so she could brew up the bittersweet and delicious Gliders, it was worth the wait. “Wyoming” builds slowly, the roar of the loneliness of traveling across empty, rocky roads. Wistful and resigned at first, planting her feet in the spring thaw’s mud by the end.

“I’m a house, and you’re Wyoming. ” Usually I don’t relate to lyrics like “I’m a (noun 1) and you’re a (noun 2) but I’ll make an exception for “I’m a house and you’re Wyoming.” A house: cozy? organized? full? small? contained? stable or unstable? I’ve never been to Wyoming, but I’ve been to South Dakota, and I remember the skeletons of abandoned farmhouses in blackened boards, set back from the road. A house can be a lot of things. So can Wyoming. I think it’s on us to decide what it means.


11. Coffee – Miguel
Vibrating with a deep, enveloping joy. Silly Love Songs meets Intercourse With You. Bad puns included.


10. Dimed Out – Titus Andronicus
IT means “turned up to 10.” Get it? 10? Dimed out? Patrick’s voice hasn’t aged a second since he was screaming “Your life is over” on Airing of Grievances, and no matter if you cringe at the words “93-minute rock opera,” Dimed Out is still a really great song. This whiteboard animation just makes it better.


9. Jonah – Briars of North America
Fragile yet full of hope, gathering conviction with every word. Gideon Crevoshay’s haunting falsetto lights one candle and uses that to light a sea of tiny flames. Warmth to embrace, not to scorch.

8. Peasantry or Light! Inside of Light! – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
“The band vocally disdains higher authority of all stripes; it famously donated its 2013 Polaris Music Prize winnings to support music programs in Quebec prisons, and here radical publishing house PM Press had a table right next to the T-shirt vendor. Still, there was something undeniably devotional about the atmosphere, starting with the first shushes from the front guard of fans and not dissipating until the last player had left the stage. The experience was almost like prayer, an affirmation of whatever force makes twisted dead trees into rich soil, levels mountains, and takes the moon into its bloodstained mouth, only to give it back again.”
(Boston Globe Sept. 29)

from that time I reviewed Godspeed You! Black Emperor during a lunar eclipse


7. Alright – Kendrick Lamar
I hang out with old folkies quite a lot, and sometime I hear them wonder why we don’t have more protest songs everyone knows. Most folkies are probably not listening to hip-hop because _there_ are your protest songs, your chants, your political truths told through music.
Hip-hop has been protesting since it was born, and To Pimp a Butterfly takes on police brutality, toxic masculinity, racism, capitalism, all the issues facing Americans today in its intense hour-plus journey. Alright has transcended its slot in the story, standing on its own and becoming a shout of resilience. “We gon’ be alright.” Four words. Nothing more to learn. Hear it once and it’s already in your head.

6. Silhouette – Julia Holter
Where did she find the fulcrum between three chords and the truth and grand tapestries that demand your full intellectual attention? Collaborating with Michael Pisaro one moment, tossing out beautiful baroque pearls of pop the next, I truly don’t know what she’ll do next and I love it.


5. The Rest of Us – Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld
When I’m feeling disillusioned and fatigued at work, around 3pm when the light is going (it gets dark very, very early on the eastern edge of the time zone) I stand at the ninth floor window and listen to The Rest Of Us, or sometimes In The Vespers, and I watch the endless stream of headlights through the financial district. The beat rolls ceaselessly, unseen wheels turning and gears grinding and Colin Stetson’s saxophone growling. This is the sound of the unease caused by the 24 hour news cycle, clicking refresh to bring more news of the next atrocity, the next moment’s memorial hashtag.


4. Fourth of July – Sufjan Stevens
I didn’t find out that my Papa Joe had died until almost 24 hours later. He died the day the Dandelion Romp (Oberlin’s contra dance festival) had ended. My partner had already left, returning to Boston. I had gone and tried to work on schoolwork – I remember not much getting done – and then went to my housemate’s senior double bass recital. He invited the audience to move around and interact with the dance majors that he had gotten to improvise to the music. I wore my flowiest circle skirt, and I danced like the air was made of Jell-O. We went back to our house and ate the mangoes that his parents had brought, and I drank two glasses of wine even though it was a Sunday and had class in the morning, because I had less than a month left of being a college student and didn’t care.

The next morning I woke up to a call from my brother who assumed I knew what had happened. I wasn’t surprised, because he’d been very ill for a long time, but there’s no softening the moment when someone moves from here to not here. I floated, disconnected, through my classes. I took the day off work, walked to the Arb and sat down by the front pond and listened to “Fourth of July” on repeat. The soft echoing piano, like a heart monitor, something sighing above like an Ohio wind. Life moved in slow motion. Sufjan got it right.

I called my Nana from the Arb and asked her to promise me she’d try to eat something.

Make the most of your life
While it is rife
While it is light


3. Way it Is, Way it Could Be – The Weather Station

i’ve been listening to this on the regular since June, but last week I heard the lyrics for the first time. I sat down while I waited for the T at Davis Square, and tried not to cry. Delicate as her voice is, those lyrics hit like an eighteen-wheeler if you’re in the right place and frame of mind to hear them.


2. Kill V. Maim – Grimes
I don’t get into dustups on the Internet as often as I used to, but when I do, I blast this and it overrides any fear I have of getting blasted back. This song’s right hook baseline and consciously cotton-candy vocals twist our expectations of feminine people into caricature and subversion all at once. There is no better battle anthem. Get me some vampire cheerleaders.


1. Cranekiss – Tamaryn
Falling forward into a swooning dream and never hitting the ground. A voice behind four veils spiraling and spiraling around. The melodies are modular. Sing any fragment on top of another and they both crystallize into new shapes, washed in silver haze. I could not stop listening even when I tried.


It was a pretty great year for music.

Best Songs of 2015: Part 1 (35-18)

This is a collection of my favorite songs of 2015. I don’t intend this to be an authoritative list, and I’m aware that it very much reflects my personal bias. There’s no metal or country on it. I can appreciate Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me” and Alabama Shakes’s “Sound and Color” as brilliant songs, but it didn’t draw me to listen over and over again the way all of these did. These are just the songs that made me think, “Yes. This. I need more of this.” If you think I left something obvious out, it might be because I didn’t hear it, so I’d love you to tell me about it.

With that in mind, here we go…

35. High By the Beach – Lana Del Rey
I’m very in favor of gun control, but Lana deserves to be able to shoot down those pushy paparazzi helicopters anytime she wants. No one makes malaise sound more romantic.


34. Like A River – My Morning Jacket
A song for an autumn day with the wind at your back, wandering to a conversation with an unknown outcome.


33. La Soufriere – CFCF
Aurora borealis panning from one ear to the other. Voices sprouting from each other like ice crystals, each clearly from the same source but not exactly the same shape or size. A wave that rises and never breaks, just builds and dissolves.

32. Shut up and Dance – Walk the Moon
I spent this summer at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, writing program notes for the concerts given by the fellows (ages 18-30). I listened to every piece I wrote notes for, often having my headphones on tuned in all day. There was always something I had to listen to – almost always. So when I didn’t have anything to listen to, I wanted to devour the most delicious catchy pop tunes I could find. And that, in the summer of 2015, was this.

My brother was a counselor at the camp we used to go to when we were little, and got sick of this song because he had to listen to it so much at the camp dances. (It’s safe for kids, no sex and no swearing, and it’s definitely going to get butchered by KidzBop if it hasn’t been already.) I guess the thrill lies in what isn’t being pushed onto you, even if what’s being pushed is something you enjoy.


31. Brobdinangian Chutzpah – Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band
I was drifting through Davis Square on HONK! festival weekend and encountered a lady in a skeleton hoopskirt who invited me to sit awhile, have some tea, and come dance to this crew. I had barely slept enough to stand, but they tore into their first grooves and I couldn’t stop myself from dancing the next hour.

The studio recording of this piece, (and their new album, released this year) isn’t online anywhere. You may have to find them live. If you’re near Boston, that’s not hard. You’ll probably find them. Or maybe they’ll find you.

“Chutzpah” runs from the beginning of the video till about 4:20.


30 Cream on Chrome – Ratatat
Observe here a healthy specimen of the uncommon Instrumental Ear Worm. You’ll notice the barbed-wire hook, punchy power chords, and streaks of synthesized material are right where they should be to ensure it replicates over and over.


29 Trap Queen – Fetty Wap
On the surface, the melody is the most boring thing ever. One figure for the verse. One figure for the chorus over and over again. Instant earworm, but it’s somehow a good earworm. The genius lies in that shifty, pounding beat and those synth chords that can’t decide whether we’re in major or minor. One thing’s for sure: we’re in the key of driving slow with the windows down.


28 I Bite Through It – Oneohtrix Point Never
If someone ever decides to port Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash to the screen, Daniel Lopatin must score it. Garden of Delete is an album of love songs for the narrow line between human and android and cloud-consciousness, and “I Bite Through It” is the most haunting of them all. When we can flip through tabs with a flick of our irises, we will be able to shift gears as quickly as this.


27 Academic – New Order
Who put Bernard Sumner’s voice in an acid bath? He’s got a new bite.


26 Apparition – Stealing Sheep
The colors are bright but not the PC Music bright that hurts to look at or listen. (NB: I can’t listen to SOPHIE. It triggers misophonia.) I’ll take Stealing Sheep’s trouble, trouble over Taylor Swift’s any day.

Below, find my personal favorite music video of the year. Last year artistically morose contra dancing got its day with Sylvan Esso’s “Coffee,” and now we’ve got some artistically morose morris dancing here – as morose as May Day pastels can be.


25. Make it Holy – The Staves
Shatteringly soft, determination in clean harmony and a muted march.


24. To Die In L.A. – Lower Dens
I always seem to have a song like this on my year end lists. Last year it was The War On Drugs’ Red Eyes, which took us from speeding on midnight summer suburban roads onto the highway, going nowhere in particular and exulting in the journey. Less Springsteen, more New Order on this one. Less Jersey, more city. The same A major chord as the very beginning feels like something completely different in the chorus. Listen on an elevated train at night. (For the Boston/Camb/ervillains: I suggest the Ashmont-bound Red Line, between Kendall and Charles/MGH.)


23. The Schuyler Sisters – Hamilton Original Broadway Cast
Attn US History teachers of the world: Remind your shiny-eyed students that not everything in the musical is historically accurate, and then lean back and smile because Lin-Manuel Miranda just did a little bit of your work (work) for you. Look around, look around, a revolution’s happening on Broadway, and Renee Elise Goldsberry, Philippa Soo, and Jasmine Cephas Jones are harmonizing the anthem.


22. 2Shy – Shura
There aren’t many modern love songs about being shy, or being awkward. Our music favors the bold, the assertive, the pursuer and the pursued, with no room for the shy people in the corner. This song blooms like an underwater flower swaying. slow dancing in the current.

Disclaimer: I didn’t watch the video before writing about it. And yep, there’s your enchantment under the sea. Looks like I’m not as original as I hoped.

21. Molly – Palehound
As a new resident of Boston I am hopelessly out of touch with the local non-classical music scene. Now that I’m starting to discover what can be found here, maybe I’ll pay a little more attention next year. If 120 Minutes were still around (before it went to shit) I’d watch it every night, wait for them to play the video for this, and get frustrated when I couldn’t tell if the fuzzy static was supposed to be there.


20. Romeo – Chairlift
Totally wired and pulsing with potential energy. Drum break sounds like a pummeling from an ancient fighter video game. Caroline Polachek is singing like it’s the best Yeah Yeah Yeahs song since 2006. The wig in the video doesn’t do anything to lessen the similarity. Listen when you have to write (or do something) like you’re running out of time.


19. Sunday Candy – Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment
This is the best family love song of the year, maybe of the decade if you tie it with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’s “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects. Chance the Rapper may or may not believe in God but you can bet he believes in his grandma and the power of gospel music. Believes so hard that he didn’t swear on this one song so she could listen. That’s love.


18. Can’t Keep Checking My Phone – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Some love songs are timeless. This one is not. It could only have been written now. Please Mr. Postman, handclaps and all, for a kind of complicated way to love that doesn’t get sung about much, that I hope will get sung about more. (Personal bias.)