Weekend Music Break: Sarah Beatty, “Bandit Queen (Acoustic)”

Sarah Beatty, in performance

[Image: Sarah Beatty, onstage during an unidentified performance.]

Like writing (especially fiction), music  (especially rock/pop) seems to resist categorization more often than it accepts it. The term “genre” suits the purposes of marketers and distributors at least as much as those of performers and audiences: How do we pitch the products in Category X, using what language, images, and metaphors? How much shelf or disk space, or how much bandwidth will we need to display our Category-X holdings? How much money should we set aside to promote a Category X artist, versus one in Category Y — what will customers pay? And so on.

The artists themselves often try to duck the question (making liberal use of the slash character, as in “punk/power-pop/postmodern,” or claiming a revolutionary fervor the work may or may not deserve, like “a genre-busting novel”); sometimes, they answer it apparently head-on, but in a way which allows the audience to cast its own hopes or disregard on the work (“I write mainstream fiction,” or “I’m a singer-songwriter”).

All of which is to say: my sympathies are heartily extended to Sarah Beatty, her record label, and her management. In various places around the Interwebs I’ve found terms like these to describe her: “singer/songwriter,” “folk,” “old fashioned folk/country blues,” “blues, jazz, country, and soulful styled roots music”… And really, I have no idea what to call her, either. Maybe the best clue about what to expect appeared in a 2012 interview at the 100 Mile Microphone blog. The interviewer asks for an explanation of her first album’s title, Black Gramophone, since it contains no such song or other reference:

[SB] I thought about using a song title, or just my name, but the words ‘Black Gramophone’ just came to me one day, and made sense. Gramophones have this long musical history—RCA, the Grammies—but for me, my music is inspired by old styles. There’s a certain gravitas to my songs, and black represents that, visually.

[100MM] But it’s not funeral black—it’s little black dress black!

[SB] Oh! Thank you! Yes, it’s not meant to be dour. However, there’s a seriousness about it.

If you read between the lines here, you’ll see why this exchange appealed to me: she thinks about her work, and she knows how to use language, and she welcomes light and dark in equal measure.

These traits are all borne out in the debut single from her new album, both called Bandit Queen. While the album’s SoundCloud page, not yet publicly available, self-identifies using a lot of the same terms from the above list (folk, Americana, jazz, blues, etc.), it also includes a new one: folklore.

Belle StarrWhatever other songs on the album might deserve that label, “Bandit Queen” itself, oh yeah: folklore. It’s based on the story — “colorful,” to say the least — of the 19th-century “queen of the outlaws,” Belle Starr. (That’s her to the left, in a photo which Beatty considered using for the album’s art.) More than one party pooper has taken pains — sometimes exhaustive ones — to, er, shoot holes in Starr’s story as it’s popularly come down to us. But listen: folklore, okay? Boiled down, the shape of that story goes something as follows:

Old-West woman of some years — and a checkered domestic life — declines to go quietly into any goddam good night, thank you very much. Instead, she takes up bank robbery, horse-stealing, gunplay, murder, and general cussed criminal orneriness, and dies as she’d lived: violently and disreputably.

I mean, consider: Starr’s daughter became a madam in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Could there be a more perfect little biographical detail for such a creature as a “queen of the outlaws”?

Beatty’s lyrics here are cast in Starr’s own imagined voice. A sampling (the end of the first verse plus the chorus):

I’m a well dressed, fast talking, educated woman, with 40 dead men in sight.

I’m the baddest bandit queen, you did ever see,
I am Myra Maybelle Shirley Starr, hotter than top-rail kerosene.
I’m the baddest bandit queen, you ever did see.

Every detail in these words strikes me as perfectly balanced. But presented in the context of the kicking, take-no-prisoners music — well, I’m just knocked out by this song. That simple see at the end of the above excerpt? Somehow, Beatty’s voice manages to make of that an entire declamatory phrase, comprising what sounds like fifteen or twenty syllables.

She seems to like trying out various effects with her voice, pulling it down low and then rippling up and out: I wonder what would happen if I did this thing…? The voice goes up and down and slithers sideways; at one point, Beatty strongly reminds me of something which Aretha Franklin manages to pull off about 30-40 seconds into “Think.” Franklin’s voice itself: something of a Belle Star among a crowd of more everyday “strong woman” instruments, am I right? This is quite a stunt for Beatty, no matter how musically dissimilar the songs might be otherwise.

Over there at the right, the SoundCloud player for the acoustic version of the tune; listen for yourself. And keep your eyes (and ears) open for the upcoming February 3 release of the full Bandit Queen. What happens to it will ultimately be in the hands of all those confused marketing-and-distribution institutions I mentioned earlier, but it deserves a wide, hungry audience of music lovers.

Edit to add (2017-02-18): The Bandit Queen album, all thirteen songs, is exactly what I’d expected it to be: in short, more of the same kind of smart, idiosyncratic, generous songwork on display in the single’s acoustic version.

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Midweek Music Break: Jack White and Margo Price, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”

Jack WhiteThe White Stripes’ music never appealed to me. And I haven’t followed Jack White’s career much otherwise. But he keeps popping up on my radar anyhow, and in the back of my mind I’m Margo Pricepretty sure my inattention is hurting me more than him. My disregard (so to speak) stems almost entirely from media classification of the Stripes’ music; garage-rock is usually the label applied. And I’ve just never taken to other garage-rock performers, and I think, y’know, Why would the White Stripes be any different?

Wikipedia‘s classification of the White Stripes cites not only garage rock, but blues rock, alternative rock, punk blues, post-punk revival, and garage punk as the duo’s genre. I can’t even wrap my head around some of those genres.

But White himself is regularly said to be an aficionado and practitioner of old-time music: country, folk, straight blues… (Favorites of mine, all.) Furthermore, critics claim to hear those influences when discussing the White Stripes’ music.

So much for my critical acuity, eh?

White has appeared here at RAMH once before, as a featured performer (among Dylan, Levon Helm, Sheryl Crow, et al.) on the compilation/homage/archaeological-project of an album called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams. Of course, Hank Williams’s own bona fides as an icon of Americana music — even from the mouths and instruments of rock, pop, and (yes) garage-rock icons — don’t need any evidence from this quarter. And now there’s very recent evidence that I’m missing a good bet in continuing to ignore Jack White: his appearance a few nights ago on Prairie Home Companion: dueting with country-music star Margo Price.

But consider that duet further: the song they performed, and which (of course) I’d never heard, comes from the White Stripes’ 2005 album Get Behind Me Satan.

As rendered by White, Price, and their backing musicians, it’s about non-garage-rock as one can imagine, right down to the mandolin, fiddle, and bass accompaniment. Even the soul of the song is Americana: a broken heart, family relationships (even hinting, ever-so-carefully, at incest), a touch of wistful wry humor…

Just as a sanity check, I spent several hours’ research looking into others’ reactions to the song, not just as performed on PHC but from its first appearance on the Stripes album. Probably ninety per cent of the results returned were (unsurprisingly) simple lyrics, or MP3 downloads, with no discussion of the song itself; most of the others were just casual mentions (especially of the PHC performance). But here’s a selection of the rest, in no particular order:

  • Reddit: discussion of the song and this specific performance (“Meet Your Theme Song…”)
  • The New Yorker: “The Gift & the Curse: Jack White’s Vexing Brilliance” (“…surely written by Hank Williams… White delivers the kind of compressed and restrained pain that country songwriters spend years trying to perfect”)
  • NME review: “The White Stripes: Get Behind Me Satan” (“a rousing waltz which… Loretta Lynn would have no problem singing”)
  • Slant Magazine: (ditto) (“steeped in heartbroken ‘woe is me’ wordplay but delivered with a solemn sincerity that tells you that Jack ain’t playin'”)
  • The Fader: “The White Stripes Want Truth, Romance and Beauty for a Fallen America” (“a straightforward country-soul-‘n’-gospel ballad on the piano, and Jack almost whispers the third verse”)
  • Baeble Music Blog: Time Capsule, on “The White Stripes ‘Get Behind Me Satan'” (“a piano-heavy, bluesy, stubborn lament, lacking a home yet too proud to look for one”)
  • Google Books: Jack White: How He Built an Empire From the Blues (by Nick Hasted) (“…straightforwardly comic. But the last verse’s barely audible murmur ends with a near-suicide in a river”)

And here, finally, is the video of White’s and Price’s performance on Prairie Home Companion (link to the full lyrics below):

[Video courtesy of Prairie Home Companion; lyrics here.]

And finally, if you’d like, you can listen to the White Stripes’ own version of “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet”) here.

______________________________

Addendum: I should also mention the Dwight Yoakam song, “Ain’t That Lonely Yet.” [Video with lyrics here.] It appeared on Yoakam’s 1993 album This Time, and Yoakam’s performance won a Grammy as Best Male Country Vocal Performance. So far, I haven’t seen any evidence that the two songs are related (aside from their titles and the basic message — the tones are very different); no one else seems to have made the possible connection. However, I have found evidence that the two songs can be confused. (Ha.)

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Weekend Music Break: Limestone Chorus, “Woods & Water”

Limestone ChorusLet us consider, first, the name “Limestone Chorus.”

Limestone sounds rugged to me, rugged and roughcut. It suggests quarrying, of course, and it suggests caverns carved by underground rivers. It’s a sedimentary rock, so it crumbles and dissolves rather easily on its own — unlike (say) granite, basalt, and other igneous and metamorphic rocks… and it is everywhere. Wikipedia tells me that it makes up 10% of the volume of all sedimentary rocks. While it is inarguably rock, unlike (say) sandstone, limestone is curiously organic: “Most limestone is composed of skeletal fragments of marine organisms such as coral, forams and molluscs.”

Think about that a moment: limestone is a “living” rock — a common building and construction material comprising the remnants of a gazillion creatures. (Think about that the next time you’re inside a building of concrete: you might as well be undersea.)

So here we’ve got a band pursuing one of the longer threads — a sub-genre: folk, soul, and Americana — of (yes) rock history, a band named for this curiously-organic inorganic material. If the name had instead been constructed from the word “granite” or “quartzite,” the effect would have been totally different — calling to mind not the flowing of water and the whisper of grains, but hammers and chisels and bang-bang-bang.

And then there’s chorus: voices twined together, harmonizing…

Yeah. Now you’re getting the idea.

The name “Limestone Chorus” apparently represents a recent name change; the group (in a slightly reduced configuration) had previously been called “Shore Thing.” Okay, the latter was clever(ish), with the pun. But it was also easy, glib, and really wasted an entire word — thing — which communicated nothing at all. I have no idea how much thought and anxiety went into the name change, how much conscious vs. unconscious decision-making came into play, but as a band name, “Limestone Chorus” is leagues beyond “Shore Thing.”

So then there’s this song. Again, look first to the name: “Woods & Water.” When you hear a song title like that, do you imagine you’ll find headbanging within? Will the musicians assault their instruments and their amplifiers — and the audience’s ears — with an avalanche of sound? Will the lyrics preach, insult, rebuke?

When I opened the email announcing the upcoming debut of Limestone Chorus’s album Deer Friends*, and of “Woods & Water” in particular, I had no expectation of noise, electronica, trance. Indeed, I found almost exactly what I expected: luscious three-part harmonies overlaying and interleaved with acoustic instruments.

(With the obvious exception that Gordon Lightfoot sang solo, of course, the overall effect to me strongly recalls his “Did She Mention My Name.” Not a bad forerunner at all — again, no matter how conscious or unconscious the choice!)

The band is on record asserting that the song “describes the search for familiarity: the rediscovery of people and places who make us feel whole, safe and grounded. The song is driven through memory and nostalgia, pulling on emotional connections that shape a person.” This all comes through in the video, too, which I found oddly moving… Even though it’s not a “static” video, with a fixed image, pretty much nothing at all happens. And yet there is stuff happening, after all: the words (and their meanings and connotations) run over and through the music, and all of it runs over the visual, just like — well, just like water over and through limestone.

[Lyrics]

__________________

* Yes: Deer Friends. The album cover art even depicts the hallucinogenically colored head-and-shoulders of an antlered buck. Maybe they’re not quite over the punning impulse under which they first organized as “Shore Thing.”

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Midweek Music Break: Lynn Tomlinson, “The Ballad of Holland Island House”

[Lyrics copyright © Lynn Tomlinson]

Says artist (and lyricist) Lynn Tomlinson at her site:

I came across the haunting image of a house standing alone in the water in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Reading more about this house, I was struck by its story, and its relevance today, when so many communities are facing challenges from sea-level rise. The images I chose and the visual style reflects the artwork of Winslow Homer, Van Gogh, and Kathe Kolwitz, artists working in the late 1800s, the time period when the house on Holland Island was abandoned.

This video’s construction involved much more than that brief paragraph suggests: each frame was hand-painted in clay — not oil, watercolor, gouache, or other traditional medium — on glass. I’ll give you a moment to think about that — especially about the relationship between art and artifice, between real and ideal, between temporary and permanent, natural and man-made, and then and now

On this page at a site called Sometimes Interesting, you can read many details about the island and its last house, with many photos (including what appear to be the last known photos before the house’s collapse beneath the waves). Wikipedia, of course, offers its own useful summary.

My favorite “fact”: Holland Island is not an island of rocky protrusions; it’s an island of clay and silt. Although Tomlinson does not (to my knowledge) say so explicitly, it’s hard not to draw a dotted line between that geology and the physical media at the heart of the visual one.

(Tomlinson’s film won 1st place in the Greenpeace USA “Postcards from Climate Change” Student Film Contest. And as you can see from the still frame of the Vimeo video about, it’s picked up a good number of other awards as well.)

Aside from the work of the animation itself, Lynn Tomlinson wrote the ballad’s lyrics. The music and the performance, though, are courtesy of a roots-music/Americana duo going by the name Anna & Elizabeth (surnames Roberts-Gevalt and LaPrelle, respectively). Their joint mission, says their Web site:

WE HOPE THAT OUR WORK

  • BRINGS LIGHT to old ballads, tunes, hymns, and the stories of everyday people.
  • HONORS the lives & creativity of those who have gone before us — ancestors, pioneers, friends, and dear teachers
  • PASSES THE TRADITION to a younger generation & encourages friendships across generations
  • INSPIRES people to make art in their own homes.
  • JOINS conversations with other artists & community makers — in learning how to create art that feeds, that brings people together to sing, dance, and ask the difficult questions.

Which, you might say, is a mighty big chunk of ambition to bite off. Nonetheless, they’re making a pretty sizable dent in it. A couple weeks ago, they released their second album of reimagined “old-timey” music. They are touring over the next several months, performing at venues up and down the east coast of the US, the Midwest, the Northwest; in the UK; in Canada.

Finally, both relevant and not to be sneered at: Anna & Elizabeth are aficionados of an old, old art form called “crankies.” Picture a story or ballad — a story song — told visually, by way of a series of consecutive panels… which are joined together in a looooong roll and hand-cranked through a frame to illustrate or comment on the passing scene and moments.

Not only their sweet-harmony performances and musical tastes, but also this affinity for frame-at-a-time storytelling, make them the perfect accompanists for Lynn Tomlinson’s video.

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Midweek Music Break: Mandolin Orange, “Boots of Spanish Leather”

Mandolin Orange: Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz

You won’t find a lot online about Mandolin Orange at the moment. They’ve got a Facebook page, more or less up to date — ditto a Twitter feed, a YouTube page, and so on — but their Web site appears to be almost 100% under construction. Only their upcoming tour dates are listed there, with a promise of more “coming soon.”

I have found some few features about the duo elsewhere, however. From them, I’ve gleaned that Andrew Marlin (who, yes, started as a mandolinist) and Emily Frantz have so far released three CDs, most recently (2013) This Side Of Jordan, and including a double album — one CD with the two of them and a band, and one CD with just the two of them. For more information, see these sites:

For myself, I came upon them entirely by accident, while sort of browsing through recent YouTube music videos. I’m not sure, but believe that this one just showed up at one point in YouTube’s “Up Next” sidebar.

As for the song: “Boots of Spanish Leather” may not have been a bestselling single for Bob Dylan, but — released on his own 1964 The Times They Are A-Changin’ album — it did absolutely nothing to hurt his growing reputation as a songwriter. Wikipedia quotes one reviewer, calling it “a restless, forlorn ballad for the ages and sages — a classic Dylan tale of two lovers, a crossroads, and the open sea.” Its lyrics were even included in the fifth (2005 and still current) edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry.

Mandolin Orange performs the song in a way which seems utterly natural: as a duet, alternating verses and voices until the woman in the song falls silent. (At this point, Frantz switches from plucking her violin to to bowing it.) Their rendition haunts, right down to the not-quite-bitterly-sarcastic last line.

[Lyrics]

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Midweek Music Break: The Hello Strangers

The Hello Strangers

[The Hello Strangers, looking like they stepped out of a 1950s kitchen almost anywhere in America. I believe that’s Brechyn on the left, and Larissa on the right.]

As you might guess from the above photo, The Hello Strangers make no bones about their affinity for the past. (Unsurprising for an Americana band, maybe, but refreshingly unmixed with anything even approaching the noise of other genres.) The sisters, Larissa Chace Smith and Brechyn Chace, hail from a small but disproportionately influential* town in south-central Pennsylvania, and seem about as rooted — grounded — as that fact might lead you to expect.

(Scrolling through the gallery of promotional photos at their site — and being surprised by their retro eccentricity — made me laugh several times.)

The Strangers’ first, self-titled album has actually been out for a few months, but I learned about it via NoiseTrade’s weekly newsletter and site, where it’s highlighted as one of this week’s featured titles: “For fans of Kathleen Edwards, Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, Johnny Cash, [and] Emmylou Harris,” says NoiseTrade, and I’m in no position to argue. The harmonizing voices and instrumentation weave in and out with each other, forming a haunting mesh of sound which sticks in the mind long after the last note fades.

I offer two songs from the album here today, “Runaway” and “Conococheague.” If you like those two as much as I do, head on over to NoiseTrade and give a listen.

The Hello Strangers

[Lyrics: Runaway, Conococheague]

_________

* Why “disproportionately influential”? Per Wikipedia, the town’s small boarding school, Mercersburg Academy, has “produced several Rhodes Scholars, three Medal of Honor recipients, a Nobel laureate, two Academy Award winners, and 54 Olympians (including 12 gold medalists).” Among those who’ve roamed its halls have been actors Jimmy Stewart and Benicio del Toro, as well as they guy who played Perry White on the Superman TV series and Vanessa Branch, the original “Orbit gum girl” (“Fabulous!”).

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Midweek Music Break: Carrie Rodriguez, “Lake Harriet”

Carrie RodeiguezCarrie Rodriguez has had what may be viewed as a “simple” path to career success. She grew up in Austin at the feet of her father, folk songwriter/musician David Rodriguez. Her bio continues:

After sitting in on a sound check with her dad’s old Houston pal Lyle Lovett, she detoured from a degree as a classical violinist at Oberlin Conservatory and set herself on course to become a fiddler at the Berklee College of Music. There, her teacher, Matt Glaser, and her fellow students, including roommate Casey Driessen, helped her “find my groove and let go of that wall I had put up as a classical player.”

Another turning point came when Rodriguez met veteran songwriter Chip Taylor (“Wild Thing,” “Angel of the Morning”), who soon had Rodriguez touring and recording, and encouraged her to sing and write.

She recorded four albums with Taylor before going solo in 2006. And since then, I gather, she has not needed to look back. Her sixth album, Give Me All You Got, was released early this year.

In truth, I don’t know how “straightforward” or “simple” this career path has been. I also don’t think it matters, at least to a music outsider: all that counts is the music. If you’re good enough to listen to twice, let alone three or four times, that’s good enough for me.

“Lake Harriet” appears on that sixth album. In this live performance, Rodriguez and her backup musicians flirt with the lyrics and melody — turning the number into less a plain love song than a subtle tease, complete with fingersnaps. I love it.

[Lyrics]

By the way, in case you’re wondering: yes, there really is a Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. Wikipedia reports all the usual straightforward facts, then adds this little twist:

Lake Harriet elf houseOn the walking path near where Queen Avenue T’s into the perimeter drive around the lake, there is an “elf house” carved into the base of an ash tree. For several years, one could leave a letter for the elf supposedly living there and find a letter in reply sometime in the next few days. During the winter season, the elf door is shut and a plank appears stating he has “moved to his castle in the east.” It reopens around springtime.

(Of course that’s the elk elf house in the photo at right; click for a larger view, including more of the surroundings for scale.)

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Midweek Music Break: The Honeycutters, “Boneyard”

The Honeycutters: 'Irene' (2009)

As you probably know, or can tell, I listen to music quite a bit. But I don’t listen to it consistently throughout the day or week, and I don’t listen to it, well, with intention. Not for the most part, anyhow. But as the calendar pages turn over towards mid-February every year, that changes: for each of the last seven or eight Valentine’s Days, I have given a different custom “mix CD” of music to The Missus.

Now, her tastes run to music she already knows (although, as I have pointed out, at some point she didn’t know any of it). So I try not to get too adventurous with my selections for a given mix (the theme of which changes every year).

Nevertheless, around now annually I often find myself wandering around little back alleys of music and musicians I didn’t know about.

Thus, today’s Music Break selection, from The Honeycutters.

Oh, no, uh-uh: it’s not suitable for a Valentine’s Day mix. Certainly not such a mix for The Missus, anyhow. The only personal connection I could establish, in fact, is completely coincidental; I didn’t know, until I’d already heard and decided to use the song, that The Honeycutters are based in Asheville, NC.

The Missus and I love Asheville and the surrounding area, out of all proportion to the amount of time we’ve actually spent there. (That may total up to maybe a week all told, in the twenty years we’ve been together.) Part of the attraction might be called extrinsic, stemming from our history rather than from anything about the place itself. (It was the first locale we visited together which neither of us had experienced alone. And, not to put too fine a point on it, we, uh, well, we didn’t get out of the hotel very much on that first trip.) But oh, my, the place itself… The architecture, the history, the layout of the various neighborhoods, the culture, the pace, the climate, the trees and mountains: it all spelled home to us, instantly.

Still, no: The Honeycutters’ “Boneyard” won’t appear on The Missus’s playlist this year.

But I will say this about the song: its sound and its lyrics kick the bejeezus out of most songs purporting to be about love. real love, love with a tides-in/tides-out history. From the opening notes (in which singer-songwriter Amanda Platt seems at first to channel Carly Simon at the start of “Anticipation”), through the complex but sweet non-stop picking of lead guitarist Peter James, and into the fragile, all-too-brief mandolin of Tal Taylor, this music would not let me go. Toss in a nuanced storyline whose narrator has both imagined what might have been and realized what she’s already got, and, well, it’s no wonder the song turned my head.

(Platt is one of those songwriters who (a) doesn’t feel obliged to rhyme her lines or make them follow a predictable meter, and (b) has a voice that can carry it off. Both of these ingredients, together with her… well, with her sensibility make her songs very easy to listen to.)

“Boneyard” closed the group’s 2009 debut album, Irene. A successful Kickstarter campaign a few years ago enable them to record and release their second, When Bitter Met Sweet, in 2012.

[Below, click Play button to begin Boneyard. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 6:46 long.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

[Lyrics]

By the way, the rest of Irene doesn’t sound much like “Boneyard.” Recognizably the same band performs it all, true, and they sound equally great on all the tracks. But most of that album tends to the honky-tonk end of the spectrum — I bet The Honeycutters do a great live show, especially in a small venue. In what I’ve heard of When Bitter Met Sweet, however, the music (as in “Boneyard”) seems to favor late-night sessions at a kitchen table, with no more than a few people sitting around.

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