Monday, December 26, 2011

Kelly Marks' Top Ten of Twenty-Eleven

Heavy on the folk, blues and Americana, here are my most-played albums of the year:

1. William Elliott Whitmore – Field Songs

From the second I heard the weathered blues voice of William Elliott Whitmore accompanying the solo banjo cradled on his knee at a street festival in Chicago a few years ago, I was captivated. There’s a soul-stirring sadness and strength in his voice that’s truly beautiful and all-together comforting. His latest release, “Field Songs”, is a concept album focused on the pitfalls and the pleasures of traditional, rural farm life. A little less political and a lot less produced than his 2009 album “Animals in the Dark”, “Field Songs” gets back to the simple structure and soulful heart of Whitmore’s delta-river bluesy music. The album begins appropriately with the sounds of a small farm at dawn. Birds chirp and a rooster crows as Whitmore plucks the opening notes to “Bury Your Burdens” on his banjo. From there it builds into a heart-felt blend of optimistic anthems in the face of hard times. Songs like “Everything Gets Gone” and the album’s title track, “Field Songs”, touch on the somewhat cliché message of living while we can, but the simplicity in which Whitmore tells us that “the best of times ain’t happened yet” and reminds us that “we’re just here for a little while” begs a real, no-nonsense, plain-and-simple listen. “Not Feeling Any Pain”, brings the album to a full-circle close, both lyrically (“Well the fields are plowed, my work is through, now the day is done / Nothing left for me to do but toast the setting sun…”), and with its music, carrying out a similar chord progression to that of the album’s opening track. As “Field Songs” ends, fading out to Whitmore humming against a background of chirping crickets, it’s almost impossible not to envision him reflectively gazing out over an open field at twilight from a rocking chair on the porch of a small farmhouse.

2. Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest

This was the first “official” new album Gillian Welch has released since I became a fan of her music. I bought it soon after it hit the shelves this summer, but it took a little while to find heavy rotation on my stereo. There’s something about the harmonies of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings over bluegrass that I felt coincided nicely with the lingering fall and onset of winter. It’s also a bit of a layered album. Full of the duo’s familiar clean-cut and quiet melodies, “The Harrow…” first seems like simple compilation of songs from another time (mentioning farmers and their mules, and mothers at beauty parlors and siblings at drive-in movies), but grows into a complex, intertwined album that reflects on the present as it draws from the past.

3. Blessed Feathers – From the Mouths of the Middle Class
Stinging Nettle, Honeysuckle by Blessed Feathers

Accordion, banjo, acoustic guitar, resonant drums and reverberant, minor-key vocals fill this sophomore release from local folk group Blessed Feathers. The group’s dual, melancholy vocals are somewhat reminiscent of the XX, if the XX gave up electricity, moved to the northwoods, read Throeau, and wrote folk music. Not to say that this in any way reflects on Blessed Feather’s actual creative process (to my knowledge). The band, hailing West Bend, rather seems to have drawn their inspiration from everyday life as young and struggling members of the middle class (a very relatable position to be certain). As its title would suggest, “From the Mouths of the Middle Class” is filled with somber yet inspirational anthems for the restless, working-class person whose hopes have yet to find fulfillment. Tracks such as “Somebody Else’s” and “Winter Sister” lament over a looming sense entrapment and stir up an impatient desire for the onset of better days.

4. The Rural
Alberta Advantage – Departing
Nils Edenloff trades in ballads of vast northern landscapes and small town Canadian life for songs about despair and general heartbreak, and it kind of works. After 2009’s passionate and driving “Hometowns”, RAA fans were left with high expectations for what the band would do next. The openings of the two albums could not be more different. “Hometowns” began with the declarative “The Ballad of the RAA”, while “Departing” starts with the more laid back “Two Lovers”. In a way this sets the tone for the rest of the album (especially to those who were familiar with their original work). There are still the fast-paced, fervent songs like “Stamp” and “Tornado ’87”, but overall, Departing settles from an explosive overture and ventures into more common ground.

5. The Builders & The Butchers – Dead Reckoning
The Builders and The Butchers - Lullaby by LAMusicBlog
The Builders and The Butchers are like the Decemberists’ distant cousins from the south that don’t get invited to many family functions because they scare the children (in reality both are from Portland and bear no relation). With a nasal voice and lyrics that could easily be found in the sermon of an old-time tent revival, frontman Ryan Sollee leads the band in more deep, dark ballads of southern gothic folk rock.

6. The Black Keys – El Camino

The Black Keys don’t seem to know a great deal about cars. But that’s alright, because what they do know is how to write a catchy, catchy tune. “El Camino” is instantly likable. I was sold on the album after the first three tracks, and then the break in “Little Black Submarines” completely sealed the deal.

7. The Decemberists – The King is Dead

I really enjoyed the epic tale Meloy narrated on “The Hazards of Love”. That being said, I’m glad this isn’t a concept album. The stories are short and simple, and the songs are light, warm, catchy and up-beat. 10 extra credit points for involving Gillian Welch.

8. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

I am apparently a sucker for incredibly long, three-part songs. Last year it was Sufjan Stevens’ twenty-three minute “Impossible Soul” off Age of Adz, and this year the Fleet Foxes took the cake with “The Shrine / An Argument” (though it came in somewhat short at just over 
eight minutes). The harmonies on this album are (as always) incredible, built into lingering songs that just get stuck in your head.

9. The Head & The Heart
My only regret is not listening to their work until after they played Milwaukee.

10. David Bazan – Strange Negotiations

I didn’t love this album as immediately as 2009’s “Curse Your Branches”, but as I stood in Cactus Club this past fall and heard Bazan play several of its tracks intertwined with old favorites, I said to myself, “oh, yeah…I do really like this new album”, which happens more often than not after I see live shows.

Albums that were hard to cut from the list: 
Beirut – The Rip Tide
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Mirror Traffic
Wilco – The Whole Love

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