Here’s some new music and new-to-me music that I’ve been listening to heavily lately. I’m no music critic, and my opinions are definitely not definitive and exhaustive. There are many who disagree with me, but for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on these albums.
Iron and Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (2011). Several solo musicians in the indie/folk circles have released new material that differs greatly from the music that made them famous. Sufjan Stevens’ Age of Adz, in my opinion, is an example of an artist going in the wrong direction and not creating good new work. It seemed that the ingenious Sufjan was simply bored and wanted to experiment. I think Iron and Wine’s (aka Sam Beam’s) new album is in the middle of the continuum of good and bad creative direction. KEOC is a fuller sound with rich and diverse instrumentation than Beam’s previous work, and some songs represent a great evolution of the artist. “Walking Far From Home” and “Tree By the River exhibit his excellent song-writing combined with this fuller sound. However, “Rabbit Will Run” and “Big Burned Hand” represent the subpar side of Beam’s new creative direction, as they are angrier, harsher, and hollow. Kiss Each Other Clean has some profound moments, but also some very skippable tracks. I also recently picked up his double disc Around the Well, an album of B-sides and previously unreleased material. Great stuff, that.
Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver (2011). If Sufjan’s Age of Adz is on the bad end of the artistic evolution spectrum, Bon Iver’s (aka Justin Vernon) new self-titled album is definitely on the good end. Following up his sublime, heart-wrenching, stripped-down For Emma, Forever Ago (recorded in a remote Wisconsin cabin) with a fuller, richer blend of hope and diverse instrumentation, Bon Iver, Bon Iver is an excellent step in Vernon’s musical maturation. It seems like a natural progression and maturing. Hardcore fans of FEFA might be disappointed that this album doesn’t merely mimic that album’s sound, but I think this album is a natural followup. This self-titled album grabbed me upon first listen, and has rewarded subsequent listens with new-found subtleties. From the electric, pulsing opening track “Perth” to the strangely cheesy-yet-listenable-Peter-Gabriel-eque closer “Beth/Rest,” this is a brilliant album that demands and rewards multiple listens. Definitely no sophomore slump for Bon Iver.
Fleet Foxes – self-titled (2008) and Helplessness Blues (2011). I have no idea how this band slipped past my notice. Incredible musicianship and songwriting is on full display on both of these albums, and each album is a unified whole that can’t be skipped around. Part contemporary folk/indie, part 60s and 70s rock, part “baroque pop” (whatever that means), and 100 percent awesome, these albums don’t disappoint. Some current favorites from these albums include the chill-inducing, soaring refrain of the title track of Helplessness Blues, the sublime “White Winter Hymnal” of the first album (one of my current favorite songs of any musician), and the lush harmonies on the beautiful “Ragged Wood.” I can’t get enough of these albums.
Bela Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart (2010). This is the musical companion to Fleck’s Throw Down Your Heart film (2009). Fleck traveled to Africa with the purpose of returning the banjo to its home continent, reintroducing the instrument to African musicians. On this recording (which the film chronicles), Fleck travels around Africa to play with some of the best folk and popular musicians on the continent. The result is an artfully eclectic collection of African traditional and popular songs infused with Fleck’s amazing banjo. Most of the tunes are traditional African songs, but several were written by Fleck. Some of my favorites include the almost bluegrassy title track with a folk band from Mali, the haunting “Djorolen” with a female pop singer from Mali, the spiritual “Jesus is the Only Answer” with a large tribal group from Uganda, and “D’Gary Jam” featuring musicians mixed together from Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Cameroon.