REVIEW: Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You

If the music of Big Thief was a physical place, it would be a campfire nestled in a mossy forest, friends cozying up around the flame and reminiscing on bittersweet memories. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, the American band’s fifth studio album, is the same campfire at dawn while the world sleeps, embers flickering, the sky brightening over a peaceful horizon. After conjuring this mental image, I came to realize that the cover itself is a sketchy drawing of animals around a campfire— a pure reflection of the album’s commitment to simple and authentic emotion. As the nature imagery suggests, the sonic world of the indie-folk act is anything but industrial. Even their more experimental songs are rooted in traditional folk, avoiding the mass-produced synthetic sound of modern pop. This genuine touch is what brings Big Thief’s masterful work to life.

DNWMIBIY feels more in touch with the band’s true voice than Big Thief’s 2016 album Masterpiece. The folky guitar evokes images of my youth, of rainy-day hikes in little red rain boots and curiously watching bugs move across the ground. Big Thief explores themes of adolescence, particularly the growing pains of becoming older and finding yourself face-to-face with an emotional reality no longer shrouded by naivety. Adrianne Lenker— who released successful solo music that leans toward a more delicate feminine sound— pours her heart into the vocals, her wavering voice expressing rawness that doesn’t have to be screamed to be felt. “Change” is a particularly resonant track and one of the most popular on the album; lyrically, “Change” has the same transcendent feeling as classic poetry. Like a gentle lullaby, Lenker sings:

“Change like the sky, like the leaves, like a butterfly, death, like a door to a place we’ve never been before”.

The album dives fearlessly into experiments as the album progresses, with spunky lyrics and textured sounds that stray from the calm earthy feel but still stick to the sense of adolescence. Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting is similar to a child’s wild and carelessly joyous thought process. It feels loose, freeing, and successfully exploratory. “Spud Infinity” carries on nature imagery to shout a gleefully unified message:

“One peculiar organism aren’t we all together?
Everybody steps on ants
Everybody eats the plants
Everybody knows to dance, even with just one finger”

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is an honest tale of unbridled feeling. Adrianne Lenker’s gentle voice echoes unconditional hope, admiration, and longing; it’s a love letter to the natural wonders of human existence and human expression, packaged in a homey atmosphere. If you’re an outdoorsy person, a folk-music-listener, an indie-music-enjoyer, or simply someone who wants to dig under the chaos of daily life to reconnect with your natural emotions, give this album a listen. Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You by Big Thief is available now on Spotify, Apple Music, or another music streaming platform of your choice.

REVIEW: Joe Henry

 

What else is Joe Henry but a gentle-voiced being…I say that because from what I now know about him,–the way he thinks about circumstance and relationships with people and places–he would probably offer no lengthier description of himself.

“I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble,” he says, after composing a metaphor equating stage 4 prostate cancer to worrying about an infestation of ants in the house. He addresses the experience with honest humility, but reminds us exactly how much he doesn’t care to split the disease from himself; well-meaning fan mail referencing the cancer-as-battle trope were grating rather than inspiring. Fighting his own body is an illogical concept to him. Instead, he sees a reconfigurations of his total identity into another form, one that is not assignably positive or negative.

But he swings through this part of his between-songs soliloquy comparatively quickly to what he prefers to focus on: the etymological history of his music. Sure, the influence of his illness bleeds into his most recent album (The Gospel According to Water), but there is not notably more soulful reflection now than compared to his earlier works. He has always been an introspective character, aspiring to make music that sounds like poetry. There is heavy use of similes and metaphors, comparing distant emotional environments and objects rather than pointing out differences.

What has changed is his dedication to unclenching his grip on control. A quick perusal of his older music shows lyrics rooted in emotions a little more vicious in nature, and a little more certain in his knowledge:

“Notice how I vanish
And your world remains,
You show your head above it
For spite, nothing more,
Like you thought just living
Was somehow its own reward.” (From “Mean Flower” off his 2001 album Scar.)

Even his album titles have gotten progressively gentler, from titles like Fuse and Scar to Shine a Light and Thrum. He has grown not exactly passive, but more understanding of the connection between himself and the other floating things of the world. He rejects distinct separation in favor of greater fluidity. I would argue still that this is not simply an effect of being faced with a likely, rapid death; he is not old, but he is not so young–staring down one’s mortality whether it be through a violent illness or passing painlessly is a strongly altering experience.

IMG_0034 (1)

He’s kind of the love child of Alex Turner and Leonard Cohen, soft in tone but can sometimes border on over-stylized. He has an electric voice but one that’s well-insulted by a cocoon of soft rubber. Usually he deals in the lower pitches, which works well for those whose youth is becoming a memory. He doesn’t try for any falsetto nonsense, which almost never works out well for men of a certain age. This decision aligns with his philosophies, in which he prioritizes acceptance rather than making things a fight. I was coming from church before the show, the sermon about giving into thine enemies, turning the other cheek and whatnot. Given his own dedication to Christianity, it makes sense that he would draw upon such readings to form the basis for his newest tunes.

I encourage you to go through his discography for yourself on his Spotify page, and to peruse his website to learn more about what he’s been up to.

Note: photo credit for featured image is:

Hamilton, Jacob. Mlive.com, MLive, Ann Arbor, 21 Feb. 2020, https://www.mlive.com/news/j66j-2020/02/dfc471b5873850/harry-potter-and-storytelling-festival-5-things-to-do-in-ann-arbor-feb-2123.html.

PREVIEW: Joe Henry

Henry has had a long life in the musical world, shaped not only by his work with great artists, but by the personal turmoil in his life. His recent dance with cancer has ended for now, and it will be interesting to see how his closeness to and command over death influences his work and how he takes risks in it. He’s worked on albums with countless famous musicians, but he holds a humbleness unique to a person who has directly faced his mortality.

Take a listen to his tunes posted to Spotify to get a sense of the kind of evening we’ll be enjoying together.

General admission is $25. Tickets are available online or in-person at The Ark (up to 75 minutes before doors open) or the Michigan Union Ticket Office (530 S State).

Doors are 7:00 PM on Sunday, February 23, and the show begins at 7:30. The Ark’s address is 316 S Main.

REVIEW: Kittel & Co.

I found myself back at the Ark Sunday night, listening to the five piece band that goes by the name of Kittel & Co. Combining elements of classical, jazz, celtic, and bluegrass music, the group played music spanning from Bach to Charlie Chaplin, adding new arrangements and spin to these pieces. They also played many new compositions which can be found on the band’s album “Whorls.”

 

The show featured Jeremy Kittel on fiddle, Josh Pinkham on mandolin, Ethan Jodziewicz on bass, Quinn Bachand on guitar and Simon Chrisman on hammer-dulcimer. I had never seen this combination before, let alone seen a hammer-dulcimer in concert, and I was blown away by the skill and communication shared between all of the players. 

 

Kittel & Co. define themselves as a contemporary string band who progressively fuse together elements of folk, classical, Celtic, bluegrass, and jazz. Their first album “Whorls” was released in 2018, and the track “Chrysalis” composed by Kittel, was nominated for a Grammy that year. 

 

Starting off with a set of tunes called the Boxing Reels, the band brought an exciting energy to the stage. The first reel started with the mandolin with the fiddle joining in on the second time around to build up for the much faster second reel. The two tunes flowed effortlessly into each other, carefully building excitement and interest for the audience. 

 

Kittel looked comfortable on the stage of the Ark, having played there many times before. As a U of M grad, his roots tie back to Michigan, and the venue was packed with friends, family and familiar faces. A picture of Kittel hangs on the Ark wall in direct eyeline with the stage which he remarked was the best marketing he could have ever asked for:) He had many stories about their experiences at the Grammys (including a run-in with Cardi B), and really connected with the audience. 

 

As a fiddle player myself, I find Kittel’s tunes catchy and distinct. He is a technical player with lots of control, but sounds free on stage. I am amazed by how he is able to fuse genres and create his own new identity through his compositions. I am excited for what he will compose next and for what’s to come with Kittel & Co. 

 

Band Website:

https://jeremykittel.com/pages/kittel-co

 

Purchase Whorls:

https://store.compassrecords.com/products/whorls

 

Artist Spotify:

https://open.spotify.com/artist/3uRqP5x3yw7M7lLOD4oRLz

REVIEW: Parsonsfield

On May 2, 2019, I experienced one of the most exciting live shows I’ve ever been to, and it all took place in front of the stage at The Ark.

The night started out with the opener, Jamie Drake. With just a guitar, her beautiful voice pierced through the air for a simple yet stunning sound. “Pill” and “Plumbline” were lovely sing-alongs that evoked powerful emotions, and “Wonder” was a really cute song as well. She closed with “Allison,” a song inspired by a toddler that acknowledges that it takes time to find your voice and that it’s okay. I didn’t know who she was when the night began, and as soon as she opened her mouth, I was instantly captivated, and I left The Ark a passionate fan of hers.

Then, Parsonsfield came out onstage, singing some of their most popular hits, such as as well as new works that had yet to be performed. They played “Everyone Dies,” “Weeds or Wildflowers,” “Kick Out the Windows,” and “Stronger,” among many others, seamlessly transitioning between all the songs with constant music. They also unplugged for a couple raw, sad numbers that showed off their amazing vocal blending and prowess without reverberating instruments. They finished the night off with their encore, “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me,” a fun little tune to wrap up their exciting show.

One of the most amazing things about Parsonsfield is the variety of instruments they use and the different sounds they can make with only four people in the band. Chris Freeman, the lead singer with unbounded energy, played the banjo, guitar, pump organ, and harmonica. Max Shakun also contributed his flawless vocals, playing guitar, pump organ, synthesizer, and bass as well. The mandolin man Antonio Alcorn and drummer Erik Hischmann finish off this multifaceted combination of a band. The musical talent of every single member gives the band its one-of-a-kind style that fuses rock and folk into headbanging yet meaningful music.

I saw Parsonsfield at Folk Fest, but sitting right by the stage made the experience way better than sitting in the top balcony and barely being able to see them. This live and intimate show at The Ark made Parsonsfield seem bigger than life, filling up the entire stage and room with joyful music, and the audience, far from being sold out, filled the room with endless applause and cheers that made it seem like the show was sold out. With Jamie Drake setting the stage with her wonderful set that I never wanted to end, Parsonsfield capped the night off with heart-pounding and wonderful music.

PREVIEW: Parsonsfield

Celebrate the survival of finals, the end of another semester, and the coming of summer by listening to some nice indie folk music at The Ark! Parsonsfield, who performed at Folk Fest back in January, will be performing on May 2 at 8pm with opener Jamie Drake. Tickets are only $20 for the chance to listen to this multi-genre band explore the intersections between bluegrass, rock ‘n roll, and folk!