Over the years, I’ve seen the function of the radio station mutate into something almost unrecognizable. As a kid in Charlotte, it wasn’t unusual at all to see the local jockeys (John Boy and Billy, Robert Raiford and later local music supporter extraordinaire Divikar Shukla) picking through vinyl and hamming it up at “midnight madness” sales at the old Grapevine or Peaches Records, at various shows or heck, just walking around town. Though music programming and selection was already slipping quickly from the hands of the dj’s, you could still count on hearing entire albums by new artists on the late night “deep cuts” shows, get turned on to local stuff on Friday and Sunday nights, and you never knew who you might catch live on the King Biscuit Flower Hour. The radio was actually a tool for finding new sounds, rather than a mechanized advertising machine feeding us the same songs in the same order day after day. The end for me was finding out that some stations were actually screwing with the tempo of the music in order to fit in more tunes than the competition could each hour.
Before I return to my real objective (an overview of stuff I reviewed last year) I think my point is that though the availability of new music has multiplied a hundred times, the delivery system just isn’t what it used to be. Let alone that I still can’t visualize a “collection” of highly compressed music files as being anywhere near as cool as a few racks of vinyl or even rows of shiny discs — the ones from the record label, not the ones you burned on your buddy’s Mac. And I miss being excited about tuning in my local station for my favorite program. Yes, the emergence of low wattage/Internet streaming indie radio is a wonderful development, but wrapping my mind around the fact that people had to embrace a new technology in order to return to “old-school” vibe and programming just gives me a headache.
So, going back to the “cool music reviewed last year that had nary a chance at mainstream radio play though it more than deserved it” concept, here are a few standouts:
Sia Furler’s live album, Lady Croissant, deserved more space and time than I was able to devote to it. Quirky and chock full of soul, many heard her years back wailing for electronic/chamber/chill masterminds Zero 7. Breaking out on her own with 2006’s Colour The Small One and following the next year with Lady Croissant, Furler pulled together a warm, romantic combo of tasty loops, pop sense and wit that tweaked quite a few ears.
Regina Spektor’s great, and I found myself stopping for a moment at work to take in the skeletal arrangement and undeniable bounce of “Fidelity.” But a minute into “Pictures” I found my friend cross-legged in the middle of the store with his eyes closed, wobbling to the music. Sounds like a winner to me.
A band named Israel Darling did a show at Guadalupe Café that was quite good. Noisy, jangly, harmonious and at moments awfully thoughtful, their five song Ep turned out to be a welcome discovery as well. In fact, Guadalupe hosted a bunch of good shows last summer, with anyone from the ever-evolving Commonfolk to the brainy jangle/dub/country/rap pranksters Shiner Miners. We also saw some new bands sprout and grow like jamsters Ideal Way and the opposite of jamsters Prayer Before Gunfight. Smokestack’s one-man-band craziness took up residence Thursday nights, a short lived but much needed jazz jam stuck around on Monday nights for a few months, and the coming year is sure to see more great music.
On the bluegrass/folk/Americana scene, Mountain Heart and local all-stars Balsam Range cranked out enough high-octane picking to choke a horse, with the former releasing two great ones — one live and one studio. Both bands have talent bursting from their seams, treading that fine line between traditional and mainstream with effortless grace. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s The Calling may have gone unnoticed by some, but stands as one of her finest, most intimate albums yet. And as if it even needs to be said, the pairing of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss produced something altogether surprising and wonderful on Raising Sand. It’s an amazing collection of songs delivered by an equally impressive group of musicians, and it should’ve made more than a few “top 10” lists last year.
Andrew Bird’s album, Armchair Apocrypha, and supporting tour (with a stop at Asheville’s Orange Peel) constitutes probably the most intriguing high-profile show I attended in 07, though my two-day excursion to see the Allman Brothers is right up there. Both were inspiring, though for completely different reasons: Bird for the motivation to really look at the art of songwriting as well as a lesson in the use of technology for wholly organic and musical results. But the Allman’s left me wanting to plug a Les Paul into a Marshall amp and wail for hours on end — you’d be hard pressed to find more deserving musicians of the title “guitar heroes” than in Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. While on the guitar subject, spin a copy of Robben Ford’s superb Truth for some of the finest jazz informed modern blues out there.
Oh, there’s more. But best to stop here, lest we forget that we should be looking forward rather than back. 2007 is behind us, ushering in another year of sounds, technology and weirdness. Here’s to the weirdness!