Saturday, January 7, 2012

Review: Martha Scanlan EP

Martha Scanlan - Tongue River Stories: Autumn (2011)
8 / 10

Martha Scanlan's fantastic 2007 debut album, The West Was Burning, was one of the most underappreciated Americana albums of recent years, and for years I've been waiting eagerly for her to release a new album. She stopped touring for a while, and I was afraid that second release might never come, but I've been regularly checking for updates anyway. Yet, somehow, I missed the release of this new EP and only found out about it a couple of weeks ago.

The title of the album refers to the Tongue River Valley, where Scanlan's family owns a home that she has spent a lot of time in while not touring. After taking some time off from touring and writing, she decided to write and record a series of short albums inspired by that place. The music on this EP was both written and recorded at her family's home in the valley.

Scanlan claims on her website that the songs on this album tell stories from the Tongue River Valley, but I would say that most of the songs don't tell stories at all, at least not directly. Rather, they seem to relate the thoughts and feelings of the narrator at a certain time and place. To the extent that these songs are about anything concrete at all, they are about relationships past, but we only hear about love and lovers through broken memory fragments interspersed with vivid naturalistic imagery.

The latter, presumably, is the influence of the isolated natural setting in which these songs were composed. Scanlan's lyrics aren't about the natural world, per se, but they are drenched in naturalistic metaphor: in "The Meadow," she compares her lover's hair to summer wheat, his smell to wild grass.  All of the songs here are replete with references to sun and moon, fields and rivers. The imagery of isolation combined with the recollections of loves past creates an overall effect of nostalgia and longing.

The themes of memory and nostalgia aren't new for Scanlan, but the songwriting on this album marks a definite evolution from her debut. The songs here are longer--three of the five songs are over six minutes, whereas the longest of the eleven songs on her debut was only about five and a half minutes. The writing here is also more consistently serious and mature, and Scanlan seems to have become more comfortable with her own individual style. She began her career as lead singer of Reel Time Travelers, an old time band playing a mix of traditional and original songs along with a good number of traditional instrumental tunes, and her first album was only a partial transition away from that style: it still contained traditional instrumental interludes, and a few of the original songs bore the distinct mark of old time music.

On Tongue River Stories, Scanlan fully embraces her new direction as an Americana singer-songwriter, and there is nothing here to suggest a past career in old time music. On all of the tracks but one, she does a Gillian Welch/David Rawlings thing, paring the music down to two guitars, with one strumming and the other flatpicking tasteful contrapuntal lines (the latter role is filled by Jon Neufield, who is also the guitarist for Decemberists side-project Black Prairie, and who, like Rawlings, plays a guitar with f-holes). On the remaining track, "Guardian Angel," Scanlan is backed by a full country band, and the results are wonderful, if a little out of place on this album: I can't help but wish she had stuck to the two guitar formula here and saved the country band for a different album where she could use it to full effect on all songs.

But that's a minor complaint, and overall this album leaves little to complain about except its brevity. The songwriting is excellent, the music truly beautiful. Scanlan's voice has a unique trembling quality that gives her songs a quiet emotional intensity (it also makes the lyrics hard to make out at times, but I'll take that trade off any day). Hopefully this album is the first of several in the Tongue River Stories project, and hopefully we'll be hearing from Martha Scanlan for years to come.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Favorite Albums of 2011

I've been meaning to start this blog for a while now, and I figure a summary of my favorite things from the past year is as good a way as any to kick off the new one. Here are my fifty favorite albums of 2011, out of the five hundred or so new releases I heard over the course of the year. I may come back to this later and add commentary for some or all of the albums.

1) tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l
2) Slackeye Slim - El Santo Grial: La Pistola Piadosa
3) PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
4) St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
5) James Blake - James Blake
6) Farmers by Nature - Out of This World's Distortions
7) Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest
8) Aram Bajakian - Aram Bajakian's Kef
9) Robyn Ludwick - Out of These Blues
10) Bon Iver - Bon Iver
11) Tony Malaby - Novela
12) Larry and His Flask - All That We Know
13) Steve Coleman and Five Elements - The Mancy of Sound
14) Battles - Gloss Drop
15) Bill Dixon - Envoi
16) Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
17) Nels Cline, Tim Berne, and Jim Black - The Veil
18) Chris Thile and Michael Daves - Sleep with One Eye Open
19) Franco Donatoni - 10 Anni Dopo
20) My Brightest Diamond - All Things Will Unwind
21) Harrison Birtwistle - Night's Black Bird
22) Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp - Cosmic Lieder
23) Tom Waits - Bad As Me
24) Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet - Apparent Distance
25) honeyhoney - Billy Jack
26) Matana Roberts - COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres
27) The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
28) Craig Taborn - Avenging Angel
29) Lydia Loveless - Indestructible Machine
30) Lykke Li - Wounded Rhythms
31) Kris Davis - Aeriol Piano
32) M83 - Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
33) Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers - Starlight Hotel
34) Abigail Washburn – City of Refuge
35) Benoit Delbecq and Francois Houle - Because She Hoped
36) Kaija Saariaho - Saariaho
37) Eilen Jewell - Queen of the Minor Key
38) Sofia Gubaidulina - Glorious Percussion
39) Keith Jarrett - Rio
40) Hellbound Glory - Damaged Goods
41) Julianna Barwick - The Magic Place
42) Husky Burnette - Facedown in the Dirt
43) William Elliott Whitmore - Field Songs
44) Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
45) Fovea Hex - Here Is Where We Used to Sing
46) Cults - Cults
47) Peter Evans Quintet - Ghosts
48) Tinariwen - Tassili
49) The Weeknd - Balloons
50) Radiohead - The King of Limbs