Initial Reactions (2012): Mermaid Avenue III, M. Ward, Sara Watkins

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an initial impression on me, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Billy Bragg/Wilco – Mermaid Avenue III [B]: One last round for old times’ sake. Though not as great as the first, it beats the second for sure. The Tweedy-led tracks are real treats, reminiscent of the YHF demos. A few cuts could’ve used more work; otherwise, a delicious slice of dessert from one of the most fruitful experiments in rock and roll history. ("When the Roses Bloom Again", "Listening to the Wind That Blows")

M. Ward – Wasteland Companion [B+]: That distinctive voice inhabiting simple acoustic songs. Folk-ish with experimental tinges, i.e. the creepy howls of a desolate landscape in the title track, putting the emphasis on Ward’s mellow side. All in all, a strong record, one I’ll keep in rotation, and who knows what insights a few more spins might bring. Invites you to wander cautiously through the desolation.  ("The First Time I Ran Away", "A Wasteland Companion")

Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun [A]: Well here’s a surprise. The opener’s distorted, hyperkinetic fiddling signals a musical shift, and gorgeous tunes get dressed up to launch this into ‘A’ territory. The centerpiece is the harrowing kiss-off "When It Pleases You.” Intense, beautiful, edgy, gorgeous, imaginative, interesting, and a major leap forward for a promising artist. In short, it’s everything I love about music. ("When It Pleases You", "Lock and Key")

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Initial Reactions (2012): Punch Brothers, Sharon Van Etten, The Big Sleep

Initial Reactions are just that: my reactions to records after only a few listens (usually 2 or 3). I try to be fair, but if a record doesn’t make much of an impression on me at that point, someone’s going to need to tell me to pay closer attention if they think it deserves better. (see the sidebar for rating descriptions)

Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now? – (B): This is the first PB record that I’ve really engaged with, and it both satisfies and leaves something to be desired. On one level, their efforts to bridge bluegrass into an experimental realm are highly admirable. It might have been “Enter Sandman” on banjos, but PB let loose with a stunning and haunting opener in “Movement and Location” and their cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” (!) nails it. I admire their aim, without a doubt. They’ve made a good record in Who’s Feeling Young Now? However, being very familiar with Thile’s work in Nickel Creek, I know he’s capable of writing not just good but exquisite and beautiful songs. Next time around, I hope he channels some of those old songwriting chops. It’s time to take the gloves off and give us a shiner. (“Movement and Location”, “Kid A”)

Sharon Van Etten – Tramp – (B): The first artist that comes to mind with SVE is PJ Harvey; though her music is approachable and occasionally grungy/poppy, it menaces as well. Still, while she’s certainly an impressive talent, and every track on Tramp is above average, they just don’t have the “sticky” factor, the ability to lodge themselves in your imagination. At this point, my main criticism would be that Van Etten projects rather than draws. She seems to want to stick it to you, but a little mystery might help us let down our guards against all the hype. “Leonard”, with its Eastern bloc underpinnings, comes closest, but at this point I fail to see what all the fuss is about.  (“Leonard”, “I’m Wrong”)

The Big Sleep – Nature Experiments – (C+): I heard “Ace” on a sampler, and that one drew me in, but after a few more listens, I think it must have been a flash of brilliance rather than a beacon in the night. They sport a very 90’s sound, reminiscent of the midwestern melodic emo bands of that era. However, they fail to distinguish themselves by going beyond it. With the standouts I detect great ideas little explored. “1001” hints at Boards of Canada, and “Wood on the Water” might have reached to something haunting and numinous. Unfortunately though, nothing more than an average indie rock record is realized. (“1001”, “Wood on the Water”)

Quick Review (LP): Follow Me Down by Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz
Follow Me Down
Sugar Hill; 2011

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Run Away", "Annabel Lee", "Ring Them Bells", "My Muse", "The Tourist", "Peace"

Taylor Swift, through the looking glass…

NOTES

  • Sounds a good bit like Nickel Creek’s precocious little sister.
  • Great voice – so easy on the ears, yet very dynamic.
  • "Run Away" and "Come Around" constitute an excellent opening salvo.
  • Gotta love the Poe-to-music of "Annabel Lee." Is that an original, or someone else’s bright idea?
  • Great Dylan cover. Her version may be better than his, but gotta give credit to the Jester for the amazing lyrics. ("Ring Them Bells")
  • "My Muse" has a wonderful dream like quality about it. One of the best I’ve heard this year. Gold.
  • She covered "The Tourist." It’s official: girl has DAMN good taste in music.
  • More of the profound dreaminess on "Gypsy." 
  • "Peace" is a gorgeous way to end the record. Wonderful.
  • Her voice is so lovely that I think that for Jarosz to justify not singing on a track it needs to be truly exceptional, like "Peace." However, "Old Smitty" leaves something to be desired.
  • This is a record of simple pleasures, and Jarosz may just be ready to assume that newgrass royalty mantle that Nickel Creek so oddly abandoned a few years back.
  • Solid Paste review here.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)