Sunday, September 28, 2008

Act of Congress

When Nickel Creek decided to take an indefinite hiatus at the end of their 2007 tour, there was no doubt sadness among fans of acoustic music.

It would be easy to say that a Birmingham, Alabama quartet named Act of Congress is hoping to capitalize on the remains of Nickel Creek's fan base. But if you listen to their music (free downloads here, iTunes, MySpace) and still think that, well, you're just not paying attention.

Act of Congress' first full length CD, "Declaration" is strikingly original -- from beginning to end. Not a bad track? Heck, there's not a wasted note. Period.

There are so many things right about this CD, it's hard to know where to begin. The playing and harmonies are flawless, but more than that, the arrangements and production are balanced perfectly -- they never get in the way of each other. As a result -- pure organic music making for nothing other than the love of music and sharing it with the listener. There's a "feel" to this CD unlike, any I've heard in a long time.

Let me be perfectly clear -- every track on Declaration is a standout.

Still, some thoughts on a few:

-In the Middle (The prefect opening track. Gives you a great idea of what to expect from the rest of the CD.)
-She Knows Her Way Around (Laden with great harmonies, this song gently seeps into your soul.)
-I Disagree (The combination of dobro, harmonies, violin and lyrics make this track a winner.)

If that weren't enough, in concert, AOC also plays covers of Coldplay's Clocks, A-ha's Take on Me and the Beatles Paperback Writer. These versions pay homage to the original, but in typical AOC fashion, go off in an original direction. An EP of cover song is in the works.

Act of Congress - Music You Need To Hear.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


Here's a great song by an artist you never heard of. She's simply known as Shell.

Although she has other songs as well, If You Love It Let It Go is clearly the best of the lot. It's a remarkably soothing yet somewhat upbeat song. It's perfect for an iPod while walking, or just a lazy summer day sipping iced tea.

Shell sings with an ease and smoothness as if she's at total peace with herself despite the poignancy of the song. Like a cross between Sade and Natalie Merchant.

According to Shell's MySpace page, she's a one woman band and she mostly dabbles in electronic dance music. If You Love It Let It Go is a free download (not from MySpace) and vastly different from most of her other music.

Shell - Music You Need to Hear

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Judybats

From Knoxville, the Judybats had a sound that seemed to be perfect for the 1990's.

Not acoustic rock, not hard rock, the Judybats just had a sensible approach to their sound. A bit harder when it mattered, more acoustic when the song dictated. What's interesting is that Jeff Heiskell had a good voice, (not great), but he put it across with a nasal-y twang that made it all come together.

I wouldn't go so far as to say their first three CD's are overlooked gems, as they're somewhat inconsistent, but there's certainly some good music to had in there and you'll probably find yourself singing along after a few listens as well. Still, the band never had wide commercial success. Unfortunately, only two songs and a handful of videos are available on iTunes. But you can find their CD's, (used only) on Amazon. There's bit more about them on MySpace, Wikipeda, and AllMusic.

Check out "Daylight" from the CD, Native Son. A wonderfully catchy song with a perfect combination of harmonies, folk-inspired rock and just the right touch of guitar.

For me, their 1991 release Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow is probably the most enjoyable from start to finish. It contains the song "Saturday", which perfectly captures life in the South after high school. And its not bad to hear during college football season either.

From 1993, Pain Males You Beautiful had the minor hit "Being Simple".

The Judybats -- Music You Need to Hear.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Jennifer Daniels

Did you ever hear a recording where you think to yourself the music is "good", but that's all. You probably wouldn't buy the CD or seek out the music otherwise. If it ends up in your iTunes library, okay. If it doesn't, that's also okay.

Did you ever see that same artist in concert and your preconceived notions are literally blown away and your opinion turns 180 degrees? Such is the case with singer/songwriter Jennifer Daniels and, I have to say, it was the best $10 I've spent for a concert in a long time. Why does this happen -- that a live concert can change your mind so abruptly? A number of reasons, I think.

The artist. They have to have the talent, obviously. But it's more than that. They have to have an innate sense of connecting with the audience through their craft. The venue. The right setting is key to a good musical experience. When was the last time you saw a singer/songwriter play a stadium? Or U2 play a 200 seat club? The mix. That is, can the person running the sound system maximize the artist's sound to the venue. Can everyone in every seat hear every note clearly as well as the particular nuances of the song? It's live. Something could go wrong at any moment. And when someone is totally laying it on the line, making music for the sheer joy and thrill of it, and then something DOESN'T go wrong, well, I for one, am impressed.

Jennifer Danilels And when ALL of the above come together, that's when true magic happens. I freely admit not knowing hardly anything about Jennifer Daniels a week ago. Come to learn, she has three CD's, but before you get any of them, as soon as you finish reading this post, head over to iTunes and download her podcasts. They are surprisingly high-quality and these four songs will give you a great sense of what I'm describing as they capture her live sound perfectly. These can be easily trimmed so you just get the mp3 itself.

Start with August 2007 for what's likely the best Beatles cover you've never heard. Strawberry Fields Forever is stripped bare and paired with just her voice and electric guitar. It's hauntingly beautiful.

Stay recorded in Kentucky at The Woodsongs Old-Time Radio Hour is from the January 2006 podcast. Daniels' energy literally bursts through your speakers. Her husband Jeff gives just the right touch accompanying on guitar.

There's just a sample of the song Every Single Day on the June 2007 podcast. It's probably got the most poignant lyrics of any song I've ever heard. Sung with exquisite tenderness, this song is a serious contender to be played at every wedding or anniversary ever - it's that good.

Dive & Fly from July 2007 is such a perfect song. With its achy yet somehow soaring electric guitar background meshed with acoustic guitar and Daniels' gorgeous voice, you can almost picture the serene hilly setting near Lookout Mountain where this song was written. There's an overriding peacefulness about Dive & Fly that has you hanging on every note and mentally transports you to a calmer place.

Jennifer Daniels - Music You Need to Hear

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Puppini Sisters

So what is it about three-part harmony that's just so appealing -- especially when sung by women? I wish I knew, but listen to these three cover songs by The Puppini Sisters (website, iTunes) and hear how their interpretation makes these old songs sound new and refreshing.

The Puppini Sisters
Wuthering Heights by Kate Bush
Heart of Glass by Blondie
I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor
Panic by The Smiths
This is all from their debut CD, Betcha Bottom Dollar.

Their newest CD The Rise and Fall of Ruby Woo, features a cover of Walk Like an Egyptian by The Bangles.

The Puppini Sisters - Music You Need to Hear

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cocteau Twins

Nevermind that for the last 18 years I've had no clue what they were singing. And, many years ago, I could barely make out what they were saying when they hosted MTV's 120 Minutes due to their thick Scottish accents.

But you know what? I don't care.

Heaven or Las Vegas coverPrepare yourself to ride a musical sine wave of multi-layered guitar, bass, keyboards, an unobtrusive drum machine and silky smooth vocals. Just the cover of the CD is hypnotic enough to enter into their world. Trust me, if you don't own Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins, then your missing out on some seriously good music that defined the early 1990's and influenced lots of bands. The title track, Fotzepolitic, Frou-Frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires, and Iceblink Luck are just some of the highlights on this CD. I know it sounds weird, but even though I can't make out what their singing (at best I can make out a few words here and there), there's an overwhelming feeling of dreamy happiness that permeates the entire CD. It's the groups most successful CD of their 15 year career.

Interestingly, Elizabeth Fraser clearly feels that music is beyond words. She admits using words that she has no idea what they mean. Personally, it's taken me a while to realize this, but sometimes, you just need words to convey a mood or emotion -- and you know what? That's great. Sometimes words just don't mean anything despite our desire to know otherwise. Several people have taken a crack at deciphering the groups lyrics, and Frazier has complimented their attempts indicating that some of the "words" are more beautiful than anything she could've imagined.

From the group's website:
"We have had people on the Internet who have written translations and they obviously have a natural talent for writing. Their interpretations are so beautiful that sometimes I have preferred what they have written to what I actually sang, it has been much more eloquent. Those people are not so precious about us [Cocteau Twins] and just enjoyed using their talent and it is lovely to witness. But some people are very...It seems that some people are convinced they know us better than we know ourselves, and that we ought to listen to them. They want to steer us and they are very precious about us and they do not want other people to have us. If you really love something, then you have to let it go and endorse everything about it that attracted you to it in the first place. It's just like a love affair or any relationship: you have to treat it in the same way or you'll just suffocate and destroy it in the end if you don't." [BOYZ: Saturday November 11, 1995, page 8].
The prevailing thought of the band and fan websites seems to be this -- just listen and enjoy the music. And I've got a lot of respect for that sentiment.

Heaven or Las Vegas by the Cocteau Twins - Music You Need to Hear

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Michael Hedges

How's this for a story from Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records...
I was accosted on the street by Randy Lutge of the New Varsity Theater. He said, "Look, I’ll give you two free tickets to the movie tonight and dinner if you’ll come hear this guy play." I’m hearing that all the time and I’m thinking, "Oh God, but two free tickets and a dinner, that’s pretty good." So he takes me to that little upstairs room overlooking the courtyard, and Michael was there playing for just a handful of people. At the time, he was playing most of the stuff that’s on Breakfast in the Field [his first album, 1981], obviously some pretty impressive stuff. I started writing out what I could remember of a contract on a napkin and had him sign it. It was a way of saying to Michael how completely overwhelmed I was and how sincere I was about wanting to work with him. That was one of the quickest propositions in the history of Windham Hill.
Writing a contract on a napkin?!

"Michael" is Michael Hedges an American guitarist who revolutionized the acoustic guitar. Using alternate tunings, percussive tapping and a phenomenal technique, he had a huge sound which would leave you wondering how one person could get so much music out of one instrument. In short, he revolutionized the acoustic guitar.

His defining CD's are: Breakfast in the Field from 1981 and Aerial Boundaries from 1984.

Live on the Double Planet was recorded on tour in the US and Canada. A close look at the program notes from that CD, and you'll see that two tracks, All Along the Watchtower (great cover of the Bob Dylan classic) and A Love Bizarre (from Shelia E) were recorded live at the University of Maine at the Hutchins Concert Hall. And, as I write this, in an act of total geekdom, I get to tell you that I was actually in the audience that night. That's right, my applause is on the CD. Seriously, the live feel of this CD is great and it totally captures the mood of the concert that brisk night in Orono, Maine. Hearing the song Silent Anticipations live (also on Breakfast in the Field) will leave you speechless. Be prepared to be wowed.

Michael Hedges - Music You Need to Hear