Music Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile – The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Hi all!

Somewhere, the music gods are smiling over the holidays. The stars aligned and brought classical music together with Bluegrass, achieving some truly astounding results. But let me take a step back.

Yo-Yo Ma is a world-class cellist who has made a career not only out of gorgeous classical music, but for pushing boundaries and collaborating with musicians of any and all genre – from A Capella maestro Bobby McFerrin to one of the pre-eminent violinists of the last century Itzhak Perlman – not to mention working with orchestras around the world and helping out with music education efforts worldwide. Thankfully, the world has recognized his efforts and he’s been awarded multiple awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace and on the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities.

And now he can add a collaboration with Bluegrass artists Chris Thile (mandolin – member of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers), Edgar Meyer (bass), and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). The result is a collection of songs in The Goat Rodeo Sessions that not only debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass, Classical, and Classical Crossover Billboard charts, but has made it to #18 on the Billboard Top 200 and at #11 on Soundscan’s Digital Album Chart. And if all that attention isn’t enough to get you to listen this album, I encourage you to watch this video of their performance on The Colbert Report:

Though I’ve listened to my share of classical music over the years, one of my more recent discoveries has been the life and energy in Bluegrass music. Groups like Crooked Still and the Greencards have brought a new joy to my ears in recent years. So I think I was on a collision course with this album from the first time I heard the quartet play in the videos on Colbert.

What blows my mind is the control of these musicians and the dynamic passion that ebbs and flows through every note. Sure, there are some slower songs – but damn if these folks don’t fly across the strings. Chris Thile sums it up nicely – “The arrangements on the record are ‘like a reverse game of Jenga‘” he says, “trying to get all the players to land at the same place at the end of the songs.” It’s rare these days that I’ll find that a song is so quiet that I need to turn it up to hear the beginning, and yet with songs like “Here and Heaven,” I had to just that – and then to have it build to such a satisfying crescendo with the vocals and harmonies of Aoife O’Donovan and Thile… I literally am in heaven every time I hear it.

“Quarter Chicken Dark” has a groove that just sticks in my brain long after the song is done, forcing me to go back and listen to it again before too long. Meyer’s bass merged with Ma’s cello drives this song from the bottom up. And it’s one of those grooves that rises and falls and I swear they could just keep playing this one song from sunset to sunrise and I’d still be listening. “Less is Moi” has the same addictive quality with a different riff that uses Duncan’s plectrum banjo and Thile’s mandolin to drive things forward.

So just what is a “goat rodeo” you may ask… Mr. Ma puts it like this – “If there were forks in the road and each time there was a fork, the right decision was made, then you get to a goat rodeo.” I don’t know about you, but this album proves that sometimes you can put lightning in a bottle. The Goat Rodeo Sessions is now among my favorite albums to listen to for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of doing so. I can only hope that the success of this album will lead to more collaborations in the future!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.com here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Fay Wolf – Spiders

Many of the new artists I hear, I hear first in the soundtrack for a television show. For example, I first heard Eva Cassidy‘s cover of Cyndi Lauper‘s “Time After Time” on an episode of Smallville. And I heard Alexi Murdoch‘s “Breathe” for the first time in an early episode of Stargate Universe. And I first heard Fay Wolf, though I didn’t know it at the time, on an early episode of Covert Affairs.

So when I started listening to Fay’s new album Spiders, I knew I’d heard the voice before but it took me a while to figure out where. But I shouldn’t have been surprised that I first heard her music on TV, as her songwriting and composition style effortlessly combines storytelling and drama in much the same way as some of my favorite shows. Though her style is all her own, my ear keeps comparing her to artists as diverse as Florence + The Machine and Tori Amos, who also tell stories beneath the melodies.

Since listening to the music of Spiders, I’ve discovered that her songs have also been featured on episodes of Gray’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, and Pretty Little Liars. Beyond that, she is a classically-trained actress who has worked in theater, film and television with appearances on Law & Order, Numb3rs, Bones, Ghost Whisperer, and NCIS: Los Angeles. And if the music and acting wasn’t enough to keep her busy enough, she’s also a professional organizer with her own company “New Order,” named after the band.

Spiders is full of emotional honesty but also includes a bit of wit and humor within her lyrics. A word of advice however, she also includes a bit of explicit language in those lyrics, so though her music is amazing it might be best for a more mature audience.

The album starts with two of my favorite songs – “The Thread of the Thing” and “The Passing” – which set things off on the right foot.

“The Thread of the Thing” employs the dreamy feel of someone trying to explain how they feel. The lyrics are stream of consciousness but hit me like those conversations between lovers as they fall asleep… “And the stories of kings and the needle and the thread of the thing… in a little while I see that I love the way you came on…” Between the steady percussion like a heartbeat, the simple chording, and the atmospheric effects, it really got my attention quickly.

“The Passing” on the other hand manages to sound very different than “The Thread of the Thing,” featuring Fay’s voice and piano skills. Again, it’s like a dreamy conversation – “See here’s the thing / I love being in motion / and wrapped around you… I can hear you / and I can see the time / the time passing / the time passing by…” It’s as though her voice tells the story as her fingers dance across the keys.

In the middle of the album, “Pull” just seems to ring true again about… you guessed it. Love. This time it’s a bit more outwardly happy in the melody. “But y’figured out that the least you could understand / your heart is open to someone else’s hand…” Love sometimes manages to pull the breath from us, just like falling down in the snow. But the almost calliope-sounding keys gives this song a strong feel of fun while keeping that atmospheric piano behind the scenes.

But “In the Way” is the opposite to the languid feel of “The Thread of the Thing” with a melody that is at once sad, but honest. “How did we fall in love in a week / and how do we get away / how do we see if the cracks in the plan / are the reasons that we play the game…” Again, it’s simply Fay and a piano telling an honest story about romance. Sometimes things don’t work out and “if it’s all not fair, then why are you here.” Sometimes we have to look deeper than the fun we’re having to see that something isn’t good.

Spiders manages to express the complexities of love without seeming trite. I think that’s her gift, telling stories of love when it goes right and when it falls apart. Check it out at your favorite retailer. And for details about Fay, be sure to drop by her website FayWolfMusic.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

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Music Review: Breaking Laces – When You Find Out

Hi all!

Sometimes it’s tough not to reflect on the musical influences in my life. Most came from my exploration of music in high school and college, but I’ve done what I can to keep open to new voices. That said, it’s bands like Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better than Ezra, The Presidents of the United States of America, the Indigo Girls, The Nylons, Heart, The Police, Sting, and others that make up a good chunk of those influences (yes, my tastes run to the eclectic!). Notice the glut of bands with big releases in the 1980s and 1990s…

So I’m always encouraged when I listen to my radio and find that new bands are coming up through the ranks that sound quite a bit like some of my favorites. Breaking Laces came into my consciousness when I heard “God in Training” in the car. Their sound takes acoustic pop and a bit of electronics but doesn’t stop there. With a bit of Better than Ezra, a little Maroon 5, some Snow Patrol, and some of the layered vocals and lyrics of Toad the Wet Sprocket, I was hooked. The mix of folk influences, humor, and a pop sensibility I haven’t heard for a while just works for them.

When I was offered a chance to hear more, I jumped. Breaking Laces’ album When You Find Out offers a cool mix of styles that varies enough to provide a rich musical landscape. The shape of the album explores the gamut of relationships, from breaking up, to moving on, and finding new love. It crests and falls with a life all its own, but each song can stand on its own. I love it when bands remember that assembling an album is more than just collecting a bunch of songs!

Brooklyn-based Breaking Laces is the trio of Willem Hartong (singer/guitarist), Rob Chojnacki (bass), and Seth Masarsky (drums) that has somehow managed to play more than 500 shows in 5 years around the country. Their hope was to take some simple pop songs and “make them bigger than life,” according to Hartong. And I think they’ve done that in spades with these 12 songs.

It starts with a breakup in “What We Need.” As Hartong sings “at least you know we tried / time to leave / and I will take this bit of sorrow if it’s all I have to borrow…” With a mix of acoustic and electric guitar, a steady drum beat, and a bass line that drives it from start to finish you can feel the angst as the relationship ends.

But it was “God in Training” that initially caught my attention and is still one of my favorites on the album. The quirky quality to not only the lyrics, but how it’s sung and the simple arrangement just sells it. “But once I quit my paper route / she’ll want my body…” The song goes on to talk about being “loved in foreign nations” and “mobbed whenever I go out” as he says “hey mom I’m gonna sing four tracks down in my basement…” It made me smile – the disconnect of youth captured beautifully.

From there we move to the questioning lyrics of “When You Find Out.” What happens when she finds out he’s in love with her? “What will happen next if things don’t go my way? I’m up I’m down, my thoughts confounding everything I say when you find out I’m in love with you…” We’ve all been there. How do you tell the target of your affection how you really feel? And the pop sensibilities of the band shine through with an arrangement that’s just enough without going overboard.

The album goes on from there, but I won’t spoil it. There’s something special about the way these songs are constructed and I hope Breaking Laces goes on to record many more albums. Please pick up When You Find Out at your favorite music store (online or brick-and-mortar) and support these guys!

Also be sure to check out their website at BreakingLaces.com!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up When You Find Out from Breaking Laces here:

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