Music Review: Driftwood Fire – How to Untangle a Heartache

Hey there!

Since college, I’ve been entranced by the chanteuses of modern folk and Americana, especially those who prefer playing acoustic instruments. (Nothing wrong with electric guitars, but I find it harder to actually hear melodies and voices when the volume is cranked.) Among some of my favorites are the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin, and Brandi Carlile. Each of these not only has an amazing voice, but understands the power of strong songwriting, layered harmonies, and how to play the right instrument for the right mood.

I love adding new artists to my list and it’s definitely grown and changed over the years – moving from more rock-n-roll to bluegrass, Americana, and folk as I get older. All it takes is a lick, a verse, or a bit of harmony that leads me to discovering more about a new voice or musician…

But it’s hard to argue when you’re pointed to musicians who went to school at your alma mater and are based in the college town you called home for five years. Lynn Scharf (singer, guitarist) and Charlotte Formichella (multi-instrumentalist) are known as Driftwood Fire and they call Fort Collins, Colorado home. And though it’s been a long road for them from inception to album, How to Untangle a Heartache has a purity about it that makes it a joy to listen to.

There are qualities to Lynn’s voice that reminds me of Brandi Carlile in “Let it all go”. With Charlotte’s opening pick line… “Don’t break my heart / it’ll never mend / we’re starting something / and we don’t know how it ends / just drive me someplace I’ve never seen / so late at night I mistake / you for a dream / and kiss me real slow / and just let it all go…” It’s a song about doing what feels good even if we know better. And sometimes, life is like that. There’s an honesty there that shines through.

“Apalachian Hills” has a haunting quality, sort of like something Sarah Jarosz would sing. It tells a story about a place chased by its past and showing through to the present. Here there’s a simple arrangement that lets the guitar, banjo, piano, and voice easily express the sadness of the place. Between the Civil War, silver miners, and other folks seeking their fortunes – leaving many dead in the fields, forgotten by time. Though not cheerful, again – there’s an honest appreciation for the history of a place without overblowing it with loud electric guitars.

The simple strum and lead guitar at the beginning of “One Thing Left” reminds me a Big Head Todd and the Monsters song… But again, it’s the lyrics that bring it alive. “You wrote a letter / apologizing / for your absence / not realizing / that only hurt me / I read it slowly / shaking like a bird fighting with the wind / shocked I was all alone…” This is almost a country song with the Americana showing through. But that “one thing left” to tell you – is that I’ve moved on. I keep repeating that there’s an honesty in the music and the words, but that’s what it is. A simple message – you hurt me, but I got over it.

Love can definitely hurt – but at least when poets and songwriters survive it, it’s “food for songs” as Del Amitri once said. Thank goodness Lynn and Charlotte have managed to work out their heartache in song so that we can enjoy the fruits of that musical therapy. Definitely check out Driftwood Fire’s How to Untangle a Heartache if you’re looking for something new in the Americana/Folk vein for your collection.

Check out the Driftwood Fire home page for more information about the album or their ongoing tour.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Indigo Girls – Holly Happy Days

Hi again…

Those of you who know me know I’m not a fan of Christmas music. After one holiday season working retail in a mall with Christmas music piped in 24×7, you could say I now have a bit of an allergic reaction when I hear traditional arrangements of carols like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.” Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for fun or different approaches to these old, dated, repetitive songs.

Now, back in college, I became a huge fan of the Indigo Girls. Rites of Passage, Nomads Indians Saints, Swamp Ophelia, and 1200 Curfews still get played regularly at my house. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have been playing together since the mid-1980s, with their amazing harmonies, heartfelt lyrics, and arrangements that keep their music from falling into the same ruts other artists sometimes hit after playing together for 20+ years.

So when I heard the Indigos were releasing a bluegrass-tinged holiday album – Holly Happy Days – I knew I had to check it out. And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed.

With twelve tracks that includes a few covers, classics, and originals, the album should appeal not only to lovers of traditional holiday tunes, but also those looking for some new and different choices. A cover of Woody Guthrie‘s “Happy Joyous Hanukkah” (with background vocals from Janis Ian and Mary Gautier) sounds just as good as classics like “Oh Holy Night” and originals like “Mistletoe.” And the bluegrass feel adds an intangible quality to the already impressive vocal harmonies and arrangements of these classic songs.

What floors me is that a holiday album can seem original these days. I’ve heard so many arrangements of the usual suspects that I tend to just tune them all out. I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with traditional sounding carols and hymns being recorded time and again, but it’s just not for me…

But when I heard the slow, emotional pleas of “Mistletoe,” I knew this wasn’t your usual holiday album. With Ray’s expressive, deeper voice asking “please baby please / just let this love be” after a kiss under the mistletoe, I felt her calling for a chance to slow down and enjoy the season and let the fire burn low. And I loved the slow pick of the banjo and guitar, keeping the song rising and falling throughout.

With songs like “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which also features the voice of Brandi Carlile, the duo becomes a trio accompanied by the fiddle. I’d never heard this traditional holiday hymn, which is in the same vein as “Little Drummer Boy” asking what a visitor might give the newborn child – “What can I give him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring my lamb / if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part / yet what I can I give him: give my heart.” It builds and builds the harmonies up to that last powerful verse, expressing that simplest of wishes for the season – it’s not about gifts and wrapping, lights and tinsel – it’s about caring for each other.

Add to that the simple arrangements of songs like “There’s Still My Joy” with Emily starting a capella with a soft piano. The lyrics and gorgeous harmonies of Amy and Emily express that “One tiny child can change the world / One shining light can show the way / through all my tears for what I’ve lost / there’s still my joy / there’s still my joy for Christmas Day.” How can you argue with that sentiment? Again, it boils down to the simplest idea of Christmas – not the overblown media and merchandising mayhem it has become.

I’m really not a Scrooge or a Grinch, but when I think of the winter holidays — the decorations, music, and shopping sometimes overwhelm me. Holly Happy Days makes me think that perhaps there are people in the world who know that the true meaning of the holidays is to give of yourself and pass along some hope. Thanks to Amy and Emily of the Indigo Girls, I think I just received my first gift of the season.

If you are looking for alternative Christmas and Hanukkah music choices for this season, definitely check out Holly Happy Days. It has a little in there for lovers of the traditional and the not-so-traditional holiday tunes. And I think it’ll be playing softly in the background as we share some family time come Christmas Day.

For more details about the Indigo Girls, their albums, and their touring schedule, be sure to check out their website at IndigoGirls.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great Indigo Girls albums from Barnes & Noble below:

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Music Review: Sarah Sample – Someday, Someday

Hi all…

Haunting, with a genuine feel impossible to fake, Sarah Sample strummed her way into my head. Americana and folk to me are among the last places to find songs and singers that not only capture the simple nature of American life, but are still about writing and performing music and connecting to audiences, not about the business of the cookie-cutter music industry.

Sample combines the best of country and folk with an expressive voice that makes you believe every word. She reminds me a bit of Brandi Carlile, who manages simple songs that are complex at the same time. Both offer simplicity with just a few instruments playing at the same time – yet there’s a layered approach, with poetry, rhythm, melody, and harmonies that unlocks the underlying meaning for the audience.

The Salt Lake Weekly called her 2007 debut – Never Close Enough – “the standard of comparison for other female folk singer/songwriters.” She followed that in 2009 with Born to Fly, which also received critical acclaim. Her talent has been recognized since 2006 by the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Cayamo Cruise, Storyhill, SistersFolk, FolksFest, Tucscon Folk Festival, and more. And now with Someday, Someday as her third album I think she’s guaranteed to win more fans and praise from the music community.

“Everytime I Go” has to be one of the most romantic songs I’ve heard for a while about new love. “Everytime I leave / Feel like I am free-falling, real slow / my stomach in the sky, in my heart a battle cry / yes, you have won me over…” From the opening chords strummed on an acoustic guitar to the light piano and harmonies, everything evokes that feeling we all want in a new love affair – the feeling that “nothing could keep my love from you…”

The duet of “Shadows of a Song” tells the story of the other side of that coin – chasing the “shadows” of a love that may have passed. “We tried so hard / to play all the right parts / our hands full of false starts / til the downbeat dragged us apart…” Love in a band, like any relationship where you love and work together, has to be tough. But the emotional toll of connecting to music night after night has to wear it frightfully thin. Though I usually don’t like steel guitar, it works here – drawing out each drumbeat and guitar strum mimicking the daily trudging through a relationship that just doesn’t work any more.

And “One Mistake” tells more of the story of two lovers drifting apart. “I felt you / I felt you pull away / … I saw it / I saw your eyes stray / one false move / and I cut the tie / and you are floating away…” The backing vocals again bring in some gorgeously textured harmonies along with the string bass. But it’s the lightness of the arrangement to me that suggests that the singer is ready to let go until you get to the end… “cause I’m never gonna let you go.” It’s the push and pull that tests each relationship from time to time somehow boiled down into a song…

But don’t think for a second that they’re all depressing songs… “Staying Behind” takes things in a rock direction – cutting loose for a time. “I’m done trading time for nothing / I want to stand alone…” Upbeat, you can feel the change coming… With the bit of banjo and drums picking and beating us forward to a new phase of life, the vocals layer and you know it’s going to be ok.

Check out Sarah’s website and get all the latest details about her tour and albums at SarahSample.com. And definitely check out Someday, Someday if you love Americana and folk. Her career is in full swing and I can’t wait to see what else she has up her sleeve for the future.

–Fitz

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