Go ahead and add October to the list of months in 2016 that we might look back on as being the best, in terms of folk/folk-ish releases. Aside from the three covered below, there was the debut album from Julia Jacklin, which I didn’t write about it below because Amileah already wrote all the pertinent words, a superb instrumental EP from Phil Cook, a new collection from Wet featuring lead singer Kelly Zutrau playing tunes from their debut on Autoharp and a tremendous, ramshackle, raw new album from Conor Oberst that’ll make you feel every last one of the things. I’m sure I missed more than a few there, but you get the point. I don’t want to hear anyone say this year was mediocre at the end of the year. I don’t believe you, because it’s not true. Don’t be that guy. On to my favorite stuff released this month.
A few different, unconnected angles from which I’d like to talk about Heart Like A Levee today:
- Heart Like A Levee proves it’s time to put M.C. Taylor on the short list of the best songwriters releasing music today. I’m not at all the right person to say who else is on that list, but if it doesn’t include M.C., it’s not a valid list. With each release over the years Taylor has honed his voice, purpose and direction as Hiss Golden Messenger, and Heart Like A Levee feels and sounds like the most fully realized Hiss Golden Messenger release to date.
- In a genre full of folks talking about the trials of growing up, it’s striking when someone writes as an adult about the issues they’re facing. The issues aren’t all that different, obviously, but they are worth noting. Taylor is writing about the same mistakes and lessons as others, but he’s diving into how they’ve impacted his family, how the choices he’s been forced to make with regard to his career have had a direct impact on the lives of those he’s brought into the world and seeks to support, how faith and geography seeps into and inform our lives in more ways than we’d ever imagine, and how hard it is to reconcile those concerns with continuing to make art that is true to who he is and what he believes. Taylor doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s not the point: he’s going to ask all the questions he can and keep digging and scratching for truth until he can’t any longer.
- This started as a project commissioned by Duke University, one where Taylor and crew were to pen songs to accompany an exhibit of black and white pictures from William Gedney. They evolved, as these things tend to do, but it’s interesting to think of those pictures as a genesis for these songs, and how art sometimes informs other art and drives it forward and pushes it to be better and dig deeper than before.
- At a time when ‘deluxe’ typically means ‘two or three b-sides and a live version of something from the original album,’ the deluxe version of Heart Like A Levee includes an entire bonus album called Vestapol. It may have been recorded in motels and at home, but I’ll be damned if that it isn’t better than most regularly released albums I’ve heard this year.
I think that about covers it. This is a magnificent piece of work, and the more I listen to Heart Like A Levee, the more I think it’s my favorite record of 2016. You owe it to yourself to spend some quality time with this.
One of the better surprises to come through my speakers this year, Loamlands’ debut album is a sweetly confident statement of love and protest, airing grievances while letting everyone know better days are ahead. Kym Register is the honey-voiced mastermind of Loamlands, and as an introductory statement Sweet High Rise is quite stunning in its depth and emotional punch, with Register’s ability to make her tales of love and struggle and protest universal for listeners even if they don’t reside in the same community/communities as her. While the subjects are heavy- identity, bigotry, policy brutality, death, etc- it’s the positive, encouraging undercurrent in these 10 songs that prevents them from being crushed under their weight, and it’s what makes this an extremely special record.
There’s a weird thing that happens when you’re about halfway through Front Row Seat to Earth: you realize these are relatively sparse, psychedelic-tinged folk songs that sound, somehow, extremely grandiose and dramatic thanks to the voice of Natalie Mering. There are backing flourishes, certainly, and it’s not like these songs are barren, but they are never really as fully pumped up as your brain makes you think, which is always a fun, rewarding experience to unpack as a listener. That’s not to say, though, that this record doesn’t pack a punch, as Mering’s ability to twist wholly human, relatable scenes of love, loss, anger and joy in devastating ways is on full display throughout too. If it’s possible for something to be a subtle, grand punch in the gut, Front Row Seat to Earth is that. If not, I’d just say it’s real damn good.