April 27, 2011

Album Review: Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain

Emmylou Harris

Few artists can render a song with as much unaffected grace and sincerity as Emmylou Harris.

It’s a gift she’s conveyed time and again as an interpreter, covering Texas troubadours (Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell) and Nashville traditionalists (Harlan Howard, Billy Sherrill) with equal conviction. And that authenticity highlights her extensive catalog, one which has not only challenged her audience throughout her singular career but has also expanded the vernacular — if not the very definition — of country music.

It’s only natural, then, that the same qualities she invests in other artists’ compositions would also inform her own sensibilities as a songwriter. Though not a role she’s undertaken too often, in the instances when she has put pen to paper — “Boulder to Birmingham” and “Michelangelo” come to mind — she’s shown that her relative lack of writing experience comes not from any lack of talent.

A compelling case in point is her new LP, Hard Bargain (Nonesuch Records), on which Harris penned nearly all of the songs and delivers them with the same deference as any definitive cover in her repertoire. “My Name Is Emmett Till” is harrowing, not just for what Harris recounts and reflects upon — in 1955, Till, a 14-year-old black boy, was savagely murdered in Mississippi after he’d been seen talking to a white woman — but also for the dignity with which she eulogizes the young victim and his enduring legacy.

Assuaging some of the more solemn observations are moments of rambunctious, rockabilly spunk (“New Orleans,” “Six White Cadillacs”) and bittersweet laments (“Goodnight Old World,” “Lonely Girl”), giving the album an overall-eclectic dimension.

Then there’s “The Road,” a poignant yet musically rugged requiem to Gram Parsons. Coming from anybody else, serenading the Flying Burrito Brother could seem like a means to exploit his legend. Harris knew the man, of course, and anyone who has mourned the death a loved one can empathize with her still-palpable grief, knowing that an hour of darkness is just a metaphor for a lifetime.

April 07, 2011

Getting to Know Singer/Songwriter Haroula Rose

Haroula Rose sings with the spirit of a gypsy soul, always searching for meaning or a seed of truth in each fleeting moment. Her voice is at once intimate and solacing, its gentle inflections betraying a subtle, plaintive sway that enriches moments of guitar-driven folk with the pathos of classic country.

She grew up just outside Chicago, lives now in Los Angeles, and considering even a bit of what’s shaped her artistry it’s clear that with her remarkable debut album, These Open Roads, she has found her defining purpose.

Haroula commemorated the album’s release earlier this year with an ambitious five-week residency at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles. It wasn’t the first time she’d performed at the famed venue. In fact, in recent years she’s played live on countless stages, most notably at venues like the Bitter End in New York City, Lestat’s in San Diego, T.T. the Bear’s Place in Boston, and the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip.

Though crucial to craft, playing live—like songwriting and singing—is but one aspect of her talent. “For some reason I used to think you had to pick just one thing and focus on that one-hundred percent of the time,” Haroula says, “but I don’t think that’s true anymore.” Perhaps she felt as much because her musical curiosities have, since childhood, been diverse. Growing up, she took part in musical theater and school choirs, over time learning to play the violin and, later, guitar and piano. She sang in a cappella groups and in various bands with friends. She worked for a while in a recording studio, learning tools of the trade that would serve her well in years to come. And, after graduating from college, she taught music theory to children while living in Madrid on a Fulbright Grant. 

It wasn’t until 2009, when she released a five-song EP entitled Someday that she once and for all resolved to pursue her greatest passion. “That took me some time,” she recalls, “to come into my own in the way of being able to say, ‘This is who I am, and it’s part of my identity that I don’t want to keep pushing to the side.’” And so it was not with any sense of blind ambition or naiveté that she’d made her current album.

To record it, Haroula ventured to Athens, Georgia, where she spent a little over a month getting acquainted with its Southern culture and music community. “I felt really settled in Athens right away,” she recalls. “Everybody was just so happy and accommodating to come and play. It was really, really nice, and all for the sake of the music and being friends.”

Producing the album was Andy LeMaster, a mainstay of the Athens music scene who has worked with such artists as REM, Conor Oberst, and Orenda Fink, the latter having contributed vocals to a few songs on These Open Roads. The opportunity to work with Haroula on her first, full-length album is one he looks back on with pride and admiration. “Her voice is so cool and unique,” LeMaster says. “I just loved discovering what sort of arrangements and soundscapes worked best around that."

For Haroula, absorbing the sights and sounds of Athens and its surrounding areas undoubtedly had an effect on the album’s overall vibe. “It made it seem more organic than it would have otherwise,” she suggests, adding, “but then there’s a couple songs that I feel like demonstrated this other energy there that’s really mysterious. In places especially like Savannah, where you get these really cool, old trees, Spanish moss, it just feels like you’re in another era of U.S. history in some ways, that whole Gothic feeling. That definitely had to do with certain parts of the record.”

Such influences resonate particularly on “Duluth,” a Mason Jennings cover that Haroula spins into a stark, sensuous resolution; and “Lavender Moon,” a love-starved lament steeped in a dusk, acoustic haze. “I wanted to experiment with different stuff like that,” she says, maintaining that she wanted the album to achieve an eclectic dimension. “I didn’t want it to be one emotional note the whole time,” she says. “You have to listen to it from the beginning to the end and see what this overall thing is. I didn’t want it to have all one sort of vibe. Hopefully people get that and enjoy it for that, because that was a challenge I had for myself.”

If at times her songs resonate with listeners as being heartbreakingly honest and vulnerable it’s only because she has confronted such fragility within herself. “When you’re a songwriter that’s part of what you give to people,” she says. “That’s part of what your job description is, in a way, to be able to express those things for other people to relate to and empathize with.”

On Friday night, Haroula will perform before a sold-out, hometown audience at Schuba’s Tavern in Chicago. Though just one of the several live dates she has slated across the country this year in support of These Open Roads, it nevertheless holds for her a poignant distinction. “When I come home,” she reflects, “especially to my old neighborhood where I grew up, it doesn’t feel that long ago that I was in junior high and I remember these places and all these memories come flooding back to me. But then it also feels like seven lifetimes ago. And there’s something so sad and melancholy about that, but also so beautiful too. That’s life. You do your best and that’s pretty much it, because it goes by so quickly.”

(First published as Getting to Know Singer/Songwriter Haroula Rose on Blogcritics.)

April 05, 2011

Album Review: Robbie Robertson - How to Become Clairvoyant

“Everything you leave behind catches up in another time,” sings Robbie Robertson in “This is Where I Get Off,” among the more provocative tracks on his stirring new album, How to Become Clairvoyant (429 Records). 

Indeed, the music legend recalls and comes to terms with his storied past—most notably chronicling the years just preceding and following his seminal tenure as guitarist and principal songwriter in The Band—on what is his fifth solo effort.

Eric Clapton, with whom Robertson had years ago conceived much of the album’s musical foundation, appears in a number of instances, contributing vocals (as on the infectious duet, “Fear of Falling”) as well as acoustic and electric accompaniment. Further support is offered by the likes of Robert Randolph, who serves up a fiery pedal-steel solo on the rambunctious cut, “He Don't Live Here No More,” in addition to Tom Morello (guitar), Steve Winwood (organ), and Trent Reznor (sonic textures), each playing with discretion and deference to Robertson.

Which is appropriate as the album is intensely personal often to the point of sounding confessional, its songs demonstrating Robertson at his most reflective and self-aware, to which the music in general complements with soulful, groove-rich subtleties. In fact, the arrangements alone are so moving that the entire work could have comprised instrumentals—two appear, in “Madame X,” penned by Clapton, and “Tango for Django,” both fascinating compositions—and still succeeded.

That’s not to take away from the narratives, though, as Robertson delivers them like a seasoned storyteller. And while the circumstances he addresses will at times likely serve as a bone of contention for some—arguably none so much as on the aforementioned track, “This is Where I Get Off,” in which he lays out his reasons for breaking up The Band after The Last Waltz—but his rendering of them into the songs heard on How to Become Clairvoyant is as poignant and powerful as anything he has produced in his solo career.

April 01, 2011

Singer/Songwriter Kina Grannis: Online and On the Rise

The days of aspiring artists soliciting demo tapes to record labels through the mail are, if not obsolete, then certainly on the decline. The internet has not only revolutionized how consumers acquire music, but also how technologically savvy artists make their music most accessible. In recent years artists like Meiko and Christina Perri have capitalized on the internet as a means to establish an audience before (if ever) having signed a recording contract.

Add to those names 25-year-old singer/songwriter Kina Grannis, whose folk-flavored-pop LP, Stairwells, is set for a revamped and expanded release on Tuesday. Originally issued last February exclusively in digital outlets, the album peaked at Number Five on the iTunes Pop Chart and sold in excess of 11,000 copies.

Not bad for someone who got her first big break on the World Wide Web.

In late 2007 Grannis entered the “Doritos’ Crash the Super Bowl Challenge” online. “I needed people to come back every day and vote for me for two months,” she explains of the contest. To do so, she uploaded a new video of her performing a different song each day — “It was intense,” she recalls, giggling. “No life! No sleep!” — mixing select covers with original material. She expected she could at least get her friends and family involved, but as she says, “It didn’t take long before I realized that this was going to be something bigger than just a way to keep my friends and family voting.” What she didn’t realize, until the video for her song “Message From Your Heart” aired during Super Bowl XLII, was that she’d won, landing a deal with Interscope Records.

Disagreements over creative control later caused her to break with the label and become an independent artist. Though she seems to have no misgivings about her decision, Grannis does concede that in handling the day-to-day demands of her emergent career she now finds it rather difficult to concentrate on her craft. “It used to be that before music was my life, it was the thing I would always escape to,” she says. “Now that there is all this business stuff and all this online stuff, I find it hard to sit down and hang out with my guitar and write.”

When asked how she challenges herself creatively without having to answer to anyone, though, she’s happy to point out whose approval she most seeks and appreciates. “I think I actually have an advantage [to] having the big label breathing down your neck,” she says, “because I have this direct line with my fans and the people who are supporting me. I feel like it’s because of those people that I’m always pushed daily.”

From such interaction with her fans, Grannis acknowledges feeling the pressure of living up to their expectations. “There are these people who hold me accountable and comment on all my videos, comment on my blog posts,” she says. On top of that, the relative anonymity afforded to online commentators tends to make them especially candid with their opinions and, sometimes, cruel. “That’s always been hardest for me,” she says, “trying to grow some thicker skin.”

Getting used to performing before a live audience, particularly after she’d grown accustomed to singing in front of a webcam, didn’t make that thicker skin any easier to come by. “I was kind of shy at first,” she recalls, “and I kept to myself, but I felt this urge to be sharing [my music] with people. So I started having little shows at coffeehouses and things like that, but it was painful…. I had many a show where it ended and I’d go hide and start crying and saying, ‘Tonight was so awkward!’

“Nowadays I’m getting more used to it,” she goes on to say, and it’s a good thing too, because she’s slated to begin an extensive tour in support of Stairwells this weekend. Whatever jitters await her on the road, though, she says that she's realized one thing for sure. “The people who come to my shows now are not there to judge me,” she insists. “They’re there to enjoy themselves, have fun, and connect.”

Stairwells will be in stores both digital and retail on Tuesday, April 5. For more information, please visit the artist's official website.