Friday, 23 December 2011

My favourite Christmas album

It's that time of year again. Just two days to go and the shops are full of people running around like headless chickens trying to find that last elusive Christmas gift, while through the sound systems wafts an endless onslaught of inane, relentlessly joyful and soulless 'classics'. And because they're classics, it's the same twenty songs going round and round in every shop you'll visit in December, on every TV program and, if you're really unlucky (I am), even in your office.
Gretchen Peters' Northern Lights is the perfect antidote to all that. The album combines Peters' clear soprano with a bleak, Appalachian feel to produce an album that's just the thing for sitting indoors with on a cold, snowy winter's night in front of the fire (whiskey optional). It's an album of solitude and contemplation, a world away from the forced jollity that can often characterise the festive season, and, while it may sound potentially depressing, that melancholy is warming and comforting.

The album contains songs by contemporary songwriters, as well as traditional carols and newly written tracks, all in Peters' own distinctive style. My personal favourites come from all three categories: 'Waitin' On Mary', drawing beautiful parallels between the nativity story and the poor and destitute around the world today; the Gordon Lightfoot-penned 'Song for A Winter's Night', which sets the bleak, melancholy feel of the album perfectly; and the carols 'Coventry Carol' and 'In the Bleak Midwinter', two songs that I've loved for many years but which are given new life by Peters' take on them.

Because she's a lovely lady, Gretchen has put all twelve of the tracks on YouTube in a playlist (though not in the right order, tsk Gretchen!), but if you enjoy listening to the album, please consider buying it, either from your usual digital retailer or from Peters' own store.

Have a lovely Christmas. I know what I'll be listening to.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Hunter Hayes - the 30-instrument marketing hype

Part of the marketing campaign for teen country star Hunter Hayes, who debuted earlier this year, was the bold and proud statement that he played every instrument (30 of them) on his self-titled album. It was a clear sign that they were trying to push him as some kind of uber-talented, authentic young prodigy.

But why? Frankly I couldn't care less whether Hayes spent what must have been days and days in the studio putting down unnecessary drum tracks, strumming his guitar and tinkling the ivories. And I think that goes for the majority of people who would listen to his music on the radio or purchase his CDs. To the ordinary man, it's irrelevant whether you played your own instruments, hired studio players or brought in your live touring band. All that ultimately matters is whether it sounds good. Not why.

I remember when I was younger and was into pop acts when my friends were getting into rock and indie bands. Criticisms levelled at my favourite artists were that they didn't play their own instruments, and, more frequently, that they didn't write their own material.

But why does it matter? Why should I care that Claire, Faye, Lisa, H and Lee didn't program the keyboards on 'Tragedy', or that Max Martin wrote 'Baby One More Time' instead of Britney? When I'm dancing, or just enjoying my music, I'm not thinking about those things - I'm just enjoying it. Similarly, why does the fact that the Red Hot Chilli Peppers played the instruments on 'Californication' or that Muse wrote 'Time Is Running Out' automatically make them better songs?

Ultimately, the thing that decides if something is a good song or not is just that - whether it's good or not, whether you enjoy it or not. Hunter Hayes is, I'm afraid to say, rather a mediocre album, and no amount of grandstanding over who played on it is going to change that.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Artist profile - Abalone Dots (Sweden)

In 2012, Västervik trio Abalone Dots will become the latest country act to try to qualify to the Eurovision Song Contest from Sweden's Melodifestivalen. Groups like Calaisa and Cookies 'N' Beans could only place 5th in their semi-finals, while in 2011 Pernilla Andersson dropped out in the second chance round. Can Abalone Dots be the first to make it to the Swedish final, or even further?

The three members of Abalone Dots are Rebecka Hjukström, Sophia Hogman and Louise Holmer. A fourth member, Elin Mörk, left the group in 2010. An abalone dot is, so I learned today, a little spot made of mother of pearl that is placed on guitar or banjo necks. There you go, who said the internet wasn't educational?

Among others, the group has collaborated with Marit Bergman, Kristofer Åström and Al Perkins, and have released four albums. Softgrass Music and Avalanche Music were independently published, but two albums have followed for Sony BMG, both of which charted in the Top 10 in Sweden. From A Safe Distance came out in 2007, followed by Traveler in 2008, the latter of which won them a Swedish Grammis for Best Folk Music.

They describe their style of music with their own term, 'softgrass', which personally think is doing themselves a disservice, as that makes it sound rather bland and un-edgy. On the contrary, there's something very authentic about their output, with expert picking and folk and bluegrass sounds adding to the Nashville vibe of their country, reminiscent of acts like SHeDAISY or even Alison Krauss, with more than a little taste of the alt-country of Kasey Chambers. The fact that the biography on their website mentions the fact that Hjukström plays the dobro in its first line is telling, and very encouraging.

The group is now reportedly working on a third album and, in a slight change of direction, some of the tracks will be recorded in Swedish, and it is one of these that has been submitted for Melodifestivalen 2012. Abalone Dots will take part in the first semi-final in Växjö on 4th February with the song 'På väg'.

Watch the video for their single 'Solo' below, and if you like that, you can check out their 2008 album Traveler on Spotify.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Country counting

The ESC Nation Message Board recently had a music competition where participants entered songs from around the world, the only criterion being that they had to have numbers in the title. It got me thinking, so here's twelve country songs, connected by nothing more than their numbers.

Bomshel - 19 and Crazy
I wish that we could always stay 19 and crazy

Barrelling along at 200mph, the vibe of this song suits its message of youth and freedom perfectly, with just a hint of the regret of growing up, but with the knowledge that a great pairing is always young at heart. I'm also a sucker for a good 'craaay-zay', and this song provides that over and over.

George Jones and Tammy Wynette - Two Story House
How sad it is, we now live, in a two story house

Playing on the typical country knack for double meanings, Jones and Wynette sing about their journey to buying their own house, before their married life disintegrates, leaving them each living their own story. The two story house shifts from being something to aspire towards to being a sad representation of their lives.

Taylor Swift - Fifteen
When you're fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you're gonna believe it

One of Taylor Swift's strengths is her skill in speaking to young people and showing just how well she knows their lives and what they're thinking, by providing just the right amount of detail and honesty among the empathy. This song is one of the best examples of that.

Kristy Lee Cook - 15 Minutes of Shame
I hope you enjoy your 15 minutes of shame

A very typical kiss-off from the American Idol 8th-placer, pretty predictable, doesn't cover any new or innovative ground - but it is a whole lot of fun... JASON!

Jessica Rae - 24 Hour Church

There's always a seat at the 24 hour church in Memphis

Independent artist Jessica Rae sings this strummy acoustic number, about a 24 hour church and all the people who find their salvation there. I've never been entirely sure if there's a subtly drawn link here between turning to God for inspiration and turning to music (and specifically Elvis), but it works with either interpretation.

Sara Evans - Three Chords and the Truth
Just when I thought I was over you, he changed my mind with three chords and the truth

The very description of country music and what it can do. The narrator is leaving her husband but when on the radio she hears a country song, she realises the error of her ways and turns back. The title refers to the two key ingredients of a country song - three chords and the truth.

Ashley Gearing - Five More Minutes
He needs five more minutes

A by-the-book example of the classic country three-verse format. In the first verse, the narrator needs 'five more minutes' with her boyfriend on the front porch, before her father wants five more minutes with his daughter on her wedding day. Someone's clearly going to die in a hospital bed in the third verse.

Jewel - Ten
By the time I get to ten I'm right back in your arms again

Even before she turned to country music, one of Jewel's greatest skills was always her way with words and turn of phrase. Here she takes the idea of counting to ten before leaving and takes the listener with her on the emotional journey of the count, from "I still want to hate you" to "take a deep breath" and "right back in your arms again".

Kathy Mattea - Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses
Eighteen wheels and a dozen roses, ten more miles on his four day run

Charlie's on his last day of driving a juggernaut, he has his retirement gift in his cab, along with a bunch of flowers and he's on the way home to "spend the rest of his life with the one that he loves". A lovely, gentle song about ordinary people and long-lasting love.

Alan Jackson - It's Five O'Clock Somewhere
It's only half past twelve, but I don't care - it's five o'clock somewhere

Neither I, nor Alan Jackson, nor Jimmy Buffett accept any responsibility for the consequences if you use this excuse with your boss.

LeAnn Rimes - One Way Ticket (Because I Can)
Gonna buy a one way ticket on a westbound train, and see how far I can go

LeAnn Rimes' only country No 1, and it came early in her career. A simple and enjoyable song combining the kiss-off and the coming-of-age, it contains one of the best key-changes in country music.

Jennifer Hanson - '73
Mom holding Dad, Dad holding me, in '73

A song that never fails to touch me. Hanson uses the standard country metaphor of looking through old photos, and remembering family times in the past, taking the listener along on a story of her childhood. On the way she chronicles her parents' divorce, Christmas in two different homes, her new half-brother and, finally, her graduation photo, where she stands, once again, flanked by both her mother and father.