Valerie June –The Order of Time

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Valerie June appeared on my radar when several friends included Pushin’ Against the Stone on their 2013 “Best of” lists.  It took me a few listens to figure out if I liked it.  Thank you, Spotify.  I then fulfilled my anachronistic foundings and purchased the CD.  I’m glad I did.  It was exTheorderoftimeceptionally tuneful with sharp lyrics as had an enthusiasm to it due to a spirited vocal delivery and the backing music.  The only issue was her voice.  Female, fine.  African-American, fine.  Blues/Soul styling, fine.  Appalachian accent?  Or, a pronounced southern twang? I’m not a country music fan, but.. whatever.   That was the hurdle.

Her new CD doesn’t sit quite as well as the last, but not for lack of quality but rather a tone that musically and lyrically speaks more directly to tough times - a life of labor, the passing of time, broken and disappointing relationships… Accordingly, the music leans more to the blues rather than soul, not that the subject matter is tremendously different from her previous effort.  But to my ear, while there’s a little less ear candy, there’s more to concentrate on lyrically given her mature reflections and, often, precision in expression.  Following are sample stanzas from some of her songs.

Men are born strong
Then broken down
Burdened at birth
’til six feet in the ground

Pops earned his bread in dust
But his hard working hands fed us
Sun up to sun sink down
His body worked to the ground

Folks thought we had it made
‘Cause we always kept a face
Meanwhile there’s bills to pay
Stack growing everyday

When my voice was dry
And my eyes were sore from tears
You taught me how to face my fears
I’ve tasted love before
But I never saw the light
Until you opened up the door

I had learned to live alone
A quiet house keeps a weak mind strong
Though I’d settled in my ways
Mighty fine waking to your face

This is a really good CD for music listeners who pause to appreciate intricacies of a work.  I’d prefer slightly less production, though, because understanding her words is sometimes difficult – but also an affirmation of buying the CD with lyrics included.

4 of 5 STARS_thumb

 

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BNQT–Vol. 1

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From the opening roll of McKenzie Smith’s drums, it’s good to hear the sound of (some of) Midlake, a favorite band for years despite their intermittent work.  That could once can be blamed on their former leader, Tim Smith, but as their last release without him was in 2013, it’s apparent that they’re all to blame, side business pursuits notwithstanding.  BNQTvolume1

BNQT (pronounced “banquet”), then, is definitely not a Midlake album but rather the sound of musicians stretching their muscles after a long break.  And, I credit them for that, not only for taking a risk, but trying a different musical challenge with obvious enthusiasm.   Here, they’re the backing band for various singers, including their own Eric Pulido and other front men from other bands who are also growing distant from the spotlight, including Franz Ferdinand, Band of Horses, Granddaddy and Travis, each of whom contributed two songs each.  And it works. 

The lineup of songs is fairly peppy, with a dose of pop here, trippiness there, and enough musical diversity to sell whatever song the singers brought to the table.  It’s kind of like Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist – it all fits my interest, but with one exception, there’s nothing that I would star for later replay.  Still, it’s a nice listen.

The only misfire to my ears is the profanity laden “Tara,” which may be funny in it’s way, as in, once.   The lyrics and even the music get tired quickly, and it’s placement near the end of an album without making it the closer suggests someone else agrees.  Ben Bridwell, from Band of Horses, almost makes up for it with “Unlikely Force.”  At the bright end is “Hey Banana,” a trippy throwback, with cello and violin even.   Pulido’s “Real Love” took me a while to appreciate, mostly because it strikes very closely to a rather dreary John Lennon demo with the same name.  It’s a different song, though, and I decided BNQT’s version is perhaps only Lennon’s voice short of a placement on Magical Mystery Tour.  George Martin would like the arrangement, in any case.

I read in one review that the four participating members are what is left of Midlake.  I’m hoping that is not true, because if anything, Vol. 1 strongly suggests that they have more to say, as implied by the album’s title.   That said, perhaps they should go raid former leader Tim Smith’s house, grab a stash of lyrics, set them to music, then invite him to come sing and play flute where there’s space.  Life isn’t that simple, so, like BNQT, we take what pleasures we can get. 

3 of 5 STARS[3]

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The Business of Beer

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I’ve been enjoying craft beer as a hobby the last five or so years, regularly trying new beers and visiting breweries when I travel as they are something that is distinctively local – and open after business  hours.  Most beers taste so similar that I can’t tell them apart, but I can state whether I’d want to try one again (rare) or opt for one that I had not yet sampled.  It’s like a collection that doesn’t take any room, and there’s an app (Untappd) to help me inventory and rate what I’ve tried. 

The pursuit is on for the next “most favorite” beer, but the change in the industry is not lost on me.  According to the Brewers Association, there are 5,234 craft breweries as of 2016, a 16.6% increase from the prior year – and consider there were ~50 craft breweries in 1990.  Of the statistics below, an interesting one is that craft beer accounts for 12.3% of beer volume.  Elsewhere, Anheuser Busch InBev and SAB Miller, the two global conglomerates of pedestrian beer offerings, have seen their market share decline by 7%.  I might think that number should be higher, but it makes sense.  Package stores sell cases of Bud and similar for fairly cheap, and there are people I know who hammer away through case after case – low alcohol content and low cost allow that.  But in tap space in restaurants, Big Beer has less and less presence.  In grocery stores, craft breweries have claimed maybe 15% of the shelf space.  And business at the brewery is big, as evidenced locally by the changes in State laws that allow breweries to sell their own beer directly to the consumer beginning in September.  

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So, when Elysian, Terrapin, or Wicked Weed are purchased by Big Beer, I hadn’t really thought about it much.  I like capitalism.  It’s American that someone can build a business and a brand, then cash in on their efforts.  In the case of a brewery, selling the business allows the owners to generally run the brewery as they had, find opportunities for more efficiency, and gain wider distribution and marketing.  But, among the consumer concerns/trends that have emerged since Wal-Mart and Amazon began dominating the retail world, buying “local”  or “Independent” beer sticks with me, even if it costs a little more and is difficult to reliably find.  Quality is the main factor in this, and of the companies purchased so far by Big Beer, only several of their beers compete for my taste buds.  I’d rather support the little guy financially – the breweries who sold out already made their profit.    

The reaction to the recent acquisition of Wicked Weed was quick and derisive.  They’re in Asheville, which invites a sort of hipster appeal just on demographics, plus their beers are really good.  They earned their fans, the same ones who are now tweeting their retreat.  Wicked Weed was immediately cast out as a voting member of the North Carolina Brewer’s Association, whose members are defined by a certain amount of barrels produced which, obviously, InBev exceeds handsomely.  Several breweries who were collaborating with Wicked Weed for special brews canceled their work, craft beer stores and bars are dropping Wicked Weed product, and a beer festival that Wicked Weed was planning to host was forced to cancel when about half of the attending breweries from around the nation cancelled their participation.  There are reasons for that which are fairly interesting – pride in independence among brewers and their supporters as well as questions of business ethics in a transactional world where if you’re not growing, you’re declining.  In short, the fears of “the small guy” is that Big Beer wants to destroy the craft beer market.  That makes sense.   Big Beer plays to win.  To support that argument, here are a couple articles for those with an interest:

Why Bud or Miller buys craft breweries – It’s not (just) a “if you can’t beat them, join them” proposition.  A very interesting read regarding the billion$ in brand value.

The Devil made me do it – The owner of Wicked Weed said they had “always been limited by access to raw materials. [We make] really hop-forward beers, using upwards of four pounds of hops per barrel.  And those are hard to get your hands on , and that’s why they’re great and why they’ve won medals.  So for us, having hops no longer being a limited factor of growth is exciting for us.”  It helps them and protects their business and employees.  For everyone else?  Try the link.

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Shannon McNally–Live @ Red Clay Theatre

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5-4-2017

I’ve seen McNally three times before, and I finally caught her on the right stage - as in one with good sound quality.  The Red Clay Theatre in Duluth, GA isn’t exactly an easy commute from where I live, particularly on a weeknight, but it’s worth it.  RCT is a 260 seat listening room, as in, “You’re here to enjoy the music; your idle chat can wait until after the show.”   On CD, McNally’s voice is a joy – production levels can be mixed to make clear its depth and inflections.  But live, with an electric guitar or two, bass, and drums, and her bluesy, gravely voice and nuanced delivery get obliterated by the din amplifiers and less than ideal house/stage speakers.

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Not here.  She was accompanied only by guitarist/singer Johnny Duke, who opened the evening with a solid set of songs.  He’s been a sideman to many high profile Nashville country artists, but his own style seems to be the singer/songwriter indie variety – respectful of whatever makes the song work.  It was apparent why he tours frequently with other artists, because instrumentally he’s a significant upgrade for McNally – a versatile ally to give space to her voice yet elevate her fairly straightforward song structures with a variety of guitar styles – and mandolin at times.

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McNally is just beginning a tour to support her new CD, Irish Rose, from which she played a good number of songs.  The centerpiece is “Banshee Moan,” whose theme takes the Irish mythology and personalizes it.  This may also have been the song whose musical intro was accompanied by a passing train horn behind the venue.  Spooky like.

McNally had ample time and enjoyed telling stories between the song, which is all the better in my opinion when artists let some of their personality or interests show.  We heard how she stood next to J.J. Cale on a New Orleans sidewalk, without introducing herself, the early career of Bobby Charles (of whose songs she recorded an entire album), another celebrity proximity story as she received a passing acknowledgement from Guy Clark as she was heading to a stage, and her pleasure in hearing rain on the roof.  And there were others.

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The only thing lacking was a larger crowd to enjoy the show.  It seemed those there knew her catalog pretty well.   Probably like many artists, the only thing separating her from a wide audience is the means - all it would take would be one song placed in a  TV or music soundtrack.  In the meantime, I hope her live shows continue with the acoustic/light electric approach – it allows her to be heard to her best advantage.  

Some of the songs she played:

  • You Made Me Feel For You
  • Black Haired Boy
  • Low Rider (JJ Cale)
  • I Don’t Want to Know
  • Banshee Moan
  • Bohemian Wedding Song
  • Old Man (Neil Young)
  • Bolder than Paradise (I think)
  • The Worst Part of a Broken Heart
  • This Never Happened, I Was Never Here

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