Monday, January 30, 2012

Best of 2012: Music from January

This song showed up as a free iTunes single the last week of December. The six piece Icelandic folk band sneaked onto my playlist on New Year's Eve and hasn't budged. Just try being grumpy after all that trumpet blaring and chorus of "Hey!"s. The single version has a lot of ambient noise that's missing from the live versions, including the eerie creaking of ropes, presumably the rigging of the ship that caries our bodies safe to shore.

This song is a few years old now, from Gregory Alan Isakov's 2009 album The Empty Northern Hemisphere.  It's just a mellow, acoustic love song that begs to be on a dozen soundtracks, yet it isn't.

Last week when I wrote about Ingrid Michaelson's new album Human Again, I barely mentioned "How We Love" in passing, but since then this quiet little song, tucked into a record full of big sounds, has won me over, heart and soul.  Listen closely or you'll miss gems like, "felt the sharpness deep inside, the kind of ache that can't be satisfied" and "she smelled like cinnamon and winter clove, and sparked like firewood inside a stove."

I've also become (re)obsessed with Australian rocker Butterfly Boucher. Yes, that's her real name. Moving on.  "I'm Not Fooling Around" is a song about denying that you're trying to win someone back.  That's not my analysis. It's right there in the song. Go ahead, listen. This song is one-third techno, one-third disco, one-third Bach. You have to listen now.  The album isn't out until April, but you can get a free download from Butterfly's official site.

And for a completely different sound, "5,6,7,8" is part tango, part girl power rock, especially in this live version where Butterfly is on stage with fellow-Aussie Missy Higgins and Nashville alt-country, and Butterfly's Ten Out of Tennessee bandmate Katie Herzig.  There's so much pretty on stage, the eye hardly knows where to look. That is, until around 1:50, where, if you're more, shall we say, inclined towards the female form, it'll blow your mind.  Butterfly Boucher is the hottest thing since Joan Jett.


Butterfly Boucher performs with Sarah McLachlan @ The Paramount Theater, Seattle 2-4-11
(from Kirk Stauffer's Flickr page.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

On Human Again

There are no discernible ukuleles.  If that's what you're looking for from Ingrid Michaelson's new record Human Again, you'll have to go back to 2008's Be OK.  For this album, they've been largely replaced by the more mature-sounding strings. That's not to say there's not plenty here for the more traditional (read: crazy internet) fans. Tracks like "Ribbons," "Palm of Your Hand," and "How We Love" have that trademark quirkiness and tight ladies-sounding-like-angels harmonies.

The thing Ingrid fans love, though, is that her sound tends to fluctuate, from experimental techno-beats to ukuleles to fake trumpet mouth sounds (3:09). Her personality is always audible, but maybe her personality is growing up a little bit.  The first single off Human Again  is the emotion-leaden "Ghost," about feeling lost, alone, and disembodied by love.  Michaelson always has a way of taking themes that sound overly sentimental, and stabbing at the part of your heart you didn't know still had feelings. In "Ghost," amid strings and piano, she sings, "Do you know that I went down to the ground, landed on both my broken hearted knees? I didn't even cry." And later, "It's like living in a bad dream. I keep trying to scream, but my tongue has finally lost it's sound." See what I'm saying? Feeeelings.

There are some weaker points to the album, as Human Again seems to take a panoramic tour of musical history. "Fire," which after "Ghost" is probably the strongest track on the album, starts, again, with an orchestral arrangement, and quickly speeds into a tempo from the 80s. "This is War" has a similar late 80s sound. You can imagine it playing as the credits role after a 13-year-old Joaquin Pheonix has saved the world Cold War annihilation.  "Black and Blue" sounds like the 90s, "Blood Brothers"--definitely the 70s, can't we all just get along and smoke peyote?  But the most obviously retro-influenced song is "End of the World," which may as well be a cover of Bread's "If."

Now back to feelings. The song voted most likely to punch you in the gut is "I'm Through," about moving on with someone new, but feeling the aching distance between the promise of happiness and the comfort of a familiar touch.  The song, set to a soft, lonely piano, highlights Michaelson's vocal dexterity while crooning mournful lines like "I know there'll come a time again when everything will fit right in, and I won't have to see your face in strangers on the street."  If you'd like a more cheerful version of this song, the iTunes version includes a bonus track called "Always You," which is exactly that. Spoiler alert: They stay together in this one!

Like Michaelson's other albums, there will be a few duds that will be skipped on a fairly regular basis, but that's a good sign that the other tracks are still in rotation.  Ingrid always brings something new to every album; here there's lyricism with less quirkiness, but something deeper, darker perhaps, more mournful. This record sounds like, for the first time, she wasn't just making music to have fun with fellow uke-strumming friends, but to produce a serious musical project.