Monday, December 30, 2013

The Bottom String's Top 10 North Carolina Albums of 2013

10. Magpie Feast - Out of the Womb
While Magpie Feast has long flown under the radar, albums like Out of the Womb do their damndest to make sure that that doesn't last much longer. Out of the Womb is by far Magpie Feast's most polished and fully realized effort to date, it's filled with rich contemporary explorations of traditional music staples.

Each song fits comfortably within the leak between your standard folk rock and old-time blues, providing a foot-stomping rhythm to drive these tightly packed songs. Luscious viola lines flesh out Matthew Southern's simplistic melodies, weaving together a deftly painted picture of vibrant images. With equal parts Devendra Banhart and Jack White, Magpie Feast combines two age-old genres to make for a fresh and invigorating sound. Out of the Womb provides a brief glimpse at the potential this band contains.

9. Gross Ghost - Public Housing
With a new label and a new line-up, Gross Ghost came out of the gate strong with the lead-up to Public Housing. A spot at Hopscotch's main stage thrust the band into the local limelight and their stellar sophomore release cemented their spot there. Public Housing feels like a natural extension on Gross Ghost's previous work, it explores all of the pitfalls of your mid-twenties ranging from love and loss to the constant sting of uncertainty.

However, Mike Dillon and company approach the unknown with a steady garage rock swagger, bringing memorable hooks and headstrong rhythms that nestle snugly in the listener's head. Public Housing is one of those records that beckons a repeat listen, the minute that "Hair of the Dog" fades out you find yourself jumping right back to "Seeds," struggling to pull yourself from the infinite loop of heartache and redemption.

8. Mount Moriah - Miracle Temple
Mount Moriah has long been a staple of the North Carolina music scene, but their Merge Records debut thrust the band to new heights. Miracle Temple finds the band brimming with a steady sense of personality and determination. Few things have changed sonically since their self-titled release, but from the opening notes of "Younger Days" it's clear that Heather McEntire is one of those musicians that lives with songs in her heart.

Every track on Miracle Temple seems to have a stamp of unfiltered personality hidden within the lyricism. Whether you're bouncing and singing along to tracks like "Bright Lights" and "Rosemary" or taking in the slow-build of tracks like "Swannanoa" and "Telling the Hour," you're most certainly soaking in the gorgeous intricacies that line this record. Between McEntire's sultry vocals and Jenks Miller's meticulously crafted guitar work, it's hard not to fall in love with a record like Miracle Temple.

7. Peter Lamb and The Wolves - Humble Pie
Peter Lamb and The Wolves opened up the doors to North Carolina jazz music for this unenlightened music journalist. A few years ago I caught the band at Shakori after heavy recommendations, but the release of their sophomore album Humble Pie turned me into a die-hard fan. Humble Pie is filled with both standards and originals, but each track feels remarkably fresh. Peter Lamb and The Wolves take New Orleans style swing-jazz to a new level, bringing some of the areas finest musicians together for a raucous take on one of the most vibrant genres.

Tracks on Humble Pie toe the line between exploratory jams and intricately structured songs. Top all of that off with Mark Wells' guttural and soulful vocal stylings and you've got an all-star jazz group that knows how to get folks moving. Whether it be stand-out classics like "That Mellow Saxophone" (which is anything but mellow) or zany originals like "Mixing in My Bowl," it's hard not to move and groove to the fine sounds of Peter Lamb and The Wolves.

6. Mipso - Dark Holler Pop
Mipso began as a group of college students moonlighting as musicians, but with the release of Dark Holler Pop marks the first full-time effort from this young band. The difference that a bit of time makes is astounding, as Dark Holler Pop feels like the beginning of something truly special.

While Mipso's previous release Long, Long Gone was an impressive debut, Dark Holler Pop seamlessly combines elements of classic bluegrass with contemporary folk-rock to create an infectious sound that caters to both traditionalists and young fans of acoustic music. Tracks like "A Couple Acres Greener" display this sentiment perfectly, the structure follows that of your standard bluegrass tune while the content finds the narrator torn between Sunday mornings and Friday nights. Dark Holler Pop explores mortality, religion and Southern aesthetics with an acoustic pop sheen that makes even the darkest of thoughts a palatable, downright enjoyable listen.

5. Bombadil - Metrics of Affection
I'll never forget the moment I fell in love with Bombadil, as the band took the stage at Fletcher Opera Hall at Hopscotch 2011 I knew that they would immediately become one of my favorite acts in the state. Since their valiant return to the scene they've proved that their untimely hiatus served as a stepping stone for the band, pushing them forward to unimaginable musical territories like those found on Metrics of Affection.

Through pseudo-rap verses/spoken word pieces and fanciful pop gems, Bombadil touches upon the importance of friends and family, the struggle of letting go of lost love and everything that makes up your day-to-day routine. Metrics of Affection serves as a brilliant soundtrack for your days, as Bombadil's lyrical excellence digs deep into the listener and makes you question the way you're living your life. But it's not all weighty songs of introspective self-reflection, tracks like "Angeline" bring along infectious melodies and vibrant harmonies to lose yourself in. Through quirky word play and fantastic instrumentation, Bombadil has crafted yet another whimsical album that fans to fall in love with them all over again.

4. Hiss Golden Messenger - Haw
M.C. Taylor has swiftly become one of North Carolina's finest songwriters, receiving as much acclaim from international outlets as he does local. When listening to Haw there's little room to speculate why that happens, Hiss Golden Messenger is quite frankly one of the best acts to call North Carolina home in recent memory. On Haw, Taylor meshes the political and the personal into one amorphous entity that shouts of creatures with forked-tongue and local landmarks with equal amounts of passion and sincerity.

Haw is a trip into the very fiber of Southern living, through the rich imagery and mystical instrumentation Taylor has crafted an album that emits images of front porch swings and backyard bonfires. "I've Got A Name for the Newborn Child," bounces along with nonchalance but underneath its simplicity lies a song that's oozing with personality and purpose. Haw takes me back to an afternoon in spring, soaking in the mild sun rays and brisk breeze without a care in the world but the tender tones that fill my eardrums. M.C. Taylor has the ability to silence a room with the pluck of a string, and when you listen to Haw you immediately know why.

3. The Dead Tongues - Desert
The return of Ryan Gustafson is arguably my favorite part of 2013. The standout songwriter may only have two full-lengths under his belt as a solo artist, but they're both some of the finest albums crafted by a North Carolina songwriter since I've began following the scene. Gustafson garnered heavy praise with his debut album Donkey back in 2009, so when he made his return with The Dead Tongues this year the fans and critics lined up with unbridled anticipation.

Somehow Gustafson lived up to all of those lofty expectations with Desert, an album that tackles lofty topics like depression and unrest with a hopeful sense of determination. From the opening lines of "Call Out To Me" it's clear that the four years in between albums was well worth the wait, as every track on Desert is a crucial piece of the larger scheme afoot. Whether it be a three-minute pop song or an expansive track like "Milestone," Desert has the ability to speak to the listener through Gustafson's unabashed honesty and sincerity. Desert marks the welcomed return of one of the area's most talented songwriters, let's just hope we don't have to wait four more years for another release.

2. Ryan Sheffield and the Highhills - Telescope
Albums like Telescope are what keep me interested in the ever-changing local music scene. Everyone goes into an album with some sort of expectation crafted, whether it be from the artwork or the band name, there's a certain image in your mind of what this art is going to be. I'm not quite sure what I expected from Ryan Sheffield and the Highhills, perhaps it was another notch in the increasing indie-folk belt. But what I got was far from that. The minute that "The Waves" took over my stereo I was overcome with a sense of excitement that I've not had in a long time when it comes to local music. There's no front when it comes to Sheffield lyrics and that's what makes it all so fantastic.

Telescopes takes a microscopic look at some of life's most ambitious aspects and gives it a playful, yet powerful spin. Whether Sheffield is singing of our relative unimportance in "Infinitesimal," the woes of touring in "Road to Montreal" or the folk-rock standard of lost love in "Postcards," the listener is guaranteed to receive an inimitable take on life's ups and downs. While Sheffield's lyrical excellence is enough to draw you in, the robust instrumentation is what keeps you hooked. Soaring horns perfectly compliment the simplistic acoustic foundation of these songs, and as Sheffield's voice slowly rises to a shout it's enough to send shivers down your spine. Telescope is one of those rare albums that draws you in to the very core of a songwriter while not being the sad-sack trope that many songwriters lean on. Telescope is a mesmerizing debut from a band that I'm incredibly excited to see more of in the future. Let's just hope that they make it out to the Triangle soon.

1. Virgins Family Band - Honeylion
The minute I heard Honeylion I knew that it was likely to take the spot as my favorite album of the year. Few bands have left me as breathless as Virgins Family Band upon first listen, they're one of the most unique bands to have come upon the North Carolina scene in years. Combining elements of grandiose indie folk, subdued psychedelic rock and breathy jazz vocals, Virgins Family Band are an amalgamation of contemporary and classic rock. With awe-inspiring harmonies and rattling percussion, Virgins Family Band has plenty to love, but their excellence lies in their restraint. It'd be easy to come out strong from the gate with barn-burning tracks like "Lily Molusco," but throughout the entirety of Honeylion the band follows a natural ebb and flow that draws the listener in to focus on the intricacies that make up these brilliant songs.

The slow build of album opener "Moon Breath" gives a good idea as to the pacing of the album, it begins with hushed tones and gradually builds to explosive percussion and rambling guitar lines before slowly settling back into a soft close. Tracks seamlessly flow together to craft a lush piece of work in which individual tracks serve as both a crucial piece to the puzzle and a stellar piece of standalone work. Honeylion is at once smooth and immense, perfectly straddling the line between calming and invigorating. Since the release of Honeylion Virgins Family Band has continued trucking along, dealing with lineup changes along the way and rolling with everything that comes their way. 2014 holds nothing but promise for this young group, and I for one can't wait to see where the band goes from here.

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