Tuesday, December 23, 2014

20 Favorite North Carolina Albums of 2014

It seems as if with each passing year the creative output of North Carolina increases with unfathomable speed. It's an exciting time to be a local music fan, and one of the things I've always struggled with is narrowing my "best albums of the year list" down to 10. So why not 20?! One thing I've seen recently though and admired was the format of NPR's best of list, an alphabetical catalogue of the publication's favorite releases. No race to the top, no questions of whose album is THE BEST (but seriously, TL;DR though), just a lengthy account of the albums we're most excited about here. It was a very eclectic year for North Carolina acts. Hiss Golden Messenger's Lateness of Dancers brought more international attention to our rich folk roots, while Sylvan Esso's self-titled album showcased some of the versatility and innovation that can be found within our state's music scene. Regardless of your preferred genre, there's no doubting that from Wilmington to Asheville and everywhere in between, 2014 was a great year for music.

Ancient Cities - Ancient Cities
Ancient Cities are one of those bands that you hear for the first time and wonder where they've been hiding at. It's everything you could really want from an indie-folk group, slow churning ballads, minimalistic anthems and a serious desire to hum along to words you don't even know yet. Ancient Cities tracks feel simultaneously vintage, steeped in 60s psych-pop brilliance, and fresh and exciting, mostly because it's hard to really pinpoint an act that's doing what Ancient Cities is sonically. As "Ostinato in D Major" bleeds into "Edie Sedgewick" morphing from a soaring, simplistic horn solo into a dynamic pop track that bounces along with vibrant melodies, you begin to realize that Ancient Cities seem to know exactly what they're doing here and that you crave much, much more of it.

Astro Cowboy -

Eastern North Carolina was putting in work this year. A scene has erupted in the area that feels like transmuted takes on surf rock, all taken into vastly different sonic territories. The sounds of Zack Mexico started out as stoner-psych surf and have morphed into something vaguely reminiscent of Frank Zappa. Eastern North Carolina acts have a sense of uninhibited exploration, and that's what makes acts like Astro Cowboy so exciting. Hedonism Colosseum is a collection of pop-punk inspired tracks that provides a keen, self aware glimpse into teenage life once more. Frustrations over pale skin and loneliness just sound great when belted out atop swift power chords and brisk drumbeats. There's a lot more to Hedonism Colosseum though then what's glaring on first listen. Much like the aforementioned Zack Mexico, it feels like Astro Cowboy are beginning to carve out their corner of the scene and morph into a truly unique and exciting outfit.
Listen to "White Shoes"

Bo White - Millenial Tombs
If awards were given out for the most versatile musicians in the state then Bo White would take the trophy year in and year out. Whether he's contributing guitar lines and vocals to the wily pop outfit Yardwork or conducting modern day masterpieces under his own name, you're likely to find yourself lost in unforgettable melodies and enveloping sonic soundscapes. On Millenial Tombs, Bo White seamlessly slides between a wide array of genres but still makes a phenomenally cohesive and personal album. While he's toying with funky bass lines, mesmerizing string sections or spacey synths he's also crafting intensely personal and creative lyrics like those founds in "Patient," a track that narrates life in a hospital bed and maintaining positivity. Millenial Tombs displays much of Bo White's breadth while still making it clear that he hasn't even touched the surface of his musical explorations. White effortlessly makes grandiose pop music that's both clever and emotional and that's something to get excited about.
Listen to "Patient"

Caleb Caudle - Paint Another Layer on My Heart
Frankly, this record feels like the Caleb Caudle album we've all wanted for quite some time now. Not to discredit any of Caudle's previous releases, but Paint Another Layer on My Heart feels like a true, unfiltered look behind the curtains into the life of a touring musician. Caudle's subject matter frequently tackles the tropes of life on the road, but does so in a manner that's so sincere that it feels unique. Caudle flexes his songwriting prowess here by making the layman listener connect with the life of a full-time musician that's living the bulk of their life out on the road, traveling from city to city, missing loved ones and fawning over days gone by. Paint Another Layer on My Heart, is an incredible glimpse into the life of a songwriter, but it's also an album filled with catchy, well-writen songs, which is reason enough to check it out in my book.
Listen to "Trade All The Lights"

The Collection - Ars Moriendi
Back in 2011, The Collection was an act that took my world by storm. Their EP was placed right in the midst of our favorite albums of the year, and since that last release the band has only continued to hone their craft. The Collection has begun to fill the hole that Lost in the Trees left in the orchestral folk area of North Carolina's music scene. David Wimbish's songwriting continues to sit at the forefront of these tracks, his voice welling with the rise of the band's extravagant instrumentation. Ars Moriendi has found the band gaining national foothold as well, the release premiered on AV Club and since then they've toured across the country with The Oh Hellos, selling out at highly esteemed venues like The Troubador in California. Ars Moriendi is only the beginning for this incredibly talented collection of musicians, their songs will continue to become more and more grandiose, delving into musical territories that have yet to be tread upon. But for now it's enough to sit back and soak in the beauty of this incredible artist.
Listen to "The Gown of Green"

Crowdsource - Bit Rot Blues EP
From the moment I heard that Phil Torres had ended Baobab and was producing electronic music I felt an intense swing in emotions in a very brief period. Baobab was one of the most invigorating local acts in recent memory, so it's natural to mourn the loss of that creative output. But the second I realized that this meant I'd now be able to dance to Torres' tunes I was sold. And dance I have, as Bit Rot Blues compiles four brief but brilliant displays of production wizardry. Combining densely packed, house-inspired beats with obscure vocal samples, Torres builds an immense wall of sound that weaves in and out of maximalistic tendencies while still proving to be concise and infectious. I'm genuinely excited to hear the direction that Crowdsource takes musically, as the possibilities are damn near infinite given the genres being tackled on Bit Rot Blues. All I know is I'll be shamelessly dancing my ass off to it.
Listen to "Gone Up"

Floating Action - Body Questions
Seth Kauffman is quite possibly one of the state's most under appreciated talents, but strangely enough I feel as if he prefers it that way. Though he's received co-signs from artists like Jim James and Dan Auerbach, Kauffman has flown safely under the radar within the North Carolina music scene and in the process has crafted an already impressive array of widely explorative albums. Just seeing the sheer difference in the first two tracks on Body Questions gives a solid glance as to Kauffman's array of songwriting skills. "Taking Me A Little While" is a great bit of self-critical indie rock while "Unrevenged" delves into pseudo-R&B inspired folk rock that piques the listener's interests with bright melodies countered by dark, yet occasionally quirky subject matter. "You've got a special arrow just to shoot at me/That's so gangster and so true," croons Kauffman, shortly before he laments on his fixation on not leaving these acts "unrevenged," unable to pull away from a desire to make things right while his words push him away from that goal. Body Questions delves into some unexpected sonic territory that will make each listen through an exciting experience to find new quirks or lines to fall in love with.
Listen to "Unrevenged"

Hiss Golden Messenger - Lateness of Dancers
It was only a matter of time before people started catching on to M.C. Taylor's unabashedly honest folk-rock, but few could have expected that Lateness of Dancers would be the massive album it turned out to be. Echoes of Van Morrison are abound with lush arrangements that are centered around some seriously compelling grooves. Taylor performs vocal acrobatics but does so with humility, he's got rhythmically compelling melodies that flesh out his already stellar lyrics. Lateness of Dancers is the perfect album for the fall, it's wrapped in warm tones and rustic themes. Whether Taylor is singing of looking back or moving forward, Lateness of Dancers is always a richly introspective listening experience that's best served with a warm beverage and a desire to completely lose yourself within an album.
Listen to "Mahogany Dread"

Jack Carter and The Armory - Billy The Kid
The sounds that emanate from Jack Carter and The Armory remind me fondly of the sounds of Nathan Asher and The Infantry, and it's not just because of the similarity in names. It's because they both share the same sort of intensity, they're both vocalists who don't seem to be shouting out these lyrics for show, but because they need it. Billy The Kid contains the same since of urgency, it's an album that provides excellent pacing but mostly excels when it's being propelled at you with tenacity. Tracks like the opener "King of Michigan" roll in slowly and in turn unravel into pieces of Americana-driven excellence, however when Carter's drawl turns to a shout on tracks like "Smith & the West End" or tumbles into a growl on "Blind, I" as he scathingly sings of life in the Arab Spring and the struggles that many experience that go unnoticed. Carter tackles some lofty topics on Billy The Kid, but it's done with passion and frankly that's all you need to evoke emotion amongst your listeners. And when listening to Billy The Kid, it's phenomenally easy to become entrenched in these songs, so that doesn't hurt either.
Listen to "Smith & The West End"

Last Year's Men - Underwhelmed
Last Year's Men display all of their snark and swagger within the title of their highly anticipated sophomore full-length Underwhelmed. After being propelled to local stardom with 2010's Sunny Down Snuff, the boys of Last Year's Men seemed to fall to the wayside. Their hype and momentum didn't go anywhere, but the four year wait between albums is a bit strange for locals. Perhaps it was due to mounting pressures, making sure that the album wouldn't live up to it's titular phrase, or perhaps they just enjoyed the various other projects they'd been involved in more than buckling down on Last Year's Men. Either way, whatever they did in the four-year period worked wonders, because the second that I heard the lead single "By The Way," I knew this was going to be an excellent album. Last Year's Men bring more no-frills garage rock that proves to be one of the most accessible releases of the year. Do you like guitars? Do you like songs about love and self-loathing? Big fan of brief, punctual tracks that linger in your head for days? Check out Underwhelmed and you'll be anything but.
Listen to "By The Way"

Lilac Shadows - No Dark/No Light
Lilac Shadows have had one of their biggest and most interesting years to date with 2014. The band released their most fully realized record to date, but shortly thereafter their live show reflected none of this new expansive nature. Not to throw any shade at the band's live line-up, but a lineup change prevented these tracks from being fleshed out live as one would expect, so instead the band has driven towards a more aggressive psych sound as opposed to the dreamy soundscapes found on No Dark/No Light. No Dark/No Light is an excellent record that finds the band pushing their own musical boundaries. There's simultaneously more grit and pomp than there was before, the group has broadened their musical horizons as opposed to digging into a niche as local acts are wont to do. Tracks like "Tunnels," "Tsunami," and "No Dark/No Light" are wonderful examples of this fact, each one boasts a bit of its own sound, whether that be a continuously chugging bass line that drives the song, a particularly expansive vocal melody that's washed in reverb or an energetic guitar riff that fleshes out the drones of synths. Lilac Shadows have found themselves on the path to something incredible on No Dark/No Light, and having heard what's come next I've got to say that you're all in for a treat.
Listen to "No Dark/No Light"

Lost in the Tress - Past Life
When it comes to North Carolina artists with a pronounced and compelling career path, it's hard to find one better than Lost in the Trees. From the beginning their songs were focused on ornate arrangements and heart-wrenching lyrics, not much has changed in that department. However, the tools have shifted in incredibly exciting ways on Past Life. Transforming from an orchestral folk band into art-rock excellence, Lost in the Trees' brilliantly woven stories are projected upon a bed of synths, electric guitars and gorgeous atmospheric harmonies. Some serious grooves are hiding within some of these songs though, the bassline on "Lady in White", the subtle swing in "Night Walking," and that unforgettable guitar riff from "Past Life." With Lost in the Trees recent ending, Past Life serves as a grandiose swan song for this monumental local artist.
Listen to "Past Life"

Spider Bags - Frozen Letter
When Shake My Head was first released I knew that Spider Bags would be a band I'd grow to love immensely. When Frozen Letter came out that thought was confirmed. Though it'd be easy to pigeonhole them as a garage rock band, there's so much more to love about Spider Bags, the subtly infused southern-rock tinge, Dan McGee's effortless drawl mixed with snarling intensity. Whether they're rocking frenetic shouts of love infused with paranoia on "Chem Trails"or musing on a spider that's crawling across the wall like on "Japanese Vacation," they're doing so with an infectious intensity that beckons the listener to bounce and shout along. Spider Bags are crafting some of the most exciting and energetic music in the Triangle, and lately it's seemed like the rest of the nation as started to pick up on their brilliance as well. Needless to say I'm thrilled about what's to come from this band.
Listen to "Chem Trails"

Sylvan Esso - Sylvan Esso
Little is left to be said about Sylvan Esso that hasn't already been covered a million times before. This powerhouse duo has erupted throughout their short lifespan, from humble Hopscotch day party beginnings to sold out dates across the nation, late night television spots, and spots in commercials. But the buzz band status hasn't changed how incredible this music is, intricately arranged tracks are driven by slowly churning bass lines, screaming snares and sharp hi-hats. The instrumentation is literally only half of what you can fall in love with about this band, Amelia Meath's inimitable vocal stylings are what really push Sylvan Esso towards the forefront. Simplistic productions serve as the backdrop for Meath's vocal acrobatics that range from a soft croon to hearty shouts and passionate wails. From top to bottom this album is damn near perfect, and by the time the closer "Come Down" is winding this brilliant debut down, you've finally had time to process just how unique and wonderful this dance-pop duo is and how ridiculously exciting it is to see where they go from here.
Liten to "H.S.K.T."

Seeing an artist grow as much as we've seen from T0W3RS is one of the main reasons I love music as much as I do. When I first stumbled upon T0W3RS' day party set at an overcrowded Busy Bee at Hopsotch many years ago I was compelled by how forward-thinking this simplistic indie-pop music was. There were hints of Animal Collective, surely, but there was tons of originality involved as well. Syncopated rhythms took a backdrop to Torres' vividly defined melodies, even with a full band of musicians the focus primarily shifted towards the powerful lyrical nature of T0W3RS music. Stripped of a backing band, T0W3RS has turned everyone's expectations upside down once more by releasing arguably the best album of the year with TL;DR. Torres has seamlessly made the transition from indie-rock figurehead to electronic pop icon in North Carolina, adopting an androgynous stage persona to bring these rich, downtrodden pop songs to life. From album opener "Cups" onwards, Torres releases every innermost thought and feeling, whether that be frustration over lost friends and loves, breaking down emotional barriers or simply raising a toast to curiosity, Torres is doing so with unabashed honesty. I'd say TL;DR feels like Torres' magnum opus, but that would insinuate that there's not limitless talent hiding inside of his mind, which is frankly just incorrect.
Listen to "Cups"

Tashi Dorji - Tashi Dorji
One of the things that I love most about this scene is the sheer diversity. Acts like Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba have grown to call North Carolina home despite how different their music is from others in the area. The same can be said for Tashi Dorji, a mind-bending guitarist from Asheville by way of Bhutan. Dorji has been in Asheville for the past 14 years and has steadily been releasing a wide array of incredibly compelling music composed entirely with a guitar. Dorji pushes the limitations of this stringed instrument by dabbling in some truly perplexing rhythms and melodies, making his instrument sing in a manner that others could only dream. Hell, I couldn't even dream up the sounds that are found on Tashi Dorji, an album that compiles work from throughout his career along with a few other unreleased tracks to create a compendium of Dorji's incredible songs. No doubt this self-titled effort can be a difficult listen for those that haven't delved into more abstract or avant garde pieces of music, but for those that can appreciate the art of blank space, honing in on what's not there and pinpointing the brilliancy found in what is, oh you'll thoroughly enjoy Tashi Dorji's work.
Listen to "Improvisation I"

The Tender Fruit - The Darkness Comes 
From the opening track of The Darkness Comes, it's clear that Christy Smith's songwriting prowess is ever increasing. As Smith's delicate falsetto glides over a track filled with minimal instrumentation, it's apparent that The Darkness Comes will be filled with heartbreaking moments of beauty and pain that have morphed together into one conflicting entity of bittersweet glory. "We never, never, never really let go do we? We never, never, never really can" croons Smith, her voice cracking along with the words to tug at your heart strings. Whereas Lateness of Dancers serves as that perfect fall album to sit down and slip away into the ethos, The Darkness Comes is the fall record filled with introspective tracks for the lonesome homebody looking for solidarity in their sadness. Not to say that The Darkness Comes can be pigeonholed so easily, but much of the subject matter finds itself pretty conducive to these situations. "Tried My Best" is a song that confidently echoes these statements as Smith sings of how "All of my nights are cold now/my covers are small and lean/Though I do sleep here all alone/At least I sleep long and deep." It's a record that finds Smith and her listeners becoming comfortable with that impending darkness, boasting a wide range of rustic southern imagery and personal sentiments that gets southern folks like myself right in the feels.
Listen to "Weighted Down"

The Tills - Howlin'
If I had to pick and MVP for North Carolina's music scene in 2014, it'd most definitely be Phuzz Records. The outlet that's been responsible for much of Winston-Salem's recent revival brought an incredible festival to the city with Phuzz Phest 2014, but they also helped two of the state's finest records reach the masses. While T0W3RS may have received the bulk of the attention, let's not forget how incredible Asheville's The Tills' Howlin' is. Howlin' is a well polished piece of rock n' roll excellence, the songs have an excellent core with driving rhythms and sharp lyricism, but the swagger is what makes The Tills so great. Whether vocalist Harry Harrison is pulling out a smooth falsetto as he ponders over a meaningless future on tracks like "Gee Golly" or shouting out his frustrations over ex-lovers in "Who Wants You", he's doing so with an exuberant sense of purpose. Howlin' is an excellently produced record, which in a period of a lo-fi craze is really something to celebrate. If you're looking for an excellent, albeit brief, excursion into something a bit more punk than you'd usually tackle then Howlin' is a fantastic place to start.
Listen to "Gee Golly"

Wesley Wolfe - Numbskull
One of the things that I love the most about Wesley Wolfe is that you're always guaranteed to have a record that's accessible, catchy, and personal. It's hard to make all of that mesh together, it'd be easy for an artist like Wesley Wolfe to delve into some piddly sonic explorations, but instead he's set on making concise pop tracks. Which he does phenomenally well. Numbskull is Wolfe's first album in 3 years and it certainly doesn't disappoint, from the get-go he's pulling out all the stops with introspective songs whose melodies wiggle their way in long before the lyrics. As you find yourself singing along to "Cloud Cuckoo" you realize how damn sad it gets, but you can't help but bounce and sway along regardless. "Give me back my heart/Keep my time and keep my thoughts/But give me back my heart, give me back my hopeless heart," Wolfe sings in a tone that feels numbed to the words, fumbling out of his mouth in a lackadaisical manner. Numbskull is made all the more impressive when you account for the fact that everything that wasn't mastering and artwork for the actual album was handled by Wolfe, the writing, the instrumentation, the recording, all Wolfe. He's the DIY king of the Triangle and I'll be damned if he hasn't made another brilliant piece of work on his own.
Listen to "Cloud Cuckoo"

Zack Mexico - Run out of Money and Die
Aside from very obviously winning the "Album Title of the Year" award, Zack Mexico made a damn fine collection of songs as well. Whether you're reveling in the expansive pot-smoking anthem "Reputation," wondering what the hell is going on in "Reed Frost," or losing yourself in the vastness of "Lucy," you're most definitely vibing throughout it all. Zack Mexico is a band that operates on their own frequencies, that's probably why someone allegedly whipped their dick out mid-set at The Kosher Hut a few weeks ago. Zack Mexico isn't a band that's afraid to take chances, each of their three full-length albums they've released in the past two years have been markedly different but also felt like a well defined plunge into the psyche of these incredibly talented and adventurous musicians. The band has recently taken a break from shows to complete work on yet another album, proving that sometimes you don't have to choose between quality and quantity, sometimes you just get lucky and fantastic musicians start throwing their music at you as fast as you can consume it. Sign me up for more, please.
Listen to "Reputation"

Friday, December 12, 2014

On Local Music

So The Bottom String hasn't been incredibly active for the past month or so, and for that, local music fans, I apologize. But alas the train has found itself back upon the tracks and we're rolling out a lot of exciting content in the new year. 2014 has been an astounding year for local music, next week we'll have our Top 20 North Carolina albums of the year posted, but this week marks a very pivotal point in the local music scene, at least for myself. Tonight at Haw River Ballroom marks the last Lost in the Trees show "for the foreseeable future."

Change like this is natural, its an ebb and flow. But as all of you likely know, Lost in the Trees is, has been, and always will be my favorite local act. From the minute that I saw the 13-piece band jam into the abandoned shops of Old City Hall in New Bern I knew I'd stumbled upon something special. That was roughly six years ago when I learned that a mere two and a half hour drive would place me into a hotbed of awe-inspiring talent. Artists like Lost in the Trees don't come around that often, even when you're surrounded by the talent that North Carolina possesses. Albums like All Alone in an Empty House serve as a snapshot, a moment in time where someone's artistic output served as much needed therapy for not only the writer, but for countless others who've undergone similar experiences. Anyone who's seen a parent struggle with depression, lived in an abusive home, had their heart broken, they've connected with pieces of music just like this. But I can safely say that I've never seen a piece of work as sincere, as passionate or as moving as Lost in the Trees' All Alone in an Empty House.

It's easy to let the melancholy wash over you without second thought while you immerse yourself in swelling strings, sharp guitars and rich harmonies. But to stop and take in the themes and the messages will shed a whole new light upon things.  So surround yourself with good people. I know it's painful but we can stand...Asked to forgive when you're still angry, if I can't heal my heart then forgive me. They're astonishingly powerful words that can easily get lost amidst the pomp and fanfare of the stellar instrumentation.

Maybe I'm just fanboy-ing out here because I'm about to see Lost in the Trees for the last time, maybe I'm just trying to share how incredibly important this band has been to my life, but either way it's a statement that needs to be uttered. Lost in the Trees, and artists like them, are the very reason that I've fallen in love with this music scene. I have zero doubt in my mind that Haw River Ballroom will be shoulder to shoulder, filled with fans, friends, musicians, and all around incredible people sharing beautiful moments with one another at one of the most scenic venues in the country. Being able to see a career trajectory as heart-warming as that of Lost in the Trees doesn't happen very often. From humble beginnings at Trekky Records to international acclaim with Anti, from the therapeutic symphonies of All Alone in an Empty House and A Church That Fit our Needs to the electronic whirs of Past Life, the sincerity and talent on display within this band is something that can never be paralleled for me.

Allow this to serve as a "thank you," to Ari and Emma, to Joah and Mark, Will and Leah, Jenavieve and Andrew, to Trekky Records, to any musician who's ever put themselves in a vulnerable position by revealing their innermost thoughts, feelings and fears and help others cope with their own. Thank you for letting some awestruck 19 year old stand in front of you with a shitty video camera for his brand new blog. You're the foundation that holds not only our music scene together, but everyone's scene. Shows like this re-ignite my passion to share local music with the masses, to shout from a mountaintop that "this band is mind blowing and you need to experience this before it's too late." Support your local scene, buy the albums, share it with friends, take them to shows, foster the community that you wish to be a part of. Most importantly, surround yourself with good people.