Cosmic American Music Reviews #8 Album Of 2011: Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest

December 24, 2011

Paste Magazine:  9/10

It would be inaccurate to call The Harrow & The Harvest a concept album, but many of the songs—most notably the progressively titled “The Way It Goes,” “The Way It Will Be” and “The Way The Whole Thing Ends”—are subtly connected by themes of coming to terms with the past and finding the resolve to move on. Listening to these songs, one can hear that the eight years taken between releases has caused Gillian Welch to ruminate and pour all of her weighing up and accounting of life’s sad twists and turns into one of her best albums. The Harrow & The Harvest is simply one of the richest, most expansive roots albums to be released in some time.

The Guardian:  5/5 

And yet, on repeated listens The Harrow & the Harvest feels more mysterious than this asceticism suggests. It is replete with events alluded to, but unsung. Many of their albums are like this – carefully written to sound like folk manuscripts handed down across the ages, illuminated by Rawlings’s eloquent guitar. And yet The Harrow is especially full of drama that occurs off-camera. It is the best kind of record: one that lures you in and soothes you with harmonies and banjo, only to leave you wondering what the hell just happened.

Los Angeles Times

Long trafficking in a sometimes spare yet intricately drawn sort of Americana that could fit just as comfortably at the turn of the 20th century, their latest delivers the same deceptively simple alchemy of dustily lilting voices, vivid lyrical twists and crisp acoustic flourishes.

AVCLub:  C+,58161/

And yet The Harrow & The Harvest doesn’t seem all that substantial. It’s the perfect record for front-porch reading on a warm summer afternoon, in large part because it doesn’t command attention. At her best, Welch is never mere background music.

Folk Alley:

At first listen, The Harrow and the Harvest is a very good record, but it seems like not much has changed for Welch in the past eight years. Give it a second and third run, and the songs begin to assault you one at a time. The fourth and fifth times through, it’s a sentimental experience. But, if you keep listening, you find the disc revealing layers upon layers – a tall order for a disc which mostly just includes two voices and two stringed instruments (with an exception or two here and there).


The interplay between Welch and David Rawlings’s guitars is dazzlingly expert as they dance around the slow, melancholy beauty of Welch’s voice. There cannot be another musical duet around at the moment who are able to make two acoustic guitars and two voices produce a sound that is so subtle and yet powerful….This is American folk music at its very best.

Dusted Magazine:

Even if it fails to meet impossibly high expectations, The Harrow & The Harvest offers a handful of keepers while moving Welch and Rawlings (hopefully) past their writers’ block. Nevertheless, you can hear in these songs that this crop required backbreaking work to deliver. Here’s hoping that next time they drop the harrow and go gather some of the wild stuff growing by the creek.


 This album abandons any trace of the full band sound found on Soul Journey, which featured drums and electric guitar, and instead plucks along with the spotlight on Welch’s songwriting, Rawlings’ masterful guitar work, and their vocals that harmonize in lockstep throughout. And while Gillian’s songs are outstanding in their own right, what’s more amazing is the synthesis of these two incredible musicians and their ability to take seemingly simple folk arrangements and turn them into something awe-inspiring.

Popmatters:  9/10

The gospel according to Welch and Rawlings is one that embraces darkness alongside light, pain alongside joy, the briar as one with the rose, clear-eyed truth and hazy obfuscation. As a gathering-in of all that’s best about their duality, The Harrow & The Harvest eschews the cosmic Plough and settles instead for the blessings of a more earthly crop.




The Vaccines: What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? (2011)

December 24, 2011

The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

NME:  8/10

Admittedly, The Vaccines’ songs aren’t really about very much, and when they are, the subject matter is a bit gauche (all that stuff on ‘Norgaard’ about fancying a girl who’s 17 and “probably not ready” – it’s mildly creepy). Nuance is not really their thing. Their songs all use the same three chords. But, to resurrect an old punk cliché, they’re the right chords.

Pitchfork:  6.2

Sure, the band’s buzzing guitars, thick reverb, and bouncy rhythms lack any particular spark of originality that might help listeners avoid compulsively thinking of names like Ramones, the Jesus and Mary Chain, or, yes, the Strokes. Then again, there’s no shame in catchy, concise, sharply executed tunes that communicate mildly fresh takes on relationships, either– and this album has more than a few.

The Guardian:  3/5

In the era their music recalls, the Vaccines’ ambitions would have extended no further than a few Peel sessions and a few singles on Subway or Creation. But in the post-Britpop world, that’s no longer the way: the overriding impression left by What Did You Expect from the Vaccines? is of a first effort by a fairly good indie band boosted far out of their league by an overexcited music press. That, rather than their supposedly privileged background, is what might ultimately do for the Vaccines, something their album title and downbeat interviews suggest they’re aware of: an old-fashioned band, wrestling with a modern problem.

411 Mania:

The Vaccines seem so in touch with their past and their heritage but so aware of the modern problem they face, trying to stand out in a room full of musicians with the exact same haircuts and exact same sound. And they seem to have found the answer to the conundrum, that being to do what everyone else is doing, except to do it better than everyone else. Simple really.

AVClub:  A-,56727/

The music has a simple formula, and the execution is pretty straightforward, but don’t be mistaken: The Vaccines aren’t working in the spirit of the old punk bands that used to empower those around them by creating music that seemingly anyone could make. This London quartet’s less-is-more approach wouldn’t sound nearly as impressive in lesser hands. It’s the product of surprisingly thoughtful songwriting, a refined sense of knowing that sometimes the finest pop songs don’t need all of their allotted three minutes, and a frontman with an engaging, versatile voice that works well whether he’s feeling moody, vulnerable, or aggressive.

The Independent:  2/5

The Vaccines are effectively this season’s Arctic Monkeys, the latest fast-rising inheritors of a brash post-punk guitar pop tradition that stretches back ultimately to The Undertones.


Most key, however, is the fact that they’re able to write songs that are anthemic in scope yet punkish in packaging and catchy enough to warrant praise entirely on their own creative merits – “All In White” is downright stirring. It may well be that they’re just the next British guitar band of the moment, but it’s The Vaccines’ moment and they’re making the most of it.

Consequence of Sound:  3/5

If we’re to answer the album’s title, it’s with a simple retort: This and that. Because of this, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? ends up being an enjoyable debut. Whether the band is being serious (“Family Friend”, “A Lack of Understanding”) or attempting pop (“If You Wanna”, “Norgaard”), they make it work. As it is, The Vaccines are a welcome break from the dance pop and electronic garbage dominating the airwaves currently. And while they won’t snuggle with your more radio-friendly tunes, their music offers an enviable alternative, instead. The Vaccines are clenching onto rock and roll, and this album is an amicable chapter in the genre. Amicable.

Paste Magazine:  7.3

While the British buzz band undoubtedly wears its influences on its sleeve, it’s the kind of overt practice here that makes you celebrate the bands they draw inspiration from rather than cringe at the recreation of older sounds. That’s the overarching theme of their debut album What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?—a collection of songs emerging as slightly kitschy, largely catchy and entirely enjoyable… If you’re expecting anything groundbreaking from The Vaccines, you’ll be disappointed. But if you can get past the unoriginality, this record is a no-brainer to enjoy.

Contact Music

It’s a little early to judge whether The Vaccines are in fact, as has been claimed by lesser authorities, a band who will be “Game changing”. By however establishing an aesthetic not unlike the first Jesus & Mary Chain album without the feedback, What Did You Expect hard to convince us that they may be the catalyst which finally leads us back down the road to rock and roll as a vital force in British music.

Pretty Much Amazing:  B

You expected a record of eleven songs to just edge over half an hour maybe. You didn’t quite get off so easy. You got a record about losing your friends and your lovers and growing up and becoming boring and cruel without meaning to. It just so happens some of these songs have the kind of propulsive drive that might as well hold you at gunpoint to start dancing.




Luke Roberts: Big Bells and Dime Songs (2011)

December 24, 2011


Luke Roberts – Big Bells & Dime Songs

Pitchfork:  7.5

Big Bells is preoccupied with failures, emotional or otherwise: These are faithless laments, dirges for the nights when your glass is empty and no one’s coming over… These songs are fiercely internal, which also makes them remarkably hard to shake– here, Roberts is singing about the no-place of everyplace, the desolation we all know.

Drowned in Sound: 6/10

…Roberts’ ditties pride themselves on being not flagrant or especially well-honed, you have to admit Big Bells & Dime Songs – the title itself a peculiar oxymoron of impoverished ambition – is a record of hard-bitten character…  While sometimes left wanting for redeeming bells and whistles, where Big Bells & Dime Songs sporadically strikes gold is its distillation of tumbleweed folk Americana…Roberts’ style is rigid and repetitive, not necessarily brave, witty, wise or anything else you’d traditionally look out for in a non-boring, non-nu-folk, indie-credible singer-songwriter.

Popmatters:  6/10

Big Bells is not a singles record. If you’ll forgive the tired metaphor, it’s more like a landscape—to be taken in all together, more about mood and feeling than about specific points or blades of grass. These songs bleed together, dirges constructed from similar elements toward similar results. Brushed snare pops up here and there above the guitar, or a distant electric reverb, or a humming organ. These shades add enough color to keep things interesting, if not thrilling. But then, Roberts doesn’t seem interested in thrilling. He wants to create and sustain a mood, one of quiet melancholy, or a sadness lightly struck with some beauty.

Foxy Digitalis: 9/10

His singing voice is plaintive and low, and his lyrics are delivered with a style of unadorned simplicity and roughness that belies his youth; the whole effect is that of a musician exploring a particularly expressive style in a quiet way.  Each song features a style of Southern folk and blues music that is written with affection for these forms, and there are beautiful chord progressions and melodies, and genuine moments of sadness, that crop up throughout the recording, particularly on pieces such as “Anyway” and “Unspotted Clothes” (songs which also have a quality that make you want to return to them repeatedly).  The album can also, however, move at a too-slow pace, creating gaps between the well-written moments and its more repetitive sections.

405:  8/10

There is a real feeling of Americana and storytelling surrounding Big Bells and Dime Songs, it reaches out and attempts to depict a slice of life through music of an age almost gone by through Roberts’s finger picked acoustic guitar and the heavy, steady drum beats which are sprawled across each track. Roberts harks back to a time where songs where simply stories about life, accounts of the musician and of all he had gone through to get to where he was today. The musical history is not lost on Roberts and often he does a great service to those roots, most notably the sorrow laden ‘Dime Song’ and bittersweet ‘All American’.

Frank Fairfield – Out On the Open West (2011)

December 24, 2011

Frank Fairfield – Out On The Open West

Driftwood Magazine:

On Out on the Open Road, Fairfield continues his exploration of the hinterlands of American roots music. He’s still the center of the music, picking banjo and fiddling frantically, and his eerie, otherworldly voice is still the key to his music. On stand-out tracks like “Ruthie” and “Frazier Blues” (listen here); his voice is unsettling and weirdly beautiful at the same time. There’s a sadness at the heart of his music that’s reflected in his voice, in the way he draws out the songs with long, floating notes that flutter gently to the ground. His playing is rough, no doubt about that.

National Beardy:

“I piece together a thing or two or mash up one thing with another or make something up,” Fairfield says, “but I wouldn’t call it songwriting. Ira Gershwin was a songwriter. I’m just a kid that writes songs.”  As if there weren’t already enough reasons to like this guy, he’s modest too. His original songs are timeless and sound every bit as legitimately old-timey as any traditional folk song. He truly brings his music alive, picking, plucking and pulling bow with such mesmerizing ferocity that it’s hard to look away. Add that with his dapper-dan side-part and high-waisted trousers, and Frank Fairfield’s old-timey aesthetic is so spot on that it’s not even funny.

Dusted Magazine:

The songs on Out on the Open West, Fairfield’s second record, are more modern in one respect; Fairfield wrote them. Still, he’s made a record that sounds like it comes from another time. There’s no crackle of needle against shellac, but neither is there the compression and isolation of modern recording…  He plays like a guy looking for forgotten treasure in an old tool drawer. When he picks up the pace, his signifying reference — the click clack of a steam-powered locomotive — is simultaneously anachronistic and universal. If he’s bringing back the past, it’s not an obscure one.

No Depression:

Frank Fairfield’s new album, Out on the Open West, is not so much a return to the roots that inspired him, but rather a burrowing deeper into the Appalachian traditions he clearly loves. His voice winds through the old songs like a trucker crossing the Cumberland Gap. There’s something timeless to the music, but also something critically alive. And that’s what Frank says about the music: it’s alive. Frank hears the beating heart of the music and can tap into it.

Brooklyn Country:

To top it all off, the recording perfectly suits the sounds of this album. It is sparse as sparse can be and sounds like Fairfield and a handful of friends, including local bluesman Jerron Blind Boy Paxton, set up a DAT recorder and just laid out these tracks. The result is a lived in sound, full of natural warmth and a very traditional atmosphere. I can’t help but respect him for so clearly foregoing today’s modern recording conveniences for what has worked so well for his forbearers. It’s a brilliant move that aligns his own music with those that he so clearly respects. “Out On The Open West” is raw and primitive and perfect.

Cosmic American Music Reviews #9 Album Of 2011: Richard Buckner – Our Blood

December 23, 2011

Richard Buckner – Our Blood

Pitchfork:  8.0

The urgency you’re bound to hear in Richard Buckner‘s voice throughout Our Blood isn’t accidental. Though he’s released an album every year or two during his two-decade career, Our Blood is his first since 2006’s Meadow. Because that extended interim wasn’t intentional, it was, as you might imagine, extremely frustrating. After Meadow, Buckner stopped writing records to focus on a score for a movie that was never released; after moving to upstate New York, he worked shifts holding signs for Con Edison construction crews and assisting the Census Bureau before turning his focus back toward a proper LP. His tape machine broke, so he lost all his recordings. Then his laptop was stolen, so he lost all of his recordings again. But these restarts proved purposeful: Our Blood is the most concise, driven, and well-considered Buckner album in the last decade, his ruminative prose-poems becoming determined, last-chance exhortations.

Popmatters: 7/10

It’s indirect, sure, but puzzling out his meaning here, the way you can puzzle out the layers in the songs, is what makes Our Blood such a lasting, resonant record. Buckner established himself long ago as a songwriter of the highest order, but in this age in music—where five years between records is an eternity, maybe a career death sentence—he has grabbed our attention immediately and reminded us not only what we loved about him, but what tricks he’s learned while we weren’t paying attention.

Spin:  7/10

Brooding and oblique, Buckner’s first album in five years again seeks its pleasures in the shadows beside the bar, framed by desolate electronics far removed from the singer-songwriter’s ’90s alt-country roots.

Consequence of Sound:  3.5/5

Rooted in a blend of outlaw country, Americana, and folk, but venturing into experimental and avant garde pastures, Richard Buckner is the sort of singer-songwriter one would expect from Merge Records. This record may not be quite on the same level as his best country and experimental albums (1997′s Devotion & Doubt and 2002′s Impasse, respectively), but Old Blood offers a glimpse into the world of Richard Buckner that serves as an ideal starting point for new listeners.

AvClub: B,59763/

But the song that best embodies Our Blood is “Collusion.” “Coming up for air / from the hollow prayer,” sings Buckner under his breath as the tension between plucked strings and eerie synthesizer sucks the oxygen out of the tune. As with Buckner’s best work, though, what remains isn’t quite a vacuum; rather, it’s an afterimage, blurred and ghostly.

Paste Magazine 6.6/10

In the wake of the long string of indie rock miserabilists that have come and gone since he first released Bloomed, Buckner’s latter day understatement is refreshing in its candor and simplicity. While the album at times requires careful attention to fully attach to, it’s modestly flavored with a warmth and ease that naturally rings true.

Impose Magazine:–richard-buckner

Our Blood is difficult to listen to solely because its story has already been written: Richard Buckner is the national treasure who never gets his due. He’s so un-famous in the modern sense that he doesn’t have a Twitter account. His top-selling album, released in 1997 on a major label and widely considered his best, has scanned only 27,000 copies to date. The tour for Our Blood, though co-headlining wtih David Kilgour, takes him to venues scarcely larger than those he’s been playing since the mid-90’s. A lesser artist would have given up by now. “Someone should have told you,” he sings on the album’s “Confession”, “I guess I’m the one they warned you about.”

Dusted Magazine

These nine songs are so restless, so forlorn — in short, so Buckner-esque — that they’ll never move as many units as some other Merge bands with Canuck connections. Circumstances conspire, and history’s certainly been a queen bitch, and yet throughout it all, Richard Buckner has persevered.

Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three: Middle Of Everywhere (2011)

December 23, 2011

Pokey LaFarge & The South City Three – Middle of Everywhere

Ninebullets:  Essential Listening

I’ve been fortunate to see Pokey and the band play several times in some of Mississippi’s finest barrooms and a few things always happen. People stare, then they high five their friends, people drink and they smile. But there’s one night when Pokey and the South City Three played that’ll be hard for me to forget. The band was on stage in my favorite bar and it was closing down in a few weeks. I was about to leave town so I decided my last night in there would be with Pokey behind the mike. A little blond girl I knew was behind the bar and an old friend who’d moved away was back for a visit. My friend was drinking Wild Turkey and Sprite and so I decided to follow suit. There’s a song on Middle Of Everywhere about this kind of evening. It’s called “Drinkin’ Whiskey Tonight” and you should hit play on the little button below and give it a spin while you read about what I decided to do with the rest of my Wild Turkey evening.

Paul Kerr:

Throughout the album The South City Three perform stellar duties. Hoskins’ guitar embellishes Pokey’s playing perfectly while Joey Glynn’s upright bass adds a fine natural depth. His skirmishes with Ryan Koenig’s washboard on several songs are a treat while Koenig’s harmonica is always tasty. Over all this Pokey sings with confidence, at times crooning, other times hollering yet hardly ever breaking sweat he is in command throughout, oozing charisma and style.

The Phosphene:

This album kicks off with its first single, “So Long Honeybee, Goodbye,” a sweet song that sets the tone for this album and sets it apart from 2009′s Riverboat Soul. While that album was a mixture of folk anthems, old standards reinterpreted and a smattering of love songs, this album finds its home among the love song. “Head to Toe,” “Mississippi Girl” and “Feels So Good” are all strong examples of Pokey’s love song writing chops. But in addition, the boys treat us to songs like “River Rock Bottom” and “Drinkin’ Whiskey Tonight,” both of which feel as though they would have been comfortable on either Riverboat Soul or Middle of Everywhere.


Pokey LaFarge revives the 20s and 30s with his blend of blues, ragtime, western swing and Appalachia country music. The 27-year old St. Louis troubador’s Middle of Everywhere is his latest release. The vinyl version of the album contains two bonus tracks that were recorded at Jack White’s Third Man Records studio.

McGurk Music:

Once Again Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three bring fun and style to music with their latest release Middle of Everywhere.   Named for their hometown St.Louis’ relativity to the rest of the country, and their place in the world touring all over, Middle of Everywhere is a superb release through and through.  The attention getting schtick and pagentry are missing from the album, unlike Riverboat Soul.  RS just grabbed and pulled you right in with legendary tales of ‘Claude Jones’ and Jim Jones in ‘In the Graveyard Now’,  RS also forced you to take notice with such crowd pleasing period pieces as ‘Hard Times Come and Go’.  Instead Middle of Everwhere, brings forth 13 tracks that don’t require a period or being called “old timey’.  These are just 13 pleasing songs of love, relationships failed and girls, that can be listened to over and over.

The Head and the Heart (2011)

December 23, 2011

Spotify: The Head And The Heart – The Head and the Heart

Pitchfork: 3.8

Such nods to history and to hard labor are meant to give this album the sheen of authenticity, but it doesn’t take long to see through to the calculation beneath. Musically, the band’s old-time approximations resemble the Avett Brothers, but, without that group’s effortless harmonizing, easy melodicism, and demonstrative vocals, the Head and the Heart sound anonymous, their drama wholly predictable. Conceptually, they’re close to Mumford & Sons: opportunistic in their borrowings, yet entirely unimaginative in the execution. Theirs is a thoroughly timid, tentative take on Americana: roots music without the roots.

Consequence of Sound: 2/5

The Head and The Heart sounds like an album stripped from 2008, never once providing any sense of surprise or adding anything new to the folk genre. To make matters worse, most of the lyrics that pour out of the record sound half baked for a Grey’s Anatomy episode; they’re often too emotive or disarming, particularly the opening lines of “Down In The Valley”: “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade/Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days.” No, the epic crescendo never comes. Yes, the album ends just as harmlessly as it began.

Although hopes were high and so much work went into the creation of the record, The Head and The Heart have ultimately created a debut that will most likely be forgotten by summer. Even as singers Jon Russell and Josiah Johnson’s voices flow together swimmingly over Charity Thielen’s violin, the album never truly succeeds at living up to its name. What does that say for the band’s name?

AVClub:  C-,54761/

Though the songwriting is sturdy, the choruses hearty, the melodies time-tested, and the recording vibrant, The Head And The Heart falters most on account of Jonathan Russell and Josiah Johnson’s pre-packaged, Cracker Barrel lyrical conceits. The fiddle-fortified travelogue “Down In The Valley” crams some of the most generic clichés into one tidy space, evoking “whiskey rivers,” railway cars, and an entirely appropriate “Lord have mercy.”

Sputnik Music:  3.5/5

But for every moment that The Head and the Heart breach the confines of tolerable twee, The Head and the Heart becomes a little less convincing. It’s this aforementioned blurry line that comes into focus every so often preventing the band’s nostalgic songwriting from being drop-dead brilliant. Until the band finds more than one lyrical subject matter and writes a song as good as ‘Cats and Dogs’ without dashing its chances with animal sounds, we’re left with a band still embracing the genre’s most bittersweet and common attribute: a touch too little head, a tad too much heart.