See if you can wrap your brain around this one. The Meek Men are a Swedish songwriting duo (Jonas Lundberg, Kenneth Holmstrong) who sing in English and orchestrate a band of other Swedish musicians who back them. Lundberg is also a therapist and drama teacher. Holmstrom once toured with legendary Detroit rocker Sixto Rodriguez (Searching for Sugarman), but the duo's music is mostly soft rock with echoes of bluegrass, Irish music, country, and acid folk. The lyrics are poetic and their album Dumdedum is centered on the idea–in their words–that "the difference between a good life and a good lie is a single letter." Got that? You should, because even on the rare occasion in which this album doesn't work musically, the lyrics are more literate than most of what comes from native English speakers. The vocals remind me of a smoother version of Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), but the music comes at you from various angles: "I See the Horizon" has a Maritime/Canadian Celtic vibe; "Dodo Birdies Song" is a country/James Taylor-like hybrid; "How Do You Do" is light jazz rock; and "Hooke's Law" is where Garmarna meets Celtic and country. Quite a few of the songs call into the question the value of participating in the rat race. The album's nonsense title comes from a line in the equally oddly titled "Dodo Birdies Song" and is a metaphor for foolish pursuits: On your mark get born, get ready/Young man Ho-hum, we'll see you when you're done. "Diggin'" is a list of futile searches: for a counter-revolution…writing on the wall…a mental constitution…for the meaning of it all…. And it all comes down to the command to Keep on diggin' until I get a bigger hole. "Humble R U" is a takedown of egotism and faux compassion; "Carousel" asks of life: … who wrote the script? Who set the harmony? "Another Kind of Spring" uses the passage of the seasons to ask the rhetorical question: We had a higher vision, didn't we? But if this sounds like Scandinavian angst, that's not quite accurate. There are several quiet and tender songs, but mostly the Meek Men seek poignancy by hitting us with feathers instead of bricks. It's an accomplished album musically with loads of instruments, including accordion, dobro, guitars, fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, saxophone, and penny whistle. Even if you find the voclasa bit too subdued for your tastes, Dumdedum remains one of the year's smartest albums.
Are you a fan of Patty Griffin? If so, you'll also enjoy Lydia Loveless, a self-described "alt.country" singer from Columbus, Ohio. Her newest album, Real, is much like Griffin in that Loveless obliterates the lines between country music, folk, pop, and rock. Also like Griffin, Loveless has a "small" voice, but empowers it through no-holds-barred power that creates the effect of beauty with heft. Part of that heft comes from a dynamite band—Ben Lamb, Todd May, Nick German, Jay Gasper, Nate Holman–that creates a rich, full sound. Check out the jangly guitar stew of "Same to You" and the deliberate scratch-the-chords frame for "Longer." In the latter, Ms. Loveless' vocals are at once dancey, strong, and gorgeous. It's simply a fabulous song–like everything else on the album.
I recently stumbled upon a St. Paul, MN-based indie rock band called Communist Daughter. With a handle like that you might expect didactic politics, but the name was actually lifted from a lyric by the high-energy punk band Neutral Milk Hotel and is used more ironically than ideologically. The band's material is actually very personal–a reflection of founding member/vocalist/acoustic guitarist's Johnny Solomon's travails. His was not, until recently, an enviable bio: divorce, addiction (booze, meth), bipolar disorder, and a stint in jail. The songs I sampled generally take introspective themes and wrap them in sounds that are somewhere between folk and trippy acid rock. The tune of "' "Not the Kid" has echoes of the Kinks' "Lola," but "Speed of Sound" is as moody as Snow Patrol. Song lyrics often allude to isolation and struggle. "Speed of Time" opens with: Man I hate this town/So I'm looking for the only way out/And the life I wanted years ago is maybe/not the life I found. "Soundtrack for the End" is a breakup song with the clever line: …we took six of one/And nothing from the dozen. Solomon is now married to vocalist Molly Moore, with whom he harmonizes beautifully. Good band and hopefully we'll hear more from them in the future. Check out their Introducing Communist Daughter sampler on Noisetrade.
Seth Walker is an electric blues artist you should get to know if you're not already familiar with his work. First of all, the dude has one of the best record label names going: The Royal Potato family. Second, he mixes gritty nothing-but-back-luck songs with catchy, sunny ones that are miles smarter than most of the syrup one tastes on pop radio. Third, he's really, really good. His newest album is titled Gotta Get Back from which I was sent two sample tracks: "Dreamer," a sweet, hopeful song about imagining the potential of a new relationship; and "Home Again," with its sharp hooks and a tune that's so memorable that you'll not think of it as just another road song. These two inspired me to listen to material from his backlist. One of my favorites is the misery-loves-company "Grab Ahold." He sings, "Grab ahold of me… and we'll both go down together," the irony enhanced by the tune's faintly gospel feel. I really enjoyed "Rewind," a rockabilly/light soul mash with the ambience of a Sam Cooke selection. One of the many joys of listening to Walker is that he doesn't dwell in any one place for long. "Wait a Minute" has a reggae-like back kick to it; "More Days Like This" is a finger-snapping tribute to the moment when you're so much in love that you want to freeze time. And so it goes. Check him out, folks.
Remember those youthful days of hanging out with others and imagining what your life will be like in the future? That's the vibe of North of Here, four friends from Alberta whose May Hay While the Sun Shines has an innocence that is easier to grasp visually and aurally than to describe. Their song "Let It Burn (RedCoals)" was a major nostalgia trip, as it's about sitting around a campfire musing and conversing–exactly what I used to do with a couple of high school buddies with whom I recently reconnected. North of Here is a bluegrass ensemble, but the of the sort that owes more debt to performers such as Fleet Foxes than to Ralph Stanley. And you'll definitely hear Milk Carton Kids squared in the amazing four-part harmonies of songs like "Don't LookAbove." The instrumentation tends to build around Ian St. Arnaud's mandolin. This is a young band–so young they joke about the challenges of emerging facial hair–and at present they are more sweet than accomplished. But they are also irresistibly precious and I can't help imagining what they'll be like in just a few years if they keep the friendship fires kindled. My goodness—those harmonies….