Sea of Tears
Signature 2021

Eilen Jewell’s latest is a delightful throwback to rock’s Age of Innocence, a time in which a lyric—such as that of the title track—conveying a love-me-or-else message was dancing on the edge of danger. The band opts to front Jewell’s smoldering vocals with a stripped-down sound that’s heavy on Hawaiian surf guitar, slap bass, and snare drums. For the most part Jewell sings with an understated starkness that skirts the border of torpor but never crosses it. This provides startling and edgy contrast for those moments in which she airs out her voice, as on her cover of the Van Morrison hit “I’m Gonna Dress in Black” and of Loretta Lynn’s “The Darkest Day.” Still another detour is “Fading Memory,” a song in which Jewell slips into a Patsy Cline persona. But the song people are talking about—with good reason—is her remake of “Shakin’ All Over.” Put aside visions of loose-hipped rockers and frenzied teeny boppers; Jewell’s version builds around soulful bass lines and guitar notes that sound like nervous popcorn. Jewell’s languid vocal is icily sexy. This music is where rockabilly, Chicago blues, café jazz, country, ands swing collide and create a new musical galaxy. LV



An odd thing happened recently: while I was teaching a class at the University of Massachusetts, a student was served with a subpoena for illegal music downloading. I don’t think that busting college students doing what the cultural encourages them to do is the answer to the problem, but I was not very sympathetic when the young man told me, “I just fundamentally don’t believe anyone should have to pay for music.”

How many of us would spend three years in law school, pass the bar, and spend an entire legal career giving away our services? Would we go through a carpentry apprenticeship program and build houses for free? Would we get an MBA, build a factory, and let anyone who wanted our product walk into the warehouse and take it? Then why in the name of Ani Difranco would we think we are entitled to free music?

I invoked Difranco for a reason. I was in Portland, Maine this past weekend and Difanco was performing in support of “Record Store Day,” a nationwide event to support non-chain music retailers. Unless you live in a town with an independent music merchant you probably had no idea that April 18 was Record Store Day. That would be most of you. (See “I Need That Record”—Movie Madness) There are only a few thousand left in the entire country. Massachusetts has just twelve, but we’re practically swimming in them compared to places such as West Virginia (3), Nevada (5), and Louisiana (5). Mississippi, the heartland of the blues, has just two indies in the entire state.

It’s easy to blame corporate rock, corporate news, and corporate radio for this mess, but we also need to blame ourselves. Somewhere along the line we stopped believing that musicians were hired help and started thinking of them as chattel. Perhaps it began with the Diggers and the Grateful Dead in the 1960s. The Diggers wanted to live in a “free” society, which they meant literally. Theirs was the ultimate anti-materialist, anti-money dream, but to affect it they became a tie-dyed Mafiosi who shook down local merchants and musicians. All that happened was that San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury ceased to be a hippie haven and instead became an urban nightmare of drug dealers, con artists, petty thieves, and violent sociopaths.

The Grateful Dead was more benign, but they added to the problem. The Dead allowed anyone to tape their shows and distribute the music for free. That business model worked for them because when they started the practice they were famous enough to make their dough on concerts, residuals, and merchandise. One might admire such an ethos from an established band, but the key and problematic word is “established.” Without meaning to do so, The Grateful Dead—and those emulating them—set the expectation that we could have something for nothing.

The effect is to kill music at the source. Just like most people never heard of Record Store Day, we’ll never hear future Grateful Deads or Ani Difrancos if we live in a world in which only established artists can support themselves. The only way to become “established” enough to give away music is spending a lot of time playing for tips, cadging meals and lodging from local promoters, and living out of a rented car. (See “Local Heroes,” Celtic Corner) The performers who played in support of Record Store Day—such as Difranco, Bad Religion, Tea Leaf Green, Neko Case, and The Decemberists—are ones you’d never have known if there was no independent music scene. If music production is left to the Big Four—Warner, Sony, EMI, and Universal—then by all means let’s all become pirates and steal the bastards blind. But if you want music that’s diverse, challenging, and fresh you need to pony up. Check out the reviews on this blog; unless the artists herein can sell a few CDS most of them can’t work. Now listen to their work and imagine how impoverished our world would be if their voices were silenced.--LV


I Need That Record!

By Brendan Toller, 2008, 77 mins.

This documentary takes on the distressing decline of America’s independent record stores, some three thousand of which have closed in the past ten years. Toller explores the community impact and artistic toll when local owners and creative spirits are pushed aside by big box stores, media consolidation, format radio, and kids who think they’re entitled to free music. He also shows how the defiant avant-garde hangs on. This film should provoke animated debate over issues such as cultural homogenization, global capitalism, media policy, and who owns music. Order this from http://www.ineedthatrecord.com/Site/I_Need_That_Record%21.html



Under the Counter
Mad River 1010

Members of the Scottish band Bodega—not to confused with two other bands bearing the same name—are only in their early twenties, but just four years out from winning the BBC 2005 Young Folk Award they’re already playing like vets. Many Celtic bands anchor melodies with accordion and fiddle, but Bodega give the combo more color and musical tension by having fiddler Ross Couper play edgy contrast to Norrie MacIver’s swingy squeeze box. On occasion, Gillian Chalmers puts down her pipes and whistles and plays second fiddle to MacIver, which gives Bodega’s music unexpected twists. The opening “Inward Chimney” set, for instance, opens with a jazzy little tune penned by guitarist Tia Files, segues to a duel-fiddle-fueled Shetland mariner’s tune as it would have never been played at sea, and rounds out with a Quebeçois stomper. Or how about Bodega’s version of “The Stamping Ground,” a song popularized by Runrig? Bodega forego rock and roll for a folk treatment that sets the mood for MacIver’s vocal with June Naylor’s harp notes bouncing off djembe beats. Bodega pay careful attention to pace changes and it pays glorious dividends. In succession we are treated to “Puirt,” a bit of tongue-twisting Gaelic mouth music; “Helyinagro,” a dreamy musing on the Shetlands; “Balaich an Iasgaich,” a Gaelic fishing/crofting song sung in dancing celidh cadences; and “Missing Tramp,” a classic Celtic big set with muscular guitar from Files, MacIver’s bold accordion, Naylor attacking her harp, Couper’s aggressive fiddle, and Chalmers stepping out on fiddle and pipes. Under the counter? How about on the beam?--LV
Check out their cool cover of Bob Dylan's Wagon Wheel.