Every month, Utne Reader presents free, downloadable music gleaned from current and upcoming releases on independent music labels. This sampler was curated by editor in chief Christian Williams.
Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project
Banjo innovator Jayme Stone has devoted his career to celebrating and advancing the rich, international heritage of his chosen instrument. In his latest project, Stone channels his respect and reverence for the banjo toward the music most commonly associated with that instrument—traditional folk music—and the man credited with preserving a treasure trove of that music, Alan Lomax.
Lomax’s post-war recording sessions in the American South were important not just because they represented the physical preservation of a rich oral tradition, but because it allowed those songs to reach a wider audience and effectively serve as the inspiration for future generations of songwriters and musicians. It’s with that in mind that Stone assembled an impressive group of contemporary folk musicians to revisit, respect, and re-imagine a selection of Lomax-recorded songs for a record he’s dubbed the Lomax Project. Featuring 19 songs, the record is a tip of the hat to Lomax’s effort and a testament to the endless inspiration that the songs he recorded are still able to conjure.
One example is the sea shantie “Shenandoah,” which is a traditional tune of unknown origin that Lomax came across in 1939 while recording the songs of Captain Richard Maitland at the Sailor’s Snug Harbor retirement home in Staten Island. On the Lomax Project, a group comprised of Margaret Glaspy (voice), Brittany Haas (fiddle), Julian Lage (guitar), Joe Phillips (bass), Nick Fraser (drums) and Stone (banjo), lyrically captures the longing of lost love from the original, but uses a lively instrumental interlude to suggest there’s still hope for a future reunion. Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project is out now on Borealis Records.
UK-based afrobeat label Strut Records continues their impressive exploration into the roots of South African music with Next Stop Soweto, Vol. 4. The latest installment focuses on the ways Zulu-inspired mbaqanga music evolved in the ’70s and ’80s thanks to the influence of imported R&B, soul, funk, and disco—no small feat considering the restrictions imposed on South Africans due to apartheid. Despite the oppression, creative expression thrived during this time frame, and the bands making music were instrumental in sparking the modern world music genre. Here’s Margaret Singane performing “Ubukhwele” off Next Stop Soweto, Vol. 4, which is out March 9 on Strut Records.
On his new album, Skullsplitter, sonic experimenter Eric Chenaux demonstrates the myriad ways one can utilize just a voice and a guitar. Balancing an array of pitch-bending guitar effects with his soaring voice and pastoral lyrics, Chenaux’s songs have been dubbed avant-garde balladry. On songs like “Spring Has Been a Long Time Coming,” Chenaux uses the modulated tones of his guitar to create the sun-drunk wooziness of that first warm day after a long winter. Skullsplitter is out now on Constellation Records.
Sarah Bethe Nelson
Based on the astute observations present in San Francisco-based songwriter Sarah Bethe Nelson’s debut record, Fast-Moving Clouds
, it’s not surprising that Nelson has spent a good chunk of her working life tending bar. With an unforced voice and beautiful melodies, Nelson has pull together an excellent collection of songs that reflect the heartbreak, longing, and hope that she’s observed and experienced so far in her life. Though simple in structure, the songs are well-crafted indie pop that you’ll be happy to have on repeat in your head long after the album's over. Here’s “Paying” off Fast-Moving Clouds
, out March 10 on Burger Records
A musician with a classical piano background, Norway’s Sandra Kolstad is really expanding her musical horizons and has become a full-blown Scandinavian pop star. Her latest album, Zero Gravity State of Mind, is another strong installment of the electronic pop music that she’s used to build a loyal following, and it's is just as fun to listen to as her live shows are to watch. Zero Gravity State of Mind is out now on Red Eye Transit.
Tom Brosseau is an LA-based singer-songwriter who was born and raised in North Dakota. Despite the fast life of Los Angeles, he’s maintained his Midwestern knack for honest storytelling over the course of 10-album catalog that dates back to 2002. Most of the songs on his latest record, Perfect Abandon, were recorded with just a two-piece drum set, double bass, Stratocaster, and Brosseau’s voice and acoustic guitar; the sparse arrangement allows his remarkable voice and insightful lyrics to take center stage. Here’s “Roll With Me” off Perfect Abandon, out now on Crossbill Records.
Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Gill Landry is a member of the Grammy-award winning string band Old Crow Medicine Show and is also an accomplished solo artist to boot. His third album is self-titled and sees him exploring an Americana folk-rock sound that doesn’t normally make it into the O.C.M.S. repertoire. “These songs are my attempt at transcending the more classic type of broken-hearted love song I’d been writing for years where there was an obvious victim,” says Landry of the lyrical inspiration. “I tried to not come at it from the point of how things could have/should have been or should be, but searching for a sweet, understanding surrender to what is or was, and moving forward with compassion and kindness without harsh judgment to the reasons for this crime or that misstep.” Landry’s mature take on heartbreak matches him well with Justin Townes Earle, and the two are currently on tour
. Here’s “Just Like You” from Gill Landry
, out now on ATO Records