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.
Bessie Jones with the Georgia Sea Island Singers
The increasingly-essential label Tompkins Square continues to solidify a stellar reputation for preserving traditional American folk music that’s on par with the one earned by Smithsonian Folkways and Folk Legacy when those labels and their legendary releases helped usher in the Folk Revival of the 1960s. Tompkins Square’s latest release, Get In Union, is a collection of gospel, folk, and blues songs recorded by Alan Lomax between 1959 and 1966, and features the powerful voice of Bessie Jones and the harmonious accompaniment of the Georgia Sea Island Singers. While many of the songs are familiar, the simple yet moving way they’re performed by Jones and the Singers makes this collection a must-buy. Often acapella with only handclaps and foot stomps for rhythm, Jones and the Singers made church music that could move the unbeliever. The collection also includes unheard collaborations with the legendary Rev. Gary Davis, among other figures of the Folk Revival. Here’s “Sheep, Sheep, Don’t You Know the Road?” off Get In Union, available now through Tompkins Square.
Lost Bayou Ramblers
The high-energy music of Lost Bayou Ramblers is a great example of one of the more innovative ways to keep traditional folk music alive. The four-piece band combines traditional aspects of Cajun music with electric guitars and a punk ethos that pushes old music into a new direction without sacrificing anything. The band, which was featured in one of the songs on the soundtrack for Beasts of the Southern Wild, has recently released a new album that was actually never planned. After playing at a New Orleans venue called Gasa Gasa, the band discovered that the set had been recorded and that it sounded great. The recording captured a loose and rousing performance that will only help the band add to its growing and diverse fan-base. Here’s “Croche” off Gasa Gasa Live, available now through Bandcamp.
Hailu Mergia and the Walias
If you’ve picked up an airport cab in Washington any time over the past 20 years, it’s possible your cab driver was an Ethiopian music star; specifically, keyboardist and accordion player Hailu Mergia, who was a member of one of the most popular Ethiopian jazz/funk bands in the mid-1970s. The music never died for Mergia, though, and his performing career was recently resurrected by Brian Shimkovitz, who runs the outstanding obscure African music label Awesome Tapes from Africa. In addition to setting a tour up for Mergia and his band, Shimkovitz also re-released Mergia’s most popular album, Tche Belew, which was originally released in 1977. The instrumental record showcases the outstanding blend of traditional Ethiopian and Western funk that made Mergia and his band famous in their homeland and abroad. Here’s “Eti Gual Blenai” off Tche Belew, which is out now Awesome Tapes from Africa.
The new record from the French-based but globally-influenced ensemble LO’JO is an outstanding collection of Eastern European-tinged compositions arranged for brass and woodwinds. The compositions on the new record, 310 Lunes, are influenced by Eastern European music, and demonstrate the ensemble’s impeccable timing and chemistry with one another. In complex arrangements such as “Kalo Moon,” the band is so tight that it almost sounds like electronic music. 310 Lunes is available now on World Village.
Philip Corner plays Satie
When French composer and pianist Erik Satie first wrote his simple, yet mesmerizing piano pieces in the early years of the 20th Century, his contemporaries weren’t quite sure what to make of them. Always at the forefront of the avant-garde, it wasn’t until well after his death that Satie’s musical genius would be truly appreciated by fellow composers. Often cited as a primary influence for the mid-century American musical avant-garde, Satie’s music became the starting point for modern minimalism and a touchstone for the likes of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and many others. And even after all these years, there’s still plenty to learn from Satie. A case in point is the recent two-disc album of Satie’s early works by contemporary American pianist Philip Corner, Satie Slowly. As the title suggests, Corner’s approach to performing Satie’s work is to take his score direction of “lent” (a French term for slow tempo) to its extreme. On well-known compositions such as “Gnossienne No. 1” and “The Feast Given By The Norman Knights to Honour a Young Girl,” the slow tempo becomes almost agonizing because of the listener’s temptation to finish the familiar melody in their head before Corner plays it. At other times, though, the slow tempo delicately coaxes every last bit of harmonic beauty from Satie’s music and allows the listener to really mediate on not just the notes, but the deliberate spaces between the notes. Here’s “Ogive No. 1” off Satie Slowly, available now on Unseen Worlds.
John Supko and Bill Seaman
On first listen, the computer-crafted compositions of John Supko and Bill Seaman resemble organically-produced songs. What makes the compositions interesting, though, is the realization that what appears to be one song is actually a conglomeration of countless sound clips, some of which are barely a second long, all culled from a sound archive of more than 110 hours of clips. The end result is the audio equivalent of a digital image that reveals its pixilated parts upon close inspection. Their latest album s_traits is an ongoing investigation into the capabilities and potential of computer-composed music. The techniques used and philosophy behind the project is difficult to convey briefly, but the album comes with informative liner notes that shed light on the fascinating project. Here’s “Out From the Straits” off s_traits, available Nov. 4 on Cotton Goods.
Recording under the moniker Grouper, ambient singer-songwriter Liz Harris demonstrates on her latest record that with personal songwriting, the simplest approach is often the most powerful. Made with just a single mic, upright piano, and basic four-track recorder during a residency in Portugal, Harris’ songs are breathtaking in their vulnerability and poignant in their ability to preserve the raw moods of the moments in which these songs were written. “The album is a document,” said Harris in a press release. “I left the songs the way they came (microwave beep from when power went out after a storm). I hope that the album bears some resemblance to the place that I was in.” Here’s “Holding” off Ruins, available now on Kranky.
Angelo De Augustine
For a singer-songwriter drawn to writing songs in the tradition of Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, the nature of performance becomes an interesting dilemma. How does an introverted songwriter with a desire to share what’s on their mind handle the perpetual discomfort of playing for an audience? It’s a question that L.A.-based Angelo De Augustine has already mulled over upon the positive reception of the bedroom-recorded songs that have become his debut album, Spiral of Silence. “The title, to me, means to be caught in the endless loop of silence, where you very much desire to live in the world, but are too afraid to be the one to initiate the first step, and are therefore sent back to the beginning,” says De Augustine in a press release. While Drake and Smith are obvious touchstones for De Augustine, he shows plenty of originality throughout his debut release, most notably in his arrangements. On songs like “How Past Begins,” De Augustine follows the folk template of verse/chorus faithfully before sending the song down an unexpected path at the end that’s hard to shake from your head. Spiral of Silence is available on Nov. 18.