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.
One of the marks of a master musician is knowing when you have learned enough to help others learn and appreciate the craft. Simo Lagnawi is one such musician. A master in the style of traditional North African music called gnawa, Lagnawi left his native Morocco in 2008 for London, and through busking and running his own school, he’s finding a receptive audience for the beautiful, trance-inducing music of his homeland. Played with a three-stringed lute-like instrument called a guemrbi, gnawa is the centerpiece of North African ceremonies performed to invoke the spirits. Here’s “Sandika,” which is sung to summon the forest spirit Sandiye. Lagnawi’s latest album, The Gnawa Berber, is out now on Riverboat Records.
Jake Xerxes Fussell
The contemporary American folk scene is comprised of a lot of outstanding players and singers who are doing a great job of keeping the heritage of American folk music alive by playing it “vintage,” so to speak. But in order for a musical tradition to stay relevant, there needs to be a steady influx of new interpretations to demonstrate the old songs aren’t just interesting relics, but still very much alive and as influential as ever. Fortunately, there are contemporary folk singers like Jake Xerxes Fussell who embody that ethos. The son of southern folklorist Fred C. Fussell, Jake has spent most of his life steeped in the musical and cultural traditions of the American South. He grew up in notorious Phenix City, Alabama, home of blues legend Ma Rainey and novelist Carson McCullers, and learned his craft by apprenticing and playing with a variety of bluesmen, folkies, and technically-proficient players from across the country. On his self-titled debut, Fussell takes everything he’s learned over the years and makes his mark with a unique blend of faithful retelling and subtle irreverence that could be best summarized as respectful interpretation. The foundation for each song is familiar, but the lyrical emphasis and expansive production not only breathe new life into old songs, but also allow Fussell to make them fit his preferences and personality—a process in folk music that’s as old and as important as the songs are. Fussell's debut record is out Jan. 27 on Paradise of Bachelors.
Superchunk (Ryan Adams cover)
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Chicago-based Bloodshot Records released its first album. Considering the precarious nature of the music industry, that’s quite a feat, and not at all lost on the dedicated group of music fans behind the label. To celebrate, the label decided to open up its catalog to a variety of artists that have been impacted by Bloodshot artists—past and present—and the end result is the cover album While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records. The songs selected cover the well-known to the obscure among the impressive roster of artists that have called Bloodshot home over the years. One of the more appropriate inclusions is Superchunk covering Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up” —a gritty example of the brutally honest brand of Americana that Bloodshot has become known for covered by the band responsible for founding Merge Records, another equally venerable indie label that — like Bloodshot—is stronger than ever. Altogether, the project is a celebration not just of Bloodshot Records, but of the independent music industry it has been integral in shaping. While No One Was Looking is out now on Bloodshot Records.
Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons
Following in the footsteps of a long trail of American folk singers, Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons use the rich variety of American folk music to entertain and educate. Collectively, the pair started an educational program called Rhapsody which aims to “spread the gospel of American folk music through public events and school workshops.” And through their concerts, Hunter with his fiddle and Seamons with his banjo help audiences connect with a uniquely American musical heritage that touches everything from blues to hokum to jazz. Their latest record, Take Yo Time, is a nice selection of the wide variety of musical styles the pair has mastered, all recorded in a relaxed and informal setting. Here’s “Banks of the River,” off Take Yo Time, available now.
Canadian musician/actor Max Turnbull—better known by his stage/screen name Slim Twig—has been active in Canada since 2006, but is just now receiving greater exposure outside the Great White North thanks to the DFA Records re-release of his 2012 album A Hound at the Hem. Upon first listen, it becomes almost a game to pick out all of the influences and homages Slim Twig uses to flavor his music. There’s a definite Nick Cave vibe throughout, but certain phrases and melodies bring to mind a whole host of wildly different touchstones from Elvis to Jim Morrison to David Bowie. In all, Slim Twig takes an approach to making pop music that’s very much like collage: by combining a variety of familiar sounds and styles, he’s made something that sounds remarkably new and different. Here’s “Clerical Collar” off A Hound at the Hem, out now on DFA Records.
Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Michaela Anne proves that you don’t need the pedigree of a southern-born, country singer to be a great country singer. On her sophomore release, Ease My Mind, Anne clearly demonstrates that she’s willing to bare the heart and soul that are essential ingredients in great country music. It also doesn’t hurt that she has a beautiful soprano that’s earned her comparisons to Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. A good example of all of the above can be found on “I’m Not Her.” Ease My Mind is out now.