Last year, bands in the Triangle made so much great music and so many national inroads that, for the first time all decade, we polled our critics on their favorite local albums.
We better get ready for a repeat: Though this is only the first issue of March, we've already reviewed a handful of strong records this year, with releases by Minor Stars, Organos and Schooner among the best. These six locals have recently wrapped sessions with new material. We asked for a sneak peek.
Stay tuned for updates from new label Grip Tapes, The Moaners, Mount Moriah, Horseback, Veelee, Kooley High, Little Brother and more.
Since the release of their eponymous debut in June 2003, Raleigh quartet Chatham County Line has cranked out three more records, each within less than two years of its predecessor. Yep Roc released the progressively less bluegrass band's fourth effort, IV, in March 2008. So by now, you might be wondering just where V, or whatever they're calling it, is.
"It ate up a lot of time," explains CCL fiddler and mandolin player John Teer. He's not talking about the album, though; he's talking about the group's collaboration with Norwegian folk star Jonas Fjeld. After several successful tours with Fjeld, SONY/ BMG Norsk released their first collaborative studio album, Brother of Song, in February 2009. It's gone gold in Norway and is up for a Norwegian Grammy this week. They leave midweek to play several European shows and to attend the ceremony.
Chatham County Line has time for banquets now, though, at least for a spell: The band's fifth album—tentatively titled Wildwood—is finished. Chief songwriter Dave Wilson engineered Wildwood at Asheville's Echo Mountain Recording. They made IV there with Chris Stamey, who produced every CCL album until this one. This time, Wilson wanted to focus on live recordings, with everyone gathered around one microphone, mixing themselves by controlling their volume. After all, this is how they've been doing it on stages for years.
"Since we've been doing it so long onstage, mixing ourselves vocally, it paid off, because we knew how to do it," says Teer. "I felt it had a lot more emotion and energy that way."
But that doesn't mean it sounds like an old-time record. Teer says Wildwood continues Chatham County Line's movement away from strict bluegrass toward a nexus of singer-songwriter-based Americana. Only one of these songs qualifies as bluegrass, he says, and one is even a rock 'n' roll track, with Zeke Hutchins on drums and Wilson on electric guitar.
"I'm sure a lot of fans of ours are going to say, 'What's this?'" surmises Teer. "But we feel that's part of a band—to keep evolving and do what feels right." —Grayson Currin
"It just means 'up until this point'," says Brad Cook, explaining the title of the third release from his trio Megafaun, Heretofore.
The six-song, 36-minute recording is an EP more in its playful spirit than in its running time. Balancing three succinct cuts with typical Megafaun sprawl—a 13-minute instrumental piece and two mid-length songs—the record looks to be a strong stopgap after last year's Gather, Form & Fly. But it also offers an extension of Megafaun's sonic poles.
"I feel like it's the best hooks and lyrics that we've done," says Cook. "But it also has the most far-reaching stuff we've ever put on a record."
Cook says Heretofore has "more of a sense of humor than things we've done in the past," as well as marking a change in process and approach for Megafaun. Recorded at Raleigh's Flying Tiger Sound studio with B.J. Burton, this is the first time the band has used a dedicated studio to record its basic tracks. What's more, they enlisted several guests—Mark Paulson of Bowerbirds and Ticonderoga, local horn man Robert "Crowmeat Bob" Pence, members of Danish label mates Slaraffenland, and guitarist Matt Watts of new Raleigh band SeaLegs. "I think the sound is much bigger than the first two," offers Cook.
The EP also trades the deep drone that has been a centerpiece of Megafaun's experimental explorations on albums past for a more active direction in the improvised pieces. "Everything that happens, happens faster," Cook promises.
Fitting, as Megafaun has yet to slow down from the momentum gathered by Gather, Form & Fly. The newly finished EP will likely be presented first in a prerelease version available at stops along the band's April tour of the U.S.—their sixth nationwide trek in three years—before being released officially through Hometapes in the summer. And just 12 hours before flying to Europe for a three-week tour, they were in the studio with Burton, finalizing mixes and overdubs.
"It feels like it was just a really awesome step forward," summarizes Cook. —Bryan Reed
During the last decade, Aimee Argote has had more bands called Des Ark than she has albums under that name. She's howled and jerked in sweaty houses and rock clubs, backed by a drummer, another drummer, yet another drummer and a second guitarist, and a small symphony. She's brought big crowds to a whisper with nothing but her voice and a banjo or a tiny guitar that kept slipping out of tune. But, a stack of radio sessions aside, Des Ark only has one LP, 2005's Loose Lips Sink Ships, and a collaborative split, 2007's Battle of the Beards, to call its own.
Don't Rock the Boat, Sink the Fucker—the band's brilliant second LP, due this summer on Lovitt Records—makes up for the time lag and the lost members.
"On the record, I wanted to put on tape whatever it was that I heard in my head, which I can never do live. And that doesn't matter," says Argote, walking to her job making crepes in Philadelphia, where she's lived for the past several months. "It's my project, and I wanted it to be what comes out of me when I do it how I imagine. It was a fun experiment."
The experiment took its time. Sink is a record of extremes—heavy and roiling during "Ashley's Song," twinkling and tender during "Howard's Hour." As such, Argote couldn't do everything in one place or one room. She began recording the quiet tunes in Richmond, Va., in 2007, finishing just last year. The more aggressive numbers were recorded last May in trio form with guitarist Noah Howard and drummer Ashley Arnwine in Salem, Mass., by Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou. The multiple sessions afforded Argote the chance to think through the material more than ever before.
"Usually, you get stuck on a part, and you just have to keep going," she says. "Here, I had a lot of time to sit with it and wait to see how it would be fixed. So a year later when I'd go back to finish this song, I knew how it was supposed to sound." —Grayson Currin
Ari Picker's indie orchestra Lost in the Trees has been touring with the nine songs on All Alone in a Empty House since the fall of 2008. They've played sold-out hometown shows, a packed CMJ showcase and the crowded photo studio of a man in Freehold, New Jersey. But they're not going to put the tunes down any time soon.
On Monday, Los Angeles record label ANTI-, home to artists including Tom Waits and Neko Case, announced that it will release a rerecorded version of the album May 11. For this new take, Picker headed into the studio with veteran indie producer Scott Solter to realize larger versions of the tunes that are more sympathetic to the 12-piece band's live versions. They also cut two new tunes—"A Room Where Your Paintings Hang" and "We Burn the Leaves."
"I feel like, generally, the perception of Lost in the Trees is this giant folk orchestra, because that's what the live band was," Picker said two weeks ago, flanked by some of his bandmates and Will Hackney and Martin Anderson, who originally released the album on their label, Trekky Records. "But when you actually listen to the record, there's not that many instruments on it. There's a lot of really small songs and kind of bedroom versions. It's actually filled out now, to where it would be more what the live show is like."
On the earlier version, for instance, "Love on My Side" is a straightforward country jingle with only a guitar and doubled vocals. Picker almost scrapped it for this second take but chose instead to completely rebuild it with Solter. He says he'd been kicking around the idea of remaking some of these tracks long before ANTI- approached the band last September, since he'd only realized the full possibilities of the tunes on tour. Before Trekky re-pressed the record last year, he almost made the switch. But he waited. The new label even prefers some of the original takes now, he admits, but he felt a new version of the old material was an essential introduction to a much larger audience.
"It's true to what your vision of the record is," Anderson says to Picker. "It's sort of taking it a little further, getting in the zone of where the songs have space and can exist."
At least local fans who've known these songs since their original release in September 2008 won't have to wait too long for new material. Picker has already demoed several songs, and he's anxious to start turning them into the next Lost in the Trees LP. As for Trekky, the local label that's been working with Picker and a dozen local bands for the better part of a decade, they're not worried about losing their biggest act to a huge label. Their insignia will be on the back of this new version, too, and it all sends a signal that they're doing something right.
"It's really cool to just see it grow, see it change, but still to be super-involved with it," says Anderson. "We're all still the team, the family."
"Our mission is just to do whatever our friends want to do with their music," echoes Hackney. "A lot of people are going to get to hear this band we've worked with and developed from just being friends." —Grayson Currin
During that last snowbound weekend of January, most of the Triangle waited indoors for the six-plus inches of snow to melt or they went outside to play in it. But Stu McLamb, the founder and frontman of glowing soul-rock outfit The Love Language, used it as an excuse to obsess over "Wilmont," the gorgeous, gigantic centerpiece of his band's second record, Libraries. For those three wintry days, he and producer B.J. Burton didn't leave the studio.
"We tracked that song twice that weekend," remembers Burton, sounding suddenly exhausted by the memory. McLamb and Burton spent the better part of six weeks in January and February cloistered into the Flying Tiger Sound studio, on Peace Street in Raleigh, finishing the album in time for the Merge Records fall release schedule. "We made two versions of it and did some other edits, so it was a pretty productive weekend. But we did get some cabin fever. We would be laying in the hallway, laughing at nothing."
After signing to Merge Records last September, McLamb gathered the sextet he'd been touring with for nearly two years at guitarist Josh Pope's house in Chapel Hill. He'd made the first record by himself, when The Love Language was more of an idea than an enterprise, but the goal was to make this one as a group. He quickly realized it wasn't going to work. In early January, he moved to Raleigh and went to work with Burton. The takes were intense.
"We would go out at night, and I couldn't socialize with people. They would be having a conversation, and I would just smile. All I could think about was the guitar tone on track six," says Burton. "I would run over to Stu and tell him we had to try something."
"It was definitely a pretty brutal process," says McLamb, laughing.
But that toil allowed McLamb to capture the songs as he'd heard them in his head—particular drum fills, strumming patterns, sonic shifts—without completely forsaking the gritty, straight-to-tape sound of the debut. That rough Spector-on-a-shoestring sound helped lift his bedroom project to national notice, after all. And though McLamb says the band's debut told a better story, he had more fun and took more chances with the songs themselves on the 10-track, 34-minute Libraries. "Wilmont," named for the Hillsborough Street apartment complex he used to call home, is the premier example. It begins with his voice and spare accompaniment, but it booms its way to a glorious, almost orchestral finish.
"My dad had a tape machine, and when he was in college its primary function was transferring his vinyl to tape. It's really low quality, and I don't think it was ever intended to record bands," he says. "But we did the intro off that, and then, when the drums come in, they're huge. I don't know how BJ got that sound."
McLamb and Burton first worked together last fall on "Horophones," which McLamb cut for the local compilation Hear Here: The Triangle. Burton says they immediately had chemistry, finishing that track within only a few hours. He knew they'd work together at length eventually, but he didn't know how soon or just how much. After those aborted band sessions, they tried one session and one song, "Brittany's Back," and it was clear the chemistry hadn't been a fluke.
"The goal we set for ourselves was that this doesn't have to be The Love Language, hi-fi, in a studio," says McLamb. "I'm more proud of it than anything I've ever recorded."—Grayson Currin
On this Monday morning, Nicolay Rook is finally settling in to begin the third album by The Foreign Exchange, the Dutch producer's collaboration with Little Brother emcee and soul singer Phonte Coleman. The pair plans to have the album done by July and out in October, but, until now, they've been too busy with The Ballad of Purple St. James, the long-delayed new LP by Durham soul singer Yahzarah, to focus on their own Grammy-nominated project.
"From November on, we worked on it—especially Phonte—day and night," says Rook. "A lot of different people were involved, and with all of the little pieces of the project, we oversaw everything. The date is May 4."
That date is when Rook and Coleman's label, Foreign Exchange Music, will release St. James, the first album they've produced in the classic sense. That is, they didn't compose or perform everything here, but they helped pick the players and material.
"It's really exciting for us to be behind the scenes and see someone from our own camp do their own thing," says Rook from his home in Wilmington. Yahzarah tours with The Foreign Exchange and has contributed not only to their albums but to Little Brother's The Minstrel Show. "I think a lot of people will be very pleasantly surprised."
The 13-track, 53-minute album puts Yahzarah in a variety of different contexts. Several ballads sit among a few big band tracks, some upbeat numbers, a piano-and-strings whisper and one track that Rook dares call rock. But he says it keeps the focus squarely on her voice, eliding guest vocalists and features so that she alone carries most songs. Coleman contributes to one tune, while longtime Justus League associate Darien Brockington sings on another.
"I think she is our generation's best female singer right now. I think she's our current Minnie Ripperton," says Rook. "She wanted to create an album that truly sums up everything she's all about. Luckily, we were able to help her do this." —Grayson Currin