From the reunions of Ben Folds Five and Polvo to the loss of Cy Rawls and the Bu Hanan collective, the Triangle's music scene in 2008 was a mixed bag of surprises, some disappointing and many delightful. Of course we can't predict all the stories of sound that will emerge in these parts over the next 12 months, but we do have a few ideas on why your ears should be aimed straight ahead.
Next year should be loud 'round here: Birds of Avalon is back in the studio with straight-to-tape veteran Mitch Easter, the guy who recorded R.E.M.'s Murmur and last year's BOA EP Outer Upper Inner. Red Collar's Pilgrim is looking for a label. Hammer No More the Fingers made a record in Baltimore with Jawbox dude J. Robbins, and—like The Loners, who recently wrapped up a session with Greg Elkins—the band will release it on Durham's Churchkey. A split between Tooth and Philadelphia brethren The Claw is mostly done, and The Dirty Little Heaters has another batch of songs waiting in the wings. Soft Company recently completed its first LP of keyboards and clenched fists. Spider Bags promises a disc in the spring, and In the Year of the Pig is currently mixing its rowdy debut. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but is an LP from the new Des Ark trio featuring drummer Evan Rowe and guitarist Noah Howard also in the works?
But lean in close for a few other 2009 records: Expect less nylon finger-picking and more strummed chords on Bowerbirds' second LP, due on Dead Oceans in the middle of the year. Megafaun also jumped labels for its as-yet-untitled second LP. Portland's Hometapes will release the album in April. And Lonnie Walker—a band that graces Modest Mouse with a rollicking country motion—will release its first album on Terpikshore, the label run by members of Annuals, in the spring.
One of the Triangle's new bright lights, Durham's The Beast subverts a half-dozen stereotypes, and that's just staring at the surface: The Beast, for instance, isn't a metal band, and the name's not a reference to malt liquor. Instead, the multi-racial quartet makes live band hip-hop that opens its doors to history—Bob Marley covers, Gil Scott-Heron references, soul vocals, jazz style and taste—as emcee Pierce Freelon (yes, he has a mom) implodes preconceptions about being black in Durham. Listen to his "More2Me," and relish in the possibilities for them and, well, for us.
Inexplicably, 2008 saw a slow groundswell of instrumental rock in and around the Triangle, and most of it makes interesting departures from the trite Slint/ Mogwai/ Explosions in the Sky model. Raleigh's Gray Young (who, for the record, use vocals, but in a largely textural way) makes its anthems say a lot in very little time, and such careful editing and composition amps the intensity. Look for the band's fantastic debut, Firmament, early in 2009. Similarly, Greensboro's IRATA builds metal spires around Krautrock beds, and Caltrop, a two-guitar blüz metal band from Carrboro, is one of the latest, greatest champions of Southern rock heroics. Look for these relatively new bands (plus The Bronzed Chorus and Battle Rockets) to up their presence in 2009.
Chaz Martenstein runs Bull City Records, the little vinyl, disc and tape shop upstairs on Durham's Perry Street. Both when he was booking shows in his own space and, more recently at Bull City Headquarters, Martenstein helped cement the Triangle as a must-stop destination for touring punk and garage rock acts. Now, in the classic Rough Trade/ High Fidelity mold, he's started his own imprint to issue music by the bands he loves: His first release—a three-song 7-inch from Raleigh's Whatever Brains, officially out as soon as the calendar flips to 2009—is electric-fuzz pop brilliance, full of swagger and vinegar and bite. My new favorite band putting out records with the most affable record store clerk in the Triangle? Please, continue.
"Now, I know what you're thinking—another indie label, bad economy—'What are you thinking?' Well maybe that's just me thinking out loud," Paul Finn told me via introduction to his label, Odessa Records. On the contrary, I was actually thinking that Finn's first three releases—full-lengths of The Kingsbury Manx's beloved shimmer, Impossible Arms' bittersweet jangle, Americans in France's narcotic sprees—comprised a coup. Finn worked for indie giants Drag City and Merge for the better part of the last decade. Then he toured with Spider Bags. May that experience and this outstanding upstart roster serve him well.
As the international, big-bucks record industry continues to corrode, niche labels serving specialized pools of listeners in innovative ways thrive. This is especially true for fringe music communities, where labels committed to releasing music as physical products accompanied by complex packaging still lure noise, metal and drone listeners. Enter Hot Releases, the collaborative label of Boyzone members and sonic connoisseurs Ryan Martin and Jeff Rehnlund. They'll release mostly vinyl, tapes and zines, beginning with a perfect one-two entrée that's set for 2009's first quarter: Low Fiction from American Band (featuring Jason Crumer and a construction worker playing sheet metal) and Gangnam Basement from Rehnlund himself. Prepare yr ears, bros.
Durham's new bar down on Main Street, The Pinhook—owned by musicians, restaurant veterans and a partial owner of Bull City Headquarters—accomplishes the same thing that turned Kings into a Raleigh nexus: There's a room for mingling and a room for listening, and the connection between the two is big enough that you can do a little bit of both in either half. So far, the booking—much like the selection of neighborly (Triangle Brewing Co.) and cheap (Schlitz) beers—has been local, considerate and strong. The Pinhook's poised to grow. After all, this feels like the bar, club and locus for which Durham folks have been hoping.
During 2008, the area's two staple outdoor festivals—the Festival for the Eno and the biannual Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival—took unprecedented booking risks that reconnected the organizations with the Triangle's music scene. Young Durham acts like Bombadil, The Old Ceremony, Midtown Dickens, The Future Kings of Nowhere and Tender Fruit met bluegrass and folk stand-bys down by the river, while the three-piece electric maul of Des Ark, the outbound-folk of Megafaun and the eclectic glory of The Beast entered the Silk Hope woods. Look for these local roots to reach into even more fresh soil next year.
In January, we published an essay about The News & Observer's consistent pass on local music during 2007. They'd published no local album reviews, and the daily paper of record made a rare mention of Kings the week it closed. Related or not, The N&O's local coverage has increased this year, despite paperwide cutbacks and layoffs and the elimination of its entertainment weekly, What's Up? On the Beat, the blog of lead critic David Menconi, has pushed past its passive beginning, providing commentary, reviews and news several times a day. Extended stories on The Rosebuds, The Foreign Exchange, Greg Humphreys, Violet Vector & the Lovely Lovelies and many more have crept into the paper's pages. What's more, WRAL TV's Web site now maintains a Research Triangle Rock blog with show listings and interviews, and NBC 17 has given Jake Seaton, a highly capable former editor at N.C. State's Technician, his own music blog. Now keep it up.