Sounds of the City: Locavore Listening
This seems like a good month to catch up on some of the locally produced releases that have been streaming into my office lately. And by “streaming,” I mean the mailman delivers them to my cubicle on a regular basis: Yes, performers are still making and selling CDs (in addition to whatever else they do with their songs online), and your buying them is still one of the best ways you can directly support working musicians. Here’s what a random sampling of your neighbors—some of them long-established, some just starting out—have been up to in the last little while. Rather than providing label info, I’m giving you a website, which these days is the best way to find out about future shows and places you can buy the albums.
Maria Sebastian, Truth Gets the Front of the Line
This clear-voiced singer-songwriter has been on the WNY scene for a while now, and Sebastian’s last release, Yellow Envelope, was Spree’s Best Local Album of 2009. A perfect crystallization of her strengths as a vocalist, lyricist, and crafter of memorable melodies, that one was a hard act to follow, so it’s not really a diss to say Truth isn’t quite as immediately irresistible. Even so, its best moments—songs like “Let Her Go” and “There … I Said It”— grow richer with each successive listen.
This time there’s a loose structuring device: Sebastian tells us the album is “dedicated to those who have inspired me in life and literature,” and the CD artwork and liner notes evoke such disparate role models as Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Harvey Pekar, and Harry Nilsson. Lyrics get a little overly didactic here and there, but the melodies are invariably solid (I defy you to get some of them out of your head) and the basic concept is intriguing. Singer-songwriters are by nature an autobiographical lot, so it’s fun to watch one create a self-portrait through songs and stories about other writers.
Michael Oliver & the Sacred Band, Yin & Yanxiety
There’s never really been a concise but accurate tag for the subgenre of music made by singer-songwriters like Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Matthew Sweet, and Marshall Crenshaw—part ’60s power pop, part ’70s troubadour, and part ’80s/’90s indie/alt rock—but Oliver is clearly at home in their august company. I usually try to avoid comparing one artist to another, but if you like any of the folks whose names I’ve just dropped (or, for that matter, the solo albums of John Lennon, or the Big Star years of Alex Chilton’s career, or the ballads of REM), you owe it to yourself to explore Oliver and company’s latest variations on that nameless but eloquent sound.
The former leader of the much-lauded Go Dog Go has been based in Massachusetts for a while now, but WNY is still in Oliver’s blood; Yin & Yanxiety was partly recorded here and features cameos from Buffalo mainstays Michael Lee Jackson and Alex Lynne, among others. It’s an absolutely terrific album that deserves to be heard all across the land.
Erin Sydney Welsh, If I Should Fall
If Oliver and Sebastian (how’s that for a comedy duo?) are seasoned pros by now, this wise-beyond-her-years teenager is just beginning her career, and judging from what I’ve seen and heard so far, it’s off to an exciting start. When I first caught her onstage during the 2009 Infringement Festival, she was already a remarkably self-assured performer with a promising batch of original songs—at the age of thirteen. (Two years later, she was stunning the crowd with a spot-on visual impersonation of a mid-sixties Robert Zimmerman in Nietzsche’s annual Bob Dylan Imitators Contest.) Now she’s got an album’s worth of material, and it’s quite the debut: nine songs tailored to her strong, distinctive vocals and delicate, lilting guitar playing. The emotional range of the lyrics is particularly impressive: sometimes straightforward, sometimes artfully abstract, now and then simply playful. Welsh’s best melodies aren’t just vehicles to serve her words; in a perfect world, the hook-filled “Frostbite” would be all over the airwaves. I have little doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the years ahead, and I’m looking forward to it. Catch her December 1 at the Irishman (5601 Main St., Williamsville, 626-2670) and/or December 16 at the Orchard Perk Cafe (6183 W. Quaker St., Orchard Park, 662-3555).
The Albrights, ask, tell.
Fresh from their well-received stint as the house band in MusicalFare’s recent production of Oliver!, the quartet of Joe Donahue III, Brandon Barry, Matthew Crane, and Aaron Odden gets a chance to show off its own material on this debut CD. There’s an unmistakable, slightly disconcerting split in the material: the tracks Barry writes and sings (including opening number “Hard Times,” a spiffy anthem for Buffalo) have a rootsy, rock-and-roll-y feel with a working-class social consciousness, while Donahue’s angsty love songs play on his vocal similarity to Michael Jackson (not an influence one often hears in Buffalo indie bands). The result often feels like two different groups in one, but it makes sense somehow, and it certainly gives the group a distinct (if multiple) personality. Give the album a listen now, then discover for yourself how well the combination works live when they hit Nietzsche’s (248 Allen St., 886-8539) on December 30.
Ron Ehmke is an associate editor of Buffalo Spree and writes about music and other poppish/cultured matters for a variety of publications.