More 2012 Favorites

I've shared my top three with you and appreciate your feedback. Here are three more 2012 releases I couldn't wait to get my hands on and then couldn't get enough of once I did. Three at a time seems like an easily-digestible amount; I hope you agree. More to come.

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Langhorne Slim & The Law - The Way We Move

I adore this man, this band, and this album. They're one of my favorite live acts and Sean (Mr. Langhorne Slim) is one of my favorite people to interview. He is a magical person, with a magnetism that is so immediately engaging that after five minutes, you feel as though you've always known him. That's exactly the sort of person I try to surround myself with, and for me, all that vibing comes across in his music, so I think that's why he's one of my favorites. I'm not alone in this - wherever you see them play, it feels like a hometown show. They exude a lust for life and love, and their fans mirror it right on back to them. Their live show is a wholly delightful experience. The crowdsourced album, which was released at the beginning of June, is one of those rare gems that you want to put on, turn all the way up, and play straight through without skipping any songs. This guy's got soul for days and days. If you're unfamiliar, this album is a great place to start.

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Justin Townes Earle - Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now

My frequent concert companion and I counted, and we're fairly certain that JTE is the live act we saw most frequently in 2012. It's fascinating to me how I can see him over and over, and the stage banter can be the same each time - almost verbatim - and yet I never get tired of hearing him introduce the songs or give some context borne of his encyclopedic knowledge of folk, the blues, country, and Americana. I love his music, but I also adore him for his reverence.

Two notable performances I had the good fortune to witness were a show at Mr. Small's Funhouse in Pittsburgh (we made the four-hour trek because Mr. Small's was on my venue bucket list) and an event he curated at Pace University that was held in conjunction with a Woody Guthrie exhibit. Guthrie would have been 100 in 2012, and his daughter, Nora Guthrie, asked Earle to host an event in the spirit of her father; that is to say, she wanted Justin to play his own music, and invite some friends to do the same. "I guess she thought people might get tired of hearing 'This Land is Your Land' if they heard it too many times?," he joked that evening. The event took place in a campus auditorium and also featured short solo sets by Joe Pug and John McCauley of Deer Tick, as well as a reading from Woody Guthrie: A Life by biographer Joe Klein (Primary Colors, Time magazine). This was one of my biggest geek-out moments of the year. (It also bears mentioning that our buddy John McCauley left this gig early to get back to rehearsal; he was playing Carnegie Hall the next night. Seriously.)

I pre-ordered the album, and when it arrived, I put it on the record player and puzzled over the opening track. It sounded so slow that I thought I was playing it on the wrong speed. I lifted the needle, switched it to 45 RPM, and tried again. But that definitely wasn't right. I switched back to 33 RPM, sat down on the floor in front of the stereo, and let it wash over me. The sound is so low-down and rain-soaked that it nearly breaks my heart every time I listen. The album includes two of the saddest songs ever written ("Am I That Lonely Tonight" and "Unfortunately Anna") and I do so love a sad song.

JTE is one of my Holy Grail interviews. I've reviewed performances and written some light features, but I've lost count of the number of times I was supposed to interview him and it fell through for one reason or another. He's an interesting person to read about, and I hope that eventually I'll get to talk to him about his craft.

PRO TIP - Follow him on Twitter. That's all I'm going to say about it. I love his tweets so much that I have them sent to my phone as text messages so I don't miss any of them.

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The Gaslight Anthem - Handwritten

Another one of my all-time favorite bands. Gritty, blue-collar punk rock from New Jersey (cue ubiquitous Springsteen comparisons). I was unaware of them until one night in 2008. I had attended a friend's gig at a local bar, and when I left, the roads were deserted and it had started snowing. I got in the car just as the song "Miles Davis and the Cool" came on WXPN. I was so mesmerized by it that I missed the turn to my house and ended up several miles out of my way. I got up the next morning and drove around until I found a copy of the album containing that song. It didn't occur to me for one second to purchase a digital download; I wanted a physical copy I could hold in my hands. It was their first full-length, The '59 Sound, and it is a PERFECT album. I love all their other releases, including this most recent one, but I rank The '59 Sound up there with Pearl Jam's Ten and Michael Jackson's Thriller in terms of absolute perfection.

Their lead singer, Brian Fallon, is one of my favorite songwriters. I really came to appreciate how good he was when I saw him at the Black Cat in DC in early 2010. He and Dave Hause (the Loved Ones) were doing a mini solo acoustic tour. I got tickets thinking that, when you see one dude with an acoustic guitar playing punk rock songs that you typically see him play with his full band, it's either really cool or abysmally lame. In this case, the stripped-down versions revealed such an incredible versatility in the songs themselves and in his musicianship. It turned out to be one of the best live music experiences of my life. He and Hause decided to play a few songs together at the end of the night, and compared notes before the show about what covers might be fun to do. When they played The Bouncing Souls' "Gone," and the entire room sang along, I cried *. I don't mean I got caught up in the moment and got a little teary-eyed. I mean I was full-on bawling and made my friend hold my hand through most of the song.

Anyway, this album: really great.

* If you're going to be a regular reader here, you should know that I cry at shows. All the time. That bit about live music being my church? I wasn't kidding. The most religious experiences I've ever had were standing in front of a stage. I mean, don't get me wrong, I cry pretty easily in general. The world is such a beautiful, heartbreaking place. But it happens most frequently at shows.

Favorite 2012 Releases: Top Three

I always enjoy reading the year-end "Best Of" lists throughout December. I'm the kind of dork that A) keeps a spreadsheet of releases, ranking them in order of preference/personal play count and 2) experiences a constant undercurrent of anxiety over the fact that I won't ever get to hear all the good music.

Here are my top three favorite releases of 2012. These are the ones that got the heaviest rotation in JJ-land. I can't recommend them highly enough. I'll be posting more of my favorites soon.

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Shovels & Rope - O' Be Joyful

I first became aware of Shovels & Rope when I saw them open for my pals Jonny Fritz & The In-Laws at the Abbey Bar in Harrisburg, PA at the beginning of April. I didn't know who they were, and was surprised when I discovered that most of the people I met that night weren't familiar with Jonny, but had come to see SnR. They blew me away, and the other folks were thoroughly entertained by Jonny and the guys, and we all left happy and with another new favorite band. 

This is the first full-length that husband-and-wife duo Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst have released under the moniker Shovels & Rope. They both have wonderful solo records to their credits. Michael's solo album, The Winner (which now has a firm spot in my top 10 all-time favorite albums), was the first project Michael ever recorded on his own. He set up around a single microphone in their home, and just sort of figured it out as he went along. His second recording project was O' Be Joyful. It's a beautiful album that captures much of the spirit of their live act, which is sort of like a countrified, rockabilly answer to the White Stripes.

Michael and Cary Ann are versatile musicians that trade off playing various instruments - guitars, a snare/kick/cymbal set-up, tambourines, harmonicas, the occasional maraca - as accompaniment to gorgeous vocal harmonies.

I interviewed them this fall and Cary Ann told me that they quite literally learned to play the drums onstage. It was the only option; they have a jam-packed tour schedule, and they're on the road driving between gigs. When she was telling me about it, she said one of my favorite things anyone told me in an interview this year - that it was easy for Michael to figure it out because he is "very athletic, musically." Having seen them perform four times prior to that conversation, I couldn't agree more with that turn of phrase. They are both such gifted musicians, and so incredibly charming (HOT) onstage together.

Big, big fan. Go get this album, and everything else either of them has ever recorded (PRO TIP: include all the albums by Michael's former band, The Films, on your shopping list.)

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Delta Spirit - Delta Spirit

I get nervous when my favorite bands release new albums. What if I don't like them as much as previous releases? This is of course completely irrational, because I see my favorite bands perform live so often that on the day the new albums come out, I can pretty much sing along to every word of every road-tested song.

Such was the case with Delta Spirit's self-titled LP. Their first two full-lengths and several stellar EPs set the bar high, but this record exceeded any expectations I had and seems to have added a burst of jet fuel to their already-swift trajectory to acclaim and notoriety.

The first time I met lead singer Matt Vasquez (maybe third or fourth time seeing Delta Spirit perform) was at Kung-Fu Necktie, a tiny but deliciously loud venue in Philadelphia's Northern Liberties neighborhood. I had arrived early after a two-hour slog across the snowy PA turnpike, and the band was still setting up. MV hopped down off the stage, walked over to me, and stuck his hand out to introduce himself (this night was also my introduction to Jonny Fritz, nee Corndawg). He and other members of the band have been so very gracious every subsequent time I've run into them, at increasingly larger venues.

The last time I saw MV was when a crowd gathered in the halls of Fort Adams during the Newport Folk Festival to wait out a rainstorm that descended just as the second annual Backstage Benefit BBQ was scheduled to begin. A pick-up jam session was in progress, typical of the magic that is Newport Folk weekend. I was sitting on the stone floor, completely mesmerized, when my son began digging his elbow into my side and whispering loudly in my ear, "holy shit! It's Matt Vasquez!" I leaned forward and saw that Matt and his wife were sitting on the other side of Pants, holding hands and smiling as Joel Rafael, Sara and Sean Watkins, Ben Sollee, and others played Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan songs.

I digress...my point is, Delta Spirit has become such a well-respected and much-beloved band in such a relatively short time period. I have seen them probably 20 times, but only since the spring of 2009. The first time I saw them, I hadn't heard of them yet over here on the East Coast. It's been a pleasure watching the world discover them, and the newest album reveals a band that has grown into its ambition and fully defined its sound.

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JD McPherson - Signs & Signifiers

The first time I heard JD McPherson was on WXPN. I immediately sought out this album, which was reissued this year as McPherson's Rounder Records debut. I would have guessed it was recorded in, oh, say 1956, and was shocked when I found out it was a recent recording. Of course that was all part of McPherson's plan; he recorded in bassist Jimmy Sutton's studio using vintage equipment and analog tape - to masterful effect. I was further stunned when, the day before I was to see them live at XPN's summer festival, I saw a photo of McPherson for the first time. He plays the guitar like Chuck Berry and when he sings, I think of Fats Domino...JD McPherson is a white guy, roughly my age? Well, I'll be damned.

This is my current favorite record to spin when I'm getting ready to go out for the evening, and my favorite to spin when I get back home from being out for the evening. It makes me pine for old cars and tins of pomade. It is impossible to sit still when it's on. Now who wants to teach me to swing dance?

BONUS: this is an entire band full of dudes with most excellent hair. I swooned so hard over Jimmy Sutton's salt-and-pepper pompadour at XPN Fest that I nearly threw my back out.