The Block Island Times

Five must-have music stocking stuffers

From classic rock to new indie folk
By Joel Taylor | Dec 24, 2013

As a musician and self-identified obsessive music lover, here’s my list of five recently released albums that would likely make the music fanatic in your life very happy. Even in this digital age, compact discs still make for a great stocking stuffer. Many listeners are also trending back toward vinyl because it sounds better than digital recordings, but it’s still difficult and costly to transfer a vinyl record to a hard drive. Converting an analog recording into digital format also negates the whole point of listening to vinyl anyway.

Here’s my list:

1. “The Jimi Hendrix Experience Box Set” — The Jimi Hendrix Experience (2013) — Blues/Rock/Psychedelic Rock

This epic collection of previously unreleased studio sessions and live performances has been dubbed the “purple box” by Hendrix fans. This 2013 issue includes all the tracks from the original four-disc release from the year 2000, plus four additional previously unreleased recordings.

For musicians, science-fiction lovers, and especially guitar players, there’s a potentially life-changing event inside this purple box. It shows that there’s more to Hendrix’s talent than his ridiculous skill with the guitar; it’s the way he can transmit an emotion from his soul to his guitar strings, through his Marshall amplifier, into another person’s ears, out the ends of the upright hairs on the back of their neck and into the atmosphere.

David Fricke of Rolling Stone has described the “Experience Box Set” as the “Rolls Royce of posthumous Hendrix sets.” The set basically catalogues Hendrix’s growth, beginning with rare recordings of some of The Experience’s hit songs on the first disc, and moving in a mostly chronological manner through the next three discs, carefully illuminating Hendrix’s developing songwriting and vocal skills, and his ever-changing musical interests and desires. The last two discs are sprinkled with Hendrix’s musical adventures with friend and bassist Billy Cox, and other friends outside the Experience.

The collection ends with a beautiful instrumental piece named “Slow Blues” that cuts out before its conclusion, leaving the listener hanging and wanting, as if to draw a parallel to Jimi Hendrix’s short life. “The Jimi Hendrix Experience Box Set” is the ultimate experience, indeed; one to be enjoyed in total solitude and awe.

Highlight: “Bold As Love (Olympic Studios, 1967)”

2. “The Stray Birds” — The Stray Birds (2012) — Folk/Americana

Comprised of three young multi-instrumentalists from southeastern Pennsylvania, the Stray Birds have had something special for a while and they’re finally being heard. Their self-titled second album gets to the point and grabs attention with force. This album has been hanging out in international Americana music charts with (and in a few cases above) super-popular Americana bands like The Lumineers. They have an incredible ability to create a big sound with only three instruments at a time, and without drums.

Maya De Vitry (vocals, fiddle, banjo, guitar) and Oliver Craven (vocals, guitar, violin, banjo, mandolin) write poignant, transcendental lyrics in an effortless fashion. The songwriting and storytelling on this album presses itself right up against that spot under the breast plate and stays there for a while. In a verse from “Heavy Hands”, Craven leads, “I got heavy hands and the reigns to bear it. It’s a foreign tale, I don’t often share it. This hungry feeling, still, I wear it. It’s mine all the time.”

Craven’s arresting vocals, layering and taking turns with De Vitry’s breezy voice, makes for a heavenly combination. When De Vitry leads in songs like the sweet “Wildflower Honey” and the heartache medication, “Dream in Blue”, she gives them a beautifully haunting yet soothingly hopeful vibe, creating that feeling one gets when looking into a clear night sky on Block Island. Charlie Muench (bass, vocals) holds everything together with an unshakable rhythm while simultaneously embellishing the music to create a surprisingly full and rich sound. It’s less pop and more country than the most recognizable Americana artists, but any fan of the Lumineers will be playing “The Stray Birds” on a daily basis as soon as they discover it.

Highlight: “Wildflower Honey”

3. “Smoke Ring for My Halo” — Kurt Vile (2011) Indie/Rock/Punk

Philadelphia has become the latest American musical volcano, erupting with recent greats such as Dr. Dog, The Stray Birds, The War on Drugs, Cheers Elephant, Free Energy, Circa Survive, Toy Soldiers, and G. Love and Special Sauce (watch out for a young band named The Districts in the near future). America’s creative epicenter seems to move around the country every few years, landing on cities that have been developing in a vacuum, having been neglected by the music industry and thus escaping pulls and tugs from outside forces. In other words, Philadelphia is almost like this generation’s version of ‘89 Seattle.

Kurt Vile, former member of The War on Drugs, is the representative of this movement. “Smoke Ring for My Halo” is Vile’s fourth studio album. He pushes his creative boundaries gently in “Smoke Ring... “, perfectly content with making pretty music with melodies and driving beats that resemble those found on early Radiohead albums like “Pablo Honey” and “The Bends.”

“Smoke Ring... “ was the album that gained Vile international recognition. He writes lyrics that bite, with or without permission, reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, and lays them over beautifully layered guitars and sweeping ambiance. “Take two white gold earrings for your troubles, man, and when it’s looking dark, punch your future in the face,” is the kind of line, from the ethereal “Runner Ups”, that would make Dylan smile, and Bob Dylan rarely smiles.

The guitar work in “Smoke Ring... “ is reason enough to listen. In certain tracks on the record, multiple guitars weave intricately into each other, creating colorful Persian tapestries of sound. At other points, the guitars harmonize and stretch like chamber singers as his devil-may-care vocals lie down on top of them as if to snuggle into a bed of feathers.

If the late Lou Reed played the guitar like John Mayer and wrote songs with Mazzy Star, this album would be the result. Some of the most considerable movements in history and in music are those which can happen beyond one’s awareness. Vile tried to sneak one past in every song he recorded for “Smoke Ring... “ Try to catch him in the act.

Highlight: “Runner Ups”

4. “Under Great White Northern Lights” — The White Stripes (2010) — Rock

This album is not only on this list because it’s spectacular, but because it’s not available on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. Perhaps Jack White holds it too dearly to sell it for nearly nothing. “Northern Lights... “ is a live album from Jack and Meg White’s tour across Canada in the summer of 2007. It’s also available on DVD, as it was initially recorded as part of a documentary directed by Emmett Malloy.

Meg White (drums) and Jack White (guitar, vocals, synth) make music that is utterly powerful in its sophisticated simplicity, and this tour perfectly epitomized that powerful chemistry. When those two musicians combine, the result is as explosive as the separation of Uranium-235. Upon first hearing the White Stripes, the wonder of it is that there are only two members in the band. This makes it easier, though, to develop deliberate, fluid, and accurate changes in tempo and dynamics, which this duo regularly seems to orchestrate on a whim just because they can.

Two key tracks on “Northern Lights... “ are the most moving rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” ever caught on tape, and an awesome performance of the Irish folk song, “Prickly Thorn, but Sweetly Worn,” which includes local Canadian bagpipe players.

On this tour, Jack White’s guitar playing was as angsty as ever. Part of what makes him one of the best guitarists in rock history is the volatile, backwards-flowing emotion with which he plays; the other part being his occasional use of alternate tunings that allow him to play lead and bass lines on the same six-string guitar. Even more outstanding were his rare vocal performances during this tour, which nearly out-muscle his powerful guitar playing. “Under Great White Northern Lights is loaded with memorable moments and an awesome rock and roll ferocity; it’s a must-have for obsessive loud music lovers.

Highlight: “I’m Slowly Turning into You”

5. “Everything All the Time” — Band of Horses (2006) — Indie/Folk/Southern Rock

Band of Horses’ members mostly hail from South Carolina; however, the band was formed in Seattle. They’re one of many indie rock bands to emerge from Seattle shortly after the turn of the century, during what is now called the Expansion Era, along with Fleet Foxes, Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie to name a few. There’s a distinct commonality between bands formed in that region and time, and their collective sound has contributed to aspects of current popular music. “Everything All the Time” was Band of Horses’ first full length album, yet it is the essence of largesse and beauty. Band of Horses doesn’t need two over-driven guitars, two chorused synthesizers and whatever else in order to make a big sound. Sometimes they’ll do that anyway, but their sound is always sneaky-big. The best description of this album is simply to call it woodsy. The tracks sound like they were inspired by the deep, rolling forests of Vermont.

This album is drenched in astonishing harmonies and vast guitar tones, occasionally using progressions that initially confuse but ultimately captivate. For a lover of perfectly huge and tasteful reverb, this is the cat’s pajamas. There are two key tracks on “Everything...” that were penned by guitarist and vocalist Mat Brooke, who left the band immediately after they finished recording the album: “I Go to the Barn...” and “St. Augustine”. Ben Bridwell, the lead vocalist and guitarist is the frontman of the group to this day, lending soaring vocals and vague, inquisitive lyrics that give the listener the ability to subjectively translate a song’s meaning in a personal way.

For folks in the mood for professional vocals with grand introspection wrapped around a filthy-rich sound, this album is thick, juicy and raw like a perfectly grilled sirloin steak should be. Like a good old-fashioned steak, it will leave a nagging desire to keep going back for more.

Highlight: “The Funeral”

Joel Alan Taylor has been playing the guitar for about five or six years, and writing and recording music. A daily adventure in his life involves the hunt for great new music.

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