Blake Mills

Blake Mills

Big week, y’all. I’m writing this on Thursday night, immediately after confirming that my silver 64 GB iPhone 6 is still scheduled to be delivered sometime on Friday. Given that my current phone qualifies for not one but two recalls — one concerning a sleep/wake button that no longer works and the other concerning a battery that just kind of says “fuck it” and shuts the phone down randomly — you’ll understand why I’ve been looking forward to this Friday for some time.

And yet…

…I might be even more excited about Tuesday’s Heigh Ho release. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I’ve been looking forward to Heigh Ho since October 26 of last year, when Mrs. YHT and I saw Blake Mills and Fiona Apple perform in Washington D.C. The album hadn’t been announced yet, but I walked out of the Lincoln Theater completely in awe of Mills’ capabilities. There are things about that show I decided I wouldn’t even try to put into words — the power of seeing Apple sing in person, the way Mills interacted with Apple as she interacted with the audience — but I think I found a way to describe Mills’ mastery of the guitar, thanks to The Splendid Table.

I’ll often come back from running after work and find Mrs. YHT working on dinner while listening to the Splendid Table podcast. Some months back, I caught a chunk of a discussion about how Indian cooks use spices. The quote that stuck with me, and that I think applies here, came from guest Raghavan Iyer: “If you give whole spices to a good Indian cook, he or she should be able to extract eight different flavors from a given spice.” Here’s Iver on cumin:

1. When you use cumin seeds as is, you get their distinctive spice flavor.
2. When you grind the seeds and sprinkle them in a dish, the flavor is more pronounced and quite different: musky and earthy.
3. Take the whole seeds and toast them in a dry pan, with no oil, and you will experience a nutty aroma.
4. Take those toasted seeds and grind them, and they smell nothing like any of their previous incarnations.
5. Heat a little oil and roast the seeds, and you will discover yet another flavor — almost sweet smelling and smoky.
6. Grind the cumin seeds after you roast them, and they will seem to lose their smoky bouquet.
7. Soak the whole seeds in a liquid, and their presence will be surprisingly subtle.
8. And when you grind cumin seeds after you soak them, they not only take on the liquid’s taste but also impart the spice’s eighth flavor: The strong nutlike aroma reappears, masked by the infused flavor of the liquid.

Wild, eh?

Mills is the same way with guitars. He had a small army of instruments on stage at the Lincoln Theater, and he used each one to a distinct, measured effect. It wasn’t just the pedals he used — the physical act of playing seemed different on different songs, like he was pulling something specific out of each guitar. Some were made to sound loud and strained, others were plucked delicately, and there were times it looked like he was using the heel of his hand to produce a dull, round sound that was barely audible. I was sitting too far from the stage to be sure, but he may not have used a pick the entire time. No two songs sounded the same — of that I am sure. I’ve never been a big gear person, but I’ll never forget the control he wielded.

It’s not surprising that the same care, variety and virtuosity is present on Heigh Ho, given Mills’ production experience, but the album’s strengths aren’t limited to his guitar work. Lyrics alternate between storytelling and dissection of complex emotions, like those described in “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me.” And then there are Fiona Apple’s contributions, on that song and “Seven,” which make my heart so, so happy. In truth, the emotional impact of that Lincoln Theater show had me so primed for a future Mills record that he would have had to release a serious stinker for me to disapprove. Still, I’m willing to go out on a limb after just a few listens and say this is one of the most exceptional albums released in 2014, and I recommend giving it a try.

Speaking of recommended listening, a quick plug — I’ll be appearing on WDCE tomorrow, joining host Doug Nunnally for an hour of his Sound Gaze show, which airs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. We’ll be talking about YHT and Richmond music and listening to some great songs — Blake Mills’ included — so I hope you’ll tune in. (I’ll be very nervous, so please forgive me for speaking loudly. Or quietly. Either way, an appropriate volume is unlikely.)

Listen to Mills’ “If I’m Unworthy” below and click here to buy Heigh Ho.

Blake Mills — “If I’m Unworthy” [Spotify/iTunes]

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Landlady

Landlady

[cracks knuckles] OK, it’s been a hot minute since I wrote one of these blog things, so let’s see if I can remember how to do this. Band I feel strongly about? Check? Experience with that band I can’t not share with the whole damn Internet? Check. Picture to put at the top/song to put at the bottom? Check and check.

Let’s do this thing.

Landlady! Remember them? I wrote glowingly of their 2014 album Upright Behavior just before going on baby break. My feelings have only grown since. We shared a Twitter exchange about Spotify’s inadequate payout system, I ordered and received a special Coke-bottle-green pressing of Upright Behavior from Bandcamp, I got to see them perform last Friday night as part of the second-annual Fall Line Fest… it’s been a torrid affair — rewarding in ways I couldn’t have guessed it would be.

Mrs. YHT and I have been fairly bunkered-in lately, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to those of you who have kids and remember what that first month was like. In some ways, it’s felt like a month-long snow day — you huddle close, maybe start a new series on Netflix (we’ve knocked out more than three seasons of Friday Night Lights) and the most contact you have with the outside world some days is noticing the temperature of the air that rushes in when you open the back door to throw a can in the recycling. Much more of the outside world rushed in when I went back to work, but the snow day resumes every evening when I get home. It’s just as magical as an actual snow day, just replace the sense of spontaneous freedom with its polar opposite — a sense of responsibility you’ve spent months joynervously preparing to shoulder.

I love our little bunker, and I love that music has a physical presence in it. It’d be a stretch to lump my collecting vinyl for the last half dozen years into the nesting process, but those records are a non-minor part of the world Mrs. YHT and I prepared for our daughter, and that thought makes me very happy. I’ve gotten a huge kick out of choosing which records to play for Baby YHT. I waited until we got home from the hospital to open the copy of Lullaby Renditions of David Bowie I got last Record Store Day and made that the first record my daughter heard. She’s heard dozens since, and while I haven’t picked up on any nascent preferences, watching her facial reactions and knowing that every song she hears she’s hearing for the first time — I can’t even put it into words. I could do it all day every day and never get bored. (She might though — that kid’s attention span needs work.)

As amazing as the bunkered life has been, venturing out for Friday of Fall Line Fest was a real treat. I had a relatively short itinerary — Landlady and Matthew E. White at the Sara Belle and Neil November Theatre, then Ki Theory at the Broadberry — but it was my first live music since Baby YHT’s arrival, so the experience had an added potency, not unlike Mrs. YHT’s first post-baby beer (she made it through half a Legend Brown before cutting herself off). I actually brought a piece of home with me — the copy of Upright Behavior I ordered from Bandcamp, tucked safely inside the cardboard packaging it was mailed to me in — and ran around after Landlady’s magnificent set with a Sharpie getting each member of the band to sign the inner sleeve. I also picked up a vinyl copy of Landlady’s first release, Keeping to Yourself. The ink from those signatures and that copy of Keeping to Yourself are now back in the bunker, ready to be shared with my daughter, whenever she starts taking an interest in music or wants to know what life was like just after she was born.

When I got Landlady frontman Adam Schatz to sign my record, I asked him if he ran the band’s Twitter account, and when he said he did, I asked if he remembered our Spotify exchange. I think I wanted him to know that I was real, and that people really do still buy the music they’re passionate about. But it’s not just about money. The whole night was proof that there are things about the physical world — watching Schatz hit notes so precisely and emphatically, shaking the hand of musicians you admire, having a record that can be signed, brought home and shown off to the people you love — that can’t be experienced via a phone or a computer. I hope he got something out of that interaction, because I definitely did.

[Quick addendum for Richmond folks -- Landlady is coming back to town on October 14 to play Strange Matter! With No BS! Hot damn! Get tix here.]

Landlady — “Dying Day” [Spotify/iTunes]

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Jack Johnson

Bill's turntable

I thought a guest post might be a good way to ease back into the bloggin’ life after spending the last three weeks getting to know my new baby daughter, whom I may or may not have named after Beyoncé. Well, her middle name, anyways. That’s a story for a different day.

Today’s story was taken from an email exchange I had with Bill, the husband of one of Mrs. YHT’s lifelong friends and my partner-in-crime for the Drive-By Truckers show that took place at the National in March. I won’t offer too much of a preface, other than to say that his account of falling (back) in love with vinyl wonderfully articulates some of the key reasons why collecting records is so meaningful to me.

Hope you enjoy.

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brb

Darlings

We’ve eaten spicy food, we’ve gone on many, many walks… this kid just refuses to leave the friendly confines of Mrs. YHT’s midsection. Well the adorable little squatter is in for quite a surprise this weekend, as our doc has decided it’s time to induce. Eviction party starts Saturday night. Wish us luck, y’all.

Darlings — “Eviction Party” [Spotify/iTunes]

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Beyoncé

Flawless

There are few things I enjoy more in life than finding the perfect song to complement what’s going on around me.

I’m pretty sure I have my dad to thank for this impulse. He was a college professor, and every year, after he was finished grading spring semester exams and had driven into work to turn in grades, he’d come home, walk triumphantly over to the CD player in the den and play the Jamies’ iconic “Summertime, Summertime.” He was never happier or more carefree than he was when that song was playing. My sister, my mom and I all loved it.

I’ve carried on the practice by pairing meals with records and prepping for important basketball games by playing certain strategic albums — Mrs. YHT and I have even started a tradition of playing my vinyl copy of How The Grinch Stole Christmas and sporadically proclaiming “What a dick!” while decorating our tree — but there’s one accompaniment nut that’s been impossible to crack: What should be the first song my daughter hears after she’s born?

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Natalie Prass

Natalie Prass

In certain areas of life, you’re better off not seeing how the sausage is made. Unfortunately, pop music can be one of those areas. It’s not on the same level as legislation, or ya know, actual sausage, but what you find when you pull back the curtain and learn about how your favorite top-40 songs were made can be stomach-turning nonetheless. The corrective recording technology. The lists of songwriters that would reach the floor if published in scroll format. The contradictions between artists’ public personas and personal lives. It can get ugly. I’m not proud to admit it, but there are times I’d rather not know who was singing that radio hit I’ve grown attached to for fear it’ll turn out to be a star whose fame has crossed over into infamy. It’s judgy, I know, but who is doing the singing and how something is created matters. It just does.

That’s why seeing the “Bird Of Prey” video, which gives us a glimpse into Natalie Prass’ collaboration with the Spacebomb team, made my day yesterday.

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Daniel Bachman

Daniel Bachman

I’ve written at length about Daniel Bachman before, but I’d like to mark the release of his new album Orange Co. Serenade by sharing a slightly different impression of his playing, along with a sample track off the new record.

I’m sure you’ve heard people who are confronted with an adorable baby or puppy say something to the effect of “Oh my god, [he/she/it] is so cute I just want to eat [him/her/it] right up!” Everyone knows they’re not cannibals or puppy eaters — it’s just an expression that spills out as a result of overflowing enthusiasm. (Then again, cuteness has been shown to activate the part of our brains that regulates aggression…) You hear similar language in book reviews. Prose is “gobbled up” when it’s particularly enjoyable. Some things are so good you just want them to be a part of you — to be absorbed, so you can go about your daily life with the elevated level of joy you felt when you first encountered them.

There’s a close cousin to this type of enthusiasm, and it’s another book review mainstay — “I just want to crawl inside it.” When a writer builds an especially vivid and inviting fictional universe, the words pull you in, and before you know it, you’re wishing you could cross the page’s divide and join the world the characters get to inhabit. (It happens in movies too — you might remember that a number of movie-goers were swept up in a wave of depression after seeing James Cameron’s Avatar because they couldn’t cope with the fact that the idyllic Pandora wasn’t a real planet they could emigrate to.)

That — minus the delusional depression bit — is how I feel when I listen to Daniel Bachman play the guitar.

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