From folk ballads to food music

To celebrate five years of music, discovery and community, Harvest Records is bringing 16 bands to town, for a three-night, three-venue extravaganza dubbed Transfigurations. Friday and Saturday nights feature an earlier show and a later show, so no one has to miss any of the music. Plus on Saturday, Harvest brings in four independent record-label reps to talk stories and share videos. Check out www.ashevillefm.org for the simulcast. For more info, check www.harvest-records.com.

Bonnie Prince Billy. Photo by Jesse Fischler.

Akron/Family set 'em wild

Brooklyn-born Akron/Family has explored quite a bit of territory, geographically and sonically, in its five years of making records and touring. Early on, the multi-instrumental quartet — Dana Janssen, Seth Olinsky, Miles Seaton and Ryan Vanderhoof — were given invaluable support form ex-Swans frontman Michael Gira, who signed the burgeoning neo-psychedelic-folk band to his Young God label in 2005. Since then the band has collaborated with avant-jazz greats Hamid Drake and William Parker and toured exhaustively, winning acclaim for their genre-hopping, improvisation-heavy performances. It's not uncommon to find hippy and hipster, indie kid and fratboy, Deadhead and Pitchfork devotee rubbing shoulders at their shows.

The departure of songwriter and guitarist Vanderhoof following the release of 2007's Love is Simple resulted in a brief expanded live band featuring North Carolinian tour mates Megafaun and Greg Davis, but Olinsky says the remaining three members decided to forge ahead as a three-piece.

"We always love to play with other people, but we wanted to focus on the three of us, because we felt there's still room for us to develop creatively as a trio," Olinsky explains on the phone from a tour stop in Chicago. "Overall, the energy level as a three-piece is a lot more demanding, and it's taken us quite a while to be able to maneuver a whole show. But it's exciting right now, it feels like we're getting back but also moving forward."

The Coathangers. Photo by Bobb Lovett.

This back/forward dynamic is evident throughout their latest album, Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free, their first for the Dead Oceans label. All the classic Akron elements are there — group vocals, extended improvs, pastoral folk ballads that lead to mid-song freak-outs — but it sounds as if some new territory has opened up for the band. Consider album opener, "Everyone is Guilty," where a percussive intro prefigures a thick funk groove over which strained Beach Boys-like harmonies float, culminating in a barely restrained Eddie Hazel-style guitar solo accompanying plodding doom metal drums, which end abruptly as the song slips back into the funk groove for a few seconds before ending in a coda featuring horns and strings. That's just the first six minutes of the album.

Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free finds the band moving away from the free-jazz flirting, musique-concrete-dabbling and song fragmenting that characterized earlier releases to produce their most focused, cohesive record yet. There's also (somehow) more group singing than ever, perhaps a byproduct of increased group songwriting since Vanderhoof's departure.

As exciting as the albums are, however, the band seems more holistically itself when performing before an audience. Akron/Family's live shows are lengthy, boisterous affairs, and while they're not exactly a jamband, there is some credence to that often-used descriptor. But whereas your classic jamband can often seem solipsistically lost in their own groove, Akron/Family interacts seamlessly with the audience, whether chatting amiably with the crowd during the show, inviting the audience on stage for a dance party or encouraging group singing.

Floating Action. Photo by Lydia See.

"We're definitely most successful playing live with people responding to our music," Olinsky says. "Things happen when you're performing, when people are into what you're doing we respond to that. When the crowd's ready to go with you it frees us."

Akron/Family is an inspired choice to close out Harvest Records' Transfigurations festival Saturday, Aug. 15, as the performance will have a particular resonance for the band.

"We played our first Asheville show, on our first tour, at Harvest," Olinsky says. "They had just opened and we had just started touring, so it's kind of like we've come up together. It almost didn't work out because of scheduling, but we decided we had to do it." 
— Eric Dawson

Bonnie Prince Billy

He of many names, many fine albums, many honest lyrics, many startling moments of utter beauty, Bonnie Prince Billy returns to Asheville mere months after his last Grey Eagle show, to give an even more rare solo performance. Expect chills, teary eyes, looks of wild-eyed wonder from the listeners going into the gentle night after his Diana Wortham show.
— Rebecca Sulock

The Books: Food music

The Books go beyond experimental into their own genre: "food." According to guitarist/vocalist/found-music collector Nick Zammuto, when he and cellist Paul De Jong get together, they make food and they make music. That music is a stewed mix of found recordings, electronica, stringed instruments and haunting vocals. Their haunting albums do go well with cooking, as it turns out, and are full of the best kinds of surprises: The striking vocals of the (at one time) WNC-based old-time player Anne Doerner, for one. Zammuto through-hiked the Appalachian Trail several years ago and came to rest in Hot Springs, where parts of The Books' debut album were recorded.
— Rebecca Sulock

Brightblack Morning Light: Chant down Babylon

Though fellow travelers in the contemporary neo-psych/folk/whatever scene have some affinity with the back-to-the-land counterculture of the '60s and '70s, few talk the talk or walk the walk as intently as Brightblack Morning Light.

In interviews, Alabama natives Nathan "Nabob" Shineywater and Rachel "Rabob" Hughes discuss ecology and environmental activism as much as music. They speak seriously about crystals and refer to mainstream American culture as Babylon. They look like old school hippies, live mostly off the grid in the desert of New Mexico and record their music using solar power.

It all makes for an interesting backstory, to be sure, but the reason Brightblack Morning Light are in our consciousness at all is because of their music, an intriguing mix of folk, dub, psychedelia, soul and gospel. The folk sound is most apparent on their debut album Ala.Cali.Tucky (when they were simply Brightblack), while their follow-up self-titled album on Matador moved away from the woozy Southern Gothic country-blues of their debut, adding horns and pushing to the fore a vintage 1979 Rhodes organ that give the tracks a more spacey, stoner vibe. Last year's Motion to Rejoin increased the gospel stylings that were always present (perhaps stemming from Hughes' childhood memories of her Baptist preacher grandfather), and the album can sound like one long variation on the same theme — trance-inducing, if you go with it.

Kurt Vile. Photo by Shawn Brackbill.

Live, the band can be an immersive experience, as the heavy bottom of the dub rhythms intermingles with Shineywater's fuzzy guitar and Hughes' soulful electric piano to form a thick, swampy sound. A split EP and tour with Will Oldham in 2004 first brought them attention, and Asheville was one of the few places lucky enough to see the band in its early form.
—Eric Dawson

Budos Band: Old-school soul

The Budos Band, signed to Daptone Records (along with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings), is a purveyor of instrumental jazz, soul and Afro-beat fusion the band calls "Afro-Soul." The end result is a skilled melding of Ethiopian jazz, bossa nova swagger, '60s-era psychedelia and plenty of old-school soul. (That the deep grooves and global rhythms are the product of 11 caucasian dudes from Staten Island is perhaps surprising, but hardly lessens the infectiously melodic and dancable thrill.) Love club-night-meets-globe-trekker acts like Dengue Fever, Os Mutantes and The Daktaris? Then Budos Band is just your cup of Yirgacheffe.
—Alli Marshall

Coathangers: Quirky, hooky

Atlanta girl punk group The Coathangers has synthesizers, thrashing percussion and screamy vocals. The band also has edgy-adorable press photos that recall Karen O, The Donnas and — reaching farther back — The Fabulous Stains. But for all the shaggy black hair and torn tees, the Coathangers shouldn't be dismissed as cute or niche. The band's three minute, three chord numbers combine the classic thrum of drums and bass with more experimental synth sounds and quirky, hooky lyrics. "Once I had a tambourine and one day it broke. It wouldn't shake shake … why does everything I love have to break?" they sing on "Shake Shake," a song that would be completely at home on a beach horror flick soundtrack.
— Alli Marshall

Espers: Crisp but fuzzy

Hailing from Philadelphia, a city ripe with artistic and musical talent, Espers achieves a sense of familiarity with their music, the feel of an aged photograph in one's hand, a recurring dream. The lo-fi feel of their self-titled 2003 release is a study in contradiction, well-mixed but still raw, crisp but fuzzy. Brooke Sietinsons, Greg Weeks and Meg Baird are masters of duality, achieving both indulgence and affliction. Delicate vocals from Baird and Weeks, surprising string arrangements and a lack of traditional percussion combine to create a nostalgic and ephemeral end, an exquisite cascade of harmony. In fact, other than percussive elements created by flute, recorder, keys and stringed instruments (everything from dulcimer, autoharp, bass, violin, cello, and viola to traditional six- and twelve-string guitars both plucked and bowed), the only real percussion comes from finger cymbals and chimes.

The War On Drugs

After releasing a record of cover songs entitled The Weed Tree (2005), their second record of original material, II (2006), feels darker, and, still achieving the duality of their 2003 release, a slightly more electrified sound. The use of a buzzing, droning tone under many of their arrangements pushes a vibration through the layers, creating a full-bodied effect, and with the addition of Otto Hauser, Helena Espvall,Chris Smith and an even wider range of instrumentation, their ability to be extremely versatile and maintain a distinct style endures.
— Lydia See

Floating Action: Absolute sway

Having just returned from a Western tour that stretched from Montana to California to Texas, Black Mountain-based Floating Action brings its fresh tropical-pop sound back to town. Masterful local player and producer Seth Kauffman writes songs woven from his global travels, bringing in sounds from South America, Africa, the Caribbean and other far-flung locales. Expect surf-influences, impossibly-catchy melodies, singalong lyrics and contagious dancing. With Michael Libramento and Evan Martin (also playing with their own side project, Ice Cream), and the veteran Joshua Carpenter. (AshevilleFM will simulcast this performance.)
— Rebecca Sulock

Steve Gunn: Moroccan inspiration

Guitarist Steve Gunn (who calls Brooklyn home) is sometimes rocking out with electric quartet Orleans Gunn and HGQ and sometimes finessing quiet, thoughtful intonations, solo-style. His EP Sundowner (on indie label Foxy Digitalis) runs on the shy side of a half-hour but reveals some gorgeous compositions that call to mind sun-bleached beach towns, deserted isles and lone dusty roads. When asked about his influences in a recent interview, Gunn replied, "I traveled to Morocco a few years back, and met and heard a lot of inspiring musicians. I traveled all around and came back with some instruments and a whole new cassette collection."
— Alli Marshall

Ice Cream: Just the two of them

Ice Cream, from Asheville, exemplifies this balance between the expected and the unexpected, accessible enough for anyone to enjoy, dynamic enough to be appreciated by the pickiest of audiences.

Brightblack Morning Light

Evan Martin and Michael Libramento bring exceptional versatility and a passion for their craft. The combination of Martin's varied and explosive percussion style and Libramento's gospel-and-electronica-infused organ swells creates a full cloud of sound. Both musicians play or have played with a cornucopia of bands in Asheville, from stephaniesid to Floating Action, and let loose a different side with Ice Cream.

Since it's just the two of them, their prowess and raw talent shines. Mostly playing house shows, the French Bar and the Grey Eagle, the band has developed a small but loyal following of fans from backgrounds of varied genres, and the wide array of sounds created by Ice Cream runs from gospel to drum and bass. "Often it ends up sounding like rock 'n roll or what Michael likes to call 'sounds from the motherland' — Evan digs that," says their bio. A quippy account, their music has the same sense of dynamic humor as they do.
— Lydia See

Jonathan Kane: Indefatigable force

How many guitarists have played with minimalist composers La Monte Young and Rhys Chatham over the years? Given the number of ensembles and guitar armies assembled by the two, it's possible they don't even know. It's easier to count the drummers, because quite often it was Jonathan Kane behind the kit, anchoring 100 guitars in a Chatham epic or propelling a three hour-long performance of Young's "Young Dorian Blues in A" along.

A frequent collaborator with musicians in the experimental and No Wave scenes of early '80s New York, Kane was also a founding member of art-brut greats Swans, where his drumming contributed heavily to the brutal, often oppressive sound that band could create. He's also the driving force behind the Transmission EP, recorded in 1982 but unreleased until 2006. Across six brief tracks, Kane pummels up a percussive whirlwind accompanied by Daniel Galliduani's treated, buzzing saxophones. At times it sounds like a locomotive barreling down on the listener.

His playing is generally not so aggressive today, as three albums released in the last few years find him keeping a steady beat for lengthy, guitar-based instrumentals with blues foundation. It's not gut-bucket or Delta blues he seems to be interested in on his new album, Jet Ear Party, so much as a blues-rock tradition that touches on everyone from John Lee Hooker and Led Zeppelin to the Velvet Underground and Sly and the Family Stone (a very loose interpretation of the latter's "Thank You Falletin Me Be Mice Elf Agin" appears on the album).

These songs take a while to build, and Kane's beat rarely changes within them, metronomically shuffling, swaying or chugging along for minutes, occasionally interrupted by a short fill or slight tempo change. The music can be a hypnotic experience, especially live, where Kane is the indefatigable force pushing band and audience toward ecstatic heights. (AshevilleFM will simulcast this performance.)
— Eric Dawson

Mount Eerie: Eaten by vultures

Mount Eerie takes its name from the 2003 studio album by The Microphones. In fact, Mount Eeerie is the Microphones — after releasing the epic record, band leader Phil Elverum (who, in the album's trajectory, dies, is eaten by vultures, and experiences a transcendental epiphany) decided to adopt the disc title (also the name of a mountain on Fidalgo Island, Washington, where Elverum grew up) as the band moniker. Elverum recently announced on his P.W. Elverum & Sun Ltd. Web site that Mount Eerie's long-awaited next effort, the double-album Wind's Poem "is almost almost ready. It'll be released for sale at What The Heck fest, and for sale in our store soon after." Rumor has it that previously-debuted songs from the record make prominent use of a delay pedal.
— Alli Marshall

Villages: When he's not at Izzy's…

Local act Villages is actually the one-man-band of Ross Gentry. He artfully layers guitar and synthesizer sounds to create landscapes, soundscapes and dreamscapes. Song titles like "Seas," "Harrowing" and "Winter Windows" may well be names of paintings as Gentry seems to color a sonic canvas with his moody, slow-core compositions.—Alli Marshall

Kurt Vile: when u wake from a glorious slumber

Kurt Vile describes his sound as "when u wake from a long and glorious slumber, then u realize u don't have to go to work, then u fall back into long and glorious slumber" and, actually, the Philadelphia indie-pop artist is right. There's a tantalizing, jangly beat and dreamy, intriguing lyrics. His vocals are all fuzzy and distorted but also warm like a vintage Daniel Lanois recording. The thing about listening to Vile (his album, Childish Prodigy, is due out this fall on Matador Records) is that he composes exciting songs sure to incite even the sleepiest listener to (if not full-out dancing) some serious toe-tapping.
— Alli Marshall

The War on Drugs: This one tune

Transfigurations Schedule

Thursday, Aug. 13 @ the Grey Eagle. 8:30 p.m. $10.
Kurt Vile, The Coathangers, Floating Action

Friday, Aug. 14
• Evening show @ Diana Wortham Theatre. 7 p.m. $27.50
Bonnie Prince Billy (solo), Espers, Brightblack Morning Light, Steve Gunn

• Late show @ the Grey Eagle. 11 p.m. $18.
Budos Band and Ice Cream

Saturday, Aug. 15
• Four Brothers, One Mother: afternoon panel discussion & film screenings. $5. Fine Arts Theatre
Eric Isaacson (Mississippi Records), Lance Ledbetter (Dust-to-Digital label), Nathan Salsburg (Twos & Fews Records/Alan Lomax Archive), Hisham Mayet (Sublime Frequencies)

• Evening show @ Diana Wortham Theatre. 5:30 p.m. $25.
The Books, Mount Eerie, Villages

• Late show @ the Grey Eagle. 8 p.m. $20.
Akron/Family, Circulatory System, War on Drugs, Jonathan Kane

Philadelphia's The War on Drugs are all about one song: "Arms Like Boulders." Of course, I feel like a jerk for saying this, like somehow I'm unfairly shortchanging them. But hey, the overwhelming majority of indie bands out there can't even produce a single, halfway-decent melody. Plus, I rank their debut, Wagonwheel Blues, as one of the 15 best albums of 2008. It's just that this tune is one of them career-defining achievements, a .370/40-dinger season from a player who bats .305, with 20 HRs, every other.

"Arms Like Boulders" is the lo-fi love child of — are you ready for this? — "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Born to Run." It's a classic American anthem, featuring killer harmonica, a twangy splendor and I'm-going-hoarse-singing-this-song histrionics. What's more, it also boasts a wordy, winding narrative that can be reduced to that greatest of all existential truths: Life might be glorious, but it's also scary as all hell and oftentimes fueled by loneliness and a piercing sense of alienation.

Since Wagonwheel's release last summer, I must've given this tune something like 120 spins, easy. That's an average of one spin every 3.04 days. After all that, I've come to love three lines in particular:

1) "…now that you realize that planets are spheres/ with oil on the inside/ and your god is only a catapult, waiting for the right time to let you go/ into the unknown/ just to watch you hold your breath."

2) "There's a song you hear on the radio/ It's a funeral march, so you change the channel/ But it's all you hear, as you're driving up the 101 from Mexico to California."

3) "…by the time they get your letter of explanation/ You'll be dead and gone/ barking up a new tree…"

Because "Arms Like Boulders" is also a powerhouse in terms of avant-pop production, it will be interesting to see how The War on Drugs handles the song's myriad layers of atmospheric distortion and the phantom jangle zinging in n' out of singer Adam Granduciel's poetry (as well as his Springsteen-like yelps). I have the sneaking suspicion these dudes will go for the epic-rock-show approach. And if that's the case, boy are we in for a treat.

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