Fall brings with it some frightfully good new regional music, including the latest from Michigan-bred bluegrass hero Billy Strings, a popular hip hop collective, fetching fiddle music and scary Halloween gems.
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What Stands Out: By now, the story of Michigan native Billy Strings’ rise to the top of the national bluegrass scene has been fairly well documented – and further validated by “Home’s” debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Bluegrass Albums chart and his recent wins as guitar player of the year/new artist of the year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in Nashville. Let’s just say that “Home,” produced by East Lansing’s Glenn Brown and Billy Strings, aka William Apostol, more than lives up to the hype, from the psychedelic intro on the marvelously melancholy “Taking Water” that gets things started to the gospel-driven, harmony-filled “Freedom” that closes the album out (followed by a hyper-speed bonus track). In between, there’s the flat-picking gem “Must Be Seven” featuring harmony vocals from another up-and-coming bluegrass star, Molly Tuttle, and the brilliantly arranged, nearly eight-minute epic, “Away from the Mire,” filled with striking chorus-pedal effects, jaw-dropping banjo work from Billy Failing, sweet fiddling and bass work by John Mailander and Royal Masat, masterful mandolin magic from Jarrod Walker and acoustic guitar wizardry by Apostol that borders on the ethereal. It’s all paired with deeply personal, wholly arresting lyrics: “Spring lied to us this year again / I can’t stand to face the fear again / You could always laugh about those things / It’s enough to make a man feel sour / Burning minutes every day by the hour just to end up gone like everything else.”
Digger Deeper: No one has mastered the art of bridging psychedelia with bluegrass better than Apostol, and his sophomore album is full of ear-pleasing examples. Indeed, Apostol grew up in Ionia as a metal head-banging punk and he deftly introduces some of those heavy elements (with a Middle Eastern twist) in the also-lengthy title track. Traditionalists might balk at these sonic enhancements, but the truth is, Billy Strings unleashes conventional bluegrass ditties that stand with best in the business (“Watch It Fall,” “Highway Hypnosis,” “Everything’s the Same”), boasting blazing guitar leads and a voice that was quite literally born to sing bluegrass.
Perfect For: Long, nighttime, desolate-highway road trips and for anyone bewitched by the progressive newgrass movement (not to mention musicians who are true masters of their craft). – John Sinkevics
Upcoming Shows: Dec. 27 and Dec. 28 at Majestic Theater in Detroit: Dec. 31 at The Intersection in Grand Rapids (Sold Out)
Listen: “Taking Water”
Video: “Away from the Mire”
Last Gasp Collective
“Seen Not Heard”
What Stands Out: This extensive, poignant and uplifting 20-track album from regional favorites Last Gasp Collective is immediately engaging to the listener from start to finish. Gracefully flowing in and out from genre to genre, the album accurately expresses the amount of sheer talent and consideration given by these players to every single piece. The tracks meld together to bring the listener through an experience not often curated by albums these days anymore, and even less with such high-caliber musicianship. Playfully jumping between smooth jazz, hip hop, classic soul, R&B, funk, with even a little dance, world and classical making its mark, this album is a must listen to for any music fan looking to lift their tired bones and embrace a more positive attitude toward life and each other.
Digging Deeper: Tracks are superbly mixed and mastered, with clear and crisp vocals and simple, yet graceful complimentary layered backing tracks and overdubs.
Perfect For: Saturday picnics, evening dance parties, sunny car cruising with your favorite person. – Megan Dooley
Listen: “Shoot Me Down”
“Songs of the Pumpkin Boy, Vol. 4”
What Stands Out: Lots of creepy music gets unearthed around this time of year and few things are creepier – or more fun – than “Songs of the Pumpkin Boy.” For the fourth year in a row, the compilation mastered by Matt Ten Clay at Amber Lit Audio features original Halloween songs and collaborations by well-known and not-so-well-known Michigan artists who unleash caskets full of gloomy, terrifying, inventive and echo-laden ditties that make an ideal soundtrack for trick-or-treating or scaring your neighbors half to death. Standout tracks include the electronic moodiness of Jes Kramer & James Duke’s “Good Bones,” hi-ker’s infectious “What Was It,” Bilge’s Lou Reed-like “Black and Blue,”and the Stone Hands’ absolutely intoxicating, fuzzy psych-folk classic “Haunt Your Insides” (which will haunt your outsides, too). The album officially gets released today (Oct. 18).
Digging Deeper: Working those musical shovels more than six feet down, one finds plenty to like from some ghoulishly good artists who might not be familiar to West Michigan audiences: Joshua Walters & James Roltsch (“She Knocks”), Hold Person (“Rotten Apple”), Samhain Sun (“Anythings”) and Hael (“Moonlit Hollow”). Oh and it’s probably best not to listen to Local Politics’ album-ending “Buried Alive” by yourself in the dark.
Perfect For: Bewitching just about anything, sampling some beguiling regional music that covers lots of musical territory, taking a stroll through a cemetery at midnight. – John Sinkevics
Listen: “Haunt Your Insides”
What Stands Out: With “The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek,” a sorrowful-yet-alluring milieu settles over this subtly breathtaking, 11-track solo instrumental project. Best known as half of the award-winning indie-folk duo Red Tail Ring, Traverse City fiddler Laurel Premo delves into traditional and new fiddle music, revealing, as she puts it, “a bloom of underlying harmonic drones, minimalist repetition and rich polyrhythms.” Collaborating with double-bassist Evan Premo, guitarists Owen Marshall and Josh Davis, and fiddler Aaron Jonah Lewis on the self-produced album, Premo has created something uniquely appealing – a powerful, old-timey sound with a mesmerizing, contemporary sheen, something demonstrated in fetching fashion on songs such as “Iron in the Northern Ground” and “Snow Blind.”
Digging Deeper: Naturally, those ear-pleasing and hauntingly familiar Red Tail Ring harmonies are missing from the equation. But as an all-instrumental affair, this is a superb and sublime collection of acoustic grace.
Perfect For: Contemplating the change in seasons and embracing the beauty of Michigan’s fall foliage. – John Sinkevics
Upcoming Shows: 7:30 p.m. Friday (Oct. 18) at Old Town Playhouse in Traverse City, opening for Joshua Davis; Dec. 7 at The Little Fleet (in The Yurt) in Traverse City
Listen: “Lost Indian”
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