The Best of Glastonbury 2011

Bellowhead At Glasonbury
Image Courtesy of Folk Radio UK

We’ve had some absolutely amazing festival lineups in Australia over the years but its very easy to cast your eyes overseas, especially to the UK and US, and feel a little bit jealous of just how good they’ve got it. Case in point was this year’s Glastonbury Festival which not only finally had great weather (no mud baths this time!) but also sported a lineup you’d give a kidney to see here in Australia.

The BBC managed to capture many of the performances from the weekend to be streamed from their official Glastonbury web site but sadly those streams are only available if you live in the UK (or if, y’know, you have a UK proxy server), something that’s frustrating for fans here in Australia. But as luck would have it the BBC have very kindly let a few key performances (like the Mumford and Sons one from a couple of days ago) slip quietly onto YouTube for all the word to see.

We thought we’d assemble our favourite videos from the collection available to view outside of the UK all in one place just for you (sadly it’s not as extensive as what our empirical forefathers can see). Along with the Mumford and Sons video check out songs from Bellowhead, Laura Marling, Paul Simon, Noah and the Whale and Fleet Foxes below:

Mumford and Sons – “Roll Away Your Stone”

Bellowhead – “New York Girls”

Laura Marling – “Rambling Man”

Paul Simon – “So Beautiful Or So What”

Noah and the Whale – “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N.”

Fleet Foxes – “Sim Sala Bim”

Treat Yo’ Mama: A Mother’s Day Playlist

Mother's Day

Yesterday we were in our local supermarket when we were confronted with a sign advertising Mother’s Day above a tray full of grapes. That’s right – grapes. It seems like businesses will commercialise anything to get another dollar and it’s sometimes easy to forget why we celebrate Mother’s Day in the first place, and that’s to give thanks to the women who have blessed us with life.

At Timber and Steel we’re ignoring the flowers and chocolates and coffee machines and whatever is shoved down our throats as the “perfect Mother’s Day gift” and give the gift we know will always be appreciated – music.

We’ve put together our favourite folky songs celebrating all that is wonderful about mums of all ages in a handy playlist. All you need to do is make your mum breakfast in bed, tell her how much you love her and set up Timber and Steel’s playlist within listening distance. When we’re starting with the John Butler Trio’s “Treat Yo’ Mama” you’ve got to know we’re onto a good thing – because every mum deserves a treat this Sunday, if not everyday.

“Treat Yo’ Mama” – John Butler Trio

“When I First Met Your Ma” – Paul Kelly
Every mother deserves to be reminded she’s beautiful and desirable. Who better to capture that than Australia’s troubadour Paul Kelly</a.

“Mother and Child Reunion” – Paul Simon

“Gillian” – The Waifs
This song is a wonderful, touching tribute Josh Cunningham’s mother with the slightly creepy line “Gillian if you weren’t my mother I’d make you my wife”. Touching and creepy at the same time? When a song is this good who cares.

“Mothers Daughters Wives” – The Corries

“Mother Nature’s Son” – Sheryl Crow
Take a classic Beatles track, fill it with banjos and add Sheryl Crow’s country-rock drawl and you have an instant folk classic. Not sure about the cat video though…

“Grandma” – The Little Stevies
If mothers are awesome does that make grandmothers doubly as awesome? We think The Little Stevies think so

“Flume” – Bon Iver

“Made by Maid” – Laura Marling
Recounting the folk tale Babes in the Wood “Made By Maid” is may well be the ultimate proverb for motherhood – that no matter what we wish for our children in the end they make their own decisions. But never forget, we love you Mum!

Review: Paul Simon, “So Beautiful or So What”

So beautiful So What
Image Courtesy of Paul Simon

The voice of Paul Simon is one of the few in modern music that I entirely trust. His long career has been all about restless reinvention, but even those of his projects which the press condemned or dismissed slowly drew out my unconditional respect. Above and beyond all his sonic exploration, his identity as a songwriter has remained constant, and he has never yet betrayed me.

This, his twelfth solo album, is his first since 1986’s Graceland not beholden to any musical theme. It began with Simon’s desire to return to his roots, to write songs using only his voice and guitar. And these songs could only have been written that way. But the bodies he gives them in the studio are pieced together from all of his previous experiments, along with some modern tricks he learned from hip Indi bands.

This change of approach is by no means a crutch for Simon; in fact it only makes his desperate creativity more apparent. The dichotomy in “Dazzling Blue”, throwing slide guitar, fiddles and a gospel group on top of Indian percussion, deserves to be a genre in itself. “The Afterlife” could have come from Graceland but for the electronically altered acoustic guitar that thrums threateningly beneath the cheery Afrobeat. The title track might be straight-up country rock, if not for Jim Oblon’s percussion twisting it into strange shapes, and the yelps and cries of middle-eastern instruments that hide behind it. This is Simon playing fast and loose with all the sounds he has collected, trying to fit in as much as he can in the time he has left.

So what is it, you might well ask, that holds this album together? Simon has on many occasions expressed concerns about whether the album is still an appropriate medium for music in the 21st century. “My biggest question as an artist is, is the art form that I’m working in still a relevant art form?”

So Beautiful or So What is an attempt to answer that question, to prove, whether it needs proving or not, that an album can still have something to say. As sonically diverse as it is, it does have a central premise, but atypically for Simon, that premise is lyrical.

As the track listing suggests, this is an album about God, as a story being told, as an ideology, and as a character. It’s also about the people God effects, from the cynical old man waiting in line for heaven, to lovers settling into destiny, to a pilgrim on a pilgrimage, pulled from his reverie by Jay-Z on a billboard.

In this way, beneath all the artifice, this is quintessentially a folk record, occupied as much by existential concerns as by small, human struggles against much bigger things. Such earnest naval-gazing is not in fashion among our cynical generation, and God and concept albums are equally derided by “the in crowd”. But Paul Simon, a proud agnostic, does not preach. In fact, the genius of So Beautiful or So What is its ambiguity.

Each of the songs Simon presents here is a piece of a puzzle, yet, as a good song should be, each is self-contained. Each is a scene in someone’s story, but it’s hard to say which of them, if any, is his own. He isn’t the “working man” in “Getting Ready for Christmas Day”, or the embittered veteran in “Rewrite”, or even the ragged pilgrim in “Questions for the Angels”.

And what does he think of these people? In “Rewrite”, the narrator finds God and confesses to his sins, whistling merrily at the prospect of his new beginning. But Simon’s choice of framing metaphor is telling. Is redemption really as easy as a second draft? Do words on paper really have that much power, or are they merely an escape? Might that escape make a difference?

In “Love and Hard Times”, the album’s central, and most moving piece, Simon softly sings out a rambling, slow-burning melody, as piano and strings swell and dip beneath him, around the story of God’s “courtesy call on Earth”. This God is almost ruthlessly pragmatic, the consummate politician. “If we stay,” he says to Jesus, “it’s bound to be a mob scene. But disappear, and it’s love and hard times”.

The song then slips into a smaller story, a tender monologue, which I believe is one of the only points on the album where Simon shows his hand, and speaks from his heart. “Loved you the first time I saw you. Can’t describe it any other way”. He has told us time and time again that love is man’s greatest and most redeeming virtue, and he puts all his faith behind the final line: “thank god I found you in time”. His voice quavers over the words as he repeats them, wonderstruck. “Thank God I found you”.

Are those words an acknowledgment of our insignificance, of the casual moment of attention that made us? Or are they an accusation, laced with an angry irony, dismissing God as he dismissed us? Is this subtle satire of our tendency to give God the credit for our own achievements? Or is it an affirmation of his power, simple, joyful gratitude for the opportunity to be better?

This is the question Simon refuses to answer, the choice from which this whole album grew. Its title is his challenge to the listener. He has told us a collection of stories, but left it to us to decide what they mean.

So Beautiful or So What is Paul Simon at his best, a surprising, unique and entirely modern work of art. It isn’t any kind of creative recovery, because all his work is of equal value. But its careless, effortless transcendence of genre and time make it special – the convergence, for the first time, of all his influences in one place. And the stories he tells, similarly, transcend his own concerns. They are, like the best folk music, universal, and ours to interpret and inhabit. Ultimately, for me, it’s proof that Simon remains one of the best song-writers of an era; still a voice I can trust.

Roll Away Your Stone: An Easter Playlist

Easter

Music and spirituality have been tied together from the beginnings of civilisation so it’s probably no surprise that many of today’s folk musicians not only hold strong religious beliefs but also weave these into the very fabric of their songs. Oft times these religious or spiritual overtones are blatant and other times they take a more subtle form but there’s no denying that spirituality plays a big part in the music we listen to and enjoy

The contributors here at Timber and Steel are quite eclectic in their personal beliefs but there is one thing we can all agree on – spirituality and religion have inspired (and will continue to inspire) some of the best folk music out there. We thought in honour of the weekend, whether for its pagan and Jewish origins or its important Christian message, we’d bring you some of our favourite spiritual and religious traditional and original folk songs. Obviously “spiritual” and “gospel” are sub-genres of folk with very very deep wells, even without including religiously-themed contemporary music, so there’s so many songs we’ve missed out here. But we hope the playlist we’ve put together will provide the perfect soundtrack for Easter egg eating, getting ready for church, dancing around the maypole or however you choose to recognise the day.

So here it is: Timber and Steel’s Easter playlist – Roll Away Your Stone. And what better way to kick things off than with one of the greatest tributes to spiritual love ever written, “To Be Alone With You” by Sufjan Stevens.

“To Be Alone With You” – Sufjan Stevens

“Timshel” – Mumford and Sons
Timshel is a Hebrew word from Genesis that roughly translates to “the choice” (as in the choice between good and evil). Mumford and Sons’ lyrics are strewn with religious references, some overt and others more subtle, probably stemming from Marcus Mumford’s deep Christian faith (his parents head up the Vineyard Churches in the UK). We probably could have chosen any one of their songs (the title of this piece is taken from a different Mumford and Sons track) but we’ve gone with “Timshel” because of its uplifting, hopeful lyrics.

“I’ll Be Glad’ – Bonnie “Prince” Billy

“Two Hands of a Prayer” – Ben Harper

“But For You Who Fear My Name” – The Welcome Wagon
Welcome Wagon are the Pastor and pastor’s wife duo from Sufjan Steven’s Asthamtic Kitty label. Produced by Sufjan, it also appears he featuring on backing vocals in this, a classic country gospel version of a bible verse from the book of Malachi put into song.

“Fortune” – Midlake
In just two verses and a chorus Midlake manage to cover the religious themes of temptation, the imperfection of humans in comparison to God and the value of hard work as a path to salvation. Combine with this the fact that on the surface the song doesn’t seem overtly spiritual and the genius of Midlake’s songwriting is truly revealed.

“Tomorrow On The Runway” – The Innocence Mission

“Middle of the Air” – Paul Kelly (Tripod and Eddie Perfect)
Given that Paul Kelly is about to embark on a tour of his spiritual songs we just had to include at least one. The obvious choice is the gorgeous “Middle of The Air” – a video of which doesn’t seem to exist so we’ve posted the version performed by Tripod and Eddie Perfect on Good News Week (trust us, it’s almost as good as the original)

“Redemption” – Johnny Cash
The most Easter themed song we could think of for Timber and Steel, “Redemption” was written by Cash as a very real and raw look at the images of Jesus’ crucifiction. A sombre, yet powerful and beautiful song that describes in bloody detail the significance of the event to Cash, and Christianity. We’re surprised Nick Cave didn’t cover this one in his own gospel period

“Where The Soul of Man Never Dies” – Hank Williams

“Down to the River to Pray” – Alison Krauss
Put together for the soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? this is Krauss in southern gospel mode. In a film full of spiritual music “Down to the River to Pray” (along with accompanying clip) is probably the most straight up religious experience of O Brother, Where Art Thou.

“Keep On the Sunny Side” – The Whites

“Dear God” – Monsters of Folk
The opening track from the epic collaboration between Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M Ward, with Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes, recently sampled by The Roots. This song takes the form of a letter to God, filled with questions of distance, suffering, and longing for answers. I threw this one in for Easter, as it’s about a desire to place faith in something, someone, but with a desperate appeal for proof.

“Christian & the Sinner” – Vorn Doolette
Because this list needed a little more local action we’ve included Vorn Doolette’s parable on what it means to be a Christian or a sinner.

“Wartime Prayer” – Paul Simon

“Lord Lord Lord” – The Kahn Brothers
The main songwriters/brothers of Sydney’s Gelbison, recording under their own name, have written a song which I liken to George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, a song about faith, spirituality, and turning to someone in times of need. The brothers themselves straddling the relm of their Jewish heritage, and new age spirituality have written an upbeat song that may translate into any faith.

“Bartender” – Dave Matthews
I can’t think of a better way to end this list: “Bartender please fill my glass for me, with the wine you gave Jesus that set him free after three days in the ground”.

Happy Easter!

New Paul Simon Album Streaming

Paul Simon
Image Courtesy of Paul Simon

NPR has made Paul Simon’s long-awaited new album, So Beautiful or So What, available to play at your leisure until its US release on 12th April.

The consensus among early reviews is that this is Simon’s best work since 1986’s Graceland. NPR’s Ken Tucker, while offering the album its most critical appraisal yet, nonetheless admits that it blends “the two best strands of his solo career: the articulate navel-gazing of his 1972 solo debut and Graceland‘s 25-year-old rhymin’ Simon in rhythm”.

Timber and Steel will be posting our own in depth review early next week, but our first listen tells us that it is certainly the most playful and experimental Simon has been in quite a while. It is as contemplative as any of his albums, but its unexpected changes in timbre and tempo offer us more space to consider and interpret his words. One has the sense that none of the stories he tells are his own, and that even the narrators in the songs don’t represent him. The album, like its title, is a question, even a challenge to the listener. It is what we make of it.

Click here to stream Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What and decide for yourself. It’s released in Australia on Friday, and if you preorder it on iTunes, you receive as bonuses a free “making of video” and a recent live rendition of “Peace Like a River” from his first solo album.

Paul Simon Releases New Single and Video

 Paul Simon

Rolling Stone has premiered the music video  for Paul Simon’s “the Afterlife”, the first single off his upcoming album, So Beautiful or So What, due out April 12.

The song is Simon’s quirky reflection on death, describing a man’s strange and predictably frustrating introduction to heaven, where you still have to “wait in the line”. At first the lyric may seem insubstantial, the final verse a cop-out. But by offering us no easy answers, it reminds us that in the end all our questions might mean nothing, a reality more humbling than any biblical confrontation could be.

So Beautiful or So What is being hailed by the likes of Elvis Costello as “among Paul Simon’s very finest achievements”. Unconfined by any of the musical sandpits in which he has dabbled, unsupported by the world-class musicians and producers that surround him, this is to be his most sonically eclectic album since the 70s. “I’m going to do the thing that I’ve been trying to avoid for twenty-some odd years,” he said, “which is to sit in a room by myself with a guitar and write songs”.

The results of this “back to basics” approach remain to be seen, but what we’ve heard so far is fascinating, and Simon has already proven himself one of the most consistently brave songwriters in the business. Whether or not it’s “his best since Graceland”, it’s certainly an album we’re looking forward to.

Click here to watch the music video for “the Afterlife”, as performed by Simon and his live band. Here he is, talking about the process of making the album. And here is a recent interview in Vanity Fair, in which he describes his meeting with Vampire Weekend, and tells us why he likes Jay-Z.

Record Store Day Folk Releases

Record Store Day
Image Courtesy of Record Store Day

Record Store Day is one of those annual events we just love here at Timber and Steel. Originally started in the US as a way of getting consumers off the internet and back into independent record stores, Record Store Day entices music lovers with limited edition releases from some of the world’s best bands along with in-store appearances, signings and free gigs.

This year Record Store Day is getting bigger and better with a huge amount of artists signed on. The event will be held on the 16th April around the world (including in Australia) and we’ve sifted through the limited edition releases that have just been announced to give you our top folk recommendations.

If any of these limited edition Record Store Day releases take your fancy it might be worth heading down to your local independent record store before the 16th April to see what they’ll be getting in. You can find a full list of participating Australian record stores here.

And now for our pick of the releases:

Released Exclusively for Record Store Day

For local releases check with you local independent record store. The full list of Record Store Day day exclusives are here. Go out and support music on the 16th April!

The Best Christmas Songs of 2010

Christmas

One of the greatest, kitschiest parts of the whole Christmas experience is that of the Christmas song. And given that folk music has been intrinsically linked to Christmas from the very beginning (most of the best loved Christmas songs from “Jingle Bells” to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” are in fact traditional folk songs) we thought it was our duty to share some of the best folk-tinged holiday tunes released this year. So turn on your twinkly lights, make sure your eggnog is nice and strong and prepare yourself to get into the Christmas spirit.

The Priests feat. Shane MacGowan – “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth”
The Pogues’ Shane MacGown was involved in probably the best modern Christmas song of a generation. Sadly this isn’t it. But it is certainly a different take on the classic Christmas song “Little Drummer Boy”. Although there’s something about teaming a group of opera singing priests with Ireland’s most famous drunk that sounds a little too close to a plot from Father Ted

Kate Miller-Heidke – “White Wine in the Sun”
What got lost in the controversy surrounding Kate Miller-Heidke’s version of Tim Minchin’s ode to Christmas Day is just how perfectly it captures the Australian holiday experience. No matter where you sit on the religion fence you have to admit that “White Wine in the Sun” really is exceptionally touching.

Paul Simon – “Getting Ready For Christmas Day”
We have to warn you – Paul Simon’s Christmas song is very … earnest. But it’s free to download from his web site so if you like what you hear you don’t have to go far to own it.

Emily & The Woods – “O Little Town Of Bethlehem”
Our favourite UK folk blog For Folk’s Sake have released their first ever Christmas album titled For Folk’s Sake It’s Christmas. It’s jam packed full of awesome indie folk goodness but one of the best has to be this gem from Emily & The Woods. Just simple vocals and guitar. Gorgeous.

Sufjan Stevens – “Silent Night”
Sufjan Stevens has never been one to shy away from Christmas songs and this year is no different. This version of “Silent Night” also features Aaron and Bryce Dessner from The National and Richard Parry from Arcade Fire (I’m pretty sure you can’t get any more indie than that) and is part of an unreleased EP titled Gloria! Songs for Christmas Vol. 6 that you can listen to here.

John Conolly – “I Am Christmas”
For the tradionalists amongst you “Fiddler’s Green” writer John Conolly has produced the lovely “I Am Christmas” from his album The Grumpy Old Men of Old England.

Liz Frencham – “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”
According to the YouTube blurb for this track “This is what happens when you get Vince & Tan for an afternoon close to Christmas and then you add some beer & Sauv Blanc”. It’s kitsch and Christmassy and just wonderful.

And if that’s not enough for you make sure you head over to A Folk Song A Day where Jon Boden has been featuring some of the best in traditional Christmas music.

Merry Christmas!

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