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Music Reviews 4/16/2010

band profile

la strada

I like to imagine a scene when I listen to music. For La Strada, I’d be walking down a dusty street, bare-foot, silhouetted movie-like, stamping my feet and snapping my fingers. Maybe it’s the accordion.

Affectionately, James Craft referred to it as the poor man’s piano. A piano player since the age of five and classically trained as a musician (surprised?), Craft picked up the accordion right before forming the band. And by right before, he means two weeks before. He also started playing guitar at 20. This seemingly impromptu manner carries through.

Craft, who was born in France, educated in America, and travelled with the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe, moved to Williamsburg on a whim. Friendless and in alien territory, Craft decided he wanted to make music. Logically, he posted a Craigslist ad: “I had nothing, just a desire to be in a band, and all I could try to do was communicate how dedicated I was.” People began to stick. The final lineup now comprises James Craft (lead guitar, vocals, accordion), Devon Press (bass, guitar, accordion, vocals), Ted Lattis (guitar, vocals), Brady Miller (drums, vocals), Daniel Baer (violin, vocals) and Isaiah Gage (cello).

This seeming haphazardness belies serious commitment. Craft is a songwriter, and it’s obvious. Having heard his music referred to as Americana, I asked Craft what he thought; short answer, he does not agree. Long answer, “I think America has a certain inherent mystery, but I don’t know how self aware America is—so maybe some of that comes up, because it fascinates me…but we’re not writing about Civil War generals.” True that—La Strada brings wistful and whimsical into close contact and then exploits the friction.

Part of it is the generality of the writing; it lilts dreamingly and free associatively, like a description of a mood or a cross section of memory. Craft remarks that he “doesn’t deal with ideas, music is not an essay.” La Strada means to hit you, it’s visceral—foot stomping is not expected so much as it is necessary, even if it’s just you and headphones. Craft remarks that they test try songs in the subway, “just to see if people will stop, to see if we can get them.” While Craft’s voice is insistent and primary, lush orchestration and the chug, chug of the accordion pads and comforts. Together, they evoke a strange nostalgia for old towns that you never knew, but can only imagine.

Nostalgia for old times maybe, but also a nostalgia for old fashioned, acoustic instruments. While the microKORG one-man-band model and its raft of offshoots have achieved a certain dominance in indie music, La Strada’s reliance on traditional instrumentation picks out by contrast just what has been lost. While it’s probably possible to articulate La Strada on one microKORG, I’d miss the sweetness; it would be like trying to replicate an entire family with only one person.

Their live shows, featuring all six musicians, drive and swell with enthusiasm. They command attention with thick harmonies; the spectacle of five singers lost in the melody is not to be underestimated. Their soon to be released album New Home, was packaged to sustain the simple intensity of these live shows, and is produced by Kyle “Slick” Johnson, who has also worked with Cymbals Eat Guitars, Modest Mouse, and Fischerspooner. It succeeds remarkably in this regard, albeit with a bit of polish; the entire album sustains the foment and anticipation of a live show.

This kind of commitment could only come from authenticity. Craft remarks that “music is a very physical thing, there must be some kind of necessity, if it comes from ideas then, for me, it doesn’t seem to be as powerful.” The acoustic instrumentation, the feeling of honesty, the depth of heart and reflection that it takes, speaks to finding a place. Not a literal place, the image of old towns, romanticized to the point of being charmingly old world, but a place where you can go to evoke those kinds of feelings. Craft says that “music is my place…for me, music is about being.” Go to Rudy’s on Thurs., Apr. 29 to see a bunch of swaying, singing old souls. They who go by the name La Strada, and they’ll be comfortably at home.

The label that is pressing La Strada’s New Home vinyl, Safety Meeting Records, will be at the show on Thurs., Apr. 29—it is the vinyl release party.

the tallest man on earth

the wild hunt

The Tallest Man on Earth released his debut album in 2007—11 gorgeous, melodic, bluesy tales about suicides and lonely lovers, running from the world, and obsessive serial killers. All are written with the kind of delicate command of English only a non-native speaker would have, played with a controlled carelessness that leaves fingerprints on chord progressions, sung with a gravelly howl that can only be described as Dylanesque—Shallow Grave inevitably evoked the Deep South, but on a cold February morning with fog rising off the bayou, all front porches abandoned. Two years later, the singer-songwriter is back with The Wild Hunt, and all of the trademark elements are still there—but this time, he’s welcoming in the spring. “There is a crow moon coming in,” he sings in the title track. “Just for now, I let the spring and storm return.”

The Wild Hunt refers to a Norse folktale about a mythical group of hunters who fly across the sky, heralding the coming of a great catastrophe. This is the only clue to the artist’s background—The Tallest Man on Earth is actually 28-year-old Kristian Matsson, and he’s from Sweden. Everything else about his music is reminiscent of American folk and blues traditions, from the intricate guitar work and the banjo that often appears alongside it to his folky twang and the stories he tells in his songs. “The Wild Hunt” talks about cadejos, a creature in South American mythology, about walking along the glade in the path of “ancient racists.” Matsson has no physical connection to this Southern landscape, but he blends in just fine—there seems to be no posing here, just an earnest passion for this tradition of music.

The passion comes through a bit more clearly on this second album. Although his poetic lyrics and lovely melodies have already distinguished him from the many other singer-songwriter types already on the market, this album sets him apart still further with a new level of soulfulness previously missing. He’s not so casual this time around; his voice is just a bit more intense, and the peppy, springtime guitar is coupled with a new wail that renders acoustic music bona fide rock ‘n’ roll. “You’re Going Back,” a plaintive tune that makes full use of all of Matsson’s blues influences, lays the guitar on a bit heavier, and he sings a bit more urgently, leaving you understanding the characteristic strangeness of lyrics like “But you dry me to tears/like I cry from your laughters.” Matsson’s graceful command of language is present on other tracks, like “Troubles Will Be Gone,” a simple, poetic story of a couple breaking up which makes that ubiquitous winding road image brand new.

Indeed, all of the songs are stories—again, in the grand tradition of the blues—with subjects ranging from the personal and typical to the fantastical, such as the surprisingly joyful “Burden of Tomorrow.” Perhaps the Scandinavian Matsson is able to pull off his good-Southern-boy persona for the same reason that he can tell such a wide range of stories without sounding silly or contrived. In an interview with the Village Voice, Matsson explained his songwriting method. “There is some part of you being played out in every song,” he said. “We all have something violent in us, something dark or worried—jealousy, for example…standing up there singing all about you isn’t all that interesting, I don’t want to just do that. It’s not very fun, and it may be dishonest.” Kristian Matsson isn’t Kristian Matsson on this album; he’s The Tallest Man On Earth, and in this way, he can embed himself into his music with such genuineness that you cannot help but believe every story.

The stories themselves aren’t a great deal different from those on Shallow Grave, but even the slower songs that appear later on the album are missing the mournful quality that haunts its predecessor. The Wild Hunt opens with lighter guitar work, his familiar finger-picking dancing on the strings, songs like “King of Spain” presenting a sweet side of The Tallest Man Earth that would fit in at a country fair. When the album slows down with the gentle “Love Is All” and the perfectly lovely “Thousand Ways,” Matsson still lifts them from Shallow Grave-esque melancholy with a throaty wail. On his first album, Matsson explored a musical tradition from across the ocean; on this album, he has finally mastered that quality so unique to the blues, which, inexplicably, fills the listener with hope and optimism, even in songs about loss and fear and darkness.