1. John Fahey – “In Christ There is No East or West”
This eerie serenity in John Fahey’s music leaves one feeling as if a small fragment of time and space has been held in place, suspended, his lightly dissonant chords and meditative arpeggios reaching deeper until nothing is hidden and the listener can do nothing but understand fully. This is one of his best and most tightly-constructed pieces, a perfect embodiment of his impeccable technique and deeply resonant tone.
2. Gillian Welch – “One Monkey”
I’ve always been a big fan of Welch’s melancholic alto voice, and she puts an effectively minimalistic lyric to work here, extracting a world of resolve and simultaneous guilt from a spare, oft-repeated chorus and a careful buildup of sound.
3. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – “Cursed Sleep”
Will Oldham’s strength lies in the fact that his view of death, god, and the American Gothic aesthetic has remained clear even throughout his many stylistic and aesthetic shifts. As far removed as this seemingly mellow, lightly orchestrated number seems from the rough-hewn beauty of his previous albums, it is as harrowing and unsettling: the thinly-disguised chaos in the song threatening to overwhelm the singer’s fragile ego, Dawn McCarthy’s harmonies adding a sweet and simultaneously tense aspect to this delicate balance.
4. Elliott Smith – “Between the Bars”
Though Smith is often incorrectly mistaken for being a folk artist, his repeated quests to find the roots behind human sadness nonetheless render him fit to be considered under the umbrella of “Americana”, a spectrum of music very often concerned with suffering. This song, in which Smith expresses his inability to break off from the bad sides of his personality, instead “drinking up” with it and kissing it “between the bars”, is one of the most affecting portrayals of human misery I have ever listened to.
5. Johnny Cash – “Sea of Heartbreak”
The Man in Black, with Tom Petty in tow, turns a Don Gibson hit into a song of lost souls and fallen grace, making one almost wonder (as he always did with his covers) whether the song was in fact his, Gibson merely being one of the many following the trail he left behind.
6. Carolina Chocolate Drops – “Hit ‘Em Up Style”
One of the only opportunities I’ve had to play anything rap-like, the raw energy in this song, combined with the fire in the fiddle playing, has made it a favorite of my more upbeat sets. Carolina Chocolate Drops have dug to the roots of rap music and black Appalachian music in their powerful performances, and I’ve found nothing quite like their explosive, snarling take on roots music in KSPC’s library.
7. Dana Falconberry – “Copperleaf”
I would not expect to like Dana Falconberry’s fragile-sounding, heavily rhymed songs, and yet they somehow work for me against all odds. In this song, the delicate tone of the guitar and vocals song speaks of a beautiful morning in an Earthly paradise, but the lyric’s appropriately abstract expression of (in my opinion) displacement lends it a bittersweet atmosphere that makes her music shine; it doesn’t hurt that the hearing the dissonant string arrangement on top of her wordless vocals in the middle section is absolutely spellbinding.
8. Sufjan Stevens – “The Upper Peninsula”
Stevens turns an anecdotal song about an unemployed trailer-home dweller, driving miles at night to rescue his lost child, reflecting on the absence of understanding between him and his wife, into a depiction of the essence of poverty. The beautiful banjo arpeggios and soft harmonies slowly build as we realize the profundity of these characters’ sad situation, living in an America of convenience stores, cheap shoes, and broken homes.
9. Catfish Keith – “Gonna Get My Hambone Boiled”
Catfish Keith, who has apparently been by KSPC some time in the distant past (one of his CDs has a signed note to us), proves almost single-handedly that not all country is sentimental and artificial: candid, crass, and powerful, his songs speak of the spontaneity of a man pouring his soul into music for its own sake, this piece’s driving chords and lightly distorted vocals waking one out of stupor like a welcome splash of icy water.
10. Dave Alvin – “Rio Grande”
Alvin is, I think, one of the better story-songwriters active today, this “outlaw country”-style ballad being more concerned with the lonely reality and friendlessness of the modern day wanderer than the (oft-artificial) image of the romantic vagabond. Alvin’s detail to location in his lyrics lends a realism to this song, as does his placid and unaffected tone, the narrator’s voice that of one at peace with his inevitable state of solitude even as he vainly follows his former lover across the Southwestern United states.
Mondays at 4:00-6:00 pm