One of the blessings of our local music scene is its sheer magnitude and bounty. It's also a curse — Seven Days receives so many album submissions, we often don't find space to review everything that crosses our path in a timely fashion. In fact, this is our second installment in the past month.
Here are four local albums that maybe flew under your radar in 2016. Some were last-minute submissions that came in just under the wire, while others merely slipped through the cracks. All are worthy of your attention.
Hailey Ward, Not Sorry
(Self-released, CD, digital download)
Hailey Ward is a 20-year-old singer-songwriter from Williston. She's hard at work on her bachelor's degree in songwriting and composition at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minn. Ward makes occasional appearances in her home state while on break from school. Not Sorry is her first full-length release, following two EPs.
Equally skilled on piano, guitar and ukulele, Ward strums and plunks her way through a series of romantic and introspective pop songs. She doesn't futz around with overly symbolic imagery, and she succinctly distills her thoughts and desires into tight, energetic morsels. Her arrangements range from fully orchestrated and complex ("For Having Tried") to solitary and stripped down ("She Looks Just Like Me").
"Sober Night" is a bluesy, piano-driven plea for intimacy without the security blanket of mind-altering substances. After she delivers the hook, punctuated horns imply a full stop, as if she's putting her foot down. There's no wiggle room on this issue, though the song itself might make you wiggle a bit.
Drawing inspiration from Sleeping Beauty, Ward waltzes through "Those Who Wait," an ode to patience. Its haunting melody is swept along over a bed of crashing cymbals, richly harmonized "oohs" and staccato strings. The woman the song describes is hardly a damsel in distress, but rather a wise and tolerant gal brimming with confidence — not unlike Ward herself.
Not Sorry is available at iTunes.
Larry Allen Brown, Covered Bridges
(Self-released, CD, digital download)
Born and raised in Chicago, Larry Allen Brown now hails from Brattleboro. He's an author and teacher and once published an instructional DVD titled "Open Tuning for the Guitar." His third album, Covered Bridges, is a collection of mellow acoustic ballads in the vein of folk singers Woody Guthrie, John Fahey and Dave Van Ronk — all of whom Brown claims as influences.
Much of the album's charm comes from its talented ensemble, the Acoustic Earth Orchestra. It includes local musicians Bill Martin, Eugene Friesen, Charlie Bisharat, Jeff Haynes, Tony Levin, Steve Holley, Bob McCarthy and Tom Eaton. The latter two musicians produced the album. Tracks were recorded at Will Ackerman's nearby Imaginary Road Studios, as well as at Squam Sound in Ashland, N.H.
Brown's storytelling takes center stage throughout. He doles out sage commentary that reflects his years of experience and various travels. At times, his writing borders on cloying. But lyrically, his yarns want for nothing. They move at a hearty clip and don't get too bogged down in handing down life lessons.
"Same old story" is full of melancholy remembrances and fear that life has passed him by. Friesen's cello follows along like a dark, looming shadow. Brown sings, "So tell me something good / Come on / Make me feel alive / Let me know I mattered / I did more than just survive."
On the other end of the spectrum is the hopeful "Just around the bend." Here Brown seeks to recapture the simplicity of yesterday. Over finger-picked guitars, he catalogs the resilience of his younger days: "Life seemed so much easier way back then / All we did was turn the page and start again."
Covered Bridges is available at CD Baby.
Derrick Semler, Blues & Trouble
After more than 40 years in the blues game, Derrick Semler is still stomping away. He formerly played in the N-Zones, a staple of the Burlington club scene in the late 1970s and early '80s. On Blues & Trouble, Semler hardly reinvents the wheel. Instead, he stays in his comfort zone, which we can imagine as a grimy, southern dive bar, its floors covered in peanut shells and spilled beer.
The album includes four Semler originals, including a cowrite with Tess Daniels. He also selects five covers of some iconic blues musicians, such as Robert Johnson ("Blues and Trouble," "Ramblin' on My Mind"), Big Joe Williams ("Baby Please Don't Go"), Sleepy John Estes ("Divin' Duck") and Elmore James ("I'm Coming Home"). Semler's covers are faithful, yet modern production techniques inevitably make them feel sharper. He coproduced the album with Gus Ziesing at Burlington's Low Tech Studio.
Most of the tracks are brawlin' barroom stompers, but "Wolf" is a slow-burning creeper. Over brushed drums courtesy of Bruce McKenzie and Charlie Frazier's drawling harmonica, Semler coos, "I am the wolf / The wolf of love / In the shadows of the pine / Under the full moon above."
The album's opening cut, "Scary World," is the most telling example of what Semler is all about: expressing his lovesick heart over standard blues riffs and chord progressions. Again, he's not bringing anything new to the table. But fans of the genre will likely find Blues & Trouble a welcome diversion.
The album is available for free. To request a copy, email Derrick Semler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Smarty McFly, digital_orbital
(Self-released, digital download)
Keenan Villani-Holland, aka Smarty McFly, is a young electronic artist who is working his way toward a defined sound. Across his three releases, his digital compositions range from chilled out to downright blitzed. They are largely instrumental, save for some spoken samples. He dabbles in house, dubstep, synth-wave and various shades of glitchy, quirky techno. McFly wrote his latest release, digital_orbital, amid feelings of confusion, excitement and sadness after graduating from Hampshire College. It follows the #! EP, his senior thesis project.
On digital_orbital, the listener is presented with two options. The opening track seamlessly transitions through four movements. You also can hear each of these movements individually on the remaining four tracks. Over its 12-minute runtime, there's a marked progression from relaxed to frenzied. It feels like a cycle that's destined to repeat itself.
Based on the EP's name, space seems to be a thematic element throughout, given track names like "observatory" and "earthrise." Perhaps it's a metaphor for the untethered nature of stepping out into the world for the first time as an independent adult.
Various shades of synth voices and drum machine compose each of the tracks. There's nary an organic sound to be heard.
"Observatory" ticks by with a metallic, droopy synth melody, like a robot that's just waking up from sleep mode. The melodic theme continues as the pace picks up, transitioning into "system_0." Arcade synth rallies between rattling hand claps and snaps. "Earthrise" is a full-force dance track, the arcade synth now bouncing along atop power chords. And the final track, "exit (code_11)" seems to recall all of the three previous movements, blending them into a cohesive vision.
Digital_orbital is available at thesmartymcfly.bandcamp.com.Update, February 23, 2017: Now there's a better way to get your hands on a copy of Blues & Trouble.