Your friendly neighborhood music editor is sinking in album submissions like a hapless jungle explorer, clawing to escape the quicksand. Long story short, Vermont musicians have been busy this year. It's almost like they were forced to stay inside with their instruments or something. Anyway, here are six Vermont records that might have slipped under the radar in 2021. Listen up!
Robot Rights, At Least It's An Ethos
I keep reading about people programing AI to write pop music. Thus far, the machine music has been unimpressive, but hearing a human impression of what an AI might create is far more interesting. Robot Rights' At Least It's An Ethos is an electro-pop romp, a high-energy mixtape for androids looking to get laid. The glitched-out record is full of fist-pumping beats and anthemic melodies, as well as bits of almost indecipherable digital dissonance. Adding to the mystery of Robot Rights, the "band" has no credited human creator. Its only response to Seven Days' inquiry was a terse email saying, "I'm a Vermont artist. I made an album during quarantine and I like it, so I thought I'd share it." Sounds like something a robot would say. I'm just saying.
Key Track: "You and I" Why: The song plays like a lost Memory Tapes track. Where: robotrights.bandcamp.com
Steve Blodgett, Winooski Calling
(Self-released, CD, digital)
Full disclosure: I'm partial to music that shouts out the City of Winooski. Burlington's cool little brother holds a special place in my heart, and by the sounds of it, Steve Blodgett's heart, as well. On Winooski Calling, the elder statesman of Vermont rock crafts a record full of wry reflections and psychedelic observations. Blodgett first started writing and performing music in the early '60s with Mike & the Ravens. The band was picking up heat in the Northeast until Blodgett was caught playing rock and roll records over a church loudspeaker in Stowe and was summarily sent back to school by his mother, ending the band. Flash forward almost 60 years, and Blodgett is still writing clever rock songs.
Key Track: "I Made One Mistake" Why: Blodgett pushes into quirky indie-rock territory with a song of love and regret Where: steveblodgettsongs.com
Los Microbios, Cognitive Thinning
Hailing from Ira, Los Microbios have managed to submit one of the weirdest albums of the year. Which is saying something, if you listen to some of the records we review. The noise-punk-sort-of-experimental-maybe-garage-rock act is the brainchild of Lance Jones, who wrote and performed almost all of Cognitive Thinning, save for the odd (and I do mean odd) Rolling Stones and John Lennon covers. Musically, it's a strange mix of droning synths, jittery blips of noise and washed-out percussion. Over it all, Jones sings in an awkward baritone reminiscent of late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. It's a peculiar record that tonally sounds like it's coming from another room in a very large house.
Key Track: "A city is not science" Why: It was the only track that didn't make me feel like someone had plugged my ears with cotton. Where: losmicrobios.bandcamp.com
Tim Cummings, Pete Sutherland and Brad Kolodner, The Birds' Flight
(Birchen Music, CD, digital)
Take a trip back in time to the days of sharing tunes around candlelight — or campfires on the Appalachian Trail — with The Birds' Flight. In it, three Vermont musicians play traditional Scottish Highlands music, with a few twists. Tim Cummings gives the record a heavily Gaelic feel with his pipe playing. Pete Sutherland's fiddle injects something of the New World into the European folk. And Brad Kolodner's banjo brings just the right amount of Americana to the mix. As the band says in its bio, "This certainly isn't the first time Scottish tunes sailed westward and woke up speaking Y'all." But Cummings, Sutherland and Kolodner have managed to find a charming blend of traditional tunes and make it their own.
Key Track: "Kilmarnock" Why: The trio reimagines "Amazing Grace" as a Scottish ballad. Where: birchenmusic.bandcamp.com
Joshua Hall, Bread + Roses
In a word, West Windsor's Joshua Hall creates music that can be described as "heady." The self-described "Zen-Metal-Freak-Jazz-Guru" makes hyper-literate folk music, delving into politics, spirituality, life and death. Bread + Roses is a showcase for Hall's classical guitar playing, with the sound of nylon strings driving much of the album. Yet a fair bit of the energy beneath the eight tracks comes from the biting social commentary in Hall's lyrics. "The soul of the nation is just fighting to breathe," he sings on the title track. Then, "Redlined into ghettos, a suffocated dream." Hall clearly favors the Woody Guthrie side of folk, underpinning the music with a message.
Key Track: "June 1968" Why: It's one of the sweeter, simpler songs on the record, a gentle ballad dedicated to Hall's parents. Where: joshuahall.bandcamp.com
Antwon Levee & Dust, The Joint Commission
Antwon Levee is one of the most prolific musicians in the area. The Plattsburgh-based producer has released plenty of punk music from across the lake, but lately he's been more involved in the hip-hop scene. In 2020, he and fellow New Yorker Dust released Bruise Music, a vibrant debut of multitextural hip-hop, at once modern and retro. On The Joint Commission, MC Benn Rymon joins Dust, and the two spit hot fire over Levee's slow-burn beats. Levee is a clever producer with a keen ear for building atmospheric tracks. Dust and Rymon shine with lyrical gymnastics, sometimes cutting, sometimes tongue-in-cheek.
Key Track: E.O.T.W. Why: A head-nodding jam about the collapse of society? I'm so in. Where: antwonlevee.bandcamp.com