Admittingly, my knowledge of Virginia is extremely limited. When I hear the name itself, my initial thoughts are not of the state but of the pop band Train and their 1999 radio friendly unit shifter. You know the song: her hair’s a mess, she smokes a pack a day, blah blah blah. I think I also read somewhere that she is highly suspicious about the existence of Santa Claus, but I just may be mixing up my Virginias.
I know even less about the state of Virginia. Hell, if you asked me to place it on a map, I would place my entire thumb over the eastern U.S. coast as a piss-poor attempt to hide my piss-poor geographical knowledge. What I do know is that, as a child, God lived there for a while before he grew up to play drums in Nirvana and later form the Foos. You can probably imagine how surprised I was when I stumbled on the fact that Richmond, VA is indeed the indie-folk capital of the world.
Sometimes it’s the littlest of mistakes that lead to the biggest of discoveries. I was googling Trouvere, an up-and-coming indie-pop duo from Nashville, TN, trying to track down their excellent La-La-La Love EP. Instead of the bouncy She & Him pop style I was anticipating, I was directed to the webpage of Trouvére, an up-and-coming countrified folk-rock quintet from Richmond, VA. There is a big difference in that little accent over the “e”. The band photo displayed beards, bowler hats, and whiskey, so naturally I gave their Wandering EP a spin. Immediately liking their Americana stylings, I went looking for more material. A couple of clicks further on the band name brought me not to a back catalogue of Trouvére, but to the entire catalogue of the indie label Church Hill Records; a collection of LPs, EPs, compilations and 7”s from Richmond based artists that ultimately consists of an array of stompers, ballads, anthems, and instrumentals. I spent the remainder of the day with Church Hill as my soundtrack. There is a lot of material there, so I took the liberty of noting of some of the highlights from the releases and have compiled a Church Hill taster for your listening pleasure.
First up is the band that is responsible for this post. As mentioned above, the Wandering EP is a successful mix of Americana, country, folk, and indie-rock. The cover of the album shows a black bear swaddling a baby while walking through an open stand of birch. ‘Nuff said.
Rise Within the Rain – (Forcibly) take the reefer away from the Fleet Foxes and replace it with moonshine you have the fifth song off of the EP. Brilliant.
Ghosts – The opening track is county-pop fusion with an eerie falsetto backing vocal, a nice simple fiddle riff, and is driven by a bouncing snare. This has complete radio potential as a commercial hit.
Dogs on Main Street
From what I can tell, Dogs on Main Street is the alias for Mac Rowe. From the opening track on his album Bound in Blood you can assume that Rowe is well-versed in the early recordings of Dylan. One man, one guitar, with some simple string arrangements layered underneath.
Riverside Prophet – This song reminds me of a stripped down version of the Gaslight Anthem’s masterpiece Old White Lincoln. I guess that explains why I’m so obsessed with it. If you ask me, Mac and Gaslight’s Brian Fallon seem to be cut from the same cloth. According to Google Maps, Jersey and Virginia are only 6.5 hours apart. Hopefully they can meet sometime in the middle; in Washington perhaps, over a quick pint and a split EP.
Highwayman’s Farewell – DOMS’s kick at the age-old folk topic of The Rambler. AKA The Drifter. AKA The Vagabond. This finger picked ode to the nomadic life is the last song on the album where he timely sings “I’ve overstayed my welcome once again…” No you haven’t. With tracks like this, you’re not even close.
Blood Brothers – In an bottomless sea of Springsteen covers, this song lifted from the Boss’ 1996 EP of the same name is not only treading water, but is afloat on top of most others and probably sipping boat drinks. 6 minutes and 28 seconds of hauntingly beautiful guitar picking, harmonica, and a stripped down vocal track.
Watkin’s album When No One Else Is Here And Everyone Is Asleep is heavily laden with instrumentals and lightly peppered with a few vocal tracks. It leans mostly in the direction of progressive folk guitar instrumentalism in the likeness of John Fahey, but includes a couple piano driven shoe-gazers, multi-instrumental percussion, and more mandolin than at a Renaissance fair. And if you listen carefully you can literally hear birds chirping and wind blowing through the trees in the spaces within the songs. That’s not some cheesy attempt at poetic critique. You actually can hear it. I’d put money on that this was recorded outside and if not, he sure fooled me with his black-magic level of studio sorcery.
Pangaea’s Revenge – Smack-dab in the middle of the album is a pretty little ballad that combines the said nature sounds with the mandolin. Pangaea starts off as simple love song, where one longs for a love on the other side of a vast ocean. Then, approximately a third into the track, the good ol’ back up boys suddenly belt in. I instantly see imagery of toothless, white-stubbled prospectors in red trapdoor long-johns and wide-brimmed Stetsons; sitting around the camp fire, singing along as the whiskey spills from tin cups and beans are eaten from a can.
The Low Branches
Atmospheric and stunning, the Sinking, Rising EP consists of Christina Gleixner’s mesmerizing voice textured on top of cello, acoustic guitar and minimal percussion. This EP is much too short and never too sweet. If you were to listen to one full stream out of all these recommendations, let this be the one.
Dipsacus Fullonum – A poppy xylophone riff on top of a chugging cello. Christina’s voice melts like fire to ice. The style and arrangement of the song reminds me of Belle and Sebastian in some ways, but her voice takes it up to an entirely higher level.
Piscataway Creek – To me, this song sounds truly modeled after the 60’s folk offerings of Simon & Garfunkel, early Joni Mitchell, and Nick Drake. It’s a picturesque, slow burning, and simplistic all at once.
Every once in a while you come across a musician who just has the uncanny ability to mentally hear arrangements and instrumentations and can pull them seamlessly out of his/her head and into an immediate composition. Listening to this album, I like to think that Tyler is one of these people. I think this guy could shape-shift into any sound, and genre, at the drop of a dime. It should also be noted that Tyler has either spent many years in Europe or has watched many, many, foreign films. Days and Dreams is full of waddling tubas, slowly drawn accordions, and soft humming horns.
Louise – Built on a slow finger pick, love-sick moaning accordions, gentle horns, and snare brushes. If I was a young lad pursuing the courtship of a young lady, this track would definitely make my mixtape offering in effort to woo the damsel. (Do people even still do that anymore, or am I just out of touch? These days I assume you just file transfer her a playlist attached with a $5 e-coupon to Yogen Früz)
Western Sky – This is Crowley getting his Jackson Browne on. But imagine if Jackson Browne’s back-up singers consisted of all of the Disney Princesses from the 30’s through to the 60’s, complete with their furry and feathered friends of the wood. That may sound like a dramatic stretch. Take a listen.
Days and Dreams – The title track is Crowley going full-Europe (the continent, not the band, but that would be awesome). Everybody knows you’re never supposed to go full-Europe, but he does. And he pulls it off with flying colours. Best played in the company of a romantic interest, while in a gondola, sipping 10 year old Bordeaux, and nibbling on Gruyère cheese. Or not. This song is so romantic you could sit in a dingy and shovel him/her with some cooking sherry and a full pack of processed cheese slices and they would know none the difference.
If I put my 2 and 2 together correctly, I do believe that Luke is the lead singer of Trouvére. The Green to Golden Brown EP pre-dates the Wandering EP by 5 years and you can tell. He hasn’t yet found the voice he will eventually achieve for Trouvére, but this is a solid effort none-the-less.
Hummingbird – Luke saved this song and later re-recorded it for the Trouvére Wandering EP. The new 2013 recording is fuller-sounding and is awesome, but this first version is stripped down and raw. The electric guitars take a backseat, and a harmonica shares the limelight with the fiddle. I’d love to hear this song played either way live.
Labor Day – Every artist eventually does its version of Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California’ at one time or another. Nobody ever comes close, as nobody ever could, but that’s not the point. The point is to use the formula to result in an easy-listening song that people will play on long drives, rainy days, and autumn walks. Luke achieved the result here. He wrote a great song.
On his War Within a War EP, can Ferdinand hold of his singing notes? Nope. Shit, can he even hit them all? Not a chance. Does it matter? Who cares. History is full of singers who stood against perfection: Johnny Rotten, Shane MacGowen, Biz Markie, even Cobain half of the time. But this guy can write a song. I mean, REALLY write a song. Throw his subtle voice on top of one of these brilliant songs, and the result never sounded so honest and vulnerable.
Wooden Eyes – Indie rock in the vein of Hey Rosetta!, Joel Plaskett, Tom Fun Orchestra and the other east coast Canadian artists I’m familiar with. This is the first east coast Celtic influence I hear in the Church Hill album releases. Mandolins and fiddles have been played up to this point, but Thomas’ style is the first time I get that feeling that the musician is playing while sitting on the side of a wharf, bare feet dangling over the Atlantic. It’s not like it’s an Irish jig or anything, far from it, but the small eastern nuances are there, and I’m picking up on them. I grew up in Newfoundland. I know it when I hear it (or at least I like to think I do, and I’m fine with that).
War Within a War – Not much else to say here other than to reiterate that this guy is a fantastic song writer. His chord progressions and song build-ups keep me attentive and on my toes. I’m having trouble writing this paragraph because his songs demand full attention and my focus is entirely on my headphones.
Oh God! – Please see comment above, and the comment above that. Thank-you.
And some of the rest….
Josh Small – Richmond Day Parade: A voice and a rolling guitar sound lifted directly off of the late 70’s/ early 80’s AM radio. This reminds me of family summers at the cabin as a young’un. Sideburns, stubby beer bottles, and my Dad and uncles burning paper-thin processed burgers over too much charcoal. I think I just teared up a bit.
Speckled Bird – You and Me and Jack: This screams ‘Beatles ballad’ to me. Not that that is a bad thing, by no means. Read my comments for Luke Saunders’ Labor Day. Switch “Going to California” with “Two of Us”, remove Ringo’s foot stomp, and slow it down a little. Then, ditto.
Speckled Bird – The Lamb and Sparrow: If you listened to the first track you might as well spin this one too. The song is a quick musical jaunt that sounds like it could get away with being played in ANY genre. The guy here has a new-traditionalist country voice. To me that means not quite New Country but somewhere mid-early 90’s before the C&W boat sank to the inescapable depths of the abyss. Anyhoo, great song.
Homemade Knives – Sea-Sand: Another kneeler at the altar of Bruce. I thought this was the Springsteenization of Harry Nilsson’s 1969 folk-pop hit Everybody’s Talkin’. The Bruce voice is evident, but an immediate listen to Nilsson didn’t confirm my Springsteen-Nilsson hypothesis. But something in this song clicked and got me thinking, and that’s what good music does.
Well, that’s my initial thoughts of the Richmond, VA indie label Church Hill Records in a nutshell. If something did catch your ear, please be sure to follow through with a full album stream. This roster definitely deserves full exposure. Most of the roster is from 2011, and I’m not sure which artists are currently with Church Hill or which were only one-off recordings. What I do know is the folks over at Church Hill definitely have an ear for good music. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my ears on them, as well as the artists that they have, are, and will continue to release, and the entire entity known as The Richmond Scene from here on in.