Tag Archives: concept album

Modern Concepts: Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown

When my friend Nick told me about the existence of this album, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t found it before then. First off, I’m a concept album nut – especially when there’s a cohesive narrative as well as a unifying theme (which I suppose is the distinction between concept album and actual ‘rock opera’, but the line is often blurry). The fact that it has a cast of characters and a different person portraying each one is icing on the cake. Secondly, the story is taken from the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in Greek myth – I can never get enough mythology – transplanted into what feels like Depression-era America (everyone lookin’ for work, etc), which imagines the story fantastically. Thirdly, it’s some of the best folk I’ve ever heard. The harmonies, the melodies, the instrumentation are all absolutely top-notch.

One simple fact about the cast here that nevertheless improves the listening experience immensely is that no character sounds remotely like any other character. Anais Mitchell herself has a sprightly, innocent voice with incredible vibrato, which initially seems jarring, but handles Eurydice’s transformation from wide-eyed wonder to sorrow surprisingly easily, as she laments the empty promises she’s received in “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”. What’s also very effective about it is that her voice is easily discernible when it pops up in ensemble choruses that are representing the denizens of Hadestown – your being able to hear her marks her as one of the masses from that point on.

The other female main character is Hades’ wife, Persephone, as played by Ani DiFranco who has a lower and freer quality to her voice than Mitchell – she takes her time and gives an enticing performance on her character’s main song, “Our Lady of the Underground”, claiming to be the cure for all those that are ailing from being underground in Hadestown too long. She offers sunshine and wind and all the luxuries not easily available to those on the inside, which gives you a good picture of the racquet that she and Hades are running there. She remains more than a one-dimensional character, however, as she also has moments of poignancy, pleading the case to Hades for Orpheus and Eurydice to unite after hearing him sing in “How Long?” (which actually appeared  on Mitchell’s previous album The Brightness as “Hades and Persephone”), as bedroom chat between the couple.

Following that, Justin Vernon picks up the story as Orpheus himself, retelling the story of how Hades and Persephone themselves were once young and how they came to be entwined and how Hades’ own heart is not so hard as it seems (“suddenly Hades was only a man”) – another plea to both Hades himself and the people in Hadestown to free Eurydice, in “Epic (Part II)”. It picks up the tune from part 1 earlier in the album which describes how mean and old mean old Hades really is. Vernon, he of Bon Iver, handles the constant pain and occasional joy that a god of music such as Orpheus might experience. He often hits the high notes in this that he’s famous for, but actually manages to give great performances from all over his range. The one quibble with this I have that I have a real hard time even arguing is the fact that all of his vocals are harmonized. I mean, it sort of fits that everything Orpheus sings would be in harmony, but the fact that he is the only one on the whole album whose vocals are treated that way takes me out of it a little bit – pulls me out of the fact that I’m listening to a play/story unfold and makes it sound a little more like just standard song vocals than a character delivering dialogue/lyrics. The harmonies themselves are even fantastic! It just is not consistent and makes it sounds weird when he interacts with other characters. But a very minor issue.

Greg Brown, with his lugubrious voice, plays Hades, every note that he sings screaming ‘shady’, ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘unbelievably confident’. He has an incredibly rich voice that sounds totally at home commanding his citizens to slave away working on “Why We Build the Wall”, as they repeat his propaganda back to him in an ever-lengthening chain of word or attempting to woo Eurydice to come work for him on “Hey, Little Songbird”, brushing away any of Orpheus’ credibility and replacing it with the promise of a paycheck. A more perfect villain’s voice I cannot imagine.

Ben Knox Miller only appears a couple times on Hadestown, as do the Haden triplets, but both are difficult to forget once you’ve heard them. Miller sounds like an old rambling bluesman in his turn as Hermes, presumably a friend of Orpheus and Eurydice as he chimes in on the popular opinion of Hadestown on the big showpiece that incorporates most of the characters in the play on the upbeat “Way Down Hadestown”. The other track he’s one, “Wait For Me”, he spends in reverent whispers as he gives Orpheus instructions on how to get into Hadestown with a few ominous turns of phrase  – “If all you got it your own two legs/just be glad you got ’em”. The voice he uses for his two appearances actually vary quite a bit, but both fit the mood of the song so absolutely and lend credence to the narrative.

The Haden triplets play the Fates, and what you get here is three ladies with remarkably similar voice doing all kinds of harmonic acrobatics, as they assure Eurydice that trying to get yourself some money and a steady job ain’t the worst thing in the world in “When the Chips Are Down”. The way their vocals interweave and layers on repeated lines is spellbinding and are unfortunately here to mainly dispense hard truths to our heroes.

It’s never less than a satisfying experience listening to the first folk opera I’ve ever heard, and holds my attention utterly. The songs all vary pretty significantly and the different vocals are a treat to listen to. This actually got me onto Anais Mitchell’s entire discography and she has become one of my absolute favourite folk artists because of it (her recent album with Jefferson Hamer recounting old English folk songs, Child Ballads, is fantastic)!

“Flowers (Eurydice’s Song)”:

“Our Lady of the Underground”:

“Epic (Part II)”:

“Why We Build the Wall”:

“Way Down Hadestown”:

“When the Chips Are Down”:

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Toxic Canadian Rock Syndrome: Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Fashionable People

It’s not all Nickelbacks, Dions and Biebers up here. It’s not even all Loverboys, Triumphs and Troopers (still a lot of Rush, though). We still have the rock, sometimes you just gotta look for it. Sometimes, it wins a Grammy and people are angry because they’ve never heard of the group before. Sometimes, it comes in the form of a band that has the best name based around a bandleader since “Blues Explosion.” Joel Plaskett Emergency’s Ashtray Rock brings the quirk, the rock, the jangly indie bits, the sweater vests and a concept album with a story as old as time: two dudes start a band, fall in love with the same girl and have a falling out. “Fashionable People” sets the scene at a party where the narrator has stars in his eyes and attempts to entice a girl away from all the other wannabes.

Immediately, the words of youth – “I feel foolish/I wanna drink too much”. As the narrator drinks, he attempts to talk up this girl he’s met, decrying all the other people at the party as he tries to make himself out to be the clear the prime candidate for attention: “I bet their parents/Are ridiculously loaded/Let’s get moving/Before I’m loaded.” The narrator uses the opportunity to talk about what’s on his mind, flaunting his newly-formed band, reciting the mantra “Fashionable people/Doing questionable things” to set his partying and recklessness up as a contribution to his future lifestyle instead of just being a drunk teenager. All the while, he attempts to be sly in getting with the girl he’s having the conversation with – “I like your boyfriend too/Do you think he’d understand?” – before the booze gets to his brain and he just says what he’s really thinking: “So ditch him/He’s no good for you…Switch him/Switch him up with me/Leave him in a ditch/And you can take a ride for free”. Plaskett’s relaxed delivery perfectly suits the tale as he delivers it with all the swaggering confidence he can muster.

The thing I will always take away from this song is the absolute insane drum sound when the chorus hits and Plaskett sings “the dancers need a dancefloor!”, very much carrying on from the sound used on David Bowie’s Low, but with much more feedback. The verses are light affairs with a heavily accented rhythm of drums, bass and light synth, with the guitar buried in the middle – none of which have any effects on them . This is what makes the chorus seem that much more boisterous when it comes around. The snare simply explodes with a few carefully-measured hits with a beautiful, overdriven raucous sound, as you bang you head and are ready to petition the government for more dancefloor space when you realize that you’re also hearing the guitar unleash for the first time. Drenched in gain but still crisp enough to whiff the fumes of those high notes on the guitar, the verse/chorus dynamic is done simply but very effectively. What makes it curiouser is the almost anti-chorus that follows the melee, as things tighten right back up and a small falsetto chorus chants “fashionable/fashionable/fashionable people” in the most delicate way possible with a little shaker in the background, which is silly but a great hook in its own right – more often than not, that’s the bit I’m singing after the song’s over!

There’s no getting around a solid song with a great hook, and for that, “Fashionable People” has earned many many relistens for me. It might be that I just like singing in falsetto a lot, too, but that certainly ain’t a strike against it!

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Modern Concepts: The Dear Hunter’s Act I: The Lake South, The River North

There’s no way I wasn’t going to like The Dear Hunter from the get-go. Look no further than the title of the first album: “Act 1”. If that doesn’t bode well for a concept album-loving nut like me, I don’t know what will! In fact, the reason that I looked this band up in the first place is that, much like Coheed and Cambria, all of of their output (at the time) was devoted towards following a single narrative over multiple albums. This was all I needed to hear – and I was not disappointed.

“Battesimo del Fuoco” has the honour of being the third-most listened-to song in my iTunes (it has stiff composition), and opens the album, in my opinion, perfectly. A majestic modern Greek chorus announces the protagonist, born into the world amidst serious strife, as we will find out in two songs or so as the story opens. An interlocking chorale with no instruments to be found, each vocal line interlocking with the array of harmony vocals behind it as we are told “the flame is gone/the fire remains.” This, combined with the somewhat gentle instrumental that follows (“The Lake South”), both about two minute introductory pieces, would not nearly prepare me for the onslaught of the rest of the album, as I thought I might be getting some standard orchestral prog flare to this tale, so I sat back with my cocoa and prepared to soak it in. I was not ready for “City Escape.”

A rhythm section barrage starts off the proceedings as a guitar comes needling in, and then sets the rhythm, barely able to keep itself under a breakneck pace, clenching its fists as more harmony vocals come in, masking the assault of the chorus that is about to come. Casey Crescenzo screams the song’s refrain, both aggressive and verbose – “plagued by practical/and a mercenary lust/they tear at her skin” – while the bass rumbles and the drumsticks are finally let loose to wander as they please. The song the weaves back and forth, switching from piano, to electronic effects, to more choral vocals to slow the tempo down before unleashing the chorus once again, showing off an impressive arsenal of instruments for what is essentially a solo project. We even hear some animated trumpet lines in “The Pimp and the Priest”, which has a vague New Orleans feeling about it, with the brass, jaunty piano and shuffling 3/4 time.

As the story is detailed of the protagonist’s mother raising her son in a whorehouse, we move through a number of almost uniformly muscular six-minute songs. Each has its own little facets and tempo changes and a killer hook; out of the chaos of just about every song on here, comes a melodic phrase that’ll lodge itself in your head for days at a time. For me, Crescenzo’s voice was the initial stumbling block. Far from your classic prog singer, his voice has a timbre heard in a lot of punk bands, and “City Escape” had me worried that there was going to be a significant amount out and out screaming vocals on the album, which is one of the few things that will get me to turn an album off immediately. Luckily, he remains just on the edge of it the entire time, which I actually find gives the album a little excitement – he has incredible restraint, but gives the illusion of none.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure of the scope of the story just yet, for a few reasons: a) only half of the albums in the story cycle are out as of right now b) Acts II and III are Leviathans compared to the scant 40-minute running time of this album (I initially heard it described as an EP, which I goggled at, but made more sense once I saw the length of the other albums) and c) I can’t stop listening to this one. Top to bottom, there’s not a duff track here, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Always one of my go-to albums. Not that Casey Crescenzo is making it easy to pick one.

Since releasing the first three acts, The Dear Hunter has taken a break from the narrative and has produced both a standalone, non-concept studio album (Migrant), and a set of nine EPs based on the colour spectrum called The Color Spectrum, each EP carrying with it its own distinct style of music, but all thoroughly enjoyable. I’m eagerly anticipating his next release, but will be listening to this pretty constantly  until that arrives.

“Battesimo del Fuoco”:

“City Escape”:

“The Pimp and the Priest”:

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