Some Songs Considered #028: Chris Stapleton, Beirut, and DJ FTW
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
Cowboys, Critics, and Chris Stapleton
by Justin McCarthy (@JustinSMcCarthy)
“I like everything, except for rap and country.”
If you came of age as a music fan in the pre-millennial, pre-streaming, pre-Kanye Dark Ages, you will remember the phrase above as the common refrain of liberal upper middle class white people who purportedly “took music seriously, man.” While the transition of hip-hop from lowbrow curiosa to worthwhile subject of critical inquiry was complete by the mid-2000s, cultural cache for country music at the dawn of the social media age was basically non-existent. Certain music fans would perhaps show up to the hootenanny, if only for the approved classics (Hank, Willie, Johnny, Loretta, Emmylou, Townes) and the acceptable alt-tourists (Neko Case, Rhett Miller). But to dance with the real belles of the ball, the kinds of artists that, um, actual country fans liked? Hard pass.
Fast-forward to 2015. The White God Sweezus, herself a former Nashvillite, is our pop music alpha and omega. Upstarts like Sam Hunt, the first country artist with every single from his debut album to breach the top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100, seem to draw influence from Trey Songz and Toby Keith in equal measure. Those 20-somethings barbecuing two doors down from you? The ones listening to “Beer for My Horses” and “Red Solo Cup?” They’re alums of (gasp!) northeastern liberal arts schools.
The pop/country détente, while at times uneasy, has nevertheless encouraged today’s poptimist music critics to dip their toes in the creek, and some are finding the water to be right nice. Steven Hyden, formerly of Grantland, has been known to wax poetic when it comes to Eric Church. Pitchfork reviewed Sturgill Simpons’ Metamodern Sounds in Country Music last year, and Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material this year. Something important about the above artists, though: they’re all, popularity and label affiliation notwithstanding, branded as “Outlaw Country” artists. They’ve positioned themselves as alternatives to the dominant mainstream genre trends: namely, the “Bro Country” of acts like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.
So the pop culture gatekeepers of the Pitchfork era have arrived at the O.K. Corral…well, okay. But who is going to be the Kanye West figure to bridge the gap between the critics and the people? Artists like the Gram Parsons-name-checking Musgraves and the Waylon-on-acid Simpson are always going to be nostalgia acts at heart; they won’t transcend to the level of zeitgeist-owning behemoths any time soon. So who has outsider chutzpah, mainstream appeal, and the chops and vision to pull it all together? Who has the Benz and the backpack (or the F-450 and the hobo bindle, as the case may be)?
It might be Chris Stapleton.
Like ‘Ye, Stapleton started out as a cog in the industry machine, a hired gun Music Row songwriter – and it shows. His debut album Traveller, released this year, does the tremendous work of equipping his Outlaw aesthetic with cultural footholds for the uninitiated: a little blue-eyed soul on his rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey,” a little blues rock on “Outlaw State of Mind,” a little bluegrass on “More of You.” This is to say that there’s something here for everyone, yet it all feels cohesive and part of a whole. The album has even drawn acclaim from pockets of the music interwebz including noted polyglot critics like Craig Jenkins and Caitlin White, writers primarily known for their coverage of hip-hop and indie pop, respectively. They make an exception, though, for talents like Stapleton.
So he’s a critical darling, but what about mainstream appeal? Well he just made noise in that arena in true Yeezy fashion – by beasting out at an awards show. Wednesday night at the CMAs, Stapleton took home the Album of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year awards. Luke Bryan may have won the major hardware of the event, Entertainer of the Year, but as Forrest Wickman at Slate noted, the evening seemed like a harbinger of Bro Country’s end – like dusk at a darty as the championship round of the pong tourney goes into overtime.
But here’s how Chris Stapleton really won the CMAs, and the week in music: with this performance…
Co-signed by Graceland’s own Justin Timberlake, Stapleton delivers a singing clinic for the ages, his vocal instrument a piercing beam of light as foretold in the gospels, or a flaming 180-proof cocktail on the Devil’s tab. His timbre is a howling freight train, its power otherworldly, its trajectory inevitable. His vocal runs cause even Timberlake to double-take, and the pop star’s solo turns on the mic seem faint and pallid in comparison. Stapleton’s is a voice that makes people notice – a voice that, when matched with a prodigious songwriting talent, can get you to both the Grand Ole Opry and the top of the year-end lists, if you play it right.
You can’t really know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em when it comes to betting on the next big thing in crossover musical success, but I’m going all-in on Chris Stapleton anyway. Take that for what it’s worth, from someone who likes everything…even rap and country.
Beirut (in 2015)
by Lindsay Hogan (@LindsayHogan88)
Beirut is, by almost all accounts, an indie-darling band past their prime. The peak of their contribution to music was with Gulag Orkestar in 2006 and The Flying Club Cup in 2007. But nine years after those potentially classic albums, the band’s influence on the past decade of music and culture is still undeniable. Turn-of-the-century nostalgia and an antique aesthetic will forever define late-oughts’ hipsters with handle-bar mustaches, hand-rolled cigarettes, and vintage suspenders, but behind those fads was a decade of American economic recession, the shadow of two useless wars, and the desperate need for some escapism in music.
And Beirut delivered, without forfeiting tangible emotion.
Beirut’s staunch commitment to this old-world image was not a gimmick, but genuine vehicle for band leader Zach Condon to express his influences and unconventional musical talents. It was a re-imagining of Balkan folk and Parisian balladry with a funeral march weaved in here and there. Beirut didn’t just dabble, but found the most appropriate and controlled uses for forgotten instruments. We heard trumpet, accordion, French horn, harpsichord, mandolin, bass clarinet, upright bass, violin and euphonium (admit neither you nor I knew what a euphonium was without googling it.)
Then we saw many bands look at Beirut’s line-up like wide-eyed stoners at a Chinese buffet. Groups began to pick and choose from the closet of dusty 1905 throwbacks and lodge them awkwardly into their sound. Lest we forget the years when one could hardly walk into a college dorm without running into a lone ukulelist, dramatically hunched over their three-strings like Clapton unplugged.
This is the cynicism that will haunt Beirut’s current and future releases.
Their commitment is to an antique sound that has lost its novelty.
But we forget in the hunger for new music, the shifting categorization of genres, and the speed at which innovation peaks then becomes contrived, that music is beautiful and is meant to be listened to. Beirut stopped by Washington DC this week on their most recent tour for the album No No No, and between job commitments, the hustle of the local music scene, and daily Drake-hating, even I forgot to get excited about this show.
Nevertheless, that didn’t stop Zach Condon from shuffling on stage, trumpet in hand, and turning his 6-piece band into an escapist orchestra.
Beirut exudes the precision of passionate yet professional musicians. Talk was short, old songs blended into new songs without becoming uniform, the quiet moments packed as much emotion as the horn-driven crescendos. Zach switched effortlessly between trumpet, ukulele, and some modest synthesizer while serving as band director, but the focus was on execution more then on showmanship, which only added to the band’s ability to transport. Two trumpets and a trombone downstage run the risk of creating an distinguishable wave a noise; instead, every molecule in the theater seemed to contribute to the waltz that Zach and the band were building.
Beirut is sacrificing some relevance in 2015 for a traditionalist identity, but by doing so, they create music that, first and foremost, is beautiful. And I don’t care if the French horn and the accordion’s novelty has worn off, and I don’t care if you got bored streaming their latest album. Sometimes we all have to step back from the hustle and give into Beirut’s escapism. Hot-takes and “Hotline Bling” be damned.
DJ FTW’s 5 Songs to F*ck the World to
by Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)
This week, I got to fill in for Micah Peters and join friend-of-the-site Nate Scott in putting together the “10 Best Songs of the Week” for USA Today’s For The Win (FTW) section.
While I would never want to steal traffic from the #1 sports website in the country, I am, however, totally fine with embedding my submissions for said list and linking to the original so you can read more about them there. Plus, if you click the link, you’ll get to listen to whatever crap Nate thinks is good this week too.
Monte Booker feat. Smino – “Kolors”
Soccer Team – “Too Many Lens Flares”
CeeLo Green – “CeeLo Green Sings the Blues”
GRIMES – “Kill V. Maim”
GEMS – w/o u
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Bryce Rudow.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.