Something often forgotten by today’s folk singers is that folk music has a wider range than most genres. It can be a heartfelt ballad, a story of hope, or a call to arms for a downtrodden people. Shareef Ali, based out of the Bay Area in California, seems to understand this better than most. His new album, A Place To Remember The Dead, runs the gamut through all of these variations. He adds a bit of punk rock attitude to it, kinda like Frank Turner’s recent work. The difference being Ali shoots a bit higher, reflecting less on his own past and focusing on the world at large.
He’s often been compared to Conor Oberst, and sometimes throughout the album that comparison is very valid. But more often he comes across as his own creation, blending old-fashioned instrumentation and modern lyrics in a way that sets him apart from most young folk artists.
My first time through the record I was just half-listening while I was doing some other things, but I had to stop when “Stone’s Throw” came on. This is pure early Dylan re-imagined to fit today’s world. I was surprised when songs like this didn’t start popping up with higher frequency around the Occupy movement, but I’m happy to finally hear someone singing about the people fighting back, be it here in the US or in Egypt. The words are straight, and never bend to compromise: “Well I got released to a fast food feast on the front steps of the jail, but we know our work ain’t finished until we empty every cell. So you can ban us from the plaza, stay away from city hall, but sure as we burn that flag, that edifice is gonna fall. So we rage on, like a grease fire, I heard they torched our bank today. And we raise a fist to Cairo, we’re just a stone’s throw away. Now if you got a pot to piss in, don’t be afraid to call it black. Or you never break the kettle, and take your city back.” The genius of the song, I think, is that the first couple verses are sung alone-just a voice, acoustic guitar, and harmonica-and when it gets to the line about being banned from the plaza a chorus starts up and gets louder through the rest of the verse. It’s a very effective song sung by one man, made much stronger when joined by a group.
The first single from the album, “Tuscon,” shows a much different side of Ali. It’s a fun country song with a big helping of steel guitar. Lots of honky tonk heartbreak on the track as Ali laments “I ain’t ever gonna understand how you like every kind of boy except the kind I am.” I like the dynamic shifts that the album goes through, and that they didn’t try to smooth it out too much. Everything on A Place To Remember The Dead sounds good to me. It isn’t over-produced and engineered, so it feels honest and real. As a record like this should.
It’s not out until February 19th, but you can check out the video for “Tuscon” and if you’re in the Bay Area you can catch Shareef Ali on the release date playing at Bottom Of The Hill in San Francisco. A Place To Remember The Dead has been one of my favorite listens so far in 2014, so I definitely think you should check it out.
UPDATE: In a list discussing the best music of the year so far, it was silly of me not to think to include all the best shots we got from the shows we’ve seen this year. Obviously I’m not going to post them all, but if you’d like to check them out, you can head here to view a slideshow from everything we’ve seen since returning from SxSw.
So, we’re halfway through 2011, and we’ve already seen some pretty amazing stuff come out. I had a pretty hard time picking the ten best records, and I had to make some rules for myself to cut it down a bit. Each record here has to be a full-length, no EP’s. 2011 has to be the initial release, no reissues or self-released albums put out a second time by a label.
10. Wolfgang Jay-And We Move (Feb 16, 2011)
One of my favorite surprises of the year so far has been this local gem. The live show is equally good. If you like danceable tunes that mix equal amounts of Depeche Mode and We Are Scientists, check this out. My review.
9. Frank Turner-England Keep My Bones (June 3, 2011)
It isn’t that unusual for hard punk guys like Turner to switch over to singer/songwriter material, but they aren’t often this good. It’s only been out for a short time, but I’ve listened to this record a ton already. He’ll be in Chicago in October, and I’m doing everything I can to ensure my attendance. My review.
8. Ezra Furman and the Harpoons-Mysterious Power (April 5, 2011)
So far Ezra Furman has been my favorite interview I’ve done. I’m sure he doesn’t feel the same, and maybe it was just being loopy from sleep deprivation, but our conversation was probably the least forced of all my interviews. Just two guys talking. Of course, it led to a ridiculously pun-heavy second half, but it was fun. In that talk, I forgot how amazingly talented he is as a songwriter.
7. Fort Frances-The Atlas (Feb 8, 2011)
Some truly beautiful work is done on this record. “White Roses” is my favorite, but about five other songs are easily just as good. “Ghosts of California” has some stellar lyrics, and “Losing You” is a trippy pop song that can be listened to on a loop.
6. Okkervil River-I Am Very Far (May 9, 2011)
Initially a disappointment for me. I like it more every time I hear it. “Your Life As A Blast” is one of my favorite songs of the year so far. My review.
5. Lupe Fiasco-Lasers (March 4, 2011)
The Bill Cosby of hip-hop. Lupe says what’s on his mind, that’s for sure. Even when he’s calling Obama a terrorist, I can see his point of view. It doesn’t hurt that his flow is second-to-none.
4. The Antlers-Burst Apart (May 10, 2011)
Hospice was an amazing album, and Burst Apart does a splendid job as a follow-up. Pete Silberman is in the top 3 songwriters working right now. My review.
3. Smith Westerns-Dye It Blonde (Jan 18, 2011)
So good. Not many great summer records come out in the dead of winter, but this one brought me warmth when I needed it most.
2. The Poison Control Center-Stranger Ballet (June 6, 2011)
Look out world, PCC has arrived! Building on years of touring and two pretty damn good records, this band from Des Moines has proven that hard work and tenacity pay off. My review.
1. The Decemberists-The King Is Dead (Jan 14, 2011)
I said way back in January that it would be tough for any artist or band to match this record, and that’s held true so far. The King Is Dead is so perfectly simple and beautiful that you can’t help but fall in love with it. Yes it takes a lot of cues from late 80’s and early 90’s REM. So what? If you’re gonna sound like someone, who better than Stipe and co.
And that’s it so far. Seriously, there has been so much great music I’ve heard. Abigail Washburn, Oranjuly, The Mountain Goats, Heidi Spencer and the Rare Birds…all extremely strong records as well. 2011 has been great for music lovers, let’s hope the second half doesn’t let us down!
I knew about a minute in to England Keep My Bones that I was going to love this record. Frank Turner, former hardcore punk rocker turned singer/songwriter has put together a near-perfect twelve songs on his fourth full-length solo effort.
The thing that hooked me was the opening track, “Eulogy.” It’s a short song, and about half of it is a horn-led intro. Once the lyrics start, they give a sparkling example of the album to follow:
Well I haven’t always been a perfect person
And I haven’t done what mom and dad had dream
But on the day I die
I’ll say, at least I fucking tried
That’s the only eulogy I need
It really is a kind of opening statement on what you’re about to hear. In one record we get simple pop songs, English folk songs, post-punk, and an all-encompassing feeling of sincere effort. Now, maybe Turner is a skilled enough songwriter to evoke that feeling without really trying. I haven’t listened to any of his previous work, so I don’t know. I doubt it, though. You can usually tell the b.s. from the truth when it comes to music.
That earnestness is necessary for a lot of these songs to work. For example, the song “I Still Believe,” which has Turner singing about rock and roll being our savior, would never work if he didn’t believe it completely. In different hands, songs that espouse the healing power of rock have sounded corny at best. Here it works incredibly well. Enough so that I started believing the words he was singing.
Skipping ahead a couple tracks now, down to “One Foot Before The Other.” We finally get into some of the punk roots that Turner has deep inside him. The guitars really come out to play here. Honestly, the first time I heard it I was thinking, “This could be a Linkin Park track.” No disrespect, sir. But that’s the kind of music it reminded me of. He also gives us a peek into some of his influences, as this song mentions Woody Guthrie and Dostoevsky-previously he’d mentioned Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“English Curse” takes us back to the early centuries of English folk music. It’s a fairly traditional song about a curse bestowed upon any man who steals the land of an Englishman. Definitely an interesting choice to leave this song on the record, and I’m glad he did. An album is supposed to be a complete story, and this tale would be incomplete without it. England Keep My Bones is all about Turner’s love for his home country, and this kind of song is perfectly in line with England’s musical history.
I’m gonna skip all the way to the end of the record now, as the song “Glory Hallelujah” was really the clincher for me. As much as I knew I’d like the record based on the first song, the finale made me hit repeat. The album has a lot of talk about saviors and souls and all that stuff, but the last track turns it all on it’s head. The opening stanza:
Brothers and sisters, have you heard the news?
The storm has lifted and there’s nothing to lose,
So swap your confirmation for your dancing shoes,
Because there never was no God.
Now, he’s not bashing religion or people who believe in this song. What he’s really saying, I think, is that we shouldn’t do right by each other because that’s how you get into Heaven, but because it’s the decent thing to do. You can’t pin all your dreams on praying to your whatever and hoping for the best, you have to go out and make it happen for yourself. you also can’t blame every bad thing that happens to you. So don’t worry Christians, Frank Turner still loves you.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about doing a mid-year Top Ten albums list, and it’s constantly in flux. England Keep My Bones has been on the list from the first listen, and it remains up there. It came out a couple weeks ago, so this review is a little late. I would highly recommend you pick up this record. It blends a bunch of different genres together, and the result is an amazing example of what great writing can accomplish.