Wildcard - Ben Thomas

I owe my current listening to a fatal day last August when my the left side of my head phones inexplicably stopped working. I was forced into a world without music accompanying me wherever I went. World of people watching on the train, safely riding my bike, and even falling asleep to street traffic.  Because of lack of funds, I decided to see how long I could go until I absolutely needed headphones again and was pleasantly surprised by December that I had gone almost four months without music in the background of my daily activities. Music had become something that I plopped down on the couch to enjoy, sitting through an album like back in the good old days of listening parties in school.

1. Marty Robbins - Gun Fighter Ballads and Trail Songs

An album that I revisited during that time was Marty Robbins’ Gun Fighter Ballads and Trail Songs. I first heard this album in high school from a friend who would drag me into his room to share his recent musical findings.  It was painful in the beginning of hearing Big Iron again and again as I would always think of it as music my grand parents like, but it wore a hole in my ear and found it's way to my iPod.  Years later I’m still enjoying it and it was a great start to enjoying other country western artists.

The reason that I keep coming back to this album is because of it’s honesty.  Simple music with catchy melodies, tons of reverb, no frills, three part harmonies, all to tell the intricate and tragic stories of cowboys in the wild west. I love that the songs never reach five minutes, there’s only guitar/violin solos as introductions, and the rhythm section provides a squishy cushion for Marty’s luxurious pipes.  Its clear to hear why this music reached outrageous heights of popularity as it wasn’t trying to be anything it wasn’t. Heck, El Paso was no. 1 on the charts in 1960 and won a grammy!

2. João Gilberto - João Gilberto

João Gilberto’s Self-titled album from 1973 came to me last month when I complained to my friend of needing some new music (after I received new head phones for Christmas). It took some time of sifting through dozens of other albums acquired along with the Gilberto, but when I finally had a listen, I had never heard anything like it.

My ignorance of boss nova kept me in the dark until hearing hearing João. Bossa nova was never thoroughly covered while at school and whenever a bossa tune was called, it was more like an opportunity for a break before we were back to bebop. Anyway, there are many reasons this album is so fantastic.  I love the album cover, the font, colors, and picture almost depict what the music inside will be like, simple on the surface but deep if given any attention.  The music is mainly João singing and playing guitar, with some extra percussion and singing on a few of the tracks.  João is primarily an interpreter of other people's compositions on this album with two originals that are the most interesting on the album.  I usually don't go for cover albums, but when you compare João's version of Aguas de Marco to Elis Regina's, it's almost as if they are different songs. And he does this with almost every song with his uniquely quiet whispering voice.

Only after trying to play along with these recordings did I realize just how special this music is.  It's very easy to listen and enjoy the relaxing melodies and beautiful chords, but switch on the musician ear and these compositions take on a whole new life. Its a real challenge to keep track of long forms where each A has different substitutions and hardly anything repeats! This is music not to be taken lightly!

3. Skuli Sverrisson - Sería II

Skuli Sverrison's Sería II is another album obtained recently from a friend.  I'm really lucky to have friends with excellent tastes in music!  I've mostly listened to Skuli in Ben Monder and Jim Black's bands so hearing this was an ear opener! The music is extremely beautiful, exploring lush string texture and voice. As corny as this will sound, it actually transports you to another world when you close your eyes, with memorable, singable melodies, and layered guitars.  I think this is what a lot of Philip Glass' music would sound like with melodies over the top.  There's always pulsating rhythm underneath and everything is tonal! You don't even have to listen to the entire album, but why wouldn't you, it's only 40 minutes! Definitely check out Her Looking Back and Le Feu.  These tracks are goosebumps guaranteed. Also Eyvind Kang sounds great.

Now living in Brooklyn, Ben Thomas is an active member of the creative music scene playing in the bands of Angela Morris, Nate Reit, Gillian Bell, as well as John Crowley's Heart of Darkness, and is a member of Ensemble Mise-en.