—Article by David Menconi
This has been an exceptionally difficult year for arts and music communities everywhere, with the Coronavirus pandemic bringing live-music and entertainment gatherings to an abrupt halt. The future remains uncertain for nightclubs and other venues.
The silver lining, however, is that plenty of local artists kept right on releasing music. In fact, 2020 has been a banner year for local albums, many of which would be perfect for holiday gift-giving purposes. Here are 10 possibilities – nine records, plus one book.
Some of the music is digital-only. But even that, you can put under the tree by downloading and burning it onto a compact disc, personalizing it with artwork of your own.
Rachel Kiel, “Dream Logic” (Bandcamp) – Carrboro singer/guitarist Rachel Kiel has a pop sensibility that threads the needle perfectly, acknowledging North Carolina’s jangle-pop history without seeming the least bit musty. Her fourth album, “Dream Logic” is another first-rate collection of songs with hooks to die for.
Jaki Shelton Green, “The River Speaks of Thirst” (Soul City) – From Mebane, Jaki Shelton Green is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate, a member of the state’s Literary Hall of Fame and a certifiable treasure. “The River Speaks of Thirst” is her first album, pairing Green’s sonorous readings of newly penned poems with music and sound effects. It’s a provocative combination, and the next best thing to one of her in-person readings.
Various Artists, “Cover Charge” (Bandcamp) – Overseen by musician and UNC English professor Florence Dore (with contributions from Steve Balcom, Lane Wurster and Shawn Nolan), “Cover Charge” features area bands doing cover song songs to benefit Carrboro nightspot Cat’s Cradle. The lineup of Superchunk, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, Mandolin, Orange, Dex Romweber and others also make it a dynamite local sampler. “Cover Charge” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s compilation-albums chart, a remarkable achievement for a digital-only independent release.
Various Artists, “The Co-Isolation Sessions” (Suah Sounds) – Another very fine local-music sampler, this one written and assembled by Suah Sounds overlord Michael Venutolo-Manotvani and featuring vocal contributions by Jphono1, John Howie Jr. and other area stars. It was released as a benefit for the North Carolina Community Bail Fund.
H.C. McEntire, “Eno Axis” (Merge) – The Mount Moriah frontwoman lives alongside the Orange County river that gives her second solo album its title, and “Eno Axis” rolls steadily along at a similar pace. Beautifully written and sung, the album is as stoic as it is emotional. An Americana masterpiece.
Chris Stamey & The Fellow Travelers, “A Brand-New Shade of Blue” (Omnivore) – Chapel Hill’s Chris Stamey has wandered stylistically far afield since his long-ago days co-leading underground-pop legends The dB’s back in the 1980s. Recent years find him leading a series of all-star ensembles playing everything from Big Star covers to jazzy late-night salon songs. “A Brand-New Shade of Blue” falls in the latter category, hitting its moody Frank Sinatra marks well.
Hiss Golden Messenger, “Forward, Children: A Fundraiser for Durham Public Schools” (Bandcamp) – Back in January, before the pandemic set in, local Americana super-group Hiss Golden Messenger launched a tour with a triumphant two-night stand at Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle. Fortunately, those shows were recorded, yielding perfect live-album fodder to stand in for the band’s canceled 2020 touring.
“C. Albert Blomquist” (Bandcamp) – A longtime veteran of area bands including Kingsbury Manx, Waumiss and Spider Bags, Clark Blomquist has played everything from dreamy pop to screaming garage-rock. As C. Albert Blomquist, he plays country music every bit as convincingly as everything else he’s taken on. The cast of supporting players includes Mipso fiddler Libby Rodenbough, a reliable quality signifier.
Mipso, “Mipso” (Rounder) – And speaking of Mipso, the bluegrass-leaning Americana quartet that formed at UNC nearly a decade ago, they’ve become a top live draw beyond Chapel Hill. The group’s self-titled fifth album is set to be their biggest yet, their first to appear on the major folk label Rounder Records, and it’s excellent.
Freeman Vines, “Hanging Tree Guitars” (The Bitter Southerner/Music Maker Relief Foundation) – From Fountain, Freeman Vines is an outsider-artist musician/luthier who builds guitars out of whatever materials are at hand. “Hanging Tree Guitars,” made under the auspices of Hillsborough-based Music Maker Relief Foundation, features striking photographs shot by Music Maker co-founder Tim Duffy; the subject matter is instruments that Vines made from a tree infamous for lynchings. It is, not surprisingly, beautiful and harrowing all at once.