Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is just one of those records that makes you feel better almost immediately after pressing play. The soft, fingerpicked patterns on the acoustic guitar accompanying a dreamy male voice; it’s the classic combination for any typical singer-songwriter. Something sets Benjamin Francis Leftwich apart from the crowd, though. Maybe it’s the chorus effects on his voice, or the string arrangements overlaid on top of the guitar chords, or maybe it’s the artistically autobiographical nature of the lyrics. I think the main point is that this album has a clear sense of authenticity to it. Each song is a complete transference of Leftwich’s ideals and creative vision. It’s remarkably intimate as well, and makes it easy to feel as if you are an audience of one, listening to a private music session.
For years, I could never bring myself to give much attention to the typical singer-songwriter. After all, what do they really do other than pluck a few chords on the guitar and write songs about love? I’ve had a recent change in perspective, though. While it may not be the most complex or musically innovative sound, it’s rich in emotional content. What is music, if not the purest form of expressing oneself? The act of taking the tangled mass of thoughts in your head, deciphering them, and channeling them through your own personal form of artistic expression…it’s an amazing thing. If you’ve ever tried to write a song in the past, then you know how deceptively challenging it is.
In general, I try to write about fairly unknown artists in an effort to promote new and unique music to the masses. This policy does not exclude more famous bands from the realm of noteworthy music creation, however. On the contrary, the new album from Mumford & Sons, Babel, is a shining example of how reaching number one on the Billboard charts and being nominated for Grammy awards does not necessarily mean you’ve sold out. In the case of this particular British folk rock quartet, the media attention and critical acclaim is unquestionably deserved. They did an outstanding job of staying true to their roots and keeping intact the musical integrity that makes their songs so great. Many of you reading this have probably already heard this album, however I believe that its exceptional quality is deserving of a blog post nonetheless.
There’s something about this group that is definitively British. Maybe it’s their fashion sense, or their lyrics, or just a combination of the many eccentricities that make Mumford & Songs unique. They take advantage of their talent for beautiful songwriting and dress it up in a bluegrass outfit. Not only do are they keeping the folk tradition alive, but they are revamping it with modern production value and pop sensibilities. This is a band that can hold their own in any situation, whether it’s a hoedown in Nashville, a broadcast on pop radio, or a pub back in London.
I’m sure that many of you have heard of the likes of Andy McKee, who became something of a YouTube sensation after posting a video of him performing his original song “Drifting.” He utilized a number of techniques, previously unknown to most of the world, that work to use the guitar to its full potential as a multi-purpose instrument. Popularized by guitarists such as Preston Reed and Michael Hedges, such a technique, often referred to as “percussive fingerstyle,” uses both hands to draw out percussive sounds from the instrument through sharp hits on the strings and the body of the guitar itself. Songs written in this style often use alternate tunings, giving the musician virtually limitless possibilities for note placement, along with the use of harmonic overtones to create higher pitches.
Similar to Andy McKee in style is the lesser-known but equally-talented Jon Gomm. Originally hailing from Lancashire, England, he has released two full studio albums to date and has been touring since 2004. Although it is definitely easy to see the influences from McKee and other virtuoso guitarists, Gomm sets himself apart from his contemporaries with his incredibly diverse and unique blend of musical styles. Described as a “one man melting pot,” he exhibits a mastery of a wide range of styles on Don’t Panic, his latest studio album. Folk, jazz, rock, blues, country, and even metal – they’re all represented on the album. And did I mention that the second verse on the opening track, “Waterfall,” is sung entirely in Urdu?