Huichica Sonoma

Since 2010 Huichica Music Festival in Sonoma, Calif. has offered a different kind of festival experience. It combines intimate performances with great artists, great food and wine, and a beautiful natural landscape. Overlooking the vineyards at the historic Gundlach Bundschu Winery, Huichica has become a favorite summer experience for bands and fans alike.

Blitzen Trapper

It is fitting that ten seconds into Blitzen Trapper's fifth full-length record, front man Eric Earley utters that most sacred of rock 'n' roll tropes: "For to love is to leave or to run like a rollin' stone," he sings in the harmonized verse that leads off the album's epic title track, "Destroyer of the Void." As is the case with just about every musician or band that has employed the Blues' greatest simile, Blitzen Trapper is unabashed in its embrace of tradition.

Over the course of their four full-lengths albums to date, including their revelatory 2008 Sub Pop release Furr, the Portland band has already made that much clear. And, Earley's considerable poetic talents and his band's hard-earned chops have gained them a growing international audience. This fifth album, Destroyer of the Void, takes Blitzen Trapper one step further, building on the band's seamless marriage of the familiar and the fantastic to, literally, create an otherworldly experience.

But there is more to Blitzen Trapper than those traditions. More than anything, the band credits its music to its Pacific Northwest home. It is there that the six members came together ten years ago and formed a creative cauldron from which would emerge numerous novels, a locally-celebrated play based on the film Manos: The Hands of Fate, innumerable art projects and, of course, a flood of fantastical songs. Destroyer of the Void is only the latest work to emerge from this world, but it is one where their musical community is on full display.

The heart of Destroyer of the Void, though, is still found in Earley's meticulous songwriting. Here he is firmly in storyteller mode, expanding on the mythical world he created on Furr. That album introduced listeners to a ragged but beautiful world populated by mysterious killers, anthropomorphic narrators and benevolent women living in watery ways. Here, those characters are joined by a wandering tailor, a black-eyed lover, a flower-tongued balladeer and, of course, a host of lost lovers rolling along the road of life to a truly original American soundtrack.

In this often reflexive and world-weary era of popular music, there seems little room for unabashed wonder, or joy without suspicion. Some regrettable fear planted within each of us around the 7th grade or thereabouts still makes it hard to dance, hard to hold hands, hard to say "I love you," at least without a quick caveat or escape route at the ready. Over the course of three records, the last two on Sub Pop (2003's Mouthfuls and 2005's Spelled in Bones), Eric D. Johnson's Fruit Bats have looked for ways to file down the cynical edge of modern life and found many. Using bright melodies, defiantly major-key chord structures, natural imagery mixed with the occasional blazing insight and tender observation, the Fruit Bats have never shied away from darkness, but more uncommon in this day and age, they've refused to shy away from light.

With The Ruminant Band, this tradition continues in characteristically rich and involving fashion. Consider the title: it's no coincidence or shortcut that the name of the second track was plucked to represent the album as a whole. "Band" is the operative word here, as the Fruit Bats lineup has expanded to five, who in turn expand the sonic scope of Johnson's songs to include the barn-floor stomp of "The Hobo Girl" and the Fleetwood Mac-esque shimmy of the title track. On a recent message to fans on the band's website, Johnson promised on behalf of the Bats, "We are going to choogle for you." And while the potential for chooglin' has always existed in some form all the way back to Johnson's earliest 4-track experiments, The Ruminant Band sees it flower in full.

Now ponder the multiple meanings of the word "ruminant." Its most popular definition is "thoughtful," and the Fruit Bats are certainly that. But the term is also used to describe cloven-footed mammals of the suborder Ruminantia, which includes giraffes, cattle, goats, and (please refer to your well-worn copy of the Bats' 2001 debut Echolocation) buffalo and deer. Applied to the men behind the propulsive yet spacious '70s country-rock jam "Tegucigalpa" and the parlor piano soft-shoe of "Flamingo," this descriptor aptly represents the pastoral bent of the melodies and instrumentation, as well as their refreshingly good nature. When Johnson sings "Climb up with me to the monkey's nest / … Give your lovely lonesome head a rest / In the beautiful morning light" the colors of that light nearly become visible out of the speakers.

Production credit belongs to Fruit Bats drummer Graeme Gibson, who directs each song in a way that lets each composition stand on its own while remaining cohesive, recalling the good old days of albums as viable art forms. The approach lets each member play a variety of roles, with lead guitarist Sam Wagster rapidly and twangily soloing on "My Unusual Friend" and adding pedal steel to the bouncy "Being on Our Own," multi-instrumentalist Ron Lewis fleshing out the tunes with a variety of textures, and the whole thing underpinned by Fruit Bat constant Chris Sherman's inventive bass-lines. Though Johnson has spent the handful of years between Fruit Bats records playing with peers as heralded and forward-thinking as Vetiver and The Shins, the songwriting and production on The Ruminant Band mark a further crystallization of his own melodic instincts and overall vision over the past near-decade, abetted by brothers-in-arms who know both bluster and restraint.

Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson has been quietly earning a reputation as a musical jack-of-all-trades. He is adept behind the recording console, possesses a luthier's knowledge of all things strummed, and maintains the innate ability to conceptualize an instrument essential to providing the right color to a track in need of a defining detail. Wilson has worked with promising new recording artists like Dawes, contemporary artists such as Erykah Badu and Elvis Costello, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Jackson Browne, and Robbie Robertson. A Forest City, North Carolina native, Wilson's debut solo album Gentle Spirit is remarkably evocative of that golden late '60s, early '70s period when rural and urban sensibilities colluded in producing some of rock's most imperishable recordings.

Damien Jurado

Welcome to Maraqopa, population 2. Damien Jurado's newest collaboration with producer Richard Swift drops us into a brutal and benevolent landscape. The bold strokes and new turns the pair made with 2010's Saint Bartlett are taken even further. He throws open the gate on his oft insular dirges and allows them do some real wilding out in the canyon. In Maraqopa, the vistas are miles-wide; the action is more dynamic; the close-ups sweaty and snarling. The strummed desert blues that begin "Nothing is the News" quickly bursts open into an Eddie Hazel-worthy supernova shred session, all of it swirling in tinny-psych and Echoplex'd howls. We've never heard anything like this from Jurado. Fifteen years into his remarkable career, and he continues to blossom. Jurado and Swift establish themselves not only as inventive, trusting collaborators, but as one another's spirit animals in American outsider songcraft —lone wolves in black sheep's clothing. Swift is the Ennio Morricone to Jurado's Sergio Leone.
At Swift's National Freedom studios, the live-to-tape ethos allowed these songs to expand and retract like a great beast's breath. Every in-the-moment bell and whistle here is hung with a natural, casual care. And from this, each song offers up its own unique gift: the enchanting children's choir that echoes each line of Jurado's lament for innocence lost on "Life Away from the Garden"; the breezy bossa nova that begins "This Time Next Year" and rises as effortless as a smoke cloud into high-noon showdown pop; "Reel to Reel"'s wobbly, Spector-symphony and its meta themes; the wonderful falsetto vocal work Jurado pulls from himself on "Museum of Flight." The Seattle Times recently called Jurado "Seattle's folk-boom godfather," a praising recognition to be sure. But also a title Jurado might not yet be ready to accept. That's a title for someone who has settled. With each visit to National Freedom, Jurado is exploring, taking risks. He's not only freeing his songs. The gate is opened wide to allow us all into his once-isolated musical universe. One gets the sense he's just now hitting his stride.

Cass McCombs Band

Over the past decade, Cass McCombs has established himself as one of our premier songwriters. It’s a career that has twisted and turned, from style to subject, both between records and within them. Diverse, cryptic, vital and refreshingly rebellious — just when you think you have him pinned down, you find you’re on the wrong track.

However, Mangy Love, his Anti Records debut, is McCombs at his most blunt: tackling sociopolitical issues through his uniquely cracked lens of lyrical wit and singular insight.

McCombs uses himself as a mirror to misguided and confounding realities, confronting them head-on: “Rancid Girl” reads like a ZZ Top study in Kardashian politics, “Run Sister Run” a mantra for a misogynistic justice system, “Bum Bum Bum” displays a racist, elitist government through the allegory of sadistic dog breeding; the album is sewn together by a common thread of ‘opposition,’ most directly articulated in “Opposite House”, with allusions to mental illness. ‘Laughter Is The Best Medicine’ provides a possible recipe for healing, with the help of an authentic medicine man, the legendary Rev. Goat Carson. The severity of his lyrics is contrasted by the music, which ventures into groovy realms of Philly soul, Norcal psychedelia and New York paranoia punk, articulating the spontaneity and joy of his live show better than ever before.

The record is unquestionably a work of great studio aptitude: a carefully arranged, high-fidelity production by veteran Rob Schnapf and Dan Horne. And as usual, McCombs is joined by many notable members of his eclectic musical tribe, whose names are proudly displayed on the back cover.

Mostly written during a bitter New York City winter and while travelling in Ireland, Mangy Love is Cass at the top of his game, reaching new sonic heights, creatively evolving lyrically, and resulting in his most provocative and complete record yet.

Floating Action

After Seth Kauffman's 2006 debut and 2007 follow-up left critics drawing comparisons as diverse as Motown to the Carribean, Kauffman returns as Floating Action. This April, Park The Van Records will release Floating Action's self-titled debut, and Kauffman's most accomplished work to date. Once again Kauffman has performed and recorded virtually every note himself at his home studio, and – in an age where obsessive computer editing and auto-tuning are taking the humanity out of even most home recordings – once again his refreshingly organic approach to making music is receiving rave reviews: "He invokes those classic, soul staples of deep and penetrating bass lines, simple but ideal and perfect lyrics about the troubles of love and jingling guitars. He gives you the jitters and the absolute sway is all his." (Daytrotter).

Jessica Pratt

"To say that Jessica Pratt is an old soul would be a vast understatement," says Jenn Pelly of Pitchfork. "The young San Francisco singer/songwriter's deeply intimate folk sounds so sincerely cast in from the 1960s that it's hard to believe she didn't release a proper LP during that period of time." Pratt's spooky and seductive self-titled debut is the inaugural release on Tim (White Fence) Presley's new imprint, Birth Records. "I never wanted to start a label," Presley says, "but there issomething about her voice I couldn't let go of."
Pratt's debut release includes recordings from over the last five years, and steady advances in sophistication of recording and melody are evident throughout. To the artist, the record is a time-lapse document of discovery, both musical and personal. But in strangers' hands, Pratt's debut is another kind of discovery altogether. A fully-formed emerald artifact dug up cobwebby and cold but no less green for its time spent buried. Sun-bleached and sounding a thousand years old, Pratt's debut is arrestingly brand dazzling new, and watch how the lights in your living room go soft and yellow when you put it on."

The Donkeys

We would love to be able to say that the Donkeys are simply four California beach bums who love to surf, drink cheap beer and jam as the sun sets over the Pacific. The long legacy of music hailing from California – from Bakersfield to the Beach Boys, Sweetheart of the Rodeo through Slanted and Enchanted – has shaped our sense that everything and everyone "out west" is laid back, comfortable and cool.

And to be fair, when it comes to the Donkeys, some of this mystique is true – two of the band's members are indeed surfers, and all four have been known to down a six pack or two. But like California, the real-life Donkeys (best friends from Southern California, Timothy DeNardo, Jessie Gulati, Anthony Lukens and Sam Sprague) are much more... real. If their backstory contains those top-down cars and suntanned utopian surf tableaus, it also contains the malaise and the escape fantasies familiar to all suburban kids of the 80s and 90s. Miraculously, the music manages to comfortably communicate both moods at once. Any expression of existential ennui – "is this all there is?" – is simultaneously soothed by an unrushed guitar lick and a harmonized twang that becomes almost, dare we say, meditative.

Part of this magic comes from the fact that there's no artifice to the Donkeys' songs, from the matter-of-fact breakup blues of "Boot on the Seat" to the playful recollections of a late, drunken night narrated on "Nice Train." These are everyday lives in the postmodern world expressed with a deep respect for classic songs from the 70s through the 90s -- for spacey grooves and soulful, jangly swagger -- that elevates the subject matter beyond the ordinary. Living on the Other Side, the band's second album, is not meant to hit you over the head with a flamboyant single – instead, imagine Ray Davies jamming with the Byrds, or a Gene Clark-fronted Buffalo Springfield -- and you'll get a sense of the tradition that informs this band.

White Magic

White Magic are one of those spooky bands full on intrigue akin to The Black Heart Procession or the darkest days on Interpol's tour. It is clear that these Brooklyn indie-folksters rely on the strength of Mira Billotte's vocal chords to create their haunted-house soundtracks. It is Billotte's almost supernatural voice that carries White Magic's off-kilter rhythms and possessed melodies towards an ethereal state of eeriness.

No one combines folk, soul, blues and witchy psychedelia better... even if they are the only member of the club. You have no reason to expect different from a band that calls themselves White Magic. It's the perfect name for a band that often scares the hell out of me. --Oh My Rockness

DJ Andy Cabic

Vetiver honcho Andy Cabic spinning sweet, sweet tunes.

Marty Marquis

Marty Marquis is a musician and songwriter best known for his work as a multi-instrumentalist and hype man with Portland band Blitzen Trapper. Despite never being released as a proper studio recording, live renditions of his song "Jericho" have long been favorites among Blitzen fans the world over. Additionally, his cowbell-playing for the group has been heralded as "virtuosic."

A fifth-generation Northwesterner, Marquis took up hitch-hiking while still a teen and drifted around America for several years before finding himself in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. It was here that he met fellow sojourner Eric Earley, and the two began a friendship that included entertaining dorm-mates with Neil Young covers and camping out together in haunted forests.

By late 1999, Marquis, Earley, and the rest of Blitzen Trapper had gathered in Portland, and the band was formed in early 2000. Initially called Garmonbozia (after a line in David Lynch's Fire, Walk With Me), the group established its indie bona fides with years of playing around town to essentially empty rooms for no pay and only minimal, extremely local varieties of glory.

After being spurned by more than a few record labels, Blitzen Trapper decided to self-release 2007's critically-acclaimed Wild Mountain Nation. It was then that Marquis revealed his talents as an entrepreneur, and along with early BT champion Matt Wright established the group's own label and built up the business that has since sustained the band. Marquis has since performed with Blitzen not only on late-night television and massive festival stages, but also in some of the most squalid dives in North America.

Marquis' solo work is marked by a predilection for fingerstyle acoustic guitar and historical/mythical themes. "Jed Smith, 1827" for example, retells the legendary explorer's first overland visit to California in the form of a heat- and thirst-induced hallucination. "The Son of Thunder Remembers" gets inside the head of John the Apostle as he watches his best friend betrayed and executed. Recently Marquis has begun employing foot-pedals to add counterpoint and synth-bass to his performances.

Eric D. Johnson

Sometimes a story can take a long time to tell. Eric D. Johnson, who has recorded and performed as the Fruit Bats for a decade now, had a story like that, a chance encounter that had rattled around his head for years. He's tried to write it as a short story, a play, a movie…yet until now couldn't get it down just right. Finally he decided to make a song out of it, and the result is "Tony the Tripper." It's the song at the heart of his fifth album, Tripper, setting the tone for a bittersweet meditation on hitting the road, leaving the familiar behind and reinventing yourself.

The story goes like this. Just after turning 20, Johnson boarded a train from Chicago to see his sister in Olympia, Washington. A grizzled vagabond—Tony—took the seat next to him for the ride to Fargo, North Dakota. Over the next 12 hours the two developed a strange relationship, the cantankerous oldster alternately bullying and befriending Johnson. A decade or so later, Johnson is still bemused by the encounter, wondering what he could have learned from this broken, frightening, but fascinating character. The song "Tony the Tripper" imagines the two of them heading out on a road trip, the idealist and the outlaw cutting a swath across America.

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