Wednesday, September 24, 2014

'What We Say We Are' Album Review

I haven't been writing much lately so when my friend Tyler asked me to write a review for his upcoming album, What We Say We Are, I was incredibly honored and humbled. It seemed an obvious answer. Of course! Plus, then I would get to listen to the album before it was actually released. #alernativemotives

It was wonderful to fully immerse myself in the album, learning more about Tyler and his music capabilities. This is a wonderful album and I highly recommend you check it out. Not just because I know Tyler. Or because I wrote a review on it. But simply because it's good music. You can download his pre-released single at Noisetrade or pre-order the full album at his Bandcamp


What We Say We Are is the freshman album from Tyler Sjostrom, a singer and songwriter hailing from Chicagoland. With a voice that resembles Nathaniel Rateliff* and the picking skills to boot, this album has been a long time coming for fans of Sjostrom. It was worth the wait.

The album is a unique effort, perhaps because it is highly influenced by Sjostrom’s life and experience, which has remarkable variety and distinctiveness.  Sjostrom capitalizes on this in a way that can only be commended. Yet, in no way does the album hurt in its cohesiveness. Themes of self-discovery, desire for authenticity, and an appreciation of natural aesthetic are laced throughout, and while Sjostrom allows his songs to bring you alongside his many adventures and musings, he also causes you to pause and notice your own life.

The musicality of What We Say We Are is what is perhaps most striking. It is truly a broad and comprehensive effort for any musician, let alone someone who is writing their first album. And knowing Sjostrom’s affinity for folk music, it is impressive to hear him work within other genres and instrumentation. Don’t be fooled, though. This album is an undeniable tribute to folk; Sjostrom’s banjo and guitar picking consistently, and rightfully, earn a decided place throughout his album. But from the electric guitar solo in Let Them to the beautiful and sweeping string quartet of Hands and Knees, the different elements and details brought forth in this album are a welcomed addition to Sjostrom’s picking. Thankfully, though, there are still moments where a solo or riff effortlessly dance their way to the forefront of a song and his inherent skill on these instruments truly sings.

The album opens with Red River, an ode to Sjostrom’s deep love for the Red River Gorge in Eastern Kentucky. It was also, appropriately, the pre-released single and provides a good musical introduction to the album as a whole.  There is a certain backwoods quality about the song, a harkening back to the space where folk music draws its roots. This feel is carried throughout the entirety of What We Say We Are and is the perfect compliment to Sjostrom’s lyric writing.

Hammock, the next track, is a slightly different taste from the rest of the album, but still one to be noticed and appreciated; it’s the music that truly shines in this song. From there, though, the album opens up and showcases Sjostrom’s natural knack for music writing. While his lyrics lean heavily on his own experiences, which can provide for some disconnect, there is a certain authenticity to them that is refreshing. In Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Sjostrom chooses to explore the struggle we can all feel: discovering a desire to be fully ourselves while simultaneously recognizing the deep and often allusive courage needed to be such. And the juxtaposition of music and lyric in Brother is fantastic. While the feet stomping, straight-out-of-the-English-countryside beat resembles what you would hear throwing back whiskey in a pub, the song actually speaks to Sjostrom’s experience in East Africa and challenges us all to remember the intentionality we need to truly be what we say we are.

The final three songs return back to Sjostrom’s love for and origins in folk music, reminding us once again of the woodland roots that are a consistent influence in his writing. Hands and Knees opens with a beautiful guitar solo and is then complimented by the banjo. What more can you want? And the powerful music throughout Let Them strengthens a heartfelt cry for authenticity in a culture lacking. Both songs also have subtle hints of classic rock and bring to mind the likes of Ryan Adams or the later works of Mumford and Sons. The climax of the album comes with the final song, Rescind My Fear, which acts as a sort of final gluing, marrying the album’s musical and lyrical themes for one last glimpse of Sjostrom’s heart. Truly, these songs are Sjostrom’s time to shine. And shine he does.

Sjostrom puts forth an admirable first effort with What We Say We Are, so much so that it is easy to forget this his first time around these parts. With this album, you are granted a certain privilege to gander through life and its musings with Sjostrom. Knowing Sjostrom, and this album, you won’t be disappointed.

Be sure to download his pre-realeased single and don't forget to pre-order the full length album here!

*For real, though. The resemblance is uncanny. It’s no surprise, then, that the album has some Rateliff influences. However, it’s definitely a Rateliff feel infused with much more hope and a lot less breaking up.

Friday, November 8, 2013

In Celebration of Seasons

So, confession: I started to write this post in my head a little while ago, but am just now getting it down*. It was earlier in October on an unusually cold day; I was on a run that I was particularly underdressed for and I was freezing. No matter how much I cranked Macklemore in my earphones, I hated that I was running. It.was.awful. In the moment, the post seemed so fitting, so powerful, so encouraging, that I was ready to literally run straight to my computer to write it down. But then, like the midwestern weather tends to do, it got warm again and I forgot that the seasons were changing, that winter was coming. I was even able to run in shorts for a bit. Not to make excuses, but the post seemed somewhat superfluous.

But now that we are in our second week of November, and autumn is definitely on it's way out, the post has come back into my head. The last weeks of October have been some of the most difficult weeks for me in recent memory, but I feel they have only added depth and clarity to my processing. Grief mingled among pain, joy among sorrow. Life is so beautifully complex sometimes, but it can also be so ugly. 

I spent the past weekend visiting my aunt on my dad's side who was dying of cancer. The grief sat so heavily in my throat I found I couldn't talk. It was like the weight was too heavy for my voice to get through. She was in a hospice facility, a heart breaking building in itself, and I spent most of the weekend thinking about life, death, justice, or the lack of it, and grief. I found a piano there, praise be to God; I spent most of the two days expressing my inarticulable feelings softly on those keys, knowing all too well that I was playing for those who were waiting to die. 

We are at that point in the changing of seasons where death is beginning to show. The leaves are falling, the color is fading, and barrenness is on its way in. Isn't that the paradox of fall, though? No season brings me so much joy and so much anxiety at the same time. I love the fall colors almost most more than I love chocolate. Almost. And yet, I know with each passing day filled with those mustard yellows, fire reds, and burnt oranges, winter is coming. I remember lamenting this with my roommate: this would all be that much more wonderful and beautiful if such ugliness and struggle wasn't on its way.  

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized this wasn't necessarily true. Yes, winter is coming. And that sucks. If I can be so blunt. But, it always comes. And, similarly, spring always comes after**. In our humanity, we have an incredibly uncanny ability to forget that we can make it through the months of bitter cold. We forget that year after year we layer up, we push through, we cry a few angry tears and then, eventually, we come to the realization that life is much sweeter on the other side of winter. We realize that spring without winter is not the same. That making it through those six agonizing months of gray provides a certain perspective of joy, strength, and gratefulness.  Growing up in the south, with much less season change than the midwest, I didn't realize this until coming to college. During my first 'real' spring, right after my first 'real' winter, I remember going on and on about how green the grass was. It was a bit obnoxious in hindsight, but I couldn't get over how beautiful everything seemed. I had seen nothing but gray for so long that the colors popped with this renewed and rejuvenating energy, so contagious it was hard to not to smile. Not to hope.

Often, in the winter, all we can do is show up. And even that is not easy sometimes. I think running during these particular months is an amazing and organic metaphor for this; there is nothing quite like it, really. You start off oh so hopeful because, goodness gracious, you have managed to convince yourself that running outside in single digit degrees is a good idea. But. Well. It's cold. You begin to lose feelings in your extremities. Your lungs hurt so bad there must be icicles forming in your alveoli***. Your start wondering the signals for frostbite because your pretty sure you have it on your nose. Your begin to question your own sanity after flicking off the drivers who won't let you cross the street. Why the heck did you even decide to go outside today?   

And then. You get to the end of your run and for everything that went wrong, that hurt, or that stung, there is a matching feeling of triumph, victory, and fulfillment. And these feelings are stronger, simply because it was so hard to begin with. No matter if you ran two miles or twenty, getting out and running in negative degree feels all the same when you finish. Because, simply, you showed up. You didn't let the winter keep you inside. And that in itself shows a certain amount of fortitude. It brings a certain amount of accomplishment. 

I am still pretty young. I still have much to learn. I make many mistakes daily; ask those who are close to me and they will be happy to enlighten you. But as I spend more time crossing through seasons and, naturally and consequently, experiencing my own fair share of winters, I am starting to realize that much of life, really, is just showing up. There is something so beautifully grace-filled in that.  That so much of our sanctification, so much of our redemption, so much of our survival and thriving in a world of such longing, relies on us just being open and present to the work God is doing in our lives.   

With my aunt's passing on Wednesday, I am preparing to cross over into literal and figurative seasons of winter. And, I am realizing, my perspective on this upcoming time needs to change. Perhaps, instead of dreading the time I must spend walking down certain paths, I should try to remember that I have made it through similar seasons before. I just need to keep showing up, open, and ready. The Lord has been faithful. He will be again.
Even if I can only run two miles some days. Even when it seems like winter never ending and it snows at the end of April. 

Eventually there will be a world with no winters. I like to think heaven will be a world of eternal autumn, but that's my personal opinion. Until that time, though, we are here knowing we are meant for somewhere else. We need to just keep layering and  showing up. Because at the end of the winters, and there will be an end, our joy for Spring will be deeper, stronger, and a beautiful testament of a redemptive life in the Lord.

* Because, that's how I do.
** Although, it never seems to come on time; such a goober Spring is.
*** High school Human Anatomy class, for the win.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Time to run; or yet another Monday...

Focusing has been a challenge lately. It's hard to stare at a computer all day while your bones are literally aching to run around outside. Bah. I try so hard to sit still but it has become nearly impossible. I feel like a ten year old boy in his last week of fifth grade. 

Hashtag, just saying 

It's harder, still, when you know freedom is coming. Sooner than you thought. In less than two weeks, I will finish up my job at OCM, begin the process of moving into the city, enjoy a long awaited summer, and then starting a new a job. Less than two weeks! Which is why I just want to run. Run. To new things. Places. Adventures. I want to roll windows down* and feel the air rush past my face.

And yet underneath those dreams and longings is an undeniable and slightly inarticulable sadness. I often find it hard to embrace change; particularly when change means saying goodbye. Transition has never been a strong suit. 

But, in this moment, I am choosing to celebrate. This space coming up is a gift. One that I cannot claim as my own doing. So I am dreaming a bit, lest I waste that which has been given.
And if these songs make you want to take off in a beaten up car, with its manual windows rolled down and tape cassettes blaring, to head to goodness knows where... perhaps you understand what I am feeling.

*Or better yet, have no windows. Bike trip anyone? Please? 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Signs of spring and other things


Spring is coming. 

I was getting worried there for a second when it started snowing on Friday*.  But here we are, three days later, at a balmy and sunshine filled 65 degrees. Midwest weather has never been celebrated for its consistency, I suppose. I was relieved to see tree buds starting to peep their little heads out of a long winter slumber. I wouldn't blame them if they decided to just forget it all and wait until next year. I mean, I was feeling that way too.

But only kind of.

This weekend, I celebrated (or was it defiant stubbornness?) the sunshine by braving the cold on Saturday to peruse the grand opening of the local french market. I got my laundry done, paid some bills, ordered new checks, cleaned my room. I mean, really. Who am I?

I forget, sometimes, how good sunshine is for my soul. And thus my productivity. Ah. Well.

Anywho. I do have some gems for you today. Now. I don't believe in favorites, but if number of times played indicated any such thing, Wild Belle's "Keep You" has almost been on repeat. Also, I am also slowly falling in love with electropop. Don't tell Mr. Dylan. Although, to be fair, CHVRCHES makes it really easy, and fun, to do so.

And finally. What kind of music post would this be if I didn't include some new Timberlake? Am I right? They made me do it, mom! I swear!

Keep You



*It also rained so hard Thursday that there was widespread flooding. But alas. I digress from the point.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Some riff raff, a lonesome brother, and a petty Justin Vernon.

There are some sure fire ways to win my heart: play the harmonica, strum a guitar*, and feed me good food.

Simultaneously accomplishing these things is certainly not required. However, it would be nice. 

Just saying.

Anywho. It's no surprise then that my morning was filled with a few of these things in some capacity. I found myself looking for some new bluegrass bands and I stumbled upon a lovely little trio from New Orleans, Hurray For the Riff Raff. They have spunk. And I like it. They, along with the Avett Bros, accompanied my excel sheets this morning. And it was glorious, as much as working with Microsoft excel... on a PC... could possibly be.

Oh. And then Justin Vernon blew my mind with his new project "The Shouting Matches", a collaboration with friends in which Justin forgoes his falsetto driven "whatever could the meaning of life be" lyrics for a pep that sounds more like it comes fresh off a Tom Petty tour than a lonesome cabin in Wisconsin. And I may have just stolen that review from NPR. But it's true. It sounds like Tom Petty. #sorryimnotsorry.

Listen to 'Seven Sisters' first. Personal fave so far.

NPR. You never fail me. One day, I will write you a song of my undying love. Perhaps.

Be blessed friends:

Hurray for the Riff Raff

Scott Avett

The Shouting Matches

 *or, even better, a banjo.

Monday, April 1, 2013

mmm. It's Monday.

...but. He is Risen! Alleluia!

And, really. That's all that matters. Friends! Let us not fail to remember the empty tomb!

Oh man, guys. Holy Week was a blur. I am not sure I remember all that actually happened. But I do remember it was good. In so many senses of that word. In many ways, it is still remarkable to me that it is over. When I was finally able to lie down yesterday in hopes of taking a nap, all I could do was curl up in my bed and cry. Cry because the week was amazing. Cry because the week was over. Cry because the week held so many unexpected, and beautiful, encounters with the Lord. I felt like my 5-year old self after Christmas: so much anticipation and excitement, and then it happens. And, just like that, it is over. Like, what? Even in my young years, I felt it only reasonable to cry*.

Hopefully, I will have time soon to process through the blur. Until then, it is back to the job and routine. And trying to wade through this little post-HolyWeek let down I am feeling.

Anywho. Enough of my ramble bamble. Here's to posting shome shongs! Enjoy, my friends.

*Yes. I routinely cried after Christmas. Also after the Olympics. My parents tried not to worry.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday Music Mania

It's cold here in Chicagoland. In fact, the last time I checked, it was snowing. Perhaps Father Winter has forgotten that April is a mere week away? Seriously, now. Someone needs to please go remind him. At this point, his stay here in the midwest has passed ridiculousness and driven straight into pure madness.

I will be the first to admit: it's hard not to feel a little down. Somber might be a more adequate descriptor of my mood this morning. I am trying not to mope around the office. Trying really hard, guys. Really hard. But.I.just.can'

Do you blame me?*

All this to say: some songs are just not cutting it. For example: this song is great. But it makes me think of sunshine, and summer, and rainbows, and butterflies. And that, my friends, leaves me a bit cranky.

Consequently, my original thoughts for this second m-cubed post have flown out the window** I am going to save it for another day. Perhaps one filled with sunshine and warmth. Because, at that point, you will probably need a soundtrack to accompany your happy dance. And trust me. I will  have some songs for you.

But because the weather refuses to cooperate, I am modifying my song choices. So. Without further ado: a few somber songs to go along with winter's worn out welcome. Call them lugubrious, if you will. Ok. No. Not really. These songs have actually been helping me this morning. I hope they do the same for you... And don't worry. I do believe there is hope in this grey, gloomy world! I just really liked that word.

*It's ok if you do... just know that we probably can't be friends during the months of November, December, January, Frebruary, March, and also some of April. If you are ok with that, then judge away.

** Along with all of the birds that have apparently flown back south... because they were smart enough to realize that the midwest is bonkers.