Marsden Hartley and Winslow Homer are familiar names. So are Sarah Orne Jewett, E.B. White, and Robert McCloskey. But while Maine's visual artists and literary icons have achieved international prominence, the same isn't true of our music stars.
Does the name Howie Day ring a bell? How about Patty Griffin? Arguably the state's most well-known musical exports, neither of them live here any longer, nor really made any hay when they did. And, honestly, neither of them is all that popular anyway.Country fans might count Dick Curless, and jazz fans know Lenny Breau, but both are now deceased. So it's safe to say that the mainstream is largely ignorant of the treasure trove of talent who currently live, perform, and record in the Pine Tree State.
In an effort to change all that, we offer here a primer on the cream of Maine's current crop of rising stars. Some of them have found success on national and international stages; others may never get a spin on any radio station. To hear a sampling of their styles visit Erin Davidson
(AKA Dilly Dilly)
By some definitions, Erin Davidson is the most accomplished musician on this list. As part of Cerberus Shoal, Portland's premier indie/art-rock group (think of a Middle Eastern Brian Eno project), she has recorded half a dozen albums and toured the United States and Europe a number of times. However, it is just in this past year that the singer/percussionist has come out as a solo act, calling herself Dilly Dilly and releasing an enchanting EP, Akidleadivy.
Davidson's music is ethereal and rustic, the magic performed by long lost wood elves. Accompanied mostly by ukulele, her voice wavers above the music like dust in raw sunlight on a winter's day. On her debut release, the most inviting piece is her cover of Jud Strunk's "Daisy a Day," but after a few listens you'll find yourself most drawn to "Doo Write," a sweet pop song with an edge.Album:
"Doo Write"www.myspace.com/cerberussiren Ray LaMontagne
At this point, LaMontagne is as much myth as musician. Currently, no Mainer can claim his fame - or his record sales. His two albums on RCA records, Trouble (2004) and Till the Sun Turns Black (2006), have sold more than five hundred thousand copies between them, and you've heard his music during TV shows and movies like ER and The Last Kiss. Too sophisticated for all that popular culture? Maybe you're impressed then that he made NPR's World Cafe's top ten albums of 2006.
Okay, okay, this will impress you: Taylor Hicks performed LaMontagne's "Trouble" on his way to winning last year's American Idol. Ask yourself why it is that you know who Taylor Hicks is, but not Ray LaMontagne.
It's likely because LaMontagne isn't far removed from living with his family completely off the grid, in a farmhouse in Buckfield without even a phone. His is a classically tortured brush with fame: it has ruined his marriage and fueled his already cynical view of humanity. Teamed with nationally respected producer Ethan Johns, LaMontagne writes songs filled with images of "man killing man killing man" and painful indictments. His dusky voice, often likened to that of Van Morrison, channels emotion and pathos like few before it, and his songwriting shows a rare flair for romanticizing the blue-collar world without demeaning it. He is an old and aching soul, and his new-folk songs are infused with the weariness to match his thousand-yard stare.Album:
"Jolene"www.raylamontagne.com Spencer Albee
(frontman of As Fast As)
Albee is widely regarded as one of Maine's best pop songwriters, building on a solid foundation of Paul McCartney and Bad Company to create great sing-along choruses with a rock sensibility. He found some modicum of success as keyboardist for Rustic Overtones, Portland rock gods for the better part of the nineties who landed deals with major record companies, and even shared a track with David Bowie. Now, however, Albee fronts his own four-piece, As Fast As, with a label, Octone Records, that has issued platinum records and multiple tours with big stars and Grammy-winners.
Albee and As Fast As are fun, literate, and impossible not to sing along with.
The band got national attention last fall as part of a promo spot and in-show feature for the hit CBS show CSI: Miami, probably because of the following lyrics: "I'll lay down in the Florida sunshine/ If you promise that you will/ I've got to give you something for nothing/ And then you move in for the kill." You know: Florida. Kill. That pretty much sums up CSI: Miami. Though the song wasn't identified, an ad for the program featured during one NFL Sunday slate put As Fast As in front of as many as 15 million viewers.
Let's hope they discovered what we Maine music fans have known for years: Spencer Albee knows how to write a pop hook like it's nobody's business.Album:
Open Letter to the DamnedSong:
Hall, who moved to Maine from Washington, D.C., two years ago, has capitalized on a major Maine soul revival under way in the last several years by tickling the ivories and crooning ballads like no one's ever seen around here. His 2006 debut album, The Face of Things to Come, is a study in R&B history, with covers of tunes by Herbie Hancock, Donny Hathaway, Roy Ayers, and plenty of other major singers with whom you may or may not be familiar. Hall's record is good enough to satisfy any curiosity you might have about him, or maybe have you running to iTunes to pick up his back catalog.
Last holiday season, Hall lent his pipes to a charity single penned by local Tony McNaboe. "Angels on the Ground" is on its way to raising ten thousand dollars for the Travis Roy Foundation, which raises funds for spinal injury victims. It was no mistake that Hall was chosen to bring the track home. His vocal acrobatics are truly thrilling, the best of Motown and contemporary soul, smooth like the just-waxed hood of a '57 Chevy.Album:
The Face of Things to ComeSong:
(AKA Sonya Tomlinson)
Throw out everything you know about hip hop. Sontiago is none of those things (except for a really cute tattoo on her back). Hers is a message of empowerment, coming with none of the self-righteous or off-putting trappings in which that sort of thing can be packaged.
Sontiago has regularly recited ultra-personal tales of loss and redemption in the middle of Portland's Monument Square during Planned Parenthood rallies. She has taught hip hop to scores of immigrant girls, through which they've gained the confidence to relate tales of unimaginable strife to rooms of compassionate Mainers hoping to help them make a new home.
But she's also sold out Portland's biggest clubs and finds herself regularly traveling to Montreal, Boston, and New York to play the hottest underground clubs in the country. Songtiago's 2004 debut record, Abuse My Adoration, is a study in hip hop's potential, filled with Joni Mitchell vocals layered overtop the most modern of digital soundscapes.
This fall, Sontiago is prepared to release her much-awaited follow-up, Steel Yourself, on the ueber-hip Canadian label Endemik Music, and the Japanese label Granma Music for good measure.Album:
Abuse My AdorationSong:
"Retrospect"www.endemikmusic.com Garrett Soucy
(frontman of Tree by Leaf)
Have you ever been enchanted by Nick Drake (outside of a VW commercial)? Did you love how Jack Kerouac was informed by his Catholic upbringing? Enjoy allusions to obscure biologists?
Then Garrett Soucy (at left) and his band, Tree by Leaf, are a must for your CD collection or iPod. Soucy's lyrics are literary works, sung with an impassioned tenor that cuts you right to the quick. If he didn't spend much of his time living off the land with his young son and wife, Siiri (a partner in Tree by Leaf), you'd probably know his name by now.
After recording two albums showing early promise, Tree by Leaf stepped up their game with the enchanting Of the Black and Blue in 2005 and last year's There Is a Vine, both populated with gut-wrenching ballads and ironic love songs, many of them tinged with a grand theological worldview. However, they are far from didactic - theirs is a questioning belief.
If there is a heaven, surely there is a place there for Garrett and Siiri's harmonies.Album:
Of the Black and BlueSong:
"Melancholy Chorus"www.treebyleaf.org Pete Kilpatrick
Kilpatrick - a young twenty-three, handsome, tall, and humble - is probably best known for "Working on Your Heart," a 2005 Portland radio hit detailing the unrequited love of a scarecrow and a snowman. It's just this kind of winsome pop fancy that has made Kilpatrick Maine's John Mayer: every sixteen-year-old girl's dream come true.
In 2006, with Louder than the Storm, Kilpatrick released a third album full of lush arrangements, great pop singles, and tons of charm, all with the backing of Portland's best producer, Jon Wyman, and Grammy-award-winning mastering engineer Adam Ayan. The latest disc is as crisp and clean as a brand-new pair of Gap khakis, and a great complement to Kilpatrick's rumpled and unshaven charisma.Album:
"Working on Your Heart"www.petekilpatrick.com Moses Atwood
Everyone's heard of James Taylor, but few own his Apple Records debut, which features the first version of "Carolina in My Mind." Moses Atwood shares that version of Taylor's balladeer flair, and for the cover of last year's self-titled debut, Atwood even shared his taste in suits (light-colored, tightly fit, big lapels). A conservatory-taught guitar player, Atwood is a throwback and a visionary, equally content with old-timey fingerpicking recalling Delta Blues and hushed indie rock suitable for any hipster's bedroom.
Lots of guys can do cool things with guitars and their voices, but it's the literary flair in his lyrics, mining everything from the Bible to Hank Williams, that separates Atwood. You've got to be smart and savvy to pull off retro, especially when the retro you're referencing is somewhere around 1930. But like all artists who can make period pieces contemporary and relevant, Atwood gets everything right.Album:
"Seventh Sin"www.myspace.com/mosesatwood Emilia Dahlin
You can't truly appreciate Dahlin until you've seen her live. A tiny little waif of a girl, no more than 5' 2" and maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet, she's nearly swallowed whole by the giant dreadnought guitar she plays. But once she starts in, just try to take your eyes off her.
With her second independent release, God Machine, and festival awards in Telluride and Toronto, recent years have been very good to Dahlin.
It's success she deserves every bit of, as she's refined her sound since she moved to Maine from Massachusetts in 2003. Once a fairly classic singer/songwriter, Dahlin has added a jazzy bebop, even scatting from time to time. She's also put together one of the state's better backing bands, particularly the rhythm section of stand-up bassist Adam Frederick and drummer Seth Kearns.
If you were hoping Billy Holiday would come back to life in the body of an Olympic gymnast, this is your gal.Album:
"God Machine"www.emiliadahlin.com Sara Cox
With a well-received EP, Firewater, and 2004's stirring full-length Arrive, Sara Cox had already established herself as the queen of Maine's oft-celebrated roots-music scene. She's a people's monarch, though, folding the daily grind of Maine's middle class and classic stories of heartache into songs that resonate through generations. In her recently released Crowded Is the New Lonely, she has again given us songs we know are true as soon as we hear them.
As a singer, Cox has big-time range, often recording low and high harmonies for her own lead vocals, but her signature delivery is a throaty baritone. It first caught my ear with the melancholy line, "And if I heard you call me baby/ I'd praise the hand of God, eagerly," from Firewater's "Waste of Time," and it's what makes Arrive's "Look Up" and Crowded's "Anger" downright spine-chilling.
While she came to light as part of The Coming Grass, a group Cox fronted with her husband, Nate Schrock, she doesn't play live all that often anymore, getting most of her visibility through national magazines like Harp and Paste, and on NPR's World Cafe. Three kids will do that. So make sure to see her show if you see it advertised, especially if the Ghost Band - drummer Ginger Cote and bassist/backup singer Megan Jo Wilson - will be providing support.Album: