Steve Earle has lived through the sort of horrors that have launched a million country songs: addiction, affliction, heartbreak, even prison. He wears them in his voice, but for all his authentic world-weariness, what's most appealing about him is the wide-eyed, unmistakable fearlessness with which he goes about his life these days.
I'd never think that a banjo player could find my musical sweet spot, which falls somewhere between Mali and The Velvet Underground, but Otis Taylor hits it, spot on. Taylor's music is trance-inducing, and he achieves that effect by playing songs that are modal: Sometimes, they sit on one chord for the entire song.
There's no one way to define a great voice: Genius might lie in the phrasing, the range, the power, the control, the words themselves, or some sort of indescribable something else. But one way to diagnose genius for sure is to have a singer walk into a crowded room with little to no accompaniment, open his or her mouth, and command breathless attention in a matter of seconds.
When it first made a name for itself nine years ago, Iron and Wine was just another way of saying "Sam Beam" — as in, the majestically bearded bedroom folksinger whose stark, fatalistic musings were offset by soft-voiced, solo-acoustic arrangements. These days, Iron and Wine is a full band whose sound is elastic enough to feature guitar solos, backup singers and even a saxophone.
Though my cold, black heart rarely stirs for the work of singer-songwriters, the voice of Sharon Van Etten always turns me into a weepy, vulnerable heap. If you listen closely to this gorgeous Tiny Desk performance she gave with her musical partner, Cat Martino, you can hear the sound of my eyelashes fluttering with misty delight.