Suggested Listening ’20: Caitlin Kraus

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What a year 2020 was! Since it is doubtful anyone even believes in linear time anymore, it seems fitting that WOUB Culture is rolling out our Suggested Listening feature in January (and February) instead of December. The world is a hard place, and aren’t we all so grateful to have music to make it a little more bearable! 

(Photo courtesy of artist)

Originally from Columbus, OH, Caitlin Kraus is a singer/musician and songwriter living in Athens, OH. In 2020, she released her first full-length album What Rises, primarily recorded/produced at Peachfork Studios in Pomeroy, OH. When not writing music or performing, she spends time with her dogs, works in the mental health field as an outpatient counselor and music therapist for adults, and is an adjunct professor for Ohio University’s Music Therapy Department.
Music is important for our wellbeing, but the challenges of 2020 have certainly made this all the more evident. As safety has been compromised in the wake of the pandemic, our typical opportunities to practice, play, dance, and be a part of in-person, live music and other arts have changed drastically. However, it is my feeling that listening to music has become all the more significant–crucial, really–to our sense of connection to self and others, to our expression, and to our sanity. While there are so many albums that have helped me through this year, here are some that have especially paved ways for me to laugh, cry, heal, move, and carry on. I hope you can find something helpful in them too… and in the words of LeVar Burton, “But you don’t have to take my word for it!”

Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood

While I’m a fan of all Weyes Blood’s work–her unexpected and interesting melodies, her rich lyrics–her newest 2019 release Titanic Rising takes it to a new level. The opening track “A Lot’s Gonna Change” begins instrumentally, propelling into nostalgia: “If I could go back to a time before now / Before I ever fell down / Go back to a time when I was just a girl / When I had the whole world / Gently wrapped around me.” Songs like “Wild Time” (“Turn around, it’s time for you to slowly / Let these changes make you more holy and true”) and “Something to Believe” (“Give me something I can see / Something bigger and louder than the voices in me / Something to believe”) provide an almost visceral catharsis that I’ve craved a lot this year. “Andromeda” brings that kind of desperate dreaming and honesty I need to be allowed to have: “Love is calling / It’s time to give to you / Something you can hold onto / I dare you to try…”

Day of Judgement by Ngozi Family

Ngozi Family’s 1976 release Day of Judgement (reissued by Now Again Records in 2014) will get you moving. I’m usually a closeted dancer, but my shyness and clumsy choreography know no shame when it comes to the rhythmic Zambian/Zamrock, psychedelic, punk, funk sounds featured on every track of this record. If you are having a day where you are lacking motivation and need a boost or need an outlet for some energy, I highly recommend giving this a spin. While some of the songs focus more on content, such as frustrating relationships and chasing desire, others (title track “Day of Judgement” and “We Were Not Told”) gravitate toward questioning and taking action in a more sociopolitical sense, which is never irrelevant. Chrissy Zebby Tembo & Ngozi Family’s My Ancestors (1974) is also a necessary listen! I had a difficult time choosing between the two.
Nobody Lives Here Anymore by Cut Worms

I didn’t necessarily choose the song “Heat Is On” from Cut Worms’ 2020 release Nobody Lives Here Anymore because it is my favorite from this album. I chose it because it is where you should start in listening to this epic record and then only stop until you get to the final song. (In fact, maybe start with “Song of the Highest Tower” from his 2017 Alien Sunset while you’re at it.) But if you don’t have an entire hour and seventeen minutes to listen to this double album all the way through, I highly recommend the pedal steel-driven “Unnatural Disaster,” the heart-aching “Last Words to a Refugee,” and the lilting love song “Looks Like Rain,” which conjures up George Harrison and maybe even a touch of Harry Nilsson along with a bit of cowboy crooning.

Hasta la Raíz by Natalia Lafourcade

I’m admittedly behind in listening to Natalia Lafourcade, an amazing singer, musician, and songwriter from the Coatepec region of Veracruz, Mexico. (Shout out to former WOUB Crossing Boundaries and Audiosyncrasies host and percussion extraordinaire Mark Hellenberg for introducing me to her music this year!) Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish, but I still knew that the Grammy award-winning 2015 release Hasta la Raíz made me feel a lot of good things… it is dreamy and sensual at times and then dance-y and driving at others, and sometimes all of these at once. Later on, reading translations of her lyrics, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the music transports the meaning very accurately.

You Can’t Go Back by Supernobody

In 2019, I went to a house show–yes, a house show! remember those?–celebrating the release of You Can’t Go Back, a brilliant star of a record created by Athens, OH’s own Supernobody. I cherish all of their works, but this one kept me so much company over the past year and I am grateful for it. Thank you, Mike Elliott, Shannon Grogan, Chris Biester, Matt Box, J. Hadley, and also Adam Remnant, for this gem. Who doesn’t want to believe in the “Long Lost Dream”? (I want to believe.) Who hasn’t been thinking about love and time and where that time goes (refer to “Old Dark Bar”)? (I know I’ve been thinking about it.) And who can truly climb out of the well of emotion that Mike evokes when he sings of the “waterfalls in my heart,” “redwoods in my knees,” and “in my mind, the western sky, the full moon and the breeze” all the while listening to the “Trains Going By”? (I know I can’t.) (Also check out their brand new Still Life 20/20 released New Year’s 2021!)

Black Gold by Nina Simone

This 1970 album was recorded live at NYC’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969. It goes without saying that it resonates stronger than ever fifty years later–activating joy, expressing sorrow, and bringing awareness to the disease of discrimination. Certainly the “high priestess of soul” as she is introduced on the recording, Simone speaks and shares a variety of songs, including the traditional “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a prayer/song written by composer Caiphus Semenya, and my all-time favorite song of empowerment “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life.” Two versions of “To Be Young, Gifted, & Black” celebrate the life of Lorraine Hansberry, the first African American female author to have a play performed on Broadway. I think that Simone speaks for herself and there is not much I can say to really pay homage to her contribution to the world, but this particular recording captures a moment in time that feels very intimate and pertinent all these years later.

Homegrown by Neil Young

When I really like something, I can become a little bit obsessive, or maybe the word I’m looking for is “passionate.” Dogs, Lord of the Rings… I can probably stop there without giving details and you’ll get the picture, and I won’t embarrass myself too much. Well, Neil Young’s music is something I’d add to that list, so when I heard that Homegrown was being released, I signed up for the pre-order right away and checked my porch eagerly every day. I was not disappointed when it finally arrived. While some tracks, such as “Love Is A Rose” are very familiar and still never grow old, lesser known and unreleased songs like the raw, vulnerable “Try” feel like treasures, especially knowing that it took 46 years for about seven of the twelve recordings to fully emerge. There is a nice variety of folk, rock, weirdness, and blues, some of which feature Emmylou Harris, Robbie Robertson, and Levon Helm. A must-have in my book!

Stranger in the Alps by Phoebe Bridgers

While Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher arrived in 2020 and features amazing songs like “Kyoto” and “ICU,” I found myself listening to her 2017 release Stranger in the Alps more often. I’m not sure exactly why this album draws me in so much, but I know that Bridgers is good at sharing a story in her lyrics and making it interesting while also coming up with some really ear-catching melodies. I’m never certain if what she is writing and singing about is fiction or nonfiction or somewhere in between, but I believe it and I’m drawn into what feels like a memory that makes me want to ask questions and hear more. My favorites are “Motion Sickness” where she exudes an honest hybrid of fragility and strength, and “Scott Street” where she seems to revisit a place and a relationship, knowing things have changed—and reminding me that it’s okay and even necessary to make a space for loneliness.

Cuz I Love You by Lizzo

Early on in the pandemic, Lizzo pulled me out of my blues and got me out of the house and out of my head with her newest of three records, which also features Missy Elliott and Gucci Mane. With her background of rapping since she was a teenager and later studies of classical flute, it is not surprising that Lizzo created such a smart and sexy album. Cuz I Love You helped me put my body in motion, reminded me to love my body, and allowed me to have fun while doing it, especially with songs “Good As Hell,” “Juice,” and “Exactly How I Feel.” In particular, “Juice” gets stuck in my head in the best of ways with its catchy beats, balance of spoken/sung word, and message of shameless self-love while recognizing the ripple effect this can have: “If I’m shining, everybody gonna shine…” I’m looking forward to hearing whatever she comes up with next.

Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969 by Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard

While many of these tunes are fraught with leaving, longing, and loss, the 2018 release of Sing Me Back Home gives me a sense of peace–maybe a coming-to-terms with blues and hard times. Dickens’ and Gerrard’s homemade tapes recorded from 1965 to 1969 are essentially a rehearsal and this is part of what makes it so wonderful. The unpolished, stripped down arrangements of their voices, guitar, and a bit of autoharp transport you to the same room and that’s a nice feeling–a little ticket back in time. It’s also pretty inspiring to remember that Gerrard and Dickens grew up and performed at a time when there were few women in the bluegrass/country scene, especially with regard to duo singing and playing. My favorite tracks include their renditions of the Carter Family tune “Little Darling Pal of Mine” (1928), “Are You All Alone” (1952) by the Louvin Brothers, Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys’ “I’ll Wash Your Love From My Heart” (1952), and “No Hard Times” (1932) by Jimmie Rodgers, yodeling and all.

Blind Joe Death by John Fahey
If I had John Fahey’s hands and brain, I’d probably play guitar all day and never stop. Even though I’m usually pretty wrapped up in lyrics, Fahey has no need for them and, when I listen to him, I have no need for them either. While you can’t really go wrong with any of his albums, the one I’ve listened to the most this year is his 1964 version of Blind Joe Death; this is the second version of three with the first released in 1959 (his first album). The first two songs ease their way in, slowly and intricately, but by the time you get to “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home,” that steel-string acoustic starts to pick up speed and carry you down the road. The A-side ends with the confident yet perfectly out of tune hymn “In Christ There Is No East or West”—fitting because Fahey’s music feels sacred in its own way, precise but humble and never overwrought. Flipping over to the B-side, “The Transcendental Waterfall” mimics its title—trickling out a few lines before freely flowing on. The record ends on my favorite tune “Sligo River Blues,” an original by Fahey. The patient plod and pacing of the notes reminds me of the feeling you get when you are starting to learn something for the first time—trying and trying again until you finally get the hang of it.