Today, Steal This Track has a very special treat for Reverb readers. If you’ve paid attention to Colorado music — especially Denver music — for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard of Joe Sampson. Though — like the yeti or unicorn of the Denver music community — the singer-songwriter is rarely seen or heard, and yet has achieved mythical status, greatly admired and frequently name-checked as a favorite artist by better-known musicians like Nathaniel Rateliff, Mike Marchant and Erin Roberts of Porlolo and Ending People. After years of only distributing his music to friends on tapes and CD-Rs, Sampson is poised to release his official debut, “Kill Our Friends,” on Denver’s newest record label, Fellow Creature Recordings, and we have a sneak preview for you to steal.
The quiet beauty of Joe Sampson’s music comes from its stark simplicity, haunting textures and dark mystery. His melodies find their way into the listener’s subconscious without ever drawing attention to themselves by being overly catchy. His sonorous baritone is soft and warm, but roughened just enough by life to be vulnerable. His lyrics, though personal and sincere, maintain an inscrutability that deflects easy interpretation, while his spare-yet-skillful guitar work propels each tune with the power of a full band. Whether he’s playing something that fits into a more traditional folk framework or pushing boundaries with his signature chiaroscuro sound, Sampson is an obvious student of the art and craft of songwriting, placing his bridges in just the right places, and knowing when a simple vocal harmony will really drive the point home. Though Sampson has mostly been content to work in the shadows — as bass player for Bad Weather California, as one anonymous half of Wentworth Kersey, and as A Dog Paloma — its exhilarating to see his talent step into the spotlight.
“Kill Our Friends” — initially recorded by fellow local legend Roger Green and polished up by Colin Bricker and Mighty Fine Productions — is deftly produced. Stark and austere when it needs to be, and densely layered when the songs call for it, the album turns songs new and old into legitimate exemplars of the form. Some of the tunes will be familiar to longtime followers of Sampson (and of Wentworth Kersey), but others haven’t seen as much daylight. Though none is more than four minutes in length, each of the 17 tracks packs the meaning and listening satisfaction of much longer compositions into its dense, dark frame. With noteworthy contributions from Green, Julie Davis (of Fairchildren, Bela Karoli and Rateliff’s band), Chris Adolf (of Bad Weather California), Shawn King (of DeVotchKa) and Rateliff — and thanks to the tenacity of Fellow Creatures founders Blake Nicholoff and Jules Bethea (longtime Denver music community supporter and wife of Nathaniel Rateliff) — Sampson finally has a worthy and lasting document of his remarkable body of work.
Steal “My Love” and let us know if you don’t agree in the comments. Then watch a video, shot by photographer Erin Preston, of Sampson and Rateliff singing the album’s title song. Finally, get your butt down to the Hi-Dive (7 S. Broadway, Denver) on Saturday night for the album’s release. A who’s-who of Denver music — including Doug Spencer and Hayley Helmericks (of Snake Rattle Rattle Snake), Stephen Brackett (of Flobots), Aaron Collins (of A. Tom Collins), Esme Patterson (of Paper Bird), Rateliff, Roberts and many more — will be performing Sampson’s songs before Sampson himself takes the stage. Tickets are a measly $6.
Please note that downloads offered via Steal This Track are intended to whet your appetite, and are NOT CD-quality recordings. If you want those, please support the artists by buying their music and/or seeing them live.
If you’re a band or musician ready to expose your fresh sounds to the readers of Reverb, email your tracks — along with any interesting facts about them, as well as a photo or album art — to Eryc Eyl for consideration.
Eryc Eyl is a veteran music journalist, critic and Colorado native who has been neck-deep in local music for many years. Check out Steal This Track for local music you can HEAR, and the Mile High Makeout for stories about Denver musicians doing extraordinary things. Against his mother’s advice, Eryc has also been known to tweet. You can also follow Steal This Track on Twitter. Sorry, Mom.