Saturday, June 29, 2013

REVISIT AND REWIND: Miracle Legion – Drenched (1992)

The late 80s and early 90s were rife with R.E.M. acolytes and imitators – many a pretender to the crown tried to pass off milquetoast jangle and a vaguely Southern aesthetic in the hopes of achieving the same kind of stardom as Athens’ golden sons.  Few, however, had the songs to back it up.  Miracle Legion, a foursome out of New Haven, CT (and specifically the songwriting duo of vocalist Mark Mulcahy and guitarist Ray Neal) were able to forge something that stood out from the pack.  Having languished in semi-obscurity for several albums (including the spectacular, skeletal “Me and Mr. Ray”, recorded as a duo at Prince’s famed Paisley Park studios), Mulcahy, Neal and a brand new rhythm section signed with insta-major Morgan Creek Records for their defining statement, 1992’s John Porter-produced “Drenched”.

All of the post-R.E.M. hallmarks are there – the guitars are crisp and jangly, the rhythm section sympathetic and largely unobtrusive, and Mulcahy’s voice a keening, adenoidal whine.  Lyrically, however, the band eschewed Stipeian vagueness for a more direct and emotional road.  Mulcahy delivered the lines like they were the most important thing in the world, and his sincerity does a lot of the heavy lifting.  It’s easy to see how several years later renowned songwriters like Thom Yorke, Frank Black and even Stipe would line up to record Mulcahy’s songs (in an effort to defray the costs that Mulcahy had as a single father, his wife passing suddenly and leaving him with two young daughters).  There is a universality to his lyrics that still come across as incredibly well-crafted and heartfelt.  Musically, too, the album is muscular in a way that R.E.M. hadn’t been several years (and wouldn’t again for several more).  Listen to the back half of the menacing “Everything Is Rosy” for evidence, the guitars tangling and attacking each other.  This is an album that trades in bone, sinew and heart. 

Sadly, for all of the effort and brilliance that Miracle Legion brought to “Drenched” the album faced a fate familiar to many in the post-Nirvana boom.  Not quite rocking enough for grunge-infused airwaves and released on a label with only the loosest understanding of how to actually promote or push a record, “Drenched” died on the vine and went out of print quickly.  Tours for the album were poorly arranged and the label held the band in contractual limbo for years, effectively putting the band on ice for several years until 1996’s unfocused swan-song, the unfortunately aptly-titled “Portrait of a Damaged Family”.  “Drenched” remains out of print, though you can find it via some poking around on the interwebs.  Mulcahy remains active as a songwriter and just released his first album in 8 years, the sweet and wonderful, “Dear Mark J Mulcahy, I Love You”.  It’s heartening to see him still fighting the good fight.  

Friday, June 28, 2013

New Pixies! one saw this coming!  A couple weeks after announcing that Kim Deal had left their ranks, Los Pixies drop their first new song in 9 years!  Upon the first couple of listens, it's certainly not going to threaten "Doolittle" for dominance in your iTunes playlist but it's better than that godawful "Bam Thwok" nonsense that was a part of one of the Shrek soundtracks.  Apparently it was recorded with Gil Norton last fall, and it certainly sounds like Kimmy is singing on the choruses.  Either Pixies...enjoy!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

REVISIT AND REWIND: Grant Lee Buffalo – Mighty Joe Moon (1994)

As a college student in the mid-to-late-90s, I was concerned with authenticity in music (or, more realistically, what I perceived to be authenticity) – folk idioms, rustic lyrics and archaic instrumentation were what I traded in, and my CD collection became overstuffed with albums by such similarly-minded artists as Palace, Richard Buckner, and belatedly but most-importantly Grant Lee Buffalo.  This LA threesome had been on my radar for quite some time, and I had dutifully avoided them like the goddamn plague for reasons that seem idiotic now, and should have then.  I didn’t like singer Grant Lee Phillips haircut and Nehru-looking jacket on the cover of their debut “Fuzzy”, and subconsciously I think I equated what their music must sound like with another god-awful band named Fuzzy that was in rotation on the college radio station where I DJed.   Even praise from R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe (on whom I had what I am fairly certain was a non-sexual man-crush) on the cover couldn’t sway me.   The chip on my shoulder was too big and I was churlish enough to declare that without hearing a note of their music, I HATED GLB! 

Like many poor college students at the time, I was also a member of several mail-order “record clubs”. I would ritually order the several free albums that were offered without ever fulfilling the obligation to buy additional music at full price.  I distinctly remember belonging to BMG Music Club under three different variations of my given name, and for a while it was glorious.  Every once and awhile, however, the system would catch up to me and I would be forced to purchase the CD that was sent, and wouldn’t you know it, I ended up getting stuck with a copy of Grant Lee Buffalo’s sophomore release, “Mighty Joe Moon”.  It sat unopened on the desk in my dorm room for weeks as I was apparently too lazy to repackage it and return it.  One night, after a couple more than a couple “beverages”, I drunkenly ripped open the packaging around the jewel case and threw the CD into my boombox.  The guitars that ushered in opener “Lone Star Song” roared from the speakers and my insides quaked.  The production was molasses thick and Phillips’ voice sounded like Johnny Cash being chased by angry demons, all tuff gnarl and sinew.  Almost immediately, I felt like a chump.   This is what I had railed against???  I loved shit like this!  And the next 12 songs were full of what my 19-year old mind had as the ideal of the authentic: old-timey instrumentation (dobro, pump organ, marimba, mandolin), dusty and lived in production (courtesy of bassist/multi-instrumentalist Paul Kimble, the unsung “hero” of the group), and lyricsthat melded contemporary imagery with what Greil Marcus dubbed “the old, weird America”.  This was music that sounded like what I imagined living like a hobo must feel like – free and unfettered, wistful and melancholy.  The fact that Phillips’ 12-string acoustic was overdriven to the point of feeding back was just the icing on the cake.  And did I mention his voice?  The way it would swoop from his smooth but rumbling lower register into a heartbreaking falsetto was miraculous and perfectly suited to the stormy, sturdy musical foundation that Kimble and drummer Joey Peters created. 

None of this would, matter, however if the songs weren’t any good, and I stand by the assertion that at least half of the tracks on this album are some of the finest songs written in the last 30 years.  First single, “Mockingbirds”, is likely one of the only songs of the alt-rock era that is successfully written in waltz-time, and album centerpiece “Lady Godiva and Me” transforms from a pedal-steel-assisted lament (courtesy of ace session guy Greg Leisz) to a maelstrom of guitar and pounding tom-toms.  The deal-sealer, however, is the one-two gut punch of “Happiness” and “Honey Don’t Think”.  Fitted deep in the album’s tracklist, I cannot think of two more beautiful and heartbreaking musical moments.   The hushed resignation of “Happiness” was perfectly suited to a 19 year old prone to navel gazing and lamenting the loss of girlfriends (real and imagined).  When Phillips croaks, “the difference in the two of us comes down to the way you wrestle with things I just put down”, I can still feel my teenage self break a little.   The sunnier Yang to “Happiness’s” Yin, “Honey Don’t Think” perfectly hedges its desperate longing  to be understood with the far more pragmatic refrain “honey don’t think you’re liable to figure me out”.  We are all puzzles at the age of 19 - to ourselves and our partners - and the 6-minute trip through depression, confusion and yearning that “Happiness/Honey Don’t Think” fostered made perfect emotional sense to me.  It was there as a salve for me many, many times when I was too far into my own head to think clearly and too drunk (on booze, on women, on my own self regret) to focus on anything but the pain.  Powerful stuff.

Ultimately, “Mighty Joe Moon” would open the doors to other bands and musical genres, and I treasure its unwitting (and for a long time, begrudging) place as a Rosetta Stone of sorts for me.   It makes me a little sad that I can never recapture what it felt like that first time I heard Phillips, Kimble and Peters firing on all cylinders, but I look back fondly on every time my teenage heart broke and mended with it as its soundtrack. And that seems appropriate. 

Stray Observations:

As amazing as Phillips songs are (and they are nothing short of amazing), I thought and think that Paul Kimble’s production on the first three Grant Lee Buffalo albums MADE them the truly special pieces of art that they are.  Kimble left after 1996’s “Copperopolis” and his touch was missed on the Buffalo’s final album, “Jubilee”.

For whatever reason, “Mighty Joe Moon” is mixed ridiculously low, meaning you really need to crank it to really bring out some of the layers.  I keep hoping that someone will release it in a new mix that properly allows its force and majesty to be heard properly.

Monday, June 24, 2013

INTERVIEW: Chris Trapper

(photo by Jacob Little)

Buffalo-born and Boston bred, songwriter Chris Trapper has had an amzing career from his early work with the Push Stars (a band he still occasionally plays out with) to having his songs included in several films and TV shows.  We had the opportunity to converse via email after his recent Buffalo show about his career and inspiration.

You’re five albums (seven if you count the Christmas album and odd n sods collection) into a solo career after several with the Push Stars – how have you grown as a songwriter?

I don't know that I necessarily have grown as a songwriter. I think I may have evolved a bit, but then, occasionally I'll hear a song I wrote when I was 19 years old and I wonder "how did I come up with that?" What evolves, if anything, maybe is the way I see the world, what concerns me, what doesn't...but as far as growing, I think that's arbitrary. At my show last night in Maryland, I played a song called 'Wild Irish Rose" (off my first album with the Push Stars) that I probably wrote twenty years ago, and next to my new material I thought it held up just fine. I think one small change in my writing is that I'm less willing to write totally abstract lyrics nowadays. I think the fact that I have a bit of an audience makes me want to communicate in a simpler, straighter and more complete way, although I will always submit to a lyric that sounds good versus a lyric that makes perfect sense. But I try harder to have both nowadays.

Who are some of your influences as a writer?

I think my biggest influences as a songwriter would be John Prine, Paul Simon, Paul Westerberg and Sam Cooke, all for different reasons. John Prine is a good barometer for how to have the most impact within a simple format. His songs are usually three or four chords maximum, and the words are all very straight forward, yet clever. With Paul Simon, I draw from his sophistication and experimentation. He was my first influence, I would cover Simon and Garfunkel songs. I can still play most of them. But he jumps styles, and uses words very playfully at times. I love his sense of melody, and also his love of 1950's music. Paul Westerberg, well, I've admired his honesty and delivery. His songs tend to document his life and times, and you get a sense you know him as a person, though you've only heard his music. With Sam Cooke, well, that's the holy grail to me. His goal was to write songs that every age group could enjoy, and he did, on a regular basis. Simple, beautiful and powerful all wrapped up into one. Grandparents and little children can both get it. I kind of think that's what every songwriter’s goal should be, although it's very hard to do. Another songwriter who has started to influence me is Colin Hay. I toured with him a lot last year, and when you hear someone's songs every night, it's hard not to borrow a bit. He, to me, is one of the only songwriter's capable of writing an anthem and then an intimate, heart wrenching ballad with equal brilliance.

Your albums are usually fairly lushly produced (the notable exceptions being your debut and the “Gone Again” collaboration with the Wolverine Jazz Band), yet oftentimes you tour as a solo act.  Is this a matter of economics?  What freedoms does it allow you as a performer to bring across your songs with only your guitar or piano as accompaniment?

I think with a record your only concern is the song. What is the best treatment for a song? If you're going to dress a song up, what's the best outfit? So, when I record, the only rule I try and abide by is have acoustic guitar somewhere in the mix, because that is what I'll eventually bring on the road. It becomes a bridge from the record to the road. In terms of economics, I've tried very hard to never have that dictate the way I make music. I'd like to think if I wanted to tour with a twenty piece jazz band, I'd figure out a way. Although there's something to be said about the challenge of moving people with one guitar and one voice. Making them laugh, making them cry. That challenge is my inspiration. I toured with Martin Sexton a lot and I've seen him, with one guitar, rock a crowd much harder than a five piece rock band. John Prine made me cry more than U2 ever did. As a frontman for a band, I thought I could be anywhere from fair to good. As a solo act, I've had musicians I respect a lot tell me I put on the best solo show they've ever seen. Do I suck from time to time? Absolutely! But the challenge of being good literally keeps me up at night, and that's what I love about it.

I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?

I think 'Keg On My Coffin' might be my Sophie's choice, because it embodies a lot of what I try to do as a songwriter. There's a message underneath the melody, and the message is pretty succinct. It has almost become my signature song, which is all the stranger when you realize its subject matter is death. I can usually gauge a song's quality from how fast I get sick of playing it live. I've played 'Keg' every night for nine years, and I still feel something every time I sing it.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who inspires you musically?

Gosh, that's a great question. I have a turntable in my office, and during the summer, when I'm off the road, I'll go down and play records, many of them obscure, a lot of 50's doo wop, or old blues. Charles Brown is really my most played artist when I'm in a blue mood. And it occurs to me that most of these artists are long gone from this world, and yes, music is a fleeting thing, yet, at the same time no other art form can reach into a soul so deeply, so quickly, and so completely. I literally am transported into another time, another era, and am connected to these musicians I never met. I feel their love, their dreams, and their sadness. There is nothing more beautiful.

You’ve been given one “musical wish” – to work with any musician/songwriter/producer – who would you choose and why?

Actually, One guy embodies all three of these in one...a San Diego based musician named Gregory Page. He is a rare gem in a world of people motivated by money and soul sucking success. He is motivated by music. He makes great records, produces them, arranges them, and is an elevated musical stylist too. Jason Mraz is a huge fan of his, and has him open a lot of his shows on the road. So I'd want to make a record with him as a producer, just to find out how he does what he does. He makes records the old fashioned way, as far as I can tell. Most records today, you can feel the computer grid mapping out every note, but not his records. They sound like the musicians might have actually been playing in the same room together. Imagine that.

You’ve done sporadic dates with the Push Stars over the years?  What musical “itch” does playing with the guys scratch?  What’s on tap next for you as an artist?

I really don't get musical itches. Playing with the guys is special to me on a whole different level. It's more like not seeing your two favorite brothers for a couple years, and then you all meet up and take a really cool road trip, and have people clap for you at the end of the day. Musically, it's very natural playing with them, because we ate, slept and breathed together for nine years. And saw the world. So the music is just the soundtrack to what is already a really good time. I'm just finishing up a new album, so I'm in the very intense mixing stage, where you obsess over details that no one else will ever notice. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: Lemuria – The Distance Is So Big

Quite a few “local” bands from the WNY region have put out quality releases in the past couple of years, but none have made quite the ripple outside the area as Lemuria, and with good reason.  Their best songs sound like something that would have come out of Boston circa ’92 – shades of Juliana Hatfield and Taang-era Lemonheads mixed with a soupcon of Pixies.  Not necessarily an extension of this aesthetic, but more a sidestep, “The Distance Is So Big” sounds brighter and airier, and slightly less-consequential.  Co-vocalists Sheena Ozzella and Alex Kerns are a bit smoother this time out – gone are the clear as a bell clarion calls that Ozzella displayed on their early albums and singles, and that’s kind of a shame.  She is still an amazing singer (and certainly can sing circles around Kerns, whose range can be charitably described as “limited”), but she never really lets it off the leash.  In fact, most of the songs here are simply pleasant and sound under produced. 

The addition of some keyboards and percussion to the mix has the strange quality of making the songs seem even tinier.  Where previous songs had a taut tension to them, these just kind of amble.  The melodies and lyrics aren’t bad, they’re just not memorable. The standout is album centerpiece “Chihuly”, which could be an “It’s a Shame About Ray” outtake.  Ozzella and Kerns’ vocals ping-pong atop the guitar jangle and it is simply divine; I wish there were more simple yet effective moments like this.  The back half of the album is actually stronger, and there are a couple of gems like “Congratulations Sex” that would sit nicely next to past triumphs like “Mechanical” and “Pleaser”, but overall it’s just middle of the pack indie rock.  Disappointing.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Support Your Local Scene! Lemuria - 6/21 @ Waiting Room

Buffalo's own Lemuria - the brainchild of Alex Kerns and the adorable Sheena Ozzella - is playing a rare hometown show this Friday at Waiting Room in support of their third album "The Distance Is So Big" - out today on Bridge Nine Records. A "First Impression" will be up soon, but in the meantime you can check out the new album here for a limited time:

Monday, June 17, 2013

INTERVIEW: Ron Hawkins

(photo by Robert Ciolfi)

The Lowest of the Low. Leisure Demons. The Rusty Nails. Venerable Canadian songwriter Ron Hawkins has been a major musical presence in Buffalo, NY since the early 1990s, and his sharply detailed songs, literate and passionate in equal measure, have been the soundtrack of my life for the past 20 years.  Celebrating the release of "Rome", the phenomenal debut of his new project The Do Good Assassins, Hawkins was kind enough to chat over email about his art, his inspiration and the "big balls" it takes to record a double-album as your debut.  

After several years of solo records you decided to be a part of the band again with the Do Good Assassins?  Was it the songs that demanded a group presence or was there something you missed about the dynamic of working with others?

Well, originally I put the band together simply to back me up live on the Straitjacket Love release. I’d intended to do a few full band shows then go on about my business as a happy solo performer. As the rehearsals were coming together and then the shows happened I realized what a powerful and flexible entity this new unit was and it also started sinking in that though I love the immediacy of the “one man and a guitar” delivery, I was also missing the power and the awesome movement of air that happens with amps and guitars and a full band. Of course when I went home and told my partner Jill that I’d started a new band she said something like, “You fool! You just got out... you were out. Now they’ve pulled you back in again.” It was a very Godfather/ Sopranos moment.

“Rome”, the double-disc debut from the DGA, is an embarrassment of riches.  At what point did you realize it was going to be a double album? 

Right off the bat, there were alot of songs. I was very inspired by the new band and already had a handful of songs ready to go. The inspiration of the band drove me to write a bunch more. I also started to collaborate on a couple with Steve Singh (the DGA guitarist) and was a fan of Steve’s writing so we put some of his songs on as well. Then it became this thing where it was like “how big can our balls be? We’ll release a double debut disc and there will also be a “making of” documentary of the band and the disc”.

It was also a bit of a fuck you to the direction the whole industry and culture is going in, wherein singles are the big thing again (like the ’50’s). We spend alot of time and energy writing and sequencing the disc to take people on a journey with the album, but people don’t listen like that anymore. It’s shuffle and play lists and what have you. That doesn’t mean we have to like it or accept it or play by the rules. So there was a little “bird flipping” involved in the double disc idea as well. And then add to that that some of my favourite bands released classic double discs in the past - The Clash with London Calling and The Beatles White Album for instance.

Like many of my favorite songwriters, you utilize an economy of language and specificity of detail that creates a specific “world” that draws the listener into the song.  Who are some of your influences as a writer?

I didn’t always write like that, and I guess I’d say it was a long journey to come to the realization that the most profound things I could say with my lyrics were wrapped up in the most quotidian images. In the 80’s I used to write capital “P” political songs about big issues that occurred far away. Alot of people were doing that and the radio was full of The Clash and U2 and folks who wrote earnest songs about big issues. Well, either it’s not genuine at the best of times or at the very least I’m not good at it.

Around 1990. I started writing about myself and my friends and the streets and bars and places I hung out in growing up in Toronto. I used proper names and street names and very local specific imagery. As it turns out that was a more universal way to write because it rung truer to me and was a deeper representation of who I was and what I’d learned. And that resonated with people - everyone has a favourite bar that’s more like a headquarters, or a set of streets that are imbued with an almost mythical importance to them. And almost everyone has friends who seem like characters in the fiction of their lives or the movie of their lives. So ironically, the smaller and more specific the imagery was the greater and more universal was the effect on people who heard the songs. A great lesson to learn.

It’s obvious from both a songwriting and production standpoint that you put a lot of craft into your work.   What is your songwriting process like?  Do you start with a riff and build from there or do the lyrics come first?  How do you know when a song is “done”?

I’ve learned through trial and error to let things take time and develop. I tend to sculpt the songs out of humble beginnings. Being a visual artist has helped this process a lot as well. When I’m painting I have the sense that I can erase, scrape the paint off, paint over it - whatever it takes to solve the problem of the painting. get from point A to point Z however you need to get there. And with songs it’s the same. I sometimes start with a chord progression I like, but just as often it’s a title, or a set of lyrics that may be half gibberish, but I like the juxtaposition. Then it’s a matter of finding the song inside all that. Keep chipping away and adding and subtracting until you like what you’re left with. I produce the same way. I’m very much about putting everything down that sounds good and make sure it’s spontaneous, don’t do too much thinking. Then you’ve got a bloated arrangement with too many parts, riffs, what have you. And then the merciless process of deleting and making room for what’s important begins, and erasing what’s not. Subtractive mixing. And I’m remorseless about it. There are no left over files with alternate takes or parts. If it’s not in the arrangement it’s deleted... FOREVER. I’ve heard alot of younger producers get mired in the swamp of not being able to commit because they have always been able to keep folders and folders of alternate takes. Well, I come from tape (4 track cassette and 8 tracks and 16 tracks) so I’m used to making decisions and just going with them. The way that all applies to writing is that I’ve learned not to second guess too much. Make decisions and don’t torture yourself over them.

How has your painting and fiction writing influenced your songwriting?  (or has it simply scratched a different artistic “itch”?)

I consider them all extensions of the same thing. I’ve also been into design and building modernist furniture. Painting, songwriting, fiction and furniture. It’s all the same thing in a way. There’s a problem, and you find a way to solve it. The other similarity in the way I paint and write songs is that I’m almost exclusively committed to people, to humans. I’m interested in them and what makes them tick. So I paint portraiture and I write songs about characters that reflect experiences I’ve had or have heard about.

What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?  Who inspires you musically?

Well, no matter how far away I get from The Beatles they always come back. That may sound boring on the surface because obviously they’re the most famous pop band ever, but they got almost all of it right. They crafted things well, they pushed the limits of pop arranging and were instrumental in a huge percentage of the recording breakthroughs we take for granted today. So even when I pass through punk and folk and swing and heavier rock sounds and more cinematic sounding arrangements I always come back to what I learned from the Beatles wearing my puffy white headphones in the rec room of my parents’ house. On a commitment and inspirational level Billy Bragg was a huge influence. I love his early music most, but more than that I was always inspired by his energy and his generosity as a performer. He gives of himself and like a true folk performer is very interested in building community and creating art that will inspire people, not to go and cultishly follow him and his every thought, but to leave the concert hall and go and apply the energy he helped imbue them with to their own lives and their own undertakings. Very, very powerful stuff. And more important than art in my opinion.

You have been lucky to share stages with folks like Billy Bragg and Mick Thomas, people who have influenced and consequently been influenced by you?  Is there any particular songwriter, artist or producer that you would like to work with and haven’t had the opportunity?

I’d have to say no. There are plenty of people who have inspired me and who perhaps ideally I’d like to meet, but I don’t spend much time thinking about it. I’ve worked with alot of fantastic people and everyone brings something to the table that surprises you and makes you grow as an artist. And really I know as well as anyone that a great artist may not be a particularly great person so I’m satisfied to get that inspiration where it counts, from their work.

As an artist you seem to constantly push yourself to find new ways of musical expression – given that, what was the experience like revisiting “Shakespeare” for the 20th anniversary?   Was the nostalgia of looking back at that part of your career something that you had to fight when it came to producing new material?

I’ve always looked at Shakespeare My Butt as a blessing and a curse. I’m blessed to have written something that still seems relevant to so many people and am very proud of that work. But I’ve also spent 20 years climbing out from under that record. I truly believe that I’ve written much better records than SMB - more sophisticated, more astute lyrically and definitely better sonically. But I’m fighting a nostalgia for that record that is almost insurmountable. SMB was the first chance people ever got to hear my writing on a large scale and to hear Lowest of the Low sweep into town and launch our live circus on stage. And for alot of people you can never regain that surprise and spontaneity of the first experience. That said I’ve also been blessed with a legion of loyal fans who have gone on the long (14 album) journey with me and have stayed with me as a songwriter.

So I spent alot of years resenting the Low a bit and that record specifically, but by the time we did the SMB 20th anniversary reunion I was able to see it in context and actually got to immerse myself and be a fan of the band and the record even while I was on stage playing it with them. This is a conundrum almost every artist suffers who becomes known for one band then embarks on a solo career. If Joe Strummer and John Lennon had to try to live down their old bands, who am I to expect to not have to.

You have dates this summer with the DGA, the Low and solo – what’s on tap next for you musically? 

Songwriting is always on tap. I’m about 16 new songs in since the Do Good Assassins released Rome last November. I’m very inspired these days and can’t wait to get back into the studio. There are some summer shows with The Low - the TURF festival on July 6th and an outdoor festival show in Buffalo with Flogging Molly on August 2nd.

There are shows with the DGA in Hamilton (Supercrawl September 14th) and Toronto opening for The Weeks at the Horseshoe on August 1st.

As well, both the Low and the DGA will be playing the Hillside festival July 27th/28th. A full schedule of dates is posted at You can visit the Do Good Assassins on Facebook and the Lowest of the Low at

(self portrait painting by Ron Hawkins)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Jimmy Gnecco of Ours

Jimmy Gnecco has been making uncompromising art rock as the leader of Ours and as a solo artist for the better part of two decades.  I was fortunate to have an opportunity to speak with him in advance of his Buffalo, NY tour stop, and we chatted at length about his career, his songwriting process, and Ours' fabulous new album, the raw and emotional "Ballet the Boxer 1".  Enjoy!

You’ve been at this for some time and I am sure have experienced ups and downs in your career. What keeps you motivated to make new music?  Was there any specific inspiration for the new album, “Ballet the Boxer 1”?

Searching for the feeling that anyone who gets into music is looking for – that feeling that is tough to describe that is so magical.  We still have the hunger to chase that down – it’s not about celebrity or money or numbers at this point. 

What are some of those things, then, that do inspire you?  Who do you keep going back to as an artist?

There is some stuff in pop music that is still inspiring like Rihanna, Beyonce, OneRepublic, but we often go back to Marvin (Gaye), the Doors – classic stuff.  For this record we pulled from the excitement of rock and roll and pulled from a lot from the influence of soul and rhythm and blues.  Music has lost some of that swing and swagger over the years and we wanted to make sure that this record had that.  In addition to the rock, we wanted to make sure the roll was in there too.
We made some cerebral records in the past – we had so many songs to pick from and wanted to pick ones that were more immediate, where you could feel in your gut the grooves moving you along, while still lyrically still saying something.

Was it intentional for you to record it yourselves in order to get that rawer, more immediate feel to it?

We could very easily do something very lush, which we did with “Mercy” (the previous record), but for this specific set of songs we wanted to service the songs differently.  I have worked with others in the past – Rick Rubin, Steve Lillywhite – but I have been the one making decisions about the sound or direction of the records. This is the result of us doing what we want – this is not necessarily the place we are always going to be in but sonically, we looked at THESE songs and said, “how can we service these songs the best”?  A lot of them leant themselves to a more raw production and sound. Some people may think they sound a little trashy or garagey, but if you listen to old soul records, they weren’t slick at all.  Even if you listen to something like “Revolution” or “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles, it’s surprising how crude or bold they sound.  We didn’t record this on some computer – we went into a real recording studio with a renowned engineer, Henry Hirsch, who worked on the Lenny Kravitz records and recorded to tape on an old vintage Helios console.  I mean, we did use the computer – it’s difficult these days to stay entirely on tape and it’s by no means an all-analogue recording, but we rolled tape to get the drum sounds and some of the other instruments.  In order to do what we needed to do, budget-wise, we couldn’t stay entire on tape.  We kept the integrity of the performances the best that we could – we weren’t tweaking vocals or drums.  If you listen to an Al Green record and then listen to a Daft Punk record, different sounding records – we leaned more towards the Al Green record.  We wanted to keep the slick thing at bay and hear the more mature sound of the instruments.  Those were conscious decisions to use those sounds with these songs.  We had a lot of songs that were very heavy emotionally that just didn’t fit the feel of this record. 

Yeah, you can certainly tell listening to the record that the sounds that you’re hearing haven’t been overly processed and there is an immediacy to it.

We are still dealing with electronics – Henry got a tape machine from Motown that we recorded on and it’s just that we liked the sound of THOSE electronics.  We love Beyonce records and some of the things that are run directly into Pro-Tools, but we were thinking about the spirit of rock and roll and how some of those old records sounded and connected.  It’s a series of decisions that takes you were you are, and one different decision can lead to pretty drastic changes in the sound.  One thing I keep telling people, is don’t listen to the record in the way that you are used to hearing modern records, because it doesn’t sound that way. Put it on next to a Doors record or a Queen record and it will make more sense to you. 

Sure.  Something that was recorded 30 years ago wouldn’t pass muster on the radio today next to songs that are brick-walled sonically. 

Exactly!  Everything gets bricked out and the dynamics are gone.  Everyone just wants their records as loud as possible…how loud does a record have to be?  Our mantra is we want you to turn our record UP, not turn it down.  I think this record is one of our first to sound good at a low volume. We purposely made it to be a “warm” record.  It still has sizzle to it, but it was a definite choice for it to sound that way.

It’s a fantastically recorded record.  So, your songwriting process: do you start with a riff and build from there, do the lyrics come first – how does that work?

More times than not it’s usually some musical thing that happens and I just build on that, constantly working on different parts and make sense of them.  Over the last few years, more so, I’ve had vocal melodies come to me in the middle of the night and then I just play with it and find the right key or things to add to it.  So, it’s probably like 75/25.

Cool. You released the first three OURS records through traditional label or distribution arrangements but decided to crowdsource through Pledge Music for the new record….what were the benefits of reaching out to your fanbase to realize your vision?

The benefit was that people love us enough to take a chance on us…that was very humbling to know that they were willing to help us with that.  The negative is that there is always someone who thinks that because they are paying for it that they should have a say in what you are going to do.  It’s only a couple and the good far outweighs the negative and it’s amazing that people trust us to go and make the music that WE want to make.  It’s just like if we were to have to worry about what a label wanted us to do; it’s the same thing if you worry too much about pleasing the fans or if someone in your audience expects you to make the album they want.  In order to follow the inspiration and make the album YOU want, you really have to kind of put a blanket on all of the voices and just say, “We don’t give a fuck about ANY of it”.  That’s when the most honest expression comes across.  You can’t get too worked up about someone wanting one thing or another from you.

At that point, you’re just serving another master.

Exactly!  You hit the nail on the head.  If you want us to be true to our vision, you have to just let us do what we are going to do and not worry about what people want from us.

Well, it seems like you are lucky enough to have a fanbase who trust you to take them on that journey, not dictate where that journey is going.

Yeah, we are…there are enough of them out there that allow us to do just that and the others just don’t really get what we are doing.  They want us to make “Distorted Lullabies” over and over and that’s not where we are at.  We made an honest record with a lot of heart with some of the most honest songs to date.  I’ve worked for record labels that gave us $100,000 to make a record and I didn’t let them dictate the sound of the record, so if we were to do that with our fans, what good is that?  It doesn’t make for good art.  The arrangement with Pledge was that people paid us to make the record that WE wanted to make.  They put that trust in us.  We love going out and making meaningful relationships with people – it’s the most important thing we do.  Our music may be for sale, but our souls aren’t. If we were to make the music that other people wanted us to make, that is the definition to me of selling out.  We were grateful that people took the chance, but we didn’t feel obligated to deliver anything but what was in our hearts.  We’re not in the customer service business…we are rock musicians.

Your fanbase is obviously very passionate and willing to go down that creative road with you – what’s the craziest thing a fan has ever tried to share with you?

It’s not necessarily crazy, but it’s heavy.  There are a lot of people out there that are emotionally hurting, and they choose to share their stories with me.  It’s very heavy and I am honored that they connect with something I sing or write so much that they feel comfortable doing that.  There have been some, uh, creepy encounters, but it’s those heavy experiences and the letters they write that stick with me.  Other than the searching we do for that feeling in the music, when you see that you have affected someone’s life in that way, that is incredibly rewarding.  People have told us that they were suffering from physical ailments and that our music helped to ease their pain or make them better.  It’s heavy. 

How do you even process that?

If we take it too seriously, honestly we can get a little too full of ourselves.  We try to keep in perspective.  You can’t walk around feeling like you are a healer…you have to stay humble, but we are glad that a song has made them feel that way and has helped them through a tough time.   Sometimes you tap into a universal voice where you speak in a way that people relate. When that happens it’s a magical thing, but that doesn’t always happen.  I just try to wake up every day and be better than the day before.  Like everyone else on the planet, we are all in this together. 
The one place where we look at what people want is in the live set.  We have a group of songs that people love and we don’t want to tire them out.  We think, “what would move people here?”  We want them to feel moved when they come to see us.  When they spend their hard earned money at the show, what’s going to make them light up?  We want to feel that energy from them. 

There is an art to creating that live set I am sure, making it a series of peaks and valleys, rather than just a series of songs thrown together.

Exactly.  We try to create an arch where the songs take people on a journey.  The same with sequencing a record.  You can have great songs but if they aren’t sequenced properly, then people think you have a shitty record. 

You said that you had a lot of songs to draw from…does that mean we are going to get “Ballet the Boxer 2” at some point?

Yeah, maybe 2 and possibly 3. 

Anything else you wanted to get out there?

Yeah, just give this record time and listen with an open mind. I think you will find that it has as much or more emotional content than any of our other records.  It’s honest and there is a more evolved point of view and a much clearer approach.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jimmy.

No problem.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Making sense of the Replacements reunion

It’s been a few days since Paul Westerberg and Tommy Stinson announced that they would be reuniting as the Replacements to play three shows for Riot Fest in Denver, Chicago and Toronto.  My initial thought when I saw the announcement was, “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod, the fucking ‘Mats!  THIS IS THE GREATEST THING EVER!!!” (I am a bit prone to hyperbole).  Having allowed the dust to settle, I am still fairly excited about the prospect (and my 17 year old self, who got into the Replacements just as they were quietly falling apart, is undoubtedly jealous), but there are several questions left in the wake of the resurrection of the ‘Mats:  namely, WHO are the “replacement” Replacements?  It’s clear who WON’T be there: original guitarist Bob Stinson died of a heart attack in 1995 and his replacement, Slim Dunlap, suffered a life-threatening stroke about 2 years back (the “Songs for Slim” ep being a method for Paul and Tommy to raise funds for his medical bills).  The only original member left standing is former drummer Chris Mars, but he has sworn off playing drums for ages to focus on his surrealist painting (though was kind enough to provide background vocals for the best of tracks) and he has been adamant that he is completely fine with Paul and Tommy touring and recording as the ‘Mats again.

The smart money, then, is on Minneapolitans Kevin Bowe on lead guitar and Michael Bland (he of Prince’s New Power Generation fame) on the skins.  Both recently stood in on the “Songs for Slim” charity ep, the first “new” record from the Replacements since 1990 (barring two subpar tunes hastily recorded for the 2006 best-of “Do You Know Who I Think I Was?”) and have dealt with Westerberg professionally in the past.  And that is not something to take lightly: Westerberg’s got a bit of a rep as a prickly pear and his relationship (professionally and personally) with Stinson has more ups and downs than the Cyclone at Coney Island.  So, two consummate pros who are willing to take marching orders are probably a safe bet to get through these tentative dates. 

But therein lies the rub…is this what fans want from “The Replacements”, a band whose boozy, sloppy shows are part and parcel of their mythology?  Probably.  Westerberg hasn’t toured since before his bizarre accident in ’06 (when he put a screwdriver through his hand, severing several tendons) and Stinson has put out a couple of largely decent solo records while also serving in the ranks of whatever merry band of Guitar Factory rejects that Axl Rose is trotting around as Guns n’ Roses these days (hey, it’s a great paycheck and likely an easy gig…one album every 12 years or so?  And you get to be the MOST respectable person in the band??? Sign me up!) – any opportunity to see these old friends and rivals share a stage is noteworthy.  And the songs…did I mention the songs?  This band will be charged with pulling off some of the best rock music of the past 30 years and many of these songs have a lived-in ethos that were well beyond their years when the guys were in their 20s.  So, as long as Westerberg and Stinson can translate the youth and vigor of the originals into something more world-weary without coming across as too “mature”, it should be a fun couple of gigs.  What remains to be seen, however, is if this is simply a victory lap (like Pavement a couple of years back or Pixies' seemingly unending trotting out of the “hits”) or the impetus for something new.  I am hoping for the latter, but at worst we will have three nights where we can revisit old friends and have a beer or twelve with the classics…

Friday, June 14, 2013

The 'Mats are Back!

I had heard rumblings of this for a couple of months now, but two nights go it was confirmed that Paul and Tommy would reunite as the Replacements for some live shows this fall.  Here is the audio of the "last" 'Mats show back in 1991...I will have a more-detailed piece about my thoughts about the reunion up in the next couple of days!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

REVISIT AND REWIND: Overwhelming Colorfast – Two Words (1994)

I still remember where I was when I heard that Kurt Cobain had died.  My family was on vacation at a resort in Mexico and a gal that I had met on the trip walked out into the sunlit afternoon of April 8th, shaking, and said “Kurt’s dead”.  It wasn’t exactly a surprise (several botched attempts at taking his own life in the previous months sadly prevented that), but the shock was palpable nonetheless.  We returned home to the states on the 10th amidst the flurry of tributes and ongoing MTV coverage.  It still didn’t feel real.  That Tuesday, after I got out of class I moped into the local record shop where I worked to pick up the album I had been looking forward to for months: the second album by Antioch, California’s Overwhelming Colorfast.  I had initially become a fan of the band through a less-than-legally obtained copy of their decent self-titled debut and its leagues-better promo-only EP, “Bender”.  Cobain on the mind, my excitement was dampened and I dutifully bought the cassette, threw it into my off-brand portable cassette player (a Walkman being a dozen dollars or so out of my price range) and pressed play.  And I was underwhelmed. Opener “Toss Up” was melodic but ultimately boilerplate punk and its follow-up just sounded tired, like IT didn’t even want to stick around to find out how it ended.  So, I turned it off and sulked silently home. 

Sometime later that week, I was on the bus ride home from school and I put on my headphones. Having forgotten that it was in there, I pushed play again on “Two Words” and was greeted by the dreamy fade-in of “Sidestick Eyepoker”, a song that had more in common with shoegaze and dream pop than the hard pop and punk-indebted music the band typically traded in.  And I was hooked.  The melancholy chug and slur culminated in a double-time bridge with OC leader Bob Reed imploring “no one says you had to smile when you gave in” and it was like being hit with a brick to the chest.  This perfectly encapsulated the way I was feeling – sad about the loss of an important artistic voice and equally angry and frustrated that he couldn’t find a way out of it.  From that point on, I listened to the album with new ears.  Reed’s songs touched upon almost every corner of alt rock and pop, ping-ponging from hard-edged rockers like “Four Square” to more pop-minded fare like the stellar “Every Saturday” (a logical choice for a single) and “Roy Orbison” (a knowing nod to the original “lonely one”), and taking detours into straight-up Meat Puppets worship (“Shadows”) and sludgy noise (the harrowing “Hogabanoogen”).  Here was the last 10 years of alternative music culture thrown into a blender and spit back out in 14 perfectly-formed musical nuggets (the album is 16 songs long, but I still hold that those first two tracks are a bit undercooked).    Gone is the evenly balanced production approach that the renowned Butch Vig had on the debut; in its place is a raw fury and verve courtesy of Kurt Bloch, longtime stalwart of the Northwest musical scene and guitarist extraordinaire in the Young Fresh Fellows and Fastbacks.  And this is very much an album produced with an ear for guitar.  The rich tones he pulls out of Reed’s and co-guitarist Torg Hallin’s axes are nothing short of brilliant, each fuzzy note perfectly pitched to deliver what the song needs.  An excellent example is album stand-out, “Buffalo Toy” – beginning with what sounds like a 4-track recording of Reed playing and singing alone, the song bursts into the hi-fi first chorus like Dorothy bursting into Oz, all Technicolor guitar squall and overdriven leads.  By the time the coda has Reed pleading in his Bob Mould-like wail “Would you pick up the phone and please call me…pick up the phone, pick up the phone!”, his and Hallin’s guitars snake around each other in a solo that sounds like something straight out of the Dinosaur Jr. songbook.  Breathtaking. 

Needless to say, Cobain’s death cast its pall, but eventually life went on.  “Two Words”, however, kept me in its thrall and it means as much to me today as it did 19 years ago upon its initial release.  It remains an undiscovered gem and though Reed would go on to make one more album with a reconstituted cast of characters as the Colorfast, this is my vote for his masterwork.  Music is inherently personal and subjective, and it’s something that at its finest can inspire awe and act as a safe haven in dark times. This is that album for me and my greatest hope for those who feel similarly is that they find their own “Two Words” when they need it most.   

Monday, June 10, 2013

Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo

The sweet and stinging first single from these sadly-overlooked Seattle scenesters' second platter (mmm, that's good alliteration!)  I read somewhere that "King James Version" is Harvey Danger's "Pinkerton" and while it certainly has the overlooked part down pat (though not quite reviled in the same way Weezer's masterwork was upon release...more of a half-hearted shrug from the marketplace), I'm not sure that the blend of clever lyrics and quirky melodies has really become a modern musical touchstone in the same way.  It's simply a well-written power pop record.

Singer and bandleader Sean Nelson recently released his own solo record, "Make Good Choices", and you can legally download a decent odds n' sods collection of Harvey Danger tunes called "Dead Sea Scrolls" from their website:

Saturday, June 8, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: Jason Isbell – Southeastern

It’s taken him four albums (and a VERY GOOD live set), but Jason Isbell has finally stepped out of the shadow of his former comrades in the Drive-By Truckers and made the record of which we always suspected him capable.  2011’s “Here We Rest” was a vast improvement over his first two records which, while spotted with the greatness and specificity of time and place that his best Truckers tunes had, were somewhat lacking.  “Southeastern” finds Isbell working at the top of his estimable powers – the songs are fully formed, the lyrics fitted with an eye for detail and the melodies all top notch.

Much has been made of Isbell’s year-old sobriety and recent marriage, but both seem to have ignited a fire inside him to examine his past behavior and place in this world in a way that is neither facile nor preachy.  It’s tempting to view stark opener “Cover Me Up” as autobiographical – Isbell references the behaviors he’s left behind (and the consequent damage done) and celebrates the newfound love he cherishes, imploring his gal to “leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room / Til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom”.  This is a changed man and the humor and pathos he brings to his writing is in stark relief to the glittering generalities of some of his other work.  Best of all is “Elephant”, an account of a woman dying of cancer sung from the voice of her longtime partner that is simply fucking heartbreaking.  This is the best song that Ryan Adams never wrote and it’s a clear high-water mark on an album stuffed with them.

Isbell has never shied away from the personal, but the intimacy of “Southeastern” is paradoxically energizing, giving the material a heft that pulls you in like the best short stories do.  The only thing our society prizes more than watching its heroes stumble is a good redemption tale, and it’s encouraging to see that in addition to getting his personal life together his creative life was reborn as well.  Cozy up and play the hell out of it…

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Joy Formidable and yours truly

So, guess which newly-minted blogger is interviewing the best thing outta Wales since Tom Jones?  Look for my chat with Ritzy, Rhydian and Matt sometime in the next three weeks! 

Not to geek out too much, but they are probably the "new" band I have connected with most in the last four years, so this is HUGE in my I just have to do all I can to not turn it into one of those old Chris Farley Show sketches ("Remember the time you played that 8 minute-version of 'Whirring'?  That was awesome.")   In the meantime, enjoy...

Thursday, June 6, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: Nine Inch Nails - Came Back Haunted

Yep, this is definitely Nine Inch Nails!  Promising us new music two days ago, Trent Reznor and his small gaggle of usual suspects (Atticus Ross - the Igor to his Frankenstein, and mixer extraordinaire Alan Moulder) deliver the goods on this first sneak peak at September's new LP, "Hesitation Marks".  With the album title referencing the cutting marks attempted-suicides usually exhibit, you might think that the track would be more  of the doom and gloom that served as Reznor's bread and butter back in the "Downward Spiral" days.  Nope!  This is straight up electro-funk, sonically more in line with the poppier moments off 2005's "With Teeth".  Reznor himself references the change in attitude, singing "I am not who I used to be" while his small army of synths squiggle and shimmy underneath.  So, now we are left to wonder: is "Came Back Haunted" indicative of what we can expect from NIN v2.0?  Either way, if the rest of the album brings it like this track,  then "Hesitation Marks" should live up to Reznor's claim that it is "frankly fucking great".

P.S.  Wanna hear every NIN single in chronological order?  Head over to their Tumblr page:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Goliath wins again...for now...

I ran across this while perusing music sites earlier:

I've been kind of silently following this story for the past month.  Why?  Fresh out of college, I ran the "sister" (though "redheaded stepchild" might be a more appropriate title) location of the Sound Garden record store in Geneseo, NY for a year.  It was an eye-opening experience and one I still value all these years later. Bryan Burkert's management style was, shall we say, "different" than mine, but the Sound Garden was proudly independent and like most mom-and-pop record shops HIGHLY dependent upon used product to keep the doors open.  What the Syracuse Commom Council is doing is not only asinine from a logistical standpoint (requiring the store to log EVERY used item be logged into a police database and held for 5-7 days before being sold, despite CDs/DVDs/etc NOT HAVING SERIAL NUMBERS!) but as a way of keeping independently owned businesses in the downtown Syracuse area?  Shitty, to say the least.  So, I share this because I care more about the little guy than the shortsighted (but likely well-meaning) government doofuses who blew an opportunity to keep life in a downtown area that sorely needs it.  I share this because I am proud to have been a footnote in the history of this venerable institution.  But mostly I share this because like many of you, record stores were a safe haven for geeky kids like myself...and it hurts my heart to see one fewer of them out there.  So, the Sound Garden is dead...long live the Sound Garden!

Can the drummer get some?

Drummers get a bad rap.  Most aren't the drooling troglodytes that they are made out to be....BUT, as they say, stereotypes exist for a reason!

So, if you need a smile, visit and have a larf at the expense of your favorite skinbasher.   Here are a few of my faves:

How is a drum solo like a sneeze? 
You can tell it's coming, but you can't do anything about it.

What does a drummer use for contraception? 
His personality.

How many drummers does it take to change a light bulb?
Five: One to screw the bulb in, and four to talk about how much better Neil Peart coulda done it.

What's the last thing a drummer says in a band?
"Hey guys, why don't we try one of my songs?"

Oh, drummers...

REVISIT AND REWIND: Crowded House – Together Alone (1993)

***NOTE: this is the first in a series of reviews that revisits an album from the past that made a ripple in the pond of my nascent musical appreciation…most of them are from the 1990s…that is NOT a bad thing…

Winning a MTV Video Music Award can sometimes be a bitch.  Crowded House brought home the award for Best New Artist in 1987 for their (justly) lauded commercial juggernaut of a self-titled debut.  You know the hits – “Something So Strong”, the ubiquitous “Don’t Dream It’s Over – but Best New Artist awards are saddled with the urban legend that it curses those artists who win it to future obscurity (see also the “Best Supporting Actress” award at the Oscars…Mira Sorvino, anyone?) and Crowded House would never again reach the omnipresence that they did in that year leading up to their VMA.  Some would argue that releasing the more-challenging “Temple of Low Men” as a follow up was probably to blame more than some screwy “curse”, but let’s be honest: our collective attention span is short in the pop music world, and as an American culture we love to find a single, play the hell out of it, and discard the band that made it into the litter bin of history.  It just happens. 

As luck (and history) would have it, Crowded House waited until their fourth record to unleash their masterpiece.  Still fairly popular in the UK and in their native lands Down Under, “Together Alone” was foisted upon the world in 1993 (it would wait until the doldrums of January 1994 to see release stateside) and it showed the quintessential pop band - and it’s leader, Neil Finn – take on a more shadowed and nuanced tack.  Recorded in Kare Kare, New Zealand by Youth (bassist for Killing Joke), several of the albums songs are drenched in the ambiance of its location: tropical yet desolate, lush but forged in isolation.  You can practically hear the beach at night in songs like “Private Universe” and the titular closing track, and for every perfect pop gem (the fact that “Distant Sun” alone didn’t push this album past platinum is a damn shame), they take left turns into skronkier and sometimes haunting territory.  “In My Command’s” guitars bark out atonally, and Finn’s desperate vocals blend with the overdriven bass and driving drums of “Black and White Boy” (itself a reference to drummer Paul Hester’s festering, and supposedly undiagnosed, bipolar disorder which would drive him to take his own life in 2005). This is new and often foreign territory for Finn’s songs which were more typically built around the architecture of McCartney-esque melodies.  Most affecting of all is “Fingers of Love”, a thrum of echo-y, pleading vocals built atop a bed of acoustic guitar and augmented by auxiliary powerhouse Mark Hart’s otherworldly lap steel.  It encapsulates the album in miniature in 4:27 – melodious, melancholy, and hugely emotional. 

It is telling that a mere 2 years after the album’s release, the band would break up after playing one final show on the steps of the Sydney Opera House – it’s as if the perfect, quiet desperation of the album was something Finn knew he would not be able to compete with (acknowledging as much by naming his first solo album “Try Whistling This”!)  The band would lay low for a decade before Hester’s suicide brought the remaining members back in touch and Crowded House have since released two additional albums that while good, didn’t come close to capturing the magic they bottled in that island retreat in Kare Kare.

Some stray factoids:
     The album cover (designed like all of their covers by bassist Nick Seymour) depicts Jesus, Buddha and Mohammad riding in a cab – “together alone”, indeed!

     I was lucky enough to see Crowded House play the Buffalo Harborfront in the summer of 2010.  I am not sure I will ever again experience as euphoric a concert moment as the band tearing through a truly EPIC 7-minute version of “Private Universe” in the gloaming of Buffalo’s waterfront.  It was magical…

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: Queens of the Stone Age - …Like Clockwork

The information build-up to the new QOTSA album has been steady and intriguing: Dave Grohl would be back behind the drumkit; Mark Lanegan and ousted bassist Nick Oliveri were contributing; Elton fucking John plays and sings on it!  Barring this last piece, it seems as if the throngs were being intentionally whipped into a frenzy to expect “Songs for the Deaf Part II”.  That is not this album.  Sure, there are those moments that would have fit nicely onto that 2002 masterwork (opener “Keep Your Eyes Peeled” and first teaser single “My God is the Sun” have the distorted Josh Homme guitar riffs and groove that were hallmarks of that album) and Grohl’s pounding of the skins is unmistakable on the tracks on which he appears, but this is a slinkier, more pop-minded beast. “I Sat By the Ocean” and “Smooth Sailing” are all mechanized hip shaking and slippery falsetto, and I’ll be goddamned if you can’t dance to them, while the piano that opens “The Vampyre of Time and Memory” and forms the basis of the closing title track wouldn’t sound that far out of place on a 70’s Tom Waits record. Lyrically, the album finds as its focus the importance of relationships and keeping those who are important close to you (likely born from Homme’s life threatening illness and experience flatlining on the operating table the year before) while also recognizing that we as a society are preoccupied with as “If I Had a Tail” puts it, “expensive holes to bury things”.  Homme’s sneer may evince sleaze, but his mind (and soul) appear to be elsewhere.   The music wheezes and swims (especially the Trent Reznor-abetted “Kalopsia”, which sounds like something Ween would have released on one of their Elektra albums) rather than lurching and stomping like the QOTSA of old – those who are able to recalibrate their expectations will find a lot to enjoy.  Those who aren’t?  Homme’s former bandmates in Kyuss have a new group called Vista Chino who are prepping an album for later this year and who hew much closer to the scorched desert stoner rock that he has clearly outgrown.   And good for him!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Guided By Voices - Billy Wire

A fantastic fan-made video that sublimely echoes Robert Pollard's own sense of DIY collage-making

It's never too late for a "Best of 2012" list, right?

First off, lets get this out of the way upfront: this list is rockist, almost homogenously white, and very male-dominated.  Fair enough.  It's also full of buzzsaw guitars, mountains of melody, and sing-a-long choruses.  If that's not your bag, so be it.  But's it's mine, and it's one I've carried a very long time.  To paraphrase the Hold Steady, these singalong songs were my scripture last year and they need no defense.  Any chump can list the top 5 or 10 records of a particular year...this one goes to 7...enjoy!

1.       The Do-Good Assassins – Rome
Reinventing himself as he is wont to do, venerable Toronto songwriter Ron Hawkins’ new group released a helluva debut last year.  A double-album in 2012?  AS YOUR DEBUT??  But the guy’s got the goods and packs the 20 tunes here with wit and insight.  “Public Transit” is the type of song Elvis Costello would still be writing if his marriage to a jazz chanteuse hadn’t tucked him in for a songwriting nap for much of the last decade and the supple support from his backing ensemble (faces old and new to fans of LOTL and the Rusty Nails) nails the sweet spot between soul, rock and country.  It’s thrilling to watch an artist like Hawkins continue to hit new strides over two decades into an already tremendous career.  A must have!

2.       Your Favorite Trainwreck – s/t
Old punks don’t die, they just find salvation in power pop!  Jeff Caudill of Gameface and Popeye Vogelsang of Farside helped to define the Revelation Records sound for the better part of the 90s and then drifted off into the ether for the past dozen years or so (sure, Caudill put out a solo joint or two, and Vogelsang found work putting that amazing baritone to use shilling for Infiniti), leading one to believe that the good times were finally gone.  Not so!  Your Favorite Trainwreck shows both men in fine form and the songs meld the greatest part of both of their former bands with a sense of maturity that only comes with knowing that this isn’t a second chance but an opportunity to make passionate music you want with your friends.  And the harmonies, oh the harmonies!   A couple of the songs drift into mid-period Goo Goo Dolls territory, but the lion’s share displays why rock music needs gone-but-not forgotten punk vets like these two.

3.       Japandroids – Celebration Rock
I resisted this album for months because of the title alone. “Celebration Rock”?  REALLY?  But as the Catherine Wheel once put it, “your cynicism’s boring” – this album bleeds sincerity and makes you wish all two-pieces had the heart, balls and conviction that Brian King and David Prowse bring to their follow-up to 2009’s great “Post-Nothing” (Ahem, I’m looking in your direction, Black Keys!)   Beginning and ending with the sound of fireworks in the distance, this is an album perfect for driving through the gloaming, the windows down and you screaming along with reckless abandon, unafraid to look or sound like the joyful teenager you wish you still were.  The closest one can get to recapturing “that teenage feeling”…

4.       Cheap Girls – Giant Orange
Where the hell did this band come from?  Lansing, MI apparently, but 2009’s middling “My Roaring 20’s” gave no warning of the sheer amount of awesome this trio was capable of!  Produced by Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace (nee Tom Gabel) with a force and precision that allows the guitars and drums to EXPLODE from your speakers, this album is 37 minutes of sheer rock joy.  In a just world, at least three of these gems would find their way into the dying world of terrestrial rock radio, and I am not sure I have ever heard a sound as noisily glorious as the guitar that growls at the start of “Pacer”.  Consider my attention gotten…well done, boys!

5.       The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten
It’s clear this late in the game that Brian Fallon has a serious Springsteen jones, and with the Anthem’s fourth full-length he goes for his “Born to Run”.  With the move to a major label and sidelining longtime producer Ted Hutt for big-shot “name” Brendan O’Brien, the signs of a cash-grab were all there. But,  Fallon stacks the deck with 11 pretty great songs and the band actually sounds hungrier and most desperate than they did on 2010’s merely OK, “American Slang”.  Longtime fans may bemoan that the band has gone for the brass ring, but if a single as perfect as “45” is born of careerism and actually giving a shit, I hope they sell millions. 

6.       Bob Mould – Silver Age
Having purged his demons in his must-read autobiography last year, Big Gay Bob decides to show the youngsters how it’s done!  It may have found its genesis in a songwriting exercise to make a simple power pop record, but Mould taps into his fountain of youthful fury and releases his most thrilling album since Sugar’s 1992 high-water mark, “Copper Blue”.  Gone are the flirtations with synths and the morbid navel-gazing that have been part and parcel of his solo albums this decade (all great records themselves, it must be mentioned).  Instead, Mould kicks it power-trio style, enlisting longtime compadre Jason Narducy and Superchunk drummer-extraordinaire Jon Wurster to peel the paint off the place.  Finally comfortable in his own skin (and with his own past), Mould makes his Stratocaster crunch and sing like a man half his age, and it’s a dazzling reminder of his awesome power.

7.       Nada Surf – The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy
Bands are supposed to mellow with age, but apparently Matthew Caws and company didn’t get the memo!  Trimming the fat and further distancing themselves from the “Death Cab Jr.” tag they (seemingly willingly) have been saddled with, “The Stars” bristles and hums with intensity.  The songwriting is top-notch and contain some of Caws’ best lyrics and melodies since 2005’s excellent “The Weight is a Gift”,  but I’m tempted to give the MVP award to Doug Gillard, the ace ex-GBV guitarist who was added on lead guitar.  Gillard’s slippery leads and muscular wallop give the songs the extra heft that helps them break free of the speakers and knock you squarely in the solar plexus.  Just listen to his guitar whine into the coda section of “When I Was Young” and it’s clear that his addition to the band has given their sound a new lease on life.