Friday, August 30, 2013

REVISIT AND REWIND: Red House Painters – Songs for a Blue Guitar

Caution:  Navel gazing ahead

Is there anything worse as a 19 year old than being dumped?  With the distance of time and the bravery of being out of range I can think of at least a dozen things, but when you are in the thick of it having your heart metaphorically ripped from your chest and having to cope with the fallout of teenage “feelings” is pure and utter hell.  If you’re lucky, you have a friend or two who can talk you down off the emotional ledge you find yourself on.  Perhaps even more importantly, you can find a song or album that either gives you the strength to endure or hits you so squarely in the gut that you are literally knocked to your knees.  This is one of those albums.

I had been dumped pretty hard my sophomore year of college.  That summer, I was on a visit to the ex’s place in our college town and stopped with a mutual friend to our local record shop (one I would later run).  Like most independent music stores, the bulk of their profits came from the re-selling of used CDs and promotional copies of albums (which, while technically less-than-legal, helped keep a lot of places in the black back in the late-90s).  They used to keep a box of promos on the counter top and for anywhere from two to five bucks you could pick up a major label cast-off, sans artwork.  That afternoon I hit the mother lode.

But first, I have to jump backwards for a moment. In high school I had worked at a local chain mall record store that had a very serious deep discount for its employees (not of the “five finger” variety, but not too far off).  Being an adventurous (and self-guided) fan of music, the disposable income I made working there was pumped right back in to buying as many cassettes and CDs as I could afford.  The fact that I could get things on the cheap practically goaded me into making purchases that I knew little to nothing about.  I remember being struck by the look of this one album– a golden-hued broken down roller coaster adorned its cover. It was the first self-titled album by Red House Painters, and being the pre-internet age, I knew nothing about it other than the fact that the artwork was majestic looking and made me want to weep.  I bought the cassette and put it in my parent’s hi-fi one night while they were out.  The music that came forth was bleary, emotional, drenched in reverb and fucking heartbreaking.  I was hooked almost immediately.  The tape played through three or four times before I even realized that several hours had passed and I knew every word and note seemingly as if I had written them myself.  This was something that was wholly mine – I knew no other 17 year old who had been given the keys to unlocking this treasure and I greedily kept the secret of Red House Painters to myself and my closest friend (who in turn also became an uber-fan).

Fast forward several years to that box of promo CDs and cassettes and lo and behold, I found myself face to face with a pre-release promo cassette for the latest Red House Painters album, “Songs for a Blue Guitar”.   Now, not only did I have access to the new album by one of my favorite groups, but I got to hear it before most of the other “fans”.  Ego and empathy battled and I could not hand over the $3 quickly enough and pop the cassette into my car stereo.  Seventy minutes and twenty-eight seconds later I had a new favorite album.
The album starts with only the guitar and voice of lead Painter Mark Kozelek and it perfectly encapsulated how I was feeling – alone, bowed but determined.  Drums shuffle in and a lead guitar figure dances around.  Perhaps everything would be ok!   And then the bottom drops out. 
“Song for a Blue Guitar” opens with what may be one of the most heartbreaking lines in all of Western music: “When everything we felt failed”.   Damn. Set to a couple of minor chords and adorned with the sad whine of Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel, Kozelek sings low in his register as a female vocalist sings in harmony throughout.  Things are not going to be ok, and this sad bastard music is what a 19 year old’s heart sounds like when it chances upon that realization.

The rest of the album vacillates between these two poles – music so beautiful it almost hurts to listen to and so uplifting and gorgeous that you can’t help but give it your ears. Kozelek tapped into the things that made being young so overwhelming but ultimately worth experiencing and fed them back through his songs: the gnarled, unending Neil-Young-like guitar solo in “Make Like Paper”; the finger-picked melancholy and phantom screeches of “Trailways”; the way the guitar surges in the choruses of his cover of the Cars’ “All Mixed Up”.  Each reflected part of what I was feeling when I looked back upon my broken relationship and see-sawed back and forth emotionally between feeling hurt by her breaking up with me and missing her so much that I couldn’t eat or sleep.  It was a perfectly balanced mix of all the things I was feeling and it made me feel less alone.  I really don’t know that I could every accurately describe the impact “Songs for a Blue Guitar” had, but I can tell you that I might not be here without it.  And that means something. 

Stray observations:
-      I didn’t and don’t like the cover of Yes’ “Long Distance Runaround” that is included here.  I understand the need for levity, but the song seems like an insult or slap in the face every time it comes on in comparison to the beauty and grace of the rest of the album.

-     The album somewhat notoriously got Red House Painters dropped from their record label, 4ad.  The stories behind why differ, but I like the version that has label-head Ivo Watts-Russell dropping them for the almost-nine-minutes of guitar solo in “Make Like Paper”.  That’s pretty badass!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Mission – The Brightest Light

Wayne Hussey’s long-running band The Mission (“U.K.” appended for these American shores) are back with their first album of new music since 2007’s “God Is a Bullet” and it is a doozy!  Eschewing the glossy, keyboard-laden gossamer that marred many of their less-heralded late-90s and early-aughts works, “The Brightest Light” is the sound of a band revitalized despite their age and out for blood. Original members Simon Hinkler and Craig Adams return for the first time since 1990’s “Carved In Sand” and while the album doesn’t necessarily hearken back sonically to early masterworks like “Children” and “God’s Own Medicine”, the playing is looser and rawer than it has been in literally decades.  Hinkler’s guitar roars in a way that former collaborator Mark Gemini-Thwaite (himself a stellar axeman) wasn’t able to muster in his tenure working with Hussey, and Adams sympathetic low-end is the perfect foil for new drummer Mike Kelly who pounds as well as he swings.  Daevid Allen’s production keeps everything nicely separated and allows all of the instruments to breathe while still sounding “live”.

This being the Mission, though, it’s Wayne Hussey’s show and he has unleashed some of his darkest, roughest lyrics ever. His voice, once a wavering bleat, has roughened into a gruff gnarl that serves these dirty songs well.  He literally snarls his way through album-highlight “Everything But the Squeal”, and it’s truly frightening and visceral.  Likewise, the bare-knuckle brawn of the chugging “Drag” kicks up more dust than most bands half their age.  It’s inspiring to see a band this seasoned acknowledge their mortality (the first lyrics on the album are “When you get to my age, the candles cost more than the cake / It’s not the white powder anymore that’s keeping me awake”) and still be credibly tough without embarrassing themselves.  Hussy and company also successfully stretch the boundaries of the Mission’s sound; the spritely, acoustic-based “Just Another Pawn in Your Game” could be a Ryan Adams B-side and houses the strongest melody on the album.

Not all of it works – the album clocks in at over an hour and sags a bit with several  7-minute-plus cuts - but this the Mission after all, and grandiose bloat is the name of the game a bit, innit?  Overall, it’s a damn fine return from a band that has been sidelined and relegated to “second-tier” status amongst all but the faithful.  Keep kicking arse, gents!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Interview - Jerry Vessel (Heirlooms of August, ex-Red House Painters)

(Photo by Ryan C)

Jerry Vessel served for 15 years as the bassist for legendary slowcore pioneers Red House Painters before RHP-leader Mark Kozelek called quits on the band to pursue different musical projects.  Now leading his own ensemble, the aptly and marvelously-named Heirlooms of August, Vessel has stepped forward as frontman and primary songwriter.  We chatted via email about his inspirations as an artist, the magic of working with the right collaborators and why it's unlikely that you'll see a reformation of Red House Painters.

“Down at the 5 Star” is the second record you’ve released under the Heirlooms of August moniker.  How was its creation different from the debut record (2011’s “Forever the Moon”)?  It feels fuller and more realized.

The writing process was very much the same. The recording process is what differed. Many of the songs that appear on ‘5-Star’ were written in 2010/2011. The microphone I used for vocals was a 1962 AKG C12. I feel certain that this was a huge factor. I also recorded many of the songs ‘live’ this time; voice and guitar together. With the exception of the bass, everything was recorded in Bruce Kaphan’s studio. I think this probably added a great deal to the consistency and quality of sound.

What was the impetus for you to move from a collaborator and backing player to the leader and songwriter of your own band?  Was it challenging to shift gears?  

Living in solitude and the young life of my nephew Andrew were the biggest factors. It had been years since I had written a song. When he came along, he brought me a great deal of joy and inspiration. The songs began to come and his life continues to inspire me. At the time I began writing songs that would be on the first album, I was simply attempting to express myself. There was never a plan to be a ‘leader of the band’ so it never especially occurred to me that I was shifting gears.

I view Heirlooms of August as a collective rather than a band at this point. It is a platform for me, from which to present my songs. It is a reason for me to seek out people whose sensibilities I trust and attempt to enlist them in contributing.

Your songs have an economy of language that reminds me a lot of Hemingway, while also utilizing imagery that very clearly strikes a universal chord.  Who are some of your influences as a writer?

I have especially liked reading Mark Twain, Jack London, Tom Robbins, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Bukowski, Edward Abbey, Irvine Welsh, Pablo Neruda, Taras Grescoe, et al. Thanks for mentioning Hemingway;  haven’t read his work in ages . I love reading National Geographic.

That’s a nice little collection of writers!  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?

‘Andrew & Emma’ is a special song to me, from the first album. Simply a song about two little kids who make me happy.

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

I’ve become something of a Youtube junkie over the last few years. So rather than digging into my music collection, lately I’d rather watch old live performances. I am always mesmerized watching Ian Curtis perform with Joy Division. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Live at the Old Quarter’ is remarkable. Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ album always takes me places. I bought a little record player recently. It is really nice to listen to vinyl again. Have been listening to Narciso Yepes play recently; I found two of his albums on vinyl at a second-hand store: “Joaquin Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez” and “Fernando Sor- 24 Etudes”, love them each.

Ian Curtis and Townes Van Zandt definitely share a knack for authenticity (even if musically they seem pretty far apart).  I haven’t heard Yepes’ work but will definitely check it out based upon your recommendation!

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

That wish has already come true in working with Bruce Kaphan. He is one of those rare humans who seems to do everything well. I enjoy his company. I appreciate that his intellect and many great talents are always presented with such modesty. He never simply goes through the motions. He cares about a job well done. I love the way he plays pedal steel. It is Bruce and my brother Terry who are responsible for my recording live takes with this album. Terry had mentioned to Bruce how he sometimes preferred my really raw, drunken, home- recordings to studio versions. Bruce nudged me in the direction of ‘making myself at home.’

Yeah, the way Bruce plays pedal steel has always amazed me…his work in American Music Club and on the “Slider” album was transcendent.  He and Greg Leisz are the guys that made me love the instrument and see how it could be used in a way other than simply playing country licks.

And now for the obligatory RHP question…there seems to be a lot of overlap with your musical ventures (Anthony played on the debut, Mark has released your records, you’ve toured with Sun Kil Moon).  Is it simply a matter of not wanting to revisit the past that keeps you all from “getting the band back together”?  You clearly seem to enjoy each other as musical peers.  

That seems accurate to me; not wanting to revisit the past. Mark has a solid career with his music/label. Anthony has a solid career in real estate. Phil and I have day jobs and are trying to carve our own musical niches. Perhaps if RHP had been mainstream and Mark’s other musical efforts had not been successful, then regrouping for a money-making tour would make sense. This is not the case though.

What’s on tap for you next?  

I have songs enough for another record. I am working on two new songs now. I am sure that when they are complete I will be anxious to take them to the studio. I plan to work slowly and hopefully have another album out in a year or two. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

REVIEW: Continental w/ the Barksdales @ Tralf Music Hall, 8/9/13

There is little as invigorating as a night of pure rock and roll and Rick Barton’s Continental brought the goods to the Tralf on Friday night.   The venue has been fallow recently, putting up a show or two a month, but recently has doubled-down on showcasing some amazing national indie acts.  Opener, The Barksdales, played melodic punk in the vein of very early Goo Goo Dolls or early 90’s Long Island/NYC bands like Weston.  It was well played, hit all of the right spots, and songs rarely overstayed their welcome.  That was the good.  The bad?  Well, the guitar was mixed too low in the mix (and lacked any real low end – perhaps the result of furiously down-stroking barre chords on a Gibson hollow-body?) and there was something kinda suspect about a band that has only been around on the scene for just more than year playing “punk” through Orange amps and ribbon mics (and the less said about the drummer’s wireless headset mic, the better!)  The set-up looked more befitting a vintage rockabilly combo, one that had logged some miles and earned the right to use that kind of equipment.  Again, well-played but an odd contrast.

Rick Barton’s newish combo, Continental, on the other hand oozed sincerity and authenticity.  Despite being plagued with a bum amp through the opening duo of brand new songs (which still sounded amazing despite the lack of Barton’s trademark chug….and way to step up and loan an amp and guitar, Barksdales!), Continental played a tight and passionate set of new and classic tunes.  Barton’s voice, sounding like a street version of Nick Lowe, has never been as supple and his time as front man has helped hone his instrument.  More than capably backed by son Stephen on bass, a phenomenal 19-year old drummer and shit-hot lead guitarist (whose tasteful leads were equal parts Billy Zoom and Mike Ness), the band sound much hungrier live than on record and played with a tightness that belies the members’ ages.   It’s clear that Barton runs a tight ship (being lead on a painting crew as a dayjob for 33 years will instill that type of discipline), and the attention to detail has paid off – songs started and stopped on a dime and the playing crackled without being unnecessarily flashy.  

None of this would matter, however, if the songs weren’t any good, but Barton has always been an intuitive and sympathetic writer and he has lived enough life to imbue his songs with sincerity and honesty.  Standouts like album lead “Curious Spell” and “Wrecking Ball” from their debut ep were more muscular in their live incarnations, but Barton went straight for the heart and gut by digging out perhaps the best track he ever wrote with the Dropkicks, “The Torch”.  Perhaps it’s the passing of time or simply living in an underdog Rust Belt town , but the song (always emotional) took on a mythic quality and the combination of Barton’s chords and voice made this grown man crumble.  And that is the true measure of art…does it make you feel something?  In his matter-of-fact and own unassuming way, Barton’s Continental were able to answer that with a resounding yes.  No encores, no frills, but full hearts and honest songs…thanks, gents, for giving it your all! (And you have to respect any performer who personally goes and thanks each attendee in the audience and passes out band stickers...a true class act...)

P.S.  Rick was generous enough to speak with me after the show at length about the group, his relationship with his son, and his life.  Stay tuned for the full interview!   

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

It's a good month to be a fan of shoegaze!

Hey there, music an extension of the current and abiding love of everything 90's, three of the leading lights of the shoegaze movement are back (or coming back) with new music:

First up is the fab new record from once-and-apparently-future Swervedriver main man Adam Franklin and his more recent outfit, Bolts of Melody.  "Black Horses" brings some much-needed storminess back to Franklin's songs and it's a solid album from start to finish!  Franklin's voice has never sounded this supple and the Bolts' backing is perfect for this set of tunes.  Excellent!

Just announced and slated to hit these shores just as the leaves start to turn and the air fills with chill, Black Hearted Brother is the new band from Neil Halstead, formerly of the seminal Slowdive, the countrier (is that a word?) Mojave 3, and most recently exploring a Bert Jansch-like solo career.  This kicks up more dust than Halstead has in years, and is an exciting appetizer for a record that holds the possibility of being a more garage-rock take on the shoegaze genre.

Last but certainly not least is the American entree in to the shoegaze sweepstakes, the until-recently-defunct and missed Medicine.  Just released, "To The Happy Few" finds Medicine leader Brad Laner (also a moderator of the fantastic Dangerous Minds website) reuniting with classic-lineup vocalist Beth Thompson and drummer Jim Goodall after almost 20 years apart.  Fans of 1995's "Her Highness" will find a lot to love here!

All of this on top of the surprise return of My Bloody Valentine earlier this year...2013 looks like it might possibly be the "year of the 'gaze" yet!