Sunday, January 19, 2014

You wanted the best, you got....well, this! The 7 Top Albums of 2013

Dear, music:  I am not sure if it was you or me, but one of us was off our game this year.  I have never had to struggle as hard to find music that moved me as I did this year.  Here's hoping that you and I find more common ground in 2014, because I don't know how to quit you.

Codependently yours,
Your intrepid blogger

So, without much ado, here are the top 7 albums of 2013:

1.   Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Hands down, the finest album of the year and the best of Isbell’s career (solo or with the Drive By Truckers).  Much has been made of the redemptive arc of the album (man quits booze, embraces love, finds himself and happiness), but Isbell’s fine eye for detail and rapier wit won’t allow for such reductive simplicity.   Older, wiser, and armed with a set of tunes that would kill lesser men, this is finally proof of what we DBT fans have been preaching for years: Isbell is the real deal and has talent to spare.  Take one listen to “Cover Me Up”, “Stockholm” or “Relatively Easy” and it’s apparent that Isbell’s working at the height of his powers.  And “Elephant”?  Jesus Christ.  Quite simply, these twelve songs are a master’s class in songwriting and an embarrassment of riches for fans and newcomers alike.  Well done, sir!

2.   CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
The best album that Depeche Mode didn’t release this year (and leagues better than the one they DID!), this is the rare blog-worthy band who delivered on the promise of their internet releases.  These Glaswegians found the sweet spot between articulate longing and detached celebration and turned what could have been a case of “three-great-singles-and-a-bunch-of-filler” into a mission statement that is ready for both the arenas and the dance floor.  And if Lauren Mayberry’s catch-in-your-throat trill doesn’t move you, it’s probably time for you to start picking out a cemetery plot.   Here’s hoping that this is simply the first volley in a long and distinguished career. 

3.   California X – s/t
Sooooo much guitar scuzz! Weaned on the teat of early Dinosaur Jr (and hailing from their virtual backyard in Amherst, Mass.), California X almost singlehandedly carried the torch for overdriven, zero-fucks-given guitar rock this year – or would have, if mainstream media hadn’t slept on the release.  Not that this trio likely cares…they just turn up the amps and let it rip over eight tracks of pure sonic bliss (but still have the cojones enough to throw a piano-version of the melody to opener “Sucker” on as a coda to another song).  Great, simple, passionate, and made to be played LOUD!

4.   Bad Religion – True North
Not quite the summative “career-overview” that was 2011’s “The Dissent of Man”, BR circles the wagons and create another fine slab of poetic, politically-minded and relentlessly melodic punk.  The songwriting is shared as in the past between singer Greg Graffin (“the head”) and guitarist Brett Gurewitz (“the heart”), but never has their writing seemed as in sync and copacetic.  A great many other so-called punk bands could learn a lesson or two from the deceptively-simple and humanistic “Robin Hood In Reverse” or the full-bore rush of “My Head is Full Of Ghosts”.  34 years on and still leading the pack. 

5.   Neko Case – The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight the More I Love You
That voice.  I suppose that there are worse things to be saddled with, but I am sure Ms. Neko is sick of the over-simplified awe that her pipes inspire in mediocre writers like me. That said, THAT VOICE!  The fact that for a third album in a row, Case has put out a near-flawless set of songs is admirable in and of itself, but songs like “Man” are imbued with so much visceral indignation that you’re almost afraid  that she might in fact be hiding around the corner from you.  Such a beating would not only be deserved, but likely welcome!  Case’s songs are imbued with life and serve as a reminder that success (however it may be defined) is hard won and that sticking to your guns in a world full of lies and betrayal may be the only to guarantee that you are the last (wo)man standing.   

6.   The Joy Formidable – Wolf’s Law
Wales’ finest return with their brass-ring grab and it’s a stunner!  Ritzy and co have never been shy about “going big”, but this is widescreen in a way that feels both natural and exciting.  The guitars are thicker, the tunes bigger, and the attack even more ferocious – it’s a jump in sonic quality that hearkens back to the one spiritual forebears Smashing Pumpkins made with “Mellon Collie” (sans the bloat and the unchecked ego).  It’s doubtful that this band could ever top 2010’s formative, naive but bracing mini-LP “A Balloon Called Moaning”, so going in the opposite direction and pulling out all the stops seems to be the right decision.  The dichotomy between the growl of Ritzy Bryan’s guitar and her sweet, clarion-call voice is still breathtaking and well-employed on this great set. 

7.   David Bowie – The Next Day
     He’s David Bowie and he’s still alive and making music.  The fact that it’s FUCKING FANTASTIC is almost beside the point.  Surprising us all with an album that is reflective of his age but not beholden to it, Bowie has made the move seemingly only he can make: staying relevant while not pandering to any particular trend or group.  Bless you, Mr. Bowie.  We are not worthy.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Cyril Jordan (The Flamin' Groovies)

(photo by Ken K)

The "lost" interview!  I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Cyril at his hotel the night before the Flamin' Groovies' triumphant return to NYC.  Due to a technical error (and some human stupidity on my part), I hadn't had the opportunity to get it online until now.  My apologies to Cyril, his "guy" Barry Simons, and all the Groovies fans out there.  With the release of the first Cyril Jordan/Chris Wilson in 32 years last month, and this week's release of Chris's new solo album, it's gettin' pretty Groovy!  Enjoy...

Hey man, thanks for chatting with me – I am excited that the Groovies are back together!  I understand that other than the drums, this is the Sire line-up that’s together.  How did that come about?

Well I hadn’t seen Chris (Wilson) in about 32 years, and I had gone to London a couple of years ago with Roy Loney to do a Flamin’ Groovies bash and Chris came backstage.  The instant we saw each other, we hugged and made up.  That was it.  Word got out that we were back together and we just started getting offers, starting in November of last year.  The offers were so good that we decided to put the band back together. We’ve been back together now about 17 weeks.

You’ve toured Japan and Australia together and now you are hitting the states.

Yeah, we went to Japan and Australia, and we hooked up with my friends in Blue Oyster Cult in Australia.  That was a gas, I hadn’t seen those guys since 1978 in Paris.

Did you play the Hoodoo Gurus’ fest down there?

Yeah, we did the Dig It Up festival.  Dave Faulkner is an old, old friend.  The Gurus requested us and their promoter contacted me and then we added the Japanese dates.  It was the best tour I ever did…they are really organized down there. 

And how has the vibe been with the guys back on the road?

It’s a lot more fun for me.  I mean, I have Chris Wilson on guitar and I have always wanted that.  I had to kind of talk him into it last year, but it’s really working out great.

That’s awesome.  Are there plans for new music or is this simply a tentative “dipping your toes in the water” to see if it works?

Well, we’re trying really hard not make it just a retro thing.  We went into the studio after Australia and put down a couple tracks, and we’re going back into the studio after this trek in a week or two and hope to finish about half an album. Because I figured, if anyone from a label approaches us we better have something new in the can. 

And you’ll obviously own the masters?

Oh yeah, it’s all paid for by me…as usual [laughs]

[Laughs]  I bet!  Now is this new material or unreleased stuff from that period?

Well, right now we’re doing the catalog, which we’ve never done.  When we toured in the 70s, it was all the material that we’re currently recording.  For instance, by 1975 we didn’t have “Slow Death” or “You Tore Me Down” or “Married Woman” in the set.  This time around, we are doing our whole catalog.

How about the new stuff you’re working on?

I’m really excited about it!  It’s very close to the style that we’ve always been known for.  In London, we hooked up with the keyboard player from Procul Harem, Matthew Fisher, and he did two shows with us, and that was just a gas, so we will probably feature him on the album.

Do you have a production team in place for the album?

Yes, we do.  I’m working with my partner Joel Jaffe, who owns a studio in Sausalito called Studio D.  He’s on the road with us right now doing our sound. We’ve known each other for 30 years and he begged me to come along because he needed a vacation [laughter]

Very cool, man.  Have you given thought to what happens after this little run of the States is over?

It looks like we’ll probably be coming back to the East Coast sometime in October and we’re probably going to do Europe again. This thing just keeps snowballing.  When we were in Australia, we got an email from this guy from Live Nation in Europe and he got us a slot opening for Bruce Springsteen at Olympic Park and he set up a show where we headlined in London at The Scala, which used to be Brian Epstein’s old theatre. It just seems to be running on its own steam.  If it wasn’t for the Groovies fans….they really got this thing off the ground.  When the Gurus called us up and wanted us for the Australian thing, I mean, everything has just been falling into place and Groovies fans are coming out of the woodwork.  It’s really a community effort.

How has the reaction been by the fans so far?

It’s pretty exciting.  The band keeps getting better and better.  Matthew Fisher actually pointed that out to me after the third rehearsal.  It’s pretty strange – we’re evolving pretty quickly.

That’s great to hear! So anything else going on in your life as a creative person right now, or is the Groovies your main outlet for the time being?

I put my other band, Magic Christian, on the shelf for the time being. I’m going to devote all of my time to the Groovies thing this year.

Thanks for chatting, Cyril…best of luck!

No problem, Jason…glad we got to connect, man!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Zach Gabbard (Buffalo Killers)

You initially released “Ohio Grass” as an ep for Record Store Day this year – what went into the decision to re-release it with additional tracks through traditional distribution channels?

It did well and we wanted to share it so when we decided to repress the vinyl, we through some songs from Record Store Day that we did live from a record store called Omega in Dayton, OH and then we had a brand new track. 

You’re from the Cincinnati area, did living in Ohio influence your writing?

Well, we always work hard at what we do, and I live out in the sticks so I’m not really caught up in anything _ I don’t really have any day-to-day head-trip bullshit anymore.  So, we just write songs and I have two kids and I think where I am from keeps me going.  It’s cheap to live here, and we can maintain life and go on the road.  It helps us to keep records coming. 

Ohio seems to be a place for that.  I know that you worked with John Curley from the Afghan Whigs and Bob Pollard’s out of Dayton, and the standard of living there allows him to keep putting stuff out at the frequency that he does.

Man, Guided By Voices…I bought “Bee Thousand” on my 18th birthday and it was the first weekend I had gone out on the road with the band I was in at the time.  I had no idea they were from Dayton, I had just heard it at a bar while we were out.  And seeing the Afghan Whigs on MTV as a kid?   I just thought that shit was for fucking rock stars from Hollywood or something (laughs) – that was super inspirational.  Guided By Voices and bands like that, they were doing this in their BASEMENT!

I know…being in your late-30s and a school teacher?  That was kind of the prototypical rock dream come true!

Yeah, man.  They just kept doing it and they didn’t fucking care about anything. They lived in Dayton, they got drunk, and they made records.  You know?  (laughs) They were fucking awesome!  You’d go to Dayton and go out to the bars and see Bob there, and it was like fucking Paul McCartney walking around.

The cheap and easy reference point for your music would be the Black Crowes, and you definitely share some of the same aesthetic, but I hear some heavier psych elements in your music that seem to point to acts like Blue Cheer and Vanilla Fudge and even more contemporary acts like the Heartless Bastards and Sheepdogs.  Who do you consider some of the artists that inspire you?

Me and Andy have been playing music forever with Joey, and the music that we write is just the result of everything that has been put into us over the years.  We grew up listening to Neil Young and the Grateful Dead and country music and bluegrass.  I like to think that we are just an honest band, you know?  We are what we are.  You can’t cover it up.  I just love playing music with my brother and Joey.  We have another guy in the band now too – we’ve been a four-piece since March. And we all really connect well – it took a special person to join us since we’ve been a three-piece for so long.  Byt to share those moments on stage with the people that you love and to travel everywhere, I could never imagine that we’d be doing this…it’s awesome.  It tickles me to death.

What’s your songwriting process like?  Does it start with a riff or a lyric?  Do you bring something in and then the whole band fleshes it out?

It actually comes really easy.  Me and Andy write songs apart and then bring them together.  The majority of what we show each other that first time, that’s what it is.  With some minor changes…it is a completely open atmosphere where the other guys can feel free to add stuff. The way I usually write songs is in my head – I take that little piece, the starting, and then flesh it out when I get a guitar in my hands. The majority of the time I just start with something that sticks in my head.  I have a great songwriting partner in my brother.  He brings songs in and they are just beautiful. We work well together…it’s easy.  It’s not labored over at all.  It’s harder just getting everyone in the same room [laughs].  Everybody’s connected, everybody wants to be there and we’re all in the same headspace.

Are there challenges to being in a band with your brother?  Does it get like the Davies brothers (of the Kinks) or Gallagher brothers (of Oasis), or do you guys find a way to make it work?

It’s great for me!  We both want to be there.  It’s easy and we do care about each other.  And we LIKE each other [laughs]

That makes a world of difference, I’m sure [laughs]

Totally [laughs].  I mean, shit man, I’m lucky I get to travel with my brother.  Some people don’t spend any time with their family.  We don’t have any real problems.  I’ve got the ultimate bandmates.  The not getting along in a band, that definitely shows in your output and I think you can tell from our music that we like each other.  We’re not Davies [laughs].

Do you feel like your writing has matured or that you have grown as a songwriter since having a family?

Having a family just made me grow as a person, and as a songwriter, that all plays into it.  The more I write, the more secure I am in my writing and it’s just a matter of letting it come out.  As far as being a parent, that shapes everything about you.  It brought a lot out of me, material-wise.  I have two kids, and we live out in the country, there are chickens in the yard, I have a wife and she cares about the band…I’m where I want to be!

That’s awesome, man.  So what’s on tap next for you guys?

We just started a new album and we signed with Sun Pedal Recordings, which is a part of the Warner Music Group.  We did that awhile back and we just worked on the record this past week.  It’s being produced by Jim Wirt (renowned Cleveland engineer and producer). It’s in the can…being mixed right now.  It’ll be out in the beginning of 2014. 

There’s a plan to tour the record obviously?

Oh yeah.  When it comes out, we will definitely do a US tour. Can’t wait to get back on the road!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

REVIEW: Johnny Revolting @ Nietzsches, 1/10/13

Punk's not just needs occasional breaks to stretch and catch its breath!  Buffalo's own Johnny Revolting, celebrating 20 years as a band, tore through a set of fiery Left Coast-inspired punk with abandon on Friday night and the older-skewing Nietzsche's crowd (seemingly filled with friends and longtime fans) lapped it up and cheered along.  For a band that only gigs occasionally, these guys' chops are still in evidence.  The set was a nice blend of "greatest hits" and covers and it's a testament to the band that the former outshone some of the latter (though it's nigh on impossible to NOT enjoy a roughed-up cover of the Go-Gos' 1982 megahit "Vacation"). The band wear their influences on their sleeves, favoring bratty, tuneful punk from the Descendents/Adolescents/Dictators school and the effect of Bill Stevenson's songwriting is all over their catalog - additionally, the inclusion of the Misfits' "Astro Zombies" and a warm-up run through Bad Religion's "Do What You Want" give you a sense of their melodic priorities.  Simply put, the playing was fierce (particularly Brian Young's astounding basslines and Andy Boehmer's solid drumming), and the songs had all the scatological hallmarks of the best punk tunes.  

Two notes: the efforts of the Nietzsche's staff to quash the small group of guys and gals slam dancing up front was disheartening.  This is a goddamn punk show!  The band were perfectly suited to the climes of the venue (far more so than their last show at the cavernous and soulless Waiting Room), so let's hope that in the future the staff allows the crowd the ability to express itself more freely.  Additionally, the one and only criticism of the band's performance was the pacing of the show...their banter is hilarious, but the songs might have been better served by simply plowing through more of them in a row ala the Ramones.  The breaks broke up the intensity a bit.  These are minor quibbles, though, and all punk bands should sound as fresh and tight 20 years middle-age hardcore!  BALLS!