Friday, September 8, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: Lowest of the Low - Do The Right Now

As a writer, Ron Hawkins has always matched the universal with the specific, marrying concepts like love and loss to tangible places, events and people.  It’s one of his greatest strengths and the reason why albums like “Shakespeare, My Butt” are still rabidly venerated more than a quarter century after their release.  That landmark record, written when Hawkins was 26 years old and coming into his artistic own as a boho Marxist in the funkier parts of Toronto, now finds its mirror image in the fantastic “Do The Right Now”.  An answer record of sorts (released the year Hawkins turned 52 – a neat 26 years after “Shakespeare”), the new album finds Hawkins and his compatriots (original drummer David Alexander and longtime sideman Lawrence Nichols are joined here by two of Hawkins’ Do Good Assassins bandmates) adding several new classics to their canon. 

The songs may deal with getting older, but still crackle with the energy of youth. “Powerlines”, the album’s opener and first single, reflects on the changes that time has had on both his city and his own creative mythology by revisiting Caroline, a character who first appeared in “The Taming of Carolyn” 26 long years ago. A stand-in for Hawkins and the band itself, Caroline is dealing with the expectations that come with being older on the outside but still repeating those same stupid, youthful behaviors that made you feel alive as a twenty-something.  Hawkins ends the song with the implication that the only way out is to jump – into the abyss of adulthood or off the top of a building is left up to the listener, and it’s kind of harrowing and perfect.  

Several of the other songs chime and churn like classic Low – the propulsive “Gerona Train” (itself a rewrite of a song from Hawkins’ pre-LOTL band, Popular Front); the echoey, finger-picked “Sister Jude” featuring Nichols’ melodic harmonica lines; the rapid-fire wordplay and alliteration of “Immortal” – but it’s the departures that find the band really branching out. The dark, downcast “Minuteman” and the burbling tale of regret, “California Gothic”, show that not only has Hawkins’ writing grown but so has the sound of the band, reaching into spaces both darker and more brutal with a subtlety that the Low of old simply couldn’t muster.  And perhaps that’s the point – we fetishize youth as a time when an artist’s truth is revealed and channeled into their work.  Everything after is, like Caroline, simply chasing that high.  Kudos, then, to Ron Hakwins for breaking free of that fallacy and releasing a work equal in heart, vitality and wit to the golden albatross of “Shakespeare”. As he so deftly puts it on the album’s title track, “tomorrow’s a lie and yesterday’s gone / You’ve got to do the right now”.  Indeed. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: Peter Hook and the Light – Unknown Pleasures Live, Closer Live, Movement Live, Power, Corruption, and Lies Live

Ian Curtis has been gone for 37 years.  More legend than actual flesh and blood human at this point, Curtis’ harrowing baritone and gloomy songwriting has influenced countless bands to pick up instruments and pour their existential torment into song. Hell, Interpol were practically a Joy Division cover band when they first came slunking out of the NYC underground at the turn of the century!  While Curtis – in all of his tragic beauty, so committed to his message that he ended his own life on the eve of what was surely to be their breakthrough album – can be seen as the “face” of Joy Division, it was clearly bassist Peter Hook who was the band’s thumping, pugilistic heart.  Hooky’s basslines not only formed the backbone of the band’s sound, but also tied the band to the punk underground from which it was spawned.  It’s fitting, then, that his new band The Light, have become standard bearers and protectors of sorts for the Joy Division catalogue. 

Over the course of a couple years, Peter Hook and the Light have traveled Europe and the U.S. performing the two Joy Division albums and the first two New Order records in full.  This might seem at best an exercise in nostalgia and at worst a crass flogging of the corpse for filthy lucre.  You would be right to seem skeptical.  Here’s the thing, though – these four releases feel wholly vital!  In the place of Curtis’ vampiric croon, Hook’s hoarse bellow breathes new life into the songs that he’s probably played thousands of times. Part tribute, part exorcism, songs like “Day of the Lords”, “Candidate” and “Dead Souls” shake off the funereal air of their studio renditions and become something bigger, fleshier, livelier.   It’s a thrill to hear some of the material from “Closer” performed live for the first time, and the backing band (basically Hook’s late-90s combo Monaco and his son Jack on second bass) more than capably turns what were skeletal, tense sketches into blasts of fury and sound.  These live versions also reveal something that is often overlooked in the canonization of Joy Division as godfathers of mope – their songs have hips!  I’m not sure that anyone would ever categorize “New Dawn Fades’ as a dance song, but you can really sway and move to it in a way that is both surprising and entirely natural.  And this might be the greatest feat of these albums – removing the weight of history and importance and turning them into breathing, living rock songs.   This balance of reverence and feral attack is Hook’s greatest gift.  Though Ian Curtis may be but a memory, I’d like to think that he would approve of Hooky’s curation and reinvigoration of his short life’s work.  

Friday, May 19, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: R. Stevie Moore and Jason Falkner - Make It Be

Collaborative albums between artists can be dicey propositions. Does it sound too much like one of the folks involved or do you split the difference between the two different styles/personas?  Can the sum possibly be greater than the parts?   Trust me, for every “My Life In the Bush of Ghosts” or “Madvillian” there are a dozen “Watch The Thrones”.  It takes not only an estimable set of skills to make the balancing act work, but also the ability to set aside ego to come up with something that works best for the songs.  Against a lot of odds, “Make It Be” (a nifty bastardization of the Fabs’ “Let It Be”), the collection of tunes birthed by the coupling of madly prolific lo-fi hero R. Stevie Moore and power-pop prodigal son Jason Faulkner gets it almost exactly right! 

Eschewing the scrappy homemade quality and murk of many of Moore’s releases, this is Faulkner’s sonic show.  Fuzzed-out opener, the deliciously misanthropic “I H8 Ppl” sets the stage, with Moore spitting lyrics atop Faulkner’s bed of guitars and synths and it sets the stage for an album chock full of deliciously weird and inventive tunes. While “Make It Be” can at times come off as lacking cohesion, the kitchen-sink experimentation more often than not produces a roller-coaster of sounds and styles, exemplified in miniature by the way the lo-fi prog instrumental “Gower (Theme From a Scene) bleeds into Moore’s spoken word diatribe “Prohibited Permissions” and finally segues directly into the buzzy garage stomp of “Stamps” (a Pixies-esque salvo about needing a roll of the titular object, natch).  At 18 tracks, it can be a bit dicey at times (the noodly, half-assed guitar interludes don’t exactly ooze necessity), but wonderful gems like the silly and delightful ersatz ‘50s juke-jumper “Don’t You Just Know” more than make up for any chaff amongst the wheat.  If nothing else, it makes me remember how much I miss and love Jason Falkner.  His “solo” contributions like “Another Day Slips Away” or the psych gem “Horror Show” would have fit perfectly on his well-loved 90’s solo albums for Elektra.  Also, his guiding hand has helped Moore to make the most of his gifts and provided structure to a songwriter whose own prolificacy sometimes works against him. “Make It Be” is not only a nice addition to both artists’ catalogs, but will also hopefully bring some deserved exposure. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Feelies - In Between

The arrival of a new album by Haledon, NJ’s favorite sons (and daughter) is always a cause for celebration – particularly when it can be punctuated by anywhere from three to twenty years in between!  What a treat, then, that “In Between”, the Feelies’ 6th album (and first since 2011’s comeback, “Here Before”) is such a lovely document of what the band does well. The newer, softer Feelies that have evolved out of their 20-year absence make increased use of acoustic instrumentation here – oftentimes, it’s the percussion of Dave Weckerman that is loudest in the mix, and the songs have a late-Velvets ease to them that bely the tension rippling right beneath the surface.  Autumnal in the best sense of the word, the album opens with the crackle of a campfire and the chirping of fauna and the title track sets the pace for most of the album – Glenn Mercer’s and Bill Million’s guitar strums nestling against one another, while Stan Demeski’s brushed drums and Brenda Sauter’s supple bass sagely keep time.  The band is in no hurry and the album is all the better for it.

Those only familiar with the band via its classic debut will certainly be surprised by how languid the band is here – most songs shuffle breezily by and the first appearance of Mercer’s biting lead guitar doesn’t rear its head until the fourth track, album highlight “Flag Days”.   All of this, however, is simply preamble to the 9-minute monolith that is the reprise of “In Between” that closes out the album.  A fully electric take on the title track, the song continues to build steam until hitting the three-minute mark, and then it goes off the damn rails.  Million’s churning rhythm guitar locks in with the rhythm section and Mercer’s skittering leads careen around it all; the sound they make is simultaneously hypnotizing and paranoia-inducing but never less than thrilling.  When both guitars nimbly (and loudly) solo over the last minutes of the jam, it reminds you of why this band is so fervently adored almost 40 years after their debut.  The culminating pick slide and feedback is all the reminder you need that age is nothing but a number and that the world is a better place with the Feelies rocking in it.  

...And We're Back!

Have you missed us?  Sure, you have!  After many false starts (read: laziness and ennui), the rockist reviews and fawning interviews you know and love are returning.  We promise to be less like that ne'er-do-well uncle who sometimes forgets your birthday and gives you wildly age-inappropriate presents (really, Uncle Barry, "naughty" playing cards?  AGAIN?) and more like an attentive lover, showering you with gifts that are both thoughtful and plentiful.  So, dig into the archives and prepare yourself for the awesome power of a fully operational mothership! (T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M for you fans of middling 90s George Clinton know who you are!) Color Is Its Own Reward is back, baby, and it's about to get loud...

Friday, December 23, 2016


Photo by Julian Tobon

The new album "All Are One" (credited to Sophe Lux and the Mystic), is both a logical extension of your previous albums but also much grander in scope. You also recorded it with longtime collaborator Larry Crane, which lends it some continuity to your past work. What was the impetus behind changing the moniker and did it impact the way you approached this set of songs?

Adding "The Mystic”  to the moniker was inspired to give birth to the alter ego and bona fide character called “The Mystic" who shows up in the videos and narrates some of the songs.  The new moniker also reflects the ideas and  themes on “All Are One.” Lastly, the new moniker also represents my return to being a solo artist. 

The album was born out of a passion to create an alternative discussion to counter the rampant dystopic themes in pop culture. I wanted to construct a body of work that created a response to the violence, classism, sexism, and lack of compassion in the world. I asked myself “how can we love what could be, instead of hate or fear what is?”  The answer came to me in dreams, visions, and meditation sessions. These ideas then turned into the songs, characters, and music that make up the new album. Working with Larry Crane was a pleasure as always. 

You came out of a very fertile musical community in Portland - did that affect your development as a songwriter and performer?

Being in Portland has affected me in a very positive way in that it is a creative climate that supports individuality in creative expression. This is a place where it is safe to “let your freak flag fly.”  It’s also a place where you can also retreat into your bear cave hibernation chamber and go deep into your creative space. I cloistered myself away like a monk when I worked on this one. 

I recently spoke with Josh Haden (of the band Spain) and Petra Haden (a cappella singer extraordinaire, ex- that dog.) about the impact of siblings and family members working in similar creative spheres. Your brother Todd has quite a bit of acclaim as a filmmaker. How did that effect your artistic development? I have to imagine that there was a system of healthy competition and support there.

Growing up with Todd as a big brother has been a great gift. We were most fortunate. Our home was a hub of constant creative activity and discovery. Todd is one of the most creative and intelligent humans I have ever met. I have always looked up to him as an artist, human being and cultural educator. I think I learned about my creative process by observing his creative process. He exposed me to great art, music, and film. I never felt in competition with him. There is a tremendous love and support between us. 

Can you tell me a bit about your songwriting process - do you typically come up with the music first or a lyrical idea?

My songwriting process is primarily intuitive, but can be very intentional and practical. I usually set an intention for a song idea, do some research for inspiration, and then let my subconscious and intuitive faculties take over from there. 

What were some of your formative influences? I think that the easy longline would be to Eno and early electro artists, but the new album has some very strong Sparks-like moments as well.

My early influences: Eno, YES! David Bowie, Bjork, Radiohead, David Byrne, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, Dead Can Dance, 4 AD Artists, Real World Records Artists, Laurie Anderson, The Clash, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell. Classical: Beethoven, Strauss, Hildegard Von Bingen, East Indian Classical, Choral  and Chamber music. 

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 ?

"The Love Comet” is one of my favorites as it has achieved something I was looking for in having a song grounded in form and content. The video also helps anchor my good feelings about the song.

What's on tap for you next?

I have been planning, practicing, and dialing in the live performance of “All Are One.” It’s a big job, but is its going to work!!  I am working on transferring the tracks into Albeton Live and adding video screens to create an audio visual show that is fun to  watch while being super portable.

I have 32 songs in the queue waiting to be recorded. So I am excited to get back into the studio. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

FIRST IMPRESSION: The Mission - Another Fall From Grace

Wayne Hussey’s reconstituted The Mission (finally dropping the “U.K.” from their stateside moniker) have decided to celebrate 30 years as a band by releasing an album – “Another Fall From Grace” – that finds them reconnecting with their past. Produced by Tim Palmer, the man behind the boards for the band’s classic debut “God’s Own Medicine” and commercial breakthrough “Carved In Sand”, the album sits somewhere between return to form and retread.  Hussey has publicly stated that the album should sound like it was released in 1985 (a bridge of sorts from the Sisters of Mercy’s “First, And Last, And Always” – in which Hussey played a pivotal role – and the Mission’s own debut), and sonically Palmer does a fantastic job of creating a lush, gothic backdrop.  The drums boom, the bass is prominently throbbing and Hussey’s 12-string guitar (somewhat diminished on recent albums) chimes throughout.  It all SOUNDS like a Mission record, but there is an immediacy to the songs that is lacking. 

2013’s superb “The Brightest Light” showed Hussey moving past some of the trappings of the “classic” Mission sound and sounding somehow older but also more feral.  His voice - always a beautiful, pleading instrument - sounded like it was about to fall apart, reaching for notes that were always just out of reach.  He sounded desperate, rather than dramatic.  Here, the whole thing feels dialed back and a bit safe.  That’s not to say it’s a failure – “Tyranny of Secrets” is a driving winner and few do epic melodrama as beautifully as the band do on album closer “Phantom Pain”.  I just wish that the drama sounded more grounded and vital.  As a Mission statement for a band that’s survived for 30 years, however, it’s certainly more than good enough.