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Will Kimbrough, Alkaline Trio, Shout Out Louds and More

By Brian Baker · February 26th, 2010 · I Shall Be Released

Is there some government rebate program that I’m blithely unaware of that’s offering a cash bonus for releasing an album on Feb. 23? That can be the only explanation because, sweet Aunt Fanny, this Tueday’s release sheet was more full of shit than my old man on a fifth of scotch.

Due to the inexplicable bounty of the week, I’m going to cut this intro mercifully short (don’t applaud all at once) and work on covering as many of this week’s releases as is humanly possible, with the overflow running into next week’s posting (which is already shaping up to be fairly full all on its own).

Will Kimbrough has earned a deserved reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter, but it’s an honor that has tended to overshadow his equally impressive work as a performer of those songs. His early work with Will and the Bushmen and The Bis-Quits (with his longtime friend and former Government Cheese guitarist Tommy Womack) gave way to an acclaimed but commercially marginal solo career that ultimately included a ton of supplemental session and production work for the likes of Todd Snider, Kate Campbell, Rodney Crowell and Amy Rigby, among others.

Providentially, Jimmy Buffett tapped Kimbrough to play on his hit album, License to Chill, and made a hit out of his song “Piece of Work,” a windfall that’s given Kimbrough a lot of new opportunities, including starting a new indie band with Womack called Daddy and getting back to his solo Roots Rock career.

With his latest solo album, Wings, Kimbrough simply does what he’s always done, which is write great songs and perform them with a quiet elegance. He's also made a cohesive (and unintentional) quasi-concept album concerning the dichotomy between a musician’s unquenchable desire for work and the road and the inevitable appeal of family and home. Whether it’s a Folk/Pop paean to his daughters (“Three Angels”), an ode to that rarest of entities, a musician’s sense of permanence (“You Can’t Go Home”), a Folk/Country nod to his own profession (“The Day of the Troubador”) or a soulful hymn from and to the heart (“Open to Love”), Kimbrough has once again woven together a handful of folky chords and wonderfully heartfelt lyrics and brought them to tangible life with his bourbon smooth voice and his musical grace.

Wings doesn’t break any new ground for Kimbrough, it just finds him putting a spacious addition on his already magnificent musical house.

Alkaline Trio has definitely hit for the music industry cycle since their formation in Chicago a decade and a half ago, going from the melodic but bracing Punk of the band’s earliest releases on the Johann’s Face and Asian Man labels to the fist-pumping Pop Punk of their Vagrant years to the commercial triumph of the band’s Hard Rock major label debut for Epic, 2008’s Agony & Irony. Through it all, Alkaline Trio has found success not by catering to chart trends but by cultivating a tight bond with a slavishly loyal cult following and growing that base into an impressive retail entourage, selling over a million units along the way.

For their seventh studio album, the Trio (guitarist/vocalist Matt Skiba, bassist vocalist Dan Andriano, drummer/vocalist Derek Grant) opted out of their Epic deal and created the Heart & Skull imprint with renowned Punk indie Epitaph. In this new arrangement, the threesome have crafted a set of songs that bristle with the Punk passion of the band’s early days while drawing on the latter Pop influences that polished their later work to inform the sweet and sour tang of their latest, This Addiction.

The opening title track, the Blue Velvet-inspired “Dorothy” and the snarling “Lead Poisoning” all burn like the frenetic blister Punk of the Trio’s earliest work, while the tragic, post-war consequences of “The American Scream” and the relentless “Off the Map” are reminiscent of Crimson’s anthemic Popcore. And then there’s the synth-frosted Cars Pop Punk of “Eating Me Alive,” a Punk love song that plays like a response to the ridiculous assertion from some quarters that Agony & Irony represented a sell-out for the Trio (“Now you’re stuck in my head like a love song/Climbed to the top of the charts/How the fuck could something be so right and so wrong/All the wrong words but all the right parts...”).

With This Addiction, Alkaline Trio show that they are comfortable with their maturation process, touching on their past while hurtling toward an equally loud but evolutionarily different future.

After the dramatic swell of Shout Out Louds’ acclaimed 2007 sophomore album, Our Ill Wills, and two grueling years of subsequent touring, the Stockholm quintet decided to take some much needed time off. Before they literally put global distance between each other for an extended period of time, they charged primary songwriter Adam Olenius with a fairly straightforward task; keep the new songs simple. The subtle trick in that goal is to retain the grandeur and power of SOL’s first two albums in a manner that streamlines and strips back both the process and the end result. Against long odds, Olenius and his SOL compatriots have achieved that very thing with their deceptively complex third album, Work.

On Work, Shout Out Louds bristle with contemporized classic Pop energy, keeping the arrangements spartan but ramping up the passion by riding the potent tension between what seems to be happening and what is actually being played.

On “1999,” SOL seems to be channeling Brian Eno’s early solo efforts and John Cale’s baroque Pop leanings and “Show Me Something New” careens along like Robert Smith in the throes of Friday Pop love, while “Fall Hard” sounds like a page from Gary Clark’s Pop songwriting textbook and “Candle Burned Out” quivers with the shimmery dynamics of The Shins.

Phil Ek’s production here merely highlights the flecks of James Mercer that already exist in SOL’s gorgeous Pop framework, although the same could easily be said regarding any sonic reference point on Work.

Shout Out Louds set a goal of passionate simplicity for their new album and achieved a magnificent end by tapping into a melodic classicism that touches on ’60s Pop and ’70s New Wave while injecting it with a heart needle full of adrenalized now. As a result, any familiar associations that drift through Work are quickly absorbed into Shout Out Louds’ personal concept of Pop timelessness.

States have a strange need to claim all manner of things as a way of identifying themselves; state birds, state flowers, state trees, state songs. If Kentucky is looking to name a state Lou Reed, I’d like to throw Paul Kopasz’s name into contention. Of course, Kopasz could just easily be the state’s Nick Cave or Leonard Cohen or Tom Verlaine. Like the blind men and the elephant, defining Paul K depends entirely on where you grab and when.

Kopasz has the kind of discography that reads like a Mormon geneology, and even people who’ve been following it from the start can get lost keeping track of it. He’s been plying his Punk/Folk/Roots Rock social/political odes for the better part of the last three decades, either solo or with a variety of bands, including The Weathermen, a rotating cast of like-minded genius misfits. Kopasz’s latest offering is Gavage Vol. 1: Queen of Hearts (gavage being a French word meaning “to force feed”), a 13-track bit of brilliance that was originally intended to be a spartan acoustic collection but which expanded sonically when Kopasz’s circle of musical friends demanded to contribute.

The result of that collaboration comprises Gavage‘s first nine tracks, from the Lou Reed-tributes-Dylan swagger of “The Plan” to the Iggy Pop balladry of “Mistress of the Obvious” to the Leonard Cohen-esque majesty of “Running for Our Lives” to the dark Nick Cave soufulness of “A Storm in Every Port” and the devastating “Walking Backwards.” Gavage finishes up with an uncredited quartet of unadorned tracks, including Kopasz’s loping cowboy version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace Love and Understanding?” Presumably exuding the Nebraska-like atmosphere that Kopasz intended for the entire set; they are every bit as emotionally wrought and impactful as their fleshed out predecessors.

Gavage, like the overwhelming majority of Kopasz’s catalog, is a melancholy triumph, and bodes well for the next two volumes to come, the proposed second trilogy after his acclaimed Panopticon. For the live version of Paul K & the Weathermen, the band will be the warm-up act for 500 Miles to Memphis’ CD release show this Friday at the Southgate House (details here). Get there early to witness one of the region’s truly great artists in action.

Clem Snide released five albums of ephemeral Alt.Country/Roots Pop before succumbing to the pressures of being critically successful and commercially marginal, breaking up in the midst of their sixth album. After frontman Eef Barzelay pushed out a couple of acclaimed solo albums (2006’s Bitter Honey and 2008’s Lose Big), Barzelay got the idea to revisit the album that he had abandoned in Clem Snide’s final days but realized that the songs were indicative of his group mindset. Barzelay reformed Clem Snide and completed work on the band’s sixth album, last year’s wonderfully warped Hungry Bird, which garnered the kind of reception that greeted the early Clem Snide releases.

The interesting thing about the latest Clem Snide album, The Meat of Life, is the way that Barzelay and this new iteration of the band (bassist/keyboardist Brendan Fitzpatrick, drummer Ben Martin and a host of instrumental guests) have channeled not only the earliest rootsy Folk/Chamber Pop spirit of the band (the ethereal yet powerful Your Favorite Music and The Ghost of Fashion, particularly) but have even drawn on the visceral undocumented Punk roots that spawned the band in Boston in the early ’90s. “Walmart Parking Lot,” “Denise” and “BFF” all vibrate with an energy that suggests a hybrid of Violent Femmes and Sebadoh, while the title track lopes and kicks with the verve and restraint of the late Chris Whitley at his electric best.

Of course, it all comes out classic Clem Snide, and Barzelay is at his unmistakable lyrical and musical best on The Meat of Life; “I Got High” is a mournful delight, like Nick Drake if he’d been more angry than sad and had a hotter band (“With hearts too young to euthanize/ And hungry pounding bloodshot eyes/ Like censored porn we compromise on what to watch”), while “Forgive Me Love” sounds like it could have been lifted from a Bob Welch-era Fleetwood Mac album.

With The Meat of Life, Barzelay reasserts himself in the group atmosphere of Clem Snide and comes up with an album that stands with the best of an already impressive catalog.

Back in the early ’80s, I was working at Bogart’s in a variety of capacities, one of which was to research artists who were offered to the club in an effort to gauge what kind of media support we might get and how many tickets we might expect to sell. An agent called us about Joan Armatrading, and I went through the research motions but I didn’t really have to. She wanted an asswad of money for a guarantee, and we would have had to sell out just to break even at the door. And I knew that, in this market, there was no way we could get 1,000 people in the door to see Joan Armatrading. As much as I loved her (and it was a lot, I’m telling you), it broke my heart to tell Al to not pursue that show.

Fast forward a year and a half: My wife and I are honeymooning for a month in Europe. As we travel the length of Italy, we keep seeing posters for Joan Armatrading’s current tour. Each time we see one, she’s either just been there or she’ll be there days after we’re slated to leave; in Florence, it’s the latter situation, but fate takes a hand.

I am suddenly afflicted with an absolutely horrible flu, confined to bed with uncontrollable chills, deliriously high fever and more than the standard outpouring of bodily fluids. As a result, we are sidelined for three days in Florence, meaning that our departure has been delayed enough that we now have the opportunity to see Joan. We go to a small record store and buy tickets, and the clerk gives us bus instructions on how to get to the venue that evening.

My Cincinnati mindset tells me that we’re heading to some small, smoky club with a couple hundred other Joan fans, but the bus drops us off in front of a huge domed sports arena amidst a throng of well over 10,000 people. I finally hear enough Italians say “Joan” to realize that they're all here for the same thing as us: Armatrading. She, the band and the set list are all spectacular, and I feel blessed that we’ve gotten the chance to see Joan in a place that clearly loves her as much as I do.

The memory of that night comes flooding back in the opening moments of Steppin’ Out, Eagle Rock’s new DVD release of Armatrading’s 1980 appearance on the German television music series Rockpalast, shot in front of an ecstatic audience at Essen’s famed Grugahalle. Although the DVD shares a title with Armatrading’s 1979 live album, they're distinctly separate entities. Armatrading utilized the majority of the ’79 band on her ’80 tour (including former Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward, guitarist Rick Hirsh, bassist Bill Bodine and saxophonist Lon Price), but the set list was decidedly different as she was out supporting the just-released My Myself I when she appeared on Rockpalast. (I would interject here that German television devoted over an hour to Armatrading in 1980; in the U.S., her TV time was limited to single song slots like her pre-recorded, lip sync job on David Letterman’s virtually unwatched daytime show.)

My Myself I showed a poppier, more electric side of Armatrading’s well established soulful Folk/Rock persona, but she only briefly touched on the album in her Rockpalast set, preferring to showcase the songs from her early albums that she'd transformed into live classics (“Mama Mercy,” “Down to Zero,” “Love and Affection,” “Kissin’ and a Huggin’,” “Willow”). Surprisingly, she also performed nearly all of the powerful and largely unheard How Cruel EP, including the gorgeous tempted-to-stray ballad “I Really Must Be Going” and the propulsive title track, where Armatrading peels off a sweet guitar solo. It’s a typically great Armatrading show, although the newness of the Me Myself I material was obvious side-by-side with the more seasoned live versions of the earlier songs.

The only bonus feature on Steppin’ Out is the accompanying interview that was done for Rockpalast, which is stocked with sort of perfunctory non-questions (“How did you like New York?”) and oddly paced, as the host asks questions in English and then translates for the German audience. Still, it’s nice to see Armatrading in this forum since it happened so infrequently, if ever, here in the U.S.

Armatrading went on to become a huge star in Europe after this tour while remaining primarily a cultish artist in the U.S., a situation that hasn’t changed substantially in the past 30 years (she has a new album coming at the end of next month, and, yes, it will be reviewed here). The measure of her greatness is that she invested every show with the same infectious passion and understated power because she knew beyond a doubt that her audience, regardless of size, was a reflection of her own conviction. Steppin’ Out is the beautiful proof.



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