(EDITOR'S NOTE: Because it's so good, we've decided to spread around the music reviews from our Brian Baker's regular I Shall Be Released column, so keep a look out for regular reviews of recent releases throughout the week. Brian's reviews of older titles released in the past several months that readers may have missed will be its own separate blog feature now, BackBlog. Welcome to the first installment.)
Last year, Gaslight Anthem frontman Brian Fallon and longtime cohort/GA guitar tech Ian Perkins translated their old school habit of enlightening each other to new and different music into a new and different side project which they dubbed The Horrible Crowes. Looking to explore completely unique aspects of their sonic identity, Fallon and Perkins dug into fairly esoteric sections of their record collections to find the inspirations and influences that sparked their creative cores on Elsie, their debut Horrible Crowes release.
Although Fallon is the first to admit his devotion to Bruce Springsteen and his desire to translate the Boss’ epic populist Rock into a punkier context with Gaslight Anthem, one of his avowed second line influences isTthe Afghan Whigs. It is that twisted soul mutation that informs the dark, mysterious core of the Horrible Crowes, from the quiet dread of “Last Rites” to the seductive Greg Dulli croon of “Sugar” to the soft Whigsian explosion of “Go Tell Everybody.” There are other melancholy textures on Elsie, as well; shades of Nick Cave and Tom Waits tint the backgrounds (“Go Tell Everybody,” “Mary Ann,” “Cherry Blossoms”) and the hushed tumult of the National and Paul Westerberg bubbles up through the mix (“Cherry Blossoms,” “Ladykiller,” “Blood Loss”), while Fallon’s lyrics paint a somber scene. There are even slight returns to Fallon’s Springsteen altar (“Behold the Hurricane,” “Crush”) but even when he and Perkins lean toward Gaslight Anthem territory, they work to maintain a clear distance between GA and the Crowes.
Like Dulli, Fallon can go from a tortured whisper to a visceral shriek in a matter of seconds, and his and Perkins’ guitar work and arrangements mirror that ability on the music side. In some ways, the Horrible Crowes’ Elsie is like Fallon’s take on Nebraska, a stripped back testament that’s too dark to take out with any frequency but is just right for an occasional cathartic howl.
Amber Nash and Jordan Neff met at an Oktoberfest party four years ago and within weeks were personally involved and professionally linked in a ukelele-centric Folk/Bluegrass duo that they dubbed Shiny and the Spoon (which one is Shiny and which is the Spoon has long been a matter of debate, and one gets the impression it’s a shifting definition between the two). For a spell, both Nash and Neff were roll-called as members of Magnolia Mountain, but they broke ranks last year to concentrate on SATS and the most immediate result of that increase in time and energy is Ferris Wheel, the duo’s debut full-length.
At first blush, Nash and Neff seem like a standard issue Folk duo, but SATS is far from typical. “Snowflake,” the lead-off track on Ferris Wheel, is a good example of what sets them apart. Although a strummed acoustic guitar intro and lightly touched upright bass suggest a familiar structure, Nash’s tremulous upper register vocal is more reminiscent of ’60s AM radio Pop chicks and contemporary Indie Folk/Rock chanteuses. But the pair quickly slides into a swirling atmospheric soundscape and “Snowflake” begins to breathe with a compelling and melancholy sigh that transcends their chosen genre.
Of course, not every song on Ferris Wheel follows this template, but it stakes a sonic claim that exponentially expands Shiny and the Spoon’s parameters. It happens again at Ferris Wheel’s midpoint when Nash and Neff offer their spectacular Indie Folk version of a-ha’s Synth Pop hit “Take On Me,” and continues on “Run,” which mixes Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and a mariachi interlude. On “Killin’ the Flower,” Nash croons with the traditional modernism of k.d. lang while the pair constructs a Country soundtrack that swings its legs from Charlie Rich’s piano bench, while the title track glitters subtly as panned gold with an electric undercurrent to accompany the moody Folk/Pop that floats just above the counterpoint.
Ferris Wheel is a magnificent benchmark for Shiny and the Spoon, establishing the duo as acolytes of the dusty past and visionaries of a bright future.
Lana Del Rey’s often somnambulist performance on Saturday Night Live recently was her introduction to most of the country and if the bloggers and commentators are to be believed, it was a poor first impression to say the least. Del Rey has become a lightning rod for criticism and Born to Die, her quasi-debut album (she released an album in 2010 under her given name, Lizzy Grant) has been unflatteringly painted with an equally broad brush as a result.
Del Rey has been denigrated as a passionless huckster in a lot of reviews that cite her less than dynamic SNL performance and that’s a shame because Born to Die is a slinky Indie Electro Lounge exercise in sonic seduction.
Musically, Del Rey offers jazzy melodies that pulse with an Indie Rock edge and girl group snap, underscored by sampled orchestrations, beatbox rhythms and Tom Waitsian tool-shed atmospherics, while her vocal presence is a suggestive approximation of Kate Bush’s kooky swoop, Julee Cruise’s sultry whisper, Cyndi Lauper’s babydoll chirp and Marianne Faithfull’s youthful rasp.
She has referred to herself as a “gangsta Nancy Sinatra,” which seems like a fair assessment. Sonically, there is a hypnotic continuity of tempo on Born to Die, a turn-off to some but an interesting counterpoint to the diversity of Del Rey’s song subjects, from the disturbing sexual dysfunction of “Off to the Races” and the hymnal Pop of “Video Games” to the Britney Spears thump and bump of “National Anthem” and the gauzy Angelo Badalamenti/Lee Hazelwood/Neptunes lost love moan of “Blue Jeans.”
Del Rey might not have been ready for SNL’s prime time performance but Born to Die is clear evidence that she is most assuredly a musical force to be reckoned with going forward, regardless of the haters’ poisonous opinions to the contrary.
Click on for reviews of releases by Hank III, Lindsey Buckingham and Mike Doughty.
Free at last, free at last, thanks God almighty, he is free at last. After years of indentured servitude to Mike Curb — a period that saw III hawking Fuck Curb T-shirts at his shows and encouraging fans to download his albums for free — Hank III has finally shed his contractual obligations to the man and label that reined in his diversity and vision over the past decade. In other words, III is now legally doing all the things that he’s done for years in middle-finger defiance of his Curb contract.
As usual, III isn’t doing things halfway as he celebrates the end of his Curb sentence; his first act of self-reliance is to release four albums simultaneously, a foursome that accurately showcases his amazing range, from the sludgy Doom Metal of Attention Deficit Domination to the howling mad metallic twangcore of 3 Bar Ranch Cattle Callin’ to the mixed bag of the double release of Ghost to a Ghost and Gutter Town.
The latter is an impressive artistic achievement and an ambitious conceptual work — featuring guest appearances from Primus’ Les Claypool and Tom Waits — but unlikely to appeal to straight Country fans, which is a shame since III is one of the few contemporary Country who understands both the genre’s past heritage and future potential. And although there are clearly moments on Ghost to a Ghost when III takes broad liberties within the context of the genre, for the most part it is the most traditional Country work in his expansive catalog, from the high-stepping Honky Tonk of “Gutter Town” (featuring III’s typical lyrical honesty; “Looking high and looking low, I guess I’m one of those lost souls who just don’t fit in no more”) to the Outlaw Country Rock of “Day by Day” to the shimmery Skynyrd/Marshall Tucker balladry of “The Devil’s Movin’ In.”
At the same time, III pushes the Country envelope with the blistering gypsy country prog of “Riding the Wave,” the foul-mouthed but totally spot-on “Don’t Ya Wanna,” the snake-charming cantina Rock of “Time to Die” and the sonic style collage of the title track. It may not be every Country fan’s cup of mescaline-laced tea but Ghost to a Ghost is a potent shot of Hank III’s boundless musical ambition and a mere hint at where he’s headed next.
There have been many Lindsey Buckinghams, none of them being the frequent guest on DeAndre Cole’s What Up with That. There’s the Buckingham who teamed with girlfriend Stevie Nicks on their ill-fated 1973 album, and the Buckingham who joined Fleetwood Mac in 1974, bringing Nicks along in the deal and transforming the British Blues-to-Pop outfit into a commercial juggernaut. There’s the Buckingham whose break-up with Nicks fueled the creative engine that drove 1977’s Rumours to platinum numbers, the Buckingham whose perfectionism and substance binges colored the schizophrenically wonderful Tusk, the Buckingham who left Fleetwood Mac, the one who came back and all the Buckinghams who have maintained a potent presence in the band ever since.
Then there are the solo Buckinghams, the early ones on the Fleetwoodiesque Law and Order and Go Insane and the introspective and vindictive Out of the Cradle, and the later ones from the husband and father; the acoustic Under the Skin, the long-delayed Gift of Screws and the new, self-released Seeds We Sow.
Untethered by label expectation and commercial demands, Buckingham is free to meander around his creative garden and pick whatever looks good in the moment and, as always, he has plenty of ripe choices. He exhibits his graceful acoustic fingerpicking dexterity on the title track and “Stars Are Crazy,” leans hard into Fleetwood Mac’s banked Pop/Rock turn on the beautifully intense “Illumination,” “In Our Own Time” and “One Take” and matches (and transcends) his own best work with the effervescent “Rock Away Blind,” the gorgeous Pop ode “Gone Too Far,” the majestic balladry of “When She Comes Down” and the hybridized Pop-lull-to-Rock-tumult of “That’s the Way Love Goes.”
Buckingham wasn’t even planning to create an album when he began the songs for Seeds We Sow, and that unplanned mindset translates to a relaxed atmosphere across the album’s eleven tracks. Just as importantly, Buckingham wrote and performed everything on Seeds We Sow, working quickly and unhampered by his notorious streak of perfectionism. As a result, Seeds We Sow stands as the pinnacle of Buckingham’s musical accomplishments because he was free to draw on the spark and spirit of all of the creative elements that have defined him over the past three and a half decades. All of the Buckinghams have been brilliantly erratic songwriters, stellar harmony vocalists and supernaturally gifted guitarists, and they all bring an interesting shade of eccentric genius to whatever they do. They’re all the same and all incredibly unique and all of them seem to have contributed a little something to Seeds We Sow. What up with that indeed.
Mike Doughty has traveled a fascinating path since exiting the exquisitely unique Soul Coughing in 2000. His tenure in that well-regarded and cultily adored outfit was fraught with unbearable tensions and recriminations (a quick review of Doughty’s revealing new memoir, The Book of Drugs, follows below) and as a result, the syncopated singer/songwriter has steered his tunesmithery in a decidedly solo acoustic direction to avoid bandmates and a possible recurrence of his previous band issues. Doughty recorded his debut solo CD, Skittish, while Soul Coughing was still just barely together, and he spent close to three years touring it, alone on stage with an acoustic guitar, after the band’s demise.
On his subsequent studio albums, Doughty has assembled great players to assist him in creating a catalog every bit as cool as you would expect from a guy that wrote the lyrics to brilliant musical constructions like “Screenwriter’s Blues” and “Super Bon Bon.” He finally overcame his band trepidation and put together and actual group to record and tour, but he still finds a certain appeal in a stripped down live atmosphere, an appeal that manifests itself on Doughty’s first official live album, a double disc affair aptly titled The Question Jar Show.
In 2009, Doughty and longtime upright bassist Andrew “Scrap” Livingston embarked on an extensive road trip, with Doughty doing his typically atypical solo acoustic gig and Scrap accompanying on cello, bass and guitar, their sets punctuated by answering questions submitted by the audience ahead of time, hence the name of the tour and now the album. In between perennial favorites like “Looking at the World from the Bottom of a Well” and “Busting Up a Starbucks,” and new classics like “You Should Be Doubly Gratified” and “I Keep On Rising Up,” Doughty and Scrap field burning inquiries like “Can you name 27 Jennifers, first and last name?” (after getting through seven with help from the crowd, Doughty answers, “So the answer is no, it’s no”) and “Have you ever re-read your Twitter page and thought, ‘What the fuck?’ ” (“Yes I have, believe me … killing time on the internet, not so fun to read afterwards”).
The Question Jar Show is a great tour souvenir (Doughty is currently on a similarly structured circuit which includes readings from The Book of Drugs) and a showcase of everything that Doughty does so well; pithy and pissy pop culture observations, beautiful and ridiculously insightful commentary on the state of the heart and brilliant wordplay set to simply yet hypnotically rhythmed soundtracks.
And speaking of Soul Coughing and drugs, don’t do either. That’s pretty much the message of Doughty’s memoir, The Book of Drugs. For those of us who were completely smitten with Indie Rock/Hip Pop aggregation back in the mid-’90s, it’s tough to read Doughty’s recollections of the band’s brief history, given his shabby treatment at the hands of his bandmates, who allegedly gave him shit for the division of royalties, blamed him for the way the label presented him in the context of the band and treated his increasingly voracious drug habit with the dismissive opinion that he was attempting to make himself seem more interesting.
Clearly, there are more than two sides to every band story, but Doughty makes a thoughtful case for his version, and it’s equally obvious the wounds haven’t fully healed over a decade after Soul Coughing’s demise; there are scant few songs from the band’s catalog that he’ll play, he doesn’t like talking about the band with fans after his solo dates and throughout the course of The Book of Drugs, he never refers to his three Soul Coughing cohorts by name, only as the bass player, the sampler player and the drummer. Doughty recounts his impressively numerous sexual exploits without the kind of dick-waving braggadocio that often accompanies such tales and his copious drug consumption and subsequent hard fought sobriety are each recalled without the soap opera drama and disingenuous after-school-special reflection of similarly redemptive narratives.
Doughty is a compact writer, a wildly hilarious raconteur and a fairly insightful memoirist, making The Book of Drugs a fast, funny and casually poignant read.