Tribute albums are typically divided into three categories. They’re either a) bankable artists covering high profile subjects (or, infrequently, famously known cult figures); b) cool/respected artists covering cool/respected artists; or c) some weird hybrid of the first two.
Two recently released tributes fall squarely in the second category, with Avett Brothers frontman Seth Avett and rising Americana/Rock vocalist Jessica Lea Mayfield taking a quietly beautiful stroll through a sampling of Elliott Smith's exquisite catalog on Sing Elliott Smith, and Frames frontman and solo artist in his own right Glen Hansard honoring his great hero and friend Jason Molina on It Was Triumph We Once Proposed: Songs of Jason Molina, which was available last month.
There are odd connections between the two projects. In the general point of interest sense, both are posthumous tributes. Smith died in 2003, apparently by his own hand, and Molina succumbed in 2013 after a long battle with alcoholism. And on a more personal level, by the sheerest of coincidences, I've interviewed both of the subjects of these two tributes.
Back in 2000, I spoke with Smith while he was still touring on Figure 8, which had come out earlier that year. And in 2003, I was assigned a feature on Songs: Ohia, fronted and braintrusted by Molina, who had just finished an album he titled The Magnolia Electric Co., which marked the end of Songs: Ohia and the shift to the band named after his new album. Both were fascinating and heartfelt conversations with artists who were amazingly self aware but not at all self absorbed, quietly brilliant songwriters who had an almost pathological need to extract their musical impulses from the dark well of their ultimately troubled souls.
Hansard — who came to prominence as the voice, guitarist and primary songwriter for Irish Rock band The Frames before establishing a side project (Swell Season) and solo career and hitting semi-big with the movie Once and his soundtrack, featuring the Academy Award-winning hit "Falling Slowly" — was so inspired by Molina's deeply emotional and confessional songcraft that the first fan letter he ever sent to a fellow artist was to Molina. Back in 2005, two years after I'd interviewed Molina, I had the rare opportunity to witness the pair's personal and professional bond firsthand.
At my second South by Southwest experience, I followed former The Onion music editor Stephen Thompson to see a Frames appearance at one of Austin's innumerable daytime parties. Stephen was a huge Frames fan and the band knew him well; he had done enough to help expose the band to American audiences that they thanked him in the liner notes to Burn the Maps.
When we arrived at the venue, the band members were wandering through the crowd just prior to their set and Stephen made a beeline for them. He introduced me to The Frames, but there was a dark, diminutive and somewhat familiar presence in the circle who was clearly with the band but not as a member. Glen Hansard spoke up, in his pudding thick Irish brogue, and said, "This is Jason Molina."
I shook his hand and reminded him of our phone conversation and the Rockpile feature two years previous. He greeted me warmly and we talked about what we'd seen at the festival to that point and what we hoped to see going forward. We spent a good 10 minutes in this convivial manner, right up until The Frames took the stage and were announced. After that, his unwavering focus was on the band; he watched and listened as though he was occupying the front pew in church during a sermon he knew for an absolute fact would change his life for the better. He stood in rapt attention, soaking in every word, every note and every nuance and with good reason — The Frames were a mesmerizing live force back then.
At the set's conclusion, Molina immediately swiveled toward me and we exchanged jaw-dropped exclamations of disbelief. Within a few minutes, Hansard made his way to Molina's side and the two began critiquing the performance, Hansard pointing out the flaws and Molina categorically dismissing them. I laughingly thought to myself as I headed to the door and the next party, I'll bet their roles will be diametrically reversed when Magnolia Electric Co., the band that Songs: Ohia had morphed into, plays later this week and Hansard is the fan in the front row. It reminded me of something Molina had said regarding the fact that he was already thinking past the album he had just finished.
"I can do better," he said without hesitation. "My next one, I'm already sweating it. Since the day I walked out of the studio, I've been working on the next one. I don't feel like this one failed, but I'm still looking for the better one."
I thought about Hansard's face as it must have looked while he watched Molina's appearance in Austin, Texas, a decade ago, and imagined the sadder but equally beatific visage he must have exhibited in the studio as he was translating the five tracks that comprise It Was Triumph We Once Proposed. This brief and beautifully executed EP serves a similar purpose as Hansard's distant but never forgotten fan letter, as he pays loving tribute to his long personal friendship with Molina and to the work that first illuminated his immense talents to the world.
Hansard assembled a group of longtime Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. collaborators/friends to record a heartbreaking quintet of Molina compositions, all Songs: Ohia tracks and all lending themselves perfectly to Hansard's passionate and sensitively wrought translation. Molina often worked at the creative intersection of Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, and Hansard taps into that shivery vibe with a true fan's boundless devotion and a true friend's immeasurable grief. On the one-two punch of the powerfully poignant "Being in Love" and the achingly beautiful "Hold On, Magnolia," Hansard illuminates the raw, wrenching wisdom of lines like, ”We are proof that the heart is a risky fuel to burn," and the prescient "You might be holding the last light I see before the dark finally gets ahold of me." And just like Molina's life and amazing musical output, Hansard's It Was Triumph We Once Proposed is both immensely satisfying and far too short.
The other contender for Most Amazing and Deserved Tribute of the Year is Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield's Sing Elliott Smith, a (relatively) spare and loving bow to one of this generation's most insightful and contemplative songwriters. After his shredding turn with Portland’s Heatmiser, Smith turned down the volume for his home-recorded solo debut, Roman Candle, which was followed by his equally nuanced eponymous sophomore album and then the jewel in his crown, 1998's Either/Or, which director Gus Van Zant cherry-picked for his soundtrack to his masterpiece Good Will Hunting. Smith scored an Academy Award nomination for his song "Miss Misery," and the success of the soundtrack and his almost uncomfortably vulnerable performance at the Oscars vaulted him into a spotlight that he never actively pursued.
By the time of our 2000 interview, Smith had managed to come to uneasy terms with the maelstrom of fame that resulted from Good Will Hunting and Either/Or's tangential success. It had required him to think about his work in pedestrian ways, to explain it in a fashion that would be understandable to people with little understanding.
But through it all, Smith remained true to his own process, trusting that, regardless of outside opinions, expectations or interests, he continued to create the kind of music he wanted to hear in the manner that he wanted to create it. And he knew that, no matter how much anyone involved in his career wanted him to pull Either/Or 2 out of his magician's hat, the only thing that would truly satisfy his artistic nature would be to create what came out of him organically, without being conjured or forced.
"I don't think it was on my mind," Smith said about making the Beatlesque Figure 8 in the wake of major-label debut XO, Either/Or and Good Will Hunting. "I was just making up songs the way I always do. I mean, it was never going to sell millions of copies, so there wasn't that kind of pressure."
That may well be why Sing Elliott Smith is so incredibly successful as a tribute. Smith's songbook is among the most revered in contemporary music and the acclaim that has been lavished on Avett and Mayfield since their debuts is both effusive and deserved. Given all that, there's little risk involved at any level of this project.
The blending of the two principals' voices was the only unknown and that particular question mark is definitely straightened into a boldface exclamation point with Avett and Mayfield's brilliant opening duet on Either/Or's "Between the Bars." Avett's stylistic path from Punk provocateur to rootsy Americana troubadour to genre melding alchemist is a pretty fair match to Smith's own journey, and Mayfield's weary optimism lines up well with Smith's gloomy hopefulness. Together, Avett and Mayfield are the perfect translators for Smith's hushed (and not so hushed) odes to the anguish and bittersweet joy of love and modern life and they coalesce almost effortlessly on brilliant lines like, "Nothing's gonna drag me down/To a death that's not worth cheating."
It's moments like that one from "Baby Britain" that make Sing Elliott Smith resonate so clearly from start to finish. It's particularly poignant when Mayfield takes the lead on "A Fond Farewell" — from the album Smith was working on at the time of his death, released posthumously as From a Basement on the Hill — and she sings words that seem so startlingly prescient coming so close to Smith's sad end; "A little less than a happy heart/A little less than a suicide/The only thing that you really tried/This is not my life, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/It's not what I'm like, it's just a fond farewell to a friend/Who couldn't get things right."
Avett and Mayfield offer a broad core sample of Smith's amazing catalog (only 1995's self-titled sophomore album isn't represented), and the pair's affinity for and love of their subject's work is evident in every trembling note and emotional lyric. At almost 37 minutes, Sing Elliott Smith is a full album but it feels impossibly short and is over well before the listener is ready for it to be done. If ever there was a release that warranted the often-dreaded subtitle of Volume 2, it would be Sing Elliott Smith.
It seems only proper that the final words in this piece should be reserved for the subjects of these two tributes. First, an interesting comment from Jason Molina about his songwriting process led to a philosophical statement about his musical belief system.
"I almost write the music at the same time I'm trying to think of who could best put this onto tape, and that goes right down to the engineer," he noted. "Maybe it's a cowardly way to work because I don't take all of the burden onto myself, but ego should never be part of the music."
And finally, Elliott Smith addressed the media's tendency to label him as "melancholy," which morphed into an explanation of the simple reality that labels have tried to manipulate and contradict throughout their long and checkered histories.
"As soon as someone calls you a songwriter, you automatically get the melancholy tag," Smith admitted. “Also, 'Why aren't you playing dance music?' and 'Why are your songs so sad?' They're just clichés. If it wasn't those, it would be different ones. You can't always expect people to relate. There are all kinds of people, and some people understand each other and some people don't. NSYNC sells nine million records, so there's nine million people that can relate, and I'm not one of them. So even if you sell millions and millions of albums, there's always going to be somebody who doesn't get it. If you want to be creative and do what you do, it's going to be kind of idiosyncratic."
Long live the idiosyncratic artist, and the memories of those who left us way before their creative dreams were fulfilled.
On Tuesday, March 17, Cincinnati duo Bad Veins will see its latest album, The Mess Remade, released nationally. The 13-track effort isn't an entirely "new" album, but a re-recorded/remastered version of Bad Veins' sophomore full-length, The Mess We've Made, which came out in 2012 on the Modern Outsider label. The record — which features new cover art, as well — comes after some big changes in lead Vein Benjamin Davis' band — the departure of original drummer Sebastien Schultz (who now plays with local Indie Pop group Multimagic), the addition of new drummer Jake Bonta and a new label home, the third nationally-distributed label in Bad Veins' lifespan (its self-titled debut was released on Dangerbird Records).
The Mess Remade is being released on the Dynamite Music imprint, a new company founded by Marco Liuzzo and Mitch Davis (son of music biz legend Clive Davis). The label is partnered with Caroline, which is part of Capitol Records and Universal Music Distribution. Bad Veins are the company's second announced signees, following Pop singer Ryan Cabrera.
The Mess Remade includes two new tracks, "I Shut My Heart Down" and a cover of The Muppets' classic "Rainbow Connection" (Davis performed the song solo to open the 2013 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards ceremony). The early release of "Rainbow Connection" in January and last month's puppet-filled music video release (premiered at The AV Club) caught some buzz online. The album also features a shorter "radio edit" of the leadoff track "Kindness," as well as the original 5-minutes-plus version.
Here is a video clip for the new "Kindness":
And here's the "Rainbow Connection" clip:
Noisetrade.com has a four-track sampler of Remade available here if you can't wait a week.
Find more about Bad Veins here.
MusicNOW, the popular new music festival founded by Cincinnatian Bryce Dessner of internationally acclaimed Indie Rock band The National, will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year when the fest returns March 11-15 at Music Hall, Memorial Hall and first-time venue Woodward Theatre.
On March 10, the Over-the-Rhine fest will be celebrated with the digital release of a compilation album featuring musical highlights from MusicNOW’s first nine years. MusicNOW- 10 Years will feature previously unreleased performances by Dirty Projectors, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Grizzly Bear, My Brightest Diamond and others.
The album’s “Trials, Troubles, Tribulations” by Sounds of the South, a project featuring Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, Megafaun, Matthew E. White and Fight the Big Bull, was recently released as a preview.
“The first track ‘Trials, Troubles, Tribulations’ gets at the spirit of the compilation and the event. It is an American bluegrass gospel song written by Estil C. Ball. Here it is performed by Sounds of the South, a project featuring Justin Vernon (Bon Iver, Volcano Choir), Sharon Van Etten, Megafaun, Matthew E. White, and Fight the Big Bull. The project, organized by Megafaun, initially appeared at Duke Performances in North Carolina and MusicNOW in Cincinnati, Ohio, and subsequently traveled to Sydney Festival in Australia.”
In the press release for the album, Dessner says, ““Many of my most significant memories as a musician have taken place in Cincinnati during the MusicNOW Festival over the last 10 years. When we started, we were driven to create an intimate music festival that was as much a creative refuge for the artists as it is for the audience to partake in intimate and rare performances. We have celebrated works in progress and new commissions, new collaborations and detailed music of all kinds regardless of genre or popularity."
This year’s MusicNOW festival features appearances by Stevens, Nico Muhly, So Percussion, Timo Andres, concert:nova with Jeff Zeigler, Cloud Nothings, Will Butler and more. The National will also perform at the festival on March 13 at Music Hall with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Click here for full details and ticket info.
Sounds of the South "Trials, Troubles, Tribulations"
Robin Pecknold "Silver Dagger"
Sufjan Stevens "The Owl & The Tanager"
eighth blackbird "Omie Wise"
My Brightest Diamond "I Have Never Loved Someone"
Dirty Projectors "Emblem Of The World"
Tinariwen "Imidiwan Ma Tenam"
Tim Hecker "Chimeras (Live) 2011"
Colin Stetson "Nobu Take"
Owen Pallett "E Is For Estranged"
Erik Friedlander "Airstream Envy"
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy "Love Comes to Me"
Grizzly Bear "While You Wait For The Others"
The Books with Clogs "Classy Penguin"
Andrew Bird "Section 8 City"
Justin Vernon "Love More"
One of Cincinnati finest Hip Hop artists, Buggs Tha Rocka, is making his new album, Scattered Thoughts of an American Poet, available for free starting today on various outlets across the internet (it’s already generated fairly widespread buzz, including write-ups from the U.K. and France).
Buggs recently spoke with CityBeat’s Brian Baker (who called the new LP a “masterpiece”) about the new release (which features guest spots from Donte from MOOD, Moxy Monster, Tanya Morgan, Aida Chakra and Cool Kids’ Chuck Inglish among others) and his progress in the Hip Hop world.
“The type of Hip Hop I do has always focused on technicality and emotion,” Buggs said. “I take pride in being a wordsmith. That’s where the ‘American poet’ came from. And ‘scattered thoughts’ is really what it is. It’s everything I’ve been through, things I’m seeing in the news, a little bit of everything. My ups, my downs, my life in one CD. Instead of putting on a facade and an image, it’s really organic and natural.”
You can read Baker’s full interview with Buggs here.
Buggs is hosting an intimate release party/performance this Friday at Over-the-Rhine club Maudie’s. Showtime is 9 p.m., admission is $7 ($5 in advance here) and Buggs will be joined by MOOD’s Donte (and probably other guests?) at the show.
Buggs has unveiled several videos (made in conjunction with Alvin Jordan and others) for various tracks from the album leading up to the release. Here’s a clip for “Angel of Death” featuring Piakhan:
Here’s the clip for “Bad Habits”:
Here’s Buggs and Pappadon in the clip for “OuterXSpaceXLove”:
Here’s “Rapture” featuring Phoenix Aphrodite:
This is the clip for “My$tery”:
And here is the newest clip, for the track “Religiously,” which was released today:
Visit Buggs’ official site here for the latest info and to download the album. You can also click below to check out and grab a copy of Scattered Thoughts of an American Poet.
In early September, Cincinnati major-label act Walk the Moon had its new single, “Shut Up and Dance,” released by RCA Records. The song — which the band performed on Late Night with Seth Myers on Sept. 15 — is slated for inclusion on the band’s next full-length for RCA, the group’s second for the label. The new album is due for release later this year.
Today, the “Shut Up and Dance” video was made public. In the press materials for the new clip, frontman Nicholas Petricca says, “Influenced by the plot-driven music videos of the 80s and nerdy visuals of 90s television, our new video for Shut Up and Dance is a trippy story of dork victory. We are the proud mothers and co-directors of this weird throwbacky fantasy, alongside the brilliantly funny Josh Forbes.” There’s also an awesomely awkward dance break from Petricca in the clip.
Walk the Moon is currently doing a national tour (with fellow Cincinntians Public opening several dates) that has largely sold out; an announcement of a more extensive spring tour in support of the new album is due in the coming weeks.
Check out Mashable’s piece on the new video, in which Petricca picks his favorite ’80s music videos here.
The Cincinnati Dronescape recording project stemmed from an idea forged by local resident Isaac Hand over the summer. Hand and a friend went around town recording sounds that they felt were “quintessentially Cincinnati.” The found sounds, Hand says, included “the sound of the Western Hills Viaduct, the train yards, the hum of the (University of Cincinnati Medical Center), the Moerlein Brewery” and other location-specific noises.
They then distributed the sounds to various musicians, who mixed them into their own unique compositions.
The results are featured on the mesmerizing and creative Cincinnati Dronescape album, which, along with Cincinnati Drones (an album featuring the original source-material soundscapes), is available to stream and download via cincinnatidronescape.bandcamp.com (see below; hard copies can also be found in local-music friendly record retailers in the area). The sonic adventurers featured on the album include ADM, umin, Molly Sullivan, Jarrod Welling-Cann, Zijnzijn Zijnzijn and several others.
This Saturday at 7 p.m., the project participants will gather in the West End at the intersection of Gest and Summer streets (near Union Terminal) and play Cincinnati Dronescape from several cars simultaneously. Copies of the CD will also be available for purchase at the listening party event. For more information on the project and listening party, click here.
Cincinnati Pop Rock quartet Mixtapes formed about four years ago and immediately hit the road with a relentless dedication. The band’s hard work paid off and it has experienced great success, building a dedicated fan base across the country with great live shows and hook-drenched, nationally-released albums and singles.
As anyone who has seen Mixtapes live knows, the band’s shows are adrenalized, sweaty fun and their music, while growing more mature and diverse with each release, is sheer fist-pumping, singalong joyfulness.
Frontman Ryan Rockwell was living the dream. But somewhere along the way, his life became more like a nightmare. The fact that Mixtapes’ launch coincided with the death of his father certainly played a part in Rockwell’s difficulties. Though details are vague, according to a press release, Rockwell “started to watch himself deteriorate and become the type of person he hated the most. He tried things he never thought he would and got dangerously close to not making it out.”
"I had never felt more alone," Rockwell says in the release. "Friends that I have had for years literally just stopped talking to me, stopped responding, a large number of them. I turned to the only thing I knew, and I started writing about it. I don't know who was wrong or who was right, but I know how much it hurt and people that I have helped and would do anything for left me when I needed help the most. Other people stepped up and saved me. I don't place blame though … I became a different person for awhile.
Rockwell was trying to understand what was going on in himself to make him so unhappy, but found it difficult to express. So he did what he does best and channeled his emotions into writing and recording songs. Working with friends Kamal Hiresh and Zach George and using the name Youth Culture, Rockwell hit the basement and created what would become the 10-track album, I Hate How Normal I’ve Become, an accomplished and eclectic collection of songs that, while still instantly catchy, possess much more darkness than Mixtapes’ jubilant Punk Pop.
Rockwell released the Youth Culture album late last month as a “pay-what-you-want” (yes, even if you want to pay nothing) download.
“This is an album for people going through things they don't like to talk about or know how to express,” Rockwell says. “We did it all ourselves and paid for it all ourselves. First and foremost, we want you to hear it — which is why it's free. If you like it enough, we'd very much appreciate a donation to recoup costs and eventually put it out on vinyl. But as always with everything I've done, I just want it to get out there, so thank you so much for taking the time to listen; there's a lot of bands out there, thanks for giving this a spin."
Listen to I Hate How Normal I’ve Become below, then click the player to grab your very own copy.
Fans worried that Youth Culture might signal the end of Mixtapes, fear not. The band is currently crisscrossing the United States on the massive Vans Warped Tour, which it'll be a part of until August. (The band is slated to appear at the Warped Tour’s Cincinnati stop on July 16 at Riverbend Music Center.)
Heavy Hinges is a new-ish band featuring some faces likely familiar to dedicated local music fans. Guitarist Jeremy Singer and drummer Brian Williamson have played in numerous groups over the past two decades, while singer/guitarist Dylan Speeg and bassist Andrew Laudeman were members of long-running, super-diverse Cincinnati crew Buckra. Maya Banatwala is the relative newcomer in the band, but her soul-drenched co-lead vocals in the Hinges serve as the group’s secret weapon.
Heavy Hinges debut album, Mean Old City, shows signs of some of Buckra’s trademark sonic diversity, but it’s channeled in a more focused manner. Ultimately, Heavy Hinges is a great Rock & Roll band, but its sound is touched by influences from Blues, Pop, Funk and Soul to various other forms of American Roots music. Like Alabama Shakes, Heavy Hinges manages to sound remarkably vital and “of the now” — despite the obvious vintage inspirations — thanks to the sincerity and vigor poured into each note. Mean Old City bristles with a timelessness that has less to do with the classic genres flirted with throughout and more to do with the from-the-heart songwriting and playing.
Here’s a music video for Mean Old City track “Booze May Be Your Lover, Not Your Friend”:
Speeg and Banatwala make for great co-frontpeople, crisscrossing their melodies and harmonies sometimes like X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe and other times like June and Johnny Cash, with each singer possessing a voice quite distinct from each other, yet still sounding like they were made for each other when they come together. Meanwhile, the rest of the band are flawless and perform with a similar soulfulness; Williamson and Laudeman are a jaw-droppingly great rhythm section, while Singer’s guitar leads and solos are as attention-grabbing as the singers’ powerful vocal one-two punch.
Heavy Hinges host a free release party for the new album Saturday at 10 p.m. at Northside Tavern with DAAP Girls. Read CityBeat's profile of Heavy Hinges from early this year when the band was nominated in the "Best New Artist" category at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards.
Local MC Puck has unleashed a great new track, “Weekend Warrior,” along with a solid accompanying music video (which includes a guest appearance from Cincy Hip Hop duo Those Guys). The young Hip Hop artist shows the positive effect and influence of Kanye West’s recent experimental work (and there’s even a Kanye nod in the background during the video). It’s a powerful listen/look:
Click here for more on Puck and below to download the new track for free:
You can catch Puck live on June 21 for free on Fountain Square as part of the "Beats by Self Diploma" concert series.
Cincinnati Alt Funk/Dance Rock quartet Founding Fathers have built a buzz locally over the past few years with their energized live shows and infectious, slanted grooves. The band has been hard at work lately in the studio, recording those grooves for a forthcoming full-length.
Earlier this year, Founding Fathers gave the public its first taste of the new recorded material in the form of a music video for the track “Stop, Drop and Roll.” The clip, directed by Bangout Films, mixes some cool live performance footage with woozy visuals that show a blurry, surrealistic night of barroom debauchery (including some creepy, hallucination-worthy dudes with smiley faces for heads). The video wonderfully matches the blustery, more rocking side of Founding Fathers’ sound, which also shows elements of avowed influences like LCD Soundsystem and Talking Heads. If you remember — and loved — Columbus, Ohio's Funk Punk greats Royal Crescent Mob, “Stop, Drop and Roll” should be right up your alley.
Founding Fathers performs a free show this Saturday night at MOTR Pub and fans in attendance will have a chance to hear even more of a preview of the forthcoming full-length. The band is offering up a special four-track EP/album preview to those in attendance. Saturday’s show starts at 10 p.m. Vito Emmanuel is also on the bill.
For more on Founding Fathers, click here.