(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.
There are concerts that are fun and there are concerts that kick your ass. If you were at the sold-out U.S. Bank Arena Friday night for the opening date of The Black Keys first headlining arena tour, you probably got your ass kicked.
First up, Arctic Monkeys caused a ruckus on the floor. Most (but not all) of the folks in the seats wandered around aimlessly or sat there, watching listlessly. There was certainly uproar in front of the stage, though. But as the English boys played, sang and sassed, the crowd in the arena filled in and loosened up. It helped that their lighting guys strobed the shit out of them, too. The seizure-inducing lights may have been Morse code for “Love Arctic Monkeys. Swoon over our accents.” If so, it worked. By the time Arctic Monkeys closed with “When the Sun Goes Down,” the crowd on the floor had nearly doubled and, at the very least, those in their seats were nodding their heads and smiling. Those boys put on a fun show.
After spending the entire intermission only getting halfway through the beer line, nearly everyone gave up and fled to their seats when The Black Keys began. Not that anyone sat, though — they were all too busy dancing and freaking out. Strictly speaking, The Black Keys may not be from Cincinnati but it’s safe to say we treat them like hometown boys, anyway. Dan Auerbach (singing/guitar) even recalled playing Southgate House a few years ago. Upstairs. In the small room.
From a titanic disco ball that lowered from the rafters (for only one song) to the graphics on the screens behind them, the show was far different from their days playing tiny rooms. With each beginning there was an outburst of recognition. The middles of songs gave way to dancing, flailing and air guitar (or drums) and each ending note was drowned out by thousands of shrieks, whistles and catcalls.
Two things were learned last night. First, if you have any doubt about the amount of noise that one guitar and a set of drums can make, go see The Black Keys. Their albums don’t do justice to the sheer volume Auerbach and Partrick Carney (drums) are capable of producing. Second, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard an entire arena try to whistle.
If you weren’t there, you missed the best kind of Friday night possible. If you were, you’re probably already making plans for the next time The Black Keys come to town.
In a discussion of lives spent making music, Ben Kweller’s name has to warrant a prominent mention. His father, a doctor who counted Nils Lofgren as a friend and former neighbor, taught Kweller how to play drums at age 8, which led to his first band, Radish, at 12, his first major label contract at 16, appearances on Conan O’Brien and David Letterman at 17 and the launch of his solo career at 19.
Since then, Kweller has released a quartet of acclaimed albums, collaborated with Ben Folds and Ben Lee (as The Bens, naturally) and Guster and toured with Evan Dando, Juliana Hatfield, Jeff Tweedy and Faith No More, among many others, a testament to Kweller’s musical adaptability and diverse appeal.
Kweller was talking about his fifth album, Go Fly a Kite, as long ago as fall 2010, describing it as nearly finished and ready to go. But a break from his longtime label, Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, caused Kweller to rethink Kite’s release date, pushing it close to a year beyond his original timing. Kweller must have used the time to set up his own label, Noise Company, because Go Fly a Kite sounds exactly as he outlined it a year and a half ago, namely a stripped down Power Pop/electric Folk hybrid that channels his early direction and perhaps signposts where he’s heading down the line.
Like Matthew Sweet or Fountains of Wayne, Kweller possesses an uncanny knack for setting relatively serious subjects to an infectiously catchy soundtrack. Kite is loaded with that bittersweet Pop ethic, particularly on simple but effective Pop/Rock fist pumpers like “Mean to Me” and the punchy “Justify Me.” Kweller’s early schooling in The Beatles and Hollies is woven into Kite’s 11 tracks, from the powerfully angsty “Jealous Girl” to the piano balladry and lilting orchestration of “The Rainbow,” but at the same time, he’s fully aware of his own creative identity and never gets lost in the forest of his influences.
Chuck Prophet has more Rock cred than any one man should have a right to claim. His eight-year run in Green on Red in the ’80s resulted in some of the most influential sounds to emanate from Southern California’s Paisley Underground scene and his subsequent solo catalog has notched an impressive level of critical acclaim over the past 22 years. In that time, the names he’s worked with — as collaborator, producer, hired gun, pal — reads like a who’s who of contemporary musical accomplishment: Warren Zevon, Aimee Mann, Jim Dickinson, Lucinda Williams, Jonathan Richman, Kelly Willis, Jules Shear, Alejandro Escovedo and a good many more lesser but no less important lights.
Prophet’s recent work has been some of his most viscerally satisfying, beginning with 2007’s wide-ranging Soap and Water, his 2008 collaboration with Escovedo on his Real Animal album, and Prophet’s 2009 political Rock statement, ¡Let Freedom Ring! For his latest solo jaunt, Temple Beautiful, Prophet maintained a healthy power level while injecting a concept into the proceedings, namely making every song on Temple Beautiful about his longtime San Francisco home.
The album springs to life with “Play That Song Again,” a bouncy slice of ’70s Pop/Rock, followed by “Castro Halloween,” an insistent Pop anthem with the ring of the casual greatness of George Harrison’s best solo work and the bluster it would have had if he’d ever installed Tom Petty behind the glass to produce it. The title track, a tribute to the Punk club that occupied the space once held by Jim Jones’ People’s Temple before they decamped to their infamous digs in Guyana, is a blaring blast of Rock and Soul that pounds like The Ramones on a couple of bottles of cough syrup and swings like T. Rex with more garage and less glam, “Willie Mays is Up at Bat” sounds like Warren Zevon channeling Bob Dylan circa “Watching the River Flow,” and “I Felt Like Jesus” swaggers and nods with Surf Rock reverb and Roots Rock twang.
Five years ago, Chuck Prophet was trying to decide if he had anything left to say in a musical context, but Temple Beautiful finds him eleven albums deep in his solo career and sounding as energized and inspired as he was when he dropped his debut back in 1990; long may he do this, or any other damn thing his infinitely talented mind can conceive in a studio.
It’s been eight and a half years, four albums and an almost entirely new set of members since Heartless Bastards began performing as a new band in Cincinnati's small clubs. This time around, the Bastards came back to their breeding ground as an Austin, Tex., band and played to a packed house at Madison Theater in Covington.
For all intents and purposes, Saturday’s Heartless gig was very much a “homecoming” gig. As such, there are certain things one expects (and usually gets when the Bastards come home) — lots of heart, extra banter with the audience and, most importantly, one hell of a show. Going in with those expectations was probably a terrible idea. The concert was, at its worst, disappointing and, at its best, just OK.
Anyone who noticed the night’s schedule started off disappointed when they realized Heartless Bastards wouldn’t be on until two hours after the listed showtime. Openers Hacienda were actually amazing, just as they were when they opened for City and Colour at Bogart's a few months back. But after Hacienda rocked out, the road crew took 20 minutes to set up the stage, followed by more than 10 minutes of absolutely nothing.
Once the crowd was finally graced with the presence of the band, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom spent another five minutes testing her vocal mic. Shouldn’t that have been done in sound check? Or, at the very least, during the 10 minutes of nothingness? Even drummer Dave Colvin sat leaning forward on his drum kit, staring at Wennerstrom with what appeared to be very little amusement.
When they finally kicked into gear, the show wasn’t bad. The Bastards sounded close enough to their albums to show they are a decent band. A good portion of the crowd was made up of dancing fans who seemed unfazed by the initial delay.
The night was heavy on songs off of Arrow, the Bastards' lean, stirring new album just released Valentine's Day. Wennerstrom recently told Billboard, “I feel like this is the strongest record I’ve ever done.” And she’s right.
The live experience, however, was lacking on Friday night. Seemingly devoid of love and respect for the audience, the show was hopefully just a rare off-night from a band that usually kills it in front of their old hometown's still-very-much-dedicated fans.
What a strange winter it’s been so far. As I formulate this intro, there is less than an inch of snow on the ground, which raises our total for this season to not quite 3 inches. That’s unbelievable. I grew up in Michigan. You know what we called 6 inches of snow? The first day of spring. Last February, we’d had so much snow at this point in the school year that the district had used all of its calamity days and they called off the Presidents’ Day holiday, which forced me and my daughter to cancel our annual long weekend north to visit family and friends. With this year’s mild winter, her four-day Presidents’ Weekend is intact, so we're headed to the Winter Wonderland as you read this. Michigan isn’t very wondery itself this winter; they’ve had more snow than us, but it disappeared within a day or two. Of course, there’s nothing like scheduling a mid-February trip to tempt the gods of precipitation. Back when I was doing the drive to Michigan on a monthly basis to see my then-young son, my grandmother used to say, “Brian, you bring the weather with you,” and it certainly seemed true. Once, when Josh was 7 or 8, I ran into 6 inches of snow in the late afternoon in Ann Arbor that was on its way to being over a foot of the white stuff by morning. They’d had a long snowless stretch back then, too, as I recall. You never know.
In any event, we’ll have a blast. In the meantime, there are these piles of CDs to keep me and you all busy and warm, so put another snow shovel on the fire and curl up with these current and late-but-great reviews.
The air seems sweeter here in the front of the website, the sun a little brighter and the deadlines a little more immediate, but as Uncle Ben once reminded Peter Parker, with great power comes great responsibility. So here we are in relatively short order with a batch of new reviews and a few more older titles in my continuing quest to revisit the deserving releases from the not-so-waning months of 2011. We’re getting there, slowly but surely. Read them while they’re hot; there’s more where they came from.