Friday Evening, Apr 27: MerleFest Festival Grounds
After lunch, I was ready for something a little more upbeat, so I headed back to the Americana stage to check out The Lost Bayou Ramblers. I caught these guys last year at the same stage, and they brought the place down. I suppose most Cajun and Zydeco is infectious — that constant backbeat and sing-songy lilt of the melodies, but done well, it can be a bit mind blowing.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers hail from Lafayette, La. and their Zydeco is the real deal. Not quite as hard hitting as The Bluerunners, they still bring an enormous drum sound to an already rhythm-heavy beat. Fiddle, accordion, electric guitar, double bass, acoustic guitar and drums — the fiddle, accordion and electric guitar feed a triple-stack tone attack to every melody. It's like Lynyrd Skynyrd ca. 1975 without the volume, hair or rednecks. It's really something to behold and listen to. The fiddler sings and works the crowd in both French and English, the bass player holds his big acoustic bass like he's ready to swing it over his head, while the electric guitar player stands at the front of the stage arena rock style and the acoustic player runs back and forth behind everyone. These guys are regulars at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette and I suspect a trip to catch them in such intimate surroundings would be life changing. Check YouTube for some of their videos.
I left the Americana stage a bit exhausted and headed over to see what was going on in the Traditional Tent and found Phil and Gaye Johnson in the middle of their set. Long time radio host of various roots music programs, Phil and Gaye do tight harmonies and Roots-based acoustic music. Easy to listen to, they move from original to traditional and without a little bit of knowledge of traditional music, it would be easy to confuse what's original and what's not. Phil's a fantastic acoustic and dobro guitar player moving easily between slide, flatpicking, various forms of fingerpicking and sometimes both. The music is not something I generally sit and listen to, but like everything you see at MerleFest, the playing is top notch and professionally presented.
I slipped out of the tent and as I walked past the picking area, I could here the strains of Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce moving though the air. Like a lot of kids brought up in the 1970s, Peter was my first real introduction to Bluegrass music though the Old and In The Way LP. My dad had a few Bill Monroe LPs, but my mom wouldn't let him play that "hillbilly" music while she was around, which was pretty much all the time.
I wasn't planning on heading back to the Watson Stage, but I was intrigued. As I got closer, Peter was doing an slow acoustic version of "Panama Red." Frankly, I thought he was mailing it in, but I was still pretty far from the stage, so I kept moving in. By the time I got close enough to the stage to take pictures, which is basically standing in the front in everyone's way, he easy doing a song called "The Raven" and it was mesmerizing. It's probably Bluegrass heresy, but off all the Bluegrass I've heard over the last 35 years, his is the tenor I associate with "that sound" and, man, he's still got it. It rises and floats and breaks in all the right places.
I took some pictures and grabbed a seat near the back of the reserved section where the sound would be optimal. His band was outstanding. Peter on acoustic joined by a electric guitar player playing shimmering notes, a lap steel player doing pedal licks and swells, acoustic bass and drums. The lap steel player was especially amazing. Every swell and fill felt like a feather in my heart. They launched into a 20 minute version of the Rowan classic "Land of the Navajo" and by the time he started doing the falsetto calls, I was awash in transcendent tears. Peter Rowan has still got it all and I'm a big baby.
Next up I headed up to the Heritage Tent to converse with another of my favorite MerleFest craft exhibitors, bowl maker Larry Kearson of Marion, NC. And not just bowls, but dough bowls. As a boy growing up in NJ, we always had a wooden bowl mounted up on the wall. Occasionally my dad would take it down to kneed some bread dough in. I never thought much about it till I started making bread in earnest in my 20's. Then I wanted it. Desperately. It was a large bowl, about 18"-by-12" and had been hand carved from a piece of black walnut from the family farm in Tennessee. I finally claimed it 10 years ago or so and now it's a regular kitchen tool in our kitchen. Larry hand carves dough bowls from single pieces of wood. Some small and decorative other huge and highly desirable. The Zeke Bowl is one such bough bowl. About two feet long and 18-inches across, it was carved from a single piece of maple from Larry's neighbor's tree. His neighbor's dog, Zeke, laid by the downed tree for days and then growled and whined the day the tree was cut up — Zeke's Bowl. It's a beauty. Dough bowls shouldn't be stained or varnished, and Larry's aren't. You need a dough bowl carved the old way, hit Larry up.
From the Heritage Tent I headed over to the Dance Tent to check out Asheville's contribution to Hot Club-style Jazz — Viper's Dream. I guess I'm spoiled by Cincinnati's Faux Frenchman, Viper's Dream didn't quite cut it. Yes, you got to be one hell of a musician to pull off Django tunes, but the sound was shrill and I wasn't digging the fiddle player. Paul Patterson of the Faux Frenchmen is without doubt a Cincinnati treasure.
I quickly jumped to the Traditional stage to see Wayne Henderson. With him was a fiddle, frailing banjo and acoustic bass players. Wayne has done three tours with the "Masters of the Six String Guitar" as well as received a National Heritage Award for his instrument building prowess. Wayne is one hell of a fingerpicker, easily one of the best living and funny as hell to boot. Very humble and unassuming. The quartet ran through some Carter Family songs, traditional mountain ballads and fiddle tunes, each played with great dexterity and devotion. What a thrill.
Following dinner, I headed up to the Hillside Stage for a set from Donna The Buffalo. A MerleFest favorite, this band has seemingly been on the road for twenty years. I'm a bit baffled how I've never seen them before. Another one of those alternativecountryrootsrockamericana band with some serious jam band leanings, Donna the Buffalo has been a perennial favorite on the tour and festival circuit. They have a loyal following among MerleFest attendees and the tie dye and swirling dancers were out in force tonight. They played a crowd pleasing set, leaving their fans wanting more. Not much more then you can ask for then that.
While waiting in line for 45 minutes for the sold-out Wavves show at The Basement in Columbus, Ohio, I begin to notice a much longer line accumulating outside the substantially bigger and more extravagant venue directly across from me, The LC Pavilion.
Then, just as I’m about to ask the stoned kid next to me who is playing at The LC tonight, an older couple with leather jackets – the woman with pink highlights in her beach blonde hair – grabs my attention.
“Excuse me, sir. Is this the line for Garbage?” she asks.
“Well, that depends on your definition of Garbage, ma'am.” I reply.
After this smartass comment, I quickly apologize and assure them that this is the line for the Wavves show and that ’90s Alt-rockers, Garbage, are playing next door. During this short conversation, I realize something.
There are only two basic differences between those fans going to see Garbage at The LC and the fans going to see Wavves at The Basement — the generational gap and the smells permeating from the separate lines (their line smelled of liquor, while most on our side reeked of weed and unwashed clothes).
It was as if the people in the Wavves line were getting a glimpse into the future (mirror, mirror, on the wall, is THAT what I’m going to look like in 2033?) while the Garbage fans were getting a taste of their younger years (mirror, mirror, on the wall, did I look THAT bad in 1993?)
After the wait, the doors finally open and as I walk inside The Basement, I notice immediately that it lives up to its name. It is dark, cold, and even has that musty smell that basements do. It was like going into my Grandma’s basement as a kid, except this one had a fully stocked bar, a small stage, and a 20-by-20 pit that was filled as soon as the doors opened. (Step up your game, Grandma!)
The show finally kicks off around 8 p.m. as the group Cheatahs takes the stage. Although they have a decent 30-minute set, their slower, Pop-infused Grunge style seems ill-fitting for both the ambiance of the venue but also the acts that follow them. During their last song, I wonder if perhaps Cheatahs would have been better received as an opener for Garbage across the corridor rather than opening for the Punk/Surf rockers Wavves.
After Cheatahs finish, the second act, FIDLAR (an acronym for “Fuck it, dawg, life’s a risk”), comes on and the intensity of the show is taken to a whole new level. Although some critics have called this band Skate Punk, for me, that term seems to coincide with terrible Pop Punk and Tony Hawk Pro Skater games (which were amazing), so I’d like to deem them “Party Punk” for the sheer fact that most their lyrics deal with the fact that they like to get high and drunk off of shitty weed, cocaine and alcohol.
Their blistering opener, “Cheap Beer”, starts the set with a burst of energy that never falters during the next 40 or so minutes. By the time they finish, vocalist/guitarist Zac Carper is crowd surfing and ending their final song dangling from the sprinkler system that hangs above the pit full of exhausted but excited fans.
As FIDLAR exited and Wavves starts setting up, most of the patrons come out of the pit looking so tired it didn’t seem like they were going to make it through to the headlining act. Some of the concertgoers leave after FIDLAR’s explosive and energetic set, partially because, as I said before, they were too debilitated to go on.
I personally believe, though, that some left because The Basement has acquired the stench of a 16-year-old boy’s room (for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing this distinctive smell, it’s basically a combination between musk, sweat, weed and alcohol) from all the jumping, moshing and mashing going on in the crowd.
The people that pushed through, however, are treated with the opportunity to see a very special and intimate Wavves performance. Nathan Williams opens up the set with the unflinching Surf Rock anthem “Idiot”, which not only is a fan favorite of the night (along with “Green Eyes” and “Super Soaker”), but also keeps that intensity set up by FIDLAR’s performance and takes it higher.
Wavves' set-list isn’t just comprised of songs off older LPs, as they accomplish a pretty choice mix of the earlier material and new, catchy, sing-a-long tracks like “Demon to Lean On”, “Sail to the Sun” and “Afraid of Heights,” off their latest album of the same name.
A pretty flawless musical performance and Williams’ witty, in-between song banter with the crowd (my personal favorite is when he almost chipped his tooth adjusting the microphone and said he was going to look like rapper Danny Brown by the end of the show) coupled with guitarist Stephen Pope’s bedazzled, purple tights and outlandish behavior give fans more than their money’s worth.
As previously stated, for those fans that stuck around for Wavves (which was most of the people there), we witnessed a truly special night. Not because this will be the last opportunity to ever see this band perform live again, but more because, with Wavves' new album, Afraid of Heights, getting the accolades it deserves and the band's following growing greater everyday, we will most likely never see them in this small of a setting again. In fact, I’d bet good money (if I had any) that the next time Wavves visits Columbus, they won’t be headlining The Basement but the venue across corridor, The LC Pavilion — even if Garbage is in town that night.
Nick Dellaposta is a graphic designer, web developer, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter for Cincinnati/Dayton band To No End. If he did brain surgery on the side, he'd be Buckaroo Banzai.
And for a guy with little discernible local profile, Dellaposta has a metric ton of history that begins with learning guitar and writing songs at age 14. His father Bob fronted the Broken String Band and the pair gigged together when Dellaposta the younger was a college student, which led to eventual studio experiences.
Dellaposta formed To No End in 2012, leaning more toward an emphasis on the Dayton market; shortly after the band's first gig, Dellaposta took them into the studio to record their debut album, last year's Curio, a rootsy, Blues-drenched work that tapped into the Kenny Wayne Shepherd/Black Crowes/Gov't Mule end of the spectrum.
To No End's sophomore album, Peril & Paracosm, comes almost exactly a year after the band's debut, trumpeting a slight change in line-up and a new and darker sonic vision. Along with original drummer Patrick Lanham, new bassist Eli Booth and contributing guitarist/now full-fledged member Grant Evans, Dellaposta has invested TNE with an expansive and moody vibe that mines '70s Hard Rock like Budgie and UFO ("The Afterlife," "Bad Apple") while sharpening everything to a contemporary razor's edge.
Peril & Paracosm finds Dellaposta exploring darker lyrical themes which naturally results in a brooding and muscular soundtrack that is both an extension of and departure from Curio's brighter sonic perspective. There's also a slightly more psychedelic feel to some of the tracks on Peril & Paracosm, and when TNE drifts into a rootsier Gov't Mule direction this time out ("Good Intentions," "When the Time Comes"), there seems to be a greater conviction, a more desperate passion and a deeper understanding of both the influence and its translation.
We can only hope that the release of Peril & Paracosm signals To No End's expanded local presence because this kind of loud is always welcome.
Below is Peril & Paracosm track "Good Intentions." For more on To No End, click here.
Since the dawn of Electronic music in the ’60s, one of the consistent difficulties with the genre has been that the idea of a composition or an entire record is often more interesting than the execution of the idea.
It would seem that Sigur Ros is at least tangentially aware of that circumstance because the Icelandic quartet seems to have found the proper balance of conceptual cool, ephemeral frippery and solid musicianship over the past decade and a half. This is the band, after all, that invented its own language on its debut album, 1997’s Von, and initially left all of the songs on 2002’s ( ) untitled.
That is conceptualism on a grand scale, but Sigur Ros has typically been more than equal to the task of making a soundtrack every bit as fascinating as the airy framework that underpins it.
After a brief flirtation with a slightly more tangible Pop song structure on 2008’s Meo suo i erum vio spilum endalaust, Sigur Ros returns with Valtari, which sees the band bringing strings and electronics back to their rightful place in its sonic forefront. While Valtari revisits the chilly ambient atmospherics of Sigur Ros’ early work, the band folds in dashes of Meo suo’s Pop ethic and ethereal operatics courtesy of a beautifully utilized girl’s choir.
The album’s first single, “Ekki Mukk,” takes Brian Eno’s aggressively Ambient stance while “Rembihnutur” soars with an expansive crystalline magnificence that could pass for Radiohead or U2 in an experimental moment while “Dauoalogn” swells like a contemporary hymn rising to the arched ceiling of a grand Electronic church.
If Meo suo i erum vio spilum endalaust was Sigur Ros’ Saturday night dance party, Valtari is their Sunday morning confessional.
(The following Sigur Ros video is NSFW due to nudity, including shots of Shia's LaBeouf.)
The wholly unexpected announcement of a pair of reunion shows by one of Cincinnati’s greatest bands, Ass Ponys, inspired a sense of excitement within me that was matched only by the birth of my two children, the legal end of my first marriage and meeting the woman who convinced me to sign up for a 33-year-and-counting second hitch.
You might think that's overstating a case, and I might think so as well, but the fact remains that I was beside myself at the thought of seeing Ass Ponys in action after a decade-long hiatus. And the reason was quite simple — I had never seen the Ass Ponys during their 17-year run.
As Ass Ponys frontman Chuck Cleaver has said many times since the reunion was trumpeted, the band was never nearly as popular here in Cincinnati as they were out in the wider, smarter world. That fact had nothing to do with the reality that I had never seen them play. I loved them before they'd recorded a single note of music.
My first exposure to Ass Ponys was their one-song appearance on WVXU's tribute to The Who in the summer of 1989, simulcast live from the station’s studios and appropriately dubbed “Who Cares.” Ass Ponys were among a stellar local lineup that included The Afghan Whigs, The Speed Hickeys, The Thangs, Human Zoo, Bucking Strap, SS0-20, Warsaw Falcons and many others. Each contributed a single song to the proceedings. Ass Ponys, accompanied by local guitar legend Bill Weber, roared through a Who rarity, "Glow Girl," an outtake that appeared on the 1974 collection, Odds & Sods. Having heard about them but never actually having heard them, the band’s R.E.M.-esque take on "Glow Girl" sold me in half a heartbeat. I taped all of the musical performances from “Who Cares” on that July evening (oddly enough the 20th anniversary of the moon landing — insert inadvertent Keith Moon reference here) and I cherish that cassette. Ass Ponys' rendition of the Who's archive gem remains a personal highlight.
Four months later, I took a job with a design/marketing firm and almost immediately began clocking serious overtime. Just over a year after that, I revived my freelance writing career as an adjunct to my full-time position, and hours that might have been used to see local shows dissipated like cigarette smoke in a cyclone. As much as I wanted to see Ass Ponys, the planet alignment of my ability to slink out into a night coinciding with one of their local appearances never occurred.
But I avidly followed the band’s recording endeavors. I bought Mr. Superlove and Grim upon release in the early ’90s, and my freelance writing activity earned me a contact at A&M Records, which resulted in Electric Rock Music and The Known Universe showing up in my post office box. I raged at the cosmos when Ass Ponys was dropped from the label's roster and exulted when they chimed with typical Cleaver "fuck it" bravado and re-blazed their independent trail with Lohio and Some Stupid with a Flare Gun.
Ass Ponys' catalog took on the gravitas of scripture for me, stone musical tablets engraved by the flaming finger of God and sent forth into the world to instruct the unwashed and convert the unconverted. They sang about loss and death and dysfunction and insanity with a cheerily twisted conviction that was infectious and transcendent, and I drank their bitter Kool-Aid with a smile on my face and their songs in my heart.
Obviously, just as the Ass Ponys blipped off area radar screens in 2005, Cleaver’s musical collaboration with Lisa Walker was blossoming, laying the foundation for a decade of Wussy brilliance (which continues next March with the release of Forever Sounds). Yet even as Wussy's star ascended, and the band's permanence was asserted, questions lingered about Ass Ponys' status. They had never regretted to inform their fans of their demise, never bid the faithful a teary farewell at the finale of a blaze-of-glory last show. Ass Ponys simply ceased to be, its members scattering to new situations and directions.
Maybe that's why the announcement of Ass Ponys' reunion shows at Over-the-Rhine’s Woodward Theater Nov. 6 and 7 was met with such an exuberant reception. As inauspiciously as the band retreated into the shadows, Ass Ponys planned their return with an equal lack of fanfare. But the loyal had little interest in allowing the band to shuffle quietly back into the spotlight. It was quickly apparent by way of social media posts that fans from around the country were already planning their Cincinnati pilgrimages to crowd the front of an Ass Ponys stage one more time.
With the Friday night show, after weeks of fairly intense rehearsals, the waiting came to an end and Ass Ponys steeled themselves to the task of presenting material that was, in some cases, close to a quarter-century old. Cleaver reported just prior to the show that he was likely the least nervous member of the band, revealing that bassist Randy Cheek had been up all the previous night thinking about their first show in over 10 years; presumably, guitarist John Erhardt (who plays with Cleaver in Wussy) and drummer Dave Morrison expressed similar signs of anxiety. But Cleaver also noted that the Woodward shows would be populated by the friendliest audiences Ass Ponys had ever attracted.
Friday's show began with a terrific set from Swim Team, which rocked a vibe that was part '60s-Pop melodicism, part Blondie-tinted New Wave edge and part Slits avant Art Rock eclecticism. Frontwoman Lillian Currens veered from a sweet Pop croon to a visceral Rock wail while the rest of the band provided an appropriately dynamic soundscape for her gymnastic vocals to pinwheel around in, creating a Riot Grrrl/Lana Del Ray mixtape. The quartet's brash and jittery opening set was the perfect introduction to what would prove to be an incredible moment in Cincinnati's musical history.
Given that I was an Ass Ponys stage virgin until Friday's glorious deflowering, I can offer no comparisons, no yardstick of performances past by which to measure the band's transfiguration into a contemporary unit. What I do know is that the four members of Ass Ponys have spent the last 10 years playing in some of the best and brawniest and most creative bands in recent memory, and that expansive breadth of experience couldn't help but elevate Ass Ponys' performance to an incredible new level in the modern context. Cleaver had noted during an interview on Class X Radio with Eddy Mullet and I the Monday before the shows that the band had discussed how to approach their material, with everyone agreeing it was best to relearn and rearrange the songs with their current expertise, rather than to recreate them note for note for the sake of some manufactured nostalgia.
The wisdom of that decision was proven with indelible and muscular versions of some of the best selections from Ass Ponys' powerful songbook. They went effortlessly from strength to strength, spitting and kicking and tearing through early classics ("I Love Bob," "Azalea"), A&M-era standouts ("Earth to Grandma," "Shoe Money," "Under Cedars and Stars") and late period wonders ("Butterfly," "Pretty as You Please," "Astronaut"), all with a renewed vigor and the hyper-electric jolt of pissing on an electric fence.
As usual, Cleaver was an engaging ringmaster. Three songs in, he noted in classic style, "Some things never change. I still sweat like a whore in church." He then recounted an observation made by a woman he overheard at an Ass Ponys show years ago: "I've never seen a man sweat that much without passing out." Throughout the night, people would call out unrehearsed requests which Cleaver fielded with a definitive "Nope." Cleaver explained the origins of songs ("This one's about a monkey …”) and kept up his standard patter-on-wry, but mostly he thanked the multitude for its dedication and passion, noting how humbling it was to see how many people drove and flew in from all over the country (rumor had it someone was coming from England) with the sole objective of witnessing the Ass Ponys' fresh splendor.
At the end, Cleaver announced — sarcastically and yet somehow lovingly — "This is the one that bought us our luxurious lifestyle," and the group launched into its MTV/college radio hit, "Little Bastard," the last in a long string of sing-along moments. If the show had gone on for another two hours, it would have seemed too short, but with the fading strains of "Little Bastard" ringing in my ears, I felt that my first and likely last live exposure to Ass Ponys was an overwhelming success and quite possibly an ecstatic religious experience.
As Wussy bassist Mark Messerly noted before the show started, the atmosphere at the Woodward was like a high school reunion "where you like everyone and you want to be there." 500 Miles to Memphis frontman Ryan Malott recounted how he had grown up down the street from Cleaver and had graduated with his daughter, ultimately crediting the Ass Ponys with sparking his interest in picking up a guitar and making his own music.
A lot of Friday's attendees had a direct connection to Ass Ponys' past and present. Vacation/Tweens drummer Jerri Queen (who would be opening Saturday's show with Vacation) helped produce and engineer the new Wussy album (as did Swim Team guitarist John Hoffman). The Ready Stance guitarist/vocalist Wes Pence, now bandmates with Cheek, was a contemporary of Ass Ponys with his ’90s outfit Middlemarch. Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley produced or engineered the first four Ass Ponys releases. Tigerlilies guitarist/vocalist Pat Hennessey was fronting The Thangs back in ’80s and ’90s, and was in a Fairmount Girls lineup with Cheek. Jim and Darren Blase helped maintain the Ass Ponys' flame by releasing the 2005 two-disc retrospective, The Okra Years, on their Shake It Records imprint.
Blase, freshly relocated back to Cincinnati after several years in Cambridge, Mass. (stop into Shake It’s shop and welcome him home), rightly noted that while Ass Ponys' influence is far-reaching and pervasive, no one, from the time of their first rehearsal in 1989 to the Woodward show we were anxiously awaiting, sounds quite like they do, a sound Blase likened to "an Americana Pere Ubu." No truer words.
The two Woodward appearances could well be the last we ever see these members on stage together. There are still plans afoot to reissue the band's long out-of-print catalog, and several people noted that both shows were being recorded, suggesting a live record could be in the works. And since Cleaver never says never, he answered the point blank question from a fan after the show — “Will you guys ever record again?” — with a nebulous yet hopeful, "Who knows?"
Whatever happens, however it shakes out, my first Ass Ponys show was a blast. If more crop up going forward, I'll be there, as well. But you never forget your first.
For the past 40 years, Bonnie Raitt has made a success out of nearly everything she’s attempted. The red-haired daughter of a Broadway icon, Raitt was an unlikely champion of honest-to-Robert-Johnson Blues, but her incendiary guitar skills and unquenchable passion for the form won the respect of some of the genre’s legends; B.B. King famously cited Raitt as the greatest slide player ever.
When commercial recognition was slow to come, Raitt plugged away in spite of it, releasing a string of really good albums in the ’70s and ’80s (and to be honest, a few head-scratchers as well) and forging ahead when others might have thrown in the towel. She had opened herself to the possibilities offered by infusing her Blues translation with a hint of Pop with 1977’s Sweet Forgiveness, but the formula truly came to fruition on 1989’s Grammy-winning, platinum-selling Nick of Time, setting a course for the top of the charts over the next decade.
Although Raitt’s hot streak cooled slightly on both sides of the new millennium, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and released a pair of excellent albums, 2002’s Silver Lining and 2005’s Souls Alike, one of the most raw, real and reflective albums in her catalog. It came at a tumultuous time for Raitt; she lost her mother in 2004 and her father the following year, leading her to largely retreat from music in order to process her grief. After further losing her brother and her best friend, Raitt returned to music with a vengeance; she did a massive tour with Taj Mahal in 2009 and she did sessions with artist/producer Joe Henry and on her own, resulting in Slipstream, one of the strongest albums in her canon and an amazing return to form.
Raitt signals that return with the one-two punch of opener “Used to Rule the World,” a slinky Jazz/Funk workout that simmers like a Dr. John gumbo, and her stellar Reggae spin on the late Gerry Rafferty’s “All Down the Line,” yet another prime example of Raitt’s incomparable ability to inhabit other songwriters’ material and make it her own (she claims just one co-writing credit on Slipstream, the funky choogle of “Down to You,” written with Randall Bramblett and George Marinelli). That ability is on full display here; Raitt’s down-and-dirty Blues take on Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles” is a marvel of interpretation, as is her atmospheric reading of “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” composed by Henry and Loudon Wainwright III. Raitt’s mastery of heartbreak songs continues with “Not Cause I Wanted To,” the flip side of her soul-wrenching take on “I Can’t Make You Love Me (penned by former Bengal Mike Reid).
Slipstream plays like a greatest hits albums of brand new songs, as Raitt reels off sterling examples of everything she does best, from slinky guitar leads and searing slide runs to heartfelt balladry and intuitive arrangements. Rolling Stone placed Raitt on their lists of 100 Greatest Guitarists and 100 Greatest Singers; Slipstream is the only supporting evidence required for that decision.
Naming your band Friends is a good way to make it very difficult for people to find you on the Internet, but the relatively new Brooklyn band of that name is worth the few extra clicks — you can and should find them. Released earlier in June, Friends' debut album Manifest! is ready to become the soundtrack to every party you attend this summer.
A few years ago after a surge in popularity, Indie Pop seemed to fade a bit as artists like New Young Pony Club and Little Boots found success with infectious dance songs. With Manifest!, Friends brings back some Indie Pop creativity and jubilation, just in time for summer. And while it's not all club beats and Electro grooves, Friends' music does have a unique danceability factor.
Manifest! opens with one of the quintet's previously released singles, “Friend Crush,” which is pretty much your invitation to jump right in and befriend Friends. Centered around Samantha Urbani’s vocals and complimented by an ESG-esque drum and bass part, the song is minimal but extremely catchy, acting as a great hook to draw listeners into the album. Like with the musical versatility, Urbani uses her voice in the most interesting ways throughout Manifest!, helping to keep each song fresh and distinct.
The contrast in sound from song to song makes Manifest! feel like you’re listening to a mixtape, spotlighting Friends' willingness to experiment and explore varying genres and ideas instead of settling for something predictable yet perhaps more "focused."
Other highlights on Manifest! include another previously released single, “I’m His Girl," a sassy relationship song that includes an unexpected breakdown involving
handclaps and spoken lyrics, while “Sorry" has a slight
Vampire Weekend feel to it.
Perhaps the best track on Manifest! is saved for last. Exuding an ’80s retro Pop feel, on closer “Mind Control," Urbani (using her voice more like an instrument) chants at the end what could very well be Friends' own “manifesto": “I don’t want the right to be rude/I just want the right to be cool/However I choose to do it, I do/Whatever I choose to be or whom.”
Friends clearly has no interest in falling in line with what fans, the industry or anyone outside of the group might expect them to be. The result is one of the coolest albums of the summer thus far.
If Jack White is Indie Rock’s most prominent attention deficit multitasker, his Raconteurs bandmate Brendan Benson is his lesser known Indie Pop counterpart. The Detroit native’s band work with the Well Fed Boys and the Mood Elevator received good notices, but his solo output (1996’s One Mississippi, 2002’s Lapalco, 2005’s The Alternative to Love, 2009’s My Old, Familiar Friend) has garnered Benson a press kit filled with glowing reviews, a fair amount of TV/film placement, some impressive production work (The Greenhornes, Waxwings) and a devoted cult following. Benson’s success with The Raconteurs allows him the freedom to exhibit his unrestrained solo Pop id.
On What Kind of World, his fifth solo and first self-released album, Benson continues to cultivate a sonic identity that hovers in the vicinity of Jellyfish’s visceral Pop, Supergrass’ stratospherically melodic Rock, The Romantics’ irresistible dance floor Garage Pop and the Motor City’s soulful heart. The shift for Benson on What Kind of World is a refreshing lyrical honesty, inspired by his new wife and child, his new home in Nashville (and its inherent collaborators) and the awareness of advancing middle age.
Despite his marital and parental contentment, there’s still a bruised undercurrent to Benson’s observations (“Maybe she is bad for me, and I don’t care to see/Because what I want and what I need are the same for me/In the end”), but even his most caustic lyrical reflections are surrounded by a soundtrack that courses with Pop adrenaline (“Light of Day,” “Here in the Deadlights”) or aches with a sweet melancholy (“Pretty Baby,” the classic Elton John-tinged “On the Fence,” both duets with Pistol Annies’ Ashley Monroe).
Guests like Jon Auer, Ken Stringfellow (Posies/Big Star) and Sam Farrar (Phantom Planet) lend considerable weight to What Kind of World, but Benson doesn’t require star power to illuminate his work; he’s got quite enough Pop wattage of his own for that purpose.
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.