Remember the first time you saw Erika Wennerstrom sing in front of the Heartless Bastards and watched amazed as she pummeled her guitar and sang with a ferocity that made her neck veins dance like a cobra in a snake charmer’s basket? Brittany Howard approaches her role fronting Alabama Shakes with a similarly wrought intensity and to a familiar result.
Like the Bastards and Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Howard and Alabama Shakes channel ’60s Blues Rock with a contemporary edge on their excellent full-length debut, Boys and Girls.
It’s not hard to play spot-the-influences with the Shakes, as the broad experience of the individual members found them looking for the commonalities between James Brown and Otis Redding and Led Zeppelin and AC/DC while working up an early set list. The mega versatile Howard finds them easily with a fluid guitar style that can be Doo Wop sock-hop one minute (“Heartbreaker,” the title track), elephant-gun recoil the next (the Joan Armatrading-steered-by-Jimi Hendrix howl of “Be Mine,” the loping groin kick of “Hold On”). Vocally, she wails with the hellhound authority of her Soul and Blues influences while pushing the needle into Rock God territory; comparisons to Janis Joplin are not the least bit out of line.
Boys and Girls would be an impressive accomplishment from a band in its middle period, but it’s made all the more amazing considering the Shakes have only been together for three years and this represents only their second release. Howard and her cohorts in Alabama Shakes have an impeccable sense of Blues Rock classicism and an exciting sense of how to give it a good rowdy slap into right now.
Just like his famously troubled father, Justin Townes Earle has often generated as much press for his substance-fueled escapades as his musical prowess. Thankfully, that genetic predeliction has been tempered with a similarly potent gift for songcraft and creative evolution, two elements that have distinguished Earle’s catalog to date, particularly his last album, the sacred-meets-secular traditional modernism of 2010’s Harlem River Blues.
With his fifth and latest album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, Earle once again expands his musical parameters and explores the wide range of music that has defined Memphis, from lushly arranged horn-and-sweat Soul (the rousing Dr. Johnesque boogie Blues of “Baby’s Got a Bad Idea”) to spartan singer/songwriter folk (the dry Country balladeering of “Won’t Be the Last Time”) to varying combinations of it all (the sorry-baby sway of the title track). On the album’s mournful opener, “Am I That Lonely Tonight,” Earle seems to address his acorn-oak issues with touches of Van Morrison and Jeff Tweedy (“Hear my father on the radio, singing, ‘Take me home again’/300 miles from the Carolina coast, I’m skin and bones again/Sometimes I wish that I could get away, sometimes I wish that he’d just call/Am I that lonely tonight, I don’t know”).
There is an air of immediacy on Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, a direct result of the whirlwind four-day, all-live/no-overdub sessions that produced the album, but that recording frenzy is perfectly counterbalanced by Earle’s laconic delivery, even on the album’s most energetic songs.
Nothing’s Gonna Change is yet another dusty jewel in Justin Towne Earle’s beautiful and slightly askew crown.
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.
Paul Weller has traveled a fascinating trend-bucking career arc since his debut with The Jam during Punk’s heyday in the late ’70s. When every other band was pursuing a gobsmacked, adrenaline-soaked and barely coherent version of Rock, Weller and The Jam were turning out their highly stylized spin on The Who’s Mod period.
When The Jam’s influence turned out pale imitators, Weller moved on to Style Council, a loungey R&B/Pop outfit that inspired a whole genre of similarly subdued purveyors. Weller’s subsequent solo career has been a pastiche of Brit Folk flavored Baroque Rock flecked with bits of the sonic personae that he’s championed over the past three decades, from the brilliant Traffic/Small Faces direction of his solo debut, 1992’s Wild Wood, to the Soul reflection of 2002’s Illumination to the edgy Punk Pop buzz of 2005’s As Is Now.
It seems hard to imagine but Weller is on a hot streak at the back end of a 35-year career; 2008’s 22 Dreams was on a fair number of critics’ year-end lists and 2010’s Wake Up the Nation was nominated for Britian’s Mercury Music Prize. To his credit, Weller’s approach to a new album resembles the first rule of Italian driving — what’s behind you doesn’t matter anymore.
So it is with his latest set, the diverse and energetic Sonik Kicks. The album lurches to life with the insistent and atmospheric “Green,” a squalling, blipping gene splice of The Buzzcocks and Muse, which leads into the tropical Pop bounce of “The Attic” and Weller’s Pop/Punk homage to Kurt Weill, the noisily melodic “Kling I Klang.” Weller returns to his acoustic direction on the gentle (and gently orchestrated) “By the Waters,” which he follows with “That Dangerous Age,” a track that Peter Gabriel would be amazed to find had nothing to do with him, and the six-and-a-half minute smoky Pop/Soul workout of “Study in Blue,” which deftly blends a lot of what has come before it.
Given the amazing breadth of Weller’s creative palette, perhaps his consistent versatility shouldn’t be such a surprise, but the incredible range and vitality of Sonik Kicks has the snap and spirit of an artist in the middle of his career, not nearing its 40th anniversary.
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.
When Maps & Atlases dropped Perch Patchwork, their 2010 debut full-length and first album for Barsuk Records, the Chicago-based quartet was just beginning to explore the intersection of their adoration of Post-Punk Math heroes like Don Caballero and their father-tilted love of ’70s Prog avatars like Jethro Tull and Mahavishnu Orchestra. M&A’s introductory EPs — 2006’s Tree, Swallows, Houses and 2008’s You and Me and the Mountain — found the band pursuing a more Folk-tinged flavor, but Perch Patchwork was an expansive yet subtle attempt to utilize the totality of the band’s creative building blocks. That exploration paid huge dividends as critics and fans alike were drawn to M&A’s lo-fi sonic constructions and hi-fi orchestral ambitions.
Maps & Atlases’ sophomore full length, Beware and Be Grateful, expands and refines the musical trail blazed on Perch Patchwork. In the album’s formative stages, the band employed a collection of secondhand battery-powered keyboards to blueprint their textural arrangements and, although the keyboard sounds were largely excised for the final recording, they were vitally important in forcing M&A to rethink their creative process.
As a result, Beware and Be Grateful doesn’t stray impossibly far from Perch Patchwork but it definitely advances the band’s flag a little further up the hill, exhibiting a forceful Math Pop sound that shimmers and shakes with an exuberant authority. The album’s opening track, “Old & Gray,” begins like Talking Heads tributing Paul Simon’s Graceland and finishes like Brian Eno producing Spoon. Similarly unexpected juxtapositions crash and meld into one another throughout the duration of Beware and Be Grateful.
Tribal choral melodies float above while the band skips and skates around a soundtrack that is equal measures of quirky Indie Rock (“Vampires”) and blippy Electro Pop (“Silver Self”). There are still plenty of remnants of the band’s organic approach to song construction but there are also many more examples of Maps & Atlases pushing themselves to think well beyond the natural box they fashioned on their earlier releases, blending their influences and experiences and evolving in fascinating new directions.
(Maps & Atlases perform July 15 at the inaugural Bunbury Music Festival along Cincinnati's riverfront.)
Saturday at Mayday in Northside, the great Cincinnati Indie Rock band Koala Fires will be performing for the last time. But the band is also saying goodbye with a gem of an album, Doom of the Norns, the band's second full-length, which will be officially released tomorrow in conjunction with the show. The Fires will be joined by Chicago's Brighton, MA and Cincy's Jody Stapleton and the Generals. Performers from Cin City Burlesque will also entertain between sets. Doors open at 8 p.m. and admission is $7. (Koala Fires will donate half of their merchandise sales Saturday night to help relocate the women of the Anna-Louise Inn.)
Doom of the Norns is a compelling piece of art, an Indie Pop/Rock record with a hefty emotional weight. Singer/songwriter Matt Mooney's vocals have never sounded better, his honey-dipped instrument crooning the album's up-and-down tales of finding love and losing it. It's not a unique concept, but in Mooney's hands, it feels real, raw, somber and often explosive. (Mooney wrote the record to help him get through the demise of his 10-year marriage.)
Mooney and guitarist Ben Evans play beautifully off of each other, their intertwining fretwork creating a wash of dynamic sound. Drummer Matt Retherford and bassist Matt Zink fuel the songs with precision and a distinctive flair; Retherford's fiery yet intuitive playing, in particular, is a crucial part of the albums success.
But the heart of the album is the passionate songwriting. These are Pop/Rock songs, but Mooney's melodies wind in unexpected directions and the songs themselves are dynamically structured. "Grim is the Doom of the Norns" sets the tone, building with twinkling guitars and Mooney's voice showcasing that early-love "head in the clouds" state of mind, before ripping into a big, exuberant chorus. "Nuckalavee" bops along on a jaunty rhythm, undercut by cutting lyrics like, "Do you want control of me? That might be nice/But after years and years he'll escape one night/He will terrorize, drink tears from your eyes and then scare your pain away."
Mooney may just be one of the best Rock lyricists in town. The powerful "Valley of the Kings" begins with the lines, "There used to be a thousand ways to tear this down and start again/But, now it seems there's just one way and it involves a match and some kerosene." The album gets progressively dark, but the words aren't defeatist — they sound like the kind of lyrics someone would write to come to terms with the ending a long relationship. It's artistic therapy. By the last couple of tracks, there is hope and resolve.
There is emotion to spare on Doom of the Norns, but this ain't no wallowing Emo spew. Mooney delves into his despair and writes about it smartly and poetically, making it the kind of album that would fit in your record collection perfectly alongside LPs by The Afghan Whigs, later Superchunk and Cari Clara.
When you fall in love with Koala Fires after hearing this album (if you aren't already in love with them), don't be too sad. Mooney has a new-direction project in the works, Retherford and Evans play together in the Cincy band House of Feeble Minds and Zink is a member of up-and-comers The Future Strikes. The Fires will burn on. (Click here to purchase the album digitally.)
The crowd at Southgate House surely went home with sore throats last night. With every song David Bazan sang, his fans sang along. From a guy near the back who did an animated and fairly accurate imitation of Alex Westcoat’s happy-go-lucky drumming to the hundred or so feet that tapped along, all signs pointed to a happy house. Then again, what wasn’t to enjoy (other than SGH’s less-than-stellar sound system)?
I love music festivals. Like, love. The crowds, the music, the excitement in the air. MidPoint Music Festival is special for all of these reasons, but also because it’s essentially in my backyard. I don’t have to find a hotel, or crash on a friend of a friend of a friend’s couch (see: Lollapalooza 2011) or worry about parking (see: no car) or getting lost (see: backyard). I can wander around the streets of Over the Rhine and downtown Cincinnati with lots of other like-minded people, basking in the glow emanating from each venue, where musicians and fans are creating those magical, collaborative moments I love.