I’m still getting used to my new digs here at The Daily Beat as everyone rushes about, delivering their stories with right-this-minute immediacy and what not. Of course, with my continuing effort to bring you up to date on the reviews from last summer and fall that were missed for a variety of reasons, my breaking news has all the timeliness of “Bin Laden is dead!” and “I’m so happy for Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries — it’s nice to see a celebrity couple in it for the long haul.”
Luckily, the early weeks of this new year, with a couple of well-stocked exceptions, are pretty light on titles, allowing me the time and space to revisit some deserving highlights from bygone months while checking out the latest and greatest from the new calendar. Wait, there’s something coming across the teletype in the Bunker — apparently, the war is over! The Falkland Islands are free at last!
Celebrate with new reviews, then some old reviews. Then a drink and possibly a nap.
Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s frontman Richard Edwards may be the most tenacious man in rock. In 2009, the band’s Indianapolis home base was heavily damaged by fire, they were dropped by Epic after the controversy over Animal/Not Animal and the majority of the band quit.
That would have been the end of Margot for most guys, but Edwards resurrected his outfit with bassist Tyler Watkins and multi-instrumentalist Erik Kang and, with an impressive guest list, assembled and self-released 2010’s spectacular Buzzard, a clattering bit of Indie Rock brilliance that diverged from Margot’s early Chamber Pop explorations.
Last year, Edwards and a completely reconstituted MATNSAS generated their recording budget through the Pledge Music website and began tracking their fourth album, the noisily majestic Rot Gut, Domestic.
Much like Buzzard, Rot Gut seems more shambolic and scattered than it really is; like a pointilist painting, it pays to stand back in order to appreciate the work. On Rot Gut, Edwards and MATNSAS have crafted an amazing amalgam of Wilco’s artful squall (“Disease and Tobacco Free,” “Fisher of Men”) and Ryan Adams’ buzzy indie evocation of ’70s Rock (“Books About Trains,” “Arvydas Sabonis,” “Ludlow Junk Hustle”) while simultaneously managing to reference the atmospheric Pop that marked their first two albums. After 10 tracks of that, MATNSAS finish up with an amazing one-two punch; the dissonant and fuzzed out “The Devil” is followed, logically enough, by the exquisite balladry of “Christ,” a Randy Newman-meets-Paul Westerberg piano-and-ethereal-frippery hymn (“Jesus breaks your heart every night when He doesn’t come”).
The scariest thing about Rot Gut, Domestic is that Richard Edwards and Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s might have an even better album than this minor masterpiece in them.
Detroit producers/Electro musicians Ryan Spencer and Adam Pressley formed its new project Jamaican Queens last year, following the demise of their previous band, Prussia. The pair bonded over a mutual love for Hip Hop production, something that would find itself central to Jamaican Queens winding sound. Together less than a year, the twosome's single "Kids Get Away" introduced the newcomers with a sound that blends EDM, Hip Hop sounds and rhythms and a somewhat psychedelic brand of Indie Pop.
The band calls its music "Trap Pop," a reference to the Trap style of Hip Hop that is something of a successor to the old Southern Crunk style. Still, you won't mistake Jamaican Queens' music for T.I.'s — JQ's unpredictable, fluttering style recalls MGMT's last two albums had the Electronic aspects of their music been more prominent.
Jamaican Queens' first full-length, Wormfood, is due in February and was mixed by Christopher Lazlo Koltay, a former Cincinnati musician who has been enjoying a successful engineering/production career in Detroit the past several years, working with artists like The Dirtbombs and Akron/Family. Here's the song that has garnered the band the most attention so far, "Kids Get Away."
The album is an endangered concept in music, with MP3s and streaming encouraging more and more people to listen to tracks “a la carte.” If people aren’t listening to a collection of songs intentionally put together by an artist in a specific order, why should the artist bother trying? It’s one of the reasons releasing EPs seems to have become more popular than issuing full-lengths.
With some exceptions, the “album as art” concept has long been dwindling amongst Hip Hop artists, many of whom have more fully embraced the hodge-podge “mixtape” format, which is perhaps more in tune with our ADD/social media-plagued culture.
So it’s beyond refreshing to hear the new release from Cincinnati MC Sleep, Branded: The Damon Winton Story, a collection of eight tracks that tells the story of a young man’s troubled upbringing. It’s not just that Sleep has compiled eight songs that kind of fit together; Branded is a fully envisioned tale that requires the listener to hear the entire album in order to get the total impact. And it’s quite an impact.
It helps that Sleep’s “concept album” is based on some excellent storytelling skills, contains some fierce rhymes (with a flow and timbre that recalls Jay-Z at his peak) and is supported by the excellent, often hauntingly atmospheric production of Dope Antelope, which brilliantly reflects the dark, chaotic, heart-breaking nature of the story. The way Sleep — half of local duo 2-Man Cypher — lays the story out is also sharply clever. In lieu of titles, each track is labeled as simply “Question,” followed by the track number. The album opens with a police officer hitting “record” to begin his interview with the main character’s social worker about “what could have led up to what transpired with him this past weekend.” To kick off each track, the social worker is asked about a different aspect of the trouble the young man had experienced and been in.
Working backwards from the incident (which isn’t revealed until “Question 8,” so the listener is left to wonder what transpired), Sleep creates evocative, harrowing slices of life, usually told from the main character’s point of view, but with other voices popping in occasionally to give an even bigger picture. The young man’s horrific surroundings are revealed gradually; the listener learns that he has self-mutilated himself, been molested, lost (or never had) faith or religion and had family involved in drugs. Sleep’s brilliance is turning the smaller stories from the big picture into vivid, cinematic tales in themselves — “If this is grown folks’ business/Then why when you conduct it, there’s a child as a witness,” he raps after it’s revealed that the main character’s mother had substance abuse issues. When the social worker tells the officer that the young man had been bullied over his clothes in school, Sleep echoes that pain with lines like, “The peer pressure to be above the status quo/It’s never ending, it’s never taking sabbaticals.”
By the last track, the listener is primed to hear just what happened to the main character, but when his fate is revealed, it’s not what most would expect, making the album that much more powerful. (In the spirit of not ruining the final act, I’ll refrain from giving away the ending.)
Sleep’s Branded shows just how much power Hip Hop still has to tell a realistic story poetically but without hyperbole. It’s an incredibly moving piece of work that stands as one of the best Hip Hop albums to come out of Greater Cincinnati in recent memory. And Sleep shows that if he ever gets tired of the Rap game (which itself would be tragic becomes the genre needs more voices like his), he’ll be able to find some kind of career as a writer, be it an author, a journalist, a filmmaker or whatever field he decides to lend his talents to.
If you’re a fan of intelligent Hip Hop or just great storytelling in general, you must download (for free or whatever you’d like to kick in) Branded immediately at sleep513.bandcamp.com.
Here is a music video for the track, "Question 2":
Tonight's allegedly the "busiest bar night of the year," so if you like to hang out at places that are really packed, this is your jam. If you like to hear live music when you go out, you're also in luck, as a lot of the top acts seek out lucrative Wednesday-before-Turkey-Day gigs because of the aforementioned packed-ness.
If you want that live music to be (primarily) original, here are a few recommendations.
• Troy, Ohio-spawned Miss May I (whose singer, Levi Benton, recently moved to Cincinnati) is headlining the Alternative Press tour, which conveniently brings the increasingly popular "Metalcore" band back to their homeland just in time for Thanksgiving. The band's most recent release, At Heart (on Rise Records), came out this summer and was greeted with the best reviews of MMI's career and a No. 32 debut on the Billboard Top 200 chart.
The thrashy, melodic MMI headlines tonight at Bogart's in Corryville on a bill that also features The Ghost Inside, Like Moths to Flames, The Amity Affliction and Glass Cloud. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets to the all-ages show are $20.
Read CityBeat's interview with Benton here then check out Miss May I's most recent music video, for At Heart track "Day By Day."
• Vintage Rock & Roll stylist Chris Isaak makes his way to downtown Cincinnati tonight for an 8 p.m. show at the Taft Theatre. Tickets range from $29.50-$59.50. Isaak's going to have to play the show then hop on a plane quickly — he's slated to perform in the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Parade in New York City. (Click here to read CityBeat's full preview of the show.)
Isaak recently issued a live DVD based on his 2011 double-disc release Beyond the Sun (his first for the Vanguard label). The album was a collection of cover songs originally recorded by artists on Memphis' seminal Sun Records (from Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis to Carl Perkins and, of course, Elvis), a fitting tribute given Isaak's similar approach and sound. The new Chris Isaak Live! Beyond the Sun DVD is a concert flick featuring several songs from the Sun album, as well as some of his big hits. Expect to hear a similar set list tonight. Here's an Isaak original from the DVD, "Live It Up."
• The songcraft experts and flawless musicians of veteran Cincy Pop/Rock band The Newbees host an album release party tonight at Newport's Southgate House Revival. The release show was originally intended to be the second show at the new club (brought to you by the owners/operators of the old, beloved Southgate House across from Newport on the Levee) but a late code inspection held the grand opening up for a week. The Newbs are celebrating their LP Modern Vintage, a patchwork of musical styles and mercilessly catchy songs. Click here for a full review of the album.
The Newbees are joined tonight by The Turkeys, Chaselounge, Honey & Houston, Les Whorenettes, Shiny Old Soul, See You in the Funnies, Sundae Drives and Dave Hawkins. Tickets are $12 at the door (or $14 for those ages 18-20). Showtime is 9 p.m. Here's the Beatles-esque new album track "Up All Night":
• There are also plenty of other local original groups performing tonight. Among the highlights: Reggae/Rock crew The Ohms and soulful, rocking power trio Tattered Roots (which is celebrating its one-year anniversary) join together at Stanley's Pub in Columbia Tusculum. … Rootsy rockers Alone at 3 a.m. are playing a freebie at The Comet in Northside with Jacob Tippey and Matt Wood. … Electronic improvisers Skeetones hold down the party at The Mad Frog in Corryville, joined by guests The B.E.A.T. and Bassface. … Two former members of The Greenhornes — Brian Olive and Eric Stein — perform a free show at Northside Tavern with their current bands, The Brian Olive Band and Stein's Grotesque Brooms. … Rocket-fueled Indie/Blues/Roots/Rock trio The Sundresses headline tonight's free offering at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine, joined by Detroit foursome Jeecy and the Jungle. … And two of the city's best modern rockers — Ohio Knife and State Song — perform a free show at Mayday in Northside (see poster above).
Eclectic Cincinnati Reggae crew The Cliftones — one of the best Reggae outfits in the region — will be celebrating the release of their latest single, "Hold Steady," this Saturday with a show at Northside club Mayday. DJ Mowgli will also perform. Advanced tickets are available now for $7 here. The first 100 people through the door will receive a free download card giving access to the single.
Like the band's previously released single — "Hard Ground," released in January — The Cliftones once again have some legendary ears/mixing fingers involved with "Hold Steady." "Hard Ground" was mixed in D.C. by Jim Fox, who has worked with icons like Black Uhuru, Gregory Isaacs, Barrington Levy and Culture. For "Hold Steady," DJ Prophecy (known for work with Bassnectar and Glitch Mob) handled the mixing, while Dub legend Scientist handled mastering duties.
Here's the exclusive stream of "Hold Steady":
• At this weekend's Whispering Beard Folk Festival in Southeast Indiana, masterful Cold Spring, Ky., Americana group The Kentucky Struts debuted their great new music video for the ominous, creeping and soulful tune, "Country Road," from their The Year of the Horse album. The band made the video with Keith Neltner and Brian Steege, who worked on the documentary Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin' the Devil's Cage. (Read more about the Struts recent album from CityBeat here.)
Loudon Wainwright III could very easily have slid into the where-are-they-now realm of celebrity obscurity if he had allowed himself to be swallowed up by the one-hit wonderment of “Dead Skunk” in 1972. Although most people at the time only knew him for that ubiquitous single, Wainwright was confident that he had plenty of other weapons in his songwriting arsenal and set about to define the 40-year Folk/Pop career that has brought him certain measures of acclaim, wealth and notoriety as a songwriter, performer, actor and dysfunctional family man, each role woven inextricably into the fabric of the others (remember when he was Captain Spalding, the singing surgeon on M*A*S*H?). Clearly, the two paths that have intersected most often in Wainwright’s life are music and family; his itinerant singer/songwriter’s existence has been both a positive and a negative in his numerous attempts at familial stability and his parents, wives and children have been an endless source of grist for his songwriting mill.
Chief among Wainwright’s influences has been his often larger-than-life father, whose death at 63 left a gaping hole in his 17-year-old son’s life and psyche. A great deal of Wainwright’s unresolved love and anger issues concerning his father have been worked out in his songs over the past few decades, but his latest uniformly excellent album finds him looking back at his long timeline after reaching the milestone birthday of 65, a momentous and bittersweet benchmark that inspired the album’s title; Older Than My Old Man Now.
Like much of his recent work, Wainwright explores the familiar subjects of family, aging, death and lust on Old Man, which he does with typical candor, humor and reflection. Wainwright opens with the jazzy “The Here & the Now,” an annotated but honest account of his 65 years (“I took a wife, we had some kids/I screwed that up and went on the skids”), a history that he continues tracing on the contemplative and mournful “In C.” In the eloquent spoken word intro to the title track, Wainwright calls his father his “principal ghost” and then launches into a Delta-flavored vamp that addresses the psychic conundrum of having more calendars under his belt than his dad (“Sixty four is awful old, you know what can happen next/Hey, I’m older than my old man ever was, and I’m trying to keep it in context”).
Wainwright’s broad range is best typified by the ridiculously funny “I Remember Sex,” a parlor piano duet with Barry Humphries’ female alter ego Dame Edna Everidge, and the sublimely heartbreaking realizations of “The Days That We Die,” where Wainwright expounds, in prose and rhyme, on the reality of getting closer to life’s finish line without having fully reconciled with his children for his real and imagined sins. Listening to Wainwright and son Rufus trade soul-searching verses about life and change and forgiveness will bring a tear to the most cynical eye.
Over the course of the past few albums, Wainwright has honed his songwriting style to a fine point and narrowed his focus to very personal issues which he has translated into impossibly universal songs. Older Than My Old Man Now finds him in peak form in that regard, and reinforces the idea that he’s probably got plenty more to say on every subject as his finite journey heads inexorably toward the infinite horizon.
When Joan Osborne vaulted into the public consciousness with Relish, her 1995 major label debut, she had already established a loyal fan base that was well aware of her estimable Jazz and Soul skills. With Soul Show in 1991 and the Blue Million Miles EP in 1993, Osborne displayed her smoldering vocal chops and her unerring ability to write to her own strengths as well as inhabit another writer’s song (her take on Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” was a marvel). Largely a collaboration with producer Rick Chertoff, Hooters frontmen Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman and Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas, Relish rightly pushed Osborne into Rock/Pop territory and the well-deserved spotlight, but it was only marginally indicative of her loves and influences.
For the past decade and a half, Osborne has made no secret of her musical passions as she’s fleshed out her catalog with a string of soulful original albums, covers albums (2002’s How Sweet It Is) and blends of the two (2007’s excellent Breakfast in Bed).
With her latest, Bring It On Home, Osborne heads directly into the Blues/R&B camp with predictably great results, from the opening swing of Ray Charles’ version of “I Don’t Need No Doctor” and a blistering spin through “Roll Like a Big Wheel” from obscure Blues shaker Olive Brown to a down and dirty take on James Moore’s iconic “Shake Your Hips” (nailed by the Stones on Exile on Main Street) and a shivering R&B tailfeather shake of Clarence Carter’s “I’m Qualified.”
As usual, Osborne’s gift in covering other songwriters’ works lies in her innate talent in melding the spirit and intent of the original song with her own singular approach to come up with a version that is both tribute and appropriate reinvention, and Bring It On Home finds Osborne at the peak of her abilities.