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.
Since her 1994 indie debut, The Honesty Room, Dar Williams has attracted a diverse and pathologically loyal fan base with her quirkily hybridized Folk/Pop ministrations. Like an elegant gene splice of Shawn Colvin and Loudon Wainwright III, Williams can easily triangulate the emotional distance between breezy humor, somber reflection and crystalline heartbreak, on subjects as intimate as family and love and as broad as culture and politics, by finding the commonalities between them and translating them through her muse. Equally relevant is the fact that Williams hasn’t shied away from experimenting with her base formula over the past two decades; her desire to extend her reach is a testament to her restless creative spirit and her success in doing just that is a testament to her steadfast audience.
In the Time of Gods is Williams’ ninth studio album and, like the majority of her catalog, it is a work that somehow manages to be both spectacular and subtle. In keeping with her need to experiment, Williams conceived In the Time of Gods as a concept album with each song representing a particular Greek mythological archetype, while also weaving contemporary emotional, social and cultural concerns into the narrative. It’s an unlikely formula, and one that requires an almost impossible songwriting balance, but Williams was clearly up to the task, because In the Time of Gods stands with the best of her albums to date.
Part of its brilliance is that Williams uses the Greek pantheon as a launch point to create her own dieties and address her unique issues, proving that mythology must be both consistent to be permanent and malleable to be relevent. The element that drives all of this home is Williams’ impeccable songwriting skill as she finds the connective tissue between gods and goddesses like Hera (“I Am the One Who Will Remember Everything”), Hermes (“You Will Ride with Me Tonight”), Dionysus (“I Will Free Myself”) and Poseidon (“The Light and the Sea”) and places their gifted and flawed archetypes in real life situations with real life outcomes.
As always, Williams’ musical accompaniment in this endeavor is engaging and beautiful and exactly right, providing the consistency that runs through her estimable canon. With a surgeon’s skill, Dar Williams has grafted the wisdom, wonder and humanity of Greece’s ancient pantheon onto In the Time of Gods’ modern cautionary tales, further evidence of the contention that Williams is among the finest Folk/Pop songwriters of the last half century.
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.)
Tonight at The Drinkery on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, excellent local Pop/Hip Hop/Rock crew Gold Shoes release its first long-player in conjunction with a free performance (the album is conveniently titled The Gold Shoes LP). The band was formed in 2009 and features MC vocals from rapper Buggs Tha Rocka (a great solo artist as well), Steven Shaefer on guitar/sax, Mike Weigand (keys), Kevin Johnson (bass), Tony Kuchma (drums/percussion) and singer/guitarist Archie Niebuhr. Gold Shoes has a magnetic, endearing sound that mixes Hip Hop and Rock with great hooks and touches of Jazz and Blues. Fun, cool stuff. You can purchase or give the album a preview spin online here.
Tonight's show starts at 9 p.m. and also features Vito Emmanuel, The Zoo Crew and DJ Sinceer.
Late last year, the band released the album's first single and video, "Trade Your Wings." More recently, they unveiled another great music video for the track "Barely Alive." Check 'em both out below.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday, successful Cincinnati Indie Pop quartet Pomegranates (playing tonight at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory) gave fans an unexpected treat — a new full-length album. The Poms’ unannounced In Your Face Thieves/Chestnut Attic was issued on iTunes and other e-retailers and on 12-inch vinyl from the band’s original label, Lujo Records. The album project began as a planned 7-inch single but snowballed into a 10-song LP. The unusual title comes from the individual names of the two “fully realized EPs” that make up the release, one per side on the vinyl version. Click above to listen to lead-off track “Softness.”