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.
(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.
Putting a tour together that includes three opening acts is a daunting challenge, but one All Time Low has risen to. When the popular Pop Punk band brought its tour to Cincinnati's Bogart's on April 30, all four bands on the bill definitely had their supporters, but the fans seemed to enjoy each of the other acts, as well. Of course everyone was amped to see All Time Low. The group's much anticipated major label debut Dirty Work was pushed back until June, which meant "The Dirty Work Tour" was a rallying call for ATL fans to get pumped for the forthcoming release so they'll save up their allowance money for the big launch date.
One could argue that New Orleans is one of the most fun places on the planet. You cannot beat the food, laidback attitudes and genuine hospitality. Combine all of that with some of the most talented musicians in the world and you have the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The New Orleans Jazz Fest kicked off in full swing last Friday, April 26, with thousands flocking to the New Orleans Fairgrounds to hear their favorite musical acts, see one-of-a-kind pieces from local artists and taste the flavors of New Orleans.
Local musical acts kicked off each morning on the 11 different stages around the fairgrounds, leading up to the first weekend's main acts, which included include John Mayer, Billy Joel and Dave Matthews Band, which closed out each night on the Acura Stage.
One of the most enjoyable parts of Jazz Fest for me each year is seeing “the bands before the main stage bands.” I always walk away with new music to listen to from legends and discover exciting new stage acts. This year I fell in love in the Blues tents with guitar legends like Sonny Landreth, Guitar Slim Jr., Lil Buck Senegal, Deacon John and Little Freddie King.
Dr. John, who is always a Jazz Fest highlight performed on Friday and had an Ohio native backing him. Dr. John recently restructured his band before Jazz Fest and kept only one former member, trombonist Sarah Morrow who grew up near Pickerington, Ohio, just outside of Ohio.
The New Orleans Fairgrounds filled to the brim Saturday with attendees showing up early to get the best seats to hear Bill Joel belt out his hits. Joel closed out his set by playing with New Orleans' own Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Sunday morning brought cloudy skies that soon turned into torrential downpours. But that didn't stop Jazz Fest goers from staking out spots for Dave Mathews Band. The skies cleared enough to dry off before the second wave of rain, soaking DMB as they played through the rain for thousands of diehard Jazz Fest fans. The dancing in the mud surely created lifelong memories for some attendees.
If seeing the Dave Matthews Band play an epic set in the rain was not good enough, you could make your way over the Blues tent and see the King play the Blues like it is the end of the world. BB King electrified as he took the stage in the Blues Tent to close out the first weekend of the festival. The legendary Allen Toussaint joined King on stage and, as BB began his set, belted out an a cappella Blues tribute to the King himself. King ended the set with a toast to the audience: "If I can't be with you next week, think about me some time."
Widespread Panic closed out my last day at NOLA Jazz Fest with a rainy two and a half hour set for their loyal legion of fans, all of whom seemed perfectly happy to dance in the mud at the Acura Stage.
Yesterday kicked off the second weekend of the famous festival and will feature performances by New Orleans native Mia Borders and Patti Smith.
I will miss New Orleans' music and food dearly when I go and will start the countdown to Essence Festival in July, when I return to the Big Easy for more music and fun times.
When people are confronted with my ridiculously voluminous music collection, they are most often struck with its distinct lack of commonality. Growing up within 70 miles of Detroit in the ’60s will do that; anything you can imagine between and beyond Motown and The Stooges will generally light my sparkler.
In reference to music specifically and to life in general, I have often remarked, “Specialization is for insects,” but if Mark Utley would like to borrow the phrase when he’s talking about his band, Cincinnati's Magnolia Mountain, he’s more than welcome.
From the band’s beginnings six years ago, Utley has endeavored to reconcile his Rock past with his fresh love of all things Americana by investing his Magnolia Mountain output with a reverence for the Bluegrass, Folk, Country and Rock forms while investing them with fresh angles, lines and perspectives. Like a sculptor who has immense respect for the permanence of the stone but also implicitly trusts his chisel and creative vision, Utley shapes the raw material of Americana’s various stylistic permutations into songs that are comfortably familiar yet blazingly original. That ethic was a hallmark of Magnolia Mountain’s last double album, 2010’s Redbird Green, and it comes into even sharper focus on the band’s third and latest release, the aptly titled Town and Country.
Part of Magnolia Mountain’s variance from album to album is at least partially due to the shifts in personnel that have affected the band from the start. At the same time, Magnolia Mountain has always been something of a rotating collective with guests becoming permanent members and members becoming guests. Town and Country follows that template, as Jordan Neff and Amber Nash (who left to devote full attention to their side project, Shiny and the Spoon) and David Rhodes Brown (who has defected from his numerous band affiliations to concentrate on solo/side work) appear sporadically on the album’s 18 tracks. And once again, guests abound on Town and Country, including piano master Ricky Nye, Tillers banjo ninja Mike Oberst and Americana chanteuse Lydia Loveless, among others.
Utley’s grounding in and love of vinyl forces him to think of his dozen and a half songs in the context of four separate sides (which he also did on Redbird Green; both albums are available in double vinyl format), and the first side is indicative of the broad range of Town and Country. “Black Mollie” kicks things off like a traditional Folk ode, “One Waking Moment” is a classic Appalachian Bluegrass break-up jaunt and “Baby Let’s Pretend” is a bopping Country thumper that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Rodney Crowell or T Bone Burnett set.
But just when you think you’ve got Magnolia Mountain pinned down, Utley and company (Jeff Vanover, Melissa English, Renee Frye, Bob Lese, Kathy Woods, Bob Donisi and Todd Drake) blister the paint with the wicked Blues menace of “Set on Fire,” with sweet “sugar, sugar” backing vocals, searing slide guitar and thundering rhythm section. That quartet is a mere hint at the broad spectrum of styles and approaches that Magnolia Mountain achieves on Town and Country, from the funky twang soul Blues of “Rainmaker” to the supercharged Roots Rock swing of “Shotgun Divorce” (Utley’s duet with Loveless) to the atmospheric swamp boogie of “The Devil We Know,” as well as superb covers of Will Johnson’s “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” and Wussy’s “Don’t Leave Just Now.”
As usual, the brilliance of Utley’s songwriting is that he and Magnolia Mountain craft each track as a separate jewel that fits perfectly into the gorgeous crown that is Town and Country.
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.