Monday, January 22, 2018

Grace Basement -- Mississippi Nights

Fountains of Wayne hit the big time when I was in middle school. For me, they were the first band from New York that I truly fell in love with, and hearing about my hometown in songs I related to (in spite of the many songs written about my hometown) was a new and wonderful experience. They were the first connection I made while listening to Grace Basement's Mississippi Nights -- the album is laden with the same power pop and sardonic lyrics, but washed with that special Midwestern marriage of Yankee stiffness and twang. I imagine that someone from St Louis, the band's stomping grounds, might find themselves in a similar relationship to the band.

This isn't an album meant for sunny weather, in spite of the band's embrace of some of the catchiest pop grooves I've heard in some time. But with some of the best ragers bearing titles like "Suicidal Friends," it's an album that embraces ambiguity and melancholy. The songs are, ultimately, story songs told from many characters' viewpoints, but they're reunited by a kind of reluctant stubborness. It's almost as if Mississippi Nights wants to remind us that it's worth continuing to stumble forward, even if it's not always worth it in the end. At least there are parties in the meantime to soften the blow.

Grace Basement -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

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Friday, January 19, 2018

Terra Naomi -- "Machine Age"

Do you remember where you were a year ago? I was steadfastly ignoring the inauguration and mentally girding my loins for a long, tough year ahead. In some ways, it's been worse than anyone imagined. Terra Naomi's heartrending "Machine Age" responds to both the rage and intolerance in the outside world and her own: her husband's family refused to recognize the couple's marriage and, in so doing, rejected his identity as a trans man.

Recently I grumbled about songs that are "too long," but you won't feel the six minutes of this song. Naomi has an impressive control over the song, with a long buildup that is truly transcendent. The song begins with Naomi's reckoning with her false sense of privilege and ends with a powerful catharsis of one of the most universal truths there is.

You can download the song for free, but if you pay for it the proceeds will go to some of the most important organizations leading the charge for our freedoms:

Girls Write Now
Planned Parenthood
Black Lives Matter

Terra Naomi -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, iTunes 

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Greg Owens and the Whiskey Weather -- You Can't Change the Man

If there's one narrative I'll never get tired of, it's the jaded sad-sack guy. It's been a little bit since I've been broken through that headspace myself (is that what adulthood is? Or could be?) But something still leads me back to the regretful incorrigibles. You Can't Change the Man is a late Christmas present for me. Owens writes hard-hitting country that occupies a sweet spot between Neil Young's delicacy and Tom Petty's straightforward melodies.

Owens' surefooted confessionals lend strength to the listener. In "Five Years From 21," he wonders aloud, "did I miss the train, or did it never come?" I'm not sure if that feeling ever goes away, but it's nice to know I'm not the only one who feels that way. But, like the best of these types of songs, Owens' sheer persistence is testament enough that none of us should feel sorry for ourselves for the things we did and didn't do -- we just have to keep moving forward. The rest of the EP follows in this vein: a bloodymindedness in the face of everything telling you to just give up that allows all of us to raise a glass or (if you've finally kicked the Xanax and whiskey, a fist) and sing along in triumph.

Greg Owens and the Whiskey Weather -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hardworker -- Go Alone

The Durham, NC band Hardworker is drawn some comparison to the Alabama Shakes and, let me tell you, it's well-deserved. Hardworker delivers blistering rock that delivers equal parts Muscle Shoals and Laurel Canyon. Take the Wild Reeds and turn the aggression up a wee little bit and you'll arrive at Hardworker. This is a band that pulls absolutely no punches musically, lyrically, or emotionally. The album came out in July but it's already one of my favorites of the albums I've reviewed this year.

You don't need to get too far into this album to fall in love with Hardworker, but what helped them nestle into my heart is their exuberant feminism. In "A Woman's Weapon," Sus Long proclaims,

I know a woman's weapon
Is a pearl-handled gun
And the right to never trust anyone

Similarly, "Look More Like a Girl" is a delicious deconstruction of gender norms and the music industry with a throwback sound. While these are the two most overt songs, Go Alone is alive with a fierce independence whether it's on the ragers or quiet moments like the stunning "Alcatraz." The band dropped another excellent single in December, which hopefully means this leads to the album that will make 2018 Hardworker's year.

Hardworker -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Evan Bartels -- The Devil, God, And Me

It's interesting to notice trends across the thousands of songs that come my way in a given month. For example, there was a minute where everyone's album covers were composite illustrations of tiny images associated with each song on the album -- usually drawn to look like a woodcut print. These people didn't necessarily know each other. It just...happened. The latest Hot New Thing seems to be putting out singles that tend to have luxurious run-times -- maybe five, six minutes. Now, I'm not one to stand on tradition, but a songs are meant to get to the point quickly. It doesn't matter how many cool tempo or key changes you've got -- if your lyrics are boring then it's not going to save you. If you're going to go big like that, you need to be good. The shortest song on Evan Bartels' debut album The Devil, God, and Me runs at 4:44. Bartels knows how to fill every second of this gargantuan album.

If you took Burn.Flicker.Die-era American Aquarium's intensity and added in some of Bill Mallonee's grandiosity (plus a healthy dose of Springsteen, obvs), you'd get something close to Bartels. I think I've worked out his formula, which is to have a first verse that'll knock you off your feet, a killer hook that sounds pleasantly familiar, and just a whole lot of chutzpah. Bartels' gruff vocals keep the songs engaging and the band's energy makes the songs a rush rather than self-indulgently long. The Devil, God, and Me has all the right ingredients to make it a favorite of anyone who's been around these parts a while. If you haven't heard about it yet, you're welcome.

Evan Bartels -- Official, Facebook, Purchase and Streaming Links

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The MSGs -- Chuck

Fukuoka is, for whatever reason, the punk rock heart of Japan. Sure, Tokyo has an enormous scene, but if you want some good old-fashioned guitar music -- and you want to see it multiple nights a week -- you gotta hop the shinkansen down to the southernly isle of Kyushu. There's not information about The MSGs out there, but the music is friendly to non-Japanophiles; the lyrics are in English and the lead singer (either Mr. Paal or Givegive) seems to be an expat.

Of course, if you like manic music with a catchy beat it doesn't matter what language it's in. The MSGs are an intriguing blend of the Ramones, Green Day, and Blink 182 -- biting lyrics with killer pop hooks and a concerning amount of stamina. "King Carnivore" takes on the excesses of capitalism in only the way a punk song can, but it's when the band slows down for "Machine-guns & Motorcars" that the band's political heart exposes itself. Though the lyrics don't address it, it's got to be difficult to write about racism and police brutality in a country that is often confused by American culture even as it replicates much of our toxicity -- but at least the trains run on time!

The MSGs -- Facebook, Bandcamp

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Monday, January 15, 2018

The Hollering Pines -- Mansion of Heartbreak

The Hollering Pines call their sophomore album a collection of "worried songs for worried times." And while it's not surprising that I'd write about music with an underpinning of anxiety, that's not necessarily what I'd call Mansion of Heartbreak. Certainly the album confronts lots of different kinds of pain -- betrayal, lost love, lost work -- but there's a gentleness at play that offsets the pain. If you listen to the Hollering Pines, you'll walk away with the unshakeable sense that these are just passing troubles.

What I love most about this band is the way they fit together. Lead vocalists Marie Bradshaw and Kiki Jane Sieger trade harmonies like they've been doing it their whole lives -- which makes sense, since they're sisters. Their interplay reminds me of early Mount Moriah. The music is dense and layered but glides smoothly. The rest of the band is a tight unit as well, cruising through swing, ballads, and rockers with confidence and grace. This is what a good old bar band should sound like: expert music that'll keep you tapping your feet, drinking, and maybe a little crying.

The Hollering Pines -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

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