Friday, June 26, 2015

PRIDE WEEK: Grace Petrie -- Love Is My Rebellion

As I write this, the US Supreme Court has yet to announce its ruling on same-sex marriage, though we all may wake up to a significantly altered America by the time this goes live. (Edit: I wrote thi son Thursday. Fuck yeah and fuck off, conservatives.) Given how I began this year's Pride Week -- with a discussion about allies and activism -- it seems fitting to end it with Grace Petrie's strident Love Is My Rebellion and her delightful "I Do Not Have the Power to Cause a Flood."

I found Grace's album completely by accident while scrolling through Bandcamp a few weeks ago. Your mother and teachers lied -- you can often judge a book by its cover and I was intrigued by the pirate ship-looking deal on the cover.

I knew I had found something special with the first chord and Petrie's strident vocals. I don't think it's a stretch to say she reminds me of Frank Turner -- that strange mix of deep cynicism, optimism, and cheekiness. I guess it's a British thing. It goes without saying that they're both deeply influenced by the British folk tradition and, to be honest, I think if Petrie and Turner had to compete a songwriting competition, it'd be a close race. It wasn't until my third listen through (and then finding "I Do Not Have the Power to Cause a Flood") that it occurred to me that maybe her breakup, "You Were Always Going to Break My Heart, Honey," was written to someone of the fairer sex after all. "Protest Singer Blues" also stands out as a brilliant commentary on inspiration and self-doubt, both artistically and politically. For the most part, these songs rail against the UK's austerity culture -- which has many parallels here in the states.

Love Is My Rebellion is appropriate for Pride not just because Petrie is queer, but because the album addresses the intersectionality of the struggle for queer rights, worker's rights, gender equality, and racial equality. This must be the next direction for the LGBTQ movement, no matter how the Supreme Court rules in the coming days.

And here's Petrie's response to all those crazos who blame me for natural disasters:

Petrie just released a new album a few weeks ago. I can't wait to listen to it and tell you all about it on here, so stay tuned or listen for yourself on Bandcamp!

Grace Petrie -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Christopher Paul Stelling -- Labor Against Waste

Christopher Paul Stelling's secret weapon is lulling you into a false sense of security, then taking you out with a suckerpunch. Stelling's Anti- Records debut, Labor Against Waste, begins with a number of soothing tracks, including the imminently radio and soundtrack-friendly "Scarecrow." But just as I wondered whether major record label cash had softened the edges on the guy who I saw stomping, hollering, and playing his guitar upside-down and backwards over his head at the Campfire Music Festival, the album jolts into high-gear with "Horse," an electrifying conversion tale, and "Death of Influence," a jeremiad against our superficial culture.

Stelling's voice -- both in the literal sense and in terms of his songwriting -- is self-assured and wise, but simultaneously vulnerable. In other words, he's the picture of sincerity. This is an album I can (and will) turn to in any season -- I know there will be a new pearl for each listen.

Christopher Paul Stelling -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Anti- Records, iTunes

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Round Eye -- Round Eye

Round Eye's debut reminded me a lot of Mad Max. As I wrote previously, it's a movie that happens to you. In similar fashion, Round Eye isn't something you listen to. It's a forcefield that radiates through your speakers. It has the trappings of a punk rock album, but it's so far out there that you can only cling to the familiar pieces and brace yourself until you get through to the other side.

Round Eye bills itself as a punk rock band (with horns) but I don't think it's such a stretch to call this a fusion of punk and jazz. When I wasn't wondering "what the hell is going on?" my most dominant thought was "damn -- how did they arrange this?" The often atonal horn arrangements did have a strange, Lovecraftian logic to them that was intermittently punctuated by crunchy, garage-rock punk anthems. If the Ramones hung out with John Coltrane and they both got hopped up on bath salts, they'd probably produce something similar.

I've written about Round Eye and their other expat compatriots in China's DIY punk scene. I'd love to be a fly on those walls because in most other countries, expats just drink and make fun of the locals. I'm glad Round Eye is branching out to the US. I'm not entirely sure what their vision is, but they're really good at expressing it, and for that alone they deserve as wide an audience as possible. I generally don't post tour dates but I'm going to this time around, because they've traveled a long way to tour stateside:

7/1 - Kalamazoo, MI - House Gig
7/2 - Detroit, MI - Elijah's
7/3 - Milwaukee, WI - Cocoon Room
7/4 - Chicago, IL - Wally World
7/5 - Peoria, IL - The Rail
7/6 - St. Louis, MO - The Foam
7/9 - Dallas, TX - Three Links
7/10 - Houston, TX - Notsuoh
7/11 - New Orleans, LA - Siberia
7/13 - Mobile, AL - Blind Mule
7/14 - Tallahassee, FL - Midtown Speakeasy
7/15 - Tampa, FL - New World Brewery
7/16 - Cocoa, FL - Boondocks
7/17 - Miami, FL - Churchill's
7/18 - Orlando, FL - Will's Pub
7/19 - Jacksonville, FL - Burro Bar
7/20 - Atlanta, GA - C**t Cave
7/21 - Charlotte, NC - Cube NODA
7/22 - Richmond, VA - Gallery 5
7/24 - New York, NY - Hank's Saloon
7/25 - Philadelphia, PA - Kungfu Necktie
7/26 - Providence, RI - Scurvy Dog
7/29 - Cleveland, OH - Now That's Class
7/30 - Columbus, OH - Ace of Cups
7/31 - Indianapolis, IN - Melody Inn

Round Eye -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

PRIDE WEEK: On Allies and Music

I totally missed doing Pride-related stuff last year and I know I'm juuuuuuust narrowly avoiding doing the same things this year. What can I say? These papers don't grade themselves.

I almost wasn't going to do anything at all until Rachel Potter's video landed in my Inbox about a month ago.

I was also reluctant to write about her song because I'm not going to say the nicest things about it, even though I am fully aware that writing a song and putting it out in the world is pants-shittingly terrifying.  The song admonishes people who call themselves Christians but continue to gaybash -- figuratively and literally. It's based on her own experience with one of her friends. So don't get me wrong -- the song itself is solid. If the album is to my liking, I'll write a review once I get a chance to listen to it. The video is a little too Zooey Deschanel-esque twee for my taste, but there is very little that warms the cockles of my jaded New Yorker heart.

The thing is, by the time I got to the end of the video, I was pissed off and I wasn't sure why. It's a well-meaning song, and who am I to be annoyed by someone's expression of solidarity? That Macklemore song didn't bother me at all, and Two Cow Garage and Shane Sweeney both have vocal expressions of support for the LGBTQ community on their new albums. So what do I care?

To be clear, this entry isn't meant to be a take-down of the song or of Ms. Potter. It's more about my reaction to it. I admire Ms. Potter for taking a stance that few in the country music world are willing to take. However, I still have Feelings about it.

As anyone who's paying attention saw with the Black Lives Matter movement (or any other equality movement, for that matter), there's lots of tension and discomfort when the majority group seeks to take up "the cause" of those to whom they owe their privilege. There's suspicion. Why do you care so much? Don't you know you directly benefit from keeping us down? Do you think you can absolve your guilt just by holding up a sign? Do you think you're actually committing to the cause just because you're holding up a sign?

On the one hand, these questions aren't totally fair to ask. No revolution has been won in a vacuum. Activists cannot make change without sympathetic people -- if not supporters -- who are already entrenched in the system. Whatever Selma portrayed or left out, the fact of the matter is that we would have no Civil Rights Act if LBJ hadn't signed off on it...even if the protests gently guided his hand. There's no point questioning somebody's motive as long as their actions get you to where you need to be. On the other hand, protests movements are always always always co-opted/undermined/resolved (whichever word you want to use) by moderates within the movement. We will most likely be celebrating a huge win for marriage equality next week, but the needs of trans* people and our working-class LGBTQ siblings have been continuously shunted aside to make it happen.

And once it does happen, the wealthy, white, cis-gay male base will be unlikely to roust themselves for other concerns within the community, even though they drive the agenda. And moderate segments of the movement always always always always act that way in order to make the cause more palatable to the majority who holds the power. That's the whole Malcolm vs. Martin debate in a nutshell, after all.

In other words, I don't want somebody else speaking for me and my needs, even if their heart is in the right place. Even if it's a fairly universal message, and a common theme in country music: religious people be hypocrites.

The difference between "Jesus and Jezebel" and the Macklemore song is I didn't watch the video. I don't even know the name of the song. But the difference between "Jesus and Jezebel" and Two Cow Garage's "Let the Boys Be Girls" is that LGBTQ rights isn't the focus of the song. Instead, it's part of a multifaceted critique of American society. TCG is expressing their own frustration with the System. Including their analysis of LGBTQ disenfranchisement as part of a larger scheme of oppression allows Micah to acknowledge where our causes are united, but he does not seek to make it his Cause with a capital C. Also, the real pain and isolation caused by rejection from a vital community isn't illustrated with shadow puppets. "Jesus and Jezebel" isn't angry or strident enough to convince me that Potter's motivation is anything other than writing a topical song. She's too emotionally distant.

ON THE OTHER HAND, this song wasn't written for me. I already know the moral of the story and buy the message. I'm also not the person who's going to listen to Top 40 country. Remember, my dyke heart has been hardened by the godless streets of New York City. Nobody actually enjoys being yelled at. You have to use honey to catch flies, after all, and "Jesus and Jezebel" is nothing if not sweet. So with all that being said, I hope this song has the power to change some minds and reach as many ears as possible.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Mike Procshyn and Lonesome Boxcar -- I'm attempting clever

The most striking aspect of Mike Procshyn's songs are his lyrical tightness. Even before reading the bio on his website, I was impressed by Procshyn's ability to tell a fully realized story in just under three minutes. That's exactly what Procshyn is going for. In the spirit of the best country songs, Procshyn and his band deliver 13 moving slices of life.

Given the subject matter -- the loneliness and desperation of living in rural Canada -- I'd say what they're really serving up is humble pie. Procshyn's reedy vocals are brimming with pain while he band is tight and keeps its cool. It's the perfect backdrop to any task you must do with a heavy heart. In other words, it hits all the right notes. I'm attempting clever may not be the album to change country music, but it's one that will remind you why you love it in the first place.

Mike Procshyn and Lonesome Boxcar -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The New Tarot -- "Reign"

I just finished watching the US Women's National Team bust heads on their way to victory against Nigeria and then I read six 10-15-page papers. And so today you get this catch single, "Reign" by the New Tarot. I like its trip-hop elements and off-kilter melody. Enjoy!

The New Tarot -- Official, Facebook

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Dale Watson -- Call Me Insane

I caught Dale Watson on one of the few (the only?) times I've watched Austin City Limits (Kasey Musgraves was also featured on the show.) I loved Watson's poise and, most of all, his voice. Also the sideburns you could run your fingers through. I don't know much about Watson's life, but his songs make him sound like an old-school country troubadour, the kind they just don't make anymore.

Call Me Insane is exactly what I'd expect from a classic country album: catchy humor ("Heaven's Gonna Have a Honky Tonk"), pre-breakup meditations ("I'm Through Hurtin'"), references to late greats ("Jonesin' for Jones"), and epic breakup ballads like "Call Me Insane," which has a pedal steel guitar part as epic as the Sonoran Desert. Watson's got it all down pat. Watson is a reminder that great country music isn't dead. You just have to look a little harder for it.

Dale Watson -- Official, Shop

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Norma MacDonald -- Burn the Tapes

I love being exposed to so much music -- even music that's not so great. I like all of the music I post on the site, obviously. But it's a rare treat when something resonates with me deeply. When I hear a song that hits me right there, I feel like a string that's been tightened enough to match a tuning fork. There's no better feeling.

I felt that way on my first listen of Norma MacDonald's Burn the Tapes.

MacDonald starts things off with "Company," a country song with an incongruously Pixies-esque bassline. But it's "Blue as a Jay" that set me pinging. But don't look too closely into what it says about me:

I’m never lost for something to say
I’m bold as a gull and blue as a jay
A sky that turns from sun to gray
I’m bold as a gull and blue as a jay 

And oh, can I take you home
Can I stay with you til the morning
And why oh why does this feeling die
And these lonesome blue some a-callin’  

This isn't the whole thing, but it one song MacDonald captures the tortured longing for a one-night companion: the wanting and the uncertainty, knowing that whatever gratification you get won't last. But it also hints at a deeper depression. No amount of suitors is going to make that go away. (OK, maybe this is more about where my head is at right now after all.)

There are lots of ladies who sing sad songs and who sing love songs and "love" songs to guys (and I'm being heteronormative for a reason). But MacDonald's confident songwriting places her as an agent in these emotions, rather than a passive actor to which these emotions happen. It's a refreshing change, and I suppose it explains why I tend to listen to songs written by men, who are sad and angry about being sad. I'd rather listen to someone take ownership of their emotions than be confused about why life is happening to them.

MacDonald does this with aplomb. She's self-assured without being brash or flashy. These are beautiful, gentle country songs featuring powerful performances by gifted musicians (that steel guitar! Those duets!) Burn the Tapes is fantastic and it should become yours.

Norma MacDonald -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Thee Faction -- Reading, Writing, Revolution

It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that I saw Mad Max. It's more like the movie happened to me. After our heart rates lowered and we stood on line for ice cream, I turned to my date and asked, " you think it was art?"

I mean, at the end of the day, it's a pretty mindless action movie. On the other hand, it was so lushly detailed and I cared about the characters way more than in most movies that actually have, like, dialogue. But the story is as simple as they come: a hero on a quest for identity and redemption, who finds out they're one and the same. (And flame-throwing guitars.) Did the movie say anything new? No. But it also told the world's oldest story in an entirely new way. And isn't that art?

Much like Mad Max, Thee Faction tells us a familiar story with familiar elements. They're a punk/ska band with some of the smartest anarcho-socialist songs I've heard. They're a little too much fun to be angry, but they're too earnest to be a party band. Thee Faction is not exactly subtle. And when you stop and take a listen, you realize there's a lot behind those trumpets and group chants. In particular, this album focuses on the nexus of education, capitalism, and imperialism, a cause that is near and dear to this history teacher's heart.

But don't take my word for it. You have to hear them tell it for themselves. Like Mad Max, you'll be surprised when you find yourself stopping and thinking -- and it's very much worth the ride.


Thee Faction -- Official, Store

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ben Trickey -- Alabama

Ben Trickey wowed the pants off of me with his release Rising Waters a few years ago. Ben's been quiet since then but he hasn't been silent. Instead of a full-length, Trickey's been releasing a...trickle...of 7"s and live albums since. Alabama, released today, is the last in the series.

Obviously, this is a short chunk of music but it's intense. Trickey's emotionally resonant tremble gives urgency to the lush imagery in his lyrics. This isn't poetry and it's not some sad dude singing about songs. It occupies that magical space in between.

Ben Trickey -- Official, Facebook, Preorder from Ben Trickey's site, Spotify, iTunes

Monday, June 8, 2015

Dan Destiny -- Some Goddam Songs

Dan Destiny's eclectic sensibilities are what we teachers like to call "a mind at work." Dan paints vivid pictures on a lavish country pop canvas. Each song is distinct and distinctly a helluva ride. Dan's letting us listen to all of them for free on Soundcloud, so enjoy!

Dan Destiny -- Facebook, Bandcamp, Soundcloud

Friday, June 5, 2015

Stephen Lee -- The First Three

I forgot that I put this blog on my resume. I...really need to be careful about what I put on here. Though I don't think there's anything on here my mom would be ashamed of. I'm not sure if my mom would like Stephen Lee's music though I guess she'd think it's pleasant enough. Which means you and I would definitely like it.

The First Three: "Home," "Too Drunk To Punk," "Stephen Lee EP" cover art

Like many before him, Lee quit (or at least took a break from) a life of hell-raising punk rock to produce three EPs of bracing acoustic country punk. Lee wrestles with the in-between: a little too suburban for working-class punk and a little too urban for country songs. Yet this is where Lee feels most comfortably and, frankly, I can definitely relate.

Lee's touring the Midwest and Southeast in the next few weeks. If he's in town, you should stop by.

July 2nd – Thu // 9pm // No Cover // Shepherdstown, WV - Devonshire Arms Café and Pub 107 S. Princess St. Shepherdstown, WV 25443 

July 3rd – Fri // 9pm //  //Columbus, OH (July Fest Day 3) - Bernie's Bagels and Deli/The Distillery 1896 N. High St. Columbus, OH  43201 /

July 4th – Sat – Chicago, IL (House Party)

July 7th – Tue // 8pm // No Cover // Muncie, IN - The Acoustic Room - 1501 W. Kilgore Ave. Muncie, IN 47304 

July 9th – Thu // 9pm // No Cover // Wynadotte, MI - The Rockery - 1175 Eureka Rd. Wynadotte, MI 48192 w/ Robert "Fireball" Mitchell 

July 10th – Fri  // 8pm // $10 adv $15 door // Grand Rapids, MI - Tip Top Deluxe - 760 Butterworth St. SW, Grand Rapids, MI 49504 w/ Brother Dege Legg

July 14th – Tue // $5 // 8pm // Pittsburgh, PA - Howler’s Café - 4504 Liberty Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15224

July 16th – Thu // 10pm // No Cover // Charleston, WV - The Empty Glass 410 Elizabeth St. Charleston, WV 25311

July 19th - Sun // $10 Day Pass //  Untitled Music Festival, New Castle, VA - 5398 Little Mountain Rd. New Castle VA, 24127

Stephen Lee -- Facebook, Bandcamp

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Shane Sweeney -- Complex Ecosystems

It goes without saying that I'm going to love anything written by Shane Sweeney. So yeah, I love this EP. I'll tell you why.

These songs feel more rich and textured than anything Shane's produced to date -- even though these songs are mostly just Shane and his guitar. The songs chronicle the quotidian -- breakups, lost love, self-doubt -- and make them into the stuff of epics. I haven't figured out the science behind the magic  yet since I simply haven't spent enough time with the album. But I also don't really want to try to figure out. At the end of the day, these songs are lyrically dense and musical sparse. Shane has found the sweet spot of songs that are profound and express many ideas and songs that you actually want to listen to. It's exciting to see someone whose work I already have a deep and lasting love for continue to come into his own.

Shane Sweeney -- Preorder/purchase from Last Chance Records, Stream and purchase all tracks from Bandcamp

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Ballroom Thieves -- A Wolf in the Doorway

Stage presence counts in rock'n'roll, and after watching the Ballroom Thieves play for a couple of songs, you'll be rooting for them, too. I was first introduced to them during last year's Campfire Music Festival, which consisted largely of regional bands that I hadn't heard of (in addition to, unfortunately, the Delta Spirit. I will use this blog as a platform to shit all over them.) I'll forgive the Thieves for their Boston roots, though. The trio took any and every opportunity to play music -- whether it was on the formal stage or late-night campfires. The joy they take in playing music -- with each other and in general -- is spellbinding.

As for the music, it may feel a lot like Mumford and Sons and other, er, admirers, coming out of Brooklyn but I'd like to think that the band's energy distinguishes them from the (wolf?) pack. These songs aren't meant to simply be pretty or whimsical. These are statements by emotionally intelligent people who are also incredibly intelligent and engaging musicians. If you get the chance to see the band live, you should. While the recording captures the band's energy, it's better to see them live.

The Ballroom Thieves -- Official, Facebook, iTunes, Purchase CDs and vinyl directly

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Yes Ma'am -- Stirrin' Da Mud

Summer in New York City is pretty brutal. But among the strangers' BO, the sense that I'll never walk outside again without getting sweaty, and fearing to tread outside, the thing I hate most about summer in the city are all of the crustpunks. Maybe it's always been this way and I just hadn't really ventured downtown, but to me it seems like they've descended on the NYU/Union Square area in droves for the past two years, and the numbers are constantly increasing. I don't know why they bother me so much. Maybe you just can't take the Upper East Side (read: Wall Street money) out of the girl, but I just feel like if I'm going to give money to a homeless person, I'd rather give it to someone who can't get medical care and housing because of a racist, warmongering, neoliberal system rather than somebody who "chose"* to opt out of the system and is literally sitting around waiting for a handout. If you hate the way society works so much, try to change it instead of abandoning it and acting like it's some grand gesture.

Or maybe I wish I was cool enough to leave it all behind and ride trains. Tim Barry makes it sound pretty fun.

But the fact of the matter is that some of the best and smartest folk music on the scene today is produced by folks in the crustpunk scene, like Blackbird Raum and Alynda Lee Segarra in Hurray for the Riff-Raff. Segarra came up through jam sessions in the French Quarter. New Orleans seems to have carved out a space for crustpunks in their alternative lifestyle scene, and watching all these kids with piercings and guitars huddling together to hone their skills in the pouring Mardi Gras rain was a beautiful sight. So I get why they flock to NOLA, but unless there' some kind of squatter enclave in Alphabet City I cannot imagine for the life of me what's in the brutal heat of a New York City other than the sheer number of people to get money from.

Enter Yes Ma'am, a NOLA-based old-time band that I saw when they set up in the middle of a street in the French Quarter and began to play. They sold their hand-burned-and-stamped CDs in paper bags (hence the lack of a cover image in the review.) While the band takes their cues from roots and folk music, the shake and swagger of New Orleans -- not to mention the city's unbridled sense of fun -- spices these songs about " the best things in life: fried food, pretty women, ramblin', and loving your mother." These songs are fun, loose, and bawdy (see "Blue Ball Blues") -- this must be what a dancehall must have been like in the 1800s.

Yes Ma'am went ahead and made another album between Mardi Gras and now. I haven't listened to the whole thing but it seems to be more of the same -- banjo music for parties and making you want to shake your butt. You can check both of them out on Bandcamp.

Yes Ma'am -- Facebook, Bandcamp

*I work with enough teens in the Bronx to know that leaving the house often isn't really a choice, even if the kid thinks they're doing it on their own terms

Monday, June 1, 2015

Pharis and Jason Romero -- A Wanderer I'll Stay

 There are some people who write folk music, and then there are people who act as guardians of the past. Pharis and Jason Romero are the latter. Their latest album, A Wanderer I'll Stay, is a deft combination of original compositions and traditional songs. For their day jobs the couple make their own custom banjos, so it's fair to say the Romeros know what the hell they're doing. For a non-expert like me, it was almost impossible to tell the difference between the Romeros' songs and the traditional songs. Not that it matters -- they're all beautiful in their simplicity and the mournful longing the Romeros bring to their songs.

"Goodbye Old Paint," a traditional cowboy song, makes me want to cry with its immediacy. Meanwhile, the Romeros' own "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" pulls at your heartstrings in all the right places -- a lover gently testing another's boundaries, a conversation that could just as easily happen in 1915 as in 2015. A Wanderer I'll Stay has earned the Romeros quite a bit of recognition, and for good measure. Its timeless quality reminds us of the powerful connections we can make with carefully crafted songs.

Pharis and Jason Romero -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, Purchase directly from Pharis and Jason