Friday, July 31, 2015

Have Gun Will Travel -- Science From an Easy Chair

So far I've seen a lot of surprise that Have Gun, Will Travel decided to do a concept album. While the subject -- Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Atlantic Mission -- is esoteric, I'm not surprised. The one song that still sticks with me from their previous release, Fiction, Fact or Folktale?, is "The Show Must Go On" about a failed actor who flies into a murderous rage. Matt Burke's flair for juxtaposing the epic with the seeming simplicity of a folk song makes Science From an Easy Chair the logical move.

The project was inspired by Burke's fiancee, who after hearing "True Believers" pointed out that the song reminded her of the Shackleton voyage. As if a seal broke, songs about the Shackleton voyage poured forth.

But I misspoke earlier when I said the album was about the Shackleton voyage. Sure, it's about leaving on the voyage, getting marooned in pack ice, wondering if you'll ever be rescued, and relief when you are, but that's not what this album or the songs are about.

A competent history teacher will teach you the facts of what happened. A good history teacher will help you understand the event's meaning in its greater context (as the opening track tells us, the voyage was launched just as World War I broke out -- so I guess this was missions was supposed to be British propaganda?) But a great history teacher will help you understand the greater lessons we can learn: the human drive for curiosity and glory, the interminable boredom of the voyage (the album is named for a book read aloud to the crew while they were stuck on the ice), fear, and the sense of accomplishment at meeting the most daring challenge there is, even if the mission itself never met its objective. (Modesty does not permit to say what kind of history teacher I am, though I know which one I'd like to be.) HGWT can take over my class any day.

I chose not to read about the voyage until after I had listened to the album a few times -- I wanted to hear the story through Burke first. So I can say that you don't need to know about what happened to enjoy the album. You don't even have to know that this is a concept album to enjoy it (though the instrumental interludes might seem strange otherwise.) Just as "True Believers" is about the drive to continue in the face of good sense, Science From an Easy Chair is about more than a century-old media spectacle (albeit a fascinating one.) That being said, I've added books about Shackleton to my list. Who says rock'n'roll rots your brain?

Have Gun, Will Travel -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from This Is American Music

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bumper Jacksons -- Too Big World

It's 1:15 PM. I'm not dressed yet. I've been watching Steven Universe all morning and catching up on blog posts. But I feel classy AF because I'm listening to the new Bumper Jacksons album. The Bumper Jacksons' sophomore release is a massive showing: 16 songs at 3 minutes or longer, but the album never stalls.

Too Big World picks up where Sweet Mama, Sweet Daddy, Won't You Come In left off with easygoing early jazz-style swing tunes. The middle of the album, however, slows down with country ballads like "I Learned I Was Wrong" and "Trouble in Mind." The album's conclusion, "Hell is Hot" reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously and ends the party where it began. Too Big World feels like it could be an entire set at a show. With this album, Bumper Jacksons have easily established themselves as conquerors of early 20th century music. They glide between jazz, country, and an early rockabilly sound to do what music has always done: bring people together for a swingin' good time.

Bumper Jacksons -- Official, Facebook, Stream on Bandcamp, Purchase through official website

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Joanna Barbera -- FORGET

Yesterday I observed that there seem to be more folks in the alt-country scene returning to a more traditional country sound. Today, I'm going to talk about the fusion of my two musical loves: '90s alt-rock and alt-country.

If this is the first you've heard of Lilly Hiatt's debut album, Royal Blue, then you're probably not a music nerd. The daughter of famed singer-songwriter John Hiatt, Lilly's debut combines joyful rockabilly steel guitar with the pulsing, driving bassline of a grunge song. "Get This Right" is a wry depiction of being a 20-something. Hiatt's clear-eyed wit isn't just an inheritance from her father, but from a much larger tradition of music by salt-of-the-earth folks.

But Hiatt's not the only one bringing her childhood influences to fruition. I don't know if they know each other (probably not), but Joanna Barbera, who I saw perform in Nashville a few weeks ago, also knows how to pack that '90s blunt edge force into her songs.

When I saw her in Nashville she had arranged the songs to fit with acoustic instruments, which showcased her powerhouse vocals. The recordings, on the other hand, are a maelstrom of bass and distorted guitars that accentuate the themes of isolation, pain, and determination after leaving a destructive codependent relationship. There are lighter moments as well, like what I'm pretty sure is the only successful country song ever about Barbera's native New York City. (Even though I was in Nashville for 6 days, I was pretty homesick by the end of my stay. Nashville, you're the incubator for all of my favorite music but as a city you kind of suck.)

FORGET is the quintessential breakup album, but it offers other kinds of emotional sustenance as well. It's a solid effort and I look forward to more releases from both Hiatt and Barbera.

Joanne Barbera -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, July 27, 2015

Jeremy Pinnell -- OH/KY

Today and tomorrow I'm going to write about what I'm seeing as emerging trends in this little pocket of music we love. First off, it seems to me this genre is mainly comprised of punk guys mellowing out and tempering their sound with folk and country influences. But there also seems to be a movement to return to straight-up country. One shining example of this is Robert Ellis (who made one of the most gorgeous albums of 2014), Cory Chisel, and Johnny Fritz forming a supergroup and going on tour. I saw them open for Langhorne Slim last Thursday and it was their second show. In a way I enjoyed their set more because it was less choreographed. Basically, they put down the sad bastard stuff and wrote some pure country songs. They had me grinning from ear to ear (and for some reason they have that rock with them on stage because...why not, I guess). They're so new they don't have a website yet, but here's some info on Ellis' Facebook page, and here's a video for one of their songs.

Jeremy Pinnell's debut is a more sober collection, but it falls in this category as well because it is a pure, unabashed country album. Pinnell has lived the stories he tells of drugs, alcoholism, and bitterness. He places himself comfortably in the outlaw country tradition (see "Outlaw Life") but he certainly doesn't share Luke Bryan's interpretation. According to OH/KY, the outlaw life is anything but fun.

As skilled as Pinnell's backing band is, the standout here is his voice. It's raspy from years of smoking and misuse -- I imagine from shouting into mics at punk and hardcore shows. And while you're waiting for Pinnell to break out into a strident anthem, instead he croons like the world's loneliest cowboy. More than the lyrics, it's Pinnell's separation of his more recent past and his musical roots that makes OH/KY a touching portrait of a man who's ready to face his fears and grow.

Jeremy Pinnell -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gentlemen Rogues AND Kings

I can't resist a good strident punk tone, and the Gentlemen Rogues have that in abundance. But the Rogues have quite a few tricks up their sleeves. If I can mix metaphors, pop-punk isn't the only hat they wear, or even the best one. A History Repeating is fun to listen to because each song tackles a different genre. "Mocking Love Out of Nothing At All" hits you in the face, but "Cap in Hand" is an almost-folk almost-ballad. Both take on the themes of broken relationships, but one is a little more cool-headed than the other. The band's most inventive track is their cover of Erasure's "A Little Respect," which sounds like the hybrid of 60s pop and garage rock. The Gentlemen Rogues are hungry for greatness, and they've got the chops to get there.

Gentlemen Rogues -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from iTunes, Purchase CD from End Sounds

ALSO! One of my favorite bands, Kings, is finally recording their follow-up album and could use some help getting there! 

 Kings -- Official, Bandcamp

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mavis Staples AND Charles Ellsworth

A few music tidbits for today. First of all, in case you missed it a while ago, Anti- Records artists Son Little and the legendary Mavis Staples have teamed up to create a nifty EP called Your Good Fortune. I was recently accosted by a guy on the subway who saw me carrying my bass. He claimed he filled in once with the Sex Pistols. When he saw my Squier imitation jazz bass, he pointed out that the 70s are coming back.

That's certainly true in the resurgence of certain R&B and funk artists among those Brooklyn kids lately -- Charles Bradley, George Clinton, and Wanda Jackson still perform. But I think Staples has been the most interesting in terms of picking collaborators. While Staples' work with Tweedy has produced some great gospel-like albums, her work on this EP allows her to stretch back into the soul category she conquered when she was younger. Staples' depth of experience brings Little's spare compositions to life. I hope there's a full album down the pipeline for the two of them -- they're a great match for each other.

Mavis Staples -- Official, Purchase from iTunes, Purchase from Anti- Records, Bandcamp

Secondly, if you haven't blown your music budget for the day, New York-based singer-songwriter Charles Ellsworth has started his own Not a Kickstarter to fund his next album. For $10 or more you can get his entire back catalog (33 excellent folk songs!) and help him make more music.

Ordinarily I'd embed the video/plea and while it's clever and it's worth your time, here are some examples of what your $10 will get you.

Charles Ellsworth -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Charles Ellsworth

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Honey Dewdrops -- Tangled Roots

To listen to the Honey Dewdrops' Tangled Roots, one would think they lead a somber and melancholy life. The opening track, "Same Old," captures the monotony of daily life and a hint of wanderlust. "Young," my favorite track, reflects upon what happens when all your friends start "growing up" around you, and the sense of isolation we share in the Internet age. "Loneliest Songs" seems to speak to the quandary of the folk singer: why are all of the best songs the sad ones?

Even though the songs are sad, there's an undeniable warmth and humanity that courses through them. The Honey Dewdrops are a married couple, but so are lots of folk duos. This couple in particular has a chemistry that is truly rare and magical. It's one thing for two people to harmonize well (see: The Civil Wars) but it's another to combine energies and lift the song higher in the process. In this respect, the Honey Dewdrops remind me of the Indigo Girls. It's not just the Dewdrops' respect for the source material that makes them special; it's the places they take it on the strength of their own artistry.

The Honey Dewdrops -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, Purchase from the Honey Dewdrops

Monday, July 20, 2015

Samantha Crain -- Under Branch & Thorn Tree

Samantha Crain's fourth release is notable for its surefootedness. All of Crain's songs are anchored on strong, straightforward melodies that are buttressed by her delicate lyrics. The album focuses on short stories that make the everyday lives of her characters into sprawling epics. A well-placed word here, an important observation on one of life's small details there, the ultimate effect is that Crain's songs sound like something you've heard somewhere before, but they could only have been written by this unique person with her unique voice.

It may be that Crain is the only one who could have written these songs. The album is intended to be protest music, but instead of writing something more strident, Crain chose instead to call attention to the injustices faced by women, the impoverished, and Native American people (of which Crain is one) by telling their stories instead of holding them aloft as symbols. It takes a skilled songwriter to do that, though, and Crain clearly overcame those challenges. Though not nearly as gutwrenching, I feel Crain could keep pace with fellow Oklahoma songwriter John Moreland. I don't know if Under Branch & Thorn Tree necessarily has the power to change your life like a Moreland album would, but it's a very important album to have in your wheelhouse. If nothing else, it'll give you a new perspective.

Samantha Crain -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Samantha Crain, Stream on The Guardian

Friday, July 17, 2015

Black Vincent -- Teardrop Deluxe

One of the most surprising facts I learned at the Country Music Hall of Fame is that the Everly Brothers are members. I don't really hear it -- in my mind they're very solidly a part of rock'n'roll, even if they were "discovered" busking outside of the Ryman Auditorium before the Grand Ole Oprey. Black Vincent, similarly, operates that weird, nebulous space of early rock'n'roll, country, and -- with the benefit of 60 years of rock'n'roll history -- a more modern sensibility as well.

Teardrop Deluxe sounds like everything you've heard before and like nothing else. People mix and match genres all the time but it can often feel like Paint-By-Numbers. Black Vincent, on the other hand, has successfully melded its influences into a Voltron of distinctive rock'n'roll. It's so good I will even forgive them the obligatory song about Brooklyn girls. Black Vincent makes their music sound cool and effortless -- the true spirit of rock'n'roll. They're either going to get famous for doing it so well, or they'll be completely ignored because most people won't get it. I'm rooting for the former, and once you give this album a spin, you will, too.

Black Vincent -- Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Stop Paying Attention -- J Marinelli

Clocking in at 17 minutes, it might be easy to think that J Marinelli's Stop Paying Attention is a paean to distraction. With his fuzzed out, distorted vocals and the music's rip-roaring pace, it's almost as if he's challenging us to sit down and listen. But here's the remarkable thing: Marinelli played all of the instruments on this the same time. As energizing as this album is, I can't even begin to imagine how excellent Marinelli's live show is.

In true punk rock spirit, Marinelli takes us all to task for the hypocrisy of...well, everything...from the punk scene to society in general. But you've gotta stay still in listen long enough to catch his wisdom.

J. Marinelli -- Facebook, Bandcamp

EDIT (8/4) -- Turns out that Marinelli plays the instruments live, but he used multi-track recording this time around. Sorry for the confusion!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Faster Stereo -- Come On

If you're not drawn in by the confident power pop swagger on Come On's titular track, then you probably don't have a pulse. The rest of the album is like a Snickers bar -- sugary but oddly satisfying (fun fact: Snickers were the Cliff Bars of the 1800s. So they're good for you!) Faster Stereo calls to mind the glory days of college rock, reminiscent of REM or even Fountains of Wayne, with a slightly trippier impulse.

Faster Stereo seems to stubbornly refuse to put anything about themselves on the Internet, so I can't say much more than that. This is a fun album and it can be yours for the low price of $0, so definitely snap it up.

Faster Stereo -- Official, Bandcamp

Monday, July 13, 2015

The End Men -- Terms and Conditions

If there's one band I'd pick to listen to during the apocalypse, it'd be The End Men. Their bass and drumlines are nothing less than earth-shattering, a fitting soundtrack to the destruction of the Gomorrah I've chosen to surround myself with. Matthew Hendershot's subterranean vocals -- equal parts Tom Waits and snake preacher -- will put the fear of God into me even before the angels descend among us. The band's urgency and off-kilter blues riffs will make the other unrepentants sit up, listen, and wail when they've learned their time has come.

I've been a fan of the End Men's dirty blues since I've started this blog. For me, though, I find the music to be a little heavy for casual listening. Hendershot and drummer virtuoso Livia Ranalli are experts at hard-hitting blues, though I felt their last two albums painted with a thick brush. With the addition of Matthew Elia's saxophone on Terms and Condiitons, the duo's sound is not only lifted with some tonal variety, but it creates a truly unique dynamic that will definitely be rewarding on further listens. In stretching beyond the limitations (however self-imposed) of the genre, the End Men are proving their chops as artists and as bluesmen (bluespeople?) This is great stuff.

The End Men -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Chuck Hawthorne -- Silver Line

This may sound like an overstatement, but Chuck Hawthorne's debut album, Silver Line, sounds to my brain like the platonic ideal of country music. This wasn't a conscious decision. As I did the tourist thing in Nashville and stood on the stage at the Grand Ole Oprey (where up-and-coming country stars are minted), the Ryman Auditorium (where all of the stars in the golden age of country were minted), and Winner's Bar for Whiskey Jam (where bro country singers are a dime a dozen), in a town that purports to value humility and authenticity, the music that consistently ran through my head was the chorus to Hawthorne's "Welding Son of a Gun."

Chuck has lived every inch of the lives he's written about. An honest-to-God cowboy, a retired Marine Corps member who served in Iraq, and a working musician, Hawthorne's learned a thing or two about hard living, and damn if he can't cut you with his words. Silver Line has guitars. It has love songs. It features Hawthorne's weathered voice. From beginning to end, its songs brim with sadness, humor, regret, warmth -- life, in other words. Hawthorne deserves to walk across each stage I described (except for Winner's. Yikes.) This is the thing we're all searching for.

Chuck Hawthorne -- Official, Purchase

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Annie Woodward -- 2 faces on a clown

I think Annie Woodward would have been most at home in New York City at the Sidewalk Cafe back in the early 2000s. I bet she and Kimya Dawson would have gotten on famously. But she's ten years too late and, according to her stunning opening track "The Drifter," she wasn't too impressed by NYC anyways. The Norwegian folk singer is part of a grand tradition of Scandinavians taking Americana and running with it. (Does anyone know the origin of this? And why they're so good at it?)

Whether backed by her own guitar or a full band, Woodward's arrangements are sparse and functional. Woodward's real strength is her distinctive voice, at once child-like in pitch but laden with life experience. It gives her songs, which tend to be dark and meandering, an unearthly, arresting quality. This is adventurous stuff and well worth your time.

Annie Woodward -- Facebook, Bandcamp,

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Meghann Wright -- Nothin' Left to Lose

I'm fresh back from a whirlwind tour of Nashville (really it was more like four days of touristing and two days of "what do I do in this one-horse town while waiting for concerts to start?") and felt pretty humbled by the whole experience. Some of my favorite folks were featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame, if not in the exhibits than in the gift shop. I'd like to think I play a very small role in that. So it's exciting to watch someone else's career take off from the ground up. I didn't know much about Meghann Wright until recently, but I noticed she's sharing the acoustic stage at the Van's Warped Tour with one of my favorite artists, American Opera. That and Wright's own guitar skills sold me.

Wright's blues come tinged with the indie pop of Bushwick, where she's based. But she's way more than a sad lady with a nice voice and some guitar chops. Nothin' Left to Lose trucks along for the first couple of tracks until we get to "River," a full-throated rebel yell about what really waits for you once you give in to your temptations. After that, the lid is off and the album tears through themes of new love, addiction, and the search for home, barely held in check by Wright's powerful vocals. The production on this album may be slick, but make no mistake: Wright is not a tame songstress (see "Good Manners"), and she can more than hold her own when it comes to the blues.

Meghann Wright -- Official, Facebook, Purchase on Bandcamp, iTunes

Monday, July 6, 2015

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys -- Voyageurs

I don't know what it is about the lilting sway of Cajun music that speaks to me, but there it is. A lot of people think it's corny and I can see why. But Steve Riley and his band bring a contemporary kick and crunchy, distorted guitars to lovingly crafted original and traditional songs.

As I type this, I'm packing up my classroom to move on to another school. The song that hit me where it matters, "Au Revoir, Grand Mamou", sounds like a breakup that's maybe a little bit too happy. Turns out it's actually a farewell to one's hometown, and that's pretty much how I feel here: lots of nice memories, but I am leaving none too soon. But whether or not you can understand Cajun French, the emotions are there. More importantly, it's easy to hear Riley's reverence for the music. Overall, this album is a rollicking good time, perfect for a summer cookout.

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys -- Official