Friday, October 30, 2015

Cashavelly Morrison -- The Kingdom Belongs to a Child

Cashavelly Morrison's debut album, The Kingdom Belongs to a Child, is a remarkable pearl. Though the album bears Morrison's name, the project is co-piloted by her husband, classical guitarist Ryan MacLeod. Cashavelly's story is unusual in and of itself: a trained ballerina, she broke her spine at the age of 23. She turned her creative energy towards prose-writing, and she and Ryan began singing and writing folk songs together throughout the marriage. After a miscarriage and the death of her father, the Morrisons decided to book some studio time to record these songs as a "passion project." Their sound engineer convinced them to get a band together, give these songs the proper treatment, and put it out there for all to see. The press release doesn't give his name, but I'd like to find him, shake his hand, and buy him a top-shelf drink.

Kingdom is so much more interesting, dramatic, and layered than my retelling of the story. It's also probably not the album you'd expect after reading the above. There's no doubt that these songs are moody and deal with heavy themes -- the kickoff track, "Long-Haired Mare," is about a woman taking the heat for her daughter after killing her would-be rapist. However, these songs aren't heavy-handed. Morrison's voice is nothing less than captivating, and her light touch avoids the maudlin while sending chills up your spine. The Kingdom Belongs to a Child is beautiful, probably one of the most thoughtful, delicate, and elegant albums I've written about here. You owe it to yourself to give it a spin.

Cashavelly Morrison -- Official, Facebook, iTunes

Edit 11/1: Corrected Ryan's last name is MacLeod, not Morrison

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Samuel Barker -- These Lonesome Nights

Samuel Barker is both a gentleman and a scholar. I know this to be true for the first because I've thoroughly enjoyed my e-mail correspondence with him (and I owe him a follow-up) and for the second, he used to be a music blogger himself before chasing he dream (and we're an erudite bunch.) Barker's plainspoken folk punk has led him to open for both of our heroes: Two Cow Garage, John Moreland, Those Crosstown Rivals, Cory Branan...just to name a few.

Barker's sound is a little more subdued than the folks listed above. "Kerosene" is probably the most "accessible" (and loudest) track on the album. Otherwise, Barker is more Moreland than Mellencamp. His lyrics often bear the weight of a poem that's been set to music rather than a song itself. "Kansas" will twist the knife in your heart left by "12 Hours From Richmond." I'd like to think they're of a narrative -- "Richmond" addresses the fissures touring creates in relationships, and "Kansas" feels like a likely outcome -- realizing, when you're all alone and at the end of your line, that you threw away the best thing you had. But Barker's not a one-note pony: "Mendoza Line" and "It's Okay to Be Okay" add some levity and hope to the mix.

Barker makes the foibles of truly down and out people (including himself) into things of beauty. Stark as they are, they provide a compassionate view of some of our darker moments.

Samuel Barker -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, October 26, 2015

State of Country: Wimmen and Queers

A quick note to my regular readers (which, according to my stats, is only about 13 of you) -- if you've been keeping track at home you'll have noticed that I've only been averaging about 3 updates a week since the school year started. I figured I'll go back to the MWF schedule for the time being so at least there's a regular update schedule. It doesn't affect anyone who's reading this, but it does impact the artists who've been waiting for me to write them up. Sorry and thanks for your patience. This also means my writing will probably become more pompous and ponderous, as evidenced below.

So to begin -- let's talk about country music. Let's talk about its place in our lives, whether you grew up with it or, like me, have almost no knowledge off he genre itself and like to lurk on the outskirts. Let's talk about the people who are on the margins of country music: women and the LGBT community. (You can be sure I'll change the title of this article when I repost it on No Depression.)

I had the inkling to write this post a couple of weeks ago after attending Pandora's Women in Country event. It's still not clear to me if I was invited because of the blog or because I live in New York, have a Pandora account, and have "liked" Brandi Carlile and a few other country singers. I'm assuming the latter.

I don't want to piss on Pandora's parade. It was a cool event -- free performances by two up-and-comers (RaeLynn, Cassadee Pope) and Martina McBride (who I didn't stay for) and a free open bar. The event raised money for a breast cancer awareness organization (because women have breasts. What other causes could unite women?) If you get invited to one, you should go. I was able to put my jaded New Yorker hat aside for 2 hours, and that takes more than a free gin and tonic.

But it's what was said during the concert that concerned me. I don't know Martina McBride from Adam, much less the two openers. I attended because I was curious to see if there would be some kind of panel or something. Instead, I was overwhelmed by a depressing heatweave of heteronormativity that left a sour taste in my mouth.

First up was RaeLynn's set. Like most country music destined for radio, it wasn't bad. It wasn't great. It would be like eating Panera every day -- it's not bad for you, but it's not actually healthy either. The only song that struck a chord with my friends and I was a song about her parents' divorce. Maybe because it came from her lived experience and emotions or shit? Unfortunately, she lost me just as quickly with her closer, "God Made Girls."

In case the pink in the screenshot made you want to vomit, here's what God made girls for:

Somebody's gotta wear a pretty skirt,
Somebody's gotta be the one to flirt,
Somebody's gotta wanna hold his hand so God made girls

So amid the Spice Girls feminism of "girl power!" that the performers expressed and Pandora founder Tim Westergren's thoughtful comment that Tomato-gate was "fucking bullshit," we have a song that in no uncertain terms idealizes women as a force to civilize those rugged individual male-folk. My jaw literally dropped when I heard the first verse and, my friends, the rest of the song doubles down on the message. You can rest assured that my next song-writing task will be an attempt to educate Ms. RaeLynn about third-wave feminism.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to make me see red. But Cassadee Pope did. At one point during her set (and this being New York City, nobody seemed to care about her songs until she and the band unleashed some Eagles and Tom Petty covers) she launched into the normal "It's so great to see you, I'm so glad to support a great cause blah, blah, blah" patter. But THEN she said, "This is a really important time for women in country music. No offense, guys, but there is sexism in country music."

No shit, Cassadee. It's in the music you and your colleagues are performing, not to mention the attitudes you enforce by not willing to put yourself on the line and condemn it. Why are you apologizing for something that isn't your fault? Why are you worried about offending people when you're confirming the truth? Is the cis white California tech bro the only one who's allowed to be angry about your industry? Isn't that the whole problem in the first place?

Maybe Keith Hill is right -- maybe people actually don't like female country singers. Why should they, when instead of singing empowering songs like Patsy, Emmylou, and Dolly used to sing, they're peddling some Music Row songwriter's nocturnal emission of a good, submissive woman.
Listen to the mixtape (it's old-school!) on Homoground
But! There's a jackpot at the end of the rainbow. Vice's cultural sub-whatever, i-D, just ran a piece on some of my favorite people in the world, the burgeoning queer country scene in Brooklyn (just about the only part of Brooklyn I like). It featured my beloved Karen and the Sorrows, the Paisley Fields, Kings, and My Gay Banjo. I won't steal Alice Newell-Hanson's thunder, but she does emphasize how meaningful it's been for hayseeds of various stripes to find music that incorporates all parts of their identity.

Music only works when it comes from lived experience (see above) -- and that is absolutely what country music is about. Hope in the face adversity. You don't even have to be a queermo from the south to feel that -- Karen and I went to the same fancy high school here in New York. Country music is, of course, American at its heart, and the best of those songs exemplify the best American ideals: perseverance, common sense, humor -- the kind of rugged individualism that emphasis being true to yourself, rather than being a violent gun for hire. Just as country music has the power to attract a couple of private school-educated Jews into its fold, it's expansive enough to welcome LGBTQ artists and even female humans.

The artists highlighted in this article (and a number of others who don't even live in Brooklyn, whom I'll highlight in the coming weeks) write songs that matter: songs about bravery, self-love, and, of course tears in beers. Whether you're queer or not, these are songs you should care about. They are the polar opposite of mainstream country songs glorifying partying, off-road racing, and static social roles. They proudly equate being a pig in shit with happiness. They ignore another important feature of American culture, the best of them all: the constant search for progress, equality, and meaning in our lives.

Us gays may be causing all of those floods and hurricanes, but it may be possible that we're the ones who can save country's soul.

If you want to explore more queer country artists, click the various tags on this article.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Quiet Hollers -- Quiet Hollers

Quiet Hollers were one of the first bands I wrote about on here. Of the thousands of songs I've listened to since for the sake of the blog, there are several from their debut album, I Am the Morning, that routinely trundle their way through my head. The point is, Shadwick Wilde writes some memorable songs.

The band has traded its punk-rock, heart-on-its sleeve ethos for a gentler sound. Less Laura Jane Grace (that's what Wilde's sudden, alarming transports from singing to delivering maxims calls to mind) and more Neil Young, Quiet Hollers swerves from the direction I expected for the band's sophomore album, and in so doing surpasses my own high expectations.

In terms of subject matter, the band effortlessly glides between the ordinary tale of an ordinary frustrated writer ("Mont Blanc Pen") to an unassuming number about a hit man ("Cote d'Azur") to biblical proclamations of the end of days ("Flood Song.") These songs certainly have elements of emotional truth -- they're every bit as engaging as Wilde's back catalog about the frustrations of being in a tutoring band -- but the intricate details in these character studies are rewarding in their own right and a testament to the strength of the writer. In short, the band not only avoided a sophomore slump, Quiet Hollers completely obliterates the concept.

If you like what you hear, the band will be touring in the Northeast to fete the album's release. Since they're playing late at night on a Sunday here in New York City, I implore you all to show up and buy a t-shirt for me. Check their Facebook page for dates.

Quiet Hollers -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, Pre-order/purchase from the band here

Monday, October 19, 2015

Nervous Breakthroughs Split EP

Lest you decry the infiltration of synthesizers in all walks of music, it appears that punk is not dead in the Twin Cities. Nervous Breakthroughs is four songs by four different bands, and each offers a fresh take on a supposedly dead (or forgotten) genre.

"Ta-Da" by Catbath -- The trio of strange, prophetic-seeming voices supported by distorted '50s guitars is as distinctive as it is catchy. Catbath takes their music to interesting places, and I'm happy to be on board.

"Strange Relations" by Drift -- Drift's loud-soft dynamic calls early Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein to mind, though they've added a bit of psyched-out fuzz from the 2000s to take away the edge. It's all of the things I love about indie rock from the '90s up to and including today (even the first decade of this century, which was overall pretty lame in my eyes.) "Strange Relations" ties it all together in ways that make it all make it sense.

"Streets Ahead" by Whatever Forever -- "Streets Ahead" is the most straightforward song on this collection. The aggressive lyrics are softened by a deadpan delivery and a mix that pushes the fist-pumping drums behind layers of guitar.

"Bye Babe" by Daisy Chains -- This song is the one that stole my heart. According to the press info, the song is about asking too much from your partner and realizing that maybe it is, in fact, too much, so you feel bad about it but you bail. Similarly, the song teeters between surf rock and punk along a jangly, frantic, cheerful guitar line.

You can download the EP for free and find out more about the bands on Bandcamp.

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Quaildogs AND Harvester

The Quaildogs bring something special to the table, that's for sure. They seamlessly blend the gently earnest tone and harmonies of today's hipster folk with the casual, back-handed irony of '90s alt-rock. The end result is deliciously sharp. The Getting Old Factory begins with a hopeful chord, those trendy tambourines, and firmly puts us in our place:

I cook my food in a microwave
Think about all the time I saved
Haven't left my apartment in days
But something tells me that the world still looks the same

The lyrics might seem more at home with distorted guitars and a shot glass, but the Quaildogs' irrepressible determination to be unhappy makes it work. Somehow, the Quaildogs avoid irony. They capture the impatience of the early 20s ("Oh, shit -- is this all there is? For the rest of my life? For real?") with a resigned fatalism. Unlike their '90s counterparts (and perhaps a little too in line with us millenials), they accept the drudgery of early adulthood without a fight. But The Getting Old Factory is more affirming than it is a downer. Maybe it's because the lyrics are just so damn smart. With most of the songs clocking in at above 4 minutes, the album is one of those rare instances were rock'n'roll is elevated to something that is -- dare I say -- beautiful, intentional, and artistic. The Getting Old Factory is one of the best albums I've come across this year.

If you're in New York City, you can catch the Quaildogs' CMJ set tomorrow (10/17) at 4:45 at Leftfield on the Lower East Side for FREE.

The Quaildogs -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, iTunes

If hating your 20s isn't your thing but hating your ex is, check out Harvester's Mt. Tallac, which will put some punk rock pep in your step.

Harvester -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Rizzos -- Worse Things

I have spent most of my 20s railing against hipsters but I think the time has come to make a painful admission: by virtue of being an urban 20-something who wears Warby Parker glasses I, too, am one of them. And so, I no longer need to hide my shame and can declare proudly to the world: I'm not sure if I'll ever get tired of ironic lady punk bands, especially if they add a healthy dollop of 50s prom rock to the mix. Friends, I give you the Rizzos.

"Give Me an Answer" could just as easily evoke teenage heartthrobs as the emotionally unavailable dude in our sweep-left-Netflix-and-chill dating culture. Worse Things steadily builds momentum into a riot-grrl-heavy "Get Weird." I imagine the nerdy girl having a breakdown and tearing the streamers down at the gym and popping all the balloons, much like the ending of Carrie. (At least I think that's what happened. I watched it play in the background of a gay bar once. In Williamsburg. I hate myself just a little bit right now.) The album might feel a little fluffy, but I have a strong suspicion that, unlike your high school yearbook, Worse Things will hold up upon repeated viewings.

The Rizzos -- Facebook, Bandcamp, Purchase cassette (because you're that kind of cool) from Pizza King Records

Friday, October 9, 2015

VIDEO: Stephen Chopek -- "Systematic Collapse"

You may remember Stephen Chopek's Things Moving on Their Own Together. Here's the video for one of the harder-driving songs on the album, "Systematic Collapse."

Stephen Chopek -- Facebook, Twitter

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

State Champion -- Fantasy Error

If a science experiment is all about getting the same result after reproducing the experimental conditions a number of times, then I have scientifically proven that State Champion is best listened to at 2 AM when you're sobering up on the subway (preferably the D train but the A will do.) Three years later and I'm still picking up new stuff from their second album, Deep Shit -- by far one of my top 10 albums of the 730-something I've listened to for this blog. Unfortunately, I'm not drinking at the moment and I've been able to cheat because the LP includes a lyric zine (as well as a poster on newsprint. I'm not sure what I'll do with it. Maybe give it to my grandkids when vinyl becomes cool again for a second time. "Don't you kids like rock'n'roooollllll?!" But they won't hear me over the sound of their psych-folk-dubstep fusion.) Fortunately, Fantasy Error is just as enjoyable as Deep Shit while sobering up, and I look forward to the days when I can blearily listen to this album after a good night out.

Fantasy Error follows in the band's tradition of crafting complex songs about weird misanthropes. Davis has a gift with the English language that is hard to replicate in music or poetry. Even with the lyrics sitting in front of me I know that it'll take another couple of years of constant listening to begin to unpack the layers. However, for now I can say the two standout tracks are "Don't Leave Home Without My Love":

Wait one Christian minute, master
And tell me of the days how you pissed away
The sun from every rise that rose your way
And as the postal light pour
Through pores in postal brick
To postal floor
The postal clerk is crumbling up your letter
As he takes you by the neck of your sweater
And the shows you the door
He tells you "We don't take forever stamps no more"

Musically, the band has become more sophisticated, as can be seen in the gentle fills on "Wake Me Up" and the opening bars of "Sunbathing I." Just as the words and imagery have a softer edge than Deep Shit, the band seems more concerned with beauty on their previous releases. Who knew that a song about "Dickensian hangovers" could be pretty?

This might not be the album where State Champion gets their due, but it's got perfection written all over. The band is most interesting when it teeters between rock'n'roll crass and literate sophistication. Instead of toying with that border, as they have in the past, Fantasy Error is all about making room for that space in between.

State Champion -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Sophomore Lounge Records, Purchase from Amazon

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Tedo Stone -- Marshes

Tedo Stone could not have picked a better time to release his sophomore album (which, spoiler alert, is a grand slam.) Between the Alabama Shakes' ascendance with Sound & Color and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires' incendiary southern snarl starting to catch the ears of Northeastern cool kids, Stone's driving psychedelic soul is a surefire win.

Stone's often androgynous voice will bewitch you, but it's the fuzzed out guitars and dreamy arrangements (such as the hypnotic "Get Off") that will keep you trapped on Calypso. (Incidentally, are you a comic book nerd? Have you been reading Ody-C? I feel like the two would pair quite nicely.) If you've been following along with Stone's career, the arrangements on Marshes are, unsurprisingly, tighter and the themes are more "mature," which I think is braindead journalist-speak for the fact that some of the songs are sad. Stone's first album, Good Go Bad, surged with the joy and excitement of finally getting these songs on wax. Marshes feels more like a statement, but also a showy (though never arrogant) declaration of how far the band can push the boundaries of rock'n'roll. If Marshes is any indicator, it turns out those boundaries are quite elastic.

Tedo Stone -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Bottle Rockets -- South Broadway Athletic Club

The Bottle Rockets have been a band for almost as long as I've been able to read, but I've listened to their music for the first time when reviewing South Broadway Athletic Club. It took me a little while to get the Bottle Rockets. If songs about wondering where the weekend goes, being too tired to do much when you get home, and apologizing to your long-term partner when you get into a fight (again) don't sound like the rip-roaring stuff of rock'n'roll, then you, my friend, are in the same boat as I am. It wasn't 'til I got 7 songs in -- to "Building Chryslers," about a union guy on the line who isn't invested in his work (should we really be union-bashing in this day and age, though?) -- that as real as these stories are, there's a certain tongue-in-cheek element to transforming them into barroom anthems.

Brian Henneman's Zevon-esque delivery keeps the songs precariously tipped between working class anger and objective storytelling. None of these songs have even a drip of irony (unless there's something I'm seriously missing.) Surprisingly for me -- someone who doesn't generally like happy songs -- "Big Lotsa Love," "Dog," and "Shape of a Wheel," with their hints of surprise that everything actually turned out okay, were my favorite songs on the album. Middle age might not be the most becoming on rock'n'roll, but the Bottle Rockets sure make it sound pretty great.

The Bottle Rockets -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records

Friday, October 2, 2015

PREMIER! Aja Warren -- "Misbehavin"

Aja Warren's new single, "Misbehavin," brings the best of country, blues, and jazz together, wrapped with the bow of Warren's singular voice: delicate and arresting. The band stretches itself out as it explores the corners of the song's musical space, but they are closely bound to Warren's melody, creating music that sounds experimental and familiar at the same time. Keep an eye out the upcoming full album!

Aja Warren -- Official, Facebook, Store

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch

So I know Sounds & Color is way old news. I'm not writing about it as a new discovery. I'm writing to try to convince those who, like me, were nonbelievers.

The Alabama Shakes were literally the first band I reviewed on this blog. If you've seen them live at all, then you'd know that they are an incredible powerhouse -- equal parts entertainers and artists. Though I said nice things about it, their first full-length, Boys and Girls, just didn't grab me the way their live shows or even their first EP did. To be honest, I haven't listened to it since it came out. Although I liked the songs, something about the album felt stale. But I had hope that maybe the band would regroup, and at least I could still enjoy their live show. When "Don't Wanna Fight No More" premiered and sounded so radically different from the soul revival they championed the first time around, I feared that they were just chasing the Afropunk trend. It made me sad, but I decided it was maybe time to sit this one out.

Two things changed my mind. First, this video of Brittney Howard completely crushing it and giving the performance of her life, the goddess of rock'n'roll incarnate:

Second was this interview in Relix, the only cover story I read in the year I subscribed to it. If nothing else it's a stunning piece of music writing -- in lesser hands, it could've been spun as a journalist geeking out because they get to hang in both of Brittney Howard's living rooms. But instead the interview dives deep into how the band approaches their craft, their endless drive to push their own technical limitations and expand their stylistic boundaries. Between the obvious emotion Howard put into the eerie "Future People" and the obvious care the band took in recording the album, I decided it was high time to give it a shot. They also confirmed what I had expected: that Boys and Girls was a rush job by the label, who wanted to capitalize on their flash-in-a-pan moment.

This music is Different. It's unlike anything you might be accustomed to listening, certainly it doesn't sound like 99% of the material posted on this blog. But it's unique, and in spite of (or because of) its spacey futuristic feel, it comes across as deeply human.

BUT if you miss old-school Shakes, Brittney Howard released an LP as Thunderbitch. I haven't had much of a chance to listen to it (the Department of Education got tired of paying for everyone to listen to millions of dollars' worth of music on their dime, so Spotify, Soundcloud, Pandora, and Bandcamp are now blocked at work. Sadsies.) But I don't think I need to convince anyone to listen to a brash rock'n'soul by the greatest female rock performer of the 21st century (thus far.) Both of these albums are at the top of my shopping list once my paycheck goes through.

Alabama Shakes -- Official, Thunderbitch page, Facebook, Purchase both albums from the Shakes' store or other major outlets that you can find yourselves