Monday, October 31, 2016

Robert Ellis -- Robert Ellis

Robert Ellis keeps getting robbed. The Lights From the Chemical Plant, his breakout album, was on of my favorites of 2015 but was overshadowed by (I believe) Jason Isbell. This year, his self-titled third round was shunted off to the side by its shared release date with Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to the Earth. Because I strive daily to be the change I wish to see in the world, I am here to correct that wrong.

I'm not sure it would be fair to call this a country album. Certainly Ellis' soulful tenor and twang call the genre to mind. But much like his erstwhile rival Simpson (I don't think that's the case but I'm going to pretend it is), Robert Ellis takes great joy in taking that 70s Nashville sound and turning it completely on its ear.

The album plays with narrative ingeniously, and I would certainly expect nothing less of Ellis. "Perfect Strangers," the album opener, sets the tone describing the arc of a relationship -- from blissful ignorance to the familiarity that breeds contempt. Through the album, Ellis explores the perspectives of both parties through swagger, loneliness, and a meditative instrumental break. At times we get the sense that Ellis is gently making fun of himself. However, this humor does more to draw the listener in than to isolate. With this album, Ellis asks to consider the most epic tale of all: an ordinary human life.

Robert Ellis -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Barnes and Noble (?!), iTunes

Friday, October 28, 2016

Paul Sanchez -- Heart Renovations

In "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles," Paul Sanchez notes that he always spends more money than he makes when he stops in New York City. That was certainly the case last week at Hill Country. Paul accidentally booked the show during the final presidential debate, second-to-last Cubs playoff game, and some basketball game. So there were only seven of us stalwart souls there to soak in the music. Paul gave his check to the waitstaff to cover the tips they should've made.

That might give you a sense of the salt-of-the-earth type Paul is -- not to mention that he knows this business like the back of his hand. Most of the night, Paul played requests from his longtime fans, digging deep into his catalog. Released on the twentieth anniversary of Paul's first album, Heart Renovations serves as a sequel to Jet Black and Jealous.

On Monday, Matt Woods lamented that nobody's yet been smart enough to write the book on how to survive. But if anyone's qualified to draft it, that would be Paul Sanchez. Heart Renovations meanders through recollections of new love, lost love, Hurricane Katrina, and travels through the country. Clocking in at twenty songs, the album serves as a reminder that Paul still has lots to say. (Though the album might have benefited from some editing -- a couple of songs sound rather off the cuff. But the latter half of the album truly picks up steam.) But at the end of the day, the most important lessons are to find peace with where you are now, and that usually all you need is a guitar and four chords.

Paul Sanchez -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Louisiana Music Factory, Amazon

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

INTERVIEW: M. Lockwood Porter

Haven't done one of these in a while. This time around, instead of sending a list of questions, Max and I wrote back and forth. This exchange mostly involved Max gently reminding me to ask him more questions. I appreciate his patience! If you haven't had a chance to read or listen to Max's latest album, How to Dream Again, hie thee here. Other than personal exchanges between Max and myself, the interview is reproduced below.

OK, so for the folks at home, could you tell us about your teaching experience? How do you feel it influenced your music pre-How to Dream Again?

After I graduated from college in 2009, I moved out to the Bay Area to teach middle school English. I had joined Teach For America, which is a two year commitment, but I ended up staying on for a total of four years. If you don't know what Teach For America is, it places teachers in low-income schools across the country to try to improve educational opportunities for kids in those communities. I ultimately felt that their model was flawed, but the social justice aspect of the organization appealed to me. 

I ended up having a really good - if also often stressful and frustrating - experience at the school where I taught. I was drawn to teaching because I liked the idea of helping kids think about their lives and their futures - I wanted to be the "cool English teacher", I guess. It was really rewarding, but it ultimately wasn't the right fit for me. I think I'm too much of an introvert to teach for 6 hours a day, and I just had other ambitions.

I had wanted to be a musician since I was five years old, but I was at a point in my life where I had kind of given up on that dream. Teaching was kind of a Plan B that ended up becoming my Plan A for four years. By early 2013, I was about to finish my first record Judah's Gone, and I just knew that I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I didn't commit to music more fully.

I wrote most of 27 shortly after I left the classroom. I think I still had this sense of needing to make up for lost time, and I was scared that I had missed out on something by only committing to my musical ambitions half-heartedly up until that point. I think that's most present on "Restless" and "Mountains". So before How To Dream Again, I think my teaching experience only influenced my songwriting in that teaching had been this "Plan B" that I felt a need to break away from.

That all makes sense. In "Sad/Satisfied," though, you make fun of yourself a bit for only writing love songs. Were your pre-teaching politics enough to push you to write more political songs or did teaching help you put a fire in your belly?

I feel like my experiences as a teacher were one component of a much larger political awakening and education that I underwent during my 20s. I became a teacher in order to play some small role in helping make the world a better place, but I left feeling like there were much larger systemic forces that created the cycle of poverty that my students were in. So I went off and learned more about those economic, racial and historical factors on my own time.

In hindsight, I don't think I really wanted to be a teacher at all - I wanted to be part of a movement. Teaching is a very detail-oriented job, but I was all about the big picture. When I realized that a teaching career wasn't a very efficient avenue for the kind of social change I wanted to be a part of, I lost interest. I admit that's a little childish, but I think I made the right call. Kids need teachers that are committed to the profession, and that just wasn't me.

I left teaching in the summer of 2013, and the following year and a half was a pretty self-centered time for me. I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out how to throw myself into music and still pay the rent. I went from having this very broad focus on my place in society, to having this very narrow focus on "succeeding" as a musician. For maybe the first time in my life, I had really bought into a "rat race" mentality, although it took me a while to realize it because the music industry seems on the surface like such a non-mainstream path. I had convinced myself that I was living by my values because I was "following my dream".

"Sad/Satisfied" is specifically about trying to snap out of that "rat race" mentality, and striving to make art that reflects my values, rather than what comes easily or what people might want to hear. One part of that was engaging with the side of myself that I'd neglected when I quit teaching - the side that's interested in being part of a larger movement for social change. In 2013, I had decided that teaching was not the best way for me to be involved in social change, but I hadn't found a new outlet for that energy and I could feel it welling up. I thought I'd try writing about it.

I'd also become bored from hearing thousands of variations on "I'm really sad" in songs. That is the theme of many of my favorite songs, but if it's not done well it just comes off as self-pity. I didn't want to come off as one more self-pitying white guy, especially since I was starting to feel really good about my life, my career, and my relationships. I wanted to be less of a victim in my songs - I wanted to be someone who was fighting for something. "Sad/Satisfied" is me attempting to answer the question, "If I'm not going to be just one more bummed-out songwriter, what am I going to be?" The answer came as I wrote the song: "Don't be so sad / (but also) Don't be so satisfied".

Something I found particularly striking about the album is that you're very intentional about positioning yourself as a straight white man. (Or at least, your recorded love songs seem to be directed at women. Not asking you to self-identify here.) A lot of folk music tends to position the singer at the center of the movement, but you haven't done that. I dabble in songwriting myself but I haven't figured out how to comment on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement without sounding like an ass, but you pulled it off beautifully. How did you balance your desire to be a part of social change without making yourself or your white outrage the focus of your songs?

Well, I just am a straight white man. I'm not going to try to pose as something I'm not. But I'm also aware of my privilege. I think a lot of the songs are about me exploring my privilege and asking myself what role I can or should play as an agent of social change. I was just trying to have an honest conversation with myself about that, and the songs came out the way they did. In a lot of political songs, the narrator (whether it's the songwriter or another character) is often on the receiving end of some sort of oppression or injustice. If you're a person with a lot of privilege, it's harder to write from that angle. You have to be more of an observer, reporting on what's going on. That's what I ended up doing on a lot of these songs.

Where do you see yourself as a songwriter fitting in to the movement for change? Are there other ways you contribute as well?

I don't have some grand scheme about how these songs fit into any sort of movement. I wanted to write songs that engaged in broader political and moral conversations that I noticed were going on. I feel like we're living through a time of great transition - I don't think anyone has a clue what our country will look like in 2 years, let alone 10 - and I didn't want to feel like I was sitting on the sidelines. As an artist, it just intuitively felt like the right move for me. 

I feel like this album is the beginning of a larger personal change for me. A lot of the songs are about figuring out how to engage with the world as a community member, rather than as this isolated individual. I'm still learning how to do that.
This album is one of the best all year. And you can hear Porter sing it live with A&T alumnae John Calvin Abney, Joey Kneiser, Kent Goolsby, and Anna Tivel. The dates are below:

Sat, 10/29 - Oklahoma City, OK @ The Blue Door*
Mon, 10/31 - Oxford, MS @ The Shelter*
Tues, 11/1 - Nashville, TN @ The 5 Spot ($2 Tuesday)*
Wed, 11/2 - Gatlinburg, TN @ Sugarlands Distilling*
Thurs, 11/3 - Nashville, TN @ The Basement w/ Joey Kneiser, Kent Eugene Goolsby*
Fri, 11/4 - Edwardsville, IL @ Stagger Inn w/ Beth Bombara*
Sat, 11/5 - St. Louis, MO @ Dead Wax Records w/ Beth Bombara*
Sun, 11/6 - Chicago, IL @ Uncommon Ground*
Mon, 11/7 - Davenport, IA @ Moeller Nights*
Sun, 11/13 - San Francisco, CA @ Neck Of The Woods w/ Anna Tivel
Fri, 11/18 -  Oakland, CA @ Octopus Literary Salon*
Sat, 11/19 - Santa Margarita, CA @ Dunbar Brewing*
Sun, 11/20 - San Luis Obispo, CA @ Frog & Peach Pub*

*with John Calvin Abney
 M. Lockwood Porter -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, October 24, 2016

How to Survive -- Matt Woods

I spent January 1st, 2016 plunging a badly stopped up toilet, getting covered in shit, crying for hours in my bed because I couldn't even unclog a toilet correctly and I'll always be alone, nothing ever changes, the future is bleak and hopeless, etc. In "Love in the Nuclear Age," Matt Woods laments that "no one's been smart enough to write a book about how to survive." The line has struck me since I tore the cellophane off this album a few weeks ago. It's a question we've all sought to answer. And certainly there are many books about survival -- spiritual, physical, and political. But if there was a book that held all the answers for me, what would it say? Things got so much worse since New Year's Day, my life trajectory is so different than I thought it would be at this time last year, and 2017 is shaping up to be good, if not excellent. So if I wrote the book, what would it say?

The question has inspired me to write a few new songs, and I think Paul Sanchez's new album, Heart Renovations, offers plenty of response to How to Survive, but check back on Wednesday. Woods himself doesn't offer many answers. Instead he portrays characters locked in the struggle -- a struggle, I suppose, that never really ends. Is it worth breaking someone's heart to stay true to ourselves? Is an anonymous life on the road worth a potentially lonely death? "The American Way", the song's introductory track, reminds us that our way of life doesn't provide for much dignity at all.

Overall, How to Survive, sees Woods in a more mellow, contemplative place than he's been in a while. While the anthems of Matt Woods Manifesto are dear to my heart, this is a good look on Woods. It showcases his poignant lyricism and powerful vibrato. If Matt is in your town -- he's on tour with the majority of Have Gun, Will Travel backing him -- make sure you swing by. Having answers is nice, but creating a work of art that leaves the audience with more questions is far more meaningful.

Matt Woods -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, iTunes

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Flat Five -- In a World of Love and Hope

I'm not even sure where to start with this album. In a World of Love and Hope defies description -- but that's probably to be expected when you have five of Chicago's musical luminaries concocting their mad scientist dreams together. The five-piece consists of Kelly Hogan (who's received some love from here), Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall. They began performing together at holiday shows, inspired by Ligon's older brother Chris' oddball songs. As you'll here, though, these songs are all the things you want when a group of people perform music together, and the local heroes have encapsulated their performances for the rest of us.

The older Ligon's quirky worldview is certainly felt here. These are smooth, 70s-style pop songs that evoke love, loss, vacations, and kazoos with zeal. (Seriously, though, "Blue Kazoo" has a surprisingly heartfelt kazoo solo.) The end result is that the thoughts of all of us awkward dweebs (unless I'm just speaking for myself) are somehow translated into the effortless cool exuded by the Flat Five. Overall, this album will charm the pants off of you.

The Flat Five -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records

Monday, October 17, 2016

Plastic Ants -- Imperial Phase

If you're looking for lushly orchestrated observations on the fleetingness of mortality then, buddy, have I got the album for you. The Plastic Ants leave no stone unturned with their sophomore release -- every note feels carefully placed, but maintains a semblance of loose spontaneity. This ties in to the album's larger themes -- a grandiose critique of...well, it's hard to say, but it certainly evokes the ephemeral. While the title track, "Imperial Phase," would seem to evoke a snide acknowledgement of the fall of the bourgeois (always my go-to interpretation), it could just as easily refer to a starlet's fame or, more broadly, any individual's sense of control over their life.

But I think I'm reaching a little too far here -- at surface level, we're watching the rise and fall of a Hollywood starlet. And while this may sound a little overworn (what is it about middle-aged guys writing concept albums about beautiful young women confronting aging?) Plastic Ants does a nimble dance. We don't feel sympathetic for this character, particularly, nor do we hate her. Like most celebrities, we're just along for the ride, watching as she wreaks destruction in her wake. But Imperial Phase ends on a transcendent note with "You Will Find Love," a reminder to all of us -- famous, beautiful, young, or old -- that it's often the moment when we relinquish control that we find what we've been looking for all along.

Plastic Ants -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

VIDEO: Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Don't Walk Away

In honor of National Coming Out Day (yesterday), it seemed fitting to give a hat-tip to Aaron Lee Tasjan. I couldn't find the Facebook post in which Tasjan comes out, and as far as I've seen it barely caused a ripple in the "scene." But as far as I'm concerned, it should -- there are so few out men in rock'n'roll -- let alone country music -- and Tasjan is courting national attention. When someone chooses to flout the stigma that is often attached to out men, it's always worth celebrating.

Another fun fact I discovered about Tasjan today is that he played in glam punk band Semi-Precious Weapons, which was the only decent band to play at my sister college for the entire four years I was there.

As for "Don't Walk Away," it's trademark Tasjan: driving hooks and smart, misanthropic lyrics. I didn't review In The Blazes because I felt I didn't have much to add to the heaps of praise it received. But if you haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, definitely do so. Better study up, though, because his next album, Silver Tears, will be out on the 28th.

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Official, Facebook, Purchase In the Blazes

Monday, October 10, 2016

Two Cow Garage -- Brand New Flag

I typically like to review albums once they've been released, but watching the second presidential debate before reviewing Two Cow Garage's latest release Brand New Flag (due Thursday) seemed fitting. When my one-percenter, Trump-supporting dad is, without irony, discussing the fact that it doesn't matter how ridiculous he is, at least Trump will give him a tax cut -- and that even though he's used this line many times in the past, Trump's the first Republican candidate in my memory who actually thinks like my dad -- it's abundantly clear that this election is not about whether or not Trump or Clinton wins. When both candidates think an acceptable response to a legitimate question about Islamophobia is to continue to talk about Muslim people -- to a Muslim person's face -- as if they are outsiders in America and it's "their" responsibility to regulate "themselves," it's about whether the rest of us stand to lose a lot or little from the next election.

The release of this album shortly before election day is no accident, but I'm not sure if anyone could have predicted how high-stakes this election would become when Micah wrote "Let the Boys Be Girls" two years ago. I think these songs would have been important regardless. Death of the Self-Preservation Society, the band's previous release, left us with a deft deconstruction of late-stage capitalism, zooming from macro critiques of our modern society to the sense of crippling isolation it foists upon us as individuals. The more I listen to Self-Preservation, the more I appreciate the album as a whole for its craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the band had a bit of a Metallica moment with the album -- a lot of people just couldn't stand the mix. The good news here is that Brand New Flag was mixed by Joey Kneiser (of Glossary fame and producer of Austin Lucas's latest album.) Brand New Flag is gorgeous, and it's not just because of the content. Kneiser brings gravity to these songs, giving the album opener, "Movie," a stately grace, but allowing rockers like "Brand New Flag" and "Beauty in the Futility" to be as bold as they are live. With the addition of Todd Farrell Jr. on guitars and vocals, Kneiser does an amazing job of highlighting the band's new vocal and sonic palette.

Brand New Flag is not bashful about its political messages. Most of the time, this is what we've come to expect from Micah and Shane -- pointed barbs that cut to the quick and have a slow burn that will make you think a while. This time around, some of the songs are not quite as subtle (see "A Lullaby of Sorts" -- "So load your guns and say your prayers/Just kidding there is no God"). But overall, Brand New Flag does what it came here to do: arm us with the piss and vinegar we need to not just go out and vote but, as "History Now!" urges us,  take some real time and energy into creating the world we actually deserve.

In some ways, Two Cow Garage leads by example with this album. "Lullaby" seems to cut the album in half and the band closes it out with some of their most experimental and revolutionary music to date. I wrote a while ago that "Let the Boys Be Girls," the opener of what I think of as side two, was particularly meaningful for me as one of the few obviously queer people in the crowd at a TCG show. It's one of those things that shouldn't matter but does -- when three (now four) straight (as far as I know) white guys sing about the importance of LGBT rights and women's choice, it makes a huge impact. Like M Lockwood Porter did on his album, the band is not positioning itself as an expert or the hero of these struggles: they are positioning themselves as allies, which can be hard to maneuver in a three-verse song. "Shakespeare & Walt Disney" is a tango (of all things) that points out the fallacy between Hollywood love, actual intimacy, and trying to remain true to oneself in a cultural that literally exists because of conspicuous consumption -- something I've spent the last few years trying to figure out.

The real departure here is "I Promise," which feels more like a spoken word piece than a song. It is clearly one of the performances of Micah's lifetime and, as a recording, is just amazing. In it, the narrator begins with a litany of what my therapist refers to as negative self-talk, only to cut through it by the end. But the fact is that I like to listen to music before I go to sleep or while I'm doing work and this song scares the bejeezus out of me, so it's the main reason I have not spent much time listening to the album since I got it a month ago, but I sure as hell have been thinking about it a lot for the last month -- and that's probably more important. It's worth noting that the two songs I have the most trouble with on Brand New Flag -- "Lullaby" and "I Promise" -- serve as the thematic and musical linchpins of the album. Brand New Flag may be rife with killer hooks, but this is not meant to be easy music. But neither are the solutions to the things that make us feel like this in the first place.

I may have said a lot here but I wanted to highlight one more song, even though it interrupts the flow of this review. I've written in the past that Two Cow Garage's albums have a weird way of connecting to whatever it is I particularly need to hear in the moment. I thought that "Let the Boys Be Girls" was going to be that song when I heard it live a few years ago but -- fortunately and unfortunately -- I was dead wrong. When I heard "This Little Light" this past February in Philly, I thought I was going to get down on my knees in the middle of that church basement. It recounts Micah's being robbed at gunpoint in a gas station and his dealing with the aftermath. As a survivor of assault myself, it's what I needed to hear at the moment, so I'm including it below. Not because I necessarily think it's the best song on the album (though it rates really high on my list), but because I hope that by putting it online, it can help empower someone else. Whether we're talking personal or political empowerment (and in the end, it's the same), that's what music is for.

Two Cow Garage -- Facebook, Purchase from Last Chance Records (Releases 9/14)

Friday, October 7, 2016

John Calvin Abney -- Far Cries and Close Calls

There must be something about Tulsa that inspires thoughtful alt-country. Not sure what, though, considering it is (to me understanding) the least pedestrian-friendly and most obese city in the country. But it's given us John Moreland, M. Lockwood Porter, and their associate, John Calvin Abney. Abney's a musical chameleon, launching himself between a Dylan-esque sneer in "Goodbye Temporarily" and the sweet earnestness of the ballad "Way Out."

Abney deals in classic rock tropes and cutting lyrics. This is an album that'll go down smooth with some beer (or other beverages) and a poker game that's more shooting the shit than serious odds. With this album, Abney shows his versatility and ability to craft a song around a mean hook. But I also see hints of greater things to come -- if Abney can shape his deft lyrics and potent melodies around impactful statements, he'll do credit to his hometown.

John Calvin Abney -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Happy Talk Band -- Starve a Fever

Alex McMurray is involved in so many projects (many of which have been featured here), it would be easy to assume that he's the only guitarist in New Orleans. That would certainly be true if you were an attendee of Chazfest, one of the coolest things I've had the privilege to witness. From what I can tell, it's an outdoor concert of all of McMurray's bands (plus a few others) featuring New Orleans celebrity Washboard Chaz taking solos, all in McMurray's backyard. Unfortunately, due to the rising rents in the Ninth Ward (let's not kid ourselves and call it what it ain't, Sotheby's) this was the last year of the festival. For now, anyway.

While I heard a lot of amazing music there, the band that touched the darkness in my heart the most was the alt-country act Happy Talk Band. Lead singer and songwriter Luke Spurr Allen commands the stage with a growl and purpose of a maniac. Songs like "Mugger's Waltz" display an acid wit -- it's easily one of my favorite songs that I've heard this year.

Allen isn't afraid to delve deeper into the gothic -- "Answer Me" feels like a bad trip. Hearing these songs live help juxtapose the doom-and-gloom outlook with the big old party it's meant to kick up -- it's almost as if everyone in the audience is somehow in on a fatalistic secret: that life is Hell but at least we can have fun for a few minutes. But Happy Talk Band is by no means Murder By Death-esque; they just cut a little deeper than, say, Two Cow Garage might. But make no mistake -- Happy Talk Band stands up to the best of them, churning out their pronouncements like this is the last party they'll ever get to play at. (But it probably wasn't; I believe they're in the studio recording their fourth album.)

Happy Talk Band -- Official, Facebook, Purchase older albums from Louisiana Music Factory (I think I snagged the last copy of Starve a Fever), CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon

Monday, October 3, 2016

Luke Winslow-King -- I'm Glad Trouble Don't Last Always

It's pretty common to see people dancing along to their music on the subway. I find myself fascinated by the many bubbles we lock ourselves into, made transparent when someone taps their feet or sings along with a choice lyric. Last week in the Bronx, though, I was probably the only person swinging my hips down the car to Luke Winslow-King.

I try not to be That Person. If I sing on the subway it's because I'm the only person in the car or it's like 2 AM and the other people on the platform are a relatively safe distance away. But I'm Glad is a unique album that deserves special treatment -- up to and including looking weird on the subway.

I had the chance to catch some of these songs at JazzFest this past spring, but the set was interrupted by a deluge so mighty I don't think I've gotten that wet from swimming, so the music was a bit soured in my memory. And something that the outdoor PA managed to mask was just how cool these songs are. Written in the wake of Winslow-King's divorce, these songs are churning blues rock with a New Orleans slink. Other than an outstanding cover of Muddy Waters' "Louisiana Blues," Winslow-King approaches the topic with a mixture of sadness, introspection, and optimism. While these are songs to drink by yourself to, they're also great for dancing -- even if it's a little semi-private victory dance on the subway.

Luke Winslow-King -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records