*all music*        *all chicago*        *a hell of a fix*

  The Kicks Kalendar      Bring Tha News!        Editorials & Interviews        Arkives        I am a DJ, I am What I Play

Record Reviews:
Rogue Wave Out of the Shadows  8.8/10.
Divine Comedy Absent Friends  9.2/10.
Sloan Action Pact  9.1/10.
Ness Up Late with People  8.0/10.
Les Messieurs du Rock L' estase  7.5/10
My Secret Service  8.0/10
Catheters Howling, It Grows and Grows  8.0/10
VHS or Beta Night on Fire  7.0/10
Ness Up Late with People  8.0/10
John Scofield EnRoute  7.5/10
Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela  10/10
Iron & Wine Our Endless Days are Numbered   8.6/10
Johnny Winter    6.9/10
Pieces of April, Soundtrack   9.1/10
The Best of Frankie Yankovic   10/10
West Side Story   10/10      The Chase  9.0/10
Hello Central--The Best of Lightnin' Hopkins   9.5/10
The Best of Jimmy Dean   8.4/10
The Best of Jim Nabors   4.0/10
Blues Clues, or tips on how to live with depression:
Reissues by Lucille Bogan, Reverend JM Gates, Mamie Smith, The Mississippi Sheiks
  (all virtually perfect)
Peel Radio Space EP   7.0/10
The Shins Chutes too Narrow   8.5/10
David Cross, It's Not Funny   8.9/10
Dizzee Rascal Boy in da Corner   9.3/10
Planet Asia The Grand Opening   7.9/10
Sub Pop vs. the USA:
Thermals Fuckin' A   7.5/10      The Constantines Shine A Light   8.6/10

Sondre Lerche Two Way Monologue   8.9/10
Paul Kelley The Trouble with Success or How You Fit into the World   8.0/10
Destroyer Your Blues   9.3/10
Jon Rauhouse Steel Guitar Rodeo   9.4/10
Graham Parker Your Country   9.1/10

Contributor Guidelines

Hold it, buddy! Where the heck did Citylink go and just what, now, is this"Modern Kicks"??

All contents of this website copyright (c) Alan Jacobson, unless otherwise noted. Please contact me for submissions & permission to use anything.

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Wave B-b-b-bye to the Magic Bus

Rogue Wave sparkles the hell outta some sweet, Sixties-ish pop.


Likening them to heyday Pixies “a few simple fresh ingredients mixed together tastefully, like good Italian food”, Carl Newman finds Rogue Wave excellent, but beyond description.  Like the lead New Pornographer, Destroyer, Spoon, Super Furry Animals, The Clientele, Mates of State, and (RIYL) The Shins--folks who know a thing or three about pop music--have all similarly been enamored enough to have showered praise and opening spots at their gigs upon this little band.


Allow me, now, to present another infectious pop disc, vocally similar to Newman’s, but trading that bittersweet wisdom for an innocent, seductive sweetness more akin to labelmate James Mercer’s.  Zach Rogue’s intensely personal debut with Rogue Wave takes the listener on the road with nothing but an afghan, suitcase turntable, acoustic guitar, and a generous stack of the great folk rock records of the era the genre emerged. 


All right, the Byrds made Dylan’s bets tunes into crystalline, multi-textured art. Imagine The Byrds except as covered by Bob Dylan, trading in a world-weary snarl for an innocence coupled with an aggressive curiosity. More succinctly, Zach Rogue walks like Bo Diddley, but certainly doesn’t need any damned crutch.


Reflecting darkness while creating giddy, beautiful pop, Out of the Shadows includes some of the most well-fashioned strummers this side of Younger than Yesterday, all employed for a single noble purpose: to convey its messages of hope, innocence, and loss.  Indeed, innocence traded for sorrow hasn’t been dealt this alluringly since the Seventies.  Something of a Something/Anything? for the college radio set?  It’s too early to tell.  But Zach Rogue makes it awful interesting to try and figure out.


Deep acoustic grooves reminiscent of Bo Diddley create bedrock for opener, “Every Moment”.  Rhythmic shifts, a dramatic ebb and flow perfectly match hyper-genuine lyrics like “I used to think about you and me forever”.  “Endless Shovel” offers jazzy interplay between Nathan Petty’s skinswork and Rogue’s guitar leading to something of a semi-acoustic rave-up ala the Yardbirds, but with the volume way lower than that classic 11.  Subtle, organic keys drag “Nourishment Nation” around the block a couple-three times.  Birds chime congruously into Rogue’s seductively sweet tone in “Be Kind – Remind” and his vox wonderfully double-track throughout Out of the Shadow, suggesting harmonic unity, thematic emphasis--but a bit askew...like Garfunkle, but a cool, savvy, and easy-to-take version of the cartoon moose troubadour.


But don’t expect something simple just because it is gentle.  Rogue wields a mighty pop hammer, and, true, it is a soft one—but its comforting cush is stacked with more accoutrement, more pop spice than a chili cook-off winner.  Moog, Wurlitzer effects, and even handclaps surround “Kicking the Heart Out”.  But these are not lyrics-obscuring tricks.  Rogue certainly need not be ashamed of: “If music is my lover/Then you are just a tease/You make love to a shadow/Whose face is hollow money.”  Oy freaking vey!  Did he have to allude to the early Beatles’ best tune (and perhaps beat’s best instrumental) in the process?  Too clever by half!


Out of the Shadows ends with the grace and beauty of “Perfect”.  En route reminiscent of Westerberg’s “Skyway”, contrapuntally high-pitched backing shovels heavy meaning upon this lament to lost innocence: “Everything was perfect until you came along.”  Childish innocence practically bleeds off the end of each of Rogue’s lines closing, well, perfectly with these two simple words: “oh no.” 


Careful with this one, for you may just find yourself as I did one recent afternoon, wandering down the street, spontaneously chirping a line from “Postage Stamp World.” “You can all get in line/Lick my behind.”  Because this music, even with a line that has no right to be any good......oh, but if it had been in the hands of anyone but a person like Zach Rogue, in other words handled anything short of beautifully, it surely would not have.  Out of the Shadows is simply that fine and that seductive.


Newman casually referring to Rogue Wave’s uniqueness in pop mastery, my involuntary gushing—these are things organically derived music inspires.  And the band grew naturally.  Zach Rogue took a leave from his band, Desoto Reds, and bought a one-way ticket to New York, having decided in classic songwriter style (Skip Spence, Chris Bell, etc.) to record the songs he needed with the people he needed in the place he needed and at the moment he had to do it.  Zach returned to Frisco, dropped out of his bands and before he could spit, Pat Spurgeon (drums/keys/samples/vocals), Sonya Wescott (bass/vocals), and Gram LeBron (guitar/keys/vocals) had gathered around him--resulting in a group that  light “up like fireworks” and like “hugging each other”...all that and an upright bass?  Should be a hell of a show!



Slow Wonder: 10/10; Out of the Shadow: 8.8/10.

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Divine Comedy, Tragedy, Drama...

Regal, gorgeous, stunning, pomp-pop, Neil Hannon has outdone himself with a set of vividly dramatic imagery expertly applied on Absent Friends. Hannon "brings it" to Schubas on Friday, September 17th.


On the Divine Comedy’s aptly entitled Absent Friends, cinematic instrumentation—the unusual, evocative brand via plucked piano, congas, double bass, and a whole host of eardrum tickling by the Millennia Musicians—matches and underscores grand ideas and themes of love, loss, insanity, and the like as perfectly as the liner photos featuring Neil Hannon in a series of poses suggesting the darkest depths of romantic ennui.


A musical Valentine, Absent Friends works as both a title to Hannon’s newly solo venture and as a mini-dedication to everything he worships.  The entire album harkens to the Sixties via an overbearing Scott Walker style and the rollicking titular tribute to mythic heroes of the era like Jean Seberg and Steve McQueen.  A practical tour through people to whom he feels he shares an artistic affinity, Hannon outright howls “they drove poor Oscar to his grave” over the tune’s final and most exaggerated flourish.  


Indeed, form and content fuse seamlessly throughout the record as each tune’s music is appropriate to its subject matter.  “Come Home Billy Bird” features an annoyed protagonist.  The music is as trying and inexorable as his workaday life, wispy chorus arriving slightly louder, higher pitched, regularly, and downright existential.  This will repeat no matter how much the international business traveler tries to escape.  This is, in fact, just what happens as we find Billy stuck at his kid’s football game at song’s end.


Tension abounds in any decent art and “Our Mutual Friend” is as heartbreaking as it is pissy.  A lovely raft of violins, cellos, tambourines, and flutes coupled with a dead faced delivery throws some serious irony towards the former chum and the ex, as Hannon spitefully summarizes, “wrapped around another lover/ No longer then is he our mutual friend”.  A minor symphony follows.  The tune winds down with a couple minutes of exquisitely orchestrated music granting plenty of time to imagine sarcasm softening to sorrow, betraying the depth of feeling over the trifling bitterness recently spouted.


Hannon’s plaintive baritone adds significance to the seemingly inane, a brooding foreshadowing which is exemplified by the morose “Leaving Today”.  The outset of the tune finds Hannon rhyming “crowing cock” with “my old clock” as he tries to wrestle from a lover who clings “like the dew”.  Ignoring the clichés for the moment and trusting his urgent, potent delivery leads to the heartbreaking “To say good-bye, it breaks my heart every single time” and the gorgeously cinematic “The city’s waking up./Dreams fizzle out like raindrops/Racing down the glass,/They blur the streetlamps as we pass”. 


With patience, every visual proves pregnant with meaning on Absent Friends.  Imagine, then, “The Happy Goth” whose “clothes are blackest than the blackest cloth/and her face is whiter than the snows of Hoth”.  On paper, it seems like a straight examination, but coupled with the perkily bombastic music, one can only imagine this girl throwing on the album and then hiding her face in shame, under the covers, of course...and then turning to old standby and master marketer, Morrissey.


Absent Friends is a regal, cynical, stately, precise, but ultimately superbly sentimental minor masterpiece assembled by Neil Hannon, a man who can do anything he damned well pleases at this point in his life.  The closer, “Charmed Life”, travels the cycle of life via lyrical and musical complexity and ends sweetly with the most important fascination to those of us simply enamored with the act of feeling.  The suite begins minimally with a banjo, then swells to imply the ocean, cavorts through a carnival, and then softens dramatically to complete a perfect final statement from this weary romantic: “When I hold you in my arms/I know that this is a charmed life/A charmed life”.

Absent Friends 9.2/10. Neil Hannon brings the Comedy to Schubas on Friday, September 17th.

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A Call to Action

It’s a long time to the top if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll.  Sloan is at the top of their game.  Again.


Nova Scotians Sloan have been fulfilling a trajectory toward power-pop perfection for the last fifteen years.  But rather than de-rigueur Big Star imitation, this band named after the “bathrooms of the future” has fused the best elements of everything from AC/DC to The Who with sloppy heaps of tasty Beatles hooks, college radio cleverness, the intelligence and professionalism necessary to hold it all together, and tongue-in-cheek 70’s superstar fan club posing thrown atop to make them irresistible.


Thus far, Sloan has proven irresistible to Canadians alone.  College radio has helped to elevate them a bit.  But they really haven’t found an audience stateside.  1992’s Smeared was a decent, if generic debut.  “Underwhelmed” was a minor college radio hit and a better than average, yet typically whiny pop song of the era.  The follow up, Twice Removed found the band two albums in laboring to find their sound.  It wasn’t until 1996 and One Chord to Another that the band began to find its voice.  Sterling hookery like “Autobiography” and sophisticated powerchord exercises like “G to D” showcased a band on its way to artistic breakthrough. 


1998’s Navy Blues delivered.  Beginning with the monster riffage of “Motor City Maniacs” proceeding through the perk mastery of “C’mon, We’re Gonna Get it Started” and epic tunes brilliantly working from plain symbols of “Sinking Ships” and “Seems So Heavy” and ending with a series of closer-specific tunes like “I’m Not Through with You Yet”, this may be their definitive statement.  But not their best album, for, the follow up, Between the Bridges, finds Sloan even more confident, this time delivering a suite composed of easily digestible, 3 ½ minute, nuggets of nearly-perfect fusions of form and content like the gristly “Friends” and beautiful “Long Time Coming”.  2002’s Pretty Together was an experiment in group unity that resulted in their least effective album since Smeared. 


The new Action Pact finds Sloan back at the top of their game.  The hyper-Beatles pop of “The Rest of My Life” and the Alice Cooper killer, “Backstabbing” are indicative, rather than reminiscent of Sloan playing to its considerable strengths.  And though for my yankee dollar, the segue between Navy Blues' "Come On" and "Iggy & Angus" is one of the highwater marks of the entire Nineties, Action Pact is as tight as ever even though Sloan used outside production for the first time ever. Whereas on Pretty Together’s “The Other Man” the band was over-reaching toward pretention, the cleverness and clear vision on display in “Been So Long” contains the typically Sloan, “It’s the bridge to far and I always repeat...oh yeah...Been so long...”  The “oh yeah” thrown in simply to show that this little band is still entirely cocksure of its skills, talent, and place in pop music.   


Indeed, a band who’s started their own label (Murder Records), is so sharp and confident that they can trade instruments on stage, and has been at once smart and adventurous enough to consistently and effortlessly crank out bold slabs of loud intelligent power-pop has inspired a legion of fans, many of which, like countrymen Hot Hot Heat, have gone on to cite them as main influence and inspiration.  Action Pact came out recently and there are few better live bands. Join the fan club today.


Sloan play at Olympic Island in Toronto on Saturday, August 7th and at the Austin City Limits Festival on September 18th.

The Sloan Tally: Smeared 6.0/10, One Chord to Another 7.3/10, Navy Blues 9.1/10, Between the Bridges 9.2/10, Pretty Together 7.1/10, Action Pact 9.1/10.

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Les Messieurs du Rock- L' estase

Okay, it's like this...conceptual joke bands go a long way within the Austin, Tx. city limits. Most of the time the joke consists of pretentious people making fun of pretentious people, which are great fun at pretentious parties attended by pretentious people who love laughing knowingly and ironically at their own pretentiousness. Ha Ha Ha, it is to laugh, is it not?

I know because I lived there, and went to some of those parties--though I was by no means cool enough to have been to too many of them, and girls at those parties rarely talked to me. So, truth be told, I'm not exactly listening to this CD with open and objective ears.

The shtick is uber pretentious fey faux-Frogs, complete with beret, ascot, toothbrush moustache and thick, raspy accent, alternately boasting, pouting, panting, ranting, and rambling over music that's alternately mood appropriate. Sometimes danceable, catchy by accident, but always cocky and obnoxious, it's a lot like the type of schtick Ian Svenonius and his co-conspirators got over a decade of mileage out of, though they always reinvented the persona every time a bunch of gullible upstarts took them literally enough to usurp them.

Musically, it's not completely disposable to those not in on the joke, or to the ones who might not be amused by it if they were. L'estasse starts with a trio of decent, Nuggets evocative rave-ups, goes into a second third of disjointed and loosely syncopated Gang of Four vamped Wire funk and ends on one accordion powered shantie sing along and three droning and drawn out numbers with jazz pretentions that extend long after the joke's stopped being funny. It doesn't hurt that the approach is varied, it's focused just enough to not be completely discombobulated, but it would help if they'd mix up the song selection a bit more. It feels a little too neatly divided.

In short, the Messrs. have a way to go yet before they're art-punks answer to Turbonegro. In the meantime, they could function as a poor man's more spazzed out Franz Ferdinand.


7.5/10.  Review by Ollie Hunt.

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My Secret Service

One of Chicago's better kept secrets, My Secret Service owe, perhaps unwittingly, a debt to Big Star and the few generations of strummy, melancholy dorm pop that came in their wake. While Big Star has become a bit of a cooler name to drop among acts that lean towards subdued cock-rock, MSS stay a little to the left of the hard rock tendencies that would place them more safely in the cheekily mulletted, geekily attired and musically very conservative power pop ranks. Instead, they opt for the feedback and Velvets drone and fractured and fragmented musical dialogues that have colored many a college radio staple since the first Dream Syndicate album.

However, their strafing, abrasive guitar leads and the strident, droning meltdown that ends the CD (and gets better the longer it goes on) seem to have been arrived at organically rather than being concessions to requisite quirk. They know their noise at least as well as they know their pop, and seem to be striving for the big wave of sound they just haven't hit yet- like the big organ bridge in Big Star's "Life Is White" but with more feedback.

At their weakest they come off as maybe a little too well-adjusted for their own good, meaning they could tone down the modesty a bit and get a bit more of a chip on their shoulder, musically speaking. They could also benefit from a more invested rhythm section. However, they've come a long way in finding their voice as songwriters and promise better things to come.

My Secret Service 7.5/10. Review by Ollie Hunt.

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Ness - Up Late With People

After having seen generation after generation of rock and roll, of critics darlings and the critically maligned, of reactions to reactions to post reactions to post reactions, of genre bending and busting and twisting come and go, Ness have come forward to tell us we were closest to the truth in the sixth grade, when we loved Styx. Our youthful visions of what made the ultimate rock and roll band, all bombast and pretention and overblown capital-P Passion were purer, more honest and unpretentious than our later, adolescent, xero-fanzine influenced tastes.

Back then we were listening to music for the sake of listening to it, not necessarily trying to identify with it, though it did speak to the dragons, castles, beastly robots and desperate worldly battles, journeys and adventures of our pre-pubescent imaginations. Later, of course, we sequestered ourselves into our indie- ghettos, where actual girls might talk to us.

Like any other band who's worked any sort of indie circuit, Ness knows that big, three and four part falsetto choruses and sweeping, symphonic pocket operas are funny. So is naming the band after your frontman. They also know that, given the substance to back it all up, it's not all that funny, and so operate without kitsch and irony. Most of the time.

Opening track, "Where the People Kick It", would've dominated any airspace it might've shared with Billy Squier and Cheap Trick had it been written about twenty years earlier. "Lets Vaporize" and "Lightning Lights Up" are what Swervedriver could've sounded like if they'd swaggered a bit less and owned up to more of a soft spot for ELO. The thirteen minute, nine part title track confidently nails every ambition it sets for itself. Think Radiohead with better riffs and a taste for American classic rock radio and the Who's A Quick One and...you still don't have it. It's a lot better than it could possibly look on paper anyway. Not that Ness seem to particularly care what their reviews look like.

Sure, some of the songs drag a bit. Over the course of the whole album you may feel like you've spent too much time indoors, in the air conditioning, on a post-breakup Hagen Daaz binge. Skip The Imaginary Life and listen to the rest of it in increments.

Rest assured, to them it's not a matter of guilt, and so Ness know your guilty pleasures better than you do. Sit back and let them do the confessing for you, they're happy to do it.  

Ness, Up Late with People, 8.0/10. Review by Ollie Hunt.

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Peel Slowly and See

Chicago band, Peel, present a nice package to rip open and slowly digest.


“I Know I Can Wait” is such a fine merge of form and content, it is really difficult to believe that it comes from a band that has only been together a year.  But on their new Radio Space EP, Peel manages to knock off one pretty single with its mix of Pink Floyd atmospherics, Black Francis vocals, and stutter-stop pacing.  The EP rounds out nicely with the liltingly rocking “Radio” and the breezy “Sixes and Sevens”. 

Peel's upcoming album is more of the same liltingly introspective, shoogazey, moodrock. And to quote a well-established act from long ago which they sound nothing like, they've "only just begun." Catch this band on the rise, the scuttlebutt on their new album grassroots-level is just amazing--I've had friends exposed to them who are just blown away. They play fairly regularly. Check the Kicks Kalendar for updates.

The Tally:  Radio Space EP 7.0/10.   s/t 7.6/10.

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John Scofield- EnRoute
Oliver Hunt examines the modern jazz guitarist's latest offering.

You can't fault a modern jazz artist for striving towards some degree of
mass appeal, and honestly, this CD lets on that it should be simple. It's a
matter of letting rythym and melody tell the story, and letting the ideas
stretch out and take on a life of their own, because if the rythym and
melody are solid they will. The other, and more commonly resorted to, option
is to fall back on the uglier, high gloss studio trappings that gave us
Kenny G and like minded muzak hackery.

Scofield's last album, Up All Night, ventured precariously close to
studio indulgence without fully succumbing to it. Most of the jammy funk
workouts display an unreliable ear for non- jazz pop music and questionable
taste in which loop to base a number around. Outside of some good urban
texture here and there it's not a fun listen.

The live atmosphere seems to keep him not only honest but tasteful. It's
pared down arrangements let all the elements that matter shine, all parties
involved have an equal voice and every voice is worth hearing, particularly
on tracks such as the soul-hued Hammock Soliloquy.

While Scofield's approach may come off as academic at times, it's only
academic in the sense that he's well taught, and taught that instinct and
feeling should always be as much a part of the process and the product as
theory and notation. As a result, this album comes off as stately without
being stuffy.

EnRoute 7.5/10.  On tour now.  Check out http://www.johnscofield.com/.

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Plenty to Chew on

Verve’s new Masekela collection, culled by the horn luminary’s producer and friend is flawless.


Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela presents a solid 60 minute audio vacation from your rock and roll, your dance, your pop, your r&b, your rap, your whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  Throw this handsome new collection on and you no longer care or even notice where you are or what you are doing.  This is the transformative, nay transcendental, power of Hugh Masekela’s horn, music, and spirit.


Before I get into the review’s meat, please allow this humble critic to hop on his jazz high-horse for a moment to distill.  Jazz is expression.  Within the frame of a tune, a performer lays his message, his soul, out—he shares.  He gives of himself.  Some performers are capable of transforming anything into pure, emotionally-resonant, richly emotive expression—exemplified by Masekela’s sprightly take on the Jimmy Webb tune “Up, Up and Away” (bowdlerized by the Fifth nauseating Dimension).


Now that we’ve established character, let’s establish the setting.  Late 60’s.  A few years ago, Miriam Makeba knocked a bit of proto-worldmusic our way via her rich re-presentations of South African music.  It is she who brings Hugh Masekela to Harry Belafonte’s attention and Belafonte who would guide him through school. 


Hugh attends the Manhattan School of Music, meeting Stewart Levine, who befriends him and will later produce his recordings.  Finished with school, this phenomenally talented trumpeter, singer, and larger-than-life icon applies to bands of the likes of Miles and Dizzy, who refuse him outright, recognizing, rather knowing, Masekela has something to share, something too special to lose as a sideman.  They say: “There are thousands of us jazz musicians here.  You’re just gonna be a statistic.  But if you play some of that shit from South Africa and mix it with the shit you know, you’re gonna come up with something that none of us can do”.


But no one will sign him.  So, in order to share their lightning-jazz mix of R&B and African music, Levine and Masekela launch Oo-Bwana productions, and a bit later, Chasa records.  Grrr! comes out in 1965 to little notice.  Then Masekela plays for 10,000 in Watts.  Thus begins the brilliant musical travels of Mr. Masekela. 


Looking back via this sterling collection, how does the music hold up?  Unreal.  From Masekela’s first album, Still Grazing’s first three tracks are well worth the price of ten collections.  Backed by John Cartwright on bass, Big Black on congas, Chuck Carter on drums, and the extraordinary Charlie Smalls on piano, The Emancipation of Hugh Masekela is filled with wandering yet vibrantly tight takes on life, freedom, and everything else--all synthesized through the unique perspective of an African playing jazz/soul/R&B.


In 1968, “Grazing in the Grass”, a perky instrumental based on the township jive Hugh grew up with, knocked “Jumping Jack Flash” off the top of the charts.  The song came out shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination and the Democratic National Convention riots.  Masekela’s bright tone dragged considerably as he noticed how America was beginning to resemble the horrifying South Africa he had fled.   Dubbed career suicide by the distributor, the secretly-released Masekela was filled with heartfelt songs of protest—a minor funk vamp accompanies congas and Masekela’s moan on how he’s digging “Gold” every day, the second vocal track keys in a bit louder with authority as it sophisticatedly manages to mock and complain, “let me take this gold that’s not mine”.


1973 found Hugh Masekela and Stewart Levine trolling the world for new inspiration.  On this trip, Masekela befriended the great Fela Ransome-Kuti.  I Am Not Afraid featured several songs of protest, but some, like “Been Such A Long Time Gone” reflected great hope, longing, and spirit.  And Still Grazing’s overflowing with generous dollops of that je-ne-sais-quoi-de-jazz: spirit, inspiration, joy, sorrow, whatever you want to call it, this perfect little collection’s overflowing in it. 


Still Grazing: The Musical Journey of Hugh Masekela 10/10.  Look for the accompanying book at your local library.

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Pieces of Stephin

I thought Peter Hedges’ film “Pieces of April” was stunning. But I don’t remember coming away from the first viewing with much sense at all of the motivated, incidental music embedded within it. It’s nothing I would have sought but a few months back there was the disc, priced to move, suggesting instant cut-out status, on a shelf of Washington Street’s Rock Records, and so, like a lost puppy in the rain, it followed me home.

These turn out to be ten terrific songs, composer Stephin Merritt and the musical configurations which carry these tunes, The Magnetic Fields, and The 6ths, all previously unknown to me, turn out crisp, simple, inventive sounds, with plaintiff, haunting vocals reminiscent in tone and sensibility of The Psychedelic Furs, Joy Division, and Elliot Smith, and lyrics that are the stuff of the direct speech of everyday people, resonating with the best of NY school poetry, Jeff Tweedy-esque, if you will.

The desperate black humor of the film is well represented by The Magnetic Field’s “Epitaph for My Heart”. It begins with a comic madrigal whose text might appear as a caution on an electrical appliance and proceeds into a dark relationship post mortem: “…Who will mourn the passing of my heart?/Will its little droppings climb the pop chart?/Who’ll take its ashes and, singing, fling them from the top of the Brill Building?”

The 6th’s “As You Turn to Go” picks up the theme, turning to tender, reflective, relationship aftermath with an echo-y, emotion-choked vocal solo over what sounds like celesta arpeggios: “…I know I’m not suppose to say I’m sorry/I now you’ve had more loves than Mata Hari/but you know you’re the star of my life story/and I’m so sorry”

Lighter, sometimes whimsical, equally poignant tunes here include “I Think I Need a New Heart”, the bouncy waltz of “Dreams Anymore” and “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side”, all by The Magnetic Fields.

Other highlights: the sitar-effect that trails behind the vocal in the opening tracks “All I Want to Know” like an homage to the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby”, Merritt’s “Mr. Tambourine Man”-y melodic instrumental theme of “One April Day”, the bittersweet pledge of “Stray with Me”, and the unselfconscious, loverly abandonment of “You You You You You” sung by Katherine Whalen.

These are the kind of songs one hopes to hear on FM radio at 2 a.m. during maybe an adventurous all-nite show but all too seldom get the chance to discover. Like the movie they are from they await and are worthy of a larger audience. The first time through the disc I honestly didn’t care for it all that much, that I did not more immediately recognize these songs from the film put me off, but the more I hear it the tougher it is to get it out of rotation.


Pieces of April/Music from the Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Stephin Merritt (9.1/10) Nonesuch 79860-2
Copyright, Richard Huttell.

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The Happiest Music this Side of Heaven

Frankie Yankovic loved polka and you will too, whether or not you think so.


It is so rare to have the opportunity to write about a sonic pioneer:  Steve Popovich, president Cleveland International Records (who signed Meatloaf), “he invented what hundreds of bands all over continue to play”.  It is rarer still to get a chance to effuse over a pioneer, enthusiast, and beloved character such as Frankie Yankovic.


Frankie Yankovic & his Yanks popularized Slovenian or Cleveland-Style Polka--rather than the German “oom-pa-pa” or Polish Chicago-Style Polka which may immediately spring to mind when one hears the “P” word.  Evolving out of Slovenian marching bands and the button box music found in taverns of the era, Yankovic’s brand of polka evoked more of an American dance band style than any of the others; the music’s seductive populist appeal may have contributed to crowning him America’s Polka King in the greatest national competition to date, which took place in Milwaukee in 1948.


But the king’s love for Polka, and especially that lovely-toned accordion, has deeper roots.  Yankovic nearly lost his feet and hands to frostbite during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.  Frankie used the instrument to rehabilitate his hands.  When he returned to Cleveland, this obsessed artist immediately fattened his Yanks to include local legend Johnny Pecon on an additional accordion and threw in a Solovox electric organ to add further dimension to a music which would soon, for but a short while, captivate the whole of the country.


And it was Pecon who brought “Just Because”, a 30’s country hit for the Shelton Brothers, to Yankovic’s attention.  In 1947, Polka was nothing.  In 1948, this record sold a million copies.  In the Fifties, Yankovic and band were flown to LA to record with Doris Day and feature in films.  Ignored throughout most of the forties, cutting his own records, opening a bar, and then “Just Because” one dazzling tune with almost a punkrock feel tore across America, Yankovic: singlehandedly brought the artform national attention, won a contract with Columbia which lasted 26 years, and continued  to record for RCA, then Cleveland International towards the end of his career, for which Yankovic earned broke yet more new ground, earning the first-ever Grammy for polka in 1985 with 70 Years of Hits


Now that you know everything there is to know about The King and could easily play the polka version of that popular bar game, Seven Degrees of Frankie Yankovic, perhaps it’s time to approach the sounds.  Well, the music is just brilliant.  A lot of it may seem familiar, but none of it sounds a day old.  “Hoop-Dee-Doo”, “In Heaven There is No Beer”, “Too Fat Polka”, and the truly surreal “Who Stole the Keeshka?” are sharp, hot, invigorating.  Yankovic referred to polka as “...the happiest music this side of heaven” and the delight rocketing out of this slim, but care-wrought Columbia collection is inescapable.  Often the alchemy is so subtle that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why it is so enjoyable.  Occasionally, I’ll find myself marveling at the interplay between two accordions, the Solovox, and the strident banjo.  Usually, I’m content to sit back and soak in the magic of this sweet music rather than pick it apart as is my habit and task.  And this may be its real transcendent power: that it relaxes, inspires, and, heck, simply makes anyone happy—happy enough to forget all about how analytical they are supposed to be.


I was skeptical.  A genre to safely discount, perhaps what I felt to be a safe stem to the flow of albums into my ridiculously huge library, I had never given polka much thought aside from the usual chuckle at how goofy I perceived it to be.  Long ago, in more open-minded moments, I would tune into my local station’s polka show and find myself surprised at how much I enjoyed the music.  When I grew tired of tickling the ol’ eardrums with the new, I would quickly throw on Life’s Rich Pageant, 3 Feet High, Remain in Light, London Calling, Disintegration, Whatever--something/anything simply to preemptively cut myself off.  Ironically, many years later, I find myself virtually incapable of listening to anything but this new collection.  Joy Division, Hank Williams, Run DMC, hell, even ELO have all been whacked quickly out of the ol’ disc-o-matic in favor of my utter need to hear The Best of Frankie Yankovic.


Accordion protégé, Jimmy Miskulin, who produced and played on the Cleveland International albums put it well when he said, “Louis Armstrong, Bill Monroe, Benny Goodman, and Chet Atkins were legends.  So was Frankie Yankovic”.  I’ll go further, beyond words—which is where this art lies, and quote Frankie himself: “Whoop-dee-doo/Whoop-dee-dee/This kind of music is like heaven to me”.


Sony Legacy issued a nice greatest hits package in May.  Buy two—one for grandma, one for you; rating 10/10.

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The Soundtrack to Our Hyperlives

On exploring the film soundtrack through two of the best.


Marlon Brando just checked out.  Bought the farm.  Kicked the bucket of extra crisp...OK, sorry...enough about that for now.   Zipping through a prior century Brando left his huge mark on, one would be hard-pressed to find two more written-about or renowned musical figures than Leonard Bernstein and John Barry.  I won’t say too much about them, except to mention that John Barry was Cliff Richard & the Shadows major competition in his early rock ensemble days.  Barry also scored Sam Speigel’s awful The Chase (1966) which famously forced the masterful Arthur Penn to quit film for good after being shit-canned for refusing to alter a moment of his unflinching portrait of a small Texas town disintegrating because it would not listen to Marlon Brando as its young, liberal sheriff.  It took the mighty Warren Beatty and the revolutionary Bonnie and Clyde to convince Penn to return and single-handedly save tinseltown from its aged tyrants.

Yes, those were times of great upheaval and hopefully, ours will be as well.  Lord knows things are as ugly as they’ve ever been.  I mean, no hot young president has been gunned down.  And perhaps that’s the problem.  Do we need a hot martyred poster-child for our revolution?

I’d say yes, but regardless, we must soldier on.  And a way I stay hard is to regularly spin records at a superb local tavern.  Virtually every time I DJ, I throw on "Saturday Night Philosopher" from Barry excellent soundtrack to aforementionedly lousy The Chase.  When that jazzy, spirited tune is knocking cool moods all around the joint, someone invariably approaches the booth, just begging to know what this incredible music is.   My reply is always: “John Barry, son...yeah, the James Bond guy!  All right.  Yeah take a look!  No, I don’t have any ‘80’s Glam’...sorry, how about some Slade?”  Man, where’d I put my beer...Crap CRAP, the tune’s almost over...what next whatnextwhatwwhat...yes...yes!  Screamin’ Jay Hawkins!    

Sorry, lost in reverie for a moment.  Let’s go back again.  This time to 1957.  Steven Sondheim and Leonard Bernstien have just leveled Broadway with their tough, jazzy, and flawless Romeo & Juliet update.  In 1961, West Side Story was transferred in exacting terms (minus direct references to marijuana) to the big screen by choreographer Jerome Robbins and director Robert Wise, who apparently hated each others’ guts.  Honest.     

A controversial and high-profile figure, Bernstein made classical music as popular as it ever will be and the stabs at populist appeal are unmistakable.  Bongos, flutes, and horns jab and float with more grace and style than a troupe of musical theater-trained toucans ever could.  In other words, this soundtrack is every bit as dramatic and engaging as the film.  Real road trip stuff. 

There are other great soundtrack creators.  Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrman immediately spring to mind as both remarkable and remarkably prolific.  John Barry and Leonard Bernstein were two men also instinctive in alternately creating an appropriate mood-shifting aural background--either suggestive sound-scapes or that hyperreal hyperfeel of “event” necessary to an effective soundtrack.  These excellent reissues tell the story so well on their own that the films are redundant, especially in the case of The Chase unless you need to see everything Brando did, since he died and all.   West Side Story is just brilliant for the form of American Film Musical, with an added ironic mixture of classicism and tough streets posing/poesy.*  And The Chase?  Finer loping background sounds there couldn’t be.  A neglected form, these two soundtracks present an excellent place to start or expand your collection.

*Though similar words could describe Guys and Dolls, another excellent, extremely mannered musical which could have been Brando’s most interesting, challenging role. 

Sony Legacy just reissued both soundtracks with bonus traxx in May.  The Chase 9.0/10.  West Side Story 10./10.

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Lightnin’ Hopkins “Hello Central – The Best of Lightnin’ Hopkins”

Columbia/Legacy’s new collection of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ work done for a variety of smaller labels in the early ‘50s (mainly Sittin’ In with and Jax) gives an incredible view of this incredible musician’s work during this time.  Despite its name, it’s not a true ‘Best Of’ disc, but instead is a compilation of his handful of hits from the era and the best of his many other songs done around that time.

The back of the disc describes Hopkins as the postwar Texas bluesman who ‘personified the lonesome solo troubadour with a weatherbeaten guitar,’ and as far as it goes, it’s not a bad description, though of course it’s too simple.  It’s not easy to imagine a better blues pedigree than Hopkins’, except maybe if he had sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads at midnight one night.  As far as I know, he never did, but he did come from a rural family in Texas with a musical bent (older brothers were also blues musicians) and briefly played with Blind Lemon Jefferson while still a youngster.  He was found by a talent scout in Houston in 1946 and spent the next several years recording around the country.  (It’s from this period that he picked up the “Lightnin’’ in his name, as he was paired with pianist Wilson “Thunder” Smith on his debut for Aladdin Records.)

 Hopkins, like every other musician at the time with a brain in their head, was standing awash in musical influences and traditions, and their effect on his music is obvious.  Tracks like “Coffee Blues” (one of his songs that broke the top 10 on the day’s R&B charts) could be played like the humorous blues back-and-forth that it might have been, but Hopkins gives it a boogie influence, lightening it up even further, at times giving it a flourish that would be emphasized by the likes of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis to create a new kind of music.  “Happy New Year” takes it even further – had it been recorded by someone with a reputation like Berry, this would have been rock and roll.*

 Nearly every track on the disc lies within the 2-3 minute range.  Hopkins has mastered the difficult art of knowing what he wants to say, saying it, and not belaboring the point.  It reminds me of the best punk bands.  Even the tracks that seem much longer (the opener, “Home in the Woods (No Good Woman),” for example) clock in under the 180 second limit, as Hopkins brings the song to a short, sweet, almost abrupt ending.

 Claiming that this disc represents the best of Hopkins’ work is akin to saying that twenty-five year old girls are the most attractive.  Sure, some might think that it’s the high point, and the period represented is unarguably a crossroads for Hopkins, but it fails to be more than a glimpse of his monumental career (missing, for example, “Hopkins’ Sky Hop”) and the disc’s limited scope doesn’t do a true job of capturing anything but the best of the relatively brief time when Hopkins had a handful of hits (and it doesn’t include 1949’s “Tim Moore’s Farm”) prior to when musical tastes shifted away from Lightnin’s singular style, even though he had an undeniable role in setting the scene for this shift.

 Although the title is misleading, the disc remains with such a host of other virtues – the fine remastering among them – that it’s more than worth the price.  It’s a great collection of tunes from a great time in the man’s career, and well worth picking up whether you’re a true fan or just getting started.

*editor’s note: See, also, They Might Be Giants’ brilliant “Hot Cha”.  Then ask yourself, “what do they have in common?”

Columbia/Legacy, 2004, all contents of this review, copyright Andy Mussell.


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Big, Bad Jimmy

A fine package of that master of the country story song has just been released.


The story song has a spotty history.  Take ye a meandering to the Renaissance Faire and thou shalt..I dunno, espy...a failing actor playing troubadour, much in the ages-old tradition.  Skip forward a bunch of years and peaks of country ballads (think The Sons of the Pioneers or Marty Robbins’s Gunfighter Ballads) to Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare transforming the white man’s blues with a stunning dramatic sense in Shel Silverstein’s bizarrely humorous tunes (“Boy Named Sue”, etc.)


The spotty part?  Well, check out how very wrong things can go, how the form can be used for regressive, negative, calculated hoo-hah.  I am, of course, referring to Oran “Juice” Jones and his “Walkin’ in the Rain”.  Yep, the song is about how Oran sees his woman, yes, walking in the rain, with another guy, Oran smoovely crooning how they “were holding hands...and I’ll...never be the same”.  The height of putrid, unless one considers its megasmash status which directly led to the woman’s coldly intoned response hit of 2 weeks later: “yes you saw me and him walking in the rain”...well, the idea is plain—a story song is easy to do.  A good one is tough. 


The ballad, the story song, is such an essential and potent form that it can be unleashed for the most basic good or the worst thing imaginable.  Jimmy Dean’s superb “Big Bad John”, the first song he ever wrote, a tale of a mythical miner who dies in the deep is just about as good as one gets.  The romantic answer, about “The Cajun Queen” who brings John back to life with a kiss may be even better.  Dean’s tone of “aged storyteller” confidence, pick and shovel backing (pianist Floyd Cramer whacking a mike-boom), and dead-on production from DC-area Svengali Connie Gay's house make for just as calculated a package as Jones’s, but a remarkable combination of cunning and honesty the average sounds addict rarely finds outside of your roots music.


Even though Jimmy Dean knew precisely what he was doing, these grand, cinematic country nuggets should not be misperceived as slickened country.  It is important to remember that the big Texan led a jazzy Western Swing band, consistently recreating himself for 13 years before “Big John” broke.  Dean’s spot-on treatment of the country saga-style Johnny Horton would later build his career upon, “PT 109,” features a cleverly-rendered reference at tune’s end to “Big Bad John”, a brand of sophistication which runs pretty rampant on this collection.  The irony which can be read into “Little Black Book” and “I Won’t Go Huntin’ with You Jake (But I’ll Go Chasin’ Wimmin’)” competes only with early Roger Miller in cleverness.  Or, taken straight, these are great carousing songs, a heck of a lot more effective than their outlaw cousins would make this brand of tune a decade later. 


Let’s answer this nagging question: yes, this is the same Jimmy Dean who went on to become the Sausage King (much more respectable than the heavy-lidded pseudo intellectual who went on to become the Lizard King!).  Oddly, a later song, not included on this collection, the utterly surreal “Please Pass the Biscuits”*, may have completed the picture of Dean—created more of a full, historical statement. 


But this package focuses wisely on his strongest work from 1961-1965.  Even the corny “letter to” songs where he professes love for his daughter and Russians alike (“Mom IOU” was sadly omitted) are genuine.  Clocking in at but a slender 16 tracks, The Best of Jimmy Dean could be a hell of a lot thicker.  But would Jimmy (or John) sweat that nonsense?  “My great-grandaddy told me, ‘Jimmy, be yourself.  Because if people don’t like you as you are, they’re not going to like you as somebody you’re trying to be.’  Generally, I’ve followed that advice.  In the moments I haven’t, I’ve gotten into more trouble than a centipede with fallen arches.”


*Falling nicely into the surreal country tradition alongside Silverstein’s songs and Jerry Reed’s incredible “The Bird”, which details a man’s struggle to show off a country singin’ bird, replete with fantastic mental images, including Reed chasing and hollering after the bird, who is knocking out “On the Road Again” all the while!

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On “The Best of Jim Nabors” and Other Atrocities
by Richard Huttel

As election returns begin pouring in this November, we can look forward  to sloppy punditry analyzing why states bordering oceans tend to fall into the blue category and why all the others, save for a few anomalies, tend to the red. Here we have a curious document of that schism and what was doing it for Middle America musically forty years ago. Imagine how wretched it
could possibly be. It’s worse.  Whatever Nabors' personal politics, Richard Nixon’s campaign team must
have taken great heart in his popularity as a sit-com star and vocal performer. It is worth remembering that as opposition to war in Viet Nam raged, psycheldelia dominated popular music, and the possibility of a viable counter culture flickered, Nabors' “Gomer Pyle, USMC” comedy about a naïve mechanic bumpkining his way through his Camp Pendleton barracks was a No. 1
TV show.
And that program would occasionally showcase Nabors' booming baritone. It was an astonishing contrast to Gomer’s ardent spoken drawl. Grandmas across the country who hoped to save their young from the evils of Jim Morrison, Grace Slick, and Janis Joplin could point to the screen and say with conviction, “Now that’s singing!” as Nabors/Gomer blasted out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
I honestly believe I can listen to this disc without holding all of this against it. I mean, after all, “Hee Haw” essentially replaced “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and I quit holding that against Buck Owens a long time ago. I was even a little curious, had hoped to be able to recommend, at the very least, inspired readings of “Ave Maria”, “The Impossible Dream”, or “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. But no. There’s no way around it—this is terrible stuff.
The tragedy here is that somewhere under the lame arrangements, sappy strings, and easy listening ambitions, there lurks a strong, resonant baritone voice. The liner notes boast, “It should come as no surprise to learn that Nabors—whose vocal performances are free from affectation—is naturally gifted and required no voice training.” Back when it mattered, a classical voice teacher might have been able to really do something with this formidable instrument.  As it is Nabors’ occasions of gorgeous tones are undermined by awkward phrasing and weighty, lengthy consonants.  However heartfelt his intentions may be as a vocalist, the decades long musical career of Jim Nabors/Gomer Pyle reminds us that “military justice is to justice as military music is to music” and serves as yet another affirmation of P. T. Barnum’s assertion that nobody ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American public.

Contents of this article, copyright, Richard Huttel.

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Blues Clues

Sony Legacy has outdone themselves with their new batch of Roots ‘n’ Blues reissues.  Alan Jacobson excavates.


Everyone else is focusing on Howlin’ Wolf and his new biography.  My theory: why add grist?  Here’s all I’ll say about him, nice and precise, nothing too pretentious—just the serious LOVE Modern Kicks is known for: the Wolf’s 1951 recording of “California Blues” may just be the prettiest mixture of delayed guitar and wheezing vocals I have ever heard. 


But we must move onward and upward, the blues capsules follow; for it was George Steine who said that the blues unabashedly displays “the pressure of life”.  Well, these suckers have been weighing down my review desk for quite some time. 


So, of course, it is time for me to relieve/relive some of that pressure for the blues vicariously expresses what we need to say, a real safety valve for our darkest moments.  I will rate these recordings for quality, historical importance, and utility equally.


Shave ‘em Dry: The Best of Lucille Bogan

About 15 years ago, Rhino issued the seminal Risque Rhythm, an exploration of nasty 50’s R & B, filled with more inspired double entendres, a pair involving butter churning and washing machines, than any collection before.  In the Thirties, Lucille Brogan whacked out some of the nastiest (what...B?) ever committed to record.  In the songs, Bessie Smith, Ida Cox and Ma Rainey’s peer struts out quite the unique personality.  Whether Bogan was a coke-snorting lesbian who sold her body in real life is up to debate, but rollicking tunes such as “Barbecue Bess” where she describes “barbecues/the only thing I sell/and if you want my meat/you’ll have to come to my house at twelve” sound authentic enough.  She wrote them all, save “I’m Gonna Shave You Dry” which was written and performed by her sole accompanist, pianist Walter Roland. For a wicked google-eye, listen to the original, recorded solely for friends way back and unearthed for the first time for this collection, with the kiddies safely locked away.

Quality: 9.0       Historical Importance: 9.5         Double Entendre: 10


Honey Babe Let the Deal Go Down: The Best of the Mississippi Sheiks

Every once in a while, I hear the “greatest thing ever”.  As in, I’ll be driving along and listening to the rare great radio show and I will be utterly lost to something the DJ seems to have chosen just to yank my soul out of my body, twist it into some beautiful sounds... I am of course referring to the “Macarena”. 

Some nearly crash their cars when a pretty girl crosses the street.  I’m in danger when I hear something like Bill Dogget’s stunning Carnival of Souls soundtrakker “Moonglow”.  The first time I heard the Mills Brothers, I bounced off a curb from sheer surprise at how damned good it was and nearly crashed again at the joy inspired by the organic cuteness of their proto doowop. 

So, I slipped this new collection of the most important and successful string band of the 1930’s into the ol’ CD-o-matic and virtually lost my shit again—even though I was somewhat prepared. 

The Sheiks named themselves after the Valentino character and Charlie Patton and Memphis Slim performed in different incarnations of the group; I knew something about how significant these cats were supposed to be.  This will not prepare you for the Sheiks’ strange magic.  Just to pinpoint: the deep blunk of the guitar counterpoised to Walter Vinson’s vocals and Lonnie Chatman’s fiddle synthesis creates such a stunning sense of otherness, of poignancy, that their version of “Sitting on Top of the World” may easily kill you even if you’re just taking a stroll.

Quality: 10        Historical Importance: 10          Deadliness: 10


Crazy Blues: The Best of Mamie Smith

As spicy as Bogan’s later recordings would be, Smith’s stuff would be sweet, but towards the bitter end of that spectrum.  Mamie Smith was the first black vocalist to sing on a commercial American record.  And her product was very viable—during the first six months of its 1920 release, “Crazy Blues” sold over a million copies, a feat unheard of especially  then.  

This was a pre-divergence era when jazz and blues blended exceedingly well and Smith’s Jazz Hounds provide an emotive, wailing dixie-style cacophony to back her unusual vocals.  Though Mamie would pave the way for Ida Cox and Bessie Smith, her high, vibrato delivery sounds more in line with light opera than a blues like “Every night and day I hang my head and weep/Yes, weep!”  This is a counterpoint that runs through the entire collection, even to the later proto-big band tunes, providing heightened contrast and a feeling of importance and confusion.  What’s even more astounding about this reissue is its sound quality.  Recordings from the 20’s have never sounded this brilliant.

Quality: 9.8       Historical Importance: 10          Speaking for Our Confusion: 10


Are You Bound for Heaven or Hell?: The Best of Reverend J.M. Gates

The most successful and prolific of all recorded preachers, James M. Gates was a huge star, recording over 200 songs.  Way ahead of his time, he also hated Wal-Mart.  The first 2 tunes on this CD, “Good Bye to Chain Stores” decry the coming of the big stores as the reason for unemployment, destruction of community via the fall of the mom and pop stores, alcoholism, depression, and a spread of every evil across the country.  It all begins with a rant, a bit of acting, and then some lovely, soulful chanting about how “they’ll ruin you sure as you’re born”. 

I am not a religious man, but I can easily tell that a true feeling of important work being done pervades this collection.  Backing Gates’s coarse telling of a “Devil in the Flying Machine” is testifying which creates a gritty, surreal, elevated state of expression. Virtually forgotten now, until MLK’s, Gates’s funeral was the biggest Atlanta had ever seen.

Quality: 9.5       Historical Importance: 10          Fighting Corporate America: 10

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The Winter of 69

Oliver Hunt explores the ins and outs of blues as approached by those of us damaged by hacks.


There was a band I used to see as a teenager in Kansas City called the Sin City Disciples.  As a group of older guys who’d weathered the first couple generations of punk rock, their take on the blues was snarling and irreverent, a piss-take, similar to like minded outfits such as Poison 13 and The Dicks.  They’d made no claims on authenticity, but were probably closer in spirit to any quote-unquote real thing than whatever was being championed by Rolling Stone or classic rock radio at the time.  The Sin City Revivalists were a punk rock, not blues revival, band.


Having grown up white and middle class in the Eighties, I make no claims to being a barometer of authenticity.  The blues form that I’d had the most immediate access and exposure to was the stuff that had succumbed to the decade’s misguided video-age makeover and production values: The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Delaware Destroyers, and Robert Cray’s MTV hits; aging mediocre limeys Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton; cinematic guitar duels between seasoned blues vets Steve Vai and Ralph Macchio*; suburban high school guitar jocks running through the scales and just feelin’ it man...it was all less than fascinating and I was uninspired to delve much further.  Blues was music I wanted to like more than I could and was made to feel like a shallow product of my generation when I couldn’t.


Later in life, I was living in Austin; many a night had been wasted staggering down Sixth Street in a glassy-eyed haze of alcoholic misanthropy and unrequited lust, a half eaten slice of pizza being knocked out of my hand by a silk-shirted frat goon, a chorused-out guitar tone providing recycled shuffle behind wailing cliché after wailing cliché of hard livin’ and col’ bluddid wimmin.  Jimmie Vaughan plays Dubya’s victory party and yuppies affect rural Ebonics such as Ah UnnaSTAN!  An eyesore statue (of SRV) turns its back on Town Lake, as it should.


I don’t know that I hated blues music; I do know that I hated Stevie Ray Vaughan and his legacy.  SRV, I figured, was the Hendrix for people who wanted to like Hendrix but couldn’t get past his blackness.  It was an easy thing to think in Tejas’s biggest suburb, where sleazy, overweight bar owners kept it real keeping seasoned blues vets like Rob Schneider a regular attraction. 


Revivalists are, by definition, revisionists.  This means that they weren’t there the first time and the past is re-imagined to fit their particular aesthetic agenda.  This becomes problematic when revivalists start believing they are genuine.  It’s been only the ugliest Caucasoid trend in music ever since Clapton walked out of the Yardbirds in a puritanical huff only to end up the blue version of Kenny G.


I’m not sure, exactly, where Johnny Winter’s debut fits into the watering down of the watered-down.  He was never exactly a revivalist.  Winter had established himself as a rock ‘n’ roll outsider before rock itself had really hit puberty.  An early television appearance with his brother** had actually prompted kids to stop buying an early single of theirs.  They’d looked as though they’d gestated in their mother’s cold, clammy cellar of a womb before emerging, Boo Radley-like, into toxic sunlight as adolescent greaser scarecrows.  Looks like my generation isn’t the only shallow one.


The unfortunate circumstance regarding this reissue, to my ears, is that it hits every cliché.  Winters deserves some credit for getting to them before they’d cemented, but he couldn’t save them and though his conviction is genuine, a post-mortem cliché said with conviction is still unfortunately a cliché. 


Johnny Winter is not a complete bore to listen to, however.  His guitar tone is tight and dry, which works.  But the best tracks are light on the guitar and heavier on backing arrangements that favor piano and brass.  Those particular songs showcase an unaffected voice that’s far more serviceable without being showy.  They’re at least more interesting than the shuffle and run that set the stage for Winter’s misguided acolytes.


Winter may be the genuine article and not a revivalist.  However, he only has the revivalists to thank for my disparagement of this reissue.  Blame Clapton, blame Stevie, hell...blame Texas, but don’t blame me.  I’m just the guy who has to hear it; a shallow product of my generation--I don’t make any claims toward authenticity.


Decide for yourself if he's the real thing. Johnny Winter plays live at the House of Blues on Friday, July 9th.
Contents of this article, copyright, Oliver Hunt.

*Editor’s note: from the film, Crossroads.  Macchio wins, apparently something truly to behold.


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Living on the Edge

Sam Beam does Florida and folk music proud Alan Jacobson reports.


Right; so Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine is folk music.  But the music is as atypical and unusual as his rise to indie fame; a music as delicate and wistful as it is hearty and focused, filled with thoughts and words that are introspective and personal while remaining utterly accessible and universal.


Beam relocated to Miami to pursue a career in film production.  The long, strange hours didn’t mesh with family priorities, so he quit and began teaching cinematography at The International Fine Arts College.  He also had a hobby.


Beam produced and traded tapes of his four-track acoustic suites with fellow musician (Carissa’s Weird) and childhood friend, Ben Bridwell.  Ben loved the tunes, named the venture Iron & Wine, and featured “Dead Man’s Will” in his zine’s CD compilation.  Sub Pop heard the track and came running.


Beam still teaches, seeing his music as more of a hobby than anything else.  Maybe his technical knowledge of how things look when effectively filtered through the camera’s point of view makes his take on life so unique and engaging.  Perhaps the fact that he humbly creates this music simply for the joy of expression is what makes it so solid and good. 


Beam recruited Brian Deck (Red Red Meat, Modest Mouse) to produce Iron & Wine’s new Our Endless Days Are Numbered The result is a view of the artist’s psyche perhaps more layered, but every bit as subtle as before. 


Simple ideas still traverse simple rhythms to simple accompaniment.   The percussion of “Cinder and Smoke” consists of a bongo which cleanly augments the deeply percussive guitar; what stands out and provides the spine is a stereophonic crackle, adding eerie texture and emotion.


“Teeth in the Grass” follows the cycle of life via fitting accompaniment featuring mild percussion, a drivingly bluesy rhythm line, and slide guitar to lyrics that match the form: “And when you give me your clothes.../there will be teeth in the grass.../And when there’s nothing to want.../there will be teeth in the grass”.


Sam Beam cites Leonard Cohen as an influence, but his delicate, passionate delivery of deep universal truths, humanism, and even his plaintive whisper all recall Nick Drake’s elegance rather than Cohen’s stark lyricism. 


The process emphasized, Beam says the music comes first and the words seem to write themselves.  Like a great avant-garde artist, there is a central motif, a fount from which everything flows.  And like the great country songwriters, Beam focuses on the stories and poems for their own sake. 


Unlike Will Oldham (Palace) or Jason Molina’s (Songs: Ohia) depressing desolation, Sam Beam is more like another indie folk romantic minimalist, Damien Jurado.  Strikingly similar are both the acoustic intimacy of their live performances and the poignant lyrics (“a baby sleeps in all our bones, so scared to be alone”) delicately confided over gentle acoustic accoutrement.  The audience invariably becomes hypnotized and moves closer to the source of this lovely sound.  A feeling which invariably strengthens with each listen to Our Endless Days Are Numbered.    


Iron and Wine play the Abbey Pub on Friday, July 2nd.


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It Is Actually Funny...

David Cross kvetches up a storm, but does so hilariously.


While I realize that is a terrible headline, I am shucking pretension to let you know I also realize that I am nowhere near as funny as David Cross.


David Cross is not happy with the state of world politics and how we relate to it.  And he is a spazz.  But he is also more sophisticated.  This is not to say Cross is not a happy man; he is naturally funny, knows comedy, and is capable of making brilliant, illuminating connections between the seemingly incongruous.


But he’s harshly critical of the US of A and its ties with little else but it these days.  Consumerism, the Right, and especially religion take hard hits.  From the liner notes, “Lastly, I would like to quote the Bible, Leviticus 24:16, ‘And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death.’  Wow, what a vindictive, irrational egomaniac.”    


Cross trashes Bush for asking his troops to pray for him, relating the behavior to a king, smug in Divine Right, munching on a leg of mutton, and sending for court jester Dennis Miller to provide safe jabs at the state of affairs.


Similarly, last night on Conan, I watched a comedian.  He was OK.  Actually, by talk show standards, I’d say he rated pretty high.  What kept him from being really something special was his lack of ability to be anything but a gag man.  He was intelligent, his gags were good, but apropos of nothing, he’d lay into something like: “Paul Abdul is half Arab half Jewish.  My idea: send her to the Middle East.  Problem solved, no more Paula Abdul”. 


Tuning in midway to It’s Not Funny, you might hear Cross asking the audience in a bizarre twist on standup mannerisms, “was anybody here aborted?”, this after making a snarky joke about how providing several abortions to his girlfriend is way harder than raising a child.  This is the funny, intelligent, motivated way to shock.  Cross later notes that he’d rather hear the “death rattle of his only child” than see Evanescence live—all via a brilliant simulated phone conversation. 


But Cross’s focus is tight as he quickly gets back to the business of flaying the like of: electric scissors, The Simple Life, gold-covered desert, religion, and how all of this is emblematic of American life and politics--all making Cross angry, bitchy, and so, so very funny.  Highly recommended, if only to find out under what context Bush would say, “Mmmmm that’s good Jew baby heart!” and to find out why it works so magnificently.

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Damned Good Music.  So Says I.

The Shins have earned the right to do just what they please and are doing it well, see them do it live at House of Blues June 18th & 19th.


The indie scene rocked two years back with the release of Oh, Inverted World, easily one of the most beautiful-sounding records this side of Margo Guryan, and its corresponding mind-numbingly gorgeous, single “New Slang”.  The Shins seemed to burst onto the scene.  But appearances often deceive.   


Guitarist/auteur Jamie Mercer set Shins in motion with poppy Seattle trio, Flake, in 1993.  They released but 1995’s Wild Cool Anger on Y Records.  Additional members and a slight name change to Flake Music resulted in When You Land Here, It's Time To Return, which earned Mercer and his lads comparisons to Beulah and the Apples in Stereo.  Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval (whose tenure with Mercer explains his remarkable sensitivity to the material) broke off to form The Shins as a duo and change of pace, supporting indie superheroes Cibo Matto and Modest Mouse


Flake alumnus and keyman Marty Crandall jumped shin—that doesn’t actually make sense, does it?--shortly thereafter.  Dave Hernandez and Ron Skrasek of Sacred of Chaka joined and quickly jumped shin—that does make sense!--when Chaka blew up.  Neal Langford, another former Flake musician, came aboard to pull down bass duties. 


Omnibus knocked out the 45’s “Nature Bears a Vaccuum” and “When I Goose Step” in 1998 and 2000, respectively.  This gained the Shins their first important notice, notably from big ol’ Sub Pop who invited them to feature as single of the month.  That song was “New Slang”, a classic by anyone’s estimation.


The (fairly) new Chutes too Narrow pulls off the deft one-two of managing to be at once more varied, and subtler than its predecessor.  A straight listen from the soulfully pounding “Turn A Square” to the Sweetheart of the Rodeo groove of “Gone for Good” disconcerts at first.  Repeated listens reward immeasurably.


Instead of filling an entire song with virtually numbing beauty, The Shins manage to make beauty seem more special by virtue of a sparer implementation this time out.  The baroque break on “Saint Simon” with its cascading lalala’s is enough to make the knees buckle.  A tune full of this kind of stuff would induce nothing short of paralyzing rapture accompanied by joyful lolling and dribbling.    


Melancholy is displaced by a more mischievous spirit on Chutes.  This may put off the listener at first.  In fact, when I originally bought this record, I gave it away.  Yes, folks, it’s another edition of “confessions of a music columnist what oughta know better”.  But, as I snag listen number 6 in a row, tune into Mercer’s masterful Will Sergeant impersonation on “High Horse”, it occurs to me how wonderful change is, for the Shins and myself--I’m older, wiser, and could not at this very moment think of a rcord to recommend any more than the richly textured Chutes too Narrow.


The Shins Kick Out the Jams Motherfucker at the House of Blues June 18th & 19th.

The Tally:
Oh, Inverted World 8.4/10, Chutes too Narrow 8.5/10

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He’s Not Jus’ A Rascal...

Cockney wunderkind creates –and mangles-- a new lexicon on Boy in da Corner.


I have witnessed my colleagues laboring, nay torturing, over Dizzee Rascal’s remarkable Boy in da Corner.  But I’m not going to talk about my fellow manatees here except to briefly mention that Vice magazine’s new issue details an alphabetized list of the cutest things ever.  An unusually inspired, yet non-smug/non-hateful article, they chose, for “D”, drunken koala bears.  I hate to knock solid work, but these uber-hipsters, lovers of their own cool, missed the dingy.  At the risk of sounding patronizing, I’d like to add Dylan Mills, the man who can be referred to as phenomenon with no fear of overstatement, crushing that cliché with his raw talent and vision, the man known as Dizzee Rascal.


I am not debating the fact that Mills could, were I pitted against him with a lead pipe and machete, rip me apart with his bare hands and then trot away with my girlfriend on arm for a nice, relaxed evening.  I am not insulting the guy; my mission here is to prepare the potential American listener for what it is going to feel like to hear this album—until you are acclimated to what a tough East Londoner sounds like, giggles will have to be stifled, believe me.


Boy in da Corner is a near-maddening, completely distracting, almost imperceptible mélange of words and sounds that we, stateside, are not used to.  In London, at least there’s the referent of the accent.  Here, nothing.  So, allow me to present my translation of this lower-class East London rap, this Garage meets Hip-Hop style called “Grime”, for your American ears.


“MC’s best start chattin’ about what’s really ‘appenin”; 18 year-old Dizzee Rascal has unleashed a singular, challenging, dense slab of remarkably unique sounds, thick production, and complex rhymes about dramatic situations.  “Sittin’ Here” kicks off the album, bringing the listener into the fray by describing a young man resting for a moment to asses, in a milieu of gang warfare, how his innocent childhood of football and having fun transformed into a battleground where he holds a confusingly unusual smile that’s “sweet but could turn sour”.  Dizzee’s final assessment, backed by gunshots and sirens: the perplexed, defiantly individualistic, “wahgwan...!”  


The first tune Rascal ever produced, “I Luv U” clicks along with the insectine rhythms and thumping, grinding bass of the rest, but features some of the most engaging vocals of the whole album.  Though he comes from the UK Garage scene (referring to himself in true rave style on “2 Far” as a “fitness instructor”) this is no dance grist—in fact I cannot imagine anyone ever being able to dance to any of this album...maybe a new “seizure” step?  A duet of dispassionate feelings, representing both sexes equally, the tune jabs about like the rest (boy/girl): “I swear that’s your girl/No that ain’t my girl/She got juiced up/Oh well/She got cheaped up/Oh well...I swear that’s your man/I ain’t got any man/You was with that man/He was just “any” man/He got hurried up/Oh well/He got whacked up/Oh well”.


“My attitude/My language/They ain’t used to it” Rascal spews on “Vexed”, title nicely suggesting the confusion (and downright alarm) that has greeted Boy in da Corner.  This is no contentious nonsense put out by someone whose aim it is to confuse.  This is a defiantly personal, richly textured Dylan Mills work through and through—merely one sample on “Fix Up, Look Sharp” and the rest is pure Rascal brilliance.    This thick, singular, debut from this highly gifted young man takes some acclimation, but is well worth it.  Rather than question and trouble yourself over what it is, rather than hold back an appreciative chuckle, just let it all out and enjoy the inadvertently adorable, inspired, and viciously brilliant Boy in da Corner.

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The Grand Opening

Planet Asia finally dropped one of his own, and for this we can all be thankful.


Jason Green, aka Planet Asia, sounds awfully confident for his first small-label platter.  This is because Green has been at it for a long time.  On the confusingly entitled The Grand Opening, this Fresno native brings a battle-scarred delivery to some of the tightest, most contemporary-sounding music this side of the Interscope bread line he walked away from (Eminem, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, etc.).


It all began in 4th grade.  Green jumped out of the lunch line, grabbed the mic, performed an impromptu rap & beatbox, gained everyone’s respect, and has been doing much the same ever since.  Studying Islam, Green decided to take the name Planet Asia—mirroring his belief that the Asiatic black man and woman are the mother and father of the entire world. 


Asia began his musical career in earnest in a Tower Records in Fresno, where he met longtime associate, Cali, guesting on his album and gaining exposure on Yo! MTV Raps.  He soon released a self-titled EP, which he swept Tower’s floor to.  Cali and Asia joined forces as the Cali Agents and independently sold 40,000 copies of their record.  The majors came calling. 


Green signed with Interscope but decided he’d had enough after his album never came out.  Promisingly enough, he had cut three songs with Dr. Dre but was courageous enough to walk when he realized that 50 Cent, Rakim, and Ice Cube would always get top priority—Planet Asia was tired of being ignored, his music not even potentially getting out to anyone.


Now signed to Avatar, who had merely released compilations and soundtracks prior, Planet Asia sounds confident, bold, practiced, and ready to take over, founding his own Goldchain imprint to help struggling artists avoid his pitfalls.  And this may be why The Grand Opening hits so hard.  Asia is a man who is sure of himself and already great at what he does.


Autobiography informs much of the album, but especially the opener, “16 Bars of Death” where Asia details “spitting at assemblies” in grade school.  Towards the end of this remarkably confrontational rant, DJ Mums the Word declaims, “Space Ghost niggas trying to battle my nigga...shut the fuck up!”—and language can’t get much more economical than the image of bars (arms) in the air as Planet Asia rips a new one for some starchy-white-toned shmoe while his DJ looks on admonishingly.


The Grand Opening is a bold album rife with tension.  On “Right or Wrong”, Asia pumps herb, Asiatic forces, and responsibility as he advises to “get off that ‘to each his own’”.  But on the very next song, “Real Niggaz” (feat. Ghost Face Killa), he argues “all of my peoples in the hood on their way to the top/Get yours whether anybody likes it or not”.   On the latter, the bold, defiant strokes, such as the giant-sized funk sample, absolutely make the song feel important, a sense of event infused throughout much of the album.  Refreshingly, no skits fill The Grand Opening’s 16-tracks, but on the sole album’s grime-backed interlude, Asia reprimands those seeking empty fame, arguing against—or perhaps simply refining--his earlier words of inspiration.


Texture also defines this record, but created by a variety of producers and styles rather than Dizzee Rascal’s defiantly individualistic onslaught.  “Hypnotize” (feat. Crunch & Cecelie Davis) is a slow jam love-in featuring superbly appropriate vertiginous keyboard backing.  Dre-like production offers nice contrast to the content while propelling “Upside Down” (feat. Goapele), where Asia rails against “children paying tuition to these brainwash colleges”. 


This is a clever and powerful record from a man with a lot on his mind.  On a tune featuring the tightest, poppiest keys ‘n’ bass production this side of Timbaland, “It’s All Big”, Asia refers to The Grand Opening as “15 years in the making/Now it’s 16 beers in Jamaica”.   On “Pure Coke” (feat. Martin Luther), backed by cinematic samples, he refers to himself as the hip-hop Barry White, making “honeys wanna touch theyselves” and MC, “most craziest”, to his music as “pure coke for heads to nod to/this is for niggas to ride to”.  And once sucked in to the bold sounds of The Grand Opening, it becomes awful hard to argue with any of that. 


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Sub-Pop vs. the USA!

New records from The Thermals and The Constantines flip a big bird towards mildness and complacency.



Wake up, Rome is Falling...

As revenge for their city’s destruction these Carthaginians wreak revenge on the USA, rock.


Well, maybe, they’re named after the Roman emperor responsible for spreading much of Christianity who turned out to be a closet homosexual?  Or is it John Constantine, a sound-experiment musician that singer, Bryan Webb, found inspiration in on the radio one evening?  The latter is probably the truest, but this mixture of questions about the name speaks to the difficulty had in describing the music.  The band has been analogized to Fugazi, The Clash, and Bruce Springsteen.  


And they do sound a smidge like the Boss on “On to You”, a lyrical, anthemic, tune which treads the typical denim fairgrounds via a city-descriptive close-up on the little people.  Of course, why not just listen to Springsteen, then?  The thrummed bass on this tune is answer enough alone.  Though The Constantines have been known to cover “I’m on Fire” live, these guys are their own entity.


Now to explain the Fugazi analogy...OK we’ve got a heavily-mixed rhythm section meeting an equally precise, angularly jagged and unusual guitar attack.  Let me please state for the record that this style of music has been existent in bands for years and years as even a casual listen to Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables or something by a band like the Hot Snakes would quite easily illustrate.  This is punk rock by slightly wiser, older, more intelligent musicians.  Gristle-riddled tunes filter through ennui rather than what in earlier days may have been snarling brattiness.   On “Nighttime/Anytime (It’s Allright)” the rhythm and lead guitars contrast and invert so sharply and in such an obviously studious and challenging manner that it’s almost prog rock.  The time shifts, unusual song structure, and broad theatrical lyrics like, “What sway the bloody minded/what hang above the graceless herd”, give off an eerie progressive glow, but filtered through a punk’s lack of patience for noodling and keen antisocial bullshit sieve.


Like indie hotshot contemporaries, TV on the Radio, “Goodbye Baby & Amen” finds the Constantines forging new oddly swinging ground—even down to the skronking sax lines.  Maybe it’s a Toronto vs. Williamsburg schism, but it seems like the Constantines don’t have to try as hard.   As a result, whereas TV’s new record is virtually impenetrable, though a relatively rewarding listen, Shine a Light is so textured, varied, and fun by contrast that it goes down much, much easier, holding condensed inspiration well above overreaching affectation.


From first to last, Shine a Light is a stirring listen.  “National Hum” rips out of the gate with its ass on fire and barrel of water a country mile down the street.  A huge, savage, growling mess absolutely squeals with the threat of yet more potential energy on the cusp, unless it falls apart first—a promise it fulfills.  “Sub-Domestic” is gentle folksong protest a la 1962 Dylan, yet refracted through a deep anger at contemporary complacency, shifting from times changin’ and answers blowin’ to an aggressive call for personal responsibility: “If sanctuary still exists/it’s among the shaking fists”; a nice visual corollary, the album’s fold-out poster reveals a variety of skyscrapers growing from a junkyard.   In my proudest moments, count me among the shaking fists.


The Constantines play the Empty Bottle on May 19th.



Hot Hot Heat

The Thermals new record starts a fire that mercilessly tears through your shitty apartment.


“We find the title Fuckin A describes our new record perfectly.  It conveys the intensity of the music and the passion of the lyrics, with the mouth of a twelve year old”.   Indeed, the noise, the howling urgency of the Hutch Harris’s vocals, and the intense tightness of the band (Kathy Foster, bass, Jordan Hudson, drums) distorted through intentionally sloppy four track production by Chris Walla, guitarist/producer for Death Cab for Cutie, unquestionably has a sophisticated caveman tension and giganticism about it. 


Portland Oregon’s the Thermals have only been together a couple of years.  So the intensity of their tunes and shows is still at full tilt.  This is the sound that shit bands like Blink 182 and The Offspring inadvertently mock with their asinine yet well-calculated attempts at punk’s ebullience and urgency.   


Hutch Harris’s words and vocals communicate love’s fading with the urgency of a sermon.  “I’ve seen the sun/losing light/I blink/and it burns so fuckin bright/it’s a fallen time we’ve seen/and it’s all the time I need/so take it” from “Every Stitch” is delivered with all the gravity and amphetamine of “picture the galaxy/scattering/blood, sand and soil/and cheap motor oil/our union/our movement/our greatest high/the shit we die for” from “Top of the Earth”.  Personal and political reflect one another, amplify, and blur until eardrums pierce from the correspondingly necessary volume of the Thermals’ second 28-minute package of intense emotional outpouring.


The Thermals play the Fireside Bowl on March 23rd. 

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Blame it on Ol’ Pop!

*...where the hell was I?*
An embarrassingly regular feature, here I take a moment to alight upon music missed or dismissed from days past.
This time’s feature: The Webb Brothers (who’ll be playing live at The Bottom Lounge on the 18th).


All right, I admit it.  I’ve had this near-perfect pop platter recommended to me dozens of times.  Maroon by the Webb Brothers was hard to take into my heart for several reasons, though.  The “off-put factor” is in heavy effect here.  The album is produced to glossy imperfection by good old Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur, etc.), so the sound is too unified, polished, marooned...in addition to being downright viral in the first place, and the cover is equally slick featuring the kids on some planet doing something or other.  Which leads me to what initially threw me off this great album: the pedigree.  Being an American means that I favor the underdog.  Can’t help it.  So, I just naturally assumed that super-successful pop song meister (“Wichita Lineman”) Jimmy Webb’s brats had it too easy. 


I had it wrong.  Turns out it was a bit of a struggle, actually.  As students at Boston University, Justin and Christiaan Webb began their musical career together.  After struggling in a town with too many bands, the kids packed up for Chicago, where they were similarly ignored.  London was the next stop.  Good choice, since it meant notice from an important record label rep, a sold-out show and EP, and ultimately their own imprint within a contract with Warners.


Beyond the Biosphere dropped shortly thereafter in 1999 and was universally lapped up by critics and fans alike.  Strange for a debut to have such a readymade following, but their EP and promo had gained them quite the cult status.  Gigantic, ambitious, fun—many of the things a debut often is not, Biosphere is a fully rewarding listen.


But nothing like the textured masterpiece that follow up, Maroon, would be.  The millennium saw los bros. Webb with stronger confidence and clearer vision than perhaps they’d ever have in their entire career.   The tunes serve as weary indictment of liars, false love, drunkenness, and gettin’ fucked up amidst a seemingly incongruous romanticism sweetened occasionally by well-guarded optimism. 


Maroon kicks off with the symbolically orchestral bombast one might expect from an initial excursion to the moon.  Mullets, check!  Flashlights, on!  Pop sensibilities, well-bred!  Then, easing the listener into this rich, dense, textured platter, “The Liar’s Club” begins with brother Justin’s strummed acoustic and mundane establishing shot of people who “get together to pretend that everything is fun/where everyone looks perfect and the party’s never done/’til we see the sun, see the sun”.  Brother Christiaan’s lumbering Roland provides the grounding bedrock which naturally leads to the morning after’s “you’ll give yourself away/and everyone will see/that you’re unhappy”. 


The album’s obvious single “I Can’t Believe You’re Gone” kicks off with Neal Ostrovsky’s solid, expressive, heartbeat-suggestive, thumping, and a sole voice extolling the wonders of a relationship.   Naive romanticism bleeding into cynicism, “I can’t believe you’re gone/this was part of your plan for me/I can’t believe it”.  Repetition is expert in this case, suggesting a totally confounded individual and the rest of the album’s wonderfully packaged pop singles behave in this manner, “Summer People” being the strongest and most unusual of the bunch.  “Winter’s over again/summer people/some are even, but then/some are evil”.  Poignancy or bullshit?  At the heart of it, it doesn’t matter.  The tune is so jaw-droppingly, mind-numbingly, hyphenation-necessary-for-explanation great that it just doesn’t matter.


What elevates Maroon to semi-mystical “classic” status, though, is the filler.  Filler used to be a good thing—just grab hold of an old Dave Clark 5 album.  Compare the draggotry of something like a “Catch us if you Can” to an inspired hyper-amphetamined dirty sax showcase and you’ll catch my drift.  “All the Cocaine in the World” is a plainly remarkable work from a pair of pop scholars.  Who writes about coke anymore?  No one but a mercenary harkener, son.  And what a connection as they explain in angelic chorus and over snowy percussion how it “couldn’t bring back the girl”!


A weisenheimer desert island (or jupiter, mars, moon)  creation by these super-gifted lads...a collection of the sounds that pop addicts would hope to have with them if isolated for long periods of time, Maroon, is an unquestionable, resounding success and one of the best pop records of its time, no question.  The fact that I am, indeed guilty, of having left this cake out in the rain, having come to it a couple years back, and enjoy it immensely still is testament both to its lasting impact and severe pop brilliance. 


The Webbs have hired on a new member, unsurprisingly young brother James.  With their eponymous release last year, they have made their stake for permanence in what could have easily been a career-defining, brilliant one-off.  Instead of shuffling the meditative amongst the crystal-sharp pop tunes, they’ve halved them, kind of a silly thing to do in the CD age--but another fine album nonetheless.  Consider me though, for the nonce, plumb stuck where I “think I’m going places/but it’s only in (my) mind....marooned again/marooned again/marooned again/again”. 


The Webb Brothers play the Bottom Lounge with the Cosmic Rough Riders on Tuesday, May 18th.

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In Defense of the Singer-Songwriter

Norwegian Sondre Lerche yanks this DIY ethos back to the side of the good with his release of Two Way Monologue.  Lerche plays Martyr’s with a full band on May 19th.





A man, the critic, in black-framed glasses and Soft Boys t-shirt harangues another, an apparently normal, well-adjusted person, except for the fact that he is backed into a corner.


I invite you into my house, make you dinner, let you play with my kids...damn!  I shoulda known... 



No!  You don’t get it!!  Hold on, this Sondre Lerche guy...he’s really clever and sincere, examining great matters via the important little things...he’s very...how else can I put this...uh...sensitive.


                        NORMAL GUY:

Shut.  Up!  Don’t..! 



Hold it; hold it!  I’m just trying to tell you about this rather new talent...a real fresh voice in so many ways; well, let’s just say he does it all, like...like an old-time troubadour...

Now, now...Woah!  Put down the chair, friend.  I can see why you’d initially be put off, but if you’d just give it a...CHAAAaannnce!!


Door slams.  Exit music critic, having suffered just a few bumps and bruises in spirited defense of a genre that has been killed (and summarily raped) countless times.



On his first album, Billy Joel pretentiously notes in verse how he is a bard, a troubadour—nicely illustrating the invalidation of the singer-songwriter.  For anyone who survived the seventies, a decade full of froggy-throated clumsily-conceived quasi-sensitive nonsense spewed from that clan of variously bearded, passive aggressively mellow, and painfully earnest (often ironic to the dippy content) singer-songwriters, even someone as distinctive as a romantic world-weary  Norwegian may be a hard sell.  Fie on everyone on that interminable list of phony, self-indulgent, mongoloids that have made this personal, direct form of music unpalatable. Fuck you, Billy Joel. 


Of course, serious arguments for the genre abound.  Let’s implicate a few.  Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, and Todd Rundgren (who kicked the genre’s ass all over town with his release of Something/Anything?) all fall among an endless stream of artists who—bravely risking categorization alongside James Taylor and Jim Croce--followed this compulsion to express exactly what they needed in precisely the manner they needed to.  No filtration.  No bullshit.  Add to this list a young man named Sondre Lerche.


Get past the cover, with Lerche staring his wearily-creased sensitivity into your soul (in a scarf, black and white, and against the artsy mainstay brick wall, no less!), throw on the record, and out flows not only an acoustic guitar awash with violins ala Nick Drake, but a lovely voice will soon confer: “Down came the sky/And all you did was blink/I would cry like I never do/In order to stay true”.  Ad hoc emotion?  Maybe.  Delivered so well it wouldn’t matter if it was?  Absolutely.


Sondre Lerche is an artist who, only on his second album, projects a stunning maturity, not only writing every lyric and note, but playing a number of the instruments as well.  Yes, this suggests a lack of counter voice which virtually always makes for the awkward, overly-insular public humiliation that is trademark of the SS...like Morrissey without the balance of Marr.  But Lerche?  He’s Morrissey and Marr combined.


Lennon and McCartney combined as well?  Sure, Lerche seems to know when to enlist some help, such as on most of the production and the gorgeous string arrangements.  But split personality is what Two Way Monologue is all about, so he may just as well host a whole Steppenwolf-sized party of people inside his big, brilliant noggin. 


The title track begins suspiciously with earnestness croaked over a sloppily-strummed acoustic guitar.  Through the historically-disadvantaged veil of singer songwriter sucketry and a song whose first word is: “Mum”, the natural assumption that this will be a very bad way to spend time, that reflex towards the eject button—well, the feelings seem justified, especially with Lerche’s unfiltered emotional ballast.  Pop luminosity dispels murky doubts.  For after a mere 54 seconds, the pace doubles, a tight and dynamic rhythm section leaping into the fray, and all the important parts are underscored masterfully with cymbal crashes, neo-futuristic keyboards, funk riffs, and even a skronking sax hook just for kicks.  Wonderfully synthesized, absolutely delightful...pure pop.


Perky horns, earthy organs, and layers of keyboards (space chimes and harpsichords imparting the band visual of robots in paisley bellbottoms) provide the kick-off for the chorus of “Counter Spark” which features some of the cutest “Ba-ba-ba baa-ba’s” this side of the Partridge Family.  A love song for cynical times, “I chose you from a million/You were the choice of billions/wishing they would try to be like you/But I’d rather fall in love with you”, the pretty mess ends in nihilistic defiance: “I’ll pass you by and fall in love with you”. 


Lend your ears and heart to Two Way Monologue all alone at first...but leave that bedroom door cracked so the earnestness of this “option-less, turkey-free, and blind” humanist with his seductive acoustic-cum-23rd-century support drifts out.  Anyone with any feelings of romance (as in: “in love with feeling”) will pick up on the raw emotion, go absolutely ape shit, and understand that having an open mind and love of music means granting everything a second examination, even that DIY (thanks to Croce and his ilk, now come to abbreviate dreadfully inane yarbling) singer-songwriter.







No Strings Attached

Beautiful string and brass arrangements highlight Bostonian Paula Kelley’s career-defining album and singing-songwriting high water mark.


Let’s knock out the vocals right away.  If you can take Mary Lou Lord--and I haven’t met a college radio music director that wasn’t in love with her yet, voice and all--then you’ll be fine with Paula Kelley’s wispily intimate, genuine delivery.  The unique voice of this confident, inspired artist could become her trademark.  I find Kelley’s delivery to be quite affecting rather than cloying, with a range and expressiveness which easily overcomes the thinness.


On her new The Trouble with Success or How You Fit into the World, Kelley broke the bank (literally, a friend told me she had to skip rent to hire the band) bringing on the 40-piece PK Orchestra to add color and flourish to the songs.  It worked.


The strings and bombast not only support Kelley’s emotional outpouring, but they validate it as well.  Anything that sounds this pretty—and I mean honest and pretty, we’re not talking obfuscation; rather gigantic, lovely support for equally huge and solid lyrics—is all right with me.


The first track, “My Finest Hour (Enter)” begins a lot like Sondre Lerche’s Two Way Monologue.  Kelley’s harpsichord and Wendy Mittelstadt’s magnificently expressive violin set the mood, appropriately cueing in an album bursting to the gills with introspective expression.


Paula Kelley has made the album of her career.  This is a mature, intelligent work which gives the listener plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the brilliant symphonic instrumental breaks.  Call it what you will, but chamber/baroque pop certainly fills much of the album.  The Trouble with Success... is kept constantly engaging via sprinklings of the best bits out of Pet Sounds, and the work of Carole King, Margo Guryan, The Left Banke, and ELO.


But of course it’s not that simple.  Boston is a town full of music scholars and Kelley is no exception.  She began her career with a variety of indie-darlings (Drop Nineteen, Boy Wonder, Hot Rod, Boy Joys) only to move along each time as she grew impatient with the need to convey her own ideas, a range at work on The Trouble with Success far beyond the pithy analogies above.  Even the most seemingly mundane, virtually Cranberries-level pop, such as “Girlfriend” only seems so at first by virtue of its subtlety.  Further listens reveal surprises--filled as it is with a delicious muted trumpet, inspired string arrangement, and equally distinctive delivery and perspective: “Write about the simple way that I don’t/Oh she’s staring at the sky/There’s quite a lot of space there/But nothing in her eyes”.


Juicy hooks fill The Trouble with Success.  Urban horn grooves float the energetically driving “My Finest Hour” into the upper echelons.  The ripping fury of the music grants ironic poignancy to its equally powerful and painfully subtle, lovely, earnest, and potentially deadly final words: “Every time I think I finally have the answer/In comes someone else to tell me that I’m wrong/Life/What a puzzling place to live/What a wonder we’re taking it on”.  


The true feel of pop triumphalism that permeates the disc mitigates any slow moments.  “I’d Fall in Love with Anyone” isn’t merely huge, sunny, gushing, and fun.  It is complete.  The words, “I’d fall in love with anyone/Tell me what needs to be done because/I’m dying over here in the sun”, don’t just serve to match the music beautifully but they offer compelling self-help via identification and catharsis.  Sammy Kahn put it another way, “I fall in love too easily”.  Duke Ellington also said, “If it sounds good, it is good”.  Paul Kelley may have said both more effectively via a particularly lovely singer-songwriter resonance on the fascinating The Trouble with Success or How You Fit into the World, one of the best albums of its class.



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I Wanna Destroy You
Dan Bejar’s band wants to destroy passersby--at the Empty Bottle on Tuesday, May 4th.

Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer, is an artist constantly lusting for forward motion. Bejar began Destroyer’s life as something of a solo artist. Self-described “ragtag four-track”, We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge is a dense and bizarre record, but a bare bones eclectic cum electric folk record nonetheless. Destroyer’s lineup constantly shifts as Bejar fights to express exactly what he needs to without compromise.

Other records followed, most notably his profile-raising fourth, Streethawk: a Seduction, which earned him a place in the David Bowie mutual admiration society (hopefully he’ll have better luck than D Generation...) and Bowie’s top ten list. Twists and turns through his own acclaimed recordings as well as work with the much-vaunted New Pornographers have helped to somewhat lessen both the Bowie comparisons and complaints of obliquity. But acclaim seems to disagree with Bejar. Spotting potential stagnancy which may block or pervert his expression, he runs screaming from complacency, “not showing up” for the New Pornographers tour in support of 2000’s wildly popular Mass Romantic, and having has back turned in photos for that hot indie commodity.

Destroyer’s sixth record, Your Blues, sounds just as hermetic as one may expect from someone with Bejar’s history. But there are some surprises. The record is less glam-orized Stardust and more synth-explosive OMD--a bit like Prefab Sprout, but far too unique for pigeonholing. A boldly stylized, mental landscape-razing sound results from the heavily-acoustic guitars and deadly crisp drums juxtaposed to the equally heavily-synthesized keyboards—a dichotomy made even bolder by longtime production team JC/DC. The entire disc smacking of one word: “event”, juxtaposition also exists in this sense of import and charming adventure that fills Your Blues. Bejar underscores his often-obscure lyrical ideas with synth-symph poignancy. Even if the listener doesn’t know what’s going on, at least it sounds good...and damned important.

Bejar’s multitracked near-falsetto also fills each of Your Blues’s songs with a desperate poignancy. On “Certain Things You Ought to Know”, Bejar cautions, “All a dagger can ever be is a ship against the sea turning to snow”. Nature imagery, particularly snow, pops up in a lot of songs, suggesting the Sisyphusian battle we all engage in to work, to be. Bejar also warns “Don’t become the thing you hated”, noting a means of escape through the “Strathcona doors”, Strathcona is both a nice neighborhood in Couverton, Canada that has a dangerous population of drug addicts and a tidy symbol of how escaping blindly can be just as bad as being stuck—something he also derides throughout Your Blues.

Your Blues crawls with proud carriage from its very beginning. “Notorious Lightning” betrays Bejar’s “John Lennon meets The Fall” description of his music. The contentious tone of his almost-straight read of a song which may be an apologia for his lack of ability to accept his place in independent rock semi-fame over a very minimal guitar strum forces focus on to the perplexingly savage words much like a Mark E. Smith lyric: “Oh, Notorious Lightning! Yes, I had to ride you and trash the crystal jets they kept in storage inside you!” But there is something more humanistic at play here as evidenced by the hope of lines later in the song: “Something once was delivered, then you banned it! But, oh there is a key to this thing...”

On “The Music Lovers”, a gargantuan synth-orchestral sound imbues in the tune balanced parts sophistication and irony, creating in the process what is so far the underground art rock single of the year: “The time of your lives has been had and your wives have been bad! And look, the private sector’s not denied you for the last time. They’re saying- ‘Those grapes go rotten on the vine.’ Oh, but once we were the Music Lovers! People say – ‘They just didn’t want it enough”. Dan Bejar, Destroyer...call him what you will, but never forget this: he works hard, challenging himself and his audience. Bejar obviously lusts for both acceptance and pure expression and just as plainly will not compromise an iota of his vision on the way; consistent if nothing else, Destroyer’s live show merely reflects this ethos writ large.

Destroyer plays the Empty Bottle Tuesday, May 4 Frog Eyes and Candyland Riots open.
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Pure Pop for Now People
The Apples in Stereo perk up the Bottom Lounge on Sunday, May 6th.

It all began in Chicago. On a worldwide tour for Heaven Tonight, favored sons Cheap Trick played for young Southern girls and boys alike. Robert Schneider and Jeff Mangum, yes that Jeff Mangum, were in the audience at one particular concert. The pair of future indie-pop geniuses rushed home and kept Mangum’s mom up all night with a bedroom hysterical version of “Dream Police”.

Schneider’s blood now infected by power pop genius, the stage was set for him to begin an idealistic record label community of sorts. And until the now-legendary Elephant 6 collective folded last year, Robert Schneider did everything for them short of sweeping the hallways. He produced records in and out of Elephant 6 by the Olivia Tremor Control and others, including possibly the best album of the Nineties by old friend Jeff Mangum’s outfit, Neutral Milk Hotel--their breathtaking In the Aeroplane over the Sea.

Schneider’s 1997 Marbles album alone would have been enough of an accomplishment. A four track small-scale solo outing, Pyramid Landing & Other Favorites is his Smile. But this is an album he recorded for “my friends, my kid brothers and my cats”, one that brought him closer to pop brilliance, not cracked madness. Pyramid Landing is as precious as an album can get without being saccharine, as cute as it is inventive. Life anthems that cheer the fact that there is the “Sun to Shine” could be nauseating if they weren’t delivered so well.

Throughout the balance of the late nineties, Schneider’s band The Apples in Stereo skirted the edges of indie rock masterfully. Their early recordings display an affinity, but no allegiance, to garage rock. As Schneider shifted his kaleidoscopic spectacles from nuggets of kontroversy to the vast strawberry fields of pet sounds, their 1997 coup de grace and best album to date, Tone Soul Evolution, was unleashed upon throngs of joyous college radio music directors. This 24-track platter is bursting with not only tenderly propulsive psychedelic ruminations on the inner life of the soul, but a generous stash of thrilling pop goodies like “What’s the #” and “We’ll Come to Be”.

Super-Beatles pop filled 1999’s highly-regarded Her Wallpaper Reverie EP; when I say this, I do so with the emphasis on the word, “super”, to indicate that the Apples in Stereo do not slavishly imitate, but used the tools the Beatles created and helped bring to the mainstream. With these tools, the Apples filled this EP with wistful, wonderful, pop—catchy tunes which alternately slow-crash and buzz. This incredibly rich 30 minutes, also filled with some lovely toy piano interludes, gained them much notice.

2000’s ambitious Discovery of A World Inside the Moone found Schneider and his band of merry men exploring funk and a sunnier, louder pop that would be fully fleshed out in a couple of years. A fine record on its own, its only failing may lie in that nomadic je ne sais quoi that often accompanies great ambition. But tunes like the almost harmfully addictive “Go!” and the masterful Parliament homage of “The Bird that You Can’t See” create in Moone the most textured Apples disc to date.

The result of solar poisoning contracted from the band’s involvement with the Powerpuff Girls, sunshine met aggressive decibels head on and exploded into the loudest record of the last 100 years, late 2002’s Velocity of Sound. This is a power pop record with an emphasis on the power.

Now Hilarie Sidney’s left the Apples to embark on her own tweedorable pop in the High Water Marks (RIYL Dressy Bessy’s first album) and though her solid drumming, song craft, and sweet voice will be missed, the group is Robert “Brian Wilsonoid” Schneider’s baby alone. This isn’t to say that Eric Allen’s bass work and John Hill’s guitar (also of Dressy Bessy) aren’t equal parts sharp and inspiring.

But Schneider is running the show with more confidence and sincerity than ever. The last time they came through Chicago, they killed. The Apples used to be very spotty live. Schneider would never use his microphone properly, the shyness of this studio hermit translating to stage coyness that only makes for a drag show. However, last time this band was: huge. Giant and loud (even the vocals); just amazing.

But The Apples in Stereo has never been Schneider’s only project. He has recorded songs with fellow pop mastermind Andy Partridge (XTC) and has collected them as Orchestra Fantastique. Though Schneider has become a studio architect of great power and precision, the pure fun of kids hysterically thrashing out Cheap Trick riffs just for the sake of rocking continues to infuse his music. The future of the Apples seems uncertain, but Thursday’s show promises to be all the things great pop ought to be: bright, sunny, harmonic, gigantic, and, most of all, fun.

The Apples in Stereo play Thursday, May 6th at the Bottom Lounge, 8 pm 18+. Fresh faced happy poppers Apollo Sunshine and High Water Marks, featuring former Apples drummer and songwriter Hilarie Sidney on vocals and guitar, open.
The Tally:
Fun Trick Noisemaker 7.5/10, Science Faire 7/10, Tone Soul Evolution 9.5/10, Her Wallpaper Reverie 8.3/10, The Discovery of a World inside the Moone 8/10, Velocity of Sound 8/10, The Marbles Pyramid Landing and Other Favorites 8.8/10

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Country with a Bitter Aftertaste.
Survivor Graham Parker Delivers an Excellent Outsider’s Perspective in Your Country.
Alan Jacobson reports.

Plenty of unusual, and often brilliant, work results from stubborn and unique artists giving country a shot. Long ago, Gram Parsons delivered a brand new “cosmic” country while Townes Van Zandt was busy redefining the genre as something even more soulful, more disturbingly personal. In modern Chicago, one only needs to crack open a window to grab hold of John Langford’s thick Welsh accent soulfully coloring Hank Williams and Johnny Cash’s high lonesome blues.

Add to this endless list another Brit by the name of Graham Parker. Sure, plenty of rockers have felt the eardrum buzz and decided to tone it down to country. Neko Case and Alejandro Escovedo, Parker’s new Bloodshot label mates, immediately spring to mind; and Parker initially seems to fall into this category. But like good friend, fellow back roads traveler, and sometime-producer Nick Lowe, Parker began his musical life as a pub rocker (also a beginning for Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer who have both dabbled in C & W). A bit later on, Parker would be lumped in with the sarcastic angry young new-wavers, Joe Jackson and Costello (who went so far as to additionally don Parker’s cynic-colored glasses)—ironically, far more popular artists for whom he provided the blueprint . But, like Lowe, he never abandoned his rootsy, thundering, bluesy, sound, a sound often flirting with country.

Country is many things, but at its best, it is something of an honest white man’s blues. Parker considered naming his new album Yer Country, channeling The Beatles nasal earthy blues screecher. His new Your Country, is something of a pub rock country record—and, without question, the blues the way it ought to be. No Albert King-humping guitar lines, no self-consciously constipated vocals from a John Mayall-styled blues number, but country: raw, nasal, sad, cathartic, and utterly natural-sounding blues. The very first tune “Anything for a Laugh” addresses and derides this very idea of masquerading, taking “The Tears of a Clown” one step further to a level of personal responsibility: “I’m not that bad I’m not that great/I’m just your average clown/People think that’s my nature/That’s how I wanna be/But I wonder if it’s just a shield in front of me”.

Parker’s eye for the little person’s struggle to create a meaningful life is not only a trope of country music, but serves to reveal a harsh critique of his “Nation of Shopkeepers”. Its title cribbed from a Churchill speech, the tune’s lyrics are a lazy celebration of mediocrity, of life devoted to creature comforts, distractions, consumption, and an underlying current of fear which boldly comes to fruition when the protagonist rips off the mask at the very end: “And you can’t expect me too/Put up a fight/No I’m just sitting still/My eyes are all over you/But my hand remains in the till”.

Ever the polished songwriter no matter the genre, Parker’s music matches his words perfectly; a resigned tone puts across the masterful breakup song “The Rest is History” and the similarly bitter “Cruel, Cruel Lips”. Though she is not telling this story, the latter heavily features Lucinda Williams on vocals, subtly suggesting that both sides of a failing relationship can feel equally destroyed: “Oh what does it take to stop your sharp, sharp tongue/You know I’m not invincible and those words really stung/They cut me to the marrow they cut me to the quick/Oh what does it take to shut your cruel, cruel lips”.

The feeling of joy in experimentation all over Your Country is mirrored nicely in the lyrics to “Fairground”. Wistfully, Parker suggests: “Let’s remember what life was like/When life was a wild ride”. For an artist liberated in the wild exploration of a fresh genre of music, the listener’s feeling is balanced between appreciation of a damned fine record and joy for Graham.

The album closes with Parker’s classic sweaty plea for self-acceptance, “Crawling from the Wreckage (Revisited)” whose original version was a sizable hit for fellow ambitious pub rocker, Dave Edmunds. Recontextualized here by an artist moving on and living creatively, the tune becomes a rollicking anthem for not only Parker’s new country voice, but doing one’s best and everything being just fine as a result.

Your Country is no put-on, no trite appropriation by a man 30 years into a frustrating career that has seen him mistaken for and laboring in the shadows of Costello, whose Almost Blue exhibits a similar, yet more self-conscious, fondness for country. Parker’s are country tunes, but effortless and unselfconsciously so; and in the best country style, these are soulful and cleverly incisive stories about everyday people.

Graham Parker has nothing to prove and it’s a delight to hear it. From his essay in the press release to Your Country: “country music is just the blues anyway...I can’t claim to be able to identify the music of classic artists with surnames Tubb, Williams, Haggard, or Jones, and I’m still fairly sure that I have never heard Gram Parsons, but I know what country music is, or at least ought to be, and I’ve just made an album full of it”. Parker’s compelling wisdom, honesty, love, and brilliance --all via the filter of a refreshingly genuine country-- will be the showcase at Martyr’s on Friday.

Graham Parker performs at Martyr's (9 pm, 3855 N. Lincoln Ave. Chicago) Friday, April 30. Anne McCue opens. For more information, log onto www.martyrslive.com or www.grahamparker.net.
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In A Big Country
Chicago continues to be modern country’s ground zero with a month of unique events and surprising releases. Alan Jacobson dons his cowboy suit and investigates.

Steel Sweetness
Jon Rauhouse’s Steel Guitar Rodeo goes down like a glass of sweet tea on a blazing summer’s day.

Jon Rauhouse began his illustrious underground country career on a high school dare. He picked up the banjo and a spot in bluegrass outfit, Southwind. Shortly after joining the band, Rauhouse switched to pedal steel guitar. Southwind lasted 7 years. Rauhouse spent a decade as a session man in his home of Phoenix, finally landing in the Grievous Angels, an outfit that, as the Parsons name might suggest, blended country and rock. Apropos of nothing, but amusing just the same, the dubbed their bluegrass alter ego Ned Beatty and the Inbreds.

Rauhouse then had a short stint with Jamal Ruhe in the Sleepwalkers. Towards the end of the nineties, he started backing Bloodshot’s impressive female country roster, including Mekon Sally Timms and part-time jazz singer Kelly Hogan. While on tour with Neko Case, Rauhouse met up with old Southwind band mate Tommy Connell. They became a duo.

Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant were an insatiable pair of country/jazz guitarists who performed endlessly throughout the Fifties. Subtle and brilliant, it’s the kind of music where the listener ends up naturally hooting and hollering occasionally just to express the pent up awe at how damned good it is. Mirroring that duo in inspiration and talent, Rauhouse pulls a remarkable turn on the steel while Connell picks in a similarly augmentative fashion.

Jon Rauhouse’s 2002 album was called The Steel Guitar Air Show, nicely alluding to the remarkable stunt that creates in this music a vibrancy, an homage without sounding dated. The rodeo even covers similar ground, roping in standards from the era—but sounding fresh enough and performing the tunes so well, that the listener is transported not to a dogmatic recreation of 1942, not to some self-consciously “new swing” astro turf, but to the green, green grasses of an altogether new place, a new home that not only works, but is delightful and goes down easy, like a good glass of lemonade.

Hideout Svengali Tim Tuten gets the rodeo of Rauhouse originals and carefully selected covers going with a humble spoken introduction. Rauhouse instrumental “Widowmaker” then kicks in Chicago-style with Tom V. Ray’s solid bass and Kevin O’Donnell’s subtly propulsive brushwork. As throughout, Rauhouse’s banjo and pedal steel/Hawaiian guitar lines are unreservedly inspired while absolutely gorgeous to both the ear and aesthetic sense all at once--easy to appreciate on any level, depending on what mood you’re in.

All in all, the instrumentation is phenomenal. The crimejazz-esque classic TV theme “Perry Mason Theme” is given the steel guitar filter. It sounds natural, great. “Powerhouse”, Raymond Scott’s impossibly complicated masterpiece of 40’s faux-jazz is a bold tune to even attempt; Rauhouse and his band of merry men pull it off with flavor and flair. Throughout the rest of the album, the innumerable guest contributors include John Convertino, Will Lovell, and Joey Burns lending their Tucson rhythmic talents, Carolyn Mark granting backup, and a slew of others of equal and varied talents (minus the rodeo clowns), all sandwiched within appropriately lovely old style cover work by Kathleen Judge.

Kelly Hogan pulls double duty on the sultry “Smoke Rings” and punishing “Prisoner of Love”. Remarkable standards both, the listener can easily imagine Kelly snug both in a satin dress and behind one of those old microphones, smoking a cigarette; but behind her the bandstand musicians have traded their suits and uniforms for denim and dungarees. As Hogan wistfully intones, "Tell me where do they go, the smoke rings I blow at night? What do they do the circles of blue and white? Why do they seem to picture a dream of love? Why do they fade like phantom parades above?", one cannot help but simply drift away along with the dreamy tune and that intimate and alluring voice.

Sally Timms brings a time-appropriate reverence to “(There’ll Be Blue Birds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover”. The Rodeo improves this song, transforming a tune that has traditionally been mismanaged. Normally, its poignant lyrics have been ironically put across as a perky big band jump with corny male vox. Here, Timms makes “Blue Birds” into just the soft, coaxing, hopeful plea for peace we need. Just beautiful.

Everyone complains that Neko Case is underused in The New Pornographers. I always respond: how much can you take? In “River of No Return” Neko Case virtually destroys everything before and after with her voice. God, that voice: all the raw power and emotion of Patsy Cline, the wisdom of Loretta Lynn, spooned onton the tongue with an indescribably sweet seductiveness. Incomparable. Unfairly superior. More than one song may be too much to take.

That was fine for the girls, but how about the boys? Blacky Ranchette himself, Howe Gelb, whacks the ivory while monotonously intoning the “Indian Love Call”, a superb standard, fashioned almost note-for-note from the best of the big bandleader’s versions. Of course, I’m talking about the rebellious genius that was Artie Shaw. Gelb shines as always.

No vocal slouch, Rauhouse himself sounds a bit like Steve Earl, as he stomps, spits and derides “Work Work” as the dirtiest word he’s ever heard. And it is his Hawaiian guitar that eases the listener out of the Steel Guitar Rodeo; but don’t bother getting up and changing the disc. You’ll only listen to it again—it’s so easy and so, so damned good.

Settin’ the Barn on Fire
Bloodshot’s been on fire all month, fulfilling Chicago’s false promise of warmth (those seductively sunny days which, with wind chill, amount to single-digit temperatures.)

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to be living in this town. Then I slip into the Hideout, catch a whiff of what’s cooking over at Bloodshot, swoon over Kelly Hogan’s sweet and lovely voice, and I feel home and warm and squishy in a way that only fantastic old-style music and, in this case, specifically country can make a body feel. Get your calendar out, son.

“Off the Charts”, Robbie Fulks’s tribute to and presentation of Jamie Meltzer's documentary on the song-poem, will be showing at the Hideout on Sunday, the 18th.

The 80th anniversary of the first barn dance will be taking place on Monday, the 19th. Vintage footage of a WLS broadcast will be featured alongside live music by Jon Langford & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts. “The Rise and Fall of the National Barn Dance”, an installation by Jon Langford and Rob Lentz will also be on display. Anyone familiar with Langford’s bold and unusual paintings and fine work with the Cosmonauts (his Bob Wills tribute of a few years back is unparalleled) will know to get there early. It starts at 7:30 PM and is free.

Kelly Hogan makes it all look easy. She continues to perfect her intimate and precise, yet bold and highly emotive take on jazz at The Hideout every Thursday. “Jazz with A Limp”, they call it. I call it jazz with an obvious appreciation and adoration for what they’re doing. Hogan also opens for the Indigo Girls at the Vic on Friday the 23rd.

And set your Palm Mach IV life conductotron 2000’s way in advance for the Graham Parker show on Friday the 30th at Martyr’s. The postpunk prince’s last album is country via Dylan (think Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue, but more gritty, personal, and evil-sounding) and he will kill, guaranteed.
Bloodshot Website

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VHS or BETA – The Disco Ball Says “Dance Punk!”

Buy the album then go to the show; but don’t let Dave Shuey catch you standing still.


From New Order to The Rapture, punk bands and their puritan fans have attempted that clunky electric slide into dance music. To mixed results. Le Funk, VHS or Beta’s Daft Punk-influenced indie debut provided an overdose of guitar funk to get booties moving. Yet for the PBR lager-gulpers whose static laps this disc landed, it was more like “Le ... eh?”


The 2002 album was a confusing pill for the cooler-than-thou to swallow. That’s understandable. Albums have to stand on their own. Even Louisville-based VHS or Beta band members admit the house-influenced release missed its artistic and commercial window. Le Funk was 100% disco ball shimmer, retro and daring – almost no vocals to be found, nor easy explanation. Taken on its own, its pre-New Wave sound was either an exercise in irony or all-out homage to Studio 54.


The real test is taking the coked-up sound into clubs and seeing if a) the band nails it without studio help; and b) if scrupulous (and might I add, catatonic) audiences meet the songs half-way.


I was dragged into such an experiment on a 2002 summer Thursday at Seattle’s famed Graceland (formerly the grunge dive, The Off Ramp). My in-the-know friend Dave raved about buzz makers I Am the World Trade Center, who opened for VHS or Beta. I was oblivious to both groups. To my chagrin, I Am the World Trade Center’s sweet Euro-dance lyricism and bubbly energy couldn’t rivet the demure bouquet of 40 white-belt types – their signature Blondie cover “Call Me” was welcome, yet rosy hips remained as stiff as the vodka tonics.


Then VHS or Beta appeared and it happened. One. Continuous. Danceable. Sound. Witnessing blazing disco machinery coming from a traditional rocker quartet, featuring guitarists Craig Pfunder and Zeke Buck, bassist Mark Palgy, and drummer Mark Guidry, left my mouth agape and round ass a-shaking.


VHS or Beta was a spectacle – a truly original moment in time. With dueling guitars streaming sounds worthy of ‘70s-era studio DJ tracks, one thought circulated the collective air: Are they really jamming out one live disco groove for 30 minutes straight? Yes, Ringo with the farmer’s cap, they are.


And still: No dancing. Was the discotronic experiment flawed? Perhaps it was low audience numbers. Or there was cross over for the Trans Am / !!! / Pines of Nowhere show the next night, and thighs and feet needed rest. Not likely.


Nope, in this social test, it’s the control group. If there’s a billboard, it reads, “Modern City Kids Don’t Dance to Rock.” Even if the music breaks new ground. It’s a sad sign of the times. Staunch rock fans (predominately white) turned electronic wannabes always face such genre-bending dilemmas: Is it a joke, or do I go with it? Do I keep staring at my girlfriend’s shoes, or do I ignore everyone else and just dance?


This is an eternal gripe that I passed along to everyone from World Trade Center’s Amy Dykes that very night (an angel who answers her email) to Deathcab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard at The Thermal’s show days before I left Seattle late May 2004.


(And coincidentally, seeing both a Trans Am and !!! show in Chicago restored a modicum of faith in audience’s ability to “let it go” – although I’m sure alcohol-induced bravado has something to do with it. People are afraid to look stupid, I suppose.)


Fortunately there are bands like VHS or Beta to inspire the oft-confused electro-clash crowd. Now reaching new milestones on their Astralwerks debut Night On Fire (We have vocals! We have songs! We have a pop future!), VHS or Beta dare to breath PR statements such as a musical kinship with Duran Duran and get away with it.  Even their first single “Night on Fire” borrows more from Simon LeBon than any Bee Gee, dead or alive. Time will tell if VHS or Beta remain under the cult radar alongside United State of Electronica and Particle (and their dance fan worshipers, see www.partiplepeople.com) – or take a page from Joy Division’s ashes and “GET DOWN on their knees and pray” New Order-style.


Now if somebody can only get the fucking hipsters to dance.

Dance Quotient off eponymous single: 8.0.

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Taking the Piss...for the Kids
Ollie Hunt explores the ins and outs of youth and rock via The Catheters’ Howling...It Grows and Grows.


Much press had been given the Catheters previous album, Static Delusions and Stone Cold Days, ostensibly because the average age of the members involved hovered around twenty.  Adolescents and immediate post adolescents picking up guitars and forming rock n' roll bands is nothing new by any means. Aging geeks who write about music, however, are looking to have their taste flattered, and view the contempo-teen with a taste for the much lauded Detroit axis, or any other seminal sound that is just as “Crit. 101 du jour”, just as prodigious.

The Mortal Micronotz and Squirellbait released highly regarded, albeit highly derivative, albums while still in high school. Another northwest band, Seaweed, were right at the tail end of their teens when they'd started getting their run of praise. Out of those bands, one splintered off into a number of ill fated bar bands, another split off into a couple of fairly influential art/math bands, a mediocre bar band, and a couple of ill- advised post- projects, and one made a major label album, disappeared, attempted a comeback on a well respected indie and disappeared again.


Those are only some of the more specific examples I have off the top of my head. Rock n' roll snags 'em young but doesn't learn 'em to age too well half the time.

Now that the Catheters are all of legal drinking age their third album can be taken on more musical merits. Namely, what it sounds like; Angular guitar squalls give way to scalding rubber-riff that alternates between stagger and swagger. The youthful penchant for high drama makes them seem that they are out to prove they are either the most bug eyed or most red eyed schizo sex gods on their respective block.

It stands out because they've slyly managed to avoid the trappings of so many of the older faces crowding the neo- rock and/or roll crowd. They respectfully pass on the constricted martial blues of AC/DC and the funereal dirge of the Sabbath while steering far clear of the muddy lo-fi stance favored by so many amateur opportunists. They seem to acknowledge the last ten years have happened, including the more aggressively textured end of the indie spectrum. Meaning they seem to have taken a couple of SwamiSound figurehead John Reis' underhanded lessons in riff history to heart, and one or two of them probably own a Brainiac record. Finally, they're not costume coordinated and haven't all adopted Catheter as their last name.

All of the above, of course, is absolutely meaningless. If the question is, ultimately, does it rock? I can say yes, yes it does. These guys are at least self-convinced and who am I to argue? Kids don't care what I have to say about it, and they shouldn't. But whether or not their album will outlive the chemical imbalance it's triggered is a bit more uncertain. Years from now you may find it on your CD rack, having forgotten you'd had it. You may find it used, remember liking it a long time ago, when you were younger, and wonder whatever happened to those guys. Then you might re-buy it and put it on and feel the same adrenalin chill up your spine you felt all those years ago. Maybe. It's too soon to tell now, but with a buzz this good, does it really matter?


The Catheters play Seattle’s Paradox Theater on August 21st.   Howling...It Grows and Grows 8.0/10.


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***Where'd Citylink go? What the heck is Modern Kicks?***
Citylink R.I.P.:

The little paper that could no longer can. Thank you to everyone who made my articles look so decent over the past bunch of months. I will miss writing for such a little yet effective and inspired paper.
The good news:
Modern Kicks is alive and (sorry) kicking! Actually, I have received incalculably more feedback *from artists and fellow appreciators alike* at Kicks than I ever did at the paper.

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Contributor Guidelines:
*You need neither write as well as they do at Pitchfork nor as snarkily as they do at Vice, you simply need to have personality and copyedit.
*Do you hold strong opinions?
Example: feeling that, after hearing the Small Faces, Yardbirds, Who, and Action, Led Zeppelin is one of the most overrated bands in rock history.
*Do you have an incredibly strong passion for music, bordering on an unhealthy addiction?
*Can you justify why your piece would be relevant?
*Failing that, can you take a beautiful photo and/or do you have decent web skills?
Answer, or argue (well) against, these questions and we can talk.

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A Journey to the Center of My Web Universe

*Grab the last of the nice Autumn weather and enjoy parties with DJ Jump Cut. Enjoy $2 highlifes on Chicago's finest patio while DJ Jump Cut spins live at Darkroom 2210 W Chicago on **Sunday, October 17 from 7-2am**
*Also check me out as DJ SLASH Cut as I positively kill (MWAH-HAH-Hah-ahhhhhh...!) at the Movieside Hall-o-ween Extravaganza at Darkroom, **Sunday, October 24, from 7-2am** I will be spinning sets and as always, have an open mind, so:  Request sump'n.