Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February 2, 2014: The Pixies

The Pixies
w/Cults
The Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
February 2, 2014

I have a slightly embarrassing admission regarding my introduction to the Pixies.

There was a time in my life when I was buying music at an unsustainable rate. Not monetarily unsustainable, mind you, since the mid-2000s saw collectors purging CDs en masse in favor of digital music, which allowed me to rake in stacks of essential CDs at about $5 a pop. The unsustainability stemmed from the volume and mild discretion with which I acquired it, snagging up records by any band of whose reputation I was aware, whether or not I had an inkling as to their sound. My desire to familiarize myself with as much good music as possible has always been a driver, and at the time I dreaded not being able to participate in informed discussions with peers whose horizons were broader than my own. By now I've reached a point where my tastes meander where they will, but back then, it was more about filling in the many gaps in my repertoire.

The year was 2005 and I was flipping through the used section at 52.5 Records or Millennium Music or Manifest Records (only the latter of which has lasted) and came across The Pixies' Bossanova. The Pixies were the perfect example of a band I knew I should know, but didn't. It feels bizarre that less than a decade ago I was so unfamiliar with such an important band, but that's where I was.

This was pre-smartphone, so I was unable to execute a quick background check. But I couldn't shake the feeling that this record was part of some experimental synchronized 4-disc release I'd read about. If that sounds a lot like the Flaming Lips' Zaireka that's because it's exactly what I was thinking of. Yes, I was underschooled to the point that I was confusing the Pixies with the Flaming Lips (a band I would fully embrace a few months later.) But I bought the record anyway, and on the drive home slid it into my console CD player. The first song is surf rock instrumental "Cecilia Ann". Hm, no lyrics. Guess I was right! I ejected and cased the CD, and didn't listen to it again until I realized my mistake some months later. Bossonova is now my favorite Pixies record. I always laugh to myself when I think about that bungle, but also feel a bit nostalgic for that exciting time when I could discover an essential act seemingly each week.

I've never been quite as infatuated with the Pixies as I've been with a lot of bands, but that isn't to say I'm not a card-carrying fan. I mentioned my affinity for Bossanova, and I think Dolittle is deserved of all the praise it's received in recent years. The only of the three other Pixies records I own is Surfer Rosa, which I like but have a hit-or-miss familiarity. (By the way, it it just me or has "Where Is My Mind?" become ubiquitous in the past few years?) This may explain why I was somewhat on the fence about attending The Pixies stop in Nashville that fell during a recent visit. There were a few factors dissuading me: it was Super Bowl Sunday, I'd be visiting the same venue two days later for a Neutral Milk Hotel show, and tickets were a staggering $70. But my hosts were attending and as a Redskins fan, the Super Bowl is basically an abstract concept, so I took the plunge. As it happened, my seat—purchased three months after my pals—was about ten feet from theirs. I was able to sidle over and watch the show with them. Meant to be, I suppose!

This was my second trip to the Ryman, bookending a seven and a half year gap. My first experience was a Ryan Adams and the Cardinals show in 2006. The place looked no different from how I left it, which is unsurprising for such an historical venue. Having truly delved into old school country in the past few years, it was easier to appreciate the stylized portraits of Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb and other country legends who used to perform at the Ryman when it housed the Grand Ol' Opry. The auditorium itself is an old church, beautiful and rustic, sporting pews instead of theater seats. The balcony reaches over much of the floor seating, and the locals tell me it's almost preferable to sit upon high. As a bit of a seat snob, this assuaged my concern that my back row balcony seats would yield an underwhelming experience. So while I'd still have preferred a near-stage floor seat, I certainly felt satisfied with my view.

The opener was Cults, one of those latter-aughts New York City indie pop bands that all kind of run together in my mind. But lead vocalist Madeline Follin's voice, drenched in reverb as it was, is powerful enough to distinguish her from the doe-eyed indie girl archetype. To paraphrase a Tom Waits line, her voice sounds like electric sugar, but a dash of sultriness fortifies her delivery. Guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Brian Oblivion—the other half of the original duo that's now expanded to a five-piece—handled most of the banter, offering jokey mid-song updates on the Super Bowl ("I think we can call this one for Seattle") and making sure to mention how floored they were to be opening for the Pixies at the Ryman just three years after breaking out. Well, sure.

Then it was time for the Pixies. I always get a rush the first time I see an iconic figure in person, and Frank Black's entrance made for no exception. Frank took the stage with longtime bandmates drummer David Lovering and guitarist Joey Santiago, and new bandmate bassist/vocalist Paz Lenchantin. Alas, Kim Deal's been an ex-Pixie for a year now, but I thought Lenchantin (Deal's second replacement) did a phenomenal job in her stead. A talented multi-instrumentalist and veteran of numerous prominent rock acts, Lenchantin captured Deal's vocal style so perfectly that casual fans unfamiliar with the band's personnel may not have known the difference.

My question: how the hell can Frank Black still sing like that? How do his vocal chords not resemble pumpkin innards (seeds and all) with all the screaming he's done for the past 25 years? However he's maintained his chops, the Nashville crowd appreciated his efforts that Sunday night. After all, would it really have been "Crackity Jones" if Black wasn't delivering the titular lyrics in that ragged shriek?

Looking back at the setlist, I'm a little surprised to see that they played 33 songs, which speaks to the fact that I'm not as comfortable with the Pixies' full catalog as I thought I was. Still, a stretch of seven Dolittle songs was a real treat, and found therein was song of the night "La La Love You". It's not the one I'd have expected to stand out, but it's such a charming and strange tune that it stood out from all the ragers in a real refreshing way. And Lovering's extended, a cappella refrain of "All I'm askin', pretty baby / La-la-love you, don't mean maybe" got one of the night's best crowd responses. But I won't sleep on "Velouria", my personal favorite Pixies song that was finally played as the second of a three-song encore.

Speaking to the level of band/fan interaction: it was minimal. Frank Black's performance felt anything but perfunctory, but I'm struggling to remember if he spoke even one word on mic (outside of a brief, jocular back-and-forth with the rest of the band after a mid-song hiccup—I believe he said something like, "We can just pick up from there right? One, two, three...") Black finally acknowledged the audience at the end of the first set, ambling around the stage sporting a childlike grin, waving at fans like a proud grade schooler acknowledging his family at a recital. I wasn't expecting an abundance of banter, but it's never not a little surprising when an artist doesn't feel compelled to gab with the audience a bit.

After the show, we returned home and watched the Super Bowl on DVR, if mostly for the commercials. Real talk: I thought Bruno Mars' halftime performance was outstanding. After all, the Super Bowl is an event tailor made for a bouffanted pop crooner. But I digress!

Admittedly, I went into this show feeling more than a bit like I was visiting some famous landmark. But the Pixies are just so much better than that and with no perceived flaws in the facade, it was easy to fall under the spell of the energized charisma on which the band built its reputation. Purists may find it difficult to call these Pixies "The Pixies" without Kim Deal, which I understand, but I'd like to think I won't feel compelled to provide that disclaimer when recalling this show. I won't remember it for who wasn't there, but rather for the brilliant songs, the legendary venue, and the fact that I had a far, far better night than the Broncos.

SETLIST:

Bone Machine
Wave of Mutilation
U-Mass
Head On  (The Jesus and Mary Chain cover)
Isla de Encanta
In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)
Caribou
I've Been Tired
Cactus
Brick Is Red
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Mr. Grieves
Crackity Jones
Here Comes Your Man
La La Love You
Hey
Gouge Away
Bagboy
Ana
Motorway to Roswell
Nimrod's Son
Andro Queen
Indie Cindy
Blue Eyed Hexe
Magdalena
Greens and Blues
Snakes
Subbacultcha
Vamos
Where Is My Mind?

E:
Havalina
Velouria
Planet of Sound

Monday, December 16, 2013

Favorite Records of 2013

In the hours I spent parsing through my "2013" Spotify playlist en route to compiling this list, I've determined, with certainty, that I am extremely white. This list is just a bunch of white guys. Hip-hop? Soul? Blues? Dude, I don't deserve to enjoy that stuff. That said, I listened to more of it this year than ever before, and even though that still comprised a very small portion of my overall music consumption, it's a step towards my perpetual effort to expand my tastes. But as the blog description states, we specialize in Americana and indie rock 'round these parts, so I suppose it shouldn't come as much of a surprise.

For the first time in a while, I can't land on a discernible favorite, so WITHOUT FURTHER ADO, here are Thirteen Records I Really Enjoyed This Year and Some Stray Thoughts On Each™.

Vampire Weekend — Modern Vampires of the City

I tried to dislike these guys on principle when they debuted in 2007, but I found it terribly difficult. They're just too good at crafting eminently likable indie-pop anthems. And Ezra's a damn fine singer with a kind of Midas touch that transmogrifies things that should be grating (like a mouse-pitched voice singing "Ya hey!") into a charming earworm. God, so many good songs on this album. And "Diane Young" is the perfect single, right? Like, that ideal has been achieved so the rest of us should turn to writing rock operas? OK, cool.

Jason Isbell — Southeastern

Remember when Jason Isbell first left the Drive-By Truckers and we were all excited to hear a solo LP because his precious few Truckers credits were so damned good and we figured we'd get a slate of A+++++ songs on an LP? Then his first album came out and it was like, "Yeah, this is pretty good," and then he released a kinda mediocre follow-up and then an even more mediocre third album? Then Southeastern came out and everyone was like, "OH SHIT HAVE YOU HEARD THE NEW ISBELL?" and I listened and it was actually pretty goddamned good? And how I celebrated the fact that Isbell to was writing some gritty Southern gothic shit and aching ballads instead of schmaltzy blue eyed soul and MOR adult-contempo?

That was awesome.

Local Natives — Hummingbird

God, this band. I remember when I first heard Gorilla Manor and was staggered by how sturdy and developed it was for a debut and how many songs I was completely in love with. "Wide Eyes" is still one of the better opening tracks I've heard in years. After three years spent building a fanbase, Local Natives released Hummingbird in January and it was about all I listened to until March. These guys can write the hell out of a hook-laden single, but won't hesitate to crush your ass with a ballad if you look at 'em wrong. "Colombia" is a song about singer Kelcy Ayers' mother passing, and it will absolutely destroy you when you hear it in that context. My one gripe with the record has to do with pacing. The momentum picks up in the back half, but it starts out choppy. But hey, basically a nitpick—this one's been in steady rotation all year. Oh, and if this record came out when I was nineteen, I would have had "Mt. Washington" on repeat and felt sorry for myself about how hard I had things (I didn't). Thankfully, "Come Pick Me Up" was available.

The Letter Show—Brokenhearted Stumblers EP

Yes, I am in this band but it totally would have shown up in this list even if I wasn't. YES NO YOU SHUT UP.

Arcade Fire — Reflektor

Perhaps it had to do with the enormity of The Suburbs, but fans and detractors alike came down hard on Reflektor seemingly the moment that first stream was available. Regardless, if you're willing to tweet out a dismissive review of any record after a passing listen, you're a terrible fan and don't deserve good music.

I'm a salty vet with the Arcade Fire, so I dignified 'em with an Actual Listen™ prior to pulling together my verdict. After some dozens of spins, I'm comfortable deem it another triumph, although maybe not quite so triumphy as any of the band's first three LPs. I think Reflektor could have been trimmed down to a single LP, but I still love pretty much all of it. By the way, I've got a ticket for their DC show in August 2014, and am feeling pretty good my prospects of doing The Electrocution* during the breakdown of "Here Comes the Night Time". (*The Electrocution is a dance I invented by proxy because it's the only form my dancing takes. As you've likely gathered, it's resembles a person being electrocuted by a stupid amount of voltage. It's not a good look. Did I mention my whiteness?)

Mark Kozelek/Desertshore—s/t

While Mark Kozelek's recent output has seen musical arrangements whittled down to almost nothing, his collaboration with Desertshore (comprised partially of former Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon bandmates) gets back to the spacey alt-rock histrionics of latter-era RHPs and early SKM. Lyrically, Kozelek's in a wacky place, in as much as Kozelek can be wacky. His lyrics are a bit sillier and more self-deprecating, although still contextualized by the somber, deadpan delivery that defines much of his canon. The album's ten songs are strung with mundane descriptions of what Kozelek's doing or thinking. "I got up and I went to the studio / got stopped by a crackhead named Jerome / he had a lot to get off his chest / he wanted some money and he was homeless" he muttersings on "Livingstone Bramble". The chorus ends with the declaration "I hate Nels Cline" followed by a Cline-esque guitar run. Sensing the wackiness? But lest you think Kozelek's shelved his penchant for more crushing turns, he reminds us why he's the face of '90s SLOWCORE. Par example, piano ballad album closer "Brothers," about the death of each of Kozelek's father's three brothers, which occurred over a span of some 70 years. The song (and album) ends with the lyric, "And my dad, he's still around / and I'll miss him like hell when I can no longer hear the sound / of his voice givin' me advice and telling me the latest news / when we can't sit around and watch old movies in his living room." Suffice it to say this isn't exactly a pick-me-up record, but it's got a relatable warmth to it if you're feeling a bit blue and reflective.

Kurt Vile—Wakin' On a Pretty Daze

I just want to talk about "Shame Chamber", which is a way groovier song than we're used to hearing from KV. Actually, I don't have much else to say about it except that I peck my head like a nerd to the electric piano lick and may or may not shriek along with each "WOO!" when no one is in earshot.

Richard Buckner—Surrounded

A supremely underrated songwriter who seems to be finding a lot more joy in exploring the studio space with his recent material. Buckner's bailiwick is writing heady, spacey neofolk songs, which are kinda my shit. Also, remember how Mark Kozelek's lyrics are a little wacky? Buckner's are stone serious, delivered like he's making mad eye contact while sliding you a stiff whiskey. Don't ask questions—just drink it and listen.

Neko Case—The Worse Things Get...(etc.)

Look, Neko. I know you probably don't want a husband but if you're wanting for company, I'll totally come live on your farm in Vermont and help you with whatever. I won't even ask for a room; I can sleep in my car or a tent—I have a zero degree bag so I should be fine. And I'll try not to gush about how much I love your music, but I can't promise a bit of fanboy shit won't slip out. By the way, your album rules. That song "Night Still Comes", I love it...and you. I LOVE YOU NEKO PLEASE LET ME LOVE Y[is dragged off by security]

Phosphorescent—Muchacho

Will Houck could read an Arby's menu into a microphone and I'd be like, "Ah, man, there's a delicate pain belying his chummy delivery and also he really likes Market Fresh Sandwiches." Thankfully, he opts to sing a spacious brand of Americana that'll wash over you like a warm Mojave sunset. Is "A Charm/A Blade" my favorite song of 2013? Answer: IT IS CERTAINLY UP THERE.

The National—Trouble Will Find Me

It seems bonkers that the epic Boxer, my first exposure to the brooding indie rock collective, was released seven years ago. While I don't think they've topped it with either subsequent LP, the good news is the National doesn't make a habit of putting out bad records. Nor do they stray from their formula, but it's distinct enough that they don't really have to. Push play on a National record and you're gonna hear pounding, moody anthems. You're gonna hear weaving interplay between verbed out guitar arpeggi and tumbling drumbeats. You're gonna hear Matt Berninger mumbling curious wordplay like, "She's a griever, not a believer, it's not a fever, it's a freezer." Ironically, these same touches that distinguish the National from garden variety indie acts have a congealing effect as far as their individual songs go. But I'm not listening to National records to hear a batch of staggered singles. Trouble Will Find Me, as with most National records, feels like one long, thoughtful spin on a starlit highway.

Dexateens—Sunsphere EP

ENOUGH WITH ALL THIS MAUDLIN INDIE BULLSHIT, LET'S CRANK SOME FUCKIN' GRITCAKED SOUTHERN ROCK IN THIS BITCH. FOXHOLE ROCK!



(Fun fact: I'd never listened to these guys before I saw them open for the Alabama Shakes in September. Their 2007 album Hardwire Healing is the truth.)

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& The Duchess)—The Low Highway

As a person who writes music, there are a few artists whose songwriting chops are so inspiring that they're contagious. Hearing their stuff sets my creative gears in spin, and generally results in me grabbing a guitar and ripping them the hell off writing my own tune in a similar vein. Bob Dylan, obviously, is one of these people. Steve Earle is another. There's an appeal that exists in both these dudes' music that's borne out of the fact that it feels both effortless and inspired, which are extremely difficult qualities to maintain in balance. But when you hear a Steve Earle song like, "Love Is Gonna Blow My Way", you want to call him up and say, "Dude, I bet you wrote that in like three minutes and it's better than anything I've ever written. I hate you." And then he'd be like, "Gee thanks, um, how'd you get this number?" And then you'd snap your phone in half like a burner in Breaking Bad, because that'd be a pretty cool way to tie up that scenario. Speaking of which, there's a song about meth on this record. It's okay.

Other albums I liked:

Dr. Dog—B-Room
Man Man—On Oni Pond
Yo La Tengo—Fade
Daft Punk—Random Access
Phoenix—Bankrupt!
Deer Tick—Negativity

Mild Disappointments:

Iron & Wine—Ghost on Ghost: Even as a champion of Iron & Wine's steadily expanding sound, I found this one uneven and regularly flirting with schmaltziness. I really like "Grass Widows" though.

Okkervil River—The Silver Gymnasium

Agree? Disagree?* What'd I miss? Feel free to leave your opinions below.

*You're wrong

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Catching Up: 2012

2012: Catching UP

Last week, I posted for the first time in two years. You'll recall from that post that 2012 was the year I focused on my own musical endeavors, which left little time for sponging up others' music in the way I normally would. But here's a review of what I did manage.

Music 


As far as new music goes, 2012 was a lost year. The rigors of leading an active band simply didn't leave the time to devour new tunes in the way I had in years past. Additionally, it was something of a quiet year for my top bands. However, I made time for a handful of records, including:

Grizzly Bear—Shields

Fiona Apple—The Idler Wheel (etc.)

Andrew Bird—Break It Yourself and Hands to Glory

Dinosaur Jr.—I Bet On Sky

Jack White—Blunderbuss

Father John Misty—Fear Fun

Beach House—Bloom

Dirty Projectors—Swing Lo Magellan

I'm forgetting some, but really, that's what 2012 was for me. And of that slate, I've only steadily revisited Shields, Fear Fun, I Bet On Sky and Hands to Glory. Speaking of Fear Fun, this is where I get to push my thick-rimmed glasses up my nose and say, "Yeah, I've been a J. Tillman fan since like 2009" (proof!) Of course, J. as Father John is a different animal than the understated folkster with whom I was familiar. But it's always nice to see an artist switch gears to a positive end. Which, by the way, is why I glommed onto Andrew Bird's latter 2012 release. While it still retained many of Andrew Bird's trademark idiosyncrasies (whistling, quirky lyricism, soaring vocals, whistling) the album swaps the baroque histrionics that typify much of Bird's solo canon with a more straightforward Americana approach.

But overall, I was spread so thin that new music fell by the wayside. I did finally get into War On Drugs' Slave Ambient as well as this delightful folk anthology. I know I discovered a handful of other older releases, but they're escaping me at the moment. This is why steadily updating this blog is helpful, you see.

Shows


Similarly, my 2012 live music intake suffered due to my personal musical commitments. I probably played 30 rock shows last year, but only caught a handful worth mentioning. Among them:

The Avett Brothers at the North Charleston Coliseum
February 12, 2012


When I was in college, The Avett Brothers used to play New Brookland tavern, a grimy dive in West Columbia. I saw Band of Horses there right after they released their first album. But I never saw the Avetts there, despite my multiple invitations to do so. This will haunt me forever. By the time I got into the Avett Brothers in 2005 when Four Thieves Gone came out, they were on the cusp of graduating to slightly larger venues. I finally saw them at the Music Farm, then at various performing arts centers, and then finally at the Coliseum. With each graduation, the Avetts' live show had to sacrifice some of the wily stage antics. Of course, the actual music was sounding better because of the advantages that more sophisticated audio bring, but we can all relate to the bittersweet realization that a band you used to tout as the next big thing has become just that. You're thrilled for the band—especially when it's guys like the Avetts, who toured relentlessly for years and gleaned a following the old fashioned way before breaking out. They're now doing GAP commercials and play custom guitars and headline festivals. Good on 'em! But it's all happened in tandem with what my ear considers to be a dramatic dropoff in quality—at least the quality that drew me to the band in the first place. But, what can you do? The kids love it!

By the way, the show was phenomenal—third row seats helped, but the Avetts still exude a passion for performing that few bands can match. It was funny to see the folks around us become relatively disinterested with any song that predated I & Love & You, only to sing full bore when a newer song popped up. But thankfully, the band closed with "Talk On Indolence" and I got to bounce around like an idiot while the n00bs wondered what the hell was going on.

In conclusion, to any college kids reading this: if a band from out of town is playing a dive bar and there's a bit of buzz surrounding it, go see the show. You may never hear from them again, but if you skip it and they blow up, you'll kick yourself. Forever. [kicks self]

Beach House at the Music Farm
May 6, 2012


It was hot as hell. We had a terrible view. They played a fine show. We left before the encore.

Wilco at the St. Augustine Amphitheater in St. Augustine, Florida
May 19, 2012


It was the closest they've come in some time, so an overnight trip to America's oldest town was in order. Our tickets were second row center, which I believe is the best ticket I've ever had in 9 Wilco shows. Also memorable: the power went out during the middle section of "Shot In The Arm". The band just gazed at one another amidst the darkness, but Glenn kept the beat going while the audience repeated the line "Maybe all I need is a shot in the arm!" until several minutes later when the power came back on and the band picked up right on cue. Teamwork!

My Morning Jacket/Band of Horses at the Time Warner Cable Town Amphitheater
August 25, 2012



Unfortunately, my buddy and I missed BOH's set because of traffic, but were rewarded with the revelation that our tickets were for the stagefront pit—we'd assumed we'd be embedded in a swath of generally admitted masses. But not so! We had plenty of elbow room and actually ran into a buddy of mine from my days as a Ryan Adams show mainstay.

Anyway, MMJ's performance was magnificent—I'd wager it was one of the top three live performances I've ever seen. This is a band tailor-made for playing on a crisp, starlit night. Band of Horses stood stageside and watched the performance in awe. Mind you, they'd been on tour with MMJ for a stretch already, so they'd been privy to this performance many times. But I can't blame them—I'd drink it in nightly too, if I had the opportunity. The show performance of "Steam Engine" cemented it as one of my favorite songs, and led to a months-long MMJ kick that hasn't fully subsided.

Andrew Bird at the Charleston Music Hall
November 5, 2012


This was the night South Carolina demolished Georgia. I watched the game at a nearby bar and missed the first couple of songs because I couldn't tear away, even though it was well in hand by the 4th quarter. I eventually made it over to the CMH for my second Andrew Bird experience. Specifics are foggy, but I just remember smiling the whole time and that it was an excellent show. He played much of the Hands of Glory album I wrote about earlier, perhaps why I've become so fond of it.

***

There were a few other smaller shows—Shovels and Rope at a local beer festival comes to mind. But as has been the theme, I can't quite remember what shows I attended as a spectator amidst all the shows I played.

The goal is to get a 2013 catch-up post going next, although I've been a bit more conscientious fan this year so I may split it up into multiple posts. Until then!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

So. How ya been?

The last time I posted to HearSoundsWrite—almost two years ago, as the timestamp on the post below this one indicates—I was at the precipice of something new. In fact, I'd already begun a transition from largely ignored music blogger to largely ignored musician.

Early in 2010, I was bored. I mean that in a musical sense—I'd grown sick of playing acoustic guitar by myself, sometimes taking to a coffee shop to play the twenty songs in a cleared out corner for kindhearted friends and the occasional onlooker. Every now and again, I'd have someone ask if I was in a band—"Nope, just me"— or if they could buy a CD—"I don't have one."

Perhaps I felt insignificant or as though I owed myself something, but I developed an itch to address these voids. I posted a Craigslist ad in March of 2011 in search of a likeminded musician interested in collaborating on...anything, really. It's through that listing that I met a songwriter, who introduced me to a guitarist, who passed my demos along to a drummer, who shared them with a bassplayer. And that, more or less, is how my band fell into my lap. After the first songwriter and I played together for a few months, she became involved in another project. Then, in July or August, that I found myself in a shed with the other three musicians, feeling simultaneously exhilarated and in over my head.

I'd also begun to explore the possibility of recording an album. I had a batch of songs of which I was relatively proud, and a few bucks in the bank—why shouldn't I indulge in such a worthwhile adventure I've long coveted? I knew a guy whose band had hired a local producer to record their album, so I asked for his information. We set up a meeting, and the producer agreed to work with me on a ten song record. While my initial plan was track everything on my own, I chose to recruit my newfound musical comrades as session players to expand the album's sonic reach. It was an opportunity they eagerly embraced. We rehearsed for several months before tracking the songs. These rehearsal sessions led to two new songs (one each from the bassist and guitarist) finding their way onto the record.

The recording process wasn't always smooth. Our producer was sometimes tough to nail down, and we probably blew his budget which resulted in a bit of tension. Because of this, there were takes I wanted to scrap but had to live with, and they still sting to hear. But I'm still tremendously proud of what we put together, and it was an invaluable learning experience for future studio ventures. I'll never forget the day the printed CDs arrived. Still one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

I spent most of 2012 gigging with the band. I'd only ever played with a band in high school, and since then, my performance experience had consisted almost exclusively of tame coffee house gigs. Now, I was playing dive bars on weeknights amidst drunks and partiers, all the while scrambling to learn about pedal boards and amplifiers and how to sing over a rock band. I had a lot of sore throats in 2012. I was also the band's de facto manager, publicist, point of contact, problem solver and HR director. All the while I was working an 8 to 5 job. And now you realize why the blog fell dormant.

We did OK for ourselves. We were never as tight as we could be, but we were a happy stage band and rarely had trouble winning over a bar crowd. But things eventually fizzled. Some tension between band members compounded by my growing desire to scale back led to a semi-amicable dissolution in December 2012. We played a final gig at a favorite dive bar in downtown Charleston, to a raucous reception. After loading out and driving home, I crawled into bed at 2:30 AM. Despite the screaming tinnitus and still-pumping adrenaline, I slept as hard as I can remember.

It was an eventful run. We played to packed bars and we played to empty houses. We appeared in local papers and on local television. We played on some fairly impressive local stages and played in sticky bar corners. We even hit the road a couple of times (Myrtle Beach counts, right?) Just like with the recording process, it was an eye-opening and educational experience. More than anything, I felt initiated.

About a month after the band parted ways, another unique opportunity emerged. The songwriter I'd initially met on Craigslist contacted the guitarist and me to help her with a folk project. A connection had encouraged her to submit for a slot in at a major festival in Virginia, and she asked if we'd round out the act. So we gathered and recorded some demos on a laptop. And believe it or not, we were accepted. Figuring we needed something to sell, we planned a weekend trip to Nashville to record at the guitarist's cousin's home studio. The cousin, an engineer who's worked with some impressive names, was gracious to lend his expertise and impressive arsenal of equipment to our project—pro bono, no less. The result was a five song EP with dazzling sound quality.

The festival was a bit of a letdown. It was clear from the onset that our little act was an afterthought. Perhaps we should have expected it—after all, we essentially BS'ed our way into a lineup filled with some heavy hitters. We were naive enough to think we'd at least get a stage and a PA; we got neither. But, hey, on the bright side: free VIP festival ticket! After all, it was another unique experience I certainly don't regret. Plus, the project gave us the magical Nashville recording experience and forced me to become a better mandolin player.

I never forgot about the blog, though. I've come back and reread old posts and often had the urge to update, but something stupid happened: I let my ownership of the domain expire, and some prospector snapped it up. I guess I take that as a compliment, since it means the domain was worth something. Anyway, this crushed my motivation since who wants to operate with the ignominy of a .blogspot URL? But a recent exchange led me to check on the status of the domain, and lo and behold, it was available. Yesterday, I repurchased the domain. And here I am, back on the horse. For now, anyway.

I doubt I'll update as often as I did back in the day. My duties as a musician haven't completely subsided—I'm still playing, writing and recording music, and in fact am traveling back to Nashville in a few week's time. I'm also writing for a prominent South Carolina Gamecocks blog. Plus, there's that job thing. That said, my brain's got a backlog of musical rumination, observations and lamentations that need a home. And even though it's been a few years, that's exactly how this place feels.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of 11: Best Albums, 10-1

10 Tom Waits - Bad As Me: Tom Waits operates on his own schedule on all fronts--releasing music, touring, talking to the media. He probably shows up late to cocktail parties and celebrates major holidays on arbitrary dates, too. There's no pinning him down, you see. But after a seven year layoff, WAITS NATION was ready for a fresh LP, and Tom Terrific delivered this October. Bad As Me is just about as comprehensive a modern-day Waits album as you'll hear. Brawlers ("Chicago", "Raised Right Men"), bastards ("Talking at the Same Time", "Hell Broke Luce") and bawlers ("Last Leaf", "Pay Me", "New Year's Eve") abound. Recommended for anyone with an interest getting their feet wet. But remember, it's brackish lakewater. In a good way, though. And if you don't think "Chicago" fucking owns, then slide on a pencil skirt and sip your Bacardi/Diet, nancy boy.

9 Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest: Sharing a curious symmetry with Waits, Gil also scratched her seven-year itch (heh) in 2011 by releasing her first effort since Soul Journey. She cited a creative block as the reason for the layoff. Good on Gillian for maintaining her own high standards, as the near-decade it took to arrive at Harrow was evidently well spent. It showcases some of Gil and Dave's most immaculate songwriting to date, including the long-anticipated studio debut of "The Way It Will Be." There really isn't a whiff on the disc. It doesn't top Revelator in my book (nothing ever will, pretty much) but it's another win for Gil and Dave.

8 Bon Iver - Bon Iver: Recently anointed Album of the Year by Pitchfork, Justin Vernon's sophomore disc was essentially For Emma on steroids. Bigger, denser, more fractured and complex from a songcraft perspective, but still brimming with wintery introspection, even though it came out in June. Keeping this one brief, but for further reading on this album, look pretty much anywhere on the internet.

7 Man Man - Life Fantastic: Honus Honus and his crew sound like a band made up of cartoon bad guys. I consider this an asset, although plenty would deem it acerbic. I'm a student of Tom Waits, so my tolerance is high. Of course, Tom Waits at his weirdest makes Man Man sound like Wham!, but these Philly bros can hold their own in the oddball department. Production credit goes to Bright Eyes multitalent Mike Mogis. Dude masterfully layers complementary melodies and balances an instrument-heavy tracking approach that somehow never clutters. These qualities shine through when the album's at its best--take the Far East-tinged "Haute Tropique" or the fiery "Dark Arts." Lyric of the year: "These days I feel like a pariah/an albatross with my feathers on fire."


6 Iron & Wine - Kiss Each Other Clean: Remember when Iron and Wine was just Sam Beam whispering a Flaming Lips cover into a condenser mic? Remember that shit? Since then, the bearded-South-Carolinian-indie-dude-who-isn't-Ben-Bridwell's sound has evolved an unrivaled vibrance. I'm a firm supporter of his aesthetic trajectory, so KEOC is butter to me. He even gets away with a blatant I-V-vi-IV progression on "Walking Far From Home." While Sam won't take home his second HSW album of the year--no doubt sending a shockwave through the I&W camp--he's holding steady near the top. Not bad for "bitch folk."
 

5 Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo: Smoke Ring pretty much lived in my car all summer, soundtracking my drives through the oppressive Carolina heat as I shlepped from band practice to softball games to who knows what else. There's a prescient lyric in album closer "Ghost Town": "When I'm driving I feel like I'm dreaming/jamming tunes and drifting." IT'S LIKE HE'S SINGING ABOUT ME, GUYS! The grumbly mope-ster drags his words through ambient folk landscapes, yet lyrics never come off as overly pitiful. Vile achieves a lonesome grandiose through downer anthems like "Baby's Arms" and "Runner Ups", wherein he makes no bones about his selective aloofness. "I get sick of just about everyone/and I hide in my baby's arms," he laments in the former, conjuring a sentiment to which most anyone can relate. Also his name sounds like he could have been the WWF Intercontinental Champion in 1997. "KURT VILE TAKES ON DIESEL IN THE SUMMERSLAM MAIN EVENT."

4 Wilco - The Whole Love: So happy am I to slot Wilco's eighth LP as high as it is on this list. My reaction to the past two Wilco albums have generally followed a trajectory of "excited," "defensive," "accepting," before arriving at the sad realization that it just isn't up to snuff. "This album's great! Fuck off with your Art Brut bullshit! Fine, it's not one of their best, but... Damnit, you're right, this isn't their best effort." When The Whole Love came out, I was enamored with the sheer Wilcocity of it all. Noise sections! Strange chords! No lyrics about lawnmowing! Perhaps Tweedy and co. have found it again? Of course, a slight lull in the midsection bred some doubt (I still think "Open Mind" is a weak effort, and "Capitol City" would have benefited from Tweedy singing in a lower register and spending a minute longer in lyric R&D.) The album finds the band refocusing, reminding the greater music community that there's a reason Wilco is considered one of the most influential bands of the past two decades. I like that they're (perhaps subconsciously) drawing on eras past. For instance, the quirky Americana Newman-clone "Capitol City" is a Being There relic. "Dawned On Me" and "Born Alone" align with Summerteeth's indie-pop charm. A Ghost Is Born might have welcomed the inclusion of "One Sunday Morning" and "Rising Red Lung." But despite the broad range of styles, it's all so very cohesive. I'm proud to place this one in the higher tier of the band's catalog, and I'm equally as excited that their best days as a creative entity are not entirely behind them.

3 Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues: Took me a minute to warm to Helplessness Blues. There aren't so many outright hooks as you'd find on their self-titled debut, which, incidentally, was the 2008 HSW record of the year. Helplessness shows itself over the course of several listens, through folk movements and unorthodox (but coherent) song structures. And, yes, they're still singing the shit out of those 36 part harmonies or whatever. The only chink in HB's armor comes at the tail end of "The Shrine/An Argument", when a freeform jazz section overstays its welcomes. Beyond that, it's a proverbial gallery of bright, sprawling songscapes that yields one of the most satisfying listening experiences of 2011. They also absolutely crushed it live.

2 Felice Brothers - Celebration, Florida: I'd long assumed there was a ceiling over the Felice Brothers -- a tin sheet or a vaulted barn roof would, if we're extending the metaphor to their ramshackle shtick. But when I saw the band perform live in late 2010, something strange happened. Interspersed among their folky ballads and shambling roots rockers were new songs laced with punched-up electronic influences. It wasn't bad or anything, but it was an intriguing curve ball. This tease was seen through when Celebration, Florida dropped back in May. On paper, it had disaster written all over it. But lo, the Felices goddamn did it. Instead of blippy samples haphazardly slapped on folk songs, we instead heard measured and thoughtful integration of these elements that logically complemented the music. Perhaps the best example of this is lead single "Ponzi", easily one of the most compelling dancerock tracks about to white collar crime I heard all year! The menacing "Fire At the Pageant" continues the band's streak of Grade A album openers. But the best moment arrives at the other end of Celebration, Florida, when Ian Felice fucking unleashes on "River Jordan." The song's A-section is a charged ballad, good enough on its own. But, like the titular river bursting into rapids (ed: metaphor may not be geographically accurate), the tempo picks up and Ian Felice belts out the most inspired vocal stretches I heard this year. It caps off an adventure of an album that's hard not to celebrate...ion, Florida! Goddamnit I'm clever.
1 Megafaun - Megafaun: You know when an album seems tailor-made for you? As if the band had an inspirational plaque mounted on the studio wall that read, "Would (insert your name) like your next musical decision?" It took precisely one full listen to determine that, for me, Megafaun is one of those albums. It's a wire-to-wire win for the North Carolina trio on an LP that covers a ton of territory, from mind-melting jammy jams to instrumental movements to ballads both meek and booming to blue-eyed soul, all threaded together by the band's mellow-creme vocals and textured swaths of synthetic ambience. The wandering "Get Right" is the album's eight and a half minute crown jewel. It's a driving rocker that gives way to a swirling extended outro, the kind of stretch that's made for reflective late-night highway drives. Megafaun is highly collaborative, as you'll note from the digital information: for each track save for one, the artist is listed as "Megafaun with:" followed by whomever else had a hand in that particular song. Indeed, the aforementioned range of the album reflects this cavalcade of players. Megafaun was clearly interested in getting a little help from their friends, and the results validate that approach. Special props to "Isadora", the lush instrumental that experiments with the melody of "Auld Lang Syne", ducking between keys and playing off major/minor variations. Unfortunately, perfection eludes the album, tarnished only by a gawd-awful (though thankfully brief) vocal turn on "Everything" by someone named Frazey Ford, who I'm sure isn't a classically bad singer, but in context, her throaty wails are slightly more aggravating than a fuckton of nails screaming infinitely down a chalkboard. But hey, 99% is still an A+, so I'll divinely forgive. Megafaun may not get as much ink as their former D'Armond Edison bandmate Justin Vernon (known to the indie kids as the Bon Iver dude and to 2012 Grammy audiences as "Who the fuck is Bawn Eye-ver?"), they should hold them heads high, because there's at least one dude who thinks they made the better album.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

End of 11: Best Albums, 30-11

30 Cary Ann Hearst - Lions & Lambs: Big year for Cary Ann (and husband Michael Trent), who found a spot on the Americana tour circuit as reliable openers for the likes of Justin Townes Earl and Jason Isbell. Carry Ann's solo album dropped earlier this year. Shovels and Rope is better, but Hearst's chops are always worth the time.
29 Black Keys - El Camino: December releases always suffer in the polls, but never mind. It's a concise line-up, spotlighting the Keys' trademark snappy licks and tight arrangements. Dan Auerbach continues to develop as a singer.

28 Middle Brother - Middle Brother: Better than any one of the individual members' 2011 releases, it's about what you'd expect. Crunchy folk rock, a smattering of ballads, and one outstanding Replacements cover. It's stupid fun.
27 Fionn Regan - 100 Acres of Sycamore: I'd largely ignored Fionn since his outstanding debut back in 2007. But I heard good things about 100AOS, and I wasn't disappointed. Orchestral, delicate--think dark, starlit snowfields. Able musical complement for the short winter days.
26 Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Mirror Traffic: Coming off the Pavement reunion, I'd imagine Malkmus' was ready to move on from back catalog run-throughs and set out into new creative territory. I don't think any of his solo stuff sounds far removed from Pavement, which is fine as far as I'm concerned. Mirror Traffic: Warm. Sprightly. Soundtrack to the late summer broil.
25 Yellowbirds - The Color: Saw these guys open for Josh Ritter and was pleasantly surprised by how magnetic their set was, particularly lead singer Sam Cohen's vocals. It's easy to get excited when you hear an opener who's not horrible, but that usually fizzles quick. But I saw The Color on some blog site and it turns out it's worth its salt.


24 The Low Anthem - Smart Flesh: It's not the crowning achievement of either of their last two albums, but Smart Flesh had its moments. The Low Anthem spends most of their time sounding like the musical equivalent of an attic, they do have the ability to plug in. "Boeing 737", for example. Explosive. Electric. Highly smashy. Sidebar: Check out the band's alter-ego, Snake Wagon. The goof-around project released a (free) album only last week, full of silly folk numbers. But it's actually not half-bad. Certainly a few worthy tracks to be found within.
23 Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire: Not a wholesale return to form, but Ryan veered away from the pop-rock highway down which he's cruise-controlled since putting a bow on his 2005 trilogy. Ashes isn't immaculate, but it's got enough stirring content to remind you why his fans expect so much of him.

22 Atlas Sound - Parallax: Coming on the heels of the brilliant Halcyon Digest, Bradford Cox stepped away from Deerhunter to focus on his Atlas Sound project. The verbed-out Parallax isn't all that different from Halcyon, but it has an experimental streak that distinguishes it as an imperfect but fascinating side project.

21 Feist - Metals: Opener "The Bad In Each Other" is one of the best damn tracks I heard all year, but is it telling that it's about the only one that sticks in my subconscious? In fairness it was competing for spins with the likes of Wilco, Megafaun, and Tom Waits, so I'm not sure I gave it a fair shake. 
20 Black Lips - Arabia Mountain: Sloppy and raucous, a nice turn-to when I'm feeling a little caffeinated. "Family Tree" on repeat? Guilty.

19 Cass McCombs - Humor Risk: Since WITS END didn't really do it for me, I was happy to hear Cass was releasing a second LP in 2011. Humor Risk hasn't had long to settle, but it's already more inviting (as McCombs' music goes, anyway.) It's lively and thoughtful, but grounded by McCombs' sorrowful vocals. Is he Mark Kozelek's kid brother? Cause he sounds like Mark Kozelek's kid brother.

18 TV On the Radio - 9 Types of Light: Not quite the earthshaker that either Dear Science or Return to Cookie Mountain were, TVOTR's latest still offers plenty of the band's trademark art-rock soulfulness. "Keep Your Heart" is a top tier effort, and their catching live show only magnified the appeal of the new material.

17 Richard Buckner - Our Blood: An expectedly minimilast effort from a guy who keeps on chugging, despite a lifetime of underappreciation. Fraying downerfolk, massaged by Buckner's aching baritone. Not overly complex or grand, it delivers the kind of gutpunch that you just don't find outside of sad bastard Americana.

16 Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde: This year's Oracular Spectacular, it's tremendously catchy music made by pretentious young guys who probably wouldn't be doing much else if they weren't making music.

15 Girls - Father Son and Holy Ghost: I sorta thought Girls would be a one-album-wonder. Welp...glad I was wrong. Christopher Owen certainly grasps writing an doe-eyed rocker named after a girl.

14 My Morning Jacket - Circuital: It came as a relief to many when lead single and title track "Circuital" dropped in advance of the album, and it didn't sound like Prince blowing a robot. (I did like Evil Urges, btw.) On the whole, the album's a little safer than necessary, Circuital comes a step closer to golden era MMJ.


13 Toro Y Moi - Underneath the Pine: As I'd hoped, Chaz Bundick was ready to shed his bedroom-producer tag and get back to writing for a full band. While still highly danceable and synth-friendly, Pine is the natural progression for a guy who's no longer hemmed in by a lack of resources.

12 The Decemberists - The King Is Dead: If you'd have asked me in January, I would have told you The King Is Dead was a lock for album of the year. But as the year wore on, I found myself referencing the back catalog more steadily than the new release. King is a wildly successful Americana turn, but I hope the D's don't forget about the well-read weirdness that endeared them to us in the first place.

11 Radiohead - The King of Limbs: Once again, Radiohead released an album only days after announcing it. And like its predecessor In Rainbows, it's an ethereal shadowdwelling affair. Distinctly segmented into halves, the first quartet of songs are defined by blustery electronics and sinister atmospherics. From "Lotus Flower" on, it gets a little less abstract but no less affecting. "Codex" employs a similar piano pattern as all-timer "Pyramid Song", while "Separator" offers a rarity in the Radiohead canon: ending an LP on a relatively upbeat note. There was a modest amount of backlash stemming from the brevity of Limbs--at 8 songs and 37:24, it's the shortest Radiohead album. I'll take a short Radiohead album over a standard-length album by pretty much anyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

End of 11: Various and Sundry Awards

Last year, I crafted a massive series of posts cataloging all the year end fare. But as I've lamented through both words an inactivity, it's not in the cards this year. So here's a pile of shit for you to sort through. Best albums and songs upcoming in later posts. Enjoy!

Late As Usual:
A few artists and albums from years past I finally took the time to appreciate.

Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, etc.: Delved into the off-beat yet beatific world of Palace-era Will Oldham. Haunting fringe-folk dramatics that set the scene for his Bonnie Prince Billy days ahead.

R.E.M.: A band I'd largely taken for granted outside of their radio hits, their earthshaking break-up led me to seek out their massive 2011 greatest hits album.

David Bowie: Hunky Dory, in specific. Incredible, obviously. I love when I finally take the time to check out an album that I know I'll love. It's such a low-risk maneuver with a tremendous pay-off.

Steve Earle: I own a couple Earle albums, but I only passively appreciated him before discovering El Corazon earlier this year. Like all great alt-country albums, it's a rich mix of twang, crunch, and balladry.

Superlatives:
Various acclaim, doled out in this season of giving.

Actually Liked This Album: Ryan Adams - Ashes and Fire : This isn't really fair to Ryan, as we all know he's fully capable of putting out excellent albums. But my expectations were tepid based on the past few. Empirical evidence suggested an uptick in quality, but I was hesitant to expect it lest I be letdown yet again. But Ryan actually put out a nice fall album, even if it isn't as brilliant as his glory days during the first half of the last decade. 

Finally Clicked: Dr. Dog - Fate: Sometimes it takes a live presentation for studio work to click. Fate stands as one of my most called-upon albums of 2011, thanks to Dr. Dog's outstanding February performance at the Music Farm. 

Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year: Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest: What's interesting is it that Harrow is not my highest-ranked 2011 album by someone who I'd deem a singer-songwriter. Confusing, yes. But as an album, Harrow is the strongest example of an album borne from a single voice (Dave and Gil are essentially that, I'm sure you'd agree.)

New to George Award: Kurt Vile: Just a name in prior years, a chance run-in with "Jesus Freaks" led me ton buy Smoke Ring For My Halo based on nothing more than that single. Considering "Jesus Freaks" isn't in my three favorite songs from the album, I'd say the risk begat rewards.

Now some quick hits:

Comeback of the Year: Wilco - The Whole Love
Instrumental Track of the Year: Megafaun - "Isadora"
Vinny Award (awarded to best debut): Yellowbirds - Color
"Come At Me, Bro" (Song/album I liked in the face of ridicule): Bon Iver - "Beth/Rest". I was actually moderately surprised at the backlash this song endured. Seemed like the perfect coda to me. First time I heard it I was cutting through a North Carolina rural road under a star-peppered sky. Worked well enough for me.

We soldier on: Next we'll have best songs, then best albums. Stay tuned...