Saturday, January 31, 2009

O'Death at New Brookland Tavern

Note: This is an extended version of an article that ran in the 1.28.09 edition of Free Times (Columbia S.C.), which can be found HERE.


In the past few years, a major shakeup has reverberated through bluegrass circles. Starting with Steve Earle famously running his mouth at MerleFest and continuing with artists such as Chris Thile melding indie methodology with the clawhammer canon, there exists an uneasy tension within the proud tradition.

As the genre’s progenitors begin to dwindle, the questions linger - Will the sanctity of the profession persist? Are the kids alright to do it? And will the circle still be unbroken with all these youngsters thrashing about on stage?

While many ‘insurgent’ country and other Americana-inspired hybrid acts can hardly be considered groundbreaking nearly 20 years into the No Depression era, some of the more divergent offshoots have garnered attention for their inventiveness. And recently, some of the neo-traditionalists have gained traction nationally, some just as much for their theatrical flair as their songwriting.

Affiliated with the Crackerfarm collective that associates burgeoning acts The Avett Brothers and Langhorne Slim, New York City quintet O’Death might seem poised to ride this sudden groundswell to stardom.

Their name borrowed from the Appalachian folk standard “Oh Death,” notably featured in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou? and popularized by bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, the band builds upon that anachronistic instrumentation model and fleshes out a distinctive, brooding mélange of morose, gypsy-inflected folk.

But on their third LP, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin, released on Kemado Records, the death waltzes and drunken sailor’s dirges factor larger than any high and lonesome meanderings, showcasing a band hitting a creative stride that reflects their raucous live show.

True to their namesake, O’Death’s lyrical inspiration is hardly Bowdlerized. Much as traditional standards employed grotesque imagery, Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin retains this theme through murderous and mythical allusions. While not necessarily fit for a Carolina hoedown, the folk roots remain in a somewhat Southern Gothic manner, albeit more Harmony Korine than Flannery O’Connor.

But, if anything, David Rogers-Berry, the band’s drummer, is quick to point out the differences between O’Death and the current crop of new-grass and jug band schtick revivalists.

“We have, to a certain degree, been lumped in with the Avetts and other acts, which is sometimes great and sometimes not. What we do is different, much more progressive and dark… We don’t play bluegrass. We don’t deal much with standard music in that way.”

Indeed it shows, as he lists the band’s common influences ranging from The Pixies and Misfits to Neil Young and Nick Cave.

“The few covers we’ve done have been of punk bands,” he explains as the tangential thread between O’Death and their brethren.

“There is a theme bubbling. It feels like the new punk rock, but it doesn’t have the same trappings. Approaching folk and roots music, we’re pulling from a deep bag in terms of musical history.”

So how does the rural imagery factor so large with a Brooklyn-based band?

“Our lyrics actually reflect a lot of urban anxiety and the struggle in New York. And our desire to get away, which we do when we go on tour.”

Which is often for the hard-working band. Their current tour finds O’Death completing their massive 2008 undertaking, traversing across the South before jumping the pond for a month’s worth of European dates.

For Rogers-Berry, a Lake City native, returning to New Brookland Tavern is a homecoming of sorts. Having supported Murder By Death on their last visit, he hopes to see a few more unfamiliar faces in the crowd.

“It’s good to build an audience in your hometown, not just your buddies.”

And perhaps, ironically, that’s what will save Americana in the end – a few less purists, a few more fresh faces.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cover Stories: What they're telling us through cover art - Vol. 2

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit - s/t
In approaching this cover, I thought to myself, "What are two things every good-hearted American holds dear?" The first was trees, obviously. To Americans, a tree is a symbol of power, majesty, wisdom, stability; we see a sprawling live oak and think "Thomas Edison might have pondered filaments on that low limb" or "Perhaps a Confederate scout unfurled a terrain map against its mighty trunk." The red wood forests and apple groves that tile our fair land are as Americana as, say, Johnny Cash singing "This Land Is Your Land" in black jorts and a trucker shirt.

The other thing? Psychadelics, of course.

M. Ward - Hold Time

I know what you're thinking. "But M! What about your vintagey overtones that normally adorn your album covers? Those which perfectly compliment those well-worn rags you churn out so effortlessly?" I know man, I liked 'em too. But as fond as I was of the 'grandma's attic' look, I felt it was time for a departure. So I called Zooey and she was like, "Butterflies, M.!" So I threw on some butterflies. And she was like, "Flowers, M.!" And so I threw on some flowers, only dead, because I'm all about old stuff. And then when it came to the title, my only requirement was something in a loosely tracked sans-serif. You know, I'm an extraordinarily mellow guy, but oddly enough, serif fonts send me into a blind rage. Go figure.

HSW Newsflash: Isbell to tour behind release

Good news from the front of HSW fav Jason Isbell, former Trucker and current fraction of the 400 Unit. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit hits shelves February 17th, and is met by a great deal of anticipation from all of us here at HSW. Check out first single "Seven Mile Island" here.

While you're at it, pre-order an autographed disc or the vinyl right here!

Now, the tour! According to Monday's Lighting Rod press release, Isbell and his Unit (hee hee), who make no excuses for their unabashed love of the road, have whipped up a pretty extensive tour!

Previously announced dates:
Thu-Feb-12 Birmingham, AL Workplay
Sat-Feb-14 Florence, AL Shoals Theater
Tue-Feb-17 Athens, GA Georgia Theatre
Wed-Feb-18 Atlanta, GA The Earl
Fri-Feb-20 Raleigh, NC Lincoln Theatre
Sat-Feb-21 Richmond, VA The National
Sun-Feb-22 Harrisonburg, VA The Pub
Tue-Feb-24 Boston, MA TT the Bears
Thu-Feb-26 New York, NY Bowery Ballroom
Fri-Feb-27 Philadelphia, PA World Café Live
Sat-Feb-28 Pittsburgh, PA Club Cafe
Sun-Mar-01 Washington, DC 9:30 Club
Mon-Mar-02 Cleveland, OH Beachland Ballroom
Wed-Mar-04 Toronto, ONT Horseshoe Tavern
Thu-Mar-05 Buffalo, NY Mohawk Place
Fri-Mar-06 Columbus, OH The Rumba Café
Sat-Mar-07 Cincinnati, OH Southgate House
Sun-Mar-08 Asheville, NC Orange Peel
Fri-Mar-13 Louisville, KY Headliner's
Sat-Mar-14 Nashville, TN The Mercy Lounge
Mar 18 - 22 Austin, TX SXSW

Sons of Roswell support 2/12 and 2/14
Benji Hughes supports 2/17 - 2/ 22 and 3/8
Deer Tick supports 2/24, 2/27 - 3/14

Tue-Mar-24 Memphis, TN The Hi-Tone
Wed-Mar-25 Little Rock, AR Sticky Fingerz
Thu-Mar-26 Oklahoma City, OK Wormy Dog Saloon
Sat-Mar-28 Telluride, CO Sheridan Opera House
Mon-Mar-30 Flagstaff, AZ Green Room
Tue-Mar-31 Tucson, AZ Club Congress
Thu-Apr-02 Los Angeles, CA Spaceland
Fri-Apr-03 San Francisco, CA The Independent
Sat-Apr-04 Sacramento, CA Blue Lamp
Sun-Apr-05 Portland, OR Doug Fir
Mon-Apr-06 Seattle, WA Tractor Tavern
Wed-Apr-08 Salt Lake City, UT The State Room
Thu-Apr-09 Aspen, CO Belly Up
Fri-Apr-10 Vail, CO The Sand Bar
Sat-Apr-11 Denver, CO The Bluebird
Sun-Apr-12 Kansas City, MO Knuckleheads
Tue-Apr-14 Lincoln, NE Knickerbockers
Wed-Apr-15 St. Paul, MN The Turf Club
Thu-Apr-16 Madison, WI High Noon Saloon
Fri-Apr-17 Chicago, IL Double Door

Fri-Apr-24 Auburn, AL Strutting Duck (Outdoors)
Sat-Apr-25 Oxford, MS Double Decker Arts Festival (3:30PM)

3/24 - 4/17 Justin Townes Earle supports
Not bad eh? Although Charleston is egregiously missing, he did play a New Year's Eve gig here, so I'll let it slide. Plus this only goes through the end of April. I get the feeling they'll swing through town before the year's over. If the Unit does plan on gracing you with their presence, nab some tix">here.

Do yourself a favor: Go to the show. Grab a big ol' whiskey and stake a claim to that front row center spot. Jam in some earplugs and enjoy the ride!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

If it ain't broke...

I was listening to some Spoon today and it struck me that their music doesn't change from record to record, yet they always manage to keep it interesting. They're not exactly a niche band, because they don't have a shtick. But there is a distinct and undeniable Spoon sound from which they rarely stray.

I wonder, is this a good thing? It's proved critically satisfying throughout the years when bands successfully carry out stylistic realignments or progressions. Look at the Beatles, Tom Waits, Radiohead, Wilco, and so on. They're all called trailblazers, progressive, brave.

While I've appreciated the progression of each of the aforementioned groups (in these cases I even prefer the late era stuff), there's much to be said for staying comfortably within ones genre, exploring new ground but never uprooting. I like that with some artists, I can't pinpoint an album from their catalog chronologically. Each one sounds a lot like the last one. And if the last one is really good, then it stands to logic that the next one is too.

I've never scrutinized frequencies of various Spoon songs, but I'd imagine they don't look dissimilar. I'd imagine the peaks would occur at steady intervals. Your classic Spoon song is anchored by a metronome-like drum beat, dotted by a funky keyboard or EP with some chunks of gritty guitar or bass providing the meat. Brit Daniels' torn-at-the-edges vocals are often half-sung with a hustled delivery that ducks between the steady drumwork. They're delightfully hip in a beatnikish sort of way, but flecks of funk and R&B are always evident.

M. Ward
I have four M. Ward albums (going on five, new disc out shortly!) and each is a supremely worthy effort. Ward's records are charming as an old credenza in your grandmother's house, and conjur visions of late 40s Americana (no mistake his flagship album is entitled Post-War). Again, this isn't a niche, in that it doesn't seem forced or ungenuine. It's just the brush he paints with. His throat is gravelly and wisened, while his guitars' rich reverb linger like ghost-trails in the lengthy exposure of a black and white photograph. It's a vintagey sound he conveys so naturally that it's hard to believe he's not actually from that simpler time before Moogs and Pro-Tools.

The Avett Brothers
Like Spoon, the Avetts have refined their sound a bit, in the sense that it's a little more accessible and hook-heavy. But, they haven't taken strayed from their bread-and-butter, the sound that validates the fandom of racous fist pumpers and Skoal-chomping grass-pluckers alike. Even as the trio moves into its tenth year of album-making, you'll still hear the raptor-screeches, the banjo assaults, the minimalist ho-downs, the aching sentimentality; it's all there, and by the beard of Seth, it still works.

The Decemberists
Colin and crew come dangerously close to novelty-act purgatory with each album, each accordion-driven chanty laced with monosyllabic words and obscure turns of phrase. But amidst Colin's nasally delivery and penchant for erudite subject matter, it isn't hard to find a compelling melodic attractiveness that makes the Decemberists a respected musical entity. While their LPs have become increasingly conceptual (less a short story collection and more a novel), the band has yet to abandon its tenets of storytelling and accordion fills.


What do you think? Agree, disagree? Suggest your own.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Drew's Top Ten of 2008

Drive-By Truckers - Brighter Than Creation's Dark - New West

Barack Obama recently referred to communications strategist Robert Gibbs as his “one man Southern focus group.” This is putatively true, but musically speaking, nobody captures the essence of the region and its people like the Truckers. The divergent Americana medley of Brighter Than Creation’s Dark’s unfolds by alternating acerbic country gold, strident rockers and wry honky-tonk. This time, the key to success for this normally irascible and outspoken band is to do a story justice without being overly polemic. With their recent mention on Politico, perhaps this forebodes a lucrative consultancy for Patterson Hood and company?

Chris Knight - Heart of Stone - Drifter's Church

I was listening to The Trailer Tapes while driving down the Pacific Coast Highway a few years ago. It seemed to me that modern country artists spend far too much time in California and far too little in places like Knight’s Slaughters, Kentucky. Simply put, with Steve Earle lost to the city, ain’t nobody else does this right anymore without sounding hokey.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes – Sub Pop
Grand Archives - Grand Archives - Sub Pop
Blitzen Trapper - Furr - Sub Pop

While idiosyncratic and remarkable in their own regard, it’s getting increasingly tough to distinguish the Sub Pop beardos from each other. How about: Fleet Foxes is plaid, Grand Archives is flannel and Blitzen Trapper is Western with pearl snaps.

Blitzen Trapper Forced Synopsis: Portland bros pull off an impossible, inexplicable amalgam: West Coast-style synth, pedal steel, hokey country balladry and Beatles jank without being overly obnoxious or gratuitous. This is the indie equivalent of bobbing your head along with a No Limit album you bought in ninth grade. When you’re 25.

Grand Archives Forced Synopsis: Let’s go ahead and say it: Mat Brooke’s Grand Archives is Band of Horses, just more subdued and less Southern.

Fleet Foxes Forced Synopsis: It’s true. These dudes are wood nymphs. Yep, all gilded harps, timpani, hand-carved piccolos and ethereal, orgiastic harmonies of venerable aural ecstasy. Just add weed and beard.

Graveyard - Graveyard - Tee Pee

Caught these guys recently at an in-store at Earshot in Greenville. Came for the free Thomas Creek beer and found four smiling Swedes, stoned out of their gourds, hashing out sludge heavy, math-psych riffs for an astounded crowd. Since they rarely tour stateside, I’m not sure how many people are sleeping on this record, but Graveyard’s Black Sabbath channeling sure beats the shit out of the Sounds.

Sun Kil Moon - April - Caldo Verde

Not much of a thematic departure, April continues the SKM/Red House Painters formula of ambient, fingerpicked folk alternating with dangerously cohesive grunge histrionics. As always, it’s breathtakingly beautiful and seemingly effortless. For all I know, Kozelek could be writing exclusively about his housecat, Leroy, and it would still sound exquisitely, painstakingly melancholy and poignant.

Rosebuds - Life Like – Merge

These Raleigh popsters get my nod out of longstanding respect, much like Spurrier annually casts a vote for Duke in the preseason coaches’ poll. Which is not to say the album didn’t hook me. Replete with abstruse references to killer catfish and Carolina in the pines, the inherent anxiety and touches of angular shoegaze add an intriguing twist to their trademark twee.

Annuals - Such Fun - Ace Fu

I can’t really put a finger on what these Chapel Hill youngsters are going for. Emo pop? Arena folk? Psychedelic country? Lush and eclectic, the album meanders through eleven existentially challenged numbers, drenched in orchestral flourishes and dramatic climaxes. While Such Fun might still betray their youth, having been mined from all corners of the modern indie rock canon, it’s…yep… damn good fun.

The Whigs - Mission Control – ATO

This is easy. Mission Control is the best indie garage rock album that you and your buddies never put out. Their imprint’s initials might not stand for Alpha Tau Omega, but with their raucous thrash and pop sensibilities, I suspect that sorority girls in Athens might have a new secret crush.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Musical Resolutions for 09

New Years greetings from HSW!

2008 was great, wasn't it? Some fantastic new bands burst onto the scene (Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver), and old standbys continue to churned out the goods (TV On the Radio, The Hold Steady.) But that doesn't mean 2009 can't make 2008 its bitch. So here are a handful of resolutions I've whipped up to better myself from a musical standpoint in the fresh year:

1. Buy The Disc

Actually, I'm a pretty dedicated CD buyer. My CD tower has recently reached its maximum capacity and my car usually has a sediment of CD cases covering the back seat and floors. But in 2008 I became a little complacent with digital music. I do embrace the technology, but I'm letting my principles disintegrate a bit by settling for downloaded versions. In 2009, I vow to buy my new music from either Amazon or my favorite local record store. Although I won't shy away from a digital download, it shall be a temporary/supplemental fix, not an alternative.

2. Finally get Orphans

As a Tom Waits superfan, I'm ashamed to say I have yet to purchase 2006's Orphans, for no good damn reason. It's an unfortunate synergy of laziness and frugality, I suppose. But I know it's a cant-miss. I'm familiar with a handful of the songs, and the thing is one of Metacritics all-time best rated albums. But it's like 30-something dollars! If any dedicated reader would like to supply me with Orphans, I will gladly accept it. But please, hard copy only (see above.)

3. Discover what the big deal about the Velvet Underground is

I bought the Andy Warhol-produced Velvet Underground & Nico a few years ago and found very few redeemable qualities. "Heroin" was OK I guess. But the rest didn't sit well with me. First of all, Nico makes me want to rip off my ears and toss them skyward at a skeet-shooting range. And I don't really get all the acclaim that's awarded to Lou Reed. But there's gotta be something, right? It seems every credible artist these days namedrops the VU. And I like Pavement; Malkmus kinda sounds like Lou Reed right?. I plan on revisiting the banana and delving into some of the Underground's other offerings. Suggestions?

4. Upgrade my iPod headphones

I'm still sporting the factory-provided earbuds, and it's not hard to recognize their supreme level of suckiness. These don't isolate sound. In fact, they seem to welcome all peripheral sounds in to join the party. Nothing like trying to enjoy Dear Science only for it to be inadvertently mashed up with my co-worker's 3:15 consultation call with Bill in Eugene, OR.

5. Scratch a few 'must-see' live acts off my list:
  • Drive-By Truckers
  • Arcade Fire
  • M. Ward
  • Gillian Welch
I'd also like to try and catch Ryan Adams and Wilco again, who seem to becoming less and more entertaining respectively. But it's become a tradition: I've managed to catch Ryan every year since 2004 and Wilco every year since 2005. I've actually already got tickets for Ryan and the Cards in Charleston on March 12th. Hopefully Wilco will swing back through after their dominant performance at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center last August.

6. Keep this blog a'rollin!

Even if only a small handful actually reads this thing--even if it's just me, to be honest--I'd like to maintain a steady output of posting. Ideally I'd like to double our count from last year. 100 posts ho!