Tuesday, September 29, 2009

HSW Newsflash: Tom Waits live album on the way

File this under "fuck" and "yes": Tom Waits' Glitter and Doom tour will be chronicled on an upcoming live disc. It'll feature tracks recorded during the aforementioned jaunt 'round the country, the final stop I was lucky enough to witness in glorious 5th-row fashion.

That show is widely available, specifically through npr.org, and I highly recommend giving it a listen.

Details are sparse right now, so no date, tracklist, or cover art. The release will be Waits' first of any kind since the immaculate Orphans dropped in 2006. Here's to hoping there's some more original stuff on the way. Or, for that matter, a big ol' tour.

September 28, 2009: The Felice Brothers

The Felice Brothers
w/Taylor Hollingsworth
The Pour House (Charleston, SC)
September 28, 2009

About six or seven years ago, a friend of mine who lives in Boulder, CO, trying to make it in the music business, told me he and his band would watch live Pearl Jam DVDs to get them psyched up for playing a live show. "We can't watch Zeppelin DVDs, because they're rock gods. But Pearl Jam just seem like regular guys who made it." I recalled that quote as I watched the Felice Brothers play at the Pour House last night.

Alleging that the Felice Brothers have "made it" is worthy of a dismissive chuckle. Sure, there's buzz. Glowing reviews of their 2009 release Yonder Is the Clock. Co-headlining a tour with fellow purveyors of old-time rags Old Crow Medicine Show, Justin Townes Earle, and Gillian Welch/David Rawlings. Decent and steady festival billing. Now headlining their own US/European tour--small venues, bars, but the Brothers are drawing. Success? Definitely. Made it? Not quite.

The regular guys part? That, they have down pat. A quintet of twenty-somethings who wouldn't look out of place pumping gas or busing tables, they don't exactly doll up for the stage. You get the feeling they rolled out of bed just in time for soundcheck. And the band doesn't hide backstage before the show. James Felice mans the merch table, making no effort to schmooze, and dutifully exchanges cash for shirts. The Strokes-looking bassplayer, who's simply known as "Christmas", paces aimlessly and is largely ignored by none-the-wiser fans. Only frontman Ian Felice seems a bit out of place, all rock-star thin and keeping relatively quiet while mumbling to his manager between drags, but even he looks like he could be some blue-collar mechanist there for nothing more than a cold beer to cap the day.

Regular guys, all of them. And it's an impression that's supported by their performance. It's a damn sloppy affair, but that's no insult. Raucous, too. The tiny stage of James Island's Pour House could barely contain the gang. Ian Felice high-kicks in place as he rakes his vintagey Guild semi-hollowbody with metal fingerpicks. Fiddle player Greg Farley explores the stage, waves his arms while not playing, looking every bit like a Brooklyn MC in his Yankees cap and white undershirt, not to mention vaguely hip-hoppish banter (at one point he informed us that things were about to get "Looney Tunes in here!") Hefty, bearded James squeezes the life out of his accordion, or bashes his worn electric piano/organ, bellowing out slightly off-key harmonies. The stage banter wasn't overly calculated, nor charming...it didn't need to be. Most of the band was loose and silly, and embraced the house-show feel.

And yet...I couldn't help but get the feeling that primary frontman Ian Felice wants something more. He's easily the best showman of the group, and the quickest. When a girl screeched the request "Don't Wake the Scarecrow", a tune attributed to former member Simon Felice who left for unknown and perhaps tumultuous reason, Ian grinned and responded "That's right, don't wake him..." Again, Ian seems to fit the artiste mold a bit more than the other members--a bit less approachable, a bit more comfortable on stage, and almost certainly the principal songwriter in the bunch. He's an excellent guitarist in a band that doesn't hold a high standard for musical ability. (During a lenghty pre-show chat with Farley, he told us that he'd only been at the fiddle for a couple of years. Their drummer, a friend of the band who took the place of Simon, has literally played the skins for a few months.) The show, admittedly, grew sloppier towards the end, and Ian seemed to lose a bit of his interest. He sang the last verse and chorus of close-out song "Run Chicken Run!" without strumming his guitar. Perhaps he lost his signal; I couldn't tell. Either way, I think Ian was a little put off by some of the silly-good-time stage antics that his cohorts displayed. He wasn't above stage antics, but his all seemed a bit less like he was monkeying around, and more like a means of conveying his persona. This is all speculation, but I wonder if Ian's apparent ambitions might have had a hand in his brother's departure. We'll have to wait for the memoirs, I suppose.

Some of the stats: The show was heavy on new music--and by new, I mean newer than Yonder. In fact, I believe we only heard three songs from the 2009 release ("Chicken Wire", "Run Chicken Run!", and "Cooperstown".) There were five or six brand new tunes, some muddled by Christmas's insistence on using an annoying bass delay effect. But, for what it's worth, they sounded promising. They didn't shy away from their most accessible release, 2008's self titled effort: "The Greatest Show On Earth", "Frankie's Gun", "Goddamn You Jim", "She Loves Me Tenderly", "Whiskey In My Whiskey", "Take This Bread", and "Helen Fry" were all offered up. We heard the first three tracks from 2007's Tonight at the Arizona, "Roll On Arte", "Ballad of Lou the Welterweight", and "Hey Hey Revolver." "Her Eyes Dart Round", an older tune I've only heard via YouTube, was played as well. The crowd was thick, a lot fuller than I'd anticipated. Opening act Taylor Hollingsworth, who I soon deduced was a member of Conor Oberst's Mystic Valley band, sang some nicely plucked folk tunes in his unique nasally and cracked vocal style. He lent some underwhelming lead guitar to the latter half of the Felice Brothers set.

All in all, it was a rager of a folk show. My eardrums are still fighting off the tinnitus from Ian's trebley guitar, which was blasted through a Fender amp. I don't have any doubt I'll see Ian Felice in Charleston again--hopefully with his brothers in tow.

Other Pour House Reviews:
Jason Isbell
The Hold Steady

More musical lookalikes...

Now it's time for volume 6 of Musical Lookalikes. We're bringing back our old friend Jason Isbell for his second round of Lookalikes--could there be an "Isbell Army" invading all walks of American life? As former bandmate Patterson Hood once said, "a guitar was a poor substitute for a football with the girls in my high school." Jason didn't get that message, but apparently fellow fair-skinned, baby-faced southerner (not to mention 1st overall pick) Matthew Stafford did get that message:

Below: Stafford, wearing what he probably calls an outfit.

I can only hope that the two will cross paths some day, and look eachother up and down before Isbell says "Roll Tide" and brushes past him.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Less Is More: Six vocal combinations that didn't quite work

"You and I" -- Wilco and Feist from Wilco (the Album)

Bad grammar aside, this song dismissed every ounce of potential inherent in a collaboration between one of the generation's great songwriters (Tweedy) and great voices (Feist). The song is, as far as I know, Tweedy's first attempt at singing with a female vocalist on record, and it comes off as a failed opportunity to create something special. It's a novelty more than anything, the subject of a brief paragraph in either party's biography that may contain the word "forgettable". The song's shortfall is sealed by the odd decision for Tweedy--known for his ability to carry emotion in a lower register--to sing the high harmony on the bridge, leaving Feist to bellow out a wobbly complement.

"Girl from the North Country" -- Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash from Nashville Skyline

The song, a reprise of Dylan's folk version from Freewheelin', features Bob Dylan experimenting in a throaty croon, which would've worked well on its own (and does for the rest of the album.) But when Johnny Cash's stoic voice enters for his verse, it becomes a Cash song. When Dylan reenters for the shared verse, Cash remains dominant and never quite lets Bob catch up.

"Oh Lonesome Me" -- M. Ward and Lucinda Williams from Hold Time

I don't know why, but Lucinda Williams seems so grating when she's singing alongside someone else. Her voice sounds best in the context of her own music, I suppose, but it's especially abrasive when paired with Ward's whispery coo. Apparently she sang a killer duet with Elvis Costello on last year's Little Honey, but I honestly can't recall it at the moment despite the fact I do have the album. Regardless, her turn with M. Ward fell a bit short.

"Swept Away (Sentimental Version)" -- The Avett Brothers (with sister Bonnie) from Mignonette

It's a very sweet gesture, The Avett Brothers asking their Avett sister to sing on a track. It ain't her fault, but Bonnie is not as vocally gifted as her brothers, sounding like a slightly more tonedeaf Meg White. Her verse is also lyrically weaker than the other three, which leads me to believe she might have penned it. As an album opener, it's hard not to see the sweet side of this track, since the previous album, Carolina Jubilee, ended with a recording of the three siblings as young children chatting with their father.

"The Unwelcome Guest" -- Wilco and Billy Bragg from Mermaid Avenue Volume I

In the documentary Man In The Sand, which follows the recording of the album, you get the sense that the respective egos of Jeff Tweedy and Billy Bragg don't always jive. For the most part, the two voices are rarely heard on the same song. You can almost see one pouting off-mic, staring down at an acoustic guitar while the other belts Woody Guthrie's words into an expensive microphone. But on the album closer, "The Unwelcome Guest", Tweedy tries futiley to harmonize with Bragg's strong, British vocals, carelessly coming in late or early, not adhering to any particular harmonic structure. It's a C+ effort for an otherwise A+ album.

"I Never Talk to Strangers" -- Tom Waits and Bette Midler from Foreign Affairs

Not unlike Lucinda, Tom's voice just doesn't sound right when he's sharing the mic. Not to mention with a set of Broadway-quality pipes like Midler's. Foreign Affairs is also one of my least favorite Waits records, the only Waits album that sounds terribly dated, ocasionally resembling a soundtrack from a late 70s TV show. Midler would go on to sing with another harsh-throated entertainer:

"I love you, Krusty."

"Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight" -- Whiskeytown and Alejandro Escovedo from Stranger's Almanac

Let's set the record straight: Alejandro Escovedo is a badass. Honestly, this one barely made the cut because I do enjoy his brief contribution. He has the misfortune of singing alongside a vocally flawless Ryan Adams on a very slick record, so the less-refined delivery of Escovedo sounds, by proxy, a little dusty compared to the rest of the sounds you hear. Not that Escovedo isn't capable of powering such a record, as he would prove on 2001's A Man Under the Influence.

Alejandro photo courtesy of Steve Hopson. Check www.stevehopson.com for more incredible photos, musicians and otherwise.

Monday, September 14, 2009


  • U2 kicked off its new tour in Chicago last night. To steal a line from Zack Galifianakis, "I'll file that under 'who gives a shit'."
  • The Whiskeybombs (i.e. my buddy Ben and me) played a wedding this weekend at Raffaldini Vineyards. I'm going to throw together an introspective review of the experience in general, but suffice to say weddings aren't exactly our cup of tea. The crowd was, for some reason, more interested in drinking out on the varanda that overlooked the sweeping valley and purpling mountains in the distance, but some folks got into it. One sweet woman asked us what our 'band' was called, and upon hearing it, said "Oh you know, I think of heard of you guys." It was a boldfaced lie, but a very sweet one at that. And after the wedding...
  • Drew, Thomas and I got together at Thomas' place in Lewisville, NC. I dare say it's the first time the three of us have occupied the same space since this blog took flight. A late night/early morning of music and beer ensued.
  • Pearl Jam's newest, Backspacer, is currently pumping through my headphones. More to come on this front, but I'm pretty satisfied four songs in.
  • I & Love & You, the much anticipated new release from The Avett Brothers is widely available on the leak-circuit. I created a post at their official board inquiring as to whether it was taboo to discuss leaks--and it was coldly obliterated within hours. By the by, Paste gave the record a glowing "96/100" review and I'm seeing them in four nights. I like that combination...
  • I'm currently reading two biographies: Low Side of the Road, an unauthorized but still credible Tom Waits bio (the author has interviewed Waits a number of times over the years in a journalistic context, but Waits did not give the bio project his blessing.) The other is Woody Guthrie: A Life, and I'll let you guess the subject of that one.
  • Don't look now but Ryan Adams is starting to make music again. He's digitally releasing a couple of tracks this week, and there is some barely-audible whispering of a guitar/harmonica album in the works. Consider those grossly unverified rumors at this point, of course, but it sure would be nice to hear something like that.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Exclusive (but not really)

Note: This is a repost of an article published in the Columbia, SC Free Times, penned by our own Drew Harkins. So while in no arguable way is this exclusive, we'd like to point out that Drew interviewed the talent, and was compensated for the article. (Not by us...what a silly concept.) At any rate, here's the finely crafted article, on the subject of HSW favorite Jason Isbell.


If you think about it, sometimes Jason Isbell didn’t really seem so much a card-carrying member of Drive-By Truckers as the rest. With all the post-Dixie apologizing going on, Isbell’s earnest homages to more subtle Southern influencers were often lost in the tribute-minded three-guitar shuffle.

Not to mention the age gap. Born in 1979, Isbell was in his britches “dancing to Purple Rain,” as he put it on his 2007 solo album Sirens of the Ditch, while former bandmates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were coming of age. Merely taking a glance at his MySpace page might still betray his age: Witness Isbell alternately in Kanye West-style shutter shades and wearing a rockabilly-style, pomaded pompadour, allowing a visual insight to his juxtaposition.

Isbell’s oeuvre is unique in that it’s inspired by a proud recording tradition but reflects modern realities. Stax and Volt records, Otis Redding inflections and outspoken tributes to The Band (Danko/Manuel on the Truckers’ Dirty South) are channeled along with poignant reflections on post-traumatic stress disorder, politics and of course, women.

To think of him another way, Isbell demarcates a new Southern social dividing line. Too young to have ever known of Atlanta as anything other than a sprawling metropolis, too far removed from sharecropping and too plugged in to his MacBook, Isbell and his generation are already ex-pats via the Internet, rather than in the Thomas Wolfe sense.

And in terms of modern music stratification, though imaginably precocious, Isbell was still too young to have witnessed the dawning of the No Depression era, which leaves him in the unenviable position of straddling the self-awareness that plagues the genre. Witness the deft post-modern positioning of the song “Outfit,” his center-stage debut with Drive-By Truckers, a roman-a-clef in which a young musician’s redneck father reminds him of his roots and admonishes him to not let rock stardom get to his head.

Now at the helm his own 400 Unit, the baby-faced Greenhill, Ala., native (who, in my humble opinion, sort of favors another famous Southerner: a young Bill Clinton) prefers to pay respects to his bluesy-soul Muscle Shoals roots on his band’s eponymous debut, proffering his own vision of The New South as a post-W., Gen-Y wasteland, posthumously disaffected yet distinctly in debt to generations before it.

While Sirens of the Ditch was a solo affair, backed by members of Drive-By Truckers among others, Isbell implemented his full touring band in the recording process of Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit. The outfit features a few members of other prominent touring acts, including Derry DeBorja, recently of Son Volt fame. But don’t call them hired guns.
“The whole band has known each other for a long time,” said Isbell from his home in Alabama. “I could’ve hired a bunch of folks from Nashville and been a solo artist, but I like to travel and play with people that I know.”

Not to say that Music City isn’t paying attention. He recently defected from New West Records to Tennessee’s Lightning Rod Records, a small label home to a few other Nashville stalwarts such as Larry McMurtry.

“They’re really focusing on the project,” Isbell says. “They’re a small label and don’t have too many irons on the fire. So I get lots of hands-on attention.”

When asked about another deviation from the genre’s couture trappings, his affinity for Burberry and Italian loafers and how he affords them as a modestly successful artist, Isbell says, “I could either [sell a lot of records] or just have good friends at Christmastime.”

Last but not least, there’s another affliction that plagues not only the South, but the alt-country minefield as well. I came of age with a guy who grew up in the Rust Belt, but once removed to the Carolinas, fancied himself a real redneck, relentlessly stressing his working-class affectations and purposefully mangling any pop-culture references so as to seem a bit more bumpkin.
I am no longer friends with that guy, and I really can’t imagine that Isbell would be either.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Tube Amp: August

YES I KNOW. In a stunning display of tardiness, I am posting the Tube Amp in early September. This month's entry, a brilliant performance of a brilliant song by a brilliant band: Shrouded in amber light, Radiohead does "How to Disappear Completely" for a small audience. Away we go:

:11 - Love the strum pattern on this song. A fine example of how the words "Radiohead" and "settle" are rarely applicable in the same breath. Could have easily gone with a standard 3/4 strum pattern, but instead opted for a bit more complexity, which offers a nice contrast in a relatively simple song.

:23 - If there was a Thom Yorke collectors edition grandfather clock, this is how the end of the pendulum would look.

:52 - Those are some impressive Ondes Martenots, if I do say so myself. According to Wikipedia (to rephrase, "Good chance it isn't true"), six are used on the studio version of HTDC.

1:27 -
The reason why 95% of the world who knows what the "Liffey River" is know what it is.

2:13 - I love how each verse builds a bit, vocally. Nicely complemented by the drones.

2:36 - There's Jonny Greenwood!

2:55 - And again.

3:03 - I wonder if they're adding vibrato, or if their hands are just moving out of habit.

3:50 - Quick cuts between shots indicate the growing tension. Nicely done.

4:16 - Apparently my middle school librarian moonlights as a Ondes Martenot player for Radiohead.

4:38 - Thom Yorke shakey-head mode, full throttle!

5:08 - No one in rock can really hold that falsetto like Thom can. Jeff Buckley was a master at it, and Andrew Bird is no slouch.

5:46 - Pasty arms clapping. And scene.

Worth noting are the other HQ videos from this performance. Follow the youtube link and browse the related videos, you'll find some gems. Thus concludes this month's (er...last month's) edition of The Tube Amp.

Darius sez: FOOTBALL!

In honor of NCAA Football season rolling out today, I thought we'd provide a little slice of Americana that'll drum up some Gamecock spirit.

See, all three HSW writers are UofSoCar gradjits, so I think it's only fitting to offer what might be considered our alma mater's finest contribution to music, and indeed, humanity as a whole:

If that sandwich doesn't combine five of the best food-descriptors in the English language, I don't know what does. Are you ready for some FOOTBALL!?

A look inside Dylan's Christmas album recording sessions...

(int. recording studio, LA. Bob Dylan and his band stand amidst a forest of mics, instruments, and cables, ready to set into recording. Producer sits on the other side of the glass, tweaking a knobs)

Producer: (into mic) OK Bob, Jingle Bell rock, take 6.

Bob: OK, Bill. (to band) Make it snow, boys.

(band kicks into a mid-tempo version of "Jingle Bell Rock"...)

Bob: Jingeh beh, jingeh bur, jingerbur RACK, jingable sweep 'n jingeh buh mop--

Bill: Whoa whoa, gonna have to cut, Bob. We're picking up some outside noise. I thought this place was soundproof? What is that, a motorcycle engine?

(growing sound of motorcycle engine, punctuated by tire skids and trash cans crashing over and rolling away. Three bangs at the studio door.)

Bill: What the hell? (opens door)


Bill: Excuse me...ah, Mr. Snyder, can I help you?

Snyder: Flip it and reverse it, pal. I'm here to help you!

Bob: What's going on, Bill?

Snyder: Bobbo! Brother! Little birdie told me you were layin' down some XMAS tuneage. First of all, BRAVO mein freund. Take it from me, you gotta quench the masses' thirst for the holiday jams. Feed the need! You're doing them a favor, youg ot me? Man, listen to me...ME, Dee Snyder, giving advice to Bob Dylan! From on legend to another, babe.

Bob: Bill, who's this guy?

Snyder: HA! COMEDIAN! (to producer) That Bob Dylan or Don Rickles? (back to Dylan) Look man, not only are these tunes timeless, but it they are COWS of the CASH type, kna'mean?

Bob: Uh...I'm doing this for charity.

Dee: And who doesn't like charity? Look, I got plenty of charity when the Sister toured, if you catch my drift. MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, baby!

Bill: Mr. Snyder, we have a very busy day ahead of us. If you'd like to contact Mr. Dylan, we ask that you go through his publicist.

Dee: Ah, excuse me, "Bill", but rock legends don't need no middle man publicist. Leave that shit to the Backstreet Boys. Hard rock is STRAIGHT TALKIN, baby. It's like when Bret Michaels got brained at the Tony's, I had him on the House of Hair that next night, bandaged up and shit.

Bob: Bill, can you get this guy outta here?

Dee: Whoa, Bobbarino, don't look a gift horse in the mouth! I'm ready to feed you the gold, brother!

Bill: (taking Snyder by the arm) Let's go, Dee.

Dee: Aw, c'mon! Can't believe you're giving the Dee-man the ol' heave ho--you're makin' a huge mistake! HUGE, AMIGO!

(Bill shoves Dee out, slams door)

Snyder: I won't forget this--JUDAS!

Bob: (incredulous) I don't believe you! (to band) Play it fuckin' loud! No wait. Mid-tempo. Always mid-tempo.