This fall was the rebirth of my excitement and love for Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois, most especially the songs “Chicago” and “Casimir Pulaski Day.” I became obsessed with them, playing almost nothing else on my office turntable. So much so, in fact, that my husband got us tickets to MusicNOW in Cincinnati, and I’ll finally be able to see Stevens live! (My obsession stretched into the Christmas season when “That Was The Worst Christmas Ever” was my favorite, despite it being a pretty literal title. I also love the fire and anxiety in “Seven Swans,” and his records carried me through the anticipation of seasonal affective disorder quite nicely.)
Here’s a little bit of the sound of the record and an album trailer
In serendipitous timing for me, Stevens has announced a new record, Carrie & Lowell, on his record label Asthmatic Kitty. A return to the folk sound, the record is already being heralded as a stunning contribution to his diverse body of work. Of course the good news for you guys is he’s going on tour, so I won’t be the only lucky person seeing him this year! I’ll post the new single when it’s out, and I anticipate reviewing it as soon as it’s out in March.
CATCH SUFJAN STEVENS ON TOUR FOR HIS CARRIE & LOWELL RECORD
SUFJAN STEVENS LIVE
April 10 Philadelphia, PA Academy of Music
April 11 New York, NY Beacon Theater
April 12 Hartford, CT The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
April 14 Portland, ME Merrill Auditorium
April 15 Albany, NY The Palace Theater
April 16 Cleveland, OH Cleveland Masonic Auditorium
April 17 Columbus, OH Palace Theater
April 18 Indianapolis, IN The Murat Theatre
April 20 St. Louis, MO Peabody Opera House
April 21 Kansas City, MO Midland Theater
April 22 Minneapolis, MN Northrop Auditorium
April 23 Milwaukee, WI Riverside Theater
April 24 Chicago, IL Chicago Theatre
April 27 Detroit, MI Masonic Temple
April 28 Grand Rapids, MI Covenant Fine Arts Center
April 29 Toronto, ON Massey Hall
April 30 Montreal, QC Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier / Place Des Artes
May 1 Brooklyn, NY Kings Theatre
May 4 Boston, MA Citi Performing Arts Center – Wang Theatre
May 5 Washington, D.C. DAR Constitution Hall
May 6 Richmond, VA Altria Theater
May 7 Durham, NC Durham Performing Arts Center
May 9 New Orleans, LA Saenger Theatre
May 10 Dallas, TX Majestic Theatre
May 11 Houston, TX Jones Hall for the Performing Arts
May 12 Austin, TX Bass Concert Hall
June 2 San Diego, CA Copley Symphony Hall
June 3 Los Angeles, CA Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
June 5 Oakland, CA Fox Theater
June 8 Portland, OR Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
June 9 Vancouver, BC Orpheum Theatre
June 10 Seattle, WA The Paramount Theatre
One of my favorite things about putting Corin Ashley’s psychedelic record on in the office is, inevitably, someone will walk in and say, “I used to love this song!” It’s fun for me to say, “You love it now, but I bet you don’t know it.” I’ve actually had people argue with me before realizing that I was right– that his music was new to them.
I think people feel such an immediate kinship with his music because it is both reminiscent of the best of the pop music of the ’60s, and because it has updated that sound in a way that is naturally easy to click into as a listener. His harmonies and lush orchestrations are moving but lovely; they are both easy to listen to and compelling. From the first swelling intro of “Geez Louise” on side A, it’s clear that Ashley is a master of his own sound: when the chorus kicks in with percussive lyrics and sounds, it is triumphant. Before the end of the song, every listener I’ve watched is tapping along. Some sing. It’s striking how immediately New Lion Terraces becomes a part of a listener’s vocabulary.
Corin Ashley was part of The Pills in the late ’90s and early 2000s, which was surprising information for me when I had the good fortune of seeing him live at CMJ this fall. I was a huge fan of Wide Awake with The Pills and was a little starstruck, actually, which is a weird feeling for me. I was more starstruck after seeing him perform: Ashley is an electric performer, commanding all the gravity in the room while the music is on, but making friendly conversation through the breaks. The whole set was phenomenal, but the material of New Lion Terraces shone bright even live. When I grabbed the record later, I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of my favorite songs from the set were on there.
New Lion Terraces, recorded at Abbey Road Studios, is packed full of upbeat, up-tempo pop songs. At its most exciting moments, this record has undertones of Badfinger, The Turtles, the Kinks, and Big Star. There’s a freshness to the way the instruments come together that seems to enrich every sound and make them all stand out from each other. It seems like each song has something that makes it special: “Meet Me on the Ledge” (not the Fairport Convention song) has an awesome female vocal line that gives the song a buoyancy. The slinky “God Shaped Hole” has brass parts that make the song feel like a sad duet. “Marianne” has a wobbly, psychedelic breakdown in the middle that is really stunning: it is almost like the room is spinning.
One of my favorite tracks on the record, “Badfinger Bridge,” shows what Ashley is best at: creating an entire world within the space of a song. With a chorus as simple as, “You are returned to me/ address unknown,” Ashley goes through objects and items that remind him of a past love:
A faded old receipt form a favorite restaurant
for an audit not likely coming
and in my winter coat a ticket stub reveals
there’s a sequel to the last film we saw
as passers by chatter I chance to hear your name
and you are returned to me, you are returned to me
As good as the writing is, though, what makes it exceptional is that, to me, the line, “As passers by chatter, I chance to hear your name” feels like a flash-forward, like it’s catching the audience back up to the present time. Everything else feels like it’s in the past, trapped in some kind of a mottled photo frame. There’s a clarity in the chorus of the song that is messier in the verses; it’s a song that somehow evokes a feel of nostalgia both in lyrics and in tone.
And perhaps it’s that brilliantly-evoked nostalgia that makes the record so popular among my office mates. New Lion Terraces is that record you used to love, somehow, even before you knew it.
FIND CORIN ASHLEY ON FACEBOOK
Daniel and the Lion is one of the most talented American bands out there right now. There’s no exaggeration when I say that, since we first started listening to them a few years ago, Andy and I have put at least one of their records on during every road trip we’ve been on since. They’re great traveling music, but more than that– they’re good “going forward” music. For whatever reason, every time Jimmy’s soulful voice comes out of the speakers, my life feels imbued with a (sometimes false) gravity: like I’m an important figure for a moment, even if it’s just in my own life.
Unsurprisingly, their most recent EP, East, is brilliant. One of my favorite things about Daniel and the Lion is their lyrics are always imagistic– painting a blurry picture of the whole situation, allowing there to be water spots and holes in the text. I’m not sure many people pull this off as well as they do: it’s almost a Beck-esque technique. Lines like, “I dreamt about a poet and a king/ they taught me almost everything/ I thought that I might tell you when you woke/ But you were gone” have a heavy gravity, one that pulls all the oxygen out of the room when Jimmy goes back into the high mournful line, “Erase me now.” That song, “Better Off,” is one of my favorites of theirs–
better to hold my own
alone here, empty handed
than struggle in earnest
above the quicksand
better to bite my tongue
an inch off, nothing new
than tell you the truth
that we were long gone
erase me now, phase me out
lost out loud
and better off
It reminds me, musically, a bit of some of the lo-fi Harvey Danger B-sides, most specifically, “Big Wide Empty,” which has the same sparse music built up with percussion and vocals. The female backing vocal on this song is transcendent, as well: attributed to Micaela Thomas, they give Jimmy’s lines a strange suspension, one that gives the song a sad tension.
All four songs are phenomenal– the pure pop beauty in “Overthrow” is palpable, and the piano seems to give the song a nest from which to grow from. One of my favorite things about Jimmy is he can say literally any word (including, apparently, “dude”) and it seems inherently musical. Our language sounds better when put together and sung by Daniel and the Lion.
“Game of Hearts” exemplifies that sparse, strange lyrical quality that some of my favorites of theirs (like “Death Head”) have:
mind on horizons
and you know it’s wrong
but you drown in the silence
none of this is real
give it a name
give it a name
this is insane
what are we doing
The rhythm on that “give it a name, give it a name” is basically addictive. It feels like the first little bit of spring coming back, even though I know spring is actually 67 days away (and counting!).
But the real selling point here is that the EP is only a few dollars. I can’t imagine not having something this beautiful in my collection if the only thing stopping me was $4 or $5 bucks. You are able to purchase this as a jewel-case CD with album art and everything, or you can buy digital copies on their Bandcamp. While you’re there, check out some of their shirts– Andy and I bought the Death Head design which was designed by my good friend Frank Germano of Manonfire Design.
IF YOU ARE IN NEW YORK CITY: Daniel and the Lion is playing the Bowery Electric this Wednesday night, 1/14, at 7:30 p.m. You really don’t have an excuse not to go.
The cover of the Big Star Box Set, Keep an Eye on the Sky
PROLOGUE: A few days ago, I was cleaning out my bathroom and throwing things out and I came to a bottle of perfume. I don’t wear perfume, ever, so I went to put it in the pile with the rest of the trash, when I caught the label on the side– Clinique’s “Happy.” Something outside my conscious thought opened the lid, sprayed some, and all of the sudden, I was a teenager. When I was a teenager, I remembered all at once, I did wear perfume. I wore this perfume. And I’m not sure if I smiled when I sat it back in the cabinet, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away.
I will never be that young again, I thought. Maybe I was never that young in the first place.
I can’t help but think of Big Star in the same way– just a few notes, and I’m all the selves I’ve been before.
REVIEW: I’ve been listening to Keep an Eye on the Sky since I was sent a review copy in the beginning of December. I’ve listened to it on long drives to Cleveland, and through finals week; I’ve listened to it in my office, and in my living room, and in my bathroom. Big Star is good music for every day, which anyone who has listened to the band instinctively knows. But this collection seems to go further than that– growing roots into the back of your brain, somehow triggering how young you were once, impossibly.
Of course it does. Because the ghost-voices of who Chilton and Bell were are both genuine and haunted, and because drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel balance that out with brilliant musicianship and pacing. (In fact, all four members contributed to the songwriting, but Chilton/Bell dominated even from the beginning– sort of a “Lennon/McCartney” situation.) The story of Big Star is handed down from musician to musician, as much legend as cautionary tale– because it is compelling and tragic. Alex Chilton, who had hit it big with the Box Tops at only sixteen years old (famous for “The Letter”) walked away from fame as a very, very young man to make music he could believe in. With record titles like #1 Record and Radio City, they were practically daring the music community to notice them. And while critics did– saying things like, “Every song on this record could be a single”– few others did.
One of my favorite Big Star songs, “The Ballad of El Goodo,” live on the radio in 1974
Due to label problems (at both Stax and Columbia) and difficulties with marketing, favorable critics and devoted fans weren’t able to elevate Big Star out of cult status. Drugs and alcohol fueled the already-tense recording sessions, and after several physical fights (and instruments being destroyed), Chris Bell left the band to record his own solo record, I Am the Cosmos (which has also recently been re-released). His car accident death in December 1978 at age 27 still ranks as one of the saddest losses in rock; he was clearly producing better and better music, and is considered an exceptional songwriter even with a relatively small body of work.
However brief Big Star’s life was, with and without Chris Bell, they were able to hit a sweet spot of what it’s like to be a human being growing into a full-fledged person: songs like “My Life is Right” are both sweet and thoughtful. Big Star elevated what pop music could be by being direct in their lyrics but expanding the sound; by playing with different genres but creating songs that are instantly memorable.
You can hear in this demo that there’s something raw and truly hopeful in this demo: I don’t know that you can get away with lyrics this blunt without really believing them, at least in some part of you.
Lonely age of uncertainty, they disappear when you’re near me
When you’re around my life’s worthwhile, and now I live to see you smile
You give me light, you are my day, you give me life
And that’s right, so right
My life is right
This collection was compiled with help from the unfortunately late John Fry of Ardent Records, who had a tremendous amount to do with the overall sound and direction of the band. He says in the (expansive, brilliant, worth the money for these alone) liner notes that he hopes people enjoy not just the songs, but the story. For me, the two are permanently intertwined. This naivety and innocence comes from the same voice that knows hard work doesn’t always pay off; it comes from a young man who was never really young, whose experience with an early success rang hollow and then could never be replicated. Of course, in terms of musicians today, Big Star is far, far more influential than The Box Tops were. But what continues to surprise me, over and over again, is how delightfully playable and fun the music is. These songs are beautiful and light; they are bluesy and dark; they play with exciting sounds and lyrics, and they drift in and out dreamily.
Why start with this collection? Simply because it is exhaustive. Several final versions of songs appear, but there are also many unreleased tracks and demos. Some of them have become my favorite. There’s also a phenomenal live disk that features some great covers (the rocking “Hot Burrito #1″ cover abandons its country roots to become something else entirely, Todd Rundgren’s “Slut”) but the songs that really stand out are Big Star originals. Anyone who has ever heard “Thirteen” knows that it is potentially the most innocent song about first love ever written:
Won’t you let me walk you home from school?
Won’t you let me meet you by the pool?
Maybe Friday I can get tickets for the dance
And I’ll take you…
More than any love song, this one defined the way I thought of love songs: I’ve heard it covered by countless musicians (some of whom do very convincing versions– I always point to Elliott Smith’s as a beacon of cover songs, one that proves that the desire to love and be loved is a common thread that runs through all good music), but Chilton’s original vocals are stunning. Something that is stunning to me as a music listener is that in the live venue, even up against much more world-weary tracks, this song maintains its sheen and beauty; it somehow gets to travel back in time and still be, somehow, thirteen. And this whole collection feels that way: like going through snapshots of a life you mostly lived. These songs are Alex Chilton’s and Chris Bell’s, but they are also a whole generation’s. Big Star is a music fan’s shared history, and this box set captures that beautifully.
“Give Me Another Chance” from #1 Record
Perhaps my favorite song on the disk is “Give Me Another Chance,” a song I knew, but for some reason didn’t hit me until I heard it placed in this collection. The alternate mix is so deliberate and so slow. It seems stripped over almost any vocal modification– as if Chilton is singing alone in an empty room. One of my favorite things Big Star does in their songs is name exactly how they feel and exactly why– this isn’t a band that relies heavily on metaphor– and it seems to be most effective in the short, sad lines that open this song:
You feel sad ‘cos I got mad, but I’m sorry, I’m sorry
Things I said made things seem bad, but don’t worry
It’s gonna be all right, now, be OK…
Don’t give up on me so fast
It could be reductive in another band’s hands, but it’s one of those weird occasions where naming the feelings makes the song universally relatable, and somehow specific enough to carry a narrative. That’s a really tough spot to hit. I think what breaks me here, though, is when Chilton sings, “It’s just so hard to stay alive each day.” It’s one of those lines that seems simple, but it’s not. Everyone listening to Big Star already knows this. They have experienced it at different times and in different ways. Chilton’s communion with the listeners is why Big Star endures, why they will never go away.
Big Star is one of the most important pop bands of all time, and it’s because their songs were written at the height of emotional and philosophical experience– the transition from “Let me walk you home from school,” to “It’s just so hard to be alive each day.” And I am still both of those people, really: the person who wants to be asked to the dance, and the person who knows it’s hard to get by. This collection is essential to a music lover’s collection because it encompasses the best of what music can be: it can be a friend, sure, but it can also be therapy. Plus it sounds so damn good. From the demos to the alternate takes, the album versions to the live cuts, there’s not a thing on this set that doesn’t sound phenomenal. All of the versions of “Don’t Lie to Me” are stellar, fueled by unfiltered anger and frustration. All of the versions of “The India Song” are dreamy in their own way. Having different examples side by side is amazing– it’s almost like seeing the rough drafts, if you can call these incredibly polished, beautiful versions “rough.”
Plus– if you’re like me and box sets are completely unaffordable– this is a great starting point. For under $40, you get four CDs and an incredible book full of essays and pictures (which, the geek that I am, is the selling point for me). I have spent more time with this set than any other record I’ve bought in a long time, and that’s saying something– there have been some incredible records for me this winter, new and old. If you haven’t listened to much Big Star, this is a perfect introduction (and even includes a starry-eyed version of Chris Bell’s song “I Am the Cosmos”). If you have listened to Big Star all your life, you will enjoy the nuance, subtle changes, and even drastic revisions that you’re allowed to hear through the new versions. I can’t recommend this set enthusiastically enough. It’s already getting me through a really cold winter.
(*I can’t begin to recommend each song I want to because there are NINETY EIGHT TRACKS, but a few I’m really, really enjoying include: “Try Again (Early Version),” “In the Street (Alternate Mix),” “Watch the Sunrise (Single Version),” “Back of a Car (Demo),” every version of “Give Me Another Chance,” every version of “With My Baby Beside Me,” “El Goodo,” “Thirteen,” and “September Gurls,” “I Got Kinda Lost,” “Nighttime,” “Big Black Car (Alternate Demo),” and every single track on the live record. Literally all of them.
TO READ MORE ABOUT BIG STAR, I RECOMMEND BUYING THE SET AND READING THE LINER NOTES. THEN HIT ME UP ON TWITTER (@kwdarby) AND WE CAN TALK ABOUT IT.
I had the great fortune of being a part of Ryan Spaulding’s amazing Outlaw Roadshow again this year, and I have a lot of reviews forthcoming– especially Corin Ashley’s record, which has become a favorite of mine in the last few weeks. But one of the biggest surprises of the showcase for me was Brooklyn’s The Animal Years, a band that wasn’t officially on the Outlaw roster, but who recorded a Garden Session. They are like canned heat– their style of folk-rock is easy to imitate but hard to have ring authentic, but they are exceptional and powerful live. But don’t take my word for it– you can see what I saw.
So if you’re looking for a way to escape an uncomfortable family Thanksgiving– or better yet, avoid any Black Friday madness– you should stop by the Brooklyn Bowl on Friday, November 28th. The doors are at 6 and the show starts at 8. For 20$ a ticket, you can’t beat the value. (Have I been watching too many commercials?)
Just do me a favor, if you do get to go see this band, please come back and let me know in the comments. This was one of the saddest guest-list invites I’ve ever had to turn down (but man, it’s hard to get to Brooklyn from southern Indiana…)
FIND THE ANIMAL YEARS ONLINE:
The first time I saw Robert Ellis, I’d never heard of him– he was opening for the Old 97′s in Nashville on the Grand Theatre tour. I remember when he took the stage, my husband and I were both skeptical: he looked like a kid. And more than just a kid, with hair down to his waist, he looked like a kid in the wrong century. We knew we were two sets from the Old 97′s– I just wasn’t prepared or ready for another act. And then he opened his mouth.
Something about Robert Ellis’s voice is more striking to me than almost any contemporary vocalist: sure, it’s full of the ghosts of all the country singers who’ve come before, but there’s something so unique and gorgeous in his delivery. It’s at once mournful and thoughtful; not maudlin, but reflective. And I remember that night, being a little nervous to approach the merch table even though I knew I couldn’t leave without his record, because he actually intimidated me from the stage. That’s kind of difficult to do. But watching Ellis is like watching a master– it’s hard to know how to react when you’re not ready for it. (Also, I eventually got over that nervousness and had the good fortune of doing a great interview with Robert here.)
The Lights from the Chemical Plant is an amazing follow up to Photographs, but more than that, it is the promise that Ellis is going to be one of the strongest songwriting voices to come out of this next generation. It’s one thing to put out one great record– but to immediately follow that up by making an even more striking and musically innovative record is a loud statement that confirms everything I thought I heard the first time I heard a note come out of his guitar. Every song is tightly crafted and exact, spinning narratives with rich characters and nuanced emotional responses. The title track, especially, is chilling–
A love song that spans a lifetime, Ellis uses the permanence of the lights from the chemical plant as a backdrop to discuss mortality against. Not just mortality, though– about what it means when a love is permanent and how, even that miracle is fleeting. The rhythm of the chorus is just slightly off what I would expect, and between that and the tone– the crest and fall, the constant swell and ache that feels like a lighthouse– this song is emotionally gutwrenching, but it’s also hopeful and lovely. It’s rare there is a chorus that is both this specific and musical:
As if to keep each other safe
They spent the night locked in embrace
And the lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
When all else seemed unstable
I could watch how they were there
The lights from the chemical plant
But I’m ahead of myself. This is the part of the song that is on permanent loop in my head, but to not discuss the way he’s structured the song generally would be an oversight. Perhaps part of what is so effective about this track is that it’s set up perfectly: first the setting, aided by the foggy feel of the music; then the characters and the love story; then the reflection. It’s at once incredibly personal and the story of every true love. By starting it, “In a small town/ Down the highway to the coast/ Factories and churches laid on dusty gravel roads/ This is where they first met, such a long time ago,” Ellis creates everyone’s childhood home. (My husband and I had a strange conversation about this– he said he wished there weren’t coastal images because he could see the lights from the chemical plant in Ohio, where he grew up. I said I loved it, because I saw Corpus. We both cracked up– why is it so important that every town is “ours” (And I’m not from Corpus, but as a Texan, the whole state is mine)? But Ellis does such a good job weaving the story in that the listener desperately wants to connect and be part of the narrative.)
What is it about Ellis that makes me want to be a part of the story? I wonder if it’s his voice, which is full of pathos, certainly; maybe it’s the accent, which is soothing and “home” to me. Maybe it’s just that the things he talks about are familiar to me.
As we talked about in the last interview, Ellis grew up with a religious background that he’s now conflicted about. Sin and hell aren’t ever too far from his lyrics, but neither is redemption or joy– Ellis manages to bring both aspects into his music and has been able to all along. You rarely get to see this kind of critical thought in action in lyrics: it’s hard to find a story in the reflection. Ellis manages to raise the flames of hell with an electric guitar and a banjo, all while exploring what that kind of old-time religion does to a young mind:
Nobody talks too loud in my hometown
Nobody stands too tall for fear of getting knocked down
Just follow straight lines and teach your children how
Well, you just do your job, and conceal your doubts
The flames of hell seem so high
When I can barely see over the pew
I was just a boy when they told me that lie
But Lord, it felt so true…
And that’s a hell of a thing to do to a kid
Just to teach him right from wrong
You can burn in hell the rest of your days or you can learn to sing along…
Honestly, I could have printed every lyric to this song and it would have been more effective than my editorializing because the ruthless honesty and directness is refreshing. I think between the unflinching look at what indoctrination does to a young mind (“A child believes whatever they’re told/ A pillar of flames/ A street of gold”) and the fast-paced bluegrass sound, Ellis has taken an interesting risk with this track and it pays off. If there was a train in hell, I feel like it would be going about this speed and feel about this hot. I love the balance between knowing there is a difference between right and wrong and being overwhelmed by what that is and how you know. (Any one who has read my fiction, I suppose, has seen that this is the dichotomy that I’m most interested in writing about, haha.) Another fun surprise on the record was his cover of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”–
“Still Crazy After All These Years” is an important song to me for a lot of reasons– first, I’m a huge Paul Simon fan and he was one of the first people I ever got to see live. Second, this is my mother’s favorite song of all time (except sometimes when she says “In My Life” by the Beatles) and so it’s one that I only think about fondly. Some of my all-time favorite lyrics and vocal lines. You don’t listen to Ellis’s voice and naturally think he should be covering folk artists from the 70s, but it is such a natural, warm thing to hear these words come out of his mouth. (I also recommend listening to his insane version of “Hearts and Bones” which I’m going to include at the bottom of the page– I’ve spent more than one morning crying in my office to his wailed, “You take two bodies/And you turn them to one”– good God.)
All of that said, I haven’t even talked about what I think the standout on the record is. The whole thing is beautiful– the almost-calliope-esque opening to “TV Song” that opens the record with a deceptive simplicity and leads into one of the most complicated, lovely reflections on TV and isolation culture I’ve ever heard– the final song, “Tour Song,” which is so dark and hard to listen to I almost can’t, and I tense up in that weird, instinctual fear and sadness every time he says, “Soon she’ll start to wonder/ What it is I provide” and the blunt pain of, “And I need her now”– the genuine sweetness in “Steady As the Rising Sun.” There is not only not a bad track on here, this is a nearly perfect record– one you can listen to without skipping anything.
But the best song, in my mind, is “Houston,” which has a lyrical depth and maturity that seems surprising for a second record.
“Houston” is, at once, a love letter and a breakup letter– not to a woman, but to the city that helped the narrator become who he is.Through his youth and his young relationships, the city is a constant, and it’s shaped him:
When I was afraid, your lights did not fade
No they shone through the night
We shared an apartment on the verge of downtown
Two kids so in love but in vain I had found
Well, when our love turned to rust
Then all I could trust was the cover of the blanket of the night
I owe it to you, I would have come unglued
Had it not been for the city and her light
But the line that crushes me is his goodbye: “You remind me of too many things.” How often do we have to leave a person or a place for that reason? “I’ve got to pick up and wipe the slate clean”– but leaving is going to be as bittersweet as staying. This song, perfectly underscored by the occasional whine of the pedal steel, seems to be the most nuanced look at how we deal with place in our lives. We are always “from” our home, whether we stay or not– but the identity and longing in the song seems to really sum up what it feels like to miss home, for me. This song isn’t so much nostalgia for me as it is a calculated, thoughtful move: but one that the narrator understands will be painful, like every other choice in life. It is so rare that in life any person can make a painless decision, one with nothing but good outcomes. Ellis explores this divide time and time again in his music, which adds layers, depths, and the most satisfying pain.
The Lights from the Chemical Plant is one of my favorite records I’ve bought in a long, long time, and it is gorgeous. I can’t recommend highly enough that if you like folk/country or any mix of the two that you explore Ellis’s work and catch on. I predict this guy is the next Jason Isbell– he’s got that level of talent and he’s young. He’s an incredibly writer, a gifted guitarist, and he’s put out one of the best records of 2014.
Oh, and here’s “Hearts and Bones.” Tell me that’s not the best Paul Simon cover you’ve ever heard.
FIND ROBERT ELLIS ONLINE:
BUY THE RECORD:
Sons of God, Felipe Molina. Paper size is 20″ x 15″; Image size 13″ x 8.5″
This website has opened up so many opportunities that I would have never otherwise had. One of the most exciting to me has been all of the different kinds of artists and creators I’ve been able to meet. This summer when I saw the Counting Crows in Cincinnati, I had the pleasure of meeting Felipe Molina, whom many will recognize as the artist and designer behind the Counting Crows’ most recent album artwork. He had one of the paintings he’d done for the record there with him, and when we walked into the green room, we got to see him unwrap it and share it with the band. It was stunning. It was almost like all the oxygen in the room was in the frame, and when he unwrapped it, breathing was better, more vivid. So when he recently announced he was making a new etching available for the public in late October, my first reaction was to ask my husband, “What do we pawn?” And that was BEFORE I saw it. I have never really written much about art, partially because I don’t have the vocabulary. That’s why, when Felipe asked if I’d be interested in reviewing his work, I was both stunned and honored. I told him I didn’t know what I was doing (so there was full disclosure!) but he insisted that was fine with him, probably because Felipe is a really nice man and he could see how excited I was about his work. That’s one thing I can bring to this review– absolute excitement. In fact, over the last few weeks, I’ve started writing this several times, but I always stop– I wanted this review to be the best it could be, because I feel like Felipe’s art warrants that.
So first, I want to talk a little about Felipe’s art in general, and then I’d like to talk about his forthcoming etching, “Sons of God,” which was the most instantly stirring piece of art I have seen in a long time. Counting Crows fans have been familiar with his work for a long time (the live album from Heinekin Music Center is also his), but what is most impressive about Felipe’s work to me is how it speaks for itself. After watching him tell a story in New York last month, I was stunned to realize that the reason I react to his artwork the way I do is because his work, while technically brilliant and compelling, is also a very visceral form of storytelling, which is another art at which he excels. Felipe knows how to weave humor into serious passages, how to balance dark and light, in a way that is reflected in every piece of his I’ve seen.
What jumps out to me immediately in his paintings is the way he uses color: generally, the paintings feel warm and earthy in a way that envelopes the viewer. When I look at the “Scarecrow” artwork or the “Earthquake Driver” painting, I escape into the world he’s created as effortlessly as I do when I’m listening to the song. This is pretty incredible for me: Felipe’s artwork actually feels to me like the music does. In the prints from the record, I see longing for connection and fulfillment; the desire to find a place to call home; what it means to run out of reasons to be hopeful; and also the strong, concrete reasons that people keep surviving. If you look again at “Scarecrow,” you can see the main figure has details on the arms– what looks like a ghost town on one arm and cacti on the other. This in no way resembles a tattoo sleeve: it’s so imagistic and symbolic that it almost feels like the figure has been turned inside out, the places and moments that made him who and what he is reflected externally. That makes the guitar in the center even more stunning: the idea that music is the connection, the thing that grounds this person in the sparse, harshness of the real world– it’s almost overwhelming.
The really stunning thing about Felipe’s paintings for Somewhere Under Wonderland, though, is that as well as they fit together, they are each perfect for the songs the suit. Again, “Scarecrow” winds up with what feels like sharp, angular pieces sticking out, almost like hay in a flannel shirt– it is at once shaggy and exact. However, the painting for “Palisades Park” uses more greens and blues, some beautiful moments of red and orange, and perhaps most stunningly, makes use of circular shapes that guide the viewer through the action of the painting. It’s much more meandering in the same way the song is: it tells a longer story, one that loops around and comes back on itself. There’s more enjoyment and engagement with the journey of this picture: instead of a knee-jerk intense reaction like I have to the “Scarecrow” painting, I feel like I could spend hours traveling these hills and remembering the story of the song. In fact, I almost can’t see it without hearing in the back of my head, “On a crosswalk in Reno, Nevada/ Wearing nothing but air/ And grey paper wings/ Andy says, “Man, I got nothing to wear.” This is incredible to me because, obviously, that’s not literally what Felipe painted.
That’s why Felipe’s art is so meaningful to me: he’s able to show something with shapes, colors, and symbols that tells a complete story. I’m not sure how to do that– that’s why it takes me thousands of words to review an album or a painting or to write a short story. But Felipe’s art is a gut-punch: it is completely engrossing. And I’m not going to lie, as someone who hasn’t been around a lot of art, I was shocked by the absolute layers and textures of his paintings: perhaps one of the reasons I can’t get enough of the paintings is because they have so many stories, moments, and paint colors layered on top of each other that I feel the same way I do about a good song: I could listen a hundred times and it never get old.
So now that I’ve talked generally, I want to show you a larger picture of the first image, “Sons of God”–
Every time I see this lithograph, I am stunned. I felt like, when I saw this for the first time, it was an external portrayal of my heart on long days. The first thing I saw was the moon: I am always looking for the moon, anyway, and the way he highlights it by circling it with darkness and then fading into a sunset or an orange sky in the background is stunning. All of its light is exemplified by the way it is, almost exactly, a hole in the sky. But my eyes move vertically down the painting, and the next image I am struck by is the men, constantly walking away from each other down the hill, home. The way they are set out from the background, too, puts them on the same level as the moon for me: these are things that do not blend into the background. These are things that cannot blend in or be forgotten. They are similar looking, which makes it even more telling: they can’t just be individuals, obviously, this is representative of something much more universal.
But maybe my favorite part of the print is what happens in the lower third of the painting. The black and white lines of the land and the stark dark shapes of the homes feel both nostalgic in terms of coloring and shapes– they are so intentionally not poker-straight lines and movements, but blurry like a memory and comfortable like a song or a picture of something you can only sort of remember. This is the destination not just of the people, for me, but for the moon. This is the redemption in the piece. I know I’m out on a limb (and there’s a fifty percent chance Felipe will read this and think I’m nuts), but this piece is a reflection of the constant work and yearning that seems to coincide with what it means to go or create a home, and the moon and the universe looks on it all with cool, calm indifference. And it’s stunning. I love this image more every time I see it. It’s been the background on my phone for a month and every time I see it, I think of one of my favorite James Wright poems, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” which has the lines:
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
But in the same way I’ve always seen the last line of Wright’s poem as a triumph, not a giving up or a giving in, I see this print as a triumph: the continual motion, the destination of home, the destiny of the moon and the world we live in. Plus, the title “Sons of God” makes it feel even more like the people are halfway in between their two homes, one of the world that gave birth to them and one of the society they are a part of. I get capital-R Romantic every time I see it.
It winds up, I really like talking about art, haha, and it’s easy when you have friends as talented as Felipe Molina and Frank Germano of manonfire design. My life is consistently made better by the beautiful visual art that I’m exposed to, and I’m grateful to be part of a world that not just accepts it, but honors and elevates their contribution.
You can actually buy the “Sons of God” print on Felipe’s website, and you can find him on Facebook and Twitter, too. (And seriously– you probably should follow him. When he tells stories and shares pictures, they’re always excellent.)
My friend Tim Slusher is an innovative music lover in San Antonio, TX. He’s worked on showcases like the Nekkid Armadilla at SXSW and he is also involved with the non-profit M.U.S.I.C. Project. Overall, he’s just a cool guy (who happens to have once shared the best donut I’ve ever eaten with me, so he’s also got that going for him).
Which is a big part of why, when he told me he was starting a monthly subscription box for music lovers called JukeBox, I knew it would be a success. One of the coolest surprises I’ve had in a long time was getting this in the mail. The boxes feature tons of music, but they also have fun products like trading cards, Legos, and other music-themed stuff (that all lives in my office, now). Tim has great taste, so of course the music is all top-notch (and in fact, this box had a Golden Bloom CD), but really, the whole thing feels like Christmas morning.
Along with hard copies, there are download codes and plenty of suggestions for things to listen to. In this box, there was a link to an Ali Holder record– between that and the CDs, you’ve already saved money on the box, which will run you from 19$ a month (one month commitment + shipping and handling) to 17$ a month (six month commitment + shipping and handling.)
Trading cards– note Soundgarden, Clapton, and Kravitz in the front.
I think the thing I had the most fun with was going through the trading cards. I didn’t know there were music trading cards, and wouldn’t have known to seek them out, but boy, it’s been fun having them in my office. I especially like the old school Soundgarden card, as I’m currently immersed in all things grunge.
I recommend signing up for the boxes because (a) you’re going to get good music delivered to your door once a month– you don’t even have to try! and (b) the other products Tim has found are a lot of fun, and will delight any music fanatic. I have enjoyed my JukeBox Box a lot.
FIND JUKEBOX ON TWITTER: TWITTER
I’m a long-time Cameron McGill fan, and in the last couple of years, he’s released nothing but brilliant material. About a week ago, he released outtakes from the Gallows Etiquette sessions, and they are both instantly memorable, provocative tracks.
The first few seconds of “Canyonlands” is so arresting that before the vocals even start, my husband said, “Oh, I really like this.” Like always, McGill’s lyrics are impressive– individual images are stunning, like “Daddy’s a tornado man, he chases dreams.” Even the repeated lines, “This is honest work/ Oh, and I’m a good liar” are interesting.
However good the writing is, though, it’s impossible not to tap along with this song, even on the first listen. After one listen, by the next day, I was singing the chorus in my head. The music is stunning: the piano part is dynamic and the rhythm is in places, steady, and in places, jarring. It’s the perfect balance– but then, oh God, the brass comes in, and the whole thing becomes fireworks. So many of his songs feel that way to me– like they were already perfect, and then the brass comes in and lights the whole thing on fire. McGill has an ear for arrangement, and this song is a perfect showcase.
So it’s weird to me that this song was my instant favorite on the single. It’s much darker, and the lyrics span too much time to work in such a short song– but somehow, it does more than work. It’s incredibly thoughtful, but it’s also almost mournful due to a droning piano part.
In the beginning, there was blood and guts, then there came the mind.
When Lucifer had a change of heart they put the heart inside.
Man crawled out the pond
and ate the garden green. On the seventh day he took a love when
God was fast asleep
When a sacrifice was needed
On top of the mount
They grabbed the nearest knife and boy and asked for mercy now
I’ll do what you please
said a man under a spell
Just give me some of that
Outside of the obvious Biblical imagery, he has some of the most visceral pictures I’ve seen painted in soft piano ballads– “When we moved outside the mountains/ And our red teeth they turned white/ And they dulled with every meal/ Sharpened with every lie.” This song feels magnificent and authoritative, which is furthered by the steady percussion– it feels like a march towards the inevitable.
But what did I tell you? Then the brass comes in, providing almost a hopeful sound. The vocal moderation on the bridge is impressive too– it gives it an underwater feel.
I recommend you immediately buy this single, and really, chip in more than the 2$ he’s asking for. This is a great single, and ten years ago, we would have all been lining up to pay at least 4$ for it. He’s one of the best songwriters out there right now and this is a good representation of why. And if you haven’t bought Gallows Etiquette yet (which is the best title I’ve heard in a long time) you can do that while at his Bandcamp, too.
And just in case anyone here hasn’t heard my rant about “Athena, fate isn’t very fair” being one of the best songs I’ve ever known, I’m including it, too. You should also buy it.
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Aimee Mann and Ted Leo’s project The Both seemed like a strange coupling at first: Leo is known for more punk-tinged rock ‘n roll with lyrics born from passion and indignation (I always think of my favorite of his, “Bomb.Repeat.Bomb“) and Aimee Mann is the consummate singer-songwriter, known for melodies that underscore her very metrical, very precise writing style. (I’ve even read interviews where Leo admitted that trying to shove his words into her meter was difficult at first– though he thinks the experiment paid off.) I knew about one verse in to the first track, “The Gambler,” that this record was going to be something special and unique.
Ted Leo’s vocals come in strong, but when Aimee Mann’s harmonies pick up with his voice on, “I don’t want you to have/ My keys anymore,” the darkness and awareness in the song becomes round and full. This is an incredibly strong album opener. There are so many tiny haunting lines in this song– (“I’m aware of the stakes/ I can’t afford anymore”) that underscore the unpredictably dark chorus, which is a pretty apt description for the whole record: it sounds so good and is, in some parts, so downright pleasant, that it’s easy for songs to sneak up on you and be better than you initially thought. Though both artists are certainly capable of this kind of brilliance on their own, there is something magical about the chemistry here: when working alone, you don’t ever have to compromise. These songs represent both Mann and Leo’s best selves, and the success of that collaboration is evident from the very first track.
Perhaps the most instantly memorable song on the record, for me, was “Milwaukee,” which also happens to have a great video. (What is this, the ’90s? I haven’t gotten to use that phrase in a while.) The guitar part is a little more blistering than anything you’d normally hear on a Mann record and a little more restrained than what you’d hear from Leo– which is sort of the theme of this review. But it is incredibly fun to listen to. The song is so catchy it’s almost impossible not to tap your foot or nod along. The writing is also exceptional on “Milwaukee”–
We walked over the bridge in Milwaukee
Past the statues of Fonz and the duck
With the wind kicking in
and the sparrows all running amok
And that woman, your friend
who was pregnant
Put your hand on her belly for luck
And I laughed ’cause it’s you and I
knew that you knew you were stuck
You can tell
By the laugh in the dark
at the sound of the bell
You can tell
It’s the nucleus burning
inside of the cell
It’s the nucleus burning
inside of the cell
The lyrics manage to be both specific and vague: they create a character by allowing the listener to hear just a little bit about the person, and then having the narrator pull back and gloss over who the character is. (“I laughed cos it’s you and I knew that you were stuck”– because the narrator knows this, so do we.) It’s such an insightful way to invite a listener into the song, and between that and the incredibly catchy nature of the song, it’s a very inviting track. I think that’s what The Both does best: the listener seems to be a welcome guest at a fun party. Leo and Mann bounce not just concepts and lyrics but energy and talent off of each other, creating one of the most genuine collaborative records I’ve ever heard. (I’ve also heard that they’re even better live: that their conversation and reactions to each other and the music are almost as good as the music itself.) These are musicians who enjoy each other’s company and enjoy what they are doing, and that is reflected in every piece of music. It feels good to be a part of these songs.
“Pay For It”
After repeated listens, my favorite song is the upbeat, “Pay For It.” Though it opens on the chorus where they both sing, it’s Aimee Mann’s vocals that come in on the verse that set me on edge. They trade vocals constantly throughout this song, which makes it feel even more conversational. And with a chorus like, “You’re gonna make me pay for it/ You’re gonna make me wait for it/ You’re gonna make me pay for it now,” it’s a tension-filled conversation. My favorite lines–
And in the end, when you’d had enough
I said “Call your friend,”
So you called my bluff and more
Down at the package store
Do you think it’s tough?
Do you think it’s bad?
Have you had it rough?
Well I’ve been had before
And baby, I know the score
– are equal parts good writing and good “feeling” words. They feel good to sing out loud, and that’s again, partially at least, due to Mann’s notorious attention to meter. The result is a song that both feels and sounds incredibly well put-together. Mann’s and Leo’s vocals are perfect compliments, too: they switch on who sings the lead, who sings the melody, who sings the harmony– really, everything. And they do it with such ease that it almost seems like it’s impossible to tell where one musician ends and the other begins: they pick up each other’s threads and, at the end of each song, the process is complete and smooth.
“You Can’t Help Me Now”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention how ridiculously good the writing on “You Can’t Help Me Now” is. This was apparently the first song they wrote, which actually surprises me a little: this seems like a pretty good indication they had things that needed to be said. This is Andy’s favorite song on the record, and we’re constantly listening to it and going over and over the middle verse:
Any time you establish a need to atone,
Down the tracks you can map on the
seams of your own broken bones
I wanted you to know
I’m not here to indict
And everything you’ve seen
is like a second sight
We’re inheriting the balance
of a poor birthright
Leo’s voice is more vulnerable and plaintive here than I am used to hearing it, but it is full of longing and understanding that seems otherworldly. When filled out with Mann’s strong harmony lines, it seems almost bolstered by itself: a song that is self-sustaining. Also, it’s rare to see “indict” used as a rhyming word, and hats off. That’s incredible. The song rises and falls against the sad chorus, “And even you can’t help me now,” which is built by a driving pre-chorus and their beautiful joined vocals. This song is indicative of the beauty of the whole collaboration. Mann and Leo are both so skilled in their own right that it is actually surprising how incredible they are together. This record is so good that it almost instantly becomes a part of both of their oeuvres.
Because I’ve already taken so much space, I won’t go song by song, but suffice it to say, I think ” The Inevitable Shove” is one of the best album closers I’ve heard in a long time. It’s constantly in my head, and again, because of the perfect blend of styles. This record seems like it was a lot of fun to make, and that’s reflected in the joy I get from listening to it. I look forward to whatever both artists do next, together or separate, but I hope this isn’t the last we hear of The Both.
TINY DESK CONCERT:
SEE THEIR NEW VIDEO (ALSO FUNNY) FOR “VOLUNTEERS OF AMERICA”:
CATCH THE BOTH ON TOUR:
October 4 Boston, MA The Sound of Our Town Festival