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ON REPEAT: The Cold War Kids, “First”


 

It’s been a while since I’ve said, “I heard this great song on the radio and couldn’t stop listening to it.” We have a pretty great radio station that fades in and out here: a college station, 89.1 The Bash out of Mount Carmel, Illinois. This morning, I was rushing to get into work (winds up having a photographer in the class makes me really anxious, haha), and the closer I get to school, the worst the reception is on this station. It wasn’t a big deal, except this song– “First,” by the Cold War Kids”– had come on, and it was stunning. By the last, “first you get close/ then  you get worried,” the static was overtaking Willet’s usually powerful voice and I was left with fuzz.

 

So naturally I came up to  my office after my 8AM class and played it a million times. The Cold War Kids are one of those bands that I’ve always known was good, but for whatever reason, hadn’t hit me at the right time yet. This morning, though, I was floored by how creative the lyrics were in what is a pretty straightforward song. There’s something inventive about using the “first/then” structure Willett has built: it starts bluntly,  ”First you lose trust, then you get worried,” which is not bad, but not particularly surprising as a listener either. The connections become even more interesting, though:

 

Night after night, bar after club
Dropping like flies, who woke you up?
On the front lawn, sprinklers turned on
It’s not your house, where’d you go wrong?
First you get hurt, then you feel sorry

 

And perhaps even more engaging–

 

There comes a time, in a short life
Turn it around, get a rewrite
Call it a dark, night of the soul
Ticking of clocks, gravity’s pull
First you get close, then you get worried

 

The connections between the ideas are really engaging, and the music is beautiful. Willett’s voice is strong and high, and the surrounding music is gorgeous. It has echoes of Band of Horses to it, certainly, and the meter feels vaguely Modest-Mouse-esque, though I think this song stands on its own without having to contextualize it too much. It’s lovely and ethereal but also catchy and easy to listen to. I moved from the original version to this one about an hour ago, and I love the raw vulnerability in the live version:

 

 

Anyone else obsessed with something this morning? This has been a week of only listening to one song for long periods of time– Wednesday was “Eugene” by Sufjan Stevens (for hours and hours and hours) and yesterday was the Dandy Warhol’s “You Were the Last High,” which always makes me happy.

IN CONCERT: Sufjan Stevens, Murat Theatre (Indianapolis, 4/18)

Sufjan Stevens rarely makes a record that doesn’t command its audience to pay attention on a different level. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who also dabbles in electronic music as well as the almost-painfully sincere folk music he’s known for. I think sometimes people shy away from the kind of sincerity he writes with because, honestly, it’s hard to be vulnerable the way Stevens is. That vulnerability has been magnified since the release of his latest record, Carrie and Lowell, a record about his complicated relationship with his mostly-absent mother, Carrie, and his stepfather, Lowell, who helped him co-found the record label Asthmatic Kitty and has been a very involved participant in Stevens’s career. I’ve been a huge fan since the state records– Michigan and Illinois– but upon hearing “The Only Thing” a few months ago, I immediately knew that there was a different gravity to Carrie and Lowell, even from my personal favorite song “Casimir Pulaski Day.”

 

Still, I was completely unprepared for the show on Saturday night. I knew that this was going to be something totally different than anything else I’d experienced– but I wasn’t sure how. Stevens  has a reputation for having a sonically impressive show, and he certainly didn’t disappoint there. It was more than that, though: I think everyone in the Murat that night would agree, something sacred and honest happened onstage that night. It’s rare to have a sacred and honest moment with someone you’ve known for years and built towards it with: it’s something totally different when a stranger opens up like that, lets you see the wounds and the scars, and it is almost daunting. How do you accept that kind of gift? It really made me re-evaluate the notion of performance. There’s an old Josh Ritter song where he says, “I’m singing for the love of it/ Have mercy on the man who sings to be adored,” and though I can’t imagine anyone would love re-living their darkest past night after night, I got the impression that even if the audience hadn’t shown up, Stevens still would have, and he would have still put on the best show in the country. It had very little to do with the audience.

 

 

The opening act, the Cold Specks, were much more impressive than I expected (and we wound up buying their latest record); their singer has an incredible tone, but more than that, she has a way of emoting through her voice that is very effective. I will probably never forget her singing into the effect microphone at the end of her set, “Hands up/ Don’t shoot/ I can’t breathe.” It was absolutely haunting, made moreso by the muted, far-away terror of the vocal effects. The whole band was incredibly talented though (and somehow the bassist kept looping effects and sounds throughout, which took me a while to catch), and I’d happily see them again. One of the last things the vocalist said, though, was about Sufjan Stevens himself: “You’re lucky to be in the audience tonight. This is something special.”

 

“Intro” + “Death with Dignity” from Indianapolis, IN 4/18/2015 (Some annoying audience noise at the beginning, but overall, pretty representative of how attentive the audience was; you can also see the old home movies playing, which is a really bold choice here)

 

He came out to a lovely vocal swell and sat at the piano for a few minutes, building up to the first track on Carrie and Lowell, “Death with Dignity.” Immediately, I was struck by a few things: first, if he wanted things to sound exactly like the record, he would be able to pull that off, vocally and musically. I have never heard such a tightly wound live performance. He’s masterful in a way that is almost impossible to achieve live. Second– I could tell that this was going to be an inventive set in some ways. He has added subtle details to a few songs, and his backup singer (who was, gratefully, Dawn Landes, who is fully capable of singing these songs) also elevated a few of the tracks. But what was stunning was how clear and lovely his vocals were. You could hear and understand every word he said, which, in some ways, made the experience harder. (I cried several times, and even though I already knew all of the songs, I was taken by surprise by how powerful some of the moments were when they were in order and live.)

 

It’s hard to write this concert review without actually reviewing Carrie and Lowell itself, because Stevens played the entire song, no break, no banter, in order. It was the only possible way to get through such difficult material. “Death With Dignity” actually starts with these lines (which, again, is what started the concert):

 

Spirit of  my silence, I can hear you

But I’m afraid to be near you

And I don’t know where to begin…

Somewhere in the desert there’s a forest

And an acre before us

But I don’t know where to begin

 

The atmosphere was immediately confessional: what a stunning thing to open a show with. But what really struck me was how clear his writing was– how, when his lyrics are achieving three or four different levels, it is so obvious when he is standing in front of you saying it to your face. We were in the second row of the balcony with no one between us and the stage, and it was very much like someone standing in front of us discussing why the love he experienced was broken, or not enough– or whether it was love at all. It doesn’t make for a lighthearted evening, but seeing Sufjan Stevens in concert is more than a diversion: it’s something useful and meaningful. I was floored when he sang my favorite line in the song, “Amethyst and flower on the table/ Is it real or fable? / Well, I suppose a friend is a friend / And we all know how this will end,” because it seemed to come from so many different emotional directions: resignation, seething anger, sadness, loss. It was so powerful and so chilling, I had goosebumps nearly the whole time.

 

Every single song was that powerful. The audience was rapt, silent between applause. You couldn’t hear talking or glasses moving. It seemed like everyone was just as captivated as I was. And Stevens himself was so in the moment that I can only imagine he was completely emotionally wasted and exhausted by the end. There were moments where it looked like he may have tears in his eyes. The music was perfect and gorgeous, but it seemed effortless. (There was only one misfire: a little too much reverb at the beginning of “Should Have Known Better,” but it was quickly fixed, and actually added to the haunted atmosphere of the track.)

 

 

There were a few moments, especially in “Should Have Known Better,” where it felt like watching the ghost of Elliott Smith. Subtle vocal doubling and echoes, ripped open lyrics, and honesty that most people can’t even stomach with themselves. (Lines like, “When I was three/ Three, maybe four/ She left us at that video store” became so painful it seemed to immediately zap everyone back to their first moment of betrayal. Again, lots of tears in the audience.) “Should Have Known Better” was immediately one of my favorite songs partially because of his lyrical patterns (when he comes to that same syllabic place next, he says, instead: “When I was three and free to explore/ I saw her face in the back of the door”), and partially because no matter what else I am doing while it’s on, after the electronic pieces come in at the end and he sings, “My brother had a daughter/ The beauty that she brings, illumination,” I get choked up. There’s something to be said for the excavation of Stevens’s past, but Carrie and Lowell and the concert in general brought to light something much more real than just that he has a sad backstory: the story of Carrie and Lowell and, yes, Sufjan Stevens, is that every child grows up to be an adult who is dealing with hurt, and every story eventually ends with people trying to reconcile the love they didn’t get or couldn’t receive in childhood. We play out our pasts against a background of the empty spots inside of us. When he flashes forward to, “My brother had a daughter,” everything goes full circle. It’s a reminder that real life is so much more than just the moment at the video store– but also that the moment at the video store echoes, ripples, scars; it comes back over and over again in different places and in different words.

 

I feel like I have to take a deep breath here. We’re only two songs into the concert. I promise I won’t talk about each song like this, though it’s nearly impossible not to. It was one of the most deeply felt experiences of my life, and I was listening to someone else’s story. Sufjan Stevens is a genius.

 

 

A song that hadn’t jumped out at me through listening to the record, “Eugene,” killed me in concert, both with its tenderness and its humor.

 

Emerald Park, wonders never cease
The man who taught me to swim, he couldn’t quite say my first name
Like a Father he led community water on my head
And he called me “Subaru”
And now I want to be near you

Since I was old enough to speak I’ve said it with alarm
Some part of me was lost in your sleeve
Where you hid your cigarettes
No I’ll never forget
I just want to be near you

 

The pain and longing in the, “I just want to be near you,” was actually hard to watch him say. Stevens’s voice is so clear and lovely, and to hear it strain against the loss was difficult. The music is so lovely and so light that the last two stanzas almost seem understated on the record, whereas in concert, they were elevated and exalted: this was the first moment of the show where I realized I was crying. I am not even going to talk around what they mean:  I’m just re-printing them.

 

Still I pray to what I cannot see
In the sprinkler I mark the evidence known from the start
From the bed near your death, and all the machines that made a mess
Far away the falcon flew
Now I want to be near you

What’s left is only bittersweet
For the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me
Now I’m drunk and afraid, wishing the world would go away
What’s the point of singing songs
If they’ll never even hear you?

Again, Stevens deals with the complicated notion that even imperfect love is better than no love at all, and in fact, sometimes that makes us even hungrier for whatever amount of it we can grasp. It was perfectly contrasted with the last lines of the next song, “Fourth of July” which begins by discussing the temporary nature of a firefly and then builds to a fever-pitch as Stevens wails, “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die.”

 

“The Only Thing,” from Indianapolis, IN 4/18/2015

 

My favorite song on the record (and the one I was most anxious to hear live) is the crushing “The Only Thing.” It’s a stunning reflection at what makes a person bother to wake up in the morning at all, and the concrete details mixed with the sacred always make me feel a little breathless. I think this song stands on its own, and I wish I could somehow talk about it in a way that honors how gorgeous it was. He’s such a gifted singer, and this was my favorite moment of the Carrie & Lowell part of the show. It was honestly one of the most moving, most changing concert experiences I’ve ever had. It made me remember why live music is so vital to being in touch with what a song really means, but more than that, I felt so connected. He is very much a true artist, and by the time he sang “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” and “Blue Bucket of Gold,” I was hanging on the edge of my seat.

 

 

Eventually, he ended that portion of the show, talked for a little bit about how kids approach death (and I’m including the video of that, because it was deeply funny), and then he began singing songs from all over his career. It’s hard for me not to become a dorky fan at this point, because I love so many of his other works, but he hit some incredible highlights, including “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” “The Dress Looks Nice On You,” and “To the Widows in Paradise, to the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” which was chill-inducing. The best part, though, was when the first notes of “Chicago” hit at the encore. The audience was electrified. I grabbed Andy’s hand and we watched as the entire group of people was transformed into one in joy. It was an incredible moment of lightness after a very heavy concert. There was one man in the audience who was actually jumping and twirling when the trumpet hit, and I feel that’s a pretty true representation of how it felt. “Chicago” was the absolution after a very emotional journey, and it was incredible.

 

“Chicago,” from Indianapolis, IN 4/18/2015

 

Overall, I’m stunned by the performance. Stevens was even better than I anticipated, and I expected a lot out of him. The record holds up well live, and the several times I’ve listened to it since have been more powerful because I got to be there and commune with him while he lived through it. I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a theatre feeling so changed, and like I had learned so much about the way life and love works. If you ever have a chance to see him, I recommend taking it, but I really recommend catching whatever stop you can on this tour. It was a transformative performance and I feel like the Cold Specks said it best: I was lucky to be in the audience that night. It really was something special.

 

CATCH SUFJAN STEVENS ON THE ROAD:

April 23 — Milwaukee, WI – Riverside Theatre w/ Little Scream
BUY TICKETS:  General

April 24 — Chicago, IL – Chicago Theatre w/ Little Scream
BUY TICKETS: General (Sold out)

April 25 — Chicago, IL – Chicago Theatre w/ Little Scream
BUY TICKETS: General (Sold out)

April 27 — Detroit, MI – Masonic Temple w/ Little Scream
BUY TICKETS:  General

April 28 — Grand Rapids, MI – Covenant Fine Arts Center w/ Little Scream
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

April 29 — Toronto, ON – Massey Hall w/ Little Scream
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

April 30 — Montreal, QC – Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier / Place Des Arts w/ Little Scream
BUY TICKETS:  General

May 01 — Brooklyn, NY – Kings Theatre w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

May 02 — Brooklyn, NY – Kings Theatre w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

May 04 — Boston, MA – Citi Performing Arts Center – Wang Theatre w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General

May 05  — Washington DC – DAR Constitution Hall w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

May 06 — Richmond, VA – Altria Theater w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General

May 07 — Durham, NC – Durham Performing Arts Center w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General

May 09 — New Orleans, LA – Saenger Theatre w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General

May 10 — Dallas, TX – Majestic Theatre w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

May 11 — Houston, TX – Jones Hall For the Performing Arts w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General

May 12 — Austin, TX – Bass Concert Hall w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

May 13 — Austin, TX – Bass Concert Hall w/ Moses Sumney
BUY TICKETS:  GeneralApplauze Preorder

May 22 — Sydney, Australia – Sydney Opera House
BUY TICKETS: General

May 23 — Sydney, Australia – Sydney Opera House
BUY TICKETS: General

May 24 — Sydney, Australia – Sydney Opera House
BUY TICKETS: General

May 25 — Sydney, Australia – Sydney Opera House
BUY TICKETS: General

June 02 — San Diego, CA – Copley Symphony Hall w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General

June 03 — Los Angeles, CA – Dorothy Chandler Pavilion w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General

June 04 — Los Angeles, CA – Dorothy Chandler Pavilion w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General

June 05 — Oakland, CA – Fox Theater w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

June 06 — Oakland, CA – Fox Theater w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

June 08 — Portland, OR – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

June 09 — Vancouver, BC – Orpheum Theatre w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

June 10 — Seattle, WA – The Paramount Theatre w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  General (Sold out)

June 11 — Seattle, WA – The Paramount Theatre w/ Helado Negro
BUY TICKETS:  GeneralApplauze Preorder

July 17 — Eau Claire, WI – Eaux Claires Festival
BUY TICKETS:  General

August 14-16 – Lyons, CO - Rocky Mountain Folk Festival
BUY TICKETS:

 

OR FIND HIM/ASTHMATIC KITTY ONLINE:

CARRIE & LOWELL SITE :: BANDCAMP :: ASTHMATIC KITTY SITE

 


HIGHLY RECOMMEND: The Luxury, “Bones and Beaten Heart”

 

Some records enter the world fairly painlessly, the music and lyrics falling together while the band jams and enjoys the activity of creation. Bones and Beaten Heart is not that record: this record is the triumph of a man struggling through dark days, tirelessly composing and organizing the songs in a way that makes them each work both as individuals and as part of a whole. The Luxury has created with this record not only a collection of catchy pop songs, but a piece that is the snapshot of a very specific moment in time: the phoenix rising from the ashes of the struggle to create and connect.

 

The record is split into two parts: first, the bones, then, the beaten heart. Side A begins with an instrumental intro, and though I often skip those, it’s important here: it sets the tone and theme for the rest of the record. It introduces both the slow build and the soaring electronic moments. It also seems, to me, to color the first song, “In Lieu of Goodbye,” which kicks the record off with these lyrics: “So when you’re lonely/ will you come ’round?/ I’m gathering dead moths and memories in our house/ Somebody has to/ tidy this place/ Imagine our precious little things just taking up space.” Dunn’s vocals are understated and filtered, but with the next lines, the song picks up and the vocals become unaltered and strong. From the specificity of the writing– the things he chooses to leave in– to the stellar sweetness of the backup vocals, this song commands an immediate audience. I can’t imagine listening to this song all the way through once without wanting to see what followed: it’s engaging on every level. One of my favorite things in pop music is a well placed piano, and this song hinges on sparse keys before it builds to a conclusion. The song leaves off, though, on a dissonant note, and one that is unsettling. It fades then into the next track, “Static and Vertigo,” seamlessly. Though the narrative element here isn’t plot-oriented enough to be a rock opera (it relies more on building specific moments and allowing the listener to fill in the gaps), the songs are so dependent on each other that it is most pleasing to listen to this record straight through.

 

 

I could go through and pull parts of each song that I love: I love the driving “Bring on the happy end,” in “Static and Vertigo,” and I love the guitar lines. I love the way “Ring Around the Ghost” slinks into being and then finds itself in the beautiful vocals in the chorus on, “Oh lovely,/You seem lonely.” But for the purposes of this review, I’m going to discuss my favorite songs and their strengths instead of hitting a few key things about each song. I’m particularly taken with “Losing My Time On You,” “Sleep Through Summer,” and the ineffably catchy “All I Do Is Win.”

 

 

“Losing My Time On You” has absolutely one of the best vocal moments on the record and it’s underscored with an almost ’80s sounding synth. The chorus goes from repeating the title to an amazing vocalization– it is one of the first times I’ve ever listened to a song and the nonsense words, the Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh’s, have given me chills. It just creates such a beautiful melody, and it feels full of longing and loss. I don’t know how you can create something so potent with so little. This is also my favorite guitar solo on the record– there’s some real breathing room before the last movement of the song, and Dunn seems to know that’s a great place for intricate guitar. The whole thing feels like going through an old journal– painful but illuminating, exhausting but valuable. I’ve found myself singing this song constantly over the last few months– it’s constantly on the edge of my mind and has been a great comfort during the cold months. It feels like a reclamation, a moment of strength and a turning point. In fact, it’s the second to last song on Side A, and I think it is a significant part of why the back half of the record has so much momentum. The fade-out that leads into the hollow, far-away introduction of “For You Only” is heartbreaking and gorgeous. That song slowly leads into the Beaten Heart of Side B.

 

 

Rarely when a record is stacked this well up front does the back half fare well, but Dunn seems to have balanced the melancholy-yet-strong first half of the disk with upbeat, energetic pop numbers.  Songs like “Why Don’t You Cry Anymore (Like You Used To)” invite listeners to sing along without even knowing the words yet. But I think one of the more dynamic numbers on this part of the record is the song that kicks it off, “Sleep Through Summer.” It comes in roaring, literally: there is a wall of sound, a shouting, but an invitation. The lyrics are strong, too:

 

Come inside, slip into the worst

The very worst of you, the very worst of you

Sprawl in the fire where we spin, baby’s gonna scream, what is one to do

But drop one for the skin, for the damage and the drain

Drop one for the shallow and the shouting and the shame

Drop one for every hour that I’m living with your name…

 

The contrast and dynamics are obvious almost immediately: the second stanza begins, instead of “come inside, slip into the worst,” with “come inside, slip into my dreams, the coma that I love where the world cannot be heard.” That kind of reversal is both surprising and exciting: the narrator is changing and growing throughout the song. The lyrics are clever but also metrical and interesting.

 

 

Perhaps the most surprising song for me on the record is the bouncy “All I Do Is Win.” I could easily dissect why it sounds and feels so good, but there’s really no point– this is one that’s better heard. I recommend playing it now. My favorite line is, “The river of the righteous don’t run deep/ not deep enough to drown me in,” but there are several stand outs: “You need an enemy to feel this good,” “I’m the left hand reaching for your gun/ I’m the right hand coming for your sons/ And all I ever do is win.” This is among the best written songs on the record and is one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in a long time.

 

 

I contributed to the PledgeMusic for this record a while back and got a bonus disk (which is awesome and full of fun covers) and the T-shirt. I’m especially glad, in retrospect, that I did. This is a record I’m happy to talk about and I hope the shirt starts conversations. This is one of the better pop records I’ve heard in a long time– and really, if there were justice, we’d all be listening to this on the radio.

 

FIND THE LUXURY ONLINE:

FACEBOOK :: TWITTER :: BANDCAMP :: WEBSITE

 

OR CATCH THEM AT BOSTON’S MAYFAIR FESTIVAL ON MAY 3RD!

 

 

NEW: Oldboy’s Shawn Brewster releases new EP as Shawn and Shelby

 

Shawn has an incredible sense for folk melody, but a few months ago when he started writing music that didn’t quite fit his “day job” at Oldboy, he began working with another member of the group, Shelby Sangdahl, to create a totally different atmosphere. The song below, “Hold on to Me,” is a perfect example of what you can find on the EP, Sleeping in a Spell: evocative cello, genuine vocal delivery that allows Brewster to connect with the audience, great lyrics, and more than anything, a strange space that seems to create room for the listener to dream and build on the music. Shawn & Shelby are doing my favorite thing folk music does: they are somehow evoking a nostalgia for a time that probably never really existed. Through this, though, the audience gets to time travel.

 

 

My favorite moment in the EP is the last section of “The Sound of You Breathing”– the song builds on itself until it finally feels like it will explode, but it’s a controlled explosion, one that reflects both joy and pure energy. When I talked to Shawn and mentioned it, he told me, unbelievably, that they’d done the whole thing in one take because they couldn’t imagine doing it any better. I can’t either– and while initially I was surprised, upon reflection, I wasn’t. This is the kind of magic that happens at a live show when a song unfolds right in front of you, and they’ve managed to capture that lightning and put it on the record.

 

 

While this is folk music, which means it is occasionally somber, the addition of the cello makes it feel distant and strangely lovely, almost like a ghost. Between that and Brewster’s straightforward lyrics and delivery, this EP is perfect for winter mornings where you are almost ready to open your eyes and be a part of the waking world, but your brain hasn’t quite warmed up to the idea. I absolutely recommend these songs for both office listening and driving while looking through a still-icy windshield.

 

FIND SHAWN & SHELBY ONLINE:

FACEBOOK :: BANDCAMP

 

FIND SHAWN & SHELBY ON TOUR

Dates:

SUFJAN STEVENS TOUR, NEW RECORD “Carrie & Lowell” (3/31, Asthmatic Kitty)

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.

 

PREORDER CARRIE & LOWELL HERE

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


RECOMMENDATION: Corin Ashley, “New Lion Terraces”

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.

 

Adam Duritz (wearing an old Pills shirt) watching Corin Ashley upstairs at the Bowery Electric

 

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
address unknown

 

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.

 

BUY NEW LION TERRACES FROM CORIN ASHLEY

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RECOMMENDATION: Daniel and the Lion, “East” and Live at the Bowery Electric (1/14)

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
reaching out
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:

 

storm child,
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.

 

IF YOU WANT TO BUY EAST OR FIND DANIEL AND THE LION ONLINE: BANDCAMP :: FACEBOOK :: TWITTER :: WEBSITE

 

HIGHLY RECOMMEND: Big Star Box Set, “Keep an Eye on the Sky”

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.

 

All the awesome things that come in the box, including a book full of pictures and four CDs

 

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 BUY KEEP AN EYE ON THE SKY, GO TO AMAZON

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

UPCOMING SHOW: The Animal Years, Brooklyn Bowl 11/28

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:

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RECOMMENDED: Robert Ellis, “The Lights from the Chemical Plant”

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:

FACEBOOK :: TWITTER :: WEBSITE

 

BUY THE RECORD:

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