I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking country music has adapted and grown so much that it’s all subgenres– it’s alt-country, or pop-country, or, perhaps most regrettably, country-rap. Maybe that’s one of the reasons The Far West stands out to me. This isn’t folk music with a country attitude, this isn’t rock music that incorporates a banjo: they have made a classic country record with the upcoming Any Day Now. From the first dark notes of “On the Road,” to the almost Flying Burrito Brothers-esque “Walk Light on this Poor Heart of Mine,” to the barroom catchiness and evocative keys of “Words from a Letter,” this may be the best country record I’ve heard in years.
Any Day Now was recorded in a vintage automobile restoration shop in southern California, and you can hear the influence in the music. There is certainly a classic, throw-back quality to the music itself, but there’s also a breeziness to it: usually, making a record this classic sounding feels a little more deliberate and calculated, which, of course, detracts from the overall feel. There is nothing calculated here: the band has written some great songs and come together to put them down in a very organic way. My favorite way it’s been described is that the garage provided “cavernous and ethereal qualities,” and I think that’s what is reflected in the music. It’s been given an appropriate amount of space.
Teaser for the album, telling the story of the recording and featuring some of the new tracks
The first song on the record, “On the Road,” starts with the intensity of traditional songs like “Shady Grove,” but sets a really strange setting immediately: “I can see the mountains out my window/ The Hollywood sign’s out there too.” That’s a perfect start to this record: the lyrics and songs speak to the eternal while living very much in the manufactured world the rest of us do. The songs are also very good at starting with vague images that allow the reader to assume the position of the narrator, and then getting very narrow and personal. My favorite lines in the song are:
From an airplane, from an airplane, everything looks small
When you’re down on the ground it don’t seem that way at all
Your life is fiction, baby, that’s a fact
Start down one road, then you double back
All my dreams ain’t mystery, each and every one is starring me
It’s a long, long, long dusty road
And we all, yeah, we all travel it alone
Tonally, the music is united: there’s a longing and a weariness that permeates the lyrics. But musically, the record branches out in some really interesting ways. “Walk Light on this Poor Heart” features some of the best mandolin I’ve heard in ages. I can’t even build up to that in a traditional writer way. I feel like I need to tell everyone I know that “Walk Light on this Poor Heart” has the best mandolin I’ve heard in ages. It actually makes me feel joyful, or more connected– I don’t know. It’s magical. This song seriously would have fit in on Gilded Palace of Sin– it’s well-written, it’s got the sobriety and gravity of a gospel song, but it’s got all of the pieces of a song that will stand the test of time.
The songs are memorable, too. “Words from a Letter” is the track that I can’t get out of my head. I love the way the story shifts a little from being what he has to apologize for to what she does– “All those nights you didn’t come home/ That’s all right, I was fine sleeping alone/ I guess I take the blame, driving you to him/ Must have been the result of something I did,” drips with righteous sarcasm and real regret, a dichotomy that is really moving in the context of such rambling music. Vocalist Lee Briante sings, “I don’t know why I even write these words from a letter I won’t send,” and I think acknowledging the sadness and disconnectedness makes it even more poignant. BUT– and this is what I like best about The Far West– if it wasn’t poignant, that would be fine. These songs sound so damn good. The guitar parts between lines feel almost like improvisation, but as if the guitar were another vocalist or an extension of the the vocals. It just feels alive and real, and the music would be enough on its own. (So would the lyrics.) The Far West is captivating both on a conscious and subconscious level: they sound good, they are thought-provoking, but most importantly, it feels good.
The Far West singing Guy Clark song, “That Old Time Feeling”: one of my favorite songwriters of all time, and a great cover
After a record with so many high points, the band winds down slowly with “Across the Bed,” which is one of the saddest songs I’ve known in a long time. I think it’s a perfect way to end the record: it’s a beautiful song about loneliness and longing, but it’s the pace that really makes this the perfect record ending song. Briante’s voice has a weird Josh Ritter-esque tone to it in this song (which, if you’ve read the blog before, you know is one of the highest compliments I could give a man). But it’s almost as if Any Day Now is a record about ghosts, and this song actually is one. The chorus is heartbreaking and speaks for itself:
We used to talk across the bed,
Now hardly anything’s said
Baby, you’re as good as dead
Baby, I’m as good as dead
But the real problem with reviewing a record like Any Day Now is that every song is deserving of a full write-up. Songs like “Hudson Valley” describe such a vivid setting that I feel nostalgic for the Hudson Valley– and I have never been there. Plus, the electric guitar gives the song a really interesting edge. “The Bright Side” has a momentum that reminds me of early Old 97′s. “Leonard” is a great story with an almost rockabilly flavor to it: a nuanced version of the classic gambler story. It’s also got some absolutely filthy brass that feels so good. The upbeat, “Oh, Love!” has some of the best backup vocals: they round out the song beautifully. One of my favorite moments on the disk is the sad, soft way Briante sings, “We were younger then, and we’re older now, but the wheel keeps moving with the plow/ Wheel keeps moving with the plow” on “Post and Beam.” There’s a light female vocal in the back of the track, and it gives it the feel of a ghost on the music. And the piano on “Wichita” is invigorating– not to mention the way the bridge makes my stomach sink and crave home. I just love this record, and I love every song. I’m a smart enough person to know you aren’t going to read 3000 words about why I love the Far West, though, so I’m doing my best to summarize my feelings, haha. Any Day Now is a perfect country-western record, and I have a hard time believing that any record collection wouldn’t be improved by having it in the rotation. This is sincere music.
FIND THE FAR WEST ONLINE:
Runaway Dorothy has been one of my favorite bands since I first stumbled on them on Twitter– which is a sentence my younger self would be completely baffled by, haha. Imagine my happy surprise yesterday morning when I opened my Noisetrade email (you should sign up for those, by the way) to find a Runaway Dorothy mixtape! Three new songs!
I’ll be reviewing the full record soon (and doing a giveaway, so stay posted…), but until then, get your RD fix at Noisetrade!
DOWNLOAD RUNAWAY DOROTHY’S MIX TAPE:
UPCOMING TOUR DATES:
I’ve asked my dad before if he’d write something for this website, because in all honesty, I get a lot of my taste– and suggestions for content– from him. I always look forward to emails with videos or song titles in them. He’ll email me if he hears a new Avett Brothers song, he’s stood up against the stage with me for an Old 97′s New Years Eve show at Sons of Hermann Hall… he took me to see Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the Coca-Cola Starplex.
So tonight, when I opened my email to find “My Favorite Picture of You” by Guy Clark, it sent me into a Guy Clark spiral. I spent the rest of the evening remembering other songs I loved, trying to see if I could remember how to play “L.A. Freeway,” and generally telling my husband that in my head and in my heart, Guy Clark always makes me think of my father. What a gorgeous song, and glad to be able to share some of the joy my dad’s musical suggestions and thoughts brings me. Thanks, Dad, for thinking of me when you hear something so beautiful. I’m going to use this gorgeous song as my dad’s contribution to KDR.
For the record– there may be better Guy Clark songs, but as far as my favorite– it is, and will always be, “Dublin Blues.”
RECOMMENDATION: Ocean Carolina, “All the Way Home” (Re-release forthcoming from Old Hand Records on 1/14)
This review has been a long time coming. In 2011, Ocean Carolina released a five song EP called Leave On. Those five songs have been on my playlists consistently since then. It always came back to lead vocalist Michael Simone: his voice has a longing and a softness to me that feels like the way you miss home when you leave and you know it’s for good. Simone’s vocals are full and warm. And the songs are beautiful.
All the Way Home is the fulfillment of the promise of that EP: alt-country in the vein of Neil Young’s best work, reminiscent of my favorite Jayhawks records, but some more pure, Outlaw country that reminds me of Waylon Jennings. It’s a record that feels at home between last year’s best releases, including my favorite record of the year, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern. It’s got the same catchy playability as my new favorite record, Tallahassee’s Old Ways. Featuring a ludicrously talented group of musicians, including Jon Graboff on pedal steel and Caitlyn Cary on vocals and violin, Ocean Carolina weaves all of the elements of country music in through a more expansive sound palate. Basically, Ocean Carolina’s All the Way Home is a nearly perfect record, especially in terms of music and tone, but also because of Simone’s tasteful songwriting. He chooses evocative phrases and then repeats them in meaningful ways, which is done especially well in the title track, “Don’t Break Your Promise.”
“Don’t Break Your Promise” live at the Bowery Electric
The first song on the record, “Don’t Break Your Promise,” starts slowly and methodically before sliding into an almost trance-like, “Don’t break your promise/ Need what you offer to me.” What makes Ocean Carolina stand out is their distinct parts and how well they go together. The lead guitar part (played brilliantly by Chris Buckle) is frantic underneath smooth, calm harmonica. Caitlyn Cary’s vocals (absent in the video above) are deep and warm, grounding Simone’s lead vocals. The drums shuffle like you’d expect in a country song, setting something steady in the midst of a song that otherwise sounds like waves cresting and falling. (My favorite part of the song is actually the way Cary’s vocals come in and meet Simone’s at “You’re killing me inside” and then falls back into the chorus.) Even the bass (Alex Cox) is notable: it adds a trippy element to the song. But what seems undeniably true to me about Ocean Carolina is that it doesn’t matter how different various elements may seem: the way the band puts those elements together works and creates something special.
“Radio Song” always makes me think of Smile-era Jayhawks. The pedal steel grounds it firmly in Americana, but otherwise, it’s got the same appeal as an Oasis song: catchy, well-built, and interesting lyrics and harmonies. I love the lyrics to this song:
Apologies and shame
These are a few of the things I think about on a Tuesday night
But then it’s real, come Wednesday
And nothing seems to change
The same excuses I use at night when you are around
Well, I’m tired of all the people I tried saving
And I’ve tried to be the hero after dawn
But the song I want to play you
Ain’t on the radio
So I’ll grab this here guitar and sing my own
I think this song exemplifies one of the best things about this record: if you are listening to it right, it is gorgeous. But it’s a good record to have on, even if you aren’t listening all the way. It’s a lilting, beautiful record. By the last track, “This Time,” it’s easy to be relaxed and lulled into the beauty of the songs, but like most of the other songs on the record, there are moments that pull me away from whatever I’m doing and force me to pay attention each time I listen. For me, this song rotates on the axis of its electric guitar solo. Until that point, it’s built in intensity slowly and deliberately, and the solo seems to release all that tension. I’m absolutely floored by how beautiful the record is.
I’d worked with Ocean Carolina before and Michael was kind enough to keep in touch– even when I fell off the grid. He sent me a copy of All the Way Home about a year ago, and I fell in love instantly, though was noticeably not writing much at the time. But a few months ago, another friend of mine emailed me to let me know they were re-releasing the record (a second chance for me as a blogger!) on his label, Old Hand records. So if you fall in love with this record the way I did, you can get a copy on vinyl next week– which is my preferred way of listening to any record I value. I don’t know about the science behind the sound, but I can say, it makes me a more deliberate listener, and I think All the Way Home deserves that kind of rapt attention.
I don’t do year-end lists. I never was good at narrowing down what I liked that way. For example, two people have asked me what my record of the year was, and I’ve given two different answers. I have a third candidate. I think said third candidate was actually released in 2012. This is why I’m bad at year-end lists– the restrictions make it difficult for me to express what I’m actually enjoying. And sometimes, I don’t even remember what was most important to me eight or nine months ago. That said? This year, if I’d put a list together, I would have included Briar Rabbit’s From Your Bones– a slight problem, because the record actually releases on January 21st. (Incidentally, The Kid’s ninth birthday!)
From Your Bones is a record that craves connection and understanding– not just from its audience, but from the narrator towards himself. From the first buoyant guitar notes of “So Long,” it’s an instantly catchy (and more than that, memorable) journey.
I’m not sure I’d go as far as to call From Your Bones a breakup album, but when it is working best, it’s addressing the fractures and cracks in important relationships. “So Long” (which reminds me of a much darker “We Are Going to be Friends” until the full band comes in) features lyrics like:
So sick of scannin’ every public place
For your face
Just in case you decide to show up unannounced
As if we mapped and divided up this town when it ended
This hell I propel has to end
So long, so long, so long…
It’s time that both your ghost and I move on
But the moment that links this song to the rest of the record– and really, that seeks a deeper connection with the listener– is the line, “There’s peace of mind/ Knowing somewhere in the city there’s a scar that matches mine”. The song itself goes through several movements, which is impressive, considering it’s under three minutes. From Your Bones exposes moments of self-reflection, but it seems to be refracted through a prism: there seems to be a lens that allows him to step outside of the narration and experience moments of beauty, even in the suffering. On a purely technical level, one of the most delightful things about a Briar Rabbit record is the wordplay and rhyme: he often features mid-line rhymes that connect otherwise unconnected lines, and sometimes rhymes
“Indian Summer” starts off brighter. The guitars immediately bleed into the slinky, bouncy feel of, well, an Indian summer. I think moments like this are why I’m having a hard time calling this a breakup record. It seems more like a section of a life: one in which there was disconnect, but where there are rewards and moments of joy, too. I love this song, and I think it’s the one I flip back to the most right now. It starts–
I’d given into fall, put all my shirts away
I made my preparation for hibernation
I made peace with getting cold, kept things so casual
Then in you come– Indian summer–
I guess that’s how this type of things goes
It reminds me of some older Barenaked Ladies type pop music– but that feels like a cheap comparison. It’s not exactly like BNL. It’s just that it’s been so long since I’ve heard such meticulously crafted pop music with equally thoughtful lyrics. This record sounds to me as though it could be Top 20 material– certainly up there with artists like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons (of course, minus the banjo)– but for whatever reason, it’s not. I guess the last time I felt that frustration was with Steven Page’s absolutely brilliant pop record Page One that, despite being well written and sounding gorgeous (like From Your Bones!), didn’t get radio airplay. I could go off on why that is, on how the music industry is broken from the inside by people lining their pockets (though less and less successfully), but really, this space would better be used to say– stop this madness! Recognize good pop music! Buy this record! Maybe we can get good music back on the radio. However, since that’s relatively unlikely, at least you’ll have From Your Bones on iPod.
Perhaps the most strikingly beautiful moment on this disk (though I’m having a hard time deciding) is the initially slow, soft to “Bad Blood,” wherein Briar Rabbit sings, “My love, she always talks/ But she don’t always use her lips/ Sometimes she talks with her hands/ Some nights, she talks with her hips.” This song really shows how beautifully Scales is working with levels: the guitar gradually becomes more and more noticeable while his voice stays soft and mellow. It adds to the impact of lines like, “So tell me where to go/ When the bad blood starts to flow.” That’s what makes moments where the band comes in all at once feel like a gut-punch. It’s what gives an edge of desperation to later lines like, “Taking it slow means that she runs the show/ And I sit in the dark ’til the curtain is closed.” It’s what makes the chorus line reversal– “Tell me where she goes/ When the bad blood starts the flow” have an impact. And really, this song is one where Scales’s voice is absolutely perfect: clear and strong where it needs to be, soft and composed where it can be. The distorted guitar solo in the middle gives it a cool dissonance, too. I love this song– and perhaps because it ties the whole record together with the heartbreaking, “All I got was a year and a handful of songs.”
I think the best way to listen to From Your Bones is to go straight through: as a listener, it almost feels as though you’ve progressed along with the narrator as the songs go, even though they aren’t necessarily connected. But if you can’t do that, I recommend listening to “So Long” and then flipping immediately to the last track, “Crooked Teeth,” because they bookend the record so nicely. “Crooked Teeth” has a phenomenal guitar solo– despite being simple, it’s punctuated with a plinking piano part that makes it soar and grounds it all at once. But what’s really remarkable is the movement in the song: waking up stuck, and making the decision to get up and leave. My heart breaks on the lines:
You’re just like me
You hate being wrong about anything
So we had to pretend this was something so grand
Our hearts and scars were part of a plan
We lied to you, we lied to me
From Your Bones is a record not about just one breakup, but about all the small heartbreaks of being a human being, and how to stitch those things back together into a human-shaped thing. Sonically, it’s gorgeous: the guitar tone is warm and inviting, and Scales knows how to write both an upbeat and a slower song. His voice is gorgeous: commanding and vulnerable, always clear and bright. But what’s most remarkable about this record is his absolutely phenomenal writing. I have no problem saying that this was one of the best albums of 2013– that I was listening to, anyway.
CMJ was a life-changing weekend for me in many ways, even if just as a book end– my life pre-CMJ looks nothing like my life now. Andy and I embarked on the adventure thinking that it would be a welcome retreat from the stresses of our “real” lives, but it seems to have empowered us to lead a slightly less “landlocked” life– in terms of friends and in terms of the way we see boundaries. Since leaving NYC, I completed my penultimate semester of grad school and put together a thesis; had three stories picked up for publication; gotten an interview with my alma mater and my favorite university for a full-time professor position; actually gotten said job; somehow gotten through the grading and chaos of finals week; found a perfect house for us after living in an apartment for nearly three years post-housefire; MOVED in the middle of this craziness!; and spent the holidays with Andy and The Kid in our new house, with the security and peace of a new job in the new year. Of course, I was sick for almost two weeks at the end of that…
I’ve always thought of this as my New Years Eve song, but rarely is it as appropriate as it is this year: Josh Ritter “Empty Hearts”
Of course, the blog has been neglected; almost everything not on that list in my life has, haha. (For example: friends, be on the lookout for Christmas cards sometime in February 2014!) But I didn’t want to end the year without posting my last CMJ post. I have some amazing records and reviews lined up for next year, as well as a few downloads and giveaways– but I wanted to remember the best part of 2013 today, especially.
First, I promised I’d share Mean Creek’s private session from The Garden when it went live with RSL– and it was worth the wait. Mean Creek is hyper adaptable and talented, and they shine in this new format.
I’m not sure there’s much for me to say here. You won’t find three more talented musicians; Chris’s vocals are both strong and vulnerable, which is a hard combination to pull off. I believe him when he says, “I won’t let the two of us down.” In fact, I feel like that line covers how I feel about Mean Creek: there’s this idea of covenant, and by listening, you get to be a part of it. There are few drummers out there who are as talented as Mikey (and he’s working on a new band, The Dazies, who are also great!). Also, like everyone else, I have a massive crush on Aurore. She’s responsible for the urgent tone in this song, and the guitar riff is instantly memorable. I’ve already covered how much I like Mean Creek, but still: can’t be overstated. One of the best up and coming bands out there right now.
Now– on to Saturday.
Saturday was one of the most exciting days for me because one of my favorite KDR bands, Runaway Dorothy, was going to play a set. I have only seen them live one time, and it was special circumstances– in 2012, I couldn’t get down to the Outlaw Roadshow at SXSW, so Runaway Dorothy made a special trip to Evansville on their way to Austin and played a solo set out in front of the University of Evansville. I only tell this story because it still makes me feel so damn cool. (Thanks guys, and thanks Nick for making it happen!) So getting to see them at the Bowery Electric was a completely different feeling. Imagine my surprise when they actually thanked me at the beginning of the show! Incredible moment, and one I’ll never forget.
I was only able to get a few seconds of video on my phone, but I want you to have some idea of how good they sound live–
Their harmonies are great, but what really makes Runaway Dorothy special is their pedal steel: it gives them a classic edge. Between that and Dave’s lyrics, it’s hard to think of a better alt-country band making music right now. One of my favorite things they do as a band is their brilliant cover of “This Train is Bound For Glory,” which always seems to get the audience involved. As usual, Evan’s baritone stole the show, but what I love is how no matter how large the room is, it makes the show feel like an intimate sing-along. I love Runaway Dorothy and had so much fun watching them. I’ll be happily covering their upcoming record, “The Wait,” when it comes out in February.
Somehow all of my pictures of Boom Forest turned out exactly like this: blurry and blue, with Roney above me like a ghost. I guess it’s obvious I was sitting on the floor for what was a really energetic set for him.
The next show I saw was J.P. Roney’s Boom Forest set, and it was probably the biggest surprise of the whole showcase. Roney has one of the clearest, most naturally beautiful voices I’ve heard in a long time, and this set brought me to tears several times. I’ve had a similar experience every time I’ve listened to his songs, especially “Baby Teeth,” and this song, “Wooden Heart.” I’m not sure there’s anyone who uses metaphor and simile better than he does, and his work is so intensely poetic I feel as though you can live inside it: he creates such vivid, intense worlds. When you are listening to Boom Forest correctly, you are completely submersed, and the only real life raft you have is his sweet voice. Incredible. I cannot overstate how great this music is.
Another thing that stood out was the incredible acapella song “No Lion,” which was seriously breathtaking: I actually felt like I was holding my breath through part of it. Roney sings with other vocalists from Foreign Fields; it is incredible. If you skip to minute 7 or so on this recording, you can hear that song sounding almost like it did at the Bowery Electric, but if I were you, I’d watch the whole thing straight through–
Then we saw the always-fantastic Golden Bloom again, as well as one of my new favorite bands, the delightfully gauzy pop of black books. Then we went back upstairs for a while and watched Oldboy, whose record Covered in Sound was in consistant rotation on my playlist last year. My favorite song of theirs is “Orchard Thieves,” which is both catchy and memorable. They’re a great up and coming band, and they had great stage presence as well. Shawn Brewster’s voice is perfect for the blend of pop and country music that will delight fans of The Lumineers and Mumford and Sons. This is a band to keep an eye on and one that I’ll write about at greater length soon.
<a href=”http://oldboycleveland.bandcamp.com/album/covered-in-sound” _mce_href=”http://oldboycleveland.bandcamp.com/album/covered-in-sound”>covered in sound by oldboy</a>
Next we had the distinct pleasure of watching Foreign Fields play downstairs. I’ve heard them compared to Bon Iver, partially because they’re also from Wisconsin and partially because of their sparse, evocative soundscapes, but if I’m honest, I love Foreign Fields and connect with them in a way I never could with Bon Iver (yes, even For Emma, Forever Ago). We immediately bought their record Anywhere But Where I Am and fell further in love with this band. The harmonies are striking, but so is the way they use levels to create songs that pull you in. I loved Foreign Fields before, but seeing them live cemented me as a super fan. It’s an almost sacred experience: the way they use music, it connects people. I loved Foreign Fields. Luckily for you, they recorded a One on One session in the Garden as well–
Finally, we saw The Field Effect. We missed a few sets, but we were lucky that all the ones we saw were incredible– and this was no different. After seeing Foreign Fields (and I don’t know, hearing “Field” twice and assuming they were similar bands?) I was shocked to hear the sounds coming out of this band. They are electrifying and so joyfully loud. I don’t think there could have been a more appropriate closing set: they were celebratory, they were rock, they were fun. And on some level, that’s what the Roadshow is all about. I’m grateful to have been invited to CMJ and to have had friends who made it possible for me to go, but more than all that, I’m grateful for the sense of community it gave me. I think I needed to get out of my very small world, even if only for a few days, and to celebrate, to be joyful, and yes, to rock. It changed my mindset. I’m proud, as always, to be an Outlaw, and happy that they had me along for the ride.
Check out The Field Effect here:
<a href=”http://thefieldeffect.bandcamp.com/album/cartography” _mce_href=”http://thefieldeffect.bandcamp.com/album/cartography”>Cartography by The Field Effect</a>
And finally, I feel like this sums up the way I felt for all of the sets, but especially the one I was watching: here’s a shot Andy got of me and Adam watching Boom Forest.
I’ve loved The Long Winters for years, but to be honest, I’d resigned myself to never seeing them live. I’m landlocked in southern Indiana, and as much as I’d love to do a west coast music tour, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll be able to plan around a potential show. I’d had the pleasure of working with John Roderick on the last issue of Measure where he contributed a poem, but I was fairly certain it would take a miracle to see them perform.
Imagine my shock when they announce a show while I’m in NYC. And because that wouldn’t have been enough to make my year, it’s going to be a full record show– they’re going to play When I Pretend to Fall (which is in a three-way tie for my favorite Long Winters record!)– AND– Sean Nelson was going to join the band again for the night.
I am not joking at all when I say I couldn’t sleep that night. I was awake, feeling lucky, wanting to remember how good miracles felt. I tried to memorize how amazing the whole announcement was– even in the present, I was trying to remember. I was all sorts of scattered.
But then I got tickets– and it was really happening.
Saturday was already a surreal day: I’d woken up to private sessions being filmed in the Garden, then I’d gone to the Roadshow and seen so many great bands. But perhaps the strangest part was when a friend of mine saw my Sean Nelson shirt, told me that they were friends, and that she’d text him and let him know we were coming to the show. Andy and I were so happy when she decided to join us. After recruiting her and Sean Hafferty , we made our way from the Bowery Electric to the Bowery Ballroom, and we waited for the show to start. (By then I’d changed into a respectable Jason Isbell shirt. I’m not one of “those” concertgoers. I mean, I’m certainly dorky enough, but I know the ‘rules,’ haha.)
When a band plays a record all the way through, there are very few surprises. That’s not why you go to a show like that. As it is, I can sing every line of When I Pretend to Fall in order. I knew what was coming and the anticipation still killed me. The show started, predictably, with “Blue Diamonds”– but with Roderick on keys. He and Nelson quickly switched “back” to the instruments I expected them to play– Roderick on guitar, Nelson on keyboards– but it was a pretty cool way to start the show.
This is video from the show, just to give an idea of the power and sound behind the band.
All of the songs were beautiful. The incredible way Roderick tilted the guitar into the amp created the strangest dissonant sounds at the end of “Blanket Hog,” somehow topping the sonic unrest of the studio version. (For the record, “Blanket Hog” has always been one of my favorite songs, even though it didn’t seem to be a band favorite.) ”Cinnamon” is ludicrously fun in concert; so is “Shapes,” which seems even more difficult to play and keep time on than I initially believed. It was so much fun to remember some of the great lyrics that get buried in a Long Winters song: so often, every line is so good that funny moments like, “You know karate now? From a show?/ When two of the raiders come,/ I’m counting on you to throw/ More than shapes.”
But what really made this show strikingly good was the back-and-forth between Nelson and Roderick. They’re phenomenal musicians, but also phenomenal showmen. So many of the songs had great stories that went along with them– including one where Roderick tells the Special Olympics committee it might be “ill-advised” to use the tune of his song “Stupid” in their commercial (*though they’d already done it). He also told a fantastic story about developing a crush on a girl at a record store, calling the store to talk to her, finding out she didn’t work there anymore– and continuing to call the store. He’s got an incredible sense of timing and seems to be able to tell stories almost from a third-person perspective about his own life– seeking out the humor and holding it until the right moment. I have never laughed so hard at a concert, especially not one with such beautiful, serious songs. (Though Nelson got some shots in, too: perhaps the best of which was singing “Save It For Later” over the chorus of “New Girl,” which cracked me up. To be fair, that was probably also the only chance I had of seeing any of the Harvey Danger guys cover that song live.)
The sound was incredible: it was one of those venues where it felt like the music filled the whole room, no spaces left untouched. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that we’d somehow worked our way to the front of the balcony with a perfect view of the stage.
Probably my favorite moment of the show (until we get to the encore, which I’m getting to!) was “Nora,” a song I’ve always loved, but for whatever reason, just really punched me in the gut that night. One of my favorite lyrics is buried in this song–
But she never says I love you
‘Til I say I love you
Like we’re exchanging hostages
The song already has this overwhelming drone to it: this incredible resigned sadness: and to see it live and loud was incredible. One of the most powerful moments I’ve had at a concert. Now, I’m not going to lie: I spent most of this concert cheering, singing, and maybe standing up and bouncing a little bit (a weird habit of mine); I was so, so excited. So when Roderick said, “We aren’t doing an encore, we’ve just played a full record,” I couldn’t even bring myself to be disappointed. But then he took the concert from being pretty great to being one of my top five concerts of all time:
He said, “About ten years ago, we were here with Death Cab and Nada Surf (*and yes, I did wish fervently to go back in time and attend that show, to no avail) and we got a horrible phone call.” And then he launched into one of my favorite Elliott Smith songs of all time, “Pictures of Me.”
I’d already been mourning Elliott (the ten year anniversary this year was hard for me, and I’m not sure exactly why), but to have them play “Pictures of Me” was a stunning tribute. First, I have a pretty hardline “don’t cover Elliott” rule, but they fit my caveats– “unless you’re going to do it close to note for note and with so much reverence.” I haven’t seen a video of it or anything, but I’m almost happy for that. It was one of those things that is seared into my memory as a perfect moment.
Then I met Sean Nelson– which was awesome. My friend introduced us, and he was kind enough to take a picture with me. I sometimes have a problem (how ludicrously dorky I am), but he was very cool about how dorky I was. (Thanks again for that, Sean. Easily one of the highlights of my NYC trip, and it was basically a highlight reel to begin with.)
After the show, we all met back up with the rest of the Outlaw crew, where Adam said I looked “geektastically happy.” I feel like that’s the best review of the show I can give you: I was so happy. The show was incredibly good technically, of course, but more than that, I was a happier person for getting to go. Wow. One of those concerts you never forget.
FIND THE LONG WINTERS ONLINE:
By Friday, I had realized a few things: first, I wasn’t going to see all of the bands I wanted to. It was just impossible. And second, the private, one-on-one sessions in the Garden were at least as good as the showcases, and probably the closest I’ve ever seen to anything bordering on ‘sacred.’ The weird hush that followed each song– necessary for filming purposes– only added to the feel of importance. The environment was beautiful and modern; the music was gorgeous; the company was great. It was absolute soul food.
Of course, here is where I bemoan that I didn’t write down everything that happened, in order. I know my memory can’t be trusted, but I was so in the moment, it was worth it. Some of my details may be a day or two off. I’ve already realized that I forgot to talk about the private Golden Bloom session on Thursday– so I’m moving my Golden Bloom discussion to today and calling it good. This may not all be factually accurate, but in terms of the emotions and feelings, it’s gospel.
It’s hard to get a shot of Black Books where Ross isn’t moving. He’s one of the most dynamic frontmen I’ve seen live in a long time.
One of the defining moments of the whole showcase for me was watching Black Books for the first time. Their live performance on Saturday at the Bowery Electric was powerful and moving, but something about watching them play these mesmerizing songs in a small room, in complete silence, gave them some kind of different life. The songs are full of strange rhythms and off-syncopated beats; they’ve got electronic sounds and traditional piano. Frontman Ross Gilfillan is captivating; he comes unglued in an electric setting, but in an acoustic one, it’s more like thunder in the distance. Meg, the pianist, handed us a CD while we watched Mean Creek play an individual session (another highlight). We listened to it all the way home. Their music has an other-worldly vibe– partially because of Gilfillan’s ability to jump from octave to octave while singing, partially because of the combination of manufactured electronic sounds and beautiful instrumentation– but I think partially just because this group has wildly good instincts for each other.
So proud these guys are Texan, y’all.
One of my favorite Roadshow bands, Mean Creek, stepped out of their comfort zone to do an unplugged one-on-one session as well. It beyond paid off. There aren’t any videos of it, yet, but you have to take my word for it when I say that it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen them put on– and I’ve never left a Mean Creek show feeling anything but energized and blown away. There’s a reason they’re a huge part of each Roadshow– they’re one of those bands that seems to have its own gravitational pull. In lieu of their one-on-one video, I’m going to post their new video (which may look familiar to anyone who watched music videos in the ’90s). I’ll be posting a private session when one goes live. You don’t want to miss it.
One of my favorite things about Mean Creek is how they filter their punk sensibilities through such melody and composition. I love punk music, but I love Mean Creek with a different part of my brain than I love most punk music. They’re one of the most versatile loud bands I know. Mikey is an INSANE drummer, Aurore is one of my favorite guitarists to watch, and Chris Keen has one of the most powerful voices in rock right now. It’s funny, because my guess is those of you who have seen Mean Creek will know I’m not exaggerating, and those of you who haven’t will be convinced I am. All you can do is listen for yourself, I guess. And see them live. It’s like baptism by fire.
Nakia also sat down to play a private session, seemingly impromptu. His show the night before was electrifying– bluesy and soul-filled. I’m not sure Nakia knows how to do anything without throwing his whole self into it, actually. He’s delightful company– so much fun to be around– and then he sits down at the piano and sounds like this. It’s hard to explain the transformation between the Nakia you just had dinner with and the guy who holds the whole room in the palm of his hand– because while they are the same guy, he’s got a pull that’s undeniable. (His band at the showcase was great, too– clearly a tight group of professional musicians. But this one-on-one… wow.)
Here’s Nakia’s “Dream Big,” which sounds to me like a classic song: it’s hard to believe this is so new. He’s a powerhouse, and it’s impressive to be in the same room while he creates the worlds in his songs. By the time he sings, “The human heart has no limit…” at the end, it’s impossible not to be caught up in the performance.
The showcase at the Bowery Electric that night was incredible, too. Tallahassee played again, and even though I already talked about them, it’s hard for me to not mention how incredibly talented these guys are. It seems like every time I listen to them, I like something I didn’t notice the last time– today, I keep listening to “I’ll Be Damned,” and having the strangest desire to move with it. I haven’t wanted to dance to something in what seems like a million years. Tallahassee. Just. Amazing. (Also guys, I’m sending a copy of Old Ways to my dad– which is the highest compliment I can give a band. My dad has incredible taste, and taught me basically everything I know.)
I also finally got to see Archie Powell and the Exports! I’ve been a fan of these guys since “Skip Work” a million years ago (a phrase that actually inspired one of the band members to give me koozies… haha, thanks guys! Using one as we speak). In fact, here’s my old review of Archie Powell & the Exports. I’ve got to revise it a little bit, though– oh my God, they are so good live. Powell himself is bombastic: I think I used the word “swagger” in an earlier review, but I had no idea. They are expert tunesmiths in the studio, and they’re able to weave detailed, melodic pop– but all bets are off once they hit the stage. They go off the rails in the most delightful way. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I do know that it was one of the best sets of the weekend. They were so good we immediately went outside to Archie’s van (announced in the creepiest way possible, guys, haha) and bought the LP. I recommend you check out “Crazy Pills” here– looks like it’s a free download.
Also, according to my camera, this was the night that Andy and I brought up our constant fight: the epic Sticky Fingers vs. Exile on Main Street battle! (There is a correct answer, and it is Sticky Fingers. Now you know.) Andy and I both thought Adam came down hard for Exile, so imagine my pleasant surprise when he said that he doesn’t think it’s a worse record than Exile. (I’m afraid he might have gone for the ACTUAL right answer, which are they are both perfect albums for different reasons, but I’ve dug my heels in here, guys. I’ll take ambivalence as a win.) Thanks Adam. Thanks Andy for capturing my glory on film.
I actually had to duck out of the Roadshow early this particular night (and miss Jesse Malin!) but it was all for a good cause. Next up in my Outlaw Roadshow recap will actually be my concert review of the Long Winters show that we caught down at the Bowery Ballroom. Spoiler alert: I loved it.
ALL ONE ON ONE VIDEOS WERE FILMED BY THE INCREDIBLE EHUD LAZIN FOR RYAN SPAULDING’S RSLBLOG.COM.
All Outlaw Roadshow art is done by incredible artist and friend Frank Germano of Man on Fire Designs.
Last week, I went to NYC for CMJ. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life convincing myself that it really happened, despite all of the proof that it very much existed. From the moment my husband and I caught the Amtrak in Ashland, KY (a city we’ve only known for its hospital, previously), everything seemed to become magical. We had a wonderful lunch on the train with a very kind couple who wound up being Joanna Newsom’s parents (we really enjoyed your company, Bill and Chris!)– which wound up being a pretty phenomenal beginning to a long, strange trip.
As a writer, I’m having a hard time knowing which details to include and which ones to leave out– I want to talk about everything from the train food to searching for Banksy art (we found it!). But as a music reviewer, I know that the experiences I had with bands and at the Outlaw Roadshow showcase are what you’re here to read. So I’ve decided to break this into a few posts: first, by day, I’d like to discuss the showcase itself; then I’ll also be devoting individual posts to a few bands and their records (black books, Daniel and the Lion, Tallahassee, Golden Bloom, one of my old favorites Runaway Dorothy, and maybe a few others). I also had the incredible fortune of getting tickets to the Long Winters show at the Bowery Ballroom, which was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. I’ll review it separately.
All right. No further adieu…
One of the most unreal moments of the trip for me: listening to Counting Crows rehearse before their club show at the Bowery Electric later that night. Photo Credit: Daniel Pingrey
The Roadshow is unique because Ryan and Adam have created an environment that not only encourages creativity through friendship and mutual admiration, but because all of the music that comes out of it is so ridiculously good. One of the first moments of the actual Roadshow, for me, was realizing that we were going to be watching filming for private Ryan’s Smashing Life sessions. Tallahassee came in early– usually not a productive time for a rock band– and blew us all away. I immediately fell in love with the swaying “Old Brown Shoes” and the incredible cadence and vocals in “Minor Blues IV.” In fact, their new record Old Ways was the first one we bought when we got home. I’ve already listened to it over and over. The electric guitarist, Scott Thompson, is one of the most interesting guitarists I’ve seen in a long time: he’s steady and consistent, sure, but he also knows when to put a face-melting solo into a song. I am surprised and delighted every time I listen to their songs. Vocalist Brian Barthelmes has one of the deepest, most comforting voices I’ve heard in a long time. But what really makes Tallahassee special is the harmonies. I am absolutely floored by how good this band is.
Here is one of the beautiful songs we were listening to in the Garden while Ehud Lazin filmed: Tallahassee “I Try” (originally from www.rslblog.com)
We also had the pleasure of seeing Daniel and the Lion play three times (four, if you count just hanging out after the show– probably my favorite version of “Don’t Let Me Down” I’ve ever heard, though my 4 a.m. memory may be fuzzy…). Monica from PHOX was there to sing with them, too– and my God, does she have a voice. I actually recorded one of their live sessions on my voice memos on my phone (sorry guys, it was “Free Love” and I’ve listened to it a hundred times, starting on the train home). I can’t begin to discuss how good the band was– though it’s hard for me to talk about the music without talking about what great guys they are. Here’s where it gets tricky to talk about the Roadshow: the music is so good, I want to run in the streets and hand out records. But the people I met somehow trump everything I heard. I don’t know how Ryan and Adam attract so many wonderful people to the same place, but it was incredible. Thanks again for adopting me into the Roadshow family.
If I hadn’t heard stories that Jimmy Linville had to train himself to sing, I would say that his voice is something other worldly– it seems to be so natural and so pure. He’s got an incredible range, and it’s perfect for the thoughtful music they make. His voice is just so effortlessly gorgeous. Andy became so obsessed with “No Ghost” that I’d say it became the song of the Roadshow for us. Incredible writing, incredible sound. Perhaps my favorite part of Daniel and the Lion, though, is the piano– I am a sucker for keys, and Daniel Pingrey is an incredible pianist. He seems to always know when to come in and play (sometimes even literally, just turning up at the piano when everyone was horsing around). They played a one-on-one session, the VIP show, and then downstairs at the Electric. I probably would have sat through three or four more shows of theirs, even with all the other good music that was going on.
Daniel and the Lion, “Death Head” // Originally published at www.rslblog.com, thanks to Ehud Lazin
The one-on-one Outlaw Roadshow sessions were so good, it was almost hard to leave and go down to the Bowery Electric, where the showcase was taking place. Once we got there, though, it was amazing: there were posters up from old punk shows and two stages set up, one larger one downstairs and one upstairs. Both stages featured shows I’ll never forget.
Thursday night, Fort Frances kicked off the roadshow. They’re a phenomenal band out of Chicago, and I was surprised by how good they sounded in the basement of a small club. David McMillin’s voice has a classic sound– it would have fit in with the singer/songwriter voices in the ’60s and ’70s. That said, the band knows how to adapt their sound (which is beautiful and melodic) to rouse a club crowd: their live set is rocking and electric. Fort Frances is a versatile band, and it was one hell of a way to start (“start”) the Roadshow. Here’s my favorite song of theirs, “Ghosts of California.”
Here’s another problem in recapping an Outlaw Roadshow– absolutely every band there is incredible in some way or another, but there are thirty of them all together, and eventually, that gets old. So what I’m going to do is write brief reviews of the ones that made my hair stand up or really did something spectacular. This doesn’t mean that the other bands weren’t great– they were. But often, bands played at the same time, or sometimes, I had to go get some fresh air, and I’m sure I missed some moments of magic. (Seriously, overwhelming trip.) Here are a few more of the bands that really blew me away that night:
The biggest surprise of the evening was the (difficult to spell and pronounce!) Evolfo Doofeht, which it winds up, is one of the best funk bands I’ve ever seen. It was thrilling to see such a huge band on such a small stage, especially one that brought so much brass. But what was more thrilling was, despite the fact that I was exhausted and had actually found one of the few seats in the place, I didn’t sit for a single song. I was completely overwhelmed by the saxophone. It was intoxicating.
Nakia also had a stunning set, but I’ll talk more about his in the Friday recap– his one-on-one session was incredible. Another standout of the evening was Toy Soldiers, who have one of the most unique sounds I’ve heard in some time. It was rock, it was Americana, and I think it might have also been rockabilly. I was captivated. They had complete command of the stage, and it was incredible to see such a young band hold a crowd in their hands like they did. What was even more surprising (and this was the case for many of the bands, but it seemed obvious with Toy Soldiers) was how many people in the audience knew every word and sang along. Don’t take my word for it, though– check out “Tell the Teller.”
By that time of the evening, it had leaked out that Sonic Cow Grunt (if you enlarge Frank’s poster above, you’ll see them listed) was actually the Counting Crows, and the concert was getting packed. I’d wanted to see a Counting Crows club gig since I was too young to get into a club (but old enough to pirate the old Shim Sham shows!). It didn’t disappoint. I know the Counting Crows need no review at this point in their career, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded that they are still one of the most impressive, most captivating bands of our time. Adam is still one of my all-time favorite frontmen, and my God. The new songs.
That’s right. New songs. We’ve all been waiting for this, and your wait has been rewarded with some of the best new songs I’ve heard in a long time. Any of us who were there have been singing the backup vocals to “Scarecrow” for a week. I’ve never had a hard time picking my favorite Counting Crows record (“all of them”), but it looks like the next one will be a perfect addition to an already perfect body of work. As usual, Charlie’s piano was gorgeous and well-placed– even in the songs they’re still working on, you can see where it’s going to work. It’s just incredible to watch masters work from so close.
This was the best shot I could get– as I am a very short woman and it was a very flat floor, haha.
All right. So that was Thursday. I’ll update with Friday and Saturday soon. Until then, check out these bands, fall in love the way I have, and I’ll bring you some new ones later this week.
I’ve been listening to (and reading) Cameron McGill for some time– in fact, he was one of my first choices for artists to contact when I edited my poetry journal recently. He’s a phenomenally adept writer, partially because he’s empathetic as a narrator– and partially because he seems to easily slip into different personas. His last record, “Is a Beast” (with his phenomenally titled band Cameron McGill and What Army) was brilliant and now, with distance from it, I can confirm that it absolutely is one of the most fully realized records I’ve heard in some time.
I really like that record, and I need to say that to make this point: Gallows Etiquette is Cameron McGill’s best record, which is stunning, because he’s made some really, really good records.
McGill is probably best known as a pianist for Margot and the Nuclear So-and-So’s, another inventive, exciting band. I’m going out on a limb to say that I think that McGill’s piano background is probably a big part of why Gallows Etiquette is so fleshed out and lush. The record is being compared to Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman, and I certainly see why: but the vocals have the depth (if not the deep tone) of a young Roy Orbison, and I think the horns and piano elevate this from a “great” record to one that I’ll be listening to for years to come.
Download “American Health Insurance”
One of the things I like best about McGill’s writing is that he has a knack for writing about the serious in a tongue-in-cheek voice. Probably the best example of that on this record is “American Health Insurance,” which starts out being exactly what you would expect–
I’ve got health insurance that only works if I die
But what if I live?
But ends in what I think is the natural conclusion of all that panicked living–
In their spare time looking for blood
Will they ever find?
How can I spare a pint
For a world that I don’t love?
McGill’s America is a scary place, but it’s also a scared place, and for that reason, it looks familiar to me right now. There’s casual violence and sex, which adds an ominous tone– “Matt and I were in Reno when the hills was on fire/ This trashy girl wanted sex, there was a fight/ He got a blue-black eye”– but again, it sounds familiar. By the time he asserts that folks on the street are too scared to talk to each other because what if the other is a rapist or a murderer, I’m floored– but understanding– of the portrait. As if the lyrics weren’t impressive enough, the song has a beautiful piano part and the chorus is surrounded by a deep, warm brass section. I love this song, but I love it with two different parts of my brain: the part that respects what it’s saying and loves the lyrics, and the part that tunes those same lyrics out to listen to the piano and horns. Rarely does a song work so well on both levels that I try to actively ignore things I like to focus on other things I like. This is almost a Nick Cave-esque observation (celebration?) of the darkness around us and our place in it. But there are moments of hope. I feel like it’s a pretty accurate portrayal of the America I keep seeing on the news. I couldn’t like it more.
But I guess that’s probably not a true statement, because it is not my favorite track on the record. My favorite track hasn’t been released for download, so what I’m going to do is put another great song here to stream/download, and I’m going to talk about the one I want to. Here’s “Sucker Love,” a perfect counterpoint to “Good Love” (which I’ll post later).
Download “Sucker Love”
And here’s a link to a stream of the whole record: do me a favor, finish this article, then go listen to “Athena fate isn’t very fair,” which is my new favorite song of the year.
I don’t remember the last time I was so arrested by a song: the character McGill creates is so palpable and real as to actually be alive and bewitching. The first few times I listened to this, I couldn’t get over the music– the heartrending piano runs and the swells and falls– I actually found myself moving and swaying to the song. I think the most vivid feeling I had when the song started was that of floating– almost the same way that Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot makes me feel like I’m floating. Out in nothing, but happy and peaceful. Then when the song breaks into music…
But now I have to talk about the lyrics. Because where the song breaks into music is an incredible moment. After McGill asserts, “She was well-versed in the impolite sciences/ of the body/ She said the dynasty starts here, / so does the–” then music– “party.” It’s incredible. It’s just broken so well. It’s hard to not physically feel better as that piano comes in. But here’s where the pathos of the vocals comes in– McGill’s voice is so heavy and laden with feeling, you know something worse is going on in the song. You know it! But the first… I would say ten or fifteen listens– I ignored as much of that as I could. The piano part is intense.
Then I listened deeply to the lyrics, and what do you know, I love the song even more now. An incredible depth. I want to just reprint the lyrics in whole, because every time I find a section I like, I want to give it the context of the lines around it: I am so blown away by how good this song is. But here’s a section that, to me, expresses the cavalier coolness of the woman and the insecure charm of the narrator–
We were hungry then, but I wanted to quit
In the heat, I felt for Reason
And handles on anything that would open to it
Athena, fate isn’t very fair,
I made so many sacrifices
You were there
Didn’t I love you?
Didn’t I love you, baby?
I tried to explain to her
I wasn’t sure about taking that much
She looked at me with sorrowful eyes, like a rescue boat
The song doesn’t end happily. I won’t spoil it though, because there is some incredible stuff happening with rhyme and tone and voice. And I would say the above is my favorite part of the song, but as I examine myself, I’m not sure why that is– is it because it’s just brilliant writing? Or because of the way McGill vocalizes it? Is it because it’s the part that feels the best to sing along with? (*Seriously, check out the internal meter and how good it feels to say, “Athena, fate isn’t very fair.”)
Download “Good Love”
This was one of the first times I’ve been stunned– just absolutely stunned– when the song ended in some time. I have been on a bit of a blog sabbatical (…there is no portmanteau for that combination that doesn’t sound ridiculous) and for some reason this record made me want to talk about music again. Cameron McGill’s Gallows Etiquette is a conversation starter. It’s engaging lyrically and musically. His vocals are better than ever. He’s looked around at his place in the world– as a man and as an American– and created ten little worlds that are so vivid that they are actually real. I’ve been blown away by Cameron’s writing before (so much so that “That Los Angeles Mouth,” another one I’d compare to Nick Cave in terms of tone and style, is actually published in that poetry journal I did last year), but this record is something special.
On top of all that? Funded through a Pledgemusic campaign. I am so impressed with this record.
You can buy the record on vinyl here, and that’s what I’d recommend you do.
FIND CAMERON MCGILL ONLINE:
FIND CAMERON MCGILL ON TOUR:
Cameron McGill On Tour
10.14 Schubas, Chicago, IL
10.19 Green Mill, Chicago, IL
10.28 Schubas, Chicago, IL
11.01 Kryptonite, Rockford, IL
11.02 Rigby, Madison, WI
11.07 Mike ‘N Molly’s,Champaign, IL
11.11 Schubas, Chicago, IL
11.23 Do 317 Lounge, Indianapolis, IN
11.25 Schubas, Chicago, IL