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
I lived on the second or third floor of this house. One of the best decisions I made in Cincinnati was to photograph every room: it was gorgeous. It’s also the location of my “stabbing” story, if you haven’t heard that…
My memories of living in Cincinnati are all sepia-colored and cobwebbed: I have to really concentrate to bring any one memory into the focus. I remember my friends from work, Lauren and Justin– and I remember a few scattered things vividly: the men who lived on the next floor down at the Extended Stay America I stayed at for a few months, and how they yelled at the MMA fighters who catcalled me– I remember going downtown for sushi with one of my ex-boyfriend’s other ex-girlfriends. But when I take myself back in time to six summers ago, it’s almost always through a soundtrack: that summer, I bought Easy Tiger and The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter and Icky Thump and so many other perfect records.
So when I woke up the other night, “Postcard from Kentucky” playing so loudly in my mind that I would have sworn it was real, playing on our living room speaker, it didn’t surprise me that I’d been dreaming of Cincinnati, of crossing that bridge into Newport, KY late at night, of that long, lonely stretch of 71, listening to Votolato over and over.
Jack Daniels in one hand, Basic Light in the other
My two best friends for so long that I can’t even remember
Blood of Christ is dripping in to the eyes of the world again
On a horse that seems headless– no telling where we’ll go
Maybe my weird affection for Cincinnati was because it was my first time on my own, really– I’d moved twelve hours away from home to go to college, but I’d gone with a friend from high school, and it didn’t take long for me to have a very close-knit group of friends that lived on the same hall I did. But when I graduated a year early, I was suddenly away from home and directionless. My professors, Mike Carson and Margaret McMullan, had helped me find an opportunity at Writer’s Digest Books as an editorial intern. My boss had gone to UE– it just seemed like a perfect match. So even though I was 21, and even though I wasn’t really sure what I wanted, I packed my Toyota Corolla up, and my mother and I moved me into an Extended Stay in Blue Ash, a small, suburban, beautiful part of Cincinnati.
I loved the freedom, and I loved the fresh start– I loved that people constantly thought I was older than I was. But I had a weird kinetic energy. I had to stay moving. I hate to shop, usually, but I spent hours walking around the Kenwood Mall, just to walk. I developed sleep paralysis: I’d wake up in the night, completely unable to move, with some vivid (usually violent) hallucination across the room from me that wouldn’t disappear, no matter how hard I tried. After one particularly gruesome scene, I had to leave the hotel. I moved to East Walnut Hills: there was a beautiful house divided into apartments, and I was lucky to find a fully furnished floor. But I hadn’t really researched the area, and I found myself often falling asleep to the sound of police sirens. I was always lost.
Maybe you could turn it around
She said, “shut up, you’re crazy, you can’t go back in time,”
I know, but the rain, it haunts my mind
If you knew what it meant to keep your heart the same
I swear to God, you tried hard not to change
When I’d lived in Blue Ash, I used to drive down these winding roads until I was in, what felt like to me, a forest– no visible houses, steam and fog rising off the ground, sky covered in leaves and trees. I’d gotten a Paste sampler that had “Postcard from Kentucky” on it, and I’d been known to wander for hours, each time with that song on loop in the background. Something about the lines “If you knew what it meant to keep your heart the same/ I swear to God, you tried hard not to change” used to jump out at me, and even though I don’t think I understood it all the way, I knew it was going to mean something to me.
So when I woke up a few days ago, humming this song to myself, I remembered Cincinnati, but more than that, I remembered one very specific night: one night after I’d moved to East Walnut Hills, around 2 a.m., I was too restless to sleep. I was afraid to go outside, but I knew I needed to drive. And instead of driving thirty minutes across town, I decided to drive to Newport, across the bridge. I’d picked up The Brag and Cuss at Everybody’s Records a few days before, and though I grew to love the whole record, I was still stuck on “Postcard from Kentucky.”
Filling station, 2 a.m.
Filling out a postcard again
Laughing and remembering
When you say, “You’re lucky you’re still breathing”
I remember the sensation of being the only car on the bridge, and of how strange that first drop of rain on my windshield looked. I got to Newport and kept going, driving down 71 until I hit 64. I kept driving, listening to the song, haunted more every mile by the banjo. I drove all the way back to southern Indiana, even though I didn’t know why– and then I turned around. “Postcard from Kentucky” drove me home, but I still made it to work by 9.
I’d forgotten that I did that, but it’s funny in retrospect– that no matter how great the opportunity in Cincinnati was, no matter how much more interesting a city Cincinnati is, I was always drawn back towards Evansville. I’ve spent most of my adult life leaving and coming back to Evansville. And I think that song is, in some ways, my weird love song to the city: it’s not just a postcard from Kentucky, but a postcard from everywhere else I’ve tried to go.
Hell, I’m ready for what waits
Return my body to the leaves
With your ghost singing me to sleep
I can hear the melody sing
“Postcard from Kentucky” is a beautiful song, and it’s got layers both musically and lyrically. But for me, the song is about untangling the fears and uncertainties in my own life, facing the ghosts and the open road head on, and knowing that eventually, I’ll be ready for what waits. I know the song means more than that on so many levels, but still, when I hear it, I feel at peace. It’s a song that helped me become an adult, and it’s a song that stirs something in me every time I hear it.
FIND ROCKY VOTOLATO ONLINE:
Anyone who has read the blog for any amount of time knows that I’m landlocked in southern Indiana. It’s sometimes difficult for me to see the bands I write about and love without a six-hour round trip (or more), and it gets even harder with regional coastal acts. Every once in a while, I’ll get lucky and there’ll be an act from the area that is great (and usually moves to Nashville pretty quickly). Brick Briscoe is one of a few exceptions. I’ve seen him play several times, and he’s got a killer live band (especially his bassist, Eric Lee, who is some kind of prodigy). He’s got incredible timing and skill. I was thrilled when Brick contacted me to talk about his new record, but honestly, even after watching a promo video, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
My first listen to Point to the Horizon was straight through– and when it was over, I was stunned. The record has several loose threads that go in and out of each song, and the songwriting is top notch. Briscoe has a sense of humor, which is always refreshing, but he uses that sense of humor to a greater purpose: as a foil to the small, real tragedies in the songs. There’s a lot of hope on the disk, but there was more than one song where I had a physical reaction to something he’d said– usually because it twisted something inside me. With the blunt fury and power of the Mountain Goats’ vocals and the inventive, surprising, consistently top-notch music, Briscoe has put together one of the most impressive releases I’ve seen this year– made even more spectacular by the fact that, with a few exceptions, he plays all of the instruments on the record. In fact, I’d wager that if this were coming out of the West coast somewhere, we’d probably be seeing it on top ten lists.
I think part of the reason I keep addressing geography is that Briscoe addresses it in almost every song on the disk– different geographies, certainly, but all of the different feelings we have about our landscapes: the excitement of a new one, the feeling of a “good place,” and the meat hooks of a place that you’re chained to. This is most poignant, for me, in the title track, where during the bridge, Briscoe basically leaps out of the stereo to shout,
I’m sorry I moved us here
I’m sorry I stole your life
After a slinky, jazzy guitar and bass line, after Briscoe orients the reader with beautiful lines about hopping a boxcar or an imagined adventure– even specific places, like, “We’ll stand really tall, holding hands/ Facing north/ With the Rockies to our left, and the Great Plains everywhere else…”– it’s hard to be anything but jostled. I’ve tried to explain my reaction to it a few times and I keep coming back to the way I felt when I first heard good punk music: like it’s a beautiful sabotage. There is something seething in the corners of this song, but it’s honest, and it’s raw, and it’s loud, and it’s powerful… I love this song. And I love that it’s the titular track. I think it’s the fixed axis on which the rest of the album rotates.
My favorite song on the record is “Go Away a Go Go,” which fades in on an echo-y guitar solo and then seems to autofocus on the lyrics:
You tie me to this place
When you leave me now, I’ll be lost
Who’s gonna lock the door?
You tie me to this place
Why we’re here, I can’t remember…
There’s a great crunchy guitar solo that drives through the song, and between that and the repeated line, “You tie me to this place,” the song slinks its way into your brain. Every line in the song is good– Briscoe’s haunted delivery elevates the track to great. There are great high backup vocals that seem to add to the chaos: just a phenomenal, stand-out song.
I also love “Pittsburgh-Hampton Inn,” which is a much softer song than the first two: I saw Briscoe talking about the track and explaining that he wrote it after watching a friend go through a painful divorce. It’s incredible to me to think there was that much separation in the writing process: it’s so honest and painful that it feels like it has to be confessional. The music is relatively simple: acoustic guitar. But the lyrics, again, are extraordinary:
What you said last night
Damn near ruined my life
For a minute, I stepped out
Sad when this happens to friends
But this is me, I wonder
What they’re saying now
So there goes Pittsburgh…
Don’t worry about those long weekends on the hill
They meant more to me than you’ll ever know
Why didn’t you just ask me if I was OK?
OK, why didn’t I ask you?
I actually just stopped writing this review to read this section out loud to Andy. We’ve both heard the song– we listened together the first time. But the lines are so straightforward, so simple on the surface, that you almost have to slow down and read it to yourself and really process what’s happening. I realized as I was reading this, I actually got a lump in my throat. This is an incredible in-depth look at how division works. It’s hard to explain how stunning this is. You are just going to have to buy the record.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some incredible, soaring moments of hope. I love “Mass Turnpike T-Shirt” where Briscoe asserts,
He’s followed his instincts all of his life… (*incredible guitar riff after each line here, by the way)
If there’s any justice, he’ll make the connection between this moment
And every second of the last eighteen thousand days…
This looks like a good town, this looks like a good town, this looks like a good town
There are also some laugh-out-loud moments– “Sacramento” cracked me up a couple of times. (I’ve only been to Sacramento once, and it was for one of the best nights of my life… and even so, I can totally see the Sacramento Briscoe describes.)
Every song on the record is worth listening to on repeat– really, preferably in the order Briscoe laid out. This is an incredibly well-thought out record, but more than that, it’s an incredibly well-felt out record. I’m floored at the technical prowess here, but also at the genuine connections made, not just throughout the disk, but with Briscoe and the listener. It’s a stunning record, and one I’m thrilled to be able to write about and share with you.
FIND BRICK BRISCOE ONLINE:
AND SOUTHERN INDIANA: DON’T MISS HIS RECORD RELEASE SHOW–
FRIDAY, August 16th at CHERRYGHOST COFFEE HOUSE in WASHINGTON, IN
The Olms’s self-titled debut snuck up on me. I’ve always loved Pete Yorn, and I now also love J.D. King, but I didn’t expect the record to completely take over my brain the way it did. And technically, it makes sense that it did: ten songs, not a single one over four minutes, alternating vocalists and tones. The songs all have a degree of classic pop to them, which is to say they are exceptionally catchy. But I think The Olms succeed on more levels than just that of the pleasant summer disk: this record has staying power.
My favorite song is the second track, “Someone Else’s Girl.” Sung by Pete Yorn, it tells the (slightly implausible) story of a man who watches ‘someone else’s girl’ from a distance until that ‘someone else’ suddenly gets married. It reminds me of songs like, “Take Good Care of My Baby,” and “This Diamond Ring”– songs I’d consider classic summer pop songs. It’s got the same simple-yet-strange approach to the romantic situation. But it sounds so good, and the lyrics are fun:
I heard today he ran away
And married someone else
I bumped into her on the street
And told her how I felt
Now every time I catch her eye
I never look away…
I’m with someone else’s girl
One of my favorite things about the song, though, is King’s backing vocals. The “ba-ba ba-ba” behind the vocals makes the recording feel lush and fresh. I can’t stop listening to it on repeat.
Probably the most interesting music on the record is “Wanna Feel It,” which opens with some really cool electronic effects. It’s otherwise a pretty straightforward pop song– at least on the surface. However, it’s hard to sing along with the lyrics, “I want to feel it/ I want to feel it, too,” without realizing there’s a slightly darker undertone to the song. There’s a lot of hopelessness and numbness in this song, masked brilliantly by the music and the tone. I love songs that have more going on underneath the surface, and this certainly is that.
But Yorn and King are nothing if not exploratory, and they work in a variety of sounds and tones: there are songs like “She Said No,” which is a straightforward murder ballad (which I was able to sense before the lyrics even came in: it’s such an obvious murder ballad. Straight up Americana, and I love it). There are songs like the lingering “A Bottle of Wine, Etc.” which seems filtered through the barroom air of a honky tonk. But the album opener, “On the Line,” does a pretty good job establishing all of the different styles they’re working in: it’s got the jangling, rambling tone of Cosmic American Music, but it’s got Kinks-esque harmonies and some beautiful pop sensibilities (especially towards the chorus). King sing-talks through the verses, and while I’m glad the whole record isn’t that way, I really like it on this track: it’s breezy and open, but it’s also essential in setting the tone for the record.
I have a feeling that The Olms is going to be more than just a one-off– these musicians work too well together to waste the partnership. They complement each other so well. King seems to bring a narrative sensibility to the record that makes it seem less like a normal Pete Yorn record– Yorn brings his insane ear for instrumentation and vocals. It’s a great match. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let the CD turn over and listened to it from top to bottom, over and over. I’m looking forward to it scoring the rest of the summer.
FIND THE OLMS (AND PETE YORN AND J.D. KING) ONLINE:
I’ve read so many hyperbolic reviews of Jason Isbell’s masterpiece Southeastern that I think, were I unaware of him, I would have to doubt them: he’s gained a momentum that’s uncommon for smart, thoughtful songwriters. But of course, I am aware of Jason Isbell: more than aware. His music has been a close companion to me for some time, and it seems like with every record, he becomes a little more lyrically incisive and musically intuitive. Southeastern is, in my opinion, the kind of record that defines a man: I think this is the point in Isbell’s career that music lovers will look back on and recognize as the moment he cemented his place as a writer. This is Townes Van Zandt level good. This is Guy Clark good. This is John Hiatt good. Isbell’s always had it in him (and I think written several songs a record that prove it), but every single track on Southeastern is thought-provoking, interesting, empathetic, and moving. A truly perfect record.
The record starts with “Cover Me Up,” which sounds like a country-tinged Beatles song. It’s got the deliberation and sweetness of “Norwegian Wood,” but with lines that are so personal they are almost hard to listen to. There are moments in this song (and throughout the rest of the record) where I almost want to look away or turn completely inward because the lyrics are so raw: this is one of the most honest love songs I’ve ever heard, and I’m still blown away every time I start the record. It’s rare that a chorus is as good as the verses, but this is one of those exceptions:
So girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain’t leaving this room
Until someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up, and know you’re enough to use me for good
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this record without talking about Isbell’s sobriety. He’s quit drinking, it seems like he’s replaced all the bad habits with reflection: he’s married and clearly in love, and he’s looking at the man he used to be with a sharp, honest eye. Lines like, “I put your faith to the test/ When I tore off your dress/ In Richmond, all high/ I sobered up, and I swore off that stuff/ Forever this time” are almost impossible to view through the lens of a fictional narrator. Again, it’s too raw. Isbell has written one of the bravest records I’ve ever heard: it’s hard to pair lines like the above with the earnest declarations of love like the beautiful, “But I made it through/ ‘cos somebody knew/ I was meant for someone.” I spent one whole day refreshing this song when Paste posted it before the record came out– I must have played it fifty or sixty times. And I just wanted to incorporate it into myself. I want to write honest and true like he does.
So by the time my preorder LP came, I was prepared for that to be my favorite song. Of course, that’s a little short-sighted– if you’ve only heard one song on a record, of course it’s your favorite. But I’m not even sure it’s my favorite song on Side A. (My actual favorite is “whichever song is playing, because all of the songs on this record are my favorite”.) I think the song that’s probably blown people away the most is the touching “Elephant”–
This song is the story of a man and a woman, maybe almost-lovers, but definitely friends, navigating through the woman’s cancer diagnosis (the ‘elephant’ in the title). Isbell defines both characters as people who lead normal lives– there’s nothing elevated or elegiac about either character, which seems to make them both so much more worthy of empathy. They are relatable and interesting, and more than that, they are so truthful and heartbreaking:
She said, “Andy, you crack me up,”
Seagrams in a coffee cup,
Sharecropper eyes and her hair almost gone
When she was drunk, she made cancer jokes
She made up her own doctor’s notes
Surrounded by her family, I saw she was dying alone
I’d sing her classic country songs
and she’d get high and sing along
She don’t have much voice to sing with now
The stark details are bone-chilling, and Isbell’s straightforward delivery carries the listener through the song. I’m invested in these people, and even though I know what’s coming, I keep hoping it won’t. The last line– “No one dies with dignity/ We just try to ignore the elephant somehow,” is a line that echoes. I’m not sure I even understand all the ways it resonates with me right now, but I know it is true in the same way that you see a beautiful landscape and know it is true: there is something undeniable about “Elephant.”
I think my favorite song musically is the triumphant “Songs that She Sang in the Shower.” It’s a song about coming to terms with loss, but my God, when he comes into that chorus and sings, “And the songs that she sang in the shower/ Are stuck in my head,” it is transcendent. I haven’t listened to it yet where it didn’t make me smile involuntarily, even though there is quite a bit of sorrow in this song. It’s a weird, nostalgic sorrow– which is always tinged with some kind of happiness. One of those double-edged swords.
I think part of what is effective about this song is the rhythm he establishes early on– two short lines followed by a longer one– and the way the music plays into that. It’s a stunning sound; it’s rolling and peaceful and beautiful. Also, I’m not sure there’s a better first line than, “On a lark/ On a whim/ I said, “There’s two kinds of men in this world, and you’re neither of them.”
Of course, these songs all sound good. A lot of them are pared back and focused, driven in a brave, stripped way. They really emphasize the content, and they score it perfectly. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the hard-rocking “Super 8,” the familiar/tragic rock story about musicians who overdose in motels. Hard to ignore, the song actually starts with Isbell’s drawl, “Don’t wanna die/ In a Super 8 Motel,” and though there is a dark sense of humor here, it’s hard to forget that the narrative of a musician dying in a cheap hotel room is one that has played out in real life. But it’s also catchy and memorable: this song has the barroom feel of earlier Isbell songs like “Brand New Kind of Actress,” and, if for whatever reason you were doubting his amazing capacity to be like a country-Van-Halen, this song will renew your faith. Isbell, to be blunt, rocks.
Overall, this record is made up of the most wonderful musical dualities: it is delicate, but the songs (and the writer) are strong; it is beautiful, but it looks boldly at the ugliness and hurt in the world; it is crushing, it is uplifting; it is intense, and yet, it is easy to listen to and love. I think Southeastern speaks to me less as a record, and more like it is a new person in my life– but one who is open, vulnerable, and honest. There are no games, no moments of sleight-of-hand on Southeastern. Every single song is brutally true– and for that reason, incredibly lovely.
FIND JASON ISBELL ONLINE:
About a year ago, a critic remarked that since The Far West’s last record is several years old, their new one is expected “any day now”. A year later– after recording, I kid you not, in a vintage hot rod shop– here’s the first teaser from the record, named after that expectation. I can’t wait for Any Day Now. I’m a huge fan of their almost-old-school sound, despite the fact that they don’t sing about “old school” topics (“We’re not going to write about hangings or robbing trains”). There’s a lot of movement here, even just in the tracks being teased. I love the footage of their recording, I love the interview (and the phrase “museum-quality Americana”), and more than anything, I love their music. Glad to see these guys releasing new stuff!
FIND THE FAR WEST ONLINE
I’ve had a weird love/hate relationship with my radio lately. I teach from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. this summer, which means I’m always driving to work during the 9 ‘o clock hour. Lucky for me, a local radio station has a “90s at 9″ feature, and as much as I’d love to pretend my tastes are more varied and diverse than that (and they are!), I have enjoyed having “my” radio back. I grew up with 90s radio, and I loved it. And this station is playing interesting deeper cuts– “Heartspark Dollarsign” instead of “Father of Mine,” etc. I enjoy it so much. I’ve gotten to where I actively look forward to it every day, getting in my car a little earlier each morning to see what they’re going to play.
Every once in a while, I’ll hear a song that I only vaguely recognize– it’s somewhere deep in my subconscious, but I can’t actively put a memory to the song. The beauty of that is that some of these songs– from a genre and time I love– are brand new to me again. The best example of that is The Eels, “Novocaine for the Soul.”
I don’t even know where to begin with what I like about this song. I love the change in tempo after the first few lines. I love how Mark Oliver Everett’s voice changes and adapts throughout the song. I love the provocative lyrics– “Jesus and his lawyer/ Are coming back,” etc. I love the orchestration. I love the long pause– every single time I’ve played and re-played the song, I catch myself physically moving my head in anticipation of the music slamming back on. I love how beautiful the song is, I love how muted it is, I love the tone. I just love everything, and I’ve been listening to it non-stop since the 90s at 9 last Friday.
Anyone else re-discovering a song? Discovering an older song for the first time? I can’t stop listening to it and I can’t wait to delve into the whole Eels catalogue (something that’s been a long time coming, if I’m honest… I’ve always loved songs like “I Need Some Sleep” and “Beautiful Freak”).
Also, on a personal note, if you’re in the market for a literary journal, check out Midwestern Gothic– I have a poem, “An Offering,” coming out in Issue 10.