Friday, July 31, 2015

Have Gun Will Travel -- Science From an Easy Chair

So far I've seen a lot of surprise that Have Gun, Will Travel decided to do a concept album. While the subject -- Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Atlantic Mission -- is esoteric, I'm not surprised. The one song that still sticks with me from their previous release, Fiction, Fact or Folktale?, is "The Show Must Go On" about a failed actor who flies into a murderous rage. Matt Burke's flair for juxtaposing the epic with the seeming simplicity of a folk song makes Science From an Easy Chair the logical move.

The project was inspired by Burke's fiancee, who after hearing "True Believers" pointed out that the song reminded her of the Shackleton voyage. As if a seal broke, songs about the Shackleton voyage poured forth.

But I misspoke earlier when I said the album was about the Shackleton voyage. Sure, it's about leaving on the voyage, getting marooned in pack ice, wondering if you'll ever be rescued, and relief when you are, but that's not what this album or the songs are about.

A competent history teacher will teach you the facts of what happened. A good history teacher will help you understand the event's meaning in its greater context (as the opening track tells us, the voyage was launched just as World War I broke out -- so I guess this was missions was supposed to be British propaganda?) But a great history teacher will help you understand the greater lessons we can learn: the human drive for curiosity and glory, the interminable boredom of the voyage (the album is named for a book read aloud to the crew while they were stuck on the ice), fear, and the sense of accomplishment at meeting the most daring challenge there is, even if the mission itself never met its objective. (Modesty does not permit to say what kind of history teacher I am, though I know which one I'd like to be.) HGWT can take over my class any day.

I chose not to read about the voyage until after I had listened to the album a few times -- I wanted to hear the story through Burke first. So I can say that you don't need to know about what happened to enjoy the album. You don't even have to know that this is a concept album to enjoy it (though the instrumental interludes might seem strange otherwise.) Just as "True Believers" is about the drive to continue in the face of good sense, Science From an Easy Chair is about more than a century-old media spectacle (albeit a fascinating one.) That being said, I've added books about Shackleton to my list. Who says rock'n'roll rots your brain?

Have Gun, Will Travel -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from This Is American Music

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Bumper Jacksons -- Too Big World

It's 1:15 PM. I'm not dressed yet. I've been watching Steven Universe all morning and catching up on blog posts. But I feel classy AF because I'm listening to the new Bumper Jacksons album. The Bumper Jacksons' sophomore release is a massive showing: 16 songs at 3 minutes or longer, but the album never stalls.

Too Big World picks up where Sweet Mama, Sweet Daddy, Won't You Come In left off with easygoing early jazz-style swing tunes. The middle of the album, however, slows down with country ballads like "I Learned I Was Wrong" and "Trouble in Mind." The album's conclusion, "Hell is Hot" reminds us not to take ourselves so seriously and ends the party where it began. Too Big World feels like it could be an entire set at a show. With this album, Bumper Jacksons have easily established themselves as conquerors of early 20th century music. They glide between jazz, country, and an early rockabilly sound to do what music has always done: bring people together for a swingin' good time.

Bumper Jacksons -- Official, Facebook, Stream on Bandcamp, Purchase through official website

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Joanna Barbera -- FORGET

Yesterday I observed that there seem to be more folks in the alt-country scene returning to a more traditional country sound. Today, I'm going to talk about the fusion of my two musical loves: '90s alt-rock and alt-country.

If this is the first you've heard of Lilly Hiatt's debut album, Royal Blue, then you're probably not a music nerd. The daughter of famed singer-songwriter John Hiatt, Lilly's debut combines joyful rockabilly steel guitar with the pulsing, driving bassline of a grunge song. "Get This Right" is a wry depiction of being a 20-something. Hiatt's clear-eyed wit isn't just an inheritance from her father, but from a much larger tradition of music by salt-of-the-earth folks.

But Hiatt's not the only one bringing her childhood influences to fruition. I don't know if they know each other (probably not), but Joanna Barbera, who I saw perform in Nashville a few weeks ago, also knows how to pack that '90s blunt edge force into her songs.

When I saw her in Nashville she had arranged the songs to fit with acoustic instruments, which showcased her powerhouse vocals. The recordings, on the other hand, are a maelstrom of bass and distorted guitars that accentuate the themes of isolation, pain, and determination after leaving a destructive codependent relationship. There are lighter moments as well, like what I'm pretty sure is the only successful country song ever about Barbera's native New York City. (Even though I was in Nashville for 6 days, I was pretty homesick by the end of my stay. Nashville, you're the incubator for all of my favorite music but as a city you kind of suck.)

FORGET is the quintessential breakup album, but it offers other kinds of emotional sustenance as well. It's a solid effort and I look forward to more releases from both Hiatt and Barbera.

Joanne Barbera -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Monday, July 27, 2015

Jeremy Pinnell -- OH/KY

Today and tomorrow I'm going to write about what I'm seeing as emerging trends in this little pocket of music we love. First off, it seems to me this genre is mainly comprised of punk guys mellowing out and tempering their sound with folk and country influences. But there also seems to be a movement to return to straight-up country. One shining example of this is Robert Ellis (who made one of the most gorgeous albums of 2014), Cory Chisel, and Johnny Fritz forming a supergroup and going on tour. I saw them open for Langhorne Slim last Thursday and it was their second show. In a way I enjoyed their set more because it was less choreographed. Basically, they put down the sad bastard stuff and wrote some pure country songs. They had me grinning from ear to ear (and for some reason they have that rock with them on stage because...why not, I guess). They're so new they don't have a website yet, but here's some info on Ellis' Facebook page, and here's a video for one of their songs.

Jeremy Pinnell's debut is a more sober collection, but it falls in this category as well because it is a pure, unabashed country album. Pinnell has lived the stories he tells of drugs, alcoholism, and bitterness. He places himself comfortably in the outlaw country tradition (see "Outlaw Life") but he certainly doesn't share Luke Bryan's interpretation. According to OH/KY, the outlaw life is anything but fun.

As skilled as Pinnell's backing band is, the standout here is his voice. It's raspy from years of smoking and misuse -- I imagine from shouting into mics at punk and hardcore shows. And while you're waiting for Pinnell to break out into a strident anthem, instead he croons like the world's loneliest cowboy. More than the lyrics, it's Pinnell's separation of his more recent past and his musical roots that makes OH/KY a touching portrait of a man who's ready to face his fears and grow.

Jeremy Pinnell -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Gentlemen Rogues AND Kings

I can't resist a good strident punk tone, and the Gentlemen Rogues have that in abundance. But the Rogues have quite a few tricks up their sleeves. If I can mix metaphors, pop-punk isn't the only hat they wear, or even the best one. A History Repeating is fun to listen to because each song tackles a different genre. "Mocking Love Out of Nothing At All" hits you in the face, but "Cap in Hand" is an almost-folk almost-ballad. Both take on the themes of broken relationships, but one is a little more cool-headed than the other. The band's most inventive track is their cover of Erasure's "A Little Respect," which sounds like the hybrid of 60s pop and garage rock. The Gentlemen Rogues are hungry for greatness, and they've got the chops to get there.

Gentlemen Rogues -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from iTunes, Purchase CD from End Sounds

ALSO! One of my favorite bands, Kings, is finally recording their follow-up album and could use some help getting there! 

 Kings -- Official, Bandcamp

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Mavis Staples AND Charles Ellsworth

A few music tidbits for today. First of all, in case you missed it a while ago, Anti- Records artists Son Little and the legendary Mavis Staples have teamed up to create a nifty EP called Your Good Fortune. I was recently accosted by a guy on the subway who saw me carrying my bass. He claimed he filled in once with the Sex Pistols. When he saw my Squier imitation jazz bass, he pointed out that the 70s are coming back.

That's certainly true in the resurgence of certain R&B and funk artists among those Brooklyn kids lately -- Charles Bradley, George Clinton, and Wanda Jackson still perform. But I think Staples has been the most interesting in terms of picking collaborators. While Staples' work with Tweedy has produced some great gospel-like albums, her work on this EP allows her to stretch back into the soul category she conquered when she was younger. Staples' depth of experience brings Little's spare compositions to life. I hope there's a full album down the pipeline for the two of them -- they're a great match for each other.

Mavis Staples -- Official, Purchase from iTunes, Purchase from Anti- Records, Bandcamp

Secondly, if you haven't blown your music budget for the day, New York-based singer-songwriter Charles Ellsworth has started his own Not a Kickstarter to fund his next album. For $10 or more you can get his entire back catalog (33 excellent folk songs!) and help him make more music.

Ordinarily I'd embed the video/plea and while it's clever and it's worth your time, here are some examples of what your $10 will get you.

Charles Ellsworth -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Charles Ellsworth

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Honey Dewdrops -- Tangled Roots

To listen to the Honey Dewdrops' Tangled Roots, one would think they lead a somber and melancholy life. The opening track, "Same Old," captures the monotony of daily life and a hint of wanderlust. "Young," my favorite track, reflects upon what happens when all your friends start "growing up" around you, and the sense of isolation we share in the Internet age. "Loneliest Songs" seems to speak to the quandary of the folk singer: why are all of the best songs the sad ones?

Even though the songs are sad, there's an undeniable warmth and humanity that courses through them. The Honey Dewdrops are a married couple, but so are lots of folk duos. This couple in particular has a chemistry that is truly rare and magical. It's one thing for two people to harmonize well (see: The Civil Wars) but it's another to combine energies and lift the song higher in the process. In this respect, the Honey Dewdrops remind me of the Indigo Girls. It's not just the Dewdrops' respect for the source material that makes them special; it's the places they take it on the strength of their own artistry.

The Honey Dewdrops -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, Purchase from the Honey Dewdrops