Album review: Gringo Star takes two steps forward, one step back on ‘Count Yer Lucky Stars’

Gringo Star
“Count Yer Lucky Stars”
Gigantic Music

Young bands have latched on to retro rock with such increasing eagerness that it’s only a matter of time before some rock critic coins a hip, catchy term that will blur all nuance with a stroke of the pen (Fuzzcore? Modwave?).

A prominent subgroup of these bands — which includes Those Darlins, Times New Viking, Wavves and Harlem, among others — has taken to reupholstering garage textures with varying degrees of originality and success.

Atlanta’s Gringo Star is part of what may be the largest regional scene fostering this trend, sharing it with mainstays the Black Lips as well as burgeoning talents like Turf War and the Booze. On their second release, “Count Yer Lucky Stars,” the quartet makes strong arguments both for and against the viability of their approach.

At the outset, “Count Yer Lucky Stars” shakes and stomps with eerie, monstrous hooks, adjectives which should be taken quite literally. In my imagination, the video for lead single and opening track, “Shadows,” is a haunted house party. Hipsters rock out with Frankenstein, Dracula, a mummy and Drunk Hulk, each with a cheap tallboy in hand. The riffs, often ridiculously simple, weave and lurch in half time with dark and syrupy surprises around each corner.

Four of the first five album tracks carry a similar aesthetic. (The slacker romp “Beatnik Angel Georgie” is the only exception.) They’re cocktails of garage swagger and minor key raucousness: One part the Sonics, one part the Cramps, shake and serve over ice. On these cuts the band steers straight where others swerve unnecessarily. They make no ineffectual gestures toward lo-fi production, no effort to stretch the brief tunes longer than is needed. Even handclaps and banal lyrics can’t sink them. You find yourself with the urge to clap along while the singer delivers his lines with a deftness that makes the words mere shapes, colored by his desperation.

But somewhere along the line this approach fails. Too often the elementary melodies are laid painfully bare, usually because guitars echo each other too closely while drums do little more than toe the line. At other moments, overwhelming predictability fails to direct attention away from cringe-worthy cut and paste lyrics, and the entire house made of garage popsicle sticks crumbles. The second half of the record would be entirely forgettable were it not for the lovely and wistful southern shuffle “Light in the Sky.”

There is no fault in reconstituting the primeval paradigms of rock. Many bands, including Gringo Star, are capable of doing it exceptionally well. But when we know how the story ends the plot has to be all the more interesting. Though their approach is most often to hew close to their influences, Gringo Star is at its best when it looks back with a wink and a nod.

Gringo Star – Shadow (Count Yer Lucky Stars) by Gigantic Music

Concert review and setlist: Mike Doughty with Moon Hooch and MC Frontalot cover all the bases at Old Rock House, Saturday, October 29

The Old Rock House‘s Twitter feed advertised last night’s Mike Doughty show as a cure for St. Louis’ World Series hangover. What it actually provided was humor, a little good-natured snark and advocation of Internet piracy in the name of music appreciation.

First opener MC Frontalot introduced himself as a “nerdcore rapper from Brooklyn,” and admittedly, this kind of thing sets off all sorts of alarms in my brain. First, there’s the -core suffix, something I don’t always understand to the point of wishing that someone out there would take the initiative to make a chart of all known -cores. Second, there’s the nerd/rapper contradiction, something that’s about as appealing to me as a record store employee who describes a certain kind of heavy metal as “um, kind of mathematical?” Third, the Brooklyn qualifier, a giant red flashing sign of hipper-than-thou status and ironical references.

But these are my problems, and they are easily disposed of when an artist has a sense of humor like MC Frontalot’s. His first song was “First World Problems,” which include misplacing the Ambien, scheduling a root canal, and catching herpes from a celebutante. A later song was “Braggadocio,” in which MC Frontalot admitted to taking liberties with the word in order to rhyme it with “Ralph Macchio.” He advised the crowd that while they could look to him for their nerdery needs, he was not to be relied upon for Italian language pronunciation.

This wry self-awareness combined with a short-sleeved Oxford and checkered tie create a whip-smart Bill Lumberg sort of character who, in “This Old Man,” freely concedes that perhaps he’s too old to prance around onstage as a rapper. His crisis of confidence was bolstered by meaty soul-derived bass and synth instrumentals. If all nerdcore was this funky, maybe I wouldn’t be so afraid of graphing calculators. MC Frontalot closed with the Halloween-appropriate “Goth Girls,” a spook house organ-filled screed about being too afraid to hit on female fans of “horror movies and mope rock.”

Moon Hooch‘s inclusion on the bill was a clear concession to Mike Doughty’s diverse tastes. While MC Frontalot was wordy and enjoyably ironic, Moon Hooch was a 3-piece instrumental jazz ensemble who took the stage playing a saxophone, drums and an octocontrabass clarinet, which, in case you were wondering, was exactly as sexy as it sounds (ahem, very). It was a weird and wonderful experiment of technically skillful jazz and analog house music. So analog, in fact, that at one point, tenor saxophonist (and previously-mentioned octocontrabass clarinetist) Wenzl McGowen stuck a custom-fitted cardboard packing tube into his sax to create a sound I can only describe as a didgeridoo imitating the wreck of the Titanic. Matched with Mike Wilbur’s rapid fire, sometimes screaming sax and James Muschler’s quick, affable drums, Moon Hooch played like the house band for a less goth branch of the Addams Family.

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Singing & Songwriting: Kristofferson & Haggard /

Part 1

What is it about Merle Haggard? He’s lived the hard life like the rest of them hasn’t he? How has the quality of his voice remained a constant when so many others have lost their chops? Charlie Louvin, George Jones . . . It’s hard to listen to the greats when they aren’t so great anymore but it is truly wonderful to still hear someone who’s still got “it” like Merle Haggard.

I only started listening to Merle Haggard in my twenties. Growing up in the Northeast I had a pretty strong prejudice against country music. I knew no one who listened to it and I had that knee-jerk reaction to all things Southern (thinking of course that country music only came from the South and that the South was filled with racists). But luckily for me, I ended up marrying a southerner who opened up a whole new rich world both geographically and culturally to me, erasing my uneducated assumptions. I also came to the sad realization that where I grew up — Southern New Jersey — was just about as “southern” as they come — scary racism with an active KKK presence and with no great musical heritage (Bruce Springsteen does not count in this context!).

My introduction to Merle Haggard came through a friend who grew up in the Central Vally of California near Bakersfield, home to Haggard and Buck Owens. When I first saw Haggard play live in Chicago in the mid-1990s I was stunned to see an “old man” walk on stage — I was so used to seeing his youthful face on the album covers. I was sure that this was just going to be one of those shows where you come to see one of the masters but don’t expect much of a performance. However, when he began to sing I was awestruck by the fact that he sounded virtually the same as he did thirty years ago. And now, at the age of 74 he is still a vibrant singer and still writing pretty darn good songs.

He is a consummate performer: a great songwriter, singer and musician. He also has an entertaining stage presence although his skills as a comedian pale next to his musicianship. His catalog is rich with many great songs even when his politics were a little distracting. He is truly one of the greats not just in the world of country music but in the history of popular music. I would put his singing right up there with the likes of Frank Sinatra — both of whom can turn a phrase and make you think twice about a line.

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Concert review: Drive-By Truckers and Those Darlins go deep at the Pageant, Friday, October 28

Drive-By Truckers at the Pageant, October 28, 2011

Nate Burrell

Imagine being in a traveling band and staring down the prospect of trying to play a rock show in a town on the night said burg’s baseball team is playing in Game 7 of the World’s Series, at home, no less.

A nightmare scenario to be sure, and it’s what Drive-By Truckers and support act Those Darlins faced last night at the Pageant.

Lesser bands would’ve gotten their manager to reschedule, or just resigned themselves to a shit show and gone through the paces so they could get back on the bus and put that town behind them but quick. But Drive By Truckers hunkered down, got a lay of the land, adjusted their sights a bit and then opened up with both barrels.

The band pushed back its set to 10:30 p.m., a likely time for Game 7 to end, giving a full hour after Those Darlins’ set for fans to watch the game on several TVs and a giant movie screen hanging over the stage before DBTs took the stage. Luckily for them, there wasn’t a repeat of Game 6 extra-innings shenanigans, the Cards won right on time and the rock commenced in a timely fashion.

The DBTs’ setlist was a bit of a puzzle. The band was a full seven songs in before they played a track from their latest record, “Go-Go Boots” — the desperate, atmospheric “Used To Be A Cop.” Earlier this week it was announced that singer/guitarist Patterson Hood’s great uncle, George A. Johnson, who figured prominently in several DBTs songs, like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” passed away, yet there was nary a mention of this from onstage, and none of those songs were played. (Though Patterson did perform “Sands,” live in the KDHX studios, earlier on Friday.)

But everyone grieves differently. Maybe it was too soon to play those tunes live again, and when you have a back catalog of work that rivals Ryan Adams for sheer heft, you have to make some cuts. And while I might question their song choices, I can’t fault the execution.

The band got progressively louder and looser as the night progressed, and they focused more on their heavier songs, stomping rockers like “Lookout Mountain,” “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” “Uncle Frank” and “Sinkhole,” than on some of the rambling, Southern gothic story-songs they do oh so well. Hood’s partner in crime, singer/guitarist Mike Cooley, was on fire both vocally and instrumentally. His careening version of “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” from the “Southern Rock Opera” album during the encore was a real highlight.

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All Aboard for Fun Times: St. Louis show highlights for October 28-31

All Aboard for Fun Times Train

Here are a ton of treats to stuff your ear candy bag with – no tricks required:
Friday, October 28
Tonight offers hell-raising rock sounds of the South from Macon, Ga.’s Drive-By Truckers and Murfreesboro, Tenn.’s Those Darlins at the Pageant (6161 Delmar), starting at 8. This is $22 in advance, 25 at the door (with 2 more for 20-under). Smoke-free. Welcomed by KDHX.
Read Scott Allen’s interview with Patterson Hood and KDHX DJ Allen Dahm’s top 10 list of DBTs songs.
If you’re attending, you should still hustle on down to Cherokee to catch what you can of this:  
David Vandervelde / Magic City
El Leñador  3124 Cherokee  10-1  $5  Smoke-free
Nashville’s DV is a very talented musician (and producer) who blends rock, country and pop elements into music that fans of the ’60s-’70s SoCal scene (especially early Crazy Horse) should especially dig. I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return for quite some time. In contrast, the awesome MC plays rock with a somber vibe that ranges from dirge-like to frenzied. Add the tasty food available to the tasty tunes getting played, and you’ve got a night that’ll make Your Humble Servant a happy boy!
Being a big fan of the films of Ed Wood, it’s unfortunate that tonight is also when his ridiculous Orgy of the Dead will be recreated as part of the monthly Conspiracy cabaret show at the Crack Fox (1114 Olive), starting around 9. There are many components to this, including music from shock-a-billy band Paul Bearer & the Coffin Kings. Get the full details here.
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Concert review: No World Series game but plenty of power with Two of a Perfect Pair tour at the Old Rock House, Wednesday, October 26

I entered the Old Rock House on Wednesday evening two hours before show time to see the Two of a Perfect Pair tour featuring Adrian Belew‘s Power Trio and Tony Levin‘s band Stickmen, for a VIP meet and greet.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been steeped in excitement for months after the announcement of this event, but unsure if my enthusiasm was to be shared. Much to my amazement any doubt was quickly erased. Standing before me were at least 60-80 people. There was Tony Levin — bass player for King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, John Lennon and Pink Floyd — standing just inches from me surrounded by others as enchanted as myself signing autographs, posing for photos and chatting away just like he was at a neighbor’s backyard barbecue. At this point I knew I was in for something special.

On stage there were two mammouth drum kits, two laptops, two towering bass rigs and a comfy stool. What was to come from this array, might just be the club concert of the year. Taking the stage shortly after 8 p.m. was Tony’s band the Stickmen. From my position crammed in the corner of the stage over by the drums (by now the room was filled to near capacity), I witnessed one of my heroes Pat Mastelotto climb behind his drum kit mixed with both acoustic and electric components. My adrenaline started to flow. Joining Pat and Tony on stage was Markus Reuter the Austrian born inventor of the Touch Guitar.This instrument is both guitar and bass in one played by “touching” the strings. This is how the band may have come about it’s name. Tony uses a Chapman Stick, which is played similarly by striking the strings on the fretboard. Of course Pat uses “sticks” to caress his playing surfaces on his drums: Ergo, the Stickmen.

Once the group were settled in behind their respective equipment, they soared into King Crimson’s “BBoom.” I could swear I saw many a chin hit the floor. To the uninitiated, this was a sight to see. Pure energy. For the next 45 minutes, the band played several songs from their CDs “Soup” and “Absalom.” A couple of my favorite selections being  ”Crack in the Sky,” featuring eerie vocals from Tony, a quirky hypnotic groove from Pat and soundscapes oozing from Markus’ Touch Guitar triggered from his laptop, and a cover of Robert Fripp’s “Breathless” from his solo album “Exposure” that is very rarely ever played. Then the musicians capped their all-too-short set with an amazing rendition of the “Firebird Suite” by composer Igor Stravinsky.

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The top 10 Drive-By Truckers songs (so far)

If you’ve listened to my show, Bittersweet Melody, you know that Drive-by Truckers are one of my favorite bands. No one band represents the South in today’s rock world more than Drive-by Truckers.

The band, most of whom were raised in Alabama, have released nine studio albums over their 15 year history (not including a collection of B-sides). They’ll be in town at the Pageant this Friday, October 28. Here I rank my 10 favorite Drive-by Trucker songs. Hope you enjoy it, y’all.

10. “Lookout Mountain” – “The Dirty South” (2004)

A staple of the Truckers live show for years, this song finally made it to vinyl on the third album of the Truckers’ Southern trilogy. An incendiary live song. Let this song wash over you at the show this Friday.

9. “Decoration Day” – “Decoration Day” (2003)

Jason Isbell was in the Drive-by Truckers for only three albums. Despite the fact he was limited to no more than three songs on each album, he made them count. “Decoration Day” is a tour de force of family pride and Southern feuds. Think the legend of the Hatfields & McCoys in a song.

8. “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” – “The Dirty South” (2004)

The songwriting tandem of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley make up the majority of the Trucker’s songs over their run. And I make no apologies for my love of Mike Cooley, a born story teller with a knack for brilliant wordplay. From the opening bass drum this powerful song about a son gleaning knowledge from his moonshining Dad in the Prohibition-era South melts faces. With lyrics like “Daddy tell me another story … tell me why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad,” one can’t help but hope to hear an answer.

7. “The Righteous Path” – “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” (2008)

A Patterson Hood original. Released in January 2008, eight months before the hard fall of the financial system and the beginning of the recession, lines like “More bills than money, I can do the math / I’m trying to keep focused on the righteous path” and “We’re trying the best we can to keep keeping on / We got messed up minds for these messed up times / And it’s a thin thin line separating his from mine,” one can’t help but wonder if Patterson knew something the rest of us didn’t.

6. “Women Without Whiskey” – “Southern Rock Opera” (2001)

From their third album, a double-album that opened the door to the Trucker’s success and quite possibly my favorite album of the ’00s, comes this Mike Cooley song. Describing an alcoholic who knows it and doesn’t plan to stop drinking any time soon, a great rock song emerges.

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Thursday Morning Music News: Record Store Day preps for Black Friday, Loretta Lynn recovers and Leonard Cohen comes up with ‘Old Ideas’

Extreme alcohol poisoning took the life of Amy Winehouse.

It’s been seven years since Leonard Cohen released an album of new material. “Old Ideas” ensures it won’t be eight.

Watch the trailer for the Andrew Bird documentary.

Clear Channel goes on a layoff binge.

Is the 1% really that into the Stone Roses? Only eBay knows: Tickets for the band’s reunion have crossed the million pound rubicon.

In other reunion news: The Scud Mountain Boys are playing together again after 14 years.

Consequence of Sound gathers up some excellent footage from the Bridge School Benefits, in honor of the charity’s 25th anniversary.

NPR asks a question it’s well-positioned to answer: Has indie rock become adult contemporary?

A bunch of St. Louis bands are doing a Guided Boy Voices tribute.

Loretta Lynn has been released from a hospital in Kentucky after a pretty scary case of pneumonia.

Ryan Wasoba at RFT Music counts down the six best drum fills.

Get the scoop on Record Story Day Black Friday releases.

Rolling Stone shares a spooky, new Decemberists track.

Ted Leo joins cover punks TV Casualty for an EP of Misfits songs.

Johnny Depp jams with Billy Gibbons and Bill Carter in Austin.

Prefix shares a previously unreleased track from the forthcoming “Some Girls” reissue.

It’s a battle of the hair bands as former members of Kid Rocker sue Poison for ripping them off.

PopMatters scores an interview with legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette.

Spin streams the new Christmas album by Scott Weiland.

Country boy (really) Lionel Richie says hello to twang with forthcoming album of duets.

Barry Feinstein, one of rock music’s most brilliant photographers, has passed away.

Nada Surf will kick off 2012 with a new album.

Hear two songs from the forthcoming Mazzy Star album.

Nostalgia for the ’90s knows no bounds: The Lemonheads have expanded their US tour, with a date in St. Louis on January 28. They’ll be playing all of “It’s a Shame About Ray.”

And in final Halloween-related news:

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