|I'm a veteran KDHX music writer and also a regular contributor to the RFT music pages.|
While 2011 certainly provided plenty of top-shelf records, I want to do KDHX readers a solid, and as opposed to you running out and buying every album I mention, like I know you certainly would, I put together a cheat sheet of some of my favorite songs. That way, you can save your hard-earned cash, and bypass seeking out the complete albums, in favor of just buying the individual tracks.
In the end, you get a serviceable mix of killer tunes from 2011, you save a couple bucks — and maybe donate those extra bucks to KDHX — and everybody wins. And heck, who knows, maybe one of these songs will motivate you to go and buy the whole album. So the artist wins, too. Everybody wins!
Happy holidays, friends.
“Ache With Me” – Against Me!: Perhaps one of the most subdued tunes so far outta Gainesville’s rock ‘n’roll punkers. Tom Gabel trades in his topical, guttural growl for a breezy stroll as a wallflower. A welcomed departure with excellent results.
“Black Hills” – Gardens & Villa: This track comes from one of the most underrated albums from 2011. Anchored by layered synths, bells and vibraphone chimes ring along as Chris Lynch hits Prince-like high notes. Commingling textures of plush, orchestral indie and pure pop melody, “Black Hills” showcases all of G&V’s strengths packed into three romantic minutes.
“Black Betty and the Moon” – Horrible Crowes: Gaslight Anthem singer, Brian Fallon, is an undeniable talent. If you don’t dig his music, you have to at least hand it to the guy for his passion. He also wears his influences boldly on his sleeve. With Horrible Crowes, Fallon channels the spirits of Tom Waits, Greg Dulli and, of course, Bruce Springsteen.
“Blue Tip” – The Cars: Like all great songs by the Cars, you can tell this is one of its songs within the first few seconds. The muted chug and beepy-boopy melody instantly has you grabbing for your shades bobbing your head. Ric Ocasek is back, and new wave music has finally been put back in its place. It’s no wonder why the Strokes were thinking about hanging it up.
“The Bump” – Deer Tick: With enough jangle and slop to make the ‘Mats jealous, 2011 saw Deer Tick come through with its finest album yet. “The Bump” harnesses everything the band does best: fucking off with reckless disregard for anything except providing a rock ‘n’ roll party.
Rock & roll can be a monotonous beast sometimes. The tour, write, record, tour cycle can wear thin on a band when money’s coming in small spurts and there are several mouths to feed.
It often leads to burn out, band implosions, drug and alcohol addiction and creative droughts. Just ask David Bielanko, singer and songwriter of the E-Street-inspired Americana rock act, Marah, who has had to deal with all the not-so-glamorous aspects of band life. But as quick as he is to acknowledge his falls throughout his career, he’s even more excited about getting back up and forging ahead. In anticipation of its upcoming Twangfest set on June 11 at the Duck Room, I interviewed Bielanko via e-mail about starting from scratch to record the band’s newest, and appropriately titled, full length, Life is a Problem.
Michael Dauphin: What do you hope to achieve with Life is a Problem that you have yet to capture in the past?
Dave Bielanko: LIFE IS A PROBLEM — good question, the answer is honestly nothing…little things perhaps; release a couple very traditional, nearly country songs, make a record on some very old broke down instruments in a country house. Write some good songs, get back on the road, run away from the past. To me this record has more of a sadness and possibly beauty to it then any other Marah record and it is certainly as decidedly raw and unpolished as anything we’d done. It doesn’t feel like a repeat of anything in my past in any way.
You recorded the album in an old farm house in rural Pennsylvania. What was that experience like? Where there any recording nuances that you captured that you didn’t necessarily anticipate?
COUNTRY HOUSE — if you get a chance I wrote a pretty cool story about this record on our website there is a page called Life is a Problem that could illuminate certain things….when the recording process began we had very little, really just me and Christine, a rusty old electric bass we trash picked, an old tack piano that was being given away by a little local church, flea market drums…that sort of thing. We let that dictate the tone, we had to I guess.
If I’m not mistaken, Life is a Problem is the first Marah album you’ve made without your brother Serge around. What was that like?
BROTHERS — I miss my brother, he is a very talented rock n roller. In fact, he’s about as unique a motherfucker as I’ve ever known…some nights I hear him singing with me very clearly, it’s spooky. He had a baby girl called Violet and while we were making our record he was a thousand miles away with entirely different priorities. We came from a pretty broken home and “the Surge” was not at all interested in being anything but a superb parent at the time. We remain very proud of him, but he should get his fucking guitar out one of these days, I mean c’mon.
What was it like to have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and essentially start from scratch after much of the band quit on you a couple years back? Is there a sense of excitement that comes with trying to re-establish yourself?
BOOTSTRAPS — honestly, I’ve been up and down of a fucking roller coaster so many times I’m starting to not notice/care. I do recall seriosly considering changing the band name, not for my sake so much as for the others in the band, give them their own identity, something to fight for…but, in the end I simply couldn’t walk away from the music, the songs are my life’s work, a legacy that I just could not turn my back on. Sentimental I guess.
Do you consider yourself difficult to work with? If so, in what way?
DIFFICULT — yes, I’m very difficult because I keep going, I wanna play music, it’s all there is for me…I stay up super late playing records…I wanna tour and write and rehearse… the band can become all consuming and exhausting, I’m sure the many members who have passed through it would say the same, but none of them continue to make music for a living, they fell off to have babies or get jobs with health insurance or whatever the fuck? They stay home now and diddle around on Facebook I assume.
After years of partying and whatnot, you’re now sober, correct? What kind of impact, if any, would you say being sober has had on your songwriting?
SOBER — no, I’m no longer sober, was for about 2 years there though…I also quit taking anti-depressants because quite frankly I’m tired of watching people take every fucking pill some yahoo doctor prescribes today. I’m tired of pill commercials when I’m trying to watch my River Monsters…so I self medicate, sorry. Songs come when they come. Drunk, High, in church, it don’t matter.
“So many degrees between success and failure”: An interview with Jason Isbell on recording, touring and life after Drive-By Truckers
I haven’t spent time in Northern Alabama, but I feel like I know the place like the back of my hand. I could probably guide someone from Huntsville due west to Muscle Shoals, to Sheffield, then up north to Florence. These towns and highways are familiar because Jason Isbell has been painting pictures of the area over the last ten years with Drive-By Truckers and his current project, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. I recently caught up with Isbell while he was home in Sheffield, in between tours.
Michael Dauphin: On [the new album] Here We Rest, it seems like there’s a certain sense of ease, musically, in the songs; even the ones that are about heavy subjects.
Jason Isbell: I think a lot of that has to do with this band — us being a solid group for a couple years prior to recording this. The last record we did we had a drummer named Matt Pence (Centro-Matic), who didn’t tour with us, but he played on the record and mixed the record. And he’s great. It was an honor to play with him and he’s one of my favorite drummers. But after that record was finished, we hired Chad [Gamble] who’s our drummer now. This is the first record we made with him on it. I feel like that added a real consistency to the band, and it made things a lot more comfortable for us playing-wise.
You recorded this one at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. and the NuttHouse over in Sheffield. Were you able to capture certain vibes and sounds in one studio that you couldn’t necessarily find in the other?
Yeah, they were a little bit different. The NuttHouse is run by a guy named Jimmy Nutt, who used to work at FAME, and he worked on some Truckers stuff, and my first solo album. He’s very easy to get along with and he has a really nice studio… And I can tell you right now it’s right across the street from my apartment. [Laughing].
And FAME had recently hired an engineer named Tom Swift, who has won a few Grammys and used to work at the Record Plant in New York. So we decided to do half the record at each studio and got both engineers to work on almost the whole project. It was a little bit more expensive to have two top quality engineers, but we did the producing ourselves so we saved a little bit there.
It gave us an opportunity figure out which things worked better at each place. FAME has this big, old console that sounds really great. And the NuttHouse has a really good layout. It has this old bank vault you can use for isolation so the sound doesn’t bleed out. The building was originally a bank.
Well, I guess, if you can’t feel comfortable at a space right across the street, you may have other issues.
You’re right. You’d have neighbor issues.
Even though you’re three albums into your solo career, do you feel like you and the band are still finding your way around a bit?
I think you are always learning. I’m hoping I won’t hit a peak anytime soon though. I know it happens to a lot of folks. Sometimes they quit drinking, sometimes they get successful, or maybe they start a family. It can happen to a lot of my favorite songwriters. They just don’t have the time to write or that attention to detail they once had. I’d hate to know that this is as good it gets in terms of success for the band or my songwriting.
What do you find more intimidating: success or failure?
That’s a good question. There are so many degrees between success and failure. I really don’t know how to define either one. I think the only time you really fail is if you completely immerse yourself into the workforce and quit making music. And the only way to really succeed is to be happy. I’m pretty happy right now. I’ve gone almost 10 years now without having to have a regular job. I’m really pleased with that.
People will walk up to me drunk on the street and be like, “You know, one day it’s all gonna happen for you.” I usually thank them most of the time, but in the back of my mind, I’m just happy about making a living out of music for the last 10 years.
Over the last 10 or so years, are there certain contemporaries around the scene that you tend to align yourself with in terms of how to approach this business? Not so much musical influences, but guideposts?
Yeah, I think so. When I started playing here in Muscle Shoals I got a lot from the session players and the older guys. Some were just playing cover bands and some were famous, at least in music circles, from the work they done in the ’60s and the ’70s. That was a great thing. It really opened my mind to a lot of things. But once I started touring, I started to meet some really amazing people.
But most of my close friends actually live somewhere else. Justin [Townes] Earle. I’m really close with all the Centro-Matic guys — known for almost ten years now. Slobberbone and the Drams, we’ve been close for years. And Will Hoge… It just happens with folks that you tour with. You take certain stories away and you see how people live. And you see what works and what doesn’t.
15. Broken Social Scene – “World Sick”
The first song on the album, and the first single they released to hungry fans. The bombastic drums and flickering guitar and synth spurts, serve as the perfect tone-setter for BSS’s most “band album” to date.
14. The Walkmen – “Angela Surf City”
Quintessential Walkmen here. Simple-albeit-gripping guitar plucking and snare-tapping, flanked by singer Hamilton Leithauser’s unhinged, roaring howl.
13. Theodore – “I Won’t Be a Stranger”
Balancing the distant banjo plucking, junk shop horns, and the subtle frailty in Justin Kinkel-Schuster’s voice, “I Won’t Be a Stranger” captures all of the best parts of Theodore without overtly exploiting any of them.
12. Gaslight Anthem – “The Queen of Lower Chelsea”
Singer Brian Fallon and the boys channel their inner Clash with this one and end up striking gold. A mild departure compared to most Gaslight arrangements, and hopefully a preview of what fans should expect in the future.
11. Drive-By Truckers – “Santa Fe”
Having spent the 2010 summer touring with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, this song is living, breathing evidence of just how much Petty has influenced the DBT sound. Infectiously obscure lyrics backed by twang-pop sensibility and southern-fried guitars.
10. Free Energy – “Bang Pop”
I loved this song when I first heard it, but I didn’t understand exactly how huge it was until I heard it blaring through the P.A. at a St. Louis Blues game. Armed to the teeth with squealing Thin Lizzy-esque guitars and a contagious chorus, “Bang Pop” served as the feel-good hit of the summer of 1979 in 2010.
9. Titus Andronicus – “A More Perfect Union”
The perfect mission statement from TA’s near-perfect The Monitor album. Wailing guitars, time changes, Abe Lincoln speech samples, wailing guitars, Springsteen and Bragg references, and more wailing guitars. Seven-plus minutes of guttural punk bliss.
8. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – “Sink/Let it Sway”
SSLYBY have officially hit its stride. Sugar-coated indie pop that sticks to the roof of your mouth, seeps upward towards the brain, and remains there all day long. The bloggers were right about these guys after all!
The exact year is debatable, but shortly after the plug was pulled on the ’90s, punkers had their genre stolen from right under ‘em. The Sum-182 mall brats were popping up left and right, and punks felt cheated. Some went along for the ride, some abruptly jumped ship and some took refuge with another genre that was deeply rooted beneath punk soil: country. Except, naturally, when a bunch of punks play it, it’s going to sound a little more distorted and jarring.
And that’s pretty much where Two Cow Garage came from. At least that’s more or less how singer and guitarist Micah Schnabel explained it to me in an interview a while back.
Since its inception though, the Columbus, Ohio band has gradually shed layers of honky-tonk grit and settled into its weathered, barroom skin.Two Cow’s last album, Speaking in Cursive (2008), found the band waning off its cow punk, alt-country past and digging deeper into traditional rock & roll standards. Sweet Saint Me picks up where Cursive left off, but this time with a more questionably refined — yet still unhinged — sound.
It should be noted that Schnabel’s razor-gargling Rod Stewart-y voice is still as grating as ever, arguably more so. If you couldn’t take it before, this album may not sway you. Co-vocalist, bassist Shane Sweeny also grabs the wheel on a few tunes that unfortunately fall a little flat compared to his work on Cursive. But when he trades lines with Schnabel on the speedy, organ-oozing “Lucy and the Butcher Knife,” his Beam-soaked Waits-esque moan is jolted back to life.
“Jackson, Don’t You Worry” finds Schnabel singing a heart-swelling, acoustic lullaby to Sweeny’s newborn son. “Birthdays and graduations through a telephone/You’re the son of a son of a rolling stone…” sings Schnabel, as he warns Jackson of the trials ahead, and hips him to the hell Schnabel and Sweeny have raised in the past. “Lydia” takes on more of a PG-13 vibe and finds Schnabel offering apologies to an underage love interest that he’s trying not to be interested in, while Andy Schells’ keys clink and horns blast along to Cody Smith’s bouncing backbeat.
I don’t have to waste much time with comparisons or influences. You can find those within Schnabel’s lyrics. Off the top of my head, on Sweet Saint Me, he name checks Guthrie, Dylan, Van Halen, Soul Asylum, Springsteen, Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, coolly enough, Marvin Gaye. And judging by Schnabel’s witty literary references, you get the sense that the band’s tour dates earlier this year with fellow barroom heroes, the Hold Steady, made an impression too.
While Sweet Saint Me isn’t groundbreaking, it’s certainly a worthy endeavor. If nothing else, it shows a band that’s come a long way from its modest cow punk roots, only to find itself as one of the more hardworking groups of bar rock revivalists banging around the country.
Two Cow Garage performs at Off Broadway on November 22, 2010.
Two Cow Garage – “Sally, I’ve Been Shot”
It’s refreshing to see some modern indie mainstays charging a jolt into these legendary masters of song. To name just a few, we’ve recently seen Drive-By Truckers turn down their amps and turn up the soul with under-appreciated ’60s diva Bettye LaVette, and then they wasted no time in getting funky with Booker T. We saw Okkervil River rejuvenate Roky Erickson’s psychedelic juices. Heck, even Jack White managed to work with Loretta Lynn to help her produce, arguably, one of her best albums.
And now we have two of Chicago’s finest joining forces: legendary R&B and gospel songstress, Mavis Staples, and alt-country noise rocker, Jeff Tweedy. Staples, of course, is no stranger to collaboration. She’s worked with some of the most impressive names in music, and she recently collaborated with Ry Cooder on the fantastic We’ll Never Turn Back.
But what sets this album apart from the previously mentioned collaborations is arguably what makes it work. Instead of Tweedy stepping in and putting his trademark “Wilco sound” behind Staples’ firm, bellowing moan, his presence is hidden within the arrangements, song selection and production. The album merges spiritual and secular numbers, with 2 songs written by Tweedy, and covers classics by Pops Staples, Randy Newman, John Fogerty and Little Milton, among others. The band is based around Staples’ touring outfit, with assistance from Patrick Sansone (of Wilco), plus Mark Greenberg (on vibes and keys) and background vocals by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor. Tweedy’s aura is most present in the title track, which sounds like it could have fit nicely on Wilco’s 2007 Sky Blue Sky.
Staples’ trademark baritone croon and uncanny ability to deliver “the message” are as fervent as ever. Particularly on gospel standards like “Creep Along Moses,” “I Belong to the Band” and “Wonderful Savior.” All three feature some ever-so-powerful backup vocals that would make the original Staple Singers proud. Mavis’ take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone” and her rendition of Randy Newman’s “Losing You” serve as firm reminders that Mavis more than still has a soul singer’s touch. Over the course of the latter song’s three minutes, Staples hits bone-chilling lows conjured up from the deepest pit of her belly; yet she still makes it sound as sunny and hopeful as ever.
While You Are Not Alone is certainly a strong record by all measures, it’s hard to describe it as a step forward compared to Staples’ last few albums. If anything, it’s a step in a new, different direction. Tweedy’s loose, albeit simple production works well at times, but you could make the argument that Ry Cooder’s swampy, blues-charged vibe better fits Mavis’ sound. Regardless, we should consider ourselves lucky that we’re still enjoying Staples’ signature moan forty plus years into her vibrant-as-ever career.
Download 2 tracks from You Are Not Alone, courtesy of Anti-.