Archive for July, 2012

A little longer than usual between posts, but lots of stuff happening on the work, family and living situations kept me away – not away from the beauteous sounds, which thankfully remain plentiful, but from the ability to rate and write about all of the best ones. That said and there being no shortage of good stuff to pass along, let’s get to it.

I’d heard of Admiral Fallow a few years ago, even follow them on Twitter, but until last month had never really downloaded and listened to them with the attention they deserve. What a waste of a few years. Like their countrymen (with whom I’m sure they’re tired of being lumped), Frightened Rabbit, Bell X1, and the many other beautifully lilting Scottish rockers that have crossed my transom in the recent past, their geography informs their message in almost every instance. I hear defiance even in the softest ballads, poetry in the simplest phrase, lines that would sound sung even if they were spoken instead, and I picture the North Sea, and Glaswegian streets, and earnest glances between beautiful faces, and honesty. Those are probably all just the Scottish stereotypes I’ve picked up over the years – likely as mashed as bangers with the Irish ones – (sorry, lads) but most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. I get a sense of the foreign nestled comfortably alongside the familiar. Rock is rock, no matter where it’s mined, and I like imagining that we’d have something in common in that appreciation, even with all the myriad differences that have made us what we are.

Long way of saying: check these guys out quickly. Their harmonies, their plaintive lyrics, their groove and their vibe all combine to leave you smiling, even if the subject matter may not be handled quite so deftly in other hands. Favorites from their latest, Tree Bursts in Snow, include the titular track – one of the examples of successfully painting a beautiful picture of a horrifying subject – warfare and explosions “all orange and Halloween red…” – the high energy of “The Paper Trench”, and the rousing pub sing-along of “Isn’t This World Enough??” [Pardon the ads on some of these video inserts – it’s getting harder and harder to find stuff without them…]

I wrote a few months back about seeing Jesca Hoop open for Punch Brothers, and how she totally enthralled many of the crowd (myself happily included) but left many spouting dismissive nonsense about her short and typically eclectic set. Still baffled by that, but was stoked to get both her new album and a new Daytrotter session from her on the same day. The House That Jack Built is at least as loopy and nonsensical as her last outing, charmingly so, and as full of the mescaline-esque  imagery and lyrical twists and turns that I’ve come to love and to expect from her. “Hospital” is cute and quirky, “Peacemaker” slow and deceptively dirty, “When I’m Asleep” imported from some mythical Middle Eastern harbor town (Qarth, maybe?) where local strictures become a relaxed pastiche of the many external cultural influences passing through.

Her Daytrotter session astounds, as well. I don’t know why she keeps surprising me – after multiple exposure to her unorthodox and impressive play with words and sounds it seems like that shouldn’t be the case. Shouldn’t be. Though short at four songs, each resonates. “Born To,” from the new one, shines.

At the other end of the awesomely different / differently awesome spectrum sits The Lion, the Beast and the Beat, the latest offering from the ever-touring Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Having seen them four times now – fifth show in October at the incredible Tabernacle downtown – and collected their tunes over the last few years, I’m not too surprised that each outing gets infused with a little more carefully crafted pop, a few less rough edges and a little more polish. Part of me totally understands and is happy that the relentless touring and the well-honed songcraft is resulting in ever larger audiences and greater success, but part of me misses the band I saw performing a drunken-seeming, acoustic-and-wine-bottle-and-ice-bucket rendition of my first favorite song (“Paris“). In concert they remain, without doubt and without comparison, one of the best true rock bands touring at that level; the sludgy weight of the guitars on the slow ones, the builds, the blistering speed on the quick ones, and yes, even the more pop influenced turns are all performed masterfully and with enough improv and stage antics to keep them from becoming, for me, completely radio friendly wannabes. The duet with Willie on an older GP&N song, “Ragged Company,” is a great pairing but left me wanting more from the parts that had them singing at the same time. There wasn’t really any harmony, but the individual verses carry the same sense of deprecation as the original, and Willie’s gravelly delivery matched the phrasing perfectly.

Her forays into the Country realm leave nobody doubting her ability to do so (witness the Grammy nom on her very first outing,) but at the same time I wonder, “Why?” I know she’s having fun, and making a good living (I hope), and no artist wants to stay the same – evolving is as much a part of the process for them as it is for us mere mortals – but it feels like she’s pulling away, just a bit, from some of the stuff I initially loved best about her and the amazing band of gypsies in her traveling family. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, as evidenced in my first listening to Lion: just when I was starting to sense that pulling away sensation, the title track came on. It’s so layered, almost progressively so, and any doubts I was nurturing were temporarily and successfully allayed. The song rocks. The band rocks. The woman rocks. Please keep it that way, Grace.

I’m Jonesing for some live Madi Diaz. Hearing her recent Daytrotter session both helps soothe that urge and makes it stronger. I’ve only seen her live once, at the excellent listening room environment of Eddie’s Attic here in Atlanta, and she was enthralling. She’s both playful and deadly earnest in her performances, and just FUN to see and hear. She has a great knack for choosing covers, too- as evidenced in this session, where she takes Paula’s “Straight Up” and turns it from frothy pop to a darker, more plaintive and painful cry that cuts to the quick. Brilliant. (The rest of the cuts are just as strong.)

I haven’t ever written about Rush here, I think, probably because once I got started I may never stop. They were the first band I totally immersed myself in. Sure, I cut my teeth on the likes of Kiss, Aerosmith and others, and kidded myself into thinking they were great, heavy rock, but hearing Rush’s live set on “All the World’s a Stage” with my cousins at the beach in Charleston, SC totally changed me. Without exaggeration, that was the first time that music sliced into the heart of me, grabbed my head in both of its metaphorical hands and screamed, “Hold still! And LISTEN TO THIS!!” Those songs, and the albums they led me to, seemed to be the perfect response to my parents and others who were saying, “Turn that down! It’s just a bunch of noise anyway!”

Because it was anything but noise.

Without launching into a repeat of my senior thesis (high school, anyway) which was all about Rush and its influences, both given and taken, suffice it to say that they were my first favorite band, and I read every liner note, every scarce interview (no Internets back then, friends and neighbors,) anything and everything I could get my hands on.

So when they came out with Snakes and Arrows last time around, and this new one – Clockwork Angels – each of which hearkened back to the Rush that first yanked me away from mediocrity – I felt exactly like I did on that beach in ’77 or so.

Clockwork Angels is nothing if not ambitious. Like 2112, the gateway album for so many fans (including this one,) it tells a complicated but ultimately simple story. Draped in the accoutrements of Steampunk, another favorite genre, Neil Peart – drummer and lyricist extraordinaire – partnered with noted SF writer Kevin Anderson on a novel with the same name. The album tells the story in parallel with the novel, apparently – I haven’t been able to get a copy of the book yet – and there are definite reminders of 2112 sprinkled throughout. Even the intricate album art, something they’ve never skimped on, takes me back to those heady early days and all of those albums that I spent so many hours listening to, headphones tight and volume maxed.

The songs rock, the music is big, almost thick enough to grab onto and ride. The story is sound, if familiar: young man, anxious to leave his mundane day-to-day existence behind, travels the world, falls in and out of love, all while coming to terms with the Watchmaker, who controls the whole world and all of its clockwork machinery (angels included.)

I can easily envision them playing these tunes live in a few months, in the same arena we’ve seen them in three other times now, no opening act, one 15-minute break in their 3+ hour set. They make deep, heavy, intricate rock as pounding and as stirring as ever, and they make it look effortless. Keep it up, guys – it’s still a lot of fun to listen to.

Ryan Monroe was an accidental find – a very happy one. Part of the Band of Horses, his new solo album, A Painting of a Painting on Fire, may be the single best display of multi-genre expertise I’ve ever heard. So much so that all thought of genre – “What is this one? Funk? But that last one was 70’s California Country, wasn’t it?” – go happily out the window.

I heard “Turning Over Leaves” first, thanks to Paste’s awesome mPlayer, and couldn’t figure out why I liked it. It had everything I usually actively dislike in my rock and roll: a funky drum beat, a weird but infectious jazzy bass line, super deep Barry White-ish verses followed by a falsetto chorus. And I love it. It’s one of the only 5-star songs on my iPod at the moment, and was easily enough to make me want more.

There not another song like it on the whole album.

In the rest of those songs I hear James Gang-era Joe Walsh (and who else is channeling that awesome sound these days?), the 70’s CA sound referenced earlier, ELO (what?!), prog rock, and other majestic, multi-instrument, multi-layered Rock with a capital R. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake, nor do I ever get the feeling that he’s simply showing off his considerable musical prowess. I DO get the feeling that, when putting together a collection of his own songs, he played what he’d written, unrestricted by the pigeon hole people may put him in, and then had a blast laying them down. At least it sounds that way. Current favorite is “The Darkness Will Be Gone.”

Best, funnest all-the-way-through album I’ve heard in years. Even got a Twitter reply from him when I tweeted my fanboy pleasure after the first listen; asked him to please come to Atlanta or its nearby environs, and he basically said, “Hope so!”

I hope so, too.

In the meantime, I plan on catching him with his day job as they begin the steel breeze that is the Railroad Revival Tour, mark II. The last one featured Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and others as they traveled in 1940’s rail cars from California to NOLA, playing all along the way both on and off the train. This year’s crew included Band of Horses, Willie Nelson & Family, John Reilly’s band (yes, that John Reilly) and more, and they start the trip about 10 miles from my current location. Think I’m missing that? Not a chance.

That’s all for now – keep in touch and let me know what’s tickling your eardrums these days.

Later-

Advertisements

After lots of insistence from my daughters and friends, great readers all, I just finished Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and intended to leave the usual one or two paragraph Goodreads update, but it turned into this:

Wow. Conflicted on this one. Really gripping and enthralling read, but deeply disturbing. Maybe it’s more so for the parents than for the kids who read it; I know my mom has said she won’t read it no matter how many times it’s recommended to her – she just can’t stand the idea of violence done to children, even if it’s among themselves (a la Lord of the Flies, which though similar is a very different story with completely different motivations for the kids’ violence.) I’m of the same mind, but wanted to see what all the fuss is about.

I’ve read plenty of dystopian dramas, each of them disturbing in their own way because, for the most part, it wasn’t a great stretch to imagine such near-future worlds, worlds that we’d screwed up somehow. Usually it was the result of war, or pollution, but in some cases it was nature (like the comet that ended the world as we know it in Lucifer’s Hammer, one of my favorites of that genre) or even inexplicable circumstances like The Change in Stirling’s excellent series.

This one was much more uncomfortable, though, again probably because I have kids (both girls, no less!) and when I imagined them in that situation, in the actual Games, I got the same sort of sensation I get when I’m standing in a high place and my knees go weak. Gravity changed when I read those parts.  I just couldn’t imagine what I’d do as a parent in that situation. Probably, like Katniss, if I lived in that world I would never have kids, for exactly the same reason. Which in itself would be another form of torture, and which makes the Capitol’s Malthusian solution so very insidious. Not only does everyone from every district have to watch their own lottery “winners” in the Games, the only way to not have a stake in them is to not reproduce, making the districts weaker and ever less populated as time and starvation and sickness and the Games themselves winnow them further and further down.

I can imagine lots of heady philosophical conversations around this one, especially among the kids who’ve read it and those who will think about it as they finish high school and go on to college. O, the papers to be written…

One of my worries is that, like so many of the BIG stories such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Harry Potter, and their ilk, there are large parts of the readership that will always think the evil stuff is the coolest – the badder the better. I can cringingly picture a certain sector of them thinking to themselves, “Cool…” as some of those horrors are perpetrated, or talking to themselves or to each other and saying things like, “He was so stupid there – all he had to do was grab the X and kill the ones around him first. . .” like it was all a first person shooter on their game console and not a group of real, living kids, which – kudos to Collins – is how it felt to me when I was reading it. I felt every death, even those of the so-called bad guys.

I liked reading it- there’s no denying the edge-of-your-seat-ness and “what next?!” aspects of it, and it’s a tale well told, for sure, and I’m sure I’ll read the others, but when it comes down to it I kind of agree with my mom. It’s hard to read about and so vividly imagine such a world with our children in it.

Maybe that’s the best point we can take away from stories like this one, and all of the other great speculative dystopian fiction out there: we need to do everything we possibly can to make absolutely sure those worlds never, ever come into being. And if reading stories that make us uncomfortable help that process, bring ’em on.

Note: I came across this piece I wrote back in April for someone’s “Remembered” column, and thought it worth reposting here. – MMD

In the waning days of 1969, a half-Black, half-Irish bass player and his drummer bud started a band, like so many of their generation were doing at the time. They met up with a couple of guitarists – the beginnings of a legion of them – and called themselves Thin Lizzy.

Phil Lynott was the driving creative force behind everything they wrote and recorded, and provided some of the best bass playing heard before or since. His smooth and slightly menacing vocals lent the tunes an authenticity absent from many of the bands of that period, and he always seemed to be sharing a joke with the listener – I was convinced that he could break out laughing at any time during almost any given song.

Lynott and original drummer Brian Downey met said guitarists, the Erics Bell and Wexon, who’d recently been backing up Van Morrison as Them and off they went. The Erics were used presumably used to mercurial, hard-drinking Irishmen, it seems, so they meshed well with Lynott from start. At least at first.

For the next five or six years success was elusive. Virtually nothing they recorded charted in either the UK or the States, and it wasn’t until the release of 1976’s “Jailbreak” that people began to take notice.

By this time they’d nearly perfected the twin guitar approach that was to become their signature, and which would be emulated by many of the metal bands to follow. But for most of the next decade they’d chase the level of success brought on by Jailbreak singles “The Boys Are Back in Town” and its titular track, and would never quite get there again.

I came to Lizzy late in the cycle – around 1984, when the bassist in one of the bands I mixed for in college turned me onto the live “Life” double disk. Although up to that point I’d pretty much confined my musical intake to hard and heavy rock (anything less was dismissed out of hand at the time,) it was my first exposure to the modern dual guitar attack that would so dominate my favorite music for the next few years.

We didn’t really consider them heavy metal at the time though their influence has been felt in some of that genre’s seminal bands, from Metallica to Mastodon. They were just good, hard rock and roll, using interesting and arcane subject matter and funkier arrangements than any of us, to date, had learned to appreciate. Iron Maiden was peaking at that point, and while some of the guys in our band were into the more mainstream metallurgists like Ratt, Poison, Skid Row and the like, none of those bands were for me – I used to joke that they were more like stainless steel compared to the truly heavy metal being mined by bands like Deep Purple, Maiden, and Thin Lizzy. (I didn’t consider Zeppelin as being heavy metal at the time, either – still don’t – but in many ways they were just as heavy, and they occupied a lofty spot in my pantheon, too, even if they weren’t producing anything new at the time. They didn’t really have to, with a canon like theirs in the vaults.)

I’d kid myself that I liked Lizzy because of their more literate and unusual lyrics, the historical Irish references, the outsider-ness of liking the unknown and the unloved, but when it came down to it I liked them for the simple reason that they ROCKED, and they did it harder and better than almost anyone I’d heard up to that time. Even those slow, tasty numbers like “Still in Love With You” and “The Sun Goes Down” have a weight and a lurking but unmanifested menace waiting just out of earshot. I couldn’t get enough, and the louder it got, the better I liked it.

The band and the bassist that first brought them to my ears ended up being the ones I lived, mixed and traveled with for the next several years, and we covered many cornerstone Lizzy pieces like “Angel of Death,” “Thunder and Lightning,” “The Sun Goes Down,” and others, and even if we didn’t play some of the outliers live they’d still make it into the practice sets because they were just so much fun to play, and to hear. I remember “Cowboy Song” as one of those – a romping good bit of fun that was basically a metallic take on a raunchy Country tune, and we liked it so much it often made its way into the live set, as well.

Coming late to the Lizzy game allowed me to miss much of their mediocre period, I think. Starting with the live recordings “Life” and “Live and Dangerous,” which are essentially greatest hits compilations on what some critics have called the best live recordings of the era, was a somewhat biased primer, to be sure, but it intrigued me enough to seek out some of the more esoteric meanderings from the earlier records. Like many who did the same, I found that some of it merited its relative obscurity, but there were definitely gems amongst the rubble, and I found them all.

The band had more guitarists – many more – than Spinal Tap had drummers. Some lasted longer than others, some left and came back, some were better than others. There were bar brawls between and among themselves and other bands, many featuring broken bottles and broken bones, and more than one tour-ending injury. The best and most enduring of this cadre included John Sykes, who would go on to play with Whitesnake and Blue Murder, and Brian Robertson, who would later play with Motorhead and others. My favorite of the lot, Gary Moore (RIP), joined Lizzy after stints with Blues masters B.B. and Albert King, then left Lizzy and came back numerous times. Lynott appeared onMoore’s solo album just before Phil’s death.

I remember that night very vividly; it remains one of the clearest memories from that time in my life.

Our drummer’s room was next to mine in the slightly ramshackle house we lived and practiced in, and around 4 AM one night in January of 1986 he came in and woke me up.

“Whaddaya want? What time is it?”

“Don’t know. But I just heard Phil Lynott died tonight.”

I was instantly and fully awake. We found a bottle, and went into the practice room and spun some Lizzy, waiting for the others to hear and come in. They did, and we played til the sun came up. And then we played some more.

I have yet to find as solid and as heart-pumping a finale to an album as the fourth side of the “Life” album. On it, Lynott brings back some of the band’s former guitarists to play on their signature songs: Brian Robertson for “Emerald;” Gary Moore for “Black Rose;” John Sykes on “Still in Love with You;” and Eric Bell for “The Rocker.” What I liked most, though, was that Lynott called them all out onstage at once, at the beginning of the side, and they all played each song together, the myriad disagreements and pettiness of the previous years forgotten for a moment, lost in the joy of the song.

On another tune from that ironically titled album Lynott sings that he has got to “Give it up. . . ooh, that stuff.” He was never able to do it, and it killed him.

All these years later I still get chills listening to that last side, and I can’t give them up yet, either.