Archive for the ‘Sounds’ Category

If one defines the word “drug” as something that changes the way one feels, thinks, sees, in short perceives something, whether that change is positive or negative, is it such a stretch to say that art, no matter the medium, can be called a drug, as well?

Drugs can have many effects on our perceptions. We take them to feel better, as in the case of analgesics or antibiotics to reduce pain or to remedy an illness. Some take them illicitly, thinking they will feel better, and in some cases they will feel better if the non-drugged state is an unpleasant one. Some take them for fun, enjoying the temporary altered state induced. Some become addicted, either to the feeling engendered or on a physical level.

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern. – Alfred North Whitehead

With the exception of a physical addiction, all of the effects that drugs can have can also be induced by art. Again, whether the medium is painting or sculpture, dance or music, poetry or prose, graffiti or photography, or just the way someone moves in a certain light, the verbal turn-of-phrase that strikes one as being perfect for the moment, or especially descriptive in a way that’s new to one’s ears and mind, the observer/listener/witness is changed. Sometimes the change is temporary, lasting only long enough to note the enjoyment or appreciation of the subject. Often the change is life-long, and the witness’s mindset and worldview are forever altered by the artistic encounter. A new layer, a new filter is added to the perceiver’s ability to process not only future artistic encounters, but all of life’s interactions, from the mundane to the sublime.

Just as a recreational drug user will sometimes receive an effect or effects not anticipated, such as the so-called “bad trip,” or go down instead of up (or up when they wanted to go down,) certain works of art may have an effect not anticipated by the witness, nor, perhaps, by the artist. Certainly, negative emotions and reactions are nearly as prevalent in all works of art as are positive; some artists surely strive for that reaction rather than induce the more positive awareness of beauty. (A tangent to be explored, possibly better, elsewhere: who defines beauty, or whether it must be positive or negative? The artist? The witness? The subject? Surely there are works of dark beauty, of raw truth too cutting, too grim, too stripped-down to be appreciated as art by some witnesses. Mapplethorpe, anyone?) What may be beautiful to me, what may induce a powerfully positive emotional impact, or reduce me to tears of truthful recognition of beauty, or of rightness, may have just the opposite effect (or none at all, the bane of every artist, I should think,) on another. What I find banal, or offensive, or crude, may be another’s epiphany.

Can one become addicted to art, as with drugs? Surely, though perhaps not in a physical sense. Whether one limits themselves to Dali’s surrealism, or listens only to Classical music, decrying the value of rock and roll, or submerges themselves in poetry, in erotica, in science fiction, or in any way overvalues one medium to the exclusion of all possible others, the blinders of addiction are in place.

Some drugs are intrinsically good. Some drugs are not. Some drugs are absolutely required for life to continue. Some drugs have as their only purpose hastening its end. Some drugs allow for mind-expanding connections and conclusions to be made, for the throwing out of old paradigms and the creation of new ones, for the dredging up of genetic memory, of the Collective Unconscious and the archetypes described (not invented) by Jung and his cohorts. Some drugs shut down the cognitive functions, the higher selves, the connectors and archaeologists of the mind, dimming the spark instead of feeding it to flame, or feeding it too quickly and too explosively, so that the flashpoint is reached too soon, or to a negative degree.

Substitute “art” for “drug” in the above paragraph (allowing for changes of tense and syntax,) and it would be no less true.

Even the word art, is, to me, art. How else could such a simple three letter, one syllable word have such enormous potentiality? Art is the fuse to the powder keg of the mind; the catalyst required to make the connections that can have life-changing import; the seed of beauty, of understanding, of appreciation of life and of love; the quickening that hastens perception’s growth; the midwife between artist as sire and witness as progeny.


Pictures are worth 1,000 or more words, we know. What I didn’t know was how instantaneously one could fold space and time and bridge a gap 40+ years wide without seam or pause. This one did. Like a tea-soaked Madeline from Marcel’s own side table, seeing that shot I was overcome with memory, with feeling the way I’d felt as a kid, the potential of having everything ahead of me, and of that road forward being hinted at in all those thoughts and feelings I’d felt right that very moment.

At first you only see two guys on a stage, both cradling huge, unwieldy double-neck guitars. To the left is Alex Lifeson, captured mid-run on the lower, 6-string neck of his beast, while to the right Geddy Lee thumps his upper 8-string bass. Then behind and between them you see Neil Peart and his relatively small but still impressive drum kit, all of them in flowing sleeves, mid-jam on what has to be…

“That’s Xanadu,” I say out loud to myself. And the floodgates open.

Summer of ’78, Charleston, South Carolina. Family vacation on Folly Beach, courtesy of my grandfather. Six, sometimes seven families under one beach house roof, along with the in-town cousins coming out for the day every day for two weeks, almost always around July 4th. I was 14.

My closest cousins were Keith and Carl, one day and one year younger than me, respectively. We only saw each other a few times a year growing up, but we were close. My younger sister had several cousins close to her age, too, and there were a few slightly older than us; altogether there were probably 20 people sleeping there, with another 10 to 20 coming by during the day.

All of the budding teens in the house were just discovering the kinds of music that would really start to last, would stick with and influence what each of us would be listening to for the rest of our lives, so we had turntables and cassette players aplenty. Faye, I remember, had a white-handled red case of 45’s that we’d all sort through to queue up favorites like “We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert” and “Timothy,” a gruesome (and near impossible to find today) tune about a group of kids who get stuck in a cave and have to, um, eat their way out, then wonder why they can’t find Timothy…

Up to then my only exposure to “real” Rock and Roll was Kiss, and more recently, Aerosmith via their Toys in the Attic album, which I’d bought not long before that and promptly wore out. Sure, all of the Kiss I’d heard to date was hard and heavy, and Aerosmith opened those avenues even wider for me, but I was not prepared for the responses evoked by what Keith, Carl and I would listen to the most, by a wide, wide margin, that summer.

I’m pretty sure it was Carl that had the double cassette (Oooh! Cool!) of Rush’s All the World’s a Stage, as well as their iconic 2112, both released in 1976 (2112 in April and AtWaS in September, for those keeping score at home,) and A Farewell to Kings, which debuted in September of 1977.

We probably listened to 2112 – both the side-long opus and its weird opposite with songs like “Twilight Zone” and “A Passage to Bangkok” the most often, just because extremely long songs with multiple parts and strange names were so foreign to us, and thus amazing, but there was a very close second, from Farewell… It’s called “Xanadu.”

We had no idea it was based on a long, eldritch poem from over a hundred years before, or that there were numerous other works that referenced that magical place where nobody ever aged, or even that some of the verses were lifted directly from the poem. (Discovering that poem later, and its own odd back story, was itself an epiphany.) We just knew it built, and built, and built, and then opened up wide with a majesty and an all-enveloping sound like none of us had ever experienced. Weird, Dazed and Confused-era Jimmy Page-like string manipulations from Alex’s guitar, staccato trills from Peart’s temple blocks, Geddy noodling around on some keys in the background, all lasting just enough to make you wonder, “What the…?” before going over the cliff and jamming like no three-piece had any right to do.

It’s very easy to isolate the two guitars from each other and from the monstrous underlying drum fills, and it’s hard to remember that these are just three guys playing their asses off. The speed, the virtuosity on each instrument, the runs up and down the scales, all leading to the most unearthly vocals any of us had ever heard (before or since) were otherworldly. It was damn close to sensory overload – almost too much to bear. But only almost.

Again, not knowing that many of the lyrics belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and not to Neil, (partly because they meshed so well stylistically,) I attributed all of their mastery to Peart. Even later, though, when I could tell which set belonged to whom, I marveled that the drummer could possibly have put together such soaring, mysterious, and evocative words; this was true in nearly every case, since there were usually only a song or two per album that he didn’t provide the lyrics for.

So here we have this sonic cathedral built by the ringing guitars and bass, bedrocked by the bones of the continuously astounding drumline, and buoyed by the mystical, magical, maddening imaginings of both Peart and Samuel T; almost Lovecraftian, Poe-like despair and madness, mapping perfectly to Coleridge’s own struggle from “the last immortal man” to “a mad immortal man” and every state in between. Then a long, ringing fade that crashes and flows like the River Alph itself, until silence reigns again, the chilled caves of ice quiet once more.

I’m surprised that tape survived the summer.

Then the long ride home after two wondrous weeks, my parents letting us play tapes in turn, and when it’s mine I naturally choose “Xanadu.”

Halfway through my dad says offhandedly, “You know that most of this is from a famous old poem, right?” I was torn between being amazed at his words, and that he’d been paying close enough attention to figure that out.

“No. Really?”

“Yeah. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Xanadu sometime in the 1800’s, I think. Legend has it that he dreamed about it when he was on some heavy painkiller – opium, I’m pretty sure – and someone came to his door and interrupted him before he could finish the dream and understand all that he’d seen and experienced. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back there and figure it out.”

‘Whoa,’ thought I. ‘This just gets cooler and cooler.’

Naturally I researched all I could find on the subject, which made me wonder if Mr. Peart had mined other such veins for use as Rush material. Guess what? He had.

The name of the space ship in “Cygnus X-1” from the A Farewell to Kings album? Also the name of Don Quixote’s horse.

The song “Anthem” and the entire first side of 2112? Based on the writings of Ayn Rand.

“Rivendell” from the Fly by Night album – I knew that source well.

So not only did I discover the band that would change my life, and shape much of it for the next decade or so, musically speaking, I’d accidentally uncovered one of the most literate lyricists in Rock.

For each of their next several albums I dove headlong into liner notes, album art, interviews and any other sources I could find. Uncovering all of these riddles, solving puzzles only I seemed interested in, added to the overall effect the music had on me. I also realized that most of my friends (a) weren’t as into the music as I was, preferring more straight ahead Rock and Roll, radio-friendly stuff (nothing wrong with that,) and (b) even the small minority that did appreciate the band weren’t as into all the minutiae that turned me on. I didn’t care.

I ended up writing my senior English paper on the band, chiefly around the Hemispheres album, with its Apollonian versus Dionysian dichotomy. Heady stuff for any Rock band to tackle, and that album definitely wasn’t for everyone; even more so than usual the trip they took us on there and then was much more rabbit hole than destination, but it was fun stuff nonetheless. (And a continuation of a song from the previous album – also cool.) I got a good grade on the paper, and a soft suggestion that maybe I’d relied too heavily on the words of others; there being so few citable sources on the band I’d had to fudge a bit a make a few of them up, including the accompanying article’s “quotes.” I’d never been prouder of being accused of using someone else’s writing.

Like no other source for me then or since, Rush opened and combined vistas that I would never have otherwise experienced in such a visceral, cerebral way. It was the summer of 2112, of All the World’s a Stage. Of Xanadu. And there were we, marveling at the first taste of honeydew, and so very drunk on the milk of paradise.

Thanks, guys, and Happy Canada Day! (And happy 4th to everyone else!)

MathomIn keeping with a Tolkien “tradition” that I’ve loved since I first read about it years ago, where Hobbits give small presents (or “mathoms”) on their birthday rather than receive them, I’ve curated a short playlist of the best songs to come my way over the last few months. It ranges from older hard rock, to newer hard rock, to acoustic, to un-categorizable. Here’s some info about what and who are included.

American WrestlersKelly – American Wrestlers

I don’t know anything about these guys – where they’re from, how long they’ve been around, nothing. All I do know is that the first time I heard this song I really liked the groove of it. (I also thought they were singing, “Kill it…” instead of “Kelly”)

Stoic Resemblance – The Helio SequenceHelio Sequence

I’ve heard and liked stuff from this band in the past but have never given them a deep dive, album wise. Still haven’t, but this tune makes me want to. Will report back once that’s accomplished.

RocksCombination – Aerosmith

I rarely go this far back when making compilations like this, but having just discovered that the album Rocks was finally available on iTunes (and I’ve been checking over the years…) I had to get it. I always remembered that this was my favorite collection of theirs, but I’d forgotten how strong these riffs are. “Combination” is the best, most visceral one of the lot, though it’s hard to rank them – they’re all killer. This was, to me, right in the middle of the band’s most fertile period – Toys in the Attic and Draw the Line were put out around the same time, and though hugely impacted by the band’s increasingly inhuman intake of all sorts of drugs, all three albums remain their strongest true rock and roll for me.

Methodrone – The Black CadillacsBlack Cadillacs

Just found these guys – total accident thanks to social media. On first sight, and even first listen, they may be easily dismissed as simply a good time bar band, bluesy and light. Far from it. Their song structures, lyrics, and busy rhythm guitars make what should be old hat sound like new again. Highly recommended.

musee mechaniqueThe Lighthouse and the Hourglass – Musee Mecanique

I found Musee Mecanique a year or so ago and love all of their long instrumental pieces. This is one of the rare tunes with lyrics, and it’s a strong one. Check out their Daytrotter session here.

Witness – Mewmew

Mew is one of those deceptively deep bands who sound, at first, like a hundred bands you’ve heard before – light piano or acoustic guitar intros reminiscent of Coldplay, Fallout Boy and the like. I find them a little more substantive than that, and it was hard to pick just one of their tunes. This won by a narrow margin.

BushBreathe – Bush

Almost all of my compilations include at least one good cover. This one was a big surprise from Bush’s recent Daytrotter session – didn’t even know it was included until I heard it on random in the car. Pink Floyd was a colossal influence on my musical growth, consciousness expansion, and – to be honest – my delinquency. Very interesting to note how differently these lyrics (and almost all of their others) hit me at 51 than they did when in my teens and twenties…

Bath Salt – River Whylessriver whyless

Interesting sound from this band, who I’m planning on seeing in July. To these ears, there’s a definite Chinese influence to the fiddle pieces; would love to find out if they’ve ever heard or played with Abigail Washburn, who also shows those influences.

tree machinesF**king Off Today – Tree Machines

Deceptively loud and sloppy, I was captured by this band’s entire Daytrotter session, too. (Pardon the profanity, but I figured we’re all old enough to take it, and if the kids are in the car when you’re cranking this one – and it needs to be cranked – you can always skip to the next one. It’s a little tamer.)

Full Circle – Xavier RuddXavier Rudd

Nice and calm after all the previous noise, this one is in keeping with the rest of Rudd’s canon – mellow and deep, inextricably sad and uplifting at the same time. (Bonus: when’s the last time you heard a didgeridoo on a song like this? Or anywhere?)

young buffaloSykia – Young Buffalo

I’ve been familiar with this outfit for a few years now. Good to see that their progression continues – familiar enough to the older stuff, new enough to sound fresh.

Cumin – The AcornMerlin by Richter

Another nice acoustic piece, this time with an almost Afro-centric beat that offsets it nicely. From a great collection called Oh! Canada 25 from The Line of Best Fit.

leisure societyWhen It Breaks – The Leisure Society

This felt like a nice bookend to the beginning section, and a softer way to wrap up.

I used to make these collections every few months – the above represents only new stuff from the last 60 days or so – but it’s been awhile now. Depending on how these are received, maybe I’ll get back to a more regular schedule. Let me know what you think, and thanks for listening/reading!

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.


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.

Let’s get right to it.

So far this year I’ve found few albums that are stellar from start to finish. (Exceptions: Of Monsters and Men’s My Head is an Animal, Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America, Port of Morrow from The Shins and Chevelle’s Hats Off to the Bull.)

But now I can add to that list: Silversun Pickups has released an album at least as good as Swoon, their last effort, which I loved. Neck of the Woods has plenty of familiar sounds and feels, but enough that’s new to make it feel like a true step forward and not simply going back to the same old well. Favorite cuts include “Mean Spirits”, “Dots and Dashes”, and “Simmer”. Comparisons to Smashing Pumpkins aside (and they’re still out there, rightly) I’ve kept the entire thing on heavy rotation for the past few weeks, and find more to like about it every time I hear it.

Sara Watkins’ latest, Sun Midnight Sun, has many bright moments, to be sure. Guest spots abound, a great producer in Blake Mills (this generation’s T-Bone Burnett? A case can be made…) and some nice and shiny tunes all make for another pleasurable listening experience from the sweet-sounding siren. The first one that grabbed me by the ears and shook me to attention was the instrumental “The Ward Accord”, which plays to one of Sara’s great strengths: making new and modern music sound like it was written at the turn of the last century, and that she’s only recently discovered it and made it her own. This could easily have been played around the Rebels’ campfire in early July of 1863, the night before they wandered into town looking for some shoes. . .

As usual, I found a new band through their Daytrotter session in May. This time around it was Deaf Club, and their set in the Horseshack is wondrous. Don’t sleep on this one. (Decent Twitter presence, too, so tag along for the ride there, too. Follow them @DEAFCLUBmusic)

Rosie Thomas‘ Daytrotter set is also not to be missed. “Much Farther to Go”, which I’ve always loved, stands out in particular but the whole session is great.

As for the rest of the time since last I scribed, there seems to have been a dearth of great stuff – either that or I haven’t had enough time to unearth enough new sounds to rate and report on. I suspect it’s the latter, having logged close to 15,000 miles in the air for work in May. I’ve got close to 50 unrated new tunes in the bank, still, so hopefully the next time I’m here there will be more to share.

Until then- keep listening, and don’t forget to share some of your favorites, too.

In the first installment of what turned out to be a too-long attempt to recap the month of April I closed by saying, “… I didn’t even get to how Anais Mitchell’s album transformed me one morning while working last week, or how discovering honeyhoney’s Daytrotter session was one of the best surprises ever, and prompted me to buy their album, too (AND contribute to one of the great causes with which they’re affiliated, Feed Them With Music – check them out and give here), so they’ll all have to wait until next time.” It’s next time.

There really aren’t any words powerful enough to describe Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America, her latest full-length. Singing sometimes as the titular young man, sometimes as a character singing to or about him, and sometimes as someone seemingly unrelated to the storyline, the songs intertwine, weaving a tale at once tragic and beautiful. At several points it reminds me of her masterfully collaborative so-called “folk opera”, Hadestown – stark, simple, aching. The raw strength of these songs is belied by her soft, sometimes almost childlike tone and phrasing, which really only lends even more power to some of the more poignant lyrics. I dare you to listen to “The Shepherd“, for instance, and not be moved.

Finding honeyhoney was one of those very happy accidents that come along all too rarely. I’d gone to the Daytrotter site to grab another artist’s leavings, and scrolled down as I always do, sampling here, dropping in there, and for some reason listened a little longer to some of the honeyhoney tunes. I downloaded the short session and was promptly blown away, even though it was a little more twangy than I generally like. The lead singer reminded me of an even more drawl-ly Grace Potter – that same whiskey-soaked strength and honesty – but with banjo and fiddle behind it. I looked them up, hesitated not at all in buying their complete LP, and found a few really fun-looking videos. One of those was recorded as part of a Project called Feed Them With Music. Many artists are taking part in this effort, so check it out and see if you can help a little, too. Each song, it seems, has at least a few clever lines, like this one from “Don’t Know How“:

“I sold all my clothes to get rid of your smell

Smashed all the clocks that had the right time to tell

Me how long it has been since we parted ways

Don’t know how to leave you when I want to stay.”

One of the other finds I skipped last time has been right under my nose, metaphorically, while in reality being on the other side of the world most of the time. Robin Nievera is my nephew, and usually lives and records in the Philippines, like his famous parents and many other family members. He’s mastered the electric guitar at a relatively young age, and his first full album is a wonder, showcasing his songwriting, singing and performing talents in their best possible light. (I’d say that even if he wasn’t related. And anyway, what’s a little nepotizz among friends?) Check out “In 3’s” below, and then get, and dig, the whole collection, called Overwait. (And try to get that riff outta your head. You’re welcome.) Hopefully that title doesn’t refer to the period between now and his next offerings.

More recently, I’ve downloaded Silversun Pickups’ newest, Neck of the Woods, and while I haven’t rated the whole thing yet, I’ve heard enough to know it’s at least as good as Swoon, or anything else they’ve done. I also know that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve wished my car stereo went to 11 when one of these new tunes popped up. I’ll probably have more on them next time after I’ve fully digested the entire album, but for now check out “Make Believe”, “Mean Spirits”, “Simmer”, and “Gun-shy Sunshine”.

Also just secured Sara Watkins’ most recent collection, Sun Midnight Sun. I’ve only heard one song: “The Ward Accord” just popped up on shuffle and its instrumental loveliness told me right away that it could only be Sara. She’s long been a favorite of mine, from Nickel Creek days to being able to see her on tour, alone and in the Decemberists’ traveling band, and I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. She and brother Sean have been podcasting some truly wonderful shows from sunny CA, enlisting a motley and fun-loving (and sounding) crowd of like-minded and uber-talented friends to help (like Fiona Apple, Benmont Tench from Petty’s band, Jackson Browne and others), several of whom appear on the record. More on that one next time, too.

Sara Watkins, The Ward Accord from Sun Midnight Sun

Looking forward to Luka Bloom’s latest, as well, fresh off the mojo wire, and I’m sure I’ll be summing that one up here. (And since this site’s see-saw was been tilted WAY too heavily toward the Sounds section, I’ll have a Visions post up soon – my take on Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole, a novel set in the Dark Tower universe, somewhere between books 4 & 5. Don’t miss it.)

Until then keep listening, and don’t forget to share the sounds that have been spinning in your heads. Others wanna ride, too!