Thursday, November 30, 2017

Favorite songs/albums of 2017

Best of 2017

To narrow it down....

30.) Diet Sig - I Swear I'm Good At This
29.) Bjork - Utopia
28.) Cults - Offering
27.) Guided By Voices - August By Cake
26.) Angel Olsen - Phases
25.) Little Dragon - Season High
24.) Charly Bliss - Guppy
23.) Sylvan Esso - Die Young
22.) Overcoats - Young
21.) Julien Baker - Turn Out The Lights
20.) Moutnain Goats - Goths
19.) Rhye - Taste
18.) Bent Knee - Land Animal
17.) Waxahatchee - Never Been Wrong
16.) SZA - Control
15.) Kamasi Washington - Harmony of Difference
14.) Shabazz Palaces - Quarez: Born on a Gangster Star
13.) Big Thief - Capacity
12.) LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
11.) Broken Social Scene - Be Happy
10.) Open Mike Eagle - Brick Body Kids Still Daydream
9.) The National - Sleep Well Beast
8.) Kendrick Lamar - Damn
7.) Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings - Soul Of A Woman
6.) Ted Leo - The Hanged Man
5.) St. Vincent - Masseduction
4.) Jay Som - Everybody Works
3.) Slowdive - Slowdive
2.) Torres - Three Futures
1.) Alvvays - Antisocialites

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sophisticated Professionals - Paisley & Punk

The silhouette you see in the logo for Sophisticated Professional Records is about all you're going to get, in terms of a tangible identity for the duo behind these tunes... The songs streaming below are continuations in a line of genre transformations that the musicians formerly(/currently?) known as The Ashleys have been experimenting with over the last 10 months.

The Ashleys, a three-amped, drum-heavy garage onslaught, played a show last month, but it seemed, up until that point, that they may have been on hiatus, and that the last three albums they put out, Christian Speed Metal, Neu-esque Krautrock, and backporch-rocking-chair Country, were a means of applying a bit of shock-treatment to their creativity, whilst also toying with the notion of Band Identity in an age of Social Media. You can stream releases by their various alter egos, like Bobbi & Weed, Nein, and JC Motercade, via their nondescript bandcamp HQ. 

Their latest trip is Singles.

Mariachi Punk throws back to The Dead Boys, and a bit of The Jam--snarly, jangly punk ballads laced with herky-jerky riffs and impassioned growls that rail against interchangeable oppressors within the establishment.

And then the George Flower Company hazily drifts back to late 60's paisley pop and proto-psychedelia. Jangly and warbly like Donovan or Fairport Convention, but also a bit mystical like The Pretty Things, Village Green-era Kinks, or maybe some kind of incense-soaked Harrison-post-Beatles spirit journey.

With Mariachi Punk, it feels very 1979. With Georgia Flower Company, it's very 1969... Comparatively, Nein, the Krautrock project, feels right at home in the mid-70's burgeoning scene of electronic pioneers, just as you can imagine Bobbi & Weed hanging out with CSN beside the stage at Woodstock. Tom and Steve are charmingly capturing what we perceive to be "eras" or "genres," and then creating original music within those realms.

Take a listen. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Jamie Norte - Enough Is Enough

No bells. No whistles. Just songwriting.
Just guitar, voice, lyrics, piano, and a perfect little patina of echo and reverb.

Jamie Norte is in the spotlight. He's been to the side of several bands that I've written about in the past. But with Enough Is Enough, he's pulling back what, until now, for me, was a bit of a curtain, a curtain that goes past the punk, indie-rock, psych, and metal-tinged outfits I've heard him contribute to in the past and reveals an inventive mode of singer/songwriter stylization, balancing catchy melodies with forthright lyricism, dark night of the soul catharsis with new dawn restorations.

Norte, (or James North, as he's also known), recorded these tracks with Chris Koltay at High Bias Studios. That Grammy-winning set of ears augments these otherwise minimalist arrangements with a roomy sound that augments the overall presence of each song, giving an amorphous kind of aural backlighting to what is typically just three instrumental elements.

Since there are no drums, it's on Norte to thread a strumming style on his acoustic guitar that can be gliding and melodic through the hooks but also percussive enough to get your toe tapping. The song I have streaming above is my favorite example of effectively coiling a steady subtle beat to the song's progression while also tugging you with that three-chord hook at the end of each verse.

There's nothing flashy about these songs and that serves them well! The timbre struck by the piano and the rendering of its accompaniment has a tenderness, or maybe a wariness, of just being there to provide that perfect doling of emotional resonance. The guitar playing can be strummy like a coffeehouse folk singer, but can also show some intricate complexities in there cascades, such as in "Bad Days."

And Norte's voice has a taut kind of growl to it when he arcs into choruses, striking a tone similar to vocalists like Dan Bejar, Pete Quirk, or maybe John McCauley, that mid-high register that has a buzzy/hummy/throaty quality to it. I don't know if Destroyer, Cave Singers, or Deer Tick are at all playing into North's personal influences, but I can say that if you have dug what those stylists have done with the folk/Americana genre in the past, then Enough Is Enough is your  next listen... 

Jamie Norte's next show is Saturday, Dec 9 at the New Dodge Lounge
More info

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Brother Son: New Single "Growth" + Interview

How strange it is to grow up... To be growing up... To never not be young at heart, but to always be progressing, reshaping, rethinking, reflecting...

It wasn't until Brother Son's springtime EP that it hit me; that the fundamentals of the purest kinds of power-pop should galvanize and give a voice and a tangible character to that exhilarating tension one primarily feels throughout the blur of their 20's...

To listen to Young & Pretty is to bob and to weave and to lurch and to sway... The Detroit quartet back a potent punch with croony vocal melodies, sock-hopping doo-wop-ish choruses, snapping drums and grin-inducing guitar hooks with strums set to super jangly. The lyrics detail relatable misadventures in life and love, inevitably wound up in a reassuring resolution... Because growing up is a constant climb, and each wrung, each song's episodic narration, is another twist in your life's plotline. That said, growing up, real life, relationships, that can all get so dramatic. That's where the music comes in and sweetens everything up into propulsive, fiery dance-parties. Not that this is dance, it's more that it just kinda cheers up your soul in such a way that it compels you to move, or at the very least, just to loosen things up.

In just one year together, Francis Harrington (vocals/guitar), Chris Pecorelli (drums), Jimmy Walkup (bass) and Drew Gijsbers (keyboards), have sufficiently established themselves amid the local music scene with a bunch of live performances, and are now already on their way to releasing a full length album, Young & Pretty

"Growth" is a perfect song to premiere as a single off Brother Son's new album because it embodies the kaleidoscope of emotions and energies inherent to growing up. The vocals wave in this indellible formation with the buoyant keys through the verses while the popping percussive hook and ribbon curled guitars carry you through the swoonier sway of the bridge until it all explodes like confetti for the cascading, closing chorus.

Take a listen:

And here's a chat with singer Frank Harrington:

Tell me about what inspired you to tailor your song arrangements and melodies towards this kind of caution-to-the-wind energy...
We try to capture the feeling of being trapped in limbo between childhood and adulthood. So, that feeling of freedom, propulsion, and warmth is derived from the sole purpose of growing up. When we make songs, we write parts from our own individual minds, but since all of us are still fairly young, we try to paint that picture of what we’re going through in hopes of helping people like us grow with us as we aspire to our professional careers.

This is very poppy music, and that can be therapeutic and escapist... But it's coming out during some formidably troubling times... What do you want to do with the tunes of Brother Son, what do you aim to give listeners...
Yes, so the goal for our music is to not only provide a release to the listener in these historically crazy times, but to also represent guidance through the trials and tribulations of growing up, especially when you're growing up in the extremely troubling times that we live in. I want our songs to be on a dude’s burnt CD that he’s giving to his crush just as much as I want our songs being played at parties simply to be danced to. When we write our music, we want it to help the listener have a sense of welcoming and joy.

What are some shared inspirations among the band-members? And what is it about those artists, or the songs you each love, that draws you to them?
Some modern inspirations would be Alabama Shakes, Mac Demarco, and The Arctic Monkeys. We are also heavily influenced by the common 70’s groove as a whole. We love the sense of raw emotion that derives from each band. They present their product in such a way that it is smooth yet enticing and it really motivates us to create a product that can be easy listening or played at a party.

This new album sort of expands upon the first EP? Can you talk about that? And can you also talk about recording with Zach Shipps? 
Yes, the new album actually isn’t set apart from our debut EP Young & Pretty, it is simply an addition made into the form of our debut LP Young & Pretty. The EP has this sense of being with this album we are trying to end this notion of Young & Pretty with a deliberate period. Recording the album was an absolute blast. We recorded it with Zach Shipps at RV Audio Lab in Ferndale. Zach was very easy to work with and we told him exactly what kind of sound we were going for and he accomplished it with flying colors.

Also, what was it like to open for Electric Six at St. Andrew's Hall back in September? absolute dream come true! Being able to play at St. Andrews was such a privilege and it really empowered us as a band. St. Andrew’s is a beautiful venue and we can’t wait to play there again.

Tell me about this single, "Growth." It's a very reflective song... It refers to this crazy year we just lived through (2016, that is...), so I'd love to hear about the weight of its lyrics... But also, music-wise, production-wise, there's a heightened sense for dynamics, for a classic 50's surf/doo-wop sound... So, I'd love to just hear about this single and how it came together
This song I wrote at the end of my freshman year of college last school year (2016-2017). I wanted it to be reminiscent about the past year and how fast life had changed. I wrote the lyrics from an introspective point of view to help me grow as a person and to get my thoughts expressed into something real and recorded. We worked on the song together as a band one day and wrote all of our parts that day. Jimmy wrote a bass line right off the bat, Drew and I worked on some melodies for keyboard, all while Chris was working on the rhythm and dynamics for the song. It was one of those things where we just couldn’t put it off and, to me, symbolizes the growth that we have made as a band.

Brother Son
Album Release Party
Sat., Nov 25
at The Loving Touch in Ferndale
More info

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Listening Back: Jack Oats - Unsteady Hands

I enjoy nearing the end of a calendar year, because I finally afford myself the opportunity to retrace my steps and seek out the music that I missed... Week to week, there's lots of music features on this page, but for every band I can write about, there's two dozen more in Detroit, constantly writing and releasing new music.

Today, I'm tugging my own ear back six months to when Jack Oats's EP Unsteady Hands. 

Justin Erion brings a brassy, low croon that sweeps over you like a brisk autumn gale. That, combined with his cascading fingerpicking style on acoustic guitar, combine to manifest what’s most instantly dazzling about these tunes. But Aaron Strichartz adds comet-like glides across a fiery guitar to flourish through the bridges and augment the corners of each chorus, while Mike Ryan’s drumming is textbook Americana train-chugs throughout the quieter measures, but effectively storm up in intensity to match the cathartic howl of Erion.

There’s beauty in starkness. The same way you can see chipped bark on birch trees in the woods, or the way the wind this time of year can somehow sting and soothe at the same time – that’s Erion’s voice to me, a thing of grit and tenderness, a crackle of raspy thunder coiled into a gracefully trilled vibrato. And the recording of this EP effectively evokes a sense of space, as though you’re happening upon the instrumentalists and singer in the clearing of a wood, open sky above you, and an organic echo reverberating off the canopy.  

But Erion, as a solo singer/songwriter/performer, and with Jack Oats, isn't singing from a place of lingering on pain. That register he hits, which is very-nearly-a-growl but could also almost be a throaty sigh, suggests a soul that's more resolved, over and done with any emotional blow-up, if not, nearing that settled state. None of us are quick to learn, in love and in life... But loneliness subsides. It always eventually does. You feel renewed. And that's the energy Jack Oats captures...

Listen to the full EP here

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor - Lavender Blood

If I had my way, "trippy..." wouldn't have such a stigma to it... The very word itself conjures images of ultraviolet projections of lavalamp undulations, incense smoke, glazed eyes, woozy dance moves and hallucinogenic gates through interchangeable variations of space-odysseys...

The prevailing element of Sisters Of Your Sunshine Vapor songs, particularly with their latest, Lavender Blood, is the effect and the affect. When it comes to what we often categorize as neo-psychedelia, you're often responding to its suffusion of reverb, echo, delay, distortion..., at least I know that's the case for me. Certain timbres and intonations from guitars, bass, and snare drums will retain an eerie familiarity, but are aurally ensconced with alterations evoking something that likely emanated from the astral plains... SOYSV's knack has always been for setting an atmosphere with their entrancing melodies, but then forging something in the production period that makes it sound like a song that came from somewhere else, something that was channeled...

And yes, that all goes back to things like "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Eight Miles High," because we all have an idea of what "trippy" music sounds like... Sure. But the significance of SOYSV's latest is that it has the blood and guts and soul of blues music, Detroit garage-rock, and post-grunge pulsing through its neon veins. There is a balance of lyricism and mysticism, the marching percussion and riffy hooks of blues and garage, with the detached, wayward orbits of space-rock, it sounds traditional at points, exotic at others; a meditation of calm, into a fever-dream of existentialism.

With Lavender Blood, this Detroit trio show a mastery of layering lots of "trippy" sounds on top; but their keen to embed a lot of enticing and adventurous substance, in sounds and in lyrics, underneath.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Goblin (Part Two)

“I think the idea (for Goblin) just started with wanting to have a city as the centerpiece for a scary story,” Malerman said.

Welcome to the town of Goblin. May your night there be wet with rain, breathless with adventure, and filled with fright…

A novel in six novellas detailing separate occurrences of creeping, enveloping, and sudden terror... The latest in the horror novel genre from Ferndale's own Josh Malerman.  Catch up with part one of this interview here

“The first story that I wrote, actually, is about its lead character introducing a new friend to Goblin. What was really happening is I’m writing my way through Goblin for that first time. It eventually became something like if ‘The Twilight Zone’ were an actual physical place… Not something that you fell into, walked into, dreamed into, or drank your way into, like in the show, but a physical place, an everyday town with Gobliners walking around.

Some characters are warier than others; some are in a blissful ignorance. Something about living in this city long enough…it starts to tweak things in you. And these stories are where we find many of its inhabitants at the very breaking point of that terrifying tweak. Many characters, on this night of nights, reach not quite a breaking point, but something in them certainly snaps.

“It was interesting maintaining this more concentrated energy throughout the writing of each story,” said Malmerman, looking back on two 300-page books with Bird Box, and last year’s Black Mad Wheel. “I love the horror anthology (genre), like Tales From The Crypt, or Creepshow, those were definitely influences. I enjoy how one segment can be maybe not as grandly scary as another, that one can be quieter and eerie, and that they’re all wonderful because they all fit together as a whole, that they complement each other in that way.”

Maerman said he initially drafted 10 stories for Goblin, and that one, as an example, was cut because it was almost too overtly supernatural. It’s like, there aren’t twists or jump scares, but more so that in each story, a character is kind of meeting their destiny… And it’s all spread across this city, all in one night.”

Whereas Bird Box was, albeit captivatingly, confined to one house in a post-apocalyptic scenario, his follow-up, Black Mad Wheel, was spread out across a desert. Now, with Goblin, Malerman was able to build a much more specific milieu. Streets, houses, hedge mazes, mansions, and a foreboding forest. And Malerman discovered that that was the allure of Goblin… Creating a space, rather than a monster.

Malerman says he’s often turning over a couple of contemplations regarding horror novels. The first is pace. Pace plays heavily into the novellas of Goblin.

“Poe knew pace, oh boy did Poe know pace…  The drummer (the heartbeat?) who plays along with you as you write; like the invisible brute in the room who pounds away as you write, giving you the beat of the book. This guy hangs around, he’s there at every writing session, as if he’s passed out from the night before. “Still here?” You say. And he says, “Let’s play.” That’s all he ever says. “Let’s play.” I’ve read a lot of books recently in which the pacing is almost too perfect, too right on. Like a perfectly produced pop song. While pace is huge, I also don’t want it to be so spot on that the books come out like they were written to the drum tracks of a modern Nashville studio session. I like the push and pull, the give and take. I even like it when the drummer goes nuts and I can’t keep up and we’re just plain off. Not all the time, though! Some of it is good for the soul.”

The other thing Malemran’s been meditating on is manifesting Fear as a character onto itself. He says that “…one of the reasons anthology films work so well is because, when you’re watching or reading a horror story, you know a scare is coming, already on its way. You may not know how awesome the scare is gonna be, but that doesn’t matter. So when I read that this or that scary book didn’t have any character development, I don’t pay attention to the critique. I wanna know how well developed the character of the Scare was. And if it’s good? Then that’s good character development to me.”

“The deeper I get into horror, the less interested I am in a kind of brutality or gruesomeness.  I’m more interested in imagination. I love films like Hostel, but it doesn’t move me in the same way that The Witch or The Others. I’m turned on, now, by the idea of horror as a character… That the Scare is a character with a capital S.”

“Are there ghosts there, in Goblin? Is it a cursed place? I wanted nothing verified… “ Of course there is an observable, tangible monsters creeping around cities in other horror novels, like IT in Derry, but with Goblin, it almost feels like the city is the monster. “And it got to some of these characters,” says Malerman, reflecting with a barely detectable subtle curling to an oncoming smile. “Really got to them.”

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Goblin (Part One)

In a lot of scary stories, some thing  is always out to get you. You're often displaced..., in the woods, or in a haunted house, or some foreign place devoid of a sense of safety... That's where so many horror stories take place...

But what happens when home is where the horror is?  What if the monster, or the mania, or the dread, was always just down the street from you? What is eeriness was like an invisible neighbor? 

Rather than recast an ostensibly safe, cozy, quiet suburb, (some picturesque place like a Haddonfield or a Derry), into something that's suddenly unsettling and hostile, author Josh Malerman (Bird Box) has dreamt up his own city with Goblin.

Goblin’s a place of almost permanent overcast skies and damp dark nights; a place where it’s haunted past wasn't paved over, necessarily, but instead is something almost physically manifested, something in the air that’s just quietly, guardedly acknowledged. In the vein of, say, Twin Peaks, the residents of Goblin are very aware that they live in a uniquely strange place. But it’s only through the six stories that Malerman presents in this new book that we’re able to glimpse just who, or what, might be conducting the will and energies of this unnamable creepiness.

A recent review raved for Goblin’s conjuring of things like Dario Argento films, Creepshow, and Grand Guignol horror theater. “…and that’s exactly what I was going for,” Malerman said. “Though I probably approached it more like a season of Outer Limits.

With Goblin, a reader can follow the individual lives of six citizens on one night; one rather dark, and fateful night, that is. This interconnected collection of stories are novella-sized scares detailing unique encounters and various waking nightmares, with Malerman set more in the mold of the eerie “weird tales” of yore, ala Lovecraft, or capturing other high-energy yarns like Tales From The Crypt, emphasizing the setting, characters quirks and plot, and hooking you right from the get-go with each successive supernatural circumstance.

“It’s like strapping into the rusty metal cart that rides you through the old carnival ‘Haunted House’ attraction…” Malerman said, not so much talking about his readers experience of Goblin, but rather, the terrible "track" of some of its unfortunate inhabitants. "Each of the characters, you find, are kind of pulled by something or toward something…”

And they might not know what that something is… A brash, glory hound hunter tears off into feared and forbidden woods like a man possessed to bag some supernatural game; a worn-thin worker at the zoo contemplates the sacrificing of his own soul to atone for all of man’s cruelty; a middle-schooler clasps his youthful naivety to believe in magic and becomes perilously transfixed by the charms of a treacherous illusionist…

“Something missing from Goblin, though, is that you see a lot of horrors befall characters in other stories that have, like, these unatoned-for sins, or guilt. With some of these stories, you ask, what did they do to deserve this?” One man, a portly recluse and hyper-paranoiac, is absolutely certain that his apartment is haunted. But he doesn’t fear the idea of a ghostly presence, he fears, very specifically, that he’s doomed into an encounter with one apparition that will be so intense that it will surely “scare him to death.”   

“And, so, how do you avoid what you think is, essentially, destiny?” Malerman wonders aloud...

And what if that destiny is pulling you towards a kind of darkness? be continued...

Monday, November 6, 2017

Stranger Things: Is it so naive to wonder...?

I’m smitten with Stranger Things. I know I’m not alone. I also know my fervent and declarative adoration for these 17 episodes of supernatural mystery and suspenseful sci-fi triggers eye-rolls from some... those who are the shrewder detractors who pin upon its all-out indulgence of that delicious, dopamine-splashing, intangible reverie we call “nostalgia.”

It (nostalgia) basically is a drug; something I’m high on… But not in some harmful or unhealthy way, like a Dream Cruise, or mythologizing the past as a Utopia. It's an emotion. And it's not a lost youth, it's just a lost sensibility....

I just wrapped up the second season, likely several days behind others even more enthusiastic or obsessed than I who binged all nine episodes. I’m not interested in mentioning or analyzing the plot or critiquing the overall narrative arc of each character, so there is no spoiler to worry about.... I just want to key in on, immerse myself, even…, in the feeling of this show, the swoon of wistful and woozy emotions that it stirs up in me.

You'll be passionate about very few things later in your life than with that same rare kind of fleeting passion you could channel in your youth. The muscle of naivety atrophies in adulthood. The only thing that ignites comparable poignancy in you through your 20's and 30's will be music. Should be music! More on that below...

Stranger Things comes right out and flagrantly taunts you with how nostalgic it wants to be... Four of its main characters are riding Schwinn's in full Ghostbuster jumpsuits with proton packs singing that 1984 film's theme song as they ride up to middle school on a tawny autumn morning. Ray Bradbury would have loved this show. He was all about the dopamine that nostalgic-autumnal-musings could bring...the energy of youth, and an existence that did not yet know cynicism.

So, yes, it is also about Lovecraftian terror manifesting in unassuming locales (like the burbs) where tween and teens have to creatively strategize a battle-plan and often rise to heroic occasions to save each other from real peril. It's a nice meditation on being scared of actual monsters in terms of putting your teenage dramas in a cafeteria into perspective.

But the show, as a unveiled manipulation of your nostalgia, is very much about reeling you back to that inexplicable and impossible-to-fight-off feeling of the warm and fuzzies that come from triggers like vintage technology, old movie posters, 30-year-old pop songs on the soundtrack, and quintessential depictions of coming-of-age. And the show, technically speaking, in its framing, camera angles, lighting, music cues, and its talented young cast, captures that energy in all its jubilant awkwardness, melodramatic overreactions, heartbroken tantrums....

More than anything, it's a framing of a companionship unlike anything else you'll ever establish in the years ahead...

I'm obsessed with different creations from the world of pop culture for different reasons. For Stranger Things, it's because I can revert..., and yeah, I know a psychologist is going to call that unhealthy..., but revert back to a state where I wasn't panicked. Mild panic accompanies every day's existence of adulthood. It's a nervous casserole of doubt and uncertainty. For some, it can take you back to when you had a much narrower worldview, but for me, I'm trying to use the emotions of nostalgia to meditate on how I can be living my life NOW....

Nostalgia gets a bad rap because its seen as a recycling, or an escape to the past where one can hide. But why am I so blissful after watching Stranger Things? Because it allows me to fully embody what it felt like to be blissfully ignorant. Slow dancing with someone and not having to say anything? Not knowing what to say, really, but not actually feeling so compelled to say something because your adult brain abhors a vacuum of sounds.

Or am I so blissful because I haven't fully quantified how disenchanting a post-Internet-world can be... The digital world is too much with us... ? Do I miss the simplicity and the quiet that much? Landlines? Stereos?

Am I really, most of all, smitten with how these charming characters spend so much time together, in person, shoulder to shoulder, at kitchen tables or in basements or in cabins or in Sheriff's Broncos..., sharing the myriad exhilaration of their every day existence..., be it a science project, trick-or-treating, a first kiss, or be it outsmarting an inter-dimensional hive-mind monster with carnivorous minions before it infects their whole town and kills everyone, together as a team! ... STILL... You feel the companionship.

But you also feel how fun it is....

What I'm saying is... This show makes me miss being in the moment. It makes me want to get back to practicing that idea of being present... And living the hell out of every moment, even the awkward ones, just as I did when I was younger... While that changed as I aged, the one thing that never changed was the goosebumps, the sensory meridian response, I get when I listen to music...

So, going off of that warm and fuzzy feeling, I put together a playlist. It has nothing to do with Stranger Things. It has everything to do with the feelings that that show arises in you... It is emo music without having any actual emo on it. It is naive, heart-on-the-sleeve, twitter-pated stuff that makes you feel like you're falling in love, or at least that makes you feel like your head' swimming with dopamine... And the sighs come easy... Alvvays isn't at all close to the orbit of the Stranger Things universe; but it's "Dreams Tonite" is a great place to start.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Outer Limits Lounge Records (Interview)

Back in April, when I chatted with singer/songwriter Kelly Jean Caldwell about her band's long-awaited album Downriver, she mentioned that she and husband John Szymanksi (of The Henchmen) were getting ready to launch a record label from out of their Hamtramck HQ, The Outer Limits Lounge, a bar on the east side of the neighborhood that they own/operate. Yes, it's a bar, but Szymanski had also set up a space inside to record bands, and one of the first bands on their roster to lay down some tracks was The Cheetahs. Their album came out a month ago, the second official release on Outer Limits Lounge Records, followed up by this weekend's release of Bad Habit! by WICCANS. (WICCANS features Caldwell on lead vocals, with Aran Ruth.)

"We started this label really just to put out Kelly's Downriver record, the Bad Habit record by WICCANS, and then the new Hentchmen record," said Szymanski. "It's only because of the way things have transpired, recording the Cheetahs and feeling like they were really part of the family, and then being approached with the new full length by the Sugarcoats, that it really now seems like an actual label."
Hentch Dudes, Recording

"John and the Hentch dudes, of course, had a small label of their own that released the early Hentch-stuff back in the day," said Caldwell, "so he had a bare bones idea of the business of getting records made."

The simple mission for Outer Limits Lounge Records, at this early stage, is just to be able to play these records at the bar, at the very location they were engineered, and then be able to sell them to folks right there; basically, do some record shopping right then and there while you're at this bar/studio/performance-space. OLL can then be an HQ for the five bands on their current roster to play shows at and maybe do some future recordings. "If nothing else," said Caldwell, "these vinyl records look really good just chillin behind the bar!"

Launching a label inhouse also augments the inherent charm of this venue. With a retro sort of frozen-in-time, no frills, chill/chic vibe inside, it can feel like a head-clearing sanctuary, as much as a place to let out some of your wilder sides for its sporadic live music events.

"I always loved the Outer Limits Lounge and lived down the street from it for years," said Szymanski. "Those shows there were always some of my favorites....and after we bought it, we've had some really great shows and parties with a whole new energy. We're so happy to be able to open the doors and welcome in the neighborhood. It's truly a unique and wonderful feeling to be able to get to know your neighbors..."

"There are people who we've lived amidst for years and somehow never crossed paths with, but now, each day, we're meeting new kindred spirits and fellow humans who inhabit and adore the same little corner of the earth that we do," said Caldwell.

Szymanski and Caldwell have owned the building for a few years now, and have made the space an extention of their home. It's a place where they can kinda hold court and meet with friends and family, or talk about songs and rehearse with bandmates. "It seems like the spirit has remained in the bar and people notice that it's a very homey vibe," said Caldwell."And it seems most patrons are comforted by that, and perhaps that keeps them coming back."

The goal for Szymanski and Caldwell was to have this weekend's grand opening label launch party be a chance to expose the label and its bands, as well as the venue, to "even more rockers, freaks, and curious neighbors..."   Mission accomplished. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

"Send the Sun" on Sunday: Nikki Lane at the Majestic Theatre

Contemporary country singers, somewhat similar to jazz musicians, have to work extra hard to prove the vitality of their respective stereotype-laden styles. Country doesn't use synthesizers or glide at 130 beats per minute, it doesn't use strange, spacey pedals on their electric guitars and the bass is not some brooding, ambient drone. It isn't the first thing the indie-rockers, the garage-blues bruisers or the electronica dancers think they're going to reach for... 

But an artist like Nikki Lane, who's coming here to Detroit, is substantially revitalizing the warbly, twangy, stompy signatures of country, with lots of rock n roll energy, soulful vocals, and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics. She has a voice that is powerful enough in timbre and intonation, that it could soar alone on just an acoustic guitar, but The Tennessee Dirtbags back her up with guitars, pedal-steel, and energizing rhythms. 

She toys with conventions and then turns them on their heads. She opens up her 2017 release Highway Queen with a haunting and alluring "Yippy-Kai-Ay.....!" The band kicks into a riffy, strutting song where Lane isn't shy about an honest portrait of her hometown. The title track opens up with the woozy pedal steel whirl that we're used to an Americana and roots music, but her vocal style, again, strays from the ballady kinds of country songs you're used to and instead has the verve and attitude of a percussive R&B cadence. The album, overall, is a fully arced summit of emotions, from heartbreak to empowerment. 

Check out this song, one of my favorites from the album, that effectively shows her sensibilities for balancing wistfulness, comfort, and resolve... Country tunes, especially this one, often restore a bit of joy to a weary soul. That, alone, should prove the genre's charms.

Nikki Lane is performing tomorrow night (Sunday) at the Majestic Theatre with Lukas Nelson
More info

Friday, November 3, 2017

Wire In The Wood

Wire In The Wood
Performing Tues., Nov 14
St Andrew's Hall
w/ The Infamous Stringdusters

Wire In The Wood suggests a fiber coil shooting electricity through an organic casing of timber. It suggests a higher octane energy one might unassumingly encounter inside an otherwise quiet and pastoral setting of a country thicket. This Ann Arbor based quartet come from the school of new acoustic styles, bringing a modern blend of world music, experimental pop and Americana into the well-tilled soil of bluegrass, roots, and gypsy-swing.

My point? It's music you can't not tap your foot to.... music you can't not move to..., swoon to..., maybe even ponder to...

Wire In The Wood came together somewhat suddenly. Lead singer/guitarist Billy Kirst had been picking together with mandolinist Kyle Rhodes for a while but weren't pursuing anything serious with it. Bassist Greg Burns, who had jammed with them for a bit, called them up one fateful day and said he and Matthew Altruda needed a houseband to open things up every evening for their Bluegrass Night at The Circus Bar in Ann Arbor. Jordan Adenna joined on fiddle and, since they were playing at the Circus Bar, they went by the name of "The Bearded Ladies" for about a year, performing 20 or so Bluegrass standards as the house band.

They got out of to play at some breweries and at the Earthwrok Harvest Gathering, but, as Kirst said, "we didn't really have the fire under us at that time to try to take it to the next level." Finally, in late 2010, when Burns went off to join Greensky Bluegrass, Kirst started focusing more and more on creating a unique sound with his songs; Ryan Shea, just 15 at the time, came in to replace Burns and that's when the sound you hear today started steadily coming together.

Jump to 2015 and they're playing a lot of shows around Ann Arbor, but still not getting out on the road; still no albums out at that point. Said Kirst, "...We took some time off to wrap our minds around it, then got the itch in early 2016 to play again. That is when we started rehearsal for the record and I started learning how to manage the business side of a band."

As of just a few weeks ago, they pared down to a trio, with Kirst on guitar, Shea on bass, and Adenna on fiddle. The time they took to work toward All Fall Apart shows in their sensibility for rich and resonant arrangements that give each other's instruments room to breathe and soar. "It’s been pretty awesome working on our sound for this arrangement: finding those spaces to put in extra rhythmic emphasis, those places where we can breath and improvise more freely, those spots where Ryan can take his Talking Heads bass styles and funk up what would otherwise be straight ahead bluegrass."

Kirst wasn't moored to any one particular style of music when he was growing up, with his mother playing Motown and oldies in the house and his father digging a strange mix between classical music, movie scores, and some more oldies hits. But even though his band might fit into "roots" music, his actual "roots" were in two disparate realms - punk & dance-pop.

"I really loved to dance when I was little, so Michael Jackson was my jam. As I got older, especially into middle school and high school, music pretty much became my life. The day when I was 15 and my friend Dan and I walked into The Metro in Chicago for an all-ages punk show featuring The Smoking Popes, No Empathy, and Apocalypse Hoboken set the stage for years. I was hooked on live music. The energy was so intense. Punk shows were weekly, started going to raves, played bass in a punk band, then a weird mathy-emo group."

In 1997, two months into college, a friend basically forced me to see Phish at Assembly Hall at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne. It was a life-changing event again. The culture, the scene, the insane energy, a band that could go up on stage and have everyone in a venue completely lose their minds. I learned so much about myself and music at that show.  As a punk, I had assiduously HATED Phish in high school, for no other reason than they were hippies."

"...but then I realized punk is all about doing what you feel is right inside of yourself, and doing it to the utmost of your ability and want. It freed me to understand the world of eclecticism. And I think eclectic is something that Wire in the Wood is, if nothing else. None of us come from a bluegrass, or Americana, or a swing, or a string band background. We’re all kinda weird. And we like to show that, we like to be that, we NEED to be that. Especially live."

Back to that meditation on the "wire" in the "wood..." Folk, bluegrass, Americana, it always makes me feel restored in a certain way; refreshed. It's because it's an organic sound that gives me respite from the technology-heavy existence we all share on a day to day basis.

"Our addiction to technology is impacting our ability to focus and grasp concepts that exist outside of easy to swallow soundbites, video clips, emoticons, and social media comments," Kirst said. "I feel there seems to be a widening and deepening chasm between our collective knowledge and the potential that brings humanity, and the ability to use that knowledge wisely, with compassion, and a clear eye toward the future."

And from that comes a lot of Kirst's lyrical inspiration. He's not specifying technology itself, but he is ruminating on aspects of the ‘real’ world that are being ignored because of (technology), like climate change, ecosystem destruction, personal isolation, societal factionalism, longing for creative expression despite overwhelming pressure to conform.  "All of those things are part of our ‘nature’ I guess," said Kirst. "Technology is part of our ‘nature’. Everything around us is ‘nature’ or natural because it has come from our Earth. Oil, plastic, Styrofoam are all made from trees in the first place, right. We, however, need to have conversations to go through the hard work of figuring out what kind of ‘nature’ it is that we really want and cherish. And that conversation, in essence, is the ‘nature of nature’."

Kirst makes a point to say that of course these guys have smartphones and use technology, too. They use a good amount of effects in their live set as well. "But for me," said Kirst, "music is not just a way to feel good or have fun. It’s not just about sounding a certain way or being over stimulating to the audiocortex. It’s a way to explore different, often difficult facets of life that we face everyday."

Back when they started, in 2008/2009, Kirst said they were one of those bands that were just happy to be playing music, one of those  "....sloppy, fast, joyful bluegrash-ish string bands," that mostly performed others 'works. "Now we are a lot more varied in our repertoire and certainly more focused and honed in our performance. One thing that hasn’t change is our dedication to improvisation. We LOVE to improvise. Sometimes it’s inspirational, soaring and energetic. Sometimes is weird and tense. Other times can be soft and sweet, or groovy. Sometimes it’s a straight up noise jam!"

But why bluegrass in the first place? Kirst draws it back to his young days in Chicago, seeing $5 punk shows at The Metro. He recognized similar characteristics in the defiance and the rowdiness and the jubliance of classic bluegrass players like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. They were almost punk rockers in their own rights.

"They weren’t afraid to push – the tempo, their abilities, the listeners understanding of what music should be. Completely opened me up to a new world. The same is true for jazz manouche, or gypsy jazz if you want to call it that. But with Django you have, quite literally the best guitar player who has ever lived, at least in my opinion. He had energy, a need for exploration, and was not the least bit content to fit into an already established way  of perceiving or presenting music. And it’s best not to forget that, especially in the case of bluegrass, this is all dance music. People GOT DOWN to this shit."

Kirst said that the most interesting thing about playing this form of music, whether in a studio or on stage, is "...the need to throw away the conception that rhythm comes solely from percussion. Any instrument can be a percussive instrument, and in our case, needs to be a rhythm instrument. Nobody can lay down, or relax, or neglect that aspect of the music. There is no bass and snare to act as your metronome, there isn’t the ring of crash cymbal washing out any of your misplaced notes. Everything one does in a string band is laid bare for the listener to pick apart."

These Ann Arborites come to Detroit on Tuesday the 14th, after having already gotten a good footing in this scene with good receptions from Otus Supply in Ferndale. Enthusiasm is high, as they get to open up for The Infamous Stringdusters, one of Kirst's favorite bands. That band's built-in audience is likely going to find considerable resonance with the eclectic taste and improvisatory spirit of Wire In The Wood.

Nov 14th at St. Andrew's Hall

More info:


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Single Premiere: Watching For Foxes' "Built Broken"

It's getting towards the colder months now... Personally, that's when I start upping the amount of "folk" and "Americana" vibes into my playlists. I need something with a heartbeaten pulse, with crimson blood and air in its lungs; I need something that evokes the briskness of an autumn day. I need a voice where the empathy and weariness is palpable in its intonation. I need something acoustic, thereby organic...human.

Sounds like these can heal... ...and don't we need that more than ever, these days?

The Grand Rapids-based Watching For Foxes will be dropping their next album, Nostalgia in America, at the start of 2018 We're premiering the 2nd single off of that album, titled "Built Broken."

I've had my ears on Watching For Foxes for a couple years and much like Fleet Foxes or Grizzly Bear, they'd already demonstrated a knack for resplendent ambient/jazzy and baroque-styled arrangements of folk-rock, with ruminative lyrics that go from the tender troubadour croon to the bluesier, achier growl. More than their first single, "Breaking Down," this one lets the saxophone steal the spotlight, sweetened through the bridge into its quiet conclusion with a fine violin.

The lyrics are in a heavily ponderous state, poetically assessing the current climate of division and distress, while also unpacking the ways in which we look backward, or regard the past. The traipsing melody yearns for refined perspective, catharsis, truth, hope... Were we built broken, all along?

But like I said, this is music to heal to.... The saxophones are serotonin syrup, the guitars re-regulate the heartbeat and those swooning strings that carry the vocals through the chorus effuse an uncanny clarity up into the brain. WFF wind things down from the typical aerobic time signatures and sound-and-fury riffs of rock music; their songs roll in smooth like a morning's fog and unfurl, and then you, listener, you unfurl... Your muscles unfasten their nervous flex and some kind of new millennium consternation in your soul subsides. The soundscape spreads itself out. It's a restorative sigh made into a folk rock symphony.

And now I'm eager to hear the rest of the album...