Monday, August 31, 2009

Outside Lands recap

Recapping a solid three days of live music without just running over the itinerary isn't easy, so I thought I'd just string together some snippets and anecdotes from throughout the festival - in no particular order and without even attempting to cover it all. A three-day music festival is hectic and exhausting no matter how you approach it, so I try to pare down the wish list, not rush from stage to stage to stage to see every single band I'm interested in, and let the festing vibe guide whatever other decisions need to be made along the way. Without further ado, I present Outside Lands 2009:

• Freaktown and I had an ongoing discussion throughout the festival about who might be the best guitarist there, an interesting question because of how many different musical styles were represented across the stages. We started the debate Friday afternoon while watching Built to Spill, and wondering how Doug Martsch would stack up against all other Outside Lands guitarists. We certainly didn't see everybody during the festival, but we settled on a three-way tie of Martsch, Mike McCready and Tom Morello.

• First impressions. I had a fantastic streak Friday of being impressed beyond expectations by some of the bands I know only partially, passingly or not at all. I'd only heard one album apiece by Built to Spill, Silversun Pickups and the National, and they all kicked ass. In their own ways, each band has a great big, authoritative sound, perfect for a festival setting. I'll definitely be listening to each band a great deal more in the near future.

• The San Francisco crowd is absolutely one you won't find anywhere else. While the vast majority of the crowd was well within the spectrum that ranges from normal folks to edgy hipsters, there were easily thousands of people who'd be called a freak most anywhere else on Earth. A distinct portion of the crowd seemed to be treating Outside Lands as a warm-up for Burning Man. There was a circus tent, but it wasn't always easy to identify who had just come from a performance or was just expressing themselves for the day. If there's a better city to people watch, please let me know.

• Over/Under. I know it's just the nature of who gets booked on the main stage vs. who gets booked on the side stages, and that my tastes certainly aren't the norm, but the crowd size from act to act seemed to have no relation to my general understanding of how popular a particular band is. For just one example, I thought The Avett Brothers, who put on a tremendous set that's only making me more excited to hear the upcoming I And Love And You, would've been playing before a much larger crowd. And while they were excellent as well, I thought the odd-couple-supergroup Street Sweeper Social Club (Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Boots Riley of The Coup) wouldn't have found nearly so many fans.

Photo by Jay Blakesberg

• It was a close call, but the more I thought about it the surer I got that Pearl Jam put on the festival's best set. I hadn't seen the band since 1998, and haven't paid more than just a tiny bit of attention to the band's last three albums, but Pearl Jam has clearly spent the last decade progressing as a live band. Their set was dynamite - 26 songs, representing just about every phase of the band's career, and a shredding version of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" to close out the night. By opening with "Why Go" and "Animal," Pearl Jam set the tone for a celebratory, back-catalog rich set. I sang along plenty, and "The Fixer" fit in so well with the older tunes that my anticipation for their new record multiplied by about 1,000. "Elderly Woman...," "In My Tree," "Given to Fly," "Corduroy," "Black" ... I think they played every favorite of mine but "Yellow Ledbetter."

• One-off collaborations I missed: Q-Tip bringing Pfife onstage at the end of his set; Jenny Lewis joining Conor Oberst for Rilo Kiley's "Portions for Foxes;" and pedal steel virtuose Robert Randolph joining Dave Matthews Band for "Stairway to Heaven." Where the hell was I?

• Best moment of the festival: Sitting cross-legged on the slope Sunday - the day our crew was the biggest - tired and reflecting on the whole weekend while Band of Horses played "No One's Gonna Love You" and "The Funeral" back to back. Having seen them three times already, I had Band of Horses a bit lower on the priority list, but damn I'm glad we caught most of the set anyway. Toss in a glorious cover of Gram Parsons' "A Song For You" and I think Band of Horses ran away with Sunday's best set.

• We had our best luck in terms of getting excellent positions for bands on the Sutro Stage. My experiences for The National, Tom Jones, Dengue Fever, Os Mutantes, The Avett Brothers and Band of Horses were all enhanced by having an excellent spot. We were even closer to the Presidio Stage for Blind Pilot and Calexico, but only caught short bits of those sets (I'll be catching Blind Pilot in a tiny club within a couple months and having seen Calexico numerous times already, I opted for Modest Mouse in that time slot).

• Plenty of strange things happened. A squirrel attacked Freaktown. I thought a friend of ours found us out of the blue, but it turned out to be just a very good impersonator. The weather was vastly different day to day, turning "cold and hellicoptery" at one point. A pixie drafted us for the walk down into the Polo Grounds - all of a sudden she was at our side, almost like a walking hitchhiker, in full conversation mode - and disappeared just as suddenly.

• The food was excellent. I already forget where they're from, but the tater tots at Outside Lands were the best I've ever had. And probably the best potato food I've ever had. Maybe even the best food I've ever had. Amazing.

• Band coverage: Unless you approach the festival like the professional photographers do - making a constant circuit of every stage, catching three songs before moving on again - you're going to miss at least two thirds of all the bands at a festival. There's no way around that. Use whatever criteria feels natural, but don't second guess your choices. I wrote off the Twin Peaks stage almost entirely, in the process missing out on Ween, the Dead Weather, Atmosphere, Q-Tip and the Mars Volta. But I didn't miss out on any band I really, really wanted to see. And that's how you succeed in a festival.

• The Outside Lands iPhone App was a groundbreaking and exceedingly useful bit of technology. I didn't look at a paper schedule once during three days. The app has a full map and schedule, complete with band bios and outgoing links to listen to the bands or buy music at the iTunes store. And the app let you set up your own schedule, adding and subtracting bands along the way, as well as plugged in the twitter feed from Outside Lands mascot "Ranger Dave." I think that every festival will copy this app for next year, but Outside Lands did it first, and they pretty much perfected it on the first try.

• The aforementioned Ranger Dave can't keep his commitments. I spent about an hour Wednesday trying to track down this mysterious mascot. Offering free tickets for hugs, Ranger Dave tweeted his location at the Golden Gate Park music concourse. I was there within 27 minutes, but there was no Ranger Dave. What an asswipe.

Well, that's certainly enough for now. A bit of rest, then it's time for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It's held in the same place, but can't be any more different.

Pearl Jam - The Fixer (YouTube)
Band of Horses - No One's Gonna Love You
Avett Brothers - Laundry Room (YouTube)
TV on the Radio - Golden Age (YouTube)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review: Joe Henry - Blood from Stars

I reviewed Joe Henry's latest album, Blood from Stars, in this week's issue of the Tucson Weekly:
Record-producer extraordinaire Joe Henry takes his own brand of pensive Americana a step deeper into the underworld on Blood From Stars, a dreamy and brooding album that just may be the peak of his career.

It's a shifting kaleidoscope, an album that can't rightly be called rock, folk, jazz or blues—though by turns, it's all of those things. It's also a lyrical journey through a dark and visceral world that exists only after the decent people have gone to bed.

Adding jazz pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) and his 17-year-old son, Levon, on saxophone, to his longtime band (Patrick Warren on keyboards, David Piltch on bass and Jay Bellerose on drums), Henry has a crew versatile enough to leave nuances and surprises everywhere.

The opening prelude and final coda share the same name, "Light No Lamp When the Sun Comes Down," kicking the album off with a soft piano instrumental and then closing it down with an admonition to not guard against the dark, the storms or time itself, to instead "pull the dark close to your face" and embrace the wonder and grace of the vibrant natural world.

"Death to the Storm" is a creeping menace of a song, mixing bursts of military drum rolls with tinkling piano notes and a full-throated, ominous chorus.

For the cover, Henry selected a W. Eugene Smith photograph of a steel mill at night. The stark image is a fitting cover for the atmospheric music the album contains.

Joe Henry - Death to the Storm

Friday, August 21, 2009

Interview: Fruit Bats

My story on Eric D. Johnson and the Fruit Bats is published this week in the Tucson Weekly:

In the four years that have passed since the last Fruit Bats album, singer-songwriter-guitarist Eric D. Johnson has toured and recorded with the Shins and Vetiver, projects that encouraged him to open up to more collaboration in his own band.

So when it came time to record the songs that would become The Ruminant Band, Johnson settled in with patience, focus and an eagerness to make creative leaps as a songwriter.

"I had what sort of seems like four years off, but we toured on that last Fruit Bats record for a year, and I did the Shins for about a year in a half in the middle there, so it's only the last year or so (that) I felt pretty urgent about doing something," Johnson says.

Recorded in the same Chicago studio as the Fruit Bats' first album eight years ago, The Ruminant Band is 11 songs of blissful, sunny rock music, the same sound that has earned the band descriptions such as "zoology rock," "bootgazer," and "rustic pop," all of which the band quotes in bio material.

"I actually like those, because they're so weird," Johnson says. "I like those better than something like 'indie pop.' I don't want to shatter categories. It's OK, but it's nice when you're creative about it.

"I tend to just write in a lot of major keys, and I come from a folk and bluegrass background, and it comes across that way. A lot of times, my lyrics aren't bright, but even then, I think it just comes out as sounding really happy. I just like those major keys. I can't stop."

Released this month on Sub Pop, The Ruminant Band has been met with largely positive reviews, which have fueled the band's excitement for the upcoming tour, which stretches from British Columbia down the West Coast before looping through the South and East Coast on the way back to their home base in Chicago.

"I try not to read too much stuff about the Fruit Bats. The little things I've peeked at, I've been pretty happy about how people are receiving this record. Not just because they like it, but because they get what we're doing," he says.

On Sub Pop since 2002, the Fruit Bats have evolved considerably from the four-track tapes that Johnson first recorded. Now with a solid touring and studio lineup for the first time, a more confident Johnson went for a richer and more diverse album.

A different set of ambitions guided how Johnson and bandmates Christopher Sherman, Ron Lewis, Graeme Gibson and Sam Wagster put together The Ruminant Band. Even the title reflects a more thoughtful and natural approach.

"The process for me was designed a lot more around having it be a full band thing and being more collaborative, giving things over to other people, and also designing things to sound good live," Johnson says. "Things used to be orchestrated in a studio fashion, and I wanted to get away from that and have things be more rock 'n' roll."

Before touring with the Shins, Johnson ran his own craft-service business, doing all-day catering at film sets, a distraction that he can now leave behind.

"The Shins gave me the financial stability to just be a musician full-time, which is huge. It made me be able to focus a lot more. It's given me more time, if anything," he says. "I have no interest in being famous or a rock star or anything, but I really do like being paid to play music."

The songs for The Ruminant Band started to come together as Johnson traveled with James Mercer and company. He describes being a Shin while onstage, and a Fruit Bat off stage.

"I was able to get up there for an hour and a half every night and be part of that world, and in the interim, you can completely just get that out of your head and do your own thing. I was writing on the bus, writing in hotel rooms," he says.

A song that nearly didn't make the album, "Singing Joy to the World," is a fascinatingly detailed story about a couple whose first date was at a Three Dog Night concert at the fairgrounds. The relationship is doomed to fail, but the self-delusion at the core of the guy's unrequited love is most bittersweet.

"It's very different from anything else I've ever written," Johnson says. "That song was me trying to do what Tom Petty does."

Johnson watched the Peter Bogdanovich documentary on Petty, Runnin' Down a Dream; he says he was inspired by how Petty sketches stories out of spare, intimate details, rarely seeking an easy resolution.

"He's great at writing stories that aren't so epic in their scope. Petty will write these stories that are a little bit more open-ended, a little bit more sad. They don't wrap up neatly. I thought that was a really interesting notion," he says.

Throughout The Ruminant Band are songs that leave a sweet and friendly aftertaste. "You'll always eat bread if you always have seeds to sow," Johnson sings on the title track. "You won't lose the beat if you just keep clapping your hands."

The Ruminant Band comes to an end with the quirky "Flamingo," and the song fades out just after Johnson sings the album's final refrain: "Everything's gonna be just fine."

It's the band in a nutshell, and Johnson doesn't shy away from his major-key, melodic sensibilities.

"Every song I write is always going to be a Fruit Bats song," Johnson says.

Fruit Bats - My Unusual Friend

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Skygreen Leopards review

I have a review of Gorgeous Johnny, the new record from the Skygreen Leopards, in tomorrow's issue of the Tucson Weekly:
The Skygreen Leopards leave the impression that their songs started out informally, with two guys strumming guitars in a park, sitting cross-legged on the grass.

Gorgeous Johnny is the sort of midtempo, laid-back, jangly folk-rock that is purely California, with pre-formed images of the perfect summer afternoon, and sunlight streaming through palm trees at the edge of the ocean.

One by one, the songs can sound loose and ramshackle, but there are only minor variations on the theme: The quirks and eccentricities are all lyrical. Songwriters Glenn Donaldson and Donovan Quinn take pleasure in setting a cast of somewhat preposterous characters free to roam about their songs.

As a song cycle, Gorgeous Johnny is loosely based on the story of a hanger-on and onetime band member, someone the band says is "described by most as a phony and a self-confessed dandy."

"You were the king, but you should've been the queen. Oh Johnny, why can't you say what you mean?" the band sings on the title track.

Elsewhere is "Margery," stuck at some laugh-less dead end; in "Goodnight Anna," an ex-girlfriend is now "living with a shadow." Throughout are people creating complications for each other. While not exactly a revelation about human nature, the album is a fresh look at the challenges of friendship and love.

Still, it takes a good bit of attention to try to follow the characters, because the songs float by, too similar from one to the next to give the album much of a sonic kick.

Skygreen Leopards - Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass

Monday, August 17, 2009

New Elvis Perkins EP

I had lunch with Stu LeBlanc the other day, and of course we got to talking about music and which albums have really stood out this year. And for both of us, Elvis Perkins In Dearland is unquestionably right at the top. I'm sure it's been my most consistently played new album of this year (yes, beating even Wilco and Dylan) since I saw the band and picked up the CD back in March.

Stu called it a songwriting clinic, and I have to agree. As I wrote before, it's a "dynamic album, with far-flung instrumentation and a jaunty sound overall."

And now the song that has struck both Stu and me the most, "Doomsday," is the centerpiece of a new EP. Here's what Elvis Perkins has to say about it:
"We call this thing The Doomsday EP for obvious reasons, and its middle name to which it also answers is The EP of the Id. Being drawn to the many faces of the American strain it seems we have more or less subconsciously produced a collection speaking to/and or from several of them at once. It's a document of impulses sleeping egos and their superiors let pass to tape.

I myself didn't know what these songs sounded like in the hands of EPID until they were processed and played back. You have a song that arrived like the rest of us by boat, a selection from the Sacred Harp, a rock 'n roll heralding the eternal advent of rock 'n roll, an ode to the soul of the undead and, finally (and firstly), two takes on a single song called Doomsday, one which comes from our March release and the other which leans in the direction of its original conception as something of a gospel number .

And here they all are, risen from their cribs and graves, under one moonlight while their folks and undertakers look the other way." - Elvis Perkins
That's one hell of an introduction, and this slowed down version of "Doomsday" is amazing. It reminds me of the relaxes, stripped-down version of "Mississippi" from Bob Dylan's latest Bootleg Series album. It's become so completely different that it's a new song. And I don't think I could pick between the two versions.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland - Slow Doomsday

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Just Because

Man. I'd really planned to leave this story of Bob Dylan gettin' hauled into a cop car by some rookie because he looked "suspicious" well enough alone. I really did. I tried.

Then comes this new wrinkle that he may have been on some rainy night mission to track down an old dwelling of Bruce Springsteen. OK, now I'm gonna have to bring this up.

I don't doubt it. I know for a fact that a few years back Dylan traced down Elvis' childhood home in the middle of the night... so this story rings true to me.

ABC News is apparently devoting quite a bit of time to this, interviewing the cop who picked up Dylan and tracking down all possible angles... I just think it's funny.

From ABC News, quoting the "arresting officer:"
"We got a call for a suspicious person,'' Buble said. "It was pouring rain outside, and I was right around the corner so I responded. By that time he was walking down the street. I asked him what he was doing in the neighborhood and he said he was looking at a house for sale."

"I asked him what his name was and he said, 'Bob Dylan,' Buble said. "Now, I've seen pictures of Bob Dylan from a long time ago and he didn't look like Bob Dylan to me at all. He was wearing black sweatpants tucked into black rain boots, and two raincoats with the hood pulled down over his head.

"So I said, 'OK Bob, what are you doing in Long Branch?' He said he was touring the country with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp. So now I'm really a little fishy about his story. I did not know what to believe or where he was coming from, or even who he was.

"We see a lot of people on our beat, and I wasn't sure if he came from one of our hospitals or something," Buble said.

She asked for identification, but Dylan said he had none. She asked where he was staying and he said his tour buses were parked at some big hotel on the ocean. Buble said she assumed that to be the nearby Ocean Place Conference Resort.

"He was acting very suspicious,'' Buble said. "Not delusional, just suspicious. You know, it was pouring rain and everything."

Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen - Forever Young
Bruce Springsteen - The Times They Are A-Changin' (Bob Dylan Cover)
Bruce Springsteen - Knockin' On Heaven's Door (Bob Dylan Cover)
Bruce Springsteen - I Want You (Bob Dylan Cover)
Neil Young & The Grateful Dead - Forever Young (Bob Dylan Cover)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Incoming: Blind Pilot

One of the albums I've been listening to incessantly this year is 3 Rounds and a Sound, from Portland's Blind Pilot. Mr. Chair put a song on a mix, I sought it out and just like that, a new favorite record emerged on the scene.

The band was in town earlier this year, but I had the flu. So it's great news they're returning - Oct. 25 at Plush, with The Low Anthem.

Blind Pilot plays mellow, melodic and rich folk tunes, the sort of enchanting songs that I've been returning to again and again and again, always finding something a little bit new, whether it's in the subtly varied instrumentation or the brilliant lyrics. This is a band to watch out for, and perhaps we'll be treated to some new music.

Blind Pilot - Go On Say It
Blind Pilot - Live SXSW NPR broadcast (33 min, 30 mb)

Tour Dates:

October 9 Astoria, OR Liberty Theater
October 19 Eugene, OR WOW Hall*
October 21 San Francisco, CA Great American Music Hall*
October 23 Los Angeles, CA Troubadour*
October 24 San Diego, CA Casbah*
October 25 Tucson, AZ Plush*
October 27 Austin, TX The Parish*
October 28 Dallas, TX Granada Theater*
October 29 Houston, TX Bronze Peacock at HOB*
October 30 Baton Rouge, LA Spanish Moon*
November 2 Tallahassee, FL Club Downunder*
November 3 Orlando, FL The Social*
November 4 Atlanta, GA The Earl*
November 5 Nashville, TN Mercy Lounge*
November 6 Asheville, NC University of North Carolina*
November 7 Norfolk, VA Attucks Theater*
November 9 Carrboro, NC Cats Cradle*
November 11 Washington, D.C. The Black Cat*
November 12 Boston, MA Paradise*

* With special guests The Low Anthem

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Review: Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine

My review of the new album from Magnolia Electric Co. is online at the Tucson Weekly:

Josephine finds Jason Molina bound by regret and fits of restless isolation, staring down his ghosts while forging a path of escape through deep shadows and the faraway horizon.

The latest album from Magnolia Electric Co. is a somber and deeply evocative work, drenched in images of open sky, sunsets and the tragedy of those left behind.

Molina's greatest gift as a songwriter is to create lyrics that align perfectly—song by song—with the emotional core of his band's sound. From the soft piano that opens "O! Grace" to the twangy Dobro on "Whip-Poor-Will" to the flighty organ of "Little Sad Eyes," the songs sound like a solemn march across the high plains, and when the lyrics have a nightbird calling, you can just about hear it.

Explicitly in "Hope Dies Last" and more subtly in "Shenandoah," Molina sings of failure and an end-of-the-rope longing. It's a loneliness to match the pale high moon, and one that "only the strongest hearts" can outlast. "The only bridge I haven't burned is the one I'm standing on," Molina sings in "Shiloh," a road song in which the burning ghost weeps for nothing—and for everything.

The name Josephine pops up in two songs besides the title track, and each time, it's an opaque invocation, never revealing if Josephine is the hope or the tragedy, the regret or the mercy, the ghost or the living. And in that, Molina has made his cry a universal one.

Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine
Magnolia Electric Co. - Little Sad Eyes

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Live: Bowerbirds & Megafaun

I just got home from tonight's fantastic Bowerbirds / Megafaun show and it's fair to say that North Carolina breeds some damn fine folk bands these days. I was new to both bands, but I can tell you I'll be listening plenty more as this year goes on.

What the two bands have in common is what I like the most about each - rich harmonies, a calm acoustic approach and a sense of how to build spare and simple songs that suck your attention like a vacuum. And I don't think I've ever seen a show with every person in two bands sang - impressive. It was also a rare show in Club Congress' banquet room (an airplane delay pushed the start time back a couple hours, and 80s dance night in the club held priority).

I only caught the last three songs from Megafaun (I rushed as fast as I could from my softball game) but they were incredible. Completely unamplified, the trio had the room completely hushed. Former bandmates of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Megafaun closed with the title song from their new album Gather, Form & Fly and then a cover of Dylan and the Band, "Ain't No More Cane," which had me going straight for the Basement Tapes when I got home.

Bowerbirds is another woodsy band, with singer Phil Moore on a nylon-string guitar, Beth Tacular moving between keyboards and accordion, Mark Paulson on drums and violin and Brad Cook (on loan from Megafaun) on bass and drums. All four singing at once is a great sound.

They sound at home in the outdoors, even like they're trying to convey a specific sense of the outdoors through their music. But even while leaning toward some folk conventions, Bowerbirds have their own quirks. There's a light touch on the accordion, the upright bass is bowed as often as not, and Moore seems to like playing his guitar so it makes some real noise.

It was a night both musically rich and quiet, a mix that few bands pull off as well as Megafaun and Bowerbirds.

Bowerbirds - Northern Lights
Megafaun - The Fade

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunny Day

Everything I've been listening to today fits right in with the bright sunshine right outside my window.

I think my most central comfort zone as far as new music these days is right where the Laurel Canyon, AM Gold, 1970s folk-pop-rock throwbacks exist, and where it bleeds over a little more to country or folk. I'm talking generally Dr. Dog, Vetiver, M. Ward, Golden Boots, Jayhawks. None are exactly favorite bands or albums, but I'll gladly listen to anything that hits that general zone.

Today's listening has been mostly the new albums from the Fruit Bats and Skygreen Leopards (one for a feature I'm writing and one for a review). Nothing groundbreaking or too challenging for the listener, but both albums really hit my sweet spot.

Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band
Skygreen Leopards - Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Review: Sum & Belief - The Lone Wolf

My review of The Lone Wolf, the new collaborative album from Sum and Belief, is published in this week's East Bay Express:

Combining imaginative, poetic storytelling with distinctive and melodic production, Sum and Belief unites to craft nine tracks that push underground hip-hop to the doorstep of the blues.

Sum and Belief Are the Lone Wolf, the duo's first collaborative album, is laced with a sense of nostalgia, in both words and music. With a style that takes a little from Sum's Southern roots and a little from Belief's Los Angeles beginnings, The Lone Wolf ends up sounding like what hip-hop might have been if it had existed in the 1950s and 1960s, bumping up against R&B and the early soul of Motown.

Belief — who has produced tracks for high-school classmate Murs and Talib Kweli — blends acoustic guitar, piano, banjo, and harmonica into his beats, finding places where the unexpected works perfectly. Reaching back into his North Carolina adolescence for stories and images, Sum is one of the few MCs who seeks and has truly earned the moniker "songwriter."

On "Puddinhead," Sum name-checks Tom Waits and Curtis Mayfield, finding his inspiration in the sort of integrity that sneers at chasing money in a quest to create timeless music. "Next September" is a continuation on Sum's take on a crumbling relationship from his 2006 LP The Lil Folk. The update adds horns to the gritty beats of "September," the duo's first song together, and its tale of staring down the mistakes of coming-of-age irresponsibility.

The Lone Wolf is seamless — if a little short at thirty minutes — and displays an encouraging disregard for any sort of boundaries on what sounds or lyrics can be considered hip-hop. (Worker B Records)

Sum & Belief - Kakalak All-Stars (12" version)

The Handsome Family live review

My review of last week's Handsome Family show at Club Congress is online at the Tucson Weekly:


CLUB CONGRESS, Wednesday, July 29

With easy beats, soothing harmonies and a twang brushed with plenty of Southwestern grit, the Handsome Family play a timeless brand of country music—if not exactly traditional, it's certainly pure, free of alt or rock hybridization.

Brett and Rennie Sparks, the husband-and-wife team fronting this band, have been at it for more than 20 years, building a reputation for dark and brooding storytelling.

While the Handsome Family still trades in the country music of dark abysses, snakebites, family fights on Christmas and dusty pickup trucks, Wednesday's show highlighted songs from Honey Moon, the band's newest album. And the Handsome Family's freshest batch of tunes have a sort of swelling beauty that perfectly fits the Sparks' classic male-female harmonies, whether they're love songs about insects or insect songs about love.

Perhaps fending off some of the sweetness of the new songs, Rennie Sparks joked between songs that "sometimes people get a skin rash when they see us; sometimes it's blurred vision."

"A Thousand Diamond Rings" is about the pawnshops, neon signs and wrinkled faces of their hometown, and finding beauty in spite of it all: "Even the broken glass shattered in the street shines like a thousand diamond rings.

The band dipped into older songs late in the set, including the first song they wrote together, "Arlene," from 1995's Odessa, and an encore of "I Know You Are There" from 2001's Twilight, with an opening line as dark as they come: "When the rope of death strangles, and dark waters roar and foam."

Opener Daniel Knox—solo on the piano or leading a sharp combo with bass and brushed drums—has a style that starts lounge-y and veers toward the theatrical, with occasional flourishes from a kazoo he pulled from behind his ear.

His skewed and darkly humorous lyrics give songs about gambling, murder and a porno booth in Indiana plenty of unexpected twists. "Ghostsong," about a dead guy eternally harassing the object of his affection, is as spooky as it is funny.

The fact that Knox has a golden croon straight out of midcentury Hollywood makes his act—and lyrics like, "Darling, I hate you with a kiss"—that much more captivating.

The Handsome Family - When You Whispered
And check out this great live set from Daytrotter

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Vic Chesnutt: Chain

Athens, Georgia singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt has an immediately recognizable style - lyrics drenched in mystery, a beautiful but pained singing voice and songs that sound like the Southern Gothic literary style come to life.

I've seen him play twice (he a friend and past musical associate of Giant Sand's Howe Gelb, so it makes perfect sense that he would get along well in Tucson) and both shows were excellent, with Chesnutt showing a bit of humor between songs to lighten up his heavy (at least in terms of subject matter) music.

Chesnutt has a new album, At The Cut, out in September from Constellation Records. The first teaser single, "Chain," gives me the sensation of some showy and ornate world caught in the midst of a slow decay. In other words, pure Chesnutt.

Vic Chesnutt - Chain