Monday, December 19, 2011

Video: Murs - '67 Cutlass

Dark humor rules in this new video of "'67 Cutlass" from Murs album Love & Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation. The video traces the narrative of the song, the ill-fated twists of a low-key drug run through the Arizona desert.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Murs plays Club Congress tonight

Murs concludes the Hip Hop and Love Tour with a hometown performance

Instead of a shout-out to his neighborhood or hometown, Murs opens his new record with an intergalactic greeting.

"I use my rocket fuel to travel through the infinite / and this is what I brought to you," raps Murs on "Epic Salutations," a rapid-fire and wildly imaginative lyrical journey into outer space.

It's a song that introduces the themes of Love and Rockets, Vol. 1: The Transformation—travel, love, inspiration and storytelling that touches on both humor and tragedy—while also serving as a statement of career vindication for a rapper whose path has been marked by a long, yet wholly independent, ascendancy.

"I rarely replicate," Murs raps on "Epic Salutations," and it's way more than just a passing statement.

"I feel it's my duty," he explains. "I've always been a unique person, but I also feel that out of respect for the people who came before me. A lot of rap is still doing what they were doing in the 1990s. When N.W.A. did it, it was new and revolutionary, but to come behind and do the same thing is disrespect to the people who blazed the trail before me."

Born in Los Angeles, the relentlessly creative Murs has lived in Oakland, Tucson, Los Angeles and—for the past two years—Tucson again, where the now-married 33-year-old appreciates the pace, weather, creative energy and grounded attitude of the people.

"When I first came to Tucson in 1997, we performed at (Club) Congress, and I met my best friend. I never thought there would be people into hip hop in Tucson. For some reason, when you're in a big city, you can think that's all there is," he says. "The more I travel, the more I see people in Missoula, Mont., are into the same stuff and just as hip as people in New York City. Every town has its unique energy, but as far as the mentality, kids are up on stuff just the same. And people genuinely all want to enjoy themselves."

Bringing his music to cities and towns off the beaten path has been a hallmark of Murs' career, and something he's stuck with on the current Hip Hop and Love Tour, which makes its last of 50 stops in Tucson.

"The way I was brought into the game with independent hip hop was always to make sure we hit the smaller markets, the secondary markets, but also the tertiary markets," he says. "It's always been fun, and the kids there love me. Chicago is dope, but the kids in Omaha love me, too."

The Hip Hop and Love Tour mixes rapping and DJs with a live band.

"I bring it all in. As I grew up, I got more involved in live music and became a fan of Jack White or Vampire Weekend, and I wanted that element in my show," Murs says. "We're going full at it. I love playing with a band, because they bring so much energy."

The tour—with Tabi Bonney, Ski Beatz and the Senseis, McKenzie Eddy, Da$h and Sean O'Connell—is a BluRoc Records showcase that celebrates Murs' return to the independent world after 2008's Murs for President album on Warner Bros.

"I felt like I got to expand and spread my wings a little bit," he says about being on a major label. "It's like getting to make a movie where you can blow up whatever you want. It was a great experience, but I saw how it affects the creative process. There are so many checks and balances when there's so much money at stake."

Murs joined with BluRoc for the tour, a partnership that quickly expanded into the new album—and working with producer Ski Beatz, whose long list of collaborations includes songs with Jay-Z and Mos Def.

"When I'm working with a different guy on every record, it puts me in a position where I have something to prove, and it brings the best performance out of me," Murs says. "I was looking forward to it, because he's worked with so many different people and styles. I knew we'd get something to make it work."

Murs says he usually writes songs by approaching the beat first, rather than beginning the recording process with a lot of lyrics in hand. That responsive style gives the songs an improvisational freshness, and whatever the sounds conjure in his mind is what the song is about.

"I've always been honest, with an open door into my music," he says. "I wanted to talk about different things, because I am traveling and exploring and want to incorporate different things into my work."

Love and Rockets features odes to love and marriage ("I found my love in the 520"), the flourishing era of West Coast hip hop he loved growing up, international travelogues and the independent spirit in hip hop that he sees as stronger than ever. "67 Cutlass" is a what-if inspired by too many run-ins with police, and "Animal Style" is the tale of two gay high school kids fighting discrimination. A more-accepting society would prevent the story's tragic end.

"I have friends and family who are leading quote-unquote alternative lifestyles, and I can't ask them to come out, but I can be an advocate for gay people, gay teens, and give them someone to talk to," Murs says. "I just hope I'm doing my part to create a more-understanding environment in hip hop. Marriage rights or whatever, we can argue, but people have the right to exist and love who they want to love without being persecuted."

It's yet another atypical rap from Murs, who's worked for 15 years to make his name by following his own path. After his early days of hustling tapes in Oakland, Murs earned accolades through prolific collaborations as a member of the Living Legends crew, with Slug (of Atmosphere) and North Carolina producer 9th Wonder.

After racing around the country on the Hip Hop and Love Tour, Murs plans to get back to his Love and Rockets concept, with two more volumes planned. Years of hard work and underground success have brought him artistic freedom as well as fans, and Murs says he appreciates that technology has made it easier than ever to reach out.

"Music is in a good place now. The artists are finally in control of their own destiny. That's exciting to me, because that's what I've been preaching for years."

Published Nov. 24, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Review: Dum Dum Girls - Only In Dreams

The first thing to notice about Dum Dum Girls is the attitude—that audacious, flirtatious cool, with their don't-follow-the-rules posturing. Debut album I Will Be was a musical exploration of that attitude, marking Dum Dum Girls as a fresh and intriguing buzz band.

Only in Dreams takes that attitude and runs with it—in a few different directions. The band still brings a refreshing punk rawness and hazy reverb to melodic retro-pop, but there's a bit more exploration this time out.

Added to the batch of influences found on the debut—chiefly the Shangri-Las and the Ramones—are Mazzy Star and the Pretenders, shoring up what were some weaker areas of the band's sound.

With its blend of bubblegum pop and waves of guitar reverb, "Bedroom Eyes" sounds like it could soundtrack a John Hughes movie—bittersweet music for when words won't quite capture it.

"Just a Creep" has tones of surf rock, while "Heartbeat (Take It Away)" and "Caught in One" especially ring with the bouncy rock 'n' roll of the Pretenders.

Singer Dee Dee (Kristen Gundred) wrote much of the album as a response to the death of her mother, with the sense of loss, pain and confusion especially poignant in "Hold Your Hand," "Teardrops on My Pillow" and "Wasted Away."

Preferences will surely vary between Only in Dreams and I Will Be, but that's missing the point. With a smooth and confident follow-up, Dum Dum Girls have easily passed from buzz band to sophomore-slump conquerors, with plenty more to anticipate.

Published Nov. 24, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Dum Dum Girls - Bedroom Eyes

Monday, November 21, 2011

Tom Russell at Club Congress on Wednesday

The storytelling gifts that Tom Russell has brought to songs for 35 years have reached new peaks on Mesabi, another stunning album of Southwest-borderlands rock.

Russell begins this wide-ranging collection with "Mesabi," a song named for the Minnesota iron range of Bob Dylan's childhood, imagining how strongly those early influences struck young ears. Singing of the "Bethlehem of the troubadour kid," Russell also reflects on the San Joaquin Valley of his own childhood and the urge to leave it all behind.

Two years after Blood and Candle Smoke, produced at Tucson's Wavelab Studio by Craig Schumacher, Russell returns to Tucson for several of Mesabi's songs, reigniting collaboration with Schumacher and Calexico.

But Mesabi is a more-wide-ranging album in sound and lyrical scope, taking on subjects and locations ranging from Cedar Rapids to Juarez, and from James Dean to Disney child star Bobby Driscoll, whose tragic tailspin Russell weaves into the Peter Pan story that made Driscoll famous.

Despite its impeccable production and all-star cast of musicians—guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboardist Augie Meyers and pianist Van Dyke Parks—Mesabi is definitely an album of words. It's Russell's greatest strength, and he doesn't hold back. The album's chief fault is the embarrassment of riches: As these stories unfold—whether they're dense, vivid, nostalgic, bleak or even hopeful—it's best to take them one or two or three at a time.

Published on Nov. 17, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Centro-Matic - Dual Identities

The versatile Will Johnson finds himself in a hard-driving, Centro-Matic phase these days

Will Johnson is a songwriter who works in bursts. He's also a songwriter who keeps multiple bands and projects alive at the same time.

So what makes a song a Centro-Matic song?

"I will get into certain sounds or certain type of songs for a stretch," he says. "These days, I'm writing more hard-driving music."

Johnson will sort his batches of songs by feel, instead of setting out to focus on a particular band. The songs come easier when he blocks out those other intentions.

"More times than not, I'll kind of binge-write. I'll take two or three weeks and just devote as much time as I can to the act of writing and getting sounds down that appeal to my ideas. Once I'm done with that, I'll start to sort it out," Johnson says. "If I over-think it too much as far as which band or what category a song goes in, I'll take the chance of losing the guts of the song itself. I find it's better to sort it out later."

Circling back to hard-driving rock music was just a matter of time for Johnson after recording with his more-somber band South San Gabriel, drumming for the Monsters of Folk supergroup, and releasing a stark collaborative record with Magnolia Electric Co.'s Jason Molina.

"Last year, I was writing these really stark, more-acoustic narrative storyteller kind of songs. It's just the type of guitar I purchased and the type of place I was recording in. It just inspired that type of song," he says. "Whereas these days, I'm really just getting into a lot of noise and sounds and going for a more-aggressive approach vocally at times. It's funny; the older I get, the more toothy some of the vocals become."

Johnson wrote Centro-Matic's 10th album—and first proper release in five years—on the bass guitar, which gives Candidate Waltz a different sort of feel, energetic but straightforward.

"My wife has this great bass guitar from back when she used to play. I got all the guitars out knowing I was going to spend two weeks on writing. I picked that one up, and I just loved it," he says. "I got attracted to the idea of writing on a different plane. It dictated some different things rhythmically and encouraged some different things vocally in terms of cadence. It inherently changes some decisions that I would have made. It leaves a little more space, a little bit more to the imagination than just strumming a guitar."

Candidate Waltz marks the 15-year point for Centro-Matic—Johnson, Scott Danbom (keyboards, violin, harmonies), Matt Pence (drummer, producer) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar)—and is in some ways a throwback to the band's earliest days in Denton, Texas.

"Sometimes in the studio, we have kept it loose and loud, with a lot of feedback and hiccups here and there. But with this recording, we worked hard to make it terse, but not cold or unfriendly," says Johnson, "multitasking" with his 10-month-old daughter during a phone interview from his Texas home. "It's a little-bit-different recording process. We economized the overdub world ... on Candidate Waltz.

"From time to time, we've been known to layer things up and put heaps of overdubs, and that's fun sometimes," he says. "But with this one, we definitely wanted to peel things back more and let the instruments we did leave in speak a little louder and maintain a little bit more presence."

With essentially the same lineup as Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel depends on much of the same musical chemistry. But keeping both bands going simultaneously creates a bit of a dual identity, something Johnson references on "Only in My Double Mind."

"There has been a certain musical duality to our efforts over these last 15 years. Sometimes, it does involve shifting identity," he says. "We tend to fall back into it pretty easily, and I'd like to believe it's a testament to the fact that we've maintained the friendships very carefully and very beautifully over all these years."

When the band started, Johnson says, he had no clear vision of where Centro-Matic would find itself in the future—just that the bandmates were committed to playing music together.

"I kind of figured we would be playing music together in some capacity this far down the line. I didn't necessarily think it'd be Centro-Matic, but I figured we'd find some reason, some way, to keep playing music. We've become husbands and fathers, but we've found a way to want to keep making music in our lives.

"I'm proud of the fact that we've continued to not take ourselves too terribly seriously. We've managed to take it all with a bucket of salt as we go," Johnson says. "That's not to say we don't take the art seriously—the recording and the live show, we want that to be as good as it possibly can be. But the inherent want to keep things respectful and loose within our friendships has hopefully added longevity to the band."

After recording Candidate Waltz, Johnson rented a cabin in the Texas hill country for another burst of songwriting. Returning with 26 recently sorted-out songs, Johnson says it's clearly another Centro-Matic batch.

"We'd scattered for a break between albums, and Candidate Waltz brought us back together. I'm looking forward to getting everybody back together in six or eight months. I'm thinking and hoping this will be a faster turnaround."

That should be no trouble for Centro-Matic, which streamlined the recording and release process by going without a record label for Candidate Waltz. Self-releasing for the first time was brought on by the band's tight-knit relationship with fans, a testament to the band's perseverance. A pleasant byproduct was the time it opened for another creative burst from Johnson.

"The fact that I was so inspired to write is hopefully a testament to the energy that the band has received through the encouraging recent tour," he says. "We're all looking forward to getting back to the studio and seeing what comes out of the next record.

"The fact that there's always one more record in us is an encouraging thing, and we might as well get that."

Published Nov. 17, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fall mix: Needle on a Hill

Download my new mix, Needle on a Hill.

1. Sugar - If I Can't Change Your Mind
2. Fiery Furnaces - Here Comes The Summer
3. Built to Spill - Car
4. Alejandro Escovedo - Last To Know
5. Amy Rude And Heartbeast - Can You Hear Me Crying Throught The Walls?
6. Townes Van Zandt - No Lonesome Tune
7. Delta Spirit - People Turn Around
8. Luna - Tiger Lilly
9. The Faces - Stay With Me
10. Busted Hearts - Cold Virginia Mist
11. Vetiver - The Swimming Song
12. Michael Hurley - Blue Driver
13. Van Morrison - Everyone
14. The New Pornographers - Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
15. Old 97's - Champagne, Illinois
16. The Clash - (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais
17. The Roots - Radio Daze
18. The Meters - Cissy Strut
19. The Flamin' Groovies - Shake Some Action
20. MGMT - Time To Pretend

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Does the U.S. know what to do with these French Bastards?

Plush welcomes The Inspector Cluzo, the self-proclaimed 'original funk 'n' roll duo'

When the bass player quit, The Inspector Cluzo marched onward as a two-piece.

All the advice they received said otherwise, and the precedent said otherwise, but Mathieu Jourdain and Laurent Lacrouts felt they could play funk music as a duo. With no bass.

"We started with a bass player, but he wasn't good enough, and he decided to go and play different stuff. We said, 'Go away. We don't care, and we'll make it work as two-piece,'" says drummer Jourdain. "Groovy funk rock without the bass seems to be not possible, but we did it."

Jourdain and singer-guitarist Lacrouts have been playing together for 17 years, first in the band Wolfunkind, and for the last three years as The Inspector Cluzo. The Frenchmen refer to themselves as the "original funk 'n' roll duo."

"We're used to each other, and this is why it is working. We play really tight, and the energy produced is big," Jourdain says during a phone interview from a tour stop in Atlanta. "We've been listening to funk music for a very long time. We were really into it, and we're very sensitive to the groove from the funk music."

With a style that passes from Fishbone- and Red Hot Chili Peppers-style funk to the groovier side of Rage Against the Machine, The Inspector Cluzo have toured relentlessly since 2008, building a fan base from Europe to Australia, and playing festivals in Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

While growing up in France, Jourdain says, funk music was hardly prevalent. As fans, he and Lacrouts would need to hunt down import releases in small record shops. As funk musicians themselves, a local welcome was slow to come.

"In France, it was hard for us, because they don't have the culture of funk music. They're more mainstream in music. If you hear French radio, you would throw up," he says. "We first started getting abroad, and it worked better there than in France. Because it worked elsewhere, France started waking up, and we could build something."

Fishbone was among the funk bands that were able to break through in France, and the pair opened for the Los Angeles band a number of times with Wolfunkind. They befriended Fishbone, and singer Angelo Moore suggested they name the new project The Pink Panther. Legal concerns brought about the new name, The Inspector Cluzo.

They also borrowed their energetic performance style from Fishbone.

"We don't want to get off the stage without making sure that the audience is on fire. We took that from Fishbone. They're like that, really into making people crazy," Jourdain says. "That's what we're trying to do every night. It's never the same show every night, because depending on how the audience reacts, we try different ways."

The band has released two albums in France, The Inspector Cluzo and French Bastards. Both albums were repackaged into a single release for the band's first full U.S. tour.

"We're having a lot of fun, and we have very good feedback from the shows. We are totally, happily, surprised at the good reactions that the audiences have," Jourdain says.

Despite growing success overseas—530 shows in 28 countries, and selling 50,000 albums in three years—the band had a difficult time breaking into the United States.

"It's a different experience. We made it by doing everything ourselves. We're music craftsmen. We do everything from the recording to publishing to booking shows," Jourdain says. "We were not used to the U.S. market, so it was hard to find a way to enter it, to make promoters answer e-mails, but finally, we could hook up a whole proper tour."

Because high-energy funk music is hardly the norm for French bands, Jourdain says, The Inspector Cluzo have been able to take advantage of the element of surprise, giving audiences way more entertainment than they might have been expecting.

"It's funny. Here, the audience doesn't expect that kind of music and that entertainment. I think they just expect a band playing, but there's a lot of interaction and jokes, and we're pushing a lot."

The band has a third record ready for mixing and mastering once they return to France, but Jourdain says they couldn't refuse a chance to extend the "French Bastards Tour" to the United States.

"The music is full of energy, groovy, so it talks to everybody. You can dance; you can head-bang on some parts; and the energy is shared with the audience. Whatever the language, wherever you are, it seems to work," Jourdain says. "That's why we keep on going and try to visit as many countries as possible."

Published Nov. 10, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

The Inspector Cluzo performs FRIDAY, NOV. 11 at Plush, with Marianne Dissard and Mr. Free and the Satellite Freakout

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Live Review: Mates of State & Generationals

The pairing of Mates of State and Generationals guarantees hooks and harmony galore—an abundant display of how to make pop songs shine.

Both bands are built around a duo and the ever-present interplay between musical counterparts. In Mates of State, it's husband-wife duo Jason Hammel and Kori Gardner, while Generationals offer Grant Widmer and Ted Joyner, a songwriting duo with a friendship that dates back to their early high school days.

The Generationals, from New Orleans, have developed a strong Tucson audience through frequent touring and a connection through Park the Van Records to Golden Boots. The band's throwback pop has grown a bit spacier and fuller as a five-piece.

Opening with "Nobody Could Change Your Mind," the band raced through a set that mixed standouts from 2009 debut Con Law, 2010 EP Trust and this year's Actor-Caster. Highlights included Motown-influenced "When They Fight, They Fight," the lively "You Say It Too" and the bouncy set-closer "Trust."

However, the appreciative Plush crowd clearly turned out for Mates of State, whose nearly 20-song set touched on midcareer favorites like "Get Better" and "The Re-Arranger" (from 2008's Re-Arrange Us), and "For the Actor" (2006's Bring It Back), before moving into more songs from this year's Mountaintops.

With Hammel on drums and Gardner on piano—rounded out by guitar and frequent trumpet—Mates of State has a fine balance staked out between powerful and precise drumming and nimble, playful piano. And those harmonies!

Covers of Jackson Browne's "These Days" and Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End" were both re-envisioned in Mates of State's poppy and adorable style.

The band's final encore was "Palomino," the first song on Mountaintops and one of the year's best singles, a burst of exuberance that had the still-packed house jumping and fist-pumping.

Published Nov. 10, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Damn does this song rule...

I'll have a full review of last night's Mates of State & Generationals show in the Tucson Weekly on Thursday, but today I have to highlight "Palomino," the first song on Mates of State's new album, Mountaintops. "Palomino" is quickly becoming one of my favorite songs of 2011, and it's an amazing video, from director Jimi Patterson:

And as a bonus, Mates of State covering Jackson Browne's "These Days":

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Mates of State with the Generationals at Plush on Monday

Eighteen seconds into "Palomino," what started as a toe-tapping song with an airy synthesizer bursts into a chorus of "oohs," and Mates of State's new album rushes off like a child at play.

"Palomino" is concentrated sweetness, an album and perhaps career highlight for Mates of State, a band that peddles bottled joy and sunshine.

Mates of State has always been a band defined by the marriage/partnership of keyboardist Kori Gardner, drummer Jason Hammel and their shared harmony. Mountaintops has flashes of '80s new wave and synth pop, Motown and shoegaze.

After "Palomino" comes "Maracas" and "Sway," songs that sustain the tempo while drawing out the album's lyrical themes of love, individuality, balance and change.

The album turns somber on "Unless I'm Led," a meditation on mistakes and messes, and those fixes that need both internal and external action. But it's the chorus of "you learn to live without me" that brings about questions of solitude, individuality and how to balance personal needs in a committed partnership. It's decidedly adult subject matter, yet taken up in the adolescent language of pop music.

Even when the band finds clarity—as on "At Least I Have You," when love, life and purpose all align—it's in fleeting moments, a lesson Mates of States deliver in their own sweet way.

Published Nov. 3 in the Tucson Weekly.

Mates of State - Maracas by orchardmktg

Also, I interviewed the Generationals for the Tucson Weekly in 2009.

Generationals - Trust

Friday, November 04, 2011

Review: Tom Waits - Bad As Me

Donning the mask of a fatalistic joker, Tom Waits gives 2011 its defining album, singing, stomping and wheezing in revolt against the bleak lows that mark this doomed age.

A deep study of any of the 13 songs on Bad as Me would serve the same purpose, with nearly the same result: This is the soundtrack to an occupied nation, encapsulating the fear, anger and defiance coursing through a people wronged again and again.

"All the news is bad, is there any other kind?" Waits sings in falsetto on "Talking at the Same Time," a swampy indictment of the dirty profiteers who've left America in tatters. "We bailed out all the millionaires—they got the fruit; we got the rind." It's a country drowning in the miserable wake of its own greed, watching helplessly as desperate chaos extends the hard times.

Dark, preposterous, incensed and confrontational, Bad as Me is mostly "brawlers" in the Waits parlance, but even the tender ballads are haunted by war, futility, autumnal decay and dying embers.

"Pay Me" is about how easy a man can become stuck—"To hold yourself up's not a crime here, you know"—and about how the only optimism for this time is to sing merrily as you sink.

Waits ends with "New Year's Eve," a hard-luck tale that's typical of both his previous work and the Great Recession, turning "auld lang syne" into the only hope he can muster: Even a shitty year must come to an end.

Published Nov. 3, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Mr. Gnome at Plush tonight!

Cleveland's Mr. Gnome is band that strips down to the basics, without ever sounding stripped down. Forget the convention of the power trio, this is a power duo.

Nicole Barille on vocals and guitar and Sam Meister on drums, occasional piano and back-up vocals - that's it. Just as bombastic as the White Stripes, just as enigmatic as Wye Oak and just as crafty as the Black Keys, Mr. Gnome plays music that makes the most of tension, dipping into tender moments as well as glorious noise.

Madness in Miniature, out on Oct. 25, is ferocious, calculating, edgy and ethereal. Songs like "House of Circles" even manage to blend all those elements together at once. It's a distinctly modern type of psychedelic rock, bluesy at the edges, but pulsating with a sort of burned-out energy.

Madness in Miniature draws strength from its shifts in tone and style. "Run For Cover" presents its spookiness with a twisted reverence, while "Bit of Tongue" is 90s style alternative that explodes in an ending burst of punk. "Wolf Girls" is wild guitar riffing in a pit of paranoia, the soundtrack to dark dreams.

Staying strong across its 12 songs, Madness in Miniature could very well be a sleeper pick for one of 2011's best records.

Mr. Gnome (for fans of Wye Oak, The Black Keys and Yeah Yeah Yeahs) plays Plush tonight, with Stareater and Some of Them Are Old. $7.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: We Were Promised Jetpacks - In the Pit of the Stomach

As localized music scenes capture broader attention, the boundaries blur between the bands that count among the influential originals, and those that are mere copycats.

In the Scottish scene—which is making waves on England's Fat Cat Records—the tendency for young bands making names for themselves is to make a sophomore album that's bigger, bolder and louder than the debut. It's a sure way to meet heightened expectations without risking repetition, and Edinburgh's We Were Promised Jetpacks is no different.

Like label-mates and fellow Scots The Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks have a guitar-heavy yet dance-ready attack that draws readily from both Manchester post-punk and 1990s American alternative.

Part of what stands out for We Were Promised Jetpacks are the punky shout-along choruses of guitar anthems like "Picture of Health" and "Circles and Squares." Elsewhere, "Act on Impulse" and "Hard to Remember" are brooding songs with reverberating low ends; they're ominous and edgy enough to balance out the arena bombast that drives the rest of the album.

The band is still wound up with youthful energy, but is already starting to branch into subtle variations in song structure and arrangement. While it's not entirely clear whether that's the result of artistic vision or enthusiastic experimentation, those compelling changes launch the band beyond what it achieved on These Four Walls.

In the Pit of the Stomach should place We Were Promised Jetpacks on the leading edge of Scot-pop.

Published Oct. 20, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Riding Out the Storm - Crooked Fingers

To wear armor at all is to need protection, to fear wounds beyond what the body can sustain. So when that armor begins to fail, the resulting vulnerability is so much worse than an unguarded safety. On his sixth album under the Crooked Fingers name, Eric Bachmann takes a songwriting trip into a state of such startling vulnerability that it’s hard to count all the wounds contained in its 11 songs. Its title Breaks In The Armor points not only to flaws, but also to those mechanisms people use to stay guarded.

Read the entire piece in Souciant Magazine.

Crooked Fingers - Angelina

The War On Drugs play Plush Oct. 20

The War on Drugs' Adam Granduciel makes big music by starting with little snippets

Adam Granduciel describes his home studio as a playground for haphazard things.

In his tinkerer's shop, with a minimalist analog setup, Granduciel labors to create an ethereal batch of sounds, experimenting with combinations. It's only after he's accumulated a solid bed of sounds, often from mere snippets, that Granduciel starts seeing the outline of a song.

And then he rocks out.

As Granduciel, mastermind for The War on Drugs, describes his band's process, it's clear how expertly crafted the new Slave Ambient truly is. It's a sort of classic rock for an alternate universe. The comparisons that Granduciel has drawn to the likes of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan are certainly apt, but supporting that rock 'n' roll sound is an entirely different sonic world of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures. And the combination is seamless.

"It's really dense and pretty and beautiful, and a rock album, too," he says. "It's unique-sounding, but arriving at that is different than thinking about it.

"A lot of the time, I was just starting from scratch and building up some different sounds, sculpting it from the ground up until I saw where there was a song, and then writing it from there," says Granduciel, describing the four years it took him to record Slave Ambient. "Even though I was supposed to be delivering a record, I was mostly concerned with learning some new tricks. I knew the songs would come."

After the band's well-regarded debut, Wagonwheel Blues, Granduciel set out to expand his process, treating Slave Ambient like a suite of songs, flowing naturally from one to the next, with echoes of both melodies and drones forging a continuity amid the distinct tracks.

"The original vision was for every song to have its own identity, and still have it feel like a record," Granduciel says. "I knew I wanted it to be more than just a collection of songs. I wanted it to be a representation of all the time I've been recording and developing this strange process within my home studio. I expanded on that a lot with this record."

The album's centerpiece is the trio "Your Love Is Calling My Name," "The Animator" and "Come to the City." It starts with a propulsive rock song that carries with it background melodies that emerge as the focus of an airy instrumental song, which then uses that same propulsive beat for a return trip. The songs sit well together tonally, with an early version of one song serving as the instrumental backbone for another.

The very first seed was a single short drum loop. Granduciel invited two friends over to his Philadelphia home studio, set up two drum kits and three microphones, and just had them play for a while. He plucked from the recording a few-second segment where the drummers had locked into a great beat.

"I'd spend some time playing with different effects on it, re-sampling it and building up percussive tracks from things that weren't drum machines. It's human, but it's looped. It's not a straight drum beat, but something that's consistent," he says.

Granduciel started layering synthesizer parts on top of the percussive track and then picked up a harmonica and started recording it right through the board. That combination of melodies formed the backbone of that three-song suite.

Though the songs for the album were recorded at different times, in different places, and with different people, Granduciel says his steady vision for Slave Ambient provided enough cohesion.

"I was still looking for 'a-ha' moments even as I wrapping up the record. The last six months, it was about finding how to connect all the songs into something that really felt like it was a unique experience," he says. "It's a question of either keep doing what you're doing, or take the chance and go down one little side street, and I'd usually end up with a more-amazing sound.

"You can always play with it a little more, but I'm definitely able to know when the song is done. I'm not concerned with the rough edges," he says. "A lot of songs would have so many transformations, but in the end, they became what they are now. I could have spent another month making sure they were all perfect, but that would have gone against the point."

Granduciel says he didn't start out with any particular unifying ideas lyrically, but what came out along the way tends to center around the idea of "searching."

"Maybe it's just the idea of looking for something to latch onto," he says.

The recording process itself came to serve as an inspiration for Granduciel's writing. That struggle to create, to lock on to a vision and bring it to reality, became the record's central theme.

"Although nothing is really written lyrically in a linear way, when I did vocals for a song, it was in a time of flux, a time of working on stuff really obsessively. So that mentality came through a lot of the lyrics, along with self-doubt and hope and moments of ecstasy and reinvention and feeling down in the dumps," he says.

Slave Ambient came about during a period of change for Granduciel, who was also playing guitar in Kurt Vile's band The Violators. Vile had played guitar in The War on Drugs, but left to devote more time to his own project.

"(Slave Ambient) was a working title for a lot of the stuff just because of how I was cataloging it in my head. I had a million different titles for it, but even I admitted to myself that was it. And I just like the way the words sound together and how it looks on paper."

Granduciel is now looking forward to performing the songs live, where the experimenting drops off and the rocking elements emerge.

"The home studio is where you can spend a lot of time re-evaluating and changing, and you have the time and the space to do something and immediately erase it. To me, the live thing is great, because now the songs are there. The studio is where the songs are born, but live, you get to re-create them."

Published Oct. 13, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

The War On Drugs - Come To The City
The War On Drugs - Baby Missiles

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Reviwe: Lindsey Buckingham - Seeds We Sow

Sounding reflective and emotionally raw, Lindsey Buckingham takes a bigger turn toward folk music on his latest solo effort.

The album leads off with its strongest song, the title track, which is a gorgeous showcase for Buckingham's signature voice and virtuoso guitar style. Fast picking and a mournful wail blend together into a song as powerful as anything he's sung in the past.

Though punchier and fuller in instrumentation, "In Our Own Time" and "End of Time" also find Buckingham playing comfortably in the folk-rock realm, with particularly sharp use of his own layered vocals. "Stars Are Crazy" blends his ornate finger-picking with a hazy reverb on the vocals.

Still, there are songs on Seeds We Sow that mine the '70s vibe of classic Fleetwood Mac—particularly the Rumours-esque "That's The Way Love Goes," the incredibly catchy "Illumination," the meditative "Rock Away Blind" and the rock-ballad "Gone Too Far."

Buckingham does fall into a soft-rock trap on "When She Comes Down," and misses the mark on "One Take," which features half-rapped braggadocio and out-of-place aggressive—though skilled—guitar solos.

Buckingham closes with an excellently chosen cover, the Rolling Stones' "She Smiled Sweetly," which he turns into a somber and aching reflection.

Though his has been a long and fruitful career, Buckingham still can earn attention with his signature style as both a guitarist and a vocalist—and even better, he has the production smarts and skill to continue molding those familiar elements into new and fresh music.

Published Oct. 13, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review: Blitzen Trapper - American Goldwing

Paring down some of the band's more-unhinged tendencies, Blitzen Trapper look backward on American Goldwing, an album about growing up that sounds like the music that guided those formative years.

Often writing distinctly about his past, his upbringing and those distinctly rural characters of a generation-ago America, Eric Earley has hit a rich vein lyrically, writing with a rustic sincerity, while the rest of the band plays tighter than ever. Perhaps less-experimental than before—but no less versatile—the band runs through 11 songs with everything from cranked electric guitars to plucked banjo and wheezy jaw-harp.

The album's push-pull is between home and the great big world outside, between nostalgia and ambition, between familiar comforts and a sense of longing and adventure. Musically, American Goldwing is the type of celebratory roots-rock that bridges Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Dylan, or in this era, Dr. Dog and the Drive-By Truckers.

"Fletcher" builds into a sing-along chorus; "Your Crying Eyes" is boogie-blues rock; "Street Fighting Sun" is live-wire guitar muscle; and the title song is a feel-good jam built around electric piano, twangy guitar and harmonica blasts.

Trading idiosyncrasies for familiarity, Blitzen Trapper makes a different kind of progress on the band's sixth album, one that indicates a staying power every bit as strong as the band's heartily worn influences. American Goldwing is Blitzen Trapper at their lively best, showcasing a band that sounds like they're having fun just being alive, struggles be damned and washed away in an easy burst of song.

Published Oct. 6, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Blitzen Trapper - Love the Way You Walk Away

Friday, September 30, 2011

Cymbals Eat Guitars at Congress on Tuesday

Tucson's video? - with an excellent 2011 release on the heels of last year's Fort Lowell Records 7inch - open an excellent show on Tuesday night at Club Congress. Headlining are New York's Cymbals Eat Guitars. Below is my Tucson Weekly interview with the band:

Cymbals Eat Guitars were eager to change things up for their much-anticipated sophomore release

Opening a second album with a dense, bombastic, 8 1/2-minute song is certainly bold, but Cymbals Eat Guitars treat such a move as a calling card.

Lenses Alien is a big, loud alternative-rock album that showcases the multitude of strengths of a band on the verge of breaking big. Both catchy and complex, with big drums and churning guitars, the album recalls some of the stalwart alternative bands of the 1990s, but never comes off as a mere homage.

"The only conscious goal that we started out with for how it sounds was to have it sound closer to how the four of us sound together when we play live," says bassist Matt Whipple.

That adherence to live performance is no surprise, considering the two years of touring the band put in between the debut record and its follow-up. But it also points to how Cymbals Eat Guitars has been able to carve out a unique niche in the indie-rock world, distinct from both their peers and their influences.

"It's a second record for Cymbals Eat Guitars as a project, but it's the first record the four of us have made together where everybody had an equal say," Whipple says.

Guitarist Joseph D'Agostino and drummer Matthew Miller—classmates at Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, N.J.—formed the band in 2007, taking the name from a description Lou Reed used for the Velvet Underground. Sound-wise, the band's inspiration came from the generation after Reed—primarily Sonic Youth, but also Pavement and Modest Mouse, all trendsetters in different ways. Keyboardist Brian Hamilton and Whipple came on board later, replacement members recruited just in time for a stretch of touring with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and the lineup was set.

The band released Why There Are Mountains themselves in 2009, earning buzz-band praise from Pitchfork and the like. They toured the U.S. with Los Campesinos! and the Thermals, scored European dates with the Flaming Lips and the Hold Steady, and played festivals like Lollapalooza and Glastonbury.

For the follow-up record, Cymbals Eat Guitars signed to Barsuk Records and teamed with producer John Agnello, whose work with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and Screaming Trees made him a dream fit for the band.

"Working with John was wonderful. Obviously, his discography looms pretty large for us in terms of influence," Whipple says. "Creatively, it was also a great partnership. He gave us exactly the kind of leeway to pursue the ideas we already had, and he also gave us exactly the right kind of pushback that we needed."

Despite the incredible reception Why There Are Mountains received, the band knew from the start that they wanted to go in a different direction.

"The last record was heavily overdubbed. There are a lot of extra instruments that obviously we don't re-create live. That aspect wasn't something we were interested in," Whipple says.

On Lenses Alien, gone are the horns and strings, and in their place is the process that took years of touring to come into place: four musicians sharing ideas, creating sounds together and stitching together different parts instinctively. The whole is a sound that depends on each member's equal contribution.

"When a band goes through lineup changes, or even just one new member joins, it takes a little while, a few tours or however many shows, to just get comfortable playing together and to develop that intuition of knowing what the other guy is going to do, and doing something complementary to it," Whipple says. "It took about a year to get to where we could collaborate on writing parts and writing songs and have it be a little more effortless."

Lenses Alien is psychedelic, crushing and noisy at times, somber and hazy at others. There's a dark undercurrent to the lyrics, drawn out and matched sonically with a seductive, magnetic pull.

"There's a little bit darker of a vibe with this record than the last one," Whipple says. "That has a lot to do with Joe's lyrics and some of the sounds we created to match the vibe of those poems that eventually became songs."

Lenses Alien, released on Aug. 30, has met with positive reviews, typically centering on "Rifle Eyesight (Proper Name)," that ambitious album opener that's an ever-shifting thrill ride of a song. D'Agostino's howling vocals and the shrieking guitars drive the midsection with apocalyptic noise, but Hamilton's piano rings out through the haze. It's a song that sets the stage for the rest of the album.

"Keep Me Waiting" begins with a guitar squeal, but chugs along energetically like a classic power-pop single, with a shouty chorus that frames the guitars in a clear melody. "Plainclothes" is road-trip music thrust into a darker realm. "Wavelengths," a laid-back song that leans toward romantic, brings acoustic guitars to the front. "Secret Family" finds the band turning playful, more garage-rock than alternative.

Published Sept. 29, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Cymbals Eat Guitars - Definite Darkness video? - I'm Afraid of Everything

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Growing up, Rad was my favorite movie. It still is. So when I heard about the 25th anniversary celebration was scheduled for this August in Calgary, I had to go. I did, and subsequently wrote thousands of words about the extraordinary weekend, the film's strange and inspiring afterlife and the subculture it came to represent:

I pedaled leisurely rather than furiously, making no quick turns, hopping over no jutting tree roots, never trying to weave in and out of the other riders. But there I was, on the Helltrack qualifying course, riding BMX with the likes of Eddie Fiola, Martin Aparijo, Kevin Hull and Everett and Beatle Rosecrans. Twenty-five years after the movie that changed BMX forever, I was celebrating with some of the movie’s star stunt riders, who despite a lifetime of crashes, bruises and breaks are still nimble magicians on bicycles, none of them seeming to be anywhere near as old as their late 40s.

Read the entire piece at Souciant Magazine.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review: St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

Annie Clark's music is a beautiful hybrid of folk, electronica and art rock—a tough combination to get right. But the multi-instrumentalist with the haunting voice has made waves with her pristine execution on Marry Me and Actor, two acclaimed albums that actually lose some luster in comparison to the new Strange Mercy.

Clark drops the veil slightly to bring more passion and intensity to her third album, making it the sort of achievement that cements an artist in the upper echelon of her craft.

Clark could easily toss off gorgeous, unadorned folk songs—and there is perhaps something to miss in the fact that she doesn't—but she instead strives for a more-experimental, artistic use of electronics and offbeat instrumentation. What that requires is directness and a sense of balance between vocals and the myriad other sounds; this is where Strange Mercy succeeds more so than Clark's first two St. Vincent albums.

Such inclusiveness could—and occasionally did, on 2009's Actor—sound cluttered, as if a group of unnecessary sounds conspired to weigh down an already-completed song. But here, the wide array of sounds has everything in its right place, from the thick, swelling electronics of opener "Chloe in the Afternoon" to the moaning-bass groove of "Champagne Year."

Strange Mercy has orchestral sweep, intimate vocals and a whole universe of sounds that demand attentive listening. But in topping herself, Clark relies on more than just musical complexity, delivering a record all the more compelling for its emotional heft and honesty.

Published Sept. 29, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Review: Fruit Bats - Tripper

Over the course of a decade, the Fruit Bats have quietly been dancing in and out of trends carried by fellow Sub Pop bands that have garnered much more attention. Folky, sunny, poppy and now slightly more psychedelic, the lineup-shifting band led by Eric D. Johnson has never jumped into the spotlight, but has asserted itself with quality albums.

Working with producer Thom Monahan on the heels of soundtrack-recording for Our Idiot Brother, Johnson has crafted Tripper into an album that's mellower and more experimental than its predecessor, the rollicking and catchy The Ruminant Band.

Though as melodic as ever, this Fruit Bats outing gives a significant amount of its sonic space to musical flourishes and a deeper, layered background, at times with abstractions and atmospherics that would fit in a film score.

Still, the largest change with Tripper is in Johnson's songwriting. He's now delving into the lives of colorful characters, often at crossroads with themselves, and telling stories of personal escapes with a great lyrical eye for detail.

Johnson first crossed into that territory with "Singing Joy to the World" from the last Fruit Bats album and now seems comfortable dealing almost exclusively with narratives, starting with those quiet internal moments that lead to big decisions and then following his characters down new paths.

Tripper is an album about journeys, about people who have left behind one thing but have not yet gotten anywhere new. Standouts like "Tony the Tripper," "Wild Honey" and "You're Too Weird" may sound easygoing, but hold within complex adventures.

Published Sept. 8, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Fruit Bats - Tangie and Ray

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Review: Fountains of Wayne - Sky Full of Holes

Fountains of Wayne songwriters Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger are masters at peppering their songs with all sorts of slice-of-life details, and on Sky Full of Holes, the duo is sharper than ever at using those mundane observations to draw out a gallery full of familiar emotions.

Fountains of Wayne's fifth album opens with the line: "She's been afraid of the Cuisinart since 1977," just one of those off-center details that Collingwood and Schlesinger employ to heighten the impact of the more-subtle revelations about the parade of dissatisfied characters that make up Sky Full of Holes' 13 songs.

The band's surging power pop and mid-tempo acoustic rock again exaggerate every hook, but it's the honesty and realism in the lyrics that stand out here, often replacing the more wry observations and winking humor of songs like the hit "Stacy's Mom."

The album is about lives that somehow got off track—people overtaken by self-destructive impulses, hubris and selfishness, and often left with a pressing uneasiness with how things unfolded. In "The Summer Place," a woman's memories of her teenage outbursts of theft and drugs seem to win out over her boring adult existence.

Fountains of Wayne's underlying message here may be that life is a struggle, but it's the clever framework that the band uses to deliver the message that's the album's real takeaway. When people are yearning for things to be better, a quirky rhyme and a catchy chorus can go a long way.

Published Sept. 1, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Introducing... Dead Western Plains

Dead Western Plains refuse to get 'stuck'

The colorful, shifting soundscapes of Dead Western Plains' songs are the fortunate result of what Johnnie Munger calls "too many cooks in the kitchen."

The five members of Dead Western Plains piece together sounds like collage artists, with each musician adding his own distinct style and personality, until a song reaches its rich and layered conclusion. The band, voted the TAMMIES Up-and-Coming Artists of the Year, will spend a month or two on a song, writing and recording as a single process, exploring different sounds and paths each step of the way.

The band formed two years ago after Munger and Wesley Sebastian Tucker—who had both been working on musical projects rooted in looping and electronics—decided to try writing songs together. Munger says the project wouldn't have amounted to much if they hadn't recruited friends Michael Sanger, who was playing drums with Munger in Juarez at the time, and Darren Simoes (The Bled) on guitar. Nathan Ziebell (The Swim) joined on bass about a year later.

"It's an honest sound. It's a Crock-Pot of all of our likes. I can actually hear the personalities of every single person in the band," Munger says.

He elaborates: "When I start layering what I'm going to do, it's definitely going to have electronic stuff and a sample. Darren—who's pretty much just a mastermind of guitar; he's got impeccable taste for riffs and guitar tones—he really provides the traditional sense of guitars. Wes has a very atmospheric type of sound. Most of the guitar-produced atmospherics are from Wes. Mike Sanger grew up (with a) very rock background and really levels us out. We might be a little too dance-y, so he helps bring in a little bit of the bottom. Nate gives us an anchor. We didn't have a lot of harmonic bass, and adding that low end has been crucial, especially for live shows."

Munger handles vocals, accordion, piano, synthesizer, organ, glockenspiel, electronics, samples and percussion. Prior to DWP, he was playing electronic, beat-oriented music on his own Milk:Blood project, and also playing bass in the heavy-rock band Juarez, which was the fourth band he and Sanger teamed up in, each one playing a different type of music.

"We all have a very wide taste of likes. (DWP) is just another color on our palette of music. It just so happens it's the one I love. From my heart, I've always been a very electronic-music type of person. I didn't grow up listening to punk rock or rock at all. I grew up listening to the classic electronic," Munger says. "I do enjoy playing in anything I can get my hands on. But there is something to being where you feel good, and where you feel strong, and eventually, you'll do a better job."

Dead Western Plains' debut recording, "Alta," a 7-inch vinyl single for local label Fort Lowell Records (with "Gift Horse in the Mouth" on the B side), was released in November 2010.

"Their sound is simply so fresh," says James Tritten, of Fort Lowell Records. "Their caliber is much more in line with a national level than they even realize themselves. As long as their music is getting out, they'll continue to grow and challenge themselves as a band. I knew I wanted to help get their sound out there outside of Tucson."

Dead Western Plains has indeed gained some momentum outside of Tucson, with a mention on the LA Weekly's music blog comparing the band's "psychedelic swoon and upbeat power-pop" to Animal Collective. Elsewhere, indie-rock blogs have compared the band to Arcade Fire and Band of Horses.

"Being able to record was really defining for us," Munger says. "Up to that point, we'd written songs, but we hadn't really solidified much, just tinkered."

The band recorded everything except the drums themselves, going over every small detail collaboratively. The process involved a lot of long nights, with five musicians jammed into a little room, and the songs growing bit by bit.

"Every little thing comes into question when we do it. We get really into the details and try to explore a lot of things. When we're sitting down to write the music, most of the talk is about carrying a vibe," Munger says. "Despite all of our differences as far as too many cooks in the kitchen, our end goal usually ends up trying to carry a certain story throughout the song. When we write like that, it ends up with the parts growing, and it isn't built on a planned structure."

For the "Alta" release celebration at Plush, the band put together a live show that focused on visual art as well as the musical performance. Each musician wore all-white clothes, and the band projected video across the entire stage during the performance.

"We're very hands-on with every aspect of the band, from recording to live shows. We have a little bit of (attention deficit disorder) when it comes to that type of thing," Munger says. "We happen to have also in the band a lot of different talents visually. Everybody comes up with something, and we just have a lot of tools at our fingertips. We'll definitely be growing that as we go along."

The current agenda for Dead Western Plains, however, is a period focused on writing and recording new material. The band's third song for release, "People Beat," will appear Oct. 18 on Luz de Vida: A Compilation to Benefit the Victims of the Tucson Tragedy, a collaboration between Fort Lowell Records and Music Against Violence. (Full disclosure: I am involved in the project.)

"We're giving ourselves the time to be total schmucks about all the details," Munger says. "We go into the studio, and we click well, so it lets us have blinders on to everything else."

The band has four or five other songs already written, with plans to release one or possibly two EPs by the end of the year.

"We're pretty much in record mode right now. Our main passion is creating," Munger says. "We've decided to go for shorter, more-frequent releases. We want to tackle as much ground as possible without getting stuck."

Published Sept. 1, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Dead Western Plains - Alta
Dead Western Plains - People Beat

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Outside Lands Festival - Interstitial Overdrive

A three-day music festival like Outside Lands 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 see every single band I’m interested in, and let the festival vibe take care of whatever other decisions need to be made. Recapping the experience without running over the itinerary isn’t much easier. But paying attention to what isn’t on stage is a start.

Read the rest at Souciant Magazine.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

New Tom Waits!

"What if you had a root canal and I asked you to gargle with raw sewage, would you be OK with that? Would it be safe to jump rope with a live electrical wire?"

Friday, August 19, 2011


HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS is an entirely new adventure for these Tucson music veterans

The operative word for HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS is different.

When the band formed two years ago—with members from well-regarded Tucson bands Red Switch, Bombs for the Bored and Chango Malo—nobody wanted a simple retread. HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS was to be an entirely new adventure.

"I didn't want it to sound like any other band any of us had been in," says singer-guitarist Josh Levine, the former front man for Red Switch. "We had the ideology of not wanting to repeat ourselves. I just didn't want it to be Part 2 of anybody's other band."

That adamant refusal to allow parallels to other bands came after Levine's hiatus from music, spurred by band breakups and general frustration with playing music.

"I'd stopped playing guitar and being in bands for a full five years. Then when I started writing songs again, it was just for my own entertainment," he says. "When I wanted to play in a band again, I called my friends, and luckily, they were all available."

Joining Levine are Noah Gabbard (Bombs for the Bored) on guitar, Justin Lillie (Chango Malo, Gentlemen of Monster Island) on bass, Ernie Gardner (Red Switch, Mala Vita) on drums, and recent addition Josh Lillie on percussion.

"Musically, we were all tired of what our old bands sounded like. We just wanted to do something we hadn't done," Levine says. "There was one time I brought an idea for a song, and Noah said it sounded like Red Switch too much, so we dropped it."

Early on, the band's songs came more or less fully formed from Levine. The first batch of songs after he started writing again stretched to 68 songs, which he gave on burned CDs to the other band members to learn.

The second batch? It had 69 songs.

"It was a deluge," Levine says. "This year, it'll be 10."

After self-releasing a debut album—I Am. And I've Been Looking for You—last year, HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS (the name is a joke on Mötley Crüe's attempted rejuvenation as a 'serious band' in the wake of grunge by abandoning the staple elements of glam-metal videos) readied new songs for a blitz of recording in February at Waterworks with Jim Waters.

"I like to keep things current. The stuff we're writing and playing now is a lot different than the stuff that I was doing on my own," Levine says.

The songwriting process has changed significantly since the band's first days. Now, Levine simply brings in skeletons of songs and ideas, and the whole crew fleshes them out.

"Musically, I've been able to do things in this band that I've always wanted to do," Gabbard says. "Having two guitarists in the band frees me up to do more of the ambient and noise stuff I've always been interested in doing. Even though it's fairly subtle, it's different. All of the bands I've played guitar and didn't sing in, the type of music we were playing wasn't my true passion; I was playing to what they wanted. In this band, I feel free."

Justin Lillie feels similarly.

"This is definitely the most-different-sounding band that I've ever been in, but it's the one that I've always wanted to be in. It's something that my other bands couldn't do. For me, it feels good reining in all the chaotic stuff that I've always written, ever since high school, when the entire time, I was listening to Tom Petty and Tori Amos."

The music is loud, fast rock 'n' roll. HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS are a little surprised to find the band being called "punk." Perhaps that is true in spirit, but the band is more accurately offering driving, melodic guitar rock, in the tradition that stretches from the Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground to bands like The Jam, The Smiths and Hüsker Dü.

"In terms of the philosophy, that's what I got out of listening to the original punk bands in the '70s, the idea of being relevant and having something to say, and not just repeating yourself and resting on your laurels," Levine says. "We all came into this knowing we were going to do something different than we had before, and we continue to do that. We have two albums now, and they sound radically different from each other. We just want to continue pushing forward creatively."

The only clear lineage HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS might take from its members' former bands is the sense of making music that doesn't quite sound like anybody else.

"The idea of having each album sound radically different from its predecessor is a big deal," Levine says about the new album. "The songs are kind of a mixed bag. Some of them are brand-new; some are older than the first album, rearranged. And originally, it wasn't intended to be a full-length album. We just want to record and release a lot more material than any other band we've been in."

Gabbard says writing and recording quickly comes from the experience and the work ethic that they all developed while pushing those other bands to local success. The band has developed a built-in sense of what works.

"Putting a standard couple-year gap between albums would be really frustrating," Gabbard says. "It's just about quality. If we all can stand by the material, that's all there is to it."

To slow the pace a bit, the band has turned to cover projects in between recordings, first a Depeche Mode set at the Great Cover-Up, and most recently a performance of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.

"It's gotten frustrating at points, but it is really good for us to take a break from all those songs and the recording process to work on something completely different by one of our favorite bands. It allows the new album some space to breathe a little bit more and us (to) appreciate it a bit more without having to work on any new songs," Justin Lillie says.

HAIRSPRAYFIREANDGIRLS is fun and almost effortless, Levine says. And it had better be.

"We can't not play music," Levine says. "All of us have tried to not be in bands, and it doesn't work out."

Published Aug. 18, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Review: Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest

The Harrow and the Harvest, Gillian Welch's first album in eight years, is 10 folk songs in the classic sense: tales of travelers, of everyday comforts and concerns—songs that work as still-life portraits of quiet, thoughtful moments.

The album is Welch's true successor to Time (The Revelator), and though it has nothing as epic as "I Dream a Highway" or the two-part tale of "April the 14th" and "Ruination Day," nor as perfect as "Revelator," it's just as strong, and just as likely to lift a listener out of his own time.

Welch and co-writer/producer David Rawlings are back to more traditional, spare arrangements. Absent are the light drums, organ, bass, fiddle and electric guitar of 2003's Soul Journey, a fresh-sounding album that made an unnecessary turn away from Welch's greatest strengths.

There are flourishes of harmonica and banjo, but Harrow is most often just the two guitars endlessly dancing around each other, and the two voices, rising and falling until they're welded into a delicate harmony.

A theme runs through the album about life's long march and circumstances that pop up along the way, be they impediments, detours or strokes of fortune. A trio of songs—"The Way It Will Be," "The Way It Goes" and "The Way the Whole Thing Ends"—especially explore what in life can be controlled, and what hits like a storm.

The Harrow and the Harvest shows that Gillian Welch is among those rare artists for whom masterpiece isn't a singular term.

Published Aug. 4, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Richard Buckner - Our Blood

Mind the Gap

A master of negative space

Richard Buckner Jill Draper Portrait

I first saw Richard Buckner perform a decade ago, at the now-defunct Nita’s Hideaway in Tempe, Ariz. Call it an intimate performance, or call it a half empty room; Buckner hadn’t really made a name for himself yet in Arizona. I was seated at a small table. I could’ve put my feet on the stage if I’d leaned back in my chair. Buckner was touring with a pedal steel guitarist. This was already three fantastic albums into his career, so I guess the acquired taste tag had already been placed on the deep-voiced, brooding singer.

Despite the pedal steel player and the twang that bended the edges of his voice, Buckner was already well in transition away from the rock he’d landed on with Bloomed, his 1995 debut. In five subsequent shows, I watched as Buckner’s live act transitioned into a loop-based sound. He’d play different guitar parts live and then layer one on top of another, creating a circular effect, the different elements distinct for a time, but melding together as he continued to play.

Our Blood, Buckner’s first album in five years, is built that same way, for the first time reflecting on record that looping quality that he’s refined on stage. As such, it’s a hard album to fit with a rock, country or folk tag. As a lyricist and vocalist, Buckner retains his veiled and mysterious narrative power. But musically, he’s developed an atmospheric, film-score type of sound, far removed from the traditional country-folk leanings of his Lloyd Maines-assisted debut.

That Our Blood diverges at times so starkly from Buckner’s recorded precedent is hardly a surprise. The album had a long and troubled road to travel. Merge Records’ press release takes the form of a letter from Buckner, describing a twice-broken Roland 2480 recorder, a stolen laptop and the failure of a self-imposed exile in an old grange hall in upstate New York.

In short, it’s a very “Buckner” description: full of strange and seemingly disconnected details, short on explanatory meat, but marvelously evocative. Buckner tells stories with gaping holes, hiding what seem to be the necessary facts. Where Buckner drops off a tale is rarely where he picks it up again. He’s a master at using the gap between as a lure, a trap set for listeners seeking clarity. I’ve fallen into Buckner songs by chasing a particular phrase, only to fine myself someplace all together different when I emerge.

Our Blood is, at least in part, exactly how Buckner describes it: an album of resuscitated and patched sounds, of peripheral intrusions, of expelled breath. Approach it from the wrong angle and the music seems opaque, dense and shut tight with a chain and padlock, like a long-closed warehouse. Find the pathway in, however, and Our Blood promises an adventure of darting nuance and emotional heft.

Buckner declares that het set out to capture a “grand idea of lyrics and music and written stories along a connecting thread or two,” so the listener’s detective work begins with that premise. The cover art, with its Ralph Steadman-esque ink blotted text and Rorschach pattern, is just the first clue that announces its presence but not its meaning.

Next, consider not only the album title Our Blood, but its song titles: Traitor, Escape, Thief, Collusion, Ponder, Witness, Confession, Hindsight, Gang. There’s a caper somewhere at the center of the story, but the action just might be secondary to how the events affect Buckner’s cast of characters. In essence, Buckner is scoring his lyrics, chapter by chapter, but for the art house cinema rather than the multiplex. The plot stretches and sprawls, much too far, indeed, for anyone to make perfect sense of things right off the bat.

Buckner himself says as much in an interview on the Los Angeles music blog Aquarium Drunkard: “The songs have a thread through them that I haven’t really been able to explain to myself yet. Writing’s so prophetic. You never realize what they’re really about until years later.”

Our Blood is an album of endlessly quotable lyrics. But they fit together so well that yanked-from-context examples simply diminish their power. Still, to illustrate how well Buckner operates in media res, consider the album’s opening lines, from “Traitor”: “You woke up too late to know what they thought / While you were waiting for the strangers, they had gone.” Or consider these lines from the record’s final song “Gang”: “Shaking in the coldest hours, kept just out of mind.” That’s the one that keeps echoing through my own head.

“Traitor” is propelled by ominous, booming drums and layers of swirling, looped guitars. Elsewhere, Buckner employs the album’s brighter songs — “Escape,” “Witness” and “Gang” — as counter measures to that approach, the equivalent of different camera filters used for the different settings of a film. The cinematic feel is further enhanced by the way Buckner toys around with tempo on Our Blood. He has always been deft with hesitations and hurried slurs, the suggestion that hours feel like days or that years can pass in matter of seconds, but this quality is prominent now as never before. “Thief” and the instrumental “Ponder” especially cast discordant shadows over the proceedings.

Buckner can be an esoteric and challenging songwriter, but that’s surely to his credit, not fault. Our Blood confirms Buckner’s status as songwriter extraordinaire. But that could have been said — and was — about his previous records. With its carefully structured diversity of sound, though, Our Blood takes his art into exciting new places without losing what already made it great. The road-less-traveled approach makes it a different sort of success.

Published Aug. 4, 2011 in Souciant Magazine.

DOWNLOAD: Richard Buckner - Escape

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Bob Dylan, live at AVA at Casino del Sol, July 19

Now essentially an old bluesman, Bob Dylan continues his habit in recent years of leaning on the organ and harmonica during live performances. But in turning away from the guitar, he's taken a greater role in his band's sound.

As the Never Ending Tour made its fourth Tucson stop in the last decade, the now 70-year-old Dylan delivered a 16-song set drawing broadly from his career. The newest studio album, Together Through Life, and 1965's classic Highway 61 Revisited were the most represented albums, with three songs each. Remarkably, Dylan repeated only two songs from his last local performance, a 2007 AVA show that was also far superior to his Tucson Convention Center stop in 2006.

Starting with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," his vocals were clear and strong throughout, but what shined most was his nimble organ playing. When Dylan first brought the organ back to his live show, his style was more subdued, less striking in the band's mix. Now, it's a featured dimension of the band's sound and plays perfectly off Charlie Sexton's lead guitar.

Similarly strong—and more prevalent than in recent years—was Dylan's harmonica, which he played on roughly half the songs, often lacing multiple harp passages into a single song. He played guitar on just one song, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'."

His stage presence more animated without a guitar, Dylan spent the night making little gestures and poses. They're not details that can be detected from the lawn, but those seated close to the stage were treated to plenty of little moves from Dylan, wearing a black cowboy suit with red piping.

With lightning flashing in the southwest distance, Dylan played a jumpy blues version of "The Levee's Gonna Break," with an excellent call-and-response outro jam between Dylan's organ and Sexton's guitar.

Still updating and shifting his old classics, Dylan meshed both first- and third-person lyrics into his narrative "Tangled Up in Blue," and rearranged "Visions of Johanna" around his organ playing.

To close the set, with the stage lights set low for an interrogation effect and his looming shadow tall on the curtain at the back of the stage, Dylan played a version of "Ballad of a Thin Man" dripping with menace, as accusatory as the day it was written.

Published July 28, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.