Friday, June 24, 2011

Review: Bon Iver - Bon Iver

The muse of that isolated winter is gone, replaced by a muse that’s on the run, loose in a wide world. Bon Iver, the band that had its phoenix-like beginning with the muted and hushed For Emma, Forever Ago, is now fully awakened. His recuperation complete, Justin Vernon is free to explore, reaching for a host of new sounds to adorn the band’s second record, Bon Iver.

For Emma arrived with a richer origin mythology than any other record in recent memory. The isolated cabin, the devastating losses of band and girl, the harsh Wisconsin winter, the obsessiveness and self-healing of the recording itself — it was all too compelling, all too perfectly matched to the music itself. Those fragile songs hung like paintings to be viewed in a still room, haunting in the impressions they left lingering. They were built of a self-reliance that was primal, instinctive.

Bon Iver can’t help but exist as a response to all that, a summation of the whirlwind travels and experiences that For Emma created for Vernon. The new record pulses with an exploratory urgency, its songs varied and complex, shifting moment to moment. It’s the sound of Vernon simultaneously collecting and making sense of a million new impressions of his post-Emma world. The songs are about places, about landscapes familiar and foreign, about moving and returning. They’re expansive, with depth, physicality and a clear sense of motion.

While Vernon is clearly at the helm, Bon Iver is an impressively collaborative effort. His touring bandmates Sean Carey, Mike Noyce and Matt McCaughan are behind the propulsive, dynamic rhythms that most distinguish the album from its predecessor. Pedal steel guitar from Greg Leisz, saxophone from Colin Stetson and strings from Rob Moose add unexpected dimensions that allow the album’s ever-present shape shifting.

I’ve seen Bon Iver twice live — first when For Emma was still gaining steam in August 2008, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and then the following September in Oakland’s Fox Theater — and observed how the quiet intensity of that debut record was already undergoing significant transformation in the hands of Vernon’s touring band. Live, the arrangements grew richer and the instrumentation stretched out. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how all those tours and shows after For Emma informed Vernon’s approach to this new record. There’s a depth and fluidity to the songs — to the arrangements, specifically — that place Bon Iver in a new territory all together.

The horns, strings and percussion that are applied throughout show both creativity and restraint on Vernon’s part. With more tools than ever available to him at his new April Base Studio (a mostly self-remodeled veterinary clinic near his Eau Claire, Wisconsin home), he could have run roughshod, painting his multicolor project into a dull brown corner. But what emerges instead is bright and provocative, with a clear sense of purpose.

The opening duo of “Perth” and “Minnesota, WI” blend seamlessly together, each turning from soft and meandering guitar expeditions into percussive anthems, injected with horns. At times spacey and futuristic, they surprisingly recall TV on the Radio.

With its bittersweet and tender finger-picked guitar, “Halocene” most resembles the style on For Emma, and is unsurprisingly the album’s most direct song. “Towers” begins with a chiming indie-rock electric guitar and then shifts with the arrival of Southwest horns, pedal steel and a shuffling country back-beat.

“Michicant” is tender, swaying, shoegazey. “Hinnom, TX” is disorienting and experimental, with Vernon leaning more on his deeper singing voice than his trademark falsetto. The subdued “Wash.” follows with bell-like piano and strings.

“Calgary,” the first single, is the propulsive highlight of Bon Iver. The album’s most dynamic song, it begins with slight and airy keyboard tones and Vernon’s high and spooky vocals, before building and building, via an insistent drum beat, into a track stuffed so full of sounds that you can’t catch them all at once.

As the buzzing, short instrumental “Lisbon, OH” yields to “Beth/Rest,” the album takes its biggest leap, oddly enough toward indulgent 1980s soft rock. It’s a strange move, one perhaps best understood as an exercise in context. With its piano, sax and high-production lead guitar, such a torch song would sound anachronistic as a single, but as the coda to a sonically expansive album, “Beth/Rest” seems to be in the right place.

The lyrics on Bon Iver seem secondary throughout; even as published, they often give little indication of specific meaning or intent. Some aren’t even words, while others read as a string of nonsense. Overall, the lyrics give the impression of existing as a verbal shorthand, as if Vernon felt For Emma gave away too much and decided to take the opposite approach this time around.

What sticks out are moments in which the words leap forward, matching the emotional pull of Vernon’s voice: “Never gonna break” on “Minnesota, WI,” “I was not magnificent” on “Halocene,” and, what stands apart as the closest thing to an overall thematic statement for the album, “I ain’t living in the dark no more,” from “Beth/Rest.”

Of course, the differences between Bon Iver’s first two records can’t be described straightforwardly in terms of dark vs. light. Nor does a winter vs. spring analogy quite fit. Though much of what Vernon does remains somewhat veiled, it’s clear that both records are intensely personal, vividly and evocatively documenting those periods in his life that were devoted to their creation. Indeed, he seems invested in forging a continuity of identity in the face of life’s massive, rushing changes. In that regard, For Emma was about a man turning himself inside out, while Bon Iver is about a new man returning to his old home.

Published June 23, 2011 in Souciant Magazine.

DOWNLOAD: Bon Iver - Calgary

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Black Lips to play Plush on Tuesday

Spin Magazine cover band the Black Lips are heading out this way, with a show Tuesday night at Plush, with the awesome Acorn Bcorn opening. I talked to the Black Lips Ian St. Pé a couple weeks back about the band's legendary live antics and what it was like for the Southern garage punks to hit the studio with multiple Grammy-winning producer Mark Ronson. Check it out:

The Black Lips get just a little bit refined on the band's new album. Maybe. Just a little

Life in the Black Lips is life without brakes.

Through six records of relentless garage-punk and a dozen years of performances soaked with infamous debauchery (and plenty of bodily fluids), the band hasn't slowed a step. The Black Lips' mission statement is honest, blunt and borne of a brutal commitment to never stop playing their own music, their own way.

"Eat, shit, sleep and breathe music," says guitarist Ian St. Pé. "It's a lifestyle that might not be for everybody, but it is for us."

Self-described "flower punks," the Black Lips began with guitarist Cole Alexander, bassist Jared Swilley and drummer Joe Bradley, teens in suburban Atlanta who built a reputation for wild live shows. Original guitarist Ben Eberbaugh was killed in a vehicle collision in 2002, and St. Pé joined the band two years later, fully confident the band had what it takes to make it.

"That's why I joined. I really feel that if you give 110 percent, there's no reason you can't get it," St. Pé says. "If you have a fallback plan, you're gonna fall back. I knew we would make it, because otherwise, we'd be back washing dishes. I don't want to wash dishes."

The band's persistence is paying dividends.

"We went from trash cans to Taco Bell to Red Lobster," says St. Pé, who bought himself a Cadillac to celebrate a bit of success in the old Sun Records style.

During a phone interview before the San Diego show that would kick off the western leg of the band's lengthy tour, St. Pé talked of the afternoon's shopping spree.

"We just bought a shit-load of equipment, brand new. A whole back line. We're tired of renting; that's for chumps. We're stepping it up in the 2011," he says.

A big step up is how he describes the band's new album, Arabia Mountain, marking the first time the Black Lips worked with an outside producer, the British songwriter, DJ and producer Mark Ronson. While it's still at the raw end of the spectrum, Arabia Mountain is refined in comparison to the rest of the Black Lips' albums.

"It sounds familiar but different," St. Pé says. "It's like with kids, you can't pick a favorite. They all have their own special perks, special things to offer in life. But this kid is gonna be a doctor; the last kid was a garbage man."

Ronson was on a short list of dream producers for the Black Lips that included Dr. Dre and Danger Mouse.

"We pretty much did the whole record without (a producer) like we always do, but last minute, our label wanted a producer, so we threw out big names. If we're gonna work with somebody, we're gonna step it up. We stepped it up big-time, three Grammys up," St. Pé says. "It's nice, four of us in the band all writing, and it's nice to have a fresh set of ears listening in. He did offer some 'try this' suggestions, and it ended up being cool."

The record—16 songs in 42 minutes—is, for the most part, straightforward, sweaty, raw garage music, but there's a pop tunefulness at its core. Songs like "Family Tree," "Time," "Dumpster Dive" and "Bicentennial Man" combine unexpected melodic hooks with the surging guitar fuzz.

Lyrically, there's enough straightforward content to show that the Black Lips truly write what they know. "Dumpster Dive" is an ode to the band's beyond-broke days; "Modern Art" is about a drugged-up tour of the Dali Museum; "Mr. Driver" references the band's wild stage show in the line "I want to bleed on my Squier;" and one song is even called "New Direction."

"The thing I love about art and music is the minute it leaves our heads, our bodies, our arms, it's no longer ours. It's y'all's. It's out for the world to have," St. Pé says. "It's up to you and everyone else to take what you want out of it. We're looking forward and moving in a new direction, and I want people to think what they want about that."

Still, don't expect a new direction and a Grammy-winning producer's refinements to take the punches out of the Black Lips' live experience. Even after years of shocking stage antics, the piss, puke and blood are still regular—though not guaranteed—features of the band's shows. And if the crowd is a morbidly curious bunch out for a glimpse of infamy, so be it.

"Do I think people sometimes come out for the stage antics? Maybe. But we've got to get them out there. If that's their reason for coming, they will be happily entertained by the experience," St. Pé says. "We're entertainers. Musicians are the people who sell us guitar strings at the store. If you want music, download that shit for free. If you want to be entertained, come to a Black Lips concert."

This comes from a band that started its current tour on April 6, hitting the Midwest and East Coast. After two days off, they went to Europe. Four days off, then the West and Southwest. Then Japan and back to Europe. And they're bummed about having to cancel a string of Middle East dates because of unrest in Syria.

"The Black Lips, all four of us, love what we do, and that's why people leave our show satisfied. We're having an experience together. Y'all are our crew, and we're gonna have fun," St. Pé says. "The bottom line is every night is the first night of the rest of your life. Every night is Friday night for us. There's no reason why the kids 30 days into a tour should experience any less than tonight's show."

Published June 16, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.
Black Lips - Modern Art

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Review: Paul Simon - So Beautiful Or So What

Paul Simon—69 and fearless—tackles spirituality, mortality and the endless, mysterious power of love on a stunning new record that eclipses all of his solo work since Graceland.

With poetic directness and restless curiosity, Simon's lyrics are loaded with questions and pondering about the meaning of life, the nature of God and where precisely humanity fits in the vastness of eternity. Song titles like "Love Is Eternal Sacred Light" and "Questions for the Angels" cut right to the point.

Simon's contributions to rock and folk music are as great as anyone's, and 25 years after Graceland, So Beautiful or So What arrives as a statement of continued relevance. Musically, it's dense and gorgeous, with those familiar vivid rhythms and flourishes that he's turned to in his latter work. The album is consistent almost to a fault; despite its other strengths, it is missing the sort of timeless single that he's turned out over and over.

Simon's skilled songwriting finds and subsequently reveals fascination in the small details of daily life, at the same time as he's dealing with life's huge questions. As he sings in "The Afterlife," "It seems like our fate to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek."

Simon is certainly a seeker—with a long career of making incredible musical progressions outside of any trend. Produced by Simon and Phil Ramone, So Beautiful or So What is like a long and lively conversation, rushing through ideas and questions as if they were thrill rides.

Published June 9, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Monday, June 06, 2011

The Donkeys at Congress tonight

The Donkeys hail from San Diego, sound like a mix between The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and Pavement, and are in Tucson tonight at Club Congress. Here's my review of the band's latest record, Born With Stripes, just out on Dead Oceans.

California's rich musical history gives San Diego's The Donkeys plenty to draw from, and stylistically, Born With Stripes is a sampler plate, touching on sunny pop, beach rock, slacker alternative, psychedelic jams and alt-country. But the band is tight and talented enough to make it all work, thanks in part to the clear and crisp mix from Thom Monahan and the easygoing charm of drummer/vocalist Sam Sprague.

The album opens with "We Don't Know Who We Are," a love song built around a slinky guitar and only-in-California metaphors like "I'm Redford, you're Newman on the take / you're a 7.6 earthquake." Next is the equally infectious "I Like The Way You Walk," which shifts the sound just a bit toward alt-country.

"Kaleidoscope" is spacey and psychedelic, while "Bloodhound" is reminiscent of Tom Petty's "Breakdown," and "Ceiling Tan" has clear ties to the Grateful Dead. Elsewhere, the band offers the plaintive ballad "Valerie," as well as the sitar-infused instrumentals "West Coast Raga" and "East Coast Raga."

The Donkeys play vintage rock that doesn't sit still in any one style, repeatedly mixing and combining vintages—enthusiastically, if not always seamlessly. After a few listens, a distinct personality emerges from that long string of influences.

The title Born With Stripes hints at what makes it all work so well: The Donkeys is a band that's comfortable in its own skin, or rather, its own multi-hued stripes.

Published June2, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

The Donkeys - I Like The Way You Walk
The Donkeys - Don't Know Who We Are

The Old 97's at Plush on Tuesday

The Old 97's was the first band I saw after moving to Tucson almost 14 years ago. I wasn't there to see them - it was a Social Distortion show - but the band made a hell of an impression. And from Fight Songs to Satellite Rides era, the Old 97's was one of my go-to bands. I was only 19, finished up with high school, at a state school, when the song "19" came out. It was a band that spoke to me plenty in those years. The next I saw of the Old 97's was in Tempe, drinking with friends at Four Peaks before heading over to the old Nita's Hideaway for one hell of a show.

So when I got the assignment to write about the band, I was thrilled. I've interviewed plenty of folks over the years, but Rhett Miller was one of the most enjoyable of those hurried 20-minute conversations. Read the story below, and check them out at Plush tomorrow night.

After almost 14 years away, the Old 97's return to Tucson with their lineup intact

Tucson's last glimpse of the Old 97's came when the band had a freshly released Elektra Records debut that was soaking up critical acclaim—as well as a live show bursting with cow-punk energy.

In September 1997, the Dallas quartet seemed ready to break into the big time and had earned a somewhat incongruous opening slot for Social Distortion at the now-defunct eastside club The Cage.

"I remember that gig was rough," says singer-guitarist Rhett Miller. "All these Social D fans were just giving us the finger the whole time. Isn't that crazy that was 14 years ago?"

Despite continued modest success, no big hits ever came for the Old 97's. Instead, the band simply kept playing its pioneering blend of garage rock, honky-tonk and power pop, night after night over 17 years and nine studio albums.

"The 97's are playing to bigger audiences than we have in 10 years, or ever, in a lot of markets. To be in a band that's still on an ascendant arc after nearly 20 years, we're doing something right," Miller says.

Miller says Jon Brion, who produced his solo album The Instigator, introduced him to a quote (sometimes attributed to Alex Chilton or Elvis Costello, though its exact origins are unknown): "I don't know; they all sound like hits to me."

"That's what I feel like. I could have pulled seven songs from each of our records, and they could have been played every day on the radio," Miller says.

One of the pillars of 1990s alt-country, the Old 97's is pretty much the only band among those peers left standing. Even more remarkable is the fact that the band's lineup has been the same since it started more than 17 years ago.

"The 97's still have the raw garage-band feel that we started with," Miller says. "None of us have blossomed into such outstanding musicians that we're bored playing this simple stuff we play. We've all gotten better so that we can do things that pop into our minds easily, but we let our band be what it is, and the experience has been good for us."

The Old 97's formed after Miller and bassist Murry Hammond broke up their old band, Sleepy Heroes, and joined with guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples. The band released a debut, Hitchhike to Rhome, that attracted Chicago's Bloodshot Records. After one more album, the band signed to Elektra, which thought alt-country could be the new grunge. Though they were dropped during industry consolidation, the band found a home on New West Records.

The band's newest work—last year's The Grande Theatre, Volume One, and its companion second volume, slated for release on July 5—are the result of a creative renewal that began when Miller was touring Europe as a solo act opening for Steve Earle. The shift in perspective was fruitful, and Miller spent much of his nonperforming time writing songs.

"I came back from this trip to Europe with Steve Earle, and I had 22 or 23 songs I thought were good for the Old 97's. I thought we would whittle it down to 12 or 13, but none of them weren't working. They all sounded good," Miller says.

The Grand Theatre title points to pre-production rehearsals, with the band playing Miller's new songs live in the century-old (and, of course, haunted) Sons of Hermann Hall in Dallas.

Playing and writing in old theaters across Scandinavia and the United Kingdom inspired Miller to think about the nature of performing and acting, and it's a theme that runs through both volumes of The Grand Theatre.

"There's something about being in the dressing rooms of these theaters, which were usually hundreds of years old. I don't necessarily believe in ghosts ... but I do really believe in the collective unconsciousness. I sit in a place like that, and I can feel the history, all these characters who have been there," he says.

"(Acting) seems like it's just something that happens in the theater, but it's something we all do all the time. It's part of life. We're all playing these parts and trying to balance what is us and what belongs to others."

Songwriting itself is a different process these days for Miller, 40. What used to come late at night, kind of drunk, is now a much calmer effort. "In the past, it was writing from a well of sadness; now it's more something I go to visit, not something I dwell in," Miller says.

"It was this really fraught state when I was younger. Now I can sit in a crowded room with the whole family running around and write a song. ... It's good that I don't have to be miserable to write a song."

Still, Miller remains drawn to the type of songs that capture that same feeling.

"Most songs I really love are when somebody is freaking out. I think that honestly holds true for a lot of media, a lot of different types of art. My favorite short stories are when the protagonist is going through something very hard, and feeling thwarted and sad," he says. "I could write topical stuff about the state of our nation, but I care about those moments between people that are so incomprehensible. It's such a tough thing for people to connect, and once they've connected, to hold it together."

As for why his band has been able to hold it together for so long, Miller says he's continually inspired by the music they make together.

"I'm hardwired to think that each record is the best thing we've ever done. With both of these records, we felt like we've outdone ourselves," he says.

Now that the band has to leave behind wives and children to tour, performing also matters more than ever.

"It's one thing to be 23 years old and pulling into Tucson with nothing else in the world," he says. "Your whole job and your whole reason for existing is to convince these 500 people that this is the greatest night of their lives. Then it becomes a different thing when you've done it 10,000 times. It's tough, and you have to dig down deep every night, but I love that challenge."

Published on June 2, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.
The Old 97's - Murder Or A Heart Attack (live)