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