Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The End of a Blog

I started this blog on Jan. 2, 2004, dragged just as I was into most technology/internet things by Mr. Chair, curious yet not really sure what I wanted to do with a blog or exactly why I should have one. But I do remember distinctly my impetus at least on that first day was to "publish" my own personal list of the top albums of 2003, capped unsurprisingly by Calexico's excellent Feast of Wire. My initial subtitle for the blog - a pleasantly subversive chronicle of music, politics, humor, sports and beer - reflected some broader topics of conversation, but outside of a few anti-war and anti-Bush rants in 2004 some epicly pointless posts about burritos and some Go Wildcats! posts, I rarely wrote about anything but music.

It's hard think about the blog without thinking back to its early days, 2004 and 2005, and how vastly different my life was at the time. And while that's a ball of wax I'd rather not start unraveling now - or ever - it's worth saying that in writing that post about the best albums of 2003, I reflected that I probably missed a great deal of awesome music that year because I wasn't a professional music critic. Not that I was explicitly voicing an aspiration along those lines at the time, but it's a status I've been at for a few years. And I still miss out on a great deal of awesome music every year.

I'm closing down this blog now because it's as good a time as any, I suppose. The truth is it's had far more fallow years than ones of bounty. I don't see any reason to pull it down, but it doesn't seem right to let Catfish Vegas presents... wither on the vine without any sort of a eulogy.

The only really active stretch on this blog ran through about the first half of 2008 and then again as I began earning my living as a freelance writer in 2009. And in a lot of ways, this blog got me to where I am now as music writer. But in doing so, it's long since served its purpose. For years it's been evident that I can't manage to keep up writing on two different tracks.

Along the way, as I got more and more into music, music writing and the fantastic work I discovered on other blogs, I always kinda wished that Catfish Vegas presents... would become more prominent, not in a chasing-the-next-big-thing sort of way, but more like the connecting-with-readers way of the blogs I read and enjoyed the most, like the excellent Captain's Dead, Fuel Friends and Aquarium Drunkard, and Arizona's two best, So Much Silence and Ick Music, each one a unique and indispensable voice to me.

But while I found some fans and some great connections to not only other music bloggers, but artists and publicists, what I found most was a writing voice that enabled me to break out of what I had been doing as a daily newspaper reporter and begin writing about music for pay, something that's been a bit of a bumpy ride as far as finances go, but something I've worked harder and harder at along the way and an area in which I've been able to not only improve dramatically, but expand as a portfolio.

But let me reflect a bit more for the time being on the blog. Aside from writing and working on my own craft, I really enjoyed thinking of myself even a little bit as a voice that might reach people, people who'd look for what I say, check out the music I recommended, toss some favorites back. I liked being part of this online community of enthusiastic music lovers sharing what they love the best. That happens to some degree with what I do now, but it's not the same.

I also appreciated the direct connection with artists, many of whom were and are making outstanding music outside the confines of any pre-established industry structure. No one else exemplifies than factor - and especially it's lasting impact on me - than Sum, an MC and incredible songwriter who arrived in my world via an unsolicited email, saying that that at first glance, my blog seemed to deal mainly in folk and blues but that I was clearly a lover of good music in general and would I mind checking out his tunes? These days I doubt I'd even open that email, but damn if Sum hasn't been a favorite of mine for years now. Absolutely go check out his Dragon, Vol. 1 album, which he's offering as a free download here.

Once I started writing for the Tucson Weekly, I kept up the blog because I liked the notion of being able to offer up new discoveries and share excitement about bands without having to be so formal as to write a full-fledged review. As I grew away from it, I held out some hope that I'd continue blogging in some way. Perhaps I will one day, perhaps on my own site or perhaps even here.

On that tip, go immediately and check out the Restorations and Resonars, two of the best bands I've discovered not just lately, but in years.  

That surge in music blogs was a fascinating phenomenon, and one I'm glad to say I was a small part of. But the heyday is certainly long gone. Many of the best ones have become entities of their own that far surpass being just blogs. Quality and dedication truly won out. On the other end, democratizing the world of music writing and criticism undoubtedly devalued a good bit of it. And, like mine, most of those thousands of music blogs have simply faded away. I view my efforts as sort of a trip through the minor leagues, earning some experience and stats along the way that I was able to use to jump up a level. If I don't think in those terms, then I'm left with little than an endless stream of emails from music publicists and hopeful artists, no matter how long Catfish Vegas presents... sits silent.

I still check out the ones that I liked best. But while a blog is an enthusiastic thing to begin, it's an exhausting thing to keep up with. Who's out there in the wilderness listening? Does it matter? I never really found my own answer to those two questions and I feel much more comfortable writing for something I know will see some eyes, either in print or online.

Along the way, my own aspirations as a writer have changed drastically. That's a lesson in itself. I know that hard work, dedication and continual improvement efforts are worth far more than talent in this world, just as they are in music. I write every day. I write about music, about other things. I write for myself, knowing that those efforts can add up to something better, just as my blogging did.

So while I'm ending Catfish Vegas presents... at this point, find me at It's not always completely up to date, but I repost my published work there. And perhaps some blogging one day. Or fictional projects. Or whatever.

I started this blog off with a best-of and it's only fitting that my final posts today include another best of. And a mix. And this blogeulogy, another shout in the wilderness.


I haven't posted a mix in ages, but here goes.

(sendspace is full of ads now - look for the blue box that says "click here to start download from sendspace)

Chuck Prophet - Play That Song Again
Restorations - Neighborhood Song
Nothington - Captive Audience
Japandroids - Fire's Highway
Superchunk - This Summer
Nada Surf - Clear Eye Clouded Mind
Traps - Ten Teardrops
Divine Fits - Civilian Stripe
Tom Morello - Ease My Revolutionary Mind
Billy Bragg & Wilco - My Thirty Thousand
Jay Farrar - New Multitudes
Shearwater - You As You Were
Metric - Breathing Underwater
Giant Giant Sand - Caranito
Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
Field Report - Fergus Falls
Kelly Hogan - I Like To Keep Myself In Pain
Rainer - The Farm
Larry And His Flask - Ebb and Flow
Murs & Fashawn - This Generation
Big Meridox - Pen of a Titan
OutKast - SpottieOttieDopaliscious

My favorite albums of 2012

Here are, to my ears and in no particular order, the best and the next best of 2012:

Chuck Prophet, Temple Beautiful (Yep Roc)
A love song to San Francisco delivered on a hot plate of raucous rock 'n' roll, Temple Beautiful is instantly catchy. From the churning chords of opener "Play That Song Again" (which I did, again and again) to the celebratory "Willie Mays Is Up at Bat," Prophet makes San Francisco come to life in all its enduring, freaky glory.

Kelly Hogan, I Like to Keep Myself in Pain (ANTI-)
Kelly Hogan enlisted a who's who of songwriters to pen tunes for her first solo album in 11 years. The title song (from Robyn Hitchcock) and "Ways of This World" (from the late Vic Chesnutt) are particularly well suited for Hogan's gorgeous voice, which amid all the excellent words and music (including Booker T. Jones on organ) still rises above.

The Helio Sequence, Negotiations (Sub Pop)
The Portland, Ore., duo put together a new practice space/studio alongside this album, working for four years on Negotiations, which balances the band's sense of shimmering cool with an entrenched sense of isolation. It's a night record, full of reflection, doubts, comforts and haunts.

Japandroids, Celebration Rock (Polyvinyl)
Appropriately beginning with the sound of fireworks exploding, this head-rush of an album fits its title to a T. Celebrating big guitars, pounding drums and hooks galore, Japandroids made their mark on rock 'n' roll this year with simple perfection.

The Walkmen, Heaven (Fat Possum)
Without entirely abandoning the urgency of the band's early albums, the Walkmen stretch out and slow down a bit on Heaven, their most irresistibly melodic batch of songs yet.

Jaill, Traps (Sub Pop)
In a taut 34 minutes, Jaill delivers an album packed with jangly guitars, big garage riffs and psychedelic tangents. It's the sound of a scrappy band making good on 10 years of hard work.

Metric, Synthetica (Metric)
Metric's best-yet record, Synthetica is a sci-fi concept album—exploring disorientation, disillusionment and the defiant search for authenticity—packaged as a muscular and thrilling dance-rock record.

Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn't (Secretly Canadian)
Swedish songwriter Lekman returns after five years with a lush, wistful album that explores a painful breakup through his inimitable songwriting voice, which combines tenderness, wit and honest self-awareness.

Dr. Dog, Be the Void (ANTI-)
Be the Void finds Dr. Dog thriving with a joyful, live spontaneity that bounds from song to song without ever losing the band's magnetic catchiness. It's an eclectic, adventurous, ramshackle album that swings between abstraction and dialed-in melodies.

Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits (Merge)
Shockingly more than the sum of its weighty parts, this collaboration between Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs, Wolf Parade) and Britt Daniel (Spoon) treads adventurously beyond "supergroup" expectations to deliver 11 fantastic, compelling songs.

Honorable Mention: Bob Dylan, Tempest; Shearwater, Animal Joy; Alabama Shakes, Boys and Girls; Giant Giant Sand, Tucson; Sharon Van Etten, Tramp; Nada Surf, The Stars Are Indifferent to Astronomy; Plants and Animals, The End of That; Calexico, Algiers; Field Report, Field Report; Kathleen Edwards, Voyageur; Bruce Springsteen, Wrecking Ball; Jay Farrar, Anders Parker, Yim Yames and Will Johnson, New Multitudes; Heartless Bastards, Arrow.

Monday, April 16, 2012

20,000 songs

It's been a little over four years since I got the sweet new Macbook and began converting all of my music into mp3 and m4a files, and my iTunes library just passed 20,000 songs played.

The official 20,000th song was "Wreck on the Highway" by Roy Acuff (from the Essential Roy Acuff, 1936-1949 album). I played that song after hearing Megafaun's cover version, which is the b-side to the Kaufman's Ballad single. I'd interviewed Megafaun for a feature in the Tucson Weekly.

I posted about my iTunes odometer (as it were) turning over 10,000 songs a few years ago. The 10,000th song was Passion Pit's "Smile Upon Me," which sounds nothing like Roy Acuff. At that time, I had 95 songs with iTunes playcounts of more than 20. Now, that figure is at 1,725. My most listened to song over the past four years? Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel," by a lot: 154 plays. Next up is Helio Sequence "Halleluja," at 104 plays... and 189 songs top 50 plays.

Roy Acuff - Wreck on the Highway

(and I still don't really know whether to keep this blog active or let it float into the past...)

Friday, April 06, 2012

"I simply, boldly falsify..."

The Ballad of Jesse Kelly, imbecile extraordinaire:

How are ya?

Today's song, in honor of the great Arlo Guthrie:

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Ultimate Together Thing

Ben Folds headlines a concert for the Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding

Ben Folds cleared his schedule, dropped all other projects and dedicated this month to focusing on writing songs for what will be the first Ben Folds Five record in 13 years.

Then the call came from Ron Barber's Fund for Civility, Respect and Understanding, requesting a benefit performance. Without hesitating, Folds put the long-awaited reunion album on hold for a bit.

"I'm writing a record, and I want to be completely present for it. But this is special," Folds says. "When something that horrible happens, anybody with any soul certainly wants to see something positive out of it. You can't twist it into a positive thing, but you certainly can dig in and find out how you can help other people with it."

Barber, the district director for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was shot twice on Jan. 8, 2011, and continues to recover. His first go at a benefit concert for the fund he dreamed up while still in a hospital bed brought Jackson Browne, Alice Cooper, David Crosby, Graham Nash and a host of other performers to the Tucson Convention Center in March.

"When we put together the fund, we deliberately included music and other performance arts as part of our mission," says Barber, a regular concertgoer and avid music fan. "It's fair to say that music and other kinds of entertainment really do bring people together. For us, my family and the fund, it's an essential part of what we're about."

Barber chose Folds—after a suggestion from Browne's manager—as an artist who appeals to a different generation. Barber envisions the Civility concerts as an ongoing series of smaller performances, perhaps two or three a year. He'd like to spotlight several singer-songwriters next.

"There's abundant evidence that music has a healing power and a unifying power," Barber says.

Folds is of the same mind.

"Anthropologists, scientists, priests—the whole lot of them would agree. It is the ultimate together thing," he says. "There's a harmony about the whole thing that does seem to be very disarming. I don't really know why, but it seems to be a basic human function. People seem to, for whatever reason, generally forget differences. There's a ritual about it. Time can kind of stand still—and it's a real responsibility for a musician, especially right now when politics are so extremely mindlessly volatile. Music disarms that."

Known for his physical brand of piano rock and frequently humorous lyrics, Folds carved out a niche quite unusual in the alternative-rock world with the self-titled debut album, Ben Folds Five, in 1995.

The piano "was a help and a hindrance, too. I see other bands that have taken the piano since we opened that door at that moment. They understand how to do it and drive it home, and I'm not sure we ever got the memo on that one, but we did it the way we knew how," Folds says. "It was just natural, because that's what I did as a kid. But (piano) was so far out of style by the time I was of age that I just took it as good luck."

After three well-regarded albums, Ben Folds Five broke up, and Folds himself went on to release three full-length solo albums and several EPs.

But the next dozen years also saw him perform, record and produce in a wide variety of collaborative projects, joining with Joe Jackson, William Shatner, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Amanda Palmer, Sara Bareilles, novelist Nick Hornby, college a cappella groups and symphony orchestras across the United States and Australia.

"It's certainly entertaining, and it must be teaching me something. I like to see the way people work," Folds says. "It's always affirming, because even the masters don't know much; they don't know how they do it exactly. So often, their process can appear as if it's fucking hackery, just like they're swinging in the dark. What separates the mice from the men is that some of the hacks can put it together and find a voice and come through that process."

Collaboration and longevity have given Folds a close view of the music industry's rapid changes. An artist comfortable going against the grain, Folds appreciates a more-direct connection with his audience that technology affords.

"The balance has changed as far as what is expected of an artist, commercially and remaining creative in the middle of all of that," he says. "There was the distraction for about 30 years that musicians could well become millionaires, and many did in a time period that's really just a blip on the map. It's not going to happen again for a while. Now the distraction is the fact that we can't become millionaires, and I think a healthy thing is coming of it.

"Musicians are now coming up understanding and believing they will not likely get rich doing what they do, so it becomes more about what they can offer. That's always been the musician on the street busking, and the musicians in the churches. You should get back enough to live, and that's what musicians are heading toward now."

Folds, 45, spent much of the last year combing through his own archives to compile the career-spanning The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective. The project grew to three distinct formats aimed to please die-hard fans and newbies alike: an 18-song single disc release; a three-disc version with 43 additional live songs, rarities and outtakes; and a vault-clearing 56-track digital collection of rarities.

"It was a shitload of tapes. It was kind of weird to hear hours and hours, days and weeks of shit you don't remember doing—and I wasn't even on drugs. I just did so much," Folds says. "It's also interesting to hear my development as a person versus my development as an artist. I could hear the person speaking between the songs on the tape, and I'd think he's a child, and then I'd hear the songs and hear somebody who knew a lot more than the person who was speaking."

Now Folds is going back to the band that first broke him big, with Darren Jessee on drums and Robert Sledge on bass. The trio recorded three new songs for The Best Imitation of Myself and will start new recording sessions late this month.

Published Jan. 12, 2012 in the Tucson Weekly.

Live - Shawn Harris and Full Release, Big Meridox, WHSK, Mr. Head's, Jan. 7

Live, Big Meridox is the "beast" he calls himself in rhyme, tense and confrontational as he roams the crowd and delivers lines with urgency and, at times, an edgy growl. Joined by DJ Bonus on turntables and a MacBook, Meridox performed 12 songs, produced by Gunky Knuckles.

Sweating and swaggering like a boxer, Meridox gives a physical performance, stalking around the crowd to get in people's faces. On a performance and video shoot for his new "Whiskey Breath" single, Meridox hopped onto tables to bring the crowd in closer around him, holding court as he un-spooled lines above their heads.

Meridox doesn't shy away from bravado in his lyrics, but his songs take any number of surprising turns. He spits references from the limitless well of a trivia ace—a cultural mash-up of subject matter that he stitches together on the fly.

Poetic but harsh, Big Ox raps smart, but not sensitive: "Too evil to go emo," he raps on "Brutus." Knowledge is his game, but the perspective tends to come from the Hobbes school of "nasty, brutish and short."

Open barely a year, Mr. Head's, the art bar adjacent to a glass-blowing studio/shop, has become perhaps Tucson's top spot for hip hop, with an ever-changing spray-painted mural covering one wall of the spacious patio.

The TAMMIES reigning hip-hop champion Shaun Harris and his band, Full Release, closed the show. The four-piece band—bass, drums, guitar and trombone—combined with DJ Bonus on a blend of soul, funk and spacey psychedelic rock. A fluid performer, Harris rhymes fast and furious when called for, and he can sing the hooks too.

Harris can write songs loaded with geek humor—one is about Ewoks—but he's best on the honest, personal stuff. Rapping about the shitty economy, his diabetes struggle and his little brother being sentenced to 25 years in prison, Harris is full of the same sort of honest desperation that brought hip hop into its own as an art form.

Opening was the duo WHSK, with heady, stream-of-consciousness rhymes, some offbeat flourishes—one backing track was made by beat-boxing into a didgeridoo—and a finish-each-others-sentences freestyle.

Published Jan. 12, 2012 in the Tucson Weekly.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Top albums of 2011

1. Tom Waits, Bad as Me (ANTI-)

If you agree—in any way—that "Hell Broke Luce" in 2011, then Bad as Me is the record to turn to for some wisdom and advice amid the chaos. Dark, preposterous, incensed and confrontational, Bad as Me encapsulates a year that saw misery boil over into anger. The message Waits delivers, through stomps and shouts: This year's optimism is found in revolt.

2. The War on Drugs, Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)

Adam Granduciel takes some cues from Dylan and Springsteen, but Slave Ambient is on an entirely different sonic plane. On a dense bed of layered loops, ambient tones and swirling textures are striking and forceful rock songs, a sort of classic rock from some alternate universe.

3. Wye Oak, Civilian (Merge)

Psychedelic folk might be an accurate label, but it falls far short of capturing what's so successful about Wye Oak's dynamic sound. "Civilian" is my top song of the year, a gathering storm—tense, beautiful and otherworldly—that then explodes with chaotic energy.

4. Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar)

Justin Vernon buried his quiet, somber muse and set out to chase a multihued adventurous one on Bon Iver. It's a provocative shift, but the album's complexity feeds off an exploratory urgency that pushes the songs into a bigger world, with rich instrumentation and an impressive depth and fluidity.

5. Richard Buckner, Our Blood (Merge)

An esoteric and challenging songwriter, Buckner is second to none. Our Blood is an album of resuscitated and patched sounds, of peripheral intrusions, of expelled breath. Its songs are full of strange and seemingly disconnected details, short on explanatory meat, but marvelously evocative.

6. Roadside Graves, We Can Take Care of Ourselves (Autumn Tone)

Using S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders as a cornerstone, the Roadside Graves explore the struggles of outsiders everywhere, with a sprawling sort of Americana that expertly keys in on the songs' emotional shifts.

7. Paul Simon, So Beautiful or So What (Hear)

On his best album since Graceland, Paul Simon is both meditative and fearless, writing songs with restless curiosity to probe spirituality, mortality and the endless, mysterious power of love.

8. Akron/Family, Akron/Family II: The Cosmic Birth and Journey of Shinju TNT (Dead Oceans)

An album written on a Japanese volcano and recorded in an abandoned Detroit train station, this is a musical collage of ideas and sounds, pushing the experimental boundaries of folk music.

9. Murs, Love and Rockets Vol. 1: The Transformation (BluRoc)

One of hip-hop's most distinctly talented lyricists, Murs teams with producer Ski Beatz on an album of odes to love and marriage, international travelogues and vivid narratives.

10. Crooked Fingers, Breaks in the Armor (Merge)

Sparse in sound and blunt in lyrics, Eric Bachmann's latest is an album about vulnerability and perseverance, songs that speak to intensely personal struggles.

Honorable Mention: As one of the organizers/producers of the Luz de Vida compilation, it's hardly fair for me to include it in the list. But it's a stunning collection of songs that meant more to me this year than any other music.

Wilco, The Whole Love; Mr. Gnome, Madness in Miniature; Amos Lee, Mission Bell; Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues; The Low Anthem, Smart Flesh; Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest; The Roots, Undun; Iron and Wine, Kiss Each Other Clean; Smith Westerns, Dye It Blonde; Generationals, Actor-Caster; St. Vincent, Strange Mercy; Kurt Vile, Smoke Ring for My Halo.

Published Jan. 5, 2012 in the Tucson Weekly.

Review: Noel Gallagher - Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds

As the more-thoughtful Oasis brother, Noel Gallagher's best moments tended to turn up on hit singles as well as around the band's fringes, like B-sides and the Noel-sung MTV Unplugged. Boastful and arrogant, Oasis was gunning for the highest peaks, and that often involved a certain sound and swagger that didn't incorporate the best of Noel's skills.

Neither, exactly, does this first solo album.

While Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds stacks up well against the albums from Oasis' declining years, it's weighted with a different set of expectations. Yet stripped of any competition for the album's creative direction, Noel's songwriting is too often flat and simplistic—"If I had the time, I'd stop the world and make you mine, and every day would stay the same with you," he sings on "If I Had a Gun."

The album's best songs—like "AKA ... Broken Arrow" and "Stop the Clocks"—bring back the sound of that Brit-pop grandeur. The songs are well-crafted and include some refreshing instrumental flourishes—horn breaks on "Dream On" and "The Death of You And Me," more keyboards and strings, and even some subtle but effective banjo and pedal steel.

The post-Oasis solo albums reveal just how well-balanced the Gallagher brothers' strengths were. And it's no surprise that what Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds really needs is a little of Liam's bombastic energy.

Published Dec. 29, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Review: The Roots - Undun

The Roots' Undun is a character study and album-length epitaph of the fictional Redford Stephens, whose short inner-city life of crime and consequence yields a meditation on fate, mortality and karmic justice.

The band's first concept album arrives with vivid narrative details, moody instrumentals and a documentary-style detachment. Stephens' tragic arc (1974-1999) is presented through the character's own thoughts, a self-aware mix of bravado and doubt. When the score inevitably gets settled, it's the man's own fingerprints that are all over his undoing.

"It's the flight of my fall and it's right on the wall," raps Black Thought on "I Remember," a song that captures the moment in Stephens' story when rise turns to fall. Elsewhere, the lyrics are shot through with imagery of war and allusions that range from the Bible to Greek mythology, from Hammurabi to F.D.R. to the Sudanese genocide.

It's an edgy and somber album, and at first pass, the strengths are the songs that really pop ("Kool On," "The OtherSide"). But close listening reveals more subtle moments when Undun's cohesiveness and continuity shine.

Undun closes with a four-song instrumental suite that goes from somber strings and piano to nightmarish clang and clatter, a sort of chaotic anxiety that draws the listener to a place that even Black Thought's bleakest lyrics can't quite reach.

To call The Roots incomparable at this point is surely redundant, but more than anything the band has recorded before, Undun is an album that couldn't possibly come from anyone else.

Published Dec. 22, 2011 in the Tucson Weekly.

Songs of the year

I'll be posting my list of the top albums of 2011 a bit later, but in the meantime here are 13 songs from other albums that really stood out for me this year.

Mates of State - Palomino

Dum Dum Girls - Bedroom Eyes

Those Darlins - Be Your Bro

Centro-Matic - Only In My Double Mind

Okkervil River - Wake and Be Fine

Wanda Jackson - Thunder on the Mountain

The Black Lips - New Direction

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Heart In Your Heartbreak

Lykke Li - I Follow Rivers

Cults - Go Outside

Frank Turner - I Still Believe

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks - Senator

Vetiver - Wonder Why

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":