Ever wonder why reviewers do what they do when they are actually LOSING money on the deal? (First in a series, collect them all.)
By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor
Lately our writers and staffers have been doing an outstanding job with their record, concert and book reviews, and you may have noticed that some of those reviews have been posting as Features initially (prior to be archived in the respective Reviews sections). They get a bit more attention that way, and since they’re not getting paid for their reviews, it allows me to thank them for occasionally putting in the extra time and sweat to make a review a bit more special. Plus, while it’s sometimes because the artist in question is relatively high profile and we can potentially grab a few extra eyeballs, it can also be because I just feel the artist being reviewed deserves to be spotlighted.
There’s a related wrinkle to all this. Can we agree that no one is getting rich reviewing records these days? Worse, with even the most DIY of labels moving to digital promotional platforms, eschewing hard copy promos for lo-res MP3s or, worse, horrible sounding digital streams, one could argue that we reviewers now find ourselves in the curious position of PAYING THE LABELS for the privilege of writing about their artists and clients.
Don’t believe me? Let’s do the math. Assume, as a base, that a reviewer spends 90 minutes listening to a 45-minute album twice before sitting down to write. Then assume he/she puts in another 90 minutes’ minimum to write, proof, revise and finalize a review. Could be more, could be less, depending on the record. Some reviews practically write themselves because their merits (in the case of a great rec) and deficits (for lemons) are so blindingly obvious. Plus, regarding the lemon contingent, who wants to waste an hour and a half on, I dunno, a John Mayer or (insert whatever is displaying on the Pitchfork home page at any given moment) when you could be out shooting hoops, tending the garden, or banging some hot rock critic groupie. Hey, it happens!
At any rate, now we’re up to three hours. Let’s say a reasonable hourly wage is $15. You’ve just racked up $45 worth of time and sweat equity. Except there’s no equity, because you were reviewing digital files. And if you actually want to keep the album, you’ll probably want to burn it to a CDR, print out some artwork or at least tracklisting, and insert both into a jewel case. That’s at least another buck for the disc, the printer paper, and the ink used printing it. (The writer will NOT have to purchase a jewel case, luckily, because he’s already got boxes and boxes of empties, the result of tossing the discs from the shittier titles among the hard copy promos he got. Well, that’s where the latest John Mayer promo I received went.) Not to mention, I dunno, another 10 minutes spent downloading, organizing, burning, and printing; which, at $15 per hour, or 25 cents per minute, is another $2.50 worth of work you are not getting paid for. We’re at $48.50 now.
I’m tempted to put a dollar value on the amount of time it takes to send the link to the review out in an email to the label or publicist who sent you the digital files – compounded, let us not forget, by the subsequent, inevitable, deluge of emails from same, who, following a cursory “thank you” proceeds to start badgering, er, I mean, pitching all those other artists/clients currently with projects they want to publicize. But that would be mean-spirited of me.
So let me just return to my original premise: by virtue of that $48.50 that he did NOT get paid, the writer has essentially PAID THE LABEL for letting him review the record. And there’s not even an ACTUAL RECORD to show for his trouble – just a bunch of shitty-sounding MP3s clogging up the hard drive, and a CDR copy of the album that may or may not actually play in the future, depending on what CD player is being used. (You wouldn’t believe the number of promo CDRs I get that will play on one player but not on another, especially my car player, as I often preview promos while driving to and from my day job, or while vacationing.)
$48.50: extrapolate that figure across the course of a year, during which any writer worth his or her salt will “spend” at least 50 times. Usually more.
When BLURT became a volunteer operation, I was already aware of all this, but I hadn’t quite “monetized” the notion. Once I started thinking about it, I realized that (a) only a schmuck would review a digital file unless a finished hard copy of the album is also part of the picture when it is ready at the label; (b) those labels that do make it their usual policy to send out hard copies should be acknowledged and thanked, even if the writer can’t necessarily reciprocate with a review (there might be just too damn many promos that have come in around the same time, or the writer simply can’t place a review with a media outlet – I have the deepest admiration for our writers like Lee Zimmerman, Michael Toland and Bill Kopp who somehow are able to crank out scores of reviews practically on a weekly basis; unfortunately, superhumans such as they are a dwindling race); and (c) if a label goes the extra mile and actually SENDS A VINYL COPY OF THE RECORD, you can damn well bet that I’m gonna make that a priority review if at all possible, because the cost of the hard goods and postage for gifting a reviewer with an LP is not negligible… did I mention that COLORED VINYL GETS THE SUPER-DUPER PRIORITY as well?
Anyhow, by way of a semi-digression here, and just to “circle back” (my favorite publicity rep phrase) to the topic at the start of this rant, today at BLURT we posted an extended review of “Blood & Treasure” by Pat Todd & The Rankoutsiders, issued by the Hound Gawd! Records label. Todd of course once fronted the legendary The Lazy Cowgirls. Longtime contributor Barry StVitus penned the review, and we published it in Features, along with some choice audio samples and a killer live clip of the band from this past April. Why? Because, well, Pat Fucking Todd.
Plus, as suggested a moment ago, it will get way more exposure at the top of the home page rather than semi-buried down “below the fold” in the Reviews section. Oh, and because Barry’s a damn good writer, and he puts forth the kind of effort that deserves to be recognized. As do all my writers at BLURT: thanks to every goddam one of you. What’s that saying? Oh yeah – you complete me. Uh…
In all seriousness, we rock writers do this for the fun and the love of the music, not necessarily for the acclaim (right….) or simply to get paid. Well, that and the free records. But as you may recall, those “free records” can sometimes be illusory and actually put you in the hole.
At any rate, by my way of thinking, we at BLURT might as well take that fun when we can get it, and write about the stuff we really care about, and not fret about some weird flavor-of-the-moment Pitchfork shit for 20 year old hipsters and their crappy-sounding earbuds. (Hey you kids, get off my freakin’ lawn!) There’s a lot to be said for supporting the artists who make our lives just a little less grey, and in particular, artists like Pat Todd who have been doing it for as long as I can remember. At this stage in the game, loyalty counts for a lot, you know?
Thanks for listening. Now I must go. I have to start sending out a lot of $48.50 invoices…. HERE is the link, incidentally, to that Todd review and accompanying music samples that set me off in the first place.
Presenting installment #3 of the Blurt Jazz Desk—go HERE to access the previous editions—and our Jazz Editor’s top picks of some new and recent titles from respected labels Mack Avenue, International Anthem Recording Co., Whaling City Sound, Onyx Productions, Ropeadope, Same Island Music, Okeh, Jazzelm Music, and Orleans Records. Guarantee: all sounds are final—and if you wanna debate that, you can find Dr. Kopp at his Musoscribe blog, natch.
BY BILL KOPP
Mack Avenue Records
Bromberg has recorded at least 12 albums prior to Full Circle. The disc opens with a rare archival recording made some 65 years ago; it features his drummer father with a trumpeter and trombonist. Bromberg has added his bass to the recording; it’s delightful. The rest of the disc is much more in a modern vibe; it swings and is full of energy and intensity. Even more impressive, these recordings feature overdubs – still not so common in jazz – so listeners get to hear Bromberg’s sizzling fretwork and his nimble, propulsive bass playing. Arturo Sandoval guests on “Havana Nights.” – Bill Kopp
Nick Mazzarella Trio
International Anthem Recording Co.
This disc of seven originals features the trio of Mazzarella on alto sax plus bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly. The instrumentals fall on various points along the spectrum between hard bop (“Neutron Star”) and the more abstract sounds of Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman (“Abacus and Astrolabe”). “Luminous Dials” might remind rock-oriented listeners of Frank Zappa’s jazz-leaning work. Things get wild and atonal on the title track, then the aptly-named “Outlier” reins things in (but just a bit). The rhythm section’s main role is to provide a canvas upon which Mazarella can apply his splashes of wild saxophone. – Bill Kopp
To Grover with Love: Live in Japan
Whaling City Sound
Miles is a New York-based keyboardist and bandleader who – among an impressive list of credits – was a trusted collaborator of late-period Miles Davis. This live set captures Jason Miles and his band paying tribute to Grover Washington. At their best – which is most of the disc’s run time – these tunes are funky and engaging. At their weakest – which is not often – the performances lean perilously close to “smooth jazz.” Andy Snitzer and Eric Darius take on the challenge of the sax parts, and Nick Moroch’s fiery guitar solo on “Lorans Dance” is a highlight. – Bill Kopp
This live set was recorded at New Haven CT’s Firehouse 12 in October 2015, and features Ralph Peterson on drums, pianist Zaccai Curtis, and Luques Curtis on bass. The recording has a very live and dynamic feel, capturing the intensity and excitement of this superb trio. As often as not, Z. Curtis’ piano is the centerpiece, but the other two players more than hold their own. A mix of original compositions and the occasional standard (Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark”) makes for an engaging set of music. The exotic “Inner Urge” is the most thrilling number, but the entire album is worthwhile. – Bill Kopp
Frank Catalano and Jimmy Chamberlin
Bye Bye Blackbird
Some tasty soul jazz in the vein of Les McCann is the order of the day on this set. Those who enjoy Dr. Lonnie Smith and/or The New Mastersounds will dig this set of a half dozen instrumentals from a crack set of jazz players. Alto saxophonist David Sanborn guests on two tracks, but Demos Petropoulos’ expressive Hammond B3 is often the star. And while you could be forgiven for shuddering at the sight of yet another reading of “At Last,” Catalano shines on the track. The band cuts loose for the closer, sounding like they’re recording live for “Shakin’.” – Bill Kopp
Hymn for the Happy Man
Same Island Music
Pratt plays alto and tenor sax, backed by a piano/bass/drums ensemble; bassist Christian McBride is the most high-profile member of the group. The set is varied, featuring challenging numbers like “Gross Blues” and more straight-ahead offerings such as the piano-centric “New Day.” The album’s longest piece, “River” is also its most atmospheric and contemplative. It’s also perhaps the best track. “Speak Low” is occasionally reminiscent of Dave Brubeck’s deft combinations of classical and jazz. While the more intense numbers are fascinating, this aggregation seems at its best when the players go for subtlety, as they do on the title track. – Bill Kopp
If you’re the kind of listener who was disappointed when the fusion movement petered out and dissolved into soft jazz, then you owe it to yourself to check out this disc. The spoken word intro might conjure memories of Nat Adderley’s early 1970s Soul Zodiac, and there’s a vaguely Bitches Brew-flavored aesthetic at work throughout. But the whole affair sounds decidedly modern and forward-looking. Escape Velocity is informed by many genres: jazz, of course, but rock, reggae and hip hop too; Croker has a strong sense of melody that keeps things rooted in accessibility while still creating an ambitious work. – Bill Kopp
Mack Avenue Records
Wolf’s buttery vibes and marimba work are guaranteed ear candy, and here he’s aided and abetted by a group that includes bassist Christian McBride and (on two tracks) guitarist John Scofield. The eleven tracks are very melody-forward; while there’s no great exploration happening here, Convergence is perhaps more consistently enjoying than any recently-released jazz album I’ve had the occasion to hear. The album is assured and thrilling in its low-key sort of way, and while it rewards close, intent listening, it makes tasty background music too. The grooves are often deeper and more soulful than they initially appear to be. – Bill Kopp
Australian jazz pianist Baker relocated to New York City in 2010, to swim with “the big fishes,” as the liner notes say. This set is greatly influenced by Baker’s love of Herbie Hancock, but the tunes themselves are primarily from the Great American Songbook. Joel Frahm’s sax often takes the spotlight, but Baker’s assured and nimble piano playing is always present. Two very different readings of “Theme from The Apartment” are among the highlights, and Baker sings a romantic version of Brian Wilson’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” “The End of a Love Affair” is the disc’s most effective track overall. – Bill Kopp
What I’m Talkin’ About
This disc is difficult to classify: sometimes it’s gritty, greasy soul jazz, featuring guitarist/vocalist Ditta backed by a funk band, highlighted by some sexy flute that recalls Herbie Mann. Other times it feels like New Orleans jazz/blues. The production aesthetic is decidedly odd, with certain elements (often Ditta’s voice and/or guitar) far too out-front in the mix; it’s almost as if they skipped the mastering step in production. That makes What I’m Talkin’ About an unnecessarily difficult listen. It’s varied and intriguing throughout, but requires much of the listener. Be warned that this album often sounds quite like a bootleg. – Bill Kopp
And… here’s the latest installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon, and meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1 (Slumberland Records), HERE for #2 (12XU), HERE for #3 (Saint Marie), HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind), and HERE for #5 (Fort Lowell).
BY TIM HINELY
I think it was about 1995 when I saw my first issue of Chunklet and I believe it was issue 11. Wait, how did this ultra-cool zine exist for 10 previous issues and me not knowing about it?! The mag got better and better and it was obvious that editor/publisher Henry Owings was some kind of mad genius graphics whiz (self taught, I believe). The empire of Chunklet Industries then began expanding as Owings began selling Chunklet t-shirts (I’ve got a few) and then came the record label. While the releases seemed pretty sporadic early on the past few years have seen a blast activity with a bunch of excellent releases by old favorites Tar as well as (more old favorites) Man or Astroman?, Don Caballero, Obnox, Olivia Tremor Control and, a forthcoming release from Athens’ favorites, Pylon, a live recording of the band in ’83 (along with a limited edition 45). In between one of his 587 projects that he’s currently working on, Owings took some time out to answer some questions about his very active label.
When did the label form/ what was your original inspiration? It was inspired exclusively by my inability to sit passively back during the first Clinton administration. My interest in money and/or success has been secondary to just getting a few things out that, without my assistance, would never see the light of day. Simple as that.
What was your first release? My first “real” release was back in’ 93 with The Oblivians and the “Go! Pill Popper!” 7”. However, the label was called Drug Racer and that feels like an eternity ago. The first release on “Chunklet” per se was Les Savy Fav’s “Let’s Stay Friends” LP forever ago.
If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who would it be? This answer could go one of two ways…
The first answer would be that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have put out records by some of my all time favorite bands: The Jesus Lizard, The Olivia Tremor Control, Tar, Man…or Astro-Man?, Thee Speaking Canaries, and that’s just the bands that I can muster off the top of my head without sounding full of myself. The fact that I’m putting out a 2xLP with Athens band Pylon this year is still something I think of with utter disbelief, so, yeah, I’m absolutely humbled by the company I keep.
The second version of this answer is a bit more nuanced…
1) I’d love to be at the helm to release an authoratative MC5 box set. Not like the unimaginative garbage that has been put out, but rather, done by fans and meant for fans, but also intended to suck in new fans and preserve their legacy. As much of a fan as I am, everything other than their three ‘proper’ albums all seem pretty warmed over garbage.
2) I have been sniffing around the Atlanta band Smoke for the better part of five years to have their legacy championed. Trying to find a “real” label to springboard it to, but that’s another dream.
3) Another that I’ve been pursuing is the band Synthetic Flying Machine, which preceded both The Olivia Tremor Control and Neutral Milk Hotel and was probably one of my FAVORITE bands from back in the early days of living in Athens in ’92 and ’93.
4) I’d also want to release as much of the Camberwell band Part Chimp as I possibly could. One of the truly outstanding noise bands that refuse to break up.
5) There’s a local band that just started called Mutual Jerk that I’d love to be involved with somehow.
6) There’s Endless Boogie. God, I absolutely love them and would do anything they asked me to do.
7) And, of course, the band The Bar-B-Q Killers is another that I just would love to see presented to a modern audience. But as you might be able to surmise, the pace is glacial on this stuff.
What has been your best seller to date? Probably “Dusk at Cubist Castle” by the Olivia Tremor Control. But saying “Best seller” makes it seem like I’m doing this for the money which, let’s be honest, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites? Not really. Just an occasional tweet or Facebook post. Bandcamp. Mailing list.
Is the Atlanta/ Athens music community supportive of the label? I’ve never given it any thought. Perhaps?
Have digital sales been significant or nominal? They’ve been significant-ish. Thanks for asking.
Vinyl is Killing the MP3 Industry” – Henry Owings (www.chunklet.com)
Has there actually been a vinyl resurgence the past few years? Google it. I hear it’s happening.
What is your personal favorite format to release music? I’d love to put something out on human skin, but I’m sure that Jack White guy has already done it. Bastard.
What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention? I still think Siltbreeze is one of the most consistent labels of the past 25 years. Gerard [Cosloy’s] ear over at 12XU is absolutely sterling. Bill and Lisa Roe’s Trouble In Mind is hitting home run after home run. Ever/Never out of NYC is doing a great job. Mostly “smaller” labels always pique my interest. Homeless out of Australia is cranking out the best jams. Goner, of course, is killing it. Deranged, Ektro and Blackest Ever Black’s catalog are really inspired. However, I’ve never been motivated/interested in a label’s commercial success. To me, it’s all about finding new jams and celebrating them.
Do you accept unsolicited demos? Sure. But other than a polite “thank you,” it’s usually followed up by hitting the delete button.
Please tell us the story behind the Tar 2x LP. How did it come about. I’ve known Tar since ’91. They were probably the first band that I became actual friends with when I was in my early 20s. We always remained friends over the subsequent years since their break up in ’95. When the band emailed me about doing a 7” for their PRF BBQ reuinion gig in ‘12, I jumped at the chance. It started a dialogue about uncovering all the tapes from their AmRep and T&G 7”s and comp tracks, their ’91 Peel session and the bits and bobs that make up the 2xLP “1988-1995.”
As a super fan, I was also shocked by how many other super fans (or for them, friends that are super fans as well) that offered up to help get this release done. Without their help, it never would’ve come out. Those people are, specifically, Steve Albini (who went back into the studio and remixed some mixdowns that had gone MIA) and Bob Weston (who did a superior job of mastering and cutting the lacquers). In addition, and it can’t be stressed enough, Drew Crumbaugh was a great digital sleuth and editor to get the live digital component together. His contribution wasn’t necessarily celebrated on the vinyl portion, but the audio he polished/mastered really pushed the release over the top. But to back up for a second, this release took well over a year, but would’ve been impossible without all of the goodwill that Tar generated during their career. So for that, I’m indebted to Mike Greenless and John Mohr (specifically) but the band (entirely) for their interest and time. To have my name on one of their records is a true badge of honor.
Les Savy Fav
The Jesus Lizard
The Corporate Office
Thee Speaking Canaries
The Olivia Tremor Control
“Hopefully the world is big enough for all us”: The Austin rocker, whose career stretches back to the ‘80s, on his remarkable new album, on death, dying and the afterlife, on the travails of dealing with indie record labels—and on the various other Andersons out there who keep stealing his digital thunder.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours and Green On Red) I’ve opted not to trawl through my personal archives—although, as you’ll learn, my subject today definitely is a favorite part of my journalistic history. Instead, I’m presenting an interview I did recently with an artist I’ve admired since the late ‘80s but who, for reasons that will become clear, I’d lost touch with for a good while. Ladies and gentleman, allow me to (re)introduce Thomas Anderson.
Anderson’s a native of Norman, Oklahoma, but for the majority of his adult life has lived in Austin. If memory serves, I first became aware of him as a journalistic peer; he was writing for the likes of Trouser Press and Musician and was an ace scribe at that. All along, though, he’d been writing songs and finally, in ’89, he decided to move to the other side of the stage lights and release his first album, Alright, It was Frank . . . and He’s Risen From the Dead and Gone Off With His Truck via his own Out There label. Critics like Robert Christgau approved, and as was frequently the case back in those days, the record found its way into the hands of such (cough) roccrit tastemakers as moi and my old pal Jud Cost; it’s entirely possible that Jud and I got on the horn and called each other up simultaneously to call “dibs” on reviewing the LP for the rock mag we both scribed for, The Bob. There was something undeniably compelling about Anderson’s Dylan/Reed style of literate rock lyricism, and he also knew his way around a good hook and a catchy riff.
Nowadays, “singer songwriters” are not even a dime a dozen, more like a nickel a dozen (if that much). But a quarter century ago, at a time when Seattle was starting to breathe down everyone’s neck, it took a lot of huevos to prize actual songcraft over attitude, and to understand that to “kick out the jams” wasn’t a template, but an aesthetic—and that it was okay to have folkier, contemplative material alongside full-tilt rockers. In that, Anderson was clearly a traditionalist, one who didn’t mind wearing his influences on his sleeve while still bringing something absolutely fresh to the table.
Several acclaimed albums would follow, including Blues For the Flying Dutchman (Dutch East India) and Moon Going Down (Marilyn). Meanwhile, I landed in Tucson, and I consider myself fortunate to have struck up a friendship, first via the mail and then later in person when he traveled from Austin to Arizona for some shows. Gifted with an easy-going, self-deprecating manner and a brain containing veritable Wikipedia of musical facts and trivia, Anderson’s the kind of guy you could sidle up to in a bar and within five minutes find yourself deep in conversation about some obscure record or swapping rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes.
Which doesn’t exactly bring us to his new album Heaven (Out There) because Anderson’s put out a number of other records since the early ‘90s, including 1998’s Bolide, 2003’s Norman, Oklahoma and archival releases The Moon in Transit (2012) and On Becoming Human (2013). But Heaven, comprising all-new material (his first such collection in years) does serve to remind me of all the things that appealed to me in the first place. Cheerily billed as “songs about dead people and the afterlife,” it kicks off with the jangly “No Thought For the Morrow” plus a blazing T. Rex/Velvets-style rocker titled “Arguing With the Dead,” and indeed, with lines like “Old man lying in an ICU/ Loved ones around him weep” (the former) and “When I get to Heaven it’ll clear my head/ ‘Cause it’s no use arguing with the dead,” Anderson’s thematic mandate gets fulfilled right from the get-go.
Elsewhere there’s atmospheric ballad “Chelsea Grail,” which with its references to Andy Warhol and Brian Jones makes explicit that Anderson is paying tribute to the late chanteuse Nico; a Bowie-esque slice of wham-bam distorto rock, “All the Cool People Have Left the Party,” lamenting how our heroes, icons and objects of desire are “leavin’ too soon” and in their wake are “nothin’ but some loud and obnoxious goons”; and a folky, seven-minute epic “The Wilderness,” which provides Anderson his chance to ponder, at length, what the afterlife might resemble, his protagonist wandering around on the streets of Heaven, taking in the sights.
There’s plenty more, of course, but you get my point: Anderson remains a scholar of literate and thoughtful tunesmithery while instinctively channeling his rock ‘n’ roll roots, and the result is one of the nicest musical surprises to come down the pike so far this year. I caught up with him via the digital horn, and what follows is the result of the two of us doing some long-overdue commiserating.
BLURT: Perhaps a good way to start would be to re-introduce yourself, as I imagine a good chunk of our readership, at least the younger ones, will be unfamiliar with your work. Could you tell us a little about your roots and background?
THOMAS ANDERSON: Well—the Okie roots aren’t much to talk about. Oklahoma is a place that people largely want to get away from. A lot of music has come out of Oklahoma, but with the obvious exception of the Flaming Lips, it’s mostly been made by people once they left there. From Woody Guthrie on.
As for me, I spent the ‘80s writing for music mags such as Trouser Press, Creem, Record and Musician. Around the end of that decade, I released my first album, titled Alright It Was Frank, And He’s Risen From The Dead And Gone Off With His Truck. Since then I’ve released seven more, including Heaven, the new one. There have also been a couple of 45s and some stray tracks on compilations.
So why surface now, in 2016? With the ascent of Donald Trump, a lot of people would appear to be getting ready to go underground and/or move to Canada…
Surface?! I never thought I went under! Really, I just put out records when I can, y’know? It’s always been that way. I have a neurotic fear that at some point—for whatever reason—I won’t be able to do this anymore, so I try to release stuff whenever I can. In the old days, when I was on actual labels, I was kind of at their mercy as to when my stuff got released; but now, I’m always working on the next one.
I remember when you were working at Waterloo, you quipped to me that you try to leave Austin during SXSW. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in your adopted city, both pro and con, in the time you’ve lived there?
I’ve moved to Austin twice. The first time in…1984, I think? Back then I could walk over to the UT campus in the evenings and visit Sterling Morrison in his office. At the time he was working on his thesis on Cynewulf, the Anglo-Saxon poet, and he always appreciated an excuse to put it aside for awhile. Or I could talk to Roky Erickson, who was living with his mom and a black cat named Halloween, in a house with spray-paint all over the walls. The Big Boys had splintered into Poison 13, and the Standing Waves had moved to New York. I used to play at an awful coffeehouse run by some distant relative of Ernest Tubb, and go see the Tail Gators and Brave Combo.
I moved there again around 1993 and basically worked in what I call “yuppie support,” as most of the musicians did. Lotsa minimum-wage jobs to make rent on a ghetto apartment up on Rundberg. It was depressing. On the good side, I played a lot of shows at the Electric Lounge, and had records coming out on Unclean and Propeller in Austin and on labels in Europe. It’s… um… hard to explain. Austin’s great for a lot of people, but maybe not so great for me. It’s kinda like, if I go to a party and no one there is particularly happy to see me, I leave, y’know? Now, I kinda bounce back and forth. When Bob Mould moved there in the ‘90s, a friend of mine asked him what he thought of Austin. He supposedly said, “It’s nice to live in a place where the street don’t smell like piss.” So yeah—Austin has its advantages!
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen go down in the independent music world, bot pro and con, in the time you’ve been part of it?
Um… is Korn still big? No—seriously, I’m the last person in the world to ask about that…. Since I stopped working at record stores, I’m totally in the dark on what’s happening in music. I always figure that if something is great enough, I’ll probably hear about it eventually. Maybe in BLURT. [Damn straight. —Reviews Ed.]
The new record—”Songs about dead people and the afterlife”: indeed, the songs frequently invoke words like dead, angels, graves, dying, etc. Were there specific incidents or losses that inspired you to go thematic on the record?
Awhile back, I was on a Mark Twain kick. In attempting to read everything available by him, I found a work called Captain Stormfield’s Visit To Heaven, which, as far as I know, has never been published in its entirety. It’s a story about a man’s visit to the afterlife, and who and what he finds there. And how existence works there. And I thought, ‘What a great premise for an album!’ I mean, you can do anything with that–songs about famous dead people, songs about people you’ve known, songs questioning good and evil, songs about the meaning or meaninglessness of life… you can do anything with that concept. And I wrote a ton of songs for it. In addition to the twelve songs on the album, I had songs about Lou Reed, Jeff Buckley… a LOT of songs.
Depressing subject in theory, but in execution, wonderfully contemplative, with gorgeous arrangements. Still, not the easiest “sell” from a marketing standpoint—discuss.
Well, hopefully I’ve kept it entertaining. I dunno… everyone from the Carter Family to the goth groups have been pretty death-obsessed. I’ve tried to keep it light. I mean, my Heaven has a porn star [Savannah, in “Savannah Got Screwed”] a gospel/blues singer [Washington Phillips, “Dolceolo Glory”], a Star Trek actor [Leonard Nimoy, “He’s Dead Jim”], Nico, and Sheb Wooley [“Sheb Wooley Dies in Oklahoma”] Plus, Michael Jackson has a romance with the author of Frankenstein [“Mary Loves Michael”], and Nixon and JFK stroll by [“The Gatekeeper’s Tale”]. Who else is gonna give you a Heaven like that?
Are all the songs of recent vintage, or are any from the archives? And given that you performed all the music yourself, were there any pitfalls in taking the extreme DIY approach?
A lot of it was written around the millennium, some more recently. “All The Cool People Have Left The Party” I wrote after listening to a bunch of Prince 12″ singles. The only pitfall in the DIY approach was that I was using a new digital recorder this time, instead of the 4-track cassette deck I used on the last couple of albums, and I was getting some anomalous sounds when I tried to use a lot of guitar distortion; which might explain why most of the guitars on there are pretty clean. My friend Kels Koch of the Million Sellers said the sound reminded him of The Blue Mask. So I’ll pretend that was the idea!
In that regard, you’ve come full circle/returned to late ‘80s roots, true? Which resonates with me: I basically write about music without getting paid these days, just for the free records and to scratch my creative itch—just like it was all those years ago when I was writing about you for The Bob.
It’s like you start out scratching the creative itch, and it becomes an obsessive thing. Which has led to a lot of mediocre art. I mean, it feels good—terrific even—to create something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. You know that feeling when it all works—it’s there in journalism just like music—it’s just the best. So you keep scratching that itch. It’s kinda like a gambling addiction, I guess…
You seemed to go on a decade-long hiatus from 2003’s Norman, OK and 2012’s The Moon In Transit. What were you doing during that time? Did you continue to play music and write songs?
Simply put, my label ceased to exist. My stuff had been coming out on a German label called Red River, and they had started working with some new distributors who were jacking them around—telling them what to release and when, not paying them—and eventually the guy who ran the label, a great guy, by the way, just threw in the towel. I had an album ready to be released. It was called Radar Angels—it was recorded, mixed, mastered, the artwork was done… it was ready to go; then the label was gone. One song from it got licensed to Sony in Germany (for a blues compilation—I’m right in between the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Greg Allman), a few more I made available online; but eventually I just started working on a new album. So yeah, there was a little ten year break in there….
Your website doesn’t appear to have been updated since, er, the release of Norman, OK, and the Wikipedia page for you essentially cuts off at 2013’s On Becoming Human. Are there any plans to rectify this info gap for the general public? And how can people get the record, either hard copies or digital?
First of all, that’s not my website. I have no control over that. As for Wikipedia…wait—I’m on Wikipedia?! Where?! I mean, I’ve looked! Dude, send me a link or something! I’ve NEVER found anything on me on Wikipedia—it’s all Paul Thomas Anderson. [Ed. note: Thomas and I have subsequently rectified this, so BLURT is hoping that both the unofficial T.A. site and the Wikipedia page will see updates in the near future.]
People can get Heaven from CD Baby—and they also have the two albums that came out right before it. They have both physical copies and downloads. You can also get downloads from iTunes or Amazon or any of those places. Plus, you can stream the stuff on Deezer or any of those places. Y’know, I think both Unclean and Propeller Records in Austin still have a few original copies of my 45s from twenty years ago. Get ’em before they’re gone, kids!
What’s coming up for you next? More recording? Touring?
Two things—I’m working on a Requiem Mass For Nash The Slash, and I don’t know what the hell I’ll do with that, if anything…. Also, later this year I hope to do a digital reissue of my second album, Blues For The Flying Dutchman. Lately I’ve been dusting off some early demos of some of those songs for possible bonus tracks, and they sound GREAT.
Finally, what would you say to people who search for you on the internet and think that THIS Thomas Anderson, apparently based in CT, is you?
Nope, he’s definitely not me, though I wish I had his guitar. Cool shirt, too. Back in the MySpace days, some girl from Scotland contacted me because she thought I was the Thomas Anderson who sang a song used in the short-lived TV series Shark. I had to break it to her that I wasn’t the Thomas Anderson she loved. Weird girl—she seemed to be drinking or drunk in all of her online pics. She disappeared after awhile. Maybe her parents made her take down her page; she looked like she was about fifteen. But yeah, there are quite a few Thomas Andersons out there. Hopefully, the world is big enough for all of us. [Below: OUR Thomas Anderson. Accept no substitutes…]
Dreaming about the bad, crazy sun that gazes down upon Tucson.
BY FRED MILLS
Ed. note: For this installment of my ongoing “College Rock Chronicles” series (previously excavated: features on Big Star, Dumptruck, The Gun Club, Dwight Twilley, Winter Hours, Green On Red and Thomas Anderson) I’m turning shamelessly nostalgic. My reverie was prompted earlier today when my good friend (and BLURT publisher) Stephen Judge sent me a short video clip from Austin featuring Arizona desert rock legends The Sidewinders performing at our annual day party during SXSW at the Ginger Man Pub. There they were, my old pals Dave Slutes, Rich Hopkins and the gang, ripping through one of my all-time favorite songs by the band, “Doesn’t Anyone Believe.” Cue up (a) a ton of regret for not being able to attend SXSW this year; (b) fond memories of our 2013 day party during SXSW when the band also performed, not to mention even fonder memories of seeing them numerous times in the ‘90s when I was living in Tucson; and (c) about an hour’s worth of revisiting Sidewinders videos, reading old clips on the band, and more. Translation: another unapologetically rambling missive from yours truly. Feel free to change the channel now, but if you harbor even the faintest good memories of the group, I trust you’ll appreciate this one in the spirit with which it is served up. As the saying goes—so it’s truth that you desire? Read on….
“Now I couldn’t tell you what I know/ It changes like the weather/ But what I know is what I feel/ What I feel is enough to get me / Out of life and everything it means/ None of this is really what it seems…” — “Doesn’t Anyone Believe,” from 1990’s Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall
Sometime around 1987 or ‘88 a record turned up in my mailbox. Hardly an unusual occurrence; at the time I was working as a music critic for a number of regional and national publications. Most likely the package was posted my way in hopes of securing a review in East Coast rock mag The Bob, which at the time had achieved a degree of prominence, both for its championing of the burgeoning alternative rock movement—at the time, in this pre-Nirvana era, we called it “college rock”—and for its inclusion, in each issue, a limited edition flexi record, which to date had included then-unreleased material by everyone from R.E.M. to Camper Van Beethoven to The Church. A lot of bands jostled for coverage back in those so-much-younger-than days.
But unlike much of the musical flotsam and jetsam that arrived on a daily basis, this particular artifact established its sonic prominence from the very moment the needle hit the grooves—clear vinyl grooves, at that. (Side note: a cassette copy of the album was also in the package, thereby allowing me a nice sonic preview of the music in the car on the drive home from the post office.) Titled ¡Cuacha!, the debut from Tucson’s Sidewinders was at once familiar and foreign to my ears, a mélange of part-jangly/part-distorted guitars, tuneful-yet-aggressive vocals and thundering rhythms (the familiar part) and otherworldly ambiance steeped in a subtextual yearning that suggested exotic locales and a romance with purpose (the foreign part).
Thus began a musical love affair that has endured for nearly three decades, and I’m proud to report that my initial instincts were accurate: in their lifetime the Sidewinders—or Sand Rubies, the other moniker they operated under for a number of years during the ‘90s due to legal issues arising from a dispute with a lawyered-up North Carolina-based cock-rock/Pat Benatar clone band called Sidewinder—would craft some of the most memorable and timeless tunes ever to emerge from the Arizona scene.
“Witchdoctor said to me/ ‘You got no heart/ And you got no soul/ And you’ve got no life of your own/ Surrender what’s left/ And then I’ll set you free’…” —“Witchdoctor,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor
Certainly on their earliest recordings, including the aforementioned indie debut, Witchdoctor and Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall (both released on RCA via N.C.-based Mammoth), one can hear the vestigial remains of the mid-‘80s college rock scene that initially spawned the band (thank you, R.E.M.). The Sidewinders’ proud D.I.Y. ethos is fully evidenced as well, particularly considering that by the tail end of that decade thousands of bands were already tuning in full time to the nascent, noisy rumblings of the Northwest and those who still dared to wield a jangly riff or to sing in a voice south of a shriek risked excommunication from the Temple Of Hip. (My fellow Tarheel Mitch Easter, reflecting on his own band Let’s Active’s experience, told me that by the late ‘80s, anyone who came out on stage with a 12-string was just asking to have his ass kicked.)
Too, key roots and influences jostled for position in the group’s sonic tableaux, from the brawny pop raveups of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and Neil Young’s Crazy Horsian gallop to the undulating psychedelia of the ‘60s-era Bay Area bands and—speaking of hip—the classic singer/songwriterdom of Neil Diamond, whose “Solitary Man” found its way into the Sidewinders’ setlists and soon became a performance mainstay.
Still, as with the proverbial “whole/more than the sum” distinction, what you got from the Sidewinders was considerably greater than what appeared to go into the band. First of all, founders Rich Hopkins (guitar) and Dave Slutes (vocals) carried the torch for immaculately-crafted, dynamically-rendered pop out of the ‘80s and into the ‘90s under the somewhat nebulous but still fitting banner of “desert rock.” 1993’s Sand Rubies album, cut for a short-lived subsidiary of Chrysalis Records and by some measures one of those “great lost…” records of the era thanks to a series of label and management missteps, is one of the most powerful documents of the era, panoramic in its sonic detail, richly evocative in its lyric nuance—and still capable, to this day, of taking the listener’s breath away with its scope and power.
And the Hopkins-Slutes duo, along with their shifting array of bandmates, helped lay the groundwork for similarly-inclined younger artists who, after weathering the ensuing decade’s worth of corporatized alterna-rock and its numerous hyphenated variants, would eventually go about the business of restoring the ideals of self-directed and –sustained D.I.Y. to rock ‘n’ roll. Although the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies would wield their greatest impact regionally—hugely respected by the Arizona music community, they were also very vocal and active boosters for scores of other groups—it wasn’t uncommon to find pockets of rabid fans in other locales across the country and around the globe. (I should know; living on the East Coast at the time, I was one of those fans who’d succumbed to the group’s charms. More on that in a sec.)
This was during the pre-Internet age, when following a band involved a lot more than calling up a Wikipedia entry and a Facebook page or clicking on an MP3 download link, and the resulting degree of devotion could be profound to the point of startling. Even as I was corresponding with the band prior to my 1992 relocation from N.C. to A.Z., writing about them for The Bob, England’s Bucketful of Brains and elsewhere (including the official Trouser Press entry), and swapping live tapes with fellow collectors from all points of the globe, other fans, scribes and collectors were doing likewise. You could label this somewhat naively along lines of “grassroots,” but the bottom line is that the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies built up a huge store of goodwill during their initial music industry foray, and no amount of subsequent rock world ups and downs will ever be able to take that away from us or the band.
Legacies are forged over time, of course, and the years have seen a fair share of personal and professional vicissitudes for both Hopkins and Slutes (one feature written about the band called ‘em “Arizona’s ultimate bad luck story”), with albums typically bookending protracted periods of inactivity for the band. More than once, they’ve played an Arizona “farewell” show, including as recently as 2011. Here in 2016, it strikes me as criminal that they haven’t recorded any new music in well over a decade; the Austin performance at this year’s SXSW mentioned in the intro above is but one of just a handful they’ve done since last year’s SXSW, and gig announcements only come sporadically at their Facebook page. That said, Rich and Dave live in different cities nowadays, so we fans will take what we can get.
But the music they’ve made together is permanently woven into the fabric of America’s grand tapestry of rock. 10, 20 or 30 years from now, when some kid encounters a futuristic variant of the mixtape containing, I dunno, the brooding psych-noir of “Bad Crazy Sun,” lush jangler “We Don’t Do That Anymore,” scathing/searing rocker “Goodbye” (one of the greatest kiss-off songs ever), or even the ethereally romantic Old Pueblo travelogue “Santa Maria Street,” he’ll be inspired to investigate further, and in digging deeper will ensure that the Sidewinders legacy continues to be carried forward.
A caveat: A portion of the foregoing was adapted from the foreword I penned for the 2011 book Came On Like the Sun: Collected Photographs of the Sidewinders and Sand Rubies, published by Hopkins and Doug Finical. In drafting my commentary, I compiled enough notes to disappear down the proverbial band rabbit-hole that we writers are prone to, having hung out with and interviewed the musicians numerous times over the years, dating back to the time of the arrival of that first Sidewinders album in my mailbox. Sometimes your objectivity gradually dissolves, and I will freely admit to being completely biased when it comes to their music.
Indeed, more than one friend has heard me talk about the time, circa 1991, when my wife and I were sitting around in our Charlotte, NC, house drinking wine and trying to decide whether it was time to seek out greener pastures, having grown weary and frustrated with our workaday routines in sales for a local shopping mall store chain. One tends to get restless every ten years or so, and thus there we were, literally on the verge of throwing a dart at a map of the United States to see what might be a viable destination. Among our options: New Orleans and Memphis, because we knew it would have to be a music town to make such a move worth cashing in our profit-sharing plans and surrendering our job security.
On the stereo that night were our favorite band, The Sidewinders, and mystically enough, at that precise decision point, “Get Out of That Town” from Auntie Ramos’ Pool Hall came on. Against a sturdy backbeat and a bristly-jangly Hopkins guitar riff, vocalist Slutes offered this semi-sage lyrical advice:
“Now I know I’m crazy like a TV evangelist
But that town thinks it’s Los Angeles
And you know what’s worse? It’s trying to be it!
You gotta get out of that town…
And if you don’t know how,
We’ll find a way.
Anything that will allow you
To move out—and get away…
You gotta get out of that town,
Get out of those shopping malls—
C’mon down here!”
Certainly the song was born of the musician’s urging a friend or lover to ditch Phoenix—its sprawl, its plasticity, and yes, its shopping malls—to “c’mon down here” to Tucson. But in that instance, we knew they were surely singing to us as well. Two cross-country fact-finding and house-hunting vacations later, we had hired Mayflower movers to truck us and our stuff out to Tucson. Once we got there, it was not all moonbeams and tequila, of course; no overly romanticized notion ever fulfills itself. But the friends we made were lasting, and the memories we built were permanent. We even decided to have a child, something we’d resisted for ages, feeling that the time just wasn’t yet right for us. In Tucson, though, it finally felt right.
“At night you’ve got to stay awake/ The desert sun won’t even let you think straight…” — “Bad Crazy Sun,” from 1989’s Witchdoctor
Ironically, around the same time we were arriving in Tucson, the Sidewinders were finding themselves in the throes of the aforementioned legal woes, ultimately leading to the name change, a delay in the release of the much-anticipated fourth album, and a series of lineup changes. Within a few years, there would be a breakup and extended hiatus. I distinctly recall feeling, at one point, mildly betrayed: How dare they split after all the energy and emotion I’d put into them.
Maybe that’s why the subsequent Sidewinders reunions have had a certain bittersweet edge for me. Watching that brief video clip of the band live in Austin the other night that Stephen Judge sent me was, well… like I said, I got pretty nostalgic. Happy to see Rich and Dave enjoying themselves (knowing, too, that Stephen was there filming the clip and probably pinching himself with delight), but sad I wasn’t there to be front and center, punching my fist in the air and singing along. Lord knows I have the lyrics to every one of their songs memorized. (Below: a live clip of the band doing “Bad Crazy Sun” from earlier this year.)
Postscript: Years before I moved to the desert, I was dreaming about it. Not just imagining what the desert must be like, or playing back scenes from classic films, but literally: I’d find myself transported to a sandy, saguaro- and yucca-dotted expanse while a bad, crazy sun scorched the back of my neck and an equally blazing brace of guitars played across a background soundtrack like the rumbling of a distant, incoming monsoon. I must have had those dreams for nearly four years before actually arriving in the desert in the summer of ’92, on a wish and a prayer that the physical change in locale—from N.C. to Tucson—would provide me with the psychological change I’d been needing in my life.
It did, and the ten years I spent in the desert remain among my most vivid, productive and alive. For those, and so much more, I have Rich Hopkins, Dave Slutes and the myriad members of their extended family largely to thank. I plan to get back there one of these days.
Every person needs a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack to his or her dreams, and the Sidewinders are mine.
“In this corner, by candlelight/ And that’s where we’ll meet/ On Santa Maria Street” —“Santa Maria Street,” from 1993’s Sand Rubies
Thank you, Zev Feldman, of the Resonance and Elemental labels. Examined: Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, João Gilberto & Getz, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and Art Pepper.
BY BILL KOPP, BLURT JAZZ DESK EDITOR
Lovers of the classic era in jazz and/or modern jazz owe a debt of gratitude to Zev Feldman. The head of a pair of modern-day jazz labels (Resonance and Elemental) has been exceedingly busy of late, rescuing heretofore unheard recordings of great historical import. Kicking off with a bang a mere four years ago, Feldman unearthed a cache of Wes Montgomery recordings, and released them as Echoes of Indiana Avenue. At the time, the source tapes for that set were thought to be the earliest extant recordings of the acclaimed jazz guitarist. But in 2015 Resonance roared back with In the Beginning, a 2CD set of even more (and even earlier) Montgomery.
Other projects have included a remarkable Bill Evans Trio recording from Greenwich Village (Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top of the Gate) and a John Coltrane set, Offering: Live at Temple University. The latter earned liner note essayist Ashley Kahn a Grammy award.
But the last several months have seen a flurry of activity from Feldman’s labels that suggests those early successes were merely warm-ups. No less than seven (actually eight) archival releases – all featuring previously-unheard music – have been released by Resonance or Elemental.
Sarah Vaughan – Live at Rosy’s
The celebrated jazz singer was in her mid-fifties at the time of this recording, taped in New Orleans for an NPR broadcast in May 1978. At the time, Vaughan was enjoying something of a renaissance. Stephen Sondheim‘s “Send in the Clowns” – a reading of which is included on this 2CD set of mostly standards – had become Vaughan’s signature tune. “Sassy” Vaughan had built her reputation fronting big bands, but here she takes a totally different approach form her earlier work. With a spare band – piano, bass and drums – the focus here is wholly on Vaughan and her voice. Because this recording was professionally made for radio broadcast, the sound quality is quite good. The accompanying booklet is generous with both vintage photos and interview content.
Wes Montgomery – One Night in Indy
Zev Feldman clearly has a thing for the work of Wes Montgomery, and who can blame him? His brief but informative liner note essay tells the story of how he came to release this CD of a 1959 open reel recording. Even with Feldman’s understated description of event, readers will get a sense of the thrill he experienced. And the recording is of more than historical import: playing with The Eddie Higgins Trio, the focus her is squarely on Montgomery’s already fully-developed technique. Those who bemoan his later A&M and Verve outings into reading of pop will appreciate this six-song set of tunes from the songbooks of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Neal Hefti and more. Sound quality is simply superb for what was clearly an unofficial recording.
Bill Evans – Some Other Time: The Lost Session from the Black Forest
Here’s a rare treat. Bill Evans was quite prolific in his day, but until now there have been no studio recordings of his short-lived lineup of his Trio featuring bassist Eddie Gomez (Scott LaFaro‘s different but superb replacement), and drummer extraordinaire Jack DeJohnette. These recordings were overseen by MPS head Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the so-called “man from the Black Forest.” As with virtually all recordings made at MPS Studios, the music lives and breathes on this recording. Based on the customary run time of albums at the time these recordings were made (June 1968), had this material been released, it likely would have been spread across two or perhaps three record albums. There’s but one breakdown (“It’s All Right with Me”) and one alternate take (“You’re gonna Hear From Me”). Otherwise it’s all new material, a mix of standards. Some tracks feature the Trio; some are duos, and a few feature Evans alone at the piano. Five days prior to this session, the Trio was in Montreux, Switzerland, performing at the annual jazz festival. Feldman’s brief essay reveals the back story of these tapes, and other essays (from critics, Gomez and DeJohnette) provide all the context one could ever wish for.
Stan Getz Quartet – Moments in Time
The first of two releases chronicling tenor saxophonist Stan Getz’s May 1976 residency at San Francisco’s Keystone Korner, this is a thrilling single-disc collection of live music by Getz and his three sidepeople (Joanne Brackeen, piano; Clint Houston, bass; Billy Hart, drums). Superb song selection and even better musicianship are the dual highlights of this timeless set, which sounds (stylewise) as if it could have been recorded any time between the late 1950s and the following three decades. Again, our intrepid jazz archivist Zev Feldman tells the story of how he found these tapes and brought them to current-day listeners. His Q&A with drummer Billy Hart – and a short note from Getz’s son Steve – round out a nice booklet that also contains some good live performance photos. Apparently some “sound restoration” took place on these tapes, but by the sound of them, you’d never know the CDs weren’t sourced from pristine pro tapes stored in some climate-controlled vault for forty-plus years.
João Gilberto & Stan Getz – Getz/Gilberto ’76
The provenance of these recordings is the same as the above title, and the lineup is the same, with the addition of Brazilian vocalist and guitar sensation João Gilberto, he of “Girl From Ipanema” fame and so much more. The program here is give over almost wholly to Gilberto’s original material (no “Ipanema”) and similar material. By its very nature, this material is far more subdued than the Monents in Time set, and – other than some nice sax solos – Getz’s band rarely takes the spotlight. Feldman includes another whole interview’s worth of conversation with drummer Hart for this set.
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra – All My Yesterdays: The Debut 1966 Recordings at The Village Vanguard
Few would make the case that big band jazz was anywhere near its peak in the mid 1960s. But likely you couldn’t tell that to bandleader Jones and drummer Lewis; this set finds the big band playing like their lives depended on it. There’s a swinging vibe that – while not exactly loose – feels miles away from the stiff arrangements and readings sometimes associated with large jazz orchestras. The material is built upon a repertoire of standards, yet has the energetic vibe of Buddy Rich‘s pop-leaning shows of the same era. For this set, Feldman made the unusual decision to package the CDs and book in a larger-than-standard case; apparently this engendered complaints and backlash from OCD-leaning consumers who need their CD sets to be either standard size or a box set (a point of view I appreciate), so he’s vowed not to do it again. That issue aside, this is a wonderful set of music in a lovely package.
Art Pepper – Live at Fat Tuesday’s
Heading in more dissonant and wild direction than most of the other titles discussed here, this live recording of a 1981 concert in New Your City focuses on material that lends itself to ambitious interpretations: Monk’s “Rhythm-a-ning” is the best example. And when they slow it down, as on Gordon Jenkins‘ “Goodbye,” thee band shows off their skills in a different manner. Zev Feldman’s in-depth interview with the saxophonist’s widow Laurie Pepper forms the backbone of a characteristically excellent liner note booklet. This is little more than conjecture on my part, but perhaps the reason this title is released on Elemental (as opposed to Resonance, under the umbrella of the not-for-profit organization Rising Jazz Stars) may have to do with Pepper’s estate owning the material. Omnivore Recordings has also released several Pepper titles over the last year or so.
Note that another title, jazz organist Larry Young‘s In Paris: The ORTF Recordings has also been released recently by Resonance; a review copy was not available at the time of this writing.
The release schedule for Feldman’s labels would be impressive by the standards of a mid-sized record label; that these releases come form a tiny label specializing in jazz, and a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization at that – is truly remarkable. Tantalizingly, and judging by Feldman’s regular Facebook dispatches from locations across the globe, there’s every reason to suspect more jazz treasures will be revealed in the near future.
Bill Kopp is a music journalist, editor of Musoscribe.com, and editor of BLURT‘s newly-launched jazz desk. He has written liner notes for several jazz reissues, including Cannonball Adderley‘s The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free and Music, You All, both due out in May.
Previously-unheard 1969 live tapes from jazz flautist and his band make it clear that Mann was nothing if not underrated. “Herbie was pushing the envelope,” says album producer Pat Thomas. “He always had his ear to the ground,” agrees Mann biographer Cary Ginell.
BY BILL KOPP, BLURT JAZZ DESK EDITOR
Nominally a jazz musician, flautist Herbie Mann (1930-2003) enjoyed crossover appeal and success that brought his music to a much wider population than simply jazz aficionados. Mann released dozens of albums, and restlessly explored different styles of music. He sold a lot of records, won numerous DownBeat polls, and was a reliable concert draw for decades. But along the way, his interest in different musical forms sometimes worked against him: today, many regard him as little more than a dilettante at best, and at worst a shameless, commercially-driven hack.
That’s largely unfair. He did churn out some rather disposable pop, especially in the 1970s, with hit singles like “Hijack” (#14 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, and #1 on their Disco Action chart) from 1975’s Discothèque LP), but he was a true innovator, an artist who was always looking for the cross-fertilization of genres that is vital to music’s ongoing development.
A new 2CD set from Real Gone Music should help rehabilitate Mann’s undeservedly tarnished reputation among jazz lovers, and among musically adventurous listeners in general. Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters compiles previously unreleased tapes from Mann’s week-long engagement at Hollywood’s famed Whisky a Go Go. The set features performances of Mann with his stellar band – bassist Miroslav Vitouš, who would later go on to found Weather Report; vibraphonist Roy Ayers; saxophonist Steve Marcus; drummer Bruno Carr; and avant-jazz electric guitarist Sonny Sharrock. And the set’s second disc includes a rare gem: Sharrock’s wife Linda Sharrock joins the band onstage for some free-form avant-garde vocals that some have likened to the early work of Yoko Ono. By design, this new 2CD set has no overlap with the music released in 1969 as Live at the Whisky A Go Go.
The archival project of rescuing these performances from obscurity came to light thanks to the efforts of Pat Thomas, producer of many reissues and author of Listen, Whitey: The Sights and Sounds of Black Power and (with soul jazz legend Les McCann), Invitation to Openness: The Jazz & Soul Photography of Les McCann.
Thomas explains how the project came about. “I had been a big Herbie Mann fan. And his live albums, of course, are only 30-40 minutes. So it was obvious to me that they didn’t go in and record four songs and leave. I thought that since this was a small club gig, it would be more interesting than, say, a show at Madison Square Garden.”
Thomas “bugged the powers-that-be at Atlantic Records,” but says their response was along the lines of, “’Oh, we can’t find the tapes,’ blah blah blah. So when I moved to L.A. and started doing more reissues and more research, I hooked up with Bill Inglot; he’s done a million research projects for Rhino and other labels. He told me, ‘I found the tapes you’ve been looking for.’”
That entire week of shows at the Whisky had been taped by famed engineer Bill Halverson, who recorded Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young‘s 4 Way Street. “The tapes sounded great, and were really easy to mix,” says Thomas. “We pulled the tapes out of the vault. Brian Kehew – who does a lot of mixing; he mixed that big Yes box set [Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-two] – and I mixed the tapes.”
What they found was that the tapes from the first night didn’t even feature the band’s leader. “That first night, Herbie was sick, so the band played without him,” Thomas says. “I was really hoping that there could be some wild jams, just based on the fact that they didn’t play a real set. But unfortunately, they noodled! They got levels on their instruments and didn’t really play.”
But as Thomas and Kehew dug deeper, their efforts paid off in a big way. They discovered “two versions of “If I Were a Carpenter” that are really just extended jams. I could hear that Herbie was really stretching out. And the most surprising thing was that Linda Sharrock was in the audience, and Herbie brought her up onstage. They did these Sonny and Linda Sharrock songs from the album Black Woman, songs that they had only recorded in the studio three weeks earlier.”
The audience at the Whisky would likely have been mystified by Sharrock’s unexpected and very out-there performance. “Herbie was pushing the envelope,” Thomas chuckles. “The Whisky A Go Go is known for great music, but it’s not exactly an avant-garde jazz haven. So I’m sure there were people in the audience scratching their heads, thinking, ‘What is this Linda Sharrock shit?’”
There was some precedent for the unusual musical direction Mann took his band with Linda Sharrock. “Herbie was very kind to his sidemen,” Thomas points out. “He made sure that all of them wound up putting out a solo album.” That generosity extended to the wife of his guitarist, an avant-garde singer who would release the highly-regarded Black Woman, her first album with husband Sonny, for Mann’s Vortex label, not long after the Whisky dates.
And Sonny himself was considered by some an unusual choice for Mann’s group. His style is closer in spirit and texture to Jimi Hendrix than, say, Joe Pass. But it’s a major highlight of Herbie Mann’s acclaimed 1969 LP, Memphis Underground.
“In the ‘60s, Herbie wanted to appeal to younger audiences,” observes Cary Ginell, author of several books including The Evolution of Mann: Herbie Mann and the Flute in Jazz. “And the way to do that was through rock ’n’ roll. He always enjoyed challenging his audiences and thumbing his nose at his critics, and when he got a hold of Sonny Sharrock, he did that and more. He was really deliberately antagonizing people by getting the most ‘out’ Hendrix-styled guitarist he could find, and letting him have at it.”
Ginell notes that “Herbie never told his musicians what to play; he figured they knew what they were all about. Sharrock was the first of a run of musicians Herbie hired who stepped out of the jazz mainstream and played from another perspective.”
Real Gone’s Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters puts the exciting, adventurous side of Herbie Mann’s music on full display. “I think this album – for those who are paying attention – is going to establish Herbie more in that Miles Davis camp of groundbreaking progressive jazz,” says Thomas. “That’s a part of his legacy that doesn’t get into the history books, because most people think of him as a sort of pop-jazz hack.”
“Obviously there were points in his career when they did take him seriously,” says Thomas. “But I think that the more casual jazz fans certainly didn’t like the more pop aspects of his work; by the mid-1970s, he went very pop. And then there are these people – I call ’em jazz Nazis – who always tell me that soul-jazz and funk-jazz are not jazz. ‘Oh, Les McCann? That’s not jazz!’ And Herbie Mann gets tossed in that pool.”
Ginell agrees, noting that “critics never liked Herbie, possibly because he got tired of playing the pigeonhole game. They liked him when he played straight-ahead jazz, and then when he ventured into Afro Cuban jazz. But as soon as he started having crossover success, they started accusing him of selling out.”
Ginell points out that in the 1960s, Mann “started recording covers of songs on the pop charts — things by the Beatles, Donovan, etc. — and that alienated him further from the intelligentsia. Crossover success has never been popular among jazz critics,” he says. “They’ve always wanted jazz to themselves; anyone who is successful is accused of selling out.”
Mann’s abilities as a musician are underrated, too, according to Ginell. His research turned up what he calls “mixed messages on how Herbie was viewed as a musician. Some, like vibraphonist Dave Pike, thought Herbie was a phony with limited talent. [Vibraphonist] Terry Gibbs told me he thought Herbie was a terrible musician. Personally, I don’t see it,” Ginell says. “He had great chops, an excellent rhythmic and melodic sensibility, but could get bogged down in simplistic patterns. Herbie was all about excitement, though, and knew how to be a showman. That was his strength.”
That, and putting together excellent bands, and reaching beyond the confines of his genre. “I think he has been vastly underrated as a musician who expanded jazz’s horizons, most notably in mixing jazz with world music,” says Ginell. “Herbie’s efforts helped call attention to jazz among young listeners. He always had his ear to the ground to see about the new styles of music that were coming into vogue and what young people were listening to.”
Ginell observes that “styles always change, and Herbie never wanted to be pigeonholed or forced to play just one kind of music. For that, purists called him a commercial sellout. He refused to play their game. They wanted him to play straight ahead bebop forever, but he abandoned that in the late ‘50s.”
Herbie Mann was “the first American to record with Brazilian musicians,” says Ginell. “He used integrated bands with musicians from other countries, he experimented with Japanese, Eastern European, and other musical areas that other jazz musicians wouldn’t touch. He was curious and was a musical explorer.
“But,” Ginell concludes, “he never gets credit for these things, because he was always looking at music with a commercial eye.”
For those who appreciate Herbie Mann’s music, there’s even more on the way. “I just put together a collection of Herbie Mann seven-inch singles for Varese,” says Thomas. “There are some incredible non-LP funk singles in that collection. There’s no release date for that yet; probably late this year or 2017. It’ll be all over the map, because it’s going to have ‘Hijack’ on it along with some pop stuff, but it’s also going to have a funk single circa 1970 that had a rapper over the top of it! That’s something that the fan will want to chew on.”
Pat Thomas says, “I think Live at the Whisky 1969: The Unreleased Masters will help set the record straight. I think people will be pleasantly surprised, for sure.” He smiles and adds, “Projects like this are what get me out of bed in the morning; this is what it’s all about.”
Bill Kopp is a music journalist, editor of Musoscribe.com, and editor of BLURT‘s newly-launched jazz desk. He has written liner notes for several jazz reissues, including Cannonball Adderley‘s The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free and Music, You All, both due out in May.
And… here’s the fourth installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon, and meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1 (Slumberland Records), HERE for #2 (12XU), HERE for #3 (Saint Marie), and HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind). Coming soon: Chunklet. [Pictured above: James Tritten and Tracy Shedd, presumably in earlier days…]
BY FRED MILLS
As the editor of this fine publication and website, I am frequently surprised and delighted by the gems — obviously gleaming and in the rough — that my crew of contributors unearth for us. Longtime writer Tim Hinely, also a blogger for us, has frequently been the source of such riches, and his ongoing “15 Questions For…” indie label feature has yielded more than its share. Around the time he launched the series I met James Tritten of the Fort Lowell Records label; James and his wife, musician Tracy Shedd, had recently moved from Tucson, Arizona, to Raleigh, North Carolina, where, coincidentally, I was living and working (in addition to doing BLURT) at indie record store Schoolkids Records. We hit it off — not the least of reasons being that I had lived for 10 years in Tucson myself during the ‘90s and we had a number of friends and plenty of landmarks in common — and I always looked forward to our in-depth music conferences whenever he and Tracy would drop by the store to put Fort Lowell items in the bins or just yak about stuff.
(As an aside: My abiding love and respect for indie labels runs deep, as I’ve been writing about their bands and their releases pretty much all of my adult life, at least since the late ‘70s when I was doing my own series of indie rock magazines. I also used to contribute to Magnet magazine’s monthly feature in which an indie label was profiled via a template of more-or-less stock questions that served to get the word out about the label and also to give the readers and consumers a sense of who was actually working behind the scenes to get the label up and running — and of course ongoing. That, then, has gone into what Tim Hinely and I are trying to accomplish with our own series here at BLURT.)
I’m also pretty damn chuffed about his and Tracy’s new collaboration, Band & The Beat (they’ll be touring in January; dates started in Charlotte on Jan. 9 HERE or after the main text), so in a final flourish of pure unbridled subjectivity, I’d like to kick off the feature with their new single. Enjoy…
BLURT: When did the label form / what was your original inspiration?
JAMES: It was November 2009 in Tucson, AZ, when the idea popped in my head to start up a record label. I was home sick with a Man Cold, sleeping on the couch next to our record collection. The 7inches caught my attention, and I took a sharp turn onto Memory Lane, listening to all of the old singles from my youth of growing up on the East Coast; bands like Common Threat, Greensect, Gizzard, The Raymond Brake, Mercury Birds, #1 Family Mover, Jennyanykind, etc.
Back in the ’90s, everyone released 7inch singles because it was cheap and easy, and it’s just what you did. You’d swap them with other bands on the road like business cards. I remember it costing close to about $1.50 a record to produce, and most of us just recorded the music in our homes. Black and white photocopied covers usually manufactured at your place of employment without your boss knowing; the whole project was very low-fi, and those records are some of my favorite to date.
When my wife Tracy Tritten, otherwise known as singer-songwriter Tracy Shedd (who has released albums with Teen-Beat, Devil In The Woods, Eskimo Kiss Records, and New Granada Records), and I moved to Tucson in 2006, we noticed that not many of the younger local bands were releasing their music on vinyl. Usually they would have a CD-R at best, but most would just tell you to download their music… for free, off of their website. (Music for free?)
It’s not to say no one in Tucson was releasing vinyl. Golden Boots was probably putting out some of the best packaged records, along with Naïm Amor. And yes, of course, Howe Gelb, Giant Sand, and Calexico releases were coming out on vinyl. But the kids, the new bands in town, playing at The Red Room (RIP) or The HangArt were not quite there yet (the whole indie / punk tape craze hadn’t even happened yet).
At that same time, I was coming up on a year anniversary for me driving a Vespa scooter to and from work each day. I had bought a 1976 CJ-5 Jeep with 35″ tires and a 4″ lift a few years earlier when we first moved to Tucson (featured here in Tracy Shedd’s video for “Whatever It Takes”). It was a real “Rock Crawler”: something to do for fun on the weekends. However, with only about 8-miles to the gallon for gas usage, driving that beast to work every day was not the most economically sound choice, so I bought a scooter to handle that daily trek and save some money.
One day as I passed the Jeep that had been parked, unused, for countless weeks, I had a vision of selling the Jeep and putting the money to better use: starting up a record label. I remember standing next to that Jeep and calling Zach Toporek from Young Mothers to pitch the idea of releasing his band as our first record. He said yes, and the Jeep went on the market immediately. The rest is history, as they say.
Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?
The only Fort Lowell Records logo is actually a silhouette of the statue that stands in Fort Lowell Park in Tucson AZ. Fort Lowell was the neighborhood that I lived in while in Tucson, so for me (personally) it made sense to call the record label Fort Lowell Records, to mark that time in my life. I also knew that there was only one Fort Lowell in the world, in Tucson, and I wanted something the city itself could own: a record label that was obviously tied to Tucson (and I believe Cactus Records was already taken).
I felt the label’s logo had to represent the area of town, and there is nothing more iconic that the statue that stands on Craycroft Road. So, I walked outside my house down to the park and snapped a picture of the statue. Then, got onto Photoshop to make it what it is.
It also reminded me of Vanguard Records’ logo, and I am huge fan of Vanguard. Not sure if anyone else knows this, but the band Stereolab actually got a lot of their artistic design for their earlier releases from old Vanguard records. In fact, I am pretty sure that name itself was a term Vanguard used, much like RCA Records’ “Living Stereo” series.
What was your first release?
It was a 7-inch record for Young Mothers, for a song called “Come On, The Cross.” The B-side features what is still quite possibly my personal favorite song that Fort Lowell Records has released: a track called “Good Sword.” I’ll drop the needle on “Good Sword” from time to time, and I swear life just stands still, it is so captivating. Have you ever heard a song like that; one that just takes over everything within you and around you? Zach Toporek nailed it with that song. He’s even got some twelve-part harmony in there; it’s breathtaking.
I knew Young Mothers were going to be our first release from the first time I saw them. Tracy Shedd (who I play guitar with) was booked with Young Mothers at The Living Room in Tucson. Zach did not know us, and we had never met him. Within the first few strums of his guitar and belts of his huge live vocals, we were hooked. At the time, the music reminded us of our old friends from Austin TX, Silver Scooter; just good old American indie-pop (pure and fun).
The music made me get up and dance. At that moment, they were the best band in the world to me. So when the idea of Fort Lowell Records came about, I knew exactly who I wanted to call first. I think that is how it should be for a label owner: you should be that ‘freak fan’ that just can’t get enough of the band you are releasing. And that’s what a band should want from their label: an overabundance of enthusiastic support.
Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?
Sarah Records, Teen-Beat, Pop-Narcotic, Decoder Ring Records, Magic Eye Singles, as well as the band from Boston – Charlene – and their self-released singles on their own label, SharkAttack!. At the time, it was all about the 7inches, and these labels had it down, especially Sarah Records. Studying their releases really helped me be creative with presenting a professional design for each record, but keeping costs down and staying under or within budget. I spent months researching various options and ideas, yet insuring that quality was never compromised. I’d like to think we were successful with this challenge; I’m very proud of the records we’ve released.
If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who would it be?
Two bands… Schooner and Gross Ghost; both bands from North Carolina. We’ve been fans of each band before ever moving here; we have actually played shows with Schooner in the past when touring through North Carolina. In fact, when we did a show at Slim’s Downtown with Schooner back in 2011, we made a promise to them that if we moved to North Carolina, we’d release a record for them. The delay is totally my own fault, and I am hoping someday to live up to that promise. [Count the BLURT braintrust among the fans of those two bands, James! –Tarheel Ed.]
Both bands are simply amazing and very much underappreciated; more people need to know about these guys. Their music is pure, honest, and simply great. The songwriting is there, the live performance is there. I would love to have an opportunity to record a record with each of them, and welcome them to the Fort Lowell Records family.
What has been your best seller to date?
Hands down, Howe Gelb’s 7-inch record that was part of Record Store Day 2011. It was actually a split release between two of his own projects: ‘Sno Angel, which features a choir from Canada, and Melted Wires, which is a jazz quartet made up of members from Giant Sand and Calexico. Neither track on the 7inch had been released on vinyl before, and they are both simply stunning. “Spiral” is the ‘Sno Angel track, while “Cordoba In Slow Motion” – the Melted Wires song – really showcases Gelb’s Thelonious Monk influence. We technically sold out of the record in three weeks, but then about a year later we had some returns from our distributor. I was actually very thankful to have a few records sent back to us, since there were so many people that missed out on it the first time. Now I’ve seen that record go for up to $40.00 on eBay, which I find somewhat flattering (in a weird way). I’ve bought my fair share of over-priced hard-to-find records on eBay, just because I had to have it.
Honorable mentions for best-selling records go to Young Mothers….music video?, our split between Wet & Reckless and Tracy Shedd, and the Luz de Vida Compilation, all of which have also sold out (from our inventory) over time. (That reminds me, I need to update our website and take some of those down.)
Who is the most famous artist on your label, and why do you think that is?
With the exception of Howe Gelb, which is the obvious answer, there are three artists that share the limelight:
Tracy Shedd has had a lucrative career all on her own, without any influence from Fort Lowell Records. Tracy has a number of albums out with Teen-Beat, as well as a few individual releases with Devil In The Woods, Eskimo Kiss Records, and most recently New Granada Records. She has been featured on TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, as well as had her music in one of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ movies. Having Tracy as a part of the Fort Lowell Records’ roster has definitely helped with developing an audience for the label, which we are very thankful for. Tracy is also sharing her latest project with Fort Lowell Records: a duo dream-pop / synth-pop project called Band & The Beat, and their debut release “21 [Digital 45]” is Fort Lowell Records’ latest release.
Next would be La Cerca. I learned about La Cerca back in 2001 when Tracy Shedd released her first track on a compilation from The Unlike Label which also featured La Cerca. During the time I lived in Tucson, I would often go on record stating that Andrew Gardner from La Cerca was one of the most under-appreciated songwriters in Tucson. [Amen. –Old Pueblo Ed.] I was over the moon when the opportunity came up for Fort Lowell to release La Cerca’s latest album ‘Sunrise For Everyone.‘ [Go HERE to read the Blurt review of the album.] So the day Andrew called me to tell me that Xemu Records wanted to sign his band and re-release their album, I knew Andrew had finally receive the recognition that he deserved. In no way was I upset; I was simply proud of Andrew, and extremely happy for La Cerca. Being picked up by another label to help grow your career, I feel, is a sign of success. I would never want to hold anyone back from that.
Recently, the Good Graces experienced every band’s dream: having a national artist ask to take you on the road as their opening act, giving you exposure to thousands of people, and not mention an amazing experience altogether. ‘Close to the Sun,’ the Good Graces’ latest album, just happened to get into the hands of The Indigo Girls, who fell in love with their music and asked the Good Graces to join them on the road for their summer tour. The Good Graces had an awesome time, and gained a lot of attention from the opportunity. Since the tour with The Indigo Girls, the Good Graces have been featured on Daytrotter, had a few live television appearances, and are now heading out for a West Coast Tour in 2016. We are looking forward to share more of their successes in the coming years ahead. [Go HERE to read the Blurt review of the album.]
Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?
As stated before, my wife is Tracy Shedd, whom I have been playing guitar with since high school, so I was on her 7inch and Luz de Vida track with Fort Lowell Records. I am also the other half to Tracy’s new duo project, Band & The Beat, which is the newest release for Fort Lowell. Band & The Beat is meant to be a “husband / wife” project, while Tracy Shedd was specifically Tracy’s own songwriting. With Band & The Beat, it is the very first time that I am playing keyboards / synthesizers. We started the project back in June of this year, and I have been diligently learning the ivories ever since. I would not object to partnering with another record label for future Band & The Beat projects, if it made sense. We were simply so excited about Band & The Beat, and the first two recordings: “21” and “Buoy,” we just wanted to get the music out right away to the public.
Regarding social media, which have you used and what to you are the pros and cons of using it?
For social media, I have used it all. From Friendster, to MySpace, to everything that people can’t live without today. It was four years ago when I stopped using Facebook and Instagram with Fort Lowell Records. I decided I was going to only use Twitter to promote the record label. Then, on January 1, 2015, I dropped Twitter as well (I stopped using it, but still have not deleted the account). On the internet, Fort Lowell Records only exists as our website: http://fortlowell.blogspot.com. The website is a blogsite, because I like the format of it. I post things on there, the same way others might do so with social media, and I’ve been much happier; much more focused on what is important.
Is the local music community supportive of the label?
Fort Lowell Records’ success has been the support of the local music communities (note: “communities” being plural). Tucson is where Fort Lowell Records was born, but Tucson is not where we are personally from. Tracy and I are from Jacksonville, FL, but now we are making roots in Raleigh, NC. The local communities of all three areas have actually been extremely supportive of Fort Lowell Records. Tucson will always be home to Fort Lowell Records, and that is what I would want for the label; that is why I gave it an indigenous name. I want to continue to support artists from Tucson, and be involved as best as we can. With the recent release of two bands from Jacksonville, moyamoya and Hey Mandible, the Bold New City of the South has embraced the label with open arms. We recently hosted a label showcase with moyamoya, the Good Graces, Hey Mandible, and the debut of our new project Band & The Beat; the show was billed as Tracy Shedd, but we performed as Band & The Beat. All of the record stores in the Triangle Area (as well as all over the state) of North Carolina have shown great supportof Fort Lowell Records with record sales. Schoolkids Records in Raleigh NC has sold the most copies of La Cerca’s ‘Sunrise For Everyone.’ I think once we get into releasing more North Carolina bands, Band & The Beat being the first, we will start hosting more live performance with label-mates in the region. [Below: La Cerca]
Have digital sales been significant or nominal?
I would have to report the digital sales have been a good continuous revenue stream for Fort Lowell Records. We partner with both The Orchard as our main digital distributor, and we use our own Bandcamp page (which gives direct sales to Fort Lowell Records). Having the digital outlets seems to work well for the out-of-print records too, or for fans overseas; giving people an economical choice. I find having the digital option does not hurt us in any way, which is why I have always made it available. Personally, I don’t buy my music to listen to digitally, but I do understand that there are customers that prefer this service, and I don’t feel we should limit our outlets when it honestly costs our label no extra money to have the digital option available.
For Band & The Beat [pictured below] the release is currently only available as a Digital 45 (or what I like to call a “Virtual 7inch”). This decision was made simply because of the “speed to market”: the track “21” was written, recorded, mixed, mastered, and released all within the month of October (in less than four weeks’ time). Band & The Beat was heading out on tour, and we wanted to have a release out for people to enjoy. I can see doing more Digital 45s with Fort Lowell Records, especially to help bands in similar situations.
What are your thoughts on the current vinyl resurgence?
I think it is a fantastic thing, although I am also one of those guys (there are a few of us) that find it hard to call a “resurgence;” I believe vinyl never went away. But I get it; no, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy were not carrying vinyl records 5-10 years ago, and now they are, which, again, I think is great. I’ve been buying music on vinyl ever since I was a kid, and I am happy that is so much easier to find vinyl records in almost any store; heck, Guitar Center is carrying them now.
It is a fact that this resurgence, or increase in demand, with vinyl has caused a shift with the manufacturing timeline of the records themselves. This is evolution at its finest; those who will survive will be those that can evolve. You now see a lot of labels going from standard vinyl releases to limited lathe cut releases, simply because they can get a lathe cut record out faster. Cassettes tapes are also receiving a lot of attention and support these days. I attribute this to the longer production times (and increasing costs) for vinyl records; again, evolution. A cassette tape can be manufactured and released much faster, and cheaper (overall). And if the kids are buying it, and they have the tape decks or Walkman units to listen to the music, then evolution is a success, and this vinyl “resurgence” is driving creativity; survival of the fittest. For Fort Lowell Records, you are seeing our very first digital-only release for Band & The Beat, as well a sign of the times.
What is your personal favorite format to release music? Thoughts on other formats?
I like releasing vinyl records, as well as making music available for radio airplay. At our house, this is how we listen to music. There is only a record player hooked up to an amplifier that has a built-in receiver. If we are not listening to an album on wax, we are tuning in the airwaves. We are extremely lucky to live in Raleigh, as Raleigh has what I feel is the best “Indie Rock” radio station in the country: WKNC 88.1FM. Now, let me add, I believe KXCI 91.3FM in Tucson is the best “overall” radio station in America; they are a publicly supported radio station, as opposed to one that is part of a school, college, or university. KXCI is very diverse, and open and supportive to all aspects of their community; KXCI is a major part of the spirit of Tucson AZ. But when it comes to my own personal taste in music, WKNC here in Raleigh, hands-down, spins some of the best new, fresh, solid Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Dream Pop, etc., as well as Hip-Hop, I have ever heard. Every one of my favorite new bands has come from listening to WKNC via the airwaves. I am always happy letting the needle rest and dialing into 88.1FM.
So, when I am not listening to WKNC for new music, I am enjoying music on my turntable; there is nothing else like it. That is my favorite format to use when releasing new music. I’ve been collecting records ever since I was turned onto Echo & The Bunnymen in 6th grade. But it wasn’t until purchasing Stereolab’s “Ping Pong” 7inch back in the early ‘90s that I actually understood the difference. I had already owned their ‘Mars Audiac Quintet’ album on CD at the time, and the 7inch was given to me as a promo. When I got home and heard the single, I noticed that there were elements of the music that I did not recognize with the CD version. I turned around, went back to Now Hear This (record store in Jacksonville, FL; RIP) and bought every Stereolab album on vinyl, and have been purchasing all music on vinyl ever since.
I’ve succumbed to the convenience of MP3s. With Fort Lowell Records, we do offer a digital download with all of the vinyl records, and as a customer, I too enjoying having this added benefit. I keep my latest favorite albums on my phone, and plug in where ever I am, without having to carry around a CD or cassette case filled with albums. I get it; it is much easier to take MP3s with you than CDs or cassettes. Because of this, I’ve dropped all CDs and Cassettes for my personal collection. I do understand that there are customers that still purchase these formats, so I can’t say Fort Lowell Records will never release either. But I have stuck to vinyl and digital formats, along with getting music on the radio, for Fort Lowell Records simply because that is how I personally listen to music.
What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?
I’ve been a big fan of People In A Position To Know (PIAPTK), Captured Tracks, Burger Records, and Trouble In Mind (TIM). I love everything that all of these labels are doing. PIAPTK has been releasing limited edition lathe cut records before anyone even knew how to pronounce the word “lathe.” Their releases are some of the most innovative records cut; I promise you Jack White’s Third Man Records has been taking cues from PIAPTK for years. Captured Tracks simply can’t go wrong with whatever band / artist they release; their taste in music is impeccable. Burger Records is changing the game for everyone, and I love it; they are at the forefront of this evolutionary change that we are all witnessing, and they will be the first to survive. I always admired Trouble In Mind’s direct approach, especially when they first launched their label. TIM would drop a stack of new releases (7inches) for various amazing new unheard-of bands, with no artwork, just TIM’s standard low-fi produced label sleeve ,and each record would blow your mind. Out of nowhere, “BAM!,” TIM was on the scene, killing it. All four of these record labels continue to force feed the world with some of the greatest new music and freshest ideas available.
Do you accept unsolicited demos?
[Pictured below: Fort Lowell LP by Tucson’s Saint Maybe, featuring Winston Watson and ex-Patti Smith Group guitarist Oliver Ray. The band was profiled at BLURT in 2013.]
In which the editor of this magazine totally, like, geeks out about his inner geek.
BY FRED MILLS
Not long ago I had the pleasure of reconnecting with Cor Gout, founder and frontman of the Netherlands’ long-running rock/post-punk band Trespassers W (not to be confused with a number of other similarly-named, Winnie The Pooh-inspired entities such as Seattle’s Trespassers William). He and I had corresponded frequently back during the ‘80s and ‘90s, as I was smitten by his outfit and wrote enthusiastically about the group. (1988’s Dummy and 1989’s Potemkin remain classics of that timeframe, and the group continues to this day.) In addition to his musical endeavors, Gout is also a poet, author and journalist, and among his literary activities has been working with the Dutch music and record collector magazine Platenblad, which first started publishing in ’92. Out of the blue, he got back in touch with me recently because he wanted to interview me via email for Platenblad and for a forthcoming book project; clearly he sensed that tapping yours truly’s (cough) vast reservoir of musical knowledge would be a sure-fire way to boost sales and impress his readership… I digress. Also part of the project, and appearing in previous issues of the magazine, are Simon Frith and other luminaries, so apparently I am in good company.
Below are the fruits of that interview, “10 Musical Moments With Fred Mills,” which I have no doubt will (cough) draw plenty of eyeballs to my blog here, and in turn, drive traffic to the BLURT site—particularly if you write and speak Dutch.
For those poor lost souls who only understand English, however, following the PDFs of the Platenblad feature is my original text which he adapted for the magazine. I trust that all of you will be suitably impressed to run, not walk, to the nearest internet search engine and track down copies of the magazine and, upon publication, the book. Tell ‘em Cor sent ya…
My correspondence with Cor started with a few questions about my journalistic background, which commenced in the late ‘70s doing punk fanzines and trying to score free records, and eventually turned into actual paying assignments with actual magazines…
Cor Gout: When did you start writing for Option?
Fred Mills: I started with issue 1 in 1985 after being invited by the editor and publisher to be a contributor to the new magazine. This was because I had previously contributed to its predecessor, OP; when OP folded, it essentially split into two magazines, Option and Sound Choice, and I was also invited to write for Sound Choice and did so until it stopped publishing. I contributed regularly to Option for almost all of its lifetime, primarily record reviews of all genres – for each issue the writers were sent a box of records and tapes that the editor had personally selected for us, based on what he perceived our tastes and strengths to be.
Did you also write feature articles?
Yes, I did a few during my tenure with Option, although much of the time the artists I was interested in writing about and interviewing (such as psychedelic and punk acts) were not considered huge priorities for Option, as there were so many to choose from, and the magazine prided itself on being very broad in its purview and actively sought to cover as much non-rock material as possible.
For what magazines apart from Option did you write?
In the ‘80s and early ‘90s there was a slew of them, often one-off projects or me simply giving a ‘zine a story or review that for some reason the editor solicited from me (typically, about a North Carolina band since I lived in North Carolina until 1992). Among them: The Bob, Bucketful of Brains, Puncture, Jet Lag, and Biohazard Informae and Son of Biohazard (which were my own ‘zines). By the mid ‘90s I’d also been writing for Spin, CD Review, Backstreets, Stomp & Stammer, Magnet and others, along with weeklies such as Creative Loafing, Phoenix New Times, Tucson Weekly and Seattle Weekly.
What was your favourite mag you wrote for (and why)?
The Bob – indie rock mag out of the Philadelphia area. This was partly because they would print anything I submitted, but mainly because my tastes aligned quite closely with the editors’ tastes. They also trusted me to not only come up with reviews and stories that fit their underground and college rock aesthetic, but to do several regular columns – I wrote columns on cassettes, fanzines/books and the Australian/New Zealand scene. I think The Bob stopped around 1994-95, but I am not 100% of that. I have no digital records of any of my Bob stuff, and all my archives are in storage and not accessible. And the magazine never got digitized for the web. I would simply say “mid ’90s.”
The publisher/founder was Gregory Beaudoin, while the editor was David Snyder. And Bruce Davis was probably the Associate Editor (I think). Greg also did most of the layout, and although early on he assigned the content, eventually David handled all assignments and directed the editorial slant. Greg loved postpunk and new wave and the early issues, with content such as Siouxsie and The Cure, reflected that, as did American powerpop groups such as The dB’s that he championed in the magazine. My first piece for The Bob was on The dB’s, in fact. And I am guessing that any Trespassers W reviews I wrote were at the request of Greg, or possibly David – although as things developed, they let me pick most of my own reviews so I don’t doubt the fact that I would have probably asked them to let me do a TW review!
David was definitely an “early adopter” of the American indie rock and garage scene, so a lot of the stuff that we wrote about under his editorship reflected that. He also loved the garage bands of Europe and Australia, much like Bucketful of Brains in England, and we often thought of ourselves as comrades in arms with Jon Storey, Nigel Cross, etc. from Bucketful. Like me, a total record collector (vinyl) nerd, and avid champion of indie and underground US bands.
Mention a few of your articles you are proud of.
I did cover stories on R.E.M, and the Flaming Lips for The Bob: the former had me traveling around with the band in NC and VA for about a week and the issue my profile appeared in was also the first issue that The Bob included a flexidisc with it, an exclusive R.E.M. cover of “Femme Fatale”; the latter was one of the earliest national features on the Lips so I feel like I was way ahead of the curve in spotting their uniqueness, and we also had an exclusive flexidisc featuring them covering Led Zep and Sonic Youth – from a tape a friend and I recorded at the show ourselves. [The Flaming Lips Flexi for The Bob: “Thank You” (Led Zep) b/w “Death Valley ’69” (Sonic Youth), recorded live at the Milestone Club, Sept. 11, 1987, Charlotte NC, by Fred Mills and Tom Cannon. (We have a video of the show too, but it has never been distributed). These two tracks were later released on the official Lips compilation A Collection of Songs Representing an Enthusiasm for Recording…By Amateurs.]
I am also very proud of an extended feature I did on The Doors around the time the Oliver Stone movie was coming out, because I interviewed the surviving members, the Doors manager, one of Jim Morrison’s best friends, and even the guy who worked with Stone on his screenplay. That story actually got picked up for republication in 6 additional publications, including 3 overseas; I think I wound up getting paid in some form or another about 5 times, which ain’t too shabby. In the story, I was able to state in print for the first time, officially (as opposed to rumors) that Jim Morrison was impotent for the last couple of years of his life — his best friend revealed the details. My biggest regret is not writing a book on the Doors, as I definitely had the background, knowledge and archives to do one, not to mention a stockpile of initial interviews. But at the time I said to myself, shit, who needs another Doors book, given how many there already are; nobody would buy it. So I dismissed that silly little notion of writerly ego fluff. Boy, was I wrong on all counts.
Tell me about your current magazine. What sort of music does it cover?
Blurt magazine – www.blurtonline.com — It rose from the ashes of Harp magazine, started by the same guy, who eventually burned out and sold it. Meanwhile, though, I’ve been editing it since it began in 2008. It started as a digital/downloadable publication then later turned into print, and then after about 14 issues finally reverted back to all digital. As a result, the writers and I pretty much cover whatever we are interested in, from indie to metal to Americana to underground hip hop. Anything that is non-mainstream (i.e., we are not Pitchfork or Spin) we might write about. I post daily album reviews and news to keep the content fresh, and then throughout the week I also post exclusive features and interviews, book/DVD/concert reviews, audio and video track premieres, etc. Nobody gets paid (I certainly don’t) so it’s more of a blog-type labor of love in which we do what we can in between living our lives and having day jobs. In that regard, I personally have come full circle: I’m essentially writing to keep my name out there and to keep free music coming in, which is the same as it was for me when I started in the early ’80s. In 2016, a career in music writing is abject fantasy, so you might as well enjoy what you’re doing, and if the occasional album, book or concert ticket gets slipped over the transom, consider that a “win.”
10 MUSICAL MOMENTS:
1—I was probably about 10 or 11 and one afternoon I went over to my best friend’s house and we decided to play some of the records his older sister, then in high school, had. One of them was the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” and to say it blew my mind would be a huge understatement—I had NEVER heard a so-called pop song that complex and dense, so lyrically inscrutable-yet-tantalizing, and so rhythmically hard. Prior to that it had been standard fare British Invasion like Herman’s Hermits and Motown soul. It was a gateway drug.
2—A few years later, maybe around ’68 or ’69, I had wandered uptown after school. Walking across a parking lot I heard this muffled noise coming from a large shed behind one of the stores. Carefully opening the door just a crack, I was immediately assaulted by a loud electric blues song dripping with distortion and boasting a kind of sleazy swagger (I later found out that it was a psychedelic adaptation of the Stones’ “Paint It Black”). It was being performed by three long-haired, hippie-type high school dudes. I had NEVER seen rock music performed live and in person before, just on TV. I was mesmerized—addicted.
3—On January 21, 1977 the Patti Smith Group came to the University Of North Carolina Chapel Hill, NC. Day of show: I went over to the venue to see if I could volunteer as a roadie-for-the-afternoon and, in turn, meet the band. Soon enough I was humping boxes of cables at the soundcheck, later talking with Lenny Kaye at length about “Nuggets” and garage rock, and getting autographs from the entire band. I also watched Patti letting in about 15 or 20 fans who had gathered outside the stage door, bearing flowers and gifts. (“Don’t kick them out,” she firmly instructed the stagehands.) Many years later, while interviewing her, I recalled the scene and she noted that taking care of the fans had always been paramount for her.
4—A couple of years later I was contributing to a fanzine called “Biohazard Informae,” which had been started by members of the Chapel Hill group The H-Bombs, featuring a pre-dB’s Peter Holsapple and a pre-Let’s Active Mitch Easter. Will Rigby (later of the dB’s) also wrote for the zine and heard that John Cale was coming to Chapel Hill, and as he was acquainted with Cale’s bassist George Scott (R.I.P.), he suggested that I line up an interview with Cale for the zine. I accepted the “assignment.” Only trouble was, I had never done an interview before…
Day of the show: I meet Scott at the venue, pre-soundcheck, and he ushers me upstairs to the dressing room where Cale is ensconced. A rather large (not fat) and imposing chap, he is dressed in combat fatigues, smoking a big cigar, and has copies of “Soldier of Fortune” scattered around the table and floor. We settle in for the interview, I turn on the tape recorder, he scowls at me, and it’s all downhill from there. In my nervousness I stammered and fumbled through my lame questions (“So, John, Lou Reed’s career really took off after the Velvets broke up. How do you gauge YOUR career success?” [Cale, stiffly] “One day at a time.”). Then, after about 15 minutes my batteries start to fail, and of course I did not bring extras. The interview never saw formal publication, but it did teach me some very important lessons about what one needs to be a journalist, namely, extra batteries and a pint of whiskey to calm the nerves.
5—On January 31, 1985, the Replacements came to Charlotte, NC, punk venue the Milestone Club. Since I was at soundcheck to meet the band, I wound up giving them directions to the nearest liquor store and also was asked to keep an eye on Bob Stinson (R.I.P.) until showtime as he apparently had a habit of disappearing from time to time. So I hung out with him, talking about nothing in particular, and then at one point he asked me if I knew where he could get some “candy.” There was some initial semantic confusion on my part: “What, coke?” “No, candy.” “You don’t mean smack do you?” “No, candy!” That cleared up, we make a run to a nearby convenience store. Soon, Stinson’s happy as a clam with his paper sack of jawbreakers, lemon balls and candy cigarettes—the latter would be visible later during the concert, poking from his ears.
It was an amazing show, incidentally, one of the proverbial “trainwreck” concerts where the band spent more time doing covers and partial covers than actual ‘mats songs. It taught me that rock ‘n’ roll is less about ability, finesse, taste and entertaining the fans, and more about passion, personal vision, and trusting in one’s own ability to create art without regard to the public’s expectation.
6—In January of 1990 Tom Cruise had finished filming his race car flick Days of Thunder at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. At the time I was the Music Editor for local weekly newspaper “Creative Loafing” and as it turned out, my friends in rockabilly band the Belmont Playboys had been hired by the Cruise people to perform at the cast and crew wrap party. The band wanted me to accompany them as one of their “roadies” in order to document what would certainly be a choice addition to their performance resume. We got more than we bargained for…
Early in the evening, co-star Robert Duvall arrived at the party with four very special friends in tow: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, June Carter Cash and Jessi Colter. Holy shit. I soon enough ditched my undercover-journalist guise and turned into a gushing fanboy, going over to welcome them to Charlotte and shake their hands. Soon enough, Cash and Jennings got up onstage to play with the band for a couple of songs, followed by their wives, and then by Duvall. Before it was all done, Duvall was leading the entire room in an extended chorus of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The looks of pleasure on Jennings and Cash’s faces were priceless—as was the million watt smile Cruise flashed when I wandered over to him to “casually” ask what he thought of the band and the guests. “Man, they were rockin’!” he replied. Looks like I scored an interview, not to mention one of those once-in-a-lifetime, gonna-tell-the-grandchildren-some-day moments.
7—In September of 1990 GWAR came to Charlotte, NC, venue the 4808 Club. I was, naturally, going to cover the show for “Creative Loafing.” This turned out to be the night that GWAR fell afoul of the prevailing Bible Belt mentality in our region and the looming PMRC/parental warning stickers/war on metal & hip-hop era. Vocalist Oderus Urungus was arrested for obscenity: according to the charges he depicted “anal intercourse, masturbation, and excretory functions.” Well, it was GWAR, what did you expect? The band would later turn the incident into a movie and an album, but meanwhile there was a near riot; the club owner was also arrested for being part of the melee; and I not only covered the scene for the paper but also wound up writing about it for Billboard magazine and being interviewed by MTV News and Rolling Stone.
The evening and its aftermath affirmed my belief that rock music was and should remain the voice of anti-authoritarianism, and anti-status quo. And that it didn’t matter whether we were talking about Elvis Presley wiggling his lower body, Mick Jagger arousing the hormones of impressionable young teenage girls, GWAR performing mock sex acts upon right wing preachers and politicians, Two Live Crew asserting their right to be as nasty as they wanna be, or Marilyn Manson scaring parents into thinking their kids were on the verge of leaving home to go join a satanic cult. Rock will always find a way to give the current generation a reason to think outside the box and to hoist a middle finger at the previous one.
8—In October of 2011 I found myself sitting in the upstairs dressing room of Irving Plaza in New York with Joe Strummer (R.I.P.), who was touring with his band The Mescaleros. Talking to him for “Magnet” magazine—and also having our interview filmed by Dick Rude for the Strummer documentary Let’s Rock Again!—I found him to be as gregarious, thoughtful and, yes, intermittently cranky as I’d heard him to be. We talked about heroes and role models and career highs and career lows and “the only band that matters,” Strummer consistently deflecting my comments any time he detected even a hint of fanboy praise and referring to himself as merely a “hack” who was lucky to work with talented people.
It was an incident prior to the interview, though, that sticks with me the most, and is emblematic of the man’s character and all around genuineness. Earlier, downstairs during the photoshoot for the article, in the main room was opening band The Slackers attempting to soundcheck. But the club soundman grew impatient and informed the group to finish up. Overhearing this, Strummer marched over to inform the soundman in no uncertain terms that The Slackers were to be given as much time as they needed. “I remember what it was like to be the opening band trying to hustle through a soundcheck and taking abuse from clubs, soundmen and headliners,” he declared, upon returning to the shoot.
9—During 2014-15 I found myself reverting to my baby-boomer ways, springing for not-inexpensive concert tickets to see Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and The Who, all artists I had seen multiple times previously and, with the exception of McCartney’s early band during the ‘60s, artists I had caught in their proverbial heydays. But I had faith that they would still be able to deliver the goods, and I was not disappointed. These were not performers resting on their laurels or even taking victory laps. They were having the times of their lives.
This says to me that as we bow down at the altars of aging jazz and blues men, we need to acknowledge that just because rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be a young man’s game it doesn’t mean we put our heroes out to pasture when they hit some so-called expiration date. The rock ‘n’ roll oldies circuit is no longer the cringe-inducing domain of county fairs, ya know?
More important: rock is also a torch that keeps getting passed along, a phenomenon I witnessed firsthand. I took my then-13-year old son to see Springsteen, McCartney and The Who. He is not an avowed music fanatic like myself, although was certainly aware of each of these artists’ music. And while during the three concerts he remained his “cool” reserved self—Dad also pledged not to turn into That Air Guitar Dude during the shows so as not to embarrass Son—there was telltale tapping of feet and subtle drumming his hands on his seat, and not once did I catch him immersed in his iPhone screen. So yeah, he enjoyed it, and it wasn’t just one for the boomers. I’ll take that as a “win.”
10—Speaking of heroes, November 12 comes every year, and in 1997 it became a date that changed my life immeasurably, though not with a deep note of sadness. While living in Arizona during the ‘90s I worked at a record store, and among my regular customers was my friend Howe Gelb of Giant Sand along with his rhythm section, Joey Burns and John Convertino. (Burns would frequently come by the store to hang out and to see what interesting early folk, ethnic and Mexican records I had taken in, I would subsequently get quite the little private thrill when those sounds began surfacing in his and Convertino’s side project, Calexico.) I became friends with a member of the extended Giant Sand family, guitarist Rainer Ptacek (R.I.P.), who was a slide virtuoso a la Chris Whitley and specialized in a unique form of tape-looping when he performed with his resonator guitar, a vintage and beautiful National Steel.
Rainer, originally in pre-Giant Sand outfit Giant Sandworms with Gelb, was closer to the bone than the more commercial-sounding Whitley, with a purer, more soulful, less structured and more instinctual sound. But his career got interrupted after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, and although extensive radiation and chemo therapy granted him an extra year of life, on Nov. 12, 1997, he finally succumbed. It hit me hard—far harder than I ever anticipated. In a lot of ways it had seemed like he became the sound of the desert for me, both in a musical sense and spiritually, too. There was just something expansive yet intimate about his music, and during my conversations with him (sometimes as a journalist, others as just a fellow music collector sifting through new arrivals at the record store) I got to see the music geek and the fan in him alongside the songwriter and the artist.
I think that it’s important for folks to understand that the geek/fan stuff always occurs before the songwriter/artist part of the equation. Such knowledge doesn’t necessarily pull our heroes down from the pedestals we erect for them, but it definitely makes them more human and their music more meaningful in the long run over the course of careers that will inevitably have their ups and downs and artistic highs and lows. Rainer taught me that you don’t have to worship those heroes. But I still celebrate his life and legacy every year, on Nov. 12.
Already respected as a leader in the fertile Savannah, GA metal scene, Kylesa has also stepped up as a forward thinker in the national metal scene – its last two records Ultraviolet and Spiral Shadow found the band moving way beyond its sludge/death roots into new realms of doom, prog, noise and psych. Exhausting Fire (RetroFuturist/SeasonofMist) keeps the band on that path. Now reduced to the trio of drummer Carl McGinley and co-leaders Philip Cope and Laura Pleasants, Kylesa streamlines its eclectic approach, making the dreaminess dreamier and the boogie boogier. Alternating psychedelic singalong choruses with mystic jangle and heads-down riffage, “Growing Roots,” “Inward Debate,” “Shaping the Southern Sky” and a strange, acid-fried cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” artfully weave shimmer and crunch into brilliant rawk ‘n’ roar nuggets that perfectly capture the retro futurism of its label’s name. If this upward swing sustains, Kylesa may very well change the face of metal.
Far weirder, though, is Know How to Carry a Whip (Neurot), the second album from experimental metal supergroup Corrections House. The follow-up to eyebrow-raising debutLast City Zero, Whip delves deeply into the same seething mix of doom, industrial and avant-wackiness, from blasted mindgames like “Crossing My One Good Finger” to artfucked folk like “Visions Divide” and urban hellscapes like “When Push Comes to Shank.” The difference is that somehow Mike IX Williams (Eyehategod), Scott Kelly (Neurosis), Bruce Lamont (Yakuza) and Sanford Parker (Minsk, etc.) manage to make all this ugliness melodic, even catchy at times, which just makes it more insidiously essential.
Chicago trio Locrian artfully plunders various elements of black metal, noise rock, drone, electronica and other left-of-center sonics on its sixth LP Infinite Dissolution (Relapse). Grinding guitars, majestic keyboards, rhythms that run from languid to pounding and vocals roared more for texture than clarity conjure a mood of almost grand desolation – “An Index of Air” and “The Great Dying” wallow in a suffering so lush it’s nearly sensual. Also on the odder side of heavy comes BigǀBrave, a Montreal trio that alternates betwixt ethereal drones and heavy crunch on its second album Au de La (SouthernLord). Though fronted by Robin Wattie’s blurred-vision coo, the band ain’t afraid to drill holes in the substrata – the 12-minute “Look at How the World Has Made a Change” sounds like Steve Albini whipping an orgy involving Sonic Youth, Bjork and Neurosis into shape.
Whore Paint prefer the noisier side of the avant-garde on Ultra Sound (TranslationLoss) – cf. the seethingly rocking “Dogs” and “Maiden.” In truth, metal is only one part of this Providence trio’s worldview, especially given Rebecca Mitchell’s keening croonhowl, but axeperson Hilary Jones’ grunged-out riffage betrays enough headbanger chops to attract heshers as well as hipsters. Pigs jump even further into chaos theory on second LP Wronger (SolarFlare). Laying paint-peeling swathes of speaker-shredding guitar scree and distorted ranting atop pounding rock rhythms, the band throttles “The Life in Pink,” “Mope” and the dignity-defying “Amateur Hour in Dick City” like a meth-addled punk metal act at the bottom of the bill. But what do you expect from members of Unsane, Cutthroats 9 and JJ Paradise Players Club? Carpenters covers?
The king daddy of experimental metal/noise bands, Sunn 0))) finally returns with its first “solo” album since 2009’s Monoliths & Dimensions. (Collaborative LPs with Ulver and Scott Walker have appeared in the interim.) Kannon (SouthernLord) allegedly adapts the “goddess of mercy” aspect of the Buddha to music, supported by an essay by critical theorist Aliza Shvartz and graphics by Swiss artist Angela LaFont Bollinger. Buy into or don’t, but the sounds surrounding the philosophy go back to the band’s core sound. Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson harness feedback and drone for waves of undulating grunge, while vocalist Attila Csihar moans, shrieks and chants in the background. Longtime cohorts Oren Ambarchi, Steve Moore (the member of Earth, not the member of Zombi) and Rex Ritter add their two cents, but the focus is on the core trio. It’s a simple plan, but executed to make maximum meditative beauty out of distorted drone, spiralling deeply into realms as spiritual as they are tactile. Regardless of whether or not you connect with the ideas, the music does exactly what Sunn 0))) does best.
Sometimes the most metal thing an act can do isn’t metal at all. Thus Autumn Eternal (LostForty/Bindrune), the latest album from Panopticon, begins with “Tamaract’s Gold Returns,” an acoustic fiddle/dobro instrumental that sounds like it hails from MCA Records’ late 80s Master Series. Kentucky-bred/Minnesota-based multi-instrumentalist Austin Lunn returns to blazing black metal soon enough, as “Into the North Moods” and the title track rip through anthemic melodies and thrashing backbeats with the energy of a forest fire. An ironic comparison, actually, as the intense libretto and panoramic sweep of “Oaks Ablaze,” “Pale Ghosts” and the massive “Sleep to the Sound of the Waves Crashing” – not to mention the quotation-heavy liner notes – indicate a deep respect for Mother Nature and concern for the suffering she endures as human hands. Matched to music as impressive in its deliberate aggression as its tuneful majesty, Lunn’s themes burrow into your subconscious while your head bangs. Not the groundbreaker that lastyear’s Roads to the North was, but Autumn Eternal is still a stunner.
Following an announced breakup that never quite occurred, Abigail Williams erupts on record once again with The Accuser (Candlelight). Given the involvement from members of hatemongering death mutants Indian and LordMantis, it’s no surprise that the Olympia, Washington-based black metal troop assaults its instruments with a roaring blend of clinical precision and brutal savagery, letting no melody go unmolested. Leader Ken Sorceron sounds possessed by demons with emotional problems on raging anthems “The Cold Lines” and “Of the Outer Darkness.” Even when traces of the band’s original symphonic style start creeping in on “Godhead” and “Nuummite,” the fury never lets up. An ear bleeder, but you’ll savor blotting every drop.
The demise of USBM supergroup Twilight signals sort of a passing of the torch, as the original wave of depressive black metal folks make way for the new generation. A collaboration betwixt highly acclaimed USBM weirdos and brothers of different mothers K. Morgan of Ash Borer and Michael Rekevics of Fell Voices, Vanum rages through flamethrowing black metal on Realm of Sacrifice (ProfoundLore). Four long tracks of wall-of-shit guitars, psychotic growls and hurricane drums – check out “Convergence” for some rockingly oppressive pound. Also a side project from pals in other bands, Vhöl pretty much swirls all of its members’ influences together on sophomore non-slump Deeper Than Sky (ProfoundLore). Guitarist John Cobbett formerly led San Fran black metal troop Ludicra, leads prog metal band Hammers of Misfortune and did time in trad metal troop Slough Feg, while singer Mike Scheidt leads doomcrusher YOB and bassist Sigrid Sheie and drummer Aesop Dekker have both been in Cobbett’s various acts. Bits of all of it pop up here, though the primary aesthetic for songs like “The Desolate Damned” and “Red Chaos” seems to be a punk-infused thrash. Regardless, everybody sounds like they’re having a grand old time headbanging their brains out – or not, as on the piano-pounding pallette-cleanser “Paino.”
One of the world’s most popular extreme metal acts, Children of Bodom doesn’t fuck around on I Worship Chaos (NuclearBlast), the Finnish outfit’s ninth record. With the band suddenly shorn a guitarist, bandleader and sole six-stringer Alexi Laiho tightens up its blackened power metal until it’s a coiled cobra, ready to strike the moment a needle disturbs its sleep. The lighter-waving arrangements and Laiho’s blood vessel-popping shriek keep the mood on a constant steroid high, with only the interplay between he and keyboardist Janne Wirman offering any respite. Taken as a whole, Chaos can be exhausting, but individual tracks – particularly “Morrigan” and “Hold Your Tongue” – hit harder than a hammer in Oh Dae-su’s hands.
London’s Harry Armstrong is one of those long-serving metalheads who does it purely for the love of it, plugging away in numerous bands of varying quality (End of Level Boss, Hangnail, the Earls of Mars) without ever climbing out of deep cult status. While most folks think of Hangnail as his first act of note, his journey actually began in the early 90s with Decomposed. Originally issued in 1993 as one of Candlelight’s first releases, Hope Finally Died ended up as the U.K. quartet’s sole LP. The band’s viscous blend of doom and death metal is pretty standard fare these days, but at the time it was fairly revolutionary, all grinding riffs, molasses rhythms and Armstrong’s unintelligibly guttural roar. Decomposed may have never gained the major cult followings of its peers Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride, but the aggressively chunky “Falling Apart” and ambiently strange “(Forever) Lying in State” hold up nicely.
Since its emergence, Rivers of Nihil has been praised for putting its own distinctive spin on traditionalist death metal. That’s definitely apparent on Monarchy (MetalBlade), the Reading, Pennsylvania quintet’s second LP. Mixing growling riffs with a variable rhythm section and just enough melody to avoid chaos, the band finds a balance between grace and brutality that, despite the inappropriateness of using such a word when describing something this ugly, can only be described as delicate. “Sand Baptism” and “Perpetual Growth Machine” are the perfect cuts to play for both your hipster metal and snobby headbanger friends, while “Terrestria II: Thrive” points to toward the progressive sphere inhabited by pioneers like Atheist and Cynic. Speaking of Atheist, this year sees the second reissue of Unquestionable Presence (SeasonofMist), the Florida band’s trailblazing second album. Originally released in 1991, Unquestionable Presence rewrote the rules of death metal, blending elements of jazz, world music and progressive rock with savage riffing and inhuman pummeling to create a vision technical death bands have been trying to catch up to ever since. Last in print in 2005, it’s a brain-frying masterpiece deserved of discovery by open-minded thrashaholics of all stripes.
The leading light of the current generation of U.K. death-doomers, Indesinence builds on the foundation set by its predecessors with more melody, more atmosphere, surprisingly articulate growling and a whole lotta acid. III (ProfoundLore) – the band’s third LP, natch – wallows in its own peculiar blend of Lovecraftian weirdness and dark-corner psychedelia, letting crawling epics “Embryo Limbo,” “Mountains of Mind” and the absolutely massive “Strange Meridian” ebb and flow like hallucinations during a trip. Further telegraphing the trio’s mindset: lush use of Mellotron, the recruitment of Robert Roth, former leader of ’90s Seattle psych/grunge band Truly, as a guest, and a cover of the Third Bardo’s 1967 nugget “I’m Five Years Ahead of My Time.” Though hailing from Detroit, Temple of Void hews to a similar tradition on Of Terror and the Supernatural (ShadowKingdom), though the psych strains get pushed so far under the covers they’re barely tickling our toes. Still, the relentless quintet knows how to lay down a thick and brutal grunge, vanguarded by Mike Erdody’s unusually articulate yet utterly monstrous groars. Which makes the appearance of acoustic guitars and Mellotron in the otherwise crushing “To Carry This Corpse Evermore” all the more startling and welcome. Finland’s Hooded Menace also lets psychedelia sit as feel rather than form on its new album Darkness Drips Forth (Relapse), four long tracks that channel the horrors running through the minds of the cadaverous Knights Templar from the Spanish Blind Dead film series. Sample the charmingly titled “Elysium of Dripping Death” for a treatise on savage, lugubrious, haunted doomdeath.
Immortal Bird made a huge, ugly mark with its debutEPAkrasia a couple of years ago, and its five-song/half-hour follow-up Empress/Abscess (BrokenLimbs/ManateeRampage) is no less impressive. Fiercely aggressive yet surprisingly accessible, if such a word can be applied to a band that freely mixes black metal, death metal and grindcore, the Chicago quartet rips a new earhole to anyone within range – “Sycophant” and “Saprophyte” take no prisoners unless it’s to mutilate them later. Singer/drummer Rae Amitay remains a force of nature, in much the same way as a hurricane that’s laying waste to some hapless coastline. Don’t piss her off, folks. And speaking of grind, scene godhead Pig Destroyer celebrates the reissue of its landmark 2001 LP Prowler in the Yard (Relapse). Given a remix and remaster, speed-demon blasts of obscene fury “Pornographic Memory,” “Scatology Homework” and “Strangled With a Halo” are even more efficiently brutal. The 23 tracks (in 37 minutes!) wield chainsaws of thrash/death riffery and scorched lung screams to smear shit over anything shiny and clean. Pig Destroyer is often considered the ultimate grindcore band; this album is the reason why.
Self-described “gloom metal” trio North (who hail from Arizona, naturally) tease next year’s forthcoming new LP with digital single Through Raven’s Eyes (Prosthetic). “Old Blood” crunches along slowly but heartily via doom dynamics and Evan Leek’s defiant shout, but “Silverfeather” drifts into different territory atop a sea of ambient distortion and melancholy piano. Bringing those two approaches together should yield an interesting full-length. Halfway across the world, Hope Drone isn’t feeling any chippier. The band’s inspired name hints at the contents of the massive Cloak of Ash (Relapse) – tortured, atmospheric, doom-soaked black metal with epic lengths (the entire record is over 75 minutes) and titles like “Unending Grey” and “Every End is Fated in Its Beginning.” The emotionally fragile ought to proceed with caution.
The forefathers of American doom metal, Pentagram returns after a four-year recording hiatus with Curious Volume (Peaceville), the eighth album in an almost comically checkered 40-year career. Still on a roll following a few years of consistent roadwork, leader Bobby Liebling sounds fired up and refreshed here, his hawk-like voice clear and sharp. Longtime off-and-on partner Victor Griffin, along with veteran bassist Greg Turley and ex-Sixty Watt Shaman skinsman Minnesota Pete Campbell, provide powerhouse backdrops, often packing as many riffs per song as lesser bands would use to construct entire albums. Between Griffin’s absolute mastery of doom metal guitar and Liebling’s compellingly wild-eyed singing, “Earth Flight,” “The Devil’s Playground” and “The Tempter Push” deliver all the power, punch and macho menace you want from an old-fashioned headbanger’s delight. At this point, Liebling is probably best known for the harrowing documentary Last Days Here, but Curious Volume proves he should be lauded for his legendary metal status, not his ability to overcome self-imposed adversity.
Speaking of doom masters, Lee Dorrian may have put the beloved Cathedral to rest after a couple of decades, but he’s not out of the game. Besides continuing to run the magnificent RiseAbove label, the vocalist joins with fellow doom vets Tim Bagshaw and Mark Greening (Electric Wizard, Ramsess, SerpentinePath) in With the Dead. Via relentlessly lumbering riffs and Dorrian’s distorted declamation, the trio’s self-titled slab oozes occult nastiness and general bad vibes, aided (not unusually for a Dorrian project) by horror flick samples. Play “I Am Your Virus” or “Screams From My Own Grave” on your porch during Halloween and see how many kids still show up. Former Rise Above rosteree Witchsorrow returns with No Light, Only Fire (Candlelight), harder, meaner and more nihilistic than before. Tracks like “To the Gallows” and “Made of the Void” roar as loudly as they rumble, as leader Necroskull makes plain his disgust with the rest of his fellow hairless apes. Thanks to the trio’s command of form, the warnings of “Negative Utopia” and “Disaster Reality” go down easy.
Following the 2013 double-whammy of Mouths of Madness and the reissue of its early work as The Zodiac Sessions, San Francisco’s Orchid return with a new EP. Sign of the Witch (NuclearBlast) continues the foursome’s bluesy take on Black Sabbath, refining its grasp of melodic riffs and letting charismatic frontdude Theo Mindell shine brighter than ever. “John the Tiger” would be a classic rock staple had it been released 40 years ago. Also on a proto-metal tip, Uncle Acid (without the Deadbeats?) returns with third U.S. release The Night Creeper (RiseAbove), which skips the slump of its prior platter for a steaming slab that’s heavier, more melodic and more psychedelic all at once. Check out the roaring “Pusher Man,” the mellow “Yellow Moon” and the epically trippy “Slow Death” (not the Flamin Groovies tune) for some prime acid metal.
The mighty Snail first blasted into consciousness in 1993 with its self-titled album, resurrecting itself 15 years later. The Seattle trio’s third LP since reuniting, Feral (SmallStone) pulls together several strains of heaviosity for a lush, crunchy odyssey through riff and roil. Leader Mark Johnson (whose diverse c.v. includes stints with Christian hardcore act The Crucified and deathcore beast Blessing the Hogs) spews out tuneful acid metal with the right balance of psychedelic craft and controlled chaos, putting “Born in Captivity,” “Psilocybe” and the titanic “Thou Are That” in rarefied dimensions usually resolved for Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange. Merging the doomy crunge of early Black Sabbath with the mystic smash of Masters of Reality and the melodic thwomp of Failure, Snail whips up a smooth fury that would make dinosaurs dance.
Vancouver’s We Hunt Buffalo is a bit more traditional when it comes to stoner rock. But that doesn’t make Living Ghosts (Fuzzorama), the trio’s sophomore LP, any less satisfying. Surging rhythms and smooth ‘n’ screamy vocals give the tracks spicy flavors, but, like all good stoner rock, the riffs matter most, and they drive “Prairie Oyster,” “Comatose” and “Ragnarok” like Dean Winchester behind the wheel of his Dodge Charger. Heavier and nastier, Funeral Horse takes many of the same aesthetic markers and beats them unmercifully on Divinity For the Wicked (ArtificialHead), the Houston triad’s third album. Thick reams of sperm whale riffery try in vain to bury distorted shouts, like a band of crusty punks climbing their way out of a canyon of the bad acid. Between blazing guitorgies like “Gods of Savages” and stomping nightmares like “Underneath All That Ever Was,” Funeral Horse has the bad trip market all sewn up. Across the pond, Germany’s Bison Machine adds some Detroit power rock to psychedelic stoner boogie on Hoarfrost (KozmikArtifactz/Bilocation), with might, melody and cool tones charging “Cosmic Ark,” “Speed of Darkness” and “Old Moon.”
L.A.’s Huntress made a splash a couple of years ago with its sophomore record Starbound Beast and its goofily memorable Lemmy-co-penned single “I Wanna Fuck You to Death.” Nothing on Static (Napalm) is quite that startling, but overall the record is more consistent than its predecessors. The band is in full command of its thrashy street metal, as leader Jill Janus – ex-opera singer, mental disorder sufferer, cancer survivor and full-on metal warrior – brings her A-game to “Flesh,” “Four Blood Moons” and “Harsh Times on Planet Stoked.” Over on the other coast, Pittsburgh’s Carousel made noise with its excellent debutJeweler’s Daughter, as fine a retro hard rock record as anyone’s recorded in the last few years. Now the quartet – with former Pentagram/current TheSkull axebeast Matt Goldsborough in tow – is back with follow-up 2113 (TeePee). Sublimating its NWoBHM influences in deference to old-fashioned American hard rock, Carousel keeps the wheels rolling with “Man Like Me,” Photograph“” and “Highway Strut” and the lighters blazing on “Strange Revelation” and a cover of Joe Walsh’s “Turn to Stone.”
Formed by Dirty D from the long-gone B-Movie Rats and Angus Khan, Steven Darrow from the even longer-gone Guns ‘N Roses precursor Hollywood Rose and the rhythm section from Goatsnake, Sonic Medusa tapes into the same boundless source of energy on its debut EP The Sunset Soundhouse Tapes (Ripple), throwing in cups of NWoBHM and doom and a couple tablespoons of early 70s blues metal for killer cuts “Medusa,” “Cold Wind” and “Wolf’s Prayer.” Meat and potatoes and proud of it. Also comprised of components of other bands (Satan’s Wrath, Repulsion, Electric Wizard), Mirror puts one foot almost defiantly into the British end of the pool, while keeping the other firmly on American soil. Recalling precedents set by Americans Manilla Road and Cirith Ungol, Brits Angel Witch and Demon and hybrids Rainbow, epic melodic roars like “Curse of the Gypsy,” “Madness & Magick” and “Cloak of a Thousand Secrets” make Mirror’s self-titled debut LP (MetalBlade) a retro delight.
Clutch has never fit comfortably under any banner, hopping around from groovy demi-metal to bluesy classic rock over the course of its 25-year career. Of late it’s been on a straightforward hard rock kick, inspired by a Motörhead tour, which in turn inspired career highlight Earth Rocker. While it would be unfair to call Psychic Warfare (Weathermaker) Earth Rocker 2, the follow-up certainly barrels down the same stripped-down road. Produced by longtime cohort Machine and powered, as always, by Tim Sult’s grungy riffs, Jean-Paul Gaster’s danceable grooves and Neil Fallon’s unselfconsciously quirky lyrics, the funky “A Quick Death in Texas,” thrashing “Noble Savage,” soulful “Our Lady of Electric Light” and blazing “X-Ray Visions” are instant Clutch classics and will likely be on the band’s setlists for years to come.
You can’t get a more credible metal pedigree than Publicist UK – the lineup includes members of Municipal Waste, Revocation and Burnt By the Sun. Yet Forgive Yourself (Relapse) isn’t metal at all, despite a pack of power chords and rampaging rhythms. Instead, “Cowards” and “Levitate the Pentagon” plow a thick, deep postpunk furrow, led by Zachary Lipez’ dramatic baritone. Reminiscent of Killing Joke (at least in the latter’s less apocalyptic moments) and the late, great Beastmilk. Speaking of Beastmilk, the Finnish band’s recent demise sowed the seeds for Grave Pleasures. A veritable cemetery of former notables, the band also contains ex-members of InSolitude and, in guitarist Linnéa Olsson, the mighty but short-lived Oath. Picking up on Dreamcrash (MetalBlade) where Beastmilk left off, GP eases up on the aggression but pumps up the melodrama, sounding like a mid-80s UK guitar band enamored of both the Smiths and U2. For better or worse the father of it all, the aforementioned Killing Joke keeps its boulder rolling on Pylon (Spinefarm), its third LP since reuniting the original lineup. Still driven by Paul Ferguson’s rumbling drums, Geordie’s crunchy chords and Jaz Coleman’s endtime visions, but with an added dose of anthemic melody, the Joke fills “Dawn of the Hive,” “Big Buzz” and “Into the Unknown” with enough jagged futureshock to inspire another generation of postpunk and metal bands.
Finally, we celebrate the return to action of Baroness. The details of the Savannah quartet’s derailment following the release of 2012’s Yellow & Green are pretty well-known by now; if you’re curious, just Google “Baroness accident” for some harrowing details. Purple (AbraxasHymns), the band’s first LP on its own label, is informed by the accident but not defined by it. This is no catalog of misery, but a defiant howl of affirmation. Working with producer Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, etc.), Baroness eschews wallowing in its own pain, instead using it to intensify the feeling that life must and will go on. That energy suffuses every second of the record, from the ambitious epic “Chlorine & Wine” to the blasting rockers “Shock Me” and “Kerosene” to the widescreen ballad “If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain).” Following up the brilliant Yellow & Green would never have been an easy task, but Baroness used its adversity to make Purple another vibrantly rocking, surprisingly beautiful masterpiece.
Columnist Michael Toland lives and works in Austin, TX, where a major boulevard was recently rechristened—under the cover of darkness, and without official approval—after the late David Bowie. While no one has been directly accused of vandalism of public property, Toland has remained suspiciously mum about the entire incident. However, his Lone Star State accomplices include media heavy hitters The Austin Chronicle and KLRU-TV, so draw your own conclusions.