The Reverend Horton Heat (known by his parents as Jim Heath) is likely the only musician out there to be namechecked by Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, John Lydon, and Rob Zombie. But it makes sense, as no band since The Cramps has done a better job of fusing rockabilly with a sharp punk rock attitude. And his latest, “A Whole New Life,” shows he still has a foot planted firmly in each musical camp.
The band is at its best when they’re playing ferocious up-tempo tracks, like “Perfect,” “Hate to See You Cry” or the New Orleans-styled “Tchoupitoulas Street” (a song you’d swear was an old standard, but is actually a Heath original). The album takes a brief detour on the Nick cave-ish dirge “Don’t Let Go of Me,” the weakest track here. But the band quickly corrects course for the remainder of the record. They also throw in a great cover of “Viva Las Vegas” on the closing track – a perfect ending to this 30-plus minute nostalgic ride.
This latest effort marks an even dozen albums for the trio and is just as solid as anything they’ve done so far. If you never dug their high-octane rockabilly/cocktail vibe, this record certainly isn’t going to change your mind. But, if you’re a fan, “Whole New Life” will only serve to reaffirm that admiration.
DOWNLOAD: “Perfect,” “Hate to See You Cry” and “Tchoupitoulas Street”
New Jersey has long been the farm team for punk rock bands. Everyone from The Bouncing Souls to Gaslight Anthem have hailed from one city or another off the NJ Turnpike before going on to spread the punk rock gospel to the rest of the globe. The Ratchets prove yet again with their latest LP, First Light, that the Garden State is still churning out punk rock’s best and brightest.
Relatively MIA for more than a decade after the 2006 release of their debut, the band is back – a little older, but just as promising as that debut that brought about more than a few comparisons to The Clash. On First Light those Clash influences are still front and center, as well as some of Joe Strummer’s more thoughtful later work. You can also hear a hint of Springsteen’s influence on the lyrics all across this one, as well. (You didn’t think I could write about a Jersey band without at least one Springsteen reference, did you?)
But there’s also plenty of other elements here that make the band sound impressively original: the Bluesy guitar riffs on “Drone Control,” the ‘70s hard rock vibe of “2-4-6-8 Motorway” (a cover of the Tom Robinson Band punk classic), and Jed Engine’s sandpaper rasp vocals that were made for punk rock. The band manages to flawlessly bridge the political urgency of late ‘70s British punk rock with modern concerns.
Crammed with memorable hooks, air guitar-worth riffs and whip sharp lyrics, First Light finds The Ratchets back in fighting form and, if this record is any indication, ready to take over the world.
Natalie Chalal named her one-person, do-everything-yourself band after a Hole song, and that’s fitting, since not since Courtney’s heyday has a female rock musician skewered the conventions of contemporary young woman-hood while rocking the hell out this hard. Chalal, from London, has her finger on the pulse of Internet meme-ery, but her foot on the pedal of a blistering electric guitar. Her songs address a season’s worth of Keeping Up with the Kardashians ephemera, everything from low-card diets to collagen lip injections; she keeps such a straight face in doing so that it’s hard to tell whether she’s celebrating or sending up, except that she’s way too smart, self-aware and wickedly acid-tongued to be this excited about Tinder (a couple of truly vacant spoken word bits give the joke away if you haven’t gotten it before).
The best songs, though, go well beyond satire into fully realized, joyfully dissonant rock songs, which sound so rough and organic and live that you check for band credits. There are none. Chahal played everything, one track at a time. Whether you appreciate this album as social satire or straight up Joan Jett-into-Weezer rock and roll (or both) is up to you, but either way, songs like “Put Me in a Movie” and “Carb Yr Enthusiam” hit the mark. All hail Miss World, queen of the tawdry surface-y, click-obsessed world she surveys.
DOWNLOAD: “Put Me in a Movie,” “Carb Yr Enthusiasm”
A super group of sorts originally hailing from Austin Texas, The Band of Heathens are composed of five supremely talented individuals that are capable songwriters each in their own right. However on their new album, A Message From The People Revisited, they take a different tack, covering songs that remains essential to the character of this country and humanity as a whole. The band says they were inspired by “the artistry and genius of Ray Charles,” and indeed, in their soaring renditions of “America the Beautiful,” “There’ll Be No Peace Without All Men As One,” and “Heaven Help Us All,” the light and legacy of Brother Ray clearly comes shining through.
Other songs provide additional inspiration — Melanie’s “Look What They’ve Done To My Song, Ma,” Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in particular — recall the triumphs and tragedies that this nation has witnessed in modern times, with today’s trials clearly top of mind. Clearly meant to encourage a sense of unity and pride, this set of songs is perfectly timed. It arrives on the heels of their recent EP, Live Via Satellite, a breezy example of the band’s earlier efforts rendered with the effortless enthusiasm that consistently characterizes their concert performances.
That said, credit The Band of Heathens for taking time to deliver music with a message that’s needed more than every nowadays. Every individual, regardless of political philosophy or party affiliation, ought to consider it mandatory listening.
DOWNLOAD: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “America the Beautiful,” “Abraham, Martin and John”
Every once and a while you stumble on an amazing band that is so frustratingly under the radar that it makes you question the very concept of justice. The London-based five-piece, Curse of Lono, is one of those bands.
For three albums now, spread across the past three years, the band has turned in one nearly-flawless record after another and aside from the cheers coming from music reporters, some Americana devotees and record store nerds, the ripples in the pop culture lake never seem to go beyond one or two rings. The band’s latest effort, As I Fell, continues their streak of brilliantly simple and simply brilliant blend of Americana and Gothic Alternative Rock. Though the band has never been accused of being overly raucous, As I Fell finds the band at their most subdued, bringing about a strong Dylan vibe throughout the 11 songs here.
It seems almost unfair to single out one track from the next as the record is nearly devoid of any filler material. The band instead opts for creating a deeply moving Southern Gothic (yes, I realize they’re from London) sound that recalls everyone from the Cowboy Junkies to Nick Cave.
It sort of makes sense, given the remarkably twisted political world we are currently living in, that one of the best bands out there is not getting the attention it clearly deserves. Here’s hoping change is coming soon, on all fronts.
Despite half a dozen albums to their name and plenty of love and adulation above the U.S. border, Ontario/Toronto-based band The Trews have never really been able to break through in the States. Like The Tragically Hip and Sam Roberts, ‘Merica was always just a little bit out of reach.
But, Civilianaires, their latest, could possibly be the record that gets them the attention they deserve here. Their sound has evolved quite a bit since the early ‘00s, losing a lot of the hard rock influences and focusing more on a cleaner, straight-ahead rock sound with hints of pop that offers a less dated feel. The slow-burn opener “Vintage Love” finds the band channeling everyone from U2 to INXS and offering a strong promise for what lies ahead. And for the most part, they deliver across 13 songs, an ambitious, expansive rock record that seems tailor-made for stadium sing-alongs. Lyrically, the band sometimes come across a little preachy and contrived, but those moments are few and far between. For the most part, they stretch their sound to impressive heights. Especially on a song like the gorgeous “Is it Too Late?”.
The Trews are finally a north-of-the-border band we can get behind. We gave Bryan Adams a career for Christ’s sake, we should at least get to experience some of the good stuff Canada has to offer as well.
Download: “Vintage Love,” “Leave It Alone” and “Is It Too Late?”
The Upshot: Singer-songwriter Dulcie Taylor writes exemplary songs with lyrics drawing heavily on real life, each imbued with a distinctive, poetic lilt. Her recordings aren’t quick-gets – they take some time to warm up to as the hooks are subtle, yet all the more barbed over time. Her slight, elfin vocals and some phenomenal accompaniment lift each of them to praiseworthy heights.
BY ERIC THOM
In this hyper-competitive world of so many singer-songwriters seeking your attention – and working with a fraction of the clout it takes to get noticed – success will out if the quality shines through. You may not know Dulcie Taylor but it’s not for her lack of trying. Sporting her 7th release, Better Part Of Me is proof enough that it’s time to discover something you could be missing. Truth be told, her last album blew me away – ‘14’s Only Worn One Time – but I was late to the party. Better Part Of Me continues a steady progression of exceptionally-crafted songs, deliciously thoughtful accompaniment and the intimacy that only comes with the focus she demands for her small but tender voice.
This release is deceptive. It won’t knock you over the first time you hear it. Or the second. But, over time, these eleven tracks will tunnel into your brain and grow on you like they’ve always belonged. One of her secret weapons is the quality instrumentation that help elevate each breath she takes to higher ground. Of particular interest is the relationship between the singer-songwriter and her guitarist extraordinaire, George Nauful. The one complements the other, each raising the other’s game. Nauful (who also plays piano, sings lead and background vocals) also produces Taylor within an inch of her life, surrounding each tiny, often delicate melody with a swirling vortex of stringed sounds – dobro, acoustic/electric/slide guitar – that transform each relatively simple song into an eye and ear-opening extravaganza. Take the softly powerful “Used To Know It All”, which launches the record as it sets the high standard for the musicianship that surrounds her soft, yet confident, vocals. Slightly pinched with a slight country twang via South Carolina, Taylor’s vocal style is a soft, gentle caress blessed with the sort of complete confidence from her depth of experience, accompanying herself on dulcimer or acoustic guitar. Consider “God Did Me A Favor” – which unfolds like a beautiful first-bloom flower – and which could easily represent the quintessential Taylor composition. It, too, benefits from Nauful’s deft production gifts as he adds subtle percussion and his patented backdrop of lush instrumentation, reinforced by some of the best players available: Damon Castillo, Domenic Castillo, Joey Landreth (guitars); Abraham Robles, Tracy Morgan, Cameron West (drums); Dillon Johnson, Cameron West (bass); drawing on additional hues from organ/piano (Kristian Ducharme), cello (Erin Snedecor, Bob Liepman), strings (Pete Whitfield), mandolin (Tyson Leonard) and backup vocals (Valerie Johnson). At the same time, Taylor’s energy level moves her slightly forward in the mix as she underlines the depth of her love. However, it’s the comparably dark yet sultry “Watch Me Hurt” that proves to be one of the disc’s strongest songs, anger fueling her impassioned delivery, bolstered by simpatico background vocals while embraced by sensuous, sinewy guitars.
“Long Gone” is, likewise, embellished by cascading guitars which carry a slight jazz feel as Taylor dishes out more complex melodies chronicling her heart-weary ways. The comparably bluesy “The Moon Is Cold” offers a more laid-back feel as Taylor near-whispers her way through her lead vocal, her bitter criticisms of a bad lover offset by some tasteful guitar flourishes and the warmth of an acoustic bass. It’s the head-turning “I Do” which provides the disc’s greatest moment – a beautiful piece revealing an entirely different Dulcie – very much in love, her outlook buoyed by acoustic guitar, piano and bass. “Halfway To Jesus” may have been selected as the lead single, however, it’s not her strongest suit. While it’s great to hear these exceptional musicians cut loose and heavy things up a bit, its scolding tone and exaggerated vocal doesn’t reflect her true strengths – mining intimacy with a delicate touch. This word-heavy piece serves as an interesting band sound (with some great B3), as Dulcie’s soft vocals take a backseat to a more muscular workout. It may be ‘catchy’ but its crusade-like tone and aggressive stance seems an odd detour from the other ten originals here. Case-in-point is “Hearts Have To Break” – a light and lovely duet with Nauful, its cello and backdrop of acoustic guitars providing a soft place to fall, given its bittersweet lyrics. Slide guitar sets up the small town scuttlebutt behind the failed relationship of “Shining In His Eyes”. You can almost hear the neighbours talking over the fence as two guitars spar, gently, behind them. Yet, nothing can touch the deep-dish loneliness of “Dove Crying In My Window”. Acoustic guitar, piano and cello provide a haunting backdrop to the sound of painful loss.
The title track serves as somewhat of a lullabye – granted the sort that helps you cry yourself to sleep. But this slow-moving reflection strives to button up what seems a lifetime worth of bad choices and heartbreak, throwing a positive light on the life lessons learned, the scars revealing the “Better Part of Me” in the bargain. Dominic Castillo tosses in some stinging slide guitar as if to cauterize all wounds. After all this torment and pain, Taylor regains her composure and remains entirely upbeat and hopeful – a million miles away from the emotional punching bag you might have assumed – a final track which reveals so much about her.
Modern country music has gotten a bad rap as of late, and just about all of it is entirely justified.
The Bro Country/Jimmy Buffett-with-a-cowboy-hat-ization of the genre has stripped just about every strain of authenticity and creativity out of the same genre that once gave us first name legends like Willie, Waylon, Johnny and Kris.
But who’s that on that white horse? Alabama native J.P. Harris, back with his third album, is almost singlehandedly bringing a sense of artistry and pride back to country music. Lyrically, he brings to mind everyone from Kris Kristofferson and Leon Russell to Billie Joe Shaver,
forgoing the obvious clichés and let’s have a beer and hit the beach lyrics he opts for strong character sketches and clever metaphors that would that would make Dylan and Springsteen jealous.
On his own since he climbed the steps of a Greyhound bus right after 8th grade, Harris spent the next couple of decades hopping trains, working on farms and eventually carving out a decent life as a carpenter. Those life experiences seem a long way away from many of his contemporaries in Nashville whose biggest contributions seem to be pairing embroider-pocketed jeans with cowboy boots and Spring Break Daytona t-shirts.
Across 10 tracks, Harris offers a nearly-flawless album to make up for the four-year lapse between records. From thoughtful slow burn songs like the title track to more rock-infused numbers like “Hard Road,” you’d be hard pressed to find a better country record put out this year.
Download: “Sometime Dogs Bark at Nothing,” “Long Ways Back” and “When I Quit Drinking”
Kevin Morby calls Justin Sullivan a songwriter’s “secret weapon,” a drummer with an uncanny knack for knowing exactly what else a song needs. Well, the secret’s out for good now with Night Shop’s full-length debut, and once these 11 songs get into your bloodstream, you’ll be justified asking, “Hang on—did Justin Sullivan just out-Kevin Morby Kevin Morby?”
Some background: Sullivan’s 20 years in the drummer’s chair included recent road and studio stints with Morby, as well as his pre-solo outfit, the Babies. In the Break is out on Morby’s new label, Mare, and engineered by Jarvis Taveniere of Woods and Woodsist label fame; Taveniere adds guitar fills and bass throughout. These are families as much as bands, in other words, connections that for Sullivan are a continuation of playing house shows and warehouse gigs with half-a-dozen DIY punk acts over the years. (It’s a thread that also winds through Sullivan’s current fuzz punk outfit Flat Worms, which features Thee Oh Sees’ Tim Hellman and Will Ivy, who also contributes guitar to In the Break.)
Whatever his pedigree, Sullivan’s obviously been taking great notes. In the Break’s 11 tracks build first on the promise of his self-titled 2017 EP, combining welcome-to-the-big city Dylan (“The One I Love”) with sunny folk pop (“Road to Carolina”) and “Pale Blues Eyes”-style VU folk balladry (“If You Remember”). Those touchstones will be familiar to fans of Morby (pre-L.A., especially), whose urban folk rock sounded like mid-tempo strolls through the boroughs with the ghosts of Lou Reed and 60s’ Dylan in tow.
But on In the Break, Sullivan emerges much his own man. The “break” of the title refers to a rare respite from touring, during which Sullivan concentrated on the writings he’d been collecting like string along the way. Time well spent, it seems, as he’s crafted a beautiful nocturnal set of songs, warm with the embrace of his musical families and the family of man, too. Convenience store clerks and late night diners inhabit these songs, a demimonde of loud neighborhoods, weathered watering holes and post-gig parking lots—the kind of “margins,” as Sullivan puts it in the glowing title lament, where absent lovers and old flames mingle freely in memories.
Sullivan’s narratives are also notable for their wit and depth, a blend that maturity—with its gut-punches and reconciliations—affords; he can pen a touching ode or a piquant blow-off with equal aplomb, sometimes in the same couplet. “Well, you talk about love like you’re headed into battle,” he sings on the bouncing-ball opener “The One I Love,” which doubles as an ode to DIY music-making, “Oh little baby, don’t forget your rattle.”
Sullivan examines those grey areas of love with such nuance you might not even be able to pin down whether the one drawing his affection is even real or not. On the Lennon-esque duet “Here With Me Now,” performed with Hand Habits’ (and ex-Babies bassist) Meg Duffy and glittering with guitar tremolo from Ivy, Sullivan flashes back to the lovers’ sacrifice at the end of Casablanca, but notes that even if “Ilsa’s getting on the plane and Rick’s making friends, that’s not how this ends.” Instead, he sees “what the poets and singers had found” in unrequited love or the regrettable missed opportunity: Inspiration. He may not fully understand how it ties people together, but they’re bonded nevertheless: “And I do not know how that you’re here with me now,” goes the song’s chorus.
Lots of songwriters talk about being a mere conduit for some Jungian collective consciousness or universal creative voice, but few describe the phenomenon as well as Sullivan does. On the title track, over shimmering guitar glissandos and thick floor-tom beats, he pictures everyone he’s ever met safely tucked in bed, at peace. But he’s on the move in those late-night margins—”where everything is motion and I’m not here” —where he hears a voice that commands, ” ‘follow me,’/As if I had a choice.” When label-mate Anna St. Louis joins him in the plangent outro, singing “In the break—forever,” it’s truly bittersweet.
Sullivan wisely follows the lament with a pair of jaunty numbers—sequencing is another In the Break attribute—that explore essentially the same topic from different angles. On the sparsely arranged but up-tempo “You Are the Beatles,” the Liverpudlians, Billy Holliday and “John and Exene” share billing with his favorite leather jacket and “electricity coming to the country, letting us know that we could be free.” On the LP’s one overt rocker, “I Was Alone,” a younger Sullivan—”born into the trash of the backwoods” of his hometown—wanders the nicer neighborhoods, wondering if “there was something wrong with them, or something wrong with me.” But with time comes awareness, as the outsider embraces who he is and what he needs—”Just flip the tape over on my tape player, I was alone.”
Throughout, Sullivan seamlessly blends the sacred with the profane. On the propulsively catchy “My Love,” he tells his long-time partner she “looks like a Grecian Urn, set in Grecian diner light.” The ill-fated Keats seems a patron saint of sorts for Sullivan—it’s one of two overt allusions on the LP—but an approachable one that any touring musician searching for late-night grub would also identify with.
This embrace of the creative and quotidian isn’t all DIY kumbaya and Grecian urn odes, however. Other star-crossed artists—1920s “it girl” Clara Bow, Montgomery Clift and Marc Bolan among them—drift through the LP like ghostly celebrity stand-ins for the rest of us. On the shuffling, reverb-laden “The Ship Has Sailed,” Sullivan recalls a baker “who chased the vine until the vine came around,” and bemoans that no one “could report his dreams.” And on the tropically tinged “On the Island,” he explores the dark side of desire and loneliness in a junkie relationship, as the aging partners try to justify the life decisions that led them there. Sullivan concedes in the song’s chorus that “even if I wanted to, I could not explain to you a thing like that.” Yet in the very act of description, he grants them grace and dignity.
And that’s the lasting takeaway from In the Break; it’s the search for meaning that provides meaning. “Where Does Everyone Go?”, ostensibly about musicians lost to obscurity, drugs or both, ends the LP in a joyous tempo rush that recounts—both through the story and in current time—that age-old need to howl back in unison at the void. “So come on now, let’s start a band/The only thing that I believe in,” Sullivan sings as the pace accelerates and the urgency snowballs. “We’ll go on tour and we’ll sell our cassettes/We’ll eat out of the garbage like some good looking rats/And the kids are here and they’re sad and they’re weird, hallelujah.”
Rarely is this sentiment so simultaneously approachable and transcendent as it is on In the Break, an album that reminds us—without a hint of oratory or self-aggrandizement—what music does for us. And for that reason alone there’s only one appropriate response: Hallelujah, indeed.
DOWNLOAD: “Where Does Everyone Go?,” “My Love,” “On the Island,” “I Was Alone” “The Ship Has Sailed,” “The One I Love”
Memphis, by way of Jersey, singer/songwriter Stephen Chopek seems to have filled in the link between Nick Drake and Pete Yorn. On his third LP, Begin The Glimmer, he turns in a personal album, that despite a full backing group, some fun ragged guitars and clean production still has the spontaneous feel of a bedroom recording (think Bright Eyes or the first Jonny Polonsky record).
Chopek admits to a steady diet of Replacements and Guided By Voices in making this record and that influence clearly seeped into his writing. There is a strong pop component at the core of songs that vacillate from quieter acoustic fare to slightly more boisterous numbers. Those slower tracks, like “Dig A well,” drag down the record a bit, but there are enough great up-tempo moments, like “Radio Caroline” or the “The Ballad of Cash & Dean,” to keep the listener from moving on.
Chopek’s sometimes gig as a session drummer may help to pay the bills, but as Begin The Glimmer proves, his proper spot is at the front of the stage.
DOWNLOAD: “Radio Caroline” and “The Ballad of Cash & Dean”
A Blurt Boot Exclusive: Psychedelic Furs "Only You and I" (Live Costa Mesa CA 7-19-18
Tribute: Tony Kinman (R.I.P.) and Rank And File - Video from "Long Gone Dead"
Blurt Audio Exclusive: Thin White Rope "The Fish Song" (from 2018 remaster of The Ruby Sea