The Upshot: A contemplative, at times remarkably downcast, record, but one which brings with it a recurring whiff of redemption—like a cinematic travelogue.
BY FRED MILLS
There’s an aesthetic intensity, leavened by a delicacy of purpose, at play on Sonoma, Calif., singer-songwriter Garrett Pierce’s fourth full-length, the product of his bearing down for an extended period of time last year in his newly-constructed home studio—and as a result, being able to emerge with a precise musical statement not always available to artists forced to watch, budget-consciously, the clock. Pierce, who freely admits to being primarily inspired by literary figures (he singles out Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Brautigan—the latter, full disclosure, among yours truly’s personal heroes), is also willing to express admiration for progenitors and peers such as Elliot Smith, Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, Will Oldham, and Jeff Buckley.
The latter, in fact, comes to mind more than once while listening to the masterful Dusk, not necessarily as sonically similar; Buckley was given to multi-octave swoops, while Pierce is far less operatic, though still able to command the wings of Pegasus when the material calls upon him to soar. Instead, there’s a daredevil quality that emerges in places, such as during “Enough,” a haunting, almost hymnal elegy for lap steel (courtesy Pierce’s collaborator Timothy James Wright) and drone that allows Pierce to explore, with uncommon sensitivity, the metaphysics of enforced homelessness and eventual farewell to a friend.
Elsewhere on Dusk we encounter gentle, lilting Americana (the banjo-powered “Distant Thought,” which would not be out of place in an Avett Brothers set); a dark, minor-chord waltz (mini-drama “Get Me Out Of This Place,” as much a plea for forgiveness as for freedom, the song’s institutionalized protagonist explaining, “All your psychologists can’t clean this up/ This mess has been made by Jesus’ son/ Holy in camouflage—you know we are one”); and the strummy, part-forward looking, part-regretful closing track “This Town of Mine,” a kind of farewell song (“If this be a mistake, well I sure enjoyed the ride”) that manages to leave its creator and his future open-ended.
It’s a contemplative, at times remarkably downcast, record, but one which brings with it a recurring whiff of redemption—like a cinematic travelogue, no fixed ending, but full of potential. As is Pierce’s future.
DOWNLOAD: “This Town Of Mine,” “Distant Thought,” “Enough”
The Upshot: An environmental elegy, and an extended meditation session—relaxing and soothing to the soul, but with its own elements of intense focus, and revelation.
BY FRED MILLS
While it’s a given that more than a few culture vultures have hopped onto the #vinylresurgence bandwagon (Taylor Swift, anyone?), eschewing relevance for trendiness, and the accompanying misguided “cool” factor, some entries have come along that not only defy that assumption, they transcend it so beautifully that you almost assume they were beamed down from another dimension or era.
Such is the case with the printed/recorded artifact at hand. Home Winds is, on the one hand, a 7” vinyl single by songwriter Heather Woods Broderick, offering up a haunting environmental elegy, a shimmery, pulsing song for the trees. “Do I truly recall your face from when it was young,” sings Broderick, in a hushed, partly quivering voice, recalling at times Sandy Denny, adding gospel touches on the chorus, and musing upon a permanent image of a tree, as if it were a beloved family member, possibly no longer with us. “Or from a photo I’ve seen, on the wall on which it was hung,” she adds, acknowledging that memories are tricky, and how they can somehow be replaced, due to the passing of time, by a photograph that survives and reinforces itself via repeated viewings. (The B-side, “Shoreline,” is similarly low-key, its lilt no less engaging and ethereal.)
She’s joined, visually, by photographer Benjamin Swett, who set out to document Gladstone, New Jersey’s Home Winds Farm, a parcel that has been protected via the New Jersey Farmland Protection Program, for its owners, who also operate Planthouse Gallery. Swett’s mandate here is to create permanent portraits of the many trees—many of them huge or otherwise so broad and expansive that they can dominate an entire two-page spread in a book such as this—dotting the farm. Pink-blossomed spring arbors alternate with snow-spackled wintry residents, as well as the sturdy green boys of summer, and the yellow, orange, and crimson citizens of autumn. The result is a permanent record of nature as it cycles through its annual beauty.
Contributing to the project is journalist Elleree Erdos, who provides historical context as well as an insightful analysis of the nuances that Swett’s images bring to the fore. Ultimately, Home Winds is like an extended meditation session—relaxing and soothing to the soul, but with its own elements of intense focus and revelation.
That the participants opted to present the music not on CD or a mere link to a digital file, but a 45rpm record housed in a lovely full-color, thick cardboard picture sleeve—yes, adorned with Swett’s trees—additionally speaks to the care taken in the presentation of Home Winds. It’s a subtle, personal touch that counts for a lot in certain quarters (such as mine).
Additional note: Go to Planthouse.net to view a video for Home Winds, created by Jeffrey Rowles. Below, watch the promo video for the book/45, followed by a live clip of Broderick from late last year. The exhibition dates at Planthouse Gallery will be April 28 through June 20, with the reception being held on April 28 from 6PM to 8PM.
The Upshot: A compelling Lone Star State (!) mashup of global sounds, mostly Latin and funk, but also weaving in bits of jazz, rap, rock and Afro-pop.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Cilantro Boombox, out of Austin, stirs up a polyglot babble of global sounds, mostly Latin and funk, but also weaving in bits of jazz, rap, rock and Afro-pop. Built around the foundation of Félix Pacheco (who also plays bass for Black Joe Lewis and Ocote Soul Sounds) and saxophonist Joe Woullard, the band has evolved into a large ensemble, with a full-throated brass, reed and percussion sections.
Shine, the band’s second album, begins in “Living in a Box,” an Earth Wind & Fire-storm of stylish falsetto chorus’d 1970s soul, while making a very 2017 point: put your phone away and dance. “CU Dance” swaggers with brass, percolates with hand drums, fever dreams in jazzy flute, an old-style funk opened out into the present with hip-hopping spoken intervals. “Makossa Son Soul” veers Afro-centric, with Woullard’s sax sallying out over chugging high life syncopations. A few of the tracks verge upon smooth jazz or even disco (“Onan’s Disciples” the most extreme example), but mostly, rougher, more urgent energies prevail.
Of course, with bands like these, the record is always a pale shadow of the live experience, but in a pinch, Shine will bring the party to you.
The Upshot: Though not an Americana album in the truest sense, with the Jayhawks on board to translate The Bard’s rootsy vision, it’s a 5-star album across the board – one of Sir Ray’s finest, period.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
It ought to come as no surprise that any new album from the recently-knighted Ray Davies is a special event. After all, as the singer/songwriter/chief architect of the Kinks, one of the most indelible bands not only in British rock history, but in the entire spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll in general, Davies has created one of the most memorable musical canons of all time.
Of course, that’s a lot to live up to, and for some artists, a superb back catalog can become something of an albatross, a set of standards that’s practically impossible to live up to. So while Davies has occasionally floundered, by and large he’s never failed to attain the high bar he set early on.
To some, Americana may seem an unlikely subject for him to tackle, given his inherent Englishness and cheeky sense of humor. However one needs only look back at Muswell Hillbillies to understand that he’s always been fascinated and fixated by the American ethos.
“I had this dream America/Was always a very special place,” he explains in the rousing “The Great Highway.”
Even so, this isn’t an Americana album in the truest sense. Though its inspired by his travels around the U.S., the sound is more akin to that of klassic Kinks, as evidenced by the wistful “The Deal” and “The Invaders,” the astute whimsy of “Americana” and the frolicking and finesse of “A Place in Your Heart,” which, with its down home trappings brings it closest to the genre the album title alludes to. Mainly though it’s as perfect a substitute for an authentic Kinks album as anyone would wish for, filled with the same mirth, cleverness and sweet sentiment that’s always been a trademark of Davies’ discography.
Recruiting the Jayhawks as his backing band, nothing strays off the boards, keeping things concise and accessible in an easily engaging sort of way. A trudging mid-tempo rocker like “The Mystery Room” ruminates on the darker side of things, bringing to mind the headier concerns voiced on the album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. Likewise, the pensive ballad “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys” recalls the best of his ballads, sharing a certain similarity to wistful Kinks lament “Celluloid Heroes.” Frankly, comparisons don’t get better than that.
Given these references, Americana is damn near as excellent an album as Davies has delivered since the ‘70s, a set of songs that will someday be seen as among his best. That’s a tall order, but here again, Davies delivers. His first album in a decade, it’s a wonderful way of welcoming Ray back.
DOWNLOAD: “The Deal,” “Americana,” “Rock ‘N’ Roll Cowboys”
The Upshot: Reedist Potter hits a new peak as composer, player and bandleader,
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Following up the rich and ambitious Imaginary Cities with his Underground Orchestra, reedist Chris Potter turns to a more compact vehicle – the classic jazz quartet of horn, keyboard, bass and percussion. But that’s not to say The Dreamer is the Dream goes for a small sound. Indeed, such a thing would be impossible with this group. Pianist David Virelles, clearly too busy lending expert support to others to keep up with his own increasingly remarkable solo career, brings his distinctive hybrid to the table, effortlessly blending avant-garde, Latin, worldbeat and straightahead jazz styles into a sound all his own. Drummer Marcus Gilmore keeps the rhythms in the pocket and on the move, adding flamboyance that never crosses over to bombast. Bassist Joe Martin acts mainly as an anchor, though his big, round sound never gets lost in the shuffle. Potter himself is no shrinking violet, putting his skill, taste and experience into every note, no matter if he’s on tenor sax or bass clarinet. He solos as if the greats have been downloaded into his hard drive and rewritten in his own programming language.
But where Potter really distinguishes himself is in his writing. After two-plus decades of playing with the best – Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Paul Motian, Dave Douglas and more – the saxist knows how to paint a picture. “Ilimba” subtly incorporates African music into its post-bop workout, giving Gilmore a chance to shine on a solo and Virelles plenty of room to weave a spell whose origins seem familiar but add up to something unique. “Memory and Desire” builds a multi-faceted diamond out of balladry, bebop and classical music, letting samples and overdubbed woodwinds put its traditions into the 21st century. “Yasodhara” ostensibly adds Indian music to the mix, but the epic track’s almost dizzying blitz of styles, held together by Virelles’ furious improvising, rears its own beast. “Heart in Hand” and the title track – which features Potter on the bass clarinet, making a case for increasing the instrument’s prominence in jazz – take on classic balladeering, the former’s supper club soul and the latter’s trembling nerve mixing in the right touches of humor and passion. The relatively brief closer “Sonic Anomaly” gleefully romps through a field of whimsy, Potter happily skronking away and Virelles running up and down his keyboard like a rabbit in the sun.
With a catalog as extensive as Potter’s, it’s hard to define a masterpiece. But hitting a new peak as composer, player and bandleader, Potter definitely makes The Dreamer is the Dream at the very least a triumph.
DOWNLOAD: “Ilimba,” “Memory and Desire,” “Yasodhara”
The Upshot: Let’s just say you’re a brilliant poet and songwriter but, admittedly, you sing like you’re the spawn of bullfrogs. So, to compensate, you surround yourself with like-minded musicians who coalesce around your limited vocals to weave a magical spell of epic proportions. Americana gets a serious reconditioning for the better.
BY ERIC THOM
Have you ever first heard a piece of music that was so good, you start to wonder if music can ever get any better? Bill Scorzari’s sophomore release is just that kind of album. Oh sure, you might need some time to warm up to his somewhat raggedy vocal style but, by then, the writing and arranging and the delicate atmosphere conjured by his hand-picked cast of players will hammer you to the floor and steal your heart as it locks down your undivided attention. A few names are familiar – Will Kimbrough, Joachim Cooder, Kim Richey. Yet, this 12-track smorgasbord is more immaculate collaboration than it is any attempt to harness star power. Absolute simpatico might be the best way to describe how each track gels with the next – these players play as one.
“A Dream of You” begins oddly enough, sounding not unlike a George Harrison tuning session for “Within You, Without You” – the dilubra or tambura drone replaced by Jonah Tolchin’s hypnotic lap steel and electric guitar effects and Eamon McLoughlin’s beguiling fiddle work while Joachim Cooder quickly establishes his unique percussive gifts, which will become the backbone of the album. All this before the simple sounds of acoustic guitar form the melody beneath Scorzari’s raspy surprise of a voice. It’s as if someone left the back door open and Tom Waits stumbled in. However, the Waits reference is not entirely accurate. If Casey Affleck could sing after a bender, he would sound like Bill Scorzari.
In stark contrast to this sleepy, contemplative opener, “A Brand New Deal” is surprisingly upbeat with a strong bluegrass bent as fiddle, banjo (Kyle Tuttle) and acoustic guitar drive this comparatively robust country workout, Scorzari’s vocals stretching and fitting to the material. Yet nothing much can prepare you for “Shelter From The Wind” – an epic highlight that will instantly transform you into a hardcore fan. In addition to Scorzari’s acoustic guitar and earnest vocal, it’s guitarist Danny Roaman whose accompaniment on lead guitar haunts the track when it’s not seething, laser-deep and dangerous, against a backdrop of Cooder’s washes of military snare and rolling cymbals. Credit Cooder’s inventive percussive techniques, too, for the fat, fun groove of “Hound Dog Diggin’” – another instant favorite which mines the strengths of Scorzari’s poetic approach, transforming lyrics into rhythmic effect.
Guitar lovers will gush at the unholy scrum between Roaman’s electric guitar, Chris Scruggs’ steel guitar and Laur Joamets’ slide as this dog springs to life, aided by the breathy gasps of Marie Lewey. And here comes another of those perfect songs: “More of your Love” is as intimate a conversation between lovers as has ever been had. More spoken than sung, Scorzari’s poetic charm strikes the bone to a backdrop of gentle acoustic guitar, simple percussion and the butter-softness of Annie Johnson’s backup vocal. Breathtakingly beautiful.
The strummed acoustic guitar intro to “Holy Man” is deceptive, as Kim Richey, sweetly offsetting Scorzari’s most aggressive vocal on the disc (read that as “full bleed”) merely sets up Laur Joamets’ sinewy slide guitar as it winds its way through, and around, Cooder’s wall of cymbal crashes, military snares and colorful percussive fingerprint. The plaintive “She Don’t Care About Auld Lang Syne” positions Scorzari’s lonely, poetic outlook with little more than acoustic guitar and viola while “For When I didn’t See” bursts forth with Brent Burke’s sturdy dobro in a gleeful country accompaniment of violin, banjo, acoustic guitar while Scorzari attacks the vocal confidently and in a way that makes even more of his smart wordplay. The sadder-than-sad “Loser At Heart” redefines how far down one can go as Scorzari’s delivery accentuates his words, spitting them out with utter disdain. Matt Murphy’s upright bass adds warmth as Roaman’s slide adds salt to the wound. The comparably confident “I Can Carry This” becomes yet another contender for raw beauty, Scorzari’s scratched rasp fitting the songs like so much shrunken laundry – no other voice would work. Jonah Tolchin’s lap steel joins Kimbrough’s B3 and miscellaneous acoustic guitars, together with Lewey and Walker’s soaring bed of backup vocals to forge a blissful, mesmerizing state of mind.
The last two tracks on Through These Waves serve as soothing balm, neutralizing all pain. “It’s Time” puts forward another surprisingly rich vocal as Scorzari inhabits the character, while gentle percussion melts into Jon Estes’ upright bass, a quiet squall of acoustic guitars and Tolchin’s ever-ghostly lap steel, completing the bleak landscape. “Riptide” passes like a dark grey dream sequence, its gentle guitar, standout percussion and little more ebbs and flows behind Scorzari’s weary, whisper-talk of a vocal. Like the aforementioned Affleck and the living tragedy that is Manchester By The Sea, “Riptide” conjures the pungent tang of salt air, the rhythmic monotony of the waves and, listening close, the scolding of a distant seagull.
Despite allusions to greyness, darkness and halftones, Bill Scorzari and crew paint a dramatic picture with a depth of musicianship that adds significant color to the singer’s seemingly monochromatic voice. The end result is a thoroughly uplifting experience that, given the care that’s been taken to graft the right music to the voice of a true poet, borders on the fully cinematic. Through These Waves is a life-changer.
The Upshot: Who is the master, and who is the servant?
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Depeche Mode may not be as prolific as they were in the ‘80s, but they certainly make up for it once they deliver.
Spirit, the band’s follow up to 2013’s Delta Machine, is a loud clarion call to anyone who questioned whether these synth kings were still relevant 30-plus after they started. You have to go back to 1993’s Songs of Faith and Devotion to find a more consistently flawless record from the band. Lyrically the trio is in top form, especially on a song like “Where’s The Revolution,” tailor made for a post-Brexit, Trump-led world (“You’ve been pissed on for too long/Your rights abused/Your views refused/They manipulate and threaten with terror as a weapon/Scare you till you’re stupefied/Wear you down until you’re on their side”). The anger boils over onto the next track as well. “The Worst Crime” is a little slower tempo, but the sentiment is still front and center (“We’re setting up the truss/Once there were solutions now we have no excuses/They got lost in confusion so we’re preparing the nooses”). Not exactly subtle, but that’s part of the brilliance here. You get lulled in by the hypnotic beat and Dave Gahan slaps you awake with his vocals.
But the band’s not all piss and vinegar here. “Eternal” is a love song in true Depeche Mode fashion (“And when the black cloud rises/And the radiation falls/I will look you in the eye and kiss you”); just a reminder that one of the band’s last great love songs was “Master and Servant,” so “Eternal” fits the Depeche Mode mold.
It’s not ideal that it took electing a wildly dangerous clown and having a country vote in favor of their own economic demise to bring back Depeche Mode. But, they are back and that makes life just a little bit better.
DOWNLOAD: “Where’s The Revolution,” “Cover Me” and “So Much Love”
The Upshot: Three decades on, the quality of guitar pop songcraft remains more than just high – it’s inspiring.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Few things are predictable in this world. But one that generally is: if The Black Watch releases a new record, it’s bound to be good. Sure enough, The Gospel According to John – the L.A. act’s fifteenth album, give or take a half dozen EPs – is damn good. Leader John Andrew Frederick long ago established his mastery of taking his influences, from the Beatles to My Bloody Valentine, and distilling them down into his own vision of literate indie rock, and he’s in top form here. “Whence” and “The All-Right Side of Just OK” mix shoegazing guitars with unfancy pop hooks, with a motorik rhythm sneaking into the latter. “Orange Kicks,” “Satellite” and “A Story” add considerable rock muscle, the latter stretching out in a way that makes it a natural show-closer. The band also revisits “Oscillating,” from its fine 2011 LP Led Zeppelin Five and reminds us how easy Frederick makes doing simple pop songs look with “Jealously.”
There’s no overarching theme or sense of purpose here, unless the cheeky wit of the title serves as a guiding principle. The Gospel According to John is simply a collection of extra-strength guitar pop tracks that should inspire delight in fans and jealousy in peers. As this LP proves, TBW is nearing its 30th (!) anniversary, and unlike so many bands of advancing age, continues to get better and better.
The Upshot: Emotional, frequently upbeat, and a rich portrayal of an artist’s interior life.
BY TIFFINI TAYLOR
Sheryl Crow is back. The nine-time Grammy award-winning artist is releasing Be Myself and it is going to be an album that will be played throughout the years to come. The songs are passionate, the type that everyone will be able to relate in one way or another to each one. Some are upbeat, some are emotional, and some are reminiscent of some of her past music. The drums, guitar, and bass are phenomenal as well. Sheryl Crow is an artist who has been there and done that, and somehow, she keeps coming back, better than ever, and an artist who puts herself into her music. Be Myself is truly a look inside the life of Sheryl Crow:
Alone in the Dark – Good upbeat beginning using guitar and drums to lyrics that are in a certain way, kind of sad. Great song for those who have heartache. Overall a nice upbeat song from an artist who brings herself into her music her way.
Halfway There – Nice rocking song that will make you want to move your groove thing. A good tap your foot song. This is the song that will make you want to rock.
Long Way Back -Love the drums in the beginning! Nice guitar solo in song! If you like guitars you will enjoy both guitar solos. Catchy little tune that will be a favorite by many.
Be Myself– Reminiscent of earlier songs from her long and successful career. Straightforward lyrics and good music. A great song.
Roller Skate – A different kind of song but in a good way. A nice change in the middle. This song is a nice uptempo kind of song.
Love will Save the Day – Slower, dream-like song that will take you to another place, full of hope.
Strangers Again – Another rocking song. Good guitar and drums.
Rest of Me – A folkish feel in the beginning that works nicely. Love the guitars in this song. Introspective lyrics that will hit the sensitive hearts.
Heartbeat Away – Dark song, but I like it. One of those songs that will stick in your head in a good way, with solid guitar, bass, and drums. The lyrics this time seem more like a story.
Grow Up – Great beat! A really catchy tune, one to sing along to at concert.
Woo Woo – Good rock beginning. Another song that will most definitely be sung along to at concert. A very upbeat song, it’s the type of album closer that will leave you feeling good.
Overall, this album shows an artist revisit her past and embrace her future in music. This is a rare album that is upbeat while also showing an emotional side that we all have felt from time to time. Sheryl Crow is presenting a great musical journey with Be Myself. It’s a journey that everyone should get on board with, one that will be listened to for a very long time.
DOWNLOAD: “Alone in the Dark,” “Be Myself,” “Woo Woo”
“An emotional bond there.” (—Jody Stephens): A new concert documentary and accompanying live album document a key Big Star’s Third performance, bringing both catharsis and closure to a long grieving period that’s ultimately transformed into a celebration.
BY FRED MILLS, MICHAEL TOLAND & JOHN B. MOORE
It is, in a very real sense, a culmination. The new DVD/2CD release Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live… and More (Concord Bicyle Music), that is, and a culmination of many things—the trajectory of the troubled (at times near-mythic) third Big Star studio album, originally recorded in 1974 but not released until years after the band had splintered; the subsequent Third (aka Sister Lovers) revival as pushed by Alex Chilton acolytes of the Amerindie ‘80s underground, chief among them members and intimates of The dB’s, whose Chris Stamey had also worked with Chilton; an eventual reunion of Big Star in the ‘90s, with two members of the Posies drafted to bolster Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens in the absence of bassist Andy Hummel and late guitarist Chris Bell—a reunion that came to a tragic end in 2010 when Chilton passed away from a heart attack on the eve of the band performing in Austin at SXSW, thereby ensuring that no one would ever get to hear Chilton himself perform Third; and of course Stamey’s ambitious Big Star’s Third live project, initially mounted at the tail end of 2010 as a concert tribute to the memory of Chilton, and going on to be intermittently staged in numerous cities and countries over the course of the next six years, to much acclaim.
So Big Star’s Third Live brings with it a whiff of finality. Clearly I don’t mean that there won’t be any more artifacts excavated from the vaults; for example, as a recent, exhaustive nine-disc bootleg collection demonstrates, there are a number of tracks that remain officially unreleased, even though the diligent archivists at Omnivore have done some impressive vault-digging themselves as regards material from the Third era. Nor am I suggesting that there won’t be any more live performances of Third or tribute concerts or even potential get-togethers between Stephens and Posies Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer; all that and more is far more likely than not to go down in the future.
No, by “finality” I mean closure for all of us, a means by which to collectively grieve and celebrate, even for those not able to attend one of the live shows. Channeling both those emotions for us, Third Live mainstays Stamey, Stephens, Mitch Easter and Mike Mills—along with string players and a slew of guest vocalists that have included, since 2010, everyone from Matthew Sweet, Robyn Hitchcock and the two Posies, to Stamey’s North Carolina collaborators Brett Harris, Skyler Gudasz (both pictured above), and Django Haskins—brought the music vividly alive at the appropriately named Alex Theatre, in Glendale, Calif., almost exactly one year ago (April 27, 2016), for the camera lenses of director Benno Nelson. As you’ll read below in our tag-team review treatment, it’s a cathartic home-viewing and –listening experience for any fan of Chilton and Big Star—and, I should add, Chris Bell as well, as Stamey (pictured, below) was mindful to include—and sing, with a gorgeous, emphatic grace—Bell’s timeless “I Am The Cosmos” in the Third Live performances.
As Stephens told Rolling Stone not long after Chilton died, “I can’t see us going out [now] as Big Star… But I would hate to compound the loss of Alex by saying, ‘That’s it’ for Ken and Jon, too. I can’t imagine not playing with them. There’s so much fun—but an emotional bond there too.”
And for us too, Jody. It’s been a long—though not unwarranted—grieving period, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up again multiple times while watching the concert film. Now, though, let’s celebrate. —Fred Mills, BLURT Editor
Thank You, Friends: The CDs. You’d be hard pressed to find a band more beloved by fellow musicians and music writers while being wildly underrated by the record-buying public, than Memphis-based power pop band Big Star.
With a name that is savagely ironic, seeing as how none of their albums ever sold well on initial release—their debut was even called #1 Record!—and with the deaths of frontman Alex Chilton, guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel, drummer Jody Stephens is the only surviving founding member. In the decades since their three-record lifecycle from ’72-to-’78, the band has grown immensely in reputation, managing to become desert island album must-haves to many who now namecheck the band.
Given their place on the Mount Rushmore for fellow talented artists, Thank You, Friends come off more as a genuinely impressive love note to a favorite band rather than a cynical cash grab.
This two-CD set accompanying the concert documentary DVD includes a slew of Big Star fans, like members of Yo La Tengo, Wilco, R.E.M., Semisonic, the dB’s (notably Chris Stamey, the impetus behind the project) and Let’s Active, not to mention Robyn Hitchcock, joining Stephens on stage for an April 2016 show in Glendale, California, highlighting the band’s album Third/Sister Lovers. There are also some fantastic newcomers on the stage, like North Carolina’s Brett Harris and Skylar Gudasz, among others. The set also includes a handful of covers from the band’s first two records, like a beautiful take on “In the Street” and “September Gurls.” (Interestingly, the track sequence for the audio portion of the DVD/2CD package is a good bit different than the video, and it also includes “Back of a Car,” which does not appear on the DVD.)
Big Star may never have truly got the respect they deserved with the first go around, but Thank You, Friends is helping to right a few wrongs by bringing Big Star’s music to a broader audience. —John B. Moore, BLURT Senior Editor and Blogger
Thank You, Friends: The DVD. Though Big Star’s Third Live is no stranger to stages around the country, it’s still not a project seen by a whole lot of people. Thus the DVD portion of Thank You Friends affords many of us the first chance to see this mini-orchestra in action. And the band does not disappoint. No matter who is at the mic, whether relatively big stars (no pun intended) like R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Robyn Hitchcock, cult favorites like the Old Ceremony’s Django Haskins and bandleaders Chris Stamey and Mitch Easter, or up-and-comers like Brett Harris and Skyler Gudasz, everyone lets their love of the material shine through.
There’s no doubt how much the music of Alex Chilton and Chris Bell means to them—it’s right there on each and every face. Singer/songwriter Dan Wilson—late of Semisonic and probably the wealthiest person on the stage, thanks to co-writing Adele’s “Someone Like You”—seems particularly moved to be there, putting aside fame and fortune to pay beautiful tribute with “Give Me Another Chance” and “The Ballad of El Goodo.” Even Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who surprisingly looks like he’s out of his depth, still manages to inject, if not passion, as least conviction into “Kizza Me” and “When My Baby’s Beside Me.”
But some of the less well-known names are responsible for the best performances. Mills may have gotten “September Gurls,” surely Big Star’s most famous song, but Gudasz delivers an absolutely lovely “Thirteen,” while Haskins brings the perfect amount of tension to the intense “Holocaust.” Harris, whose old-fashioned singer/songwriter pop springs directly from the Big Star legacy, handles “Kanga Roo” with a perfect balance of passion and vulnerability, looking like he might explode at any moment, but never actually doing it. Gudasz and Harris also serve as utility players, providing extra instruments and a ton of harmony vocals alongside nearly everyone else. Continuity with the Chilton era comes from Posies Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who served in the revived Big Star in the ‘90s and ‘aughts, and original drummer Jody Stephens, who takes his turns in the spotlight (“Blue Moon” and “For You”) but otherwise stays with his drum kit, keeping perfect time on these songs he knows better than anyone.
With backdrops and lighting cues kept minimalist, the focus is purely on the performances, and that’s as it should be. Chilton and his band weren’t big on production numbers, and neither is this ensemble. So it’s only appropriate that, a few frankly inconsequential interviews aside, director Benno Nelson concentrates on capturing the music as it happens. No filter, no effects, nothing between the audience and this timeless rock music. —Michael Toland, BLURT Senior Editor & Blogger
Below, watch the official film trailer.
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