North Carolina outfit combines folk, bluegrass, prog, psych, and gypsy jazz to create something unique and otherworldly.
By Fred Mills
A few months ago the Jon Stickley Trio, Asheville’s premiere prog-grass/blue-gressive (both my terms, take your pick), dropped their latest full-length, Maybe Believe, to across-the-board critical acclaim. Since then the guitar/violin/percussion group has been steadily touring—their jammy, fusion-rooted sound makes them a mainstay of the festival circuit—and along the way there have been a number of Stickley Trio-related interesting and catchy videos to pop up. Among my faves:
More recently, the ever-diligent music archivists of the Southern Songs And Stories documentary series, Joe Kendrick and Aaron Morell, have put together a Stickley Trio segment in which flatpicking virtuoso Stickley, violinist Lyndsay Pruett and drummer Patrick Armitage take a quick breather from their SpringSkunk Music Festival performances and talk with Kendrick and Morell about their career in music thus far. You can watch the 36-minute video here, or check out an excerpt via the 3-minute teaser, below; both include some dynamic performance segments. There will also be an extended podcast of the band interview available soon.
If the Stickley Trio comes anywhere near your town, run, don’t walk, to the box office and grab your tickets – I guarantee this is a band not to be missed in concert.
With both BLURT and our two sister businesses (the Schoolkids Records chain and record label) based in the Triangle, NC, area, it’s a given that we feel pretty strongly about supporting the regional musicians and bands who we work and hang out with — and who make our lives all the more meaningful. So we were obviously saddened when the news arrived in May that Raleigh musician James Olin Oden had been hospitalized with a rare form of cancer known at Metastatic Synovial Sarcoma.
Troubadour Oden, incidentally, played Irish flute at BLURT/Schoolkids owner Stephen Judge’s wedding ceremony, and he’s also performed and recorded with the Floating Children (check out the tracks “Party Animal Cannibal” and “Valentine Unsent,” which showcased James on flute, and view a video here). The much-loved N.C. musician is well-versed in Scottish, Irish, and English songs, and has been a member of Friendly Fiddlers, the Gypsy Rovers, and the Irish Wolfhounds. His Deeper Dance album was released in 2016. (Below, listen to the title track, and also watch him perform “Friend of the Devil” in 2015.)
Oden’s musical community responded to his medical crisis immediately, as Billy Warden, of Floating Children fame, puts it, “by turning his room at Wake Medical Center into a love-fest and impromptu jam session.” Now Warden reports that the jam session will be transforming into a recording session next Sunday, Oct. 29. That’s when Floating Children and sundry friends will enter Raleigh’s Thread Audio with producer Michael Graziano to cut “a thunderous tribute” written for Oden, “Boom Boom Boom (In The Emergency Room).”
The recording will also be filmed for a video to accompany the release of the song, and upon release it will include details on supporting cancer patients and organizations working to find a cure for cancer.
Watch BLURT for updates on all this, including when the song and video are ready for the public.
Along with Warden, musicians slated to pitch in, schedules pending, are Jeffro Holshouser (also of Hank Sinatra), drummer Jody Maxwell (formerly of A Number of Things and The Sex Police), lead guitarist Sam ‘Sammy Doddy’ McDonald (Uglyography), bassist/key-tarist Matt Thomas (Uglyography), go-go dancer Tracey Brown, members of The Veldt and Hank Sinatra, Demon Eye’s Larry Burlison, horn players Peter Lamb and David Wright, John Howie Jr., Rose Higgins, and Caroline Mamoulides. (Pictured below: Warden and the Floating Children)
The Upshot: Dexter, Crow, and even Tone raving things up for your edification via an exhaustive exploration of the Jets’ earliest recordings.
BY FRED MILLS
For North Carolina indie music devotees—particularly the Chapel Hill contingent—it was an electrifying affirmation: the MTV Cutting Edge broadcast of a segment the video channel had filmed in February of 1985, featuring one Dexter Romweber, attired in cop hat and rebel-with-a-definite-cause leather jacket and slurping noisily (booze? tea? Diet Pepsi?) from a tin cup tethered to his jacket with a chain, giving the film crew a tour of his digs, at most a 10’ by 10’ storage shed located in the back yard of his mother’s Carrboro abode, but crammed with enough reclaimed furniture and record albums to qualify as a “pad.” That Romweber called it The Mausoleum wasn’t ironic. If, say, a homeless person stumbled in there after too much antifreeze, crawled under the makeshift bed, and expired, it wasn’t altogether inconceivable that the corpse wouldn’t be discovered until Dex or one of the pot-smoking pals who gathered there to spin obscure ‘50s and ‘60s rockabilly late into the night happened to be casting about for an errant platter or pillow.
Feel free to revisit the MTV segment at the YouTube link above; there are also plenty of live clips of Romweber’s Flat Duo Jets combo (both as a duo and as a three-piece) to seek out. Meanwhile, sonic origins arrive via Wild Wild Love, a two-CD version of that outrageously cool Wild Wild Love limited edition Flat Duo Jets vinyl box set (two LPs and a 10”) released for Record Store Day 2017. Included is the entire Mark Bingham-produced Flat Duo Jets LP that the Athens-based Dog Gone label originally released in 1989—Dog Gone was overseen by one Jefferson Holt, who now helms Daniel 13, a much-respected North Carolina books/music/film outfit—along with that album’s cassette EP precursor, Flat Duo Jets In Stereo (1985, Dolphin Records, recorded by Josh Grier and Steve Gronback), plus no less than a bakers-dozen outtakes from the ’89 LP.
Whattaya get? Well, of course there is “Wild, Wild Lover,” which they would also perform during a potentially career-making 1990 performance on Late Night With David Letterman, with FDJ fan Paul Shaffer happily sitting in. Moody tiki-surf twanger instrumental, “Madagasgar,” one of only two Dex originals on the Dog Gone album, is another obvious highlight, as is a revved-up instro take of Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing,” wherein drummer Crow lays down a jungle beat as throbbin’ as any Saturday afternoon Tarzan flick soundtrack you’d care to mention. Plus, all six tracks from that In Stereo cassette are represented, from the riotous Lieber & Stoller classic “Riot In Cell Block #9” to a sunny (and, for Romweber, remarkably restrained) cover of Buddy Holly’s “Think It Over” to an early Romweber original, “Theme For Dick Fontaine,” a twangy instro thumper not unlike the above-mentioned Prima track (and a tune often used to warm up the crowd at gigs back in the day). Listening to these now, over three decades later, the visceral-to-the-point-of-unhinged FDJ energy remains palpable; if you close your eyes, it’s not hard to imagine being at one of the band’s still-legendary early shows.
All those, plus the Mark Bingham-selected outtakes—among them, surf raveup “Penetration 1,” so electrifying here it’s hard to understand why it didn’t make the final cut for the original LP; “Harlem Nocturne,” which Dex and Crow would revive for the second Jets album, 1991’s Go Go Harlem Baby; and another version of “Wild, Wild Lover”—make for more than just an early DexRom musical snapshot. Wild Wild Love is also a history lesson, one boasting key performances that influenced everyone from the White Stripes to the Black Keys, and many, many more.
Now, before all you wannabe speculators make a mad dash to eBay or Discogs to unload your RSD 2017 FDJ WWL, be alerted that the box set is, in the parlance, a package too cool to dump. Note that as an added bonus, the Wild Wild Love CD includes a link to download a 78-page digital PDF color booklet filled with vintage show flyers and photographs, plus liner-note essays by Mark Bingham, Josh Grier, and music critic David Menconi (whose exhaustive history of the band would be, if eventually expanded to include Dexter’s entire colorful/ongoing history, as book-worthy as Menconi’s earlier biography of lapsed Tar Heel Ryan Adams). But said booklet was also originally a gorgeous 12” x 12” centerpiece of the vinyl box that really deserves to be held and admired. Yours truly was actually present at several of the shows visually represented in the booklet, Dex ‘n’ Crow caught in full flight at Charlotte’s Milestone Club by ace photographer Kent Thompson. (BLURT contributor Marty Perez also has shots in the booklet.) So I can attest to the, um, for lack of a better term, candid nature of these FDJ gigs, which might include, on any given occasion, Romweber bull-dozing into the crowd, stripping down to his skivvies, or simply stretching his shirt around the top of his head to stanch the flow of sweat.
Think of both iterations of Wild Wild Love as loving testimonials and crucial documents; the 2CD also boasts impressionistic art by Phil Plank, exclusive to that version, further indication of the Daniel 13 team’s intention to present the Flat Duo Jets as one of North Carolina’s more unique musical origin stories. Something tells me that more than a couple of heads are already nodding at the notion of adding a special Romweber wing to the Tar Heel State’s official music archives…
DOWNLOAD: “Penetration 1” and “Bring It On Home” (outtakes); “Theme for Dick Fontaine” (In Stereo); “Sing Sing Sing,” “Wild, Wild Lover,” “Madagascar” (Flat Duo Jets)
North Carolina twangers prepping vinyl reissue of classic album while planning out a new studio record as well for a spring ’18 re;ease/ Above photo by Michael Traister.
By Fred Mills
Cutting to the chase: Raleigh, NC, combo 6 String Drag has long been a favorite throughout the BLURT diaspora, dating back to the hard-twanging Americana combo’s ‘90s heyday, which included a Steve Earle-produced gem from 1997, High Hat. Much more recently, the group resumed operations following a lengthy hiatus, resulting in a wave of terrific live notices as well as considerable praise for 2015 comeback album Roots Rock ‘n’ Roll (Royal Potato Family), which was stuffed to the gills with choice power pop, rockabilly, ‘50s-ish rock, and stately blues.
The group is soldiering on with a twinned campaign to get High Hat re-released for the first time on vinyl (a 20th anniversary, limited edition white wax at that) and to release a brand new studio effort in March. Over at the 6 String Drag PledgeMusic page you can view the specifics along with the various tiers of involvement for pledgers, ranging from springing from digital, CD, and vinyl versions of High Hat, to all manner of rare memorabilia and house concerts fans can avail themselves of.
Do yourself a favor and check out these guys—our friends—and consider jumping in. By way of full disclosure, the High Hat reissue will be appearing under the label name of our sister business, Schoolkids Records (formerly Second Motion). Hopefully that gives you a sense of what a kickass band we think 6 String Drag has always been, and continues to be. It’s clobberin’ time, kids.
The Upshot: It’s all quite pleasant, nicely played and sung and recorded, but as the album title itself telegraphs, perhaps a little distant.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
MC Taylor’s low-key but soulful Americana outfit hits a particularly breezy stride in this seventh full length. Song titles like “Lost in the Darkness” and “Harder Rain,” hint at darker material, but the tone is resolutely positive, uplifted by sharp uptempo guitar work and rousing choruses. The 3 a.m. disconsolate-ness of early albums like Haw and the nearly-lost Bad Debt (which after all included a song called “Jesus Shot Me in the Head”) has dissipated and Taylor sounds unworried, if not downright happy.
Taylor works with mostly the same crew as before, the two Cook brothers from Megafaun and drummer Darren Jessee, forming the main band. Fellow Dead aficionado Josh Kaufman sits in on guitar this time, instead of Ryan Gustafson. Together they find worn-in, comfortable grooves that swing and swagger modestly, with a certain amount of decorum. Taylor himself is the focus, however, with his slippery, note-bending phrases that snake around the main melody with slides and bends and flourishes.
As is often the case, the strongest stuff comes near the album’s end, with blues-rocking “Domino (Time Will Tell” channeling gospel fervor and roadhouse horn lines in a celebration (sort of) of touring life. The guitar solo here is particularly fine. Slower and more contemplative, but just as good, is “Caledonia, My Love” where Taylor’s voice flickers like a flame in the night breeze, mournfully ruminating on life and lust and love.
It’s all quite pleasant, nicely played and sung and recorded, but perhaps a little distant. These tunes flow by like sunny afternoons and when they’re done you can’t remember much.
DOWNLOAD: “Domino (Time Will Tell)”, “Caledonia, My Love”
The Upshot: Ornate baroque pop one moment and huge anthemic soundscapes the next from a remarkably gifted and promising young NC band. Read our interview HERE.
BY FRED MILLS
In their short-but-fruitful existence to date, Chapel Hill’s Happy Abandon have garnered a reputation as a forceful act that weds dramatic performance to a nakedly emotional aesthetic. So much so, that the owner of the Schoolkids Records label – formerly Second Motion; home to Tommy Keene, The Veldt, and Bettie Serveert; and, full disclosure, sister business to BLURT – was soon convinced that the young trio would be the perfect flagship artist for the newly-christened label. It wasn’t a frivolous move, either, and if you caught their single “If I Stare” last year, you already have a sense of the group’s ornate, cinematic pop mastery (listen to it HERE at their Soundcloud page). By way of additional full disclosure, I fuckin’ loved ‘em the moment I heard ‘em, and this was well before Schoolkids’ Stephen Judge had signed them to the label.
On the resulting debut, lyrical introspection and high-energy extroversion (read: loud) get woven tightly together, with catharsis the objective. This is not to lump Happy Abandon among traditionally theatrical bands, many of whom confuse billboard-sized pronouncements with profundity, an aesthetic misstep that many prog, metal, and even emo groups also make. On the 10 songs that populate Facepaint, the group offers up grand, sweeping melodies, soaring/anthemic vocals, and manic explosions of energy offset by solitude-conjuring denouements, and the overall effect is utterly exhilarating. Opening track “Ivory Bound” unfurls via pirouetting acoustic guitar and piano, just a hint of percussion—then comes the swell of a string section, which crescendos lustily then swoops directly into “Beneath Our Feet,” a hectic rush of searing guitars, convulsive drums, and pounding ivories as vocalist Peter Vance—in a deliciously androgynous voice—croons, then sneers, then snarls, then pleads. On “Take Me,” this light/heavy strategy further showcases the players’ strengths as the song gradually rises in volume and tempo until, about four minutes in, the listener finds him- or herself cocooned in a glorious wash of sound, guitars, percussion, and keys, as the massed vocals strive for, and attain, full-choir status. (This band does love its vocal arrangements.)
Elsewhere, Happy Abandon demonstrate their versatility at ballads (the ornate baroque pop of “Choice”), showtunes (“Stop Taking Care of Me,” a dark-but-dramatic narrative chronicling a lover’s steadily-rising addiction: “I’ve watched you becoming the monster inside of you/ It has the same eyes as you/ But it can’t love the way that you do… You can’t kill what’s killing you/ If you’re feeding it too”), even orchestrally-inclined art pop (the aforementioned “If I Stare,” an extravagant waltz which boasts violins, cello, flute, and even Peter Bjorn and John-styled whistling).
To their credit, these three men (singer/guitarist Vance, drummer Jake Waits, bassist Justin Ellis; on most tracks they are joined by keyboardist Alex Thompson, who also conducts the strings) don’t deploy their dynamics in rote or template fashion. These are fully-formed rock songs with emotional interior lives that would also work stripped-down or with a full orchestra. Ultimately, Facepaint is a remarkable debut from an uncommonly gifted and promising young band.
Consumer note: The vinyl for Facepaint comes in either standard black or eye-popping multicolor splatter vinyl. And for colored wax, it’s a solid pressing; collectors frequently find themselves complaining about the audio quality of color vinyl, but they won’t have to this time out.
On a remarkable new album one encounters all-over-the-map alchemical brilliance from the Black Mountain sonic savant.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Soul man. Funk fan. Dub star. Vintage rock ‘n’ roll master.
Seth Kauffman’s been fêted with all these sobriquets over the past decade in Floating Action, the one-man studio blender where the Black Mountain native conjures up his self-described “lo-fi North Carolina funk.” But is Is It Exquisite? really, well, exquisite? Though Kauffman is likely referring to a host of human experiences with that query (your music experience definitely being one of them), the answer here is a resounding and unimpeachable, hell, yes.
Rather than the rote nostalgia such sonic touchstones often yield, Kauffman’s songs hum with the vibrancy of both true believer and radical alchemist. Mile-wide grooves, catchy melodies and dubby textures are cannily crafted together to shade the vulnerable and occasionally spiritual subject matter in sunny fare — “I’m a soul lying naked and scared,” Kauffman confesses on “My Ticket Out of Here,” as fuzzy keys, a fat bottom end and boom-bap beats eventually flower into a blast of guitar distortion that’s more joyous release than check-out-these-chops solo.
Those traits should sound familiar to Floating Action devotees, and these 11 tracks don’t veer far from the sonic foundations that Kauffman finds so durable; by that yardstick change remains gradual in the Floating Action world. But to focus solely on the nuance is to miss the point almost entirely here. These solid structures allow Kauffman to graft pretty much anything he can think of onto these songs, and that’s something that he seems to somehow get better at with each passing LP. (As a rare twangy example of his songs’ malleability, check out the free download from 2008, Live at the Grey Eagle.)
And so it goes with Is It Exquisite? Vintage Tonto-like synths and chopped-up beats highlight the pleading opener “Don’t Desert Me,” the soulful “Seek Then I Found” seems to resurrect Teenie Hodges’ magic guitar fills, and Kauffman even throws some vintage scratching onto “The Silent One,” transforming it from lonely hymn to Sedgwick Avenue hoe-down. A subtle, swirling mellotron haze accompanies the catchy choruses of “My Blood Is Bright Red,” while disc-closer “Controlled Burn” offers a master class in dubby texturing (its 11-minute run-time might be the LP’s one overindulgence). Even a couple of finger-picked acoustic numbers—”Last of the Wild Cards” and “Won’t Be Long”—transform into something greater via chopped beats or subversive syncopation.
Kauffman would probably (and rightly) bridle at the “musician’s musician” tag—though accompanying the latest publicity are imprimaturs from past collaborators Jim James, Dan Auerbach and Angel Olsen, among others. After all, musicians shouldn’t be the only ones spellbound by Floating Action’s alchemical brilliance. These songs are, simply put, great songs, arguably the best Floating Action set yet, and their adaptability to Kauffman’s studio R&D testifies to their fundamental versatility.
Will a larger audience ever catch up? Who knows. For now, and again, the lucky ones are just floating along in Kauffman’s idyllic future past. Come, join us.
Consumer/collector note: For vinyl nuts, in addition to a standard black vinyl release, about 200 copies were pressed on colored vinyl, and colors were inserted randomly in sleeves so fans didn’t know what color they were getting until they opened the package. There is also a cassette edition via Baby Tooth. Those who preordered Exquisite from PIAPTK or Baby Gas Mask Records also received a bonus lathe cut 7” picture disc of Floating Action covering Pepi Ginsberg’s “The Waterline” and a 12×18″ poster.
On their ambitious new album, the Chapel Hill trio aims for emotional involvement.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Emotion has always been the essential element when it comes to crafting great songs. Indeed, when all else fails, it’s those seductive sentiments that lead to the most memorable music. The trio that refers to themselves as Happy Abandon expressly echo that mantra, crafting an expansive sound that reflects the obstacles and perils that confront us all in everyday life, often at times when they’re least expected. The Chapel Hill-based trio — consisting of long time friends Peter Vance (vocals, guitar, songs), Jake Waits (drums) and Justin Ellis (bass) — make a habit of sharing their feelings through music, while spinning a rich melange of atmosphere and ambiance in the process.
Facepaint, the trio’s debut album, stirs those sentiments with a knowing aplomb, a propulsive, populist sound that leaves no possibility unturned when it comes to their decidedly bittersweet narratives. Loneliness, abandonment, family frailties and even an ultimate demise work their way into the material, only to leave listeners gasping in amazement at the honesty and earnestness that Happy Abandon brings to the fore.
Consequently, we couldn’t help but be intrigued. As a result, we took the opportunity to ask the three men about their motivation for making music and their apparent desire to elevate their intents. (Full disclosure: Facepaint is the first full-length on the Schoolkids Records label, formerly called Second Motion. Schoolkids, along with the three-store North Carolina record store chain, is BLURT’s sister business. And, I hasten to add, we have dug the band from the beginning, even inviting them to perform at our annual day party in Austin during SXSW. —Ed.)
BLURT: For starters, give us an idea of where you get your inspiration for these songs. You seem to have some very lofty ideas. So how do you translate those thoughts to your material?
Peter Vance: The inspiration for the songs are simply the most pivotal emotions and feelings I’m feeling at a specific time. All of these songs represent a mindset I found myself in, and that’s how it influenced my choices and perspective. Each song stands independently as an idea, though they work together to paint a broad picture of exposure to loss.
Production seems to be a major additive in your presentation. So tell us how you come up with the arrangements and, in turn, what it takes to bring these songs from start to fruition?
Justin Ellis: It’s very much a collaborative process. Peter usually writes the bones of the song alone on acoustic guitar or piano, and he’ll tinker with it for months before he shows it to us. We then typically jam to the song with electric guitar, bass, and drums to properly fit the dynamics of the song’s structure. Then the fun part comes in; this is where we figure out what the sonic icing might be. Typically whenever Alex (Thompson, keyboards and arrangements) is in town, that means adding loads of keyboards, piano, and synth tones, or we may start arranging string parts. We almost always add three-part harmony to the songs, but the songs aren’t really done, in my mind, until they’re recorded. Sometimes it’s because the lyrics aren’t done until it’s time to record, and sometimes it’s because there’s a violin part we discover by accident while recording, and we then must find a way to incorporate the part on another instrument so it’s present in the live show. Sometimes it’s just that the mood or energy of the song is kinda hard to pin down until it’s committed to wax, as it were. But on the flip side, the songs that we’re working on that aren’t recorded yet are really fun to work on, because nothing is concrete, and they could go through infinite permutations before we settle on the finished product.
Please give us an idea of your influences, past and present.
Peter Vance: My musical influences stem from artists who exude a combination of incredible lyricism and complex composition. I find that the one artist that has influenced me the most in both aspects — and is a nostalgic idol for me — is Sufjan Stevens. He and a few other bands/musicians (Belle and Sebastian, Andrew Bird, Bettie Serveert) exposed me to what can be accomplished when one takes chances and only uses musical tropes when it is tastefully implemented, rather than using the same formula with different variables.
As far as contextual influences go, well that comes from my background in literature and theater. My focus in college was theater, and in my earlier years I was fortunate enough to spend my time as a working actor in the Washington, DC theatre scene. This exposed me to many different playwrights who used many different writing techniques to move a plot forward. I found myself liking and disliking different writing styles, and was able to use the ones that I liked in my songs. I use a lot of imagery and alliteration because I think the combination of the two is very fun and ear catching.
Justin Ellis: I absolutely love what Alt-J, Fleet Foxes, and Local Natives have been doing lately; specifically, being able to make catchy, engaging music that is fairly popular while also having its own defined sound. I also love what those bands do with vocal harmony, and I think a lot of their musical philosophies rub off on Happy Abandon. I’m also a huge classic rock head, with the Who, Led Zeppelin, and Queen being absolutely massive to my own musical formation.
Jake Waits: I came up in the school bands, the orchestra, the drum line, playing in the pits for musicals. I studied world percussion and classical percussion. Learning to play all that sheet music informed my repertoire and influenced my style — I actually had to break out of the rigidity that was drilled into me with marching drum music and learn how to relax and groove in the pocket more. Along with bands and artists across many genres. I grew up loving classic rock, and I got into some heavier metal music for a good few angst-ridden teen years. Lately, my ears have been perking up to jazz. Anything with a good beat gets me going.
You are also said to have a very dramatic stage presence in live performance. Can you describe it for us? Does it take a lot of effort and expense to make it all happen?
Jake Waits: We don’t always perform with our light show, but when we do, it adds a visual energy to our presence that encompasses the emotional energy coming from the songs. We look for ways to add colors and visual effects that enhance our set and connect the songs in ways that couldn’t be done through sound.
What was it like going into the studio for the first time? Was it an easy transition or did you find you had to make a lot of adjustment to convey your live sound to the recordings?
Justin Ellis: We have all been in bands before, and Peter, Alex, and I all studied audio production at the University of North Carolina, so I’d say we feel rather at home when we record. Facepaint was a really “homey” record to make, as we lived in Jason’s (Merritt, producer) lake house for about a week nonstop, just getting up every morning, making eggs and coffee, then playing music all day and into the night. We all play several instruments, so it was a lot of fun to just try ideas out on instruments that never make it to our shows, like banjos, mandolins, penny whistles, gongs, tubular bells, timpani… although I certainly wouldn’t rule out incorporating those in our live concert one day.
How was it that you three were able to coalesce so quickly? Did you find that your individual ideas were mostly always in sync?
Justin Ellis: I think what sets us apart from most bands is that our shared background isn’t being in rock bands since we were in high school when we met. We all studied theater at some point, and I think the work ethic you need to make theatre happen rubbed off very decidedly in this band. We take rehearsals seriously, we make sure all our voices are heard, and we know when to back down for the good of the song or the overall project. Plus, as a three-piece, we all kinda have to overplay to fill the sound in live performance, so it’s not like we ever feel boxed in. It’s really nice.
Can you share some insights into maybe four or five songs from the album that have particular significance for you?
Peter Vance: Oh man, it’s Sophie’s Choice here…
“Take Me,” “Severed Seams,” “If I Stare,” “Stop Taking Care of Me,” and “Cursed or Worse” are some of my favorites off the album. Each one not only delves into different contexts of loss, but also gives different perspectives. They’re all a bit dark, but “Take Me” ends on a bit of a brighter note, stating that if you can’t take anything from the situation, well, you can at least take me. “Severed Seams” also ends on a brighter note, but not because things worked out for everyone. It ends with the realization that things won’t work out. That in itself is an accomplishment. “If I Stare” takes a more aggressive approach to the idea of coping, where “Stop Taking Care of Me” is a plea. Finally, “Cursed or Worse” rambles through thoughts and feelings that are hard to take hold of after a traumatizing experience.
Peter is the principal songwriter—how much input does everyone else have in the crafting of the material?
Justin Ellis: I’d say we all have a pretty equal stake. Jake and I almost never have anything we want to change with Peter’s songs at their core, but sometimes we’ll suggest a slight lyric or feel change, and we go with that for a bit and see how we end up feeling as a group. But generally, because Peter spends so much time refining his songs, for the most part all we have to do is help arrange it and flesh it out once he shows them to us. We all write our own parts and backing harmonies, etc., but there is a lot of communication that goes on to make sure all the ideas suggested are at least attempted without drastically affecting the initial energy of the song.
You experienced three deaths of people that you were close to late last year. Who were the people who passed, and how did you deal with these tragedies? How did it reflect in your music?
Peter Vance: All three were incredible, beautiful people. One was a friend from middle and high school whose death was fairly prepared for by friends and family simply because of the context of the situation. However, this did not make it any easier. The other two came completely unexpectedly, and struck everyone with such force that people are still feeling the repercussions.
Jake Waits: One was my buddy since second grade. We had more adventures than I can count. He was thoughtful and loyal, and he always had a way to cheer you up. A friendly word or some sage advice he gathered from his travels would always help, whatever the trouble. He was a hell of a singer/songwriter, too. And he was number one on my Zombie Apocalypse team if it had ever come to that first.
How do you temper those more reflective elements with the more populist sentiments that you bring to the stage? Given some of these themes, you could have emerged as a very downcast outfit, no?
Justin Ellis: I think duality is important in a band. The band name itself is a little oxymoronic, and plenty of bands before us have made “happy” sounding music with “sad” lyrics. Just look at The Smiths and The Cure. You could argue that these two different identities can cancel each other out, but I feel being a large, loud-sounding band with really introspective songwriting isn’t mutually exclusive.
How many songs were left over from the recording sessions, and will any of them surface later?
Justin Ellis: Only about four songs from our current live set didn’t make the cut for Facepaint, but they all had a similar, perhaps more “rock” vibe that didn’t quite fit the mood of the record. Still, they’re great songs and we’re proud of them, and it’s likely we’ll record and release them in some capacity. We also have about ten sketches in various stages of completion that will eventually all become songs too hopefully.
What are the challenges facing a new band like yours? What have been the peaks? And what, if any, have been the low points so far in the trajectory?
Justin Ellis: We’ve all been in bands before, which was helpful going into this project, because we all knew what to expect. Sure, making rent is tough sometimes, and sometimes we play to nobody when we’re miles away from home. Sometimes, the van breaks down, like it has three times. But before we put out this record, we got a chance to tour in five countries, play almost every major U.S. and Canadian city on the East coast, play in London, Dublin, and Amsterdam, and play most of North Carolina’s major music venues. The good definitely outweighs the bad for us… and we’re really lucky to be in that position.
So what’s the plan going forward?
Justin Ellis: We’ll be touring the West Coast this fall for the very first time, with tentative plans to return to Europe at some point between late October and March 2018. We’ll probably head to SXSW in the spring as well. As the album gets written about and listened to, all we can do is keep ourselves onstage, ready for any opportunities that may come our way.
Happy Abandon performs this week in Raleigh at the annual Hopscotch Music Festival, that will also include an appearance at the Schoolkids Records day party. Then on September 18 they’ll hit the road headed west. Check tour dates at their official website and at their Facebook page..
Location: North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh NC
Live at the North Carolina Museum of Art, it was a fine day to be on the green…
TEXT & PHOTOS BY TODD GUNSHER
Having grown up in Raleigh, NC, singer-songwriter Tift Merritt chose to make the hometown stop on her current tour a special one-time only event billed as Tift Merritt and Friends. The friends she brought along for the show were M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, Eric Slick of Dr. Dog, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig of Mountain Man, and The Suitcase Junket. These artists have all in recent years played shows and recorded together in various combinations and Tift wanted to get them all on stage together; I’d say everyone in attendance was glad that she did.
In addition to the music, the party had food trucks and a tent made from an old army parachute underneath which was a commissary with unique goods from local vendors. The stage was even set up with a variety of Americana ephemera from Butch Anthony’s Traveling Museum of Wonder, who drove up in the old Cadillac he traded a painting to Leon Russell for. Even the car was a work of art, being adorned with a deer head and trophies from front to back. Tift herself was completely hands on with the planning of the event, all the way down to offering menu ideas to the local food trucks. (I can vouch for the chicken and waffles!)
Over the course of the nearly 2-1/2-hour show, each of the artists took their turn in the spotlight and backed each other up. It was a wonderful evening of songs and musical collaboration. First up was, of course the MC for the evening, Tift Merritt, with a couple songs from her newest record, Stitch Of The World. Next up was a couple numbers by Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, who we were told has her debut solo record on the way.
One of the great things about an event like this is getting to hear new (to me) artists, and experiencing The Suitcase Junket was a treat. Matt Lorenz is a one-man-band who sings his songs with an old guitar and a percussion contraption mostly made up of random found objects. Despite being self-contained, he was accompanied by some of the others who took care to let his unique thing stay front and center. After a couple songs by Eric Slick, the musicians gathered around one mic to sing Tift’s “Dusty Old Man” and “My Boat” who’s lines, “room onboard for my friends” seemed to sum up the ethos of the evening. Next up was M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger who brought a little volume to the proceedings which got the folks up front on their feet. The whole ensemble again gathered around one mic as Taylor asked us to sing along with the chorus of “Drum,” “Take the good news, carry it away. Take the good news spirit it away.”
Adding to the feel good vibe of the night was a recognition of the 20th anniversary of concerts being held at this venue, a jewel of a small amphitheater on the grounds of the NC Museum of Art. After performing Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arm Around A Memory” and “Stray Paper,” Tift waxed poetic about her town, friends, and all the support over the years as a cake was brought out to celebrate the museum’s program director. She then closed the set with “Proclamation Blues” but we knew there was more to come. A couple minutes later she returned, and giving thanks to everyone involved, her love for the hometown she recently returned to was evident as she said, “I can’t think of a better place to raise my daughter.” Sitting down alone at the keyboard she sang an emotional “Good Hearted Man” and as the whole ensemble returned for one more song, she reminded us that “the good is there, no matter what else is going on.”
I once heard someone say that the world can’t have too much love or too much music. On this Saturday night in Raleigh, that never felt more true.
The prolific Chapel Hill rocker and Americana maven unexpectedly pivots to classic ‘70s soul and funk. “I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life,” Rank tells BLURT. “I have no interest in writing the same sad ass country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again.”
BY FRED MILLS / PHOTOS BY MISSY MALOUFF
When Michael Rank set about writing his latest solo album—his seventh in just five years—he felt an emotional and stylistic push in a markedly different direction from its predecessors, all of which were, to varying degrees, Americana-informed. 2015’s Horsehair, in particular, featuring Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, was a deep, lingering dip into outlaw folk and Appalachian country territory, McEntire playing Emmylou to Rank’s Gram (or Bonnie to his Clyde, as some observers put it). Americana, in fact, was what Rank has been known for as a solo artist, itself a marked contrast from his previous work with Chapel Hill’s Snatches of Pink, which, for two stints (late ‘80s/early ‘90s with the original three-piece; then again from 2003-07 in an entirely different configuration), purveyed a singular brand of hi-nrg Stones raunch and Heartbreakers ‘tude. (You can check out my assessment of Snatches elsewhere on this website; by way of spoiler alert, it is titled “Why Snatches of Pink was the Greatest NC Band of the Late ‘80s.”)
Yet if one peered closely at his work over the years, it was possible to detect a cornucopia of influences, and stirring occasionally among them was the classic soul and funk of the ‘70s, with artists like Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield clearly sharing shelf space in Rank’s music library with his beloved rock ‘n’ roll. For the 24 songs populating the new three-disc (!) album Another Love, then, soul is the operative term. As you’ll read below, those two soul icons, along with several others, loom large here, with Rank’s guitar ditched in favor of Rhodes and Wurlitzer and the live band mostly supplanted by drum programs and keyboards. Crucial to Another Love is co-conspirator Brian Dennis (late of ‘90s outfit DAG), who performed his studio and sonic wizardry upon Rank’s instrumental and vocal tracks; Rank claims the record wouldn’t have happened without Dennis, which is high praise indeed, considering the songwriter’s prolific nature that, since 2012, has seemingly resulted in an album every nine or ten months.
As one might imagine, with 24 tracks to contend with, there are highlights a-plenty on the album, far too many to isolate here. Yours truly’s favorites—as of this writing, and subject to change tomorrow—include the sleek minimalism of “Kings,” what with Rank deploying one of his more emotive vocals, doubletracked at that, a frequent strategy on the album. There’s the relative swagger of “I Do,” a low-down-and-down-low Prince-like confection featuring Dennis on guitar, his old DAG bandmate Bobby Patterson on bass, and guest vocalist Raney Hayes joining Rank at the mic. You want funky? The title track is pure Sly & the Family Stone—maybe a hint of Stevie Wonder too, with Rank (speaking of doubletracked vocals) singing the low and high parts. Hold that thought: Throughout Another Love, Rank relies on his falsetto to underscore the soul component; “Women in Love,” for example, finds him soaring aloft with remarkable passion, like the aforementioned Mayfield or a classic gospel singer. He’s always had the capacity to hit the high notes, but in 2017, he seems to have climbed the mountain.
And on penultimate number “Horses,” possibly the standout, and perhaps the most “live” sounding one as well, Rank, Dennis, and Patterson get their funk/blues band mojo seriously working. It’s an incredibly infectious track with a psychedelic edge, one which seems destined to be a crowd-pleasing show-closer in concert, maybe even with a cape-draping finale. (Rank claims that he has no plans to perform the album live, however, but we can always hope.)
The bottom line: Rank has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and then some. (2012’s two-disc Stag, in particular, was a harrowing document of a brutal breakup, but one can trace Rank’s emotional journeys through his early Snatches songs, too.) On the nakedly confessional—and, significantly, ultimately defiant—“Roll Away” he sings:
“Well honey I ain’t wondering why
I ain’t countin’ my time
I feel there’s something goin’ on…
Well baby this ain’t workin’ for me
I think there’s something goin’ on…
Roll up to the window sill
Baby watch you roll away
I’m better off these days
There ain’t nothin’ left to say.”
I would propose, then, that the pure essence of soul—exploring the vicissitudes of love in all its good/bad/transcendent/ugly dimensions—has always informed this man as a songwriter. He really feels it as a concrete thing, not in the abstract.
Rank and I convened recently via email to talk about the new record, and we touched on a number of things, from obvious questions about what inspired him this time around to how he looks back on his early Chapel Hill days. I couldn’t resist asking him about his son, Bowie Ryder, because fatherhood is a topic he and I always seem to slide into whenever we have the chance to get together in person. We’re a long way from those drunken club nights, following a particularly explosive Snatches of Pink gig. (Rank: “Bowie’s ten years old and all cool. Thank you for asking, I really appreciate that. Parenthood is the ride that just keeps on spinning. Here, lately, I feel like it’s just holding a mirror up to all the areas of my personality I need to do a lot of work on(!!!). But shit, better late than never, right?”) Bowie has always gotten a dedication and shout-out on Rank’s record sleeves, a small but telling gift that the young man will surely cherish many decades from now, and Another Love is no exception, with Rank writing, “I love you always… forever and a day.” To me, this is also emblematic of Rank’s current immersion. He really experiences love as a living, breathing, pulsing creature, never less than a constant presence, day or night.
Incidentally, Rank has his entire back catalog available at his Bandcamp page, and in the case of those long out-of-print Snatches of Pink records, you can even grab them as free downloads. (Nice touch, that.) Check ‘em out, and also visit him at his official website and Facebook page.
BLURT: By way of a long-winded first question: Starting with Stag in Feb. 2012, you’ve released seven SOLO full-lengths, which is an average of 1.4 albums per year; broken down another way, we’re talking 65 months and 87 songs that appear on those seven albums, which is an average of 1.34 songs per month. While it’s not unusual for songwriters to be writing constantly, in terms of recording and releasing material, I think you’d be hard pressed to find many who are this prolific—most would have to plead to having a backlog of songs they haven’t finished or haven’t gotten around to properly recording; only Robert Pollard comes to mind as your peer in this regard. Please discuss why you are a statistical outlier.
MICHAEL RANK: Man, whenever I hear the word “outlier” I always imagine a bunch of villagers with torches and shit, snaking through the marshes yelling “Outliiiierrr!!!”. Hunting Frankenstein-monster style… But yeah, I write a lot of tunes. But to be honest, when you do the math like you just did it somehow doesn’t sound quite as impressive. I feel a little let down; seems like it should be more(!!). If I had a “team” like I did in the old days, I’d get them to start fact-checking and re-crunching those numbers(!!). But songwriting is still cheaper than therapy, after all…
On a slightly more serious note: Give me a sense of your writing regimen or habits—do you work on a particular song until you feel it is completely finished, or do you always have several that you’re working on at the same time? Do you ever have material left over after you’ve finished an album? There were a couple of significant changes for me in regards to the writing for Another Love. This was the very first time in my life where the songs were all written starting with the beat. That was the entry point. All 24 songs. I had never done that before with any song from my past. The other difference is this is the first time in my life that I wrote entirely on keyboards. I haven’t even touched a guitar in well over a year. Everything was created on old drum machines and Rhodes/Wurlitzer keys. I try not to ever have songs stockpiling while I’m writing. I like to write a song and then immediately record it before I move on. And nothing gets carried over. If a track doesn’t make an album then it’s done. Tough love.
It’s a three-disc album, so do you think of each disc as a separate entity, or do you view the songs as one continuous flow? Someone listening to it as a digital download might get a different experience from, say, me, listening to it disc by disc. I’m someone whose real awareness began in the ‘70s. For everything, but especially music. So for me, album lengths should ideally be 35 minutes or so like back in the day. Maybe a touch longer. The last thing I wanted was to put out a single physical CD that played for 2 hours straight. Ain’t no one got time for that. But I put a lot of thought into working out the sequence for this album so that it would work not only as a triple disc experience, but also as one continuous flow. It was a jigsaw puzzle laid out on my living room floor for a few weeks there towards the end.
The obvious question is, why the pivot away from your signature Americana-tilting singer-songwriter sound to a classic soul/funk approach? What kinds of records were you listening to leading up to writing and arranging these songs?How about when you were growing up? The album that completed the circle for me from growing up to the making of Another Love was Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That work has been a constant for me for a long, long time. Arguably my favorite album ever. But other albums that specifically played into the making of Another Love were D’Angelo’s Voodoo and Black Messiah. Brian Dennis, who created this album with me, and I spent a lot of time with the sounds on those two D’Angelo albums. Bilal, Erykah Badu, Curtis Mayfield, Bernie Worrell, Shuggie Otis, obviously Prince… we dug through all those artists’ sounds and vibes. And in regards to pivoting away from the styles I had been previously working in, I’m someone who likes to create the albums that I personally wanna be listening to at that exact point in my life. I have no interest in writing the same sad ass Country song for my entire life. Or the same out of tune Johnny Thunders song again and again. And don’t get me wrong—I love that shit dearly, but there are plenty of folks already spending a lifetime doing that.
Your singing style on the album doesn’t so much break from the past as it finds you exploring your upper register more. How much of this was a conscious thing, and how much was just a natural reaction to the music you were creating? Were any of the songs originally more in a twang-and-strum style that you wound up remaking/rearranging for this album? All my favorite singers take the “high road” when it comes to vocal range. D’Angelo, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Prince, Eddie Kendricks… and certainly all my favorite Stones’ Mick moments were when he worked his falsetto. It’s a comfortable place for me to exist in. It’s the aesthetic I’ve always dug the most. And again, it’s what I personally want to be hearing. And none of these songs were ever in a different style. They all were born to be exactly who they are.
Pick a few songs on the record that you feel are most representative of the album and your current direction and what you think “works” in them. “Women In Love”: I know it’s bad form to choose favorites but this one’s probably mine. It’s just got that thing. It bubbles. It’s sexy. It’s like the sound of wet marbles.
“I Love You”/ “40 Days”: Man, I have always dug Disco. I never had any problem going from The Dead Boys to The Bee Gees. And I still don’t. I really dig these two tracks ‘cause they are dusted in that Disco gold. The sound of where I’m headed next.
“Sing”: This was the very last song that got recorded, maybe second to last. I had sent Brian my vocals, keyboard, and the beat for him to add his performances to. When he sent back his files for me to hear I got a message from him saying that he had actually scrapped my keyboard entirely and only used my vocal and beat. Now I’m a Leo, and I was proud of my shit, so when I heard that message in the car I was sitting at a stoplight and I was instantly bummed out and starting to cop an attitude. When the light turned to green I pressed play on the mix he sent me and then totally lost my shit. I was screaming and dancing in the seat and just over the moon. When I hit the next red light and called him back up I was literally hoarse from the five minute party I had just had listening to what he created. True story. I adore this track.
How did you come to work with Brian Dennis? What did he bring to the table? Certainly, employing drum programming instead of a live drummer is a radical shift for you. It’s no exaggeration whatsoever to say this album wouldn’t exist without Brian. Brian was the very first artist in my entire life that I sought out a collaboration with and then handed over the wheel. And anyone that knows me knows I don’t relinquish that wheel when it comes to my creative shit. But with Brian it felt right. I trust Brian. And from very early on, it became crystal clear to me, and to any innocent bystanders, that Brian knew exactly what the songs were asking for. I literally felt like a kid on Christmas morning every single time I’d get his tracks to a song. And I’ll never forget that feeling. He’s as good as it gets, he honestly is. And now, God bless him, he’s tracking the follow-up album with me!
What are your plans for performing the material live? No plans for any gigging this year. What fulfills me the most is writing songs and creating in the studio. That’s where I’m feeling the most alive. In a perfect world, I woulda dug doing a handful of cool dates but the time and expense involved in putting together a new band is just not where my focus is at right now. I’m already way into the next album at this point.
Looking back on your previous solo albums, which are your favorites now? Man, I try not to look back too much to old albums. But Horsehair [released in July of 2015] was pretty special. As an artist you are always trying to capture something that often goes beyond any easy definition. Visions are an elusive animal. But I think with Horsehair we got real close.
If we go all the way back to your first solo album, 1993’s Coral, and Snatches of Pink’s Bent With Pray, from 1992, I can definitely hear some early groundwork for Another Love being laid, as both those records steered in a more soulful, atmospheric direction than previous Snatches albums. Is that a fair observation? Yea, totally. Especially with a track like “Dove” off of Coral. That tune’s got Another Love written all over it. And certainly there were many moments on 2016’s Red Hand (another solo album I really dig) that led right into Another Love.
So how do you remember the original Snatches of Pink period, you, drummer Sara Romweber, and bassist Andy McMillan? The original Snatches of Pink lineup was my life in a lot of ways. It’s the elephant that never really leaves the room. I only clearly remember it in bits and shards. We were so committed, well beyond the actual music. It was all so proudly worn on our sleeves. So much attitude. It didn’t get to where I dreamed it would have, and that honestly took a piece of me that I’ll never quite recover, but I’ll always feel so proud of what we left out on the field. Day in and day out.
Sara and I still talk every few months and I can’t convey how grateful I am for that. She was so giving and so loyal. We always needed her far more than she ever needed us. She’s beautiful and I’m so grateful I remain in her life. Fred [Jenkins], our long-time road manager, and I still talk every week. We go see concerts together. I still seek out his approval and thoughts with every one of my releases, month after month, year after after year. And Andy has chosen not to talk anymore. At least not to me. And that has really broken my heart. Every memory always begins with him and me. But there are only so many times you can leave a voicemail for someone telling them you love them and that you miss them and then never get a single reply. The last time I saw him I was crossing the street and he saw me, put his head down, and quickly walked to his car and drove away. And I struggle with that. And I struggle with the absence of any explanation… aww shit, man, I’m sorry but I don’t wanna talk about any old news anymore today. That shit just leaves me sad.
Lastly, what’s on the horizon? Man, it’s all about the next [record] right now. I’ve got another new album entirely written and all my vocals, keyboards, and beats are all tracked. Brian is just about to dive, and hopefully this time I can keep it down to a single disc.
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