Is a full length in the offing? As the artist himself notes, “I thought it might be easier to only give people a couple things to chew on, just to get my name around again. Hence, a 45.” Um, we keep your name around, so don’t worry about that, brutha!
By Fred Mills
What would you say to a new record from Peter Holsapple? Maybe you’d think, “Awesome! I love the dB’s!” Or possibly even, “Awesome! I love the Continental Drifters!” Or maybe you’re kinda like yours truly, and the rest of the North Carolina-based braintrust of BLURT, and you simply say, “Hell yeah, support the home team!”
Our fellow Tarheel and Durham resident (not to mention Winston-Salem ex-pat) Holsapple is self-releasing a new vinyl 45 record, “Don’t Mention the War” b/w “Cinderella Style”on his ownHawthorne Curve Records. The single drops Feb. 4, and while we presume you will be of a vinyl inclinations, the songs will also be available for purchase as digital downloads at the usual online kiosks.
The details, courtesy the Holsapple camp:
“Don’t Mention the War” is a poignant look at one man’s post-traumatic stress syndrome and how it affects his adoring nephew. With low, somber brass (Mark Daumann on tuba) and echoes of battles past, this is another engaging Holsapple story-song, steeped in dark emotions and vivid character assessment.
“Cinderella Style” doesn’t sound like a typical Peter Holsapple song, but then again, is there such a thing? This delicate tune visits a darkened sewing room for a look around and a quick reminisce. Rising star Skylar Gudasz lends her flute to the recording, and the whole thing is light, clean and just a little foreboding.
Joining Holsapple are James Wallace (Max Indian, Phil Cook) and Mark Simonsen (The Old Ceremony). They had convened in Simonsen’s studio last year to record “hi-fi versions” of tracks the songwriter had previously put out on the Radio Free Song Club podcast. “James and Mark were willing to take the plunge and make this record with me,” says Holsapple. “They brought years of recording and arranging experience to the project, and we’re all well pleased with how the songs turned out.”
Boy howdy to that, sir. We’ll be making space on our record shelf beside the P.H. “Big Black Truck” 45 and “dB’s In A Can” album come Feb. 4. Meanwhile, let’s review:
The Upshot: A sonic and lyric revelation from the American Aquarium frontman, and the type of album that, in the past, might have drawn critical hosannas along the lines of “new Springsteen.” Watch the video for the title track, below.
BY FRED MILLS
To these ears, an instant addition to my 2016 Top Ten—and there’s a degree of serendipity at play with American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham’s solo debut, because it is, in all likelihood, the last 2016 new release I’ll have heard prior to compiling that list. Talk about a welcome addition to the playbox. See, although Rockingham was released months ago, I’d only heard it in bits and pieces until now, owing to it not being available at any of my local stores—they consistently sold out, testimony to Barham’s popularity as frontman for American Aquarium and having a fanbase that instinctively trusts his music. When I finally tracked down a copy last week, Rockingham was more than just a musical pleasure—it was a sonic and lyric revelation. Barham, joined by such stellar Tarheel players as Phil Cook and Brad Cook (both of Megafaun; Brad also produced the album), and Whit Wright and Ryan Johnson (from American Aquarium), has crafted a minor masterpiece that seems destined to do more than just make people sit up and take notice. It’s going to endure.
On the surface, the record was inspired by Reidsville, North Carolina, Barham’s small hometown that, like other small hometowns across the South, has seen the American Dream gradually dissipate with the shuttering of textile mills and the decline of the tobacco industry. (Ironically, Barham’s decision to employ the name Rockingham as a stand-in for Reidsville caught me off-guard: I grew up about 20 miles from the actual Rockingham, NC, another town to whom the modern era has not been kind; and where Barham sings of Rockingham/Reidsville being situated “right there on the River Dan,” my Rockingham is located beside the Pee Dee River, which I also know quite well.)
As such, most of the songs here, though more or less fictional, are written in first person narration style, Barham singing through the eyes of his protagonists. They include the tobacco factory worker who works his “fingers to the bone/ Just to have a little something I can call my own” (“American Tobacco Company,” which lends sonic credence to the singer’s optimism via chipper banjo and Dobro lines and a reassuring organ hum). Elsewhere, there’s the man who reflects upon growing up in and getting out of the aforementioned small town, where he’d worked at an auto parts place while trying to raise a family at “twenty-eight years old [and] feeling twice my age,” but is now contemplating moving back there because it’s permanently in his blood (the Whiskeytown-esque “Rockingham”). And then there’s the farmer whose farm failed and subsequently got repossessed by the state, forcing him to turn to other means of survival (the stately-yet-solemn “Water in the Well”). This song’s lyrics bear repeating here. Singing in a weathered tone of resignation and regret, and with more than a tinge of desperation, Barham conjures images of both The Band and Nebraska-era Springsteen:
“Dear heavenly father, I come before you now
A bottle’s in my left hand, a pistol’s to my brow
The preacher says salvation will cleanse all my bad deeds
But I could never forgive myself for failing my family
What will I do when all else fails?
What will I do when no water is in the well?
What will I do when there is nothing left to sell?
Oh what will I do? Only time will tell”
Indeed, like Springsteen, Barham has an instinctive and empathetic understanding of the working class. That may come from growing up amid humble, small town roots; one can’t help but sense that while these songs are character driven, Barham is still drawing psychologically from personal experience, or from the experiences of those around him, creating characters that ring true to him emotionally. (The CD cover and the lyric/credits booklet feature numerous vintage snapshots and Polaroids of a young couple and their kids, possibly images from his own childhood.) It also may come from that classic songwriter reflex wherein one perpetually views the world through the lens of storytelling, and even the merest of glimpses or briefest of anecdotes can trigger an avalanche of nuance and detail. Probably both.
Barham is among a latter-day crop of gifted songwriters and rockers working within the Americana field that includes Jason Isbell, Patterson Hood, and Sturgill Simpson, artists who can create believable images and write in plain-spoken terms that still have a poetic, at times ballet-like, elegance. We’re fortunate to have these folks operating in the present era, keeping us honest while inspiring the next generation of young artists.
And Americana is a funny genre, when you think about it. Some of the most cringe-inducing songs on the planet have been authored in its name—those standard-issue strum/twang confections dotted by lyrics like, “Got up this morning, looked around the empty house, poured a cup of coffee, and wrote this song about her.” (Then he rambled on down the road, natch.)
But some carry an uncommon emotional heft and back up the lyrics with alternately luminous and adrenalin-charged arrangements guaranteed to have you shivering with recognition one moment and pumping your fist the next. Barham—solo or with American Aquarium—is the type of artist that falls in to the latter category. He’s the real deal.
DOWNLOAD: “Madeline,” “Water in the Well,” “Rockingham”
On hand are Branford Marsalis, Nnenna Freelon, Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, Skylar Gudasz, Django Haskins, Millie McGuire Kirsten Lambert, Eric Hodge, Walker Harrison, and Presyce Baez.
By Blurt Staff
Longtime NC music scene aficionados already know the term “Occasional Shivers”: it’s a song penned by Christ Stamey (The dB’s) and released as part of a Christmas single in 1986. More recently, it has a new context: a “brand-new old-fashioned radio play airing this holiday season on public broadcasting” that Stamey has newly composed and produced.
The play features the above artists (Marsalis is the host) plus a jazz band featuring the likes of Bill Frisell, John Brown, Scott Sawyer and Will Campbell, and is a “one-hour musical drama tells the story of two young lovers who meet at a pair of Christmas parties…. With characters such as society hostess Birdie McDavenish (“I Didn’t Mean to Fall in Love with You”), famed composer Paul Carter (“Intoxichoclification”), and aspiring songwriter Will Cassidy (“Manhattan Melody [That’s My New York]”), the play harkens back to an era, after West Side Story but before the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, when jazz had gone from hot to cool and it looked like rock and roll was on its last legs.”
It premiered live in September in Chapel Hill at UNC’s Kenan Music Building, and the broadcast is now going to be available as an expanded “director’s cut” starting Christmas Day via iTunes and Amazon. Below, watch a couple of versions of the trailer. Happy holidays, everyone!
Friday brings the Gov’t Mule mainman’s pre-Jam in local Asheville rock club, while Saturday ushers in yet another (potentially 10 hour) marathon at the convention center.
By Fred Mills
Let’s cut straight to the chase: it’s Haynes Jam time again in beautiful downtown Asheville, North Carolina (where the BLURT Western Bureau is located, comfortably lodged on a luxury schooner moored in the South French Broad River near Biltmore Village – we’re kind of like one of the offshore pirate radio ships that entertained England back in the day).
First up: The estimable Mr. Haynes will be making an appearance Friday (Dec. 9) at 3PM out at Habitat For Humanity’s McKinley subdivision to mark the opening of two houses that the Haynes Jam’s 2015 event funded. Did I mention that the Jam and all associated events raises funds for Habitat? (As an aside: purely by chance, I ran into Warren Thursday afternoon at an Asheville coffee shop, and it was not only nice to catch up – you can read yours truly’s commentary on previous Haynes Jams elsewhere on the site, along with selected interviews he and I have done over the years – but it was quite a treat to be re-introduced to his lovely wife Stefani, who has worked tirelessly over the years with Warren to make the Jam be a success, and to be newly introduced to his young son. It will come as no surprise to learn that the kid’s gonna be a rocker.)
Then on Friday evening the traditional pre-Jam takes place at Asheville’s venerable Orange Peel club, featuring selected musicians slated for the Saturday night blowout taking part in a slightly lower-key (but no less engaging) series of fluid sets, all broadcast by regional community powerhouse radio stations (and BLURT buddies) WNCW-FM. Those of you not in the WNCW listening area of 88.7 can tune in online around 6PM—and as long as I’ve got your attention, allow me to gently suggest that you can make donations to Habitat during that broadcast. Trust me—I’ve donated annually myself—it will make you feel good. And if you’re like me, you might be inclined to fire up that old tape deck and record the show so you can revisit that good feeling later. I estimate that the pre-Jam will only cost you 4 c90s and part of a c60—plus the Habitat pledge, natch.
Meanwhile, a bit tip o’ the BLURT hat to all the Saturday night Jam attendees. For the rest of us, the Jam is making a special webcast available via Nugs.tv, in both SD ($19.99) and HD ($24.99) formats. It’s not quite the same as being on hand in Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center (formerly the Civic Center), but assuming that the webcast personnel are prepared to point their gear at the stage until the wee hours of the morn—ask me sometime about leaving the venue at 2:30, 3:00 and 4:00 in the a.m.—there’s a good chance you’ll get a reasonable bang for your buck.
And that buck goes to a good cause. As Stan the Man might put it—Excelsior!
The Upshot: A perfect prescription of kosmiche space rock, Madchester shoegaze, and dreamy, Floydian psych fromNorth Carolina’s Queen City.
BY FRED MILLS
No, it’s not a font glitch on your screen: Based on the album’s sleeve art, this Charlotte, NC, band Interstella℞s does indeed employ the prescription signifier as part of their name. And that’s more than appropriate—as is the title I Keep Coming Down—considering the druggywoozycool vibe of this remarkable record. (Good luck with the Googling, though.)
As crafted by studio auteurs Jason Herring and Paul Jensen, along with some fellow Queen City mainstays, I Keep Coming Down sets the controls for the heart of the kosmiche sun, charting a shoegazey trajectory guaranteed to keep the synapses pinging. The Interstella℞s album is billed as remixes from 2000-01 sessions for Firefly in a Headlight, although you wouldn’t get that from the songtitles here, as there’s only a subtle overlap (such as “Sweetdreaming,” referencing early song “Daydreaming”; and “Blues in Drag,” a live version of the prior “Blues in Drag”). And regardless, the record is utterly compelling in its own right, from the shimmering, shuddering, Spacemen 3-meets-The Church opening track “This Close to Venus” to the return-to-Madchester-acid-house rock of “Sweetdreaming” to the anthemic atmospherics of “Stillwater” (somebody in this band has studied his Pink Floyd bootlegs closely).
And for NC trainspotters, here’s also a track, featuring guest vocalists Hope Nichols (from the late, great Fetchin Bones) and The Mighty D.R., titled “River Euphrates”—when you consider some of the other songtitles here, such as “China Mall,” “Leggo My Echoes,” and “Electric Sheep,” it’s no stretch to presume that the artists here not only know their musical and cultural cosmology, they revel in it. All in all, one of this season’s—hell, make it the entire year’s—most unexpected sonic treats.
Oh, and by the way, gentlemen—apologies for the capital “R” in the Interstella℞s name throughout this review, but there doesn’t appear to be any way to make the prescription symbol in lower case. Call it a font glitch? Either way, we’re looking forward to a refill, and soon.
North Carolina’s Chatham County Line excel at the ability to create an affecting sound while still maintaining a low-cast gaze. That’s never been more apparent than on Autumn, an album that makes an immediate impact despite the subdued textures that supply its ample allure. Although they’re often been referred to as a bluegrass band, there’s little evidence of that here. So even though mandolin, banjo and fiddle all play a part in the proceedings, there’s scant trace of the unfettered rowdiness and uptempo jubilation normally associated with the drive that genre.
Instead we find the group employing a supple country rock sound that finds its essence at the core of the album’s eleven tracks. They hit their stride midway through on a trio of sweet ballads — “Rock in the River,” “Jackie Boy” and “All That’s Left” — and although the surrounding songs keep to the same tone and tempo, those three numbers give the album its emotional imprint. “It’s time to let the good times roll,” they intone on “Bon Ton Roulet,” and though there’s barely an uptick on the songs that follow — one has to wait for the all-instrumental “Bull City Strut” five offerings later and the unusually upbeat “If I Had My Way” and the jaunty album closer “Show Me The Door” well beyond that — there is a quiet optimism reminiscent of the praise that late folk auteur John Denver once offered for country roads and soaring mountain peaks.
At times, optimism often finds its credence in quiet reflection, and indeed Autumn provides some seasonal celebration entirely its own.
DOWNLOAD: “Rock in the River,” “Jackie Boy,” “All That’s Left”
Independent record store chain (3 cities) to blow it out as usual with The Veldt, Hank Sinatra frontman Jeffro, and Al Riggs.
By Blurt Staff
A lot of you probably know that BLURT has a sister business here in North Carolina, Schoolkids Records, which operates stores in Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. Our esteemed owner, Stephen Judge, has announced the annual Christmas party, which will take place on December 23 on the Raleigh location’s stage. As usual, the bash is co-curated by Judge and Hank Sinatra frontman Jeffro, and with the latter also set to perform, who the hell knows what will be going down! And since the Raleigh store sells beer (local and premium draft as well as cans), a good rock ‘n’ roll time is guaranteed for all. See the full announcement, below, and then mark your calendars because everyone from the extended Schoolkids and BLURT families are invited—drop by and say hi to us, why don’t ya?
“Folks, please join us for our annual holiday blow-out party. The event is 100% FREE! and this year we are extremely proud to have gracing the Schoolkids – Raleigh stage: Al Riggs (8pm), Jeffro from Hank Sinatra & Friends (9pm) and The Veldt (10pm) all times are approximate but please arrive early! We all know 2016 has been a very tough year so let’s blow this sucker off the map rock and roll style! see you all then!! help us spread the word!”
The Upshot: NC group’s six-song debut is rich in texture, awash in melody, full of literary and emotional nuance.
BY FRED MILLS
In 1974 a man named Philippe Petit did a tight rope act, which on the face of it isn’t particularly significant, since circus performers do it all the time, and even we ordinary folks employ the term “tight rope act” during moments of risk. Petit, however, performed his particular act between the towers of the World Trade Center as thousands of citizens, and more than a few policemen, watched from the Manhattan Streets far below—not something that happens every day.
This daredevil move, it seems, is what inspired the Grand Shell Game’s debut album, Man on a Wire, in general, and the opening track of the same name in particular. “What if he falls?” the musicians harmonize en masse, amid a surging sea of swirling keys, crashing guitars and tumbling percussion, and as the song unfolds, notions of life’s fleeting nature are voiced (one verse concerns a soldier engaged in combat thousands of miles east of NYC) along with the idea that “to own your own soul you must step past the edge.” Heavy stuff indeed—and this is a heavy album, rich in texture, awash in melody, full of literary and emotional nuance.
The Grand Shell Game is a six-piece from Carrboro, NC. From the classic rock vibe of “Oracle,” what with its Beatlesque vocals and sinewy guitar solos, to the gently rippling “Love,” which offers a contrasting folk/pop/psych side to the band, their debut album is a remarkably fresh affair. To these ears it sounds unique within its indie rock context even as it bears familiar overtones of years gone by.
It may be a shell game these young men say they are playing, but they won’t be able to keep things hidden from view too much longer. Together for only two years, they are already causing the kind of regional stir that should carry them far and wide.
River Whyless create a hypnotic appeal, one that suggests a kind of psychedelic sensibility of a ‘60s vintage as well as some Far Eastern mantra that furthers its mystique. Granted, there’s not a sitar in sight, but the band’s meditative melodies and supple strings convey a Zen-like sound that transcends any supposed nu-folk designs. Band members Ryan O’Keefe (guitars, vocals), Halli Anderson (violin, vocals), Alex McWalters (drums, percussion) and Daniel Shearin (bass, vocals, harmonium, cello, banjo) make a sound that’s unceasingly mellow, in so doing relying on a more cerebral style as opposed to an approach that promises instant engagement.
Songs such as “Baby Brother,” “Falling Son” and the title track induce a quiet and calming state of bliss, with added brass and strings adding to that serene suggestion. Of course that’s also evident in song titles like “Bend Time,” “Sailing Away,” “Blood Moon” and “We Are All the Light,” all hinting at the unusual, understated approach that resides at their musical core. Taken in tandem, it suggests a feeling of peaceful repose, a calming effect that’s decidedly out of sync with the cacophony of modern times. Given that the group hails from the idyllic environs of Asheville North Carolina, the air of tranquillity would seem part and parcel of their DNA, but the way that they transmit that aural imagery conveys an effortless effect as well.
With We All The Light, River Whyless offers a much needed respite, and more importantly, a way to illuminate the deepest, darkest shadows with the clarity of the light.
On their fourth album in as many years, the Tarheel rockers craft heartland rock and offer lyrical musings with an uncommon grace, depth, and redemption.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Ed. Note: Since forming in 2012, Charlotte’s Temperance League— Jay Garrigan (piano, organ), Bruce Hazel (vocals), David “DK” Kim (drums, percussion), Shawn Lynch (guitar, vocals, percussion), Eric Scott (bass), Chad Wilson (guitar, vocals)—have consistently delivered the musical goods, and pretty much the entire Blurt braintrust can claim allegiance to their powerful, emotional brand of heartland rock. For evidence simply check out our reviews of 2013’s Rock and Roll Dreams, and 2015’s The Night Waits, or read our 2013 interview with the band. In that interview, guitarist Lynch told longtime contributor John Schacht that delivering those goods is their whole reason for existing: “We’re not skinny young dudes, we’re not young, we’re not necessarily hip anymore, our only weapon is that we’re good. We play our asses off and write awesome songs, so we just need to do that as best we can. If we can’t, then there’s no point in doing it.” Frontman Hazel agreed, saying, “I really just love doing this. And there’s no reason to stop— it’s not keeping me from doing anything else, and it doesn’t hinder my life in any other way. It fits perfectly in.” Amen to that. Take it away, Dr. Schacht, and meanwhile, everyone feel free to check out our recent premiere of the song “Long Shot” from the group’s remarkable new album, Day of the Dove.
In a musical landscape where digital singles and electro beats have practically driven guitar-driven album rock underground, and titans of the art form like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty take what amount to nostalgic victory laps, it’s hard not to hear a band whose DNA is so strongly rooted in that past as anything but anachronistic.
But that, as they say in the sports world, is why they play games—or, in the case of this Charlotte, N.C.-based quintet and their fourth album, Day of the Dove, why they spin the black circle. (Or, in this case, the white vinyl; the band typically does its albums on colored wax.) This need to make rock ‘n’ roll whatever the long acclaim odds, and whatever the shrinking rewards, says as much about the art form’s pull as it does its Quixotic practitioners. With producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Pavement) overseeing recording at his Fidelitorium studio, Temperance League has slightly reframed its earlier references—which have ranged from working class Springsteen anthems and rebellious Heartbreakers’ singalongs to Ramones fuzz and the Byrds’ jangle—into a work whose sonic depth matches that of its lyrics.
It’s made more impressive by the fact that the band members have entered middle age with just as much dedication and desperation as they did trying to break in as young men. Now, though, it’s the dwindling clock that fuels the band’s surging tempos and multi-guitar attack, all of it dialed higher by singer Bruce Hazel’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics and fevered delivery —”I’m scared of growing older/I’m scared of starting over,” he cries on the propulsive rocker, “Long Shot,” “but I’ve never been one to give up.” That song, like many on Dove, finds the band opting for more Wall of Sound textures, trading in some of the immediacy of their earlier LPs for a deepness that may, in the end, suit them better. “Cathedral in the Sky” toys with their sound like never before, background narratives peeking out from Beatles-esque backwards guitar-lines and distorted drums. There’s even a whiff of Summerteeth-era Wilco on “Like New,” especially in its mellotron wash.
The LP saves its best for last, though, with the anthemic “The Good Fight” standing in for not just the last days of rock ‘n’ roll, but for the sunset of hard working Americans for whom it provided release and redemption. “And what about all the compromises?/And what about the consequences? Who was it for?,” Hazel sings as the Rickenbacker’s jangle, piano comping, and huge Spector-esque drums frantically tighten the tension, before it breaks into the chorus with what feels like a life-time’s release: “It keeps getting harder and harder and harder to keep up the good fight/You keep clinging tighter and tighter and tighter, hold on for your life.”
In asking these questions, Hazel and Temperance League already know the answers; they fight on despite them. And that’s what gives these songs grace, depth, and redemption no matter what’s going on in the culture outside of them—that is what makes the fight worthwhile in the first place. It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: Rock is dead, they say? Long live rock!
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