The timeless desert rock sound that Hopkins pioneered in the late ‘80s with the Sidewinders is revisited anew, with breathtakingly beautiful results.
BY FRED MILLS
Houston-by-way-of-Tucson musician Rich Hopkins has never traveled too far afield from the vaunted desert rock sound that he pioneered way back in the late ‘80s with the Sidewinders; the Arizona outfit was profiled by yours truly as part of BLURT’s “College Rock Chronicles” series not long ago. Yet throughout his lengthy career he’s consistently explored new themes and sonic textures, perennially restless, yet at times optimistic, even metaphysical, and ultimately eager to explore that duality of nature. With umpteenth album My Way or the Highway (released via Hopkins’ label San Jacinto and Europe’s Blue Rose; it follows 2014’s Tombstone and 2015’s Enchanted Rock), he seems to have attained a state of balance—grace, even.
This comfortable-in-my-skin quality typically occurs only for veteran artists who’ve seen career highs while going through the occasional personal low, along with the inevitable humility-fostering slings and arrows that come with operating under the public microscope; at some point they realize that the ego drive of youth is ephemeral, while the stability of alliances and relationships is eternal, and that in turn helps feed the muse.It should be noted that the Sidewinders still reconvene a couple of times each year—they’ve been a welcome addition to several of BLURT’s SXSW day parties in Austin each March—but Hopkins’ primary focus these days is his solo work with Luminarios (above), which include his wife and fellow songwriter/singer Lisa Novak along with a number of veteran Austin and Tucson musicians, all of whom have an instinctive empathy for where he’s coming from—which is to say, the desert.
Indeed, …Highway is both a literal and mental travelogue, commencing with the part-recited/part-sung “Angel of the Cascades” (a haunting ballad aglow in humming organ and a “Sweet Jane”-like guitar melody, it’s about a magical trip to Mexico that Hopkins and Novak undertook) and culminating in the elegant, urgent “Walkaway Again” (whose rich vocal harmonies, gentle rhythmic pulse and descending chord progression make it a direct descendent of Hopkins’ Sidewinders material). In between, there’s the brash, Crazy Horsian “Gaslighter”; the cosmic cowboy twang of “If You Want To”; a windswept, Latin-flavored acoustic guitar instrumental titled “Lost Highway” that could easily soundtrack a road-trip scene into Mexico; and “Chan Kah,” a somber-yet-lovely midtempo number subtitled “A Mayan Love Story, a Story of Creation” that builds to one of Hopkins’ patented guitar crescendos.
Hold that thought: Throughout the album, echoes of the Sidewinders’ oeuvre can be heard, although the Luminarios never do this in a forced or calculated manner. Hopkins has always had a signature guitar style, part Neil Young/part Mike Campbell, along with a comfort zone of familiar chord progressions that serve his songs well; it’s an expansive, anthemic, deeply melodic sound that fans have come to love and can spot within a few seconds of a song’s beginning. Structurally, for example, the 7-minute “Gnashing of Teeth” will remind listeners of the ’winders eternal “What She Said” (from 1989’s Witchdoctor), while “Want You Around” has the same brisk jangle vibe that marked much of that earlier band’s material—although Novak’s creamy lead vocal lends the tune an unexpectedly blissful undercurrent, too. (Mrs. Hopkins just might be Mr. Hopkins’ secret weapon these days.)
With My Way or the Highway, then, Rich Hopkins hasn’t so much “returned to his roots” (a clichéd term if there ever was one) as he’s embraced anew all the core elements that earned him a devoted audience in the first place. It’s quite possibly the strongest, most consistent record he’s made since 1994’s powerhouse Luminarios album Dirt Town, which itself represented a personal manifesto, cementing Hopkins’ musical style in the wake of the Sidewinders’ then-recent demise (as the Sand Rubies, due to an enforced name change that’s detailed in the above-referenced Sidewinders story).
And it also represents, in addition to those desert rock sounds, a thematic celebration of Hopkins’ deep, abiding love for the Southwest. From the cover art, which depicts a near-empty, impossibly straight highway aiming off into the vanishing point, to the booklet photos accompanying each song’s lyrics (among them, some beaming Mexican kids, a close-up of ocotillo cactus in brilliant full bloom, and a red-dirt desert punctuated by rocky outcroppings), it’s also a visual personal statement, one that is guaranteed to make anyone who’s every fallen in love with the desolate beauty of the desert achingly nostalgic.
Of that last point, I can offer personal testimony to how much this record makes me miss that sun-kissed region. Rich, you were largely responsible for my moving to Tucson all those years ago, where I enjoyed a pretty great decade-long run. I’m gonna get back there one day, too. Meet you at the pueblo? Maybe even down on Santa Maria Street…
“Can’t believe we gotta leave this place
Think we saw the Angel of the Cascade
Think we met an angel
Yeah… you’re everywhere that I go
In everyone that I know that I will be there.” —from “Angel of the Cascades”
John Girgus is no household name, but in the world of indie pop music this ultra-talented musician made his name as one of the leaders of the Los Angeles-based band Aberdeen, his and Beth Arzy’s brainchild. That band was one of the few American bands signed to the UK label Sarah Records. Just being on that label would give a band legendary status among many of Sarah’s ardent fans. Aberdeen came, went, came again and then left us, but left us with some beautiful, excellent recordings (which you’ll read about below). In addition to that band Girgus has played with…well, a ton of folks. His latest musical project is the melodic-yet-occasionally-haunting Legendary House Cats; they can be fun, too. I’m assuming that Girgus has a job though, for some reason I picture him as this guy who doesn’t work and hangs around a studio all day with music filling his head and then it all comes spilling out in whatever instrument he happens to be picking up. This isn’t to imply that the guy’s lazy or anything, on the contrary, he’s got an obsession and he has to get it out. I also picture him not sleeping much either (again, music filling his head). We flew Girgus in on the private DAGGER jet and stuck a mic in front of his face. He was equal parts guarded and forthright, but mostly the latter. He also brought croissants for the very hungry staff. Take it away, John. (Ed. Note: this interview originally appeared in Dr. Hinely’s most excellent ‘zine, DAGGER.)
Did you grow up in Los Angeles proper? If not, where?
Not at all, I grew up in the Coachella Valley, pretty much every city out there, Palm Springs, Yucca Valley, Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indio, also for a short time in Long Island, NY. I’ve lived in LA for about 17 years now. Most of my adult life.
Was music big in your house growing up? What was the first instrument that you picked up?
It was on in the car a lot, but I don’t know about any more or less than anyone else. Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, The Beatles, were popular on the 8-track, Billy Joel, Jethro Tull, Paul Simon, were the cassettes, then of course later they’d let us listen to our tapes, probably a bad idea. There were audio systems in the house, but they weren’t really centerpieces. The car was probably where most of it was played. Nobody played instruments or anything though.
The first instrument I had, was a Casio PT-82. (I just looked that up.) It’s a tiny little 25-micro key keyboard, with a built in speaker, that had what they called a ROM-Pack which were like data cartridges that had MIDI versions of like “Greensleeves” with instruction in the form of LEDs that followed the keys. I had no idea what I was doing, but I loved it. A few years after I forgot about that, I got a bass guitar. A short scale Cort, an inexpensive beginner. That was to play in a band.
How did you first discover different music? Was it punk first? New wave? Power pop?
I remember being in Vancouver once, as a kid, and hearing the radio and feeling bad for them because they had this grating, third-rate sounding music playing, clearly tell was inferior to the radio back home, (probably mostly slick power ballads at the time). A few years later I heard the same song again, listening to a borrowed cassette copy of “Standing on a Beach” in a whole new way, of course. Punk and all that eventually followed, I bought and sold records trying to reconcile changing tastes, probably same as anyone, but The Cure always had that place. They started it.
Also, I hate power pop.
When you first began writing songs who were you influenced by?
A lot of friends at the time, bandmates, as songwriting largely collaborative. A lot of the time, it was just making up riffs or having parts written on one instrument, kind of half-songs, and you’d form words as part of the music and all that. I’d be bringing my Steven Severin lead bass riff to a guy who was mostly listening to “…And Justice For All” and another guy who maybe into thrash, sometimes you’d just create with only the direction that was directly before it, luckily we were creative enough where that didn’t get in the way too much.
I had maybe one friend who really wrote songs a little later on. By that time, I was working out my own ideas and arrangements much more realized via drum machine and 4-track. I was also listening to the shoegazers, Cocteau Twins, many of the Sarah bands, some of the more obscure Creation bands and songwriters. There were a lot of jazz chords in that, anyway, the one friend of ours, Aron Alcala, a very encouraging, talented songwriter (who actually played briefly in Aberdeen), was very into jazz and noise in addition to melody and alternative music. The introduction to a jazzier chords in addition to the open chords I’d been using, that was pretty instrumental.
I still don’t even know if I write songs. I think what I write are more like themes or something. They can be songs, but I don’t walk around singing songs strumming the guitar at parties either. I sit and listen more than anything.
Was Aberdeen your first band? If not tell us about your first band?
No, but sort of. Aberdeen was part of an evolution of bands. My first real band was with the guys that I just mentioned. We didn’t even think to do covers, we just started playing our own ideas. Sort of jamming, but more just collaborative writing. That band was called The Void, which was my terrible 14 year-old idea of a name that came from Siouxsie & The Banshees “Love In a Void”. I have a tape archived. I’ve thought about cleaning it up and posting it… maybe I will now! It’s mostly instrumentals recorded live into a boom box. It’s very rudimentary, but also kind of diverse and weirdly ambitious.
How did Aberdeen come together as a band? How did you first meet Beth?
That band did really get up to much besides the Chris the drummer, and Ryan the guitarist’s garage. Maybe like one backyard party. I think Chris got into more important things and Ryan and I just kinda kept playing, trying to write, hanging out. I started learning guitar more. I was getting more into punk, him metal, but I don’ think either one of us owned or operated a distortion (or any) pedal. Everything we wrote was pretty twee. About then I was hanging out with another friend who had started playing drums, Frank. I met Beth probably shortly after that, about the same time I was giving up on trying to sing.
Beth just walked up to me in high school one day with her best friend. There was a total of about a dozen goth kids at the high school, so we all knew of each other at the least. She was one of the more extroverted of the bunch. At some point she told me she wrote poems and wanted to sing in a band. I remember actually trying to write music to a few poems. It was pretty awkward, but when we did the music first, it was much better. I guess we all talked eventually and agreed to give a band a try. It was pretty random,s in terms of music tastes, but pretty much nothing else to do, so I think we just committed to the idea, made it work. And again, the first thing we did was start writing. That would have been Ryan, Frank, Beth and I in Frank’s folks’ living room (later garage), which is now a beautified desert sidewalk.
That band, Beth called Black Star Carnival, which she took from the Primal Scream song, but if you weren’t familiar with early Primal Scream, it sounded like some sort of goth circus act. We actually played out a lot. We’d recorded in a few local studios and some Aberdeen songs were actually written at that time. Another nice kid named Ryan joined on guitar, we got into a bigger sounding thing, a pedal or two, as shoegaze was happening. He actually gave me my cassette copy of “Loveless”, because he didn’t like it. I got a lot of records that way. I remember Chris actually re-joining the band briefly when Frank left, but eventually everybody lost interest and it was pretty much me and Beth. I had a guitar, a 4-track, and a newly acquired Boss DR-550 Dr. Rhythm drum machine. Beth picked up the bass and renamed the band Aberdeen, which had actually been one of our songs. We didn’t so much come together as a band, but kind of fall apart into one.
How did the folks at Sarah Records contact you about wanting to release your records? Were you guys over the moon?
I think Beth and Matt were already writing. She’d sent them a demo (maybe one of our infamous “Prong tapes” even). They may have even been written via fax at that time, so… probably fax! Beth had moved to Los Angeles by then, I was living in Indio, where I did most of the writing and recording for those songs. Beth called me on the phone, at a job I hated, both to tell me she’d sent the tape, and that they liked it and wanted to do a single. I was pretty over the moon, yeah. It gave me a lot of hope.
With Sarah Records, was it hard being an American band on a U.K. label? Those bands doing tours over in England, I’m sure you wanted to be part of it.
In all honesty, I barely felt a part of it at all. Beth was much more social, she’d write to everyone. I’d seen a few nice ‘zine reviews, but she kind of gave me the impression we weren’t one of the beloved bands. Like Sarah’s step-kids, one of ‘the later bands’. Maybe that’s true, maybe time has been kind, it still surprises me when I hear someone say we were amongst their favorites. I think she also spent a lot of time in the chat rooms and message boards later, too. I was never into that, really. I still don’t feel like a part of it. The only connection I really have to it is the music itself.
There were a few instances, like getting a fan postcard from Keith Girdler of Blueboy. It would have been great to be a part of those tours, but I barely knew they were happening. When any of the bands would play here, we’d get a call and usually the opening spot which was nice. We played with Heavenly and Boyracer, probably the only bands brave enough to make it to the US. Learning about the rifts was fun. We assumed they were all friends, and had been doing a Brighter cover “Half-Hearted”, when we opened for Heavenly at the Crocodile Lounge in Santa Monica. After the set pretty they all walked up to us, super nice, told us they loved the set… except they “could’ve done without the Brighter cover” and we’re like “you don’t like Brighter?” and they just pointed thumbs down and pulled faces!
Did Aberdeen break up in between the Sarah Recordings and 2002’s Homesick and Happy to be Here or did the band exist the whole time?
The first one is correct. That was a real break up. A relationship break up. The relationship was not good and by then it was pretty unbearable. I wanted to do the band still, but we weren’t writing, we weren’t finishing anything, Sarah had just announced their end, we were just playing shows around LA which kinda sucked back then, a revolving door of bandmates, like surrogates filling an imaginary space. There was no way the band was going to survive that kind of break up. She recorded “Marine Parade” mostly on her own, for a commitment to March Records’ “Pop, American Style”, but that was pretty much it for a bit.
I moved around a few times after that and pretty much quit music altogether. When I moved back to LA in ’98 I was playing in a few different projects, revisiting those Aberdeen tapes, and started reaching out. That was about the time what would become “Homesick” began to develop.
Why did you decide to release It Was the Rain: Lost Recordings 1993-1995?
I felt like I had to. Those tapes are some of our most important recorded material. Somewhere there are faxes from Matt (Sarah Records) giving us production notes about the studio recordings of “Byron”, basically telling us to find what we lost from those “demos”. Sarah did nobody any favors. They’ve passed on demos by Pale Saints, Manic Street Preachers, favorites amongst my favorite bands. What he loved about our music was contained in those recordings. Our friends loved them. I didn’t just set up a couple mics and track an existing band. That’s how I made and probably still make music. The song is written on the chromium oxide! Those recordings kind of are Aberdeen.
There were some cool unreleased songs too, that I thought deserved to see the light of day, like Jenni and Adam’s songs. Those don’t really exist anywhere else, but I just thought they were great. Adam’s “Self Evidence” is the only one I added instruments to. We did that in a night on Moog and guitar, so it seemed like a nice close to add a little bass and a synth and kind of be like. . . this is sort of where we were heading at the time.
The masters though, they were full of noise, degrading in storage, the multi-tracks in danger of physical damage. The ideas themselves fragile in their only existing state. Trying to keep them safe was becoming a burden. I found a Marantz 4-track recorded in a pawn shop for $100, it had 4 outputs and did multi-speed, at about the time I had a pretty nice but very old Pro Tools rig which has nice sounding inputs. I just digitized everything from my drawer of tapes. I was also starting to get into the newer more up to date recording rig I have now, which has some pretty slick noise, mastering, and mixing tools. I tried a couple of the songs that were finished and previously mixed, just cleaning up noise and mastering mostly. It started to work really well and sound really nice. I just got caught up in it, as I do when a project starts to work, and finished it in a couple weeks. I had everything we did, some songs that were missing for years, all pretty reasonably listenable. I booked a day to master with Uly Noriega’s studio The Laundry Room, but that turned into 2-3 days of mixing and mastering. At that point there wasn’t much choice, really. Everything else had been on Bandcamp anyway.
The entire program ran pretty well over an hour, so I thought a cassette would be a nice souvenir. The songs were recorded onto cassette, they were originally distributed on cassette, and then remastered on cassette. I did a shorter version on CD later, because so many people complained about the cassette, though!
I guess, I just don’t want the very existence of my music, being so vulnerable to fate or chance. With Aberdeen, at least, I’ve always thought that if I didn’t take the effort to keep the music out there, nobody would.
Tell us about your current band, the Legendary House Cats. When and how did it come about?
It’s a solo project. I just didn’t want to name it John Girgus. It will probably end up there eventually, but I like having the name to apply when needed. My most recent effort, a cover of The Softies “Hello Rain” for “Constant and True: The Songs of Rose Melberg” is credited to John Girgus & The Legendary House Cats. A remix might be credited as “Legendary House Cats Remix”, where a collaborative credit, I can just use my name. Starting up a new project is difficult, I’m just trying to connect myself to my efforts over the years, and have some fun with it.
It was kind of this or nothing. I’ve started, driven and played in a good few bands. It always gets to a point where it becomes almost physically impossible to continue making music. When the idea is built around collaboration, it’s very existence is so delicate. I was working with a few bands a couple years ago, and I just saw a lot of bad decisions, a lot of energy selling the song, not so much writing it. I realized at one point I couldn’t do anything about it. I could put so much work into it, but the outcome was pretty much a pattern and a pattern I recognized a little too well! I just was like “if you keep doing this you’re the idiot”. My goal has always been to make good music, relatively consistently and that was just never happening. I hate the idea of working solo, it’s scary and difficult. It’s not the ideal situation to me, but I’d rather do that then not make music, or have some weekender, jam day and beers thing or conducting someone’s stalled ego train. Music has never been about ‘hangin’ with muh buds’ or any of that. It’s just what I do.
The focus lately has been more on composing for TV, ads… work. The artist thing is really secondary to that. There are projects I still want to do, there are songs I want to finish, but like, the idea of being this age, and thinking you’re going to make a record and it’s going to be big, doing all this set up, spending money on PR, social media content, the whole a band identity, it just feels a little vain. Nobody really cares. It’s the music that’s important. I’m happy posting songs on the internet for now, if I get any cool offers, I have a vehicle. I can take shows, I can contribute to comps, do remixes, collab. The Legendary House Cats isn’t trying to be a poster on a teenage wall, it’s a way for me to work with a degree of stability.
Tell us about any bands I might be missing in between Aberdeen and the Legendary House Cats.
“Well, let’s see. First the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. . .”
From ‘96-2000ish there wasn’t too much. I played in Timonium for a minute. Later in about ’99 I played bass in an alt-rock band called Gingersol some people know. I didn’t make it to any recordings, though.
In 2003, I was actually in Trembling Blue Stars as Aberdeen served as Bob’s band for several shows. Later in 2007 I played guitar on “The Last Holy Writer”. 4 people saw those shows, but there are some clips on Youtube.
After the Aberdeen single “Florida” was released in 2004, it didn’t make much sense to pursue. I had actually started working on songs on my own, but there was just no support for those songs and I lost confidence pretty fast. I had met Ale Cohen then, Marcos of Languis, an Argentine electronic duo with a recent addition Stephen Swesey, who was in Tristeza. They needed a “fourth mind” and I signed up. We managed to get one EP, well regarded by a few people at least, “Other Desert Cities”. Shelflife re-released it on 10″ a couple years back, that’s worth checking out, I’m sure there are a few left. There were a lot of creative moments. We even scored an room at The Los Angeles Natural History Museum (which they let us record in the building, after hours). Ale has most of it released his label Simballrec’s Bancamp page.
Towards the end of my time with them, I had started writing and recording with a youngish singer, a co-worker form a job I had briefly at the American Apparel Factory in Downtown LA. It started as this this sort of charming, hipster, weirdo pop, eventually called Spider Problem. We made a pretty good racket playing live LA for several years, eventually opening a short tour for a reunited Germs (Shane West was a friend of the singer). We’d evolved into this four piece rock thing, eventually playing what would become these notoriously physical, even violent stage shows. It was novel, it brought us attention, but the music suffered though, and the recorded output leaves a lot to be desired, unfortunately. I was actually kicked out of the band while working on an album that we never finished. Almost like two different bands, they fizzled out in a very forgettable scene here. That band upset a few of my friends, but it was strange because the people who knew me from there… they’d never heard or cared about of any of my other projects. The earlier recordings are still on iTunes, but here’s little relevance for them now. It was a pretty good chunk of time, but you could probably skip it.
Somewhere in that same time I had a job playing bass for a guy named William Tell, who was a member of the band Something Corporate. They wore flip flops. I ended up on a lot of fangirl Myspace pages, a music video, some Youtube live clips and I think some of my production made it to at least one released recording; a song called “Break” written but ultimately rejected for the Will Smith movie “Seven Pounds”, I think.
After that, Chris McRitchie and Dave McKay and I started the band Non Ultra Joy. Chris’ band Big Stone City had hit a wall, and Dave’s band Driveblind (who were actually from Aberdeen, Scotland) they were on Geffen, but also had some big personnel problems. I’d been writing with Chris for years, and Dave had played in William’s band with towards the end. We had a shared work ethic, various frustrations, and a hankering to rock. They let me bring a keyboard. We made 2 EPs, but I think it was a really bad time to be playing rock in LA though. Everything was going “indie”, which at the time meant putting a bunch of drum kits at the front of the stage and chanting in unison over sample triggers. I’m very proud of both of those EPs. They are both on Bandcamp.
That would all be up to around 2011, where I also briefly joined an electric ukele driven elevator jazz inspired ensemble that did mostly covers called Sartre’s Lobster with Dave Lewty who was in called The Cheaters, Steve Harvey of Medium Medium and a singer named Amy Archibald, who went by The Soothsayer for one-off cover of The Zombies’ “She’s Not There” for an episode of True Blood (I am credited to Dick Isreal). Gary Calamar, the music supervisor got us on the soundtrack for that season, but a collaboration between Nick Cave and Nico Case beat us for the episode. Kind of a flattering defeat. . .
There’s other projects I’ve got on record out there… various collaborations with a producer named Colin C. Allrich, who puts all his music his label called Confusion Inc. (also has a Bandcamp), his aliases include Slighter, Horrorfall, usually very electronic/industrial. We’ve had a fair amount used in TV too.
In 2012-13 I’d produced for a few bands that are probably better known in the current LA scene, Paper Pilots, Tennis System, some album demos with Western Lows. I did a single with The City & Horses, called “Youth”, I’ve been a fan of Marc’s since we were Myspace friends. I did an official remix of The Who’s “Eminence Front” with Gary Calamar and Willie Aron, C.A.G.E., we called it. The Calamar / Aron / Girgus / Experience! Although I’ve kinda given up on the idea of producing, I’ll still produce solo material for Chris McRitchie, which you can hear on his Soundcloud, and I’ve been working recently with a singer named Christopher Mowodd of the LA band The Mo-Odds on something, still in very early stages. We just recorded recently at David Newton’s. Dave and I have also worked on a few TV cues recently. I’ve got a couple remixes out for Tracy Shedd and Jimmy’s Band & The Beat, one more coming for the band Skytone via the ever supportive Wally of The Beautiful Music label.
Sometimes I work on multiple projects a day. I usually prefer to just define it later, but that can lead to a lot of scattered projects. I’ve tried to maintain pages for that, but even I have a hard time keeping track. With producing or collaborating, people don’t always credit you as they should, releases get neglected, bands just die, and even Allmusic, and Discogs doesn’t work. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few projects.
What are your top 10 desert island discs?
“Strange Free World” Kitchens of Distinction
“Seventeen Stars” The Montgolfier Brothers
“I Could Live in Hope” Low
“Endtroducing” DJ Shadow
“The Sound of” The Hit Parade
“Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the” Sex Pistols
“The Top” The Cure
“Thursday Afternoon” Brian Eno
“Poor Fricky” East River Pipe
“Master of Puppets” Metallica
Who are some of your current musical favorites?
I don’t listen to too much new music. I recently bought a few newer releases for a DJ gig I didn’t get to play, maybe they’ll work here. “Open Your Eyes” by School of Seven Bells, Cigarettes After Sex, on recommendation of the guys at Third Outing (who I’ve written for), The Radio Dept. is really nice.
I’ve been doing mastering work for a band called Lemonade Kid from the UK. I have to listen to their songs for days at a time, I don’t mind it a bit either, you could check them out.
Any final thoughts? Closing comments? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
Thanks for taking the time to put the questions together. There’s a few words out there about the band out there, They aren’t always accurate. Although it’s difficult and this is probably the last interview I ever want to do, it’s nice to get the chance to talk about.
Also, I hate power pop.
BONUS QUESTION: Being in L.A., who is the biggest celebrity that has shown up at one of your gigs?
I played in this one guy’s band (much more actually), and I know Emma Stone came to at least one show because she was going out with the dude’s friend, teen pop star Teddy Geiger, who I think was actually playing drums that night. So I actually kinda knew her, and kinda got into it with her friend Martha MacIsaac (I looked that up), the “blowy j” girl from Superbad, who she brought to see us at the Silverlake Lounge. The were both under 21, and wanted to hang out inside the bar like any normal Hollywood star would probably be allowed to do, only the Lounge at least at the time, was run by dudes who probably didn’t care so much, so they’d just do their usual ID rounds before doors. I was like, “look, just stay in the back until doors so we don’t all get kicked out and can’t play” and she’s like “ugh, who is this annoying idiot”. Then again, I played on Carson Daly once, too. . .
BONUS QUESTION 2- What’s your all-time favorite fanzine?
I know, more doctors prefer DAGGER than any other brand of ‘zine. I trust science.
One year ago, David Bowie passed away, much to the surprise and sorrow of the music world. To mark the anniversary of his death, we will celebrate his acclaimed, visionary German recording trifecta of the late ‘70s. Special narrative cameos: Brian Eno and Robert Fripp (both pictured above, with Bowie), Tony Visconti, Philip Glass, Marianne Faithfull, and Scott Walker.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
Ed. note: The following is an excerpt from the short book We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie (published in June, 2016, Liberty Island Media). Full details at Amazon.com.
In the late 1970’s, David Bowie released a trio of albums that continue to be regarded by many critics as the defining statement of his career, the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, recorded in 1976, 1977, and 1978, respectively. The first two albums in particular convey the aural impression of stained glass that has been smashed and then carefully, though incorrectly, reassembled. Everything is a bit “off”: Choruses arrive late or not at all; certain songs offer the promise of a dramatic build but then end without warning; in many cases, the expected vocals never appear, leaving the music to churn and bubble and glide along into a hazy sunset.
There is very little in the way of Nietzschean triumphalism on these albums. Instead, uncertainty predominates—perhaps most strikingly in the song “Always Crashing in the Same Car” (from Low), which, while lyrically inscrutable, conveys unmistakable feelings of lucklessness and inertia.
In such an atmosphere of doubt and brokenness, the song “Heroes,” which is arguably Bowie’s most mature distillation of his individualistic philosophy, stands in stark relief, its narrative coherence almost a rejoinder to the surrounding cut-ups. “Heroes” contains its share of obstacles both internal and external. Not only does the narrator “drink all the time,” but he has to keep his love affair alive in a war-torn land in which “guns [are] shot above our heads” and a wall arbitrarily divides the population—a clear nod to the divided Berlin in which Bowie lived at the time of the song’s composition. The song seems to echo the doomed love affair between Winston and Julia, the protagonists of Nineteen Eighty-Four, whose fledgling attempts at finding a personal space of joy and happiness are ultimately crushed by the all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother that rules Orwell’s fictional future England.
As it turned out, Bowie had real-life models for his protagonists. From the window of the studio where he and the musicians worked on the album every day, he saw a young couple embrace in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, directly below a turret. Not only was he struck by the incongruity of this image, but he quickly realized that the couple in question consisted of Tony Visconti—Bowie’s lifelong friend and the album’s producer—and Antonia Maas, one of his backing singers. The fact that Visconti was limping through the last stages of a failing marriage at the time lent the situation an added poignancy—and futility.
Writer Nicholas Pegg notes that the song’s elevation of the small and ordinary into the heroic signifies a move away from Bowie’s Nietzschean Superman preoccupations into more nuanced territory. And yet, this is not quite the same as a literary realist’s attempt to capture life as it is. “Heroes” is more akin to alchemy: We may be average and regular in the present moment, but we have the potential, at any time, for heroic thought and action—even if only for one day. The transformation can be brought about by an external event or through an internal change in perspective. Bowie would never become a champion of the everyman in the vein of Springsteen, yet the narrator of “Heroes” is certainly more human, and consequently more accessible, than some of the icier figures of Bowie’s earlier songs. And this, along with the song’s soaring vocals and Robert Fripp’s transcendent guitar work, goes a long way in explaining the longevity of “Heroes.” It remains one of Bowie’s most beloved, and most often-covered, compositions.
Bowie’s music had always been distinctive, but in the Berlin Trilogy he created something wholly original. “These albums have song structures that were never designed before, production tricks that had never been used before, themes that had never been touched before, and a cool factor that absolutely cannot be beat,” says screenwriter/musician Darren Callahan, one of the many artists of the succeeding generation to draw his inspiration from this period of Bowie’s work:
This music was parallel to, but never imitative of, punk rock, new wave, and disco, three of the most iconic periods in American music. Think of it: he DID NOT rip off these genres. You cannot say, “Hey, check out this awesome disco song by Bowie,” in the way you might say that about “I Was Made For Lovin’ You Baby” by KISS. He took all those forms (and others, like ambient music) and folded them into a completely original blend. No other period of his career was he so brave, so ahead of things, so absolutely free (and, let’s be honest, so unhappy and drugged up). It is the only period, for me, where he is not calculating anything; he is truly just smoking the pipe of creativity, an absolute open channel with no regard for anyone.
A number of creative and personal factors contributed to the artistic breakthrough of the Berlin albums. In keyboardist/arranger Brian Eno, Bowie had found a kindred spirit, someone who was adventurous enough to extend the cut-up technique beyond the realm of lyrics and into the music itself. Bowie and Eno would often compose sequences of music, write down the chords on notecards, shuffle them up, and then put the new combinations up on a bulletin board for the musicians to play. In many cases this resulted in discordant chaos, but not infrequently the exercise produced exciting new combinations that made their way onto the record.
With no regard for his record company’s commercial considerations, Bowie opted to fill the second sides of both the Low and “Heroes” LPs with mostly instrumental music—an especially bold move given that most listeners gravitated to Bowie due to his dynamic singing. “Low and ‘Heroes’ are really made for the LP experience,” Callahan notes. “If you hear them on CD or streaming, the albums both seem to die out. But if you queued up Side 2 of Low and then put Side 2 of ‘Heroes’ on the post, let them drop in that order on the turntable, it was one of the best ambient records of the ’70s.”
On the personal front, the Berlin Trilogy came at a point of crisis and transition. Finding himself addicted to cocaine and at an emotional dead end in Los Angeles by the mid-’70s, Bowie made the seemingly harebrained decision to move to Berlin (“the smack capital of Europe,” he later remarked) with friend and fellow self-destructive rocker Iggy Pop, of all people, in an attempt to clean up his act. Bizarrely, his plan worked, though the recovery was gradual—its shaky trajectory charted over the course of the three albums. “The Berlin albums are the inner stage on which the crisis plays out,” says American Conservative editor Daniel McCarthy, a longtime Bowie fan:
They’re emotionally powerful because they’re a very conscious confrontation of Bowie with himself—he overcomes his afflictions not by rediscovering some purer, inner, more innocent figure but by carefully building a new persona that can express sympathy with other people’s suffering—as heard on “Repetition” and “Fantastic Voyage” on Lodger, as well as on much of [post-Berlin release] Scary Monsters—even when he still feels set apart. It’s not warm empathy for humanity that one finds on Lodger or Scary Monsters (or any later Bowie album), it’s a sincere but cold simulation. He’s thinking what he cannot feel, probably because after the introspection of Low he now understands just what he is and isn’t capable of feeling.
Like Callahan, McCarthy regards the Berlin Trilogy (along with its immediate precursor and successor albums) as the pinnacle of Bowie’s catalog, and refers to the accompanying persona of this period as “Weimar Bowie.”
It’s safe to say that Bowie’s new approach baffled both his audience and the critics, even if the latter group ultimately came to regard these records as classics. Although his records had routinely achieved platinum status in the past, Bowie’s sales now hovered around 200,000. But if the albums alienated the general pop audience, they also attracted a new type of listener, best personified by the experimental composer Philip Glass, who was so taken with Low and “Heroes” that he went on to compose entire symphonies based around the albums twenty years later.
With the Berlin Trilogy, David Bowie built something new. And over time he attracted a sympathetic and influential audience. Younger acts such as Gary Numan, Devo (whom Bowie produced), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, The Human League, and virtually all of the British “new pop” bands of the early 1980s picked up on Bowie’s lead and explored its implications within the context of their own work. And contemporaries such as the Walker Brothers and Marianne Faithfull made radical course corrections in the wake of the music’s release. (Below, listen to the Walker Brothers’ Bowie-influenced “Nite Flights” track from ’78.)
Bowie was certainly not the first, nor would he be the last, major pop star to take a bizarre left turn in the midst of a successful career. But he was relatively unique in his willingness to double down on his off-center ideas despite the drubbing he received. Most performers, when confronted with the cold shock of declining sales and an audience backlash, are quick to backpedal and return to the tried and true. Bowie, on the other hand, seemed to thrive on the animosity coming at him from all directions. If anything, it spurred him on to greater heights—a situation that would repeat itself almost exactly a decade later, and with arguably greater ferocity, during his foray with Tin Machine.
In both instances his protracted intransigence put him at odds with his record label and led to a break—first with RCA at the end of the 1970s, then, at the end of the 1980s, with EMI, the very label that had rescued him. Tin Machine never did earn the respect Bowie felt it deserved, but in the case of the Berlin Trilogy he had the last laugh. In 1980 he released Scary Monsters…And Super Creeps, a bold and challenging album by any standard. But by that point audiences had caught up with him. The trilogy had already influenced key individuals in the nascent post-punk and new wave movements, who in turn had made inroads into the pop music mainstream, and so listeners were now more receptive to Bowie’s chilly vocals; Robert Fripp’s jagged, atonal riffs; and Visconti’s treated drum sounds than they had been just three years ago. Also, Bowie’s songs on this album, while still off-center, at least seemed to have choruses again. Audiences sighed in relief and bought the album in considerable numbers. Scary Monsters became a hit, particularly in the UK, and managed to vindicate its three predecessors in one fell swoop. Most important, it achieved this feat without compromise. (Below: Scary Monsters track “Ashes to Ashes.”)
What stood out in the music world for 2016? The folks who work in the trenches here are gonna tell ya. Guarantee: all dialogue reported verbatim. Pictured above: our Artist of the Year, Angel Olsen (photo by Amanda Marsalis) – view an Olsen video, below, along with a clip from our Album of the Year, David Bowie’s Blackstar.
BY THE BLURT CRÜE
It’s like déjà vu all over again: For our 2016 year-end wrap-up we summarily yield the podium to the staffers and contributors who detail their personal picks for the year that just ended. Note that if you want to contact any member of our staff, their contact emails can be found below or at our “Contact” page. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the site we have our annual feature “Farewell: Music Passings” to pay tribute to those we lost in 2016.
Watch the video for Angel Olsen’s remarkable track “Sister,” from her equally remarkable 2016 album My Woman.
Watch the video for David Bowie’s chilling track “Lazarus,” from BLURT’s 2016 Album Of the Year, Blackstar
Also check out our 2012, 2013, 2014and 2015 coverage:
Parker Millsap (above) – The Very Last Day
Bent Shapes – Wolves of Want
Shovels & Rope – Little Seeds
Logan Lynn – Adieu
Seth Walker – Gotta Get Back
Dinosaur Jr. – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not
Big Eyes – Stake My Claim
Brett Newski – Land Sea Air Garage
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial
toyGuitar – Move Like a Ghost
Crowded House – Crowded House, Temple of Low Men, Woodface, Together Alone, Afterglow (Vinyl Reissues)
Big Star – Complete Third
Mike Watt – Ring Spiel Tour ‘95
The Rave Ups – Town + Country
Nato Coles & The Blue Diamond Band – Live at Grumpy’s
My Damage – Keith Morris Big Star – Isolated in the Light – Carole Manning The Road Beneath My Feet – Frank Turner Under the Big Black Sun – John Doe The Cured – Lol Tolhurst
Dumbest Band Name: There have been a lot of great band names over the years that reference cult or even obscure movies (Black Sabbath, The Misfits, They Might Be Giants), but there is also a whole generation of bands who have started referencing wildly popular movies in their monikers that just comes off as ridiculously lame. Here’s are a few of the recent top offenders:
The Devil Wears Prada (and a Christian metal band, no less)
Chunk! No, Captain Chunk! (an actual line from The Goonies)
Save Ferris (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Dawes — We’re All Gonna Die (HUB)
Bob Delevante — Valley of Days (Bright Star)
Blind Pilot — And the Like Lions (ATO)
Avett Brothers — True Sadness (Republic)
Jack Ingram — Midnight Motel (Rounder)
Low Anthem — Eyeland (Razor & Tie)
Fallon Cush — Bee in Your Bonnet (independent)
Pines — Above the Prairie (Red House)
Robert Ellis — self-titled (New West)
Reckless Kelly — Sunset Motel (No Big Deal)
Best Box Sets/Reissues:
Bob Dylan — The1966 Live Recordings (Legacy)
Otis Redding — Live at the Whiskey A Go Go (Volt)
Queen — On Air (Virgin)
Tori Amos — Boys for Pele (Rhino)
Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Linda Rondstadt) — The Complete Trio Collection (Rhino)
Jimi Hendrix — Machine Gun (Experience Hendrix/Legacy)
Jack White — Acoustic Recordings (Third Man)
Jethro Tull – Stand Up – The Elevated Edition (Chrysalis)
Doors — London Fog (Rhino)
Jigsaw Seen — For the Discriminating Completist (Burger)
Dawes — Bijou Theater (Knoxville TN)
The Mavericks — Rhythm and Roots Festival (Knoxville TN)
Dave Rawlings Machine — Bijou Theater (Knoxville TN)
Nick Lowe — Bijou Theater (Knoxville TN)
Webb Wilder — Sweet Pea’s (Knoxville TN)
Paul Thorn — The Shed (Maryville TN)
Best Music DVDs:
Everly Brothers — Harmonies (Eagle)
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – Circlin’ Back – Celebrating 50 Years (NGDB)
Rolling Stones — Havana Moon (Universal)
Joan Armatrading – Me Myself I – World Tour Concert (429)
Various Artists – TAMI Show/The Big TNT Show (Shout)
Frank Sinatra — All or Nothing At All (Universal)
The Who — Live at Shea Stadium 1982 (Eagle)
Burt Bacharach — A Life In Song (Eagle/Universal)
Justin Haywood — Live In Concert at the Capitol Theatre (independent)
Most Tragic Death: Every single one of them — Bowie, Prince, Keith Emerson, Paul Kantner, Guy Clark, Greg Lake, George Michael, George Martin – how can one say one loss is greater than another? This year simply sucked for the toll it took
Dumbest Band Name: Diarrhea Planet — Likely my pick from last year. Good luck getting airplay with that handle, boys. I can hear it now — some oldies station ten years from now proclaiming “Hey, kids… it’s gonna be a Diarrhea Planet Weekend!”
Worst Trend: This year, same as last year, same as the year before — the continued eradication of physical CDs – the lack of respect for the album as a complete physical art form, something to be held, cherished, appreciated in whole rather than just an amorphous entity that exists without form or function. I know it’s a losing battle, but damn it, I won’t give up. Bring back the album in physical form!
Peter Astor- Spilt Milk (Slumberland)
Beverly- The Blue Swell (Kanine)
Musk- Musk 2: The Second Skumming (12XU)
Teenage Fanclub- Here (Merge)
Dot Dash – Searchlights (The Beautiful Music)
Whitney- Light Upon The Lake (Secretly Canadian)
Lucy Dacus- No Burden (Matador)
Connections- Midnight Run (Anyway)
Ultimate Painting- Dusk (Trouble in Mind)
The Monochrome Set- Cosmonaut (Tapete )
Overlord- The Well-Tempered Overlord (Storm Tower)
Red Sleeping Beauty- Kristina (Labrador/ Shelflife)
Million Sellers- Sufficiently Rude (Wanda Records)
Dex Romweber- Carrboro (Bloodshot)
Empty Markets- Stainless Steel (12XU)
Tears Run Rings- In Surges (Deep Space Recordings)
Dinosaur Jr- Give A Glimpse of What Yer Not (Jagjaguwar)
Car Seat Headrest- Teens of Denial (Matador)
The Well Wishers- Comes and Goes (Self Released)
Cat’s Eyes- Treasure House (Raf)
Chook Race – Around the House (Trouble in Mind)
The Holiday Crowd – S/T (Shelflife)
A Giant Dog- Pile (Merge)
Real Numbers- Wordless Wonders (Slumberland)
The City Yelps- The City Yelps Half Hour (Emotional Response/ Odd Box Recordings)
Rikk Agnew- Learn (Frontier)
E- S./T (Thrill Jockey)
Nots- Cosmetic (Goner/ Heavenly)
Great Lakes- Wild Vision (Loose Trucks)
Cavern of Anti-Matter- Void Beats/ Invocation Trex (Duophonic)
Sunflower Bean- Human Ceremony (Fart Possum)
Savages- Adore Life (Matador)
Nada Surf- You Know Who You Are (Barsuk)
The Twin Atlas- The Big Spring (self released)
The New Lines- Love & Cannibalism (Feral Child)
Sound of Ceres- Nostalgia for Infinity (Joyful Noise)
Blue Orchids- the once and Future Thing (tiny global)
James Arthur’s Manhunt- Digital Clubbing (12XU)
Kid Congo and the Pink Monkeybirds- La Arana Es la Vida (In the Red)
EZTV- High in Places (Captured Tracks)
The Scientists- A Place Called Bad (Numero Group)
Aberdeen- It Was the Rain: Lost recordings 1993-1995 (Used Bin Pop)
Pylon- Live (Chunklet)
The Hollywood Brats- Sick on You (Cherry Red)
Queen Annes- Released! (Green Monkey)
Velvet Crush- Pre-Teen Symphonies (Omnivore)
The Bangles – Ladies and Gentlemen (Omnivore)
Tiny Tim – The Complete Singles Collections: 1966-1970 (The Now Sounds/ Cherry Red)
Tim Buckley- Wings (Omnivore)
Maureen Evans- Like I Do: The Sixties Recordings (Cherry Red)
The Chills- Kaleidoscope World (Flying Nun)
Sandra Bell- Dreams of Falling (Straight to Video)
The Fall- Hex Enduction Hour (Superior Viaduct)
The Summer Hits- Beaches and Canyons (Medical)
Game Theory- The Big Shot Chronicles (Omnivore)
Sneaks- Gymnastic (Merge)
Stick Men with Rayguns- Property of Jesus Christ (12XU)
Stick Men with Rayguns- 1,000 Lives to Die (12XU)
Sciflyer- The Age of Lovely Intimate Things (Elephant Stone/ Tonevendor)The Flesh Eaters- Forever Came Today (Superior Viaduct)
Pylon- Gravity/ Weather Radio – live (Chunklet)
Tony Molina –Confront the Truth (Slumberland)
Lush – Blind Spot (Edamame Records)
Deardarkhead- Strange Weather (Saint Marie Records)
Allen Clapp- Six Seasons (MLM)
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
Touché Amoré – Stage Four (Epitaph)
Frank Ocean – Blonde (Boys Don’t Cry)
Slothrust – Everybody Else (Dangerbird)
Anderson .Paak – Malibu (Steel Wool)
Into It. Over It. – Standards (Triple Crown)
Childish Gambino – “Awaken, My Love!” (Glassnote)
10. The Hotelier – Goodness (Tiny Engines)
11. Jeff Rosenstock – (SideOneDummy)
12. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
13. A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service (Epic)
14. Lucy Dacus – No Burden (Matador/EggHunt)
15. Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO)
Top Americana/Country Albums of 2016:
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO)
Brent Cobb – Shine On Rainy Day (Low Country Sound/Elektra)
Dwight Yoakam – Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… (Sugar Hill)
Slothrust – Everyone Else (Dangerbird Records)
2. Gucci Mane – Woptober (Atlantic Records)
3. Angel Olsen – My Woman (Jagjaguwar)
4. Aesop Rock – The Impossible Kid (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
5. Agnes Obel – Citizen of Glass (PIAS America)
6. Dinosaur Jr – Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not (Jagjaguwar)
7. Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
8. NxWorries – Yes Lawd! (Stones Throw)
9. The Hotelier – Goodness (Tiny Engines)
10. Old Gray- Slow Burn (Flower Girl Records)
Top 5 live shows of 2016:
1. Iggy Pop @ Austin City Limits in Austin, TX
2. Brand New/The Front Bottoms/Modern Baseball @ Eaglebank Arena in Fairfax, VA
3. Gucci Mane @ Winston Salem Fairgrounds in Winston Salem, NC
4. Danny Brown @ Cats Cradle in Carrboro, NC
5. Flume @ House of Blues in Boston, MA
Erik Satie and Friends Original Albums Collection (Sony Classical)
Ornette Coleman To Whom Who Keeps a Record (Superior Viaduct)
Nvdes “The Other Side” (B3SCI)
Lemaitre “Stepping Stone [feat. Mark Johns]” (Astralwerks)
Kendrick Lamar “Untitled 3” (Grammys)
Skogsrå “Out of Time” (Good Soldier)
Kovary “Hot With You” (No Definition)
Unlike Pluto “Waiting For You (feat. Joanna Jones)” (Monstercat)
Rachel Platten feat. Andy Grammer “Hey Hey Hallelujah” (Sony)
Christon Gray “Stop Me” (Fo Yo Soul/RCA)
Lushlife/CSLSX Featuring Deniro Farrar “Incantation” (Western Vinyl)
10. Jean Tonique “Lit Up Feat. Dirty Radio” (Partyfine)
“Die Fledermaus” at Metropolitan Opera, NYC – January 7
“Winter Jazzfest,” various NYC clubs -January 15
Iggy Pop at Austin City Limits, Texas – March 16
Faust at Market Hotel, NYC – March 30
Kamasi Washington/Sun Ra Arkestra/Pharaoh Sanders at Greenpoint Terminal, NYC – May 8
“Other Music Forever” at Bowery Ballroom, NYC – June 28
Lou Reed Tribute at Lincoln Center, NYC – July 30
ELO at Radio City Music Hall, NYC – September 16
Roots Picnic at Bryant Park, NYC – October 2
10. Mary J Blige, Maxwell at Madison Square Garden, NYC – November 10
Bobby Rush – Porcupine Meat
Randy Travis “Amazing Grace”
Heart, Michael Bolton, Usher, Cyndi Lauper, Sheryl Crow, Josh Groban, John Mellencamp, Imagine Dragons “Don’t Use Our Songs”
Ho99o9 “Blood Waves”
The Beatles – Eight Days A Week
Stooges – Gimme Danger
L7 – Pretend That We’re Dead
Last of the Mississippi Jukes
Bang – The Bert Berns Story
Danny Alexander Real Love, No Drama: The Music of Mary J. Blige
Bruno Cerlotti Love Day -By -Day 1945 -1971
John Corbett A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation
Courtney Harding How We Listen Now: Essays and Conversations About Music and Technology
Bob Mehr Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements
James McBride Kill ‘Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul
Andy Partridge Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC
Ben Ratliff Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty
Villain of the year: Donald J. aka the Talking Yam
Best facial hair: Nick Offerman
Dumbest band name: Ravioli Me Away (to be fair, their album’s pretty good)
Most anticipated album of 2017: Run the Jewels*
Notable deaths: Prince, Bowie, Lemmy, Leonard Cohen, Marlene Marder (Kleenex/Liliput), Colonel Abrams, Sharon Jones, Mose Allison, Phil Chess, Prince Buster
*sorry Jason, it got surprise -released in 2016 after your list was submitted, and in fact it is on BLURT’s best -of list for 2016 albums. –Ed.
Gillian Gaar / Seattle, WA Facebook.com/GillianGaarWriter/, @Gillian Gaar
Top Albums of 2016:
Reign — Golden Gardens (self-released) It’s great to discover new music in your own backyard. As I’ve said many times, this band’s music should be featured in the upcoming Twin Peaks series; eerie and ethereal.
Maggie Herron — Between the Music and the Moon (self-released) Maggie plays cool jazz four nights a week at the Lewers Lounge at Halekulani hotel in Waikiki (where you can also check out my favorite drink, the Lost Passion).
Kate Bush — Before the Dawn (Fish People/Concord) I still get to gloat that I saw two of these shows.
David Bowie — Blackstar (ISO/RCA/Columbia/Sony) This album would still be in most Top 10s, even if he hadn’t died.
The Claypool Lennon Delirium — Monolith of Phobos (ATO) Really imaginative; dizzyingly good fun.
7 Year Bitch — Live at Moe (Moe Recordings) So great to see one of my favorite ‘90s bands rekindle the flame.
Green Day — Revolution Radio (Reprise) I like the rock operas better, but this’ll do nicely.
The Posies — Solid States (Lojinx) As everyone’s been saying, their best album in years.
The Melvins — Basses Loaded (Ipecac) How can you resist “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”?
The Julie Ruin — Hit Reset (Hardly Art) Catchy as heck.
Pink Floyd — The Early Years 1965-1972 (Legacy/Pink Floyd Records) I’ve just heard the music, and it’s a fantastic collection. Hope a Secret Santa gifts me a copy.
Queen — Queen On Air (deluxe) (Hollywood) After years of getting bits and pieces, it’s great to have all these tracks in one place. Especially that fabulous 1977 session!
The Beach Boys — Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions (Omnivore Recordings) Fascinating document of the early years.
Elvis Presley — Elvis On Television 1956-1960 (Memphis Recording Service)
John Lennon & Yoko Ono — Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins, Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions; Yoko Ono — Plastic Ono Band (Secretly Canadian/Chimera Music) The link between the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith.
Mother Love Bone — On Earth As It Is: The Completed Works (Monkeywrench) Andy Wood was a star in the making — he was a Stardog Champion! He lives on in this release.
David Bowie — Who Can I Be Now (1974-1976) (Rhino/Parlophone) Part 2 in this box set series offers the albums, new mixes, and rarities — and incentive to buy the next box.
Tad — God’s Balls, Salt Lick, 8 Way Santa (Sub Pop) In all their gnarly glory, with bonus tracks.
Temple of the Dog — Temple of the Dog (super deluxe edition) (A&M/UME) Grunge’s first supergroup staged the most surprising reunion of the year, celebrated with a nice box set.
Gillian G. Gaar — Boss: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, The Illustrated History (Voyageur Press) I’m plugging my own book because the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Andy Neill — I’m Looking Through You: Rare and Unseen Photos from The Beatles Book Archives (Overlook Press/Omnibus) The Beatles Book was the band’s official fan club magazine, and if you’re a Beatles fan, this book is a must!
Joel Selvin — Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day (Dey St.) The best book ever on that infamous day.
Steve Turner — Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year (Ecco) Steve Turner is a wonderful writer, taking you through a year that was a real turning point for the Fab Four.
Chuck Gunderson — Some Fun Tonight: The Backstage Story of How The Beatles Rocked America (Backbeat Books) The definitive work on the subject.
Gordon Minto and Joseph Pirzada — Elvis on Television (Boxcar Enterprises) Because if you buy the accompanying CD set, you might as well buy the lavishly illustrated 400 page book.
Larry Livermore — How to Ru(i)n a Record Label: The Story of Lookout Records (Don Giovanni Records) Even though Green Day brought Lookout some unexpected success, this will certainly make you think twice about starting a record label.
Ada Calhoun — St Mark’s is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street (W.W. Norton) Not strictly a music book, but musicians are a part of the story.
John Doe — Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk (Da Capo Press) Doe and friends share a lot of fun stories about the era.
Brian Wilson and Ben Greenman — I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir (Da Capo Press) and Mike Love and James S. Hirsch — Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy (Blue Rider Press) Because if you’re interested in the Beach Boys, you owe it to yourself to read both sides of the story.
01. Sulo – Brilliant Outsiders (Universal)
02. Ian Hunter – Fingers Crossed (Proper)
03. Cotton Mather – Death of the Cool (Star Apple Kingdom)
04. The I Don’t Cares – Wild Stab (Dry Wood)
05. Bun E. Carlos – Greetings From Bunezuela (Entertainment One)
06. Todd Snider – Eastside Bulldog – (Aimless)
07. Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO)
08. Butch Walker – Stay Gold (Dangerbird)
09. Nada Surf – You Know Who You Are (Barsuk)
10. Quireboys – Twisted Love (Off Yer Rocka)
Top 10 2016 Songs:
01. Samm Henshaw – Our Love (Columbia)
02. Cheap Trick – Sing My Blues Away (Big Machine)
03. Ian Hunter – Dandy (Proper)
04. Bun E. Carlos – Tell Me (Entertainment One)
05. Butch Walker – Stay Gold (Dangerbird)
06. Rolling Stones – Just Your Fool (Interscope)
07. Pretenders – Holy Commotion (BMG)
08. Nick Piunti – One Hit Wonder (Jem)
09. Kurt Baker Combo – Baby’s Gone Bad (Wicked Cool)
10. Weeklings – Little Elvis (Jem)
Year End Musings…
Theme of the Year: Death. It started with Bowie, and it just didn’t stop…Prince, Leon Russell, Paul Kantner, Buffin, Chris Squire, Glenn Frey, Mose Allison, George Martin, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones, two-thirds of Emerson Lake and Palmer. Too many more producers, session guys, songwriters to list here. I get it – rock is a senior citizen and the lists will get longer, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Oh…and in November? The Death of Hope.
Glad the Stones stopped trying to write new songs and went back to their roots. But as enjoyable as the record was, I can’t help wish they recorded one when Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins and Bobby Keyes were alive. Or if they recorded the whole affair with Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor. Brian Jones is rolling over in his pool.
I didn’t get angry when the Rock Hall of Fame nominations were announced with the usual egregious mis-steps. I just don’t care anymore. Maybe that’s maturity? I subscribe to these two commandments – (1) Music is subjective, so my rock hall of fame includes those who my ears, heart and head say belong, and (2) The Sex Pistols nailed it with their response to being nominated.
Maybe rock *is* dead. Paul Westerberg dropped the best work he’s done in ages and it didn’t even make a sound. If it was revealed that he recorded Wild Stab six months after Don’t Tell A Soul and All Shook Down, I would believe it.
Thank you, Loudon Wainwright III, for continuing to make me mostly piss myself laughing but sometimes choke back tears. Concert of the year.
Ray Davies is still being catty and obtuse about a Kinks reunion. Just…stop. Ray, you have a legacy *and* a hit musical that honors your life’s work. Don’t shit all over it by trotting a Kinks reunion band on stage fifteen years too late. I’m probably the biggest Kinks fan on the planet, and even I would rather retain my memories than see the Too-Late-For-Prime-Time Players.
Good start for 2017. New albums already scheduled from Dan Baird, Chuck Prophet, Old 97s, Ryan Adams and Sharks. How about it, Dictators NYC? Reigning Sound? Graham Parker? Webb Wilder? Dramarama?
Resolutions for 2017: (1) Write more often. (2) Go to every concert I’m mildly interested in because artists need support, and increasingly sad but true, there may not be a next time. (3) Write more often. (4) Continue a trend started at Bowie’s passing where I immerse myself in a veteran artist’s catalogue for a week or two. This year alone I wallowed in constants like Bowie, Stones, Rory Gallagher, Neil Young, Dylan and Mott and some whose albums were a little dustier like Roxy Music, Suzi Quatro and Billy Joel. Great therapy and a flush of dim memories thankfully rekindled. Highly recommended! (5) Write more.
1) David Bowie— Blackstar (Sony/RCA/Columbia)
2) Crippled Black Phoenix–-Bronze (Invada)
3) Charles Bradley—Changes (Daptone Records)
4) Hayes Carll—Lovers and Leavers (Lost Highway)
5) Margo Price– Mid-Western Farmers Daughter (Third Man)
6) Big Jesus—Oneiric (Mascot)
7) GOAT—Requiem (Stranded Rekords)
8) Good Tiger—Headful Of Moonlight (Blacklight)
9) Sunflower Bean—Human Ceremony (Fat Possum)
10) Angel Olsen—My Woman (jagjaguwar)
11) Tribe called Quest–We Got It From Here….(Jive)
12) A Giant Dog—Pile (Merge)
13) Durand jones and the Indications–S/t (Colemine)
Ben Watt — Fever Dream (Caroline/Unmade Road) Formerly known as the male half of Everything But The Girl and the owner of Buzzin Fly Records, Ben Watt has carved out yet another role for himself in the last few years as a singer-songwriter — and it fits him like a glove. His third solo album, Fever Dream picks up where 2014’s Hendra left off: intimate lyrics set to moody sonic landscapes. Highlights range from the nagging title track to the catchy “Faces of My Friends” to haunting ballads like “New Year of Grace” and “Winter’s Eve.”
David Bowie — Blackstar (Columbia) It’s hard to separate this album from the fact that Bowie died two days after its release. But trying to be as objective as possible, it still strikes me as a concise masterpiece. In a little over 40 minutes, Bowie stares mortality in the eye without being morose — and he draws on everything from free jazz to Beatlesque pop in the process. The result is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.
Suzanne Vega — Lover, Beloved (Amanuensis Productions) Lover Beloved is another concise masterpiece: a series of 10 songs that deal with Carson McCullers, the late author who pioneered the Southern Gothic style. Meant to preview Vega’s new play An Evening with Carson McCullers, this album is by turns haunting (“Annemarie,” “Instant of the Hour After”), wistful (“New York is My Destination”) and funny (“Harper Lee”).
Paul Simon — Stranger to Stranger (Concord Records) On his first disc of new material in four years, Simon reasserts himself as one of the best songwriters of all time. Musically, he explores the concept of microtonal tunings, created by the late composer Harry Partch. Lyrically, he’s in fine form as ever — especially on the infectious but wry “Wristband,” which starts out as a personal story but ends up telling universal truths.
Drive-By Truckers — American Band (ATO Records) Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and their cohorts seem to turn out albums at an exhaustive pace. American Band finds the Truckers tackling a variety of subjects from violence and racism (“What It Means,” “Guns of Umpqua,” “Ramon Casiano”) to Robin Williams’ suicide (the album-closer “Baggage”). The result is a warts-and-all look at America in the here and now. No easy answers but a lot of important questions — backed by kickass, Southern rock and roll.
Norah Jones — Day Breaks (Blue Note) NoJo’s sixth studio outing finds her returning to a more jazz-oriented setting, after her work with alt-rock producers like Jacquire King and Danger Mouse. Day Breaks is the Norah we first fell for but older and wiser. Her vocals are as sublime as ever and the album’s guests include jazz legends like Wayne Shorter and Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Edward Rogers — Glass Marbles (ZIP Records) NYC-by-way-of-Birmingham-UK singer-songwriter Rogers has been turning out quality work — both on his own and with various bands — since the ‘90s. At 18 songs, Glass Marbles is, admittedly, a lot to sift through. But Rogers hits more than he misses. Highlights range from “Denmark Street Forgotten” and “Welcome to My Monday Morning” — both of which offer Anglo-pop reminiscent of The Kinks — to the forceful, psychedelic title track.
SHEL — Just Crazy Enough (Moraine Music) I’m not sure if they’re certifiably crazy but there’s no question that the four Holbrook sisters that make up SHEL are insanely talented. Their long-awaited sophomore set, Just Crazy Enough, is more pop-oriented and perhaps a bit less quirky than their debut but it’s another winner. “Rooftop” is a catchy pop tune with a twist, while their cover of “Enter Sandman” slows the Metallica song down until it’s an eerie lullaby.
CRX — New Skin (Columbia) The side project of Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi finds him working in a similar vein to that band. New Skin doesn’t maintain the super high bar set by the first track, “Ways to Fake It” all the way through — but it’s enjoyable, New Wave-influenced pop nonetheless.
Dead Horses — Cartoon Moon (Dead Horses) The third album by this Wisconsin trio is a haunting affair sure to please fans of Americana music in general and, more specifically, The Cowboy Junkies.
Cheap Trick — Bang, Zoom, Crazy…Hello! (Big Machine) 2. Ally Venable Band — No Glass Shoes (Connor Ray Music) 3. Blue Rodeo — 1000 Arms (Telesoul Records) 4. Mother Feather — self-titled (Metal Blade) 5. Cyndi Lauper — Detour (Sire)
Lou Reed — The RCA & Arista Album Collection (Sony/Legacy) 16 discs that chronicle Lou Reed’s career from the early ‘70s to the mid ‘80s, not to mention great liner notes by Hal Willner and memorabilia galore. A most enjoyable walk on the wild side courtesy of Sony/Legacy Recordings.
Paul McCartney — Pure McCartney (Concord/Hear Music)
Jeff Buckley — You and I (Sony/Legacy)
Various Artists — Action Time Vision: A Story of Independent UK Punk (Cherry Red)
Survivor — The Definitive Collection (Real Gone Music)
The Connells — Stone Cold Yesterday (Bicycle Music)
David Bowie — Who Can I Be Now: 1974—1976 (Rhino/Parlophone)
Brook Benton — Rainy Night in Georgia: The Complete Reprise & Cotillion Singles (Real Gone Music)
Milk N’ Cookies — self-titled (Captured Tracks)
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years (NGDB Records)
In Memoriam: Where do I begin? Without going on endlessly, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I’ve never experienced a year like 2016. From start to finish, it’s been marked by loss and adversity — personally, politically and certainly in the music world. For me, the biggest losses were David Bowie, Prince and (just last weekend) George Michael. All three were immense talents, all three died young and (while Bowie appeared more than a decade earlier), all three ruled the airwaves during the 1980s. Earlier this year, while interviewing Ben Watt, I asked his thoughts on Bowie. “He was such a strong, iconic figure,” Watt replied. “Untouchable, in a way. I remember feeling the same way about Prince in the ‘80s: just ridiculously talented, mercurial [and] ever-changing.” Strangely, Prince died a few days after our conversation. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Natalie Cole (who died on New Years’ Day), Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Sharon Jones, Maurice White, Glenn Frey, Leon Russell, Paul Kantner and Nicholas Caldwell of The Whispers. Hope I didn’t miss anyone… In truth, I’ll be missing a lot of these folks.
Biggest Disappointment: Here, the first album from Teenage Fanclub since 2010. I loved their last album, Shadows, and am a big fan of the Fannies in general. On Shadows, they were mellower and more content than usual but the songwriting was still there. Unfortunately, Here crosses the line from content into tranquil and boring.
Best Label: Sony/Legacy
Best New Artist: The Ally Venable Band (She may be working in a traditional genre — the blues — but Ally Venable does what she does well. And she’s still only in her teens!)
Hero of the Year: It’s a tossup… David Bowie for continuing to create great art right up to his death and even incorporating death into his art on both Blackstar and the “Lazarus” video”…. And Bruce Springsteen for still playing three-to-four hour shows at the age of 66, inviting fans onstage during those shows, casually calling Donald Trump out as “a moron” in Rolling Stone and, in general, being Bruce Springsteen.
Asshole of the Year: Madonna. Hands down, for the second year in a row. This year, the Material Girl performed a narcissistic concert tribute to Bowie (which proved only that her voice is shot), exposed a young fan’s breast during a concert and offered blow jobs to anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton. I’m still not sure who cost Hillary the election — Putin or Madonna. In any event, this is what happens when you’re so desperate to remain relevant that you resort to shock tactics in lieu of talent.
Best Holiday Song: “This is a Christmas Song, My Love” by JayMay
Best Video: David Bowie — “Lazarus”
Best Concert: Norah Jones at The Sheen Center. October 2016, NYC.
Best/Worst Band Name: Cattle Decapitation
Worst Trend: Musicians dying relentlessly, before their time.
2017 Release I’m Most Anticipating: The third (and supposedly final) disc by The Distractions, Kindly Leave the Stage.
Goodbye Blue – Worth The Wait (Wondermore Records)
Waiting For Henry – Town Called Patience (Mighty Hudson Music)
Mike Eldred Trio – Baptist Town (Great Western Recording Company)
Best Concert of 2016: Ricky Skaggs & Ry Cooder – Massey Hall, April 11th, 2016
Hal Bienstock / Brooklyn, NY
David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia/RCA/ISO)
Bon Iver – 22, A Million (Jagjaguwar)
Beyonce – Lemonade (Columbia/Parkwood)
Angel Olsen – My Woman (Jagjaguar)
Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans)
Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO)
Lori McKenna – The Bird & the Rifle (CN)
Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd.)
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador)
Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book (self-released)
Honorable mention: Solange – A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia), Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Columbia), Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic), St. Paul & the Broken Bones – Sea of Noise (Records), Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee (Merge), Anderson .Paak – Malibu (Steel Wool/Obe/Art Club/Empire), Lucy Dacus – No Burden (Egghunt/Matador), Lydia Loveless – Real (Bloodshot), White Denim – Stiff (Downtown), Big Thief – Masterpiece (Saddle Creek)
The Band – The Last Waltz 40th Anniversary Edition (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
Lou Reed – The RCA & Arista Album Collection (Sony Legacy)
Van Morrison – ..It’s Too Late to Stop Now…Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (Sony Legacy)
Afghan Whigs – Black Love 20th Anniversary Edition (Rhino/Warner Bros.)
Terry Allen – Juarez (Paradise of Bachelors)
Terry Reid – The Other Side of the River (Future Days Recordings)
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – 1/27, NY, NY
The Hold Steady – 12/3, Brooklyn, NY
Jason Isbell – 2/25, NY, NY
The Roots with D’Angelo and John Mayer – 10/1, NY, NY
Tame Impala/Dungen – 6/15, Brooklyn, NY
Jennifer Kelly / Walpole, MA
Top 10 Albums:
1. Heron Oblivion, S-T (Sub Pop)
2. Nick Cave, Skeleton Key (Bad Seed)
3. Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial (Matador)
4. Ryley Walker, Golden Sings that have been Sung (Dead Oceans)
5. Dark Blue, Start of the World (12XU)
6. Savages, Adore (Matador)
7. Purling Hiss, High Bias (Drag City)
8. Cross Record, Wabi Sabi (BaDaBing)
9. Steve Gunn, Eyes on the Lines (Matador)
10. City Yelps, Half Hour (Odd Box)
Honorable mention (not in order):
Pony Time, Rumors 2 (Ss)
Bob Mould, Patch the Sky (Merge)
Giant Peach, Tarantula (Don Giovanni)
Honey Radar, Blank Cartoon (What’s Your Rupture)
Beef Jerk, Tragic (Trouble In Mind)
Big Thief, Masterpiece (Saddle Creek)
Chook Race, Around the House (Trouble In Mind)
Haelos, Full Circle (Matador)
Itasca, Open Secret (Paradise of Bachelors)
Kevin Morby, Singing Saw (Dead Oceans)
Mind Spiders, Prothesis (Dirtnap)
Also enjoyed some reissues and comps this year:
VA, Still in a Dream (Cherry Red)
VA, Action Time Vision (Cherry Red)
S to S, S-T (Sommor)
The Jack Rose reissues (Three Lobed)
Pylon live (Chunklet Industries)
The Suicide reissues (Superior Viaduct)
Mark Jenkins / Washington, DC
Top 10 Albums (alphabetical by performer):
Case/Lang/Viers – “Case/Lang/Viers” (Anti)
Flasher – “Flasher” (Sister Polygon)
Future of the Left – “The Peace & Truce of Future of the Left” (Prescription UK)
The Joy Formidable – “Hitch” (Caroline)
Luisa Maita – “Fiodamemoria” (Cumbancha)
Scenario Art – “Dumping Swimmer” (Ki/oon Japan)
Noura Mint Seymali – “Arbina” (Glitterbeat UK)
Title Tracks – “Long Dream” (Ernest Jenning)
Daby Toure – “Amonafi” (Cumbancha)
Trash Can Sinatras – “Wild Pendulum” (Red River)
Dot Dash – “Crumbs” – from “Searchlights” (The Beautiful Music)
Kingsley Flood – “A Ways Away” from “Another Other” (Kingsley Flood)
Radiohead – “Ful Stop” – from “A Moon Shaped Pool” (XL)
Teenage Fanclub – “It’s A Sign” – from “Here” (Merge)
Tricky – “Boy” – from “Skilled Mechanics” (False Idols/!K7 UK)
Top 10 Albums:
Lori McKenna – The Bird & The Rifle (CN Records/Thirty Tigers)
Drive By Truckers – American Band (ATO)
Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like a Levee (Merge)
Robbie Fulks – Upland Stories (Bloodshot)
Elise Davis – The Token (Make The Kill/Thirty Tigers)
Zach Schmidt – The Day We Lost The War (Self-release)
Joe Henry/Billy Bragg – Shine A Light (Cooking Vinyl)
St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Sea Of Noise (Records)
The Monkees – Good Times (Rhino)
Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (Mama Bird)
John Schacht / Charlotte, N.C.
My favorite 2016 records were pretty Catholic, stylistically speaking, suggesting a fertile music harvest. But it was tempered by the unmooring loss of genre-defying icons, and a digital landscape where pathfinders and schlubs get valued equally, and nobody gets paid. Yet all that is overshadowed by the year’s defining event, which casts its post-truth orange pall over everything, music included. Still, I choose to hear in all these artists’ visions a fundamental rebuke, as well as hope for a world where the arc of history still bends toward beauty and diversity rather than boorish excess, bigotry and bullying.
Holy Sons—In the Garden (Partisan)
Parquet Courts—Human Performance (Rough Trade)
Y La Bamba —Ojos del Sol (Tender Loving Empire)
Sin Ropas—Mirror Bride (Jealous Butcher)
Max Romeo—Horror Zone (Nu Roots)
Damien Jurado—Visions of Us On the Land (Secretly Canadian)
Nels Cline—Lovers (Blue Note)
Woods—City Sun Eater in the River of Light (Woodsist)
Drive-By Truckers – American Band (ATO)
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth (Atlantic)
David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia / RCA)
Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker (Columbia / RCA)
Savages – Adore Life (Matador)
Shearwater – Jet Plane and Oxbow (Sub Pop)
Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (XL)
Anderson.Paak – Malibu (Empire)
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador)
Lucy Dacus – No Burden (Matador)
2016 – It was a very good year for music … but a lousy one generally…
David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia) Brave, brilliant goodbye. From the most important musical artist from the Seventies and beyond. By turns serene and aggrieved, “Blackstar” won’t soon be forgotten. (Btw, Car Seat Headrest does an awesome version of the title song in their live show).
Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial (Matador) Yearning, conflicted – Will Toledo is the ungainly offspring of Brian Wilson and Lou Reed, who grew up listening to Nirvana. Live, you can see him growing into his Rock God costume begrudgingly.
Mitski – Puberty 2 (Dead Oceans) Passion, good songs, distinct point of view, varied/immaculate production. And she had me at “Kill me, Jerusalem,” whatever that means.
Public Access T.V. – Never Enough (Cinematic) One of their songs goes, “They say the kids don’t like rock ‘n’ roll anymore.” But these kids party like it’s 1979. Imagine the Tuff Darts or somebody – with a LOT better songs.
Rolling Stones – Blue and Lonesome (Interscope) Before becoming the ‘greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ the Stones wanted to be a good blues band. As wily old dogs they sound like a good blues band and the Rolling Stones. Jagger, believe or not, is a revelation, fully himself, yet in full homage mode
Margaret Glaspy – Emotions and Math (ATO) Breathy Aimee Mann-isms, with tunes to match, and a “Plastic Ono Band” pre-grunge abrasion.
D Generation – Nothing is Anywhere (Bastard Basement) Seventeen, more or less, years apart made them a better band. Jesse Malin’s growth as a songwriter is part of it. The other part is the band’s confident blasting of hard rock, not subservient to any genre.
Danny Brown – Atrocity Exhibition (Warp) When asked about the popularity of “Blood on the Tracks,” Bob Dylan told Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame) that it was “hard to relate to that – people enjoying that type of pain, you know?” One could say the same about “Atrocity Exhibition,” but Brown adorns his depression with hip-hop genius.
PJ Harvey – The Hope Six Demolition Project (Island) Some critics weren’t persuaded by PJ as Brechtian agit-popper. I was. Far as I’m concerned, until she puts out a crappy record, Harvey always has a shot at my top ten for that year.
Helen Money – Become Zero (Thrill Jockey) What I said about Danny Brown? Applies here too. Money is actually cellist Alison Chesley. “Become Zero’s” elegiac pieces, inspired by her parent’s recent deaths, remind of Penderecki and Shostakovich, cast in the steel of post-rock. Dark, but beautiful. Not easy listening, but deeply touching.
Walter Martin – “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous” (lle Flottante Music)
Paul Simon – “Wristband” (Concord)
Frank Ocean – “Ivy” (Boys Don’t Cry)
The National – “Morning Dew” (4AD)
The Monkees – “Me & Magdalena” (Rhino)
Anderson .Paak – “The Bird” (Steel Wool/Obe)
The Bad Plus – “Mandy” (Sony Masterworks)
Best Live Performances:
Patti Smith – A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall at Nobel Prize Ceremony, Stockholm, Dec. 10: Who wouldn’t – or shouldn’t – stumble over those frightening apocalyptic lyrics? They seem scarier now, considering the guy about to become president, than in 1962 when Dylan wrote the song. And her graceful recovery reminded us of why she’s such a charming human being.
Yo La Tengo and Lambchop sharing the stage and each other’s songs at a late-night Big Ears Festival show in Knoxville.
Best Reissue: Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music (The Numero Group)
Best Jazz Album: Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM)
Greatest Loss: Leonard Cohen, whose new music was as vital and important as his old.
Still Waiting For: (1) The first Langford Fest, offering only musical acts that feature Jon Langford. Plus an art fair featuring only work by Langford. (2) That new Kinks tour, already.
It’s been a depressing year, to say the least—from Bowie and Bernie Worrell to Alan Vega and Leonard Cohen—as journalists from No Depression and Blurt to Wikipedia and CNN have chronicled.
By Fred Mills
This time of year we typically publish a semi-comprehensive list of all the musicians who we lost in the year just finished, along with selected music industry and pop culture icons who also passed. Last week, though, the good folks at No Depressiontook care of the job so thoroughly that it’s unlikely we could do a better job. Check out their “In Memorian: 2016” list, and then by way of a salute to the compilers at ND, below you’ll find our adaptation of their list and several other lists we spotted online, and we’ve also made a number of additions of our own. We’ll update this as other omissions become known.
First, here are links to selected 2016 obituaries we published this year. Following that is the master list of passings. As I’ve said before, after you pay your own last respects, pledge to seek out those artists who are still with us and who are important to you, and let them know in some way how much you appreciate them.
When Metallica releases an album – something that’s become an oddly rare occurrence in the past couple of decades – it’s an event. The San Fran band is such a major player in its genre – arguably the most important act in metal still in full flower – that the quality of the music is almost beside the point. Fortunately, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (Blackened) finds the nearly 40-year-old band closer to its original mojo than it’s been since the early 90s – maybe even the late 80s. The quartet has made no secret of its desire to revisit the whipcrack thrash it pioneered in the mid-80s – members have filled interviews with assurances of a return to their original sound, and recent shows have relied almost solely on its Reagan-era repertoire. Unsurprisingly for an album with such high expectations, the results are mixed. Much of the record takes the heavier tracks on the massively successful and still controversial Black Album as core inspiration – anyone expecting Master of Puppets II will be disappointed. Plus a lot of the lyrics are seriously dire – the chorus of “Hardwired” (“We’re so fucked/Shit out of luck/Hardwired to self-destruct”) would embarrass a 12-year-old. And James Hetfield’s mighty voice is starting to sound thin on a few tracks – on “Dream No More,” he’s nearly unrecognizable. But when the band locks in on what it does best – the raised-fist power metal of “Atlas, Rise!,” the hatchet prog metal of “Confusion,” the neckbreaking attack of “Spit Out the Bone,” “Moth Into Flame” and even “Hardwired” – with all the power, precision and, most significantly, enthusiasm of their younger selves, all the carping falls away in a haze of headbanging and air guitar. Hardwired…to Self-Destruct may not be the new masterpiece most of us were hoping for, but it’s absolutely the best Metallica record in a quarter of a century. TRACK: Metallica – “Moth Into Flame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tdKl-gTpZg
Instrumental metal usually takes the form of either prog-like epics or shredfests designed to let the musicians show off. Philadelphia’s Dysrhythmia can certainly be accused of the latter, as the trio is made up of virtuoso technicians who can play nearly anything. But on The Veil of Control (Profound Lore), the band’s eighth LP, guitarist Kevin Hufnagel, bassist Colin Marston and drummer Jeff Eber use their powers for good. Taking cues from jazz in their interplay and punk rock in their elevation of intensity over technique, Dysrhythmia grab hold of riffs that are complex more in feel than in form and don’t let go, driving them to levels of power and tension that takes telepathic reciprocity and a lot of time in the practice space. Anyone looking for insanely complex solos worthy of Guitar Face may need to go elsewhere – Dysrhythmia’s compositional smarts and interwoven musicianship creates a space where solos aren’t needed to make the songs compelling. TRACK: Dysrhythmia – Veil of Control Bandcamp: https://profoundlorerecords.bandcamp.com/album/the-veil-of-control
More overtly referencing jazz fusion than Dysrhythmia, Animals As Leaders takes similar influences to different places on The Madness of Many (Sumerian), the D.C. trio’s fourth album. Eight-string guitarists Tobin Abasi and Javier Reyes are quite capable of soloing with GIT-soaked abandon, but are more interested in textures than technique. The axemen’s string slashes – which contribute both bass and guitar tones – clash in a way that creates polyrhythms with drummer Matt Garstka, and a subtle funk undercurrent keeps the tracks percolating. TRACK: Animals As Leaders – “Inner Assassins”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEYt2GtfQJk
Drawing on different inspiration than its fellow trios, Russian Circles eschews solo-happy arrangements and just goes for the jugular on Guidance (Sargent House), the Chicago band’s sixth record. Guitarist Mike Sullivan, bassist Brian Cook and drummer Dave Turncrantz ride a fine line between doom metal and post rock, infusing the soaring dynamics of the latter with the power chord chug and thundering crunch of the former. TRACK: Sodom – “Caligula”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI6GXnBPDuQ&feature=youtu.be
Ottawa quartet The Night Watch adds prog rock sweep to its second record Boundaries (self-released). Guitarist Nathanael Larochette and violinist Evan Runge – both also of equally wordless experimental act Musk Ox – balance power chords and soaring string lines over the course of one 36-minute tune that never loses steam. TRACK: The Night Watch – Boundaries Bandcamp: https://thenightwatch.bandcamp.com/
Veteran Seattle black metal duo Inquisition has endured its fair share of bad press lately, due to accusations of Nazism. (Which seems unlikely, given this decidedly non-Aryan act hails originally from Colombia.) While denying all charges, guitarist/vocalist Dagon and drummer Incubus spit out Bloodshed Across the Empyrean Altar Beyond the Celestial Zenith (Season of Mist). The title alone indicates more interest in high-falutin Luciferian fooferaw than National Socialism, and Dagon’s guttural rumble makes meaning hard to discern in any case. In truth, the band’s passion is for grinding but catchy riffs and blastbeat rhythms that conjure up that most rare of demons in black metal: a groove. (All the more impressive given the lack of bass.) “The Flames of Infinite Blackness Before Creation” and “Through the Divine Spirit of Satan a Glorious Universe is Known” don’t court controversy so much as headbanging glory. TRACK: Inquisition – “Power From the Center of the Cosmic Black Spiral”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5C-W3Tq-zgM
Also no stranger to controversy, Norway’s legendary Darkthrone returns with its sixteenth LP Arctic Thunder (Peaceville). Singer/guitarist/bassist Nocturno Culto and drummer/lyricist Fenriz forgo the usual chaotic blast beats for a powerhouse marriage of blackened extreme metal and NWOBHM riffery. “Tundra Leech,” “Boreal Fiends” (which ends with a synth solo!) and “Deep Lae Trespass” sound, a quarter of a century after the band released its first album, less like black metal classicism and more like classic metal. TRACK: Darkthrone – “Tundra Leech”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lwz7gucE7x0
German headbanger vet Sodom also make a big return with Decision Day (Steamhammer/SPV), the trio’s 15th record, released 30 years after its debut. The band’s blackened thrash is as teeth-gnashingly powerful as ever, blazing through ugly anthems “Rolling Thunder,” “Vaginal Born Evil” and “Caligula” with nasty (and faintly ridiculous) intent. What else would you expect from a group whose singer is called Tom Angelripper? TRACK: Sodom – “Caligula”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI6GXnBPDuQ&feature=youtu.be
Witchery keep the Satanic vibe rolling on In His Infernal Majesty’s Service (Century Media), the long-running Swedish ensemble’s sixth LP. The quintet has always blended its bloody black metal with other styles (particularly thrash and power metal) for an evil brew that appeals to more than just the corpsepainted crowd. The powerhouse whipcrack of “Netherworld Emperor” sidles up to the blastbeat explosion of “The Burning of Salem,” both of which contrast with the heads-down stampede of “Zoroast” and the straight-up anthemry of “Oath Breaker.” Good headbanging fodder whether you worship Lucifer or not. TRACK: Witchery- “Oath Breaker”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DMBynqpUzdE
Norway’s In the Woods… never bothered with all that Satan stuff, finding its eerie weirdness inside its own collective head. Pure (Debemur Morti Productions), the innovative band’s first album in 17 years, keeps the menacing atmosphere of darkness, but skips most of the other BM signifiers. Exchanging blastbeats and vampire-on-crack singing for sweeping minor-key melodies and a gruff baritone, ItW uses its black metal roots as foundation for moody progressive anthems “Blue Oceans (Rise Like a War)” and the massive “Transmission KRS.” TRACK: In the Woods… – “Blue Oceans Rise (Like a War)”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iY0nBdumDr0
The Gates of Slumber waved the flag for old-fashioned doom metal for over a decade, before the departure and subsequent death of bassist Jason McCash put a period on the end of that sentence. But guitarist/singer Karl Simon isn’t done laying down the thundering riffgroove just yet, picking up exactly where he left off with Wretch, named for TGoS’s final LP. The trio’s self-titled debut (Bad Omen) floweth over with deep sludgy grooves, lava-thick guitar waves and Simon’s plainspokenly gruff ruminations on “Grey Cast Mourning,” “Winter” and “Running Out of Days.” No psychedelic excursions, blackened atmospheres or noise dynamics here – just pure doom done well – better, possibly, than anyone else treading the boards not named Tony Iommi. Check out “Icebound” for a near-perfect encapsulation of everything doom is all about. TRACK: Wretch – s/t Bandcamp: https://badomenrecords.bandcamp.com/album/wretch
Combining progressive rock melodics, death metal aggression and doom crunch, Vancouver’s Anciients blast to life on sophomore LP Voice of the Void (Season of Mist). Alternating carnivorous roars with keening croons, sweeping tunesmithery with thunderous riffology and soaring majesty with grimy brutality, the quartet lifts you up to heaven, only to drag you back through hell, usually within the same song. As such, the band is at its best on longer pieces where it can really flex its considerable muscle – “Worshipper” and “Ibex Eye” are particularly good examples. TRACK: Anciients – “Ibex Eye”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFJaeVS8L00
Veteran Swedes Dark Tranquility skip the doom part of the equation, but aren’t a million miles away from prog metal on eleventh LP Atoma (Century Media). The band’s sense of majestic melody informs tracks like “Neutrality,” “When the World Screams” and “Encircled” – it’s just one clean vocal away from a radio-ready anthem. TRACK: Dark Tranquility – “Forward Momentum”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suhuQlYZwtE
Pioneering avant metal act Neurosis lets enough years go between releases that any new album is a big deal. Fires Within Fires (Neurot), the influential Oakland quintet’s twelfth album and first in four years, serves as a thirtieth anniversary record, and a summing up of the group’s long career to date. Over the course of five long tracks, Neurosis takes a journey through noise and silence, chaos and order, alternating high volume and maximum crunch with delicate beauty and near-ambient intonation. Guitarists Scott Kelly and Steve Von Till interweave steely webs of thorny latticework before crashing into wall-shaking thunder; drummer Jason Roeder modulates the dynamics while still keeping to the crunge. Keyboardist Noah Landis and bassist Dave Edwardson fill out the sound without drawing attention. As vocalists, Kelly and Von Till evoke the album title in their performances, calling up a harsh passion undiminished in their three decades around the metal block. “A Shadow Memory” and “Fire is the End Lesson” present masterclasses in how to manipulate sturm und drang without becoming tiresome, while the awesome closing epic “Reach” is a summary of everything that makes Neurosis great. TRACK: Neurosis – Fires Within Fires Bandcamp: https://neurosis.bandcamp.com/album/fires-within-fires
Every time we think NYC alt.metal icon Helmet has finally given up the ghost, we’re proven wrong. Since its reactivation in the early ‘aughts, Page Hamilton likes to take his time between records and tours, so the confusion is understandable. Six years since the underwhelming Seeing Eye Dog, Hamilton and co. return with Dead To the World (earMUSIC), Helmet’s eighth LP. The guitarist’s voice has gotten rougher over the years – indeed, he’s almost unrecognizable to his former mellifluous yet harsh singing self. Otherwise, though, the song remains the same – growling riffs, grungy melodies, noisy guitar breaks, the occasional unusual lick or chord progression to remind us of Hamilton’s jazz training. “Bad News,” “Life or Death” and “Expect the World” likely won’t change the minds of the unconverted, but fans will feel a familiar warm and steely buzz. TRACK: Helmet – “Bad News”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkFMvststF0
On their last albumClean., Whores. seemed just too angry and spiteful to live. But rage can keeps the blood pumping, as on the band’s follow-up Gold. (eOne). The Atlanta trio pummels its riffs with barbwire-wrapped baseball bats, while guitarist Christian Lembach rants and raves about whatever’s pissing him off at the moment. Same old same old, especially in the noise rawk world, but Whores. (spellcheck loves that period!) definitely possess that certain spark that elevates them above mere Unsane clonery. Maybe it’s because, like Unsane, Wrong and the other heads-above distortion mongers, Whores. writes real songs – “Baby Teeth,” “Mental Illness as Mating Ritual” and “Bloody Like the Day You Were Born” would hold up if they were being played by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fortunately, they’re not. TRACK: Whores. – “Baby Teeth”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqPVISe4jhI
If metal musicians are playing, is the result still metal? Hard to say, given how many active headbangers like to make goth rock, postpunk, prog, noise rock and various electronic and ambient musics. Case in point: Brain Tentacles, the membership of which includes dudes from Municipal Waste, Keelhaul and Yakuza. The trio’s self-titled LP (Relapse) plays smash ‘n’ grab with elements of free jazz, riff punk, noise rock and thrash for a gleefully frenzied tornado of sonic ass-whuppery. Bruce Lamont’s growling sax leads the charge, dragging bass guitar, drums and occasional synth waves and vocal expulsions in its wake with a chain. Four-stringer Aaron Dallison sometimes challenges Lamont and even threatens to win, but ultimately goes back to his corner, while drummer Dave Witte just keeps his head down and bashes away. “Sleestack Lightning,” “Fruitcake” and “The Sadist” are exciting and goofy and overwrought and brilliant all at once. Exactly what you want from a band called Brain Tentacles. TRACK: Brain Tentacles – s/t Bandcamp: https://braintentacles.bandcamp.com/
Opeth hasn’t really been metal in several years at this point, ever since excising its death metal side with 2011’s Heritage. While the Stockholm quintet still hasn’t rediscovered the magic that made Blackwater Park and Watershed so distinctive and compelling, it gets closer with every post-Watershed album, as latest Sorceress (Nuclear Blast) shows. “Era” and “Will O’ the Wisp” mix progressive rock and psychedelia like there’s no difference betwixt them (is there?), while the Middle Eastern melodies of “The Seventh Sojourn” give the album a different flavor. “Chrysalis” and the title track also remind that Opeth still knows how to rock when required. Sorceress is this metal royalty’s best non-metal album so far. TRACK: Opeth – “Sorceress”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhqijfqecvA
Opeth’s countrymen Witchcraft have followed a similar path from headbanging to headscratching, though starting from 70s doom rather than 80s death metal. Time (Nuclear Blast), Witchcraft leader Magnus Pelander’s first solo album, falls even further from the metal tree, its apple rolling off into fields of lite prog and acid folk. Given how stripped down these tracks are – mostly just acoustic guitar and voice – the nearly nine- and ten-minute lengths of “True Colour” and “Precious Swan” seem excessive. But Pelander’s melodic instincts serve him as well here as they do in his main band, keeping him out of trouble. TRACK: Pelander – “The Irony of Man”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXF7Y_QOV5g
Similarly, Sweden never seems to tire of the heavy classic rock groove, as it spits out bands of that ilk like watermelon seeds. Örebros quartet Captain Crimson is the latest to cross over to domestic shores, via its third album Remind (Small Stone). The band sports a fairly traditional (if you can say that about this music) melodic blues rock sound – songs like “Money” and the title track sound familiar even if you’ve never heard them before. But singer Stefan Lillhager boasts a charismatic tenor and guitarist Andreas Eriksson knows when to let riff and when to let rip. “Black Rose” and “Drifting” score big on both counts. TRACK: Captain Crimson – Remind Bandcamp: https://smallstone.bandcamp.com/album/remind
In 2016, Chris Stamey put together his seminal band from the mid-‘70s for a handful of reunion gigs. With guitarist Mitch Easter, bassist Robert Keely, and drummer Will Rigby joining Stamey onstage, Sneakers duly performed in public for the first time in four decades, and it was a North Carolina music scene follower’s wet dream. Easter and Keely reflect on this most-unlikely turn of events…. Pictured above: the original lineup of Keely, Rigby, guitarist Rob Slater, and Stamey.
BY BILL KOPP
In the histories of power pop, indie rock and college rock (and whatever you want to call the musical scene that bubbled under in North Carolina several decades back), there’s one band that elicits approving nods whenever it’s mentioned. Sneakers never released a full album and played only a tiny handful of live shows, but the band is an important part of those histories. More to the point, Sneakers left behind a tidy pile of catchy songs that are full of clues about the subsequent direction of the band’s members.
Sneakers was (and is, but we’ll get to that in a bit) guitarist Chris Stamey, bassist Robert Keely, Will Rigby on drums. (Guitarist Rob Slater was there in the early days, too, but with due respect to his contributions to Sneakers, you won’t see his name again in this story.) If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned rock subgenres, at least a couple of those names will be familiar to you. Stamey and Rigby would go on to – among many other things – The dB’s, one of the most celebrated bands to come out of North Carolina.
And helping out in various ways with Sneakers was another name you’ll recognize: Mitch Easter. Years before producing R.E.M. and fronting Let’s Active, Easter was a key (he’d probably prefer the word peripheral) part of the Sneakers story. “First of all, Sneakers is Chris’ baby,” he says.
Chris Stamey is (a) currently very busy with a number of projects and (b) well known for his reluctance to doing interviews. But when I set out to learn more about the history of this somewhat obscure band, Mitch was quite happy to sit down with me and chat. During that conversation – backstage before an actual Sneakers gig, but again, we’ll get to that a bit later – I said a brief hello to Stamey and chatted a bit with Robert Keely. (Pictured: Easter, with the author.)
Chris described the bassist to me as “a real keeper of the flame for Sneakers. He’s somewhat of an historian as well for everything about that period of the North Carolina rock scene.” I followed up with Keely sometime later, and he was kind enough to share some thoughts on the band. You’ll find his observations sprinkled here and there throughout this story. (Below: Sneakers live in 2016 at Durham’s MotorCo.)
Though as early as 1972 there had been a band called Rittenhouse Square, featuring Chris, Mitch and Peter Holsapple (and Bobby Locke, another guy whose name won’t reappear in this particular story, so never mind), and though that heavy band actually recorded a number of tunes, the pre-history of Sneakers can actually be said to have begun with a band called the Pedestrians.
“They played once, I think,” laughs Easter. “And that was kind of legendary.” Chris Stamey was “moving into a front man role” with his new material, Mitch recalls. “He wrote this batch of songs … great songs. He was playing an acoustic guitar and singing a lot, but the neck of the acoustic guitar was broken. Which was … memorable. And kind of traumatic, too.”
The chronology gets fuzzy; Easter says he wasn’t really in that band, either. “But I played acoustic guitar on the session.” One figures that somebody had to, what with Stamey’s guitar being broken and all. “I’ve known Chris for a really long time, and whenever he asked me to get involved in things, I would do it.”
Mitch relates Chris’ version of the story since Chris isn’t doing the interview: “His story is that after the Pedestrians fiasco, he just assumed I wouldn’t even want to play in the band, because that was such a disaster. But it was more a disaster for him, because it was his baby. And it kind of exploded along with the guitar.”
Robert Keely remembers that show as “disastrous,” and remembers that the show was billed as “The Pedestrians: Play the Nixon Years.” His very earliest recollections of that group – the first combo he’d ever played in – involve “being invited to Will [Rigby]’s apartment in Chapel Hill, where he and Chris taught me ‘Some Kind of Fool.'”
But even with the failure of the Pedestrians, Stamey still aspired to – and worked at – being the leader of a band. “Chris was just ready to be that kind of artist, you know,” Mitch says. He had played bass in high school, and played in bands, but just not as the front guy.”
Mitch explains that while Stamey was already a musician by his high school years, he wasn’t yet a songwriter. “But then in college, he started sort of re-configuring himself” to be a songwriter and “front guy.” The first batch of songs that Chris wrote ended up forming the basis for Sneakers’ first record, a 7” vinyl EP released in 1976 on Stamey’s own label, Carnivorous Records.
Priced at a reasonable $1.98, the six-song EP sold about 3,500 copies. Try finding one now, and expect to pay about ten times as much for one in decent shape, and up to $40 for a mint copy. In the CD era, that EP – variously appended with other Sneakers-related material – has been reissued no less than three times: East Side Digital released a 19-track compilation called Racket in 1992; Collectors’ Choice Music released Nonsequitur of Silence in 2006, adding two more tracks.
Omnivore Recordings released a 10” vinyl record in 2014, and a shiny silver CD the following year. Omnivore used a slightly-edited version of the original EP art (it’s pictured below), and appended the six tracks with five more, one of which – a cover of The Grassroots’ “Let’s Live for Today” – had never been released before. Not even on all those other re-re-issues. (Ed. note: as sung by Rigby, the Grassroots number was included, along with other subsequently-issued outtakes, on a 60-minute underground cassette that was widely circulated by fans.A digital collection of unreleased and live material from Sneakers can be found at the most excellent NC music blog, The dB’s Repercussion.)
The songs on that original EP – “Condition Red,” “Nonsequitur (of Silence),” “Driving,” “Ruby,” “On the Brink” and the immortal “Love’s Like a Cuban Crisis” – were all Stamey originals (“Nonsequitur” was a co-write with Will Rigby, who would go on to prove a sterling songwriter in his own right). And they were really good, a kind of skewed power pop. Maybe not quite as off-kilter as the stuff Alex Chilton and his Big Star band mates had been cutting – to critical praise and commercial indifference – 650 miles west in Memphis, but really, really good.
“Every time Chris starts a new band, he writes a batch of good songs,” says Mitch, who would know. “Which is a great way to get a band going. And I remember being very impressed with these songs because they were so good.” Mitch recalls that the songs they had each written before that weren’t, shall we say, up to the same standard. “They were these kind of things that were like nerdy children with guitars and stuff,” he chuckles, “but not something that you could really expect anybody else to listen to.”
The goal had been to write pop songs, but punk was looming on the horizon. In a good way; the aesthetics of punk had a liberating effect, even on people making pure pop for now people. “Even if you weren’t a punk band, it kind of re-defined what you could do as a lead singer,” Easter says. “I mean, you could have [somebody like] Tom Verlaine as the lead singer. Whereas, just a few years before it’d be like, ‘Yeah … Right, pal.’”
There would be a second, sort-of-Sneakers record, In the Red, released in 1978. Though this record was bigger (12”) and had more songs (nine total), it was really a Stamey-Easter collaboration using the Sneakers name, for whatever reason. It too was self-released; to balance out the longer playing record, Stamey shortened the label’s name from Carnivorous to Car. (Pictured above are Easter and Stamey; note the B&G sign in front of the drumkit.)
Okay, not really; in fact In the Red was one of four releases on Car Records in 1978. The others were by people all of whom figure prominently into the story of that decade’s indie-rock/power pop: Peter Holsapple (at the time, soon to join The dB’s; he’d recorded a brace of songs that he, Easter, Keely, and drummer Chris Chamis had been performing under the name the H-Bombs, whose story can be read elsewhere on this site), Chris Bell (ex-Big Star) and the instant-classic dB’s debut single, “(I Thought) You Wanted to Know,” written by Television guitarist Richard Lloyd.
Speaking of wanting (or not wanting) to know, around the time that the original Sneakers EP was released, the band couldn’t get many gigs. In fact, according to Unofficial Sneakers Historian and bassist Robert Keely, Sneakers’ 2016 reunion performance at the Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh was exactly the band’s ninth show ever. “So every performance is a very special occasion,” smiles Easter. “We know where we are welcome.” (Below photo by Larry Tucker, from the Hopscotch show. Visit Tucker’s YouTube page for some clips from the band’s other 2016 gig, at Durham’s MotorCo.)
For at least one of the band’s eight previous live shows between 1976 and 2016, they weren’t greeted with open arms. Mitch amusingly recalls one Sneakers gig in particular, one during which he wasn’t in the band. “I remember seeing Sneakers play at the Apple Chill Festival in Chapel Hill. At the time, Chapel Hill was pretty much culturally dominated by hippies.” He readily concedes that the hippie movement was largely moribund by 1976 … but apparently news of its demise hadn’t reached Chapel Hill. “I loved the hippie scene in 1967,” Easter says. “But by this time it was getting kind of dreary.” That hippie vibe was blended with a kind of down-home southern ambiance; not exactly a recipe for acceptance of a power pop group.
“Anyway,” Mitch continues, “the famed Apple Chill Cloggers were up next.” Workers were already busy laying down plywood flooring in front of the stage, all while Sneakers were still up there playing and singing. “They were all holding their ears, like ‘Ohh!’ And these were young people! I just thought, ‘Fuck you.’”
But Mitch thought that scene was, in its own way, a great image. “It definitely reinforced the dangerous punk aspects of Sneakers,” he deadpans. “They really offended people, which is always what you need to do, right?”
Robert Keely remembers a few other details from Sneakers’ short list of live dates. “We played a street festival in Chapel Hill; we were so loud, they unplugged the PA.” And at the Connor Dorm Spring Fest – also in Chapel Hill (Fun Fact: BLURT’s future editor attended the show); save for the Max’s gig, Sneakers don’t seem to have been able to escape the city limits – band friend and producer Don Dixon “played an actual car horn from the parking lot for the intro to ‘Driving’.” This was long before sampling, kids. (Below: Rigby, Easter, Stamey, Keely, and Slater, plus unknown associate in hat.)
Alas, there was essentially nowhere for Sneakers to play. Everyone involved does recall a show at famed New York City club Max’s Kansas City. “It was quite exciting to play Max’s,” says Keely. He recalls that it was Sneakers’ “fourth, maybe fifth show ever.”
“That was very exciting,” Easter admits, “but it wasn’t part of a tour. It was just like, New York and then home.” In fact, by the time of that gig, Mitch was in the group. “I guess I was sort of brought into the band; I can’t remember, man …”
But the whole thing ended shortly thereafter. “Chris had been to New York City, and met and seen Television,” Keely recalls. Stamey moved to the City in January 1977. “I don’t know if Television are aware of their influence on Chris at that time,” adds Mitch. Stamey soon joined forces with Alex Chilton, playing bass in Chilton’s band.
Fast forward almost 40 years. But first …
In the interval, Chris Stamey got The dB’s up and running. Peter Holsapple, fresh from the above-mentioned H-Bombs, joined. They did a few excellent albums. Stamey left, and Peter carried on with Like This and The Sound of Music, wonderful despite Chris’ absence. Peter and Chris teamed up outside the group for a pair of superb albums, Mavericks and Here and Now, separated by a mere 18 years.
Meanwhile, Mitch opened Drive-in Studio in his hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, and played a key (again, he might say peripheral) role in developing and capturing the sound of early R.E.M. His own band, Let’s Active, cut a wonderful EP and album before fracturing; the second Let’s Active album was excellent as well, but – like Sneakers’ In the Red – not really a group project. Post-Let’s Active, he teamed with then-wife Shalini Chatterjee in the groups Fiendish Minstrels and Shalini, and did more production work, including some of the best releases from Game Theory, yet another criminally unknown and underrated group. For his part, Keely enjoyed what he characterizes as “a very long retirement.”
More recently, around 2010 Mitch and Chris reunited for the Big Star’s 3rd concert series, along with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens. (See how this all hangs together?) And in 2012, Stamey, Rigby and Easter (plus Holsapple) played at the annual SXSW Festival in Austin—billing themselves as The dB’s—including a special set at the BLURT day party held at the Ginger Man pub.
Returning now to the present … (Pictured below: Easter and Stamey at the Hopscotch gig.)
“I can always kind of remember these songs,” Easter tells me backstage at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, while – of all people – Television is doing an extremely loud sound check a few yards away. “And it’s weird, because they’re not songs I played very much.” He muses that Sneakers happened when all of its participants were at young and pivotal stages in their lives.
“It was right when we all sort of became adults. We were trying to really do rock music and it was kind of, sort of happening around this band a little bit.” They had made a record that got some attention, and – they had hoped – that would mean they could “break out of the three or four local depressing clubs that we could play, [places] where they kind of wished we’d go away.”
Mitch says that “to have it feel like a connection to the wider world was fantastic. And that’s all down to Chris’ efforts, his wherewithal to actually press this [record] up and everything.” Keely shrugs and adds, “All the deep philosophy and musical questions are best directed to the other players. I was just extremely fortunate to be a passenger on the bus who happened to be in the right place at the right time, with correct change.”
Some months earlier, the organizers of the annual Hopscotch Festival reached out to Stamey, asking if he’d consider putting Sneakers back together for a reunion gig. Chris had played Hopscotch a few years earlier with a recently-reactivated dB’s; that enthusiastically-received set included him, Peter Holsapple, bassist Gene Holder and Will Rigby (plus the very versatile Brett Harris as an auxiliary dB). So he said yes.
The plans for Sneakers’ Hopscotch set were to do songs from “the original ancient EP, and then a couple of other songs, a couple of newer ones,” Mitch says. I ask if the set will include the infamous “B&G Pies Commercial” track that showed up on Racket and Nonsequitur of Silence. “No. We got a cease-and-desist [order] from B&G,” Easter says. They told him, “We don’t want to be associated with punk.”
The Hopscotch show was a success; the band tore through the material as if the previous forty years had never happened, and Chris’ guitar didn’t break. So who knows? Maybe they’ll do some more shows. “It’s all about the money,” Mitch deadpans. Keely leans in and adds, “It has to be bigger Canadian dollars; physically bigger dollars. And in another time frame; another nine years seems about right.”
Turning slightly more serious, Keely gets the final word. “It’s totally up to Chris, Mitch and Will. I’ll show up and know my parts if requested.”
Damn well better, Robert….. Bill Kopp is BLURT’s Jazz Desk editor, but he dearly loves his power pop, punk, and prog, too. 2016 individual bandmembers photos credit: Audrey Kopp.
The British musician made his mark, initially, with Gallon Drunk, with whom he continues to tour and record. Most recently, he’s been an integral part of PJ Harvey’s band and played on her Grammy-nominated Hope Six Demolition Project. Now, he has an ambitious solo album that is already stirring rumblings among music critics about year-end best-of list placement.
BY JONATHAN LEVITT
Gallon Drunk’s James Johnston has produced something timeless with his debut solo album The Starless Room, from Clouds Hill Records, based in Hamburg, Germany. The starkness of Johnston’s photo gracing the cover revealing nothing but the man himself, is a wonderful metaphor for the album as a whole. Here, he opens his heart and lets it flow like never before. This is a sweeping culmination of the musical moments we’ve heard punctuated throughout his career—which includes work with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Marianne Faithfull, Lydia Lunch, Faust, and, currently, PJ Harvey—as well as a fascinating new step into an artistic space that he’s finally ready to inhabit.
As I did last year for our Gallon Drunk From The Heart Of Town piece for our The Story Behind The Album piece, I contacted James who was more than willing to sit down and answer my questions about the new record and the amazing year he’s had. (Ed. note: Sharp-eyed BLURT readers no doubt spotted the exclusive track he offered us recently, a live version of the new album’s “Heart and Soul” recorded by Linda Gerdes back in 2015 at the Clouds Hill festival. You can listen to that track below. Meanwhile, Johnston has also created a series of videos in which he discusses the writing of each track on the album. Go HERE for the “Track by Track” section of his YouTube channel.)
BLURT: Why at this stage of your career do a solo record?
JAMES JOHNSTON: I needed to do something different, I wanted to try something fresh, something I wasn’t familiar with. Something that reflected more what I like to listen to myself. It just developed from there, encouraged and helped along by Johann Scheerer, the producer. We’d just done two Gallon Drunk albums in fairly quick succession, and it needed to go somewhere new. I’d skulked about behind a curtain of noise for ages, I wanted to see what it was like without it for once, take the comfort blanket away. [Below: Johnston and producer/Cloud Hills owner Scheerer]
How long have the songs on the album been kicking around, and how long did it take to record the album?
Everything was written specifically for the album. I hate coming back to troublesome old demos, all the same indecisions rear their ugly heads back up immediately, sends me out of my mind hearing stagnant old ideas that I overworked or overthought. Garageband drum loops, hearing some of them again makes me want to weep, throttle myself, or smash my computer, so I tried to stay as far away from anything like that as possible this time for the sake of my sanity. If something’s not working it gets erased immediately. I tend to start everything as an improvisation, just see what comes out. Often I keep the form of the improv intact and build on that. The first half of “Dark Water” was done like that, and the last track, a lot of it was.
We did three session for the record, initial recording, then overdubs, the choir, the strings, and then a mixing session a while later. I’ve no real idea how long it took. It’s easy to lose track of time at the studio, Clouds Hill, as it’s a residential studio, meaning you live there too. It’s very easy to just get lost in the whole process, I barely went into Hamburg once throughout the entire recording.
Who decided the running order?
That was me. I spent a long time working on it – as usual, but certain things were always set in stone for me. “When The Wolf Calls” was always going to be the last track, for example. “Dark Water” was the center, so having those in place made it a bit easier. Trying to keep tracks apart that are in the same key. I enjoy albums that have a definite musical and lyrical flow and work as a complete piece, so mostly I was hoping to achieve something like that with the running order. Just listen to it until it felt complete. Probably the same as it is for everyone putting a record together.
How many songs did you record in total, and which were the hardest to nail?
There were only a couple that didn’t make it, one called “The Wild Sky” that I really like, but it just didn’t fit in the running order. The most difficult ones were where I’d embellished the demo too much, and we were trying to recreate that, or build on that rather than start afresh. “Heart and Soul” was like that. Completely different to the demo. We ended up totally stripping out the idea, changing the key, and then slowing it right down, after which Johann further slowed the tape down so it has that odd ambience. The drum part especially. The demo was an up-tempo cross between Dr. John and Ennio Morricone, totally overblown, bombastic, and impossible to recreate, but we still felt it could really work as a song, and I was really happy with how the lyrics turned out. I’m so very glad Johann suggested starting from scratch with that one, as otherwise it was heading towards the bin, and I love the ghostly way it ended up. It fitted the nature of the words so much better than the original track did. So much better than the demo, and more part of the record in its overall atmosphere.
By far the easiest was “When The Wolf Calls,” one take and that was it.
“Cold Morning Light” is one of my favorite songs on the record, and to be honest, I was sad when it ended. What was the seed of an idea that set you on a course to write this gem of a song?
It was originally going to be an instrumental, and I was completely happy with it that way. It was Polly who suggested I try singing on it so I tried it out at home, sounds to me now like I’d been listening to The Doors, which I probably had been! I wanted the whole track to develop, layer upon layer, so it was logical for the vocal to be the last entry, hence the form of the song that leaves you hanging at the end. Also, it works as a break from the more traditional song structures on some of the rest of the album. Live, we’ve stretched the intro out longer, but on the record, I generally tried to keep things more succinct.
“St. Martha’s” I loved when I first heard it—how did this song come about? (Ed. note: A live version of the track, recorded at the above-mentioned Clouds Hill festival, appeared on a 12” single that featured Peter Doherty on the flipside. The limited edition vinyl-only item was released for the 2016 Record Store Day in the UK.)
That’s a favourite of mine too. The music came first. Then the lyric was triggered by looking through a box of very old photos. It’s about a very specific place that has huge emotional resonance for me, it’s out in the country. But hopefully as a song, it could be about anywhere that someone holds precious, hazy memories both good and painful, we’ve all got them! I’ve tried writing about that sort of thing before, but I could never get the tone of it right. Probably the saddest track on there.
Do you have plans for another solo record, or will a Gallon Drunk record come next?
Everything is very much open, I really enjoyed the freshness of recording the album, and I’d very much like to keep that sense of newness going, whatever it may be. The feedback will always be there if needed, it’s just waiting inside a Big Muff for a while.
Tell us about Johann Scheerer’s [pictured above, with Johnston] involvement as producer and bassist—what discussions did you have regarding the sound you wanted? What’s he like to work with?
First and foremost, Johann’s a friend. We’ve worked together on two Gallon Drunk records now, and a Faust album, and now The Starless Room. Knowing someone that well can be totally key to trying something new; you have to have that trust, the freedom to try anything, regardless of whether it’ll work or not, and not rely on your usual methods. Johann is great at that, and I’ve seen him develop that level of trust very quickly with other bands in the studio too.
It started with my emailing him a blizzard of demos, sometimes one a day, and this went on for a long time. He’d respond immediately with what he thought, good or bad, and I’d take it from there. They weren’t finished songs, just chord patterns and rough vocal ideas. It really helped to bounce ideas off someone, and gave me confidence to follow my instinct with some songs I might not have ever shown anyone, and also to ditch some things immediately. It gradually became obvious what style was working best, and that a group of songs was developing.
Most of the discussions about the actual sound came in the studio; we both had ideas for every song, so we’d just try them out with Ian [White; pictured below] on drums, and see what worked. Ian plays beautifully on the record, and obviously, that brought something new to respond to as well. Generally, we all tried to let our enthusiasm and instinct take the lead, try different approaches until it felt right, then move on quickly.
Strings are tricky to employ without sounding cloying and overly emotional, and on the album, they seem rather restrained. Was this something you thought about when trying to fill out the core layers of the songs?
Well, I certainly didn’t want it to be like one of those “Hank Williams and Strings” type albums where the strings are poured on as a sweetener. The string arranger, Sebastian Hoffmann, was extremely sympathetic to what I wanted and what was needed. We listed to loads of arrangements I like. From Massive Attack to Serge Gainsbourg, [John] Cale, Lee Hazlewood, and even Vaughan Williams, all sorts of stuff. The overall tone of the whole record is one of restraint, so the strings are part of that mood and he achieved it beautifully, a lot of subtle counter-melodies like the gorgeous tune on “Cold Morning Light,” and then on the last track it’s just improvised harmonics and a very delicate drone was all that was needed, barely there.
On this record, you seem to be the most emotionally vulnerable we’ve seen you. Were you at all worried how this would play with your Gallon Drunk fan base, who were more used to the visceral edge of your songs?
The nature of the songs demanded something open and vulnerable, exposed, something markedly different, so the lyrics had to match that. I really needed that too, I needed change. As usual I wrote the music first, with a vocal melody, then fitted the lyrics to that. You can’t really worry about how people will respond or you’d never finish anything, I know I wouldn’t. I find it hard enough to start with, without setting up even more barriers and things to consider. Again, I just went with what felt right at the time. I was still basically just responding to the music, in the same way as I would with Gallon Drunk, except this time more based around melody, and the vocal taking the lead in the song.
You’ve spent a good part of this year touring with PJ Harvey, who counts Mick Harvey also as one of her band members. What influence has playing with these people had on your music?
I know Mick really well from playing in The Bad Seeds, and in his solo band, so that feels totally comfortable, and I really enjoy it, the same with Terry from Gallon Drunk who’s also in the band. It’s a big band, ten including Polly, so we’re all reacting to one another, and playing off and around one another the whole time. It has to be sympathetic to the song, what’s needed, or as is often the case in music in general, what space needs to be left. One big difference for me has been playing the violin again after years of it sitting sadly in its case, ignored. I took it into the recording sessions on the off-chance it might be of use, even if someone else were playing it, and now I’m playing as much violin as guitar on tour.
What does the Grammy nomination for Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project mean to you since this is also partially your work?
The Grammy nomination is for Polly, it’s her record in every way, but being involved with the album has been an amazing experience, which has now spread out over time to include the tour that now continues on through 2017. Mainly it helps draw more attention to the album, and the timing has been great as the North American dates have just been announced. But also, I’m very proud to play on the album, and it’s meant working closely with friends old and new. The first gig where Polly and I were on the same bill was a Gallon Drunk gig in 1992 in a London pub The White Horse. We subsequently went on to tour together for about a year. It’s always been a great memory; we were all young and very fresh to it all. So, it’s been great to work together, and really reconnect properly as friends.
Will you be touring for your record? Any chance of a stop in Asheville, North Carolina so our esteemed editor, Fred Mills, can catch you?
I played Asheville a few years ago while I was in Faust, loved it, still have the tinnitus to remember it by. I hope to do some shows in the States for the album, so we’ll see. Sadly, we’re not stopping in Asheville on the upcoming Harvey tour or I could have done an impromptu gig somewhere in town that had a piano. (Damn. Well, next time then, mate! – Ed. Fred)
Last time we spoke for our piece on Gallon Drunk, you were looking forward to 2016 and all your various musical endeavors, now that we are at the end of the year, take stock for us as to what this year has meant to you, and what next year holds in store for James Johnston?
Well, a lot [has] happened for me with music this year, and there’s been a lot of travelling. To put it simply, next year looks the same, and I’m very, very grateful for it being that way.
Ed note: With BLURT’s newest series, we want to spotlight tunes that hold special places in our hearts and in our collective experience as devotees to and lovers of timeless indie rock. No, you probably won’t get the scoop behind “Night Moves” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but don’t be surprised if “Shake Some Action” or “Death Valley ‘69” turn up on our playlist. To kick the series off, we asked Eric Matthews, of both solo and Cardinal fame, to talk about his classic number “Fanfare,” from his 1995 Sub Pop hit It’s Heavy in Here.Response from readers was immediate, and enthusiastic; Matthews himself was appreciative, and fans are encouraged to check out his new single (details HERE). For our latest spotlight, Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom pulls back the curtain on one of his early gems: “Taillights Fade,” from 1992’sLet Me Come Over, cut with fellow bandmembers Chris Colbourn (bass) and Tom Maginnis (drums). Scroll to the end for details about the band’s upcoming 25th anniversary shows for the album.
BY TIM HINELY
In the late ‘80s, Massachusetts trio Buffalo Tom burst onto the scene with a very good self-titled, J. Mascis-produced debut that was initially released in Europe on the Megadisc label in 1988, subsequently getting picked up in the States by SST the following year. They followed it up with Birdbrain in 1990, by now signed to Beggars Banquet, another very good effort, but the band really hit it out of the park on record number three, 1992’s Let Me Come Over, also on Beggars, and one of the best records of that year. It’s still a favorite among Buffalo Tom fans. The band—the same three guys: Bill Janovitz, Chris Colbourn and Tom Maginnis—still get together for occasional tours and recording (their latest, 2011’s Skins, is among their best). I tossed a few questions at vocalist/guitarist Janovitz to get the skinny on one of the band’s most popular songs and he was kind enough to give it up for the BLURT readers.
BLURT: What was the initial inspiration for the song?
BILL JANOVITZ: This one, as with most of my songs, started with the music. I think I just started humming out a melody and the first verse came. The second verse was taken from a newspaper story about a girl who goes to hide as a hermit after her family would not allow him to marry the man she loved. I believe this was in Romania. The third verse is a summary, tying the three together. Cappy Dick is a reference to a Sunday comics character from when I was growing up.
Did it take long to finish writing it?
The song, with melody and chords came quickly, all at once. The first verse was likely culled from the initial mumbling I was doing. The second verse was just sitting around in a notebook, though in different meter. I think I pulled the whole writing part together in a day or so. I started on the bathroom floor after a night of drinking. I could go in there and play a little because it was the furthest away from my girlfriend while she slept in our bedroom in our tiny apartment. I would record into a boom box.
Any idea how your longtime fans feel about it—i.e., would it be considered a “fan favorite” or anything?
Certainly yes. It is kind of our signature number.
Was it a staple of your live sets ever years later?
We have played no shows without it, I think.
Is there anything about the song you’d change?
The actual writing? No.
Tell me a little about the recording of it—where and when, how long did it take, any watershed moments or glaring problems, etc.?
Recorded at Dreamland, a converted church in Bearsville, NY, near Woodstock. Amazing spot. Then we overdubbed guitars, vocals, etc., at Fort Apache in Cambridge, all with Sean Slade and Paul Kolderie co-producing. It was mixed by Ron St. Germain. I think every performer listens to recordings of themselves and hears things they would change or improve, if not just cringing outright. So, yeah, I would change a few things. But nothing glaring.
How do you feel about it now?
I still feel deeply about the song, especially when singing it. But I would never have predicted it would be a song so many people latched onto, never mind be a single or a song that still resonates for so many fans. I’m grateful to have one song like that, if nothing else.
Suggestions for a potential “Inspiration Behind…” profile? Let us know in the comments section, below. If we take your suggestion and the artist, in turn, takes us up on it, we’ll acknowledge your editorial input in the feature (and maybe even give the artist your contact info so he can thank you – or sue you – for making the suggestion).
For anyone with a serious interest in the history of Midwest rock and certainly Cleveland, a lesson in Sixties American electric blues and garage rock not to be skipped on a remarkable new archival unveiling. Above: Jim Fox (left) and Glenn Schwartz (center) during the latter’s James Gang tenure.
BY FRED MILLS
Unlike with contemporary irony-slinging hipsters, back in the day, bands who dubbed themselves a “blues crusade” not only meant what they said, they backed up those utterances with the tunes, along with the chops to deliver ‘em. Such was the case with this short-lived Cleveland combo, a powerhouse outfit featuring members of the James Gang (pre-Joe Walsh hitmaking period) and cult heroes the Mr. Stress Blues Band. The Smog Veil label has now unearthed recordings the group cut in the spring of ’67 as part of its ongoing archival series, Platters du Cuyahoga. Although in one sense the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade represents a footnote of sorts to the James Gang files (drummer Jim Fox would be the constant in the band, including during both the pre- and post-Walsh eras) and those of Pacific Gas & Electric (the group guitarist Glenn Schwartz formed after leaving the Gang, ultimately landing a major label deal and almost grabbing the brass ring with PG&E), no serious Cleveland scene watcher would deny the visceral power contained in these grooves.
The exhaustive liner notes penned by archivist Nick Blakey for the album’s thick, rare photos-adorned booklet (16 pages for the CD version; 12 LP-sized pages for the vinyl—which, collectors should note, comes pressed on limited-edition yellow wax, but only if you move fast enough) tell the tale so thoroughly that I’d be foolish to try to encapsulate them in a mere review.
In a nutshell, though, it was the mid ‘60s and young American musicians were forming bands, many of them taking inspiration from the likes of the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, who were utilizing classic blues as jumping-off points for their nascent garage rock and psychedelia. Among the groups on the Cleveland club scene were the James Gang and the Mr. Stress Blues Band, which Smog Veil has also documented as part of that Cuyahoga series. At some point there was a meeting of the minds between members of them and a handful of other local luminaries in order to lay down some straight-up electric blues during a “hungover Sunday morning” 1967 recording session comprising covers of such blues icons as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James, etc. Fox and Schwartz presumably were the best-known players, hence the resulting band name here, although the album also prominently lists “Featuring Mr. Stress” on the cover to give the Mr. Stress’ Bill Miller, his proper due, as he’s the lead vocalist and harmonica player on two of the best tracks here. (Below: the Mr. Stress Blues Band.)
Indeed: “Checkin’ On My Baby” (which was premiered recently right here at BLURT) in particular is a blistering number, one in which the band shifts brilliantly between shuffle and boogie modes as Miller spits out indignant lines; while the slower, slinkier “Long Distance Call” showcases his innate ability to convey nuance and emotion. Elsewhere, there’s Dixon’s timeless “Evil,” on which Schwartz shines on both guitar and vocals, the band itself conjuring images of their beloved Yardbirds; and James’ eternal “Dust My Broom,” that reveals the ensemble’s instinctive elasticity—check, in particular, how Fox steers the arrangement through the stylistic changes. There’s also the title track, a composition credited to all of the assembled musicians, although it’s more of a goofball, 50-second noise jam than an actual song. But it fits the loose vibe of the session.
One can only speculate what would have ultimately transpired had this essentially impromptu outfit decided to operate on a full-time level, as all of the players were accomplished enough musicians to take their love of the blues to the next, commercial, level separate from their own individual groups’ aspirations. ‘twas not to be, however, as Schwartz soon set out for California, where he’d form PG&E, essentially opening the door for Walsh’s entrance—and with the James Gang, at least, the rest is history. (Below: Schwartz)
History, though, comprises a series of vignettes and interludes, and once in a while we are privy to those moments in after-the-fact fashion thanks to the diligence and research on the part of labels like Smog Veil and writers like Blakey. For anyone with a serious interest in the history of Midwest rock and certainly Cleveland, Sunday Morning Revival is a lesson not to be skipped. (Below: vinyl eye candy. You can read more about the band at the Smog Veil site’s page for the Schwartz-Fox Blues Crusade,)
Blurt Exclusive: James Johnston "Heart and Soul" (live)
A Blurt Video Boot Exclusive: Moon Duo - "Set It on Fire" (Scientists cover, live in Beijing 12/5/15)
Blurt Video Flashback - Rainer & Das Combo "Backwater Blues" (Live '89, Club Congress, Tucson)
Blurt Exclusive: This Frontier Needs Heroes "Real Job" (full album stream)
Blurt Exclusive: Temperance League "Long Shot" (from Day of the Dove)
Blurt Boot Special: Alan Vega "Jukebox Baby" (Live Boston '81)
Record Store Day 2016 Vinyl Exclusive: Miracle Legion - Accidentally On Purpose (from Portrait of a Damaged Family LP)