Jon Spencer Blues Explosion / We Are Hex 5/19/15, Denver

Dates: May 19, 2015

Location: Bluebird Theatre, Denver CO



There are only a few people in this world you should ever refer to as “cats.” And if you’ve correctly identified a person as someone who could properly handle that moniker, half of getting this “cat” usage semantically correct still depends on you, the source. Do you even possess the provenance to declare someone a cat?

I’m not sure if I’m that guy, so let that be my disclaimer. Please consider the source when I say that these three cats in the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion put on a show that should not be missed.

Touring in support of their newest (and among their best-ever) record Freedom Tower 2015 Dance Party, JSBX brings everything they have to the performance at Denver’s Bluebird Theatre. It’s a S-H-O-W in all caps, with Jon Spencer presiding as carnival barker, MC, chief entertainer, and all around head get-down honcho for the evening.

What you will witness at this particular JSBX show is a live music version of a Tarantino movie, with other badasses of stage and screen thrown in just because that’s really the only way you can capture the band’s stage presence. If Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was a movie character, it would be some mixture of Omar Little, Travis Bickle, and Sonny Corleone.

Openers were Third Man Records recording artists We Are Hex, who were noisy, sleazy, and would have totally held their own were it not for the giant entertainment spectacle to come. Heavy drums backed up some schizo-infused lyrics from singer Jilly (they only use their first names), screamed out in a way that creeps me out in kind of the same way abandoned doll heads do. Droning feedback guitar and bass plastered the whole set together into a genre I’m calling Grease-Trap-Performance-Doom. Good stuff.

When JSBX took the stage, two things became immediately apparent: first, Jon Spencer is not a man who is afraid to put the vocals first. The mic was a good 3 to 4 volumes louder than the drums and guitars and theremin put together. That’s not easy to do considering the whole mix was loud as fuck and crystal clear. The JSBX soundman is a god.

Second, the phrase “Blues Explosion” works like the word “smurf” or the rap-adled “know-what-I’m-sayin’.” It just fits everywhere it should fit, its definition filled entirely by context.

For the next two hours, JSBX entertained the ladies and gentlemen of Denver like few others could. The music was loud, tight, direct, and punctuated by all kinds of space above and below the squealing guitars of Jon and Judah Bauer and the Charlie-Watts-meets-Lenny-Ferraro beats from Russell Simins.

Opening with the second track from the new record, “Wax Dummy” the band set the bar way on up there and kept going higher. Russell Simins screamed in on a fantastic cover of the Dead Boys’ “What Love Is,” and Jon ended/began every tune with some semblance of the words, “Blues explosion! Thank you! Ladies and gentlemen!”

The greatest thing about this fantastic show was all of the spectacular American music I could hear in everything the band played. Call it influence, call it chops, call it theft, the mix brought together the spirits of James Brown, Elvis, The Stooges, Chuck D, Run DMC, junkie-era Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Cramps.

That’s a level of cool achieved by only the coolest of cats.



THE BALLROOM THIEVES – A Wolf in the Doorway

Album: A Wolf in the Doorway

Artist: Ballroom Thieves

Label: Blue Corn Music

Release Date: April 21, 2015

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While the recently banjo-less Mumford & Sons may just be three albums into their career, there are still plenty of bands out there, acoustic guitars gripped tightly, more than willing to take over some of that folk/roots/bluegrass spotlight. The Ballroom Thieves, a three piece from Boston, is probably one of the strongest contenders out there to syphon off some of Mumford’s fans.

Their debut, A Wolf in the Doorway, starts off as just like the average neo-folk album, like so many others in the past couple of years, but midway in, with the raucous “Oars to the Sea,” the band unleashes a wholly originally take on the genre. The song starts off with a haunting acoustic strum that’s joined by calm vocals that evolve quickly into an angry howl by Martin Earley, met with the squeal of Blues riffs – a beautiful melding of disparate emotions.

From that point on, the album hits a new plane that the group manages to keep up to the end. Conversely, “Bury Me Smiling,” far from rowdy, puts the spotlight on cellist Calin Peters, begging the question why her vocals are not more prominent throughout the album.

Despite a slow start, A Wolf in the Doorway, is an impressive introduction for band that could have been written off as just another bluegrass/folk bandwagoneer. Thankfully they have the songs to prove they are so much more.

 DOWNLOAD: “Oars to the Sea” and “Bury Me Smiling”


WHITE BIRCH – The Weight of Spring

Album: The Weight of Spring

Artist: White Birch

Label: Glitterhouse

Release Date: March 31, 2015

White Birch 3-25  (via Forced Exposure)


The White Birch has just released their latest record The Weight of Spring and it’s definitely not a record for those afraid of a little introspection. With moments informed by the Tindersticks mixed with David Sylvian and a smidgen of Antony and the Johnsons, the band has turned in a very fragile and poignant record. What reveals itself upon first listen is a lot of thought has gone into the arrangements. This album takes its time to unfold, but as it does, it enters your soul, stirring all sorts of emotions that you had shut away. In fact the spring here may be the renewal of ones ability to feel again in a world that seems increasingly distant.

“The Fall” has managed to capture the late day fading sunlight with the leaves drifting down and smoke from fireplaces beginning to fill the air. And as the last moths of the season dance a ring round the ol’ porch light, you for a brief moment come face to face with your own mortality.

“Solid Dirt”: This is one of the tracks that immediately grabbed me as a reminiscence of days gone by. “Once I was just a boy” utters the singer Ola Fløttum as he recalls that famous passage from Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

The band have created a virtual tour of some of the major and minor moments of our lives allowing the listener to understand certain situations with the much needed perspective that only time and certain season can bring. That said there is a determined hope in this song recognizing that time can heal and that spring heals the emotional wounds we endure as we go round and round in this life.

“Lamentation” starts off with a piano and drone in the background, cast over a very cool drum beat. Fløttum sings, “Through the hanging trees I could only see the it left” “Through the wilting trees I could only see the dark… as it came”. The song takes the listener to not only the heart of the album but also the first stirrings of the new spring as it breaks winter’s steely grip.

“The Weight of Spring” is its own rumination on the state of love sung by the two singers of the band. “ When spring was bold as hearts turned cold” “ I close my eyes to the sound of spring” “Now We’ll Never change” — and as the woman sings it you can hear a wavering in her voice that ended up making me all verklempt.

“Spring” closes the album with what is probably the most positive track on the album. It’s an instrumental that expresses hope and informs us that spring has firmly taken hold and that life moves on.

The Weight of Spring is a stunning album that is so well honed and emotionally resonant that it’s hard to shake when you come to the end of it. It’s about remembering instead of forgetting, so we can be stronger the next time the emotions hit us, because you know they will.

DOWNLOAD:  “Spring,” “Solid Dirt”

SHOPPING — Consumer Complaints

Album: Consumer Complaints

Artist: Shopping

Label: Fatcat

Release Date: May 26, 2015



“Buy something want something/want something need something/need something want something,” Shopping’s “Theme” inscribes a taut circle of consumer anticipation, satisfaction and disappointment in strident stabs of guitar and yelps of female agitation. It’s 1977 all over again, and also 2013 when this album originally appeared on drummer Andrew Milk’s own Milk Records. But it’s also right now, when the hollowed out shell of wide-screen TVs and big-assed SUVs has come crashing down on the heads of a scrabbling middle class. It’s time, why not, for Shopping’s angsty, jittery rallying cries, which bounds in random, off-kilter hops and stops across a denuded landscape of post-punk minimalism.

Shopping’s sound is defined by rumbling, half-cocked basslines that run belligerently into irregular slashes of guitar, by thumping four-on-four drums and trebling, trilling Slits-ish girl vocals. Songs are stretched as tight as drumheads over these spare elements, so that even the white space between notes seemed weighted with anxiety and tension. And yet, sure, there’s a sense of fun, too, of ESG’s out-of-balance dance party, churning on in bursts of shorted-out electricity from a rigged street pole near an abandoned lot. You may get a whiff of Fire Engines, too, long, rickety “We Say You Pay,” which seems like it’s going to be an instrumental until the three principals start gleefully trading, “Blah blah blah blah blahs” and “Shut ups” over the racket.

Shopping shares a bass player, Billy Easter, with Wetdog, and you could easily mix the two up on random play. They have the same heedless, irregular momentum, the same giddy deconstruction of pop into its component pieces. Shopping has the harder, more definite edge, with sharp, jagged melodic bits rattling around like quarters in a tip jar. The three piece — that’s Milk, Easter and Rachel Aggs on guitar — takes a defiant, less fanciful stand, though they go a bit dreamy on “For Your Money” (sung by Milk for a bit of a change-up) and nearly dubby on “Hard As Nails.”

I’m guessing that Shopping is referencing Alison Moyet of Yazoo in “Moyet’s Voice,” and while you could hardly pick a more dissimilar sounding artist, Moyet did struggle mightily to take charge of her music. Let’s hope it’s easier for Shopping, here and now, to be who they are and to follow the singular, stop-start groove wherever it goes.

DOWNLOAD: “In Other Words” “We Say You Pay”

CHERUBS – 2 Ynfynyty

Album: 2 Ynfynyty

Artist: Cherubs

Label: Brutal Panda

Release Date: March 17, 2015

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Of all the ‘90s bands reconstituting themselves for new albums and/or retirement fund tours, Austin’s Cherubs is one of the most unexpected. Sure enough, though, the ATX noise rock legend quietly came back together (the only thing the trio ever did quietly) for 2 Ynfynyty, its third LP and first since 1994’s Heroin Man.

To say the band picks up where it left off isn’t quite accurate, as 2 Ynfynyty is as much evolution as continuation. Somewhere along the way guitarist/yeller Kevin Whitley (who formerly thumped the skins for fellow travelers Ed Hall), bassist Owen McMahon and drummer Brent Prager rediscovered the joys of rock melody. “Party Ice” and “So Jellified” boast catchy hooks underneath the scree, while “Monkey Chow Mein” and “Cumulo Nimbus” sound almost lush in their psychedelic ambience.

But this interest in tunefulness doesn’t mean the band has gotten weak – far from it, as the screeching “Crashing the Ride” and the pounding “We Buy Gold” noisily prove. It’s not unusual for bands that trade on abrasion to mellow out as its members mature. Fortunately, Cherubs hasn’t mellowed its approach on 2 Ynfynyty so much as refined it.
DOWNLOAD: “Party Ice,” “Cumulo Nimbus,” “We Buy Gold”



LEO BUD WELCH – I Don’t Prefer No Blues

Album: I Don't Prefer No Blues

Artist: Leo Bud Welch

Label: Big Legal Mess

Release Date: March 24, 2015

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With the passing of RL Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford (not to mention the apparent retirement of Robert Belfour), it seemed that the distinctive North Mississippi Hill Country Blues tradition had passed along with them. Leo Bud Welch is here to dispel that notion with his second album I Don’t Prefer No Blues. (The title refers to the reaction of his preacher when Welch explained he was moving from the gospel of his first album Sabougla Voices to blues.)

Like his predecessors, the 82-year-old Bruce native plays from the gut, keeping the riffs simple and the feeling true. Maintaining a more relaxed pace than the manic Burnside and a less sinister vibe than the menacing Kimbrough, Welch still prefers raw to refined. He grinds through the autobiographical “So Many Turnrows,” blusters the unapologetic “Too Much Wine,” spits out the sneering “I Don’t Know Her Name,” rocks the wailing “Girl in the Holler” and the insistent “Pray On.” In Welch’s hands, even hoary blues standards breath in new life – his takes on Roy Brown’s “Cadillac Baby,” St. Louis Jimmy’s “Goin’ Down Slow” and even the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Black Angel” crackle with fire and soul. It’s not just the North Mississippi sound that’s in good hands with Welch – it’s the blues in general.

DOWNLOAD: “I Don’t Know Her Name,” “Girl in the Holler,” “Pray On”


DRIVIN’ N’ CRYIN’ – Best of Songs

Album: Best Of Songs

Artist: Drivin' N' Cryin'

Label: Plowboy

Release Date: May 12, 2015

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 Used records stores are crammed every weekend with vinyl nerds scouring the shops for releases from bands that should have been huge, but never really made it past cult favorite status. Almost three decades after their debut, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, which flirted with major labels early on, have sadly and inexplicably never really shaken that band-on-the-verge of making it big status. Thankfully for those of us who have always been devotees of the Atlanta underdogs, they have lately taken a “fuck it, this one’s for the fans” attitude.

 The Ramones meets Johnny Cash band came out with a series of four themed EPs starting in 2012 after a too long hiatus. Best of Songs is a collection of 10 of the… well, best songs from that series. And yes, obviously the term “best” is subjective, but the band, Plowboy Records and whoever else was responsible for the picks did a pretty admirable job of whittling down a solid 32 songs to the 10 that make up this latest vinyl-only set.

 While each EP focused on a different aspect of the band’s music (punk, southern rock, country, psych/garage), Best of Songs is a fully realized DnC album, harkening back to Scarred But Smarter or Whisper Tames the Lion, where the band’s sound and influences changed from track to track. The record kicks off with “Hot Wheels,” easily one of the band’s strongest songs since the late 1980s, off of Songs About Cars, Space and Ramones and the record closes with the three-minute surf rock instrumental “Space Eyes,” off that same album. In between is a little bit of everything that makes the band great – a humble of influences not limited to any one genre.

 While it’s not yet been made clear if Best of Songs is the band’s swan song or just the end of a chapter in the middle of the book, in a recent interview the band’s singer Kevn Kinney said “I’m a Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ fan, and I make these records to give myself something to listen to, in the same way that people who make moonshine make it because they like to drink it.” Here’s hoping the still will keep running for a few more years.

       DOWNLOAD: “Hot Wheels,” “Dirty,” and “REM”



IVAN & ALYOSHA – It’s All Just Pretend

Album: It's All Just Pretend

Artist: Ivan & Alyosha

Label: Dualtone

Release Date: May 05, 2015

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On the surface, it’d be easy to simply peg Seattle’s Indie Folk Pop band Ivan & Alyosha as just another group out to syphon off fans from Mumford & Sons. But as their sophomore full length proves, this five-piece has a sound that’s much closer to The Beatles and Big Star than the neo Bluegrass that so many seem to be peddling nowadays. They even plug in the electric guitar now and then on It’s All Just Pretend.

While the record starts off a bit uninspired, by the third song in, the more upbeat sing-along “All This Wandering Around,” the band picks up a grove that doesn’t let up until the soft acoustic closer. In between, the band covers a slew of emotions from doubt and unease to outright euphoria. And though a song like “Tears in Your Eyes” may sound like an early Travis track, lyrically, it is an undeniably beautiful song. The track “Let Me Go East” finds the band bringing in a Rockabilly sound that is as solid as it is surprising.

Though it may not be perfect from start to finish, there is plenty to like about It’s All Just Pretend and serves as a great argument that the band is much more than just another neo folk also-ran.

 DOWNLOAD: “All This Wandering Around,” “Tears in Your Eyes” and “Let Me Go East”



Album: MCIII

Artist: Mikal Cronin

Label: Merge

Release Date: May 05, 2015

Mikal Cronin 5-5


MCIII marks the third solo out of the chute from multi-instrumentalist and brilliant popster, Mikal Cronin, whose name may ring a bell with some for his past work with Ty Segall. I believe that the most helpful touchstone to help newbies connect with his music would be to suggest Elliot Smith, circa Figure 8. The first playing of MCIII sort of threw me with all its sumptuous strings and brass arrangements. Subsequent visits made obvious that his music and songwriting was almost identical to the first two albums, ranging from soaring, complex pop songs, to the ferocious, brain-mangling pandemonium of say, Dinosaur Jr. at their most explosive.

Cronin’s songwriting suggests something precise and disciplined in its creation, and thoughtful and personal in his lyrics. On implementing a string quartet into this work, “It’s a continuation of what I’ve been trying to do up until now, but I’m finding a better way to do it,” he says. “I’m finding a more successful way of working those unexpected elements and textures and instruments into a rock record, of exploring that wormhole and mushing everything together harmoniously. I like riding the line between the two,” he adds. “I like finding new ways to bring different musical worlds together.” This works well, as his type of pop isn’t some candy-assed pop pap for teens, but rather, most suitable for adult tastes, as noted by his swelling popularity, playing festivals and national TV appearances.

His approach on MCIII was to do split themes for A and B sides. The first five songs, soaring pop numbers. The final six outlining his coming-of-age and personal struggles after relocating to the Northwest and dealing with loneliness, chronic back problems, and finally getting his music career launched. There’s not an obvious distinction in the music between the two sides, the album flows together as a whole pretty naturally, even when you know to look out for the ‘concept.’ There’s going to be a commercial appeal in the syrupy opening song, “Turn Around,” a lavish affair of soaring, layered violins and cello. I wasn’t too surprised that he chose it for his Conan appearance. “Made My Mind Up” showcases his knack for composing some truly lush, complex songs that really lift you up. He really shines at making his instrumental bridges in each song seem like biting into the jelly in a filled donut, the best part.

The horns really come out for “Say,” and begs to be blasted at top volume. “Feel Like” comes on as a creeper, starting off low and slow, then exploding into a fast-paced, full string quartet. “I’ve Been Loved” is one of many that spill over into that Elliot Smith space and gracing it with melancholy violins.

Shit gets serious on one of the most outstanding tracks, “Gold,” with shrieking guitars gathering up momentum for a noisy, feedback-filled break about two minutes in. Then, it all falls away for a plaintive tzouras (similar to a bouzouki) solo, lending a middle-eastern flavor. “Ready” is another sound-pounder in the second half. The other three tunes there fall into more of a folk-rock genre, the last, “Circle,” another tune very reminiscent of Elliot Smith.

In short, if you liked what you heard on MCI and MCII, MCIII is more of the same, only slathered in lush arrangements with a little less of the raw outbursts of his earlier garage-y grunge sound. Like a lot of other artists, I believe that he might have gotten a little too obsessive about having an orchestra at his disposal, and fussing over how to incorporate them into every song, instead of perhaps, embracing each song on it’s own merit. The Beatles also used strings and orchestras on many songs, but not every one on every album. Sugar or honey is great on some things, but, as much as you love it, you don’t put it on everything you eat. But, to clarify, there’s nothing wrong in that regard, to this album. We could hope that future work perhaps rely on such accompaniments in a little more balanced way.

DOWNLOAD: “Gold,” “Feel Like” and “Ready.“

Audio/Video samples:

Mikal Cronin, “Turn Around,” live on Conan-05-04-15

CLARENCE BUCARO — Like the 1st Time

Album: Like the 1st Time

Artist: Clarence Bucaro

Label: Twenty Twenty

Release Date: May 19, 2015

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Oftentimes there’s a narrow divide between frothy pop and determined rock, and leaning too far in one direction can be all it takes to crimp a career. No serious artist wants a reputation for pandering to radio programers or simply serving up their mandate for the masses. On the other hand, there’s no profit in shunning public tastes completely or being overly intent on indulging art for art’s sake. Consequently, give credit to Clarence Bucaro for balancing between both extremes and maintaining his integrity at the same time. Bucaro’s built a career on crafting superb songs, many of which sound like standards even on first hearing.

Not surprisingly then, Like the 1st Time finds Bucaro doing it like the last time, and the time before that, writing nad recording material that finds an immediate connection straight from the start. The soulful stance of “Alone in Love” could have been plucked from the Stax vaults at any time in the ‘70s while the mellow and immaculate “Barrio Moon” conveys such considerable craft it’s as if it’s always been in the ether. There’s a wealth of other stunning songs to choose from as well — the soothing and serene title track, the breezy and evocative “Midnight Blue,” the affectionate and assuring “Mother’s Word.” Indeed, Bucaro possesses a ready appeal that’s capable of endearing him to a vast audience. Once word gets out, there’s no doubt it will.

 DOWNLOAD: “Barrio Moon,” “Mother’s Word,” “Alone in Love”