Album: Uncharted Territories


Label: Dare2

Release Date: May 11, 2018


The roots of Uncharted Territories go back to the mid-sixties and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, then the U.K.’s premier free jazz outfit. Bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Evan Parker performed on the collective’s second album Karyōbin, and remained friends over the decades, even though they didn’t play together. Until now, that is, when Holland decided to reconnect musically with his old pal for another round of spontaneous composition, with keyboardist Craig Taborn (Holland’s bandmate in Prism and one of the most forward-thinking young lions in jazz) and percussionist Ches Smith (an avant-gardist with feet in both jazz and rock) joining in on the fun.

With terms like “spontaneity” and “free” thrown around, one might be misled into thinking the music on these two disks is complete chaos – indeed, all but three of the cuts don’t even have titles, just shorthand for the number of musicians involved, the day of the week it was recorded, and which take. While there’s certainly a lack of formal structure on most of these tracks, to assume they’re free-for-alls is a mistake. While well-versed in free improvisation, each musician here is equally skilled at composition, which allows them to think of these recordings as songs, not freak-outs. Thus a full-bodied performance like “QW2” flows as if it was written beforehand, an actual melody rising from the blend of dissonant piano, blowing sax, pulsing bass and clattering kit work. Other tracks range from duets between bass and percussion, saxophone and percussion or organ and vibraphone to trio takes of sax, bass and percussion or sax, piano and bass. Regardless of lineup, the cuts have an exploratory playfulness, the sound of musicians discovering something new as they divine their relationships in real time. Given the inherent musicality each player boasts, the results never fall into discordance – even at their most frenetic, the tracks still scan as purely musical.

Presumably as anchors, the band includes a trio of actual compositions: Smith’s “Thought On Earth” and “Unsteady As She Goes” and Holland’s “Q&A.” While more accessible than the improvisations, they’re still of a piece – no easy swing or traditional bop derivations here. Uncharted Territories is a challenge, but it’s an inclusive one – Holland and company aren’t interested in being forbidding, just in inviting listeners into a world that disorienting but liberating.

DOWNLOAD: “QW2,” “QT13,” “Bass – Percussion T1”


Hot Snakes + Le Butcherettes 5/18/18, Denver

Dates: May 18, 2018

Location: Oriental Theatre, Denver CO

Two killer bands destroy the Oriental Theatre.


I’d been waiting very (im)patiently for this gig since It’d been announced and while I’d already seen Drive like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt I’d never seen Hot Snakes before so I was ready (and, as I remembered below, I had seen Hot Snakes once before…).

The packed house seemed to really love Mexico’s Le Butcherettes. The band is a trio with vocalist/guitarist Teri Gender Bender (who I’d found out is orignally from Denver) and a rhythm section that includes drummer Gabe who used to be in The Locust. Musically they’re a heady mix of souped-up garage and sauced up rock and rock and roll had the crowd swaying dancing and even flying (one guy thought he was a squirrel) with Teri leading the charge like a ringmaster from a Jodorowsky’s film (Santa Sangre?). They laid a nice mix from all of the band’s records.

Hot Snakes returned a mere four years after their scorching set at Riot Fest 2014 and they were ready. John Speedo Reis and Rick Froberg are up front on guitar (Rick sings) while Gar Wood holds down the bass and on drums they had had rapid-fire monster Jason Kourkounis (formerly of Delta ’72 among others). These four were born to play together.

They played a good mix of tunes from all their records. Their latest Jericho Sirens (on Sub Pop, like their other three) came out this year to plenty of acclaim and with good reason, it’s packed with songs are are tight and smack you around like a angered bear. Cuts like “Death Doula,” “I Need a Doctor,’ “Six Wave Hold-Down” and the title track were all shredded to bits while older songs like “Lax,” “Who Died” and “10th Planet” were the requisite glorious punch in the face.

They played a handful of encores at least two of which were non-moldy oldies like “Retrofit” and “Braintrust.”

The crowd were certainly appreciative as the packed house didn’t want the band to leave the stage but alas, shows have to end as did this one. The next time the Hot Snakes come to town we’ll roll out the red carpet (kept in the trunk of my car). Hot Snakes rule!


Cut Worms 5/29/18, Denver

Dates: May 29, 2018

Location: Globe Hall, Denver CO

Opening act for King Tuff, at Globe Hall. (Upcoming tourdates at the band’s Facebook page.)


I’ll have to admit I didn’t know jack about Cut Worms until like a week before the gig but I listened and liked what I’d heard. On this tour they were opening for King Tuff (who I didn’t feel like staying for but the gig was sold out on this Tuesday night).

Also, I swear one of these nights I’m gonna show up to Globe Hall early and get some of their BBQ that many folks have raved about. I usually show up late, catch the gig and leave, but next gig there I’ll come back with a full food report. Promise.

Cut Worms (ok, admittedly not the best band name ever, but apparently from a William Blake poem) was already one stage when I sauntered in At 8:55 PM (they went on at 8:45 PM) and main guy Max Clarke ( a NYC guy via Chicago) he had a full band including bass/drums and a keyboard player. You’ll read lots of reviews comparing him to the Everly Bros and Buddy Holly and those aren’t totally wrong, but it’s even more whimsical than that (with dashes of folk and country, too).

From his recently released debut full-length, Hollow Ground (on the Jagjaguwar label) he played cuts like “How It Can Be,” “Coward’s Confidence,” “Cash For Gold” and “Till Tomorrow Goes Away.” Also, from the Alien Sunset EP (from 2017, also on Jagjaguwar) they played “Song of the Highest Tower” and ended the (short) set with a cut from that EP, “Don’t Want to Say Good-bye.”

I don’t think there’s any tongue-in-cheek irony with this guy, I think Clarke genuinely is a throwback to a different era where you threw your coat over puddles for women and a pack of cigarettes were in the back pocket (not a cell phone). Come on people, get with the progam, Cut Worms already have!


Wye Oak 5/23/18, Denver

Dates: May 23, 2018

Location: Bluebird Theatre, Denver CO

Jenn and Andy – plus a new bassist – leave the Bluebird Theatre spellbound. (Photo above, by Eleonora Collini, via the Wye Oak Facebook page. Tour dates available at the page as well.)


Still fresh after only being on the road for a few weeks the Baltimore duo of Jenn Wasner and drummer Andy Stack (now armed with bassist whose name I did not catch) had a more than appreciative crowd at the Bluebird on this Wednesday night. Hell, I saw this 50-something couple who I see at my gym (but who I do not know) here arm-in-arm swaying to the music. Hey, if the good-lookin gym couple is here then Wye Oak as made it!

They band is in touring in support of their new record (on Merge, just like all the others) The Louder I Call the Faster it Runs  which is a little different than he band’s other records. Still a unique, soaring mix of electronics/ rock/pop , folk and the like but the mix of Wassner’vocals (an instrument unto itself) and Stacks unique drumming (plus the solidity of adding the bassist) adds up to a band that’s still experimenting, still growing.

In between songs Wassner told stories and joked with the crowd who seemed to hang on her every word (and hey, she is a great storyteller).

From the new record we heard, “(tuning)” into “The Instrument” and right into “Lifer” and the gorgeous, should-be-a-hit “It Was Not Natural” which is 4 of the first 5 songs on that record.

They then dipped back a bit and played “Shriek” from the 2014 record of the same name as well as other older cuts like “Spirtal,” “Glory,” “Holy Holy,” “The Tower” and Civilian.”

They ended it with the title track from the new record. There were no encores, but they didn’t have to (I’m not sure if that’s their standard for them or not). Wye Oak were definitely worth leaving the house for.



The Reverend Horton Heat 6/8/18, Kansas City

Dates: June 8, 2018

Location: The Crossroads, Kansas City MO

Live at The Crossroads in the big K-C, it was psychobilly supreme.

By Danny R. Phillips / Photos by Drew Phillips

I ventured out into the heat of a Missouri June night to witness the reigning kings of psychobilly The Reverend Horton Heat, for what would be my fifth time since first seeing them at The Warped Tour sometime in the 1990s.  I’ve followed the Dallas, Texas, band for 25 years, from the Sub Pop years, and through 11 albums and four or five drummers. Their blend of country, swing, jazz, rockabilly, punk and metal had always appealed to me at a deeply rooted level.  All the sounds of my childhood and teen years blended together in one unstoppable monster.

I had been there for years with anxious anticipation, wondering, what they would do next? How would they push the psychobilly envelope? 

When we arrived at The Crossroads in Kansas City, the crowd within the gates was sparse, making me wonder to myself, “Did people not realize the show they would miss?” My photographer and I made our way to the beer stand to procure a warm Coors and wait.  Fast forward 45 minutes: the smell of marijuana fills the air as the crowd explodes in size.  Standing next to the barricade at the front of the stage, I looked back to see a suddenly packed house; a venue 20% full moments before was now pushing the limits of the venue’s capacity.

Wandering through the crowd, I saw a multi-generational cross-section of the Midwestern rock and roll populous: kids in black metal t-shirts, sleeveless denim jackets, greasers with pompadours sporting cowboy shirts, ten year olds with mohawks, aging punk rockers in faded Descendents and Supersuckers t-shirts, curvy rockabilly chicks with bright red lipstick and poodle skirts and dudes in suits, in total defiance of the 90+ degree temperatures.

As night fell, The Reverend Horton Heat took the stage.  Jimbo Wallace readied his upright bass, newest and best Rev Ho drummer RJ Contreras took his position behind the kit and Jim Heath, The Reverend himself, walked to the mic, strapping on his orange signature Gretsch guitar with a big shit eating grin on his face.  He knew what was coming and once they began playing, so did we.  It would be one of the best live performances I had ever seen.  Opening with the instrumental “Bullet” (the band almost always opens a show with an instrumental), the band blew through one hot number after another: “400 Bucks,”  “Big Red Rocket of Love,” “It’s Martini Time,” the crowd favorites “Five O Ford” and “Psychobilly Freakout”, Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” with guest vocalist Big Sandy of Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Trio, (one of four songs performed with Sandy) “Baddest of the Bad,” from my personally favorite album Liquor in the Front, and many others.

They even proved their metal chops with their amazing take on the Motorhead classic “Ace of Spades.”

One look at the audience around me revealed people dancing, others hoisting beers while still others just stood and stared at the stage, either high, transfixed by the blistering set or both.

It was a two hours plus clinic on how a performance should be done, that a band with a damn would never “phone in” a show, whether they had been in a band for five minutes or 30 years; it was my friends, a night of psychobilly near perfection.

I’ve often thought that Jim Heath is the best guitarist I’ve ever seen live.  On this night, he proved it.



Album: V.

Artist: Wooden Shjips

Label: Thrill Jockey

Release Date: May 25, 2018

The Upshot: Two of our reviewers, both fans of the West Coast psychedelic argonauts, take somewhat different positions on the veteran rockers’ newest effort.


Wooden Shjips blew me away on their Back to Land record but sadly not so much on this one. There are great moments here, but they are interspersed with plenty of meh.

I think the issue rests with Ripley Johnson’s voice and the range-bound nature of the music the band makes. On the first few albums his voice added an opium cool to the proceedings, but on this album’s second track, “In the Fall,” it seems like an unnecessary addition.

“Eclipse,” though, the opener, could be Recurring era Spacemen 3. Here, Ripley’s voice meets the seedy vibe and cosmic guitar measure for measure. So when they get the equation right, they hit pay-dirt. This song recalls “Back to Land” and I can see why it was chosen for the pole position. “Red Line” doesn’t really add any new words to the psychedelic conversation, and, as such, feels like filler.

“Already Gone” is where Ripley needs to go with his voice, as it gives something more tangible to the listener instead of just being an atmospheric element. This is a dark song that really brings the goods the way I wanted the rest of the record to. “Golden Flower,” I liked more for the musical arrangement than anything else, especially with the conga jam at the end; it builds to a really cool head that will have you grooving in your seat. This makes the case for the band moving out of their well-polished groove and augmenting the sound with new instruments and making things choppier instead of constantly sailing unimpeded into the galaxy.

The band is tight, and the music ebbs and flows as usual; it just doesn’t go anywhere original. I hope the band will be able to right the shjip on their next effort. —by Jonathan Levitt (FAVE TRACKS: “Eclipse” “Already Gone” “Golden Flower”)

“Eclipse,” off this fifth full-length, is maybe the Wooden Shjips at its essence, a churn and grind of fuzzy bass, a hard, pummeling, unsyncopated drum-beat, and over this unyielding foundation, guitar notes dropping like bright, splintery shards, untethered, fragmentary but vividly colored. The rhythm section cranks the same measure over and over, locked in endless circling groove, while the guitar darts out in unpredictable geometric arcs, like a spirograph machine making intricate patterns out of slight slippages of center. A head-nodders sound. A tunnel of disorienting sensation. A lumbering beast wreathed in dreams. This is Wooden Shjips as it has always been, a fine thing indeed.

Wooden Shjips, the left coast, motoric-drone-rock collective, has been honing this aesthetic since the mid-aughts. Primitive at first — no one but Johnson came to the band as an experienced musician — they have over the years gained increasing control over their sound, though without losing a rapt be-here-now open-endedness. Now with this album – a Latin number five, a peace sign, a declaration of victory — Wooden Shjips reiterates and expands upon its notion of drone as revelation.

A word about that expanding vision: the best song sounds least like what you’ve come to expect. “Staring at the Sun” follows a slouchier, more psychedelic vibe, with a Beta Band-ish stutter step rhythm, and a little of Buffalo Springfield’s “Stop Children What’s that Sound,” in its pendulous alteration between two chords. There’s a roll in this song’s step, a subdued sort of rock and roll swagger. Lyrics about ashes falling and suns in haze reference the forest fires that damn near engulfed Johnson’s adopted home of Portland last summer, and the cut itself has a submerged, surreal glow to it. It feels both more pop and more mystical than anything Wooden Shjips has done to date. Later, on the equally fine “Golden Flower,” Johnson whispers “I wanna rock and roll,” in the softest falsetto whisper you can imagine.

Done and done well, I’d say. — by Jennifer Kelly (FAVE TRACKS: “Staring at the Sun” “Golden Flower”)



MMHMM – mmhmm

Album: mmhmm

Artist: MMHMM

Label: self-released

Release Date: June 08, 2018

The Upshot: Distaff folk/pop duo (with some notable musical and Hollywood DNA in the mix) serves up an album’s worth of great songs to back up all expectations.


Let’s just get this out of the way up front. The folk/pop duo mmhmm is comprised of

Raelyn Nelson, Willie Nelson’s granddaughter, and Hannah Fairlight, an actress best known so far for a role in Pitch Perfect 3. And while those connections have certainly helped aim the spotlight on the band in an otherwise very crowded Nashville music scene, it’s also likely causing the duo to have to prove themselves to listeners more than the average new group. Thankfully, they have an album’s worth of great songs to back up all expectations.

Focusing in on a playful blend of pop country, heavy on acoustic guitars and ukuleles, Nelson and Fairlight mix in plenty of humor and undeniably catchy hooks, whittling out a new sub-genre in a scene awash in Bro-Country and don’t-crack-a-smile Americana. Songs like the bad day getting worse “Aw Hell” (premiered recently at BLURT) and the infectious “Up in Smoke (Don’t it Have to Wait)” are singalongs perfect for summer firepits.

There is also a fun throwback quality to the record, with Fairlight and Nelson talking each other directly throughout and a hidden track of sorts at the end of the record with a brief series of hard rock riffs. Another high point is mmhmm’s cover of REO Speedwagon’s “Take it on the Run.”  Goofy, yes, but flawlessly executed.

The one big misstep here is the “Lookin’ Like a Tranny Blues,” a song that wouldn’t have drawn much attention a decade or two ago but seems wildly out of place on a record in 2018. The band has already issued and apology for the song and said they will not play it live and are looking for a way to remove it from the album.

That one obvious misstep aside, the duo delivers a fun quirky record tailor made for day drinking (leading into night drinking).

DOWNLOAD:Aww Hell,” “Up in Smoke (Don’t it Have to Wait)” and “Take it on the Run”


FROG EYES — Violet Psalms

Album: Violet Psalms

Artist: Frog Eyes

Label: Paper Bag

Release Date: May 18, 2018

The Upshot: After 18 years, a brush with death and a touch of holy madness, Carey Mercer is walking through that door to whatever’s next.


Frog Eyes ends its nearly two decade, ten album run much the way it began, with front man Carey Mercer’s frayed voice howling gnostically over slow, luridly colored processionals. Through various line-up changes, label affiliations and cross-collaborations, the band has always been supercharged and visionary. Frog Eyes taps into an allegorical vein whose meaning was never quite apparent, no less so now at the end than it was in 2002’s The Bloody Hand.  If anything, Violet Psalms returns to dramatic overload after the comparatively well-behaved and baroque pop Pickpocket’s Locket.  There is even, on opener “A Strand of Blue Stars,” a return of the “dinger,” a gong-like percussion instrument that Mercer and his wife Melanie Campbell found at a garage sale in the early aughts and whose microtonal clang has clashed through many, many Frog Eyes songs since.

Mercer is, as always, the wild-eyed, careening, animating force behind Frog Eyes, swooping violently over octave jumps in shamanic abandon. He’s one of those singers who seems to be riding an ungovernable force, just barely staying on top of it, rather than composing and premeditating, though of course he must do that, too. But however carefully crafted the words or melodies may be, there’s an air of anything-can-happen to Frog Eyes songs. They are certainly always haring off in unexpected directions.

He is backed, as always by Melanie Campbell, whose drumming is creative without being showy. Her rhythms bash forward and pull back, they range over unexpected timbres, they anchor the songs without tying them down to conventionalities. They are as much a part of Frog Eyes art as the “whooo-ooo-ooo” that loft crazily skyward or the skewed fairytale scenarios of the lyrics. The rest of the band is also female Terri Upton on bass and Shyla Seller on keyboards, and while these elements support rather than dominate, they are fine and colorful and varied.

But it is Mercer’s protean force, taking multiple, ever changing shapes as he pushes at the edges of melody and sense, that gives these songs life. In the wonderful “Strand of Blue Stars,” he croons that “Sometimes you’ve got to be the door that you walk through that sets you free.”  After 18 years of Frog Eyes, a brush with death and a touch of holy madness, Mercer is walking through that door to whatever’s next. Let’s hope he holds it open so we can follow.

DOWNLOAD: “A Strand of Blue Stars”




Album: Scandal


Label: Greenleaf Music

Release Date: April 06, 2018

The Upshot: The veteran hornmen keep the tunes simmering, careful not to let them boil over.


When saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas play together, it’s not just a way of passing the time. Like its in-concert predecessor, Scandal pays tribute to the work of the great sax player Wayne Shorter, both as a bandleader and as Miles Davis’ foil in his Second Great Quintet. That’s not only because the duo’s first studio album with Sound Prints contains two Shorter tunes – “Fee Fi Fo Fum” and “Juju,” from his classic albums Speak No Evil and Juju respectively. It’s also because of the way the pair perform together, weaving lines around each other as often as playing a riff in unison, spinning a web of sticky melody – a trademark of Shorter’s work with Davis and with his own bands. The pair’s originals spin off of Shorter’s penchant for consistent swing and easy accessibility – Lovano’s “Full Sun” and Douglas’ “Mission Creep” burn with energy by being joyful rather than intense, while Douglas’ “Ups and Downs” and Lovano’s “Full Moon” stream soulful balladry without crossing over to lushness. The title track, meanwhile, feels like the dream of a private detective just as he begins his latest case, while the frisky, beboppish “The Corner Tavern” nods to an even earlier era than the sixties.

Ably supported by pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Joey Baron, the hornmen keep the tunes simmering, careful not to let them boil over. Though Douglas in particular has an earned reputation for pushing whatever boundaries he’s presented with, here he and Lovano play it straight, sticking to Shorter’s sixties-style vision of postbop jazz. If that sounds retro, it doesn’t come across that way. Scandal is less about copying the past than it is refreshing tradition, and in that light Lovano and Douglas hit the target.

DOWNLOAD: “Full Sun,” “Scandal,” “Ups and Downs”



Album: Awase


Label: ECM

Release Date: May 04, 2018

The Upshot: An album with a resonance outside of the jazz atmosphere, but without the scent of any compromise whatsoever.


Pianist Nik Bartsch occupies a unique spot in music. The Swiss bandleader/composer’s work with his long-running band Ronin is jazzy, but not quite jazz; heavily influenced by contemporary classical music, but not that, either; subtly funky, but definitely not funk. Bartsch calls it “ritual groove music,” which is a pretty open-ended way to describe anything. Suffice to say that Bartsch’s work makes a virtue of not fitting under an umbrella, especially on Ronin’s eight album Awase.

Since 2011’s Live, the band has undergone some changes: bassist Björn Meyer left, his successor Thomy Jordi joined, and percussionist Andy Prepato quit and was not replaced. Stripped down to a quartet, Ronin becomes tighter, more invested in ensemble playing than moving the musicians through featured roles. Jordi is a less flamboyant player than Meyer, concentrating on the grooves, rather than being a lead instrument. Woodwinds player Sha often sits in front, but he’s not soloing so much as carrying the melody. Drummer Kaspar Rast stays mostly in the pocket, pulling the rhythms back and maintaining a steady point for the rest to ride.

Bartsch himself also eases back on lead breaks and integrates his craft more keenly into the ensemble. It’s an approach that well suits his writing. Drawing inspiration from his melodies’ repetition equally from tribal sources and classical minimalism, Bartsch paints pictures with well-chosen notes and smart deployment of his musicians’ virtues. Bartsch and Jordi often double up the bass parts, but the constant movement keeps the bottom from getting heavy. The pianist then sets up a lattice of notes for Sha to hang his clarinet and sax lines on, so both can weave their bits around the melodies.

Despite all the instrumental movement, however, the arrangements never become lush or cluttered. Outside of their instrumental and compositional facilities, the musicians understand the use of space as a chief virtue. That’s especially important on the longer pieces – “Modul 36” (a Ronin staple first recorded on 2006’s Stoa) and the nearly nineteen-minute “Modul 58” maintain interest as much on their ability to relax and breathe as on their intertwined melody lines. Even a shorter piece as dense as “Modul 34” lets air into the arrangement, making it lighter than its packed space would lead you to expect.

Unafraid to show their skills, yet decidedly unflashy, Bartsch and his musicians put all of their energy into supporting the tunes themselves, rather than set up showcases. That makes Awase an album with a resonance outside of the jazz atmosphere, but without the scent of any compromise whatsoever. No mean feat, and one that helps make Ronin its own distinctive beast.

DOWNLOAD: “Modul 58,” “Modul 34,” “Modul 36”