Monthly Archives: July 2010

WHERE THE REAL MAGIC HAPPENS These United States

A near-death experience and a
traumatic personal loss spawned one of the summer’s most compelling musical
offerings.

 

BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA

 

2009
was a significant year for Jesse Elliot. The frontman for the Washington,
DC/Lexington,
Kentucky indie rock outfit, These United
States, faced both death and theft – first, he almost drowned while kayaking in
Lake Michigan on a crystal clear summer day and then, nearly two months later,
while on tour, his laptop was stolen in the parking
lot of the Troubadour in Los Angeles. They’re
experiences that left a deep, agonizing mark on Elliot, ones that left him
reevaluating life and music.

 

And
it’s those confrontations that also fueled the quintet’s – comprising Elliot
with J. Tom Hnatow (pedal steel/electric guitar), Robby Cosenza (drums/vocals),
Justin Craig (guitar/keyboards) and Colin Kellogg (bass/vocals) – fourth album,
What Lasts, which dropped earlier
this month on United Interests. It’s a massive record that’s both earnest and
brave, elevating their trademark Americana
folk from conjectural dynamism to de rigueur confidentiality. What Lasts is beautiful, even if a
little macabre.

 

Currently
on tour in support of their record release, we talked to Elliot about the
themes that shaped What Lasts, the
personal verses the abstract and the idea of generic creativity.

 

***

 

BLURT: What Lasts is a result of your near drowning experience in Lake Michigan last year. Is this album a way owning that and turning it into
something positive with a dark exterior?

ELLIOT: That’s exactly right. That’s a really good way to put it.
When I finally made it back to shore, I literally collapsed and was just laying
there for hours, shivering…For the next couple of days, I sat at this cottage
that my family has been going to for every summer for my entire life. I just
sat and looked out at lake, trying to make it through all that. Of course, the
only way I was able to do that was by sitting down with the guitar and laying up
some songs about it. [Losing my laptop also] formed the album…[It] had…all
the sort of rough demos I had done at the lake cottage for the album. It was
like this whole thing that has been a really intense, personal experience for
me was completely erased. I have a very bad memory, which is why I keep
everything on a computer…so then I had to reconstruct it again and the only
song that I have left is what became the title track­­­-it just made sense-the
song “What Lasts” because I had sent a really rough demo version to a friend
over e-mail, so I still had the file in my email, but everything else was gone.
It was like, “Oh, the only song that’s left is called ‘What Lasts,’ maybe I
should call the album that.’ [laughs]

 

You sent that demo to a long
lost friend, so it seems like a lot of the back story for this album, just
reading it on paper, is a sign of sorts.

Yea, it’s kind of funny. I don’t know how much of fate or destiny
or whatever you want to call it goes into any particular event but this is definitely
an album that is more influenced by some very particular and very sort of
unnerving or very uprooting [event], much more so than any album we’ve done.

 

Would you say you’re more
emotionally connected to this album as opposed to your last, Everything Touches Everything?

Personally, I’m more emotionally connected to this album than
anything else we’ve ever done, which is a significant [thing] for me on a
personal level because I actually don’t think of music as primarily an
emotional thing. Music, for me, has always been more an aesthetic thing, more
just playing around with words, ideas and sounds as kind of like abstract
entities rather than a confessional diary approach. But this time around, I’m
definitely like, “OK, this actually really means something to me.” [laughs]

 

Now that What Lasts is completed, did it change your approach to your craft?

It certainly changed my approach to music or my opinion of putting
emotional content in music, which is something I argued with many a good musical
friend about for a very long time and I’ve actually taken a lot of flak from
friends and critics. One of my favorite lyricists is Andrew Bird and he’s
pretty well-known for being a little bit more on the abstract side of things… a
lot of how he comes up with stuff is just merely the sound of words and the
pleasure the ear gets from particular combinations of syllables and that’s
always kind of how I look at it… There’s obviously still a fair amount of that
on the album but I think enough of the personal, emotional stuff happening [in
it]…I guess in a way is more conventional. It all depends on what you think is
the standard for songwriting but I guess most people think that songwriting is
a personal, emotional endeavor and I definitely came around to that way of
thinking.

 

Like a spiritual awakening?

That could be it, as well. That could be a different way of it.
I’m thinking more of a personal, artistic turning point more so than any other
larger spiritual thing, although there’s obviously a lot of that on the album
too.

 

How did you feel after it was
stolen just mere months after you almost drowned?

Totally dejected. At least with almost drowning in Lake Michigan, there was like a vital spark, like, “You
gotta save your own life right now.” There was a primordial survival mechanism
that kicked in. When my laptop was stolen, it was just like pure depression. [laughs] It was really funny because we
travel so much together, we’re essentially like brothers in that we give each
so much flak and we’re so hard on each other and joke around with each other
all the time and point out each other’s shortcomings. But there was this 48
hour grace period after it was stolen where nobody said anything that was in
any way negative or sarcastic to me because I was [going to] go over the deep
end and toss myself off a bridge or something like that.

 

You say you have a bad memory,
so when you found yourself recreating the songs that were on your laptop, did
you find yourself remembering a lot the original material?

Definitely half of it did. I think a lot of the reasons I write
songs or that I love music is because music is sort of like a memory device for
me. I think for a lot of people that’s true in general. Music is a very
memorable thing. When you hear a particular melody or a particular turn of
phrase, it gets inside your brain. Sometimes, all it takes is one or two times
and it’s in there forever, which is what I really love about music in general.
Also, I kind of look at it as like, “OK, the stuff that’s worthwhile will stick
around in my brain and the stuff that’s not will be gone forever. Who cares?”

      Actually, I had one
experience like this a long time ago with losing 258 pages of writing once back
when writing was kind of the main thing I did. I left a notebook on a plane [in
2003] and that was equally crushing. That was actually maybe more crushing but
the attitude I had was basically, “Well, you know, you just gotta keep going
and hopefully the good stuff resurfaces. If it’s good enough to be buried in
your subconscious, hopefully it comes back at some point.” I would guess that
maybe 50 or 60 percent of what was originally there came back and what didn’t
come back was replaced with new stuff that maybe was better, maybe wasn’t as
good. I guess we’ll never know but I like to tell myself that maybe it’s a
little bit better than what was there originally.

 

Maybe it’s an “everything
happens for a reason” scenario?

Sure, sure, yeah. I think that’s quite true. It’s easy to get
personally wrapped up in it but from an objective point-of-view, from a bird’s
eye point-of-view, does the universe really care that I lost my laptop? Is it
going to affect the course of human history? Probably not. [laughs] So, yeah, I’m just trying to look at it with a personal – whatever you want to call it – discovery process or something.

 

In addition to what happened
last year, what other themes are on What
Lasts
?

It’s a lot about loss and a lot about death and a lot about how
people deal with those things. I think that’s such a generic description that
I’m almost hesitant to say that. I feel like any album or any book or anything
ever that [deals with that] [laughs] it’s generic to say, “Oh, it’s about life and death and love and loss and all
the stuff that comes in between and how people deal with all that.” But for me,
it’s about my own sort of personal coming close to that point or something and
then thinking back. The other thing about losing the laptop, too, is that I
actually ended up going back and digging up other songs that popped in my head
that were about the death of a very close friend when I was younger, and the
death of a very close family member when I was really young. I had these songs
that I always considered maybe just a little too personal or just not really what
I wanted to put out there like an artistic product… I guess it sort of dredge
up other memories of other songs that I haven’t thought about or look at for
five years because they were about the deaths of close friends and family.

 

Thinking in terms of destiny,
could you say that losing your laptop and going back to those songs after five
years was a catalyst for closure?

Yea, it could be. It’s hard to say but I think it’s always good to
say, “Would this happen because of this?” because you don’t know. You don’t
have the control scenario and the variable scenario. You don’t get to say,
“Well, this is the normal way that things would have happened and this is the
variation of that.” All you have is that one particular variation, so I think
it’s really hard to say whether that in some way would have [been a] better
experience in the end. I certainly don’t regret anything. I think that
experience in Lake Michigan was a very, very intense one and shocked me back
awake in a lot of ways and losing the laptop was the same thing. It was a
serious slap in the face from the universe and I was like, “OK, I’m going to
get my shit together and get my thoughts down and figured out what it is I
really want to say because stuff goes way very easily.” I think that’s the
central theme of the whole thing-how easily everything slips
away and the futile way that you try to hang on to that but at the same time
you’re not futile. Maybe it really matters in a personal way.

 

It’s easy to agree that love,
death and loss are generic themes for artists. But do you think that what you
say isn’t as important as how you’re saying it?

Absolutely. Not just creative but just life. Just like jobs and
the way people live and the families they have. There’s only a certain amount
of experiences that we all go through and they basically boil down to birth,
growing up, falling in love and out of love, going through tragedies [and]
important experiences, losing other people and eventually taking off from earth
yourself. There’s not that many different things that human beings do.

       That’s one of the
reasons why I love [music]. In some ways, [you] have this very constrictive
form that you want to work in… You have three and half minutes to say something
that is worthwhile and I’m kinda happy working with those obstacles… within the
specific aesthetic form because that limited set of experiences you have to
deal with it or the limitations on what you can say as a rock ‘n’ roll band
really forces you to think about what you need to bring to this to put your
personal stamp on it that makes it something other people can relate to or not
relate to. I guess I don’t have any other way to say things than the way that I
do… but I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it just on a personal level and
it’s really nice. I think it’s a nice place to be at when you’re writing songs.

 

Lyrically, how did you touch on
those themes uniquely in the new album?

It’s one of the hardest questions to answer, I think, without
either sounding completely pretentious or completely self-doubting and
self-loathing… I think any job, most people oscillate morally between moments
of extreme confidence and extreme self-doubt… But that’s a scary way to answer
that question, so I think you have to, I don’t know, it just like a job. You
just keep doing what you’re doing and you tell yourself that, “Maybe I’m not
saying anything unique or in a unique way.”

       I guess you do it for
yourself, at the end of the day, because you don’t really have another choice.
You do it for yourself and the people immediately around you, bandmates and
creative collaborators, [and] you sort of work out visions that you all have. I think
one of the reasons I like music a lot is because it forces you to smash your
visions together with the visions of four other people in a room, so that, to
me, is where the really uniqueness comes in… I think I’m kinda saying a lot of
the same things that other people said before but  maybe if I say them in my particular voice at
this particular moment with this particular combination of other sounds and
other people, [combining] that line with that sonic moment, that’s where the
real magic happens.

 

[Photo Credit: Sarah Law]

 

 

 

RETURN OF THE GOLDEN GOD Robert Plant & Band of Joy

In concert in Phoenix and previewing
new material while recasting selected gems from the past, the erstwhile Led Zep
frontman kills it.

 

BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE

 

Robert Plant is one wily old coot. He seems to take
mischievous glee in sidestepping expectations, and it’s a testament to the
man’s originality that it’s almost impossible to pigeonhole him into a genre.
Hard rock? That may fit Led Zeppelin’s Presence or his solo album Manic Nirvana, but
it’s a woefully inadequate label for Raising
Sand
, his collaboration with bluegrass musician Alison Krauss. Americana? Try pinning
that on the Portishead-inflected Mighty
Rearranger
.

 

This summer, when most other professional musicians can’t
even make a living performing their hits on the road, Plant is touring around the country with a ragtag ensemble called
Band of Joy, playing songs from an album that will not be released until
September. Compounding the weirdness is the fact that Band of Joy was the name
of Plant’s pre-Led Zeppelin group with John Bonham. He claims that this new
group, featuring alt-country guitarist Buddy Miller and singer Patty Griffin,
is continuing in the same free-form vein of its earlier incarnation. We’ll have
to take his word for it because the original Band of Joy never released an
album.

 

It’s safe to say that audience expectations for Plant’s July
20th performance at the Dodge Theatre in Phoenix were all over the map. Certainly
there was a contingent expecting an extension of the Raising Sand sound, but there were also a lot of drunken idiots
wearing those black Led Zeppelin T-shirts you remember from high school. This
is what Robert Plant goes up against every night, thirty years after his most
famous band’s demise. It’s one of the most extreme examples of a double-edged
sword you can imagine: Obviously, if it weren’t for Led Zeppelin, Plant would
not have the opportunity to be playing for a healthy-sized crowd in Phoenix at the age of 61.
But Led Zeppelin is the only thing that many in that crowd want to hear. How to
thread the needle?

 

Plant’s solution, as it turned out, was to sidestep the
issue entirely-for the first half of the set at least. He began with a trancelike
version of “Down to the Sea” from his underrated 1993 album Fate of Nations. From there Band of Joy
gradually opened up the drone to incorporate rock, folk and blues elements,
recasting gospel hymns, a Richard Thompson number and – why the hell not? – “Monkey”
by indie-rock trio Low in their own image. Buddy Miller held the whole thing
down, negotiating his way through Arabic maqam scales, delta blues riffs, and
lightning fast rockabilly licks with aplomb. Patty Griffin, pounding her guitar
and wailing away at stage right, impressed equally. And Plant, in the middle,
was an all-around class act. Voice as strong as ever, the occasional tonal
climbs deployed with precision and taste. And at this late stage in the game
we’ve been hit with another curveball: Planty is a dynamo on the washboard.

 

A good hour into the set the familiar opening riff of “Over
the Hills and Far Away” got the audience to its feet. Fists pounded sky as
guttural “Fuck yeah!”s exploded throughout the crowd like staggered firecrackers.
Not so fast, lads; this was Zeppelin done Band of Joy style, with Miller
building his own solos from the ground up, Griffin taking the high vocal parts
that once belonged to Plant, and the sweet sigh of pedal steel arcing up behind
them. It was more than the two beer-swilling Zepheads seated next to me could
bear. They got up and made their way to the aisle. One of them turned to me,
deep lines of sorrow furrowing his brow, and sniffed, “We won’t be back.”

 

These gentlemen were hardly alone; but the thing is, Band of
Joy were just so damned good that they managed to win most of the audience over
anyway. By the end of the evening, another drunken guy behind me started
bleating, “BAND OF JOY! BAND OF JOY! BAND OF JOY ARE FUCKING KILLING IT!” Indeed.

 

It was a remarkable evening. Leaving the Dodge afterward, I
felt like I had just attended a crash course on the past, present, and future
of popular music, presided over by a lanky old English hippie. In terms of
ambition and breadth, this tour is without peer. Sure, you can go watch Lady
Gaga change her costume 14 times, but if you want to see a band change genres just as often and – this is the
important part – love every minute of what they’re doing, you owe it to
yourself to catch one of these shows.

 

 

BLURTING WITH… Buzz Osborne of Melvins

The punk icon holds
forth on fame, politics, the art of proper parenting, and why being the
Antichrist means never having to say you’re sorry.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

For nigh on three decades, Buzz Osborne and the Melvins
blurred the line between punk rock and heavy metal-but there is no ambiguity in
King Buzzo’s domain. Chatting with Blurt circa
the June release of the Melvins’ eighteenth studio album The Bride Screamed Murder (Ipecac), the King issued a string of
edicts and opinions in a regal yet earthy stream. What follows is simply a
sample of these.

 

Shock vs. Shlock: “I
was always a huge fan of Alice Cooper’s music. That’s the thing: A guy like him
made good music-plenty of it, and I’m a huge fan. Unlike Marilyn Manson, who has made no good music. To me, there’s a
big difference. It’s all show, no go. Even the show is boring, you know? If a
band has to rely on that much smoke and mirrors, they probably should just get
rid of all their stuff and go back and figure out what it was that made them a
band to begin with. If you can’t convince me in a small place with no tricks, then
you can’t convince me at all.”

 

The Ballad of Dwight
Why(e):
Regarding Marilyn Manson’s ostensible regret over tearing up a Book of Mormon onstage in Salt Lake
City, Utah after being forbidden to open for Nine Inch Nails, King Buzzo says,
“‘I’ll hope forever that [the video] never turns up.’ I wonder why? If he did
it onstage, what’s he worried about? I thought you were the Antichrist
Superstar? I don’t wanna hear an apology from the Antichrist Superstar. I’m not
gonna accept an apology from the
Antichrist Superstar. I figure he’s thrown down the gauntlet at that point, you
know?”

 

Writing One’s Own Ticket: “If the band was fabulously popular and sold millions of records? I would never play [arenas]. I would only play
at places I’d want to go to as a fan. The smaller venues, that’s what drove me
to punk rock in the first place. ‘I want that kind of experience and I want it now.’
I don’t want to be-a hundred yards off with literally the wind blowing the
sound around. No thanks.”

 

Diminishing Returns: “Bands
are only good for about half an hour… And then [you should] just leave. I play
so much live music myself that I don’t go to concerts.”

 

Yawn-aroo: “We’ll
do some festival-type situations because they pay pretty good and we need the
money, but by and large I don’t endorse them. I think it’s bad for music. It’s
good for some people’s pocketbooks, but generally speaking, those things are
all designed for one thing and that’s to make the artist as much money as
possible by doing as little work as possible. And that’s it.”

 

Fickleback: “We’ve had a few opening gigs where the
headliner’s audience didn’t dig us. That’s not so much embarrassing, opening up
for some other stupid band and their audience doesn’t dig you. That didn’t
embarrass or surprise me, I guess.”

 

Ode to Power A: “My guitar playing is aimed at coming up with
new material – always. And if I get
stymied, I just jam cover songs and it brings me out of it. Something about
playing riffs that inspire you, one way or another, inspires me to make music.”

 

Skilla Dilla: “People get so hung up on technical ability,
which has nothing to do with music. Usually.”

 

Should Rock Get
Political?:
“That’s why I always loved politically minded rock n’ rollers,”
says Osborne, a smidge sardonically. “It’s like, ‘Nah, I’m probably gonna look
to a higher source for my political beliefs than you guys.’ [laughs] But you’re
doing your best, beavering away, pretending like what you’re doing means
something… so go ahead.”

 

Father Knows Best?: On
tour in the mid -to-late 1980s, the Melvins got unsolicited career advice from
the father of, Buzz reckons but doesn’t exactly recall, the promoter. “He sat
me down and explained to me exactly why what we were doin’ was terrible-and
that I should quit music. He said we were just awful, and that I should just
really do some soul searching and come to the understanding that what I’m doing
is just no good and I’m no good. I
can’t play guitar, I can’t sing-[it was] just a heart-to-heart talk, like he’s
letting me in on a big secret.

            “I just
stared at him. I didn’t really argue. I was just like, ‘Thanks.’ And I thought,
You’re the adult here, talking to some
kid at a club. What are you doing that’s so great?

 

Repression Breeds
Breeding:
“The kids of the cops or the churchgoers are the wildest
hellraisers. Like man, if you were in high school and you could go out with a
Catholic girl? You had it made. You
know?”

 

Father Knows Best,
Redux:
In Osborne’s tenure as a rock n’ roller, he’s learning
that-generally speaking-some rock n’ rollers are “whoremongering drug addicts
and little more… If I was a parent, which I’ll never be, but if my kids were
into Korn and those types of bands, I’d know that basically they’re maybe one
minute away from huffing glue. You know? Couldn’t they find better bands to be
into? ‘Take it from your old man: Those guys are no good. Use your own best
judgment, but it’s a one-way ticket to nowhere. Some rock n’ roll music is
great, but generally speaking, using rock stars as a role model for anything
other than some of the music they play is a bad idea.'”

 

 

 

 

BLACK WA-DA-DA Burning Spear

If all you know of reggae music is Bob Marley: two hugely influential albums by Winston Rodney, newly reissued as a
two-fer, aim to set the record straight.

 

BY REV.
KEITH A. GORDON

 

To the
casual reggae fan, the sun rises and sets with Bob Marley. From his earliest
work with the original Wailers (Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) during the late
1960s and early ’70s, to the international stardom afforded his late ’70s
albums (which, to be honest, were really solo albums by Marley with an assorted,
albeit talented backing crew), Rasta Bob is the name and face associated with
reggae for many.

 

Truth is,
the island of Jamaica has shared many musical wonders with music lovers through
the years, from the soulful Heptones, Toots and the Maytals, and the
charismatic Jimmy Cliff to lesser-known, but no less talented artists like Steel
Pulse and Black Uhuru. In terms of importance and popularity on the small
island nation, however, perhaps none of the above-named artists personifies the
pride and hope of the Rastafarian ideal better than Winston Rodney, a/k/a
Burning Spear.

 

During a
chance late ‘60s meeting with the already-legendary Bob Marley in their shared
hometown, Marley pointed the young, ambitious Rodney towards Kingston and producer “Sir Coxson”
Dodd’s Studio One. Rodney spent around five years with Dodd, recording better
than two dozen songs, and honing his craft as a singer and songwriter. It was
when Rodney hooked up with sound system operator Lawrence “Jack Ruby”
Lindo during the mid-70s, however, that he became the Burning Spear.

 

Sound
systems, for those of you not in the know, were an important part of Jamaican
musical culture, and the impetus for the development of both ska and reggae
music. Starting in the late 1950s, sound system operators would hold large street
parties in the ghettos of Kingston, with music provided by huge, turntable-driven
sound systems powered by portable generators. The operators would charge
admission and sell food and drink as DJs played the hottest American R&B
sides for the hundreds, sometimes thousands of partiers.

 

These
events brought in a lot of cash for the operator, and a sort of “arms
war” started as they built larger and louder sound systems to compete with
other operators. Eventually, as the demand for new music grew faster than American
labels could supply records, operators like Sir Coxson became producers and
studio owners. Enlisting Jamaican musicians, a steady stream of new music was
created, and the styles of ska and reggae developed as the island’s artists tried
to approximate American R&B music. Often times, the songs recorded by
artists like the Wailers would be “exclusive” to the producing
operator, who played it at parties and would release it on 45rpm single only if
demand warranted it. Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc would bring the sound
system to America
in the late-1970s, which led to the rise of hip-hop in NYC… but that’s really a
story for another time.

 

It was
from this sound system culture that Jack Ruby emerged, the owner of Jack Ruby’s
Hi Fi and one of the most popular “roots reggae” DJs in the country.
In Rodney and Burning Spear he found his cash cow, much as Dodd had with Marley
in the 1960s. The first collaboration in the studio between Ruby and Burning
Spear – now a trio that included Rodney, Delroy Hines, and Rupert Willington –
resulted in the scorching single “Marcus Garvey.” A mesmerizing track
with Rodney’s lyrics paying homage to the Black nationalist hero Garvey, the three
men’s deep enchanting vocals are backed by the seasoned studio outfit The Black
Disciples, which included bassists Robbie Shakespeare and Aston “Family
Man” Barrett, drummer Leroy Wallace, and guitarists Earl
“Chinna” Smith and Valentine “Tony” Chin.

 

“Marcus
Garvey” was originally used by Ruby as a sound system exclusive, but the
song’s popularity led to its eventual vinyl release, and it became a
best-seller. Burning Spear followed up this initial success with the blistering
commentary of “Slavery Days,” a hypnotizing rhythm threaded,
snakelike, beneath Rodney’s outraged vocals and condemning lyrics. It, too,
would become a big hit and Ruby put Burning Spear in the studio with The Black
Disciples to record a full-length album, resulting in Marcus Garvey, a powerful collection of roots reggae with often politically-explosive
lyrics.  

 

When the
album started selling by the truckload on the island, and sensing that he was
holding commercial dynamite in his hands, Ruby took Marcus Garvey to England
and Chris Blackwell, where it was released by Island Records in 1975. Fueled by
Rodney’s socially-conscious lyrics, Burning Spear’s infectious vocal harmonies,
and an inspired reggae soundtrack, the album blew up almost immediately. Aside
from the two aforementioned singles, Marcus
Garvey
included some of the darkest, scariest, and most potent reggae music
then put to wax, songs like “The Invasion,” with its deep dub soundtrack
and trancelike vocals; the horn-driven “Old Marcus Garvey,” another
tribute to the Jamaican legend; and the uptempo “Jordan River,” with
its Biblical references and rapid-fire (almost rapped) vocals.  

 

Given the
popularity Marcus Garvey in both Jamaica and England
(and, to a lesser extent, America),
and it seemed for a while that Burning Spear might challenge Bob Marley &
the Wailers as the champions of reggae. Rodney was angered by Island’s remix of
the album’s tracks, however, which changed the speed of many songs to appeal to
white audiences… a situation not assuaged by the subsequent “dub mix”
of Marcus Garvey that was released by
Island as Garvey’s Ghost in 1976.

 

Garvey’s Ghost# downplayed Rodney’s intelligent
lyricism and haunting vocals in favor of instrumental mixes of the original
songs that placed the emphasis on The Black Disciples’ amazing musical skills.
With just scattershot vocals rising above the fray, the music is free to dart
and jump throughout the mix, and while ten songs of mostly-instrumental dub may
seem like overkill to the casual fan, it’s worth the investment in time and
attention to catch the subtle nuances and the immense talent poured into the
performances on Garvey’s Ghost.

 

Burning
Spear would release Man In The Hills,
its proper follow-up to Marcus Garvey,
in late 1976. Again working with producer Ruby and The Black Disciples, the
album offered up another ten politically-charged tunes, including a re-make of
Burning Spear’s original Dodd-produced single “Door Peep.” Still
chafing at his treatment by Island Records, however, Rodney would break away
from producer Ruby, dump Hines and Willington, and take on the Burning Spear
mantle as his own, wearing it proudly for almost thirty-five years now. Rodney
launched his own Burning Spear label to ensure control over his music, and has
produced or co-produced every album since. During the ensuing years, Burning
Spear has become one of Jamaica’s
most legendary artists; a status reinforced by the recognition afforded Rodney
by his Grammy Award win in 1999.

 

***

 

The new
Hip-O Select reissue of Marcus Garvey and Garvey’s Ghost pairs the two
albums back together again, and brings both of these essential slabs of reggae
history back into print after years of neglect. While other reissue versions
have drawn from the Island Records albums, this reissue package was digitally
remastered from the original analog tapes. While I don’t know how much of
Ruby’s initial production was restored here – it’s been over three decades
since the Reverend heard the original albums in their explosive Jamaican vinyl
versions, courtesy of my old Rasta friend Earl – these new century versions of Marcus Garvey and its dub companion
sound pretty esoteric to these ears.

 

Regardless,
it’s good to have an album of the importance of Marcus Garvey back in print, even if for a little while. If all you
know of reggae music is Bob Marley, you own it to yourself to check out Burning
Spear. You’ll never think of reggae in the same way again…

 

 

STILL HERE AND NOT GIVING UP: The I Need that Record! Documentary

Reports of the indie record store’s demise, though not entirely
exaggerated, remain premature as long as there are still crate diggers to
champion it.

 

BY RON HART

 

Although
technically I should count Modell’s Shopping Center or Times Square Stores as
such on a literal level, the first proper record store I ever went to was a converted burger joint called Titus Oaks on Old Country Road in
Westbury, Long Island.

 

I
originally started going there with my cousins to rent the old WWF Coliseum
home videos, but soon enough I began tagging along with my uncle on his routine
runs there to dig through their endless bins of vinyl, thus forever inflicting
me with an addiction that might be cheaper and safer than heroin or the crack
rock, but harboring an appetite of need that is just as voracious. And nearly
25 years after walking through the doors of my first mom-and-pop shop, my
insatiability for that routine run still flows through my veins like so much
hemoglobin; which is the exact reason why self-described “guerilla filmmaker”
Brendan Toller’s critically-lauded documentary I Need That Record! The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent
Record Store
(MVD Visual) hit me with an emotional chord normally
designated for those abused animal commercials with the Sarah McLachlan bed
music.

 

Over the course of 77 minutes,
Toller explains the slow, torturous death of this great American establishment
by utilizing appropriately placed public domain stock footage, old newsclips
(particularly a great snippet of Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Lars Ulrich of
Metallica bickering about Napster on The Charlie Rose Show), killer
animation from Matt Newman, and an eye-popping guest list of pundits including
the likes of Thurston Moore, Ian Mackaye, Noam Chomsky, Mike Watt, Lenny Kaye,
Talking Heads’ Chris Frantz, Glenn Branca, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By
Truckers, Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, Of Montreal guitarist BP Helium,
legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen and punk scribe Legs McNeil.

 

Much of the rhetoric here lays the
blame (and rightly so) at the obvious culprits and perpetrators responsible for
the demise of those shops: FCC deregulation under the 1996 Telecommunications
Act and the resulting (revolting?) rise of corporate FM world-eater Clear
Channel in the legislation’s wake; MTV; radio payola; CD price gouging and the
antagonistic relationship between record labels and consumers; the advent of
big box chain stores; and of course the dreaded specter of online file sharing
and illegal downloading. And each one of these sociopolitical afflictions most
certainly levied a heavy hand in the hobbling of record store culture in the USA, which has
seen the closing of over 3,000 indie stores across the nation in the past
decade.

 

However, all the finger pointing aside, the film
does quite poignantly encapsulate the emotions of shoppers like myself whenever
one of our hallowed havens of vinyl does fall prey to the symptoms of the modern
age. Particularly moving are the segments where Toller captures the mood of two
stores in the process of shuttering their doors – a pair of sorely missed
institutions of Connecticut crate digging, Middletown’s Record Express and Danbury’s Trash American Style – by
effectively documenting an equal balance of anger, sadness, nostalgia and
uncertainty amidst both the store owners and their longtime patrons. One of the
doc’s best scenes, in fact, features a defiant Malcolm Tent, who ran Trash
American Style out of a Danbury strip mall for 16 years before the landlord decided
to revoke their lease to make way for the expansion of the neighboring
Minuteman Press, peddling vinyl on a college campus and, in true punk fashion,
spitting a quote from G.G. Allin to the camera undoubtedly aimed at his
corporate detractors:

 

“I’m still here, and I’m not giving up!”

 

There is
a thin thread of optimism that does weave itself throughout the context of I Need That Record!, validating the
parenthetical statement in the flick’s subtitle by highlighting the opening of
a new punk-and-hardcore shop in CT as well as the prominent profiling of several
nationally renowned stores such as Boston’s Newbury Comics, Chicago’s Reckless
Records, Culture Clash in Toledo, OH, and Electric Fetus in Minneapolis, MN,
all of which seem to be doing fairly well despite the grim economic climate.

 

However, the
complete blind eye to the many shops in both New York
and New Jersey
will certainly prove to be quite disheartening to any Tri-Stater viewing this
DVD. I mean, come on, Toller has guys who literally define New York City music like
Moore, Branca, Kaye and Frantz talking about record shops, yet he doesn’t include
the likes of Other Music, Kim’s Video, Academy Records, Rebel Rebel, A-1 or
even the recently departed reggae mecca Jammyland in the film? And that’s not
even scratching the surface of the dearth of brick-and-mortar shops located
beyond the bridges and tunnels of money makin’ Manhattan, a veritable hunter’s
paradise that includes Vintage Vinyl in Fords, NJ, the world famous Princeton
Record Exchange in Princeton, Mr. Cheapo’s on Long Island, Sound Fix in
Brooklyn, Flipside Records and Tapes in Pompton Lakes, NJ, Rhino Records and
Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz, NY (a rarity in itself being two successful shops
that peacefully co-exist not even a thousand feet from one another), House of
Guitars in Rochester, NY… the list can go on and on and on and on. To
not have included at least one or two of these establishments here is complete
and total heresy in my opinion, and truly does leave the lingering scent of
incompletion. But then again, I’m sure there are folks in California, another state teeming with
quality record shops that seemed to have been overlooked by the filmmaker, are
feeling the same way.

 

Nevertheless,
I Need That Record! The Death (or
Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store
, in all of its
imperfections, is a sobering and worthwhile expose documenting the demise of a
genuine American institution that will definitely strike a chord with anyone
who spent a Saturday afternoon on his or her knees thumbing through a post office
bin of dusty old vinyl. Just make sure you stick around for the DVD’s
entertaining extras, which includes extended interviews with many of the
pundits and is well worth sitting through. You get to hear Lenny Kaye reminisce
about his first trip to the record shop (Vogel’s in Brooklyn, where he picked
up 45s of Bobby Darin’s “Queen of the Hop” and Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People
Eater”) and Thurston Moore talking about his first concert as a kid (a solo
show by Rick Wakeman of Yes, oddly enough) and discovering The Stooges, Can and
Amon Düül by way of the cut-out bin at his local Woolworth’s.

 

ALL ABOUT THE PUSSY Nashville Pussy

It’s not fuckin’
rocket science…

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

Any public figure runs the risk of being forever cast in a
certain light. The beam that shines on Nashville Pussy, for example, shines a murky
amber, reminiscent of beer bottle glass and bongwater. Are they concerned about
being typecast as a rambunctious, ostensibly redneck party band? “Don’t take
anything we do seriously, man,” says lead guitarist Ruyter Suys. “The only
things we do seriously are rock hard and party hard. Other than that, we’re a
long line of people who are making fun of themselves. All our lyrics are very
tongue-in-cheek… It’s not fuckin’ rocket science.”

 

That doesn’t mean The Pussy doesn’t want to be appreciated
for its other charms, even if they somewhat compound – nay, further define – the band’s image. When
we shined our fluorescent black light on The Pussy, as they’re known to their
fans, we found a few surprises glowing in the gloom.

 

The Pussy Is Entropy
in Motion

“For every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction,”
says Suys, noting one of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and how it, along with
entropy, runs the Nashville Pussy party bus. “Every time we play Salt Lake City it’s
usually pretty chaotic. It’s to make up for all the damn LDS runnin’ around
that place pretendin’ they’re running the show.” Sometimes, though, they have
to use that power to render a fan inert. Once in SLC, an audience member was “such a complete jackass” that Suys
“had to resort to using my beautiful guitar as a weapon” by smacking his head
into this giant pillar “just so he would fuckin’ leave me alone. Salt Lake City
ain’t what you think it is. God damn!”

 

The Pussy Is Purple

Although they take their name from a Nuge song and use a
Confederate flag in their imagery, The Pussy’s politics ain’t god, guns, and gay-bashin’
– they run both red and blue. In fact, on the band’s fifth album From Hell to Texas (SPV), they assail
religion on “Lazy Jesus” (“God’s just a king with a lot less money”) and bash
“The Late, Great USA.” “We walk the line,” Suys says. “The party we vote for is
the Party party.” The song, she continues, is about returning home from Europe to notice the little differences between here and
there. “Some of the freedoms over there are different… like, you know, hash and nice, state-sponsored hookers.
Then you come back to America,
land of supposed freedom, and you’re not allowed to smoke 50 feet in front of a
building and shit. It’s like, ‘What the fuck?’

 

The Pussy Has
Platform Issues

“Obviously marijuana should be legalized,” says Suys. “And
they should definitely come up with some form of legalized prostitution. We’re
the pro-sex party. Whatever’s gonna get more people laid… I’m for that.”

 

The Pussy is
Merciless

In the song “Pray for the Devil,” The Pussy says “I’d pray
for the devil before I’d pray for you.” It’s directed, she says, toward
“Anybody who wants our sympathy.” Unsure “how to further extrapolate on that,”
Suys turns to her husband, The Pussy’s singer-guitarist, Blaine Cartwright, and
asks, “Do you wanna expand on that?” Blaine:
“No.”

 

The Pussy Gets Along
Famously with Willie

From Hell to Texas was recorded at Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio, using the same two-inch tape
machine used to track all of Willie’s classic mid-seventies albums. He also let
The Pussy use another contraption of his. “He’s got fuckin’ great weed,” gushes Suys, “and he also
has this awesome vaporizer called the Silver Surfer.” Even the band members
that don’t indulge partook when Willie passed around the Surfer. “It was like
being blessed. We were all beside ourselves. He was swiggin’ from our bottle of
tequila at the same time.” Since then, The Pussy has licensed its own version
of the Surfer.

 

The Pussy Is
Well-Traveled-And Cultured

Every band has a “travelin’ band” song and on FHTT The Pussy proffers “Gimme A Hit
Before I Go.” “We are definitely world-traveled!,” laughs Suys. Are they also
cultured for the experience? “When you travel it really just reinforces [your
beliefs], but I like to think we’re slightly cultured. [laughs] You name the
country, and we can tell you what the truck stop’s like there.” How about France? “They
have these really great robots there-these push-button machines where you can
get a really good espresso for only one Euro. The robots in France make
better coffee than the humans do in America.”

 

The Pussy Gets the
Blues

“Like Mötörhead, like AC/DC, like Aerosmith,” says Suys. “we’re
aficionados of the blues.” Case in point: “Stone Cold Down,” perhaps as low
down and blue as The Pussy has gotten. The song began as a jam between Suys and
drummer Jeremy Thompson. “We were just fuckin’ around; it was one of those cool
little riffs you can just repeat ad nauseum.” Later, when they went to flesh
out the jam, “it was fuckin’ phenomenal… probably my proudest moment on the
record. I did a bunch of shit I never knew I could do. I’m really glad that’s me playing because if it wasn’t, I’d be
jealous.”

 

The Pussy Goes Pop

Known for their balls-out, blues-based songs, on FHTT The Pussy whips out “Why, Why, Why,”
a bona fide pop tune that channels 1960s singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon and
early glam champs Slade. “Slade is one of my favorites,” Suys says. “[They’re]
catchy as hell, plus Noddy Holder has a similar, screaming voice as Blaine
has.” Don’t think they’re gonna pull a Quiet Riot and mine Slade’s discography
for hits they can’t write themselves (see “Cum On Feel the Noize”). Or maybe
that’s not such a bad idea… “We’ve written this song called ‘Stairway to
Heaven’,” jokes Suys. “Check it out. We just spelled it all stupid. Let’s see
if that gets popular!”

 

The Pussy Has A
Love-Hate Relationship with Larry the Cable Guy

If you call Blaine Cartwright’s cell phone, you’ll be
treated to the nasally twang and anal eructation of America’s best-worst comedian. Come
on now… does The Pussy really like him? “He’s – surprisingly – a lot
funnier than you’d think,” says Suys. “Our sense of humor is pretty
tongue-in-cheek, [though], so there’s definitely some irony in putting that on
there.” It gets fewer complaints – from Pussy pal and Larry nemesis David
Cross, and the band’s Adult Swim buds – than Cartwright’s last greeting: “While
you’re waiting, enjoy a Bible verse.” Says his bride, “People were like, ‘What
the fuck, man?’ So we changed it to
Larry the Cable Guy farting.”

 

The Pussy Digs Chicks
(As Bass Players)

Lest they upset the delicate pH balance in The Pussy, as
each of their former bass players departed, they replaced her with other hers.
Currently, Karen Cuda (of Hemi Cuda) holds down the bottom end. “Karen is the
ultimate chick bass player,” says Suys, who’d know: The Pussy’s first bass
player was near-seven-foot tall, fire-breathing bombshell Corey Parks.
“[Karen’s] upped the ante. When we first hired her, we thought we’d test her
out by seein’ if we could drink her under the table, and by the end of the
night, she was sitting on top of our kitchen counter, farting. Me and Blaine
were on the floor-she literally floored us!”

 

[Note: A condensed version of this story ran in the May 6
issue of Salt Lake City Weekly.]

 

[Photo Credit: Frank Mullen/Matteblack]

 

A CENTURY OF AMERICAN MUSIC Robert Randolph

With
his new collection of originals and covers, the sacred steel auteur displays
the fruits of having hung around with greatness.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Growing up, Robert Randolph never dreamed of
becoming a guitar God. In fact, he began playing the pedal steel guitar as a
way to get closer to God, developing his skills at the House of God Church in New Jersey and rarely
listening to secular music. When he was 19, Randolph was given tickets to a Stevie Ray
Vaughn concert, which opened his eyes to a new style of music and new ways of
playing his instrument. He began playing clubs and within a few years was
performing alongside people like Eric Clapton, Dave Matthews and B.B. King.

 

Now considered one of the best pedal steel
players in the world, Randolph’s
latest album, We Walk This Road (Warner
Bros.), is a celebration of the last century of music, placing original tracks
alongside covers of songs by Prince, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. His combo,
Robert Randolph and the Family Band, is rounded out by drummer Marcus Randolph
and bassist Danyel Morgan. We talked with Randolph
about the album, his first in four years, and moving from the church to the jam
band scene.

 

***

 

BLURT: You had a big goal when you made this album, trying
to capture 100 years of music. Where did that idea come from?

RANDOLPH: [Producer] T Bone Burnett
and I had a conversation about making a special record. We said instead of
doing it like everyone else and recording some songs I wrote on the tour bus,
let’s go back over the history of American music. We started with old field
recordings, the stuff guys like Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin
listened to. We said ‘Let’s see if this gives us some inspiration’. We started
in 1910, then next thing you know we got up to the 1970s. We took obscure stuff
from every decade for inspiration. Soon we started writing songs. We’d take
some riffs, loop some stuff and jam to it until it became whole.

 

Even though you’re primarily a secular musician now, you still
deliver an overtly religious message in some of your songs.

Only today do
people think about making a gospel record, a rock record or a blues record. Over
the history of music, guys just sang. One day you’d see a girl, so you’d write
a love song. The next day, you’d have a bad day, so you write a song that says
‘Lord, help me out of this situation.’ Dylan would do that. Half of the great Led
Zeppelin songs are spiritual songs. You can’t take spirituality out of music
because you think it’s not cool. But for me, it’s more direct because of the
fact that I do come from the church and have been in church my whole life.  

 

What made you
decide to start playing in clubs instead of just in church?

Some people
call my church a rock and roll church. It had wailing guitars and screaming,
energy and excitement. Some people said ‘I think this music is so special that
you guys should go out and start playing clubs in New York and see what happens.’ We met a guy
there who lived in Jersey and knew people that
owned some small bars. We started to play every Thursday. At first we had five
people. Next thing you know, five turned into 50. Word started to spread. People
loved the sound and the different musical flavor, and here we are today.

 

Were you surprised at the reaction?

Not really.
When I started playing, I’d go play at other churches and I’d see the reaction,
like ‘Man, this is interesting’. The guys before me were never allowed to go
outside the church and play so they never got a chance to get that kind of feedback.
There were so many great players. In their day, some of those guys could have
been as big as Muddy Waters.

 

Is it a big difference playing in church versus playing in
clubs?

Of course.
Church is church. It’s a spiritual setting. But in terms of my musical
approach, it’s the same – to go out and make music that uplifts people. We know
how special it is coming from the church and how cool it is to be able to play
music that uplifts people spiritually. For us, the mind frame is to bring a
good time and a positive thing to a wider audience.

 

How has your playing style changed since you went from being
a church musician to a secular musician?

Being able to
be out there with other people like Clapton and Santana, you figure out that these
guys are real professionals. If I don’t get better just from hanging around
those guys, I’m just in the wrong business. We all sit around and talk about
music. There’s an old saying, ‘you hang around with a guy long enough that
limps sooner or later you’ll be limping.’ If I hang around with greatness long
enough, hopefully sooner or later I’ll be great.

 

 

[Photo Credit:
Scott Dudelson; check out his Blurt photo blog]

 

 

FUTURE SHOCK-HOP Anti-Pop Consortium

Following
a seven-year hiatus, the underground hip-hop icons came back out swinging last
fall – “a new swagger for a new era.”

 

BY MATTHEW NEWTON

 

When Anti-Pop Consortium broke up in 2002, its dissolution
came on the heels of a critically acclaimed album, 2002’s Arrhythmia (Warp), hailed by many as a masterpiece in progressive
hip-hop. Punctuated by stutter-step beats and unconventional rhyme schemes, the
album cemented APC’s sound as a harbinger of rap’s future. But it may have been
a future envisioned at a cost. Six months after the album’s release – and
following a world tour with Radiohead and a stateside run with DJ Shadow – the
innovative quartet of Beans, M. Sayyid, Earl Blaize, and High Priest split,
citing differing creative visions.

 

“Things happen,” Beans says. “Everyone chose to spread their
wings for good or bad.” Following the break Beans emerged as a solo artist on
Warp, showcasing his talents as an auteur; M. Sayyid and High Priest formed
Airborne Audio, releasing 2005’s Good
Fortune
(Ninja Tune) and touring with Bright Eyes; and Earl Blaize immersed
himself in production.

 

It wasn’t until 2007, when a mutual friend arranged an
impromptu APC reunion at Beans’ birthday, that the seeds for Fluorescent Black – the group’s first album
in seven years, on Big Dada – were planted. Soon the foursome struck out on a
brief European tour, testing out new material while dusting off their live
show, all the while writing new music and further evolving the group’s
signature sound. As High Priest recalls, hip-hop was still locked in a
conservative mindset when Arrhythmia came
out. Today, though, he believes audiences have broadened their palette.

 

“You can’t ever really underestimate or overestimate what
people are willing to accept,” Priest says. “Even with this most recent
project, we find that people are gravitating to what might be considered the
more extreme aspects of our production.”

 

Having handled the lion’s share of production duties on Fluorescent Black, Priest is acutely
aware of the legacy APC has to live up to. Especially since he and his longtime
collaborators emerged from self-induced exile last fall and have been touring
steadily behind the album, including a slot at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival
in September and an appearance at South By Southwest in March; they’re
currently in the middle of a tour of Europe and the U.K.

 

“You need a new swagger for a new era,” Priest says. ” It’s
good to be in this place now, going with the grain as opposed to, in the past,
when it felt like we were going against it.”

 

[Photo Credit: J. Yoon]

 

 

PICKING UP GOOD VIBRATIONS Secret Cities

Channeling
an icon and music legend without falling prey to recycling ain’t easy, but this
North Dakota trio, amazingly, pulls it off.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Brian Wilson’s musical legacy has been cannibalized so
voraciously over the past few years that name-checking Beach Boy No. 1 is
tantamount to a Listener Advisory sticker: Beware!
Delusions of production grandeur within!
The pleasure-to-pretension ratio from
all this thieving, cribbing and homage is frankly woeful; Ouija Boarding Pet Sounds-Wilson while you obsess over dozens
of vocal tracks is no guarantee of good vibrations.

 

Contextual rant over, it’s almost shocking to hear a band
that gets it without recycling
Wilson’s sonic carcass, and, even better yet, pulls it off on an album openly
inspired by him. Pink Graffiti, Pt. 1 (Western Vinyl), the debut from a trio of landlocked North Dakotans who call themselves
Secret Cities, is less a concept record than a meditation on youthful innocence
colored by an adult’s wistful – and therefore Wilsonian – rear-view mirror
vantage. But Secret Cities filters Wilson
through its own musical touchstones, citing a range from Steve Riley minimalism
to the fractured psych pop of The Presidents of the United States.  And somehow in the process and confluence the
record goes meta: this is music about
the music that’s about Brian Wilson as much as it’s actually about Brian Wilson.
That may read like a college thesis – and, in fact, that’s where the album
sprung from, along with a chance meeting with the de facto spokesperson for
vibrant youth and Endless Summers.

 

Yet the last thing Pink
Graffiti, Pt. 1
sounds like is an academic exercise in Wilson worship. The songs may comment on lost
innocence, but including Wilson’s
own legacy in the “lost” equation creates a perspective-shift that ripples
through this record like the butterfly effect. The trio of Marie Parker,
Charlie Gokey and Alex Abnos shade these 10 songs in the psychedelic music that
first drew them together, but they don’t rest there. Instead of Merry Prankster
jams or edge-of-madness Barrett-mania, Secret Cities opt for lush,
cross-generational collages of distorted loops, drones, and thundering toms through
which distant voices drift. Piano and strings create orchestral tides to
contrast with rough-hewn acoustic guitars and found sounds that read like tinny
AM-radio transmissions. But even as these strange arrangements and frequencies envelop
you, the melodies remain vibrant and out front.

 

And it’s how they blend these polymath textures and
influences that really charms. Track-by-track examination can signal a
reviewer’s inability to find the thematic red thread (hey, it’s happened), but
the way these songs fold into each other is a big part of this record’s sub-narrative.
The lush opening of “Pink City” – whose fluttering harp glissandos, sitar-like
guitar lines and sibilating synths sound like “Fake Plastic Trees”-era
Radiohead underpinned by Le Loup’s tribal joy – resolves its “We had a lot to
say” chorus-cum-incantation with a final resigned sigh, “but it would take all
day,” before drifting into the dangerously habit-forming “Boyfriends.” The
contrast is immediate, the connections entirely logical. The song name-checks
the record’s inspiration at the top, and does so without shame: “Brian Wilson
and me,” Gokey sings in a muffled, warbling falsetto as he recounts meeting the
legend who, of course, turns out to be flesh and blood. Given this era’s
scavenging, your inclination is to dismiss what would be galling pretension in inept
hands, but Gokey quickly adds that Wilson
“never told me anything true” and “those good vibrations never came.” Besides,
dissing the song is out of the question because you’ve already been totally
disarmed by its “Whistle While You Work”-like melody, which evolves into an
enormous hook embracing stomping guitars and thunderheads of percussion — these dwarves sound more like really
determined teamsters.

 

Those songs comprise a great one-two opening, but the record’s
spot-on sequencing keeps highlighting new variations in the band’s arranging
skills. With an ethereal Parker taking over the mic, “Slacker” goes orchestral
pop, staccato piano chords punctuating indigo strings as though Stereolab were
doing “Eleanor Rigby.” On “Pink Graffiti, Pt. 2,” Celeste-like keys and low-end
bowed contrabass provide more immediate but compatible contrast. While the
juxtaposition is occupying your ears, it frees the trio to dial up the tension
almost imperceptibly. They fatten the arrangement with additional layers of
keys and drums and voices, and when the final chorus – the hymn-like refrain “I
know, I know she still loves me/I know, I know she still needs me” – arrives,
it lifts you out of melancholy on its broad shoulders.

 

Intermission comes with the instrumental “Wander,” its
alternating major and minor piano chords buffeted by glitchy, chop shop beats, both
processed and organic a la Four Tet. That presages another shift to the aptly
named “Color,” a top-down summer pop track speckled with giddy vibes and sunny horns;
blended with Parker’s layered girl group vocals and some well-placed guitar intervals,
the song recalls Camera Obscura or the Concretes. The track drifts off on
simple guitar strums and trap beats that segue into “Aw Rats,” which opens with
toy piano and a field recording of children at play. It’s a clever feint,
though, because the song takes a sinister turn into an urgent note-bending guitar
riff and cymbal explosions. At the bridge, Gokey’s far-off vocals emerge
dreamily on a banjo’s pizzicato notes before diving back beneath the smudged
riffs and percussion thunder; this is
what you wish Sufjan Stevens sounded like.

 

There are even great things to recommend the record’s slightly-less-impressive
songs. “Pink Graffiti, Pt. 1” tilts 80s, trundled along by era-typical synths
and a metronomic beat somewhere between New Order and Tears for Fears. But
glitches, loops and strings provide some sonic and historical depth, and any
lingering preconceptions about the track reading nostalgic vanish in another
tension-building bridge — on the other side of which the whistled theme from “Pink
Graffiti, Pt. 2” re-emerges like a smiling (but kinda cuckoo) friend. “Vamos A
La Playa” also reads like an 80s track, but in a darker shade resembling, say, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me Cure, only with
a bit of Spanish flavoring tacked on at the end justifying the title – all
told, maybe the record’s weakest link.

 

Redemption follows, though, with “The End,” a slice of ‘60s’
London-in-Autumn psychedelia with guitars like stained
glass sunlight (think The Clientele) and strings that fill every crevice of the
melody not already occupied by vocal luminosity; Parker sings this like a
paisley hymn reverberating through Old World
cathedrals. The track’s rapturous nature may have you thinking that the band
has finally succumbed and genuflected at the altar of the icon; you’d only be
partially right. Just moments before “The End,” Gokey sings on “Vamos” that “I
can’t believe in a new good vibration,” and Secret Cities has followed through
on that promise. They’ve honored Wilson
in the best possible way: by burning his myth at the stake so that he may rise
and join them in their future. Marvelous, marvelous stuff.

 

 

 

 

THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT: Rasputina

Indie rock’s fiercest
cellist tells us about how she stitched together – literally – her band’s
latest album,
Sister Kinderhook.

 

BY MELORA CREAGER

 

This piece is about the album cover for my seventh full-length
record, Sister Kinderhook (view it
here). I still call them records and that’s standard parlance in the music
industry. I’ve always designed my own packaging and merchandise. For my first
album cover, I made a quilted pillow the same size as a CD fold-out. As time
has gone by, I’ve used the computer more and more, but I wanted to get back to
something real and handmade on this one.

 

The ground is a half-finished linen…handkerchief? It’s too
small for a tablecloth, too big for a handkerchief. It was my maternal
grandmother’s and I found the green thread for the leaves still all balled up
inside the folded fabric. Like Pompeii or Roanoke, she just set it aside one
day, maybe 100 years ago, and didn’t get back to work on it.

 

The white lace border fell off a petticoat from a box of my
mother’s family’s things.

 

I’m adopted, so this would be my adopted mother’s mother,
Adelle, who died when Leona (mom) was 13 in 1938. Leona was a
“late-in-life baby” for Adelle, so there was a generation skipped
between each of us. I just had my second daughter at age 43.

 

I, of course, never met Adelle, but a spooky photograph of
her hung over our piano where I spent a lot of my time growing up. That
photograph was a big influence on me and it hangs over my piano now.

 

Leona died in 2009 after 15 years with Alzheimer’s. She had
been a commercial artist (now called a graphic designer) working for a short
time in Cleveland, Ohio before she got married. This was a heyday she told us
(her two adopted daughters) about often. Although she was really a housewife,
she fancied herself a career woman. Although she could sew and cook amazingly
as she had been taught by her Victorian mother, she thought that was beneath
her and claimed to hate those activities.

 

I have all their old sewing things-boxes of embroidery
floss, hoops, needlepoint patterns, trims on cards, etc. I dig through that
when it’s time to get inspired.

 

I began my music studies at five years old on the piano. I
started cello at age nine. I would try to get out of practicing, but once I sat
down at my instrument, I could get really lost in music. I love how practicing
just works absolutely. You practice, you improve, period. I have written songs
since I began at the piano.

 

I quit music in the 8th grade because I wanted to be cool
and fit in. Orchestra was not cool. I didn’t take it up again until I lived in
NYC and started playing cello and keyboards in rock bands. That was cool.

 

I went to Parsons School of Design and majored in
photography. My band, Rasputina, is really a never-ending art project for me. I
make assignments for myself, research them, and express myself through the
theme.

 

This album is loosely about the county where I live,
Columbia County NY, circa 1830. I did research on the patroon system (a sort of
feudal landowning) and visited historic houses in the area-Olana, Martin Van
Buren’s Lindenwald and the Lucas Van Alyn house. I made a trek to the Shelburne
Museum in Vermont to see their hand-work and house-ware examples in their
reconstructed homes. I studied the itinerant portraitist, Amii Phillips (a man)
who worked in the area. I read the book, Patience
& Sarah
by Isabel Miller, loosely based on folk-artist, Mary Ann
Willson. Mary Ann Willson was a wonderful and fanciful painter who lived nearby
in the woods with her lover, a female farmer. Other than that and her
paintings, nothing is known about her. And I re-read and re-read the wonderful
book, Anonymous Was a Woman by Mirra
Bank, which is full of beautiful examples of women’s needle pictures, samplers,
quilts, and all sorts of “unimportant” art. Eunice Pinney was a great
one who came up again and again. She made small amounts of money for her
memorial pictures and even made one for herself before her death.

 

So I kept in mind their icons: the urn and the willow tree,
their poems on death and the way they made their borders.

 

Research and recording I did while pregnant. Mixing and
sewing I did while taking care of new baby Ivy.

 

Even though what I’m doing is technically commercial art, I
love the idea that I’m infiltrating a crass, male dominated business with my
obscure, hand-stitched ideas; that I’m stitching while I’m mixing at some slick
LA recording studio.

 

 It’s subterfuge and a
joke on “the business”. Early in my career and again recently, I’ve
applied for arts grants- as a composer, as a performance artist. I never
received any acceptance whatsoever in that realm. So I put out my ideas as a
“band” and perform in rock clubs. My ideas are disseminated broadly
and non-discriminatorily this way.

 

Although I’ve always been diligent and methodical in my
pursuit of a music career, my naiveté was a huge help. I never thought being a
girl or a cellist would be a handicap on the road to rock-stardom or, rather,
cult-hood, which is what I’ve actually achieved.

 

 

Rasputina’s 7th album Sister Kinderhook, was released
June 15 on the Filthy Bonnet Co. label – located, incidentally, at www.rasputina.com. You can read the BLURT
review right here (and also view the album artwork as well).