Monthly Archives: August 2013

ROBBIE FULKS — Gone Away Backward

Album: Gone Away Backward

Artist: Robbie Fulks

Label: Bloodshot

Release Date: August 27, 2013

Robbie Fulks


 Considering the rowdy reputation Robbie Fulks has garnered over the years, it’s somewhat surprising to find that the aptly titled Gone Away Backward has him abandoning any hint of insurgent sentiment and focusing instead on more traditional trappings. There’s not a single song here that wouldn’t fit the bill at a bluegrass barn dance or a simple backwoods hoedown. Indeed, Gone Away Backward may also be the best album Fulks has ever produced, if for no other reason than it’s both pure and unfettered.

 If Fulks was so determined to embrace the heartland, clearly he couldn’t have found a better means of doing so. With most songs ablaze with fiddles, banjo and mandolin, he offers no pretense. The homesick lament “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener” finds him assuming the guise of a humble hillbilly, while “That’s Where I’m From” drives the point home for anyone who hasn’t yet gotten the hint. “If you can’t tell I’m country, just you look closer/It’s deep in my blood.”

 Just how deep is open to conjecture, but with a mellow fiddle-fueled ramble like “Snake Chapman’s Tune” or some boozy honky tonk like “When You Get to the Bottom,” it doesn’t take much more to convince. These slow-rolling, Southern-bred sentiments serve him well, and indeed Gone Away Backward appears to be a fine step forward.

 DOWNLOAD: “When You Get to the Bottom,” “Sometimes the Grass is Really Greener,” “That’s Where I’m From”


Album: What a Dream It's Been

Artist: Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys

Label: Cow Island Music

Release Date: August 27, 2013

Big Sandy Aug 27



When your trademark is authentic recreations of various roots musics – rockabilly, western swing, country, doo-wop, etc. – it becomes a bold move to cover your own songs in completely different arrangements. Paying tribute to 25 years as a bandleader, Big Sandy (born Robert “Rusty” Williams) picked a dozen of his favorite cuts from previous albums, and stripped the band down to a tight four-piece strictly acoustic ensemble.

Thus, with no onus to sound like recordings from 50 or more years ago, the songwriting talents of Williams come to the forefront. “Missouri Gal” may have rocked harder when it originally appeared on the 1992 debut album Fly Right With . . . Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Trio, but even acoustic guitars can pump up enough energy to underscore Sandy’s impassioned love for the gal in question. “Don’t Desert Me” goes from a rockabilly rave-up to a virtual duet between Sandy’s nuanced vocal and the simple bass pulses provided by Jeff West.

“Nothing to Lose,” an empathetic description of a woman driven to murder and suicide by an abusive husband, benefits the most from a new version. Not that there was anything wrong with the original honky-tonk take from Night Tide back in 2000. But switching it to a Tex-Mex ballad style emphasizes the chilling aspects of the tale, and gives Sandy a chance to show off even more vocal chops.

Oh, there are a couple of odd choices, most notably the decision to change the delicate doo wop of “Baby Baby Me” heard on 1998’s Dedicated to You into a less engaging lite reggae rhythm which goes on for twice as long as the original. For the most part, though, this serves as a lovely gift for long-time fans and an intriguing introduction to newbies. There’s plenty of time for them to catch the rip-roaring live show of this band. Right now, here’s a chance to fall in love with a talented songsmith.

DOWNLOAD: “Nothing to Lose,” “Missouri Gal,” “Parts Unknown.”


Album: Slave Vows

Artist: Icarus Line

Label: Agitated

Release Date: August 06, 2013

Icarus Line Aug 6


 The Icarus Line has spent most of its career hewing a 21st century version of decadent glam out of the edifice of indie rock. But for its fifth LP Slave Vows, the band picks up the threads of creeping psychedelia that have long been detectable in its quirky rawk blasts, unraveling the old tapestry and rolling around in the pile of yarn left behind. Riding waves of raging feedback, aggressive rhythms and blazing guitar fury, leader Joe Cardamone alternately seethes and wails, hissing like a reformed black metal vokillist one minute and roaring like a drug-addled Mick Jagger the next.

 “Dead Boy,” “Rats Ass” and the monstrous “Dark Circles” drown peaceful hippies in the brown acid, spitting out horrifying visions that somehow sting and soothe at the same time. The band almost gets accessible with “Don’t Let Me Save Your Soul,” but it’s closer to the art-damaged pop of Spacemen 3 than anything directly inspired by the 60s. Cardamone throws in a wink at his own folly with “No Money Music,” but the Icarus Line has always been more concerned with self-indulgence than filthy lucre anyway. Opening the door of your mind’s eye to the psychedelic sludge and acid punk hooks of Slave Vows will gain you a lot of decadent pleasure, little insight and even less mercy.

 DOWNLOAD: “Dark Circles,” “Rats Ass,” “Don’t Let Me Save Your Soul”



The National + Daughter 8/11/13, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles

Dates: August 11, 2013

Location: Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles

National 4


  Matt Berninger had just finished singing, in his gloomy baritone croon, the first song – “I Should Live in Salt” – of the National’s outdoor set at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Forever Cemetery and was now taking in the view from the stage.

 There were a couple thousand eager but polite fans on the lawn. Many had spread out blankets and had brought picnic baskets of Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods goodies along with plenty of booze and, in some cases judging from the wafting aroma, marijuana. Beyond them, further away from the stage, was a cluster of mausoleums and then a sea of headstones.

 “Boy, it’s a pretty dead crowd out there,” he said. There were modest laughs. “It took me half an hour to write that joke,” he apologized, before going into “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” from the National’s recent Trouble Will Find Me album.

 The jokes may be weak, but the band, after a decade’s worth of experience, is perfect at playing live its singular repertoire of melodic and frequently melancholic songs that nevertheless roar with sonic thrust. While Berninger’s lyrics are introspective to the point of abstraction (and weirdness), the band rocks with such swagger than the tunes turn anthemic. It’s an odd mix – part Tindersticks and part U2 – that slowly has made the Brooklyn (by way of Cincinnati) band one of indie rock’s biggest.

 National 2

But playing a cemetery? Why not? The repertoire is a good fit. As guitarist Aaron Dessner noted before the band played “Anyone’s Ghost,” “It’s not hard for us to find songs appropriate for a cemetery.”

 Throughout the show, Berninger’s lyrics and enunciation remained crystal clear while brothers Dessner and brother Bryce provided slashing, humming guitar (with Aaron also moving frequently to piano). Brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf offered propulsive drums and bass, and trumpeter Kyle Resnick and trombonist Ben Lanz added brass flourishes that kept lifting the songs up from their morose trappings.

National 3

 The tall and lean Berninger, who seems so brooding when he paces the stage while singing, was friendly, even flippant, with his adlibs and wine swigs between songs. After the romantically heartfelt “I Need My Girl,” he said he was struck with anxiety while singing it because he thought his zipper might be open. (I doubt if another brooding baritone rock singer, the later Jim Morrison, ever worried about that.)

 The National also has developed a transfixing light show; a video screen shows a constantly shifting Nam June Paik-influenced style of flickering, flashing abstract and concrete imagery, including shots of the band.

 I recently read a Rolling Stone story that described a National appearance at New York’s PS1 contemporary art museum in which the band repeatedly played “Sorrow” as part of a conceptual project. The article describes the band’s transfixing effect on the local fans – “by the last two hours, they’re cheering wildly after each take, clapping and singing along…”

 Well, Los Angeles is different. There never was that kind of pandemonium. Perhaps because it was so well-fed and well-buzzed, most of the crowd – other than those upfront – sat through the 25-song (including encores) set, which included such tunes as “Mistaken for Strangers,” “Bloodbuzz Ohio,” “Swallow Victoria,” “This Is the Last Time,” “Afraid of Everyone,” “Conversation 16,” “Terrible Love,” “Graceless,” and the essential “Fake Empire.”

 National 1

And yet, when the encores – four songs – came, nobody moved to leave early. They all stayed, perhaps knowing how touching the last choice, the favorite “Vanderlye Crybaby Geeks,” would be when Berninger invited opening act Daughter on stage to join in a late-night, loose-feeling sing-along.

 The night before, the National had played a sold-out show at the outdoor Greek Theater; that this too sold out quickly showed their appeal. It was the end of the tour, and the Dessners’ parents had come from Cincinnati to be there. (The National also subsequently did Jimmy Kimmel Live and were guests on KCRW-FM, making the A-list promotional rounds before leaving L.A.)

 A cemetery may seem like a creepy place for a show, but this is a hipster cemetery if ever there was one. A modest but nicely landscaped space in the heart of cluttered Hollywood, it has a statue honoring permanent resident Johnny Ramone. Its open-area performance lawn, in a rear corner, nudges up against nearby Paramount Studios and is the site for both indie-rock concerts (Grizzly Bear also recently played there) and an outdoor movie series that draws thousands.

 Flat green public open space is at a premium in central Los Angeles, so using a cemetery like a park makes great sense. Using one for concerts makes sense, too – waiting for the music to start you can wander around reading headstones. My favorite, for someone named George Goldsmith, read, “This was a man of quiet thought and dead.”

 Hope he liked the National.

 [Photos of the concert via fan submissions to the National’s Facebook page:]

ETTA JAMES—Live at Montreux 1993; SOLOMON BURKE—Live at Montreux 2006

Title: ETTA JAMES—Live at Montreux 1993; SOLOMON BURKE—Live at Montreux 2006

Director: n/a

Release Date: August 06, 2013

Solomon Burke DVD


 Two legends of Rhythm and Blues. Two classic concerts at Montreux. Two giants, both musically… and physically. Both sadly gone, but brought back to life through a pair of memorable DVDs.

 Etta James and Solomon Burke were spawned from the same roots, the gritty days of the early ‘60s when “race music” was still a prevalent term when it came to describing Black artists working in a very specialised field and largely bereft of mainstream crossover. James’ road in particular had been a difficult one; a tangled relationship with her record label and the spectre of drug abuse clouded her early career, and despite a wealth of hits that were soon to be standards — “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “At Last” and “Tell Mama” being among them — her life was mired in difficulty and struggles with her personal demons. By the time she arrived at Montreux in the mid ‘70s, those troubles were mainly behind her, but the challenge of reestablishing herself amidst ensuing health problems would plague her for the remainder of her days.

 Live at Montreux spotlights her 1993 performance at the famed venue, as well as snippets from archival concerts in ’75, ’78, ’89 and ’90. Her physical appearance changes considerably over time — by ’93 she’s so overweight that her mobility is clearly limited — and her various bands, especially early on, see some notable contributions in the persons of Herbie Mann, Rick Wakeman, John Paul Jones, drummer Steve Ferrone, David “Fathead” Newman. Richard Tee, and a very young Brian Ray, now of  Paul McCartney’s band. Nevertheless, the power, fury and tenacity of her singing remains unrelenting, and the searing determination she invests in such songs as “Beware,” “Drown in my Own Tears” and “Just One More Day” — hell, every song in every set — is nothing short of remarkable.

 For his part, Solomon Burke proves an equally formidable presence, and given his ability to captivate a crowd and hold them in sway proves utterly impressive even viewed from a distance. With the DVD seeming to start midway through a performance of what is presumably his first number, “Baby, What You Want Me To Do,” the excitement accelerates quickly. Relying on instinct, he sends his horn section out into the audience to rouse those who have yet to catch the vibe. His between song patter proves equally entertaining, and a tale about a party with famous friends Otis Redding, Ben E. King and Wilson Pickett, interspersed with some of their signature songs, provides one of the show’s many highlights. Burke’s physical size limits him to sitting in an oversize throne throughout, but his soulful gaze and unfettered expression of emotion — an unaccompanied prayer for peace, “We Live So Close To One Another” is particularly powerful —   sustains the energy at an ever-accelerated pace. Suffice it to say, Burke’s Live at Montreux is a must-see show and as riveting and resounding as any recorded concert ever will be.

 Though gone, sadly gone, James and Burke leave an indelible impression. Preserved here for posterity, it would be hard to cite a better requiem.

Etta James DVD

ROGUE WAVE – Nightingale Floors

Album: Nightingale Floors

Artist: Rogue Wave

Label: Vagrant

Release Date: June 04, 2013

Rogue Wave June 4


These days it’s pure analog-thinking to believe a time-capsule should have at least a quarter-century in the ground before we crack it open and marvel at the weird shit people used to get up to. Case in point, Nightingale Floors, the latest from Oakland, Ca.-based Rogue Wave, a turn-of-the-century historical glitch in today’s indie music world.

On Rogue Wave’s last release, 2010’s Permalight, Zach Schwartz (a.k.a., Zach Rogue) seemed like he was combating the band’s increasingly anachronistic sound, and the record veered awkwardly between their familiar guitar-based indie and a new-found dance-pop. Up-tempo rhythms and overwrought synth textures collided uncomfortably with fuzz and grit and the occasional acoustic ballad, and the whole thing suffered as a result.

With that in mind, Schwartz’s 10 new songs, with their straight-ahead reliance on guitars and canyons of reverb, reads like a redemptive primer on late-90s/early oughties indie. You can hear Beulah’s melodicism in opener “No Magnatone” and see, with a minimum of squinting, the Shins’ “New Slang” in the acoustic “Without Pain.” Smile-era Jayhawks lurk in the soaring twang pop harmonies and swirling keys of “Figured It Out,” and with its explosive choruses and reverb tunnels “Used to It” comes off like an extra track from Band of Horses’ debut. Hell, Nightingale Floors even has a hidden song on the back end of swaying disc-closer “Everyone Wants to Be You” —how quaintly CD-like!

Unlike most of today’s bands mining the past for inspiration, Schwartz and company actually grew up musically in the era they’re channelling and more often than not deliver the goods here. Pulsing rocker “S(a)tan” may be a simple hate song, but its mammoth chorus decrying Stan and his “anger information” is a real earworm and nearly as addictive as “Figured It Out.”  And “College,” the first single, has to be the most emblematic track. Fuelled by churning guitars and cavernous drumbeats, Schwartz’s wistful admonition that “you cannot acknowledge/all the things you’ve done in college” comes attached to an enormous hook and with the grown-up knowledge that looking back carries a cost.

The past informs us, in other words, whether you choose to acknowledge it or not. The impotence of railing against it is a theme running through a lot of the record, and in the case of Nightingale Floors, coming to terms with the past has freed Rogue Wave to turn in what might be their finest work.

DOWNLOAD: “Used To It” “S(a)tan” “College”


Album: Bohemia

Artist: Greg Humphreys

Label: Phrex

Release Date: May 07, 2013

Greg Humphreys May 7


Greg Humphreys came close to achieving national prominence when he helmed North Carolina’s power pop combo Dillon Fence, prior to turning his attention to a more R&B influenced sound with Hobex, who went on to release five albums over the course of 12 years. However, with those affiliations behind him, he’s now free to explore his own muse and tackle whatever sounds strike his fancy. Consequently, it’s not surprising to find him initiating the proceedings by singing in a soulful falsetto and backed by cooing gospel harmonies on “Someday, I’ll have My Due.”  Or delving into a casual ukulele sing-along with “Sweet LaRue.”  Or tapping tradition with the genial folk tune “Railroad Bill.”

On the whole, Humphreys couples his old school Americana with an affable attitude. The gentle caress of “Sayin’ What You Mean” and the quiet sway of “Shelby, I Told You” recall the rustic and rootsy feel of a serene backwoods habitat. The tangled mesh of guitars that define “Jubble On, Jubbly” brings to mind more of a swampier sound.  Even so, Humphreys remains blissfully unencumbered, his blithe and breezy melodies sustaining a willowy caress throughout.

Ultimately, Bohemia seems to live up to its title, given its nonchalant attitude and unassuming demeanor. It’s a sensual sound, a momentary retreat to a place in the pines.

DOWNLOAD: “Shelby, I Told You,” “Someday, I’ll have My Due,” “Railroad Bill”


Album: Too Far

Artist: Susan SurfTone

Label: Acme Brothers

Release Date: July 09, 2013

Susan SurfTone July 9


What to make a guitarist who refers to herself as Susan SurfTone and boldly helms a namesake band through an agile blend of skill and swagger? Considering the unfettered ferocity borne by her group’s garage band dynamic, it seems no explanation is necessary. On her new album Too Far, her prowess is beyond reproach.

Of course, the annals of rock ‘n’ roll are littered with assertive front men and women who pitch attitude as a substitute for aptitude. And given her proficiency for recreating a classic surf sound, Susan might have been forgiven had she chosen to pout and posture. Happily though she proves her mettle on songs such as “Start Again,” “Chelsea Twist” and “Too Far,” each of which is a showcase for her searing fretwork and the taut, steady rhythms of her able ensemble. All the tracks are entirely instrumental, and though there’s a certain sameness to the sound, the use of Theremin on “Steve Dallas” and some telecaster twang with “What a Shame’ allows specific selections to stand out.

Susan’s style is likely best served in concert where a true dynamic can be measured by her presence as well as her precision. For now however, Too Far goes just far enough.

DOWNLOAD: “Start Again,” “Steve Dallas,” “What a Shame”

VENOM P. STINGER – 1986-1991

Album: 1986-1991

Artist: Venom P. Stinger

Label: Drag City

Release Date: August 20, 2013

Venom P Aug 20



If anybody outside of Australian underground rock fanatics has heard of Venom P. Stinger, it’s as a home for two-thirds of improvisational instrumental band the Dirty Three. But the quartet deserves more than footnote status in the Three’s Wikipedia entry. Growing like a weed out of a busy Melbourne hardcore scene, VPS brought together guitarist Mick Turner (from Sick Things and the Moodists), drummer Jim White (ex-People With Chairs Up Their Noses and the Feral Dinosaurs) with bassist Alan Secher-Jensen and Turner’s Sick Things bandmate Dugald McKenzie for a frenzied wang dang doodle that contributed to Melbourne’s post-Birthday Party noise rock legacy without fading into it. White thrashes his kit with the jazz-laced acumen he’d bring to the Dirty Three, but with a devil-may-care drive anchored by Secher-Jensen’s root note throb. Turner sprays notes and licks across the rhythm section’s foundation the way a fundamentalist preacher sprays invective over gay-friendly movies and TV shows. McKenzie simply brays whatever eccentric nonsense and random depravity comes into his (allegedly) drunken head, proving the adage that attitude counts the most in rock & roll.

Over the course of the EP, single and two LPs collected on the comprehensive 1986-1991, the band rarely deviates from the seething sound of an impending nervous breakdown, moving from the A to B of the wild-eyed teeth-gritter “The Quiet One” and to the boiled over catharsis of “Impressions” and back without much fuss. The band picked up trace amounts of melody as it went on, as evidenced by “Lethargy” and “What’s Yours is Mine,” but its sneering trash vision held true. The effect admittedly becomes a bit wearisome over the course of nearly 90 minutes, but in small doses Venom P. Stinger scratches a sleazy itch few other bands can – or are willing to – touch.  

DOWNLOAD: “Venom P. Stinger,” “Lethargy,” “What’s Yours is Mine”

STEVE EARLE — The Warner Bros. Years

Album: The Warner Bros. Years

Artist: Steve Earle

Label: Shout! Factory

Release Date: June 25, 2013

Steve Earle 6-25


 In a very real way, a re-release of Steve Earle’s three, and key, albums for Warner Bros. makes perfect sense. Coming on the heels of his release from prison where he had been sentenced for heroin abuse, they were comeback attempts of sorts after the twin promise of Guitar Town and Copperhead Road, two albums that delivered him to the fringes of sudden success. Now clean and in a position to reevaluate his life and his music, these three albums — Train A Comin’, I Feel Alright and El Corazon — documented his recovery and redemption, watershed moments in the rebirth of his career. Looking back, Train A Comin’ seems somewhat tentative, while I Feel Alright finds him returning to a more assertive stance. El Corazon showed Earle’s ability to make a masterpiece, with songs that hinted at political activism (“Christmas in Washington,” “Taneytown”), absolute resolve (“Here I Am”) and cautionary tales (“If You Fall”). Other triumphs would follow soon after on Earle’s E-Squared label – among them, The Mountain, a collaboration with the Del McCoury Band, and Transcendental Blues, his philosophical summation — but the Warners albums laid the course and set his trajectory in motion.

 Thankfully, the good folks at Shout Factory didn’t opt to only offer these discs a second time around, but instead provided added enticement via two bonus extras, a stunning live recording from Nashville’s Polk Theater, recorded around the same time as I Feel Alright, and a live DVD from the Cold Creek Correctional Facility where Earle had earlier been incarcerated. Live recordings from Earle are relatively rare, which makes the Polk Theater concert alone worth the price of admission.  A trio of tunes with special guest Emmylou Harris, and stunning takes on “I’m Looking Through You” and “Copperhead Road” show an artist already in prime form. For its part, the Cold Creek film serves as both a documentary and social statement, and while Earle’s performance is captured mostly in shadows, the interviews with the inmates and the revelation that most of them were serving their sentences for drug possession is absolutely illuminating. Earle’s commitment to unwavering activism was clearly affirmed then and there.

 DOWNLOAD: “Tecumseh Valley,” “Christmas In Washington,” “I’m Looking Through You” (live)