Monthly Archives: May 2014

ELIZA GILKYSON – The Nocturne Diaries

Album: The Nocturne Diaries

Artist: Eliza Gilkyson

Label: Red House

Release Date: March 18, 2014

Eliza Gil 3-18


Hopefully there will be a chapter in the Great English-Language Songbook for veteran performing songwriters who – while never quite reinventing the form the way Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro or Leonard Cohen have done – consistently married strong, inventive melodies with cliché-free, descriptive lyrics grounded in both the tangible world and their own feelings toward it.

And, while not musically conservative, they avoided new sounds for new sounds’ sake – preferring to have confidence in their strengths and influences as they constantly honed and improved their craft.

John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Rosanne Cash all belong there—and so does Eliza Gilkyson, whose new album is The Nocturne Diaries (Red House Records). Maybe not so heralded as the others – except in her home, Austin, where she’s an institution – she’s been recording since 1969 but only found her groove after signing with Red House Records in 2000.

She is at heart a folk-based singer-songwriter, but her lyrical concerns are contemporary rather than nostalgically rural, even when she consciously references traditional down-home music, as on the new album’s “Eliza Jane.” Overall there’s a principled (but never overbearing) humanism guiding her worldview. And her songs definitely rock, if never in a way that overpowers her words.

The voice does have a touch of country-music pining when she holds notes, but it’s also clear, quick and light-steppingly youthful. (She’s in her early sixties.) And her electric guitar, which basically accompanies the melodies, can jump out and snarl when she desires, as she does on this album’s “The Red Rose and the Thorn.”

She produced The Nocturne Diaries with son Cisco Ryder, and wrote or co-wrote all but two of the twelve songs. One of those two, “Fast Freight,” is by her late dad, songwriter Terry Gilkyson, who had a hit record back in 1956 with “Marianne” and co-wrote Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.” (Her brother, incidentally, is Tony Gilkyson, of Lone Justice and X fame.) She envelops his lonely train song in a swampy, spooky, midnight-blues atmosphere, aided by Ray Bonneville’s moaning harmonica, and it’s a standout. The other cover, “Where No Monument Stands,” is a fine, eloquently written anti-war poem by William Stafford with music penned by her labelmate John Gorka that is perfect for her voice and sensibilities.

So, too, is her own “American Boy,” which rocks with polite insistence but gives away its unease with its unexpected minor-chords. It’s a tale, told in the first-person, of a troubled youth struggling to contain his violent urges, and the writing is dread-inducing perfect: “I posted pictures on my Facebook site/A shooting star in a long dark night/A lonely kid beneath the basement light/With thunder in his hands.”

 Gilkyson is particularly thoughtful about the place for the heart in the world of modern technology. In “No Tomorrow,” she intones a lover to “turn off the harsh glare of the flat screen blue light/turn off the hardware, get it out of my sight/turn your face to me and hold me tonight.”

But she’s thoughtful (and anxious) about the fate and future of the world, and her place in it, period. In “World Without End,” on which her acoustic guitar gently provides accompaniment as the arrangement slowly lets in other instruments, she questions the title’s easy assumption as “something they told us/to keep us enslaved to our dreams.”

 Yet the graceful closing song (for which Jens Lysdal provided music for her lyrics and John Egenes adds slide and pedal steel guitar and saw) finds contentment in life as is – if it offers love. “But wherever I roam/far from you and our home/I’ve got it all right here in my heart.”

Like her other songs on The Nocturne Dairies, those lyrics are direct and clear, carefully chosen and thought-about, sincere and wise.


DOWNLOAD: “An American Boy,” “World Without End.”

SISYPHUS – Sisyphus

Album: Sisyphus

Artist: Sisyphus

Label: Asthmatic Kitty

Release Date: March 18, 2014

Sisyphus 3-18


Indie supergroup Sisyphus is making its mission to junk the “supergroup equation,” which in the past has generally held fast. Time was, you could predict such an outfit’s sound using a sum-of-the-parts calculation: it wasn’t much of a stretch to guess, say, the direction Crosby, Stills & Nash would take; or for that matter, West, Bruce & Laing; or Blind Faith; or even—gulp—Asia or Damn Yankees. But Sisyphus, comprising avant-folkster Sufjan Stevens and hip-hoppers Son Lux (a/k/a Ryan Lott) and Serengeti (David Cohn), is an excursion into dense, complex electronica only hinted at in each artist’s projects. And even if familiar elements do crop up over the course of this clear-vinyl double album—in particular, most of the vocals are rapped—Sisyphus is ultimately as off the wall a release as you’ll likely encounter this year.

Preceded by a 2012 EP, the trio’s full-length debut was commissioned by Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series for an exhibition highlighting visual artist Jim Hodges, who contributed three works for the album’s outer and interior covers. It’s a dark—at times downright bleak—set, recalling the Bristol-spawned trip-hop of Massive Attack and Tricky and sifting through disorienting layers of minimalist, abstract beats surrounded by oddly compelling melodies. One moment the listener is assaulted by abrupt bursts of noise (“Rhythm of Devotion”); the next, soothed by an almost gospel-like reverie (“I Won’t Be Afraid”); and the next, seduced by a disco-tilting foray into funk (“Lion’s Share,” boasting the chant dance, dance, dance). It’s a feeling of dislocation that ultimately pays off by giving way to a deep sense of having been taken upon a sonic journey.

Consumer note: buy the vinyl edition as it is pressed on beautiful clear wax.

DOWNLOAD: “I Won’t Be Afraid,” “Lion’s Share”

THE WHIGS – Modern Creation

Album: Modern Creation

Artist: Whigs

Label: New West

Release Date: April 22, 2014



The Nashville, by way of Athens, rockers have turned up the amps a bit and added a few affect pedals on Modern Creation, their fifth album. A little less pop-focused than their last effort, but catchy none the less, the record is 10 tracks of fuzzy guitars, driving drums and clear and focused vocals.

There’s a strong shaggy-haired stoner vibe on songs like “The Particular” and “I Couldn’t Lie,” but it’s the straight-up rockers, like “Hit Me” that have the biggest impact here. The mechanics to that song are pretty simple, but it’s the delivery, complete with the lead vocals and chorus stepping on each other, that make the song so addictive. The album closer, “The Difference Between One and Two,” falls in the same category, uncluttered and simply a great song to nod along to.

Modern Creation may not their best collections of songs – that honor is still held by 2012’s Enjoy the Company – but there’s still some damn fine tunes to be found here.

 DOWNLOAD: “Asking Strangers for Directions,” “Hit Me” and “The Difference Between One and Two”


Album: Shrink Dust

Artist: Chad Vangaalen

Label: Sub Pop

Release Date: April 29, 2014

Chad V


While working on Shrink Dust, Chad Vangaalen was also elbow-deep in drawing an animated sci-fi feature called Translated Log of Inhabitants. The film’s surreal images — pitched nicely between whimsy and nightmare — seem to have crept into this fifth full-length. It opens with the Grimm’s fairy tale worthy line, “Cut off both my hands/and threw them in the sand/watched them swim away from me like a pair of bloody crabs” and winds through bestiaries (“Monster”), giant spider webs (“Evil”) and end-of-times mythology (“Cosmic Destroyer”).

The weirdness seeps, too, into the album’s echo-cavern sound palette, with home-recorded noise-ghosts hovering just out of view and Vangaalen’s tremulous tenor wheeling and fluttering in wide arcs around folk melody. The songwriter picked up a pedal steel guitar just before laying these songs to track, and it also lends a gothic country miasma to the album, especially in “Weighed Sin” and “Hangman’s Son.”

The two best songs shade towards rattling, revenant garage rock. “Where Are You?” lurches zombie-like through bottom-of-the-well sonics, bony-figures extended, grave clothes worn to threads. It’s like a cross between Kid Congo and Roy Orbison, but with a lot of interesting textures woven in — a video-game keyboard riff, a cheerful penny whistle turned sour. “Monster” is cleaner, but just as strange, its folky strums and ramshackle drums wrapped around a truly bizarre storyline of a man who wakes up misshapen and not even necessarily human.

I love the weirdness of this album, both for its own sake and for the way it seems to free Vangaalen from the structures and constraints of indie folk. These songs take off best when they are least tied to the ordinary. A free-form lyrical approach leads Vangaalen into phantasmically beautiful byways, with both the music and the words floating up and away.

DOWNLOAD: “Where Are You?” “Monster”






Album: Revelation

Artist: Brian Jonestown Massacre

Label: A

Release Date: May 27, 2014

Brian Jonesown 5-27


At this point, Anton Newcombe’s self-willed psychedelic rock act has been so prolific and been going for so long there’s no real point in noting how many albums it’s recorded. Suffice to say that, after some experiments with electronics and dreamy soundscaping, Revelation is a return to the song-oriented, guitar-delivered work of the band’s first decade.

Not that the record doesn’t have plenty of dicking around – it wouldn’t be a BJM project without digressions like the electropop of “Memorymix” and the pastoral Britfolk of “Second Sighting.” But the bulk of the LP turns on straight readings of melodic tunes like “Food For Clouds,” “Nightbird” and “What You Isn’t,” simple but effective ditties in the established Newcombe style. Revelation hardly pushes the boundaries of what the BJM can do, but it’s nice to hear the band reiterating what it does best.

DOWNLOAD: “Food For Clouds,” “Nightbird,” “What You Isn’t”


HALLELUJAH THE HILLS — Have You Ever Done Something Evil?

Album: Have You Ever Done Something Evil?

Artist: Hallelujah the Hills

Label: Discrete Pageantry

Release Date: May 13, 2014

Hallelujan 5-13

(Discrete Pageantry)


“There’s a lot of people claiming I’ve got no skin in the game,” is Ryan Walsh’s football stadium sized chorus to “Destroy this Poem,” a singalong so potent and all-hands-on-deck that you might miss the mid-career anomie at its center. The irony is that Walsh has plenty of skin in the game, in the form of four self-released, self-financed Hallelujah the Hills albums and a decade or more on the DIY indie circuit. You could probably take Have You Ever Done Something Evil as a case study in the benefits of long-term artistic autonomy, in the way it hones and builds on Walsh’s long-time strengths, while not capitulating at all to trends or “what the market wants.”

Like the three Hallelujah the Hills albums before it, Have You Ever Done Something Evil? frames New Yorker-story literary observations with powerhouse rock ‘n roll rowdiness. It is a good bit more explosive than 2012’s No One Knows What Happens Next, which seemed, really, a little bit discouraged. But this time Walsh and his crew have their wry bluster back. They tip pretty close to punk urgency in opener “We Are What We Say We Are,” with its racing pulse of a one-two beat, its frantic shouted refrains. They edge towards the muscular guitar pop of Guided By Voices in “I Stand Corrected.” Yet even in the bluff Saturday-night thunder of songs like “Do You Have Romantic Courage?” the writing is sharp enough to sting. “Life ain’t nothing but liquor in a room with fire alarms,” Walsh observes mid-way through, and yup, that’s about it.

I have a short list of bands that have always seemed like they should be better known than they are, and Hallelujah the Hills comes right at the top. This is maybe the smartest music you will ever hoist a beer to and yet full of dumb joy. If you like well-written, exuberantly played guitar rock, don’t miss this one.

DOWNLOAD: “Destroy This Poem,” “I Stand Corrected”




GHOST WOLVES – Man, Woman, Beast

Album: Man, Woman, Beast

Artist: Ghost Wolves

Label: Plowboy

Release Date: May 27, 2014

Ghost Wolves 5-27


Blues-inflected duos proliferate like nymphomaniacal rabbits in the ‘aughties, so it takes something special to stand out from the pack these days. Austin’s Ghost Wolves have got that something on their second record Man, Woman, Beast. Outside of a marvelously stripped-down sound featuring Jonathan Wolf on rhythm pound and Carley Wolf on bare-bones riffery and teasing, pouting vocal, the Wolves burst with sheer attitude, the kind of moxie that comes from being young, hungry and not giving a shit whether or not they see the inside of an arena.

“I used to believe in love, but I was wrong,” Carley declares with little remorse in the charging “I Was Wrong,” having already informed us that “I cut off his balls.” “I caught him with another girl and bang bang bang! “she relates later in “Dangerous Moves,” “now I gotta skip town.” Dirty slide powers “Itch” (“the irresistible itch,” no less) and “Gonna Live,” the latter proving the anthem likely to break them into wider renown. “I’m Yo Mudda” signifies like hip-hop but rattles like rockabilly, while “Baby Fang Thang” gets down with its grungy self. “Attack Attack Attack” dispenses with subtlety to for pure blaze, Carley’s frazzled bottleneck and aggressive assertion riding Jonathan’s surging drum kit like a surfer on a shark.

Ending with a trio of in-concert cuts that drive the pair’s live prowess through your skull like a spike, the Ghost Wolves prove one thing beyond dispute: they do not mess around.

DOWNLOAD: “Gonna Live,” “I Was Wrong,” “Itch”


AURELIO VALLE — Acme Power Transmission

Album: Acme Power Transmission

Artist: Aurelio Valle

Label: Nuevo Leon

Release Date: May 27, 2014

Aurelio Valle 5-30


Seven years after Calla’s last album, Strength in Numbers, front man Aurelio Valle has come back to whisper again into our ears. As before, he insinuates elliptical lyrics against dark sonic textures, alternating caressing softness with the pitch and roll of slo-mo syncopation. A handful of these songs — “Bruised and Diffused,” “Deadbeat” and especially the lead single “Superhawk”— sound very Calla-like indeed, which is say desolately romantic, austere and lush at once.

Still others bear the mark of Valle’s time away, his experiments with soundtrackery, his essential solitude. The most familiar sounding tracks make you miss the soft, finger-picked bass of Calla’s Pete Gannon or the explosively irregular drumming of Wayne Magruder. Valle works, for the most part, by himself, building shimmering layers of electronically generated atmosphere. It is remarkable how band like he can make a tower of synths and drum machines sound, but there are intervals where the veil slips away and Acme Power Transmission becomes another technologically assisted bedroom project.

Better to take things all the way to the limit, as on the two brief moody intervals “Centuries” and “Kino” where Valle’s film score work comes to the fore. “Centuries” dawns woozily in abstracted strings and piano notes heard distantly, another room another time. “Kino” works in a similar diffuse palette, elongating tremulous string notes until they bend and shimmer, interspersing melancholy piano notes at wide interval. Both conjure a contemplative mood; both occupy more than transitional space.

I like, too, how Valle fuses his new fascination with electronics with his older propensities for moody, tempestuous indie rock. “Cowboy” occupies a space somewhere between Calla’s old material and West Coast electro-psych of Nobody and Dntel, while “Movement” tips Valle’s tendency towards twitch and syncopation into glossy minimalist R&B.

Valle was mostly on his own, but he did bring in one revelatory guest in Nina Persson from the Cardigans. Her “Electraglide” is striking for the way it melds everything you like about Calla — the hard driving drums, the sweeping sonic textures, the friction of noise, the deep ache of longing — with the timbre and personality of another singer. Acme Power Transmission draws on all of Valle’s strengths and channels them into new, disorienting paths. It’s exactly what you want from a singer who used to head a band you loved and now doesn’t. The same but different.

DOWNLOAD: “Electraglide,” “Superhawk”


Album: 3rd

Artist: Baseball Project6

Label: Yep Roc

Release Date: March 25, 2014

Baseball Project 3-25


What started a few years ago as a busman’s holiday—aw, hell, let’s make that a batboy’s holiday!—for Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn has gradually blossomed into a bonafide and enduring side project for the Minus 5 and Miracle 3 dudes. Accompanied by M3 drummer Linda Pitmon, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Pete Buck and Boston Red Sox organist Josh Kantor, the duo has also managed to turn what initially may have been taken as schtick—cutting an album composed solely of baseball-themed tunes—into a witty, cerebral and thoroughly rocking homage to our National Pastime.

3rd, the smartly titled third BBP album, picks up where its predecessors left off, singing the praises of heroes, wannabes, almosts and also-rans with equal enthusiasm, additionally dipping its resin-stained fingers into baseball’s sprawling culture, from fans’ obsession with statistics (the blazing garage-rock anthem opening track is titled, fittingly, “Stats”) to the fading art of collecting and trading baseball cards (the banjo-fueled, countryish “The Baseball Card Song” tells the fanciful story of one young aficionado’s experience, and it’s hard not to imagine it being a long-lost Jim Stafford tune). Clearly, the topic provides plenty of songwriting fodder for the musicians. For example, fuzztone’d thumper “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads” details the true story of how surly pitcher Dock Ellis, legendary for his claim that he was on LSD while pitching a no-hitter in 1970, decided to “go mental” on the mound. Meanwhile, “The Babe” pays tribute to you-know-who (“he was a giant among men” affirms the solemn chorus, over a stately piano ballad arrangement); glammy, T Rex/Stones-styled rocker “They Are the Oakland A’s” similarly celebrates the life and times of the Moneyball men; and “A Boy Named Cy” fetes the legendary pitcher Cy Young and manages to work in a smart nod to the Johnny Cash hit “A Boy Named Sue.”

And don’t miss the outrageous, harmonica-powered “They Played Baseball,” which ticks off some of the sport’s more, ahem, colorful characters—among them, “racist” Cap Anson, “dumbass” John Rocker, “filed with bile” Ty Cobb, Leo “The Lip” Durocher, A-Rod who apparently “thinks he’s a centaur,” plus sundry faces of the steroid/doping era, including Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and Ryan Braun—to conclude that no matter their idiosyncrasies, character flaws or transgressions, we still love and idolize ‘em “because they played baseball,” period. Ain’t it the truth.

The album wraps up with a rousing reprise of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” but as it turns out that’s just the warm-up because in July and August the group heads out on tour, bringing their musical base-stealing to sundry clubs and stadiums (including an appearance at the Durham Bulls ballpark July 12 as part of the 2014 Triple-A All-Star Game Fan Fest & Block Party, followed by a Raleigh show July 13 at the 40th anniversary celebration of BLURT’s sister business Schoolkids Records). Rock ‘n’ roll, baseball and beer: was there ever a more fitting alliance? Only in America.

The only thing missing is an official Baseball Project mascot. Volunteers?

DOWNLOAD: “They Played Baseball,” “Extra Inning Of Love,” “They Are the Oakland A’s”

R.E.M. – Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions

Album: Unplugged: The Complete 1991 And 2001 Sessions

Artist: R.E.M.

Label: Warner Bros.

Release Date: May 20, 2014

REM 5-20

(Warner Bros.)


Initially available as a limited-to-1000-copies 4-LP set for Record Store Day 2014, R.E.M.’s comprehensive Unplugged collection is now out as a two-CD package, although whether or not it will undermine the astronomical prices currently being demanded for the vinyl at eBay is hard to predict. Leave it to the boys from Athens, though, to put a little more relevancy back into your 1 a.m. wake up call on Record Store Day!

At any rate, this corrals songs from two different MTV Unplugged appearances (’member those, kids?); the first in 1991 and the follow up in 2001. Aside from some bootlegs that likely existed in some form or another, this is the first time these 33 songs are getting a proper release (and 11 of the songs never even aired on the show, making it the Holy Grail R.E.M. fans didn’t know existed). This pristine set includes just about every song an R.E.M. acolyte could hope for, from “So. Central Rain” to “Daysleeper” (but feel free to address any petty gripes about missing obscure tracks directly to Blurt).

DOWNLOAD: “So. Central Rain,” “Fretless,” “Swan Swan H”