Monthly Archives: September 2014

RECORD COLLECTORS, PSYCHOSIS & HUMANISM: Do Not Sell At Any Price

Victrola

A consistently fascinating, if intermittently flawed, book by music journalist Amanda Petrusich shines a spotlight on the insular world of 78rpm collectors and archivists.

BY JASON GROSS

After working for several months at a psychiatric ward, I saw the patients as being more than sad pathetic figures, actually having some sort of odd nobility to them. The staff there was in some way sympathetic but also jaded and sometimes lacking humanist impulses (valuing people above all) because of their long-suffering work. I thought about the same thing reading Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records (Scribner), not just about the subjects but also the storyteller.

The spate of door-stopper archive box sets of early 20th century music that appeared in the last several years have been a revelation for music fans but also full of contradiction and lacking some context. Labels like Revenant, Dust to Digital and Tompkins Square have stepped up with historic sets like Goodbye Babylon, American Primitive, Down In the Basement and Victrola Favorites. What’s strange is that these treasures culled from obsolete, long-gone technology get offered up in digital formats for the techie music fans out there, though some vinyl editions exist of them too. A big gap in these hernia-inducing boxes is the sources- not the artists or labels but the collector nuts who have salvaged the old records and that’s where Petrusich’s book is invaluable.

Do Not Sell book

Though she dips into the familiar new journalism technique of detailing all clothing and food items involved, Do Not Sell tells the important story of the record collectors whose mania fuelled these reissues. Not only does she track them down on their home turf, sometimes taking perilous drives to find them, she also patiently gains their trust to not only hear their own story but to also see their prized collections. That’s a big deal since these collectors are protective about letting an ‘outsider’ see their precious goods and divulging where they found their records, especially since the stock of 78 RPM records (before LPs but after cylinders) is a small, finite lot that keeps dwindling as time goes on. Though John Lomax, John Fahey, Joe Clauberg and Harry Smith are gone, Petrusich tells their tales and shows how their archival work shaped our perceptions about American pre-War music.

She also has first-hand encounters with the collectors that are still out there and that forms the most compelling parts of her book – Christopher King (who becomes an important entry into this world), Sarah Bryan, Pete Whelan, Marshall Wyatt, Nathan Salsburg, Jonathan Ward and Joe Bussard sometimes show distrust, wariness and snobbery over their collections and their music but mostly they eventually open up. They provide private listening parties of their favorite music and most precious finds (sometimes which aren’t the same thing), animatedly singing or dancing along to the music while they do. Reading these accounts, you wish you could be there to not only hear these amazing discs being played but also seeing the amazing music collections and soaking in the music with the collectors themselves. She’s able to bring alive cult figures like folkie Chubby Parker, mysterious blues mama Geeshie Wiley, Cajun fiddle singer/guitarist Blind Uncle Gaspard, Mississippi bluesmen Kid Bailey and King Solomon Hill as well as noted historical figures like Skip James, Charlie Patton, Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt, though with the later ones, she wisely notes that a large part of their rep comes from the urging of the white “blues mafia” who puffed up their careers by coaxing some of them out of retirement and compiling reissues of their work.

The collectors in Do Not Sell aren’t just anti-social, paranoid, obsessive weirdoes but also vital links to the music they’ve amassed. Their collections became the source of the box sets mentioned above with the material long lost otherwise and also the source of new and ongoing box sets as they find new material via yard sales, eBay, blind luck, strange leads, estate auctions and such. Even though these music nuts have usually never met any of the musicians involved (all of the musicians died decades ago) and hadn’t even bought any of the records when they originally came out in the 1920s and the 1930s, their archival work has helped to bring the music to life again by just making it available again. As such, despite their manic nature, you also feel gratification and respect for them for the archive-minded nature of their obsession, such that they’re at least willing to share their finds with the outside world, AKA the rest of us music nuts out there who don’t have the cunning and drive or the time to track down this material ourselves.

Amanda

Petrusich (above) herself gets caught up in the mania. Not only does she haunt flea markets, record sales and go dumpster diving with other collectors but she goes as far as attempting a scuba dive to find some rare records that were supposedly tossed in a lake. Here she spends too much time taking about her prep work for the dive and the venture has predictable results, plus you wish that she’d make the seemingly obvious connection that she’s been bitten by the collector bug enough to do sometime so stupid and futile, mirroring many of the dead ends her collector heroes have chased after to find their own goods. Still, her quest not just for records but also for the record collectors themselves is more than admirable.

There’s even enough inspiration in the book to make a latterday record collector like me rethink my own piles of music. Do Not Sell reminds us of the warm and intimacy of records vs. CD’s and makes me wonder why I’ve wasted my time collecting so many of those stupid little five inch plastic discs instead of sticking with vinyl – even labels are recognizing how lame CDs are, with many new releases coming out as LPs accompanied by MP3 download cards so you can still have that carrying convenience. Also, reading through the stories of collectors mastering their own material for reissues or licensing them out to labels, I remembered that I had a stack of Turkish cassettes from the ‘90s that a friend from Istanbul sold me. Inspired by the book, I’m going to contact some “world music” specialty labels to see if it’s of any use to them. If it is and it’s turned into an archival reissue, I’m going to make sure they thank Petrusich in the credits.

Reading through her vivid, breathless descriptions of the almost transcendental folk/blues/jazz records she comes across, you can’t help but want to hear it for yourself to get the same kind of thrill. No shit – I dusted off my copies of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, Revenant’s American Primitive collections, Yazoo’s Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of sets and the Goodbye Babylon box, all of which I hadn’t listened to in a while, and all inspired by the book to dig in again. And no doubt about it, the music is still a treat, transporting you to another time, another age, another world that you feel privileged to witness.

But reading through Do Not Sell, I kept having the nagging feeling that something important was missing in the stories that she was telling, and then I thought back to the psych ward workers. When some of them gave the patients electroshock therapy in large tubs, they’d crack jokes about doing their laundry in there, too, since the patients were jerking around so much. That kind of thing made me squirm but one of the nurses explained that making jokes like that was the only way that the people there could get through such grueling work. Petrusich is nowhere near as insensitive as that – she has genuine empathy and respect for the collectors and seems like the interesting kind of person you’d want to have a beer with and shoot the breeze about music with all day. But reading her book, I couldn’t help but think that the thing that was missing was this kind of humanist thinking that was in short supply at the hospital.

Pile of records

Related to the psych connection, at the end of the book, Petrusich tries out some pop psychology to try to understand the mentality of the collectors she’s chronicled. They’re obsessive, they’re compulsive, they’re anti-social, they’re paranoid, etc. Skimming over some psych articles, she concludes that they’re a little nuts, which you would have known already as you’ve been reading about them. [It takes a collector nut to spot a collector nut, eh Jason?—Fellow Collector Ed.] But any decent intro psychology course would tell you something important about making these kind of easy, snap judgments – as you study through symptoms of paranoia, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive behavior and so on, you’ll find that you yourself and any of your friends have some degree of these disorders yourself. That doesn’t mean that you, or these collectors or your friends, necessarily need to get locked up for their own safety but that we all have some degree of these behaviors. Sure, these collectors are more obsessive than your average music fan but they’ve channeled their obsessions into great reissues and until they start arguing with voices in their heads or run into the street naked with a weapon, it’s silly to see their obsessions as anything but harmless and not some kind of psychotic impulse.

There’s another troublesome passage, also near the end of the book, where you wish Petrusich had a better grasp of big-picture issues (even though she’s proved she grasps the particular small details). She’s entranced in a listening session with one of the collectors, her mind drifts, thinking about the musicians and how they had a sense of urgency, where what they had to say could be meaningful to a mass audience and maybe even change the world – “that sense that art could still save us, absolve us of our sins.” But that notion is squashed as quickly as it comes up: “We know better than to expect that now,” she insists. That kind of cynicism isn’t exclusive to Boomers or Social Security recipients anymore as Gen X/Y/Z have been taught the language of pessimism, doubt and sarcasm so much that it’s ingrained in them now, pretty much obliterating part of the generation gap. I get that impulse, too, as a forty-something – I never really understood a complex work like Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On until I reached “adulthood” (circa late twenties) and felt the weight of the world crush my spirit.

But decades later, I know for damned sure that any new music I love mostly ignores that kind of impulse and actually does believe that if it can’t change the world, at least it deserves to be heard. Once you start denying that impulse or seeing it as B.S. in young artists, you get as crusty as the hero collectors in the book who insist that music stopped being good some time in the 1930s and thus cut themselves off from the wonders of everything from doo wop to hip hop, which Petrusich notes has a lot more connections to the country blues they cherish than they’d like to admit.

But maybe the biggest nugget missing from Do Not Sell is an even bigger-picture look at what a collector is. Petrusich’s detailing of their lives does make them sound like the historians plus the semi-cuckoos that they are, but wouldn’t it have been great to hear how their life-work relates to all the rest of us? In essence, all of us are collectors – not to the same degree as the people in the book, but we are. Think about it. What’s in your closet? There’s a collection of clothes that you’ve carefully stockpiled over the years. On your bookshelf is the same thing – a bunch of tomes you’ve bought, traded, found, stole, etc. over the years that’s unique and it’s your own. Ditto your own record collection – you don’t have as much music as the guys in the book (I don’t either) but you’ve taken some time to get all that music and put it together. Somewhere around your house or apartment, you have collections of other things that you keep for your own amusement. Maybe it’s stamps or dolls or photos. In my tiny apartment, I somehow still made room to collect bookmarks, flip books, Luchador (Mexican wrestling) masks, key chains, music-related badges/buttons, voodoo/mojo bottles, paddle-type hand fans, miniature wind-up body parts, stress balls, Day of the Dead items and refrigerator magnets. [Am dialing Bellevue right now, Jason, so expect some nice men in white uniforms very soon.—Mental Health Ed.] And yeah, I collect music too, via LP’s, cassettes, CD’s, MP3’s. Even if I can’t explain my obsession or fascination with any of these things, I enjoy having them, seeing them, using them, thinking of them. We all do, even if we don’t wanna admit it.

And as part of my book collection, I’m glad that Do Not Sell is there. If you’re a music nut and have even a slight interest in pre-War tunes and history, you’ll need to read it too. Petrusich tells the tales in such compelling ways that I’ll be ready to read her next book, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with music. I also hope that she can squeeze in a broader mindset that’s sympathetic and compassionate not just for her subjects but for also the rest of us. (Below: not necessarily the BLURT office – but it could be! Note “pre-emptive anal-retentive” squat in the process of being assumed by the collector.)

Record collection

The author was recently interviewed by NPR. Go HERE to read the feature.

WHAT, ME WORRY? Greg Cartwright & Reigning Sound

Greg C

It’s a subtler, more soulful sound for the famed garage rocker, partially prompted by the dictates of family life, but also the result of having multiple musical outlets through which to channel all the emotional vicissitudes of a career.

BY JORDAN LAWRENCE

Two years ago, at the tail end of an interview with Greg Cartwright in the cluttered back room of a record shop in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, the revered garage rocker mentioned offhand that he’d be DJing that night at The Admiral, a stylish eatery on the other side of the French Broad river. While far from austere, the restaurant’s manicured mood lighting and well appointed comforts are leagues removed from the grimy rock clubs in which Cartwright built his reputation. Instead of sucking down cheap beers from flimsy cans and frosty bottles, the patrons sip cocktails from fancy glasses. It’s a hip scene, but also a refined one, and the songs Cartwright spun that night played right into the aesthetic.

Each lost soul and R&B gem sparkled, managing sensual grooves that were also delicate and polite, and twisting through melodies that were instantly familiar despite the fact that he played no recognizable hits. Girls in evening dresses and boys in button downs shimmied to and fro, nobody getting too handsy with their partners. Cartwright has long since mastered a touch unbridled rock ‘n’ roll aggression — as his time with the famously ragged rock outfits Compulsive Gamblers and Oblivians readily attests — but he’s equally adept at other, more tender moods.

His two most recent releases with the Reigning Sound, the 2011 small platter Abdication . . . for Your Love and the recently released Shattered (Merge), suggest that such subtle sounds might well be the best avenue for his songs — or at least the ones that he’s writing now.

Particularly on the new album, the simmering rage that flows through many of Cartwright’s enduring classics is mostly absent, replaced by songs like “Falling Rain,” where whirring organ and softly churning guitars cushion his gruff croon as he pines, “There’s something warm in the light of your eyes/ That tells me of love’s true glories/ And I hope there’s still something for me left in your heart.” Or “I’m Trying (To Be the Man You Need),” a shimmering waltz of a ‘50s ballad wherein Cartwright reaches for his warmest warble: “Can’t do right/ But you know I try/ I don’t want to make you suffer and cry.”

Once bruised and fuming, the Reigning Sound’s songs are now nuanced and mostly contrite, the work of a man who’s had a few years to realize his own failings in past relationships. More than that, it’s the sound of a man who is actually content.

“I definitely would say with this record there’s a lot less aggression than some records,” Cartwright offered a few weeks before Shattered’s July release. “In the past, I’ve done my fair share of songs where I’m trying to pin the blame on somebody for things that make me angry or unhappy. And here, there’s not a lot of that. I’m in a place in my life right now where I’m pretty happy.”

RS2

At 42, he’s the father to three children, two with his current wife. His youngest, a daughter named Ruby, recently graduated from fifth grade. His oldest, the 22-year-old Andrew, is earning his certificate to begin work as an IT professional. The middle child, Alex, will begin his senior year of high school this fall.

Cartwright’s rock life now revolves around his family life. The bulk of the Reigning Sound’s touring in support of Shattered, the band’s debut for Merge Records, had to wait until his kids’ summer vacation. Beyond his art, he’s concerned with their dreams and aspirations. Supporting them, he says, taxes his creative energy, but it also renews it.

“Once you have kids, to some degree, it’s all about them,” he says. “You want to foster their youthfulness and their desire to learn and their creativity. And to be a singer and to be a songwriter, you’re tapping something that is a limited resource. You have to almost live in this headspace where you’re still 18-years-old. On some levels, trying to help them and be a parent draws me away from it. But also, on another level, being around them keeps me young.”

Clearly, his kids give him more energy than they take away. Though Shattered is the Reigning Sound’s first proper LP since 2009’s searing and savvy Love and Curses, Cartwright has stayed busy with other projects. He teamed with The Ettes’ Lindsay “Coco” Hames to form The Parting Gifts, releasing the 2010 album Strychnine Dandelion, which tempers his surly momentum with her sharp and disarming sweetness. He reunited with the Oblivians, touring through some high-profile dates and cutting 2013’s Desperation, the band’s first album in 16 years. Both efforts, Cartwright confirms, had an impact on the Reigning Sound.

A tour with The Parting Gifts introduced him to his current band. The Jay Vons, a swaggering and soulful rock outfit from Brooklyn that features Reigning Sound keyboardist Dave Amels, joined them for a run of dates, sparking instant camaraderie. Cartwright then recruited them to record Abdication, which he completed at the behest of automotive benefactor Scion A/V. Across both of the band’s most recent efforts, the new members’ purposeful playing allows Cartwright to swing from swelling R&B to delicate folk ballads and rockers that sprint and twist with newfound crispness.

Shattered is the Reigning Sound at their most composed, but Cartwright’s reckless rock ‘n’ roll energy still holds sway. Take “My My,” a classically rendered slab of ‘60s garage rock. It’s a burst of youthful desire set to swirling organ, sleek guitars and a bass line that just won’t quit. “I’m gonna hug you, gonna kiss you,” Cartwright cries, his rumbling baritone suddenly bright and carefree, “call you my baby!” It’s as simple and joyful as any song in the Reigning Sound catalog — a direct result of time spent with the meaner Oblivians.

“That’s the kind of band that requires a little more venom,” Cartwright explains. “And so I think whatever I had, I put it into that, rather than trying to save things for the Reigning Sound. I don’t normally have that opportunity to say, ‘OK, well, I’ll put these songs in this camp and these songs in this camp.’”

His ability to muster both rage and pathos is further proof that age and fatherhood haven’t stripped him of his vigor. But Cartwright doesn’t sweat those who might doubt him. He’s so hard on himself that the grumblings of critics don’t carry much weight.

“I think that you should worry,” he says. “I think you should worry about the content. And I think that you should worry about the quality. And I think that you should worry about the pace. Because if you’re not, then you’re going to make some crap.”

Reigning Sound is currently on tour, including a stop at this weekend’s Hopscotch Festival in Raleigh (right here in BLURT’s back yard, in fact). Meanwhile, for further Cartwright commentary, read our Oblivians feature HERE. Below: watch a show filmed last month at Soda Bar in San Diego.

BEATING THE ODDS: Centro-Matic

Centro-matic by Matt Pence

With the operative term for both his new album and an earlier/just-reissued one “strength through adversity,” Will Johnson is now ready to swing for the fences.

BY JENNIFER KELLY

Take Pride in Your Long Odds was a phrase that I kept thinking around over the last 18 to 24 months. I liked the feel of it,” says Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson of the five-word sentence that gave shape to his latest album. “I liked that there is obvious adversity involved but there’s also a shred of positivity.”

That description also applies to the music on this 10th full-length, which is beautifully weathered, in tune with life’s darker elements, but also full of inexorable lift. It’s the kind of album that acknowledges the ditch we’ve driven into, and hauls out the chains, big engines and traction to drag us out.

“I wrote most of Take Pride in Your Long Odds in the summer and the fall of 2011, when our country had gone through a lot economically, and without a doubt, some of that influenced it,” says Johnson, explaining that his mother had also been seriously ill during this period. Yet he had also just had a baby daughter (he also has a son, now 9) and spent much of his time during the day with her. He says you can hear her on some of demos, clearly not happy that daddy was busy making music. But mostly having a little one around forced him to consider the upside

“That definitely had me focusing on more themes of positivity rather than bitchiness, I suppose. Even a sadder song like ‘Through the Fog Then Down,’ to my mind, it still has an element of hope in it. And so even if the songs become a little bit forlorn sounding, I still tried to keep some positivity within. I really tried to not be quite as grumpy as I can be. So she did influence things, without a doubt.”

He adds, “There was a lot on my mind about the forces of adversity and how do we try to make something positive out of all this that surrounds us.” Johnson found it especially important to connect with people, one-on-one, in an age of technical distraction. “There are more and more reasons to not leave the house anymore with all the video games and social media and entertainment that humans spend their time and money on now,” he continued. “So if you can get people out to a rock show, it’s very physical and four-dimensional and live together, it feels like an accomplishment to me. It’s important to try to make a memorable moment that doesn’t involve a screen. Or staring at a phone.”

 

From Redo the Stacks to Take Pride in Your Long Odds

Centro-Matic is re-releasing its very first album, 1996’s Redo the Stacks. this year as well, so I asked Johnson to think about the two albums together. What had changed? What was still the same? Johnson said he hadn’t thought about the two albums together much, but there were some links between them. “One song that comes to mind is ‘Calling You Glad.’ It’s a two- minute and change brash pop song. It has one speed. There are a couple of moments where we took a devil-may-care recording approach that links with Redo the Stacks, but it wasn’t a grand conceptual relationship. Each is its own beast in my estimation.”

For one thing, Redo the Stacks was more or less a solo album, even though it bore the Centro-Matic name. Matt Pence, now the band’s drummer, produced the album, and Scott Danborn played fiddle on a few tracks. Otherwise it was pure Will Johnson, “ locked in a room for a month banging out some songs,” as he describes it.

Johnson says he’s known all the members of Centro-Matic dating back to the 1990s, Pence and bassist Mark Hedman since about 1990 and Danborn from 1994 on. The band came together over Christmas of 1996 when Johnson was home from college and trying to finish Redo the Stacks before he returned.

“When the record completed, I had a show or two to play solo, but I played under the name Centro-Matic at the time. I just play electric guitar and sing at these shows,” Johnson remembers. “The way that we fell together as a band was I had a couple of shows booked and asked Matt and Mark to do a quick run through, acoustic rehearsal real quick, and then we’d meet down at the rock club with all our gear and just play everything ten times as loud. And so we did our first two Centro-Matic shows that way as a band. We played two shows before we ever really had a rehearsal. Which I think is the way to do it.” Danborn joined on piano and fiddle and backing vocals about six months later, and the band has held together ever since.

Long odds, loud guitar

Besides the mournful but not quite defeated tone, what strikes you first about Centro-Matic’s first album is its guitar work. The disc opens with its title track, a meditation in drone and fuzz so heavy that it seems to sink into the ground as you hear it. You can almost see the pavement cracking under its weight. Johnson says that the track grew out of a demo he worked up on a Tascam 424 cassette recorder, with a vintage 1950s guitar feed through an overdrive pedal and reverb pedal.

“The sound of that old guitar run through a full tone, full overdrive pedal and the holy grail reverb pedal was so inviting to me at various junctures,” he explains. “I would track the guitar with that sound and then I would sing the vocals through the guitar pick-up instead of singing them directly into the conventional microphone. So those demos really started to take on a weird feel over the course of a few songs, singing into that guitar pick-up. The title track, with the final recording of the title track, we tried to keep the same feel and the same vibe that the demo had.”

In a similar way, “Salty Disciple” grew out of a guitar sound – one that Johnson tried, unsuccessfully, to get out of his. “There was this guitar line that kept coming up on family walks in the evenings, generally late summer and early fall of 2011. I got turned off by it but it wouldn’t go away,” he recalls. “So I thought maybe I should sit down and try to examine it. Make something compelling out of it, at least to my ear, something I believe in and something I’m turned on by. And so I sat down and started demoing it and using some different vocal approaches. Trying to break some habits vocally and even lyrically…some things that I had, in my opinion, kind of fallen into.”

Johnson says that the lyrics took an unusual turn as he worked on the song and began speaking in the voices of characters rather than himself: “It turned into real different type of song. I remember being a little bit nervous when I handed the demo to the guys, thinking, ‘Oh man, you guys are going to hate this. But that’s wasn’t the case.

“Just because it feels different or even uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Oftentimes, that’s where you learn about yourself and learn what the band is about, when you start down a completely different path and throw something unfamiliar into their hands. It wound up being an extremely fun song to record.”

Centro-Matic has been working the new material into its live set over the last year or so, adding “Academy of Lunkers,” “Hey There Straps,” “Salty Disciple” and some other unfamiliar songs into the set lists. They’ve also been playing some acoustic living room shows, which changes everything. “Part of the adventure of the living room show is figuring out a different way, a way to make a rock song translate,” says Johnson. “We might play it in a different key or a different tempo or turn it on its ear. And almost make it a different song. That’s part of the fun and part of the adventure of sitting in front of people with just an acoustic guitar and trying to keep it engaging.”

 

Hot sauce and baseball games

Centro-Matic also tried something new on the business side for Take Pride, using the PledgeMusic Campaign to raise money for studio time. Prizes included the usual items – CDs, expanded digital albums, signed lyric sheets, shows at fans’ homes — as well as some more unusual items.

Scott Danborn, for instance, kicked in bottles of his home-made hot sauce, which Johnson says is literally dangerously good. “I’ve sustained my only true eating injury over the last ten years, thanks to his hot sauce,” says Johnson. “I just couldn’t get it into my face fast enough. I loved it so much. I did not chew the chip properly. The corner went right down my esophagus and put a scrape in it. I was having trouble eating for the next couple of days. But it was so good.”

The campaign also showcased Matt Pence’s photography, Johnson’s original oil painted cover for Redo the Stacks and a chance to go to a baseball game with the members of Centro-Matic (sadly, unclaimed). It allowed band members to showcase their lesser known talents, too, like Johnson’s painting.

“That’s kind of all I’m doing this summer, just painting and running in this Texas heat,” he explains. Johnson is putting together material for several art shows in the fall of 2014 and early 2015, as well as working on commission work.

Johnson has been painting seriously for six or seven years. He got started after moving into a new apartment and not having enough money to buy anything to hang on the walls. About a year later, a friend asked him to do a show at his record store. He’s had several shows since then.

Still, don’t look for links between his visual art and music. “The paintings are based on baseball history. They’re portraits of the players and personalities that I prefer to champion and hopefully make people aware of. There are some obvious ones like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, but then there are for the most part they’re less obvious players. It’s a pretty different thing.”

Maybe so, but players like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson also faced long odds and persevered through adversity… not so different from Centro-Matic or its resilient new album.

***

Photo credit: Matt Pence. This week, Will Johnson starts a 10-day living tour across Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, with each show limited to 35-45 tickets. Dates at his official website.

 

SU-PAH-GROUP!!! The Blurt Roundup

SU-PAH-GROUP!!! The Blurt Roundup

1st in a series, collect ‘em all. Why we love The Empty Hearts, Split Squad and The Fauntleroys—and why, in 2014, putting the buddy system ahead of the music industry makes perfect sense. Check out some su-pah sonic samples, below.

BY MICHAEL TOLAND

Supergroup – the term is both bane and boon, depending on one’s perspective. Record companies hope fervently for the latter, that the combination of names from well-known (i.e. bestselling) bands will strike gold at the cash register or on iTunes. Fans, however, often expect the former – too many attempts fail to realize their potential, whether through lack of chemistry or simply an overwhelming cynicism spouting from motives financial rather than artistic. For every Crosby, Stills & Nash, there’s a Blind Faith; for every Rockpile, a Chequered Past; for every Traveling Wilburys, a Little Village.

Motive rules in this mini-milieu. The bonds of friendship seem to trump everything, even musical chemistry – if the folks involved like hanging out together, that energy usually translates into a good time for band and listener alike. (Not always – see the aforementioned Little Village.) It’s what makes modern collections of musicians best known for other bands work – cf. Monsters of Folk, Divine Fits and the Baseball Project.

Whether or not any of these bands have produced truly great work may be up for debate, but all of them have made solid records and put on entertaining live shows, simply because the members dig playing music together. Fortunately, they’re not the only ones putting the buddy system ahead of the music industry when it comes to kicking out the supergroup jams….

The_Empty_Hearts crop

The Empty Hearts exemplify the idea of a group of musicians with their own notable bodies of work getting together to play music simply for fun. On the quartet’s self-titled debut (429), singer Wally Palmar of the Romantics (singer of “Talking in Your Sleep” and “One in a Million”), guitarist Elliot Easton of the Cars, bassist Andy Babiuk of the Chesterfield Kings and drummer Clem Burke of Blondie (among others) play rock & roll in the style of what they enjoyed growing up: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Kinks, Nuggets. This band sounds genetically constructed to dominate Little Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage radio program, and Van Zandt did, in fact, provide the group with its name. But the Little Steven connection means little when the disk spins – from thumping hard rock (“Loud and Clear”) to rough folk rock (“Fill An Empty Heart”), jangling country rock (“I Found You Again”) to blazing garage rock (“90 Miles An Hour Down a Dead End Street,” “Drop Me Off at Home”) and, of course, plenty of rocking power poppers (“[I See] No Way Out” “Soul Deep”), the record contains a dozen cuts’ worth of stripped-down rock & roll glory. It’s no exaggeration to say this The Empty Hearts equals its participants’ more celebrated accomplishments. (Go HERE to read the BLURT interview with the band.)

 

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The members of the Fauntleroys have never reached the upper end of the pop stratosphere the way Blondie or the Cars have, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have seriously accomplished résumés. Guitarist Ivan Julian helped pioneer punk rock guitar with his work in Richard Hell & the Voidoids, has a long and stellar session career and released his own quirky rock & roll record called Naked Flame a few years ago. Singer/songwriter Nicholas Tremulis has a career stretching back to the 80s, and while his sojourn on a major label was brief, it didn’t stop him from building a substantial body of work, the most recent example of which is the excellent From the Babydoll. Drummer Linda Pitmon pounded skins for 90s alt.rock act Zuzu’s Petals and has long been the rhythm keeper for Steve Wynn’s various projects. Singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, here on bass as well, needs little introduction to the Blurt audience. Vanguard EP Below the Pink Pony (Plowboy) focuses the foursome’s various visions into a more streamlined sightline of psych-tinged rock. “Chinese White” and “Suck My Heart Out With a Straw” blast out from strange atmospheres, as if giddily escaping a drug den; “(This Can’t Be) Julie’s Song” ruminates over bad love while still indulging in it. “Worrydoll” and “I’m in Love With Everything” simply rock out with abandon, spiked by Julian’s idiosyncratic guitar figures, while “Take You Far Away” filters what could be a textbook Escovedo anthemic ballad through the looking glass. The record is barely long enough to get a sense of the direction the Fauntleroys want to take themselves, but it’s enough to want to hear the band do more so we can find out. [Stay tuned for a special BLURT review of the Fauntleroys, coming soon.]

 

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Before the Fauntleroys and the Empty Hearts appeared, however, the Split Squad had come on the scene. Chiefly the brainchild of bassist/singer/songwriter Michael Giblin of powerpop underground faves Parallax Project and Cherry Twister, the band also includes guitarists Keith Streng of the Fleshtones and Eddie Munoz of the Plimsouls, keyboardist Josh Kantor of the Baseball Project and the Boston Red Sox (not a band) and shares the services of Clem Burke with the Hearts. Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows leader Scott McCaughey contributed heavily as producer and sessioneer as well, and Linda Pitmon has been known to deputize onstage. The group launched its debut LP Now Hear This… (Red Chuck) earlier this year, and it’s a doozy. Giblin and company mainline both the punk-fueled power pop of the late 70s (particularly Munoz’s erstwhile homebase) and the garage raunch R&B of 60s stalwarts the Small Faces (whose “Sorry She’s Mine” get a spirited run-through here) into a fizzy frenzy of muscle pop and caffeinated soul. “She is Everything,” “Touch & Go” and “Feel the Same About You” sounds like lost gems from the heyday of late 70s L.A., while “Hey Hey Baby” and “Now Hear This” kick the door off the garage and onto the dance floor. “I Can’t Remember” and the cover of Bettye LaVette’s “You’ll Never Change” showcase Giblin’s comfort with soulful balladry, while “I’ve Got a Feeling” and a take of Terry Reid’s “Tinker Tailor” nod toward heavier territory. “Superman Says,” co-composed by producer McCaughey, jumps right into the early 70s glam rock pool. Burke really cranks up his love for Keith Moon here, and everybody involved sounds like they’re having a blast. But the real revelation is Giblin, whose sharp ear for melody and amazing voice carry the day, despite being the least well-known amongst his peers. Now Hear This… is such a satisfying slab of soulful rock & roll it makes one hope these folks never go back to their day jobs. (Go HERE for review… meanwhile, below is a shot of the Split Squad performing at the 2013 BLURT SXSW day party at the Ginger Man pub in Austin.)

Split Squad at Blurt party

The word “supergroup” need not always inspire a sneer, not if bands like these ply their trade in the name of friendship and fun.

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Photos credit: Empty Hearts by Robert Matheu; Fauntleoys by Jeff Fasano; Split Squad (live) by John Boydston