Monthly Archives: November 2014

ELISA AMBROGIO — The Immoralist

Album: The Immoralist

Artist: Elisa Ambrogio

Label: Drag City

Release Date: October 21, 2014

Elisa Ambrogio 10-21


Elisa Ambrogio, of the feedback throwing, noise-droning Majic Markers, takes a turn towards dream pop in her first solo album, but don’t worry, there’s still a howl of distortion underneath even her prettiest, most melodic arrangements. That would be “Superstitious,” the single, where Ambrogio sound most like Mazzy Star and writes most like Elvis Costello, yet even in this tuneful mode, you can hear bits of guitar anarchy in the margins and heady self-harmonies that twist into dissonance. It’s pop, sure, but with a small vortex underneath it, not enough to shred the song to bits but enough to blow it around in interesting directions.

Elsewhere The Immoralist flits between drone, girl-group, improvisational epiphany and garage rock, steering closest towards conventional rock songcraft on “Clarinet Queen” and “Superstitious,” flirting with In the Red-style lo-fi punk on “Stopped Clocks” and exploring dream-like soft-focus landscapes, maybe a little more accessibly than Bardo Pond’s Isobel Sollenberger or Charalambides’ Christina Carter, but in the same general neighborhood. Ambrogio plays a strong, stinging lead guitar on most of these tracks, laying an incipient roar under “Mary Perfectly,” pushing gauzy “Clarinet Queen” forward with a menacing lick. She plays almost everything on this album – though producer Jason Quever of the Paper Cuts apparently sat in once or twice on drums – including cello. That’s her skittering over the strings in “Kylie,” adding a low drone to “Superstitious”; the tone is wavery, imperfect, but in absolute sync with the ambiguity of these songs.

Ambrogio’s soft, uninflected voice lends a sleepy gauziness to these songs, so that you can make out most, but not all, of the lyrics without a cheat sheet. Still, when legible, the words seem worthwhile, not just in word-play-ish “Superstitious,” but in stark, ballad-y “Kylie.” Here Ambrogio snaps a fuzzy but evocative picture of life on the surface, a girl who spends her time applying blue eye shadow and lip gloss and whose stories all come from TV. “Comers” wraps a stately drone around slow chords, considers free will (and rejects it), metaphor and the creative process. It is interesting stuff, slipping in and out of focus.

The Immoralist sets tunefulness in close proximity to hazy distortion, unsettles pop with muffled eruptions of noise and dissonance. It works on you immediately, but retains its mystery through repeated listens, offers serenity with the threat of impending violence. It is full of contradictions, but that makes it fascinating.

DOWNLOAD: “Superstitious,” “Clarinet Queen”


Album: Black Noise

Artist: River of Snakes

Label: Bad Fidelity

Release Date: July 22, 2014

River of Snakes 7-25


What is it about Australians and guitars? Put a six-string in the hands of a rock musician living Down Under and magic happens – dirty, grimy magic, most likely, but magic nonetheless. So it goes with Melbourne power trio River of Snakes. Ex-Magic Dirt guitarist Raül Sanchez loves his fuzzy fingerings, his thick riffs, screeching feedback excursions and general amp abuse proving him as much a disciple of Aussie guitar hero Rowland S. Howard as of J Mascis and Neil Young.

Black Noise revels in gritty guitar glory, with Sanchez straddling the divide between psychedelic lyricism and filthy sewer grate noise,  supported by the thrumming stability of bassist Elissa Rose and drummer Glenn Evans. Mind you, we’re not talking about free-form AmRep guitar scree here (except for the symphonic feedback coda of “Separation Anxiety”). Sanchez’s axe abuse always serve the songs, whether they’re Dronesy ballads (“I Lied”), screaming noisefests (“Middening,” “Slater”), sneering put-downs (“The Words I Love You [Ain’t Enough]”), steel-jacketed pop songs (“I Wanna Be Your Baby”) or no-frills rockers (“Divine,” “Hacksaw,” sung by the leather-lunged Rose).

Black Noise = proof that the death of guitar-soaked rock & roll is still a few decades, if not centuries, away.

DOWNLOAD: “Divine,” “I Lied,” “I Wanna Be Your Baby”



CHRIS SMITHER – Still on the Levee

Album: Still on the Levee + Link of Chain: A Songwriters Tribute to Chris Smither

Artist: Chris Smither

Label: Signature Sounds

Release Date: July 22, 2014

Chris Smither


After some 50 years of plying his craft as a singer, songwriter and purveyor of folk, blues and practically every idiom in between, it’s long past time Chris Smither got his due. Appropriately, the kudos coincide with the simultaneous release of two albums that celebrate Smither’s bountiful half century. Still on the Levee takes a direct approach — well, sort of — by retracing the more significant songs from Smither’s bountiful catalog courtesy of fresh takes and special guests, among them Loudon Wainwright III, Kris Delmhorst, members of Rusty Belle and Morphine, along with select members of Smither’s familial offspring. Nevertheless, it’s the master’s rich, molasses-stirred vocals that rise to the fore, an ideal complement to the blues-based deliberations that have always been Smither’s stock in trade. Likewise, the most affecting of these offerings consist of keynote ballads “Devil Got Your Man,” “Lonesome Georgia Brown” and “Song for Susan,” as well as the furious shuffle “Winsome Smile,” in which he tears the foundation off the tune with a riposte that’s both stark and sizzling. Suffice it to say, Still on the Levee is mandatory listening, particularly for those whose familiarity is still next to none.

Many of the same songs are revisited on the companion compilation Link of Chain, which finds several of Smither’s Signature Sounds label mates offering their kudos with fresh interpretations of their own. Despite an all-star cast — Dave Alvin, Loudon Wainwright III, Bonnie Raitt, Patty Larkin and Tim O’Brien included — none of the participants take excessive liberties with the material and for good reason. That’s due not so much to their own reticence but rather because Smither’s songs are seemingly so diverse to begin with. Not that some don’t try — Mary Gauthier’s take on “I Feel the Same” is as maudlin as her trademark approach demands, while O’Brien’s jaunty “Origin of Species” adds some jaunty frivolity to the proceedings. Likewise, Raitt’s live take on “Love Me Like a Man” sounds unexceptional on the surface, but proves why Smither’s bluesier material qualifies as the stuff of standards. Nevertheless, the best of the batch comes with Josh Ritter’s touching “Rosalie,” Jorma Kaukonen’s affecting “Leave the Light On” and the Mark Mulvey/Jeffrey Foucault duet on “Song for Susan.” Given the fact that all the tracks are plucked from the same fertile source, it stands to reason that Link of Chain connects solidly throughout.

DOWNLOAD: “Devil Got Your Man” (Smither) “Lonesome Georgia Brown” (Smither), “Leave the Light On” (Jorma Kaukonen), “Song for Susan” (Mark Mulvey/Jeffrey Foucault)

FLESH LIGHTS – Free Yourself LP

Album: Free Yourself

Artist: Flesh Lights

Label: 12XU

Release Date: November 04, 2014

Flesh Lights 11-4


We are advised that Austin’s Flesh Lights began life as a guy-gal duo (cousins, in fact) from San Antonio who operated under a succession of “ill-advised names” before expanding into the proverbial power trio—term used loosely, as this ain’t yer mama’s Cream or Grand Funk. Free Yourself, the followup to 2012’s Muscle Pop debut, does indeed bring power to the table, boatloads, in fact, while keeping six feet planted equally in ‘60s rawk (the Who would seem to be in inspiration) and early ‘90s punk (hello, Superchunk). That those two namechecks refer to quartets and not trios is incidental; Flesh Lights make the kind of righteous racket that would require lesser groups to deploy five or more members.

My classic rock invocations here ain’t strictly for show: on tracks like the propulsive, jittery “Mandarin” and the swaggering, chiming “You Might Know” the Lights come off like a cross between the Stooges and Killer era Alice Cooper Group. Soon enough, though, the band morphs into a 3-headed hardcore hydra: check the nonstop romps that are “Free Yourself” and “Big Break” (the lyrics to the latter, about “all the arenas I should have played” and “all the people I should have fucked” speak to the opportunity-squanderer in us all). And several cuts are delightful throwbacks to early ‘90s Chapel Hill and Seattle, just to complete the magical history tour these folks serve up.

On paper this might not seem all that original, but trust me, the vim, vigor and vitality on display here simply proves the old maxim of “if it ain’t broke…” and in the end, Flesh Lights will make you glad that punk is still alive and well out there in the hinterlands and not just the cultural currency of fresh-scrubbed suburban dolts being dropped off at the local Hot Topic by their SUV-driving parachute moms. To paraphrase a great philosopher, free yourself and your ass will follow, kids.

DOWNLOAD: “You Might Know,” “Big Break,” “Teen Filth” [Initial copies of the LP come in yellow vinyl.]


Album: If Sorrows Swim

Artist: Greensky Bluegrass

Label: Thirty Tigers

Release Date: September 23, 2014

Greensky 9-23


Formed in 2000, the five-piece, Michigan-based band that goes by the unlikely moniker Greensky Bluegrass ranks among the best of that elite breed of nu-grass outfits that are helping to redefine fiddle and banjo music for a new generation of Americana enthusiasts. While their populist precepts have made them favorites on the festival circuit, to their credit, they also represent themselves well on record.

If Sorrows Swim, their most accomplished effort yet, offers a combination of lightning swift licks (i.e. “A Letter to Seymour,” “Worried About the Weather,” “Wings for Wheels”) and thoughtful musings (“Windshield,” “Demons,” “In Control,” “Forget Everything”), the result of which offers a thoughtful balance between urgency and emotion. That’s a credit to their instrumental agility, a sound that’s at once elegiac and expressive. Like Steep Canyon Rangers, a band with whom they seem to share a musical kinship, Greensky Bluegrass vary their motif in ways that give a nod to tradition while also asserting a certain poetic prowess.

It’s also clear that the band — lap steel player Anders Beck, banjo player Michael Arlen Bont, guitarist Dave Bruzza, bassist Michael Devol and mandolin and ukulele player Paul Hoffman — are adept at weaving arrangements that stay true to the bluegrass vernacular while reinforcing those melodic merits as well. Consequently, an affinity for bluegrass isn’t strictly required. An appreciation for craft and consistency will do just fine.

DOWNLOAD: “Worried About the Weather,” “Windshield,” “In Control”

Slayer 11/23/14, Charlotte NC

Dates: November 23, 2014

Location: The Fillmore, Charlotte NC

Slayer 1


Big Ole Fat Raining Blood: The absolute kings of speed metal, Slayer, brought their brand of definitive heaviosity to Charlotte’s Fillmore on Sunday, November 23rd, with opening acts Suicidal Tendencies and Exodus. Playing to a sold out crowd of bearded, tattooed dudes in black t-shirts and leather jackets, the experience was exactly what you would expect at a Slayer show.  The crowd was as frenzied as the music was furious, with the band cranking the amps up to “11” to kick the crowd’s collective ass off the planet. Original members Tom Araya (looking a bit like Jerry Garcia) and Kerry King were accompanied by Gary Holt (Exodus) on guitar and Paul Bostaph (Testament) on drums in the wake of Dave Lombardo’s exit. I was fortunate enough to catch them with Black Sabbath in 1998 at Ozzfest, but this show kicked the shit out of that performance.

Slayer 2

Slayer 3

The stage was adorned with giant upside-down crucifixes – with colorful flowing tapestries, and an array of pastel colors on the backdrop of a sound engineered crisp and clear as vinyl. Slayer played a number of crowd favorites, including Hell Awaits, Raining Blood, South of Heaven, and a tribute to Jeff Hanneman (who passed away from liver failure in 2013) during the encore with Angel of Death. Soaring, searing heavy metal, unadulterated by fashion or pop culture, Slayer, played the heaviest set of music I think I’ve ever witnessed. Araya’s vocals are pitch perfect and King’s guitar work is mesmerizing.  I highly recommend this show. Slayer currently has a ten album set entitled, Vinyl Conflict available at your nearest record store. (Tour dates HERE.)

Set List:

  1. World Painted Blood
  2. Postmortem
  3. Hate Worldwide
  4. Die by the Sword
  5. Chemical Warfare
  6. War Ensemble
  7. Mandatory Suicide
  8. Necrophiliac
  9. Spill the Blood
  10. Hell Awaits
  11. At Dawn They Sleep
  12. Altar of Sacrifice
  13. Jesus Saves
  14. Disciple
  15. Seasons in the Abyss
  16. Snuff
  17. Dead Skin Mask
  18. Raining Blood
  19. Psychopathy Red
  20. South of Heaven
  21. Angel of Death





Album: Charmed Life

Artist: Billy Sedlmayr

Label: Fell City

Release Date: November 04, 2014

Billy Sed


Presumably Charmed Life is an ironic album title, considering some of the misfortune—including a 10 year stint prison stemming from an addiction-fueled armed robbery gone awry—that Tucson rocker Billy Sedlmayr has weathered over his long career. Or perhaps in Sedlmayr’s eyes it’s actually a literal description; he’s simply glad to be with us and making music. For there were times when locals might have wondered, with no small justification, whether or not he was even still alive. This I know firsthand, because I lived in Tucson for about a decade and Sedlmayr, who was in the joint for much of the time I was there (and will always be “Billy Sed” to me because that’s how the music community referred to him), seemed at times as much a ghost as a legend. Nearly every musician I encountered had his or her own Billy Sed story, some tinged with fondness, some with sadness, all with at least a touch of awe.

As his bio from the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund this album explained, “For over three decades now Billy Sedlmayr has been deep in the fabric of Tucson music, from his early days as an underage musician playing dusty bars long since gone with punk rock pioneers The Pedestrians, then playing with Giant Sandworms, laying down the blueprint for Tucson music. Over the years Billy’s made music with local legends like Rainer, Howe Gelb, Dave Seeger, Rich Hopkins, Dan Stewart, Van Christian and many more, a founding member of a scene that produced bands like Naked Prey, Green On Red, Giant Sand and more.”

That backstory informs the songs of Charmed Life both directly and indirectly. Produced by Gabriel Sullivan (of Giant Sand and Taraf de Tucson; we recently premiered a Sullivan track HERE), it’s a record of simultaneous intimacy and expansiveness, and as befits its desert origins, of moonlit luminosity and sun-baked glare. Sedlmayr, backed by Sullivan and a host of Tucson talent that includes members of GS and TdT as well as erstwhile Bob Dylan drummer Winston Watson and multiinstrumentalist Andrew Collberg, serves up a dozen dusty travelogues. Chief among them is opening track “Pan American Highway Blues,” a country rocker powered by Spanish guitar and pedal steel in which Sedlmayr, singing in a voice as weathered as he appears physically these days, looks back on life—a highway—somewhat ruefully:

“If these chalk lines were my failings

And the driver then my soul

It goes slowly by the way of this ol’ road

So how does it feel now that you can’t go home?”

Elsewhere Sedlmayr meditates upon his surroundings both metaphorically (“The Desert Is No Lady,” a brooding slice of Calexico-styled spaghetti western pop) and literally (“Monsoons, Florence,” a twangy, mostly recited piece flashing back to his time cooped up in a cell), even slipping over the border for a lovely Mexican ballad sung in Spanish (“El Terco Corazón,” with accordion and nylon string guitar prominent). Perhaps it’s the widescreen, cinematic, Mariachi-flavored “Tucson Kills,” though, that’s the most affecting, a nakedly autobiographical tale in which Sedlmayr reflects upon old girlfriends and departed friends (among them Rainer Ptacek, recently profiled HERE at Blurt), of slowly vanishing lifestyles and eroding culture, of barrio scenes and seedy bars, and of how he “left a dozen times/ But I always crawl back/ Against my will/ Yeah, Tucson kills.” Someone should make a film based on this song.

Sedlmayr’s right—something about Tucson gets under your skin, and no matter where you go or how much time elapses, it’s there for good, always beckoning. The desert’s not an easy place to live or get ahead in the usual sense of what folks term “progress,” but for those who stay there and even for those who, like Sedlmayr, find themselves returning time after time, it has a certain nurturing power that is impossible to ignore.

Maybe that’s what Sedlmayr meant when he titled his album.

DOWNLOAD: “Pan American Highway Blues,” “Mary Ordinary,” “Tucson Kills”



Album: Let Loose!

Artist: Bloodhounds

Label: Alive Naturalsound

Release Date: November 07, 2014



Their ages belie it, but the members of the Bloodhounds remember good ol’ rock & roll. Or at least that’s the indication on the East L.A. quartet’s debut album Let Loose! The band reaches back to the pre-psychedelic days of 50s R&B and 60s garage rock, sticking in the main to the classic two guitars/bass/drums formula stamped into eternity by the Rolling Stones and the Beatles a half century ago.

It’s a pretty basic setup, but the ‘Hounds make it fresh, sounding like they’re having a blast jumpin’ in the night through “Saint Dee,” “Indian Highway” and a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up.” The band also goes for a more overtly bluesy vibe on “The Wolf” and “Bottle Cap Blues.” The surprise, however, comes from “Olderbudwiser,” “Hey Lonnie” and “Dusty Bibles & Silver Spoons,” which dig even further back to the U.K.’s brief but memorable skiffle craze – not an influence usually heard, especially not from a band this young. It’s that kind of open-mindedness that make the Bloodhounds more than just a retro revivalist bar band and Let Loose an auspicious debut.

 DOWNLOAD: “Saint Dee,” “The Wolf,” “Dusty Bibles & Silver Spoons”


ANDY STOTT — Faith in Strangers

Album: Faith In Strangers

Artist: Andy Stott

Label: Modern Love

Release Date: November 18, 2014

Andy Stott 11-25


Manchester dubstep/electronic artist Andy Stott has moved farther from the austere in this fourth full-length, continuing to push his brainy, rhythmically abrasive sound towards a dreamier, more melodic place. That’s partly due to the continued participation of Alison Skidmore, Stott’s former piano teacher, who made her debut on 2012’s Luxury Problems. Here she breathes a hushed, tremulous, organic softness into Stott’s cerebral structures, reinforcing a tendency towards more real world sounds and less computer chill.

This, according to interviews, is Stott’s first album to grapple with analog rather than digital equipment. Thus the roughness sounds rougher, the warmth warmer. He also makes prominent use of found sounds here. “Science and Industry” gets its name from the Manchester museum where Stott recorded the track’s clanging metallic rhythms. They come from a piston on an old steam engine. There is nothing digital about them, and they make an interesting counter-argument to the cut’s skittery, trebly, wholly inorganic drum machine beat.

Likewise, in “Missing,” the main sonic themes are derived from what sounds like a stand-up bass, its strings plucked and bowed and skidded over with fingers. Almost a minute goes by before Skidmore’s denatured, angelic soprano floats over, or pinging electronics glitter in the interstices. While not headed for an MTV Unplugged session any time soon, Stott has let the world around him in to a much larger degree than the past.

Not that verisimilitude is his bag, though. These sounds come filtered and amplified and hedged in by synthetic clamor. They are recognizable as faces in a dream, but like those faces, tend to become as unreal and untouchable as the surrounding weirdness.

To my ears, “Violence,” the first single, gets the balance best, opening in eerie foghorn blasts, a surreal landscape of quiet punctuated by terror. Skidmore’s voice is feather-soft, blurry, filtered through a haze, words landing like kisses with no teeth behind them, but it is also disturbing. She is asking, in her somnolent way, “Who is stalking? Who is crouching?” as blares of noise tear through low volume atmospheres. You could almost imagine her laying low, as some threat or another passes through.

The title track is a far more hedonistic affair, evoking classic R&B like Prince and Chic, in its Rhodes-y keyboards, rubbery bass and drum machine (these elements may be synthesized, but that’s what they sound like). Yet even here, there’s a buried, twitchy pulse, a cloud of disintegration that rolls over the dance floor. The noise may have abated, but it’s waiting, just under the surface. Party on, but be ready for the zzzzzzzzzzzzt of good times that short out, of melody that is subsumed into random zeros and ones.

And that’s maybe what’s so remarkable about Faith in Strangers, its uneasy balance between beauty and menace, calm and roiling intensity. Tip the blend towards melody, or away from it, and it could easily be less compelling. Stott keeps it, and you, on the knife edge.

DOWNLOAD: “Violence,” “Faith in Strangers”


First Aid Kit 11/18/14, Denver

Dates: November 18, 2014

Location: Ogden Theatre, Denver CO



I’ve wanted to see this Swedish sister duo since hearing their enchanting debut a few years back, but their live shows eluded me. At the beginning of the set at Denver’s Ogden Theatre, sister Klara stated that it had been three years since they’d last played the city (opening for Lykke Li). I wondered aloud to a pal if the Odgen might be a bit too big a venue for them, like they should maybe be playing the Larimer Lounge or the Hi-Dive, but I underestimated this band’s popularity as the sold out, buzzing crowd at the Ogden proved that. Heck, it seems like these two (the other being Johanna and they had a drummer and a pedal steel player with them as well) could be outright huge pop stars if that was a path they’d chosen, but they go for a more low-key approach, where songwriters like Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons are more important.

Coming out dressed in what looked like gold lamé wrap, I was confused until I remember their latest record is Stay Gold (released in June of this year)  and this their clothing and the backdrop fit with the theme. They opened with “The Lions Roar”, the title track from their previous, sophomore effort from 2012, and from there they slipped into the gorgeous title track of Stay Gold. After that came a mix of tunes from the two records including “Blue” and the stunning “In the Hearts of Men” (in my opinion one of their best songs). They did an unplugged version of “Ghost Town” and then a soaring version of “My Silver Lining” and even tossed in a Jack White cover, “Love Interruption.”






The gals told a story of when they played Nashville they received a call from Mr. White himself, being a big thrill for these young ladies. They told other stories, too. In fact in between songs the girls seemed quite chatty (being young and uttering the word “awesome” quite a bit, but hey, even an old fart like me uses that word all of the time).

After an hour they left the stage but came back out for three encores including a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s gorgeous “Colorado Girl” as well as “Master Pretender” from Stay Gold and ending their set with a rousing version of “Emmylou”: (another one of their best songs) which turned into a singalong with the crowd joining in.

These ladies have the confidence and the songs and I for one, cannot wait to hear their next record—and will be front and center at their next Denver gig as well.

Photo credit: JD Bamford Photography (