Monthly Archives: January 2016


Album: Birds Say

Artist: Darlingside

Label: Thirty Tigers

Release Date: September 18, 2015

 Darlingside 9-18

The Upshot: Something entirely different – so different as to be originally off-putting – but not for long. Four Bostonians reinvent multiple genres with a contagious combination of vocal approaches that are as eye and ear-opening as they are entirely exhilarating.


 With a first listen to Birds Say, I shut down completely. Here was a vocal ballet amongst what sounded like cheesy frat boys, flashing back in time to when this choral approach first broke through the smoky haze of early ‘60s folk. If all four resembled Art Garfunkel lookalikes – each sporting matching sweater vests, I’d not be surprised.

But what a difference a day makes.

Birds Say has since become my personal find of last year. After a decade of extreme dedication to their heavily collaborative craft, Darlingside’s sophomore release is nothing short of breathtakingly beautiful, if not entirely original. Singers Dave Senft (bass), Don Mitchell (guitar, banjo), Auyon Mukharji (classical violin, mandolin) and Harris Paseltiner (cello, guitar) assault a lone microphone with what becomes a shimmering tapestry of vocal magic – amidst multiple layers of deft harmonizing against a minimal backdrop of sparse, if not quirky, instrumentation. The vocals drive each hook – the vocals are the hook – as the band does their utmost to merge multiple genres on their terms. The band’s name – itself a dark, sardonic twist on “killing what you love” – should’ve been the first tip-off to their singular brand of ‘musical genocide’, yet it’s this fresh approach to writing, arranging and performing music that makes them utterly indispensible in an overly generic world. They seem to share songwriting duties and their lyrics are clearly not their strongest suit – but their choice of language adds further detail to the lushness of their harmonies. Voices mesh as if all four were blood siblings while their odd selection of accompaniment – dancing between folk/Americana, with a somewhat baroque approach to soft rock – is simplistic yet essential, never obscuring the impact of their vocals.

There’s an innocent caste to their music – immediately evident with the first track which, leaning on little more than strings, guitar and banjo, allow luxuriant vocals to lift towards epic flight, Likewise – piano and viola join gentle acoustic guitar and banjo for an overall percussive effect which helps keeps the essential third track, “Harrison Ford”, fully airborne. Obscure lyrics or no, nothing can prevent this inventive foursome back from sinking their teeth into a good idea to create something fresh. Comparisons to early CSN&Y have already been leveled yet, on the similarly exotic “Go Back”, they seem to share more in common Simon & Garfunkel, circa “Hazy Shade of Winter”, than anything birthed in the ‘70s. Banjo (is everybody an Avett?) and mandolin join cello and viola for the uplifting “My Gal, My Guy” while the title track underlines the fact that these 13 tracks are not all Mary Poppins and sugar plums. In fact, darkness and moodiness abound amidst the blue sky and sun halos. “The God Of Loss” benefits from mournful, Appalachian-esque fiddle (with an effect reminiscent of a Civil War soundtrack) and a fairly depressing lyric while the otherwise addictive “Volcano Sky” and “Do You Ever Live?” successfully mine anti-Beach Boy turf while bringing new meaning to somber. However, it’s tracks like “She’s All Around” that glue themselves to your brain, digging in as forever ear worms leading to such unexplained behavior as breaking out into full-fledged whistling attacks. This is utterly beautiful music.

DOWNLOAD: “Harrison Ford,” “She’s All Around”

LARRY O. DEAN – Good Grief

Album: Good Grief

Artist: Larry O. Dean

Label: self-released

Release Date: September 25, 2015

Larry Dean 9-18

The Upshot: A classic combination of percolating pop, sturdy Americana and bittersweet narratives, all sung with a knowing vocal that betrays a slightly sardonic edge.


Like far too many of his deserving peers, Chicago singer/songwriter Larry O. Dean has yet to accumulate the accolades he so decidedly deserves. Despite 30 years of making smart, incisive, incredibly catching and compelling music, it still resides below the radar, a fate that’s far from equitable considering his ample skills. Indeed, Dean’s no slacker. He’s released a steady stream of superb solo albums as well as outings with various bands that bear his creative imprint. Malcontent, Post Office, The Injured Parties and The Me Decade chief among them. That’s in addition to his talents as a writer and poet. Ever-prodigious, he released a remarkable multi-disc archival set late last year entitled The Zenith Beast Archives: 1986-1993 which featured digital remasters of his first four solo albums, two unreleased solo albums, two instrumental collections, rarities, and ephemera, along with a live album, early studio and home recordings by his earlier band, The Fussbudgets. The music culled from the vaults belonging to his label, Zenith Beast, had never been widely circulated, but given Dean’s remarkable productivity over the years, the compilation — overwhelming though it may be in terms of sheer scope and volume — is well worth the acquisition. Details can be found on his website,

Never one to sit still for too long, Dean now has a new album to tout, one by name of Good Grief. Like his earlier efforts, its songs take hold on first listen, a classic combination of percolating pop, sturdy Americana and bittersweet narratives, all sung with a knowing vocal that betrays a slightly sardonic edge. From the ominous album opener “Didn’t See It Coming” to the razor sharp refrains of “Botox Party” and the searing delivery of “Sniper” and the harrowing “Ohio Executes Schiziohrenic,” Dean conveys an effortless yet expressive delivery that ought to make Good Grief a go-to album for anyone with a hankering for truly intelligent song craft. (There’s also a terrific and thoroughly reworked version of Translator’s power pop classic “Everywhere That I’m Not.”) Here’s an artist capable of rocking with a vengeance while also slowing the pace for the sake of thoughtful contemplation. In short, it’s everything one would want in a contemporary effort, and for that reason, it’s well worth the acquisition.

That said, it’s unlikely you’ll want to stop here. Any of Dean’s earlier albums provide the same degree of gratification. Good grief, what are you waiting for?

DOWNLOAD: “Botox Party,” “Sniper,” “Everywhere That I’m Not”

NATALIE MERCHANT – Paradise Is Here: The New Tigerlily Recordings

Album: Paradise Is Here: The New Tigerlily Recordings

Artist: Natalie Merchant

Label: Nonesuch

Release Date: November 06, 2015

Natalie Merchant 11-6

The Upshot: Mega-selling mid-Nineties “classic” from the 10000 Maniacs frontgal maintains its own occasional merits, if not offering much else even as an expanded edition.


Natalie Merchant’s always seemed to know precisely what it is she wants, even when it seems to go against the grain. The music she made with 10000 Maniacs was notably free of the pretence and posturing that infected much of what was heard throughout the ‘80s. Her willowy presence and penchant for twirling defied the whole notion of an assertive front person at the head of the fray. Despite the success of her solo career, she’s made some less than obvious detours, including an entire album wholly devoted to obscure literary influences. Likewise, her latest effort is really a remake of the earliest album she made on her own following her departure from 10000 Maniacs, a collection that features rerecorded versions of the entire Tigerlily album, considered by many to be the best record of her career.

The question then becomes why Merchant would want to retrace her roots. Indeed, Tigerlily was such an expressive set to begin with — naked, vulnerable and filled with heartfelt expression. In her self-penned liner notes, she says that she finds her voice so much stronger now than it was back then, and that her confidence in the studio and ability to rework the arrangements allows her to better bring these songs — many of which remain a staple of her live set — to greater fruition. Yet, in listening to the album in its original form and to its remake side by side, there’s a certain unabashed honesty present in the original work that seems glossed over this time around. The instrumentation is more oblique and what was mellow to begin with feels even softer and less emphatic now. The album’s best tracks — “Carnival,” “Wonder” and “River” in particular — still resonate, but they also lack the punch, however raw and unfiltered, that accompanied original renditions offered.

Still, one can’t blame Merchant for wishing to redo something so seminal. After all, how many people wouldn’t want to do the same, especially if they were able to tweak the product of their youthful inexperience. The DVD documentary that accompanies the album also offers additional insights that help to explain her reasoning, but given that Merchant is such a discriminating artist, she deserves the benefit of any doubt to begin with. Ultimately, one great album deserves another…even if it’s a redux.

DOWNLOAD: “Carnival,” “Wonder,” “River”


Album: Fog of War

Artist: Jerry Joseph

Label: Cosmo Sex School

Release Date: October 23, 2015

Joseph 10-23

The Upshot: Jackmormoms frontman details world politics amid a surging storm of guitars.


Jerry Joseph has gone unheralded far too long as a true hero of the heartland, even though his work, both solo and in cahoots with his sometimes band Jackmormons and various earlier ensembles, has produced an impressive body of work, some thirty albums in all, that have spanned the greater part of the past two decades. An ever reliable rocker, he’s never been  hesitant to experiment whenever the opportunity arises. Nevertheless, #Istanbul/Fog of War# may be his boldest effort yet, a two song set clocking in at little over half an hour. On first hearing, it sounds like Neil Young in more assertive circumstances, railing about some cause or concern as Neil is generally prone to do. Apparently the same bug has bitten Joseph, because here we find him proselytizing about the general state of affairs the world finds itself in and in particular the harrowing situation that’s become an unfortunate reality in the Middle East. Written during a trip to Afghanistan, he attempts to frame the situation in less than harrowing terms, describing things with more than a hint of romance by putting a human perspective on all he observed.

Still, despite his avowed purpose to not be obstructed by a steady stream of dire news, the two songs are as dark and foreboding as the settings he describes. Recorded in one take, each song features a torrent of discordant guitars that are driven at a deliberate pace, all woven around a surging sound that integrates both fury and finesse. The comparison to Young is especially apt, given that the extended melodies recall the lengthy jams that accrue while at the helm of Crazy Horse. Songs like “Down by the River” and “Tonight’s the Night” come immediately to mind, seemingly spontaneous jams that find extended instrumental passages cutting a broad swath before returning to the initial refrains.

Despite his daring, one can’t help but get the sense this was largely recorded on a whim, the result of momentary inspiration that demanded instant embellishment. With a new album promised in a mere matter of months, it is, perhaps, a stopgap effort designed to spur some momentum. If that’s the case, it’s an interesting curio, one that suggests Joseph is an engaged auteur ever mindful of his muse.

DOWNLOAD: “Istanbul,” “Fog Of War”



SHEARWATER – Jet Plane And Oxbow

Album: Jet Plane And Oxbow

Artist: Shearwater

Label: Sub Pop

Release Date: January 22, 2016

Shearwater 1-22

The Upshot: Shearwater’s new record is a pure joy to listen to as it tackles some incredibly depressing topics.


Being from El Paso Texas and having travelled to Austin for the first time earlier this year, I got a sense of the town beyond the Franklin BBQ lines and the toque wearing, magic sticks wielding component of the city. I found it to be a pretty chilled out town compared with Houston and its truck nuts/testicles hanging contingent. Stuck in LBJ country the town is a wonderful incongruous mix of 10-gallon hat wearing lawyers and hacky-sackers, mixed with a healthy left leaning population is I’m certain like a black eye in the heart of conservative Texas. The motto is keep Austin weird and suffice to say while not the “weird” I’ve known in Beijing, for Texas I guess the nickname fits. So as this latest Shearwater slab of wax crossed my desk I was more than a little curious about what sort of music Austin is producing these days and the result was nothing short of astonishing.

As the initial electronic flourishes of the track “Prime” emerge from the speaker, the rotation of the song ushers in an incredibly dense and serious track that primes the listener for an album that is etched with moments of questioning and soul searching through the debris of our lives and the tormented world around us.

“A Long Time Away” is one of the finest songs on the record, it is a perfect slice of pop, that is steeped in a brooding melancholy, replete with a chorus that will have you singing along atop its thunderous beat. Having never heard Shearwater before, this track came as a revelation to me, and carries with it a narrative force that will have the listener putting it on repeat as I did letting the track reveal layer after glorious layer.

On the track “Pale Kings” Jonathan Meiburg sounds as if he’s channeling Richard Thompson in terms of phrasing and storytelling. It’s another moment that is filled with a richness that recalls singers of yesteryear who could really write songs and deliver them with a believability that is so rarely evident in music these days.

“Radio Silence” is another high water mark in an album filled with them. The song builds and builds generating a high octane energy that is beautifully offset by some amazing production. At moments we hear the bass or the drums come into focus, and then there’s a slight quiver in the background with some off kilter electronic sound that lends just the right amount of weird, before the chorus will have you back singing along with your fist in the air.

Shearwater’s new record is a pure joy to listen to as it tackles some incredibly depressing topics. The clarity of production only enhances the record’s power. The sequencing and the lyrics ring out with a biting clarity.

There is a palpable deepness to the music as it cascades over you. As the album progresses you can sense the complexity of the instrumentation and just how well crafted each song is.

Jet Plane and Oxbow is an amazing journey that moved me in ways I haven’t felt for many years. The bold artistic statement that is this record will have people talking about it for years to come.

DOWNLOAD: Prime, A Long Time Away, Pale Kings, Radio Silence



LOVE – Reel To Real (Deluxe Edition)

Album: Reel To Real (Deluxe Edition)

Artist: Love

Label: Higher Moon

Release Date: November 27, 2015

Love 11-27

The Upshot: Although the album never fared very well (it was the first Love album not to make any dent in the charts whatsoever), as a reissue, it sounds better in retrospect More than 40 years on, there’s a new reality worth savoring.


Sadly, Love never got the (ahem) love they deserved early on. One of the most experimental and forward thinking bands to emerge from the paisley pop environs of mid ‘60s Los Angeles, the band, fronted by a true rock auteur by name of Arthur Lee, were not only the first truly racially integrated band, but also one of the most daring, fearlessly blending elements of rock, baroque pop, classical, and progressive jazz in a way that literally defied definition. Lee’s reluctance to tour limited their reputation to the immediate parameters of Sunset Strip and an adventurous fan following, but by and large, Love’s reputation was limited. Happily, belated appreciation came later, as affirmed by such stalwart supporters as Robert Plant and Doors guitarist Robby Krieger, among others.

Early Love albums like Four Sail, Da Capo and Forever Changes remain classics of the era, but when the original band broke up in 1969, Lee completed refigured the group and took a much different direction, abandoning his early penchant for pop and replacing it with a muscular form of strict R&B. By the time the new Love released Reel To Real, the last album to bear the group’s collective handle until Lee’s tentative comeback in 1992, all traces of the original sound had dissipated entirely, substituting in its place a funk and soul, much of it influenced by Otis Redding, James Brown, the JBs, and the radio-ready urban rumblings of the day.

Although the album never fared very well — it was the first Love album not to make any dent in the charts whatsoever — it sounds better in retrospect courtesy of this expanded reissue from the fledgling High Moon Records. A song like “Singing Cowboy” retains the hooks and catchy choruses that hint at Love’s early incarnation, as does the singalong “Everybody’s Gotta Live” and the riveting refrains and snappy spark of “You Said You Would.” “Who Are You?” and “Be Thankful For What You Got” affirm its renewed potency, demonstrating the fact that Lee is indeed a soul singer in the same league as Redding, early Al Green, Sly Stone, and Jimi Hendrix (with whom he worked on occasion) when it comes to his sheer emotion and expression. Various outtakes and alternate versions enhance the original offering (check out the impromptu “Graveyard Rock,” sung to the tune of “Jailhouse Rock”), restoring Reel To Real to the classic status it deserves. More than 40 years on, there’s a new reality worth savoring.

DOWNLOAD: “Everybody’s Gotta Live,” “Singing Cowboy,” “Be Thankful For What You Got”

GUN OUTFIT – Dream All Over

Album: Dream All Over

Artist: Gun Outfit

Label: Paradise of Bachelors

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Gun Outfit 10-16

The Upshot: Los Angeles-via-Olympia band partially quanders an opportunity to build upon its initial promise.


We all have those LPs we instinctively reach for whenever we know we’re about to stack some more miles on the car’s odometer. Sometimes it’s a thumping bootie-shaker to get us bucket-seat dancing as we tool on down the road, sometimes a pedal steel twang is what puts us in that semi-conscious state of reflection as the miles trip past.

And sometimes what’s required are those rare records that match the grandeur of the open road as you speed across it, marking time on journeys that wind up taking us somewhere else spiritually as well. Aiming for, but not reaching, that rarified air is the latest from Los Angeles-via-Olympia band Gun Outfit, Dream All Over. Built on a framework of persistent, loping tempos and guitar lines that coil around each other in a mirror image of the band’s male/female singers—Dylan Sharp and Carrie Keith—Dream All Over’s dozen tracks consciously leave the band’s rowdier, punk flavors by the side of the forested road for a flickering, sun burnt vision meant to evoke the Southwest noir of promise and promise unfulfilled.

Sadly, the same can be said for this record. Gun Outfit has sacrificed its raw edges to focus exclusively on this smoother, soft-focus vision that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It’s as though the band bolted punk clubs for desert wasteland—not to start the apocalypse, as one demented California desert-dweller and his moppet army of teenage girl acolytes once hoped to do, but to wait this one out. As Sharp sings on LP-closer “Only Ever Over,” a dreamy take on Western Civilization’s decay taken at a lazy tempo, “Out here on the West Coast where the ocean eats the sun/We’ve known for a long time the end’s already come.”

What’s meant to sound ominous, though, too often comes across forced or clichéd. There are individually strong moments here—the stately “In Orbit” could be a lost cut from the Mekons’ Fear and Whiskey, and the jaunty “Pass On Through” feels like a concise update on the Doors’ “L.A. Woman”—but they’re undone by monotony and a lack of overall dynamic contrast. The weaknesses on Dream All Over are often the flip side of the band’s previous strengths. Sharp and Keith aren’t blessed with gifted voices, which is putting it kindly. But—more germane—neither is much good at vocal phrasing and both lean so heavily on laconic deliveries here that they drone their way through the songs. On an album with more gears and leftover punk dynamism, like 2013’s Hard Coming Down, those vocal shortcomings charm as part of the music’s rough-and-ragged exterior. Here, though fine in short doses, they act like a soporific over the course of the whole LP.

The weary delivery isn’t helped by the California tendency toward navel-gazing that stacks up here eventually like so much self-absorbed cordwood. (The most egregious example is “Compromise,” a dragging tempo chronicling a protagonist’s realization that growing up requires bargaining with our idealistic younger selves: “In disbelief I turned the wheel/Tried to get off on a sex appeal/To rational self-interest/It was a fantasy/And then I had to compromise/Didn’t I?”) A third-person narrative or two about some historical or apocryphal figure would’ve been a welcome point of view-change while shifting focus from the tedium of so many “I” this and “I” that songs.

But that lack of variance is reflected in the music of Dream All Over. That compelling choogling tempo of “Pass On Through” mirrors disc-opener “Gotta Wanna,” only slightly sped up; “Only Ever Over” is a slower version of the former, and all three are obvious kin to Hard Coming Down’s “I’ve Got a Gift.” Even when the band reaches for other instruments in the arrangements, such as the sitar-speckled “Matters to A Head,” the effect feels tacked on rather than organic.

Taken individually, several songs on Dream All Over achieve their hypnotic, white line-fever goal, and the guitar interplay throughout impresses. But when the songs play out together over the LP’s 40-minute run-time, the record’s flaws eventually overcome its strengths.

DOWNLOAD: “Pass On Through,” “Only Ever Over”

STRAWBERRY WHIPLASH – Stuck in the Never Ending Now

Album: Stuck in the Never Ending Now

Artist: Strawberry Whiplash

Label: Matinee

Release Date: November 20, 2015

Strawberry 11-20

The Upshot: Bubblegum Lemonade dude splits his time, and splits the difference, to arrive at a relatively engaging midpoint between the two.


Hey, Laz is a busy guy. Laz is Lawrence McCluskey and between this and his other band, Bubblegum Lemonade (also on the Matinee label) the guy keeps busy. Not sure if he writes and records songs by each band by way of the seasons or what , but nevertheless he’s back with mysterious vocalist Sandra (maybe not so mysterious if you know her) with the second S.W. album (the debut being 2012’s Hits in the Car which came after a few terrific EPs). Not sure if the album’s title indicates a longing or sadness but the opening cut, “Every Day the Sun Shines Brighter” sure doesn’t seem to fit that. All mid-tempo jangle while they add a little more zip to “If Surface Were Depth”  (Sandra’s vocals way out front) while they slow it down and go minor chord on “Too Close to Call.”  Elsewhere, “Never Ending Now” has this great scratchy shuffle while ‘Ride the Waves to the Shore” is a down tempo number (but not lacking any melody) and the side A ending “Time Takes You Away” sounds like the best cut The Primitives never wrote.

As far as what the other 6 songs sound like you’ll have to buy the record (but suffice to say they’re just as good).  In the end the Matinee label comes through again for those of us longing for the days of yore when labels like Sarah, Sunday, Creation and Subway offered the tastiest of fruits, well, Matinee is doing it now. Jump on board, partner.

DOWNLOAD:  “If Surface Were Depth,” “Never Ending Now,” “Time Takes You Away”

SAM RUSSO – Greyhound Dreams

Album: Greyhound Dreams

Artist: Sam Russo

Label: Red Scare Industries

Release Date: October 09, 2015

Sam Russo 10-9

The Upshot: British punk folkie Russo proves there are still a few great acts left to be discovered by the masses.


The idea of taking punk rock and stripping it down to just an acoustic guitar is hardly a new idea. LA-based music vets X helped found the movement decades ago, but over the past few years folks like Tim Barry, Chuck Ragan and Frank Turner have all decided to trade in the distortion pedal and big amps for a single acoustic guitar and some Johnny Cash chords, drawing more attention to the Americana/punk rock hybrid. The result is some pretty amazing music (see X, Barry, Ragan and Turner) as well as a slew of mediocre hacks who think a few tattoos and a Martin guitar is all you need to make it big.

British punk folkie Sam Russo proves there are still a few great acts left to be discovered by the masses. Vouched for by Brendan Kelly (Chicago punk rock royalty thanks to his time with Lawrence Arms and Falcon), the indie label Red Scare put out his last LP, Storm, and was quick to put out his latest, Greyhound Dreams, once it was completed.

The record picks up nicely where Storm left off; 10 Roots/Americana-heavy tracks. His delivery hasn’t changed much, but the writing has been sharpened thanks to a couple of years on the road, touring with folks like Turner and Lucero. Russo’s weathered vocals work to accentuate the music here, mostly songs of longing, a little heartache and moving on. No real new ground is covered lyrically, but it doesn’t need to be as Russo sings and plays with subtle elegance. Tracks like the lonely album opener, “Sometime” and the similarly plaintive “Forever West” are just begging for a dark room and a glass of bourbon.

It’s quite impressive to hear a boy from England play Americana better than most Americans.                                         

DOWNLOAD: “Sometimes,” “Forever” and “Western Union”


CHRIS WALLA – Tape Loops

Album: Tape Loops

Artist: Chris Walla

Label: Trans

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Chris Walla 10-16

The Upshot: Ex-Death Cab instrumentalist’s restless spirit proves fascinating in places, but ultimately fails to distinguish him much beyond an experimentalist.


When Chris Walla took leave of Death Cab For Cutie in August of last year, he offered little explanation, hinting at the fact that he had more adventurous ambitions. Regardless, the timing of his departure seemed particularly curious considering the fact that the band had finally succeeded in reaching its wider audience. However it was apparent that he had a restless spirit, given recent collaborations with the likes of The Lonely Forest, William Fitzsimmons, and Rocky Votolato, among others.

Walla’s first and only previous solo venture was Field Manual, released a full seven years ago, so it’s very well possible that he’s had plenty of ideas welling up inside him. And yet, Tape Loops offers little evidence of the fact that he’s exorcised those creative conceits to any great extent. As its title suggests, it’s little more than a series of ambient soundscapes that hang in the ether, offering practically nothing in the way of melodic progression or instrumental variation. His inspiration seems to be the loops, tones and textures originally pioneered by Steve Reich, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, a series of surreal experiments that attracted initial interest in the late ‘70s. In that sense, even the title offers nothing new, but given the lack of commercial potential, Walla’s willingness to experiment is still worthy of recognition.

Even so, there’s little here that begs repeated listens. “Kanta’s Theme” and “Flytoget” provide some interesting interludes, but with only five extended instrumentals in all, the album’s best suited to serve as mood music, aural backing for meditation and contemplation. Traditional songwriting is non-existent, and the lack of lyrics makes the melodies more diffused than defined. The shift in sound is subtle at best, and only the most astute listener will sense any real progression. At times it’s lovely to listen to, but all in all it best serves as somnolent sounds for insomniacs.

DOWNLOAD: “Kanta’s Theme,” “Flytoget”