Monthly Archives: September 2016

THEE OH SEES – Live in San Francisco 2LP

Album: Live in San Francisco

Artist: Thee Oh Sees

Label: Castle Face

Release Date: July 29, 2016


The Upshot: Nevermind the Framptons, here’s Thee Oh Sees.


Whattaya do if you’re a nose-thumbing, bird-flipping type of indie band that, to date, has made its bones on putting on chaotic, sweat-drenched—and, yes, nose-thumbing, bird-flipping—live shows, and want to follow up a series of records that has generated no small amount of salivation (and other bodily fluid release) amongst the indie-centric critical elite?

Beats me; I’m not among that elite.

What I do know, however, is that this double-LP set, all heavy vinyl/gatefold sleeve stuff, is the kind of album that makes me want to jump onstage and do some of my own nose-thumbing and bird-slipping. Hell, maybe even release some bodily fluids—check the front sleeve photo if you need your own inspiration.

Pressed at 45rpm (look it up, under “fidelity; high”), Live in San Francisco is an atom blast of frisson ‘n’ frenetics, commencing with an expletive-laden (sorta) hardcore blast called “I Come From the Mountain,” progressing through the distortion mélange that is the garagey “Web” and psychedelic metal of “Man in a Suitcase,” and ultimately concluding with the side-long (all of side D) prog-punk jam called “Contraption,” which is kinda the band’s “Dark Star,” “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and “Highway Star” all rolled into one. Let’s boogie, kids, even if, in 2016, “boogie” is a bad word that your parents used to use before you were born. Full disclosure: I am your parents. Check my birth certificate.

Sound quality? Nada; the sonics here make like it was recorded in a wind tunnel, with enough echo and slapback to make Duane Eddy sound like Bing Crosby (or Hawkwind sound like Herman’s Hermits, take your  pick). What about punk ‘tude? Methinks John Lydon will get the hives if he hears it. Hold that thought—it’s like Lydon if he actually contracted the hives before stepping in front of a mic.

I’m actually afraid to cue up the bonus DVD of Live in San Francisco that was tucked into the record sleeve. (There’s also a download card of the audio program, in case you were wondering.) It might make me start pondering that bodily fluids matter anew. But for the rest of you, let me assure one and all that this group has delivered, once and for all, the final nail in the double-live-album coffin syndrome. This rec’s not only the last one you might want to hear, it’s the only one that future generations will need. Nevermind the Framptons, here’s Thee Oh Sees.

DOWNLOAD: Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t download individual tracks from a live album….

Below: somebody took a photo of the inner gatefold sleeve before passing out.



Album: Live at Grumpy's

Artist: Nato Coles & the Blue Diamond Band

Label: Rum Bar

Release Date: August 19, 2016


The Upshot: Like Bruce Springsteen if he still remembered his bar band roots, Coles and his band embody the spirit of rock & roll.


Genres, innovation, development, blah blah blah – all of it’s right and good and necessary. But there’s nothing like a rock & roll true believer. Erstwhile punk rocker Nato Coles is definitely fits the bill. With his Blue Diamond Band, the Minneapolis singer and songwriter bangs out basic, four-chord populism with a twinkle in his eye, his heart on his sleeve and the energy of a teenager after his first kiss. Smartly recorded live, which is where this music lives, the songs – only a couple of which come from Coles’ excellent studio album Promises to Deliver – revel in major chord progressions and singalong melodies.

Coles and his quartet aren’t being simplistic here – they just understand that sometimes you don’t need to be complicated to get across. “Standing On the Corner Alone,” “An Honorable Man” and “You Can Count On Me Tonight” – the song Coles will be playing at shows until the day he dies – rock in just the right kind of way, leaving pretentiousness and artifice at the door.

Like Bruce Springsteen if he still remembered his bar band roots, Coles and the Blue Diamond Band, even if only for an hour onstage every night, embody the spirit of rock & roll.

DOWNLOAD: “You Can Count On Me Tonight,” “An Honorable Man” “Standing On the Corner Alone”




Album: Where We Stand

Artist: Mike Farley Band

Label: self-released

Release Date: January 01, 2016


The Upshot: Power pop gets a fresh injection of deftly-crafted, soul-bolstering energy to turn any backyard party into an all-day affair. Great vocals, tight band, smart songwriting and melody-driven attitude. What else is there, really?


 What happened to power pop and where did it get to? Call it a personal crutch, but the crisp attack of a skin-tight band comprised of frustrated, melodic rockers loyal to a distinctively aggressive, guitar-driven, hook-laden sound has always been my medicine of choice. It’s the stuff known to stimulate such potentially embarrassing acts as public air-guitar, out-of-the-closet drumming and the urge to finally form a band – before it’s too late and regardless of age. It can energize your day, pick up your step and otherwise drive you to drink (in a good way). And it all started well back in the ‘70s as acts like The Flamin’ Groovies, The Romantics, Big Star, Badfinger, The Raspberries, Let’s Active, Game Theory, The Shoes, Dwight Twilley, The dBs, Tommy Keene, Gigolo Aunts, Marshall Crenshaw, The Flashcubes, Matthew Sweet, 20/20, The Posies, Cheap Trick, The Smithereens – to name but a few – turned songcraft on its ear in favor of a tougher brand of pop that was slightly less concerned with solos and more concerned with presenting an addictive form of memorable music peppered with plenty of bite – more so than some of the esoteric fare of that era. Pioneers like The Beatles, The Move, The Kinks, The Who and even The Beach Boys may have set the stage, but these New Day progenitors were more concerned with firing up a different form of short, melodic material in an attempt to carve out a name for themselves.

The Mike Farley Band is cut from this same cloth, serving up their second album – a reunion, of sorts – in as many as ten years. This is not so much the result of slow songwriting as much as it is about life – and the fact that the four band members are now spread throughout the country, since their humble beginnings as one of Cleveland’s finest. The project was recorded remotely as technology brought players from Nashville, Seattle, Portland nd Cleveland together as talented producer (Seattle’s Martin Feveyear) finessed their efforts into a remarkably seamless finished product.

It’s crystal clear – from the very first notes – that this band is passionate about what they do, reforming for the sheer fun of playing and making music – going through what must’ve been hell to stitch this relationship together again and create such a magical release over such long distances. Part of this passion is due, in part, to where they’re from. Cleveland is not only home to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame but its reputation for talent runs deep: The Choir, Filter, Michael Stanley, Nine Inch Nails, The Raspberries, The Golden Palominos and James Gang/Barnstorm. Both Boz Scaggs and Chrissie Hynde were born just down the road. You get the drift. So, whether it’s in the water or not, Cleveland spawns something special in its musical talent and the Mike Farley Band deserve greater acclaim. This second release is one of the most intelligent, most tightly-performed recordings I’ve heard all year with nary a dud across its 8 originals (Farley/Nagel co-writes) and lone cover. Quite the contrary, as each composition comes pre-loaded with enough hooks and quality production to make choosing a favorite track a difficult exercise.

“Rewrite History” – the first kick at the cat – begins with a strong acoustic intro, leading to crisp drumming, a wall of B3 and an inviting voice boasting a wide range, the track building to a powerful, sing-able chorus. This is pristine pop with a tough edge. No poofy dogs or veggie burgers here. The exceptional vocals skills of Mike Farley join with another secret weapon in guitarist Jeff Nagel, who turns in more than his share of instrumental flare and firepower, matched to a highly energetic rhythm section in bassist Jeff Beam and drummer Joe Rohan. Featuring what sounds like a double-tracked vocal, “Subtle No More” boasts one of those lovely mathematical constructions that would kick Julie Andrews into high gear, arms fully outstretched. Comparatively dour, the chorus – ripe with tight harmonies – remains a spirit-lifter, driven home by yet another guitar solo, played with razor-blade precision and absolute confidence. “Helpless” opens darkly, rendered even darker by Nagel’s guitar effects until the chorus injects its upbeat sense of hope, sweetening the deal. The raw, bittersweet aggression of “Pay Your Dues” rekindles notions of the criminally unheralded Graham Parker, as the band’s skintight rhythm section careens off Nagel’s relentless guitar energy. “I Don’t Know” offers up a butter-melting ballad with its “More wine, Dear?” guitar strum and mellow approach, its lofty chorus boasting head-turning harmonies together with tasteful levels of Nagel injections throughout. As solid as the opener.

“Back to Before” is another mercurial track driven by Scott Martin’s keyboards and the band’s distinctive wall of sound, bringing things to a chest-swelling conclusion. And who saw this ELO cover coming? Somewhat sacrosanct to tread on the perfect production of a Jeff Lynne composition but the band succeeds in toughening up this classic – right down to its strings component. Again, featuring powerful vocals from Farley (with an able assist from wife, Jen) and more blistering bits from Nagel, consider this a cover well-covered – itself a rarity. Like a post-coital cigarette comes “Weight of the World”, an ear-tugging ballad showcasing Farley’s extreme vocal range in the bargain. Synth strings undercut acoustic guitar with a concentration on the gentle vocal. The lush “Rain” makes a powerful end statement, a power-packed finale that marries the strengths of the band into a final crescendo. The song begins humbly enough on a delicate touch of keyboard, drums and acoustic guitar as Farley leads the listener down an ever-intensifying tunnel of layered textures – B3, guitar, vocals – each expanding and growing before exploding into the ozone. Not only is it a rare glimpse of a slightly harder rocking band, it addresses the potential of a power pop institution in full regalia, barely able to contain their drive to get on stage and play ­(preferably on the same stage and in the same town).

It’s this exact brand of excitement which is at the root of successful power pop – it’s what helps to create it, fuel it and drive it forward. Let’s hope the joy of playing together will be enough to grant the Mike Farley Band its legitimate second life, rekindling a much-missed genre through their enthusiastic drive and boundless energy.

DOWNLOAD: Rewrite History,” “Helpless,” “I Don’t Know


Album: Adieu

Artist: Logan Lynn

Label: self-released

Release Date: September 23, 2016


The Upshot: Thanks to smart lyrics, a strong mix of synths and sharp guitars and a knack for mixing in some truly inventive elements, Lynn moves well past what could have easily just been standard catchy pop songs.



The last time Logan Lynn put new music out into the world it was a charming Miley Cyrus cover about three years ago. His latest album, Adieu, is aligned much closer to classic ‘90s college rock – everyone from Liz Phair to the Dandy Warhols – than to ex-Disney stars turned Molly-diggin’ pop divas, though played through a classic theatrical rock filter.


As Lynn described the sound recently,there are moments on this record that feel really jaunty and bratty and as we were recording them I tried to keep this mental image of myself with a dancing cane, clicking my heels in the rain and moving through these very serious themes with a spring in my step, front and center. The whole thing is very jazz hands mental health crisis, frankly.”

So, yeah, pretty apt.


At 15 tracks, Lynn manages to keep the momentum up throughout the entire record thanks to smart lyrics, a strong mix of synths and sharp guitars and a knack for mixing in some truly inventive elements to what could have easily just been standard catchy pop songs (I’m not certain, but pretty sure they mixed in a loop of a Nancy Kerrigan crying out “Why?” after getting whacked in the knee at the end of the song “The One”).


Adieu is quite possibly his best yet, as each song here builds on the next for an impressively cohesive set, ending in the brilliantly wry “Oh, Lucifer”. Despite a mix of up tempo indie pop and more introspective piano tracks they fit together beautifully. Lynn continues to impress eight records into his career.


DOWNLOAD: “I Like it All the Time,” “I Am Like a Dog Now” and “Oh, Lucifer”


Boris 8/14/16, Chicago

Dates: August 14, 2016

Location: The Metro, Chicago IL

Metro Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Touring the US to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their classic album Pink, the Japanese psych samurai took over Chicago’s Metro venue on August 14.


Most appropriately, the Boris landed in Chicago on a Sunday.

The trio effortlessly served the faithful an aural communion; the dark baptism of destruction and fire with the light rebirth of joy and redemption. A curious walkway from the sermon, a feeling of being rejuvenated for the waiting week ahead.

I wonder if the departing congregation wasn’t also, feeling thankful; to be leaving with only having their vital organs moved, and not reduced to jelly.

Note: the Pink album is reissued, along with a bonus disc, on the Sargent House label.
Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

Chicago, IL. 08-14-2016

Chicago, IL.

MARY LYNN – My Animal

Album: My Animal

Artist: Mary Lynn

Label: Anyway

Release Date: September 23, 2016


The Upshot: Keyboard-powered indie pop that’s just about the freshest breath of musical air to date this year, from a young Columbus, Ohio, songwriter.


There’s a moment that cues up, three songs in, on this remarkable young songwriter’s second album. The track is called “Space,” and against a rollicking, romping backdrop of powerpop-gone-glam guitars ‘n’ keys and propulsive rhythms, the singer is heard, alternating between a low purr and a yearning yelp, pondering sundry existentialiality and the accompanying emotions (“what it means to be human”…. “I sit and wonder what could be”… “all the spaces between/I don’t know what it means”). Imagine a joyous summit between Liz Phair and Guided By Voices and you just might have a sense of what a gotta-hear-it-again-and-again tune this is.

Similar moments abound on My Animal. There’s “Funeral,” which showcases Mary Lynn’s ability to contrast downcast sentiments with optimistic sonics, the elegant piano-bass-drums arrangement bolstered by angelic backing vocals and strings. “Dreamin’ With You” is a classic slice of Seventies songwriter pop, upbeat and hookish, while “Tough Skin” is anthemic from start to finish, brassy/classy/sassy all at once. There’s sensitivity at play here, but—per that latter songtitle—the singer evinces an uncommon toughness, both lyrically and musically, that’s inspiring.

Mary Lynn Gloeckle arrives, in a sense (or at least for me), out of the blue; previously working in Columbus, Ohio, band This Is My Suitcase, she ultimately went solo, releasing her debut album Familiar Things and Places, assembling a backing band, and cutting this sophomore effort. notes that expanding her roster of collaborators, which includes her friend, veteran musician, and co-producer Joe Camerlengo, “adds sonic heft to her emotionally weighty piano confessionals. Despite the group’s growing headcount, the musician’s songs have remained intensely personal, filled with mentions of her shattered heart, her toughened skin and the legs that’ll one day walk her away from whatever problems might be plaguing her at a given moment.” That’s a pretty apt summary.

Ultimately, she found her way, however winding a path she took, to her present summit of serendipity. Because this little album—I mean “little” in the nicest way, as in “under-the-radar” and “delightfully indie,” not “insubstantial”—is just about the freshest breath of musical air I’ve had all year. (A couple of times while listening to it, I thought of another gifted Mary from a number of years ago, Mary Lou Lord, who of course was one of those fresh-breath artists who helped make musical life tolerable in the alt-rock world a couple of decades ago.) We’ve got several more months, to go, but I think it’s pretty rarified air, at that.

Consumer Note: If you can score the wax, don’t pass up the chance. The vinyl edition was pressed on gold, blue, or coke-bottle clear/greenish. (Mine’s the latter. It is gorgeous.) You know you want it.

DOWNLOAD: “Space,” “Tough Skin,” “Funeral”

GOODBYE BLUE – Worth the Wait

Album: Worth the Wait

Artist: Goodbye Blue

Label: Wondermore

Release Date: March 25, 2016


The Upshot: Despite the baggage of raising a family and the impracticalities of making it work on the road, there is an answer to a husband and wife making beautiful music together – and folding some of that hard-earned, real life experience back into their craft, making the work all the more powerful.


 Charlotte Kendrick and Dan Rowe found each other through music. They both grew up playing it, bathed in its lifelong influences through childhood and beyond. The relatively introspective Kendrick couldn’t shake its grasp, despite a natural shyness, while Rowe formed a band early on and stuck with it for 15 years. That they would fall in love is not mystery but that they could make it work beyond the extreme rigors of raising a family, distinguishes them on many levels. Even better, this inaugural release, the aptly-named Worth the Wait, has resulted in a head-turning debut as one entity – Kendrick having released 3 Dan-produced solo discs, prior. Charlotte’s is the key voice, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar while Dan plays both electric and upright bass while serving up smooth, harmonic support. He’s also half the production team with exceptional guitarist Liam Bailey, who adds volumes with his electric/acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, Wurlitzer and vocals. Self-branded as Americana/Folk, this disc delivers on a somewhat nostalgic line of folk-rock from a time when the singer-songwriter sounds of Andrew Gold, Joni Mitchell and JD Souther melded with America, the Eagles and CSN – offering a slight revisit to the infectious wave of folk/country rock that overpowered radio back in the ‘70s, lifting spirits and ideals along with way. Why not? Just because life can prove to be less the party than was promised makes these 9 sturdy originals all the more valid, if not invaluable. Life delivers both light and dark and the semi-autobiographical honesty served up on Worth the Wait reveals the outcomes of the choices we make, towards navigating the course we choose – a common connector to us all. Yet this is no time warp. Worth the Wait fully grasps the consequences, turning them to advantage. With a powerful lead-off track, Charlotte’s sharp-edged, distinct voice – softened by acoustic guitar and fledgling banjo – builds “Another One on the Way” gradually. Within a minute, the addition of harmonies, a full band and a strong chorus crafted from a sturdy hook transforms it into a full-tilt song that sends a welcome chill down your back. This is the real world and it feels good. Kendrick’s voice grows on you in record time – its distinctive sharpness molding itself into a gentle yet expressive warmth well-suited to the honest edge of her lyrics. Add in (husband) Dan Rowe’s whisper-soft harmonies and the shivers come fast and furious as each song bursts into full blossom, given smart, tidy arrangements with a rich, full-band sound distinguished by a gentle bed of banjo and acoustic guitars. Four of the prettiest notes on the album might be those adorning the title track, oft repeated, compliments of Bailey’s electric guitar as Kendrick’s vocals meld with banjo to create the penultimate band track – firing on all cylinders – and impossible to ignore. The strong, bluegrass bent of “It’s Complicated” makes for the perfect soundtrack to do chores or cleaning house or anything else you can pull off when the kids are asleep – a mellowing moment. The sheer beauty of “Where Did I Go” proves another highlight – as Kendrick’s voice gets a lush workout while the Sweet Baby James-style backup vocals provided by Rowe lift the piece to ‘best-of’ status, further elevated by the rich backdrop of Bailey’s liquid-toned guitar and Brian Keane’s keyboards. The fiddle and dobro-rich “Six Years” ups the up-tempo country ante on this self-affirming take on the great unknown of relationship-building. The combination of Smith Curry’s Dobro skills grounded by fiddle, makes for the perfect complement to this buoyant, hook-inflected tribute to their relationship thus far. “Light The Way” is another great vehicle for Kendrick’s voice, reverently rendered with a tasteful blend of electric guitar and fiddle, creating another stand-out track. The banjo intro to “Hey Kid” might suggest levity yet the song is more an ode to sacrifice and self-identity – in light of choosing children over career – so shared by so many selfless parents answering the age-old, natural call of procreation. The addition of dual fiddle, Rowe’s ultra-warm acoustic bass and Khemani’s oversized percussion adds a positive takeaway, if not a soothing sense of gravity, to the piece.

Out on a high, “By Firelight” chugs along like a well-oiled house party on the back of Bailey’s exceptional Dobro, Khemani’s crisp traps and a wall of perky acoustic guitars. Goodbye Blue is a celebration of pastoral life, aided and abetted by the real-life drama of family life and grown-up challenges. In short, whether it leans on folk, country or bluegrass influences, there’s an intimacy and honesty to what’s going on here in untold proportions. It’s a far cry from the cutesy songs about kids around the campfire that so many others can’t seem to avoid. There are no dragons or ooey-gooey spiders required, nor would they make sense here. It’s simply a lovely, downhome take on life as we know it by a talented couple with kids, tastefully supported by equally talented friends. As such, it hits a nerve with anyone who copes with the real world on a positive, realistic basis, making it an encouraging salve against the weariness that sometimes comes with the territory.

DOWNLOAD: Another One on the Way,” “Worth the Wait

C.A. QUINTET – A Trip Thru Hell (LP)

Album: A Trip Thru Hell (LP)

Artist: C.A. Quintet

Label: Sundazed

Release Date: March 11, 2016


The Upshot: Vinyl reissue of legendary ’69 epic, expertly recreated for the iPod generation newly envious of their parents’ collections.


It’s likely overstatement to assert that there’s never been another album like C.A. Quintet’s spooky psychedelic masterwork A Trip Thru Hell, but it’s fair to say that the hit parade has never featured anything similar. Released in 1969 on a tiny label called Candy Floss, A Trip Thru Hell sold only locally; fewer than 1000 copies are thought to have been pressed, and those that did sell we bought locally by fans of the Minneapolis band. Original copies do occasionally change hands, but when they do, the prices range from $1500 and up.

There have been several reissues of A Trip Thru Hell, most on relatively small labels with limited distribution. A CD release in the mid 1990s added a dozen bonus tracks, including covers of “Mickey’s Monkey” and “I Put a Spell on You” plus some alternate mixes/takes of album tracks. Eventually each of the reissues went out of print, too.

In 2016 Sundazed Records reissued A Trip Thru Hell, and in keeping with the revered archival label’s approach, that vinyl release is as close to as possible a straight reissue of the LP as released in ’69. Save for a stylized Sundazed logo and the UPC code, the 2016 release looks like a pristine copy of the original. Consider the translucent orange vinyl disc itself as an upgrade to the black-vinyl original.

The music from this obscure group varies widely: The two tracks that bookend the record – the nine-minute “A Trip Thru Hell (Part I)” and a shorter reprise – feature wordless moaning from soprano Toni Crockett. The keyboard textures will be familiar to fans of the Doors and very early Pink Floyd. Doug Reynolds’ organ (either a Vox or Farfisa) conjures no end of spookiness. The band’s regular lead vocalist and songwriter Ken Erwin also turns in some melodic but eerie trumpet that’s miles away from what Herb Alpert was doing.

“Colorado Mourning” bows toward pop convention with its conventional length (two minutes and change) but is otherwise pretty odd stuff, with Erwin’s vocals buried in the mix. Strains of “A Trip Thru Hell” appear near the track’s end.

“Cold Spider” shows the influences of Bob Dylan (lyrical phrasing) as well as something of a jazz sensibility, especially in the nimble, exploratory bass work of Jim Erwin and Rick Johnson’s drumming. Some impassioned yowls add to the track’s unsettling vibe, and when – two minutes in – Tom Pohling lets looks with a gonzo electric guitar solo, the sound veers between heavy psych and avant garde.

“Underground Music” is a head-snapping musical left turn. Sounding a bit like a demented, druggy rethink of the Association with the Tijuana Brass helping out, the tune is all rubbery, reverbed guitar lines and impossibly catchy call-and-response choruses with vocals and trumpets in dialogue. The song’s solo leans heavily on wah-wah pedaling and fuzztone, and the result is as freaky as pop music got in ’69. In fact, by 1969 this kind of music was already pretty well out of vogue, having seen its period of popularity come and go a year or so earlier. But if one ignores the year of origin, it’s a classic of psychedelia at its finest.

“Sleep Hollow Lane” is as close as C.A. Quintet would ever come to a conventional pop song. But it’s still not very close; while at times the vocal harmonies evoke mental visions of a quartet in turtleneck sweaters and blazers, the tune’s constantly-shifting time signatures keep the listener delightfully off-balance.

“Smooth as Silk” is anything but. An ambitious tune in which every instrumentalist and vocalist shines,   it rocks aggressively. But the sonorous vocals and Ken Erwin’s trumpet (here reminiscent of Love’s Forever Changes) give the song a pop sensibility that balances the darker tone of melody.

The disc’s reprise of “A Trip Thru Hell” closes the record, and starts out with a completely different melody than the opening track. Ken Erwin and Toni Crockett duet an octave apart, and Crockett adds more of her superb high-end wordless warbling. Pohling’s guitar is made to sound a bit like a sitar, and when the main theme briefly appears, it ties things together nicely. A bit of ersatz lounge jazz is only the latest (and last) musical change-up on a wonderfully varied record. Some backwards guitar gives way to a final freakout/noisefest that wraps the album.

Rod Eaton’s blood-toned cover art recalls Hieronymus Bosch, and it’s expertly recreated on this flawless Sundazed reissue. Fans of psychedelia at its darkest likely have this rarity in their CD collections already; this new release allows them to add a faithful reproduction of the original LP to their shelves.

DOWNLOAD: “A Trip Thru Hell (Part I),” “Smooth as Silk,” “Underground Music”


Album: Red Hand

Artist: Michael Rank

Label: Louds Hymn

Release Date: July 15, 2016


The Upshot: A thoroughly convincing explication of the old weird Americana, rustic in vibe and intimate in theme, and guaranteed to leave the listener transformed.


The sound of a man not just coming to terms with himself, but coming to peace with the outside world, Red Hand finds erstwhile Snatches of Pink frontman Michael Rank accepting—though not surrendering to—life’s vicissitudes, and taking solace in its little victories. With 2015’s previous Horsehair (billed, as were its four predecessors, to Michael Rank and Stag, all cut during a whirlwind, remarkably prolific three-year period; this time, it’s only his name above the title), you could begin to sense that Rank had repaired himself following a devastating marital disintegration that rendered him a single dad and left him, though determined to indeed come back, on the ropes. (As I noted in my review of 2012’s two-CD Kin, the marriage “left permanent scars… with all the bile, bitterness, recrimination, desperation, self-loathing, backpedaling, and grasping at straws that a person could possibly summon amid the emotional wreckage.”)

Now, things are different. Even the much-commented-upon Gram/Emmylou vibe of Horsehair, which featured as Rank’s vocal foil Heather McEntire (of fellow Tarheel outfit Mount Moriah), has been altered in the service of the material. McEntire returns to reprise her role, but that, too, is different; she’s less the backing vocalist and sometime duet partner, and more a sonic equal, with the pair sharing the mic in harmony on practically every chorus and verse. In addition, Red Hand has a thoroughly rustic vibe, and while even back during Snatches days Rank was fond of deploying both drawl and twang, this time around he’s immersed himself fully in his Appalachian roots, the album steeped in that old weird Americana that the Band and their ilk latched onto all those decades ago. Just opening track “River Road” alone could convince the casual listener that this was a long-lost collection from the early ‘70s—when a young generation was rediscovering an even earlier generation’s contributions to the grand musical quilt of our country—what with the spare fiddle lines, unhurried rhythm, and the Rank-McEntire celebration of getting along, and in turn, getting by:

“Gonna raise a family
Got this picture of what (that) should be
Still water lies ahead of me
Reflecting all I’ve done…

Doing alright in the morning
Doing alright right around midday
Doing alright in the meantime
Honey that’s more than most can say
Oh honey that’s more than most can say…”

A couple of songs later, in “Jacob,” against a serene backdrop of acoustic guitar and pedal steel, the duo ruminates on the titular character, presumably a child (“I hear you’re doing a little better than you had been doing/ Some time ago/ That boy, he’s growing like a cornstalk/ Swaying in some field”), and how the history between the singer and person being addressed, though ephemeral, remains sacred (“We’re just two ghosts living on borrowed time”). Autobiography or allegory? Knowing how much Rank worships his own young son—I’ve met him, and it’s easy to see why—it’s certainly tempting to pick the former. Either way, it’s as moving as it comes.

Circling back to that Gram/Emmylou notion for just a moment: At multiple points on the record, it’s hard not to think of Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, both before and during the personal upheavals that made some of Fleetwood Mac’s middle period so enduring. (Musically, “Jacob” even recalls “Silver Spring,” which Nicks of course was singing to Buckingham.) Red Hand feels more like those collaborations than the Parsons-Harris outings, for as noted above, Rank and McEntire sing almost exclusively in two-part harmony. Even if all the songs were written by Rank, there are moments so intimate it’s hard not to imagine McEntire having some say here and there in the vocal arrangements.

With that in mind… Red Hand comes together most joyfully and most satisfyingly on the sixth song, midway in. A folk/country/bluegrass ballad featuring guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and pedal steel, it’s titled “The Lord He Take Away” and it not only recalls one of Neil Young’s classic melodies (“After the Gold Rush”), it also bears echoes of Young’s “Powderfinger,” antiqued and sepia-toned, and chronicling a loss borne of violence, determined by fatalism:

“Well I heard them boys came calling
I heard you shot one down
I’m a black hat nailed to an old dead house
Ain’t no one been around

I been walking these roads all summer
That breeze its done shut down
If it’s the weight of the world I’ve been feeling these days
I just might have to set it down

And honey it’s alright
There ain’t nothing left for us here tonight
And baby it ain’t our fight
The Lord he give
And the Lord He take away.”


This is what we used to call a “slow-burn” album, one which unfolds at its own pace and on its own terms. The melodies and hooks aren’t obscure, although they can be subtle at times, while the lyrics attain gravity on a gradual basis, through repeated listening to the ways the two singers phrase them, both in tandem and in divergence. The record’s pleasures aren’t fleeting, but profound; and if you have the time to spend with it—not necessarily analyzing, but rather taking it in capturing the stray nuance alongside the bolder sonic or thematic statements—you can’t help but come away from it changed. Transformed, even.

DOWNLOAD: “The Lord He Take Away,” “Jacob,” “The Songs We’ve Learned”

THE CONNELLS – Stone Cold Yesterday: Best of The Connells

Album: Stone Cold Yesterday: Best of The Connells

Artist: Connells

Label: The Bicycle Music Company/Concord Music Group

Release Date: September 09, 2016


The Upshot: Tarheel janglepop mainstays of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – who continue to perform occasionally – revisit their salad days.


How is it that no one has managed to put out a ‘Best Of’ from one of jangle pop’s best of until now?

The Connells are easily one of the genre’s most influential – if not as well-known – alongside peers like R.E.M., but despite a run of singles that were played all over college radio stations from the late’80s through the mid ‘90s, the band never really rose that far above cult status here in the U.S. The R.E. M. comparisons were pretty easy early on, thanks to a shared producer (Mitch Easter) and the fact that music writers and record execs considered the southeast to be one all-encompassing scene, despite hundreds of miles of geography as stark differences between Raleigh, NC and Athens, GA. While R.E.M. continued to build a fan base at remarkable speeds from record to record, The Connells had a much more measured organic growth. The steady, slow-building Celtic-influenced “’74-‘75”, coming as the band were thinking off calling it quits three records in, brought them a top 20 hit in several countries across Europe – something they were unaccustomed to on the home turf. The resulting success was apparently enough to keep the band plugging away, as they continued to turn out records up until 2001.

As laid out in the 16 tracks here, collecting songs from 1987-1998, you can hear subtle changes in the band’s sound, from “Over There,” off the band’s second album, Boylan Heights up to the jig and reel-spiked “Scotty’s Lament” off of Still Life. The album’s sequence is not chronological, which is frustrating to those looking to easily track the band’s evolution, but it’s also satisfying to hear that despite the years, they never really gave up on their original sound.

The band held a one-off reunion in their hometown of Raleigh two years ago to celebrate their 30th anniversary and rumors have been popping up over the past few years that new songs are being worked on, but the more time passes the less likely that appears to be happening. [Ed. Note: The band also recently got back together to perform at BLURT’s sister business Schoolkids Records, of Raleigh, NC, during one of our Hopscotch Festival day parties and will also do a hometown show this coming Saturday, Sept. 17.] If nothing else, the band left a slew of great songs behind and with the release of their Stone Cold Yesterday, there’s hope for a new generation to discover one of music’s best kept secrets.

DOWNLOAD: “Crown,” “’74-75’” and “Still Life”