Davenport Cabinet – Damned Renegades (2014)

WP_20141019_001Equal Vision Records ■ EVR295

Released September 30, 2014

Produced by Davenport Cabinet
Mixed by Mike Major
Side One: Side Two:
  1. 41°15’22.0″ N
  2. Everyone Surrounding
  3. Aneris
  4. Bulldozer
  5. In Orbit
  6. Sorry for Me
  1. 74°21’31.7″ W
  2. Students of Disaster
  3. Damned Rengegades
  4. Glass Balloon
  5. Missing Pieces
  6. Graves of the Great War

 

 

Thanks to the questionable choices of WordPress¹, I lost about two hours solid of writing on the initial draft of this, which left me irritated enough to just sit—writing irritated on something like this is a recipe for disaster.

Now, then.

It’s not for nothing that I restart a previously dormant project.  I’ve been mostly running things (in an entirely different style) at Meandering Milieu, covering more in the range of comics and movies than anything else. Music never really stops being an important part of my world, but this particular blog (as I noted in my review of the previous album by Davenport Cabinet) is not really suited to writing during full-fledged employment, as it takes a pretty hefty time investment to do it the justice I intend.

Why, then, is it being revived?

Well, a few weeks ago I was at a show and met Travis Stever of Davenport Cabinet. After some jokes passed around the circle², I mentioned that I’d written the “vinyl” review of Our Machine and Mr. Stever very amicably told me he’d liked it and asked me to let him know what I thought of the new album. In my head, there was a twinge: I’d recently fallen out of favour with the employment gods, and had not pre-ordered the album as I’d hoped, but figured I’d just drop a line when I got around to it. I thought it was kind to respond with memory, but figured the chances that my one rambling writing had struck enough of a chord to stick were pretty low and let it be (and enjoyed the show).

Turns out, I may’ve been mistaken, as I was prodded out of the blue with a very polite question about actually writing something on the new album—after a moment of stunned confusion and pancake-levels of flattery, I agreed and snagged a promotional copy. Turns out that, taking pity on my financial state, this particular album (in the ultra-fancy, all-the-bells-and-whistles bundle form) had been pre-ordered for me by my own mother (thanks, ma!), of which I was notified after I mentioned the shocking request. That, then, is how a not-vinyl promotional copy was reviewed on vinyl and photographed poorly above, should you be curious.

Now, I realize that with a context like this, it might seem as if I’ve either been buttered, or am aiming to do so myself. I can very, very strongly testify to the contrary: that two hours I lost was crushing. It takes a lot to put this particular approach together, and that informs, further, why it’s not at all fun to do for anything mediocre (or less!). Witha predecessor like Our Machine, though, it’s not a huge gamble–it was in my Top 5 for the year last year—vacillating between two and three because I’m indecisive. These things together meant I was confident that doing this would be worthwhile to myself, anyone reading, and the band in question, with no questions about ethics (barring those who just can’t resist)

It’s a set of coordinates on which we open the album: “41°15’22.0″ N”. Deep, warm tones are interrupted and subsumed by sharp, distinct, clean guitar and the long-drawn bows of E’lissa Jones’s violin and viola. It’s quiet and a bit sad, the guitars acting to counter the other strings, but only slightly–it’s something truly weighty through which they press.

Snake-like muscular guitar starts “Everyone Surrounding”, with Michael Robert Hickey’s drums and Tom Farkas’s bass thudding beneath it, while additional guitar draws a web of suspension around that weight. Thanks to a comment from that same Hickey on a video for this very song, I know that the voices are Tyler Klose’s, multi-tracked. If the guitars’ undulations are snake-like, his voice is just riding the waves, until that chorus: “Don’t break down, don’t give it up, you got it/They were wrong about everything you wanted”, where his voice reaches high and chops to a rapid tempo, highlighting the space and lengthy syllables of the line that follows, which emphasizes the song’s title. Indeed, it is that line which finally closes the song, lowering as if defeated to ring for only a moment.

“Aneris” contrasts with the muscle of “Everyone Surrounding” by focusing its introduction on a distinctly picked melodic line. Hickey and Farkas then push the track out of this lazy swing with a thumping beat. The voices in verse are more in line with the feel of the guitars, even when set against that same thumping beat. But when they are kicked into the chorus by a perfect alternation of tom and kick thumps with cymbal and hat work, it hits the kind of chorus that is a lot of what I love about Davenport’s songs: “Talented with bringing the end/Maiden of structure music of minute hand/Broken circles will spin around again”. It’s complemented perfectly by Hickey’s percussive choices and skips along, zigging and zagging up and down in a delightful way. The bridge that follows its second run abandons that for bright, ringing guitar and shorter repetition: “She won’t leave She won’t let you fall/She won’t speak She is above it all”, which takes the instruments back through their first two progressions neatly and catchily, to their end.

Despite the title, “Bulldozer” spends much of its time rather restrained. The opening lacks restraint, in the best possible way: it has a tone that immediately makes me think of Davenport Cabinet as a sound, and, when I first heard it, brought a smile to my face as it confirmed that this was the same band, not a leap entirely away from what had already come. It’s warm and round, akin to a Jeff Lynne sound, though a bit more muted, which is such a wonderful touch that it’s difficult to express how good it just feels. The instruments seem to lead the voices around by their noses, until the words take control: “And never speak my name again to anyone”—the relaxed feel of the song is gone with Hickey pounding away (with a nice touch to the beat that stops it from being simple on-beats) under absolutely electric electric leads. The brakes are put on shortly, though: “And nothing can take you away from me”, returning the song to that tone. When the bridge begins and says, “Will we find a common ground?” I can only respond “Yes,” as the song itself finds a balance between the subdued introduction and the ever-increasing wave that leads to and through the chorus. A brief isolation of muted guitar introduces Scott Styles’s guest solo, which flies off into the stratosphere and perfectly meshes with the return to the tight curls of the chorus’s crescendo which gets one more run through, leaving us with a twinned set of guitar lines.

“In Orbit” lets Hickery veritably paradiddle his way through it, scaling things back and down with that snare focus underpinning a remote slide guitar lead that dips in and out around clean picking that is relatively low in the mix, letting Farkas’s most melodic bass-line drive the song more comfortably. The drums and vocals give the feeling of a sort of impromptu performance of musicians at a porch, or something of that ilk—which is only enhanced by the chorus, which is an excellent example of the harmonized vocals the band favours. It’s a bit of an odd mix: the slide is like something from space, but the rest of the track is utterly earthen. Though the former is not present, the bridge still manages to bring the sounds most completely together, culminating in a sharply toned and soulful lead line that marries the two elements for good.

As if still floating in orbit, slightly reverbed guitar sprinkles out notes in the darkness in “Sorry for Me”, until a lead-in fill from Michael’s drums lights the fuse and the song charges out of the gate. Smooth and slickened slide runs up and down the track’s steady momentum, and then spreads open to a ringing chime—that guitar that was out in space just a few moments earlier. The chorus is falsetto call of the song’s title for normal range answer—“Whenever the captors let me go”—and it actually lets the tempo breathe just a bit. It’s a good thing, as when it comes around again, it’s leading to a winding solo and lead from the guitars that Farkas anchors the hell out of and Hickey creatively backs. A kind of knowing repetition follows the final line, which is indeed heard over and over: “And I’m sorry again”, almost like a broken record, skipping and slowly diminishing to tremolo’d guitar lines that waver out, left to hang as most repeated apologies are. As I played the vinyl version for the first time, I sat hoping, avoiding confirmation, that this would end Side one—not because I wanted it to be over, but because it was the exact right way to end a side. And so I was right—whether by coincidence or agreed plans, I know not.

More coordinates open the second side of the album—“ 74°21’31.7″ W”—and Michael Robert Hickey is left to really shine in his second job: that of string arranger. This time, there is no accompaniment from any rock instruments at all, just a woosh of space and quavering orchestral strings from Jones again, though this intro is yet more brief than the last.

If there was any concern about a relative hesitation to flat out rock on this album, “Students of Disaster” throws it out the window after giving it a good swift kick. Drums crash in and guitars thunder after them, harmonized through melodic leads held to a jolting stop by Farkas’s bass. This time, they don’t really relent for vocals, with even noodling guitar fills sneaking in here or there. While I associate Travis’s voice most strongly with the first time I recall hearing it in isolation—a cover of the Band’s version of “I Shall Be Released”, lending itself more toward folk-rock applications, then—this is where it shines out in its perfect place (recalling somewhat Fire Deuce!). Soaring up to carry the chorus through tinges of the nostalgia that has lingered in all recordings (including the first album, which references it explicitly), it’s almost forgotten when the solo kicks in, book-ended perfectly by runs of that almost operatic chorus. Those big ol’ down-strokes on the chunky riffing just frame the whole thing in great big drapes of rock, which is exactly what it goes out on.

Perhaps to balance out the in-your-face-ness of “Students of Disaster”,  the title track that follows is shimmering guitars and even bells, answered by an early Thin Lizzy-esque (we’re talking Vagabonds of the Western World at the latest, and moreso the eponymous debut or Shades of a Blue Orphanage) lead. With phrases like “bag of bones”, “bourbon on my breath” and a title like “Damned Renegades”, there’s a feeling of morose, cowboy campfire tones—enhanced by the Mariachi-like touch of Gabriel Jasmin’s trumpet. The most emphatically instrumental passage of the album is sandwiched in here, with a knotted guitar solo, increasingly plaintive calls from that horn, and stampeding drums—the only voices that follow are non-verbal.

When “Glass Balloon” first started, I thought all the impressions “Renegades” gave me might have been right: a collision of Thin Lizzy’s early sound with a later choice—the sudden up-turn of their “Cowboy Song” to barnstormer. But no, “Glass Balloon” is expertly placed, but independent. Perhaps my favourite of the straight riffs with a nice little hammer-on/off kick to it runs the tune, even when there’s a lead laid over it. Interesting vocal choices mark the brief moments before that riff returns: “But screaming…to fill the void/Speaking to carelessly until I was so ready to go”—that pregnant pause before “to fill the void” is one of those choices that looks weird in words, but sounds strangely right when sung. Hickey’s rampaging snare brings in a new movement: deep, sawing riffs and a trill of distant lead thud and thump up to a four-on-the-floor pounding, which only harmonized guitars can rescue us from the punishment of. A lightly phased refrain of “So ready to go” repeats over that awesome riff, with bending, screeching solo—and suddenly halts.

With that built-in sound of “penultimate track” we come to “Missing Pieces”. Acoustic chords and pointy—I think that’s a 12-string?—electric licks are the fanciest of decorations on the track. It’s more song than showcase, in the least denigrating sense possible.  Somber like the title track, but somewhat more hopeful, “Pieces” is a vent for what came just before, not lost for energy, but redirecting it to vocal performance and emoting the core. A quiet passage of bass and guitar marriage helps to enhance the relaxing feel of the song, which shifts the vocals to a distant place in the mix, slowly fading them out with the rest of the track.

“Graves of the Great War” is unquestionably a closer. Timpani rolls in with piano (courtesy of Hickey) and guitar on a slow, steady beat, a kind of dirge, almost. The insistence and power of Klose and Stever is abandoned in vocal, “Aaaahs” chant-like in the background. “We floated your way/There’s not a soul to save/Our journey/Your place” they call out, momentarily re-ignited as if to make the depths of this more clear. And then holy dear lord that guitar. It brings to mind Eddie Hazel, just a bit, to touch on some truly hallowed ground, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome or take it too far. It just spirals out there, emotional fireworks, and then lets the song roll out on its own, strings sweeping in over the beat to find another solo that is just as perfectly controlled and restrained (excellent work, gentlemen!).

The most important takeaway I had from this album was its progression from the previous: Nostalgia in Stereo was Travis working out on his own, Our Machine saw the addition of Tyler to give the nascent band an even clearer identity, and now, with the addition of a selected rhythm section (instead of take-what-comes, get-what-you-can as before) really makes itself known. This is the sound of a qualified band this time around. In a year that’s seen the return of Aphex Twin after a decade away, and Braid after even longer, the still-lit spark of a band growing and finding itself, while still retaining enough of its own seeds to be recognizable as progression rather than overhaul shows its worth. Balanced and weighted properly, with care in production, construction, movement, and placement—that’s something not always seen in general, and even less so in this day and age.

I’ve sat here after solid, straight-through listening and then careful dissection (twice, in an even mix of misfortune and fortune—the latter coming from listening again) to find only more to appreciate. This is going to end up somewhere near the top this year, which is no small feat at this point. I would not be surprised if it finally settles into place before all the rest. The way that every instrument, from drum to bass to guitar to vocal serves its purpose and never becomes rote or mechanical, beyond the respects in which a section demands it acquiesce for the “greater good”—an invigorating and heartening thing to hear.

Give the thing a spin, then another, then buy it (I know how you modern audiences work!) and play it some more. I suspect it’s only going to get better—whether “it” is this album, or this band.

¹Apparently, knowing that one “New Post” link fails to trigger auto-saving for a year and a half doesn’t encourage anyone to do anything. Even just remove the bloody link. That will teach me to be used to Blogger’s fully-functional auto-saving…

²”Circle” meaning “Coheed and Cambria”, which is who I was there to see, on a fancy-pants ticket I pre-ordered before becoming unexpectedly unemployed. It turns out I coincidentally share initials with his son! Craziness.

 

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Number Eight: Jason Isbell – Southeastern (2013)

Southeastern Records ■ SER 9984
Released June 11, 2013
Produced by Dave Cobb




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Cover Me Up
  2. Stockholm
  3. Traveling Alone
  4. Elephant
  5. Flying Over Water
  6. Different Days
  1. Live Oak
  2. Songs that She Sang in the Shower
  3. New South Wales
  4. Super 8
  5. Yvette
  6. Relatively Easy

I suppose it’s a given that I know Isbell from the Drive-By Truckers, but the truth is I got into them via 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which postdates both his final album with the band (2006’s A Blessing and a Curse) and his debut solo record (2007’s Sirens of the Ditch). This put me in the strange and seemingly unenviable position of liking a band in what was considered a reduced state; many felt they’d declined severely after his exit, even with the natural caveats for the remaining members. It made me–as such things do–wary of his solo work, as it doesn’t give the greatest impression of anyone’s fans to often couch that fandom in dismissal of something else.

Still, during a random bit of shopping in 2010, I ran into his second post-DBT album, the one which eponymously named his band the 400 Unit, and fell madly in love (after all, wariness is not cause for dismissal, either!) with it. Since then, of course, he has released, inbetween that and this, 2011’s Here We Rest, still with the 400 Unit, and in post-or-mid-I’m-not-quite-sure start to sobriety. A lot of people prefer that record and this one, as I even found zero songs from that favourite four years ago in the last set I saw him play.
A lot of people called this one out around release as a pretty solid candidate for album of the year (the first I recall being someone I used to work with) and in principle I most definitely cannot disagree. Here We Rest felt a little more scattered to me than Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–not weaker, mind you, just less focused. While Southeastern abandons a lot of the rock that drives that self-titled record (not all, though), it stays the course it chooses to perfectly to find any criticism in this.
“Cover Me Up” begins a small chain of breath-taking odes to Isbell’s wife, Amanda Isbell (née Shires), though perhaps the only one explicitly and directly that: it’s Jason accompanied only by himself, albeit multi-tracked. But as it starts, it’s just his lone acoustic, and his voice, with his slide creeping in only at the edges, crisp and lively. It rolls along at a steady pace, his voice low and almost whispered in its intimacy, but reaches for the ceiling at the chorus, and very nearly tears through it.
Should you feel discomfort with that intimacy, it is interrupted at the right moment by the shift to “Stockholm”, which brings a full band into play–not quite the 400 Unit, though it shares with the Unit Chad Gamble on Drums and Derry (ex-Son Volt) DeBorja on keys. Though the instinct, particularly in light of the lyrics, is to expect the mutually musical Amanda to join him, the voice heard alongside him is that of Kim Richey. DeBorja gets his most powerful appearance on the record here, the shuffling thump of Gamble and Brian Allen’s bass anchors it, but it is moved most explicitly by those keys, and, to some extent, the fried, electric riffs of Isbell himself. It’s love as Stockholm Syndrome, but with no intimations of negative association beyond the name itself–it’s the captivity breeding intimacy, but not the sense of forced captivity (though one can’t be certain: then-Shires was the one who ended up sticking him in rehab).
My father–who shares my appreciation, and got the album for Father’s Day from me–has told me that he has heard a fair bit of play on the radio for “Traveling Alone”, and it’s understandable, as it’s something like a balance between the heartfelt, unfiltered emotion of “Cover Me Up” and the power and winking joy of “Stockholm”, and this time it is Amanda alongside him, not only harmonizing but adding her fiddle to the track. In a strange way, it’s just vaguely reminiscent of Whiskeytown’s matching of Caitlin Cary’s fiddle with Isbell’s recent tourmate and friend Ryan Adams’s voice. Amanda’s playing shows that she typically fronts a band on her time, though, having a bit more elbowed jostling to the front in it–not in a bad way, but indicative of the playing that she does.
I don’t pay enough attention to know for certain that it’s seen this way, but I have difficulty imagining there aren’t a fair number of people treating “Elephant” as the centerpiece of the album. It’s another purely solo track (so long as we allow time-traveling clones to count, or however you would count overdubs), and it’s emotionally bare in entirely another fashion–the word doesn’t appear for a number of verses, and even then isn’t used in a way that literally states it, but it’s plain that Jason (as “Andy”) is singing of a dear friend lost to cancer. A writer like Isbell is ideal for addressing this: there’s rumpled reality to both “Andy” and his friend, with her actual character described in the song outside of what is happening to her, and Andy’s description of events conveying it instead. The elephant that’s in the room, though he says they both ignored it, we can hear from his point of view is not being missed at all, with her instead defiantly ignoring it outwardly, even “mak[ing] cancer jokes”. There’s no telling, without trawling interviews, if it is personally real, or some kind of amalgamation of experiences–and it doesn’t matter. It hits exactly as it should, never becoming syrupy, or even overly morose, defining itself with its last variation on the bridge and chorus: “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me, no one dies with dignity, we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
After the weight of “Elephant”, another electrified track like “Flying Over Water” is very welcome: it’s also back to a full band, though the pounded out intro gives way to loose electric chords, Jason’s voice and quiet taps on the rim from Gamble. Much of the time I am miserable at ascertaining lyrical intention from a songwriter who is not absolutely explicit, but I’m left with the notion that this is about the move (which is explicitly referenced, or damn near it) Isbell made from Muscle Shoals (in Alabama) to Nashville, TN. It’s questioning, concern, worry about a change, a move–and what might be lost in the process, it seems.
Though it begins with hints that it will return to the solo approach, Allen’s bass joins him early, and DeBorja flavours the largely acoustic chord-based “Different Days” with keys. Isbell straddles something like mourning for the life he used to live and an approving embrace of what comes now–mourning may not be the word, as there’s more regret in the days than there is to leaving them.
Side Two opens with perhaps the most haunting track: “Live Oak”. Introduced purely a cappella, I missed a lot of details in the song when I first heard it that clarify that it is not directly autobiographical–a history of murder, robbery, and having a sheriff on his back. Indeed, this is driven home by the muted, chunky, low, burnt chords of a guitar that emulates the kind employed by Ennio Morricone, crossed with the less dramatic version of the same used by the likes of Sun Records-era Johnny Cash. But, though I missed all that, I was not wrong in hearing autobiography, Isbell has admitted–there’s a fear of what he lost of himself in sobriety, hinted at in the track that closed Side One, but here made explicit, in the context of the relationship that inspired “Cover Me Up”–a scary thing indeed.
Sliding back in time, “Songs She Sang in the Shower” is the spiky, hell-raising not-yet-sober kind of Isbell: as described, it oozes with regret and self-doubt, but tempered by the fatalistic, “I deserve this” kind of thinking that tends to perpetuate that. It’s never more clear than after “she” leaves: “In a room by myself, looks like I’m here with the guy that I judge worse than anyone else”. And as such things often are, he’s stuck on the most seemingly innocuous of reminders, the songs that she sang in the shower, which “experience tells me that I’ll never hear them again, without thinking of then”.
“New South Wales” brings some much-needed warmth to the album after that string of tracks, with Allen and Gamble acting only as a light anchor behind what largely remains an effectively solo track. While the first two songs on the album are clear in describing love as the finding of home, here it’s just the finding of something that amounts to home, however it’s arrived at, the notion of finding a place that feels safe and warm and, well, home-y.
Finally shifting things into an out-and-out rollicking rock movement, “Super 8” breaks the delicate tension of emotions and sounds that preceded it with the lick of flame that is the wild and “sloppy” slide of a well-done barnstormer. A sense of humour about wild days past and the decision to make them exactly that–past, not wild–the most ridiculous phrasing of it: “Don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel, just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well, if I ever get back to Bristol I’m better off sleeping in the county jail.” A morning that finds him “not quite breathing” that ends momentarily with “looks like that’s all she wrote” and the song seems like a kind of “Holy shit, this is not the way to do this”, kind of moment, just a good slathering of understatement.
Unbelievably mournful slide announces that “Super 8” was but a flitting relief. “Yvette” is about a girl the singer sees with “cut glass eyes” and “covered up head to toes, so nobody will notice you”. In response he sings, “I might not be a man yet, but your father will never be, so I’m cleaning my Weatherby”. It’s not about the song moving toward justice, it’s about the response this narrator has to this: there may be some sense of justice found in it, but it’s just something like the way Isbell chooses to address things like this–there’s no joy, relief, or pride in his voice, just the sense that he feels this is the only solution, ensuring that her father will simply never be. It’s not treated as right, or, for that matter, wrong. 
“Relatively Easy” is some relative of the comparative depth of problems phrased in the right way: it’s about seeing hope and goodness knowing things could be worse, not about reducing the problems that are via that comparison. And the word “relatively” manages to capture that almost perfectly. Kim Richey joins again on vocals, and the track is sad and quiet in sound, as it does recognize that problems remain real, but finds some light around those problems. The chorus is my favourite on the record, the way that their voices don’t drop a syllable in the whole beat, only speeding or changing for that word “relatively” as it is a difficult word to use here, as it’s attempting to encompass relativity in itself, which is not something any word should have to do alone. But it’s a damn fine closer for the record.
Listening to this, I was forced to remind myself how I had scaled my future choices going up (or is it down?) the list, and to shrug and settle for reasons I’ll address as time goes on, but none of those reasons relate to any downfall for this particular record. While there are a number of people I discuss music with on most occasions we interact, there are others who almost never say a word, and one of those is my mother–she was very pleased with the clever word choices in “Elephant” and said so at the moment she heard them. I don’t know that I can really work that into some kind of largely-silent-but-speaks-when-it-matters judgment, but certainly the lack of focus on music means that there’s a clearer sincerity when she hears something she likes.
If forced, I would probably render the old “favourite” versus “objectively better” comparison when it comes to Isbell’s work, now. I’m inclined to believe that this is indeed the staying work as things stand, even if that self-titled album remains my personal favourite. Which means, of course, that you would be well-served checking into this record for yourself!
  • Up Next: Number Seven!

Number Nine: Toro y Moi – Anything in Return (2013, of course)

Carpark Records ■ CAK77

Released January 16, 2013
Produced by Chaz Bundick
Engineered by Patrick Brown, Second Engineer Jorge Hernandez
Mixed by Patrick Brown and Chaz Bundick
Mastered by Joe Lambert


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Harm in Change
  2. Say That
  3. So Many Details
  1. Rose Quartz
  2. Touch
  3. Cola
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Studies
  2. High Living
  3. Grown Up Calls
  1. Cake
  2. Day One
  3. Never Matter
  4. How’s It Wrong

Toro y Moi came to me via the broadcast that is staff overhead selection at one of the music stores I frequent on longer trips–Lunchbox Records in Charlotte, NC. The album had been out for all of two months when I heard “Cake” playing there and decided to go with an instinct I’d previously experienced during my endless trips to CD Alley in Chapel Hill in years prior. I’d never heard of Toro y Moi, nothing new for me and my complete obliviousness to modern independent music, except as it filters in by chance or through the few friends who track it.


As it was the one I heard (a reasoning that also inspired the purchase of records like Tobacco’s Maniac Meat and Youth Lagoon’s The Year of Hibernation), it was the first one I purchased. Causers of This followed in April, and then it was the synchronicity of a work trip to Atlanta that led me to see Toro y Moi in concert in October last year. I picked up the rest of his albums, as well as a few odd singles and the 3×7″ box set of bedroom recordings that was released as well. Still, Anything in Return is the one I return to most often.
At that show, Chaz was the closest thing I’ve seen to a superstar. Classixx opened for him (new to me, and worth checking out, as their Hanging Gardens could easily slip into an expanded top list for last year), but when he came out, it was unlike anything I’m used to in small venues or even large ones. There’s a roar for bands, and everyone is often focused on vocalists, but the fact that Chaz does his albums “Prince-style” (in the impossible-to-read-in-the-LP notes, it mentions he performed the entire album alone) seemed to shift the tone, somehow. The crowd was larger, it was a different kind of music, a different kind of venue, but there was still something to it.
It’s a bit strange, to be honest–not undeserved, but almost out of keeping with his music. He was first identified with the aptly-named “chillwave”, one of those terms that seemed a flash-in-the-pan, but defiantly remains in use as many such things do, thanks to sheer bull-headedness. Unlike his earlier work, though, Anything is a lot more energetic. That said, the energy is of a subdued and extremely cool variety, in most slang senses of the world, and often even a bit of the metaphorical incarnation of the most “literal” use of the word.


“Harm in Change” starts things on a rattle of percussion that leaves the bass away from the record for a good bit, until the song completely splits open over Chaz’s increasingly passionate vocals, rising in pitch and tightening, as if drawing in the disparate parts of the backing track to break it all open, even if the bass is still minimal. The second single from the album (though it did not actually receive a 7″, it did get a video) pushes a fuzzy bass beat to the forefront, or it would, anyway, if not for the chopped vocal sample that swirls around Chaz’s laidback vocal. The video almost manages to encapsulate the curiosity of Toro y Moi as a musical project: Chaz dances randomly, awkwardly, but almost stationary, throughout a forest. It’s restrained for the most part, controlled, and all about an infectious beat that maybe you don’t quite want to openly show your appreciation of.

“So Many Details” is the one track that did get a 7″, introduced with a faltering beat, and a thumping bass versus hi-hat beat. It is like a wonderful collision of the marching band-bass boom of hip-hop beats, the cold, alien piercing sounds of a lot of electronic music, and little hints of the synthesizer-oriented niches that ride the wave of nostalgia to their appreciation. In that sense, it sets the stage most completely for the album as a whole:

“Rose Quartz” continues this feeling, with punctuated bass swinging its weight behind every other sound, feeling ridiculously sensual in its way. “Touch” is one of the interlude-like moments on the album, but developed enough (it’s a good 2:30) to still feel complete. It’s nearly instrumental, and sets the stage for the yet-more laidback “Cola”, which hangs itself on the hook of reverberated monotone synthesizer wobbles.

The end of side two ends up perfectly setting up the stronger, harder beat of “Studies”, which is softened just enough by the falsetto vocals that it turns what could be a dark rolling bassline into a dancey movement. Guitar noodling layers the whole thing over to slide it into an easy place like half-lidded eyes, though a pinched, nasal sort of string rears up in little snarls at the middle and end to keep those eyes from closing completely. “High Living”, on the other end, has a ridiculous langorous cruising sort of movement to it, and doesn’t feel any particular need to force you awake, as it is just musically carefree: it’s tight and bound to its beat, but the beat is so natural that that almost doesn’t matter. “Grown Up Calls” is something of an R&B interlude from the 90s, a scatter of sounds until shaker and bass glue it all together to turn it to a full-on groove.

I don’t think I can question the fact that “Cake” is my favourite track on the record: warm, sustained synth chords, a wiggling curlicue of a keyboard lick over them, and the kind of beat that pushes your head down and forward to follow it. Chaz’s verses are exceedingly great at seeming to define the beat rather than follow it. The ebb and flow of the backing track as it goes through the sparse verses and then the thrum of the chorus is just fantastic. I’ve been openly guilty of miserable physical expression of my appreciation of this one in a work environment, no less. It just hits all the right kind of notes–alas, not one of the times where I picked the single (and I had 3 chances to be right!), but that’s all right.

“Day One” shambles along like something off Tricky’s Maxinquaye, but with just a little bit less of the deliberate ramshackle-ness: it’s clear Chaz was aiming for something smooth. And so it smooths out, even around that clatter of percussion, bonding it with softer, smoother synthesized sounds and some of his more mid-range and comfortable vocals.

While “Cake” didn’t make it, “Never Matter” did–it got its own video of random people videotaped dancing to it on headphones, and you really can’t blame them. It’s a dance-y beat, sprays of synthesizer and the plain-old irresistible hook of “Push it along…” that carries with it a wilder key riff than most of the album. And when those slow, sustained chords ring out by themselves and climb up slowly after the back-and-forth juggle bridge only to fall back on that hook–yeeow! Good stuff. Makes you wanna dance even if you can’t (Hello! We have something in common!).

“How’s It Wrong” closes the album, and still gives me those amusing mental points of Donald Fagen soundscape. It’s not unreasonable–electronics-heavy, smooth, but the rhythms and Chaz’s vocal style shake away such cobwebs pretty quickly. The beat is too heavy for Fagen’s stuff, and the groove far too sensual and dance-y. The track itself doesn’t scream out “album-closer”, but the dissolution into warbling wateriness and distant bleepiness, cold but friendly, spins it all off into space quite nicely.

Oddly, 2013 made it harder for me to pick the higher end of the list, rather than the lower end. My top two were undeniable, but as it got up the list, it got harder to say–I finally settled on this record because it’s one thing to make an ass of myself home alone, and entirely another to do so (in this fashion, at least) in front of coworkers. That the show made me feel like I’d somehow managed to magically catch a rising star on the way up, too–get in now, while you still have a chance to figure his stuff out for yourself, before you’re inundated and can’t divorce it from endless appearances! Only a few of my friends recognize the name, but all nod approvingly when it happens–join them, and start here.

On a silly sidenote: the CD version (which I also own) has a version of the cover in black and white, which bears the wonderful invitation “Color me!”, but the vinyl sadly lacks this, despite containing the same version of the image. Indeed, it is the flip of the first inner sleeve, and was facing outward when I found the record (amusingly, in October, back at Lunchbox, a week from the show I’d go to, and completely oblivious to that fact at the time). Ah, well. Guess it’s better not to risk folks trying to colour with the LP still in the inner sleeve!

  • Up Next: Number Eight!

Drive-By Truckers – Go-Go Boots (2011)

ATO Records ■ ATO 0093
Released February 15, 2011

Produced, Engineered, and Mixed by David Barbe
Mastered by Greg Calbi


Side One: Side Two:
  1. I Do Believe
  2. Go-Go Boots
  3. Dancin’ Ricky
  4. Cartoon Gold
  1. Ray’s Automatic Weapon
  2. Everybody Needs Love
  3. Assholes
  4. The Weakest Man
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Used to Be a Cop
  2. I Hear You Hummin’
  3. The Fireplace Poker
  1. Where’s Eddie
  2. The Thanksgiving Filter
  3. Pulaski
  4. Mercy Buckets

I came in to the Drive-By Truckers at a curious time: I was still working at Borders, and participated in the (extremely limited–about five stores) testing for vinyl sales. It was around 2008-2009, and the selection was largely limited, leaving me unsure of what actually led to titles appearing there. Certainly, it was a store in the Southeast (although a unique town within the state and region), and the Truckers do not suffer the absence of a following there. It did lead to my very mild introduction to Ryan Adams, which has served me well, though I didn’t actually do anything with it for years. I saw our copy of DBT’s 2008 album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. The art by Wes Freed was intriguing, and the title, too–I was reluctant, as I was still overcoming a lot of my resistance to “twang” in music, and the band’s name was a dead giveaway for containing just that. At some point, I gave in and did pick up a CD copy of that same album, and found myself falling for it rapidly.

It wasn’t long before I was going to see the band and buy all their albums–indeed, in 2010 I saw them play two shows on two concurrent nights, which was quite an experience. But the curious time is something that involves knowing about the band’s history–initially responsible for a pair of interesting but often thought to be somewhat “slight” early albums (Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance), they really broke through and into their own with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which addressed some of the issues that would in some way typify the band as both people and a musical entity–the “holy three” of frontman Patterson Hood’s childhood in Alabama: football, via Bear Bryant, race politics in George Wallace, and music in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Some overlap, some confusion, some mixed signals and messages, all adding up to “the duality of the Southern Thing” as Hood wrote on that album. After its release, Jason Isbell joined the band and they released their most acclaimed pair of albums: 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South. To this day, many clamour for Isbell (now solo and successful at it, as I will prove here later on) to rejoin, even if only in brief or for a tour, or what have you, but he left after A Blessing and a Curse in 2006–and that’s where 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark came in.
I joined the DBT bandwagon after their heyday, completely unbeknownst to me.

The odd thing about it, though, is that it has given me a differing perspective on their career. I appreciate the post-Isbell period because I didn’t know there was that component “missing”–I’ve gone back since then (with my now complete Isbell solo set, of course) and understand what people mean, but I have no issues at all with the Hood/Cooley/Tucker set-up, though one wonders what will come from the now sans-Tucker version.

So, for the purposes of this particular album, the band is composed of: Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Brad Morgan, John Neff (who once played for The Two Dollar Pistols), and Shonna Tucker. This is the same band that recorded 2010’s The Big To-Do, which should come as no surprise, considering the two were recorded simultaneously and separated into their respective albums as the first was developed. It comes off something like the Dave Gregory-exit-inducing last two albums from XTC–Apple Venus and Wasp Star–in that one album is composed of the rockers and one of the more relaxed songs, though they released theirs in the opposite order. Go-Go Boots is the lighter of the two albums, containing nothing along the lines of “This Fuckin’ Job” and its uneasy but intensely crunchy, rocking mixture of frustrated anger and despair or “Birthday Boy” and its fumble of shame and stripper’s attempts to comfort set to a solid roar of distortion, though the overall content does have some similarities.

It was only appropriate that I chose the time I did to revisit the record–the time of day, I mean, not the time of year, or time in my life. It’s an album that glows warmly (musically, anyway) like a setting sun. That could be my own preferences inserting themselves of course–though I also like a good rainy album, or a night-time one. Still, the acoustic orientations and the laidback tones and tempos lend themselves to an association with that time of day that many have made in the past on the same grounds, even if not necessarily with this very album.

I think it may be how the stage is set with “I Do Believe”, a song Patterson Hood wrote about his grandmother, starting the album with the a cappella refrain of the song’s title, “I do believe, I do believe, I saw you standing there, sunlight in your hair, reflecting in your eyes…” with only a few light hits at the hi-hat from Brad Morgan to hint at the coming sounds. A sweet roll of bass and friendly guitars follows in on Morgan’s expanded beat and a hint of shaker percussion. It should be out of place here–songs follow about murder, heartbreak, self-recrimination, finding the place to hide from family…but it isn’t. It’s an interesting choice, because often the ray of sunshine is dropped at the end of a dark album, so as to relieve whatever weight has been pressed down in the preceding moments. It works even better here, though, as it puts you in a happier place to hear what follows, to shine through the darkness that follows. The two-three..four beat from Brad and the low-jangle of guitars is ideal here, like a breezy trip with the top down (in a Mustang perhaps–just as Hood describes his grandmother, and Wes Freed illustrated her) into a sunset.

The tempo drops to a slow roast for the first of two versions of a real murder that occurred twenty years ago in Hood’s hometown–the title track. It’s a perfect example of one half of Hood’s specialties: the storyteller half. Guitar wails from Neff’s slide, as Shonna’s bass and Morgan’s drums lay down a hardened rhythm. Hood’s voice sways with the beat, and the whole song sounds like the forbidden excitement of the hidden affair that he portrays as partly prompting the sordid, ahem, affair. It’s sleazy and uncomfortable, even as you can hear the shaking head and sigh of Hood as he recounts the tale, not unlike one that made it onto the companion album (“The Wig He Made Her Wear” on The Big To Do, about a vaguely similar, also real murder). This song, though, is just that much more off in that direction, as the whole band is in that sleaze mode, where it was only Neff on the other track. His slide here is just…raunchy. The way the whole thing drips with the fascination/horror with the whole thing is simply perfect in execution.

Shonna was in the band for a few albums before she contributed a full song, her first appearances being “I’m Sorry Huston”, “Home Field Advantage”, and “The Purgatory Line” on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. She threw a few on The Big To Do (namely “You Got Another” and “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So”), and “Dancin’ Ricky” is her first appearance on her last album with the band. It’s in keeping with the tracks she brought to the other chunks of the sessions that spawned them (the ones on The Big To Do, that is), being less interested in the verbosity that Patterson in particular tends toward, as well as the smirking wit of Cooley’s contributions. It’s a soul-leaning pop track–in a good sense, if that needs to be stated–and it acts as showcase for some really great organ work from Jay Gonzalez on a B3, some nice little fret slides, and even producer (producer of most of DBT’s output, actually) and ex-Mercyland member¹ David Barbe’s chance to throw bass on a track, what with Shonna covering piano and all.

John Neff whips out the dobro while Morgan mans a bass and snare rim sort of barebones drumbeat for the wiggled eyebrow of Mike Cooley’s first lead vocal, “Cartoon Gold”. He pulls out the banjo Patterson has said he plays in a very specific way, as well as Hood’s favourite line on the album–something he says Cooley is often responsible for, a statement much of their fanbase would agree to. He has a knack for a distinctly different approach that covers ground Hood doesn’t; his play on words is at least worthy of a smile (or, more likely, smirk), if not a chuckle or laugh, but he generally sings it totally straight and shoots a line of emotional truth straight through the whole thing anyway to justify that. “I’m not good with numbers/I just count on knowing when I’m high enough…” he starts, and already the man’s way with words is just fantastic. The sense of humour about less-than-positive emotions is like he describes himself at the song’s end: “Sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on”–a drinker slumped not out of inebriation, nor absolute despondent sorrow, but a mood best described as “Well, shit.” I think that kind of sums up the tone of the song, if not its content, in fact–it’s ponderings about the past that don’t seem to add up to much of value for the one pondering, but with a bit of advice for listeners hiding in it anyway–be it good or bad advice.

Side One ends with the heavy piano and sharpened points of guitar of “Ray’s Automatic Weapon”, the story of a man who was passed a heavy automatic rifle a friend (Ray, of course) had made him wary of. He finds himself bored and shooting it, only to one day realize he’s testing how close he can shoot at real people in the distance. It’s a funny story because it goes no further–though there’s all kinds of darkness hiding behind it–the friend is a veteran, who was worried about Ray for the very reasons he himself is now finding himself doing almost-horrific things. The song is slow and plunks itself down with Gonzalez’s deep, low hammering at the keys, Neff’s lap steel squealing out a texture of distant loss of control. Hood’s voice is confessional, but not secretive–quiet but not at all whispered. It’s dashed with both self-recognition of horrific echoes and nonchalance at serious things–which carries its own sense of horror.

The Truckers don’t often include covers on their albums–indeed, excluding a compilation of rarities, they hadn’t done it until this album was released², with this next track being the first: Eddie Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love”. It was actually initially released on a 7″ (Dangerous Highway – A Tribute To The Songs Of Eddie Hinton Vol. 2–which I, myself, own) with their other cover of one of his songs, “Where’s Eddie?” which appears later on this album. They apparently did so thanks to their pride in the work on both, and that pride is justifiable. Neff is back at the dobro, and there’s a kind of extra-clear recording and production (a hint of echo, and the lightest crackle of perhaps homage-induced anachronistic high-end thinness) on Patterson’s voice. The song slumps a bit, bright with its overall message, but aching with the knowledge of absence–“I used to go around saying I didn’t need nobody/To be happy and belong/Then one sad day I found myself in trouble/Way down, without a friend/Along came the love of a real good woman/Said she’d love me ’til the end…” It’s like a shot of hope, tinged with melancholic doubt, cracking across the surface of it. Truly a great recording, this one.

While Patterson has said they “shouldn’t talk about” “Assholes”, it’s not much to guess who and what it’s directed at–the band switched labels for this pair of records, and the last two for their prior label are a live album and a compilation, usually a dead giveaway for contract fulfillment. It’s driven home more clearly by lines like “And you sicked your lawyers on me/Told them to go for the throat/And you just sat back and watched them/Have a go/And you say that we’re the assholes/’Cause we bitched about the hassles/While you’re sleeping in your castles/And we’re still riding down the road…” Of course, it could be management, or any variety of people–but the context leans one way to my ears. Cooley mans the banjo again, and gives a sort of pokey feeling to the song, which is amusing considering the title, the profane choice of label both appropriate in visceral reaction and funny for its intensity in the music’s context. It’s a shrugging anger, though–whatever rage Hood may have felt (or may still feel) is either filtered or tempered, and it makes for an unusual song about the topic, as compared to some that have come out (like, say, Trent Reznor’s run at TVT with Broken…)

There are clear threads back to older country in the basically simple set-up of “The Weakest Man”, Cooley’s second shot at the record, which maintains the attitude that runs through a lot of his songs, that sense of wry amusement at the world, as a means of dealing with the worst parts of it. The chorus is a one-two punch–the first at the woman he’s leaving, the second at himself: “Leaving you won’t be any harder/Than walkin’ out the door and leavin’ town/But I’ll be leavin’ knowing surving you don’t make me stronger/Than the weakest man who’s ever turned you down…”  It’s also a good showcase for The Bottom Feeders, the backup vocalists who work with the group on the record. Well, they are the group, but it’s a good name for a made-up backing group all the same, and they fit in perfectly on the track.

The absolute winner of the album–sorry to call it so early!–is doubtless “Used to Be a Cop”. I first heard the song at that pair of shows I mentioned–I’d only just picked up their earlier records, so I immediately scoured them for this brilliant track, only to discover it was actually from an upcoming album instead. The studio recording was no kind of disappointment. Where “Go-Go Boots” was a slow burn of sleaze and murder, “Used to Be a Cop” rides Shonna Tucker’s sliding thump of a bassline and the ringing guitars that announce the chorus (of a kind) through a simmering shudder of discomforting stalker-y sociopathy. Another in the great tradition of stalker songs, I suppose! It’s a hefty track, which has a lovely bridge that shines with the past glories of our fired, divorced, short-fused protagonist, until returning to the twitching hypnosis of the bassline and slightly dissonant clang of guitars that represents the present instead.

A track available only on the vinyl version, “I Hear You Hummin'” is a veritable jam session between Neff, Gonzalez, Morgan and author and vocalist Shonna Tucker, recorded, apparently, with a single microphone and live. It’s raw and wobbly, but endearing rather than overly troubled for that fact. 

Our contract killer-hiring preacher from “Go-Go Boots” returns in “The Fireplace Poker”, and it’s now enough of a different take to seem as though it’s just a shamefully similar true story of woe instead of the same one. It’s Hood in a rocking chair at a fireplace telling the story with that same shaking head and sigh of bewildered amazement–and quietly morbid fascination. Gonzalez drops a rather simple but poignant set of piano keys on the latter half of the track, delightful in their contrast and simplicity around the thumping constancy of Brad Morgan’s drumming.

“Where’s Eddie?” is the Eddie Hinton/Donnie Fritz song the band released with “Everybody Needs Love” as a b-side before the album came out, and it’s sung–as intended, gender-wise–by Shonna Tucker, who pours the full extent of her voice into it, stretching it much further than she usually aims to with her own songs–it’s a country-tinged soul track, melodramatic in its questioning sorrow, but in the best and most appropriate ways–though this partly reflects its age rather clearly, as it was first released as a single by Scottish singer Lulu in 1970.

The band’s single for the album (backed with “Used to Be a Cop”) is a forward-leaning one, on edge and relaxed simultaneously as Patterson describes with both weariness and tension the scene of his family at Thanksgiving–conflicting politics, strange habits and personalities, age differences and everything else that comes with most large gatherings of people. He describes a family member’s project (“Poppa” could be his own father, Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, or it could be his grandfather–familial usage of that title tends to vary) that “will never be finished” but Hood guesses “that’s the point” because it “Gives him a filter and psychological ointment”. Patterson has said that the filter, for him, is actually songwriting–a method of hiding in plain sight from family, as means of dealing with it. It’s a more sane middle step between the saccharine imaginings of large family gatherings, and the hysterically exaggerated negatives of stand up comedy and movie scenes about them. It does have a great kicker of a final verse line, too–“You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays/Blessed be my family 300 miles away…”

Cooley admitted frankly that “Pulaski” was named simply because he’d been through the town (once) and its syllables, particularly in unison with its containing state, Tennessee, fit perfectly with the song (unlike his own hometown or homestate). It shuffles along on another easy, brushy beat from Brad, and is smaller and more intimate–as is often the case in this contrast–than Hood’s prior one. It has the love for “not even ‘Southern’–American small towns” Cooley occasionally shows–a sense of pride in those small ones and their atmospheres. Of course, it’s not so silly as to pretend the protagonist’s move to California proves the complete inferiority of anywhere else, so much as pointing out that people are often neither better nor worse in that shift, and fantastic representations–as those on T.V.–are just that.

“Mercy Buckets” is, naturally, a play on “merci beaucoup”, the French for “thank you very much”. It’s about as wild as the album gets, Cooley and Neff trading leads, and doubtless a few from Hood in there, too. It’s the final show-stopper, sad, dragging in tempo, but big, expansive, dramatic, and generally huge–cinematic, as the band likes to think of themselves. Each syllable of Hood’s chorus is emphasize: “I will bring you buckets of mercy”, and there’s no question that the scorching peals of guitar are the right way to end the album. Not with some kind of inappropriate huge block of rocking bang, but with the rather slow-moving force of fireworks exploding in a night sky, shooting up on those streaks of lead guitar, but slowing at their explosion and slowly flittering back downward. It’s a release of energy matching what came before instead of entirely defying it.

I was perusing record stores in another state recently on a business trip, and had occasion to speak to the proprietor of one of those stores. We talked a bit about music, particularly the new Jason Isbell which had just been released, and conversation naturally wandered to the Truckers. We agreed there was a bit of searching for either after their split (though I think he meant Creation’s Dark where I meant A Blessing and a Curse, on which Jason did, in fact, play, but released some of his lesser songs with the band), but that both had clearly found their stride by now–indeed, this pair of albums is extraordinarily successful at clarifying what this band is after their rise carrying Isbell and now as the band that they are, the one more exclusively defined by Cooley and Hood, who’ve been together more than two and a half decades now.

I can understand the trepidation some no doubt feel with a band with this name, or an album or cover art like this–I still get those feelings sometimes, much though I now try to subdue them. I can only suggest what I try myself–sample it out. There are some great performances from the band floating around the net, plenty even official. And if you’re really adventurous, Cooley is touring solo, and the band will probably be back on the road together before too long. Give them a shot if you haven’t, though. They may be unabashed in their northern Alabama roots, but that tells you less about them than you might think.

¹I actually just picked up the random compilation of their work, but that’s a pretty meaningless reference except to Athens, GA locals, so far as I know. Still, it was a cool band from what I’ve now heard.

²That said, they covered one of my favourite Warren Zevon tracks (“Play It All Night Long”), though I honestly thought they didn’t quite manage it properly. They did, however, blow the Tom Petty song “Rebels” out of the water on that record (The Fine Print), and contribute one of the better “Like a Rolling Stone” covers out there, and Tom T. Hall’s “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)”, which I’ve never heard the original track to. Hood did cover yet another semi-obscure favourite of mine, Todd Rundgren’s “Range War” on his second solo album–which makes sense. It was on Todd’s second album, too. I mean, if you count Runt as a solo record, which plenty of people (justifiably) do. Including me.

Dr. John – Locked Down (2012)

Nonesuch Records ■ 530395-1

Released April 3, 2012

Produced by Dan Auerbach
Engineered by Collin Dupuis
Mixed by Dan Auerbach and Collin Dupuis
Mastered by Brian Lucey (Magic Garden Mastering)


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Locked Down
  2. Revolution
  3. Big Shot
  4. Ice Age
  5. Getaway
  1. Kingdom of Izzness
  2. You Lie
  3. Eleggua
  4. My Children, My Angels
  5. God’s Sure Good

I always end up with mixed feelings about projects like this. Are people going to only buy it because of Auerbach, not knowing the good Doctor? Is the Night Tripper going to be lost behind the black fuzz of Auerbach, despite playing his very own keys? Does any of that matter at all?

I don’t have an answer to any of those, especially the last question. I, myself, bought the album because of both of them. I’ve been into the works of Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack for years now–somewhere around college I piled him in with Leon Russell and Todd Rundgren–the solo artists from (approximately) the 70s who had hits, but ended up enjoying more “visibility” (audibility and not visibility, I should say…) in the works of others–Rundgren as a producer, Russell as songwriter and session man, and Dr. John as a muppet¹. More to the point, their sounds were unusual–but not so unusual as to be in the range of post-punk’s occasional peculiarities or any similarly “extreme” experimentation. Nice home-brews of sound, reflecting personal musical pasts, cultural and regional ones, or some mix of both.

The album’s a throwback at the first glance–the cover looks like it could be from some time four decades ago, but without the slight unease of a pastiche, earnest homage, or similar “tell” that many such covers often bear. It easily slides itself into a space of both modern and aged, the right way to do such things and maintain comfort in image. The inner lyric sheet even has liner notes written by a writer, that suggest the album is a marriage of the “gris-gris” sound of Dr. John  as “Dr. John” on albums like the aptly named Gris-Gris (more of a cult hit) and of him as “Mac Rebennack” (his real name) on more familiar and accessible albums like Dr. John’s Gumbo and hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time”. As a fan of both, the idea appealed to me–and I’ve grown to love the Black Keys in recent years, so Auerbach’s presence was similarly welcome.

I was finally pushed into the purchase–made on Record Store Day two years back, while catching The Two Dollar Pistols at an in-store show–because it included a CD copy of the album–which I still like to have. The best kind, too–it’s just a cardstock sleeve, sure, but it actually has printed art, like a little record in the record sleeve. All three of the above artists are still recording today though, and would do throwback cover art as a point in the continued line of their work, not as some indicator of resumption of career after extended hiatus. However, despite their being my litmus test for record stores for some years (CD Alley in Chapel Hill, NC passed with flying colours when I first moved out there, though they had minimal Russell). It said to me, “Record store that knows their stuff, and isn’t trying to prove something.” The fact of their major hits (“Tightrope”, “Such a Night”, etc) meant they didn’t quite have the ultra-hip factor for modern stores, so it meant interesting depth alongside those expected items–and that they’d have the expected items, not be trying to prove something with an absence of Zeppelin, or what have you.

My Dr. John collection is probably the weakest of the three, covering no classic albums on vinyl (where the other two cover whole timeframes), and stopping on CD at 1973, barring two compilations I ended up with. It’s a bit strange, considering I group him so readily with especially Russell, whose work I’ve devoured to absurd extents, as much as I generally do anymore.

So it seemed, all-in-all, like a logical addition to my stacks of records.

The title track sets the mood pretty clearly: we’ve got strange, swampy sorts of sound effects that call to mind the stranger and more experimental (Gris-Gris again) elements of his career, before Nick Movshon’s bass lays down a fat groove alongside the rolling lollop of Max Weissenfeldt’s snare-heavy drumbeat. Thick with the swampy sound Dr. John brings from New Orleans, the crowds of backing vocals (defined largely by the voices of the McCrary Sisters, but including basically everyone else, too) and the thunderous groove of the rhythm section underpin a still finely-formed voice in our hero, whose smoky, soulful, voice continues to carry inflections that sing out his Louisiana origins. Auerbach’s guitar is heroic and upfront but entirely appropriate–as with another project he was involved as a “backing” player, he seems to recognize his place in the record as certainly producer and guitarist, but producer and guitarist for a singer and keyboardist. It’s a scorcher of an opener–not necessarily because it burns, but because it makes it clear immediately that this is a Dr. John record, not a flimsy graft of his voice onto someone else’s.

“Revolution” has an actual video (similarly authentic in its anachronistic style²), and it’s a deep brass/woodwind-based track, playing on the exchange of baritone saxes and Auerbach’s sharpened ghost of a guitar lick. It’s a showcase for Dr. John’s unique vocal stylings though–“Such a Night” is unmistakably his voice, and the ragged rhythm of it is his own, but as a song, it could be reasonably sung by others. “Revolution” bows before his style of singing, half-spoken, lyrical and musical but constrained and dry with smoke. That sax sound is fantastic, and it really drives the song, giving it a thick bottom end, which highlights the pause for Mac to whisper with a hint of threat or irony, “Let’s all just pray on it right now,” a call that receives Auerbach’s lick as response, which is really just an introduction for the magnificently thin, clear, organic keyboard solo from Rebennack that just wiggles itself right into the right place as his music does: warm and dirty.

An amusing (my dad chuckled a bit when I played this album for him) sample opens “Big Shot” (neither Billy Joel’s nor Robert Palmer’s–I’m sure you suspected the latter, and indeed knew it existed!)–in a weird way, it reminds me of Leon Russell’s “I Put a Spell on You”. I remember reading a review that called that track ballsy, for daring to name itself indiscernibly from the classic Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track (of the same name, if you didn’t catch that!). No, Billy Joel’s song is not thought of in the same light generally, nor even by me specifically, but the title sure felt like it was already covered, if not by him then somewhere. Yet there it is, and it’s couched lyrically in a too-cool chorus: “Ain’t never was, never gonna be, another big shot like me. I’m the big shot, layin’ in the cut for you to see.” If the video for “Revolution” showed how much raw cool Dr. John just exudes in presence, “Big Shot” puts it into song form. It’s lazy and swinging, but you never doubt his control of it, all the way up until it goes out the way it came in: that fun little sample.

If ever Auerbach takes his presence up a notch, it’s on “Ice Age”. The hypnotic curl of his riff for the song is attractive beyond reason, joined as it is with the companionship of Brian Olive’s guitar at a beautifully matched kind of harmony–but he lets it all go for the chorus, where Weissenfeldt’s Meters-like drumming³ takes instrumental precedent. I guess no one can groove like a New Orleans drummer–the casual, natural bounces between snare, rim, kick, like a laidback samba–it is just wonderful to hear. Dr. John’s voice commands as if from one of his more elaborate, feathery costumes (see that cover!), the slightly weird, seemingly crazy, but truly wise seer passing out his opinions and thoughts, cool as a cucumber. His voice slithers and slides, gnarled at its lower end with just a few more tricklings of that smoky burn that gives his voice its clearest character.

Oh, some know what a sucker I am for great keyboard riffs–they don’t have to be fancy or complicated, they just have to hit a sweet spot. And “Getaway” does it–a very short, sharp, staccato riff that comes out with still-rounded edges when played through electronic keys like that–Movshon’s bass coiled tight around itself, and Weissenfeldt’s drumming continuing that tasty feel of what ought to be (if it isn’t) the most famous rhythm section out of New Orleans (yeah, the Meters again). Dr. John slips over the top of a rhythm section knotted and tight to match his rapidly tapped keyboard riff. Auerbach takes off on another solo, and keeps it soulful like his best known stuff, but more knowingly sloppy and naturalistic, improvisationally wild.

“Kingdom of Izzness” is keyboard bouncing sharply off funky drumming, the track lurching back and forth with a purpose, a vehicle that seems ramshackle but deceptively efficacious. The McCrary Sisters get some of their most front-faced vocals, “Oooh”ing behind Dr. John, whose voice seems to be designed to climb up the music as a ladder, pausing periodically to survey surroundings and affirm the stability of that ladder.

Auerbach’s guitar makes it sound like “You Lie” might be his track, but after it establishes itself into a consistent pattern, Weissenfeldt and those saxes of Brian Olive and Leon Michels fatten it up, and the blues-y feel that betrays Auerbach’s leanings is lost to the funk of New Orleans. They actually reclaim the tonal progression of that guitar riff and, without actually re-building it, reshape it into something that they define so completely, the guitar is lost to them. It’s another track just dripping with cool, the saxes almost defiant in the way they embrace this–as that instrument has suffered mightily in public eyes after its usage in some contexts.

Weissenfelt almost goes Funkadelic for “Eleggua”, which sounds like it could’ve been one of the companion tracks on Maggot Brain (the ones beside the title track, I mean). It’s dirty and funky, the organ-style keys calling to mind the heavier elements of that Funkadelic sound, but giving way to a kind of spreading warmth when they hold a high note, like a sudden breeze lifts us from the gutter up to float above the clouds for just a moment, Dr. John’s voice beautifully enunciating “Tricknology…” with that same friendly ease. Truly a treasure on this record the way it shifts like that.

“My Children, My Angels” is all keys at first, cool and low like they came from a recording fifty years ago instead, but inflating to a spacious chorus that seems to bloom and flow like a deep blue billowing cloud, hinting not at fire or other threat, but just a large drop of ink pushed up through previously clear water. That chorus is pure groove in the most relaxing of senses. Truly, I stopped typing to just feel it again, the way he rises up to the top of “Tell me ’bout your desires right now” and then turns just a bit darker, more sad than threatening, for him to rumble, “Don’t trip on loose wires, I’ll show you how”.  If it didn’t just sound inherently ridiculous as an adjective, I think “transcendant” might apply for that moment.

Like a joyous gospel song (appropriately, I suppose!) “God’s Sure Good” is all sustained organ-style keys and hammered out keyboard answers to a questioning guitar lick–and man, is it good. Auerbach’s guitar is the call out for an Amen, the McCrary Sisters are the choir, and Dr. John is our lyrical, musical preacher. You can almost see him reciting his reasons for thankfulness in that half-spoken way, surrounded by everyone else–not there as musician, but as humble and gracious man appreciating the survival of a lot of personal troubles. It’s a burst of joy and a great ending for the album in that respect–ending on a whisper and a fade.

The great thing about the funk-jazz-swamp amalgam of Dr. John’s music has always been the palpable feel of it, the ease with which it insinuates its way into your ears and is simultaneously weird and exotic, comfortable and familiar, and dance-inducingly catchy and groovy. This is definitely the kind of album that is reasonably called “return to form” both now (I’m going to violate my usual policy and not research that–but I can’t believe someone hasn’t said it) and in the future–or at least it ought to be. It’s that merger of established style and lineage with fresh and new sounds and feelings that keeps it from feeling like it’s nothing but a reheating of ideas from forty years ago. Much like that cover, it feels like an artifact, but a lost gem, not just a lost album. And yet, it also feels new and modern, despite the fact that we have two musicians steeped in tradition fronting the affair, one of whom is himself a legend.

If you’ve any love for the deceptively tight swing of New Orleans funk, Dr. John’s past work, solid grooving, or semi-anachronistic musical choices, check the album out–it’s a nice, trim set of songs, devoid of fat, meandering or mis-steps.

¹This isn’t actually true. Dr. Teeth is known to be based on Dr. John, but the general lack of familiarity with Dr. John most people seem to have means that whatever visibility that could have given him trickled away. At least, any time I tell people that fact, they stare at me blanky, with a look of “Who?”

²The setup is actually similar to Robert Palmer’s for his cover of the Gap Band’s “Early in the Morning”, a statement that will mystify and doubtless anger at least a few people in the world, if they ever read it. But it’s true–time-flipping meld of sound-check and actual show. Doubtless not unique, but familiar to me from that instance.

³Even the New Orleans connection aside, a sound very at home with Dr. John’s own–the Meters themselves backed him on In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo in the mid 70s.

Doomtree – No Kings (2011)

Doomtree Records ■ DTR033

 
Released November 22, 2011
 
Produced by Cecil Otter, Dessa, Lazerbeak, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S., Paper Tiger, Sims
Engineered by Joe Mabbott
Mastered by Bruce Templeton
Beats by Cecil Otter (A1-B1, B3, C1, D1-D3), Lazerbeak (A1-A3, B2, C2
-D3), P.O.S. (A1, A2, D1, D3), Paper Tiger (D3)

Side One: Side Two:
  1. No Way
    Sims, Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, P.O.S.
  2. Bolt Cutter
    P.O.S., Sims, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  3. Bangarang
    P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan, Sims
  1. Beacon
    Dessa, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Punch-Out
    Mike Mictlan, Sims
  3. Little Mercy
    Cecil Otter, Dessa
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. The Grand Experiment
    Dessa, Sims, P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Mike Mictlan
  2. String Theory
    Dessa, Sims, Cecil Otter
  3. Team the Best Team
    P.O.S., Sims, Cecil Otter, Dessa, Mike Mictlan
  1. Gimme the Go
    Cecil Otter, Sims
  2. Own Yours
    P.O.S., Sims, Mike Mictlan, Cecil Otter
  3. Fresh New Trash
    Sims, Cecil Otter, P.O.S., Dessa, Mike Mictlan

Maybe it’s just the Dessa show I was at two weeks ago, but I feel like I’ve relayed the story of how I found Doomtree enough times already–I was asked at that show by just about everyone, including associates and one of the opening acts. There’s no stranger experience for me than going to those shows. I don’t know why it is, exactly, but I end up with people asking me how long I’ve known them, or when I left Minneapolis, or how on earth, if neither of those is true (there’s nothing true in either–I’ve never even been to Minnesota in general, and the friends I have there have only lived there since I discovered Doomtree, basically). I’d chalk it all up to the general positivity they all exude in person, the down-to-earth appreciation and gratitude they express openly and consistently to seemingly everyone, but then you would think everyone would get asked those questions, or no one would ask them at all.


I don’t really know what it is. I’ve got “hooks” if you will–I mention one in the blog entry I linked to above, regarding the pre-order of Dessa’s book, Spiral Bound. My experience with getting everything I had at the time (…almost…) signed, too, helped to cement my visibility with them–though, still, out of all the possible people, some guy a thousand miles away in a town that has no visible importance? I have no idea. It tends to reflect back and instill me with a sense of awe–how on earth do they find a fan so important? Indeed, I have done nothing terribly important, so this must not be a unique experience–how do they find that kind of energy and compassion for so many strangers? To say nothing of the kind of experience I had talking to Dessa specifically both at the crew show two years ago, and at the show two weeks ago. At the first, she took the time to do a favour for a fan who couldn’t make it through me, and at the second, the story I told her about that fan left her hugging me like a friend–after recognizing me before I said a word after the show.

Of course, it would be something purely indicative of her character were it not for the kinds of interactions I’ve had with others–Sims practically encouraging me to monopolize his time at that crew show, Stef “milking” my elbow out of nowhere, Cecil telling me about the symbol you can hopefully see on the front of that record sleeve, Mike’s quiet and humble (!–if you’ve heard him rap, or seen him perform, this might sound odd) appreciation of my fandom, Beak’s appreciation of my rather heavy ordering tendencies, Paper Tiger’s shock at my possession of his False Hopes EP…and, most recently, Doomtree associate Ander Other talking to me passionately about his good friend Mike (see above) and how real his devotion to rapping is–something I found myself nodding over, as that is unquestionably clear in how he does things.

It’s hard for me to talk about almost any music, because I know I tend to ramble on, which can counteract my intended goal of drawing in new listeners, even for the most famous of artists. It’s harder still with a group of artists who’ve shaped a lot of my listening for the last seven years, a group that isn’t struggling in the sense that many others are, but that is afloat on the waters of their fans and nothing else. It’s a solid fanbase, but they aren’t Macklemore or anything, as indie rappers go (you’ll find P.O.S.’s records at major retailers because they are co-released by the much larger Rhymesayers label). They work hard, they tour hard, and yet, they seem to still burble just under the surface, frustratingly. I know a lot of people don’t like rap, or think they don’t like rap (as I say every time I write about the stuff), or what have you, but this is a group of people whose passion (forgive me, I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid riding that word pretty hard here) is unmistakable and naked, and whose music is interesting, literate, thoughtful, and polished to show both a shine and the jagged bits in equal and appropriate measures. Unquestionably, they are the first rappers I’ll suggest to anyone upon finding they “don’t like rap”. I may tentatively push other names first that might have some more immediate recognition, but they are the main thrust, bar none.

Prior to this album’s release in 2011, there were 2 “crew albums” that appeared–one, the 12th False Hope record, a sort of “demonstration” recording prior to a full-fledged one, had tracks I felt the need to mention the last time I wrote about them. The other was the self-titled release in 2008, a record that they’ve since noted was more about trying to balance everyone’s appearances and assembling separate tracks, where this one they deliberately set out to write a true crew record, from scratch, to display the group’s talents as a group. It feels to me–however right or wrong–like the penultimate track on Sims’ Lights Out Paris, “No Homeowners” was the first real display on record of their sound as a whole. Indeed, it appears in an alternate form on the aforementioned 12th False Hopes, subtitled “Renter’s Rebate” and includes a verse from each of them, as well as marking the first song-length “devotional” to the group.

“No Way” kicks the album off with a chugging muted guitar chord (doubtless the “additional guitar” contributed by Dave Brockschmidt), that acts as predictive prelude to something more meaty, but full enough in itself to give weight to even the introductory moments and their wandering shadows of words. The drums of the beat kick in and thump and thud to a greater expanse as Cecil’s hook begins to fade in: “We got cracks in our armor/Got cracks in the ceiling/and this axe that we’re weilding will react when we’re feeling that/Crack/Attack/Attack and we’re on you like a Mack truck Your Honor/We are that fucking filthy.” Sims launches straight from that into his verse, which is in keeping with his solo subject matter and style, with hints of dissatisfaction with the way society works now, a nod to a famed song twisted and lightly tinged with a mix of flippant honesty and sarcasm (“You’re so vain/You probably think it’s about you/Well it is and it ain’t/And it ain’t, but it is…”), as well as a nudge to his recent album, which centers on the same topics. Mictlan follows with the tongue-twisting tattered thoughts that have become his preference, alliterating and rhyming incessantly in a stream-of-consciousness-like flow that touch on ideas that crop up in DTR records intermittently (“Light the rag on your cocktail”–how on earth he and Stef manage to find clever ways to reference Molotov cocktails so often is beyond me), as well as the growing theme of the group’s prowess at their collective chosen profession. Stef (P.O.S.) follows with hints of the solo album he’d follow this one with, We Don’t Even Live Here, which circles his mentally defined in-place anarchism¹ and further establishes that Doomtree rises on their skill and talent, not posturing or contrivance.

The energetic drumming introduction to “Bolt Cutter” leaves no hint as to the sudden drop to the slow, ponderous bassline that Stef’s hook brings with it (“My girl gave me a bolt cutter/We love to break in/And claim all the spaces they forgot they had taken/And all this is ours it’s gonna be what we make it/If only the stars were close enough we would paint them…”). It’s a deep groove that is set aside for a moment when Sims starts his verse, defined in tone by the first lines: “They said couldn’t have that/Square in the eye right back and said yeah, yeah/We gonna take it anyway, that’s that”), which brings a stretched squiggle of the bassline that acts as a tremendous underscore to his words. A light keyboard-type interview intercedes and eases the whole track, before Dessa’s ever-melodic voice floats her words in over it, “You know, I’ve seen a little glory/And your trinket isn’t it/Save your voice I know the story/Man abandons sinking ship/I heard you did your dissertation on the rise and fall of man/Said the golden era’s over, but we’ll rise and fall again,” picking up Sims’ lines and then smashing the delicacy of her part of the beat with the final angry, despairing lines: “This ain’t Kansas, show of hands/If you said your prayers/now put em down if you got answers/This place it takes the faith of a mantis.” And it’s the perfect introduction for the hardened edges of the beat that Mictlan brings with him: “The strongest links in a chain are the first to get cut/Together til weall fade/Keep the blade in the gut/They kept us in a cage too long/To fake they care about us.” Stef carries the song off with more indicators that this subject was on his mind and fighting to come out on his own next album, “We play like birds prey/Anyplace warm stay/Love it/We own our space/Roam home/Any place aimed go.”

It’s strange to think a word most of us know best as originating in the movie Hook somehow inspired two nearly contemporaneous songs, but “Bangarang” proves that it happened². It’s a nice encapsulation of some of the Doomtree attitude to find the empowering call from that movie turned into a call to arms (so to speak) for Doomtree themselves (overpowering, then, the call that was “Doomtree/Time to let it be known/From the bottom of the bottle to the top of the throne” in “No Homeowners”). Mike’s hook is not just a hook for the song, but for the group–“Doomtree Bangarang/All these rappers sound the same/Beats?/Sound the same/Raps?/Sound the same/Wings/Fan the flames/Teeth/With the fangs/Ten years in our lane/Doomtree Bangarang”. Tying in to their logo–a set of teeth that indeed has wings, previously immortalized in “Traveling Dunk Tank” on that 12th False Hopes–there it is again!–with the lines “I’m tying to free up them wings/Trying to bear some teeth”, which was, of course, the title of my last writing on the group. Stef leads the charge, as he, Cecil, and Sims draw out the source of the album in the group’s core and need to express and unify, dabbled with their historical familial sensibilities, hard work and competition. Sims makes this explicit: “Buy I got ya’ll when I see y’all/And I keep ya’ll when the beat stops/I built more than a rap career/I got my family here.” And then he makes a simultaneously-fulfilled prophecy: “But some folks wanna jump up/With a sharp tongue and their fronts up/Like we got here by dumb luck/But they just wanna become us/That’s up when you come up/I move like a dump truck/Too long on the road and I earn what I hold/If you want it let me know I can burn your flow like–whew.” (If you did not know by the end of that line that he could burn your flow, you weren’t listening).

One of the other tracks to receive the video treatment (yeah go check those links above–all of them can be found on the DVD about the making of the album and surrounding tour, as well as the group as a whole, Team the Best Team. They show a bit of a show I was at, actually), “Beacon” is flush with the sound of a Cecil beat (indeed, it is one), a fuzzed out and light melody flattens until a rushing snare-heavy beat slides in below it all and Dessa launches into the first verse, the beat shifting when Stef enters with his own, the song pushing forward incessantly, bouncing on the beat and given its sway by the words of each emcee, an up and down patter from Dessa, and a swing from Stef, and then Cecil’s hook calms it all–“I know, I know/I know wake up, wake up/But I don’t go there, go there/She knows the way home”. He follows it with a verse, though, which is perhaps the most distilled appearance he makes on the album, so purely Cecil as he takes the hook and drags it with him–“You know your way home? You gonna be all right?”–and then drops the song’s title into place, though the running thought is of antagonistic relationship, brought home with the appropriate re-focus on self that Sims closes it out with.

The burst and fade of an explosion brings us “Punch Out”, lulling us momentarily into a false sense of security, the haunting loop of “Beacon”‘s closing return to its opening, distress signal-like beat still echoing around. But then the drums roll in–and roll, and roll, then thunder down with the blinding mass of sounds that mark Mike Mictlan’s mastery of sound, a track that swaggers with the same feel that Mictlan and then Sims bring to it. Mictlan calls it all out without any need to lower his voice or release his emphasis, but Sims turns it around to something more laid back, yet completely in keeping with what Mike established. It’s just under two minutes and by far the shortest track on the album, and seems just right for that–they can punch you out in no time flat when it comes to rapping, and the two of them do it alone.

“Little Mercy” gives us one of the best emcee pairings the group can offer when they are reduced to any two: Cecil and Dessa. Guest vocalist Channy Casselle brings the sound of a loop extracted from something riding the line of gospel and soul at its most bittersweet, though it’s not a found recording, of course. Cecil’s hook is lengthy but brilliant: “Now the candle’s in the window and it’s open/We watch the flames duke it out with every gust/No, it must just burn to the bottom of the wick/It’s the bottom of the fifth and that shit is still burning”. It’s another of his solo beats, and you can tell, that high-end heavy approach to drums in the beat, and the semi-scarred, sinewy melodic approach over it. Dessa’s on her more snarling and aggressive side, giving a kick to the more subdued vocalization Cecil favours, which seems to inspire his ending verse, which she joins him for in a unified run through of those last lines. Except for the last few, where her voice drops away, highlighting the tone of his words (“We’re so thirsty…”) and making them that much more desperate.

The intro to “The Grand Experiment” (one of the tracks heavily previewed before the album’s release, if memory serves) sounding for all the world like a triumphant moment in a Tron-era game (in the best sense possible) before the chattering beat and similarly analogue-like synthetic melodies tell us Cecil’s hiding in the background again. Dessa casts off her verse like it’s nothing (when it is the opposite), while Stef’s hook is one of the moments his experiences in music outside rap shine through, with sung lines that don’t sound like you might expect a sung rap hook to sound. Sims keeps that head-bobbing rhythm to his verse that is like an engine chugging at full power, while Cecil drops his acidic salesman’s pitch–a snake oil salesman, that is (“But wait it comes with a warranty for a week and that’s respectable/It’s cheap and it’s ethical…well, it’s ethical…well, it’s magical really.”) Mictlan carries the track’s thoughts of the underhanded and endemic problems of modern man that everyone has rapped about to their conclusion, the contradictory strains of desire to change and recognizing seemingly inevitable collapse unconcerned with their conflict.

“String Theory” is built on a Lazerbeak beat in the old style–the kind we’d hear on Hand Over Fist, or the solo works of P.O.S. and Sims. Sims and Dessa (another great pairing, it must be said, as “The Wren” is immaculate) lay out a more cerebral explanation for the kind of self-confidence and raised Doomtree fists the album throws up regularly, and moves at an easier pace for it. Hearing them trade lines at the last verse is worth it alone.

The horns Lazerbeak builds the beat to “Team the Best Team” on sound as if we’ve reached the final, triumphant track of the album–but we aren’t there yet. There’s a flutter to the horns that hides behind the more audible portion, occasionally receiving its own spotlight, and tied together with a rolling bass line. Sims, Stef, Cecil, Dessa and Mike rap like they are a Rocky at the top of the steps–not putting their confidence in the face of detractors, or raising fists and voices in victory, just assessing achievements in retrospect–hands on hips and nodding with the slightest of smiles, knowing where they are and how they got there, and where that is to them, whatever it is or isn’t to anyone else.

The light pummel of the beat in “Gimme the Go” may or may not be Stef’s responsibility, but it at least echoes the kind of beats that would appear in his solo work, be they his, Beak’s or Cecil’s (the other two being those who share responsibility with him for this beat). Cecil and Sims are like gunfighters as they spit here, confident killers, at ease and utterly in control, yet chomping at the bit to prove their skill. The beat is big, but stutters, sputters and rattles as if cowed by the words on top of it.

There’s a vocal sample in “Own Yours” that has a light touch to it, and it’s allowed to exist almost in isolation for the introduction. A few light snare rolls announce the onset of Stef’s words and the clap and clatter of the beat’s hardest points. His verse as well as Sims’, Cecil’s and Mike’s all hold to the thought of struggles not yet over, be they related to their career choice, life, society or anything else–the specifics aren’t important, only the willingness to trudge on through it. Beak’s hook (reminiscent of his solo foray, Legend Recognize Legend) lays this out clearly: “And the roof caved in and the porch lights froze/And the woods lay thin and the torch light grows/You may find yourself in a corpse-like pose as you go/And the tombs spread out and the birch still grows/And the fumes head south and the earth will slow/You may find yourself on a search for gold as you go”–it may have been horrific, and it will be again, but there’s something to see, and things continue to go on. The beat doubles its tempo under Mike’s flurry of words, and then seems to fade, but returns at a slow warp to carry Cecil through to its end: “But the long and short is…/We got no shortage/We got our pain on payroll/Paint on the canvas with the face of an angel”. These struggles are fuel.

After “No Homeowners” it comes as no surprise that the group can pull out a monster closer. Everyone who makes beats contributes to this last one, “Fresh New Trash”, but it’s not a mess of those varied styles, it’s cohesive and brilliant: horns and bass with hints of drum announce it with the feeling of momentary finality tinged with a subtext of relaxation. Sims takes the first verse, and with it comes a stutter of drums, and the loss of the horns, for a suddenly empty space that his voice fills, that half-sung little hook he sticks in brilliant and perfect for the subdued tone of his words (“Hey, all right, okay…”). There’s even a little organ for him, but the horns come in with dropped low end to bring in Cecil, whose last words over the re-introduced horns and stuttering drums are the perfect lead into Stef’s hook: “Let it go/Let it roll on past/Don’t hold back/Understand it’s over before you know…” the beat changes entirely when Stef’s verse starts, all descending bass and a punkier tone. Horns come back for Dessa’s proud words (“I’ve been boom/I’ve been bust/I rep Doom/Til I’m dust”), but it’s Mictlan’s verse that brings the whole thing home, buys it a nice dinner, tucks it in and takes care of it for the rest of its life. You can hear the absolute passion and reality when Mike says: “This isn’t indie rap/This is 10 years/stress and tears/sweat and fears/Acceptance from our friends and peers/And everythign that’s brought us here/It’s written on my face/You can see it when I close my eyes/and sing a Dessa Darling line/the realest thing I never wrote/Quote me anytime/”It’s win, lose or tie”/Still Doomtree til I die/even after death and dirt/let em know who said it first/and put it on your favourite shirt:/Rap Won’t Save You/Sell ’em absolution with a verse.” We hear that hook again and the album fades, but that brilliant track keeps echoing. There’s no question the sincerity here, nor is their any reason to question closing with those lines.

There’s a reason the inner sleeve of my copy of this record is signed like mad.

There’s something amazing about tracks like “Fresh New Trash” and “Prizefight” (from the Beak/Mictlan Hand Over Fist project) and “No Homeowners” and “Crew” (from Dessa’s Badly Broken Code) that is not easy to express. There’s something absolute and real, something that doesn’t fade when you actually interact with any of them as people, or see them perform, there’s something real and serious here, unpretentious and uninterested in fame, per se, yet thoroughly interested in gaining ground and territory. They remain their own label, with family and friends operating the logistics they don’t operate themselves–and they fund their new records with the proceeds from the previous ones.

This record is like a clarion call, or at least it should be–perhaps it isn’t and couldn’t be for them, but it is that to me. It’s cause to bring others to this music, which is brilliant and real and wonderful and has something for most everyone–even if you don’t like rap, a goodly chunk of Dessa’s material can edge more into other realms. Of course, that’s a frustration–I sometimes find folks insistent on pretending there is some wheat to separate from chaff in the group. Those songs make clear, even if not in the performances (which, honestly, should seal the deal) in their emotion that no such thing exists.

There are clever touches and callbacks and moments where their interplay in a song or an album is clear, when Sims and Dessa both casually reference ‘the golden era’ in the same sense, but in different ways, in “Bolt Cutter”–or the way that Stef would follow up on that idea in We Don’t Even Live Here with “Fire in the Hole/Arrow to the Action” and the line “Bolt cutter in the trunk/Bolt Thrower in the tape deck”. It’s a direct reference to the British death metal/grindcore band for sure, but it’s probably not so much a reference to the track he was just involved in–just a continuation of those ideas, and you can see the way they all came together from their past solo works and unified for this album, then spread back out away from it for more solo work, building on what they did together.

If you simply cannot stand rap, check out the lyrics on their bandcamp. Just read them, instead. You won’t get the full effect (at least, I certainly can’t ever read things like lyrics–or poetry–and get the full effect), but you might at least appreciate the way they all have with words, and the distinct styles that manage to come together so cleanly here.

In any case, I recommend this record about as strongly as I can, and there’s not much more I know how to say than that.

¹It goes like this: “This world’s gotta whole lotta locked doors/We decided not to live here anymore”–in other words, running into the socially-defined limitations on people, Stef decided to not live in that “world” anymore, and instead run on his own rules, within and beside society such as it is. Basically. That’s a starting point, anyway.

²The other was Skrillex’s, of course. More people know that one because he’s more famous. There was a stupid argument on YouTube (is there any other kind?) regarding it being “stolen” which I stupidly participated in, until we’d both dipped back so far that it really proved that it was ludicrous to think they were related. Which was what I thought anyway–not that the claim of theft from Skrillex was actually an inverted truth. Weird coincidence, but coincidence.

Dear Lions – Dear Lions (2011)

Arctic Rodeo Recordings ■ ARR 033

Released May 25, 2011

Produced by Joe Philips, Adam Rubinstein & Dear Lions
Engineered by Mickey Alexander
Mixed by Daniel Mendez
Mastered by Ed Brooks / RFI



Side One: Side Two:
  1. Katherine
  2. Space Sister
  1. For the Kill
  2. Darling
  3. Gun

Not long after I picked up the Burning Airlines reissues of Identikit and Mission: Control!, I unsurprisingly found myself on the rather calmly scheduled electronic newsletter for the label responsible for those: Arctic Rodeo Recordings. Early this year, they sent those of us on it notice of a sale on some of the last remaining copies of some of their releases, in bundled and discounted form. I didn’t know most of the artists in question–maybe not any, actually. Still, the bundles were attractive, and I had been thoroughly impressed with how ARR did the two releases I owned, so it seemed worthwhile. Eventually, I was left with a massive order from Germany sitting in my arms, straight from my regular mail carrier. While it was largely composed of 12″s, it also contained a handful of 7″s, and one 10″: this record.

It was actually pressed in two different colours, mixed yellow and white and mixed blue and white. Each had a contrasting cover (yellow with blue or blue with yellow, as seen above), but I discovered on opening that the cover is actually similar to a number of 7″ packages: a single folded sheet with blue on one side and yellow on the other, held together by the clear sleeve it’s sitting in. It’s a clever idea, and appeals to my sensibility with the option to make it match if I want to (but I like colours, so I kept the contrast). But you can see the white and yellow mix makes for a rather lovely pastel yellow. But I know we’re not that interested in the colours (are we?).¹

I know and knew little about most of the bands I ordered records from, but had faith in what I’d seen so far, and rolled the dice. I did take a brief glimpse at the groups via a “sampler” I assembled from the tracks ARR includes on their website and was quite pleased with everything I hear. I’ve been cautious about doing much listening to the records, attempting to preserve the unique experience of listening to the records–I’ve relented a few times, but most of them are still going to be new to me as I listen to them. The closest Dear Lions could come to familiarity for me is the fact that their logo for the album was designed by Patrick Carrie, who was in the band Limbeck². Otherwise? Completely new to me.³

While that old adage about judging and covers is very true, we also all do it at least a bit–if nothing else, to decide whether it looks worth listening to or reading (or whatever it may be for a particular item). The graphic design is attractive, but it doesn’t tell you much–and it didn’t tell me much either. And, as a weird wrinkle, I semi-deliberately decided not to pay attention to which artist was responsible for the sampled tracks I listened to–just burnt them to CD and played them in the car. I couldn’t have told you which song it was on the record, let alone what it sounded like.

As it turns out, I really like Dear Lions–and by the time the song I’d sampled came in, I was met with a shimmer of recognition that flowered into a very warm and pleasant familiarity (and a sense of relief–while I’m known to be very open to sounds, that doesn’t mean I like all of them, and the desire to force myself to like things is unpleasant). 

The EP starts off very sparse, a single acoustic guitar, picked slowly and deliberately, arcing up and down somewhat somberly, Ricky Lewis singing in a comparable tone as “Katherine” establishes itself. It shifts to chords and adds keys nearly halfway through, but retains its pace until Lewis sings, somewhat unexpectedly, “So sentimental…/Oh no/Katherine, don’t come back,”–not because it doesn’t fit with the lyrics up to this point, but because a particular name in a song is not often met with something that is firmly negative without being flat out disparaging or angry. The sentiment is not unheard of, it’s just unusual in how it’s presented, the way that some people feel when Sam Beam swears in an Iron & Wine song–“Katherine” has a mournful edge to it, so you don’t really expect that. And when that line turns the song into a more upbeat stomp, adding bassist James Preston and drummer Charlie Walker, it seems even that much more peculiar, the part of your brain processing the lyrics alongside the sounds wondering what in the world is happening, while the side that just appreciates enjoyable sounds sees no reason to question or complain. The open, splayed, reverberating chords of desolate western cliché add yet another tinge to this sensibility, while Lewis’s voice takes on the timbre it rides for the rest of the EP–a cross between indie rock affectation and semi-camped croon, enunciated unusually clearly and extremely appealing. The hesitant, shimmering open end punctuates the established unusual sound, confirming any further expectations should not be held except in comparison to the entirety of the opening track.

“Space Sister” is the one track readily available for purchase from their bandcamp site (as opposed to the free EP) and it’s quite justified as a choice to ask for money for: Preston’s throbbing bassline and Walker’s precise drumming are the backing to the tightly clutched sound of muted and controlled guitar chords. A single verse and the second guitar turns to a distant, wobbling echo, Lewis’s voice fulfilling the promise of the tangle of croon we heard in “Katherine,” the vector of his voice holding that crooning sound but shedding the kind of campiness that comes from bands that oh-so-consiously mimic the sound, instead seeming like a natural expression of his voice. It’s an incredibly pleasant voice married to a jangling guitar free of restraint and a bassline that builds the song’s actual progressions into itself, subtle but apparent.

Preston is dominant at the open of “For the Kill”, but the bright and open chords that spread across the track from an electric seep into that dominance, the open and steady acoustic chugging along as skeleton in the background. Lewis’s voice is still in that Andrew Bird-esque range, but really shines on the chorus, the electric guitar (be it Lewis’s own or, more likely, that of Adam Rubenstein) curling in on itself from the previously open chords, but Lewis’s voice expansive, oddly screwing itself back down to drive home the song’s title at the end: “Coming through every night like a bat out of hell/Watching the city explode from the window sill/Swears like a sailor and drunk as she goes for the kill.” Indeed, this was the song that I’d heard first, though I only caught onto this at the chorus, which had always been extremely catchy, mostly thanks to Lewis’s voice.

There’s an unpretentious streak in the sound of “Darling” that swirls into Lewis’s singing style and renders it a peculiar amalgamation of classic or familiar and modern or unusual–or perhaps all of them. The pacing and tone are again strange for the most apparent of lines: “And I’m sorry that you’re so torn up/Can I say I’ve been having some fun?/You only love my depression/It’s a wonder how I found the sun/Don’t try to tell me that you want me back/I have finally surrendered/Singing blues while your heart turned black/Don’t tell me that you want me back.” There’s an audible snarl in many of the lines, even as the “escape” that inspires it is hardly a joyful occasion. There’s a country tinge hiding somewhere in hear–lyrically, perhaps, but also sonically. The song feels like a fresh-sounding version of an established one, interestingly, and it works quite well for that.

“Gun” takes the sounds of all the previous songs and blends them into a cautiously forward-leaning track, Walker’s drums restrained but working in the full range of that restraint–the other instruments shrugging and accepting their comparative bondage. Lewis’s voice is still open and clear, but less emphatic than on the previous tracks–it’s almost like a knowing closer, yet unsure if it is or could be that, not yet decided whether to build to climax or act as the much slower, lower waves washing back out. Electric guitars begin to strike out jagged chords in preparation for crescendo–and the song suddenly fades.

Each time I listen to this EP, I’m struck by how good it sounds. There’s no movement toward particularly exotic choices or ideas, yet everything still manages a newness and clarity that prevents the sense of ho-hum. The little quirks and individualistic elements of the group shine through but don’t overpower the songs, which are striking for both their comfortable impression and their single-eyebrow-raising lyrics–not quite gasps of “Wait, did he just sing–?” so much as “Hold on…” and momentary pondering upon what was just heard–no need to go back and confirm, just to re-evaluate what has been heard to this point in a slightly different light.

So far, then–Arctic Rodeo Recordings is not letting me down at all in what they’ve signed to release–small wonder, I suppose, for a small label to have a lot more control and overall unity to their taste.

  • Next Up: Deftones – Deftones (the self-titled “two-fer” is purely by chance!)


¹Apparently this came up when my father nudged some of his online compatriots out this way, but I’m actually aware of the sonic problems of lots of coloured and (especially) picture disc vinyl. However, as I’ve addressed elsewhere, vinyl is often plagued with issues anyway, and only has subjective superiority, not technical superiority. The appreciation (for me) stems from the “ritual”, from the appeal, the physicality–it’s not about the sound in the first place. Again, I’m not playing on a high end stereo or a high end turntable. The pretty vinyl just adds to all of this.

²I know them from their tour with Reubens Accomplice, Piebald, Steel Train and The Format, all but one of which will appear here later, actually–all as a result of that show.

³Ed Brooks has mastered some great records, of course, but considering he is part of the Seattle-based RFI and acted as part of that studio, there’s less of an implied personal association. And the breadth of RFI’s mastering is absurd anyway–mentioning R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People and Botch’s We Are the Romans should make that clear. If it doesn’t, make sure to sample some tracks from each and you will see what I mean.