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!

The Faint – Danse Macabre (2001)

Saddle Creek Records ■ LBJ 180
(Originally LBJ-37 on same label)
Released August 21, 2001
(This compilation released November 1, 2012)
Engineered and Produced by Mike Mogis and The Faint




Side One: Side Two:
  1. Agenda Suicide
  2. Glass Danse
  3. Total Job
  4. Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat
  5. Violent
  1. Your Retro Career Melted
  2. Posed to Death
  3. The Conductor
  4. Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen

Though it ended up one of the most brief hiatuses I’ve taken, early June’s was instigated by a work-related trip to Council Bluffs, Iowa, which happens to be right next door to Omaha, Nebraska. I currently live in an area where there are barely handfuls of record stores for a good 60+ miles, so hitting a larger college town (like I myself used to live in) was a blessing and a curse: I flew back with a shoulder bag filled with vinyl, and a suitcase veritably lined with CDs. While there, I took occasion to visit the store that the Saddle Creek label operates there in their hometown, inspired more than anything by the associations it has with Cursive, a fellow fan of whom I discovered I was working with (who also shared a love for The Format and a handful of others–and ended up passing me a copy of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ on green vinyl!). While I was in there, I did walk out with a copy of Cursive’s I Am Gemini, having failed to pick it up already, and (rather amusingly) did finally get a copy of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac, an album by a band from the area I last lived in, but thought I should really pick up a record the label itself put out (I Am Gemini being on CD). The Ugly Organ wasn’t there (and, as mentioned, I serendipitously acquired it later in the same trip anyway!), so I wandered about until I ran into this.

I remember around the time this album came out, the band was pretty darn hot around the internet, though I was still in my formative musical explorations. I did glance at them, but moved on before anything took hold, eventually picking a copy of the album up on CD many years later. When this edition was released, I first stumbled into the CD/DVD version last year, and suddenly realized I’d really missed something. That was what pushed me to add to it this vinyl version–it’s actually the “deluxe edition” which contains not only a second 12″ of bonus tracks (remixes and b-sides) but also that self-same 2xCD+DVD set I already have, albeit in far more inconvenient format for a portable medium.

When it originally came out, the record used a different cover, but the rights to use it were thoroughly rejected–even more than a decade later, which is why it continues to use the cover above. Though this new cover was used for the later pressings, for this deluxe reissue it was re-tinted in neon pink instead of its original blood red. It’s a weird colour, very eye-catching, and actually feels more appropriate in a strange sort of way–though the red, black, and white colour scheme of the original issue fit nicely with the cynical overtones of the record and its goth-y vibe, the pink hits on the fact that those are not the whole, and it’s a ridiculously danceable record (or so I would guess, being as I lack the skill at such activities, personally).

“Agenda Suicide” was the lead single, and in keeping with old habits (though maybe not The Faint’s or Saddle Creek’s), it leads the album. A low-end loop introduces the track with a kind of eye-wink darkness, rumbling along electronically through its set of notes, a palm-muted rattle of guitar from Dapose and then a pulsing four-on-the-floor drum machine beat are layered on top, finalized with actual drums, alternating snare and bass with regular hi-hat. Flavouring it all is a knowingly “off” set of notes from keys that seem to be poking at the outer edges of the sound, bouncing from one edge or corner to the next and then repeating. Todd Fink (née Baechle, though he was still Baechle at the time) pulls his voice out of the playbook from the goth-inflected post punk–think early Robert Smith, nervous, half-bored, very cynical–his verses are split by the sizzling keys that mark one of the track’s great hooks, leaning menacingly forward and more confidently spread across the track than the pulses and scatter of notes that precede them. The last time these chords strike down, the keys spiral downward to make room for the chorus: “Our work makes pretty little homes”, which is followed by the cold sound of drum machine thumping and even more mechanical guitar rattling. This leads to the full realization of those menacing chords, harmonized with a higher set of keys. The nihilistic, cynical, depressed description of modern societal monotony–“Agenda suicide, drones work hard before they die/And give up on pretty little homes”–is realized by the track, but it’s matched to an absurdly insistent, danceable beat that just makes you want to move and have fun, perhaps in spite of the repellent nature of the cubicle life described. The musical “interstitials” that split the chorus are later slowed down to a breakdown-like pounding that somehow turns the track into one that almost recommends headbanging, without ever losing that edge of life-sucking darkness it’s there to describe. Don’t mistake this of course–the track is descriptive and musically appropriate, but it’s finagled into the shape of a ridiculously enjoyable one, despite all of that.

In contrast to the building, hinting, and layering of “Agenda Suicide”, “Glass Danse” gives only a few beats warning before it launches full bore into its brash, loud dancey beat. It moves constantly and puts Todd’s voice behind an electronic device–something in the vein of a megaphone–that distances it from that straight up oomp-tss of the verse’s instruments. The lead-up to the chorus loses the filter between him and listener, doubles the beat’s speed, but closes camp around both, close to the ground and ready to spring, a launch that is fueled by the sputtering of metallic keys, which finally ignite and take off. Coming after “Agenda Suicide” it functions as a refusal to let the beat slow or drop in any way, while maintaining enough variety to keep things really very interesting.

“Total Job” takes that boiling heat and drags it down to a simmer, but a persistent one. The tempo is down, but the energy behind it is untouched. Todd and Jacob Thiele use the doubled tones of the metallic key sound to give the track the most clear and focal melody the album has in its first three tracks, while Joel Petersen’s bass makes itself more known than before. A chopped female vocal sample is sprinkled across the track, while Todd’s voice is given a vaguely demonic filter toward the end of the track–but only on a background double track of them. It functions mostly as connective tissue between the burst of “Glass Danse” and its nearby neighbor, “Let the Poison Spill from Your Throat”.

That follow up track is introduced with a frog-croak like keyboard hook and a clatter of drum machine that suggests a thin, demo-ish sound, except that it’s the lead in to live drumming from Todd’s brother Clark, and the croaking keys are now joined by a high-pitched whine of companion keys, which shift upward and tighten at their peak to drop the tempo back down. Stereo-pan right-left hopping drum machine and keys are the canvas across Clark’s frame of restrained drumming. Todd’s filtered, vaguely sarcastic voice drops to a whisper to lead in the chorus: “Just let the poison spill/Spurt from your throat/Hiss like steam–” and that anticipatory drop of everything gives the song back its initial roar of energy: “‘Cause the pressure’s unreal/I’m not saying that it’s not/You’re causing a scene/You’re wearing out that note/You scream until it’s gone, gone, gone…” It’s an apt lyric for the music–or apt music for the lyric. Like much darker electronic-focused music, it has tinges of the machine and the song is like a machine hissing out steam, until the pressure is released in the chorus. Fascinatingly, the song features a more raw bassline from Joel, and moments where Clark drums in isolation, while Todd’s voice is at its most distorted and altered. The downward strokes of that hook are, it seems, more unreal than the pressure to which the lyrics refer–yow, but they are catchy!

Unlike the CD release, the vinyl (both the original and this deluxe edition) place “Violent” at the end of side one as track 5 instead of penultimate track 8. “Violent” is actually the longest song on the album, the only one clocking past five minutes. Instrumentally, it’s semi-unique–while Gretta Cohn’s cello appears on “Total Job”, too, it’s most apparent here when it is alone with Todd’s voice and a drum machine. More keys and electronic sounds–cracking rhythms, shuffling hiss and rattle–hide in the corners, but even when the song shifts gears and Todd’s voice goes “Transformer”, Dapose, Clark, and Joel remain rather silent–Dapose’s guitar does appear briefly as a short lead after this, but disappears after a few bars again. Clark’s hi-hat playing does come in a bit before the song attempts to tear itself apart, stuttering, starting, stopping and shuddering before returning as a skronking low-end key line. It’s joined by a fuzzy industrial metal beat and hi-hats that all skitter like a skipping CD until they become a single repeated beat. Then it all comes back together as a song centered around that grungy, bassy keyboard lick, with sustained horror-esque high-pitched keys carry a haunting melody in the background in keeping with the slow, low strains of cello. It only makes sense, I suppose, that the longest song be, in effect, a pair of songs smashed and converted into a single one.

Side Two opens with another scorcher, “Your Retro Career Melted”. An odd choice, in a way, for a band that is openly and obviously drawing from the past–but sung with enough venomous sarcasm that it manages itself quite well. The horror and sci-fi inflections continue with a squealing hook of keys around the pounding beat that blends so well into the primary keyboard melodies. The catchiest chorus and use of electronic voice filters by far, “Your retro career m-m-m-melted” is repeated over a tireless beat. Squealing and stabbing keyboards get to back Todd and Clark for a moment, just before the chorus returns for its last run, before stretching out over the last few minutes, ending with the electronic filtration of a bell-curved singing of “Melt-e-e-ed…” closes it all.

“Posed to Death” is rather strange, coming on like a vaguely tribalistic set of non-verbal vocalizations over a  2-and-4 beat, but Clark’s entrance turns the thumping keyboards Todd’s voice is mimicking into a back-and-fourth full four beats, until Todd steps back for Joel’s bassline. Now the beat is a body-moving of a 1-a2-a3-a4 swing. Distorted keys crunch away and leave a wash of disttortion in their wake, a wall of static behind the song’s hypnotic beat. It closes with Dapose harmonizing his guitar with the keyboards, a new sound for the record.

“The Conductor” has a fantastic intro: keyboards attuned to the slight fuzz of distortion on a sound somewhere between xylophone and piano, let ring just long enough to mimic an echo, hints of harpsichord-like twang making it almost like a moment of suspense in a mid-period horror flick, before a funereal beat backs an expansion of this marching melody, flattening with the weight of the louder, fuller chords of ominous, 80s-horror threat. Percussion backs this and turns it–without changing the melodic portions–into a dance movement. The song is haunting and dark in a new way, shadows and the kind of darkness that could be a room, a large room, or even open space. When Todd takes over the verse completely and his voice takes the fore–takes control, if you will (as he himself sings)–it becomes something closer to the merely dark-edged crunch of the Faint’s usual sound. It’s fuzzed by Joel’s bass, spiced by blistering Dapose leads, and propelled by keyboards–the chorus fades it away to keys, drum machine and Todd’s voice repeating “Control, control, control, control, control…” The bell-like xylopiano of the intro lingers over it all, keeping it haunting and mysterious, even more so as the beat drops out from under it to let it play alone and fade off.

Gretta Cohn’s cello opens “Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen” almost alone, and where it’s flavoured by keys, it is only that–flavour on her strong draws of bow. Then the jittering of a pounding beet against a sheet of metallic noise carves out a mechanized chunk of the track, tailed by a wobbling fuzz of grungey keys. It’s the most downtempo and downbeat track on the record. The beat is the strongest, clearest part of the primary band’s sound (Cohn acting in a secondary role, after all), with Todd’s voice again hiding at a distance, and even the keys burbling around Clark’s drums. For all the interesting layers of sound, it’s a sparse-sounding track in contrast to the uncontrolled burst of movement that composes the rest of the record. Certainly, this makes it rather fitting as a final track, though instead of the misleading final fade of piano and cello, distorted keys take the final moments for their own.



Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Take Me to the Hospital
  2. Mote
  3. Dust (featuring Bright Eyes)
  4. Falling Out of Love at This Volume
  1. The Conductor [Thin White Duke Remix]
  2. Glass Danse [Out Hud Remix]


Sides 3 and 4 are a collection of tracks from various places (a Saddle Creek compilation, the Mote/Dust non-album single, the remix album, the German version of the “Agenda Suicide” single, and the original German limited edition 2CD release of the album). “Mote” is a Sonic Youth cover, while “Dust” features “Bright Eyes”–aka Conor Oberst, a former member of the Faint, and Mike Mogis, who co-produced Danse Macabre. “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is indeed a Bright Eyes cover, and “Take Me to the Hospital” is the only “completely Faint” track (the other two obviously being remixes).


Sadly, “Take Me to the Hospital” is not a misnamed cover of the Replacements’ “Take Me Down to the Hospital” (which I’d still like to hear them cover, just for curiosity’s sake). It is actually an interesting, stuttery track, that doesn’t quite have the slick goth-inflections of Danse Macabre, but has a stammering dance of a chorus that spells out the final word of the title. It’s a bit more intimate as a track, and points a bit more toward the group’s other work.

“Mote” is fuzz-loaded, with squeaky-tape rewind noises and pounding beats, perhaps the closest relative of the album proper to appear amongst the bonus tracks, barring the remixes of tracks actually from the album, despite being a cover.

“Dust” is a little more akin to a Depeche Mode-style dance music, with the kind of chunky synths that are so recognizable, but built on live drums. There are Faint touches for sure, but it’s mostly more readily accessible and cleaner than Danse Macabre.

“Falling Out of Love at This Volume” is odd, as, despite his former membership in the band, Oberst’s music is not in keeping with the rest of the Faint’s sound, but the band predictably “remedies” this (as would be almost inevitable in a band that is more keyboards than guitars). Interestingly, the over-echoed, watery effect on Todd’s voice does bring it closer to the demo-style recording they’re covering.

Thin White Duke’s remix of “The Conductor” is a severely re-designed version of the track. It moves to a more standard dance beat, and Todd’s electronically manipulated recitation of “Control” forms the central hook of essentially the entire song, even being layered over itself in various iterations, almost to the exclusion of the rest of his words. It’s something like the expectations of remixes, but it’s very much well done, even with its humourously stereotypical inclusion of strings.

Out Hud’s remix of “Glass Danse”, in contrast, is only subtly different from the original track, functioning closer to a remix in the “remixed and remastered” sense than the “make it their own” one. Of course, I cannot help but mention that I know Out Hud primarily for the fact that they did an early split with !!!, a band that actually shared three members with Out Hud at the time. Heck, that split was released on Gold Standard Labs (GSL) who released not only !!!’s first album (the self-titled !!!), but also the Mote/Dust Faint single, and a few records that will appear later in my collection–as a label that was co-owned by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez. It’s still a solid remix and they do make it somewhat more their own as it progresses, and in doing so actually keep it more like a Faint song than Thin White Duke did with his remix.

I bought this album very deliberately–it’s insanely catchy, particularly in its first half, but spread (and paced) nicely across both sides, or its full (CD) length. Finding the right space to suggest this, as a goth-tinged, crunchy dance album–I don’t know. It was pretty big in its time if I’m not mistaken, but to whom I would recommend it unwaveringly, I’m not sure. I mean, I’d recommend anything I like to anyone, because it’s all good music, but the taste that would make me say, “Ah, listen to the Faint!”? I don’t know.

Perhaps you should go and check it out (you should), and maybe return data so that I can assemble knowledge of what that taste is.

Or just check them out regardless (yep).

Alejandro Escovedo – Real Animal (2008)

Back Porch/Manhattan Records ■ 50999 5 824111 1 9

Released June 10, 2008

Produced and Mixed by Tony Visconti
Engineered by Mario McNulty
Assistant Engineering by Tim Price
Mastered by George Marino


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Always a Friend
  2. Chelsea Hotel ’78
  3. Sister Lost Soul
  4. Smoke
  1. Sensitive Boys
  2. People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)
  3. Golden Bear
  4. Nuns Song
Side Three: Side Four:
  1. Real as an Animal
  2. Hollywood Hills
  3. Swallows of San Juan
  4. Chip n’ Tony
  1. Slow Down
  2. Falling in Love Again
  3. I Got a Right

I could completely obscure how I know the name Alejandro Escovedo, but that would really just be disingenuous, wouldn’t it? Truth be told, he does a duet with one Ryan Adams on Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac–one of my favourite records in the world–on a track called “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”. A snide reviewer once noted that Adams’s music was inferior and a listener might be better off with Escovedo’s, seemingly unaware of this connection or, I later found out, a bit of a friendship between the two. That interview was what really pushed me to check Escovedo out for himself: in it, Adams said Escovedo shared an “outsider’s” perspective on love, being less defined by it than most and thus able to record it that much more acutely, in a strange way. He mentioned a song (“She Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), referencing it as astonishingly sad and evocative emotionally–which was something that appealed to me a lot in Adams’s stuff, particularly that which he did with Whiskeytown.¹

I was out on a business trip in Iowa and Nebraska, which meant a lot of trips to the record stores in Omaha, where I found quite a few things of interest (to the point that I started to stress the space I’d quite deliberately left in my luggage for music to come back with me). One of those “things” was Real Animal: Escovedo’s third-to-last album at the time (back in June this year), on sale and predating the CD I’d picked up just previously but not much listened to (2010’s Street Songs of Love).
Between his appearance in Whiskeytown and his solo-named recordings (though he apparently also works in and “as” a few bands like Buick Mackane and Rank and File, as well as being in other bands over the years), I already had an itchy feeling this was an artist who would appeal to my father (who provided me with my first Whiskeytown album), and the fact that he’s from Texas–like my father–just furthers the notion. Even if he is associated most with Austin, the most atypical of Texas cities. Listening to the record (and being pushed by it into finally giving Street Songs of Love some spins), I’m still left pretty strongly with that impression–though there’s plenty of chance that he already knows him.
Anyway, the record starts with a nice rocker of a track, and possibly (maybe) my favourite on the whole record: “Always a Friend”. It’s a stuttering, staccato, jerky but warmly toned lone guitar that is suddenly embraced by the much softer tones (but voluminous and bright) of a string section and the rest of Escovedo’s band. “Wasn’t I always a friend to you?” Escovedo asks, then repeats it, his voice rising on the last two words this time. It’s a some what self-deprecating character: “I don’t care if I’m not your only one/What I see in you, you see in me/But if I do you wrong/Smoke my smokes/Drink my wine/Bury my snakeskin boots somewhere I’ll never find”–the list comes out a capella and half-spoken, before the punchline comes, emphatic and frank: “Still be your lover, baby!” It’s not that he seems to shrug at these things, or plead, or anything so much as state the facts of his case: she can do wrong, so can he, it doesn’t matter. In the end, it’s the two of them, no matter what. A bit more realistic, perhaps, than most works that operate on that notion, and a damn fine song for that fact.
Escovedo begins to touch on his punk history (he was in the Nuns, one of the bands that opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show) with “Chelsea Hotel ’78”–in which he indeed lived at the time. He ties it, of course, to fellow occupants of that hotel, most especially the most famous of the time: Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Throbbing riffs sit uneasily beneath his descriptions of a near-mythological time and place, until they culiminate in a half-shouted chorus shot through with the sound of hands thrown into the air–“And it makes no sense/And it makes perfect sense…” He has probably tied bits and pieces of that time together in ways that don’t match reality, but that is only that much more sense (ahem) considering the song’s overall tenor.

Finally dropping the mood if not the tempo, “Sister Lost Soul” is another excellent run: a very 60’s intro of pounding drums punctuated with an emphatic and loud snare hit that is let ring and echo for just a moment gives way to a much less dramatic and loud set of verses. Escovedo’s voice is calm and easy, describing the world in dark but fatalistic terms: “Nobody left unbroken/Nobody left unscarred/Nobody here is talking/That’s just the way things are.” He manages to sneak in one of my favourite images ever, too: “And all the neon light reflecting off the sidewalk,” before closing it with the line that defines the need for the song’s pleading chorus: “Only reminds me you’re not coming home.” In contrast to the raw confusion and chaos of the prior track, the pleas of the chorus stretch and wave across Escovedo’s voice: “Sister lost soul/Brother lost soul/I need you…” the economy of syllables letting that much more emphasis rest on each.

Apparently uninterested in letting an album that references his past slow down too much, “Smoke” is another chunk of rawness, riffing, and steady up-tempo drums. A blazing guitar lead winds its way across the top, riding high on bends and little twists and turns of the primary riffs and melody that are cool and familiar in that purely “rock” sort of sense. Susan Voelz contributes her violin to the track in a way that seems to glue the guitar to the rest of the track that much more perfectly, be it the lead or rhythm. They blend and blur around each other, following in such a way that uncareful listening can easily lead to the conclusion the violin is just a strange sound of playing from the guitar.

The second side of the record finally drops not just the mood but the tempo–perhaps logically, with a title like “Sensitive Boys”. Hector Munoz’s drumming doesn’t really shift into light playing, just lighter–there’s no betrayal of the record’s rock leanings here. The tenor of the song is fascinating: it’s a mix of poking fun at the excesses of the “sensitive boys”, pining for their return, and just a touch of nostalgia given away when “they” becomes “we”. There’s a nice, appropriately quiet wash of noise when he sings, “Turn your amps up loud”, conveying the idea without overtaking the song, and managing to weave it in correctly. One of the most full instrumental sections on the record, the arranged strings dart in lightly here and there, and an organ-styled keyboard underpins it all with sustained chords. Brad Grable contributes his only sax tracks, with both a baritone and a tenor, taking on a solo to follow the relaxed but confident guitar one. It’s breezy, reminiscent of both rock balladry usage and the romantic kind–but not in that uncomfortably saccharine style, which may be where the song most benefits from its unusual tone.

“People (We’re Only Gonna Live So Long)” has a great swinging gait: Munoz’s drums groove and rock back and forth, while Voelz’s violin draws the low-slung lines connecting the beats, guitars traveling in jagged zigs along that same line. The whole track nearly stops for the chorus’s final repetition of “We’re only gonna live…” to let Alejandro clarify: “We’ve still got time…/But never quite as much as we think”. It’s not a warning, though, so much as paean to people in general, which he finally states at the end, giving a small list of types of people that the track fades out on, mentioning that he loves them.

Producer Visconti brings back the synthetic strings he previously used in David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” in “Golden Bear”–that slight warble of high-pitched faux-strings, though with a much less central place in the track. Where in that track it established itself immediately as an auditory focal point, here it is just an accent on the more “standard band” framework of the track, though guitars are split between palm-muted and tightly played notes and sweeping pedal-reverbed open chords allowed to ring. The tightened corners of the verse are let slip completely for a cavernous unanswered question of a chorus: in the background, the rest of the group sings “Golden bear is burning down” in a crowded muddle that doesn’t emphasize the words and instead forms a bed for Escovedo’s drawn out rhetorical question: “Oh…why me?”

If you’ve been paying attention, the reason “Nuns Song” is titled what it is should be no surprise–and no, it does not have to do with the kind of habits that go on heads. The intro is spare and sharpened: pounding, barely restrained drums and tightly wound guitar repeating as Escovedo sings in his past: “We don’t want your approval/It’s 1978/We know we’re not in tune/We know we’ll never be great…” A few more lines and that great call: “Kill it!” Alejandro yells, not to be heard enunciating by listeners, but to kick the band into gear–hey, even if the vocals were recorded last, doesn’t matter–and the restraints drop, Munoz pounding and then running across the toms to open the band, guitars wailing, background vocals more literally doing the same as they rip into the chorus. Now coiled again, the band is still more complete with strong violin laid across the top, lightly tapping keyboard lines (from Visconti, this time) and more present bass. When the chorus opens up again, it doesn’t have that great kick into gear, but a different kind, as it gives way to a buzzing and wild guitar solo. Much like “Chelsea Hotel 78”, the final portion of the track is chaotic lyrically, vaguely bizarre, but evocative–and backed by a searing, seemingly uncontrolled guitar solo that is eerie, unexpected, and yet entirely right.

The album doesn’t quite have a title track, but “Real as an Animal” is pretty damned close. A Stooge-like pounding, rocking intro doesn’t really lose its energy when the chorus hits, Munoz pounding on skins like an animal (perhaps even like Animal, now that I think about it…). Were it not for the more Americana-inflections of the chorus, this could easily have been a well-produced proto-punk style track. The chunky riffs and melodic rises are highly reminisicent, but that chorus (“La la la la yeah, animal…”) and its backed vocals give away the secret. Escovedo wrestles even the chorus back almost, though: he sidles the melodic vocals most of it uses into shouts of the song’s title, punctuated and clearly delineated words–“Real. As. An. A-ni-mal,” repeated as if a mantra to let his punk past restake its claim on the song.

Quite unexpectedly, “Hollywood Hills” has an intro of nothing but arranged strings that contrast fully with that previous track’s sonic struggle. When Escovedo enters, it’s only with clean guitars, and mostly solo strings. More strings join these sounds and make way for the chorus, which seems designed to fill out the song with grand declarations and the movement of a moment a chorus of voices would join: “Happiness can’t be bought or sold/You shared what you had/But you gave me your love…” It’s the kind of (rather mild, to be fair) crescendo that doesn’t betray the acoustic inflections of the track, but builds it up despite that. Somewhat naturally, it closes with just Alejandro and guitar again, fading naturally with quieter singing and playing, with a thoughtfully placed keyboard chord lightly dropped at the end as punctuation.

“Swallows of San Juan” opens with its chorus, and neatly defines not only the lyrical content but the song’s own feeling with its final lines: “Like the swallows of San Juan/I’m gonna get back…someday.” That present nostalgia, the kind of distant declaration that has only emotional weight behind it, no plans or clear intentions to arrive at it. While “Hollywood Hills” is more delicate, “Swallows” may be lighter, with its sustained keyboards and strings, an easy, tired gait–that wistful look backward that is backed by the conviction of nostalgia and real desire to return.

Semi-rockabilly drum pounding gives away the feel of “Chip n’ Tony”, which saws back and forth across the 1&2 3&4 thumps of Munoz’s drums. Even where the guitars fade back to make room for Escovedo’s voice, Munoz is relentless, giving the tracks just a little tinge of that Bo Diddley gait without really quite reaching it. It’s the kind of track that calls out for hand claps in its way, but smartly avoids them in this particular recording–it would have cut through the aggression of the track inappropriately, as the approach of this band and Alejandro’s voice already slices off just the right sliver of aggression to keep it friendly, and anything more would drop it into the wrong place.

“Slow Down” does exactly that: one of the handful of downtempo tracks, it’s quavering guitars and languorous pacing. Plucked strings tinge it with something brighter than the down-trodden tone of Escovedo’s singing. It’s the culmination of everything from before: “”Slow down, slow down/It’s moving much too fast/I can’t live in this moment/When I’m tangled in the past”. All the recitations of memories past, of life lessons and influences we’ve been played on the prior three sides are all the tangles of life Escovedo himself is reliving and reciting, trying to find his way to the present–a present that, in fact, was something new, in its way, to him. Not long before this, after all, he’d been ill enough hepatitis-C (incurring even a tribute album to cover medical expenses) to leave the present and future a question. All of this makes it the perfectly logical conclusion to the album–which it is, on compact disc and most digital formats.

However, exclusive to the vinyl, we have “Falling in Love Again”, a quietly romantic song, with flecks of passion infused into it. It’s an interesting and appropriate coda to the record, as if it is the epilogue announcing and explaining the search for the present and finding a place in it, maybe even a momentary cause for sifting through the past for the moments that are held and retained. It’s one of the more unique vinyl bonus tracks, in that it is simply not to be found in any other format I’ve ever seen–no compilations, singles, promos, digital releases [unfortunately for more portable formats, there’s not even a digital download included with this record] or anything, it’s only here.

More appropriate as “bonus” and “exclusive”, we close out side four with a cover of Iggy/The Stooges’ “I Got a Right”. It’s one of those historically muddled tracks, as the career of Iggy goes–the Stooges were recently dissolved, his drug addictions were short-circuiting his career, and he hadn’t yet left with Bowie to record his breakout solo records (most famously, I suppose, Lust for Life) when it was released, but it had been recorded years earlier anyway, and was one of many stop-gap releases attempting to keep his reputation (and sales…) alive. It was originally credited to “Iggy Pop and James Williamson”, the latter being the latter-day Stooges guitarist who entered after 1970’s Fun House, pushing former guitarist Ron Asheton to bass, and who then came to define much of 1973’s Raw Power guitar sound (the record being originally produced by David Bowie). As such, it may be the perfect choice to follow discussions of the past and their interminglings with the future, by revisiting the time more completely in covering a song from the early 70s, though one released near the end of that decade. Escovedo and crew do it serious credit, with Alejandro straining his voice to reach the snarling sneer of Pop while not giving up his own identity, and Visconti’s strings (!) enhancing the track in an unexpected way for such a raucous classic.

Other than my brief “cameo” introduction, this was my first experience of Escovedo–certainly, then, my first experience of him as solo artist. I’ve begun to gather many more releases in the time since then, including Bloodshot Records’ release of A Man Under the Influence: Deluxe Bourbonitis Edition, which has a number of compilation and EP tracks attached in a similar fashion to those attached here, but does make them available for download (or at least, four years after release, did so for me after a quick e-mail–a service that renders me grateful and interested in dropping that little plug!). I’ve found myself revisiting a number of tracks from this release in the near-month since I first started writing this entry, before being delayed and distracted by work and the social attachments that come with it. I am definitely glad to have made this trip, and for the number of re-listens that drawn out writing time has given it. This is a damn fine rock record, which I heartily recommend checking out.

¹That interview, which is with both artists, is here on No Depression’s site (of course), from right around the release of Strangers Almanac, which, incidentally, I gushed over at my old blog. It has gotten interesting attention–the author of a DRA biography commented on it and has linked to it (!), and Caitlin Cary herself found it apparently rather flattering and invigorating, it seems (if, apparently, deceptive in its impression that they had carefully plotted the album or anything like that).

Emperor – Prometheus: The Discipline of Fire & Demise (2001)

Candlelight Records ■ Candle064LP


 
Released October 23, 2001

Produced by Ihsahn
Mixed by Thorbjorn Akkerhaugen and The Emperors
Mastered by Tom Kvalsvoll and The Emperors


Side One: Side Two:
  1. Eruption
  2. Depraved
  3. Empty
  4. The Prophet
  1. The Tongue of Fire
  2. In the Wordless Chamber
  3. Grey
  4. He Who Sought Fire
  5. Thorns on My Grave

I’ve only touched on black metal here once before, and that was a rather curious and unique example of the genre. Diabolical Masquerade are not at the forefront of most minds when naming bands that fit the bill for the genre–more likely, you will hear Immortal, Mayhem, Burzum, Darkthrone–and Emperor.

I picked this album up from the sadly defunct store Musik Hut in Fayetteville, source of not only much of my metal from years past (on vinyl or otherwise) but also of my “black X” collection, and even a few other oddities indicative of how odd that store actually was. It was intended as a metal/punk/industrial store, but did carry plenty of other and “normal” stuff.

As with much of metal (other than Morbid Angel and Decapitated, and a handful of others)–such as At the Gates–even the classics (like Emperor here) were introduced to me by a single soul, to whom I tend to give credit for most of my metal awareness. He and I still talk metal now and then, of course, but also the odd other chunk of music, since neither of us is married to it in exclusivity.


When I bought this record, I don’t recall what else it was I was considering purchasing with my then-limited funds, but I recall Bob, owner of Musik Hut coming outside to inform me during deliberations that this was more likely to disappear and was, thus, the better choice at the moment. It was also a part of my occasional (weird) habit of completing my collection of an artist or band’s discography via part vinyl, part CD approach. I still have (after a few sales and purchases for expanded and fancier editions) Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk, IX Equilibrium, and In the Nightside Eclipse on CD, and still don’t have any on vinyl, nor this album on CD. It does mean that, for reasons of time and convenience, this is the album I have listened to the least–there is no song I know immediately like “The Loss and Curse of Reverence”, “An Elegy of Icaros”, or “Into the Infinity of Thoughts”. It helps nothing that Emperial Live Ceremony was recorded and released before the album, so no songs got doubled exposure, either.

It’s making this a peculiar and semi-difficult review: I have never had strong feelings about the album, nor have I had the chance to develop them. Beyond that, black metal is an extraordinarily acquired taste, or so I’m told–many have commented on the breadth of my peculiar tastes, so apparently I’m not overly qualified to comment on that aspect. Indeed, I was perfectly pleased with the first black metal I remember hearing. I’ve known many metal fans, though, who do find it impenetrable. And it’s understandable, I guess, depending on where you come at it from–earlier Emperor (e.g. Wrath of the Tyrant) would give me a headache if listened to in headphones, but that was less a result of the music and more a result of its awful production. Curiously, bad production has occasionally been a deliberate choice as well as a budgetary inevitability.

Emperor’s records from In the Nightside Eclipse on to this one (their final studio album) are nothing like that. The production tends to be quite clean for the material (it’s still metal, so it is still quite heavy on distortion), which can also be attributed to the “sub-sub-subgenre” of “symphonic black metal”, which Ihsahn slowly pushed their sound toward as time went on–or rapidly, I suppose, if one listens to Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk and specifically tracks like “Al Svartr (The Oath)” or “The Wanderer”.

“The Eruption” opens the album in a fashion not dissimilar to those tracks on previous albums, with howling winds, a whispering setting of the scene from Ihsahn (“…And after years in dark tunnels, he came to silence. There was nothing…”), and then a harpsichord (almost guaranteed synthetic) and synthesized violin set a kind of mixed quaint, gothic, and isolated tone before his guitars come in with Samoth’s to fill the sound out enormously on top of Trym’s drumming, their melody repeating that of the harpsichord’s. And then the sound turns to that of black metal: sheets of rapid guitar riffing and Trym’s signature fill-heavy and descending drums. The track makes immediately clear that this album is not going to be straightforward. Ihsahn’s growing fascination with clean vocals overlaid, as started on their previous album (IX Equilibrium) is now put to full effect–there are echoing choral voices (all his, of course!) that answer his “shrieked”¹ verses, and a rather melodic (and actually catchy!) chorus. The tempo and sound is fluid; little remains consistent throughout it, though it comes back to its own sounds repeatedly, shifting as if a set of constantly rising and lowering terrain that has an underlying but non-simple pattern to it.

Continuing the “spoken introductions”, “Depraved” further sets forth the “concept album” behind it all, though it makes it no more explicit. The music that follows the introduction is call-and-response shards of high-end guitar met with thundering force of drums, bass, and fuller-sounding guitars. It actually fairly well chugs for quite some time, until it locks into a melodic riff and a machine-like set of rapid drumming from Trym. A more consistent-sounding song, its only movements tend to shift the sound of that riff, or act in normal bridge fashions, linking similar passages.

The closest the album came to a single, “Empty” did have a promotional video made for it. In true Emperor fashion–hearkening back to their classic first two albums–the song simply starts. Like many of their most famous tracks, there is only an introduction of a kind–Trym does not work his way into the clattering wall of beats that the song possesses, it simply starts from the outset. Repetitions of “He is an empty shell” anchor the song next to the atonal pinched harmonic noise of its clearest lick, while short passages of keyboards give way to a more straightforward riffing movement  in a more familiar tempo–curiously, the verses, not the chorus.

“The Prophets” is another doom-y moment for the album, much like portions of “Depraved”, as it chugs forward at a steady 4/4, deep vocals mixed heavily with the guitars gutturally swarm across the track, which makes the lower-mixed-than-previous clean vocals both more apparent and more naturally blended when they answer. It’s those clean vocals that bridge the song into its halfway point, wherein the guitars are heard in isolation and suddenly speed up to a new riff, that Trym slips in under with a constant blastbeat (snare-bass-snare-bass) that is so intrinsic to much of the basic black metal sound. The thinned, high-end lead lick that is used to contrast with the rapid riffing it trades off with is also a signature sound: it is cracked and fragile, but only at a glance–it’s actually confident and empowered in a fascinating way.

In “The Tongue of Fire”, we’re again treated to the relative absence of introduction, but, as the longest track on the record, it has perhaps the most variance in sound of all, turning entirely from its heavy and charging first section to a slowed and expansive, synth-heavy middle section dominated entirely by Ihsahn’s clean voice. When he finally rises off into the distance with the phrase, “Slowly maddened/By the emptiness…” the sheets of crackling, blackened high-end guitar rain down over Trym’s tom-pounding and oddly hopeful and semi-positive synths. Guitars that reclaim the track are indicative of the melody riffed earlier, but instead cleaner and more lead-oriented, taking the instrumental portion of the song off into a complete third direction that suddenly turns into a curling, sharpened fourth portion that re-introduces the heavy sound via bass and drums, as well as Ihsahn’s voice, but declines to return to riff-styled guitars. It does also drop in that one falsetto-esque King Diamond-styled moment, which introduces yet more unique passages in the song, which declines to end cleanly, but instead to fade slowly on the imperial synths and cracked guitar leads of the central few moments.

“In the Wordless Chamber” is blastbeats and gothic synths over those speaker-filling sheets of guitar that are the absolute signature of black metal. Synthesized horns add a curious sound to the track, over Trym’s relentless beat, they almost imply a kind of charging mounted army, sending out the call to attack. For a title like “In the Wordless Chamber”, it seems odd and incorrect, but it comes to a halt and folds back on itself with a gong–the quietest moment in all the album, or at least the most serene, follows: it’s all synthetic strings and more generalized keyboard-style waves beneath that. But somewhere in them, a noticeably flat note begins to herald the return of that forward charge of horns and thundering drums.

“Grey” is a return to the distinctly complicated sounds of previous tracks that were uninterested in find a sound and sticking to it–not in the sense of the immediately previous pair, but those like “Depraved”, though it, too, has a quieter section–but one dominated by the cascades of blackened guitar, rather than the sorrowful synthetic strings that weave around behind. The nature of black metal makes it all feel like a kind of climax to the album’s concept and story, but it isn’t–if that feeling defined that moment, the entire album would be climax with only brief reprieve. It is, however, a clearly increased slope upward toward that moment.

“He Who Sought Fire” stomps heavily, but a single guitar seems to be trying to draw it back into the crashing maelstrom of more familiar black metal territory, which it is indeed successful at after mere moments; Trym is led to frantic blastbeats and then exhaustingly inescapable double-kick bass drums. Ihsahn has fully wrested the band from any grip of “standard” black metal, though, with a lead guitar that soars over the track and defies the dirtied, thinned and wall-wide sound more typical of it. Somewhat surprisingly, a bit of “wah-wah” is actually run over his guitar sound, though more for a consistent modulation of a repeated riff than anything else.

Perhaps one of the most-liked tracks on the album (at least, in my experience, which is admittedly confused), “Thorns on My Grave” is indeed a final track, but not an outro. A momentary hook is built around fingers slid rapidly up the neck of guitars, a sound that is unusual for the record and yet entirely interesting. The synths, in full “symphonic” mode, act as backing to the riffs and fill the track with drama in lead up to the pounding of the verse, which is punctuated by the repetition of that slid-finger lead. The wild spirals of high-end strings lend a chaotic, climactic note to the verses, surrounding that chorus: “For it holds every disease/Ever exposed/It holds all pain and death/It could ever unleash…” he howls wordlessly after its final repetition, and introduces the last verse, howling out the last words with unheard passion: “I am the father/I am the son/My refugee soul has escaped/This body depraved/Of final wishes I ask none/But one/Now that I am gone/Lay thorns on my grave!” and the album ends suddenly on the most emotionally extreme of notes it experiences.

Prometheus still tends to remind me of Death’s The Sound of Perseverance, in that it is a clear continuation of a band’s sound, but now almost totally divorced from its simplistic origin and wrapped in a bombastic, progressive, focused, clean, clear package. It’s not an album that you would expect, nor one that you wouldn’t. Death’s Symbolic clearly paved the way for their final album, much as there’s a clear movement toward Prometheus for Emperor, but in neither case would that final work be the expected end result–so far as I’m concerned, anyway.

Depending on your existing taste, Prometheus may actually be the first Emperor album you want to look at–if musical reaching, complexity and craft are your bread and butter, there is no better example. Those moments are spread, scattered, or at least separate on even albums like the one immediately before this. But his one is uniquely focused–Anthems has its columns that string the parts together, but Prometheus flows between its parts without need of guideposts to remind you it is a single journey.

¹This is the term I’ve always used for black metal vocals, to contrast them with the much lower-pitched sound of death metal vocals, but it’s imperfect. Ihsahn’s often sound (in later years at least–in the earlier ones, he tended to sound more like he was hissing them through a laterally pinched voice) more as though he is making sound through constant inhalation, rather than exhalation. It means they are a bit too low in pitch to fit that “shrieking” bill, but they are still much higher than death metal “growls”.

Eels – Shootenanny! (2003)

 SpinArt Records ■ spart 128


 
Released June 2, 2003

Produced by E
Reorded and Mixed by Greg Collins; A4, A6 by Ryan Boesch
Additional Engineering by Greg Burns, Alicia Guadagno
Mastered by Bernie Grundman; A6 by Dan Hersch


Side One: Side Two:
  1. All in a Day’s Work
  2. Saturday Morning
  3. Good Old Days
  4. Love of the Loveless
  5. Dirty Girl
  6. Agony
  1. Rock Hard Times
  2. Restraining Order Blues
  3. Lone Wolf
  4. Wrong About Bobby
  5. Numbered Days
  6. Fashion Award
  7. Somebody Loves You

The list of artists I’ve so far covered that I’ve listened to longer than Eels is relatively short and largely composed of the least surprising artists for me to have known for a long period of time.¹ I actually made my way into Eels fandom on the cusp of my freshman year of college, at the suggestion of my then-girlfriend, who owned Daisies of the Galaxy (in its infamously, hilariously self-censored version) and Beautiful Freak, both of which I owned before too terribly long after that, alongside their two closest temporal relatives: 1998’s Electro-Shock Blues and 2001’s Souljacker, which was still the most recent album at the time. A year later, this album was released, and you can bet, by then, I was picking it up right around the release date.

My Eels records are–somewhat shockingly–apparently the most valuable records I own. I don’t own a ton (the others are the 2×10″ Electro-Shock Blues and the last album, Wonderful, Glorious on the same format, but in a different colour, as well as End Times with its “A Line in the Dirt” 7″ companion), but people will apparently pay a lot for them. It’s less that it’s shocking for quality or popularity, and more for the fact that it has felt more like the Eels crowd is shrinking than growing, so why they would remain so expensive when the audience is (I think?) dwindling, I don’t know. Still, right now the only vinyl copy of this record listed at any sites I’d ever check to see if I want to pick up a record I can’t readily find² is at one of three sites, and they start from $125 US. Yowza! That’s almost ten times what I paid for it a decade ago!


I suppose it’s interesting I started listening to Eels in the fashion I did–for one thing, Chelsea isn’t and wasn’t A Music Person™, as she has since made a single music recommendation, and, within a year or two I knew more Eels music than she did by increasing orders of magnitude. I don’t think she’s ever caught up, but the whole not-A-Music-Person™ thing means that when we talk, it isn’t usually about music anyway. For another, Beautiful Freak is probably the most uncharacteristic of all of their albums, and Daisies is almost always talked of or thought of in the shadow of its predecessor (’98’s Electro-Shock Blues). The censored version of Daisies, alongside that, did make it possible to hear it in the art class we shared (sort of–only “It’s a Motherfucker” was censored, and incompletely, as it was all sarcastic anyway), but was, of course, not the original. I do sometimes think about finding a copy of that version, though.

But I was rather well-rounded on my Eels knowledge by the time Shootenanny! came out. I had all of their albums up to that point and tended to wear them out constantly, especially in those days where you could carry my CD collection in a box or two–and maybe even my records, for that matter (I couldn’t tell you how many it takes now, because I didn’t count all of them when I moved here 9 months ago). It became more and more interesting that I did like them, though–Chelsea’s parents did, too, and so did mine. My whole nuclear family went to see them live once, even, though I recall it being closer to the release of follow-up Blinking Lights and Other Revelations.

With “All in a Day’s Work”, the feel and tone of most of Shootenanny! is set into place: unsurprisingly for Mark Oliver Everett (aka “E”), it’s entirely in contrast to the image set-up by an exclamation mark on a word modified from a celebratory occasion. It’s largely plodding in pace, with a grungy filter over his voice that distorts it quite deliberately. There’s a nice set of instruments behind it, and he even works in an interesting vocal “duet” with the guitars, but it remains dirge-like despite this, particularly via Butch’s clear-cut and knowingly basic drumming. It’s always been a favourite track of mine anyway, though–the way the chorus cuts through that shuffling slump without actually lifting the tone (just the energy!) is pretty magnificent. That the whole thing is lyrically self-deprecating (ie, “everything is screwed up, which is all just a day’s work for me…”), but with the same shrugging disinterest and twist of wry awareness that permeate’s E’s songwriting, whether it’s truly poignant pains of the well-known variety (his family history is a gigantic pile of sadness and loss) or just this kind of self-ribbing.

An actual relatively famous single as Eels tracks go, “Saturday Morning” is a lot shinier and more upbeat than its predecessor. It’s oddly cleaner, even as the guitar lead is squawky like E likes it³. The vocals do go right into falsetto, which is not a new thing for Eels, but may make the most sense it ever has when it’s placed in a song sung from the point of view of a wired kid who has woken up alone and wants some company for the best day of the week a kid has.

Though I’m often left thinking of the Weird Al original song of the same title, “The Good Old Days” is one of E’s better shruggingly pessimistic ballads. It’s a world that’s not all that great, really, and neither is he, for the woman to whom he sings. But, who knows? Maybe this is as good as it gets–maybe the kids out there enjoying it like any other day, maybe the contrast with a bad dream–maybe the two of them just need to make these the good old days. It’s a quietly pretty song, with E’s voice at its surface-morose best, and a very fragile acoustic guitar track backed by a sad, sweet sliding one. It’s engaging in its simplicity–or maybe because of it, or maybe some combination of the two.

Building on a set of very “lo-fi” simple tracks, including a 1-2, 1-2 drum machine, E sings right up at the microphone, an approach he seems to use to imply a kind of immediacy, intimacy, and frankness. Warm keys and incredibly spare guitar join him for the chorus and bring a brightened edge to the song at an entirely appropriate moment, as he sings: “If there’s a God up there, something above/God shine your light down here/Shine on the love/Love of the loveless”, though it drops away again for the next verse. It rejoins moments earlier when the chorus returns this time, though. And this time he repeats the title a few more times, one of them emphatic and passionate. The bridge appears and has a moment of anticipatory tension, growing and growing and–dropped on its face, not violently, just with a matter-of-fact sort of tone, which is an E trademark at this point. But then the song holds its warm edge, and E starts to latch onto that passion he flashed earlier, the song managing a kind of strength that is not belied at all by a still slow pace and instrumentation that, while brightened, is still spare and overall light. It’s a clever and interesting trick, actually, and one of the other songs I’ve always liked on the record.

While I’ve always felt Beautiful Freak was an aberration in E’s discography, the phrase itself manages to encapsulate the overall sense of E’s approach to songwriting: pretty, but unusual, and juxtaposed oddly. “Dirty Girl” reminds me of this because it starts with a nice guitar line in isolation, but takes a sharp turn when Butch drops in for E’s first verse, which begins: “I like a girl with a dirty mouth…” The chorus is wonderful over its broken, half-dissonant but actually quite pretty chords. That same style is used for a solo section, and the style lets it really fill the track out, as if the chord is splintering so that it can fill any remaining cracks around it. It’s like the solo moment allows this trick to reveal itself, where it comes off as a clean, flat surface behind E’s voice in the chorus. It should be no shock at this point that, though Butch’s beat is very uptempo and cheery, the song itself is anything but–yet continues to avoid mopeyness.

The tiniest of intros precedes “Agony”–a call for a new take, and then a quick run up and down some keys cheerfully. It makes a funny kind of sense, as the song that follows is one of the most purely miserable songs E has done–it’s self-aware enough to avoid the sense of pure self-pity, but it has no real wry edge. It’s all keys and drum machine-style beat to start–and the keys have a reverb and electronic tone that lets their chords curl off like the unsettled floor of a body of water when something hits it–slow motion waves that are but the side effect of the real force at play. Strangled and heavily muted 4th beat guitar chords give way to heavily phased and distorted keys that seem to swallow the rest of the track, the low end swelling beneath them and creating a somewhat disorienting sense to the song.

“Rock Hard Times” has the kind of intro that says, “Hey, this is about to be a really catchy song, so we need to kind of prepare you for it”–at least, in the alt-rock kind of vernacular, it does, I think. A solid four-on-the-floor beat and a nicely back-and-forth bounce to the tune make it a catchy tune indeed, with a wonderful chorus–more misery, but with a kind of determined hope behind them. And after a nice, restrained solo section, the keys take over for an organ-style solo of their own. E’s voice and the very pointed notes of the actually near-monotonic guitar backing are the real stars, though, the former riding across the bed-of-nails of the latter like a steadily bumpy ride continuing readily forward.

Heavy on slide, the kind that makes people say a song is “country-tinged”, “Restraining Order Blues” is a song I might place in that pantheon of “stalker songs”, but most of those tend to be ones that don’t explicitly state it in both the title and lyrics that reference the judge who approved the order. It’s just another off-kilter source for E to write a knowingly melodramatic paean to an unattainable and unrequited love. One gets the impression that it does bear some more resemblance to a stalker song I’ve already covered, in that that song’s author described it more as infatuation or attraction that has been taken entirely too far–rather than the explicit (or even implied) threat of some of the others out there. Which is apparently enough in some cases to confuse people as to how acceptable it is, or whether, in this context, a restraining order would be overreaction (answer: most likely, it wouldn’t).

Probably my favourite song when the record came out, “Lone Wolf” has a chugging, punctuated forward momentum. It is interestingly a sort of distant, fuzzy analogue to future track “Hombre Lobo” (title track of the album that came out six years after this one). It’s a defiant and proud track, though not one swollen with hubris, really. It’s not that E is describing himself as amazingly independent–just a definitive introverted sort of person. Even in its slightly re-arranged version on Sixteen Tons (Ten Songs), composed of re-workings of Eels songs for Morning Becomes Eclectic, there’s a power to the song that the original version is concretely built from, even at its starting point of drum machine and heavily strummed acoustic.

The bass on “Wrong About Bobby” starts the song off on its own, and tells us we’re in for something more akin to the earlier chunk of Eels history. Unsurprisingly, then, “Wrong About Bobby” is the closest relative to “Saturday Morning” on the album, with the strongest solo, an upbeat tempo and more cheerful guitars than in most of the other tracks. Butch does his signature Eels beat, and E does his story-teller voice, the one that doesn’t tie the lyrics as directly to himself. It ends with a strangely produced, half-reversed outro that bridges it nicely into the next track.

“Numbered Days” is perhaps the saddest and prettiest track on the record–it’s not actually all that openly miserable in tone, but there’s this underlying feel to the chords, like they’re bright-faced and hopeful, but you can just see their approaching emotional doom the entire time. Maybe it’s the fact that it avoids snares and cymbals so completely for half the track–even the bass drum just following the bass guitar. When the snare and cymbal are finally allowed to enter, they bring with them the carefully meted out, extremely forceful single piano notes that don’t sour the sound, really, they just sort of take it back down to earth. The power in them is a kind of finality, a kind of, “No, things aren’t going to turn out quite so well as you might think.”

Always a confusing track to see the title of, “Fashion Awards” harkens back to the simple, child-like sounds of tracks like “Jeannie’s Diary” and “Daisies of the Galaxy” from three years prior. E’s voice is all falsetto, and the guitar he plays is delicate and fragile. Even though Koool G. Murder’s (really) bass is firm, the delicacy of the song overall is not lost. When keys begin to act as backing chorus to the guitar, when Butch’s drums enter–it still doesn’t change. The fragility is largely retained in the falsetto vocals, as well as the intense, fatalistic (and disturbingly uncaring) refrain of “…Nobody said that the world was fair/And if they did say so, well then…/…We’ll blow off our heads in despair.” It’s so absurd a reaction, so over-the-top, that it swings all the way out past seeming self-pitying or attention-seeking (or, thankfully, serious) without actually losing the feeling that leads toward that statement anyway.

Perhaps in keeping with everyone calling Electro-Shock Blues depressing and Daisies of the Galaxy cheerful despite E’s insistence that each is the opposite, I think “Somebody Loves You” marks the definitive moment in the record, and thus readily counters the insistence that it’s nothing but an exercise in misery, and, for some, a crossing of the line he so readily balanced before. The swing of the opening chords points toward rays of light in the distance, but strong ones. The chorus they are pointing to comes sooner than expected, though there’s a swing down to really kick it into the stratosphere right before it hits. And when it hits…boy, what a song to inspire in moments that one might feel the rest of the album fits for. It acknowledges current sadness, but gives inspiration for progressing past it: “Somebody loves you/And you’re gonna make it through…” I think for E–based, at least, on his comments on Daisies–knowingly and deliberately chose this as a final track, and as a moment that, then, defines the totality of the record, even in its contrast. There is passion, sincerity, earnestness, and even some kind of truth in the way he sings that chorus: it’s easy to believe it, even if you may think otherwise–at the least, that he sincerely means that it simply has to be true.

I’ve spent much of my time since 2003 considering Shootenanny! the “plain Jane” of the Eels oeuvre. Maybe it’s the cover art, maybe it’s after the shifting styles of Electro-Shock Blues and Daisies of the Galaxy managed to finally explode into the strong but wildly erratic Souljacker two years before and so little could seem anything but musically banal in comparison. Maybe it is the most “plain” of their records. I’m not sure–it was Butch’s last full contribution, and it was the first album I heard new from the Eels, and a band I fall in love with then hear new material from is often in for a rocky moment or three. As I’ve listened to this record again, particularly having to pay attention (else this would be an exercise in linguistic masturbation at best: I’m writing for the music, not for the writing, and would not want it otherwise) I feel either time has been kind, or I was too harsh. It’s still hard to look at that plain cover and get an evocation of the feelings it instills, but maybe that was the point–even the interior is a scattered set of studio photographs, nothing really indicating anything about the songs.

I’m not sure at all, what it is, or was, though I think I was not alone in initial disappointment–but I rescind that pretty emphatically now. This is an extremely good record, which I’ve unfortunately missed for much of the last ten years. Shame on me, I guess!

¹AC/DC, Alice in ChainsAphex Twin, At the Drive-In, The Band, The Beatles, David Bowie, The Cars, Eric Clapton, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Deftones, Dire Straits, and a few I did, of course know of, but didn’t go out of my way to listen to, like the Beach Boys, who I followed John into in college. And, yes: the one who reviewed Album – Generic Flipper and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. That will either make no sense to you or complete sense, I think.

²Not an extensive list. Just Amazon, eBay, and Discogs.

³I’ll never forget the interview I read over ten years ago, where he said that he liked noises that made people check their stereos because they were afraid they might be broken.

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.