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.



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).

Dr. John – Locked Down (2012)

Nonesuch Records ■ 530395-1

Released April 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dire Straits – Communiqué (1979)

 Warner Bros. Records ■ HS 3330

Released June 15, 1979

Produced by Jerry Wexler and Barry Beckett
Engineered by Jack Nuber
Mixing Engineered by Gregg Hamm
Mastered by Bobby Hata

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Once Upon a Time in the West
  2. News
  3. Where Do You Think You’re Going?
  4. Communiqué
  1. Lady Writer
  2. Angel of Mercy
  3. Portobello Belle
  4. Single-Handed Sailor
  5. Follow Me Home

If I’m going to talk about Dire Straits, which, in this case, I obviously am, the starting point is simple: Mark Knopfler is, stylistically, my favourite guitarist, bar none. Like many, I spent part of high school spewing obvious names for “best guitarist ever”, but have long since abandoned this for two simple reasons: first, none of us knows all the guitarists, not even all the guitarists in popular music, nor what performances are comfortable for them versus extreme work, and second, I’m not a player myself, so how could I really judge such a thing? What I can do, though, is establish a sound that I personally like–and, of course, that is not a singular sound in all honesty. I’ve (more privately) expressed appreciation for the tone Jeff Beck achieved on his peculiar, semi-electronic records from the early ’00s. Eric Johnson, too, is noted particularly for his tone. Andy Gill of Gang of Four has a wonderfully clangy, abrasive style, so on and so forth. But, given the option,  I choose Knopfler consistently, because I like the way he plays in-and-of itself, rather than as appropriate for a style, for virtuosity, or because it ends up with clear and pretty sounds–it does those, but is unmistakably a guy playing guitar at the same time.

When I asked for a Dire Straits selection from my 3 LPs (I actually have every album on CD), I noted that I don’t listen to Communiqué much and never have, my brain having rather haphazardly categorized it as the most “bland” Dire Straits record. Really, that judgment is purely personal and internal, and reflects only the absence of songs I know and love (think the big singles, of course), as well as the absence of curiosities like Love Over Gold‘s “Telegraph Road” (a 14-minute long track, wildly out of character in the band’s studio oeuvre, normally maxing out at a bit over 8 minutes in rare exceptions, but largely hovering in the 4-6 minute range). Making Movies has my favourite Dire Straits song (“Romeo and Juliet”) while Love Over Gold has the aforementioned expanded travel of “Telegraph Road”. What does Communiqué have to pop up immediately in my memory?

Of course, I dropped the needle and was reminded–oops. I always think, for some reason, that “Once Upon a Time in the West” is on their 1978 eponymous debut, but that actually starts with “Down to the Waterline”–a solid opener, but no “Once Upon a Time in the West”. As someone who also loves movies, and started branching out into both movies and music at the same time, I’ve forever associated Sergio Leone’s C’era Una Volta Il West (Once Upon a Time in the West to us English speakers) with this song, humming or singing it to myself any time I stumbled into a physical copy of the movie. Lyrically, it makes no sense, but the dry way Mark has always sung, seemingly with just a tinge of the droll, made a strange kind of sense to me, despite the contrasting lushness of Morricone’s score for the film¹ and the expansive, cinematic eye of Leone’s films. I liked to imagine it was at least a jumping-off-point for the song, but it’s highly unlikely. Still, it’s a fantastic track–a piercing lead that’s backed by a pretty set of chords, before turning to a plodding groove of a track, Mark’s lead carrying on less sharply, working a wonderful bend of a lead over the semi-reggae rhythms of John Illsey’s bass and Pick Withers’ drumming. Mark and his brother David work in half-muted chords that also imply reggae origins.

The whole first side of the album is a bit more on the easy, breezy side–“News” is gentle and simple, the melody and playing style, as well as the steel implying the kind that would show up on their next album in the form of, well, “Romeo and Juliet”, actually, though there’s a greater sadness, and no real move to the kind of crescendo that track experiences. Even when Withers’ drums assert themselves more clearly, and Mark’s lead takes off, it stays restrained in overall atmosphere, though that lead presses firmly at those restraints. It makes clear, though, that interesting contrast that often occurs with Mark’s more emotive playing and his semi-gruff, often “huffed” lyrics, which seem to be pushed out through his voice, natural, but sort of forced, in a good way–a rough edged, less sarcastic than masked, guarded contrast to the clean, clear notes he elicits.

“Where Do You Think You’re Going?” broods and simmers menacingly, though I find myself unsure why exactly, lyrically. Some have suggested it’s about domestic abuse (though I’m not at all convinced by these explanations, and numerous lines don’t seem to fit that well), but there’s certainly some kind of hidden threat here–whether it’s from the character Mark sings as, or from where the “girl” he’s singing to plans to go. It takes off into a more energetic pace with a rapid beat from Pick that starts moving the track along. But Mark, ever the leader, manages to soften and slow the song around that beat, his leads matching the tempo but so smooth and curved that it keeps that hidden threat from becoming obvious or overbearing–just slinking along in the shadows instead.

The title track is perhaps the most uptempo track on the whole of the first side, and exhibits the firm fingerpicking that characterize a lot of his work. It swings with the kind of swampy groove of a Dr. John song almost, but then sways at the bridge on top of B. Bear’s piano and turns a bit more familiar as a Dire Straits song then. But the next verse, naturally, reclaims that slinky, swerving groove, so nicely punctuated by the plucked strings. Handclaps shade a solo that sounds at least partly improvisational, the song turning briefly to a kind of “jam” on the back of Withers’ now “pea-soup” drumbeat.

There was only one single on the album, and it was “Lady Writer”, by far the most uptempo track on the album, and a pretty logical choice for a single as a result. Mark’s lead is somewhat reminiscent of their breakout hit, “Sultans of Swing”, but the track itself is a little friendlier overall, in keeping with the relaxed tone of the whole album. While it smokes its way through the verse, it breaks into sunny waves on the chorus, Mark’s lead and vocal sort of fading into the distance as it ends. The backing vocals of David and Illsey are apparent throughout the track, but the high point is doubtless the searing solo that flies out of Mark’s fingers straight through the song’s fadeout–a wild burst of showmanship that shows the peculiar restraint his style tends to exhibit: whatever fancy flares he adds, it never seems overbearing or overly showy.

“Angel of Mercy” sees the return of the low swing that typifies the Dire Straits sound, or at least most of it. David and John’s backing vocals are full and clear again, while Mark’s burn right over the top aggressively. The choral feeling that comes from the three of them singing together through the chorus and the meandering lead Mark lays over the whole thing gives it a nicely contrasting flavour from the rest of the album, one that manages to hit the highs and the lows, while not straying too far from the breezy, low tide of the album’s overall tone. Mark exits the track with another solo, but this one just slides right into place confidently and comfortably, rather than sizzling like he did at the end of “Lady Writer”.

There’s a very light touch to “Portobello Belle”, Mark’s voice and an acoustic alone at open. Illsey, Withers and Bear join, and it’s clear this is one of the songs that will focus on Mark’s songwriting rather than his playing. It’s actually extraordinarily prescient, as it resembles the work Mark would do as a solo artist thirty years later on Kill to Get Crimson in particular (though shades of this style echo through a lot of his solo albums). It’s a simple tune, largely, and it’s the buoyant, sharply bright acoustic that really defines the track, as well as the light touch of keys from Bear behind it. Illsey’s bass is perhaps its most upfront, similarly cheerful, and it makes for an appropriate but unique track for the record.

There’s a lot folded into “Single Handed Sailor”, as Mark returns to electric, his fingers active but subtle in their constant motion. Illsey makes his voice known most clearly here–his instrumental one, that is. A very full bass-line that shifts it under the tightly fingerpicked rhythm track. While it also avoids abandoning the lazy tone of the record, those two instruments really keep it moving a lot more than much of the rest of the album. Taking another chance to wander around instrumentally, the latter portion of the track is another exhibit for Mark’s cool tones and swaggering guitar lead, covering a lot of ground but continuing to avoid fireworks and explosions, in favour of a kind of displayed subtlety.

The breezy tidal feel of the album is made blatant as “Follow Me Home” opens, the sound of small waves crashing on a shore balanced on the light touch of hand drums. Mark’s voice is languorous, matching the swaying rhythm guitar, and his own crying lead. It’s vaguely hypnotic, island-y, like a seductive hymn from beside a beach’s bonfire. Mark’s solo sparks and flits upward at moments, but doesn’t quite take off on its own. Rather than clearly echoing or harmonizing words, David and John on backing vocals widen the sound of Mark’s voice. The track doesn’t build up to a huge moment, or even a hint of one. It just sways back and forth with that slow burn, perhaps best thought of as a culmination of the album’s tone as a whole: it maintains the breezy tone, while turning a moment that implies endings and rest, it instead points toward further activity, acting as both fade-out and hint of what’s to come.

Communiqué was the last album to feature David Knopfler, who has also gone on to solo work, though it is largely unheard, unlistened, and unmentioned. Word is, he doesn’t like to talk about his brother at all, and one can only guess that a split so severe and so early in a band’s life does not bode well for their relationship. Of course, it may say something that Mark was writing all of the songs already, and it was the age-old concern about getting a voice heard. Whatever it may have been, this has remained a clearly voiced vehicle for Mark’s songs, playing, and writing–fair, unfair, or otherwise.

I can’t really complain about that, and found this album was not quite so “slight” as I remembered (or, really–imagined) it to be. I can’t say it moved too far up the ranks in terms of my favourite albums by the band, but I’ve often favoured the earlier works of the bands that rocketed to stardom in the ’80s after solid starts in the ’70s (similarly, as they will not come up later here, I favour Zenyatta Mondatta or Regatta de Blanc over Synchronicity without reservation).

If you do only know the band for their singles, I strongly recommend expanding that experience, as Knopfler’s work is superb in a sense that lends itself less to dropped jaws and applauded virtuosity than just being damn fine sounds. And that phrase is one that might be best to describe what appeals to me in music, I think–nothing technically descriptive or specific, but emphatic and distinct enough to have a kind of identity–though, admittedly, one that requires expansion to be understood.

Which is, of course, what this writing is here to do.

¹While I do have an imported copy of that score on CD, I only have a 2xLP compilation of Morricone themes and the score to Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) on vinyl.

Davenport Cabinet – Our Machine (2013)

Evil Ink Records ■ 

Released January 15, 2013

Produced by Travis Stever and Mike Major

Mixed and Mastered by Mike Major

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Night Climb (Intro)
  2. Deterioration Road
  3. Simple Worlds
  4. Sister Servant
  5. These Bodies
  6. Our Machine
  1. Black Dirt Burden
  2. Drown It All
  3. New Savior
  4. Dancing on Remains
  5. At Sea
  6. Father

NOTE: There are two obvious points here I could gloss over, or choose to address, and I’ve decided on the latter. First: It has been quite a while. I’m working two jobs now, so in the interest of not just rushing through listening, writing, or both, I’ve been simply letting things slide, and instead working out a schedule that works for the jobs and for my own sanity. I apologize all the same–I’m obviously not even close to succeeding at my original goal of “a record a day,” which has effectively become impossible without becoming Robert Christgau in writing style. And Christgau is often too acerbic for my tastes anyway.

Second: This is also why I’ve chosen to omit the “day numbering” in the title of the entry. I should hope it was not exactly something people looked forward to (at least, as compared to actual content), so I also hope it will not be missed too severely.

I’ll admit that part of the reason I ended up delaying at first was that I’d originally hoped to work this album in to its “logical” place, though that has long since passed. I knew it was coming, but could not nail it down in all senses, and I knew quickly it could not arrive in an alphabetically correct place (indeed, we’ve already seen three records that come after it in the alphabet). It’s such a good record though, and I wanted to give it a spot here. Of course, I say that and did not, at the time, have it on vinyl–heck, it wasn’t available on vinyl–as it was only announced then to be coming.

I did finally snag it at a live show, pre-signed (I guess whatever you can do to cut down on dealing with a whole audience seeking signatures!) and was very pleased to do so. I’ve actually listened to both my digital copy (purchased on its release day) and the record numerous times since it was released a few months back, enough to be both pleasantly and overwhelmingly surprised by how much I like it. Davenport Cabinet (named for the “spirit cabinet” of the Davenport Brothers magicians show a good century and some change ago) has only released one other album (Nostalgia in Stereo) and a split 7″ prior to this, both released multiple years ago.

Nostalgia is an interesting album for me–I picked it up a few years ago, listened to it a few times and let it sit on the shelf. I came back to it thinking I should give it another chance because it hadn’t made much of an impression, but realized as soon as I started listening again that I didn’t need to give it a chance and it had made an impression that had somehow slipped away. This made me pretty excited when Our Machine was announced, though I found myself feeling “not bad” was the assigned judgment of the title track, which came out with the now popular “lyric video” approach to single releases.

The album, however, was immediate, and framed even that track into such a place that it gained leaps and bounds. As I mentioned–I really wanted this record to be something I got to talk about here, as it deserves it and is likely to, comparatively at least, slip between the cracks for various reasons I’ll get into.

The feeling of Davenport Cabinet’s first album was almost perfectly described by its own title: it was nostalgic, and it was so with relation to stereos (a bit of a play on words perhaps–it’s playing in stereo or on one, it is nostalgia, it comes from nostalgia, and relates to music and nostalgia for it–not so much ambiguous as multi-faceted in meaning). It’s not much different from how you could describe the second album as well–now Travis Stever has involved his cousin Tyler Klose in not just performing but writing, turning it from a solo project to a duo, though of course others are involved in various performance aspects as well.

“Night Climb” is an interesting intro, as it strikes up the mood of the album, or its source, at least: on the heels of crickets and comfortable evening sounds, very natural hand percussion is matched to guitars and lightly phasing electronics, while wordless vocals cover territory you might call “haunting”, if it weren’t all so familiar and friendly.

I am left a bit with the notion that perhaps “Deterioration Road” might have better served as an introductory song for folks–but that may be indicative of my peculiar tastes, rather than any kind of reality. It uses an isolated guitar lead to strike a chord that takes the whole album and plops it right in front of you and gently places itself around your ears to hold your focus. Rory Hohenberger’s drums, Stever’s bass, and the clean, guitars of Klose and Stever together give it the feeling of a track that has fallen from the radio out of a past decade–and I mean that in the best way possible. It feels familiar, laid back but infused with a kind of energy despite that. I first heard Travis sing in the voice of Richard Manuel, when I heard him covering “I Shall Be Released”. He’s shakily confident, or confidently shaky–or something else that I can’t quite find the words for. Perhaps the tenor might be better described as “fragility”, as there’s no wobble or warble to it, it’s just carried at a pitch that it just seems like it oughtn’t be able to sustain–not a falsetto, just the probable high end of his range. Distorted guitars weave their way into it, but don’t overpower, instead feeling like natural, “classic” sort of guitars. The chorus makes it a more full-sounding song, that seems as though it should be a “classic rock” mainstay we’ve simply missed for some time. Maybe it’s a style from Jimmy Schultz, who contributed the distorted lead that really hammers this home, I’m not sure.

“Simple Worlds” is quite possibly my favourite track on the album, with an acoustic intro that has a snaky lead shot through it. More the feel of a few guys on a porch blazing through a song they put together quietly and privately, with beautiful harmonies on the chorus–but then guest vocalist Laura Tsaggaris appears, and it’s more like a whole group of friends performing together, practiced and expert despite their humble choices. A cappella repetition of the chorus after her verse highlights the careful construction of those harmonies and the wonderful sounds of them. The lead slips back in, Travis’s voice layered in a second time to run through a few of the song’s other lines (including the brilliantly constructed opening ones, which appear in variation throughout: “I’m at a loss for words/But I can see you’re innocent”, the rhythm of it so perfect as to tickle me each time I hear it. It’s a “simple” song, though one shouldn’t be mistaken–it has the sound of a quality and expert recording, and there are clearly tricks only a studio could manage (in particular, the vocals–unless we’ve got a second Travis Stever hiding somewhere, a fact which would certainly not cause me to weep).

Interestingly, Stever takes on the drums for “Sister Servant”, even as he continues on bass duty. It’s a more uniquely modern song, despite the firmly planted notion that this is a relic of decades past in feeling–the guitars that open are rhythmic despite their melody, short, blunted points that don’t blur into each other, even as the bass remains slinky and fluid. Stever’s drumming is deliberately jolting, almost tripping over itself in an interesting rhythm that seems to imply he was caught off guard and is racing to catch up. It’s an interesting contrast to those cool (in all senses) guitars, and particularly the chorus’s sudden introduction of slightly effect-ed guitars that hit a warm note that is beyond appealing. The final third of the song highlights the generally lower pitch Travis employs through much of the song, which is turned into a beautiful repetition and a final a cappella rendition that is left to hang for only a moment.

“These Bodies” is perhaps the closest to the songs that appeared on Nostalgia in Stereo, holding its focus on neither electrics nor acoustics, and layering a variety of sounds and effects, with turns in style more familiar and comfortable, highlighting that nostalgic association of Davenport’s music. When the chorus hits and the song gains some weight to its movements, it stays in that same kind of territory–like a band that was caught between the popularity of the elitists and the populous, and then lost to time as a result, neither overtly cerebral and esoteric nor light and vapid: carefully constructed and thoughtful, but accessible and clear. The electric lead in the song is blistering, but makes no big waves about itself, even as it begins a fretboard dance through the chorus. Klose is allowed to close the song with a quiet keyboard outro that repeats the melody in a very appealing way.

I think all it took was coming out of a song like “These Bodies” to really put “Our Machine” in the proper place–an acoustic twist into chords that follows the notable electrics of a keyboard, light whine of electronics behind it–it makes a kind of emergent sense here, a gently manifested song, not as big and bold as the prior songs, even when the chorus first comes in and Travis and Tyler’s voices begin to blend. When Travis’s drums come in, it still doesn’t make a big noise and attempt to draw attention to itself, it’s just an easy ride, those clean and lightly jangling acoustic sounds keeping it grounded, but grassy and breezy, not clumsy and stiff. Finger-picked moments (I could swear that’s a banjo) emphasize this sense of field-mounted playing to the sky, even as it speaks to another human. It makes for an excellent closer to the first side of the record, or a good, lightened sound intermission in the course of the album for a straight run, even calming to its end without any huge bursts of unnecessary crescendo.

While he retains his intermittent drum duties (for the last time on the album, though), Stever passes the bass to Tom Farkas on “Black Dirt Burden”–I seem to recall in an interview he said the song just felt like it needed someone else’s touch on it. It starts with a subdued but suggestive beat, implying an energy not yet present, and kept low to the ground by the introduction of a banjo (this time for sure!), but then a sort of beam of talkbox appears and spreads itself across the track, and it’s kicked into gear by a soaring talkbox lead and electric riffing, which all wash out like a wave’s aftermath to leave only aftershocks of their explosion in the moments following. Travis’s voice is at its most powerful and emphatic–that chorus, bolstered by the electric guitars behind it–amazing. “Raise the curtain/They all run for their lives you stand your ground/Black dirt burden…” it’s not a boast, or any other kind of over-confident, false sound–it’s an utterly appropriate burst of energy, passion and sound, and it’s effective in all the best ways. When it slowly falls back to the ground the second time, it leaves space for an electric lead that introduces quieted vocals and occasionally reappears. When they end, the talkbox returns to for more histrionics, of the kind of showing off that is less hollow display and more the kind that leaves an engaged audience cheering–and it brings us back to that bloody amazing chorus, which could not work with a voice unlike Travis’s, which feels like it’s pushing at all of its edges, defining the highest, smoothest arc of its range possible.

Coming out of that, it’s probably best Klose and Stever went with the more relaxed down-the-road ramble of “Drown It All”, as the clean and acoustic guitars, the harmonized vocals and the light but mobile drumming of Hohenberger keep things far more gentle than the heights of the prior song. As a song, it focuses heavily on the harmonies of our two vocalists, leads sliding, clear, and clean over the top, and guitars below flecking the flavour of the song out here and there for the best appeal, unintrusively experimenting with movements around the neck. We’re back to the porch and three guys jamming with expertise and care, recorded expertly and clearly, but without any fireworks or unnecessary frills.

Opening with a bass line seems to suggest differing grounds for “New Savior”, and the entrance of guitar both encourages and discourages that; it’s not an out of character moment for the band, but it’s definitely a shift in style away from “Drown It All” or even “Black Dirt Burden”, the honed edge of staccato distortion not used for aggressive or loud purposes, but effected as a kind of stuttering brake, or maybe even a faltering attempt to push forward–it would seem like the kind of thing that might exaggerate the sound or energy of the song. Instead, it’s like an inverted image of an EQ “Bar chart”, as if it is flat at the top and all the variation is on the underside, keeping it from getting too loud, while remaining varied and interesting. It becomes a swirl of vocal harmonies, though, and the guitar is let loose to experience both ends of its range for a moment of ominous questioning–“Who’s that starless¹ in my fortress?” It’s a darker edge to the song, but it’s immediately freed, oddly, by a flurry of distorted lead guitar sparks, though it can’t escape the gravity of that question or the lumbering sound that backs it, as it returns to it again to end the song.

The introductory guitars on “Dancing on Remains” are achingly beautiful, fluid and sharpened on this point. It’s not laid back like “Drown It All” or “Our Machine”, it’s more like a solo moment of introspection. Of course, Klose is accompanying Travis on keys, and the chorus brings more voices in beyond Travis’s solitary descriptions in verses. The fuzzy layer of electronics droning in the background is like another pull at the gut like the guitars, though in a different way, as if holding each part of your gut–or your heart, perhaps–in suspension so that the lyrics, the feel and the atmosphere can all reach you directly, and avoid your being in the wrong place to hear it, keeping a balanced frame to aim the final, complete intent, which includes the few solitary lines from guest vocalist Pete Stahl’s voice. The semi-a cappella moment at the end (over ringing bass line and that droning electronic) is one of the moments that is haunting, instead of seeming like a strange, comfortable aural relative.

“At Sea” manages an interesting amalgamation of the free acoustic instrumentation and the more aggressive or loud distorted guitars, even as it shambles along through a swing and rhythm that strongly imply the title’s accuracy. There’s a tugging guitar sound to the chorus, pulling in one direction, until a shouting chorus that comes out to crashing waves of emphasis and up-front emotion. It’s an odd thought, but it almost feels like Travis standing with Tyler at the prow of a ship, shaking a fist at angered waves, defiantly expressing these thoughts and feelings at a foe that has neither interest nor concern for them, but an unexpected malicious desire for harm all the same. It’s not unknowing, of course–it feels as if these things are being expressed for himself despite that absence of chance at defeat, instead being defiance that manifests an internal confidence and need to establish self. A wash of waves and drums slowly fades out of the song and carries not so lovely implications for this interpretation–but doesn’t seem sad for that, interestingly.

Functioning as a kind of outro, “Father” is an instrumental track, with Rory now supplying an acoustic guitar instead of drums (which appear to be electronically supplied). It’s an interesting marriage of acoustics and electronics, with a searing and wonderfully warm lead striking across it, slowing the rhythmic propulsion of the track’s beat and squalling electronic accompaniments. At the end, there’s a release of the harsher noises, and reverberating electric guitars, instead, let things float off easily.

It was difficult to manage this properly.

Travis Stever, as you may or may not know or have realized, is actually the guitarist for Coheed and Cambria. He released Nostalgia in Stereo around the time of their first “Neverender” tour, where they played each of their albums in succession over four nights at a handful of venues. This was five years ago, and was the last time we readily heard from his solo voice–indeed, it was video from that very tour that was the introduction I referred to. During an encore, Travis sang “I Shall Be Released” ahead of the rest of the band, and it was an eye-opening moment. Who in the world would expect a Band cover from Coheed? Somewhat cynically, I also wondered how many would recognize it–perhaps unfair, but certainly not too odd a thought, considering the chasm of difference in sound, style, and time period. But it really set the stage for the Davenport records, which do clearly echo earlier sounds than he employs even for his own parts in Coheed and Cambria.

Of course, I didn’t hide this out of shame (naturally)–I did so because it might colour expectations, and do so quite unfairly. Because Claudio Sanchez is largely responsible for at least the overarching direction of Coheed, and has received solo writing credit on at least most of the last two albums, there’s a real lack of surprise to find that Travis’s personal sound is very different from the band he is most known for. I cringe inwardly at this, largely because I think it’s somewhat criminal that Davenport is not as immediately accepted–even if this is, to be honest, mostly a result of the natural human tendency to identify bands by voices. Particularly the less musically intense people of the world tend to do this, but I think almost all of us does in some respects unless we are devoted enough to an instrument to hear it first (or, of course, listen to largely instrumental music). There is a character to those instruments the rest of us aren’t listening as intently to, of course, and you can hear Travis’s character in his Coheed parts, but because they are blended so much more there, it’s harder to discern directly–easier to go back after hearing these and nod sagely.

I can’t fault people–I have my own great affections for Claudio’s side project, too (The Prize Fighter Inferno), but I think Davenport’s lack of obvious connection (ie, vocals) makes it less immediately familiar and thus less immediately accessible to some fans. And then, in reverse, the strange attitudes toward Coheed and Cambria would discourage many who would appreciate this record from thinking it might ever be appropriate for them. I think that’s the brilliant thing about this album, though–it could (and should) stand outside that association, but it’s hard to escape it. Every interview I read, Travis is quite gracious and thankful when the questions inevitably turn at least to “How is this band different for you?”

It’s a different beast, as I’ve said, from even the first ‘Cabinet record, and this is further emphasized in whatever format you purchase it in–I bought the digital release January 15th, and then eagerly snapped up the vinyl when I last saw Coheed a few weeks ago. Both versions contain digital bonus tracks–“Sleep Paralysis”, “14 Years-Master”, “Buried or Burned”, and “First Dive” digitally; “Cheshire Cat Moon”, “Letters to Self” and “Weight of Dreams” are included on the vinyl download card–and they aren’t roughs, demos, or songs that deserved to be omitted. The album is a lean and mean 42 minutes as is, and I think it does well at that length, but losing “Sleep Paralysis”, “Buried or Burned”, the stomping “First Dive”, the driving acoustics of “Cheshire Cat Moon”, the somewhat 80s inflections of “Letters to Self” and the gentle throb of “Weight of Dreams” would be a shame.

Go and sample some of the record, maybe Our Machine’s video, or the quiet performance of Travis and Tyler alone at “Deterioration Road”, that shows off their voices and harmonies.

¹I’m notoriously terrible at hearing lyrics correctly, which often informs my greater emphasis on appeal in their rhythm, sound, and construction, which I know at least a few writers actually start from anyway (“Scrambled Eggs”, anyone?). It’s entirely possible, as a result, that I have that first phrase entirely wrong or partially wrong. I’ll blame it, at least somewhat, on Shiner’s album Starless, which I acquired only recently. But I hate anyone confidently asserting or spreading incorrect lyrics, so here’s my caveat. Still, they rhythm as well as the fact of the questioning nature of the lyric (I know I have the last part right, though it changes a bit each time–eg, “this fortress”) feels important.

Day Thirty: Lindsey Buckingham – Gift of Screws

Reprise Records ■ 512970-1

Released September 16, 2008
Produced and Mixed by Lindsey Buckingham
(“Gift of Screws” and “Wait for You” co-produced by Rob Cavallo; “Wait for You” mixed by Mark Needham
Engineered by Lindsey Buckingham, Ken Allardyce, and Mark Needham
Mastered by Bernie Grundman/Bernie Grundman Mastering

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Great Day
  2. Time Precious Time
  3. Did You Miss Me
  4. Wait for You
  5. Love Runs Deeper
  1. Bel Air Rain
  2. The Right Place to Fade
  3. Gift of Screws
  4. Underground
  5. Treason

I’m a bit conflicted here. In a few weeks or months, we’ll run into Fleetwood Mac proper. We won’t see any Green or any Welch (I have none of the former, as I haven’t gotten around to it, and only a CD of the latter), and so the focus will, obviously, be Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood. The focal point will be for me (as ever), Buckingham. So, then: do I address my thoughts on Lindsey’s musical place in my world now, or save it for then? How could I split it, were I to do both? Should I just give in and repeat information, but write it differently when I get there? I’m honestly not sure. I think the best approach is to go ahead and provide the background that establishes why I even have this album, which ties into all of that. So, pardon me for a moment while I briefly delve into my interactions with the last era of Fleetwood Mac.

I grew up on the kind of radio station termed “classic rock”, though a fair amount of contemporary popular music also filtered in via school and my own personal clock/radio. I was also around for the brief resurgences of the Mac in the place of Clinton’s usage of “Don’t Stop”, as well as it’s mild re-phrasing for use in a commercial. That melody was ingrained there, but “Rhiannon”, “The Chain”, “Gold Dust Woman”–those all got planted in my head early on, too. But sometime in college, for reasons I can’t claim to recall, I picked up a cheap copy of Tusk (which is likely to make its appearance here on the aforementioned future date). It’s a double LP, so I’d often just start it going and go about my business in the dorm or apartment. At some point, something clicked and I started hearing the scattered set of uncharacteristic and generally odd songs, which I learned were the work of Lindsey.

I started branching out from there–I went back to the prior two albums, Fleetwood Mac and of course Rumours, but I was still enamoured of Tusk. When my time at Borders eventually ran into the brief test marketing of vinyl, it was 2008. Largely, I was unfamiliar with the material placed in front of me–I knew names, but I’d yet to listen to Whiskeytown or The Black Keys or Drive-By Truckers. I did pick up more familiar titles, or at least familiar artists, as they showed up, and one of those was Gift of Screws. I think I was most intrigued by the attached sticker: this was not only a 180g audiophile pressing, it was also listed as including an “audiophile CD” made from the uncompressed master plating for the record. I’m often a sucker for an included CD, as it does everything I want from a piece of purchased, physical music. Download codes are nice, but I hate burning a CD for car listening, and like having a real one. It’s a compromise, as the CD ends up showing in a paper sleeve most of the time, and then sits in my car forever instead (that’s where the Gift of Screws one is right now, actually). Still, it was enough to push me into the purchase.

I hadn’t listened to any of Buckingham’s “official” solo recordings yet (plenty of Tusk is divided out into distinct feelings of “Buckingham” songs, “McVie” songs, and “Nicks” songs–even if there was some collaboration still occurring), so this was my introduction to it. Tusk taught me Lindsey can be intensely catchy, but very weird. So, when I first played this album back, I got a bit of a surprise. I did actually work it into the Borders overhead music at the time, over which I exercised as much control as I could, leading to some really odd moments–though far worse when we hit closing time and I switched completely to my own music, disregarding whether the store sold it, or even could sell it, occasionally to the chagrin of coworkers.

It was a mild shock to start listening to Gift of Screws, then, as the first thing you hear sounds like some of his Tusk work, but only for a moment–half-dead, muted percussion and his voice–but then his guitar…holy cow. Even if you only know him for Fleetwood Mac, you can hear his sound when he starts playing in “Great Day”, but it has so many fewer sounds behind it, it’s nothing but acoustic nylon strings in brilliant clarity and absolute beauty. It sounds as though it will just be intermittent, playing only between his vocal lines, but after he finishes the first verse, his playing takes its hold, using simpler, more evenly spaced licks behind the echoing overdubs of his own voice as the chorus. But it isn’t just left after that, as a tightly wound solo peels from the obscene heights back downward to rejoin the song. And then a pecking, rhythmic melody takes over, before shifting back to the chorus, which slowly turns from “It was a great day, great day” to “It wasn’t such a great day”, before a blistering, absurdly rapid solo closes the entire song out–completely beyond the tempo of the rest, yet perfectly placed.

The second song is one that has caused some issues in the past. When I put this album into the overhead, as well as the first time I played it for my father, “Time Precious Time” left a bad taste in many mouths. It’s an oddly constructed song: a faint, rapid finger-picked melody opens the song, not stopping for anything and seeming to hit more notes than you can imagine a single hand doing–so long as you’re an amateur or non-player, at least. Lindsey sings quietly, low, over it, but then he hits the chorus, and his voice reaches out, singing “Time, precious, time, precious..” as his guitar opens up as much as his voice, layered in a few times to create an absolute waterfall of beautiful notes. The sheer abundance of sound in all of this–despite only being his voice and guitar(s)–is overwhelming as any kind of background music, and blurs and blends too much to sound anything but repetitive and annoying. It needs to be sat and listened to, where its beauty instead becomes jaw-dropping, not just for the skill on display, but for the way it all fits together and sounds so wonderfully separated and clear. Don’t listen to this song while talking to someone, or in any way that lets it just sort of fade in and out of your awareness–it will annoy you, and unjustly so.

The first track to feature any other musicians, “Did You Miss Me” brings in the talents of Lindsey’s drummer, Walfredo Reyes. Lindsey’s guitar is calmer, melodic, but focus more on full chords. Reyes puts in a beat and sound vaguely reminiscent of the more subdued efforts of 80s pop, but without the huge or gated drums that so identify (and often date, for good or ill) those recordings. There’s a breathy quality to Lindsey’s verses that fits in with the tenor of the album as a whole, the feeling of weary backward looks, of, in maturity, looking back at the world and life. Losing the breathiness–which almost sounds as if it is sung through cupped hands or otherwise mildly and inexpertly “amplified” for effect–the chorus is more plaintive and stronger, as is the bridge that follows it the second time around. There’s a sense of emotion, but of a kind that is drained and resigned in most respects–except on the final repetitions of the chorus, where that earlier plaintiveness seems to long for an answer to that central question. The solo is similarly at ease, and only appears in time to fade out.

The sound shifts quite noticeably with the opening lick of “Wait for You”, with a distorted and clearly electric sound to Buckingham’s guitar, which bends in just the right way, the way that makes you feel it. Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are actually his rhythm section for the song and mostly give it a simple backing, that bending lick really occupying the driver’s seat for the verses. Almost tinged with a bit of phase, his voice has a kind of kind leer–if you can imagine such a thing–to it. When the chorus hits, the leer suggested by that bend and his voice is suddenly gone, replaced with a bigger sound, and a brighter feeling, his playing turning more open and clean, a stronger pattern from Mick keeping the energy of that chorus at its heights. It’s interesting in the context of the album’s overall tenor: it gives it that sunny, backward-look that the verses don’t seem to carry, like it’s the soundtrack to play over sunlit (perhaps rose-tinted) memories, even as it describes a future action. I have a deep and abiding love for Buckingham’s choruses, and this is no exception, even bringing out the very quiet, small modulation of the vibrato his voice takes on for long-held notes. The solo he burns out is more in the verse’s style, bending and twisting with a wink instead of a cheerful smile.

There’s a dichotomous approach to the songs on the album; the ones that feature Lindsey in isolation (or at least only playing alongside himself) are more contemplative and open, less “rocking” and more in tune with the sound presented on Under the Skin, his album from two years prior (more on this later, though). “Love Runs Deeper” is from the other side, though: Walfredo rejoins him for the track, and it has that rhythmic bottom end that anchors it, even as his more aggressive guitar already pushes the songs in this direction. The opening chords are reminiscent of those that open the Church’s “Under the Milky Way”, but are quickly swept in another direction, becoming brighter quickly, and his again breathy voice sounds again like it’s coming from somewhere other than where you might expect, though I cannot for the life of me accurately place where–it’s a vague displacement that is tonally fitting, but odd nonetheless. Reyes shies away from the snare and the kick (largely, anyway) for much of the verse, but opens up with the rest of the song in the chorus. While Lindsey’s voice becomes louder and more open (though this time with that same peculiar timbre), Reyes makes more full use of his kit, pounding out at toms that give you the impression that he is turning rapidly, a somewhat Jeff Lynne-esque¹ set of up-down-up-down chords being matched with alternating tom choices, that give a lot of drama to the increased range of the chorus. A slow, meandering solo over the verse melody does what a good solo should: it expands on the mood and tone of the rest of the song, but is followed after another chorus, by an even more virtuosic, expansive one that brings the song to a close.

Side Two opens with a song that in some ways mirrors the opening of Side One: “Bel Air Rain” is another purely solo song (though the writing of “Great Day” also involved Lindsey’s son Will), with the rhythm and melody both defined by a rapidly picked guitar, one that expands on itself and moves from an already rapid and seemingly-complicated line to a layered, brighter, louder one that has the same essential effect as the fully accompanied tracks, yet achieved in an entirely different way, and with an entirely different feeling. A semi-scat ending brings in more shades of Tusk, too.

While I like all of this album a lot and for varying reasons, “The Right Place to Fade” is undoubtedly the crown jewel in an album that’s already great all around. Mixing up the rhythm section, Fleetwood returns, but the bass is provided by one John Pierce. A galloping acoustic comes in alone, overdubbed with a cruising lead electric line, though all of it remains hushed, even the drums of Fleetwood, until the chorus drops its bomb: driving slashes of distorted guitar and the primal drumming of Mick back the clear-throated, passionate but knowing call of, “How long, how long, how long/How long we wait/Waiting for the light that might light our way/Waiting for the right place to fade…” The alliteration and the number of syllables jammed into that chorus after the stretched repetition of its first line catches you up, as does the addition of overdubbed backing vocals that just encourage you to join in. Wild lead lines spiral off in the background, but the drums, the simple distorted chords and Lindsey’s voice are the focal point. The solo that interrupts the latter end sounds like a slowly picked solo from someone learning guitar for just a moment, then shifts without warning or transition into rapid and higher-end, emotive soloing that pierces and then suddenly falls back into an expansion of the song’s primary melody. This song is amazing.

You would think that Fleetwood was responsible for the pounding, animal drums of the title track–and you’d be right. McVie also returns, and the song doesn’t hold for a moment. There’s a vague sense of early rock and roll to the simple and repetitive chord progression that moves the melody on, but the affected, half nasal chorus has a sneer to it, that turns to actual crazed laughter–more shades of Tusk!–that seems uncontrolled, then intentional and musical, but catches another jolt of madness as it ends its run. And it repeats, too, and loses none of this. The song ends with Lindsey calling with his voice and answering with his guitar–if anyone else was doing it, you’d think either the vocalist was appreciating the playing of the guitarist, but here it’s like the song’s constructed object: that feeling of vocal encouragement is part of what we expect in that context, and Lindsey just goes ahead and covers both ends of it himself, managing not to sound like he’s fawning over his own guitar work at the same time. Even if it’d be justified.

The pair of closing sounds are more from the less-rock oriented side of the album’s sound, and both are pure Lindsey: writing, performance, and production all. “Underground” is more uptempo than his other solo tracks, and has less of the drained feeling of prior ones, seeming more optimistic, though still aged–in the wine sense, not the brittled, yellowing one–the playing is simpler again, which almost seems to fit the easier tone. It seems in the songs of near-glissando playing, Buckingham imbues a sort of tension to the songs with the endless finger-picking, which is then left aside here.

“Treason” is a brilliant choice as a closer. Though “alone”, Lindsey does work in some basic drum tracking, and overlays it with a searching voice and simple chord-based acoustics, overdubbing and echoing his vocals with the feeling of a song of final unison, where everyone joins together–and it makes sense. The song, despite the title, is actually named for the final word of its chorus: “Deep down there is freedom/Deep down there will be a reason/At the end of the season/We will rise from this treason”. It’s optimistic, and carries a sense of wisdom, the knowledge that, at the end of all of it, we’ll come out of the betrayals and confusions. The verses tell us he is not there yet himself, but that there’s an understanding in him that this is temporary.

I’ve learned that this album was first proposed in the mid 1990s, but was shelved and picked apart for both solo albums (including Under the Skin, hence my note about returning to the subject) and Fleetwood Mac albums. As such, these recordings date to various times throughout the past two decades, roughly, yet you would never guess that to listen to it. The album is beautiful, weary without being tired, and contemplative and wise, without being condescending or pretentious. When it decides to rock or move quickly, it does exactly that. And, on display as ever, is the care Lindsey puts into his work. The layering of sounds and instruments–especially when no one but him is playing–is intricate but organic, fully functional and only in place to serve the whole. His playing is jaw-dropping, but never feels overly showy, not in solos, nor in moments of less emphatic displays of skill.

It’s a very pretty album, and a very catchy and good one–managing to tamp down the more bizarre and unusual things he did with Tusk (though I’d never suggest that was necessary, as I love those songs dearly) to create an album that could–and should–make sense to just about anyone, given the chance.

¹Jeff Lynne is/was primary songwriter for ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) and has produced many records since, such as Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and his subsequent album with the Heartbreakers, Into the Great Wide Open. Of course, he was also one of the Traveling Wilburys, and produced both of their albums. He has a very distinct and recognizable, clean, clear, well-produced sound.

  • Next Up: Burning Airlines – ?

Day Twenty-Four: Blakroc – Blakroc

Blakroc Records ■ BR001-1

Released November 27, 2009
Produced by The Black Keys and Josh Hamilton
Recorded by Josh Hamilton
Executive Produced by Damon Dash

Side One: Side Two:
  1. Coochie
  2. On the Vista
  3. Hard Times
  4. Dollaz & Sense
  5. Why Can’t I Forget Him
  6. Stay off the Fuckin’ Flowers
  1. Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)
  2. Hope You’re Happy
  3. Tellin’ Me Things
  4. What You Do to Me
  5. Done Did It

I’m always inwardly leaping for joy at moments of silly synchronicity. All kinds of connections just have their sort of appeal to me–it’s that love of crossover, patterns, references, and in-jokes that I can’t resist, if achieved via skill or pure coincidence. That Blakroc’s lone album happens to follow Rádio do Canibal in my collection, alphabetically, is pure coincidence, but it’s kind of an amusing one. It would be clever if it were planned in some way. Largely, though, I’ve left the album alone for reasons similar to the reasons I left Rádio do Canibal alone–it felt like it would end up a mishmash of disjointed sounds due to the “varied guests per track” approach. There’s a seeming human tendency to identify most with the voice in any given musical act, one that means that the vocalist is seen as the star by the majority, regardless of their actual role in creating the music. I don’t know that anyone has actually studied this, but I’m inclined to think it relates to the fact that we all are capable of making noise with throat and mouth, so there’s a base to start the understanding from. In any case, I often swing either way when it comes to voices, sometimes nearly ignoring them, but often clinging to them as much as anyone. It means that albums like these make me kind of wary, even as the idea of them attracts me.

Blakroc is not, and was not, a “group”, so to speak, and is often referred to as a “rock/hip-hop collective”, a bit of a silly term for a group of musicians who collaborated once, briefly, and that’s essentially all. In any case, they are composed (as it were) of the Black Keys (Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney), Ol’ Dirty Bastard, RZA (it’s pronounced rizzuh, basically), and Raekwon from the Wu Tang Clan, Jim Jones (the rapper, not the cult leader) and NOE from Jim Jones’ label ByrdGang, Q-Tip from a Tribe Called Quest, Pharoahe Monch, Ludacris, Billy Danze, Mos Def, and Nicole Wray. They don’t use any sampling, which isn’t unheard of in rap (as I noted earlier, the two are mixed heavily in Atmosphere’s The Family Sign, for instance) but still remains unusual. What is more unusual is for an explicit rock band to be specifically acting as the beat for a set of rappers.

Featuring pre-recored vocals as Ol’ Dirty Bastard had already passed on, “Coochie” opens the CD and vinyl versions of the album (unlike the digital versions at iTunes and Amazon, which lack the track). He’s paired with Ludacris, the two of them opening the song with the vocal hook, which is backed by Auerbach’s plaintive, distant guitar line, and Carney’s economical drum beat, that gives the song a lot of space but doesn’t sacrifice power. ODB and Ludacris both talk about women whose sexual appetites are utterly irresistible to them, and their voices take up all the space Carney leaves, multiplying the speed of the rhythm significantly. Auerbach comes into the goreground for the outro, playing further with the still echoing lead he drops throughout the song.

Somewhat out of character from the rest of the emcees in place, Mos Def appears next on “On the Vista”, rapping about freeing consciousness, abandoning materialism–taking control. Patrick pounds the song into place though, using a floor tom fill to ground the beat. A bassline (uncredited, but based on the photos, most likely the work of Mos Def himself) is the essence of the beat, but Auerbach fills the space between Mos Def’s words with the fuzzy bends and wails he is known for, relenting only to give Mos Def the space to sing out variations on the words “total control” in a knowingly off-key and random sort of way.

NOE’s first appearance on the album is on “Hard Times”, which uses the vocals of Nicole Wray as a sort of sample (though they are apparently live recordings), repeating the title of the song. The Keys have a little bit more dominance and control on the track, perhaps because they have a bass and a piano accompanying them, and Patrick is filling more of the rhythm out on his kit than on the previous tracks. NOE has a style and voice that are reminiscent of Jay-Z (apparently to his detriment in the past), with an ease and confidence that avoids aggression like ODB’s and lets the song maintain its own relaxed pacing.

A semi-traditional hip-hop rhythm from Patrick opens “Dollaz & Sense”, with RZA showing his appreciation for the beat and moves to get his voice in place accompanying before the song opens up. The photos hint that RZA may have played bass on the album as well, and there’s a strong line in place here to suggest that. Wah, echo and a few other effects define Auerbach’s semi-ghostly guitar sound here, but it’s also the first time his voice appears on the album. In the same way Nicole performed the vocal hook for “Hard Times”, Auerbach sings “If it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense”, in a fashion that mimics sampling. RZA and Pharaohe Monch have strong rhymes, but ones that sound in delivery and rhythm like they may be the improvisations of skilled emcees–a bit halting, but usually halts are just the sound of quick minds making up brilliant lines to follow.

Breaking from the rap designation of the majority of the album for a moment, Dan, Patrick, and Nicole (who, by the way, performs the female vocal duties on the Black Keys’ Brothers) give us “Why Can’t I Forget Him”, which lets the boys play the part of R&B band, Dan mostly following a bassline and frosting its low end with a fuzzy guitar lead. Patrick puts in one of his most seemingly-programmed beats, played in a fashion that fits more with sampled drum parts than even early R&B beats. Nicole’s voice truly gets to shine, though, overdubbed with herself, but powerful and soulful without being showy–hardly a wonder they all worked together after this. Vibraphone-type keys and isolated and varied forms of Auerbach’s lick back Nicole alone for a brief bridge that just brings more soul to the smoky, hazy feel of the track’s talk of memory.

Creating a real moment of coincidence, Raekwon makes his second appearance in front of me in two days, this time backed by the Keys on “Stay off the Fuckin’ Flowers”. Auerbach’s guitar centers on wandering experimentation and effects, keys and a gentler rhythm from Patrick letting the smooth delivery of Raekwon control the sound of the song, relentlessly in motion though it is. The outro is Auerbach just let go with the guitar meanderings, Raekwon expressing his appreciation.

Mos Def returns on “Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo)”, acting primarily as the vocal hook, answered by a simple “La la la” melody from Auerbach’s voice. Jim Jones, then, gets the verses to rap over, Mos Def getting to give us a number of great variations in his chorus, and Auerbach left to actually perform one of the guitar tracks that actually fills out the entire song.

A nice, fuzzy lead that begins to pace itself and a steady beat gives a great backing for Q-Tip to start out on “Hope You’re Happy”, but when his verse ends, Auerbach opens up, Q-Tip starts the chorus and Nicole Wray gets to answer it–a peak moment for the album in terms of full band sound. Billy Danze comes in with a gravelly, aggressive delivery on the next verse (think Busta Rhymes outside his motormouthed mode). The outro to the song lets Nicole get another moment to really shine.

Sounding tired, broken, and almost pleading, RZA opens “Tellin’ Me Things” almost alone, half-singing, “She just keeps tellin’ me things/Things I don’t wanna hear”. In contrast to the slow burn of the bassline, Patrick lays down an almost disco beat (complete with “pea-soup”!), though a bit more varied. Auerbach plays a sort of spooky, haunting lick. RZA tells us the story of a very odd relationship, managing to compare himself and the “she” in question to Mork and Mindy–even repeating it for emphasis.

Continuing to cycle back through the rappers we were introduced to, “What You Do to Me” brings back Jim Jones and Billy Danze, but starts out with an organ line that gives us Dan in “sample mode” again, with an answer from Nicole Wray. But then he actually breaks out into whole lines instead of just a short hook, and you feel more like Nicole’s voice came out of another song instead of his. Jim Jones’ delivery is relaxed, almost mumbled, though its tempo is nothing of the kind. The organ and Auerbach’s guitar function more rhythmically through the verse, with the organ defining the melody of the chorus he sings, though he continues playing a single chord on beat throughout, always muting it just after it starts. Nicole brings some major power to her performance here, too. Billy Danze brings a shock or aggression and power–again, Busta-style–using even over-dubbed vocals to give an emphasis to his lines. It’s worked well in, even as Dan and Nicole are more in the R&B or blues vein with their sung vocals. There’s actually a long outro (a good minute and a half) of Auerbach actually working in some guitar leads, and Nicole just playing with her voice in the feel of a live bluesy performance. The two complement each other very well indeed, not quite using call and answer, so much as working alongside each other.

The album ends with “Done Did It”, which returns NOE, and lets Dan play a guitar riff that sounds more like it was sampled and chopped in, Patrick using another very hip-hop drum beat with big, boomy kicks. NOE throws a lot more energy at it than the beat or guitar expect, but the thudding, the tambourine rattle, and the descending guitar lick take us right into the chorus for another great vocal from Wray, as she brings the title of the song up and down in pitch with soul. NOE calms his delivery a little on the second verse, and relaxes even more on the third.

This is, in general, an odd sort of album. I’m not sure how much it would appeal to Black Keys fans as a Black Keys project (it’s why I picked it up, and it didn’t satisfy that particular itch, which contributed to its dust-gathering status). But taken, instead, as a constructed hip-hop album that uses a live, recorded band playing new beats designed for this explicit purpose–taking not only that, but specifically a blues-inflected band is actually the recipe for a very interesting sound. It’s a melding of two musical styles that are connected but separated by generations, instead of trying to graft an alternate branch–like rock–to the branch of hip-hop.

I can’t really pass up the opportunity to talk about Michael Carney’s graphic design. It’s true that a retro look is a bit of a fad in album art of late, at least in some circles, but the way it’s done here is just fantastic. In large part, the album itself is pure mystery. That cover tells you next to nothing, resembling, if anything, a lot of the weird, semi-amateur prog rock album covers of the 1970s. Why in the world is their jam (?) hanging off the roofs of a series of tall buildsings? What is Blakroc? And yet, it’s also a stylish piece of work, nicely crafted and framed, so that it seems to fit even the unusual and rather unique sound that lies within it. The back cover doesn’t help much–the tracklisting is placed above and below the moon with the same green and blue drippy covering. No mention is made of the Black Keys anywhere (the emcees present are listed below each song in small print, however). Inside, you have art that mimics the more informative variety of past cover art: a multi-panel set of equally sized black and white studio photos is topped by retro-styled credits and information. It really feels right.

One of the things that bugs me about some instances of musical reactions wandering the “blogosphere” is that there’s the clear notion (or occasional admission) that the listening takes place while doing entirely unrelated things. I’m not the type to insist on focusing on music in general–I’m often listening while doing other things–but this is a time that I definitely stop and focus on listening. I keep the album sleeves in my hand to read along with the lyrics or soak in cover art, or examine credits and details about the album’s production. This was one of the nicest to look at by far, and felt exactly right for the album, even though it is a callback to album art that predates even the earliest rap by a fairly significant amount.

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