Doomtree – No Kings (2011)

Doomtree Records ■ DTR033

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Nineteen Bonus Track(s): Bad Veins – "Falling Tide" b/w "The Lie"

Dovecote Records ■ DCR 0012/DCR 0011


Released: ??, 2007


Produced by Bad Veins, Justin Baily, Daron Hollowell and Jonathan Fuller
Engineered by Justin Bailey and Johnathan Fuller
Mastered by Steve Girton

A-Side:

  • Falling Tide
B-Side:

  • The Lie

On my previous blog, I had a single poll, really, and it was to narrow the direction of my planned listening, in a more general and randomized sense than the ones I kept here. I matched Wire, the Skids, Dinosaur Jr, Slade and Bad Veins–a pretty weird blend overall, even if all of them are or were rock in some form or other. Dinosaur Jr ended up winning, probably indicative of the people I know. Bad Veins did reasonably well, and I knew at least one person who put in a bote there. I knew the same for Slade, for that matter. I never got around to writing about any of them but Dinosaur Jr (who won)–I just felt too overwhelmed by the volume of material, especially as compared to what I felt like I knew.

As time has gone on, Bad Veins has remained the most “limited”–they’ve released 2 albums and not much more. They were floating around the “legitimately” indie scene (in the sense of limited distribution, low-fame, independent in actual senses of divorce from industry clout) even when I saw them live. They opened for We Were Promised Jetpacks, who I saw completely on a lark, having forgotten the show was even occurring at the time. I ended up having hard cider for the first time (on the recommendation of a friend–via text, no less), but wandered in for the latter half of Bad Veins’ set. I normally show up at concerts at door time, or even sooner. This time, because it was so delayed (not to mention a venue I had never been to or even seen), I was a lot later though.
When I looked up at the stage, I saw two guys in pseudo-military dress with a podium and a reel-to-reel tape player, a rotary phone receiver attached to the microphone stand (leading to its base attached to the podium) and a covering of seeming wallpaper on that podium. One was manning drums, the other at the mic and playing guitar. It was an odd sight, to be sure. That this was the band opening for the post rock-inflected Scots who I knew as openers for The Twilight Sad (who I knew as openers for Mogwai) would have left me confused if the band who preceded We Were Promised Jetpacks when they opened for the Twilight Sad wasn’t Brakes, the English pop/rock band. Still, these were Americans, so I was left a bit confused all the same.
It wasn’t long before the strains of Bad Veins infected me at the show, though. It was catchy stuff, and the “gimmicks” didn’t feel gimmicky so much as creative and vaguely quirky–the telephone was used to distort Benjamin Davis’s vocals much like megaphones are used (and, indeed, he used one of those, too). Sebastien Schultz’ drumming was solid, forceful rock drumming, too, and there was a nice weight to their songs–and the reel-to-reel (nicknamed Irene, I’d later find) gave a more full sound than the pair could have otherwise produced.
I snapped up the only thing they had with them at the show–a 7″ of two songs, paired with a CD designated for the year’s tour (2012) and a download code for their first album (home-typed and printed, clearly!). I had the pair sign it (as you can see) and went on my merry way. The CD was actually composed of songs from their then-forthcoming album, The Mess We’ve Made, while the single was actually a pair of songs from their self-titled first album, released in 2009.
“Dancing on TV” was probably the catchiest song from the show, as well as the lead song on that CD, but that means, of course, it wasn’t on the single itself. The single is still in the same style the band sticks to, though: Schultz on drums and Davis on keys and guitar, singing, in a style that’s unique and somewhat difficult to describe. It’s very strongly enunciated, and quite exaggerated, and seems to carry a sort of hangdog happiness–strange though that may sound. It’s as if he’s drained of energy in a part of the sound, yet the range and modulation he puts into his voice betrays the lie of that notion. It gives them a bit of their own character, and it’s a good and enjoyable character to have.
“Falling Tide” is the louder song, a simple drum machine (tape loop, I’m guessing!) intro that very quickly turns to a real drum and a rumbling bass as Davis sings in that style of his, defining the melody. The chorus throws a spray of keys back at us and kicks in the guitar, but, most important, lets us hear the best part of Davis: his choruses. “I never would have held it back if/I thought that we’d get through”–and it’s that through, dragged through a sliding range of notes and three extra syllables. Absolute singalong in the best sense.
“The Lie” is the lighter companion. A ticking timer starts the track, and then in comes Davis’ voice, extra clear and completely up front, right in front of you in the mix, and only a calm, quiet keyboard line follows him for the entire first verse. The second verse shifts the keys up an octave or so¹, and halfway through adds a looped pizzicato violin. And then we get the chorus: “‘Cause sometimes, sometimes to get by/I believe in the lie”. Davis again is happy to give a single word multiple notes, and Schultz enters, too, as does a bass. A flute section, and the rhythm section get to follow him into the second repetition of the verses, and we get to hear that great chorus again–and Davis finally lets loose the third time through, and you hear his voice at full energy, the entire song coming upward with a faux chorus. The final, long-held instance of the chorus is perhaps the most exciting, and fades to the somewhat hesitant sound of his voice seeming to realize what he’s singing: he has just sung loudly of his habit of getting by by pretending. That little note of reality creeps in and the song falls to a stop.
You know, I’m not going to pretend that I’m in a space where there needs to be some kind of absolute ground-breaking, totally unique element–I’ve never demanded nor always appreciated that, it has to be done right. And so does a catchy song–and Bad Veins do it right, and have done. Given the right exposure they could–and should–get a lot more fans. If the engineer I know who has done sound for them (completely without my prior knowledge, mind you!) can appreciate them in his tendency toward the weirder, darker (and often more country or folk, but edged) kind of things, then that should say something, I think.
Most of the 7″s I have fit into the space one would expect a 7″ to fit in: they are catchy singles that are readily digested and immediate, great to listen to and enjoy as much as you want–not necessarily shallow, but accessible. Bad Veins is no exception, and none of that should be taken as anything but endorsement.

While we’re here, there’s actually the video of “Dancing on TV” from the very show I attended, embedded here for your enjoyment:

¹Let’s remember I’m not great at music theory, but that feels right?