#DONUTBREAK // STRAND OF OAKS - “Shut In” from Heal (Dead Oceans, 2014)
“I was born in the middle / Maybe too late”
I don’t need to know Timothy Showalter (AKA Strand of Oaks) to know that we’re basically the same age. The line above, which leads the opening verse of “Shut In” off Oaks' relatively recently released album Heal, was written, as best I can ascertain, for our crowd. That undemarcated generation who came of age to the alt rock of Gen X, were enamored with its mythologies, but couldn’t really be slackers because we were far too young to have any real responsibilities to shirk. By the time we were finally old enough to make our own scene, flannel had gone out of style, Kurt had been dead longer than he had been known, and, as Showalter’s lyrics detail, we just sort of retreated, thinking there was little left to be done. This characterization may seem a bit dramatic, but honestly, it makes my twenties, and what little I did with them, make a whole lot of more sense. “Shut In,” like much of Heal, is a kind of anthem for a second chance for middling thirty-somethings like Showalter and myself. The 90s we knew but couldn’t claim are back and it’s time for us to get ours. Now, if only those goddamn millennials would get out of the way.
#RECENTMEMORY // FASTBACKS - Answer The Phone, Dummy (Subpop, 1994)
I’m fairly certain I got a memo saying that aping the 90s is cool again, and in an age of Potty Mouths and Best Coasts, I’m wondering why I don’t here more people yammering on about this band. The Fastbacks - Kim Warnick, Lulu Gargiulo, Kurt Bloch & about a thousand different drummers -were a group of real dealers from Seattle who over their 20+ year existence just kind of never quit. Nearly 15 years into their lifespan, they released this almost famed and really superbly titled record on that little hometown label you may have heard of. Sure, it’s a bit sugary in places, but I guess that’s all part of what makes it fun.
Fastbacks - “Waste Of Time” from Answering The Phone, Dummy (Subpop, 1994)
#DONUTBREAK // BILL CALLAHAN - “Small Plane” from Dream River (Drag City, 2013)
If "Jim Cain," off 2009’s still stunning Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, taught us (like we didn’t already know) that Bill Callahan could write a plaintive, disarmingly honest song about heartbreak in an affect both meditative and melancholic, then 2013’s ”Small Plane” proves dude can do the same with a plaintive, disarmingly honest, meditative and melancholic song about heartwarmth. A undeniably sweet lullaby of sorts that, like the total devastators he’s made a career of, makes even the driest of tear ducts wanna well up. Like “Jim Cain” before it, “Small Plane” remains fairly flat sonically, while its emotional intensity builds throughout. There’s not much of a release at the end, the guitars just keep wandering in circles and Callahan remains in stasis, happy to be the “lucky man” the lyrics suggest.
"Small Plane", like the whole of his new album Dream River, is a great reminder of Callahan's powers for those who might have stepped off the train when he dropped the Smog moniker awhile back. It’s rare for a songwriter to grow this much this far into a career. Age usually brings with it some complacency in songwriting, or maybe the inability to tap into the same sense of urgency found in earlier works. But Bill Callahan, ever the refiner of craft, keeps delivering.
#DONUTBREAK // JONATHAN RICHMAN & THE MODERN LOVERS - “My Jeans” from Rockin’ And Romance (Twin/Tone, 1985)
Back in the days of relaxed fits & SilverTabs, before the advent of regularly available denim in slender and, errr..sorry, skinny cuts, I used to have to special order slim fit Wranglers from the Western store on Riverdale Rd in West Springfield, MA and this song was my anthem.
Like most of Jonathan Richman’s best work, which really is most all of his work, “My Jeans” dances precariously on a thin line between the trivial and the consequential. What usually saves the earnest-by-design songwriter is his sincerity. Perhaps more genuine than most any other performer, a fact only highlighted against what has been at least a decade(s) long run of hipster detachment, Richman's musical persona is real, his heart, and all the weirdness associated with actual male emotion, out there on his sleeve for all to see and feel. But when Richman really gets it right, it’s more than just sincerity that drives his songwriting, it’s his ability to put words and melody to the, for lack of a cooler term, humanity wrapped up in even the most ostensibly banal of subjects. In “My Jeans” from 1985’s criminally under-remembered Rockin’ And Romance (c’mon, reissue culture!), we get the real longing and desire involved in one man’s quest for comfort; a portrait of the human condition via the material culture of men’s or-lack-thereof fashion. And if you think that’s hyperbolic at all, you have no idea how hard it is for men-who-care to find a decent pair of jeans-that-fit.
Back in early 2010, Autumn Records quietly released a compact disc by resolute Vermonter & former Feather, Ruth Garbus called Rendezvous With Rama. Housed in a tasteful disc-sized cardboard envelope with one-color silkscreened artwork and handwritten text, Rendezvous With Rama was exactly as it presented: understated as shit but really knowing exactly what it was doing. Comprised of eight reverberant guitar & vocal lullabies, Rendezvous is similar to Garbus’ contributions during her Feathers days, but stripped bare of all that nouveau hippie affection that kind of plagued our freak folk days in the early-to-mid aughts. What is left is haunting to say the least and near perfection at it’s best. From the chilling opener “Falling Down To Earth” to the weirdly celebratory closing track “My Apple”, Garbus proves to be a master at working with what she’s got. Shaky vocals, a simple-if-slightly-insecure strum, and an undeniably cool guitar tone, most of what’s so engaging about Rendezvous is the entire album feels revelatory, like a songwriter learning new facets of her power in each successive song. It’s an album that both hits on first listen and allows you to growth with it over time, never once losing grasp of the subtlety that is its biggest allure.
For the past few years, Ruth’s been living in the shadow of her older sister Merrill, who has garnered considerable success releases records under a name you might recognize, but really, this music is meant for the shadows so I guess I’m okay with that. Now, if someone would just reissue this gem on LP I might be able to sleep more soundly at night.
The world lost one of its greatest voices in George Jones today, after a formidable illness that had left the legend hospitalized since mid-April. Born an actual Texan turned true Nashvillian, George Jones was a character who embodied all that is powerful and ugly about country music. Through heavy drinking and hard loving, it’s kind of a triumph dude made it all the way to 81. Jones began his career in the 1950s trying hard to emulate the honky tonk of his hero Hank Williams, but really hit his stride in the mid-60s as a true balladeer, turning melodramatic tales of heartache into molten gold. Jones' sad songs, of course, were always more devastating than they ever were maudlin, and his pipes, well, goddamn. Call it blue-eyed soul or white blues, whatever it was let us all pay our respects today.
#DONUTBREAK // KURT VILE - “Wakin On A Pretty Day” from Wakin On A Pretty Daze (Matador Records, 2013)
Kurt Vile's Greatest Hits album is gonna be one helluva record. All of his proper albums have ranged from good to very great, most of which angling towards the latter, but even as a consummate albumist, each LP invariably includes at least a couple of true standout tracks. From the J. Geilsian "Freeway" from which he built his now considerable rep to the krautrock jammer "Freak Train" to 2011’s everlasting "Jesus Fever", Vile has proven himself also to be a total hit machine.
If you’ve been paying any attention at all, then you have undoubtably already stumbled upon “Wakin On A Pretty Day”, the opening track and de facto first single off Vile's latest LP of the almost same name Wakin On A Pretty Daze, released just this week. An all but certain entry into a future The Essential Kurt Vile collection, “Wakin On A Pretty Day” is a lackadaisical, stoney retreat built off a simple folk rock strum and accented with the soft jam of a meandering lead guitar. It’s a total pre-summer gem and absolute killer way to burn 9 and a half minutes.
#DONUTBREAK // TOWNES VAN ZANDT - “T For Texas” from Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos, 1971-1972 (Omnivore Recordings, 2013)
Memory workers have been hard at their labor over the past decade and a half since Townes Van Zandt's untimely passing, trying to carve a space in the wider cultural canon for an artist who may be the finest country singer-songwriter of the modern era. Part of the narrative that's emerged from all this memory production has come in the form of a disclaimer regarding Van Zandt's studio work. The general consensus argues that Townes, however gifted a writer, never realized an album truly worthy of the songs he created. Truth be told, Van Zandt was always more of a songcrafter than he ever was an albummaker, adopting a fairly laissez–faire attitude towards his recordings which left key arrangement and production style decisions to the influence of others, namely every Townesian’s favorite scapegoat, Kevin Eggers, the Poppy Records head responsible for his early albums. What’s been left in the wake for the his-albums-aren’t-good crowd has been the search for alternate recordings of the songwriter’s best works; versions that are somehow less compromised by the whims of bohemian New Yorkers like Eggers and more pure (as if postmodernity hadn’t rid us of the loaded garbage that is that term). Such is the premise behind Omnivore Recordings' new release Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Sessions & Demos, 1971-1972, a 2-CD set of scrapped studio cuts and basic guitar & voice demo takes of some of Townes' most accomplished songs from the period.
Full disclosure is I’m not much of a TVZ album hater. Though certainly not without its flaws, I’d argue that an album like Our Mother The Mountain, clumsy psychedelic flute and all, is still a pretty cool sounding country record. And that clunky hand percussion on his pensive self-titled Townes Van Zandt gem only adds to its charm. But my hippie, northernist aesthetics aside, being a total Townes fanboy means I’m still pretty psyched to hear whatever “lost” recordings the reissue industry lays upon me. Though most of the tracks on Sunshine Boy don’t sound much more than other takes of songs I already love - most no better or no worse than their officially released counterparts - I’ve found myself more taken over by the lesser known parts of Townes' repertoire. Namely, the set's lead off track, “T For Texas” - a blue yodel originally penned and performed by Jimmie Rodgers. Townes' subtle rollick on the recording is a nice counterpoint to his normal bummer summer modality and a welcomed way to start off any Van Zandt collection.
I don’t think anyone’s hit the nail more on the head than when radio personality, comedy’s genius and hero-to-manyTom Scharpling described TeenBeat Records founder Mark Robinson's post-Unrest, post-Air Miami outfit Flin Flon as “the sound of someone becoming a graphic designer.” Precise, clean and exacting, Flin Flon was based on a simple design: all the songs were to be written on the bass, the guitar would only play single notes at a time, and the percussion would be all drums & no cymbals (save a high-hat only when absolutely necessary). An exercise in self-imposed limits, the results as showcased on Boo Boo, the band’s second LP, sound like the individual tones and textures of an indie pop song being spliced up and repositioned together in new patterns. Much like Robinson's design porn cover art (he himself becoming a graphic designer at the time as Scharpling suggested), Boo Boo is all chopped up but somehow more in order than it was when it began. And as if to emphasize its by design nature, the album was released “properly” on compact disc as well as pressed on LP but with different mixes for each track. Total nerdstuff for sure, but I’m partial to the LP version - officially titled Boo Boo (Version) - though I’m sure there are some heavy TeenBeat heads out there willing to fight me on that call. Ultimately, these are same great pop songs Robinson had been writing in earlier efforts under other monikers, but in Flin Flon they affect more of a post-punk bent. A crass description would call this an Unrest album of Gang of Four covers, but overly simplistic A + B = C equations never fully articulate the individual value possessed by any record. Unfortunately Boo Boo, and Flin Flon in general, will almost definitely be mostly lost to history - Robinson's Unrest efforts will always take up most of the real estate allotted in his encyclopedia entry. But while we still can remember his other works, we probably should.
#DONUTBREAK // ICEAGE - “Ecstasy” from You’re Nothing LP (Matador Records, out on 02/19/13)
Tuesday will see the release of Danish punk band Iceage's second LP You’re Nothing. Whereas the band’s debut, 2011’s New Brigade, tumbled slowly into American consciousness, You’re Nothing is being released on and with the promotional aid of stateside indie rock institution Matador Records. Like fellow transnational hardcore labelmates Fucked Up, this is as big as it gets in the U.S. for bands that can still legitimately call themselves punks, and You’re Nothing feels poised to bring it.
Chaotic, foggy and a good approximation of bad drugs, ”Ecstasy”, the first track and single off You’re Nothing, is carried mostly on its opening section, a confusing and desperate cauchophony of drums, guitars and vocals all moving at different speeds. It’s a glorious mess that leads right into a brief moment of circle-pit cohesion between the three moving parts before breaking down again to the shouts of vocalist Elias Bender Rønnenfelt calling out “Pressure! Pressure! / Oh God no!”. But just as soon as the lyrics reach their emotional zenith, that weird disco beat from the opening returns, the distorted mess of guitars wash back over and Iceage moves us back into the haze.