DAVID RAWLINGS MACHINE: A FRIEND OF A FRIEND


The title of David Rawlings’ debut “solo” album, A Friend of a Friend, may be the most appropriate album title since Raw Power. A perennial sideman, Rawlings has most notably backed Gillian Welch though, if you’ve ever seen the two perform, you’re aware of just how colossal a misnomer it is to describe Rawlings’ role as “backing” anyone. More aptly, Rawlings has performed alongside Welch, contributing aching, lonesome harmonies and devastatingly beautiful guitar to every one of Welch’s releases to date. You’ll also find Rawlings behind (or beside) Ryan Adams, Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, the Wallflowers, Norah Jones, and a host of other artists found on a Starbucks Americana Sampler near you. I suppose one could describe Rawlings’ career as being “under the radar,” but anyone who picked up the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack should be well acquainted with David Rawlings.

A Friend of a Friend may not propel Rawlings to AAA radio stardom or expand his audience too far beyond those who already shout themselves horse every time he steps up to perform Conor Oberst’s “Method Acting” – which morphs into “Cortez the Killer” on A Friend of a Friend, much the way it does in most of Rawlings’ performances – during Welch’s sets, but something tells me Rawlings didn’t make this record to take the “next step” in his career. A Friend of a Friend doesn’t play at all like some calculated career move, but rather a collection of songs Rawlings felt a connection with, and wanted to record, so he did. My best guess – and this is only a guess – is that’s exactly what it is. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to envision Rawlings picking and singing these tunes backstage before a gig, or in his living room some Sunday afternoon. There is not a single contrived or inauthentic moment on A Friend of a Friend and, in a sad commentary on the state of the music industry, that’s quite a feat.

Sonically and structurally speaking, the album is essentially another Gillian Welch/David Rawlings album, with Rawlings handling lead vocal duties this time out. Welch is all over the record, as are a number of Rawlings friends (and friends of friends, one assumes). And while A Friend of a Friend meanders at times, the high points – “Ruby,” “It’s Too Easy,” and “Bells of Harlem” among them – are more than engaging enough to compensate for any momentary lulls.

A Friend of a Friend is going to end up on my year-end Top Ten list and I would not be the least bit shocked to see it on a number of others, as well. If nothing else, I sincerely hope this album inspires Rawlings to stand front and center a little more often.

Dave Rawlings – Ruby
Dave Rawlings – It’s Too Easy

Dave Rawlings on myspace, Buy A Friend Of A Friend

NEW NINEBULLETS FEATURE: TWO SENTENCE REVIEWS

I listen to a lot of music. A lot of music. I can’t speak for AIV or Romeosidvicious, but the list of records I’d like to review for Ninebullets is about three miles long, and that’s before I’ve sorted through anything that’s been submitted for review (AIV handles the bulk of that, so his workload is exponentially larger). Point is, sometimes a record slips through the cracks. In the interest of trying to cover a few more bases, and inspired by AIV’s recent 140-character Twitter reviews, I introduce to you a new Ninebullets feature: Two Sentence Reviews.

The Cave Singers | Welcome Joy (Matador, August 17, 2009)
Beard rock that’s far less grating than Iron and Whine. Plenty of Neil Young influence, which is rarely a bad thing.

The Cave Singers – At The Cut

The Maldives | Listen to the Thunder (Mt. Fuji, September 15, 2009)
The Maldives, another unshaven Seattle outfit, made the best country record you didn’t hear in 2009. Gram and Hillman would be proud.

The Maldives – Tequila Sunday

Vic Chesnutt | At the Cut (Constellation, September 22, 2009)
Chesnutt’s second collaboration with members of Silver Mt. Zion, Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Fugazi is a smoldering, albeit molasses-paced, gem. It’s uneven, but worth it; find me a Chesnutt record that ain’t.

Vic Chesnutt – Concord Country Jubilee

Kris Kristofferson | Closer to the Bone (New West, September 29, 2009)
Slightly underwhelming, stripped-down release from one of the greatest songwriters alive. Well worth it for Stephen Bruton’s (R.I.P.) appearance alone.

Kris Kristofferson – Closer To The Bone

Them Crooked Vultures | S/T (DGC, November 17, 2009)
Grohl, Homme and John Paul Jones rumble through thirteen thinly veiled Zeppelin homages. Enjoyable for what it is, didn’t blow my dress up.

Them Crooked Vultures – New Fang

Autopsy IV Note: Here are the two 140 Character Reviews I’ve done so far:

Beck: Songs of Leonard Cohen – If you see Beck anytime soon…please punch him the face for this release.

Beck – Suzzanne

Blakroc – Blakroc: shit start. strong strong STRONG finish.


Blakroc – Ain’t Nothing Like You (Hoochie Coo) (feat. Jim Jones & Mos Def)

Any of you talented readers wanna make a graphic for this feature?

BRMC: LIVE


In a perfect journalistic world, every review is either an unabashed rave about a life-defining record or a scathing pan, solidifying [insert band/album] as [insert hyperbolic insult]. That’s how we want it – that’s how I want it, anyway – black and white. Challenge me, that’s fine, that’s encouraged, but make it either good or bad, please.

But, such is rarely the case. As anyone who’s more than just a casual listener of music knows, records are rarely either astounding or disgusting; usually they’re somewhere in-between. Such is the case with the new live set from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The two-DVD, one-CD package is culled from the band’s performances in Berlin, Dublin, and Glasgow from their 2007 tour in support of Baby 81. While songs like the pulsating “Weapon of Choice” (from Baby 81) and the smoldering “Mercy” (an outtake from the fantastic Howl) capture a warts-and-all rock ‘n’ roll band shedding pretense to simply play, the record gets bogged down by the likes of “Dirty Old Town” (they played it because they were in Ireland, get it?!) and “Six Barrel Shotgun” (among several terribly-titled songs in the BRMC catalogue).

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club Live is not a great record, but is by no stretch of the imagination an awful record. For the BRMC completest, it’s a very nicely packaged document of the band on tour, but for the casual fan, it likely won’t warrant more than a few cursory listens, serving mostly as a reminder that you haven’t put Howl on the turntable in too long.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Weapon of Choice
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Mercy

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Official Site, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club on myspace, Buy Black Rebel Motorcycle Club: Live

MATTHEW RYAN: DEAR LOVER


Matthew Ryan’s twelfth album, Dear Lover, is part prayer, part confession; a whispered recitation of the things that often go unsaid between people. This may sound dour, but Ryan has always been adept at infusing his hymns with more than enough hope to lift them above any sorrow and melancholy that may be contained therein. This – along with an uncanny gift for melody – is what makes Matthew Ryan one of the most challenging, and satisfying, songwriters alive.

Sonically, Dear Lover follows slightly more in the footsteps of Ryan’s From A Late Night High Rise than it does his previous release, Matthew Ryan Vs. The Silver State. Those longing for jangly guitars and easily classified “Americana” songs will have to dig awfully hard to find that here, but those who crave labels and simplification probably don’t dig Matthew Ryan to begin with. Listening to Dear Lover is an abject lesson in the strength of the song. To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter what these songs sound like – where there’s a mandolin here or a Hammond B3 there – they’re carried by the strength of the emotions conveyed and the  manner in which Ryan portrays them. Whether Ryan is howling out for fear and freedom – or freedom from fear – (“The Wilderness”), perpetually wandering the halls of houses long abandoned (“Your Museum”), or stumbling towards the light at the end of those same halls over a twitching Trance beat (“Spark”), there is a grace to Ryan’s lyricism that penetrates the sonic cloud cover he envelopes these songs in.

Which brings me to the recording. As mentioned previously in the Ninebullets interview with Matthew Ryan, Dear Lover was recorded at Ryan’s home, almost entirely by Ryan himself (DJ Preach contributes the beat to “Spark” and assorted friends lent a hand here and there), not as some sort of budgetary maneuver or to capitalize on the immense auto-tuning aspects of ProTools, but because Ryan had always wanted to challenge himself by making an album entirely by his own hand; failure and success would be his responsibility alone this time, no fall guy, no finger to point. As such, Dear Lover has also been released by Ryan’s own label. After a shuffling between six labels, Matthew Ryan decided simply to take his career into his own hands. With no label’s schedule to adhere to, Ryan elected to release Dear Lover digitally and via mailorder October 27, with a full-scale physical release scheduled for February 16, 2010.

My hunch is Dear Lover will be an overwhelming success for Ryan, critically and otherwise. Not because every Underdog has his day (though I hope that’s true) or Matthew Ryan has some karmic cache to cash in (he likely does), but because the record is too good not to succeed. Songs this visceral, this chilling, this beautiful, shouldn’t be ignored.

So don’t ignore them.

Matthew Ryan – The Wilderness
Matthew Ryan – Your Museum

Matthew Ryan’s Official Site, Matthew Ryan on myspace, Buy Dear Lover

HAVE YOU SEEN DIGNITY: AN INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW RYAN


If you could put a voice to that feeling that overcomes you as the night stumbles to a close and the barlights dim ever so slightly, that last little loving nudge towards the door before the slam back on, each blazing bulb a 120 watt punch in the nose, that voice would be Matthew Ryan’s.

For the better part of 15 years, Ryan has been putting out beautiful records, collections of graceful, hypnotic melodies floating high above a battlefield of love and loss and all of the other wreckage we all leave behind us. Sonically pinpointing Ryan’s music – for those who take solace in the ease of that sort of reductive classification – is nearly impossible, as his compositions are at times stripped nearly bare (the twangy late-night diatribe of “Nails” from Regret Over the Wires), and at others a crash course in sonic layers (the beautifully orchestrated ache of “Never Look Back” from From A Late Night High Rise).

I first came to Matthew Ryan’s music via mixtape, well over a decade ago. A friend had carefully placed a couple of songs from Ryan’s debut album, May Day, among a few of my favorites (Dylan, Westerberg, Earle, Waits, Springsteen). The tracks stood out, not because I didn’t recognize them, but because they were so beautifully written, so well-crafted, that I had to listen multiple times consecutively before I was convinced they weren’t somehow pathworked creations derived from other songs. Since that day, I’ve been an avid and unapologetic Matthew Ryan devotee.

When I learned Ryan would be self-releasing his new album, Dear Lover (available now digitally and through Ryan’s website, with a full-scale physical release scheduled for February 16, 2010), I vowed I would sing the album’s praises in every venue afforded to me. As such, this is the first of a two-part Dear Lover celebration. The following interview with Matthew Ryan was conducted over the course of several days via email, with no planned questions, only those which flowed from the answers Ryan provided as the conversation flowed. What resulted was, I believe, as natural a conversation as two people can have given the circumstances. Part Two, which will follow later this week, will be comprised of my review of Dear Lover. Until then, enjoy discovering, rediscovering, or further discovering Matthew Ryan.

You’ve said you view music cinematically, and I’d agree that Dearl Lover is a very cinematic record in terms of the narrative flow, the way one song leads into another. Were there any specific films on your mind when you were making the record?

A Very Long Engagement and Children of Men were on my mind a lot…

Those are fantastic films. Were they on your mind thematically or was the intent more to make a record that sort of reflected Cuaron and Jeunet’s filmmaking? Both films, in my opinion, had a very “barren” quality about them, the sort of beauty you see in trees completely stripped of their leaves in late November.

Yeah, there’s a barrenness. But also how people (and those characters) get even more human when confronted with mortality. Whether it’s the mortality of their dreams, concepts, beliefs, love or lives. There’s a lot of references lyrically to winter on Dear Lover. Almost a nuclear winter. I wanted the record to be spare. I wanted my voice, the melody and the lyrics to convey the stories. I really tried to create a filmic feel and tempo to the record. The music acts like weather, furniture and place. The record isn’t intended to be apocalyptic by any stretch. It’s just supposed to be completely stripped of anything that obstructs the emotionalism.

It’s these kind of details that excite me about music, film and art in general. Dear Lover was intended to be as pure a record as I could offer where I didn’t burden myself with any concern outside the feeling that the songs were simultaneously exposed and maximized. Because there’s diversity in what songs require, the filmic idea allowed me to go exactly where each song needed to go because I could treat each song like a scene. Funny thing is, that if you listen to City Life (track 1) and The End Of A Ghost Story (the last track), they both occur in the same “location.” But so much has happened in between that the air has changed, the mood has changed. The feel is different. And that’s not unlike the mood or feel of your kitchen before and after an argument that finds resolution. Know what I mean?

Yeah, “stripped of anything that obstructs the emotionalism” is a great way to put it – barren in that way, as well. You mention that you wanted your voice, the melody and the lyrics to convey the stories and this is something that, in my opinion, you’ve always done incredibly well throughout the course of your work, using a song’s melody to convey those things that the lyrics don’t. To me, this is a completely different animal that writing a “hook,” and it’s an aspect of songwriting that really gets overlooked. What was the process for you? How did you figure out what would be spoken and unspoken in these narratives?

For Dear Lover I only wanted to record performances. I’m sure you understand how often tracking becomes about “getting it right” or “good enough.” Those modes are dangerous to the purity of a song. I love choruses. But they are not a priority. Songs can act as descriptive mantras and conversations as well. Many of the songs on Dear Lover are just that. To me the best choruses feel natural like where the wrist becomes the hand. I’ve found that I want above all to feel something as a performer and a listener. That may seem obvious. But that’s where I’m coming from. So with the songs on Dear Lover are moments recorded circling a theme. Hopefully the songs are strong enough to stand alone. I believe they are. But so much of writing and singing and performing is simply allowing yourself to operate on instinct. It takes an absolute trust in the moment. But that is how I approached both the writing and the performing of these songs, which was mostly done on mic. And after something was recorded, I would let it breathe for a bit and then listen to try and understand if my truth, in that moment, was told.

That brings me to something I’ve found is really important to me as a listener: that an album stands both as a complete work in and of itself and as a collection of songs that hold up individually. There is a very clear and tangible theme coursing throughout Dear Lover, and you’ve talked a little bit about the songs dealing with some of what results from a confrontation with mortality. How important is it to you that people hear this album in its entirety? Dear Lover is being released digitally first, so there is a distinct possibility that people will hear one, two, or a handful of tracks “out of context,” so to speak. How do you reckon with that?

It’s a lot to ask of strangers to commit to listen to our work like we do. Particularly when you consider the army of intentions and nature of luck. I mean, that’s essentially what we do whenever we release a record. There’s a fair amount of ego involved in the notion of albums alone. But it’s also a pure and simple willingness, need and desire to communicate. I’ve always hoped to create albums that evoked curiosity from listeners. In the speed of our emerging culture, it seems tougher to engage people for the entire 45 minutes of a record. So that’s why I tried to make each song as pure and radiant as possible, hoping each song could stand on their own for whatever the needs or emotional availability of a listener is or was. But like how scenes in a movie glide into each other, the songs on Dear Lover do the same. It starts in one place and the story pulls it to and through all the elements that arc of a story offers. Hopefully it pulls listeners along. It’s not preachy. It’s trying to tell as honestly as it can the ways that we can get lost, and in turn, at least one version of how we can be found again.

I think that’s really beautifully put, and the honesty of the songs really permeates the performances in a very intimate, visceral way. Dear Lover was recorded and mixed almost entirely at home, which you’ve written about a little bit for Blurt. What prompted the decision to make the record at home and, for the most part, by yourself?

Well first and foremost, recording an entire album alone was something I always wanted to do. I’ve tried before, but my technical skills weren’t quite there yet. Follow the Leader (from From A Late Night High Rise), Jane I Still Feel The Same(from MRVSS) and Return To Me (from Regret Over the Wires) were all, for the most part, recorded in my home studio. But with Dear Lover it was time to live and die by my own talents and abilities. Early in 2009 I read a quote by Joe Strummer. He said essentially that as long as you have others to blame, you’ll never learn nothing. That really stuck with me.

I love the people I’ve played music with, but they could never read my mind. So every record has had beautiful moments, and moments where I felt the sonic story underachieved. So with Dear Lover it was time to dismantle any excuses for failure. I started my own label with my publicist, Monica Hopman. And I made Dear Lover alone at home from beginning to end, I don’t want to have anyone to blame for where I have fallen short. I want to grow my career as much as I can, offer the purest, most beautiful music I’m capable of. And I want to succeed, I see no nobility in being virtually unknown. Because being virtually unknown means you haven’t earned any equity in what you’re doing with you life. I want security, but I also want my dignity. My goal is to prove that that still means something in all the blizzards of our culture.

I still had friends play on the record, but only after I felt I had defined exactly what the song was. And I have to say, in all honesty, Hans Dekline at Sound Bites Dog mastered the absolute hell out of Dear Lover. He made it sound like a million bucks.

I think there’s a real fallacy in the thinking of some that being on an indie label means you get to retain every ounce of your dignity and control. I think both you and I could probably dispel that notion pretty quickly for someone.

Dear Lover sounds fantastic. So now you’ve got this beautiful record that people should hear and, for better or worse, it’s up to you to bring them around to it. In the dizzying blur of the everythingrightnow world we live in, that likely means Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and the like. I’m curious, has there been a point yet where you’ve had to go, “okay, enough self-promotion today.” I know there are days where I have grown really tired of being both the carnival barker and the trapeze artist, y’know?

As a sort of related question – since this interview will be posted rather than printed – how do you feel about the way that arm of promotion has changed in the last decade or so? Do you read many music blogs?

I try not to self-promote. I’m actually anti-marketing in a way. My goal is to engage people and offer context to my music because my hope is that my music inspires them to become advocates. I believe that regardless of what business believes, real success and a real career is built upon an intimacy between what you create and how people welcome what you create into their lives. The best “promotion” is when someone sits down in a car or house somewhere and someone says, “listen to this, you have to hear this song.”  It’s a slow-process, but it’s proving to be the right process for me. My career continues to grow. It’s painfully slow sometimes, but other modes just don’t work for me.

I find myself more interested in what real people are saying in threads and chats about music. I do read some blogs, but honestly, it’s often hard for me because I have a dog in the fight. Frankly, I find some blogs and music sites to be a form of fascism. That being said, I am inspired by anyone anywhere that writes passionately and intelligently about music. I love when I read something so infectious about a band that it builds real curiosity from me. I recently found Glasvegas through a blog. It just felt honest to me. And it turns out, I love their record. That’s when it’s a success. I just wish their was a way to divide the great and inspired writing from the hipster dregs and the spam. We really need three internets: One for smart, emotional critical thinkers; one for proud consumers; and another for hipsters who will cringe and hopefully grin at pictures of themselves and their clever music three years from now.

I think you were one of the first musicians who I remember openly saying, “share my music however you see fit.” It was really refreshing at the time, and continues to be so. I absolutely agree that the best “promotion” is one person to another, “you gotta hear this!” That’s how I found May Day many, many years ago. Somebody put “Irrelevant” and “Railroaded” on a mix tape for me. Are there songs on Dear Lover you feel are especially representative of what you wanted to accomplish? Something you would put on a mixtape for someone?

It’s hard to point one song out on Dear Lover. I worked very hard to make this a collection with real thematic continuity and development. I know listeners will have their favorites, and that’s been the beauty of my career so far. Because different people gravitate to my work for different reason. I’m always amazed that nearly every song I’ve ever written is someone’s favorite for very legitimate reasons.

But if I had to say which songs I would point people to, it would go like this:

We Are Snowmen – Because it’s true poetry and cinema married to a melody. It’s a short story that ends with a beautiful, urgent message in conclusion. It’s also my favorite vocal performance to date. I feel like a real singer on Snowmen.

Your Museum – Similar to Snowmen in that it deals in absolute beauty. It’s one of those songs that’s as beautiful as it is strange. But because of the melody, lyric and air it creates, it doesn’t buckle under being strange for strange’s sake. It sounds like it should, because if you’ve ever been where this song is coming from, you know what a relief it represents. Some of my best writing when it comes to pure hope.

Spark – Because it’s something that maturity has allowed me to embrace without fear. It’s the bravest song on the record aesthetically speaking because the track is a hard Trance track. But thematically for the arc of the record it works perfectly. I know some purist might snub it, but I don’t care. It’s a great song when stripped down. But the song was also sturdy enough to play the role of Apocalypse Now for lovers in the development of Dear Lover’s story. And that amazes me.

The World Is – Because, well, this song is the essence of my message over the years. Some view me as a pessimist or cynic or depressive or too serious. Well, that’s just not true. I’m an eternal optimist with seriously romantic notions of what men and women are capable of. We live in very serious times, and I feel that it’s my job to try provoke heroism and perseverance in myself and those that care to listen. It may upset some to know that rarely, very rarely are my songs about just me and my experience. I know that can be contrary to the mythology that some artists like to build around themselves. But my songs are looking more outward than some might suspect. It’s impossible to separate individuals from the times they live in. By finding beauty and despair in the modern struggle I believe art helps to define a way out or at least to offer some peace with the things that daunt hope and dignity.

Matthew Ryan – American Dirt
Matthew Ryan – Come Home
Matthew Ryan – We Are Snowmen

CRIMINOLOGY IN THE AGE OF NON-DAIRY CREAMER: THE TOM RUSSELL INTERVIEW

Tom Russell’s new album, Blood and Candle Smoke (September 15, Shout! Factory) further solidified Russell’s reputation as one of the most gifted and poetic songwriters working in music today. As Russell weaves and wanders his way through a dusty sonic landscape created by a cast of musicians including Winston Watson, Barry Walsh and members of Calexico, the songs wind into one another, unrepentant veins all leading back to the proud, stubborn, poetic heart tucked away in Russell’s chest.

In a blog post introducing Blood and Candle Smoke, Russell asserted that “there are few songs,” which struck me as an interesting assertion. As somebody who is currently writing, singing, and listening to songs on a daily basis, I would be lying if I said I agreed with Mr. Russell. That’s an awfully sweeping and dismissive statement to make, but I wanted to discuss that statement – and Mr. Russell’s fine new record – with him, so I did just that.

Let’s start with the landscape that Blood and Candle Smoke was released into. In the post on your blog that “introduces” Blood and Candle Smoke, you say, “people are hungry for anything vaguely real….but there are few new songs.” Where does somebody – or, more specifically, where do you – draw the line between the $0.99 products iTunes peddles as “singles” and songs?

What I am attempting to say is that the current music scene is a vast vacuum. Nada. To quote Bukowski, “it’s the dead fucking the dead in a vacuum.” I grew up in an era when Dylan wrote all of Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, plus the outtakes, in 18 months. It had nothing to do with the 60’s or the 90’s or downloading or uploading or anything. It just happened out there in art space. Like Van Gogh’s great paintings had nothing to do with an “era.” They exploded. Nobody is writing songs that will make you pull your car over to the side of the road and weep or get the chills.
It’s all about meekness and fear now. Either that or these new writers are speaking in a lingo that doesn’t reach me. Leonard Cohen reaches me. We live in fearful times of “new folk” zombies sort of going through arch motions.

I’m always open to hearing something chillingly good. Name me some songs.

A sort of extension to that last question is differentiating between a collection of ten or twelve “singles” for iTunes and an album; a complete, cohesive piece of art. To me, Blood and Candle Smoke is a phenomenal collection of songs but it’s also a phenomenal album. It’s a puzzle where each piece is as beautiful and intricate as the completed puzzle itself. Is it safe to assume that the songs on this album inform one another, that they were intended to be this cohesive?

Yes. I think they inform each other because they came out of a feeling or a desire to dig deeper, and suddenly up came these old images of living in Africa and visiting Mexico… images came to the surface of the skin and soul, like old bullet fragments which suddenly appear.

There is a feeling on this record of looking hard at times and people that have moved me: Graham Greene, Nina Simone, the white priestess of Oshogbo (Suzanne Wenger), and my wife, and putting them in proper emotional context without regard for radio formats or fearful needs of this flabby-assed culture. Obviously the musical backdrops enhance the puzzle.

To take this one step further before moving on, how important is it to both compartmentalize and contextualize this record – or any record – in terms of an artist’s body of work. For instance, some people (myself included) can look at Dylan’s catalogue and say, okay, I don’t especially dig Self Portrait but if I connect enough dots, I can see how it made Blood on the Tracks possible. When you make a record, how easy is it for you to trace elements of it back to your previous work, or is each album an individual work in and of itself?

You can look at it both ways. This record is a major step forward from Love and Fear and I had to hit those touchstones to reach a new plateau. If somone is really interested they could look at The Man From God Knows Where, Hotwalker, and Love and Fear, and find some touchstones but, really, a record or a painting or a novel should stand on it’s own.

Frankly the one problem with the press (only in this country) is they look at “who you are” first before they consider a record or a book, so it’s hard for someone to judge or listen to a record if they don’t consider your age or previous output and that predjudices and hurts a record like this… but onward.

Speaking of Dylan, he’s now singing “Shooting Star” like Maurice Chevalier and moving like Chaplin behind the keys. Maybe more than anyone, he seems to have a very clear understanding of the distinction between recording songs and performing songs. You’re going to be out on tour for a while, is every show different? Are there thematic elements you want to drive home with each tour?

I’m performing all the songs off of Blood and Candle Smoke every night and they mutate and change and sparkle and go in different directions every night.

The record had a sonic backdrop of great musicians: Calexico, Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Winston Watson, but live and accoustic they find their own place – stripped down to the essence. So people can get the core songs in their face and then refer back to the larger backdrops in the recording. My only “theme” nightly is to sing honestly and stay inside the songs. It’s safe there. The rest is all fruit platters and open road.

You touch on Calexico’s involvement in Blood and Candle Smoke on your blog, but if you don’t mind – how did it come about? As a follow-up, did you take the songs to Calexico or was much writing done in the studio? How was the process different than getting together the usual suspects in Austin and making the record there?

I really heard Calexico on that I’m Not There soundtrack. I liked the grooves and the Mariachi trumpet. All the songs were written before coming in – I just sat there and sang them. Of course Calexico influenced this record, but also Barry Walsh, who layed the classical piano beds (he played with Roy Orbison) and Winston Watson, the drummer who played with Dylan. All the Tucson players were great… Nick Luca and Chris Gimabelucca and Jacob Valenzuela. So it went beyond Calexico.

In that same vein, you also mentioned that you had been searching out new music since hearing Jim James and Calexico perform “Goin’ to Acapulco” in I’m Not There. Are there other newer artists you’re listening to?

Not much. I like some of Neko Case’s stuff. I liked Amy Winehouse’s “Tried to Make Me Go To Rehab,” but I don’t hear much. It all sound weak-willed, like the poetry of teenagers. Not quite formed. I’d rather go back and listen to old Fred Neil records. This is the age of non-dairy creamer.

Alright, so, when you sneak out to the studio under the guise of taking out the trash, how do you decide whether to pickup the guitar or the paintbrush?

I write in the mornings. I paint at night. Or whenever I can sneak away from the chores. I have to water the fruit trees and feed the geese. But painting provides a little touch of stepping outside of TIME, like Picasso said, “I leave my mind
outside the studio like moslems leave their slippers outside the mosque…” (Something like that, Pablo.)

I haven’t yet read a review of Blood and Candle Smoke that referred to it as an overtly “political” work but I would argue that anything real that’s cast out into this “fear driven mess,” as you describe it is, in some way, a reaction to – and has an impact on – that mess. How much of Blood and Candle Smoke, if any of it, was written as a reaction to the world it’s being cast into?

Not much. I’m not a topical writer (per say.) I’m a bit of a crank and I live in El Paso near the frontier of Juarez where the biggest war in the world is taking place. I have a sense of my own place as an outsider and I never took this overall culture too
seriously ’cause most people get all their facts and info off the 6 O’Clock news and it’s all formulated doom. I feel like I have my own personal culture and it revolves around my family and my creative work. The rest of it is all a big, dead, Vanity Fair magazine. It’s a door stop.

Finally in the aforementioned introductory Blood and Candle Smoke blog post, you say, “I believe in this record, and I don’t believe in much else.” What else do you believe in? What else is worth believing in?

My wife. The catalogue of Bob Dylan. The works of Graham Greene. Leonard Cohen. Muhammad Ali. Our Lady of Guadalupe. Damien of Molakai. Christ, I don’t know… laundry lists are useless. I believe in the ability of true art to heal and move people into a little timeless corridor for a few moments and save them from the rages of bordeom and soul-corrosion. I’m not trying to be cute, but that’s a hard question. All answers are in the songs. That’s the best I can do. I’m not a self-help philosopher.

Tom Russell – East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam
Tom Russell – Don’t Look Down

Tom Russell’s Official Site, Tom Russell on myspace, Buy Blood and Candle Smoke

ON TOM WAITS AND THE LIVE RECORD


Sometime around midnight last night (I’m on German time for the moment so it was 3:00 Pacific and 6:00 Eastern for those keeping track), I was putting the finishing touches on a night-long Looney Toons marathon when I noticed an email in my inbox from a friend, the subject line reading only “New Waits.” The body of the email was equally brief and cryptic, offering only a link to Waits’ new, redesigned official site.

And there it was.

Tom Waits will be releasing a new album, Glitter and Doom Live, November 24. Just in time to be my favorite record of the year.

Once the initial euphoria of a new Waits record dissipated, I started to think about live records in general. Can you name ten really, really great live records? Live at the Apollo, Live Rust, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, Metallic K.O. and… and? One of the hundreds of available Pearl Jam Official Bootlegs? I’m not a Grateful Dead guy so please don’t mention Dick’s Picks to me. Ever. I’ll allow Rock of Ages. Maybe Live at the Harlem Square Club or Live-Evil would sneak in there but, historically, live records are a poor substitute for witnessing the real thing and/or sitting around your place listening to records. Sometimes they’re a contractual obligation, sometimes a stopgap between “real” releases, sometimes they’re just an exhaustive Lose Weight Exercise in self-congratulation. Tom Petty, in a recent interview regarding his own Live Anthology (which will be released the same day Waits’ record hits shevles), authored my favorite quote on the nature of live records, saying that most amount to little more than “the greatest hits played faster.” My point is this: whatever it is they are, live records are rarely satisfying and almost never worth more than a couple of spins. So why should I be excited about a Tom Waits live record?

Here’s why: have you ever seen a Tom Waits show?

If the answer is no, you’re probably not alone. Given Waits’ historically infrequent touring schedule and penchant for perplexing routing, if you haven’t seen him yet, there exists the very real possibility you will never see Tom Waits perform. Let that sit for a minute. Now, you can either attempt to ignore the cruel hand fate has dealt you, anticipate the man’s next move (good luck) and then chase him around the globe or you can by Glitter and Doom Live and at least approximate the experience of a Waits show. One will cost thousands of dollars and could, quite possibly, alter the space-time continuum irreparably, the other will cost you $20. Your call, hotshot.

If the answer is yes then it will likely take more than a glowing review from a fellow Waits fanatic to sway you one way or the other on this. I’ve been lucky enough to catch Waits twice in my life and I came away from both performances swearing that, anytime he came within a 500 mile radius of my location, I would be there. Until I get the opportunity to make good on that vow, I’ll settle for Glitter and Doom Live, a seventeen-song summation of the visceral, beautiful racket Waits made with this particular collection of musicians (Seth Ford-Young, Vincent Henry, Omar Torrez, Patrick Warren and two of Waits’ kin, Casey and Sullivan Waits) over the course of a few months last year.

And, man. Visceral and beautiful it is. These are not so much re-arrangements of Waits songs, they are complete and utter reconstructions – rhythmically, structurally, musically – of Waits compositions which are at once altogether foreign and eminently recognizable. Above all else, Waits understands spectacle – aural and visual spectacle. He is the preliminary Teller of Tall Tales, the World’s Premiere Carnival Barker, the Great Mythologizer (of all things, none the least of which being The Tom Waits), and above all else, one of the great living songwriters of the last half-century.

For a Waits devotee such as myself, the only question when considering Glitter and Doom Live is can this album come anywhere near experiencing a Tom Waits show?

If the free eight-song sampler offered from Waits’ new site is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. If you’ve never seen Waits, download the sampler and listen. This may be as close as you’ll get. If you have seen Waits, download the sampler and marvel at how quickly the primal, thunderous sound of Waits’ voices conjures a million different memories, all at once.

I’m curious to hear some feedback on this. Will Tom Waits release the best live record of the new millennium? Did I miss any great live records here?

Below you’ll find a couple of tracks from the free eight-song sampler. Have a listen while we debate whether or not Before the Flood belongs on my list.

Tom Waits – Lucinda
Tom Waits – Goin’ Out West (Take 2)

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: THE LOW ANTHEM


Remember when bands made records? Not ten-song collections of iTunes downloads, but complete, thematic bodies of work meant to be analyzed and appreciated as such? It is worth noting that, while the “single” as a concept has been around since long before Steve Jobs revolutionized portable and digital music, many of the most enduring songs of the last half-century were elements of larger artistic statements (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “London Calling,” and “Purple Rain,” to name a few).

With Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, The Low Anthem have crafted a collection of sparse, dynamic songs which, lo and behold compliment one another sonically and thematically. Imagine that. OMGCD deals, in large part, with the terrifying spectre of the American cultural landscape, where prayers are cast into the stratosphere via text message and photographs are “processed,” not developed. At its core, OMGCD is a collection of hymns sung to Dylan, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, to a country plowed under and built over. As stark as that image may be, The Low Anthem delivers these twelve songs beautifully, the tension palpable but not overwhelming, the fear and anger brimming but not boiling over.

OMGCD was initially released in 2008 as a limited-edition, hand-painted CD and subsequently released when The Low Anthem – Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Miller, the three of whom met while students at Brown – signed with Nonesuch. The re-release garnered The Low Anthem glowing reviews from Uncut, Rolling Stone and a number of other publications, and recognition from Bruce Springsteen and Ray Lamontagne. That’s all fine and good – who doesn’t enjoy the occasional accolade – but the fact is The Low Anthem were going to get recognized at some point. Songs this good will always have an audience.

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth mentioning that I just spent a week on tour in support of The Low Anthem, but that run of shows only served to support my opinion that somebody – or, rather, many people – ought to be championing this band. As good as OMGCD is – and make no mistake, it is a very, very good album – the songs are so vital when performed, they take on an almost primal quality. There’s a gravity there that isn’t nearly as evident on the record. Likewise, Miller’s vocals are at once searing and tender live, while the treatment of vocals on the album borrows slightly from Iron and Wine, treading the line between atmospheric and over-processed. The discrepancy between performances on the album and in a live setting is not great – great musicians tend to sound good in any format – but it’s enough that in order to really appreciate The Low Anthem, you’ve got to see the show. Think of the performance as a companion piece to the album, or vice versa.

Some recommendations come with a caveat, “before you pick up this record, you should know…” This is not one. The Low Anthem is a band you need to hear.

The Low Anthem – To The Ghosts Who Write History Books
The Low Anthem – Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around

The Low Anthem’s Official Site, The Low Anthem on myspace, Buy Oh My God, Charles Darwin

TOM RUSSELL – BLOOD AND CANDLE SMOKE

Until further notice, this is the best record of the year. Period.

Tom Russell’s work has been interpreted by Johnny Cash, Dave Alvin, Jerry Jeff Walker and many others, but Russell has, inexplicably, flown under the mainstream radar for the duration of his career. The fact is, Russell is one of an elite group of living songwriters (Steve Earle and Peter Case among them) whose work has improved exponentially as their careers have progressed.

Blood and Candle Smoke may not bring Russell to the forefront of public consciousness, but it does serve as an astonishing reminder of his career evolution and devotion to his craft. Russell may be every bit the grizzled borderland  barfly that his singing voice suggest, but his is a poet’s heart and here, backed by Calexico, Russell unleashes a cannon blast of evocative, razor-sharp lyricism, blowing the doors off of anything I’ve heard this year. I would say that Blood and Candle Smoke will be remembered as Russell’s masterwork but he’s obviously got plenty of gas left in the tank and miles to go before that proverbial sleep. Judging by his body of work, I have every reason to believe he’ll bleed that tank dry getting to the finish line, much to our benefit.

Tom Russell – East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam
Tom Russell – Don’t Look Down

Tom Russell’s Official Site, Tom Russell on myspace, Buy Blood and Candle Smoke

PETE YORN and SCARLETT JOHANSSON – BREAK UP


Damnit.

I’ll say that again, for dramatic effect. Damnit.

I want to get this out of the way, so you can skip the rest of this post or read intently, accordingly: I like this record. So there’s that.

Pete Yorn has always been, for better or worse, about three steps behind Ryan Adams on the songwriter career evolution path and frankly, releasing Break Up, an album of duets with a gorgeous Hollywood starlet (Scarlett Johansson), who fancies herself a vocalist isn’t going to set him off that path. Hell, Adams probably recorded an album very similar to this with any number of red carpet bombshells but just didn’t release it. Who knows, who cares?

Point is, Yorn and Johansson aren’t breaking any new ground here by collaborating on a set of infectious, if seemingly half-baked, head-bobbers (M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel did that to great effect last year). So, while Break Up isn’t any sort of singular creative achievement, it is an incredibly enjoyable collection of throwaway pop tunes with just enough braun and emotional resonance that, upon repeated listenings, reveal themselves to be anything but disposable.

This surprising depth is especially evident in “The Relator,” the first single from Break Up. Yorn and Johansson – whose voice has matured a bit since the release of Anywhere I Lay My Head – trade verses over a jittery guitar line bemoaning the death of a relationship. (Get it? The root word of “relationship” is “relate!” When people stop “relating” to one another, their “relationship” suffers!) Is it a groundbreaking revelation? No. But it’s clever enough and deftly performed and, with Yorn and Johansson behind it, the whole thing works. In the end, for what this record is, there’s not a lot more you can ask for.

Now, back to “damnit.” I understand that considering Scarlett Johansson’s music career a worthwhile endeavor isn’t an especially popular opinion and I can understand why it wouldn’t be. But take the following into consideration: 1) Her debut album, a collection of Tom Waits covers (and one original composition that had no business sharing space with Waits’ work) was expertly produced by Dave Sitek, and any vocal shortcomings were buried in the arrangements. 2) Johansson is on hand for Break Up as vocalist only, acting as narrative counterpart to Yorn. She’s hardly out of her depth, she has improved as a vocalist, and she’s not overreaching. Loretta Lynn she ain’t, but Johansson seems to know her limitations and has surrounded herself, thus far, with collaborators who can know how to get the best out of her. There’s something to be said for that.

Break Up is not an “essential” album; it is probably not going to have you reeling in awe, but it is a great reminder that dismissing an album offhand can be a mistake. Such is the beauty of music. There’s great, there’s awful and then, somewhere in between, there are these pleasant surprises that keep us coming back.

Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson – Relator

Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson Official Site, Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson on myspace, Buy The Break Up album (for only 2.99 at AmazonMP3)