Disarmingly Charming: Sarah Shook at The Echo

 

Generally, fuck Los Angeles. It’s a post-desert wasteland of pay-to-play venues and Instagram feeds littered with cheap photo-class headshots moonlighting as band flyers. The traffic flows smooth as a bloodclot in an Alex Jones neck vein and the air smells like dragon shit. But every once in a blue (or in LA, brown) moon it’s worth battling the existential dread of the 134 freeway for a chance to catch a truly great band in a dark, beerstink room that (once you’re in and you forget about how much it just cost to park your car in the perfect spot to lose your radio) could really be anywhere in America; tonight, that room happens to be The Echo on Sunset Boulevard, temporary home to the Roots Roadhouse Festival and, most importantly, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers.

Ever since their debut record Sidelong was re-released on Bloodshot Records this past April, I’ve been waiting for a chance to see Shook and her band burn down a venue with their particular brand of Alt.Country, which careens like a shatteringly hungover pendulum between southern-fried Americana and punk. Sidelong, for me, incorporates the best aspects of Lucinda Williams and Hank III (dark, compelling songwriting/musicianship and sneering, brash delivery) while managing to eschew the worst elements of both (a near-dylanesque rejection of the meta and abject levels of racism and misogyny.)  Live, the Disarmers bring the same level of intensity and authenticity to the stage.

Tonight, despite its being located a few hundred miles to the south of my California comfort zone, The Echo feels strangely like home. There’s a nary a hipster to be found, which is refreshing, though knowing LA, not all of these folks wear this much denim on the regular, and a few of the Stetsons look a bit newish. Still, I quickly spot a couple “Alt Country not Alt Facts” tees peeking out from behind the pearl snaps and even a few familiar faces; Mark and Lance from Mike Stinson’s band are right where I last saw them- lounging at the bar (it was a different bar though, in a different town, in a different month but who’s keeping score?) I have just enough time to grab a bourbon and soda as the line check rolls up; the band members crack a few last jokes off mic, Shook takes a big swig of PBR and they kick into the first song of the set.

From the get-go, it’s obvious that this is going to be a good night for the Disarmers, seeing as how the crowd pushes toward the stage enthusiastically, pints raised roofward at the very first bell-clear swell of the pedal steel. Unfortunately, Shook’s almost husky lower register gets lost somewhere in the rafters during the opening number (apparently the place is called “The Echo” for a reason) and as she pauses to tune her trademark big, beautiful Gretsch hollowbody between songs the crowd starts hollering “more vocals!” at the soundbooth. Sarah looks up with a crooked grin and squints into the lights; “I think someone here wants some more of my voice” she drawls. The invisible hand of the soundman prods the fader and the old, dented 58 springs to life as Shook chuckles, obviously pleased both with the mood of the crowd and her good fortune at getting a mix adjustment without having to be the bad guy for once.

The set focuses, quite appropriately, on tunes from Sidelong. It’s the Disarmers’ first West Coast tour, but as they skip around the tracklist from the record, it quickly becomes obvious that while the band might not have made it out to California until now, their songs have definitely preceded them. Each one is greeted with a cheer and a lot of the room sings along for most of the set. When Shook turns to lead guitarist Eric Peterson and asks “how about ‘Fuck Up’?” the crowd bellows out a hearty “hell yes!” “I wasn’t talking to you” Shook shouts back, but she’s beaming; she seems almost startled that we know the back half of the record (understandable in a culture that previews music online with the general attention span of a Jager-drunk frat kid on a leftward Tinder-swipe spree) but the band takes advantage of the moment and away we go.

 

The arrangements are almost dead-to-rights off the album, but the delivery still feels fresh. Shook’s vocals ride easily though the welcome diversity of range in her songs, moving from that low, ominous growl in “Heal Me” to the clear, almost falsetto-fragile tremble in the chorus of “Dwight Yoakam.” The latter is, for me, the stand out number in this particular set, delivered with a fierceness and intensity that holds the attention of the increasingly rowdy room despite its placement as the penultimate song of the evening and its uniquely introspective, mid-tempo waltziness. And while Shook is not the type of frontperson to roll around on a LA divebar stage (there are far more enjoyable ways to contract herpes) she exudes a hell of a lot of energy from her tiny frame, strumming with nearly her whole body and occasionally drifting back to whip her hair for a bit with drummer John Howie, Jr. during the instrumental breaks. Peterson takes advantage of these opportunities to attack his lead guitar parts with a sort of blue-collar economy, wringing deceptively complex and undeniably tasty licks from a yellow telecaster with a headstock that looks like the gut-hook on a hunting knife. Howie, Jr. and upright bassist Aaron Oliva keep it in the pocket with some punk-derived drive but manage to avoid the tired “third night in a row on a shitty cocaine bender” trainbeat schizophrenia that plagues much of “outlaw country.” Meanwhile pedal steel man Phil Sullivan infuses the whole thing with those crystalline wailings that are so essential to both the physical and existential glue of any true country band.

The set ends too soon, of course, thanks to the time-constraints of the festival setting and Shook and her band load off quickly. The crowd heads to the merch table to grab t-shirts, vinyl, and the requisite handful of stickers that will soon adorn the dented bumpers, stop signs and urinals of the greater Los Angeles area. Sarah locks her Gretsch in its case and stands by the green room door greeting fans and signing records. She’s all smiles now, with no sign of the deep frown she wears while diving for those low, lonely notes onstage. I’m surprised by her warmth and kindness as she scribbles her name neatly on the back of my newly-purchased LP but I guess I shouldn’t be- there is an innate human-ness to Shook’s music despite its hard-drinking, hard-living bravado and seeing her sing and socialize in person quickly confirms the authenticity one suspects in her even upon the first spin of Sidelong.

I grab another cocktail and head through a long, winding hallway toward the back patio stage to catch the next band, still glowing a bit with the joy of watching real people play real music. I round the corner to find some asshole in a red velour suit and a clean cowboy hat crooning “I wish John Waaaaayne was a cuuuuuuntry saaaaaangerrrrrrr” in a southern accent that sounds about as worn in as the shiny Strat that hangs nearly untouched around his remarkably white neck. Next to him, a guy in a tye-dye t shirt noodles through the Bakersfield fakebook while a wax statue of John Waters tickles the Moog. Ah, Los Angeles.

 

– Jon Bartel

Rock Report – Mishka Shubaly snatches Art from the jaws of defeat

 

 

Halfway through degenerate-cum-degenerate Mishka Shubaly’s set, a middle-aged woman in fence-paint-thick lipstick seizes my arm. She drops her weight into me, her fingertips dimpling my bicep and shoves her botox cheek against mine so that our faces are aligned like Cops sitting driver-side to driver-side in an alley. “Please. Please.” Her booze-breath stings the inside of my ear canal as she literally sobs. “Please make him stop. Make him get offstage. It’s awful.”

To be fair, one of the most entertaining parts of a Shubaly set is taking bets on how fast the room will clear and tonight he’s playing the back half of the dinner hour at a pub-grub-and-craft-tap establishment in a California seaside resort town popular with the sort of people even wine snobs generally dislike. But Mishka’s hallmark self-depreciating, pull zero punches, give zero fucks approach to both stage banter and lyrical content tends to thin even the dive-iest of bar crowds and so it’s no surprise when the lady leaves out the back door (though her husband, it is worth noting, stays, chuckling quietly in the corner.)

Tonight’s performance follows the general trajectory that most (initially) well-attended Shubaly shows have taken in my experience. Mishka plugs in one of his eternally disparate, always exquisite vintage electric guitars, coaxes a suitably blaring tube-crackle tone from his amp and eases into his first song, “Am I the Only One Drinking Tonight?” He delivers the dirg-y chorus in his trademark baritone gargle; a few beers are raised, some heads begin to nod along and people politely lower their voices as they order food from the waiter at the bar tables. The tune ends to enthusiastic applause and the banter begins. For most musicians, the banter is secondary to the songs, just a way to fill time while tuning, but for Shubaly it’s usually the opposite. A multi-talented wordsmith, Mishka is not only a musician- he’s also a standup comedian, cult radio personality, a widely published author and a Yale University adjunct and he puts his considerable oratory skill to work in almost equal amounts with his singing most nights.

He wraps up his first five-minute diatribe (which focuses primarily on his intimate and extensive knowledge of illicit substances) with, “People always ask me ‘Mishka, you’ve done all the drugs. What’s the best one?’ And I can tell you, since I have done all the drugs, the best drug is birth control. There’s nothing better than being forty and having zero adult responsibilities.” The audience laughs. “Here’s a song to my unborn child.” He launches into “Your Stupid Dreams,” from his 2015 album Coward’s Path. “Wild Horses on the Jukebox or whatever the fuck it was / we were young we were in love we were drunk and on drugs / your mom can say what she wants about how I wasted my time / but I had so much fuckin’ fun burning out at twenty-nine.” A few raised eyebrows, wry smiles and a couple legit fans singing along… “Hey kid hold on to your dreams / your stupid hopeless dreams / you’ll grow meeker and colder as you get weaker and older / making the same money you did when you were seventeen.” People still waiting on their orders begin to look as if they’re just now realizing they’ve made a fatal mistake.

By the time their club sandwiches and artisanal tater-tots arrive, Mishka is discussing the finer points of dating at forty. And while he’s yet to serenade diners with the Rimbaudian descriptions of middle-aged male genitalia that will come in his next song (wherein he will liken his half-hard dick to a white flag of surrender) he’s certainly spent more time than many in the room would likely deem necessary explaining his gifting of a fallen-off big toe-nail in a heart-shaped locket to his much younger girlfriend this past Valentine’s day. “My warranty has expired… my body is a crumbling insane asylum” he concludes as a number of people begin to actively leave.

Still, by the end of the set an encouraging number of die-hards remain- the Stanhope fans, the other bands and a few tables full of drunk, fist-pumping twenty-somethings who seem like they absorbed the “give me speed, spite and strychnine” part (Shubaly’s wonderfully cynical take on Little Feat) and missed the “so… I had to stop drinking” part. It’s this phrase, by far the least concupiscent of the night, delivered with a sense of both Marianas Trench-deep regret and nauseous joy, that leads into the last song of the evening. “I’m never drinking again” lilts the chorus, and, just like the best lullabies, the song’s sleepy, minor melody echoes our collective resolve to somehow outlast the slow fingers of darkness spreading out from beneath our beds.

So why does he do it? What drives a self-described “sober drunk” (who claims to have literally done every drug, alienated nearly every friend and family member and who has now put that hellscape at least physically behind him) to spend most nights up on shithole bar stages resolutely sipping club soda and virtually daring someone to clean his clock over any number of remarks lewd enough to blue the barrel of a navy gun? Why not a pretty, sweet little Martin rather than the jarring jangle of the unaccompanied electric guitar? Why the pinpoint focus on indiscretion after indiscretion, every innuendo taken two dick jokes too far? Why the rollercoaster of alcoholic war stories and near Spanish Inquisition-levels of self flagellation?

Because fucking art, man. What that lady with the Behr Industrial makeup and every other person who walks out in disgust from a Shubaly show misses completely is the fact that art isn’t made to pair with artisanal tater-tots because art isn’t supposed to pair well with anything other than the unbridled, unhinged honesty of its particular purveyor. Art is meant to blow from the weird soul of the artist and the point of art is not, and should never be, to please the audience according to what they think they want; and thus any moment in which the mad witchment of the artist is fully tuned to the consumer needs of any average audience is fortuitous but by no means necessary or even desireable. The glow of a saturday night ukulele jamfest wears thin with the advent of a new work week but a good misting of blood flung from stage enters your capillaries whether you like it or not and when you stick out a Mishka set, he’s fucking IN you forever.

William Blake taught us that worthwhile art attempts the Sublime- that which is dark, massive, unable to be described unless experienced and above all, terrifyingly free of constraint. Mishka Shubaly is sublime, and most of the rest of us are not, and that’s just the way it is. But we resent the honesty, we plead for the storm to be contained, put back in the Reynoldean frame, and we take our food to go when the gale is allowed to rattle into splinters the doors of our cellars. The sublimity of Shubaly haunts audiences because Mishka may be singing about booze, but we’re thinking about our money; his slackening penis is our social media profile, his glib freedom to worry only about where his pants are reminds us of the closeness of our prison walls and how much we hate them. This is what art is meant to do. And this is why it makes us so very uncomfortable.
“I’m too big for America” Mishka jokes toward the end of his set. He’s right.

– Nicky Jon

 

Dave, Brian, & The 40 Hour Work Week – Still Drunk (2017) By Morgan Enos

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Morgan Enos fronts the bands Other Houses, Enos and Hollow Sunshine.

 

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The songwriting-obsessed men and women of the Twang N Bang Records crew will not abide by gimmicks. A loose club of Americana musicians in the small Central Coast town of San Luis Obispo, CA, Twang N Bang has been quietly chugging along under one guise or another for as long as anyone in town can remember, releasing records by groups with earthy, working-class names – 50 Watt Heavy, Dead Volts, American Dirt, The Turkey Buzzards.

 

While this may not be an easy sell to those allergic to flannel, IPAs or spilling your guts after last call, these totally impervious folks couldn’t care less. In a music scene largely made up of open-mic retirees, winery tours and Billabong-shirted wastoids, these truly are the good guys.

 

Even by their rough-and-tumble ways, the last few years have brought some changes in the crew. Perhaps most tellingly, the yowling rockers American Dirt, one of TNB’s mainstays since the early 2010s, entered a hiatus. Lead guitarist Jon Bartel, an English professor by day, formed the country-rock project The Creston Line, leaving singers and songwriters Dave Wilson and Brian Sonniksen as a folk duo. While the future of American Dirt seems like a tough call, Dave and Brian are here to let us know they’re Still Drunk.

 

The 40 Hour Work Week are offhanded and rascally, the scrappier antidote to the Creston Line. Where the latter spare no scrape of a fiddle, weeping pedal steel or detailed character study, you can imagine Dave and Brian sneaking some Jack and Coke into the back of Mr. Bartel’s dissertation on East of Eden.


This five-song result could have turned out a bit wan, if not for their old pal Bartel’s sturdy production (the EP was recorded at his Northwall Studios in Atascadero, CA) and the strength of the two writers. As far as the songs themselves, they’re simple and appealing, mostly work-a-day regrets and odes to blowing off steam. Sonniksen’s soft tenor and Dave Wilson’s mid-range drawl are a lovely combination, one that was less prominent in American Dirt. Still Drunk is simple, repeatable and fat-free. And if you’d like a quick introduction to the sometimes-insular world of Twang N Bang Records, pour yourself two fingers and enjoy.

– Morgan Enos
Keep up with Morgan on his
website 

Tom Brosseau – North Dakota Impressions (2016) By Morgan Enos

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Morgan Enos fronts the bands Other Houses, Enos and Hollow Sunshine.

At his best, Los Angeles, California’s, Tom Brosseau is a songwriter with one foot planted in the future and another in the distant past. This became clear to me in March of 2016, when my friend/fellow songwriter Randall Sena and I had the opportunity to share a stage with Brosseau at Stone Pine Hall, a local community center in Lompoc, California.

Dressed to the nines in vintage wear and harmonica-racked, the man looked and sounded more like a turn-of-the-century folk troubadour than someone of our time and context. Brosseau leaned moreso on tunes by Blind Blake and The Carter Family than his own formidable songbook, as if he was more interested in channeling his forebearers than promoting his latest album at the time, Perfect Abandon (2015).

Perfect Abandon hit a sweet spot for his idiosyncratic, time-and-space-shifting lyrical style. The opener from that record, “Hard Luck Boy,” was a jaw-dropper, in which Brosseau casually told the story of his mother abandoning him in a department store. And the whole record was backed by a simple trio arrangement that could have been featured on a Buddy Holly record in 1957. This is the axis that Brosseau balances on a songwriter, between sleek modernity and a museum curio, a tribute to folk music’s past.

North Dakota Impressions is billed in its Crossbill Records press release as the last in a trilogy of Brosseau albums through the lens of the past. Grass Punks (2014) and Perfect Abandon precede the record. This concept is mined once more on Impressions, a set of tunes about Brosseau’s Midwestern upbringing. However, the mood is breezier than that of Punks and Abandon; it more closely matches Brosseau’s current life while simultaneously touching on his past. Today, he’s a celebrated performer at ease in his new Los Angeles digs. The album may be a collection of musical tales of cornfields, rurality and the nature of home, but the pristine production values and sense of sophisticated sheen mostly make me want to cruise through the Hollywood Hills, alone, in a convertible.

Most major songwriters reach a point where they look toward the past, finding inspiration from their upbringings. So, what separates Impressions from the rest of the pack? Recent indie albums billed as nostalgic — Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium (2013) and Sun Kil Moon’s Benji (2014) — plumbed the depths of familial tragedy and the unreliability of memory. Brosseau’s childhood reflections on North Dakota Impressions, on the other hand, are unspecific and easy-going in a way that can border on anodyne.

“Folks around here are hard-working and good,” he plainly sings in “A Trip To Emerado.” “There’s a general esteem for one another,” he adds. “The Horses Will Not Ride, The Gospel Will Not Be Spoken” is about a burned-down church in Brosseau’s native state, but the facts about the event are merely reported on, with only one aside of self-awareness: “I’m guilty now, and I don’t know why/My heart is kinda broken.”

Impressions is performed and recorded pristinely (courtesy of producer Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek) and a wonderfully calming listen. More than any recent Brosseau release, it resembles its warm, effusive maker’s personality, which I observed in Brosseau’s demeanor and onstage patter at the Lompoc show. One might wish for Brosseau to delve deeper into those feelings of guilt, nostalgia and lost identity that he touches on. But even if they might breeze by the listener before they’re meaningfully mapped onto his or her own beginnings, these songs feel refreshing and pure.

– Morgan Enos
Keep up with Morgan on his
website 

Big Star “Complete Third” by Morgan Enos

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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Morgan Enos fronts the bands Other Houses and Hollow Sunshine.

Big Star began as a Beatlesque power-pop outfit from Memphis, TN, in 1971. By 1974, they had flamed out just as quickly as they began. Their odd, rather undefinable 1974 final sessions, initially released as Third in 1978, have gained a mystique throughout the decades as a document of the disintegration of the band’s mercurial leader, Alex Chilton.

Since then, Third has been brought up as a “chaotic album,” one that purports to display its author’s mental unraveling as he succumbed to Big Star’s commercial failure and personal troubles. Although its experimental tendencies have proved an inspiration to later generations of bands like Wilco, R.E.M., and The Replacements, this narrative has always felt a bit overstated. Now, with a comprehensive boxed set of the sessions, Complete Third, a fresher perspective of the album can be understood by Big Star’s cult fanbase and newcomers alike.

Everything about Third, from its conception to release, was shrouded in a strange energy, like it didn’t want to congeal into a whole. With co-founder/guitarist Chris Bell and bassist Andy Hummel having quit the band, the late 1974 sessions at Ardent Studios in Memphis turned a holistic collaboration into leader Alex Chilton’s strange vanity project. The resulting songs collide bizarrely, from bursts of joy (“Stroke It Noel”) to harrowing depths (“Holocaust”). The sessions – over ten reissues later – remain impossible to categorize under a proper album name, or even as a Big Star project. Said Chilton before his passing, “We never saw it as a Big Star record. That was a marketing decision when the record was sold in whatever year that was sold. And they didn’t ask me anything about it and they never have asked me anything about it.”

After the tragic deaths of Bell (in 1978), Chilton (in 2010,) and finally, Hummel (in 2010,) it’s ever the more tempting to frame Third as a record borne of madness and turmoil, due to its chaotic birth and tortured mix of moods. To wit – Chilton was in the midst of relationship turmoil with his girlfriend, Lesa Aldridge, and drummer Stephens had no opportunity to rehearse his parts, resulting in cyclonic, improvised drum performances throughout every song. While this is intriguing and one hell of a story, the most important aspect remains, that Third contains some of the most gorgeous, jewel-like tunes in American song.


One need not go further than the first ten tracks on Complete Third, where the lion’s share of the songs are demoed alone by Alex Chilton on twelve-string guitar and piano before the album’s recording. Hardcore fans might recognize these renditions from the excellent Rhino boxed set from 2009, Keep An Eye On The Sky. Chilton’s version of The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” found here, is the song’s definitive version, almost blinding with its loveliness. The rest of Third’s song-cycle – “Lovely Day,” “Blue Moon,” “Kanga Roo,” etc – appears fully formed, sober and sparkling. An improvised, shambling mess, as critics have tended to posit? Hardly.


After these 10 demos, the mood becomes a bit wobbly. Aldridge, Chilton’s girlfriend at the time of the record, and the muse toward whom many of Third’s songs are directed, appears on a faded, strange cover of John Lennon’s “I’m So Tired.” Rehearsals with the studio band begin – mostly a motley crew of Ardent Studios session musicians in the mid-’70s, tightly-wound backing singers, and a hired string orchestra. As curdled and odd as these takes are, Chilton appears on these sessions as a great songwriter being freed up to make music in his own personal sandbox. Do you think it’s possible that Chilton might have been having fun? He tries everything here – boogie-woogie piano, moonlit ballads, spirited covers of The Kinks, Nat King Cole, and T. Rex. The loopy “Downs,” presented in a rough mix, bounces off the studio walls in a cacophony of steel drums.

This is not to deny that Third’s centerpieces “Kanga Roo” and “Holocaust” remain heart-stopping, the bleakest songs in their entire oeuvre. The former takes an unremarkable scene of noticing someone at a party and shatters itself over and over in waves of desperate noise. “Holocaust,” especially in this cello-heavy take, remains a molasses-paced trip down the Lethes, containing Chilton’s greatest line: “Everybody goes, leaving those who fall behind.”

After Complete Third rattles on through its second and third discs, through its various mixes and permutations, we arrive at the final masters on disc three. Depending on what version of the original Third one may buy (many reissues have been released by Ardent, Rykodisc, Aura Records, etc), they might be treated to a wildly different tracklisting, or several key songs omitted altogether.


But, it’s all here, and this new sequence is the whole, definitive way to experience the Third song-cycle. It’s the finest way to put this puzzle together – the joyous “Stroke It Noel,” a paean to one of the session’s orchestral players, Noel Gilbert, leads us off, and then we’re treated to the deeply weird “Downs.” From there, Third reveals its true form – not as an improvised downfall, but of an eclectic mess, a haunted house. A cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” rubbing elbows with the psychedelic “Kanga Roo”? Check. The fatalistic, bitter “You Can’t Have Me” next to an enthusiastic rendition of The Kinks’ “Till The End Of The Day”? Yep. That’s what Third is. A “Holocaust” meeting a “Lovely Day.” An incredible songwriter with a few screws loose, but finally, free again.

– Morgan Enos
Keep up with Morgan on his
website 

Matt Woods “How to Survive” – by Jon Bartel

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Editor’s note: This part of a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site.  Jon Bartel fronts Creston Line and is the guitarist for American Dirt

“God don’t bet on football games,” Matt Woods growls on the opening track of his new record How to Survive, and watching his career over the past few years, it’s obvious he’s not hedging any bets on divine intervention in the music business either. There are few artists who work harder, who tour more relentlessly than Woods, as he searches for, as Bukowski put it, “the next line that finally breaks through, finally says it.” Despite (or maybe because of) the long odds, the snow-piled highways and hills, Woods keeps moving, and this newest record keeps his streak alive, following up 2014’s With Love from Brushy Mountain in a bit gentler but equally powerful fashion.

Due for release on October 7, How to Survive blends Woods’ well-worn, musical stylings with a tenderness that seems to be born from the heart of a man who spends a lot of time alone, wrestling with growing older, grasping for something in that fine, misty space between sweet memory and bitter regret.

Recorded once again at Shed 55 in Knoxville, the album opens with a classic Woods-style tune, “The American Way.” Featuring top-notch lyrical content right from the opening lines (“Some men war in the desert heat / daddy fought hard so his kids could eat / workin’ metal in a mill on Industrial Street / we’re still waiting on his purple heart”) the lead track puts its finger solidly on the pulse of current social issues while ushering in the new collection of songs with some familiar fiddle, stomp and swing that will remind fans of other favorites such as “Company Town” and “Brushy Mountain.”

The second track blazes different trails- titled “Fireflies,” the tune tenderly enshrines an enviable couple as the benchmark for bliss; Woods’ lyrics invite an unnamed counterpart to share that same ethereal (and, judging by the songs that follow, ill-fated) shot at long-term happiness. The chorus flirts cleverly with two conceits: “We’d waltz through the Wintertime / Two-step into Spring / Slowdance with fireflies on Summer nights / Fall in love over again.” While many purveyors of the genre Woods slings sometimes privilege simplicity to a fault, there is no lack of depth here. Combining the classic country-western thematic element of dance-as-life with the eastern, Beat-esque movement of the seasons from birth toward demise, “Fireflies” is arguably the standout track on How to Survive, amongst many contenders. Personally, it puts me in mind of Jason Isbell’s “Flagship;” Woods has created a foil that absolutely stands up both lyrically and aesthetically to that of his songwriting contemporary.

“Bound to Lose,” cuts back to a thread (or a string, if you like, considering the song’s continual references to being “tied up in guitar strings”) that runs through much of the lyrical content on this record- the road. While less apocalyptic than Cormack McCarthy’s vision of it, the road in Woods’ songs is indeed one that runs out into a darkness. Both “Bound to Lose” (co-written with Jeff Shepherd, whose album Woods recently produced) and the next track, “Good Man” deal with the transient nature of the artist; and while the former song resignedly glorifies the pleasures of “old guitars and hotel bars,” the latter sets out a sort of obituary for the man who’s pushed the road to it’s limit, quite literally.

“Good Man” bats cleanup in the album order, and with good reason- the song is a hard-hitter. It’s tough not to pause and reflect on the line “He’s lyin’ there as still as he can be / Lifeless on that shoulder lookin’ just like me / It’s the story of a good man / didn’t have a fighting chance / who made a stand anyway / He never got a headstone / most folks could have never known he passed away.” There’s a wide, populist appeal to the song’s central existential query, but for Woods and those like him trudging across the continent year after year, there’s a real question of legitimacy being raised here. Three records in, Matt seems to be weighing two scales against each other- the traditional metric of monetary success that holds the significant weight of that uniquely disgusting American tabloid cult of (im)personality against that airy bronze plate of the artist and his self-recognized, self-loved, self-loathed, always barroom-bared oversoul. Woods’ existential hero accepts death in a ditch but refuses to see it as an unfit ending; besides, snow melts, and somebody is bound to find the corpse, right?

Bittersweet human relationships and the roads that both bring them together and peel them apart run strong as rivers through the rest of the record. Woods works these themes out in song as it seems he’s worked them over and over in his mind as he moves city to city, bar to bar. As with all of his best work, these songs are deeply personal- he admitted last time I spoke with him that he was a bit afraid that those he wrote for and about would have no difficulty finding themselves in the lyrics, and I suspect he’s right. In “Bedsheets” (a track that will be familiar to those who’ve caught Matt’s live shows over the past couple of years) he longs for a reliving of those most intimate moments of a long relationship defined by separation. “Hang our bedroom sheets out on the line / air out all this lonely we been through,” pleads the chorus; to Woods’ credit, it feels like true regret rather than melancholic posturing; indeed, there are a lot of lines on this record that stand up as particularly authentic, and “Bedsheets” is chock-full of them. “You had my word / even though my hat don’t like to hang at home / knowing that these boots would always make me roam / a heart’s a heavy thing to leave behind” pulls exactly zero punches.

As with Woods himself, it’s not all gloom and regret- “Tonight (Don’t Let Me Down)” is a sly grin in the face what sometimes must feel like a bleak routine of unfamiliar barrooms and strange faces, and there are plenty of foot-tapping arrangements throughout How to Survive that provide a welcome glimpse into the true power of Matt’s songwriting ability- whether it’s just the man himself on stage with his signature tobacco-burst Guild and ice blue eyes hollering past the mic into a suddenly tomb-silent crowd, or the swelling pedal steel, sawmill fiddle and lush, verby telecaster of the full band pouring out the hi-fi, these songs are another step forward for a musician who tries his damndest not to look back for too long. God might not bet on football games, but I’ll bet She sure as hell regrets not preordering this record. You’re gonna love it.

– Jon Bartel

Keep up with Jon Bartel by checking out the sites for Creston Line and American Dirt

Drive-By Truckers “American Band” – by Morgan Enos

dbt_americanband_cover

 

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site.  Morgan Enos fronts the bands Other Houses and Hollow Sunshine.

 

It sometimes feels like an artifact of the Baby Boomer mentality to need a song to illustrate your times. But, I remember driving around with my dad listening to Neil Young’s Living with War when it came out. It’s another of Shakey’s “impulse albums” that was recorded as quickly as it was forgotten, calling for George W. Bush’s head. But, to my 14-year-old brain, it truly seemed like a cataclysmic political message, like that burlap packaging on the cover contained a letter bomb to Washington. It was 2006, but I felt like I was in 1966.

Ten years later, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers appeared at the Democratic National Convention in support of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton. It was stunning to see the Alabaman authors of “The President’s Penis is Missing” (Pizza Deliverance, 1999) as talking heads on the national news, a flash of authenticity onscreen. And as 2016’s American political climate parodies itself to a nearly psychedelic extent, we could do worse than Cooley and Hood as our musical ambassadors against the chaos. Now, we have American Band.

I actually wrote off Drive-By Truckers for most of my life. I’d sniff every time I’d hear someone’s rendition of “Bulldozers and Dirt” or “Women Without Whiskey” at a cafe or bar and presume whoever was behind it was unbearably hokey. It took James Jackson Toth of Wooden Wand penning a comprehensive piece about the band for Stereogum, which calls them “maybe America’s greatest extant band,” for me to realize how wrong I was. I quickly fell in love with the band’s body of work, with their multiple songwriters and needle-sharp narratives, accompanied by their go-to illustrator Wes Freed’s visual aesthetic of Cooley birds and tattered Southern landscapes.

American Band is their most streamlined work yet, and, on the surface, disposes of many of the elements that initially drew me to the group. Gone is the Wes Freed album cover, replaced by an unprecedented photograph of a muted, half-mast Old Glory. The songs operate differently, too. While the group’s past tunes set personal and mythological scenes against a changing American South, these songs fire outward against police killings, nationalist creeps and blind Rebel Flag waving. The Truckers have a righteous axe to grind.

It doesn’t hurt that the band sounds better than ever. Divorced from the sometimes compressed, distorted sound of recent albums like The Big To-Do (2010) and English Oceans (2014) the band sounds loose, energetic and wide-open. Cooley’s “Kinky Hypocrite” is yet another in his growing pile of Stonesy rave-ups (check out “Marry Me” or “Shit Shots Count” for the same kind of song) but it’s a wickedly funny put-down of the 1%. It’s not all finger-pointing, however: several songs reference co-leader Hood’s relocation from the Truckers’ home base of Athens, Georgia, to Portland, Oregon. His “Guns of Umpqua” finds the songwriter taking stock of his new life against the climate of a horrific recent shooting in Oregon. “When the Sun Don’t Shine” is a sweet, simple weather report of Hood’s internal world, in which he opts to “watch the moon peak into my room” rather than bask in some rays.

 

But it’s the weighty closer, “Baggage,” that is far and away the most potent cut here. To my ears, it’s the end credits to the band’s entire history, from the anarchic, inebriated makers of Gangstabilly (1998) or Pizza Deliverance (1999) to modern rock’s poet laureates.

In a revealing Facebook post from 2011 about the Truckers’ early song “Buttholeville,” from Gangstabilly (1998), Hood related his anger at his hometown of Florence, AL at age 24. “Things weren’t going particularly well on any level back then. I was very frustrated with everything in my life, personal, musical, financial, you name it,” he recalls. It’s a sense of despondency that’s seeped into his work ever since, but he spends the six stormy minutes of “Baggage” battling his demons in real time. It’s a fitting encapsulation of the current state of Drive-By Truckers as they near 20 years of existence. On American Band, Cooley and Hood crucially sharpen themselves as individuals and storytellers to go after our nation’s intolerance, violence, and poisoned traditions. Sometimes we do need a song.

– Morgan Enos
Keep up with Morgan on his website 

Micah Schnabel: Music as a vehicle for Truth – by Larry Fulford

Micah Schnabel at Twang N Bang 9/4/16 - photo courtesy of Holly Rohner
Micah Schnabel at Twang N Bang 9/4/16 – photo courtesy of Holly Rohner

 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of pieces written for Nine Bullets by special guest artists, creators and other friends of the site. Larry Fulford has spent time on the mic as a comedian and behind the kit as a drummer. He’s a peach of a fellow and we asked him to reflect on a recent show he attended.

 

It was a Monday night, a night touring musicians dread even more than Sunday night, in Chicago, Cubs Country, during a Cubs game, in a city with a bar on every corner, a theater on every other corner, hundreds of ways to spend your money, and I was taking $8 to Uncommon Ground in Wrigleyville, a smallish craft-everything bar just down the street from where the Cubbies were playing, to see Micah Schnabel (Two Cow Garage) perform a solo/acoustic set on the second-to-last night of his most recent tour.

A capable two-piece, acoustic singer/songwriter accompanied by an electric lead player, kicked things off. The sound was outstanding but the room itself was kind of stuffy, seated with table service and drinks I couldn’t afford.

Maybe fifteen people sat at the tables, kind of spread out, making their pricey drinks last and nibbling on food I was jealous of. Fifteen in a room that, according to a sign, held forty-seven. It felt more like a cafe than a dive bar or rock club, the kinds of places I was used to seeing Schnabel and Two Cow. But the sound was incredible, so I told myself to hold onto that.

From meager, midwestern beginnings as a simple alt-country outfit that was heavier than most, to a soaring, driving-with-the-top-down powerhouse walking a tightrope over a quarry of punk rock, to saying “Fuck it” and diving headfirst into that quarry but climbing up for air long enough to keep things interesting, I’ve been a fan of Two Cow Garage since I saw them play to an audience of maybe 12 as though it were an audience of 12,000 without a hint of bitterness.

Years later, on an unassuming Monday night in Chi-Town, Schnabel alone took the stage (or place on the floor where a stage might be someday) and, just as I’d seen him lead the charge in front of 12 as though we were 12,000, stepped up to the mic to do exactly what he had come here to do, regardless of outcome or interest.

Except this time, for the most part, he left the old songs on the records, save for maybe one Two Cow Garage track (“Let the Boys Be Girls”) and an I’m Dead, Serious bonus track (“How to Quit Smoking”). The rest of the set I was mostly unfamiliar with, with the exception of a couple songs I’d seen live clips of on YouTube.

And this new stuff, wherever it came from, whatever triggered it, was captivating in the most brutally honest, unafraid to make you uncomfortable, beautiful way.

There were lyrics about uncertainty, about questioning your own identity and the idea of identity, our collective reasons for doing things as simple as making small talk, existence, fear, the illusion of an “American dream,” domestic violence, child abuse, gun control, greed, starving, and finding hope in hopelessness.

Ya know, real cock-sure, glamorous rock ‘n’ roll shit.

Certain lines had me smiling, others had me staring, taking them in, sitting with them, asking myself questions like “How does this make me feel?” and thinking things like “Holy hell.” The imagery wasn’t always easy on the ears, but real art, the good stuff, isn’t always something you necessarily want to hear. But Schnabel’s words kept the room pindrop-worthy and landed as relatable, or at least easy to empathize with, because, subtly, ultimately, the theme of the night was We’re All Just People Here, Flawed and Fractured, Trying Our Fucking Best.

Afterwards, as though nothing had happened, Micah and I and some buddies shot the shit about nothing at all, came up with ideas for t-shirts we’re never going to make, pretended we were friends with Seal.

But something had happened. Something I was aware of even while it was happening. We’d all been temporarily whisked away to Greenwich Village or San Francisco in the ‘60s, when people gathered in rooms that wouldn’t hold more than maybe forty-seven people and turned their attention to someone who was singing or saying things as though he or she had been somewhere we’d never been, and maybe would never dare go, and had come back to us with pockets full of postcards.

It’s been said “the revolution will not be televised,” because it won’t be. Because it’s slow-going and all around us and happening all the time. And it’s not always big, with explosions, castle-storming, chaining ourselves to trees. Sometimes, more often than not, it’s very, very small and personal, like a butterfly a million miles away, flapping its wings.

I was born too late to sit in a smoky speakeasy and watch Lenny Bruce launch verbal cannonballs into the sails of hypocrisy, or Dylan boldly declare outright “the times, they are a-changin,’” but this show gave me what I imagine were similar chills.

The whole “being a musician” thing usually begins simple enough. You want to learn how to play guitar (or drums, or bass, or sing) because you don’t just listen to music, music speaks to you, and you want to know what it’s like to speak that language, even if at first all that sounds like is butchering “Come as You Are” (or “Enter Sandman,” or “I Wanna Be Sedated” or anything-Zeppelin) while your parents knock on the door and ask if you’ve finished your homework.

Your heroes are outcasts, outlaws, rebels who shirked real life in favor of climbing on stages, suspended in a state of permanent adolescence, sweating and bleeding and leaving everything “real” behind for whatever reason; money, fame, chickz (or dudez), or purely because they felt they had nowhere else to go.

There are all sorts of reasons someone might start or join a band, but I think at the very core of every one is camaraderie. Whether you’re a misunderstood nerd with Rush posters all over your walls or a nerd-bullying jock dabbling in finding the only acoustic guitar at the house party to wow young ladies with Nickelback’s “Photograph,” there’s a sort of us-against-the-world feeling when you’re playing the role of rock star.

And I use “rock star” figuratively here to describe anyone who’s found a spotlight, be it at a dumpy coffee shop where someone blends drinks over your attempt at quivering out the tritest of trite lyrics about your last break-up, a garage with three friends who also happen to know “Say it Ain’t So,” or a lonely bedroom, sitting on the edge of a dirty mattress, strumming the ever-loving shit out of “Everlong.”

Myself? It couldn’t have been more about camaraderie if I’d known I was going to be writing this article one day and needed it to be. I became a drummer solely because my buddies in junior high were starting a band and needed a drummer, and back then, as now, there were no drummers to be found.

The thing about bands, and music in general, is over time it gets harder and harder to make time. People go off to college, get married, accept offers for “real” jobs, have babies, find Jesus, sometimes all of the above. The odds are stacked against you from the get-go. It’s as though every band is a camel that thinks it’s a tank, and life is a veritable desert covered in sand-colored landmines.

And, if your delicate endeavor does somehow beat the odds and sticks it out longer than, say, other high school garage bands in your graduating class, it’s almost inevitable that, eventually, the reason(s) you came together become filtered through reasons to continue to exist.

Why are we doing this? It’s clearly not the money. It’s not the fame. Chickz? Dudez? Expression? Sustainability? Legacy? Should we start dressing a little nicer onstage so, aesthetically, we look more like we’re in the same group? Where should each of us look in this photo? Did that make us look too depressed? How are we gonna pay for the next record? Why are we even bothering making a next record when we still have boxes of the old record? Do we know any mechanics in Des Moines?

It’s almost as though, to keep it going, you have to cling to some sort of goal, no matter how invented, farfetched, or out of reach, and start being concerned with things like marketing (blech), finding the right manager (blech!), and selling yourself (what in the actual fuck?!).

It’s a long way to the lower-middle if ya wanna rock ‘n’ roll.

Which is why it’s always inspiring when you come across a band or singer/songwriter (or, hell, painter, writer, comic, photographer, etc.) that refuses to be pigeonholed or let fashion and fleeting trends dictate the next thing that comes out of his or her hands and mouth, preferring rather to use their guitars, words, paintbrushes, and cameras as knives to cut out the bullshit and carve their own niche, searching for revelation, revolution, or simply a sigh of relief in the midst of a screaming world, where we all think we’re the centers of our own universes.

Those are the ones keeping the ball rolling. Those are the ones doing more than entertain. They’re fighting a good fight and an uphill battle blindfolded because, to them, it doesn’t matter if they never cross the finish line or get gunned down along the way.

They don’t do this simply because they want to anymore, they do it because they need to, because something in their brains or hearts or guts won’t let them set the tools of their trades down long enough to get a “real” job. There’s something burning inside and no extinguishing the flame. There is only breathing fire.

Some of these people have been at it for years and will be until their last gasps, when you can finally pry their reasons for existing from their cold, dead hands. They’ve missed loved ones’ birthdays, lost jobs, been evicted, had relationships crumble, and none of it has made them choose to slow down because there is. no. choice.

Micah Schnabel is one such “lifer” whose evolution I feel privileged to have had ringside seats for, and Two Cow Garage is one such band. And now, all these years later, when most groups at their level would be paralyzed with fear, carefully calculating what to say next, how to sound next, what to wear next, or deciding maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all, Schnabel is all but dismissing the surface, choosing instead to turn himself inside out, more interested in what we as human beings might be trying to hide rather than how we as entertainers look under those precious lights.

And, in turn, he’s writing some of the most important songs of his generation, and the generation after, and probably the generation before, and probably generations to come.

I don’t know how else to describe it.

Important.

I could try to explain it better, like how it kind of reminds me of Salinger with a guitar or Dylan with a sense of humor, but to be fair to everyone I’m name-dropping, Micah included, I’ll stop at “important” and hope you see fit to check it out on your own when he comes to your town or commits it to plastic.

I’d like to think true artists aspire to reach a point where they’re comfortable baring their souls. Some manage to get over themselves and find a way to dig that deep. Even fewer will dig that deep, hit a gas line, stash of marked bills, lava, or worse and still throw enough caution to the wind to unearth it into a song, painting, book, joke, movie, etc.

Micah now goes beyond that. He hits the skeleton of his soul, chips it away and fires the pieces into space with a slingshot.

And now that he’s armed with these new songs and ideas, that run the gamut from friendly reminders to scathing satire, I’ve decided the only thing I enjoy more than listening to him myself is watching people hear him for the first time.

– Larry Fulford
Keep up with Larry on Twitter – @LarryFulford