Billy Pettinger – I Have to Do This – 2016

billy pettinger

What did I used to have before I had nothing?” ~ Fucked Up, “Glass Boys”

Billy Pettinger gives insight into the (un)making of this album: after Frank Turner produced her last album (Billy the Kid’s Horseshoes & Hand Grenades for biggie-indie label Xtra-Mile), Laura Jane Grace and Ryan Adams blipped in and, disappointingly, out of the picture as potential producers on this one; Xtra-Mile passed, as well. With a batch of songs that deserves the wider distribution and the notoriety of those producers, Pettinger committed them to record herself. That is the limit of this tragedy–that the songs are handicapped in distribution when they should be pandemic. The tragedy does not extend to the actual product, which Pettinger hoped to be demos on their way to full production, but which turned out as surely one of the best albums of the year.

There’s no lonelier sound than a sole electric guitar and a drum machine*. Knowing the backstory going into the album (a story Pettinger shares openly on the Bandcamp where you can buy this), that loneliness amplifies. But like all Pettinger’s work, there is such gratitude and insistence and, somehow, faith, that the loneliness candies into head-rushing, sternum-crushing pop. There’s 15 songs here, all of them well lyric’d. For instance,

the bridge of “Architects”:

We’re always making plans, not redesigning
Something that was likely never even supposed to last
But I would pick up the pieces again, if you asked,

 

and the pre-chorus of “I Ain’t Dead”:

It only makes it feel like they were all fucking with us when we were kids
The only reason I’m alive right now is because I didn’t have the same dealer that she did,

but the album succeeds as a perfect blend of tones. That stranded guitar. That receding, far-away drum sound. Those fugal lyrics. That voice that worries nobody wants to hear it. I’m so happy I heard Billy Pettinger opening for Tim Barry four years ago. Whatever should’ve happened between now and then, I Have to Do This is exactly what I have to hear. Essential Listening.

*Pettinger has drummed in bands before, so she very likely played live drums here. Either way, they serve the songs so well.

FFO: Cyndi Lauper, Ryan Adams, Stevie Nicks, Tim Barry, Kendl Winter. Steam and buy from Pettinger’s Bandcamp. Follow her on Facebook.

Feral Conservatives – Here’s to Almost – 2016

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I’ve listened to so much more music than I’ve ever played, but l had aspirations of learning an instrument once. I wanted to play violin because I had seen Rick Danko play one in The Last Waltz. I wanted to be Rick Danko in all regards. But violin is supposed to be too hard for someone’s first instrument, so I picked up mandolin because it has the same tuning as a violin, so I figured I could graduate someday. I wanted to be Rick Danko but had to start as Levon Helm. My playing peaked at passable strumming and I never so much as held a violin, but I developed a bond with the mandolin, and I listened for it everywhere. I’d tune my mandolin down to approach Neil Young-like guitar tunings, so I liked it sounding like a lo-fi guitar reliever, not for it’s own unique potential as bluegrass foundation. The mandolin that stood out most to me then was on Jon Snodgrass’ Visitor’s Band, especially on “Long Way Found.” Touchstone mandolin players like Sam Bush sounded thin and distracting, but in Snodgrass’ album, he strikes a balance of shimmery and sour. Recently, the band Feral Conservatives from Virginia Beach added another seminal mandolin to my canon.

In Feral Conservatives, the songs are carried completely by Rashie Rosenfarb’s mandolin and voice. They’re the only mandolin-based band I currently know. And they’re on Egghunt Records, a great label from Richmond that put out the first Daddy Issues EP last year (and has another killer record coming from Lucy Dacus at the end of February). I feel like I can imagine the joy of middle-school band kids hearing their instruments put toward cooler ends in ska. A mandolin–a lead mandolin–in a cool band on a cool label with cool songs!

“Twenty Eight” perhaps represents the album best: shadows of reverb, sharp drums puncturing the airy mandolin, and a pop hook doused in tried triumph: “I wanted just to leave the house / and carry nothing. / Where are you now?” All that and a well-done bridge that targets the narrator’s cheating partner, rather lingering nastily the other woman: “Why couldn’t you just / keep your hands off her?” The mandolin hits that sweet spot all the way through–harnessing the instrument’s glimmering high end, but played with the aggression of guitar. Highly recommended album–catchy and substantial alt-pop with the sneaky power of mandolin!

FFO: Honeycutters, Scrawl, Heavenly, Eugenius, Seam, Velocity Girl, John K. Samson. Listen to and buy Here’s to Almost on CD or digital from Egghunt Records or the band itself. Follow them on Facebook.

Pinegrove – Cardinal – 2016

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Boston-based Run for Cover Records has steadily grown their label from a collection of punk treasures to the stuff of de-facto Pitchfork reviews–which is great! It means good music gets talked about well to a lot of people. Recent Run for Cover releases Shame by Petal and Looking In by Spencer Radcliffe would do well by fans of many bands we cover here. So too would the most recent release, Cardinal by Pinegrove.

I think the album is beautiful and if you listen to the first minute of the first song you’ll have a great impression of its flow–lots of summer afternoons, head reeling from the blunt force of the sun and a tallboy. Listen below, and if you still need a read, luckily there’s Pitchfork.

Buy the digital from Pinegrove’s bandcamp or Run for Cover.

The Albert Square – I (Assume I) Know What I’m Doing – 2015

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One of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, gave a lecture in the late 80’s looking back on his body of work. He saw a theme of “lightness,” which he tried to define as something not quite like levity or flippancy, but like getting the same impact out of removing things as you do by adding things. Jazz is about the notes you don’t play, you’ve probably heard some jerk say. But it’s true. Calvino says it this way: “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

Toward the end of The Albert Square’s I (Assume I) Know What I’m Doing, the band seems to be shedding weight by second. Even the title of the album wants to ascend, escape from the qualifying parenthetical.

But before we get to the end, there’s the life of the album–9 straight rounds of loveless rock and roll blows. They rail against midwestern injustice. They distrust cities. They “gnash and bite and champ at the bit, without a sense or an intuition of the pain that comes because of it.” They would comprise a different album if there was nothing to follow these haymakers. It would be an album that reaches it’s midlife crises

I’m afraid to try because i might die
you are a sweet, sweet man
and you are a wonderful father
and you’ll remain that way
your intent it has the weight to guide the rest of us.

but dies before act two. It would be an album that appears heroic for opting out, assuming act two would only pile on more weight. But isn’t it tragic to miss the lightening that comes with age? Every. Thing. Leaves. And an album that sticks around to say goodbye is an Essential one indeed.

After the title track, the record begins to age suddenly and splendidly, worn down to an acoustic guitar on the beautiful “Sum of Our Parts:”

insignificant in this canyon where we disappear together
as you sleep with uncovered feet
right now this is our time in this freezing winter weather
here’s me at my best i can never compromise
i can never find a balance no matter how hard i try
and i wish i had a job and i wish i had a home
and i wish i had a place away from this communal space
but if i had a job and if i had a home
i’d be swallowing that status quo you never would have made your mark
and i would never know

some of our parts break like waves
these parts weigh heavy these days

The there’s a death rattle in “Get Back Here,” and the album seems like it can live another twenty years. But the delusion is tempered immediately with the next track, removing the weight of vocals and every other rock instrument, and leaving only a strange, angel-invoking keyboard and thermion-shaded instrumental. At last comes the end that refuses itself, “I’m Not a Closer,” which concludes with: “i’m alive / for the very first time / leaving all that weight / behind and i’m so high / we’ll never get it right but still we try.

The album came out, fittingly, when there was barely anything left of 2015. Don’t go through 2016 without it.

FFO: Chamberlain, Shinobu, Adam Faucett, Lilly Hiatt, Richmond Fontaine, Fake Problems. Buy the vinyl from Shinobu’s label Phat n’ Phunky, buy the digital from the Albert Square bandcamp, or download from the much-loved donation-based label Quote Unquote Records.

Footings – Alienation – 2016

footings-alienationI suppose the thing to keep in mind is the difference between a song and a call. A birdsong is a melodious series of notes, perfected through practice, a fluid juggling of air and soul and lung and throat and membranes. Songs are almost exclusively related to courtship. Birdcalls, however, are brief, simple—chatter, alarms. The mundane.

Eric Gagne, artist behind avian monikers Passerine and Redwing Blackbird, has the equipment for both at once. Joined by Bunny’s a Swine drummer Dustin Ashley Cote and Elisabeth Fuscia on viola and backing vocals, Gagne’s songs sew halo-ic melody on an over-thinking and underemployed head. Listen through Alienation and you’ll know its characters over the course of an odd season–record snows or unseasonable heat, surprising, enlivening loves and the same thoughts that waft over them every time they get high, a season that’s their last straw or a testament to their insurmountable propensity to settle. “Rabbit may wander away from his home, might risk the fox to just be alone. Won’t be for nothing, won’t be a lark, because everyone understands the fear of the dark,” Gagne sings. There’s the chatter of a call and the soul of a song, forgetting the pain of needing a response only as long as the birdsound continues to rise above traffic, thoughts, landscaping crews, notifications, rusted car parts, snowplows, upstairs vacuuming, restlessness, other birds, silence…

FFO: Brown Bird, Lou Barlow, Tracy Morrow, Digger Barnes, Cassette, Cat Power. Pre-order Alienation (out Feb 19) on cassette from Sophomore Lounge Records and Sexual Decade Records. Look for it then on Footings’ Bandcamp. Follow on Facebook.

Ostrov’s Best of 2015

record-player-hiI first started writing for Ninebullets during 2011 and it has been one of the greatest joys of my past 5 years. That year, I remember being thrilled that the Suburban Home website linked to my reviews of Josh Small and Lizzie Huffman records. Thank you as always to AIV for bringing me on and RSV for keeping the site going. Thank you to the departed Charles Hale and Michelle Hanks for your amazing work. Have you seen what they’re doing post-Ninebullets? Don’t miss out! Of course, thank you all kindly for reading.

It was a long, great year! I got married and a good job! Besides that, here’s all the stuff that I liked! All links should lead to easy listening. Let me know if you like any of it!

Albums: Best of the Best

  • Laura Stevenson’s Cocksure is undoubtably my favorite record of the year. It made me realize she’s probably been the best songwriter in my life for the past 10 years. When it came out, Glossary’s Long Live All of Us made me have the same realization about Joey Kneiser. Stevenson was also my favorite show of the year–she’s a great live band leader.

The rest of the albums are in no particular order. In bold are the ones I think the fabled “quintessential Ninebullets fan” would definitely dig instantly.

Albums: Rest of the Best

EPs/Singles: Best of the Best

EPs/Singles: Rest of the Best

Favorite Books

  • Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special has been serialized in the past 3 issues of the Paris Review, with the 4th and final installment coming in the Spring. It’s about a group of men who get together every year to reenact the play where Lawrence Taylor breaks Joe Theisman. It’s hilariously, poignantly detailed, and takes a beautiful look at masculinity.
  • Don’t Suck Don’t Die by Kristin Hersh is about Hersh’s relationship with Vic Chesnutt. It reads like a novel; it’s gorgeous. It’s amazing.
  • The First Collection of Criticism from a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper. Brilliant collection of essays.
  • Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
  • Padgett Powell’s Cries for Help, Various. Fiction master Powell in his wheelhouse–short, language-adoring stories.
  • Stuff that didn’t come out this year, but that I read this year:
    • My Dirty Dumb Eyes by Lisa Hanawalt (artist behind Bojack Horseman and podcaster behind the awesome Baby Geniuses podcast)
    • Sean Nelson’s (from Harvey Danger) book about Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark from the 33 1/3 series.
    • Ellen Willis’ Out of the Vinyl Deep. A collection of rock writing from the legend.
    • Amped: Notes from a Go-Nowhere Punk Band by Jon Resh. Resh details the adventures of his amazing 90’s Gainesville band Spoke.

Favorite Movies

Unlike albums, I can hardly remember movies a week after I see them. I know I loved Dope the most, though. Jurassic World was fine except for the torturously long scene where the assistant is torn apart by several different dinosaurs, because, I guess, she was trying to do her full-time job and watch bratty kids. The Gift was really good. Diary of a Teenage Girl was really good.

Favorite Podcasts

  • Back to the Island – Jeff Rosenstock and Chris Farren (the former of Bomb the Music Industry, the latter of Fake Problems, the duo behind Antarctigo Vespucci) watch out-of-order episodes of Lost and talk to each other, sometimes about the episode. Stay for the best podcast segment theme music on the internet.
  • Turned Out a Punk – Damian Abraham from Fucked Up hosts and interviews folks about their punk roots, the local scenes where guests grew up, influential record finds. What emerges is a beautiful, extensive history of underground North American music. Recent guests include Neko Case, Scott Thompson of Kids in the Hall, Joe Casey of Protomartyr, and Brian Venable of Lucero!

What Comes Is Better Than What Came Before: 2016 Expectations

Garret Klahn (of Texas is the Reason) – 1/15; Eleanor Friedberger – 1/22; Ship Thieves (Chris Wollard) – 1/29; Prettiots – 2/5; TEEN – 2/19; Mount Moriah – 2/26; La Sera – 3/4; Thao & Get Down Stay Down – 3/4; Glen Jones – 3/18; Margot Price – 3/25; and stuff from The Wrens, Carolyn Mark…and a bunch more people I can’t remember right now. What are you excited for?

New Music from Amy Helm and Larry Campbell

Amy Helm, member of Ollabelle and her father Levon Helm’s band, is releasing her long-awaited debut solo album Didn’t It Rain, this month. Sample some songs and pre-order at Amazon.
This comes on the heels of Larry Campbell’s–another Levon Helm collaborator–album with his wife Teresa Williams, which came out last month. Check that out on Amazon, as well.
Two great voices in adult roots music, for sure.

Hate Mail Garners Love for Eleventh Dream Day

Prairie rock freaks Eleventh Dream Day made an appearance on Chicago public radio station WBEZ last week and received what the band deemed their “Best Hate Mail Ever”–an impressive feat for a band with about 30 years underneath it. The emailer asks “What are they so angry about?,” a question which only got me more excited for EDD’s new album, Works for Tomorrow, coming out this week on Thrill Jockey. The emailer summarized his or her quarrels thusly: “That was not ‘music.’ It was sharing in misfits’ inner pain and struggle. Otherwise, no redeeming social value whatsoever. I hope they find surcease and relief before they do harm to others or themselves.” Sounds like everything we love! You misfits can read the whole letter here. And find out more about Works for Tomorrow here.
For a sample of that anger, check out the new track, “The People’s History:”

 And the old track, “Sweet Smell:”

 

Kelly Haigh – Post-Apocalyptic Valentines – 2015

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Kelly Haigh’s work gives structure to freewheeling moments of cruelty and beauty. In her paintings, trees morph into smokestacks; pink dolphins stalk the desert on spider legs; dogs become surrogate mothers. Her songs have less of those specific images, but still enact battles of glamour and decay; the musical equivalent of Debbie Reynolds cascading down an MGM staircase with a nosebleed; tombstones poking up in the background of a soft-focus Dolly and Porter TV duet.

Post-Apocalyptic Valentines is Haigh’s second collection. It begins with a sort of mission statement, sweetly sung to a clip-clopping melody:

If I looked out the window and found / times were now post-apocalyptic / all I’d have to do is think about you / and the world will still be / just as beautiful as it was / as it ever will be.

For every romantic impulse you could infer from those concise lyrics, there’s a sadness immediately tempering it. Later on, a man asks a drowning woman “Don’t you think if we touched each other / it would feel like a parade of soft things happening?”

Haigh is a classicist not unlike Ben Nichols or Zooey Deschanel. She actively examines retro pleasures rather than neutrally reproducing them, lacing them with barbed images of the apocalypse. Covers of Porter & Dolly’s “Just Someone I Used to Know” and “I Love You So Much it Hurts” (sung by Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, and others), then, can afford to be faithful renditions; in the post-apocalyptic (or post-breakup or post-…) context, these covers are perhaps the bittersweetest valentines–remnants of all that’s gone and can’t come back.

Haigh’s straightforward song structures are the perfect vessels for her slipperily precise lyrics; and they make what melodic diversions there are, such as the Carolyn Mark guest spot and the low-blow coda to “Imaginary Love” all the more affecting.

The physical version of this album comes with a book of Haigh’s illustrations and paintings. I haven’t seen this book, but knowing her work, I have no doubt it’s a doozy.

Download the album from Haigh’s bandcamp (for a donation) and pick up the CD-Book combo there, as well. Haigh’s website and portfolio. Her Facebook.

Your Heart Breaks – America – 2015

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America begins without any cushion. Drummer Chris McFarlane and singer/guitarist Clyde Petersen trip beat- and lyrics-first into the first verse of “Should’ve Known Better” and from there it’s the free-fall off of a two-story roof, the bruised breathlessness upon thudding, the embarrassment and gratefulness of being mostly ok.

Petersen has carried the Your Heart Breaks project from Bloomington to Seattle and a few other bases, but the geography of America is even vaster, transcontinental. Hearing this rainy northwestern band give life to stories of Florida, New Jersey, Arizona is wildly refreshing. The album is equal parts road-trip anthem and hometown lament. Characters are “drunk on blood and small-town power.” They’re driven away by escapist necessity, but eventually reclaimed by instincts “like homing pigeons.” Like any artistic reckoning with America worth its (Atlantic/Pacific/McDonald’s french fry) salt, the romance of America isn’t delivered through polemics or nostalgia or denial, but through the characters, by living in it. Listen to the details Petersen pumps into these songs and try not to fall in love. Kids in Phoenix chugging cans of warm energy drink. Someone’s first hurricane season. A yellow Jaguar with leopard-print seats. Decades of gay jokes. Slow internet. 64-oz margarita Miami. Near-future neo-Atlantis-Miami. Punks and queers in every state. California.

A clunky attempt at triangulation: it’s as melodically perfect as Drag the River, piercing as Steve Earle’s El Corazon and confident as Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark. For a better idea, listen to the songs below.

Shoulda Known Better

The Echo and the Ocean

1999

Listen and buy America on digital and CD from Your Heart Breaks’ bandcamp. Check out Petersen’s web series Boating with Clyde and discover a bunch of great songwriters.

P.S.: Karl Blau–frequent YHB collaborator–contributes some of his best saxophone work to date, especially on “The Echo and the Ocean.”