Micah Schnabel – Your New Norman Rockwell

 

It started with “the Great Gravitron Massacre”. I think. Maybe it was “Come Back to Shelby”. Either way, it was on a Suburban Home Records sampler CD. The old ones with the shitty little sticker with the title of the comp but no other data. I wasn’t sure who it was but the song stuck with me every time I listened to the disc.

So I sorted out who it was and picked up  “III” by Two Cow Garage and quickly got to know and love the songs of Micah Schnabel and Shane Sweeney. If those guys just kept making “III” I probably would have still dug them a bit. That wasn’t the plan though. Every new record has broadened out the scope and nature of their songs. Micah’s new solo outing, “Your New Norman Rockwell”, is a new frontier that is both a surprising change and a beautiful fusion of every other stop on the journey so far.

Micah has always been a great wordsmith. Complex and heartfelt are not two concepts that always ride together comfortably but Micah keeps finding new ways to express the nuance of the broad topics of love, family, self worth, music and the terror and joy of daily life. On “Your New Norman Rockwell” his relationship with words and language seem to be turned to 11. The more personal a story Micah tells the more universal it feels. The closer he pulls in the wider his reach.

The tone throughout is confrontational but not angry. Confident without swagger, more self assured than pushy.  The nervous energy that skips across the album (and comes to an early, if brief, release at 2:22 of JAZZ AND CINNAMON TOAST CRUNCH) adds to the desperate and pleading urgency in the lyrics. The melodies are insistent but not obnoxious and the album pushes and pulls with sections featuring acoustic guitar and voice nestled next to full band arrangements. “Hello, My Name Is Henry” could be Soul Asylum circa “Hang Time”. The beating of the heart is that of a troubadours no matter the dressing though. Acoustic and some hard truths, directed inward and outward, are tucked away in almost every track.

I don’t know why exactly but I can already say this is an album that I will be listening to a lot while traveling. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s the unsettled nature of the album, maybe it’s the way “The Interview” sounds like slowly driving out of town for the first minute or so then laying into it once you hit the freeway.

I think Micah managed to find a pretty great mission statement for himself and the rest of us too

“oh what bummer it is to be a human being, oh how amazing it can be to be a human being” – Oh, What a Bummer

Words to live by, friends. It’s an ugly world out there, but we don’t have to be ugly about it. Take one listen to “Your New Norman Rockwell” and tell me you don’t want to do better. Essential listening of course. And with a gorgeous cover by Vanessa Jean Speckman it’s worth getting the CD not just the download. Micah Schnabel – “Your New Norman Rockwell” is out today, June 9th, on Last Chance Records. Go get it, support art you love. Get out and go see Micah play too, it’s good for you. Builds character.

 

 

Two Cow Garage – Brand New Flag

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I’ve been wanting to talk about this record since before it came out but something about it has eluded being put in to words. Being as that it’s Two Cow Garage you should be able to guess or already know that it’s an amazing album so just talking about how great it is didn’t seem like it would do justice to the ideas that are being expressed here. So I’ve sort of been marinating in the songs, letting them sink in and become part of me, and while I was doing that everything got turned upside down. We elected an orange nutjob as POTUS and all of a sudden Brand New Flag started taking on a whole different meaning for me, and I suspect for a lot of others. When the world goes off it’s always music that centers me and brings me back and I think that this is now a much more important record than it would have been. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s been important to me since the first time I played it.

So fuck being clever,we’ve got to be kind
An iPhone for an iPhone has left us all blind
Sarcastic critics of each other’s hearts and minds
And that’s just no way to live
And we, we have to stop comparing ourselves
We have to have to our lives to everyone else
– Shakespeare and Walt Disney

The difference between now and when I first heard it and now is that I used to feel like we were going down the right path and these songs were about the things we needed to do in order to keep going down the right path. I didn’t think we were close to the end and now I realize how naive I was to think that we were anywhere near the right path. These songs are now so much more important because we’re moving backwards and it’s people who care that will make things safe for those who don’t fit the mold that Trump’s supporters want for America. It’s songs like “Let The Boys Be Girls” that will give hope to people like my daughter as we watch a homophobe vice president be sworn in to the White House. It’s people like Shane, Micah, Todd, and Murph that will be making the uncomfortable feel a safe for a few minutes at a time and right now that’s what we desperately need.

No matter what they say
I will always find a way
I promise I will never give up
Yeah, I promise I will never give up
– I promise

I was once of those people would have voted for Trump, it’s a past that’s part of me whether I like it or not, and I know the fear of changing, I know the fear of what you think your way of life being threatened is, I know the fear of admitting that you’re wrong about pretty much everything but I also know the freedom and liberty in realizing that you’ve been lied to and that you can change, that your way of life is a microcosm of the greater human experience and that nothing is really threatening you, your way of life, or your family. Well at least not by making sure that people have the same exact rights as you do, what’s happening now is a completely different story and people are rightfully scared, the fear is a reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. Even if it turns out that nothing happens and none of our freedoms get rolled back and the status quo remains the same the fact is that a lack of progress is regress at this point.

They called me a faggot and freak
As I sat there on my knees
And I was too scared to speak
But I’m not scared anymore
And I’d rather die in that parking lot than ever feel that helpless again
– This Little Light

I wanted to explore the difference between the political and personal in TCG’s songs. What I realized is that the political is personal in most aspects. The fear that is present is not a disassociated political tremble somewhere in the back of our minds. We’ve already seen hate based attacks on the rise, even if some of them have been proven to be hoaxes there are even more that are not. There are personal stories and videos all over social media. Even if the incoming administration really isn’t full of bigots (hint: it is) it has emboldened more bigots to be open with their hatred. Make no mistake, there is a valid reason for the fear that we’re seeing and this record, these songs, the people that wrote, sing, and perform them aren’t the only ones thinking there’s a problem. Seeing these songs played at Holiday Hangout and knowing how real all of this is to all of us was a very moving experience.

And every single song on your radio, playing soft low
Says “baby don’t you worry the things you can’t control”
But I am fuckin’ worried
‘Cause we were all left in control
And we are all that is in control
– History Now!

There were some buttons floating around HHO and I didn’t end up with one, but they said “I will do my best to fuck up any bigot that fucks with you”. That pretty much sums up where we are. We all need to be the safe space people need. I know this seems to be a little rambling and overtly political but that’s pretty much all I can think about when I listen to Brand New Flag and it’s important right now. This record is a safe space, it is a large part of what we need right now. It is Essential Listening for that and so many more reasons. It’s personal, it’s political, and it’s sometimes hard to listen to because of the sheer honesty involved. It is one of the best albums released this year and currently my favorite Two Cow Garage album, bar none and it should be one of yours as well.

Dexateens – Teenage Hallelujah

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Far and away the Dexateens are the most criminally underrated rock’n’roll band in America. I can’t think of another band that has been cranking out album after album of intense killer songs with so little notice being paid. I’m not sure what the explanation is for that. I’ve been onboard since I first heard them and everyone I’ve played them for turns into a fan in short order. Fortunately for us these guys clearly aren’t familiar with the concept of quitting, they’ve gone on a hiatus or two but it never sticks.

After one of those breaks they returned roaring with the 2013 EP (though at 8 songs I’m calling it an album) Sunsphere. It was a welcome return but shortly after it came out I started hearing about another album that they already had in the making. That album turned out to be Teenage Hallelujah. The wait seemed like forever but as soon as I heard the album I was enthralled.

Kicking off with a drum and bass groove giving away to a suitably nasty guitar “Old Rebel” is exactly the kind of song that every album should open with. It serves as a mission statement for the rest of the album in both lyrically and sonically. Elliott McPherson sings songs that are filled with “the southern thing” in a way that feels more authentic to me than just about anyone else. Granted I am sure as a California boy I miss the significance of some lines and I know for sure a few references are over my head. The honesty and lack of pretension shines through even to someone with my limited understanding.

With a solidified lineup of returning guitarist Brad Armstrong (who put an excellent album, “Empire” this year), drummer Brian Gosdin, new addition Taylor Hollingsworth on guitar along side founders Matt Patton on bass and guitarist singer McPherson the Dexateens travel the map on this record in a beautiful way. From the ragers that harken back to their “Teenager” years like “Eat Cornbread. Raise Hell” through the Replacements-esque “Boys With Knives”, the beautiful folky pop of “Treat Me Right”, the slinky “Jimmy Johns” and the near perfect “Curtain Call Candice” they turn over every stone on the rock’n’roll path. Many bands can do one of those types of songs well but few can excel at all of those styles  the way the Dexateens can. Co-produced by the band and Bronson Tew and recorded largely at Dial Back Sound in Mississippi, Teenage Hallelujah sounded like a straight up rock album to me at first pass but the closer I listened to it the more I noticed how incredibly weird it is. The sounds they captured are the musical equivalent of a fun and funky hole in the wall bar in a sea of sanitized corporate drinking establishments.

The crown jewel of the album is “Down in the Valley” kicking off with guitars smearing across each other as the bass and drums bounce along. The song never relents through a anthem chorus and a very classic rock (in the best possible way) musical outro that fades into a group chant of the mantra “Can I get a new, creation”. That line has been chasing me since the album came out. It reverberated in my head. It creeps in when I’m trying to write. It reminds me of a girl I dated shortly after high school. In a more perfect world this song would be a radio staple.

This album easily falls into the Essential Listening category. I can’t encourage you more to pick this one up. My vinyl came with a church fan which has got to be the best bonus included with an album of all time.  I don’t know if rock’n’roll really needs to, or even deserves to, be saved but if anyone can do it my bet is on the motherfucking Dexateens. It’s safe to say this machine kills americana.

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BECKY WARREN – WAR SURPLUS (2016)

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Hello ninebullets. It’s been a while. Hell, some of y’all probably don’t even know who I am. I am Autopsy IV, the founder of ninebullets.net. I have been in some version of “retirement” for around 2 years now as the site has shifted ownership a few times. So, why am I back you ask? Well. Sometimes you hear an album so good you get viscerally pissed off when you admit to yourself that, in all reality, it will get heard by a criminally small amount of ears. It was that anger that pushed me to start ninebullets at all and it is that same anger that bubbles up after listening to this new album by Becky Warren that brings me back into the fray. However fleeting that appearance may be.

My story aside. Let’s talk about War Surplus

Some albums are collections of moments of inspiration turned into songs. While they might share a common theme due to the proximity to one another in the writer’s life when they were written, the commonality is strictly happenstance. Some albums, the dreaded “concept album,” are written with the purpose of telling a story. Some succeed. Most fail spectacularly. While War Surplus is, in the strictest of definitions, a concept album it also falls into the third category of albums; albums that were lived.

War Surplus tells the story of Scott and June. Two star crossed lovers separated by a war deployment and ultimately torn apart by the person that came home from that war. It’s a story Becky Warren lived first hand having waved goodbye to her husband a mere week after their wedding as he shipped off to Iraq only to meet a new person upon his return. Ultimately, their story ended the way many a vets story ends; divorce. In the years between, Warren, almost gave up writing completely but found her voice and a renewed purpose a couple of years ago and set off upon the arduous task of mixing her real life experiences with some fiction to make an album that is likely both cathartic for her and essential listening for us.

The album opens up by introducing us to an emotionally jaded June through the Merlefest Country award winning song, “Call Me Sometime.” A brooding and cynical track that anyone who has ever felt like they were broken and dysfunctional will identify with immediately. From there we see June through Scott’s eyes via “Dive Bar Sweetheart,” a song that feels like a lost early Rolling Stones track without feeling dated or derivative. From there we see Scott getting used to life in Iraq via “Stay Calm, Get Low” and June trying to come to terms with being in love with a man in a war zone thousands of miles away through the hauntingly mournful “I Miss You.”

The final, almost half, of the album deals with the return of Scott. His struggles with reassimilation in “Take Me Back Home” while her struggles with an unfamiliar person wearing a familiar face are the focus of “Gernade.” Finally, Scott’s issues with self-medication are the focus of “Off My Back” and the, should be a sing a-long classic “She’s Always There.”

In the end, War Surplus tells a very real story playing itself out daily in regular America. I won’t bore you with the stats. It’s a story Becky lived in real life. She’ll tell you this is a “concept album” but I will counter that it’s a memoir edited enough to make sure it rhymed.

Becky Warren’s Official Site, Becky Warren on Facebook, Becky Warren on Soundcloud, Pre-Order War Surplus (out Friday 10/14)

Becky Warren – Call Me Sometime:

Becky Warren – Dive Bar Sweetheart:

Beach Slang – A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings

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I have started writing this so many times that it’s not funny. Every time I got about halfway through and just felt like something was missing. This morning I figured out what that something was and can finally write about A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings. Beach Slang is more than just some kids who, obviously and rightfully, worship The Replacements. You can hear their admiration in every note that they play. It’s not a hard stretch to imagine Tommy Stinson playing any their songs. That alone could relegate a band to the back of the line, for me, these kids have so much more going for them. Their constant homage to their heroes gets talked about a lot but in this writer’s humble opinion, that’s entirely secondary to why I have come to love them.

The radio is loud and wild
And I’m too drunk to spin the dial
Bathe my bones in alcohol
So I don’t have to think at all

– Spin The Dial

Beach Slang is, for all intents and purposes, a band that’s writing coming of age songs. The hopeful nihilism that abounds in these songs is something that I hope proves to be timeless. While there is always coming of age music rife with rebellion, fear, naivete, anger, and all of the rest of the emotions that come with what we know as growing up. Most of this music is at best contrite and at work complete shit. Over the years there have been a few standout records that could be considered coming of age music that stay with me and today, driving to work, I finally figured out why. These records don’t take me back to when I was an angry young man trying to figure things out and they don’t make me feel nostalgic. To put it simply they can’t do that because I’m a 44 year old man who still hasn’t figured all this shit out. I live in a world that’s going crazy, work at a job where I feel like I’m getting one over on everyone most of the time, I have kids and deal with all the fear and emotions that go along with that, and I have no fucking clue what I’m doing. I have completely failed at coming of age!

I still taste you in the ash
Of every cigarette you kill
Have they dragged you back to life?
If not yet
They never will

– Wasted Daze Of Youth

A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings, much like The Things We Do To Find People That Feel Like Us, doesn’t have a single track that I don’t want to scream along with, even when that wouldn’t be appropriate. The self sacrificing, visceral lyrics that James Alex pens reach something inside of me that I often fear will come to light. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m still trying to figure all of this out, especially not at my age, but I’ll be damned if Beach Slang doesn’t completely make me want to make a t-shirt that boldly proclaims “I don’t fucking know what I’m doing and neither do you”. To be honest I couldn’t even identify that feeling until today even though these kids aren’t the only ones who bring it out in me.

We’re not lost, we are dying in style
We’re not fucked, we are fucking alive
I hope I never die

– Future Mix Tape For The Art Kids

The thing about Beach Slang is that they manage to completely obliterate age boundaries in their audience. I’ve watched just about every age group I can think of, well with my old ass at the top, get in to these kids. There is something here that speaks to everyone I’ve seen listen to Beach Slang and while a good number of the bands I write about have some of that going for them, I think it’s an order of magnitude more pronounced here. If I could identify the recipe that’s producing this effect I’d be rich overnight. I have no idea what’s all coming together to make these guys what they are but they are absolutely Essential Listening. I figure much of this review is superfluous in that everyone reading this has probably already heard and become addicted to Beach Slang but in the hopes of reaching someone that is living under a rock I wrote it all anyway!

Be sure to follow Beach Slang on FB, Twitter, Instagram and pick up A Loud Bash Of Teenage Feelings on Bandcamp

The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust

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Being a Jayhawks fan can feel a little bit like being stuck in the movie Groudhog Day. They’ve had more break-ups and make-ups than anything this side of a highschool relationship. I’m really glad they do.

In a lot of ways the Jayhawks were the first alt.country band I got into. As a fan of Soul Asylum I was exposed to the Jayhawks through Soul Asylum interviews and liner notes. It was during a time that I was really exploring music and I would obsessively read liner notes from albums I liked and look up the bands and musicians I found. The first song I heard of theirs was a cover of the Victoria Williams song “Lights”, which just happens to still contain my all time favorite guitar solo.  After that I picked up Hollywood Town Hall which is an amazing record. In my opinion it is an album that does Tom Petty better than Tom Petty. I also really enjoyed the following album “Tomorrow the Green Grass” which contained the closest thing they’ve had to a hit, “Blue”.  Then disaster struck when founding member, guitarist, and vocalist Mark Olson left the band. This seemed like an impossible situation for the band as one of their key features  was the harmony singing between Olson and the other songwriter,guitarist, singer Gary Louris. They did indeed soldier on however (adding Drummer,singer,songwriter, Tim O”Reagan before Olson left) and released their best and most interesting album “Sound of Lies”. Members came and went for another two albums until the band seemingly drifted off for good. Following a box set release Olson and longtime keyboardist,singer, Karen Grotberg rejoined the trio of  Louris, O’Reagan and founding member (and fantastic bass player) Mark Perlman and they rose from the ashes again. Unfortunately the magic was gone and the album that came from the reunion, “Mockingbird Time” , is the one I listen to least. The band once again split as Olson left for good this time. I figured that had to be it.

And then something happened.

Much like the first time they lost Olson the Jayhawks have returned again with a record that is an absolute artistic triumph. With the addition of Kraig Johnson the “Sound of Lies” lineup of the band was back in the studio under the eye of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. The results are pretty stunning as far as I’m concerned and the new album “Paging Mr. Proust” is one of their best.

The album leads off with “a sigh”, the opening line of a song that almost perfectly encapsulates one aspect of the Jayhawks, the gorgeous “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces”. The song is poppy as hell in all the right ways. But like much of the Jayhawks best work it also has a serious case of melancholy. The entire record has that dark heart beating right under the surface. It’s the thing that makes Louris such a unique songwriter. He creates the best bitter pop, which is why the Jayhawks sound just as fresh to me in 2016 as they did in 1993. It’s the reason the songs sound lived in and comfortable the first time you hear them. Moments like the distant call and response in the otherwise sugary “Lovers of the Sun” or the weariness behind the beautiful hook of “I don’t want to fight” in “Leaving the Monsters Behind” display an unreal gift for blending darkness and light. In the past I thought it was a yearning that was coming out in the songs. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older but lately I think it isn’t yearning but resignation. Accepting where you are in the world and not wanting to fight against that any longer but not necessarily being happy about all that. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

The band sounds confident and comfortable. Equally embracing the things that people love from all eras of the band and exploring textures they haven’t touched on often. “Comeback Kids” is an example of the latter taking dominance with a song that sounds more like something I’d expect a Finn Brother to write rather than Louris. It’s great to have the band bounce back yet again and still finding new paths for the songs to take. Art ’16

It’s getting tougher to find space to enjoy art without any expectations. I don’t know about you but I’m getting more and more anxious everyday. Things aren’t going quite right. It seems like we are all waiting for a moment, a moment when things are going to change one way or the other. Tensions are rising. But we still have to get up. We still have to go to work. And check in with our folks or our kids or our lovers or our friends. We still have to try to make it a little better. This album feels like the soundtrack to all of that. And fortunately for us the album also provides moments of beauty that reflect that part of our times as well as the downer parts do. I didn’t expect this from them but I am sure am glad to be surprised.

The Jayhawks are doing a western swing of dates starting July 18th with the exceptionally exquisite Fernando opening. That’s a nice bill friends, see it if you can.

McDougall – Reaching for Some Light

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McDougall is one of those guys who I’ve always liked and who’s hung out on the periphery of my regular rotation due to some reason or another. He’s one of those artists that I’ve really and truly enjoyed in smaller doses but never really inspired a binge of listening to an album over and over again with the exception of his project Brothers of the Last Watch with John Johnson of Hillstomp (I still binge play that one). Reaching for Some Light changes that completely as I’ve been listening to it for three days solid at this point. I don’t know if it’s the subject matter, the full band sound, the lack of instrumental tracks, or something else entirely but it really speaks to me on a level that goes beyond liking it enough to pull it out every once in a while and giving it a listen. This is not a record that would collect dust in my collection.

There is a definite departure from the folksy roots that attracted some to Scott McDougall and I think that the stories being painted here are perfectly suited for the style of music that was chosen as a canvas. There’s a thread of hope running through this music that the world needs right now and that’s why I chose today to write about this album. There are times when things seem awfully bleak and those time seem to be coming more frequently. That could be because I’m getting older, because of a 24 hour news cycle in an always connected society, or because things are actually worse. I don’t care what the root cause might be, the fact is that hope is getting harder to hold on to. Music is one of the most important things in my life and I rely on it to provide many things and right now hope is one of those things and Reaching for Some Light provides a spark that’s easy to stoke in to something more. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a happy album per se, it’s got it’s darker moments for sure but that thread of hope is commodity that’s important these days.

As far as the music itself goes McDougall played most of the instruments and while there are some very fleshed out tracks there are still some stripped down compositions. I feel like the mindfulness that went in to the instrumentation of each track shows just how much of himself Scott poured in to making this album. While the instrumentation changes as necessary this is still a very cohesive album that’s easy to listen to all the way through. When it’s over it leaves me with both a desire for more while at the same time a sense of completeness. That may sound contradictory but what I want is more like from McDougall and at the same time I can’t help but feel that this installment, this record, is a complete work with nothing feeling left unsaid.

The lyrics feel like Scott is reaching inside himself and sharing more reality with us. In a complete change in what I usually find attractive, the blood and guts style of so many of my favorites, there is a richness here in discovering musings on things that are good in life. Hope, love, and even faith all play a role in these songs which seems very real. Every time I listen to this one it feels like I’m being reminded that no matter how dark things look, how bleak our prospects seem, that I’ve got it pretty damn good and I should look at my life and be grateful for what I have and actually take the time to think on those things. I don’t know about you but I need a reminder of that more often than not. I really think that the production, instrumentation, lyrics, track order, and everything else all play together in such a perfect manner that Reaching for Some Light can be nothing less than Essential Listening and I hope you feel the same. There are times when the title describes everyone I know and maybe this will help someone find that sliver of light they need to step over whatever life is putting in their path. You can grab this one on Bandcamp along with his other albums.

I mentioned a lot of things in the article so here’s some extra linkage for you:

McDougall’s official site
McDougall’s FB Page
Brothers of the Last Watch on Bandcamp
Brothers of the Last Watch on FB
Hillstomp’s official site
Hillstomp on FB
Hillstomp on Bandcamp

Arliss Nancy- Greater Divides

 

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Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody’s got a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth”. That’s how I feel about the new Arliss Nancy album “Greater Divides” which was released this past week. I turned it up and pressed play in my car during the 15 minute commute home from work and by the time I pulled into the driveway I was spitting out my teeth and bleeding from the lip in the best way possible.

The album opens with “Alluvial”, which to me feels like Springsteen at his angriest once upon a time. The songwriting and arrangement is spectacular here and I’d pay a kings ransom to see the boys attack this track in a small club.

I always look at albums like baseball lineups and there couldn’t be a better number 2 hitter in the lineup than “Don’t You Forget It”.  Any guy who’s been played like Playstation while all his friends watched with all-knowing disapproval will feel this track resonate through their bones.  “Listen to me once, listen to me twice, I can leave you faster than a Saturday night, Don’t You Forget it”- I would like to forget the amount of times I felt that way or said something similar to a girl who couldn’t care less.

The third song, “Dufresne” had me pulling back the tape to let the track wash over me again and again. There’s a special combination here of the lyrics and the way they are delivered. “Are we old enough to give in? We can call it off”. I think a lot of times songwriters try to reach for clever depth when it’s not needed. There’s none of that here.

The album continues to deliver and kill from there. The tracks “Finches” and “Bar of the Century” are pure awesomeness but the last track “Momentum” is legendary. I often judge albums on the last song. Having written a few albums in my day I feel like you’re always worried to put a song this strong very late on an album. I like to think the guys knew “Greater Divides” was so good that people would find this pot of gold at the end of their gray tinted rainbow.

“I wish I could say that it wasn’t my fault. I got a little too good at being gone singing former lover’s songs.”- Momentum

I’m pretty new here at Ninebullets so I should probably ask Romeo Sid Vicious if I can call something Essential Listening. Then again, I didn’t ask Julie Flanagan’s Dad for permission when I took her behind the school at the 8th grade dance and that worked out pretty well for me. So file this under Mike McTigue’s Essential Listening.

Also, with my last review I recommended my alcohol/tobacco pairing. For Greater Divides it feels like a thousand Miller Lites in a shitty car with the radio loud and two decks of Marlboro Mediums. If you’re too cool for Miller Lite I’ll let you drink your micro brew in the trunk while Julie Flanagan rides shotgun.

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Left Arm Tan – Lorene – 2016

lorene

It was almost three years ago, to the day, that I wrote about Left Arm Tan’s Alticana. That was my first foray in to LAT and I’ve never looked back. I even talked them in to playing the worst show, for the band, that I’ve ever booked. The sound system never showed up and the last minute replacement was barely good enough for karaoke much less a full band experience. I was mortified but they played anyway and we made a night of it. The respect I had for them before that show grew exponentially because of that. I’m actually a little shocked they don’t hate me, but they don’t. Daniel put Lorene in to my hands weeks ago and I was really stoked to get it and listen to it. Writing about it was a little harder. It’s an album of epic length and great songs but it wasn’t coming together for me and I didn’t want to just tell you all about some great songs. I wanted to get in to this album and get the feeling of it before I started banging away on my keyboard, flinging my thoughts in to the ether.

What made it finally come together was a phone call with Daniel where he explained the album title and that completely disconcerting but oddly intriguing album cover. You see there’s this guy, Doc, who was reading this zine that someone handed him on his way home from a show and in the letters to the editor there’s this little paragraph about a phone booth in the middle of the Mojave desert. There wasn’t much to the article, except the phone number, but Doc got obsessed with this phone booth in the middle of the desert and he starts calling it, at times up to 100 calls a day, never expecting anyone to answer but knowing someone could. Then one day he gets a busy signal so he keeps calling back to make sure that whoever is using this phone booth in the middle of the desert, that he’s never seen and has no proof even exists, doesn’t get away without him talking to them. He finally got an answer, it was a cinder miner named Lorene who was making her calls. Doc eventually headed out to find the actual phone booth, in the Mojave desert, in the middle of August. There’s more to the story, and you can read it here but that’s the part of the sotry that really pulled Lorene all together for me.

This is Southwestern music from start to finish, the arrangements, the vocals, the overall smoothness, everything. I couldn’t put my finger on it initially and my brain kept trying to sort it in the country and western box and it wouldn’t fit. Once I heard the story and got the desert connection in my head it made sense. So did the album cover, in a way. LAT had an artist design the cover and pretty much explained the album to him and he latched on to the desert thing and came up with a lizard licking a hairless cat. It’s the right cover for this record to be sure, it really evokes the right mood, after you get past the fact it’s a lizard licking a hairless freakin’ cat!

All those words and I haven’t even really told you about the music yet, well you’ll have to forgive me, this is an 16 song opus and I wanted to set the scene for you. The reason that’s important it because once you know the story the feel of the album changes, it becomes something more than 16 good songs. The desert seems to be threading through the background of each and every track and the atmosphere seems just a little drier when music starts up. While Lorene isn’t a concept album per se, but there’s certainly a theme playing out in the music itself, completely separate from the lyrics. And yeah, I realize I’m a lyrics guy but it’s the music that speaks to me first with this one. Like Alticana there’s a smoothness to everything but this time it seems like there’s some sand hiding there somewhere that you can feel as you listen. It’s one of those things that won’t make any sense until you listen to the record but once you hear it you’ll completely get it.

While the music is the thing that speaks to me the most here don’t make the mistake of thinking that the lyrics aren’t good as well. That would be sheer folly as LAT is still writing great songs. Over 16 songs and 2 alternate mixes the gamut is run from love and loss to catchy ditty and back again. With the feel of the music that I mentioned earlier I know this one is going to see a lot of play while I’m drinking in the driveway this summer. It’s really the songwriting that kept my brain wanting to put this record in the country and western box, thematically it’s a fit but it’s also more than that. There’s a lack of simplicity and there are layers in the stories that seem to overlooked in a lot of the drivel we’re expected to like these days. The attention to detail in the songwriting is such that you can almost see the shade of the red dress in “Easy” or feel the desert wind in “Where Were You”. I’m no songwriter, hell I can barely write about other people’s songs, but there subtleties in the lyrics here really make LAT stand out. When you add all of that in with the music then you end up with a really great album and I honestly don’t think there’s anyone who reads 9B that won’t find something they like about this record and for me it’s Essential Listening without a doubt.

Links for ordering Lorene are on Left Arm Tan’s official site and their FB page is linked up there at the top. These guys are more than worth seeing live and I’d just about kill to see them with a decent sound system!

Richmond Fontaine – “You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To”

Sometimes I’m just late to the party. When I was in high school I figured out that I was in love with a girl about two days before I found out I was going to be moving out of town. I just never let myself notice her until it was too late. That brings me to Richmond Fontaine.

I first heard the name because of a poster that my musical partner of the past few years had up in his house. He is a big fan of the band and that alone should have been enough to compel me to seek them out but for some reason I didn’t.

I have had the pleasure of seeing Richmond Fontaine guitarist Dan Eccles play, supporting some amazing artists such as Fernando and Michael Dean Damron. Eccles is an incredibly talented guitarist. He plays with a perfect blend of emotive and tasteful style, flashy enough to impress your average concert attendee but with a depth that has left every musician I know in awe. And yet I still didn’t check out the band he was best known for. I was never in a rush because I figured I had all the time in the world. Wrong again.

You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To” is last call for Richmond Fontaine. It’s the end of the party and dammit I just got here. After twenty years and more than ten albums they’ve reached the end of their road. This album is the first one of theirs that I have heard, and it’s left me wanting more. I think they did that on purpose.

The album sets an immediate tone with the gentle instrumental “Leaving Bev’s Miners Club at Dawn.” What follows is an exploration of the feeling of being late to the party but wanting it to continue; wishing you had tried harder, pushed more, made it there on time but also accepting that you didn’t. In resignation, not anger. This has happened before, maybe it happens almost every night. The yearning for a different outcome remains, though.

Early on the album on, Willy Vlautin sings, “Let’s hit one more place / before we go home / let’s go in when it’s dark / come out with the sun”. He knows the night is a failure as always, but it never hurts to try. Some writers use geography to describe the emotions they want to convey with their songs, Vlautin uses characters to explore that landscape instead. He drags you straight into that world instead of leaving you to observe it from behind the glass.

Musically this album feels like a summer record to me, a perfect mate to the twilight of the season, with desolate but consenting lyrics and music that is mournful without wallowing. On this record Richmond Fontaine sounds like the band I wish Wilco had become, maybe what they should have become. It’d be easy to label it alt.country, but it’s more clearly just excellent songcraft.

Along with the tremendous guitar work from Eccles there are some beautifully subtle bass parts from Freddy Trujillo, just the right amount of aching pedal steel from Paul Brainard, propelling but not overpowering drums from Sean Oldham (especially on “A Night in the City”) and exquisite keyboard flourishes from guest Jenny Conlee. All of this builds a perfect bed for Vlautin’s yearning but assured vocals. As is always my test, I need to believe a singer in order to believe a song, and I’m absolutely buying what Willy Vlautin is selling.

I hope you weren’t late to the Richmond Fontaine party like I was. But, if you are at least we get the sheer joy of starting at the end of the story and working our way back to see where this all started.

Check out their latest and final album, “You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing to Go Back To”, out now on Fluff and Gravy Records. And if the band comes through your town any time soon, make sure you catch them. Let’s hit one more show before the party is over.