There were so many good albums this year that I couldn’t make the decision to rank them, and I know that’s not the most important decision anyway, so this year’s best-of list is in groups with no internal order. This is the art I spent my cherished/wasted time consuming this year. Hope everybody’s upcoming year is full of growth.
Waxahatchee – American Weekend – released for free last year, official release this year, and now Katie Crutchfield yields results if you search for her on Pitchfork. Unstoppable Crutchfields. (9B review)
Tigers Jaw & Tiny Empires – Split 7″ – bar-band Morrisey-ing from Tigers Jaw and some real furious shit from Tiny Empires
Juice – Demo – like Gustavo Rivera’s stories, poems, or his last band St. Dad, the new project Juice is addictive. Half-real words, half-real sounds, some songs are melodic as Van Morrison, others are as decomposed as a long-dead whale–a constant reinventory of the familiar and the foreign.
Wrecking Ball, the 17th studio album by Bruce Springsteen, arrived with the expected hoopla and hype because, well, Springsteen is one of the last true musical legends still consistently making mainstream,widely-accepted rock and roll.
Hell, he’s even become prolific of late, releasing six albums in the last 10 years, more than any other decade in his 40-plus-year career.
What the early advances failed to mention was that Wrecking Ball is easily the best album Springsteen has released since 1987’s Tunnel of Love.
And while a lot of advance press touted Wrecking Ball’s emphasis on the current economic and political climate, they didn’t acknowledge how adept Springsteen has become at furthering the lessons learned from great folk icons like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
First and foremost, write good, solid songs. And to this end, Wrecking Ball stands out – not for its radio-ready anthems, although there are several of those – but for the consistency on display, track to track to track.
And secondly, cloak the message whenever possible so that it seeps easier into the collective conscience, thereby allowing the seed to take hold and grow.
There’s so much to digest in Wrecking Ball’s 13 tracks thatI’ve decided to do a song-by-song breakdown with thoughts. It’s a bit of a deviation, but I think this album warrants the extra ink.
1 – “We Take Care of Our Own”: Think “Born in the U.S.A.,” but the stripped down version found on Tracks, the version where you realize the genius of what Springsteen had done. Most people misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a rallying cry. It was a scathing indictment. Consider “We Take Care of Our Own” to be its sequel, playing like an uptempo, stadium-ready anthem. It’s really a shiv in the kidney of American politics, calling out the failed federal responses to disasters born of God and greedy bankers.
2 – “Easy Money”: In the 22 years since the Chicken Man got blown up in “Atlantic City,” a lot has changed. The narrator still has a girl. He still wants her to get dolled up to go out. But he no longer sounds remorseful or anxious about what he has to do, or who he has to rob, to pay bills that no honest man could pay.
All them fat cats/They’ll just think it’s funny
I’m going on the town now/Looking for easy money
3 – “Shackled and Drawn”: At once a celebration of blue collar workers, and a statement about how the middle and lower class have become the 21st Century equivalent of indentured servants. “Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong,” Springsteen sings, while down below the masses keep “’trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong.”
4 – “Jack of All Trades”: Another stand-out track, and another testament to the blue-collar mentality that has been lost in recent generations. “The banker man grows fat,” he sings, “The working man grows thin.” The thing that resonates here is the expert wordplay. Not only is Springsteen a jack of all trades, he can do this and fix that, but he becomes a willing weapon, a vigilante, exemplifying the lengths that people are now willing to go to survive and the need to find an outlet to spew forth the venom that has been sown in our hearts from disappointment and rage at our government, our leaders, our lives.
If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot them on sight
I’m a jack of all trades/We’ll be all right
5 – “Death to My Hometown”: The last time Springsteen visited his hometown was 1984, in the final cut off Born in the U.S.A. It was a somber, bittersweet look at childhood innocence and a dying way of life, full of shuttered factories and boarded up windows on Main Street. What a difference 28 years makes. “Death to My Hometown” kicks off like a drunken Irish sing-along at a raucous wake, but Springsteen’s laser-precision lyrics have never been more carefully aimed. This may sound like a raucous celebration, but it’s one of the bleakest portraits of American decline that he’s ever created, complete with shotgun blasts in the background.
No shells ripped the evening sky/No cities burning down No armies stormed the shores for which we’d die/No dictators were crowned High off on a quiet night/I never heard a sound The marauders raided in the dark and brought death to my hometown, boys/Death to my hometown
They destroyed our families’ factories and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains The vultures picked our bones
6 – “This Depression”: Remember what I said about cloaking the message? This is a classic example, with nary a word spoken about bankers, thieves or bastards. Just a love song, framed by today’s grim reality.
7 – “Wrecking Ball”: Essentially a song about Giants Stadium, “Wrecking Ball” transcends its sports subtext to fold nicely into a concept album about the devastating financial, emotional and societal damage wreaked by the lingering economic crisis. Few songs can marry such divergent themes as a country’s insistence on self-flagellation and its inexplicable ability to weather any storm. And therein lies the beauty of what Springsteen accomplishes. He fuses Woody Guthrie’s ability to pen damning indictments of current and global issues with P.T. Barnum’s knack for whipping a crowd into a sustained frenzy. The buoyant sense of hope that emerges is the musical equivalent of being swept up by the holy spirit in church. “Wrecking Ball” should be included for years to come as one of The Boss’s best tracks ever penned.
8 – “You’ve Got It”: Much like “Valentine’s Day,” off Tunnel of Love, seemed in stark contrast to the 11 songs that had preceded it, “You’ve Got It” doesn’t fit at first with the overriding theme. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good song or deserving to be heard. The sheer optimism is just jarring.
9 – “Rocky Ground”: The most overtly spiritual song on the album, a mixture of scripture and allegories that directly tie back to today’s crisis. This would have been a standout track on The Ghost of Tom Joad or The Rising. Even the oddly placed rap three minutes in doesn’t feel cliched or a desperate grab for relevance. It works.
10 – “Land of Hope and Dreams”: I first heard this song way back in the year 2000, the only time I got to see Springsteen in concert. it’s a fantastic live track, but finally released on an album, it fits perfectly with the overall theme. “Land” seamlessly merges Bruce’s two best traits, the epic six-plus-minute story song filled with visual imagery and the deep faith that has imbued his later work. Plus you can’t help but smile when the Big Man’s sax comes blasting through.
This train/Carries saints and sinners
This train/Carries losers and winners
This train/Carries whores and gamblers
This train/Carries lost souls
This train/Dreams will not be thwarted
This train/Faith will be rewarded
11 – “We Are Alive”: Another quiet, softly stated ballad that tricks listeners. It starts out as a pretty song, a la “Secret Garden,” then morphs into a western-fueled sing-a-long complete with “The Big Valley”-era brass and hand claps. I love the refrain, “We are alive,” that swells and builds into a mantra of hope.
12 – “Swallowed Up (In the Belly of the Whale)”: Springsteen goes back to the Bible, but this time Jonah’s whale symbolizes much more. This is a dark, difficult listen, filled with a hopelessness that’s palpable.
13 – “American Land”: This is the second song to blast off like an Irish jig, touting the prosperity and future awaiting immigrants in America. Is this a signal that hope ultimately prevails? Or is “American Land” a misplaced prologue, or worse, a bloody joke. Springsteen doesn’t show his hand, which is fitting.
This may be the last song on the album, but it’s not the end to this story.
Autopsy IV note: A couple of nights back I posted a help wanted post on the site in an effort to find some additional (and consistent) contributors. For the time being I am gonna post their posts as guest posts for a little while as we nail down the site since the great spam hack of 2011 and as they prove who will be consistent and who’s gonna decide this bloggery isn’t for them.
This post comes from 9B contributor pledge Mike Ostrov. Lemme know what you guys think.
Politicians didn’t read the Patriot Act and it seems they hardly read song lyrics either. Tom Petty has asked Minnesota Congressperson and (as of yesterday, official) Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmannto stop using “American Girl” as her campaign theme song (AIV Note:A request she seems to be ignoring). It’s easy to misunderstand “American Girl” because of it’s incredible guitars and catchy bass, and because it says the word “American” a whole lot, but it’s still a dark, ambiguous, song about a girl who contemplates jumping off her balcony into traffic. It’s a song about the debt of fulfillment and surplus regret that characterizes American youth. Living in Gainesville, I’ve seen herds of frat boys serenade their girlfriends with this song, but Bachmann’s usage is even more backward. However, it’s not as backwards as a scene in the movie Chasing Liberty where Mandy Moore, as the daughter of the President, gets dressed by way of dancing to this song. Or maybe that is how it should be used. I can’t tell anymore. At any rate, it’s an easy fix for Bachmann–just switch your song to Carrie Underwood’s “All-American Girl.” No potentially dangerous insight there.
But the moral is this: guitars, unlike politicians, are good at masking sinister creations. That’s why smart people become songwriters and not politicians. Hasn’t anybody learned from Ronald Reagan’s infamously thickheaded use of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” one of the most stark criticisms of American war mentality and cultural detachment ever committed to popular song?
Tom Petty rectified this situation in under a day, so he still rocks. Below is the demo of “Born in the USA” which takes a bit more of a straightforward angle.
Remember when bands made records? Not ten-song collections of iTunes downloads, but complete, thematic bodies of work meant to be analyzed and appreciated as such? It is worth noting that, while the “single” as a concept has been around since long before Steve Jobs revolutionized portable and digital music, many of the most enduring songs of the last half-century were elements of larger artistic statements (“Like a Rolling Stone,” “London Calling,” and “Purple Rain,” to name a few).
With Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, The Low Anthem have crafted a collection of sparse, dynamic songs which, lo and behold compliment one another sonically and thematically. Imagine that. OMGCD deals, in large part, with the terrifying spectre of the American cultural landscape, where prayers are cast into the stratosphere via text message and photographs are “processed,” not developed. At its core, OMGCD is a collection of hymns sung to Dylan, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, to a country plowed under and built over. As stark as that image may be, The Low Anthem delivers these twelve songs beautifully, the tension palpable but not overwhelming, the fear and anger brimming but not boiling over.
OMGCD was initially released in 2008 as a limited-edition, hand-painted CD and subsequently released when The Low Anthem – Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystowsky and Jocie Miller, the three of whom met while students at Brown – signed with Nonesuch. The re-release garnered The Low Anthem glowing reviews from Uncut, Rolling Stone and a number of other publications, and recognition from Bruce Springsteen and Ray Lamontagne. That’s all fine and good – who doesn’t enjoy the occasional accolade – but the fact is The Low Anthem were going to get recognized at some point. Songs this good will always have an audience.
In the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth mentioning that I just spent a week on tour in support of The Low Anthem, but that run of shows only served to support my opinion that somebody – or, rather, many people – ought to be championing this band. As good as OMGCD is – and make no mistake, it is a very, very good album – the songs are so vital when performed, they take on an almost primal quality. There’s a gravity there that isn’t nearly as evident on the record. Likewise, Miller’s vocals are at once searing and tender live, while the treatment of vocals on the album borrows slightly from Iron and Wine, treading the line between atmospheric and over-processed. The discrepancy between performances on the album and in a live setting is not great – great musicians tend to sound good in any format – but it’s enough that in order to really appreciate The Low Anthem, you’ve got to see the show. Think of the performance as a companion piece to the album, or vice versa.
Some recommendations come with a caveat, “before you pick up this record, you should know…” This is not one. The Low Anthem is a band you need to hear.
It’s a big week here in ninebullets.net land. Our (my) favorite band, Lucero, is officially releasing their sixth album (and first on a major label. Hey! Did you know it has horns? I don’t wanna get into the album too much today as I’ll be posting a piece about the album specifically tomorrow but did you know there are horns on it?
Anyhow, when long time 9b reader/commenter Cliff in England asked if I’d be interested in running an interview he conducted with the boys a few weeks back I jumped at it. Hope y’all enjoy it.
~ Autopsy IV
A Night with the Boys from Lucero (an interview by Cliff England):
Formed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1998, Lucero has been tearing through this country with their punk/rock/country (insert about any aesthetic adjective here) outfit for some time now. Lead vocalist, Ben Nichols, has one of the most distinctive voices in music today. It’s unrefined, rough, and exposed, in other words it is the definition of rock n’ roll. Brian Venable, lead guitarist, and co-founding member does the balancing act. His guitar ranges from solid country blues, to raging rock guitar. Bassist, John C. Stubberfield, and drummer, Roy Berry, round out the quartet with solid layering and depth. Lucero goes beyond skin deep though; Nichols writing sets the tone as raw and emotional as his voice. Life on the fringe seems to be the biggest theme in Nichol’s writing. The words seem to pour out of him with honesty and sincerity like someone decades before his time.
The “Lucero Sound” is hard to characterize, at its core it is a medley of everything great in American music of the last fifty years. The teenage punk angst of Black Flag, a 1970’s Kris Kristofferson country folk tune, and the soul of Springsteen’s Born to Run are all pieces of the Lucero puzzle. Slowly, but surely the band is finding each of those pieces. They are undoubtedly a force helping put Memphis, and everything the home of Elvis Presley embodies, back on the map.
On October 6th Lucero releases their sixth full length record 1372 Overton Park. It marks a change for Lucero, goodbye to their record label and on to the infamous, Universal Republic. Many fans and skeptics are concerned with the jump to a major label. The concern lies in the droves of bands that have made the same leap only to be misguided and left to be a skeleton of their previous selves. The question that lingers now is; on which side of the line will Lucero ultimately land?
That question among many others was asked when I sat down with Brian Venable before their show in Urbana, Illinois at the Pygmalion Music Festival which Lucero was headlining:
CE: So 1372 Overton Park is the New Record right?
CE: You guys lived there for quite a while?
BV: Yea, the four of us from like 8 years ago up until recently. That’s how we we’re able to tour so frequently, the rent was cheap. All living in one spot
CE: All you guys living together I’m bet there is some stories you could tell from that?
BV: Umm probably, I think realistically, you go out for six weeks you come home, the warehouse was huge. Everybody would just kind of splinter off, and not be in the same van for awhile. A lot of drinking, a lot of you know, pretty much we could destroy a garbage pile and shoot with bb guns. Pretty much if your twelve year old self got to live in a place with your friends and do anything you want.
CE: You guys just signed with Universal this last year. Has that brought about any change or anything?
BV: There is a lot more red tape sometimes. It sounds better to your parents. We’re pretty much doing the same thing. I think between the label, and the new producer, they forced us. They wanted demos, which we’ve never really done good demos, like they wanted completed demos. And it forced us to actually concentrate on the songs more before we even went into the studio. Which I think help make it a better record.
CE: You guys had to be a little bit more responsible about the whole thing?
BV: Yes, yes, there were deadlines.
CE: So tell me about the record then, it comes out October 6th right?
CE: There is a lot of talk around the fans and everything about the horns section…
BV: Yea, we’re curious about it. It’s been 50/50 for me looking on the boards. For every person that’s like “ohh this sounds like ska”, which I always assume is some twelve year old kid that likes Rage Against the Machine. That has no concept of what’s going on, like a soul record, or a Bruce Springsteen record, or anyone of them till they get older. Most everybody schools them online, like ‘don’t be dumb’. It’s an exciting progression if you think about it. I went back personally because I had heard bands. I wanted horns on the record not even in a soul way originally. But just in a ‘rock you in the crib’ (sorta way) There was this band from Denver, Hearts of Palm. It’d be exciting to just do this on a one or two songs just mix it up. It ended up working out really well. A friend of mine heard some of the early demos with horns, and he said it sounded real Memphis soul. And you go back all the Lynyrd Skynyrd studio stuff had horns, Alice Cooper’s first three records (had) horns. You know like, you never heard the horns as much until you start concentrating then you’re like ohh wait a minute. It’s like piano, when we introduced piano. People were like, “ehhhhh that’s different,” you know but the saxophone and piano are right there with the birth of rock n roll.
CE: So you guys worked with a legendary saxophonist (Jim Spake), from Memphis right?
CE: How was that?
BV: It was fun, I think he’s Memphis, so I don’t think we don’t necessarily go in thinking “Legendary Saxophonist”. It’s Jim. Which is one of the things about Memphis, stuff happens and nobody gets a big heads or egos about it. Whatever record you’re working on is the most important one at the time.
CE: Speaking of Memphis in that sense, I know there is a big music scene down there. Can you kind of describe what that was about, where you guys came from?
BV: I think it’s always been a real interesting situation. Like, with the 60’s and 70’s you had your Elvis. And then you turn into your, or a lot of times you went to record in Memphis. There wasn’t a lot of artist coming. There were labels, or there was American Records. Wasn’t that what it was called?
RS (Lucero pianist Rick Skeff): Yes.
BV: Like “Dusty Springfield in Memphis” and “Memphis Experience.” You’d have a whole lot of that. And I think the city wants the commerce industry, they were like “OHH ELVIS yeah yeah yeah”, but they’ll miss the entire underground. That was always the joke with Memphis; some of the best bands in the world started, played, and broke up after a year. Maybe put out a seven inch, maybe didn’t even do anything. But we just came out of that huge music scene that is boiling underground that never really goes anywhere.
CE: So any bands out right now around Memphis that you would recommend? Somebody might not get a chance if they’re not in Memphis to check out online.
BV: We’re taking out a few people. Amy LaVere. She plays upright bass. She’s kind of a….I don’t know what a chanteuse is but,
RS: How about a classy woman in a long silk dress, playing sultry tunes.
BV: I always thought it was the color red. But she did that “5$ cover” TV show with Ben and everything. So far from what I’ve heard everybody is really excited about the “Dirty Streets”. They just kind of started. We’re taking them out for a little bit. But I mean they’re so new I haven’t even heard em’. But everyone that has immediately says they sound like the MC5 and they’re amazing. There is like the “City Champs” and they’re kinda like “Booker T & MG’s” soul thing. Then there is always the makeshift people, which is Snowglobe, Jimmy James & the Hall, any kind of number of them. There is just a group of them, like a little community of about 20 people that all play in the same bands.
CE: So it’s like a little community?
BV: Yea, just like that.
CE: You guys have a few more dates around here then you’re heading back to Memphis?
BV: We do Detroit, really Ferndale, which I think is a suburb or something. Then we’ll do Columbus, OH, and then we’re home for two-weeks. Hopefully we’ll spend most of those days practicing.
CE: Big Tour right?
BV: Trying to get the.… We’ll we’ve recorded with the horns but we’ve never actually played live before with them.
CE: So you’re breaking them out for the tour?
BV: Yea, we’re taking the horns out for the fall tour. So it’s going to be a gigantic crazy deal.
CE: How long is that going to go on then?
BV: Six weeks, October 8th to November 21st
The scene was nearly four hours after the interview. Lucero finally walked on stage at nearly one o’clock. By that time the robust crowd at the Canopy Club had dispersed to a dreary, but steadfast hundred or so people. Concern was obvious that the people left were either too drunk to find their way home, or trying to get to that point. All the while it was clear they did not care about the band coming on stage. Doubts and reservations quickly left when the first chords to Lucero’s set started. “Sound of the City”, a new track, quickly got the crowd out of its lull of drunkenness.
Ben humored the crowed by taking multiple shots from concert goers and taking request after request. Lucero essentials like “Nights Like These”, “All Sewn Up”, and “Chain Link Fence” were all played. As well, new Lucero songs “Hey Darlin’ Do You Gamble”, “Darken My Door” and “The Devil and Maggie Charcarillo” were played. The songs set the mood as if it was an early era punk show, then slowed it to a halt with sincerity like a Merle Haggard acoustic set, just as any Lucero studio record can do.
The show was not without its faults. It was evident from the start drummer, Roy Berry, was having problems with his drum kit. Chaos and antics ensued mid way through the set when Roy decided to quit drumming and sat down out of frustration. Then he stood up and sprayed beer all over the stage. After some encouragement from Ben, and rest of the band, Roy decided to saddle up and finish the show. The incident did little to hinder the enjoyment of the show; if anything it affirmed the notion that the band lives up to its’ rock n’ roll persona.
The night was capped off with moving solo performance by Ben of the new song “Mom,” a poignant tale for mothers everywhere. Nichols thanked the audience for staying up so late with the band, and asked what time the bar closed. Pouring their hearts and souls out up on stage, like the most genuine bands before them, the answer was simple; No, Lucero had played past closing time.
Any time a band whose reputation and philosophy were grounded firmly in DiY ideals makes a jump to a major label, there are bound to be concerns about selling out, dumbing down, cleaning up and all of those other concessions that aren’t tolerated among rabid fans and purists. Lucero’s transition from under-the-radar darling to major label act is no different, and while the band’s fans are dedicated enough to be tolerant of departures, they’re also passionate enough not to tolerate any slick bullshit in the name of appealing to a broader demographic (couFiveDollarCovergh). For the first time in their career, Lucero will have more than just raving critics and word of mouth behind them. They’ll have the lumbering – often fumbling – major label machine shoving their record down the listening public’s throat. This is great if the record’s as good as the material Ben Nichols and co. have been cranking out for the last decade, but what if the record sucks?
From the opening piano notes of “Smoke,” which kicks off the free six-song sampler available now with a pre-order of 1372 Overton Park, one thing is clear: Nichols’ affinity for anthemic classic rock is not going to be buried here; it’s right up front. “Smoke” sounds like Tom Petty aping Bruce Springsteen and, which Nichols’ rasp cutting through the pulsating piano, organ and guitars, it works. Springsteen is echoed in the second track, “Sounds of the City,” as well, with the swirling boardwalk organ and Memphis horns propelling Nichols’ tale of bad boys who “know when to push [their] luck.” Somebody’s been listening to Marah records. The addition of a horn section to Lucero’s sound shouldn’t be unexpected or unwelcome by anyone who’s witness the band’s maturation over their last few albums, as piano and organ were added in layers to flesh out Nichols’ bruised and bleak vacant lot anthems. However the band’s sound may have shifted, Nichols’ narrative remains constant, maybe even to a fault.
As “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo” chugs along, sounding for all the world like a Thin Lizzy B-side, Nichols calls out for Love and Rockets and wrings his hands over punk rock girls and lonely saints. It’s a good tune but how long is Lucero’s audience going to be subjected to – and tolerate – Nichols’ bludgeoning of the “rock ‘n’ roll outcast” horse that was beaten dead about the time Green Day embarked on their first foray into rock operadom. Touching on familiar thematic elements is part of maintaining a dialogue with one’s audience – just ask Springsteen himself, nobody does it better – but that’s a far cry from writing the same song in six different keys, which is damn near what Nichols has done here. Luckily, he’s a good enough writer and compelling enough vocalist that the act isn’t tired — yet. But if, upon release, 1372 Overton Park turns out to be little more than a dozen recitations of “boy meets girl, boy fucks up, boy loseWeight Exercises girl, boy and girl find salvation in rock ‘n’ roll and live scrappily ever after,” Nichols is going to have a lot more to answer for than why Lucero incorporated horns into their tunes.
Until the full album is released, I’m more than willing to suspend judgment – God knows Lucero has earned it. And don’t mistake me, these are not bad songs, quite the opposite. 1372 Overton Park may well end up being the rare example of how to cross over without selling out but it may also show us a band struggling to find new ground while walking in place. For now, new Lucero tunes are better than no Lucero tunes, and these sings songs are good enough to keep expectations for 1372 Overton Park extremely high.