Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording – 2015

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Buckle in, folks, because it’s about to get different up in here. In addition to my sometimes fanatical devotion to our mutt genre, I have a few other musical passions; namely, rap and musical theatre. Hamilton: An American Musical combines those passions with my healthy love of American history. Deep down, this makes a lot of sense.

Needing some vacation reading, Lin-Manuel Miranda picked up Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, America’s first Treasury Secretary. The story of Hamilton’s difficult childhood hooked Miranda, and for good reason; look at his summary in verse:

How does a bastard, orphan

Son of a whore and a Scotsman

Dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean,

By providence impoverished in squalor,

Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Miranda was already an accomplished playwright, composer, and actor, haven taken his grad school project In The Heights to Broadway and starring in it. He started working on a a few songs about Hamilton, a “mixtape” he considered a side project. He performed a song, from the point of view of Aaron Burr, for the White House Poetry Jam, and it received rave reviews. Miranda was persuaded to turn the project into a full fledged musical which recently opened on Broadway to rave reviews. It’s innovative in many ways beyond its music, including the casting: most characters (and all of the Founding Fathers) are portrayed by people of color. The project is ambitious and perhaps difficult to imagine; this album is the first chance at listening for those of us unable to get to New York.

It is Essential Listening.

First: rap and the Founding Fathers. Unlike today’s politicians, our Founders did their own speech-writing, legislation, etc. The men (and notable women) who built our country were well-versed in the written and spoken word out of necessity. When they argued, they did so in public; pamphlets and newspaper editorials were launched like slings and arrows…or like diss tracks. When Treasury Secretary Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson argued back and forth in front of President George Washington, it was much more like a protean rap battle than a modern day televised debate.

These men were also incredibly prideful: it’s difficult to find any two Founders who have not been at odds over one issue or another, sometimes with incredible vitriol. Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr, who was the sitting Vice President. These men took their honor and reputations seriously, and it’s hard not to draw the parallel to Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, two other friends turned bitter (and deadly) rivals.

Miranda merges the form of musical theatre (sung dialogue, ballads, pointed music) with the wordplay, dance-worthy beats, and accessibility of hip-hop. This production is a love letter to the theatre, American history, and rap music all at the same time. You won’t be able to stop finding Easter eggs: Jefferson gloating like Grandmaster Flash in “The Message”, George Washington longing for his “vine and fig tree”, and references to musicals from Pirates of Penzance through The Last Five Years. It would be a remarkable feat of writing even if it wasn’t accompanied by such incredible music.

Miranda himself plays Hamilton, though he isn’t our only protagonist. Much of the story is told from the point of view of Aaron Burr, another brilliant orphan who ended up repeatedly running into Hamilton in New York City. The two men couldn’t be more different other than that: Hamilton is incapable of keeping his mouth shut and voicing his opinion, while Burr lives by the creed “Talk less/Smile more”. Burr, a man both exceedingly careful and incredibly ambitious, is played soulfully by Leslie Odom Jr.; it would be easy to portray Burr as a cartoonish villain, desperate for power and consumed by his vices, but Miranda doesn’t go the easy route. Burr has several songs that dig into his psyche: in “Wait For It” he describes how paralyzed he is by the prospect of failure, and his envy of Hamilton begins to take shape. Hamilton, after all, has nothing to lose.

Though the politics of early American history were dominated by men, women played an important role. Much of what we know about John Adams we know from correspondence with his wife, who was a brilliant and savvy politico herself. Hamilton’s wife Eliza Schuyler and sister-in-law Angelica (played by Phillipa Soo and Renee Elise Goldsberry respectively) were important figures in American history, even if their names aren’t widely known. Eliza gave us Hamilton; after her husband was killed in a duel she dedicated the next fifty years of her life to preserving his legacy, with one notable exception…she burned all of her personal papers, and most of her correspondence with her husband. Angelica was a social butterfly who had a way with men: she exchanged letters with most important figures in American politics. It was likely Angelica Schuyler who let Hamilton know about Thomas Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemmings, and Jefferson’s close relationship with her.

Both women were in love with Hamilton, and both were hurt by him. Angelica could never get the affection from Hamilton that she desired, due to his marriage to her sister. Hamilton likely broke Eliza’s heart when he admitted to what became America’s first sex scandal. The Scuyler sisters are introduced with Destiny’s Child-style harmonies, vivaciously and lovingly singing about New York. Angelica’s ballad “Satisfied”, about the night she introduced Hamilton to her sister, could be a stand-alone hearbreaking R&B song.

I’m a girl in a world in which my only job is to marry rich

My father has no son, so I’m the one that has to social climb for one

I’m the oldest and the wittiest

And the gossip in New York City is insidious

Miranda takes the voices of women who are usually marginalized if they’re referenced at all, and thoroughly explores their characters. It’s Eliza who closes the show, explaining to Hamilton how she spent her time after he died. My favorite piece of trivia about Eliza Hamilton (not featured in the show): when she was in her 80s President James Monroe came to make peace with the old woman, after he spent years trying to ruin her husband and his memory. She wouldn’t let him sit down or shake his hand, and when it was clear that he wouldn’t apologize outright she sent him out of her house.

Hamilton is full of conflicting ideologies without anyone truly being a villain (there is one exception I’ll get to later). From our standpoint over 200 years later it’s easy to forget how touch and go everything was: there were countless crossroads in America’s youth, and any wrong turn could lead to destruction. Jefferson truly believed that Hamilton’s vision of a strong central government with a national bank and funded debt would bleed the states dry, and Hamilton believed that if the states were left to function on their own the union would be irreparably shattered before long. For both men, the stakes couldn’t possibly be higher. Since these arguments carry on well into the present it’s clear that there’s no unequivocal right or wrong- and through their unending battle we’ve ended up with a country that has withstood the test of time. No character is shortchanged, no ideology disparaged.

The dialogue in Hamilton is a mixture of actual quotes from those involved, heightened period language, and modern syntax. It flows so smoothly that it’s hard to tell where one ends and another begins as in “One Last Time”, the Hamilton/Washington duet about Washington’s revolutionary decision to step down after two terms as President (most people expected he would serve for life). Miranda uses actual text from Washington’s farewell address (which Hamilton penned) to powerful effect. The rules for dueling in Revolutionary America are laid out in “The 10 Duel Commandments”, with Biggie Smalls inspired candor.

The music is just as skillful a blend. Miranda and Musical Director Alex Lacamoire have woven the disparate threads of musical theatre and hip-hop together without a seam. Drum machines and record scratches merge with a full orchestra and chorus, elements coming and going with the tone and tenor of the song. It’s almost not surprising to hear a banjo as part of the beat in “The Room Where It Happens”, a jazzy number about backroom political dealing. The album was produced by Questlove of The Roots, and the quality is understandably flawless. The interplay of the score itself is just as impressive: note the distinct signature “Alexander Hamilton” notes and when they play, note that Hamilton’s son’s music lesson is also the prelude to the duel that kills him, note the record scratch that foreshadows Angelica’s woe.

When we think of the Founding Fathers, it’s easy to distance ourselves from who they were as flesh and blood men. They’re on monuments after all, mountains, and our money. But they were as human as the rest of us: flawed, vulnerable, prideful. We may understand that in theory, and witness it in pretentious cable mini-series, but hearing their words in as modern a mode as hip-hop it’s easier to internalize their natures. The musical is incredibly accurate; yes, Miranda had to move some things around for artistic reasons, but overall the verisimilitude is brilliant. Having worked my own way through the ridiculous length of Chernow’s Hamilton, I can speak to that: the Founders spoke for themselves, sometimes too candidly in letters they never thought would go public.

Alexander Hamilton was a genius: a self-made immigrant with no formal schooling before coming to America who created our financial system out of whole cloth. When a group of revolutionaries was about to tear the head of his college apart, Hamilton delayed the mob though he hated his teacher’s politics. The study-book he made himself to prepare for the bar was printed and passed around by law students for decades. He was essentially Washington’s Chief of Staff in both the Revolutionary War and his presidency. Hamilton alone among the Founders saw the bloody path the French Revolution was on, and worked hard to keep America out of that war. He worked constantly against slavery, and was the only Founder to never own another human being.

He was also vain, occasionally praising himself in anonymous letters to newspapers. Once his mind was made up he didn’t change it no matter how wrong he might be; Hamilton insisted war was the only way to keep the French off of American soil even after Adams had found a diplomatic solution. He cheated on his wife, and publicized the scandal to try to save his political future (which backfired tremendously). Most tragically, he was prideful, and that pride lead to his death. Washington was Hamilton’s greatest ally, and he died before his protege. After Hamilton’s murder at Burr’s hands, his foes attempted to muddy his name and discount his contribution to America. They may perhaps have succeeded if it wasn’t for Eliza.

Whether you find yourself constantly waiting for the right moment like Burr, or can’t control your impulses like Hamilton, there’s something to relate to here. Hamilton’s story is a human one, an unbelievable one, a heart wrenching one. This album, 46 tracks of theatrical brilliance, would be worth it if only to understand a man who is so rarely remembered. There’s so much more: a rich score, sick lyrics, and a breadth of American historical knowledge. Have you heard of John Laurens, another aide of Washington’s? He was a statesman from South Carolina who went against the grain of politics to fight for abolition, begging the state to free slaves and give them to him as soldiers. Laurens shines in Hamilton, alongside so many other lesser-known figures: Burr, Angelica Schuyler, Hercules Mulligan. If you like captivating stories, cutting edge music, or learning about America, you owe it to yourself to pick up Hamilton. As I may have mentioned: it is Essential Listening.

I’ve saved the best for last- a special treat for those of you who made your way through this behemoth of a review. Jonathan Groff is riotous in his portrayal of the foppish King George III. The King treats America like a lover who has scorned him, and he sings ballads with hilariously clear inspiration from Billy Joel to try and persuade (or threaten) her into coming back to him. If the piece has a villain it must be George, but he’s almost too pathetic to hate. His songs were the first to stick in my head, and some of the most fun in the show.

When you’re gone, I’ll go mad

So don’t throw away this thing we had

‘Cause when push comes to shove,

I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love

You can pick Hamilton up on iTunes or Amazon. Seeing the show will set you few back a few hundred bucks, and since it’s sold out through 2016…you should cozy right on up to your speakers. Check it out on Spotify if you have to.

LILLY HIATT – ROYAL BLUE

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People remember the ’90’s as grungy, and druggy; self-loathing, and insecure. We all wore flannel and did heroin while listening to Soundgarden. It was pretty great, except for the having to listen to Soundgarden part. There was another side to the ’90’s. Unequaled prosperity, homegrown terrorism, and the worst thing our President did was get blow jobs in the Oval Office.

There was also Lillith Fair. A female artist led traveling festival created in response to the male dominated Lollapalloza. Names like Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, and Liz Phair may not have been as well known as Pearl Jam or Nirvana, but they were damn sure as well known at the time as Alice In Chains or Mudhoney. Musical artistry wasn’t gender specific and women didn’t feel the need to degrade (empower?) themselves to succeed. The music was all that mattered. It was a different time.

If we had Lilith Fair today there is no doubt Lilly Hiatt and her ridiculously good band would be invited to perform. Hiatt’s exceptional second album Royal Blue is not a Country Music album. Hiatt blends influences uncommon in the typical folk/punk/country roots of so much Americana music we know and love. She creates something amazingly fresh and new. Royal Blue sounds like a lost ’90’s alternative rock treasure brimming with confidence, sultriness, and focused sense of purpose.

It may be Lilly Hiatt’s name on Royal Blue but it is very much a “band album”. The band’s sense of space and understated urgency forms the perfect backdrop for Hiatt’s subtle melodies and piercing lyrics. Seeing her live, my friend in the gorilla mask who had never heard them before said, “I love that drummer and his surfer beat!” Drunk gorilla was right. Hiatt and her band were tight. As tight as Houston and humidity.

Embracing influences from Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty, Pixies, and The Cure; Lilly blossoms into her own as an artist with no rules. I was fortunate enough to meet her and she’s a sweet Lady. But I can’t help but think she would say if she had the chance, “Hey, I’m an artist and I love you and I appreciate you if you are willing to follow me on my artistic journey, but if you want to pigeon hole me into something you THINK I should be…well…Fuck you”…We are with you Lilly. See you next time. You bring the songs and fun, we’ll bring the gorilla and patchouli. Essential Listening.
Lilly Hiatt is Rock/Country/Alt/Indie

Royal Blue by Lilly Hiatt is Essential Listening.

 

Heart Attack

I Don’t Do Those Things Anymore

 

You can pick up this stupendousness on Amazon and iTunes. Check her out  on FB.

 

Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp – 2015

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If you’re looking for a record to kick you in the guts, have I found one for you. Katie Crutchfield is a singer-songwriter from Alabama, and she’s released several solo records under the name Waxahatchee. The most recent is named Ivy Tripp, and it’s an alternatingly tortuous and bubbly emotional roller coaster. This is the record for when “I don’t know what I’m doing” and “I know what I’m going to do” overlap.

Crutchfield’s lyrics are like a Rubik’s Cube: seemingly simple and colorful, but difficult to parse. Once you apply yourself, however, and start to think about the words as a whole, the puzzle starts to unlock. Some songs include only hints and suggestions, the specific being unnecessary to evoke the necessary emotion. These songs manage to encapsulate whole relationships in four minute time-spans, and they aren’t just the ballads of the heartbroken. There are songs for heartbreakers, home-wreckers, and those who don’t need another human in their lives.

“You look at me like I’m a rose

Singing a song that you don’t know

And you always walk so slow

If I was foolish I would chase

A feeling I long ago let fade

And we could be good for days”

Motion and stillness are constant motifs, with the unspoken question being: which is the right choice? This constant struggle between push and pull is stressful for most of us, and anxiety permeates most of these songs. Other emotions are tied together as well; “The Dirt” combines a brash confidence with the depression-tinged realization “I’m a basement brimming with nothing great”.

The songs are all over the place musically, with Crutchfield’s soulful voice and crushing lyrics as the only consistency. There is the almost-ambient slowness of “Breathless” followed by the more traditional pop-rock chords of “Under a Rock”, the manic chaos of a song entitled “<” before the light and breezy “Grey Hair”. There’s acoustic guitars and synthesizers and keyboards and tambourines; every musician involved played multiple instruments all over the record.

What manages to keep all of these songs together and make this album cohesive is the feeling, the emotion that binds them like some heartbreaking Force. This record exists for when you’re looking at someone and your heart beats faster at the same time that your breath gets more shallow, whatever the circumstance may be. If you’ve ever wanted music to simultaneously soothe you and leave you stricken, grab this album.

Pick up Ivy Tripp from Merge Records’ website, and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.

Breathless

Under a Rock

Bonfire

Bohannons – Black Cross, Black Shield – 2015

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It was our own Autopsy IV who wrote about the Chattanooga, TN based Bohannons:

“Are they country? Are they blues? Are they 70’s glam metal?
Yes.”

Their newest release Black Cross, Black Shield doubles down on the ‘blues’ and the ‘metal’ in that recipe. It’s an ocean of a record: broad, in ceaseless motion, with depths as chilling as they are dark. The Bohannons’ sound is still unquestionably Southern, occasionally reminiscent of the Drive-By Truckers or Neil Young but most often a beast all its own.

Guitars ring out just as clearly as the vocals, with the pitch and tenor of the Bohannons’ voices seeming to match their instruments exactly. The bass and drums lumber along methodically like a horror movie villain, never in a rush but always lurking. Black Cross crosses from haunting to raging and back again, occasionally in the space of a single verse. The bluesy riffs of the piano in “Death and Taxes” evoke sorrow while the guitars scream in frustration, and the harmonica in “Red, White, Black, and Pale” is just as fearsome as the horsemen the song describes, riding herd over the rest of the instrumentation.

The lyrical content of the album weighs on you just like the melodies do. The title track conjures the existential fear that is being poor and seriously ill in America; the singer alternates between begging the listener to tell neither his mother or his God that he’s sick. “Dias De Las Muertas” is a condemnation of the immigration witch hunts occurring across the South, lamenting the loss of a friend to ‘zip ties and cold asphalt’ while churning guitars ride roughshod over a plaintive piano. Several songs deal with death and loss from various perspectives, never shying away from the reality: someday someone you love will die, and it’s not going to be easy. This album isn’t about giving up, though…the Bohannons are exalting in our instinct to push through obstacles, to remember the past, and not to give up on the future.

Black Cross, Black Shield isn’t a feel-good record, but rock’n’roll isn’t always a feel-good endeavor. The Bohannons put out a record taking an honest look at the hardships facing human beings on a daily basis, at the dueling despair and drive present in most people on most days. It may not be the easiest thing to face, but it sure does make for a good rock and roll record.

Pick up Black Cross, Black Shield from their Bandcamp or over on This Is American Music

Black Cross / Black Shield

Dias De Las Muertas (Day of the Dead)

Red, White, Black, and Pale

 

 

Rick & Roy – Superfluidity (2015)

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Yes, Rick and Roy from Lucero. No it’s not Alt-Country, in fact it couldn’t be further from Alt-Country. I managed to catch up with both Rick and Roy while they were in Houston on tour this past month with Lucero, and I got a better perspective of how this duo went from their Lucero gig to this new project.

These overly talented gentlemen spend a great deal of time touring with Lucero but managed to break away from their busy schedules and spend some time messing around at Archer Records. The result is an electronic meshing of sounds that’s equal parts catchy, dramatic, and trance-inducing. According to both Rick and Roy they had some down time. Fear not, this does not mean that Lucero is taking a break in fact they will be stepping into the recording studio during April to lay down a new album. You should read “down time” as sitting on a bus for long hours, weekends at home in Memphis, and being constantly obsessed with working on something new related to music. Rick had been doing a bit of soundtrack work for Ward Archer, including the Mud soundtrack and music to accompany Charly the City Mouse Fasano’s Retrospect/ed single and Rick asked Roy over to assist. From these sessions and the related experimentation, the two were asked to put together an EP of their electronic music. The EP turned into a full album, produced by Daniel Lynn, that Roy said they kept adding to and fiddling with, until eventually it was done, and by done he includes that there are still tons of tracks that didn’t even make it to the record, but hinted they will be released in time.

As I listen to Superfluidity I can’t help but think that some of the songs have sounds that are reminiscent to music that pre-date my own age, and I brought this up. According to both Rick and Roy there were no intentions or influences of 70’s or 80’s music in a planned way, but rather they would play around with the sounds they were creating and found that they fit best. Rick personally feels it echoes more of a 70’s era because to him that’s where the instrumental synth records he most loved stemmed from. That is the beauty of this album, there’s no one reflected idea, there’s no one theme, and there’s no definition. With each listen I imagine this album as an accompaniment to other art forms, as if it should be used as the salt to add flavor to the blandness of life. It sounds like beautiful, sometimes haunting, and also at other times chaotic layers of sounds that can transcend the decades and easily be molded into any scenario. Rick said “It’s not as deliberately planned as you think, it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t ignored it was just a natural process of the creative experience.” I could not think of a better way to describe just how seamless it sounds.

When I asked about the creative process of Superfluidity, it’s no secret that Roy Berry can create an entire electronica album on his laptop from home with his previous experiments in music such as his work with Overjoid. I’ll let you do the google searching and fall down the path of no internet return to Mr. Berry’s non-Lucero music history. Rick refers to himself as more of a song guy, taking the music and inserting a melody. The question then became if this record was created over a length of time, until it felt completed rather than under a deadline, and if it was created with no real agenda or written music, how would this be replicated in a live setting? Rick and Roy both agreed that it simply must, but it would ideally include a stage set up of them improving music just as they did in the studio during creation. The concept of this being an ever evolving project and never quite the same or a repeating occurrence simply excites me like a kid on Christmas morning. Creating an experience for fans that will be different yet of equal caliber is a very forward thinking concept, and I can only imagine frightening for an artist to do. I’m excited to see the future that Superflidity will kick-start for Rick and Roy, and eagerly await the next experimental surprise from them.

Superfluidity is set to be released on April 4th, but you may pre-order the album now at Archer Records’ website. There will be a limited vinyl LP pressing autographed by Rick and Roy, I recommend rushing on over to pre-order that HERE.

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Micah Schnabel – Not The Boy You Used To Know – 2015

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Every once in a while an artist releases something that unlike any of their previous efforts, keeping the audience on their toes about any possible expectations and hopefully feeling fresh and relevant while doing it. That adequately describes the sound and fury of Micah Schnabel‘s new EP Not The Boy You Used To Know. Our hard and fast rule about not reviewing EPs can at times be anything but, and new music from one of the songwriters behind Ninebullets stalwart Two Cow Garage is obviously going to snap that rule in half.

The album opens with “Scared of Heights”, the song most sonically similar to Micah’s previous solo offerings. As the song goes on, however, you’ll hear plenty that’s new: carefully placed electric guitar hovering in the background, a joyful organ, and perhaps most notably a greater maturity and resonance in Schnabel’s voice. These songs are the closest to his speaking voice that I’ve heard him sing, and that lends an earnest and frank tone. In many ways this isn’t the same man who penned “American Static” or “Cut Me, Mick”, and he lets us know that up front.

“Awe shucks I’m just happy to be here

But I’m not your little brother anymore.”

I’ve covered another two of the songs, “More Drugs” and “Bang! Bang! Bang!” for the site previously, and I still stand by everything I said. There are songs about the past and songs that use the past as framing for the future; all of Micah’s reminiscing on Not The Boy You Used To Know is decidedly the latter. While I may disagree about the existence of objective “good” and “bad” (it could just be my heavily D&D influenced childhood), I’m 100% with everyone trying to take themselves less seriously.

This maturity is on full display in the EP’s title track and centerpiece. It has a tempo, a melody, a drive and urgency, a vintage sound (complete with doo-wop background singers)…plenty of things that might not be expected to mesh well with Micah’s wry writing and blunt delivery, but this album is all about smashing expectations. None of us are the people we used to be, and if we don’t like the people we are now we can sure as hell change that now.

“I just got so tired of trying to rock the boat

So I’m sinking this fucking ship, and I am hoping that I float

I would take the thousand deaths of a sailor lost at sea

Than swim safely into shore on the wave of mediocrity”

Not The Boy You Used To Know is a stellar reminder of the absurdity and fragility in life, and the message is clear: if you don’t like where the current is taking you, sink the fucking ship.

Head over to Micah’s Bandcamp to pick up a digital or physical copy of the EP, check out his Big Cartel store, and follow him on Twitter. While you’re at it, check out Two Cow Garage at their upcoming shows!

 

Not the Boy You Used To Know

 

THE DISTRICTS – A FLOURISH AND A SPOIL – 2015

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Our very own Charles Hale, well aware of my constant need to be exposed to new music, threw out a record to me: A Flourish And A Spoil by The Districts. I was intrigued by the introductory track: initially all bass and percussion, you’re gradually eased in to crashing waves of guitar and vocals, fuzzy and forceful and wild. This song, “4th and Roebling”, will remind you of several other bands you’ve heard, no doubt. But there’s a persistence in the lyricism, an unrelenting element to the instrumentation, that lets you know there’s a point to all of this beyond an ‘indie rock’ sound.

These songs sound torn more than written. I keep using the word ‘heavy’ to describe the content of albums I review, and that could be due to my own lack of vocabulary or it could be due to the pull, the draw, of powerful music. Slugging music, more Foreman than Ali. In that opening track, the singer laments

“I ain’t the same anymore / I ain’t the same as before / You gone and changed, I’m sure”

in a song about how powerful your sense of self can be wrapped up in your love, and how everything can be turned upside down so easily. It’s a picture that’s painted for the audience instead of a screenplay laid out, formulaic and coherent.

Another memorable track is “Suburban Smell”, an evisceration of childhoods spent safe and secure while discrimination and conformity bubble underneath the surface. This album is a collection of delicately threaded needles: powerful rhythm-heavy tracks that you find yourself swaying to, nodding along with the beat. It’s an album that you find unsettles you when a lyric catches you in an off moment and galvanizes a feeling you had when you were a different person, or reminds you of something long gone.

You can buy A Flourish And A Spoil over on Fat Possum records, and check out the band on Facebook and Twitter.

Robert Chaney – Cracked Picture Frames – 2015

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Cracked Picture Frames by Robert Chaney is a debut record with the heft of a seasoned volume. There are no singles: these are all deep cuts. It may be easy to miss the trees for the forest, with the “one man and a guitar” composition of the album. The melodies are alternately sweet, bitter, and haunting, and Chaney wields his guitar and breathy voice with equal precision, but the world has not yet begun to run short of talented guitar players or  folks with interesting voices. The wordsmiths, the songwriters, the ones with voices and not just vocal chords…those are far more rare.

Chaney is from Florida but now resides in London, and while there are musical arrangements that seem decidedly European this is unquestionably an American folk record. There’s some Townes here, and some Dylan; in our corner of the musical world, unquestionably Chaney’s lyrical contemporaries are Isbell, Moreland, and Kneiser. These are songs that need to be inhaled and exhaled, taken in. I listened to it repeatedly before I stopped rushing through it, before I allowed my mind to take the time that these songs deserve.

A large component of my dawning appreciation was studying the lyrics as I listened to the song, pouring over the words as the sound washed over me in turn. I could quote them at you incessantly, as each track has plenty of captivating turns of phrase: the heartbreaking inevitability of domestic violence as told by the abuser as he watches his life slip away in “Black Eyed Susan”, the masochistic melancholy of “The Morning After”, the tragedy of all-too-common Costa Rican auto fatalities in “Corazones Amarillos”…these are ten well-chosen stories, well-told.

While it’s not clear how many of these stories are true to life, either in Chaney’s experience or that of another, he’s proven he can take the grist of life and turn it into something palatable, even nourishing. Closing track “The Ballad of Edward and Lisa” is ripped from horrific ‘only in Florida’ headlines, about a woman who attempted to blind her nephew in order to save him from the Devil, and how the boy’s aunt and grandmother both left him to bleed overnight. The song is careful and delicate, somehow both factual and compassionate. Chaney’s guitar dances around his singing the same way his lyrics dance around the subjects of his songs. These are flawed people trying to explain themselves best they can; nothing is excused, nothing explained away. There is love here, and loss, despair and freedom, and all of it is viewed evenly and with open eyes.

Cracked Picture Frames by Robert Chaney is Essential Listening. This is a powerhouse of potent songs, all the more impressive because it is the artist’s first record. The Ninebullets crowd is the perfect audience for the twin beauty and sadness that Chaney writes, and I’m unbelievably excited to share this record with you.

Buy Cracked Picture Frames over on Bandcamp, and check out Chaney’s Twitter, Facebook, and Webpage.

 



HOWLIN RAIN – MANSION SONGS – 2015

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It’s late on a Saturday night, and a majority of the crowd has headed out of the bars and back to their beds in preparation for the Sunday hangover. The band has been playing half-hearted classic rock covers all night, getting sloppier and more inebriated as the night goes on. There’s a lull after the closing chords of “Won’t Back Down”, and the singer closes his eyes and leans on the microphone. In a thick voice, as full of liquor as emotion, he begins to sing. His words begin unintelligibly but soon gain some semblance of order.

“-and you’re stoned with the animals

At the 18th Street Park

That ain’t the ringing of the golden bells of heaven

It’s just the stinging of your fool’s gold heart

Well your head goes up like a cheap cigar

As you crawl the ghetto alleys and the skid row bars

I got fifteen dollars in my hand

If you got ten tonight, we’ll be kinsmen to the stars

Big red moon-”

There’s the briefest of pauses before he grabs the microphone. Electric guitars blare, a piano begins to jangle, cymbals crash, the band finding a rhythm behind the singer, just as sloppy but also with brute driving force. It’s part CCR choogle, part Steve Miller layer of sound, and part extract of San Francisco fog. The band and the singer build together, ebbing and flowing through this beautiful mess. Somewhere in the six minute wall of music are some horns, a harmonica solo, and a fatigued (but impassioned) wail.

This is the opening track, “Big Red Moon”, on the album Mansion Songs by Howlin Rain, a band lead by former Comets on Fire singer Ethan Miller.

Mansion Songs is a throwback record, reminiscent of so many bands and sounds of the early and mid-70s. The light reverb and sparse production are evocative of a time and place, but Miller does more than just rehash someone else’s golden years. He combines the thoughtful evaluation and incisive condemnation of his lyrics with carefully arranged instrumentation, ranging from the groovy “Wild Bush” to the almost classical “Lucy Fairchild”. I must have listened to this record a dozen times and still have to parse what Miller is saying, not just for meaning but for symbolism and metaphor. This is especially evident in the closing track, a sprawling seven minute spoken word piece reminiscent of Beat poetry in which Miller name-checks several of his idols and inspirations.

There’s so much here, from inspired and energetic musical stylings to carefully constructed despair, that it’s obvious Mansion Songs is a work of unrestrained artistic effort. These eight tracks vary in sound and tone, but are so consistent in quality, that I think this record is well worth your time. At the very, very least “Big Red Moon” should become your soundtrack for the second to last shot of the night…the one that you maybe shouldn’t take, but you do regardless.

Check out Howlin Rain’s website, Facebook, Twitter, then get yourself over to their merch page to pick up some vinyl, or Amazon for the mp3.

BLACK MOON SPELL – KING TUFF

black moon spell

If you like weird shit, man do I have the record for you.

I don’t know who King Tuff is (are?), and no amount of hunting through their website (also full of weird shit) can solve that particular puzzle for me. They’re label-mates with 9b stalwarts Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires; I discovered this band by reading a tweet saying they didn’t know who these Glory Fires were, but they were the only band to match King Tuff in terms of volume. That is not a comparison that one ignores lightly. On the strength of this observation I popped in King Tuff’s recently released Black Moon Spell.

If I had to sum it up in a single phrase, I’d say: teenage blood magic pop guitar love ballads. This record never stops being fun, and is unapologetically strange. Song titles like “Sick Mind”, “Demon From Hell”, and “I Love You Ugly” are not just for show. The lyrical content is as twisted and bold as the electric guitars. These songs feel like the pop songs of an alternate 1960s, a world where the civil rights movement was less of a problem than the blood sacrifice movement. They have that catchy, crunchy, sincere sound that evokes a simpler time…but with demons. Though the songs are simple, the instrumentation never gets old and continues to build on itself. The songs seem to grow more complex as you hear them, and even moreso with each successive listen.

I don’t have a lot of other words for this one. It fairly defies explanation. If you ever wondered what kind of band would play a high school black mass junior prom, look no further than King Tuff.

Buy Black Moon Spell by King Tuff from Subpop or iTunes, and hit them (him? what the hell is a King Tuff) on Twitter and Facebook.

Black Moon Spell

Rainbow’s Run

Black Holes in Stereo