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.

The Rock Report- Great Peacock

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Last night I had the great good fortune to see Great Peacock live for the first time. I’ve been listening to them for years now, their virtues lovingly espoused by their supporters over at This Is American Music, and I reviewed their debut album Making Ghosts right here.  While I undoubtedly enjoyed their music, it was seeing them play in a half-empty Hollywood club that made me a fan.

Perhaps you feel a little too relaxed when you listen to Great Peacock, as I did. Their songs are beautiful flowing things where even the most difficult subject matter is dealt with at an even tempo. While there’s definitely a place for this music, I myself have a hard time identifying with it. I don’t know if last night’s live show was the exception or the rule, but Great Peacock was by no means relaxed. Perhaps it was the inevitable difficulty of the First West Coast Tour, or perhaps something a little deeper, but the band played with a chip on their shoulder and let me tell you: it was good.

Each of the songs that I loved from their previous releases (“Tennessee”, “Take Me to the Mountain”, “Broken Hearted Fool”) was played just a little bit faster and a lot louder than their recorded counterparts. Front man Andrew Nelson shredded on electric guitar in a decidedly un-pop/folk matter, and the rhythm section of Ben Cunningham on bass and Nick Recio on drums had just as much willingness to turn up the volume. Blount Floyd bounced around the stage as he is wont to do, providing an energetic counterbalance to Nelson’s straightforward intensity.

They played a few new songs, and their sound and content hinted at what may be a future direction for the band- their most rock’n’roll song had a particularly somber chorus: “Love is just a word that you say”. This heartbroken sentiment alone would be interesting, but backed by skilled rockers and the band’s usual ethereal harmonies it is downright captivating.

I came away from the show impressed and excited- I’ll be sure to see these guys as soon as I can, and I suggest you do the same. If you don’t own their Making Ghosts release I suggest you pick it up now, and if you’re anywhere near their tour (dates below) you should see these guys before they blow up.

Great Peacock Tour Dates:

5-Sep Standing Sun Winery Buellton, CA
6-Sep The Continental Room Fullerton, CA
8-Sep Soda Bar San Diego, CA
9-Sep Valley Bar Phoenix, AZ
10-Sep The Lowbrow Palace El Paso, TX
11-Sep 502 Bar San Antonio, TX
12-Sep Lamberts Austin, TX
13-Sep Double Wide Dallas, TX
14-Sep Gasa Gasa New Orleans, LA
17-Sep Eddie’s Attic Decatur, GA
22-Sep House of Blues Cleveland, OH
23-Sep Beat Kitchen Chicago, IL
25-Sep The Demo St Louis, MO
27-Sep Midpoint Music Festival Cincinnati, OH
1-Oct The Evening Muse Charlotte, NC
7-Oct Zanzabar Louisville, KY
15-Oct The Hi-Tone Cafe Memphis, TN
21-Oct Proud Larry’s Oxford, MS
22-Oct Duling Hall Jackson, MS
23-Oct Benny’s Boom Boom Room Hattiesburg, MS

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Self Titled – 2015

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My introduction to Nathaniel Rateliff was the 2012 Revival Tour; I’d gone to see Cory Branan and Chuck Ragan, but the rest of the audience was there to see Laura Jane Grace (then Tom Gabel) and an impromptu Alkaline Trio reunion. I hadn’t expected Rateliff. Instead of a shouting folk set or a swaggering punk one, he was muted and measured. Rateliff’s restraint was palpable, only letting us in on his true voice during the stellar “Whimper And Wail”. The rest of the crowd seemed restless, but I was hooked. The only record he had for sale was his first, 2007’s Desire & Dissolving Men, and it’s been an early morning/late night stalwart for me ever since. Just as with his live performance it seemed like Rateliff was baring his soul, but carefully, excruciatingly. He was more likely to whisper as to yell, and his sound was equally restrained.

All of that went right straight to hell and back when he wrote the songs on Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. The record opens with the energetic “I Need Never Get Old” and the toetappers don’t stop until the last notes of the supremely appropriately titled closing track, “Mellow Out”. Rateliff is now signed to Stax records, and took up the mantle of that label with gusto. His band features an organ, a horn section, and a bass line powerful enough to move your hips of its own accord. Every one of these songs is undeniably soul and undeniably Rateliff. His pace hasn’t changed, his overlayed vocals haven’t changed, the emotional intensity of his lyrics haven’t changed…he just has a bigger band and a hell of a lot more fun.

In the second track, “Howling At Nothing”, a pleading shuffle featuring an errant guitar, Rateliff pleads:  “So let me in, or let me down!” Many songs on the record are similar entreaties to a lover, past or present. It overflows with eloquent phrasing, some of which is deeply gut-wrenching, and it does so over an eminently dance-able beat. This record is what happens when heartbreak grows sick of navel gazing and decides to cry out to the heavens while shaking its hips. “Mean what you said, and mean it to me,” he says

The centerpiece and standout track of the record is undoubtedly “S.O.B.”, which Rateliff and his band played recently on The Late Show to critical acclaim. It bears the hallmarks of modern Americana popularity: call and response, clapping, and swearing. Keeping the song in the real world, in addition to the undeniably catchy tune, is Rateliff’s lyrical ability. Unlike other anthems of debauchery, “S.O.B.” is about begging someone to help you get clean…and about how hard sobriety is to find and keep. Unlike other stars playing world-weary songs of sin on late night TV, you get the impression that Ratelliff has seen some shit.

I’ve got to admit that the Late Show appearance is hard for me to swallow. I think we’ve hit peak beard-hat-denim in American pop culture, and if I had seen Rateliff play without knowing his work I might have written him off as another manufactured cash grab. Success shouldn’t be held against the successful, however, and Rateliff is the real deal. This self-titled record is fun to listen to, it sounds like Rateliff is having fun playing it, and I’ll take tortured joy over tortured agony any day.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats is Essential Listening.

You can buy the record from their website, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – 2015

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With the critical success of Southeastern, Jason Isbell’s freshly sober 2013 album, it was inevitable that close attention would be paid to Something More Than Free. With this release, it’s safe to say that Jason Isbell has ‘made it’. The long-time cult darling became a critical darling, and with appearances on CBS Sunday Morning and Conan the critical darling is soon to become a mainstream one. But how would Isbell approach the magnifying glass that he was now under, the larger stages he was set to take?

Isbell’s approach to Something More Than Free is emblematic of the profound love of life he professed on Southeastern. It is at the same time fresh and carefully crafted: these are not songs for Jason Isbell, or songs for people who have been following Isbell since he was in his early twenties. These songs are for anyone who happens to hear them.

Though the 400 Unit, Isbell’s band, was featured on Southeastern they have a bigger role to play in Something More Than Free. The sound is warmer, fuller- building to crescendos and subtly reinforcing melodies with equal ease. These songs were carefully crafted by the band in the studio, aided by producer David Cobb (who worked on Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in addition to Southeastern), months before they were ever played live. Though there’s plenty of Isbell’s acoustic guitar, when you close your eyes and listen to the music you can almost see Gamble behind his drums nodding along, Hart grinning behind his bass, Vaden soloing with one foot on an amplifier, and Derry DeBorja hunched over his keys. This group of musicians have put in the work, and the craftsmanship of this album sounds effortless.

Most of Something More Than Free could play on the radio, with earnest everyman charm and eminently hummable music. The album opens with the chipper “If It Takes A Lifetime”, about a man who spent much of his life going full-throttle down the wrong path before sobering up and trying to get it together. No, it’s not about Isbell’s rock and roll past, but about a blue collar worker looking philosophically at the kind of man he wants to be, even if it takes him a lifetime to get there. These everyman (and everywoman) themes permeate the album: Isbell takes his talent for turning his insides out and applies it to the human condition at large. Whether you were in a cult-favorite rock band or staying put in your hometown, a crash and burn still feels like a crash and burn and getting your head right feels like waking up from fitful sleep. The glue that holds this record together is grit. Something More Than Free is Americana at its greatest: unifying, earnest, compassionate, and catchy as hell.

Something More Than Free is a collection of stories about people bearing down and doing what they need to do. “Flagship”, a quiet song featuring Amanda Shires singing with her husband, is about love’s desperate need to remain vital and sincere, the constant work needed to avoid stagnation and resentment. “Hudson Commodore” and “Children of Children” are both about the trials and tribulations of motherhood, about as serious and difficult an endeavor as any.

“I was riding on my mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn

And all the years I took from her, just by being born”

The anchor of the record is the title track, a plainspoken and sincere ballad. “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts/I’m just lucky to have the work” How many men and women have these thoughts or impulses, the knowledge that forward motion and doing their jobs are what they must do, their own personal form of worship to whatever powers may or may not exist? These people are the lifeblood of this country, of every country, and Isbell has written them a song without either patronizing them or pandering to them. Think of what is being glorified, what is being worshipped, on most songs played on the radio. How many of them feature lyrics as concrete s and uplifting as “My back is numb, my hands are freezing/What I’m working for is something more than free”

The record closes with “To A Band That I Loved”, a love letter to Centro-Matic. Centro-Matic was a band’s band who decided to amicably break up last year. They were an inspiration to many artists that we favor here at 9b; Glossary played their Nashville farewell show. Centro-Matic never appeared on network morning shows, was never featured in Rolling Stone. They worked hard, putting out 11 albums. They inspired musicians in general and Isbell specifically; when he was younger he played guitar with the band from time to time. His relationship with the band obviously affected him greatly, and their decision to leave the rock and roll life behind is a stark reminder that everything comes to an end. It’s what you do along the way that matters.

“Somehow I’m still out here burning my days

Your voice makes the miles melt away

I’ll be guarding your place in the lights on the stage in my heart

I guess we’re all still finding our part”

While Southeastern was a declaration of self, Something More Than Free feels like a declaration of purpose. Isbell is no longer an out of control youth, full of talent and wild energy, but this is not “A Study In Sobriety, Part 2”. Now he is a purposeful and determined man, setting about his work with precision and style in equal amounts. He focuses on his own feelings rather than in his own experience and has resolved to write music for people as purposeful and dedicated as himself, regardless of their circumstances or their place on their path. Working for the county, driving a cab, raising children, or singing for a living, we’re all still finding our part.

Something More Than Free is Essential Listening.

Pick it up on iTunes, Amazon, or a physical copy from Jason’s website.

 

July Talk – July Talk – 2015

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Never stop asking friends about bands. When researching my piece on the talented Vanessa Jean Speckman I asked about the inspiration behind one of her pieces, the girl with the popsicle/knife held at her crotch says ‘Don’t lie, you know you wanna lick it’. She told me, “I’m endlessly inspired and sparked and in awe of Leah Fay [of July Talk], and she just personifies this fearless sexuality and control.” That sounds like the kind of energy I want in my rock and roll, so I checked out July Talk as soon as I could. Boy, was Vanessa right.

July Talk is a Canadian rock and roll band with the dual voices of Leah Fay and Peter Dreimanis as its nucleus. The first minute of the first track, “The Garden”, exemplifies their sound. There’s electric guitar and Dreimanis’s tortured voice (Tom Waits’s gravel with Shane Sweeney’s force) all in the first 30 seconds. When the rhythm section kicks in your toes may begin to tap before being frozen in place by the angelic tones of Leah Fay. It’s a powerful voice, maintaining its sweet quality even during shouts.

The self-titled record is a collection of stories, relationships from every side. There’s no one ‘male’ point of view, and no singular ‘female’ outlook. Fay and Dreimanis take turns being the hero, the villain, the victim, the lover, the audience, the obsessive, and every other role possible when two people become interested in each other. Through it all the interplay of their voices draws your focus, the harmonies usually being the climax of each song. In “Paper Heart” a broken man both lashes out at the object of his desire and begs her to stay away from him, a desire which she seems to cheerfully mock. As the voices rise to new heights the rock and roll around them seems to grow more unhinged and wild, and you get the impression that July Talk is a force of nature during a live show.

This guitar and bass-heavy rock draws on plenty of country and blues influences, able to switch from passionate speed and volume to strung-out melancholy with ease. It’s the raw lyrics, however, that put this record over the top to become Essential Listening. There’s abject misery and ephemeral highs aplenty all over July Talk, summed up in what’s right now my favorite track, “Uninvited”:

Nothing wakes me up like you do

Nothing wears me out like you do

I’m thrilled that Vanessa Jean turned me on to these guys, but I had some difficulty picking up the record. July Talk is a Canadian band and there seems to be some localisation issues. There are two versions, one US and one Canadian, with different track listings. I listened to the US version on Spotify, but I have a copy of the Canadian record and I’m excited to have so many new songs to listen to.

Pick the record up on Amazon, their Canadian webstore, homepage, Facebook, and Twitter.

The Garden

Paper Girl

Headsick

LBIII & The Glory Fires – “Sweet Disorder” and On Covers

Sweet DisorderLee Bains III & The Glory Fires have released their latest 7″ this past week. The Alabama rock outfit on the SubPop label, purportedly ‘Too Loud For Texas‘ and known for their energy-filled performances, are coming from the release of 2014’s Dereconstructed which was not only Essential Listening, but my choice for Album of the Year.

While the track opens with thirty seconds of the blistering rock and roll we’ve learned to expect from this band, featuring wailing guitars and crashing cymbals, there’s eventually a brief intermission: Bains, singing quietly on a song for the first time since the band’s 2012 debut, with a simple piano accompaniment, before the rock returns with a vengeance. The point is made. The Glory Fires’ next effort, tentatively titled “Juvenile Detention”, may not be any less aggressive, but may be far more melodic than Dereconstructed. “Sweet Disorder” can be sung without having to be shouted. As the song builds to a climax and then breaks down, you find yourself wondering at the complexity that is possible even within such a powerful wall of sound (was that a trumpet?). Be prepared for it to get stuck in your head, doubly so once you read the lyrics.

The devil may be in the details, but the power of Bains’ songwriting is always in the lyrics. I strongly urge all Glory Fires fans to check them out; they read very easily as stand-alone poems.  In Bains’s own words, “The song developed out of months spent revisiting the Objectivist poets, binging on early Clash albums, and observing the Atlanta actions surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed people of color.” While we on the site have been careful to keep personal politics out of our posts, Bains’s principles made up the bulk of his material on Dereconstructed, and are part and parcel of his music. With this track, Bains is honing his skills as a messenger, delivering sincere and incisive criticism of social norms and systems. While some music may be timeless, dealing with eternal themes like love and loss, who can deny the timeliness of a lyric focused on modern issues such as transgender rights:

I saw them lock her in her body, and tell her that it’s bad
Under the guise of affection.

You can pick “Sweet Disorder” up over on the SubPop website.

The B-side of the 7″ is a cover, “Stars” by the Primitons. The Primitons were a Birmingham band from the 80’s, one Bains describes with clear respect in the release for the single. You can hear it hear, and though while Bains plays it acoustic (there’s a definite Cheap Girls vibe), the original is very electric and very punk. It’s clear that the band influenced Bains in his Alabama youth, and likely continue to do so: just listen to those melodies!

The Cover is one of the most loving acts (or self-centered ones) a musician can undertake. Whether it’s the carefully crafted cover of an all-time favorite or the passionate proselytizing of a new fan, few things are as exciting to fans as covers. It’s a way for artists to pass on their knowledge and tastes, help spread the message of their influences, and most importantly help their buddies sell some records.

Some of these covers achieve almost-legendary status in their own way: how many younger Lucero fans had never heard of Jawbreaker before they heard “Kiss The Bottle”? That was where Lucero came from. How many had not heard of Glossary and Joey Kneiser before Ben Nichols played “Bruised Ribs”? That was the caliber of songwriting that an older Nichols was endeavoring to match. As soon as I learned from Chad Price that Drag The River’s “Leaving In The Morning” was a Lenny & The Piss Poor Boys cover, I bought Lenny’s record immediately. Michael Dean Damron’s soulful cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing In The Moonlight” got me to listen to a phenomenal rock and roll band I always associated with classic rock stations and movie montages.

Is there anything more exciting than hearing a song entirely new to you and discovering that not only do you have a new song, but an entirely new artist to listen to? What are some of your favorite covers, and discoveries you’ve made from them? Let us know in the comments!!

 

Benchmarks – American Night – 2015

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It starts out with distortion, guitar, and a voice. The voice is one you’ve heard before, been hearing for years. The always-ethereal vocal tones of Kelly Smith (nee Kneiser) of Glossary. Then a new voice, one you may have heard before but certainly not like this. The Dirty Birds have come home to roost, or maybe they’ve flown the coop. The members are the same, but the name and dedication are both newly minted. In Todd Farrell’s words: ” …[W]e are a BAND and not just me and some guys.” This EP, the first under the name Benchmarks, is their attempt to do things the right way.

Part of the genesis of the band (though they’ve been playing together long enough for it to perhaps be the Deuteronomy of the band) is undoubtedly Farrell’s semi-official status as Two Cow Garage’s lead guitar. There must be an undeniable hunger for life on the road once you’ve put in two tours with the greatest rock and roll band in America.

Farrell has drawn on the connections he’s made over the years, and the heft they bring to the EP is considerable. Smith’s harmonies bring the same heartbreaking sweetness to “April Fire” as they did to “Your Heart To Haunt”; the song explores a past that seems somehow more distant and closer with each passing day, and does so with impressive depth and driving instrumentation. The drummer, Jack Whitis, provides keys that give a melodic counterpoint to the complex guitar work. This band is too good to be named The Dirty Birds.

Micah Schnabel, of Two Cow Garage if the name isn’t familiar to you already, contributes a verse to the title track, “American Night”, and his almost-manic vulnerability brings clarity to Farrell’s songwriting, their duet more Butch and Sundance than Frankie and Dino. It wouldn’t be a Farrell record without another shot at a previously-released song. The melancholy “Liner Notes” of All Our Heroes Live In Vans is supplanted by a new version, chock full of crashing symbols and heavy metal guitar riffs. Whereas the acoustic arrangement of the song seemed to be asking a question, the full-band version makes a definite statement.

“Just Fine” seems to be wrapping up loose ends from older albums, and feels like the true end of the record. The book is being closed on old flames and old grudges and it’s time for new beginnings. Of course, it wouldn’t be Farrell without a sobering look at what the future could bring…or the desire to stride towards that future, regardless. The coda is “Paper Napkins”, a somber reflection on non-traditional adulthood and how taxing constant motion can be.

Though I seem to be paying special attention to Farrell’s songwriting, both musically and technically this is the band’s most impressive work to date. You can tell that the pieces were arranged, were collaborations, and not just several musicians trying to follow the instructions of a peer. Each of these men are skilled musicians and, at this point, Nashville old hands. Eli Rhodes (an impressive songsmith in his own right) mastered the album, Farrell and Whitis produced and engineered it. ‘Goose’ Rewinski, in addition to energetic bass playing, undoubtedly provided apt sports metaphors throughout the recording process (you can find some of his talented sportswriting here).

When four guys sit down and talk about starting a band, it’s guys like this who have the best odds. They’ve been around the block, played for pay and played for love, and they are certainly no longer any spring chickens. But that’s alright; summer’s just around the corner. This truly is a debut effort, and it’s Essential Listening.

Pick up a physical or digital copy of “American Night” by Benchmarks over at Bandcamp, but if you insist on using iTunes or Amazon that’s your right as a citizen of rock and roll.

Links Around the Web – 06/19/15

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Here I am, the much-maligned but never-convicted Wolf, serving up the hottest hotlinks for your lazy Friday web browsing.


Cory Branan, knbranan-resizedown wastrel, has a couple of cool things up on Spotify. The first is a recorded Audiotree Live session of tunes, in which we get high quality solo-acoustic Branan which is always a treat. The second is a new hobby for Cory: playlist cultivation. One playlist a month, featuring one songwriter, and first up is Queen’s Freddie Mercury! Once you’re done with all that fancy streaming audio head over to Cory’s website for tour dates and records.


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It’s no secret that I’m a huge Against Me! fan, and one of the many pre-orders announced this past week was for their upcoming concert record “23 Live Sex Acts”. You can check out a preview song, and be just as impressed as I was. Pre-order from iTunes or Amazon, and check out that cover art!

 


1385023_593523444022907_1631043531_nYou think just because Charles Hale is no longer on staff at 9b you can escape the glourious sonic musings of the Ajax Diner Book Club? Well think again, chump! Listen to his show, then head on over to Facebook and like the page for constant updates. He starts this one off with McDougall’s “Coleraine”, which is as good a way to start something as a song can be.


 

Titus Andronicus,8f94c354one of many bands I discovered through 9b, has a new record coming out soon (“The Most Lamentable Tragedy”) and it’s a doozy. You can pre-order this 2-CD or 3-LP beast here, but since it’s taken so long to get out the band has decided to throw us a bone. They just released a free mixtape entitled “Sorry About The Delay” and put it up for streaming or download on their website. It’s full of unreleased tracks, rehearsals, outtakes, and live performances. Worth a listen!


 

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And last but not least, it’s E3! The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or Orthodox Nerd Christmas (dating back before the Reformation, when ComicCon took over). There’s all kinds of new video games announced and previewed and played, and some of it is pretty exciting. I occasionally write for a video gaming site, Colony of Gamers, and since I’m partial if you want to see what the latest haps are on your favorite console or from your favorite publisher, I think you should check it out there!


 

 

Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free – Pre-Order

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So many pre-orders happening! Jason Isbell‘s new album comes out July 17th, and with a pre-order over at iTunes you can listen to “24 Frames” and the title track “Something More Than Free” right away. You can also check them out over on Spotify.

Jason certainly doesn’t need help scrounging up buzz for the album, but these songs are just as good as any he’s ever written. The title track specifically is a truly country song, the kind you don’t hear on the radio anymore…but you might if Isbell gets as big as we all hope.

“My Sins My Own” – A Study of Vanessa Jean Speckman

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“It is most interesting to me,” says Cecelia Jean Speckman, “that she always said she was going to be an artist…and she IS an artist!” She’s speaking of her daughter here, in a breathless amazement that could seem typical of any parent talking about any child. The difference here, however, is that the devotion and commitment with which the mother speaks of the daughter is the same with which the daughter speaks of the art. There’s a clarity of expression here, an ability to be plainspoken and truthful that must surely be genetic. Her brother says the same: “Artists are the folks that can see the beauty in anything and translate that through their medium – it’s something that not everyone can do and Vanessa has found a way to do that.”

This article will be a rough sketch, as it has to be: Vanessa Jean Speckman continues to strive, grow, and learn, much more a tree with many branches than a simpler organism growing only in one direction. The lens through which so many have gotten to know Speckman is a musical one, but music is by no means her starting point or her primary inspiration. Through her family, her peers, and her own words you will get to know a woman whose work has inspired so many in this community.

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The open admiration of her family members is returned wholly in kind. Vanessa Jean Speckman loves and appreciates where she came from. “I was surrounded with art and makers from my earliest memories, so as early as I can remember, it was ‘the norm’.” A grandfather that regularly painted scenes from National Geographic magazines, parents that took her to see Leonard Cohen, a brother that regularly trekked out to shows with her and helped create a zine that influenced the rest of her life.

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The zine was called Lubricated. Speckman was just out of college and had moved in with her older brother Patrick, but was less than thrilled with the lack of community spirit in the Bay Area. “…everyone around me seemed to be straddling what they were, and what they thought we were supposed to be and I saw all this cool stuff in between that I wanted to celebrate. That there didn’t have to be any lines crossed or boxes to be put in.” The zine was about more than music, it was a way of connecting what burned brightest across all mediums: music, visual art, poetry, film. In Patrick’s words, the “common thread was creativity.”

“I was a high school art teacher and 6th and 7th grade English teacher,” Speckman says, “driving to shows every night, painting in my garage and staying up way too late making Lubricated…It was this really organic and beautiful process that took on a life of its own, that I don’t think either of us ever had imagined.”

11021068_10203536113474627_3728400290139592760_nLubricated introduced Vanessa to many like-minded people, including Michael Dean Damron of I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House. “I was touring with Two Cow Garage,” Damron said, “and [Speckman] was doing a zine at the time and came down to talk. The next night we all played in San Jose and she gave us a place to crash and some kick ass Mexican food…One of the kindest, warmest people I had ever met.” And just as the music influenced Speckman, her art influenced the artists around her. Speckman painted the cover of Mike D’s recent solo album When The Darkness Come. “…it was the perfect combination of darkness and my childhood,” Damron said. “I related instantly.”

tumblr_ne8565B2HQ1rvtjh6o1_500Being more than willing to travel up and down the West Coast for shows, plans not being a necessity (for reference see her painted suitcases: ‘Gotta Run!’, and ‘…Can’t Stay!’), there are plenty of stories like the following. Frank Turner, when asked how he met Speckman, said, “Many years back, on the road, through road friends. We used to stay at her place in Northen California when we were on tour.” Vanessa recently contributed a print that was included with Frank’s compilation album ‘The Third Three Years’. The piece features many of Frank’s standby references and inspirations but in Speckman’s particular style. Lyrics have a habit of sliding out of songs and into reality, tattoos are almost too honest, and most figures are bearing quiet witness to their circumstances, looking out at the audience or down at their feet with similar melancholy self-awareness.

10628428_10152400087671325_191840535498871182_nBrandon Barnett of Ghost Shirt, another band Vanessa painted an album cover for, put it as follows: “Vanessa’s art is so direct…She can make you feel all your feelings with 4-5 words spray painted on an old map.” The album cover, featuring a defiant boy (with plenty of tattoos) braving rough seas in a boat also bearing a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. Barnett: “If the record has a unifying theme it would be something about not looking for well-being, love, or salvation outside yourself. I never told Vanessa this. The first thing I noticed on the art was a little cartoon flag being waved from a boat that just said ‘Save Yourself’. I completely lost it.” Speckman is undoubtedly an artist who understands artists, who creates work not just for artists, but that artists will appreciate.

As previously written, however, there are many branches to Speckman’s artistic life and music is just one of them. Her artistic story has been one of constant change and growth, new mediums and themes emerging as old ones are thoroughly explored. “I don’t ever want to be stuck making the same thing with the same tools – that would be my own personal purgatory,” says Speckman. “I love that I am my own tool in the shed and it’s up to me to learn and develop and stay sharp.” In school she painted with oils and sculpted with clay, and after college she didn’t do much art other than “bastard stubborn photography” and the zine. What soon emerged, though, was a talent for re-purposing or re-imagining existing forms. Maps were a common vehicle for communicating Speckman’s melancholy and wanderlust.

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Speckman’s art seems to be about the medium just as much as the message, whether it’s a cheap plastic compass with “nobody at the wheel” on its back or a matchbook with “i just have a lot of feelings” sewn to it. These simple pieces, a common item and a few words, are also some of her strongest. “I don’t think musicians or artist create a piece in hopes to dictate something, rather to spark something,” Speckman says. A keychain tucked into your bag with another purchase, a notebook with the reminder “we’ll never get out alive” pasted to it, a map saying “we don’t need a map”…all of it is easy to see, to understand on a surface level, but there’s also somewhere to go. Her art is a starting point, and often one that starts you off very abruptly.

There’s something refreshing about saying exactly what you’re thinking, and Speckman’s work embraces those hard truths. “I suppose I try to aggressively gain the viewer’s attention right off the bat, but then I hope that it makes them come back to self reflect on it.” Perhaps the most aggressive of her works are the bummer Valentines, vintage love notes that Speckman updates with feelings and thoughts that are just as powerful and present on V-Day as love is.

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Other truths, often aggressively vulnerable, come painted onto the t-shirts that Speckman makes. Her “Dear rock’n’roll, you can’t break my heart, XO me” has become a favorite for touring musicians to wear onstage and in music videos. There’s nothing ironic or cynical about the statement: being a musician is hard for a long time before it gets easy, and these are people spitting in the face of adversity to do what they love. This is true for all artists across all mediums, for the ones that refuse to back down from a challenging life. In Speckman’s words: “Art is not a means to an end for me.  Art is a means to living for me.  The fact that I currently support myself as an artist, is something that does not get lost upon me or is ever unappreciated.  But art and art as a career are two different things and I am on the side of the first, not the latter.”

It can’t be easy, constantly creating and making so that you can create and make further, but difficulty doesn’t necessarily come with unpleasantness. One element of Speckman’s life is constant touring, either solo or with her partner Micah Schnabel. While touring is a whirlwind no matter who you are, it’s also slightly different for visual artists than performers. “Did I make enough t-shirts? Did I bring enough variety in my art and in my prices? [There’s] this feeling of incomplete completion upon leaving.” But there’s plenty to enjoy about the life as well. The newness of each town, the unease at not knowing where to get your next cup of coffee and the feeling of having conquered the world when you take your first sip: these are all feelings that Speckman lives for. “There’s too much to do and see to be too comfortable doing the same thing every day.”

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Comfort plays a role in her art as well; or rather, the lack thereof. Whether it’s the word ‘FUCK’ emblazoned on a t-shirt, an unapologetic refutation of normal life emblazoned on a map, or a girl holding a Popsicle frozen around a knife out from her crotch, Speckman sets out to make the viewer uneasy. “I like the topical sweetness upon first look,” Speckman says, “and part two hopes to make you uncomfortably comfortable.” All art is the expression of human emotion through some medium, and Speckman’s chosen form of expression is to say what we’re all thinking. In the words of Schnabel, “When you find an artist that makes you think, ‘That’s exactly how I feel! Why didn’t I write that! Why didn’t I think of that!’ it is really something special. It’s challenging and inspiring. Which is what art is all about.”

Everyone in Speckman’s carefully and carelessly drawn/painted/written world is on the same page: the wires are visible, the boom mic is in the shot, there are ordinary cruelties whipping by like storm winds, and her characters stand gazing out at it all. They represent her audience, each of them individually, and this real world is no less cruel. There’s the hope, though, that strength can be drawn from everyone’s own unapologetic observations of the world around them, that maybe honesty of the heart and not just the mouth could get us through all of this. Though the world that Speckman conjures with her words and paints is sometimes bleak, it is never without hope. Like the little boy in the boat, defiantly sailing with Death alongside him, we all have to save ourselves. In the words of one of Speckman’s heroes, the punk rock heroine Patti Smith, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

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You can check out Vanessa Jean Speckman’s Tumblr, her Instagram page, and see more of her work at her Etsy.