Normal History Vol. 523: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

I love this pairing! David’s illustration of the quote by Martin Luther King Jr. and “Convince Yourself” with its simmering ambiguity. The image and the lyrics don’t intend to create a combined impact on a single topic, but the elements feel united against injustice and apathy.

Ambiguity in art can be annoying, but it’s also part of what makes art in any form resonate with an audience. I suppose that’s true of the portraits I’ve been painting for the past three years. For the most part, they’re not overtly political, but the historical context of my work as a cultural activist of the feminist variety is understood because I primarily exhibit them on Facebook, where either people already know me or they can get to know me. 

Convince Yourself
In a dream you’re swimming
Through a pool of wax
This night sky dazzles onward
Convince yourself that you’re awakening
Convince yourself you need not sleep

David: guitar that sounds like an organ
me: vocals and guitar “solo”

“Convince Yourself” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

MAGNET Exclusive: Download Son Volt’s “Devil May Care”

Jay Farrar doesn’t want to overly politicize Son Volt’s ninth release. “There’s definitely protest songs on it—it’s the tradition of the bard to sing about what’s going on,” says Farrar. “I was raised on folk music with political content. Basically, when you see turmoil, you write about it. Another Son Volt album to compare it to would be Okemah And The Melody Of Riot, so I’m roughly on the 10-year plan.”

Roughly, yeah—Okemah is actually 14 years old. And it doesn’t possess the easy beauty of the new Union (out tomorrow on Transmit Sound/Thirty Tigers). Available here as a free download, “Devil May Care” finds Farrar rethinking the album’s one-dimensional direction. “About midway through writing the record, I felt I had to balance things out—that there needed to be some songs that represented a more regular rock ethos,” he says. “So I thought of the ‘anything goes’ essence of rock ’n’ roll—bands like the Who, the Stones and the Replacements.” 

Where 2017’s Notes Of Blue took Son Volt in a sometimes dirgey direction as it toyed with blues authenticity, Union revisits the folky elegance that made Trace’s quieter moments so enduring. In fact, new tunes like “The 99,” “While Rome Burns” and “The Reason” would’ve fit quite nicely on that 1995 classic. “With Notes Of Blue, I was really trying to explore and get inside some of those alternate tunings the old blues guys used,” says Farrar. “For the most part, I went back to standard tunings on this one.”

A major upgrade on Union is the chiming Rickenbacker work of on-and-off member Chris Frame, who rejoined the group on the Notes Of Blue tour. His inventive leads propel and enhance what are some of Farrar’s prettiest melodies in decades. “I’m been listening to a lot of Tom Petty lately, and it just seemed like the 12-string needed to be there,” says Farrar. “In some ways, it’s synonymous with protest music, going back to the Byrds and Bob Dylan.”

In the end, it’s the protest tunes that win out on Union. “I took it as my job to report on what I was seeing,” says Farrar. “There’s a sense of resignation there—you know, like, this really shouldn’t be happening. There’s such a cultural divide going on right now that doesn’t need to be there. There needs to be more of degree of reconciliation, which is where the title comes from.”

And if Union is indeed the sound of a heaving populace in the throes of disparity, Farrar is as focused as he’s ever been—and oddly at ease. Guess we can thank the Donald for that.

—Hobart Rowland  

Normal History Vol. 522: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

For a few years in the ’90s, Mecca Normal headlined (and sometimes sold out) shows, yet, until now, there hasn’t been a live album, let alone one from that era.

“Ice Floes Aweigh” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 521: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

With Bikini Kill playing shows in L.A. and New York, it feels like great timing to be releasing Mecca Normal’s live in 1996 album. In 2016, Mecca Normal opened three shows for the Julie Ruin (Bikini Kill members) at which Kathleen Hanna said from the stage: “Their music is still as relevant as it was 25 years ago when I first saw them. It makes me happy that their music is still relevant because they’re doing it better than ever. And their new songs are so fucking great and hilarious, and Jean’s got such an awesome sense of humour.”

“No Mind’s Eye” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 520: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Artoffact Records first contacted me in 2014, and we’ve been working on this album ever since. Originally, it was supposed to be a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) studio session for the iconic national radio show Brave New Waves, but the tape couldn’t be located. Then, in 2017, David found a tape of a show we played in 1996 (with Peter Jefferies on drums) in a small theatre in Montreal. I dunno why exactly, but this has been a freakishly long time in the making.

Not having a live album of Mecca Normal circa mid-’90s has been one of my biggest regrets, but now it’s here!

“Family Swan” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Hayes Carll’s “What It Is”

The cover of Hayes Carll’s sixth release (see below) pretty much says it all. The stark black-and-white format doesn’t do its subject any favors—and neither, quite frankly, does the foreboding desert-highway setting. It’s a classic take-it-or-leave-it moment, with the Grammy-nominated Texas singer/songwriter looking oddly nonplussed, like he’s just stumbled out of the tour bus after a long night on the road.

“We spent a couple of hours outside Santa Fe, walking around and trying to find beautiful backdrops,” says Carll of the shoot with photographer David McClister. “We took photos where I looked happier, but I’m not sure we had any other image that emotionally fit the record better. I just hope I don’t look bad.”

After a rough divorce, a recent engagement to fellow singer/songwriter Allison Moorer (Steve Earle’s ex) and a career that’s had its share of twists and turns, Carll—at 43—may finally be in take-it-or-leave-it mode. That’s the basic sentiment behind What It Is (Dualtone), its title track available here for download. “What it is is right here in front of me, and I’m not letting go,” he sings on the chorus, his sober resignation goosed by the tune’s propulsive shuffle. It’s as much a declaration of renewal as a coming to terms with reality.

“It’s not over-the-top joyful, and it’s not under-the-ground depressing,” says Call. “It’s the point of my life I’m at.”

Carll is an acquired taste. His melodic sensibilities and one-dimensional singing—while loaded with warmth and character—won’t bowl you over. But his honest, dry-witted infatuation with everyday revelations sneaks up on you. The guy has a way of making hay out of life’s bittersweet ironies, and it certainly helps if you have more than a passing familiarity with the Texas troubadour lineage for which he owes a debt of gratitude—names like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker.

“I was waiting tables in Galveston, and one night I was walking down this alleyway and heard music coming out this place,” says Carll, who started his career in the late 1990s playing covers in bars along Texas’ northern Gulf Coast. “It was a place where people actually wanted to listen to the music—not just get hammered and hear ‘Magaritaville.’”

That spot was the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, the Galveston version of the legendary Houston listening room that nurtured Van Zandt, Earle and Lucinda Williams in the ’70s. “I totally soaked it in, doing open-mic nights and tending bar.”

More than 20 years later, Carl has assembled a loyal enough fan base to sustain a career—and without having to pander to any sort of predetermined Lone Star aesthetic. “There’s a lot of guys who get into this trap where they’re huge in Texas,” says Carll. “They have tour buses and play for thousands of people and make a whole lot of money, but that doesn’t necessarily translate once you cross the border. I never had that issue because I was never really successful like that in Texas, so it put me in the position of at least being able to see the world before going broke.”

Focused, confident and slightly eccentric, What It Is sounds like it’s coming from a guy who’s definitely been around. “There are two themes throughout the record—part of it’s about me, and part of it’s about the world around me,” Carll says of the album, which was coproduced by Moorer and Brad Jones (Matthew Sweet, Josh Rouse). “When I was younger and knew less, there was a false confidence. The more I dig in and try to connect with the world around me, the more I realize I don’t know. But I feel like I’m in a good place and heading down the right path.”

—Hobart Rowland

Normal History Vol. 519: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

Known for the intensity of our live shows, this one (Montreal 1996 with Peter Jefferies on drums) borders on incendiary. Maybe it’s just me, but I figure the guitar and the drums are both trying to get the last word, while I felt I needed to elevate my performance to justify the drama.

“I Hear You” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

MAGNET Exclusive: Premiere Of Bobby Long’s “Serpentine”

Bobby Long has never been one to make the same album twice—not even close. To guard against repetition, he’s fortified his muse with a diverse list of producers, including Liam Watson (White Stripes), Ted Hutt (Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucero) and Mark Hallman (Carole King, Ani DiFranco).

“I don’t want this to sound insensitive to the listener, but I’ve never really worried about what people think,” says Long, who’s a new father and settled comfortably in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from New York City. “My tastes change, and my style of playing is changing and evolving all the time. What I’m listening to today is not what I’m going to be listening to in a year-and-a-half’s time.”

On his latest, Sultans (Compass), the Americanized Brit is in full-on collaboration mode with multi-instrumentalist Jack Dawson, who gets double-billing on the cover. Long had previously worked with Dawson on 2012’s The Backing Singer EP. “He played violin on that record, and we share a lot of the same loves,” says Long. “You get to the stage where you just want to work with friends—and I think we’ll continue together for the time being.”

Making Sultans was a no-pressure, no-fuss affair, with Dawson producing and another pal, Dave Lindsay, serving as engineer and drummer. Sessions took place over a year’s time at Lindsay’s Country Club Studio in Brooklyn. “We recorded as a three piece—about 50 percent of what you’re hearing is live,” says Long. “I’d sit by the console and press play; Dave would go into the drum room and sit down; and Jack played bass. I fucked up a few times, where I didn’t press the right button. So we’d do this great take, and Dave would get up from the drums and come around and be like, ‘Ah shit, you didn’t press record.’”

Sultans takes its name from the LP’s first and last tracks. The original was just drums, ukulele and a sample that Dawson loved, with Sgt. Pepper being the obvious inspiration for the eventual bookend treatment. And while Sultans is only occasionally loose and experimental, it does test the limits of Long’s gritty folk template in some unexpected ways. At times, its tightly wounded psychedelic jams recall Jimi Hendrix’s sophomore masterpiece, Axis: Bold As Love, especially in their push-and-pull between the blues and the Beatles. 

That friction works in spades on “Serpentine,” a driving, ominous mini-epic with a slithering guitar lead and lyrics that bemoan the vagaries of co-dependence. “The riff I had for a while—that was one of the more instinctive songs, really,” says Long. “I have a lot of wonderful women in my life who seem to dote on me, from my mom to my wife to my sisters. It’s more of an ode to them.”

—Hobart Rowland 

Normal History Vol. 518: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“When we put out our first LP, it was promptly called the worst record ever made by a reviewer who added that my guitar player should kill me. Meanwhile, the same city’s college-radio station had us at number one. Being disliked and appreciated have both contributed to our intensity and longevity.” —Jean Smith, “Surviving The Underground,” Monitor Mix, NPR, 2009

“Every Wrong Word” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):

Normal History Vol. 517: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 35-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

“The activity of not attempting to get somewhere in terms of what already exists presents an opportunity to make things up as we go along. It was a thrill to get a playlist in the mail from Moscow, Idaho—a place we’d never even heard of—and a strange sensation to get a letter from a guy in Arkansas who’d been beaten up for wearing one of our weirdo T-shirts. We went on tour because it was a scary adventure, not to sell records.” —Jean Smith, “Surviving The Underground,” Monitor Mix, NPR, 2009

“In January” from The Family Swan (Kill Rock Stars, 2002) (download):