Who could have imagined that Steve Earle would get the chance to grow old gracefully? Two decades after his first taste of success, the 52-year-old songwriter has shed the tough-guy mask, the heroin and the hard time that went with it. Like Woody Guthrie, he’s moved to New York, where he walks the streets and lets the city wash over him. It’s brought new grit to “Tennessee Blues,” his kiss-off to Nashville, and “Down Here Below,” his pissed-off response to the gap between big-city wealth and poverty. But for all its anger, the most convincing songs on Washington Square Serenade are about love (“Sparkle And Shine”), devotion (“Days Aren’t Long Enough” with wife Allison Moorer), messing up (“Come Home To Me”) and simply wanting to be heard (“Satellite Radio”). Playing guitar, mandolin, banjo and bouzouki, Earle has toned down the agit-folk embarrassments of 2004’s The Revolution Starts … Now, and on “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete),” he can even imagine a time when he “won’t sing no more angry songs” and his struggles will be behind him. Though we all know it’s not true—like Earle, this world has long been hellbent on its own destruction—for that one moment, it’s worth considering the possibility and enjoying some of the peace that comes with middle age. [www.newwestrecords.com]
When we first met Sam Beam, it was kind of obvious from his hushed, solitary bedroom recordings that he didn’t get out of the house much. Three young children in the family will do that to you. But after the success of 2004’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Beam found himself on the road with a full band—and sometimes with much more than that, as witnessed on a carnivalesque tour with Calexico where upward of a dozen people might be onstage at any given time. The Shepherd’s Dog finds the normally clean and lean Beam pigging out at the sonic candy store, with vocals run through Leslie speakers, harmoniums blended with slide guitars, hand drums and sitars, and backward tape loops underscoring pedal-steel swells. One track, “Wolves (Song Of The Shepherd’s Dog),” sounds like he hired Bill Laswell, Daniel Lanois and all their favorite session players for some dub excursions. Yet thankfully, in this case more is more, due to returning producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Josh Ritter). Deck weaves psychedelic layers around the bluesy song structures and places Beam’s harmonies with sister Sarah front and center. To keep The Shepherd’s Dog from becoming a total rock-redux incarnation of Iron And Wine, Beam leaves drum kits out of the picture, preferring subtle percussion that doesn’t weigh down the explorations. By maintaining his intimacy while armed with a full palette of colors, Beam sets himself far apart from the rest of the hush-and-shush crowd. [www.subpop.com]
Authenticity is such a bore. Where is the real Devendra Banhart? On his fifth album, he’s Elvis Presley one minute, Iggy Pop the next, and Caetano Veloso most of the time. Often, it’s not even clear if that’s still him on lead vocals during the doo-wop and Nuyorican-soul excursions. Banhart likes playing dress-up and doesn’t care if you like it or not. Witness the reaction when he emerged from two near-perfect fingerpicked, flamenco-tinged folk albums as a self-described “White Reggae Troll” whose touring band stunk too much of patchouli for most horrified hipsters. His last full-length, 2005’s sprawling Cripple Crow, was a schizoid, cringe-worthy mess of the good, the bad and the goofy. He’s no less of a ham on Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, but this time, it’s actually funny, never more so than on “Shabop Shalom,” on which he rhymes “foul mood” with “Talmud” and asks, “Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?” The ’70s boogie of “Lover” and gospel of “Saved” are equally joyous and ridiculous. In between, Banhart still spins the type of delicate, fragile folk that captivated us in the first place, though now he’s more likely to layer psychedelic atmospherics or link it to Tropicalia. Even Banhart’s reggae tendencies are re-deemed on the haunting, minimally percussive “The Other Woman.” The more he pushes these various personas, the less sense we expect him to make and the more rewarding he becomes. “I’m scared of ever being born again/In this form again,” Banhart sings, but what form he’s referring to is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t sound like he’s scared of anything at all. [www.xlrecordings.com]
The fourth album by these Icelandic chamber-laptoppers is so tangible, you can practically cuddle with it. Go Go Smear The Poison Ivy isn’t merely twee, it’s like pre-twee. (Or is that pwee-twee?) It’s full of twinkles, seesawing dynamics, calls and responses between live and programmed (and toy?) instruments and choruses sung in a ragtag unison of coos and snarls. It’s also múm’s most song-based work, and the fact that so many of the lyrics involve the word “la” make it all the more singable. múm is now down to just two main members (Gunnar Örn Tynes and Örvar Póreyjarson Smárason), but you’d never know it from all the sounds that pile on top of each other like mattresses in a fairy tale. Sometimes their pea is undetectable, as on “They Made Frogs Smoke ’Til They Exploded,” whose animal-rights theme is obscured by its horns, fuzzed-out bass, sweet-and-high keyboards and 2001-saluting clicks and cuts. While Poison Ivy’s impressive design becomes shtick after a while (it builds up, it breaks down, it builds up … ), it’s nonetheless adorable. múm’s unclassifiable cross-breeds have all the joy and hope of people instilled with the knowledge that they can be whatever they want when they grow up. [www.fat-cat.co.uk]
Few bands sneered as brilliantly as the late, lamented Mclusky, the abrasive Welsh noise/punk trio whose Steve Albini-recorded albums burned through the post-millennial indie-rock landscape with bile-fueled energy and biting wit. Since Mclusky flamed out in 2005, guitarist/vocalist Andy Falkous and heavy-hitting drummer Jack Egglestone have teamed with countryman Kelson Mathias for what could be regarded as Mclusky 2.0. The gleefully snide vocals, jagged guitars and manic pop hooks remain, but Curses has expanded upon Mclusky’s formula with more listener-friendly touches. The bouncy keyboard throughout “Manchasm” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Nuggets anthology, and “Real Men Hunt In Packs” gets a dark, menacing jolt from a rollicking juke-joint piano. Future Of The Left frequently justifies its name with a number of oblique references to Tories and war, but the trio is too self-aware not to undercut such matters with absurdist one-liners (“There are no bold statements in my paradiddle”). Don’t be fooled; there’s a riot going on here. It’s just a lot more fun than most. [www.toopure.com]
If the Monkees were an American-issue, made-for-TV Beatles, then Moby Grape was a tragically misconceived attempt to personify the San Francisco Sound. Initially imagined as a star vehicle for former Jefferson Airplane drummer/future acid casualty Skip Spence, the quintet was thrust into the spotlight by label executives at Columbia, who decided to release 10 of Moby Grape’s 13 songs as five simultaneous singles in 1967. But the kids smelled oil burning inside the hype machine, and all of them flopped. That said, 40 years beyond the so-called Summer of Love, Moby Grape is arguably the finest album from the Bay Area’s psychedelic scene. The surprise is that for a supposed artifact of the Haight-Ashbury era, there’s not a Dead-length jam to be found here, just track after track of short, sharp roots variants, from pleasantly bouncing boogie (“Come In The Morning,” “Changes”) to loping, stoned odes to carefree times (“Naked, If I Want To”) and Bakersfield twang that gives the Flying Burrito Brothers a run for their money (“Ain’t No Use”). Moby Grape ultimately fell apart as quickly as it was assembled. Three of its members landed in the legal penalty box for consorting with underage females, Spence cooked his brain on LSD during the recording of the group’s sophomore record and attempted to murder his bandmates with an axe before being committed to an asylum. Perhaps Moby Grape’s most definitive statement can be found on its debut’s artwork: That’s drummer Don Stevenson flipping the bird to the camera on the cover, summarizing the band’s brief, frustrating experience with the music business in the most succinct manner possible. [www.sundazed.com]
I spent a lot of time thinking about fame this summer. It started with the story I wrote elsewhere in this issue about a band called the Mendoza Line, which was as successful at ducking fame as it was at making great records. I followed the thread to a live performance by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the stars of the movie Once, who were astonished by the film’s impact on their music careers. Before its release, they had played to a tiny crowd at the Tin Angel, an intimate folk club in Philadelphia. Now they were playing at a sold-out theater-style venue in Philly that’s hosted everyone from Radiohead to Ray Davies.
Hansard is also the lead singer and songwriter for the Frames, an Irish band that’s been plugging away since the early ‘90s. He was all too keenly aware that this little independent film was making a bigger splash than his entire career with the Frames.
“It’s like I’ve spent the last 17 years knocking on the world’s door,” Hansard said from the stage. “And now the world suddenly has turned around and said, ‘What do you want?’”
All those years seeking fame, and now he was freaked out to get a taste of it.
Continue reading “The Back Page: Almost Heinous”
Great bands don’t form via drummer-wanted ads or happenstance encounters at the local guitar shop. Instead, they come together in a fashion similar to New Hope, Pa.’s Ween, whose two members met in a middle-school typing class and decided to jam later that day. Twenty-three years later, Aaron “Gene Ween” Freeman and Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo have given the world nine studio albums featuring some of the weirdest, most disturbing and utterly glorious rock ’n’ roll imaginable. (Incredibly, six of them were released by a major label.) Ween has become the quintessential cult band for stoners, meatheads and record geeks who remain united in their worship of the duo’s uniquely “brown” sounds.
Continue reading “Ween: A Band Of Superbad Brothers”
For years, Carolyn Mark played a sort of wise-cracking truck-stop-waitress character in the alt-country world. Over the course of four solo albums and as half of the Corn Sisters (along with Neko Case), Mark kept herself hidden behind sassy one-liners and wry observations on other people’s lives. Like hillbilly singer Rose Maddox, she has the bark to back up that bite: a magnificent voice that slides from honeyed purr to throaty torch-song belting. For fifth album Nothing Is Free, Mark strips away the cheekiness and shines a bright beam on emotions hidden under her bed. On “Pictures At 5,” she examines a moment when she let a lover get too close, and “Pink Moon And All The Ladies” reminds us to run if we meet true love. When she sings “Home just gets farther away/The closer you get” on the graceful “Happy 2B Flying Away,” we glimpse a perennial drifter who is simultaneously mourning her lack of roots and yearning to be free. Guitarist Paul Rigby (Neko Case), bassist Paul Pigat (Cousin Harley) and violinist Diona Davies (Po’Girl) provide sparkling backdrops for these intense musings. By the end of Nothing Is Free, Mark seems less like a cartoon character and more like a friend willing to confide her secrets. [www.mintrecs.com]
Les Savy Fav’s deserved reputation as a rowdy, irrepressibly fun live act has often overshadowed any serious intentions in its tunes. Without singer Tim Harrington’s bodystocking-beard-breaking-shit show to watch, his yelps and Seth Jabour’s volcanic arena-rock guitar are inherently too boisterous to breed contemplation. But back on the band’s 2000 Rome EP, Harrington heartily groused that “The Empire State/Made out of ginger cake/Came crumbling down/Before we had a taste.” On Let’s Stay Friends, Harrington implores people to party like it’s 1999. Is this the sort of party politics obsessed with how great loft jams used to be or the sort that inserts a little politics into LSF’s boundless, rocking joy? At the very least, political underpinnings are here. Some are heavily coded (“Brace Yourself”), and some are in the form of indie-culture civics lessons (“Pots And Pans,” “Jenny Lee,” “The Lowest Bitter”). “Raging In The Plague Age,” which pumps it up like early U2 if Bono liked Black Sabbath instead of, you know, God, features the kind of narrative lyrics LSF is best at, with make-believe and historical allusion morphed into political critique. (In this case, a retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque Of The Red Death, which taunts the folly of isolationism and ignorance). Guests on Let’s Stay Friends include Enon and the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger (whose breathy duet on “Comes And Goes” has her playing Jane Birkin to Harrington’s steroidal Serge Gainsbourg). This heady mix of stratospheric rockers and inventive, smart and slyly revolutionary lyrics yields Les Savy Fav’s best album yet. [www.frenchkissrecords.com]
—J. Gabriel Boylan