Whysall Lane: Return Address

wysallane330Richard Baluyut and Adam Pfahler would writhe to hear it, but they define been-there-done-that indie-hipster tough. Hunkered down at a professional poker table in the dry-walled basement of San Francisco video store Lost Weekend, they sprinkle their conversation with references to gambling, pornos and baseball games. The shop employs Whysall Lane singer/guitarist Baluyut (who still performs occasionally with his old band, Versus) and is co-owned by drummer Pfahler (a veteran of the late, lamented Jawbreaker), who restlessly shuffles a deck of cards and sorts band buttons like poker chips.

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Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: The Odd Couple

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n the surface, it appears to be a match made in hell: Ex-Screaming Tree and tattooed tough guy Mark Lanegan teaming up with ex-Belle & Sebastian chanteuse and Audrey Hepburn-delicate Isobel Campbell for an album of duets. It’s a concept one British writer described as “taking a wire brush to a kitten,” chortles Lanegan. Or, perhaps, a real beauty-and-the-beast alliance?

“Yeah,” he sighs. “That, too.”

Campbell, who penned all the folk-traditional tracks on Ballad Of The Broken Seas (V2) save “Revolver” (written by Lanegan) and “Ramblin’ Man” (a shuffling cover of the Hank Williams classic), views the arrangement quite differently.

“I can see why people would be like, ‘What a crazy duo,’” she confesses in a chirrupy Glaswe-gian burr. “But that’s all kind of superficial. From my point of view, it just seemed perfectly natural. We just met, had an appreciation for each other and got on with it.”

With Campbell residing in Scotland and the Seattle-bred Lanegan living in Los Angeles, such a transatlantic partnership seemed unlikely to succeed. According to Campbell, it all started a couple years back, when she was harmonizing in a local studio with her friend, former Vaselines/ Eugenius frontman Eugene Kelly. The cut proved difficult; the pair just couldn’t seem to nail it. Suddenly, she understood what the song was missing: a booming bass voice to offset her seraphic trill. An old beau played her a few Screaming Trees records, and Campbell decided to mail Lanegan her music.

“Sometimes you send things to people and just never hear back from them,” she says.

So Campbell was stunned when, late one night, the phone rang in her newly rented flat. “I was just sitting in a room with no furniture,” she says. “And it’s Mark on the line, going, ‘Yeah, I’ve written this thing for your song,’ and then he sang it down the phone. So that was my first introduction to him. Really surreal.”

The resulting track (“Why Does My Head Hurt So?”) was included on Campbell’s 2004 Time Is Just The Same EP. By the time the two musicians crossed paths in Glasgow a few months later, Campbell had already penned another dirge with Lanegan in mind. A full-length project wasn’t far behind, and the two polished off Ballad Of The Broken Seas through a steady stream of e-mails and FedEx packages.

It was a cakewalk for Lanegan to tackle a murmured take on Hank Williams. (Campbell whispers daintily in the background, to the sound of whip-cracking Cramps-ish guitar.) “When I heard the darkness in Isobel’s material, I was drawn to that aspect of it, for sure,” he says. “But there were also some really, well, I won’t say happy songs, but more kinder, gentler tunes that were a real stretch for me, like ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?’ And that drew me to it as well, because it gave me an opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before and hopefully grow as a result.”

Campbell, meanwhile, was eager to explore historic English/Scottish folk. In retrospect, she’s still amazed at how traditional Broken sounds.

“I didn’t know that much about folk before this,” says Campbell. “I mean, I’ve always been a huge Dylan fan, but it wasn’t until after I finished the album that I got really into a lot of the old songs, and then I was like, ‘My God! Dylan just totally stole that!’ I love all the old Appalachian murder ballads, as well; they’re really dark, but they make it so romantic, with people being haunted by their dead husbands or whatever. It’s fantastical, really psychological, and that just gets me so excited. Because life can be really strange, as well. Bad things happen, good things happen—life can be really weird. An imaginative person like myself can just fantasize on it forever.”

Ultimately, Broken proved a welcome diversion for both parties. Campbell will return to her next solo set, Lanegan to his new solo album as well as the Gutter Twins (his side outfit with Greg Dulli). What have the two learned about each other that they didn’t know before?

“Isobel is not so timid,” says Lanegan. “She’s pretty brassy, truth be told.”

For her part, Campbell giggles like a giddy schoolgirl: “I think Mark is a bit of a beauty himself. He has a secret beauty all his own. And besides, chicks always fall for the dangerous dudes. Like Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf. It’s good to be good, but sometimes an edge is quite all right. And I’m not saying Mark is the wolf. He’s more like an old lion.”

—Tom Lanham

Sparks: Please Explain

sparks350It’s been reported you spent 18 months working on your new album, Hello Young Lovers (In The Red). Yet the opening track quite clearly and quite often proclaims that “All I do now is dick around.” What are we supposed to believe?

Sparks’ Russell Mael replies: It’s all hard work. Humorous elements in our music are sometimes mistaken for frivolity or novelty. For every song like “Dick Around,” there are several months of agonizing work, trial and error and experimentation to be able to do something musical that isn’t based on tried-and-true conventions of pop music that have been around for 50 years. We take the craft of making our type of music very seriously. In order to have 20 albums and still be able to do music we feel pushes the boundaries within pop is a task that few in our position seem willing to adopt. We approach every new album with the idea that it might be the first album a listener may hear from us and it has to stand on its own without reference to past music we’ve done. In that sense, Hello Young Lovers is our debut.

Gravenhurst: Out Of The Ashes

gravenhurst355Nick Talbot’s punk moment had nothing to do with a teenage riot, a Clash double album or a mosh-pit injury. Talbot, the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist behind Gravenhurst, had his musical epiphany while listening to the pastoral psychedelic hum of Bristol, England’s Flying Saucer Attack and Movietone.

“It was the first time I heard really lo-fi, four-track music pressed onto vinyl,” he says. “Before then, I’d been listening to Stereolab and My Bloody Valentine, bands that spent a lot of money on recording. It’s very liberating to hear a good album recorded for nothing in a bedroom.”

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Shelley Short: Working Title

shelly_short350bOne thing you can say about Shelley Short: The girl’s got a thing for titles. Where, for example, did her career begin?

“The Second Annual Holiday Hot Dog Rodeo,” she says in the same little-girl voice in which she sings. “It was just a bunch of singer/songwriters; they each played three songs. I didn’t have any songs, so I wrote two.”

Short, a Chicago resident whose third full-length has just been released by Hush Records, admits she spent weeks trying to find a suitably stirring moniker for it.

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Q&A With Tommy Keene

In a 1998 MAGNET interview, a somewhat frustrated Tommy Keene threw a scare into a small but slavishly devoted cult of power-pop enthusiasts by suggesting his then-current album, Isolation Party, might be his last. Thankfully, the prediction proved premature. Since then, he’s released a live record (2001’s Showtunes), another studio effort (2002’s The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down) and a rarities disc (2004’s Drowning), all to the kind of critical acclaim and commercial neglect that Keene has grudgingly come to accept over the course of a three-decade career. At age 47, Keene has just released his best work in a decade with Crashing The Ether (Eleven Thirty). Recorded at his Los Angeles home studio, Ether finds Keene producing and playing almost every instrument, yielding an album that recalls the twin peaks of his classic ’80s LPs: 1986’s Songs From The Film and 1989’s Based On Happy Times. The sessions that produced Crashing The Ether also found Keene simultaneously cutting tracks for a collaborative record with erstwhile Guided By Voices leader Robert Pollard. The duo’s disc—with Keene composing the music and Pollard adding lyrics and vocals—is set to be released under the Keene Brothers moniker this summer. Currently, Keene is touring as guitarist/keyboardist in Pollard’s solo band. It’s another plum gig for Keene, who’s previously handled similar chores for Paul Westerberg and Velvet Crush.

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Antony And The Johnsons: Let It Come Down

antony70_360The broken-hearted people living in the world agree: Antony And The Johnsons have become a profound voice of hope and sorrow. A story of divine tragedy, avant-garde androgyny and plenty of soul. By Matthew Fritch

It’s the grayest New York day I can remember. The weather doesn’t even deliver a heavy downpour or a single rumble of thunder; there’s just a light, no-umbrella mist and a low-lying fog that covers everything above the fifth floor of the buildings along Sixth Avenue. It’s Sunday. Somewhere, the Giants and Jets are losing football games. In Penn Station, soldiers stand around in camouflage fatigues with their M-16 rifles at chest level, their muzzles pointed straight at the ground. Bored-sounding announcements are issued to passengers over the station’s PA system: Do not leave your luggage unattended. Promptly report suspicious activity. In terror-alert parlance, perhaps it’s the most yellowish-orange New York day I can remember.

Antony Hegarty and I can’t even think of anything to do. After a quiet brunch, we shake off some of the lethargy and finally decide on a real plan of action: We’re going shopping for socks. Or maybe we’ll go to the pet store and stare at the caged puppies. But Antony needs black crew socks for an upcoming tour, so we begin trudging toward the fluorescent lights of Old Navy when we happen upon an outdoor flea market.

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Sufjan Stevens: The State I Am In

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While Sufjan Stevens may appear to be making storybook albums about Illinois and Michigan, his personal and spiritual songs are nothing less than national anthems. By J. Edward Keyes

It’s a balmy Fourth of July weekend at New York City’s South Street Seaport in 2004. Sunscreened tourists and disaffected locals weave idly in and out of the stores that line the boardwalk, buying $7 cups of beer from wobbly carts and stretching out lazily in front of the jerry-rigged stage, which sways perilously at the end of the pier. It’s the closing days of the Seaport Music Festival, Manhattan’s annual free concert series, and that a coveted Independence Day weekend slot has been awarded to Sufjan Stevens is a testament to his ballooning profile.

Up to this point, his set has been as rickety as the stage on which it’s being performed. Despite their best efforts, Stevens and his seven-piece band (dubbed the Michigan Militia) can’t seem to replicate the knotty instrumentation and tricky time signatures found on Michigan, the 2003 record they’re here to promote. The brass section comes in late and spends several measures trying to catch up. The poor PA and unforgiving open-air acoustics swallow the sound of Stevens’ banjo, turning spare, delicate songs into ghostly a capella numbers. Adding to the surreal atmosphere is the fact that today is Stevens’ 29th birthday, and he leads the crowd through a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday,” singing “happy birthday, dear Sufjan” along with everybody else.

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Guided By Voices: Picture Me Big Time

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In an excerpt from his forthcoming Guided By Voices biography, former band member James Greer recounts Robert Pollard’s early career as a local sports star.

“Going up to Northridge was almost like going to Twin Peaks. There was kind of this obsession with sports, and everyone was drinking.”
—Don Thrasher, Guided By Voices drummer (1990-1992)

Robert Ellsworth Pollard Jr. was born Oct. 31, 1957, the second child of Bob and Carol Pollard. Bob Sr. worked for Frigidaire, a division of General Motors, and had shown some athletic talent at the high-school level but never progressed beyond his early promise. As a result, he transferred, to a certain extent, his athletic ambition to his sons, of whom Bob was the first, and consequently the first subject of his father’s hopes. “He told me I had a ‘golden arm’ when I was, like, 10,” recalls Pollard. “But he was more encouraging than pushy. If I had a bad game, he always said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He wasn’t like one of those Bobby Knight dads.”

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