Live Review: M. Ward, Oakland, CA, May 16, 2009

mward_370A less likely rock star than M. Ward hasn’t come down Oakland’s Nimitz Freeway in many a moon. With an almost awkward stage presence that kept the between-songs chatter to a bare minimum, and a “Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates” kind of singing voice, Ward relied heavily on his startling talent with the guitar and his undeniable ability to write songs you swear you’ve heard before—and take ones you do know in totally unexpected directions. Make no mistake about it, Matt Ward hung 10 tonight on a giant wave of fan adoration at the recently refurbished Fox Theater, an ancient movie palace whose sumptuous interior dates from somewhere in between the Indiana Jones and Fry’s Electronics dynasties.

Even the uninitiated should have had some idea what was coming tonight after what sounded like a hand-picked set of pre-concert tunes that included semi-obscure ’60s nuggets that ranged from Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By” to a Roger Miller double-play of “Dang Me” and “Chug-A-Lug.” It’s easy to see why Ward gets on so well with former Grandaddy studio rat (and recently launched solo artist) Jason Lytle. They both revere Brian Wilson and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne. Before he takes it in a totally different melodic direction, Ward’s “To Save Me” begins with a whisper of a quote from “You Never Can Tell,” a 1964 hit by Chuck Berry (whose rocking guitar was one of three ingredients Wilson used to create the Beach Boys’ trademark sound).

After a lovely live version of “To Save Me,” played by two guitars, keyboard, bass and drums, Ward revisited the Berry mother lode with a rollicking run-through of “Roll Over Beethoven,” much less refined than E.L.O.’s 1972 version, whose snippets of Ludwig Van’s famous Fifth Symphony must have caused the old dead gentleman to do a subterranean 360. Then, just to keep everyone on their toes, Ward unveiled his complete retooling of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On,” a highlight of Ward’s latest album, Hold Time. In his capable hands, the song trades Holly’s rockabilly hiccups and Lubbock yelp for tubular bells and a cherry-pie/coffee-shop ambience that makes it sound like it’s been cut by N.R.B.Q. under the direction of Phil Spector before he went off his trolley.

Ward has told me on several occasions that it’s the artist’s job to blur the lines between various elements in a song. For his solo-acoustic centerpiece tonight, he conjured the spirit (if not the letter) of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” on “Fuel For Fire,” originally found on 2005’s Transistor Radio. “Hold Time” did a fine job of further muddying the waters with a sighing, Harold Budd-like synthesizer worthy of an updated film-noir soundtrack that wheezed its way around a heavily echoed, Lynne-style vocal by Ward.

For all his pulling the rug out from under people’s musical expectations (a funereal re-invention of Don Gibson’s jaunty “Oh Lonesome Me” on Hold Time, for example), Ward could never have been the irritating dorm roommate who put a bucket of water over the door and waited for you to walk in. He’s more like the slightly weird comic-strip character Liō, who played tennis with a giant squid and a zombie on the same weekend you went home to get your laundry done.

—Jud Cost

“Rave On” (download):

TiVo Party Tonight: White Rabbits

tivo3rabitbEver wonder what will happen during the last five minutes of late-night TV talk shows? Here are tonight’s notable performers:

Late Show With David Letterman (CBS): White Rabbits
It’s a blessing and a curse to have someone like Spoon’s Britt Daniel produce your band’s record and be taken under his wing as an opening act. Such is the case with Brooklyn-via-Missouri outfit White Rabbits, whose sophomore album, It’s Frightening (on TBD, out tomorrow), has already been unable to escape comparisons to Spoon.

“The Plot” (download):

From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan’s “Together Through Life”

jwhlogofJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing all week. Read our Q&A with him.


John Wesley Harding: I’ve been enjoying the new Bob Dylan album, Together Through Life. The press reaction has been insane, a trend that started on 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, continued through 2001’s “Love And Theft” (a great record, remade here for the second time) and that reached ludicrous proportions for 2006’s very so-so Modern Times. The best piece I’ve read on Dylan for some years is Alexis Petridis’ review of the new record in The Guardian, not so much for his opinions of the record, but for the elegant and witty skewering of the current state of Bob worship. All the eulogies are particularly galling to Dylan fans of my vintage, who got into him when Dylan couldn’t buy a good review. 1981’s Shot Of Love didn’t get one; 1983’s Infidels was slammed; 1985’s Empire Burlesque was reviewed (quite fairly) on the basis of the “sports casual” jacket he was wearing on the cover; and then the albums got progressively worse before Dylan figured out how to connect to music again with the two traditional albums. None of this is Dylan’s fault. Critics are often an album or two behind. Together Through Life is perfectly fine, a lazy and charming record, full of old licks, mostly borrowed and blue, befitting an old man who’s done everything. If that’s what people want, then this is certainly worth five stars. It’s almost like Dylan has become fictional. I yearn for the next incarnation, beyond the moustachio’d Mr. Piano Man huckster, but I fear that this frock-length coat is very comfortable. I certainly agree with my friend Nige however, who prefers the sardonic resignation of “It’s All Good” to the more self-consciously pompous songs on Modern Times. My favorite track, “Shake Shake Mama” (a popular choice on the new record), is great fun, no better or worse than “Wiggle Wiggle” on 1990’s Under The Red Sky, a much-mocked track on a universally damned album.

I recently bought Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript, Barry Feinstein’s gorgeous book of photos, with Dylan’s text, forgotten since 1964 (even by Dylan). And wondrous it is, just like his liner notes all the way from 1964’s Another Side Of to 1993’s World Gone Wrong, a style that found its apotheosis in Dylan’s awesome 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Vol. One. The world wasn’t purely gloomy to Dylan in 1964, though there was plenty to be angry about. Nowadays, it’s all gloom, the corollary of which is nostalgia. Music isn’t what it used to be in Dylan’s youth; people aren’t in love like they used to be, ears are less impressive nowadays—just not quite as well-shaped. Beyond that, I don’t hear much being said. Nor is there any reason it should be. Why reviewers are, by and large, reviewing a different record, with stunning hooks, withering putdowns and hilarious jokes, I do not know. I honestly liked it more when Dylan was pissed off at you for not reading the Bible more closely. One more thing: the writing credit on the new record: “Bob Dylan with Robert Hunter.” What does that mean? Have you ever seen that credit ever anywhere? The specific word used in the Rolling Stone interview was “hired.” Does that mean, “I asked him to write some songs with me”? Or, “I paid him to work-for-hire rather than take royalties”? It was better, really, when it said, “Words and Music by Bob Dylan.”

“Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” (download):

MP3 At 3PM: Bowerbirds

bowerbirds390[Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller driving in the car listening to “Puff The Magic Dragon”]

Greg Focker: Who’d have thought it wasn’t about a dragon.
Jack Byrnes: Huh?
Greg Focker: Well, some people think that ‘to puff the magic dragon’ means to … puff … smoke … a marijuana cigarette.
Jack Byrnes: Puff is just the name of the boy’s magical dragon. You a pothead, Focker?
Greg Focker: No, I pass on grass always. Well not always.
Jack Byrnes: Yes or no?
Greg Focker: No, um, yes, um …

Here’s “Northern Lights” from Bowerbirds‘ forthcoming album Upper Air (due July 7 on Dead Oceans).

“Northern Lights” (download):

Q&A With John Wesley Harding

jwh550bJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes” (pronounced “Wez”), since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. I’ve known the guy since he and I both sat cooling our heels, waiting to speak to a very late-arriving Howe Gelb before a Giant Sand soundcheck at San Francisco’s I-Beam in 1989. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead (just released on the Popover/Rebel Group label), depicts an artist well aware of what he does best. Harding’s marvelously witty lyrics are surely being used somewhere by hip high-school English teachers to explain the wonders of poetry to gangling youth. Harding’s singing voice has become more emotion-wracked over the years, as clearly seen on a McCartney-esque performance of “My Favourite Angel,” which finds Harding soaring from hard-boiled to heartbroken in the space of a few measures. Backed by Scott McCaughey’s all-purpose utility infielders the Minus 5 (featuring ear-popping guitarist Kurt Bloch), “The End,” on the other hand, gives Harding a chance to rock hard for the first time in donkey’s years, a task he handles as deftly as he does a morning-time interview.

When MAGNET caught up with Harding at his Brooklyn pad, he politely declined a cup of digital espresso for obvious reasons: “It’s noon. I’ve got two small children. I don’t need coffee to get me going.” Well, actually, he might, as he will be guest editing this week.

“The End”:

“Top Of The Bottom”:

Continue reading “Q&A With John Wesley Harding”

Wrens Watch, May 18, 2009

wrenswatch92111111111We’ve been fans of New Jersey’s finest since even before their first album came out back in 1994, so let’s just say we’re used to sitting around waiting for them to take their sweet-ass time putting out new music. (Three albums in more than 14 years makes the Wrens about as prolific as Boston, which is kind of like being as tall as Emmanuel Lewis.) As reported in a Wrens Watch Special Report, January 9 marked a huge milestone for the guys: guitarists Charles Bissell and Greg Whelan, bassist Kevin Whelan and drummer Jerry MacDonald. They issued “Pulled Fences,” their first new (well, sort of new) song since 2003’s The Meadowlands. Perhaps motivated by finally releasing something, the band convened—not in a real studio, but in Kevin’s basement—17 weeks ago to begin work on its new album. And not only that, the Wrens recorded an actual song (which you can download for free here). When we checked in with Bissell 14 weeks ago, he took exception with our good-natured sarcasm and quickly ended the interview. After ignoring us for a while, Bissell finally gave us a progress report; it seems that while other bands get together and record, the Wrens stay apart and talk to each other on the phone. Or they do nothing at all. Or they update their Facebook pages. Nine weeks ago, Bissell informed us he was “too busy” to respond to our questions, but he did promise us some exclusive Wrens mp3s in the near future. Eight weeks ago, he didn’t even bother responding to our emails, prompting us to call him an unprolific Ryan Adams. That got Bissell’s attention, who seven weeks ago apologized (profanely) and promised us an exclusive Wrens mp3 for the April 6 Wrens Watch. After not delivering, he said he’d come through the next week, but he didn’t. When Bissell ignored us again (Wrens Watch, April 20 and April 27), we speculated the Wrens were actually recording or preparing for upcoming shows in George, Wash. (May 24) and Chicago (July 24 and 25). Or maybe Bissell was just being a jerk. But then he told us two weeks ago he’d have a new Wrens mp3 for us, possibly as soon as last week. And guess what? The man finally came through. Download a demo of “Z,” which was written and performed by Kevin, here. We emailed Bissell numerous times to thank him for “Z” and ask him how the new record is progressing, but once again, he was unresponsive. He might have been busy recording, but we wouldn’t be surprised if he was on vacation.

Live Review: Bottomless Pit, Pittsburgh, PA, May 15, 2009

bottomlesspit390Bottomless Pit shouldn’t even exist, but when a bizarre and tragic event took the life of Michael Dahlquist, drummer for the group Silkworm, in 2005, that treasure of a band appropriately folded and the remaining members (Andy Cohen and Tim Midgett) soon found their way back to the music in the form of Bottomless Pit. The band is looser and rangier and more serious-sounding, and you can hear the heartbreak and bewilderment and simple missing-you feelings in so much of Bottomless Pit’s mature, downcast guitar rock. (In case you don’t know the story: Dahlquist was killed on his lunch break along with two friends when a suicidal woman intentionally crashed her car into theirs, which was stopped at a traffic light. She lived and is now in jail.)

The Chicago-based Bottomless Pit has toured sparingly since forming about three years ago. A warm spring night in Pittsburgh found the band near the end of a few-days tour around the Midwest. The 31st Street Pub has a heavy-metal, biker-bar feel. There’s a display case of fake skulls and other freaky bones, and part of the ceiling is decorated in autographed symbols from drum kits. The Iron City beer is cheap. The place is rock ‘n’ roll. Opening, as usual when Bottomless Pit stops in Pittsburgh, was Karl Hendricks, a ‘burgh staple whose namesake Trio/Rock Band has been around for ages. It’s now a more back-burner concern for Hendricks, and he still puts out records but rarely plays live. You wouldn’t know it, though, as the three-piece didn’t exhibit any rust. Hendricks’ formidable guitar skills kept the set interesting despite the loud, murky sound and drowned-out vocals.

Expanded from Silkworm’s spare trio formation (Midgett has jumped from the bass to join Cohen on guitar, and the band is rounded out by Brian Orchard on bass and Chris Manfrin behind the drums), Bottomless Pit has a more layered and textured post-punk sound that delves into expansive classic-rock noodling and math-rock arrangements.The classic-rock leanings were most evident on the handful of new songs that opened the band’s set. Serious and stoic, Cohen and Midgett aren’t hell-raisers onstage. They executed their songs in a precise, thoughtful way, with the rhythm section so subtly holding down the back end that you sometimes forgot they were there. After the batch of promising new songs, the band played selections from its two records to date, 2007’s Hammer Of The Gods and 2008’s Congress EP, starting with the catchy “Dogtag,” which features a trademark driving chorus from Cohen. As with the Hendricks set, the sound at the club wasn’t as crisp as it could’ve been. Cohen has a great, flat Midwestern baritone that was lost in the mix. Despite that, it was a compelling, albeit brief show. There were a number of enthusiastic fans jumping around up front, but most people stood quietly listening, maybe seeing Bottomless Pit for the first time and not knowing the back story or maybe thinking about Silkworm and feeling that collective loss.

Bottomless Pit doesn’t play Silkworm songs. No one at any of the band’s shows I’ve seen has ever yelled for a Silkworm song. I think everyone just understands. They know you shouldn’t look back. While Midgett and Cohen have always appeared quite serious when playing, Dahlquist was the ham of Silkworm, almost always performing shirtless, talking to the crowd from behind the kit he played so thunderously, drenched in sweat and glee. That’s missing now. And that’s the heaviness and seriousness you feel at Bottomless Pit shows and on the band’s records. It’s an unsecret loss. When Midgett sang, “Silver moon/Hanging up in the sky/The same moon that you see/From the other side,” on the elegiac, set-closing “Red Pen,” you could feel a tangible weight because you knew exactly what he was talking about.

That was it. A few words of thanks. No encore. No frills. On the way out, I thanked Midgett for playing. While many of us wish Bottomless Pit didn’t ever form, we’re still very glad the band did.

—Doug Sell

“The Cardinal Movements” (download):

Film At 11: Monahans

We named Low Pining, the debut by Austin’s Monahans, one of the 10 best albums you didn’t hear in 2007, saying it was like the Friends Of Dean Martinez resting under the lush sonic boughs of The Joshua Tree. Try not to miss the boat with follow-up Dim The Aurora (Misra), because this ship occasionally abandons the moodcore tempo and moves at a comfortable, Joseph Arthur-like clip. Here’s the video for album track “It’s Enough To Leave You…”

From The Desk Of The Meat Puppets: Robert Burns (And Turds)

meat4logo100cTo have Cris Kirkwood back as the bassist of the Meat Puppets is nothing short of a miracle. The band he founded with his guitarist/vocalist brother Curt in 1980 broke up in 1996 due to Cris’ addiction to heroin and crack cocaine. In the ensuing years, Cris’ life spiraled far out of his control as he lost his wife to a drug overdose and spent 18 months in prison for attacking a post-office security guard. Now, almost four years clean and sober, Cris is gearing up to hit the road in support of the band’s 12th studio album, Sewn Together. Before he does, Cris will spend the week guest editing Read our new Q&A with Cris and our 2007 career overview of the Meat Puppets.

robert-burns354Cris Kirkwood: While sitting around trying to come up with something pithy with which to conclude my stint as guest editor of, I realized that, heck, maybe the best I have to offer—and what the world just might need—really is, after all, another tale about turds. Or better yet, several! And so I was gonna share with you the one about the mummified log in our Grandma’s attic, and another about the tent on the tip of Long Island awash in the liquified shit of a young American punk-rock band. But then, once again, I found I have misgivings, given the somewhat questionable politesse in regard to all things fecal, and yet, somehow, poo—the very essence of our ubiquitous lifelong companion, doo-doo—seems to encompass a certain sense of the things of which I wish to impart, to exude, I feel, just the right note with which to leave you. And yet, we’re talkin’ about doody, so I’m torn. What to do, what to do. Wait, I know: a quote from the classics! “An’ singin there, an’ dancin here/Wi’ great and sma’.” Robert Burns. Phew, thanks, Bob. I mean, come on, poopy-caca?! Yuck! I’m outta’ here. Bearers, fetch my litter!

This concludes “Meat Puppets Week” here at Thanks to Cris Kirkwood for all of the crazy and entertaining stuff he covered. Be sure to check out Sewn Together.