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Music Reviews

Bill MacKay

Bill MacKay

Esker

Drag City

There’s a hillbilly fiddle sound we all associate with the bluegrass movement and the Grand Old Opry. That’s where the roots of Bill MacKay’s sound reach down to, but he’s grown far above that. MacKay mixes traditional instruments with elements of the New Age sound, light rock, and avant-garde. It’s all instrumental, but it’s not all the same.

“Persona” opens with the same single string line that began “I Think We’re Alone Now” then shifts into a mutating rhythm overlaid with long slowly modulated violin notes. Odd scratching percussion, a broken rain stick, and a sense of menace complete what isn’t exactly a tune, and isn’t exactly a soundscape. “Powder Mill Park” begins as an electric blues song would, but never picks up the angry intensity a wronged woman or a cheating man. It’s a steady beat; interesting in its own right and with the backbone to stand up to any improvisation by drum or key board.

Aster might be a soundtrack to an indie film that never emits a spoken word; all of MacKay’s compositions have that intense ecstasy that creation can give a man with musical skills. No twist and shout here, just a solid musicianship derived from the roots of Americana and sure to set newer composers in motion.

www.dragcity.com/artists/bill-mackay

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Music Reviews

Chivalrous Amoekons

Chivalrous Amoekons

Fanatic Voyage

Drag City

The genesis for this project came about while Will Oldham was touring Europe with his Bonnie “Prince” Billy band. They worked up enough Mekons songs to do a full set of the legendary eclectic bands material. That was in 2012. Four years later, Oldham and Angel Olsen are bringing their Mekons tribute to the masses as the Chivalrous Amoekons. Oldham has paid tribute to the Mekons before with his old band, Palace Brothers (For the Mekons, et al). Will also earned deputy Mekons status when he filled in for Tom Greenhalgh on tour.

The Mekons are such a unique collective that I never imagined anyone covering their songs. At first it felt really strange hearing, “The Curse” played by someone else. But then, hearing someone else re-imagining these songs reminds me just how good the Mekons can be as song writers. The Chivalrous Amoekons rendering on “One x One” has the stately grandeur of a Fairport Convention song. The lead off track, “The Curse” is rendered as a relaxed, country shuffle (a dramatic contrast to the originals claustrophobic density). The rootsy version of “Big Zombie” turns the fear and loathing into a square dance stomp. I never imagined “Last Dance” as a vehicle for kazoo, but it works.

In keeping with the Mekons long standing commitment to social causes, proceeds from Fanatic Voyage will go to The Roots of Music project in New Orleans. The organization empowers local youth through music education, academic support and mentorship. What better way to pay it forward than to nurture the next generations in a place so synonymous with music?

dragcity.com

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Print Reviews

White Glove Test: Louisville Punk Flyers 1978-1994

White Glove Test: Louisville Punk Flyers 1978-1994

by Mike Bucayu, Steve Driesler, Tim Furnish John Kampschaefer, Douglas Maxson, and Shawn Severs.

Drag City

I arrived in L.A. the day after Black Flag started a riot at the Starwood. Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” blared on the radio as I followed that new Route 66 called “Interstate-40” from school house to adulthood. Punk was everywhere from the Midwest to NYC to nearly every city with a college campus in between. Even remote Louisville had a scene; although I never heard the Babylon Dance Band or the Blinders or The End Tables I still can smell the body odor and spilled beer and inaccurate urination practices in the men’s room from each of their gigs. While few of these bands made it anywhere outside their area code, they all spun out a stack of zines and the telephone pole posters that somehow survived till today. I fell in love with these posters as much as the sound: crudely made, sexual or sacrilegious, and always ways promising show that might well disappoint or end in bodily injury. The posters in this book evoke a remote time and place as clearly as any art can, they evoke another time and place as Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Belle Époque advertisements, Victor Moscoso’s psychedelic rock posters, or Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Rat Fink bubble gum cards. This collection of Louisville-centric posters is every bit as exciting as the long gone bands were and in some cases I sense that this MIGHT be every single poster for every single gig some of these bands presented.

Today we Photoshop, back then we doodled. Bands cut and pasted found art and photocopied photocopies to get a bleached out high-contrast look. The aim was not delicate shading or accurate line work; it was to impress an aggressive image onto that small subset of the populace eager to attend an afterhours house show in a dump bar in a dangerous part of town. They didn’t want guitar expertise; they wanted guitar catharsis and were willing to take a beating to get it. In this collection you see an evolution of artistic styles: drummers became better at lettering; a few bands scraped up the money to pay for colored ink and not just colored paper; big name bands like The Untouchables and D.O.A. contributed art from actual art school students. Today these bands are mostly gone; the members dead or employed in the sort of dead end jobs they warned themselves about as they mimic their parents and complain about Skrillex and Taylor Swift. So often all we have left of these deceased civilizations are memories of flamed out parties and forgotten boxes of undistributed advertising. That’s what this collection is: the collective remembrance of a distant generation and a scene so small and fragile two trucks full of rednecks could have whupped everyone in town. But they were there, damn it, and they were LOUD. This book is their last echo.

www.dragcity.com

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Music Reviews

Black Bananas

Black Bananas

Physical Emotions

Drag City

It’s logical that a band that makes genre-defying, tangled music would have an equally convoluted background. Producer, model, and frontwoman extraordinaire Jennifer Herrema’s Black Bananas feature the same lineup as her previous band, RTX, whose second album, Western Xterminator included a song called “Black Bananas.” Some members of RTX were holdovers of Herrema’s first band, Royal Trux. Still following? Good. In addition to Drag City putting out virtually every album by the three bands, the Chicago label’s very first release was a single by Royal Trux.

The Black Bananas serve up a 7″ single in advance of their second album. The quintet gets its funk on with “Physical Emotions.” The club-worthy tune satisfies with bouncy keyboards and a stompy bass. Herrema’s vocoder-treated voice blankets the track with just the right amount of swagger. The B-side, “T.V. Trouble (Hot Chip Remix)”, is a reworking of the second song off the Black Bananas’ debut album. The double length remake replaces the original track’s ’80s guitars and galloping keyboards with modern synths.

“T.V. Trouble (Hot Chip Remix)” is the musical embodiment of the 7″ album cover. All glittery, garish colors, the cover features a woman standing against a brick wall with two bananas shooting out each side of her torso. The peels are black monster faces with boots, feathers, and a random battle ax hanging off. The pouty-lipped woman is casually giving the finger as she rests her left hand by her pants’ pocket. None of this is noticeable upon first glance. “T.V. Trouble (Hot Chip Remix)” is similarly layered and becomes more interesting with each listen. While the lyrics are pretty straightforward (“I like to watch TV/ it’s the only thing that soothes me”), the music offers many twists and turns. The track begins and ends with 60 seconds of menacing beats and icy notes. The middle four minutes feature a weave of rat-a-tat drums, stunned guitar riffs, and staccato keyboard chords. However, the busy song never confounds. But really, did you think the Black Bananas would dish out a simple track?

www.blackbananasband.com

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Music Reviews

The Black Bananas

The Black Bananas

Rad Times Express IV

Drag City

The Black Bananas are like a torrent: a bunch of seemingly unrelated bits + pieces whose end product is wildly impressive, though inexplicable. The band’s history is just as complex, and — frankly — too confusing to get too deeply into. Here’s the Spark Notes version: Royal Trux morphed into RTX (Rad Times Express) which gave birth to The Black Bananas whose debut record is called Rad Times Express IV. Jennifer Herrema is the common denominator that holds the equation in place, and her mastery has never sounded fresher.

Everything got thrown into the blender on this one, making it simultaneously the most schizophrenic, genre-less record I’ve heard in years. Robotic voices and computer blips rub up against ’70s disco beats (“Acid Song”). Computers are king with loops and samples layering up, around, and behind prog rock guitar riffs like Peaches being backed by Yes (“Hot Stupid,” “Do It”). If there was an app that could create the audio equivalent of the 1980s (yes, the whole decade) throwing up into a ghetto blaster, “RTX Gogo” may just be that song — and I mean that in the best way. “My House” sounds like 21st Century Def Leppard, and “Foxy Playground” is crazy, sexy funk with a mean beat.

Needless to say, this album is not going to grab everyone, but one song that might is “Rad Times.” If ever there’s an easy-to-grasp single here, it’s this one, dabbling in funk, pop, arena rock, electro, and kitchen sink computer effects without burying the melody too deeply. It’s the first song that grabs me, and still my “go-to” track.

The Black Bananas’ journey through music history BLAST wraps up with the Joan Jett-meets-Motorhead celebration of all things green, “Killer Weed.”

The Black Bananas: www.blackbananasband.com

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Music Reviews

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Overloaded Ark

Drag City

Ghost’s Masaki Batoh and The Espers’ Helena Espvall have been cultivating a productive relationship these past two years. They released a self-titled album in 2008 and toured the US in support of it. In 2009, Espvall was welcomed into Batoh’s Ghost collective for their most recent US tour. Just a few months after that wrapped up, the duo released their second collection of songs, Overloaded Ark.

As with their first collaboration, Espvall and Batoh’s work is equally about putting new interpretations on existing work as it is about composing their own. Of the nine tracks that make up the album, five are covers of disparate national and temporal origins: there are back-to-back songs — “Sueno Con Serplentes” and “Pro Peccatis Suae Gentis/Nun Fanget An” — that were written by a Cuban singer-songwriter born in the 1940s and a Franco-Flemish classical composer from the 1500s, respectively.

The experimental filter Espvall and Batoh fashion over this project is something of a marvel because there’s such a graceful unity to all of these tracks. They accomplish this largely by drawing from unusual regional folk instruments from all over the world and combining them in previously untested ways. The opener “Little Blue Dragon” is perhaps the best example of this, featuring warbling Eastern pipes and shambolic banjo each vying for rhythmic lead.

In keeping with Batoh’s psychedelic tendencies, there are a number of drone tracks that break the 10-minute mark. The title track is one of these beasts; it rides on a tribal drum groove that’s overlaid with phase-shifting ambient hiss, but grows more organic as acoustic guitar and strings take the spotlight in turn. There are moments of intensity and restraint and these peaks and valleys keep everything engaging.

“Until Tomorrow” and the gorgeous closer “Sham no umi” are jams more in line with Batoh’s full-time outfit, Ghost. They’re rife with a space-folk quality that feels airless and huge, like careening slowly through the upper layers of the atmosphere. These tracks along with “Sueno” highlight the pair’s exquisite vocal melodies.

Avant-folk of this style and simplicity is such a rarity these days that one hopes Espvall and Batoh can keep mining the rich fields of traditional regional music for many releases to come.

Drag City: www.dragcity.com

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Music Reviews

Espers

Espers

III

Drag City

It really seems like freak-folk went out with more of a whimper than a bang. A few years ago, there was a plethora of dashikied troubadours injecting all sorts of hard-drug psychedelica into their acoustic guitar strums. While perhaps not on the front line of this movement, Philadelphia, PA’s The Espers definitely laid down some mystically pastoral numbers in the middle of the ’00s. With their third release, III, the group is sloughing off the sun-refracted ethereal and embracing the nocturnal.

The band songwriters Meg Baird and Greg Weeks continue to refine their grasp of quality folk this time around. There’s a slow burning quality to tracks like “I Can’t See Clear,” “Caroline,” and “The Pearl” that hews as close to traditional old English folk as anything in their back catalog. Thankfully, the Espers haven’t become remotely codified in their sound, and tastefully inject synth atmospherics and a couple of rippling guitar solos. “Sightings” has the gorgeously windswept and spacious feeling of Japan’s great Nagisa Ni Te.

Even when the album reaches its more sinister spots, as on the pair of Black Heart Procession-esque mortuary waltzes “That Which Darkly Thrives” and “Meridian,” an almost calming air prevails. The adjective “pastoral” when applied to music almost always connotes a sunny, brightly-hued sound. It’s easy to forget that those pastures still exist at night, and III is a prime document of their beauty.

Drag City: www.dragcity.com

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Music Reviews

Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts

The Wyrd Meme

Drag City

It must have been sometime in the mid-’00s that the title “singer/songwriter” became synonymous with the hacky, be-stubbled men of whine-rock. To attach such a pejorative to Alasdair Roberts would be doing him a great disservice; the man is a troubadour in the purest and oldest sense of the word.

Roberts has spent the last decade honing a voice in English folk that’s run the gamut between mythic slowcore in Appendix Out — his first recording moniker — and his self-penned ballads that feel centuries old. Earlier this year Roberts released Spoils, a record full of instrumental arrangements and orchestrated clangor. With The Wyrd Meme he draws the scope of his sound back a bit. Most the music here is acoustic guitar, its strings plucked classically. Roberts weaves a very rich layer of melody on his own especially considering how mutable he views his six-string — on the opening track “The Hallucinator and the King of the Silver Ship of Time,” he retunes the low E string down and back up again to give the song’s middle verse an entirely different emotional charge. Elsewhere, when Roberts slips in contemporary musical flourishes, as with the electronic fog clouding over “The Yarn Unraveller” and the herky-jerky ominous electric guitar lead which burst out during the Lovecraftian Ouroubouros attack in “The Royal Road at the World’s End,” he does it with subtlety that adds to the surreality of his compositions. It’s not a perfect analogue yet, but Alasdair Roberts has been heading down the same weird pastoral paths Van Morrison trekked on Astral Weeks. In 2009 that’s a fine place to be for a fantasy folklorist.

Drag City: www.dragcity.com

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Music Reviews

Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts

Spoils

Drag City

Since disbanding his post-folk project Appendix Out in 2001, Scottish troubadour Alasdair Roberts has made increasingly more traditional approaches to folk music. While his former band diffused arcane melodies through a haze of effects and psychedelic production, his solo work is largely unfiltered and organic, but still results in some wonderfully unexpected turns. The opener, “The Flyting of Grief and Joy (Eternal Return),” begins with a Medieval courtly air wrought from viol and harpsichord while Roberts intones a ballad of an epic battle of generations. Near the song’s mid-point the archaic instrumentation drops out and a loose electric guitar groove slips in for a country folk revival similar to Will Oldham. The stately air returns at the song’s close, book-ending the song’s aural time travel. It’s probably the best opening statement on a Roberts album since Farewell Sorrow‘s title track.

“You Muses Assist” and “So Bored Was I (Dark Triad)” maintain the pastoral, unhurried jamming spirit of the opener, stretching out lazily in a number of different time signatures and arrangements from their roots. Unfortunately, “Unyoked Oxen Turn” takes this meandering template and doesn’t plot out much of a reward in either its wry lyric of a man who runs around trying to find his legs or the seemingly endless vocal round at the end of the song’s title.

The gorgeous closer “Under No Enchantment (But My Own)” brings things back into focus. It sees Roberts returning to a simple finger-picking arrangement on an acoustic guitar and a slow, droning bloom of instrumental heft to support his weary reflections.

It might not be quite as luminous a document as Appendix Out’s The Night is Advancing, but Spoils is another fine addition to Alasdair Roberts’ weird folk songbook.

Drag City: www.dragcity.com

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Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Helena Espvall & Masaki Batoh

Drag City

Last summer a friend of mine best described my taste in music as “Japandinavian”: a mixture of Swedish pop/folk and Japanese psychedelic noise. I’ll admit, they’re fairly disparate styles, destined rarely to meet, but I’m constantly holding out hope that some magical spawn of their dialectic will cross my path. In this light, Helena Espvall and Masaki Batoh’s one-off jam project is a tailor-made revelation. She plays cello in freak-folk weirdo band The Espers and he’s one of the modern gurus of Japanese folk noise with Ghost. They’re both known for their improvisational prowess and, after a chance meeting, decided to let their mutual muse move them and record an album together. The result is a wide range of loose, rustic workouts, where full-on drone experiments bloom into new arrangements of Swedish and Finnish folk songs — “Kling Klang” and “Uti Var Hage” being the best of these — and bend back into Batoh’s mossy tributes to the natural world.

On record, Espvall takes command of these songs by providing vocals, acoustic guitar and cello drones, while Batoh colors the surrounding aether with electric guitar, hurdy gurdy, and assorted other ancient ephemera. Throughout, they find a great balance between form and freedom, the indistinct haze of a daydream and an ever-present anchor in reality. It’s the same kind of mystical slant to folk music that Appendix Out perfected: otherworldly but not wholly alien.

Batoh is most strongly felt on his original “Zeranium,” the alternately feverish and drug-addled spin on Son House’s blues classic “Death Letter” and on the gorgeously wistful/tense closer “Kyklopes.” This track is the closest the duo gets to Ghost’s art-folk sound collage, but it’s amazing to hear Espvall’s cello threading heavily through Batoh’s sparse clatterings.

Most of the music on here is largely unscripted, and what ended up on this album could’ve easily taken a radically different path on another take. Luckily, I was able to catch the final show of the short tour Espvall and Batoh booked in support of this album. The songs took on a radically different shape, with Batoh’s looped, heavily-affected noise turning the ambient opener “Polska” into a howling maelstrom. The duo’s sound still floated along with an air of formlessness, but it wound its way through more sinister and ominous territory than what was translated on their recorded versions.

Both live and recorded, these songs and non-songs have a simple beauty that would be lost if overly studied. Since it’s fairly unlikely these two will get time away from their respective outfits to tour together again, this album might be your only change to experience true Japandinavian music at its finest. Don’t miss it.

Drag City: www.dragcity.com