T. Hardy Morris, of Dead Confederate and Diamond Rugs, made a sublime record in 2013 called Audition Tapes that I fell in love with. The Athens, Georgia native was favorably compared to folks such as Elliot Smith or a more rambunctious Neil Young, and it fits. On his third solo record, Dude, The Obscure, Morris expands his southern slacker sound to include moments such as the Will Oldham-influenced “The Night That Everything Changed”- featuring woozy atmospheres, or “Homemade Bliss” which sounds a bit like U2, if they grew up surrounded by Georgia kudzu instead of Irish peat.
The somber “Cheating Life, Living Death” features the haunting refrain of “I trust you more than I trust myself” over muted acoustic guitar whereas “Stage Names” uses a spritely electric guitar part to counterbalance the message of “Nobody’s buying/I’m not selling”, all delivered in Morris’ “just woke up” vocal style which reminds you of region-mate MT Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger). The pedal steel touches of Matt Stoessel are used to great effect throughout, although not as much as on Audition Tapes.
Morris is one of those acts who could open a show for say, The Low Anthem, and then strap on the Telecaster to join up with the Drive-By Truckers, and gain fans either way. If you’re a fan of Palace, Smog or perhaps Skip Spence, check out T. Hardy Morris. He’s strangely beguiling amid the kudzu.
As a rule, child prodigies, while being perhaps technically proficient, rarely have anything to say. For every Derek Trucks, who I saw play the most daring and emotional slide guitar – at age 13– you have ten “phenoms” who do nothing but race up and down the guitar neck trying to shred ala Van Halen or play endless pentatonic four note solos in a vain attempt to “play da bluz” like SRV.
Well, meet the exception to the rule, Sammy Brue. At age 15, I Am Nice is his 3rd release (he put out 2 EPs by age 14) and he’s been writing songs since he was 10. Don’t know about you, but I could barely spell my name at that age, much less create anything of worth. And as the 12 cuts contained on his newest release show, Brue shows a maturity beyond his years, while still maintaining a youthful sense of the world. Produced by Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes) and John Paul White (The Civil Wars) and recorded in Muscle Shoals country of Florence, Alabama, he sounds completely natural on cuts such as “I Know” or the doo-wop Dion flavored “Was I The Only One”. Brue never tries to mimic, instead letting his steady acoustic guitar and plaintive vocals state his case. “I Never Said” floats in on his understated guitar in tandem with Tanner’s piano before a lovely string arrangement gives his tale of woe – “I never said I didn’t love ya, I said I’m sorry” – a sense of expansiveness and lift.
I Am Nice isn’t all fingerpicked guitar and songs of young love, however. “Control Freak” is a nice, power pop enthused rocker that will have you dancing in your skinny tie, and the albums closer, “Salty Times”, with its downbeat guitar and echoed percussion wouldn’t sound out of place on a Will Oldham record. The whole record feels true and honest – something that performers twice Brue’s age can’t achieve consistently, and it boggles the mind how good he will be in 10 years. But for now, I Am Nice captures a young man’s view of the world, completely unique and heartfelt, and thanks to Tanner and White, aurally pleasing.
When Sammy Brue gets old enough, I’ll buy him a beer. He’s earned it.
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?
Jon Langford, Fred Armisen, Will Oldham, Jonathan Franzen, Sally Timms
Music Box Films
“How do you have an amateur band as a career?” is a question asked by filmmaker Mary Harron early in the new documentary Revenge of the Mekons. We all know what the traditional measure of a successful band is; sell lots of records, make lots of money, sell out stadiums and have your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s nice if you can get it, but most people putting together a band are never going to reach those great heights. This retelling of the Mekons story offer an alternative model of success where sustained creativity is it’s own reward.
The Mekons began as a bunch of art students at Leeds University in 1977 caught up in the ferment of punk rock. From their first single, “Never Been in a Riot,” (their response to the Clash’s single, “White Riot,”) the band has taken a contrarian stance where telling the truth and being true to themselves has been their guiding principal.
Revenge of the Mekons looks at the group’s evolution over the past 38 years. The film highlights pivot points in the band’s life. It’s fascinating to see how the inspirations came from unlikely places. How an original member of the Rolling Stones (Dick Taylor) joined the band. How an ethnomusicologist studio owner got them thinking about their music as part of the folk tradition. How a Chicago DJ got them interested in old time honky-tonk music, which led to a sort of apprenticeship with an all but forgotten country band called the Sundowner.
Like a musical version of Doctor Who, the Mekons periodically regenerate. Their country influenced phase was followed by a concerted effort to be a commercial rock and roll band with ill fated tenures at A&M records and Warner Brothers. The Mekons finally found a home with Touch and Go records who saw them through the end of their career as a hard touring rock band and through their phase as an arts collective and experimental theater group doing collaborative theater pieces with novelist Kathy Acker (Pussy, King of the Pirates) and director Vito Acconci.
The greatest revelations are the sidebars about the members projects outside of the Mekons. Jon Langford’s extra Mekons projects are relatively well known. He leads his own bands, is in the Waco Brothers and is a successful painter. Rico Bell is also a successful painter. Suzie Honeyman owns an art gallery with her husband Jock McFadyen called Grey Gallery. Sally Timms had a stint as Cowboy Sally on a kids TV show and helped her then husband, Fred Armisen, to shift his focus from music to comedy. I am somewhat in awe of Lu Edmunds extra Mekons activities. Beyond playing with other bands such as PiL, he travels throughout central Asia working with local musician. Lu shows musicians in places like Kazakstan and Tazikastan how to use a laptop computer and some inexpensive microphones to record their own music.
The great thing about the Mekons, is they show us that it’s ok to follow your muse. It’s ok to try something and fail, try something else and see how that works. Money and fame are all good, but the Mekons give a solid example of how to keep going and creating. As author Jonathan Frazen says in the film, “It’s not that they teach you how to win, they teach you how to be gracious and amusing losers.”
Author’s Note: When the Mekons United show was in Lakeland, Florida, I covered the event for the Lakeland Ledger. They also graced my late night show on community radio station, WMNF as collective guest host. I basically turned my show, Moe’s Garage, over to the band. It was a chaotic blend of country, classic rock, dub reggae, punk and other diverse influences. It was one of the most interesting shows I ever did.
Given that Matthew Houck’s (aka Phosphorescent) latest album was an intensely personal and solitary experience, a warm and languid pool of twilit hymns and crystalline confessions in thrall to Neil Young, Will Oldham, and the Cocteau Twins, one might be concerned with how his music would translate to the smoky and more social confines of a nightclub. I needn’t have fretted about such things. Besides being a songwriter and singer of tremendous emotion and creativity, I was more than a little fucking surprised to see that Houck was a showman as well.
A friend who’d scoped out Phosphorescent several times before told me pre-show that half the reason he was here was to see what kind of backing ensemble would constitute Phosphorescent tonight. He’d seen quartet and solo configurations before. This time around Houck would pluck out most of the members of truly decent opening band Virgin Forest (who had a Cardinals or mebbe Gram Parsons vibe going) and set them to work remaking and remodeling his songs, but not in the ramshackle way you’d expect from an ad hoc touring ensemble. No, the interplay between Houck and the Forest was tight, exuberant and empathetic, taking the songs of newest album Pride out of the dimly lit confines of the bedroom and confidently shimmering and shimmying under the bright lights of the stage.
Like I said, against all my preconceivin’ odds, Mr. Phosphorescent is a confident, compelling frontman. He’s rail thin and about ten feet tall, head framed by corkscrew curls and a bushy beard (like a young David Crosby or Liam Hayes), clad in rebel black. He strikes poses and whoops it up somewhere between an outlaw country ruffian, madman choir director, and Nick Cave, leeeeeeaning his head back to hit triumphant high notes, teetering uncertainly on the lip of the stage, moving his arms in broad swoops, exhorting us all to sing along as one. It’s a thrilling transformation. Are his band wallflowers? Nope. Nope. They become an inseparable part of the Phosphorescent equation — less session musicians or hired hands — more like the E Street Band to his Bruce Springsteen, the Bad Seeds to his Nick Cave, and the Hawks/Band to his Bob Dylan. Yeah, I know it seems kinda weird that I’d throw out those particular names, but there’s a method to my hyperbole. See, somewhere along the way tonight, Phosphorescent took the songs from the stellar Pride and the lesser Aw Come Aw Wry albums and recast the hymns as anthems. And not just any anthems, these are joyous, communal war whoops.
Solitary confessions become all-hands-on-deck soaring country rock gloriousness, buoyed along by a pounding rhythm section, fluid chiming guitars, incredible mercury keyboard, and call-and-response gospel-ish triumphalism. Check out the way that the Simon and Garfunkel “The Boxer”-meets-drumline ambiance of “A Death, A Proclamation” becomes a full-blooded country-ROCK raveup. Oh, and if I remember correctly, he covered a George Jones song! This is the way it’s gonna be tonight. Everyone on that stage looks absolutely ecstatic at being able to make such a glorious noise, and brother, it spreads throughout the whole joint like wildfire. It’s like a damn revival meeting, a barndance, a Midnight Ramble, if you will. We won’t let him leave, so Houck comes out for two encores, the last playing songs like “Joe Tex, These Taming Blues” all by himself and including one begging a lover not to leave. Which is funny. Because he’s smiling beatifically. And because by then we all feel a little less lonely.
Only two people could make music as uncluttered and focused as Sing The Burning Alphabet, like a whispered conversation at 2am when you don’t want to wake the people in the next room, like a glance shared that speaks volumes. Vocalist/guitarist David Hickox (one half of the Broken Letters) delivers his lyrics in a style similar to Bonnie Prince Billy, maybe a psalmist in your local church, or a male Liz Frasier, a quavery, clear sigh of a voice, lending solemn dignity to the his puzzle box parable lyrics, lyrics that gradually unspool into devotionals and loving evocations of something just out of reach, occasionally given a response and a harmony by drummer Brad Davis, making the whole thing just a little less lonely. But more lonely at the same time? Together, Hickox and Davis, as the Broken Letters, weave a bewitching, almost unbearably sad, earthen web of spare guitar and drums, rising and falling in sympathetic response to one another, like Low at their best, the quiet of the room a third near-silent partner. Guitars chime high and lonesome, sharp as a needle or clear as blue water. The drums finish every sentence and lend a necessary gravity to the flight-bound harmonies.
It seems to me that the Broken Letters and doom/drone duo OM are operating on similar wavelengths, using basic electric tools and the quiet between notes and a certain saddened modal drone as methods of exploring a VERY individual vision of spirituality and transcendence. But whereas OM’s Al Cisneros reminds one of some sort of Buddhist monk or gnostic mystic from ages past, the Broken Letters’ (lack of) faith, and I really fucking hate to toss that word around all flippity-floppety — for all we know they might be the most secular humanist dudes in the world (I figure all of this blinding light comes from inside, anyway), is rooted in the red clay and mud of their Alabama Baptist upbringing, great big wooden churches, still nights with the crickets buzzing, deserted streets, and fervent gospel choirs.
I fucking dig how Broken Letters are stretching the duo format away from noisier excursions to a quieter, more holy place. Of course, they’re from the South, you could tell in a second — can’t fake this kind of wide-open melancholy hauntedness. Sing The Burning Alphabet is rudimentary and effective music. You’re probably going to be thinking to yourself that the instrumental parts would be bloody simple to play, but you wouldn’t even come close to recapturing the moment. That moment.
A very intense hush. A very quiet ecstasy.
P.S. I saw a picture one of them wearing a Carcass t-shirt. Give it a million stars!
While first opening this disc, I was like, “Bonus! Double album by two bands! Did they fight over top billing?” But no worries, because both Ponieheart and Crane Orchard are songwriting outlets for one Paul Fugazzotto II — and it’s a pretty interesting move to put two side projects together as one package, in an attractive cardboard casing, no less. The stylistic differences between the two outfits were wide enough that I had to read the press release before I made the connection (I’m slow). Is it just me or do the liner notes shout out a number of indispensable death metal classics by the likes of Entombed (Clandestine? Good fucking eye there, Johnny Dordevic ruled it with his sole vocal outing), Godflesh, and Carcass? I like this already.
Crane Orchard’s contribution begins with a guitar vamp that’s straight out of “Rumble” strapped to a good slice of post-millennial dread à la Radiohead, complete with heartbeat/life support effects, a nervous falsetto, and avant-garde hymnal shapes. “Bitter” has the unsteady gait of a Codeine daze, swaying waltz-like and unsteady under a kitchen sink’s worth of cabaret instrumentation, bubbling under heavily reverbed guitar waves and stumbling drums. Elsewhere they dabble in sad bossa-psychedelia (“Please Forgive Me”) and Billy Bragg-goes-electro earnestness (“Dirty”). Then “Friend” takes us out with a one-two punch and angelic boy vocals floating contentedly on a dense cloud of organs, burbling bass, chiming guitars, and stoned ’60s melodies.
Ponieheart’s disc is more rough and fraught with bruised pride proudly on display. It strips away many of the grander post-rock orchestration of Crane Orchard down to just guitar, voices, and spare rhythm box. Check out the droning hum of acoustic guitar strings and the Will Oldham-esque vocal quaver of “Hold The Line.” It’s an album of quiet pauses and unsettling, hurt vocals that soar into dramatic falsettos and brittle but intimate instrumentation. Please note that the songs “Breece Pancake” and “Swamp” appear on both discs in radically different incarnations. You probably won’t wear either of these bands’ patches on your denim jacket, but listening to this split release is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
Playing in a folk-rock band myself and getting paired with many similar sounding groups on tour, Bowerbirds have a sound that’s very familiar to me. It’s got quiet and elegant arrangements for acoustic instruments — guitar, banjo, violin, cello, accordion — and a quavering voice like Devendra Banhart or Antony. It’s old-fashioned, but far from dated and contemporary enough to have not yet reached timelessness. Tracks like “In Our Talons” have the strongest communal vibe with soaring vocal harmonies several times over stating “you’re not alone” and a melody from the bellows sure-footed enough to get people dancing. Perhaps the best aspect of the group is they aren’t taking liberties with what constitutes folk music (there are no subtle attempts at modernization via electronic or electric instruments) nor do they rely on old technology to give their songs a false aging. The production is clean and completely lacking in pretense. In this environment the raw, tribal force of the bass drum and tom pounding can shape the rhythms for string melodies to paint dusky hues. It’s campfire music; a nomadic sound that’s not tied to civilization for its power. The disc’s crowning moment is “Olive Hearts” a low rumbling sea shanty that finds joy paying tribute to emotional strength. It’s a wonderfully irony-free statement from a band that’s sure to become an important member of the indie folk community.
Sharp Teeth begins with perhaps the most satisfying and soothing album introduction I’ve heard this year. Built around the vocal refrain of “there is a feeling you just can’t explain/there is a joy that you can’t contain,” a simple acoustic melody and shuffling beat are lifted toward the heavens on a tower of soaring strings. With this precedent set, Daniels has his work cut out for him. Thankfully he succeeds on nearly every level. Tracks like “Scripts” and “Beast” feel slightly naked and aimless in their opening minutes before Daniels and his guest players gather together enough errant sound and melody to give the listener an unexpected but exquisite punch.
Thanks to tracks like “Jesus and the Devil,” a unique spin on religion and faith sung in a croaky tenor, comparisons with Will Oldham are unavoidable and not entirely unfounded, but Daniels tempers his humble Ozarkian diction with powerfully assertive vocals. It’s as if Oldham were somehow possessed by the ghost of Jeff Buckley. What links Daniels and Oldham most strongly is their ability to excel with the basest structures of song. Aside from the brilliant opener, the disc’s best track is its parting shot, “We Go Right On.” Stepping up from humble beginnings and quietly massing sound before reaching the determined and unstoppable refrain, it might not be overwhelmingly positive in content, but it certainly is in delivery. And with most large-scale vocal folk music being Sufjan-ized to feel like a grade school history pageant, it’s nice to hear some that has the still has the power to touch listeners on a personal level.
One of the greatest things about a new Early Day Miners’ release is you can never be completely sure what to expect. Since the band’s formation in the late ’90s they’ve tried their hand at slow-core, post-rock, americana, ambient, experimentalism and hard-driving indie rock. With Offshore it feels like all the remnants have been gathered together by songwriter Daniel Burton into one cohesive but expansive statement.
The disc opens with the sure-footed percussive assault of “Land of Pale Saints,” a nine-plus minute instrumental sprawl awash in guitar feedback. It’s all held in tight check by the rhythm section before giving way gently to a bed of strings to thread through the ambient afterthoughts of fading guitars. Lyric tracks “Deserter” and the sublime “Sans Revival” rise from the slowly spreading ashes of this track. The former being the more modest of the two, while the latter builds in full shoegazer glory to a plea to run “hand in hand away from destruction, into desertion.”
Black Mountain’s Amber Weber picks up the vocals on “Return of the Native,” the closest this disc offers to the stark americana of the band’s previous album. Gentle electronics glide in the background, while a slide guitar lilts softly and brushed drums propel the song peacefully toward the droning waves unfurled in “Silent Tents.” The closer “Hymn Beneath the Palisades” revisits the opening track’s riffs, magnifying their intensity and eventualy collapsing everything in a hard rock fury.
While not as immediately accessible as their lyric-driven work, Offshore is ultimately as satisfying as anything else in the band’s lexicon. It’s an album to soak in, to get carried away by and well worth the time invested to reach that point.