A little longer than usual between posts, but lots of stuff happening on the work, family and living situations kept me away – not away from the beauteous sounds, which thankfully remain plentiful, but from the ability to rate and write about all of the best ones. That said and there being no shortage of good stuff to pass along, let’s get to it.
I’d heard of Admiral Fallow a few years ago, even follow them on Twitter, but until last month had never really downloaded and listened to them with the attention they deserve. What a waste of a few years. Like their countrymen (with whom I’m sure they’re tired of being lumped), Frightened Rabbit, Bell X1, and the many other beautifully lilting Scottish rockers that have crossed my transom in the recent past, their geography informs their message in almost every instance. I hear defiance even in the softest ballads, poetry in the simplest phrase, lines that would sound sung even if they were spoken instead, and I picture the North Sea, and Glaswegian streets, and earnest glances between beautiful faces, and honesty. Those are probably all just the Scottish stereotypes I’ve picked up over the years – likely as mashed as bangers with the Irish ones – (sorry, lads) but most of the time it doesn’t feel that way. I get a sense of the foreign nestled comfortably alongside the familiar. Rock is rock, no matter where it’s mined, and I like imagining that we’d have something in common in that appreciation, even with all the myriad differences that have made us what we are.
Long way of saying: check these guys out quickly. Their harmonies, their plaintive lyrics, their groove and their vibe all combine to leave you smiling, even if the subject matter may not be handled quite so deftly in other hands. Favorites from their latest, Tree Bursts in Snow, include the titular track – one of the examples of successfully painting a beautiful picture of a horrifying subject – warfare and explosions “all orange and Halloween red…” – the high energy of “The Paper Trench”, and the rousing pub sing-along of “Isn’t This World Enough??” [Pardon the ads on some of these video inserts - it's getting harder and harder to find stuff without them...]
I wrote a few months back about seeing Jesca Hoop open for Punch Brothers, and how she totally enthralled many of the crowd (myself happily included) but left many spouting dismissive nonsense about her short and typically eclectic set. Still baffled by that, but was stoked to get both her new album and a new Daytrotter session from her on the same day. The House That Jack Built is at least as loopy and nonsensical as her last outing, charmingly so, and as full of the mescaline-esque imagery and lyrical twists and turns that I’ve come to love and to expect from her. “Hospital” is cute and quirky, “Peacemaker” slow and deceptively dirty, “When I’m Asleep” imported from some mythical Middle Eastern harbor town (Qarth, maybe?) where local strictures become a relaxed pastiche of the many external cultural influences passing through.
Her Daytrotter session astounds, as well. I don’t know why she keeps surprising me – after multiple exposure to her unorthodox and impressive play with words and sounds it seems like that shouldn’t be the case. Shouldn’t be. Though short at four songs, each resonates. “Born To,” from the new one, shines.
At the other end of the awesomely different / differently awesome spectrum sits The Lion, the Beast and the Beat, the latest offering from the ever-touring Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. Having seen them four times now – fifth show in October at the incredible Tabernacle downtown – and collected their tunes over the last few years, I’m not too surprised that each outing gets infused with a little more carefully crafted pop, a few less rough edges and a little more polish. Part of me totally understands and is happy that the relentless touring and the well-honed songcraft is resulting in ever larger audiences and greater success, but part of me misses the band I saw performing a drunken-seeming, acoustic-and-wine-bottle-and-ice-bucket rendition of my first favorite song (“Paris“). In concert they remain, without doubt and without comparison, one of the best true rock bands touring at that level; the sludgy weight of the guitars on the slow ones, the builds, the blistering speed on the quick ones, and yes, even the more pop influenced turns are all performed masterfully and with enough improv and stage antics to keep them from becoming, for me, completely radio friendly wannabes. The duet with Willie on an older GP&N song, “Ragged Company,” is a great pairing but left me wanting more from the parts that had them singing at the same time. There wasn’t really any harmony, but the individual verses carry the same sense of deprecation as the original, and Willie’s gravelly delivery matched the phrasing perfectly.
Her forays into the Country realm leave nobody doubting her ability to do so (witness the Grammy nom on her very first outing,) but at the same time I wonder, “Why?” I know she’s having fun, and making a good living (I hope), and no artist wants to stay the same – evolving is as much a part of the process for them as it is for us mere mortals – but it feels like she’s pulling away, just a bit, from some of the stuff I initially loved best about her and the amazing band of gypsies in her traveling family. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, as evidenced in my first listening to Lion: just when I was starting to sense that pulling away sensation, the title track came on. It’s so layered, almost progressively so, and any doubts I was nurturing were temporarily and successfully allayed. The song rocks. The band rocks. The woman rocks. Please keep it that way, Grace.
I’m Jonesing for some live Madi Diaz. Hearing her recent Daytrotter session both helps soothe that urge and makes it stronger. I’ve only seen her live once, at the excellent listening room environment of Eddie’s Attic here in Atlanta, and she was enthralling. She’s both playful and deadly earnest in her performances, and just FUN to see and hear. She has a great knack for choosing covers, too- as evidenced in this session, where she takes Paula’s “Straight Up” and turns it from frothy pop to a darker, more plaintive and painful cry that cuts to the quick. Brilliant. (The rest of the cuts are just as strong.)
I haven’t ever written about Rush here, I think, probably because once I got started I may never stop. They were the first band I totally immersed myself in. Sure, I cut my teeth on the likes of Kiss, Aerosmith and others, and kidded myself into thinking they were great, heavy rock, but hearing Rush’s live set on “All the World’s a Stage” with my cousins at the beach in Charleston, SC totally changed me. Without exaggeration, that was the first time that music sliced into the heart of me, grabbed my head in both of its metaphorical hands and screamed, “Hold still! And LISTEN TO THIS!!” Those songs, and the albums they led me to, seemed to be the perfect response to my parents and others who were saying, “Turn that down! It’s just a bunch of noise anyway!”
Because it was anything but noise.
Without launching into a repeat of my senior thesis (high school, anyway) which was all about Rush and its influences, both given and taken, suffice it to say that they were my first favorite band, and I read every liner note, every scarce interview (no Internets back then, friends and neighbors,) anything and everything I could get my hands on.
So when they came out with Snakes and Arrows last time around, and this new one – Clockwork Angels – each of which hearkened back to the Rush that first yanked me away from mediocrity – I felt exactly like I did on that beach in ’77 or so.
Clockwork Angels is nothing if not ambitious. Like 2112, the gateway album for so many fans (including this one,) it tells a complicated but ultimately simple story. Draped in the accoutrements of Steampunk, another favorite genre, Neil Peart – drummer and lyricist extraordinaire – partnered with noted SF writer Kevin Anderson on a novel with the same name. The album tells the story in parallel with the novel, apparently – I haven’t been able to get a copy of the book yet – and there are definite reminders of 2112 sprinkled throughout. Even the intricate album art, something they’ve never skimped on, takes me back to those heady early days and all of those albums that I spent so many hours listening to, headphones tight and volume maxed.
The songs rock, the music is big, almost thick enough to grab onto and ride. The story is sound, if familiar: young man, anxious to leave his mundane day-to-day existence behind, travels the world, falls in and out of love, all while coming to terms with the Watchmaker, who controls the whole world and all of its clockwork machinery (angels included.)
I can easily envision them playing these tunes live in a few months, in the same arena we’ve seen them in three other times now, no opening act, one 15-minute break in their 3+ hour set. They make deep, heavy, intricate rock as pounding and as stirring as ever, and they make it look effortless. Keep it up, guys – it’s still a lot of fun to listen to.
Ryan Monroe was an accidental find – a very happy one. Part of the Band of Horses, his new solo album, A Painting of a Painting on Fire, may be the single best display of multi-genre expertise I’ve ever heard. So much so that all thought of genre – “What is this one? Funk? But that last one was 70′s California Country, wasn’t it?” – go happily out the window.
I heard “Turning Over Leaves” first, thanks to Paste’s awesome mPlayer, and couldn’t figure out why I liked it. It had everything I usually actively dislike in my rock and roll: a funky drum beat, a weird but infectious jazzy bass line, super deep Barry White-ish verses followed by a falsetto chorus. And I love it. It’s one of the only 5-star songs on my iPod at the moment, and was easily enough to make me want more.
In the rest of those songs I hear James Gang-era Joe Walsh (and who else is channeling that awesome sound these days?), the 70’s CA sound referenced earlier, ELO (what?!), prog rock, and other majestic, multi-instrument, multi-layered Rock with a capital R. It’s not diversity for diversity’s sake, nor do I ever get the feeling that he’s simply showing off his considerable musical prowess. I DO get the feeling that, when putting together a collection of his own songs, he played what he’d written, unrestricted by the pigeon hole people may put him in, and then had a blast laying them down. At least it sounds that way. Current favorite is “The Darkness Will Be Gone.”
Best, funnest all-the-way-through album I’ve heard in years. Even got a Twitter reply from him when I tweeted my fanboy pleasure after the first listen; asked him to please come to Atlanta or its nearby environs, and he basically said, “Hope so!”
I hope so, too.
In the meantime, I plan on catching him with his day job as they begin the steel breeze that is the Railroad Revival Tour, mark II. The last one featured Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and others as they traveled in 1940′s rail cars from California to NOLA, playing all along the way both on and off the train. This year’s crew included Band of Horses, Willie Nelson & Family, John Reilly’s band (yes, that John Reilly) and more, and they start the trip about 10 miles from my current location. Think I’m missing that? Not a chance.
That’s all for now – keep in touch and let me know what’s tickling your eardrums these days.