(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Recording review - Robbie Fulks, Gone Away Backward (2013)

American roots music, but never primitive

"If you've ever heard Hank Williams sing/ Well, you know the whole blessed thing." Robbie Fulks gets right to the heart of it on "That's Where I'm From", which could have easily served as the title of his new release because Gone Away Backward takes him back to his true love of American roots music. On this song, indeed on the whole album, Fulks aspires to Hank Williams' plain simplicity, but he can't hide his own polish. While Williams drew on a raw power, virtually inventing country music from its folk origins, Fulks has built on this foundation to become an eloquent voice for his musical ideal. Given the shoulders that he stands upon, the last lines of "That's where I'm From" call it right: "A long way down a hard road, that's where I've come/ Someplace I can't go home to, that's where I'm from."

From the beginning of his career, Fulks has idolized that early vision of country music. After failing to fit into the Nashville machine, he turned his back on modern country. But although his writing has shown a great sense of character and phrasing, his records as a whole have seldom connected directly to the traditional purity he touts. A couple of albums have each offered a piece of the puzzle. 13 Hillbilly Giants (2001) gets at that old sound with his interpretation of some lesser known country songs, while 2005's Georgia Hard focused on a late '60s/early /'70s version of the genre. Gone Away Backward bridges the gap to explore a mix of moody folk, raw country, and vibrant bluegrass, without a hint of alt-country irony or self-consciousness. As the song fall like dominoes, Fulks celebrates this old time feel, showing that clarity and sincerity don't have to be simplistic.

The opening track, "I'll Trade You Money For Wine", leads off with restless folk guitar and a fiddle that adds a patina of despair. Fulks' gentle drawl is simultaneously mournful and judgmental. The tune relies on a dark, relentless murder-ballad sound but the lyrical theme is complex and contradictory as he celebrates a surrender into dissolution from a seemingly morally superior perspective. So, "It's a short life and a long time underground/ I'll trade you money for wine" vies with philosophical dissections of industry and his lack of envy for the local banker. The ambiguity proves to be a potent gateway into the album. Despite this scattershot description, the song flows naturally, carrying you deeper into the mood.

After a John Prine style folk tune and a rollicking bluegrass number, the album finds its essence on the aforementioned "That's Where I'm From". Fulks matches the lyrical depth with a beautiful arrangement. His simple guitar part is gradually joined by the other other instruments -- bass, fiddle, mandolin, and banjo -- adding their voices like ghosts of the past standing behind him. As he raises his voice, forthright and unaffected, he captures a mix of poignancy and pride. The closing solos crown the piece perfectly, emotionally sincere without a trace of schmaltz.

The rich acoustic ambiance of Gone Away Backward is only compromised twice, with the subtle slide distortion on the rambling instrumental, "Snake Chapman's Tune", and the odd-bird track, "The Many Disguises of God". This latter song starts with an old British folk feel, with a waltz rhythm and fingerstyle guitar. Arty and sparse, the arrangement uses fiddle and the wicked sizzle of electric guitar fuzz to add an ominous haze that builds into a miasma of dread. Although at first listen it might clash with the folk-based approach on the rest of the album, the allegorical narrative does suggest an earlier time.

As much as I've enjoyed Fulks' earlier work, from the wry self-delusion of "You Wouldn't Do That To Me" (SouthMouth - 1997) to the dark cynicism of "God Isn't Real" (Let's Kill Saturday Night - 1998), this set of songs may well be the best that he's written. I wouldn't mind a little more of his sarcastic wit, but I appreciate the way Gone Again Backward commits to its theme and delivers so consistently.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Recording review - The Octopus Project, Fever Forms (2013)

Art-school music offers a suite of musical facets

The octopus has many arms and sometimes, the left, er.. tentacle can’t quite guess what the others are up to. Rather than settle for a definable sound, The Octopus Project juggles an odd collection of eclectic electronica and various fragments of indie rock ‘n’ roll. Driving motorik rhythms may veer off into synth pop or frantic 8-bit scrabbling, but somehow the band forges an ADHD mish-mash of influences into an engaging, playful fusion.

Throughout Fever Forms, guitars and synthesizers collide and blend DNA. On “The Falls”, an ambient wash heralds the first faltering steps of the song before it acquires an insistent guitar riff. The keyboard resonates and repeats the occasional note. The band slides into a steady trance groove, wrapped in shiny, tin-foil guitar feedback. At just over three minutes, the song quickly evolves into a Krautrock exploration, but the catchy descending waterfall of notes remains the central focus.

In sharp contrast, the following track, “Pyramid Kosmos”, jump cuts the vibe, tying a videogame theme to anxious, skittering beats. But even here, analog touches flavor the digital stew, adding tastes of whining guitar and cymbal shimmer. It’s an unsettling transition, but there’s little time to dwell as the tune quickly zips off into a tripping, chaotic jumble of sound, anchored to off-beat rhythms. While never soothing, the track is wrapped in dense layers of sound that hide a host of intriguing details. The song appropriately returns to its 8-bit roots to wrap up on a “game over” vamp.

Juxtaposing such diverse sounds is a fundamental part of the band’s experimental approach. Each track offers a different facet, but a uniform portrait begins to emerge, casting the band as a hopeful, inquisitive collective. While electronic music can seem cold or stiff, The Octopus Project overcomes that with their exuberant attitude. This shines through brightest on “Mmkit”, my favorite earworm on Fever Forms. It kicks off with glitchy static and a techno beat which should foreshadow a club-friendly dance track. It’s a promising intro, but it delivers a surprising three minute gem. The mechanical percussion is quickly buried under a spacy, indie rock mix and chiming guitar line. Then the bass takes over, sounding like New Order on a mix of mood stabilizers and crack. Beeps and whistles, frenetic drum rolls, and crystalline tones fill out context for the relentless, snaking bass line. The manic ride finally subsides into a simple beat, speedily growing sparser until it gives way to the bouncy electro-pop of the next track, “The Man with the Golden Hand”.

Perhap” offers a similar bait and switch. Dreamy electronica loops lazily with trembling synth accents, creating an island of calm. But a short, punchy drum solo shatters the relaxing reverie and sets a simple swaggering rhythm. Throbbing tremolo and thick reverb link back to the drowsy beginning, but the heavy drumbeat precludes drifting away. Echoed guitar arpeggios set up the next step where the song moves into a lush exotica groove, anchored by a singing, soprano keyboard line that seems ready to cover the “Theme from Star Trek”. The whole package has timeless feel because the retro style is moderated by a modern percussion mix.

Musical surprises like these can be gimmicky, but The Octopus Project brings a brash confidence that could excuse a multitude of musical sins. Even as they flit from updated synthpop (“Whitby”) to Devo-esque new wave (“The Mythical E.L.C.”), it’s easy to hang with the changes, trying to anticipate what comes next. The only pigeonhole for this genre-hopping project is to file it under “art school” music. Indeed, the album’s promotion and packaging all point in this direction, from the stereoscopic album trailer and custom View-Master slides to translucent gold vinyl and “psychotraumatic” CD art. All of this may seem too precious, but it’s worth letting the music speak for itself, even if it sings in a multitude of tongues.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Front Range recommendations, 8/26

It's a slower week, but we'll double up on the Pimps of Joytime

Friday, 30 August (CSU Intramural Fields, Ft. Collins CO)
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

I remember when Macklemore was a supporting act with a prerecorded backing track (review). And he kicked ass then. Then I listened to The Language of My World (review) and I was really blown away. In recent years, he's become more of a household name, working with producer Ryan Lewis. Even as his raps and beats have evolved, his honesty, sincerity, and humor have remained constant.

I missed my own window to score tickets and now this show is sold out. But if you don't have your tickets yet, just pay the scalpers, you'll be glad you did.

Saturday, 31 August (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
Sunday, 1 September (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)
Pimps of Joytime

My buddy Brent texted me from a Pimps of Joytime show a while back and couldn't praise them enough. So far, I haven't made it to their previous shows in Colorado, but I need to get out there. Sitting down with 2007's High Steppin' (review) convinced me that they not only have the funk, but they've updated it, and dressed it up for a party on stage. They're playing two nights in Denver, so you have no excuse to miss them this time (I'm talking to YOU, Jester).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Recording review - Bass Drum of Death, Bass Drum of Death (2013)

Originality from the heart of the garage

Bass Drum of Death makes its home deep in the heart of the garage. Listening to their self-titled second album, it’s easy to pick up a contact buzz of gasoline huffing and carbon monoxide, exacerbated by a case of tinnitus as workbenches rattle in sympathy with guitar feedback. Blown out speakers and concrete-echo vocals are lovingly captured with the lowest of fidelity. The band started out as a solo project for John Barrett, although drummer Len Clark came on board for the first album, GB City (2011). While they have mastered the simple, shouted vocal line, a relentless, jittery pace, and walls of blunted distortion, two things distinguish them from their retro, noise-loving peers. The first is their technical competence: starts and endings are cleanly executed, the snare work is impeccable and, despite the heavily compressed sound, they fit in some decent dynamic shifts. The second difference is that while they may use punk-infused garage rock as their jumping-off point, they’re willing to play with the style, branching out to color it with thrash pop, grunge and new wave.

Even when they start with a traditional foundation, like on “I Wanna Be Forgotten” and “Such a Bore”, they find interesting directions. “Such a Bore” is built around the tag from the classic, “Gloria”, but Bass Drum of Death binds the classic riff to a new melody. The tempo modulates throughout the tune, starting with the steady drive of the main section, then picking up speed during a meltdown lead before dragging back for a brief breakdown and then resetting. The genre is rife with sloppy bands that can’t keep time, but in this case, the precise coordination between the instruments demonstrates the band’s intention.

The most interesting tracks go further afield, finding unexpected influences. I particularly enjoy “Shattered Me”, which sounds like a muffled version of Team Spirit. They capture the same flavor of optimistic, retro thrash-pop, and the twinned guitar lead is spot-on. The lyrics are a bit tricky to discern, but offer some nice phrases, “You and me/ Perplexed and out of sleep/ I’m vexed and move into my own.” Another standout was “No Demons”, which borrows a taste of Nirvana grunge, twisting “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in on itself to create a disaffected jam, shot through with drained anxiety.

Bass Drum of Death is a progression from the band’s debut, adding bass guitar into the mix, but the name continues to be a bit of a bait-and-switch. Most of these songs could still use more bottom end; tom and snares dominate the drum parts. The exception is “Way Out”, which is the strongest track on the album. Despite matching the compression level of the rest of the album, the kick drum and bass guitar finally stand out, grounding the tune. It’s a relatively sophisticated piece, with separate sections that sound like lo-fi indie rock rather than simple garage rock. The heavy opening beat sets up a see-saw guitar riff which drops into a grinding rhythm. The vocals have a punk sneer, but off-kilter guitar fills add a thin layer of disorientation. The resulting blend offers some nice surprising turns.

The success of bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall has led to an inundation of follow-on acts. Bass Drum of Death’s originality is promising. Their biggest limitation is the ridiculous level of compression which mutes their energy. They shouldn't abandon the lo-fi, noisy elements of their sound, but a little more headroom would make their bass drum more lethal and give the songs more punch.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Front Range recommendations, 8/19

Serious or not, it's another great week in Colorado.

Friday, 23 August (Cervantes Other Side, Denver CO)

Master MC Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel haven't released too many albums under the Blackalicious name; Gab's solo, The Next Logical Progression (2012), was the most recent drop from either of them, but there's talk of a new joint EP, The Sun Giver. The short back-catalog hasn't slowed the pair from steadily touring over the years. We're fortunate that Colorado seems to be a regular spot on their schedule. Cervantes Other Side is a nice intimate venue to appreciate their show.

Saturday, 24 August (Gothic Theatre, Denver CO)
Reggie Watts

Reggie Watts is an improvisational genius. Whether he's riffing on some esoteric idea or cross jamming musical genres, he keeps audiences laughing and off-balanced. Among the host of live looping artists out there, Watts sounds as unique as he looks. Beat boxing, hip hop, funk, jazz, and avant garde are lightened by his comic timing. He's a novelty wonder in the truest sense; every performance is something completely unbelievable.

Watts' show is the grand finale of the High Plains Comedy Festival.

Saturday, 24 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Reggae on the Rocks

Reggae on the Rocks has been a Red Rocks summer tradition since 1988. Over the years, audiences have had the chance to see favorite artists like Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, and Black Uhuru and meet a host of upcoming players. This year's roster includes Inner Circle ("Bad Boys"!), Yellowman, Rebelution, Matisyahu, Daniel Marley, Collie Buddz, and Denver artists Judge Roughneck and MC Selecta Nikka T.

Come on out for a full day showing off a range of reggae sounds and slip into island-time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Recording review - Michael Franti & Spearhead, All People (2013)

Anti-depressant, feel-good pop

"What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?" (Nick Lowe)

It's hard to remember Michael Franti's bitter side, when his righteous anger vented with the Beatnigs, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, or even the early Spearhead albums. As he has crossed over into wider popularity, he's tamped down his indignation and embraced his inner neo-hippy. All People continues the trend away from political frustration and hard edges; now, he and Spearhead are extending deeper into jam pop and eclectically bringing in more modern electronic dance elements.

More than his anger, I miss the nuanced depth Franti brought to songs like "Crime To Be Broke In America", "Positive", "Gas Gauge (Tha World's In Your Hands)", and "We Don't Mind", all of which had emotion and strength. All People,which carries on the easy affirmation of 2010's The Sound Of Sunshine, feels more superficial by contrast to his earlier work. Franti says, "These songs are about the power of unconditional love," and Nick Lowe's right, there's nothing funny or wrong with that. The problem is that, while unconditional love is a beautiful idea, it's hard to write about it and avoid cliche or settling for blissed-out gratitude. As a result, the album's lyrical themes don't measure up to the musical arrangements, which benefit from partnering with external production. The differences between the self-produced tracks and those by The Matrix or Adrian Newman are pleasantly striking, but with the updated pop sound across the album, Spearhead's old school fans won't find much of the band's reggae and funk roots.

Spearhead draws that line early on, opening with the title song, where glistening electro-pop gilds the otherwise soulful track. Franti's acoustic guitar part follows the band's more recent formula, but the dance beat thump vies for domination. With an escalating synth line, the electronic half of the this cyborg track wins. As last flickering arpeggios fade, "11:59" comes in on the soulful chorus, "It's 11:59 and 59 seconds/ If I'm gonna die tonight I want heaven/ Hey-ey, hey-ey, with you." The Matrix contribution is obvious as the layers of detail build on top of the solid tension of the beat, but the first lines of hip hop verse reach back to Franti's older chops and characteristic cadence. His words shine a light on a multitude of ills facing the world, but keeping to All People's party line, he remains steadfast in his optimism. Given that the song is inspired in part by the Trayvon Martin killing, I'd rather see the peacenik facade drop a little, but this is still my favorite track.

The other song that collaborates with The Matrix, "On And On", is another standout. The big pop sound is packed with uplifting strings, filigrees of electronica, and lightly camouflaged Beatlesque turns. Franti's lyrics sound autobiographical as his verses step through touchstone moments in a laid back reinvention of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire". At some points, like when he name-drops the White Stripes, it sounds like he's downshifting his age to better connect with his current fan base, but his flow is smooth. On my first listen, I had a reactionary moment, "This isn't the Spearhead I know and love." But, on its own terms, the pure pop perfection transcends the idea that the band should be trapped in amber.

That mental shift provides a better perspective to appreciate All People, from the New Order infused synth-pop of "Closer To You" to the 'Tom Tom Club does reggae rap' feel of "Earth From Outer Space". In that more liberal view of the band, the positive tip they've always had has bloomed. Peace, love, and understanding may be hard to find in the real world, but that doesn't mean we should cynically reject them. Spearhead's philosophy might be a bit simplistic, but their album is packed with feel-good pop that sticks in your brain. The Sound Of Sunshine may have started this happy march to optimism, but as All People follows the same path, it's easy to envision a full audience singing along on tracks like "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" or "Show Me A Sign".

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Front Range recommendations: New West Fest edition

Every summer, Ft. Collins gets serious about music, food, and fun with New West Fest. Admission is free and there are several stages, each offering a host of entertainment options. Much of the line up is focused on regional acts, but there are always a couple of headliners that make the weekend a special treat. Past years have included G. Love & Special Sauce, Melissa Etheridge, and Cracker. This weekend (August 16-18) is the time and downtown Ft. Collins is the place

Here are some of my picks for this years Fest:

Friday, 16 August

Shel is a local band that's definitely going places. The four sisters blend their voices into a rich, complex effusion of sound. Although they have a strong folk element to their music, they're miles beyond what you might have heard down at the coffee shop. With more opportunities opening up in the wider world, they haven't been performing here quite as much. So, take advantage and drop by the Mountain Avenue Stage at 5:55 pm. They're up after Samuel Moulton and Fierce Bad Rabbit and The Samples will follow them.

Saturday, 17 August
Snake Rattle Rattle Snake
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite

Denver's Snake Rattle Rattle Snake surround themselves in murky moodiness. I really like their pensive new wave sound. Saturday afternoon (1pm at the Mountain Avenue Stage) may be a bit bright for them, but I'm sure they'll make their own shade.

Later, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite will tear up the same stage in what I expect will be an orgy of soulful blues. The pairing of Harper's eclectic musical sense with Musselwhite's amazing harmonica playing is a fine match of new and old. They start at 8:30 pm.

Sunday, 18 August
Wire Faces
Leon Russell

Every time I see Wire Faces perform, I'm blown away by drummer Shane Zweygardt. Each limb seems to have it's own rhythmic brain. He sings, too, but his drumming is incandescent. They'll be on the Linden Street Stage at 4:30 pm.

That's close enough to wander over to the Mountain Avenue Stage at 5:30 to catch headliner Leon Russel. The 71 year old performer made his reputation as a side man and session musician, creating magic with everyone from Joe Cocker to Willie Nelson. He went on to write and perform some classic songs like "Tightrope",  "This Masquerade", and the Grammy winning "If It Wasn't For Bad". With some health scares in the last couple of years, this is a good chance to hear a master at work with a handpicked band.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Front Range recommendations, 8/12

Thursday, 15 August (Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison CO)
Queens of the Stone Age
Gogol Bordello

Dark edgy rock and exuberant Gypsy proclamations don't seem that connected, but both QotSA and Gogol Bordello have a kind of cockiness that should form an interesting mix. The two frontmen, Josh Homme and Eugene Hütz are like night and day.

Both bands are touring on new albums, ...Like Clockwork for QotSA and Pura Vida Conspiracy for Gogol Bordello. Truth be told, even though I like QotSA, having them headline is really just a bonus for the joyous anarchy of a Gogol Bordello set.

Thursday through Saturday, 15-17 August (Sunrise Ranch, Loveland CO)
Arise Musical Festival

Get your hippy on in Loveland. This festival has a decidedly groovy/"one love" vibe, with phrases like "transformational camping" and "creative potential" scattered through their PR material, but there are plenty of great performers included in the huge music line up. Thursday has Keller Williams, Friday includes Freelance Whales, Chali 2na and local afrobeat band Atomga, then Saturday features Zap Mama and Michael Franti's Spearhead.

Saturday, 17 August (Soiled Dove, Denver CO)

Classical/neo-Flamenco guitarist Ottmar Liebert and his band Luna Negra have two shows scheduled at the Soiled Dove. Although Flamenco purists hold a grudge against him, the prolific Liebert has developed a rich, eclectic vocabulary inspired by Spanish guitar. Blending in modern musical influences into a hybridized style, the music offers a host of touchstone sounds that audiences can connect to.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Concert review - Vieux Farka Touré with New World Citizen Band

Tuesday, 6 August 2013 (The Walnut Room, Denver CO)
After listening to Vieux Farka Touré's new album, Mon Pays (read my review on Spectrum Culture), I was excited to catch him live and I was lucky enough to see him at the Walnut Room. It was a perfect venue: small enough to be intimate, but room enough to surrender to the rhythm and dance.

New World Citizen Band
017 New World Citizen Band
Before the show, I spent some time talking to singer Venus Cruz from the New World Citizen Band. Aside from finding out that she hosts the "Jazz Odyssey" show on Denver's KUVO, it was clear that she and her bandmates were well grounded in African music. The lineup is a subset of the Greg Harris Vibe Quintet, but for this group, bandleader Harris centers their sound on his Ghanaian wood xylophone, the gyil.

015 New World Citizen Band
The gyil has a very distinct character. Calabash gourds act as resonators for the wooden keys, but the gourds have a kind of membrane that buzzes, giving the instrument a hybrid sitar/steel drum sound. Even though Harris built up some interesting melodies on the gyil and his amplified kalimba, their songs formed a study in polyrhythms and interlocking parts.

003 New World Citizen Band
The set opened with echoing kalimba and a relaxed groove that felt like a Dreamtime exploration. With fellow percussionist Ido Ziv and bass player John Grigsby, Harris let the instrumental flow casually build complexity. Eventually, Grigsby's bass slid into a repetitive, twisting pattern that snaked through the competing percussion parts. It felt very heady until Cruz stepped in and grounded the song with her powerful vocals. Her contribution was particularly strong a few songs later on "Baby, Don't Do That To Me".

025 New World Citizen Band
She gave the song a righteous Motown vibe, passing from sassy to deeply soulful as she improvised her way through the lyrics. But the arrangement got its global feel by trading guitars, keys, or horns for interplay between the bass and the gyil. The surprise turn came after Ziv's conga solo, when the song sped into double time.

The New World Citizen Band was a good opening act for Vieux Farka Touré. They offered a taste of Africa and got the audience ready to move.

072 Vieux Farka Touré
On Mon Pays, Vieux Farka Touré paid homage to Mali's musical tradition and his father's characteristic sound. Just as Ali Farka Touré played with kora player Toumani Diabaté, their two sons teamed up in the studio, with Sidiki Diabaté on kora. The tour, however, relied on a minimalist line up with Touré accompanied by a bass player and a drummer/percussionist. While I was disappointed that I wouldn't get to hear the Asian-tinged tones of the kora, it faded quickly as I became entranced by Touré's playing.

087 Vieux Farka Touré
The first tune had the drummer playing a simple beat on large, resonant calabash with thin metal sticks: imagine someone playing a half globe with long Allen wrenches. Then Touré started a hypnotic melody line, full of floating trills. Eyes closed, he fell under his own spell as the groove swayed and swelled. Without a larger band contributing complexity, it was much easier to hear how the guitar and bass coordinated their parts. On the second song, he set up a simple, folky blues progression, then filled the holes with fluid runs as the bass line trailed along, shadowing his riffs.

070 Vieux Farka Touré
As much as I enjoyed Mon Pays, I realized that Touré is much more engaging in person. His playing was wilder as he fed off the crowd's energy. His lightning hammer-on/pull-off runs blended bluegrass with speed metal. Watching closely, I saw that his technique was sometimes similar to a clawhammer banjo style. Alternatively, he could execute phenomenal tonal control by alternating between muted, bare-finger attacks and ringing finger pick strikes. One of the best tunes of the night, "All The Same", had a chord structure somewhere between "Hey Joe" and Bob Seger's "Turn The Page". Touré started out the song with soulful, downtempo feel. Then, switching between soft and sharp riffs, he set up a guitar conversation with himself until it the song rose to a transcendent affirmation. He played like Jimi Hendrix, intense and expressive with a natural sense of harmony, but without playing a single Hendrix riff.

062 Vieux Farka Touré
Although he didn't provide much in the way of patter, his personality shined. Trading an amused glance with the bass player, Touré might start to dance, then challenge the bassist to join in. At other times, he'd screw up his face, lost in the emotion of the song. Most of his comments were in a mix of French and English. In particular, he wanted us to join in with the rhythm of the music. The peak moment came when the show transformed into a dance party, with members of the audience coming up on stage to show off their moves while Touré smiled on.

080 Vieux Farka Touré
After the show, sitting at the back of the room signing CDs and collecting donations for Mali, he seemed as thankful for an attentive audience as we were for his music.

More photos on my Flickr.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

History lesson - The Refreshments, The Bottle & Fresh Horses (1997)

The band developed their Southwestern sound while their label looked the other way

It was just another case of Mercury poisoning, although, at the time, it looked like natural causes. In 1995, the Refreshments signed with Mercury Records. Their first album, Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy, came out the next year and “Banditos” became their breakout, unavoidable single. The attitude – “Everybody knows/ That the world is full of stupid people” – was delivered with tight, power-pop harmonies and the guitar hook was immaculate. Fully hyped with a whirlwind tour, the band made the rounds until Mercury pushed them back in the studio. The resulting album, The Bottle & Fresh Horses, came out in 1997 and undeservedly became their sophomore slump. Much as Graham Parker complained in his 1970 song, “Mercury Poisoning”, “Their promotion’s so lame/ They couldn’t ever take it to the real ballgame,” the Refreshments found themselves neglected by the label and the album quickly sank. By the end of ‘97, they left Mercury and lasted a few months before they broke up later in 1998.

Common wisdom dismissed the band as a one-hit wonder, but despite its rushed recording and chaotic roots, The Bottle & Fresh Horses was a solid follow up to their debut. The rhythm section still delivered crisp, catchy progressions and Brian Blush’s guitar fills struck the same balance between retro rock and hyped-up alternative pop. Where their first album had some outlier songs, like “European Swallow”, this time, the band focused on the Southwestern sound that Roger Clyne and P.H. Naffah would later polish when they regrouped as Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. There’s no particular reason why songs like “Preacher’s Daughter”, “Wanted”, or “Broken Record” couldn’t find the same success that “Banditos” did. But with Mercury unwilling to promote any of these, the album was trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Maybe part of the problem is that many of the songs reflected a maturity rooted in the pressure that the band was under. There were still plenty of clever lines and charming losers, but the Refreshments also let their swagger slip and reveal their weariness.

The album leads off with one of these more serious tracks, “Tributary Otis”. The music splits the difference between a Bruce Springsteen Everyman anthem and Western-flavored Americana while the words are grounded with quiet confidence:
Well, I’ve traveled and I’ve seen the things I build, working
Working to bring me down
And I may be thirsty now but I will go beyond this thirst
And the tears I cry for you will all go dry
Clyne builds on the foundation of his earlier work, crafting and singing sincere lyrics just as carefully as he had with his lighter material.

Later, on “Fonder and Blonder”, the band emphasizes the contrast with Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy. It’s a response to the only other single from their debut. Where “Down Together” defiantly proclaimed, “Cars break down/ And people break down/ And other things break down, too/ So let’s go down together,”the follow up is from the perspective of a relationship that faded away rather than flaming out. This time, Clyne sings those same words with a rueful tone and tags them with, “I felt something slip when you left on your trip/ And now I think I’m breaking down on you.” The band uses the lyrical continuity to create a sense of wiser acceptance replacing youthful denial. The simple guitar jangle and light harmonies are close to the sound of their fellow Arizona band, The Gin Blossoms.

Even with these grown up themes and heavier songs, this is not a morose album. Right on the heels of “Tributary Otis”, “Preacher’s Daughter” lays down a classic Refreshments narrative of poor judgment and bad luck. After apparently doing time for scoring with the preacher’s daughter, our hero comes home to tempt fate yet again. Nonchalantly taunting her father, he finds that his temptress has married the sheriff while he was gone. Seems like the perfect time to rekindle passions, at least briefly. The band runs through the tale with a ballsy John Cougar feel and Blush’s singing guitar tone.

The schmuck on “Broken Record” is a different flavor of loser. Like a sad puppy, he can’t seem to settle for being just a friend. He tries his best to ignore how the object of his affection continually uses him and he consoles himself that at least he could have any girl in Japan. The logic may seem twisted, but he’s probably the same kind of fool that accepts the fairness in the assertion, “I got the pistol, so I’ll keep the pesos,” from “Banditos.”

Did Mercury make the right call to let The Bottle & Fresh Horses languish? The implosion of the band suggests that they might have. But the slow-building success of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers challenges that idea. Refining this album’s musical direction, they built a strong grassroots following without the support of a major label. These songs became a crowd-pleasing staple in their repertoire, validating the quality of the material. While the band may have been destined to fall apart, they held together well on these songs. Poor sales and obscurity in the ‘90s have been balanced out by countless Peacemaker fans trawling through The Refreshments back catalog for The Bottle & Fresh Horses to hear the originals after enjoying Clyne’s powerful versions in concert.

(This first appeared in Spectrum Culture)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Front Range recommendations, 8/5

This week offers three strong bands and a wild-card.

Monday, 5 August (Fillmore Auditorium, Denver CO)
Gipsy Kings

Look through your parents' CD collection. If they ever went through a "world music" phase, you're guaranteed to find something there by the Gipsy Kings. They introduced countless people to an exotic cross pollination of pop, powered by a full formation of Flamenco guitars and Gypsy jazz solos. Their new album, Savor Flamenco is coming in September and the band is making the rounds to bring their sound to a new generation of fans.

Tuesday, 6 August (Walnut Room - Walnut Street, Denver CO)
Vieux Farka Touré

Vieux Farka Touré is following in his famous father's footsteps. Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré was known as the African John Lee Hooker and the younger Touré evokes some of the same sounds on his new album, Mon Pays. But more than that, his latest project is a message to his countrymen, as Mali is torn with insurrection and strife. Despite the serious inspiration, his songs still find a hopeful note. 

Tuesday, 6 August (Larimer Lounge, Denver CO)

After a messy separation from Dinosaur Jr in 1989, Lou Barlow turned to his side project, Sebadoh, for therapy and creative release. The band's raw, low-fi sound offered plenty of cathartic release. After the standard hiatus and reunion to support the reissues, the band is finally release a new album, Defend Yourself, this September. It's good to hear something new after the 14 year studio break. Listening to the soft-loud punch of new single "I Will", I can hear the same immediacy of their old songs, but the sound is definitely cleaner.

Thursday, 8 August (Hi-Dive, Denver CO)
Neil Hamburger

Comedian Neil Hamburger (Gregg Turkington)  is bringing his awkward stand up act to the Hi-Dive this week. Normally, I recommend music shows, but this will be a treat. Hamburger's character works best with an interactive room and the Hi-Dive should have no problem provoking a great performance.