High School Teacher at San Tan Foothills and Adjunct English Instructor at CGC. Record collector, comic book nerd, one-time textbook author, and retired record store clerk. Loves hiking. Lindsey’s husband.
“Released in conjunction with his book How to Write One Song, the Wilco frontman’s response to the pandemic is a mellow, easygoing collection of songs stressing the importance of human connection.” — Pitchfork
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Jeff Tweedy’s New Album is Available Digitally Now
John Lennon once said his dream would be to write a song one day, record it the next, produce it the following day, press and release it immediately after in an attempt to get art out into the world as fast as possible (he came close as was probably possible with “Give Peace a Chance”, which was written, recorded, produced, pressed, and released in just over a month). While our modern musical landscape may make that dream even more feasible, with musicians able to put music into the world via SoundCloud and other such streaming services as instantaneously as it can be written, it’s still quite the daunting task, and even more so to do it with an entire album.
Drive-By Truckers have come as close as is probably possible for a band in this era to accomplish that task with last Friday’s surprise release of The New Ok, the band’s 13th studio album and second of 2020. For a band that has released that many albums over the course of their 22-year existence, it is still a remarkable feat. They are a band who has set a standard for themselves of releasing an album at least every 2-3 years, with 4 years being their biggest gap between releases (between 2016’s American Band and The Unraveling, released just this past March). In a normal year for the Truckers, as their fans most-often call them, they would release an album, tour the world like crazy, playing epic shows in each city, return home to write and record, and begin the whole process all over again. That is a normal year for the band.
This, however, has been anything but a normal year. Back in March, I was playing The Unraveling on repeat and gearing up to see the band play live for the fifth time, and my first time as an Arizonan. I was loving the new album and could not wait to hear it live with all the furious energy I had come to expect from seeing them those previous times. A Truckers show is an event: a true ROCK SHOW that leaves even the newest of converts pumping their fists, singing along, and riding a rollercoaster of emotions until the moment Patterson Hood says goodnight and the band leaves the stage. A Truckers show is a life-affirming good time. I could not wait to see one of my favorite bands in my new home, and then the pandemic happened. Live shows went away, and my wife and I were left stuck at home, both of us teachers trying to teach in the new reality of a world turned upside-down. I sat in my office and tried to figure out how to do my job all over again, and listened to all their other albums through headphones while adjusting to this new reality.
The Truckers were always one of the hardest-working bands in rock, and not even a pandemic can slow them down. In between playing online live shows, founding members and dual songwriting threats Hood and Mike Cooly managed to write and record The New Ok —an album that speaks as much to our times through its title as it does through its songs.
The opening track “The New Ok” pays homage to that thing we struggle every day to accept and are at the same time so sick of discussing: the idea of our collective “new normal.” Things that were at once so commonplace now seem foreign and strange to think about, like going to a concert or a live sporting event. Even our attempts to adjust and find that semblance of normalcy have gone awry. Hood sings on the track: Deep in my own head drenched from the cups/I thought going downtown might cheer me up/We promised each other we wouldn’t let it get too rough/Said, “Let me know son when you’ve had enough.” While the narrator struggles to adjust, he struggles along with everything that has occurred during this new ok, as the struggles of the pandemic give way to the Black Lives Matter protests and violence that happened in cities across the country. This new ok is anything but ok, and the Truckers are struggling right along with us.
The high-water mark for relevant political songs is Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s “Ohio,” written by Young in the immediate aftermath of the Kent State shootings. It was written and recorded within two weeks of the shootings and released as a single within a month. With “Perilous Night,” the Truckers have their “Ohio.” The song was originally written and released just two months after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that saw white supremacist groups descend and duel with anti-racism protestors and resulted in the death of activist Heather Heyer. The song directs its anger not just at the white supremacists but at the politicians who enable them and oftentimes embolden them. While “Ohio” captured a single, tragic moment in our nation’s history, “Perilous Night” is a song I cannot imagine the band could have ever thought that when the single was first released in the fall of 2017 it would still be relevant enough to be included as an album track three years later and feel like it had an immediacy to it. (Literally as I wrote this review, news broke that a member of a white supremacist group shot up a police precinct in Minneapolis during the protests over the death of George Floyd and tried to frame Antifa and Black Lives Matter protestors for the crime.)
“Sarah’s Flame,” released as the b-side to “The Unraveling” on the first Record Store Day drop in August, is a plaintive drum-and-organ-driven ballad from Mike Cooley that may stand as one of his finest songs in the Truckers’ oeuvre. The band has been ever-evolving in their sound since their 1998-debut Gangstabilly (this is a band after all whose third album was a legit rock opera and still stands as one of their finest works), and yet the Memphis-soul vibe of “Sea Island Lonely” proves to be a bold step and one of the album’s true stand-out tracks, with the horns and rhythm section serving as a perfect compliment to Hood’s always-distinct vocals.
The extended political metaphor of “Watching the Orange Clouds” finds Hood, or at least a Hood surrogate, bracing himself for an impending storm and wondering what more he can do to stop it from happening. He worries for his kids who have benefited from their race and position in life, but sees that they are becoming increasingly aware that not everyone shares their privilege. As he stands on his balcony, his mind is awash with how overwhelming the horribleness is that has beset all of our lives: he contends with violence against BIPOC, white nationalists, the pandemic, and the relentless assault of the bleak. As for the titular “orange cloud” he hopes will go away, well, you can probably figure that one out on your own.
While they have never been adverse to cover songs, the Truckers have usually reserved them for live-show surprises in the past (such as their cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” on their 2000 live album Alabama Ass Whuppin’) or as one-off covers for tributes (their covers of Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” and Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” were both recorded for tribute albums and included on their 2009 B-Sides and Rarities album The Fine Print [A Collection Of Oddities And Rarities] 2003-2008). But their album-closing take on The Ramones “The KKK Took My Baby Away” is the tonally perfect ending to an album about dealing with new realities. While the song was originally written by Ramones lead singer Joey Ramone as a dig at bandmate and rare punk-rock conservative Johnny Ramone, who teased Joey often for being Jewish and then stole Joey’s girlfriend Linda, here the Truckers put a universal context spin on it, as some of us have seen friends or family reveal alt-right leanings or outright white nationalist proclamations. While to some, the southern Drive-By Truckers covering the prototypical New York punk rock legends may seem surprising, there is more shared DNA between the two bands that might be apparent if you held up pictures of each band side-by-side. The cover serves as the perfect coda on dealing with a reality that is so often unrelentingly horrible, and though Ramone’s protagonist is calling to get help as his girlfriend is literally kidnapped by Klan, helplessly seeing people close to us seduced by racist ideologies is terrifying and just as tragic.
There is an urgency to The New Ok that feels welcomed right now. It is an album that feels the walls closing in and is screaming into the void. If misery loves company, then the Truckers have given us the perfect record to commiserate with. While things are anything but ok right now, The New Ok is what we need to come to terms with not feeling ok.
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Album To Be Played In Its Entirety Live From Rustbelt Studios at 8pm EST This Friday, October 9 on Band’s Youtube Channel
When approaching any new band, it’s best to avoid assumptions to keep from pigeonholing them as this or that instead of just themselves, Still though, it would be understandable that The Messenger Birds, a Detroit two-piece rock band made up of members Parker Bengry and Chris Williams, whose debut album is being pressed at Jack White’s Third Man Press, might cause people to assume they are a band in the same vein as another great Detroit band: The White Stripes. If that was anyone’s assumption going in, Bengry and Williams quickly dispel it with extreme prejudice just moments into their debut full-lengthEverything Has to Fall Apart Eventually.
What’s instantly shocking about the album is that it was, according to the band, written in 2018 and recorded mostly in 2019, because the music feels immediate, like the band is bunkered down somewhere, inundated by the relentlessly bleak news of the day, and cranking out these songs to express their frustration and rage. Make no mistake: Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually is not just a great rock record – it’s an emotional journey.
The opening track, “Play Dead (Just For Tonight)” opens with a somberness of a funeral dirge, with a slow-building guitar, picking up more and more momentum with each note. Lyrically, some connections are made because of what we, the listener, are feeling inside at the moment. But one can’t help but feel the line “Keep your mask up on the nearest shelf,” even if its meaning is about the need to escape into another persona to get away from everything that feels horrible. The further references to “another day for the Holocaust” – a shooting at a synagogue, pipe bombs, and false-flag conspiracies – lay open the song’s ominous tone of fear and paranoia, like it’s anticipating an oncoming apocalypse, complimented by the creeping feeling of dread of the music that eventually explodes into chaos of drums and guitar with the song title repeated as a refrain “Just play dead for tonight,” like needed advice to survive these times.
“Play Dead (For Tonight)” is just an opening salvo. “The Phantom Limb,” which has hit 5 million plays since it debuted on Spotify in 2018, is where the record really kicks into high gear. It’s the kind of fist-pumping, all-out rocker that’s been missing from our recent music landscape. It’s a song that forces you to remind yourself that it’s being played by two guys on two instruments, and is the best that dynamic has produced since The White Stripes. One of the many things that stand out about Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually is how much Bengry and Williams are able to pull off with each song, reaching sonic landscapes that seem impossible for a two-piece band.
If the release’s ominous, paranoid tone is merely hinted at in the first two tracks, the one-two punch of “What You Want to Hear” and “Self Destruct” releases it like a primal scream. The Messenger Birds clearly didn’t set out to write songs about how we are inundated every day with bleak news brought to us by society’s most heinous monsters – these songs are merely a byproduct of what it’s like living in these times.
Even a cursory glance of a news feed or comment thread sees people desperately clinging to a vision of our society that is far from reality, and “What You Want to Hear” is the ballad of confirmation bias: a song directed at everyone who wants to live in an insular bubble and shut out any challenges to their flawed beliefs. “Self Destruct” is where we’re headed as our country seems to be handed off more and more to hate groups that have been emboldened in the past few years. “My tv’s like a time machine/Takes me back… 1943/Tiki torch, marching up the street/Flying flags of a dead dream” is a lyric that is clearly inspired by the events in Charlottesville just three years ago, but sadly are still too relevant in light of The Proud Boys and other supremacist groups trying to bully and intimidate those who push back against their messages of hate.
The first single and true emotional centerpiece is the title track “Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually.” As hopelessness seems pervasive and the walls start closing in, we’re too often left with our own thoughts screaming inside our heads. While we all hope for the best, we fear the worst, and the narrator of the song knows this better than anyone. It’s the anthem for fighting back when fighting back feels pointless, and for when loss and tragedy feel too inevitable to resist anymore. As the song closes with the repeated “Hope we make it through,” we can all close our eyes, nod for a moment, and mouth “I hope so, too.”
If the title track is the emotional apex, then the acoustic “When You’ve Had Enough,” gives us a moment to scale it all back for a breather and some introspection before gearing up again. It’s a song that seems perfectly placed at the end of the record that has been an intense rollercoaster of emotion, like the moment when the ride hits a long stretch of gentle hills and you feel for a moment a cool breeze on your face and gain a sense of peace. It’s providing comfort through the reminder that we are not alone in this, even if, like the song intones, “Most days I’m only getting by,” which we all have felt in these past 10 months.
The world we are living in is a constant rollercoaster that never seems to end, and the album closes with “Start Again” to remind us of that. The lyrics reference the Greek myth of Sisyphus (“I feel like Sisyphus just got it started again…”) who angered the gods by putting Death in chains so no one else had to die. As punishment, he is forced to push a heavy boulder up a hill only for it to roll back to the bottom again, forcing him to start again. I’ve always loved the myth of Sisyphus because it is a tale that defines determination, even in the face of that which is unavoidable. French philosopher Albert Camus wrote an essay about Sisyphus’s pursuit of getting the boulder to the top without rolling back down again, even though he knew it would. Camus tells the reader that it is important to picture Sisyphus as happy. If we can picture Sisyphus as happy, then we too can be happy and believe in our collective potential to survive all of this horribleness. Even as the song descends once more into a chaos of screeching guitars and drums, The Messenger Birds seem to want us to do the same.
Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually is one of the most self-assured debut records I’ve heard in recent memory and one that feels the rafters begin to shake as the foundation of our reality cracks underneath and knows it’s all caving in on us. Even if the lyrics warn us that we are at the forefront of an apocalypse, it implores us to stand together against every wretched monster carrying tiki torches and trying to shout us down with hate. We will fight back and reclaim our world and our sanity and do it together, pushing back those who are only concerned with power.
Let’s hope for that return soon, because with our world being on pause for the moment, live shows won’t be happening for a while. This is a shame because this album is an album that demands – cries out – to be heard live. In the meantime, blast it from your speakers and let it pulsate through your body and reverberate through your soul. The Messenger Birds are a band for this moment and could define a third phase of Detroit born-and-bred rock ‘n’ roll. The Messenger Birds Everything Has to Fall Apart Eventually was released October 7th through Earshot Media. You can order the record, buy some merch, watch videos, and get the latest news on the band on their website.
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The Messenger Birds will continue to celebrate the new release with fans as direct support for Steel Panther’s upcoming socially-distanced ‘Fast Cars and Loud Guitars- Live at The Drive-In’ show taking place on October 16 at Pontiac, MI’s Crofoot Festival Grounds. Tickets for the event are now available here.
Dave Hause’s music is a punk-infused take on the classic singer-songwriter that is equal parts righteous anger and soulful introspection. Since going solo from The Loved Ones, he’s released four stellar records: 2011’s Resolutions, 2013’s Devour, 2017’s Bury Me in Philly, and last year’s Kick. Between his often clever lyrics and shifts from ballads to all-out rockers, he is, arguably, the Elvis Costello of this generation.
A constant presence on the road in a different time in our world, he was a magnetic live performer, who managed to be just as entertaining when bantering with the crowd as he was playing music. In fact, when we first tried this interview, he was in the middle of a tour. When the world shut down, the questions originally asked no longer made sense, so I rewrote my questions to reflect this new world reality, and he was generous enough with his time to answer them for me.
Interview with Dave Hause
Q & A with music journalist Ryan Novak
RYAN: Dave, first off, thank you for taking the time to do this. As I think I’ve told you, I’m not a full-time music journalist and am just a school teacher who does this in my spare time for fun. When the woman who created and runs our website asked me if I ever wanted to do an interview, you were the first name I mentioned just because I’ve talked to you a few times after shows over the years, and you’ve always been such a friendly guy every time that I knew you’d be a great interview.
Since your tour was cut short by COVID, you’ve transitioned to doing online shows, which have been a lot of fun and have had the same atmosphere as your solo shows. Was it difficult for you to start doing the online shows and how has preparing for them been different than preparing for an in-person live show?
DAVE: It is difficult. My neighbor works for a big software company and was struggling with having to work entirely via Zoom, and we shared some of the same challenges. Social cues are different (or non existent), there is a lag time, and you’re simultaneously trying to focus on performing AND considering the audio, software glitches and wifi speed. Just like anything though, you do your best and hope for the best, and keep your true north at delivering the song the best way you can in the moment.
RYAN: One of the things I’ve always loved about watching you play live is the spontaneity of your live shows and that they’ve always felt fun and loose. A big part of that stems from how you interact with your audience.
Have you found that doing the live shows allows you to maintain the same atmosphere of your in-person shows, maybe through reacting to fan feedback as you’re playing?
DAVE: No, I have to build that into the live streams, which is why I add covers and old songs, it’s to keep the tightrope taut, so I can attempt the magic trick of walking over it. Interacting with fans online is tough because it is harder for the rest of the “crowd” to relate the way they would if they were all in the same room.
RYAN: Throughout this, you’ve played online shows with some of your friends, such as Brian Fallon, and it’s reminded me a lot of Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tours, a couple of which you’ve been a part of.
How has it been working with other artists remotely, and do you see this as something you’ll continue to do, maybe even on a growing lineup of artists with many of you playing together or trading off songs?
DAVE: One of the positive things about this pandemic and having to stay home is that I’m co-writing more with friends; we’ll see what comes of that. I think you’re referring to the short period where I did a bunch of things online to stay busy when the initial quarantine happened, but I’ve intentionally haven’t done much online since May. I feel like there’s so much going on and I need more quiet. I want to spend more time with my kids, and the online shows prompt a ton of anxiety in me, so there’s that part of it. I also have been recording songs like crazy. More news on that soon.
Has this time at home and off the road allowed you to start working on new material, and will a new album come out of this?
DAVE: It has allowed me to start writing, yes, and it will lead to the 5th solo record. I think I even already have the title, which is a first; I usually don’t find a title for an album til towards the end.
If so, since the pandemic prevents the opportunity to get everyone together to record in a studio, how will you handle the recording of new material? Will everyone work together remotely, or will it perhaps be a more intimate recorded-at-home solo record, a la Springsteen’s Nebraska?
DAVE: I’m not that far along yet; we are still working on the songs themselves. We’ll figure out how to record them later. Meantime, the stuff I am recording now is definitely born of the “I-can’t-tour-on-this-anyway” mentality, so it’s really fun to just create without any of that in mind. I’m so excited about what we are putting out in October.
RYAN: You’re not a guy who shies away from his feelings on a lot of issues. When you last played Phoenix, opening for Bad Religion, you asked the audience to hold up a finger towards Washington, before playing “Dirty Fucker” off of Buy Me in Philly, which drew a mostly positive crowd reaction, save for one person who seemed annoyed — which I thought you handled well.
Do you feel in a way that it’s your duty, especially with your platform, to speak out and let your music hopefully at least get people to think more about what’s going in the world, especially right now?
DAVE:I do feel compelled to; not sure if it’s a duty or not. I think we are in one of the bleakest times in our country’s short history, and I want to be crystal clear about how I feel about it. Should we see the administration change in November/January, I’ll be as outspoken as I feel compelled to be when they’re running the ship too. I never trust the people in charge.
I purchased “Your Ghost” from Bandcamp, and it’s such a heartbreakingly gorgeous song. Using the death of George Floyd and his final words as a refrain throughout the song really hit me as I listened to it. Was this a difficult song for you to write, or was it one that almost poured out of you?
DAVE: It was difficult. Tim and I labored over it more than many other songs, because I think it is a loaded thing for a privileged white rock and roll singer to sing “I Can’t Breathe”. I’m glad we put the extra time in, and I’m thankful to various friends and colleagues who helped to make sure we got the tone right.
One of the things that really stands out about “Your Ghost” is the backing vocals by Kam Franklin of the great band The Suffers, which felt almost like a ghost in pain haunting the song. How did she come to be involved in the song, and what was the collaboration with her like?
DAVE: That was suggested to me by my agent, Alex Fang, after he heard the song. I was familiar with both and totally blown away that they agreed to do it, and then did such an incredible job with it.
RYAN: As I was listening to it, I remembered your song “Seasons Greetings from Ferguson,” which you released during the Ferguson protests in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. In fact, “Your Ghost” and “Seasons Greetings” feel like they could be the A and B side of a 7”. It’s sad that the two songs were recorded nearly six years apart and yet nothing has changed.
Were you thinking of the writing and recording of “Seasons Greetings” as you were working on “Your Ghost,” and how would you say the two songs differ, perhaps in tone or approach to the topic?
DAVE:Yes, they’re meant to sound related. The delivery, the chord choices, and the tone are similar. My intention after “Seasons Greetings” was to continue a sort of a singles series of socially related songs, maybe 1-2 a year, but I didn’t finish a bunch of them and got sidetracked in 2015 and 2016. When Kick came around, we wanted to put a bunch of those kinds of songs on that record, so we went with the traditional full album release. The experience with “Your Ghost” sort of reignited that desire to get some topical singles out quickly as we move forward. We’ll see.
RYAN: You’ve had several big life changes in the past couple of years, including moving and marriage, but anyone that follows you on social media has seen that not only are you a father to twin boys, but that you’ve embraced fatherhood with a lot of joy. (I especially enjoyed the video of you vacuuming the house with both boys strapped to you).
How has fatherhood changed how you approach life in general and your music specifically, especially now that the pandemic means you aren’t leaving for tours and are just getting to be home with your family?
DAVE:This could be the topic for a whole book. Ultimately, I’m trying to make life all about them instead of all about me. That’s a challenge, but an incredibly rewarding one. It’s been the greatest thing that’s happened to me in my life.
It’s August 7th, 2019 at 11:45 AM, and I’m on lunch break at the high school where I teach in Arizona’s East Valley. The group of baseball players I have coached the past three years, and who eat in my room every day, file in one by one, and I glean bits and pieces of their in-progress conversations. As I get out my lunch and begin eating, I check Twitter, a mindless habit that almost always brings bad news. At the top of the trending topics, I see David Berman is trending.
Though it’s been less than a month since Berman’s reemergence after a ten-plus year absence from music with the release of his new band Purple Mountains’ debut self-titled record, I know he’s not trending because of the album. My first thought was of the lyrics to “Death of an Heir of Sorrows,” from his previous band Silver Jews’ album Bright Flight: “When I was summoned to the phone, I knew in my heart that you had died alone.” Replace “… was summoned to the phone” with “… saw you trending on Twitter.” I knew I didn’t need to click on his name to find out the awful truth. I clicked anyway. Checking Twitter is a mindless habit that almost always brings bad news. Confirming my immediate suspicion crushes me. I feel an emptiness that carries through lunch and the final two classes I have to teach: Film Studies and AP Research.
The first time I had heard of David Berman came, like all great moments of musical awakenings, via an off-hand recommendation from a record store clerk in 1998 at Kansas City’s legendary Recycled Sounds. Like I had done dating back to when I was 13 years old, I asked for a recommendation and then tried to appear cool and nonchalant while I rattled off a list of bands I liked. “You know, I like Superchunk and Pavement, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo; just cool indie rock stuff.” When he asked if I liked Silver Jews, I defaulted to the stance of someone out of the loop who didn’t want to appear out of the loop and claimed to have heard of them but just hadn’t checked them out yet. I asked where I should start, desperately hoping they had at least a couple of albums. They had three, an EP, and a few 7’’s, so I was safe.
He handed me the just-released American Water, and I bought it without question because record store clerks were the gatekeepers of cool to me at that age. I will forever owe that guy a debt of gratitude for his recommendation that day.
Whenever I hear a new song or album, I judge it on the existence of a firework moment, which is to say the part of a song where it seemingly takes off into the stratosphere and explodes in a moment of glory. This could be in a rocking style, like the vocal interchange between David Bowie and Freddie Mercury on “Under Pressure”, or in a more subtle, emotional way, like how Elliott Smith could write a song where the vocals never rose above a whisper but it was emotionally gut-wrenching. What I didn’t count on, or at least never would have expected, was the cleverness of the lyrics.
Berman, a poet with an MFA from UMASS, was a brilliant lyricist on a level few achieve. From the opening line of “Random Rules”, the first track, I knew that this album and this band were special. “In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection” was a lyric unlike anything that I’d ever heard before. I obsessed over the lyrics, listening to them and writing them down in my college notebooks. Had I not been a year removed from high school, every yearbook I signed would have been a randomly selected lyric, like “We’ve been raised on replicas of fake and winding roads/And day after day up on this beautiful stage/We’ve been playing tambourine for minimum wage/But we are real, I know we are real,” followed by “anyway, take care” and my signature.
I searched for every release like water in a desert. There was a need in my heart for it. During every low time, Berman’s music gave me comfort and hope. During my deepest battles with depression and anxiety when I felt no hope, I’d sooner play his albums on repeat late at night than take a single pill my doctor prescribed. “When I go downtown, I always wear a corduroy suit because it’s made of a hundred gutters the rain can run right through.”
I wanted desperately to see them live, but Berman had always resisted touring or even one-off live performances. In that now quaint time of message boards, rumors ran rampant as to the reasons, running the baseless rumor gamut from acute anxiety to drug addiction being the culprit. When they suddenly announced the first ever Jews tour to coincide with the 2005 release of Tanglewood Numbers, the band’s fifth album, and that they would be playing in St. Louis (a short drive from where I worked and wallowed) I snatched up tickets for me and my friend Tim, the other Silver Jews fan I knew.
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The show took place in the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill, a restaurant and music venue owned by Chuck Berry. The Duck Room was nothing more than the restaurant’s basement with a stage built along one wall, but I would have watched the show if it was in an alley during a thunderstorm. Standing twenty feet from the stage with Tim, just after opener Jennifer O’Connor left the stage, Tim nudged me and pointed to the merch table by the door where David Berman stood carrying a duffel bag, wearing faded jeans, a flannel shirt, and a trucker hat. He started cutting across the crowd who seemed either oblivious out of a hip glibness or because he drew no attention to himself, just moving forward with an even pace. As he drew near, I jumped at a chance I’d wanted to have since I first put on American Water seven years before.
When I made eye contact, he stopped and set down his duffel bag. “Hi,” I stammered, “I just want to thank you for this tour and including St. Louis. I’ve wanted to see you live for so long.” He smiled at me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Thank you for coming tonight. I’m looking forward to being up there tonight.” He gave my shoulder a quick squeeze, smiled again, picked up his bag, and continued on his way, going through a door to the right of the stage.
The show that night was as great as I’d hoped it would be. At 26, I didn’t own a cell phone, so no pictures exist. I borrowed a matchbook and a pen from the bar and wrote down the set list on the inside cover in the tiniest handwriting I could muster, so I could include all 22 songs. As we left, I bought every shirt they had (a reasonably priced $15, imagine that) and a vinyl copy of Tanglewood Numbers, and I buzzed about the show all the way home. I later wrote him a letter and sent it and the record I’d bought at the show to the P.O. Box address that was always in the liner notes of his albums. A couple of weeks later, Berman returned the record, which he had drawn on the cover and inscribed: “The good friend Ryan. I wish you 34 years of good luck. Love, DCB.” Also in the package was a copy of his poetry book, Actual Air, inscribed and signed, given to me unsolicited.
Two months after the show, I turned 27 and got a MySpace account and made my first post “In 27 years, I drank 50,000 beers, and they just wash against me, like the sea into a pier,” a lyric from the Silver Jews’ “Trains Across the Sea.” I did it partly as a joke and partly because stupid rock and roll lore taught me 27 was a cryptic and mysterious age. But for me, it was just 27 and nothing more. Still, I thought, if I burned out hard and fast in the coming 365 days, it would make a bitchin’ epitaph.
Fast forward three years to June 13th, 2008: my 30th birthday. I’m up early to drive ninety miles from the college town where I live to the nondescript small town where I grew up, to see family before returning home to celebrate with friends. I get a text from my boss telling me to come by the record store. When I get there, he hands me two copies of the new Silver Jews album Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea; one on CD and on vinyl. They’re presents for my birthday, gifted to me four days before its formal release date (sorry Drag City Records).
I drive back to the house I’m living in rent-free in the basement, through a thick summer rain that threatens to eliminate visibility altogether. At the house, I leave the CD in the car, planning to listen to it on my drive home, and take the vinyl inside. I have to finish packing and then need to leave. As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I step into knee-high water; the result of a floor drain in the basement backing up while I was gone. I see possessions of mine float by me: books, records, and moves are ruined, and my cat Miss Kitty is perched on a shelf terrified. Also among the destroyed items was a small box that contained among other things, the letter from Berman thanking me for my kind words in a letter I’d sent him that came with a signed copy of his poetry book Actual Air.
I won’t be going home, but would instead spend my 30th birthday trying to salvage my mostly-destroyed possessions, as I listen to the new album on repeat, trying to hold it together, even though I feel like my life is falling apart. The album would turn out to be their last, but it somehow manages to be their most hopeful. It’s that hope that keeps me from crying and wallowing in self-pity. I write Berman a letter telling him the story of the flood and my misery and thanking him for his music saving me.
Two weeks later, I received a large manila envelope with my name and address written on the front in the scrawl that I’d come to recognize from the liner notes of Silver Jews albums. Inside is a note from Berman expressing that he was sorry to hear of my birthday misfortune.
The envelope was filled with a veritable treasure trove of random items: drawings by him, a slip of notebook paper with some chord changes and snippets of lyrics to an unfinished song, a flyer for a shot written in Hebrew from the band’s tour of Israel, a photocopy of a love letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd, and a stanza pulled from a poem by William Blake that appeared to be typed on a typewriter. It read:
“It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast
To hear sounds of love in the thunderstorm that destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field and the sickness that cuts off his children
While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door and our children bring fruits and flowers
Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten and the slave grinding at the mill
And the captive in chains and the poor in the prison and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.”
Months later, still reeling and lost, I decide to get out of town and visit my sister. I plan the trip to coincide with the Silver Jews 100th show at The Metro, just blocks from Wrigley Field. My sister and I stand just a few feet from the stage. The set that night spanned every album and featured guest appearances from Dan Koretzky of Drag City Records and Berman’s college friend Bob Nastanovich, the original Silver Jews drummer and legendary Pavement hype man. It eclipsed the St. Louis shows and is still one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. At the close of the show, he retrieved the setlist that was written on a styrofoam plate from his suit jacket and attempted to throw it like a frisbee out into the crowd. Instead of flying out, though, it shot straight up into the air and came back down. I launched my 6’4” frame into the air and snagged it one-handed and pulled it back down with me like an NBA center snagging a defensive rebound on a would-be game-tying final second shot that secures a championship. It’s in a frame above my records to this day, and people who see it and ask, “why do you have a styrofoam plate in a frame?” are in for a longer answer than they anticipated.
It was also around this time when Berman announced the end of the Silver Jews. In a post to the Drag City Records message board, he detailed a lengthy struggle with his father, Richard Berman, a Washington lobbyist for everything that is horrible in the world. “Now that the Joos are over I can tell you my gravest secret,” Berman wrote on the Silver Jews messageboard. “Worse than suicide, worse than crack addiction: My father.” He said he wanted to dedicate his life to undoing all the damage his father had caused. What followed his announcement, however, was silence.
Nearly a year and a half later and a year after his announcement of the end of his band, I returned home exhausted from student teaching and found a package in the mail, written in his now familiar handwriting. It included his then-new art book The Portable February. I’d moved twice in the time since he had my address but somehow he got the book to me. As shocked as I was at his generosity and that he had thought of me a year and a half after the fact, I was more shocked by what was in the book: a note to me that read “Hang in there, Ryan. I am struggling too. Your friend, DCB.”
Reading this note from someone I felt a kinship with but did not actually know made all the stress in my life up to that point come to a head. I was denying how much I was struggling working 40 hours as a student teacher, 35 hours at a large-box store so I would have insurance, and 20 hours at the record store just to have a place where I loved to be. Somehow, all this time later, he knew the perfect time to send me a gift. The book and note still sit together on my shelf, and from time to time, I still get out the note and read it as a reminder to hang in there through the tough times.
Three years into his self-imposed music exile, his label Drag City Records issued the Early Times compilation that collected his early releases, including the Dime Map of the Reef 7” and the Arizona Record EP. He started a blog called Menthol Mountains, which included a lot of Rabbinic commentary on Judaism. His final post came just days before his death, when he shared “The Lost Princess” parable by Nachman of Breslov, about a princess who is exiled following an angry slip of the tongue by her father, and the viceroy who is sent to find her and bring her home. I don’t know if there was any special significance to it, with regards to what would happen 15 days later.
The Purple Mountains’ eponymous album was released on July 12th. The album shows that Berman hadn’t lost a step as a songwriter. It stood alongside the great Silver Jews albums and did not suffer from feeling like a pale imitation of previous, better work. No, this was an incredible album, punctuated by obvious heartbreak. Multiple songs alluded to the ending of his marriage (“All My Happiness is Gone,” “Darkness and Cold,” and “She’s Making Friends, I’m Turning Stranger”), a song acknowledging his isolation in life (“Maybe I’m The Only One For Me”) and most heartbreakingly, a song grieving the passing of his mother (“I Loved Being My Mother’s Song”). The album was beautiful but still worrisome, as the lyrics seemed to check every box of someone who was headed to a very dark place.
Reading interviews with him prior to his death and reading about his life leading up to his death, pieces of the puzzle made sense. Knowing his story – that he had been separated from his wife for a while – one can’t hear the songs on Purple Mountains’ self-titled album and not feel his pain. For an outsider like me, regardless of my level of fandom, I saw that he was not with his wife and still reeling from his mother’s passing, losing the two most central figures in his life and no doubt feeling isolated from the world. When you’re struggling with mental health, isolation is the inescapable weight. It doesn’t have to be isolated from people, as he had friends and supporters all around him. To feel true isolation is to feel isolated regardless of your surroundings; to feel alone in a crowded room. In reading what would turn out to be his final interviews, I saw nothing but red flags. As someone who had struggled with many of the same issues, every alert in my brain went up. You never consider that you’ll someday worry about your heroes.
All of this brings us back to August 7th at 11:45 AM and his name trending on Twitter, not in celebration of his talent, but in mourning of his passing. I was not alone in my deep love of him and his music. My experiences with him, though as deeply personal as they are cherished and loved, were not unique, as reading tweets in the days, weeks, and months after his passing showed that his kindness, generosity, and empathy for those who held his music dear was vast. A simple note in response to a letter or a small gift of a piece of Silver Jews memorabilia was the norm. Fans shared memories or just their favorite lyrics, and even in his passing and the grief felt by his friends, family, and fans worldwide, he drew us all close together one more time. Like a sing-along of “Black and Brown Blues” or “Random Rules” on one of the two Silver Jews tours, strangers were united in these moments of both loss and celebration of his life and career. In the end, his talent and his pain seemed forever entwined, with the x-axis of them being a straight line.
As I sat there in my classroom, with my baseball boys eating lunch and talking, I felt overwhelmed with grief, but again thought of those Bright Flight album-closing lyrics: “We were never promised there would be a tomorrow,” in “Death of an Heir of Sorrows.” He may have been reminding his long-lost friend, but 18 years after he wrote them, he was also reminding us.
My history with the music of Jason Isbell is long by most standards, dating back now seventeen years since he was the “new kid” in the Drive-By Truckers, almost like a hired gun as the band’s third guitarist, during their brilliant trio of albums: Decoration Day, The Dirty South, and A Blessing and a Curse. Isbell seemed like the band’s little brother at the time, and yet his songs easily stood toe-to-toe with those from bandmates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, with standout tracks like title track “Decoration Day,” “Goddamn Lonely Love” from The Dirty South, and the outtake “TVA” from those sessions.
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As good as he was when he was younger, he has managed, since going solo, to continue to push himself more and more with each album, effortlessly stretching creatively to one-up himself across three proper solo albums and now four albums with his backing band The 400 Unit. Through those seven post-Truckers records, he has solidified his position as one of our greatest-living songwriters, an assertion he might deny but one with which his legion of fans would certainly agree.
On his new album Reunions, Isbell, a dyed-in-the-wool Alabaman whose early albums were steeped in the Southern rock tradition, has taken on a sound that is more Americana than Southern. The America that Isbell explores is one haunted by ghosts and populated by characters wanting nothing more than to move forward in so many ways in their lives, but while struggling with pasts often complicated; wrapped tightly in both warm memories and regrets of mistakes they made but can’t quite shake or forgive themselves for. In fact, on the album’s opening track, “What’ve I Done to Help,” Isbell laments a life of mistakes; questioning with the title if he’s made any effort to make his situation better, and revealing that in fact, he’s only made it worse; a sentiment many of us can relate to when we are haunted by the ghosts of regret in our minds.
The emotional toil of the first song gives way to its counterbalance: “Dreamsicle.” Isbell spent his childhood in Alabama, as I spent mine in Missouri, separated by some-odd 600 miles, but joined by those moments spent outside in a folding chair enjoying a sweet, cold treat. However, the song’s nostalgia for the innocence of childhood spent outside in the twinkling twilight of childhood summer nights is shadowed with the foreboding of a sadness not fully realized, but one that is still ever-present.
By his own admission, Isbell was first able to write songs for a character that was not him or based upon a story he knew with “Elephant” from 2013’s Southeastern. “Only Children” is one such song, as the protagonist revisits his home town and is reminded of a friend lost. Even among those good memories, though, are moments tinged with a sadness; moments of more questions than answers, hinting at a story with an ending that is unknown and tragic as a result. Even the solo towards the end of the song feels like tears on a guitar.
Side two kicks off with “Running With Our Eyes Closed,” a track that would not have been out of place on an early Heartbreakers album, as you can close your eyes and for a moment imagine Tom Petty taking that lead vocal. As Isbell sings of a romance that at any moment seems in danger of going completely off the rails but manages to continue on, he lets loose with a bluesy guitar riff unlike anything he’s attempted before and yet nailed with aplomb.
The album’s next two tracks — “The River” and “Be Afraid” — feel like a one-two punch. On the gentle, gorgeous “The River,” Isbell finds spirituality, baptism, and forgiveness on the titular river, as if he has been washed of the sins of his past and is ready for a rebirth. That rebirth is realized on “Be Afraid,” as he implores the listener to be afraid and “do it anyway,” meaning of course for each of us to challenge ourselves to go after the “thing,” whatever it may be in our lives that we want more than anything but let fear keep us from. Just as Isbell got on stage and played his songs for the first time, no doubt with a fear eating at his gut but with a headstrong perseverance that allowed him to do it and make an incredible career out of, he is imploring his listener to do the same: to go after the thing they want to do but are too afraid to try. Maybe this, more than anything, is the album’s central message: the world is screwed up, scary, and unforgiving, so why not just go for the thing that will fill up our souls with purpose and joy?
Part of our individual quests for self-improvement and a life better spent means being less reckless and more aware of our weaknesses and immortality. Isbell, sober since 2012, writes of the everyday struggles with sobriety on “It Gets Easier,” but the song is no downer that wallows in the mistakes of the past or laments the desire to drink; instead it is a song of hope, meant to cheer on those battling the temptation to let them know, in fact, that it does get easier with each passing day.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I read that if you’re a songwriter worth his or her salt and have a child, and you don’t write a song for that child, then you need to turn in your guitar and take on another profession. Isbell closes the album with the plaintive, beautiful “Letting You Go,” written about a father who loves his child so dearly, has cherished every moment, and knows that someday he will need to let that child go out into the world. One can imagine Isbell, with his guitar in his hands and his daughter with his wife, musician Amanda Shires, in his sight struggling with that same knowledge.
It’s fitting that the album opens with songs about the ghosts that haunt each of us: those mistakes we can’t erase and the pain we’ve caused others, but slowly builds to a redemption found in rivers, bravery, sobriety, and the love of family. While this redemption belongs to Isbell, perhaps there is inspiration to be found for the listener to let go of the pain of the past, start forgiving ourselves, and embrace the joy and beauty in our own lives. The America that Isbell wrote this album in is not the America we see today. It’s an album where he chases ghosts of the past; real, imagined, fictional, or nonfictional, but we’re all chasing ghosts right now in this new America. So if you’re chasing ghosts, then why not this tour of his America? Because it’s the America we’re all living in, haunted and filled with regret for the mistakes we can’t change and the present and future we’re all accepting as a result.
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When you think of albums that are specifically “of their time,” so to speak, it usually evokes folk protest anthems of the 60’s, such as early Dylan songs or maybe the way New York punks at CBGB tapped into a growing angst in America. More recently, I think of Springsteen’s The Rising album, which was not written about 9/11 and yet seemed to speak to much of the pain and sadness in America in the immediate aftermath. In moments of our history that are so big and uncertain (as overused as that word now feels), music is our anchor, providing stability and a sense of relief. Though released on January 17th of this year, AJJ’sGood Luck Everybody feels like an album that was meant precisely for our current reality of social distancing and shelter in place. It feels like an album written at home in search of a comfort that we have all been robbed of as our world has been turned upside-down, and as a reprieve from the constant sense of dread we have been left with.
On this, their seventh studio album, Arizona’s own AJJ – a folk punk band – has captured the anxiety and anger and angst and fear of life in the midst of a pandemic. Written and produced by AJJ’s core duo of vocalist/guitarist/founder Sean Bonnette and bassist Ben Gallaty, alongside lead guitarist Preston Bryant, cellist Mark Glick, and returning long-time engineer Jalipaz Nelson (who has worked on the majority of the band’s releases), it’s an album that yearns for a return to normality and seeks shelter from the storm, while also wanting to run out into the open and yell curse words at the sky just to let out every bit of pent-up anger and frustration. Even as the album works through so many conflicting emotions, it feels like it’s all coming from one place: the anger we feel at forced uncertainty. Even the title Good Luck Everybody, feels like a final parting line to a group of people marching into potential doom. The album still wants to feel hopeful, even as everything surrounding us screams that all hope is lost.
Following the opening track, and the album’s first single, “A Poem,” which seems almost apologetic of the meaningless of art in our current reality, the album gets down to business on the second track. “I can feel my brain a-changin’, acclimating to the madness / I can feel my outrage shift into a dull, despondent sadness / I can feel a crust growing over my eyes like a falcon hood / I’ve got the normalization blues / This isn’t normal, this isn’t good,” starts out the second track, “Normalization Blues,” which is a slice of vintage 60’s protest Dylan, when he still wanted to be the next Woody Guthrie. Think of it like a modern-age “Talkin’ World War III Blues” for a generation weaned on social media and streaming services, except now the World War we’re all living through is being fought in the midst of smartphone-addiction-fueled indifference on our parts and gaslighting by our leaders. Even the closing line, the album-titular “good luck everybody”, feels like it’s being said with a resigned sigh, rather than with an ounce of hopeful conviction.
It might seem hyperbolic to say that this album in some way predicted the storm that lie just ahead for our country upon its release, but “Body Terror Song” comes replete with the refrain “I’m so sorry that you have a body.” Since the album was released, and especially in the whirlwind “shelter in place” of the last couple of months, it almost seems to detail the creeping fears many of us, willingly or otherwise, have developed of our own bodies, wondering if every cough or short breath means we have “it.” Our fears have given way to a constant feeling of dread at the one thing we can’t avoid: ourselves. “One that will hurt you, and be the subject of so much of your fear / It will betray you, be used against you, then it’ll fail on you my dear”, Bonnette sings, but as he himself noted about the song in a Reddit AMA, “Music is made to project your own experiences onto,” so maybe I’m just projecting my own insecurities here. However, I do think that the line “But before that, you’ll be a doormat, for every vicious narcissist in the world / Oh how they’ll screw you, all up and over, then feed you silence for dessert,”is still pretty spot-on for the current climate.
Whatever perceived political intentions that might be read into some of the tracks aside, the plaintive piano ballad “No Justice, No Peace, No Hope” addresses the catastrophic political elephant in the room directly, admitting to the feelings of hopelessness in it all, as we are daily bombarded by seemingly nothing but bad news. “I used to comfort myself with the myth of good intention / I can’t believe that I believed that goodness was inherent” is a relatable sentiment. Still though, Bonnette seemingly can’t give up hope, as he winds down the song with “Again we’ve slipped inside a pit of absolute despair / That’s where we live / Until we don’t”, choosing to read this, of course, as a sliver of hope and not an acceptance of defeat.
“Mega Guillotine 2020” is a love song for a glorious end to all the chaos, with a campfire sing-along cadence. The lyrics are straightforward and sung like someone watching an asteroid hurtling towards earth that decides instead of panic, it is a better idea to just chill out and accept the inevitable fate. If hopeless is hurtling towards us, what’s the point in dodging when there is nowhere to dodge? However, it is exactly when things are the darkest, and our faith in salvation is being tested that we find a reason to keep going, which is to say that sometimes we need to take pessimism for a test drive in order to find our optimism. We may welcome the guillotine, but we’re ready to pull our heads away at the last possible moment.
While much of the album expresses frustration with the current state of our world, “Psychic Warfare” takes a direct shot at the chaos caused by the “commander-in-chief” and his daily assaults on reality. Its anger is palpable and mirrors the overwhelming sense of anguish so many have felt every day. “For all the pussies you grab and the children you lock up in prison / For all the rights you roll back and your constant stream of racism / For all the poison you drip in my ear, for all your ugly American fear,” are lyrics you might want to scream into a pillow when it all gets to be too much. It is a song that’s right there with us, with a boiling rage of “f— all this b.s.!”
The album closing track “A Big Day for Grimley” acknowledges that we have far to go before life resumes a true sense of normalcy. “Now I don’t suffer any more bullshit gladly / Even though everything’s bullshit now, here in 2019 / And you can bet it’s gonna be a bunch of bullshit too out in sweet 2020 / Or whenever this album’s released,”may seem designed to leave the listener on down note, but AJJ is not a band that thrives on hopelessness, and instead leaves us with a hope for a better tomorrow, wishing for “Solitude for the stoic / Mirth for the merry / A quiet room for the overwhelmed / Arcades for the ADHD / Health for the sickly,” and leaving us with the album title once more, this time sung with the conviction missing in its previous appearance: Good luck, everybody.
As Bonnette said of the album upon its release: “I really hate explaining myself, but since I think it’s important I’ll make the theme of this album explicit: Basic human connection is the path to our collective return to sanity.”
Though we are sheltered in place, human connection is still possible. Music connects us and reminds us that we are still alive, even when we each may be hitting the point where it feels like we’re bouncing off the walls. There is no more unifying of an experience than singing along with a song we love so deeply and so personally at a concert, which unites us with every other person at the show who joins in. In those moments, we are one with each other. Now, we will unfortunately be robbed of live music for a while, but that doesn’t mean we are robbed from connecting through music. This is an album of songs that could double as mantras in a pandemic: we are still alive and we will survive this, no matter how grim it might feel. Put on Good Luck Everybody, and sing along and know that out there somewhere, a stranger is unwittingly joining you in the moment. What more could we ask for from an album?
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Mesa, AZ — Hailing from Denmark with a sound that blends punk and rockabilly into something wholly unique, Horrorpops steadily built a following over the course of their three albums in the mid-2000’s (2004’s Hell Yeah!, 2005’s Bring It On, and 2008’s Kiss Kiss Kill Kill). Just as they were reaching their apex, the band went into a period of inactivity. They released no new albums, and aside from a few shows here and there, they didn’t even play live that often. While the band may have gone on a brief hiatus, it didn’t stop their fan base from growing. With the announcement of a new tour, shows instantly began to sell out, and one of those sold out shows was Nile Theatre (“The Nile”). Kicking off the previous night in San Diego, The Quakes and Franks & Deans will accompany the Horrorpops for the entirety of the 13-date tour.
Franks & Deans
“We’re Franks & Deans, and we’re here to fuck up your grandmother’s favorite music!” Wearing matching tuxedo t-shirts and playing matching sea-foam-colored instruments for a set comprised of punk covers of old standards (okay, and the theme song to the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon), Las Vegas’ Franks & Deans opened the night. Comprised of bassist Robert DeTie, guitarists Hoss and Sampson, drummer Cam Callahan, and burlesque dancer and hula-hoopist Nickole Muse, they were an immediate shot of adrenaline the moment they came through the door.
Their sound – two parts punk and one part bar band – started the show off with the exact right kind of fun party music atmosphere you’d want on such a night. While their set may have been built around songs from the various classic Vegas performers. “This next song is by my favorite member of the Rat Pack: Mike Ness!” The Social Distortion’s frontman’s misattribution as a member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack was a running joke throughout their set, with other Rat Pack “members” including The Reverend Horton Heat and Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra. As they mentioned during the closing of their set, they have a regular Wednesday night Weenie Roast residency at Double-Down Saloon in Vegas. For any AZ residents who find themselves visiting Sin City mid-week, it’s a worthwhile stop.
Fronted by founding member and guitarist Paul Roman and backed by slap bassist Wes Hinshaw, and drummer Juan Carlos, Arizona’s own The Quakes played second. Thirty-year veterans, the band’s sound can best be described as neo-rockabilly. Roman played with the furious intensity of Johnny Ramone from the Ramones classic-era. If Roman’s guitar is punk-rock fury, then the rhythm section of Hinshaw and Carlos served as the perfect anchor, both keeping pace and holding the track together.
From their blistering take on the Stone’s “Paint It Black” to open, their 13-song, 30-minute set was a musical buzzsaw. “I Miss You” by the band’s 2005 album Psyops drew a huge crowd reaction. The Quakes have a three-prong attack and seem to intuitively feed off of each when they’re on stage.
With the stage set up with white sheets and assorted decorative skulls, you could feel the building excitement for the Horrorpops. With a legitimate max capacity crowd of long-time fans, many of whom were seeing the band for the first time, anticipation built to a fever pitch just as the lights went black. The reaction from the audience to darkness alone is the kind of pop some bands would kill to have. Henrik Stendahl was out first, taking his place behind the drums. He was quickly followed by guitarist Kim Nekroman, looking cool as ever. Arriving last, you realize immediately exactly what kind of icon Patricia Day has become, as she was greeted like psychobilly royalty.
Picking up her massive stand-up bass, adorned with buzzards and a black skull and crossbones, and went right into “Julia” off of Hell Yeah! One crowd favorite was followed by two more: “Thelma and Louise” from Kiss Kiss Kill Kill and “Kool Flattop” from their debut. The opening trio hit hard, and by the time the band paused and Patricia Day addressed the crowd for the first time, you could feel the crowd needing to take a breather.
“I can only think of one thing… okay two things,” Patricia told the crowd. “1. Why the hell did we stay away for so long? The second is that the greatest show we ever played was right here in Arizona! Anyway, it’s been too long!” Too long it may have been, but you’d never know it had been that long. Even with several years off from regular touring, the band showed no sign of rust, on just their second night of the tour. From the opening chords of “Julia,” they sounded just as tight as ever.
The band was on a tight schedule because The Nile had to close at midnight, and their set didn’t start until 10:45, which left them only 75 minutes. The time constraints didn’t detract from their set but instead gave it a blazing intensity. Somewhat ironically during “Hit ‘N’ Run” from 2005’s Bring It On!, Day casually dodged a beer can launched at the stage, with her nonchalant dodging being noticed and vocally appreciated by the crowd. Day’s stage presence combines punk-rock bravado with a kind of effortless grace. She took a brief moment to give her own appreciation: “Thank you so much for singing loud and oh-so-fucking proudly!”
While Horrorpops has a particular aesthetic that combines elements of goth with classic rockabilly, with a sound that incorporates both in a punk-rock blender, what often gets lost is that their song-writing revisits so many classic themes. Day and Nekroman are married, and many of their songs, as noted by Day, are love songs because even psychobilly punk rockers need love.
If their songs were about love, the show – and presumably the entire tour – is a love song to performing live. With Paul Roman from the Quakes joining them on guitar and Nekroman taking over bass duties from Day, they launched into crowd favorite “Psycho Bitches Outta Hell,” as they were also joined on stage by Kelly (their merch girl) who did a synchronized dance routine with Day.
At this point, time was starting to run out on the night, so the band improvised. “This is the time in the set when we would normally yell ‘Goodnight!’ and leave the stage and make you clap for us so we can come back out and play more songs that we already planned on playing, but we’re on a tight curfew tonight…” The lights were briefly turned out, as the band stayed on stage. The crowd relished the chance to play along with this joke, chanting “One more song!’ before the lights were promptly turned back on. “Alright, we will!” They closed out the night with “Walk Like a Zombie” and “Miss Take.” “We got time for one more song, and then it’s curfew!”
They closed their set with “Where I Wander,” took a bow, and exited the stage almost perfectly at midnight. The set may have been a tight 75 minutes, but they gave the crowd everything they had. And their adoring fans, so many who have waited years to finally see them live, gave it right back. Though Horrorpops may be from Denmark, they have a clear love for Phoenix. Hopefully it won’t be another ten years before they return!
For 13 years, I worked at a record store. Not only was it the most fun I have ever had at a job, but it also supplied me with a constant flow of new music. Few things could beat the moment when an album would come in from a new artist, and we’d play it in the store. While there were a great many forgettable albums given a chance during those closing shifts, every now and then you hit a glorious moment of paydirt: an incredible album from an emerging artist.
Now, approaching three years removed from my last shift behind the counter and ten years into being a school teacher who is increasingly feeling the generational divide between me and my students (try as I might, I just don’t get their music), it’s harder for me to find new music. Going into 2019, I challenged myself to check out new artists and add some new blood to the usual list of bands that I have loved since college.
Both a triumphant comeback and tragic swan song, the self-titled debut from David Berman’s post-Silver Jews band Purple Mountains showed that his ten-year hiatus hadn’t caused him to lose a step. As a songwriter, Berman’s greatest gift were always his lyrics. It was nearly impossible to listen to any of his albums, whether the original six Silver Jews albums or the lone Purple Mountains album, and not find a lyric that could cut to the emotional core of the listener. On the eponymously-titled album, Berman reflects on the changes in his life over those ten years, including the separation from his wife and the heartbreak he feels over it. Though several songs deal with his sadness over the separation, the album’s true emotional heartbreaker is “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son,” about the passing of Berman’s mother, with whom he was very close. Though Berman’s own untimely death shortly after the album’s release may hang over it, the work stands on its own as one of the finest of his career.
Standout Tracks: “All My Happiness Is Gone,” “Darkness And Cold,” and “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son”
On her fourth solo album, Jenny Lewis has settled into her role as a modern-day torch singer, with songs that would sit perfectly alongside the best work of Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell. A known perfectionist, five years separated On the Line and her previous solo record — 2014’s The Voyager — but the wait was well worth it.
There is a smokiness and soulfulness to the songs, like wandering into an after-hours bar and hearing someone playing the piano and singing their heart for only themselves to hear. Lewis is at her best when she embraces her troubadour tendencies and eschews the temptation to embrace some of her pop sensibilities.
The protagonists on her songs are hopeless romantics and daydreamers, and Lewis is the perfect storyteller. Whether it’s her reminiscing about a romance that never quite was on “Heads Gonna Roll” or the poppy dissection of a squandered childhood on “Wasted Youth,” with it’s doo doo doo doo doo doo mid-chorus refrain, she takes the listener on the journey with her, until the truth buried in the emotion is finally reached.
Standout Tracks: “Heads Gonna Roll,” “Wasted Youth,” and “Rabbit Hole”
Since going solo from The Loved Ones, Dave Hause has established himself as punk rock’s all-American singer-songwriter. His music is equal parts early Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty records mixed with The Replacements. The results of that, though, are uniquely his own. Though his first three albums (2011’s Resolutions, 2013’s Devour, and 2017’s Bury Me in Philly) are all incredible albums in their own right, Kick makes the case for being his most mature album to date.
Since Bury Me in Philly, Hause has gone through some big life changes, which has led to his growth as a songwriter (he found love, moved west, and became a father to twin boys) and resulted in songs of aching beauty of a life recovered from a period of wandering in the dark. On “Fireflies,” the song’s protagonist thinks back on the beginning of the love of his life and those early days of the relationship when everything was new and exciting, but it’s sung with the tone of someone who remembers those days fondly because they led into the deeper love that’s formed over time, as both partners survive life’s challenges together. Dave Hause has always been in incredible songwriter, but on Kick, he’s finally grown up.
Standout Tracks: “Saboteurs,” “The Ditch,” and “Fireflies”
My introduction to New York singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson came via her duet with Matt Pond “The Ballad of Laura and Mike” from the final Matt Pond PA album, 2017’s Still Summer. Though all of her albums impress upon the listener that she is a talent worthy of wider attention, The Big Freeze, released in March, represents a huge step forward sonically.
Recorded without a proper studio in her childhood home in Long Island, Stevenson’s vocals and guitar are at the forefront, as her lyrics seem to allow her to dissect the pain of her past. To that degree, the album serves as a therapeutic song-cycle, as she processes so much of her life’s experiences as a form of reckoning with where they’ve led her as an adult. “Living Room, NY,” is an ode to someone who is exhausted from travel and being everywhere but a home and longs for nothing more than a simple life. Stevenson has found that from all of life’s struggles, peace is found in the sanctuary of love and a quiet life.
John Darnielle, the primary songwriter and sole original member of the band, has a way of writing songs that are built around a specific concept (the band’s 2015 album Beat the Champ featured songs about professional wrestling) and yet they are written in a way that the audience can still emotionally connect to the song’s protagonists and their respective struggles.
On In League with Dragons, inspired by Dungeons and Dragons (and other role-playing games), the band uses the concept of the old wizard to stretch beyond the initial images of Gandalf the Grey to reach anyone who once was magical but has since lost their touch. While four of the songs on the album do connect to the album’s cover art, which looks like it could have been lifted from a dungeon-master’s guide, Darnielle’s wizards range from baseball players (“Doc Gooden,” about the legendary New York Mets’ pitcher, as he remembers his glory days) to mythical rock stars (“Passaic 1975,” sung from the perspective of Ozzy Osborne).
Musically, as with each subsequent album, Darnielle moves the band farther and farther away from the early albums that leaned heavily on acoustic guitar to produce some of the most lush arrangements on any Mountain Goats album. The message of course is that even the greats lose their touch and fade away and therein lies the heartbreak.
Standout Tracks: “Younger,” Passaic 1975,” and “Doc Gooden”
In the last few years, there seems to be a wave of female singer-songwriters and female-fronted bands that are generating all the excitement. At the forefront of that movement is Australian-born singer-songwriter Alex Lahey. For as incredible as her 2016 EP B-Grade University and 2017 full-length debut I Love You Like a Brother were, she raised the bar for herself with The Best of Luck Club, which proved to be a huge step forward from the already immensely talented Lahey.
The piano-driven “Unspoken History” features a protagonist making a last-ditch broken-hearted plea for a love to stay; one that is made knowing the person has plans that have nothing to do with them. On an album that almost feels like a thematic song cycle about figuring out your life in your mid-twenties, “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself” stands out as the anthem we all could have used at that time in our lives. The song is also notable for including saxophones, as Lahey starts creatively spreading her wings on the track. With a stellar sophomore album now under her belt, Lahey continues to solidify her position as the songwriter of the moment, as she lives her life out loud.
Standout Tracks: “Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself,” “Let’s Go Out,” and “Unspoken History”
With what may have originally seemed like a one-off side project from its participants with their 2001 debut Mass Romantic, The New Pornographers, a sort of indie rock answer to the Traveling Wilburys, have carried on now for 18 years; producing 8 albums in that span.
With In the Morse Code of Break Lights, the Candian supergroup continues with their particular brand of power-pop, but with a noticeably darker turn. With Carl Newman now the primary songwriter on all the tracks, the group has embraced what Newman has always done so well, both with the group and on his solo albums: present the sorrow of life through the poppiest of filters.
On “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” Newman laments, “Too many soapboxes, not enough violins/Too many shipwrecks, not enough sirens”, and you can feel his disappointment in the turn the world is taking where everyone has an opinion but not the motivation for action. Regardless of the darker tone, The New Pornographers are still anchored by Newman’s songwriting and vocalist Neko Case, a once-in-a-generation singer who could sing my spam emails to me with such power and conviction that by the end I’d be compelled to give up my checking account and social security number. That’s a one-two punch few groups can boast.
Standout Tracks: “Falling Down the Stairs of Your Smile,” “The Surprise Knock,” and “You’ll Need a New Backseat Driver”
A band nearing their 25th anniversary, who have released 10 albums in that time, could be forgiven for settling into a place of serving their fan’s expectations to stick to the same old same old. Wilco, on the contrary, has made a career out of defying expectations, avoiding easy categorization, and following their own muse with each album.
On Ode to Joy, the band is still experimenting and not afraid to take changes, but more than ever, they embrace the quieter moments of life. Perhaps it was from writing his memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) last year, but frontman and principal songwriter Jeff Tweedy seems to be reflecting on his life and enjoying the beauty of it as he grows older. While the lyrics find beauty and reflection on a life lived through pain and struggle, the band, unchanged since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, has never sounded tighter. Each member is confident and talented enough to know when to let loose on a track and when to reel it in, and they all shine on the album.
They are capable of letting a song build to a gorgeous crescendo before collapsing onto itself, like the music is imploding, such as on “Quiet Amplifier” and “We Were Lucky.” As the band heads into their 25th anniversary in 2020, they have managed to go from the rowdiness of youth on their debut A.M., to appreciating the quieter moments, even when they are found amongst the chaos of life.
Standout Tracks: “Before Us,” “Everyone Hides,” and “Love is Everywhere (Beware)”
I grew up a punk-loving kid, but at a certain point, there was a paradigm shift in punk music and suddenly punk meant something different and became about being funny or cutesy. Punk became more about a style aesthetic than it became about an attitude. That’s what makes Control Top and their debut Cover Contracts so special: it’s a callback to an era of punk long gone but dearly missed. To put it in terms easily digestible, Covert Contracts feels like the best vocal moments of Corin Tucker on early Sleater-Kinney or Kathleen Hanna at the peak of Bikini Kill fronting a Damaged-era Black Flag. Like the best of punk’s bygone era, Control Top has targets for each of its songs.
On “Office Rage,” the frustrations of the working class expressed through the growing frustration of anyone making it paycheck to paycheck, and the title track locks in on the anger that comes with having too much information in a world where no one wants to do anything with it or about it. On “Betrayal,” they show that no one is exempt from scrutiny and that both sides shoulder some of the blame. Punk may have long ago turned pop, but Control Top’s debut reminds us that we have a lot left to still be pissed off about.
Standout Tracks: “Chain Reaction,” “Type A,” and “Office Rage”
As the term indie rock continues to evolve and change with each passing year, the heyday of the term seems lost to the history books or at least record guides. One of the era’s last true vanguards, however, has been Pavement founding member Spiral Stairs. After the band broke up in ‘99, Spiral formed a new group (Preston School of Industry) and released two great albums (All This Sounds Gas and Monsoon), but when that chapter came to a close, he finally stepped out on his own and began releasing solo albums that produced his strongest songs to date: The Real Feel and Doris & The Daggers.
Like all of his output since the early days of Pavement, Spiral wears his influences proudly, ranging from Echo & The Bunnymen to The Fall to Swell Maps, and his latest effort is no different, save for that it couples those with his position now as an indie rock elder statesmen in our current political landscape on tracks like “Swampland” and “Fingerprintz.” He’s at his best, though, with the psychedelic “Hyp-No-Tized,” the jaunty “The Fool,” and the reflective “Diario.” Therein lies the strength of the album: the songs speak to a time in music long past as a place of comfort in an increasingly polarizing political and social world.
Standout Tracks: “Hyp-No-Tized,” “The Fool,” and “Diario”
PHOENIX — This past August, Snoop Dogg released his 15th studio album: I Wanna Thank Me. In the now 27 years since he first burst onto the scene alongside Dr. Dre, Snoop has never slowed down. He’s never stopped hustling, he’s never stopped releasing bomb-ass albums, and he’s never left the conversation for the greatest rapper alive. Simply put, Snoop is timeless and is a true hip-hop living legend. Now out on the “I Wanna Thank Me” tour with support from Trae Tha Truth, RJMrLA, and Warren G, Snoop brings his own personal party to every city he plays. To see him at The Van Buren, though, offered a rare chance to see him up close and personal: a megastar in a more intimate setting.
Trae Tha Truth
Trae Tha Truth
Touring in support of his just-released album Exhale, Houston hip-hop veteran Trae Tha Truth opened the show. His rapid-fire chopper-style vocals, which date back in hip-hop to Kool Moe Dee’s days with the Treacherous Three, got the crowd moving. Throughout his 20-minute set, the bass in his tracks was like a hip-hop defibrillator. “Long Live The Pimp,” his 2012 collaboration with Future, was one of the high points in the set. With the rest of the night putting a spotlight on the West Coast, Trae’s Texas flavor was the perfect counterbalance.
Brought out by DJ Goofy, the Los Angeles-born RJ (sometimes RJMrLA) rode the wave of momentum with the crowd, as he put his new spin on West Coast hip-hop. His opening track “On One” from his recently released Oh God, featured the line “I was taught to fear no one,” which feels like it should be RJ’s mantra. If “On One” was the ignition, “Flex” from his 2013 debut O.M.M.I.0 3 was the blast-off. Hip-hop is about the boast, and “Flex” was the ultimate boast in his short but explosive set.
It is incredible enough to see one legend in Snoop Dogg live in concert, but to have Warren G as one of the openers is an undeniable bonus and a rap fan’s dream come true. His debut album, 94’s Regulate… G Funk Era was an instant classic of West Coast hip-hop. Even 25 years after its release, Warren G still has the same smooth vocals that made him an immediate star, and they were on display throughout his 30-minute set. Opening with “This D.J.” from his debut, the crowd jumped on the hook, “It’s kind of easy when you’re listening to the G-Dub sound/Pioneer speakers bumpin’ as I smoke on a pound.”
With the crowd feeling it, he immediately launched into “Do You See,” with the crowd again singing along, as they waved their hands from side to side. Missing from the song was the departed Nate Dogg, Warren G’s long-time collaborator and friend. His presence hung over many of the songs, and he was honored by both Warren G and Snoop Dogg (the three started out together in the hip-hop group 213 in 1990).
A late-set request from the audience brought one of the night’s more spontaneous highlights. Following “Summertime in the LBC,” he asked the crowd if anyone had a lighter, and as soon as the words left his mouth, the stage was instantly showered with lighters thrown from every spot in the crowd. Jumping out of the way of a seemingly steady stream, he laughed and reminded the crowd he just needed one. He retrieved one of the lighters, and after lighting up, he tossed it back to its owner, a man named Luke. “Luke? Like Luke Skywalker,” he asked the man, before leading the crowd in an impromptu acapella sing-along of 2 Live Crew’s “We Want Some Pussy,” before launching into 213’s “Mary Jane.”
Following “Nobody Does It Better,” Warren G closed out his set with the timeless “Regulate.” If hip-hop has a list of greatest sing-along songs, “Regulate” would be high on that list. When it came time for Nate Dogg’s vocals, instead of just playing it from the track, the crowd sang his parts, with prompting by Warren G. It may be celebrating its 25th birthday, but the song sounded as good as ever and was the best way he could close out his set.
You may have seen some artists you truly love live in concert and felt that surge of excitement when they walked out to start their set, but Snoop Dogg is a certified living legend. When we talk about a person who is exceptional in any field, oftentimes they are described as a “rock star,” which instantly denotes that they have that certain extra something that defies simple categorization or explanation. Have no doubt about it, Snoop is a rock star, and when he came to the stage at The Van Buren, he did it with a swagger many of us wish we could have in our day-to-day lives. When Snoop came out, with his blinged microphone in hand, the atmosphere in the room instantly changed. While some people can make a party, Snoop is the party.
Opening with “What U Talkin’ Bout” from his recently released 15th studio album I Wanna Thank Me, from which the tour got its name, the energy in the room instantly changed. The new songs stood proudly alongside the classics from across his career, and what commenced for the remainder of the evening was a party, Snoop style.
His stage set up, with DJ Premium flanked on both sides by picnic tables and a large fire hydrant in front of his table, was immediately reminiscent of a block party, and that was the vibe Snoop brought upon his entrance. However, this wasn’t just any block party – this was Snoop Doggy Dogg’s block party. So in addition to those picnic tables and fire hydrant were two poles, each positioned at the far edges of the stage, with dancers on them on and off throughout the night.
In his set, Snoop mixed his own songs with verses from his many guest appearances on other rappers’ tracks. His set was a mix of nearly every hit in his long career. His work with Dre was hit early, with “Next Episode” and “Nothin’ But A ‘G’ Thang’” played back to back. His groundbreaking debut Doggystyle was best represented with “The Shiznit,” “Ain’t No Fun” (with Warren G coming back out to drop his verse), “Gin and Juice,” and “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” all making appearances in the set. “Countdown,” “P.I.M.P.” (his 2003 collaboration with 50 Cent), and “Sexual Eruption” were all set highlights.
As he closed out his main set with “Snoop’s Upside Ya Head,” D.J. Premium told Snoop that since he didn’t have time to cover all of his hits in one night, he would play a mix of them, while Snoop took a break. With Snoop off the stage for a moment, Premium cut a mix of The Doggfather’s hits and guest appearances on other rappers’ tracks, while video snippets played on the screen behind him.
After ten minutes, Snoop re-emerged and started his encore with “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” his 2004 hit. Following it up with “Snoop Dogg (What’s My Name Part 2)” and “Take Me Away,” he then blew the roof off with his verse from D.J. Khalid’s “All I Do Is Win,” which for a crowd already hype, it was little an extra shot of adrenaline straight to the heart.
While “All I Do Is Win” is the perfect track to summarize Snoop’s career of hit after hit record, he wasn’t there just to remind the crowd of his greatness. On a tour named to celebrate his long career and with a multi-generational; multicultural crowd of fans there to help him do so, Snoop turned the attention away from himself and shined a spotlight on the many friends and contemporaries lost over the years, sharing his love for those lost with the crowd who loved them too. His mini-tribute set, included love for Eazy-E (“Boyz In The Hood”), Notorious B.I.G. (“Hypnotize”), and Tupac (“Gangsta Party”).
The most poignant moment on a night that took time to honor so many gone-but-not-forgotten hip-hop legends came when Snoop honored his dear friend Nipsey Hussle with a moment of silence, while a video tribute to him played. Following this moment of silence, Snoop hit his verse from K2 Tun’s “One Love” for everyone lost.
Snoop returned to the party atmosphere of the night, as he moved to close out the show with “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?,” his debut single from Doggystyle. “I love you Phoenix, and Snoop Dogg will keep coming back here any motherfucking time you want me to!” Though he didn’t play “I Wanna Thank Me,” the song is about honoring yourself for the positives and appreciating hard work and accomplishments. Over the 27 years since he first gained national attention with his verse on Dr Dre’s “Deep Cover (187)” in 1992 and across 15 albums, Snoop has earned every accolade and every bit of love the crowd gave to him and that he gave back.
“Phoenix, we about to get out of here, but before we go, sing along with me,” he implored, as he closed out his set with his 2011 collaboration with Wiz Khalifa and Bruno Mars “Young, Wild, and Free.” If any song should be hip-hop’s answer to any number of show-closing ballads from across the history of pop music, it’s “Young, Wild, and Free.” After 27 years, Snoop Dogg is an institution, still the gold-standard for what it means to be eternally cool, and his music will always serve as a fountain of youth for his audience. To see Snoop live is to be transported to a place where the party never stops and the vibes are always good because Snoop is the party from the moment he steps on stage to when he steps off of it.