Heritage, the album released today by five-piece downtempo deathcore band Distant, is the band’s third album, and the second with their current line up – joined by Jan Mato on drums and Eise Smit on guitar in 2020. While their second album Aeons Of Oblivion showed what the band was capable of, especially on the four-part “Ritual,” an almost deathcore suite, Heritage is the band at their full power.
While the band is legendary for the brutality of their music, the opening track “Acid Rain” is almost beautifully melodic with an undercurrent of doom, like a fairy tale that starts with a welcoming path in the forest but portends darkness buried deep in the woods.
That darkness erupts on “Paradigm Shift,” and if a paradigm shift is a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions, then the song represents that for the band. Building off of “Acid Rain,” the track announces the band’s new direction, like their first two albums were the hunt, and now with Heritage, they’re here for blood.
The third track, “Born of Blood,” builds slowly, propelled by guitarists Vladimir Golic and Nouri Yetgin’s twin-assault pulverizing riffs. In the background of the song, though, is a swirling rhythm pulling the listener upwards with the song. Alec Grnja’s vocals seem to swirl throughout the song’s vortex before casting you out of the apex into the ether.
The centerpiece of the album is “Agent Justice,” a seven-minute epic that sounds like the score for an cult-classic horror film. The video for the song sees the band performing live, trapped behind a staticy red and black color palette, like you’re seeing it on a channel you’re not meant to watch, and the band is fighting through the static to the surface. While everyone shines on the track, Jon Mato’s blast beats are so relentless that it is astounding to realize a human being is capable of maintaining such a persistent beat. The song is a rollercoaster, taking you to its very peaks and then dropping you, screaming face-first into an almost-calming piano interlude that only gives to another sharp climb. Grnja’s vocals threaten to tear you in half as they run at you full force.
Tracks such as “A Sentence to Suffer” and “Human Scum” are played at such furious intensity that you can feel blood dripping from the tracks, with each member of the band going hard on both songs. The one-two punch of closing tracks “Orphan of Blight” and “Plaguebreeder” both start with the same kind of haunting, almost orchestral sound that then pulls you down sharply into an audio demolition derby, throwing you around and around until the merciless conclusion.
For a band that describes their own sound as “bone-crushing, thick-as concrete heaviness,” Heritage might as well be a hydraulic compactor, the kind that could pancake a military vehicle. The band has never sounded tighter and more in tune with each other than ever before. Grnja’s vocals are intense, working in conjunction with Golic and Yetgin’s guitars – which would be intense enough on their own, but combined with Elmer Maurit’s steady basslines and Mato’s blast beats, they are out to destroy everything in their path. Distant is at the forefront of European deathcore for a reason, and Heritage moves them firmly to the top of the mountain .Heritage was released on February 10th on all platforms, with physical copies available on Distant’s website, including a badass limited edition Heritage vinyl pressing on marbled white and red smoke – with only 500 copies available.
Be sure to catch the band when they play The Underground in Mesa on March 13th, along with Bodysnatcher, AngelMaker, and PALEFACE (CH).
With a career dating back to 1982 with their lone release as a hardcore group, the Pollywog Stew EP, and their 1986 genre-defining hip-hop debut, Licensed to Ill, it’s hard to remember a world without the Beastie Boys. Considering the deep personal connection many of us have with them (Questlove from The Roots once said that there’s no such thing as a casual Beastie Boys fan), it feels triumphant and yet bittersweet to see the Beasties take one final career lap. Beginning with the 2018 release of their mammoth tome of a memoir Beastie Boys Book, and continuing this year with Apple TV’s Beastie Boys Story, the cycle is now complete with the release of the career-spanning Beastie Boys Music, which was released October 23rd on Universal Music Enterprises.
This is not the first compilation from the band, however, as it follows the previous releases of 1999’s Beastie Boys Anthology: The Sounds of Science and 2005’s Solid Gold Hits. What’s so different about Beastie Boys Music is the feeling of finality to it. While the future could perhaps see the release of anniversary deluxe editions of any of their landmark albums featuring B-sides and unreleased tracks or alternate takes (the 30th anniversary of Check Your Head is in two years, for instance), this still feels like the final word on a career that dates back to their early days as a New York hardcore punk band, through their years as hip-hop innovators, and finally their time as the genre’s elder statesman. With the 2012 death of Adam “MCA” Yauch from salivary cancer, we will never get “new” Beastie Boys music in the truest sense, as Adam “Adrock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond have vowed to never again record as Beastie Boys.
Now, the first issue to confront with any greatest hits album isn’t in reviewing the songs themselves. It’s insulting to the reader and even to the band themselves to approach a collection of their hits as if it is the first time any of us have heard the music. “You should really check out the song ‘Sabotage’ because it’s a total banger!” As with any greatest hits collection, it comes down to two main things: which songs and the sequencing.
Looking at a track-by-track breakdown of the album, it is evident that for this collection, the group opted for the singles specifically in chronological order. That is why their landmark debut Licensed to Ill (the first hip-hop album to go to #1 on the Billboards chart) is disproportionately represented, as compared to later albums, with a total of five songs appearing on the collection:
“Hold It Now, Hit It” – Both Beastie Boys Book or Beastie Boys Story explain the importance of this song to their growth as a hip-hop group).
“Paul Revere” – If you doubt its well-earned stature, try saying “Now here’s a little story that I got to tell” and listen for the inevitable reply from someone within earshot of “of three bad brothers you know so well”
“No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” with Kerry King of Slayer providing the iconic guitar riff, was a long-time set closer for their live shows (later to be supplanted by another song on the collection) and is a deserved inclusion.
The goofy-fun drinking ode “Brass Monkey” is a nice surprise, though it comes at the cost of a lot of great singles that were left off.
Of course, no Beastie Boys collection could possibly omit “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” the song the band intended as an ironic parody of “party” and “attitude”-themed songs, in the same vein as “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and “I Wanna Rock” and which the dearly-departed MCA once referred to as “kind of a joke that went too far.” Regardless of its original intentions or how it was received and what it became as a result, it’s still a fun song and hard to not sing along to (as loudly and obnoxiously as possible).
Heavily regarded by both fans and critics as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, Paul’s Boutique still somehow feels like it’s underrated in their discography, as it’s sandwiched between the instant-classic Licensed to Ill and the one-two punch of Check Your Head and Ill Communication, like being the smart, sensitive middle child between the class clown and the golden child. Maybe it’s that status that makes the three tracks included from it (“Shake Your Rump,” “Hey Ladies,” and “Shadrach”) sound so fresh. They also don’t suffer from cultural saturation, as some of Licensed to Ill’s singles do. In fact, I would argue that “Shadrach” may be one of their greatest tracks on any album (check out the Nathanial Hörnblowér-directed video for it that featured live footage hand-painted by different artists to create a moving painting).
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Anyone who even has a cursory knowledge of the band’s history knows that the lack of success from Paul’s Boutique left the group with a unique opportunity: to reinvent themselves free from the somewhat indifferent eye of their record label, Capitol. This led to them doing anything and everything they wanted to try, resulting in the genre-defying 1992 classic Check Your Head.
While for a band that released eight albums across 25 years, “best album” becomes a heated debate, I place myself firmly in the Check Your Head camp. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve heard them: “Jimmy James,” “Pass the Mic,” and “So What’cha Want” still hit just as hard. The album’s “anything goes” experimentation took them to the next level. By taking up their instruments again (for the first time since their early hardcore days) and creating their own samples, they did what no hip-hop groups before them had done and only a few have sense.
If Check Your Head was the reinvention, then Ill Communication was the polished refinement of that reinvention. Two of Ill’s tracks, “Get It Together,” (featuring Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip guest verse), and the ode to early NYC hip-hop “Root Down”, are no brainers, but the album’s two true classics get to the essence of the Beastie’s greatness, “Sure Shot” and “Sabotage,” as they draw on the band’s two eras: hardcore punk (“Sabotage” is essentially a radio-friendly punk song) and hip-hop (“Sure Shot” has the classic pass-the-mic structure of the best of their songs).
“Sure Shot” features a verse from MCA that still sounds ahead of its time, when the late rapper dropped “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end,” and seemingly became the first male rapper to embrace feminism. This lyric and MCA as the group’s spiritual leader was well-highlighted in the book and documentary. At a time when a lot of rap lyrics were still leaning heavily into “bitches” and “hoes,” MCA took an important step for rap music as a whole and changed the image of a group much-maligned early for songs like “Girls” (you can Google the lyrics, if you don’t know).
Now, “Sabotage” is “Sabotage” and it will outlive us all. Heck, a joke in the rebooted Star Trek films was Captain James T. Kirk’s love of the song — considered to be an “oldie” in a distant future of routine space exploration. Fun bit of band trivia: “Sabotage” first had life as an instrumental jam inspired by MCA fiddling around on the bass and coming up with the signature bassline. The original recording had no title, and became known as “Chris Rocks” after an overly-enthusiastic studio tech named Chris lost his mind after hearing them record the demo and yelled “this shit rocks!” It lived as “Chris Rocks” until Adrock free-styled the vocals screaming his frustrations at the band’s producer Mario Caldato, resulting in the thinly-veiled but good-natured shots at Mario C, such as: So, so, so, so listen up, ’cause you can’t say nothin’/You’ll shut me down with a push of your button. Though arguments can be made for their greatest track, “Sabotage” is their most well-known song, finally dethroning “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” for that title and has aged well, now 26 years since it’s original release. That is why it became and remained their set closer for the rest of their existence as a touring group.
The later half of their career, though representing three albums over a 13-year period is relegated to a total of five tracks, with two tracks from 1998’s Hello Nasty, one track from 2004’s To The 5 Boroughs, and two tracks from their 2011 swan song Hot Sauce Committee Part Two. This is the lone weakness of this compilation, as each of those albums deserves more time, but that is time that a single-set greatest hits collection simply cannot afford. Still though, it feels strange that the demands of a reasonable runtime means that Nasty’s “Three MC’s and One DJ,” Boroughs’ “Triple Trouble” or “Open Letter to NYC,” and Hot Sauce’s Nas-duet “Too Many Rappers” are unfairly left off the album. It is recognized, though, that those tracks were singles but not huge hits. Que sera, sera, I suppose.
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While the dream of a Beastie Boys compilation in the same vein as the three-part Beatles Anthology series — filled with outtakes, b-sides, and demos — will hopefully be realized someday, for now we have this solid greatest hits. Though the hardcore Beastie devotees, like myself, will still pick this up and file it next to all the albums its songs are taken from, it is not an album strictly for us. It is an album for the next generation — for kids who are discovering the Beastie Boys through their parents and a family viewing of Beastie Boys Story.
A greatest hits album is meant to crystalize the essence of the artist, and to that degree, Beastie Boys Music does that admirably so. This collection eschews The Meters-inspired jazz-funk tracks that were sprinkled across Check Your Head and Ill Communications, as well as their returns to their hardcore roots on the same albums. (Not many are going to argue that a greatest hits collection should include “Heartattack Man,” no matter how killer of a hardcore track it is). The focus here is on the accepted canon of Beasties hits and the tracks that made them so beloved worldwide.
If this is their final career lap, then it’s a fitting send-off for them; it’s a reminder of everything that made them so great, because more than anything, the Beastie Boys are the soundtrack of fun. With this collection, older fans will revisit those moments in our lives and rekindle those memories with each song. (“So What’cha Want” was the first song I played in my car when I got my license… to drive, not to ill.) However, this collection will serve as a bridge to new fans — the children (or even grandchildren) of those who grew up with Mike, Adam, and Adam.
There is certainly a timelessness to the Beasties’ music that will transcend generations, and as each comes and goes, and even as each of us who remember the first time we saw the 70’s cop-show inspired video when it premiered on MTV are laid to dust, there will still be people with the windows down and “Sabotage” turned loud.
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.
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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It’s been 45 years since the golden voice of a “kid from Chicago” hit the Top 10 with the song “Lady” and propelled the band Styx into the worldwide spotlight. Now, at age 73, crooner Dennis DeYoung shows no signs of slowing down with the release of his new solo CD entitled 26 East: Volume 1. The songs are refreshingly original and yet instantly familiar while the lyrics are peppered with some very poignant statements about the world today and the roles we each play.
There is some expectation for great songwriting from the man who penned such top 10 hits as “Mr. Roboto”, “Show Me The Way”, “Come Sail Away”, and reached Number 1 with the definitive rock ballad “Babe.” The odds doubled when DeYoung decided to collaborate with another Number 1 songwriter: Jim Peterik, who’s known for chart-topping successes from “Vehicle” (#2 for Ides of March), “Caught Up In You” (#10 for 38 Special), and the rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” a number 1 hit for his former band Survivor. Although past success is no guarantee of future results, the DeYoung/Peterik team delivered five solid tracks that are textbook for well crafted songs. “We collaborated from the get go,” said DeYoung, “happily and seamlessly and at this time we have written nine songs together of which five will be on Volume 1. Just two Chicago guys doing what they do best, making music and having a laugh.”
Out of the gate, 26 East begins with “East of Midnight,” a big production of melodic rock with the signature stacked harmonies, soaring synthesizers balanced with crunchy guitars, and that strong voice that keeps classic rock radio stations in business. There’s a hint of “Grand Illusion” here and a nod to “I’m OK”, but it’s definitely not a regurgitation of the past. The song is a reminiscent journey back in time to the humble beginnings of DeYoung’s music career when the nucleus of Styx began with him and the Panozzo twins, Chuck and John. The album’s title “26 East” was the address where DeYoung grew up in Roseland on the far south side of Chicago, and the cover artwork features three locomotives traveling through space, representing the original members leaving Chicago on their journey to the stars.
There are two other guests on this album that add to allure. First is Julian Lennon, whose harmonies seamlessly blend with DeYoung’s on their collaboration “To The Good Old Days.” DeYoung indicated that he hadn’t met Julian before recording this song, but their words seem so sincere as they sing about raising a glass to toast all of the memories of their past together and all the good and bad times that they’ve survived.
The second guest is guitarist/vocalist August Zadra, who may only be mentioned briefly in the liner notes, but presumably contributed significantly to the “band” sound of the record. Zadra is a dynamic force in the Dennis DeYoung live show where he takes on the lead and harmony vocals originally voiced by Tommy Shaw. His work shines on the rocker “Damn That Dream” that talks about the reality of a dream-come-true turning into a charade that leaves you “lost and torn apart.”
DeYoung’s music is diverse and culled from the “boom child” musical inspirations from his youth through to the songs of his modern contemporaries. The track “You My Love” feels like an homage to the love ballads of the 1950’s — so much so that you might believe that it is a cover of a song that might have been earmarked for the Grease soundtrack. Even the vocal styling is on point for this period of music.
From the Styx classic “Suite Madame Blue” to “Turn Off The CNN” from his last solo record, One Hundred Years From Now, DeYoung has never shied from making political points with his lyrics. 26 East boasts a trilogy of politically themed songs that starts with the campy “With All Due Respect.” It’s definitely a fun song about the incompetence of our bi-partisan government, but the chorus sports the childish jabs, “With all due respect, you are an asshole” and “With all due respect, plug up your pie holes” that are hard to take seriously. The following song, “A Kingdom Ablaze,” is a haunting melody with lyrics that foretell an end to our nation if we don’t correct our ways. The music is reminiscent of “Castle Walls” from the Grand Illusion album laced with a subtle shuffle, ominous Gregorian chants, and the foreboding message, “When our greed becomes our need, all will bleed.” “The Promise of This Land” is the third song in the trilogy that comes later in the track list. It is a song of hope, and DeYoung’s theatrical spirit shines as brightly on this song as it did on the wonderful collection of show tunes from his 1994 release, 10 On Broadway. This song is full of references to our founding fathers and the dreams they had for this newly launched nation.
There are certain formulas for writing timeless “hit” songs and DeYoung and Peterik have their own recipes. The standout songs that have potential for chart topping success are “Run For The Roses” and “Unbroken.” Both start softly with the mood of a minor key and then soar to dramatic heights in major keys and layered harmonies spreading a positive message. Each song would be comfortable in any of the past five decades. Though the odds are stacked against DeYoung for chart success in the current climate of much younger artists, you never know when he might catch lightning in the bottle again (like the time “Show Me The Way” was spurred on as an anthem during Desert Storm). Who would have expected his recent rendition of “The Best of Times,” sung at his home during the COVID-19 pandemic, would go viral (no pun intended) and reach over a million views.
Speaking of “The Best of Times,” 26 East wraps up with yet another reprise of the “A.D. 1928”/”A.D. 1958” from the end of the Paradise Theater album. This time it is called “A.D. 2020” and features DeYoung playing an accordion, the instrument that got it all started for him. If you have been a fan of the music of Dennis DeYoung throughout the years, this short bookend to the album will tug at the heart strings as he seems to accept the notion that his music will last long beyond his years. He has shared his soul here in sonic form for you to listen to, relate to, and most importantly, to let it move you.
And so my friends I’ll say goodbye For time has claimed its prize But the music never dies Just listen and close your eyes And welcome to paradise
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26 East: Volume 1 Track List
East of Midnight (Dennis DeYoung, Jim Peterik, John R. Melnick)
With All Due Respect (Dennis DeYoung, Jim Peterik)
A Kingdom Ablaze (Dennis DeYoung)
You My Love (Dennis DeYoung)
Run For The Roses (Dennis DeYoung, Jim Peterik)
Damn That Dream (Dennis DeYoung, Jim Peterik)
Unbroken (Dennis DeYoung, Jim Peterik)
The Promise of This Land (Dennis DeYoung)
To The Good Old Days (Dennis DeYoung, Julian Lennon)
A.D. 2020 (Dennis DeYoung)
26 East: Volume 1 Line-Up
Jim Peterik: Guitar, Bass, Keyboard, Vocals and Vuvuzela
August Zadra: Electric Guitars, vocals
Jimmy Leahey: Acoustic and electric guitars
Craig Carter: Bass, vocals and invocations
Mighty Mike Morales: Drums and all day sound checker
John Blasucci: Keyboard’s
Mike Aquino: Electric Guitars
Kevin Chalfant: backing vocals
Matthew DeYoung: Drums on “To The Good Old Days”
Ed Breckenfeld: Drums on “Unbroken”
Zoe and Austin Orchard for Ring Around The Rosie
The Chicago Children’s Choir and conductor Josephine Lee
Dennis DeYoung: Keyboards, fake drums, fake bass, fake news and some vocals. Oh and Vuvuzela
Mastered by Dave Collins, DaveCollins Mastering. L.A.
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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About a decade ago, I was first introduced to Georgia Train as part of a two-piece band named Bitter Ruin. From the moment of first hearing the track that introduced me to them on Myspace, “Trust”, their dramatic music had the ability to connect with my mental and emotional state. Released on May 1, her 10-track solo album I do is no exception, as it resonates deeply on personal levels.
I have developed many of my own website projects over the years that never quite took off, and one of them was a alternative/goth fashion and feminist website called Mistress Ravine – which I created in my early 20s. On that site, I had an Advice & Opinion blog that I intended to help educate young women, and put a spotlight on artists that I felt deserved recognition. For that blog, I wrote an album review for Bitter Ruin, and it’s funny to think back and wonder how much of my track-by-track dissection of Hung, Drawn, and Quartered may have possibly missed the mark when it came to interpreting the songs. It is, of course, a given that listeners will always apply their own understanding from their unique realities to tracks, yet I have thought back on it over the years a bit self-critically. Listening to Train’s commentary after having already listened to I do about seven times since its release, it is fascinating to learn the true meaning and the headspace behind the songs — it’s so much more intricate than what I tend to assume… so much more potent.
While in quarantine, Train produced this album herself, regarding which she comes across as humble and intentional in her commentary. Her solo work differs from Bitter Ruin’s past work in that it is less theatrical, or to use a word from her commentary, flamboyant. To be forthcoming, I wasn’t sure whether I would connect with the album in the same way as their past work when I heard teaser clips. However, the maturity and sophistication of I do do parallel my evolution and speak to me. The album having been recorded at home and serving as an introspection on love and marriage, it is a uniquely authentic, raw listen. However, do not go into this album expecting a series of mere love songs.
I do is, to me, an album of healing and acceptance. When we fight “to the death” to make a relationship work, it’s as if we stick our fingers in our ears, unfold our blinders, and charge forward. We feel righteous, we feel we are doing a good thing, the loving thing, and yet in actuality, we may be more doing harm than good. That is one of the most difficult things we can ever face. Sometimes, music is the key to revealing the truth, to waking us up. Sometimes we need a song to give us a poignant message (or more bluntly, hit us over the head with it) that compels us to simply utter a self-aware “ouch.”
Train, who is known — with no exaggeration — for her vocal acrobatics (a bit trite, but such an apt phrase), also has an impressive vocal range. You will catch her voice flying high, as well as dipping deep, throughout the album. Often, she flutters around in a falsetto, though any old Bitter Ruin fan knows how she can belt that chest voice (a favorite example being “Leather for Hell” — a unique rock song for Bitter Ruin). Her graceful singing on I do is a perfect fit for the very private conversation she is having through her music.
That is not to suggest that the album lacks intensity — to the contrary, my favorite track from the album, titled “Pressure”, crescendos and inspires heartache.
“Did I put too much pressure on you to be the one I can lean on? Maybe I was wrong to”
The following track, “Shatter”, paints a picture of the unintentional self-harm we participate in out of desperation to repair a broken relationship. The song is a twisted knife in the heart of anyone that has been in this situation, yet serves as commiseration.
“On my knees finding pieces of the shatter, these tiny cuts don’t matter Work all night just to put us back together, I swear I’ll make us better”
“Marry This” is a unique, nuanced track that addresses the way people that commit to each other inevitably change — a topic I have yet to see Disney tackle.
“I didn’t marry this (don’t know what it is, don’t know what it is), I need to know what this is.”
The most beautiful song on the album is, in my opinion, “White Snow”. In the commentary, it was very interesting to hear who she states influenced the track. (Speaking of Disney, I can imagine Frozen’s Elsa singing this song. Though, with all due respect, this song is meant for Georgia Train, not Idina Menzel.)
“Unholy”, with a gospel style chord progression, has the perfect sound for the closing track. If you listen to the commentary, it is mind-blowing how quickly it was written and recorded. It is the only track on the album that addresses sexuality, but as an intellectual study of sexuality — something I have never heard in a song before. Within the Gregorian chanting, she sings in a language which I was trying to pinpoint as either Italian or Latin, and it turned out to be neither. Find out what it is in the commentary.
I do is an album for listeners who like music to draw out their emotions. It is for those who like to ruminate on their relationships, or to analyze the psychology of love and behavior. (Ok, so, it’s made for me.) It fluctuates between grief, regret, desperation, ambiguity, fear, and hope. It is unlike any other I have heard, and I am very grateful it is in my life now.
Among many things, the album is about musing on what has transpired in relationships, the uncomfortable truths about relationships we do not often hear in pop culture, struggling to understand, confronting tough realities, and coming to terms. Over the commentary, Train explains how some of her personal experiences inspired certain tracks, how songs evolved, her intentions and stylistic choices, how she reclaimed some of her music, and so much more. The commentary makes the album feel that much more whole, and I think it’s especially significant to include with a quarantine release. I absolutely support the idea of the commentary for future releases.
I highly recommend not only purchasing the version of the album with the commentary on Bandcamp, but for just a bit more, support Georgia Train by purchasing her full digital discography. Either way, you can get it here.
A Message from Georgia Train
A Few Recommendations:
If you can, listen to the album with noise-cancelling headphones over your ears to experience it intimately.
If you are able, please purchase it even if you have access to Spotify.
If you purchase the commentary, you can do what I do and stream the regular version of the album on Spotify as well for a tiny bit of extra support!
Check out my favorite Georgia Train song, “Get Out” — another belter:
CHECK OUT BITTER RUIN!!! They released the track “Caution to the Wind” last year after about 5 years of hiatus, and two more this year! They’re one of my all-time favorites, and I am thrilled to finally have the opportunity to share them on Burning Hot Events.
“We must kill the false woman who is preventing the live one from breathing.”
— Hélène Cixous
We do this to women. We expect a performance, and the exact one we desire, on demand: Manic Pixie Dream girl, vixen, maiden, mother, crone. We want to dial a number, press a button, swipe right, and order up exactly the kind of woman we want. We box women in, pigeonhole them; we do not let women evolve, and we do not let them be. And by we, I do not mean men; I mean the entire world. We ask women to stuff their whole selves, containing multitudes, into boxes, so that we might more easily handle them. Well, Fiona Apple has fetched the boxcutter and the bolt cutters, too.
At first listen of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, I myself am guilty of this. I was unnerved by the seemingly random acoustics that permeate the album, that seemed to bookend each track. I wanted to hear the contralto register, the impressive range and moody piano ballads of Tidal, the aggressive lyrical onslaught of When the Pawn. I wanted Fiona Apple to repeat a performance of the woman she used to be, a self she has since outgrown.
Fiona is not going to put on a mask for us. We’re asking her to remain the victim, angry at the world while she’s now a self-actualized, grown-ass woman, wandering around her house using whatever’s around her to express herself, to make music. Apple will never make another Tidal, and we shouldn’t want her to, because she is not just revisiting her pain, but growing through it. She shares herself with us rawly and authentically in this album, and it is a sin to ask of her anything else, any former selves she’s outgrown.
Evident from the opening track “I Want You To Love Me,” Fiona did come to play with us hoes; she’s exploring a playful sound that’s only grown since The Idler Wheel, one in which, rather than reigning herself in, she’s ending the track with yips and some sort of high-pitched dolphin sound. This intensifies in the title track “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” and by this third song, I was fully like, “What is she doing?” There is so much barking sprinkled through the end of the track, the listener will wonder if it’s coming from a neighbor. That’s it, though: she’s using what’s around her — her house and her own world, her pet even — to bring us in. It is a strange joy, one that fully embodies the idea of cutting loose.
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Through the album, sonic experiments abound, the extent of which, at one point, made me think Fiona Apple’s sound is now like dog slobber to cat people. What to do with this mess? It devolves into at best jazzy, at other times wholly chaotic noise. Apple is a few rattling cans away from a straight-up noise project.
Yet, her lyrics, as ever, continue to land, a punch right in the gut: “I know a sound is still a sound around no one”, and in “Under the Table”: “I’d like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots/To help you with your climb/Or rather, to help the bodies that you step over along your route/So they won’t hurt like mine”. By the time she intones the titular, “Fetch the bolt cutters/ I’ve been in here too long” there is no question that this is not about us. Being a musical audience is passive, a spectator sport, and Apple has worked too damn hard to shut up, not now. She doesn’t speak the truth, she spits it out like hot grease.
Arguably her most vulnerable album yet, we begin to see places where Apple has untangled the threads enough to weave together something new. In a recent interview in Vulture, Apple admitted that past perfectionism fenced her in:
“If you grow up and you’re praised a lot for being special, rather than for making an effort, you end up later in life being afraid.”
Being gifted, and being expected to call up a gifted performance in perpetuity, was a prison that kept her from appreciating her own efforts, from experimenting, made her afraid to try. What we hear in Fetch the Bolt Cutters is Apple finally feeling free to roam, to play.
In “Relay” which Apple actually started writing at 15, there are glimpses into what’s been ruminating in her mind. “Evil is a relay sport/When the one who’s burned/Turns to pass the torch” Basically, hurt people hurt people. Fiona Apple’s music, for so long, has spoken especially to survivors of assault. We could watch her rage, hear her croon vitriol in a way that elevated hurt into something divine, and made good art. Survivors need to see examples, like Apple, of someone not only overcoming their hardships, their assaults, but using them to create something new. This is how they stop being victims.
I was reminded of Marina Abramović while listening to this album, specifically her art project that involved sorting and counting thousands of grains of rice. Participants had breakthroughs, visions, and powerful transcendent experiences. What Apple has done with this album—using her house as instrument, showcasing her friends and pets — it is clear she has found her own meditation in an emergency, has built a cathedral with all of these avant-garde sounds to house her voice, which has now become its own instrument.
Starting with “Newspaper,” the album’s sound takes on a focused quality, infused with bluesy rhythms. Her lyrics are, somehow, increasingly introspective when she near-growls about “trying not to let my light go out” and the track feels meditative, in a way. Apple is finally focusing on relationships that matter, both her relationships with other women and her relationship with herself. This was hinted at in track two with “Shameika,” and it comes to full bloom now. (“yet another woman to whom I won’t get through”)
Much of the tonal shift, I believe, we see from Apple in Fetch the Bolt Cutters comes from a new perspective on her part, one of reconnecting with relationships with other women in her life. It’s essential to see other women free to express themselves, and Apple is pointing out this is a continual struggle. Patriarchy has long divided us against each other, taught us to shame, police each other and internalize misogyny, in order to better conquer.
By the time we get to one of the standout tracks from this album, “Heavy Balloon”, which is frankly incredible, this track best displays the shift that has taken place in Apple.
She has not kept it a secret that being assaulted early in life majorly affected her sense of self, and surviving being raped at 12 years old led to a lifetime of eating disorders and body image issues. These are ways survivors attempt to regain control, an agency that was stolen.
“Heavy Balloon” is filled with personification, identifying with plants (“I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans”). It has a mouth-feel, nourishing, as it contains imagery of fruits and vegetables, not in a final form, but growing; Fiona has learned to love the body she lives in by understanding it, listening to it, communicating with it. (“I’ve been sucking it in so long/That I’m busting at the seams”) Apple is finally dealing with the things that have held her in—mainly, herself.
“You get dragged down, down to the same spot enough times in a row, The bottom begins to feel like the only safe place that you know.”
If there’s one thing I can say for Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is that Apple eases us into the heaviest shit. Not that she’s ever taken some turn to saccharine, ever only scratched the surface, but there is a build up to the line “Good morning/You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in/Good morning” in the track “For Her.” Apple has reconnected with her own anger in Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and she admits the irony that in doing so, she’s created her most upbeat-sounding album. There are really no slow, sad ballads here. In an interview, she confesses she finally feels anger towards the man who assaulted her as a child and realized making excuses for others fails to hold them accountable. There is a decided connection between Apple’s righteous, justified anger and finally being able to fully, freely express herself. She feels free.
By the time we reach the end of the album with the final track “On I Go”, this journey that is Fetch the Bolt Cutters has come full circle. Welcome to the Order of Saint Fiona, a sanctuary in which it is revealed to us that the highest transformation is severing the ties that bind us and weaving them to make art, art that connects. Wabi-sabi for the skeptical. From the beginning of the album and the ragtime saloon sound of the opening track to a near-growling in the middle with “Newspaper”, or the waltzy “Cosmonauts” to hymn-like refrains with the final track, we get to hear what it sounds like when a musical heroine stands up herself and marches to the beat of her own drum (or wall, or countertop, or whatever).
Some have made connections between this turn for Apple, a new sound, and that of Radiohead, mainly in terms of albums that exist as a coherent whole, a complete organism—one which grows on the listener. It is accurate that Fetch the Bolt Cutters has a progression, a purpose, a message. And it is true that Apple has made use of what’s around her to create, a DIY ethos, in a way that is punk as fuck, in the canonical sense of the word.
Still, I fear I am failing Fiona Apple with this review, as I too want to offer a perfect tribute to a woman who demonstrated to me what it looks like to rise from the ashes, that moments of rage are not only justified, but holy. As I’ve long suspected, words fail us when we need them most. Apple herself has said that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about liberating voice, but no, actually, much more than that; that’s not precise enough. Much has been made of her various states of well/unwell, lots of gazing at her mental health, but this album shows what beauty and art can come from a woman alone in a locked room — the antithesis of yellow wallpaper.
Still, there is caution that comes with labeling Fiona Apple as “finally free”: to do so would stuff this iteration back into that box, asking it to hold still. This is a woman we’ve watched, seen and heard, cut herself loose over and over, inspired us to call it like we see it, shown us resilience by not “shutting up” and now MacGyvered her way into an album wholly original, purely hers, and sorely needed.
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”
News & Reviews from the Fiery Mosh Pits of Arizona