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”
At one point or another, we’ve all lovingly paid tribute to our favorite artists by covering an entire album of their work, but it was usually done alone in the car or at home and far away from a judging audience. Actual cover albums, however, are left up to the audiences and critics, and are weighed against the original. In short, they are a tightrope walk. At its worst, the covers are so faithful to the originals that it leaves the listener wondering, “So what’s the point?” At its best, a covers album sees an artist putting their own fresh spin on the music in a way that honors the source material while also creating something unique. With the recent release of Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police, Hatfield has managed to do just that: taking songs we’ve all heard countless times over the years and melds each with her style to make it much more than just a covers album.
With a career that dates back more than 30 years, Hatfield has been one of indie-rock’s most prolific singer-songwriters. She debuted with Nicely, Nicely, from her first band, college-rock legends Blake Babies. The band dissolved following four albums, and she has subsequently released sixteen solo albums, two albums with The Juliana Hatfield Three, two albums with Some Girls, and a reunion album with Blake Babies. (View Discography)
Even for someone already as productive as Hatfield, her signing with American Laundromat Records in 2017 marked the beginning of her most prolific period, releasing five albums (four solo and one with a reunited Juliana Hatfield Three) in just two years. While she’d previously released an album of cover songs — 2012’s self-titled Juliana Hatfield (featuring songs by Foo Fighters, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Led Zeppelin, amongst others) — it was with the 2018 release of Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John that she made one of her most interesting career choices: taking on an entire album of music by another artist, whose selection might have initially surprised even her long-time fans. Last month’s release of Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police marks the second in a hopefully ongoing series of albums honoring her musical influences.
Just as Hatfield has made a career out of defying expectations with her many side projects and cover albums, she does the same with The Police songs she chose to cover for this album. While many beloved hits are present on the album (“Roxanne,” “Every Breath You Take,” and “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, for example), she pulled the rest from points across the band’s catalog, with tracks from each of their five albums.
Can’t Stand Losing You
Canary in a Coalmine
Next To You
Hungry For You (J’aurais Toujours Faim De Toi)
Every Breath You Take
Hole In My Life
De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
Murder By Numbers
Most noticeable from the opening track, “Can’t Stand Losing You,” is that Hatfield eschews The Police’s groundbreaking hybrid of new wave and reggae, reimagining each song in her own style. While the original track from The Police’s first album Outlandos D’Amour had a sadness at the heart of it, Hatfield’s vocals seem to recast the narrative as more defiant, with a tone more of “good riddance” than “please don’t go.”
Throughout the album, Hatfield plays with the tempos of the original tracks, slowing them down where the band hit the accelerator. On the second track, “Canary in a Coalmine,” and the third track, “Next To You,” she slows down the original tracks’ frantic pace. In doing so, both tracks have a more playful tone to them versus the intensity they possessed before. Juliana Hatfield’s vocals have always had a sweetness to them, even when the lyrics are sorrowful.
Two of the standout tracks on the album are the one-two punch of two of The Police’s biggest hits: “Roxanne” and “Every Breath You Take,” with each revisited through a different lens. “Roxanne,” Sting’s romantic ode, now feels like a dirge, with its crashing guitar riffs. Hatfield’s almost desperate pleading is balanced by her own harmonized backing vocals, almost angelic in stark contrast.
On her career-spanning greatest-hits album, Gold Stars 1992-2002: The Juliana Hatfield Collection, Hatfield previously covered “Every Breath You Take,” which had a brokenhearted yearning to it, like the song’s narrator is making a last-ditch effort to will back an ex. While much has been made of the implied meaning of the original song, Hatfield recasts it as a genuinely sweet romantic ode.
For all the beauty she infuses into “Every Breath You Take,” she takes the opposite approach to “Hole in My Life.” Her focus here is squarely on the pain in the lyrics, and she tones down the song’s tempo to match its mournfulness. Where The Police balanced the heartbroken lyrics with an almost bouncy rhythm, Hatfield lets it wallow in its own dejected misery.
In her take of Synchronicity’s “Murder By Numbers,” she does away with the sing-songy rhythm and soulful vocals of the original in favor of a fuzz-guitar sped-up punk. You can feel the Boston punk scene Hatfield grew up around in the 80’s in its style: now a foot-stomping, fist-pumping moshing classic that is one of the album’s standout tracks. Just as she did with her tribute to Olivia Newton-John, she manages to straddle the line of honoring the original material expertly, while also breathing new life into each song by layering herself into them. Though …Sings The Police is the second in her series of cover/tribute albums, it stands on its own as an album uniquely belonging to Juliana Hatfield.
Juliana Hatfield Tour Dates:
1/16 Evanston, IL @ S.P.A.C.E. 1/17 Indianapolis, IN @ Hi-Fi 1/18 Nashville, TN @ The Basement East 1/19 Birmingham, AL @ Workplay Theater 1/21 Dallas, TX @ Granada Theatre 1/22 Austin, TX @3Ten at ACL Live 1/24 Phoenix, AZ @ Crescent Ballroom 1/25 Pioneertown, CA @ Pappy + Harriet’s 1/27 Los Angeles, CA @ The Echoplex 1/28 San Francisco, CA @ Slim’s 1/30 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge 2/01 Seattle, WA @ Tractor Tavern
Released on September 13th, 2019, DIVISIONS is the third studio album by STARSET. Fronted by Dustin Bates, STARSET is known for their elaborate shows and their detailed, cinematic rock albums. To watch STARSET live is to watch a spectacle of light and sound that leaves you in awe. There is an augmented reality app, aptly titled STARSET, that was first meant to be used during the live concert. This has since been updated to have some functions outside of the concert setting. During the “Immersion: Part One” tour, Bates and his bandmates wore spacesuits. Bates, in fact, has a significant tie to space: he was a teacher at the International Space University Space Study Program at one point, and has solidified his image of being both an extremely imaginative and talented musician and an accomplished scientist.
DIVISIONS — set on Earth in 2049, in a dystopian future that involves mind control via an implant. Four music videos were released in the lead-up to the album release: “MANIFEST,” “WHERE THE SKIES END” “STRATOSPHERE,” and “DIVING BELL.” Watching them helps understand the story behind the album, which in turn is linked to their show.
You do not listen to Starset — you experience them.
As you travel through the journey that is DIVISIONS, you will hear more than just the songs. “WHERE THE SKIES END,” for example, is bookended by audio clips from a video called “A New Horizon” that played at the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York. The name of the exhibit was “Futurama,” and was a vision of the future – a future that came true in many ways. Ronald Reagan can be heard in “STRATOSPHERE,” taken from a speech he gave in 1987 to the UN about war, in which he said “I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing a threat…From outside this world.“
The first track is only Bates speaking with synth playing, building until the end of the song. “A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE FUTURE” lays out the rest of the album:
This place is a desert for the mind Devoid of emotion and barren of thought No real thought, at least It’s no surprise Most minds here have long since atrophied from lack of use They wait in flatline for the next rushing jolt of synthetic stimulation The real world can’t compare, even if it were allowed to Contemplating the real world leads to seeing the world for what it is: a prison... (Continues)
“MANIFEST” is a mix of heavy rock riff and poppy sounding choruses. It leaves you off balance a little, though it is a very enjoyable song, and it just takes a couple of listens to get used to the genre switch. It showcases the genius of Bates: as the music switches between rock and pop, the lyrics describe a love that seems to be a bit unstable:
Every time I’m onto you You change it up‚ you always do
The song ends with a cadence of crashing guitars and drums, leaving the listener with a second or two of silence to regroup a bit before the synth beginning of “ECHO”.
“Echo” is a symphonic song, soaring behind lyrics that seem to be steeped in Greek Mythology. From the mention of the Odyssey at the beginning, up to and including the lyrics:
I call and I can hear you sing But oh, it’s only my echo It’s only my echo
In Greek Mythology, Echo was cursed by Hera to only be able to repeat the last words that another would speak. She met, and fell in love with Narcissus, who fell in love with himself. That ended rather poorly for both of them. The song seems to be more than just the story of Narcissus, it indeed seems to be told from the viewpoint of a narcissist:
I thought it was destiny I was gonna conquer the sky Then plummet to the ground and be Anchored by your side But when every time I found myself upon new heights I would climb again and leave you in the moonlight
It should be noted that the person referred to here followed the singer silently for most of the song, so the accusation of giving up early toward the end rings quite false. It is, again, a well-crafted song by Bates.
“WHERE THE SKIES END” seems to be a near defiant look at the future, a musing that is sung over music that alternates between a heavy riff and synth. The lyrics speak of the change between the current and the previous generations — one that could possibly apply to today as well:
These aren’t the dreams of our fathers There’ll be no wishing on stars We are the sons and the daughters Let them come test who we are
“PERFECT MACHINE” is far more synth heavy, the music slowing down a bit, and seems to be a tragic song in some ways. In the first verse it becomes quite apparent the protagonist is not exactly the nicest person in this scenario; in fact, they sound downright manipulative:
And if I bend just right I can make it I didn’t want you I wanna watch you change From a butterfly and into chains
By the end of the song, the subject seems like they have reached the point where they have acknowledged their faults and are trying to protect the other person from them.
As the outro plays, you can hear what sounds like a subway, or perhaps a bus station, and a disembodied voice in the background repeating propaganda. It is a masterful touch to remind you that this is set in a dystopian future
“TELEKINETIC” is absolutely connected to “A Brief History Of The Future”. This is a heavy, heavy song, reaching past the rock genre and going into the metal, with a scream punctuating the song. One cannot help but to be reminded of the band RED during this song. Bates weaves in a comparison of being a puppet and voodoo, and in between it all, the mention of the hit of the chemicals in the brain that popped in the first song.
Fake I’m just a puppet in your play You pull the strings and I obey High, that oxytocin hit me just right there It’s counterfeit Zombie, zombie, could it be a hex?
As the song ends, as your ears are possibly still ringing, “STRATOSPHERE” starts. This is the first true pop rock song on the album. In the first half, the drum kick is the heaviest element of the song, unless you listen closely to the lyrics. It is indeed a beautiful, tragic song; a song of longing and missing someone that you once loved.
There is duality between “STRATOSPHERE” and “FAULTLINE,” with the latter sounding more like a sarcastic, angry song about a hurt partner pushing back against the other in the relationship:
First you gotta know How to play the victim Hate to tell you so But you repeat the symptoms like an aftershock And I only want to make it stop
It is such a sharp contrast in music style and lyrics that it feels out of place, and yet it will resonate with anyone who has ever gone through a rough breakup, and indeed with anyone leaving an abusive relationship.
“SOLSTICE” has a bit of a heavy sound to it, with a great beat with some EDM behind it, though it quickly becomes very repetitive. Musically it’s a great song, lyrically it leaves one wanting more. It is the least impactful song on the album, though it is still an enjoyable song musically.
“TRIALS” is, quite simply, a song of defiance — a story of looking straight into the teeth of the darkest days and triumphing. Set over a driving drumbeat, it is another song that reminds me a bit of RED and moves closer to metal and away from rock.
“WAKING UP” shares the same kind of driving drumbeat, though the message changes quite a bit. There is a near EDM feel to this song as well, and seems to be more about the message of someone throwing off the mind control device. It is truly enjoyable, though there is some repetition.
“OTHER WORLDS THAN THESE” is one of the most enjoyable songs on this album, both in music and in message. There are many concepts being explored here, one of which is a mind that has been awakened and is now contemplating the vastness of the universe, and that there may indeed be other worlds out there.
“DIVING BELL” is a beautifully juxtaposed song. It feels relaxed, but has an urgent question:
If I stare into the abyss Will it stare into me?
It is not often that you witness the process of living with depression and trying to push away from those who love you. It is a perfect end to one of the most well-put-together albums of 2019.
STARSET is amidst their “DIVISIONS: 2019” tour in support of this album, and unsurprisingly, the show looks just as incredible as previous tours. Finishing the U.S. leg of the tour in Newport, KY, they will be embarking on a European leg starting February 8th, 2020.
Released on October 18th, Surviving is the tenth studio album by Jimmy Eat World. Available in every imaginable format; it can be streamed, purchased as a download, a CD, vinyl pressing, and if you really wanted to throw it way back (as frontman Jim Adkins loves to do) it can be found as a cassette tape. Surviving is an expertly crafted journey, one that explores the time Adkins spent battling depression and self-doubt. There are ten songs on the record — a theme, perhaps, given the release in the tenth month of the year.
From the first notes of the driving guitars, before the kick of the drums, before the ever-recognizable voice of Adkins kicks in, it is apparent that this will be familiar but new ground. The first lines of the title track “Surviving” appear toconfirm this:
Don’t hide your face, what you were before it doesn’t have to be you anymore
The song“Surviving” could be considered a confrontation of sorts. One could interpret it as the singer confronting his past, and simultaneously the listener could perceive it as a confrontation of their own past. It is relatable in every line, and because of that, powerful.
“Criminal Energy” was my favorite to watch live at the Crescent Ballroom a few weeks ago, and the album version is just as good, if not somewhat muted compared to the live version. That is not to say it is bad in any way; rather, this is a song that is designed to get the blood pumping and the crowd dancing. And it is delightful — Adkins’ voice soaring behind the crashing guitars and drums. Just as quickly as it comes, it fades to a softer, slower song in “Delivery”.
While “Delivery” is paced more slowly than “Criminal Energy”, it is deep. There is a subtle beauty in the lyrics, an essence of yearning for the love of the years gone by. This is the genius of Adkins: the ability to relate to each listener even without meeting them, and to draw a picture in such a way that they don’t always realize the scope of the art.
Adkins continues this in “555”. The art could be lost if you got lost wading through the shock that longtime Jimmy Eat World fans will undoubtedly feel: the shock of a song that sounds more like it came from M83. However, it fits with the message from this song so very well. The expectation of Adkins, and in turn Jimmy Eat World, is that there will be an album that sounds much like what has been done before. There is a danger in that expectation, and it is daring to break it. That is exactly what they do, with synth clapping as the backing and one of the oddest and yet entertaining videos you will ever see.
“One Mil” starts the ramp up back into the heavier songs on the album. The story of wasted chances will resonate with the masses, though I would argue that most of them have never fallen for a camera girl.
Camera girl, you still there? If I look you’ll disappear Worse, you might wanna talk I’m so underprepared
To some it is the classic story of the introvert attempting to find love and upon finding a chance at it, wasting it. To others, it is like a remnant of teenage love, which we would all like to think that we eventually grow out of.
Wish I had mastery of wit, luck and fearless confidence Then shred majestically to your heart
This story changes in “All The Way (Stay)”, a song that is raw, raw in sound and lyrics, the clang of a guitar and then the echo of a snare drum your only companions at first. It is not comfortable in the first 30 or so seconds, and that discomfort draws you in to listen to lyrics like:
We get discouraged by the pointlessness And we’re pretty quick to judge things pointless There’s what I want and what I need And the latter takes a while to see
Behind it all, you realize that this is again urging the listener to show who they really are, to allow others, or possibly just one other, to see under the layers where you hide. While the song starts with a crashing drum that may force you to shift uneasily, by the end you will find yourself swaying to the catchy beat and powerful vocals. It is a great lead into a song that has a far more comfortable feel, “Diamond”.
“Diamond” is the song you didn’t know you needed to help you through a really rough time. Hopes, dreams and careers take time, and it’s easy to want to take the easy way out and get a quick payout. After over a quarter of a century playing with Jimmy Eat World, Adkins can say with the utmost confidence in the lyrics:
That’s how a diamond grows, yeah Give yourself the right chance over time Don’t believe them If they try to sell you something quicker, yeah
This theme extends to “Love Never”, where Adkins vocals are on display second only to “555”. This is another life lesson, this time a reminder about love, set over a near frantic beat. Depending on your stage in life, it either serves as a warning for those who still romanticize the ideal love and the idea that cute, fat angels will shoot you with an arrow shortly before you meet the perfect match, or a reminder that love looks a whole lot more like you summoning the strength to not murder your partner for not picking their socks up. At any rate, it is a fantastic, underrated song on this album.
“Recommit” feels like something that all of us have wanted to sing, or yell really, at that one person in our lives who sits on the fence when push comes to shove. To some, the music may feel a little underwhelming in comparison to the rest of the tracks. However, one can appreciate its beachy pop revivalist vibe that flows and ebbs from the verses to the contrasting heavier chorus that barrels in between them.
The album closes out with “Congratulations”, a song that seems so far out of place that it is a bit jarring. Unlike much of the rest of the album, this seems to almost take a political stance, with lyrics such as:
Suspiciously, through editing The facts are disappearing With discipline and message You’ll take awkward possession Of nothing you really wanted Welcome, congratulations
The defiance and air of dissonance present throughout the rest of the album melts into the background, as sarcasm seems to run rampant in this unusual and yet enjoyable song. It should also be noted that Davey Havok of AFI and Dreamcar lent his vocals to this song, something subtle you can pick up on once you know to listen for him.
Surviving is an incredibly solid album overall. It harkens back to the energy we all bore witness to in the fantastic journey that was Bleed American (later re-released as Jimmy Eat World). Adkins is a master of self-awareness, weaving life lessons into the verses in much the same way a master weaver would work threads into a rug. While the frontman has been given much praise in this review, the entirety of the band deserves recognition for this album. While it is the norm for the music world to decide to try to build an architectural masterpiece like the Empire State Building, often falling far short of that lofty goal, Adkins and his bandmates decided to build a comfortable mansion in the Midwest overlooking a lake. The band succeeded in doing exactly what they set out to do, giving the world a sometimes odd but overall enjoyable work that will stand the test of time.
In the seemingly-bygone-but-dearly-missed era of the cross street of life and music, summertime meant a great many things, but cherished most of all were the words, “I’ll make you a tape.” As mixtapes gave way to mix CDs, which in turn gave way to mp3 playlists and eventually music streaming, the idea of a mixtape seems to have faded from the public consciousness for a while. Perhaps though with the resurgence of cassette tapes (Mutemath and Jenny Lewis, among many, many others have released cassette copies of their latest albums), there is still a place for lost nights of driving around listening to the perfect soundtrack of youth. Therein lies the charm of Alt-rockers Arizonan Summer’s debut album Temperatures Rise, as it instantly brings to mind such memories of late-night drives with friends in a time when you had nowhere important to be and life still lay somewhere far on the horizon as a worry for another day.
Art of any kind begins with the artist trying his or her best to approximate their heroes before discovering their own voice. The band is fronted by Chris Reiswig, the 22-year-old singer/songwriter behind the Arizona-based band, clearly knows where he comes from, not just in place but in style, as he definitely wears his influences on his sleeve. Arizonan Summer’s bio describes their sound as “Progressive Indie,” but the deeper story of their music can be found in their admission that their sound gravitates towards “Art-Rock, Folk, Post-Punk, Funk and Psychedelia.” All of those influences can be heard on Temperatures Rise, and yet it proves to be so much more than that. Arizonan Summer’s bio describes their sound as “Progressive Indie,” but the deeper story of their music can be found in their admission that their sound gravitates towards “Art-Rock, Folk, Post-Punk, Funk and Psychedelia.” All of those influences can be heard on Temperatures Rise, and yet it proves to be so much more than that.
In the album’s opening track, the simple acoustic “Aardvarks (Intro),” which recalls early Radiohead albums, you can feel Reiswig’s youth, as the lyrics recall that moment in everyone’s early twenties where they’re not a kid anymore, but also definitely not an adult. He sings of those directionless nights, in the song’s opening lyric “Keep your eyes to the stars/And your ear to the radio/You’ve got to get your kicks however you can/When fighting against this life on loan,” but it’s the song’s next line, from which the album gets its title (“Temperatures rise/it’s just a fact of life”), that comes the reckoning that the inevitabilities of life are coming for all of us, no matter how lost we feel.
Where “Aardvarks” feels quiet and introspective, “Perpetual Slip” is a shot of early 90’s punk adrenaline. With vocals that recall The Offspring, a soaring guitar solo that feels like moving upwards in a tornado of music, and supported throughout by a rhythm that begins with foot tapping but ends with the urge to pump your fist in the air along with the song. If the opening track is like lighting a fuse, this is the moment when the album soars into the stratosphere and explodes for the listener.
While “Perpetual Slip” is the point where the album’s energy skyrockets, it is the third track, the righteous post-punk anti-love ballad “Anhedonia (I‘m Not In Love),” that emerges as Temperatures’ standout. At his age, Reiswig would be forgiven for filling the album with sappy declarations of love, but instead he uses a shredding guitar to share his nearly-exuberant acceptance of the end of a relationship. There’s no moping in the song, and not a hint of regret to be found, as he closes out the song with his pronouncement to the lover he’s leaving behind that he’ll rip them off like Nicorette patch. To whomever inspired this song, sorry, but he didn’t want to be with you, and he clearly couldn’t care less because he’s moving on.
Displaying the album’s diverse range, “The Fever Age” features grungy guitars, and vocals that bring Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley to mind. The darkly-ambiguous spoken vocals of the song’s bridge creates images of a half-remembered ominous dream.
Where Reiswig turns up the volume for a love he no longer wants, he turns it down for the heartbreaking “Shimmer” to sing about the love he does want but can’t seem to have. It serves as a bookend to “Anhedonia,” and has the feel of later regret when you realize at an awake-too-late hour that the love you had but didn’t want was what you wanted all along. Moving on in these moments is easier said than done, and Reiswig clearly knows this as he closes the song promising, “I promise you I’m still right here;” this is the last hope a lonely heart has before accepting and getting on with life.
The coffee-house folk of “Idle Mind” continues the album’s theme of feeling stuck in the middle of indecision. Its simple guitar-strum melody and toe-tapping rhythm makes for a perfect sing-along moment of appreciating being directionless, as long as you’ve got someone with you, since the greatest memories are born not of intricate plans but what can happen when you don’t have anything in mind and let the moments happen.
While Arizonan Summers may be a showcase for Reiswig’s songwriting, the nearly seven-minute “The Joy of Ulterior Motives,” serves as a showcase for the entire band – guitarist Dylan Ewing, bassist Erin Sperduti, and drummer Kash Filburn. The haunting track, reminiscent of “Mexican Moon”-era Concrete Blonde, sees Reiswig serving a warning to someone who has betrayed him, ending with the parting, “I know that you know pride comes before the fall,” amidst a wall of screeching instruments.
The album’s closer, the aptly named “This Must Be the End” begins with the image of an aimless drive on a full tank of gas. For an album that feels like the perfect mixtape for such a drive, this song has a shrug of acceptance that there are no sure things in life, and sometimes we aren’t guaranteed the happy ending we’re hoping for, but that’s okay.
With Temperatures Rise, Chris Reiswig and his talented band have positioned themselves as more than homegrown talents, and the album isn’t just some local kids giving it a go for the first time. No, this is an album that defies expectations by never settling into anything easy or overly sentimental. It is an album that lives on that cusp of life between being young and being old. It’s in the moments where we crash and burn, tell an unwanted love to get out, feel lonely when we realize it was a mistake, bond over the meaninglessness of it all, and finally accept our fate, turn up the radio, and drive off into the unknown horizon of our futures.