Wednesday, July 26, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: Waxahatchee - High Noon Saloon 7/20/17 (With Cayetana, Snail Mail)

In the midst of intense summer weather, Waxahatchee brought their own storm to Madison Thursday night.  Touring behind the stellar new album Out in the Storm (released just a week earlier), bandleader Katie Crutchfield delivered an unflinching 70-minute set of raw-nerve confessions to a sold out crowd at the High Noon Saloon

While Out in the Storm was born out of what Crutchfield refers to as "a fucked up relationship and intense breakup", she refuses to classify it as a breakup album.  It instead turns its focus inward, with the storm in question being one of emotional turmoil.  Crutchfield sneers (Never Been Wrong, No Question), seethes (Hear You), and throws daggers (Brass Beam) while simultaneously rising over it all (8-Ball, A Little More).  There is a stream-of-consciousness aspect to it on a song-by-song basis, as we hear her process all of it without ever attaching to any one thing in particular.  The album is not about succumbing to the storm, but enduring it.  It may be a surface-level downer, but the prevailing emotion is the empowerment and sense of potential that can only come after having weathered the storm, when all that's left is the truth.

In line with their subversion of the traditional breakup album is the professional approach Waxahatchee takes towards performance.  If it wasn't clear by the arsenal of guitars on stage and a kick drum sporting their band name in an unassuming font that they meant business, it certainly was when the quintet entered wearing Reservoir Dogs-style suits and ties.

Waxahatchee opened their set with Recite Remorse, one of the most understated and calm songs from the new album.  Emphasizing the lines "for a moment I was not lost/I was waiting for permission to take off", the song established an atmosphere of transition.  Even as the energy ramped up with standout single Silver, the band maintained it's deliberate yet restrained approach.  Crutchfield led her bandmates as if she was fronting an army, stoic and strong, with minimal if any words between songs.  They ran through nearly every song from Out in the Storm, while interspersing revitalized takes on several older tracks.  Katie's twin sister Alison Crutchfield was key to the fullness of the sound as she provided vocal harmony while switching between guitar and keys.  It was an almost orchestral delivery, as familiar standbys like Poison and The Dirt sounded vital and fresh and the new songs delivered on every bit of the urgency and passion of the record.

That isn't to say there weren't some emotionally charged moments.  During the first chorus of Never Been Wrong, when Crutchfield gazed out over the sellout crowd to snarl the lines "Everyone will hear me complain/everyone will pity my pain" it was clear that for that moment, we were all part of her army.  She seemed to let her guard down for the first time after bringing the band back out for the encore.  After hardly saying anything during the set, she seemed genuinely excited and proud to introduce each band member.  The encore itself carried a feeling of the storm having passed; consisting of the breezy La Loose, Out in the Storm-closing breather Fade, and the unabashedly fun Under a Rock.

Snail Mail

Snail Mail, an upstart teenage band from Baltimore opened the show.  They played about a half-hour set of lolling, understated songs that clearly emphasized the deceptively powerful vocals of Lindsey Jordan.  In a surprising move, the rest of the band exited the stage midway through the final song, allowing Jordan to deliver a solo performance of the emotional final verses.  It didn't seem like they had established the momentum necessary for it to fulfill its intended impact, but was nonetheless the type of brave move that makes an opening band memorable on a crowded bill.


Cayetana played next, delivering a set of tense, taught emo-ish pop-punk.  It was the Philadelphia trio's first time playing in Wisconsin, and they expressed surprised admiration for its beauty as well as great interest in Mount Horeb's Mustard Museum.  They showcased many songs from their new album, the self-released New Kind of Normal.  They leaned on amorphous tempos and some very cool early-Blink-esque bass guitar leads for a unique sound while maintaining a sense of genre familiarity.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Midsummer Housekeeping - The Missing Writeups

In my late-May outlook on upcoming shows, I enthusiastically promised a great summer. That has held true in that the shows have been killer, but I can't help but feel guilty to have missed writeups on a few. I did take a few notes at the shows though, and otherwise can go from memory- because at any rate, it feels necessary to at least touch on these before moving on

*BIG NECK FEST - The Hussy, Wood Chickens, Fresh Flesh, No Hoax
High Noon Saloon, 6/2/17


The Pines, High Noon Saloon 6/15/17 (w J Hardin)

Live music has a way of making a person feel a little bit less alone. Such was the vibe I had entering this show at my home-away-from-home. Local troubadour J Hardin had already taken the stage, with a soft orange lamp casting glow over his worn cowboy boots and open guitar case. Being accustomed to more..aggressive..bands, it was a bit jarring to not have to yell towards the doorman and bartenders, as well as to see the entire floor covered with tables and chairs instead of thrashing bodies. I loved it though after the initial adjustment- the audible clanking of bottles and occasional snippet of conversation only added to the ambience. All said, the context was ripe for Hardin and his "Coyote Brother" bandmate to ease out a heartfelt, at times foot-stomping, set of authentic backcountry strummin'

The Pines took the stage after a short layover with shimmering acoustic guitar and lush keyboard arrangements. The bass was mixed heavy, and one guitar occasionally asserted itself with an overdriven pickup. It took a bit to pick up on what they were putting down, but once I was on-board the dynamic play was admirable. In addition, the band featured two singers; one with a near-falsetto approach and the other with a John Prine-esque conversational tone. They worked this contrast well, and incorporated a lot of onstage banter about woodchucks and the summertime absence of college kids.

The show's relaxed and intimate atmosphere overall proved to be a welcome change-of-pace.

The Joy Formidable, High Noon Saloon 6/21/17 (w/ Eagle Trace)

I came to this one right from work, and unfortunately missed Eagle Trace. Fortunately though I walked in just in time to feel like I was being hit by a train as The Joy Formidable took the stage. While they adhere to certain pop sensibilities, in a live setting the band is clearly anchored to sheer noise and volume. This was the last stop on their current tour, and the impression was that we were getting everything they had left in the tank.

The songs, of course, where there. But nearly every one broke down into violent, fall-on-the-stage feedback, and nearly every one led into a strangely polite, very British introduction to the next aural sledgehammer.  I didn't have the wits about me to take notes on this show, so I can't comment on specifics, but I certainly remember the pummeling noise and conversational banter leading to a very amusing contrast.  

Deerhoof, High Noon Saloon 6/29/17 (w/ Proud Parents, Solid Freex)

I again missed the beginning of this show while being stuck at work.  I wish I could tell you how awesome Solid Freex are, but for the meantime we have to settle for a friend's assessment that "they rock" and "they sound like a Madison band..."

In the meantime, however, Proud Parents are becoming my pick as most exciting local band to see.  They have a very accessible way of bashing out songs that just gets more enjoyable every time.  It isn't so much that you have to be in on the joke to "get" them, because the band seems to effortlessly expand the joke so that it encapsulates everyone.  Proud Parents drop mortar shells, whether they are euphoric vocal harmonies or pinpoint guitar leads.

I'm intimidated to even write about Deerhoof.  I don't know that I've ever had more fun at a show.  The way that they combine rockin' grooves, oddball song structures, and daring vocal style is unlike anything I have seen.  They brought a virtuostic drummer and equally adept guitar master.  As a band Deerhoof operated as a nearly Lovecraftian entity; altering the very way we perceive music.  For the daring, they provide a rare bastian into the subconscious depth of fun itself.

*Wood Chickens stole this show, and will be covered in an upcoming review of their brand new album COUNTRYCIDE- stay tuned!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: Bad Bad Hats - High Noon Saloon 7/13/17 (With Heavy Looks, Disq)

Minneapolis group Bad Bad Hats took full advantage of a surprise headlining slot Thursday night.  The High Noon show was originally set to feature Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas, who were forced to cancel all of their performances in July, citing personal reasons.  The show went on, with Bad Bad Hats and Heavy Looks moving up the lineup and local group Disq added as the opener.  The High Noon allowed ticket returns and offered a new discounted price, and turnout was impressive nonetheless.  

I must admit with guilt that after a cumbersome work shift I didn't arrive at the show until Disq's last few songs.  Being unfamiliar with the band, I was surprised to walk in and see a teenaged quintet fronted by something of a Lou Reed lookalike.  Their sound held up strong though, with a nice dynamic at play between tight three-guitar rhythms and mellowed out Pavement-esque vocals.  They ended their set with a pretty ballsy "She's So Heavy" type blues jam.  I don't feel like I caught enough of them to write a whole lot without getting ahead of myself, but I am grateful that this show put them on my radar- it will be exciting to see where they take things.

Heavy Looks
I apologize for being the world's shittiest concert photographer

Madison's Heavy Looks formed while co-songwriters Dirk Gunderson and Rosalind Greiert were studying at UW-Stevens Point.  There they both worked as DJs for the student radio station, leading to a wealth of influences which they proudly wear on their sleeves.  With their alternating vocals and swaggering midtempo grooves, Heavy Looks sound a bit like they've stepped right out of the late-80's college radio heyday.  Rosalind's smoky vocals smoldered over a backing band that rollicked with a cocky, freewheeling aesthetic reminiscent of Patti Smith's group.  She traded lead singing duties song-for-song with Dirk, who channeled Thurston Moore at his most playful moments.  Their set lagged a bit during the more somber songs, but they ramped it back up to end with some straight-forward rockers that sounded like a less try-hard version of The Distillers.  I would have liked to see them play longer, but as an active band in the local scene there will surely be future opportunities to do so.

Bad Bad Hats

As Bad Bad Hats took the stage shortly after 10:00, it marked the beginning of a six-week tour for the band.  It was also the seventh time they have performed in Madison.  Frontwoman Kerry Alexander noted that we are nearing "gold pin status" - which would signify ten shows on her personal corkboard-map system of commemorating the towns in which they have played.  The front half of the floor had filled up by this point, and the band was received as one of our own.  They drew a mostly college-aged crowd and the show had an almost festival-like atmosphere - very friendly and positive.  

The Hats launched into their version of indie-pop, featuring a spacious, 60's-esque bounce which allows plenty of room for playful music box guitar leads and understated singing.  Kerry uses her beautiful voice as an instrument of its own, employing a breathy vocal technique and hints of a faux British accent which fit her persona and the musical context perfectly.  

I did not anticipate laughing as much as I did during this show, with Kerry's quirky onstage banter doubling as a mini-standup routine between songs.  Speaking in an awkward near-monotone, she introduced each song with anecdotes that were often vague but always relatable, and delivered in hilarious deadpan fashion.  Her bandmates cracked up along with the audience as she meandered through monologues about "Super America providing the snacks, while (she) provides the sorrows" and sleeping with her phone under her pillow...just in case.  This observational and accepting attitude towards 20-something life is mirrored by her songwriting.  She sings bluntly on themes of loneliness and unrequited love without falling into the traps of wallowing nor sugarcoating.  She allows herself to hurt, but maintains a balanced, sort of omniscient perspective which gives usually painful subject matter a cathartic buoyancy.  

Kerry established such an effective connection with the audience that the entire room became dead quiet as she began the heartbreaking Things We Never Say.  Alone with her guitar she bared her soul with the confessional song which she'd introduced as being about what you wish you could tell somebody but never do.  It was a powerful moment in contrast to the preceding lightheartedness of the set.  As the final notes rang out everybody stood silent and captivated until her smiling "thank you" triggered the night's biggest applause.  

The band used this momentum to slingshot into a series of upbeat rockers.  A muscular rendition of Shame in particular ramped up the energy level, and they ended their main set on a high note.  After exiting the stage, Kerry quickly returned by herself, announcing a "surprise cover song from (her) childhood".  After slowly plucking a few vaguely recognizable chords, it soon became apparent that we were being treated to the most harrowing and somber imaginable take on Blink 182's All The Small Things.  It closed the evening with a wink, encapsulating the earnest, heartfelt, and innocent nature of the band.

Kerry Alexander

Bad Bad Hats' tour continues with three weekend stops in Michigan.  Their much-anticipated sophomore LP is currently in the mixing process.  I personally cannot wait until their next Madison visit (and second and third after that on our way to that gold pin!)

Heavy Looks performs next Thursday at Milwaukee's Riverwest Public House, then the Art In here in town on 7/28

Follow The Noisepaper on Facebook to stay up-to-date on the local music scene!

Sunday, May 21, 2017


This is a subjective selection of upcoming local shows that have caught my eye.  It may (and hopefully will) be updated; not that it isn't a hell of a lineup already.  In the words of DeNiro's Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, "It's gonna be a good summer!"

May 25  Williamson Magnetic Recording Company
Heavy Looks, Laurel & The Love-In, Purra
For Fans of:  Florence + The Machine, Jimmy Eat World, Rilo Kiley
All Ages.  Donation of $5.  No Drinking.

May 27  Mickey's Tavern
Christian Dior, Sam Coffey, The Smells
For Fans of:  The Hussy, Miyha, noisey garage-pop...THIS is the new Madison Sound!
21+  FREE

JUNE 2  High Noon Saloon
The Hussy, Wood Chickens, Fresh Flesh, No Hoax
For Fans of:  Ty Segall, Nobunny, Jay Reatard, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Bikini Kill, Black Flag...just come to this fucking show
*The Hussy 7" Release, Wood Chickens LP Release!!
18+.  $8.  No dicks, no squares.

JUNE 3  Mickey's Tavern
Fire Heads, Gallery Night, Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, T-Tape
For Fans of:  Dinosaur Jr, Bad Brains, fun, beer
21+.  FREE.  No dicks, no squares.

JUNE 8  Williamson Magnetic Recording Company
Jonesies, Hey Sheboygan!, Glassmen
For Fans of: Fun, bouncy, boy/girl indie pop.  Minutemen, Vampire Weekend
All Ages.  Donation of $5.  No Drinking.

JUNE 20  Mickey's Tavern
Spokes, Suzi Trash, Mad Max Elliot
For Fans of:  King Tuff, Ty Segall, Suicide, Nobunny
21+.  FREE.

JUNE 21  High Noon Saloon
The Joy Formidable, Eagle Trace
For Fans of: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, XX, Belle & Sebastian
18+.  $18 adv/$20 door

JUNE 23  High Noon Saloon
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Tony Molina, Ablebody
For Fans of:  Wild Nothing, My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths
18+.  $15 adv/$17 door

JUNE 29  High Noon Saloon
Deerhoof, Proud Parents, Solid Freex
For Fans of:  Captain Beefheart, Boredoms, Olivia Tremor Control, The Cars, Eagles of Death Metal...again, come to this motherfucker!
18+.  $15 adv/$18 door

Friday, May 19, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: Hippo Campus - Majestic Theatre 5/18/17 (with Remo Drive)

I was not quite sure what I was walking into Thursday night at The Majestic.  With no prior knowledge of Hippo Campus, I signed on to work the show based on the punny name and their descendence from a Twin Cities scene that has bred so many of my favorite bands.  What I didn't expect was a scene straight out of Beatlemania.  Hippo Campus drew a sold-out crowd of 600 predominantly high school and college-aged girls.  Many of them had been waiting outside the venue since before noon (some of those die-hards are in the picture above - taken that morning while I was hanging flyers).  While not the crowd I am accustomed to, there is no vibe quite like a sold-out show and the energy was almost tangible.

Fellow Twin Cities act Remo Drive opened the show shortly after 9:00.  They were well-received by a crowd that was ready to explode had it been Ronald McDonald taking the stage.  With a deafening burst of feedback, Remo Drive asserted themselves as no clowns.  A band that is gaining traction in punk circles, they flaunt a big sound for a trio.  They came out firing with a sound that is equal parts a throwback to classic emo and a genre-savvy, forward-thinking take on pop-punk.  Volatile bursts of noise were offset by calculated breakdowns and non-subtle emoish reflection.  I would have loved to see them ride on the chaos more without getting bogged down by borderline corniness, but the band burned hot throughout and they delivered it well.  Looking barely out of high school, their enthusiasm was contagious as they led the audience through a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for their friend Michael, asked if anybody in the crowd had heard of them before (and seemed genuinely blown away by the positive response), and made sure everyone got the irony of them naming their brand new debut album "Greatest Hits".

While the collective screech and eruption of cellphone glow upon their entrance suggested otherwise, Hippo Campus proved to be more indie rock than boy band.  They displayed a polished and energetic version of hipster-pop, using unfamiliar time signatures and instrumental timbres to evoke world music in a way similar to bands such as Vampire Weekend, as well as the literacy and sophistocation of Car Seat Headrest.  While this may sound like the formula for a contrived and pretentious sound, their accessible stage presense and humble delivery made it nothing but positive and fun.  Barefooted singer Jake Luppen in particular took remarkable command of the stage without needing to say much to the audince.  He instead opted to let the bouncy, danceable tunes speak for themselves.  Rather than the typical tired onstage banter and posturing, he engaged the crowd in a lot of clapping and singing-along, while letting the atmosphere settle in between songs before stirring it back up again.  The setlist was spot on, balancing its more somber moments with the beach-party aura of its peaks.  This combined with an impressive light show to make it seem like a much bigger concert.

I consider myself won over by both of these young bands.  I don't know if they'll make their way into my listening rotation, but they are certainly on my "keep an eye on" list and I would not hesitate to catch either of them the next time they're in town.  In a locale as nurturing as the Twin Cities there is no limit to their impending success.

Monday, May 15, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: The Dear Hunter - High Noon Saloon 5/14/17 (with Brett Newski)

By the time The Dear Hunter took the stage at High Noon Saloon Sunday night, the near-capacity crowd was primed and ready.

Local DIY hero Brett Newski opened the show, one night after the release of his LP "The Worst of Brett Newski".  Newski draws a loyal following to any Wisconsin show, and he played his 35-minute set as if it was for his closest friends.   Alone on stage with his acoustic guitar (which he "should not have bought while living in Vietnam"), Newski established an effortless connection through his comical mixture of satirical and self-deprecating songs - often introduced with personal anecdotes such as finding out just how many "eskimo brothers" you have, and the downside of Vietnamese guitars.  His new song "Bro Country" was particularly well-received by the demographic, skewering America's douchiest genre with such lines as "Johnny Cash is rolling in his grave/Wishing he was still alive so he could blow his brains away".  Two of his later songs included audience participation - which only required a little bit of explanation and cohersion on Newski's part after expressing his sympathy, ("Yeah, I know this sucks...").  All were left won over by his down-to-earth aura of unabashed dorkiness.

On a tour in which they have primarily opened for Coheed and Cambria, The Dear Hunter reveled in the headlining opportunity.  While the Rhode Island sextet was thrilled to perform a full set for a full crowd, they also admitted to having no idea what to talk about between songs.  They eventually landed on Rick Sanchez impersonations and a brief analysis of their  dreams from the previous night -which involved "endangered 'tiger-bear' cubs'" and only selling four tickets.

There were far more than four atendees however, and The Dear Hunter's nearly-operatic brand of indie rock kept every one of them engaged.  The dirty guitar-rock of heavier songs such as  "The Most Cursed of Hands" offset the more grandoise elements of their catalog, and every song was performed with the urgency for which they've become known.  They did not perform an encore, deciding that "instead of going into a room for a few minutes and pretending (they were) gone, (they would) just play  the rest of (their) songs" - a simple yet endearing touch that is  very fitting of the band's aesthetic.

The Dear Hunter's tour continues tonight in St. Louis, while Brett Newski returns to his nomad lifestyle in Milwaukee.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Matt's Favorite Summer Albums: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Axis: Bold as Love (1967)

In artistic depictions of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, their power is often conveyed through multiplication of arms, legs, and heads.  Jimi Hendrix's choice of this style for the cover art of Axis: Bold as Love made his sophomore record a bold statement before it even hit the turntable.  Nestled squarely between the noisy blues assault of Are You Experienced and the distant psychedelic horizons of Electric Ladyland, Axis: Bold as Love saw Hendrix assert himself as the world's all-powerful leader into uncharted musical territory.  Hendrix was so far ahead of the game that his legend only continues to grow with time.  During his run in the mid-60s he couldn't have been seen as anything less than an otherworldly force, seemingly boundless in capability.  We’re going back almost 50 years for this one, but it’s an album that still sounds about 50,000 years ahead of its time.

Jimi’s R&B influences are most apparent here, with songs such as Up From the Skies, You Got Me Floatin’, and Little Miss Lover featuring delicate play of dynamics at work with fun, bouncy rhythms and swaggering vocals beneath the roaring feedback and in-your-face live production. This juxtaposition is especially potent on Wait Until Tomorrow: possibly the most perfect pop song Hendrix ever wrote without sacrificing any of his freewheeling nature.

The main event though is of course the guitar work, with Hendrix laying down some of his most aggressive studio playing. Spanish Castle Magic is a bolt of unbridled electric energy, and If 6 Was 9 smolders and snarls like a cornered dog. Meanwhile Little Wing reigns immortal with his most emotive and dynamic soloing (recorded using a spinning "leslie" speaker cabinet), and Castles Made of Sand uses a blues structure to anchor groundbreaking exploration in backwards tape echo and looping effects. It all comes to an explosive breaking point during the passionate title track. Bold as Love is a workout of muscular guitar and chest-thumping chorus, coming to a brief false-ending. At that point, with a phased out drum fill, Bold as Love transcends time and space via incendiary lead guitar melodies that give way to a soaring sea of effects and distortion, ending the album as a crashing wave.

It is becoming increasingly true that no matter what happens in the music world, Jimi Hendrix will always sound fresh and new. It is what made him so groundbreaking at the time, and the reason why his music still resonates today. His crest-of-the-wave sound and approach seems like it hit a natural stride with this album, giving it a sense of excitement and fun throughout- perfect for summer.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Matts Favorite Summer Albums: Tame Impala - Currents (2015)

[Just about five years ago I posted My Top Ten Summer Albums. Those albums still remain in constant rotation during the warm months, but I have been looking forward to doing a followup article for some time. A handful of albums have since jumped out at me enough to write about, so I've decided it's time for part two. There are less entries in this batch, and the writeups turned out to be longer, so it seemed appropriate to roll them out one at a time. Anyway, off we go...]

For his followup to 2012’s guitar-heavy masterpiece Lonerism, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker resolved to incorporate more R&B influences into his brand of psychedelia in pursuit of a more danceable, pop-oriented sound.  Along the way he transcended the thematic loneliness and isolation of Lonerism and its predecessor Innerspeaker to settle into a groove within the greater flow of life.  I’m not well-versed enough on Parker’s personal life to call Currents a breakup album, but in a sense it certainly plays like one. Rather than dwelling on loss, it focuses on the reclamation of oneself.   Parker steps back from the puzzle and gains a view of the picture it is forming.  Under the taking of such a perfectionist and music obsessive this all leads to a nearly perfect, universally enjoyable, defining work.

As they’ve always done, Tame Impala evokes the spirit of 1960's psychedelic rock in such an authentic and confident manner that it never sounds nostalgic or derivative.  Currents ramps up the modernism, giving the overall sound the timeless nature of a dream.  Basslines thump and throb, guitars mesh with synthesizers to alternate between soaring leads and gritty low grooves, and processed vocals become an ethereal instrument of their own. 

Parker works all of this push-and-pull into his unique mold of impeccable songcraft.  In his trademarked falsetto croon he ruminates on personal change and transcendence.  Album opener Let it Happen immediately evokes the background of the album’s cover, a network of pathways representing the world’s infinite perpetuation and the constant sensory barrage of life ("it's always around me, all this noise...").  We all have the tendency to tune it out, either for the purpose of fighting against it in pursuit of one's one end, or for letting it carry us away in apathy.  As it turns out, life lies within that flow, and the only solution is to jump in.  Upon doing so one comes the realization that they were "ready all along".  Yes I’m Changing emphasizes the other half of the cover art: the splashes of color and rippling aftereffects created by each individual’s actions and perspective.  By accepting that "life is moving" he is able to stop hiding and manifest "another version of (him)self".  With these two songs, and throughout the album as a whole, Parker presents the universe as an unstoppable force while recognizing that same power in himself. By virtue of simply living as part of the universe, he holds all of its power, able through his decisions and actions to alter its very fabric beyond any possible comprehension – simultaneously likewise for every individual in any given moment: "There's a world out there and it's calling my name/and it's calling your's too".  On Eventually, Parker seems to reach a sublime contentment in this realization of infinite eternity, even in the face of the toughest decisions. 

Currents is primarily an album about coming into one’s own via surrender to the bigger picture and the present moment.  True to this theme, Parker’s vocals surface opportunistically, before giving way to infectious beats and overwhelming waves of sound.  The start/stop rhythms are reminiscent of both vintage R&B and modern electronic/dance music, around which otherworldly guitars swirl with the freedom of not having to carry the track.  Parker has an uncanny knack for managing noise and the space between.  On Currents they are two sides of the same coin, rising to perfect crescendos at the most organic moments. 

Currents greatest strength is the timeless ease of its experience.  Through its free-flowing melodicism it becomes a soundtrack to the world unfolding around oneself.  Every part is integral, giving the overall product a profound sense of oneness. All of life is right here, and there is nothing to do but live it.   In that, Currents becomes an encapsulation of summer itself.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Mindfulness Themes in Brian Fallon's "Painkillers"

     This album came out during a pretty weird time in my life, and I ruined it for myself a bit by listening to it constantly for several weeks... I didn’t know it then, but I think part of the reason it had such an impact on me was because it introduced many ideas I would learn about later through mindfulness.
     For Brian Fallon, Painkillers came on the heels of not only the breakup of his band The Gaslight Anthem, but also the divorce of his wife of ten years. Given this context, Fallon sounds remarkably content and at-peace on the record. I think he accomplishes this by maintaining a perspective just outside himself for much of the album. He sings past-tense love songs of loss, regret, and mistakes like he’s flipping through old photo albums. On Nobody Wins he likens a past relationship to a “past life”. While allowing nostalgia to surface, Fallon remains keenly aware that it is a feeling for his recollection of the time. It exists entirely as a jumble of memories, an experience entirely of his own mind’s creation. And just like that, he lets it go ("If I never see you again/You can blame it on the wind"). Throughout the album he makes no judgement of himself or his circumstances, only an acceptance of the perpetual ebb and flow of life. On earlier Gaslight records he may have clung desperately to burning bridges or let himself bleed out in grief. Instead he sits back, aware of his scars but forgetting about them under the warmth of the present moment.
     Conveyed lyrically, this all carries the risk of coming off as amateurish zen-posturing. Thankfully, in the hands of a singer-songwriter as relatable and genuine as Brian Fallon it never feels less than authentic. This is an album about learning to smile at the world in the face of vulnerability and uncertainty. That’s all mindfulness really is in the first place.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Matt's Favorite Summer Albums: The Gaslight Anthem - Sink or Swim (2007)

Just about five years ago I posted My Top Ten Summer Albums.  Those albums still remain in constant rotation during the warm months, but I have been looking forward to doing a followup article for some time.  A handful of albums have since jumped out at me enough to write about, so I've decided it's time for part two.  There are less entries in this batch, and the writeups turned out to be longer, so it seemed appropriate to roll them out one at a time.  Anyway, off we go...]

Alright, yeah, I could find a way to work any Gaslight album into any list.  They resonate with me in a way that no other band probably ever will.  Their intense debut LP is flawed in all the right ways, and its go-for-broke attitude makes for a fitting soundtrack to the finite window of infinite possibility that is proverbially summer.

The songwriting that would go on to define Gaslight Anthem is in its rawest form on Sink or Swim, but the unbridled urgency and desperation with which they storm out of the gates shines as the band’s backbone.  From the moment Boomboxes and Dictionaries kicks in, the album rages like a nautical storm that never lets up.  I Coul’da Been a Contender makes no secret early on what you’re in for- “There’s a dirty wind blowing in…/it’s heads or tails and heart attacks and broken dreams tonight”.  This is a storm of nostalgia and regret and desire and discontent and Brian Fallon charges headlong into it because he knows it’s all that he’s got. 

Along the way muscular guitar rhythms are juxtaposed with open-wound vulnerability.  Through brutal honesty and Springsteenian imagery, Fallon places himself as well as the listener in the underdog role of a fleeting moment where everything is magnified.  He has an insatiable lust for life, desirous of everything at the same time.  This makes his writing and persona refreshing and vital, but is a mindset which breeds suffering.  He channels haunting memories and indecision into visceral outbursts before leaving himself to bleed out in the album’s more plaintive moments (The Navesink Banks).  Fallon finds cathartic solace in late-album standout I’da Called You Woody, Joe.  Effectively a love song to punk rock, “I’da Called…” recounts Brian’s experience of first listening to The Clash.  It perfectly depicts the life-affirming magic brought by connecting with the perfect music when you need it most.  It is here that the clouds begin to part.  The scathing We’re Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Diner plays like a breaking point, with Brian ultimately cutting his losses.  As the ending gang-vocals ring out, they sound like a declaration of temporary victory in an unseen, internal war (“It’s alright man, I’m only bleeding man/stay hungry, stay free, and do the best you can”).  The harmonica and acoustic guitar that usher in closing track Red at Night provide a jarring change of pace, and signify that the storm, for now, is over.   The lyrics gradually morph from “Ain’t nobody got the blues like me” into “Ain’t nobody got a blessing like mine”, as Fallon seems to find the willingness to accept the bad with the good (“Seems a blessing’s so hard to see sometimes/Got a little clearer ‘bout dusk that night”).  As the old saying goes: “red sky at night, sailor’s delight”.  It closes the album on an optimistic note, the type of anti-closure with which the best summers always seem to end. 

This is not the confident, polished band that would release The ’59 Sound a year later and serve at the forefront of modern punk for the next several years.  This is the sound of a young band laying everything out, right here and right now.  Sink or Swim is what it sounds like making the leap to go after what you want because you’ve got nothing to lose.  There is naivety in idealism and the album sometimes seems to get caught in its own wake, but in its vulnerability there is authenticity.  This is the sound of a heart on the sleeve of a fist in the air.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Out of The Ditch: The Mindful Perspective of Neil Young's Zuma

[This piece is part of an ongoing series about mindfulness in music.  I initially intended for this to be a ten-album list, but quickly found the subject to be too broad while simultaneously too restrictive.  Mindfulness is an intrinsic aspect of consciousness, and while indirect references to it are everywhere, it rarely serves as a primary topic.  Furthermore, the experience of music is a mindful activity in and of itself...leading to the infamous meditator's paradox of "thinking about thinking".  In the spirit of circumventing that rabbit hole,   I chose to focus on one album at a time, and more closely examine any mindful aspects therein.  Since I've come to mindfully accept that I cannot write anything without it eventually being about Neil Young, I figured that would be a good place to start.]

1972’s Harvest put Neil Young at the top of the world.  The chart-topping record, particularly lead single Heart of Gold, made a mellow, lovelorn incarnation of Neil into a ubiquitous cultural figure.  Its astronomical success and the drug-related deaths of bandmate Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry shortly thereafter provoked Neil into making a now-characteristic musical 180.  In his own words, Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road.  Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch”.  His ensuing albums served as a boozy, drawn-out exorcism of grief and guilt.  Young formed a temporary backing band dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers, and messily confronted his demons on tape.  Perpetually drunk, he became increasingly reclusive and volatile during the recording of Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach.  The albums consist almost entirely of first-take recordings, done using a mobile studio situated outside the drunken benders that were the band’s recording sessions.  We’re not going to polish this up” he told guitarist Nils Lofgren, “we’re going to play passionately, kind of live and record it as we go.  I want people to see it how it is”.  Meanwhile on a disastrous arena tour, audiences expecting the country-folk acoustic troubadour of Harvest were instead thrown into a scattershot electric assault.  The experience is captured in the live album Time Fades Away.  By all accounts, Young spent this tumultuous period seemingly hell-bent on sinking himself as far down as he could go.  Although the resulting output was critically panned at the time, it is now widely appreciated for its recklessness and earnest darkness.  In tune with his own assessment, the three albums have become affectionately known as “The Ditch Trilogy”.  Having endured three years in his own personal hell, by 1975 Neil would reform Crazy Horse with new guitarist Frank Sampedro and emerge from the ditch with Zuma.

Zuma is named after a famous beach in Malibu, where Neil resided during the album’s development.  The sunny surroundings, reincarnation of Crazy Horse, and the presence of free-spirited and enthusiastic Sampedro (nicknamed “Poncho”) gave the album an aura of brightness and rejuvenation.  “Somehow I feel like I’ve surfaced out of some kind of murk”, Neil told Cameron Crowe in a 1975 interview.  This sense of clarity and acceptance features prominently throughout the record.  Even on the imagery-drenched guitar meanderings of Danger Bird and Cortez the Killer, Neil displays a renewed level of focus and momentum.  Like the surfers at Zuma Beach, Young catches the wave of Crazy Horse’s freewheeling garage-rock style.  This concentrated momentum makes for an album that is planted firmly in the here and now, infinitely receptive to the moment.

On the breezy, country-tinged Lookin’ for a Love, Neil envisions himself on a beach that he “walks along sometimes”.  It is there that he meets his hypothetical love, and “never stops to think of any other time”.  The song subverts the expected themes of longing and desire by emphasizing the potential for love, rather than any presence or absence of it.  Instead of dwelling on the imaginary relationship, Neil’s lyrics focus on “the sun hitting the water and the mountains meeting the sand”, and remembering to “live and make the best of what he sees”.  As much as he looks forward to meeting this girl, he doesn’t care how long it takes, and acknowledges that “she’ll be nothing like he pictures her to be”.  It is a feeling of content anticipation, left to be exactly as it is – uninvaded by thought or judgment. 

This mindful stance is also taken regarding the past in Don’t Cry No Tears.  When faced with the thought of old love now unrequited, Neil opts out of jealousy by accepting that it has nothing to do with him anymore, deciding to leave it as is.  True love ain’t too hard to see,” he says, leaving no reason to dwell on it.  As Zuma’s opening track, it may as well represent a personal awakening from the preceding period of darkness.    

This isn’t to say Neil’s got it all figured out.  Pardon My Heart illustrates the futility of a coasting relationship (where one isn’t giving/and one pretends to receive).  In its own way, Stupid Girl laments an inability to absolve the suffering of others.  Neil seems reluctant in pegging the titular character as stupid as she misses opportunities for self-actualization because she can’t “forget about remembering”.  Meanwhile Barstool Blues seems to be a cryptic take on the confusing struggle with thought and consciousness.  Right in the middle of an album where Neil seems to have found contentment, he can’t help but look over his shoulder and wonder if it’s real. 

This confusion and uncertainty comes up directly but briefly in closing track Through My Sails.  No solution or explanation is offered by the sparse lyrics.  Instead the ideas are carried off onto the breeze by easy harmonies and buoyant acoustics.  Love had been an understated recurring theme throughout the album, yet its final mention is simply that “love takes care”.  In that is found serenity, and there doesn’t need to be anything more.

With the dissipation of the post-Harvest darkness, Zuma carries a profound sense of leaning back into the world.  There is still some unease, but it no longer carries any weight.  The positive outlook of taking the present moment at face value overshadows any doubt and discontent.  Zuma is about accepting the wreckage of a dark period, and the decision to move forward from it. 
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