Thursday, May 28, 2020

Throwback Track of the Week: The Ramones - Chain Saw (1976)

Throwback Track of the Week:  The Ramones - Chain Saw (1976)

After our recent journey through the Ramones best songs of the 80s (and beyond), it seemed fitting to step back to the classic and flawless sound that made them legends in the first place.  Their debut album crashed the gates with a dirt-simple barrage of three-chord grind and reluctant but undeniable hooks.   Chain Saw encapsulates this sound in what is simultaneously one of its catchiest and most aggressive moments. 

This song was ostensibly written about the film Texas Chain Saw Massacre (horror-nerd bonus points for making "chain saw" two words, as the movie's title does).  The opening buzzsaw sound-effect fits right in with the abrasive, in-your-face, and ultra-distorted guitar drive that it leads into.  Offsetting it is an early instance of the bands "woah-oh" gang vocals, a bubblegum throwback which contributes to their signature sound just as much as the aggression, and would much later become a genre staple.  

From there we get Joey's version of the massacre, which endearingly seems to fit a template of Ramones songwriting.  There's a guy sitting around with nothing to do.  He's thinking of you.  They took his baby away.  She'll never get out of there.  He doesn't care.  Sums things up pretty well, and it's really only missing some glue-sniffing to wrap up their early songwriting material.  My personal favorite part is the way Joey mispronounces "massacre" to rhyme with "me".  As is the case with so many of their best moments, this is a cranked-up 1960s girl-group song with a macabre twist, and at 180 beats-per-minute (the fastest song on a notoriously fast album) you're too busy rocking out to care either.  

Previous Throwback Tracks:

Neil Young - I'm the Ocean

Melvins - Revolve

Alice in Chains - Them Bones

New Found Glory - Understatement

The Modern Lovers - Roadrunner

Steve Miller Band - The Joker

Blondie - X Offender

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Ramones' Best Songs of the 80s (and beyond)

The Ramones offered such a stripped-down and essential vision of rock 'n' roll, conveyed with such concise, electrified precision, that one could make a pretty airtight argument for them being the greatest ever rock band, should one be so inclined.  At least that is the case with their early incarnation.

By 1978, four years after their inception, The Ramones had conquered the New York City punk scene, putting out four albums of wall-to-wall greatness along the way.  Their debut album Ramones, Leave Home, Rocket to Russia, and Road to Ruin contain the songs that revolutionized music and made legends out of four weirdos from Queens.  By now it is fair to imagine just about everybody has heard at least a few of them, if unknowingly during a commercial or sporting event.  At the time though, due in large part to genre bias, they never achieved the type of chart-topping success of which they knew they were capable, and frankly, deserved.   So they didn't stop there.  Their pursuit of stardom became a bizarre journey, in which things got a little murky.

The amicable departure of drummer and de-facto bandleader Tommy Ramone in 1978 opened up a power struggle between singer Joey Ramone and guitarist Johnny Ramone.  Through a series of personal conflicts (mostly Johnny being a complete asshole), it eventually erupted into an all-out hatred wherein they refused to even speak to each other for the last ten years as a band, and for the rest of either of their lives.  Meanwhile a revolving door ensued at drummer, and remaining original member Dee Dee Ramone was getting increasingly sick of the bullshit (and things are definitely off when he is the reasonable one).

Combine this tumultuous existence with the fact that many bands who they had influenced--particularly in the newer punk scenes in California and later Seattle--surpassed them with more engaging (and successful) music, and The Ramones seemed like a band that just kind of kept hanging around.  Nonetheless, they continued relentless touring and put out a steady stream of new albums.  Each one was a little bit different, but always contained at least one flat-out great song to add to their legacy.

End of the Century (1980)

The first big move The Ramones made to open the decade was enlisting the help of mega-star record producer and bonafide sociopath Phil Spector.  Gone were the days of Johnny's rapid-fire, one-take, in-and-out approach to recording.  Attaining Spector's iconic "wall of sound" demanded months of long hours in the studio and occasionally being held hostage at his house.

The new sound is immediately apparent on album-opener Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio?  A self-aware (and self-congratulatory) announcement of their intended-emergence into the pop world, Joey is at the peak of his bubblegum vocal delivery here, bolstered by a frontal onslaught of organ and horns and handclaps.   Danny Says is a somber, reflective take on their doo-woppy goofiness.  It's a sound they'd experimented with at points on Road to Ruin, but brought to an airy buoyancy under Spector's watch.  The Return of Jackie and Judy is the most direct update to the bands sound, literally a re-working of their debut-album classic Judy is a Punk, complete with Clash-like siren guitars and an elongated chorus that is allowed now to settle into its hook.  End of the Century is certainly a departure, but works better than it is often given credit for.  If you can allow that, it's arguably worthy of grouping with the first four albums as the band's peak.

Pleasant Dreams (1981)

Graham Gouldman is brought in as producer after the Spector debacle, changing the band's sound in the opposite direction.  This time all the 60's influence is stripped from the sound, aiming for a more stark and gloomy approach.  It just doesn't quite work with The Ramones songs though, who at this point were following Joey's lead towards a pop-oriented sound.  The lack of a cohesive approach seems to only highlight what makes them different from a band like The Stooges or even the Misfits and emphasize what is missing--namely all the fun.  The KKK Took My Baby Away is a moment that shines through, equally for the immediate hooks and Joey's absurdist humor.  The song actually predates the band, written by a teenage Joey about his then-girlfriend's parents' disapproval of their interracial relationship.  She's a Sensation and Don't Go are also very solid offerings, but something about the production just leaves the band sounding bored (and not in a cool way).  Joey in particular seems to be taking a too-calculated approach in chasing a pop hit.  This is an interesting album though, someday I'll take a deeper dive.

Subterranean Jungle (1983)

Johnny takes back the reins and steers the band back to the hard-edged direction of their roots.  He nails it with side-two opener Psycho Therapy.  A straight-forward rocker with spitfire lyrics about mental illness (a well-established touchstone of the band), Johnny wrote the song on a mission to show the rising hardcore bands that "nobody plays faster than us."  Elsewhere on the album are some of Dee Dee's best songs, including Outsider and Highest Trails Above.  Overall a general return to spirit, this album gives listeners reason to be excited again, and the band as well (except for second drummer Marky, who's alcoholism had become a problem.  Johnny placed him waaaay off to the side on the cover and then booted from the band after recording).

Too Tough to Die (1984)

Johnny spent several weeks in the hospital with a fractured skull and brain bleed suffered in a one-sided fight, a near-death incident that Joey unironically laughed at.  Upon his return original drummer Tommy also returned as producer, and the band put out their loudest, fastest, most true-to-form record since the 70s.  Mama's Boy is a strong opener with self-throwback buzzsaw guitars and Joey sounding truly impassioned for the first time in a while.  Dee Dee takes lead vocals on Wart Hog, a weird song that sounds like a different band and teeters towards parody, but it's cool to hear him sing lead.  Howling at the Moon (Sha-la-la) is another song that was a pop hit in a different universe.  It bogs itself down a little bit, but is acceptable as a natural-feeling pop attempt on an album that otherwise sees the band doing what they do best.

Animal Boy (1986)

After their return to form The Ramones promptly fell back into forgettable territory.  Bonzo Goes to Bitburg is the lone highlight here, a Spectoresque piss-taking of then-president Reagan placing flowers in a German graveyard where several former Nazis were buried.  It is a rare venture into political territory for the band, but is held up by their signature brand of absurd goofball humor, a massive sound, and a killer chorus.  Probably my favorite 80s Ramones song.

Halfway to Sanity (1987)

Things get difficult here.  There's not really anything here that has the band hitting a stride like they did on Too Tough to Die, nor are there any album-saving standouts like Bonzo Goes to Bitburg.  There are some decent songs, but none worth highlighting.  Stylistically it is all over the place, sounding often unassured and mostly just boring.  This is the last album with third(?) drummer Richie Ramone and would be the last time Dee Dee played bass on record (he remained involved as a songwriter).

Brain Drain (1989)

And here we have Pet Sematary.  As a massive Ramones fan, none other than Stephen King commissioned the band to write a song to serve as the score to the mediocre movie being made from his book.  Dee Dee was sent the script to use as a reference, which he almost certainly didn't read, but nonetheless cranked out a fittingly gloomy song with a great chorus.  It is an extremely divisive song among fans, due to its sell-out baggage.  Taken for what it is though, I think it stands up.  The dark sound works here and Joey's campy croon fits well.  It comes close elsewhere on the album, but too often sounds like the band just going through the motions.  

Mondo Bizarro (1992)

During the early 90s the Ramones finally found the massive arena-crowds they spent much of their career hoping for (at least Joey did) -- it turned out they were huge in South America.  Perhaps this, along with the addition of fresh bassist C.J. Ramone, is what led to the surprisingly refreshing sound on Mondo Bizarro.  Censorshit is a snarky rumination by Joey on the music industry, without the pretense of other times he had done so. The Job That Ate My Brain is a really great pop-punk song, a slice-of-life that values absurdism over angst and reasserts them over rising acolytes like Screeching Weasel and Green Day.  Poison Heart is another Dee Dee classic, a rare moment where mid-tempo gloom works for them.

Adios Amigos! (1995)

By this time Joey knew that he was dying of cancer, but he kept it a secret from the band.  I Don't Want to Grow Up is a well-executed Tom Waits cover that made it to #30 on the Billboard pop charts.  The Ramones would disband a year after the album's release and subsequent tour.

Honorable Mention:

Joey Ramone - What a Wonderful World
Recorded weeks before his death from lymphoma and released posthumously, Joey's cover of the Louis Armstrong classic is an apt send-off.  Cranked-up in tempo and crooned over driving guitars, it's hard to not smile at this one.  It feels like a down-to-earth moment where a guy at the end of a crazy life--one that took him from a relentlessly bullied loner kid to cultural revolutionary and icon of cool over an often-rocky thirty-year career--allows himself to set back and appreciate it all.

Johnny would later express regret for never speaking to him on his death bed.  He would himself die of cancer three years later.

Not-So-Honorable Mention:

Dee Dee King - Mash Potato Time
Good old Dee Dee deserves praise for stepping out from under Johnny's thumb to finally try his own thing.  Unfortunately that thing was a rap album, and...yikes.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Throwback Track of the Week: Blondie - X Offender (1976)

Blondie is a band that isn't always brought up in discussions regarding the history of pop music, much less punk rock, but they should be.  Debbie Harry was a veteran of the mid-70s New York City weirdo circuit, previously a member of The Stilettoes and a waitress and regular of the elusive backroom at Andy Warhol's incubator Max's Kansas City.  By the time she joined Chris Stein, Clem Burke, and Gary Valentine to form Blondie, they were poised to take a place as CBGB strongholds; the front line of the impetus to music as we've known it ever since.  

X Offender, the opening track of Blondie's debut album, epitomizes the approach of a band that was as at-home within the CBGB grime as they would later be at the top of the charts in the 80s.  With a diary-like spoken intro (which isn't in the video for whatever reason--look up the album version), thumping drumbeats, and cooing backup vocals behind a toughgirl lead, Blondie sticks barbs into the sugary and dramatic sound of the 1960s girl-groups like The Ronettes and The Shangri-Las.  It never sounds like a send up, though.  Instead they play it loud and fast and embrace the camp of it all, cranking up the trashiness without crossing into irony.  Harry simultaneously brings the rock n roll fervor of the scene and an over-it-all dismissiveness, giving a confrontational, street-smart edge to the delivery.  The saccharine verses here are offset by the growly notes she hits at the end of lines ("and then you said") and inherently growly New York accent ("let's go and nothing mo-ah").  Through her leadership, Blondie found a fearless and authentic attack which was a perfect fit in the burgeoning scene during the birth of punk rock.  

Side note:  Gary Valentine, the dorky camera-hog bass player, is actually named Gary Lachman.  In his post-Blondie career he has become one of the most prolific modern writers of mysticism and the occult—we’re talking well-over 20 books!

Previous Throwback Tracks:

Neil Young - I'm the Ocean
Melvins - Revolve
Alice in Chains - Them Bones
New Found Glory - Understatement
The Modern Lovers - Roadrunner
Steve Miller Band - The Joker

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

The Totally Raddest Pop-Punk Albums Ever, Dude [part TWO]

It's been a while.  I'm thinking this series will continue to update every four years, like the Olympics.  Or the president (right?). Should you happen to need a refresher already, here is part one.

I originally had a(nother) drawn out intro about what I think it means for something to be pop-punk, but have since lost interest in trying to be so official and comprehensive all the time. 

So let it rip-- 

The Muffs - Blonder and Blonder (1995) 

The Muffs are a band that made me feel absolutely giddy when I first “discovered” them for myself. They combined the energetic fun of the pop-punk bands I already loved with sloppy, freewheeling guitar solos and a lead singer with a pissed-off, downright feral edge. Blonder and Blonder kicks open the door with the cocky kiss-off anthem In Agony, followed by a fully at-arms ode to Oh Nina. After making it clear that they aren’t fucking around, they let up a little bit with mid-temp jam On and On leading into the Nirvana-esque Sad Tomorrow. From there the album rides its own buoyancy, punctuated by the blowtorch-in-disguise Red Eyed Troll and Distillers precursor Laying in a Bed of Roses

I am convinced that nobody has ever rocked out harder than the late Kim Schattuck does on this album. She performed with a unique version of kinetic melodicism that frequently flew off the rails in the best way. The Muffs were a lightning bolt that missed (or perhaps dodged) their bottle. In a post-Green Day landscape they had the perfect wave to ride, but never made it to the mainstream. As it stands they are a buried gem waiting to thrill genre fans digging for more—which might actually be the absolute perfect fate for a pop-punk band.

Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American (2000)

Bleed American came out at a time when pop-punk was still kinetic, but also aware of the increasing emo influence. That being the case, it features a set of smart, thoughtful, sensitive songs that hold up because they eschew self-seriousness for the sake of rocking the fuck out.

The opening title-track is an angsty anthem built on screeching power chords. Its double-time, nervy energy seems to crest a hill as it rolls into A Praise Chorus. An even-more double-time feel is now open and bright, and the nervy energy is turned into positive encouragement. This is a song I considered for my Mindfulness in Music series--I can’t listen to it and not feel ready to live. 

Those opening songs feel like two sides of the same vibe, and it is carried throughout the rest of the album. Sweetness and The Authority Song are smiling thumpers, while Get it Faster lashes out at uncertainty. 

The crown jewel here though is The Middle, probably the most perfect song written this millennium. Understated verses exist to deliver the chorus, which is perpetually stuck in all of our minds. As soon as the song begins to stagnate, it hits you with a middle-eight guitar solo straight out of Rick Neilsen’s playbook. This song feels like it could be set on repeat on the universal soundtrack, and not one person would mind. 

The Offspring - Conspiracy of One (2000)

Smash and Americana were also strong candidates, but this one was THE Offspring album to me ever since my dad helped me buy the CD on eBay for $2 at some point in the early 00s.

Conspiracy of One has both the goofiness (Original Prankster, One Fine Day) and the darkness (Come Out Swinging, Million Miles Away, etc…) the band is known for, but blends them more seamlessly than they ever had. This makes for an unceasingly entertaining one-two punch, like the thrashy Come Out Swinging shifting into dorky talk-sing swagger in Original Prankster to start off the album.  The Offspring's signature dirty-Latin vibe is here too, as songs like Living in Chaos, Special Delivery, and Vultures offer up sun-scorched funk with their familiar brand of suppressed aggression.  

What really makes this album essential though is the powerhouse of in-the-pocket momentum that is Want You Bad, a song that is in contention for the absolute best of the genre.

Martha - Blisters in the Pit of My Heart (2016)

Martha is a staunchly DIY outfit from the small northern England town of Pity Me (really). Throughout the punk circuit there they forged a blistering version of nervy, high energy music that toes the line between punishing punk verses and soaring choruses. They solidified this sound with their debut for Madison’s own Dirtnap Records (though it was based in Portland at the time--they are still signed).

Martha’s sound is drum-driven. Duh right, that’s nothing new, especially for pop-punk. What’s unique here are the affirmative vocal harmonies and spacious guitars that are built around it. Or aren’t. Because Martha allows things the room to breathe. That’s unique in a genre that tends to wear its balls to the wall like a badge of authenticity. Maybe it’s an English thing. At any rate, it comes at no sacrifice to their up-tempo neuroticism and emotional vulnerability. And when they do put the pedal down, they can hit you even harder.

Chekhov’s Hangnail is the standout here; a journey of a song that blends snarky observations of life as an outsider with an empowering embrace of such. Elsewhere Precarious (The Supermarket Song) and Do Whatever are nearly saccharine while still somehow maintaining an inherent edge. Goldman’s Detective Agency does similar, seamlessly employing a classic New Found Glory esque chorus for muscularity, especially in a half-time breakdown section.  Also, an album title-drop in a non title-track song (Ice Cream and Sunscreen) is a move we all can appreciate, not to mention the Rocky Horror type of wordy melodicism with which it is done.  

Sum 41 - All Killer No Filler (2001)

Sum 41 sounds like an aggressive Blink-182 who doesn’t want to be your friend anymore. In 2001 this type of angst hadn’t yet been played out, and they convey it well enough on All Killer, No Filler that it’s still fun as hell to listen to. 

Terse, neurotic rhythms carried equally by suffocated guitar grind and syncopated vocal melodies make this album a key contributor to the classic pop-punk sound. Nothing on My Back might as well be a textbook example, complete with succinct but liberating chorus and drum solo centered bridge section. It’s straight from the Dookie playbook, but done with enough passion and efficiency to not be annoying. 

Which about sums it up, especially listening to this album now. It should be irritating, these kids were irritating, but it’s too damn good to not enjoy. They pull their power move with Fat Lip, a Beastie Boys wannabe rap-rock with tradeoff vocals and a call-and-response chorus. Given the song’s success (*coughAmerican Pie 2cough*) it is quite a feat that they pulled it off in such a way that is so much fun.

Let the album play out from there, and songs like Rhythms and Motivation will hit you square in the smiling face with all of the effortless and unflinching momentum that pop-punk is made of. Throw in a surprisingly genuine Iron Maiden homage in Pain for Pleasure for good measure.  

The Distillers - Coral Fang (2003)

Fronted by Aussie badass Brody Dalle, The Distillers had a bit of a tendency to overplay their edginess. Razor-laden artwork and snarled streetlife lyrics often came off as hammy and dramatic, especially in contrast with the music’s bottomless well of inescapable hooks. On their final LP Coral Fang though, Brody and her current incarnation of bandmates seem to drop the hesitation and strike a satisfying balance.

The album swaggers in with Drain the Blood. Brody’s strutting guitar stabs and assertive drawl open up into a familiar but welcome fist-in-the-air declaration of how they are not to be messed with. They prove it with Dismantle Me and Die On a Rope, and just like that this record is off to a pummeling start. Brody’s vocals have a Courtney Love esqueness to them in how she can sound like she’s half-asleep or like she’s seeing red and snarling, often both at the same time.

The Hunger is a melodramatic mid-album standout. It allows a reflective moment with clean guitars and a somber voice, which are repeatedly ripped open by some of the album’s best screams. The dark dramatism is immediately offset by Hall of Mirrors. An absolute downhill assault, I would not hesitate to claim this as one of the best individual tracks on this whole damn list. Everything hits right away, exactly like the Hurricane Brody likens herself to in the opening line. It gets even better--the second verse, from “I come down like a bloody rain cuts...” all the way through “I sell souls at the side of the road, would you like to take a number” is some of the most vicious and muscular vocal delivery to be found anywhere. This song fires on all cylinders, only taking a breath during an unexpected but well-executed bridge section.

Because that’s another thing. Many of these songs have nearly cinematic breakdowns-- the gothy kind like later AFI. The structure is surprisingly ambitious for how much the band likes to put the pedal down. It gets a little repetitive, but whatever. It is especially forgiven here as we roll into Beat Your Heart Out--straight-forward pop-punk perfection.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Quarantine Playlist Part 2: Spring Edition

painting by Sara

You didn't miss Part One, there wasn't one.  There's a half-assed version that is too depressing anyway and I'm over it so we're moving on.

"Quarantine" rolls along.  I miss my friends and I miss my school and I miss going to shows and all the other things that we miss.  But it is a nice reminder of how lucky we are to have those things in the first place.  There is bitter sweetness in realizing you'd taken things for granted.

Meanwhile, Spring is here.  None of the birds or the leaves on the trees give a shit about COVID.  It turns out isolation is pretty freeing once you settle in.

On that note-- 

The Olivia Tremor Control - Green Typewriters

"How much longer can I wait...?" Will Cullen Hart breaks the disorientation near the end of the 20-minute Green Typewriters suite with the question that has bubbled to the top of all of our minds.  The catharsis in the tape-skipping, speaker-ripping guitar solo that ensues seems to suggest that the wait isn't so bad after all.

The Strokes - Someday

"In many ways they'll miss the good old days..."  Someday hits the happiest of nostalgic tones by finding power in good memories.  This is a song for when you're done wasting time waiting for the good times to come, there's too much else to do.

Teenage Fanclub - Going Places

"Kick my feet off the ground, I'll embrace the sky..."  Teenage Fanclub's jangly major-key melodies sound like when the sun catches the very top of a cloud and the vapor glows a bright blue so electric it looks like an interaction.  Because when things feel stagnant sometimes all it takes is the natural motion of things.

The Presidents of the United States of America
- Back Porch

"and everything's fine, everything's beautiful, everything's great, I just feel so good..." Social distancing doesn't apply to kitties or chickens or worms or fifteen-hundred bass drum luggin' bug-eyed monkeys so we might as well bring all our animal friends on over to the back porch to jam out. 

Guided by Voices - Game of Pricks

"You could never be strong, you can only be free..."  Guided by Voices is second to none when it comes to reveling in a "fuck it" level of acceptance.  Any number of their songs shine with natural affirmation in the face of bullshit.  This is a good one for when you don't want to play Bee Thousand for the fourth time in a row. 

Sebadoh - Flame

"You can feel anything you wanna feel..."  Feelings run the gamut these days, and none of them are off limits.  

Waxahatchee - Under a Rock

"Maybe you got your head caught in a ditch last night..."  Katie Crutchfield is the reigning master of the kiss-off song.  This is probably the most energizing of her anthems for anti-wallowing and not taking any shit.  

John Lennon - Nobody Told Me

"There's UFOs over New York and I ain't too surprised..."  Because at some point you come to appreciate the weirdness.  Nobody told any of us there'd be days like these.  

Primus - Wynona's Big Brown Beaver

"She pricked her finger one day and it occured to her she might have a porcupine..."  For when the real insanity sets in and you need a rompin'-stompin' yarn courtesy of Mr. Claypool. 

BRONCHO - Try Me Out Sometime

"Gotta get done, get you off'a my head..."  This is a song for when you have to take matters into your own hands and MOVE.  It's for getting after it, whatever that might be doesn't matter much anymore.

Pavement - Gold Soundz

"Is it a crisis or a boring change...?"  Something about Stephen Malkmus's sprawling, schizopherenic poetry that alwas seems to feel its way to a safe landing seems to fit.  Also, you're welcome for not using the easy "you can never quarantine the past" line.  Until now.

Sonny & The Sunsets - Too Young to Burn 

"Now I sit by my window, watch the sun going down, down..."  Because it's ok to just do that, too, we'll be alright.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Brett Newski - Life Upside Down (Releases September 7, 2018)

Don’t Listen to Brett Newski”. The rogue Milwaukee-area musician carries the anti-slogan like a mantra to every offbeat stop on his often relentless touring regiments- from basements and venues across America and Europe to the jungle of Sri Lanka, a long stint in Vietnam and a very short one at a local Wal-Mart. It’s a fitting catchphrase for a guy who has opted to carve out his own role in the musical landscape. Not only genre-defiant but also fiercely independent, he doesn’t quite fit into the contemporary banjo-pop trend, nor the nihilistic folk-punk racket, nor the 90’s-nostalgic indie aesthetic. What he does excel at is incorporating all of these influences into a wholehearted and unapologetic presentation of his authentic self. He has taken a long road to find out who he is, and it is on Life Upside Down that his self-deprecation and aloof brand of defiance is wrapped up in his self-imposed satirical classification of “dork-rock”.

A self-made artist in a made-up genre, equally out of place as he is out of time, Newski would have it absolutely no other way. Life Upside Down, to my ear, is an album about finding strength in uncharted territory. It is about finding your own way and your own voice, and putting everything you’ve got behind it, even when it’s uncomfortable, and especially when it’s upside-down, because that’s where life happens.

Life Upside Down follows 2017s LP Songs to Sink the American Dream. Newski has been admirably transparent with fans about his struggles with anxiety—the type that many people relate to and not enough talk about—and Songs to Sink… served as a scathing assault on the many outside perpetuators of stress and uncertainty. After allowing some distance from that exorcism (represented tangibly by February 2018s EP The Stars Are As Bright As a Nightlight), Newski detaches from all of those noisy and poisonous things and leaves them in the dust as he opens the world back up and charges headlong into it.

It all begins with The Aftermath, in which we “pick it up where we left off”. A pending catharsis couldn’t start anywhere else. This is an anti-breakup song in the sense that it isn’t the dissolution of a relationship Newski laments, but the optimistic yet inertia-less interim before moving on.

He gains his footing on Ride, which he describes as a “weirdos unite song for the underdog living on the fringe and operating outside the box". On it Newski opts to not play it safe—to make up for lost time in a finite chance at life by eschewing self-seriousness for the sake of experience and, in his words, “fully embracing dorking-out and having fun”. With that he hits the ground running on an album that plays like a roadtrip in gleeful celebration of uncoolness.

We ride shotgun with Newski as he cruises with the windows down and the radio up, chasing down a way to “live like he means it” (Can’t Get Enough), rolls through nights of somber yet optimistic introspection (Stars), rides on his momentum when loneliness picks another fight (Afternoons), and reminds himself to stay present and set down the Heavy Things and embrace the lack of control (Yesterday You Said Tomorrow)—all the while displaying his heart squarely on his sleeve and waving the lighthearted translucence of Tom Petty in the open air like a flag.

Newski has described Life Upside Down as somewhat of a 90s throwback album, and nowhere is that vibe more prominent, even in its title, than Sucker Punch. Opening with a “hey”-laden power-chord intro that paraphrases Nirvana closely enough to seem (maybe) intentional, its immediately subverted by the type of smokey-voiced, sing-talk verse that wouldn’t be out of place on an American Pie soundtrack or the post-Nevermind airwaves.

It isn’t always so copacetic though. As past ghosts re-emerge on the title-track, Newski finds himself nostalgic for the old aftermath, longing for the familiarity of solid ground; “I wish I could believe all these memories/but the past is heavy now”. It carries all of the honesty and torturous helplessness of The Gaslight Anthem at their most gut-wrenching, but also the awareness to know that the only counter-attack is to accept and be with it. The bottom has not fallen out, when he “wakes up, the smoke is gone”.

Although the album feels like a journey it never threatens to overstay its welcome, with the final track being its longest at only 3:14. After sharing such a range of moments with Newski, So Long places us where paths diverge—going out with a bang disguised as a whimper, the bittersweet sendoff of an old friend. It’s a lingering goodbye, a vow to someday once again pick it up where it is left off, but making sure to say everything that needs to be said, just in case. A perfect closing-of-the-proverbial-book, but also a tempting invitation to start it all over again, which is a thing you are going to want to do.

As he’s done throughout his prolific career, Newski crafts an un-unlikeable record that allows for immediate connection by distilling the infinite complexity of human emotion into effortless, timeless capsules. Through his heartfelt introspection and wide-open worldview, he offers proof that boundless perception and optimism is powerful enough to dispatch any anxiety and unworthiness that today’s world seems all-too-ready to deal out.

Life Upside Down will be officially released on September 7, and is available to pre-order HERE. I recommend a physical copy--the back-cover features "Brett Newski's Guide to Defeating Anxiety", wonderfully illustrated by the man himself. 

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.
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