The Back Page: Wake And Be Fine

I happen to be writing this on the eve of Okkervil River’s show at Lincoln Center in New York. For most of the last decade, I very likely would’ve made the train ride north to attend a show like that. I say this without hesitation: Okkervil River is one of my two or three favorite bands of the last decade or so, and I think Will Sheff is as good a songwriter as there is right now.

But I don’t have tickets for the show at Lincoln Center. I never even considered trying to buy them, and there’s a pretty good reason for that.

Okkervil River has been trying to kill me.

Let me amend that. I don’t think Sheff and his band actively or even consciously tried to kill me. The thing is, they’ve come very close to succeeding—twice!—in very dramatic fashion. And I just don’t know if I can take the chance of being anywhere near them again.

So let’s say Okkervil River is apparently hazardous to my health. That should keep the lawyers satisfied.

I’ll start in the middle and work toward the present day, then I’ll throw in a few interesting bits about the past.

A few years ago, Okkervil River released an album called The Silver Gymnasium. I loved it. Their previous record, I Am Very Far, was good, but it was also very dark and very angry. It seemed out of step with the band I’d come to know on ambitious, thoughtful records like Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names and The Stand Ins.

The Silver Gymnasium was more than a return to form. It was fucking great. Last summer, when I joined the rest of you in obsessing over Stranger Things, I couldn’t help thinking of The Silver Gymnasium. It, too, was set in the 1980s and used ’80s sounds to capture some very poignant and pointed memories of childhood. Plus, the songs were freaking excellent.

The album was so good that MAGNET picked it as its best album of 2013. It was my job to interview Sheff for the cover story. He was every bit the smart, considerate guy I expected from listening to his songs. He didn’t seem remotely like a guy who would use his musical powers to strike my ass dead.

The story ran. When Okkervil River scheduled a show at Philadelphia’s Union Transfer, I bought tickets. One day, a few weeks before the show, I dropped dead while I was out for a run.

I’ve written about that here before, so I’ll just remind you that it was a sudden cardiac arrest, the same thing that likely killed Joe Strummer, one of my true musical heroes. Your heart just stops because of a glitch in its electric impulses. I was fortunate enough to be revived by a handful of real heroes.

During the time I was unconscious in the hospital, my daughter took a screenshot of my iPhone. It proved that, at the moment I collapsed, I was listening to “Down Down The Deep River” from Okkervil River’s The Silver Gymnasium.

Coincidence, right? Of course it is. How could there be any connection between the band, the song and the sudden mysterious stopping of my otherwise healthy heart? The idea is preposterous.

Anyway, Okkervil River didn’t release another album until Away came out this past September. For almost three and a half years, I was fine. Fully recovered from the cardiac arrest, I was back to pretty much my normal life. I don’t run anymore—my lone concession to the inherent risks of arrhythmia—but otherwise, I was basically doing fine.

When Away was released, Sheff appeared at World Cafe Live in Philly for one of WXPN’s Free At Noon broadcasts. The show was great and I picked up a vinyl copy of Away at the merch table. I also bought the album on iTunes. It’s really good—probably less likely to attract record-of-the-year enthusiasm, but typically well-written and performed by Sheff and a new lineup of his band.

A month later, my wife and I saw the band at Union Transfer. They played “Down Down The Deep River” and my heart did not stop. Good sign.

A month after that, to the day, I was in the hospital getting chemo. I’d been diagnosed with leukemia.

I was in the hospital for a month, which gives you way too much time to think. More than one person—including doctors who looked at my chart and then looked at me with real pity in their eyes—pointed out that my two big health crises represented some abominable fucking luck. I’d thought of that myself, thanks, although I tried really hard not to start feeling sorry for myself.

Somewhere in there, the Okkervil River connection occurred to me. I looked at their whole discography. I Am Very Far came out in 2011, a couple of weeks before my mother died. Their previous album, The Stand Ins, came out in 2008, the year my first marriage broke up.

These may well all be harmless coincidences. And hey, in 2008, I saw Okkervil River live for the first time. It was an early date with the woman who became my second wife. We listened to a lot of Okkervil songs and saw Sheff perform solo a couple of times during those years with no apparent consequences.

Do I really believe Okkervil River’s records have some weird connection to my life and its more difficult moments? I do not. That said, it would probably be smart to delete the band from my iTunes and avoid going to see them ever again.
Will I be smart? I would say this to Mr. Sheff and his band: “So come back, I am waiting.” If this stuff doesn’t kill me, I’ll be there.

—Phil Sheridan

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From The Desk Of The Feelies: Steve Reich’s “Drumming” LP Set

“Stay the course. Keep on trying.” So sings Glenn Mercer on the Feelies’ In Between, their sixth album and second since rebooting in 2008. Last year, the Haledon, N.J., band founded by guitarists Mercer and Bill Million celebrated its 40th anniversary. Crazy Rhythms, their frenetic, classic debut, arrived in 1980, but they waited six years for their second, the comparatively sedate The Good Earth. That was the first Feelies album with the band’s current lineup of Mercer, Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman. After the (relatively) quick run of three albums between 1986 and 1991, the band retired until Sonic Youth coaxed a reunion in 2008 that led to sporadic touring and to 2011’s Here Before. The Feelies will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our new feature on them.

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Demeski: I got this at my friend’s store in NYC, probably mid-’80s. It’s a German issue, so it’s a great quality pressing and package. It always astounds me when they start out kind of sparse, start playing more together, adding other players, then seemingly going out of phase or time with each other. Only to end up back together. Steve Reich and Philip Glass were my two main introductions to “new” music. I still play the orchestral bell side at the holidays because it’s sounds like a bunch of sleigh bells being played simultaneously.

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Essential New Music: Scott H. Biram’s “The Bad Testament”

Scott H. Biram has got kind of a corny shtick on paper: the old one-man band, all grizzly and gruff, just him and a guitar singing into a collection of battered vintage microphones duct-taped together. But he more than makes up for these limitations by dint of his hard-ass love for American folk roots. This is the kind of guy as likely to yodel his way through an old country song as he is to grind his teeth on some electric blues. He swears like a motherfucker, too. Thing is, this is what the blues probably sounded like back in the day. Early recording technology sanitized American roots music, making it seem quaint today. But at the time, artists were grinding out these sweaty, dirty songs in smoky bars and dancehalls and trying like hell to make something meaningful in this fucked-up world. Biram gets that. He’s one of the few members of the new roots revival who does.

—Devon Leger

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In The News: Saint Etienne, Thurston Moore, Feist, Swans, !!!, Alison Moyet, Danzig, Ride, Black Lips, Nite Jewel, Royal Trux, Jason Isbell And More

Saint Etienne has announced the June 2 release of Home Counties on Heavenly … Rock N Roll Consciousness, the new album from Thurston Moore, will be released by Caroline on April 28. Several North American tour dates will follow … Interscope will issue Feist’s first new album in six years, Pleasure, on April 28 … An LP featuring re-worked renditions of the Cranberries’ major hits as well as brand-new material, Something Else, is due out April 28 via BMG in honor of the band’s 25th anniversary … On April 28, the 1995 album by Swans, The Great Annihilator, will be reissued by Young God/Mute … !!! (Chk Chk Chk) will release new album Shake The Shudder via Warp on May 19 … Other is the latest release from Alison Moyet, due out June 16 on Cooking Vinyl … Rhino has announced 29 limited-edition vinyl releases for Record Store Day (April 22), including titles by David Bowie, the Cure, Ramones, Lou Reed and more (plus the Space Jam soundtrack!) … The first new Danzig album in seven years, Black Laden Crown, will be available from Evilive/Nuclear Blast in mid-May … June 16 will see the release of the first new Ride LP in two decades, Weather Diaries, on Wichita … Black Lips’ new album, Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art?, is due out from Vice on May 5 … Real High, the fourth Nite Jewel record, will be available May 5 from Gloriette … Bomber will issue America, Location 12, the latest Dispatch album, on June 2 … The second installment of Walkman Walter Martin’s “juvenile series,” My Kinda Music, will be released May 5 … On June 16, Platinum Tips And Ice Cream, the latest Royal Trux album, will be available from Drag City … Banditos’ second full-length, Visionland, is set for a June 23 release on Bloodshot … The Nashville Sound is the new album from Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit, due out from Southeastern on June 16 … Dead Oceans has announced the June 16 release of Kevin Morby’s City Music … The new record by North Mississippi Allstars, Prayer For Peace, is due out from Sony/Legacy on June 2 … April 28 marks the reissue of two long-lost EPs by Paul Collins’ band the Beat, Long Time Gone and To Beat Or Not To Beat, via Lolipop … Tindersticks have announced the release of the original soundtrack and film by Stuart Staples, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World Of F. Percy Smith, on June 16 via City Slang … I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone: Lazarus Edition is a live album featuring the late Jim Dickinson, which will be available from Memphis International in April … Legacy will release So It Is, the new release from Preservation Hall Jazz Band, on April 21.

—Emily Costantino

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From The Desk Of The Feelies: James Brown’s “I Cant Stand Myself” 45

“Stay the course. Keep on trying.” So sings Glenn Mercer on the Feelies’ In Between, their sixth album and second since rebooting in 2008. Last year, the Haledon, N.J., band founded by guitarists Mercer and Bill Million celebrated its 40th anniversary. Crazy Rhythms, their frenetic, classic debut, arrived in 1980, but they waited six years for their second, the comparatively sedate The Good Earth. That was the first Feelies album with the band’s current lineup of Mercer, Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman. After the (relatively) quick run of three albums between 1986 and 1991, the band retired until Sonic Youth coaxed a reunion in 2008 that led to sporadic touring and to 2011’s Here Before. The Feelies will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our new feature on them.

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Demeski: Growing up, I was familiar with James Brown but not a real lot. In my early college years, there was a good amount funk music around and then you had the “punk funk” thing and I suppose that’s where I first heard this. The No New York LP included the Contortions’ version, and that led me to seek out the original version. I got my copy at the Hackensack Record King, which I believe is still there. They had a surprisingly large selection of JB 45s back then. Still not an easy drum part to play and really ahead of it’s time when you consider the year of its release.

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Essential New Music: Brokeback’s “Illinois River Valley Blues”

Though some things change, others stay the same. Across 22 years and multiple incarnations, Douglas McCombs (also of Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and Pullman) has remained the sole consistent member of Brokeback. Early on, the sound was focused on melodies he composed for six-string electric bass. Accompanists, recording and rhythmic approaches, and instruments have come and gone. In its current four-piece incarnation, Brokeback is a beat combo with a fairly live sound, and McCombs plays electric and baritone guitar. But if the string tone has changed, the intent to instrumentally evoke spaces and places remains. The guitars twang enough to get you thinking of Calexico or Duane Eddy, but the tunes are named for places in rural Illinois, which makes plenty of sense when you consider that flat cornfield views and desert vistas give you equally unimpeded views of the wide-open road and the empty land around it.

—Bill Meyer

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Normal History Vol. 418: The Art Of David Lester

Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 33-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In 1989, on the return leg of a West Coast tour, we drove the 640 miles from San Francisco to Olympia, Wash., and played two shows in one day. We opened in Eugene, jumped back in the car, my 1972 Impala, and made it to the Portland show, after which we drove a couple more hours to Olympia to sleep.

Back in the ’80s, we toured various sections of North America three and four times a year, but this crazy plan was an anomaly. Typically we steer away from super long drives—and we make tours enjoyable by including interesting stops (art museums, thrift stores, the Tabasco Sauce factory) and good food (olive tasting at Granzella’s in Williams, Calif.)—so I’m not sure how a 640-mile drive ever got booked, since we do all our own booking.

I’m also not sure whether the two album reviews below appeared before or after this particular tour, but considering Calico was our second album (and our first on a label other than our own), it was truly exciting to read these. I don’t think we’d heard of Gerard Cosloy yet, and we certainly didn’t know we’d be moving from K Records to Matador Records within a year or so.

“Jean’s the one with ‘that voice,’ a completely riveting presence that’s only more powerful when backed solely by Lester’s guitar. Zero star potential, they’d sound totally incongruous coming out of your radio, but so would Woody Guthrie, so don’t worry about it.” –Conflict, 1989, by Gerard Cosloy, who joined Matador Records the following year

“This is quite powerful stuff. Jokers like Bono and Bruce could certainly learn a few lessons from this.” –Vicious Hippies From Panda Hell, a Portland zine

“Don’t Shoot” from the album Calico Kills The Cat (K, 1989) (download):

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From The Desk Of The Feelies: Elvis’ “Trying To Get To You” 45

“Stay the course. Keep on trying.” So sings Glenn Mercer on the Feelies’ In Between, their sixth album and second since rebooting in 2008. Last year, the Haledon, N.J., band founded by guitarists Mercer and Bill Million celebrated its 40th anniversary. Crazy Rhythms, their frenetic, classic debut, arrived in 1980, but they waited six years for their second, the comparatively sedate The Good Earth. That was the first Feelies album with the band’s current lineup of Mercer, Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman. After the (relatively) quick run of three albums between 1986 and 1991, the band retired until Sonic Youth coaxed a reunion in 2008 that led to sporadic touring and to 2011’s Here Before. The Feelies will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our new feature on them.

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Demeski: Yes, it’s from the Sun years. No I don’t have a copy on Sun. Yet. Mine’s an RCA stock copy. This is probably my favorite Elvis song. Between the vocal performance, the wild guitar and the great drum feel, you can’t get much better than this. I like most of what Elvis did up until the army/movie years, and I even like some stuff from the later years. But if Elvis had only done the Sun recordings and disappeared, it would have been more than enough.

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Aquilo: Killing Them Softly

The members of Aquilo leave the heavy-metal/grunge parking lot to explore their quieter side

In this era of urgent, accelerated technology, the gorgeous, piano-based ballads on Silhouettes—the debut disc from subtly soulful duo Aquilo—work almost like a nerve-soothing, pulse-calming panacea, the perfect antidote to instant gratification. You have to wait for flowery cuts like “Sorry,” “Low Light” and the finger-popping “You Don’t Know Where You Stand” to blossom and unfold, and it demands a decent amount of patience. What inspired such a delicate sensibility for co-vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Ben Fletcher and Tom Higham? They’re not certain because—in their little Lake District hamlet of Silverdale—they hail from the opposite sledgehammer end of the sonic spectrum.

The kids grew up as neighbors. But because the 25-year-old Highham was four grades ahead of the 21-year-old Fletcher in school, they never socialized. That is, until Fletcher’s growling grunge combo Cry Baby Aeroplanes started playing local club gigs alongside Higham’s sinister heavy metal outfit the Dark Con Of Man.

“And we were both frontmen, singers in those bands, and neither of us did covers—we both started out writing our own music,” says Fletcher, whose ex-musician father urged the pair to collaborate. “But we were pretty young and in a different headspace back then. So initially, Tom probably saw me as that little shit from across the road, then later as that younger musician who always supported his band.”

At 16, Fletcher began writing solo material. “And by then, I think Tom found that it was OK to hang around with me,” he says.

Getting quieter happened by default. When the pair started working on home recordings together, like Aquilo’s first single, “Calling Me,” they had no money and hardly any high-tech equipment—just a laptop, a microphone, an acoustic guitar and a drum machine. “So we just worked with what we had,” says Fletcher. “Our choice of sound was all very subconscious and quite minimal. And no, there is no metal version anywhere of ‘Calling Me.’”

—Tom Lanham

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From The Desk Of The Feelies: Bo Diddley’s “Cracking Up” 45

“Stay the course. Keep on trying.” So sings Glenn Mercer on the Feelies’ In Between, their sixth album and second since rebooting in 2008. Last year, the Haledon, N.J., band founded by guitarists Mercer and Bill Million celebrated its 40th anniversary. Crazy Rhythms, their frenetic, classic debut, arrived in 1980, but they waited six years for their second, the comparatively sedate The Good Earth. That was the first Feelies album with the band’s current lineup of Mercer, Million, bassist Brenda Sauter, drummer Stan Demeski and percussionist Dave Weckerman. After the (relatively) quick run of three albums between 1986 and 1991, the band retired until Sonic Youth coaxed a reunion in 2008 that led to sporadic touring and to 2011’s Here Before. The Feelies will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our new feature on them.

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Demeski: I first heard the Rolling Stones kind of reggae version of this on Love You Live. Later, the earlier version they did on the BBC surfaced, and that sounds more like Bo’s version. Apparently, Bo didn’t like the Bo Diddley beat, and this record doesn’t have one. It’s more of a rumba/Latin type feel. Great drumming and really funny lyrics.

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