Category Archives: FEATURES

Beth Ditto: Sweet Talk

The Gossip’s Beth Ditto goes solo on Fake Sugar

Beth Ditto is not a woman to suffer fools gladly. As forthright and incendiary in her conversation as she is in her role as frontperson for the Gossip since its 1999 inception, Ditto has long been a blunt force of nature when it comes to LGBT rights, marriage equality, politics and matters of female form, size and stature in fashion and the workplace.

“For me, it’s about punk intersectional feminism—an incredible movement to watch grow from the inside,” she says proudly. “I feel so lucky to be alive now and be part of a movement so dedicated and unapologetic about our bodies and open about our experiences.”

Ditto’s newest music, however, shows a different side to the mellow-harshing songwriter and baritone crooner.

“The record was already wrapped up before the election, so believe me, had it not been finished, it would’ve been on,” says Ditto, talking about the more subtle lyrical and sonic shadings of Fake Sugar, her debut solo album away from the throes of the taut, tough Gossip

After five independent releases and two major-label albums (her current home is Virgin), the Gossip called it a day. “There are things that have happened that I’m not sure will allow us to be a band again,” says Ditto. “In my heart it feels gone … Before, everything had come pretty easily, creatively speaking, of course. All of a sudden it felt like pulling teeth. So when the label suggested I work with different songwriters to make a Gossip record, I did, and of course, they weren’t Gossip songs. And I really was hard on myself about that. But it dawned on me how ridiculous that was. Of course they weren’t Gossip songs. But they were still really good songs.”

So after several years of trying to connect, Ditto didn’t. Instead of beating a dead horse, she decided to make her own record and texted her Gossip bandmates to that effect.

“And just like that,” she says, “it was over.”

The Southern-inspired Fake Sugar, complete with twanging F-hole guitars and synthetic percussion, is rich in harmonies and the reality of romance rather than the soppy, storybook kind. The idea of Alan Vega—the late singer/screamer and abstract-impressionist lyricist of Suicide—comes up throughout Fake Sugar, as “Go Baby Go,” “Fire” and the whole twanging Southern Gothic-ness of the album is steeped in his brand of echo and caterwauling.

“I just wanted to do something a little special for him,” says Ditto. “He is an icon, and I needed to point that out.”

Asked if songs such as “Lover” (“about a feeling of independence”) or the album’s other tales of relationships are about Ditto’s new wife, she says, “I don’t really know. I think they’re mostly songs about my internal dialogue about trust, traveling, lifetime commitment. Also, I love to hear the interpretations journalists and listeners have. Sometimes they’re more spot-on than mine.”

The softer spots and handsomely manicured harmonic layers on songs such as the title track, “Savoir Faire” and “In And Out” feel lived in rather than brand new or freshly formed. It’s almost as if Ditto had been planning to explore these sounds even before Fake Sugar.

“I feel like really I could do that in the Gossip, too,” says Ditto. “But the songs just kept never happening. I wouldn’t say it was something I’d been waiting to do as much as a Gossip record just wasn’t coming to fruition, so I just let go of any Gossip sound limitations. I learned to trust myself and to trust other people outside of my group of nearest and dearest. For so long there had been two people I could always rely on. There was a consensus of people I knew since childhood and developed a language of music and aesthetic. Humor. All those things. A real family. Making this record was like learning to love again. Does that make sense?”

A.D Amorosi




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Girlpool: Big Production

With Powerplant, L.A. folk-punk duo Girlpool explores alternative sources of energy

“The record-cycle phenomenon is so bizarre and not second nature to us at all,” says Cleo Tucker. “We just love to make music and put it online. And it’s not conducive to product-izing or marketing music. But it just feels really weird to wait so long before putting it out.”

Back home in Los Angeles after a stint on the East Coast, Girlpool—Tucker’s introspective indie-pop band with songwriting partner Harmony Tividad—just released a bold new album, Powerplant (Anti-). Our conversation, however, begins by discussing the series of solo EPs and singles the bandmates released online last year. A song from Tucker’s Looking Pretty At The Wall, the haunting slow burner “Fast Dust,” was re-recorded for Powerplant.

“We were between record deals, we weren’t signed to anything,” says Tucker. “So we said, ‘Fuck it, this is how I operate.’”

Girlpool’s stunning 2015 debut, Before The World Was Big, was marked by its moving minimalism—one guitar, one bass and two voices delivering songs about the fear and uncertainty of living outside one’s comfort zone. It’s also notable in that nearly all the songs were written collaboratively.

“The space we took from each other when I was in New York and Harmony was in Philly allowed us to explore individual songwriting processes a little bit more,” says Tucker. “Which I think we both needed for a while.”

The return to individual writing makes sense—before the duo connected as teenagers in L.A.’s DIY underground, they were individual artists with projects of their own. The more overt change on Powerplant: drums. Whereas the band was previously able to hold a room in rapt attention without them, Girlpool now embraces a variety of rhythmic textures.

“It was never not on the table; it was something we could always explore,” says Tividad. “We didn’t want to reject anything; we just wanted to pursue whatever felt good in the moment, and represent exactly where we were at in that moment.”

In 2015, that meant two voices and quiet instrumentation, allowing their lyrics to rise to the forefront. It also meant exploring how big they could sound under those limitations. “The decibel level you can reach with a bass and guitar and two voices is pretty loud,” says Tividad. “But definitely not what you can reach with a kick drum banging in the background.”

Joining Tucker and Tividad on tour this summer are Miles Wintner on drums and Stephen Steinbrink on second guitar. They’re playing bigger spaces than ever, and the rise from the basement circuit to the 1,000-capacity room came quickly.

“Girlpool was very creatively oriented for catharsis, honestly,” says Tividad. “There were not really any goals and intentions other than putting out music and having people hear it in the local scene we were participating in. Everything beyond playing (L.A. venue) The Smell was unexpected.”

One particularly surreal moment for the band was when Wilco, in an email to fans who grabbed a free download of Star Wars, offered a list of albums they should consider purchasing—including Before The World Was Big.

“Weird, right?” says Tucker. “I grew up loving Wilco. I still love everything Wilco does. There are moments when it’s like, ‘What the hell? This is crazy. I can’t believe we’re playing this place where I grew up going to shows.’ But I feel like I’m ready. I feel good.”

—John Vettese

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TOPS: Moody Blues

TOPS explores the dark side of pop music

Sugar At The Gate, the new record from Montreal’s TOPS, has a bright, spacious sound, but below the surface, there’s a current of uncertainty. “They’re love songs,” says Jane Penny, the band’s lead singer, keyboard player and main lyricist. “But we don’t write about the positive feelings everybody knows. We talk about the ambivalence we experience in relationships but usually don’t acknowledge.”

Songs like “Petals” and “Topless” have a hard-rock edge, but most of the album’s tunes have a more intimate sound, marked by offbeat, ambient touches and unexpected instrumental flourishes. “We listen to a lot of R&B,” Penny says. “Soul records have the most interesting production. The emotions are big, but the instruments are placed separately and discretely in the mix. David (Carriere, the band’s lead guitarist) is a great player, but sees himself more as a songwriter. He likes stretching the limits of his instrument to get the emotional sounds he likes.”

The moody textures Penny and Carriere create, with the help of drummer Riley Fleck, complement the jazz-like passion of Penny’s phrasing. “I never took singing lessons,” she says. “I taught myself. I love Ozzy Osbourne, but I’m not into the over-the-top singing of most female rock vocalists. There are loud women singers I like, but I like singing quietly. I can get more variations with my tone when I’m singing softly. The phrasing isn’t conscious, it’s just how I happen to sing.”

The band’s live sets share the quiet intensity of their albums, although they do put on a compelling performance. “We’re not your typical rock show,” she says. “The songs are all pretty slow, but people enjoy it because we’re not serious performers. We joke around a lot and that helps, since a lot of the songs are kinda slow and sad.”

—j. poet

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Brother Ali: All The Light

Brother Ali meditates on the inexpressible in soulfully expressive rhymes

We should package a jump drive with this month’s issue, so that you could hear Brother Ali in his own words, in his own cadence, instead of trying to tame the man’s speech on the page. To hear Brother Ali talk about music—the music he admires, the music he makes, the music of humanity—is to hear the loose rhythm and sharp concentration of a man speaking off the cuff about topics that occupy him around the clock.

That blend of the free and the focused drives All The Beauty In This Whole Life (Rhymesayers), Brother Ali’s sixth album, a long meditation on the possibility that love, the heart, might reconnect us all to the unseen, the ineffable, the spiritual. It’s an ambitious record, but one whose impulses are humble.

“Human beings are the stewards of creation, of this life, this space and realm,” says Ali. “That’s the responsibility we’ve been given. Especially in modern times, we become very skillful at controlling the physical world, and we use it for all types of practices. Our control of the physical world is visible in the level of war we’re able to wage, the destruction we’re able to carry out, the propaganda we’re able to unleash on people, the effect we’re able to have on the environment, the ways we’re able to track and imprison people. There’s very little in the way of a barrier between what we desire to do and the impact that we can have. And all of that impact relates directly to the situation that our hearts are in, and to what we believe to be true.”

Every song on All The Beauty considers that possible pitfall—the seduction of control, and the neglect of the heart and our shared humanity that can follow—from one angle or another. The album is fully in topical step with other artists in the contemporary socially conscious hip-hop movement. Ali’s admiration of artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Erykah Badu comes up multiple times in conversation, but running throughout All The Beauty is an unspoken faith that the vulnerability required by love is the most powerful route to enlightenment—and that music that speaks out of that vulnerability connects immediately, directly to the heart.

“Pre-modern people knew what culture was for,” he says. “We modern people have turned it into entertainment, into something that’s measurable: ‘How many followers do you have? How many copies did you sell? How many tickets?’ Everything has to be quantifiable. But pre-modern people knew that culture was there for the purpose of conveying and preserving meaning. Somewhere in our hearts, we still know that.”

Much has been written about conscious hip-hop’s lineal ties with the activist musicians of the 1960s and 1970s who revealed themselves personally on record. On All The Beauty, Ali seems to be hearkening back to an artist like Gil Scott-Heron, who could slot a raw, mournful cut like “Pieces Of A Man” next to a forward-looking, optimistic tune like “I Think I’ll Call It Morning” on the same record and somehow make it of a piece. Ali’s “Own Light (What Hearts Are For)” and “Can’t Take That Away,” as well as the title track that closes the LP, mine a deep vein of positivity; but much of the album lives in the sometimes uncomfortable space where love is fraught with worry, fear and frustration. “Dear Black Son,” a direct address to Ali’s son, Faheem, is an expression of support and faith so open and unguarded it demands multiple plays to access fully, while “Out Of Here,” a letter to a friend following the friend’s suicide, manages to capture the sorrow, anger and guilt that overwhelms survivors.

Of course, several songs on the new record tackle social issues more broadly: “Before They Called You White” and the remarkable “Uncle Usi Taught Me” (which recounts Ali’s hectic attendance at a conference in Iran in which his televised rap performance caused him unanticipated static) are two of the strongest in this regard. And “Pray For Me” and “Pen To Paper” walk the listener through Ali’s first childhood awareness of self-worth and his earliest attempts at being an MC, respectively. Throughout the album, no matter the topic, Ali seems most interested in how the creative spirit can help us express what would otherwise remain unsaid, perhaps unknown.

“You hear people say today, ‘Oh, I don’t care what you believe.’ But what we believe really matters, because we have the power to impact everything,” says Ali. “The world of meaning and the world of spirit, that unseen world, affects the seen world in amazing ways. There’s a sort of love affair, a crush that modern people have on science. We’ve tried to break everything down to the physical and the material, because that’s what we’re good at dealing with now. We’re not good at dealing with the immaterial, with the heart, the unseen world. But creative people can do that. Creative people access the realm of the unseen and bring us back something from there.”

—Eric Waggoner

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Exclusive Excerpt: The National “Heaven Up Here”

Here’s an exclusive excerpt of the current MAGNET cover story. To read the whole thing, order a copy of the issue here.

For its first album in four years, the National moved upstate, experimented with electronics and completed its long climb to the top of indie rock

Story by Matthew Fritch
Photo by Gene Smirnov

“I don’t make it back to the house much anymore.”

If you believe him, Matt Berninger has been living outdoors for the last four days on a farmland property called Long Pond in New York’s Hudson Valley. A few hundred feet behind the farmhouse there is an actual pond, a skinny strip of still water surrounded by reeds, and a small, square wooden dock. The curiously pale Berninger is sitting on the dock barefooted and wearing shorts and a T-shirt with a floppy straw hat and sunglasses; he looks like old Huckleberry Finn or, less romantically, like a beach-vacation dad. A bullfrog croaks from the sedges along the edge of the water.

“I named him Drake after ‘Signs’ came out,” says Berninger. “Because he just sits there and does nothing.”

A sick, and au courant, burn from the brambles of the modern world. Berninger is periodically resupplied with scrawny joints and cans of La Croix, and he pees in the bushes. After an hourlong conversation with MAGNET, he strips off his shirt, dives into the murky pond water and is not seen again until the next day.

Not all of these outdoorsy details are accurate—let’s say there are a couple dozen truths and one lie—but a few things should be made clear and real: Berninger is the singer for the National, and he is a full-time, punch-the-clock rock star. Over the past 15 years, his world-weary baritone and lyrics have given voice to America’s 21st-century decline (“Fake Empire”), embodied our collective sense of paranoia (“Afraid Of Everyone”) and ordered a woman named Karen to “put me in a chair, fuck me and make me a drink.” Somewhat reductively, he is indie rock’s Don Draper: a late bloomer, a Midwesterner who came to New York City to make his name, a mercurial talent with some manageable self-destructive tendencies. So far, however, he hasn’t revealed a secret past or an adulterous nature—although he may sing about them.

In this return to nature, Berninger is temporarily joined on the dock by the Devendorf brothers, Bryan and Scott—the National’s drummer and bassist, respectively. Bryan is the tall, impossibly skinny, bearded one with oversized sunglasses and a trucker hat; he is dryly funny and easy to engage in a conversation about the Bee Gees or Al Capone. Scott, the older of the Devendorf brothers, is almost entirely silent. When asked if he’d like to say a bit more for the record, Scott will shrug and sheepishly reply, “Not talking is good.”

Together with Berninger, the Devendorfs come across as the outdoor cats to the National’s other set of brothers, identical twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Aaron owns the Long Pond property and oversaw the building of the studio; he lives in the farmhouse and produced the band’s seventh album, Sleep Well Beast (4AD).

The National are having a moment, however unassumingly, at the top of whatever is left of serious rock music. The National’s career in 2017 is, in various ways, an echo of Wilco circa Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002), Radiohead circa Kid A (2000) and R.E.M. at various points a decade before them. Sleep Well Beast arrives four years after its predecessor and is notably shaded by electronic beats and squiggles but is unmistakably the five members of the National at work: an elegant, melancholy cathedral built for guitar-driven rock, with Berninger as its louche, low-voiced cantor. If you were to pile up the accolades, it would be apparent that it may not be possible for the band to get more critically acclaimed. In this time of deep American division, we may never agree again on anything the way we agree on the National.

In the face of such grand proclamations and great expectations, Bryan Devendorf utters the most practical, Midwestern, National-esque thing, and it hangs in the air like a mild scolding.

“I feel like we should be practicing more,” he says.

One advantage of having your own studio out in the country is the low crime rate. When the National rented a rehearsal space on Ninth Street in Brooklyn, a kid on the street outside randomly punched Bryan Devendorf in the face. It’s just one of a long list of indignities the band endured in its early days. What puts the National’s slow start into sharper relief is the fact that, before inhabiting the Ninth Street room—the face-punching one—the band occupied a practice space in Williamsburg in the early 2000s where its neighbors were Interpol and TV On The Radio, both of which were immediately and massively successful. Keeping up with the Joneses, never mind the Strokes, was never so demoralizing.

“We weren’t that great,” says Berninger. “We weren’t good enough to be listened to widely.”

Over the course of the late ’90s and early ’00s, the band members trickled into New York City from various colleges and employment outposts, but all five grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Cincinnati. Berninger and Scott Devendorf played in a college garage band called Nancy, while Bryan and the Dessners played middle-school basketball and, later, some of their own music.

Far from being a Middle American teenage wasteland, Ohio at the time was home to a fertile indie-rock scene that included local talent such as Brainiac, the Breeders, Guided By Voices and the Afghan Whigs. Bryan—whose musical tastes also veered toward the Grateful Dead—took drum lessons from Afghan Whigs drummer Steve Earle.

“We had a big thing that if (Afghan Whigs singer) Greg Dulli could be a rock star, then anyone could,” says Berninger. “And he was. I remember reading somewhere about him drinking tequila out of a high-heel shoe. And then a school teacher from Dayton (GBV’s Robert Pollard) put out Bee Thousand and changed the chemistry of rock ’n’ roll music. In the ’90s, Southern Ohio was way cooler than New York or Brooklyn.”

By 1999, everyone in the National but Bryce, who was studying classical music at Yale, was living in New York City, and they began to coalesce around making eight-track recordings in Berninger’s Brooklyn loft. On paper, Berninger was a dot-com millionaire. He parlayed his design degree from the University of Cincinnati into a job making websites for pharmaceutical companies and moved up to the position of creative director at an ad agency. (The Don Draper parallels don’t go away easily.) In 2001, the National’s forgettable self-titled debut was released on Brassland, a record label founded by the Dessners and college friend Alec Bemis.

“I didn’t even realize we were making a band back then,” says Aaron. “It was fun, we were drinking some beer. There wasn’t much thought put into the first record.”

When asked about the world’s reaction at the time to The National, Bemis is blunt: “Nothing. There was nothing. People were intrigued, but the band wasn’t touring. They had day jobs. (NYC record store) Other Music took a couple of the records on consignment.”

It’s difficult to know what, exactly, kept the National together in its low-key pursuit of a music career, but one theory is that life started to knock the guys around a little bit. The tech economy imploded, and Berninger had to lay off the staff he’d hired. There was heartbreak (“I dated a girl for three weeks that I was crushed by,” recalls Berninger) and, of course, the traumatic aftershocks of September 11.

“I think in that post-9/11 period, there was a lot of flailing around, throwing care to the wind,” says Bryan. “Heavy drinking every night.”

“I was a loner drinker,” says Berninger. “Two packs of cigarettes and some pizza and a 12-pack. I’d listen to Nick Cave and be depressed and write lyrics.”

Somehow, the band coalesced around Berninger’s bleak lyrics. Bryce had arrived from Yale to join the band officially, and the formerly sleepy New York City music scene began to stir. When the National issued Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers in 2003, this group of 30-ish-year-olds was competing for attention with a largely younger and more beautiful set of local contemporaries: the Strokes, Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, among others. The National, meanwhile, had an image crisis—or a lack of one—that plagues the band to this day.

“Our style was Pavement,” says Berninger. “Pavement looked like they just didn’t care. They would wear parkas and shorts onstage. We were also desperate. There were a couple photo shoots where scarves were involved. Drawstring pants and espadrilles are starting to creep into our style now. None of us could ever get on the same page. I mean, look at [Bryan]. I wear suits and Bryan wears cutoff sweatpants. Whenever we try to create a sort of playbook, it’s never worked.”

Berninger is dismissive of Sad Songs. “It was like looking in different windows and often finding nothing much to look at,” he says. But it was a distinctive, dark voice—Berninger’s craggy baritone ranges from a croak to a howl—among all the brighter lights at the time.

“That’s when we started to get hungry again, with Sad Songs and going to see all these other bands,” says Berninger. “The Strokes’ record had come out. We knew at least not to try to be any of those bands. Sad Songs is us desperately trying to avoid being one of the 50 bands that copied the Strokes and Interpol.”

Says Bryan, “We were often just avoiding things.”

The Dessners, in particular, began to realize that a rising tide in the New York music scene could lift all boats, and they redoubled their efforts to both network with other bands and focus on the permanence of their own recordings. A recurring dynamic in the National is that the Dessner twins—not to make them sound un-fun—are relentlessly, yet quietly, driven.

“I remember Bryce and I having specific conversations around the time of Sad Songs and just afterward that, ‘If we’re going to make a song we have to feel really confident about the music, otherwise we’re going to get stuck with it,’” says Aaron. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s not give Matt anything unless we’re confident we can do something with it.’ And that’s when we got more thoughtful.”

2004’s Cherry Tree EP was partially recorded at Bryan Devendorf’s house by his wife, and it is the rare case when you can hear a band snap into focus over the course of five new songs. It begins with the sound of sleigh bells, shaking open “Wasp Nest,” and Berninger sleepily sings, “You’re cussing a storm in a cocktail dress.” All of a sudden, the National has miles of style—and it’s persistent, continuing to the audacious “All The Wine” and the best, most provocative metaphor of 2004: “I’m a birthday candle in a circle of black girls.”

“With Cherry Tree, the gene strain started to mutate,” says Berninger.

The momentum carried over to 2005’s Alligator (which wisely reprised “All The Wine”), widely considered to be the National’s breakout album. Just as the hype from the Strokes and Interpol died down, this smoldering underdog made permanent marks. The band scored with anxious rock anthems (“Abel,” “Mr. November”) and surreal, orchestral laments (“The Geese Of Beverly Road”). A sophisticated and nervously energetic album that evoked watershed moments from the Pixies, Smiths and R.E.M., Alligator made almost everything else at the time seem like children’s music.

After Alligator, there is a long middle section to the National’s career. It arcs upward, slowly but steadily, carefully burnishing the band’s sound into deeper shades of perfection. Maybe too perfect—the band’s last two albums, High Violet and Trouble Will Find Me, almost resemble museum pieces: artful, chiseled, but somehow distant. Could the inscrutable National exhaust us with its greatness? A 2013 Slate article (“Why I Hate The National”) finally fired a shot across the bow: “The National makes me feel that rock music, like much of American literature and visual art before it, has died and gone to graduate school.” It should be noted that, near the end of the piece, the author acknowledged that he may need psychological therapy.

“We haven’t been shit on enough,” says Berninger. “That’s the funny thing—it always does happen, eventually. Dylan has made some of the worst records anyone’s ever made. He has. But he’s also made five or 10 of the best ones ever made.”

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Saint Etienne: Sound Of The Suburbs

Saint Etienne returns with a love/hate letter to its childhood home

“Home Counties—a comfortable plasticized commuterland with respectable villas and neatly mown lawns interspersed with patches of mild scenery.”
—Laurence Urdang,
Names & Nicknames Of Places & Things

England’s Home Counties have always presented themselves as a distinctly unlovely proposition. Composed of the commuter-belt counties surrounding London, they’ve long been a byword for cultural sterility, a land of tall privet hedges, twitching lace curtains, unquestioning conformity, Daily Mail devotees and weekend golfers who still worship at the shrine of Margaret Thatcher.

They are the spiritual home of the Little Englander, and yet, behind the bland, beige facade lurk legions of young misfits, bedroom fantasists with their faces pressed eagerly against London’s windows, dreaming of escape. There’s a long, noble lineage here including the likes of Bowie, Jagger and Richards, Siouxsie Sioux and the Bromley Contingent, Blur and perennial pop purists Saint Etienne. Five years on from 2012’s Words And Music By Saint Etienne, they’re back with a new album titled, suitably enough, Home Counties (Heavenly), and as the band’s Bob Stanley explains, he still has distinctly mixed emotions about both the area and the mindset.

“It’s where we all grew up,” he says from his home in London. “It’s not London but surrounds it. This album is not about Brexit as such, but the home counties all voted Leave, whereas London, for the most part, was pretty much in the Remain camp. The home counties made their voices loud and clear, which was a bit grisly, really, so this album’s very much about a love/hate relationship with the place you grew up in. It can be a very suffocating place. It’s somewhere you want to get away from when you’re a teenager. That said, the countryside around there is lovely, but it’s the sheer oppressiveness of the commuter belt that makes it sneered at and incredibly uncool. It definitely gives you something to kick against. I mean, you can be adventurous if you live there, but really, if you’re vaguely creative, most people escape to London as soon as they can.”

Which is exactly what all three members of Saint Etienne—Stanley, Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell—did in their early 20s. They were, and remain, very much suburban romanticists.

“We all moved to London around the same time, just before the group formed,” says Stanley. “A lot of our early stuff is informed by that excitement, writing about our new surroundings as opposed to sitting in a bedroom in Croydon gazing at a London A-Z.”

While not exactly a concept album—Stanley claims its origins lie in a book on the subject he picked up in a secondhand shop and the “wistful, slightly reflective” feel of tracks that Cracknell had demoed in early recording sessions—Home Counties comes across as a culmination of sorts. It’s everything that’s great about Saint Etienne—wry, literate, stylish, shamelessly romantic—and musically there’s a lot going on. Alongside the usual shiny, gleaming electro-pop flourishes are echoes of everything from Northern soul floor stompers and the retro-futurism of contemporaries Stereolab and Broadcast to the cinematic atmospherics of John Barry and Roy Budd and the yé-yé girls of ’60s French pop.

“That’s all stuff we’ve been listening to for years,” says Stanley. “It just seeps through without us even thinking about it.”

This attentiveness, surely, is key to the enduring appeal of Saint Etienne—they remain, at heart, diehard obsessives, musical trainspotters with a distinctly British affection for style and artifice and wit, possessed with an unabashed love of pop with a capital P.

“This idea of ‘real’ music or ‘authenticity’ is one that I find absolutely repellent, really,” says Stanley with a laugh. “The idea that, say, Dion’s ‘The Wanderer’ is less authentic or real than, say, a Bon Iver record is just silly. It’s just pop music. I mean, I’ve talked about this in my book (2014’s superlative Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Story Of Pop Music From Bill Haley To Beyoncé), but if you really are ‘authentic’ or ‘real,’ then you’re going to be singing a cappella in a pub. Because as soon as you make a record, you’re part of the music industry, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re not hugely different to Girls Aloud. You’re part of the industry whether you like it or not. You’re in the same game; otherwise, you wouldn’t be making records, right?”

—Neil Ferguson

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Cayetana: The New Normal

The members of Cayetana are doing it by themselves

It happened on a sunny evening in the summer of 2016. The members of Cayetana were gathered on the roof deck of bassist Allegra Anka’s South Philly rowhome, discussing what to do with their new record. It had been finished since spring, but the labels they’d approached weren’t biting.

The solution, they found, was an obvious one: This power trio rooted in DIY punk was going to do it themselves and launch their own label to release New Kind Of Normal (Plum).

“We had always talked about it,” says frontwoman Augusta Koch. “And we realized, ‘Why can’t we do this ourselves? We can hire a publicist, we can do all the stuff labels do.’ And I think that was very liberating.”

“Some people were like, ‘Are you sure? That’s not necessarily the safest bet,’” says drummer Kelly Olsen. “Every time we doubted it, we came back to, ‘No, no, of course we can do this.’”

While their 2014 debut Nervous Like Me was filled with full-steam-ahead punk hooks and touches of new-wave inspiration (Anka’s Peter Hook-esque bass counterpoints, glimmers of synth), Normal is an exercise in dynamics, raging out on “Mesa” and “Grumpy’s” but stopping down for the pensive “Side Sleepers” and the empowered burn of “Certain For Miles” where Koch cries out, “When the world bears down on me, will I laugh at its audacity/And be able to start again?”

“I’m a huge Patti Smith fan, and she has this really great quote about how she’d rather make music that’s overlooked than music that’s insincere.” says Koch. “Are we nervous about people liking this new record because it’s very different? Yes. But it’s very honest, and that’s all we could do. I’d rather make a really honest and sincere record that’s scary and vulnerable and on our own label than be on a major label and making what other people want to hear. It’s about trusting ourselves.”

—John Vettese

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Dispatch: Communiqués From The Front

Dispatch returns with a perfectly reasonable mission to unify the planet.

On the surface, the Dispatch story would seem to be a tale of an indie/folk/ska/jam outfit that’s been apart almost as long as it’s been together, victimized by the creative infighting that has decimated many good bands. In fact, the story of multi-instrumentalists/songwriters Chad Urmston, Pete Heimbold and Brad Corrigan goes considerably deeper, and their success in overcoming their daunting internal issues is borne out on America, Location 12 (Bomber), the band’s sixth studio album and its second since officially returning in 2012. It’s a towering example of its musical gifts.

“Dispatch 1.0 was each of us trying to figure out who we were and what the pecking order was,” says Corrigan. “In Dispatch 2.0, we’re content in our own lives, we’re not putting pressure on each other. We realize how fortunate we are to have a loyal, passionate fan base that cares for our music and story, and believes in the independent spirit that birthed Dispatch and the causes we care for. We’re trying to create amazing entertainment but hoping it points to something substantive beyond the music.”

Dispatch began as a New England jam band in 1996 and quickly amassed a fervent audience with its mixture of musical adventurism and social activism. Within three years, the trio devolved into a contentious triumvirate of individuals staking out creative territories within the band.

“We started as super close friends and accidentally found ourselves in a band,” says Corrigan. “Given that all three of us were songwriters and guitar players, we were stepping all over each other. When it was working well, it was our greatest strength. We have no regrets. Because we left each other, we were able to reconnect meaningfully in 2011 and say, ‘We know who we are, we don’t have to rely on each other for everything.’”

When the band split after 1999’s Four-Day Trials, Urmston formed State Radio, while Heimbold and Corrigan went solo as Pete Francis and Braddigan, respectively. They also redoubled their activist efforts: State Radio became Urmston’s political soapbox, Heimbold taught English, poetry and music at the Waterside School, which he co-founded, and Corrigan started Love Light and Melody, a nonprofit foundation that, according to its website, “is dedicated to battling the physical, emotional and spiritual effects of extreme poverty facing children and the communities where they live.”

Dispatch reunited for a 2004 one-off free show, The Last Dispatch at Boston’s Hatch Shell. The band expected about 10,000 attendees, but the concert attracted more than 150,000 fans from 29 countries.

“It gave us a glimpse at how flat the world was becoming, and that our music could really unify people from all over the globe,” says Corrigan.

Since then, Dispatch has annually reunited for two months at a time. From those 60-day periods, they’ve managed to record their 2012 comeback Circles Around The Sun and to play benefit concerts for myriad domestic and foreign causes. When they reconnected in 2015 to begin work on America, Location 12, they democratized their songwriting process, submitting and voting on material; as it happened, 15 of Urmston’s songs constituted the trio’s favorites, 11 of which make up the entirety of the album.

“The goal has been (to determine) what are the best Dispatch songs, and how can we arrange them together and bring our greatest strengths to them,” says Corrigan. “We’re already ready to do our next record and make changes to the process, but it’s a huge step in the right direction that the best stuff wins. The best stuff is the rising tide that floats all of our boats.”

—Brian Baker

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The Steel Woods: Skyn Deep

The Steel Woods make (legit) Southern rock safe for Nashville

Now that Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson have rendered outlaw country palatable for indie hipsters and CMT viewers alike, perhaps life will be a bit easier for an unwieldy upstart outfit like the Steel Woods. Gritty in their execution but not averse to a little studio refinement, the Nashville quartet may just be OC’s most authentic answer to Lynyrd Skynyrd—Southern-rocking old souls with enough savvy to take what they need from Music City machinery and escape relatively unscathed.

“I feel at home in Nashville,” says band cofounder Wes Bayliss. “There are all types of people and all types of music. It’s become a real mixed bag.”

The Steel Woods’ strikingly accomplished debut, Straw In The Wind (Woods Music/Thirty Tigers), manages to sound utterly current and defiantly retro at the same time. Credit the Alabama-born Bayliss and Asheville, N.C., native Jason “Rowdy” Cope’s classic songwriting acclivities and salt-of-the-earth narratives, and the beefy, nuanced sound they concocted as co-producers. “We just started thinking about our heroes,” says Cope. “I love AC/DC, but I also love Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. You want big guitars, but you want beautiful acoustic guitars, too—and John Bonham drums.”

Bayliss was in grade school when he started playing harmonica in his family’s gospel group. From there, he moved on to piano, bass and drums. Two years ago, he ran into Cope—an accomplished songwriter, producer and guitarist—at a gig in Nashville, and the two initially bonded over a shared love of fishing. “I wish there was a great, interesting story, but we really just had a lot of mutual musician friends,” says Bayliss.

Save for a few covers—including a taut rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Hole In The Sky”—Straw In The Wind is an impressive collection of originals that documents the first gasp of a creative partnership with some serious staying power. Given the album’s fixation on keeping the faith despite the reality that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, it’s obvious that Bayliss and Cope’s narrative sensibilities were shaped by their Bible Belt upbringings and a genuine empathy for those weathering the life-altering consequences of their own mistakes. “Forgiveness, redemption, justice—they’re all the things you go through in life,” says Cope. “It’s stuff everyone can relate to.”

—Hobart Rowland

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Jason Isbell: That’s Not Me

Former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell fights against identity politics

“Heard enough of the white man’s blues/I’ve sang enough about myself,” Jason Isbell sings toward the end of The Nashville Sound (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers), his sixth album and third with his band the 400 Unit. The song is “Hope The High Road,” and it’s a rousing rocker about optimism in the face of pessimism from the former Drive-By Truckers guitarist. “Last year was a son of a bitch/For nearly everyone we know/But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road.”

The song is self-referential; in a sense, it claims the album is moving on after previous songs about white privilege (“White Man’s World”), love and death (“If We Were Vampires”) and nervous paranoia (“Anxiety”). But Isbell bristles at the idea that any of the songs should be taken autobiographically.

“Why the fuck do people still think that every time you say ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a song, you’re talking about yourself?” he says. “It’s beyond me. I just don’t get it. I never saw songs that way. Maybe it’s because I was listening to people like John Prine. I was lucky enough to have parents who would play (Prine’s) ‘Angel From Montgomery’ for me when I was a little kid, and I’d think, ‘This guy’s not an old woman.’ Still, still, everybody thinks every single character in every single song is the guy who wrote it. None of us has that many stories to tell.”

Isbell, who is now sober and married to singer and fiddler (and 400 Unit bandmate) Amanda Shires, became a father between his last album and this one, and it’s hard not to see autobiographical details in the references to his wife and daughter in several songs. But Isbell notes that all the songs blend his own experience with character studies and, often, something about songwriting itself. “Hope The High Road” is an example: The song was well-received as a dose of rock ’n’ roll after two excellent but quieter albums, 2013’s Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free. But Isbell did hear some backlash for its seemingly political point of view, much to his frustration.

“Some people took umbrage with the content,” he says. “They disagree with what I’m saying, that it’s a liberal, left-wing viewpoint. Whether it is or not, they use that to then say that the song is no good, and that drives me insane! Somebody who’s a brilliant songwriter could write a song about murdering somebody who doesn’t in any way deserve to be murdered, and if the rhymes were there and the melody was there and there was tension and release, I would say, ‘OK, that’s a beautiful song.’ I definitely disagree with that person’s idea that you should kill your neighbor, but, you know, the song is absolutely beautiful. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll do that. I’ll write a bunch of songs about some things I completely disagree with, across the board, but I’ll attempt to write the songs so well that they’re great songs. But the point of them is total bullshit.”

He laughs at the idea, and then talks about Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” as an example: “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” Isbell ends up being almost dismissive about the content of the songs. The lyrics aren’t the only key to a good song, and they aren’t necessarily the central issue in Isbell’s craft as a songwriter, musician and artist.

“A lot of times, as an artist, as somebody who creates a story—and I know this is a concern of people who write fiction or poems or people who paint—but you don’t usually get asked the questions that you want to be asked by your audience,” he says. “You don’t usually get judged on the criteria that you want your audience to judge you on. And that can be maddening. People have been concerned about subject matter a lot, and they always have as long as I have been writing songs.”

Which raises the question, “What would you rather be asked, Jason?” And that makes him laugh.

“I didn’t necessarily mean by journalists. But that’s a good question, what would I like to be asked? I’ve never thought about that. Honestly, the questions I’d like to be asked are the questions nobody would be interested in the answers to, like gear questions. That’s what I’d rather talk about than what any of the songs are about. What pedals do this on that song—things that nobody outside of the nerdy guitar world wants to talk about. My point was this: What’s important to me is that art and craft of building the songs. I don’t think the subject matter is the be-all, end-all that sometimes it’s made out to be.”

Still, Isbell knows that his point of view may be contrary to some among the conservative-leaning establishment of corporate country radio.

“There are packaged ways people want their country singers to be, and there are packaged ways they want their hip-hop singers to be,” he says. “And honestly, that’s all that’s left, is country music and hip hop. Everything else has been commercialized until it’s gone.”

He does feel optimistic, though, when talking about fellow insurgent country artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price. Calling the album The Nashville Sound is a rallying cry, of sorts.

“I think the Nashville sound is ours to claim,” says Isbell. “I think what we’re doing, and what Sturgill’s doing, and what Chris Stapleton is doing—I think that’s changing what modern pop music really is.”

—Steve Klinge

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