Category Archives: FEATURES

Alasdair Roberts: Ever The Wiser

AlasdairRoberts

Alasdair Roberts’ pensive ballads reflect humanity, maintain modernity

Alasdair Roberts’ songs are difficult to digest. Like a large pill you can’t quite swallow, that lodges toward the back of the throat, they are dense, layered, poetic ballads coupled with a forcefully picked acoustic guitar, abrasively fragile vocals and a thick Scottish accent. His new self-titled album is not the kind of thing you put on while washing dishes. But it’s the kind of album you go back to again and again, trying to parse the lyrics, trying to understand why these songs grate at the base of your spine.

Part of Roberts’ appeal has always been the starkness of his music, the raw feeling you get from the songs, though with his new album he says he’s going for a warmer sound. “I think this is based on my conception that recording in the analogue domain will produce warmer-sounding results than recording digitally,” he says. “A Wonder Working Stone (Roberts’ previous album) was recorded entirely digitally, on Pro Tools, whereas much of the new self-titled record was recorded to two-inch tape at Green Door Studio … I suppose the new one is also a bit more of an intimate record.” This intimacy extends to the lyrics as well, which seem at times to be extended meditations on love, though meditations that are reflected back through Roberts’ lyrical thicket.

The old ballads of Scotland have always been a key influence on Roberts’ music, though he’s careful not to ascribe too much of his new album to them. “When writing songs, however much the influence of those older ballads might be felt within them, I am still conscious to create fresh new songs rather than retreads or—far worse—pastiches of traditional ballads,” says Roberts. “It’s true that those old Scots ballads often feature gruesome or otherwise dark narrative elements, which I suppose is reflective of the reality of existence at the time of their creation or emergence … but then, it could be argued that reality is no less dark or gruesome nowadays—I suppose it only takes a quick browse of any daily newspaper to realize that. It seems clear that art exists in some way to address those aspects of the world, and the ballads are one manner in which, historically, the people of Scotland and the wider world have done so. But more broadly, I think that the ballads as a whole do a pretty good job of covering just about every aspect of what it is to be human.”

With a rich heritage behind him, Roberts joins the long, historic ranks of Scottish ballad writers who molded the form of the tradition to fit their own art. His music today sounds timeless and arcane, yet also modernized. As you listen to the album, you find yourself leaning in closer and closer to your speakers, turning up the volume, and the more you focus on these songs, the more they push back on you.

—Devon Leger

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After The Cloudburst: A Songcatcher’s Dream

Internet

A fable by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers

Once upon a time, information was digital and everything was accessed through storage clouds. Hard drives were an afterthought in modern households, as the convenience of the cloudwerks overshadowed any sense of dependence, privacy or dislocation of personal property.

Then one day the cloudwerks burst—that is, for some reason, the public and private (but not government) storage providers all crashed at the same time, and modern life was disrupted beyond any electronic inconvenience ever experienced.

Chaos reigned for a brief time, but storage providers had backups in place almost immediately. Most consumers found their digital holdings restored within days and life went on. Of course this included lawsuits filed by countless institutions and individuals claiming duress, lost time, and undermined commerce.

There was another, more insidious consequence after the cloudburst. Dark corporate powers had taken advantage of the worldwide reboot and monetized every bit of music on the web. No free streaming, no videos, no unsubscribed radio, no unauthorized file sharing, nothing. There would be no entertainment online without payment, and all cloud-coded music services would be automatically Debited On Delivery.

The new policies minimized piracy and maximized profits. Everything was still available on the web, but it was all parceled out as incremental cloud commerce, and all cloud commerce was monitored through the Motherboard—the Master Music Corporate Motherboard—also known as the MMCM.

Reassembling personal music collections and restoring them to cloud status had been controversial. Proof of purchase and file origins were required, and since the MMCM mandated consumers provide past proof of purchase, it ultimately delegitimized 57 percent of all the music files that had been kept on the cloudwerks.

Ironically, replacing personal audio archives wasn’t a problem for most folks. Those consumers had clear purchase histories with registered file vendors and were grandfathered back into place with nearly all of their licensed sounds intact.

The people who gathered massive amounts of music from unauthorized sources were the ones experiencing file restoration problems. Some were outraged, others crestfallen as immense song collections—often irreplaceable—were delegitimized and denied reimbursement value by those jerks at the cloudwerks.

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Susanne And Jeff Kelly: Reckless Abandon

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Susanne and Jeff Kelly’s art-folk daydreams come to life by moonlight

When your mom socked away enough scratch to retire, she may have spent her days crocheting afghans for the troops in Afghanistan or pulling weeds in the tomato patch. When Susanne Kelly finally decided to quit her mind-numbing job at a Seattle medical facility, she cleaned the toxins from her system by making a semi-psychedelic folk album, By Reckless Moonlight (Green Monkey), with her husband Jeff Kelly, the singer, songwriter and guitarist behind the Green Pajamas for more than 30 years.

Susanne hasn’t really retired, of course. She’s now the full-time hostess of the Kellys’ cottage industry, renting out part of their rambling, two-story U District home as a bed and breakfast for paying guests. And the startling duo album that served as Susanne’s post-job therapy, like all of Jeff’s babies (Pajamas and solo outings or Goblin Market LPs with Laura Weller), maps out another sector of his brave new musical universe.

“Susanne was sort of missing the days, way back in 1987, when we recorded something similar to this: a 10-copy, cassette-only album called Coffee In Nepal,” says Jeff.

“I’ve always said I’m not a musician and I’m not a singer,” says Susanne. “I’m a mimic, an actress and a ham. But Jeff’s always told me he likes the texture of my voice.”

Cutting Reckless on a difficult new iMac home studio wasn’t always smooth sailing. “What we’d done didn’t sound good, so we started over,” says Jeff, who removed many of the electric-guitar parts and replaced them with acoustic.

“That’s what I like about Jeff,” says Susanne. “We agreed the album wasn’t going where we wanted it to, so we re-recorded almost everything.”

One of By Reckless Moonlight’s songs, “Rowboat To The Moon,” details Susanne’s feelings about her poisonous work environment. “I was biking to work and thinking the whole time I’d rather be filming In Vanda’s Room,” she says referring to the Pedro Costa movie they’d just seen about junkies living together in Portugal.

Two songs referencing the Costa film made the final cut. “Jeff wrote ‘In Vanda’s Room,’ and I said to him, ‘That’s a great song, but it’s not my ‘Vanda’s Room,’” says Susanne. “Mine is a little bit meaner and grittier, and a little less poetic.”

Her number, “I’d Rather Be Filming ‘In Vanda’s Room,’” backed by Jeff’s slithering bottleneck guitar, finds Susanne whisper-snarling the lyrics like a vampire with a migraine. (“They say you’re lucky to work in this tomb/But me I’d rather be/Filming In Vanda’s Room.”) For all the customary brilliance of Jeff Kelly, Susanne’s song is the album’s high-water mark.

So, where does the duo go from here? The Kellys agree: not the road. “Just doing this has been a nice connecting point for Jeff and me,” says Susanne. “I’ve always said that Jeff’s more fun when he’s sick than most people are when they’re well. All he does in his spare time is record music, so I had to elbow my way in, just to have that hang-out time with him.”

—Jud Cost

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I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness: Out Of The Shadows

ILYBICD

Austin’s I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness reemerges with its second album

“There was no sense of urgency, no real plan to finish this album,” says Chris Goyer, lead singer of I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, a band that’s taken eight years to follow-up Fear Is On Our Side. “We would work on stuff for a while, then stop, then work on it again. People kind of came and went, did different things in their lives, until we finally committed to putting out an album. A normal band would have had a better work ethic, but obviously, we have no real concept of it.”

With titles like “You Are Dead To Me” and “The Sun Burns Out,” Dust picks up exactly where Fear left off, piling dark atmospherics on top of pained, brooding, impenetrable lyrics about whatever happened to be on Goyer’s mind when the tape started rolling. If it sounds heavy, that’s because Ministry’s Paul Barker produced the album, just like the one before. If it occasionally sounds lighter, that’s because the rest of the band members—Daniel Del Favero, Ed Robert, Ernest Salaz and Tim White—haven’t lost their fondness for modular synths, chorus pedals and looping guitar arpeggios.

“Honestly, with the best songs, we just start playing until we find something that sounds good, and that’s pretty much it,” says Goyer, who thinks of himself as a guitar player who sings, rather than as a singer who plays guitar. “Maybe somebody we’ll have a guitar part or a keyboard loop, and we’ll just start playing. In a room. Together. Whether that’s three of us, or four of us, or five of us. Sometimes, there’s a little more thought that goes into the words or the melodies later, but the more we try to change things, the worse a song typically gets. So, we’re really big into thinking less, playing more and letting whatever happens happen.”

After releasing an EP in 2003, produced by Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and a full-length in 2006, the band members thought briefly about turning pro, but quickly decided they were better off keeping their day jobs. (Goyer runs a software development company. His bandmates also work in tech, and none has other bands to distract them.) Midway through a 2006 European tour, they realized they’d rather be home in Austin, so even though they love to perform, they’ve scheduled only one gig to support the new album.

“There’s no pressure to do anything we don’t want to do,” says Goyer, who plays most of the high-end rhythm guitar parts. “Since the last album, everyone has grown up a little bit, emotionally, behavior-wise. That’s a positive. We’re definitely more laid-back, and everyone’s attitude is, ‘This is what it is.’ That’s fine. We sound better than we used to, and I don’t know if that’s because everybody is more anal, but we sound really good. I know, we spent a ridiculous amount of time on this record. But the time actually spent working was probably comparable to a normal album. We just spread it out.”

—Kenny Berkowitz

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The Sharp Things: Storehouse Of Treasure

SharpThings1

The Sharp Things honor the talent of a dear friend and founding member

Drummer Steven Gonzalez loved Rush. And that Sugar album, Copper Blue. He also dug AC/DC, Green Day, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Led Zeppelin and Three Dog Night. In short, Gonzalez’s personal tastes were, like those of a lot of intensely talented musicians, all over the map. And it was that eclectic curiosity that drew Gonzalez and Perry Serpa together when they were—to cop a line from Patti Smith—just kids, living and listening and bopping around NYC.

In the beginning, Serpa and Gonzalez were the Sharp Things. (The band’s PR material lists each player’s “member since” join date; Serpa’s and Gonzalez’s are their birth years.) The duo’s first demo recordings, cut during a trip to Pennsylvania in 1995 as a kind of experiment in crafting artfully arranged indie-pop, came off so promisingly that the bogus band name they’d concocted for that project stuck. Within a couple of years, the Sharp Things had coalesced into a full band, gigging around the East Village.

Since 2002, the Sharp Things have been releasing a series of albums mostly on the loose chamber-pop model, but accented by forays into other styles, making the band’s output a treasure trove for listeners whose tastes run to thoughtful composition and big-sound acoustics.

When Serpa found himself in the middle of a songwriting blitz around 2009, during which he composed close to 40 songs, he decided to hustle the music onto tape without worrying too much about how it would eventually see release. Serpa recorded those tracks with the rotating roster of members the Sharp Things had come to enjoy throughout its decade-long history. A loose album series titled The Dogs Of Bushwick, drawn from those sessions, began to see release in 2013 on two records, Green Is Good and The Truth Is Like The Sun. Now comes the third, Adventurer’s Inn, its title taken from a bygone amusement park Serpa and Gonzalez used to frequent as kids in their shared hometown of Flushing.

“It’s a short, sharp part of a very self-indulgent whole,” says Serpa. “Almost a mini-LP, really good for those with attention-deficit disorder. We bounce around genres a lot, and on this record, we found ourselves pushing the sides out a lot further.”

True enough. In fact, Adventurer’s Inn may be the shortest release in the series to date, but it’s the most freewheeling, aesthetically. “The Libertine” is a punchy, punkish workout, complete with distorted vocals; “All But These Beautiful Faces” mines a Summer Of Love-era Beatles vein; and the irresistible “Don’t Trust That Girl” is a flatly gorgeous Burt Bacharach-style swooner. Song by song, diverse as the collection is, each song is a standalone knockout. It’s a record for listeners who, like Serpa and Gonzalez, grew up loving all kinds of music shamelessly and indiscriminately.

Adventurer’s Inn is also an understandably bittersweet listen for the Sharp Things these days: Gonzalez passed away this year on September 11, after a lifetime battling the effects of cystic fibrosis. Gonzalez’s drumming anchors Adventurer’s Inn, as it will be the final installment in the series, due next year.

“Steve was my best friend and brother for 40 years,” says Serpa. “We grew up together. I remember him carrying all 18 pieces of his drum kit into my mother’s living room when we were 14, 15 years old. We actually played some shows as a duo before anyone else joined the Sharp Things.”

The band, as Serpa remembers it now, actually grew as a reaction to both of them sensing that they wanted to expand their scope as neophyte musicians. “That was certainly true for me, as a songwriter,” he says. “And Steve totally understood me as a songwriter. He just completely got me, all the time. It’s hard to lose him, first and foremost as a friend, but also as part of the heart and soul of this band.”

That soul is the most evident element on Adventurer’s Inn, the consistent element that binds its assorted songs. And as with the best soul, the sadness is laced with necessary humor. The final installment in the Bushwick series, Serpa hints cheekily, will be “a classic sort of Abbey Road side-two mash-up, with a big orchestral finish. Maybe with a ‘Revolution 9’ sound collage in there somewhere.”

—Eric Waggoner

“Union Chapel” (download):

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Horse Feathers: This Ain’t A Scene

HorseFeathers

Rootsy folkies Horse Feathers open their arms to shrug off Portland hype

I’ll let you in on a little secret. For those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, Portlandia is less a sketch comedy show than it is a documentary. All of us have met Portlandia characters in real-life, but the true Portlandians—the people who were there before the show and will be there after it’s forgotten—have little patience for the way the mainstream has come to embrace Portland’s culture. It’s just a quick interview, but I can feel Justin Ringle, of Portland indie roots band Horse Feathers, bristle when I ask him how he feels about Portland getting discovered.

“Portland was actually ‘discovered’ quite a while ago,” he says. “In the early 2000s by a bunch of people who were bringing some type of culture with them, as well as a DIY ethic and a healthy interest in community. Now that Portland has been ‘discovered’ by mainstream America, the rent is going up and the people who were contributing to the greatness of the place are starting to leave, only to be replaced by a glut of condos and cookie-cutter subway-tiled gastropubs with a ‘Northwest rustic chic.’ I personally feel that the new wave of folks coming here are doing so to just consume with little regard to truly being part of the city. How could they take anything here seriously at this point anyhow now that we have been completely stereo-typified?”

I know Ringle will hate me for starting off this article with a Portlandia mention, but it’s all there on Horse Feathers’ new album, So It Is With Us: the rustic folk influences, the new album recorded in a barn, the shimmery ’70s country vibe, the hardcore indie record label (Kill Rock Stars), the large, wide-ranging band of multi-instrumentalists. Everything about this album screams Portland. But this is Portland growing up. This is an artist tired of being pigeonholed, and comfortable enough in his own skin that he wanted to make something different.

“The greatest thing about this record was that we enjoyed it,” says Ringle. “We laughed a lot. Can’t say that was as much a part of my previous efforts.”

That’s why So It Is With Us sounds so different from Horse Feathers’ prior albums. Whereas before Ringle was all insider whisper-folk with his hushed vocals, poetic lyrics and complex string arrangements, now he’s making music that reaches out, that seeks to communicate something beautiful and joyous. The songs on So It Is With Us sound more like actual songs, with verses, choruses, group harmonies and loping melodies, all of which envelope his rich vocals as tightly as a Northwestern forest.

As Ringle explains, “What’s funny is that on this record I thought of the words more as lyrics for the first time, which was a little freeing. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the galaxies of lyrics versus poems … I haven’t come to any conclusions on the topic except that I consistently confuse the two.”

With So It Is With Us, Horse Feathers have perfected the delicate balance between traditional songwriting and poetic references, crafting their most accessible album to date. Here’s hoping this is the new sound of the Pacific Northwest.

—Devon Leger

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The Moon Is A Lightbulb Breaking: In Memory Of Elliott Smith

This was originally posted Oct. 27, 2003.

R.I.P. Elliott Smith (Aug. 6, 1969 – Oct. 21, 2003)

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Like Elliott Smith—as big a Beatles fan as there probably ever was—I never met John Lennon. I saw Nirvana as many times as most people of my relative age and musical proclivities (maybe even a few more, since I was practically in their backyard when the band and grunge “broke”), but Kurt Cobain was always more of a generational icon to me than any kind of tangible presence. I was living in New York when Jeff Buckley emerged fully formed from his residency at Sin-e to go on to critical acclaim and superstardom. But standing several rows back from the stage in a Manhattan nightclub was as close as I ever got to him.

Elliott Smith, on the other hand, was decidedly real to me. Human. Humble. Flawed. Generous. Opinionated. Fragile. He was all of these things (and a good deal more) to countless others as well.

I had the good fortune to meet Elliott on a couple of occasions and saw him lurking around Portland on many others. His preferred mode of operation was stealth; to be out and doing his thing, but silently—trying his damnedest not to draw attention to himself (hence the knit hat, the mangled trucker cap; camouflage devices that shielded his face from prying eyes). Sometimes this even seemed to be true when he took the stage and sat down in his omnipresent chair to play his songs of quiet desperation, inner struggle and (ultimately) the futile hope that things would eventually get turned around. He’d literally try to disappear before your eyes—mumbling something like, “Hi,” fumbling with whatever passed for the set list that night (he’d deviate from it anyway when he forgot the words to a song midway through), lighting up a cigarette and playing as though he was holed up in his living room, strumming and humming only to himself. Just when it seemed any remaining barriers between Elliott and his audience had been completely erased, overwhelming applause would erupt, requests would be shouted out and Elliott would look embarrassed, shift uncomfortably in his seat and move as quickly through the evening’s task as possible.

It was this utter lack of pretense—and the palpable undercurrent of truth that made Elliott’s music so real to so many people—that converted me to an unabashed fan of the man and his music. A secret to be shared with those you trusted, the ones you loved.

Elliott is gone now.

It was his choice, but this knowledge doesn’t make it any less devastating, and I still can’t shake the feeling it all could have turned out so differently for him. The details of how it purportedly happened are awful and terrifying, and the violence of his final act stands as a symbol of the contradictions so evident in his music: songs characterized by beautiful, intricate melodies that nearly (but not quite) masked some of the most brutal, unvarnished emotions and raw truth-telling of the past several decades.

These opposite impulses are what made Elliott so fascinating as an artist, and so conflicted and complicated as a human being. His music, a mixture of beauty and brutality; his personality, fraught with impulses to both create and to destroy; his simultaneous desire to be both in the background but to have the opportunity to fulfill the talent that would render this wish impossible to grant. In the end, he knew no other trade but to put his very personal observations on display in a very public place. It is the space between that Elliott explored, and the tug-of-war between these sparring catalysts that he spent his life attempting to reconcile.

Comedienne Margaret Cho wrote a blog entry this week that began “What is heaven like, Elliott Smith?” It went on to tearfully ponder some of the same puzzles that Elliott could be counted upon to ruminate over so thoughtfully in song: Is sadness a religion? Is love really all you need? Can someone be too beautiful on the inside to survive their painful existence here on earth? If I can see you, does that mean you can see me? After you’re gone, does the hurt finally subside? Universal questions. And in Elliott’s specific case, all unanswerable now.

Tonight marked Portland’s memorial for Elliott. It was originally to be held outside of Jackpot! Studios—the do-it-yourself recording kingdom managed by Elliott’s friend and frequent engineer Larry Crane and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme, who were in sessions at the time and requested that it be held elsewhere—but eventually migrated to a block between Division and Elliott streets, a bohemian pocket of the city featuring a wall with a Warholian banana illustration and a sign insisting that “Art Fills The Void” (eerie, but ultimately misleading and on this evening, nakedly false). The impromptu event was organized by e-mail—Elliott’s unofficial fan site provided the chatboard that organizers used to generate word of mouth—and was attended by well more than a hundred people throughout the evening, at points resembling one of Elliott’s early shows as mourners and well-wishers sat in front of the wall and offered encouragement to those brave enough to bring a guitar and try their hand at a version of “(I’m) Already Somebody’s Baby,” “Happiness” and “The Biggest Lie.” The same tragic scene has been replicated in city after city since Elliott’s passing—the wall was plastered with photos of Elliott, a line of votive candles throwing flames against the images (including a large one with an old set list wrapped around it), while flowers, poems, various Elliott seven-inch releases, a pumpkin with “XO” carved into its face, a pile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and other flotsam and jetsam were lined up like weary soldiers presenting themselves for inspection. Cameras clicked; videocams whirred; and utter silence, interrupted by occasional sniffling and whispering, prevailed.

And, of course, the graffiti on the wall: “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.”

As has been widely written about in the days following his suicide, Elliott moved to Portland during his high school years and returned again after graduating from Hampshire College in Massachusetts before eventually relocating to Brooklyn and then to L.A. in the latter half of the ‘90s. His time in the city coincided with a vibrant period for Portland music—the local scene was a collaborative, family-like affair (it was unusual to hear of a musician who didn’t play in at least two bands) and Elliott’s down-at-the-heels sensibility and penchant for unflinching honesty neatly meshed with the vibe that permeated Stumptown’s loosely knit tribal culture. His association with Heatmiser may have flamed out during this era, but other artists such as Quasi, Pete Krebs and the Dandy Warhols all flourished in this environment and helped put Portland on the indie-rock map. Elliott emerged from this time at the vanguard of a movement, and whether he recognized it or not was destined to become one of the voices of his generation.

Our city’s stamp is unmistakably present on Elliott’s musical output. When Elliott sings about “falling out, Sixth and Powell, dead sweat in my teeth” on “Needle In The Hay,” he’s talking about a very specific location with a particular reference point for those who know anything about the city’s underground drug trade. When he needles an acquaintance who “walks down Alameda” shuffling a deck of trick cards, this is as tangible and knowable an entity as most Portlanders can conjure. The city’s annual Rose Parade was immortalized on Elliott’s song of the same name, made indelible by a rare moment of levity: a (incorrect, as it so happens) smirking reference to the “Duracell Bunny.” “Punch And Judy” gives a shout out to the very street where Elliott’s memorial was held.

There are scads of other secret references that, to Portlanders, aren’t secret at all. They form the basis of our bond with Elliott, our shared understanding of the man and what he was struggling to communicate through his music. They are what make him “ours.” This week, I have felt this bond more strongly then at any time during my decade-long relationship with Elliott’s music. There are moments I’ve shared with him that I will never be able to forget as long as I live, and I’ve relived a number of them lately.

Some of his songs are just too hard to listen to right now. I put on “The White Lady Loves You More” yesterday and skipped ahead as soon as I heard him whisper/sing “keep your things in a place meant to hide.” I was never a particularly big fan of “Miss Misery” when he was alive, and now it’s one of my favorite songs—but one that’s too damn fragile to listen to. And “Say Yes”—perhaps my most revered Elliott Smith composition—is part of an entire record (Either/Or) that is the emotional equivalent of putting your hand in the fire just to see if it will hurt. Shit was always breaking in Elliott’s songs—hearts, lightbulbs, promises, relationships—and just as surely as a window shatters when a brick is thrown through it, listening to Either/Or is like the inevitable end of that film we all watched in high-school driver’s ed class: When the car runs full speed through the railway stop, it always implodes against the train in a shower of glass, metal and human fragments. This is the sum of what remains after listening to Either/Or. And I’m just not up to it right now.

Years ago, I attended one of Elliott’s many shows at La Luna, a long-since-defunct club that was previously known as the Pine Street Theatre (site of a particularly nasty incident involving the Replacements and a couch thrown through a window to the ground floor; the shambolic show that followed is what inspired the group to write “Sorry Portland” on the outgroove of Don’t Tell A Soul). He came out late, the rather smallish environs packed with as many as could be seated on the floor and proceeded to play one of the most amazing sets I’d seen from anyone at any time. A friend of mine from Chicago who’d never seen him before was stunned into near-complete silence by the brilliance of that night’s performance, with Elliott taking requests from the floor and flying through flawless covers of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” the Kinks’ “Set Me Free” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (the latter of which he dedicated to his father, who attended the show and stood around afterward hugging his son like any dad would; a proud and awkward, but nevertheless genuinely affectionate, embrace).

Elliott could be as cynical and cutting as Dylan, possessed an ear for melody and an eye for detail on par with Paul Simon (but without any of the latter’s maudlin, sentimental tendencies) and could craft a three-minute story equal to that of the masters of the form (Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson, Alex Chilton). He took a previously braindead genre—the clichéd terrain of the singer/songwriter—and made it entirely his own. Relevant. Alive. “Punk” (if that’s at all possible).
As I write this, I’m going through a pile of bootleg tapes on my floor and thumbing through another stack of seven-inch singles, smiling at some of the memories they bring, cringing at others. One split release recorded with Pete Krebs features some playful insert photography of Elliott and Pete trying on comically giant animal masks. A tape features a cover of the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired” that is as world-weary and final as anything Lennon himself could have mustered. As ever with Elliott, each memento brings with it a flood of both happiness and sorrow.

I’m remembering one particular Satyricon show (sold out, with a huge line around the corner of a club that was located in what can only be described as one of Portland’s more active sites for drug dealing and prostitution) in which an extremely sloppy Elliott came out and stumbled through versions of “Chelsea Girls” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” I saw him later that night with local friends who were buying him round after round of drinks, and this is possibly the first time I can consciously remember thinking that his chosen musical persona and real-time experience were flying too close together for comfort; when I started thinking that a guy who wrote lines such as “I’m a junkyard full of false starts” or “I’m damaged bad at best” might not be built to survive the rigors of an industry that knowingly puts its workforce directly in the path of multiple oncoming trains.

A friend e-mailed me this week with the news, referencing the piece I wrote about Elliott in the last issue of MAGNET as her wake-up call about Elliott’s struggle to quell his demons. She called it “the truth no one else was writing,” but I was much less sanguine about the story; I fretted all week about how candid I’d been about Elliott’s struggle with drugs, his fragile mental state and generally regretted that I’d ever written it to begin with. It’s the kind of story that no one wants to be right about, for there is no reward in being an accurate forecaster of ill. Most of all, over the 10 years that have elapsed since I first saw Elliott at a tiny local club called Umbra Penumbra, I’ve been privately willing him (as I suspect many were, friends and fans alike) to pull out of his self-imposed death spiral and swim like hell for shore. That he didn’t make it is both heartbreaking and in some ways inevitable.

Elliott once sang of the search for meaning as trying “to go to where it led, but it didn’t lead to anything,” and ultimately this line captures where the rest of us are left now: with a bag full of clues that don’t particularly add up to anything. He had a new (reportedly, double-length) album—From A Basement On The Hill—that was nearly mixed and ready to go. He had granted a recent interview indicating a newfound willingness to tackle his addiction problems head-on (indeed, he said he had completed a somewhat radical form of rehab in order to try to rid his blood of the toxins associated with alcoholism). He was in a relationship. His career, after a nearly two-year timeout due to drug abuse, was tilting once again in a positive direction. But none of this was enough to ward off the self-destructive urges that plagued him.

I wish … I wish … I wish.

I wish to hell Elliott was still here. I wish I could tell him how much his music meant to me, to others I had shared it with. I wish that he had picked up the phone and called someone, anyone, before he did what he did. I wish he could’ve seen the kid tonight who haltingly sang “Happiness” through tears. I’m pissed as hell there’s nothing any of us can do about it now. I’m angry. I’m heartbroken. I’m struck dumb whenever I hear “Tomorrow Tomorrow.” I don’t know how the fuck to feel or what to do with the monsoon of emotions I’m processing.

Elliott was a sweet, vulnerable soul who possessed gifts that are seldom seen and even more rarely realized. I am at a loss to even begin to describe the importance of Elliott’s music and how it made me feel to hear it.

And now, he’s gone.

I rue the cruel fact that no more Elliott Smith music will ever be created. As Johnny Rotten once spat, I feel like I’ve been cheated. But—like everyone else who drew comfort or ease or some kind of relief from hearing Elliott touch on the same sort of emotional entanglements they were feeling during a low moment—I need to move on somehow.

So I guess this is goodbye, Elliott. I better be quiet now.

—Corey duBrowa

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Delta Spirit: Give Them Your Tired

DeltaSpirit

The outspoken folk rockers in Delta Spirit speak up for the underprivileged

“I feel that I was born to scream into a microphone,” says Delta Spirit guitarist/vocalist Matt Vasquez. “We love to play loud, and from the start, we wanted to get into that American folk groove. This country has a tradition of people speaking their minds and questioning the way things are. There’s always been a feeling of ‘the haves’ against the ‘have nots.’ It’s a situation that’s as old as time, and one we have to deal with today. When you’re a little kid, you’re told to play fair, but as you grow up, you see that the world obviously isn’t fair. You can’t ignore that, and it’s easier to be an idealist in a song than it is in real life, so we write songs about what we think is right and just.”

The band’s new album, Into The Wide (Dualtone), is full of anti-war and pro-working-class songs, steeped in literary and biblical images that will make them resonate with almost any listener. The music is deep and moody, playing off the sound of chiming rock guitars, driving rhythms and anthemic vocals against a thick wall of dark, almost industrial noise.

“We spent a year confined in our Brooklyn studio, a claustrophobic recording and rehearsal space we built ourselves,” says Vasquez. “We were in our own world, and the songs took on the feeling of a person trapped in an urban setting and longing for the freedom symbolized by nature—or, in our case, touring. We wanted to capture the feeling of being confined, knowing it’s always possible to break loose, but in the process we got a little insane. Then we went to Atlanta to record with Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Belle & Sebastian) in a studio with big windows and a lot of natural light. The stress lifted off of us, and we were able to bring some sunshine into the songs.”

The band had more than 50 tracks demoed, but eventually pared the list down to the 11 tunes that appear on the album. The songs paint pictures of the disenfranchised, disillusioned and downcast citizens of our country, folks struggling to get by, but still maintaining their faith in the promises of the American dream.

“We decided we wanted to be more folk and less pop this time around,” says Vasquez. “There are no singles, and everything is introspective. We feel a connection to the story songs and murder ballads of traditional folk, but we want to write songs about this century, using the sounds of today to make them resonate with people. Some of those traditional ballads say more in three minutes than most writers can say in a novel. When you hear them, your imagination takes the place of all the prose. It may be a lofty aspiration, but those are the kind of songs we want to write. We want to make people think without telling them what they should think.”

—j. poet

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The Hold Steady: Ten Years After

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

HoldSteady

After a decade of cheap beer, positive jams and killer parties, there’s blood on the carpet, mud on the mattress. MAGNET goes to Brooklandia to watch the Hold Steady sleep it off and wake up with that American sadness. By Jonathan Valania

When Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn was growing up in suburban Minneapolis in the shag-carpeted ’70s, there was nothing musical about the Finn family. Nothing at all. Nobody played an instrument. Nobody played records on the stereo. They did not even sing show tunes on long car rides.

But when Finn was eight years old, Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham choked to death on his own vomit, and that’s when a young boy discovered the awesome, mood-altering, life-changing power of rock ‘n’ roll. Up until this point, he’d thought of rock ‘n’ roll as nothing more than the interstitial music between the zany capers and wacky hijinks on The Monkees and The Bay City Rollers Show. But judging by the trail of tears running down the apple-hued cheeks of his babysitter—a pretty neighborhood teen he had a secret crush on—this was an Important Cultural Moment, right up there with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination. His babysitter made him listen to Led Zeppelin A-Z that day, and there would be no turning back. One day, he vowed, with God as his witness, he would make pretty girls cry when he died. This remains a work in progress.

This year, Finn turns 43, and the Hold Steady turns 10. (Technically 11, but who’s counting?) The kids at their shows now have kids of their own, as the song goes. On March 25, the Hold Steady released Teeth Dreams, its sixth studio album. (The band also boasts six EPs and a live LP.) If the Hold Steady was the Replacements, this would be its Don’t Tell A Soul.

It’s been four years since the Hold Steady released an album, which is something like 16 in rock ‘n’ roll years. Entire presidencies, college sports careers and World Wars come and go in the span of four years. In that time, the Hold Steady came closer to ceasing to exist than anyone in the band cares to admit out loud. Ego, exhaustion, addiction and communication breakdown—the great hunger-makers of rock ‘n’ roll’s infamously insatiable appetite for self-destruction—have left their scars, as they invariably do to bands around the six-album mark. Which only goes to show that there is always a crack where the darkness gets in, and even a critically acclaimed band that has waved the flag of positivity highly and mightily is not immune to private despair.

Fortunately, the members, all at or nearing 40-something, were mature and self-aware enough to recognize the warning signs and course-correct before it was too late. So, they took some time off. Finn started working on a novel, then flew to Austin and recorded a well-received solo album, which he toured on for a year. Guitarist/primary songwriter Tad Kubler got clean. Drummer Bobby Drake bought a bar in Brooklyn with Spoon’s Rob Pope. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay took his leave and was replaced by noted six-string shredder Steve Selvidge. (The latter is the son of late, great folk singer/recordist/indie-label pioneer Sid Selvidge, a pillar of the Memphis music scene for five decades who will be remembered for, if nothing else, having the sheer balls to release Alex Chilton’s Like Flies On Sherbert, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s all-time great hot messes.) They got new management, a new label, a new producer and a whole new attitude—more heart, less cowbell. And unto the world a new Hold Steady album was born.

***

It’s 3 p.m. on a yet another colder-than-a-witch’s-tit late-winter afternoon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Craig Finn is nursing a seltzer and lime at a back table at Lake Street Bar, an old-man dive short on old men and long on beardo Brooklandians getting a head start on tonight. Finn asked to meet here because he knows the owner—Hold Steady drummer Bobby Drake, who is presently restocking the bar in preparation for the coming happy-hour onslaught—and, as the song goes, the drinks are cheap and they leave you alone.

He’s a little bummed at the moment. His friend Oscar Isaac didn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his indelible portrayal of Llewyn Davis in the latest Coen brothers film. “I think he got screwed,” says Finn emphatically. “He was mind-blowing.”

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Norah Jones: The Devil In Miss Jones

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

NorahJones

Meet the new Norah Jones. The Norah Jones for people who think they don’t like Norah Jones. She just might have made the album of the year. Who says nice girls always finish last? By Jonathan Valania

Lazy Sunday morning coming down. You are awakened by the sunshine streaming through the open windows and the sound of the Brooklyn streets outside coming alive. Oddly, Danger Mouse is lying next to you, on his back, looking up at the ceiling, languidly strumming an elegiac guitar. He acts like you aren’t there. If you listen closely, you can hear a tinkling, Eno-esque piano arpeggio out of the corner of your ear. It sounds—and, more importantly, feels—like raindrops falling on your head.

You roll over and there’s Norah Jones—beautiful, kind, classy incarnate Norah Jones—her little hands plinking the keys of a toy piano. Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, you think to yourself, absently quoting e.e. cummings. Oddly, she seems to have cut her hair since you went to sleep last night, but she somehow looks even more beautiful shorn of her trademark long inky locks, which is strange because you always prefer long hair. Always. She gives you that pensive, other-shoe-about-to-drop look that spells trouble, or that unexpected change has already become operational. You hate change. She starts singing, “Good morning/My thoughts on leaving/Are back on the table/I thought you should know,” like you’re in one of those musicals where all the dialogue is sung instead of spoken. It is at this moment that you are reminded why you hate musicals.

Welcome to beginning of …Little Broken Hearts (Blue Note), which, despite the fact that it’s a down-the-middle collaboration with Danger Mouse, is credited as the fifth and latest album by Norah Jones, the Lady Madonna of modern MOR. It is easily her best album to date; it is also a fairly radical departure from everything that precedes it, a heart-shaped-box sampler of poison pills and bloody valentines, pop noir shot through with magic and loss, spooky-sexy analog keyboard textures, echoic vocal washes and tremolo power chords, knotty krautrock bass lines and the shimmering jangle of guitars. It is, in fact, such a complete break from her past that it may well cost her as many old fans as it gains new ones. Not that’s she’s sweating it. She’s used to having millions of people who she’s never met making snap judgments about her, some in the name of love, others not so much. Such is life in the business that is show.

If you are not among the 27 million global villagers who bought Jones’ Grammy-sweeping 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, and made it the biggest-selling album of the last decade, or, for that matter, Feels Like Home and Not Too Late, the two LPs that came after and pretty much pick up where the first left off, or the last one, 2009’s The Fall, which doesn’t so much and instead hints at the adept pop stylist she has become, well, you probably have your reasons. Presumably among them are:

1. You Wouldn’t Want To Be A Member Of Any Norah Jones Fan Club That Would Have You
It’s not so much the music you can’t stand, it’s the crowd it draws. Lots of balding graybeards with ponytails who still think pressed jeans and a blazer is sticking it to the man. Smug jazzbos who put on Pat Metheny when they are in the mood to fuck shit up. Tweedy Lebowskian dinner-party bores with pierced ears and patched elbows who drink too much and stay too long. Turtlenecked wine-bar Romeos and Birkenstocked fern herders. Plus, your parents like her, and the day you and your parents agree on music is the day you officially become O-L-D.

2. You Are Still Reeling From Some Tragedy In Which Norah Jones’ Music Played A Pivotal Role
Some smug yuppie assclown ran over your puppy/kitten/wheelchair-bound little brother while screaming unto distraction into his Bluetooth at his stockbroker behind the wheel of his Hummer, windows down and blasting Come Away With Me, and he didn’t even bother to stop.

3. It’s Not Your Fault, It’s Hers
It’s nothing personal, but you just simply can’t abide her amalgam of Starbuckian jazziness, tastefully muted country lilt and the smoky after-hours torch-singer balladeering. “Should be called Snorah Jones,” you have been known to say in your saltier moments.

Well, you won’t have Norah Jones to kick around anymore. At least not that Norah Jones. The old Norah Jones is dead, long live the new Norah Jones. Truth be told, the new Norah Jones looks a lot like the old Norah Jones, but with shorter hair and higher hemlines. The new Norah Jones makes kitschy panoramic odes to the inglorious bastards of Sergio Leone spaghetti-Westerns with Jack White and Danger Mouse. She takes album-cover-art design cues from Russ Meyer movies, wherein beautiful-but-deadly double-D glamazons body slam sniveling creeps into submission with feral hell-hath-no-fury fierceness. The new Norah Jones writes murder ballads, vowing homicidal retribution against the fairer-sex co-conspirator in her lover’s deal-breaking infidelity. Message: I will cut you, bitch.

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