Category Archives: FEATURES

Allison Moorer: Blunt Force Honesty

AllisonMoorer

Allison Moorer uses creative compulsions to come to terms with divorce

When she was younger, alt-country warbler Allison Moorer used to believe that she wanted an intellectual existence, a life of the mind. But now, at 42, she sighs, “What I’ve realized that I have is a life of the hands—I’m always just making something, or I’m writing or drawing something, because it makes me feel connected; it makes me feel real. It’s the same way with music—I just want to make it.” Hence, the singer’s latest ambitious set, Down To Believing, which documents her recent split from her husband, Steve Earle, and—on the bluesy apology “Mama Let The Wolf In”—even the motherly guilt she felt when their son John Henry, now four, was diagnosed with autism two years ago. “It’s pretty brutal,” she assesses of the autobiographical disc.

Which is why the singer—who, along with her singer/songwriter sister Shelby Lynne, suffered their parents’ murder/suicide as kids back in ’86—has been finding peace of mind in an unusual artsy-craftsy outlet lately: Along with Rosanne Cash and several other well-heeled ladies, she’s part of an actual sewing circle that the women all jokingly refer to as the Stitch-and-Bitch. They try to meet every couple of weeks at one of their New York apartments, with tasty snacks on hand, and the latest patterns from noted seamstress Natalie Chanin’s DIY company, Alabama Chanin. “We only get two or three hours, and we’ll do it on a weekday afternoon,” says Moorer. “But we will sit and sew and talk about our lives, and have sisterhood and friendship. It’s one of my favorite things in my life.”

For Moorer, the tradition first started in Scotland four years ago, when she bumped into Cash backstage at a Celtic festival. “Rosanne and I were only acquainted, not really friends at that point,” she says. “But I was wearing an Alabama Chanin outfit that I had made, so Rosanne asked me, ‘Are you wearing an actual Alabama Chanin?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! Natalie’s my friend, and I make her kits.’ So, we made a plan to get together and sew not too long after that.” The kits stress one thing—everything must be hand-stitched, with no sewing machine involved. “It’s all organic, quite a beautiful process, and I think it keeps us all grounded,” she says.

Every last note of Down To Believing was constructed the same way—painstakingly, lovingly, with an eye for the smallest detail. It opens with the deceptively chiming “Like It Used To Be,” which mourns her relationship’s passing with a growling chorus of “Don’t wanna say goodbye, but it’ll set me free/It ain’t ever gonna be like it used to be.” Inclement weather is also used to signal encroaching trouble (tempestuous, guitar-squall ballad “Thunderstorm Hurricane,” and a cover of CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?”), as is plain puzzlement (“Tear Me Apart,” “If I Were Stronger”). But ultimately, Moorer settles on forgiveness, cleaning every last trace of her ex out of their residence with celebratory stomper “I’m Doing Fine.” “I think this is the most free record I’ve ever made,” she says. “I just didn’t give a damn about where it landed, who liked it—I just made it. And I had no dude hanging over my shoulder, telling me what to do. And I think that shows.”

On Earle’s new effort Terraplane Blues, there’s a telling track called “Better Off Alone,” wherein he drawls, “Though I taught you everything you know/I learned a thing or two myself/And so I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone/I’m better off alone.” Given that Moorer was Wife Number Seven for the artist, are these lyrics a bit of blame-shouldering? She pauses. “Well, he’s never said that to me,” she says. “But you know, here’s the thing—I really don’t have anything but good to say about Steve. And he didn’t teach me everything, but he did teach me a lot, and in fact, I taught him some things, too. And we have a beautiful son that we work very hard to take care of together, so that’s our ground zero. So, I don’t regret our relationship. I really don’t. And as far as his wives go? Hey—I do hold the record. We were together for seven years!”

—Tom Lanham

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Exclusive Excerpt: Death Cab For Cutie Interviewed By Dave Eggers

DCFC

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

A lot has happened to Death Cab For Cutie since its last album. Frontman Ben Gibbard famously got divorced from Zooey Deschanel. Founding member and producer Chris Walla left the band. Yet, with the new Kintsugi, Death Cab might have made the best record of its 17-year career. MAGNET asked acclaimed writer (and longtime DCFC fan) Dave Eggers to interview the trio for us.

Interviewing the members of Death Cab For Cutie is one of the easier tasks available to humankind. As you can see below, I think I asked 10 questions, and somehow this interview went on for an hour and ended up almost 6,000 words long. At this point, the members of Death Cab, who have been making music under that name for about 17 years, know themselves and their work, and are eloquent, circumspect and grateful all at once. They’re grateful that they get to do this for a living, and grateful for all their years with Chris Walla, who recently left the band, but remains their friend, and whose influence—in the studio and out—helped shape the band’s inimitable sound. Death Cab’s new album, Kintsugi, is their eighth, and very well might be their best. It’s their most mature, and its lyrics are arguably their most poignant and lacerating. This is a band in its prime, which has managed to make a great new record despite—and maybe because of—various personal upheavals and departures. What Ben Gibbard, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr have to say about the process of creation, and the undiminished joy of making music going on 20 years, is edifying to anyone and all. —Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers: At this point, are you able to listen to the new album from a safe distance, to enjoy it? Or are you still too close to it?
Ben Gibbard:
I always feel the most secure in the work in the period between when it’s finished and when someone that’s not a family member or close friend hears it. For us, there was a four-or-five-month period where I could just put the record on and listen to it and be proud of it without any kind of prejudice. I think my favorite time is that period after you finish it, before people hear it, when it’s truly just yours.

Eggers: Are there listeners outside of the band who are key at the early stages of an album? Someone you play it for to know if you’re onto something?
Nick Harmer:
A short answer is yes, but the longer answer for me, which was unique in this particular case for us, was that this album was the first album that we worked on with an outside producer, Rich Costey. And you know, he was pretty uncompromising in his feedback along the way. I began to trust him with all sorts of stuff, like the quality and just how things were turning out. More than ever, his objective perspective was something I could really depend on because he didn’t have years of history with the band. He was hearing things in real time and was able to sort of critique us and push us along the way. I feel like bands are a little fortunate in some ways that we have someone in the studio, like Rich, who can really nudge us along right in the middle of things, even before it gets to us playing for people. If we were passing his test and he was excited about something, then I felt like, “Oh, it certainly is going to work if we play for people outside of that check point.”
Gibbard: With every record that we’ve made for years, the first person I send it to is Jenny Lewis. We’ve been friends for a long time and, I mean, it seems like we’re always playing each other our songs as we’re working on them or they’re in demo form. We’ll drive around together and say, “Hey, check this out. What do you think?” And she’s always been a supportive, but at times brutally honest, voice. I’ve always trusted her to give me the straight scoop on whatever the thing I’m working on is. Maybe the label or maybe even Jason or Nick don’t want to hear this, but I sent her the record like three days after I got the masters, you know? And obviously she’s trustworthy. [Laughs] It’s not going to end up being leaked from Jenny Lewis’ email account. But I’ve always felt like the first person I’ve wanted to listen to my records is Jenny. I want to know what she’s thinking.

Eggers: What made Rich Costey the right guy to produce the album?
Gibbard:
We had kind of reached out to a number of people, and because this was the first record that Chris wasn’t producing, you know, we all felt like Chris was happy with the torch as producer, but it was going to be imperative to find somebody that he felt good about. No slight to Chris, but it’s fairly logical that if somebody has been at the helm for 17 years, and then you bring in somebody new, that person has to be somebody who is at bare minimum respected by the person who has been in charge of the studio for the past 17 years. So, Rich was somebody who Chris had had a number of good conversations with before we started the record, and he was like, “I think this guy is pretty good. I think this guy is the guy.” Rich had that going for him before we even met him, but then we met him and kind of immediately related to him. I think the thing that I appreciated most about him immediately was that he had a little trepidation at starting the project because he knew what was at stake. He knew that he was the first outside producer to work with this band, but also he was like, “Look, if I start this record, I’m going to see it through to the end. I don’t want to bail. I’m not going to just give half of myself. I’m going to give it my all.” And we all appreciated that, and we appreciated the trepidation more than we would appreciate someone jumping up and down saying they want to do it. So, he really had that going for him from the beginning.

Eggers: Inevitably, we have to talk about how the songwriting and recording process was different without Chris.
Gibbard:
Well, Chris was in the studio. We made this record with Chris, and him saying that he would be leaving the band after the record was something that wasn’t a giant shock to us. I think that we had all assumed in our own way that this would be a conversation we would have at some point. Because Chris always identified primarily as the producer and also as a band member. He identified as a band member, but production has always been his number-one love, and what he has seen himself more as than a guitar player in a band. So, it was inevitable that we would come to this point. But I have to say, I think that Rich’s involvement in this record is the reason it turned out to be the way it did, and in my opinion, it’s certainly a record we are proud of. I think this as much because Rich was able to cut through all four of our ever-increasing piles of bullshit that we had kind of been adding to over the years. [Laughs] Chris got us to where we are today and I wouldn’t change a single note of any of that, but it is a very unusual way to work, to have the guitarist produce the records, and I think that once we had somebody else take over the helm, and he had nothing to lose or didn’t mind saying, “Hey that guitar part doesn’t work,” or, “Hey, those vocals don’t work.” He could come in completely objectively, with no history with the four of us. And certainly, you know, he’s not going to have to play these songs however many years the band continues on. That’s something I had never thought about until Rich was producing the record. It was like, “Yeah, Rich doesn’t have to play these songs,” so he only has to think about how they’ll sound on the album.

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Bob Schneider: Austin Limits

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Fourteen years removed from his major-label debut, Bob Schneider is still struggling to be heard. Does he care? You be the judge.

He claims it doesn’t bother him, but you can tell the Jack Johnson thing eats at him a little. Just a month after Johnson’s debut ambled its way into the waterlogged psyches of frat dudes everywhere, Bob Schneider’s Lonelyland was also released on Universal. Almost a decade and a half later, Johnson remains a top seller on the Universal roster. And Schneider, well …

“He got a hit and went on a trajectory that’s crazy, selling millions of records and playing stadiums—and I didn’t,” says Schneider from the back of the 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that’s home when he’s on the road. “For the past 10 years, I’ve been playing the same clubs and haven’t been able to break out of it … 85 percent of the gigs I play are in Texas. But it’s cool. I can do anything I want, and I make enough money to live comfortably. If I had the success of Jack Johnson, I’d have to do a lot of shit like this interview—which I never do anymore.”

It’s about an hour before a well-attended show at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. The performance will be loose, good-natured and ultimately a bit bizarre when the so-called “Philly All-Stars”—basically a guy, his wife and assorted friends—take the stage to serenade Schneider during an encore. “They showed up at (a Philly show) maybe eight or nine years ago,” he says. “They were dancing, and I pulled them onstage. They’ve been to every show since.”

So, here’s the deal: Schneider wasn’t raised on the Oahu’s North Shore; he’s never surfed Pipeline; and film school in Santa Barbara was never an option. Born in Ypsilanti, Mich., he was raised mostly in Germany, where his dad, an opera singer, struggled to eke out a career. He studied art for a while at the University of Texas at El Paso before settling in Austin, where he fronted punk-spiked groove outfit Joe Rockhea, and the sorta-similar mid-’90s band Ugly Americans.

There are similarities between Schneider and Johnson. The two share a rubbery, granular vocal delivery, rugged good looks, an ear for melodies that stick (for better or worse) and an acclivity for absurd song titles (Schneider: “Jingy,” “Capn Kirk,” “Penelope Cruz”; Johnson: “Bubble Toes,” “Banana Pancakes,” “Washing Dishes”). Both have kids. Schneider has a nine-year-old son from his first marriage, and he’s newly engaged. He once dated Sandra Bullock (prior to her disastrous run-in with Jesse James).

That relationship loosely coincided with the official launch of his solo career. At the Austin release party for Lonelyland, the men’s room was buzzing over numerous “Sandy sightings.” (I should know—I was there.) A clear-eyed Schneider, to his credit, refused to be consumed by the hype. Sober since 1995, he’d partied enough for two lifetimes by then. “It’s weird,” he recalls of that time. “It really doesn’t feel that much different now than it did then. It’s kind of like Groundhog Day. I’m still writing songs; I’m still putting out records; I’m still playing the same clubs and with a lot of the same guys—I’ve played with (bassist) Bruce (Hughes) for 20 years.”

Seven more proper solo albums have followed the promising Lonelyland. A good number are wildly inconsistent, and two (2011’s A Perfect Day and 2013’s Burden Of Proof) are pretty close to great. Most encouraging, for him and for us, is that Schneider, now 49, has made some of the most honest and sophisticated music of his career over the past few years. And his habit of larding his releases with throwaway tracks and goofball hokum has mostly gone by the wayside.

All that could change with his next project. For now, the plan is to release a series of EPs throughout 2015, with the first one coming this month. All will be limited editions, with cover art created by Schneider, who’s come a long way as painter in recent years.

“The thing that works best for me is to keep things really eclectic,” he says. “I just did a show in Austin where I played 12 hours, but with no bullshit. The set list was, like, 200 songs. It would’ve gone on for like six days if I’d played all of them. But then there would’ve been a couple days of some pretty mediocre tunes.”

The only album Schneider played in full: 2001’s Lonelyland.

Go figure.

—Hobart Rowland

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Butch Walker: Ghost Writers

ButchWalker

Butch Walker enlists Ryan Adams to augment his signature ambient folk metal

Butch Walker built his reputation with hard-hitting, self-produced rock albums marked by a bright, polished sound. When he set out to make Afraid Of Ghosts, an LP partially inspired by the death of his father, he decided to forget about perfection and aim for a more visceral, acoustic feel.

“I didn’t plan on making an album about my dad dying,” says Walker. “I don’t know if anyone would want to listen to my grief for an entire record, but the songs were all inspired by thoughts about life and death. We all know life has limitations and death is inevitable; then it happens and you have to deal with it. It’s easy to write about the girls and parties. It’s harder to talk about loss and missed connections.”

The songs on Afraid Of Ghosts were written over the course of a year, then recorded with Ryan Adams and his band in a four-day burst of creativity. It’s the first time Walker worked with an outside producer. “I wanted a quieter, natural sound for these songs,” he says. “I’m a different person than I was during my more aggressive 20s. I didn’t want the music to sound too thought-out or rehearsed.”

Walker likes to retain control in the studio and knew that turning over the reins to Adams might create friction, but he had faith in their collaboration. “I’ve been playing with Ryan and his band during our recent tour together, and it felt good to just grab a guitar and start singing,” he says. “If I did the same thing in the studio, I thought I might end up loving it. I knew I’d have to submit and not be a bullheaded asshole and fight to get everything my way, but if I went in with an open mind and let go, it might be a better record. Ryan said, ‘You can sing good and play good and write good, but the only way to make it sound like it’s not too good is to capture some of the mess,’ which is what he did.”

The band didn’t hear the songs they were going to record until Walker played them in the studio, so the arrangements were created on the fly, with ideas flowing freely between the players. The result is a bracing mix of acoustic guitar, ambient keyboard textures and rock-band distortion, all recorded onto a single tape machine. (The LP also features guest appearances by Johnny Depp and Bob Mould.)

“Everybody was miked the whole time, just like onstage,” says Walker. “We didn’t edit anything out or try to clean up tape hiss. We wanted to hear five guys in a room shuffling around, waiting for their parts to come up. We’d throw out a few ideas, then record, never more than one or two takes, and we never went back to listen to what we did. When we thought we got it in the moment, we moved on. I think we captured the real emotion of the songs, a combination of punk-rock spirit and human fragility.”

—j. poet

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“Symphonies For The Devil,” By The Pop Group’s Gareth Sager

PopGroup

The legendary Pop Group is releasing Citizen Zombie, its first album in more than three decades, later this month and is doing its first-ever U.S. tour in March. Guitarist Gareth Sager wrote this amazing essay for magnetmagazine.com. Enjoy.

Never mind … “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s “With God On Our Side,” Marley’s “Exodus,” the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” and ”Forces Of Oppression” by The Pop Group …

Long before these chants against evil oppressors were penned, deep in the bosom of the good folk of Europe and further afield, there were rallying calls to arms. Rallying calls or the basic blues moan of the servant against the master …

National anthems have become the stock soundtrack to events judged to be of national importance, a sort of aural wallpaper that is so familiar to us now that we’re in danger of overlooking what they really are.

And the point is this: National anthems are folk songs pure and simple, and not only that, folk songs that are bellowed out millions of lungs all over the world, with gusto, passion and an earnest commitment that most folk singers could only dream about.

Like all good folk culture, the national anthem is adaptable and co-opted to a multitude of ends: an out-of-tune sing a long before a football match or a call to revolution for the French with the “La Marseillaise.” In the 1970s and ’80s, “Amhran na bhFiann” became a test of subversion and loyalty for the Irish—anyone not standing when it was sung in the inevitable lock-in in London’s Irish pubs risked prompt defenestration.

National anthems are like barometers of the national mood. Forty years ago, refusing to stand in the cinema would have shocked people. By way of contrast, today’s young people are shocked to hear that the national anthem was played in cinemas at all.

Nevertheless a quick tour through some of my favourite anthems will show why their potency endures.

By anyone’s standards, the Welsh national anthem, “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadan” (or “Land Of My Fathers”), must be one of the most stirring songs ever written. But what of these lines in the third verse?

“If the enemy oppresses my camp under his foot,
The old language of the Welsh is alive as ever.
The muse is not hindered by the hideous hand of treason,
Nor is the melodious harp of my country.”

Or verse four of “La Marseillaise.”

“If they fall, our young heroes, the earth will produce new ones”

And the chorus.

“Let the impure blood water our furrows”

Freedom from oppression is one of the great common factors in national anthems, though in both these cases, the melodies also carry extraordinary power. The French anthem acts as a rallying call for the people to march to victory, while the Welsh anthem, written by a harp-playing innkeeper called James James, was designed to get his patrons up and dancing. Inviting people to get out of their heads and into their bodies is a crucial aspect in folk that tends to get lost. Even today, only a corpse could fail to be moved by the sound of 60,000 Welsh voices singing their national anthem before a rugby match.

The German national anthem is an interesting survivor. Today, only the third verse is sung, as the first verse was used by the Nazis. But prior to that, the “Deutschlandlied,” as it was known, was written with a clear view in mind. It originated with the Vormaz revolutionaries in 1848 whose clear aim was to unify Germany and overcome the anti-liberal Kleinstaaterei. Nico, one-time member of the Velvet Underground, performs a wonderful version, singing all the verses on her solo album The End, reclaiming the song for a new generation.

Ireland’s anthem, which translates as “The Soldier’s Song,” has this as the third verse:

“Shall we set the tyrant quaking,
Our camp fires now are burning low?
See in the east a silvery glow
Out yonder waits the Saxon foe.”

“Flower Of Scotland,” the most recent anthem to be introduced to Europe (and a terrible dirge if played too slow), contains these lines:

“When will we see your like again
That fought and died
For your wee bit of hill and glen
And stood against him
Proud Edward’s army
And sent him home
Tae think again.” 

In the third verse of the USA anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” we find the words: “Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

The lyrics for this anthem were written by an amateur poet after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by British ships in 1814. The tune was taken from a song called “Anacreon In Heaven” composed by an Englishman. However, I feel the theme of resistance comes across loud and proud.

Please note that the Jimi Hendrix version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” so often used as the mood music for the American meltdown caused by the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, the burning of Detroit, etc., became the USA’s unofficial anthem as the straight ’50s morphed into the burnt-out psychedelic ’60s. This version would certainly make it into my top three national anthems.

With the inspiration for many national anthems being English oppression, it is worth pointing out that “God Save the Queen,” lyrically and melodically, is one of the worst anthems in the world.

Here’s a sample of the lyrics first published in a “gentleman’s magazine” of 1745:

“Scatter her enemies, and make them fall,
Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks.”

Seldom heard these days, this lyric seems to be asking god to intervene on the side of the oppressor—rather than with the conquered—and one is tempted to say that this energy-sapping smugness infects the entire song, whether the verse is sung or not.

More honest perhaps to take a leaf out of the Led Zeppelin songbook:
“The hammer of the gods, will drive our ships to new lands/Valhalla we are coming!”

Perhaps we could learn something from the Vikings. My father—an Englishman—asserts that having to sing “God Save the Queen” before a sports match gives England’s opponents the clear advantage, the second the last note of this anthem is sung.

Being of the punk generation, I can say with some confidence that the Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen,” with Johnny Rotten’s “We mean it man“, seemed a mighty fine rewrite that spoke directly to dispirited youth across the UK.

Of course, in the age of self empowerment, everyone should get the chance to select their own anthem for any country.

Many Americans choose “Born in the USA” as a patriotic, contemporary alternative to the “Star Spangled Banner“, not recognizing the bitter irony of the lyrics. I would choose “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron, for a modern USA.

Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life’ sums up Scotland; Russia has to go with Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”; Australia should have Nick Cave’s “Stagger Lee”; England gets the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For The Devil”; and Wales and France can keep their existing anthems because as songs, as statements and as rallying calls, they cannot be beaten.

But whatever your choice, it is always important to remember one oft-overlooked tradition: Pay the musicians with whisky, and let them live in the gutter.

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The Dodos: Get Busy Living

Dodos

The Dodos aren’t shuffling off this mortal coil without expressing their individuality

In retrospect, Meric Long, who just turned 34, understands the spiritual significance of being 33, and how the so-called Christ Age will either reaffirm the career path you’ve chosen or gently prod you in the right direction if you’ve gone astray. Because the Dodos singer/guitarist has learned a great deal about himself—and the ebullient music he makes with powerhouse percussionist partner Logan Kroeber—over the past 12 months.

“Things have really opened up for me in the past year, and not giving a fuck anymore has been a big part of that,” says the Berkeley, Calif., resident. “Now I have the freedom to focus, to decide what I want to become, without having any outside pressure. And for me, that really feels like a push in the right direction.”

For five albums—starting with 2006’s Beware Of The Maniacs—there was always something playful, almost ephemeral about the Dodos, as if they might simply stop recording at any moment. But the duo just issued its crowning achievement, new sixth set Individ, which sets serious subjects to galloping drumbeats, Long’s vibrato-resonant vocals and ethereal finger-picked filigrees, on thoughtful tracks like “Darkness,” “Bastard,” “Precipitation” and an ominous “Goodbyes And Endings.” Recorded at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone compound in San Francisco with co-engineers/producers Jay and Ian Pellicci, Individ, for Long, “was very cathartic, and it saved me in a lot of ways—just to be able to go into the studio and shut off for 12 hours and focus on something.”

Long, in short, spent his 33rd year growing up. Death was certainly a motivating factor; touring guitarist Christopher Reimer had passed away unexpectedly in 2012, followed by Long’s father from a protracted illness after the Individ sessions. “And there was definitely some switch that got flipped—I don’t know what it was, but something inside me changed,” says Long. “When the death is in your family, and it’s the person that you’re going to eventually become, hopefully, and you see them go through this long ordeal? It’s like, ‘This is what’s in store for me.’ You see your own future happen in front of you, which you are not prepared for in any way.”

Instinctively, the musician began upping his game. He started working out regularly. He ate much healthier. He almost completely eliminated alcohol from his diet. He studied the muscular machinations of his own singing voice in order to improve it. And, perhaps most importantly, he began every day with a lyric-writing exercise.

“I was taking things seriously, and what else is there?” he asks, rhetorically. “You can only fuck around for so long before it gets boring, you know? And I was also learning how to record, learning how to do things myself. And lyrically, I felt like I took a very serious step forward—I just wanted to make my thoughts count, to think about song ideas and then articulate them.”

One of the achievements that Long is most proud of is “Competition,” a ching-chinging charger with buzzing-hornet guitar lines darting throughout. The Dodos just filmed a video for the track, and he thinks it’s one of the most adventurous things the group has ever done.

“And the clip plays on a certain aspect of the song, which is having to compete, having to do something to get people’s attention and stand out in today’s content-saturated world,” he says. “But the song is also about how it feels having a competitive nature. It’s terrible, and I hate it. And there are also some lines about my father, how he was on his deathbed and just letting go. And me and my father were the same kind of person—we had this natural, cautious competition going on. And you don’t really pay attention to it, but it’s there. And all of that is wrapped up in this pop song.”

What conclusion has Long come to at a wizened old 34? He used to fret about keeping the Dodos cutting-edge original. Now, he no longer cares. Instead, he asks himself a series of questions before calling an album complete: “Like, ‘What is it that I want to say? What do these lyrics mean? What is the substance of what I’m trying to do?’ Because then, you’ll just know when you’re going in the right direction, without paying attention to how that’s happening.”

—Tom Lanham

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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

Kellys

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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