Category Archives: FEATURES

Are You From New York?

Woody

An essay by MAGNET’s Mitch Myers

Long ago, as a young man born and raised in Chicago, I eagerly explored these United States of America. I first sought out familiar locales like Manhattan, Seattle and Los Angeles and encountered many different people in my travels. Sometimes, like when I visited L.A. in the 1980s, someone would inquire as to the nature of my hometown roots. Occasionally, they’d ask a more specific question, that is, “Are you from New York?”

Being somewhat naïve, I thought they were asking this because I radiated some kind of hip quotient, an arty, urban and intellectual coolness—like, what else could it be? Complimented, I’d dutifully explain that no, I was from the Midwest, a Chicago kid— imagining my big city ways had caused them to mistake my place of origin.

As time went on, I was compelled to widen my perception. After visiting Austin several times, I encountered this same question from fresh acquaintances—that is, “Are you from New York?” I began to assume that the query wasn’t based on my cool factor, but more likely a variation on the old familiar phrase, “You’re not from around here, are you?” That would be a fair observation. I sure as heck wasn’t from Texas, and perhaps it was simply my urban persuasion that led them to wonder if I might be from New York. Maybe these people just hadn’t been exposed to the difference between a Midwestern and Northeastern accent.

When I mentioned this to my mother years ago, she replied that she had often been asked this very same question and always chalked it up to her prevailing fashion sense, which was a tendency to always wear black. This seemed to satisfy her sense of self, and how others might perceive her. Ultimately, over time, I began to realize the true nature of this line of questioning. In that, I determined by virtue of research, deep thought and soul searching, that the exact and literal translation of “Are you from New York?” was, and is, for me, most precisely, “I notice that you’re Jewish.”

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that any of these folks were necessarily anti-Semitic in their profiling, they wanted (or needed) to affirm their appraisal for reasons good, bad or indifferent. This reminds me of Lenny Bruce’s classic routine where he explains the difference between being Jewish vs. goyish. Among other things, Lenny said, “Dig … if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn’t matter if you are Catholic, if you live in New York you are Jewish. If you live in Butte, Mont., you are going to be goyish even if you are Jewish.”

I have to say that I can’t recall ever being asked this question, “Are you from New York?” when in New York or meeting a New York native. For some reason, no New Yorker ever felt the need to ascertain my New York-ness, or whatever you want to call it.

Also, in all the time living in my hometown, no one in Chicago had ever asked me if I was from New York. Not ever. That is, not until last summer. It finally happened in downtown Chicago over the July 4th weekend on the way to see the Grateful Dead with my pal Shirley and her husband Thom.

One thing you should know about Shirley is that she’s Israeli-born, but raised in the USA. She and I have a close friendship and we’ve been together all across the world. Over the years, we’ve hung out in Israel, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Austin and New York, as well as Chicago.

To illustrate our rapport, I’d have to recall the time we were in Austin for the South By Southwest Music Conference and spent a good 20 minutes at a Mexican restaurant arguing whether we should leave a tip of 17.5% like her father always did, or, as I insisted, just round it up to 20%. Several minutes of that discussion included a debate over whether the sales tax should be included in our metrics.

I also have to say that while all this was going on, our dear friend Michael, who is not from New York, was there, too—sinking further and further under the table from sheer embarrassment at the scene of us hotly debating the respective merits of a tip differential like an episode straight out of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Anyway, that about sums up Shirley and me. So, like I was saying, Shirley, Thom and I were downtown, headed to the Dead concert at Soldier Field for the third time in three consecutive nights. We’d just left their hotel on Michigan Avenue when I suggested that we take a cab rather than walk since we’d been hanging out late every night and schlepping back and forth to all of the shows.

Shirley and Thom agreed, and as luck would have it, a taxi had just pulled up. We jumped in, asked the driver to take us to Soldier Field and voila—we were off.

Now, the first thing the cabdriver asked us was, “Are you guys from New York?” Shirley and I looked at each other because we’d spoken many times of my revelation as to the meaning of this seemingly innocuous question. We smiled knowingly and almost laughed. We could have been tourists from anywhere, hailing a cab in front of a downtown hotel on a holiday weekend.

In an effort to be clever and play out the scenario to its fullest, I answered, “Oh yeah, we’re from New York all right.” Everything seemed well and good and we were chatting amiably when the cabbie directed another question my way. He wanted to know, “Are you a lawyer?” This struck me as a bit more stereotyping than I was used to, but I was still trying to be funny and just said no, I wasn’t a lawyer but I could have been. Shirley didn’t say much about that one and Thom was pretty much silent.

The cab driver responded by sharing something about his own life—that he was close to getting his degree in hospitality management and soon would be quitting his job as a cabdriver. The cabbie also told us that he was Palestinian. In an effort to relate to the man, I told him that my brother lived in Jerusalem. In response, the cabbie exclaimed, “He probably lives in my grandfather’s house!” As you might imagine, nobody in the cab was laughing.

The cabbie then turned his attention to Shirley and things got weird. It wasn’t any more of this “Are you from New York” nonsense. He just asked her bluntly, “Are you Jewish, too?” “Ummm, yeah” she replied, unsure as to the appropriateness of his question but not wanting to offend.

Finally the cabbie focused on Thom, who was sitting between Shirley and myself. “How about you? Are you Jewish, too?” he asked. Thom, who is definitely not from New York, answered the question in no uncertain terms. He said something to the effect of, “I’m not going to answer that question and I don’t like where this conversation is heading at all! And I’ll tell you something else, if you’re going into the hospitality business maybe you should learn not to ask someone about their religion within five minutes of meeting them!”

It was only then that I realized Thom had been horrified as to the nature of our discourse. He wasn’t going to object if I made an ass out of myself, but he was feeling very protective of his wife. He was angry, and he wasn’t having it. Thom’s a pretty big guy and hails from New England. He isn’t a violent person, but he does have a temper and wasn’t backing down from a confrontation with this cab driver.

Things got tense. The cabbie kept eyeballing Thom in his rear view mirror and Thom was staring right back at him as Shirley and I tried to diffuse the situation until we could get out of the cab. I should mention that we were heading south on Lake Shore Drive and there was no way of stopping until we arrived at Soldier Field.

The whole trip couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes and we reached our destination without further incident. We got out quick, paid the fare plus tip (decidedly less than 17.5%) and tried to put the whole affair behind us.

But I haven’t forgotten what happened. It’s clear to me now that some people encounter profiling all of the time and just do their best to ignore the implications so they can get through their day with the least amount of hassle.

Anyway, I’m not trying to preach or complain. I just wanted to tell my story. I also have to admit that the next time somebody asks me if I’m from New York, I really don’t know what I’m going to say. Would you?

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Foxing: Deal Them In

Foxing

Growing up and branching out isn’t an albatross for the emo-punkers in Foxing

“We never set out to be any specific kind of band,” says Josh Coll. “So, when I listen to The Albatross, I hear things that are different from what other people hear.”

The bassist and co-songwriter of St. Louis fi ve-piece Foxing is talking about its 2013 album, which is often fi led (along with the band itself) under emo/punk. Between its cathartic breakdowns, the howling delivery of vocalist Conor Murphy and frequent tour runs with scene faves the Hotelier and Brand New, it’s understandable why.

Coll, on the other hand, hears the sound of his old outfit Hunter Gatherer—an entirely instrumental act with post-rock leanings. He hears Murphy’s former crew Family Might, which was not instrumental, but had cinematic tendencies. Listen close to Foxing’s debut and those moments surface—on the turbulent and theatrical “Bloodhound,” for instance.

The Albatross was a lot of us trying to find ourselves as a band in a very low-pressure environment,” says Coll. “We hadn’t played a show when we started writing the record. Nobody knew who our band was; nobody cared except for a handful of friends. In that regard, it was a lot of experimenting.”

Now, Foxing releases Dealer (Triple Crown), a follow-up that’s markedly more subdued, but also more exciting, bringing those scattered experiments into focus. Moments recall the tenderness of Sigur Rós, with Murphy’s delivery nuanced and melodic. His falsetto on “The Magdalene” is chilling, while the piano-driven “Night Channels” sees the band circling like a gathering storm out of Godspeed.

“I think that those elements were always there for us,” says Coll, citing an affnity for ambient and drone music. “It’s interesting sometimes, the difference between what a band plays and what a band listens to.”

Recording and production of The Albatross was stretched out over nine months; Dealer, by comparison, was rocked out in a month. Coll calls it much more immediate, a space where their subconscious tendencies come through. “When you are writing for months and months on end, you have a lot of time to second-guess yourself and tweak things,” he says.

Where does that leave The Albatross? Coll admits to feeling burnt out after playing its songs nightly for two years. But they will always be there—slightly adapted thanks to touring violinist and synth player Emma Tiemann.

“Something as small as that breathes new life into your work,” he says.

—John Vettese

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RevoltRevolt: Wild At Heart

RevoltRevolt

“Alternative garage-rock stuff” is selling the aptly named RevoltRevolt way too short

Idaho-based RevoltRevolt’s new EP is called Wild Unraveling, and in a large way, the title is a reference to singer/guitarist/keyboardist Chris Böck’s love of the outdoors, his relationship to the simplicity of the natural terrain proximal to his lifelong Boise home, and the freedom nature affords in letting oneself go. It’s also a reference to the quartet’s incorporation of “garage drones, hard rock, industrial noise, opera and space music” into a sound that even has its founding member stumbling when MAGNET asks about classi- fication and categorization.

“Um … I guess it’s rock,” Böck says between pregnant pauses and tittering laughter. “I don’t know. I’ve heard us called garage rock, space rock, even punk. I’ve asked myself this as well in thinking who we’d be best billed with, and I think it crosses over between different styles. I don’t know … ‘alternative garage-rock stuff’ … maybe? The interesting part, and one of the parts I like most about playing music, is songwriting. For us, it’s about the balance, what you can capture in the span of a song, how you can have it complement each part, and doing what’s best for the song.”

Beginning as a solo artist in 2007, Böck originally hooked up with a drummer friend, and the duo recorded and road-dogged until the decision was made to fill out the lineup with bassist Jacob Fredrickson, second guitarist Mike Muir, and Ben Wieland replacing the original tub-thumper. Böck describes this fl eshed-out confi guration of RevoltRevolt as possessing “more depth. All of the musicians are well-versed, which makes us more dynamic and diverse. When we were a two-piece, it was pretty straightforward. I feel we’re right where I’d like to be, and without the time constraints with this record like we had with previous recordings, it allowed us to try things I’d really wanted to do.”

Including the fusion of seemingly disparate elements and surprising one another in the studio?

“Well, I heard an opera singer in my head for one of the songs,” he says. “It was ‘Never Fade,’ the last track, which evolved after we hung on the last note of the song before it. After we did it, I could totally hear an opera singer, and the other guys were like, ‘What?’ I was like, ‘Just bear with me,’ and when we found the singer (Emma Doupé), that was totally it!”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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Son Little: Instinctively Speaking

SonLittle

Son Little sings the first thing that comes to mind—or else

Aaron Livingston has done a lot of good work since leaving L.A. and heading to the Philadelphia/Trenton area, where he’s resided since 2010. There’s the (surely one-day, legendary) collaborations with synth-and-sample composer RJD2 on the producer’s The Colossus album, as well as the Philly pair’s own band Icebird (which resulted in the rocky The Abandoned Lullaby) and the sing-songy guest spots he executed on the Roots’ radical 2011 Undun.

“I definitely think that listeners can connect the dots between what I did there, on someone else’s records, and what I’m now doing,” says Livingston. “I know that I can. I think I’m like a musical librarian in that regard, absorbing lots of knowledge.”

The “now” that Livingston speaks of comes under the rubric of a new name and vision: the sparsely atmospheric blues, R&B and dancehall—all tinged with hip hop—that is Son Little and his eponymous debut full-length.

At first, Livingston points toward an expansion of his knowledge, a packed library that has recently included books such as Dave Tompkins’ How To Wreck A Nice Beach, writer/ director Alex Proyas’ film Dark City and musicians such as Mumford & Sons and the Maccabees. Mainly, what the singer and songwriter believes is the biggest differences between Little and Livingston is that he is now directing and producing his own stuff completely.

“It’s really about letting go, and that process has taken me to places that the stuff with Jon (Krohn, a.k.a. RJD2) couldn’t go,” he says. “Not because of anything bad. Jon’s great and I’m totally proud of what we did. It was a shared vision, though—his vision. The vision and range is different now; the emphasis, too, because it’s all mine.”

Livingston laughs and says something about having his own cues, his own “lingo”: “I think that’s what Son Little is.”

A large part of coming to Little—which Livingston did in 2013, before signing with Anti- in 2014 and dropping a six-song EP, Things I Forgot—meant eschewing all of what came before Little. He made that immediate past a thing to forget, as he suddenly had a notion to just throw everything out about himself—just get rid of it.

“Yeah, I erased everything,” Livingston says of 2013’s circumstances. “I had actually started working on an album. It was nearly there, but something wasn’t right. I got frustrated. I wanted something else. So, I threw it out, started everything over. It felt really good, too. [Laughs] So, when I started it all over, I wanted everything fresh—a new name especially. Nothing lingering. All instinct.”

That was the elemental idea that Livingston/Little let develop with no rules aside from where the immediate took him. Where it took him most of the time was the moody blues mash with R&B, reggae and hip-hop contours that is the stomp-and-start of “Carbon,” the textured, synth-phonia of “Go Blue Blood Red” and the low country-ish “Doctor’s In.”

“There was an intensity that built around that name Little and the songs that came from it,” says Livingston. “It started with the name and a noise, and I let it become something. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t rework it. I just started over. Make it all fresh—why not? I had never experienced that before.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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The High Llamas: No More Cities To Love

HighLlamas

Urban homogenization fuels the High Llamas’ newest concept lament

It might seem unusual, at first: British folk/pop auteur Sean O’Hagan padding Here Come The Rattling Trees—his latest outing as bandleader of the High Llamas—with several breezy musical snippets like “Amy Recalls – Barham Trees,” “Bramble Underscore” and “Prelude – A Day In The Square” that work as either introductions or codas to delicate, fully realized songs such as “Livorno,” “Jackie” and “Bramble Black.” But in fact, the project first coalesced as a narrative the singer scripted about his South London neighborhood of Peckham, where a local working-class recreation center was being threatened by snooty gentrification. It then quickly morphed into a full-scale production that he staged at a Covent Garden theater—hence the inclusion of rising and descending motifs.

The concept first occurred to O’Hagan on his regular bicycle rides around town, when he noticed things changing. “I’ve lived here for so long, I regard myself as one of the older—not younger—lot here,” he says. “And I like the fact that it is getting young. But there’s also this in-between bunch that’s just got loads of money, and they’re all in finance. So, I struggle to find a bar that I can go into where there’s isn’t a million laptops.” He used to hang at Peckham pubs like the Wishing Well, where happy pint-downing regulars sang along to Oasis anthems on the jukebox. “Now you go into a bar, and it’s filled with people quietly finishing their résumés,” he says.

The topic is fast becoming universal, in cities around the world where the nouveau riche are displacing long-standing—often arts-connected—residents, squeezed out by shady evictions or skyrocketing rents. “It’s suddenly like, ‘But I’ve always lived here,’ countered with, ‘Yeah? Well, you’re not living here anymore, mate!’” says O’Hagan, who decided on six separate characters to properly tell his story, revolving around the protagonist, Amy, a 28-year-old drifter handing out leaflets in the Peckham square, which promise a chic new fitness outlet when the leisure center goes from public to private. The rattling trees are her childhood memory of security—the wind blowing rustling branches against vacation-house windows.

Other Trees personas bump into Amy, like Jackie, a cynical-yet-somber café owner. “She’s seen Peckham go from a working-class suburb to becoming part of the plan of the new super-rich,” says the playwright, who issued his High Llamas debut in 1990, then released 10 more and even composed a film soundtrack with Stereolab’s Tim Gane in 2011, La Vie D’Artiste. He was initially going to include all pertinent dialogue on Trees, but he was talked out of it. He’d eventually like to stage it in cities like New York or San Francisco, where its message is now painfully relevant.

How can Peckham fight back? O’Hagan, for his part, sings in the nearby council-sponsored Southern Community Choir, where 50 neighbors from all walks of life lift up their voices in song/solidarity.

“For me, it’s all about community,” he says. “To have happiness, you have to totally engage with where you live and the things around you. You shop locally, you network locally, you volunteer locally. It feels good, and it just changes everything.”

—Tom Lanham

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Adir L.C.: Easy Come, Easy Go

AdirLC

The fleeting nature of relationships on the road informs Adir L.C.’s polished pop

After leaving his folk band, Fairweather Friends, Adir L.C. (born Adirel Lavi Cohen) was ready for a change. He settled down in Tel Aviv, Israel, with producer Tom Elbaz, intent on making a more expansive pop album. The result is Oceanside Cities, a record that complements L.C.’s mellow vocals with lush orchestral arrangements.

“This album is more refined than These Years On The Boat, the record I made with Fairweather Friends,” says L.C. “That was a relatively lo-fi , rough, slightly out-of-tune, moderately o -time, raw album. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. I certainly connect to a more lo-fi sound, however, after years of home recording, I had this intense desire to create something super polished that I could share on multiple fronts. I remember a couple of radio stations/bookers asking if I had cleaner, ‘more produced’ versions of certain songs from These Years. A part of me didn’t want to be put in that position again. Maybe the next album will be a perfect balance between the two.”

While the music on Oceanside Cities is marked by a multi-layered pop sensibility, L.C.’s singing retains its warm, conversational style. His phrasing is always a bit before or after the beat, lending the songs an air of controlled melancholy.

“I think it’s important to have your own unique voice,” he says. “I try to be as natural as possible when singing, because it’s the main portal to connecting with the audience. The desire for romance is always fi ghting the desire to be independent; all that mixed up with the fear of being alone. Being on the road puts you in a situation where you are constantly building new relationships and having a large portion of them disappear once you move on. I wrote a lot of these songs from that place.”

—j. poet

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Scott Fagan: Message In A Bottle

ScottFagan

Scott Fagan’s exemplary folk debut resurfaces nearly half a century after it first appeared

“Overall, I’m just grateful. I could be all sorts of bitter, but that’s ridiculous,” says Scott Fagan. He’s talking about South Atlantic Blues, his debut album that’s finally getting reissued 47 years (with bonus tracks) after it appeared and quickly disappeared.

The story of the album contains famous names and near-misses; extreme poverty and high art; calypso and jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and, eventually, an indie-rock icon. It’s a moody, elaborately produced folk/rock record that sits comfortably next to contemporaneous work by Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen and the Bee Gees. It juxtaposes love songs such as “Nothing But Love” with social-realist narratives such as “Tenement Halls.” It’s ambitious, pointed and youthful.

“I was completely committed to changing the world, and I thought that we were supposed to do it through music,” says Fagan. “I sang very prettily, but I wanted to write and sing about gritty things. There was always a confl ict between those things. My manager, Doc Pomus, who was a great, great songwriter, thought that he’d discovered another Bobby Darin. But, God bless Bobby Darin, I had no interest in being an entertainer, then or now. I thought what music was for was to change people’s lives, not be a diversion, but a catalyst for deep, internal, semi-psychic change. I was coming from a very difficult background.”

Fagan was born in New York City in 1945. His father was Frankie Galvin, a jazz saxophone player and singer, and his mother, Leila, was a dancer. The two were embedded in the bebop scene: Fagan’s father played with Lester Young and Billie Holiday, and was friends with Tony Bennett; Dizzy Gillespie was his older sister’s godfather. Both his parents were alcoholics, and when the marriage dissolved, Fagan’s mother took the children and moved to the Islands. Fagan grew up mostly in Puerto Rico and St. Thomas, in mixed race households that were constantly impoverished, although he also spent time with his father, who then lived in Florida. “I’d get in trouble in one place and wind up in the other,” he says.

He grew up listening to rock ‘n’ roll, country ‘n’ western and calypso on the radio. He was also inspired by the activist folk music of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. In 1964, he set sail—literally—for the States with the hope of starting a career in music. When he eventually got to New York, he cold-called a contact his mother had found for him. That turned out to be Pomus, the songwriter of hits for—among other Fagan favorites—Ben E. King and the Drifters. Upon hearing a few of Fagan’s songs, Pomus set him up as a songwriter, working alongside established veterans Mort Shuman, Jerry Ragovoy, and Mike Leiber and Jerry Stoller. One of his fi rst co-writes, “I’m Gonna Cry ’Til My Tears Run Dry,” was recorded by New Orleans soul singer Irma Thomas. He also recorded a few singles for Bang Records, the label of Neil Diamond and Van Morrison.

“I was a really serious fellow who was diverted by beautiful chicks and the availability of food in the States,” says Fagan. “There was no minimum drinking age in the Islands, and I’d been drinking actively since I was 13. I was part-savage and part-sophisticate.”

Fagan had numerous relationships (“I have five children with four different mothers,” he says), and one was with Alix Merritt. Their son, Stephin, would become the leader of the Magnetic Fields, although Fagan was not part of Merritt’s upbringing: Father and son did not meet until 2013. The liner notes of the reissue include a Q&A that Merritt did with Fagan about the making of the album.

Fagan sang in folk clubs—he had a regular gig at Café Au Go Go in the Village, alongside Richie Havens and Jimi Hendrix (when he was still known as Jimmy James)—and that led to him working with a manager, Herb Gart, and recording South Atlantic Blues. They shopped the album to various labels—the Beatles’ Apple Records almost released it, but chose James Taylor over Fagan—and ended up with Atco. But shortly after they signed, Atco’s management changed, and the album got lost in the label shu e, destined quickly for the cut-out bins.

“I think it’s a shame that it fell through the cracks,” says Fagan. “I’ve heard from people all across the world, these little pockets of people in Czechoslovakia; there’s people in Germany, Scandinavia, maybe a few in Japan that somehow write to me and say, man, this record means the world to them.”

Shortly after South Atlantic Blues, Fagan co-wrote a rock opera called Soon that appeared briefly on Broadway with Nell Carter, Richard Gere and Vicki Sue Robinson in the cast. The planned soundtrack album never got made. “We got punished because the content of Soon was the compromised behavior of music business people and the effect on artists and society,” says Fagan.

Fagan still makes music. Scott Fagan And The MAAC Island Band plays what he calls contemporary Caribbean. “It’s what I’ve always played: hopefully something with some color and some content,” he says. The band gigs mostly in the Virgin Islands and in central Pennsylvania, but they will tour more widely in conjunction with the reissue of South Atlantic Blues.

“We’ve been waiting for something wonderful to happen,” says Fagan, “and it has happened with the rediscovery of South Atlantic Blues.”

—Steve Klinge

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Kagoule: Rhythm, Noise, And Melody

Kagoule

Energy is not a problem for the post-rock wunderkinds in Kagoule

The innovative music that Kagoule plays on Urth, its debut album, will leave you reeling. Catchy pop tunes are graced with skillful arrangements that move from quiet acoustic folk melodies to slabs of bracing, almost metallic guitar noise. Because of its quirky rhythms and post-rock attitude, the trio—guitarist/songwriter/vocalist Cai Burns, singer/bass player Lucy Hatter and drummer Lawrence English—is often compared to the bands of the British and American underground that created alternative rock. But, like its music, Kagoule’s sound can’t be easily pigeonholed.

“The influences change every day,” says Burns. “It could be a new band, a key change in a Beethoven song, a kettle whistling on the stove, some words you hear your neighbor say. We never thought about ‘a Kagoule sound’ too much. It naturally appeared through playing together over our teenage years.”

The band members just turned 20, but they’ve been playing together since they were 15. They quickly moved from covers to composing fractured originals that bring to mind the experimental bands of the ’80s and ’90s.

“I never listened to much music from the past,” says Burns. “We discovered the Pixies and Smashing Pumpkins after being compared to them in the reviews of our fi rst shows. From then on, I got obsessed with ’80s and ’90s guitar music. I don’t think I left my room for weeks after discovering Dischord and Touch And Go Records.”

Kagoule recorded its debut live, all playing together in one room, to capture the relentless power of its music. While the band is happy with the result, Burns is perhaps most pleased that its gigs are more energetic: “We dance and move and get all up in your face. After the song is over, you can then touch our faces in return, unlike the album. Come to our live shows!”

—j. poet

 

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Fernando Viciconte: With A Little Help From His Friends

Fernando

Health issues sidelined Fernando Viciconte for years, until a couple of pals badgered him into creating the best record of his career

For a working musician, two years away from the game is a long dry spell. Nonetheless, that was the situation facing Portland, Ore., singer/songwriter Fernando Viciconte (whose band shares his given name), not so long ago.

“From the time I put out Old Man Motel in 1999, I started experiencing this terrible stomach pain, and consequently, a lot of throat problems,” says Viciconte somewhat clinically. “I could never get it diagnosed properly. I’d play sporadically—I might do a four-day tour, but eventually it got to the point where I could barely sing after a week. One of my (acid reflux) episodes resulted in pneumonia, and I ended up in the hospital. They took some x-rays, and the doctors told me, ‘Bad news: We see a spot on your lungs.’ It wasn’t cancerous, but I did have a hiatal hernia. So, I finally had this massive stomach surgery: They took the top third of my stomach and wrapped it around my esophagus. From that day onward, I never had heartburn again. But I needed a year off to recover.”

Given the fickle nature of the music industry, any kind of time gap can very rapidly separate artists from their audiences, and stop a career dead in its tracks.

“I had a day gig as a property tax accountant for nine years,” he says. “And I was so depressed; nobody could figure out why I couldn’t play live, so I’d get angry about that. I’m working a nine-to-five job that I hate; I’m seeing my friends I’ve known for years doing their thing; I’m disenchanted and kinda bummed at the music industry. But more than that, I couldn’t perform my songs and do what I love to do.”

Enter: producer and fellow musician Luther Russell, who had relocated from Portland to Los Angeles, but was still in touch with Viciconte and wondered what he’d been up to.

“Luther asked me, ‘Where’s this box of tapes I keep hearing about?’” says Viciconte of a conversation concerning the dribs and drabs of demos he’d stowed away during his downtime. “I said, ‘It’s just disconnected ideas; a bunch of shit.’ He started playing them and was like, ‘Well,that song isn’t shit!’” he laughs, remembering the first time Russell played a new track, “Kingdom Come.” It was a galvanizing moment.

Next up: former R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. “The next week, I was watching a Minus 5 gig in town,” says Viciconte. “I’d given my album, Enter To Exit, to Buck before the final R.E.M. tour. He comes up to me after the show and goes, ‘What’s this bullshit about you not playing anymore?’ He didn’t know anything about my health situation, just tells me, ‘Look, I don’t care if you never tour again, but I’ll go into the studio and record your next album with you. Just make another record.’ So, the combination of Luther telling me I actually had some songs, and Pete saying he’d record on it, got the ball rolling.”

The resulting full-length, Leave The Radio On (Fluff And Gravy), is what came of his friends’ prodding, and is easily the best thing Viciconte has done in a career already characterized by high-quality work. Produced in a reverb-enriched, echo-heavy style that leans heavily toward ’60s psychedelia, the record zigs between the rough and ready, Petty-esque Americana that has long been Viciconte’s stock in trade (“Burned Out Love,” “Save Me”) and slower, sadder compositions that split the difference between John Lennon’s stranger solo work (“The Dogs,” “White Trees”) and Los Lobos’ jingle-jangle Chicano pop (the title track, a metaphor for old-world human connection struggling to survive a social-media world). It’s a triumph; Viciconte’s most coherent work despite the fragmentary, stop/start fashion in which it was created.

“I had kinda stopped playing music; nothing at all for two years, no gigs, no recordings,” he says. “I couldn’t even bring myself to pick up a guitar. This (record’s) been sitting there for three or four years. Normally, I’d be sick of it by now, but what’s stuck with me is the human side of it all, the mistakes. It’s not perfect, but the flubs, the things we didn’t mean to do, are my favorite parts. We tried to keep the heart and soul intact, make sure nothing was lost between the creation and recording process.”

It’s an apt metaphor for Viciconte’s life and work: torn and frayed, but possessed of an authentic quality you don’t necessarily need to perfect.

—Corey duBrowa

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U.S. Elevator: They’re Going Up

USElevator

Folkie Johnny Irion embraces Americana rock ‘n’ roll in U.S. Elevator

“My first band, Queen Sarah Saturday, was a rock band,” says Johnny Irion, one half of a songwriting duo with Sarah Lee Guthrie. “We landed a major-label deal when I was 19, but we always tossed a few acoustic things into our sets. When I started collaborating with Sarah Lee, we never set limitations on our style. There was always a hint—sometimes more than a hint—of rock in our arrangements.”

Guthrie (Arlo’s daughter and Woody’s granddaughter) and Irion are still collaborating, but Irion was feeling the need to get in touch with his rock roots again: “My friend Zeke, who was in Queen Sarah with me, suggested putting my rock songs and folk songs in different settings. He said, ‘Don’t muddy the water. You want to see the bottom of both streams.’ I’ve always wanted to do another rock band, so I started thinking about making a rock ‘n’ roll record.”

Irion tracked down his old friend, bass player Nate Modisette. They put U.S. Elevator together. “We had a couple of rehearsals,” says Irion. “They went really well, so we decided to make an album.” The new band’s eponymous debut is a crunchy, aggressive collection of rock tunes that tips its hat to the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Doors more than anything in the folk spectrum. The album was recorded live to analog tape, using a vintage 1,000-pound, 24-track Studer A-80 tape machine that once belonged to Jackson Browne.

“The guys in the band are carpenters by day, so they’re strong,” says Irion. “We lifted (the Studer) up three flights of stairs to a rehearsal space, but you could hear all the other bands rehearsing. We took it back down to Nate’s house and started working. We set the band up in the kitchen and living room and played together, without headphones. We’d write a song, get two or three takes down, and pick the best one. Then we’d erase the extra takes and go on to the next song. We didn’t have a budget, or a lot of tape, but it was a lot of fun.”

Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips came down from San Francisco to produce the album. “He knows how to run a tape machine and oozes California cool,” says Irion. “He walked into the room and helped everyone get their game up. We wrote songs with him; he made us sound like we’d played together for years.”

The album’s Americana-fl avored rock is loud and forceful, but with a melodic, midtempo quality that suggests the Band. “In the studio, we were just scraping the surface of our sound,” says Irion. “Since we’ve been playing the songs live, they’ve become more reckless and aggressive. We’re destroying the songs now, and I’m exploring my vocal range. My melody zone with Sarah Lee falls naturally into the space McCartney would take up. Now, with the band, I’m going for the lower Lennon parts. It’s exciting to have an outlet for that side of my singing.”

—j.poet

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