Category Archives: FEATURES

Orenda Fink: The Warmest Color

OrendaFink

We’re not of a mind to disagree with Orenda Fink’s sweet, death-obsessed dreams

Orenda Fink is known for her quiet, introspective songs and her unobtrusive approach to singing. Her music, both on her own solo albums and with Azure Ray (the band she fronts with longtime friend Maria Taylor), tends to be forlorn and unsettling, albeit imbued with an underlying belief in the ultimate goodness of existence.

“I suppose melancholy is the word that fits,” Fink says, speaking via phone from her home studio in Omaha. “I know people tend to glaze over when I say it, and I’m not fond of the term gothic either. I wish I could come up with something more catchy to describe my sound.”

Fink breaks off for a moment to grab a pile of blankets and toss them on the floor of the studio to soak up the rain that’s seeping in through the floor. “We had a tornado, a hailstorm and thundershowers just before the interview started. It was a surreal experience.”

The jarring weather could be some cosmic metaphor for the unexpected prism of emotions that’s reflected in the songs on her new album, Blue Dream. They were inspired by the death of her dog, as well as general meditations on the limitations of existence on the material plane.

“Losing my dog sent me into a deep depression,” she says. “I saw a therapist, who specialized in Jungian dream analysis. She told me that when you’re ready to deal with your dreams, something awakens in your subconscious mind and (dreams) come flowing out. I started having powerful dreams about my dog’s death and death in general. It was a crazy period. I started writing the album after that. The songs didn’t come specifically from the dreams, but I was in that zone between dreams and waking while I was writing. I’m inclined to have one foot in each world, even when I’m awake, but losing my dog erased the boundary between those worlds for a while.”

On the LP, Fink goes deep into the primal questions of death and the meaning of life. The lyrics are dark, but the music is bright and buoyant, although still played at the laid-back tempos that are her forte. “Bill Rieflin, who used to play with Ministry, played the drums in a light, un-Ministry like manner,” says Fink. “I thought his rhythms were too pop, but he said the lyrics were so sad, it would make a good juxtaposition. Ben Brodin, who plays with Conor Oberst, did all the guitars. I kept going, ‘It doesn’t sound like a dream.’ Then he’d go, ‘What does a dream sound like?’ I told him I’d know it when I heard it.”

The finished album is dreamlike and comforting, despite its preoccupation with mortality. “Although it’s about death, the record has a celebratory feeling for me,” says Fink. “The experience of making it helped me come out on the other side with a firm understanding that there is a life after death, that you can weep until you’re crying tears of joy and epiphany.”

—j. poet

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

The Reigning Sound: Sweet Oblivian

ReigningSound

With his long-running, omnivorous rock ‘n’ soul outlet the Reigning Sound, Greg Cartwright seeks—and finds—new angles on old sounds

On Wednesday nights, Greg Cartwright holds court at the Double Crown, a nondescript neighborhood bar with a killer cocktail menu in West Asheville, N.C. For each weekly session, Cartwright pulls an evening’s worth of vintage country tunes from his own collection. “I do it because I want to share them with other people,” he says. “But just as much, I’m doing it so I can hear the records really loud.”

But alongside the country canon—Buck Owens, George Jones, Wanda Jackson—Cartwright likes to spin his salvaged classics. “I have all these oddball country records from the ’60s and early ’70s where they’re mixing country with R&B and soul and funk,” he says. “They’re totally weird records. They don’t properly fall into any genre. Some of them scratch a spot that nothing else will.”

For Cartwright, finding—or crafting—the black-sheep gem is the real joy of music. To wit, he’s not a collector, per se. “I’m not interested in records like they’re stamps,” he says. “I just want to look through a box of junked records and look for labels that look cool. Small, independent releases from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, things that look interesting and on the cheap. I want to look through those things, and pull out a record player, and I want to find something that fucking blows my mind.”

But that idea extends to the music he makes, too. “That’s what you want to create,” he says. “You want that thing that’s so inspiring to you not because it’s everything you expect, but because it’s everything you didn’t expect.”

With iconic garage-punk trio the Oblivians, with the Parting Gifts (his collaboration with the Ettes’ Coco Hames and Jem Cohen), with a legion of other one-offs and defunct projects, and, for the past 13 years with driving rock ‘n’ soul revue the Reigning Sound, Cartwright has chased various traces of American rock and pop to arrive at something singularly his.

Still, with his legacy perfectly well cemented among garage-rock aficionados and discerning vinyl-heads, Cartwright is still chasing the unexpected. The Reigning Sound’s latest album, Shattered, is the band’s sixth proper full-length, a follow-up to 2009’s Love And Curses, and its debut for Merge. (“I’ve never been on a record label this big,” says Cartwright. “I’ve never had so many people to email. I’m really enjoying it.”)

It’s also one of the most varied outings in the group’s deep catalog. Cartwright, the Reigning Sound’s sole constant, is joined on Shattered by the same backing crew heard on 2011’s Scion-sponsored EP Abdication… For Your Love: longtime keyboardist Dave Amels, as well as relative newcomers Mike Catanese (guitar), Benny Trokan (bass) and Mike Post (drums)—all of whom play together in New York soul combo the Jay Vons and bring a house-band chemistry and versatility to Cartwright’s new batch of songs.

But their distance led to a new songwriting approach, with Cartwright demoing songs to guide his sidemen, rather than jamming through rough sketches until a song emerged. “They’re super-good players … I can pretty much make a set list and they can go over it and have it locked down when I get to them,” says Cartwright. And so they did, entering Daptone Studios in Brooklyn armed with a fresh batch of just-learned songs and following Cartwright where he led.

“Sometimes when you just learn a song, you approach it in a way that you’ll never ever approach it again,” says Cartwright. “You haven’t worn the grooves into your brain. It’s still so fresh to you that you’re willing to walk out on a limb. Two months down the road, you won’t do that.”

But because he was charting the course, Cartwright could extend those limbs farther than before, digging into influences as disparate as Del Shannon’s lush and almost-lost 1967 LP Home & Away and the country-western oddities he spins at the Double Crown. And so on Shattered, the Reigning Sound jumps casually from R&B burner “North Cackalacky Girl” into strings-driven ballad “Never Coming Home,” and from the Southern-rock stagger of “Starting New” into the ripping Stax-meets-Sonics garage of “Baby It’s Too Late.”

Describing his ideal record-hunting find, Cartwright says, “Nothing about this is a new form of music, but somebody’s putting their own stamp on it.” He could just as easily be describing his own work—an in-the-margins blend of influences tailor-made for keen, seeking ears looking to be surprised. Blown away, even.

—Bryan C. Reed

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

A Sunny Day In Glasgow: Dreaming In The Cloud

ASDIG

A Sunny Day In Glasgow communicates across continents to write its heaviest—yet most pop-centered—record to date

It’s no longer an aberration for artists to collaborate in the cloud, given the ease with which most of the world accesses high-speed internet. And A Sunny Day In Glasgow—collectively based in Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Sydney, Australia—creates the sort of impressionistic guitar pop that feels ripe for working in the ether. But that doesn’t mean the process of writing fine new album Sea When Absent (Lefse) across three cities and two hemispheres was ideal. In fact, the method was so present that it became a centerpiece of its narrative.

“You have to create a new language and a completely different process of how to do things,” says Jen Goma, one of two ASDIG lead vocalists. “You understand that your tools of expression are different, and then you undƒerstand that you’re telling a different story, because the story you’re telling is about doing new things.”

Goma adds that much of the lyrical content here is centered on distance, as well as the triumphs and failures associated with telegraphing ideas in the digital age where we can be “simultaneously everywhere and nowhere,” according to the band. “2014 is just an insane time to be alive. Sea When Absent is ASDIG’s story for the milieu, a fever-dream about the now—or maybe a lucid dream about the fever-now—and a future possible … set in pop-major.”

This might scan as art-school drivel were it not for the fact that it’s a remarkably cogent way of describing the sound of Sea When Absent, A Sunny Day In Glasgow’s third official album. (There’s four if you count 2010’s Autumn, Again, a leftovers LP from the Ashes Grammar sessions.) Since ASDIG’s arrival in 2006, when the roster was essentially just chief songwriter Ben Daniels, the band has been praised for its liberal take on shoegaze and synth pop, reconfiguring a sound that isn’t easily made new. That effect was enhanced by the home-recording methods employed on everything ASDIG recorded up until 2011, when the band contracted producer Jeff Zeigler to work in a recording studio for the first time.

Two years and a successful Kickstarter campaign later, Sea When Absent arrives with many of ASDIG’s trademark qualities intact, buttressed significantly by Zeigler and his studio prowess. But it also reveals new shades of the band. Sea When Absent is at turns the heaviest of ASDIG’s oeuvre and its most pop, bringing Goma and Anne Fredrickson’s vocals to the fore and allowing them to stretch in a way that at times recalls, perhaps strangely at first, R&B. The more centrist take on pop experimentation is a great look for the band.

Goma says that, while writing Sea When Absent remotely wasn’t ideal, the group learned its “new language” firmly enough to travel that road again as needed. Still, no matter how fluid our digital communications become, there will always be an advantage to working face-to-face. That, and fervent ASDIG fans might not have to wait so long for the next release. “I think we’d rather make something in 10 days instead of two years,” says Goma.

Pedro The Lion’s David Bazan was prescient on this point more than a decade ago: “Progress has a way of feigning ease.”

—Ryan Burleson

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: Two Hands Clapping

CYHSY

Formally stripped down to a two-piece, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah synthesizes its talents

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah may forever be pigeonholed as one of the first “blog bands.” Its self-titled, self-released debut became popular through word-of-blog acclaim upon arrival in 2005—deservedly so, with jittery, catchy guitar-pop songs such as “The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth,” “Is This Love?” and “In This Home On Ice.” The Philly/Brooklyn quintet, led by Alec Ounsworth, navigated the success well, but its second release, 2007’s Dave Fridmann-produced Some Loud Thunder, revealed that CYHSY was as interested in outsider weirdness as it was in indie-pop hooks. The record contains gems like “Underwater (You And Me),” but it suffered a seemingly inevitable backlash from the fickle blogosphere, as did 2011’s Hysterical.

In Hysterical’s aftermath, the band shed members and disappeared until late last summer, when the Little Moments EP arrived. That surprising set of four synth-pop songs set the tone for the vibe that threads through Only Run, the new Clap Your Hands album, which updates one of the EP’s songs as its title track. Ounsworth says that synths have always been a defining characteristic of the band.

“The fact of the matter is that Clap Your Hands was created as a synth-based project; that’s what it is,” says Ounsworth from San Francisco, where he’s in the middle of a solo tour of living rooms. “A lot of people are surprised to know that ‘Home On Ice,’ ‘Over And Over Again,’ ‘Upon This Tidal Wave Of Young Blood,’ ‘Yellow Country Teeth’—these are all synth-driven songs. It’s funny to hear that some people say that, ‘Oh, now you’re venturing into synth territory.’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s always kind of been.’ To me, I don’t really see a difference, including the last record and Some Loud Thunder. This time, we used synths about evenly, if not a little less than on some of the other records.”

Ounsworth laughs when asked who the “we” is in Clap Your Hands these days. “It’s mostly me,” he says. “I did try to work with other people. Even the guys who used to be in the band had a crack at these songs, but it was just unnecessary; a lot of the parts were just unnecessary. It’s not their fault; it’s just the way it happened.”

On Only Run, Clap Your Hands is essentially Ounsworth and drummer Sean Greenhalgh, with a major assist from Fridmann, who mixed the album.

“It’s kind of always been the vision that I had for this project,” says Ounsworth, who has juggled other things, such as Flashy Python and his solo album, 2009’s Mo Beauty. “The truth is, the only reason it didn’t end up being this way the entire time was because it took off to such a degree and everybody felt fully invested by virtue of that. All of a sudden, we were a band-band, and that was never entirely the intention. On the first record, you notice we didn’t actually list who played what. Not to go into any details, but to me, this one’s not very different at all from how the other ones played out.”

Only Run contains Clap Your Hands’ strongest set of songs since that debut, with a higher concentration of revved-up guitars and catchy crescendos. Ounsworth’s David Byrne-like vocals can be divisive. Some listeners find them grating; others, gratifyingly unfiltered and sometimes unhinged. They’re harnessed, on Only Run, to melodies such as “As Always” or “Impossible Request” that hit an indie-pop sweet spot.

Ounsworth is happy downsizing Clap Your Hands. Although he will draft a rotating cast of players to tour, he’s also loving doing solo shows for small audiences outside of traditional venues.

“There came a point with Clap Your Hands where we were going out playing bigger shows, but I was feeling absolutely nothing,” he says. “Everyone around me was telling me everything was going so well, but I felt absolutely no connection. I don’t know if was entirely self-sabotage or something like that, but I felt that I needed to bring it down to a certain level that made sense to me. As much as a lot of people around me feel that it was self-sabotage, I feel more comfortable than I’ve felt in eight or nine years doing this. It’s kind of great. I feel enormously positive for the first time in a long time.”

—Steve Klinge

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Bob On The Tracks: MAGNET Cover Star Bob Mould On His New Album

BobMould

We asked June MAGNET cover star Bob Mould to go through Beauty & Ruin (Merge), his extraordinary new album, track by track and free associate in any way he saw fit. What’s it about? What inspired it? How was it recorded? That kind of thing. Here’s what he had to say:

LOW SEASON
The atmospheric thing at the beginning is actually a recording of these big ropes flapping against a big flagpole down by the ocean. Did some treatments to it—tried to make it sound almost like an orchestra, tuning up, doing all these manipulations. It goes into this really ponderous, very simply, heavy riff. It’s the low season, turn the sunlight down. Obviously, it’s about loss, about passing. It’s very monochromatic and dirge-y until the bridge and you hear the organ hit, and all of the sudden it goes technicolor.

LITTLE GLASS PILL
It’s about the smartphone as unintended tool of self-realization. A glass pill, that’s what that is—it’s a window, it’s a mirror. You see your reflection when you look at the thing. We’ve become this world we we look at ourselves through this thing; it’s hilarious.

I DON’T KNOW YOU ANYMORE
Straight-up pop song. You know, I’ve been writing that song for a long time—always good—catchy, catchy catchy. Always put a negative in the title—“I Don’t Know You Anymore”—then make it a very upbeat.

KID WITH THE CROOKED FACE
Straight-up punk rock, very autobiographical in a funny way. It’s got severe imagery inside the lyrics, but it’s not actually that bad. I hadn’t written a punk-rock song like that in a while, and it was so easy, like I might’ve done it before.

NEMESIS ARE LAUGHING
Deep, deep track. Love that track—very psychedelic—a lot of thos late-’60s psych/pop chord changes in it. Lot of weird dissonant, angular parts that I think people picked up on and the stuff I was touching on with “Slick” from Copper Blue. I saw people taking that style in the aughts, a lot of angular rock bands using that. So, yeah, “Nemesis”: real, real fun one.

THE WAR
Side one ends with a war. And, yes, I still think in terms of side-a and side-b. A collection of snapshots. A unified statement. As long as there are still people who buy albums, I will continue to make them.

FORGIVENESS
End of side one, the war is over, and now we’re into forgiveness. We’re into the third act of the record, you know, you’ve gone through decline, you’ve gone through flashback, now you’ve come to conciliation, you know, the next phase of whatever life is, where you not so much make peace with others but make peace with who you are. Again that life, loss and legacy thing and where that takes you. It starts with Jon Wurster’s nice little drumbeat and sets up a very simple, plaintive story : better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

HEY MR. GREY
Really funny song. It’s so hilarious. You have the whole “I am Mr. Grey, get off my lawn” thing. Little Replacements mention, and then on with the colors. The blue broken-hearted fool; the green swirly scene, envy, color of envy; Mr. White, the one percenter; and then back to Mr. Grey. And in the end line, “Find a life that’s right for you,” is sort of setting up song eight or 12, and it’s getting ready to set up the end of the record.

FIRE IN THE CITY
It’s sort of this earthquake/Armageddon/ascension/end-of-time kind of thing.

TOMORROW MORNING
This is the final stage of the record: the future. You know, after all these things happen, after you lose people, and you lose your health, you lose time, you reflect on all of that, you try and get right with it, and then all you’re left with at the end of all that is the future. For better or worse, that’s what we all get.

LET THE BEAUTY BE
It’s technically the closer of the album. You’ve seen the artwork: the gray, the yellow, the fog, the sun, the death. It’s the rebirth, it’s the study in contrast.

FIX IT
We had the music recorded, but I was banging my head trying to get the words finished up. And I was like, “What do I do, what do I do?” But then I was, like, “This is the epilogue. The album’s actually over, this is the epilogue.” So, let me do this, let me go back and let me look at all the key themes and all the key words in the album: The magic, which we lost in “Low Season,” the depression, the cancer of the soul that we talked about in “Nemeses.” I yell into a paper cone, pounding on a piece of wood and wires. What does that mean? That’s what I do. Microphone’s a paper cone, guitars, it’s a piece of wood with wires, that’s all it is. That’s what I do. Scratch that, that’s what we do.

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

MAGNET Classics: The Making Of The Jesus Lizard’s “Liar”

JesusLizard

The Making Of The Jesus Lizard’s Liar

In the early ’90s, the Jesus Lizard was untouchable. Not literally, of course—if you were at one of its hundreds of shows in that era, you could very easily touch ’em. And given the amount of time vocalist David Yow spent slithering on top of the audience, you probably didn’t have a choice in the matter.

By that point, the Lizard’s live show had already become a thing of legend, and a large segment of the indie-rock underground population had seen Yow whip out his cock and/or balls onstage at one time or another. But the band didn’t survive solely on that reputation. Releasing a record a year from ’89 to ’92, the Jesus Lizard topped itself with one masterpiece after another in a flurry of activity that began with the Pure EP, continued through the brilliant Head and Goat albums, then culminated in the game-changing Liar.

Cobbled together from former members of Scratch Acid, Cargo Cult, 86 and Rapeman, the Jesus Lizard sounded like nothing before it, and no one’s duplicated it since. “Noise rock” is the easiest descriptor, though it falls woefully short in capturing everything that’s going on in Liar classics like “Puss” (which also appeared on the band’s split single with Nirvana) and “Dancing Naked Ladies.” While many of the band’s peers achieved the “noise” part of that label through some element of chaos, the Jesus Lizard was clinically precise. The execution was machine-like, and even Yow’s unhinged vocals were carefully considered in the studio—think Public Image Ltd.-era John Lydon’s cynical snarl and Birthday Party-era Nick Cave’s depraved howling, but mixed in a way that’s somehow equal parts playful and terrifying. The end result was Liar, an album that’s too difficult for punk, too visceral for art rock. When the Alternative Nation was finally presented to the world at large, there was the Jesus Lizard, and there was everyone else.

“The previous album, Goat, I think was the one that kind of put us on the map more than any of the others up to that point,” says guitarist Duane Denison. “We really found our own sound, I felt like, there: our own sound and our own style of writing. That was the one where we kind of broke away from the influences, or at least the influences weren’t so obvious. I think that’s probably true with most bands. Usually the first record, or even the first couple of records, you can hear where they’re coming from pretty easily, and I think that was the case with ourselves. Goat was when we really started to get noticed, and then Liar to me was kind of the continuation of that.”

And where the three previous records all opened with a mid-tempo groove that eased the listener into the Jesus Lizard world courtesy of bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Mac McNeilly, Liar wastes about 0.0000001 seconds before going for the throat.

“I think what I like about Liar is it just shoots right out of the gate tempo-wise at a much faster pace than anything else we ever did, really,” says Denison. “Right from the get-go—‘Boilermaker,’ ‘Gladiator,’ ‘The Art Of Self-Defense’— it’s pretty relentless. I don’t necessarily think that fast songs are what makes things rock harder. I think some bands get too focused on that, but I just thought that’s what made this album different. It just had a sense of urgency to it as a result of that, and that’s what’s always sort of stayed with me.”

Goat and Liar always seemed pretty similar to me,” says Sims. “I think I prefer Goat. I think it sounds a little better, and I think the songs are a little stronger, but I like Liar, too. They always seemed to me almost two discs of a double album. They’re not because they were recorded almost a year apart, but they almost sound like that.”

And really, choosing one over the other is like splitting hairs. Some MAGNET readers might even remember a sidebar next to a recent review of Denison’s new band, the Unsemble, in which we called Goat the best Jesus Lizard record. Yow doesn’t even bother distinguishing the albums; we had to recite the tracklist to remind him which songs are on Liar.

“It’s sorta like if somebody asked you what you were wearing at that party you went to 20 years ago,” the singer says. “One has ‘Then Comes Dudley’ and one has ‘Gladiator,’ and they’re kind of the same beast. We always made sure not to put those songs next to each other in the set list.”

During this time, the band was on the road almost nonstop. Denison says the Jesus Lizard was only home for three months in ’91. On top of that, the four band members shared a three-bedroom apartment in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago, with McNeilly taking the couch. Where a lot of groups might buckle under those tight confines, the personalities that made up the Jesus Lizard managed to mesh. While each member now lives in opposite corners of the country—Yow in Los Angeles, Sims in New York, Denison in Nashville and McNeilly still in the Chicago area—none of them remembers any added tension as a result of almost never being able to get away from their roommates.

“We’re still all very good friends,” says Sims. “It’s always good to get to hang out with those guys. They’re still three of my favorite people in the world ever.”

“We didn’t seem to mind because it was very much a ‘we’re all in this together’ sort of attitude,” says McNeilly. “I think we all felt like we knew each other longer than we actually had. We were also a little bit older. We weren’t in our early 20s. We had all been in bands before, so I think that helped us not make huge things out of things that didn’t really matter. I think we had a better perspective on that.”

Living together allowed the band to introduce ideas whenever the mood struck. “We were touring a lot, and we’d come home and someone would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea.’ Sometimes we would just sit around with acoustic guitars and then go work them out,” says Denison. And that’s another thing that set the Jesus Lizard apart: The in-your-face, abrasive songs on Liar could be just as well unplugged.

“The guitar and bass lines work just fine,” says Denison. “Somebody can sit there and tap on a phone book and you can work that out. We weren’t necessarily dependent on volume and effects to make those songs work. I like to think that maybe that’s why they’ve held up better than some from that era. When it’s all said and done, you can reduce them and analyze them, and there is structure and a certain sort of logic to the way those songs flow together.”

“We had different practice places depending on what time of our history it was,” says McNeilly. “I remember for some of that we were in this basement of this friend’s apartment building. I remember going through the song ‘Gladiator.’ This basement was really dark, dank and old, and there were practically no lights at all. I don’t know how much that had to do with how the songs formed or not, but I have a very clear visual memory of that. Of course, I could be remembering it wrong, but that’s what it brings to mind.”

“David and Duane—sometimes Mac and I, but usually Duane and David—would have a particular idea, and they would expound on that,” says Yow. “The lyrics, sometimes I would have them already. Sometimes the music might inspire them. There were a couple times when I was unprepared and we were in the studio, and I had to shit them out pretty fast.”

Liar was recorded much the same way its predecessors were—in just a few days at Chicago Recording Company with Steve Albini. Most of the songs had been thoroughly vetted onstage at this point, so the band was usually able to nail each within a couple takes. There isn’t much in the way of embellishments, either; if a note wasn’t needed, it wasn’t played. At the same time, the musicianship far surpassed what one would normally associate with a punk or hardcore record.

“Steve always claims that he’s an engineer and not a producer, but to me that’s semantics,” says Yow. “I would say he’s a record producer. He had a lot of cool recording ideas, and he works quickly and efficiently.”

“He didn’t really want to view himself as a producer who was really going to change anything we were doing,” says McNeilly. “I think what he really wanted to do was document it. I think that’s how he felt he could help us. Especially during that time, he was one of our biggest advocates and biggest champions.”

“He was fairly involved back then,” says Denison. “He’d always make comments before, during and after practically every take. Some humorous, some were kind of snide. I remember on ‘Boilermaker,’ there’s that chorus line. He told me he thought it sounded like a theme from a game show.”

While Liar might be a refinement of the approach the band initiated on Goat, the Jesus Lizard still managed to break new ground. The hard-and-heavy “Slave Ship” crawls under your skin, while “Zachariah” sounds like a post-apocalyptic country/western soundtrack. Then there’s “Rope,” a rockabilly-ish number about a dude who accidentally killed himself by autoerotic asphyxiation.

“It’s a disgusting story, based on a true story,” says Yow. “Some guy was dating this girl, and he was over at her house; she lives with her parents. She and her parents left to run errands or go shopping or whatever, but when they came back he had accidentally autoerotically asphyxiated himself. I think he had a trowel in his ass. ‘Wow, dude. Get down.’”

Elsewhere you’ve got a pygmy monster on a murderous spree (“The Art Of Self-Defense”), while “Puss” is about the time someone in Urge Overkill finally flipped out over the ridicule the band was getting from a local zine.

“There was a great club in Chicago called Lounge Ax,” says Yow. “At the time there were these two girls who did a zine called Stalker, and mostly it was poking fun and making fun of the Urge Overkill boys. The Urge boys had plenty sense of humor as long as it didn’t hurt them, but they didn’t like that zine very much. Blackie Onassis pushed one of the girls down the stairs at Lounge Ax one time. ‘Puss’ is sorta based on that. Like, ‘Wowee, you pushed a girl down the stairs?’”

Yow filtered these often morbid tales through a delivery that, while not necessarily devoid of melody and rhythm, put greater emphasis on mood.

“I think the juxtaposition of the music being really precise and David Yow being all over the place was really this thing that was unusual,” says McNeilly.

“I used to think of his voice as almost like a saxophone,” says Denison. “You had this free-jazz saxophone going. If everybody was doing that, to me, it wouldn’t be a rock band anymore. It wouldn’t be enjoyable to listen to. At least that’s how we thought. We wanted the bass and the drums to be very tight and machine-like, and then also have the guitar fit in there in a very tight, machine-like way. That was our sound.”

“I’ve gotten a kick out of the handful of Jesus Lizard cover bands I’ve heard,” says Yow. “But the part that struck me a few times was that the vocalist is simply not paying attention. They would just scream everything, and I didn’t do that. I did a lot of quiet shit. I did a lot of whispery stuff, some singing stuff, whatever.”

Liar’s iconic album cover came courtesy of England-born, Austin-based painter Malcolm Bucknall, the father of a childhood friend of Sims whose work also appeared on the split single with Nirvana, as well as Down. Sims said he would go over to the Bucknall household because his friend Tim’s parents let them smoke pot there. The rationale was the parents didn’t think they could stop Tim from doing so, and would rather he do it at home than get arrested somewhere else.

“There were these remarkable, amazing, beautifully executed, thrilling to look at and very, very strange paintings that his father had done just hanging around the house,” says Sims. “It was just a treat to go over there and be able to look at these.”

The Liar cover is a rendering of Bucknall’s Allegory Of Death. “I do recall that I told Yow and Sims that Liar sounded wild, primitive, barbaric—to their delight,” says Bucknall. “I’ve sometimes described my work as ‘uptight expressionism.’ By comparison, the Jesus Lizard is ‘expressionist,’ yes, but ‘uptight,’ no.”

Bucknall only asked for copies of the album and posters as compensation. “My one stipulation was that the reproduction be of good quality without visual additions—no mustache on the Mona Lisa,” he says. “Frankly, to me, these were kids who were enthusiasts and having a go at something they loved, and I suppose I was coming from the paternal instinct. However, the amount of attention and sales that have come directly from my Jesus Lizard connection is remarkable and ongoing. Punk rockers grow up to be art collectors, it turns out.”

The band’s own stature has continued to grow as well. After calling it a day in 1999 (10 years after its first show), the Jesus Lizard kicked off a wildly success reunion tour in 2009 (10 years after it broke up). But the legacy wouldn’t be there without Liar, a record that guarantees that any brash band playing discordant music with a certain swing is forever going to be compared to the Jesus Lizard.

“I think when we were going in the early ’90s, there were a select amount of people who knew about the band, and we had really diehard fans who would keep showing up,” says McNeilly. “Maybe the reputation of the band has increased somewhat. It was a lot of word of mouth, a lot of people talking about the band. I think we did leave some sort of imprint. I don’t know how big it was, but it feels good to have made some sort of impact that hopefully will last for a while.”

“It seems like there are more people who care than in the old days,” says Yow. “I was certainly happy with the number of records we sold and the number of people who came to our rock shows and stuff. You can’t expect anybody to like you anyway, so when a bunch of them do, that’s pretty cool.”

—Matt Sullivan

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Trans Am: The Ends And The Means

TransAm

After nearly a quarter-century, Trans Am still gets a kick out of pushing buttons

After 24 years and 10 albums, we’re still trying to figure out Trans Am. A statement of misguided complication or exaggeration? Maybe. But the trio hasn’t exactly made comprehension easy considering its non-linear progression, lack of canned press statements and refusal to submit to expectation. Example: 2002’s T.A., where accompanying promo photos saw the band D-bagged up to resemble a record company-stencilled boy band. Were they ripping on pop culture’s easiest targets or poking fun at Blink-182’s poking fun of the mainstream’s musical climate, while riffing on electroclash and visually parodying REO Speedwagon’s The Hits?

“We’re a pretty reactionary band, I discovered early on,” says bassist/keyboardist/vocalist Nathan Means. “When we started playing in the ’90s, it was a wasteland of guitar-based alternative rock. Everything was kind of moody or aggressive and pretty ‘male.’ That was our first reactionary move. I don’t want to claim no one was playing with a keyboard at the time, but playing with keys in a rock band was pretty novel. And playing with a Casio was something people laughed at.”

Then, there was the on-again/off-again claim that the band wasn’t “doing anything different” musically.

“Yeah, I did say that, didn’t I?” says Means. “You know, I’m going to disagree with myself. In that case, I think I was reacting to the idea of people creating something new, but 80 percent of music is pretty heavily influenced by something else, or copied. That fuels the belief that nothing is all that different and people recycle things for new product, which is new in terms of being product, but not new in terms of being new music.”

Trans Am’s throw-at-a-dartboard-and-see-what-sticks approach notwithstanding, the band finds itself with a 10th album in its laps. Volume X (Thrill Jockey) leans toward the streamlined sensibility of 2007’s Sex Change, snidely and playfully existing somewhere between krautrock, post-rock, electro-rock, punk rock and other prefix-rock. And while Means denies “Megastorm” being a deliberate synthed-up nod to New York hardcore heroes the Cro-Mags’ “We Gotta Know” (“I don’t think so, but I’m calling out [drummer] Sebastian [Thomson]; that’s one of his songs”), he will cop to Trans Am’s renewed sense of purpose and the redefinition of the band’s meaning to its members. Maybe the trio really isn’t doing anything new and none of us are obscure enough archivists to have figured it out. Whatever it’s doing, the band is doing it with a new lease on life, and for that, you can point to the business of music.

“Trans Am is a different entity now,” says Means. “Before, it was our universe, and we had a pretty steady rise in popularity over our first four or five albums. There was a sense of upward trajectory and endless possibility. Now it’s pretty stripped down. We got dropped from our booking agency a couple years ago. They said they were focussing on their ‘core’ business—whatever that means—and all of a sudden, after 15 or 17 years, we didn’t have an agent. It was like, ‘Oh wow! Now we’re just some guys who play in a band.’ It was a bummer, but it was liberating. We were just playing shows and having fun. And if we’re not having fun, we’re not going to do it. It’s kind of a lame phrase, but I would use ‘creative outlet’ to describe what Trans Am means for us now.”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Liam Finn: New York State Of Find

LiamFinn

Liam Finn’s view of Manhattan inspired the dark corners and intimate expanse of The Nihilist

Liam Finn could rightly be identified as a world citizen. The New Zealand native was a globetrotting toddler, accompanying father Neil Finn on Crowded House tours, repeating the experience as a young adult with his own band, the renowned Betchadupa. To record FOMO, the sophomore follow-up to 2007 solo debut I’ll Be Lightning, Finn relocated to London, but moved to New York City three years ago after touring FOMO.

“We found ourselves in New York, which is somewhere I’ve always dreamed of living,” says Finn, on a working holiday back home in New Zealand. “It’s really inspiring. Every time you leave the house, you feel like you’re in a movie, and it adds an element of surreality to your day, which I find is great for creativity. If anything, it kicks you up your ass to be better at what you do to be able to stand out.”

If Finn’s third solo set, The Nihilist (Yep Roc), is any indication, consider his ass creatively kicked. The title track’s diary of debauched decadence is set to a soundtrack of Split Enz-ian art-rock chaos and Crowded House pop melodicism (a family birthright, after all), filtered through the loopy electronics that have progressively defined Finn’s solo explorations. Conversely, the album’s first single, the subversively titled “Snug As Fuck,” is a slice of Beatlesque pop polished to a contemporary Broken Bells shimmer. The Nihilist runs the gamut of Finn’s genetic and experiential influences, and reflects the reality behind his New York fantasy.

Finn was luckless in securing a rehearsal/studio space when a real estate agent connected him with a group of guys who had rehabbed a warehouse for their own studio and had an underutilized room to rent. Finn converted it into a studio/performance space where he has established a weekly residency, dubbed Murmurations. The space proved divinely inspirational.

“It was almost too good to be true,” says Finn. “It had the big windows that I’d dreamt of. It ticked all the boxes. That’s where I wrote and recorded the majority of the record.”

Starting with a personal goal of spending more time on songwriting before hitting the studio, Finn was captivated by the Manhattan skyline visible through his big windows. That view steered him in previously unexplored directions.

“I worked a lot of nights, and I was looking out these windows at Manhattan, and I got obsessed with this concept of it being this vibrating, bubbling dimension of endless possibilities,” says Finn. “Every time you make a decision, it’s a combination of your consciousness and your subconscious that makes it. I guess I explored the idea of the amount of different realities you could be living on the inside, and maybe it’s like this Manhattan-like world. I could let my mind go into some dark places and then be like, ‘Well, that’s probably happening somewhere in Manhattan.’ So, it’s just living vicariously through the subconscious.”

The Nihilist also represents the sum total of Finn’s studio education. On I’ll Be Lightning, he worked solely in the analog realm and largely alone, while FOMO found him embracing the possibilities inherent in the digital realm. Finn discovered a way to execute The Nihilist as an analog/digital mash-up.

“It was definitely a combination of analog and digital that made this record,” says Finn. “I needed to realize that I wasn’t bad at Pro Tools, and it is just a tool, and it can be used as complicated or as simply as you want to use it. Now I’ve become sort of a nerdy sound scientist.”

In addition, Finn combined a live-in-studio performance vibe with a more thoughtfully produced approach, positioning The Nihilist at the intersection of demo primitivism and studio sophistication.

“I don’t normally like to demo because I get too attached,” he says. “So, this time I forced myself to demo, taught them to the band and tracked eight of the 12 songs fully live as the band. But immediately, I missed the spontaneity and uniqueness of the sounds. In the studio, you can quite often sacrifice the originality because engineers—as much as I love them and as much as they are all-knowing—there is something lost in that expertise. I ended up with songs that sounded almost finished, but they didn’t sound like what I was picturing in my head. Then came the agonizing next six months of using the live tracks and keeping the energy of the performance, but turning it into something I was imagining. It was hard, but incredibly exciting and vindicating once I reached those goals.”

—Brian Baker

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Stone Jack Jones: Stoned And Rethroned

StoneJackJones

Eclectic fearlessness ignites country journeyman Stone Jack Jones’ triumphant return

By the time he reached 55, Stone Jack Jones had spent a lifetime as a carnie, ballet dancer, lute player and hundreds of other things, trying his luck from Buffalo Creek to Charleston to Boston to New York to Fort Worth to Atlanta to Nashville. Mostly, he made music—even if it was just playing on the street or at a nearly empty open mic. Then in 2003, he met Roger Moutenot, who’d engineered albums for They Might Be Giants, Yo La Tengo and John Zorn. And all of a sudden, something happened.

“Our wives knew each other, and Roger needed a temporary place to mix,” Jones says from his Nashville home. “I had a studio—it didn’t have any recording equipment, but I call it a studio, and we agreed to share the space. That first night, he walked in while I was playing, and just stood there. He goes, ‘I thought you played country music.’ And I said, ‘Well, I thought I did, too.’ And he goes, ‘I don’t think that’s country. Let’s try recording it.’”

So they did. The song was “Johnny Boy,” about a guy looking for a fix, with lines like “I was simply dreaming I was dreaming in a dream.” It started with Jones singing and strumming acoustic guitar, but by the time they were finished, there were thick, dark layers of guitar noise on top of a fuzzed-out organ, wobbling bass, echoing drums, disembodied voices and a high hat that sounded like an alarm clock in the middle of a hangover. Like “Venus In Furs,” if Lou Reed had grown up in a holler. Or “Suzanne,” if Leonard Cohen’s father had been a coal miner instead of a clothing salesman.

“It felt very natural,” says Jones, whose third album, Ancestor (Western Vinyl), keeps working that same vein. “Roger started recording me as though we were live. He has an incredible amount of energy, so if he had a free night, we’d work from nine ’til three in the morning, usually one song a night. It was very spontaneous—more like playing than recording. I felt comfortable working with Roger, and when I heard a song coming out of the speakers, it wasn’t embarrassing. It didn’t sound like a second-rate country singer; it sounded special.”

His first two albums, Narcotic Lollipop and Bluefolk, were pretty damn special, but hardly anybody heard either one. With Ancestor and his upcoming 66th birthday, Jones is hoping that’s about to change. It’s certainly the best of the three, with a deeper sense of home and a sweeter, simpler sadness in the songwriting. On “Joy,” he’s dreaming about the afterlife; on “Jackson,” he’s remembering a better time; on “Black Coal,” he’s thinking about his father, a fourth-generation coal miner who passed away three years ago.

“It was an actually an old song I found myself singing around the house after he died,” says Jones. “It just came back to me and took me over, just out of respect. That was in 2010, when I started on this. Every record has to start from something, and this one started with a string band, just thinking about vibrating strings and the stories they tell. I went in with the bare bones, let myself feel that Appalachian string band, and have it grow from there.”

With Jones multi-tracking on acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, Fender bass, Dobro, harmonica, Hammond organ, Wurlitzer, piano and tambourine, Ancestor doesn’t sound like his father’s folk music. (Or his father’s marching band.) On top of that, there’s e-bow, organ, vibraphone, glockenspiel and high-strung guitar by Lambchop’s Ryan Norris; Casio, Moog, Roland and toy piano by Moutenot; drums processed through a telephone mic; cocktail-party sounds from Nashville and Berlin; and “little blips of weirdness” by Ben Smythe. Pile them all together, slow the tempo down to an opiate nod, and you get a roomful of ambient noise surrounding what Jones calls “a simple, confessional song, humbly presented.”

“The songs aren’t very different from the ones I wrote 30 or 40 years ago,” he says. “The clothing on it—the way it’s dressed sonically—has changed. But underneath, the structure of the songs and the attitude in the songs goes back to very simple country songs, or bluegrass, or old-timey—that ethnic stuff I grew up around. That’s where I started, and I think I’m still there.”

—Kenny Berkowitz

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Jessica Lea Mayfield: Alternative Medicine

JessicaLeaMayfield

Lapsed folkie Jessica Lea Mayfield finds a new muse in ’90s grunge

Although she’s been performing for two-thirds of her 24 years, Jessica Lea Mayfield is starting over with third album Make My Head Sing…(ATO).

Mayfield joined her parents’ bluegrass band when she was eight. In her teens, she sang Foo Fighters covers at coffeehouses in and around her home of Kent, Ohio, and did some recording with her brother, privately releasing an album under the alias Chittlin’ in 2007. That led to recording with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and her official debut, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, which came out in 2008, when she was 19.

That well-received album presented Mayfield as a moody, rootsy singer/songwriter of precocious talent, confirmed by its follow-up, 2010’s Tell Me, also produced by Auerbach.

But then Mayfield became disillusioned.

“I was touring for Tell Me, and in one of the most awkward stages of my life,” says Mayfield. “The age when everyone doesn’t really know who they are, when you’re in your early 20s. I was out there, and I had to kind of front. I didn’t even know what kind of clothes I liked to wear, but I was out there every single night, just trying to be myself and not even really sure who that was. It just got real tiring. I realized at one point that this isn’t the kind of music that I would put on and listen to.”

Mayfield considered giving up on music altogether. She married fellow musician Jesse Newport, and they settled in Kent. Newport was eager was to record with her, but she had little interest.

“We got married, and I was on the downspin from Tell Me,” she says. “He was like, ‘Let’s just record for fun,’ and I would be like, ‘I fucking hate music. I don’t want to play anymore. I give up.’ I want to have an old folks’ home for animals, anything. I was so done. I was so fucking bored. I like all kinds of music, but I took the wrong pill or something and went down the folk alley. Now I feel like this record is the first record that I ever made. I started really getting into playing guitar, and the record kind of just wrote itself.”

Make My Head Sing… will surprise listeners who expect a third set of Americana-style folk rock. Produced by Mayfield and Newport, it’s a grungy power-trio album that places Mayfield’s calm voice in a squall of her electric guitar. The crackling, distorted guitar line of “Oblivious” opens the record, and it sounds like a declaration of purpose: This is hard rock, not Americana. Although it includes a few restrained moments that recall her past work—the reverberating “Standing In The Sun,” wistful love song “Seein* Starz”—the dominant tone is heavy and aggressive.

“What got me into music was ’90s alternative, bands like the Stone Temple Pilots,” says Mayfield. “I never got big into learning all the guitar tones that I loved so dearly, but now I’ve realized that I can make those sounds in my pajamas in my house, and it’s really become a passion of mine and something I really fucking love.”

She calls the album “a tribute to what I sit around and listen to.” The reference points are bands such as Soundgarden, Queens Of The Stone Age, Nirvana and Foo Fighters. Without slavishly imitating them, Mayfield has mastered their visceral energy and metallic power chords. It’s also ominous and eerie on songs like “Party Drugs,” the first she recorded for the album, which she calls, “just me and guitar and getting into making things sound fucked up.”

Mayfield still professes a fondness for the old-time country of Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, but claims, “there’s not a lot of new music that I like.” She’s a purist and has little patience for electronics.

“I get so pissed off when I go out, if I’m watching a band at a festival and I hear things that I don’t see onstage,” she says. “I don’t want to hear this magical computer shit. I just want to see a band: I want to go to a show and I want to see a fucking band.”

For this record, Mayfield also wanted to be in control, to be the one taking the chances and making the decisions, to create something that reflected who she is now.

“I’m not going sing about the shit that a teenage girl would sing about—I’ve got to make something that’s a little more coherent with my life,” she says. “I turned 24 years old in August. This is the year I’ve figured out that life is about working hard and enjoying the work that you do. If you’re not doing those two things, then you’re doing something wrong.”

—Steve Klinge

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed