Category Archives: FEATURES

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

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

“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.

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

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

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

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

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

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.

Read More »

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed

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

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

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

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

The Sharp Things: Storehouse Of Treasure

SharpThings1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Eric Waggoner

“Union Chapel” (download):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Also posted in FREE MP3s, GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

Horse Feathers: This Ain’t A Scene

HorseFeathers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Devon Leger

Also posted in GUEST EDITOR | Comments closed

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

This was originally posted Oct. 27, 2003.

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

elliot-window550r2

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

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

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

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

Elliott is gone now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wish … I wish … I wish.

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

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

And now, he’s gone.

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

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

—Corey duBrowa

Posted in FEATURES | Comments closed