Category Archives: FEATURES

Ezra Furman: The Outsider

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Chicago misfit Ezra Furman might just have made the album of the year

Ezra Furman is the kind of artist who comes along every now and then to reduce jaded music hacks to gibbering, simpering wrecks. All cynicism evaporates, all objectivity is thrown out of the window, and terms like “life-changing” are tossed around with giddy, reckless abandon. And it’s not just the press. Witness Furman’s new label boss, Bella Union supremo (and erstwhile Cocteau Twin) Simon Raymonde. After catching a particularly riotous gig at London’s Lexington earlier this year, Raymonde took to Instagram and became very, very excited indeed. As in, capslock excited:

“EVERYTHING. ALL THINGS. LIFE. THE BEGINNINGS. THE STRUGGLE. EVERYDAY. OUTSIDE. TEARS. HEARTBREAK. UNBRIDLED JOY. NOTHING ELSE MATTERS BEFORE OR AFTER. JUST THIS MOMENT. LIVING. SHARING. LOVE. WHY WE BOTHER. THE MOST IMPORTANT. DON’T USE THE WORD VISCERAL UNLESS IT REALLY WAS. NEVER TO BE FORGOTTEN.”

Quite. And it’s not just Raymonde. The rest of the U.K., it would seem, has fallen head over heels in love with Furman. He’s received across-the-board fi ve-star reviews, BBC 6 Music has practically adopted him, he sells out shows in minutes, and in one of the summer’s more surreal musical/media meet-ups, he appeared in a suitably somber interview on Channel 4’s evening news. Not bad for a selfconfessed misfi t, a cross-dressing, bisexual, observant Jew with a history of depression. Even more impressive when you consider that, as recently as three years ago, he was pleading for money on Kickstarter to fund his first solo album, The Year Of No Returning. Not that he seems particularly fazed when MAGNET calls him to talk about this sudden burst of fame.

“It is odd, isn’t it?” he says, sounding more than a little bemused. “But I don’t really care—let people like it or not like it. There’s no real strategy here. I dunno—it used to matter a lot more to me. I used to want more attention. I wanted praise, like from media outlets. But I don’t care about that anymore; I really don’t.”

Back here in his native U.S. (Furman hails from Chicago), he’s still flying resolutely under the radar. And frankly, that’s criminal, as his latest album, Perpetual Motion People, is far and away one of this year’s most sublime efforts. It’s a giddily splenetic, high-octane record, packed full of a dizzying array of influences—the Violent Femmes, Lou Reed, ’50s doo-wop, Bowie, Jonathan Richman—but one that neatly sidesteps pastiche. It’s an unbridled clarion call to all the freaks and geeks out there, the lonely kids, the misunderstood. Its lyrics abound with images of depression, confusion, sexuality and religion, but there’s no po-faced, self-indulgent navel-gazing here; indeed, it’s about as far removed from stereotypical singer/songwriter miserablism as you could imagine. Instead, it revels in an utterly joyous, uplifting level of cathartic intensity, reminiscent of (in spirit at least) early Titus Andronicus.

“Yeah, I mean there’s a temptation to write very studied, mannered songs, the whole singer/songwriter thing, I suppose,” he says. “But it’s unexciting, a little sedated. So, I started thinking I should just o er up total enthusiasm … I just wanted to let all this energy out.”

And it’s a ploy that works brilliantly, resulting in a hugely life-affirming record. What’s more, there’s an endearingly infectious lack of studied cool that makes it all the more attractive.

“Yeah,” says Furman. “Something unbridled. I dunno, I mean, I have no idea about how to be cool. I’ve tried, but it just didn’t work for me. I just confess things and go over the top emotionally.”

—Neil Ferguson

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Royal Headache: Game Of Thrones

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Royal Headache solidifies its status as the king of Aussie garage punk

With its 2012 debut, Sydney, Australia’s Royal Headache effectively ended Radio Birdman’s 40-year reign as the king of Australian garage punk, supplanting Birdman’s surf infl uences with ca einated mod and soul. Although the band—singer Shogun, guitarist Law, bassist Joe and drummer Shortty—bristles at such categorizations.

“We were compared to the Jam a lot by Australians when we started,” says Joe, addressing the band’s alleged mod proclivities. “Generally, everything we’re compared to are bands we don’t listen to a great deal. The Jam have some incredible songs, but overall, I reckon they’re pretty patchy.”

“I always thought of Shogun as having a Rod Stewart thing going,” says Shortty. “We all love the Northern soul classics as much as the next person. However, it always makes me cringe when music press pushes this narrative that Royal Headache are these soul-daddies or something. At the end of the day, we are four white, middleclass guys from Australia. We are aware of our privilege and lived-in experiences. I don’t want us to be perceived as Blueshammer-style cultural appropriators.”

After a three-year absence, and announcement by Shogun last year that the band was splitting, Royal Headache recently surprised fans with a new release, High. “The band has never been a full-time thing for us,” says Law, explaining the delay. “It’s a fine balance maintaining a functioning band, holding a job and living in the real world.”

High avoids the sophomore slump with the revved-up, lo-fi punk of the band’s debut, mingled with the likes of “Wouldn’t You Know,” the closest Royal Headache has come to pure soul, and “Carolina,” an unexpected (and excellent) foray into heartland rock.

Given the premature reports of their demise, what does the future hold for the Aussies? “I personally feel like it’s the start of a new chapter for Royal Headache,” says Law. “It’s like a family now. A fairly dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless.”

—Matt Ryan

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Joanna Newsom: Have Another On Her

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Every song is its own character for ambitious wordsmith Joanna Newsom

“I hope I don’t realize I made a terrible misktake in a year and the thing that I’ve been trying to say with this record is not as palpable as I thought it would be. But for me, it’s kind of all there.”

Joanna Newsom is talking about Divers, her fourth album. She is in New York City, visiting from her home in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband Andy Samberg, the comedian and star of TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

Divers is an intricate and paradoxical work, full of internal connections both lyrical and musical, but also built from a diverse array of instrumental settings and arrangements that make each song discrete. It’s both linear and circuitous. The themes may be “kind of all there,” but Divers is still enticingly enigmatic.

When Newsom debuted in 2004 with The Milk-Eyed Mender, she seemed to fi t in with the “freak folk” movement and artists like Devendra Banhart and Vetiver. She was an oddity—a classically trained harpist with an unusual voice that fell in the neighborhood of Dolly Parton and Kate Bush, who wrote charming songs like “Bridges And Balloons” (which the Decemberists later covered) and “Sprout And The Bean.”

But 2006’s Ys, with its five long songs and orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, quickly established Newsom an ambitious, complex artist, and 2010’s sprawling, three-CD Have One On Me further broadened the scope of her talent.

Divers is more focused and coherent, full of references to wars and New York City, of allusions to Romantic poems and Dutch Masters, of birdsong and love songs.

“There are repeated references in a lot of ways,” Newsom says, with a laugh. “More so than with any other album I’ve made, this one is unified by a few themes and feelings and questions and places. I sort of think of those things as characters. The city of New York is a character that has a couple cameos because it was trying to illustrate a point or stand in for something.”

“Sapokanikan,” the album’s first single, takes its name from a Native American word for the area of what became Greenwich Village. Asked about the connections among the allusions that riddle the song, Newsom laughs again: “It’s all in the song. Not to be evasive, but I think it’s more fun to trace the line as it runs through the lyric than for me to do the sort of CliffsNotes version.”

As Newsom began writing after touring for Have One On Me, her new songs began to feel connected.

“I started to notice that, even though the songs I had written so far seemed on the surface very different and seemed to be about different things, they seemed to be circling around the same thing,” says Newsom. “Or begging the same questions for me or preoccupied with the same fears or driven by the same joys. The songs all lived in the same world, I noticed.”

Newsom cares deeply about words, and the twists and turns of the melodies—these songs avoid conventional verse/chorus structures—help form the lyrics.

“The lyrics get refined and refined and refined until they say what to say most clearly and precisely,” she says. “And with the most emotional truth and the most musicality, the most rhythmic strength and relationship to the music.”

She cites Hemingway, Faulkner and Nabokov as a few of her favorite writers (“You know, the dead white guys of note,” she says). And Thomas Pynchon, although Newsom had finished writing and much of the recording of Divers before she appeared in and narrated Paul Thomas Anderson’s fi lm of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.

Although not exactly forming a suite, the songs have musical connections as well: The end of one often flows into the beginning of the next, and motifs recur. But Newsom was also interested in disconnections. She worked with different arrangers, none of whom worked on more than one song. Collaborators included the Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth and avant classical composer Nico Muhly. She also used many different keyboards, including a clavichord, a celeste, a Marxophone, various vintage Mellotrons and an Estey field organ. Even as she composed lines on the harp, she intended to transpose them to different instruments.

“From very, very early on, it was part of the way I was thinking about this record,” she says. “I knew that I wanted the songs to be really variegated in color, I think because they were really united in narrative themes and they were united harmonically, so I wanted them to have these really saturated and varying colors. I wanted each song to inhabit its own specifi c world. I wanted the air to smell different and the quality of light to be different, and the ground to feel different underfoot, and people to speak a different language in that world. I wanted each one to be completely self-contained and full of its own specific character.”

Divers is full of puzzle pieces, and it rewards deep and careful attention. It is an album to immerse oneself in—the puns on the title are too easy to pass up, and even Newsom can’t avoid them: “When I get home I’m going to really dive into—no pun intended—rehearsing for the tour.”

—Steve Klinge

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Bottle Rockets: Athletic Support

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How a Rickenbacker 12-string extended the Bottle Rockets’ longevity

The Bottle Rockets have been playing their gritty brand of roots rock and Americana before those genres were invented. Their mix of blazing rock, folky working-class lyrics and blistering country licks deployed at earthshaking volume has been filling clubs since the mid-’90s. In an attempt to characterize their sound, writers would often use odd similes, à la “sounds like Woody Guthrie fronting Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Rockets’ lead singer and main songwriter Brian Henneman laughs at the comparison. “I haven’t heard that one before,” he says. “My favorite is, ‘John Prine singing with Crazy Horse,’ but they’re odd combos any way you put it.

“Maybe the style we play didn’t get categorized until after we came around, but it’s been around a long time. CCR, Rank & File and the Long Riders all played an amalgamation of country, rock, blues and R&B. They all thought they’d discovered something unique. When I heard Jason & The Scorchers, I went, ‘Oh my God, punk rock and country together,’ but original rock ‘n’ roll had the same combination of country and blues, black and white music together. Every generation thinks they’re the first ones to discover it.”

On their new album, South Broadway Athletic Club, the Bottle Rockets continue to play tough, gritty rock ‘n’ roll and explore the triumphs and tragedies of the America most of us live in. The songs are marked by soaring guitars, solid, sweat-inducing rhythms and uplifting, singalong choruses that never turn away from the realities of working class life.

“I’m the kind of guy that can smell bullshit a mile away,” says Henneman. “I always thought it would be best to write songs about stuff close to me. In the early days, it was my hometown, then the people in my neighborhood. These days, I mostly write about what’s going on inside my head, but I never had any grandiose dreams of being a rock star. As a band, we’ve never sunk to any lows or reached any stupendous heights; we just play music we like because we’ve got to. Maybe that’s the secret of keeping a band together.”

South Broadway is the first album of new songs the group has recorded since 2009’s Lean Forward, and it’s got a bright, forceful sound, due in part to Henneman’s rediscovery of the Rickenbacker 12-string guitar. “I was in the middle of a bad writer’s block,” he says. “I’ve switched guitars in the past when I got stuck, but it didn’t seem to work. I tried a Fender Telecaster and put together some hot-shit guitar licks, but I couldn’t seem to formulate a song on it. I thought I was braindead. Then I picked up the Rickenbacker. As soon as I played the 12-string, I started coming up with stuff. I’d plug it into the voice memo on my iPhone and write some words on my computer, and as soon as one was done, another one would pop out. That guitar inspired the whole album—songs just kept flying out of it.”

—j. poet

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Exclusive Cover Story Excerpt: Kurt Vile “A Life Less Ordinary”

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

“Wanna live, wanna live, live a life like mine?” Kurt Vile asks on his sixth and best album, B’lieve I’m Goin Down. What’s that life like? MAGNET went askin’ and discovered a life of paradoxes. Vile talks about the conflicts between family and rock ‘n’ roll, between self-deprecating humor and serious metaphysics, between hard work and slacker ease, between his love of guitars and his newfound love of pianos. It’s not an ordinary life. By Steve Klinge

“Hi, I’m at the Spin Doctors concert. I’ll get back atcha.”

That’s the message you get when you call Kurt Vile. He does, indeed, get back to you quickly, and it turns out he’s chatty, thoughtful and forthcoming, even if he’s jetlagged from a quick trip to London, where he and his band, the Violators, played a main-stage set at London’s Citadel Festival. He’s also hesitant in his answers—he second-guesses himself and tends to make a statement, then qualify it. There’s no hesitance, however, to his excitement about B’lieve I’m Goin Down, his sixth album.

The LP is a bit of a departure. Instead of the electric-guitar freakouts and rolling pop songs that anchored past records, B’lieve favors acoustic guitars, banjos and piano. It’s still got the slacker vibe that Vile perfected on 2011’s Smoke Rings For My Halo and refined on 2013’s Wakin On A Pretty Daze, but it’s more meditative and weighty, while not devoid of humor. It’s a reflective and self-reflexive album about making and listening to music, about dislocation, about love, about life.

Wanna live, wanna live, live a life like mine?
Well I be doin’ it, baby, all the time.
To do so you gotta roll with the punches,
Jump from the sweetest to the toughest of tough love.
—“Life Like Mine”

“Every once in a while, I sit back and realize and know there’s all these beautiful gifts of life,” says Vile “I have a family, and I’m lucky; in a lot of ways, I’m living my dream. But everything’s always getting interrupted. There are moments of pure bliss with family, and then that moment when you’re away from your family, but you’ve laid down this perfect song, and in that moment you know why you play music. I feel like a lot of my life, too, is on the way to something else. It’s like everyone else.”

Except when it’s not. Vile, who is 35, lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two daughters, ages three and five, and he talks about the challenge of balancing love of family with love of music-making, balancing the “real life” of family and friends with the occasionally “superficial” aspects of record-making. They don’t always coexist easily. For the new album, Vile took to working on songs late at night, after his wife and kids had gone to bed, and recording took him away from Philly to New York, Georgia and Southern California. Songs were recorded in six different studios in the end, with a variety of band configurations and producers.

John Agnello, who’s worked on albums by Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady and Dinosaur Jr, had helped produce Vile’s last two albums. But Vile started recording his latest on his own with the Violators. “I didn’t use a producer right away, because you have to book time way in advance, and I wanted this to come more in real time, more organically,” he says. “Had I not had two good engineers in my band, that would have been a lot more difficult.” He’s referring to drummer Kyle Spence (whose Athens studio was one locale) and bassist Rob Laakso. Guitarist Jesse Trbovich is the other full-time Violator.

“My experience with Kurt, it’s always been record, record, record, and then eventually you have an album,” says Laakso, who started playing in the Violators in 2011. Laakso co-produced, with Vile, five of the album’s 12 tracks. “I don’t think there was any grandiose plan to have the Violators and only them on this one.”

They did a session in Joshua Tree, after Vile had gone there to jam with Malian band Tinariwen. On the West Coast, the band included Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa and multiinstrumentalist Farmer Dave Scher, both of whom played on Wakin On A Pretty Daze.

Eventually, they amassed a “swamp of material” and “needed outside perspective,” Vile says. Enter veteran Rob Schnapf, who produced several of Elliott Smith’s records and the recent Ducktails album (the project from Real Estate’s Matt Mondanile, a friend of Vile). More importantly, he did Beck’s Mellow Gold.

“Elliott Smith is cool and all, but it’s not like I got deep into him growing up,” says Vile. “But Rob Schnapf started Bongload, and Beck’s Mellow Gold, that’s my favorite high school (era) weird blues. He nailed it with that record.”

Schnapf came along at just the right moment. He was working in Los Angeles with Mondanile on the Ducktails album, and he says Vile just popped into his head. Schnapf had liked Wakin On A Pretty Daze.

“I like somebody who’s got a unique thing,” says Schnapf. “He’s got style. I like his words. He’s got a vocal character. It’s just he’s got that thing.” Those generalizations are more meaningful when you see them as applying to Beck and Elliott Smith as well.

Schnapf is friends with Matador Records cohead Chris Lombardi, so he texted Lombardi, who also lives in L.A., and asked what Vile was up to.

Here’s where the coincidences multiply, according to Schnapf: “Chris said, ‘That’s really weird. He’s in town and we’re looking for something to do.’ I went back in the room and told Matt, and he said, ‘I know him; I’ll text him.’ So, Kurt got two texts at the same time. He just came by and we hung out and it was just normal and comfortable.”

“All of a sudden, Rob Schnapf seeks me out, which was key,” says Vile. “I said, ‘OK, are you available next week?’ We were just going to mix. But, in the process of being inspired and knowing I was about to take it to another level working with this guy, which I very much needed, I wrote that ‘Pretty Pimpin’ song. So, just a couple days before I headed to L.A., I had this pop song, and I know I needed a pop song.”

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Bad Bad Hats: Reading Rainbow

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Bad Bad Hats mine their emotions for brief blasts of pop bliss

The 10 songs on Psychic Reader, the debut album by Minneapolis band Bad Bad Hats, breeze by in 33 minutes, but every second is full of blissful pop sunshine. The lyrics may be desolate, but Kerry Alexander, the group’s guitarist, singer and main songwriter, has a voice full of effervescent melancholy. Although she sings about the lack of communication that makes relationships difficult, she clearly sees the light at the end of even the darkest tunnel.

“I’m sorry to say, the songs are mostly autobiographical,” says Alexander. “I write love songs, even when I’m out of love. So much doubt and fear goes into every relationship. ‘Do you love me as much as I love you?’ Everyone wants the emotional upper hand, so there’s a lot of tiptoeing around the way you feel. Even though I write about loneliness and insecurity, the music is joyful. When I listen to music, it’s beautiful to hear a song that speaks to the moment I’m living in, even if it’s a sad song. That’s the kind of music I love and the kind of music I write.”

The chiming arpeggios and golden power chords of Alexander’s guitar are ably supported by the inventive rhythms of drummer Chris Hoge and bassist Noah Boswell. The album has a brilliant pop sheen, which the band attributes to producer Brett Bullion.

“Brett added the effects that give the songs a sense of space,” says Hoge.  “He pushed us to add some stranger sounds that helped fl esh out the songs. He took the effects from the demos Kerry and I made— like the backward guitar that leads into the chorus of ‘Midway’—and dropped them into the mix.”

Alexander agrees: “I was nervous before recording. I didn’t want studio tinkering to overshadow the songs, but Brett helped us enhance what was already there.”

—j. poet

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Patty Griffin: Master Of Servants

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Patty Griffin offers subtle music for the heart and soul

Servant Of Love, Patty Griffin’s latest album, is one of her most sonically impressive, albeit in a quiet way. With the help of co-producer Craig Ross, she’s fashioned soundscapes that manage to be both intimate and expansive, balancing quiet acoustic instruments with the cosmic waves of color produced by the sustained notes of an Omnichord. The lyrics remain as insightful as we’ve come to expect from Griffin, but the diverse arrangements include the indigo shadings of a late-night jazz club, swampy blues excursions and energetic rockers that suggest Keith Richards backing Howlin’ Wolf.

“My last album (2013’s American Kid) was an exercise for me,” says the Nashville-based Griffin. “I was doing a three-chord classic country songwriting thing. I’d met some great folks in Nashville, who are really good at that. I wanted to see if I could do what they do. In 2010, Universal put out Silver Bell, an album I made 13 years ago, that was never released. It was remastered and remixed by Glyn Johns (an engineer who’s worked with Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles). There were some concentrated phone calls about the mix, and while it’s not a great record, I began to admire the di erent things I was going for. I was listening to a lot of jazz and other things then, and I was reminded of how open I was to different styles of music. I tried to get back to that place.”

The songs are all love songs, but they investigate everything from extremes of emotion so violent that they hint at murder, to the ordinary joys and sorrows of birth, death and the pains of uncertain affection—all delivered with Griffin’s subtle intensity.

“I didn’t start out to write an album about love; the theme just evolved as the songs came to me,” she says. “I really don’t know what I’m doing when I sit down to write. The songs just show up. I never feel like I have any discipline, although I do get the work done, usually after nine at night. Music just feels better and sounds better to me at night. Maybe because there’s less noise, I can hear it better. Sometimes, I hear it in my head. Sometimes I sit at the piano or pick up the guitar, and it starts showing up. I’m not very conscious about what I’m writing when I’m writing, but then, as I look at it when I’m finished, I realized I’m connected to it. I think everything I’ve ever done is slightly autobiographical, even the story songs. There’s always some of me in there.”

The album was recorded in two weeks, with a weekend break between sessions. “The basics tracks were cut live, me singing and playing guitar or piano, or singing with (guitarist) Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who is an amazing musician. Then Craig took the tracks to his tiny home studio for overdubbing. It’s a small room, and if I’m there, I’d be breathing down his neck, so I stayed away.”

Ross has been producing Griffin’s albums for 20 years, so she trusted him to add the finishing touches on his own. “We talked over these songs as I was writing them, so, by the time we recorded, we had a pretty good road map laid out,” she says. “I mentioned three records I admire for reference points: Morphine’s Cure For Pain, Nina (Simone) Sings The Blues and Leonard Cohen’s Songs From A Room. They’re all small records, but they sound huge and get the point across.

“We called Shawn Colvin in to do some backing harmonies. She’s unbelievable at accompanying another voice and makes really unique choices for the harmonies she adds. My timing is pretty wacky for a singer, so I stumped her few times, but after she listened closely, she came back in and did it.”

The album also includes the trumpet work of Ephraim Owens, a player with a unique style that’s part jazz and part country, with a phrasing that complements Griffin’s slightly o beat vocals.

“Adding the trumpet was a last-minute idea,” says Griffin. “I’ve seen Ephraim play in a lot of different situations around Austin. Musically, he really comes from a whole different place, so we invited him in to see what he could do on a couple of tracks. He really brought something magical to ‘Noble Ground’ and ‘Snake Charmer.’”

—j. poet

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Barrence Whitfield & The Savages: Still Savage After All These Years

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Barrence Whitfield & The Savages go three-for-three with an incendiary new album

In film and literature, third acts are where loose ends are resolved for a satisfying conclusion. It’s like that for Barrence Whitfield & The Savages, who originally formed in the early ’80s, recorded a pair of brilliant albums, broke up five years later, and then reunited in 2010, resulting in a trio of exceptional albums, 2011’s Savage Kings (on Cincinnati’s Shake It label), 2013’s acclaimed Dig Thy Savage Soul and the just-released Under The Savage Sky (both on Bloodshot). Given the quintet’s stellar output since its reformation, the question becomes: How does a band match its best work?

“We just come up with great, interesting tunes,” says Whitfield. “We’ve got a song about a guy whose wife is in jail and he loves her cooking so much and he does the best he can, but he can’t survive without her cooking. That’s ‘Incarceration Casserole.’ There’s ‘Willow,’ about a 15-year-old girl who gets mixed up with a cult, and the Jim Jones of the cult goes after her in ways that aren’t part of the plan. We do rare covers like ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Baby’ and ‘The Wolf Call.’ We try to stick to the same formula like guys of the ’50s and ’60s; sometimes it’s all about people’s lives and things going on in everybody’s world. That’s the premise for Under The Savage Sky.”

Given their long history, Whitfield & The Savages are elder statesmen in the garage-rock/R&B/soul scene. Whitfield and Customs/DMZ/Lyres guitarist Peter Greenberg assembled the first Savages band in 1981, but Greenberg left in 1986 to pursue an oil-industry position. Whitfield soldiered on with different bands, but never to the same effect.

In 2008, Shake It head Darren Blase helped organize a Customs reunion, and Greenberg, who hadn’t played guitar in 20 years, regained his passion for the instrument. When Ace reissued the long out-of-print ’80s Savages albums, Greenberg and Whitfield reconnected to discuss the project, and the reunion seeds were sown.

This year, after relentless roadwork on Savage Kings and Dig Thy Savage Soul, Whitfield & The Savages embarked on a tour with the Northwest’s legendary Sonics. It was an enlightening experience, to say the least.

“It opened a whole new perspective on rock ‘n’ roll,” says Whitfield. “Here are bands who were born way before 1995, and they’re making records, standing onstage and entertaining people at their age. They’re still putting out great product, whether it’s being listened to or not, but their prime focus is to entertain. You do the best you can and let the music speak for itself.”

The new album—recorded at Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley’s Ultrasuede Studio in Cincinnati, like its predecessors—is a crushing garage/soul masterpiece that steams and screams along on the herculean efforts of the Savage five; Whitfield, Greenberg, bassist Phil Lenker, saxophonist Tom Quartulli and drummer Andy Jody. It’s the clearest evidence yet that the quintet isn’t merely coasting on old glories, but adding to its mythology in substantial ways.

“Each record moves a step up from the last,” says Whitfield. “It still poses the same excitement, and it’s another chapter in the Savages’ history. When we broke up in ‘86, there was that time gap, but when we said, ‘We’re gonna do it again,’ all that creative juice came back. Our youth is still roaming and crawling in our bodies, and we still have a lot of energy to give and a lot of music in our blood.”

—Brian Baker

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Chastity Belt: Beat Happening

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Chastity Belt trades comedy for consciousness on its latest LP

The peals of childish laughter and occasional piercing screams can only mean that Chastity Belt frontwoman Julia Shapiro’s band has just completed its day counselor duties at the Rain City Rock Camp for Girls. “There are a lot of bands here in Seattle that volunteer for this,” she says. “Today we were playing for the campers—mostly girls from age eight to 15, although honestly, I didn’t see any 15-year-olds. It was very young; lots of little girls who had just learned an instrument at the beginning of the week and are playing at the Crocodile Café tomorrow night, in front of like 500 people. That’s insane!”

She laughs at the thought of the pressure involved in preparing so quickly for a public debut. “I’d be so nervous,” she says. “And it was funny—at the beginning of our set, everybody was just sitting down on the (middle school gym) floor, eating their lunch while we were playing. At like a third of the volume we normally play at. Which was pretty uncomfortable, but in a cool way.”

Being “uncomfortably cool” actually suits this Seattle-based quartet just fine, thank you. The band began as something of a joke when all four women—guitarist/singer Shapiro, guitarist Lydia Lund, bassist Annie Truscott and drummer Gretchen Grimm—were still undergrads at Walla Walla, Wash.’s Whitman College, a small liberal arts school on the eastern side of the state.

“We had the band name before we even had the band, or any songs,” says Shapiro. “I would get drunk at parties and try to convince people to join Chastity Belt. We’d watch a house show go down, wait for the band to be done playing, then take over the stage. We wrote our first song for this frat battle of the bands. It was called ‘Surrender,’ and we’d chant, ‘Put your chastity belt on and surrender to the god of punk!’ All this stuff about wearing eyeliner, dyeing your hair, stealing cigarettes from your mom. It was a total joke, but deep down we all really wanted to be in a band.”

After the band relocated to Seattle postgraduation, its first album, 2013’s No Regerts, continued in the in-it-for-yuks vein, with songs such as “Pussy Weed Beer,” “Giant Vagina” and “Nip Slip” inserting a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor into the group’s unschooled, spindly guitar rock.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the punchline: Shapiro found something more than merely “funny” to say, and began writing more sophisticated songs that demanded a closer degree of attention. Which, in turn, pushed the band’s latest LP, Time To Go Home (Hardly Art), toward altogether more fertile creative turf. Mixing feminist messages of empowerment (“Cool Slut” pays tribute to “all the girls in the world tryin’ to take off their shirts”) with stone-faced frustration at the tidal wave of mansplaining happening around them (as on the hypnotic “Drone”: “He was just another man, tryin’ to teach me something”), Shapiro moved from easy laughs to songs that spoke to the adult search for identity.

Exhibit A: the album’s title track, which starts off just wanting to have a drunken night out, but concludes that “everything is beautiful, because we’re delusional/I think I figured it out.” The simple fact that it’s all pretty far from figured out showcases a group growing up before our eyes and ears, one that could sonically pass for the evocative layers of the Dream Syndicate or Nico-era Velvets as easily as any number of riot grrrl predecessors.

Being in an all-girl band can be something of a tricky topic these days, but one that Chastity Belt has nonetheless found a way to handle with its typically goofy good grace. “Growing up, I didn’t even listen to that many bands with women—in high school, Fiona Apple might have been one of the only female musicians I knew about,” says Shapiro. “So, yeah, gender is definitely a thing in music—or in anything. And some people get really excited about it. But it’s not negative. In Seattle, being in an all-girl band just isn’t that rare anymore. It’s been done before. It’s not like we’re trying to be accessible only to hardcore feminists or anything like that. We’re just women who are feminists, because we’re women.”

Shapiro laughs at herself, listening to the flat, irrefutable logic of her last sentence: “We didn’t say, ‘Let’s sit down and write a song about feminism.’ It’s just what we have to say. Because that’s our life experience.”

—Corey duBrowa

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Israel Nash: Sense Of Place

IsraelNash

Israel Nash burrows deep into the Hill Country mystique

Israel Nash has big plans for his 15-acre homestead outside Austin, Texas. “The idea was to build a studio so you didn’t have to leave the land—a destination where people can record and stay in these little cabins,” says the Missouri-born son of a Baptist minister. “Willie Nelson has crazy stuff going on at his ranch, and I’d like this place to be on some level of that.”

Though “not much more than a barn” right now, it’s where Nash and his band recorded Silver Season (Loose Music), an airy, organic, somewhat druggy continuation of the Neil Young tangent that informed Rain Plans, the best singer/songwriter effort of 2014 you never heard. In the process of paying homage to his influences, Nash never really loses himself in the process. His approach is as genuine as it is familiar, making you long for the Young of old. “I originally wanted it to be a psychedelic rock opera,” says Nash with a chuckle. “But I quickly realized it was too ambitious.”

The pace rarely exceeds a concerted amble on Silver Season, melodies unfolding in a swirl of soaring falsetto vocal harmonies, pedal steel, acoustic strumming and heavily reverbed lead guitar. There are a handful of extended jams (“L.A. Lately,” “Strangers”) that ought to lend themselves nicely to his hypnotic live shows, which carry their own dramatic weight thanks to an accomplished and sympathetic backup band that includes Eric Swanson (pedal steel), brothers Joey and Aaron McClellan (guitar and bass) and Joshua Fleischmann (drums).

Fleischmann will be the last group member to relocate from New York to Texas in March of next year. The gradual exodus was prompted by Nash in 2011, who was catching on overseas, but still felt anonymous in NYC. “My wife and I were there for fi ve years,” he says. “At that point, I wasn’t even touring in the U.S. I’d quit my day job as a director of an after-school program in Manhattan, and I was touring in Europe behind (2011’s) Barn Doors & Concrete Floors, which we made in a barn in upstate New York.”

As for Nash’s new home in Dripping Springs, “I’ve really fallen in love with this place—making records on the land and being away from the normal concept of a studio,” he says. “I really believe environment drives human emotion.”

—Hobart Rowland

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