Category Archives: FEATURES

Tanya Donelly: Feeding The Tree


Tanya Donelly returns with ambitious triple album Swan Song Series

Fortunately, Tanya Donelly didn’t title her latest effort Swan Song Series because the three-disc set will be her last. Fact is, Donelly has a lot of irons in the fire.

“They’re slow-moving irons, but they’re there,” she says from her home outside of Boston. Donelly is prepping for a reunion tour with Belly, her acclaimed band from the ’90s, and she’s beginning an as-yet-unnamed new project with friend Brian Sullivan of Dylan In The Movies. (The pair released a cover of “Shoplifters Of The World Unite” on a Smiths tribute in 2011.)

Swan Song Series isn’t a concept album about water fowl, although it does include “Mr. Swan,” “Cygnet Song” and “Storm Blown Bird” among its 31 tracks. She attributes the bird motif (which also includes “Snow Goose And Me”) and the recurring references to skies, oceans and street names to happenstance. “New England girl—there’s a finite amount of things I see during my day,” she says.

The set does have a concept, though. It’s a collection of collaborations that began as a series of self-financed Bandcamp EPs that Donelly released individually beginning in 2013. The idea started when Wesley Stace (also known as John Wesley Harding) asked Donelly to participate in one of his Cabinet Of Wonders variety shows that bring together musicians, authors, poets and other artists.

“I always love those nights, they’re so fun,” says Donelly. “He got in touch with me, and we hadn’t seen each other in a few years. I had had my second child at that point, and I was sort of unconsciously slipping into retirement without knowing that that was what I was doing. He said, ‘Come do this thing in Boston. It’ll be fun.’ It sounded like a good first step. That night, I reconnected with Wes and met (writer) Rick Moody, and at the end of the night, the way musicians say goodnight is by saying, ‘We should do something together.’ And I followed up on those conversations, which most people don’t normally do.”

As a lead guitarist and songwriter, the 49-year-old Donelly has been in bands since she and stepsister Kristin Hersh started Throwing Muses in their teens. When Donelly was in the Breeders, Kim Deal did the songwriting. In Belly, Donelly was the principal writer, although she wrote much of 1995’s King with fellow guitarist Tom Gorman. For Swan Song Series, she collaborated with friends old and new. She has written with her husband Dean Fisher (who also played in Juliana Hatfield’s band) going back to her solo albums, and she has a longstanding partnership with Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom. Belly bandmates Gorman, Fred Abong and Gail Greenwood contribute individually, too. She also wrote with the Magnetic Fields’ Claudia Gonson (Magnetic Fields cellist Sam Davol plays on many tracks), Future Bible Heroes’ Chris Ewen, Robyn Hitchcock, author Mary Gaitskill and Damon And Naomi.

“It’s just so energizing. There’s so many people that you come across in life that you’re like, ‘I would love to write a song with you,’” she says. While some of the collaborations happened in the same room, many were via correspondence, and the source materials varied widely.

“Claudia from Magnetic Fields sent me some chord progressions on her phone, and you have Wes, who’s like, ‘Here’s a full backing track!’ And then you have Mary Gaitskill, who sent me a short story she wrote for the project, and I turned that into a song. Rick Moody is a lyricist himself, because he also writes songs, so he would send full lyrics. We did everything very differently from song to song.”

The collaborations presented some new challenges for Donelly. She’d never written music for someone else’s words before; she’d never written a synth-pop song like “Flying At Night,” the one with Ewen, and that turned out to be one of her favorites. The song styles range widely, too. Although many of the tracks are midtempo ballads, there are Belly-ish rockers, artful meditations, playful pop, lullabies—all anchored by Donelly’s familiar voice, a melodic alto with a raspy edge that’s deepened only slightly from the days of “Not Too Soon,” “Feed The Tree” and “Pretty Deep.”

The Series includes the five Bandcamp EPs Donelly released between August 2013 and March 2014 plus seven additional tracks. It’s a capstone of that era, and aside from a few shows in Boston and New York, the cities where most of the collaborators are concentrated, Donelly doesn’t plan to tour behind it, especially now that she’ll spend much of the summer on the road with Belly.

“It’s kind of an impolite amount of music,” she says. “It kind of does feel like a compilation record, but I do like that they’re all huddled together now.”

—Steve Klinge

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Big Thief: Steal This Record


Big Thief makes hardcore music with an angelic message

Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief’s main songwriter, lead singer and rhythm guitarist, creates music that slips hazily between genres with traces of folk, pop and hardcore. The songs on Masterpiece, the band’s debut, show off her emotional range, as both a writer and a singer. Sometimes her vocals are submerged in the mix, fighting against lead guitarist Buck Meek’s avant-garde noise. On other songs, her singing is the quiet whisper of a friend, baring all, in a confidential midnight conversation.

The songs on the album grapple with love, loss and the specter of mortality. “We’ve all had losses of different kinds,” says Lenker. “From the time you can form memories, you learn about losing things. Eventually, you become OK with losing everything in your life, until you’re even resigned to losing your body.”

The band—Lenker, Meek, Max Oleartchik on bass and Jason Burger on drums—made the LP with producer Andrew Sarlo in a studio they put together themselves, in an old house on the shore of Lake Champlain, N.Y.

“We wanted to capture the spirit of the live show, so we played all the songs together as a band, in one room,” says Lenker. “We only overdubbed a couple of things here and there.”

On Masterpiece, Big Thief’s diverse sonic palette creates startling juxtapositions. “Randy” is a soft electric-guitar lullaby with a hushed vocal; “Little Arrow” sounds like a folk song being played on an Edison cylinder from the 1920s; the title track is a murky, mid- tempo rocker with an impressive, distorted guitar solo.

“‘Masterpiece’ was a last-minute addition to the album,” says Lenker. “Andrew gave us five minutes to learn the song, then we went in and tracked it live, so we didn’t have any time to think. We just played it.”

—j. poet

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Frightened Rabbit: Keep Calm And Carry On


Frightened Rabbit frontman Scott Hutchison confronts his dark side on Painting Of A Panic Attack

Frightened Rabbit bandleader Scott Hutchison knew that he was sinking into an abyss—mentally, emotionally, even spiritually—after the 2013 release of Pedestrian Verse, the Scottish group’s Snow Patrol-ish breakthrough album, its fourth. But he couldn’t gauge the true depth of his situation until he began seeing his followers in a dreary new light.

“When you start to play a show and you’re looking at the audience, and you resent every single one of them for being there?” he says, with a new clarity. “That’s a really bad place to be in. And when you’re in that bubble, it’s also a very hard place to get help.”

But help is what the singer finally got, from some rather unusual sources. All of which led to the fifth Frightened Rabbit epistle—the aptly dubbed Painting Of A Panic Attack, produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner—and lyrically grim, but sonically sweeping laments like “Death Dream,” “I Wish I Was Sober,” “An Otherwise Disappointing Life” and eventually a life-affirming “Still Want To Be Here.” One haunted number, “Woke Up Hurting,” has such a huge singalong/handclap chorus, it’s the album’s most ebullient feel-good anthem. Even though Hutchison wasn’t feeling too well when he wrote it.

“I’ve always enjoyed the friction that you can get by putting an image that’s dark onto music that’s really uplifting,” he says. “I love that, and it’s something that I’ve been working on for a really long time.”

How did Hutchison wind up in such choppy existential waters? Through a combination of factors, probably starting in childhood, he says, when he was so skittishly shy that his own mother nicknamed him Frightened Rabbit. Gradually, he gained the confidence to perform solo acoustic shows under the moniker, and then added his brother Grant Hutchison on drums, leading to the well-rounded five-piece the outfit is today—a lineup that now includes guitarist Simon Liddell, who recently replaced the departing Gordon Skene.

But the sudden crowd-pleasing popularity of Pedestrian Verse did not suit the Selkirk native well. He began experiencing panic attacks, small ones initially. “And then there was one major episode on a fucking airplane, of all places, which was terrifying,” he says. “So you eventually feel like you’re going to pass out for a lot of the day, and then at night you try and go onstage. I was medicated for that, but I was medicating with—not just with what I was prescribed—but booze, so it was this vicious cycle. And at the end of that? I really wanted the pain to stop.”

The 34-year-old Hutchison and his longtime girlfriend were residing in Los Angeles at the time, and the combustibility of their relationship didn’t help matters. One thump-chiming track, “Break,” details his storming out of their apartment with a bag of belongings, post-argument, to spend an angry night under a city overpass. “It was very dramatic,” he admits. Hutchison has returned to Scotland temporarily, just to give the intense romance some breathing room. “So I’m learning new habits—we’re learning how to be, uh, less up each other’s arses,” he says. “I’m a calmer person now, and I’m just living a little more in the moment. I’m no longer scared, but I’m still looking at it with a sense of trepidation, for sure.”

To hit that plateau, he retreated to the Isle of Mull two years ago—with Liddell and band keyboardist/guitarist Andy Monaghan in tow—to quietly write and record what was essentially a solo album under the moniker of Owl John. He had fallen out of love—not just with fans but songwriting itself, he says—and the experiment put him back in touch with his muse. When he set to work on Painting, he had a concept in mind.

“I saw it as two young people, a couple, who are desperate to leave the town they grew up in, which also leads back to how I was feeling trapped in L.A., and how the two of us needed to escape, so the music itself is quite claustrophobic,” he says. “So this album was originally supposed to be more of an outward social commentary. But then I was forced to look into what I’d been experiencing—my own abyss—and this is what came gushing out. I had just been holding it in for too long.”

—Tom Lanham

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Autolux: Time May Change Me


Following a Failure reunion and a divorce, Greg Edwards returns with Autolux’s Pussy’s Dead

For Greg Edwards, time is relative. After his alterna-combo Failure disbanded in 1997, the guitarist/vocalist recruited bassist/ singer Eugene Goreshter and drummer Carla Azar in 2000 for more experimental trio Autolux, which issued its Future Perfect debut in 2004, its sophomore Transit Transit in 2010 and its third, the provocatively titled Pussy’s Dead, this spring. Why did it take him another six years to arrive at ethereal, prog-minded processionals like “Soft Scene,” “Junk For Codes” and “Listen To The Order”?

“For me, there’s just a lot of time that doesn’t seem very productive, but it actually is productive,” he says.

But Edwards hasn’t been twiddling his thumbs in the interim. He and his wife, Raveonettes anchor Sharin Foo, recently divorced, leading to one song on the latest album that he won’t specify. And in 2014, he reconvened—then released two albums and toured with—Failure. “Then Carla played with Jack White for a while, and she was in a movie called Frank with Michael Fassbender,” he says. “So there was a lot of stuff going on that took time, on top of the fact that we just take time. But we still spend an incredible amount of time in our studio, even when nothing seems to be getting done.”

Autolux has been championed over the years by Vincent Gallo, Trent Reznor, Thom Yorke and the team of T-Bone Burnett and the Coen brothers—who initially signed them to their DMZ imprint—yet Edwards the composer remains unsure of himself. “Trying to create something from nothing, there’s the confidence that you’ve done it in the past,” he says. “Combined with the knowledge that every time you come to the blank slate, there will be an utter personal holocaust and catastrophe, in terms of doing it again. So for me, there has to be a lot of time spent just thinking for anything good to happen.”

Lately, for instance, the man has been waking up every morning, putting on a pot of strong coffee and purchasing—then quietly contemplating—every album from the David Bowie catalog that he didn’t already own, after the artist’s tragic passing. “I’m still in love with music, and chasing that elusive magic in writing it, and I’m much more open-minded and intelligent as a music listener now than when I was in my 20s,” he says. Then, he was obsessed with three crucial albums: Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Sonic Youth’s Sister and the Cure’s trailblazing Faith. They would become the template for Failure. Autolux reflects his hard-earned maturity.

Lost in thought, Edwards came up with cuts like the clackety, perambulating, nearly five-minute epic “Soft Scene,” and he’s still not sure how. It was conjured in what he terms his “breathing space,” a relaxing moment when a song simply channels itself through him. “And if I force myself to work, that’s when I end up hating what I write,” he says. “Which is a great justification for just being really lazy and wasting a lot of time.”

—Tom Lanham

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New Madrid: A Good Idea


Though still a relative upstart, New Madrid has learned how to keep growing

Ninety-nine times out of 100, when a group enters a battle of the bands or sends its raw material into a songwriter’s contest, nothing comes of it. Even when victorious, the first prize of studio time rarely amounts to little more than unfinished tracks collecting dust on a hard drive. Athens, Ga.’s New Madrid bucked that disappointing trend when it not only scored a blue ribbon after entering its demo into a competition back in 2011, but also parlayed that triumph into debut album Yardboat and a continuing relationship with producer David Barbe and his Chase Park Transduction studio. The outfit has been a faithful and satisfied customer ever since, with two more albums, 2014’s Sunswimmer and the new magnetkingmagnetqueen, emerging from its pairing with Barbe.

Formed by a loose collection of friends dealing with distance getting in the way of regular rehearsals, New Madrid found its stride once guitarist/vocalist Graham Powers was able to move from Chattanooga, and the rhythm section of drummer Alex Woolley and bassist Ben Hackett moved from Nashville, to convene with guitarist/vocalist Phil McGill, a freshman at the University Of Georgia. It was there that the quartet was able to focus its attention on the kaleidoscopic shimmer and moody psychedelia of its material while taking its show on the road, where social and artistic lessons were learned and strengths were stumbled upon.

“We got to play more together and didn’t have to use older ideas or figure out what we were doing separately on our own time,” says McGill. “But the biggest change and influence on our sound was probably that we got to tour consistently. We weren’t just playing songs for a room or for our imaginations; we were actually playing them for people. We developed an unspoken language that we use onstage in conducting and directing songs in different directions.”

“Touring definitely opened up having to pay attention to the flow of the live set, song sequence, song lengths and where to place things to create as many dynamics as possible,” says Hackett.

For magnetkingmagnetqueen, the band paid attention to the lessons learned during a series of live recordings that eventually became the Dawn Teeth Rattling EP. Recording shows with a mobile rig drilled home the message of capturing first-take energy, something it wanted to replicate as best as possible on the new album.

“In the past, we’d go someplace and hole up for a week to do demos,” says McGill. “This time, we just had David Barbe come along with us and use what would have been a demo session as an original tracking session, eliminating when you record a demo and fall in love with it but aren’t able to recapture that magic. We still ended up working at Chase Park for the rest of the record.”

“The new album has elements of our other albums while still being its own thing,” says Hackett. “Emotionally and mood-wise, we go places we’ve never been. We tried to not repeat ourselves, and it’s definitely a progression because with all the touring we’ve done, bands we’ve played with, and how you grow and tastes change, how could it not be?”

—Kevin Stewart-Panko

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Parquet Courts: This Time It’s Personal


Parquet Courts look inward on the new Human Performance

According to Parquet Courts guitarist Andrew Savage, the band used to build its sound by focusing on a song’s lyrics until the music confirmed them. That sound, which first came to the public’s attention in 2012 with the Brooklyn combo’s superb second album, Light Up Gold, was anchored with punk-rock riffs and a torrent of words from Savage and fellow guitarist Austin Brown.

Partly on the strength of “Stoned And Starving,” one of Light Up’s standout tracks, and partly on the band’s occasional similarities to ’90s college-rock icons Pavement and Beck, Parquet Courts got tagged as a stoner or slacker band. But Savage and Brown were more interested in challenging a culture of disengagement, one of the main topics of 2014’s Content Nausea (released under the name Parkay Quartz due to the temporary absence of bass player Sam Yeaton and drummer Max Savage).

The band subverted expectations with the Monastic Living EP, which arrived at the end of 2015, and does so again with new album Human Performance, both of which came from the same set of four recording sessions, and represent the first Parquet Courts releases on the venerable Rough Trade label. They’re no longer a “words-first” band, for one. The EP, aside from one brief declaration of intent, is instrumental, a set of noisy, amorphous jams. The album is Parquet Courts at its most tuneful and song-oriented—it even contains, surprisingly enough, an ironyfree love song in “Steady On My Mind.” It marks a new phase for the band without being a disavowal of its past.

Monastic Living is an insight into some of the sound experiments we were doing at the time,” says Brown. “It’s a cleansing of the palate a bit, both for us as songwriters and the palate of the listeners. It was kind of in the spirit of bands that we look up to, like Cabaret Voltaire, who were on Rough Trade, or the Dead C or Sonic Youth, who never felt beholden a strict sound or a way of making a record or what people might expect. It felt really good to get back to our roots of us discovering what we were as a band, just jamming in our studio.”

The EP is an alienating, difficult listen, and that’s the point, says Savage: “A lot of people who are interested in the band, from what I understand, are interested in the lyrics. And I don’t think that the only way to have a message is to say something. I wanted to say something without saying anything, you know? It’s a record that will appeal to only rabid Parquet Courts fans, maybe. In my mind, Light Up Gold through Content Nausea is really an era for the band, and Human Performance starts another. Monastic Living kind of exists between two times; I think American Specialties, our first record, is kind of like that: They both exist in their own place. So, it’s kind of like a cycle starting over.”

Human Performance, the band’s fifth effort, is a more personal record than any previous Parquet Courts album. Rather than looking outward to critique the culture, Savage and Brown examine internal feelings of displacement, alienation and domesticity. It’s an LP full of anxiety and existential questions. “It’s something a lot of our records deal with, but with this one it’s a lot more personal,” says Brown. “Rather than ask them about society, we’re asking them about ourselves.”

The album boasts a new range of textures: splashes of new-wave keyboards and surfguitar riffs; straightforward singing rather than rapid shouting. It has a greater clarity of detail than the lo-fi aesthetic of the early records, although it was still pretty much a DIY affair, with Brown doing most of the knob-twiddling himself.

Savage altered his writing process and wrote the music before the lyrics, which resulted in songs anchored in firmer melodies and that needed to be sung rather than declaimed. “When you start with words, they tend to get a more rhythmic delivery,” he says. “When you start with the music, you have the chords in your head, and as you’re making vocals, you have more of a melody. I just felt like singing is the way to express myself this time.”

“I think it’s really important for the band to stay in flux and not be pinned down to a certain kind of sound,” says Brown. “That was a big thing when we were making Human Performance. The last thing we wanted to do is make another ‘Parquet Courts’ record where people would hear it and say, ‘Yep, that sounds like another Parquet Courts record.’ That’s kind of my biggest nightmare. So many times you hear a band that you like, and the first record you hear is the one you fall in love with—that happened to us with Light Up Gold—and then after that it’s easy to get stuck in that. People hear the second record and they say, ‘OK, that’s more stu from a band that sounds like this.’ There’s a lot of songs that ended up on Human Performance that even when listening back, I wasn’t sure if I liked it or if it sounded like us, or if it was the right thing to do, or I couldn’t exactly tell where it fits in our canon. But by the end, those are the ones that became most important to me because I think those are the ones that will define the record as being different and new.”

“I like that we have an experimental drone record that sits right next to a kind of poppy record,” says Savage. “Those kinds of contradictions appeal to me in art. I think Human Performance is a record that is at times very abrasive and at times very pretty. I like it when there’s a spectrum that someone can play with. I think that’s more interesting than taking a linear trajectory.”

—Steve Klinge

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Brass Bed: Sleeping Giant


Brass Bed awakens with guitars aplenty

In The Yellow Leaf (Modern Outsider) may not be Brass Bed’s debut, but it sort of feels like it. While reverb-saturated guitars have always been an integral part of the core trio’s aural repartee, they utterly define its fourth release, prompting legitimate comparisons to the majestic triple-stacked sonic squall pioneered by the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Swervedriver.

“Having two guitars doing the heavy lifting is relatively new for us—which is relatively weird considering that I’ve always been a nerd about guitars,” says guitarist Christiaan Mader.

And while Mader concedes that Brass Bed has “grown into” a more ’90s sound, he stands by Brass Bed’s singular influence. “The big-bang moment was discovering Wilco,” he says. “That’s when we started to do bedroom recordings.”

Guitarist Jonny Campos concurs. “When (drummer) Peter (DeHart) and I graduated from high school, we were taking our senior trip camping in the Ozarks. Our buddy played Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and we were like, ‘Eh, that was fine.’ Then we started smoking more pot, and we discovered it was easier to take a folk song and make it weird than it was to write a pristine Beatles pop song.”

Given the group’s central Louisiana upbringing, the popular take on Brass Bed is that it has been pumping out great music in a vacuum. That’s until 2013’s The Secret Will Keep You, which laid the alternately dreamy and angst-ridden foundation for the more fully realized music to come. “Lafayette’s not really a big place, and it’s not really a small place,” says Mader of his hometown. “We didn’t really get the sort of cutting-edge things we experienced later on. I wasn’t exposed to stuff with the fluidity people get in bigger cities, and I certainly think that contributed to us doing our own thing.”

That might explain why Brass Bed still feels like a fresh entity—even four albums in and with its members now in their 30s. “The music we were exposed to before we could search the internet was the stuff our alternative radio station or older siblings were offering us,” says DeHart. “We’re definitely a product of the ’90s.”

—Hobart Rowland

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Black Mountain: Crazy Diamonds


After a five-year absence, Black Mountain shines on with eclectic new record

At one point in a conversation with Stephen McBean, singer, guitarist and principal songwriter for Black Mountain, we detour into a lengthy contemplation of the keyboard’s ability to form a song’s aesthetic, even more so than the electric guitar. It’s appropriate subject matter for the band’s latest, IV, which finds electronics assuming a more influential role in Black Mountain’s songs.

“People may not even know that’s a Moog or that’s an ARP or that’s a Mellotron,” says McBean. “They’re so unique sounding that they take people to specific places in time. People hear Mellotron and they think ‘Strawberry Fields.’ Even if they don’t know what it is, and if they hear a lot of the ARP stuff or the Moog stuff, like ’70s stuff, you think Pink Floyd or you think Tangerine Dream. Then you get to the Oberheims and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s “Jump.” Once it gets to ‘Jump’ territory, Jeremy will argue on this, but that’s ‘no.’”

“I certainly like the Oberheim synths kind of stepping up to the front,” says keyboardist Jeremy Schmidt. “Keyboards really evoke the period that they’re indigenous to. When you hear a ’70s synth or an ’80s synth or a ’60s kind of organ or a Mellotron, they’re all quite distinctly different. Timbre-wise, they have very different voices. Your brain kind of places the song in that time period.”

On IV, as on past albums, that time period is often rooted in the ’70s. The Sabbath and Zeppelin influences are still there, but the Deep Purple from 2010’s Wilderness Heart has been replaced by shades of Pink Floyd. Indeed, album opener “Mothers Of The Sun” hints at what “Stairway To Heaven” might have sounded like had Plant and Page collaborated with Rogers and Gilmour.

“It’s weird, because we always get compared to Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath or Neil Young, which is a pretty high bar,” says McBean. “I always joke that we’re like those bands, but not nearly as good. We’re all at the points in our life now where we’re not interested in trying to reinvent the rock ‘n’ roll wheel.”

“I certainly like Wish You Were Here,” says Schmidt. “That album has a lot of the keyboard sounds I really love, and years ago when I really started getting into buying old synths and stuff, I definitely made an effort to try and find a lot of the instruments that were responsible for those very particular timbres.”

Keyboards aside, Black Mountain, which also includes singer Amber Webber and drummer Joshua Wells (bassist Matt Camirand left the band prior to IV), has made the most eclectic record of its career. And unlike Wilderness Heart, which explored the whole brevity thing, IV contains tracks once again exceeding the eight-minute mark.

“The songs are kind of all over the map,” says McBean. “I guess we were trying to make something that’s like a mix tape.”

That mix includes the trippy dreamscapes of “Defector” and “Space To Bakersfield,” the haunted folk of the Webber-penned “Line Them Up” and the late-’80s goth of “Cemetery Breeding.” And then there’s the urgent new wave of “Florian Saucer Attack,” which resembles a stoner-rock version of the B-52’s.

“I was originally going for an almost like a Neu! meets Sex Pistols or a New York Dolls kind of thing,” says McBean, “but then you add those ’80s keyboards. There you go.”

Meanwhile, “Constellations,” with its spartan riffs and otherworldly vocals from Webber, is the best thing Queens Of The Stone Age never wrote. “It’s almost like AC/DC meets later Steve Miller,” says McBean. “Or even like hip hop, because Dr. Dre used the Moog. I think we mixed it up more this time, which is cool. The eras are more confusing.”

Despite the sonic promiscuity, to longtime fans, IV will still be instantly recognizable as a Black Mountain record. Peel away the stylistic flourishes and many of the songs, as McBean explains, are “rooted in a singer/songwriter vibe,” which is only reinforced by the vocal interplay with Webber. And for all this keyboard talk, McBean still knows how to play guitar god. The flame-throwing lead on “Mothers Of The Sun” rivals peak-period Page, while “Space To Bakersfield” closes IV with a wailing, four-minute solo. “I’m proud to brag about that one,” says McBean. “That was live off the floor.”

—Matt Ryan

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Tancred: True Grit And Loud Music


Tancred’s Jessica Abbott isn’t afraid to express herself

In the last year, Jessica Abbott—singer, songwriter and lead guitarist of Tancred—has come to the realization that there should be no expectations based on gender.

Out Of The Garden is a reflection of my belief that being a woman doesn’t mean what society says it means, especially in regard to how you’re expected to express your sexuality,” says Abbott. “I want to rip up those guidelines and throw them away.”

The songs on Out Of The Garden blend Abbott’s aggressive, almost metallic guitar with her intimate vocals and the powerful rhythms of drummer Kevin Medina and bassist Terrence Vitali. She’s abandoned the folky, pop approach of the first two Tancred albums for full throttle rock ‘n’ roll. “I made the first Tancred album when I was 19,” says Abbott. “It was more acoustic, and looking back, it was a bit underdeveloped. This one is crunchier and louder, with more layers of guitars. I was in screaming, metal-core bands when I was younger. That comes out when I crank up my amp. Writing this album, I began finding more strength in myself and in my music. The songs reflect those experiences.”

Although Abbott began Tancred as a studio-only project, she’s now ready to get out on the road and play her songs live. “My plan is to tour until I drop,” she says. “These songs have a political and social subtext. I don’t want to overwhelm people with it, but it’s irresponsible to not talk about issues that need to be discussed. It may sound naive to say I make music to help people, but it’s soul crushing to think that I’m not doing anything to move things forward. I have kids who come to shows and tell me something I wrote helped them through the day. Nothing feels as important as that.”

—j. poet

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Car Seat Headrest: Holy Toledo


Car Seat Headrest’s frontman is doing it his way

Will Toledo is a funny guy, quick to joke about his Bandcamp roots, fast to tease that his future projects include an “album of cover versions of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’”

Jokes and jibes aside, Toledo—the onetime one-man-band behind the fully fleshed-out Car Seat Headrest—is a serious, considerate scribe and complex thinker. He’s a concise, cutting writer whose wise, economical words and parenthetical thoughts give his crunching guitars, lo-fi synth skronk and laudable melodicism the textual, abstract feel of Michael Stipe meeting playwright Eugene O’Neill. The former even gets a shoutout on “Strangers,” a song that, like “Something Soon” (which namechecks short-story author Raymond Carver), appears on his mish-mash debut, 2015’s Teens Of Style, just months ahead of this spring’s next Headrest project, Teens Of Denial.

“I was attracted to the vague, the unexplained, the unlabeled side of art,” says Toledo of finding solace in the Carvers and Stipes of the world. “Overwrought, explicit symbolism was antithetical to me as a teenager, so I ran toward artists who shied from the explicit, who left more unsaid than said. In the end, Stipe maybe left a little too much unsaid. I have no idea what the fuck ‘idle hands all orient to her’— honestly a worse line—means, and that makes me feel a little jilted for having it exist in my head as a known lyric for almost a decade. Lyricists of the future, please think of the children.”

A Williamsburg, Va., native who majored in English in college, then left home for Seattle (“It’s creepy to stay in your college town after you graduate”), Toledo crammed the Bandcamp artist/fan site full with so many uniquely Car Seat Headrest witty tunes and wonky songcraft that Matador Records stood up and took notice. “I wouldn’t say nobody gets anywhere from Bandcamp,” he says. “Very few people get anywhere, but I think that’s true for any method of career-building as a musician. I was posting songs on Bandcamp for six years before the industry noticed, but all through that time individuals were coming to my page and finding something they liked, and that built up into its own thing after a while.”

Re-recording those Bandcamp tracks for Teens Of Style wasn’t a matter of hiding or even accentuating, but more like eliminating. “I felt that most of these songs were 80 percent great, and the other 20 percent was filler lyrics, bum vocal takes or just insufficient cover for lousy performances,” he says.

When it came to Teens Of Denial—more conceptual in message and tone than that first compilation—you can hear immediately that these were songs written for a single project rather than scattershot great tunes, an album that was self-contained but not necessarily self-referential. “I tasked myself with creating distinct, all-new songs that borrowed nothing from older, recognizable Car Seat Headrest songs,” he says. “I almost succeeded, but cheated a bit by stealing from some old material that actually predated CSH.”

For example, the ending of “Connect The Dots (The Saga Of Frank Sinatra)” came from a song he penned in 2009 that followed the Frank during his dead-end period in New York after he quit Tommy Dorsey’s band, but before doubling down and coming into his swinging Rat Pack success. Toledo felt very much the same as Old Blue Eyes. “After moving out to Seattle with no contacts and no friends and trying to make things work for myself, Sinatra’s story resonated with me,” he says. “The character is determined to go it alone, to do it ‘my way’ and forgo all comforts of human companionship as a result.” Another Denial tune, “Cosmic Hero,” is more fragmented and conversational, the most stream-of-consciousnessy song on the album, meant to capture the feeling of a semi-sleeping state where all chatter exists between crucial and goofy. “I try to combat the tendency of sounding authoritative by undermining myself whenever possible,” he says. “An aside or two is helpful in conveying that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.”

—A.D. Amorosi

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