John K. Samson’s Winter Wheat is Part Postscript, New Beginning

jks_winterwheatI dont claim to know the entire Weakerthans catalog, or really know much about John K. Samson, but I can tell you that the release of “Winter Wheat” is an album that hews closest to a new Weakerthans release as we may ever get. Perhaps that’s why he utilizes the band’s former rhythm section throughout the release.

Samson’s work is kind of a curiosity to an American like myself. Pastoral descriptions of Canada, a place that is easy to generalize as one-note, nice and America-lite, are always fascinating. He’s a songwriter whose turn of phrase strikes the balance of sensitive and strange – opener “Select All Delete” begins with the lyrics “That hashtag wants me dead/but I don’t mind.” Virtute the cat reappears, a reoccuring character from Samson’s Weakerthans songs A warning: that song, “Virtute at Rest,” is a goddamn heartbreaker.

Samson’s lyrical prowess is not done justice through an album review. He’s definitely one of the world’s greatest living songwriters, lesser known to a mass audience, ducking out and re-emerging every few years with songs that have earned the right to be dissected, quoted and shared by those that know his work best. Whether “Winter Wheat” is truly the postscript to the Weakerthans or is the next evolution in the long musical history of John K. Samson remains to be seen. We’ll know eventually. For now, take your time, listen over and over and pass it on. Like all great stories, they’re meant to be shared. “Winter Wheat” is one of them.

Winter Wheat is out today on ANTI-.

Bon Iver’s ’22, A Million’ is Fascinating Transformation

phppjpToday, Bon Iver releases their third album and first in five years, “22, A Million”.

Justin Vernon started the project in 2007 pretty much as a guy with an acoustic guitar, and pretty quickly morphed into something that was using a lot of digital manipulation – one song on the follow up EP, “Blood Bank” is literally just him building layers of his voice with autotune. Years later, Kanye West would find this song “Woods,” and use it as the template for “Lost in the World”.

On 2011’s “Bon Iver,” another about-face. Here was an album of deliberate soft rock-as-soul, lush, organic soundscapes on this side of Bruce Hornsby. Deeply touching, somehow feeling both in and completely out of time.

But now, with this new record, another transformation. Obscured by technology, bending the realm of what’s physically possible through a literally invented filter – his engineer literally created an instrument for this album called the Messina – Justin Vernon presents another chapter of the Bon Iver story that feels familiar, still deeply distant. What’s contained on the record is just fractured bits of a life, forget song structure. Verse chorus verse means nothing.

It’s a whole statement, a composite of parts, not whole wholes. I am always fascinated by Vernon’s mindset, someone who seems by all intents very accessible, maybe even *normal* by today’s standards, but that’s totally not it. There’s always a mystery of what goes on in his head. The sounds, his words, almost feel elemental. I don’t know how else to put that. Get a pair of headphones, close your eyes and immerse. It will reveal its gifts to you.

Twenty Years On, “Pinkerton” Still Feels Like New

weezer_pinkertonTwenty years ago today, Weezer’s “Pinkerton” was released. It came to me as a 15 year old in late-2001, still in its relative early days as a forgotten classic, held in high esteem by the indie press for its raw emotion and lyrical content and still a deeply uncomfortable subject for its creator, Rivers Cuomo.

It’s my second favorite album of all time – another dude wearing glasses spitting missives would claim the throne a few years later – but it strikes me as how durable it has been over the years.

It’s immaculately recorded – you can hear every instrument, every peculiar background vocal (Andy Wyslotsky and I would team up on “El Scorcho” in the car on the vocals for years) and has that amazing line about ECW preserved for eternity. It is an album that (not exclusively) encapsulates the frustration to be a young male not understanding girls to developing ten years of being a twenty-something male that still doesn’t understand girls.

It’s sad, funny and perfect. “Pinkerton,” twenty years on, was a record out of its time and place then, and for those folks who discover it now will find a home with it and something that sounds kind of like understanding.

Beach Slang’s ‘Teenage Feelings’ a Thrilling Second Chapter

a1153972391_10Sometimes there are records that exist just to get you through.

The stuff that’s always worked for me is the confessional, heart-on-your-sleeve, big guitars and shouty choruses kind of rock. Beach Slang makes those kind of records.

The band’s pair of EP’s in 2014 and last year’s insta-classic debut The Things We Do To Find People Like Us were thrilling documents of Replacements-style slop and romance with a Jawbreaker glaze. It’s kind of hard to hate.

Less than a year later, they are back with their second full length album, A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings, a record that takes what works and refines the focus and gets in and gets out before the sun sets.

It strikes me as more of a continuation of what makes Beach Slang great – driving rockers like “Atom Bomb” with the irresistible lyric “I was born with trouble in me” and “Spin The Dial,” which is probably the sweetest song on a list of songs with harder edges. While their debut set the scene, this album is comfortable being the second chapter in the larger story. The Jawbreaker influence is a little stronger here: James Alex’s vocals are a little more obscured by fuzz, and his and Ruben Gallego’s guitars cut like sharpened knives. The effect is twofold –  If you’re a fan, you’ll notice the nuance, and if you’re just coming to them for the first time, it’s a complete introduction.

There’s a great lyric that comes at the end of the record on “The Perfect High” – “Let’s get caught in this weird thing”. I think that sums up Beach Slang sort of perfectly. They’re a band that seemingly came out of nowhere to captivate anyone that will listen. Their music sounds shambolic and sweet, full of positive energy and tales of raging against the dying of the light. It feels instant and pure and A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings captures that energy again. What will be really weird, though, is to see where they take that momentum next, because with what you hear on this record, you can’t help but think a twist is coming in the next chapter.

“A Loud Bash of Teenage Feelings” is out on Polyvinyl on September 23.

Amanda Shires’s ‘Land’ Is Her Best Record Yet

amandashiresAmanda Shires has been an excellent solo musician in her own right for years, a fact that’s been partially obscured by the runaway success of her husband, singer-songwriter, Jason Isbell.

While that fact is never exactly forgotten, her place is often cast as a few things – the fiddle player in Isbell’s backing band the 400 Unit, or as a central figure in his recovery from addiction or even in stories about their family life. While that’s certainly a part of her story, it’s not all of it, and her newest record solidifies that fact.

On My Piece of Land, her first record since 2013’s Down Fell The Doves, Shires creates a compelling and gorgeous portrait, putting all of her abilities at the forefront. Helmed by producer Dave Cobb, (responsible for producing the last two of Isbell’s records), “Land” tackles subjects such as relationships, anxiety, fear, and of course, love. Shires has been working towards a M.F.A. in creative writing from The University Of The South (Seawanee) over the past five years. As part of her studies she workshopped poems, which she credits with strengthening her songwriting.

“Slippin” is a mid-tempo ballad that includes acoustic guitar and Isbell’s guitar leads and deals with the anxiety of a partner being gone for long stretches of time. “Tonight could be the night that you could go slipping away from me,” sings Shires. Isbell’s background vocals provide context, creating a dialogue between the two singers. It’s a song that presents a problem and offers the solution all at once.

Immediately following comes the torch song “Harmless,” which creates a scene of infidelity. Barely-there acoustic guitar melts into a hazy, aqueous lead. “It might have been cheating/where exactly is the lie?,” she asks. Shires’s ability to break up a note in the middle of singing – in this case, the word “breathing” is nothing short of masterful, and makes the song all that more delicate. It’s one of the best songs of the year, and with the proper attention, will be a standard for years to come.

Uptempo songs like “Nursery Rhyme” and “When You’re Gone” are a welcome change of pace and showcase Shires’s dexterity. Her fiddle playing has always been a highlight whether recorded or in live performance. It’s lyrical in nature, and adds drama to songs like “My Love – The Storm”, and “You Are My Home”.

My Piece of Land is a welcome return from one of the sneaky-great musicians of this era. Shires’ songcraft bridged with excellent playing and nimble voice is so rare. Here’s hoping she makes more records like this sooner than later.

Lydia Loveless Keeps it Close on “Real”

lydia_loveless_coverI saw Lydia Loveless play a street fest this summer and I was wowed by her presence and power. She’s a complete force of nature, synthesizing sorta-country with sorta-punk but maintaining an edge found in only the most classic singer-songwriters. There is not a whole lot like that.

That feeling of Loveless’s power extends with her records – she has always seemed older and wiser beyond her 25 years. She sings with the strength and world-wearniness of a veteran performer. Just listen to “Crazy” from 2011’s “Indestructible Machine”. There’s some decades-old heartbreak in a song by someone who had just turned 21. That’s continued with 2014’s “Somewhere Else” and with “Real”, due Friday.

“Same to You”, full of crashing chords is a propulsive, arresting opener, and the first single “Longer”, with its power-pop leanings is equally memorable. They’re two great songs back to back. “Heaven” with its dry drum hits and dancing bass lines feel unlike anything in Loveless’s catalog – it feels almost something like you’d hear on 80’s pop radio. This is a good thing.

Still, with these early bright spots, something about this collection feels like it’s a portrait of an artist in transition. “Out On Love” with its atmospheric guitars never really seems to leave the ground, “Bilbao” feels a bit like it plods and has an almost saccharine refrain. These complaints are small, but definitely noticeable.

Loveless has worked with the same producer, Joe Veirs on her last three releases, and while he’s done an admirable job serving her songs thus far, “Real” feels less like a step forward and more like an artist that’s maintaining the status quo. That’s okay for now – but after two back-to-back classics, it feels like a deliberate attempt to not shake too much up. Perhaps she’ll paint with a new sonic palette next time. Regardless, she remains one of the most gifted young artists of her time, and that alone is reason to pay close attention.