Every Song Was Right: 10 Years of Boys and Girls in America

dc69676781d3af88-holdsteadycoverToday marks the tenth anniversary of Boys and Girls in America by The Hold Steady. Even the casual acquaintance has heard me stump for this album pretty much any occasion I get. But it’s the most meaningful and impactful musical document I know, and quite literally changed the trajectory of my life. I went from mopey college kid to someone who found a sense of purpose and community along the way. Of course that’s not without speed bumps, but that’s a different story.

I have so many thoughts about the record itself that are best said loudly and in person, preferably while playing the songs. This is still a common practice. Simply put, it’s a marvel of rock and roll construction: “Stuck Between Stations,” is quite possibly THE best leadoff rock song in history – the opening lyrics reveal the thesis: “There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right…Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together.” Crashing guitars, dancing pianos, a tight-as-hell rhythm section and Craig Finn’s lyrics and BOOM, we’re in to the thick of one of the most essential albums ever.

What I loved about this record as a 20-year old has morphed over time. While I loved the songs and the lyrics that made great Facebook statuses (I’m learning this daily thanks to the ‘On This Day’ feature) it’s been so much less about the music and more about the people. That’s continued for a decade.

My college friends sort of tapered off in the months after the album’s release, so I joined the band’s message board in 2007. There, I found a bunch of like-minded individuals and families filing scene reports from all over the states and Canada, sometimes Europe, or proselytizing for bands I’d never heard of – Drive-By Truckers, Lucero, some group called the Mountain Goats. It became a place of community and education. These were lawyers, students, photographers, people with insisted on being called by their pen names instead of their real names, a lady who talked about how much she liked a group called the “Ass Ponys”, bible salesmen and self-described “rabble rousers”. I’d never met anyone like these people before. But they welcomed me in, for better or worse.

The next year, I started traveling to see the band. I’d crash in strangers hotels when our car would get locked in a garage overnight, get rained on all day in an abandoned pool and meet my best friend in the process, end up in parts of North America I’d otherwise have no business being in. Friends of friends I’d met through the band would help me move to New York. I’d forget to close my mouth more than once when throwing confetti and gambled for the first time in a casino in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin. There are so many other stories, but they’re just not fit for public consumption.

I’d get to know the group, slowly, some of the members better than the others, and be able to call them friends or temporary roommates. For someone who has seen them at such an exaggerated clip, their good-naturedness and trust that I was not completely insane was always appreciated. That extends to their crew, an extremely patient bunch that went out of their way countless times to be kind to us in whatever city we were in. Eventually, we’d all work together, which still is a total dream come true.

screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-8-21-11-pmAs with time, I’m grateful for all the people that have come in and out of my life. So many of these are true friends I’ve been able to lean on when things did not look that sunny. Some I’ve met in person once or twice, or not at all, but we maintain that closeness. You know who you are. Growing older along with a band and its fans doesn’t really happen a lot, especially when you’re just starting your 20’s. I know many times and for many years I was not the best version of myself. So, if you’re reading this and knowing what I’m talking about, thanks for sticking around.

Ultimately, Boys and Girls in America is the story of the people that The Hold Steady brought together through their music, who built a community and changed the lives of a lot of people. As I look back on the past ten years, I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but through the totality of the experience of just playing some songs, I’ve grown into someone that I like being. It’s given me so many people important to my everyday life, incredible experiences and stories that no one else will ever have, and mostly, a freedom to just be who I am and love what I love. When we eventually dry up and crumble into dust, hopefully it will inspire a new group of people to do the same.

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.

Big Sky Hunters ‘Old Words’ Were Worth the Wait

In July 2015, I spent parts of two days with Big Sky Hunters at Wall2Wall Recording in Chicago as they feverishly recorded what would be their first professionally recorded songs.

In some regards, these were the Sky Hunters halcyon days, studiously making sure that these songs – some which origins stretch back years – met their idyllic final forms. Now, almost a year later, we have the “Old Words” EP.

Drummer Jake Buss, bassist/vocalist Terry Pallanti and guitarist Tim Shaunnessey have known each other since they were very young, and on this release, it shows. The self-styled “prog-punk” trio are in lockstep from the get go, as the EP kicks off with the furious “Famous Terrain”. Thunderous bass, shards of guitar and walloping drums pull you in immediately. “Now here comes the thaw,” Pallanti says. No shit.

The title track chugs along with some barely-there acoustic guitar in the mix, before moving on to the band’s true pop song, “Home”. Buss’s drums swing, Pallanti’s bass swings as he sings “You’re going to have to try harder than that, you know” to someone we’re not so sure – Shaunnessey’s guitar responds in kind. The riffs are somewhat staccato, a little physical, seamlessly melting into a dexterous solo. The hook will stay with you for days.

The EP’s centerpiece comes with its final track, the appropriately named “Sandcastles at High Tide”. It’s a workout for everyone – the drums splash, the guitar and bass follow each other into the woods, climbing deeper and deeper into the darkness, slashing and pounding, until close to the key changes right around the two minute mark. Pallanti throws himself into every note he sings with his band following suit – the song full of every bit of energy of the best power pop songs, and that’s just the first three minutes. It’s always sort of felt like a spiritual cousin of Weezer’s “Only In Dreams,” only if that song had been hashed out in a very hot garage for a long time.

“Old Words” is a clever title – hinting at the long gestational period it took for these songs to make it out into the world. It’s a hard-earned piece of work from a group that’s always willing to follow their impulses in search of getting it right. As far as what’s next? If this is any indicator, it sure seems kind of limitless.