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.

Dreams, Reality, Gratitude and Joy

IMG_1768It feels like it was all one big dream. It had to have been. That, or it was the altitude.

It all felt kind of shaky, a little hazy, kind of surreal. Still kinetic though, vibrant and feeling purely impossible.

I remember the climb up to Red Rocks, legs shaking, exhausted, staring up at these monoliths that I’d only seen in pictures. I was barely able to process that I was going to see a band that I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, much less twice in a little over a year. For a few moments I stared out at the crowd from the stage, watching as they reached so high they eventually just faded out, framed by two beautiful rock formations. I won’t forget that ever.
I remember standing in the photo pit the next day, hearing keyboards that are so familiar in every moment of my everyday life, on my record player or my iPhone, but never in the same way they did for those first 35 shows. That on this particular Saturday, how they never felt like they were missing, how warm, how fucking brilliant it was, and how it brought me back in touch with that white hot energy that was so intoxicating ten years ago.

I saw Lifter Puller and The Hold Steady – complete with Franz Nicolay – in consecutive days in Denver. I never thought this could even be a thing that could have been dreamed up. But it was, and it happened.

I don’t know if there are words for this weekend, or at least ones I can’t formulate. There are feelings and impressions. It felt sweet and authentic, definitely heartwarming and all mostly exciting.

It’s amazing that in 2016, two combinations of eight people from very disparate places can come together to create music and create an experience for people to purely enjoy, just because they can. That Lifter Puller is the littlest punk rock engine that could, playing just six shows after their original dissolution in 2000 – to their largest crowd EVER sixteen years later is mindblowing. Then to think, a day later that The Hold Steady could play their landmark record with the keyboard player that is so much part of that signature sound – years after his departure left more question marks than answers is just an amazing thing to me.

I understand the frustration and the sadness that many felt for not being able to attend these shows or any of the ones coming up this fall. I read the messages every day. I’m doing my best to bring the experience to them, because I know I’d want to soak up every moment any way possible. I still think that’s beside the point though. I know it’s easy to say that because I was there, but I am constantly thinking about the following.

Nothing is forever. We’re always perpetually in a state of nostalgia, and I think people always have an especially hard time with that when it comes to music. “When will there be a new album? Will there be more shows? I wish they did this instead of that.” That I get, I’ve been one of those people. But for now, it’s great to purely enjoy it. So much joy is not a phrase. It actually means something. I’m grateful that my favorite bands on the planet are doing something. I’m not worried about what comes next. I honestly have not a single idea if there’s anything else after December. But I’m thrilled for now, and that’s enough. These bands, especially The Hold Steady, have given me more than I could ever give back.

I wish Jersey Mike, Liz Montgomery and Bible Salesman were here for it. I know they would have loved it. Jersey would have told us to enjoy this moment with a very impassioned post on the message boards, Liz would have said something so smart that I would still be trying to figure it out a month later, and Bible would have said something weird and off putting and tied it to some Bruce anecdote, but I would secretly be happy to see his yellow hat at the shows.

I’m so grateful to have experienced all of it. From the opening notes of “Stuck Between Stations” to stopping on a dime at end of “Stay Positive,” the other day, it just reminded me why I have spent so much of the past ten years of my life on this. It’s more about the experience and the people than it is about the music for me. For now, I know there’s a few more chances to do that, and a lifetime to connect with others who love the same thing that I do.

So much goddamn joy.

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.