New Band Alert: Starcrawler – Edgy Punk Rock From Los Angeles

image

“Out of the mouths of babes…” – From, surprising to me, Psalms 8:2. Who knew?

As most of our intrepid, regular readers know, here at B&V we tend to focus on older, more established artists who are still putting out new, vibrant rock and roll. Admittedly, we’re also fond of “vault” releases from those same older artists. But every now and then we need to get out of our comfort zone and explore some of the new and sadly, increasingly rare rock and roll out there. I might be pushing some of you to an uncomfortable edge here, but this is a band you need to hear, much like Greta Van Fleet (for very different reasons and very different music).

In my life of musical spelunking, it’s become apparent that I discover music in the weirdest ways… Earlier in the year, the Rock Chick bought us tickets with our daughter to see Beck, Cage the Elephant and Spoon at Fiddler’s Green in Denver in late July. Because I’m a neanderthal, I wrote that down on my calendar instead of posting it on my work calendar. At the time I had months and months to worry about July, it was a lifetime away. Sigh. I ended up scheduling a very important meeting on the day of the concert. There was no way around it, I had to skip the show.  I haven’t been to a concert all year, so there was deep anguish associated with this decision. Not to mention my family was not pleased.

When the Rock Chick got back from Denver and I returned from my business travails, she told me the highlights of the show. Spoon rocked, Cage the Elephant was great and Beck was well, Beck. She even put a Spotify playlist together featuring the combined setlist for each band together. In the arc of the story about the show she mentioned the opening act, Starcrawler. She mentioned they rocked and were fronted by a woman, two things that were bound to pique my interest. She said the performance was “something else.” At one point, the lead singer, Arrow de Wilde spit out fake blood. She crawled around on the stage. At the end she collapsed and had to hold onto the railing to crawl backstage again. She said, “You know, I’m not sure if their set was any good, it was kind of overwhelmed by the spectacle.”

She immediately went to YouTube and started pulling up their videos. As I sat there, mesmerized by the physical appearance and performances of the show, I started focusing on the music. And damned if I didn’t hear the Runaways. As I’ve admitted previously on this blog, I was late to getting into punk or punk-influenced rock. I live in the American midwest, where we didn’t discover punk until 10 years later, like we were encased in amber. The Clash and the Ramones were my gateway punk bands. After that I was in – the Stooges (and Iggy solo), X, and The Sex Pistols, I love all of them. The more of the Starcrawler videos I watched the more I knew I had to check this band out.

Formed in L.A in 2015 by literally children, Starcrawler is a foursome consisting of Tim Franco (bass), Austin Smith (drums), Herni Cash (on nasty guitar) and Arrow de Wilde on lead vocals. Arrow’s mother is a photographer and is friends with Beck… that’s his daughter on their debut album cover (pictured above). They have, according to Wikipedia, the funniest origin story since Hendrix founded the Experience and hired Noel Redding because he liked his hair. From Wikipedia:

“In the summer of 2015, Arrow de Wilde and Austin Smith came together to collaborate in making music. When the school year began in 2015/2016, the two decided to recruit new members, a guitarist and bassist. One day during school Wilde saw Henri Cash and asked: “You look cool, do you play guitar?” Cash was actually carrying a tuba. Wilde later recruited bassist Tim Franco.[7]” 

“You look cool, do you play guitar?” may just go down in the annals of rock and roll. The fact that he was holding a tuba is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever heard.

I immediately started crashing through their entire catalog of recorded music. I love this band. They’re punky and edgy. They can be vulgar and in your face. They conjure up the Runaways, or at least that was my first impression, but I also hear some Ramones and a lot of Hole in this music. I am not suggesting in any way they’re derivative like Greta Van Fleet, these are just the bands they remind me of. This is elemental, primitive rock and roll played extremely well. It’s visceral music. There’s not a lot of solo’ing or really any solo’ing on guitar it’s all just big riffs, played fast and aggressively.

Their first single from 2017 was “Ants” backed by “Used to Know.” Both tracks are that nasty, fast guitar rock that I just fall for. “Ants” kind of reminded me of the Ramones. From 2018, the had the single, “Hollywood Ending” and “Tank Top” both of which reminded me of Celebrity Skin-era Hole.

Their first LP, eponymously titled, is harder and has less obvious influences. There is a lot to like here. “Loves Gone Again” has a desperate, edgy riff. “I Love L.A.” (no, not the Randy Newman song), reminds me of Missing Persons with guitar. I’ve heard this first album compared to Sabbath, and I don’t particularly hear that except maybe for the big, monster riffs that drive “Chicken Woman,” another highlight here. I love the song “Pussy Tower,” but with a chorus that begins, “She gives me head,” how could I not love it. “Full of Pride” is another vulgar putdown, “‘Cause you’re a pretty little bitch, no matter how I word it, You’re always full of shit and everyone has heard it.” I like where these kids are coming from. Total punk attitude. The album ends on “What I Want” a declaration, “I don’t wanna be anyone but me.” At almost 4 minutes long, this amounts to an epic for this band. There are 2 songs on here that clock in under 2 minutes. Keep it up!

They followed up in 2019 with three new singles, “She Gets Around,” “Pet Sematary” (which has to be from the movie I’d guess), and the pick of the litter, their latest, “Bet My Brains.” “Brains” has a loping gait and I dare you not to become addicted to Arrow singing “Bet my brains, I’ve gone insane.” I have to say, “Pet Sematary” is catchy as hell and probably the most polish thing they’ve done… it almost sounds like arena rock.

I’m not sure where this band is going, they’re still awfully young, but I like where they’ve started this journey. Hopefully all of the singles released this year are pointing to another LP, I can’t wait to hear what they do next. Check this music out and keep an eye on this band.

Cheers!

Editor’s Note: It came to my attention that Starcrawler indeed have a new album coming out, ‘Devour You,’ on October 11th. We’re all looking forward to that here at B&V! 

 

 

Advertisements

LP Review: The Black Keys Return With “Let’s Rock” – Yes, Indeed!

image

I have finally found the rock and roll album for the Summer of ’19. ‘Let’s Rock’ by the Black Keys! Hell yes! Baby, let’s rock!

I was beginning to wonder if we’d get any more rock and roll this year… it’s been thin for those of us who like to hear squalling guitar and big drums. I was also beginning to wonder if the Black Keys were even still a band. It’s been five years since their last album, Turn Blue. I went back recently and listened to that album in the hopes it would break my liking-every-other-album cycle with the Black Keys, but alas I found the album, well, kind of a bummer. And I like sad music, just see my Neil Young collection. The good news about my not liking Turn Blue is it boded well for the new album. I had absolutely loved El Camino, the predecessor to Turn Blue. I don’t know what it is about these guys, they zig and I zag… but we always meet on the next album.

In the interim, lead singer/guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Dan Auerbach released a solo album, Waiting On A Song that was a really strong, “summery” record in its own right, LP Review: Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) Solo, Poppy ‘Waiting On A Song’. He also produced a host of other artists. I know drummer Patrick Carney also did some producing. And I just read in Rolling Stone magazine, Carney somehow made peace with Jack White who had been reported as hating the Black Keys “for ripping the White Stripes off.” Jack said that Carney came over to his house in Nashville while White was recording with the Raconteurs and loaned him a microphone. Nothing like reaching out with the olive branch microphone. Peace was made. We can’t have rock bands feuding… this isn’t hip hop and there are far too few rock bands left.

I also read on Wikipedia that Auerbach said he prefers creating the music (writing/producing/recording) and had grown weary of touring, which he described as “necessary” after you’ve released an album. He was jamming with Joe Walsh – and let me tell you, I’d love to have been a fly on the wall for that – and Auerbach started to get the itch to play with Carney again… And let me just say as an aside, if Auerbach is producing a Joe Walsh solo album, can I just be the first to say, YES PLEASE!! Carney and Auerbach hadn’t so much as spoken in quite some time… but apparently the chemistry they have ignited immediately. Joe Strummer said it best, “never underestimate the power of the chemistry of four guys in a room.” In this case it’s two guys, but you get my point. And I do mean two guys literally. For the first time in five or six albums, Danger Mouse didn’t produce this record. The Black Keys produced it themselves. The only other musicians on this album are two back up singers, Leisa Hans and Ashley Wilcoxson. I have to assume with that name, Ms. Wilcoxson was teased in high school, but I’ll leave that alone. I should also mention that for the first time in a few records, there are no keyboards on this album… I mean, that’s all you gotta know.

When I saw the album was titled, “Let’s Rock” I assumed there was some epic story where the two guys in the band reunited after the long separation – sort of like when Joliet Jake gets out of jail in the movie The Blues Brothers and is reunited with Elwood while “She Caught the Katy” plays in the background… and one of them looked at the other and said, “Let’s rock,” and they immediately lock into a groove that ended up being “Lo/Hi.” That would have made for a great story. Unfortunately it’s a different story. Apparently the state of Tennessee executed a guy in the electric chair (hence the cover art) for the first time in 14 years. When asked if he had anything to say, the guy just said, “Let’s rock.” Not the story I’d hoped for but in these dark times, perhaps it’s the story we deserve… but I digress.

I liked this album immediately upon first listen, something that doesn’t always happen these days. I will admit, it’s a tad more polished than their earlier work and it sort of glided by on that first listen, almost too quickly. But after hearing it, damn, if the melodies didn’t stick in my head. The rocking “Lo/Hi” and perhaps my favorite track, “Tell Me Lies” would be running through my head when I woke up in the morning. The Rock Chick liked the album as well, but in the interest of full disclosure, she’s always liked the earlier, more raw albums. She really digs the debut, The Big Come Up. I’m beginning to think the Rock Chick may be, unbeknownst to her, like the heroin of the Ramones’ tune, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker.” The Keys early records sound like they were recorded in a basement with the vocals distorted, almost like they’re running them through the harmonica microphone. Auerbach sang like he had a small dollop of Howlin Wolf in there. It sounds like they taped a microphone to a Marshall amp and turned it up to 11… Believe me I get it, I dig that early stuff too. This may be more polished, but the guitar sound still grabs me.

This album is a predominately a guitar forward upbeat record. It starts off with three great tracks, “Shine A Little Light” (which could have been on Auerbach’s last solo disc), “Eagle Birds” which has a crazy good guitar solo and the first single, “Lo/Hi” (The Black Keys: Fabulous, Dirty Rock New Single, “Lo/Hi”). They take a bit of a left turn with an almost psychedelic ballad on “Walk Across the Water,” followed by “Tell Me Lies” which starts with a slow groove and then builds, drops back to the groove… rinse repeat. I love that track. While the music is rocking and up beat, the lyrics belie a darker, heavier feel. It’s like the narrator of the song is rocking his blues away. “Get Yourself Together” and “Sit Around Missing You” certainly are examples of what I’m talking about. What was it Tom Waits said…”I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”

This is far from a monochromatic record… don’t think it’s all upbeat rock songs. Most of them are but there are quieter moments. “Breaking Down” starts with a sitar-like sounding little guitar figure. It’s more mid tempo but it chugs along thanks to Carney’s propulsive drumming. “Sit Around And Miss You” is built on an acoustic, strumming guitar. The only track that threw me bit was “Fire Walk With Me.” It’s another great rock song, but the title… are these guys Twin Peaks fans?

I recommend this album as strongly as I can. It’s just a great rock and roll record and perfect for the summer. And… spoiler alert… this is a definite candidate for the B&V best albums of the year. Turn this one up loud and enjoy!

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

LP Review: Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Western Stars’ – Born To Bacharach?

0005053270

I had been hearing for a while that Springsteen had cut a solo album, heavily influenced by Jimmy Webb, whose songs were made famous predominantly by the legend Glen Campbell. The most famous of those tracks was “Wichita County Lineman.” Interestingly enough, I saw the Stones in Wichita one time with my old college buddy Drew. The Stones did “Wichita County Lineman” and Mick said, “Everybody who plays Wichita probably plays this track, but here’s our version…” Drew said, “Actually, nobody ever does that song here.”

Hearing Springsteen was doing a Jimmy Webb/Southern California-70’s style album had a lot of people concerned this was going to be a country album. A lot of artists like say, Bon Jovi have done a country album late in their career as a crass commercial move. I will give country fans credit where credit is due… they still buy albums and CDs. And if they could they’d probably still be buying 8-tracks. Well, that’s only a theory…tip of the Stetson to you country folk out there. Hearing Western Stars and spending the last few weeks with it, I can tell you, it’s not country. It has more in common with Burt Bacharach’s sound to me.

I’ve had a real mixed relationship with Springsteen’s “solo” work, ie, his work without the E Street Band. I grew up in the midwest, which was Springsteen flyover country. He was big in the Northeast and the Ohio Valley… even down the eastern seaboard. He was big on the edges of the country. Chicago and California embraced him. In Kansas City he wasn’t really that big of a deal until later. Maybe radio programmers thought he was too “east coast,” whatever that means.

In 1979 I absolutely fell in love with The River. It was the first album with songs that got significant airplay in KC and so I made that huge double-LP investment and bought it. It was all over stylistically and I love every track on that album. I just loved the whole concept of this gang – The E Street Band. It all sounded so cool…and yes, I liked the way they dressed, homeless chic. Where was this E Street, and how do I get there? I slowly worked my way backwards through his wonderful early catalog. I was just back home from a very difficult first semester in college during my freshman year for Christmas break and was in the mall with my then-girlfriend and we passed by one of the record stores. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a rack full of Nebraska albums. I hadn’t heard any of the music, or anything about the album, but it was Springsteen, hells yes! I dropped my girl’s hand and went lunging into the record store. I was not emotionally prepared for the bleak music that poured out of my speakers when I got home that day. I realize Nebraska is a classic, but it took me a long, long time to appreciate it. You won’t hear that album at a party.

The next solo album by Springsteen was Tunnel of Love. There were cameos by the band, most notably Nils Lofgren’s amazing guitar solo on the title track, but it was a Springsteen solo project. I love that album, it’s a masterpiece. After that tour Springsteen went solo and fired the E Street Band. The resulting two albums, released on the same day, Human Touch/Lucky Town were a bit of a mess. Human Touch was overly produced and sounded labored. Lucky Town was lyrically rich but plodding musically. I still think there is one good album hidden in there… (iPod Playlist – Springsteen’s ‘Human Touch’/’Lucky Town’ LPs at 25: The B&V Single LP Edit). There are some great songs scattered across those two discs.

His next solo project was The Ghost Of Tom Joad. Other than the title track, I don’t think I’ve heard a track from that bleak album since…although “Youngstown” was a live staple. Devils and Dust recorded after he’d reunited with the E Street Band was topical but a truly great album. Like I say, it’s been an up and down road for me on Bruce’s solo stuff. All of his records have gems on them, but on his solo stuff you have to dig a little. Wrecking Ball certainly had a few great songs but overall, not my favorite Springsteen.

Western Stars,  while not country, is certainly country tinged… you’ll hear a pedal steel on a number of the tracks. This album, and I’d call it a genre exercise, is more of a sepia-toned, Southern California, 70s singer-songwriter album. There are strings on each track here that would make a young Elton John jealous. Springsteen’s voice, along with the strings, are front and center on this record. The other instrumentation is almost superfluous. You certainly aren’t going to get any screaming guitar solos here. He sings his ass off on this album. The vocal on There Goes My Miracle may be the most ambitious he’s ever done. These songs are, as the kids say, as melodic a.f. Sonically, this is as about as far away as you could get from Nebraska. It’s the lush kind of album you just don’t hear anymore.

This album conjures wide-open spaces, specifically in desert parts of the country like southern California, Nevada or Arizona. There is no social commentary in these songs as has been his more recent m.o. The songs are filled with drifters or men who are on the downward slope of life and somewhat down and out but the album is far from a bummer. Many of the protagonists are preoccupied with lost love or lost opportunity. The sun seems to always be going down. Most of the characters on this album could be described as a troubled Wichita lineman… There’s a sense of movement, or rather desperate men racing away from something… or finding escape through hard work under a big sky… with the past always near behind. I’ll be the first to admit, this album is somewhat monochromatic. It’s like Picasso’s blue period. Say man, try a little red.

The album opens with a pair of drifter tracks. “Hitchhikin'” opens the album and the first thing you hear is Springsteen’s voice, a perfect place to start. That leads into “Wayfarer,” which is the story of the hitchhiker if he had a car. While the first track has a nice acoustic guitar driving it, the second is all strings. The down on your luck theme continues later with the title track which tells the tale of a has-been actor, trading on his past glory for chicks and free drinks. “Drive Fast (Stuntman)” is the story of, obviously, a stuntman, near the end, hobbling around on “pins in my ankle.” “North of Nashville” finds a singer who never quite made it in the Country Capitol. All the protagonists mourn a lost love. While the songs all explore similar themes they’re all unique.

Lost love as a theme continues on “Sundown” “Stones” and “Moonlight Motel.” As a man who is no stranger to heartbreak I found these tracks all very moving. Although even I’ll admit “Stones” gets a tad repetitive. “Chasing Wild Horses” is the story of a guy with a temper issue who wears himself out at work each day to avoid fighting anybody at night. Like I said, its a bunch of troubled Wichita County Linemen…

The best tracks here, to me, include the first single, “Hello Sunshine.” That’ll be the track on the greatest hits packages going forward. It’s a classic tune, Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’. “There Goes My Miracle” is my favorite in a long list of strong vocal performances. Lately, and I don’t know why, I wake up with the refrain in my head, “there goes my miracle, walkin’ away.” On “Tucson Train” a man “down and out in Frisco” waits expectantly on his lover to arrive on the train to make everything better… why she isn’t taking the bus which is cheaper and faster, we’ll never know. I love a good train song and this one is the happiest track here.

There’s really only one song on this album I don’t like. It’s the change of pace, upbeat, Tex-Mex (almost zydeco) track, “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe.” It’s a bit like “Mary’s Place” on The Rising. It’s meant to be a bit of sunshine amongst a group of troubled characters but it just ends up being annoying. He could have easily cut that track and I’d have been happy.

This album makes me feel like I’m cruising down Highway 1 in California, top down with my shirt unbuttoned, with the wind blowing through my long hair and sideburns like it’s 1973, Aqua-Velva oozing from my pours, cowboy hat on the seat next to me. That’s just my 70s vibe, others might feel differently. I really like this album and urge everybody to check it out, despite it’s monochromatic bent. This is the most engaging, interesting thing Springsteen has done in quite a while.

Cheers!

 

 

 

Review: Springsteen’s New Solo Song, “Hello Sunshine” From The Upcoming LP ‘Western Stars’

0005053270

I took a little vacation down to the Florida Keys last week. It was good to get away. I was able to sit and roast in the sun (always use sunscreen folks, and don’t forget to slather your feet with it), put my headphones on and crank up the tunes… “Hello Sunshine,” indeed. The people the Rock Chick and I were traveling with, who live down there, are enormous music fans. Their principal interest remains classic rock and especially the blues. Every night ended with us sitting out on the lanai (a very fancy word for a screened-in deck/porch) cranking tunes on my little portable speaker and enjoying a nightcap, or two. I don’t think I’ve listened to that much Lynyrd Skynyrd since high school. Florida really is just Arkansas with coastline. Our traveling companions were laser-focused on finding live music every night which is always fun.

As part of an unplanned change-up during the trip, we left the Keys early and headed up to South Beach in Miami for that last night in the “Sunshine State.” At one point that evening, we ended up in a Salsa bar, which is a lot like ending up in marching band camp, all horns and noise…the horror, the horror. I was just trying to watch the Kentucky Derby and enjoy my bourbon. One might describe the week as a “musically immersive experience.” The best part of decamping early to Miami was the three hour drive up the Keys where my hosts played SiriusXM’s Spectrum station. The Spectrum plays classic and current rock. Over the course of the trip I heard the new Bruce Springsteen track, “Hello Sunshine” probably three times. It’s always better to first experience a new track in the car. There’s just something about driving and jamming.

Springsteen has been a busy man whilst on hiatus from the E Street Band. He had his very successful, one-man show on Broadway based on his autobiography, and won a Tony. He followed that up with a Netflix special of the show and the inevitable soundtrack there of, Review: Netflix’s ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ – The Artist’s Dialogue With Fans Comes to the Great White Way. I’d been hearing about a solo project he’d recorded either prior to his Broadway show or during that time frame. The new music was described as “beautifully orchestrated.” Springsteen hinted that he was looking for a certain late-60s/early 70s sound on this new mystery solo project. I also just read yesterday, in a sudden burst of creativity he wrote an album’s worth of material for an E Street Band album. Which is really good news for those of you fearing we’d never see those guys together again. For now at least, we have the new solo album to look forward to in June, Western Stars. 

When describing the specific 60s/70s sound he was looking for, Springsteen mentioned singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb. I’ll be the first to admit that Webb is not a household name. I have been fortunate in my life that I’ve always surrounded myself with music nuts. After college, many of us eventually ended up in Kansas City. The guy I spent most of my time with in those days was an old roomie of mine, who I’ll call Stormin (name obscured to protect the guilty). Storm is like me, a huge music fan. When we weren’t drinking beer and eating stolen t-bones, we liked to go to the record store, spelunking for new stuff. He actually purchased a Jimmy Webb album back in those days and played it for me. It had all these great old tunes, mostly made famous by Glenn Campbell, like “Wichita County Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” I said, “Why is this guy doing all these covers?” Lo and behold, I found out that much to my embarrassment, Jimmy Webb wrote all those great songs and I’d had no idea.

Springsteen, of course, isn’t covering Jimmy Webb, he just wanted to capture that sound. The songs Webb wrote always had beautiful melodies and amazing orchestration. It’s easy to think that his stuff was made famous only by Glenn Campbell, meaning they are all country songs, but that would be wrong. His stuff was recorded by artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes, Waylon Jennings and the 5th Dimension. Disco queen Donna Summer even did “MacArthur Park.” Alas, Webb never found the success (commercially) as a recording artist that he did as a songwriter… the critics always seemed to like his records but not the fans in general.

On “Hello Sunshine,” Springsteen has indeed captured that beautiful orchestration that Webb was famous for. The influence is very strong. Frankly, I’m thrilled Springsteen is paying this much attention to the sound of his music. Sometimes he can get a little too focused on the lyrics and the message. His music has become ever more topical of late, which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just nice to hear Bruce do more of a “pop” song (for lack of a better description). Over hushed drums and a wonderful bass line, Bruce sings in a slightly deeper register and manages to capture both the sadness and joy in the lyrics. It’s one of the most nuanced vocal performances I’ve heard from the Boss. The strings and piano kick in and the song takes off. There’s a beautiful pedal steel signature that plays throughout. The track does have an old-school country vibe, and I really, really love this song. Even the Rock Chick, who likes a fraction of Springsteen’s music said, “This could be a really great Springsteen album.” This song is almost an anachronism… it feels like it belongs in another time and place.

The lyrics are just great. The track is about a guy coming out of a dark time, perhaps a depression. The first lyric says it all, “Had enough of heartbreak and pain,
I had a little sweet spot for the rain.” Some of us get used to the darkness and come to be almost comfortable in it. It seems the “Sunshine” of the title may be a new love… “I’ve always liked my walking shoes, but you can get a little too fond of the blues.” I just think the lyrics perfectly fit the mood of the track. I love the sound and I love Bruce’s singing here. “Hello Sunshine, won’t you stay…” Don’t we all feel that way sometimes?

I don’t think this is Bruce’s “country” album. If “Hello Sunshine” is any indication, I think Western Stars has a chance of being a great, old-school, singer-songwriter type of album. You know, like Springsteen on his first album. This gives all of us at B&V something to look forward to this summer. I highly urge everybody check this track out!

Cheers!

 

EP Review: Back On The Mellow End With Norah Jones’ New ‘Begin Again’

norah-jones-begin-again-just-a-little-bit-1200x632

My travails, er, travels led me to the hometown of one of my old college roommates and closest friends last week. Over cold beers and bad hamburgers in a sports bar, naturally the subject of music came up. It seems to pop up wherever I go… maybe it’s me? Towards the end of the evening, my friend told me about a YouTube video he’d watched by an old music producer. The guy explained that the use of ProTools and AutoTune took the human elements (what I was describing as the warmth) out of music. It’s the mistakes we make that make it interesting, he said. I said if you want good ol’ fashion, human made music you need to listen to some Norah Jones. My friend, like most people who read this blog was somewhat surprised I was a fan of Norah. Our tastes around here at B&V tend to run toward the louder, rowdier end of the spectrum. The last time my friend and I had talked music it was about Judas Priest’s Sad Wings Of Destiny, so Norah was a bit of a stretch from there. And my buddy knew me in the “if you’re not Van Halen or Led Zeppelin, you need not apply” phase of my music fandom.

There’s just something about Norah Jones that I love. The obvious answer is that voice. Or as we should probably be calling it, “The Voice.” It’s deeper than that, though. She burst out in 2002 with the smash Come Away With Me. Often, initial success on that scale can ruin an artist. Rather than be confined by any genre or locked down in the soccer mom section of the record store, by her third album, Not Too Late, Norah was already expanding the palette from which she created her music. Actually, when you go back and listen to Come Away With Me now, all these years later you can hear the blue print of the diversity in her music already there, ingrained in the DNA of what she was doing. The track “Lonestar” was country, which she later mined more deeply with her side project The Little Willies. You could also detect a lot of jazz and roots music weaved in with what she was doing. It was all there from the beginning.

Norah has now returned with what is being hailed as a new “album,” Begin Again. At only 7 songs, I tend to think of it as more of an EP. In the old days, LPs or long players were full length albums. EPs, or extended players, were only three or four songs, longer than a single but not as long as an LP. Now, if you’re Led Zeppelin, you might be able to put out an LP with only seven songs, but that’s only because you’ve got tracks like “Achilles Last Stand” that ran over 10 minutes. Or the Allman Brothers who once had one song that ran across both sides of a single album, “Mountain Jam” (properly named, as it was hard to climb over). With all that in mind, I’m calling Begin Again an EP rather than an LP, but that’s because I’m a tad on the anal retentive side. And while it’s not rock and roll in the strictest sense, it’s not pop music. Pop music, which derived its name from bubble gum, was only meant to be enjoyed as long as the sugar lasted… once it was gone, spit it out and move to the next song. Rock and roll is meant to sustain you like steak or vitamins. It’s genuine music played sincerely. Norah may not have squealing guitars but it’s certainly genuine music played extremely sincerely. It’s music you’ll return to again and again.

This new EP has been hailed in most of what I’ve read as being “eclectic.” When I think of eclectic, I tend to think of the White Album from the Beatles. That’s a pretty high bar, I know. I can’t say this album is that eclectic, but what is? There’s no “Revolution No. 9” and then a pivot to “Martha My Dear” here. Norah does collaborate with different people across the songs so there are some different sounds here. She’s collaborated before with artists as diverse as Danger Mouse and Jack White to Ryan Adams and Keith Richards. Here we find Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and producer Thomas Bartlett working with Norah amongst others. And while she mixes it up, in terms of sounds here, it’s all held together pretty well because of her vocals. Apparently she wanted to keep it light, collaborate with a lot of different people and have some fun. She decreed that no song should take more than 3 days to record… the way they did it in the old days. I like that approach.

From the “eclectic” end of the spectrum, there are some different sounds from Norah here. The opening track, “My Heart Is Full” is the most “experimental” thing on here. It’s just her voice building over percussive and keyboard elements. The song is subtly political. As the song builds to a vocal climax, where Norah exclaims “I will rise, I will rise” I’m all in, but then it drops back to the quiet verses. I expected more of a musical explosion with that vocal declaration. It’s a good track but it feels underdeveloped. Another song that I’ll put on the eclectic list, is one of the two collaborations with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “Song With No Name.” It’s an acoustic dirge of a song with some nice guitar (both acoustic and some electric atmospherics) from Tweedy. It’s got dark lyrics from the viewpoint of a lover whose been scorned… “if I had a gun, if I had a knife.” It’s one of the best tracks here. Finally the most eclectic thing on here is “Uh-Oh” one of the collaborations with producer Thomas Bartlett. It’s a modern, percussion and synth number but somehow still remains pretty laid back. It’s another tune about a lover threatening to strangle her man… Norah seems to want to take over the mantle of tough-chick from Loretta Lynn who famously sang about “Fist City.” All of these tracks are still top notch, they’re just not what you’d expect.

The four additional tracks are what I’d describe as more traditional Norah Jones tracks. “Begin Again” is a jazzy number with some fierce piano playing from Norah. Never underestimate how great she is tickling the ivories. This is an even more direct political track, which makes me love it even more. “It Was You” is classic, sexy Norah. The sound of that song evokes the feeling of revealing who you really are, your true self, to a lover. It’s hypnotic. “Wintertime,” the second collaboration with Tweedy is also one of the best tracks here… I’d almost like to see those two do a whole album together… my only regret is Tweedy doesn’t duet with her. “Wintertime” is just a great love song. It wouldn’t have been out of place on Come Away With Me. “Just A Little Bit” is as jazz-inflected as Norah gets. It’s another seduction tune. I’ve already gone in-depth on that one in my earlier write up about the first few tracks released, On The Mellow End: Norah Jones’ Three New Songs From Upcoming EP, ‘Begin Again’, so I won’t belabor it again. It’s my favorite track here…she saved the best for last.

It’s brief, at 7 songs, but Begin Again is another brilliant entry in Jones’ catalog. The woman is so talented she makes it look easy. Put this one on with someone you love, pour something strong and just see where the wind and the music take you…

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

Record Store Day 2019: Reflections On Going To The Record Store…

unnamed.jpg

Life comes at you fast and furious anymore… I knew it was Record Store Day today but I was on the road all week for, yes, the dreaded work. I went out to the websites of two of my favorite local record stores to check their store hours. On the surface, you’d think they’d have posted that they had special hours for Record Store Day, it’s their national holiday after all. But when you think about it, the folks that work and own record stores are probably a tad more… casual… about updates to their website. Had I been in town, I’d have driven by each of the places and learned that they both opened at 7am, not the usual 11am today. By the time I got to the record stores today, any hope of picking up any of the exclusive releases that were available had long since faded… I felt, frankly, embarrassed. I even drug the Rock Chick out today, for the first time in quite a while, to join me at the record store. She’s the one who’s saved the day by picking out two great posters, pictured above (which represent the sum total of my haul), about which she said, “These will look great framed.” The woman has a sophisticated eye.

Ah, going to the record store. It was such a joyful ritual for me, really my entire life. I’m glad they have Record Store Day every year, and that so many artists participate by releasing rare or previously unreleased albums, but it’s also kind of sad they have to do so. I will admit, the crowds at both Records With Merritt and Josey’s Records were higher than usual today. In the old days, those crowds would have been there anyway. I had left with high hopes of finding Dylan’s vinyl release of the recreation of his original acetate recording of Blood On The Tracks (which he quickly withdrew) or perhaps, the first ever vinyl release of Robert Plant’s Fate Of Nations, but alas, on Record Store Day, the early bird gets the worm. I hate it when work interferes with great rock n roll, and especially great vinyl.

The first few albums I received as a child were gifts. They were comedy albums by Steve Martin and Robin Williams. When I first began my music collection, I had to save my allowance and/or lawn mowing money and beg a ride to the mall with my mother in order to buy a record. As soon as she needed some make up, or a blender, or a flouncy blouse or something I’d bum a ride and she’d stroll off through the mall and I’d hit one or both of the two record stores – Musicland or Camelot Music – located in the mall. One was on the top floor, the other was on the bottom. Oak Park Mall, our local mall, was big, but I’m still a tad staggered that it could support two record stores. I’d spend as much time as I could perusing the new vinyl, looking for the records I wanted to add to my collection. It was there that I bought Some Girls by the Stones, my first purchase. I had gone into the store that day with what can only be described as a grim, focused determination to come away with that album. Other trips were more exploratory in nature. Pouring over the album covers, looking at the songs listed on the back, trying to determine if the album I was holding was worthy of parting with the 9 bucks it would take to buy it. I could usually only buy 1 or 2 albums at a time. I was never so stressed out as when I had to decide if I wanted to invest in a double album… and yes, The Wall and The River were both worth it. Eventually, my mother would appear at the store front, tapping her watch, indicating it was time to go.

When I got my drivers license I was stoked, as most of us are. I could finally drive and didn’t have to depend on others for rides. I could drive to a friend or a girls’ place without having to ask my mother. Most importantly, no one knew where I was. For me, though, there was the added blessing of being able to drive to the record store and not have to hurry because mom was waiting. By then, while I still went to the mall – I had a job as a bus boy at York Steak House, it was hard to avoid – I realized there were other, larger record stores in the suburbs where I grew up. All during high school, I’d make the long trek up Metcalf Avenue, to Peaches Records. It was a virtual cornucopia of vinyl. I was so blown away by the expansive selection. That was where I bought my first album crates, emblazoned with the Peaches logo. I wish I still had those damn things. The Rock Chick tossed them, along with everything else I owned onto the bonfire of my past, when we moved in together. I also discovered there was an independent record store, closer to home, at the intersection of 95th and Antioch – Tiger’s Records. Tiger was supposedly mobbed up and the albums were purportedly stolen, but I still shopped there. It was said you could buy bootlegs there… but those records are sealed. I do know you could buy concert tickets there. I waited out for Van Halen tickets outside Tigers… they opened at midnight and let us into the store to buy our tickets early…some of the best seats I ever had for a show. “Someone shouted “fair warning!”…”

These bigger, or more independent record stores were to me, the coolest places on the planet. There were rows and rows of albums, music blaring on their turntable, and racks full of posters. They had everything from porn stars, to black velvet Elvis to rock star posters. I think that’s where I picked up the iconic Farrah Fawcett in an orange bikini poster. There was the smell of incense and perhaps pot emanating from the folks that worked there. They were some of the most knowledgable music people you were ever going to meet. I felt like I’d joined a very exclusive club that I was not cool enough to be a part of. I’d spend hours in these places, looking for records by the bands I heard on the radio.

When I went away to college, I found a kindred spirit in my buddy/roommate Drew. He and I would drive down to the heart of Aggieville in Manhattan, Kansas where we’d spend hours perusing the selection there. It was tucked in amongst all the restaurants and bars in the entertainment area, which we also frequented, but the record store was the place we spent most of our time. For us, the record store was a communal place where we would bond over great rock and roll. I can remember all of us who lived together going down there the day that Springsteen’s Live 1975 to 1985 box set came out and we each bought a copy. Going to the album store when a big record came out was an event! It was around that time that I discovered “used” record stores. Just behind the Peaches on Metcalf, was a little place next to the Roxy Bar that sold used records. That was a revelation to me as well… you could sell albums you didn’t connect with and still buy great albums at a reduced price. It’s where I found the Faces Oo La La. Used record stores are even cooler and stonier than the retail chains were. I felt like I was getting deeper and deeper into a secret society… The place behind the Roxy, whose name I can’t find on the internet, was where my buddy Drew found the rare copy of Time Fades Away. The summer I spent in Boston, I found a place called In Your Ear, a used record store and it was there I found the rest of the Faces’ catalog. I was in heaven.

Eventually I graduated from college and went into exile, living in Arkansas. I lived in both Ft. Smith and Fayetteville. Or as I called them, Ft Hell and Fayette-nam. Each one had but 1 record store, located on their respective main drags and at times of deep depression and loneliness, of which there were many, that’s where I would go. I made a new friend, Joel, and he and I would go and hang out at the record store. He turned me onto the Allman Brothers, the Band and U2. It was during that time I finally made the transition from vinyl to CD… it was tough, but bands just stopped issuing vinyl.

Finally, I’d had enough of fucking Arkansas and I moved home. After a brief stint living with my parents – every parents’ dream for their kids – I moved to Kansas City’s midtown. They had a big record store in the heart of Westport, a bar area down there. It was all CDs, but it still had that stoney, record store vibe. The basement was full of jazz and blues discs. I remember arguing with one of the guys who worked there about Randy Rhoads and his legacy as a guitarist. It was friendly but where else are you going to get to have that debate. I signed up for their frequent flier or frequent buyer club and when I filled out the form, as my salutation, instead of “Mr.” I checked “Reverend,” which only confused some drunk neighbors of mine who thought I could marry them. It was during this time period I started taking women on dates to record stores… it was fabulous being able to share a passion for music, go home, drink wine and share some, well, passion.

Alas, eventually all these places disappeared. Peaches turned into, I think, a bowling alley. The place by the Roxy, the used record store, became a futon store. The Penny Lane spot in Westport became a bar, the Ale House, catering to snotty college kids. I began to despair that the experience of going to the album store was over. Thank god, vinyl began to make a come back. I discovered a couple of really cool used vinyl places that helped keep the fire alive. Now, all these years later, these places sell used records and new vinyl by current artists. It appears we’re coming full circle. I just hope the experience, the sheer enjoyment of going and hanging out at a record store, perusing through vinyl albums comes back on the level I enjoyed when I was growing up. I certainly encourage as many people who read this to get to your local record store to pick up some vinyl and to just hang out. Support your local record stores folks!

I doubt we ever see a day when there are two record stores at your local mall. Hell, the way things are now, with everything on-line, I doubt we see your local malls any more. We’re trying to save coal miners’ jobs, how about saving retail jobs. Anyway, with a little luck and perhaps some better planning, maybe next year and the years beyond, just maybe, I’ll get up early enough to buy a Stones album in a special, orange-colored vinyl edition…

Long live Record Stores!

 

 

 

On The Mellow End: Norah Jones’ Three New Songs From Upcoming EP, ‘Begin Again’

norah-jones-begin-again-just-a-little-bit-1200x632.jpg

*Above image taken from the internet and likely copyrighted

It’s no secret that all of us down here at B&V are into our screaming, loud rock and roll. Hell, the first concert I ever took the Rock Chick to, before I made an honest woman out of her, was AC/DC on the Stiff Upper Lip tour. I can still remember the topless woman who popped out of the roof of the limo in front of us after the show. The exuberance of rock and roll had sort of… overcome that woman, but I digress. Even last night, after a wicked cocktail the Rock Chick cooked up with tequila and prosecco, I quickly put on some Tom Petty, Playlist: The B&V Best Tom Petty Album/Deep Tracks from our Spotify playlists.

But as with all things, screaming loud rock and roll has it’s time and place. On occasion, the mood or the situation calls for something a tad more mellow. When I’m putting my smooth moves on the Rock Chick, for example, sometimes it requires more subtle music than Motley Crue. Typing that sentence makes me immediately realize two things: a) I am not smooth and b) I have no moves. Another good example of a time that require music that’s a little mellower is my physical feeling today, after a night of drinking tequila, prosecco cocktails… I believe the medical profession would describe my condition as a “hangover.” No risk in life, no reward as the saying goes.

When I’m in need of some music that’s a tad more cerebral, if I don’t put on Van’s Saint Dominic’s Preview, I find myself turning to Norah Jones. As I am prone to repeating myself sometimes in these pages, the woman has the voice of an angel. She could literally record herself singing passages from a newspaper and I’d probably listen to it, despite how depressing the news is these days. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing her in concert, she tends to shun Kansas City but I remain hopeful she’ll come my way.

I don’t know if it’s that voice, but something about Norah’s music is evocative for me. I spent most of my 20s and 30s a wandering, emotional gypsy. I had a series of emotionally damaging relationships. I tended to pick my girlfriends from the FBI’s Most Wanted List… However, by 2002, when Jones’ debut Come Away With Me came out, I had found love and with it a family. I was living in house (that was mine) for the first time in my life, instead of a suitcase or the back of a car. I tended to keep moving in the old days… I was living with the Rock Chick in 2002 and we were engaged. Her daughter, who I now describe as “our” daughter was living with us. I had been traveling for work and my plane landed right around sunset on warm, late-summer day. The sky was turning to purple, but the sun still shone it’s golden hue on the taller trees. As I was driving home from the airport that night surrounded by magnificent colors with my sunroof open, on the public radio station I heard “Come Away With Me” for the first time. We were looking for a song for our first dance at our wedding and I was instantly convinced in that magical moment I’d found the track (I got overridden on that, alas). As I drove that night, for the first time headed to a home and not just the place where I kept my stuff, I felt a level of contentment I never thought I’d know… Norah Jones’ song had completely captured and immortalized that moment for me.

Over the years I have remained a Norah Jones fan. I loved her last album, Day Break LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!. I recently heard she was releasing random singles. I made a mental note to go out and find them and gather them together on a playlist. Luckily it seems that Ms. Jones is handling that for me. She’s gathered together seven tracks that she’ll be releasing in April as an EP, Begin Again. For those of you keeping score, an album is called a “long player” or an LP. An EP is an “extended player.” An EP is longer and has more music than just a single (which used to get released with 1 song on each side), but isn’t quite as long as an album or LP.

From the new EP, Norah has pre-released three new songs. I’ve heard her new music described as “experimental” which may be why she’s releasing just an EP. If there’s nothing thematic or musically similar holding a group of songs together an EP release makes more sense. I like the immediacy of what I’m hearing in these three new tracks. And yes, it’s not hard to predict, I liked all three of the new songs. I like that Norah is willing to take chances. An artist who had so much success early on in her career could be tempted to rest on her laurels. Not Norah, she really pushes herself.

For me, the stand out track of the three is “Just A Little Bit.” It’s a jazzy, syncopated little number. If I close my eyes while I listen, it feels like I’ve just wandered into a basement jazz club, the sound bouncing off the brick walls. I feel the murmur of hushed conversations and smell cocktails and perfume as patrons huddle in the dark and groove on the tune. I can feel the horns as much as hear them. It’s jazzy in all the right ways. When she emphasizes the words, “I’m on fire…” I can feel the heat.

“It Was You” is a more straight up Norah Jones. A sultry, chanteuse style track driven by her beautiful piano and a sax. Norah’s voice drops down in the register and is at it’s very sexiest. “And I knew, and I knew and I knew it was you…” It’s more an invocation to love than chorus. Put this song on late at night and you won’t need my patented smooth moves…

The final track of the three prereleases is a collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, “Wintertime.” I love it when Norah collaborates. She’s got a great track with disgraced singer Ryan Adams, “Dear John” which is one of her career highlights. I loved the album of Everly Brothers covers she did with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, Foreverly. Tweedy doesn’t sing on “Wintertime.” It’s a laid back piano tune and Tweedy plays a rather subdued guitar… at least I think that’s him. The track has a slightly country feel, but that may just be my take on the guitar work. It’s a very solid track.

All of us at B&V are looking forward to hearing the rest of this EP. I love that Norah is continuing to experiment and push herself. This will be very interesting, evocative music from an important artist. Enjoy this one to keep warm in this punishing wintertime!

Cheers!