And the hot heart healer
Is a sweet street feeler
And a wild wet wheeler
The pink prince of failures
Is a spoiled sea sailor
With terns and whalers
I don’t know what’s going on in this song with its oceanic imagery and references to anchors and shipwrecks, but it sounds massive. It’s no secret that Will Scheff digs that Phil Spector/Brian Wilson wall of sound, and his interpolation of “Sloop John B” (“John Allyn Smith Sails”) is my all-time favorite Okkervil River song.
Making a mess is easy
When you think you know it all
Cause every now and then you make me break a little law
And, of course, after you commit a crime you have to be sure to clean up the evidence: “Gotta wash you offa my hands / Every single DNA strand.” Remember, folks: you have the right to remain silent. Never talk to the cops without a lawyer.
I really dig the easy-breezy americana vibe of this song. The lyrics are playful (“It’s nice to have a guy around for lifting heavy things and opening jars / But should we really let them in our beds? / Chain them to a little house outside”) but the message is serious.
Mayfield told NPR, “I spent the majority of my life around people who treated me like I wasn’t important, leaving me with the feeling of needing to constantly apologize. This song represents my last apology, an apology for no longer being sorry.”
NPR notes that she wrote the album “while separating from her husband and co-producer.” That would be bassist Jesse Newport. The NPR story originally named him (according to the Google cache) but has since removed his name. NPR has not yet replied to a request for clarification.
On July 10 Mayfield posted a message to Facebook and Instagram: “Last week, I had a surgery for a broken shoulder related to a domestic violence incident. I had been suffering with this injury (and others that still require surgeries) for 3 years. […] My silence helps no one except the person who did this to me.”
By now, everyone reading this review has heard about Alabama Shakes, or to be more direct, everyone has heard the hype of Alabama Shakes rather than hearing a goddamn note.
I’ll admit to sneaking a peek at them just to get an idea of who the hell we’re contending with, because everything on paper looked a little too good to be true and we really shouldn’t get too hot and bothered about shit that was done as good as it could get generations ago.
That’s the draw of American music. We have short attention spans here in the United States, so forgive us if we’re shooting our wads at some bullshit new flavor while we’re completely ignoring how good Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin were back in the day.
Then, some upstart devotes their entire existence to those records, reminding us that while we were all discussing Lana Del Rey’s SNL appearance, the band Alabama Shakes were sweating in some dump of a rehearsal space, channeling all of those good American influences before becoming darlings at whatever hipster music festivals their managers could get them booked on.
So we’re finally provided with the debut, and yes, it’s awesome. Better yet, it’s recorded just like those old records you’re forgiven for forgetting.
However, Boys & Girls won’t be remembered in twenty years for its adherence to the past. Instead, it will be remembered for what it should be: a brief shot of American music that’s been appropriately rehearsed and impressively executed thanks to the talents of vocalist Brittany Howard.
The backing band–and that’s exactly what they are–should be commending for coming to the realization that their role is one of support, laying off as needed and bringing it back home when it’s time to. They’re not too tight, not too loose, and they know that just hearing Howard sigh, moan, or fucking breathe is more powerful than any bit of solo spotlight or professional chops.
Because they’re gonna get better with age, and they may even face a moment where Howard leaves for greener pastures just like Janis Joplin did with Big Brother. Why waste more time building on the nuances of their dynamics and synchronize their routines more than when they’re as good as we need them to be right now?
Spring echo guitars pluck out rhythms before drummer Steve Johnson even picks up the sticks. A plain background piano adds appropriate colors to several songs. And kudos to guitarist Heath Fogg–my nominee for best rock name of the year–who deserves an award for keeping on the restraint when he could have easily fell into the Sam Andrew trip of trying to outdo who’s obviously the star of this outfit.
I keep bringing up these Joplin references when I should clarify something: Alabama Shakes are better than Big Brother, and that includes when Janis was their frontman.
Howard can wail just as good as Joplin, but she uses the tool sparingly. She possesses a much wider range, and when she pulls out a showstopper like “Be Mine,” it’s a myriad of emotions. In one instance you can hear an exuberant “Whoo hoo!” after a particularly soaring declaration, only to be followed by a terse “If they want a fight, then they started fuckin’ with the wrong heart” that could scare the bejezus out of the biggest of troublemakers.
Joplin had a stunning jab, but Brittany Howard has a better sucker punch.
That’s the beauty of Boys & Girls. It’s a record that’s easy to dismiss based on what you’ve read, but it will land a righteous blow after your first listen. And hopefully the intimidation Ms. Howard and associates provide on their debut will be enough to remind us all how we should always have a band like the Alabama Shakes somewhere on our radar, and not just when some publicist’s pen reminds us of the power of American music.
Back when I was in the eighth grade, I checked out Legend, a Bob Marley compilation, from my local public library. I still remember the entire experience. It was a transformative moment for me, musically, even culturally. The album totally captured my imagination. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before. This was early in the 80s, and reggae wasn’t really known in the circles I ran in. I had no idea what reggae was.
I remember where they kept the records in the library. Yes, vinyl records. In thick, see through plastic sleeves, each with a sticker with a complicated library record stamped on it. Something about those dreads, those eyes, and the whole ambience of the cover compelled me to check it out. I remember listening to it in the room off my parent’s bedroom, where there was a TV and a stereo, and a gas fired stove. It was spring, so that wasn’t lit. And this album was blowing my mind.
That was the first time I remember that happening with music I encountered through the library, but it wasn’t the last. My Z-Ro obsession, documented on Glorious Noise in this review of Z-Ro’s record Heroin, was because I checked that album out while I was gobbling up all the hip hop I could when I re-embraced the genre a few years ago.
And it just happened again. I’m gearing up for my first festival of the year – Summer Camp in Chillicothe, IL over Memorial Day Weekend. A GLONO team, including myself, is gearing up to cover it, and I’m doing some advance research. I was searching the library catalog for Michael Franti CDs, since I don’t know his work that well, and he’s one of the headliners at Summer Camp. I put everything that I pulled up on hold, and that included Gov’t Mule’s Mighty High. Franti is featured on a couple of tracks. And the cover, being all reggae-esque, got my attention. Gov’t Mule? Doing reggae? And they cover songs by The Band, The Rolling Stones, and Otis Redding? What’s not to like?
Well, I ended up liking it even better than I thought I would. A lot more, in fact. I’m a Gov’t Mule fan, but most of their studio work doesn’t do much for me. It’s their live stuff that really gets me going. Warren Haynes is a brilliant guitar player, and he has endless amounts of musical energy. They do interesting covers, and really rock them out. This is a heavy, heavy group. Like Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath kind of heavy.
This record offers a very different profile of the band. It’s reggae and dub driven, with layers of heavy rock adding an interesting flavor to the orignal genres. It starts with an inventive take on Al Green‘s “I’m a Ram”. There’s a keyboard sound in it, and a few other songs on the record, that I only remember hearing in early Bob Marley and the Wailers records. The song feels like funk meets reggae meets heavy rock. Because who says a rock band can’t play funk!? Haynes’ soloing here is awesome. According to the liner notes, it’s one take. One take they thought would be a practice, but there was an electrical fire or something at the end, and it melted some circuits or what not.
The album basically splits into two parts. The first is full of rambling rock/reggae tracks, with vocals, choruses, etc. This is up through “Hard to Handle”, with the exception of the song “Horseflies”, which is pretty dub-ish.
The cover of The Band’s brilliant “The Shape I’m In” begins and ends with what sounds like a Fender Rhodes electric piano filtered through a phase shifter pedal, like on “No Quarter” by Led Zeppelin. It’s got a bit of a funky drummer beat to it. Toots Hibbert is great on “Hard to Handle”. It’s culled from a Beacon Theater show, with audience chatter edited out, remixed, dubbed up, etc. It was better than I expected. Generally, if it’s not Otis or Pigpen singing it, I don’t care for “Hard to Handle” covers. But this one is great, with the reggae dub angle, and Toots vocals.
The second half of the record is all dub, beginning with brilliantly named “Hard to Dubya”. If the dub genre is unfamiliar to you, it’s basically an approach to reggae that uses the mixing board as an instrument, remixing and sampling standard reggae songs into sometimes danceable, often spacey beat heavy songs.
It started in the 60s with producers like Lee “Scratch” Perry. His Arkology album is a great documentation of the genre. Drum and bass draws heavily from dub’s use of heavy beats and loud repetitive bass lines. Gov’t Mule takes the same approach here, bringing more rock guitar to the genre than is typical, and mixing in live recordings as well, like the one I reference above.
I liked this record enough that I decided I needed to get my own copy for car. Picked it up the other day. It will be great for long drives. And since I became a fan of Bob Marley in the 8th grade, I’ve spent a lot of money on his music. Vinyl, CD. I think I even bought a poster once. I have purchased at least a half dozen Z-Ro records, too. All of this because of the library. Go socialism.
On paper, Drive-By Truckers are a band that I should thoroughly enjoy and fully be able to recommend to anyone who enjoys Southern rock. I suppose that I could still offer that recommendation to those with Skynyrd, Outlaws, and even a stray 38 Special album or two in their collection, but there’s something problematic about The Big To-Do, Drive By Trucker’s 8th album, that prevents me from fully placing it on the same level as a bowl of hot grits and a Second Helping of Ronnie Van Zant.
From Changing Horses, out February 3 on ATO. His publicist calls this “a full-blown, straight-up country affair” but it’s clear that Kweller’s been listening to the Flying Burrito Brothers with the mix of country, gospel, soul, and rock and roll. This is full-blown, straight-up Cosmic American Music. I’m happy to see the return of pedal steel and multi-part harmonies, which have been lacking in his output since 2002’s Sha Sha (review), an album I still revisit regularly.
No one can ever accuse Ben Kweller of lacking energy. He is at times the epitome of what a young rocker should be; tearing up the Metro stage one minute and doing yoga on Carson Daily’s show for no apparent reason the next. On his new release, On My Way, the young Mr. Kweller’s energy is abundant and refreshing. In this era of maudlin euro-pop and cartoonish punk/metal aping, it’s nice to see that some kids still have fun just making rock records.
Paired this time around with producer Ethan Johns, On My Way crackles with the vinyl buzz of rock made simple. The live sound of the album lends a personal quality that suggests the music might just be coming from the basement next door. Unlike the previous Sha Sha, there’s no polished pop masterwork here, just good room sounds and warm guitar to microphone tones.
The vocal and guitar hooks that line the album are still very much Kweller’s own. “The Rules” has enough memorable guitar banging to keep many a cover band busy while the fans of Kweller’s anti-folk, coffee house days will be appeased by the bare acoustic title track, which references karate in the first two lines and still comes off as sweet.
At times the album rests heavily on its influences. The first track, “I Need You Back,” could very easily be Ben Kweller lending lead vocals to a King’s Of Leon instrumental, the very band that introduced Ben to the idea of recording with Johns. In other tracks I heard equally significant Let It Be-era Beatles references as well as some good old Detroit garage rock. Though the songs remain catchy, it’s better when Kweller is just Kweller.
The closing track, “Different But The Same,” may be the best track on the album. It’s mature and well crafted, in both writing and production. The album cover depicts Kweller standing tall among the wolves and the album does the same. It’s not Sha Sha and that’s what’s good about it. Ben Kweller has grown and matured and gone from clever pop to smart rock very gracefully.