It’s hard not to feel doomed these days. Democracy, empathy, our general welfare: all of these things have been eroding away for the past few years. Longer, of course, but the erosion has ramped up lately like the rising waters of Lake Michigan eating away the shoreline.
Maybe it was inevitable. It’s probably irreversible.
This pandemic and the response to it might be the final nail in the coffin. Will our culture survive?
Our temples are record stores, independent book shops, and small restaurants. Our ceremonies are sweating with strangers in dark clubs with live music. Will any of that even exist in a couple years?
I hope so. We’ll see. Or maybe we won’t.
Do you think the fourth and fifth century pagans throughout the Roman Empire thought about stuff like that while the Christian mobs and Roman armies were systematically wiping them off the face of the earth?
On Songs for Pierre Chuvin, John Darnielle goes back in time to an era that’s hardly recognizable anymore: the 1990s. It was a time when dudes sat on the living room floor and recorded earnest songs about ancient esoterica into boomboxes. They dubbed copies of their cassettes and passed them around to their friends, who dubbed copies and passed them around to their friends, who picked out their favorite songs and compiled them onto mixtapes to impress pals and woo women. The world was physical and the exchange of these artifacts took place in dorm rooms and shitty apartments, face-to-face or delivered to mailboxes.
I first became aware of the Mountain Goats at the tail end of this era. All Hail West Texas was the last album that John Darnielle recorded on his Panasonic RX-FT500 portable cassette player. Since then Mountain Goats albums have gotten gradually more sophisticated, recording in professional studios, adding a bass player, then a drummer, eventually even a saxophone. Darnielle’s compositions have matured as well, as has his musicianship, and several recent recordings feature Darnielle on piano instead of guitar. 2017’s Goths features no guitar at all. It’s jazzy.
It’s inappropriate for critics to project their own shit onto a work of art. But for music fans? That’s what we do. It’s how an album can become so entangled with a specific time in your life. Certain songs get scratched into our souls, you know.
Ryan Walsh gets this. From the opening lines of the new album by Boston’s Hallelujah the Hills, Walsh acknowledges his willingness to conflate the relationship between performer and audience: “Hello, I am the person singing this song / And if you think that might be you, well I guess you might not be wrong.” This theme is even more explicit in the title track: “I’m you / Don’t freak out / I’m you.”
That warning is not unwarranted. It can be really easy to let yourself slide into a wormhole of reading too much into something and convincing yourself that someone is singing directly to you. Do you remember the scene in Imagine where John Lennon talks to the homeless dude who is freaking out and believes that the songs were written about him? “It all fits,” the guy insists. John shoots down his theory but invites him in for tea. Don’t freak out.
That’s the key, right? We’re all interconnected but the question is, “How do you keep those banjo-murder-love songs from becoming your fate?” The overlap between the music you love and your own persona is slippery and can be scary. “We know the dangers of one person using another person as a muse,” Walsh sings. The danger is that you might no longer be able to “be sure that you’re you, I’m me, and not the other way around.”
If that sounds heavy, you’re right. It is. This is a serious album that offers a lot to think about. That’s not to suggest it’s a slog to listen to. It’s certainly not. In fact, there are quite a few lines that are laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite is: “I was first in line at the solipsistic sad guy seminar / But inside it just turned out to be another bar.” Another one that cracks me up is: “Sometimes I did drugs I found on the floor / Kept the search on point evermore.”
“Born To Blow It” employs a bunch of dad jokes (“You might think I was an astronaut the way I’ve been acting so spacey”) to address the role of privilege in self-sabotage: “I wasn’t born to blow it / I’m just my own great destroyer.”
But there are so many lines on this album that hit so close to home, it’s hard not to freak out. “I’m alone / And I can’t stop looking at my phone.” “Prepared pianos and tape loops and the rarest of b-sides have absolutely ruined my life.” “I’m fine / But I’m not okay.”
You know? What the fuck? Are you me? Am I you?
Sometimes it feels like the entire goddamn country is in the middle of an existential crisis and this is as good a soundtrack to this era as any.
We get a lot of press material at GLONO. Like…a LOT. Back in the days before press kits went digital, Jake and I would get hollered at by the postal workers where our PO Box was in Chicago because they’d have to haul out all these overflow bins full of CDs, band photos and one-sheets. I am embarrassed to say we had to just dump a lot of that stuff. [I sold a ton of them on half.com – Jake.] We simply didn’t have the capacity to get through it all. Especially the really cliched press releases.
My least favorite press release trope is where someone tries to describe a band as “If [Well known, well respected artist A] and [Well respected, but somewhat obscure artist B] got together in [Exotic locale, hip town, or fictional setting] and had a love baby!”
I get it, it’s hard to come up with creative ways to describe a sound that will still resonate with the reader–it’s kinda the whole point of this site. But sometimes, I just wish they’d be straight and say, “Yeah, these guys sound like Badfinger.” I guarantee I would listen to that record.
And so I’ll tell it to you straight: This new Luther Russell album sounds like Big Star. It does. And I fucking love it. And why shouldn’t he have a bit of a Big Star thing going on? We all LOVE Big Star and Russell currently collaborates with Jody Stephens in Those Pretty Wrongs.
Any bluesman will tell you it’s a game of sleight of hand. They all employ little tricks that confound and surprise you, which is essential for keeping music that is based on simple structures and patterns exciting.
The second album from Portland, Oregon’s The Resolectrics is a study in sleight of hand. One of my favorite live bands in a city filthy with great live bands, this three-piece has an uncanny ability to get sometimes stodgy Pacific Northwest audiences shaking their moneymakers. They do it with an infectious blend of blue-eyed soul and swampy blues they’ve developed over a few years of bouncing up and down the coast, which is what you’d expect to find in their sophomore release. And you do…but also so much more.
An equilateral triangle has three equal sides, which can be leveraged in architecture distribute weight and provide strength and stability. The foundation of The Resolectrics is certainly centered in rhythm & blues, but a foundation is something you build upon and what this band has built goes well beyond what you’d expect from the recent crop of bands hoping to be the next White Stripes, Black Keys or any other variation of black and white. The Resolectrics’ power is in the gray areas; the musical corners that aren’t as easily defined. It’s in these shadows where The Resolectrics confound and surprise you. They just as easily weave in Pet Sounds and Revolver as they do Electric Mud.
It’ll be interesting to see what other tricks they bring to bear and if this album is any indication, the skies will be wonderfully gray as they continue to sail their open seas.
They say you shouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t like puppies or babies. That’s kinda how I feel about anyone who doesn’t love Spoon. I mean…what’s not to love? Soulful vocals and witty lyrics; smart, economical instrumentation; beats and rhythms that make you DANCE; all peppered with hoots, hollers, grunts and groans that let you know rock music is supposed to be visceral.
Full transparency: Jake Brown was not always on the Spoon train and I can tell you that there were several whispered conspiratorial conversations around the office keg. We considered executing the 25th Amendment until he started to come around. I am pleased to say the state of the GLONO union is now strong.
Hot Thoughts is Spoon’s ninth studio album and builds on the same blue print established way back on 2001’s Girls Can Tell. This is a band who is consistent, if not creatively challenging. Once they broke (albeit slightly) from the jagged corners of their first two albums, the mold was set and they’ve honed the product more than redesigned it. And I am totally down with that. It’s a wonder how consistent, and consistently good, Spoon is. Given how shitty things are elsewhere in this country it’s really nice to know we can count on a solid record from this band every 24 to 36 months.
One area of exploration I have enjoyed from these guys is their occasional dips into dance-y pop music. I think it started with 2005’s “I Turn My Camera On,” which is a staple of any indie kid’s dance mix. This year we have “Can I Sit Next To You” as an early contender for Summer Jam 2017. It’s the kinda song that will make middle-aged dudes pine for pool parties that don’t include swim diapers.
If you’re reading this then you probably already have the new album so I’m not going to sell it. But I’d love to open up a conversation in the comments about the elements of Spoon that make them our favorite band. Because there are common elements, some of which are noted above and some of which get turned into criticism for other bands. Why?
I maintain a playlist called Golden that pulls together a bunch of songs that give me fall shivers and nostalgic heartstring tugs. There’s loads of Beck’s Sea Change, Kurt Vile’s Walking on a Pretty Day, Steve Gunn’s Sundowner, Elliott Smith, Damien Jurado, Lord Huron, and now…Chris Staples.
Staples’ new album, Golden Age, shares more in common with those songs and that feeling than its title. There’s a type of sadness, without being maudlin. And maybe that’s to be expected. After a rough patch where Staples was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes that resulted in pancreas failure, a bike accident that required surgery, and the dissolution of a long-term relationship, Chris Staples is afforded some sad bastard time.
But that’s what’s great about this record: it’s not sad bastard music. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE me some of that. But Staples’ album maintains a bit of pop bounce with lovely melodies and simple production. It’s been described as a “subtle” record, which I guess is as good anything I would come up to describe the production. Because subtlety implies hidden complexity, and this record has that in spades.
Give a listen to lead off track “Relatively Permanent” and tell me you aren’t ready to sit down with Chris, have a beer, and talk about where you grew up.
If I am being honest, I am just as guilty as anyone—maybe more so. I see “legacy” acts touring and think, “Why bother? They can’t be as good as in their prime.” Sometimes I’ve been proven right when a band that hasn’t spoken in 20 years gets together for a tour only to realize they stopped speaking for a reason and should leave us all out if it. But sometimes I am proven wrong; gloriously wrong.
Graham Nash has always been the secret ingredient. His harmonies are unmatched, and that’s evident in the work he’s done from The Hollies, to CSN(Y), and anything else he’s lent that magical voice to. It’s a high harmony, which is a big responsibility to hold in a singing group because those are the notes everyone really hears. Guys like David Crosby and Chris Hillman have a special gift for the harder to find middle parts, but they can also hide a little easier. With Nash, it’s right out there hovering over the entire song. That means his voice needs to be in top form, lest we all walk away just a little disappointed.
I’m going to tell you something most Oregonians don’t want you to know for fear that it will remove the final barrier that keeps even more people from moving out here: It doesn’t rain out here nearly as much as you probably think it does. In fact, the summers can sometimes be long, dry affairs that leave you praying for rain come September. The temperature will inch up to the triple-digits some days and the western sun feels more intense, but that may be my imagination.
It was over a three-day stretch like this that my family and I again made our way to the West Valley to the small town of Willamina, Oregon. We were in the middle of a welcomed break from a stifling summer when the weather report showed a slight return to the upper 90s. You guessed it: during the three days that covered the Wildwood MusicFest.
Josh Tillman aka Father John Misty describes his new album, I Love You, Honeybear, as “a concept album about a guy named Josh Tillman” and his relationship with his wife. Being the kind of writer he is, he refuses to stoop to sentimental cliché; instead, he engages in mean-spirited honesty and sarcastic self-loathing. To call Father John Misty “sardonic” at this point is itself a cliché.
And yet this is an album of love songs.
“She and I have created a circumstance in which it’s safe to discuss everything, all this intense, deep-down shit,” Tillman told Pitchfork. “But there’s an anxiety because I don’t know if I trust the world with my intimacies. These songs were written about our experience, now it’s time to universalize them.”
This anxiety is not unjustified. At times I Love You, Honeybear veers close to the oversharing territory mined by Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch as Roger and Virginia Clarvin. “At this point during the soak, my lover and I usually crave spiced meats.”
One’s bourgeoisie sense of propriety might be offended to hear about the “mascara, blood, ash and cum on the Rorschach sheets where we make love.” Then again, the reference to Rorschach tests is telling, since Tillman is clearly proud enough of this line to print it on tote bags. What do you see in that line? If you’re skeeved out by it, well maybe these aren’t the love songs for you. If you appreciate the image, there’s plenty like it to follow.
These twisted tales are set against instrumentation far more lush than what we heard on Fear Fun. Almost every song features strings. Whereas a lot of Fear Fun sounded like the White Album, Honeybear sounds more like Mind Games or Walls and Bridges. The heavy-handed arrangements work great on intense songs like “An Ideal Husband” where everything sounds overwhelming and evil. But “When You’re Smiling And Astride Me” sounds too much like terrible mid-70s puss-pop/soft rock; the slide guitar tone, the soul sister background vocals, the cloying strings, it’s just too much schmaltz.
“True Affection,” on the other hand, uses synth bloops and programmed beats and sounds out of place. Tillman wrote that song “on tour while trying to woo someone with text message and email and trying to make a connection that way and the frustration of that,” he told Grantland. “So that song had to be synthetic and inorganic.” Interesting concept, sure, but a little too clever for the song’s own good.
But these quibbles don’t diminish the impact of the album as a whole. High points such as “Chateau Lobby #4,” “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment,” and “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow” more than make up for the occasional misstep. Producer Jonathan Wilson knows how to get a good performance down on tape, and as Tillman says, he is “truly singing [his] ass off all over this motherfucker.” His voice is incredible throughout.
I like Father John Misty. I feel like I get Tillman’s sense of humor, and I appreciate the high bar he set for himself on this album. “My ambition, aside from making an indulgent, soulful, and epic sound worthy of the subject matter, was to address the sensuality of fear, the terrifying force of love, the unutterable pleasures of true intimacy, and the destruction of emotional and intellectual prisons in my own voice.” Honesty and earnestness obviously do not come easy for him, but he’s trying…in his own Misty way. He’s still a smartass, for sure, but isn’t that the best kind of person to spend your life with?
The pairing is complete nostalgia. There is no other reason that John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John are together for a Christmas album aside from the fact that they were both cast together in a small little movie musical called Grease over thirty years ago.
Grease has flourished since its first run on charm alone. How else can you explain the impossible plot of an Australian immigrant–who is hot off an innocent summer fling with a local gearhead–as she navigates the social landscape of high school with a collective of sexually active girls, headed by a 34-year old Stockard Channing?
As the main characters in the film, Olivia and Travolta aren’t particularly compatible on screen and their voices don’t blend together all that notably during their duets. Regardless, they have managed to become the biggest selling duet in pop history and their presence in Grease completes the film’s campy homage to 50s B-movies, giving all of that aforementioned improbability a free pass.
How these characters have managed to ride Greased Lightening up through the skies and endured for so long is pretty remarkable, so the idea of them returning together to perform Christmas music isn’t completely out of the realm. Unfortunately, when one doesn’t properly attend to the execution of such a reunion, what you get is a record that’s more acknowledged for its weird aftertaste than musical flavor.
I won’t even mention the cover, because it’d be like bitching about how Kraft Macaroni and Cheese tastes nothing like a homemade batch of the gooey comfort food. This is truth in advertising, and the only thing that would make the cover of This Christmas more awesome is if Travolta sported a cheesy seasonal sweater.
As hard as it is to be polite about the cover art, I simply cannot get away from all of the tabloid overtones when Travolta takes over the resistant role of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” We’re all accustomed to Olivia’s occasional glimpses as the sexual aggressor (Shake Shack, anyone?), but to hear Danny Zuko put up a fight to Sandy’s advances thirty years after the fact makes for a perfect hushed whisper of “Beard!”
There are other laugh-out-loud moments within This Christmas that are much less juvenile, but equally surreal. Like the part during “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” when Barbara Streisand pops in for a verse for absolutely no reason at all.
Speaking of guest cameos, there are tons of ‘em. From another brake-slamming appearance (this time with James Taylor on “Deck The Halls”) to a not-so-subtle nod to the Scientology folks with some ivory-tickling from Chick Corea, John and Olivia bring a whole slew of friends to join in their Christmas spirit and it’s as sincere as you pretending to think the gag gift you get at work during your department’s holiday party is funny.
There’s octogenarian Tony Bennett who drops in for “Winter Wonderland,” if you count having your verses recorded at a completely different studio during a completely different session as “dropping in.”
ONJ brings out longtime musical partner John Farrar for the record’s lone original track “I Think You Might Like It.” Farrar was responsible for many of Olivia’s biggest hits, and he served as both the writer and producer for “You’re The One That I Want,” the hit single that propelled the pair into the record books.
Farrar’s latest tune is being called the sequel to that Grease classic, and it’s hard to dispute that claim since it follows nearly the same chord progression under the guise of some light country swag.
Clearly, I’m not the man who should be reviewing This Christmas because I’m overflowing with cynicism at every turn.
So I ask my wife, who often fills the house with a bit of Christmas singing of her own during the holidays, to offer her opinion of the pairing. Suddenly, I find her singing along with This Christmas, causing me to consider that maybe it is my jaded outlook that’s causing me to be so dismissive of this holiday collection.
When I ask her if This Christmas has caused her spontaneous outburst of seasonal caroling, she admitted that it wasn’t the quality of the songs that prompted her singing, but just the familiarity of the material.
Indeed, the selection doesn’t stray far from the obligatory set list that every holiday record seems to cull from. Case in point: ONJ has now selected “Silent Night” for every Christmas album she has released.
This Christmas is the perfect holiday record for anyone who has been waiting since Two Of A Kind for the return of John Travolta and Olivia Newton John. Beyond that, This Christmas is another run-of-the-mill collection of uninspired holiday classics featuring a bunch of questionable guest appearances and two longstanding friends who can’t seem to get away from those hallowed halls of Rydell High.
An extra star has been added for this release as all proceeds from the sale of This Christmas go to the artist’s charitable foundations.