Monday, October 24, 2016

How to Survive -- Matt Woods

I spent January 1st, 2016 plunging a badly stopped up toilet, getting covered in shit, crying for hours in my bed because I couldn't even unclog a toilet correctly and I'll always be alone, nothing ever changes, the future is bleak and hopeless, etc. In "Love in the Nuclear Age," Matt Woods laments that "no one's been smart enough to write a book about how to survive." The line has struck me since I tore the cellophane off this album a few weeks ago. It's a question we've all sought to answer. And certainly there are many books about survival -- spiritual, physical, and political. But if there was a book that held all the answers for me, what would it say? Things got so much worse since New Year's Day, my life trajectory is so different than I thought it would be at this time last year, and 2017 is shaping up to be good, if not excellent. So if I wrote the book, what would it say?

The question has inspired me to write a few new songs, and I think Paul Sanchez's new album, Heart Renovations, offers plenty of response to How to Survive, but check back on Wednesday. Woods himself doesn't offer many answers. Instead he portrays characters locked in the struggle -- a struggle, I suppose, that never really ends. Is it worth breaking someone's heart to stay true to ourselves? Is an anonymous life on the road worth a potentially lonely death? "The American Way", the song's introductory track, reminds us that our way of life doesn't provide for much dignity at all.

Overall, How to Survive, sees Woods in a more mellow, contemplative place than he's been in a while. While the anthems of Matt Woods Manifesto are dear to my heart, this is a good look on Woods. It showcases his poignant lyricism and powerful vibrato. If Matt is in your town -- he's on tour with the majority of Have Gun, Will Travel backing him -- make sure you swing by. Having answers is nice, but creating a work of art that leaves the audience with more questions is far more meaningful.

Matt Woods -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp, iTunes

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Flat Five -- In a World of Love and Hope

I'm not even sure where to start with this album. In a World of Love and Hope defies description -- but that's probably to be expected when you have five of Chicago's musical luminaries concocting their mad scientist dreams together. The five-piece consists of Kelly Hogan (who's received some love from here), Nora O’Connor, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall. They began performing together at holiday shows, inspired by Ligon's older brother Chris' oddball songs. As you'll here, though, these songs are all the things you want when a group of people perform music together, and the local heroes have encapsulated their performances for the rest of us.

The older Ligon's quirky worldview is certainly felt here. These are smooth, 70s-style pop songs that evoke love, loss, vacations, and kazoos with zeal. (Seriously, though, "Blue Kazoo" has a surprisingly heartfelt kazoo solo.) The end result is that the thoughts of all of us awkward dweebs (unless I'm just speaking for myself) are somehow translated into the effortless cool exuded by the Flat Five. Overall, this album will charm the pants off of you.

The Flat Five -- Official, Facebook, Purchase from Bloodshot Records

Monday, October 17, 2016

Plastic Ants -- Imperial Phase

If you're looking for lushly orchestrated observations on the fleetingness of mortality then, buddy, have I got the album for you. The Plastic Ants leave no stone unturned with their sophomore release -- every note feels carefully placed, but maintains a semblance of loose spontaneity. This ties in to the album's larger themes -- a grandiose critique of...well, it's hard to say, but it certainly evokes the ephemeral. While the title track, "Imperial Phase," would seem to evoke a snide acknowledgement of the fall of the bourgeois (always my go-to interpretation), it could just as easily refer to a starlet's fame or, more broadly, any individual's sense of control over their life.

But I think I'm reaching a little too far here -- at surface level, we're watching the rise and fall of a Hollywood starlet. And while this may sound a little overworn (what is it about middle-aged guys writing concept albums about beautiful young women confronting aging?) Plastic Ants does a nimble dance. We don't feel sympathetic for this character, particularly, nor do we hate her. Like most celebrities, we're just along for the ride, watching as she wreaks destruction in her wake. But Imperial Phase ends on a transcendent note with "You Will Find Love," a reminder to all of us -- famous, beautiful, young, or old -- that it's often the moment when we relinquish control that we find what we've been looking for all along.

Plastic Ants -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

VIDEO: Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Don't Walk Away

In honor of National Coming Out Day (yesterday), it seemed fitting to give a hat-tip to Aaron Lee Tasjan. I couldn't find the Facebook post in which Tasjan comes out, and as far as I've seen it barely caused a ripple in the "scene." But as far as I'm concerned, it should -- there are so few out men in rock'n'roll -- let alone country music -- and Tasjan is courting national attention. When someone chooses to flout the stigma that is often attached to out men, it's always worth celebrating.

Another fun fact I discovered about Tasjan today is that he played in glam punk band Semi-Precious Weapons, which was the only decent band to play at my sister college for the entire four years I was there.

As for "Don't Walk Away," it's trademark Tasjan: driving hooks and smart, misanthropic lyrics. I didn't review In The Blazes because I felt I didn't have much to add to the heaps of praise it received. But if you haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, definitely do so. Better study up, though, because his next album, Silver Tears, will be out on the 28th.

Aaron Lee Tasjan -- Official, Facebook, Purchase In the Blazes

Monday, October 10, 2016

Two Cow Garage -- Brand New Flag

I typically like to review albums once they've been released, but watching the second presidential debate before reviewing Two Cow Garage's latest release Brand New Flag (due Thursday) seemed fitting. When my one-percenter, Trump-supporting dad is, without irony, discussing the fact that it doesn't matter how ridiculous he is, at least Trump will give him a tax cut -- and that even though he's used this line many times in the past, Trump's the first Republican candidate in my memory who actually thinks like my dad -- it's abundantly clear that this election is not about whether or not Trump or Clinton wins. When both candidates think an acceptable response to a legitimate question about Islamophobia is to continue to talk about Muslim people -- to a Muslim person's face -- as if they are outsiders in America and it's "their" responsibility to regulate "themselves," it's about whether the rest of us stand to lose a lot or little from the next election.

The release of this album shortly before election day is no accident, but I'm not sure if anyone could have predicted how high-stakes this election would become when Micah wrote "Let the Boys Be Girls" two years ago. I think these songs would have been important regardless. Death of the Self-Preservation Society, the band's previous release, left us with a deft deconstruction of late-stage capitalism, zooming from macro critiques of our modern society to the sense of crippling isolation it foists upon us as individuals. The more I listen to Self-Preservation, the more I appreciate the album as a whole for its craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the band had a bit of a Metallica moment with the album -- a lot of people just couldn't stand the mix. The good news here is that Brand New Flag was mixed by Joey Kneiser (of Glossary fame and producer of Austin Lucas's latest album.) Brand New Flag is gorgeous, and it's not just because of the content. Kneiser brings gravity to these songs, giving the album opener, "Movie," a stately grace, but allowing rockers like "Brand New Flag" and "Beauty in the Futility" to be as bold as they are live. With the addition of Todd Farrell Jr. on guitars and vocals, Kneiser does an amazing job of highlighting the band's new vocal and sonic palette.

Brand New Flag is not bashful about its political messages. Most of the time, this is what we've come to expect from Micah and Shane -- pointed barbs that cut to the quick and have a slow burn that will make you think a while. This time around, some of the songs are not quite as subtle (see "A Lullaby of Sorts" -- "So load your guns and say your prayers/Just kidding there is no God"). But overall, Brand New Flag does what it came here to do: arm us with the piss and vinegar we need to not just go out and vote but, as "History Now!" urges us,  take some real time and energy into creating the world we actually deserve.

In some ways, Two Cow Garage leads by example with this album. "Lullaby" seems to cut the album in half and the band closes it out with some of their most experimental and revolutionary music to date. I wrote a while ago that "Let the Boys Be Girls," the opener of what I think of as side two, was particularly meaningful for me as one of the few obviously queer people in the crowd at a TCG show. It's one of those things that shouldn't matter but does -- when three (now four) straight (as far as I know) white guys sing about the importance of LGBT rights and women's choice, it makes a huge impact. Like M Lockwood Porter did on his album, the band is not positioning itself as an expert or the hero of these struggles: they are positioning themselves as allies, which can be hard to maneuver in a three-verse song. "Shakespeare & Walt Disney" is a tango (of all things) that points out the fallacy between Hollywood love, actual intimacy, and trying to remain true to oneself in a cultural that literally exists because of conspicuous consumption -- something I've spent the last few years trying to figure out.

The real departure here is "I Promise," which feels more like a spoken word piece than a song. It is clearly one of the performances of Micah's lifetime and, as a recording, is just amazing. In it, the narrator begins with a litany of what my therapist refers to as negative self-talk, only to cut through it by the end. But the fact is that I like to listen to music before I go to sleep or while I'm doing work and this song scares the bejeezus out of me, so it's the main reason I have not spent much time listening to the album since I got it a month ago, but I sure as hell have been thinking about it a lot for the last month -- and that's probably more important. It's worth noting that the two songs I have the most trouble with on Brand New Flag -- "Lullaby" and "I Promise" -- serve as the thematic and musical linchpins of the album. Brand New Flag may be rife with killer hooks, but this is not meant to be easy music. But neither are the solutions to the things that make us feel like this in the first place.

I may have said a lot here but I wanted to highlight one more song, even though it interrupts the flow of this review. I've written in the past that Two Cow Garage's albums have a weird way of connecting to whatever it is I particularly need to hear in the moment. I thought that "Let the Boys Be Girls" was going to be that song when I heard it live a few years ago but -- fortunately and unfortunately -- I was dead wrong. When I heard "This Little Light" this past February in Philly, I thought I was going to get down on my knees in the middle of that church basement. It recounts Micah's being robbed at gunpoint in a gas station and his dealing with the aftermath. As a survivor of assault myself, it's what I needed to hear at the moment, so I'm including it below. Not because I necessarily think it's the best song on the album (though it rates really high on my list), but because I hope that by putting it online, it can help empower someone else. Whether we're talking personal or political empowerment (and in the end, it's the same), that's what music is for.

This Little Light

Beauty in the Futility

Two Cow Garage -- Facebook, Purchase from Last Chance Records (Releases 9/14)

Friday, October 7, 2016

John Calvin Abney -- Far Cries and Close Calls

There must be something about Tulsa that inspires thoughtful alt-country. Not sure what, though, considering it is (to me understanding) the least pedestrian-friendly and most obese city in the country. But it's given us John Moreland, M. Lockwood Porter, and their associate, John Calvin Abney. Abney's a musical chameleon, launching himself between a Dylan-esque sneer in "Goodbye Temporarily" and the sweet earnestness of the ballad "Way Out."

Abney deals in classic rock tropes and cutting lyrics. This is an album that'll go down smooth with some beer (or other beverages) and a poker game that's more shooting the shit than serious odds. With this album, Abney shows his versatility and ability to craft a song around a mean hook. But I also see hints of greater things to come -- if Abney can shape his deft lyrics and potent melodies around impactful statements, he'll do credit to his hometown.

John Calvin Abney -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Happy Talk Band -- Starve a Fever

Alex McMurray is involved in so many projects (many of which have been featured here), it would be easy to assume that he's the only guitarist in New Orleans. That would certainly be true if you were an attendee of Chazfest, one of the coolest things I've had the privilege to witness. From what I can tell, it's an outdoor concert of all of McMurray's bands (plus a few others) featuring New Orleans celebrity Washboard Chaz taking solos, all in McMurray's backyard. Unfortunately, due to the rising rents in the Ninth Ward (let's not kid ourselves and call it what it ain't, Sotheby's) this was the last year of the festival. For now, anyway.

While I heard a lot of amazing music there, the band that touched the darkness in my heart the most was the alt-country act Happy Talk Band. Lead singer and songwriter Luke Spurr Allen commands the stage with a growl and purpose of a maniac. Songs like "Mugger's Waltz" display an acid wit -- it's easily one of my favorite songs that I've heard this year.

Allen isn't afraid to delve deeper into the gothic -- "Answer Me" feels like a bad trip. Hearing these songs live help juxtapose the doom-and-gloom outlook with the big old party it's meant to kick up -- it's almost as if everyone in the audience is somehow in on a fatalistic secret: that life is Hell but at least we can have fun for a few minutes. But Happy Talk Band is by no means Murder By Death-esque; they just cut a little deeper than, say, Two Cow Garage might. But make no mistake -- Happy Talk Band stands up to the best of them, churning out their pronouncements like this is the last party they'll ever get to play at. (But it probably wasn't; I believe they're in the studio recording their fourth album.)

Happy Talk Band -- Official, Facebook, Purchase older albums from Louisiana Music Factory (I think I snagged the last copy of Starve a Fever), CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon