Nellie McKay is in a lot of ways an artist from a different time. Compared to what is generally regarded as “pop music” currently, popular music from the 50’s/60’s and even the 70’s seemed to cut a much wider swath through genres. Jazz, Rock, Country, Folk and American Songbook. In that same spirit Nellie McKay has not been content staying in one genre– even per album in most cases.
For McKay’s sixth album titled My Weekly Reader, she opted to dive into the rich catalog of 60’s pop and rock and create an album of covers that demonstrates her incredible musical chops and catalog knowledge as well as presents the songs with her unique and smart sense of subtle irony and humor. While I really appreciate her original music more, the opportunity to see her dive into covers (as she did on her album of Doris Day covers Normal as Blueberry Pie) also reveals her influences.
And I haven’t even mentioned her stints on Broadway and film!
McKay is bringing her solo show back to Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, April 28th. She was here in September of 2012 (which is where the picture above was taken). Her shows are a lot of fun– she’s a great artist, musician and wonderful singer. Her adopted stage personae at first seems a little scatterbrained, but she uses that disarming “aw-shucks” delivery to make some sharp and thoughtful commentary about everything from veganism to feminism to current politics. When she performed last time, she improvised a cute song about Iowa.
She was interviewed recently on NBC 4 in New York City about her new album:
She is a performer who continues to impress me and we are fortunate that she chooses the big stage at CSPS to bring her show. Don’t sleep on this!
Well, it’s been a pretty great week for acts at CSPS! The Duncan Sheik show on Thursday night was pretty damn amazing, and I found a couple of acts I want to keep an eye on– that new Alpha Rev album coming out next year will be one that I’m looking forward to.
Tonight the big stage at CSPS will be graced by Dick Prall who used to live in Iowa, but now crafts his Brit Pop-influenced Midwestern Rock from the Windy City. He’s put out a solid run of pop rock masterpieces since his first release Somewhere About Here in 1998.
This year he is kicking off a new project that is a little different than his standard album releases. He is working with Pat Sansone of Wilco and The Autumn Defense to release a series of digital singles which will culminate in a full release with bonus material next year. In an e-mail exchange with Prall he said, “We’re trying a different methodology this time around to hopefully keep folks interested and engaged on a monthly basis – that’s the theory, anyway. All the songs are being done with Pat Sansone, who digs the idea, so I’m in good company.”
If the first single “Wanted Blue” is any indication, it will be one for the “Best of” list for 2013! Prall also said that they are considering vinyl for this release! Listen for yourself and download:
Dick is bringing a band with him tonight that he describes as “drums, bass, violin, & hollow-bodied guitar put together in a sort of laid-back Buddy Holly & the Crickets meets Elvis Costello backed by Spoon sort of way.” Sounds like my kind of lineup!
I wasn’t expecting a new release from Hiss Golden Messenger so soon after the release of the brilliant Poor Moon. Though I guess it has already almost been a year since it’s limited vinyl release on Paradise of Bachelors, but in that year Poor Moon received a reissue of sorts in April as a CD on Thompkins Square giving it the distinction of being one of the few contemporary releases on the label.
For the pre-order campaign for Poor Moon, MC Taylor tried a kind of Indiegogo/Kickstarter approach by providing tiered bonuses, which included a digital download of a live recording, and a 6-track EP called Lord I Love The Rain that was made up of solo acoustic tracks from Bad Debt, and a “conceptual soundtrack” called He Wore Rings on Every Finger. It was a welcomed, if a bit uneven collection of songs serving as bonus content.
This week it was announced that Lord I Love The Rain would get an expanded and improved treatment to serve as a bridge to the “proper” follow up to Poor Moon titled Haw to come out March 2013 on Paradise of Bachelors. This release will be produced by the German label Jellyfant in a limited run of 600 with only 240 making their way to our shores. The LP is mixed by Scott Hirsch of HGM and mastered by Anthony Puglisi who has done an amazing job with a few of the last vinyl releases in the HGM catalog. The cover will be Folkways-style paste-on jackets designed by Brendan Greaves, with liner notes by folklorist, curator and guitarist Nathan Salsburg. Brendan also designed the LP jacket for Poor Moon.
In addition to remixing the songs from the EP for this release, it also gains some additional tracks, loses a track and gets re-sequenced into an album where one side is made up of the Bad Debt lo-fi recordings, and the second side is made up of full-band songs in a kind of Rust Never Sleepsfashion. The new songs are a couple of covers– “The Revenant” from Michael Hurley, and “Tell Everyone” by Ronnie Lane, plus an instrumental “War” on the full band side, and “Karen’s Blues,” “He Wrote The Book,” “Roll River Roll” on the solo acoustic side. On the changes made for this release Taylor said, “We weren’t satisfied with the original version [of the EP], especially “Bright Phoebus” which was just flat and dumb. So it’s really nice to get another crack at it. I think the whole collection hangs together nicely. It’s nice to have the physical divide of sides A and B to separate the lo-fi from the higher fidelity [songs.]” Having listened to the collection a few times, I completely agree. The collection goes from being a kind of odds-and-sods to a release that works as a whole.
He Wrote the Book
Roll River Roll
Fox and His Friends
Born on a Crescent Moon
The Revenant (Michael Hurley)
You Never Know
Tell Everyone (Ronnie Lane)
To get in on this rare release, you can pre-order from Taylor and Hirsch’s label Heaven and Earth Magic for $20 plus shipping, which is a pretty good deal. Plus, you get a copy of the split 7″ with Elephant Micah for freebies! You also get three songs you can download right away, and will get a link to download the rest of the release when it comes out on October 28th.
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Bay Area Pop Funk Chanteuse Karyn Paige. Today, I’m happy to announce that she’s dropping a new single to tide us over until she finishes her full length album.
Consistent with her first release, The KP EP (I reviewed here), her latest single “You Know I’ll Always Love You” pays tribute to the Pop R&B heyday of the 80’s with swelling and buzzy synthesizers. Ms. Paige transforms from the sexy fuming diva sitting on the bed in “Stay Away Tonight” to a sunny girl in love that reminds me of Paula Abdul’s great singles.
The smartly spare arrangements, and loping percussion draws us very close to Karyn’s lovely soprano with an adopted affected stuffiness that recalls 1920’s and 30’s jazz singers. Factor in the slightly-kitschy talk box harmony vocal effects and you have one perfect pop song.
I asked Karyn why she chose to release this single ahead of the full length album she’s working on.
“The motivation for releasing the song ahead of the full LP was simple: Fans who have seen us play it live are constantly asking when we are going to put it out. People are really drawn to it, from music heads to moms. I wanted to give my fans something new to enjoy until the LP comes out. It was written by my co-producer and keyboard player Matt Berkeley, and I’ve always been honored to sing it.”
Neal Casal is a musician who you discover when you start digging into his career, has a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-esque connection to other musicians. The fact is that Casal’s personal mantra is to live a life of creativity, and he achieves this in spades through his own extensive solo career with 11 albums dating back to 1994, sideman work in countless recording sessions and stints in other bands including high-profile runs in Ryan Adams‘ Cardinals and currently Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood (which has an album coming out this year) as well as a blossoming photography career. Casal’s latest solo record Sweeten the Distance will be released on Royal Potato Family on April 10th. Neal was a generous interviewee, and I came away from the conversation very inspired about my own music collecting, performing and photography.
When I called Neal, he was in busy painting a bedroom. He had to turn down the music he was playing to hear me. After introducing myself, I opened by asking him about his ties to the resurgence of the “Laurel Canyon” scene that started around some jam sessions at Jonathan Wilson‘s house.
Yeah, I have a few of those connections for sure… Wilson is a friend of mine, yeah, we’ve played music a bunch, been around his studio and seen a lot. We’re all part of the same music scene really.
I played on Mark Olson’s solo record Many Colored Kite, I was asked to play bass on the Gary Louris solo record Vagabonds by Chris Robinson who produced it, but I couldn’t because I was in the Cardinals at the time and we were getting ready to go on a long tour for Easy Tiger. But, I also play some bass on the new Jayhawks record.
A great record– I’m so happy they are back together.
Yeah, I was a long-time Jayhawks fan– back in the early-90’s I used to see them play all the time. I loved them, they were a big band for me. So, I was really lucky to get to know those guys and to play with them a bit.
Let’s talk a little bit about your record collection, I assume you’re into vinyl?
I’m definitely into vinyl. I have a whole living room full of vinyl and I buy stuff all the time. I played in L.A. last night, actually, and there is a great record shop called Origami Vinyl and I bought the Michael ChapmanRainmaker reissue, which was his first album for the Harvest label in ‘69– amazing sort of skewed English folk with some Rock elements in it.
I listen to vinyl all day long, I buy vinyl all the time– I don’t even know where it begins and ends, you know?
Was vinyl a resurgence for you, or were you into it all along?
I started collecting vinyl well over 20 years ago and it just never stopped– it never died for me. I never let go of my collection or anything like that. It’s cool that vinyl is at an all-time high with all of the reissues and attention to detail– it’s amazing. And, now that I’m in the Chris Robinson Brotherhood the vinyl obsession goes even further. Chris is an avid music listener and he and I get along so well musically and in every town we play– we are in the record shops. So, last year touring around the country we were spending our paychecks on stacks of vinyl. It was great!
Did you end up shipping the records back or did you bring them on the bus?
Oh, they were on the bus! There was no where to even sleep in my bunk! It was just so full of records.
So, yeah, I’m listening to records all the time– in fact, I was listening to Captain Beefheart on the turntable and painting a room as you called.
Which Captain Beefheart record was it?
I was listening to a record called The Spotlight Kid. It isn’t exactly my favorite, but that was what I was listening to just now.
In your collecting do you tend to focus on any particular genre, or are you a completist in anything?
I’m not really a completist, although at the moment I’m trying to find every single Robbie Basho record there is. Robbie Basho was an acoustic guitar player in the John Fahey tradition or style who made records in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I’m currently obsessed with him and would like to get all of his records, actually.
I’m only just recently getting into John Fahey. I feel like I’m kind of late to the party.
John Faheywas amazing– he had his own record label called Takoma Records and Robbie Basho was on Takoma for a while. He wasn’t like Fahey, but he was kind of in that vein. Completing my Robbie Basho collection is hard, though because some of them are really rare– they’re quite expensive now.
Some of the Fahey records are getting reissued, so maybe some of Basho’s stuff might get reissued, too.
Yeah, exactly. For a while I wanted to complete my Incredible String Band collection, which I finally did, which is cool. But, it isn’t really about being a completist as it is about finding cool stuff and discovering what new music you can, you know?
When CD’s came out in the 80’s I jumped on that bandwagon– so most of my collection until the last decade or so was made up of that– I have thousands of CD’s…
Oh, we we’re all on that one, you know– me too, believe me. My CD collection is now– I got rid of almost all of the cases, and I just put them all in books. So I still have most of my CD collection and I have stacks of CD books as well, so…
Yeah, I’ve always had a turntable and my vinyl, but during the CD years I’d only pick up vinyl when there was something I wanted that was only available on vinyl– like maybe a remix or something and it has only been in the last decade or so that I started getting back into vinyl, and really in the last three years I’ve tripled my collection of vinyl. Thankfully, the majority of people still don’t seem to think that vinyl is a going concern, so you can still find good deals on some pieces. It seems like I’m spending a lot of time replacing albums from the 90’s that I originally bought on CD.
Yeah, CD’s as a format you can just see is just not very timeless, you know what I mean? CD’s are not wearing well as we move down the years. That’s a problem– the artwork doesn’t last, it looks like shit, they look horrible in your house– they don’t display well. They sound weird, too– they skip and they get all fucked up. They’re still around, of course, but they are just not a timeless medium. It’s amazing to see that with vinyl, they got it right the first time.
I recorded my last two records digitally, and that’s fine. I think that recording digitally isn’t particularly a problem if you do it right. I work with really great people who know what they’re doing with all of that stuff. But, I still like to work on tape as well. Recording digitally is a fact of life that I totally accept, and digitally recorded records can be mastered to vinyl beautifully.
Sweeten the Distance will be on vinyl, and the last Hazy Malaze record Connections is available on vinyl, too, right?
Yeah, actually all three Hazy Malaze records are available on vinyl. The first Hazy Malaze record was recorded on tape and mastered to vinyl– so that is a record that is completely analog which was really cool.
Speaking of Hazy Malaze, the two other members Dan Fadel and Jeff Hill are the rhythm section of the new record. They have played on my last three solo records records in addition to the three Hazy Malaze records which we all co-write together. Those two guys are are such a huge part of my musical life. they’re a team and we’ve done so much musical work together.
Also, two of my albums from the 90’s are coming out on vinyl as well.
The reissues that Fargo did?
Yeah, and they did a really great job with those. But, I’m most excited with Sweeten the Distance. Thom Monahan, the guy who produced it was a big key to the sound. He is such a great producer and he works with so many people: Vetiver, Fruit Bats, and he did the Chris Robinson Brotherhood record we just finished, and he also co-produced that Gary Louris record Vagabonds with Chris Robinson. And, Thom also worked with Jonathan Wilson on his album Gentle Spirit. So, you can see how all of these roads cross with this circle of friends we have going on here.
Yeah, I first heard about Jonathan Wilson about the time I started getting into Dawes and heard about the get togethers he was having at his place in Laurel Canyon.
Yeah that was fun. That is where I met Jonathan and those guys– a really good scene. Jonathan was also really good friends with Jonathan Rice who is in Jenny and Johnny— have you heard their record?
Actually, no. I’m more familiar with Rice’s solo stuff.
Jonathan Rice has done two solo records, but his girlfriend is Jenny Lewis who was in Rilo Kiley and they are in Jenny and Johnny together. I used to play with Jonathan Rice many years ago– so this scene just kind of came together from people who knew each other. And, there is another guy name Farmer Dave Scher who is in Beachwood Sparks.
And, you toured with Beachwood Sparks, right?
Yeah, and they just make a new record with Thom Monahan that I play on as well. Crossing streams, you know.
There must be something in the water up there– it’s almost a corollary to the 70’s Laurel Canyon scene– Jackson Browne working with the Eagles, the Eagles working with Linda Ronstadt, Linda Ronstadt working with Neil Young and James Taylor…
Yeah, it’s people around– all in the same place doing stuff– people with songs– and it’s a good idea to get together. I don’t think anyone really thought about it, but when you look back on it, you’re like, “wow, we really did a lot of stuff together.” No one set out saying, “we’re going to make a new Laurel Canyon scene.” That would have been incredibly pretentious. It just started to happen.
When you get ready to work on your solo stuff, do you find yourself maybe water-shedding with your records?
Well, actually, I try to get away from my records, actually. So that it’s not so much like I’m trying to cop another thing, you know? For me, the record collection is useful as a subliminal influence. In my off-time I’m listening to records constantly, and I’m just absorbing stuff. But, when it comes time to really write or really record– that’s when I put the records away. Try not to make any direct references. I used to do it when I was younger– bring a record to the studio when you’re making a record and you tell the producer, “I want the record to sound like this.” That’s just stupid, it never really works. To try to cop something directly is not a good idea– you just need to do your own thing– you have to look for your own voice. My 60’s and 70’s influences come across strongly in my music, I admit– but I don’t sit around with Thom Monahan playing Jackson Browne records trying to replicate them. The fabric of who I am as a musician comes from my record collection, but it is absorbed in a much different way– a much more subtle or internal way. That said, when I worked on the Chris Robinson Brotherhood album, we did have a turntable in the recording studio– in the live room– and everyone brought in records, but that was just so we could listen to records on break and have fun.
How long had you been working on the songs on Sweeten the Distance? I know that you had an album out in 2009…
I started working on songs right after Roots and Wings, which was my last album. Just over the last two or three years. I’m just always working on music.
Looking at your career, I’m impressed at how capably you jump between your own music and helping other people with theirs.
I love doing a bit of both– it keeps things fresh. I love working with other people and I bring a little that back to my own music. Sometimes working on my own stuff can get to be a little isolating, so I love to be a guitar player for other people or bring in some harmony vocals. I just want to be playing music all the time. I like it to be an open thing. It doesn’t have to be just my music– it can be someone else’s as long as it is really good! I have so many friends that it just makes sense to go play with them. There are no rules that I should just do my stuff– I just want to do– I just want to do stuff and I want to be involved.
You do seem pretty adaptable– when I compare the music of the Cardinals, for example, to your music I don’t think that they are necessarily very similar.
Well what the Cardinals did and what I do fall under the broad umbrella of American music. Playing with Ryan was an amazing experience. He is so unbelievably talented, and such an absolute great songwriter that I was influenced by him. Again, though, not so directly, but more like raising the bar in terms of quality of songwriting and song quality in general and the desire to be great. But, I didn’t come out of that experience sounding more like Ryan. Before I had joined him, I had already been making my own records and had my own style. Part of the reason he wanted me to join his band was because I had my own style.
I read a comment that you made about how your photographs are in essence the songs that you couldn’t or haven’t written yet. It’s an idea that really intrigues me as an amateur photographer and musician myself– the idea that two different art forms could be tied together.
It’s all part of one creative flow for me. Taking photographs is like what we talked about– it’s like playing with other people. Instead of just making my own songs, I play guitar with other people, and in addition to playing guitar with other people, I take photographs of those people. It’s the way to make life creative– a creative flow 24/7– all the time. You can’t play music constantly– so when I take a break from that, I pick up a camera. It’s interesting that my photographs end up looking like my music sounds. The same aesthetic that I have in one thing, I bring to another– and that’s very interesting to see. Like I might use space photographically the same way I do musically. You bring your personality into whatever you do, so things can kind of look and sound the same way. It’s not the medium– it’s YOU. In some of my music there is a kind of quiet aspect to things and I find myself doing that with a camera as well. I’m reaching for the same thing photographically as I am musically. I think that maybe my photographs are more diverse than my music, but there is a certain melancholy or introspection and that is a part of my personality that I’m working out and I do that with photographs as well. What is my psyche pushing me towards? That is one my my main revelations in my pursuit of photography.
My pursuit of photography started out as a way for me to document what I was doing– I was on tour constantly and I was losing track of time– I was never ever home– nor did I want to be at home at that time. But, being on tour can be really tedious. Not boring– but you don’t have control over your day. So, I started taking photographs to pass the time, but also so I could remember where I’d been. When you are on tour that much, I noticed that it was difficult to keep everything straight. So, I started taking photographs to make being on the road more tolerable. Also, to bring more creativity to being on tour– otherwise you end up in hotel rooms and coffee shops all day, and I can’t handle that. Then, it became a passion when I realized that I had a knack for it. That is what photography has done for me– It has make my life so much bigger than just music. (chuckles) I’m just trying to have a rich experience here!
What is on your vinyl wish list?
Let me look at my phone… I always have a running list of stuff. There’s so much…
Steve Hillage – Fish Rising : Chris Robinson played me that record…
The Collins Sisters – Anthems in Eden
“The Wicker Man” Soundtrack
Dr. Strangely Strange Records
Any Roy Harper records I can find
Robert Nighthawk – Bricks in my Pillow
John Martyn – The Tumbler
Robin Williamson (from ISB) – Myrrh – Really rare, I don’t think I’ll ever see it.
Neal, I really want to thank you for your time, this was a great conversation! I should let you get back to painting your room!
Actually, this is perfect timing– I was painting while we were talking and I’m now done!
Back in May I was exchanging e-mails with MC Taylor– erstwhile of The Court & Spark and alter-ego Jai Lil Diamond of Hiss Golden Messenger— about his last release Root Workwhich was a re-imagining of some tracks fromCountry Hai East Cotton. (BTW: Root Work is available in digital and vinyl formats. The vinyl version was limited to 100 and is not sold out yet– go get it!!) In the volley that ensued he let it drop that he was already planning a release for this fall. “It’s a gospel record–” he said, “or at least some serious philosophical music– recorded with just me and an acoustic guitar into a classroom tape recorder at the kitchen table this past winter. It’s very crude-sounding, but I think it’s compelling and deserving of its own release.”
He attached an mp3 of “Jesus Shot Me in the Head” which upon the first listen had me transfixed, and frankly even now as I listen to it, I’m forced to do nothing else until its tale is told. As MC points out, it has a very low-fidelity esthetic, but the starkness pulls the listener in. My first thought upon hearing the song and its different personality from previous recordings by HGM or the Court & Spark was that it was like the “Luke the Drifter” personae that Hank Williams Sr., adopted to deliver his religious songs.
He sent me three other songs to listen to and they all were obviously cut from the same cloth. “Straw Man Red Sun River Gold,” “The Serpent Is Kind (Compared to Man), and what would end up being the title track– “Bad Debt.”
Over the summer I got small glimpses of the upcoming release– I hang in some Internet circles that MC and some of his musician friends do and they were talking about it. In late June, Anthony Puglisi– who did the mastering for Root Work— posted that he was listening to “Balthazar” from an upcoming album Bad Debt. This prompted me to search for this album title and I found via last.fm that a couple of people were listening to an album called Bad Debt! It was coming!
This last week it occurred to me that I should look to see if any more crumbs of Bad Debt had shown up on the Internet table– and they had! For one thing, I found this really great Bandcamp player of the ENTIRE RECORD! The player also informs us that the release date is November 17th, 2010!
The little bit of PR provided by the label informs us also that there will be another release before a full album in Summer, 2011! I sent a note off to MC to see if he can provide us any additional information. In the meantime, I present to you Bad Debt…
Update: Taylor sent me an e-mail yesterday with the correct cover art (the artwork on the Bandcamp player will be the art for the CD itself). Pretty cool– reminds me of the Jerry Garcia handprint. He also said that some time after the CD release of Bad Debt, he would do a very limited run of vinyl (100 copies, like he did with Root Work) on his label Heaven and Earth Magic! We’ll keep you posted on that!
Last February I reported about former Iowa City band Death Ships– a show at the Mill and a new EP that he was going to release on iTunes. Titled Maybe Arkansas, it was a 4-track EP of some really great guitar rock. I said that it was, “a flat-out charmer– hook-filled and standing out in my mind as a testament to the great music that comes from the Midwest. These guitar pop songs draw easy and complimentary comparisons to other Midwest greats like The Jayhawks, The Honeydogs and, yes, Wilco. Each of these songs stick in my head with earworm intensity.”
Over half-year later, I still feel this same way about the EP. Since Dan sent me the songs in order for me to review it, I was one of the fortunate few to get to hear it. Well, except for some tracks he gave to some blogs to post and all of the people to which I excitedly played it.
Last week the EP made it to iTunes and you can download it for $3.96 or Amazon for $3.56. On a post frontman Dan Maloney made to his MySpace page, he announced the EP going to iTunes and also said that there will be a limited CD run of the EP. He also announced that they were going to start recording a new album next month.
The story of Dan Maloney’s Death Ships is one of a band outgrowing a local scene, gaining embrace of the Indie Tastemakers riding an arc of success but ultimately stalling. A familiar story to be sure (see: Tapes ‘N Tapes).
For over nine years Dan Maloney has been Death Ships— a band whose beginnings in Iowa City were as a side project. According to his January 2009 interview with Splice, he was in an Emo band called Faultlines when he decided to work on some solo songs. “…on the side I was experimenting with writing songs along the style of the music I grew up with. It took me a while to figure out I could sing better within a certain range rather than “shout/scream.”
Death Ships started initially as a solo accoustic effort and then expanded into a revolving cast of members and became known for having different lineups for every show. In fact, the first time I ever heard about Death Ships was in the context of them seemingly opening for every band at the Mill Restaurant. My friend saw Low and Why? at the Mill and Dan’s Death Ships were openers both times (without drums) and I believe that they opened for Tapes ‘n Tapes and The Hold Steady during their early tours as well. “When Randall (Davis) and Adam “Lars” joined the ranks,” Dan said in his Daytrotter interview, “they really helped shape Death Ships into a functional band.” In September of 2006 the debut Seeds of Devastation was released to some critical acclaim andAlternative Pressnamed Death Ships “Best Unsigned Band.”
The band met ex-Wilco memberJay Bennettthrough a shared manager and he took the band under his wing and on the road with him as his backing band for two tours. In a recent email exchange with Dan, it is really clear that this time with Jay– who passed away last year— made a big impact on him. “[Jay’s death] was a big blow. I didnt know him better than others did, but from touring with him twice and spending a lot of time with him I got a good sense of the man he was: a caring, compassionate man with a love of music and joy that only comes from a child’s first Christmas. He picked us up and gave us a boost that I will never forget.”
Dan moved to Chicago from Iowa City a couple of years ago and has been carrying on the Death Ships name with occasional shows in the area and watershedding the follow-up to Seeds which will be called Circumstantial Chemistry. Additionally, a four-song EP Maybe Arkansas will be released on iTunes. The EP is produced by Luke Tweedy who runs Flat Black Studios in Iowa City and is in (ft) The Shadow Government. “I started working on a follow up a couple years ago and only scraped together four of the songs for this new EP. I moved to Chicago and basically had to start from scratch again. It’s hard– like any band– to sell everyone on commiting to [it], forfeiting the fact that there may not be much money involved but also requiring a lot of time and dedication. I hope I have this with this new group and am finally ready to start pushing Death Ships forward and getting these songs and new songs heard.”
Dan generously let me listen to the songs that make up Maybe Arkansas, and it is a flat-out charmer— hook-filled and standing out in my mind as a testiment to the great music that comes from the Midwest. These guitar pop songs draw easy and complimentary comparisons to other Midwest greats like The Jayhawks, The Honeydogs and, yes, Wilco. Each of these songs stick in my head with earworm intensity. Dan’s soft vocal approach on “I Like It A Lot” gives a breezy lead up to the break down “it’s dreams like these/ little melody/ i got plans for you/ you got plans for me” which very nicely launches in the double time and urging cry “put it all on me!”
This is followed by the fun, piano pumping, Beatle-y “Somethings Gone Awry” with its superb use of horns. I love how the song goes from this ironically upbeat drive complete with “do-do-do-do’s” to the mood change as the song runs out “It’s hard to blame the darkness for the rain/It’s hard to see clearly when when we’re reeling from a long black cloud…”
“Let Me Think It Over” is a promise to a former love. It has a undeniable 60’s R&B tinge to it– kind of like when Springsteen used to cover Mitch Ryder in concert– particular with the 3/4 time switch from driving 4/4 at the chorus. “We can get together like we used to be/the same old fool you’ve been dying to see.”
The EP wraps up much too early with the title track. It starts as a melancholy aching sentiment of escape to starting over. “With a furrowed brow you slide across the seat/So, maybe Arkansas– another change in plans” It’s the narrator’s thoughts at the halfpoint of the song of the people they are leaving behind halfway that transforms the song to shouting anger. “Write a letter to your dear sweet mother/tell her that we’re only running from our halted, November mind…”What’s that you gain from this song??”
This EP is a calling card and statement of direction for this new phase of Death Ships. Dan continues from the e-mail he sent me, ” There were times after Seeds where I felt the fruit of my efforts were grossly being undermet and underappreciated, but I have come to peace about being jaded. This is music I make and part of my story. If a few people enjoy it I’m willing to accept that. It’s truly a labor of love and sometimes I forget that. If it ever stopped being fun I would hang it up, but clearly I can’t, because I’ve been doing this project for over six years.”
One of the great records of this year for me is the new Wendy & Lisa joint White Flags of Winter Chimneys. It is a self-released record, and the promotion and distribution is handled by their little-but-mighty camp. Talking with them earlier this year I could get the sense that this release and their truly-independent approach to managing their careers was going to be a developing blueprint that other acts could look to for inspiration. They twitter, they blog, they podcast, they Facebook, they Amazon.com.
Today they released the video to the rawking “Salt & Cherries (MC5)” which features Wendy & Lisa in a live setting interspersed with fans lip-synching to the song. They asked for submissions from fans and they apparently got some really creative results!
Tortoise is in L.A. and they are busy. They play a sold out show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, but they are doing a couple promotional appearances ahead of the show. Yesterday Tortoise returned to the KCRW show “Morning Becomes Eclectic” to perform a 43 minute set and interview. The show included three songs from Beacons of Ancestorship, but also included two earlier songs that I haven’t heard on tour in a while!
Tortoise kicked things off with “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” followed by “Prepare Your Coffin” from Beacons, and then did “The Suspension Bridge At Iguazú Falls” from T.N.T. and “Djed” from Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The band wrapped things up with “Minors” from Beacons, which was unfortunately cut short. The interview with the band mostly surrounded how the band works together collaboratively on their music, which was cool.
Today (July 9th) Tortoise makes an in-store appearance at the Hollywood Amoeba Music location, which they will stream from their website. The show should start at 6PM Pacific Time (8 PM Central, 9 PM Eastern, etc.). Tortoise is also featured on Amoeba’s “Music We Like – Handpicked Titles for $10.98 or less” sale.
Click Here for the Amoeba.com information on the Tortoise In-Store Live Stream (At this point the stream has been taken down, but there are pictures from the session).