It’s Time to Play B-Sides Top 20 Albums of 2013

Here we are again at the end of a year when everyone trots out their “Top” lists. This is my third year of assembling one of these, and for me it is a good exercise in remembering what the hell I listened to! 2013 seemed to blow by very quickly and frankly, it took some reflection to even remember what I listened to this year. 2013 was the seventh year for It’s Time to Play B-Sides and the 2nd year at the job I got after my 2011 layoff. My wife and I moved homes again this year– five doors down from our last place in which we had spent one very unsettled year. This place is wonderful and a much better fit for us, and we have actually moved into this place– hung pictures, hung guitars and decorated for Christmas (in itself this tells you a lot). We’re looking forward to 2014 as a year of focusing on something other than where we are living.

Getting to the music of 2013, when I look at the Top lists for other websites and magazines, I missed or ignored some pretty big releases this year. More-and-more we are becoming a singles-based culture when it comes to music and discussions of whole albums from artists is falling from the mainstream. There are some big releases from 2013 that merit some mention here, I think.

Kanye West’s Yeezus was Spin Magazine’s top release. Aside from his appearance at the Hurricane Sandy benefit and hearing “Black Skinhead” a lot (admittedly a great track), I didn’t get a chance to sit down with it. Helpfully, Google Play made it a free download yesterday and I have it. The cursory listen I gave it shows West at the top of his game and the production of the album is top-notch. It was a big year for Daft Punk who lent production on four tracks on Yeezus (including the aforementioned “Black Skinhead”) and then released their own hugely-successful Random Access Memories with the internet-meme-generating “Get Lucky.”

My friend John Book mentions Justin Timberlake’s much-anticipated 20/20 Experience in his Top Albums list and he echoes pretty much what everyone else thinks– JT blew his load on Part One, and probably should have left well enough alone and not released Part Two (which hardly anyone mentions except to say he shouldn’t have released it). The week of JT on Fallon was amazing and enough for me to download the album, though I’d have to admit that I didn’t stay listening to it for very long. John Book’s review of Part One is worth a read.

Lady Gaga dropped her ARTPOP album this year and though I couldn’t believe it, she managed to release something less interesting than her last album Born This Way. I loved both Fame and the follow up Fame Monster EP— delicious slices of electronic pop with a keen sense of “now.” She has– in my opinion– devolved from being a musician and has become more focused on the spectacle.

All of that said, here is my list of the Top Albums of 2013 (In No Particular Order):

Hiss Golden Messenger – Haw – (on my releases I’m Looking forward to for 2013) – Haw really delivers on the promise of the albums that came before it. Largely a vehicle for the songwriting of MC Taylor and Scott Hirsh HGM enlists an amazing cast (William Tyler, the guys from Megafaun) to help deliver their sound which is a compelling mix of 70’s folk rock, American Primitive and a side of jam-based instrumentals. I’ve been following HGM from the first releases and find the spiritual searching of Taylor to be really compelling. In 2014, Hiss Golden Messenger’s 2011 release Bad Debt will get a remaster and reissue by Paradise of Bachelors with a bonus track from the original kitchen table cassette recordings made in 2010.

Golden Gunn – self-titled – (on my releases I’m Looking forward to for 2013) – Hirsh and Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger make my list again with this brilliant collaboration with Steve Gunn. A super-rare vinyl release on Record Store Day, but you can get the CD and digital download from Paradise of Bachelors. Apparently Gunn and Taylor shared a long car ride to a wedding and determined that they should work together. What we have is a very hazy and wandering JJ Cale-influenced jam. Taylor and Gunn share vocal duties and Hirsh brings a compliment of keyboards and analog electronics to the mix. Excellent go-to release for some mellow jams– Gunn’s vocals remind me of Beck on his more listenable days.

Brokeback – Brokeback and the Black Rock – (on my releases I’m Looking Forward to for 2013) – Who knew that Doug McCombs (of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day) had another album of his Bass VI-driven instrumentals in him? A complete re-envisioning of Brokeback with new members provides one of my favorite instrumental releases in a while, frankly and the most consistent Brokeback release since the debut album Field Recordings from the Cook County Water Table. I had a chance to talk to McCombs when he came to Iowa City with David Daniell for their tour in support of Sycamore. McCombs is a huge fan of the Tom Verlaine album Warm and Cool (and was instrumental in getting that re-issued on Thrill Jockey). This album’s reverbby clean guitar and bass recalls Warm and Cool whether that was the intention or not.

The Horses Ha – Waterdrawn – (on my releases I’m Looking Forward to for 2013) – This album had been in the works for a couple of years. Since I help them with their Facebook page I got a chance to preview a couple of these tracks last year, so I was anticipating the release. Janet Bean (of Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day) and James Elkington (of The Zincs and lends a hand with Freakwater, Brokeback and Daughan Gibson) return with their 70’s British folk-influenced music. Janet and James bring some really gorgeous melodies and harmonies to the stripped down acoustic music. As crazy as the music industry seems and all of the “end is nigh” sentiments surrounding the ability for musicians to put music out, it is heartening to see an admittedly-niche release like this seeing the light of day– let alone in such a beautiful packaging by label Fluff and Gravy.

Jack Logan and Scott Baxendale – Bones in the Desert – (on my releases I’m Looking forward to for 2013) – A bit of a disclaimer– I help Jack and Scott with their Facebook page and wrote their press release. That said, I did it because it is such a great record! I’ve been a fan of Jack Logan since Bulk and have had the pleasure of being able to maintain a relationship over the internet with him. He’s one-of-a-kind– a serial song writer and recorder. The mountain of work suggested by sorting through his vast catalog of releases and unreleased songs is 2nd only to Neil Young (one would suppose). He admits to needing more of a filter sometimes and when he does– like working with a great songwriter and guitarist like Scott Baxendale, the results are even more trademark Logan it seems. Guitar-rock with 70’s influences like the Stones or The Faces bolted to a uniquely Logan sense of humor and storytelling. Logan and Baxendale are pretty-well known members of the Athens music scene, so they were able to draw other talented musicians to help out with the release– which only exists physically on vinyl BTW– so we have a couple of Drive-By Truckers in the mix. Super limited release of 500 on vinyl so don’t sleep on this one if you’re a fan like I am! Jack and Scott are already working on new songs and plan to release something in 2014, but it won’t be on vinyl (at least not until they sell out of the Bones vinyl!)

Mountains – Centralia (on my releases I’m Looking forward to for 2013) – For a band who is two guys with guitars and an endless set of loopers and effects, they have a fairly wide palate of sonic landscapes from which to draw. When their Thrill Jockey debut Choral came out I was immediately a fan. I have all of their releases to date, but I feel like Centralia really was a return to some of the song structures that drew me to Mountains to begin with.

Big Star – Nothing Can Hurt Me Soundtrack – It might not be fair to include this release here since it isn’t an album of new songs, but as a compilation (and distillation, I suppose) of Big Star’s notable songs it totally works. The documentary film from which it is drawn is a must-see as a primer of one of pop rock’s most obscure but no less influential bands. I picked up one of the really rare orange translucent vinyl pressings done for Record Store Day in April by Omnivore Records. You can get a black vinyl version from them now.

Arbouretum – Coming Out of the Fog – (on my releases I’m Looking forward to for 2013) Right now, my three favorite guitar bands on Thrill Jockey are Wooden Shjips, Pontiak and Arbouretum. All three have a distorted psychedelic sound that I really dig and I listen to them in rotation quite a bit. Arbouretum tends to lean towards a prog-rock/prog-folk sound and Dave Heumann has really polished that sound on Coming Out of the Fog.

Jimi Hendrix – People, Hell & Angels – This was a somewhat contraversial release as far as diehard Hendrix fans are concerned. They consider this to be a kind of cash-in by the Experience Hendrix organization. EH says that this is a release of unreleased Jimi Hendrix songs post-Electric Ladyland and is presented as kind of a picture of where Hendrix was going with his sound rather than something that might have been released as an album. If you want to know what Hendrix was likely considering for the next album, you should look at the 1997 compilation of tracks titled First Rays of the New Rising Sun. The tracks on People, Hell & Angels are also tracks recorded around the same time as the First Rays material. As far as the “unreleased” statement is concerned, it would appear that most of this material has surfaced in some form or another dating back to the some would say pillaging of the Hendrix tape vaults by Reprise Records from 1971 to 1975 as well as the Sony compilations in the 1990’s Blues and Voodoo Soup. In addition there are two songs which aren’t really Hendrix songs as such, he played on them around the same time as these other songs. So, effectively this is the last of the studio songs not released by Experience Hendrix (assuming no other Dagger Records releases, which are “official bootlegs” done by EH).

Aside from all of that political mess, the release is surprisingly pleasant to listen to. A lot of effort was spent making the songs sound consistent and as if they were intended for one album. Quite a bit of work was done by Eddie Kramer to assemble these tracks from different takes to make them since most of this release was not finished at the time of Hendrix’s death. It is really great to hear a kind of stripped down to the essentials version of Hendrix– no psychedelic effects on these songs. In fact, this release really shows the guitarist that Hendrix was maybe more so than the previous albums and puts a finer point on his electric blues love.

Califone – Stitches – Califone came back in 2013 with their first non-soundtrack album since their fantastic 2006 album on Thrill Jockey Roots & Crowns. Their last album was the soundtrack to the film “All My Friends are Funeral Singers” which I really wasn’t a fan of. Stitches brings the band back to songs that aren’t burdened with some kind of vague overarching concept or having to support a film for that matter. In other words, the songs stand on their own and make for a great listen from side to side and stands up as a great companion to Roomsound, which is my favorite release out of their catalog (big ups to Thrill Jockey for reissuing Roomsound on vinyl as part of their 20th Anniversary celebration!)

William Tyler – Impossible Truth – William Tyler is a noted sideman from Nashville. He’s probably best known as one of the sidemen in Lambchop and The Silver Jews, he also lends the occasional hand in Hiss Golden Messenger. In addition to bringing his Telecaster-based atmospherics for other bands, he has his own solo career and has put out a couple of really amazing guitar instrumental albums on Merge Records– one of them 2013’s Impossible Truth. Recommended if you’re a fan of the American Primitive style guitar work of Leo Koettke or John Fahey.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor – Arcade Fire continues to be the band that knows how to use social media and mystery to hype a release. Their 9/9/9 campaign coupled with some strategic radio and TV appearances including a Saturday Night Live stint and the following “TV Special “Here Comes the Night Time” certainly drew some attention from me. I loved The Suburbs and it’s attendent theme of, well whatever they didn’t like, and Reflektor still exhibits some of those themes, although this time they are pulling from Haitian music for influence. Overall the record is really well done, and even in its weaker moments (and it has some to be certain) the album is still really engaging. Arcade Fire is typically accused of having really huge egos and really it is that kind of audacity that can produce an album like this. I compare this album to Talking Heads’ final album Blind which also pulls some similar rhythms in its Carribbean and South American influences.

Lissie – Back to Forever – Lissie has had an impressive streak of releases so far starting with her debut album Catching a Tiger in 2010, followed by some great covers (“Bad Romance” upstages Gaga’s in my opinion) which were collected in 2012’s Covered Up With Flowers. Lissie provided very distinctive backing vocals on the Snow Patrol album Fallen Empires which was a favorite of mine and was produced by Jacknife Lee (who also produced the two Tired Pony albums). When I heard that Jacknife was producing Back to Forever, my expectations were pretty high and I wasn’t disappointed! The album has Lissie pretty much pissed off all the way through it and the results harken back to a time when strong women wrote powerful anthemic songs– Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks come easily to mind. Every song on this record is a winner and I can play this album pretty much every day and not get tired of it. I got Sherry a copy on CD for her car and she plays it as much as she plays Lyrics Born (that’s a lot, folks!)

Cheynne Mize – Among the Grey – Speaking of strong anthemic songwriting– Cheyenne Mize (no “Marie” apparently) signed to Yep Roc and released a brilliant follow up to her 2010 album Fall to Rise and 2011’s We Don’t Need EP. Where those two releases showed her versatility in instruments and style, Among the Grey shows Mize is an out-and-out rocker sounding sonically grungy like this year’s answer to PJ Harvey. Beautiful record.

Love Over Gold – Fall to Rise – Continuing our “Girl Power” section is Pieta Brown’s first side project Love Over Gold. Named after a Dire Straits album and song, Pieta partnered up with Aussie musician Lucie Thorne for a barebones duo. Pieta met Lucie during a tour of Australia a few years back and thought that collaborating would work. It does. Lucie’s style is a perfect fit for Pieta and this album is filled with beautful vocal harmonies and emotion. I wrote a review of Fall to Rise for Little Village (here).

Caroline Smith – Half About Being a Woman – Minnesota artist Caroline Smith released three albums from 2008 to 2011. For her latest album Half About Being a Woman, she changed things up by making an album influenced by 70’s and 80’s R&B– a departure from her more indie folk-sounding previous albums. The whole process and struggle (she was worried she’d alienate her fanbase) is documented in the half-hour documentary “My Way Back Home.”  Personally, I really love the direction she is going– it’s great to her her sing out and belt some of these songs!

The Shouting Matches – Grownass Man – I was torn about whether to put this album on the list or Justin Vernon’s (Bon Iver) other 2013 release as part of Volcano Choir – Repave. Both are almost opposite ends of the spectrum. The Shouting Matches is a stripped-down blues-influenced affair– similar to Black Keys. Repave is Volcano Choir’s 2nd release and it owes more of a debt to Bon Iver than the previous album did, in my opinion. When it gets down to it, I listened to both quite a bit, but I find Grownass Man to be more satisfying (and more entertaining) in its straightforward direction. Even though the Bon Iver moniker is on hiatus indefiniately, I’m happy to see Vernon is still creating music and producing.

Dawes – Stories Don’t End – Album #3 from Dawes finds the band setting off on their own having stepped away from their label ATO. Lots of quotes from Taylor Goldsmith about trying to change the widespread idea that they are somehow indelibly a 70’s throwback band (my words) and lifting off the mantle of “Laurel Canyon Sound” that they acquired when PR people didn’t know what to say about their first album and its obvious influences. That said, Stories Don’t End is not really a departure from the first two albums. If anything, it is a continuation and maturity of the band who is coming to grips with their identity and sound. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what the external reviewers and PR people portray about Dawes because what really matters is strong songwriting, amazing vocal harmonies and live shows. It’s probably a good thing that three albums in, Dawes isn’t trying to shake things up dramatically– they aren’t even 30 yet!

The 4onthefloor – Spirit of Minneapolis – Album #2 from the Twin Cities storming blues rock band and their signature crazy-eyed spirit is still in tact. In a similar fashion to their first album 4×4, the songs on Spirit of Minneapolis have been percolating in their live sets dating back to the 4×4 days and I’d say that the songs are pretty much interchangable between the two albums. It’s not a criticism as much as an observation. If you love 4onthefloor, you’ll love this album, too. Gabe Douglas has been working on an album from his side-project Silverback Colony which should come out in 2014, I suspect.

Wooden Shjips – Back to Land – A band I kind of slept on until this album came out. Like I said above, Wooden Shjips is one of my favorite new guitar-based bands on Thrill Jockey along with Pontiak and Arbouretum. All three bands lean towards layered distortion and psychedelic rock. If you’re a fan of the “stoner rock” or “desert rock” genre with bands like Queens of the Stone Age or Fu Manchu this band fits right in, though they’ve never been tagged as such that I’m aware. The vinyl packaging for this record is fantastic– die-cut outer slip jacket exposes the art on the inner sleeve similar to Led Zeppelin covers from the 70’s. My copy is one of the limited pink vinyl pressings which is pretty cool.

Releases I’m Looking Forward to in 2013

The month of January was named after the Roman goddess Janus who had two faces.  Like the goddess, January is the month of the year when we both look back on the previous year that is over as well as ahead to the year coming up. I just posted my favorite releases for 2012— here is a list of releases that I’m looking forward to in 2013.

Mountains Centralia (January 22) The Brooklyn duo of Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp is back with another couple of slabs of acoustic/electronic experimental ambient music (a couple of slabs in the vinyl version anyway). I’ve been a big fan since Choral and can’t wait to get this on the turntable.

Camper Van BeethovenLa Costa Perdida (January 22) David Lowery’s non-Cracker concern is back with its first release since New Roman Times in 2004.

Arbouretum Coming Out of the Fog (January 22) David Heumann is back with another slab of his folk-inspired distortion. If you are one of the early orders at Thrill Jockey, the vinyl comes in “Fog White” – I have one and it is beautiful.

Brokeback Brokeback and the Black Rock (January 22) – Doug McCombs of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day returns with his solo project, Brokeback. Started in 1997, Brokeback had two 7″es and three albums, with the last one out in 2003. Ten years later, Brokeback is resurrected in a new lineup which includes Pete Croke and Chris Hansen of Head of Skulls! (emphasis theirs) and James Elkington of The Zincs, The Horses Ha and Freakwater. The album is typical atmospheric reverbby guitar instrumentals.

Local NativesHummingbird (January 29) – The Local Natives are back with their sophomore release. I loved their first album Gorilla Manor, and got to see them during the first Daytrotter Barnstormer tour. They managed to tour for two years on that album. If the first track “Breakers” is any indication, Hummingbird is a strong followup.

Jacob JonesGood Timin’ In Waynetown (January 29) – Just in time for the hubbub over Nashville due to the ABC TV series of the same name, Jacob Jones is releasing his first album in two years. Instead of his typical roadworn acoustic folk country, he hit the studio with an album inspired by the classic R&B of Ray Charles and the “Keep On Movin'” parties on Monday nights at The 5 Spot.

Hiss Golden MessengerHaw (April 2) – MC Taylor and Scott Hirsch are on a roll. After a very polished release of Poor Moon in 2011 which was followed by a collection of odds and sods in 2012 called Lord, I Love the Rain they are done with another release Haw, which is due to come out on April 2nd and has members of Megafaun on it. Look for a review by me soon.

Golden Gunn – TBD (April) – As if a Hiss Golden Messenger release isn’t enough, Scott and MC are collaborating with Steve Gunn on an album which, from the sounds of the little bit I heard, will be more jamming and more stripped down (if that is possible).

Dawes Stories Don’t End (April 9)- The mighty Dawes return for a third album. This time they are releasing the album themselves through their management Q Prime— their first two albums were released by Dave Matthews’ label ATO. I’ve heard a couple songs from the new album live already, and it’s sounding like a great one. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Taylor Goldsmith said, “Obviously we have our influences, and I know that some of what we do as a band is of another time, even simple aspects like guitar solos. So I get it, I’m not mad at it, but at the same time, we just wanted to make sure people saw us as a modern band as well. With this album, thanks to what [producer] Jacquire [King] is really good at, we’re able to stay a rock & roll band and maintain classic qualities, but at the same time, it makes sense that this record is coming out in 2013.”

Jack Logan & Scott Baxendale – Bones in the Desert (TBD) – Jack Logan is back with his first release since 2006 or so. This time he’s partnered up with Athens, GA master guitar luthier Scott Baxendale. Joining them on the record are members of Drive By Truckers.

The Right Now – EP (First Half of 2013) In an interview with Chicagoverse, Brendan O’Connell says that the Chicago R&B band has demos collected that they can draw from to make an EP!

Dick Prall – Dick is releasing a song-per month, which he kicked off in October of 2012. The plan is to make the songs freely downloadable with a full-album of the tracks plus some bonuses available at the end of 2013.

Horses Ha – TBD – Carried over from last year’s list. The album is pretty much complete and a continuation of the first album Of The Cathmawr Yards. Here’s hoping that Janet and James, coming off the recent Freakwater tour will be energized and ready to release this.

History – (First half of 2013) The remains of the Iowa City band The Wandering Bears have formed a new band called History.

Har-di-Har – Third EP/LPI loved the first two EP’s released by the Cedar Falls husband/wife duo Har-di-Har. The third EP in the series is supposed to come out pretty soon. Andrew Thoreen told me that the plan is to bundle the three EP’s together into a physical release (possibly vinyl!).

(Upcoming Release) Calexico Maps Alternate History in “Road Atlas” Vinyl Box Set Out 11/22/11


The dusty desert highway of Tuscon-native band Calexico’s 15-year career is dotted with a notable collection of passionate Latin infused Americana (for lack of another general category to place them). While the band may not be familiar to most, their music shows up in many places– from interstitial music in NPR to movie soundtracks and in their many collaborations (including one fantastic album with The Iron and Wine). If only for these works, Calexico will stand as one of the important and influential American bands.

Along this same highway of releases are the roadside attractions of Calexico’s self-released albums. These generally “tour-only” albums were released under Calexico’s own imprint Our Soil, Our Strength and served sometimes as a clearing house of studio demos and projects that didn’t make it to other albums, live albums or other experiments. Ironically, maybe, it was through one of these albums that I was first exposed to Calexico. Someone posted the instrumental collection Travelall as mp3’s on the internet newsgroup alt.binaries.sounds.mp3 which left me initially of the opinion that Calexico was an instrumental post-rock similar to Tortoise. (I didn’t know it at the time, but Travelall has Thrill Jockey artists Rob Mazurek (Isotope 217, Chicago Underground), Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Brokeback, etc.), and Noel Kupersmith (Brokeback, Chicago Underground Quartet) on it which lends some weight to that idea).

This misconception was quickly dismissed with the 2006 release of Garden Ruin which quickly made me a fan of the band and motivated me to get all of their albums, including the tour-only releases which were all limited releases and quickly fell out of print, so I had to resort to Amazon and eBay to track the ones down I couldn’t get from the band’s website and from the band during the Garden Ruin tour. All of these releases are essential to the fan of Calexico, as they provide valuable insight to the band’s creative workouts. Not forced into an album format that would have appeal to a more casual listener, we are treated to a much richer view into the true heart of the band which include an audio treasure trove of atmospheric instrumentals, audio experiments, home demos, live performances, one-off collaborations and outtakes.

After the announcement of Touch and Go/Quarterstick records– Calexico’s US label– in early 2009 that they would stop distribution of albums for a while I was concerned about the future of the band’s releases. The label managed to squeak the brilliant Carried to Dust in 2008, but that wasn’t the last release from the band– they put out the live album Live at Ancienne Belgique in 2009 on their own label, and produced the soundtracks to the documentary Circo, and the soundtrack to Don Cheadle-Brendan Gleeson Irish crime flick The Guard.

So, you can imagine my excitement hearing that Calexico is releasing a vinyl box set titled Road Atlas 1998-2011. Encased in a cloth hardbound box and limited to 1,100 hand-numbered sets, Road Atlas 1998-2011 collects the tour-only releases, plus the aforementioned live release and the Circo soundtrack as well as a 40-page book by music journalist Fred Mills. In addition to the 12-LP’s, the box will include mp3-downloads of all the tracks, PLUS BONUS other unreleased music not found on the LP’s or the band’s regular releases! Here is the breakdown:

ROAD ATLAS 1998-2011
Limited Edition Hand Numbered 12 LP vinyl boxset of Calexico’s tour only CDs
98-99 Road Map LP (originally released on CD 1999)
Travelall LP (originally released on CD 2000)
Aerocalexico 2xLP (originally released on CD 2001)
Scraping 2xLP (originally released on CD 2002)
The Book And The Canal 2xLP (originally released on CD 2005)
Toolbox LP (originally released on CD 2007)
Ancienne Belgique-Live in Brussels 2008 2xLP (originally released on CD 2008)
Circo- A Soundtrack By Calexico LP (originally released on CD 2010)
MP3 download codes for all the albums
MP3 download code for previously unreleased Calexico tracks
A 40-page perfect bound book of photos, handwritten notes, and extensive liner notes
A heavy duty, linen wrapped, screen-printed slip case to house it all!

Priced at around $130, the box will be available via the band’s website, Touch and Go, Amazon and For those that don’t want to drop that kind of cash, there is also a great compilation CD of tracks from the box available as well.

I created a special 32-minute mix of tracks from the box to get you in the mood including these tracks:

“Hushabye” from Aerocalexico
“Ghost Writer” from The Book and the Canal
“Waitomo” from Toolbox
“Escrito En La Piedra” from Circo
“Two Silver Trees” from Anceinne Belgique – Live in Brussels 2008
“Dona Lupe” from Circo
“Chachaca” from Travelall
“Griptape” from The Book and the Canal
“Wind Up Bird” from Scraping
“Glowing Heart of the World” from 98-99 Road Map


Thrill Jockey 15th Anniversary Shows : Day 1 – 12/14/07 (A Review)

In 1992, Bettina Richards– frustrated at the inequity of the handling of artists– left her A&R job at a major label to start her own label with some very clear ideas about how to do it. 15 years later, that label– Thrill Jockey– has become a benchmark against other small independent labels are measured for contracts, quality of recording, packaging and recently digital distribution. It’s certainly a testament to Bettina’s leadership and vision that Thrill Jockey has been around for 15 years. It isn’t unheard of in the industry– its contemporaries like Touch and Go/Quarterstick, Matador and its subsidiaries, and Epitaph have all been around that long, too– but Thrill Jockey is a bit different from those in that it seems more like a tight-knit group of artists. I think maybe the way Blue Note or Stax was in their heyday.

As mentioned earlier, I attended the two-day Thrill Jockey 15th Anniversary Party Shows at Logan Square Auditorium in Chicago. My friend Erik attended the shows with me. Erik’s a pretty big Thrill Jockey fan himself and in particular he was looking forward to the Califone and Sea and Cake shows. I was very happy he came along– it’s always better to see shows with someone else in my opinion. Plus, we split the gas and lodging, so that was helpful.

We took the day off work to drive to Chicago. The plan was to get checked in, get our bearings, get something to eat and get to the venue early enough to give us time to get parked. We were fortunate that there was good parking right by the venue– especially because we showed up before 6PM. As it turned out there was a neat little lunchcounter establishment called Johnny’s Grill where we ordered hamburgers and fries at the corner on the same block as Logan Square. We ate there both nights because the food was inexpensive, good and simplified our plans. On the first night Erik and I were the first people in the door. Security was run by the security for the Empty Bottle who was putting this on with Thrill Jockey and Listen Up Chicago. They also handled the dispensing of the liquor. Pabst was the beer sponsor, so there was Pabst specials, and it appeared that was what most of the bands who were drinking were drinking. They also had Goose Island in bottles, which was what Erik and I were drinking. I think we had the India Pale Ale.

Logan Square Auditorium also known as the Gilbert Building appears to be an old-time ballroom with wood floors and big plaster medallions on the ceiling. To maximize the number of bands that could be fit in, there were two stages opposite of each other. While one band was performing the next act would be setting up. Generally, there was about five or ten minutes between acts and each act got about 45 minutes. No acts got an encore– except for Fred Anderson– and he deserved it. Above the first stage by the entrace was a balcony which was reserved for the bands and their guests.

First stage at Logan Square Auditorium Second Stage at Logan Square Auditorium
Between the two stages was the Thrill Jockey merch counter– a place of bustling activity as you might expect.

Thrill Jockey Merch Table

Thrill Jockey promised to have some rare items for sale that night– I was hoping for OOP Tortoise vinyl but no such luck. They did have some 7 inches that were pretty rare and in the case of Arbouretum there was some vinyl from their personal stash. They did bring some of the cool apparel items, so that was a good night to pick up the Tortoise hoodie or the TJ beanie if you were looking for that. They also had the new Plum 7-inch boxset for sale and they were giving away the Trey Told ‘Em mix CD to pretty much everyone who came in the door.

Before the show at Johnny’s Grill a nice patron let me borrow the latest issue of the Chicago Edition of the Onion which had an interview with Bettina Richards as well as a picture of her so I was able to identify her in the crowd. I talked to her a couple times over the two nights and she was a really friendly and courteous person and seemed really happy that the event kicked off without any noticeable (at least by me) hitches. She was clearly the host of the party and it seemed like she was mingling with the crowd and the bands equally.

Most of the bands throughout the nights wished her a happy anniversary or thanked her. It occurred to me that she’s probably known some of these people for longer than the 15 years of Thrill Jockey– the members of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day for sure– and it was clear that she was friends with them. The band lineup pulled equally from the early days of Thrill Jockey– The Sea and Cake, Eleventh Dream Day, Trans Am, Tortoise as well as new acts like School of Language and Arbouretum– and they all got equal billing which shows that the label owes as much to the present bands as to the bands that have been on the label for a while.

One thing Erik and I learned the hard way was that it was imperative that we sat down from time-to-time! Unfortunately, there really wasn’t any place to sit but the floor or lean on the opposing stage for those bands for which we didn’t desire to be close. The first bands started around 7PM and we got to the venue around 6PM. Since the show generally went until 2AM– that meant we were on our feet for the most of EIGHT HOURS! Especially given that there wasn’t much time between sets. Needless to say after the first night’s show were were in a lot of pain.

Another observation I’ve made is about the photographers who were covering the show. I was there with a camera to take pictures for this article as well, but I try to be respectful of the bands as well as the other people who attended the show. I like to hang back a bit, make sure I’m not in the way, and only step in for an occasional picture. Some of these guys were chimping dozens of shots per band and were right up against the stage. One of the photographers for one of the huge not-music-blogs had one of those Sto-Fen Omni Bounce Diffusers on his flash which are used to soften the shadows which sometimes occur from using a flash. For whatever reason this guy was using his with the flash head pointing at the ceiling effectively blinding everyone in 360-degrees around him. Dude, if you’re reading this, it’s something you should know if you didn’t. You could have pointed the flash head at your subject since you were diffusing the flash.

Aside from that, the show was incredible and very much worth the trip and the very reasonable ticket price. I really felt like this show was an opportunity of a lifetime! Out of all of these bands, I’d only seen Tortoise and Pit-Er-Pat previously so it was amazing to see the rest of these acts if only for 45 minutes apiece! I think everyone put on a really good show and seemed to be enjoying being part of this tribute to the label on its home turf.

The first night kicked off with Brokeback. Brokeback is Doug McCombs’s other band in addition to Eleventh Dream Day and Tortoise. Brokeback started as a way to showcase the Fender Bass VI. The Bass VI is a longer-scale 6-string guitar similar to a baritone, and is in fact inspired by the Danelectro Baritone. It’s unique tone inspired Doug to record songs that became the Brokeback catalog. Brokeback put on a characteristically atmospheric set that was enthusiastically cheered by the small early crowd. (Apparently Friday night shows in Chicago have a lot of competition, based on some of the folks I talked to on Saturday who didn’t come to Friday night.)


Across the floor after Brokeback was Thalia Zedek who put on an amazing set. I’m not sure why I hadn’t gotten into her music before– she put on a very impassioned and energetic set. Sort of like a folky version of Patti Smith. I plan to start looking into her back catalog.


From the edgy music of Thalia we are turned to the polished guitar pop balladry of Archer Prewitt. Archer was one of the sets I was really looking forward to. I’ve been following Archer since his White Sky album came out. Although he is a member of The Sea and Cake I hadn’t heard his first album I guess because it wasn’t on Thrill Jockey. He is now, of course and his last two albums Three and Wilderness are brilliant. His set focused on those two releases and I was impressed at how his sound works in a live setting. For the whole set he was playing this really nice-looking Jerry Jones Danelectro copy.

Archer Prewitt

One band I was curious about was Arbouretum. I hadn’t heard any of their music before the show was announced, but I visited the streaming tracks from the Thrill Jockey site and really liked what I heard. I’m not sure how to describe it– it’s a bit like folky sea-shanty type songs infected with 90’s grunge influence. Dave Heumann propels the songs with his trusty vintage Danelectro through washes of distortion. Some of the songs are short and to the point while others take a slightly psychedelic jam and solo. Out of the newer music I heard this weekend, this band is one I keep coming back to. Heumann’s side project with Lungfish member Nathan Bell will be releasing their first full length at the end of this month and it is very complimentary to the Arbouretum songs.

As a side note, the second night I wanted to pick up Arbouretum’s new album Rites of Uncovering on vinyl as I’d seen it there on Friday. I was informed that the copies they had for sale actually came from the band as the label had sold out of them! I was pretty bummed, but I reached out to Dave Heumann through the Arbouretum MySpace page and although he wanted to save those copies for their live show merchandise he was feeling the holiday spirit and sold me one. I should be getting my copy this coming week. Thanks Dave!


Before The Sea and Cake hit the opposing stage we got one of the “surprise” acts– the Lonesome Organist hit the stage with his accordion and played a quick tune. It seemed really spontaneous and a crowd quickly gathered. As he was leaving the stage the crowd shouted for another song, so as he was making his way through the throng he obliged.

The Lonesome Organist

The Sea and Cake came on and did a great set with mostly songs from the new Everybody album. A couple of the songs were a lot more uptempo than the album to which Archer commented that someone gave John McEntire a cappuccino. I was really impressed with the bass playing of Eric Claridge! He plays some really complex bass lines. I was bummed that I didn’t get to see them last Fall when they hit Minneapolis and Madison.

The Sea and Cake

Up next was David Brewis as School of Language. He flew in especially for the event which was his U.S. debut and had only a day to prepare the guys who were stepping in as his band. His band for the night was Nick Macri of the Zincs and Ryan Rabsys of Euphone. They did a great job sitting in for him. This show was much better than I expected. I really didn’t have a chance to hear any of his music since the album wasn’t out. David’s new album Sea from Shore— currently streaming at the Thrill Jockey site– is a quirky guitar pop album which dashes of Prince falsetto and angular beats. David had the distinction of playing one of the few Gibson guitars at the show.

David Brewis

Next up on the same stage was the Fred Anderson Trio. Fred is kind of a local Jazz legend. He is the owner and frequent entertainment at the Velvet Lounge in Chicago and has a very extensive career. For a 78-year-old he sure can wail on the sax! I think that his band was Chad Taylor and bassist Josh Abrams– both Thrill Jockey regulars. When his set was done, the audience was so moved that they cheered for an encore! This was to be the only encore of the entire two-day affair!
Fred Anderson

The Fiery Furnaces used their 45 minutes to play most of their new album Widow City. This is an album I’ve listened to on-and-off since I got it. I like Eleanor Friedberger’s voice– it has a kind of urgency that reminds me of Crissy Hynde of the Pretenders. Overall I think it’s a good album, but it sometimes seems like every song is the same formula– a sort of cut-and-paste feel to it with jarring changes. Impressively, they do a great job performing this live. However, a full set of this seemed numbing to me after a while. A friend of Erik’s saw the Furnaces in Minneapolis last year and his observation was that people either really got in to them or they didn’t. This night I didn’t. Something else I found off-putting was that Eleanor kept walking off stage and seemed irritated about something maybe with the sound. The crowd really got into them it seemed, but by this time of the night the crowd started thinning out.

The Fiery Furnaces

The last act of the night was Bobby Conn. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I saw the pictures on the Thrill Jockey site and read the interview they had so I knew it would be different than the other acts. I like the songs on the King For A Day album a lot and had listened to it a couple of times before the show to become familiar with the songs. So, I wasn’t really prepared for what the show was– it appeared to be tongue in cheek– sort of a cross between Joe’s Garage and “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Everyone in the band was in costume– I think representing the different characters in the King For A Day concept. Mostly I felt like I was seeing an inside joke. It was clear that they were being ironic with all of the 80’s hairmetal riffing– but really Bobby Conn and his other guitarists were a little too good at playing this style. Maybe they are post-ironic
Bobby Conn

Erik and I stuck it out until the end of Bobby Conn’s set anticipating that maybe there would be some sort of announcement or comments from the organizers. By the end of the set the venue was pretty much vacated– I think there might have been around ten people left. The band finished, the houselights came up and Erik and I headed back to the hotel.

Coming up: Day 2!

See all the pictures I took on Day 1 of the Thrill Jockey 15th Anniversary Show.