The Districts Rock DC with Passion and Mannequins

The Districts entered a stage populated by mannequins with heads cut off and replaced with heat lamps, clutching a jug of water in one hand and a guitar in the other. A group of kids barely out of high school, singing for a crowd mostly pushing thirty, screaming their lungs out and drinking their minds blank. Stuffed into the narrow black rectangle that is DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel, where the sound bounced a little too much and views were perpetually blocked by someone’s taller shoulders. When the swaying chanced to offer a window to the stage, you could see their singer often nearly doubled over, attacking his guitar strings, or three steps away from the microphone, leaning to the point of nearly toppling over, seemingly defying gravity by shouting into the crowd. Most young singers would have this turn into a scream-fest, but despite the obvious outpouring, the vocals never strayed into chaos. Pathos of the inflections intact, you could even make out most of the lyrics.

The Districts write great songs and they play with impressive energy, but in watching them for just a few minutes, you get the feeling that their understanding goes deeper than that. Great bands can tap into a certain dichotomy live. That it’s just music, that we all just happen to be here on the same night and it’s nothing to shout home about; it’s a trifling matter and a life or death situation. That seeing someone rip out their soul, scream it to the crowd, and then for those same people to soak it in and shout it back to the stage can feel like the most important act in the world. That anything could happen at any moment, even if all that happens is some noise blasting out a speaker. It’s a quality that the best live bands achieve without even trying. The Districts aren’t there yet, but you can see the dynamic there, and it’s a thrilling thing to watch.

The show wasn’t perfect; pacing was a major problem. Each time the energy of the room started to hit a cathartic high, the song ended and we were treated to sometimes 3 or 4 minutes of the band gathering themselves, tuning their guitars (again?!?) and chugging water. Still, hearing a room full of people scream into the rafters, “Long distance, long time! Isn’t easier!” building to sweaty fans jumping maniacally to 4th And Roebling, ending on a slow burn group chant of the chorus, “I ain’t the same any more, I’m not the same as before…” a proper show closing cures all imperfections. The only thing that matters is that nothing outside that cramped black room does. Like the best arena rockers, they’re able to take a song soaked in regret and weariness and turn it into an affirmation, a couple hundred people connected for a night, ever so slightly changed.

Advertisements

Alabama Shakes Explore Space, Blow Up Their Sound

This review was originally written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

Don’t Wanna Fight starts off innocuously enough. A bouncing guitar melody echoing from both sides, pleasant on the ears. Then the drums enter, steady and deep, more dusty hip hop sample than Stax retread, booming with purpose. Guitars step in, we’re informed that they’re up to no good. And then that squeal. The whole song is that squeal. There’s a 44 second intro and 3 minutes and nine seconds of an outro surrounding that squeal from Brittany Howard. After 2012’s very-good-but-not-quite-transcendent debut the question lingered; was this the kind of band that would fade away after some early buzz? Would they fuck around and put out a string of boilerplate follow-ups? Don’t Wanna Fight was the first single for the album as well as a sure footed answer to those questions. A resounding “no.”

As tempting as it might have been to keep cooking up Southern soul and classic rock (and when you’ve got a singer and band this good, you can skate by for quite a while with that) the Alabama Shakes have chosen to push themselves further than their debut ever hinted at. Future People rides a stumbling guitar figure propped up by jagged strummed edges, buffeted by ethereal coos before a squelching, fuzz drenched stomp descends for the chorus. Gimme All Your Love rides the airborne mortar shot of Howard’s compelling demand, “If you just GIMME ALL YOUR LOVEEEE” before  landing in an organ drenched pillar of hot magma obliterating your speakers. Be careful not to snap your neck nodding along. Sound And Color is a visceral and visual album, a collection of songs that stick in your head thanks to equal measures of melodies worming their way in and riffs smacking you across the face.

The showstoppers are plentiful, but the more deliberate numbers are just as effective. The opening title track starts with a simple chord progression played on a keyboard that sounds like an organ laid over top of a children’s xylophone. Typically something like this would be pro-forma intro fodder, but it draws you in. There’s swaths of space, not quite identical in length, in between notes that makes even the simplest  playing sound supernatural. It’s an aspect of playing that young bands spend years mastering (echoing the age-old complaint of young bands playing too fast) and Alabama Shakes nails it from the first track.

Album highlight Gemini is a six minute treatise on that idea, a stunner that never breaks from a plodding tempo, yet ratchets up the melodrama and dynamics regardless. The beat is almost stiffing in its consistency, never wavering, but taking long enough between snare hits to make you wonder every time if it’s actually going to land again. Sung in a D’Angelo-esque haze, it’s other-worldly mood matched by the interstellar lyrics, they aren’t just detailing a failed relationship, their blowing the world to pieces with laser-like fuzz guitar ascending from the static. There’s traces of the building blocks that made their debut sound so engaging and familiar, but its expressed in a way that is uniquely and completely theirs.

Given the prevailing tropes around sophomore albums (the slumps, the retreads, etc.) amid ascending expectations, it would have been unfair to expect Alabama Shakes to improve so much this fast. Sound And Color is that rare triumph that sees a group not only begin to master their craft, but to do it in a way that is both familiar and brand new. It’s the same group and the same voice exploding in a thousand different directions

Quick Hits: Kings, Built to Spill, Alabama Shakes, The Districts

kings_bandshot

Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.

Kings – “Strange Love”

First off, let it be known that this song is funky. Like really funky. A Dirty Mind era Prince jam with less New Wave, more truth. If just anyone could do this than everyone would. But they can’t, there’s just not enough people in the world that can handle a groove like that. It’s overwhelming. But unlike most who travel this path, it avoids pastiche. The beat makes you move, but the arrangement subverts. The guitar adds tension, the mid-song vamp pulls the groove apart at the seams as the sax sews it back up. I’ve now used too many words to say something very simple: this song’s a jam.

Built to Spill – “Living Zoo”

My love for Built to Spill comes and goes. It is also constant. Which is to say, I may forget them from time to time, but whenever I come back I’m pulled back in and I’m pulled in hard. No one plays guitar quite like Doug Martsch and his compatriots in Built to Spill’s three guitar wizardry. It’s not just the winding melody lines and piercing solos, it’s the parade of riffs and counter-melodies, a conversation with multiple voices listening and responding. A Built to Spill jam is a song in its own right, and you know this is a great Built to Spill song because it takes over a minute for the vocals to come in. And no one else really sings like that either. Which is all to say, this is Built to Spill, and it feels good to have them back.

Alabama Shakes – “Don’t Wanna Fight No More”

Alabama Shakes do not waste any time in letting you know their intentions. The beginning sounds innocuous enough, a bouncing guitar melody echoes from both sides, pleasant on the ears. Then the drums enter, steady and deep, coming off as more dusty hip hop sample but booming with purpose. The guitars promptly inform us that they are up to no good. And then that squeal. The whole song is that squeal. There’s a 44 second intro and a 3:09 outro all around that squeal from Brittany Howard. If that doesn’t stop you dead in your tracks and take your breath music may not be for you. I don’t know, maybe that’s hyperbole. Regardless, this album will be a good one. The Alabama Shakes are not here to fuck around or fade away. That much is clear right away.

The Districts – “4th and Roebling”

Remember the last iteration of this column where I professed my soft spot for Strokes and Built to Spill indebted rockers with cathartic choruses and surface level apathy hiding a pained pathos, and those guitars whose progressions collapse in the most emotionally devastating ways while high frequency bouncing melodies dot the t’s and cross the i’s of every word? The Districts do that to the n’th degree. I have no defense. I don’t want a defense. What I’m trying to say is that this album is the kind of work that makes you feel everything you’ve ever felt at once, condenses you into a stupid meaningless dot in the universe, and come out better than unscathed; ragged, raw, and reinvigorated. Oh yeah, they also have a pro’s handle on songwriting dynamics, a sense of arrangement that makes the simple sound complex, and a lyrical knack that balances fine tuned imagery with raw emotionalism and a poetic way with words that never teeters into melodrama. All that matters too. But most of all, this song (and entire album) just destroys me. Anyways, enjoy.

Obsessively Detailed: The Second Verse to Screaming Females’ ‘Broken Neck’

screamales_bandshot

Obsessively Detailed is a column where I go at length about trivially minute details that get me more excited about a song than is reasonable.

Listen to the riff that hits to the chorus at 0:28. Distorted guitars scrawled against the hospital walls. Then listen to the return to the chorus at 1:07. Marissa’s voice raises, prepping the listener for her trademark squall accompanied with swaths of power chords. Your ears brace for the impact, but it doesn’t come. Instead downright lush sounding full chords come in, it’s almost soothing. There’s the slightest bit of gain, but it’s faint, and the whole experience is bewildering.

This is one of my favorite songwriting tricks, and it’s the kind of move that riff-centric bands rarely get. There’s two goals here, one is the classic of playing with our expectations. A great songwriter knows when to give the listener what they want. People love to have an expectation filled, but they also need to have that expectation subverted to keep them on their toes. The expectation here (especially if you listen to a lot of Screaming Females) is for a big chunky riff. That’s anticipation is rewarded the first go around, then switched out the second time. What’s so great about how it’s executed is that it makes you listen to the song differently every time. That’s the second goal, that through 30 seconds you think you know exactly how the song will go before the floor’s ripped out from you. It gives the illusion of a complex winding song, despite it being in a mostly verse-chorus-verse-bridge format. Not only are you engaging the listener, you’re giving the illusion of complexity while providing a hook without having to even write a melody.

Screaming Females may be well regarded for their tenacious live shows and powerful musicianship, but this right here is pure craft.

Quick Hits Volume V: The Features, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Screaming Females

Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.

features_bandshot

The Features – “Two Hearts”

I had never heard of this band just a couple of weeks ago. I still know almost nothing about them, other than that they’ve released a handful of albums, are from Tennessee, and sound like the glorious fusion of Spoon and Talking Heads that I’ve apparently been subconsciously pining for my whole life. If Talking Heads formed 3 years ago and Spoon dedicated a career to perfecting “Turn My Camera On”. There’s also that melodica that I don’t think I’ve heard in a song since “Clint Eastwood” subverting the entire robotic two step groove. It also features what’s instantly become a recent favorite of an opening line, “I get a little bit nervous, I get a little bit shy”. Can’t wait for the album.

The Features – “This Disorder”

This one is not new, and it’s the same band as above, but damnit I want to write about them twice. Another robotic groove and an ace vocal delivery ruminating on not being able to put your phone down (and instructions for an alternative) make for a hell of an introduction to a very good band.

Catfish and the Bottlemen – “Kathleen”

I have an insatiable soft spot for this kind of stuff. Strokes-indebted, mainstream-ish indie rock with chord changes that pull my (admittedly easily pulled) cathartic heart strings in all the right ways even when the lyrics are inscrutable or sound like the ramblings of a self-obsessed nihilistic drunk. I know I’m susceptible, I just don’t care. This is a particularly effective entry in the budding mini genre of pop-minded Strokes descendants (who would have thought that a decade later, First Impressions of Earth and not Is This It would be such an influence) , and when they slam into that chorus, it doesn’t matter that he’s over-emoting what’s essentially a drunken complaint about being blue-balled. Critical objectivity can fuck off, I need to blast the volume and sit on someone’s living room floor pounding Yuenglings.

Screaming Females – Empty Head

The narrative to just about every Screaming Females record is that they’re finally shedding their punk clothes and writing catchy songs. Which isn’t quite true, because this band has always been catchy as hell. Sure, Marissa was prone to do things like scream “YOU ARE ALWAYS TALKING AND YOU NEVER STOP!” repeatedly and with tenacity, but she did so tunefully, damnit.  Unsurprisingly “Empty Head” from their upcoming Rose Mountain is no different, sturdy hooks fearsomely constructed, buffeted by a band whose playing has improved leaps and bounds on every record. It’s rare to see a group that can lock into each other’s every move this well, so that the outpouring is not only well constructed, but wholly singular. When Screaming Females lay into a riff it never sounds like three people playing their instruments, it’s a single being, charging headlong into your skull. But, you know, tunefully.

Flying Lotus Explores Death and Corrupts Jazz With ‘You’re Dead’

flylo_bandshot

This review was originally written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

You’re Dead! is not your typical album. It’s more or less a progressive jazz document from a musician who’s either transcended electronic music, or is pulling it kicking and screaming into his own universe. Feet equally planted in jazz, electronic, hip-hop, and R&B, it’s far ranging enough to make any purist cringe in disgust (always a good thing). The record is bewildering and brief on a casual listen. Meditative and astonishingly deep on closer inspection. Depending on how you listen, it could be constantly transitioning to itself, like being lost on baggage claim. Or a grander statement, each piece subtly connected to every other.

The record, it should be said, is a concept record. As he’s explained in interviews the idea was to document the moment of death. Each song (perhaps movement would be more fitting) a look from a different perspective. Putting music to the transcendence, the confusion, the ascent, the dissipating, the descent that we’ll all eventually share.

You’re Dead! starts with a suite of otherworldly jazz, four tracks blending into a swirling vortex. It features the musical aid of none other than one Herbie Hancock, but it’s a far cry from Head Hunters. Flying Lotus seems more interested in chopping up the component parts and reassembling them in haphazard fashion. A hip-hop producer’s approach to full band direction perhaps: drums swing as atonal saxophone shredding pans from ear to ear, the whole arrangement swells to the pulse of Thundercat’s ever wandering, frenetic bass work. The groove is hinted at, but it’s hiding under the entire group’s insistence to run in every direction at once while tethered to a shared center of gravity, inevitably snapping back into either mass hysteria or a gorgeous but temporary universal truce.

And after all that sonic chaos Flying Lotus presents to you: probably the best damn hip-hop song of the year. First single Never Catch Me initially fooled me into thinking that You’re Dead! would finally be Flying Lotus’ first complete step into accessibility. Instead (and in context), it’s a respite of expertly crafted conventional wisdom in a record marked by existential questions. Both a detour and a centerpiece, with a killer bass solo and a robot Kendrick Lamar.

I could continue trying to describe complex and nuanced expression with mere words, but suffice to say the rest of the record delivers, a thrilling exploration both sonically and thematically. Whether through ethereal sighs, demented rants, skyward pleas, or universal protests, You’re Dead! is 19 gasps at a shared fate. And one collective shout into the void.

Quick Hits Volume 4: Bahamas, White Laces, Benjamin Booker, Flying Lotus

whitelaces_bandshot

Quick Hits is a column where I share my occasionally coherent thoughts on (relatively) new releases.

Bahamas – “All the Time”

“All the Time” starts off unassuming enough. Gentle acoustic guitar picking, a steady rhythm with fluttering hi-hats, backed by coos and aahs. And, for some reason, a squelching two note bass line. It’s the last thing you’d expect here, but it takes what could have easily been a trifling breeze of a song and gives it an unusual edge. Something is clearly not right with this picture. “I’ve got all the time in the world/Don’t you want some of that?” The call and response vocals take on the demented quirkiness that modern indie rock loves to affect when stealing from R&B and hip-hop. Then the lead guitar screams in and the picture is set. At first a simple slide line stating the melody, layers are carefully poured on, precision-placed muted clucks next to frantic spirals of distortion, weaving together to form a lattice around the squelching bass grid. Bahamas’ previous album showed an artist content to bask in lilting amiability, but here we have contentedness laced with nervous energy and a foreboding but hopeful darkness. Unfortunately the rest of the album reverts to Jack Johnson-esque beach-side-front-porch pickin’ (fellow single “Stronger Than That” being the notable exception), but it’s hard to take exception when an artist can hit at least one song this far out of the park.

White Laces – “Nothing Clicks”

Richmond’s White Laces make the kind of new wave-y shoegaze I typically approach with some kind of combination of shrug, eye-roll, and a half-hearted attempt at an open minded listen. These guys are different though. Their first album was a strong debut showing a knack for making insidiously sticky hooks out of piercing guitar lines, elongated choruses, and reverb applied in heaping spoonfuls. “Nothing Clicks” is one of our first looks at their much anticipated sophomore effort, Trance, and like the first single “Skate Or Die” it’s probably the best song they’ve put out yet. The building blocks are more of the same, swirling synths are laid down as a canvas before a trebly guitar melody gets bowled over by a sure-footed drum beat barreling down as frontman Landis Wine languidly pours out reverbed vocals. Meanwhile the bass line alternates between self churning propulsion system and loping counter melody to top off the concoction. The sound is familiar, but it’s executed so well and fucked with in just the right places to sound fresh and suggest that the band is ready to take a big step forward with their next record.

Benjamin Booker – “Have You Seen My Son?”

Punk and blues have always felt like kindred spirits to me. Bare bones frameworks that allow raw expression to trump technical proficiency. In lesser hands it degrades to aggressiveness or traditionalism trumping songcraft. There’s no shortage of bands in their garages and bedrooms trying to wrangle these inspirations into something that resembles what came before, but if you haven’t put in the work to develop your voice (as in songwriting, not vocals), if you don’t have anything meaningful to say, the whole purpose is lost. Simple frameworks like these exist and are effective artistically because they offer the shortest path from idea to passionate delivery. Benjamin Booker’s debut album is breathtaking because unlike so many others making music in this vein, he has a story that he desperately needs to tell, and “Have You Seen My Son” does it in an exhilarating, frantic rush. Opened with the gale force winds of drummer Max Norton and capped off with coda that moves from noise-rock annihilation to headbanging blues-stomp, the record’s highlight is the perfect summation of everything Booker does so damn well on his debut.

Flying Lotus – “Never Catch Me”

I already wrote about this one at reasonable length for Antiquiet, but to sum up: Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar are unquestionably at the top of their respective fields, and this track might be one of the best things either one has done. CHECK IT OUT.

Foo Fighters Tear the Roof Off of Intimate, Crowd-Funded Gig in Richmond

foo_marquee

This article was written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.

 

“I’ve been a musician a long time, and I’ve played a lot of shows…But I’ve never played a show like this one before!”

The crowd roared back, and although he could have probably said just about anything and elicited the same response, the sentiment certainly felt true. Last night the Foo Fighters played the National, a roughly 1,500 capacity venue in downtown Richmond, VA after a fan led campaign sold $70,000 worth of tickets to a show that didn’t exist. The Foo Fighters decided to play along  and come to the city for the first time since 1998, but instead of setting up shop in the arena they could have easily sold out, they elected to give the fans something truly special, an intimate show exclusively for those crazy enough to buy tickets to imaginary shows.

The city has been understandably pumped since the show announcement two weeks ago. Local favorite Sugar Shack Donuts bought $5,000 worth of tickets and spent the past week giving them away in increasingly zany fashion (what started with a simple raffle and a YouTube cover contest soon escalated into a “donut hurling” competition, city-wide scavenger hunt, and a deluge of “depserate karaoke” videos). You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the local rock station talking up “Foo Fighters Week” and playing the songs back to back and again and again. And to top it off, the mayor proclaimed the day of the concert to be an official Foo Fighters Day.

So, yes, people were excited. And arriving at the venue, seeing a line down the street and around the corner, you could tell this was no ordinary show. People began showing up at noon for the 7:00 door time, holding up “DV GROL” license plates, tour shirts dating back to the 90s , and entire families decked in Foo Fighters gear. Chants of “R! V! A!” (short for Richmond, VA) and “Foo! Figh! Ters!” could be heard down the block. Once inside we squeezed together. And as one does at concerts, impatiently waited.

Local group Avers kicked off the show. Something of a supergroup of Richmond rock bands (with member of The Trillions, Hypercolor, and several others), their presence was a welcome nod to the grassroots nature of the show, spotlighting a bit of local talent. Not that Avers need any favors. The psychedelic haze that was slathered all over their excellent debut record was scraped off for their live setting, showcasing a powerful rhythm section and pounding riffs. Girls With Headaches was an especially strong highlight, dirtying up the laid back groove of the original with snarling guitar leads and a drum break that damn near bowled over the rest of the band. Guitarist / keyboardist / rock & roll jack of all trades Charlie Glenn put in an early challenge to Dave Grohl as “guy having the most fun possible on stage” while the band ripped through the track’s twists and turns to arrive at a squealing solo to top things off and elicit one hell of a cheer from a crowd that was mostly oblivious to the group moments earlier. Conversations overheard afterwards placed the set somewhere in between “pretty good” and “pretty DAMN good.”

But no matter how damn good an opener could be, we were here for the cult of Dave Grohl.

And the Foo Fighters would not disappoint. They opened with a three note riff sounding out into the dark, repeated, then the near whispered intro: “All my life I’ve been searching for something…” You’d have been hard pressed finding a single audience member not maniacally shouting back to Dave’s subdued growl. “Leaves me with the feeling that I feel the most, feel it come to life when I see your ghost…” the riff kicks in, drum fills pour down from the stage, lights flare, and suddenly, we’re in the middle of a Foo Fighters show. Dave embraced the love, finding breaks in the songs to nearly fall off the stage maniacally pounding riffs out of his guitar, extending songs into punk rock riff-fests and audience screaming matches. I’ll Stick Around, from the group’s now 20 year old debut was next, apparently thinking he could stump the crowd he yelled out “sing along if you know it!” Which of course the people did, responding to the challenge with a unison “I DON’T OWE YOU ANYTHING!”

Since I keep mentioning it, I should probably get it of the way now that there were a lot of sing-alongs. Choruses were shouted in jumping frenzies, the group in front of me took to screaming in each other’s ear and high-fived for every song they knew (hint: all of them). Grohl led us through an a capella version of My Hero that was chill inducing and Everlong did exactly what Everlong does to people regardless of the setting. Best Of You was finished off with the crowd providing the backing Oohs as the evening culminated in a frenzied barrage of drum fills and probably-shouldn’t-be-legal guitar strangling.

But outside of the many hits, the real reason people can get so excited for a Foo Fighters show is the sheer force of personality of Dave Grohl. One of the very few true rock stars left in the world, there’s not really anyone else that brings that level of enthusiasm and generates such overwhelming waves of positivity on stage. Just about every song ended in a shit-eating grin, with the audience in rapt attention whenever he decided to slow things down and talk to us for a while. Just 100 miles south of his hometown of Springfield, VA, he had the crowd say hi to his Mother sitting in the balcony. He picked out of the crowd the guy who started the crowd funding event and dedicated Up In Arms, prefacing with a tongue in cheek “You’re gonna know what it’s like to be loved by Dave Grohl, so open up your ear holes and let my love in.” Local metal institutions GWAR and Lamb Of God were given shout outs and song dedications (Cold Day In The Sun for the late Dave Brockie of the former, Weenie Beenie for the latter) while he shared his earliest memories of Richmond: Namely getting far too high and seeing GWAR.

Dave also liked to mention that they had been a band for the past 20 years, and it showed. Never content to simply play the song straight-up, the band continuously found creative ways to break into asides and trap doors. Poppy guitar hooks seamlessly transitioned into metal riffs and blast beats, giving way drum fill laden rave ups. Taylor Hawkins seemed determined to match Dave’s intensity at every opportunity, his arms a constant blur from mammoth fill to mammoth fill. Monkey Wrench was easily a highlight of the evening, turned from a taut rocker to expansive showstopper. Verses were interspersed with 70s punk rock guitar flourishes before leading into a psychedelic-ish interlude, Grohl playing a two note riff as the band behind him rises and falls in intensity, going from spacey, effects-laden solos to a straight ahead Who-esque build up.

The first set closed on Everlong, a visibly ecstatic Grohl urging us to sing our hearts out. And we did, of course. And as the song hit its climax, and we waited for that beat of rest in the song that precedes one final go-around of the chorus the band stopped completely. Silence, until the crowd roared its approval. Grohl stood motionless, a slight smile on his face, basking in the affection and the energy. For a moment, the song no longer felt like a romantic plea, but more of a summation of experiencing something fully. If a rock & roll show can provide anything meaningful, it’s that pure moment of catharsis between an audience and the music and the artist. We were asked, “if anything could ever feel this real forever,” and we responded with a resounding yes.

foo_sticker

Rotary Downs Talks Songwriting, The Clash, and Making People Dance in New Orleans

Rotary Downs photographed in New Orleans, LA at the Bomb Factory on Robertson.

Photo by Cord McPhail

This article was written for antiquiet.com (thus the “we introduced” and whatnot), and you can read the original here.

We introduced New Orleans’ Rotary Downs a couple of months back just before their latest record, Traces, dropped. That turned out to be a solid followup to their hugely impressive Cracked Maps & Blue Reports from 2010, their newest a collection of taut grooves, slight psychedelics and interlocking riffs. We got to speak with frontman James Marler after the release to talk about not touring, musical repetition, perceived non-sense lyrics, The Clash, and being a rock band in New Orleans.

So, new album Traces, I’m a big fan, what was it like doing that?  It seems like it took quite a while from Cracked Maps

Yeah, we would’ve been done a year earlier but we kind of had to switch our recording process about halfway through, which is how it goes sometimes. We all like it a lot, so that’s the important thing.

It seems that, to me at least, there’s a departure from Cracked Maps in the sense that the songs aren’t quite as sharp but they take on some interesting structures and layer in some great arrangements. Was that a conscious decision to try out or is it just something that came together naturally.

I feel like Traces is our most original material.

Why is that?

Well, I think it was the whole journey of making the album. The various contributions of different members of the band. We added a new member Alex Smith, who is this English guy who’s been in a couple of prominent touring bands. He plays mostly guitar, bass on Twin Cities. So that’s one difference. I feel like Traces is less poppy than the previous two albums, but someone else I spoke to said the opposite.

I agree, I wouldn’t say it’s as poppy, but definitely more original.  I find myself thinking less of who your sound reminds me of and more of just watching the riffs and grooves come together.

Thanks, we also wanted to allow a little more repetition into the music. So something like Incognito, Tent City, Anthony’s odyssey, and Country Killers, I guess about half the album, you get longer sections of building off the same groove or riff. Something we wanted to do and want to do going into the future. Because in the past it’s been “oh we need a change, and we need another change”,  which is fine, but I like repetitive music, and we thought it would be interesting to do our own version of it, even if every song ends up having a chorus anyways.

I definitely get that.  I’m a songwriter myself and I always feel like I’m pressuring myself into writing that extra chord change and extra bridge.

Yeahhh, and then you listen to music you like and think, “there’s not much changing here”. Some of the greatest songs never change at all. Like Guns of Brixton, off of London Calling, it’s just one bass line and it’s amazing.

I love that stuff too.  I was listening to Yo La Tengo the earlier today and they love doing that kind of stuff with a single bass line and guitar freakouts and textures over top.

Yeah, have you heard Here She Comes Now, by the Velvet Underground?

I’m not super familiar with it,

Actually Nirvana covered it too, it’s just one riff and it’s great.

Yeah I love that kind of stuff, and I like what you guys did with it on a track like Country Killers.  There’s a couple riffs, one Niles Rodgers type thing and another chunkier type riff and they weave in and out of the arrangement really well.

Yeah, that’s our two guitarists, the first riff is our original lead guitarist, second one the British guy. It’s fun just providing a repetitive groove for those guys and just to let them go to town with coloring and texturing over the top.

Do you think that getting more comfortable doing that is a marker of your confidence as a songwriter or getting more comfortable playing with the band?

I think it’s a number of things. Our drummer’s really good and he can play almost anything if you just kind of give him a structure, and he gets the big picture of something. So that was one thing, we wanted to play to his strengths and kind of roll with it instead of trying to force him into conventional pop structures. That was one idea behind it. And, honestly because we play in New Orleans at these clubs, that’s always the stuff that people respond to. The stuff that’s danceable. So we became interested in trying to do our own version of it, because we found the kind of funk bands were getting cheesy. It’s everywhere, but a lot of it kind of makes me cringe. But I thought it was an interesting path forward to try and do our own version.  We want to do more of that at even higher tempos in the future, it’s something we’ve been playing around with.

So you guys have more stuff coming through the pipeline?

Yeah, we have a couple things rolling right now.  That’s been fun. We have a new band member, Anthony Cuccia, so he’s more in on the ground floor this time around. He played some percussion and keyboards on this record, like on Sandwich Islands. That song was going to have a totally different sound until he came in and was like “what if we did it with this sound” and that’s the way we went.

I’d love to see a quicker turnaround than the 4 years this time around.

I know, I know. So would I.

I got into you guys like right when Cracked Maps came out.

Oh yeah, have you listened to Chained to the Chariot?

Oh yeah, I actually re-listened to it this morning.  And going back to what your drummer brings, his work on that album is great.  He has these really complex patterns and great hi-hat work, and then when you guys need that funky back-beat he can bring that as well, it adds these different layers to the song

Yeah, he’s very much a percussive drummer. Polyrhythmic I guess you could say.

Absolutely.  So going back to being a band in New Orleans, and trying to get that danceable side of it, do you think being a part of that community and scene, working alongside the broader community, does that have a big influence on your sound?

Well it’s funny. I don’t think it influences me so much, but I think it like influences our drummer  and maybe a couple other guys in the band. One thing that’s pretty blatant, is that once in a while at the Mardi Gras/Jazz Fest gigs we’ll have these really great muscians sit in with us. Guys from jazz bands, like Marco Benevento and Mike Dillon, who’s amazing. So that’s different. Our drummer is pretty good at jamming actually, and the occasions where that happens it’s him leading it actually. So there’s instances where that happens, but stylistically it doesn’t have much impact on what I want to do.

That’s interesting.  Whenever I’ve written about you guys the thing that’s stood out is that, yeah it’s an indie rock band, but at the same time there’s this forceful back beat and great rhythm section.  You almost want to chalk it up to being in the scene with so many rhythm oriented bands.  It’s probably not fair to reduce it to that, but it’s the impression I’ve always had.

Yeah, well the crowds, we found when we play live it is the kind of songs that get people going. And as we said earlier, since we like playing out a lot, why not do our own take on that kind of stuff. Something with a danceable groove and pretty fast bpm, I guess. So, we do head more and more in that direction. In the earlier days I would just write the skeleton of the song on an acoustic guitar and plot it out. But we’re less inclined to do that now, and more inclined to build things from bass and drums. Which is fun, it’s different.

Absolutely, that’s definitely manifested itself in the growth from album to album.

I think so. Our band is so different from when it started, it’s not at all the same. It shouldn’t even be the same name, but we just never changed it.

Do you think there was a turning point in there, or was it gradual?

Well, me and Chris Columnbo, the guitar player, we’ve been playing together for 12 years, then when Zach the drummer and Jason the bass player jumped in 10 years ago, that’s when things changed a lot.

So was that for a specific album?

Well Chris and I made two albums. One is pretty cool in a ramshackle way, the other is just terrible, I can’t stand it. And then we made an EP that’s pretty cool. And after the EP Zach and Jason joined. It’s funny, I never wanted to play out, I just wanted to make one album. That was the whole goal of Rotary Downs. We recorded the first album in this great club called The Mermaid Lounge, and that was a much as I wanted to do with it.  But it just took it’s own twists and turns. We just kept working on new material and getting amped up on that. So you start talking about new material.

That’s one thing I wanted to talk about, it seems like you have the approach of, let’s just go out and make an album when you want to.  I’ve noticed you guys don’t really tour or play outside of New Orleans very much

Not much. Really, the pattern has been, we put out an album, trip to the West Coast, trip to the East coast. We always fly, then borrow gear. But we’ve never toured for mor than a week.

Why is that?

People just have other stuff going on. I’m more inclined to try and make new music and get your material together. I’d rather do that then spending all our time touring and playing the same setlist over and over again. So I’ve done it, but it’s just not the part of being in a band that I’m passionate about. Some bands love that lifestyle, always in a new town the next day. It’s a blast, but if I have to choose how to spend four energy, I’d rather create new material.

So is there, it seems like for most bands the non-stop touring cycle is kind of an economic reality.  Is that something you guys avoid with your other projects?

It is like that, but it’s harder and harder for bands to make money touring. And then, if they do, they don’t have time to write music. Alex was previously in a band that played the exact same set in the same order for two years of touring. And I thought to myself I would never want to do that.

As a fan, I think you can pick up on that sometimes.  It seems like the least (excuse the cliché) rock & roll way to do it. You wanna see someone go up there and give it their all and have fun with it.  You never want to see them going through the motions.

Yeah, I agree. I think there’s something to be said for….I went up to Coachella 10 years ago, and all these great bands that I like, Flaming Lips, The Cure, Pixies, Radiohead, and most of them had so much of their music pre-sequenced. It’s like they weren’t going to risk sucking at all. And it’s something I liked so much, rock bands that were up for having shitty shows. I thought that was cool. Whether it was the Stones or the Replacements, they could be so good or so bad, and there’s something great about that, not having a safety net. I understand why bands do it, for instance at Coachella it’s this huge opportunity and massive crowd, you can’t have anything go wrong.  Honestly, the best band I saw there was The Rapture.

Haven’t heard about them in a long time.

I know, but they were just going for it. And, not taking the safe route, I guess.

Compared to the other bands they probably had a lot more to prove too though.

Exactly. But I know what you mean, it’s always fun to see a little spontaneity. Those were always our funnest shows. When it’s like 2 in the morning and everyone’s nice and loose and you’re just kind of pulling things out of a hat. We were just talking about that the other night. The song Country Killers on the album, for a couple years it was just this jam we would pull it in the middle of the night, just to see where it would go.  And see if we could wind it down convincingly.

I love it when bands throw that kind of stuff in there.  It’s not something I really saw until I moved to a city with a strong local scene. With most of the bigger bands, they seem afraid to do that stuff.  But you get the small, local bands, told they have to play ‘till 2 AM so they have to start trying stuff, so when it works it’s great.

Oh I agree.  And when it doesn’t work, it’s worth a shot.

I agree, at least you got to go along for the ride.  Alright, so I wanted to ask about the lyrical side of it too.  I’ve been a big fan of how you work with your words.  There’s a great way of weaving disparate images and bits of dialogue that creates this surreal picture that builds to a larger theme.

I’m glad you get that, because some people think their cryptic or nonsense or something.  And I don’ tlike to correct people about it, but I don’t think it’s really that hard to get [laughs].  I’ve always liked stuff like that, like early R.E.M. and Captain Beefheart, Velvet Underground.

It makes the songs pretty quotable too.  There’s the line in one song where you sing “one said, ‘can I have more cheese and crackers’”, you can’t always follow what’s happening, but the way the dialogue slips into the lyrics is like there’s a movie happening with dialogue.

That’s supposed to be two generals looking over a war map and ordering more snacks.

I saw on your Facebook you’ve been doing explanations of your songs for Traces

Yeah, our PR company promoting the album asked for descriptions.  And initially I was pretty reluctant, but I figured what the hell, this is what they’re about.

I get the reticence of not wanting to spell it out, but on a track like Country Killers, it can sound like just a bunch of images happening, but when you hear the story behind it, it really takes shape.

Yeah, I try to get them to a point where I feel 100% about them. It’s definitely not random, but simultaneously, if I havce a line that sounds too direct or heavy handed, I’ll actually change it.

I struggle with that too. Is this too direct, will it sound like a pity party? How can I morph it into something interesting.

I also think about how the words sound, and how that matches with what the music is doing, I’ll think about, what is this the soundtrack of, if this was a movie. And push it in that direction.

It’s an interesting approach. I definitely get the feel of how the words sound in your lyrics.  I think it’s Incognito where you list start listing countries, and it just flows really well.

Yeah, I started in the last couple years I rediscovered the Clash big time. I guess as a kid I just never realized how brilliant the lyrics are. And they’re a good example of lyrics that feel like snippets of conversation, and they seem like they make them up on the spot, but if you really look into them they’re really smart and clever. I think asong like Incognito was very influenced by the Clash.

Any other writers or artist/albums you guys looked to for this album?

Let’s see. I guess maybe a bit David Bowie. Flowers in Bloom comes from 60’s fuzz and garage fuzz. Godzilla AKA, that started with a loop I did at home, that to me sounded like Panda Bear.  You’d never know it listening to the track, but just the way the main riffs bounce off each other, I was listening to Person Pitch a lot and, it’s like 9 degrees away from that but that’s how it started.  You just never know, when your influenced by something and the band takes it another way.

That’s something that I think comes through pretty well, thanks to that repetive structure, everyone gets to add their separate influences.

Yeah, there’s a lot of different tastes in the band too. And we try to stay out of each others way. In the past we would maybe over clutter things, cause there’s so many interlocking parts, this gives us a little more space.

So by staying out of each others way do you mean just letting someone else have their bit without any kind of fight against it.

Yeah, without any kind of other riff, or if anything make it so subtle

Do you guys have fights trying to bring those different tatstes together.

Not really, especially with Traces everyone was really patient. I think extraordinarily so. But we all want the songs to sound great, so no one’s going to take a stance just because. But if someone throws out a riff to start a jam, there’s always that moment where it’s a clusterfuck, everyone playing at once, and it’s kind of hellish.  I think every band does that really. You kind of have to tell people to settle down and strip it down.

Alright well, I’ve got to head out, great talking to you.

Yeah, it’s been good talking to you.

Jason Isbell at The National

southereastern_cover

Before a show I make a point to tell myself I won’t be writing about it, usually in a (sometimes vain) attempt to quiet the part of the brain that forms sentences instead of shutting up and experiencing things. It actually worked this time, but I felt compelled to write about seeing Jason Isbell at The National last Thursday anyways. In my best of 2013 post I classified last year’s Southeastern as an album I had yet to listen to much but suspected I would like it if I ever got around to it. To be honest, I had listened to it a few times, but always in a distracted state of mind, and that’s really no way to appreciate that record. It also helps that my appreciation of folk/country and singer-songwriter type material has increased in leaps in bounds lately (surely due in no small part to the numerous singer-songwriters I’ve befriended in recent years). After finally digging in, I found a richly crafted bunch of songs which expertly navigate the balance between imaginative story-telling and heart wrenching personal narrative.

Great songs find a way to make the specific sound universal, and that’s something Isbell handily accomplishes here. “Live Oak” might be my favorite example, starting evocatively with an a capella run through of the chorus, “There’s a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be/And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me”. The song is the story of a man running from his past, unsure if the love he’s found is predicated on the man who lived his previous lives. Running parallel to that interpretation is the knowledge that Southeastern is Isbell’s first record since becoming sober and getting married, and yet, even with two concrete interpretations, when he delivers that chorus there’s a universality to the currents of doubt and regret that underpin the song.

Then seeing it live, hearing a hundred or so extra voices join that chorus, there’s another layer added to the song, seeing the personal element reflected in the rest of the crowd, reflected back to the guy on stage with a guitar, singing at us. Which kind of gets to one of my favorite parts of the show, the countless minor unspoken communications between Isbell and his band and the crowd.  After any particularly gregarious bout of cheering, we would be met with a silently mouthed “thank you”. Guitar solos were interspersed with a quick glance to the crowd, eyes seemingly closed, then a glance to the rhythm section to make sure they were still having fun (they were) then down to the guitar to unleash so more theatrics (and let me just note my appreciation that not only is Isbell that rare singer-songwriter with lead guitar chops, his playing is also imaginative and uniquely him; see: that “Danko/Manuel” slide solo, damn). There was also the mid-verse, in between line look away from the microphone with a squinched face that seemed to say “ooohh, that’s a good line I wrote!”.

But far and away my favorite moment of the show came early on, during a rendition of the Drive-By Truckers showstopper, “Decoration Day”. Once the lyrics ended the band seemed to be letting the song come to a close, a final power chord drifting into the rafters as the cymbal crashing crescendo fizzled into a careful splash. Isbell, who had drifted to the drum riser, with his back to the audience turned to look over his shoulder and, though maybe not intentionally, gave a look to the crowd.  Anyone familiar with the song knew what was going to happen next; huge drum fill, screaming guitars, all hell breaking loose into a twin-guitar carnage coda.  I’m sure there were more than a few people in the audience who weren’t prepared for it though, and Isbell’s look was almost like a wink to all those in the know: “yes, shit is indeed about to happen, and those people have no idea”.

Which of course it did, as his lead guitarist broke into a  rather devastating solo.  Which I expected, and even though I admit I probably imagined all this and really he was just stretching a crick in his neck, it still made the whole spectacle that much more satisfying knowing (or imagining) that kind of communication can happen in a room so large.  Great performers know how to simultaneously make you feel like you’re having an individual conversation with them while being a part of a larger whole, experiencing something together, and that’s exactly what Jason Isbell brought that night.