Mediterranean Sundance

I just read that Paco de Lucia has left us for the next world. He was likely the best flamenco player of our time. As a fan of his work and without any knowledge of the man himself, there isn’t much I could or should say in his honor, but to reflect on and share the brilliant, awe-inspiring music that he left in his wake. This tune is, perhaps, the one of his that I love the most.

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Robert Ellis

My favorite songwriters, storytellers, and artists all around are truth-seekers. Their stories and characters study what it means to be human and alive. To live in a certain time, a certain place, with a certain host of conditions. The “magic” moments that happen in music for me are the times at which this whole, open, and pure line of communication between the storyteller and the listener exists. “Yes–I’ve had that experience, too–in my own way,” or, “I understand in some small way what it is to be you.” The greatest songs and stories tap into our deepest senses of empathy and our ability to relate to the world around us. If this is the golden standard, one of the youngest and best around is Houston-based Robert Ellis. I’ve been listening to his most recent album, “The Lights From The Chemical Plant,” and the album released prior to that, “Photographs” a lot over the past two weeks. Listen to a song from each album below. Albums can be purchased in a variety of formats from Ellis’s website.

 

It’s also worth mentioning that Ellis is producing Austin band The Whiskey Shivers’ new album set to be released later this Spring. I’m really excited to see what comes of that.

Holland, 1945 to Austin, 2014

Along with Radiohead’s “The Bends ” & “OK Computer”, Fiona Apple’s “Tidal”, and Ben Folds Five’s “Whatever and Ever Amen”, one of the definitive contemporary albums of my high school years was Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea.” And I certainly wasn’t alone. Those albums made big impacts on kids my age all over the country at the time. It’s interesting to look back, in retrospect, what happened to each of those bands over the following decade and a half. Radiohead remained the giant that I always knew they were–but the rest of the world caught on in droves. Ben Folds Five broke up, but they all continued to make music in a less public manner. Ben still toured solo. Fiona Apple took a hearty hiatus here and there, which didn’t surprise anyone. We were happy when she chose to release new material and return to stages and everyone accepted that it was on her terms and no one else’s. But Neutral Milk Hotel. No one knew anything about anything. These guys dropped a couple of anthemic albums that became the soundtrack to so many of our young lives and then we never heard from them again. I don’t even recall them touring back in the late 90s when “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” came out. They disappeared…after hardly ever appearing to begin with…and somehow, every loner, alternative kid in the country knew every word to every song on that album. I suspect that very few people know the real and likely very complicated reasons that Jeff Mangum didn’t perform or release music for the past fifteen years–and it doesn’t really matter.

What matters now is that he’s chosen to return and to share the music of our formative years with us and a whole new generation of concert-goers. Austin was lucky to score two dates on what I believe is NMH’s first tour of this century (someone please fact-check me on that) this past Monday & Tuesday. Tickets to both dates sold out as quickly as they went on sale this past Fall. Thanks to Audrey’s lightning-quick ticket-buying trigger finger, all 3 of The Succulents attended the reunion. Between Mangum’s steady, unapologetic vocals (just like we all remembered,) the outright brass section and bag of tricks (including a melophone, electric sax, and metal saw & bow,) and the contagious enthusiasm on the stage rivaling that of the audience, it made for as memorable an experience as one would’ve hoped. The most powerful scene last night at ACL’s Moody Theatre: a sold-out room unified in song, hundreds of voices singing the songs we’ve all been waiting fifteen years to sing out loud. Together. It was a pretty special thing. I could hear Pete Seeger; “Participation–that’s what’s going to save the human race.”

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Photo by Transmission Events

Mangum has self-released a box set of his work available for purchase here.

Anything Made of Paper

A couple of weeks ago, my sweet and very talented friend Matt Munhall drove all the way down to Austin, Texas from Columbus, Ohio to play in a very special line-up of musicians in a benefit show for another local musician, Matt McCormack. McCormack tragically lost just about everything he owned in the Onion Creek floods this past Fall. I went out to support both my friend and his friend for whom the benefit was organized, but ended up getting more than my money’s worth out of the show. The night featured some of Austin’s finest (if not well-known outside of city limits) songwriters including Kacy Crowley, Philip Gibbs, and much to my happy surprise, one of my local favorites, Ms. Rosie Flores joining local legend Alejandro Escovedo onstage (as pictured below.)

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But my absolute favorite discovery of the evening may have earned himself a spot as my favorite new songwriter. Halfway through the night, my friend Matt had already played and after very kindly buying me a beer, had wandered off somewhere. I found myself fairly packed into the small (100 capacity?) back room of Strange Brew, contentedly sipping on my ale, watching two guys who looked to be in their 50s picking away at two acoustic guitars. Then the one in bug-eyed glasses, skull cap, big rings, and tattoos peeking out from his sleeves began to sing. Line by line, note by note, these guys completely won me over. Man, it was catchy. And sincere. And perfectly crafted. Really, some of the best songwriting I’ve ever heard. “Matt, you’re missing it!” I don’t think I texted quickly enough for him to make it back in before the end of the song, but we both looked the guy up when we got home. Bill Carter. Man, how have  I not come across this guy before now? “Anything Made of Paper” was the song that put me over the edge that night–just beautiful. I bought his recent album a day later and am floored. 14 songs–each of which any musician could be considered a great success if they managed to write one as good in their lifetime. The audacity of putting 14 songs this good on a single album! The whole of it is better than anything Springteen has released. It rivals some of the greats–the household names. A friend of mine who apparently used to be in a car club in Houston with Bill a long time ago informed me that he used to write for the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and many others–happy, it seems, to be a creator behind the scenes and otherwise Unknown (the apt title of his recent record.) And that’s it. That’s the life. Sounds pretty perfect to me. So thanks, Mr. Carter, for setting the bar. Now, to work my way there…

Buy “Unknown” by Bill Carter on iTunes or ($1 cheaper) on Amazon.

Something About What Happens When We Talk

Life isn’t fair. It’s a long, long, disgusting way from anything resembling fairness. In a fair world, she would be revered as just as great a songwriter as her far more successful (commercially speaking) male colleagues. She’d have been born strong as an ox, birth defect-free. Another famous male songwriter for whom she once opened wouldn’t have called her “just another p***y with a guitar.” Her first album would’ve been a big hit. 30 years ago, A&R reps would’ve been bare-knuckle boxing each other just to take her out to dinner. But that’s not Lucinda Williams’s story. But maybe in a fair world, we wouldn’t have been blessed with the all of the precious blood and dust in “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” twenty years later (in 1998.) When the deluxe edition came out, her live recording of “Something About What Happens When We Talk” from KEXP’s World Cafe show immediately commanded every bit of my attention and struck all kinds of nerves in me in a way that only the truest songs can. It gets me every time. Every single time. Write a song that can pull good honest tears from my eyes and you’ll have my respect from here to the next galaxy.

 

Get the deluxe edition of “Car Wheels On A Gravel Road” on Amazon.

Shoot You Down

In 1989 on the tails of everything loud, boisterous, and over the top in popular music, The Stone Roses released their self-titled album. Their lyrics were as blunt and confrontational as anything else of the time, but wrapped in the cool subtlety of understated vocals and reverb-washed guitar and drums. Less dramatic than The Smiths, less to prove than the grunge and metal bands of the late 80s but still maintaining a good bit of grit, and sparing us the sentimental cheese of some of the pop acts around (Roxette comes to mind,) the Stone Roses were shoe-gazey before the term existed. They were pioneers of style, in a way. They laid the tracks for bands like My Bloody Valentine and Lower Dens more than a decade later. Along with the likes of The Replacements’ “Tim” and Big Star’s “#1 Record/Radio City”, “The Stone Roses” is one of those timelessly solid albums that I find myself revisiting from time to time. Still hasn’t gotten old. THAT is success.

“Shoot You Down” happens to be my favorite on the album, but the whole record is great.

Get the digital copy on Amazon, or if you can find it, this one is worth having on wax.

As Long As I Live

Being that it’s Valentine’s Day, I’m a little torn as to what to post. Do I go against all of my convictions and indulge in the wishy-washy nonsense of the only holiday that actually works against itself? I mean, really. Doesn’t the notion of having a day dedicated to love and affection downplay and discount the importance of love and affection enduring through the rest of the year? Do I post some angry, thrashy, sardonic shit in protest? It’s a conundrum. So here’s the thing: as much as I balk at the idea of Valentine’s Day, it does present an opportunity to select from the endless canons of brilliant love songs that have been written throughout time. Given that it’s one of the most intense and universal human emotions, love has arguably had a larger influence on art and music than any other subject. It also gives me an opportunity to shine a light on one of the great American composers whose name is scarcely known outside of the music community.

One of my favorite love songs of all time is a tune called “As Long As I Live” written by Harold Arlen. If you’re not familiar with Harold Arlen, go ahead and click on his name and read his Wikipedia page. You’ve heard his music before. And I bet, for almost all of you–even if you claim not to be good singers–that you have even sung his songs at one point or another. Arlen wrote all the music to The Wizard of Oz (c’mon, I know you’ve belted out “Over The Rainbow” at least once,) the music to “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”, “Stormy Weather” and a whole bunch more that most Americans over the age of 10 have heard in their life at some point.  While Arlen’s songs are considered ‘standards’ and have thus been covered thousands of times, my favorite recording of “As Long As I Live” was sung by Lena Horne. Such a colorful voice. Lena could be brassy, coy, subtle, and sincere all at the same time–which is exactly what this song calls for.

 

That was beautiful. And now, the protester in me feels the need to put all this V-Day sappiness back into check. The most fitting song that comes to mind is actually a song that I wrote. I wrote it mostly as a joke on Valentine’s Day last year, but it turns out, it’s kind of caught on with my bandmates and friends. Now we get fairly frequent requests to play it. Since we’re still in the process of recording it (we’ll be re-tracking keys and possibly laying down a horn part this Sunday), I’ll just share the lyrics for now.

Nobody Wins on Valentine’s Day

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day  

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

I got a job in a cheap motel

Nobody’s happy far as I can tell

All these people pass through my door

From what I gather they always want more

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

Roses, candy hearts  

Love on a dollar bill 

In God we trust 

But what we really love is lust 

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

Single folks remember they’re all alone

Wives talk to husbands in a pissed off tone

Why should love be only once a year?

On a holiday filled with chocolate tears

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

Cards and fancy dinners 

If that’s what you do 

Remind us that the rest of the year 

It’s just boring me and you 

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day 

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day 

Couples checking in and singles checking out

Making money is what it’s all about

Love is fleeting just like holidays

Tomorrow we’ll be back to our old ways

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

Nobody wins on Valentine’s Day

How It Feels To Be Free

Nina Simone’s music has always had a big impact on me. She had aspirations to become a classical pianist but was denied entry to the prestigious school she had hoped would lead her to her dream–an act of blatant racism and sexism. But a soul like Nina’s could not be squashed by the ignorance of the times. She went into more popular music, performing, and singing…to bide her time. It was a fallback. A plan B. How lucky for us. She had everything it took to become a brilliant classical pianist, but she would not have had the wide and lasting impact that she had if her intended path had worked out as she’d planned. And the anger that came through when she struck the keys, the desperation and hopefulness in the growl of her voice, the clear and direct hit of the lyrics she sang would also not have been so potent or stayed with us as they have if the rest of her life had turned out like she’d planned. Have not pity or remorse, but only gratitude and recognition that she suffered and turned her pain into goodness that might heal each of us a little.

It’s February again; black history month. Reminding us that persecution and oppression will exist as long as humanity does; That education, empathy, participation, and perseverance are our weapons; That art, music, and expression have the power to free our souls. From the ends of whips to the covers of magazines to pocketbooks too thin to buy respect, no one can pull all of those things out from within a single song like the great Nina Simone could. “Then I’d sing because I’d know…”

Welcome; It’s True

Yes, the rumors you didn’t hear are true: I’ve started a blog. While years pass, the lines on the backs of my hands grow more prominent, people enter and exit from my life, and the noises I make when moving from a sitting to standing position become increasingly difficult to hide,  music continues to be my muse, my outlet, my voice, my therapy, my inspiration to keep going. That love never wavers. I take special solace and pleasure in sharing it with others. My closest friends and family are well acquainted with this and will indulge me: both with recommendations of what I might enjoy and with requests for new sources, new loves, new reasons to keep going. It’s been a few years since I’ve actively worked for a music journalism publication, but I’d like to keep the spirit of all that alive; to share the many voices and creations that  help us understand and enjoy the strange little existences we occupy. So here is a place to which you may return to find a new love every so often, or be reminded of an old one.

Cheers, Erin

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