Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Karl Blau's Nature's Got Away

If indie rock was baseball, Karl Blau would be the best journeyman utility player around - the Jamey Carroll of the underground. Blau hustles, turning out several albums a year to subscribers of Kelp Lunacy, his audio zine. With infectious zeal, he incorporates increasingly disparate influences into his music, the way Carroll might do time at every infield position, and act as your emergency third catcher, with a smile. He's not flashy, and will never be a superstar, but once in a while he'll get the big hit.

On Blau's new album, Nature's Got Away, that hit for me is "Two Becomes One", a slow-building masterpiece of tension and release. Channeling Lambchop's Kurt Wagner, Blau lulls you with clipped, wry asides, carefully carries you away on narcotic guitar lines to make Dean Wareham proud, and when he closes things with the line "all the hardships fade away", you're not sure whether to feel comforted or bereft. Without question, one of the best songs I've heard this year.

Elsewhere, on "Ghostly Appearance", Blau turns out bent garage psych straight out of a bizarro-world Nuggets. "Mockingbird Diet", which K is making available for download, is a good example of why Blau has been getting Bill Callahan comparisons. Beyond the similar dry baritone, he manages to mash up the prickly lofi tension of Julius Caesar-era arrangements with the more relaxed, organic sentiments of Callahan's last two records.

Stream the whole wonderful album here. It's available September 23rd on K.

MP3: Karl Blau - Mockingbird Diet

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Come Back to the Five & Dime, Joel R.L. Phelps

Where has Joel R.L. Phelps gone? His music, with Silkworm and especially the solo albums recorded with the Downer Trio, has always carried a remarkable, almost offhand intensity. It's a bit baffling how Phelps has not managed to maintain a following and profile along the lines of, say, Mark Eitzel or Vic Chesnutt, because he's every bit as talented and singular. Nowhere is this more apparent than what is sadly his most obscure release, the Inland Empires EP, a mostly-covers affair from 1999.

Phelps delivers stunning, simple versions of songs by Townes Van Zandt, Fleetwood Mac, Iris Dement, and Steve Earle, as well as a driving cover of the Go-Betweens' "Apology Accepted". His original, "Now You Are Found", has been celebrated by practically everyone who's written a word about this EP; the lone reviewer on the EP's Amazon UK page does a creditable job:
'Now That You Are Found' is a eulogy to his sister who died in 1999. Phelps leads the listener through various points in their relationship from childhood to the point of her death; finally he captures the emotions he experiences after her death. "And I'm stuck here now with the living, with my mother and my Dad, I remember about the past and it's meaning and what we might have had." At points it sounds as if he's going to breakdown, and the emotion in the song almost brought this listener to tears. The track does not trivialize death, rather it expresses issues and feelings in a painfully honest way not often dealt with in contemporary music. One can only hope that it acts as some form of catharsis for Phelps himself. This may all sound thoroughly downbeat and best avoided, but there's joy to be found in these songs. Thumbnail sketches of everyday life, each one a tiny epiphany.
Honestly, that Amazon UK page might be the only place on earth one can order the EP. There's not even a page for it on Amazon US or Insound, nothing on eMusic or iTunes. Its UK label, 12XU - which I believe was founded explicitly to release this record! - will only sell it to non-US addresses. Fortunately, the label does make a few downloads available.

Joel last surfaced in late 2006 to open a benefit show in Seattle. His web page has since disappeared. Come back, wherever you are.

MP3: Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - Apology Accepted
MP3: Joel R.L. Phelps and the Downer Trio - Now You Are Found

Friday, July 25, 2008

Motel Blues

Loudon Wainwright has gotten a burst of late-career exposure through the good graces of the Judd Apatow comedy juggernaut, culminating in the soundtrack to Knocked Up (whose best song is written by Peter Blegvaad, of all people). Now Wainwright is going the rerecord route with the Joe Henry-produced Recovery, which will feature new versions of some of his earliest songs. The first 250 pre-orders at the Yep Roc store get their copy autographed. Tracklist:

Black Uncle Remus
Saw Your Name In The Paper
School Days
The Drinking Song
Motel Blues
Muse Blues
New Paint
Be Careful There's A Baby In The House
Needless To Say
Movie Are A Mother To Me
Say That You Love Me
Old Friend
Man Who Couldn't Cry

The ones that stick out to me are "Motel Blues" and "The Man Who Couldn't Cry", since I first heard them as covers, by Alex Chilton and Johnny Cash, respectively. Chilton's version, from the Big Star Live album, is especially effective, telegraphing the direction things would go in Third/Sister Lovers and making twentysomething world-weariness not only bearable but almost unbearably stark and sad.

Here's Loudon performing it recently:

For the download-inclined, here's a pretty good version from the Live Music Archive, performed by Reed Foehl.

MP3: Reed Foehl - Motel Blues (Loudon Wainwright III)

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Liz Durrett looked for your bones in the woods

Eric Bachmann, well established as a singer-songwriter in indie circles, should be getting more calls to produce and arrange. He does wonders with the work of Liz Durrett, whose alluring voice and sturdy songwriting has gotten a bit lost amid similar post-Cat Power sadcore female folkies like Alela Diane and Jana Hunter. Durrett's work is a bit less freaky and desolate than those two, and her ability to hit familiar buttons while barely skirting MOR convention is a nice trick, even transporting on songs like "We Build Bridges".

The orchestration on Durrett's new Outside Our Gates (due 9/9 on original Crooked Fingers home WARM) always plays to the songs' strengths, drawing out groove and lament from lyrical stanzas that are built to last. On lead-download "Wild as Them", the folk-song-standard, AABA lines are enervated by bursts of horns that never rise too much in the mix. Durrett's perhaps best known for being Vic Chesnutt's niece, but it might be the Bachmann connection that ends up being the real coup.

MP3: Liz Durrett - Wild as Them
MP3: Liz Durrett - All of Them All

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mother's Milk: Who Loves Ron Paul?

During my exile, when I wasn't in crisis over the death of the maxi-single and liner note shout-outs, I often found solace in the mostimportantelectionofourlifetimes, campaigning for Mr. November and refreshing a few thousand times on certain early mornings.

Now that the thrill of watching demographic groups fight it out has died down a little, it's as good a time as any to have some fun with the Huffington Post's Fundrace database and see which music industry folks of note have ponied up for the various campaigns this cycle. The list is long and includes everyone from Herb Alpert to Jimmy Thackery, Jon Bon Jovi to that guy from Fall Out Boy. There's even the iff Obama dream team:

Awesome musician/donation to Obama
Phil Spector: $3422
Conor Oberst: $2300
Kim Gordon: $1750
Joe Henry: $500
Joanna Newsom: $279
Bruce Kaphan (ex-American Music Club): $250
John Prine: $250
Elvis Perkins $250
Britta Phillips: $250
Then you have the ambiguous entries...musician J.W. Oldham from Louisville? Where is Bonnie Billy living these days? Or the make out/fake out of Mr. Matthew Kahane...

The database also lets you search by other occupations, so you can find out where the welders of America stand this election season. Get to it.

Heading out tonight with a copy of the new Liz Durrett to absorb. More on that soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this lovely, hypnotic cover of Cat Stevens' "How Can I Tell You".

Mp3: Liz Durrett - How Can I Tell You (Cat Stevens)

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A boatload of free songs from Hush

I have two Hush t-shirts, the simple "cross" logo and the hush-bulance special, which are well-worn with pride. Back when small labels were harder to pull off, the Hush folks persevered, from humble CD-R beginnings to the beloved Portland institution they are today. Pure indie folk integrity, folks, now made available in a bulk buffet of free and (mostly) previously-unreleased goodies to celebrate their hard-earned 10th anniversary. Check Hush Records on Tuesday, July 15th for the feast, DECA: A HUSH 10th Anniversary Compilation.

Here's the tracklist (brilliant, but where's Mr. Barnett? Kind of like curious omission...); listen now to the incomparable "Broke Down" from Amy Annelle, originally on the must-have School of Secret Dangers album.

mp3: Amy Annelle - Broke Down


"Hollow Notes" - Novi Split
"Refining" - Peter Broderick
"Come By Storm" - Laura Gibson
"The Afterlife Pt. I" - Run On Sentence
"Winding Sheet" - Nick Jaina
"Coo Coo Bird" - Shelley Short
"Hiding Home" - Norfolk & Western
"Spring Bird" - Rauelsson
"Space And All Dead Things" - Corrina Repp
"Elephants & Little Girls" - Loch Lomond
"Sharra" - Kaitlyn Ni Donovan
"Wii Oui" - Podington Bear
"Broke Down" - Amy Annelle
"The Wagoner's Lad" - Colin Meloy


"Song # 4" - Fun With Friends
"Petting Zoo" - Graves
"Your Smile" - Fancie
"Ridin' For A Fall" (Young Dub) - Bobby Birdman
"These Blues" - Super XX Man
"Egg Hunt" - Reclinerland
"Asleep At The Wheel" - Casey Dienel
"The Bane Of Progress" - Jeff London
"Flight Cub" - Velella Velella
"Oh Darlin" - Blanket Music
"Big Eye City" - Operacycle
"Elysian Fields (We're Dead, We're Dead)" - Parks & Recreation
"Humm-na" - Dat'r
"Sleep At Last!" (Live) - Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ron Sexsmith fades into you

Ron Sexsmith albums used to be mini-events, and I still remember driving back from Baltimore after snagging a pre-release copy of Cobblestone Runway at the venerable Soundgarden, letting "Former Glory" flow over me. It's a certain kind of genius that can turn such simple lyrics, so many cliches, into songs that so wholly comfort and envelop you, take you inside Ron's little world, where the ghost of Tim Hardin is drug-free and Canadian and everything will be just as you remember, things won't be as bad as they seem. This wonder reaches what must be its logical conclusion on Cobblestone's "God Loves Everyone", a seemingly surefire clunker taken way beyond listenable in Ron's wistful, knowing hands. My relationship with the Sexsmith catalog has been gradually fraying ever since, with subsequent albums getting less and less spins before being relegated to the shelf, but the new Exit Strategy for the Soul is sadly the sign of a whole new stage.

The super voice is still there, of course, but the alchemy falls apart without just the right phrasing, and tune after tune on Soul seems to expose the seams with labored line readings. And the lack of a killer tune is only underlined by muted, dinner-party arrangements. In short, nothing really works for me, and some even rankles, in the way of especially inoffensive music looped at Starbucks or a particularly tame afternoon block on a genteel non-com AAA.

That said, the disc came with a download code redeemable for a "Here Comes My Baby" cover that is pretty nice. Ron, I love you, but you're bringing me down.

MP3: Ron Sexsmith - Brandy Alexander