Watter – a Louisville post-rock band that’s high in promise due to its parentage, if nothing else – simply fails to deliver on the oft-disjointed but occasionally ambitious History of the Future, its sophomore full-length, out today on Temporary Residence.
It’s not that there are not great moments on the record. It’s just that their Pell-Mell-playing-the-Tron-score sound – or King’s Daughters & Sons by way of Tangerine Dream sound, if you prefer – doesn’t ever fully click.
So, there’s a lot of this and that. There’s electronica-driven alt-rock (“Telos,” “Sacrificial Leaf”), a shade or two of synth balladry (“The Cloud Sanctuary”) and even occasional Eleven Eleven worship filtered through pseudo-industrial grooves (“Shadow Chase”). The record’s title track, starring once-member/now-guest Britt Walford of Slint, is excellent – listen to those horns snake around the kick drum – but it’s just too little, too late. Even with the inimitable Rachel Grimes on piano (the beautific closing track, “Final Sunrise”), the duo at the over-produced core (they of Grails parentage) feels like it’s reaching in too many directions at once. And it never commits to a single vision fully enough to pull off more than a passing glance.
For the right set of ears, this could be pretty engaging stuff. Those who tire of the organic tensions and mounting heat of post-rock at its most guitar-driven might find something interesting to Watter’s electronics- and synth-assisted brand of post-something. Sure, sure. And there is no doubting that tracks like “Final Sunrise,” with its knots of acoustic guitar, or “Depth Charge,” with its sly metal-lick lurch, are worth noting. It’s just that, History of the Future seems less like a cohesive record than a collection of disjointed moments. By the time you get to the Spaghetti Western R&B of “Liquid of Life,” with its awkward sampling, you’ll wonder what these guys haven’t thrown at the canvas.
The group’s 2014 debut, This World, was not an incredible record – it sometimes fell on the wrong side of New Age sentimentalism – but it was a good one and it was consistent. On History of the Future, left to their own devices in their own rustic Kentucky studio, Watter proves wobbly and, even though there are flashes of inspiration, it ultimately doesn’t rise above a crest of mediocre.
We last chatted with Dan Zanes back in 2012 when the Del Fuegos got back together for a new EP and brief reunion tour. After he got that out of his system, Dan went right back to making music for families. His latest is a tribute to Lead Belly, Lead Belly, Baby!,on Smithsonian Folkways.TheDan Zanes & Friends tribute is certainly heavy on the “and friends” aspect: Chuck D, Billy Bragg, Valerie June, Aloe Blacc, and countless others contributed to the record. Mr. Zanes was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some of our questions on his latest labor of love.
Why Lead Belly and why now?
Lead Belly’s always been there. I didn’t make this record until now, but Lead Belly’s been the template for everything I’ve done since my first all-ages CD, Rocket Ship Beach. When I made that in 1999 I was trying to create the updated version of the Folkways records I grew up with, and that was, for the most part, Lead Belly. Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, of course, but mostly Lead Belly. For me he was the most mysterious and the most inspiring.
Did you have any thoughts to do this record solo, just you and a guitar?
No. I like collaborating. And besides, a white dude from New Hampshire singing and playing Lead Belly’s music solo would have only one effect: increased sales of the original! The collective approach allowed us a chance to reimagine his music and think about what he would be digging if he were alive today. He would be interested in percussion, certainly, and, without a doubt, MCs. If I made this by myself it would highlight my limitations as a guitar player.
How challenging was it to create these songs with so many different guest artists?
The challenge is when I’m alone. I think too much. The joy comes from the collaborations. It’s effortless when my friends and I get together. The people on this record are such spirited musicians and singers that the music reveals itself. I don’t have to do much except press the “record” button (and make sure we have proper snacks).
Out of all the songs in Lead Belly’s entire catalog, what was the most difficult song to recreate?
I didn’t pick any that would be difficult! I chose the ones I love the most, and once the vision for the CD became clear everything fell into place. Like most of the Dan Zanes & Friends CDs I made it in my basement so I could walk upstairs and eat plantain chips if things weren’t revealing themselves in a freewheeling way.
After two decades as a pioneer of kindie music, what excites you the most about the genre?
The “sensory friendly” movement. It’s early days, but it’s happening. My fiancee, Claudia Eliaza, and I perform together, and we present all of our shows as sensory friendly. We were commissioned by the Kennedy Center early this year to develop a sensory-friendly folk opera for young audiences. Night Train 57 premiered earlier this month, and it’s having a ripple effect. The only reason all family-music performers aren’t asking venues that their shows be sensory friendly is because they don’t know enough about what it is! Once Claudia and I realized that sensory-friendly performances opened the doors wider and allowed for more people to comfortably enjoy our music, why wouldn’t we want to continue in that style? It’s all about inclusion and acknowledging that not everyone reacts to music and social experiences the same way. It’s about inviting as many people as possible to the party. Social change is the goal — music is the way we get there.
Lead Belly, Baby! is available to purchase directly from the Smithsonian Folkways website. I would highly suggest buying a physical copy, as the liner notes are worth the price alone.
Lead Belly, Baby! Track Listing
1. More Yet (feat. Shareef Swindell)
2. Rock Island Line (feat. Billy Bragg)
3. Ha-Ha This-a-Way (feat. Tamar Kali)
4. Julie Ann Johnson (feat. Jendog Lonewolf)
5. Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie (feat. Madame Marie Jean Laurent and Ceddyjay)
6. Polly Wee (feat. Father Goose and Little Goose)
7. Boll Weevil (feat. Aloe Blacc and Pauline Jean)
8. New York City (feat. Claudia Eliaza)
9. Skip to My Lou (feat. Chuck D and Memphis Jelks)
10. Take This Hammer (feat. Valerie June)
11. Cotton Fields (feat. Sonia de los Santos, Elena Moon Park, and José Joaquin Garcia)
12. Red Bird (feat. Ashley Phillips)
13. Whoa Back Buck (feat. Donald Saaf with Isak & Ole)
14. Stewball (feat. Marley Reedy)
15. Relax Your Mind (feat. Neha Jiwrajka)
But let me tell you something The sisters are not going for that no more ‘Cause we realize two things That you aren’t doing anything for us We can better do by ourselves So from now on, we gonna use What we got to get what we want So, you’d better think, think Now’s the time when we have That’s the thing I never will forget
When I heard the latest news about the unfolding Harvey Weinstein scandal the lyrics to this song came to mind. So I thought it would be an appropriate time to feature this funky record from 1972.
Gloria Laverne Collins was born in Texas in 1948. She began her singing career in her teens with the Charles Pike Singer and recorded her first single, “Unlucky in Love,” at the age of 14. Her break came when, after seeing James Brown perform, she decided to send her demo tape to him. Brown heard something he liked and asked Collins to join the James Brown Revue.
It wasn’t quite that easy though, and Collins had to spend a couple of years on the bench before being called into the Revue. While she waiting, Brown took her into the studio and she recorded five songs. Two of them, “Wheels of Life” and “Just Won’t Do Right,” were released as a single on Brown’s People Records label. Shortly thereafter she was handed the lead singing spot in the Revue where Brown dubbed her the “Female Preacher” in deference to her gospel-based singing style.
Despite the fact that Brown was not particularly well known as an enlightened male, he wrote and produced “Think” for Collins, and his J.B.’s provided the backing track. With its spare drumbeat and sometimes random background vocal interjections, it’s easy to imagine that the entire track was recorded live in the studio with little or no overdubbing. However it was recorded, it worked out well, with the record reaching to the Top 10 in 1972.
“Think (About It)” became the title track for Collins’ first album, released by Polydor, which included four other Brown-written songs. But first and foremost, Collins was a salaried member of the James Brown Revue and as such saw very little of the profits from her hit record. She contributed songs to blaxploitation films like Black Caesar, and Slaughter’s Big Rip Off, and there was a much-loved duet with Brown called “What My Baby Needs Now is a Little More Loving.”
Collins recorded one more album for Polydor before leaving the Revue in 1976. She moved to L.A. and got a clerical job at the Record Plant recording studio. She didn’t stop singing though, providing background vocals for artists like Dionne Warwick, Al Green, and Rod Stewart.
Funk had a comeback in the mid-’80s and Collins decided to try to be a part of it. She released a new dance single called “Shout,” and her two Polydor albums were reissued, bringing her to the attention of a new generation of listeners. Even more attention was paid when Rob Base & DJ Ezy-Rock sampled her “Think” vocal for their 1989 smash “It Takes Two.”
Fame arrived again for Collins in 1998 when Polydor released an album called James Brown’s Funky Divas which included 11 Collins songs. In 2005 she toured Europe where she was treated like a star by audiences. Sadly, Collins suffered a seizure brought on by choking on a piece of food. She died on March 13, 2005, at the age of 56.
Yes, “Think (About It)” was a hit in 1972 but the record became even more popular in later years for the samples it spawned. In fact, it became one of the most heavily sampled of all of Brown’s records, and that’s saying something. In addition to Rob Base & DJ Ezy-Rock, those who used one of the record’s five breaks on their own records included Roxanne Shante, De La Soul, Kid Rock, Janet Jackson, Snoop Dogg, TLC, and Fergie. The feminist anthem disguised as a funk record lives on in all of these recordings.
Goddamn, this is just so good. Period. Never mind who the members of this band are – well, okay, you should know; you need to know. Actor/raconteur Bill Mumy (yes, he of “Lost In Space”, Barnes & Barnes and “you’re a bad man and I’m going to wish you into the cornfield” fame); Vicki Peterson (of The Bangles) and John Cowsill (yes, he of the beloved family band and Ms. Peterson’s husband) and the late Rick Rosas, who was a highly-sought firepower bass player (working with the likes of Neil Young, Joe Walsh and other greats) make up this fine combo known as Action Skulls, born of a moment playing together at a party. And that one instance begat this dynamite, eleven song collection, Angels Hear. Mr. Rosas sadly passed away in late 2014 and the songs already in the can lingered until recently when the album was finished with new material and here it is. And what an album. Seriously.
The quasi-psychedelic power-pop of “Mainstream” could easily have been in league with the Paisley Underground, but has an uptempo abandon that pushes it a little harder and is an instantly impressive way to open the album; And from this track onward, you get majestic harmonies throughout, so if you’re into heavenly vocals, there’s plenty for you to smile about. The “Hand Jive” beat that carries “In The Future” kicks in a joyful, tap-your-foot way – how can it not, with its positive vibe? “The Luckiest Man Alive” is crisp, riff-filled with some wonderfully obtuse arrangements on the bridges that work in the overall straightforward pop structure; “Feed My Hungry Heart” is a (restrained) rockabilly masterpiece with everyone taking turns on lead vocals and is definitely one of the album’s highlights and “Standing On The Mountain” is tight, taut and bounces along with lots of 7th chords, which I love.
It’s all the best elements of rock & roll, power pop, California radio gold and everything in one package. You have to have the right chemistry and clearly, the members of Action Skulls have that – along with the mastery of songwriting. So do yourself a favor – go out and seek this record. It’s easily one of this year’s best and that’s no stretch of the truth. You’ll know what I’m talking about the moment you put it on your stereo.
The sounds coming out of the new release from Phoenix-based The Oxford Coma aren’t exactly those you would hope to buoy you up if you’re having a bad day. If anything, it may send you into a darker headspace. This fourteen-track aural assault was recorded and mixed by the master of abrasion, Steve Albini and it reminds me in places of bands like Kyuss, Tool and Mudvayne (although I rather liked Kyuss and, of course, Queens Of The Stone Age). It’s an album sculpted around frustration, anger, addiction and grief – not exactly sunny pop but if it does do one thing, it makes you think.
I will say the sound of this album is phenomenal – listen to those guitars: heavy but crisp and clean; the rhythm section is explosive. But the tunelessness is what makes this difficult to digest and enjoy. And the vocals leave me empty and cold. And I give full marks for some of the song titles: “Trauma (Maybe I’m Forgetting Something)”, “Inflatable Patriots (Touching People In Their Sleep)” and “Everything Is Out Of Tune (My Only Victories Are Others’ Failures)” – very clever wordplay. But on a track, say, like “Trauma”, it’s all over the place – is it a straight rock track or is it nu-metal or grunge or it is hallucinatory-rock? With too many movements, it winds up sprawling. And the screaming distracts to a degree of being unable to really focus on what I’m trying to listen to.
The one track that stood out as dynamic and worth more than one listen is the powerful and highly melodic “Reciprocal Damage” – if the entire album was in this style/vein, it would have been outstanding. And also, very high marks for the skillful execution on “Smack And Temporary Enlightenment”. But because of my discomfort with the majority of songs, I’m afraid this CD wasn’t my cup of tea. Great name; great sound and a shining moment or two but I’ll pass for now.
Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross: Episode Thirty Four
There’s never any time to rest between shows and once again, Jon and Rob come up with another riveting, interesting, thought-provoking and at times, downright hilarious conversation. The duo start off with D.W. Dunphy’s excellent Popdose piece on internet trolls in the wake of Tom Petty’s passing; the “1984 – American Underground…” series continues with Meat Puppets II (the one that always got under the radar); the fall T.V. season is upon us and there are a few shows worth mentioning – especially since ABC has an interesting one, “The Good Doctor”; Curt Weiss’ book about Jerry Nolan of The New York Dolls/the “other” Heartbreakers, Stranded In The Jungle – Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride; Brothers Prince new 3 song E.P.; Sean Kelly of A Fragile Tomorrow goes solo – video debut for “Syncopation” with a very personal interview by Rob; of course, President Dumbass’ travels in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas and the phenomenon known as “In Our Heads”.
You always get more value than you ever bargain for with Jon and Rob. So kick back, enjoy and let your mind be soothed by the wisdom imparted by these boys…
Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Thirty Four
The podcast will be on the site as well as for subscription via iTunes and other podcast aggregators. Subscribe and let people know about Radio City, as well as Popdose’s other great podcasts David Medsker’s Dizzy Heights and In:Sound with Michael Parr and Zack Stiegler.
In an era full of quirky bands, XTC may have been the quirkiest.
Their debut album featured primary singer/songwriter Andy Partridge leering at the Statue of Liberty amid musical settings designed to simultaneously build upon and satirize pop and punk. Their second album was a favorite of record-store browsers like me for its cover, a Monty Python-esque essay in plain typography informing us all that this is a RECORD COVER whose DESIGN is to help SELL the record.
Keyboardist Barry Andrews, whose off-the-wall organ flourishes had added to the hilarity of the first two albums, departed at that point. Enter Dave Gregory, sometimes a keyboardist but more frequently a guitarist from the George Harrison melodic school. And bassist Colin Moulding hit his songwriting groove with Making Plans for Nigel, a skewering of British parents forcing their kids through a regimented childhood and pre-ordained adulthood.
By the early 80s, they were ready for MTV with Senses Working Overtime, which alternated sparsely arranged verses with a sprightly chorus (all together now: “1, 2, 3, 4, 5! Senses working …”).
Then came the meltdown. Explanations have varied over the years, but all we really need to know is that Partridge was no longer able to play on stage. At the height of their careers, XTC quit performing live.
Fortunately, these were the days in which a band could still earn a living making these things called “albums.” While XTC regrouped without a drummer (Terry Chambers had an Australian girlfriend, and without live gigs, there really wasn’t much point in staying), they also formed a psychedelic side project called The Dukes of Stratosphear and settled into a nice groove releasing albums for a loyal cult following buoyed by a few “hit” songs on alternative radio.
Then they recorded a series of masterpieces.
Skylarking benefited from the discipline imposed by producer Todd Rundgren. It’s in some ways the rural answer (not that XTC’s base of Swindon is a tiny town, but the band was influenced by the fields around it as surely as R.E.M.’s early work reflects agricultural northeast Georgia) to Dark Side of the Moon — a set of musings on life and death with transitions between songs and moods.
And still, the decision-making was odd. Initial pressings of the album omitted the agnostic’s lament Dear God, a classic mix of Partridge wit and anger perfectly arranged with atypical rhyme schemes and brooding acoustic guitar — the bass notes under an A minor chord go A / F / G / F#, creating an ominous, uneasy atmosphere. It’s an alt-rock standard that barely saw the light of day.
Oranges and Lemons was XTC’s The White Album, a mixture of pop and more diverse styles pushed along by Moulding’s agile bass lines and guest drummer Pat Mastelotto on his way to King Crimson glory. My personal favorite is the chaotic Across this Antheap, a witty and poignant depiction of a society too distracted by “work” to address those in need. “The fur is genuine but the orgasm’s fake,” chortles Partridge before he takes liberties with the rhyme scheme: “We’re spending millions to learn to speak porpoise / while human loneliness is still a deafening noise.”
This album also found Partridge reveling in parenthood. The opener, Garden of Earthly Delights, is a remarkably optimistic tour of the world for his children, including such helpful advice as “Just don’t hurt nobody — ‘less of course, they ask you.” Next up is parent Partridge pledging to make up for his lack of education with a big heart in Mayor of Simpleton, which actually topped the U.S. Modern Rock chart and got airplay on our local “Skynyrd and Zeppelin 4EVER” station in North Carolina.
So if you had to pick a band that would gaze upon a rotting jack o’lantern and immediately think of heads on spikes at Traitor’s Gate, then turn the whole thing into a tale of a Jesus/JFK figure inspiring people but being murdered by the cynical powers that be, then use that as the lead single for an album called Nonsuch, you’d have to say XTC. Read the story at Chalkhills.com, which goes into vivid detail on scores of XTC songs and will destroy your productivity for the day.
On its surface, Pumpkinhead is rather cynical. A compassionate and charitable man (“showed the Vatican what gold’s for”) develops a following (“emptied churches and shopping malls”), and those who prefer the status quo of the oligarchy (“But he made too many enemies / Of the people who would keep us on our knees”) respond by questioning his sexuality (“Peter merely said / Any kind of love is all right”) and then crucifying him (“had him nailed to a chunk of wood”).
But like a lot of Partridge songs, this is deceptively hopeful. It has a sprightly setting, as American Songwriter notes:
While Bob Dylan may have been an inspiration to Partridge when writing, he and his band played the song more as an energetic romp than a balladic dirge, with a recording featuring booming drums, jangly guitar, and frisky harmonica.
The general populace in this song is receptive to Peter’s “peace, love and understanding” message. Yes, the rulers have him killed, but then there will always be more Peter Pumpkinheads — in all of us. “Hanging there he looked a lot like you, and an awful lot like me.”
We may not need one massive Peter Pumpkinhead. We need a little Peter Pumpkinhead in all of us.
So, this Halloween, why not leave your jack o’lantern out a bit longer than usual? Maybe we’ll be inspired. (Or maybe the neighborhood deer will have a nice snack.)
Do you ever wonder what would happen if great producers recorded records of their own? Okay, some of them, like Mark Ronson, Terry Melcher, and any number of hip-hop greats. But what if George Martin or Phil Spector would have been like, “Screw it, I’m gonna become an artist in my own right?” I’d be willing to wager most producers have considered the proposition; some have jumped at it.
Ashok Kailath, aka ash.ØK, spent a chunk of his career behind the board before switching sides. His new effort, The Unraveled, gives folks familiar with his producing a glimpse into the inside of his mind. His sound is proof that when a producer creates, it’s a vibrant, unadulterated look at his or her personal aesthetic, unencumbered by other artists’ input. For Kailath, that means mixing world with dance, experimental with modern pop — he throws a little bit of everything into the pot to see what works. In short, it all does.
For the video for the album’s eponymous title track, Kailath collaborates with filmmaker Patrick Mason to complement the track, led by past-The Voice contestant Rebecca Loebe. As a midwesterner, the depiction of West Virginia and the Appalachian lifestyle is heart-rending and accurate; the quiet desperation of the characters matches the song’s yearning, steady (almost uncomfortable) calmness. It’s tense, but it’s life. And it’s a masterful work from a masterful producer.
Check out the video for ash.ØK’s “The Unraveled” below!
When Chad Beattie, a 24-year-old from Baltimore, first told me about his bedroom project Yes Selma – a Dancer In The Dark nod – he referenced a lot of the Drag City musicians adored by those in the lo-fi singer-songwriter boom of the 1980s and 1990s. And, yes, listening to Yes Selma’s ambitious and ironically titled Songs of Happiness is like a stroll down that old road, a reminder of all of those familiar voices, however “poorly” recorded they were at the time.
Beattie loves himself some Smog. On some songs, he’s a dead-ringer for Bill Callahan in his early days, be it in the form of Forgotten Foundation (“Rock & Roll Band”), Julius Caesar (“Girls”) or Wild Love (the “Red Apples” piano homage “Without You”). Elsewhere, he cops Pavement’s Westing (By Musket and Sextant) or Daniel Johnston or even Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, all points of reference worth exploring. But Beattie shines brightest on the closing tracks, when he allows melody to rise above the dirge and follows his heart — singing over a clattery acoustic and canned drum beat (“Everyone’s Looking At Me”) or on the vaguely lo-fi-Buddy-Holly “(Don’t) Tell Me Why.”
This is not a record for everyone and Beattie seems aware of that. It’s a decidedly (and, I’d imagine, intentionally) uneven record, veering into found-percussion (“Tribal Assault”) and occasionally even Harry Partch territory (opener “Useless Eater”). When Beattie, though, hits the right combination of lo-fi, heart-on-the-sleeve delivery and solid sound construction – I’m talking here about the melancholy “Empty” or the buoyant but rough-hewn pop of “Outer Space” – he is most surely on-target.
Beattie’s lyrics grapple with depression and loneliness and such, the familiar fodder of the singer-songwriter, but he avoids the pratfalls of the overly serious “Tormented Artist.” And he does this largely by being inventive with how he dresses a song, be it in guitar squalor and hand claps (“Noise Poem”) or a cacophony of detuned strings (“Bouncing Slobs”). He seems more concerned with being adventurous and pushing the limits of a song’s structure than creating something with easily digestible verses and choruses, all clean lines and studio goo. And that’s a mission that, even if a record like Songs of Happiness has some less inspired moments, I can get behind.
After seven years of silence, Pinataland founder David Wechsler – whose bizarre orchestrette once emanated from near the epicenter of a NYC micro-scene fascinated with Old World themes, history, and oddball strains of Americana – returns with a self-released 7-inch single. And, man, is it worth tracking down when it comes out in a couple weeks.
The two-song single is a primer for the next record from Wechsler project Tyranny of Dave, 2018’s The Decline of America Part Three: Silence In Brooklyn. And, while it takes its attention to thematic detail and master-tone from Pinataland, its presentation is wholely other.
“Silence In Brooklyn,” the A side, “chronicles the afterlife of Brooklyn after rising oceans leave much of the borough uninhabitable,” Wechsler said in press material. But environmental destruction of a major metropolis never sounded so raucous. Didi Afana’s guitar is jangly, even soulful in an early Keith Richards kind of way and Ami Saraiya, Anna Soltys and Maggie Ward add a nice touch – cooing “shoo-waa” backing vocals – to the toe-tapping mix. Wechsler is the real star, though, rollicking over rolling toms, backing guitar and occasional electronic glitch as he spits out lines like “We were all in the stew/ We didn’t know want to do/ Whatever anyone said it seemed it was too late.” What’s surprising is how animated Wechsler sounds, how he sounds like he’s really cutting loose and breaking into his own.
“All This 4 U,” a B side laced with plenty of Velvet Underground lyric references, is a gem of a country ballad, where singer Nora O’Connor sweetly caresses lines like “It’s all for you/ You got it made/ Didn’t you know?” This is straight-forward, far from as obscurantist as some of Wechsler’s earlier work, and it confronts the listener head-on. A bridge at the two-minute mark, where O’Connor’s vocals are carefully multi-tracked and the lonesomely strummed acoustic guitar sounds like it’s accented with the hint of piano, will break you.
These two too-short songs will leave you counting the months until spring 2018. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for something new from North-Carolina-by-way-of-NYC antique-gardist Curtis Eller and his American Circus. Both these boys are out to show that, while one of the 2000s ripest undergrounds can’t be found in New York anymore, it didn’t die on the vine.