Indie writer/musician Adam Gnade is a lot like Neutral Milk Hotel’s beautific, canonical “Oh Comely;” he makes you feel resilient and centered as life and all its context tries to beat you down. The “Oh Comely” comparison is apt, as Gnade dedicated his Do-It Yourself Guide To Fighting The Big Motherfuckin’ Sad, an indispensable literary antidepressant, to the song. Through projects both literary and otherwise, it’s clear he knows what he does well. And so it goes with Life Is The Meat Grinder That Sucks In All Things, a great new odds-and-sods LP that features one epic narrative/soundscape and a collection of solo, acoustic guitar demos.
Gnade is best when he’s finding threads in his work to connect with others and, in this, I look to his year-defining Run Hide Retreat Surrender, a real gem that was modern-day riffing on an On The Road-style cross-country trip. A song-cycle of sorts, it loosely tied together Gnade’s narratives and thoughts about a trek with friends from the West Coast to the East. But, above all, it chronicled a kind of loss of innocence, a growth, a maturation, a sensing that things change. Almost 12 years later, I still find myself turning to it, searching.
The title song on the new LP, available on Bandcamp, concerns itself (very loosely) with 9/11 and characters like Agnes McCanty whose lives touch its themes of death and rebirth. (There’s also a demo on the second half of the record about Agnes.) And, while Planet B – which provides occasional percussion, found sounds such as mattresses of TV static, and scissor-cuts of white-noise on the title track — could do more to fill the space on the 25-minute-long short-story, Gnade is the real star and holds your attention, fixated, if you give yourself over to him. Again, this sense of transition, this loss of innocence, this repetitive feeling that things change and you need to survive – it all looms large.
“This was before / before we learned to hate America / before we lost grip on the dream / before we saw the holes in the story we grew up with / before it was tough to find work,” Gnade speaks in the talking-song. “Before it got harder to get through the day / before paranoia / before doubt / before anxiety / before compromise / before we turned on each other / before now / where it’s a new killing every day until we’re blind to it / where we’re all so spread apart / where love is stress / and work is stress / and family is stress / this was before.”
I interviewed Gnade years ago and was surprised he didn’t see himself in the tradition of spoken-word artistry, which his narrations over music echo. (His demos here, it should be noted, are rough drafts for the title piece.) His delivery and presentation are plain – often dryly spoken words, recorded simply, over found sounds or, as on the demos, repeating motifs on acoustic guitar. But the words can be enveloping. The new record is an excellent point of entry that will leave you wanting to find more. Haven’t heard of Gnade? You owe it to yourself to read between the lines and track him down.
Much pomp and circumstance has been made about Sam Beam returning in 2017 to the form of his early years. But while Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic, out today on Sub Pop Records, is certainly a stripped-down affair compared to some of Beam’s Warner Bros. catalog, it is still a highly polished outing, with Beam’s trademark, hushed multi-tracked vocals high in the mix alongside all sorts of well-placed figures and accoutrements – backing piano, subtle percussion, weeping strings, occasional plumbs of bass. The acoustic guitar is not lost on us but this Epic is far from Appalachia. And all the better for it! Beam has recorded a tremendous record here with the new LP and, if anything, has further solidified his rightful place as a kind of modern-day Cat Stevens or Nick Drake.
Anyone expecting the nuanced Americana of Beam’s early work will smile broadly at tracks like opener “Claim Your Ghost,” which starts with him carefully counting off time, unfurls with jangly acoustic guitar, and, in its most emotionally devastating moment, cuts out everything but Beam’s voice as he intones, “The garden grows into our street / We’re holding the blossoms up high.” “The Truest Stars We Know,” all piano and finger-picked acoustics, is so fragile, it feels like it’ll evaporate before it reaches your ear.
But this not all shadows and whispers. On “About A Bruise,” Beam accompanies a sometimes-jagged, sometimes-bouncy palm-muted guitar line with shuffling percussion and excellent accents from an almost-jazzy piano. “Summer Clouds” starts with that familiar guitar line but, after a simple 1-2 drum march from a kit, pedal steel enters the frame and Beam goes right for the heart with a bridge that’s arguably the best moment on the whole record:
By the end we hold something too high to ever come back down By the end there’s a song we will sing meant for someone else By the end we leave somewhere too long to ever wander back By the end we give someone too much to ever close the hand
On “Our Light Miles,” an album closer that leaves you hungering for more, Beam frequently soars into falsetto, displaying some of his finest singing to date with lyrics like “What will become of us? / Tall trees blown bare / in the bone white snow / Nothing but night for songs / that old mouth still sucking / warm milk of summer.” Impressive stuff, indeed.
All in all, it’s a fine outing and one worthy of the canon Beam’s been building for himself all these years. If you’ve been waiting for Iron & Wine to keep delivering on the promise of records like The Creek Drank The Cradle, this is your moment.
Chicago has been known as a blues mecca ever since giants like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf made their way north from Mississippi seeking greater opportunity. In fact, the electrified and electrifying sound they and others developed would come to be known as Chicago Blues. But the music coming out of the Windy City was not limited to blues. Soul music giants like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Jerry Butler, and Billy Stewart called Chicago home as well.
The Radiants never quite reached the level of success that the artists I mentioned above achieved but they did manage to send a few records up the charts in the 1960s. The group’s original lineup of lead vocalist Maurice McCallister, baritone Wallace Sampson, second tenor Jerome Brooks, bass singer Elzie Butler, and first tenor Charles Washington met while they were singing in the youth choir at Greater Harvest Baptist Church. Like other artists who got their start in church, the Radiants began their career singing gospel in churches but also adding in some secular R&B songs that McCallister wrote.
It wasn’t long before the Radiants abandoned gospel altogether. Before their first recording session, Washington had left the group and been replaced by McLauren Green. The group recorded demos and shopped them around but couldn’t get a bite. All of the big labels turned them down including Motown and Chess. But Chess eventually had a change of heart and signed the Radiants.
At Chess, the group was mentored by Billy Davis, one-time songwriting partner of Berry Gordy, Jr. The Radiants’ first single for the label was released in 1962. “Father Knows Best” b/w “One Day I’ll Show You” was unsuccessful everywhere with the exception of Cleveland, where it was a local hit. Chess singles “Heartbreak Society,” “Shy Guy,” and “I Gotta Dance to Keep My Baby” followed and while they all sounded like hits, none of them were. Poor promotion by the label seems to have been the culprit.
Green was drafted and he was replaced by Frank McCollum. But by 1964 the Radiants were in disarray. Things got so bad that the group actually broke up, leaving only McCallister and Sampson to form a new lineup. Leonard Caston, Jr. had been the organist at Greater Harvest and his return from the army was timely as he became the third member of the new Radiants lineup.
Now a trio, the Radiants released “Voice Your Choice” in late 1964. It was their biggest hit, reaching #16 on the R&B chart, and #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. The follow-up single was “It Ain’t No Big Thing” and although it failed to make the Pop chart, it reached #14 R&B. The Radiants modeled themselves after the Impressions on these records, with McCallister and Caston trading lead vocals, and employing the Impressions three-part harmony style.
Caston had his eye on a songwriting and production career and left the Radiants in 1965. James Jameson replaced him and he can be heard on the single “Baby You Got It.” That’s about the time that things got complicated. McCallister left the group shortly after the single was released and the departure of the group’s founder should have put an end to things, right? Well, no.
There was another Chess group called the Confessions and they were led by a guy named Mitchell Bullock. They recorded a single called “Don’t It Make You Feel Kinda Bad” but broke up before it was released. Davis had the idea of enlisting Bullock to work with Sampson and Jameson. When they added Caston’s brother Victor, the Radiants were a quartet again. Remember that Confessions single? Without re-recording it or changing anything Chess released it as a Radiants single.
“Don’t It Make You Feel Kinda Bad” wasn’t a big hit, only reaching #47 on the R&B chart, but the next Radiants single, “Hold On,” managed to reach #68 on the Pop chart, and #35 R&B in 1968. It would be the last chart record for the Radiants. They left Chess the following year and broke up in 1972.
McCallister went on to have some success with as part of a duo that also included former Radiant McLauren Green. They two collaborated as Maurice & Mac on a single called “You Left the Water Running” which is revered by soul music aficionados. Chess never released a Radiants album but did include several of the group’s singles on compilation albums.
Radio City with Jon Grayson and Rob Ross: Twenty Six – a half year’s worth of quality reportage!
The tireless efforts of Jon and Rob mean that you have yet another episode to indulge in and absorb. Show 26 finds Rob and Jon discussing the confounding state of politics in New York City as well as the standard weekly Washington recap; Anton Barbeau’s latest neo-psychedelic gem and the incredible (and timely, perhaps) new single from Populuxe; D.W. Dunphy’s interview with the delightful Lisa Mychols, Ted Asregadoo’s “Pop Politico” page and of course, the now-loved “In Our Heads” segment.
All this and so much more – week after week. Because they care.
Radio City With Jon Grayson & Rob Ross: Episode Twenty Six
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.
Popdose is pleased to present Richmond, VA’s Thorp Jenson on a new single from his debut album Odessa titled “Wake Up.”
Jenson said of the track, “I think ‘Wake Up’ is a bit of an outlier on the record. While it’s still rock and roll, it’s maybe a little less Americana than the rest of the album. I wanted it to be the track we opened up and got a little weird on. It has all the necessary weird ingredients: a backward guitar track that opens the song, vocals tracked through a tape echo, and your standard rock and roll bass solo.”
Described previously as a side-man guitarist in the Richmond music scene, Jenson’s present vibe mixes up early Wilco with more than a hint of The Wallflowers. Odessa features contributions from Cameron Ralston and Suzi Fischer (both with Foxygen) and Andrew Randazzo (Natalie Prass).
How did Jenson achieve the alternative sound he was aiming for on the track? “I told the band to think about the first record from Weezer when we were tracking. Not that I was thinking of Weezer when I wrote the song, but I wanted it to have that kind of drudgey push to it in the rhythm section that is part of the magic on that record.
“The song features just the core trio with Andrew Randazzo on bass and Dusty Simmons on drums. Andrew and I overdubbed the keyboard parts and I added some guitars to beef it up. There are moments though when the track strips down to just the original guitar trio. I wanted it to have some life in it, to kind of breathe and I told Adrian Olson, who I mixed the record with, to have some fun on this track and get a little weird.”
Speaking to the subject of the album in full, Jenson said of Odessa: “I wrote a lot of these songs thinking about characters…It always ends up including a part of me—you can’t get away from that—but if you’re only telling your own story, you’re kind of pigeonholing yourself.”
On the album’s title track, Jenson imagines himself a soldier returning from war to a small-town home that doesn’t quite fit the one in his memory.
The album also features a cover version of Modern English’s 1980s-era hit “I Melt With You,” which has been heavily transformed, and for a specific reason. “I hated that song growing up,” Jenson admitted. But after performing a version at a wedding, he was apparently taken by the song’s intentions if not its presentation.
Thorp Jenson’s Odessa is expected to bow in October on various digital music platforms.
Not what I would expect from the area of Kingston, New York (a very nice town), but Lara Hope and The Ark Tones dish up some kickin’ rockabilly on this, their second full-length album, Love You To Life. Born from a hybrid of Lara’s former rockabilly band The Champtones, and upright bassist Matt Goldpaugh’s international psychobilly act, The Arkhams (he’s Lara’s husband), The Ark-Tones hit the ground running in 2012 and haven’t slowed down since. Lara and Matt also perform as a duo (The Gold Hope Duo), and can even be found as the country/western entertainers at the one of longest running family resorts in New York, the Rocking Horse Ranch, performing under the name Lara and the Hope’Alongs.
This collection of eleven songs gets off in a classic, big, brassy fashion with the swingin’ “Fast, Cheap Or Well Done”, with its punchy riffs and chorus and one hell of a twang – this sounds like it just walked out of 1957 but sounds crisp and modern; the title track, “Love You To Life” has that nifty bossa-nova/Tex-Mex vibe and is tight and catchy (listen to that spot-on solo!) and “‘Til The Well Runs Dry” is another kicker (great call and response vocals) and a killer sax riff. “This Is What I’ve Got” is the head-turner – a slow, pure country ballad with a sweetly mournful fiddle and chiming pedal steel notes; “I’m The One” is the obvious “single” – a track that could have fit in between Fats Domino and Buddy Holly on radio playlists once upon a time and “Hotel Yorba” gallops along (a Johnny Cash tribute, perhaps?) – uptempo, country sweetened and again, delightfully twangy.
Call it what you want – a party album; you can twist and jive to it, etc. – it’s a musical good time. And while I’ve never been a great fan of rockabilly revival bands (being a lifelong Elvis and Everly Brothers fan, I’m a purist), this is a damned fine gathering of real, American rock & roll – the way it was meant to be played – with fun and passion.
Love Under Fire began as an interruption; singer-songwriter Dan Miraldi was ready to complete his fourth full-length album; the songs were written and demoed and the first single was released. But then November 9th hit, and his plans changed. He wrote his newest EP as a response to what was happening around him in the US.
“The current political climate compelled me to put my typical type of songs temporarily aside and instead write and record Love Under Fire,” Miraldi said. “I wanted to provide modern fight songs to energize people in positive ways and help them resist complacency. We live in an era where it is too easy to tune out, and let indifference and discouragement numb us.”
Miraldi is an NYC-based and Cleveland-born rocker. The title track, which Popdose is premiering here for you, was inspired by his desire to always be an ally for his friends in the LGBTQ community. The album continues Miraldi’s evolution in music, offering loud rock and roll with tinges of the indie-pop that’s infiltrated his sound. Though this record found Miraldi branching out beyond his comfort zone, he says, “This is not business as usual. This is not the fun-time power-pop-rock album I set out to make. Love Under Fire is the loud rock and roll record I needed to make.”
Love Under Fire will be released on Friday, September 22nd, 2017
What happens when you’re the only person you know who’s not thrilled with Hamilton? If you’re Julian Velard, you write a song about it. Popdose is pleased to premiere the video for “Don’t Ask Me About Hamilton (Anymore),” the opening track from his excellent new album, Fancy Words for Failure.
Velard is currently an Artist-in-Residence at Joe’s Pub in New York, where he’s working on building a show around the songs from throughout his career. In the meantime, he’s about to go on tour to promote Fancy Words, and you can see all of the dates here.
We spoke with Velard about the song, the musical that inspired it, and how it all fits into the context of the record, where his songs form a story of a musician who realizes that stardom will forever be out of reach as he finds happiness in his personal life. As he tells us, it’s autobiographical, but its overall message, that giving up on your dreams can be liberating, is universal. You can read the interview below the video.
This is a little different from the other videos you’ve made. I’m thinking largely of “Love Again for the First Time,” which had a typical, nice-guy, piano-playing, singer-songwriter vibe to it. How did you come about this concept?
The animators are these people call Wefail, and they’re these Flash animators that I’ve been a huge fan of for forever. They kind of got really successful – they did Eminem’s website and the Dixie Chicks’ website. And then, in 2007, the iPhone launched, and the iPhone wouldn’t process Flash. So their whole vehicle for this counter-culture, subversive – but darkly funny – type of sensibility through Flash animation got a real bump in it.
Right around that time I was really fortunate to get EMI to get them to design my website. It was this crazy website that was all based on movies. It was like a big video game and I’m still obsessed with it. It still lives on the internet so you can see their true genius at work. Then they moved on to making apps, but I’d been wanting to do a music video with them for a while. We couldn’t figure out the budget stuff.
I just had a baby, and getting the record done in time [for the baby’s arrival] was a struggle, so making a live-action music video was out of the question. So I reached out to them and said, “I have this song. Will you do it for this much? Here are some basic ideas of what I’m looking for and you guys can do whatever you want and I’ll say, ‘Yes.’” And they were like, “OK.”
They took the loose concepts that I had and created this universe of me performing this messed-up version of Hamilton, where I’m getting into fights with Ed Sheeran and Lin-Manuel Miranda, which is a decent lyrical approximation of this new record.
What’s really funny is the randomness to the people who show up on stage. Ed Sheeran and Billy Joel are expected, and you get body-slammed by Miranda. But there’s also Bob Dylan, Morrissey, and Jeff Lynne – and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 cast is watching it.
Right, which implies this deeper meaning that it’s clearly a failed musical, because why would MST3K be watching it if it wasn’t the worst thing ever made?
Given that you’re a musician, and a New Yorker in your mid-to-late 30s, would it be safe to assume that Hamilton has been a major topic of conversation in your social circles for the past year-and-a-half or so?
Yeah. I think the mistake that a lot of people make when they talk about the song is that I hate the musical Hamilton. The irony is that, when I wrote it and right up until the album’s release, I hadn’t seen the show. There’s a reference to this in the bridge (“I’ve listened to the soundtrack and I think that it’s OK“). So this guy in the song is spewing all this vitriol and frustration centered on the musical but it’s not even clear if he’s seen it, which I think makes the song more interesting.
But really the song is about – and fitting into the concept of the record – the feeling that you haven’t found your vehicle yet and that it hasn’t been recognized, and that the thing that you’ve trying to say for your entire career is going unsaid, largely due to resources, but also because that’s how life works, you know? And I think that’s the real message of the song, and Hamilton is this prop, just like the Ed Sheeran song. They’re not about Hamilton or Ed Sheeran; they’re more about the guy singing the songs.
Right. There’s an admission of jealousy towards Lin-Manuel. So basically you’re Aaron Burr to his Hamilton.
Absolutely! I almost wish they had dressed me up like Aaron Burr in the video. That’s exactly what I am.
So are you going to meet him at Weehauken at dawn?
I don’t think there’s going to be a duel. He’s very likable. I have the feeling that if I hung out with him I’d think he was cool, you know? I like him, and he feels like a real New Yorker to me.
And that’s the other thing about Lin-Manuel. You’re both 37, natives of Manhattan – there’s a parallel there.
He’s just three-fourths of the way closer to the EGOT than I am. That’s the only difference. Wait, he’s that close to the PEGOT, because he won the Pulitzer.
But you did see it, and did your feelings about the show change once you saw the staging and the whole production?
I don’t know if I like musical theater. I love narrative songs; I love storytelling. But as my wife – a musical theater performer who’s been on national tours and has her Equity card (and is also in the video) – pointed out to me, theater is about the experience – the experience of going to the theater. It’s not necessarily always about the narrative structure or about the storytelling. And, I think, in that respect, Hamilton was a unique experience and I’ve never seen anything like it before.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to see it with the original cast, which seems like it was a happening and a moment in time. But, as far as the narrative structure, it’s not necessarily something I would be excited to see again. Then again, I also think, “Who am I to critique that show?” because it’s clearly the work of a genius. You kind of can’t argue with that. It’s indisputable.
In my mind, as much as the anecdotes in the song and the narrative of the album is my story, I don’t necessarily feel like it’s me singing it. Or it’s a version of me in a certain light. The whole idea of the record for me is about gaining the awareness that it’s okay to accept where you are, and that it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to not be what you thought you were going to be.
So in the same way that Mr. Saturday Night was a character that you created, or Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm – it’s more of an extension or an exaggeration of one part of your personality?
Mr. Saturday Night was much more of an identity. This is me; this is my story, no doubt. But I’m able to take a perspective outside of myself. What I’d like to think that the people who get into my records find endearing is that it’s like listening to Billy Joel or Randy Newman records – or maybe more like Billy Joel, because Randy Newman’s never himself, except on the later records – but with a self-awareness.
My harshest critique of Billy Joel is that he’s painfully not self-aware. And that’s both the beauty of him and his Achilles heel. In interviews, he still doesn’t understand why he’s not regarded in the same light as Bob Dylan. And you wanna be like, “Dude, you’re Billy Joel. That’s pretty awesome. You don’t need to be Bob Dylan.”
“Hamilton” is the first song on the record, and that’s me at my angriest. “Why not me?” That’s the question. And the answer, which I’d like to think you find when you get to the last two songs – “Goodbye Hollywood, Hello Adulthood” and the cover of “The Rainbow Connection” – is, “You know why it’s not you? Because it’s not you. That’s why.”
“The Rainbow Connection” is the explanation, at least the way I interpreted it, that dreams are bullshit. They’re not important. It’s about the action of believing in the dream.
Yeah, you definitely found a darker meaning in that song than has ever been interpreted. It’s right there with the harmonies on the piano. I know Frank LoCrasto is playing the piano, but did you write that arrangement?
He wrote all the arrangements. I outlined the harmonic structure, so I said, “Hey look. These are the voicings that I have in mind, but then just go do your thing on it. This is the tone that I’ve set. I want this level of tension. Explore that space.” So it’s both of our interpretations of the song harmonically.
You were talking about “Goodbye Hollywood, Hello Adulthood,” and “Hamilton” pops up again at the beginning of it. A car starts and “Don’t Ask Me About Hamilton” is playing on the radio. Was that a conscious nod to Billy Joel’s “Say Goodbye to Hollywood?” and the way that song ends?
That’s definitely there, but really this record is my version of the Billy Joel that I always wanted. It’s the guy who understand himself, and that’s what the song’s about. Also I thought having “Don’t Ask Me About Hamilton” play on the radio was a nice thematic thread. It shows the journey the character has taken since the first song. “Remember when he was this angry person? Remember when he didn’t know where he was supposed to be and didn’t understand why Lin-Manuel Miranda is as successful as he is and he’s not?” “Goodbye Hollywood, Hello Adulthood” is the acceptance of that fact and the moving on.
And what helps bring along that acceptance is that, since If You Don’t Like It, You Can Leave, you’ve gotten married and had a child.
I wrote this whole record, with the exception of the Ed Sheeran song, during the pregnancy, After I finished the last record, I got a lot of feedback on this one song, “Jimmy Young,” because of its narrative strain. I wanted to go deeper into that world. So that’s what “Ed Sheeran” was. But I realized that, on its own, “The Night Ed Sheeran Slept on My Couch” felt bizarre, and an angry song to write – like a takedown.
And that’s never the way I see these things. The context is everything. So when you put the Ed Sheeran song in the framework of the whole record, along with the “Hamilton” song, you start to see there’s a much larger picture being painted, and those songs are extremes of a pole. And the answer is sort of in the middle.
So I tried to keep the pregnancy out of it. The only time I mentioned there’s a child is in “Something’s Gotta Be Wrong,” because it’s the last song I wrote and we were seven months in. Some of the anxiety had passed and I was like, “You know, I’m just gonna throw this in here,” because this character that I’ve created is me. There’s no fantasy situation, whereas some of my other records were in this place of “What if this happened?” The album is reading in between the lines and providing context to my life.
“Hamilton,” “Ed Sheeran” and “Trust Is a Four-Letter Word” have, by far, caused the most ruckus with people being like, “Man, you sound bitter” or “You sound angry. What’s your problem?” I’d like to think those songs, taken in context, inform the story and form the narrative. But if you remove them, it’s like “What the hell does this guy feel? Where did this song come from?”
The challenge is that you still have to make yourself sympathetic in the song.
Those songs aren’t supposed to come off as “Poor me,” because that’s never compelling. I wanted to put those songs in a larger context about what it means to pursue a dream. In “Trust Is a Four-Letter Word,” everybody talks about how the cream rises to the top, or the wheat separates from the chaff. First of all, as a New Yorker, I don’t even know what the heck that means – wheat and chaff. I’ve never even seen that. But it’s also the most dismissive, worst answer that anybody can tell somebody, because it’s just like, “If you’re good, just keep doing it and then one day, life will be awesome.”
Anyone who’s done any kind of work where there’s no clear monetary goal in sight – like any freelancer – will tell you that the journey is everything. The journey is how you acquire all the skills and the knowledge. It’s the story that informs the future.
So if you live your life in this land of “It’s going to happen in the future,” it’s reductive, and perhaps the most frustrating thing an artist can hear. And yet, it’s the predominant philosophy of pop culture. People assume that if it’s popular, then it must be good, and if it’s not popular, then it’s not good.
And there are so many other factors involved, like luck and timing, and sometimes other things that are a little seedy.
The key element is timing. And I’d like to think that the character in the album comes to realize, especially at the end of “Goodbye Hollywood,” it’s this idea that every one-trick pony gets a second act. There’s always another end to the story; the story keeps going.
The truly gracious people, and I think the wisest people, who are in the music business will tell you, “Yeah, I got lucky. A break made all the difference. It wasn’t because I made this thing, and it was brilliant, and the world recognized it and I am a better person than everyone else because of it.” But that’s the narrative that society promotes, and that the industry promotes. People don’t want to believe that the universe is random, and chaotic and doesn’t care.
But that is the narrative, that you’re going from “Why aren’t I as big as that guy?” to “I’m kind of cool with it.”
I’m attempting to accept it. That’s why I needed “The Rainbow Connection.” I knew that song was the whole arc of the record, to get people to hear “The Rainbow Connection” in a different light. That is an insanely deep song when you unpack it, because there are so many things going on there. He’s suggesting that dreams are bullshit, but he wants to believe in them anyway.
Yeah, the line, “The lovers, the dreamers and me.” It suggests that he’s neither a lover nor a dreamer.
I do think it’s one of the greatest pop lyrics. It’s up there with the Great American Songbook or Dylan tunes. But it’s cast in this light of the Muppets and this saccharine melody, which makes it even more perverse.
And you’re about to go on tour.
I’m gonna hit the Northeast, a little bit of the Southeast and California. Then I’m gonna go to Europe and do England, Holland and potentially some other countries are in the mix. I waited to get the baby out, and now I’m gonna evangelize the gospel of failure to the masses. And the title of the album is a great excuse for when 12 people come to see me. I look like a genius.
Is it going to be with the full band or solo?
I’m touring with Frank LoCrasto, who played on the record, and we’re doing two keyboards, but at times I’ll be standing up and singing and doing some monologue-type stuff. It’s not going to be like my typical singer-songwriter identity. The arc is going to be more emotional. What I’m trying to do, which is what I’m doing at Joe’s Pub as an Artist-in-Residence, is develop a larger, more narrative context – a real show that these songs live in, that take the emotional arc of the record and make it explicit. I’m experimenting with a bunch of different ways – chronological and other things – but the obstacle I’ve encountered is that these are standalone stories, and with a show, there’s a captive audience, and how do you express what the overall meaning of these songs are. I’m hoping to go into 2018 with something that I may start legitimately workshopping in a theater.
And so, as we roll into the fiery heart of summer, we have our proof of concept. I am no longer an aspirant; I am now the singer in a shit-hot rock ‘n’ roll band — and soon to be, under the terms of my joining, the singer-songwriter. Which means I’ve got to get my songs out to my compadres.
Now, writing the songs is one thing. Communicating them to a band, though, is quite another. We believe in doing our homework before we go down the basement stairs — in knowing our individual parts beforehand and using our time together to assemble the pieces and adjust the fit. So it seems to me an unconscionable waste of time to play solo acoustic and hash out basslines and accompaniment as we go — primarily because I tend to compose for a band anyway; for every song, I have at least a rough idea for an arrangement. And because the Roscoe’s Basement method is to learn songs from recordings, I need to produce some recordings.
Easier said than done. I don’t have any of the standard equipment to do the job — no GarageBand, no ProTools, no modeling amps, not USB microphone interface. All I have is a couple of guitars and a laptop. I’ve got some open-source audio editing software — the product I use to assemble my famous mixtapes, in fact — so I can multitrack, at least in theory. But I have no way to input instruments or vocals, except for the cruddy, pinhole-sized condenser mic built into the laptop.
To call my first experiment “crude” is exceedingly generous. I manage to successfully record a couple of acoustic guitar parts and a vocal, but the layers of room noise and bleed — I don’t even a decent pair of headphones, so I record wearing leaky earbuds — make it murky, nearly unlistenable.
Home demo for “Purple Jesus.” Two nylon-string guitars, voice, harmonica, words and music by Jack Feerick. Recorded June 2016.
Two things soon happen to marginally improve my demos. First, I start making drum tracks — looping sections from CD rips — and quickly amass a collection of professionally recorded beats. Given that I cannot actually play a drumkit, this makes it dramatically easier to communicate the proper “feel” to the rhythm section. Secondly, I realize that my bass amp has a headphone output that I can run to the laptop’s mic input. Using my Peavey as a preamp, I can record guitar and bass parts direct to hard disk.
It’s a kludgey system. There’s a delay between playing the note and hearing it in my phones, so I turn off the pass-through function — meaning that I cannot hear the amp signal at all as I record. I’m effectively playing along with the recorded track on an unplugged instrument.
But it works, kind of. The incoming signal is clippy — fuzzed-up and weedy; it takes extensive EQ, compression, and reverb in the mixing process to get anything like a beefy guitar tone; and I still have to do all my vocals with the built in condenser mic. The important thing, though, is that I can suddenly make demos that make sense to somebody’s ears besides mine — coherent multitrack recordings with backing vocals, real bass and drums, even placeholder guitar solos.
I am instantly drunk with power.
I immediately determine to show the band everything I’ve got, whether they want it or not. In the cool quiet of my own basement, I go into a frenzy of writing and recording. Arrangements — some of which have been living in my head for years — spill out with blazing speed. I nail most parts in one or two takes. The first song I record with the new method is “Jack o’ Diamonds,” which I figure is a sure shot for the set list.
The songs are coming so quickly that I institute what I jokingly call my “Song O’ The Week Club.” Every Monday in July and into August, I upload a new demo to the band’s shared Google drive, along with tabs for crucial licks. As we continue to rehearse over the summer, I make it a point to never ask what people think of the week’s song; if they like it, I figure they’ll let me know without being prompted. Honestly I’m having too much fun to care, making my little songs in my little studio. High on adrenaline and punk, I dash off a thrash number inspired by a goofy picture making the rounds on Twitter.
Home demo for “Meat Clown.” Drum sample, three electric guitars, bass, voices, words and music by Jack Feerick; recorded August 2016.
There is one song for which I have high hopes, though — my hidden ace, an older song that I still reckon is the best thing I’ve ever written. The Richard Thompson influence is perhaps a trifle too apparent, but I like the atmosphere — and it would be a great showcase for Mike’s guitar. If I were an A&R executive, I’d pick this one as the hit single.
Home demo for “After the Axe Has Fallen.” Drum sample, two electric guitars, electroacoustic guitar, bass, percussion, voices, words and music by Jack Feerick; recorded June 2016, additional recording May 2017.
But there’s a reason artists don’t act as their own A&R guys. There’s no enthusiasm for “Jack o’ Diamonds,” which is deemed “too country-western” for our set. “Meat Clown” gets a chuckle, but no one wants to play it for real. “After the Axe” lands with barely a splash. Another of my picks to click, a Stonesy stomper called “Blues for the Black and Tan,” is never mentioned at all; it’s as if my bandmates have agreed to pretend it never happened.
There is one song of mine, though, for which they go ga-ga. They hear something in it.
Studio demo of “Purple Jesus,” performed and arranged by Roscoe’s Basement. Jack Feerick – lead and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, agogo; Deanna Finn – backing vocals; Tom Finn – drums; Craig Hanson – bass guitar, backing vocals; Mike Mann – electric guitars, slide guitar; Chuck Romano – electric guitar; with Debbie Stiker-Mann, backing vocals. Engineered and mixed by Joe Nauert at Finger Lakes Community College Studio 1, November 2016.
I had only just heard Molly Tuttle’s name for the first time as she recently appeared singing dynamic harmonies on Korby Lenker’s newest album. So it was quite a fortuitous surprise to learn that she had just released Rise, a 7-song mini album. And what a wonderful piece of work it is, too. Pure American sounds shining brightly – acoustic guitars, fiddles, banjos and one of the sweetest, natural voices I’ve heard in ages.
“Good Enough” is more than good enough; Ms. Tuttle’s singing matches the freewheeling, bluegrass feel of this track, which putters along at a good clip and leaves you catching your breath when it’s over; “You Didn’t Call My Name” is melancholic but the feel of Ms. Tuttle’s voice offsets the darker emotions of the music and the lyrics and “Save This Heart” has some astounding guitar playing and builds up in a taut, dramatic way with controlled guitar feedback which doesn’t distract and actually keeps the track in check as it goes from soft to fever pitch – and that ending is simply fantastic. “Lightning In A Jar” is soft and delicate, with Ms. Tuttle’s soothing voice and gentle guitars framed by a subdued mix of banjo, pedal steel runs and standup bass and “Friend And A Friend” is another bluegrass romper that’s completely irresistible and running rampant.
I have to admit – I’m quite taken by Ms. Tuttle’s performances; she delivers with an unpretentious freshness and natural warmth. The songs are all highly melodic and I found myself going back and listening to certain tracks over and over. If I can gripe about anything here, it’s that there aren’t more songs to marvel at. So here’s hoping it won’t be too long before Molly Tuttle brings us a full-length album. She’s quite a joy to hear.