Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Americana album review

     Americana is Neil Young’s first album with ultimate garage band Crazy Horse in twelve years but it sure doesn’t sound like it. Some things are eternal, I suppose. As soon as the first track, “Oh Susannah,” got rolling on the old turntable I felt like I was putting on a favored sweatshirt neglected for – well, for about a dozen years. It’s comfortable as hell. So let me get that out of the way. Crazy Horse sounds exactly the same as ever, which means they sound excellent; everyone’s obviously having a blast and Mr. Young’s lovely and lyrical guitar leads flutter through the proceedings as usual like no one else. This is grungy garage-rock at its finest. Did you expect anything less?

But what are these songs, exactly, that sound so familiar and yet so alien? For their first album since 2003’s Greendale, Mr. Young and Crazy Horse have taken an interesting approach: the lyrics are cribbed from tried and true well-known songs in the American folk and popular tradition, while the majority of the melodies and accompanying chords have been rewritten and run through the Crazy Horse grunge machine. This proves to be a mostly entertaining game, doesn’t it, Roberta? For instance, “O Susannah” retains Stephen Foster’s lyrics (but not all of them, clever readers) but the song is one-hundred percent genuine American bluesy garage music. It’s an ambitious experiment that works well and the other songs do too. Not all of these songs are those that might spring to mind when you hear the word Americana: the Silhouettes 1957 doo-wop song “Get A Job” is here, as is a version of “God Save the Queen,” which, to be fair, has a verse of “America the Beautiful” grafted onto it. The lyrics, in fact, are probably more comprehensive here than they are in the versions of the songs we know better – Mr. Young has stated that he reinserted many of the less familiar verses in songs like “This Land Is Your Land” to emphasize elements of darkness and despair (as well as the political overtones, which is a nice subversive touch). And the titles are unfamiliar, too: “Jesus’ Chariot” takes its lyrics from “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “Tom Dula” is based on “Tom Dooley,” and so on. The overall effect of all this messing around is that everything feels warped and shifted through time and across the American expanse, like an alternative history of American music. I rather like it.

My loyal readers will know I am no great fan these days of folk music and I found myself pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed Mr. Young’s experiment so much. It’s hard to make Crazy Horse sound rotten, and the idea of re-crafting traditional songs in an electric format in this matter would be sufficiently novel to amuse me even had it failed; it is however, a great success. I would recommend this to other people who are sick of associating folk music with acoustic guitars or dusty museums. The folk are alive, friends. We’re all right here.

interviews press releases reviews

Howlin’ Rain Interview

I sat down recently for an interview with Ethan Miller of Howlin’ Rain, a couple days before the band’s appearance at Sasquatch. Howlin’ Rain’s record The Russian Wilds was released in February of this year under the aegis of producer Rick Rubin, who signed the band to his American Recordings label a few years ago. Four years in the making, TRW shifts the band’s reference points away from the Bay, evoking instead the sound of southern California circa 1975. Of course, your humble reviewer had her computer expire on her the weekend after this interview, and exhuming it took a few days, but better late than never, as the poet says, except when it comes to waiting for the proverbial man, which should have been the first thing you learned anyway, right? Right-right.

So here you go, post-Sasquatch people. Welcome back to the future!

I’m really interested in how you got from Comets on Fire to Howlin’ Rain. It’s a very different kind of music, you know, sort of the pysch-garage music vs. the kind of epic classic rock that you’re doing now. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Yeah – I mean, for me it makes sense because for me it’s all part of something that I’m doing so I’m trying to round out a whole, you know, my own creative universe – I get tired of hanging out in just one place in there.

Yeah, of course.

You know, if it’s too crazy or too heavy, whatever, you don’t get to play around with this harmony and the deeper melodies and stuff when you’re playing this nihilistic rock and same vice versa – how in Howlin’ Rain there’s not as much of room for that kind of crazy stuff either – you know, there’s not a lot of nihilism. I guess that’s kind of the yin and the yang of those two things – one of them’s sort of a little bit more redemptive kind of ordered vision of the universe, and the other one’s more a nihilistic vision of the universe, that universe being the creative world that we exist in for either of those groups. But you know, one fulfills a different need, so hopefully at the end of the day it shows the whole thing. I know some people that just like to do a certain kind of thing, whatever, they like to play punk music and that’s what they do all their lives, but I’m hungry to do all that stuff…

Yes, of course. I hear some very unfashionable influences in your music and to me that’s the most punk rock thing about it. You know, “Cherokee Willow” kind of sounds like the Eagles, there’s a Joe Walsh song on there, I hear some Crosby, Stills, and Nash…could you tell me about the artists that inspired you while you were making The Russian Wilds, or maybe the artists that you heard while you were growing up that contributed to you making this record?

I think that those guys, some of those great guys, I mean, Joe Walsh, or CSN – you know, to say that a type of music or a certain record is unfashionable – well, anything that’s older than a year old goes through an unfashionable phase-


I mean, the Beatles are unfashionable at some moment and then all of a sudden you hear people say, oh, the Beatles are fashionable again, you know, because they fucking remastered boxed sets and then they’re number one all of a sudden, you know. Bruce Springsteen’s not fashionable for a second and then he’s back in because then you have the Arcade Fire and all other these people and they’re like, oh my god, the Boss!

Yeah, of course…

But he wasn’t hip in 1991 or 1989 – that’s when it was like, the Boss, whatever dude, I’d rather listen to grunge or something…all that’s just in the eye of the beholder. I can’t even keep up – things are spinning so fast in public opinion is hardly a unified thing or whatever…but some of that stuff is classic. I don’t see how someone can’t, you know, draw on some CSN as an influence, no matter what kind of genre you make, or even if you don’t think you want to make that kind of music. I mean, a lot of timess in Howlin’ Rain, or in Comets on Fire, we draw on some very obscure stuff, you know there could be an interesting point in there. But a lot of times, all of us, every single artist making a record, whether it’s the hippest flash in the pan right now making some shit on a laptop or whatever, or whether it’s a classic rock band, we’re all drawing from these creative foundations of artists that helped create and define genres and help create and define classic records leads to all the obscuro stuff that super hip folks get into…all that stuff either sprang as a reaction to the established classics or was influenced by them…

Oh yeah, don’t get me wrong – I think you’re ahead of the curve mining this stuff. Rock music is coming back. There’s a vacuum out there. What makes the music on The Russian Wilds different from the bands to which you’re being compared in the press these days?

Well, for one thing, it’s my music – it’s our music. Every piece of music is unique, some more so than others – well I guess then you get down to the idea of whether it’s derivative or not. I think that it’s a unique thing – we speak through a unique voice and there’s not another record that sounds like our record, and I think in a way it’s just about trying to make something authentic to yourself even if it has a lot of familiar flavors. It kind of goes back to the idea that the newest freshest thing that you think you’ve ever heard before, you know – this is really different – you know, it’s still made up of the ingredients, the same things that we eat every day. It’s just a matter of opinion. My personal opinion is that we make authentic voice and expression, authentic vision for ourselves. But you know, I agree, this record particularly, if it’s under a genre, you know, it’s a classic rock record.

One of the things I really like about this record is the guitar solos: they’re epic. Could you tell me who influenced your guitar playing?

Some of the classics- the classic greats, Hendrix and all that, but my first guitar influences where I learned how I could play guitar and stuff were more punk rock things – you know, like Johnny Thunders – all of a sudden, I was like, whoa, I could pick that up and do that – what he’s doing is a matter of style and swagger and soulful expression, not perfected shredding. I mean, not only can’t you sit down every day and play 24-7 to master all the notes on the guitar neck or whatever – that’s not going to get you the Johnny Thunders thing – not just that, but too much practice and  you’ll never be able to get the Johnny Thunders thing – that’s way too fucking far! That’s what came over me early on – I don’t like fucking sitting around playing all these fucking scales and trying to play like some guitar virtuoso – I just love that, you know, big attitude that I heard right there – where’s he’s like, it comes time for a solo, sometimes he’ll play something like Chuck Berry, but sometimes he just fucking brnnnnnnngggg: slides a giant note up the guitar and just kind of makes it holler. I like that in the early blues playing, you know early Muddy Waters…it’s a lot of that, just moaning, just fucking with the guitar, just moaning – it’s not about perfect tone or perfect pitch, all that stuff… A lot of the punk stuff is the same way, figuring out how to express their own voice outside of their virtuosity…

I wanted to talk to you a little bit about working with Mr. Rubin. He had you guys tour with this material for a long time before recording it?

Well – specifically, rehearsing it. You know, getting that stuff to the right place.

It sounds like it.

Yeah, we rehearsed a long time. We really worked on the stuff for a long time. We worked a lot of material, too – not just those songs right there, a tremendous amount of material, so that we could kind of pick the cream of the crop, and you know, in the end, it was just a little much what we did – I mean, it ended up being years and years to make the record, and it went for hours and hours of collective song demos…you know, you’ve got guys that write a great record, you know, they write their nine songs in a four year span…some people’s whole careers may come and go in half a decade and only write nine or ten great songs…but in this period of four years myself and the band wrote a whole lifetime career full of songs – and that’s just not how I enjoy…I mean, it was cool to do that, but it was also a real challenge.

I bet.

I think some people are like, oh, every album we do 27 songs and narrow it down to the 12 that are going to be on the record, but those people write three-minute songs with two changes…that’s not what’s going on The Russian Wilds, you know, three seventy-minute disks full of demos of songs like that – there are whole other fifteen-minute songs that didn’t get used – the vision is a little complex to be writing five albums and boiling it down to one 70 minute thing…

So did you guys multitrack this thing to a metronome or what? Are there times when you’re playing together? I’m just curious how you made it…

You know, all the tracking is live – some of the stuff, there may not be a lot of me, you know, my guitar or my voice live on there anymore – they’re probably overdubbed because in a lot of instances I’m singing and playing guitar, getting signals and conducting a little bit about certain things while we’re tracking…most of the bass, drums, and keyboards are all the original tracks – the guitars and vocals are overdubbed for the most part – but that stuff was all done the old fashioned way…

I’m always impressed when people are able to do that these days. It seems like a lot of folks have forgotten the art of playing together as a band. So what are you guys going to do next? What’s next for Howlin’ Rain?

You know what? I don’t know right now- what we’re doing is getting all our ducks together for touring, we’re finishing out the year…maybe see what the winter brings after the new year, but we’re touring Europe in September, we’ll be doing some more West Coast and US touring in October and November – we’re just trying to work the record now on the road and do that – you know, to be honest, the recording process was so…we just did a lot of work and we just haven’t, you know, after three and a half years, putting so much work into it…we haven’t rejuvenated…I think it’s happening right now – the record was just released in February and we’re replenishing the creative supplies. We don’t have time to go write and record a new record at the moment. We’re like, look, that was epic, that was pretty fucking crazy, in a controversial sense, almost ruined the band or whatever, but let’s go work this thing on the road and let the wind blow through us and air ourselves out creatively…unless a great opportunity arises for us to do something else we’re just not jumping in – there’d be a little risk there in terms of forcing things…


Nick Waterhouse – Time’s All Gone album review

What year is it again?  I thought I was living in 2012, but listening to Mr. Nick Waterhouse’s new LP Time’s All Gone makes me wonder if I’m off by a half-century and we’re really living in the hoary days of 1962, before anyone had ever heard of Lee Harvey Oswald or the Beatles or lysergic acid, like some PKD novel.

Mr. Waterhouse is a musical retroactivist from sunny California who makes music evoking that innocent time, although evoke is perhaps too subtle a word for what’s going on here; more accurately: M. Ward evokes, Mr. Waterhouse recreates. The songs on TAG swing mightily; they’re replete with saxes and pianos and backup singers, and Mr. Waterhouse alternately howls and croons his way through them with aplomb.

The first track, “Say I Wanna Know,” borrows its intro from Van Morrison’s “Moondance” (a move I heartily applaud, being a huge supporter of blatant musical appropriation) and is probably one of the catchier tunes on the album. The other songs are fine as well: they’re mostly in minor keys, mostly bluesy, and generally soulful in a non-threatening manner, although none of them distinguish themselves as singular entities all that successfully, do they, Roberta?

This is where I start to feel like a grump. Maybe it’s just me, but what is the point of this album existing? It’s obvious that Mr. Waterhouse adores pre-Beatles American R & B and draws great inspiration from it, but his making this album could be compared to a painter diligently recreating Hopper’s Nighthawks, or Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho. The analogy fails because Mr. Waterhouse is writing his own material instead of merely covering Otis Rush songs, but perhaps he should have simply done so and made it easier for himself. This is not music that challenges the listener. The Black Keys draw inspiration from a similar era but are careful to subtly meld the old with the new in ways that move the listener into the future without alienating them; TAG is, comparatively, a tractor beam of reaction.

I remind you that I have always said if you’re going to operate within a genre and refuse to innovate, you better make damn sure you’re doing it better than anyone else, and that’s not going on here. Two reasons people were drawn to Amy Winehouse (a name I’m sure Mr. Waterhouse is sick of hearing) were her peerless singing and a handful of spectacular songs; that’s not happening on TAG. I suspect Mr. Waterhouse is holding back for the sake of commercial appeal but his voice sometimes seems curiously restrained; he’s a gifted singer and we would all benefit from more emotional highs in his performances even at the loss of some control.

The songs here are accomplished but there are no standout tracks that demand repeated individual listening. It’s all a little too safe and too Starbucks. Your parents will love it.

I’m not confident I could pick one of Mr. Waterhouse’s songs out of a lineup if it was standing there with a bunch of other period R & B songs, and I suppose that’s something, but I’m not a music historian. I can’t tell the fakes from the real thing well enough to make any money at it. And if the fake is indistinguishable from the real, then who cares, anyway? One Mona Lisa is as good as another from ten feet away. On the other hand, I’m not sure if typing the entirety of Coriolanus into Microsoft word makes you an artist. It does make for good entertainment, though. I’m sending Mr. Waterhouse a book about the Kennedy assassination. Time’s not all gone, Mr. Waterhouse. There are at least fifty more years coming at you, I promise, during which time the American Dream of a half-century ago will become the American Nightmare of today. At least you have the Beatles to look forward to.


Grouper – Violet Replacement album review

My introduction to ambient music came, predictably enough, from Bowie’s so-called Berlin Trilogy and Brian Eno. I decided pedantically one night while listening to “Moss Garden” that the essence of ambient music involves the suspension of time. For instance, ambient music subverts the listeners conditioned expectations concerning the future and present by creating a world that reflects the timelessness of the present as a clear pond reflects the blue sky. The repetition, minimalism, and length of ambient pieces are mirrors of eternity. Judged by my narrow standards, Grouper’s Violet Replacement is a resounding success.

Grouper’s Violet Replacement consists of two long ambient songs entitled “Rolling Gate” and “Sleep.” The first is 32 minutes long and the second is 51 minutes long. I mention the lengths because I want you to get a sense of the scale of this thing. It’s immense. There is plenty of time in this record for you to be lulled into a sense of eternity. There are no drums and few discernible vocals on this record – these are instrumental drone-base pieces in which tape loops and Wurlitzers create a beautiful and formidable ambient universe, all of it captured on film. Life here moves slowly. The wind howls constantly and the surf beats the sand.

This is a world of half-imagined beasts and incomprehensible natural forces. What change happens in the pieces is stretched out over their lengths so that it approximates geological processes. There are highs and lows in these pieces but they are the highs and lows of mountain ranges, not human emotions. Ascribing human qualities to this music is only so much pathetic fallacy, isn’t it?

Liz Harris, who is the sole member of Grouper, explored ambient music in her previous recordings but not to this degree, as far as I am aware. Violet Replacement is the teleological endpoint toward which I suspect Ms. Harris has been headed since birth. I have no idea what she’ll do next but I hope more ambient music of this scale and quality is in the works.

Having demonstrated she can navigate to infinity and beyond, she can pretty much do whatever she wants, can’t she? Unlike poor Ke$ha, who can only do what she must. The difference is everything.


Ane Brun – It All Starts With One album review

Maybe it’s only the Dexedrine listening, but as soon as I put on Ane Brun’s album It All Starts With One, I felt like I was home. Brun’s a vocalist from Norway who’s been releasing albums for nearly ten years (and has collaborated with an assortment of talented characters like Ron Sexsmith and Peter Gabriel along the way) but I never heard of her before my overlords and overladies at MVRemix tossed her CD in my lap last week. I don’t think I’ll be giving it back.

I used to know a drummer who played loud rock music and liked to relax after shows with Sade – I could see myself performing a similar cool-down operation on myself with the music of Ms. Brun, who presides majestically over a beautifully produced soundscape like a fairy queen surveying her domain. I could summarize this whole review in four words if I was permitted: this woman can sing! She makes me despise the gross articulations and affectations of our popular American singers even more.

Everything else is here too, folks – the songwriting is gorgeous and substantial, the production is sublime (in the sense of deep: deep like the ocean, not like Conrad, meaning that there are mysterious sonic beasts here gliding by, far beneath the more audible surface), and there’s an air of natural mystery pervading the whole record that I found compelling. This music is in no way predictable: the chord progressions ebb and flow through diverse instrumentation, and even when I know I’m simply hearing two familiar chords on a piano, it still sounds as fresh as the newspaper.

Now I’m not a lyrics girl, as some of you know, but I must confess: the lyrics are heavenly as well. A cursory examination suggests that although that Ms. Brun sings mostly about matters of the heart, like nearly every other singer these days who has fallen ill with willful romantic attachment – the disease of the age – her approach is sufficiently novel that not once did I roll my very spherical eyes to the heavens; the naturalism of the music extends to the lyrical metaphors and it’s all very elegant and lovely, I think. Try as I might, I can’t find a damn thing wrong with it.

Perhaps when we decode the messages of extraterrestrials someday, we’ll find they read: SEND MORE ANE BRUN. I can’t recall the last time an album made me feel so otherworldly and so at home at the same time. Bravo!


The Lumineers – The Lumineers album review

Maybe it’s because I live in sensitive, bearded, porchy Portland, Oregon, but like David Lowery sang in “Teen Angst,” I’m convinced that the world needs another folk singer like I need a hole in the head. So when my taskmasters at MVRemix tossed the Lumineers’ self-titled debut album my way for review I caught it with one hand and reached for my revolver with the other because I knew exactly what I was in for.

Like the British Mumford and Sons, the Lumineers specialize in folk rock with the “rock” part conspicuously excised. Having climbed on the roots bandwagon at the same moment that many of their more creative and talented peers are scampering out of it in favor of a more baroque, progressive approach to folk rock, the Lumineers make folk music for people who aren’t really music fans. There’s nothing here you haven’t heard done a thousand times already in films and commercials: plaintive white dude singing something nebulously romantic over acoustic guitars and strings, all of it delivered with sunny earnestness and obliviousness to the last fifty years of popular music.

Now your humble reviewer is prone to laud works of musical art that either eschew genre for the sake of playful experimentation, even if they are flawed, or works of musical art that adhere to the formalities of a genre but demonstrate supreme excellence within that genre, but The Lumineers accomplishes neither; it’s a somewhat dull, exquisitely recorded collection of songs in the folk rock genre.

Wesley Schultz, the purported bard of this trio, has a pleasant enough voice that at times reminds me of Hamilton Leithauser’s (Walkmen) without the whole raspy Paul Westerberg thing that that fellow does so well. Mr. Schultz and his two bandmates forge an intricate acoustic soundscape with pianos, assorted stringed instruments, drums, clapping, footstomping, and even ambient crowd noises.

So what’s the problem? Same as ever – it’s the songs, stupid. Now let me share one of Roberta’s Rules (and there are always exceptions) with you; Interesting or clever lyrics cannot really elevate the quality of a song. The lyrics here are clever enough but I didn’t hear anything brilliant (listen to Eleanor Friedburger or Craig Finn if you’ve forgotten what lyrical brilliance sounds like). Ignoring the lyrics for a moment, the songs here are all very similar. None stray more than a boulder’s throw from the tried and true path of commercialized folk rock. There is not a single surprising chord or note on this album. Is it too much to want to be surprised these days by a little dissonance? Not that this record won’t be a great success.

I look forward to hearing “Slow It Down” and other Lumineers songs in car commercials soon but I’m not buying either. By the way, real folk music isn’t pleasant. It’s terrifying. “Kill yourself!” Look it up.


Brendan Benson – What Kind Of World album review

“Well here it goes, another losing streak,” are the first words Brendan Benson sings on “Bad For Me,” the single from his new album What Kind of World. Although the album is ostensibly about Mr. Benson’s failure to secure lasting victories on love’s battlefield, the esoteric meaning of the words allude to Mr. Benson’s pessimism about his music career. Once touted as the next big thing, Mr. Benson’s recent solo albums have failed to secure this title for their creator. What Kind of World is, sadly, in the same vein.

It’s neither excellent nor mediocre; instead, it’s competent. It offers 12 songs sharing certain commonalities: pessimism concerning romance, chord progressions that seldom venture outside of the realm of expectations, and production that, in spite of its lo-fi aspirations, is a little too sanitized for my tastes. Every note sounds like it was approved by the Council of Rock Safety. Although a lot of reviewers have called this album power pop, I’m not sure that’s the case. The phrase that comes to mind is adult contemporary for young people (the song “No One Else But You”).

Mr. Benson takes few risks when it comes to his songwriting and is not one for subverting expectation. I think that as the indie rockers of recent years get older and more settled in their insulated and comfortable lifestyles we’re going to be hearing more of this type of music. It’s absolutely unthreatening and unchallenging and it makes AC Newman’s work with the New Pornographers (of whom I’m a fan) sound like Metal Box in comparison. It’s all very saccharine and sounds like something that suburban twenty-somethings might enjoy as a soundtrack to their romantic trials and tribulations.

I’m being a little hard on Mr. Benson; he is a consummate craftsperson and as I said, none of these songs are even mediocre. They’re well-constructed and arranged and have interesting timbres that enter and vacate the mix in commendable ways and Mr. Benson knows what he’s doing, but I kind of wish he didn’t. His talented musicianship might engender more interesting results if he let go of doing what he does well and eschewed his proverbial comfort zone. I did like the last track, a country number called “On the Fence,” as well as the first two tracks, which are the title track and the single “Bad for Me,” but having just removed my headphones, I can’t seem to recall how they went.