Friday, January 30, 2009

Trail's End

Sorry to extend this look back at 2008 over so many posts, and so deep into the new year. But, we'd like to take a gander, and draw your attention to, two fellers who passed in 2008 that might have been overlooked in the rush to cover all the important deaths of last year. One is an author and the other is a musician and cultural icon. We'll start with the author, and finish with the musician, so all y'all can get your mp3 fix with context.

Truth is, we're big fans of the hardboiled, noir crime fiction. From Jim Thompson and Mickey Spillane to James Ellroy and George Pelecanos, and hundreds of points in between (we could spend pages and pages of text on all the great crime novelists, obscure and well-known), we've read voraciously all the pulp we can get our hands on. Maybe it's a style thing, or maybe it says something about us that's best left buried behind the shed. So, it was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of one of the last greats in the genre, James Crumley.

James Crumley had a gift for the poetry of the amoral. None of his protagonists were redeemable, but were saintly in their hangdog and inebriated response to a world gone fucked up and seeded with the blackest thorns. There could be no good ending for Crumley's primary anti-heroes, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue. His novels were the culmination of the Amercian dream gone to shit in the dust and sand-blasted corridor from Montana to Texas, bloody and barren, bereft of a centering point and damned by those dirty deeds done by desperate and rootless men. When bad men try to do the right thing in the face of even worse men, you get a Crumley novel.

Crumley was a writer, and a damn good one, with a keen sense of place, and a feel for the motivations of the down and out. Some have suggested that Crumley himself was not so far removed in temperament from the characters he wrote. Possibly, but who knows, and does it matter? Every novel he wrote had a shimmering brilliance, his lyrical craft on display as the descent into madness played out on a stage built by migrant workers and corrupted souls. One of America's last great authors, unfazed by fad, cleverness, or winking self-acknowledgment, Crumley left our land of letters a little poorer with his going.

From his novel "The Final Country":

"It's done. This may not be my final country. I can still taste the bear in the back of my throat, bitter with the blood of the innocent, and somewhere in my old heart I can still remember the taste of love. Perhaps this is just a resting place. A warm place to drink cold beer. But wherever my final country is, my ashes will go back to Montana when I die. Maybe I've stopped looking for love. Maybe not. Maybe I will go to Paris. Who knows? But I'll sure as hell never go back to Texas again."

Recommended reading:

-The Last Good Kiss (1978)
-The Mexican Tree Duck (1993)
-The Right Madness (2005)

Now, then, the musician.

The passing of Utah Phillips back in May, at the age of 73, seemed to go virtually unnoticed outside of a small group of true believers. Perhaps in this hyper-accelerated culture the news of his death was deemed unimportant to news organizations fixated on the young, beautiful and insipid. In most circles, Phillips' death would hardly even rate a mention...who the hell cares about some old folk-singing, railroad-loving, union-shilling agitator? Well, we care. We care deeply. Utah Phillips was the last of his kind. The last of an America we can only now speak of in past tense. In the world of co-opted protest (bands selling Che t-shirts as a form of "rebellion" for profit, Hot Topic anarchy t-shirts), Phillips did it the hard way, playing Union benefits, agitating for the working-man's cause, hoboing some, and living the life of the Wobbly.

Taking his cue and inspiration from Joe Hill, Phillips created a body of work vast in scope, and essentially American in it's core. His songs, culled from years criss-crossing the country, particularly the West and Southwest, were the voice of everyman, the worker and the dreamer, the downtrodden and the uplifted. Many of Phillips' songs were either prefaced by lengthy stories or were "talking" songs themselves, detailing the many characters Phillips encountered in his travels. Phillips was a chronicler of the missing or lost America, in much the same vein as Studs Terkel, but without the NPR-like sheen of technology at his back (not a rip on Terkel, dear god, they just had different avenues of messaging). His voice laconic and familiar, his guitar work simple and malleable to the tale, Phillips wove the tapestry of the American dream through the eyes of its outcasts, from the doors of a rail car to the bars and dives of the city, from the migrant farms of the West to the Goodnight-Loving Trail.

So douse the campfire, bid goodbye to the lonesome train whistle, and turn off the lights in the Union hall (Eddie Balchowsky will sweep up the ghosts when we're gone), the bohemian bard and Western wayfarer has left the building. Somewhere in the sky there's a new constellation to guide the wanderers.

For a full overview and discography of Utah Phillips please visit here and here.

We plead, no, beg you to give the following tunes a listen and bid goodbye to an American original, and last of his kind. Please note that the track "Holding On" is an excerpt (the spoken intro, really) from Phillips' great "Eddie's Song", remixed by Ani Difranco. Yes, Ani Difranco. She did a pretty nifty job, actually.

Utah Phillips: The Goodnight-Loving Trail (mp3)

Utah Phillips: Rock Me To Sleep (mp3)

Utah Phillips w/Ani DiFranco: Holding On (mp3)

Utah Phillips: Starlight On The Rails (mp3)

Utah Phillips: Solidarity Forever (mp3)

Utah Phillips: All Used Up (mp3)

Tom Waits: The Goodnight-Loving Trail (mp3)

Please support your local storytellers.

Friday, January 09, 2009

If Only You Were Lonely

So...what'd you think of our top albums of 2008? Are we completely off our rocker? Three sheets to the wind? Full of shit? Do we have no taste whatsoever? You tell us, cuz we sure as hell have no clue.

Today, we'll have more fodder for the cannon (canon?). The following are our favorite re-issues of 2008. Again, we've probably missed a hundred great albums, so don't be shy in telling us what great adventure we have yet to embark on. Of course, the following list is merely subjective, but we sorta think if you like what we normally post here, these records might hold some sort of appeal to you. Or not. Hey, we don't have to define it...we know pornography when see it. Ummmm....

The Big Rock Candy Mountain Top Re-Issues of 2008 (in alphabetical-ish order)

George Coleman: Bongo Joe

There's no point in beating a dead horse, is there (insert relevant cliche)? We already wrote about this back here. An oil drum pounding, beat ranting genius. Essential.

George Coleman: Cool It (mp3)

Tommy Jay: Tom's Tall Tales of Trauma

Columbus, Ohio scuzz rock, folk, punk, DIY. Originally released as a cassette, with 2-track hiss proudly featured, Robert Pollard and his Guided By Voices cohorts were certainly paying attention.

Tommy Jay: Unknown (mp3)

Tommy Jay: Winter Nomad (mp3)

Jesus And Mary Chain: The Power of Negative Thinking Box Set

With all the imitators today, it's easy to forget just how fucking good The Jesus and Mary Chain sounded. Loud drones of guitar feedback, covering sweet as poisoned candy melody. Strange how even the horrid production practices of the 80's can't keep these songs from sounding great, even today. Without these records, your indie rock collection wouldn't even exist, and I mean your My Bloody Valentine and Pixies albums, too.

(Tracks deleted because The Jesus and Mary Chain, or a representative, don't want you to sample any of their songs. There are 80 songs on the box set that we are (or were) recommending. They don't want you to hear 4 of them. In these economic times, please keep that in mind when considering spending your hard-earned cash on an expensive set of music made by people who already have more money than you do. Just sayin'.)

The Pogues: Just Look Them Straight In The Eye and Say...Pogue Mahone Box Set

Another no-brainer. 5 goddamn discs of rarities, unreleased and live stuff. Such a treasure trove of brilliant goodness from everyone's favorite traditional Irish punk band, it boggles our ever-lovin' mind. Honestly, this is so essential, that to be without it is to be bereft of the gift of music. No, really. And when you listen to "Rake At the Gates of Hell", crank the volume and dance around your apartment or home like the mad men and women you are.

The Pogues: The Rake At The Gates Of Hell (mp3)

The Pogues: White City (live) (mp3)

The Pogues: Rainy Night In Soho (mp3)

The Pogues: The Last of McGee (mp3)

The Pogues: Boat Train (mp3)

The Famous L. Renfroe: Children

Nobody know much about this cat (do a google search, you'll see pretty much the same response). It's a funk gospel soul workout, gritty and gloriously heaven bound, transcendent and mired in the clay of life.

Famous L. Renfroe: Reaching (mp3)

Famous L. Renfroe: Believe (mp3)

The Replacements: Complete Catalog (w/ a shitload of bonus tracks)

America's greatest rock band (yeah, I said it, and I mean it) gets the deluxe treatment with copious bonus cuts which you may already have bootlegs of, but isn't it super keen to have them all in one place? Sweet and sour in all the right places.

The Replacements: Can't Hardly Wait (Outtake-Electric) (mp3)

The Replacements: If Only You Were Lonely (Twin Tone Single Version) (mp3)

The Replacements w/Tom Waits: Date To Church (mp3)

The Replacements: We Know The Night (Outtake) (mp3)

Various: Life Is A Problem

This is the hardest record to pull only a song or two from. Every goddamn song is a blissed-out, guitar-strangled gospel stomper. Shouty hallelujahs and hosannas, tossing in some greasy organ and sanctified choir assists, and we all went to heaven in a little rowboat, plugged and plastered over the holiest of holes. This is where rock'n'roll really began, all sex and salvation. Can we get an Amen?

The Straight Street Group: Angels Keep Watch Over Me (mp3)

Bishop Perry Tills: I Found A Solid Rock (mp3)

When possible, please support your local, independent businesses.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Until The Darkness Sheds It's Veil,
There'll Be Blue Shadows On The Trail

Happy New Year, folks.

Always late to the party, we,finally, we finish off our Favorite Records of the Year list with the Top Ten today. We'll follow this up with our favorite re-issues and our tribute to a couple of folks who passed last year that may have fallen under the radar. Then we'll return with regular posting, and we'll have the return of an old favorite. Phew.

There's probably hundreds of great records we missed in 2008, so please feel free to share your favorite records. We like recommendations, and still think word of mouth is the best way to discover new artists.

Before we dive into the Top 10, here's our favorite shows of the year, one of which is such a no-brainer it's almost pointless to list it. But, hell, why not?

Favorite Shows of 2008:

-Tom Waits @ The Ohio Theatre, Columbus, Ohio
-King Khan and His Sensational Shrines @ Pitchfork Festival, Chicago
-Jolie Holland @ The Lakeshore Theatre, Chicago
-American Music Club @ Schubas, Chicago

Let's do this, then, shall we? Songs ripped from vinyl when possible.

Big Rock Candy Mountain Favorite Records of the Year (Pt.3)

10. The Dirtbombs: We Have You Surrounded LP, "Play Sparks" 7" and "Brand New Game" 7"

Main Dirtbomb Mick Collins can be a frustrating feller for some folks who enjoy artists to be easily pigeonholed. Throughout his career and his various bands (The Gories, The Voltaire Brothers, Blacktop, The Screws, etc.), Collins has explored the history of rock with an eye for all things cool. Filtering soul through a garbage can fuzz, The Dirtbombs come closest to what one would generically call a "conventional" band, which isn't really saying much, as they are hardly predictable. On "We Have You Surrounded" and the various 7 inchers released this year, The Dirtbombs mine the very heart rhythm and blues, mixing garage sleaze and deep soul into a jiveass concoction best heard a full volume and dancing your porkpie hat. There are many imitators to this style, but the Dirtbombs remain the original, and the best.

The Dirtbombs: Ever Lovin' Man (mp3)

The Dirtbombs: All My Friends (Should Be Punished) (mp3)

9. Jolie Holland: The Living and the Dead

Jolie makes a rock album. Well, not really, but on "The Living and the Dead", Holland brings in an actual band: guitar, drums, bass, that sort of thing. It makes for a revelatory listen. What's intrigued about Holland in the past was her use of "old-timey" tropes in both instrumentation and in her vocal delivery, echoing Marcus' "old weird America", and placing an outsider's context into the proceedings. On this record, Hollands voice is still the magical, dust bowl meander that we love so dearly. It's a beautiful and hazy instrument. But placing it into a less fragile environment, pushing it out in front of a structured musical backdrop, serves to highlight and push Holland into another level. It shows her versatility as a performer, and the strength of her songwriting, allowing her to roam free.

Jolie Holland: Mexico City (mp3)

8. Miss Ludella Black and the Masonics: From This Witness Stand

Former Delmona and Headcoatee, Ludella Black hooks up with the mighty Masonics for her second proper "solo" album. A trash-noir masterpiece, Black alternates between sleazy guitar sex and lo-fi loungey ruminations on love, lust and loss. Best heard as two sides (if you know what we mean), this is a record that sticks in your gut and pulls the strings of your basest desires.

Miss Ludella Black and The Masonics: Loony (mp3)

Miss Ludella Black and The Masonics: This Heart Is Condemned (mp3)

7. Hipbone Slim: The Sheik Said Shake

In all honesty, there's nothing revelatory on this record. It's not an album that will change your life. But you'll be hard pressed to pull this off your rekkid player. Best known to some as Sir Bald Diddley, Hipbone Slim takes us to the barn dance at the end of the world, and has us (square) dancing like there aint no tomorrow. Rockabilly without the pyscho (gad, how we hate psychobilly, and all it entails), and Country without the treacle, this record is an instant party classic, shaking your boogie in all the right places. It's a beer guzzlin', boot scootin' throwdown, all swaggering twang-trash, who's only aim is to fuck'n'run. There's a reason this record ranked so highly on our list, and we really encourage you to check the attached mp3's to see how great this record is. We'll let the music speak for itself.

Hipbone Slim: Put A Rocket Up It (mp3)

Hipbone Slim: The Sheik Said Shake (mp3)

6. Monsieur Jeffrey Evans: Lord Keep Me Sanctified 7"

2 songs. 2 songs is all you get with this selection. What more do you need? All hail the mighty 7", where there is no time to fuck around. You gotta give your best, and no 80 minute cd filler to cover your ass. We covered Msr. Evans not too long ago, and our opinion holds. We'd like to see most other artists out there distill a sound and vision into such a concise vision as Evans does on this '45. A hallelujah guitar scuzz burst, with Evans doing his best backwoods hillbilly yowl and holler. What more, really, could you ask for in life?

Monsieur Jeffrey Evans and His Southern Aces: Lord Keep Me Sanctified (mp3)

5. AA Bondy: American Hearts

Another record we covered previously. Here's what we wrote:

"...A classic back porch record that reminds us, eerily, of Townes Van Zandt's early records.

The first thing you notice about the record is its intimacy. The recording is barely, production-wise, a step above Palace's "Days In The Wake", and you keep expecting to hear a passing car or crickets in the background. That's a good thing. Sure, it's filled with snare, piano/organ, and pedal steel, but done in such an understated way as to render the proceedings close. You are there, sitting on the steps to the porch, lit by fireflies, watching with wonder. It's an album rooted in an older, forgotten time.

Bondy's voice has a weariness, a whiskey and nicotine timbre, that pulls you in, invites you to stay the night and dance the slow waltz of the moonlight.

"There's A Reason" is a moment of pure beauty and in the heart of sadness. A lament of of hope and remembrance, a sepia-toned ode to the beating of the heart, a valedictory on the space between the possible and the dreamt."

That pretty much sums it up, then, doesn't it?

AA Bondy: There Is A Reason (mp3)

AA Bondy: Vice Rag (mp3)

4. Andre Williams: Can You Deal With It

Oh, Andre. A filthy son of a bitch, isn't he? He's been criticized as an R'n'B and Soul guy that's safe for white people to like. I'm not sure what that means, outside of jackass pretentiousness and an unwillingness of music critics to move beyond convention. It's a stupid criticism which doesn't take into account that great music should be enjoyed by any damn person who wants to appreciate it. Williams has worked with a variety of musicians throughout his career, and recently he's experienced his revival with the help of a slew of garage bands. So, you know, he's getting paid now, which is more than could be said for his years of depending on the R'n'B crowd to continue ignoring him, to the point where he was homeless and forgotten.

Rant over, why should you care about this particular record? Well, because it's his best since Silky. Teaming up with New Orleans stalwarts Morning 40 Federation (the New Orleans Hellhounds on this record) and the inimitable Mr. Quintron (see #17), Williams creates a nasty rhythm and booze concoction, all sex and sin with the fatback bacon fat rising to the top of the stew pot. Quintron especially makes for the perfect foil to Williams' greasy slant on life, a pairing made in sweat and soil. Yes, you can certainly get yer, erm, freak on to this record.

Andre Williams: Pray For Your Daughter (mp3)

3. Holly Golighty and the Brokeoffs: Dirt Don't Hurt

This record is even better than last year's "You Can't Buy A Gun When You're Crying", which is really saying something, man. Holly Golightly and Lawyer Dave return to their rickety wagon jaunt through the back roads of America, filtering their unique take on brokedown Country'n'Blues through a gauzy sheen of old-timey instruments both recognizable and arcane. While Golightly gets top billing, her voice captivating as always, like some far off Appalachian tone poet through static, it's Lawyer Dave who may actually be the real star here. His grasp of mud-caked rural dystopia informs every note and lyrical line of this album, pulling us deeper and deeper into the woods. When he takes a lead or features on a duet with Golightly he sounds like that creepy uncle who lives up the road in a tiny shack who's missing a couple of fingers, and only emerges for the Holidays. This record is the secret sins of coal miner's daughter laid bare and soaked in moonshine and kudzu.

Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs: My 45 (mp3)

Holly Golightly and the Brokeoffs: Bottom Below (mp3)

2. Times New Viking: Rip It Off

This is a goddamn fucking loud record. Really, you might want to turn the volume down, 'cuz this sucker was recorded at ear-splitting volume. How three people can make this racket without the aid of any trickery is a testament to the power of the rock and the roll, maaaaannnn. I'm not sure what the hell it is about Columbus, Ohio that has consistently produced more than it's share of lo-fi trash gods, but Times New Viking follow the tradition admirably. With only one song clocking in at over 3 minutes, and most of them coming in under 2 minutes, there's no time for wankery on this album. Short, nasty bursts of guitar junk scrawling all over shouted girl/boy vocals and drums from a tin can, it's all adrenaline rush, a kick to the head and a punch to the balls. Not everyone's cuppa, surely, and there's nothing here remotely resembling soul, it's pure, distilled rawk, snotty and amateurish, and only one other record managed more time on our turntable than this'un. And did we mention that it's really, really fucking loud?

Times New Viking: (My Head)(mp3)

1. Hayes Carll: Trouble In Mind

Well, when it comes right down to it, we're a Country blog, first and foremost, aren't we? It's not easy being a Country fan these days. "Alt-Country (who cares what that is)" has become tired and boring, and contemporary assembly-line Nashville product is just bad. So when a record as brilliant as Carll's "Trouble In Mind" drops, it's cause for celebration. It's the best Country album since the mighty James Hand's "The Truth Will Set You Free".

We sort of predicted where this album might place back in May. And, sure enough, nothing else came close. Here's what we wrote then (with a bit of editing):

"Carll's voice is the even ground between early Steve Earle nasality and James McMurtry's desert-scorched ramble, drunkenly close to alt-country affectation, but he's a Texas boy, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. There's something in the water in Texas (oil?) that produces brilliant songwriters with a back-porch pick and an everyman drawl. Carll is the next in line.

The first thing you notice about Carll's songs on "Trouble In Mind" is their sense of place, the wide open spaces made claustrophobic, squeezed into those little towns you see on exit ramp signs. The type of places you'd never go, but someone comes from there, with escape in mind, heading for...the next exit ramp, maybe. The next town, the next country. Drunk and disorderly, with lost love in mind and fingers clutching the stick shift on a truck that aint been paid for yet. Their whole lives shot through with IOU's, desperate for the payoff at the end of the day, or the break of morning.

Carll delivers these Carver-esque slices through a Western veneer of fiddle, pedal steel, and grit, the long drive to the roadhouse carried bleary-eyed by the promise of a cold one, a hoedown, and a honky tonk woman."

Yep. Frankly, we don't think we could possibly convey in words how good this record is. Just give the tunes a spin, and you'll see what we mean. Reward yourself. You deserve this album.

Hayes Carll: Beaumont (mp3)

Hayes Carll: Knockin' Over Whiskeys (mp3)

Please support your local, independent musicians and record stores.