Ordinarily I limit my introduction to some political ranting and raving, and I never get into too much personal stuff, because no one cares, and the point is the music. This time, however, I’m making an exception.
In February of 2012 my wife was diagnosed with a rare cancer (cardiac sarcoma-a tumor wrapped around part of her heart and pulmonary artery), and we sought out an amazing doctor in Houston, who performed, with his team, what can only be called a miracle, and they saved her life. She underwent six rounds of intense chemotherapy over the summer, and had to withdraw from law school, but she continued to work, and she never stopped being a mom. She also had several more surgical procedures over the course of the past six months. She is now a cancer survivor. Yes, she is also Superwoman.
I’m writing about this is because that fight has consumed the last year of our lives and affected every aspect of who we are. As a result of everything that was going on, I found there were times when I just couldn’t write. I couldn’t bring myself to focus enough to stay with anything. My mind was always racing as I went over all the medical details again and again, trying to figure out a way it would all make sense. I went through periods where I couldn’t listen to music, and I was disinclined to talk with people, so I disengaged from the world as much as possible. I couldn’t even play guitar for weeks at a time.
I’ve told everyone that my wife is the strongest person I’ve ever known, and it’s as true as anything I’ve ever said in my life. She has been my inspiration to get it together and keep going every day, no matter what she was facing. Watching her handle it all with such bravery and passion was overwhelming sometimes. It woke me up and it gave me a new view of the world, and my place in it. And it made me realize how blessed I am to be on this ride with her. In the spirit of recovery I will try my best to be a better citizen of the planet, and by extension a better person, in 2013. Here’s to a new beginning. Better get on with it, I’ve got a lot of work to do. Thanks, as always, for reading. Love you, honey.
Kail Baxley, Double EP (Forty Below)
Kail Baxley grew up in the same small town as James Brown, and as a child he reportedly knew the Godfather of Soul… personally. Baxley went on to be a successful amateur boxer as a teenager, but when he received a guitar as a high school graduation gift a switch was flipped and he found his other calling. He took to the guitar, and, eventually, he toured the U.S., Europe and parts of Africa before landing in L.A.. He met producer Eric Corne and he soon found himself in Elliott Smith’s New Monkey Studio. This disc is a pairing of a 5-song EP (Heatstroke) and a 4-song EP (The Wind And The War) that, in some ways, couldn’t be more different, but represent the two sides of Baxley’s music. His acquits himself nicely with his odd concoction of “blues, hip-hop, gospel, soul” that takes on very different forms on various songs. On Heatstroke, “Don’t Matter To Me” sounds quite a bit like early 90s college radio one-shotters David & David, and “Heatstroke,” which carries with it a really big hook, is some powerful gospel-soul. “Boy Got It Bad” is an a cappella number with handclaps, and a violin shows up front and center on the other David & David sound-alike, “Say Goodbye To The Night.” The Wind And The War EP opts, on the other hand, for the folk-blues of “Legend Of The Western Hills” and the country-flavored “Old Voices.” And maybe the best cut, although “Heatstroke” runs a close second, is the ethereal “Black River Son.” An entire record of songs like that would present a worthwhile challenge for any folk songwriter worth his/her salt. Job well done.
Bear Colony, Soft Eyes (Esperanza Plantation)
This Arkansas-based outfit took five years to follow up their debut, and on this record they took things in a decidedly different direction, evolving from earthy acoustics into some extraterrestrial electronics, and they have, obviously, gone deeper into the collective subconscious with their songs as a result. Founder/vocalist Vince Griffin pulled from the depths of his soul and turned a creative corner. There’s not a dud among the 13 cuts here as each and every one howls out a rage of its own. The strum of an acoustic guitar trying to bust through a wash of noise introduces “We Don’t Know Harm,” and it’s easy to hear that the noise isn’t meant to bury the emotions, it’s there to help convey them. By the time it reaches its mid-point, “Bad Blood” shows itself to be an awesome mash-up of electro-emo-shoegazey- post 90s rock, and it ends on a burning fuzz-ride. Then they unleash “Monster,” with a hook the size of Godzilla, and they really lean toward the post-90s lounge-noise-dance-rock that came and went like a shooting star. This record should captivate a lot of people.
Black Forest Fire, Transit of Venus (Sedimental)
Off the beaten path Austin-ites, with a Stars Of The Lid connection, make some delirious dream-pop. Drummer Karen Skloss (who has an MFA in film from Texas-Austin) can pound like Meg White (“Live News Feed”), but she sings like she’s in a shoegazer band that’s pulling from My Bloody Valentine and Ride (“Do It for Sara”). (There appears to be a lot of that going around these days.) It’s mostly slow to mid-tempo, with some intense emotional posturing (an off-shoot of Karen’s film background, perhaps), and it’s also catchy as all get out underneath all the moss. It’s musically sluggish at certain points, but mostly in a good way, both dreamy and dirge-like at the same time. And then “August Spring” invokes Juliana Hatfield, and I ain’t complainin’ about that. There are times when it’s as if there’s a missing element in their sound, and beefing up the low-end and adding some weight might have brought out another dimension. Another accomplished Austin ensemble with the potential to excel. They just keep cranking ‘em out. It’s like Sweden, for cryin’ out loud, it never stops. It’s gotta be something in that Texas water.
Rory Block, I Belong To The Band: A Tribute To Rev. Gary Davis (Stony Plain)
Rory (Aurora) Block does her own take on a personal tribute record once again, and this time it’s the mysterious, transcendent blues/folk/gospel performer Gary Davis, one of her musical heroes. She also recorded a Robert Johnson tribute album in 2006. Davis is among the most fascinating bluesmen in American music history. He apparently recorded singles for twenty years before actually making an album in 1954, and his broad talents struck a chord with both the blues crowd and the gospel/R&B crowd, but his fame didn’t, ultimately, rise to the level of his talents. He died in 1972 a fairly obscure figure, only to be “re-discovered” by a new generation of roots music fans in the 80s/90s. Block was a Greenwich Village baby, who was probably surrounded by all sorts of music as a kid, and her musical education began early. She started her career as a teenager, and originally recorded under the name Sunshine Kate in the mid-70s. She travelled to Gary Davis’s home when she was 14, with her friend Stefan Grossman, and the journey became a watershed moment for her. She kicks things off with a whoop and a holler on “Samson & Delilah,” and plays it like she’s about to jump out of her skin. She tones it down, but only a little, on the underground gospel classic, “Gonna Sit Down On The Banks Of The River,” and we’re off and running by then. Block appears to really have a strong affinity for the gospel side of things, as the album is heavily weighted in that direction. She is well-respected in the modern blues community, due to her career longevity and her very wide open approach to the blues, and this album should find a home with her fans.
Dream Boat, Eclipsing (Cloud)
Page Campbell and Dan Donahue (who has contributed material to Elf Power, of Montreal and Bear In Heaven) are the yin and yang of Athens, GA.’s Dream Boat. The two have a long history together, and even share the same birth date. Here they’re joined by lots of friends on the post-psychedelic adventure that is their first full-length recording project. “Wildfires” is nice, heady psych-folk with a dollop of electro-folk craziness tossed in just for shits and giggles; and after that song you get a sense that the destination might not be exactly straight ahead. “Done” is sparse, and, dare I say, elegant bad- mood pop that really clicks. And, yes, Page’s harmonies are “haunting and hypnotic,” as the press kit declares, but it’s more than that. The vocals are a big part of it, but there’s also a point-counterpoint aspect, insofar as you have the pointed piano on the fluid “Picture,” or the throbbing beats that appear on the languid “Sea To Sky.” There are “fractals” of sound that break apart and reconnect in unexpected ways. “Fever,” for example, is like a drugged-out Be Good Tanyas, if you can imagine such a thing. Whatever it is they’re saying, they evidently know how they want to say it, and the songs are distinctive, focused and direct, even within the context of in-directness. I think it’s fair to say these guys have a symbiosis that likely includes a lot more of the same.
Indian Handcrafts, Civil Disobedience For Losers (Sargent House)
Oh, geez… another mind-blowing “power-duo,” and from Canada, no less. Point of fact, that’s exactly what this is, but after I read the album was recorded while the guitar player was dealing with a BROKEN HAND I cast aside all preconceived notions and was fully on board, because this guy must be one single- minded motherfucker. Drummer/vocalist Brandon James Aikins and aforementioned guitarist/vocalist Daniel Brandon Allen are IH (Melvins drummers Dale and Coady also make an appearance), and they’re in attack mode from jump street on track one, “Bruce Lee,” with some post-psychedelic, prog-noise that hits right between the ears. For “Red Action,” just imagine Kiss, roughly fifteen years ago, smoking a lot of crack and turning the distortion pedals all the way up, and you’re on your way. And “Worm In My Stomach” provides the obligatory acrid, noise-metal fix with some acidic vocals, while “Terminal Horse” sounds like the Dead Kennedy’s snot-nosed younger brother. Comparisons to Hella or Tweakbird, or even Modey Lemon, aren’t totally off the mark, if you’re trying to vaguely describe what area of the musical landscape you’re talking about, (“Dude, they’re like Grand Funk on meth”), but the songs on Civil Disobedience… are so varied it’s easy to ascertain that Aikins and Allen are still refining a sound that is the conglomeration of hundreds of different records they devoured in their formative years. And they don’t have to pummel you with power-riffing and skronk. They can ride along the edge of the power- duo world without falling in, producing darkly-hued heavy rock paeans even with the volume turned down. They would be well-advised to continue bending their sound in new ways, and further exploding the hard rock paradigm, because it works for them. Allen’s doctor told him it was his problem if the hand got worse while they were recording, but, as it turned out, all’s well that ends well in this case and the hand healed fine. Allen: “It was a little painful some days, but because of being there in the surroundings it was easy to get around that…” Like I said, single-minded.
Jacob Morris, Moths (Cleft/Cloud)
This was one of the best albums of 2012 that almost nobody heard. The songwriting throughout is developed and intelligent, and the effect is that the songs take root in your noggin right away and continue to grow each time they’re engaged. Now, before I venture any further I would like to mention that Morris doesn’t specifically sound like Elliott Smith, per se, but on the first few tracks of this album the tone of his vocals certainly accommodates a low-mood, downbeat, exploratory singer/songwriter model with much aplomb, and E. Smith came to mind more than once as a phrase/riff grabbed me here or there. On “Lost Twilight” he actually sounds a little like Rocky Votolato, maybe, kinda, sorta, but “Dirty Dove” is excellent weird guy psych-pop that doesn’t sound like anybody but Jacob Morris. Same goes for the cool, d-i-y, lo-fi tune called “Wet Cigarette.” It’s generally unobtrusive post-folk that won’t offend anyone right off, but it’s not without serious musical heft. And even though Morris plays guitar, bass, cello, keyboards and some percussion it doesn’t come across as claustrophobic. It’s just a damn good, low-key album by an un-boastful songwriter whose arc is rising fast.
The Wonder Revolution, Firefly (Air House)
This Wichita, Kansas unit is a “collective” that revolves primarily around songwriter/guitarist David Lord. Along with drummer Nathan Wilder, of the awesomely awesome Appleseed Cast, and with almost a dozen other friends helping out, the current version of The Wonder Revolution released three albums in 2012! Each of the albums builds around the central core of ideas devised by Lord, but each one also emits a different musical frequency, based largely upon the configuration of the band at that time. Lord says, “…in a way, each album is a new band.” For a few seconds, the opener, “Linden Tree,” seems to want to unfurl a sonic world of pain and wonder, with suggestions of cosmic-electro-drug rock, but it soon turns into something else entirely, an internalized mood piece that is completely subsumed in its own headspace. “Layers of Miracles,” which is the de facto first single off the album, and sounds like The Cranberries doing a Mazzy Star cover, turns up the pop quotient to full effect. Then there’s “Invisible Until,” which is somewhat like an airy Curve song that morphs into a snatch of M83, and then settles back down and ends on the pop refrain, “like a firefly…” over and over. It’s the badge song from an album that will make for a great summertime night-driving companion.