John Vanderslice – The Cedars (Native Cat Recordings)

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The 11-square-mile area, called the Cedars located in Placer County, California is a mysterious place which boasts all types of unique geological phenomena including Mars-like red slopes, strange mineralized rock formations, and high-alkaline springs that have fostered plant species found nowhere else in the world.  It’s also nearly impossible to access due to barriers both natural and legal.  A place so unique it even has piqued NASA’s interest. It’s also the title, and a source of inspiration for former American Fourtracker, John Vanderslice’s latest album.

It’s easy to draw the parallels between his latest offering and this almost alien world; as there’s almost nothing direct about the musical architecture employed on The Cedars.  Using his Oakland based Tiny Telephone studio as his own sound lab, the impeccably constructed album is filled with the sounds of humming synths, looping drum machines, bursts of white noise, and walls of multi-tracked vocals that all work to weave an unpredictable sonic backdrop which frame Vanderslice’s at times cryptic and others brutally honest songwriting.

The Cedars is a song cycle which feels like the work of a disoriented wandering soul in a world where people disappear, and locations are important. When the album begins, he doesn’t even quite sound like himself at first.  The spiraling dream logic of tracks such as “Spectral Dawn,” have a downright Lynchian zing right down to the mention of a missing girl named Audrey.  I’ve been listening to the album pretty obsessively over and over again the past few days, because it feels like a puzzle just asking to be solved.  The truth of the matter is that there are probably a few pieces Vanderslice deliberately left out of the box just to keep us guessing.  In life and art, sometimes we don’t always get all the answers we want, whether it’s a mysterious stretch of land in northern California, a relationship that dissolved for unknown reasons, or an album of jagged challenging songs.  If you think about it, isn’t it better that way?

Order the album via Native Cat Recordings.

Local Band Feel: Family Animals – The End Is Mere

coverLocal Band Feel is a column dedicated to shining a light on music that’s happening around the corner, down the block, or a few towns over in our particular corner of the Pennsylvania wilds.  We encourage you to support the bands featured, should you feel so inclined.

I remember these guys from a few years back when I was helping organize some bands to play a local arts fest.  They seemed like a bunch of unassuming friendly dudes.  One of the things that stuck out most was that the guitar they used was a battered fiesta red Fender Jag-Stang. There was something about the groups out of time approach that seemed perfectly encapsulated in their choice of that timeline scrambled Kurt Cobain designed axe.

The band that I’m talking about is the Family Animals, and up for review today is their latest The End Is Mere.  A trio comprised of two brothers, drummer Anthony Viola and vocalist-guitarist Jesse Viola along with best pal Frank DeSando on bass. The group has racked up the miles playing hundreds of shows and putting out seven proper releases over the past few years.  It’s evident they have that intangible type of telepathic connection that bands get after playing together for an extended period of time.

There seem to be three p’s that matter the most to these guys: punk, psych and prog.  I’m happy to report that their latest delivers the goods on all fronts.  Wrapped in some very groovy psychedelic art courtesy of another former local Brian Langan (SW!MS, Langor, Needle Points, etc) that perfectly matches the surreal sci-fi world the band has created on this semi-concept album.  It’s a song cycle that manages to never take itself too seriously.  There’s a Zappaesque playfulness about the proceedings that manages to shine through especially on tracks like “Guitarbot 4000 & The Two Tongued Twins (Live at Magnitard’s Tavern),” while “Captain Z Bop’s Friendly Friends” seems to use The Strawberry Alarm Clock’s “Incense and Peppermints” as a launching pad for a Nuggets influenced jam all its own.  Those are just two examples on an album full of absurdist left turns, and a crazy amount of variety from song to song.  The End Is Mere feels like a kaleidoscopic postcard from the edge of the group’s own far out musical universe.  Hop on aboard; it’s a trip well worth taking.

Alex Chilton – Songs From Robin Hood Lane (Bar/None)

AChiltonRobinmini259For a long time, whenever someone brought up the term or referred to The Great American Songbook, my eyes would roll a bit.  Rightfully or not, it conjured images of a crooning Rod Stewart delivering bland covers of American popular songs and jazz standards from yesteryear. Having raised myself on scrappy indie rock, The Velvet Underground, and a little bit of punk in high school, this wasn’t the kind of music that spoke to me in my teenage and early college years. So, when I began to discover the music of Big Star and Alex Chilton, the kind of cool jazz presented on Songs From Robin Hood Lane was pretty far off my radar and frame of reference. Although, I would eventually come around (at least a little).

I first became familiar with the majority of songs collected here when they were presented on the album Clichés which was originally released in 1993.  By the time I got around to it, it was probably sometime in the early aughts.  I ordered it from eBay, and I recall it only cost me a few bucks. The CD cover seemed a little over saturated with color, and featured a photo of a slightly disheveled looking Alex sporting a pair of shades.  The whole presentation just seemed sort of odd.  Especially when I put it on, and was presented with a short, and spare collection of acoustic covers with a decidedly jazz oriented feel. It sounded like it could have been committed to tape in a single evening. At a time when Chilton could’ve skated on the goodwill, and surging popularity of a certain legendary power pop band, the always contrarian Alex threw his listeners another curve ball instead.

Songs From Robin Hood Lane uses the location mentioned in it’s title as a jump off point for it’s focus. The same way the labels’ other recent geographically themed collection From Memphis To New Orleans spends it’s time documenting the best of Chilton’s recordings from the 1980’s once he relocated to the Big Easy. The Robin Hood Lane that’s being referred to here is the street where Alex spent his early childhood. It was here that Chilton began exploring his musician father Sidney’s record collection which included the key discovery of Chet Baker Sings which introduced the young Chilton to an artist who would prove to be a big influence on his vocal stylings.

This new compilation features five songs from Clichés while augmenting it with some previously released and unreleased songs which feature the same jazz oriented style and approach. Some of the additional tracks were cut for a Chet Baker tribute Medium Cool which was recorded with classically trained bassist Ron Miller in 1991, and an additional 1993 session also recorded with Miller.

So, the question here is does it work? Well, if you like your Chilton in crooner mode, then there are certainly some delights to be had on here. The new sequence also makes the presentation feel more like a complete album due to the greater variety of instrumentation. It’s also hard to deny the effectiveness of his readings of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” and the timelessness of “Let’s Get Lost.” Some of the covers fall a little flat for me due to personal preferences for the source material such as his reading of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The main takeaway here is Alex’s lack of pretension and the sincerity in his commitment to interpreting the material makes it worth hearing. Best of all, even when he’s flipping the through the worn and yellowed pages of that old American Songbook, his delivery makes the whole thing glow with all the coolness of a flame that burns blue. Take that Rod!

Order Songs From Robin Hood Lane from Bar None.

Our Alarm Clock – Time Flies (No Label)

326369Time Flies is the latest excursion from Ben Rosenbach’s one-man electronic post-rock project Our Alarm Clock.  Now a Dad in his thirties, he spent most of his formative musical years playing in playing in Christian rock bands.  His latest is a collection on which the worship rock alumni takes us through a secular and mostly wordless song cycle filled with deep pockets of ambient, pop, and post-rock; all of which are all filtered through his spiritually honed inner lens.

It’s an odd juxtaposition to have a set of songs be so polished, yet feel so personal.  While listening, you sometimes feel like he invited you over to audition some of the songs he cooked up in his home studio the night before or while his kid was taking a nap.  The album ebbs and flows in intensity, and moods oftentimes within the same track.  Album highlight “A Sealed Up Secret Wish” starts with minimal backwards-tracked guitars, and slowly builds in intensity until it has morphed into something resembling Godspeed You! Black Emperor, if you could imagine them dressed in their Sunday best, and sporting fresh haircuts.  While on vocal tracks such as “Pictures,” the artist sounds like he’s trying his damndest to work out his existential crises, and unresolved feelings in what sounds like real time.

Time Flies is an album that seems to work best, when Rosenbach allows the listener to glimpse a little more of the man behind the machine, such as on album closer, “Sunrise” which finds him looking up, still seeking the answers, and inviting us to do the same.  While not every track or experiment presented here always works, there’s absolutely no doubt that there’s a real guy at the heart of it trying to get to the bottom of it all through his music.  The world around us would probably be a better place, if more us cast our eyes skyward every once in a while and followed suit.

Buy the album direct from the artist.

Alex Chilton – From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None)

AlexChlton+Memphis+miniBRNLP258There’s a chasm of time, sobriety, and emotional distance that separates From Memphis to New Orleans one of Bar None’s latest Alex Chilton compilations from what some consider his most vital work both with Big Star, and his equally ground breaking art-damaged punk informed late’s 1970’s solo work.  That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love on here, but you might just have to open your mind a bit to appreciate what’s being presented here.  My introduction to this era of Alex was via the Rhino Compilation 19 Years: A Collection back when I was in college.  At first, I just didn’t get it all.  How did the wounded brilliant soul behind the emotional chaos of Big Star’s 3rd morph into the guy delivering the tongue in cheek sleaziness of “Take It Off” by the end of the collection?  I was mystified, and more than a little non-plussed at first.  Which probably would have delighted Alex to no end.  I think that’s a lot of fans’ initial reaction to this stuff who come into this era of Alex’s work via Big Star fandom.

The context goes something like this.  By 1981, Chilton was bottoming out, the balance between order and chaos Chilton seemed to dangerously court following the implosion of Big Star had tipped too much towards the latter.  Legend has it that over Christmas of that year, a cold prompted him to stop drinking for a few days.  Once he realized how much better he felt, a decision was made to stay sober.  Looking to escape some of the negative pull of his hometown associates, he relocated to take his chances in the Big Easy.  Taking a few years off from music, he washed dishes, took a gig as a tree surgeon, and played in local cover bands.

From Memphis to New Orleans culls the best from Chilton’s 1980’s solo output, once he decided to re-emerge from his self-imposed musical exile thanks in part to the encouragement of some high profile admirers like R.E.M. and The Replacements. There was also that Bangles cover of “September Girls” that surely put a few bucks in his pocket.  The Alex Chilton that emerges on these recordings is a more relaxed, and confident artist who is more willing to embrace a wider range of styles (a skill he probably honed putting in all those hours playing endless covers in local honky tonks) backed by a skillful and sympathetic band which included bassist René Coman, and drummer Doug Garrison.  Chilton shows off this versatility in his choices of oddball cover tunes which run the gamut from the soulful reading of “B-A-B-Y” to the rockabilly rave-up of “Lonely Weekends,” the faux Beach Boys pastiche of “Little GTO,” and the Brill Building assembly line of pop of “Let Me Get Close To You.”  Chilton’s originals now spoke more directly than his more impressionistic lyrical work with Big Star, although he retained a little of the subversive edge he sharpened in the late ’70’s; take for example his at times wince inducing take on the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, “No Sex,” or his takedown of hypocritical televangelists on “Guantanamerika.”  Elsewhere he deflated any myths about the perception of his rock star status on “Underclass.”

Everything presented on here has a groove, and is about as far away from the Power Pop of Big Star as imaginable.  If anything, the music presented here harkens back to his earlier work with The Box Tops.  There’s even a cover of “Nobody’s Fool” which was written by his one time Box Top vocal coach and producer Dan Penn.

This collection is one that in many ways feels like Alex Chilton is letting you flip through his thrift scored box of 45’s, while taking you for a drive down some dusty forgotten back roads in his ’73 Buick LeSabre. It took me a little bit to figure it out but sometimes, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Order From Memphis to New Orleans from Bar None.

Drunken Prayer – Cordelia Elsewhere (Deer Lodge Records)

Drunken Prayer cvr reCordelia Elsewhere is the fifth album from Drunken Prayer, which is the nom de plum of stalwart Freakwater guitarist Morgan Geer. It plays like a collection of aural snapshots gathered from a life spent on the road. “I hate what they did to my town, so I moved to another town.”  Geer sings on the ragged and rockin’ “Cordelia.”  It appears that he’s always been a traveler, a trend that began as he followed his folk singer mom around the country on tour as a youth.

The music presented on Cordelia Elsewhere is a heady, and slightly eccentric stew of American styles from the past century or so.  From the seemingly apocalyptic and mysterious lyrics that populate the neo-country blues of “Fifty Foot Locust” to the easygoing soulful groove of “Ni Ni Neo,” a lot of ground is covered over the album’s ten songs.  While the mournful pedal steel, and modern outlaw country slant of “Rubble and Dust” show an artist who’s not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve when it counts.

It seems like Geer’s time clocking up the miles has instilled in him a deep knowledge and understanding of what makes a diverse collection of songs hang together in a way to create a whole greater than its parts; while an expert mixing job by Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, R.E.M.) gives the music presented on Cordelia Elsewhere the proper depth and fidelity.  Just because it’s science doesn’t mean that it’s not beautiful.

Order Drunken Prayer direct from the artist.

R. Stevie Moore – Afterlife (Bar/None)

Curmudgeonly Godfather of DIY, R. Stevie Moore has been responsible for springing hundreds of self-released albums on the unsuspecting public for over the past 50 years.  Taking the universal sounds of The Beatles, early Zappa, The Beach Boys, and Todd Rundgren (to name just a few), he excels at shaping these influences into his own unique brand of outsider pop that exists in a universe all its own.

His latest album for Hoboken label Bar/None, Afterlife, is somewhat of a different affair than the usual release slated for the R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club.  Taking a page from one of his heroes Lou Reed, who left The Velvet Underground an “album loaded with hits,” prior to his riding off into the sun.  R. Stevie’s latest platter is all killer, and no filler. This is the result of cherry picking some of the best of his home-recorded ditties from the past couple of decades, and re-recording them to give them a pro-sounding high fidelity sheen.  The hat trick here is that he managed to do it without sacrificing all of the idiosyncrasies that make his work endearing to so many.  It probably didn’t hurt that he brought the big guns out for this one too, gathering a crew that includes sidemen such as Ariel Pink, Jason Falkner, Lane Steinberg, and producer Irwin Chusid to help him realize his vision for the record.

Unlike many of the other compilations of his work that have been released over the years, label hype seems to indicate this one might just be his sayonara to music.  I’m not sure that neither he nor I believe that be true.  Regardless if that’s the case or not, Afterlife works equally well as a primer to his peculiar brand of skewed song-craft or an epitaph for a legend.  Silver lining here is that whether this is the end or not, there’s plenty more where this came from just waiting to be discovered thanks to his vast body of work.  So, what are you waiting for?  The rabbit hole awaits.

Order Afterlife from Bar None.