Features and reviews focusing on the known and unknown legends of Rock 'n' Roll; the private press heroes, doomed power poppers, psychedelic guitar warlords, avant garde outsiders, and lo-fidelity all stars.
I first met Lou Rogai sometime around the turn of the century at a basement show in Scranton, PA. I don’t quite remember why I was there. It was probably just because I saw a flier hanging up somewhere, and I was desperate to find some like-minded musical souls in such a small town. It’s important to keep in mind that this was a time before social media bound us all up in its tendrils, and making connections with others about matters such as art and music was not as easy then; especially in an area as unwieldy as this particular and peculiar corner Northeastern Pennsylvania which I still call home. I recall that evening he played a wonderfully spare acoustic set that was head and shoulders above most of the other local stuff I had encountered up to that point. After the show we chatted, and I traded him one of my hopefully amateurish cassette demos for one of his CD’s. Credited to Lou, the EP was titled Empty Throne. I recall the music being a shimmering and dusty mix of Springsteen era Nebraska mixed with the influences of his then indie folk contemporaries.
We periodically kept in touch, and when I next heard from Lou, things had changed. He was no longer a solo artist. The nom de plum he was operating under now was Lewis & Clarke and the sounds he was creating had expanded, and so had the personnel. Things were in widescreen now; the expeditionary party had been formed. Over the ensuing years, Lou and I ended up working together on a U.S. release of the group’s debut album Bare Bones and Branches before we both moved in to other things. People to this day still ask me about their cover of Jandek’s “Nancy Sings,” that the group cut for a tribute album to the enigmatic Texan for my label back in 2005.
But time as they say, does indeed march on. I suppose I’m thinking about those early days for a few reasons, mainly because for the first time since that tentative (and now very scarce) early EP was released almost twenty years back that Lou Rogai is releasing a new record Cathedral under his own name again. The other reason is because his latest work is very concerned with time and memory. Bubbling underneath the album’s shimmering surfaces of ambient, folk, and neoclassical textures, lies the albums’ central mediation on how we relate to our past, and find refuge in places both physical and temporal. I imagine that if you listened to Lou’s first EP followed back to back with his latest offering, it would create the same kind of cognitive dissonance that would occur if you watched the first episode of Mad Men and then went directly to the series finale.
Cathedral makes it pretty obvious this is man who has been on a journey both artistic and personal. On the album’s three-movement 17 minute piece, Rogai strips away the confines of song structure, submerging himself in the slipstream, so to speak. While the the music featured on the second side entitled Music From Essere Amato spins like an elegant collision between Morricone and the Rachel’s. It’s funny how a lot of the time, the most vital work an artist produces occurs when they ditch the roadmap, and drive towards the unknown darkness on the edge of town. That’s definitely what’s happening here, and for those listeners with open mind; it’s certainly a trip worth taking.
I feel a little intimidated writing this review. As John Darnielle, is a bit of a hero of mine when it comes to both being a writer, and a human. With The Mountain Goats’ latest single, JD tries on the mantle of one of his own heroes, Ozzy Osbourne. “Passaic 1975” details a day in the life of the Ozzman in his mid-70’s prime envisioned through the author’s lens. The lyrics painstakingly detail a world of excess, and isolation that is populated by silk kimonos, blackouts, a gifted teleprompter, Gibson SG’s inlaid with pearl, and a hotel by an unnamed river.
According to Darnielle, the song was not originally intended for inclusion on the group’s latest full length,In League With Dragons, and was instead slated for an entire album devoted to early Black Sabbath and Ozzy homages that was never fully completed. Envisioned by its creator as “a 2/3 Robert Forster + 1/3 Syd Barrett Opel sessions cocktail.” Producer, Owen Pallett, had other plans for the demo he plucked it from a folder of works-in-progress (which the author had sneakily included amongst the proposed albums’ tunes). Envisioning the song as the new albums’ lead single, with an early R.E.M. jangle that the author would have most likely never considered on his own.
While the single’s flip side, “Get High and Listen to the Cure,” might not be contender in the pantheon of all-time great tMG songs; it is however a fun and catchy tune with a warm home-recorded vibe. One of those kind of songs that might make the cut on a mix tape that you’ve been carefully curating to impress the cool girl in high school who wore dark lipstick and sat in front of you in science class.
There’s something about the whole package and presentation that feels like a throwback to those days of finding obscure 7″ singles from your favorite indie rock bands in the pre-internet era. The kind of cherished piece of vinyl you would pick up at an out of town record shop on your way to catch a GBV show that the older bass player in your band drove you two hours to catch. The thing about Darnielle is that he’s always there toiling away at his craft, and he goes out deep. Venturing out sometimes into choppy waters or to depths few of us have the courage to explore. Whether that’s a good long look in the mirror wearing the skin of a metal icon, or channeling his youthful inner goth from days gone by; he’s there reporting from the frontlines. For fans of his work, even brief dispatches like this are valuable and essential.
Much like his hero Bob Dylan, psychedelic folk-rocker, Robyn Hitchcock seems to have embarked on a never-ending tour of his own. His latest single, Sunday Never Comes, seems tailor made for the merch table on said tour. Following 2017’s particularly strong self-titled effort recorded in collaboration with producer Brendan Benson, this new self-released 45 was recorded in his new adopted hometown of Nashville with a crew of local Beatles freaks (Buddy Hughen, Patrick Sansone, and Ryan Brewer), and features two new tunes which the artist himself describes as “distilling everything about The Beatles except their commercial appeal.”
He’s not wrong; Hitchcock takes the work of the fabs along with Dylan, Barrett, Reed, and Ferry (to name just a few of the canonical artists that have taken up a permanent residency in the artist’s noggin) and refracts them through his own unique musical prism. The A-side “Sunday Never Comes,” is anchored by a snaking Velvets informed guitar line that lurks under layers of tremolo, while Hitchcock’s lyrics employ a hallucinatory dream logic while simultaneously working as meditation on time and memory. The flip side, “Take Off Your Bandages,” drags the kaleidoscopic sounds of 1966 into 2019 with a track inspired by the activism of the students at Stoneman Douglas High School. For longtime fans of Robyn’s work and those new to the artist’s peculiar catalog of songs about buildings and food, this new single is either a great reminder he’s still here or a short introductory course to the artists’ modus operandi. We heartily recommend grabbing a copy before it evaporates or time destroys us all like a Mexican god.
By 1969 Alex Chilton has most likely sensed the looming demise of his group The Box Tops, and was looking for a way out. He was only 16 years old in 1967 when he scored the biggest hit of his entire career with “The Letter,” thanks in no small part to his growling gravel voiced singing. But after two years of almost non-stop touring and recording sessions, the wheels were definitely starting to come off the bus.
The two songs captured on this single (wrapped inside a sleeve featuring a candid photo of Alex catching a nap on the same studio floor he cut these demos on nine years later) capture the artist in transition between the soulful crooning of The Box Tops and the Anglophile informed sound of the tragically doomed Big Star. The demos presented on here were recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with engineer Terry Manning whom Chilton befriended while working on Box Tops recordings there. One of the most striking things about these tunes is that these are probably some of the earliest recordings that capture Alex singing using his natural tenor voice that he would later utilize to great effect in Big Star. “It Isn’t Always That Easy,” is a dark slice of downer folk which reflects the isolation of constantly being on the road and having his musical vision stifled by producers looking for the next big hit. The flip side by contrast is a way more optimistic piano driven number that still has one foot in the some of his soon to be prior group’s sunny pop impulses. While not probably the best place for neophytes to jump in, it’s just simply a pleasure to hear some unheard (at least, to these ears) Alex sides on vinyl for the first time, especially from so early on his career in a period when the possibilities of where the artist would follow his muse were still wide open. By the end of the sixties, Alex would be free again to find a new illusion. Welcome to the future.
Based on the sounds contained on Chicago-based avant-folkie Bill MacKay’s latest albumFountain Fire, it seems apparent he’s been racking up the miles both literally and figuratively. It’s a dusty gem of an album that slowly reveals its treasures with repeated listening, and feels like a sprawling road trip across a new weird America with a transatlantic flight or two thrown in for good measure.
Album opener “Pre-California,” sets the table in a cinematic fashion, allowing a widescreen view of MacKay’s 6-string sprawl replete with walls of rumbling, and sliding guitars which evoke images of tectonic shifts, and primordial volcanic ooze. It’s a mostly instrumental set, but the few tracks which utilize vocals are stunners; such as the Janschian English folk moves displayed on “Birds of May.” It’s a timeless sounding set that hums with a crackling kinetic energy, even in its quieter and more contemplative moments. Closing with the urgent and apocalyptic sounding “Dragon Country,” MacKay seems to evoke the sound of darkness descending with its nervy acoustic finger picking, walls of tremolo, and sneaky electric guitar lines. Fountain Fire is an album that evokes powerful emotions and imagery almost entirely via MacKay’s masterful guitar work. Just hop in the van, and let him do all the driving; it’s a trip worth taking.
Motel In Saginawfrom the heretofore-unknown group StumpWater is another winning archival discovery from the trusted ears of the Drag City label which is being reissued for the first time in conjunction with Galactic Zoo Disk. Originally self-released in 1973, the amazingly still-active Aurora, Illinois based group’s unearthed album is a denim clad sepia toned slice of conceptual folk rock. The whole damn thing is so professional sounding and spot on, that you might even find yourself checking the record’s label for a steamboat; if you know what I mean.
The album is based around a group of characters that populate the small town hotel that gives the record its name. Using it as a conceptual framework on which the group hangs the occupants’ sad and desperate tales of loneliness. Sound wise; it’s all beautiful shimmering minor key strumming and tight vocal harmonies that would probably even impress the Croz himself. The writing is pointed, and mostly devastating character sketches that don’t let anyone off easy. “Romantic Courtship Turns Into Boring Marriage Blues,” unflinchingly details the decay of a relationship; the writing boasts an approach, and a dark humor which is very similar to another one of the era’s new Dylans, Loudon Wainwright III. Elsewhere, the album deals with death, “Now That He’s Passed Away,” isolation “The Hermit,” and the addiction “Tired Man” with the same type of direct songwriting precision and skill.
Motel In Saginaw sits nicely alongside such other real people loner folk epics such as label mate Gary Higgins’Red Hash and David Kauffman and Eric Caboor’sSongs from Suicide Bridge. Much like the aforementioned albums, the record’s bleak subject matter may be a bit too heavy for some to take. But for those that hang in there though the dark roads the group takes you down, there’s two rays of light that break through the existential gloom that hangs over that Saginaw motel in the form of the album’s two closing tracks; first there’s the wonderfully disarming title track which is love song in the truest sense of the word, and then the stunning album closer “A Thousand Voices.” These final two songs speak to finding love and salvation in others in order to break out of the confines of one’s own self-imposed prisons. The stories this album tells are universal; ones that are able to speak to the heart of the listener as much today as they would have in 1973. For those who aren’t afraid to go a little dark, it’s check in time.
True North the latest album from living legend amongst us Michael Chapman feels like a collection of songs that were written in a series of motel rooms, and not the kind of places you would like to stay in unless you absolutely had to. They are the kind of lodgings that you imagine have the shades perpetually drawn, are strewn with empty bottles of cheap booze, and have ashtrays that are overflowing with cigarette butts.
It’s a record that sounds populated by ghosts and regret with the 78 year old Chapman ruminating on all of fate’s cruel twists, and roads not taken. A dark and vital collection of songs that boast a masterfully spare production courtesy of Steve Gunn. Most of the time, it’s just Chapman’s time worn voice accompanied by his beautifully down-tuned acoustic guitar ringing clear as a bell against oblivion. It’s stripped bare with just the right amount of accompaniment; some of the best of it coming from the pedal steel of BJ Cole whose playing adds a haunting element to the proceedings, cellist Sarah Smout’s ethereal strings, and Bridget St John’s occasional vocal turns which shine especially on “Full Bottle, Empty Heart.”
The lyrics onTrue North are direct, and they cut deep. Chapman sounds like a man who doesn’t have the time for the bullshit anymore, and seems painfully aware of the clock running out. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.