#MWE

gracie & rachel @ cat's cradle

#MWE stands for Music Writer’s Exercise, and it ambled its way across my Twitter timeline in late January; started by Gary Suarez, it challenges music writers to listen to a new-to-them (never before heard) album every day in February, and review it in a single tweet. Since last year I didn’t listen to enough music or write enough about the tiny bits I listened to, I was in. And though I struggled to keep up on a day-to-day basis, I did eventually listen to 28 new to me albums (fuck you Leap Day) and write about all of them on Twitter.

You can check out my collected reviews over here, and this is a playlist that includes every album I listened to. I tried to mix up what I was listening to, and sought recommendations from friends who love bands I’ve never tried, records by artists I love that I missed last year, classics I’ve never tried, and new releases so far from 2016. There was some stuff I wouldn’t necessarily listen to again, but I was delighted to discover that I didn’t hate anything I listened to. I didn’t even hate the Cream album I listened to, even if it was still too guitar wanky for me. It’s a thing I have. Too many guitar solos, Cream. Stop guitar soloing.

So I loved writing about an album every day (and some days about two or three or four to catch up), and I really loved going through the #MWE hashtag, checking out what other people were listening to, liking, hating, discovering. And I realized how much I missed listening to lots and lots of music. So I think the exercise served its purpose, which is exactly what it was supposed to do. Time for more listening, and time for more writing. Neither of those things is a bad thing.

 

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cleaning out the drafts folder

DSC_7277

From the last 18 months, a bunch of record reviews I didn’t finish writing. You, too, can wonder where they were going! You can try to figure out why I was so bad at blogging last year! You can hope that I am better at this shit next year!

First up, some two sentence reviews from summer 2014:

Stone Jack Jones — Ancestor: the cover of this record is a foggy, moody, black and white shot of, I assume, Jones, in the distance, walking in a field by himself; sometimes people pick out album art that’s perfectly tuned to describe the album even before you listen to a single track. Ancestor is minor key and almost out of tune; his vocals are almost a flat drone, with just enough power and well-placed harmonies to keep them atmospheric and deliciously creepy instead of just creepy. It’s a sonically poignant and pointed record, more focused on the feel of the whole thing than the individual songs, and Ancestor pulls that off extremely well.

Lake Street Dive — Bad Self Portraits: it’s funny; about ten days before this dropped and the music writing world lost their collective fucking minds over it (deserved, but more on that in a minute), I was curled up on Trav’s couch and he was playing me the video where Lake Street Dive covers “I Want You Back” on a Boston sidewalk — the bassist’s brother graduated from college with him. Anyway, it was just proof that Travis is way more plugged in than he thinks, because he introduced me to these guys before the whole internet tried to. (He wants you to know that he saw them play the 7th Street Entry in 2006. Indie cred!) This is a great record, too, just like everybody says — it’s modern torch songs with punk rock drums and tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. The title track is completely my theme song.

John Howie Jr & The Rosewood Bluff — Everything Except Goodbye: so, you know, John Howie Jr, he’s been making fucking excellent country records that don’t get national notice for, oh, like, twenty years now. This is another one, with his post-Two Dollar Pistols band, and it is, again, a fucking excellent country record that not enough people will hear. The Rosewood Bluff are the cream of the Triangle crop in terms of backing bands, and this twangs and smokes all over with John’s voice aching through the broken hearted songs of love and loss and more loss and then some drinking.

Dave Hause — Devour: okay, this came out last year, hence “reasonably” new, but, my God, it’s good. Dave’s mournful howl over churning drums and loads of guitars, Devour is far less stripped down than Hause’s debut solo Resolutions, but it’s equally as devastating. It’s filled with phrases like I promise and words like better and feelings like regret and hope and heartbreak. I really can’t get over how true my mantra that everything needs more Dave Hause is, but listening to this album just makes me centered, and calm. I might not feel better, but I feel less like spinning out into the universe out of control. I don’t know if that actually tells you anything about Devour, but it’s loud and fierce and it fights against giving up with everything’s it’s got. So maybe it does.

Gerard Way – Hesitant Alien: I’m not sure how I feel about this record, even after a couple of times through; it has the same kind of big feeling that Gee was good at with My Chem, but it’s way less … cinematic in its bigness? The guitar sounds are rougher and less melodic, the vocals are hidden behind the soundscape a little more, and overall, I think it’s a pretty good album, but I’m not sure that I like it, necessarily. I didn’t need Gerard Way to make me the next My Chemical Romance record, but I’m also not sure this is the record I did need from him. On the other hand, “Brother” is one of my favorite songs of 2014. So what do I know?

Noah Gundersen – Ledges: start to finish gorgeous heartbreaking alt folk. One of the best records of 2014.

And now, my thoughts on the Gaslight Anthem’s Get Hurt:

“This is either a supreme Jersey punk record about heartbreak, or a really supreme Jersey punk concept record about vampires. I haven’t decided which one yet.”

That’s what I said to Trav back over the summer, the night I got my review copy of Get Hurt, and I only sort of meant it: it is, obviously, a supreme Jersey punk record about heartbreak, not vampires, but seriously, before I get into this review, go listen to it and think about vampires and you will find them all over this album. I’ve improved your listening to this spectacular record 1000% elephants with this. I promise.

Okay.

Now that you’re not thinking about vampires any more, think about the Gaslight Anthem’s Get Hurt, their 5th studio album, the “different” record, according to lead singer Brian Fallon. Gaslight, and Brian, are, obviously, one of my favorite topics — one of my favorite bands, one of my favorite songwriters, and I am usually quick to jump on writing about their new stuff. This one, though, was in fact different for me. I listened to Get Hurt endlessly over the summer after its release, mostly late at night, mostly on headphones, mostly in the dark. And I didn’t write about it because some weird different part of my brain said that if I didn’t write about it, it only belonged to me. If I didn’t write about it, I didn’t have to share it with anyone else.

A single paragraph about Kacey Musgraves’ Pageant Material, which I really, really loved:

I suppose that someone with no taste could level the accusation at Kacey Musgraves’ sophomore album that it’s simply more of the same tongue in cheek mind your own business observational country songwriting that made Same Trailer, Different Park so much fun, and sure, maybe that’s the case. “Biscuits” definitely has that flavor, but so what? That’s what Musgraves does well, and if that’s all she wanted to do, I’d still be buying her records and enjoying the hell out of them. But after a couple of listens, Pageant Material is a lot more than that, as well. It’s still tongue in cheek observational country songwriting, but there’s even more depth, and thus bite, to it, although it bites in some different directions than Trailer did.

2016: let’s actually finish things.

top 10: favorite albums of 2014

still life

Yeah. 2014. This is late. I wrote it and never posted it and I have no idea why, but here you go, mostly because I’m trying to put together my 2015 list soon anyway. Must clean up the drafts folder!

2014 was a hard, hard year, and the place it suffered most was my music listening; podcasts were easier, and when delivered directly to my phone automatically, less for me to think about. I don’t know that I’ve ever made a list that’s fewer than 25 albums, but this one is. What I was enjoying while I made this, though, is other people’s lists, because I missed almost everything in 2014, trying to keep my head above water, and I’m ready to stop missing things.

  1. Caleb Caudle – Paint Another Layer On Your Heart: one of the simplest, most beautiful records of 2014, Winston-Salem’s Caudle absolutely knocked it out of the park with Paint Another Layer On Your Heart. It’s full of heartbreakingly honest songs mostly about distance and love and long distance love, and “Trade All The Lights” and “How’d You Learn” are fighting for my favorite song of 2014. The single lyric, from early in album opener “How’d You Learn”, of home doesn’t share you with the places you’ve been made me cry so hard the first time I listened to Paint Another Layer that I ended up listening to nothing but the first minute of that song, over and over, for about the first 15 minutes of my experience with it. I finally listened to the rest of it, though, and it’s all just as brilliant as that line.
  2. Cory Branan – The No-Hit Wonder: Branan’s second record for my beloved Bloodshot Records combines Branan’s signature tongue-in-cheek bitter-but-not-quite lyrics with a variety of sounds — mostly bigger, broader, more layered than his previous guitar-centric solo sound — that punch up his already sharp songwriting into musical pieces that are even more suited to that lyrical sharpness than ever before. They range from country rockers to New Orleans horn laced crooners, and the startling lovely and acoustically stark “The Meantime Blues” that comes near the end of the record shouldn’t work, but might be the highlight of the album. Branan tours pretty relentlessly, and I can’t wait to hear the songs from this one live next year.
  3. Ex Hex – Rips: The only bands I saw more than twice in 2014 were Caleb Caudle, Cory Branan, and Ex Hex, who are about as far apart as can be, musically, and that didn’t matter to me. Rips, the Merge Records debut from the latest project from grown-up Riot Grrrl Mary Timony, is short and to the point, but it ain’t sweet: it rips and roars and screams and shreds guitars and bass and drums as hard as it can. It’s awesome.
  4. Old 97s – Most Messed Up: Rhett Miller drops the f-bomb upwards of 50 times on the 97s’ most recent studio album, and every single one of them makes me giggle and grin like a 12 year old boy. They also put on one of the best, if not the best set I saw this year, playing to a tiny and raucous crowd in the desert of West Texas, tearing through most of this record and proving that Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in person is greater than Rhett Miller dropping f-bombs in the studio. And in record opener “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, the band gives one of the most astute commentaries on the life of a musician: we’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive / 20 good years of about 25. The 97s will never be an arena band, and I wouldn’t want them to be; Most Messed Up just shows how great clubs have been and will still be for what they want to do.
  5. Taylor Swift – 1989: okay, don’t close the tab just because you hit this entry. This is a glorious, complete pop record, and sometimes, you guys, we just need glorious complete pop records. There’s always going to be blowback against Tay Tay and the music she’s making and the life she’s living, but most of it is going to come from people who didn’t listen to her albums. 1989 makes me feel good about being alive, and sometimes that’s quite literally all I want from a pop record. I listened to this four times in a row sitting in post-Thanksgiving traffic, and bonus track “New Romantics” made me cry every time. It also kept me from committing significant acts of road rage in Gaffney, South Carolina, and so Taylor Swift wins.
  6. Lydia Loveless – Somewhere Else: sneakingly might be a better rock and roll album than noted rock and rollers the Drive-By Truckers, who follow her on this list, Lydia followed up the excellent Indestructible Machine with the subtler but just as fierce Somewhere Else. “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” is in my top five favorite tracks of 2014.
  7. The Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans: I fell out of love with the Truckers in 2013, and then I took Trav to see them in Atlanta in January, and I fell back in love with him, and with them. English Oceans is mostly free of the lengthy Patterson Hood guitar wanks that I complain about a lot, and things like “Shit Shots Count” add to Mike Cooler’s considerable arsenal of blow-your-face-off rockers. The balance of the songwriting is what’s been most talked about this year, and it’s one of the things that’s the most worthy of talking about, because it’s what makes this record so much greater than Go-Go Boots.
  8. The Gaslight Anthem – Get Hurt: Brian Fallon knows the way to my heart; this record was so close to my core that I couldn’t even write about it. But it’s beautiful.
  9. Noah Gundersen – Ledges: what I said in my two sentence reviews: start to finish gorgeous heartbreaking alt folk. One of the best records of 2014.
  10. Various Artists – While No One Was Looking: Celebrating 20 Years of Bloodshot Records: perhaps the greatest compilation I’ve ever heard, Bloodshot’s 20th birthday celebration made me cry, made me laugh, made me dance. It’d be higher on the list but it’s weird to put a compilation that high, sometimes. Regardless: it’s good. You should have it.

album review: while no one was looking: toasting 20 years of bloodshot records

I’ve spent a lot of words proclaiming my love for Bloodshot Records over the years, but I mean this sincerely and literally and 100%: I am not sure that there is a record label out there who does compilations better than Bloodshot. They were my introduction to Bloodshot way back in the day, and they remain one of my favorite things that Bloodshot does. The cover of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Rex Hobart on Making Singles, Drinking Doubles (which also clocks in with the greatest album title ever for a record collecting tracks from 7″ singles) and the Waco Brothers cover of “Baba O’Riley” on Down to the Promised Land. All three volumes of The Executioner’s Last Songs.

But damn if they haven’t out-done themselves on While No One Was Looking, the double disc celebration of Bloodshot’s 20th anniversary. Look, just take the fact that the second disc contains the back-to-back punch-in-the-face of Frank Turner covering Cory Branan’s “The Corner” and Superchunk doing Ryan Adams’ “Come Pick Me Up”. This contains transformative versions of those two songs, which without even listening to them would make it the greatest celebration of a record label’s catalog ever simply because they exist, but there are 36 other tracks on here, and they are all that good.

The distinct memories I have of listening to Bloodshot comps is the fall of 2002, on my old blue Discman, riding the Ashland bus — CTA #6, yo — to my office just north of North Avenue on Paulina, and then down to my friend Mikey’s apartment in the Ukranian Village on Sundays to watch football and on Tuesdays to watch Buffy. Mikey and I smoked a lot of dope, and I would ride the Ashland bus back north again to the apartment the Ex and I shared, at Montrose and Clark, warmly stoned and listening to Moonshine Willy’s “George Set Me Strait” on repeat. (A few weeks ago I bought the actual 7″ of that song for two bucks from Bloodshot, when I was on a buying-Bloodshot-7″s binge. Just owning it delights me.) Now I drive around North Carolina, and all the bands on this album are familiar friends to me, the songs familiar and beloved, rather than the rush of new discovery that I had in 2002.

The thing is, though: the magic of this compilation, of all these covers, of people singing songs written by their friends and by strangers and by strangers who are probably now friends, is that it is an album of discovery, still, for me. It’s Superchunk turning “Come Pick Me Up” from quiet heartbreak into noisy, furious heartbreak. Noisy furious heartbreak is something I’ve been real good at this year.

OK, so, look: I’ve had this record for a month. I’ve listened to it dozens of times. And I can’t write about it. I can’t. I keep fucking trying, and I keep ending up with the same paragraphs that I’ve already written a million times, and none of it does this record justice.

In 2002, I saw Neko Case at the Metro, and I went home and I discovered Bloodshot Records. That fall, Making Singles, Drinking Doubles saved me, and Blacklisted saved me. And when I say saved me, I mean that. I mean: Bloodshot Records saved my life in December 2002. I mean: if I had not found them, I might not be typing this now. I’ve never been shy about both my mental illness and my problems with alcohol as subjects. I mean: obviously. Other artists have saved me at other times (maybe the only record review to include references to both Bloodshot and Pete Wentz? I’ll take that distinction), but Bloodshot — finding Bloodshot, and finding people who loved the same things that I did, that saved my life in 2002.

I was too shy to go to shows alone then. I went with the Ex, who didn’t really love that stuff, and grumped about the shows I wanted to see. It took me until late 2004 to go to shows alone, and even then, I was still too shy to talk to anyone when I went to Schubas or the Empty Bottle alone. But I went, and I saw Rex Hobart before he and the Misery Boys split, and I saw some great Waco shows, and I saw one of the sets that later became part of Fox Confessor Brings The Flood. I saw live music that kept me going long enough to escape Chicago — because I love that city with all my heart, but even as soon as I moved there after college, it was already full of ghosts for me. It is a place I love, and a place I can never go back to.

Frank Turner’s cover of “The Corner” is my favorite on While No One Was Looking, because back in the spring, at a reasonably briefly peaceful point in 2014 (which was wholly and completely horrific, except for Travis, and some great records, including this one), I saw Cory Branan twice in a month, and the second time, opening for my beloved Gaslight Anthem, he played that song for me. And he told a story about how a friend of his covers it, and sometimes he sings the wrong lyrics; he sings down on the corner of what I want, and what I intend to get.

What I intend to get. Honestly, I don’t even know what that means. But something about it digs at the itchy parts of my soul, and when Frank sings it the right way on this album, it scratches that itch. It’s something I don’t understand. It’s something I probably can’t explain. This won’t be even in the top fifty eloquent pieces about this celebration.

But it’s the one I can give you. It’s the honest one. It’s the one that says in 2002, I was scared and sad and lonely and in love with someone other than the person I was living with, and Bloodshot Records gave me something outside of all that to hold on to. They still do. 20 years later, while no one was looking, I’m a grownup, and they still do. I was looking. I was surviving on it, honestly.

And that’s what While No One Was Looking means to me. Objectively, musically, it’s staggering. It’s stunning. It’s flawless. It’s everything that Bloodshot has always done best: it’s unexpected, and the unexpected is perfectly normal, exactly what you expect from Blitzen Trapper covering Ryan Adams or anybody ever covering Alejandro Escovado. William Elliot Whitmore’s cover of “I Wish I Was The Moon” moved me to weeping. But ultimately, what this album means to me is that I’m alive, and Bloodshot is alive, and both of those are really fucking great things.

album review: counting crows — somewhere under wonderland

counting crows traveling circus and medicine show

You have to understand that the Crows are, like, the most important band of my youth — of my early teens (August And Everything After) and of my early twenties (Hard Candy), at the very least. The first was formative; the second is the album that most resonates my heart with Travis, because they were a band we shared, that was a record they put out when we were in one of those really great but really hard phases. Hard Candy, in particular, though a vaguely uneven album, is one that I will always, always deeply associate with being in love with Trav when I was 22 and a dumb kid and fucking up my life by making bad decisions — the title track, and the last track (if we’re counting “Holiday In Spain” as the last track, and not the Joni Mitchell cover, which we are), those are songs that I don’t just think are “us”, we both do.

It’s a record that’s huge in our own personal mythology; Counting Crows are, for better or for worse, a band that’s huge in our personal mythology. And you don’t get to a relationship like we have, after 13 years, without a huge kind of personal mythology. That sounds like it might be bad, and I guess it could be, but for me and Trav, it’s the touchstones that help us forgive the trespasses in between the good points, if that makes sense. Like the time in 2002, when I was getting ready to make a huge mistake in my life, but at that exact moment I was in Trav’s old Volvo in Atlanta, riding around and buying a new copy of August at his record store because I’d finally worn my original copy out. Me and Trav and Adam Duritz are all tied up together in my head, and we always will be.

This is an album review, but I’ll never be able to write about Counting Crows without writing about Trav, because they’re just that intertwined.

and i said i never loved you / but i might just try again tonight

Let’s start with this: Steven Hyden is right. It is, in fact, the Crows’ best album in 15 years, and that includes my beloved Hard Candy. But let’s also start with this: the best track on the record is the acoustic, heartbreaking “God Of Ocean Tides”, from whence comes the above line, and it is a song that’s so perfectly me and Trav that I wondered if Adam Duritz had listened to our November 2013 parking lot before the Head and the Heart show conversation. The whole album is lightning fast lyrics, which work — one place they work hard is “Dislocation”, which is perfect verses and a strange, not-quite-right one-word chorus — and work hard, but there were a million lyric pairs I twittered or wrote in my journal (just like I did in 1997 with Satellites), and that’s what I’ve always loved the Crows for. It’s full of callbacks — Elvis, Hollywood, Maria (oh, Maria) — and, like Hyden says, all over the place musically. There are rockers and there’s the gorgeous Gram Parsons-like “Cover Up The Sun”, with its twanging guitars and piano line, and the revealing lyrics (a bit too Gram Parsons-y and “Grievous Angel”, but I forgive): i left California, i was 29 years old / the world just spun me round, which is late but better than never, and might explain the terrible Saturday Nights (that, no less, dropped during a period when Trav and I were in a rough spot; metaphor via Adam Duritz!).

I had a minor meltdown at Trav when I was down in Atlanta a few weeks ago, standing on his porch, about my photography — self doubt at its best. The Crows were the first band I ever got a real press pass for, at Koka Booth, the summer of 2009. Trav and I weren’t speaking at the time. Can a band you’ve never met write the history of yourself, of you with someone else?

I think that one of the reasons that Somewere Under Wonderland works is contained entirely in “Palisades Park”, the almost nine minute opener: there’s nothing particular complex about the song, but it’s so quintessentially Counting Crows, with the spare piano opening and Adam’s voice, followed by stories about girls and stories about places that we’ve left, moments of silence between lush guitars over the chorus. Saturday Nights  was ambitious and it didn’t work. This record is ambitious, but it’s entirely ambitious within their wheelhouse, within the structures and songwriting and orchestration that they’ve always done so well. The band knows how to work within their constraints, and they know when to let Adam’s voice carry things in reverence and repetition, and they do all these things on this album.

 

album reviews: the old 97’s — most messed up

trans-pecos festival: the old 97s

Better late opinions than never! The 97’s play the Cradle tonight, 10/8, with David Wax Museum. I’ll be in ATL with Trav, but I saw them last week at Trans Pecos in Marfa, TX, and they fucking rocked.

Much has been, is being, and will be made of every single place on Most Messed Up, the 10th studio LP from Texas rockers the Old 97’s, where frontman Rhett Miller unabashedly drops the f-bomb all over the damn place. And why not? The 97’s, while they’ve always written songs about getting messed up and having your heart broken (or maybe in the other order — check “Barrier Reef” for a hero who’s simply graduated from bad decisions on Too Far To Care to bad decisions and foul langauge on MMU), have never been ones to drop profanity. So yeah, the album is notable that way: it’s a filthy, foul-mouthed, love song to just about everything. But honestly, I think that the crux of the album is buried in the second verse of the title track, which closes the record out:

there’s only so many words you can rhyme with heart
i used ’em all up, i wrote ’em all down

Skip the chorus line that gives the track its title, even. There’s only so many words you can rhyme with heart: the first time I heard this line, I genuinely thought that it was so stupid it was profound, and the more I listened to it, the less stupid and more profound it got. It’s a fact: there are only so many words. Rhett has used them. So why not take that idea and write an album about everything else that’s left? There’s plenty of words that rhyme with fuck, after all.

And Rhett uses most of ’em on Most Messed Up, while producing what is unreservedly the best album that the 97’s have put out since 2004’s Drag It Up. It’s not that I didn’t like Blame It On Gravity — “No Baby I” is one of my top ten all time 97’s songs — and there was plenty good on both volumes of The Grand Theatre, but Most Messed Up kicks off with “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”, and it doesn’t even take a single song to hit its stride. MMU starts already mid-stride, all 5+ minutes of “Longer” paying tribute to the life of a musician on the road with clever couplets, frank admissions, and a line that makes me laugh every time I hear it: twenty good years out of just twenty five.

It never falters, either: “Give It Time” starts a love song and ends up a “fuck off and die” song, Rhett pleading with his anonymous lover to give it time — to break your heart — and “Let’s Get Drunk & Get It On” is, despite its crude and hilarious title, a romantic ode to bad ideas that turn into good ones. Compare the choruses, from the start: let’s drink whiskey and do it all night long / let’s get drunk and get it on with song ender let’s drink champagne — and then it’s followed by “This Is The Ballad”, a gorgeous wistful Rhett love song about long distance and waiting for things to happen to you, instead of happen … uh, because of you? I guess that’s where that sentence was going? Regardless, it’s a lovely pairing of sweetness and sass, both found in both, and they play off each other incredibly well.

“Wheels Off” is a drinking-with-strangers song in the best vein of “Barrier Reef”, but record mid-point “Nashville” got the most early press, and from me, the most plays — close to 200 at the time I’m writing this. It’s furiously catchy, just over two minutes, and it’s the distilled essence of every single thing that’s great about the Old 97’s songwriting over all these years: love gone bad, the narrator running off from the trouble he’s caused, and then it all goes even further off the rails with the chorus: who’d I got to blow to get in this fuckin’ show. At its soul, “Nashville” is a great song about loneliness couched in the punk rock outlaw country fury that the last few albums have lacked, the punk rock outlaw country fury that have always made the 97’s a great band.

Part of the strength of the record is the pacing, back and forth between the rockers and the more quiet tracks, like “Wasted” following “Nashville” — it’s one of Rhett’s speak-sing songs, only minor flourishes of fuzzed out guitars under the verses and churning a little harder against the bass on the chorus: we’re better off being wasted than working our whole life through / tonight i want to get wasted with you. (Rhett does seem, on this album, to be very concerned with drinking quite a bit with his lady friend. Or maybe Murry? I like it.) “Wasted” doesn’t just pull those themes in, though, because it also pulls in “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”: they might think i’ve wasted my life, they’re wrong. “Guadalajara” is a standard 97’s story song with surf guitars; it’s perfectly sound, but doesn’t have the weight of the first half of the album or the punch of the finishers, including Murry’s “The Ex Of All You See”, Rhett’s “Intervention”, and the title track.

Rhett, of course, has always written more than Murry, just like Patterson Hood has always written more than Mike Cooley, but it felt strange to only get one Murry track on Most Messed Up, and particularly one that doesn’t show up until track 10 out of 12, but I think “The Ex Of All You See”, besides being a fantastic title, is one of Murry’s best songwriting jobs, ever. It’s not complex, it’s not epic, but there’s something about Murry’s teeth-grinding vocals, the cliched names for cheating significant others, and the tilting, intricate rhyme of the chorus: as i am now you’ll surely be the ex of all you see. I really adore it. “Intervention” isn’t a great song, but the chorused vocals and incredibly thick guitar layers on a song about a group of people staging an intervention? It’s at the very least a clever ploy, and I fell for it.

I didn’t love either Grand Theatre volumes, though there’s track on both I adore. (Well, I just examined them, and there’s tracks on Vol 1 I adore, and there’s “Ivy” on Vol 2, so.) They felt sprawling, and they felt overdone. There was no need for two records, though that’s just my opinion, and Most Messed Up corrects that: it’s short, it’s sweet, it’s to the point, and it doesn’t miss a beat. Nobody wasted a life on the 97s taking 21 years to get to this one, for sure.

album review: cory branan — the no-hit wonder

cory branan @ cat's cradle

When Cory opened for Gaslight earlier this year, he told a story about a friend who occasionally covers his song “The Corner” and sings a line wrong; he sings down on the corner of what I want and what I intend to get, where the actual line is what I tend to get. They both work, but they mean totally different things. I don’t know why I’m telling you this story except that it seems somehow relevant to The No-Hit Wonder, Cory’s newest release for Bloodshot Records.

The title track opens the record, with an electric guitar driven rock and roll riff that’s not how I think of Cory’s solo acoustic shows sound; it’s a paean to doing what you love even when it never pays off:

so sing a song for the no-hit wonder
though it isn’t one of his
he’d sing shovel me under
boys it is what it is

It’s a heartbreaking song about following your faith, and it’s a redemption song about doing what you love no matter what. Cory toured and played for a long time without releasing much officially, but he’s done two records for Bloodshot in the last three years, and this feels like a confessional song in the best way. No regrets, no wistfulness, just cold hard truth turned into a perfect song.

“The Only You” follows it, with a bittersweet opening verse that’s just Cory’s voice over drums and some minimal guitar, before he launches into a gorgeous piano ballad about being with someone just to be with someone, because the only you is a person you still love, even when you’re not with them. when i get lonely, sure, she’ll do. Cory’s always written cheeky, off-kilter love songs — “Yesterday”, “A Girl Named Go”, “The Prettiest Waitress In Memphis” — that almost always have late turns in them, and “The Only You” is a gorgeous addition to that part of his catalogue.

“Sour Mash” is a another love song, this one to booze, and it twangs real damn hard; it’s a country tune through and through, two and a half minutes of Nashville electric guitar. “C’mon Shadow” could be a Randy Newman song, which I didn’t know Cory could do, but I am not surprised at all to discover that he can. Wonder is full of songs with honky tonk piano all over it, and it’s a fantastic addition to Cory’s guitar.

“Missing You Fierce” would have made me cry, except that I wrote this review on Trav’s couch, which meant that for once I wasn’t missing him. The chorus of vocals drive this lovely straight up rocker, and the fuzz of guitar on the instrumental break sounds the way that missing someone feels. “All I Got and Gone” is a gorgeous minor key laid with organ and accordion and slide guitar; an elegy for everything you’ve lost. “All The Rivers In Colorado” is another traditional country ballad, slide guitar laden, a baptism of love and loss; there’s something absolutely compelling about it that I can’t put my finger on, but it’s my favorite track on the album. (I think it’s the sha la la’s over the outro, actually. What a genuine fucking hook.)

“Daddy Was A Skywriter” is a two-step with a Louisiana flavor, mostly in the predominant melody being carried by the accordion, and it’s funny and clever without over playing the “I’m who I am because of my parents” trope that some songs that try too hard do; this song tries just hard enough and it’s a lovely moment of humor in an album that’s pretty heavy on lost love songs. “The Highway Home” is an end-of-album match to the title track, the guitars wailing under lyrics about life on the road and getting home to the person you love despite everything the world throws at you, metaphorically represented in the song by ice and snow. I absolutely adore the stripped down weariness in Cory’s voice on the acoustic guitar-only “The Meantime Blues”, but I’m pretty sure that Trav will be horrified at the line about selling a Gibson to pay the bills. Despite “blues” in the title, it’s actually a lovely little love song about domesticity with your partner and making art, and I kind of teared up a little bit.

“You Make Me” finishes it off with a blast of Memphis guitars and piano, and I kind of love the 1-2-3 closing punch of “The Highway Home”, “The Meantime Blues”, and “You Make Me” as three genuine love songs on a record that’s heavy on the broken heart in its first two thirds. It’s a delicious optimistic finish for an album that, hell, is titled after a song about not getting what you want. It’s a kickass sequence to go out on.

Cory’s always been a terrific songwriter and a killer live performer; I didn’t expect that this record would be anything less than great and it isn’t. What it is, though, is better than great. Cory’s taken his songwriting to a new level, and the variety of sounds, orchestration, is a huge step forward for him. It’s a bigger, fuller sound, it reaches for places he hasn’t gone before, and it is absolutely wonderful.

Bloodshot Records provided me with a review copy of this album, but my opinion that everything they do is amazing is all my own.