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: 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.

concerts: the gaslight anthem & cory branan @ cat’s cradle

the gaslight anthem @ cat's cradle

Setlist: ’59 Sound / Old White Lincoln / Biloxi Parish / Howl / Stay Lucky / Film Noir / The Patient Ferris Wheel / 45 / The Queen Of Lower Chelsea / Boxer / Too Much Blood / Wooderson / Drive / American Slang // Encore: National Anthem / Handwritten / Great Expectations / House of the Rising Sun / Blue Jeans & White T Shirts

Glorious as always. I want the new album so badly I can taste it.

cory branan @ cat's cradle

Second Cory Branan set in a month, and he was fabulous, again. He played “The Corner” for me. between what I want, and what I intend to get.

concerts: bobby bare jr & cory branan



Wednesday night at the Cradle was a Bloodshot double shot, just like I like it — Bobby Bare, Jr, out in support of his fabulous Undefeated, and Cory Branan supporting, touring behind last year’s Mutt and next year’s new record? Regardless, a great night. Cory took requests and charmed everyone (although to be fair most of us were previously charmed, it was a crowd full of people who already loved Cory), and then Bobby came out and just blew me out of the water. Loud and fierce and wild and just absolutely compelling. I’m totally sold.

More photos will be up on Flickr when I get home on Monday, and I’ll share them then.

bloodshot records spring: bobby bare jr & dex romweber

dex romweber duo @ duke coffeehouse

Bobby Bare Jr. — Undefeated: once a year or so, Bloodshot’s new release schedule affords me the opportunity to dig into the back catalog of one of their artists, someone I’ve never really listened to before; this year it’s Bobby Bare, Jr., and it starts with his 2014 release Undefeated. It’s a gem of a record, and I can’t compare it to any of Bare’s previous work — I have all that, happily, waiting for me this summer — but Undefeated itself is dark and scared and sad, exactly how I like my records, with just enough piss and vinegar to not drag you down; fuzzed out Verbena-esque opener “North of Alabama By Mornin'” and snarky, spitting, horn-drenched “The Big Time” let that sneaky bitter pissed-off-ness out to play in subtle ways. Bare says himself that Undefeated is less a break-up album, and more a “getting dumped” album; if you listen close, you can hear that, but what I mostly hear is a great songwriter who’s not afraid to push the genre boundaries (certainly no two songs on the album sound alike, yet they all flow beautifully between each other) and doesn’t really care what you think of him. “Don’t Wanna Know” slinks with steel and resignation; i didn’t want to know paired with please don’t go, it’s a song that can’t make up its mind — just like most people who get dumped can’t decide if they’re better off or they want you back. My favorite track on the album is probably “Blame Everybody (But Yourself)”, a song that’s half smart ass response and half gut-wrenching guitar solos and despair; it’s the kind of song I want to write when I get dumped, except for what I can’t write songs.

Dex Romweber Duo — Images 13: one of the best things about the Triangle is how many people stay here, changing and tweaking the music they make, but consistently putting out great, great records every few years, under different names or with different bands. Dex Romweber is one of those guys, and Images 13 is one of those records; it’s the best garage fuzz surf rock spaghetti western album you’ll hear in 2014. Dex’s voice over churning guitars and Sara Romweber’s furious crashing drums — it sounds like a Dex Romweber album, it makes you want to shimmy and shake your ass, and every note is perfectly placed and not one goes wrong. The best track on the record is “Sad About Us”, which is pure ’50s Buddy Holly pop joy — it has “la la”‘s! It has harmonies and chiming guitar lines! It is absolutely delightful and worth the price of the album entirely. Luckily for you, if you buy the album for that track, you get 11 other excellent tracks. And you should. (Also, any time I write about and / or go see Dex live, I am heartbroken that I have no sense of rhythm and therefore cannot be a badass fantastic drummer like Sara Romweber. Like, seriously heartbroken. She’s one of the strengths of Dex’s songwriting in this combination, and her drumming on this ranges from straightforward pop to complex instrumental noise slop. Fabulous.

Triangle, you get both these brilliant guys this week: Bobby at the Cradle Back Room, 4/16, doors 7pm, $12, and Dex at Local 506 on 4/18, doors 8:30pm, $7.

album review: lydia loveless – somewhere else

bad machine tour: lydia loveless

If Lydia Loveless’s 2011 Indestructible Machine was a 38 minute punch of broken hearted and bitter but not down or out cowpunk, 2013’s Somewhere Else starts with a blast of guitars that can’t be mistaken for anything but rock and roll. “Really Wanna See You” has a typical Loveless theme: an ex who broke her heart, plus all the ways she fucked it up herself; a Lydia Loveless love song is punishment for everyone involved, the kind of relationship that might end in fists and might end in tears and might end in a really happy marriage. “Really Wanna See You” finishes off with a broken I just thought I would call to see how you were doing over a stuttering drum beat and nothing else, and it’s a perfect opener for 42 minutes of furious, broken hearted and bitter but not down or out rock and roll, all served up with Loveless’s twang and ache of a voice.

When I saw “Chris Isaak” listed as a song title on this record, I hoped we would get something as delicious as “Steve Earle”; Loveless doesn’t fail. The track has the mournful ache of a Chris Isaak song, but it’s more grown up that “Steve Earle” — it’s about her own real relationship with music, and growing up, and it’s beautiful and sad: but what the hell was I hoping for / and what the hell was I waiting for. She follows it with another question in the opening of “To Love Somebody”: what is it to love somebody / or at least to that they’ll be around. Somewhere Else is, in parts, what you expect as a follow up to Indestructible Machine: a look at what it means to actually love and lose someone, what it means to have a relationship as an adult with someone.

What it means to want someone all the time.

“Hurts So Bad” is a bluesy slink of guitar and a broken heart, but Loveless says it’s all that I wanted from you. An admission that love sucks just as hard as a grown up as it does as a teenager, but she follows it up with “Head”, a song that’s openly about gettin’ it on. More songs about oral sex, I say. It’s filthy and the same tenor of blues and rock and roll as “Hurts So Bad”, a pair about the worst and (maybe) the best of relationships. Don’t stop, get in my bed, Loveless sings, and that’s a grown up singing, not the broken hearted 21 years old on Indestructible Machine; it’s dirty and delicious.

“Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” opens quiet, the idea that love drives people to anger; I just like it better when we’re coming to blows, Loveless sings in the rumbling electric verse that follows. Verlaine shot Rimbaud because he loved him so / And that’s how I want to go, the chorus says, and she brags I’m the one who makes you write that shit. It’s a beautiful song, plaintive and desperate, about something dark and a little bit scary. The shadows and light of this record are all Loveless looking at relationships that don’t make sense, maybe, but are there all the same. Not healthy, maybe, but still love.

The title track opens with a slide guitar, and the exhortation that she’s looking for good things to be a part of; “Somewhere Else” captures perfectly the aimlessness of your 20s, and in my case, your 30s, too. I want to be somewhere else tonight, but you don’t know where that is. It’s the same searching voice that precedes it on the album, which is a thorough blueprint through everything you can fuck up in your life and still survive. I swore I’d never be this bitter again, she mourns on “Everything’s Gone”, the quiet acoustic penultimate track. And “They Don’t Know” finishes it off, a perfect because fuck you that’s why ending, the kind of song that Loveless sells perfect quiet or loud. This one is harmonies and steady guitars, and it’s reminder that love’s important, and everybody else’s opinion of you can go hang.

That’s the kind of record I can get behind. And I do get behind this one; it’s fucking great. Go buy it.

justin townes earle @ southland ballroom

justin townes earle @ southland ballroom

justin townes earle @ southland ballroom

I didn’t see nearly as many show this year as I have the past three. There are reasons for that, but they’re not particularly relevant. As I was finishing my work day yesterday, though, I reflected that even in a small sample size, I got to see so many bands I adore, it was worth it. I saw Josh Ritter and the Felice Brothers, I saw Gaslight Anthem, I saw Fall Out Boy twice, and hung out with Frightened Rabbit, and I finally saw Corb Lund and Hayes Carll on the same night, and I saw the Head and the Heart sell me on the new record completely.

I didn’t see Frank Turner. I didn’t see Mason Jennings. Of everyone who toured, those are the only two big gaps in my best loved bands.

And Justin Townes Earle would have been one, too, if not for last night’s last minute show at Southland Ballroom, a holiday surprise in a small room.

I’d never seen JTE play without a band, never seen him just him and his guitar. That’s what last night was, and that’s what made it so special. When you strip songs down like that, just to Justin’s words and chords, you’re reminded how powerful and clever they are. He played songs off his next record, which he hasn’t recorded yet but is written. It was an incredible show.

Full set here.