release news: the bottle rockets reissue self-titled & the brooklyn side

fourth of july fireworks

Somewhere betwen my discovery of Bloodshot Records in 2002 (Neko Case, though she’d just left the label; Kelly Hogan; the Waco Brothers; Rex Hobert & the Misery Boys) and my current dig through Robbie Fulks and Scott H. Biram’s extensive back catalogs, I spent a lot of time trolling used CD bins at record stores for copies of Bloodshot releases I didn’t already own, which is how I came to have in my possession the long out-of-print original pressings of the Bottle Rockets’ The Brooklyn Side and debut self-titled. They were in my mid-period Bloodshot discovery phase, when I was comfortable and familiar with the label, but before I started sending in-house publicist Josh emails full of all caps excitement, and they never quite resonated with me the way my earliest discoveries did, or current Bloodshot movers and shakers Ha Ha Tonka and Justin Townes Earle do. (I feel the same way about Split Lip Rayfield, which we can also discuss in the comments if you need to.)

I bought those used copies of The Bottle Rockets and The Brooklyn Side, and I liked them, but I never fell in love. Not then.

This year, the Bottle Rockets are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of that first self-titled, and in honor they’re doing deluxe Bloodshot re-releases of those two long out of print albums. So I’ve gone back to my mp3 copies of those two records, the original ones that I ripped from scratched CDs, and the stream of the newly remastered re-issues, and what I’m realizing is the same thing that I realized with Robbie Fulks’ new album this year (I haven’t written about it yet, and, yes, I feel guilty about it): I should have loved the Bottle Rockets all along, and I do, now. There’s no reason for me not to, and about a thousand that should have swayed me. They didn’t move me before this, and I’ve lost loads of good years with this band. Maybe you have, too; maybe when you think of the birth of Americana, you think of the Uncle Tupelo and then you think of Whiskeytown, which is fair. The Bottle Rockets were there, too, though — loud and talented, smart rock and roll with great playing and dedication to what they were doing and not what anyone thought of them.

They still make smart, talented, loud rock and roll, and they still don’t give a fuck what you think of them.

Check out the ’91 demo of “Indianapolis”, featuring Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar (then of Uncle Tupelo, now respectively of Wilco and Son Volt), below, and the release info from Bloodshot here.

(As always, my Bloodshot disclaimer is that I have a longstanding deeply loving relationship with the label and its people and its bands, which you can check out in these posts, but all these opinions are mine. I like writing about Bloodshot releases because I get to tell stories, and because they make good music.)

album review: ha ha tonka — lessons

ha ha tonka @ the casbah

i’m close to the age that i only do things that i know how to do
i can make coffee and i can make small talk
’cause who wants to try something new?

And so starts “Dead To The World” and Lessons, the astonishing 4th LP from Missouri quartet Ha Ha Tonka.

I have spent a lot of words talking about the ways in which Ha Ha Tonka has been astonishing me since their 2009 album Novel Sounds Of The Nouveau South; Brian Roberts’ startlingly literary and sharply perceptive lyrics, for one, or Brett Anderson’s otherworldly mandolin lines. Their compelling and funny and noisy live show. The complexity of their records, the delicacy and care of the way the songs are put together, music and words married, their ability to harmonize. The way that I have listened to “Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart” more than 500 times, and every time they play it for me live, I still do my embarrassing honking-and-weeping-and-falling-over thing. There are a lot of ways the Tonk can astonish you, and they’re all present on Lessons, every last one of them that makes Ha Ha Tonka one of the best bands working today. This record is astonishing because Ha Ha Tonka is astonishing.

But mostly, Lessons is astonishing for the way it rages, which is something that a Ha Ha Tonka album has never done before.

Buckle rocks. Novel Sounds is complex and sad and furious, but quietly. Decade shines brightly, a record full of dark shadows and golden sounds. But Lessons rages — against life, against death, for love, against even the dying of the light, I suppose, and it’s only in reviewing a band who once cited Dostoyevsky in a song that I can pull out Dylan Thomas, but that is what this album does. It rages, in its words and in its sounds, against the dying of the light. I don’t know how Roberts feels about Dylan Thomas, and I do know that Maurice Sendak, as he’s said in interviews, is all over this album in its creative spaces and the way it urges you to make things, but that raging — that raging is all about not going gently anywhere.

This album goes gently about as far as I could throw the band, collectively. (I am weak. There are four of them.)

Lessons opens with “Dead To The World”, a lush combination of strings and Brett’s mandolin that is another step forward for the band — the orchestration of Lessons is thicker and even more complex than usual — and where the song starts in a plaint, it ends with Roberts nearly howling no i don’t want to be dead to the world around me while the mandolin and the strings swirl in a fury pursued by Lennon Bone’s drumming. It closes quiet, just the mandolin and the resigned weariness of Roberts’ voice on the last chorus. “Colorful Kids” — and these are the only two songs I listened to before the record came out, “Dead To The World” because I’ve seen them do it live several times in the last year, and the latter because it was the first single and I was desperate for a taste — sounds, in some ways, a continuation of the weariness and defeat of the end of “Dead To The World”, caught between the layers of the beginning of each chorus — me as I was, you as you were — and the sad desperation of the end of each chorus, Roberts’ voice on its own: before the color began to bleed out of us.

Rage against your frozen nature, rage against the world changing.

“Staring At The End Of Our Lives” reminds me of the more angry, more determined cousin of Decade’s “No Great Harm” — the latter a song about doing it on your own. But “Staring” says i can always ask my friends / help me help myself / i stand alone, i need someone else / oh ain’t it a beautiful sight, and that’s a grown-up raging against loneliness. It drives along with the churning guitar — one of the few tracks where the mandolin doesn’t set the pace — and the chorused lyrics, one of the only songs in which Roberts’ voice is almost never left alone, even for a moment, and then halfway through, it churns up even further, electric guitar and bass chunking out chords that overwhelm the pained, hopeful Ahhhs in the background. The two short breaks — “Synthetic Love” and “Synthetic Heart” — are the kinds of tracks that I normally wrinkle my nose at as filler on other records, but here they transition Lessons in its space, from the fierce rage of the first three tracks, to the desperately sad raging of “Arabella”, where the lonely acoustics and plea to a long-gone woman are cut with distorted and eerie bass interludes, and the title track.

In the interview I ran yesterday, Roberts notes that they felt “Lessons” better represented the record as a title track than a potentially alliterative title (my guess: it was “American Ambition”, which would have worked, but probably not as well), and it is, in some ways, the heart of this album; it’s certainly the track that made me burst into tears driving to Raleigh yesterday evening. I can’t keep learning the same lessons over again, Roberts chants, and then pleads, and then wails. I keep learning the same lessons over again. Oh, boy, do I know how that feels, and while Lessons certainly diverges from previous releases in terms of sound — the lush and layered orchestration that Roberts noted in response to my question, they won’t be able to reproduce live, though the songwriting on this one is too strong to make that a concern — I think that Lessons follows the same path of growing up with the band that Novel Sounds and Death of a Decade started. They are all records about being human, and falliable, and in pain and in love and in confusion. “Lessons”, the title track, is mournful and hopeful at the same time, because that’s what this record is about: you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again, but the first step in breaking that cycle is knowing that you are doing that. The chant of that chorus and the rising howl of the guitars on the song are raw and desperate, full of the kind of clawing frustration and pain that makes you rage against the cages you’re trapped in. It’s four minutes of trapped fury, and the whole album turns on that song, a tornado of desperation and desire.

I think, though, that the soul of the album is in the pairing of “Synthetic Love” and “Rewrite Our Lives”, because what do you do when you have learned those lessons? You change it. You revise it. You rewrite it, pardon my obviousness. The quiet piano outro of “American Ambition” to the reverberating, lilting transition of “Synthetic Love” into the lonely bombast of “Rewrite Our Lives” is the space where this album turns, and explodes from something great to something genius. And “Rewrite Our Lives”, the racing drumming and the distorted mandolin / guitar melody that mimics the dynamic open of “Dead To The W0orld”, god. Just, these lyrics:

i’m beginning to believe that i’ve got more past now than future left in front of me
i wish that we could rewrite our lives, i wish that we could rewrite our own lives

i said that i don’t want to quit
i want a heart that’s synthetic
i want you to have one too
then we could try this all again

It’s the stunner and the centerpiece on Lessons, even if the title track is, well, the title track. It’s the fusion of every single thing that the Tonk does beautifully: that mandolin, the gut punch of love and loss in the lyrics, the harmonies, the way it explodes even past its explosive opening. Ha Ha Tonka writes a song that starts big and gets bigger, and it just barrels straight forward, furious and determined and lovely.

“Cold Forgiver” is muted and hopeful, a quiet slide from “Rewrite Our Lives”, its dischordant piano outro a twitching, compelling rage of its own into “Pied Pipers”, a song about escaping everything about where you are, now. About the way the things you do can help yourself escape, and other people escape. A song not about running away, but about moving on: pied pipers to a good time. It’s a spinning, hypnotic, lyrical ode to moving on, and moving up, and the ways that we trick ourselves into doing it. “The Past Has Arms” opens with maybe the most heartbreaking couplet on the record:

a mouthful of blood when i bit my tongue
i caught myself feeling important again

Those two go on to start the end of the record; the part that’s about being caught in the past, and trying to move forward, and not letting yourself. i always come back again, Roberts wails. It is just a marvel, this record, the way it spins in and in on its; Roberts said this was the most personal record that the band has made, and I understand why, and how. Lessons is an album about facing your own demons, and letting other people shoulder your burden — “Staring At The End Of Our Lives” — and the pain of being unable to escape those things — both “The Past Has Arms” and “Terrible Tomorrow”. Put together, this album is so raw and honest that it was, all in all, a little frightening to write about it. It’s painful and it’s gorgeous and it’s ugly and it’s hopeful, this album. Lessons rages, but it isn’t angry. It rages, but it isn’t sad.

God, sometimes in your 30s, or your 20s, or whenever — sometimes you just have to rage. You have to rage against those arms of the past that are still holding onto you, you have to rage about how you can’t make yourself learn anything. Lessons rages, and it is beautiful, and if anyone says less of it, they are wrong.

And album-ender “Prove The World Wrong”? Well, when you’re raging, what else are you trying to do? Prove the world wrong. Prove the world you can change something. All the lessons I’ve learned, all the lessons I’ve learned. It’s as close to the stripped down beauty of their live a cappella “Hangman / Pendergast Machine” as the Tonk gets on record, even though it’s not nearly as pin-drop quiet, just the same sense of utterly stilling beauty, and it’s a little smug, and a little sad. It’s an shuddering end to a fierce record.

i knew it all along
yeah, the funny thing is, i knew that all along

interview: brian roberts of ha ha tonka

ha ha tonka @ local 506

Tomorrow Ha Ha Tonka drops Lessons, their spectacular 4th LP follow-up to three previous spectacular LPs (there’ll be a review tomorrow morning!), and I’ve got some answers from Brian Roberts, guitarist and lead singer, on a variety of subjects — Maurice Sendak, making art, Brett’s mandolin, and the Pirates’ resurgence. Read more below, and thanks to Brian for answering and Damien from Girlie Action for setting this up.

There was a distinct line between Novel Sounds and Death of a Decade, a kind of sense that the latter grew organically out of the former, as you guys toured and aged and changed outlooks. How does Lessons grow from Decade? How is it different? Were there changes in your process of writing and recording?

Hopefully it sounds like we’re improving.  It’s always been a goal of ours, to continually make our next album better than the last.  With ‘Lessons,’ we really wanted to create our biggest sounding effort to date.  In the past, we’d been hesitant of doing things in the studio that we might not be able to recreate in a live setting.  This time around, we said to hell with it, and just did whatever sounded right for the song at the time.  Plus, we had some very talented people helping out.  Both of the producers for this album, Dan Molad & The Ryantist, are insanely gifted and ambitious sonic adventurers.  They really pushed us to reach beyond ourselves.

I am really sad about the lack of an alliterative title. That’s just a statement, but I thought you should know.

Yeah, we hated to break the streak.  We just felt that the title ‘Lessons’ encompassed the material on the album better than the other title we were considering–which, for the record, was alliterative.  It’s actually one of the song titles…hint – it’s not Pied Pipers.

You’ve said that this record is influenced by the work of Maurice Sendak. Can you elaborate? Is his work something that’s meaningful to you in a long term way?

Yes!  The genesis for this album actually stems from an NPR Fresh Air interview I listened to last year with Terry Gross & Maurice Sendak.  Here’s a link.

If you haven’t listened to this interview, I couldn’t recommend anything more.

After hearing it, I became terribly inspired.  Sendak’s thoughts on the creative process and being an artist really resonated with me.  I found his brutal honesty to be enviable.  The things he discusses throughout the interview are hard truths uttered in the softest of ways.  The “fragility, irrationality…the comedy of life….when it’s gone, it’s gone forever”….we wanted to try and capture those messages with these songs.  The phrase “live your life” could be considered cliche, but it seems so authentic when Sendak says it.  It’s the truth….the hard, soft truth. His ability to find the true beauty in life while facing both death and loss is endlessly inspiring.  It’s so evident that he loved life and truly grasped it’s immediacy.

One of the stand-out musical pieces of Ha Ha Tonka is the way that you’ve always used Brett’s mandolin both melodically and percussively, sometimes in the same song. It’s certainly present vibrantly on “Colorful Kids”. How central to your composition and orchestration is that sound? Is it something that you pursue consciously, or just something that happens because of the writing process?

Brett is one of those rare individuals that can pick up any instrument and play it.  Plus, he also happens to be a walking melody…they just flow out of him constantly and it’s almost always something cool and inspiring.  He’s the most gifted melodist I’ve ever been around and we’re lucky to have him on our side.

Tell me one thing about the new album that resonates for you; something we should know when we’re listening to it.

It’s the most personal record we’ve ever made.

What are you the most excited about regarding being on the road for most of the fall? What’s the worst part of a long tour?

Playing all the new songs live!  It’s always exhilarating to see how different songs resonant with different audiences for the first time.  The worst part about being on a long tour is that it, of course, means being away from loved ones back home, which is always difficult.

The Pirates may beat out your Cardinals to win the NL Central, and have secured their first winning season in nearly two decades. What’s up with that?

Well, you might want to check the standings because the Cards are still a game up in the Central and I’ve got a good feeling that we’ll close out both the Pirates and Reds to clinch the division.  With that being said, it’s good to see the Bucs being competitive again!

[Ed. note: when I sent Brian these questions, the Pirates were still tied for first. Timing and September losses are everything, says the Orioles fan who fell asleep in the 13th on Friday night during the Tampa game.]

You have a time machine and can use it to go back and see one show — one you missed (you weren’t alive, you just didn’t), one you want to relive. What show is it? 

I would like to go back and experience Lisztomania firsthand.

Thanks for your time!

two sentence reviews of reasonably new albums i listened to in august

goathouse cat refuge

Dash Hammerstein — Bito Cabrito: sort of slinky ’50s garage pop, lots of keyboards and drawling vocals and weird orchestration. Charming as hell. Great songwriting, loads of earworms, A+ recommendation from Fuel/Friends.

Have Gun, Will Travel — Fiction, Fact, or Folktale?: this is the fourth LP from Florida’s Have Gun Will Travel, and it’s just as lo-fi, lush, traditional, and unique as their first three have been; it’s got hand claps and multi-part harmonies and upright basses and banjos, but it also pushes the boundaries in great ways, like the shiver of growling electric guitar at the end of first single “Standing At The End Of The World” and the minor key distorted vocals of “Trouble”. A delicious new record from one of my favorite should-be-famous bands, this is what “Americana” should be, if you’re going to bother calling things Americana. I call this good music made by smart songwriters with loads of stringed instruments, an ear for the weird that could only come from Florida, and the brains behind the only good bathroom promo photo ever taken.

Barrence Whitfield & the Savages — Dig Thy Savage Soul: did you know there was such a thing as garage soul? I don’t know if there really is, but I made it up to describe this record from the latest addition to Bloodshot Records’ lineup: this is down and dirty fuzzed out feedbacky soul music, grimy and wild and absolutely made for dancing a little too close to the wrong person.

Doc Feldman & the LD50 — Sundowning at the Station: this record is haunted and haunting, and it sort of made me want to do a lot of drugs. It’s serious hopeful-melancholy-burnouts-on-the-porch Americana, waving away the bugs and smoking Parliment lights and drinking Pig’s Eye beer.

Cat Be Damned — The Top Of The Mountain Looks Just Like The Bottom: if you can make indie brat punk with an acoustic guitar and a banjo, that’s what Erik Phillips is doing as Cat Be Damned, and it’s kind of totally delicious — all feedback and whining plaintive vocals and plucked out acoustic guitar lines from the next great Americana record. This record feels all over the place, but the sneering, hopeful attitude at the heart of Phillips’ songwriting is what makes it stand out; it’s part protest and all love song, and I dig on it hard.

Heyward Howkins — Be Frank, Furness: this record from Philadelphia songwriter Howkins is a bit of a departure from his previous record, The Hale & the Hearty, which was fairly hazy dream-pop; his follow-up still showcases his unique voice and his songwriting talents, but it’s got a beat to it, a sunny sound in the guitars and the drumming. It’s an impressive follow-up to an impressive debut, especially with the change in tone and mood, both because it’s simply impressive songwriting and performing, and because sometimes a shift in tone makes an album feel alien, but here, both records feel typical of Howkins despite their differences. It’s really a delicious little summer record that I’m going to enjoy well into the fall.

that little girl, so hot she’s scalding

bristol rhythm & roots reunion 2012: ha ha tonka

Don’t worry, I’m just having my semi-regular Ha Ha Tonka related head injury. This time prompted by their upcoming new record, which is still two months away from being in my hands, a fact that is currently driving me up a wall.

The version of ’12-Inch 3 Speed Oscillating Fan’ from last year at Bristol. At least one whoop on this video is me; I was shooting from right in front of Brett.

‘Close Every Valve To Your Bleeding Heart’: thick skinned, hard headed, better off you’re closing every valve to your bleeding heart

Just an audio stream of ‘No Great Harm’, but that’s okay, because ow my heart that song in any format:

And to conclude, inexplicable two minutes of Anthony Bourdain hanging out with the Tonk in Missouri, which delights me. (But does feature people shooting guns, so warning if that’s necessary.)

the gaslight anthem @ the lincoln theatre, raleigh

the gaslight anthem @ lincoln theatre

the gaslight anthem @ lincoln theatre

I wrote about last night’s Gaslight show for Speakers In Code. Brian Fallon is still my favorite forever and ever amen.

matrimony @ lincoln theatre

cory branan @ lincoln theatre

Charlotte’s Matrimony and Bloodshot Records’ Cory Branan opened; Matrimony was really enjoyable, but a little less electric guitar-y than I expected from a Gaslight opener. Cory was genius as always, and closed with “Girl Named Go”. Finally seeing him with a camera and a Bloodshot release means I get to check him off my list, too. Just such a lovely human. If you haven’t checked out his 2012 release Mutt, do it. It’s brilliant.

Full set here. Extra smoochy thanks to Tito from Big Hassle for the tickets and the photo pass, and extra smoochy thanks to the venue for the photo pit. Easy life!

album review: roger knox – stranger in my land


Roger Knox & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts – Stranger In My Land. Out 2/12, Bloodshot Records.

One of the reasons I love Bloodshot Records — besides the fact that they release consistently great records, and also that they love me back, which is all I ask for from a record label — is that they are not afraid of anything in a release. Nothing, ever. If they believe in a record, they will put it out. They believe in this record; Jon Langford, who masterminds a lot of things behind Bloodshot collective projects, discovered Roger Knox, who is an Indigineous Australian Country / Western singer known in Australia as the Koori King of Country, and was instrumental in bringing this album to Bloodshot.

It’s Knox’s first US release and first LP of any kind since 2004, and it is an album of giant reach and deep personal connection; as the title Stranger In My Land suggests, the songs on this record take on many of the problems, heartbreaks, and acts of stupendous discrimination that the indigenous populations have suffered in Australia. The songs are songs of Knox’s fellow and past Indigineous Austrlian county / western artists, and he’s backed by the Pine Valley Cosmonauts as well as Kelly Hogan, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and what may be Charlie Louvin’s last performance.

This record made me cry at my desk at work, with the strength and hope and despair of its songs. It is a document of survival and of happiness and of terrible injustices, and it feels as much personal and tiny as it speaks for an entire people. It ranges from a few great honky-tonk songs (“The Land Where The Crow Flies Backward” and “Scobie’s Dream”) to a few staggeringly gorgeous ballads, like “Took The Children Away”, a song about the separation of native children from the families. The Pine Valley Cosmonauts are always great musicians, and Langford has put a fantastic cast together, which just shows the care that was taken with this album.

Stranger In My Land showcases a musical genre I didn’t know existed, and uses the mastery of that to highlight terrible heartbreak and joy of sociological issues I didn’t know happened. It is a little painful, and a lot worthwhile. Knox has made a remarkable record that pays great tribute to what he has done, and suffered, and achieved, as well as what his fellow musicians were doing, and Langford and Sally Tims and Bloodshot have all assisted in putting this remarkable record into our hands.

It’s one of the best records of 2013 so far, and probably continuing forward. Nothing else you listen to this year will be nearly so important. You can buy the record on CD or digitally here, and you should.