Monthly Archives: February 2012

We Are Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

 

It’s hard not to admire Billy McCarthy, frontman and chief lyricist of New York band We Are Augustines. Their debut album is based loosely around the concept of “family”, but more precisely around the heartbreaking death of his brother, who battled homelessness, drug addiction and mental health problems. Yet, far from a rampageous car crash, this is a measured outpouring of grief; dignified and tuneful. With a larynx like Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, backed by the kind of honest-to-goodness, anthemic indie-rock that’s been so kind to the Gaslight Anthem and (dare we say it?) the Killers, sans Brandon Flowers’ Anglophillia, Rise Ye Sunken Ships is lyrically superb. Between Chapel Song, Augustine, Book of James and Strange Days, it has a quartet of tracks that each come close to bettering anything penned by the aforementioned pair. The much-trodden road from tragedy to triumph has rarely sounded so good.

4/5
Originally published here

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

Now eight albums deep into his career, it’s tempting to view Andrew Bird as a latter day, violin-toting Paul Simon. With the syrupy, seductive voice and the tunes (my God, the tunes) considered; the greatest trick the two have in common is convincing the world that their songs are simple: they share a marvellous knack of creating a sum that’s far less complex than the parts. This is the abiding impression of Break It Yourself – an album which thirty years ago might have made Andrew Bird a superstar. After all the loops, the tangents and the breakdowns, remain a set of fantastic, hummable pop songs that we can confidently call Bird’s strongest to date. From the lyrically kooky Near Death Experience Experience (“and we’ll dance like cancer survivors”), to the beautifully maudlin Lazy Projector and folksy Orpheo Looks Back, it comes with the multiplicity expected from a Bird album, but with a consistency he hadn’t previously presented.

 4/5
Originally published here

Dry The River – Shallow Bed

Elbow, Arcade Fire, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake. These are the highlights from a list of artists that Dry the River don’t bear any audible resemblance to, yet to whom they’ve already been saddled with comparisons. As if the BBC Sound of 2012 wasn’t enough of an albatross. Shallow Bed is the inflated big budget debut album from the London quintet and there’s little here to titillate. Instead, a minor update of the already hackneyed blueprint for contemporary folk-rock that’s enjoyed chart success over the past few years: let’s call it Mumford 2.0. But whereas Marcus and co try papering over the cracks with balls to the wall, senseless hoedowns, Dry the River occupy “swollen swings and pregnant crescendo” territory, all thoughtful and weepy. Competent, yes, but there’s nothing new or remotely daring about Shallow Bed – even the most palatable tracks – Shaker Hymns, for instance – begin to grate after just a few spins. If you want the classics, go out and buy them, because you won’t find any here.

 2/5
Originally published here

Lambchop: “I’m sure my doctors would prefer me to become a little more prudent”

As the world around him rushes from pillar to post, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner has always been happy to keep his own pace
The promotional trailer for Lambchop’s forthcoming tour is brilliant. Black and white, with a building guitar riff, Kurt Wagner walks onto the stage of an empty hall, sits on a stool in the spotlight and lights a cigarette. He strums his guitar as the shot pans out, then tips some ash in his hand, before blowing it into the air. It’s simple, clean and lovely. For 25 years Lambchop have been making music that celebrates the beauty and complexity that lies between the grey textures of everyday life. Never forced or overegged. The video is (no doubt purposely) analogous, and it works. “Love the ambience,” posts one commenter. “Even if this is all he did on stage, I’d get a ticket for it.”

“Sometimes I talk to journalists I’ve been talking to for ten years and they’ll ask me: ‘What’s new with Lambchop? What’s new on this record?’” Wagner laughs, as he does at every juncture, emphatic and wheezy. “But I guess every release is a current event. That’s what’s new. For me, that’s significant and we do try to move forward in little ways, which are hopefully exciting enough for people.”

Wagner views Mr M. as the most progressive album the band’s recorded for years. It comes on the coattails of Invariable Heartache, an album of country covers he recorded with Cortney Tidwell under the imaginative moniker KORT, which made him readdress his work with Lambchop. “KORT had a pretty significant affect on how I approach things,” he says. “It started out as a concept, and then all of a sudden I was having to sing these songs, which were pretty straightforward and corny. I learnt that I can become almost clichéd; that’s pretty out there for me. You can almost transcend how you go about it. It’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it. On the record, I’m trying to sing a bit better and some of the songs are the most direct I’ve ever done. There’s a song on [Mr M] called The Good Life that’s pretty straight ahead country in progression and theme.”

For the casual listener though, the glacial-paced change from one record to the next is best noticed through a time-lapse len­s. It’s the thoughtfulness and attention to detail that keeps them coming back for more, and the story behind the opening track to 2006’s stellarDamaged is part of Lambchop folklore. Wagner was commissioned to write Paperback Bible for a radio documentary about life in Middle America. The producers sent him some excerpts from a Tennessee radio show called Swap Shop – essentially a live, audio classifieds section – to turn into a song. “And I’ve got some things/That I’d like to put on out there/Like a pony cart and/an old bird bath/A kitchen sink and a rocking chair,” Wagner croons, impossibly emotively, on what equates to a startling piece of music. “Yeah, that was something I thought I’d try,” he laughs modestly.

But what of the new album? What, today, inspires a man who has previously found his muse within the sheets of the Oxford English Dictionary? “I guess that song’s about people watching,” he says when asked about Gone Tomorrow, one of the standout tracks from the new record, which sees Wagner at his lyrical best. “The studio where I wrote that particular song, they’re doing some improvements around the corner from it. There were some homeless dudes hanging around and they have those little camps. It’s on this road that’s used by people who don’t have vehicles, like these guys, to get from one part of town to the other. There’s a railroad crossing and all the time I was there, there was just an influx of people. I pretty much wrote it from that position, looking at this place from different perspectives.”

Mr M. is Mr Met, named for the past tense of ‘meet’ rather than the New York baseball team’s mascot, who must’ve been feeling particularly litigious the day he heard the album’s original title. “It’s a reference to a friend of mine,” Wagner says, his voice slowing, “who, ah. Who died recently.” He’s referring to Vic Chesnutt, the iconic modern folk singer who died from an overdose in late 2009. The pair shared a musical philosophy best summed up by an oft-quoted line Chesnutt once gave the New York News: “Other people write about the bling and the booty. I write about the pus and the gnats. To me, that’s beautiful.” Lambchop acted as his backing band for the 1998 album The Salesman and Bernadette; Wagner says it would be hard to overstate the impact Chesnutt had on his life. “Vic was part of my musical life since I started out. I wanted to make sure we remembered him.”

Collaborations like these permeate Wagner’s body of work. Lambchop can be anything from one to 12 strong, depending on where they’re playing, and this synergetic spirit, he says, has kept things fresh. “One of the things I’ve tried to do with Lambchop is to have this general kind of collective of ideas. It’s not just me, it’s everyone I work with and it’s fun to include them. It feels more like a family operation, or at least we’re connected by friendship. I love the fact that it allows me to connect with these people and luckily it still continues.”

Away from music, Wagner has built up a network of associates that he works with from time to time, too. An art graduate, he’s picked up his brushes again in recent years after almost a decade long hiatus. He created the cover for Mr M., part of a series of character-based portraits. It sits well among the band’s backlog of cover art which includes typographically wonderful Nixon by his childhood friend Wayne Wright and (OH) Ohio’s infamous nude sleeve, New Orleans Public Beating, painted by an old art professor Michael Peed, with whom he reconnected in Barcelona in the 2000s after losing touch years before.

“In general, the songs and the paintings were created at the same time,” he says, before exploding into laughter. “I wrote the songs when I should’ve been painting. I was playing hooky! Interesting, it always seems to be the least opportune moment for me when I start to think about something else.” But Wagner is non-committal when pushed for a connection between his art and his music. “I find it difficult to connect them. Maybe it’s not a good idea to try. I’ve thought about it for years, but never saw a way I thought the two could get along. Have you ever been to an art opening that had a musical performance? It’s like the worst kind of thing you could ever go to. Aw, it’s horrible man. The business side of both of those things are completely ignorant of each other. They don’t even understand what the other’s trying to do.”

How about writing a book? “I’ve thought about that, too. But I don’t know. I’ve worked on a book with a visual artist, which hasn’t been published yet. I provide the text to go with his photographs. But as far as a novel or something like that… that’s a lot of commitment. I can’t get my head round how anyone can accomplish it at all. You read a book, and maybe it takes you somewhere. But if you ever think about what went into it… it’s scary.”

All the way through the conversation, Kurt Wager is in great spirits. His laugh acts as both a prefix and suffix to most things he says, and it’s extremely contagious. The last time The Skinny spoke with him, four years ago, he was more reflective – relieved even – having then recently recovered from cancer. “It’s alright, I’m happy to report,” he says, of his health. Has it changed his lifestyle? “You would think it would. I probably could tidy up my smoking and my consumption of food and alcohol. I’m sure my doctors would prefer me to become a little more prudent. But there’s still time for that.” When it comes to Lambchop, the acquisition of moderation requires just as much patience as everything else.

 Written for The Skinny

We Are Augustines: Back from the Brink

It’s cold, dark and miserable in Camden – a night to turn your breath to crystal, decked out in the full complement of seasonal greys and browns. Your correspondent has been shivering outside a creaky old bar for fifteen minutes, before being revived, suddenly, by approaching, oblivious laughter. “You wanna come join us in our dressing room?” comes the greeting. Around the corner, a humble eight seater awaits, or as We Are Augustines will come to know it over the next couple of weeks: home. Remarking on how tidy it is, The Skinny climbs in and is confronted with three faces from which the smiles rarely stray over the course of forty minutes’ chat.

Frontman Billy McCarthy, plumped in the backseat in a porkpie hat, could pass for a burlier Brad Pitt. Bassist Eric Sanderson is urbane and dapper, and newly recruited drummer Rob Allen is the picture of contentment: all three are happy to be on board. It’s only fifteen minutes later, when Billy says: “we’re not a tragic band, despite having seen plenty of tragedy,” that a bright pink floods our cheeks, as an earlier preconception comes to mind. It had been decided that if anyone were to be forgiven for being miserable, it would be this lot. It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes a rock band can surprise you for all the right reasons.

Their travails predate this current guise, and can be traced back to the days of Pela, a band Billy and Eric played in before We Are Augustines. Eric takes up the story: “The band hit a brick wall, due to a lack of opportunities and resources. We were on a label with a tiny budget. We had little or no support. We self-produced our first record and the label kept telling us that nobody liked it, which is not what you want to hear. Then the year-end came and we ended up on over 30 lists. We went to the label and asked them: “What the hell’s wrong with you?” We got to the point where we were selling out shows across the country but couldn’t afford to get to them. We were doing our own PR, management, merchandising, support, everything. Eventually the pressure got so great that the band crumbled and we broke up after seven and a half years. We were left with remnants of a record, no career, no support, no band, lots of debt and lots of binding contracts.”

As the band’s professional career lay in tatters, personal tragedy was to strike, particularly for Billy. His brother Jim had spent years living rough in California, moving from psychiatric wards to homeless shelters. He was diagnosed as being schizophrenic a number of years back, after he stabbed a shelter staff member with a knife. He spent time in solitary confinement, while being treated in a hospital ward. Upon learning he was being sentenced to the fate for a second time, Jim took his own life. He hanged himself.

In his bereavement, Billy penned Book of James, a song about his brother that’s powerful and emotive, but also acceptant. The chorus ends with the couplet: “And all the words can all get spoken / 
Well I know we tried and you’re forgiven,” and Billy says that yes, his music has been cathartic, but has also given him the opportunity to speak out about an ignorance and a taboo that he feels contributed to his brother’s death. “It (debut album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships) is almost a concept record about family. It can be tough to play, but the upside is seeing people respond to it. Wherever I am in the world, when I see people react to the issues I’m talking about, it makes it worthwhile. Mental illness isn’t talked about. It’s not… it’s a huge taboo. When you’re a kid and you invite your friends to your house, you have no problem saying: ‘my mom’s not well, she has a bad back.’ But rarely would you hear a kid say: ‘my mom’s unwell. She has a sick brain. She’s manic-depressive.’ People don’t talk about it, and that’s wrong. So if this album does a little bit of good, raises any awareness at all, then I’m happy.”

The record, like the band, is anything but depressing – if anything, it’s rousing: a call to arms. Watching them on stage later that night, it’s clear that We Are Augustines have been galvanised by the hardship they’ve faced and that their audience respond to that. “Sure, they don’t all know what the songs are about,” says Eric, but that’s not important. Everyone can find their own meaning in them.” The Skinnyis pleased that the parallel drawn with the infamous Alan Partridge ‘Bloody Sunday’ moment raises a chuckle. Right now, this band is determined to have some fun, no matter how bad the jokes are.

 Written for The Skinny
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Lambchop – Mr M.

 

At this stage, it’d be mad to expect sweeping changes from a new Lambchop record, and the loungy, intricate and patient Mr. M (Mr. Metuntil a libelous baseball mascot got involved) satisfies the rule, for the most part. But in its four-year gestation period (the longest in the Nashville band’s history), Kurt Wagner has added a few, subtle strings to his bow.

Since 2008’s OH (Ohio), Wagner’s collaborated with Cortney Tidwell on the collection of country covers, KORT. And while Mr. M never comes close to a hoedown, it contains some of the most direct songs to have flown the Lambchop banner, including a straight up love song: Never My Love. Alas, the finest moments remain when Wagner is at his poetic, observant best. “The wine tasted like sunshine in a basement,” he sings on the stellar Gone Tomorrow, reminding us that while new tricks aren’t beyond all old dogs, sometimes they just aren’t as good.

 3/5
Written for The Skinny

Damien Jurado – Maraqopa

 

Damien Jurado’s last album was a game changer. Having spent 15 years churning out folk/folk-rock albums that were sometimes excellent, but otherwise showed little sign of progression, Saint Bartlett saw Jurado explore new depths of style and production, harnessing a bit of reverb and a set of strings to great effect.Maraqopa proves it was no fluke. Opening misstep Nothing In The News aside, this continues in the slick vein of its predecessor.

Whereas the opener morphs, ridiculously, into an excessive 70s superjam, the rest of the album is sparse, tidy and perfectly formed. Richard Swift remains at the mixing desk and shows again that he knows how to get the best from Jurado’s simple, plaintive melodies. The superb Life Away From The Garden, complete with a glorious call-and-response and the gorgeous Everyone A Star are the standout tracks on the latest installment of Damien Jurado’s second wind. Long may it continue.

 4/5
Written for The Skinny

An Audience with Leonard Cohen

Ten years ago, Leonard Cohen told a journalist that he’d “read somewhere that as you get older the brain cells associated with anxiety begin to die. So, I might have saved myself the rigours of monastic life if I had just waited until it happened.” And so, Cohen’s Zen-like demeanour tonight in the opulent Mayfair Hotel shouldn’t have come as a surprise: after all, his “monastic life” has continued since his ordination as a Buddhist monk 16 years ago, and at the ripe old age of 77 – coaxed out of retirement last decade because of bankruptcy – those anxious brain cells must be few and far between. Pleasingly, they seem to be the only grey matter on the wane.

Cohen’s here to hold court over the first playback of his new album,Old Ideas, which alludes as much to his advancing years and the shadow of death as it does to his strong, spiritual beliefs. Greeted onto the stage by the equally dapper, corduroy-clad Jarvis Cocker (this evening’s host), Cohen graciously bows to the assembled Who’s Who of Europe’s music press, removing his signature fedora for the only time in the night. His voice is an octave lower still, the wrinkles more defined on his face, and his shoulders slightly slumped. But he retains what will always be his essence: his wit. If there was ever any doubt that he would grow old gracefully, it’s been swiftly dispelled tonight.

“What’s it like listening to your own album in a roomful of people?” asks Jarvis, when the playback’s complete (there’s something wonderfully Lynchian about listening to Leonard Cohen sing about himself in the third person, while his handwritten lyrics are projected onto the wall, then looking up to see the back of his head, listening and reading along with you). “I wasn’t listening,” says Cohen, instantly, wryly. And so the tone is set. Cocker admits that the early Pulp album It was a rip-off of Cohen’s work. Leonard is flattered, but modest. “You just work with what you got. I never had a strategy. I always felt I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. I never had the sense that I was standing in front of a buffet table.”

What unfolds is a delightful game of cat and mouse, in which Cohen hilariously shirks his interrogator’s attempts to find meaning in his songs. “I’ll buy into that,” he says, with a smirk, as Cocker expounds his theory on Darkness, one of the best cuts from the excellent Old Ideas. To those assembled, it’s a brilliant dose of good-natured schadenfreude. This eminent raconteur leads Cocker, so often an enigma toward the media, on a merry dance, until the questions are open to the floor.

Cohen holds forth on his womanising (“Back then it was agreeable to have a reputation or some kind of list of credentials so you didn’t have to start from scratch with every woman you walked into. Now it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.”), Chuck Berry (“’Roll over Beethoven / Tell Tchaikovsky the news.’ I’d like to write a line like that.”) and even indulges a populist query on Hallelujah (“I wrote many, many verses. I don’t know if it was eighty, maybe more or a little less. My tiny trouble is that before I can discard a verse, I have to write it. I have to work on it, and I have to polish it and bring it to as close to finished as I can. It’s only then that I can discard it.”) All the while, he’s humble, gracious and magnificently entertaining.

In the twilight of his career, Cohen, at last, seems content. The “rigours of monastic life” have vaporised his niggling self-doubt and depression. As he sits back, smiling at each question, no matter how ridiculous, it strikes us that Cohen the lothario has gone, replaced instead by Cohen the patriarch – the most relevant septuagenarian you could ever imagine.

 Written for The Skinny