Any attempt to apply a genre to the Bye Bye Blackbirds in general, or their sparkling new record, August Lightning Complex in particular, is a fool’s errand the likes of which would make Don Quixote give up tilting at windmills and try his hand at miniature golf.
With touches of early Byrds, mid-era R.E.M. along with a gentle wafting of The Replacements and heavy doses of the cooler side of Big Star, the song cycle has more unexpected turns than a formula one road track.
Recorded and mixed in Oakland and the San Francisco bay area, the opening track, “Want Show As Young,” will set the stage and level set your expectations for the rest of the album. Should you be fortunate enough to be listening to the record on vinyl with a proper system, the song almost literally pops out of your speakers. With the initial guitar salvo from Lenny Gill, it is safe to say that he is back and better than ever. And, once the majordomo and bandleader, Bradley Skaught, joins the party sounding like the devil-spawn of Tom Petty and Elvis Costello, it’s time to take this flight tonight.
“Mechanics” has a definite “Radio Free Europe” groove going for it, which is never a bad thing, especially here, when the band’s not-so-secret weapon, Kelly Atkins, gets her twenty feet from stardom moment, applying her “Gimme Shelter” worthy backup vocals to what might be the best song on the record.
Meandering down the river that is side one, the song “Something From The Old World” presents itself. It is here that we pull our canoe over to the side of the river and reflect on the lyrics. While not quite going full-on “Bernie and Elton,” it is clear that a certain Sympatico is going on between the band and the lyricist. The Jackson Browne feel to the song is like musical comfort food for the soul. Several props to the artistic team that decided to include the lyric sheet with the vinyl version.
Once the record is turned over to the flip side, the amazing journey truly begins. “We Got Lost (Reprise)” starts things out with a psychedelic jam that comes somewhere north of Sid Barrett and South of very early Who. And, the binder in the cigar wrapper, “We Got Lost,” followed by “Favorite Stars,” seems to bring the ying and yang of the two sides of the record together in exquisite fashion.
And then, there’s the song “Marching.” Weighing in at about ten minutes or so, to our ears, it is here that the Bye Bye Blackbirds have painted their masterpiece. The band, the production, the mournful trumpet, courtesy of Bill Swan, everything on this song simply works to perfection. David Bowie meets Iggy Pop and Pink Floyd performed in the quintessential Bye Bye Blackbirds style springs to the minds-ear on this one.
And, once the final reprise has been written on this record with the closer, “Don’t Wait,” we are left with the realization that this album may be among the select masterpieces where the title song is also an instrumental. Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends opening track comes to mind as one of the rare examples.
And, come to think of it, if one must apply a genre to this zenith of a record delivered by the Bye Bye Blackbirds, cosmically cool, and Bookends worthy might be a great place to start.
Johnny Cash – American Recordings V: A Hundred Highways
The year was 1994, and it was not the best of times for Johnny Cash. His health, starting to fail from a series of illnesses and decades of hard living, was seemingly bringing “The Man in Black” much closer to the end than he was ready to admit. His latest major record label, Mercury Records, had dropped him after one last commitment record, The Mystery of Life, that was released in 1990 and included updated versions of “Hey Porter,” “Angel and the “Badman,” and “The Greatest Cowboy” that were good simply because they are very good songs, but showed none of the outlaw grit and soul that had come to personify what just may be the greatest songwriter in American History. More than anything else, the song “I’ll go somewhere and Sing My Songs” was clearly a metaphorical “spit in the eye” a kiss-off to the current contentious relationship he was having with the record label in particular and the music business in general. It was clear that Johnny was at some sort of foreboding crossroads in his career.
Given his particular set of circumstances along with his inability to connect with his legion of fans with new material, Johnny Cash did what he always did when times were tough. He left to reconnect with his comfort zone. He hit the road. It was on the road, with his wife June that he found spiritual peace and a safe harbor where he could be among friends that have been with him from the beginning.
It was at one of these shows, in 199 that I met Johnny Cash. The show was crisp, professional, and everything you would expect from a showman that had been honing his craft for almost forty years. Time was turned back several decades during this performance with June providing an always passionate rendition of “Jackson,” and every standard whether it was “Ring of Fire” or “Walk the line” was delivered with an attitude that this was the first time the audience had ever heard the song, and there was no place on earth he would rather be than right here, right now, performing for you.
This fan-friendly aura was taken to the extreme when he told the audience that for anyone that was interested; he would be in the lobby after the show signing autographs. It is there, after having to wait in an almost embarrassingly short line for a man of his legendary stature that I met Johnny Cash. The man in black himself was standing right in front of me. With cell phones and the ability to take spontaneous photos of special moments still almost two decades away, I am left with only my memory to capture the moment that this country giant, standing what seemed to be much taller than his 6’2” frame would indicate, dressed all in black of course, with a turquoise bolo tie and pearl cuff links, where he personalized for me three 8 X 10 pictures. He then took my hand in a bone-crunching grip, looked me dead on in the eye, and said “Thanks for coming to my show Podnah, did you have a good time?” Sometimes questions require no answer.
The Year was 2000 and it was not the best of times for Ryan Caron. When we met him, the twelve-year-old was sitting in a wheelchair by himself at the Ronald McDonald House in Houston having just had a major part of his right leg removed as part of what would be an on-going series of treatments and operations to stay one step ahead of the cancers that were threatening to take over his body and his life. The color of his skin was grayish brown, almost the color of mud dried up in the Texas sun, and his face seemed bloated, a victim of the chemo treatments he was right in the middle of receiving.
Sitting down and talking with this ailing young man, I quickly realized that this was a unique individual that I was very lucky to be meeting. After a few minutes of conversation, I learned that he was from Austin and had recently been making trips to Houston for testing, diagnosis, and treatments at M.D. Anderson, one of the best cancer treatment facilities in the world. His attitude was very upbeat, and he was starting to mull over in his mind whether he would get fitted with an artificial limb or go old school with a wheelchair and crutches. His biggest regret over his circumstances seemed to be the loss of his beloved dreadlocks. When it was time for my wife and me to go I shook his hand, wished him luck, did not share any contact information that would facilitate any further interaction between the two of us, and like Elvis, left the building.
In 1994 Johnny Cash delivered American Recordings the first album to be released by Rick Rubin’s American Recordings record label. The formula, largely invented by Rick Rubin himself, was to take an artist known for having a tremendous vault of material that combined with roots songwriting themes, partnered with a soulful song delivery style that could stand on its own, and strip the sound down to the bare essence of the artist. And that is just what happened with the Grammy-winning album that reinvigorated the life and career of Johnny Cash. Recorded mostly in Johnny Cash’s Living room, this initial volume included classic songs such as “Delia’s Gone”, “Drive On”, and “Tennessee Stud”, turning the hipness up several notches to 11 with “Down There By the Train”, a song that was written for Johnny Cash by Tom Waits, “Beast in Me” the signature Nick Lowe song, and the Leonard Cohen classic “ Bird on a Wire”, all were delivered with simple, minimalistic production values, a man, his voice, fading imperfections and all, and his guitar, the stuff goosebumps are made of.
The successful formula was altered slightly with each subsequent volume released. The second volume Unchained was a record of mostly covers with support provided by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. American III: Solitary Man was a response to various illnesses that were starting to cut short his touring schedule, and American IV: The Man Comes Around, more covers but this time with an accompanying video of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” that included a Johnny Cash performance that was so devastatingly ripped open his heart, pure and honest, that it not only earned the series another Grammy award, this time for best video but also served as a wake-up call to his legions of fans that this may indeed be his last album. It wasn’t.
The next album in the series American V: A Hundred Highways was to be his last proper album, American VI: Ain’t No Grave was a series of outtakes from these sessions, with song selections that had Johnny cash going down the trail towards the afterlife with themes of redemption, spirituality, roads traveled, and a life fulfilled. Once again he selects traditional songs, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” current songwriters, Bruce Springsteen’s “Further Up (On Down the Road),” and Cash Original’s including “I Came to Believe” thematically showing that life, death, and mortality were front and center on his mind, and if this was too be his last album, he had some things to get off his chest.
In 2008 life, death, and mortality were also very much on the mind of Ryan Caron. After our initial meeting in 2000 and a series of random, yet in what I am convinced were pre-ordained events, Ryan and I had become friends. An unfortunate by-product of the course of treatment for Ryan was the need for him and his family to make the 180 mile trip from their home in Austin to the M.D. Anderson medical center on a somewhat regular basis. Over the course of the next 8 years, Ryan and some combination of his mother Rachel and/or his father Howard would stay at our house for the length of time they were required to be in Houston as Ryan was receiving treatments and attending appointments.
As so often happens with friends and families that spend a lot of time together certain rituals tend to develop. We had a couple of them. The first night everyone would go to dinner and enjoy a nice meal. After returning home Ryan and I would then go to Best Buy. I would buy him a CD and we would go home and listen to it together. An excellent musician, Ryan played guitar and had a beautiful singing voice. Music was always a very big part of his life. I would never tell him, but his music selections were never quite my musical style. His CD picks were an extremely eclectic mix of high profile Rap groups of the day, Christian music, or harder rock groups like Shinedown, Linkin Park, or Nickleback. Being a bass player he did go with a Bootsy Collins CD during one visit which was about as close as our CD selection journeys would come to a meeting on common grounds. This pattern continued pretty much the same each visit until what turned out to be our last trip.
Over the prior 8 years, the young man’s life had been a roller coaster ride of tests, high hopes, periods of time where he thought he might be out of the woods, a lot of needles, a lot of heart, and an abundance of perseverance. Just like Johnny Cash.
This particular visit that would consist of testing, diagnosis, and consultation would and turn out to be a pivotal one as his condition was worsening and his spirit which had always been higher than anyone in the room was beginning to falter. If I ever had any doubts about how he was feeling internally about his future they were all washed away on our musical journey with Ryan’s final selection American V: A Hundred Highways.
Ryan, to my knowledge, was not a country music fan, we had never talked about Johnny Cash or any other country star for that matter, except of course for Willie Nelson, and this was about as far from his prior musical selections as you can get. But then we listened to the album together and it all made sense, really hit you between the eyes with a 2 X 4 kind of sense.
I really think that after chemotherapy, 20 radiation treatments, losing his right leg at the hip joint, his right lung, and most of his left jaw, that Ryan had become tired. He was sick and tired of being sick and tired, just like Johnny Cash.
It did not take me long to realize that this album came as close to expressing in 12 dramatic stories the state of mind that Ryan must have been experiencing at the time. From the opening track “Help Me” where Johnny Cash pleads to The Lord to help him walk another mile, to “A Legend in my Time” that speaks to picking yourself up and dusting yourself off when you come up against a set-back, and “I’m Free From The Chain Gang Now,” this album seemed to be pretty much the soundtrack for Ryan’s current state of emotional affairs.
Ironically enough, after 8 years of intimate knowledge of his medical condition and even spending time visiting with him in hospital rooms at M.D. Anderson during a time period when we were both receiving treatments, it wasn’t until listening to this album together that any thought of him not getting better even entered my mind, until I heard the opening lyrics of “Like the 309” that is.
It should be a while before I see doctor death/so it would sure be nice if I could get my breath/well I’m not the crying nor the whining kind/till I heard the whistle of the 309.
And then the line in “Further on Up the Road”
Got on my dead man’s suit and my smiling skull ring/my lucky graveyard boots and a song to sing/I got a song to sing that keeps me out of the cold/and I’ll meet you further on up the road.
I looked at him, he looked at me, and it was then I knew.
But there was still more work to do. In the span of fewer than six months, Ryan graduated from high school receiving a diploma in a ceremony where he was the only student that walked since the entire proceedings had been recreated exclusively for him as he was too sick to attend the actual ceremony. He got married to his high school sweetheart and could be found wearing his fedora and playing his guitar in coffee houses throughout the Austin area. With studio time donated by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, he and a couple of friends recorded a stunning version of his favorite song, “Pride and Joy”, a song that could be a soundtrack to his life.
In short, he lived the last few months of his life much the same as the eight years following his diagnosis where he was a national spokesperson for the Sunshine Kids, was very active in his church and school activities, appeared in a National Nike commercial with Lance Armstrong, and was featured on several local news programs as a mentor and inspiration for fellow cancer victims.
On February 5th, 2012 it will have been eight years since Ryan Caron passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family and friends. A few hours before he died he called me to say thank you and to say goodbye.
When Foxy Shazam came out with The Church of Rock and Roll in 2012 it was almost as if our Rock and Roll Dreams had been answered. Bringing over-the-topness back to Rock and Roll and pushing the envelope to the extreme with the bombast of “Holy Touch” and the otherworldly wail of the title track, throwing down Glam, Pomp, and a whole lot of audacity, it looked for one flicker of a moment that the devil spawn of Freddie Mercury had finally been born, and the race with the devil was headed to the Sunset Strip circa 1987. Until that is, Eric Nally and the band crashed and burned in ways that would have made The New York Dolls blush.
That’s why their latest record Burn is such a treat to the ears. The high camp is still front and center, albeit turned down to levels normal humans can endure, and from the lead-off title track it is clear that this rebooted version of the band that channels Mick Jagger, James Brown, and Justin Hawkins from The Darkness is pressing forward with fairly straightforward Pop anthems with a swashbuckling style that is more Three Musketeers than Pirates of the Caribbean. And that is a very good thing.
The Song “Dreamer” is early Queen by way of Supertramp, “In My Mind” has a bit of Bruno Mars Mojo to it, “Doomed” somehow rhymes china and vagina without and it actually works, and the auto-tuned close “Into The Wild” does take a wide left turn but ends up to be trippy instead of entirely offense to the years.
In short, from what these band of renegades delivered with this album, they might be one record away from creating their opus.
Not Country, and with only small sawdust dustings of Honky Tonk, the debut record from Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, a band formed from the ashes of the Refreshments, the Gin Blossoms, and Dead Hot Workshop, is Roots Rock of the highest order bringing to mind John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Petty. Or, think of them as a bit of a less ramshackle version of the Old ’97s.
The approach to Cowboy Rock that these guys put forth has just enough twang to catch the ear of Dwight Yoakam, Just enough jangle and songwriting chops to impress fans of Chuck Prophet and his band Green on Red, and David Lindley devotees will be quite impressed with the delicately played mariachi Southwest-Noir stylings.
The title track will drift you down South of the border, and “My Heart is a UFO” is a tearjerker that the Replacements could have covered quite nicely, and “Beautiful Disaster sounds like Born to Run’s younger brother. It is a little bit ear-scratching that this band is not as well known as The Blasters, The Bottle Rockets, or Whiskeytown, but there still is a lot of time.
Wham glam thank you, ma’am. If you close your eyes while listening to this glam-tastic new release from Montreal’s premier foot-stomping retro band, Dangereens, you might think you have been dropped into a time warp taking you back to 1975.
The influences and touchpoints are pretty straightforward, but that does not make them any less delicious. Marc Bolan, The Rolling Stones, Thin Lizzy, Hanoi Rocks, pretty much every Rock and Roll band you hold dear to your ears makes an appearance here. Heck, there even is a steady fragrance of epic-era Kinks on this set of odes to coolness.
Chuck Berry Riffs and T Rex Glam share the stage with older than their years’ songwriting chops, New York Dolls swagger, and blouse wearing torsos. This one has Rock and Roll record of the year written all over it.
It’s not often, and actually, it’s pretty cool when a band will deliver two extremely listenable Power Pop gems a scant 6 months from each other and deliver this strongly on both fronts. And, Power Pop mavens Born Ruffians have done just that. After having put together enough material for multiple records, at the bare minimum a double album, the band chose to follow up their April release Juice with this October digital-only follow-up effort, Squeeze.
From the opening track, “Sentimental Saddle,” a song that takes you on a semi-psychedelic journey swirling left-turns aplenty with Crazy Horse worthy harmonica escapades, swirling keyboards, and layered harmonies topped off with Beach Boys Holland influences on the back-end, the trip that lies ahead can be nothing but groovy. And It Is.
“30th Century War” has sort of a Kinks by way of The Talking Heads feel to it, the song “Waylaid” features Hannah Georgas on vocals is a solid bass line driven Indie Rock song, and “Sinking Ships” is anthemic in all the right places and is a centerpiece of the record.
There is a pure Pop super-sheen on the earworm-worthy “Rainbow Superfriends” that will stick with you long after your first listen, and the festival-ready “Noodle Soup” goes a bit deeper in understanding the need to take care of each other.
This record is everything you would want in an album that provides a solid listen. Songs with a message, pop-hooks abounding, and enough varied textures and turns to make you want to go to the listening well more deeply with each subsequent listen.
Blitzen Trapper – Holy Smokes Future Jokes (4 out of 5)
The overall inspiration for Holy Smokes Future Jokes, the latest record from Indie Rock band Blitzen Trapper centers around the concept of Bardo, that transitional period between death and rebirth. existential stuff, for sure. There’s even a lyric that references smoking dope with Lincoln in a Chrysler on a hill on “Dead Billie Jean” that emphasizes the concept. But, dismiss this record as hippy-dippy nonsense at your own peril. The album has a real comforting ’60s folk fell instrumentally with a distinct George Harrison penned Beatles vibe, most notably on the title track. “Masonic Temple Microdose #1” is prime “Loser” era Beck, and “Sons and Unwed Mothers” is poignantly beautiful.
The melodies are varied and the harmonies are as tight as the skin on an apple. The lyrics may take a bit of headphone time to absorb properly, but the ear-time effort is well worth it. The best way to enjoy this one is to give it a couple of solid runs allowing the record to envelop your senses. Then go back to it, maybe after giving it a couple hours rest, and focus on the lyrics. The experience will be not quite life-changing, but close.
The Bye Bye Blackbirds – Boxer at Rest (five out of five)
The first thing that jumps out when you hit the play button or drop the needle down on Boxer at Rest, the supremely excellent new record by Oakland California’s Bye Bye Blackbirds, is the pristine knob-twirling production value courtesy of Doug Gillard, who has worked with Guided By Voices and Nada Surf as well as many other bands you like, that hits you between the ears on the first song “You Were All Light.”
At first-listen, the opening drum intro followed by the Big Star worthy guitar chords will float your mind-space back to happier and even hippier times. And, once the perfectly mixed vocals join the party courtesy of the George Harrison meets Tom Petty (Travelling Wilbury’s era) vibe of the main songwriter Bradley Skaught, suddenly, as the horns kick-in to take you home, all is right with the world. And it almost wasn’t.
As the album was written and the tracking well underway at Hyde Street Studios in San Francisco, founding member Lenny Gill fell gravely ill with an illness requiring a heart transplant almost derailing the record before it really got started. Then, during a period of time when Lenny’s ability to ever play the guitar again was very much in doubt, the band recorded each of the individual tracks with the exception of the guitar parts and put them on a shelf for safekeeping. Replacing the irreplaceable and finding another player to fill in for Lenny was never an option. It was a time to be patient, a time to live, a time to heal. Until finally, after a hard-fought nine months of rehab, the boxer at rest was ready to get back into the ring recording all of the guitar parts in one day.
Having been largely written before Lenny’s illness, the songs on Boxer at Rest are mostly upbeat affairs with an undercurrent of social consciousness lying just below the surface of virtually every track. Two of the songs that demonstrate Bradley Skaught’s agile songwriting skills, “How Do We Stay?” and “All Our Friends” directly address the tragic 2016 fire that killed 36 people in a warehouse known as The Ghost Ship that had been converted into an artist collective in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland.
All we do is love you and sing your names out We pulled the anchor And kissed you out to sea
And, on “So True” the gentrification of the neighborhoods in and around Oakland with hipster lofts and overpriced coffee shops taking over the landscape is lamented.
“In miles of old alleyways, all our secrets in piles, left outside where the dogs can find them. Gone like they’d never arrived.”
There is a poetic poignancy to virtually every song on this record that is enhanced even more so through a set of quality headphones and multiple listens. The liner notes clearly say play this one loud. Advice best heeded.
Trying to choose a favorite song or to cull band influences or genres from the choice morsels presented here would be somewhat of a fools’ errand. There is literally nothing not to like with this record. Sure, there are fairy dustings of Big Star, The Birds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Box Tops sprinkled everywhere, but make no mistake. Lenny, Bradley and the rest of the band aren’t simply riding the coattails of those that have gone before them, they are playing it forward with depth and deep reverence. Just listen to the guitar licks that would make Sun Records and Sam Phillips proud towards the end of “War Is Still Hell” and tell us we’re wrong. On “Watch Them Chime” you might catch the scent of R.E.M.’ or even a Tim era Replacements vibe. And, on “Baby It’s Still You” the horns are back in just the right spots and the band’s secret weapon, Kelly Atkins, announces herself in fine fashion even though she has been classing up the joint earlier with her elegant harmonies throughout many many of the tracks.
At a nice and tidy 33 minutes and 23 seconds, this one is best savored in one sitting with a nice cocktail in hand, surrounded by good friends, toasting those that are no longer able to join us.
It is pretty hard to believe that Peter Himmelman is 15 albums in and has been applying his trade since 1986 with on solid effort after another, and his latest, Press On, is certainly no exception. Recorded live in-studio this one runs the cool-genre spectrum from Roots Rock to Gospel, To Country with a little bit of Rock & Roll and beyond.
“Press On,” the title track is a Gospel tinged narrative beauty and rides the same bus as Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, while the rest of the record carries that same working man’s hardscrabble songwriting flair. Even though the record was recorded in just under four days nothing about his feels rushed, just another troubadour doing what he was born to do.
Kai Danzberg and Honeywagon – Rockshow (five out of five)
There really is not too much not to like on this one, the latest from Germany’s wunderkind Kai Danzberg. While he may have a baby face that shows all of his tender 24 years, this Pop-Savante definitely has a ’70s soul. Every track on this pop-fastic record is as hooky as you will find this side of an episode of dangerous catch, there is not a tune presented here that would not be worthy of being released as a stand-alone single.
“Rockshow” is an epic soundscape that sounds like something Freddie Mercury would have produced if he were still with us, “Love You & Me” is an uptempo and bouncy love song, and “Oh Girl” is made even more spectacular with a helping hand from singer Drake Bell. The tones and textures all across this record vary with each turn of a groove making this one heck of a diverse listen that will grab your attention and not let go until the needle stops.