October 30, 2011

Dawes: Time Well Spent On The Road

Downtime is hard to come by for a band as on the rise as Dawes. Since the release in June of their sophomore album, Nothing Is Wrong, the Southern California roots-rockers have maintained a relentless presence on the road, sharing bills with the likes of Alison Krauss & Union Station, Jackson Browne, and Bright Eyes, among others. The band is currently on a co-headlining tour with Blitzen Trapper, with upcoming dates scheduled through the end of the year.

The consistency with which they perform has not only helped the band to further hone its chops on the concert stage, but in the recording studio as well. In fact, Dawes had logged nearly two years of touring before recording Nothing Is Wrong, and as lead vocalist, guitarist, and principal songwriter Taylor Goldsmith recalls, the album couldn’t help but reflect that experience. “The songs were written based on our live shows, because we’d been playing so much when they were all written,” he says. “The whole thing was done right after a tour, right before another tour.”

With their earthy, laid-back mood and thoughtful lyrics, the songs have a homespun quality that harkens back to the early ‘70s singer/songwriter phenomenon concentrated in Laurel Canyon where, incidentally, the band — rounded out by Taylor’s brother Griffin Goldsmith (drums) along with Wylie Gelber (bass) and Tay Strathairn (keyboards) — today calls home.

Goldsmith writes the songs by himself on the acoustic guitar, including the harmony parts. “Then I bring it to the band, he explains, and we all kind of arrange, figure out the feel and the tempos and the dynamics, that sort of thing, all together.” From loose and jangly tracks like “Time Spent in Los Angeles” and The Way You Laugh to the brooding lament that is “So Well,” the collective effort paid off in a big way, culminating with one of the best albums of 2011.

And so if Dawes has to yet to hit its stride, it’s certainly on the right path. “Our ambition is to develop a real catalog,” Goldsmith says, looking ahead, “to be the kind of band — even if it’s not huge, world stardom or anything like that — that just has a log of material; to be able to say we have 15 to 20 albums worth of songs. Those are always the bands I fall in love with the most.”

(First published at Blogcritics.)

October 23, 2011

Album Review: The Cowboy Junkies Get Heavy on Latest LP, 'Sing in My Meadows'

The Cowboy Junkies plunge headlong into a guitar-drenched flood of bluesy, rough-around-the-edges rock on Sing in My Meadow (Latent Recordings). The third and latest installment of their four-volume Nomad series – following the experimental, Asian-echoed volume one (Remnin Park) and the folk-rooted volume two, a tribute to the late Vic Chesnutt (Demons) – it’s the most accessible one so far and among the most brazen efforts in the veteran band’s entire catalog.

Reverb and thick, corrosive riffs drive this thing, alternating between robust, menacing cuts (“Late Night Radio,” “3rd Crusade”) and comparatively abstract, mood-driven ones (“It’s Heavy Down Here,” “A Bride’s Place”). Evocative whether on the fringes of a groove or entrenched within it, Margo Timmons envelops the air more than she articulates any set of lyrics or notes.

At the outset of the Nomad series, the Junkies set out to record four albums in 18 months – Sing in My Meadow took four days – an ambitious plan by just about any measure. More impressive than their efficiency, though, is how they’ve enriched each volume to date with its own respective character and theme. Prolifiacy is one thing; ingenuity, executed so strikingly as this, is something else altogether. The fourth and final volume can't come soon enough.

(First published at Blogcritics.) 

October 22, 2011

Lucinda Williams Brings Her Joy to Jannus Live

Lucinda Williams at Jannus Live, 10/19/11 (photo by Donald Gibson)
Last week Lucinda Williams was honored by the Americana Music Association with its Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting. This past Wednesday night at St. Petersburg’s Jannus Live she proved why she deserved it, delivering a musical masterclass of heartbreak, remorse, and redemption for nearly two solid hours.

Her aching, windswept voice resonating rich and vibrant in the open-air venue’s crowded courtyard, Williams delivered each song with distinct consideration and purpose. Early highlights included the Car Wheels on a Gravel Road gem, “Drunken Angel,” and a honky-tonk-tinged rendition of "Well Well Well," from 2008's underrated Little Honey. “Steal Your Love” and “Essence” came off gutsier, grittier than their recorded counterparts, thanks in no small measure to Williams' ace band (and opening act) Buick 6.

“Side of the Road” and "Blue" – the former a plaintive lament; the latter a mournful masterpiece – were rendered with unmistakable poignancy and charm.

Williams premiered two as-yet-unreleased tracks, one original and one cover, both of them solid performances. Her own “Stowaway in Your Heart” featured a funky rhythm that in a way recalled "2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten," its lyrics bearing the refrain, "Thank you for giving me a place to hang around.” Then came an understated take on Bob Dylan's “Trying to Get to Heaven,” which Williams recently cut for a forthcoming Amnesty International project – like the 2007 set of John Lennon covers, Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur – that will include various artists covering his songs.

“This one goes out to those marching in the street, the 99 percent,” Williams said before an extended, rambunctious version of “Joy,” her fist held high in solidarity with the Occupy protests around the country. Two well-selected covers, "It's Not My Cross to Bear" (Allman Brothers) and audience favorite "For What It's Worth" (Buffalo Springfield) continued in the same defiant vein to close the show, but it was with the encore-opening title track to her most recent album, Blessed, that Williams made her most lasting, heartrending impression. "We were blessed by the forlorn, forsaken, and abused," she sang in its final verse, offering a silver lining of hope in what can often feel like a hopeless world.

(First published at Blogcritics.) 

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October 15, 2011

The Bangles Are Back in A Big Way

The Bangles have never shied away from acknowledging their influences, from British Invasion bands (especially that fab lot from Liverpool) to other girls-only groups like the Runaways and the Go-Go’s. Now with their current album, Sweetheart of the Sun (Model Music Group), founding members Susanna Hoffs, Debbie Peterson, and Vicki Peterson reveal even more of their musical roots while boasting the sort of infectious hooks and harmonies that have long distinguished their sound.

Traces of psychedelic pop (“Under a Cloud,” a cover of Nazz's acidic “Open My Eyes”) juxtapose more organic moments of country/rock (“Anna Lee,” “I'll Never Be Through With You”), with Hoffs and Vicki Peterson each taking their fair share of the lead vocals. Twenty years after the Bangles notoriously struggled for identity as a band rather than Susanna Hoffs' backup group, this album is perhaps their most compelling fulfillment of that ambition.

Other standouts include the saucy rocker “Ball ‘n’ Chain” and a truly sizzling take on the McKinley Sisters' "Sweet and Tender Romance," both tracks brandishing ultra-frisky grooves and stinging guitars. This is good stuff; and thanks in part to co-producer Matthew Sweet–his oldies-revue collaboration with Hoffs has yielded two feel-good volumes of Under the Covers in recent years, with a third album yet to come–the Bangles have come back in a big way.

(Published first at Blogcritics.)

October 12, 2011

An Interview with Rachael Yamagata

She’s not quite ready to kick up her heels and sing “Walking On Sunshine” or anything, but Rachael Yamagata does at times sound less melancholy than usual on Chesapeake, her first album in three years. "I think it’s just a part of me that’s now able to come out a little more through the actual songwriting," she explains. And as Yamagata goes on to suggest, she's not nearly as dispirited in her everyday life as her music has perhaps made her seem.

One word that comes to mind in describing this new album is eclectic–it’s got different styles and textures and moods. Was that something you’d planned or was that just how it came out

I’d had a collection of songs and I just tried to find the ones that felt well-rounded in terms of storyline and ideas. [On] the music side, we just were really spontaneous in the studio with the musicians in the room, and tried to trace what felt good and fresh to everybody, and didn’t overthink any of it. So I think it’s sort of an after-the-fact thing if it feels sort of eclectic. We really were flying by the seat of our pants in terms of what to record. There were some that were optimistic, or at least less pessimistic or downtrodden than I’d been before, that I knew I felt a kinship with that I wanted to get on the record, like “Saturday Morning” and— 

“Stick Around” is another one.

Yeah, “Stick Around” is almost a happy song. I don’t write many of them, so there were some that I felt like if we can get this to sound true for me musically, then that’ll be a great feat that I’ve sort of always struggled with. So I was really happy that we got those.

When you say you struggled, was that because the happier songs had always been harder for you to write?

On previous records I was so fascinated by sorrow and heartbreak and things in relationships—that’s just what I wrote about—but I wasn’t ever truly depressed. I think people associate your nature with your work, and that’s just what it is. And that’s true on a lot of levels, but there’s also a sense of humor and I’m extremely hopeful and optimistic. It always surprises me if something doesn’t work out. That’s why I write about it, because I’m fascinated, like, “What happened? Why is this so painful?” I’ve never wanted to write the happy songs. I’ve always only been more interested in sort of the darker things. I feel like I’ve finally figured out, for me, how to keep it sounding like myself and yet still have a lighter tone. And I’ve tried it before; it just felt forced. It felt like I was trying to write a happy song. That’s why I’ve never put any on record. But these came about very naturally and felt like me.

What was the tipping point, when you realized you’d gotten there?

“Saturday Morning” was a big one for me. There was something to it that felt really easy and natural and not complicated, and yet still had this reference to… This relationship was obviously going through something, but it’s about not focusing on all we’ve gone through. It’s like, “Let’s just get back to why we’re in love. Let’s just get back to basics." The lyric and the music and the melody all came together and went for the same thing. It coincided in this nice way. That was the one where it was like, “You know what? I actually can stand behind this.”

Did you surprise yourself or did you know you had it in you? Did you know it would come out eventually?

I’m not sure that I did, actually, because I’ve certainly been through many, many rounds of, like, the business side saying, “Write a happy song.” [Laughs] Or, “Let’s try some tempo,” or, “Let’s try co-writing with a bunch of people and see what you come up with.” And they’ve never really felt like me. So I wasn’t sure if I had the optimistic part able to come out.

But you did have the wherewithal to recognize that, this time, it worked.

Yes, I did. And I think it came because I wasn’t focused on getting it.

Chesapeake is available now on Frankenfish Records. For more information on Rachael Yamagata, please visit the artist's official website.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

October 04, 2011

An Interview with Katie Herzig

What if the closest I get to the moment is now, sings Katie Herzig with tender, anxious optimism on Closest I Get, one of several highlights that grace her inspired new album, The Waking Sleep. The song earned the artist this year’s prestigious ASCAP Foundation Sammy Cahn Award, which recognizes the works of promising songwriters on the rise.

And she more than lives up to that promise throughout The Waking Sleep, melding digital elements like samples and drum loops with the more organic essentials of her folk/pop songcraft. “It was really kind of a natural progression,” Herzig says, noting that she's experimented a bit in this area on previous albums. It was during a period that saw her composing mostly for film and television, though, that she chanced upon a catalyst for what was yet to come.

“I was given an assignment a few years ago to write a song for Sex and the City and all I had was my laptop. So I just started building sessions in Garage Band and it turned out to be a really fun way of writing that was completely new for me,” she recalls, adding, “You’re just going to create different songs when you use different tools.

In listening to the new album it seems like your songwriting encompasses more discovery and curiosity than any fixed forms or ideas; you can hear the discovery process in these songs. What was it like writing them?

The majority of [the album] was written and recorded over a year’s time. I didn’t want to put any pressure on me and my co-producer, Cason Cooley, to meet any deadline. I wanted there to be a spirit of experimentation. Making records is probably the most fun [part] of what I do. So I wanted to just soak it up and be in that process. And that allowed for the time to find new sounds and experiment with different loops and different ways of writing.

Has having written for television and film–when the songs don’t necessarily have to be about you–affected the way you approached songwriting on this album?

Yeah. I think when given an assignment to do something for something else, you lose the kind of self-consciousness of an artist, like, “This is what I’d do as an artist;” or, “This is a song that means something to me personally.” You kind of lose a strong tie to those things. And it allowed me to really experiment and try, almost as if I were playing other roles or characters. It was so freeing and so much fun, not being so self-aware about the music I was creating. I think that did creep into how I was creating this album, except I was combining it with “me” again, things I have to say.

Some of your songs have also been featured in commercials, a medium which some songwriters resist. Granted we are in a different era than, say, the ‘80s when The Beatles railed against “Revolution” being used in a Nike ad. But did you have any misgivings over how your songs would be perceived in commercials, especially if that’s where a person was introduced to them?

There is still a little bit of that in the air, if it’s something that you’re just not quite sure about. But I think [of] how things are changing with the industry, of it becoming something that is almost like radio in a way. It’s just an opportunity for your songs to be heard and for people to hear about you. So I’ve embraced that in a sense. It’s enabled me to financially invest in making records and getting on the road... This has become the support for those things.

It helps to facilitate the other aspects of your career.

Yeah. And I’ve promised myself not to just rely on making all my money on film and TV stuff, because I don’t see that as building a career and a future as an artist. So I try to use that and invest that into creating my own records and then getting out there on the road, bringing a band, that kind of thing. It’s funny, there are certain placements that you get that you’re really proud of and others that you’re like, “Gosh, it’s okay if nobody saw that one.” [Laughs] It kind of comes with the territory.

What did it mean to you to win the Sammy Cahn Award for songwriting?

Oh, wow, that was really cool. I haven’t really won an award for music before so it was an interesting feeling. It was very flattering, because there are some awesome songwriters that won that before me. Over time in writing songs I’ve tended to simplify my approach lyrically sometimes. The song that won, “Closest I Get,” is just a simple three-verse song. So it was really fun that that was the song that won. It took time; I started writing that song at the beginning of the record. And a couple months later I wrote the second verse. Then a few months after that, when we were trying to finish recording, I wrote the third verse. It was just a long unfolding of a very special song. It was really an honor to win it.

Do you ever worry or consider, when you’re writing an album or even when you’re about to release one, that your songs won’t connect with listeners? Is that ever a songwriter’s fear?

It can be, but I do think that’s a pretty stifling way to be creating. When you have a little more of “I don’t care” in you, you’re going to create something that really isn’t just tainted with second thoughts. I don’t remember feeling that about this, because I kind of count on if I’m enjoying it, I count on other people enjoying it. And if I’m not enjoying it, there’s no motivation to work on it. Because when you make an album, you’re going to be singing these songs over and over and over again for years to come. I really count on what’s in my gut. If it’s inspiring, if it feels good to me, then I stick with it.

The Waking Sleep is available now courtesy of Downtown Records. For more information on Katie Herzig, please visit the artist's official website.

(First published at Blogcritics.)