Will Johnson makes smoky music that simmers understatedly, rewarding you for spending time sitting with it. The frontman for Centro-Matic / South San Gabriel, Will’s also made music these last few years with Monsters of Folk (with Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Jim James) as well as that great Woody Guthrie album with Jay Farrar and Jim James earlier this year.
This opening track off Scorpion(his first solo record in eight years) wrestles exquisitely with “what to do with the golden beast of love,” but this song is not, as they say, a victory march. The first 90% of this song feels hesitant, and beautifully unsure. It grows slowly. There’s something in the emotional map of this song that feels like the end of a soul-sucking workday, when you come home and slip off your shoes and sit there in your stocking feet in a dark living room with a glass of something amber and alcoholic. It’s rife with doubt, and little flashes of bliss. It feels like a stumbling relationship. It’s only for the very, very last final measures of the song that finally all the pieces come together that have been missing colliding with each other for the whole song — finally, the rhythm clicks double time and the melody falls into that simple ladder step progression that’s so satisfying.
The whole song is a weary unfolding of fits and starts. That dopamine-rush of an ending makes me think it was worth it, for just a few measures. And then it’s over; unresolved. Damn you, Will Johnson, for leaving things as messy as our real lives.
Scorpionis out on September 11, a self-release distributed through Thirty Tigers/Undertow Records (Avett Brothers, Dave Bazan, Joe Pug, Langhorne Slim).
You can listen to the entire album now over on his site. I honestly haven’t been able to get over this first track, so I haven’t even listened to the whole thing yet. One of these days I’ll stop wanting to click “play again” on Track 1. Not today.
WILL JOHNSON FALL TOUR
Sept 11 – Waterloo Records in-store, Austin, TX
Sept 14 – Waverly, AL @ Living Room Show
Sept 15 – Birmingham, AL @ Living Room Show
Sept 16 – Atlanta, GA @ Living Room Show
Sept 17 – Athens, GA @ Living Room Show
Sept 18 – Saxapahaw, NC @ Haw River Ballroom
Sept 19 – Baltimore, MD @ Living Room Show
Sept 21 – Philadelphia @ Living Room Show
Sept 22 – Brooklyn, NY @ Living Room Show
Sept 23 – NYC @ Mercury Lounge
Sept 24 – Boston, MA @ Living Room Show
Sept 25 – Montpelier VT @ Living Room Show
Sept 26 – Buffalo, NY @ Living Room Show
Sept 27 – Cleveland, OH @ Living Room Show
Sept 28 – Chicago, IL @ Schuba’s
Sept 29 – Saint Louis @ Off Broadway
Oct 2 – Dallas, TX @ Texas Theatre
Oct 3 – Houston, TX @ Fitzgerald’s
Oct 4 – Austin, TX @ Cactus Cafe
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Sometimes an album pops in your mailbox at midnight on a Sunday when you stop into the harshly-lit post office, and you find yourself wishing there was anyone else in the building to excitedly bubble over to: “Sweet jesus, did you see who is on this record?!”
Advance warning of the incredible New Multitudes record escaped me until this weekend: a dream-team collaboration between Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt), and Anders Parker. Right!?
I listened straightaway, late into that night, and my first thought was how much it reminded me of the rambling, haunting joy found in the Kerouac-sourced (and also California-focused) record that Farrar made with Ben Gibbard, and also of course of Wilco’s collaborations with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue records. This July would have been Woody’s 100th birthday, so the record was intended as part of the celebration of the immeasurable mark he left on American songwriting.
As she did to jumpstart Mermaid Avenue, Woody’s daughter Nora chose these four musicians to pore through more than 3,000 of her father’s unrecorded lyrics (many from his earliest songwriting days in Los Angeles), and use them as fodder to create new songs. After diving into boxes of diaries, notebook, handwritten scraps, typed and coffee-stained pages, Farrar decided to focus the songwriting on Woody’s California period. That sounds like an amenable decision to this California girl.
Stylistically, there’s all sorts of wonderful stuff happening on this record, but that lack of coherence adamantly doesn’t work to the album’s detriment. We’ve got the African-inspired/Graceland feel of Yim Yames’ “Changing World,” the slow-burn Texas desert sadness of Johnson’s “Careless Reckless Love” (always the hardest way to do it), or the bouyancy of Farrar’s “Hoping Machine” (reference #19 on this fantastic meme). There is an intuitive chemistry and threads of collaboration all throughout this record, regardless of who sings lead vocals, or who wrote the music.
“No Fear” sounds just like something you’d want to sing at the end of a Sunday southern church service, an old spiritual with all four of their voices rising. “Chorine My Sheba Queen” by Johnson will, I promise, break your heart (and the provenance story will make your pulse race a little).
I’m still absorbing this record, but so far it couldn’t be more fantastic.
LISTEN NOW: You can stream the entire record thanks to Conan, and order it immediately here. It’s out next week on Rounder Records; the bonus disc version will have 24 songs total, and the artwork is also by Woody.
THE “I’M TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO GET TO ONE OF THESE CITIES” MINI-TOUR
March 6 – The Fillmore – San Francisco, CA
March 7 – Music Box – Los Angeles, CA
March 9 – Crystal Ballroom – Portland, OR
March 10 – Showbox – Seattle, WA
March 12 – The Birchmere – Alexandria, VA
March 13 – Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA
March 14 – Webster Hall – New York, NY
March 16 – Paradise – Boston, MA
PS: In Jay Farrar/Colorado news: Did you see that Son Volt is headlining the Meadowgrass Festival in Colorado Springs/Black Forest this Memorial Day Weekend? Damien Jurado last year, Son Volt this year — way to go organizers!
Any bit of writing that is penned to promote a new album is always prone to a bit of hyperbole, but today I read this:
“…Running together for one dark blissout of a night, two of the finest indie-folk songwriters of the last decade come together under the Texas sky to quietly lay to tape 14 crushing, haunting tunes, leaving space enough in each to match their surroundings.”
And if you didn’t listen the first time I posted it (looks like one year ago tomorrow, actually) or want to hear it again — please spend a few minutes with my all time best-loved, most-devastating song from Will Johnson:
There hasn’t really been an indie rock smash hit song about U.S. presidencies since … well, ever as far as I know. The guys over at iGIF are nerds (nerds I love, at that) who have a series called History Mixery which always titillates me, but other than that no one’s covering this material, man.
These songs had fantastic titles like, “John Adams (Armed with Only Wit and the Vigor of the U.S. Navy)” and my favorite “William Howard Taft (There Was No Longer Use to Hide the Fact That It Was Gout).”
Obama clearly needs his own song to add to this effort, so with the help of Will Johnson (of Centro-matic) they’ve added the following — a truly lovely tune, but then again, I so adore Will’s marvelously aching voice:
And for those living in our nation’s capital during these exciting times, the new Will Johnson/Obama song will be unveiled live this Saturday the 17th at Washington DC’s Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in a big concert featuring many of the artists on the album, and more.
Another year packed with music has come and gone. Music is a language I can’t create myself but it does me good to know that every hour someone out there is humming a snippet of a melody, returning to their seat at the bar with a head full of lyrics that just occurred to them, or tapping out a drumbeat on their leg in the car. People everywhere are trying to get it right, to get the music out just so they can be. I am glad that they do.
2008 was full of fantastic (and varied) music from all corners of the world for me. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with the quantity of music and the subjectivity that swirls around the ones that make it vs. the ones that no one ever hears. I wish I’d had more hours to listen to (and properly digest) more songs this year. As it is, these are ten albums (plus two EPs plus one carryover from last year) that affected me on a gut level in the past twelve months. These are the ones I listened to over and over, that knocked the wind out of me and made me glad I have ears.
These aren’t “the best.” These are just my favorites.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITES OF 2008
Lucky Nada Surf(Barsuk) I’ve been surprised by the intensity with which I’ve listened to this album in 2008. I guess it’s tapping into the introspective moments of my year as it pertains to “grown-up life,” which Caws sings is like “eating speed or flying a plane — it’s too bright.” The album cover hints perfectly at the feel of the music; the moment where it’s still warm from the sun but the gorgeous pinpricks of light are starting to shine through. I talked today about the cascades of glory on this album, a blazing meteor from this band that’s been around so long. I saw Matthew Caws perform solo last night and he said, “We feel blessed to have a second story,” (post-mid-Nineties buzz band). “It’s the story we always wanted anyways.” I’ve listened to this album a hundred times this year and it still affects me deeply, makes it okay to be fragile — and to be on a vector up. [original review, interview]
Midnight Organ Fight Frightened Rabbit(Fat Cat) Coming from Scotland with their hearts held out for the offering, these two brothers plus two bandmates have crafted an album that is not for the fainthearted, but excellent for the honest. Over gorgeous melodies and with a thick and wrenching Scottish brogue, Frightened Rabbit guttingly dissect the moments of bravery and moments of weakness that go with a relationship ending. Peter Katis (The National) produced this lilting, rocking piece of perfection — unflinching in its intimacy. [original review, interview]
For Emma Forever Ago Bon Iver (Jagjaguwar) I didn’t know when I started 2008 just how much I would need this album. Justin Vernon recorded this achingly vulnerable album in the Wisconsin woods in the dead of cold winter as he recovered from a breakup. The name he adopted means “good winter” in French, and I think the name fits the music as well as that ice-encrusted window on the cover. In winter, things move a little slower, but with more crisply defined edges, and the first time I heard this something was scraped loose inside of me. His music is wrapped in a thin skin but a current thrums powerfully under the surface. This is an album that I am unable to shake. [watch: still one of the most perfect things I've seen this year]
Stay Positive The Hold Steady (Vagrant) I think the thing that gets me with the Hold Steady, this year or any past year when they’ve released an album, is that they are unabashed in their belief in rock and roll. Craig Finn is a modern day prophet who flails and explodes with the force of the catharsis of these fantastic sounding songs that they must get out. The lyrics trace some of the most intelligent, evocative stories you’ll hear with characters I feel I know by now (they might as well be breathing). This is an immense album, with the pounding piano that crashes across the songs and the brass instruments slicing through. Gorgeously grand and subversively hopeful. [original review]
The ’59 Sound The Gaslight Anthem (Side One Dummy) If the Hold Steady filter their love for Springsteen through a lens of kids raised on punk and The Replacements, Jersey’s Gaslight Anthem play with an urgency and passion of a pre-Born to Run Bruce, young and hungry. Lead singer Brian Fallon grew up in a home four blocks from E Street, and this band is crafting songs that hold up as well when howled out ragged as they do stripped down to their bare acoustic bones. There’s a wisdom and sometimes a resignation beyond their years.
Ode To Sunshine Delta Spirit (Rounder) Delta Spirit was formed in San Diego when lead singer Matt Vasquez was busking loudly by the train tracks and he met with Brandon Young at two in the morning. The honesty and sloppiness that bleeds through at 2am is captured well on this authentic album with a vintage feel. It basks in the warmth of the surf guitars, the singalongs and handclaps and banging on trashcan lids, the tinkly last-call piano over glasses clattering. [original review]
Dual Hawks Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel (Misra) The cinematic desert beauty and chugging fuzz-rock found side-by-side on this dual album swooped in late in the year to win me over. I saw an acoustic video of Will Johnson, who helms both bands, performing “I, The Kite,” from an album I’d passed over too quickly the first time around. Both bands are Will’s and explore different dimensions of his music — Centro-matic electric like the heat in the air even as the Texas August sun has just begun to rise, whereas the more muted, spacious South San Gabriel has tones of evening and fireflies. This album was written and recorded fast and pure in a handful of days in the studio, and has a feeling of distilled essentials.
Oh! Mighty Engine Neil Halstead (Brushfire Records) Taking six long years from his last solo release Sleeping On Roads, influential British musician Neil Halstead (Slowdive) comes quietly back with a humble album of acoustic folk melodies that rewards the listener for their patience. This is a slow grower for me, and I find that more hues in the songs are revealed to me the longer I sit with it — a task I am eminently willing to take on. Halstead sings about trying to get the colors right, and with these unassuming tunes I think he does.
The Great Collapse Everything Absent or Distorted(self-released) This Denver collective does things full tilt. They play with seemingly all the instruments they can find, in order to squeeze the earnest beauty out of every melody and every rhythm. They fearlessly meld incisive lyrics with a resilient hope, like on “Aquariums”: “We are aquariums — left outside, but we hold life and a bright light in our glass walls.” With eight official members (and up to 15 on stage) EAOD is a joy to watch, and that joy transmits onto this smart album of sweeping scope. Amidst banjos and casio keyboards, trumpets and pots and pans, this band is ready for a larger stage. Literally. [original review]
Little Joy Little Joy (Rough Trade) It’s as simple as this: Little Joy just makes me happy. Their thirty-minute debut album is short and occasionally rough, it’s kitschy and danceable with Brazilian influences. I like the quiet Technicolor flicker of songs like the Portuguese “Evaporar” as much as the jerky fun of “How To Hang A Warhol,” and all the shades in between. Binki Shapiro’s vocal contributions on this album are especially charming, as she croons out of my stereo like an old-time Victrola. [original review]
HONORARY TOPS (should have been on last year’s damn list): In Rainbows(physical release) Radiohead Because I was overwhelmed and ignorant at the end of 2007, and didn’t give this my undivided attention until someone sat me down in a darkened room and made me really, really listen to it.
The Confiscation EP, A Musical Novella Samantha Crain(Ramseur Records) Also from the excellent Ramseur label, 22-year-old Oklahoman Samantha Crain has Choctaw Indian roots and a dusky earnestness to her alto voice. The five songs here tell a cohesive story (a musical novella indeed) with shimmering, unvarnished truth. [original review]
LISTEN: Once again this year, I’ll be appearing on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye on January 1st to talk about stuff from this list! We have a lot of fun. You should listen (online, or via your local station that carries the show), and tell your mom to listen too. I know mine will be.
Listening to my friend Dainon‘s quality eclectic radio show tonight on KRCL.org reminds me of this achingly potent video that he shared with me recently. Shot live in the KRCL Studios in Salt Lake City, it captures Will Johnson (of both Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel), the heartfelt grit in his voice, and the striking literary nature of this song. This live version is a little slower than the album version, and whole heck of a lot sadder.
UPDATE, 6:38AM: Since I woke up and this is the first song I played –on repeat five times before I was even all the way awake– I think it’s safe to call this today’s obsession. It’s all I want to listen to. I ripped the audio because this live version is so bittersweet and heartbreaking:
UPDATE, 11:07AM: A reader just pointed me in the direction of a bit more album-faithful but equally fantastic version from Daytrotter a few weeks ago. Will shares, “Written right before the separation with my ex-wife. I was definitely zeroed in on some of that unraveling that was going on with that relationship. I hate to say it, but it’s a souvenir of that.” Eh, well that punched me in the gut; I guess it’s no wonder that it resonates so heavily with me.
I, THE KITE In the morning we were scorned in some overcrowded dream With new faces, black erasers, and a D-movie like scream And you smiled in a way that gets you into casting calls for life But your blouses of corruption ripped your dreams right out of sight
And we tried innocence and tried formaldehyde In the end you were left with the string and I, the kite
So we’re older and the soldering iron at your side Fixed the damage of the organ cutter before he could really start And you smiled in a way that gets you on the guestlist, say, for life That’s as useless as a screen door on an operating submarine
And we tried innocence and tried formaldehyde In the end you were left with the string and I, the kite
You might be surprised to hear it, but I am reading a really interesting book about zombies. Heck, I’m surprised that I’m reading a book about zombies. But it was an unexpected gift and I’m not one to look a gift book in the mouth, so I dove in.
World War Z is rivetingly creepy, an impeccably-constructed fictional history of our modern world seeing an unknown outbreak in rural China that causes people to become undead, their blood congealed into a black ooze, with a shuffling gait and a low moan. Oh, and a bloodthirsty need to bite the living (like, break into your house in suburbia and feast on your family). Sounds all Halloween, but it’s more like Outbreak. The book traces the procession of the outbreak, the coverups, the panic, the turning point in the war, and then the reconstruction of the entire planet — entirely through short, well-crafted first person accounts of those who “lived through it.” It’s very believable and globally creative. I like freaking myself out with well-written scares. I recommend this title and am glad I gave it a shot.
Music I am listening to this fine first week of Spring:
Katherine Boyracer This starts like bubblegum with a fresh sweetness and pop, but quickly you get the fuzz and hear the punky influences of Boyracer. Originally from Britain and now in Arizona, this band has gone through over 40 members in the almost two decades they’ve been making music. Currently the lineup consists of original member Stewart Anderson and two rockin’ gals, one of whom he is married to. As my friend who recommended them said, “the killer melodies really come through after a few listens,” and I agree — the overtones are sweetly gratifying, but with enough distortion to balance it so well. They could be from any decade of the last 40 years.
The Satisfier Eli Reed Here’s another out-of-nowhere 24 year old who channels James Brown here with a red-hot yowl and big brass soul. I originally read about Eli “Paperboy” Reed & The True Loves over on the Bag of Songs blog and as soon as I started listening to the track, I had to go back and doublecheck who this kid was and from which era. Originally from Allston, MA, he honed his musical chops after he up & moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi at age 18 — in the North Mississippi Delta, and one of the birthplaces of the blues. Holy mackerel. Go stream some stuff on this kid’s MySpace; album Roll With You is out April 29th on Q Division.
I The Kite Centro-Matic If you were Texas musican Will Johnson and found yourself sometimes tugged in different directions with your music, you might –if you were especially prolific– form two bands. And in 2008, you might release a double album with both of your bands on it. Centro-matic often explores the loose and beautiful, but slightly more rockin’ side of Johnson’s persona, where South San Gabriel is a bit more twilight dusk than burnished afternoon. Hazy but stunning, like a landscape from a Cormac McCarthy novel. According to the guys themselves, “what is distinctive about the release of Dual Hawks is that we get the chance to hear side-by-side the various ways in which Centro-matic and South San Gabriel complement and play off of each otherâ€”sort of the full-length equivalent of a split single.” Very cool idea, with gorgeous interplay.
Magic The Blakes A friend has been urging me for months to write something about The Blakes after he saw them randomly on a Friday night in a small club and wrote that “they were awesomeâ€¦like fuck yeah spirit of rock n roll awesome — they sort of rip off The Strokes but they do it in a good way, like it is still 2002 and garage rock will rock forever and it isn’t 2008.” So yeah, I’ll take a listen. This song was originally part of the Sound of Color ad campaign, and finds this Seattle trio taking a bit of a departure from the garage vibe found on excellent tracks like “Modern Man” or “Commit” (on their MySpace) crossing over to a sunnier Kinks/Beatles vibe that evokes nicely their assigned color of blue. Or maybe a cheery aquamarine.
Heron Blue Sun Kil Moon Mark Kozelak’s music gives up its melancholy layers slowly, over repeated late-night listens. Therefore I cannot claim to have plumbed the depths of the new Sun Kil Moon album after only having streaming access to it for a few short days via their MySpace. But this one we managed to capture is bewitching. Like one particularly incisive lyric here, “Her hair it twists ’round her necklace / constricts and chokes like ruthless vine,” this song is near-eight minutes of ominous impending beauty. The new album April comes out the first day of that month and features guest vocals from Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) and Ben Gibbard.
It’s already a new week? One thing that flew past me in the craziness of last week was a mention of the new Contrast Podcast that I contributed to, where a bunch of us bloggers get together to virtually DJ a radio show. The theme last week was Who?and I finally contributed a most excellent Pearl Jam track (“Who You Are”). I held out on the PJ for a while but hey, what do you expect?
This upcoming week Tim will be putting together Contrast Podcast #18 wherein all of us were supposed to submit an instrumental track and then SING OUR INTRO. I confess, I recorded one and then buckled. I listened to it, buckled, and didn’t send it. I can sing, but geez that felt too vulnerable. I’ll be interested to see who had the cajones to submit for this week’s podcast. In the meantime, listen to last week’s for some mind-expanding variety & good tunes.
Chains Danielia Cotton Swanky, bluesy, delicious. Danielia Cotton hit the music scene with a bang last year with her Small White Town debut album (HipShake Music). This is a raw, soulful, dust-on-the-front-porch album from Danielia, who alternately shares some of the growl of Joss Stone, the blues-rock of the Black Crowes, and the vocal chops of Janis Joplin. She combines her skills on the guitar with an appreciation of all the musical greats that came before her, and the result is fresh and highly recommended.
So Good To Me Sam Champion Now despite the name, Sam Champion is a quartet from New York, not just one guy named Sam (they apparently named their band after a weatherman from a 1974 TV show). Thanks to my pal Chad for enthusiastically recommending this Ryan Adams-fronting-Pavement sound. He said I would be humming the main riff (from this track off their 2005 album Slow Rewind, Razor & Tie) and I have been all morning. A spirited alt-country shout-out chorus with handclaps & some fierce electric guitars; I like it.
Reconstruction Site The Weakerthans I am just rediscovering The Weakerthans; an old friend slipped me their Left and Leaving disc back in 2000, and I promptly lost it in a box of stuff when I was moving. I just found it this weekend and have been listening ever since, and catching up on what they’ve done since then. This track is off their 2003 follow-up to Left and Leaving, the weathered sounds of the Reconstruction Site album. If you’ve never heard these guys, give all their work a spin. They have a quirky blend of several influences, from country to punk to indie folksy — all wrapped with bitingly intelligent lyrics. It’s those lyrics that make me want to listen again and again. On this track, there’s a simple line that nonetheless conveys perfectly a sense of unease: “I’m your dress near the back of your knees and your slip is showing.” Bucket Full Of Nails Centro-Matic I swore I wrote something about Centro-Matic a few months ago when I discovered the loose & beautiful sound of these Texas indie-alt-rock-country guys. But I guess not, so now I get to recommend that you take a listen to their newest disc Fort Recovery (Misra Records) which has a melancholy sweet air permeating the whole thing. One reviewer wrote that it captures “that time just before the sun goes down when everything looks burnished and beautiful, but also a little sad” and I completely agree. This piano track also has a lazy touch of Jagger or Wayne Coyne on the vocals.
Into The Groove Sonic Youth. Covering Madonna. Seriously. You all know that I love covers, and I will argue that the very best of the covers are the ones that take the original and turn it into something completely new — Exhibit A: Cat Power, “Satisfaction.” Exhibit B: This damn song. The torchbearers of mid-90s-fuzzy-rock, Sonic Youth, slog their way through Madonna’s slumber party favorite and, well, there’s something special about Thurston Moore’s voice cracking on the high notes. Whose idea was this? (thx Matt)
BONUS RECOMMENDED READING: I found that I could relate to about 20 things in this article by the Heather from Dooce, detailing her college years of loving ’90s music and BritPop, studying abroad in London and going on an Oasis history hunt, and reflections on how (to her Mormon ears), “the heartbreak in Kurt Cobain’s voice was to me what it would sound like to violate all the ten commandments at the same time.”
Name: Heather Browne Location: Colorado, originally by way of California Giving context to the torrent since 2005.
"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel." —Hunter S. Thompson
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