Oaks’ “Galacticana” is winning teaser slice of forthcoming “Heaven”

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Strand of Oaks is the moniker created by Timothy Showalter, a 38-year old Indiana-born musician (and former Hebrew school teacher) who broke onto the scene in 2009 with album Leave Ruin.

I crossed paths with Showalter’s Oaks project in 2014, a year in which Tim’s album HEAL was a constant topic of conversation around indie rock circles. This was for good reason, as HEAL remains a desperately beautiful, screamingly raw, deeply delving insight into the deathly horror of mental, personal breakdown and the resurrection of finding the healing hope and reasons to still go on.

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HEAL also was speaking a lot to what I was feeling then. I had recently enjoyed being introduced to Dinosaur Jr’s brilliant J Mascis only to find his enigmatic guitar playing on “Goshen 97”, while the aching of loss I felt for Songs: Ohia musician Jason Molina after his tragic death at 39 was perfectly eulogized in the rattling “JM”. Even bonus track covers of Ryan Adams’ “My Wrecking Ball” and The National’s “Pink Rabbits” fit in line with other artists that obsessed me at the time.

HEAL is a true “complete” album without a misstep in an era that needs a lot more of them. That song on the radio may stay with you a day or a week; a true album is a staple of life.

I also empathized with Showalter nearly giving up the craft until fate intervened in the form of My Morning Jacket guitar-slinger Carl Broemel (leading to the recording of the gorgeous 2019 Oaks revival record Eraserland). I’ve long loved working in creative writing, but on more than one occasion I’ve felt the compulsion to quit based on anxiety, crippling self-criticism, and thinking I had nothing left to say anyone cared to hear. It’s connecting to hear someone singing and persevering through what I felt and what I still deal with mentally today.

Someone being real.

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Tim Showalter is one of those musicians talented enough to consistently bring that baggage of emotion out for some recording booth catharsis, and that continues with the lead single from the upcoming Strand of Oaks album In Heaven, due out October 1st.”Galacticana” has an uplifting swing in mentions of joy and ecstacy, but like storm clouds amidst summer sun it also dwells on the human fear and insecurity that lies beneath those gold rays.

But instead of that worrying “I don’t wanna drag you down” suggestive earworm on this track, that reveal of vulnerability instead feels like a badge of kinship. It’s a powerful bonding connection between Showalter and his listeners, which is more than can be said for a lot of musical projects.

For example, take a band I’ve enjoyed a long time who recently dropped a record with a producer I greatly respect. Despite the anticipated team up, the majority of this band’s new tracks just felt lifeless and meandering. But sometimes that’s just it, you can book the best producer behind a great veteran band with a handful of songs, but when there’s no soul in it…. you’re just ironing an empty shirt.

Not so with Strand of Oaks. If “Galacticana” is any indication, In Heaven is already a dark horse contender for 2021’s Best Of list.

Watch below:

Power trio Th1rt3en fuels with kerosene on raw, poignant “Exorcism”

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The band Th1rt3en is veteran rapper Pharaohe Monche, soulful blues guitar slinger Marcus Machado, and the punchy syncopated thump of jack of all trades drummer Daru Jones. The trio unites to form a sound I can only begin to describe as a mash of blazing fiery hip hop, assertive funk, and creepy cutting samples and sound; all combine to formulate the universe of their debut record A Magnificent Day For an Exorcism

To paraphrase Monche, the album’s title refers to the world and it needing a “cleansing” due to moral decay. A student tortured into school shooting insanity by constant bullies and beatings, violent conflicts and death brought on by the brutal actions of police, dealing with the constant fallout of racism as a person of color… it is a list of heavy tolls. 

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Despite that, Monche takes hearty bites of these heady matters with gusto; his carnivorous rhymes stripping apart the haters and competition alike with piranha-toothed glee, backed by the dual ninja slice of Jones and Machado acting as a backcourt of merciless Avengers. The trio swoons, battles, and machine guns through tracks like “The Magician”, “Goats Head”, “666”, and “Triskaidekaphobia”, barely stopping to hold still for the sad breath of a wistfully slipped “Amnesia”. 

While it’s brief sidebar amidst the louder issues, “Amnesia” is one of the tracks that stuck with me longest from “Exorcism”. It’s a beautiful relationship between musicians playing in sync together to give life and form to the same sonic wavelength. Monche deconstructs a soldier damaged in the ICU who slowly has his mind ebb away through each razor-sharp tightened bar, Jones thrums on an ever-steady rich backbeat, and Machado lands a dancing solo into the track’s conclusion that scatters like constellations into the midnight. 

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“Amnesia” is a sobering drop before the marathon march of closer “Kill, Kill, Kill”, which brings Exorcism back onto its breathless path for a final conclusion; a fatigued yet triumphant boxer throwing out his last flurry of haymakers. This is an album that may be too thematically intense for some listeners, but it involves the type of conversations we need to be having more and more in this day and age. 

And that’s where it begins: by shutting up and listening. 

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Bridges mining early gems on “Gold Diggers Sound”

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Leon Bridges just keeps getting it done. Since bursting onto the scene in 2015 with his debut throwback-inspired LP Coming Home, Bridges has embraced his retro-fitting R&B croon while slowly pushing his palette of sound watercolors into more modern spaces. Followup Good Day (dropped in 2018) kept Bridges’ soul stylings front and center, but traded in a few vintage lines for added pop hooks and production touches.

Bridges’ latest work at initial glance seems to focus on maintaining that relationship between the classic and contemporary. Entitled Gold-Diggers Sound for the studio where many late nights were spent recording the album, early singles “Motorbike” and “Sweeter” act like yin and yang between the two elements, with Bridges right in the center of the emotional crosshairs.

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“Motorbike” has all the hushed passion of whirlwind summer romance, hung with the delicate strength of pitter-patter drums and the miles beneath the metaphorical tire tracks. While “Sweeter” finds itself in that same laid-back pocket as Bridges and musician/producer Terrace Martin collaborate on the track, dedicated to the memory of George Floyd.

The song’s lyrics, which focus on a Black man’s thoughts as he’s about to die, are heartrending and vulnerably visceral in a current landscape so defined by police brutality, violence and hatred. And few could sing it as well as Bridges, who endlessly draws the usual comparisons to the likes of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, but is only really fair to be weighed against Leon Bridges.

To get a sense of what I mean, watch Leon and Terrace Martin tackle a live acoustic version of “Sweeter” at the Gold Diggers Studio below:

Gold Diggers Sound drops July 23rd. If the video above wasn’t enough to satisfy your interest in the album, check out the official music video for “Motorbike”. It’s directed by the talented Anderson .Paak, and adds a deeper emotional connection to the track’s blissful romantic side.

Sky feels like the limit for Craft’s talents with EP “Space”

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New York City has had no shortage of legendary, bar-spitting hip-hop MCs spread out across its five boroughs over the years. The genre is as much a part of the Big Apple’s bones as the veins and capillaries of the subway lines at this point. Mixed right down into the soul’s soil.

And while there are the legacy names like Jay Z, Biggie Smalls, A Tribe Called Quest and Nas, today I’m focusing my lens on a guy still trying to make his path, Hell’s Kitchen’s own Marlon Craft.

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Crafty’s new EP (out now) is called Space, and at first listen the journey’s a long, sighing drag of a confessional cigarette for the young rapper on this collaborative project with producer Yusei. “Can’t Call It” reflects on the toxicity of mental wounds not covered by bandage, whiskey or HMO, while “Cheap Date” tries to stay on those vibes caught up in pleasurable urges; really just overtures to avoid the anxieties in the landmines of making deep connection.

Swiping left while just trying to hold still.

This isn’t exactly new territory for Craft; he’s always liked to keep his subjects real. For all the toughness and mean mugging required to be a city kid in a rap world, Craft’s often just braggodocio; a disguise while trying to learn how to belong and have it feel right on a human-to-human level. But that’s often where great hip-hop hits the hardest; when it hypes like fire AND explores the soul’s icy chill deep in the night.

Like all of us, he’s still learning. And when it comes to Craft’s music, he just gets better with each release. Between this EP and his prior release of brilliant LP How We Intended, 2021 is this kid’s year to change the game.

“Slappers” fits Raleigh’s Aquarium like familiar blue jeans on surprise covers album

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While it’s been awhile since I can say I’ve truly experienced a “hootenany”, American Aquarium’s new covers album “Slappers, Bangers & Certified Twangers, Volume 1” gets pretty close to the experience during these hootenany-less pandemic times.

The genesis behind the record was simple for the North Carolina-area group: record odes to what they felt was some of the best of 90’s country music and have a lot of fun in the studio doing it. The final product includes covers of artists like Sammy Kershaw, Joe Diffie, Trisha Yearwood and Sawyer Brown, re-imagined through the lens of AA lead man BJ Barham’s sharp edged, glassy growl.

This album was also a learning experience for me as these were never songs I heard growing up. As a child of the 90’s era, most new country music of that time wasn’t something my parents or contemporaries had on the radio. The few peeks I had over the years also just never appealed to me and seemed canned in that “Nashville Factory” sound.

But it’s kind of funny how a slightly different interpretation of a creation’s bones can quickly change your mind. American Aquarium slays these tracks (according to my ears) because: 1. This is a very talented band you should be listening to if you aren’t, and 2. Their genuine joy to perform these songs is next level.

It’s like the difference between working and having a job you love. Take “I Try to Think About Elvis” (a “Johnny B. Goode” raveup at its finest) or “John Deere Green”, which has as much redneck charm as the song’s lovestruck painting protagonist. There’s no phoning it in for the check here. This is for sheer enjoyment of the material.

“Slappers” also has a vibe similar to Todd Snider’s 2016 “Eastside Bulldog” LP. It’s a little ramshackle, bit twangy, but has so much love baked into its metaphorical crust that any misstep just makes for a perfect mistake.

And you can’t do much better than that.

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“Welcome 2 America” takes latest glance at coveted Prince Vault materials

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The Prince Estate recently announced their latest foray into unveiling more of the legendary rocker’s treasure trove of unreleased creative material. Entitled Welcome 2 America and due out in July, the 12-track LP (recorded in 2010) was initially slated to accompany a then-ongoing tour of the same name. However, for reasons known only to the artist himself, Welcome 2 America was scrapped; bound instead to gather dust on the shelves of the much-spoken-of Prince Vault.

Until now. 

The lead single (and title track) is perhaps at first listen not the type of promotional introduction one would typically expect. The 5+ minute funky slink plays almost like jazz club improvisation, with Prince providing a spoken monologue against the gorgeous vocals of trio Shelby J, Elisa Dease, and Liv Warfield. Lyrically, the single confronts themes like the dangers of escalating technology, endless greed amongst the aristocrats, and oppressive societal rule, issues that have only grown worse and more toxic since Prince wrote and spoke these words to tape. 

That seems to tap into the broader mindset of where this posthumous album will dwell. To quote the Estate’s Welcome 2 America press release:

“(The album is) a powerful creative statement that documents Prince’s concerns, hopes and visions for a shifting society, presciently foreshadowing an era of political division, disinformation, and a renewed fight for racial justice”

This certainly isn’t new territory for His Royal Badness, as his albums Purple Rain and Sign O’ The Times most famously highlighted themes including fears of nuclear war, the AIDS crisis, and trying to survive while the world is falling to pieces. Even Prince’s final studio album Hit n Run Phase Two opens with “Baltimore”, a rock’d up ode for peace following the 2015 death of 25-year old Black man Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers.

So it seems appropriate that even from beyond the grave Prince has more statements to make that fit into the mood of our modern times. And while I have pondered at length just what he might have thought of his Estate releasing this recording and several others since his passing in 2016, the facts are these: Prince put no plans in place for the future of his creative works and didn’t seem to care what might happen to it all.

As a result, I just want to hear the music. Ordinarily I seek to respect the wishes of the artist and creator first and foremost, but with no knowledge of that and the mythical whisper of the Prince Vault coming to call… its time to just enjoy these little musical feasts as the treat that they are.

Prince was a once in a lifetime talent; hearing more his thought process in this world is a good thing.

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Rag’n’Bone Man provides one of year’s best through “Misadventure”

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Rory Charles Graham is musician Rag’n’Bone Man, a strikingly poignant moniker inspired by a children’s show from Graham’s youth in the United Kingdom. His sophomore album is entitled Life by Misadventure, and I can easily predict this will rocket him straight to household name.

Think Chris Stapleton with 2016’s Traveller; Misadventure inhabits some different genre spaces but reflects just as much time spent with its heart on its sleeve.

What I mean begins within the tenderly gruff baritone of Graham. He simply has a can’t miss vocal; it draws attention as easily as dropped jaws given the spacious power, range, and easy vulnerability it takes on. It’s not just every musician that can go toe to toe with the rock steady talents of P!nk on a song, but “Anywhere Away from Here” is diamond level singer-songwriter piano balladry. The two could cut an album tomorrow and I’d be in line for it.

But for all this talk of vocals, the lyrics on Life on Misadventure are just as worth noting. Tracks like “Fall in Love Again”, “Crossfire”, “Anywhere Away From Here” and “Alone” feel downright confessional they shoot so straight, and that realness is in every melodic step this record takes.

That honesty might at first seem surprising upon initial glance at Graham, a 6’5 giant of a man with face tattoos who gives off more Hell’s Angel than Angelic Singer vibes. But looks can be deceiving for a reason, especially once Graham breaks into a Michael McDonald-esque croon that beautifully haunts long after the album stops playing.

Courtesy of NME.com

Pick up Life by Misadventure. For being about experiences off the path, it hits as straight as an emotional firebolt right to the heartstrings.

If You Don’t Yet Know Silk Sonic, “Leave The Door Open” For This Supergroup

It’d be wrong to start picking off the cobwebs on OTBEOTB without acknowledging… well, this.

This, AKA Silk Sonic, AKA Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, AKA the Justice League-style dynamic duo you didn’t know you desperately needed to hear until you were first told they paired up, have made the world a funkier place since the early March drop of the pair’s slow-jam single “Leave The Door Open”.

From the strength of the song itself to the “its such a retro clean-cut 60’s/70’s vibe Pablo Escobar would approve” aesthetic of the music video, its difficult not to feel the heavy weight of anticipation on what a full collaboration between Bruno and Andy is going to look like once its (eventually) announced. The talent and immediately evident chemistry of the pair across a full LP, the level of guest stars and musicians that I’m sure have been pulled in to assist… as a listener the possibilities generate endless goosebumps.

Look no further than “Silk Sonic Intro”, a brief lead-in to our main at”track”tion that features Parliament bassist and resident funkmaster Bootsy Collins playing the role of album MC.

Makes it easy to get hyped up doesn’t it? That’s Bootsy baby!

Luckily for us, Silk Sonic also shines an exposing light on the pillars of other iconic, impactful artists who helped them forge their sound. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson/The Jackson 5, James Brown, Prince, and George Clinton (with both Parliament and Funkadelic) are some of the first that come to mind here, though the well runs much deeper and widespread the farther you search.

I mention this because as important as it is to look forward and feel modern, it’s also of deep meaning to look down into the roots of all the old hooks, noodles and melodies of the past. Fully digest those albums, take the time and hear those stories to not only know how music has evolved, but to also never forget the pioneers and the innovators who birthed various genres in the first place.

Though never let that pigeonhole you into being the type of music consumer/reviewer who only bases opinions off comparisons to others either. Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars as Silk Sonic is wildly exciting simply because of what each and each alone brings to the table.

Now we just wait for the full album.

An Open Letter…

To the person whose eyes choose to read these sentences,

Greetings. You may or may not know some small piece of the “creative me” via prior posts on this website as you give these current words a scan. At this point its more likely the latter as I’ve been absent since last year, AKA the start of pandemic times.

A combination of slow recovery from right wrist surgery, the changing of the world amid COVID, and a mix of so many of my anxieties kept me far from the computer; glued instead to the undersides of blankets and mind-blanketing side hustles. Fears… they don’t easily go back in the box when life changes radically. At least in my experience.

But I’m not here to magically say I’m better from those wounds now and have returned to become 100% myself again either. Its more a “one situation at a time” kind of vibe where some moments outweigh handling others during a pandemic. I will however say in these currently backward days that seem so unfit to be called something as futuristic-sounding as 2021, it feels wrong to allow time to win and freely pass while only being able to lay in the fetal position staring at its back as it gradually fades away.

So while I can’t perhaps provide the exact essentials many folks need right now, I’m still a writer here to entertain with creativity when I’m able to do so. And I can still do what I’ve always loved best: supporting musicians who just need a signal boost and a voice to listen and help spread the word. Sometimes the best thing we can do as humans (virus or no virus) is to give each other a hand up.

And better to do it sooner rather than later, because most of all we know is finite. The full name for this site (On The Back Edge of the Beat) came from singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle and a random piece of stage banter I happened to see of his on Youtube that ultimately inspired the title. That was all it took to start this project, and as small as it is I’ve always been thankful to JTE for that idea lightbulb.

Sadly, we lost Justin in August 2020 at only age 38. I haven’t had the words to describe how that’s felt since I learned it happened, other than I miss him and I wish it hadn’t had to occur of course. Especially for the sake of his wife and young daughter.

Moments like that have made me realize that its okay to slow down during these times, preserve strength and heal your wounds. However, you can’t just stop the car and hide because that’s easier than life’s potential fortune of possible cruelty. That’s a lesson I’m still working out on the days it feels easier to just be sad or depressed, but I plan to return to do what I do best on this site again, with a small tweak.

I’m now changing the email for all submissions to cwhedden@yahoo.com. Its a more direct means of contact that’s easier to handle right now.

Hopefully this is just the start of more to come in the days to follow.

All the best,

Escapism

There’s much to be said for the word identity here on this mid-August night, mid-2020. 

I recently dug into my family’s past via genealogy. Yes, despite perhaps many valid fears about entities holding onto your DNA, I was too much a history fanatic to resist the temptation of learning about connections. The detective work involved in crafting a story made up of your own chapters. 

I think the urge largely came as a result of escapism. The world has embraced such a shattered fetal position in my 30th year of life, and it’s nice to blink it away for just a moment. Not so much to imagine myself as part of the prior cast in my existence so much as where they lived. What the lands looked like, and what was beautiful then. Away from the sheer mess of these current days. 

I’ve been your music writer on and off here a long time, but none of those words have felt appropriate during the COVID pandemic. Especially when many, many people are still sick, many of have lost loved ones, and many weeks news only seems to get more frightening in a place I once felt so safe in when I was younger. And while I do believe in distractions to help ease these type of anxieties, the sentences I form have to be more truth than story. More honest than disguised. 

And honestly? As just an average person, I’m unsure of almost everything I see. I look at all leadership gone, regular individuals as close as my neighbors struggling, equal, equitable rights for all still being held back, and I have so many fears. I’m concerned for the creators, the small businesses, regular folks just trying to make a go of things. 

Are we being left with a future here? It feels less like it by the day.

Thankfully, music is at my side still despite not writing about it. Run The Jewels, Anderson .Paak, Fantastic Negrito, Kathleen Edwards, and Taylor Swift have all been making appearances as of late, and have new stuff that’s worthy of a listen right this second (go now, I’ll wait).

I’m also almost 3 months in to a likely year-long process of healing from wrist surgery, so typing has become a slower, jittery process while the strength rebuilds over time. 

Additionally, I’m trying to use this time to figure out how to rebuild. How to find my identity and how to make it in what the world has become. For now, all I can say that feels right is stay healthy, stay safe, and just be good to each other whenever its possible. 

Just a regular guy checking in; signing off for now. 

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