Walker Shines Bright On Glitteringly Fun “Gold”

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Following the somber, introspective tinge of Butch Walker’s 2015 statement piece Afraid of Ghosts, the question loomed large…. what would followup Stay Gold entail just a year later? I mean the Georgia-born singer-songwriter had just stripped down and bared the ragged grief of a son losing his father on Ghosts, so it was hard to foresee just where Gold would take Walker creatively going forward.

Could he be as intensely raw once again?

Not exactly. While Stay Gold does possess some moments of darker frailty (“Record Store” and the wonderful Ashley Monroe duet “Descending”), Walker is once again back to turning up his amps and shaking off the dust and demons in the process. Gold is much more dominated by joyful, E Street Band style rockers (“Irish Exit”, “East Coast Girl”, “Wilder In The Heart”) that recall the Gaslight Anthem during a year in which their frontman Brian Fallon ironically leaned away from that sound on his debut solo record Painkillers.

Even more ironic considering that Walker himself produced that album, but that’s a different point for another post.

The stories and lyricisms of drunken nights, hookups gone wrong and lifelong debauchery remain, but with an undertone of greater maturity beneath them. The realization of getting older, having back problems, grey hair, craving a Porsche (to quote “East Coast Girl”)… it’s a common problem rockers face with age, but one that Walker doesn’t happen to shy away from.

He’s not so much Green Day as Prince, who always knew “life is like a party, and parties aren’t meant to last”.

Walker may bring the party with Stay Gold, but he knows how to make the moments last too.

Stay gold, ponyboy.

Grade: B+

Standout Tracks: “East Coast Girl”, “Irish Exit”, “Descending”, “Record Store”

Bon Iver Weaves Intricate Sonic Tapestry On Dynamic “Million”

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When I first got wind of the band Bon Iver and frontman/figurehead Justin Vernon, it was around the time of the Bon Iver, Bon Iver record and the much-acclaimed solo piano take of Vernon’s spin on Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. It was very much the For Emma, Forever Ago version of Vernon stripped down to the very roots, though I remember being puzzled at the time by this strangely ultra-high falsetto coming out of this… burly Wisconsin woodsman of a guy.

To put a long story short, I really didn’t understand Bon Iver’s rising upswing of appeal amongst the alternatively-minded people in the music community at first. I remember buying Bon Iver, Bon Iver on vinyl while on a vacation because of the rave reviews, the beauty of the cover work done by artist Gregory Euclide, and the need to just want to understand it. And the record did sit unplayed in my collection for a while. I remember looking at the lyric booklet that came with it and enjoying it’s poeticism (once I could understand what Vernon was saying, a problem I still have to this day). But it still hadn’t clicked.

Now I don’t remember the day when all the puzzle pieces finally settled into place, but once they did it was easy to appreciate Vernon’s mystique as well as his ability to say so much behind what was essentially a veil. Puzzling at his falsetto was replaced by the discovery of his early work solo and in DeYarmond Edison, which switched out curiosity for marvel at the vocal range Vernon has employed across his entire time in music. Rarely have I ever heard someone as equally capable of being a baritone as well as an uplifting falsetto.

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But I digress (so much for that long story short thing). I eventually grew to admire Vernon for his sense of that aforementioned veil while still managing to relate. He was an entirely unique character tearing at the heartstrings. Being as brutally broken up as he was on For Emma as he was anthemic with bigger tracks from Bon Iver like “Towers” and opener “Perth”. Whatever he put his touch to just seemed to work.

So when it was announced that Vernon was taking a hiatus from Bon Iver-related projects and was going back into the shadows for a while, I read into it with understanding even if it was a bummer to hear. The more I listen and learn and read into the music business the more I can respect the need to take breaks. As a writer, as much fun as it is to be creative you can never force that process or try to exhaust it for all that it’s worth. That only ends up making a freeing thing that much more like a shackle (which in hearing the backstory for this album seemed to be exactly the problem and stress Vernon was running into personally).

And so that’s where Vernon retreated to for a whole five years. He would appear from time to time with singles or collaborations or an album with side project Volcano Choir, but otherwise no plans seemed on the immediate front.

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Fast forward to this year and the sudden appearance of Bon Iver again along with live sets, new songs, and an album title. 22, A Million. A mysterious album title of mysteriously titled songs that seemed to be buried even deeper beneath…. what exactly? It was hard to say in a release that seemed to be characterized by strange symbols, mythologies, binary and hashtags (yep there’s one in there).

Well, many listens later I can tell you that it all does eventually make sense. This isn’t any season after 3 of the TV show Lost we’re dealing with here (or most any JJ Abrams project after it’s been allowed to spiral out a while). I think taking this extended break of just about five years was one of the finest moves Justin Vernon could have made, along with working at the side of guys like James Blake and Kanye West.

Yes despite the hatred many people have for West, he is regarded the way he is musically for a reason and 22, A Million showcases a lot of influence from that. He and Vernon have been tight for years (right up to JV thanking him in this album’s liner notes), and I don’t think Vernon’s deft sense of sampling, digital orchestration and autotune could have been done quite as well as it is here without that working relationship.

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I know what you’re thinking now that you’ve read the word autotune, and no this isn’t a ridiculous viral Youtube video or pumped out pop song. As much as the use of autotune has been well overcooked since guys like rapper T-Pain emerged with it years ago, it still has a legitimacy when used from the experimental side of the fence.

Tracks like “22 (Over S??N)”, “33 “GOD””, “715 – Creeks” and many more benefit from this, with a blending of digital and organic thoughts that create a deeply gorgeous sense of contrast. At times it feels like songs are on the very verge of slipping away into collapse, or are aging as you listen to their stories. Like an old record being put on that’s just a bit warped and being played a fraction out of tune as the needle slides across it. It’s almost jarring, yet warmly welcoming as untouched banjo, saxophone and piano runs play up against corrosively echoed vocals and the hammer of pulsing bass.

The sampling is brilliant as well, with nods across the record to the likes of Stevie Nicks, Paolo Nutini, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Graham, and my personal favorite Irish folk singer Fionn Regan. To my knowledge it’s a very rare thing to even hear Regan’s name mentioned on this side of the pond despite “The End of History” being one of the most underrated folk albums of all time (seriously, look into it if you haven’t). Yet here’s Vernon sampling a line from Regan’s song “Abacus” on closing track “00000 Million”, and doing it in the most hair-raisingly perfect way to boot.

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The song continuously gives me goosebumps every time I play it.

For some Bon Iver fans (especially those who desire another For Emma) some of these effects might prove a bit too much to bear, but that’s the thing about 22, A Million: it automatically requires patience.  Much like Wilco’s return to form on last year’s Star Wars, this isn’t an album made for digesting on the first try or song by song. It’s a complete composition unto itself, and I hope that Vernon will treat his as Wilco treated theirs and play it front to back onstage. It just doesn’t make as much sense any other way, especially with the knack many of these tracks have for slipping into and out of one another.

And it will still reward most any fans if they stick around long enough. Vernon’s folk-embracing side hasn’t disappeared from his work within Bon Iver; rather it’s become more of a cog in the machine of a greater tapestry of creative energy that’s at work here.

And wouldn’t you prefer that over just trying to pave over the dirt roads you came down in the first place? From the indication of things Vernon was not only frustrated with his sound but also his own image, so it’s a relief to hear him sounding as fresh as the time these five years have given him.

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I could go for paragraphs and paragraphs about what I hear out of this release every time I listen to it, but now you simply need to go listen. You’ll receive no better education than what your ears will tell you, and there’s a lot to learn on 22, A Million. Some may not be able to stick out the ride and that’s okay, but for those who can…. you’ll be in the midst of what may be the year’s best album.

Barham Brings Southern Gothic Americana To Solo Standout “Rockingham”

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The phrase “Southern Gothic Americana” may be the widest set of metaphorical body parts I’ve ever dug up and Frankenstein’d together in attempting to describe one album’s genre of music. It also may be one of the more unusual terms I’ve ever put in print here on OTBEOTB, but I promise it’ll all make sense in just a matter of a few paragraphs.

When I think of a phrase like this and attempt to paint a picture of it…. the first word I think of is stark. Plain grass and backwoods framed houses in towns whose names are just as quickly noted as they are forgotten by travelers passing those familiar green road signs dotting the rustic landscape. Unassuming places to the casual observer, but beneath the surface lingers a thousand stories of tragedy, heartbreak, birth, death, pride and a blue collar struggle that’s run on longer than the roads can ever hope to stretch.

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The closest musical elder to that portrait is Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, an album originally intended for Springsteen and his E Street Band but eventually reimagined as the stripped down lo-fi cast of working class lovers and losers it began as in the demo phase. Nebraska illuminated Springsteen’s still growing songwriting during one of his most prolific periods of musical history by not illuminating him at all. The words and stories remained, but gone were the layers of chunky guitars, Roy Bittan’s airy flow of piano, and most any traces of that trademark Asbury Park anthem-seeking. Instead, the album was a densely knit fog of shattered souls, uncertain futures and depressions laid bare to the world beneath a set of window panes as dingy as the album’s cover.

It’s a dark listen that remains one of Springsteen’s most underrated, yet certainly is one of the heaviest to emotionally journey through.

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I found myself having many of these Nebraska reflections while listening to BJ Barham’s similarly toned upcoming August 19th solo release Rockingham. The Pledgemusic-funded project also finds Barham (like Springsteen) momentarily breaking away from his band American Aquarium in order to release a small set of songs that made the most sense stripped right down to the bones.

The end result is a cross somewhere between Springsteen, Woody Guthrie and Kris Kristofferson. Barham is the essential “pearl snap poet with bad tattoos” (as he once coined himself in the AA song “St. Mary’s”) who’s gruff, ragged around the edges vocals hold inside them one of the more underrated storytellers of this generation.

Barham is very Guthrie-like in the way he can embody the Dust Bowl farmer with no way out on the dirge-like “Water In The Well”, the real life story of his grandfather on “American Tobacco Company”, or the Bonnie & Clyde pushed to the brink in “O’ Lover”. It’s not just that he can tell the story of the common man, he can make you feel every breath of his characters. Whether their stories happen to be real, or just well-crafted fiction.

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Regardless you grasp every straw of that emotion in the desperate sadness of a husband meeting/losing his wife in “Unfortunate Kind”, the father entrusting his every bit of wisdom on an often troubled world to a newly born daughter on “Madeline”, or in the embodiment of simple Southern life on the rootsy title track. Barham expresses a tender respect for his North Carolinian background all across this record actually, but never resorts to the kind of chest-thumping, overcompensating, flag waving, tractor driving stereotypes that modern mainstream country music has bogarted the hell out of in recent years.

Instead, he paints us a bit of that image I attempted to sketch for you earlier. Like every note was carefully built with his own two hands. Not by using the idea of women in tight jeans or Red Solo Cups as a centerpiece (I’ve got my eye on you Toby Keith), but by just relaying to the listener the often harsh or dirt poor realities of life in the small town South. And just like any average life, it’s a rollercoaster. Many of the endings might not be happy, but in the end you might still just come away proud of where you’re from simply by surviving.

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Rockingham shows off an all-too-brief but strongly knit nucleus of songs for Barham. Rarely do they need more than just his voice, spare acoustic guitar strums and fills here and there of instruments like piano, percussion, banjo and harmonica. And while his work can be just as soulfully raw with AA, it’s nice to see Barham step to the side for just a moment to show off how strong his solo skills are as well.

In either formation he proves extremely captivating, and when paired with a novelist’s sense for lyricisms it’s impossible to not be stopped by just the simple need to listen. And while I may throw out plenty of comparisons to other musicians, at the end of the day Barham is an artist unique unto himself.

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For everything Ryan Adams has almost hatefully thrown away about his Southern heritage, BJ Barham has embraced with a full-throated authenticity that few others are so gracefully capable of. And it’s not because they can’t write it.

Barham just sings it with a singular, steely-eyed conviction that makes me believe every word of every note, each and every time I hear it. And Rockingham is yet another perfect echo of all that Southern Gothic Americana sweat and blood.

See? Told you it would make sense.

Dinosaur Jr “Give a Glimpse” At Band Still Capable Of Cranking Out The Jams

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Since they originated back in 1984, the Massachusetts-based trio Dinosaur Jr has made a household name for themselves in the melodic punk-rock scene as one of the heaviest hitters in the game. Not only did they lay down the kind of fat riffs that would eventually make J Mascis a long-haired luminary of six-stringed electric guitar gymnastics, they would eventually combine it with the sort of crunchy psychedelic clarity that the best of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s material would certainly be able to appreciate.

And despite some tumultuous fallout over the years between guitarist/vocalist Mascis, bassist/vocalist Lou Barlow and drummer Emmett Murphy (“Murph” for short), the trio once again found themselves blossoming after reuniting in 2005. Despite a 19-year hiatus between studio albums for the core members, 2009’s Beyond and it’s subsequent followups have led to strong reviews as well as highly positive opinions of these now rather grizzled music veterans.

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Dinosaur’s 4th release back together (August 5th’s upcoming Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not) doesn’t exactly reach out and try to reinvent the wheel in order to buoy the band’s recently prolific state, but it doesn’t have to either. Rather, Mascis, Barlow and Murph heavily rely on their well-honed ability as a trio in order to give Glimpse all the punch and listenability that it could ever ask for.

The album is earmarked and chock full of many familiar Dinosaur Jr hallmarks: Mascis with his trademark vocal drawl and feast of hearty feedback-washed solos and hooks, Barlow adding rippling bass lines (as well as exceptional lead vocals on “Love Is” and closer “Left Right”), and Murph crushingly in command bringing the thunder behind the drumkit. Having the three back together and so clearly in sync is a pleasure to hear, as the songs on the record easily bristle and bounce with an ageless sting from the first hum of feedback all the way to the final closing notes.

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Having Mascis and Barlow together is an especially tasty listening experience as the two continue to make an especially strong complementary pair to one another. Where Mascis wades through waves of dissonant feedback and listless weariness to his words, Barlow feels more content in an almost Nick Lowe-esque display of compact melody. Not that he can’t keep pace when the power chords have been laid down, but the two being on the same page feels like an especially pleasing sense of balance.

It seems to bring the best out of both musicians, and keeps Glimpse on a perfect edge that can thump with a heavy hand while still maintaining it’s honesty beneath the surface of the layers. I could see fans of earlier Dinosaur Jr records perhaps tuning out this return to the spotlight due to the lack of the lo-fi punk that was present on the band’s earlier work, but in my mind the current core iteration of what this band is doing is demonstrating so much of them at their best.

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Glimpse shows that Dinosaur Jr is still maturing gracefully with a stronger studio style, still knows how to absolutely slay a mega ton of power punched industrial rock, and can still bring out the softer side of their well-tenured sound whenever the moment calls for it. Their deftly wound capability brings to mind former Husker Du lead man Bob Mould’s late season career resurgence, especially his trio of tightly constructed recent solo albums Silver AgeBeauty & Ruin and 2016’s Patch The Sky.

And while I don’t see Mould pleasantly reuniting with Grant Hart or Greg Norton for a Dinosaur Jr style reunion anytime soon, his chemistry with fellow Bob Mould Band members Jason Narducy and Jon Wurster is just as similarly dynamic. With that thought in mind, it comes as no shock that both Patch The Sky and Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not weigh in as two of the best and brightest in this year’s rock category.

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Don’t sleep on the old guys ladies and gentleman. They still keep going out there and getting it done, all while incorporating plenty of face-melting jams along the way.

And really, could we ask them for anything more?

Shaking The Dust Off My Interview Feathers With Pinkwing’s Joanna Levine

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Spring transitioning into summer is usually one of those times where people dread spiraling weather patterns, dodge rain like someone unknowingly moved them into the heart of downtown Seattle, and start to gradually plan out fireworks, yearly beach trips and a surprising amount of egg salad they plan to prepare.

However in the case of yours truly, while I do enjoy a few of those aforementioned items I tend to focus on the coming year of music. And while we’ve already had a few records more than worth mentioning, this point of time starts to be the transition where tours really start to heat up, releases drop like flies every few weeks, and musicians start making their respective moves (earlier than noon one would hope, though I can’t vouch for that since I’m usually asleep).

Regardless, it’s a fun time and it’s especially fun when you’re a music journalist that’s really started to make connections with the underground talent still paying it’s dues. As someone still gladly working hard to pay my own dues each and every single day, I identify with these wonderful folks much more closely than those artists who have major record deals or a top single on the iTunes charts.

No offense to them, but I understand the fight to succeed in your niche with much greater sharpness of clarity at this point in my life. And anytime I get to connect or talk to someone else fighting that same battle, I feel like it not only brings those of you reading this greater content, but also brings that community of us just a little bit closer together.

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So on that note, after a bit of an OTBEOTB hiatus I’m glad to return with an interview I conducted recently with the wonderful Joanna Levine, AKA the frontwoman of the Brooklyn bands Pinkwing and Joannas ‘n Bananas. Among other things we get to talk about those bands, her last Pinkwing EP Honey & Salt, a bit of musical background, and much much more. Enjoy!

1. So leading off, I like to start with the nuts and bolts and get straight into the basics. How did you end up getting into music as a career path, and what influenced you into making the jump from playing/learning in private to wanting to take that to stages to share with people? I know you describe the band’s influences as “times, places, people, stories, love, lust, confusion, heartbreak, and pancakes”, and since that piques my interest quite a bit more than the usual list of bands or artists musicians usually cite, I’m highly intrigued by that creative… vortex of thought there.

(JL): I got started, I think, by writing poetry in high school. I also quit piano lessons and was originally forced to pick up guitar by my mom, who wanted me to continue with any instrument. I was 12- I ended up quitting then too- but picked it up again around age 14 when I realized I wanted to accompany myself singing. Started out just learning open chords. I think I wrote my first song when I was 17. and my second when I was 20 or so. My guitar playing and songwriting career has been a series of starts and stops. But I did start playing open mics when I was at school for theatre studies at York University in Toronto. I remember being so nervous and my hands shaking so bad I could barely get through all the way through a song. I think I always wanted to perform, despite growing up as a somewhat introverted/shy kid.

My first actual band was with my friend Alana Livesey when we were living in Beijing, China. We played a few gigs and recorded a few covers and the first original songs I ever wrote.

Then I moved to NY in the late summer of 2006 for design school and started dating a trumpet player (Justin Davis) who introduced me to more musicians and encouraged me to start pursuing music more seriously. New York is pretty amazing like that. It gave me permission to pursue ambitions that I never allowed myself to indulge before- because of upbringing or preconceived notions of what’s realistic. I met a lot of people who were playing out and quickly realized how badly I wanted to as well. I kept asking people to join my band and they usually said yes. By the time I finished school I had no intention of following the path I had moved to NY pursue and started trying to figure out how to play and write as much music as possible.

The influences I sited are part joke part truth. The past 10ish years in NYC have felt like several lifetimes- multiple relationships, apartments, career-paths, friend circles. It’s so transient. It makes me feel like a survivor just to have stayed for so long. Most of the friends I made in my first 5 years have left. I don’t eat as many pancakes as I used to, I’m both happy and sad to report *laughs*. 

2. And as a bit of an add on to that question, was it playing an instrument that led you into writing songs? Or were you writing first and playing an instrument just came after that?

(JL): I played guitar and wrote poetry separately (to deal with teen angst!). It felt funny- kind of just an experiment when I wrote my first few songs. I didn’t realize it would become a lifetime fascination. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just fucking around. honestly I’m still just fucking around. I have pretty limited music theory knowledge, I’m told it’s not necessarily an impediment- I’ve been told that too much theory in your head can really create a block too. At first I was frustrated by my limitations, but then I started embracing the simplicity- I love country and blues and roots music. That stuff isn’t complicated. So now I just try to shut up my inner critic and try to get back in touch with the ‘just messing around’ mentality.

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3. What led to the formation of Pinkwing itself? I know in your bio you state that you’re mostly a duo in more intimate venues and a quartet for the “rowdier stages”. How did that all come together, and is there a story behind the name Pinkwing itself? I’m always curious about unusual or interesting band names and how they came to be chosen.

(JL): I released my first Pinkwing EP before I met Rob (Pawlings). With some friends in Toronto backing me up. My former band, the Collectors felt like it was falling apart and I, for some reason, I felt the need to move home to Toronto for a bit- it didn’t stick- I moved back after 5 months. But I recorded the Restless EP there. I tried to bring on other band mates when I moved back but i was just floating, nothing stuck. Until I met Rob. We starting playing together shortly after we starting dating, joined by a few of his friends- Paul Madison and Kenny Shaw, great guitarist and drummer, respectively. Rob has a really wonderful and talented circle of musician friends I feel very lucky to have met. We got married 2 years ago so now he is my bass player and co-creator for life *laughs*.

Our friends Vinnie Presite and Andrew Rosario started joining us regularly last year and it’s a warm fuzzy harmonious line-up. I love those guys- Vinnie is an old friend of Rob’s from Utica and Andrew is an old friend of Vinnie’s from playing on cruise ships and is also from Toronto. I’m pretty stoked have those guys as they’re just great dudes and great musicians.

The name Pinkwing comes from a symbol I’ve loved for a long time- a flying pig that John Steinbeck used to stamp on his essays and letters with the latin phrase ‘ad astra per alia porci’ which means ‘to the stars on the wings of a pig’. He described himself as ‘a lumbering soul trying to fly’, I guess I identify with it. I liked it so much I got it tattooed on my back (just the pig).

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4. Now being that you’re in a band, what is that collaborative environment like amongst your bandmates? Are you more of the solo artist and the band just sorta follows along with the vision you’ve got for your music, or is that an equal opportunity environment? And how would you say that influences the multiple genres you touch on within EP’s like your newest “Honey & Salt”?

(JL): Well… I’m definitely the songwriter- all the songs I play with the guys are songs I wrote before I met them. Most of them were recorded before we started playing with Vinnie and Andrew- so I guess they play go for the vibe that is on the recordings to a degree but they are all experts at their instruments- so they definitely add their own tone to the songs- then songs that haven’t been recorded they definitely arrange their own parts. We just started working on a new song that I hadn’t played with a band before- so it’s the first time that we’re working out the arrangement as a totally collaborative process. It’s been really fun- I’m excited to write a bunch more new songs in the next year to work out together.

5. Now speaking of your latest EP (which is on pretty constant rotation here at OTBEOTB), what’s the story behind your lead song “The Reverend Robert Pawlings”? Because judging by the song he sounds like a pretty resourceful guy, and I notice he also happens to play bass in Pinkwing. Now is Robert a real Reverend (in addition to his many other alleged skills), or is there some deeper story to that?

(JL): The Reverend Robert Pawlings, as you may have guessed by now, is tribute to my husband of the same name. Yes he is an ordained internet Reverend *laughs*. He’s married several of his friends. The song was my wedding gift to him, which I recorded on the sly with our friend Jon Jetter at his Right Angle Studios in NYC, and enlisted the help of all Rob’s friends to sing/play for him at our wedding. Rob is a really special person. He has more energy and a bigger heart than anyone I have ever met. He keeps me grounded.

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6. I know we’re a little behind the ball in talking about your latest music (“Honey & Salt” dropped back in August of 2015). But if anything, I think it provides an interesting window into how the music matures over time. I find that to be one of the hardest parts of reviewing new music on a release day unless I’ve had a few weeks to study it, because it’s just too fresh to settle into where it should ultimately be right at that moment. How do you feel looking back at this latest EP compared to when you started making music? How do you feel it’s evolved, how do you feel you’ve evolved, and how do you feel like this music is “settling” so to speak looking back at it now?

(JL): The Honey & Salt EP is kind of a patchwork. it was recorded/mixed in 3 different studios. I think I learn something every time I release something. I love each of the songs on this album and I loved collaborating with the people who helped us put it together. I think my sensibilities have started to settle in… the musical direction I want to continue to pursue is there… I love blues rock. I want the next album we release to be a full length album- and I want it to be fucking gritty. I wrote SO many sad, folky songs for so long. I’m pretty sick of them. I want to write and record a roots and blues rock album next. It’ll still have a little bit of folk and country feel, But I’m really trying to move away from that and into more up-tempo blues rock.

7. You’re the first musician I’ve ever had the privilege to metaphorically sit down and interview who happens to have an additional children’s music side project band called Joannas ’n Bananas. After listening to and loving your cover of Raffi’s “Baby Beluga” (complete with bubbles and kazoo solo), how do you end up having a children’s music side project band in the first place? Especially balanced against a pretty serious minded Americana-blues band in Pinkwing? I think it’s a really interesting contrast and I’d love to hear the backstory.

(JL): After abandoning the fashion industry and getting fired from several serving jobs, I started working as a nanny. Shortly thereafter I began teaching an early childhood music program called ‘music together’ . Eventually I began offering my own kids’ sing-alongs, occasionally joined by Rob and hence Joannas ‘n Bananas was born (Bananas is one of Rob’s many nicknames- Bobby Bananas). Teaching kids classes is still my bread and butter. I do it more and more- actually in the process of developing a new program I’ll be offering in Westchester starting this spring called Monkey Music ‘n Play. It takes up a lot of my time! It’s kind of a struggle to balance the two… I have a hard time deciding what I should be working on- the kids stuff is a lot more profitable- It’s hard to make a living playing the Pinkwing tunes- and I like teaching. It’s just a constant balancing act. I love Joannas ‘n Bananas but I wish I had more time to give to Pinkwing development too.

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8. Also I have to ask, who’s a better audience, the adults or playing for the kids?

(JL): Kids, if you can get and hold their attention, are a magical audience. They will straight up stand half a foot from your face and stare at you for an entire song. There is no filter and no sense of social convention. I love little kids.

9. Getting back into Pinkwing again, how does the creative process for new songs work for you exactly? Going back to question two for a moment, is it a matter of music coming before words, or do words develop that need to be set into music in your mind? I’m always very curious about that because I find that the question is very different for everyone I’ve asked, especially for people in a band.

(JL): I think I usually play around with chord progressions and then add lyrics. These days- I usually set out to write something specific. I like sitting down with a thematic goal in mind. To be totally honest I have written more kids songs than adult songs in the last year. Which is really fun and kind of freeing- I’m not really worried about a kids’ song being too simple. The simpler the better. But I really really want to get back to writing more Pinkwing tunes. The older I get the more conscious I need to get about how I spend my time. I think the only way I will sit down and carve out that time to write is if I spend money on a rehearsal space or make a song-writing date with a friend. It’s really something that’s at the forefront of my mind lately. Because I refuse to accept the notion that my most prolific period might be behind me. Fuck that. I just need to figure out a better system to get around to writing.

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10. And lastly, I know it’s only been about six months since your last EP, but are you already looking at future plans and songs for the next record? And what gigs and live stuff can people look forward to seeing you play at next if they like the record and want to see the music up close and in person?

(JL): We just moved into a house in Westchester with a great basement with a built-in vintage bar that We are slowly turning into a studio- I would love to release at least a single by the fall. and hopefully another album within the next year. Like i said, I need to write a bunch more new tunes. It’s happening. I’m excited to get set-up in the basement and record a whole album in one location.

We are playing quite a bit over the spring and summer- next up: brooklyn may 27, pete’s candy store, brooklyn june 3, rockwood music hall, NYC june 10, the back door, old forge, ny july 16th, the grape room, phillidelphia, pa

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Humongous, BIGGEST of BIG thanks to Joanna Levine of Pinkwing and Joannas ‘n Bananas for sitting down to interview with me! I love the content of doing this stuff as well as getting to know the artist, and I hope that you do too!

For more on Joanna, you can look up (and like!) either of her bands on Facebook, and by all means go and purchase the lovely Honey & Salt Pinkwing EP over on their Bandcamp page! If you do, not only are you doing the awesome thing of supporting independent artistry, but you might also get something as cool as this for buying the physical CD!

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Folk Duo Shines In Understated 9th Ward Debut

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Intimacy at a musical event can be a funny and altogether fickle creature. Over the past several years I’ve had the pleasure of seeing 50-60 shows in areas that are the closest place to home all the way into the deeper heart of New York City, and performances have ranged from the tiniest clubs to outdoor stages and everything in between. The funny part about it is once I’ve had the debate over which setting is better (hole in the wall kinda runs away with that race) I then start to wonder, is there such a thing as too much intimacy?

That question raised it’s hand to me once again this past weekend going to see well-traveled country-folk couple Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion play Buffalo NY’s The 9th Ward. The twosome (who are in their 14th year of music together) were making their debut at Asbury Hall’s underground club, and as a first-timer myself I admittedly came away impressed. While it is a smaller venue that will unmistakably be limited to the “underground” or lesser known acts that come to town, the Ward clearly benefits from being little more than half a decade old. Surfaces are kept up, the bar is tended neatly, and while comparable venues with more of a history of character are always appreciated, it’s nice to see a spot with the same intended visual appeal that Asbury Hall has up above. On a simpler scale, of course.

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But after my excessive ogling of the scenery it was time for the show, to which only a few dozen people had shown up to see. A few dozen might even be too kind of an estimation, which is special as an attendee but disheartening to witness from the perspective of wanting to see such obvious musical talent getting justified recognition. I’d had the same wincingly unfortunate realization when I saw James Taylor’s son Ben play The Haunt in Ithaca last year to a crowd of 10 or 20, and sadly that question of intimacy debate arose all over again last Saturday at The 9th Ward. Promotion is not exactly a manner of rocket science, and more effort would have been welcomed in order to ensure that musical acts of this caliber continue to make stops in Western NY.

Because you see, for anyone who still enjoys the stirring lilt of classic harmony-drenched folk, the history of singers gone and those who grace us still, and the stripped down sweetness of two musicians working within six strings of a rhythm all their own…. well, you really did end up missing out. Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion are much like two sides of a complementary coin to each other; while Irion might play lead fiddle to Guthrie one moment the next would seamlessly transition to Guthrie adding backing vocals or percussion to Irion occasionally going “off-script”. Improv aside though, their set wound through children’s songs they’d written (“Go Wagaloo”), tracks from 2013’s superb “Wassaic Way” (“Chairman Meow”, “Lowest Ebb”, “Hurricane Window”), covers (“And I Love Her”, “Runaway”), and everything in between (the nod to Sarah Lee’s grandfather Woody with the murder ballad “Tom Joad” felt especially appropriate). But truly the best moments were when the two would be in tandem, whether it was harmonizing, storytelling, or layering guitar against guitar.

The duo closed their set with a quaint off-PA version of “When The Lilacs Are In Bloom” that took them directly into the crowd, and if anything could make that small gathering of people feel appropriate, this moment was it. Because despite how disappointing it was to see Sarah Lee & Johnny treated to such a minimal gathering, there was such power in that too. Like a group of friends swapping songs and stories around the campfire, this was sharing and imparting the power of music at it’s simplest roots. And that, is truly when intimacy shines the brightest.

Obsessions & Appreciations: Featuring Todd Snider

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So it’s 2014, and if it’s one thing the last several years in the music scene has taught me it’s that every turn of the season comes with a new obsession tagging along behind it. In 2013 that place was taken by country-folk freshman The Lone Bellow, and in 2012 that throne belonged to the lean punk rock muscle of Bob Mould. To some that might seem like a typical occurrence as long as you’re paying close enough attention, but as any dedicated listener will be eager to pull up a chair and explain, there’s a highly personalized distinction between artists who have it, and those who ARE it. And they don’t happen to come along every day.

While the first group holds a regular nod of affection when their creative turn comes up in our respective playlists, the second bunch of ragtag ruffians are a whole different entity; new and familiar ghosts living rent-free in the machine. They’re the musicians who seem to know how to make the notes speak a little more sweetly, the type that can take three chords and a few verses and make it sound as pretty and as meaningful as poetry backed by the philharmonic. The type that may not necessarily resonate for you, but whispers volumes of meaning in my ear the moment I press play.

So as you perhaps take a moment and think about what that anecdote means from your perspective, let me introduce to you my latest discovery that fits into the all-important latter category. A storyteller of storytellers, a man who blends a haze of drugs and wit against social commentary and less than scrupulous characters; a gonzo personality in a folk singer’s skin if you will. He is Oregon-born yet currently East Nashville’s own resident hippie screwball Todd Snider, and when you can’t find him releasing solo records you may spot him in the common man’s supergroup Hard Working Americans, as alter ego Blind Lemon Pledge, writing books (“I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like”, his first), acting in films (“Peace Queer”, “East Nashville Tonight”), or telling a myriad of his trademark stories live on stage. Snider is a peg that doesn’t really know which hole to fit into, as he’s not quite Tom Waits’ garbageman savant, as sulkily serious a songwriter as Dylan, or as drunk as Bukowski (though I think they’d have some fun stories to swap).

Instead, he is a slice of Woody Guthrie’s rustic folk narrator, a lyricist who can evoke the sincerity of Kris Kristofferson or Jerry Jeff Walker while simultaneously adding his own wry twist on the “balance” of a life that seems to be anything but held securely. And while Snider is much more pot-laced boxcar drifter than classic backwoods outlaw, he inhabits that persona in a way no one else uniquely could. Able to rattle off tales of Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Slash and his assortment of bracelets and waistlets as easily as “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues”, Snider is as much boisterous barfly as he is entertainer. The type of guy who might lead you on a path of unspeakable adventure through holdups and handcuffs, followed by writing a song the next day that manages to make a point out of it.

He is the essence of a fringe character personified; a musician who can twang, rock and blues it up without the benefit of immense technical skill or Eddie Van Halen musical acrobatics. Rather, Todd Snider is more of a harmonica-wielding peacenik prophet preaching that “Doublewide Blues” out there to the masses. He is this decade’s cock-eyed songwriter; someone who can churn out wisdom as truthfully to the point as “Ballad of the Kingsmen”, as playfully raucous as “The Devil You Know”, and as off the wall as “Iron Mike’s Main Main’s Last Request”. His output is a thing of cult brilliance no matter how you slice your musical tastes, and as someone who will always be dearly attached to the quiet genius of types like Warren Zevon, to me Todd Snider is just like coming home again.

And that my friends, is how a musical obsession gets born here in 2014. From my perspective at least.

 

Admiring The Scenery….

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In all my years spent living in Western New York, I find myself traveling often (especially in my pursuit of the local music scene). Buffalo, Rochester, Geneva, Lewiston, even as far off as Cooperstown. But one place continuously manages to stick out above the rest, and that is Ithaca. It’s a place whose venues have not only managed to play host to some of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen, but also contains some of the best storefronts that have music…. nearly ready to come springing out the door at you when you walk in.

Take Angry Mom Records for instance, which despite the presence of Rochester’s famous House of Guitars and underrated Record Archive remains one of the top record shops in all the area. Located within the basement of a used bookstore on Ithaca’s Commons and run by a couple of old punk rock enthusiasts, there’s a distinct sense of character and what may be a (slightly below sane) sense of humor oozing out from between the stacks of CD’s and LP’s. It creates a familiarity and a connection within the place, and as a lover of vinyl and record stores of all shapes and sizes that’s what I most often find myself gravitating towards. That environment where you can take time out of mind, and just exist within the simple joy of flipping through 33’s, 45’s, and everything in between.

It’s often all about those simplest of joys when it comes to our ties with music, and for me that inevitably always boils down to the experience of concerts. Seeing music played out live and in person surpasses the magic that even masterpiece-level albums can reach, and when it comes to Ithaca there are venues that embody everything from marquee-lit splendor to hole-in-the-wall hideaways. There’s the historical State Theatre, whose vaudevillian-era mainstage has had everyone from fresh faces like The National to grizzled veterans such as BB King, right down to The Haunt which has been an avenue for under the radar talents like folk duo Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion and punk rock icon Bob Mould. There’s even the very hushed little Hangar Theatre, which has been a backdrop for more gigs courtesy of varying acts like Richard Thompson, Cowboy Junkies, and Leon Russell.

Thanks to a very vibrant little college town (and the persistence of some very skilled individuals making it happen), my hope for the local music scene is always alive and well whenever I’m visiting Ithaca. It may not have the name recognition of nearby Buffalo, and it will never be the size of a hub in NYC, but it’s a place with a superb backdrop of culture that isn’t frequently found in Western New York. But like a good song or that record you never knew existed, sometimes it just takes a little discovery.

 

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