By the time you read this, I’ll be on my first mid-year vacation since 2007.
I tried last year to save up all my vacation days, and take half the month of December off. Those three weeks at the end of the year were terrific, but the 11 months leading up to them nearly killed me. So I’m taking some summer vacation time this year, visiting old friends and basically doing nothing. Hooray for me!
So I’m writing this on Sunday the 12th, long before its scheduled posting date of Wednesday the 22nd. I’m sure some truly significant things in the world of music will happen between now and then, and trust me, I’ll touch on them when I get back. I don’t even know what they are yet, but I’m sure something will happen. Also, I will, in fact, review Horehound, the debut from Jack White’s new band The Dead Weather. But you’ll have to wait a bit. I’m relaxing with a glass of limeade and a good book. At least, I expect that’s what I’ll be doing while you’re reading this.
I didn’t want to leave you in the lurch for an entire week, though, so here are two quick reviews of new releases, and a look ahead to the fall lineup. Some good stuff coming our way soon. Here’s hoping I can afford it all!
* * * * *
I missed Cornerstone again this year.
When I was a teenager, just getting into the spiritual pop corner of the music world, Cornerstone was this mythical thing I would never see. Once a year, these bands I was growing to love – the Choir, the 77s, Daniel Amos, the Prayer Chain – would get together for a week-long festival, playing all these songs I adored, and no one else knew. But visiting Cornerstone was an unattainable goal – it takes place in a faraway land called Bushnell, Illinois, which may as well have been one of the rings of Saturn when I was 16.
The irony, of course, is that I live here now. I’m only a couple of hours from Bushnell, and yet, I keep missing Cornerstone, year after year. Granted, it’s not the same show it was years ago. I was lucky enough to attend in 2002, one of the last great years there for the spiritual pop music I love – I saw Daniel Amos, the Choir, the Violet Burning, the full 77s rock show, acoustic sets by Terry Taylor and Mike Roe, and basically every spiritual pop musician I’ve wanted to catch in concert since I was a teenager.
And I discovered new ones. 2002 brought me Ester Drang, and a return trip in 2005 netted me Sufjan Stevens and Mutemath. Pretty good batting average, I’d say.
Oh yes, and I bought CDs. Lots of them. My first trip to C-Stone, I must have spent more than $100. New things from the Lost Dogs, the 77s, Mike Roe, Daniel Amos (the When Everyone Wore Hats book set, which I love), and several others. These bands had firmly established their internet sales presence by this time, but before that, I imagine you could only find these discs by going to Cornerstone. My first trip there was like my first few years going to music stores – I had no idea what I’d find, and I came away with dozens of little treasures.
Of course, nowadays these bands don’t have to rely on festivals to move CDs. The internet has become the saving grace of many of these musicians, and some of them, like the great Bill Mallonee, have turned to selling nothing but downloads online. The upside is, even if I miss the festival, I don’t have to miss out on new records from some of my favorites. And this year brought me two of them, from Michael Roe and the Violet Burning.
Full disclosure: I wrote the press bio for Mike Roe’s new album, We All Gonna Face the Rising Sun. That means I’ve had the thing (in mp3 form) for about a month now, turning it over in my mind. And I’m glad I’ve had the extra time, because this is a deeply weird record. But it’s also a pretty amazing one, a full-speed left turn for one of my favorite singers and guitar players.
If you enjoyed Holy Ghost Building, last year’s old-time gospel and blues album from Roe’s band the Seventy Sevens, you’re halfway there on Rising Sun. This is another album of dust-covered spirituals, all but one old enough to be in the public domain. But while the Sevens updated and re-arranged their versions of these venerated tunes, Roe has taken a much more difficult tack – he’s done his very best to emulate the sound and feeling of the original records.
That’s harder than it might appear at first. I know from talking to him that Roe dug through a couple hundred old vinyl sides to come up with the 11 songs that made the final cut, and the main criteria was emotional response. The songs had to move him. Once he’d picked the songs, he had to figure out just what it was that inspired him about them, and try to replicate that on his own versions. In some cases, that meant imitating the voices – Charlie Patton’s, for example, or the Bailes Brothers’. In some cases, that meant capturing the ancient, musty production techniques used to record the originals. In every case, it meant getting inside the lyrics and feeling them.
Even more than on Holy Ghost Building, Roe’s selections here are songs of conviction and redemption, and they may strike some as preachy. These are straightforward gospel numbers, with titles like “Come to the Saviour” and “Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down,” and they speak of turning from and returning to Jesus in plain language, without metaphor. But these are songs that, as Roe said, scare him near to death, and they are messages he needs to hear.
Because Roe’s work has always been about redemption, about finding that light you’ve lost. Here, he digs deep to find the source of those themes, and in the context of his body of work, this album plays like a letter to himself instead of a sermon. Whatever voice he’s using, the connecting thread of this album is pure Mike Roe. And in many ways, this is the most intimate and revealing album of his 30-year career.
Musically, it is absolutely fascinating. Only the second track, “Dry Bones,” sounds like familiar Mike Roe. It’s acoustic, with some subtle banjo touches and some absolutely beautiful guitar atmospheres. Roe’s voice is in top form on this track, which finds him sounding the most like himself. If you were hoping for a sequel to 2002’s extraordinary Say Your Prayers, well, this song comes closest.
But it’s the least familiar ones that intrigue and amaze me here. Check out Patton’s “I’m Goin’ Home,” a back porch blues that finds Roe emulating Patton’s throaty shout, something he said took boatloads of courage. I can hear why. The impression is amazing, and the vocals, guitars and production all work to bring a deep sense of feeling to the whole thing. It’s contrasted with “Come to the Saviour,” a folksy waltz that sounds like an outtake from Wednesday Morning 3 A.M., complete with a dead-on Art Garfunkel in the high duet vocals.
But even the backwoods gospel of most of these songs will not prepare you for the title track. Originally performed by the Delta Big Four, it’s an a cappella spiritual that sounds for all the world like it was recorded around a single microphone in the middle of a field 80 years ago. The voices are all Roe, harmonizing with himself – and, just for the right touch of authenticity, not-quite-harmonizing in places. It’s mixed as if you’re peering at it from five miles away, through an ocean of hiss. If anything here fulfills the mission statement of catching the feeling of these old gospel records, this song does it. (There’s another a cappella piece, “I Know My Time Ain’t Long,” but this one is produced crisply and clearly. It’s still amazing, though.)
The album ends with its oddest piece, “We Need More Rattlesnakes.” It’s a story, the kind people might have told around a campfire once upon a time, about a man praying for God to smite his town into repentance. Roe delivers it in such a “read along in your book as you listen” voice that I half-expected to hear bell sounds to let me know it was time to turn the page. This song made me wish, just for a minute, that Roe had not decided to be so faithful with his renditions – a Mike Roe song would have ended with the narrator asking for one more snake for himself.
But that’s the only time I felt I wasn’t listening to Mike Roe doing what he does. This may initially sound unlike any Roe album you’ve ever heard, but dig down deep and you’ll hear the connections – this is an album about being broken, about needing something bigger, and while Roe has always sung about that in the spiritual sense, here he complements that by tapping into a surprisingly rich musical vein. The man himself describes Rising Sun as a detour, but it is far more than that. It is a loving tribute to music that frightens and moves him, a tour of the origins of the music he’s made for 30 years.
It’s a strange album, and it probably shouldn’t be your first Mike Roe. But for longtime devotees like me, this one’s a revelation, and a tremendous listen. Get your copy here.
* * * * *
The other new release is from the Violet Burning, and this one has an even stronger link to Cornerstone: it’s a live album documenting the band’s 2007 concert on the Gallery Stage.
The Violet Burning is a band, but the mastermind is Michael Pritzl, one of the most emotional performers you will ever see. I first caught Pritzl at Cornerstone in 2002, doing a swell acoustic set, and I was hooked – I’d bought the albums for years, but never quite connected with the songs until then. And when I finally got to see the full TVB rock show, well, I think “bowled over” might be the appropriate term. Live, the band is a maelstrom of atmosphere and feeling, and at its center is Pritzl, singing his heart out. The songs are personal and prayerful, but the music is massive, expansive, enveloping.
This new live document is called Sting Like Bees and Sing, a typically Pritzl title taken from a line in his song “Fabulous, Like You.” At the time, TVB’s latest studio opus Drop-Dead had just been released, an album that found Pritzl bringing back the gothic undertones and the dark moods of earlier Violet records. Some of Pritzl’s best and most rocking songs are on Drop-Dead, and the live album kicks off with a string of them. “Do You Love Me” crashes out of the gate full-throttle, but I’m most impressed with the Cure-like “More,” all clean guitar webs and shivery tones.
The album is broken into suites, in a way – after “Fabulous,” we get four songs from the 1996 self-titled album, and the huge expanses of sound start to work their way in. Live favorite “Low” is a monster here, and “Underwater” sounds larger than the stage can contain. The record ends with two tracks from 1998’s Demonstrates Plastic and Elastic, concluding with the gorgeous “Elaste,” here stretching to 11 minutes. It builds and builds, Pritzl repeating “let your love cover me” as the guitars explode beneath him, finally ending in a miasma of distortion and feedback.
It’s always good to hear the Violet Burning, particularly in a setting like this – Pritzl and company truly shine on stage. Sting Like Bees and Sing is not quite a new album, but it fills the empty spaces nicely. Buy it here.
* * * * *
And now, a quick look forward at some things I’m anticipating. I’ve been saying that the next few months look amazing, and here’s why:
July will wrap up next week with a new album by Neon Horse, the pseudo-supergroup that includes Jason Martin of Starflyer 59 and Mark Salomon of Stavesacre. Expect sleazy rock goodness. Starflyer also has a two-disc set called Ghosts of the Past coming out, comprising everything from their Ghosts of the Future vinyl box set and various EP tracks. And I hear a rumor that Phish might have reunion album Joy ready to go by the end of the month, but that’s looking less and less likely.
August will see new things from Modest Mouse, Robert Pollard, Brendan Benson, Arctic Monkeys, Collective Soul, David Bazan, Imogen Heap, Cheap Trick (playing Sgt. Pepper live), Patrick Wolf and Hank Williams III’s death metal band Assjack. We’ll also get the new Vertical Horizon, Burning the Days, and I mention it because there’s an unlikely guest star – Rush drummer Neal Peart wrote lyrics and hit the skins on this record. That’s a weird match, and I must hear it.
We’ll also see the new one from art-rockers Mew, and this is the actual title (deep breath): No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry, They Washed Away, No More Stories, the World is Gray, I’m Tired, Let’s Wash Away. It’s not quite Fiona Apple long, but it’s a mouthful. Mount Eerie will release Wind’s Poem, Richard Thompson will put out a box set chronicling his entire career, and oh yeah, Mutemath will give us their sophomore album Armistice on August 18.
But September is where the action is. Start with the big one: the entire Beatles catalog gets the remaster treatment on the 9th. They’ll be available separately, or in a big, beautiful box for $200 or so. The Black Crowes have two albums coming: Before the Frost will hit stores on CD, while Until the Freeze will be available for download. Plus we’ll get new things from Yo La Tengo, Megadeth, Muse, Living Colour, Bruce Hornsby, Mark Knopfler, Hope Sandoval, former Cockteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie, Pearl Jam, Islands, Porcupine Tree, Fleet Foxes drummer J. Tillman, Alice in Chains (with the new singer), The Swell Season (also known as the stars of Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova), and Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon’s new project, Volcano Choir.
Sheesh, huh? But that’s not all. We’ll also see box sets from Big Star and Genesis, the latter a collection of live material from their entire career. Plus remasters from the Stone Roses, Sunny Day Real Estate and (amazingly) My Bloody Valentine. And September will bring us a new project from Sufjan Stevens. I’ll be broke, but I’ll be happy.
We won’t see the new Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part 1, however – the band has postponed it while Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, battles cancer of the salivary gland. It’s operable, I’m told, and I wish him a speedy recovery. For those going to Lollapalooza, like me, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have agreed to take the B-Boys’ headlining spot.
That should do it for me this week. I’ll be back in the saddle next week with… something. Probably the Dead Weather and the Fiery Furnaces. Time will tell. If you’ll excuse me now, I have a vacation to attend to. Be good to each other while I’m gone.
See you in line Tuesday morning.