This week we here in Aurora bid goodbye to the New Automatics.
I don’t know if this has ever happened to you, but have you ever watched as something extraordinary began, evolved and grew, and you just knew that magic was happening? And that even though this thing was a secret shared by only a few, you knew – just knew – that this was the real deal, and it wouldn’t stay a secret for long?
The New Automatics was like that. It was our local supergroup – songwriters Jeremy Keen and Andrea Dawn anchored it, with impeccable support from Zach Goforth and Brendan McCormick. Watching these four find each other, take their first steps forward, and finally revel in and celebrate their musical connection was a joy.
Every New Automatics show – and there were far too few – was an event. Every single element of their collaboration worked, from the superb songs Dawn and Keen wrote, to the exquisite three-part harmonies, to the way Keen’s electric guitar tone meshed with and elevated everything. There was no weak link. They were the best band in Aurora. And now they’re done. Keen and his family are off to Florida at the end of the month. It’s a sad day, because while Keen and Dawn are terrific on their own, they were beyond wonderful together.
The band did treat us to a final concert, though, and really, you should have been there. It was an emotional evening, as they ran through a series of songs about loss and separation, then sealed the deal with some well-chosen covers. The highlight, for me, was (believe it or not) Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which Dawn and Keen sang acoustically. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – the song selection was perfect, and the reading so tender and funny. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. When the show ended (perfectly, with a cover of “Closing Time”), we were all kind of dumbstruck at what we’d lost, but happy to have seen them one last time.
I wish you all could have heard the New Automatics. They were something special. We’ll miss you, Jeremy. Come back and see us soon.
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I still get a little thrill when I hear that an artist I like is releasing two albums in one year.
I don’t quite know why. It wasn’t that long ago that putting out two records in a year wasn’t considered odd. Hell, the Beatles’ first six albums were all released within three years, not to mention the constant barrage of non-album singles that also hit stores. But we’re in an age now when an album is routinely twice as long as those first six Beatles records, so it really shouldn’t mean as much now. If Please Please Me is the base line, most of the artists I know put out the equivalent of two albums this year.
For some reason, though, I just like the idea of multiple projects coming to life at once. The venerable Over the Rhine has just launched a pre-order campaign for a pair of albums they plan to release next year, and I’m already pretty excited about it. Perhaps this is a distinction that only makes sense in the realm of physical products, but to me, putting out two albums is different than putting out a double album. The twin records approach says to me that even though these songs may have come from the same sessions, they fall into two completely different categories, and their respective albums have completely different characters.
That’s not always the case, but if an artist puts out two records in one year, I can’t help thinking about them in relation to one another. The astonishing Kate Bush dropped two albums on us last year, and they couldn’t have been less alike: Director’s Cut found her revisiting old material in new ways, and 50 Words for Snow took her tendency for lengthy ambient works to new, beautiful heights. They scratched different creative impulses, and as a fan, I appreciated them in different ways. But each illuminated the other for me.
A few artists have already released multiple records this year, including the ever-prolific Robert Pollard, who is on three and counting. Add to that the surprisingly ambitious Green Day – they’re in the middle of a trilogy, and they’ve just bumped the third installment forward to next month. We’re going to get three Green Day records this year, but at the moment, we have two, and they definitely fit the pattern I’m looking for – Uno and Dos are distinct entities, and they help explain each other.
You’ll recall I was disappointed in the regressive Uno, a calculated attempt to return to the days of “Welcome to Paradise.” Dos is the same kind of backslide, in a different way, and it solidifies what Green Day is up to – they’re bringing together all the styles they’ve worked in, and handing them to their 20-year-old selves. Dos lives up to its billing as the more garage-rock installment, but its songs are just as asinine and immature as those on Uno. Quite a lot of this record sounds like Green Day’s alter ego, the bratty-fun Foxboro Hot Tubs. But not enough of it captures that effortless sense of whimsy. Most of it, in fact, is just lame.
The sweet minute-long intro “See You Tonight” will not prepare you, for instance, for “Fuck Time.” Originally a Foxboro Hot Tubs song, “Fuck Time” is just as insipid as its title. It should be fun – it’s a Green Day song called “Fuck Time” – but it falls flat. If you giggle at this, the rest of the record may be up your alley. But considering Billie Joe Armstrong is 40 this year, I found it kind of sad. At least it’s not as creepy as “Makeout Party,” in which Armstrong sings, “Hey, you’ve got yourself a pretty little mouth, I think I want to rub you the wrong way, do you wanna play spin the bottle, play a game of chicken?” Again, Billie Joe Armstrong is 40.
Other lowlights include “Nightlife,” an execrable rap experiment, and “Baby Eyes,” an idiotic murder anthem. But Dos fares better than Uno musically, particularly on mid-tempo punkabilly like “Lazy Bones” and “Wild One.” The slinky “Stray Heart” is the best song on either album, bouncing along on sprightly bass and a Grease-ready melody. “Ashley” adds some well-needed excitement to the second half, even if the song is no great shakes. And I was pleasantly surprised by “Amy,” Armstrong’s sweet ode to Amy Winehouse. Considering the luck they’ve had with sparse ballads, this one could hit big.
So far, though, this trilogy is a bust. The third installment, Tre, reportedly contains the “epic” songs, but my bet is that it suffers from the same midlife crisis as its two predecessors. Armstrong and his cohorts seem to wish it was 1995 again, but they can’t turn back time. Uno and Dos find them dressing up in younger man’s clothes and pretending they’re not going gray. Unfortunately, they’re not very convincing, and the end result is just embarrassing.
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Speaking of going gray, there’s Neil Young. He turns 67 next week, and he definitely deserves his reputation as a grumpy old man these days. But he’s also an unflinching iconoclast. Neil Young does whatever he wants. If he feels like writing an album about his electric car, or creating a sequel to an album that was never released, or a rock opera about small-town America, he does it. At this stage in his career, he’s earned it.
So when he decided to reunite Crazy Horse, his fantastic longtime backing band, and jam out on traditional American tunes like “Oh Susannah,” “This Land is Your Land” and “Clementine,” well, he got to do it. And to be honest, that album, Americana, is better than it has any right to be. It’s vintage Crazy Horse – loud and sloppy, yet crisp and put together somehow. I’ve never been a huge fan of Young, but I adore Crazy Horse. And when Neil’s with them, he’s better – energized, tough, ready to play.
It turns out Americana was just the warmup. The second Neil Young and Crazy Horse album of 2012 is entitled Psychedelic Pill, and at 87 minutes, it’s the longest thing they’ve ever done. It’s an endurance test, stuffed with very long songs and endless guitar solos, but it’s also quintessential Crazy Horse. This record is like being allowed to listen in as they jam their way through new material, seeking out its twists and turns. There’s certainly little to suggest that they took anything but the first jams they got on tape to create this thing.
Case in point: “Driftin’ Back,” the 27-minute opener. As a song, it’s fine – it has a hook and a groove, and Crazy Horse plays it with force. But it drags on and on, guitar solo after guitar solo extending the running time well past its breaking point. Most of those solos are played over two notes repeated forever, and even the delightfully thick tones Young and Poncho Sampedro employ can only sustain interest for so long. In between jams, Young complains about MP3s and the music biz, ironically on the one song here that will not fit on a side of vinyl. And this is just track one. If you’re into it, and can ride it out, “Driftin’ Back” is an impressive jam. If you’re not, it’s headache-inducing.
Happily, that’s the worst thing on Psychedelic Pill. The remainder is classic Crazy Horse, with an extra jolt of good songwriting to boot. The title track is a festival of flange (a cleaner alternate mix also appears on disc two), “Born in Ontario” is a spirited romp, and “Twisted Road” is a slow burn with a sweet riff. None of these songs breaks four minutes, which definitely helps balance things out. The other two long ones are pretty good as well – “Ramada Inn” is the jewel of the record, even at 17 minutes, due to its interesting chords and inspired, sloppy leads, while “Walk Like a Giant” closes things out with a 16-minute racket worthy of bands half their age.
I don’t think Psychedelic Pill is a great record by any means, but it is one that only Neil Young and Crazy Horse would make together. Nothing here rocks, per se, but there’s a heaviness and a joy to these jams, particularly “Ramada Inn.” You can hear how much they enjoy playing together, how fruitful their partnership has been. Yeah, this record is way too long, and I wouldn’t mind hearing the five-minute versions of some of these epics, but if you want to hear what Crazy Horse sounds like when they’re alone, playing like no one’s listening, you can’t beat this. I may never listen to it again, but I’m glad I heard it.
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And finally, the Punch Brothers.
This has been their year. Their third album, Who’s Feeling Young Now, met with deafening acclaim and their highest sales figures. They appeared on Austin City Limits, and wowed audiences from coast to coast. If you hadn’t heard of Chris Thile before 2012, you’ve likely heard of him now. His experiment – a bluegrass band that can play any style with virtuosity and verve – has been declared a success, both artistically and commercially.
So what’s left to do but run a victory lap? Hence Ahoy, a five-song slice of awesome consisting of one new original and four magnificent covers. If you want a bite-sized summation of just why this band is so special, you can’t do better than this. The Punch Brothers are, in many ways, a traditional bluegrass outfit – mandolin, guitar, bass, banjo and fiddle. But they are just as adept at the standards as they are at songs Earl Scruggs would have run screaming from. (Check out their amazingly faithful cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A.”)
On Ahoy, they do both with style. The EP opens with Josh Ritter’s folksy “Another New World,” played straight, but with a startlingly well-conceived buildup. The band delivers a hayseed interpretation of Gillian Welch’s “Down Along the Dixie Line” – if you’ve ever heard Welch do it, your jaw will drop at the bouncy bluegrass rendition here. And traditional tune “Moonshiner” is given a heartfelt reading, fiddler Gabe Witcher truly shining. If you needed further proof that the Punch Brothers are one of the best traditional bluegrass bands on the planet, these three songs will provide it.
But then, things go nuts. Original instrumental “Squirrel of Possibility” is a joyous delight, nimbly carrying off a pop-bluegrass merger. Just listen to Thile on mandolin here. He’s a once-in-a-generation player, and few can compare. And then the Brothers launch into their version of hardcore band Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus,” and the gloves come off. It’s raucous, dangerous, finger-breaking stuff, particularly the extended playout, in which the Brothers play with dissonance and power like they rarely have. I can’t think of another bluegrass band who would even try this, let alone pull it off. The final note will leave you gasping for breath.
Yeah, this was the year of the Punch Brothers. There’s no other band like them. Ahoy is just them waving from orbit, getting ready to explore even further. I can’t wait to see where they go next.
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I’ve had this plan for weeks now to write a column about long-absent bands making unlikely returns this year. Trouble is, I’m still waiting for one of the albums I want to write about to show up. If it does by Monday, expect that next week. If not, expect something else. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.