We’ve talked a lot about Kickstarter in this column this year. And since it’s easily the most important innovation in my little corner of the world since the mp3, I expect I’ll be talking about it even more in the coming year. So I hope you’re not sick of this topic yet.
This is probably the last time I’ll base a column around it in 2012, though, so I wanted to spend a little time clearing up what I see as a misconception about Kickstarter and why it works. I heard a theory recently that Kickstarter contributors are, in essence, buying a connection with an artist. It’s the theory that says, sure, you can sell your album for $10, but if you put it on Kickstarter with some extra exclusive bonus stuff, you can charge $25 because people will feel connected to you.
Just speaking for myself, that’s not why I support projects on Kickstarter (or similar models) at all. Sure, it’s nice to feel connected to an artist I admire, but I can send an email or a Facebook message if I want that. The avenues of communication are much more varied and open now than they have ever been. Whether I spend $10, $25 or $100 for someone’s record, I feel no more connected to them than I did before hitting the “buy now” button. No matter how much extra stuff is thrown in.
No, what I love about this model is that it makes me feel important. I recently contributed $20 to Daniel Amos to help them make a new record, their first since 2001. I did this for two reasons. First, the music of Daniel Amos has meant a lot to me, for a very long time. They have a proven track record – they’ve been releasing music since 1976, and I can count the number of DA records I haven’t enjoyed on one hand. They’re a great band, and I want to hear new stuff from them.
But second, and more importantly, there’s a very real sense that without my $20, this new Daniel Amos music will not be made. And that’s why I do it – to support projects that would not happen otherwise. To show artists pushing out on their own that yes, their work is valued and vital. This model allows artists to specifically reach the people who love their work most, and allows those people to support that work in the most important way there is.
Sure, you’ll find some people who are only in it for the extra stuff. But I’d be willing to bet the vast majority of Kickstarter contributors feel the way I do. We want to be part of something, we want to pick our projects carefully, and we want our contributions to matter. When I hold the new Daniel Amos album in my hands next year, I’ll be able to say, “I helped make this.” And that’s an indescribable feeling.
This week, I have two other albums to discuss, and I helped make both of them. I’ve met Bill Mallonee once (he probably doesn’t remember) and I’ve never met Richard Julian. But their work has been important to me for a long time, and when both men asked me to give to their new projects, I did it without hesitation. Neither one used Kickstarter – they just built up an email list, and then asked those folks to contribute. Richard, I know, is still trying to meet his $18,000 goal to pay for all the expenses of his new record. But he went ahead and pressed it anyway, and it’s here. And it’s great.
Richard Julian is a criminally underappreciated songwriter. I’ve said that before, and it sadly remains true. He’s got a Randy Newman-esque wit, a deep appreciation for traditional music of all stripes, and the melodic skill to put his own twist on any form he adopts. He’s made seven albums now, and not a single one of them sounds like any of the others – Julian either has incredible trust in his audience, or he doesn’t think about them, following his muse wherever it goes.
Album number seven, the one I contributed to, is called Fleur de Lis, and it finds Julian steeped in New Orleans jazz and funk. He spends most of this album on piano, an instrument he’s never featured before, and he works with a host of local musicians, including some sweet, sweet horn players. He’s never done anything quite like the loose, tuba-fueled funk of “Your Thing,” but it suits him – Julian’s voice, with its semi-permanent smirk, fits this style well.
Julian’s lived in New Orleans since 2010, and he sounds fully immersed in the place on this record. The same sense of perception he brought to New York serves him well here – opener “Not Leaving New Orleans” is a barrelhouse stomp that takes us on a tour of the city, as Julian describes a rollercoaster of a date. It manages to poke fun at the city while celebrating it at the same time. In the end, Julian’s character wins enough money at the casino to go anywhere he likes, and he chooses to stay right where he is: “Now I’m living fat and happy with my baby down in New Orleans…”
“Die in New Orleans” is a beautiful, jazzy tune about a guy who wants to be buried in his favorite city. “I’ll take anything, even one of those August days in the heart of the brutal summer, the doggest of days, so long as the tuba player plays, let him play me out in New Orleans…” And the lovely “Bywater Bye Bye” is a love letter to Julian’s neighborhood, and its brass bands around every corner. You can feel in every note of these songs how much he loves his new city, touting its virtues and its vices equally. The lyrics are sprinkled with references to steamboats and seafood and, always in the background, the oil spill.
When Julian steps out of New Orleans for inspiration, the results are equally superb. “Gypsy Lover” is a little epic based on a revolving piano figure, and some delightful percussion from Jon Cleary. I never like to read Julian’s lyrics before listening to his songs, because he’s so good at taking me by surprise. Here he describes his lover as “slutty as a bumblebee” and “random as the breeze outside,” two lines I adore. Julian’s the kind of writer who would compose a delicate acoustic piece about Galileo (“Secret of the Stars”) and include this line: “The powers that be threw down this decree, ye keep that shit to thine self.”
It’s not all top notch – “Sexistan” is a b-side if I ever heard one, coupling a loose jam with a juvenile lyric. But Julian recovers quickly with the dry, fatalistic “You’re Only Gonna Die,” and keeps the high standard through the closing instrumental “Floyd.” Fleur de Lis is a terrific album. If you’re familiar with Richard Julian, that should be no surprise, although the musical milieu will be. Despite remaining under the radar, he’s built up a body of work that would be the envy of most songwriters.
I’m thrilled that my money went to the creation of Fleur de Lis, and should Julian ask for my help again, he’ll get it without a moment’s pause. Check out his work here, and his band The Little Willies with Norah Jones here.
Similarly, I’ll buy anything Bill Mallonee does until one of us dies. The Georgia singer-songwriter’s been at this game for more than 20 years, and he’s never made a record I don’t like. Fortune has not been kind to Mallonee – he once enjoyed label support, back when he fronted the tremendous Vigilantes of Love, but since 2004 he’s been a one-man operation, recording and releasing his songs online, and touring until his car falls apart.
This year, for the second year in a row, Mallonee asked his mailing list to contribute money toward the making of a new album, to be released on CD. Last year’s The Power and the Glory was classic Mallonee, and this year’s Amber Waves is the same, with longtime VoL bassist and drummer Jake Bradley and Kevin Heuer providing support. Once again I’m glad I paid my money and took my chance. There’s nothing new here – this is the full-blooded guitar-fueled Americana Mallonee has pretty much always given us, with touches of dust bowl folk and Crazy Horse rock. If you liked him before, you still will.
So what does this one offer? Thirteen songs of love and loss and spiritual yearning, played and sung with gusto. While I like to let Richard Julian surprise me, I always read Mallonee’s lyrics first, since that’s where his focus is, and they’re typically marvelous on Amber Waves. Sometimes he’s harsh and devastating, as on this verse from “Faith (Comes Soaked in Gasoline)”: “The foreman’s car pulls into Hooverville, he’s got 100 jobs for 1,000 men, and ‘cause our kids look like skeletons, it won’t cost him much of anything, gun-toting deputy wears a shiny badge, that kind of justice don’t mean a thing, there’s one thing about faith you can be sure of, it all comes soaked in gasoline…”
But he can also be hopeful, bowing under majesty. “Though fate and sad reversals slow your journey home, you’ll get there ‘cause that deal was done a long, long time ago,” he sings on “Pillow of Stars,” and he speaks of everlasting hope on “Walking Disaster”: “On the fault line of walking disasters, there’s a place where the angels still sigh, and the river of love, it still rolls on long time after the well has run dry…” A lot of this record finds Mallonee weary and broken, but by the final track, he’s at some measure of peace: “Let me go down easy when the box gets shut, let me go down easy into God knows what…”
That song, “Into God Knows What,” is one of two absolute classics here. The other, “Long Since Gone,” may be my favorite Mallonee song since he launched his solo career 10 years ago. Over a delicate acoustic strum, Mallonee sings from the point of view of poor workers in Carolina, desperately clinging to whatever they can. “The fields, they’re all barren, factory up and moved it overseas, boarded up town, ghosts walking the streets, hung heads and heavy sighs, winter coming on, what little was left is long since gone…” It’s heartrending.
Musically, Mallonee pulls out a few little surprises – the Moog synth on “One Kiss at a Time,” the ringing xylophone on “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” the thick riffing on “Break in the Clouds” – but mostly, he sticks to his wheelhouse here. With the possible exception of Ryan Adams, though, he does this wheelhouse better than anyone. I’ll never figure out why Lost Highway or a similar label hasn’t snatched Mallonee up. His catalog – more than 50 albums strong and counting – surely is evidence enough. If you need more, listen to the killer riff of “To the Nines,” or the nimble, heartbreaking “Into God Knows What.”
Mallonee’s a treasure, and whatever we need to do to keep him writing songs and recording them, we ought to do. I’ve complained before that Mallonee writes the same kind of great song over and over, and that’s still true on Amber Waves. But a great song is a great song, and this album (like every Mallonee album) is full of them. Contributing to the continuing musical adventures of a guy who can write and play a song like “Long Since Gone” is a no-brainer. Here’s to many more.
You can become a Bill Mallonee fan too, just by clicking here. Everything is free to listen to, but if you like it, consider buying it. You’ll be supporting a truly independent artist, one I hope you’ll agree is worth your hard-earned money.
See you in line Tuesday morning.