Top 11 Debut Albums of 2011

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This is the graduating class from 2010, the bands Dirty Impound fully expects great, surprising and delightful things from in the future. So promising are these first steps that our faith is high that they have much more to give. As we wait for what comes next, we have these damn fine platters to savor and study.

The Barr Brothers: self-titled

For all the allure of The Slip, this might be the purest studio distillation of Brad and Andrew Barr to date, a rangy, ever-exploratory reach that demands the flexibility rock once promised in days past. There is a gentle lilt to some aspects balanced by a tough, jam-ready charge elsewhere, but always songs worth leaning in for a closer listen. John Martyn’s best work comes to mind, as does Brian Eno, Wilco and the Punch Brothers, but ultimately what’s so alluring about this band is how they combine so many disparate elements into such a pleasing, unique whole.

Le Butcherettes: Sin Sin Sin

Teri “Gender Bender” Suarez is the best female tsunami to hit rock since P.J. Harvey started shouting about 50-foot queenies. It’s no surprise that The Stooges asked Le Butcherettes to open shows for them this past December – one picks up on a lot of Raw Power in this dynamite-ready-to-explode trio that exudes a frighteningly honest aura of danger and household insurrection that jives well with classic Iggy. While their fake blood spewing, pretty dress soiling concerts are garnering a lot of (justified) attention, this Omar Rodriguez Lopez produced full-length allows one to ruminate on the subtleties and lyrical barbs below the rattle ‘n’ hum, and that’s what cements Gender Bender and her band’s spot on this list – there’s a LOT going on here, not just the guttural, sticky, visceral stuff that’s easy to catch. Color us wholly fascinated and not a little smitten.

Chamberlin: Bitter Blood

One of the most addictively listenable servings of pop-aware quality rock this past year, this initial offering from this young-but-maturing-fast Vermont group is what should rule radio waves (or the visual equivalent for today’s ADD generation), a truly cool mixture of classic and modern flavors. Memorable melodies, words you want to sing along to, a layered, smart sense of sound, and more winning details mark this as a harbinger of great things ahead from the songwriting team of Ethan West and Mark Daly and the rest of this sinewy group. Producer Scott Tournet (Grace Potter and the Nocturnals) gives the proceedings depth and clarity, putting the spotlight on the right elements throughout.

Jonny Corndawg: Down On The Bikini Line

New York City may be his home but Jonny C comes across like the test tube baby of Tom T. Hall and David Alan Coe on his debut, where humor and pathos grab shots, talk about their women troubles and money woes, and generally smile through the shit flying at them. Being even a little jokey is dangerous but Corndawg could shape up to be Americana’s Ween if he keeps going where this album hints. He also might really clear the high hurdle and develop some of Todd Snider’s indestructible wit and tunesmithing knack. Speculation aside, one would be hard pressed to have a better tear-in-your-beer time than Down On The Bikini Line.

Delicate Steve: Wondervisions

Hard to describe, quite easy to enjoy, and nigh impossible to fully dissect, Delicate Steve delivered an exuberant new (largely) instrumental bent to rock in 2011. The tempo changes are at times so odd and oddly effective that they evoke Zappa and his various ensembles chugging away at the nigh-impossible, but Delicate Steve does so with bigger grins and a sunnier, Africa-touched aura that’s different and immediately visceral. Delicate Steve is a band that couldn’t have arisen in another era, the children of iPods where Ethiopian funk, Paul Simon, Steve Kimock, Talking Heads, V.M. Bhatt and Os Mutantes mingle casually, a score for a world with rapidly dissolving borders.

Empty Space Orchestra: self-titled

Seriously thrilling, original music. The Bend, OR-based quintet is the best new instrumental rock act out of the Pacific Northwest since Critters Buggin started scrambling heads and genres in the 90s. Unpredictable, massively melodic and thickly musical, this first offering is a crossroads where fusion heads, jazzbos, math rock punks, metal lovers and post-rockers can gather and perhaps move outside their biases and predilections with a sound, attitude and execution powerful enough to shift perspectives. Never once did I spin this one and not find my jaw hanging on the floor at least a few times, laughing at what they’d pulled off in a most delighted way.

Ghosts of Jupiter: self-titled

This is what I want pumping loud out of the speakers if I ever score a spaceship or rocket car. Sumptuous and classic rock wise, the eponymous debut from Boston’s Ghost of Jupiter begs serious comparison to the early works from Procol Harum, Spirit and Hendrix, while giving contemporaries like The Raconteurs a run for their money. Spearheaded by former Assembly of Dust keyboardist-singer-songwriter Nate Wilson, GOJ is a guitar nuts wet dream thanks to the twin assault of Johnny Trama and Adam Terrell. The whole enterprise rides atop the smoothly pummeling rhythm team of Thomas Arey (drums) and Tommy Lada (bass), and ride they do, cruising in a hard yet graceful way – balls and melody both abundantly apparent in these Ghosts, who haunt up strange, curious visions in their smoke trail.

The Habit: Lincoln Has Won

Immigration, a divided country, the malaise and shock of life during wartime and other sharp, large scale concepts slice and slash on this utterly fantastic Brooklyn group’s debut. What impresses is how The Habit’s ambitions don’t get in the way of rockin’ the hell out or in putting a human face on things. They are kid siblings to Exene and John Doe in their bare knuckle early flourish as well as The Pogues, who they share a gift for melancholy that’s neither forced nor false – when they pull a tear from you they’ve earned it. Lincoln Has Won deftly shows us that the conversations still dominating America’s national discourse have been going on longer than anyone might like, offering inroads to thorny subjects whilst inspiring us to kick out of our chairs, overturn the tables and dance a mad jig until things are set right once and for all.

Just An Animal: Lonely Hunter

An air of unshakeable modernity hovers over this taut, shimmering first effort from the same guys who used to be Red Cortez. Set aside any lingering preconceptions from their history though because Just An Animal seethes and stalks one with a swiftness and confidence that’s kinda steals one’s breath. One catches some quality 80s hip shake like Duran Duran and Psychedelic Furs in their sound, and they’re working some of the abstract veins tapped by Interpol and Liars, though neither drips the desperate romance of lead singer-guitarist Harley Prechtel-Cortez, and the lean-yet-enveloping production from Richard Swift further make this, well, its own animal. As bombs drop and kamikazes zoom in deadly and fast, Just An Animal swerves through the wreckage towards a light in the distance – faint and flickering but a spark nonetheless, and in such capable, eager to explore hands a spark is all one needs.

U.S. Royalty: Mirrors

Sexy fuckin’ rock ‘n’ roll. U.S. Royalty captures the long miles and loose adventure of the gypsy life and channels them through the warbled blues of early Fleetwood Mac and Black Crowes, desert rock psychedelia, Grizzly Bear-esque yearning and other glowing, softly searching lenses, refracting something beautiful and true that hums with subtext. Put another way, the layers in their music aren’t obvious beneath the group’s abundant surface charisma, but trust us, there’s layers aplenty. Mirrors hangs together really well as a complete work, a nifty exception to the bits and pieces, singles and scraps mentality amongst most young rock bands. U.S. Royalty is formulating a vision that’s already fascinating as it comes into focus.

Vanaprasta: Healthy Geometry

There are so many glorious moments on Healthy Geometry that it’s a bit surprising it’s a first record. Hailing from the hilly Silver Lake section of Los Angeles, Vanaprasta arrives fully formed AND stuffed with promise; throughout this set – fine as it is – one can feel their sky high potential (which is amped up further by their blazing live shows), a humid tangibility similar to that produced by say Radiohead’s The Bends or TV On The Radio’s Return To Cookie Mountain. The intensity, shine and electricity of modernity are apparent in these grooves, but Vanaprasta is also adept at throwing curves like handclap powered, Cars-esque “Self Indulgent Feeling.” Not so much in sound but in attitude, they recall My Morning Jacket, where one senses a willingness to follow whatever top hat wearing rabbit that scampers by and trips off their curiosity. They’ve got talent and heart aplenty – lead singer Steven Wilkin, in particular, has one of those voices that gets down to the human condition in a really pleasingly palpable way – and of all the new bands I encountered in 2011, Vanaprasta stands out as the one most likely to score a devoted cult sooner than later – it’s not hard to imagine this being THE band for someone.

Dirty Impound's 20 Favorite Albums of 2011

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Once again, we offer a hearty Takeshi Kitano style slap to anyone who says, “There’s no good music coming out anymore.” 2011 was a flood of great rock and the bigger concern was keeping up with it all. We gave at least cursory listens to 500-plus new albums this year, trimming down 50 stellar candidates to this final list, and we’re fully aware we still missed amazing new music. The mainstream remains what it is – an industry driven lapdog that designates winners for the most part – and yes, we spent time with most of the much-ballyhooed records that seem to be on nearly every Best of 2011 roundup. We just think this lot is better – it’s not a lot more complicated than that.

The primary criterion for Dirty Impound’s annual list is artists who honored and creatively worked in the ALBUM medium – not a random assortment of new songs, not 2-3 good singles surrounded by filler, not nearly complete visions. We search out the truffles in the mud because we know the best music can be easy to miss in the modern climate, and we pursue this aim with the fevered intensity of a very hungry hog. Music is too important and dear and almost-too-wonderful-for-words to do it any different. Rock is our church, our guiding star, our reason for getting up some days, and for myriad reasons these selections made the world seem better, brighter, more intense, beautiful, sad, meaningful and fun, or maybe just plain ‘more’ than it was before they existed.

Black Country Communion: 2

Yes, they sound like Led Zeppelin. That said, they sound like LED ZEPPELIN! Actually, an evolved Zep, the sound of what might have been had Bonzo lived filtered through the varied experiences – modern blues, Deep Purple, Dream Theater, Foreigner – of veteran pros Glenn Hughes (bass, vocals), Jason Bonham (drums), Derek Sherinian (keys) and Joe Bonamassa (guitar, vocals), who manhandle the same gruff, intense energies present in Zep, Thin Lizzy and the like into modern form. Nothing else quite like them right now. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Man In The Middle”

Centro-matic: Candidate Waltz

It’s not as if Will Johnson (songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist) – who some may know as the fifth touring member of Monsters of Folk – Scott Danbom (keyboards, violin, harmonies) Matt Pence (drummer, producer) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar) haven’t made incredible records before, but Candidate Waltz adds hooks and refinements that make it their finest hour. While it will still take years to spelunk the crazy depths and poetic leaps of Johnson’s utterly unique lyrics, this one embraces the listener sonically from go and then proceeds to show how a traditional rock four-piece can make music that’s both comfortingly familiar and quite unique. The production sets this one apart in subtle yet highly tangible ways, the chitter-chatter of modernity working at the edges of some catchy-ass songs. It’s a goddamn shame they haven’t reached the same hipster, every-critic status as pals like My Morning Jacket and Drive-By Truckers but it ain’t for lack of quality in what they do.

A Taste of the Album: “Iso-Residue”

Colourmusic: My __ Is Pink

With this one these Oklahoma innovators snatched the torch from The Flaming Lips to carry weird rock into the 21st century. This is the band Animal Collective wishes they were. Colourmusic does all the crackly strangeness but makes sure the flutter & wow is attached to memorable tunes and haunting, just-out-of-reach words. Every last thing about My __ Is Pink is switched-on, animated like Frankenstein’s monster or some lab gene splicing experiment run amuck. A befuddling spray of sounds hits you when press play and doesn’t let up until the last hissing gasps. It’s exhilarating, a little scary, and altogether grand.

A Taste of the Album: “You For Leaving Me”

Dawes: Nothing Is Wrong

Without frills or trickery, Dawes reminds us how personal and potent meat-and-potatoes rock can be. This is four musicians singing and playing their hearts out, and if they dropped cold in the act they’d die happy. Nothing Is Wrong offers up vignettes full of hard earned understanding and sometimes painful honesty. All the comparisons to The Band, Jackson Browne, Eagles, et al. are apt, though they don’t really try to sound like any particular ancestor. Humanity’s tenderness and damaged truth show their face in these tunes filled with lovely melodies and wise-Everyman-ready lyrics. The album from 2011 most often reached for when all other music felt wrong or too much to take in, and never did it let my weary soul down.

A Taste of the Album: “Time Spent In Los Angeles”

Dumpstaphunk: Everybody Want Sum

There have been many contenders for the “next Sly & The Family Stone” but in their spirit, philosophy, talent and execution Dumpstaphunk may be the ones to finally snatch the title. What’s frequently forgotten about the Family Stone is how they were as much rock as they were funk-soul, a band fully capable of smoking most of the other big names at Woodstock. As anyone who’s ever played a festival with Dumpstaphunk knows, these New Orleans bred killers possess the same kind of muscle ‘n’ hustle. While they haven’t yet made their own There’s A Riot Goin’ On, this set punctures the party anthems with a sly inquiry into modern life in all its want and dumbness. Everybody wants some ass, some money, some new drug, etc. and most people are frenziedly grabbing what they can without a lot of thought for their fellow man. Dumpstaphunk calls folks out on that shit even as they raise a ruckus that demands movement, literal and figurative.

A Taste of the Album: “Everybody Want Sum”

Gang of Four: Content

Littered with deal makers, vacuous revelers and sheep simply waiting for slaughter, the latest from the band that made us love a man in a uniform in the 80s schools acts like Hot Chip and LCD Soundsystem about where agit-prop modern rock with a good groove came from. This seventh studio outing rivals their first two blazing albums, Entertainment! and Solid Gold, for sheer smarts and greasy sway. Only two original members remain, singer Jon King and guitarist Andy Gill, but they seem appropriately stirred up by the vacuity and casual nastiness of the new century, channeling their disgust into some of their slinkiest and most subversive work yet. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Who Am I?”

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean

Kiss finds Sam Beam straying far from his comfortable, pastoral niche with a sound more suited to the gleam and clatter of big cities, modernity dripping off everything from the whirring, crisp production to the Tron-ed out cover art. Bluntly, this is as surprising and powerful an artistic reinvention as what Paul Simon accomplished with Graceland. Beam operates free of his reputation here, swearing eloquently amongst fizzling wires and smoking buildings. His ever-rich themes – God, redemption, temptation, love – continue to ping around his songs, which now seethe, scratch and howl under a neon moon. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Monkeys Uptown”

Ivan Julian: The Naked Flame

The jostle and unmistakable attitude of NYC permeates this long awaited solo debut from the Richard Hell and the Voidoids shredder and New York music production guru. What’s awesome is how it vibrates on the same frequency as Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones, etc. while still being achingly timely, an urgent cry from the boulevard of broken and breaking dreams that seeks connection and understanding as most of us try to stretch a dime into a dollar and wonder how so many things we thought solid and real have turned out to be smoke and mirrors. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “The Waves”

Mastodon: The Hunter

Heavy rock had no finer band in 2011 than Mastodon. During their recent Warfield show in San Francisco it was decided amongst my trusted peanut gallery that these guys have surpassed Metallica as the premiere metal outfit, and this fifth studio effort cements this feeling as the boys show that they don’t need high concepts or sweeping, interconnected themes to shake one’s foundations. Producer Mike Elizondo (Eminem, Fiona Apple, 50 Cent) may have seemed like an odd choice initially but he’s brought a taut immediacy to Mastodon’s sound and helped them produce the thickest hard rock single of the year in “Curl of the Burl.” The choices made on The Hunter show a band willing to go wherever their muses take them, unafraid of stepping outside of accepted boundaries to keep their music lively and exciting. Stunning. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Curl of the Burl”

Megafaun: self-titled

Brothers Brad and Phil Cook and buddy Joe Westerlund make quiet magic together. Megafaun, particularly on this mission-statement-feeling album, chase down wonderment in a world more and more willing to concede that it’s over and done. More practically, Megafaun has sharpened their compositional edge considerably with this set, and while they still meander off-leash from time to time, it’s done in such an easy going, winning way that it fits even better than usual with their increasingly spot-on pop acumen. In a year where Megafaun buddy (and former bandmate in DeYarmond Edison) Justin Vernon was everywhere praised to high heaven for his latest Bon Iver album, these guys made a much better record that has much of the same glow and tenderness. Every element – singing, playing, songwriting, production – took a happy leap forward with this eponymous release, only fueling the sense that Megafaun is just now starting to reveal their best work. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Real Slow”

Nathan Moore: Dear Puppeteer

Simply put, Moore is one of the finest singer-songwriters of this generation, a modern equivalent to firebrands like Townes Van Zandt, Tom Rush, and kindred spirit (though rarely mentioned touchstone) Fred Neil. Dylan’s in there, too, but like all these folk-rock icons Moore hums uniquely, and this has never been more apparent than on Dear Puppeter. The songs and his infinitely human voice are the stars of this artfully spare album, co-produced by gifted up & coming singer-songwriter Bryan Elijah Smith, a multi-instrumentalist with an astute ear for bringing out the best in Moore. Dear Puppeteer showcases Nathan at his bittersweet best, a wooden boy in search of incarnation and understanding willing to engage with his maker in a most brave manner. (Baby You’re A Star article)

A Taste of the Album: “Dear Puppeteer”

North Mississippi Allstars: Keys To The Kingdom

What might have been a funereal experience inspired by the death of master producer/musician Jim Dickinson, father to two-thirds of NMAS, turns out to be one of the cleverest, funniest, and ultimately moving song cycles about mortality and what the living do with this inescapable reality that anyone has produced in 20 years or more. All the classic elements of Southern music are here, misbehaved blues and dirt field country French kissing nasty rock and homespun gospel. The trio has never played better or had an overall finer set of tunes to serve. Anyone who’s lost someone dear to them will find succor here. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Hear The Hills”

Opeth: Heritage

Easily the bravest, boldest album in this Swedish’s band’s 21-year history. With Heritage, mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt all but jettisoned the metal underpinnings that have made Opeth a worldwide beloved of the black t-shirt crowd. What we get instead is a beguiling, hugely melodic album that’s much more Traffic than Testament. Åkerfeldt finally releases the songbird that’s been nesting in his throat for years, and the songs themselves are complicated yet swiftly engaging journeys full of pastoral splashes of flute and acoustic guitar. There’s a lovely tribute to Dio, some Satie-esque piano, and the whole thing is a Technicolor experience for one’s ears – engineer Janne Hansson (The Hellacopters, Robyn, Peter Bjorn and John) and mixer Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) have outdone themselves. There’s no telling where Opeth will go from here, and isn’t that the most exciting thing a band heading into their third decade could offer true fans?

A Taste of the Album: “The Devil’s Orchard”

Red Fang: Murder The Mountains

Red Fang stir a non-cerebral reaction, a physical urge to crawl inside their heavy, heavy monster sound and writhe around a bit. What their sophomore album does is add some brain candy to these Portland head-bangers’ recipe. Producer Chris Funk (The Decemberists) focuses their music into a chest slamming, undeniable whomp – vintage Sabbath definitely comes to mind – and the playing and songwriting jumps up to the occasion in kind. As much of a blast as their self-titled debut was this is the one where Red Fang showed their a major contender for hard rock’s top tier, grabbing the attention of giants like Mastodon and Motorhead, who both had the band open major tours this year. While it’s patently obvious that this quartet is “all in” in their live performances, Murder The Mountains brought that vibe into the studio for the next step forward for a band that’s only moving onward and upward at a quick step.

A Taste of the Album: “Wires”

Rival Sons: Pressure & Time

If you need concrete proof that the mainstream rock establishment has their heads up their butts it’s right here in the general absence of coverage of this stunning Los Angeles quartet’s sophomore joint. No Rolling Stone rave, no regular rotation next to the Bad Company and Rolling Stones staples on radio that they’d handily hold their own against, no Letterman or Leno appearances, no VH1 Countdown omnipresence – too bad because these cats have ALL the ingredients that spell a new classic in the making. No nostalgia act, Rival Sons wields the same mountaintop storming mojo as their famous forefathers with a youthful, modern feel, a bunch of very talented lads anxious to flip your skirt up and show you how the West was won. (original review)

A Taste of the Album: “Pressure and Time”

Rose Hill Drive: Americana

Boulder, CO’s finest trio grew to a quartet with this intensely pleasurable third album, and the lot of them takes a series of wicked, winding twists on their way to being a modern day Stooges – unruly, wiry, proudly seditious and most certainly salacious. Just the right amount of mess infiltrates their ceaselessly tough sound along with two or three generous scoops of strangeness on Americana. Rock ‘n’ roll has become too polite and codified for its own good, and Rose Hill Drive rejects all that, giving madness a reach-around and dancing in dresses while growing out moustaches any 70s drug dealer would have been mighty proud to sport. Weird and wonderful stuff.

A Taste of the Album: “Telepathic”

Luther Russell: The Invisible Audience

While folks ran around hooting about the brilliance of Wilco and Ryan Adams’ latests, this Los Angeles-based musical lifer released a double album better than either of these much-touted critic’s darlings. Same basic ingredients – i.e. classic song structures with sweet singing, nice arrangements, good musicianship, and lyrics that bite into life with gusto – and yet Russell, mostly working solo, conjures up a 25-track journey that’s just plain more satisfying, grounded and enjoyable than his more famous peers. Russell has been lobbing out good work for decades but this self-described “glimpse into the jukebox of my psyche” bears the fruit of all his hours on club stages and hunkering down to create astute, bedroom intimate writing and recording, producing an artist that recalls greats like Fleetwood Mac, Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Elliott Smith in his depth, sensitivity and imagination.

A Taste of the Album: “Ain’t Frightening Me”

Paul Simon: So Beautiful So What

Melding the best elements of his working-musician-wise One Trick Pony period with the globe-trotting tendencies he’s exhibited since the 80s, Simon produced his most enjoyable, nuanced slab since Graceland. Darkness winds through these expertly sculpted tunes, which is only appropriate in these apocalyptic-feeling days, wondering aloud, “Will there be a happy ending? Maybe yes, maybe not,” while still offering up more laughs than may be polite given the subject matter. His lifelong obsessions – mortality and human fragility, complex rhythms, border shattering instrument combinations, gospel for the skeptical – are all in place but wielded with a subtle wisdom and dexterous touch that’s jaw-dropping. Face it, most musicians are simply outclassed by Simon, and if you’ve forgotten this fact So Beautiful So What will bring it home with the sudden thwack of an arrow striking a bull’s-eye.

A Taste of the Album: “Love Is Eternal Sacred Light”

Southeast Engine: Canary

Much like Centro-matic, Ohio’s Southeast Engine are contemporary titans amongst modern rock pigmies. Seriously, toss on this ambitious, hugely engaging album and tell me honestly if it doesn’t beat the living crap out of most of the omnipresent music press darlings. There’s so much heart, intelligence, and just plain interesting musical stuff happening at every turn that one can’t absorb it all in single sittings. God and the Devil wrangle in Southeast Engine’s work, and all bets are off much of the time about who’s gonna walk out of the ring and who’s gonna get carried. Good usually wins but these guys know what a wicked, selfish, dumb world it is, and they give it to one straight. This set looses canaries into the coal mines of 2011 America, finding lines of connection with the Great Depression, Appalachian traditional music and other lofty notions, all brought down to an embracing common man perspective. Their work – in feel and content – is an uplifting boon to those eking out a living in fields and work houses where humanity is stolen and stomped down.

A Taste of the Album: “Curse of Canaanville”

White Denim: D

The third official studio long-player from this pleasantly possessed Austin band is simply stunning. D embodies both intense bravado and all the root level quality one could want. Hyper-gifted forefathers like Talking Heads and Ween float like a fog in their music, but once it clears one realizes that White Denim isn’t a faker, they’re a maker and this sound only feels familiar because it has the same abundant energy and flowing creativity. Some of the time signatures and turn-arounds on D are kinda ludicrous, but this is no jazzbo, cerebral skill contest. The songs are the core, and each is memorable in its own way, a moment one revisits to be charmed and stimulated by with surefire reliability. Think the winding, brawny flair of early Yes stripped of its cosmic goofiness and you’re moving in the right direction, but White Denim is so multilayered and eager to engage with pretty much everything that they’re steadfastly creating a catalogue all their own. D is their best yet, but also just a harbinger of amazing things to come.

A Taste of the Album: “Street Joy”

Salting The Wound: A Soundtrack For The Occupy Movement

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‘Salty’ mix tape below essay

If I had a hammer I’d break every fucking copy of “If I Had A Hammer (The Hammer Song).” I got nothing against Pete Seeger but traditional protest folk music has always grated against my sensibilities – its abject earnestness, its flagrant moral superiority, its sing-along simplicity. The people writing and singing this kind of music are selling Bibles in a church parking lot. Without question it can be effective but if one hasn’t drunk the Kool-Aid it’s not especially useful or even welcome even if one agrees with the basic sentiments.

The growing proliferation of classic folkies (and their modern descendents) showing up at Zuccotti Park – Joan Baez, Crosby & Nash, Tom Morello, Peter Yarrow, and Seeger himself – got me thinking about the differences between this movement’s character and the 1960s civil rights uprisings and where music fits in. The ideas of Seeger’s omnipresent anthem remain sound – “I’d hammer out danger/ I’d hammer out a warning/ I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters” – but the tone is all wrong for the young generation rubbing sand in Wall Street’s Vaseline. The cynicism and broad pop culture understanding of the majority of folks pitching tents and mic checking across the U.S. (and now the entire planet) can’t be underestimated. A profound distrust of ANY power structure is central to the Occupy Movement, seen most obviously in the adamant refusal to designate official leaders and figureheads. They understand how even a bit of power is almost always inherently corrupting in this messed up system we find ourselves awash in.

As someone whose political and social awakening was ushered in as a high school student during the Reagan years, I’ve always had a more combative attitude than most traditional leftie protesters. I’m not endorsing violence but I’m attracted to scrappers, people willing to get bloodied by the powers that be, smiling as they stand in the face of dumbness and overreaching authority, a posture that screams, “Come on, motherfuckers, let’s throw down!” without ever needing to throw a punch. Punk rock provided the coal for my young engine, particularly the snarky insights of the Dead Kennedys, the never-dumb-it-down polemics of Bad Religion, and especially the hugely diverse musical sweep and utterly wise yet often funny directness of The Clash.

I’m a generation removed from the college students and similarly dispossessed youth spearheading the Occupy Movement but it’s hard to believe they’ve grown more comfortable with traditional protest music’s platitudes and often painful sincerity. In a broad sense, folks involved in the Occupy Movement are pissed off – massively and achingly pissed off and not entirely clear where to aim their anger, fear and frustration. Some targets are easy – Wall Street, Congress – but at this early stage one of the only things there’s consensus on is there’s something wrong and something must be done about it. Simply giving voice to these feelings – a thunderous, wounded shout from the streets – is actually enough for now.

Ginsberg understood this, his famous Howl beginning, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” and concluding, “In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.” He’s describing the long road through personal pain that becomes public pain, a stabbing discomfort that must be expressed aloud, and in doing so one discovers that they are not alone, that they share common ground and common cause with people they would likely have never known, the “others” on the other side of our many fences that look and act and dream and suffer just like us.

It’s said the greatest lie the Devil ever pulled off is to make us believe he doesn’t exist. The power mongers in the financial sector and the government don’t want the system discussed. They don’t want to hear about the reality of their choices from the people living the society they’ve engineered. Nick Cave once observed:

Money, man, it is a bitch
The poor, they spoil it for the rich
With my face pressed in the clover
I wondered when this would be over
And at home we are all so guilty-sad

Right now at what is hopefully the start of real, immensely needed change for the 99-percent, what’s required are songs that angry up the blood, anthems to make the homebound hit the parks and plazas and lend their numbers and voices to a cause that might just overturn the apple cart so the majority can get a bite of the harvest…or simply feed their children…or feel like what they do and desire matters and is reflected in a larger sense by our culture. The values and concerns of the vast majority are at direct odds with the existing power structure yet a sizeable chunk of the populace remains unmoved, the suffering and crazy-making unfairness of it all still kept at a comfortable distance so reality doesn’t have to sink in, oblivious to how one job loss, a few late mortgage payments, a contested medical claim, or any of a thousand other inevitable turns of fate are the only thing standing between them and the laissez-faire, market-worshipping world outside their window.

Where we find ourselves today isn’t an accident. It is a series of fiendishly interconnected, heartlessly constructed systems designed to fuck anyone who isn’t privy to their inner workings. Lip service Christians and vote courtin’ politicians spouting truisms about the generosity and kindness of the American people aren’t talking about the dillholes at the top of the heap. No one who lives in that high place and refuses a 6-percent tax hike so that bridges don’t collapse and the poorest of us can eat breakfast and get an education has any claim to compassion. There’s still a resistance to call out the people who are working day and night to keep their white-knuckled grip on power and riches for being as callous and short-sighted as they are. Well, this soundtrack aims to do just that, and I hope it prods anyone who listens to it to some action for the greater good.

Track Notes

1. Know Your Rights – The Clash
“You have the right to remain silent/ You are warned that anything you say can and will be taken down and used as evidence against you.” Combat Rock arrived in 1982, and the subject matter of this track was old news then. America is still not living up to its ideals in reality. No one deserves investigation or humiliation to put bread on their table.

2. I Party All The Time – Gang of Four
“We are not prisoners – although we’re putting in the hours/ We are not innocent – although we’re singing in the choir/ If there’s a revolution then you’ll stay home.” It’s hard to stop living a carefree, oblivious existence, especially when it’s so easy to have fun.

3. Binge And Purge – Clutch
“I’ve got nothing to lose but my apathy.” Once you figure out that the guns – literal and metaphorical – are pointed at you it really focuses one’s attention. A fight song for those that don’t yet realize they’re in a battle.

4. Before You Die – Bad Religion
“Rewrite the morals, rectify the nation/ Now may be your time.” We’ve only so many hours before we shuffle off this mortal coil and what we do with them matters – for today and for the tomorrows those we love live after us. Think about it and act accordingly.

5. A Young Man’s Money – Ivan Julian
“See, we can get this and that in every which way/ But we get the same thing right or wrong/ I think about it all the time/ And wrap my cage around me.” A snarling inducement to knock the mold off musty, crippling systems.

6. Welcome To The Factory – Backyard Tire Fire
“You’re locked on the clock/ You’re ready to blow/ And nobody knows.” The grind and workaday desperation of repetitive labor whirrs in this gutbucket wail from one of Illinois’ best bands.

7. The Power’s Out – Flogging Molly
“Forgive me for dreaming it’s all I have left/ Except this pending foreclosure and mountains of debt.” Detroit shines as a beacon of what market/corporate thinking produces in the end, a cautionary tableau of where the rest of America is going if we continue on our current path. Kudos to Dave King and the rest of Flogging Molly for hunkering down in the Motor City to record their fantastically timely new album Speed of Darkness (Impound review). This is a thumb in the eye of blood sucking leech CEOs everywhere.

8. Zombie Blues – The Denmark Veseys
“Zombies in the blue states and zombies in the red/ Just another country of the living dead/ There are zombies of all colors, black and brown and white/ There are zombies on the left and zombies on the right/ There are zombies that have money and zombies who are poor/ And they’re brandishing Kalashnikovs and mopping up the floor.” Jerry Joseph is wise in many ways and the guy pulls NO punches, including the haymakers he throws at himself. Being honest about our own role in sustaining a poisonous system is important.

9. Hard Day On The Planet – Loudon Wainwright III
“Don’t turn on the TV, don’t show me the paper/ Don’t want to know he got kidnapped or why they all raped her/ I want to go on vacation till the pressure lets up.” Pretending things aren’t “tough all over on Earth” isn’t going to make the problems go away.

10. Things Goin’ On – Lynyrd Skynyrd
“Well, they’re goin’ ruin the air we breathe/ Lord have mercy/ They’re gonna ruin us all, by and by/ I’m telling all you beware/ I don’t think they really care.” Ronnie Van Zant was a deeper rabble-rouser than his legacy suggests. This call to “stand up and scream” comes from the band’s 1973 debut and is but one of many insightful blows he landed before his too, too early demise.

11. Funky Dollar Bill – Funkadelic
“It’ll buy you a life but not a true life/ The kind of life where the soul is lost.” What do we value as a country? Is it a quarterly profit guarantee or is it clean water, art, caring for the sick and needy? The almighty dollar can be used for good or ill, but it’s only a tool for the humans pushing it around. What do YOU want to make with this tool?

12. This Fucking Job – Drive-By Truckers
“Working this job is like a knife in the back/ It ain’t getting me further than the dump I live in/ It ain’t getting me further than my next paycheck.” The sense that we’re stuck and there is zero chance of improvement is creeping into our bones. We’re losing the belief that there’s anything else other than what we’ve got. It’s a lie, but changing the dynamics of day-to-day existence for the majority isn’t going to come quickly or easily.

13. ¡Let Freedom Ring! – Chuck Prophet
“Let there be darkness, let there be light/ As the hawk cripples the dove/ Over and over watch the dove die as they rip out the floorboards of love.” How we define a word is crucial. Even Fox News clatters endlessly about “American freedom” but what does it actually mean to be ‘free’ in the current context? Chuck dissects the double plus good rhetoric with humor and deft skill here.

14. I’m Gonna Assemble A City – These United States
“I’m gonna assemble a city right in the heart of their war/ I’m gonna sit in my lawn chair as the missiles and maggots bore/ I’m gonna sit in my lawn chair with a pointed but good-natured grin, letting the strangers that pass know they are always welcome to come in.” The launch of the Occupy Movement in New York City and the way the community evolved in Zuccotti Park is mirrored in this prescient number from 2009’s Everything Touches Everything, which is filled with hymns for kind revolutionaries everywhere.

15. Old News – Dr. Dog
“We’ve been toiling our tears hit the soil/ Taking up a voice from a flower field of noise.” A kiss to those sleeping in the street and dreaming loud enough for all to hear. It really is time to wrap up our old blues and toss them away.

16. Take ‘Em Down – Dropkick Murphys
“When the boss comes calling, don’t believe their lies.” This pro-union corker got some attention from NPR and elsewhere earlier this year but it’s not about one state or one boss – it’s about who we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with. The folks in power – almost to a one – aren’t interested in sharing that power and privilege, and it will take the might of the many to pry it from their hands.

17. Mean Streak – John Gorka
“No money coming in/ It’s all going out/ I’m standing on the corner/ In the shadow of doubt.” Things feel desperate for an increasing number of people. What stability we possess seems tenuous at best, and even if we don’t know how we’ll manage we cannot let the powers that be continue to take advantage of the 99-percent.

18. Is This Thing Working? – Todd Snider
“”You gonna hit somebody, today? You gonna hit me too/ In fact, you’re gonna hit me every day, because now I’m picking on you.” People who would steal pensions, starve the hungry and condemn the sick to die are bullies. People who compensate themselves to tune of thousands of times what the average worker in their company makes are bullies. The folks Occupy is confronting are thugs and jerks and bullies, and part of why they and the mainstream media and Mayor Bloomberg (and mayors like him) are upset is they’ve been exposed. They’ve been stealing our lunch money for decades and they don’t want to stop. Well, a hearty fuck you to all of them. Now we’re picking on you.

19. Can We Really Party Today? – Jonathan Wilson
“With all that’s going on/ shouldn’t we get started today?” Again, distraction and personal pleasure are wonderful opiates. The rise of video game culture and pocketsize entertainment in general is not an accident. It’s nicer to take a hike in the woods and pop open a sixer with one’s pals, but there’s important shit to be done. Let’s not forget that.

20. Last Year – Akron/Family
“Last year was such a hard year/ For such a long time/ This year’s gonna be ours.” A simple, open-ended chant for the Occupy Movement as 2011 nears its close. Keep up the charge and 2012 might just be our year.

Missing Brent Mydland

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Well, there ain’t nobody safer than someone who doesn’t care
And it isn’t even lonely when no one’s ever there
I had a lot of dreams once, but some of them came true
The honey’s sometimes bitter when fortune falls on you

Brent Mydland

The first time I saw the Grateful Dead was July 13, 1984. It’s a date that lingers for lots of reasons – call it a re-birthday. Young, dumb and full of cum (as the old expression goes), I was dragged to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley by my buddies at UC Santa Cruz, where I’d begin college in a couple months. Already wild eyed zealots for Garcia and the gang after their first year at Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp (a favorite alternate definition for UCSC), my friends were on a mission to convert me, no simple task given that my listening at that point consisted mostly of Cali punks like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys and Circle Jerks (and all their 70s ancestors, particularly The Clash and Patti Smith Group) along with the seventies classic rock I’d grown up on and a growing obsession with John Coltrane, Miles Davis and all things modal. So, to say I was skeptical walking up the Greek’s stone steps would be a gross understatement. And then they played.

My preconceptions quickly fell to fractals inside my mind. I simply didn’t know what to make of it. It was derived from American music, but other than that broad term it seemed to have no precedent. Some of it was downright bar band, other bits redolent of ancient strains, and the connective tissue between it all something entirely their own. While my chums had staked up spots on the main floor, I kept to myself high above, letting the wind bring this strange new thing to me. And for reasons somewhat beyond comprehension, my anchor, my home base amidst the slurry of influences and explorations onstage was keyboardist Brent Mydland. It’s not something I had any hand in choosing – the connection was instantaneous and felt fated (a sensation I’ve experienced only a handful of times in my life) – and for the next six years I posted up as close to Brent as circumstances allowed, a need more than a desire to be near to him, a commitment to ride out whatever wave came along by his side.

Brent Mydland

I think it was Brent’s obvious humanity, his frailties and struggles worn close to the surface – perhaps not by choice – that drew me in and gave everything he did extra gravity. If you paid attention you didn’t need anyone to tell you that life had been hard on Mydland. The pain of rising each day and struggling with it all rang out in his voice, a ragged, wild thing that would have fit in well with The Band – not pretty but absolutely fucking honest and beautiful in a gutbucket way. His keyboard work followed suit, stabbing and slashing at the music, chasing down something with sometimes brute intensity, while other times as tender as a kiss on a weary brow. I never quite knew what he’d do in a given song, and that unpredictability made him fun if a bit erratic. Like the rest of the Dead in the tumultuous 80s, there were glorious nights and there were outright belly flops, drunken and drugged-out displays that still make me want my money back for a few shows. But, it was easier to forgive with Brent, who seemed to carry more weight than his frame could really handle.

While almost everybody into the Dead can tell you about the day Jerry Garcia died, it’s not everyone who felt the same stomach churning sadness when they found out about Mydland’s drug overdose on July 26, 1990. My compass in the Grateful Dead was gone and the band was never the same for me again. I stopped going to concerts altogether by 1993, tired of pecking after something that wasn’t there for me anymore. I’ve been able to find the specialness in the individual surviving members of the Dead in the past decade, more interested in them apart from one another than the various aggregates that are chasing something that REALLY departed when Garcia shuffled off.

Mydland may have been the group’s fourth keyboardist but he was, even in his quiet way, one of the strongest personalities the band ever knew. Today is the anniversary of Brent Mydland’s birthday. He would have been 59 if he was still with us. As it is, he was just 37 years old when he died. I’m older than that now, and it gives me pause as I wrestle with my own demons, the ones that don’t go away no matter how much sweet talk or how many bribes I throw at them. Brent was a troubled soul but he made that work for him in his music. He gave form and context to feelings that don’t easily emerge from the shadows, a soul caught between eternal rocks and hard places giving voice to such cramped existence for the rest of us. Happy birthday wherever you are, brother. I hope you know how very, very missed you are.

More thoughts on Brent Mydland in a 2008 piece over here.

Blitzen Trapper

American Goldwing Track-By-Track

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New Album

Toss American Goldwing (released September 13 on Sub Pop) into a CD changer on shuffle with The Mother Hips’ Later Days, Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony, the Eagles eponymous 1972 debut and Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection and you’ll find great congruity with these classics. The sixth album from Portland, Oregon-based Blitzen Trapper reaches out more readily than anything in the band’s past, a warmly delivered, mildly heartbroken collection that’s human in all the right ways.

A lilt reminiscent of early Bob Dylan surfaces in the quieter moments – nothing new for Blitzen Trapper – but more appealingly, a T. Rex-esque sweep emerges on rockers “Street Fighting Sun,” “Might Find It Cheap” and “Your Crying Eyes,” the group’s snarl never more pronounced or appealing. American Goldwing longs to be played loud enough to fill your house, an inducement to go barefoot and shuffle around shamelessly, with wistful keepers like “Girl In A Coat” and “Stranger In A Strange Land” serving as welcome breathers to our delightedly artless soft shoes.

Blitzen Trapper is about to embark on one of the coolest tours of 2011, a co-headlining nationwide jaunt with Dawes that begins at Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, CA on October 7th (find full tour dates here).

In the meantime, pull up a chair and check out what Blitzen Trapper’s leader-songwriter-singer-guitarist Eric Earley has to say about his newest song cycle.

Blitzen Trapper by Tyler Kolhoff

Might Find It Cheap
I was driving outside of town in a place called Gresham, which is a pretty rough area – old bars, lots of crime, a pretty white trashy area – and there was a sign that read, “ You Might Find It Cheap But Not For Free,” and I thought that was pretty cool [laughs]. This record also has a lot to do with two specific relationships I was in last year, and it’s almost me talking to somebody, saying, “You might find it cheap somewhere else but you won’t find it free like it is right here.” It speaks to the idea of true love, which I think is selfless.

It’s really a picture in my head of someone I grew up with in high school. It’s not literal because it’s about dudes running illegal substances in the mountains or something. Where I grew up – and basically anywhere rural in America – there was a lot of methamphetamine running going on. I think the imagery of this one is taken directly from Salem, Oregon and the surrounding areas. Where I talk about the guy in his new boots walking down by the factory, there was this old paper mill by where I grew up.

Love The Way You Walk Away
That one’s really personal about this relationship I was in and this specific time…but all the same, all that imagery comes straight from Salem – sitting in a sedan out by the river listening to the radio. It’s all the same thing as my high school days. But, this one, more than any other, is more of a general tragic love song.

Riverfront Park in Salem, Oregon

Your Crying Eyes
That’s another one inspired by this girl I was with for a while. She said to me one night in my apartment, “I can’t hide my crying eyes from you.” And I said, “Hey, can I turn that into a song?” [laughs]. She got mad and left. So, I turned it into a song. She came back later; she’s actually one of my closest friends.

My Home Town
That one’s pretty straightforward about wanting to go back to where you came from even though it’s not the same – it never is. Maybe your own memories of where you grew up aren’t true. As you get older you start to romanticize your roots, and I think the song works as a sort of center to the record since a lot of the general imagery I use comes from my hometown – the farmland, the river, the hobos. We had the state insane asylum in Salem, which they used in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. As a kid, we used to go explore the old, falling down building. They finally took it out, but I talk about the crazies around the town.

Gold Wing motorcycle - no longer made in America

Girl In A Coat
That’s the one song on the album, lyrically, that’s more poetry than straightforward. It definitely goes to that Dylan place I go sometimes where I’m almost talking in code. But it’s ultimately about a girl I went out with for a long time – a snapshot of that moment, that relationship. And it rains a lot in Oregon and a girl in a coat always shows up. I wanted to write an old style folk song, and in fact, it’s less Dylan than old English style folk because it’s in ¾, but lyrically it’s still very American.

American Goldwing
It’s autobiographical but definitely written in code [laughs]. I like that one a lot, but a lot of it for me is how it runs the line between R&B, hip hop, country and folk with a kind of soul beat going on. It’s got a fat beat with a lot of writhing going on.

That’s me doing my country-soul, JJ Cale thing; a real simple, four chord style. I wrote that on piano. It’s got this good groove to it. Lyrically, it’s this winding story that’s very personal for me but also just a love song.

Prophet Abraham Getting Down To Biz

Taking It Easy Too Long
That’s about failing, growing up in a town you know you should leave but just can’t seem to. Salem is basically about taking up the family business or working on the farm, sticking around and doing what your family has been doing for a long time…or doing nothing and just drinking your life away. In the end, it’s a straight-up country song, something like Merle Haggard.

Street Fighting Sun
That song is straight out of Judas Priest or Zeppelin – just hard guitar rock – and if you asked me what I listen to the most I’d probably say Black Sabbath. That’s the stuff I love to drive or work out to. The song’s really wistful too, the story of a hillbilly giving up his fight with the sun and the moon…or something [laughs].

Stranger In A Strange Land
That’s the more melancholy, Townes Van Zandt side. I listen to Townes more than any other folk musician. As far as folk music, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine are my favorites. The subject matter is probably the most serious on the album. In a way, it’s about death, but this record is less about death than my previous records [laughs]. This track is a lonely, despairing song that says, “I’ve done all I can, and when I’m gone you’ll know me by the friends I leave behind.” It’s almost like a last will and testament, and it’s a direct quote from Abraham and it’s got that mood.

Blitzen Trapper Album Release from Luke Norby on Vimeo.


Nothing Is Wrong Track-By-Track

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New Album

From the “special kind of sadness” of their native Los Angeles that kicks off proceedings to the lingering daydream of love and matrimony that flutters at the tail end, Nothing Is Wrong (released June 7 on ATO) is a resounding denial of the supposed “death of the album” being moaned about in this MP3 time. Its 11 tracks intermesh for something considerably greater than the individual parts, and with Dawes the individual parts are already gut-level satisfying. Without overly echoing the many ancestors they get endlessly named checked with, Dawes does seem to exist on the same plain that gave us Neil Young, The Byrds and Jackson Browne (who recently tapped the band to back him on a string of dates).

There’s not a lot of fanfare to Nothing Is Wrong, all the energy put into making rock of enduring solidity dappled with no small measure of grace and warts-and-all understanding of the human condition. The thump and rattle of this song cycle keeps things close to the ground even as ideas spin skyward, wax wings straining above a City of Angels, all the traffic and noise below still faintly audible even as Dawes reaches for something above and beyond it all. Produced by fellow SoCal super-talent Jonathan Wilson, Nothing Is Wrong aims for touchstones like The Band’s classic self-titled second album and Browne’s Late For The Sky, works that endure because they strike directly to the bramble-riddled truths that exist in each new generation, struggles of heart and spirit that don’t go away no matter how we try to get our heads around them.

We asked singer-songwriter-guitarist Taylor Goldsmith to walk us through Nothing Is Wrong.

Taylor Goldsmith by John Margaretten

Time Spent In Los Angeles
That song I wrote during the Middle Brother period when I was out in Nashville with John McCauley. We even recorded a Middle Brother version of it, but I knew it needed to be a Dawes thing, in terms of what it’s all about and how it represents all of us. I felt like its home was with Dawes.

If I Wanted Someone
It’s always been interesting to see how people respond to this song. I’ve had a lot of women and even guys say, “Wow, you’re really an asshole [laughs].” There are a few examples of women and men who just get it, who can see that place in a man’s perspective. The whole song is sort of about how men are always reaching outward, outward, outward and asking questions, trying to find the keys to the universe. And women, at least in this particular example dealing with me and this one girl, represent what a connection really means, what family means. This song is about not wanting to keep fleshing things out and turning over every stone, and how I just want to sit here and engage your company and know that’s all that matters…and I’m having trouble with that [laughs].

My Way Back Home
This was the first song I’d done for the new album that we were playing live. We were actually playing it live when North Hills came out. I feel like that song is the best gateway song into Dawes. For me, I don’t feel we changed that much [between the first and second albums], we’re just taking the next step. This song is a representation of what connects us from North Hills to this album, lyrically and musically.

Dawes by Kevin Hays

Coming Back To A Man
This song and “Little Bit of Everything” were the last two songs written for Nothing Is Wrong. I’m really happy with this one because it was the one song we’d never played live before we recorded it; all the other songs had a lot of experience onstage and this one didn’t. We were all really happy with how it turned out but weren’t sure it was going to be on the record. I was happy with it as a song but wasn’t sure it would fit, and I’m glad it did because I think it’s now one of the main tracks.

So Well
Like “Little Bit of Everything,” it’s a song where I’m taking steps to introduce new perspectives and tell stories that don’t necessarily involve my personal experience. I was in love with a girl – actually the girl behind a lot of the songs on the album – and when that stopped working out because of my lifestyle and me being gone so much, she found someone who was everything I wasn’t – older, a lot more stable and successful in terms of his career, and was wanting and capable of this new life she wanted and I couldn’t give her. What I kept thinking about how she was the same person but loved by two people for completely different reasons. The girl that I loved her as was not the girl he loved her as, and yet it’s the same person. So, this song was about one person but representing something different to three different people based on what their needs are and what they’re looking for.

Dawes by John Margaretten

How Far We’ve Come
I’ve never told anyone this because it’s kind of embarrassing, a spur of the moment thing. A buddy of mine was on the Barack Obama campaign, traveling around with him state to state. So, I decided to see if I could write something that would work for a campaign. So, I wrote it and sent it to him and said, “Hey, I know this is ridiculous and more of a joke than anything else, but take a listen and maybe it’ll work somewhere.” He ended up parting ways with the campaign but he said, “Cool song.”

Fire Away
I started it in Nashville – just the first verse and chorus – and then I finished it at home later on. It’s a song about a really good friend of mine who was dealing with being a drug addict and going through rehab. It was my way of saying, “However you need me right now, I can be that friend. And if what’s gonna help you the most is hating me because I’m telling you how I feel then I’ll accept that. Or if knowing that there’s someone who’ll be cool with whatever you’ve had to go through to get clean is what will help most, I can be that.” Having Jackson Browne sing at the end was a real honor.

Moon In The Water
“Moon In The Water” or “How To Become Jaded And Lose Your Faith In Love” [laughs]. I feel like I’ve gone along very idealistically thinking love was too easy. I think I’ve fallen in love too easily for a long, long time. The girl this song is about said, “It’s not as simple as that and you don’t know what you’re talking about if you think it breaks down into spending six months together and thinking it’s great and we’re totally in love.” I’m really happy with this song. It might not seem like a Dawes song to some people but it called for a stripped down, simple, glide along track, which is new for us.

Dawes by John Margaretten

Million Dollar Bill
It’s definitely very ridiculous and the denial in it is very strong. This song was started before Middle Brother and then finished with Middle Brother, and we all sang verses on the album version. When we went to do Nothing Is Wrong we thought it’d be cool to cut a version for a b-side or some exclusive where Dawes plays a Middle Brother song. That was the original idea but we were really happy with the recording and how it rounded out the record. It really gets across qualities in the song the Middle Brother version doesn’t.

The Way You Laugh
This is the only song where there’s no line or chorus or refrain to really hang your hat on. It’s just words and words and words. It added a dimension to the record, and I think the recording came out cool. Our friend Ben Peeler is playing lap steel on it and that’s so lovely.

Little Bit of Everything
This was finished while we were recording Nothing Is Wrong, and I thought it would be the first thing in the next batch of songs [for third album] because I didn’t think I would finish it on time. When I had it done and I played it for the band it was clear it needed to be on this album.

For more on Dawes check out Dennis’ recent interview with Taylor Goldsmith.

Dirty Impound's 11 Bands To Watch In 2011

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Dirty Impound is stepping in to help y’all with the seemingly endless barrage of bands vying for your attention this year. We’ve sifted through the tea leaves to bring you a quick gloss and a nibble from eleven acts sure to enrich the listening life of any thinking rock ‘n’ roller in the months ahead.

1. Colourmusic

With a name that fits wonderfully around the shifting, vibrant hues and striking, slightly giddy feel of the cheekily titled My ___ Is Pink (arriving May 10), this quartet begs comparisons with early Beta Band (as in the magic band that made those first three EPs) and contemporaries Yeasayer and TV On The Radio. Except Oklahoma-based Colourmusic seems to be having more fun than their peers, perhaps having sipped from the same pool that’s made Wayne Coyne such a blast in the past decade. One feels animated and charged up listening to Colourmusic, whose latest is one of those gifts that keeps on giving.

2. Greensky Bluegrass

While there’s plenty o’ twang to Greensky, the band has increasingly shown a depth and heightened insight to the human condition that moves them a good few degrees away from their string band beginnings and much closer to The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show, i.e. folkies and pickers capable of touching a much larger nerve in society. Greensky’s forthcoming new album, Handguns, lingers profoundly but doesn’t come off as heavy, preachy or anything of the sort. It’s the sound of a band coming into their own, ready for a lot more people to take them into their heart. No one will be sorry if they do.

3. White Denim

Austin, TX is lousy with bands but few possess the variety, spiky chops or tunesmithing savvy of White Denim. On May 24th, they release one of the liveliest, most thoroughly enjoyable albums to hit the Impound’s ears in 2011. D bobs and weaves along, tough and tickling, a child of the psychedelic revolution but free of the subset’s often muddy sonics, preferring instead punk’s whiplash sensibilities and pop’s come hither vibe. D pushes out one catchy, clever, unpredictable number after another, making one wonder that one band has made all these neat sounds. Anyone with a soft spot for Apollo Sunshine or Dr. Dog should take notice right away.

4. Red Fang

Murder The Mountains (released April 12) is only the second album from this Portland, OR quartet but it’s already obvious to any serious hard rock fan that these guys are on the pathway that brought us the likes of Mastodon and Queens of the Stone Age. However, Red Fang is a bit more Pabst Blue Ribbon ready than these kindred touchstones, and in some ways that makes their heavy duty music a bit more baldly enjoyable. Listening to new ones like “Wires” and “Throw Up” one can tell they’re hunting after big game but they never totally lose hold of a boogie spirit inside their addictively listenable music.

5. The Staxx Brothers

At first this Seattle band brought us back to vintage Funkadelic but the longer we listen the more cool ancestors kick up – Springsteen & E Street, MC5, Temptations, The Clash. And while their first two albums were pleasurable rides, their third long-player, Jungle Cat (arriving mid-May but available for pre-order now), tightens and builds upon all the good things exhibited previously, cutting back on the chuckles in favor of a rollicking, sly dissertation on what it means to survive in 21st century America. Vocally, they’ve got most of the competition skunked, and the three-piece instrumental core makes WAY too much great noise for so few guys. This year, Staxx is all business and business is VERY good.

6. Lions In The Street

This Vancouver, Canada group oozes classic rock attitude and style but evades nostalgia with songs that leap with urgency and timeless solidity. It’s been a couple years since their awesome self-titled debut (peep review here), so they’ve been woodshedding new material for a while. The demos they’ve let the Impound check out remind us of Southern Harmony And Musical Companion-era Black Crowes and the band themselves suggest it’s “Black Rebel Motorcycle Club playing Waylon Jennings.” Both work for us, and frankly we’re excited as hell to hear the sophomore salvo from these real rock upstarts – a band with the rugged fortitude to be a new millennial answer to The Faces if they play their cards right.

7. Rubblebucket

It’s nigh impossible to say too many nice things about Rubblebucket. They continually justify one’s enthusiasm with washes of talent and imagination that sweep one up quickly and joyfully. With hints of Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Tricky, dub reggae and 70s Nigerian funk, Rubblebucket are a goddamn blast and a half, both on record and in the flesh. Lead singer Kalmia Traver is one of the most potent female vocalists to hit modern rock since Karen O first told us to hitch up our britches, and the fluctuating, brightly etched music around her keeps the conversation equally interesting. The band is giving away their new album, Omega La La, for free right now (details here) in an effort to shake hands with a wider audience. Don’t refuse them or we’ll come over and kick you in a sore spot for your laziness.

8. Howlin Rain

Ethan Miller and co. have been working on the follow-up to 2008’s Magnificent Fiend for three years. Uber-producer Rick Rubin is involved in the witchcraft, and there’s a lot of pressure to nail down something significant, big, etc. with this one. The Rain needn’t worry since they already have most rock bands outstripped on the talent and originality fronts, not to mention the sheer driving mojo that tumbles out of every track, even the slow burns. There’s a nifty three-cut EP, The Good Life (released February 11), to tide us over, but it really leaves us no less anxious (in a good way) for what this thinking man’s psychedelic unit will lay on us in the fall.

9. Le Butcherettes

The Slits, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and early PJ Harvey & Patti Smith all leap to mind when one presses play on Sin Sin Sin, the terrific, befuzzed debut from Los Angeles-by-way-of-Guadalajara, Mexico’s Le Butcherettes (arriving May 10). But these references quickly fade to footnotes once one digs into their gutsy, bile-rich music – all skinned knuckles, dented hearts and battered instruments. Produced by The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodriguez Lopez, Sin Sin Sin is a nitro fueled update of riot grrrl ways that drips sex, violence and pure fucking rock ‘n’ roll.

10. Caleb Caudle & The Bayonets

While Ryan Adams is off doing whatever he’s doing – we’re not ones to judge – the field of thoughtful, pop-wise American roots music is wide open to a young, capable contender like Caleb Caudle. This kid and his diligently improving, tough little band give off the hungry whiff of early Petty and the Heartbreakers with some of Ryan’s softness. Their last album, 2010’s Snake River Canyon, announced the group’s ascent, and they’ve steadily knocked out solid steps forward since, including a Valentine’s single with Adams’ old Whiskeytown foil Caitlin Cary and a new EP that does nothing but increase the warming glow of this band.

11. The Mast

Haale Gafori and Matt Kilmer don’t make casual music. Spiritual, whip smart and intense, The Mast is full-bodied yet intoxicating like a wondrous scent caught at random on a strong wind. It’s hard to say where it came from but one must follow it just the same. This is music for lovers and fractals, dreamers and supplicants, rockers with questioning souls and children of all ages. Original, refreshingly sincere and strong as a tree, The Mast is working on their debut album for release later in 2011. For more on this pair, here’s a conversation with Haale and Matt that Dennis had a couple years back.

Dirty Impound's Top 10 Debut Albums of 2010

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This is the graduating class from last year, the bands I fully expect great and surprising and delightful things from in the future. So promising are these first steps that my faith is high that they have much more to give music. As we wait for what comes next, we have these damn fine platters to savor and study.

7 Walkers: 7 Walkers (Response)

Thick and undulating as black river water, this primo quartet – Papa Mali, Bill Kreutzmann, Matt Hubbard and George Porter Jr. (the great Reed Mathis plays on the album) – is hands down the most promising post-Garcia phoenix to rise from the extended Grateful Dead family, a band with the subtlety and muscled musicality to steer music into interesting new places – swampy, New Orleans haunted, outlaw inhabited places. With lyrics largely written by Robert Hunter, this feels like a classic already. These songs will take years to fully blossom and reveal themselves, and then they’ll be ripe for others to tackle. There are multiple lifetimes of rich experience at work in this band and the music hums with all that time, adventure, sadness and beauty

Big High: Big High (Big High Music)

This Seattle quartet have all the markings of a great hard rock act, very much in keeping with clear forebears like Pearl Jam and Nirvana, except Big High has, well, bigger wood for 70s hesher gold and monster amp stack rock. What swirls here is a potent muddle that feels distinctly strong and powerfully good washing over one. Lead singer Mesa is a compact powerhouse that stirs memories of young Robert Plant and Paul Rodgers, and he dances atop a trio – Ari Joshua (guitars), Sandy (bass) and former Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin – that’s alternately howling or surprisingly delicate. Their ballads really do have power and when they pump up the big cylinders they growl real nice. And several ace guest turns by R.E.M’s Peter Buck don’t hurt this debut one bit.

Big Light: Animals In Bloom (reapandsow)

There’s nothing quite like Big Light in modern rock. But modern they are, admiring classic song craft and the odd Beatles cut but equally steered by curious sonics, sharply angled guitars and leaping gutter poetry in their catchy yet never simple lyrics. Always there are shadows on the edge of the party, fog rolling in and today’s jittery character wrestled into notes. This batch has hooks galore but nothing clearly aimed where radio/video culture wants young bands today. Big Light’s music hangs together with a shambling grace, spiked by Jeremy Korpas’ consistently cool guitars and the slow falling, hard to pin down voice of Fred Torphy. Animals In Bloom is fun and fascinating, very easy to dig but resistant to easy explication.

Black Dub: Black Dub (Jive)

Daniel Lanois has never really been in a band before Black Dub. His fingerprints are all over modern music – Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young – but always from the hidden perch of the studio rat. Here he steps out and lets his guitar and sweeter-than-you-can-believe voice fly alongside Trixie Whitley (vocals – daughter of the late, absolutely great Chris Whitley), Daryl Johnson (bass) and all-time Top 10 drummer Brian Blade (Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell). This is the highest caliber musicianship you’re likely to find but they restrain themselves wonderfully, playing to the bones and soul of these well crafted songs, which reverberate with gospel, blues and classic soul echoes in addition to the artfully distorted and bent rock elements. It’s a slow grower in some ways, hiding some of its charms for those willing to really sit with the material and let the real intentions and artistry at work here sink in until something holy is revealed.

The Contribution: Which Way World (SCI Fidelity)

Deeply felt and delivered in a way that conveys the great skill and thought that went into this music, the first offering from The Contribution, a supergroup of sorts, is just plain good, pleasantly mature, quality rock. Comprised of New Monsoon’s Jeff Miller (guitar, vocals) and Phil Ferlino (keys, vocals) and songwriting partner Tim Carbone (violinist in Railroad Earth, singer and multi-instrumentalist here), with String Cheese Incident rhythm pals Keith Moseley (bass) and Jason Hann (percussion), this band has a focus and weaving drive that pulls one into interesting emotional & philosophical spaces, the ground where truth stands naked. While that kinda deep water can drown a band, The Contribution moves fluidly and with no small grace.

Drink Up Buttercup: Born And Thrown On A Hook (Yep Roc)

A great, rattling modern slab, there’s a sensibility afoot on Born that seems utterly contemporary, a fractured worldview that nonetheless hangs together well. From opener “Seasickness Pills,” which eerily approximates the topsy-turvy wobble of its namesake ailment, through myriad other warbled and smooth passages, this set displays voluminous imagination, genuine pop savvy and utter fearlessness in comingling elements. If The Beatles had stayed on the Magical Mystery Tour, stopping to visit and learn from folks like Village Green-era Kinks, 10CC, The Move, Roxy Music and fellow Philly contemporaries Dr. Dog, then they might have turned out like Drink Up Buttercup. Sick and weird and quite delightful is this attention grabbing debut.

Free Energy: Stuck On Nothing (Astralwerks)

Nailing non-ironic, positivity infused pop-rock is no easy task, yet Free Energy makes it seem a breeze on Stuck On Nothing, which instantly takes its place alongside the good stuff from Cheap Trick, Badfinger and 80s purveyors like The Outfield and The Cars. One instinctively moves to put the top down as “Free Energy” – as fine a band anthem as I’ve heard in a decade – pours out, prompting one to shout along, “We’re breaking out this time/ Making out with the wind/ And I’m so disconnected/ I’m never gonna check back in.” On the surface, Free Energy doesn’t seem especially deep but there’s real purpose in music this fun, a skipping reprieve from the endless misery of the news and all the crap humans needlessly heap on one another. This album, produced by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, is good times distilled into pheromone rich sweetness.

Futurebirds: Hampton’s Lullaby (Autumn Tone)

Capable of knee slappin’ back shed-i-ness and high skied, full bore hugeness, Futurebirds are a beautiful marriage of jangle and slap, real contemporary rock that’s absorbed much of the past 40 years and come up with something of their own. There’s banjo but not always twang, huge Radiohead-y guitars and moments of raw-whisper intimacy, and every cut sweeps one up with a sureness that’s a kick. It’s not always clear where we’re going but the ride is a blast and you’re likely to ask them to do it again after it comes to a halt. Futurebirds’ whole demeanor forces rock to be the open-minded, flexible creature it can be, while still giving casual listeners plenty to snag upon.

OFF!: First Four EPs (Vice)

These 16 tracks renew one’s faith in punk rock – in its power to angry up the blood over the right things, to pinpoint and prick at our sore spots as a society and in its potential to thrill in less time than it takes to make microwave popcorn. Almost no cut is over 1:30, some even less than a minute, and yet each is a perfect hurled gob hitting its targets square and true. Singer Keith Morris (Circle Jerks/Black Flag), guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Earthless, Rocket From The Crypt) and bassist Steven McDonald (Red Kross) generate a highly focused racket that immediately recalls where Morrison left off with Black Flag, except now he’s a better lyricist and singer and the whole band tears at the music like fast, hungry tigers – lethal, intense, utterly effective. [And look forward to a lengthy, wild chat with Keith Morris on the Impound soon!]

Sam Quinn: The Fake That Sunk A Thousand Ships (Ramseur)

The cover painting of a whale cresting above a grassy field with a rainbow fanning out behind it may be one of the most misleading handshakes ever offered. What’s inside this solo debut from the everybodyfields leader isn’t sunshine and unicorns but instead a complicated emotional miasma, the strange snarl of feelings we walk around with and struggle to untangle throughout our lives. The mood is early 70s Topanga Canyon country rock given a bunch of nifty twists. It goes down easy but digesting Quinn’s tales is easier said than done. His honesty, his willingness to be hurt and to long openly for things, is refreshing and encouragement to us to do the same. None of this is to say this album is a downer – far from it – and Quinn’s way with melody and verse is if anything strong than ever. His gifts are just way more exposed in this setting than with the everybodyfields, and that’s nothing but rewarding for listeners.