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In December we caught up with Gruff Rhys, during his last pass through LA, in support of 2014’s American Interior - the Welshman’s fourth solo release, beginning with 2005’s Yr Atal Genhedlaeth. Recorded at Red Rockets Glare in Rancho Park, an unaccompanied Rhys laid down several tracks culled from his latest full-length. The session debuts Friday on the SIRIUS show – AD reader taste, below.

Gruff Rhys :: Lolo (Aquarium Drunkard Session)
Gruff Rhys :: Liberty Is Where We’ll Be –> 100 Unread Messages (Aquarium Drunkard Session)

Gruff Rhys all instruments and vocals. Engineered by Mike Post. Produced by Raymond Richards at Red Rockets Glare, Los Angeles.

mark-eitzel

The inarguable, intangible greatness of Mark Eitzel is a slippery thing to articulate. To begin with, it appears by all available metrics not to be a well-known fact that Mark Eitzel is one of our best living songwriters. But Eitzel is indeed one of the greats – a crucial link in the chain between Cole Porter, Merle Haggard, and King/Goffin. As a lyricist there is no one more clever, devastating or capable of rendering a character sketch in a few choice words. Both as leader of the great American Music Club and as a solo artist, Eitzel has created transcendent music, ingratiating and experimental in equal proportions. In terms of underappreciated artists in our culture, there are few greater oversights.

This is on the one hand a strange thing, given the longstanding consistency of his brilliant work, and on the other not so odd owing to the particular brand of his anti-charisma. With his simultaneous obsession and revulsion towards show business, Eitzel in some ways resembles wrong-footing comedians like Steve Allen and Marc Maron more so than fellow musicians. He is not, strictly speaking, eager to please. If he claps along in a live setting to one of his best known songs, he will instruct the audience to please not follow suit: “you’ll only screw it up”. Eitzel’s live persona uses as its jumping off point the bitter resentment and ambivalence implicit in Dean Martin’s drunken gadabout persona, and follows those cues to their logical conclusion. Which is to say: he’s unlikely to be headlining Coachella anytime in the near future.

Nevertheless, Eitzel’s deeply moving work has periodically felt the tentative embrace of the mainstream. As far back as 1992 he was Rolling Stone’s “Songwriter Of The Year”, but something about that sort of approbation never seemed to stick; Eitzel has often made the bad career move of being interesting and unpredictable. His music alternately evokes Ellington and Erasure, Richard Thompson and The Rich Kids. The very name “American Music Club” simultaneously eludes to the abject, generic horrors of our strip mall times, while also delivering on its inherently more positive connotation. No contemporaneous band this side of NRBQ would prove so adept at weaving together country, blues, folk, rock and jazz into an ingenious and utterly idiosyncratic alchemy.

By the time American Music Club delivered its first inarguable masterpiece Everclear in 1991, the band had released three other records replete with passion, poetry and intermittent genius. Each of these records – Engine, California and United Kingdom – are fascinating documents of nascent genius, and well worth owning. But Everclear is a different animal altogether. Recorded during the peak of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, it is a perfectly pitched nightmare tour of human misery, refracted through, and redeemed by, Eitzel’s remarkable capacity for rendering human tragedy with a wry, journalistic remove. Tracks like “Rise” and “Sick Of Food” are almost-too-painful exhortations to overcome the illness and fear that had hemorrhaged his adopted hometown. “Why Won’t You Stay” and “Jesus’ Hands” are still sadder acknowledgments of the inevitable casualties of an ongoing crisis. It is that unique capacity for crushing empathy that makes Eitzel’s funny, angry, scabrous work so essential. Every bit as much as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and Randy Shilts’ And The Band Played On, Everclear is a crucial document of an American catastrophe written from a bird’s eye view.

We spoke to to Eitzel about his reflections on Everclear, the first in an ongoing series that will highlight a number of albums from his career.

Aquarium Drunkard: After a few AMC albums, which were received at various levels of acclaim, Everclear felt different; purposefully posed as a kind of statement record and a brilliant one. Did you feel that way about it while it was happening?

Mark Eitzel: We wanted to make a record that might sound good on the radio. All of our previous records had sounded pretty small in radio terms. Our pedal steel player Bruce Kaphan was a staff engineer at a large recording studio in East Palo Alto called The Music Annex and the idea was for him to help Tom Mallon make it sound bigger – bigger gear, whatever. So we started it with that idea. Bruce was probably the biggest factor in making the album what it was. It was about a year in the making and involved much drama. Frontier Records had a deal that a larger record company that increased the recording budget that fell through just as we were beginning to make the record. Lisa Fancher from Frontier Records was wonderful and very committed – and after the money fell through allowed us to find another label – which is how Everclear ended up on Alias Records. Frontier, however, helped make my career happen. She put out a lot of great music. I’m eternally grateful.

Aquarium Drunkard:  There feels like a great sonic and emotional leap was achieved – a kind of total confidence and presence in the material. Did that seem apparent at the time?

Mark Eitzel: Well, we’d done a lot of touring for United Kingdom [the album that preceded Everclear] so we were a lot more confident on stage and maybe in general. For the first time we were successful outside of San Francisco, which was huge. And bringing in Bruce to help Tom make the record was a very big change, because he knows to make big sounding records. I can’t overemphasize the role that Bruce played, both musically and with respect to the arrangements – he was both hands-on and hands-off in the best possible ways. And then we brought in Joe Chicharelli to mix it, and Joe added so much sonic drama.

Aquarium Drunkard:  Part of what is so crushingly moving about Everclear is the depiction of a distraught community in the Bay Area, devastated by the AIDS catastrophe. And yet for all of its rich dark humor and pathos, this is plainly a life-affirming album. In the face of wicked death, you’re cajoling a community to rise.

Mark Eitzel: When you connect with people in a dark place enough to change the frame or change the picture, maybe you can help them get over it. But you have to understand where they’re coming from and what they’re going through. You try to write songs without being too sentimental about it. You try to tell a story and hope there is something interesting about it. Writing dark songs is an odd thing to do. Maybe that should be reserved only for people who are healthy. But then if they were healthy, how would they know? Anyway, we were a great band, which meant everything.

Aquarium Drunkard: In the best tradition of the Faces or the Kinks, American Music Club had a reputation as being a hit and miss proposition. Fans talk about it like the best and worst shows they’ve ever seen. Sometimes it’s the same show.

Mark Eitzel: American Music Club as unit was always pretty damned dysfunctional. It depended on the night. There was never a night when we all thought “This is a great night!”. There was no night where someone didn’t say that the show sucked. Sometimes it occurred onstage, where there was a lot of indifference and anger being displayed in front of an audience. But even still, on many a night American Music Club was a great, great band. People we worked with, tour managers and folks, said we were very scary because we never spoke. It was not a fun-loving group of individuals.

Aquarium Drunkard: Everclear is a record with such geographic specificity that the Bay Area becomes like a character in itself. Do you think geography is important to the process of songwriting, or can you write the same record in any setting?

Mark Eitzel: I think it matters. 50% of writing a record is your own bullshit you bring to it. The other 50% is where you are. When I first moved to San Francisco, I was a punk rocker from Columbus, Ohio. I was used to a certain kind of punk rock scene. In Columbus it was very open and very friendly and I was really shocked by San Francisco. It was completely different – very dark and cruel and exclusive. It drove me away from making punk music. Years later we would go to the Mission Rock bar It was a biker bar, it was on the ocean, and they tolerated the young people. At that time it was kind of a crappy industrial area. We used to ride bikes everywhere. It was an important place for me and my friends. We used to hang out and drop acid on the bay. Romantic young people getting high. Anyway, the city is absolutely beautiful, and maybe beauty leads to expectations that aren’t really there.

aquariumdrunkard

Our weekly two hour show on SIRIUS/XMU, channel 35, can be heard twice, every Friday – Noon EST with an encore broadcast at Midnight EST.

Zach Cowie (Turquoise Wisdom) guests today during the second hour on the show — find the companion mixtape, here: Turquoise Wisdom: Floating / A Mixtape

SIRIUS 376: Jean Michel Bernard – Générique Stephane ++ Apple & The Three Oranges – Curse Upon The World ++ Michael Kiwanuka – Tell Me A Tale ++ The Don Ezekiel Combination – Ire ++ Chubby Checker – Goodbye Victoria ++ Chuck Jackson – I Like Everything About You ++ The Soul Lifters – Hot Funky & Sweaty ++ Max Roach With The J.C. White Singers – Motherless Child ++ Bessie Jones – So Glad I’m Here ++ The Staples Singers – This May Be The Last Time ++ The Rolling Stones – I Just Want To See His Face ++ Mississippi Fred McDowell – I Wish I Was In Heaven Sitting Down ++ The Mighty Hannibal – Hymn No. 5 ++ Lee Moses – California Dreaming ++ Muddy Waters – She’s Alright ++ Dutch Rhythm And Steel Show Band: Down By The River ++ The Last Poets – Time ++ Darondo – Let My People Go ++ Michael Stearns – M’ocean – M’ocean ++ Steve Tibbetts – The Secret ++ Robert Wyatt – Gharbzadegi ++ Alice Coltrane – Rama Rama ++ Emmanuelle Parrenin – Maison Rose ++ Mal Waldron – All Alone ++ Mick Audsley – Dark And Devil Waters ++ Pieter Nooten & Michael Brook – After The Call ++ Pauline Anna Strom – Gossamer Silk ++ Shopping Trolley – Roundabout ++ Charlotte Gainsbourg – Le Chat Du Cafe Des Artistes ++ White Hinterland – Dreaming of Plum Trees ++ Vanessa Parads – Paradis

*You can listen, for free, online with the SIRIUS three day trial — just submit an email address and they will send you a password.
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numbersband

It doesn’t really make sense that a group of weirdo-proto-New Wavers, experimenting in blues and rock, from the scene that culminated in Devo, would open for Bob Marley. But they did.

15-60-75 (The Numbers Band) were never poised to break out from the “Akron Sound,” but there they were, the near-town heroes opening one of the most anticipated concerts in Cleveland during the summer of 1975. The recorded document of that evening, their debut, Jimmy Bell’s Still In Town, is part Talking Heads, part Chicago blues, and a mess of machismo. “It’s about how you move me / And how I’d like to make you feel.” words / b kramer

The Numbers Band :: Animal Speaks

lux-interior-poison-ivy-records

Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.

Lux Interior died six years ago today, so it’s only fitting that the year’s first installment of Diversions finds us catching up with Bloodshot Records’ owners, Rob Miller and Nan Washaw. The Chicago label celebrated its 20th anniversary last year with the release of While No One Was Looking: Toasting 20 Years of Bloodshot Records – a 38 track compilation comprised of artists paying tribute to the label’s two decade history.

Below, Miller and Warshaw run through their own history with music, and in turn cite the artists that helped form what would eventually define the label’s ongoing aesthetic – an unflinching amalgamation of country music and punk. Not surprisingly, the Cramps played a large role. RIP Lux.
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The Cramps – Human Fly: Poison Ivy Rorschach’s solo is a paragon of minimalism—an anti-solo that’d make a shredder fume, so simple I could have played it—but I didn’t. Besides, she could say more with her icy sneer and the snap of her gum; she was simultaneously the coolest AND hottest woman I had ever seen on stage—before or since. And, next to her, like a warm, breathy voice growling in your ear from behind in a dark room—alluring and forbidding, one half Elvis and one half Vincent Price, one half hillbilly and one half punk, Lux Interior, the showman, shaman, and rock and roll archeologist, led me willingly straight to the underbelly. Hearing “Human Fly” was an awakening, an unburying, a baptism in the waters of music’s continuum. Thanks to that pulsing, distorted, fuzzed-out song, the aural equivalent of a rusted mausoleum door opening, I have taken the road more weird and less popular, and that has made all the difference.

Mekons – Lost Highway: The Mekons’ dismantling of the Hank Williams classic from Fear and Whiskey proved that lack of musical proficiency should never be a hindrance, that the “authenticity” debate is as boring as it is stifling—usually carried out by frightened, narrow-minded people craving the status quo, that revolution can sound like a ramshackle mess and that there are a lot of highways to get lost on. They taught me to respect your forbears, but don’t revere them, that reverence is a form of murder, it puts music in a jar on shelf in a museum, it suspends it in amber. Monuments are meant to be torn down. After all, as Twain said, sacred cows make the best hamburger.

Oh, and you can still hold strong opinions without losing you sense of humor. Yes, Bono, you can.

Crass – Big A Little A: If only for the genius line “If you don’t like the rules they make, refuse to play their game.” A call to action that has to some degree or another, consciously or not, informed every aspect of Bloodshot’s business model. When shitheads in high school were beating me up for being different, it helped give me the strength to not try and fit in and end up a shithead too, to stay different and fuck ‘em if didn’t like it. Without that sentiment, I don’t think I ever would have had the wherewithal to start a label without knowing a fucking thing about the racket.

Flatt & Scruggs – Randy Lynn Rag: Like so many, I was in a dumb punk band in high school. Like so many, I swiped records from my friend’s mom’s record collection stashed under the hi-fi. Ha ha ha, I’ll take this one, The Golden Hits of Flatt & Scruggs. All white suits and cowboy hats, dumb bumpkin grins and red string ties. Who hadn’t done their best hee-haw overbite and sung along to the Beverly Hillbillies theme? Then I played this song. The dexterity, the musicianship, the SPEED hit me right between the ears. These dudes were playing music at a level of talent and sophistication I couldn’t even comprehend AND could do it faster than our crap band ever could or would and not break a sweat. I was immediately shamed. And hooked.

knightKenny Knight’s Crossroads is an understated Colorado country rock gem, unknown and unloved since its release 35 years ago. It’s bound to get the audience it deserves this May, however, thanks to a reissue from the Paradise of Bachelors label. Blending the dusty acoustic rambles of the Dead circa 1970, the world weary ache of White Light-era Gene Clarke and Knight’s own brand of faded Americana, the ten tracks here offer up a shot of pure, private press pleasure.

While the pedal steel and warm backing vocals are as lovely as a Rocky Mountain sunrise, there’s an intensity and melancholy seared into every moment here — check out the quietly unraveling sadness of “Jean” or the devastating spoken intro of “To Be Free.” Crossroad‘s closer, “America” chugs along hopefully, with Knight singing to his country: “Don’t lock me out / Don’t push me about / Open up your doors for me.” After all these years, maybe those doors are creaking open just a bit. words / t wilcox

micah

For 15 years, Indiana folklorist and songwriter Joseph O’Connell has recorded records under the name Elephant Micah. His latest, and first for Western Vinyl, is called Where In Our Woods, and it’s a gorgeous, sparse record. Built on a foundation of O’Connell’s weary, slyly funny words and nylon-string acoustic guitar, there’s subtle ornamentation, too: tom drums, pump organ, an occasional harmony — O’Connell’s friend Will “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” Oldham chimes in on the LP – and the record could be filed alongside those of O’Connell’s vocal admirers, the late Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia, and M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger.

But O’Connell’s perspective is his own, singing about themes that reoccur in his vast discography. Throughout Where In Our Woods, the songwriter addresses the concerns that fascinate him: meth-fueled trailer fires, the death of a rare albino deer, filtered through his attraction to “redneck mysticism.” O’Connell tells his stories through the eyes of Middle America characters, best exemplified by his exploration of the late Wendell Hansen, known as the “Bible Birds Man,” who trained exotic birds to do “Christian-themed stunts” as a roadside attraction in Indiana.

“A lot of people have asked me about him, and as I’ve tried to answer their questions, I’ve realized that to me, more than a real character, he’s a legend of a real character,” O’Connell says. “My whole point of entry to thinking about him is really the things that I heard about him from other people, the stories that surrounded him and the kind of fascination that people had with him. The fact that he represented Indiana to other people kind of captured my attention. It led me to ask, ‘Is this what people think Indiana is?’ [Laughs] He’s kind of a larger than life character that people see a lot of absurdity in… [people] thought of him as something of a freak.”

But O’Connell sees more in Hansen than freakishness – explored in part on Where In Our Woods, and even more fully on a previous record, 2010’s Elephant Micah Plays the Songs of the Bible Birds. “Well I’m not sure, if the Bible Birds will ever get back together,” O’Connell sings on “The Demise of the Bible Birds,” from the new album, with Oldham providing haunting harmonies. “Some say it’s ruffled their feathers/to have flown so far/away from their homes.” The songs aren’t historical documents, he explains, but instead “flights of imagination,” providing illustrative context for O’Connell to examine the connections “between the secular and the sacred, between man and animal.”

He further explores that connection on “Slow Time Vultures,” a song that addresses the migration of vultures – birds that O’Connell didn’t realize migrated – and the end of “slow time” in Indiana, when the state adopted daylight saving time in 2006.

“I think I thought it was fun to try to inhabit the vultures as characters,” O’Connell says. “I think that’s kind of what the Bible Bird Man did with his trained birds, too. He kind of personified them. He gave them this kind of fable-like voice, and I think that’s what I’ve wound up doing with a lot of these ‘bird songs,’ where these birds have a human point of view. The change in the time policy meant the end of slow time, because [Indiana] wouldn’t be out of sync, and I thought I’d have the vultures speak to that.”

The vultures end up speaking like a lot of the characters O’Connell sings about as Elephant Micah, taking on the aspects of someone “who is willfully behind the time.”

“In some ways I thought that fit with the character of a vulture, because their place on the food chain is kind of passive,” O’Connell laughs. But even as “slow time” has vanished, it lingers in the songs of Elephant Micah, which move deliberately, unfolding at their own pace. Where In Our Woods does the same, revealing more as time passes quietly by. words / j woodbury

Elephant Micah :: Albino Animals

wisdom

Our ongoing collaboration with Zach Cowie, aka Turquoise Wisdom, returns in 2015 with a myriad of sounds ranging from Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt to the divinity that is Alice Coltrane’s Rama Rama. Tune in and turn on Friday as Cowie guests on our SIRIUS show – channel 35 (XMU), noon EST.

Turquoise Wisdom: Floating / A Mixtape

Playlist / credits after the jump. . .

Pops-Staples-Dont-Lose-ThisIn 2014, Mavis Staples tasked Jeff Tweedy with a heavy responsibility. She asked the Wilco songwriter, who’s helmed the production console on her last two solo LPs, to take tracks from an unfinished 16-year-old session recorded by her father, gospel patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples and his daughters, and use them to craft a completed album. Don’t Lose This, named for Pops’ command to Mavis regarding the incomplete recordings before his death in 2000, is a modest but stalwart piece of work.

Tweedy resists any urge to tinker, instead presenting the barest elements of Pops’ sound, his tremolo-shaking electric guitar and worn voice, with as little obstruction as possible. In addition to original tracks by bassist Tony Grady and drummer Tim Austin, Tweedy adds spare guitar and bass, and his son Spencer contributes economic drums, but mostly Pops and his daughters, Yvonne, Mavis, and the late Cleotha, who passed in 2013, handle the work. It’s a wise move; it’s hard to imagine what one could add to these songs that isn’t already there in Pops’ holy murmurs and the Singers’ sanctified choruses.

Pops’ guitar always muddied the waters between the blues and gospel, and on Don’t Lose This it sounds incredible, from the introduction of “Somebody Was Watching” to the stinging live version of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” that closes the record. Mavis takes the lead vocal on “Love On My Side,” a standout selection, and the group revisits the Carter Family’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” adding to the number of times the group included the standard on one of its recordings. Their reading this time is both somber and celebratory, with the sisters’ voices swelling around the insistent thump and roll of the rhythm section and Pops’ snaking electric guitar. Even at its sparsest, the record’s simple elements exhibit a tonal lushness. All on his own, Pops imbues “Nobody’s Fault But My Own’”with a kind of mournful grace. “You do wrong your soul be lost,” he sings. Luckily for the listener, these recordings weren’t lost, and the love and care exhibited by Mavis Staples and Tweedy is a testament to just how “found” they were. words / j woodbury

Pops Staples :: Somebody Was Watching