A little over a year and a half ago Pleasure Horse, Minneapolis’ finest cosmic American country outfit, rustled our hearts with a self-titled EP full of big stories from the open plains. At the time, we posted that the disc’s arrangements were “so consistently inventive its impossible to pick a favorite moment on this album,” and we’ve recommended it to nearly every country fan we know. Along the way we also encouraged everyone who’d listen to catch ’em at a show because Pleasure Horse is one of the best live country acts in the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, those shows are few and far between.
Lost on the Mountain is half the length of that first disc, but doesn’t lose its depth. These five new songs by Tim Evanson frame short stories in catchy riffs and country nuggets. Where the last disc roamed the range from honky tonk to tejano, Mountain is more focused on the classic country-rock sound found in “Poco territory” to great success. Townes van Zandt himself would have been fortunate to be backed by a band which works together this well a little more often. There’s enough familiar sounds from that era, like Celeste Huele’s keys on loan from the brown Band album, to satisfy the outlaw country enthusiast, and enough new ideas — notably guitarist Ben Hahowald’s sharp solos and interplay with bassist Darin Dahlmeier — to expand the range of the cosmic American sound. Best of all, they’re playing a release show for the new disc this weekend so you can hear it all straight from the horse’s mouth.
Pleasure Horse will celebrate the release of their Lost on the Mountain EP with a late show this Saturday night at the Icehouse. Also performing will be Suzie and Fletcher Magellan. Details here.
For a band with an established base of devoted fans, there’s a fine line between maintaining your image and cultivating your sound. Nobody wants their new album to be the equivalent of the Clash’s Cut the Crap or, well, any record by the Wings. The natural desire to grow as an artist has to be balanced against the expectations of the audience.
This is all the more challenging if you released no less than four records the previous year. Enter the Blind Shake, whose quartet of new LPs in 2015 were each individually solid enough to sustain the trio’s reputation.
Full disclosure: one of those four albums, Shadow in the Cracks, was a side-project, and another, Modern Surf Classics, was a collaboration with underground guitar legend John Reis. Each of those is unmistakably in the Blind Shake oeuvre.
In 2016 the band often regarded as the best live act in the Twin Cities has offered a more modest program of one LP, out this week from Goner Records who released two of last year’s releases. Celebrate Your Worth is their most expansive and inventive album yet, and if any fans felt record collecting fatigue after last year’s onslaught, they won’t regret purchasing this one.
Opening in familiar territory with a song called “I Shot all the Birds,” the new album quickly follows the form of last year’s Fly Right by moving in multiple moody directions. Celebrate Your Worth, surprisingly, contains the most ‘pop radio’ song the band has ever recorded — maybe the Twin Cities’ Current will finally recognize this band after giving “Reasonable World” a listen.
“Reasonable World” is also notable for its vocal clarity, contrasted from the previous track on which Mike Blaha’s vocals are steeped deeply in reverb. This is also the first Blind Shake record to include the lyrics inside the jacket. Jim Blaha tells us this is because they were especially proud of this album, and they should be although we believe they have been consistently compelling since Breakfast of Failures a couple years ago. Not surprisingly, the band is still singing about (alternately) alienation and self-determination.
Celebrate Your Worth also delves into almost drone-y psych rock territory in “Alicante,” an epic for the Blind Shake in that it clocks in at around four and a half minutes. They even expand their sound with the unexpected but absolutely fitting appearance of an organ. This creates one of those moments where the production is so tastefully rich it recalls the massive-budget big name albums of the 70s. “Alicante” is one of those songs that simply sounds so good you feel like you could pick it up and hold it.
This isn’t to say the band doesn’t deliver on what they do best: “Corpse on the Roof” mines the manic and angular territory of their classic sound, and “Broken Racehorse,” which Goner Records debuted last week, feels like a marriage of new wave and post rock. In this same vein the second side provides one of the catchiest moments on the album in “Demox,” which sounds like the evil twin of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.”
We don’t doubt that these three could keep delivering the same old sound and record labels would compete to release the results. While we’re certain we’d still enjoy those records, what we think fuels the devotion of the Blind Shake’s fans is their willingness to experiment. Celebrate Your Worth is a risky album for a group who’s really striven to establish a national name, but the gambit is sure to pay off. It is one of the best records from the Twin Cities this year.
The Blind Shake’s release show for Celebrate Your Worth is this Saturday night at 7th Street Entry. Also performing are Fury Things and Tongue Party. Details on the First Avenue website here.
Country Hymn opens with a warm, old-time revival atmosphere. “Betty on the Road” sounds like a Gillian Welch and David Rawlings collaboration, but the disc takes a quick turn towards more familiar Gated Community territory with a raucous cover of “Odds and Ends,” a song from Dylan’s Basement Tapes. This band has always had a knack for sitting on that fence between traditional country music and novelty, which isn’t as easily done as one would think.
A little levity goes a long way in adding weight and depth to the more sentimental moments on the album, like “Fading Flowers,” a Tom Petty-ish tune about growing older with a little grace. Sumanth Gopinath lets himself be the subject of self-depreciation and sarcasm throughout (with lines like “I’m a piece of a work of art”), while the delivery is traded through the group in the same way classic country-rock outfits would share the role of lead vocals, ie Poco, the Byrds, the Band, etc. In tunes like “I Can’t Get Right” Gopinath remind us of the Carpetbaggers, one of the most criminally under-appreciated Americana acts to ever come out of Minnesota. There’s probably more of a scene to support this sort of music in the Cities today, and the Gated Community has already recorded as much as that great mid-90s trio.
You can hear the whole album on The Gated Community’s bandcamp page here. It’s more cohesive than their last disc (which we posted here), and there’s a definite improvement in the recording. Country Hymn was recorded and produced by Secret Stash’s John Miller, and the homey warmth of those 70s country-rock records reverberates through the disc, along with the more general clarity of those bigger production bluegrass records, the Welch/Rawlings sound we mentioned up above. Miller might be known for his work on Secret Stash’s retro-soul recordings, but he was a great choice for this project as well.
(Incidentally, we posted our favorite song by the Carpetbaggers (here) after finding there was so little of their music to be heard online, and later received a nice note from John Magnuson who wrote it. Having had a chance to see some of our favorite local acts from the 90s reunite a couple years ago for the Extreme Noise 20th anniversary celebration — including the Strike and Dirt Poor — we’d love to see the Carpetbaggers once more)
These days, there’s enough Americana acts in Minneapolis to fill the bill of every neighborhood bar for a three day weekend, so its actually become a competitive market. Heck, without even leaving our garden we can look over the fence to see the homes of two country acts who have played here in the record shop and recorded new songs over the past couple years. The challenge these days is to distinguish one’s self — which The Gated Community has done with their third disc.
The album release show for Country Hymn by the Gated Community is tonight at the Eagles Club #34. Maybe we’ll see you there, but we’re gonna also have to rush across the river to the Turf Club for Black Market Brass‘ show later this evening! We’re sure to post some songs from their new album soon, but we only just got our copy yesterday!
It is nearly impossible to separate the poems of Langston Hughes from jazz, if only for their clever use of syncopation and repetition. He is often described as a jazz poet, and evidence of this influence can be seen as early as “When Sue Wears Red,” poem he wrote as a teenager.
As a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, he in turn influenced many jazz musicians — when last we visited Hughes here on the Hymies blog, it was to hear Nina Simone sing the song he wrote for her, “Backlash Blues” as well as a 90s collaboration between Courtney Pine and Cassandra Wilson to interpret his poem “I’ve Known Rivers.” This second song was first recorded by Gary Bartz in 1973, but we still haven’t found a replacement for our warped copy!
Hughes himself made a jazz album in 1958 for MGM Records, which was later reissued (as pictured here) by Verve Records in 1966. On it, he reads a ‘Greatest Hits’ assortment of poems over two small jazz combos, one led by jazz writer and occasional composer Leonard Feather, who produced the project, and one led by Charles Mingus.
You have almost certainly on the back of an LP jacket if you own more than a handful of jazz records. He was, for many years, perhaps the most prolific writer of jazz liner notes in the world. In addition, his 1960 New Encyclopedia of Jazz is an absolutely indispensable compendium of history and criticism. He was a friend to Louis Armstrong, once employed as a press agent by Duke Ellington, and one of the earliest supporters of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker with his 1949 book Inside Be Bop. He recorded albums as a pianist sporadically in the 50s and again in the 70s, but remains best known as a writer.
Leonard Feather never wrote the notes to a Charles Mingus album (in fact, the Mingus eulogy from Eric Dolphy’s Last Datewe quoted just last week was replaced on reissues by notes from Feather). He often wrote about Mingus’ music, however, twice inviting him to his “Blindfold Tests” (featured in his Platterbrains radio broadcasts as well as printed in Metronome and Down Beat) in which an artist responds to several unidentified selections of jazz music.
Two years after their collaboration with Langston Hughes, Feather would be “recording director” for Mingus’ only Mercury album, Pre-Bird, which included a reworking of Weary Blues‘s “Weird Nightmare.” Still, Feather and Mingus are strange bedfellows, and it comes across in the difference between the arrangements they produced to accompany Hughes.
Weary Blues is of interest to collectors of Mingus’ extensive discography. Falling just before the watershed year (1959) in which he composed and recorded Blues & Roots, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, his apparently extemporaneous arrangements hint at what he had in the works. Several motifs from those three great albums can be recognized, even though he’s working with a substantially smaller group and under far more auspicious conditions — for contractural reasons, the quintet’s leadership was credited to pianist Horace Parlan, even though the work is undeniably Mingusonian.
Mingus is far more fit for the role of framing Hughes’ words than Feather, although the later is himself also a writer. Consider Mingus’ second appearance in Feather’s “Blindfold Test” in April 1960, in which he completely dismisses the first record, Manny Albam album, and would rather talk about the Civil Rights movement:
Take it off … Look, I don’t want to drag you or anybody. I don’t think maybe you should give me a Blindfold Test , because I’ve changed. I didn’t let it get started — maybe that’s not fair of me? But it disturbs my ulcer. I’d rather talk about something important — all the stuff that’s happening down south.
Feather’s form — intended to slyly suggest talent is often not judged on its own merit but under pre-conceived notions of race, gender or age — undoubtedly frustrated the iconoclastic Mingus.
Although he certainly had extensive connections in New York’s jazz scene (as evident in the group he created to perform his arrangements on Side A), Feather chose Mingus to arrange music for Weary Blues likely because of the bassist’s often confrontational attitude. When, in 1979, he wrote Mingus’ obituary for the L.A. Times, Feather described him as “a brilliant man of strong convictions, he was outspoken on racial and social matters and became a storm center in many confrontations during his peak years.”
The section here is titled “Dream Montage” and contains all or portions of fourteen of Hughes’ poems (depending on how you count his superfluous commentaries). The most notable of these is “Harlem,” the 1951 poem known for asking, “What happens to a dream deferred?” as it explores the American dream as experienced by African Americans. Its final line — “Or does it explode?” — almost ideally suited to Mingus’ musical and political leanings.
Another of the poems in this passage reads almost like it came from Mingus’ 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. In its entirety, “Final Curve” reads:
When you turn the corner
And You have run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left
Of course, Langston Hughes’ readers have been wondering what he might have meant here for decades. Is the “Final Curve” the conclusion of a personal journey along the lines of Mingus’ Me, Myself and Eye and other late compositions, or is the poem part of Hughes’ push for cultural nationalism. So much of his work was about how the African American journey to the American dream began at home, in taking pride and ownership of a heritage even when others do not. Or, as Mingus wrote in Beneath the Underdog:
So he must use what time he has creating now for the future and utilize the past only to help the future, not as a razor strop for guilts and fears that inhibit his very being. Or like it said at the end of a labor song I liked a lot when I was a kid: what I mean is, take it easy, but take it.
There are a lot of interesting compilations of rare 78s, 45s and LPs these days, and for music omnivores like ourselves they’re a lot of fun. On our shelves at home we have sets of obscure music in many genres, from cumbia to cosmic country, and while compilation albums like these are often hit-or-miss affairs, there’s always something to enjoy. Sometimes the best feature is the liner notes, and that’s the case with our favorite collection from this past year.
Native North America is a three album set by Light in the Attic, packaged with a sixty-six page book. It collects music recorded between the mid-60s and the mid-80s by Indigenous artists throughout Canada, most of which is in the sort of country and folk vein you might expect (although there are some solid rockers) and most of which come from albums and singles you’re unlikely to ever run across.
Some of the songs are about the social and political struggles faced by Native people, and others are simply about the setting where they lived — our favorite, for instance, is a simple love song set on the shore of James Bay.
The book inside Native North America has an extended biography for each of the artists and a reproduction of the original art, but we think one of the most impressive pages is this map, which shows the locations where the artists live, performed and recorded. Its a reminder that people have been making music — and putting their music on records — in just about every corner of the world.
We’ve already posted that we’re excited for the next release in our catalog, a 45 with two new songs by Tree Party, but tonight’s show at the Cedar Cultural Center will also celebrate the release of even more new music. The Brass Messengers, have treated us to a long-overdue new album.
We listened to it last night while we were working on assembling the Tree Party singles, and one of them had just the right assessment of the Messengers’ new album: “This is such happy music!” The eleven new songs (plus a “Dancehall Remix”!) are filled with such joyous energy Thigmonasty has already become our cure for the rainy day blues…and there have been a few of those kinda days around here lately.
The first half of the disc is recorded live in Creation Studios with an enthusiastic audience, which is essential to the celebratory nature of the Messengers’ music. The group evolved out of the brass bands that played the Heart of the Beast‘s May Day parade, which is one of the biggest celebrations in the Twin Cities. Their two earlier discs present their interest in brass music from around the world, including Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America, and Thigmonasty has really successfully blended this with the dozen members’ other experiences in different bands around town.
While they often play covers ranging from cajun classics to Black Sabbath, Thigmonasty is entirely originals by the duodecet.* Trombonist J.B. McLain, who also performs around town as a solo guitarist, contributes several original songs which have more of a street band, New Orleans feeling. These are definitely the sort of songs which gets you moving, and which have that energy which vibrates within you when you see a performance by the Messengers. Tony Randazzo, the band’s tubist and also the album producer, offers songs with more of the Eastern European feel, highlighted by inventive, suspensful arrangements (especially the brief tune “Leo Nursha”). Another song in this vein is a re-recording of the title song from Paul Fonfara’s 7 Secrets of Snow, which we featured here. One last tune is by composer Andy McCormick (of Dreamland Face), and pays tribute to the ruler of Wisconsin’s mythical colony of dwarves. Or so we assume.
The second half, recorded without an audience features some of these more intricate arrangements, but there is still a lot of energy behind them, especially in Randazzo’s “Leo Nursha.” And as we mentioned, there’s a remix at the end of the album. It’s a surprisingly sweet conclusion, and works very well.
We think this is one of the best local albums of the year so far, but the best way to appreciate the Brass Messengers is surrounded by other celebrants smiling and dancing. We’re looking forward to doing just that tonight.
*Had to look that one up!
The Brass Messengers and Tree Party have a joint release show for their new music at the Cedar Cultural Center tonight. Details on the Cedar’s website here.
Tonight, Piñata Records presents the vinyl reissue of Dealer by Red Daughters, a band whose first album received a review which used the words “ballsy” and “countrified” not only in the same sentence but in succesion (that’s some ballsy writing!), and also a band commonly called “down home” and compared to The Band. (You can find details about the show at the Uptown VFW below or here on Facebook)
With empathy to a writer’s impulse to offer a more or less universal touchpoint, we don’t think being a little seventies steeped really defines the Daughters, even though we’d love to hear their take on a chestnut like “When You Awake.” There’s a level on which its easy to understand how something undeniably very contemporary could be so quickly described as derived from a group whose debut is now almost exactly forty-two years old, but on a second level its frustrating because, again, forty-two years old. We’ll venture not a member of the Red Daughters was even a twinkle in an eye when Music From Big Pink became a sleeper success in 1968, and that all five of them have listened to something else since the fall of ’98, which was the last time the Band released a new album.
Like any band in the Piñata Records catalog, there’s retro in Red Daughters, but also an original approach to the sound of an era. Here, Southside Desire’s “littered alleyways of south Minneapolis” are replaced by the ramblers and water towers of Coon Rapids, and we think the gaze backwards is a good deal less distant. Dealer is the 90s alt-country album you’ve been looking for. The lyrics are better than the best Old 97s songs, the arrangements are miles more inventive than anything the Bottle Rockets recorded, and unlike every Wilco album there’s not a moment that’s so wrenchingly awful you have to move the needle.
The sound of that era’s indie country is ripe for reinvention. It, too, has roots in the early 70s but also the reverberating post-punk explorations of the Mekons, the Meat Puppets, American Music Club, or a dozen other bands. Few of those bands held fast to the 70s emphasis on vocal harmony (sang Ryan Adams on some Whiskeytown record, “So I started this country band, because punk rock was too hard to sing”) and here’s where Red Daughters offer something entirely new. Where Brewer & Shipley or Bad Company harmonized like hell, arrangements so rich were left at a rest stop somewhere along country-rock’s journey to be discovered by the Daugthers. We can’t think of another recent record along these lines which uses ensemble vocal for such stunning pop hooks (“Big Love”) or dramatic effect (“Protest” or “War Nam Nikhada”).
And the keys which cause those comparisons to the Band (in our estimation) are so tactfully employed. There’s no “Chest Fever” moment on Dealer, though no doubt Hix is up to the task. The same for the guitarists, Charles Murlowski and Ryan Zickermann. Red Daughters’ jam band sound doesn’t translate to extended introspection. Instead there’s some Old 97s-ish riffs, like the opening of “In Love Without You” and some inventive lead/rhythm counterpoints throughout. The brilliant solo on “Black Ice” is a bright spot, re-appropriating the sound Nils Cline brought to Wilco. “Protest,” meanwhile, recalls the epic rural gloom of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club without extending to ceremonial drama. Remarkably, while nearly all eleven tunes sound like they could be extended to “Dark Star” territory, they are strikingly concise, adding to the album’s captivating appeal. There’s no doubt this distillation of the Daughters’ distinct sound is in part owed to the unique approach of producer and engineer Jacques Wait, who reliably gets the best out of bands which need that sort of focus.
You can, incidentally, hear the entire album and order copies if you’re out of town, on Red Daughters’ Bandcamp page here.
We’ve always written that it doesn’t matter the format music is released, but rather what is heard after you drop the needle, press play or command the palace minstrels to perform (this last is less common than the others). Still, there is something very special about the long-playing record. We’ve held the word “album” over from the time 78s were collected in bound albums the same way we once kept our photographs, and the good ones still tell a story or paint a picture. Dealer is one damn great album, due a release on vinyl and overdue praise. This is why people collect records.
Red Daughters have a show tonight to celebrate the re-release of their album Dealer on vinyl tonight at the James Ballentine “Uptown” VFW tonight. Opening is Black Market Brass, who are themselves one of the most must-see bands in the Twin Cities. Details for the show can be found on Facebook here.