Friday, April 26, 2013

Album Review - The Futurebirds, Baba Yaga

Baba Yaga
The Futurebirds
Fat Possum Records
Released April 16, 2013

Making one excellent album is a daunting task for any band; pulling it off back-to-back takes rare skill. With each successive record, the task becomes exponentially more difficult, but you've got to get to second base before you can reach third. The Athens-based Futurebirds are early in the game, but two LP's in, so far, so very good. 

Baba Yaga, the follow-up to 2010's Hampton's Lullaby, sees the 'Bird's shift their distinct brand of galactic alt country to a more mature and contemplative space. The grind of heavy time on the Road leaves a positive and weary mark. The move is more evolution than revolution, but it's a big step forward that was almost three years in the making. (The band had extended trouble finding the right label for their sophomore effort, eventually landing with the Oxford, Mississippi based Fat Possum label.) Growing up isn't an easy thing for a Rock Band, but the process starts here.  

The beer-shower singalong choruses of Hamptons ("Yer Not Dead," "Sam Jones") are nearly absent, being exchanged for more nuanced instrumental crescendos. The tableau of Baba's is wide and thickly layered with sound, never noise. The production value is improved versus Hampton's. Dennis Love's soaring pedal steel flourishes weave themselves throughout and serve as the unifying thread in the band's sound. The other colors are more subdued. The six-string guitar work is more rhythmic than melodic, with few (unneeded) big ticket Rock solos. There is little space in the mix, but it never feels crowded. The lyrical themes have matured, with the listener finding less conquest and more contest. If Hampton's was an afternoon on the beach, Baba is a campfire on the sand under the stars. 

All hands are on the songwriting deck, with guitarist Carter King carrying the bulk of the water. King's irresistible album high-point, "Tan Lines," builds on its rollicking pedal steel hook with a sex and sand lyrical theme that exudes longing and compromise. In the next breath, King has the listener pondering the un-ponderable while channeling Tennessee Fire era Jim James in the stare-and-sway "Death Awaits." When the tempo drops, a contemplative cosmic feel pervades, always propelled by Love's steel, e.g., the spiraling dreamscape of guitarist Daniel Womack's "Felix Helix" and low plains haze of multi-instrumentalist Thomas Johnson's "American Cowboy." Now-departed drummer (and Dead scholar) Payton Bradford evokes Gram Parsons while stumping the listener with a barrage of unanswered questions in the hoist-your-beer instant classic, "Keith and Donna." The subtle sound experimentation built into the album-closing "St. Summertime" (think Z era My Morning Jacket with a dash of Sky Blue Sky Wilco) gives a tantalizing hint at what could come next.  

The album could stand to shed a few songs, but the excess material is neither superflous nor offensive. It's a compelling piece of work by a band staying faithful to its name. Stay tuned.   

[Editor's Note: While you should absolutely buy a copy of the record and support these artists, you can preview Baba Yaga courtesy of Paste magazine here.]

Friday, April 12, 2013

SOTW - April 12, 2013 - Crowes in Spring

At some point, the rising flood of a river must give way to dry land. And so it was in the early 1990's that the The Black Crowes saved Rock and Roll.

By 1990, Hair Metal had subverted and perverted the Rock of the grand Stones tradition. The genre shifts ("Tommy") and historical fusion experiments (Let It Bleed) of the Golden Era had given way to an arms race to reach the most perfectly vapid party chorus ("Don't mean nothin', but a good time, how can I resist?!") draped with obnoxious wammy bar guitar antics ("Kickstart My Heart"). The only similarity between Hair Metal and the Golden Era was what went on backstage. The Motley Crues of the Hair world misread what their forbears told them; it wasn't all about the Party. Hair Metal garishly threatened to erase all of the musical gains made in the preceding 25 years. (Disclaimer 1: At the time, I loved Hair Metal. How could any teenager of the time not attach to it? It was pop and it was cool. Still, it was terrible music.)

Then, in 1991, the world shifted slightly on its axis. Nevermind. Ten. Grunge put Hair Metal quickly out of its misery. This was a flood that swept all in front of it musically. But, there was a problem. Like its uncle Punk, for all of its style and attitude, Grunge eschewed musicianship; its purveyors flaunted their lack of musical ability as an anti-Establishment bona fide. At least Hair Metal preserved the core element of the larger-than-life Rock Star. In the Grunge Era, to be a Star was a reason to kill oneself. It was the outright rejection of the time-honored link between Music and fame. Was anybody having fun? (Disclaimer 2: At the time, I loved Grunge. How could any teenager of the time not attach to it? It was pop and it was cool. Still, it was more an attitude and a style than a musical exposition.)

In this transitional malestrom, a lone candle burned. Ignoring the storm outside, two brothers from Marietta, Georgia looked backwards and drew inspiration from the Masters. Like the Beatles and Stones before them, Chris and Rich Robinson and their Black Crowes hitched their wagon to a few R&B standards, threw some of their own brand of Rock in the back, and rode straight out of Atlanta, GA to Glory. Who needed black plastic cod pieces? Corduroy bell bottoms were more comfortable. As their world embraced studded leather and then flannel, they showed up in velvet and round shades and took the place over. They were an enigma, but they had the chops to make it stick. The world soon took note.

1990's Shake Your Money Maker staked a definitive piece of Classic Rock turf in what was still a Hair world. It was like Keith Richards had called his hippie nephews, sent them a box of old Blues albums, and told them to go and reclaim the family turf from those who were desecrating it. We all know "Hard to Handle" and "She Talks to Angels," but the blistering piano boogie of "Jealous Again" (thanks, Chuck Leavell) and coming-of-age Soul shot of "Seeing Things" showed that the Crowes believed history's lessons. To hear the album now is to marvel at its concept relative to the norms of the day. Three million people agreed. It was the first CD I ever owned, and I still remember the cardboard longbox sitting under the family Christmas tree in 1990 right next to my first Sony Discman.

By September of 1992, Grunge ruled the world, with the exception of the Crowes, that is. Rejecting the self-absorption and depression of Grunge, they doubled down on their good times brand of Rock and lit a post-hippie fire that gave the burgeoning "jam" scene pop credibility. From some genius corner of their smoke-fogged minds, they reached far back into history and borrowed the greatest album title your writer ever heard from the title of an old hymnal: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. They then attached to said title a masterful collection of Southern Fried Country Honk Brit Rock that fit the 1992 Georgia Coastal Plain like a custom glove. (Grunge never quite sounded right whilst camping at Reeves' Landing next to the Flint River; The Southern Harmony left our 17 year-old minds no doubt as to where its loyalties laid.) Bare feet became more common in my peer group and "dude" re-entered the vernacular after Southern Harmony landed at the old Music Mart on 16th Avenue.

Money Maker producer George Drakoulious and engineer Brendan O'Brien assembled the album with an unpolished two-channel sound that evokes the days when blues masters could not afford multiple takes and everything was recorded live-in-studio. The soaring B-3 river flow of "Thorn in My Pride" and the impossibly punchy roadhouse Gospel of "Remedy" are the albums finest songs, but your Song of the Week for April 12, 2013 is a deep track slide scorcher that serves as a late album peak before the mellow departure of Bob Marley's "Time Will Tell." The jet-powered opening riff and verse chorus of "My Morning Song" give way to a spacey bridge that slowly soars right back into the chorus's grabbing directive: "Kiss me baby, on Easter Sunday day. Make my haze blow away!"

. . . And so the grand tradition of Rock was preserved and the torch passed on to a new generation (enter everyone from the Kings of Leon to the Drive By Truckers). It remained cool to be Southern and chill and deferential to those that came before, while still reserving the right to kick open the door and declare the place yours.  

My Morning Song by The Black Crowes on Grooveshark

Saturday, April 6, 2013

SOTW - April 6, 2013 (A Mad World)

[Editor's note:  Sometime today, Early Evening will celebrate page view number 5,000. For those four or five of you who actually care enough about what I write to look at it 1,000 times, thanks! Seriously, I deeply appreciate all of you who've taken the time to read this blog. It's been a blast!]  

When this glorious spring weekend nears its end, when the referees' whistles are silent and the Sunday sun has set, the nation will turn its eyes to the television and the greatest show there is (and ever has been, in your writer's opinion). Set in the metro grit of 1960's New York, AMC's Mad Men is brilliant for not only the way it looks, but even more for what it says. This tale of high-powered advertising executives and those that are affected by their world of ego and ambition forces the viewer to confront both yin and yang: faithfulness and betrayal; empathy and indifference; brutal honesty and naked pretense; tolerance and prejudice; tireless devotion and flip laziness; courage and cowardice; genius and plagiarism. These recurring themes of the human experience are all found here in dense and often disturbing 60-minute doses. Anyone who refuses to consider them must reach for the remote. The revolutionary style of the show is always there, but it's more garnishment than entree. It should go without saying that I love Mad Men and think it's the kind of intelligent entertainment the world needs more of.

Since our theme this weekend is brilliance set in 1960's New York, let's turn to a real world example of just that. The Velvet Underground were nothing if not brilliant. Drawing their energy from the same trash-littered sidewalks that Don Draper & Co. traverse in the show, the Velvets shifted from the dark to the light as their career progressed and pop success became more of a goal (they never found it). The VU's Warhol-led ascendancy tracked the same late 1960's period that we expect to see in this season of Mad Men, so we can consider this a period study of sorts. Your  Song of the Week for April 6, 2013 is a VU masterpiece and one of the under-appreciated anthems of American music. It is easy to visualize Jack the banker, Jane the clerk, and the song's narrator standing on the same corner with Draper as he tugs on a Lucky Strike and stares off into space searching for some unanswerable. May your cup be filled this weekend.