Eli’s Favorite Records of 2013

Southeastern cover

2013 was a pretty crazy year for me. Personally, professionally, and music listening habit-wise, it was all over the map. At different points during the year, I obsessed over the back catalogs of The Clash, Emmylou Harris (again), Tom Waits, Kevin Gordon, Superchunk (again), Kanye West (weirdly), Paul Westerberg solo records (again), and finally The Bottle Rockets.

The last of these may have been my favorite discovery of the year. Bloodshot Records gloriously curated this year’s re-release of the Bottle Rockets first two albums, the self-titled debut and the major label follow-up the Brooklyn Side. Both records are phenomenal and re-introduced me to a band that I had somehow neglected to appreciate during my archivist like obsession over 90’s era No Depression acts during my college years (this unhealthy addiction occurred in the mid-2000s and may explain why I was the least hipster college radio DJ of all time).

There was also a shit ton (which I believe is a metric unit of measure) of new music released this year. Jason Isbell was easy to put at the top of my list, but there were a bunch of records that I have a an inordinate fondness towards sprinkled throughout. I doubt many people have the Shouting Matches record so high, at least not unless they’re Justin Vernon obsessives. Ashley Monroe has also been a consistent favorite this year and I would highly recommended Like a Rose to any classic country fan. Caitlin Rose’s The Stand-In is probably the most orchestrated and produced record on the list, but feels as comfortable and lived in as any of the acoustic-based records that precede it.

There were also excellent tribute records put out, but I generally don’t include those in my traditional favorites list so I’m calling them out here.  The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver was released by ATO records and High Cotton: Tribute to Alabama was released by Lightening Rod Records. John Fogerty also put out Wrote A Song for Everyone, which features an All-Star line-up of acolytes doing (mostly) re-arranged Creedance songs.

So, without further stalling, here are my favorite records of 2013:

1.Jason Isbell- Southeastern

Instant classic. His first record that can sit comfortably next to Decoration Day and The Dirty South.

2.Holly Williams- The Highway

Early in 2013, my brother played me “Drinkin” and “Waiting On June” back to back .The Highway hasn’t left my car stereo since.

3.Patty Griffin- American Kid

Stupid good.

4.Valerie June- Pushin Against the Stone

Yea, I listen to NPR.

5.Guy Clark- My Favorite Picture of You

Guy Clark is better than your favorite songwriter. Picks: “My Favorite Picture of You“, “Hell Bent on a Heartache”

6.John Moreland- In the Throes

Soulful, poignant, and honest, fans of Lucero, Two Cow Garage, and Joe Pug would be wise to pick this one up.

7.Ashley Monroe- Like A Rose

The best set of straight up country songs I heard last year. Picks: “Weed Instead of Roses”, “Like A Rose”, “Two Weeks Late”, and “You Ain’t Dolly (You Ain’t Porter)”

8.The Shouting Matches- Grownass Man

I like atmospheric folk, but I like blues rock more.

9.Superchunk- I Hate Music

I love music. I love Superchunk. I love it when Superchunk makes new music.

10.Caitlin Rose- The Stand In

This record deserves better than the 10 spot. Greats songs and better production, The Stand-In felt like a huge step forward for Rose. Picks: “No One To Call”, “Waitin”, “Dallas”, and “When I’m Gone”

11.Frank Turner- Tape Deck Heart

For my complete thoughts on this one, see the link below. It’s a mixed bag, but a bag worth obsessing over.

Ducktape Saves Live- Frank Turner’s Recovery

12.Aofie O’Donovan- Fossils

Check out this video

13.Butch Walker- Peachtree Battle EP

14.Josh Ritter- The Beast In the Tracks

15.Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell- Old Yellow Moon

16.Amanda Shires- Down Fell The Doves

17.Kasey Musgraves- Same Trailer, Different Park

18.Two Cow Garage- The Death of the Self Preservation Society

19.Charles Bradley- Victim of Love

20.Motel Mirrors- Motel Mirrors

Amy LaVere and John Paul Keith combine for an album of duets. The whimsical nature of the projects comes across as pure energy on record. Highly recommended.

21.Leeroy Stagger- Truth Be Sold

22.Mount Moriah- Miracle Temple

23.Jen Buxton- Desperation Demos [EP]

Worship at the altar of Jen Buxton or face the consequences (which I’m pretty sure consists of a life of sobriety, whilst simultaneously losing your library card privileges).

24.Lucero- Texas and Tennessee [EP]

Title track was great. I’m contractually obligated to refrain from commenting on the other three songs (not their best).

25.Sarah Jarosz- Build Me Up From Bones

26.Shannon McNally- Small Town Talk, The Songs of Bobby Charles

27.Slaid Cleaves- Still Fighting the War

28.Sarah Borges- Radio Sweetheart

29.Wayne Hancock- Ride

30.Deadstring Brothers- Old Cannery Row

Todd Mathis- Don’t Tread On Me….The Whiskey Tango Revue Sessions

“sing a song for six-pence, wonder what that’d buy/ it probably wouldn’t get you far, since the market took a dive/ mmm, mmm”
squirrel

As we head into this labor day weekend of cook-outs, fantasy football drafts, and the far more important beginning of college football season (Go Cocks!), we here at Twangville wanted to highlight an EP built for the dwindling days of summer. Patriotically (?) entitled Don’t Tread On Me….The Whiskey Tango Revue Sessions, the EP of note was recorded by Twangville’s own Todd Mathis with, as the name suggests, South Carolina regional favorites Whiskey Tango Revue.

Some of you may know Mr. Mathis from his main gig, fronting alt. rock-country favorites American Gun, but he’s also paid his dues as rhythm guitarist for the briefly-major-label signed, brit-rock-mid-aughts band Boxing Day. Todd has also lent his name to a number of diverse side projects ranging from his protest EP War Songs to a folk-gospel duo record with fellow South Carolina songwriter Zach Seibert. Given his Neil Young like zig and zagging of a discography, it’s not altogether surprising that Don’t Tread On Me sounds both instantly familiar and quite a bit different. If I were to stretch the Young analogy even further, I would say that Don’t Tread On Me finds Todd in Harvest-mode, as it is his most straight forward country sounding record to date. But don’t be fooled, Todd ain’t exactly trading in the electric guitars for nudie suits and pedal steel guitars.

After the playful yet traditional-folk sounding opener “20 lbs Hammer”, we get treated to “Elvis Presley Hits” with its roadhouse piano and Rhodes Bailey guitar licks. Lyrically the song finds the middle ground between Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues” and Mike Cooley’s “Carl Perkin’s Cadillac.” The song reveals Todd’s deep appreciation of folk-rock’s master storyteller extraordinaire Todd Snider. Appropriately the Mathis Todd follows this homage with a cover of the Charlie Daniel’s classic “Long Haired Country Boy,” a song which, if it hadn’t been record in 1973, I would have put serious money on either having been written by or about Snider. Todd’s version is both loose and visceral. I much, much, prefer it to Daniels’ original. As the electric guitars ring throughout, Todd gives the lyric the kind of lived-in feel that Daniels’ straight-forward reading sadly lacks.

The final two songs find Todd in a more political mode. But much like his War Songs EP, these songs aren’t quite reading from the Country Joe-Joan Baez playbook. The first, “Mmm, Mmm”, feels optimistic at the outset, but as the narrators slowly ticks off the list of national problems (the war, the economy, Congress, healthcare, global warming, the SEC West, etc.) we get more and more discouraged. The song ends with the narrator stepping out back for another toke, just to avoid a heart attack. The second is the rollicking shuffle “NRA” with its chorus of “don’t let them take your guns away/ you got a right no matter what they say/ join the NRA, join the NRA, hey, hey”. The song juxtaposes the blatantly and hyperbolic pro-gun lyrics with clips of news-casters reporting on the escalating gun-violence in American culture.
Here’s Todd’s own disclaimer about the song:

I was about 12 when I got my first gun. It was a 4-10 shotgun. I think my great uncle Ralph found it for my dad at a flea market or gunsmith and it was my Christmas present. I was always taught to respect the gun and its power. I would load the chamber but not close the gun making it impossible to fire when in the truck or climbing under a fence or such. The first time I went dove hunting I used two boxes of shells (25 each) and didn’t hit a bird. I got better though, upgraded to a 20 gauge, and enjoyed an occasional bird hunt and skeet shoot.

Anyway, this song isn’t about hating or loving guns. My original focus when I wrote it 6 or 7 years ago was a rant against the NRA and their putting gun manufacturers’ interests above public safety. But in light of recent developments and the national discussion on guns, a national gun registry, the increased spending by the NRA lobby, the need for “hunters” to have an AK47 and 1300 rounds of ammunition etc., I thought I’d record a version, put it out there, and let people think of it what they want. Of course, Paul wouldn’t let me do that and insisted on putting in some audio clips so the NRA wouldn’t use it as propaganda and Ted Nugent wouldn’t cover it, and I agreed to that.

I hope it makes you think or adds a little piece to the gun debate. Obviously there is a problem and I like thinking about problems and debating ideas to solving them…even if I don’t have an answer.

Speaking of, I think the problem I have at the moment is I don’t have a beer.

Best,

Todd

June 10, 2013

I’m not gonna pretend that Todd isn’t a good friend of mine. So, yes, the above review may be a bit biased in his favor, but I dare you to listen to his American Gun recordings or his solo stuff or his other recordings and not come away with a new favorite songwriter/recording artist/all around bad-ass.

RIYL: Sierra Nevada Tumbler, Todd Snider records, Emily Bazelon

Shawn’s Take

A lot of musicians express their views and opinions through the lyrics in their music. But few of them can change music genres to match the message in the lyrics. Playing an instrument as guest in someone’s else’s style of band is one thing, but recording a whole record with a different musical perspective is another thing entirely. That’s what Todd Mathis has done with Please…Don’t Tread On Me. If you’re familiar with Todd via his rock and roll crew in American Gun, well, this isn’t that.

The opening cut, 20 lb Hammer, is a catchy number, as is his cover of the Charlie Daniel’s classic, Long Haired Country Boy. Elvis Presley’s Hits is fun, and must have been fun writing to see how many Elvis songs he could name check. The final number on the EP is as good a social commentary as you’re going to hear without any of the vitriol you get on talk radio. Or maybe I just like irony. The best song on the disc, though, is Mmmm Mmmm. Featuring Todd’s fiancé Sully on viola, it’s a haunting reminder of how many issues our leaders are failing to resolve.

So while you’re giving thanks this weekend for the men and women that built this country, and keep it running, do yourself a favor and set aside 20 minutes to listen to Please…Don’t Tread On Me.

Ducktape Saves Lives- Frank Turner’s Recovery

Another entry in our recurring feature, Ducktape Saves Lives demolishes the normal review protocol in favor of cheap jokes, extended digressions, and an occasional interesting thought or two. Inspired by long back and forth emails between myself, fellow Twangviller Todd Mathis, and my twin brother Kyle Petersen, Ductape Saves Lives is intend for ‘big’(ger) records where we (and hopefully most Americana fans) have some context for discussing the record at issue.

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ELI: We’ve all talked about this record pretty extensively outside this conversation, so I have a pretty good idea of where we stand on it. Everyone likes the first five or so songs and no one thinks it’s as good as England or the better songs on Love Ire and Song. Now that we’ve lived with Tape Deck Heart for a couple weeks (months now), how’s everyone feeling about it?

TODD: Still pretty much the same here, but I’d say the first 6 songs. The album is heavily front-loaded and too damn long. 18 songs and 2 live cuts on the Deluxe Version. It’s not that the rest of the songs are that bad, it just gets a little boring I think. I probably listened to England over and over for 2 months straight, but this one got a bit older quicker. Still, Turner is better than tons of others out their doing this stuff. I think Kyle stated that Turner was the kind of artist that made a great mixtape but not album. I may agree to that, add the first 6 songs to my Frank playlist, and be done with the rest of the album for now.

KYLE: Turner’s music isn’t the kind that really draws a lot of debate—his songs are so straightforward both lyrically and arrangement-wise that they either hit the gut or they don’t. I think the weakness of this record, particularly on the second side, is the preponderance of ballads. Even on his best slow songs, like “Nights Become Days” and “Redemption” on the back end of England or “Jet Lag” on Love Ire, I always feel my attention waning a bit. This record launches with its four best rockers and then its two best ballads, and then follows up with a mix of mid-tier rockers (I’m partial to “Polaroid Pictures” and “We Shall Not Overcome” ) and some pretty drab ballads that both kill the momentum and drag the run time out (“Anymore,” “Gene Simmons” come to mind). I really feel like my opinion of this record would be improved if it was limited to 10 or 11 cuts.

That being said, the second half also seems to recall pre-Love Ire Frank by focusing on the lone folk-punk troubadour figure that he started out as. Maybe it’s a nod to the longtime folks and/or a corrective to the more polished pop production that he’s increasingly trafficked in, and reaches its zenith on the first three songs here.

ELI: I agree that 20 tracks is just too much. I tend to split up my listening experiences and either just listen to the first 12 tracks or start with the bonus tracks. I do think Kyle’s point about Turner being more of mixtape artist makes sense. Lots of these songs, even on side two, are pretty awesome and could fit nicely on a mix (“Four Simple Words,” “Polaroid Picture,” and “Oh Brother”). But I agree, the album does drag as it goes along. I think a follow-up EP with “We Shall Not Overcome,” “Tattoos,” and “Time Machine” would have been nice follow-up or companion release to the full length. Or maybe just split up the whole thing into 3 EPs. Keep the first six songs on a release. Do an EP of the ballads and the rest on the last. If you can’t tell I’ve been more of a fan of the EP format recently.

KYLE: Funnily enough, the first time I heard Frank Turner was when I reviewed Poetry of the Deed for WUSC awhile back, and I wrote him off as a poor man’s (post-political) Billy Bragg. Obviously that comparison falls apart on close inspection, but it makes me wonder where we place Turner in the larger songwriter world. He’s got a fairly unique lyrical voice and can write the hell out of a hook—but is this the kind of material that seems like it will hold up over 10, 15, 20 years?

TODD: Yeah, I think it does hold up with a nice Greatest Hits package one day. I mean, you’ve got great songs like “Long Live the Queen”, “I Still Believe”, “Reasons Not to Be An Idiot”, “The Real Damage”, etc. etc. And I too saw him first on the Poetry of the Deed tour opening for Lucero and Social D, and I have to say that was not a good album, but he kicked ass live and it led me to explore his back catalog. I think he’s still got a lot more great songs to write too.

ELI: Ironically, I was introduced to Turner exactly the same way as both of you. I reviewed Poetry of the Deed for a radio station that I briefly DJed at during law school. I liked it enough to give a positive review, but not enough to give it repeat spins. Then I was blown away by him on the Lucero/Social D tour, which lead to me diving into the back catalog.

As far as where I put him in the larger songwriter world, it is tough to say. I mean it’s tough to compare him to a John Prine or Townes Van Zandt, but you could compare him to say Craig Finn, who a lot of people rate highly (though probably more for his ‘concepts’ than the actual lyrics). I do know that I mentally checked off my five favorite songwriters as I was driving home from work today. They were, in no particular order, Ben Nichols, John Prine, Craig Finn, Cory Branan, and Frank Turner. He may not be a classically great songwriter like Prine, but he’s a lot like Nichols in that there is more to him than the words on the page might suggest.

KYLE: The reason I posited the question in the first place is that I’m just not sure about “this kind” of songwriting. I think the comparison to Craig Finn is particularly apt in a lot of ways—obviously a great writer and sharp lyricist, but when concept and passion seem to ultimately reign king, does that ultimately affect longevity? Perhaps it’s silly question to even ask, and of course we will see in time. And as Todd points out, Turner probably still has lot of great songs to write.

TODD: Wow, that’s a pretty interesting list of songwriters Eli, but I’ve got to remember I’m ten years your elder, so I would tend to go for Neil Young, Noel Gallagher… Back to the record at hand, I’m sure it makes all of our year end lists, but maybe not our decade list. And I personally can’t put him up there with the “greats” of songwriting just yet, but maybe a best of his generation. What do you think Kyle? You’re the English major, and I think you have to admit he can craft a good tale.

KYLE: I’ve always had a hard time with the idea of “songwriting” greats—it seems like there is always a fair amount of revisionist history that elevates or demotes songwriters as time goes on, and my question earlier was largely about whether Turner might fall victim to those changes of fortune. Folks likes Townes Van Zandt or John Prine have largely maintained their position by the sheer number of people who cover their songs, and perhaps wouldn’t be very widely known if that wasn’t so. This doesn’t really seem to be a strong possibility for someone like Finn or Turner.

And although I tend to evaluate songs differently than literature, Todd, I do think on pure songwriting chops you have to recognize Turner at least in terms of his generation. Up there with him in my mind, at least lyrically, are Cory Branan, Joe Pug, and Josh Ritter. And maybe Finn. Also inclined to throw Jason Isbell in there too, but it could be because Southeastern has me firmly in its grasp right now (and really, “Elephant” is the best song I’ve heard this year). In terms of the lyrical skill and sense of craftsmanship of song, these guys definitely stand apart, and Turner fits in with that. “Long Live the Queen” is a great example of that, with the way the chorus subtly shifts its inflection after each verse, and each verse crafting a whole other layer of emotion and resonance to the story. And even on this record, “Recovery” spins around in on itself in an exceedingly clever way, and the wordplay of “Losing Days” or “Plain Sailing Weather” is first-rate. And all of these songs are easy to right off because they each have a big, brash chorus that bangs around in your head—but the attention to detail is everywhere as well.

ELI: First off, I want to extensively revise and tweak my list of songwriters (Hiatt, Pug, etc.), but I guess that time has passed.

I see Kyle’s point about the revisionist history that afflicts discussions of “great songwriters.” Certainly when Prine, Dylan, and Van Zandt where collectively at their most active, in let’s say the late 1970s, I think popular opinion amongst critics would almost certainly place Dylan on the top of the heap. Nowadays, I think it would be more of a toss-up with many going against the Dylan grain just to be contrarian. As Steve Earle is fond of saying, all singer songwriters are essentially employed in a job that Dylan created.

Turner’s place in all this is difficult to place, simply because the influences that lead him to this point aren’t necessarily the same as an Isbell or Ritter. Like Craig Finn or Ben Nichols, he comes at songwriting not just from a country-folk perspective, but as a fan of The Clash, hard-core, and punk rock. Most ‘classic’ singer-songwriters don’t have that heart-on-their-sleeves attitude. The best Turner songs sound like personal manifestos, not 17th century romantic poems or an updated reading of the Hank Williams songbook.

Like Todd, I will defer to Kyle’s analysis of whether the ‘writing’ stands up to the competition. I do know that most days I prefer blood in my lyrics, a rasp in my vocals, and a tape deck in my heart. Yea, that last part was a little cheesy, but I couldn’t resist.

Todd Mathis writes for Twangville and fronts the alt. rock-country band American Gun (check their stuff out here). He also does occasional solo records, including his most recent EP Please….Don’t Tread On Me. In the early 2000s, Todd was the rhythm guitarist for the American/Brit-rock band Boxing Day, who were briefly signed to a major label. They got screwed by the label and Todd started writing country songs. Todd is responsible for introducing me to such mind blowing artists as Lucero, Cory Branan, Todd Snider, Chris Knight, and Townes Van Zandt.

Kyle Petersen is the music editor for arts magazine Jasper, freelance writer for alternative weekly The Free-Times, and a college radio DJ on WUSC-FM 90.5 in Columbia, SC. He’s also a PhD candidate at the University of South Carolina with a focus of southern literature. He’s pretty much single handedly responsible for what I listen to today, having introduced me to Wilco, the Drive-By Truckers, Whiskeytown, and Ryan Adams when we were in high school.

As for myself, I don’t have quite the resumes Kyle and Todd do, so let’s pretend I’m too humble to toot my own horn. I like my beer craft and my music loud.

Twangville Presents …. Sarah Borges

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On her last record with longtime backing band the Broken Singles, Sarah Borges recorded covers ranging from X to Smokey Robinson to the Lemonheads. As incongruous as it may look written down, Borges has made it sound damn near perfect over the first decade of her music career. Wowing audiences across the country and recording a string a critically acclaimed ‘roots’ rock records lead to Borges to being profiled by the New York Times, MSNBC, and other prestigious news outlets. But alas, the intangible ‘break through’ never occurred and in 2010 the Broken Singles called it quits. The band disbanded on good terms though, particularly Borges and guitarist Lyle Brewer who got married that same year. A full year later and Borges and Brewer gave birth to a son, Elliott.

Marriage and motherhood haven’t tempered Borges too much, she continues to blaze her own trail though country, punk, and pop. Her new solo record Radio Sweetheart is as confident a studio statement as she’s made to date. Her trademark blend of country, pop, and soul is on fine display, especially on songs like “Girl With A Bow” and “The Waiting and the Worry”. The release date is TBD, as Borges is currently shopping the record to various labels.

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Borges has agreed to performance at the second annual Twangville Presents Festival (June 29-30, Boston, MA). Which is lucky for us, because, like most musicians, she is a force to behold in front of a live audience. Don’t believe me? Just check below for a free download of “Diablito” from Borges’s Live Singles. The band crackles and pops as Borges channels Janis Joplin and Joan Jett. She seems capable of lifting the club off its foundations with her voice alone.

Sarah Borges, “Diablito (live)”

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Borges performs on Saturday night on June 29 at Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge. Check out the Facebook event for Twangville’s Friday night festivities here and its Saturday night festivities here.


Click here for artist bios, downloads & additional coverage of the Twangville Music Festival.