The Stone Foxes – Small Fires

stone foxesWhat is it in the current music industry that allows undeserving bands to become icons? Why is it that so many other bands that deserve to be icons do not get the notoriety they deserve? Why aren’t the Stone Foxes playing in large arenas in front of Lighter flames and screaming fans? They should be! As for the problems in the music industry, it would take volumes to address that issue.

Whatever your favorite flavors of Rock and Roll, the Stone Foxes deliver. This San Francisco Bay area Rock band opens a whole can of whoop ass on their new album “Small Fires.” The blend of Rock styles is delivered in a straight forward package that is reminiscent of days when music didn’t have to sound like it was created in an art school basement, like so much indie rock tries to do these days. To be sure, there is also lyrical depth on “Small Fires,” but the music is front and center. Producer Doug Boehm (who has worked with Dr. Dog among others) and the band together deliver a collection of songs that is evocative of 70’s Album Rock without losing its originality.

The album gets started with a very thought-provoking song that intertwines Edgar Allen Poe’s ”Tell-Tale Heart.” From there it moves into the classic Rock song “Ulysses Jones”. My personal favorite song is the Blues infused “Cotto”. The title cut represents an interesting diversion from their typical style. It has a post-punk alternative Vibe. It is a good sign the The Stone Foxes are exploring some new direction on “Small Fires.” Such exploration suggests future growth. On this release, The Stone Foxes display collection of songs that show they have staying power.

Audio Download: The Stone Foxes, “Everybody Knows”

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Mayer’s Playlist for Fall 2012, Part 3

ALBUMS OF THE MONTH

In the Dusk of Everything, by Matthew RyanIn the Dusk of Everything
There are many artists who are ambitious. Some pursue the thrill of live performances, others strive for financial success. While I can’t say that Matthew Ryan doesn’t harbor some of those motivations, he possesses a more powerful quality – ambition for his music.

The album opening instrumental “Lonely Not Homesick” illustrates this point. It is a magnificent orchestral piece that is both brooding and inspiring.

Yet it is the intoxicating power of Ryan’s songwriting set against simple acoustic arrangements that sets Ryan apart from his peers. In the Dusk of Everything is an emotional exploration of failed relationships. What sets Ryan apart is his ability to tackle the topic with candor and grace, tending to view them with disappointment rather than regret.

Ryan’s whispered vocals, set against a persistent acoustic guitar, give “And So It Goes” a pensive feel. The song finds him speaking to an ex-lover who has returned in an attempt to rekindle the flame. Open wounds have clearly scarred as Ryan declares:

I hold no grudge no more though I did for a couple of years
The hate you harbor only welcomes what you fear
I wrote this song while the sun fell behind the hill
The stars look cold but there’s a warm light on the sill

“It Always Rains When You Miss Her” finds Ryan reflecting on a relationship lost. “What was soft is now as sharp as nails,” he sings,
”some storms are born within our own sails.” Some regret, yes, but moreso a recognition that things have irreversibly changed, “she’ll say your name again but it will never sound the same, some things we lose are lost but never go away.”

Ryan is the victim on “And Its Such a Drag,” lamenting a lover who left the relationship behind when she found some type of professional success. The graceful interplay of acoustic guitar, electric guitar and piano create a delicate background as Ryan sings:

Ah my valentine
 you’re poisoned now, seems the heart I knew 
is gone, a plow

And you can walk away 
like it’s such a drag 
that i should have something to say
After all that we knew and had, it don’t even make you sad

“Amy, I’m Letting Go” touches on the moment of decision in a relationship. “There’s freedom up ahead but it’s a hard curve,” signs Ryan, “there’s a reverb in our hearts that speaks louder than our words.”

“Let’s Wave Goodbye” is a fitting conclusion to this masterful release. With music that echoes a standard from bygone era, Ryan puts the past behind:

Let’s wave goodbye
to who we were we’ll never be that again
and it’s not without sadness and it’s not without tears
and it’s not without thinking about all the years
that we were that
but not anymore

It is a definitive close that raises questions on where this talented artist will take us next. Time will tell but in the meantime we can continue to savor In the Dusk of Everything.

Audio Download: Matthew Ryan, “And It’s Such a Drag”

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THE PLAYLIST
Danko / Manuel, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (from the Lightning Rod Records release Live From Alabama)
Count me among those here at Twangville who are impressed with Isbell’s new live release. Recorded this past August in Birmingham Alabama, it perfectly captures the depth and nuance of Isbell’s songwriting.

“Danko / Manuel,” Isbell’s potent reflection on the musician’s life, is taken to new heights by the 400 Unit and the horn section that joined him and the 400 Unit in Birmingham. In the year that we lost Levon Helm, it is also a fitting reminder of the talent that Helm, Danko and Manuel possessed.

See Chip’s take here and Eli, Kyle and Todd’s “Duct Tape” discussion here.

Audio Download: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Danko / Manuel”

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She Has Her Moments, Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil (from the Southern Discipline Recording Co. release Catch the Presidents)
Remember what I said last week about the Alabama music renaissance? Here’s further proof. Muscle Shoals’ Doc Dailey, who delivered one of my favorite albums from 2010, is back with another gem. From Dailey’s vocals to his character-driven songwriting to Magnolia Devil’s musical performance, Catch the Presidents overflows with southern authenticity. While much of this release has a relaxed feel, I’m drawn to this song in all its ragged rock glory.

Audio Download: Doc Dailey & Magnolia Devil, “She Has Her Moments”

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Everybody Lies, Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets (from the Okemah Prophets Records release Natchez Trace)
After hearing his music, I suppose that few would not find similarities between Bowe and Paul Westerberg. They share a musical style centered on immensely catchy hooks and sharply written lyrics. Heck, Westerberg even co-wrote this track. Oh, and Nels Cline plays lead guitar.

Even without that indie rock calling card this would still be a damn fine release. Bowe serves up rock and roll with a healthy dose of attitude and swagger. Color me impressed.

Audio Download: Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets, “Everybody Lies”

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My Road Now, Paul Westerberg
Rock fans rejoice, new Westerberg! In typical Westerberg fashion, this song just suddenly appeared – no context, no explanation. With just a single listen one is immediately reminded of Westerberg’s talent. Hopefully this is a sign that more new music is on the way.

This is my road now, and you can stick it honey, no sense in sticking if you’re heart can’t quicken any better than that.

Audio Download: Paul Westerberg, “My Road Now”

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Mismatched Eyes (Boat Song), Whitehorse (from the Six Shooter Records release The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss)
Whitehorse is the husband and wife team of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. The duo take immaculately crafted pop songs, sweetened with harmonies, and tweak them enough to give the songs an edge.

I love the romanticism of this song with its winsome melody and weathered lyrics: “Is it the list and the sway, is it the roll and the pitch, the drunken girl from Mexico or the seven year itch.”

Audio Download: Whitehorse, “Mismatched Eyes (Boat Song)”

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Walking in the Green Corn, Grant-Lee Phillips (from the Magnetic Field Recordings release Walking in the Green Corn)
Phillips has always been a thoughtful songwriter. His latest release continues the trend as he takes the listener on a lyrical exploration of his Native American and European heritage.

Guest Sara Watkins adds her voice and fiddle to this stand-out as Phillips sings, “Blow away black tornado, blow away troubled sky, blow away disappointment, all the worried days gone by. Ready for the crops to ripen, leaving all the rest behind, out come that sun, looking forward to better times.”

Audio Stream: Grant-Lee Phillips, “Walking in the Green Corn”

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The Quiet Life, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson (from the Sugar Hill Records release Wreck and Ruin)
Chambers and Nicholson provide further evidence that the simplest songs can be among the most striking songs. The duo’s sweet harmonies set against an ambling melody really hit the mark. “Now and then I’m loving the world again, and I’ll be fine living in the quiet life.”

Audio Stream: Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, “The Quiet Life”

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How Can You Love Me, Anthony Da Costa (from the self-released Secret Handshake)
Sure, I was expecting something a bit more acoustic and folk-based, but that doesn’t mean that I was disappointed with Da Costa’s most recent release. It tends toward the power pop end of the spectrum, but one can hear folk and Americana threads simmering below the surface. Bonus points for the banjo that propels this song.

Audio Download: Anthony Da Costa, “How Can You Love Me”

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Preachers, My Jerusalem (from The End Records release Preachers)
There’s a theatrical quality to My Jerusalem’s music, a bombastic sound that can’t mask the sweet melodies that lurk beneath the surface. This title track is dark, brooding and enjoyably intense.

Audio Download: My Jerusalem, “Preachers”

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Also see Part 1 and Part 2 of the Fall 2012 Playlist.

La Resistance – Philosophy

Sometimes gaining momentum is better than a sprint. Greg Summerlin has passionately pursued his craft for years. As a solo artist his songs have been used in numerous TV shows. He has even owned his own record label. His new band, La Resistance, is an ambitious undertaking evocative of bands like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen. “Philosophy” is permeated with atmospherics but without the loss of melody that some indie artists fall into. Momentum also characterizes the music on the album. The songs generally begin with a thematic synthesized undertone and uses the guitar to build up to something much more complex.

Lyrically there is a blunt spirituality in each song. The words are not hopeful, but they are not hopeless either. The songs seem deeply personal with simple observations of reality. After initial creative acclaim, La Resistance is starting to travel the country. From their hometown of Birmingham, Alabama to Manhattan and Missouri they beginning to be heard by a wider audience. The album was released last year, but it their growth has been organic . Recognition has come gradually, but they are now expanding their geographic reach. Like I said … momentum.

Jim Hanft – Weddings Or Funerals

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” is such a well known saying that it’s become cliche.  But I was reminded of it listening to the lastest release from Jim Hanft, entitled Weddings Or Funerals.  The album starts off with Kerosene, that with it’s guitar and soft snare sound immediately made me think of a Mark Knopfler effort.  The spell continues with Run My Love and Alternate Route, both featuring Hanft’s vocals more than anything, but with a really subtle, tasty, background guitar that layers in a texture you don’t really notice until the second or third listening.

 As you keep listening, though, the backing instrumentation starts to pick up other flavors; indie folk on Television, a slighly ominous bass in Family Tree, and a nice slide guitar blues accent on Beware My Love, for example.  I came to realize that well-known Swedish producer Lasse Marten was touching up the palette of Hanft songs with his own brush strokes and colors.  So the cumulative effort is an impressionist interpretation of a scene that everyone sees a little differently.  This really hit home for me when I started checking out Hanft’s web site and came across the “social songwriting” blog he does with musical partner Samantha Yonack.  They take whatever topic strikes them and write a song about it, or sometimes it’s a cover that presumably crossed their path recently.  My favorite was one they did where they put a camera on the dashboard of their car and while driving one evening sang a song made up of tweets from a friend.

Speaking of Yonack, easily my favorite song on the album is Lazy Love, where her vocals seamlessly slide from background to lead and back along with Hanft’s own singing.  The harmonies are just magical.  Yonak’s voice adds a rich texture to many of the songs on the record, but nowhere else is she featured.

At the end of the day, Weddings Or Funerals is as much about Hanft’s songwriting prowess as anything.  You’ll really enjoy the textures and complexities of the songs, but as you listen to the lyrics, and a somewhat fatalistic viewpoint to many of them, you realize you’ve just peeled off one layer and it will leaving you wanting more.

American Aquarium – Live in Raleigh

North Carolina’s American Aquarium has certainly made the most of their tenacious touring and effective self-promotion over the past few years. With their last two studio albums, Dances for the Lonely and Small Town Hymns possessing an irresistibly comfortable blend of country and rock, and the band’s live shows having gained a reputation for being not-to-miss events, it makes perfect sense that the five-piece, led by vocalist B.J. Barham would finally release a live album.

American Aquarium – Live in Raleigh has all the things a good live album should have. An effective mix of quality soundboard-recorded performances with the proper amount of audience whooping and hollering. It’s clear that American Aquarium chose to make proper use of their hometown advantage, knowing that a revved up crowd of familiar faces would give the recordings a punch and an urgency that wouldn’t be as lively anywhere else.

The strength of the songs is as clear here as they’ve been on the earlier albums. Barham’s inventive dirty talk about getting it on with the most addictive of lovers is certainly material for a fun live tune. The sheer southerness of Barham’s drawl makes songs that equate ferocious sex to a religious experience just go over perfectly.

The one album misstep – and it’s a big one for me, at least – is that when provided a chance to turn their heartbreak-turned-into-hatred anthem “I Hope He Breaks Your Heart” into a searing, sweaty show-ending catharsis that puts a satisfying finish to the band’s set, they take the easy way out and avoid singing a single note, only allowing the crowd to chant-along. Bummer, man.

Bands inviting the crowd to sing-along to the chorus of a beloved tune is nothing new, but for a band to take their best song, the show ending song, no less, and turn it into a full-length crowd-sized kumbaya moment is odd. To take away Barham’s drunken angst and force that makes the studio version of the chorus so powerful is a crime. Sure, bands love hearing their songs sung back to them by adoring fans. No one wants to rob them of a couple of lines worth of that glory, but for the whole damn song? Imagine the Drive By Truckers not singing a word to “Let There be Rock”, or the Old 97’s letting only the crowd sing to “Timebomb,” and you get the picture.

Regardless of that less-than-satisfactory ending, the rest of the album is certainly one that deserves the attention of any long-time fan, and will provide newcomers a great sampler introduction into the work of American Aquarium. Country rock isn’t anything new these days. But a bands such as American Aquarium that uses energy, clever writing and and an ability to play in a way that seems to force ears to keep listening will always be in demand.