Deep Dive: The Bones of J.R. Jones, “Ones To Keep Close”

One of my favorite new albums comes by way of the Catskills, courtesy of Jonathan Robert Linaberry.  Linaberry, aka The Bones of J.R. Jones, feels like a man out of time, which is not to say his time is coming. Rather, it’s a premonition that he would be at home in several eras come before us. Had we been wandering past an old juke joint in upstate New York in 1954, this music and this man would likely have poured forth from it.

Ones To Keep Close is a mixture of American heritage as we like to think of it: soulful, somewhat sorrowful and blue collar, bare-handed but determined. “Sinner’s Song” has an Irish folk backbone, and “Please” draws on gospel structures as effectively as a Baptist preacher. One of my favorites hits us three tracks in. “Slow Down” has a remarkably seductive pace, starting out with just J.R. and his guitar until the base and the ivories kick in at 1:00, followed by haunting backup vocals a few seconds later. This is a slow burn, fired by a grunged guitar solo at 2:20 that slowly fades to nothing. J.R. Jones has America in his bones.

“Slow Down” slides into one of the strongest songs on the album, “Know My Name.” This song is just so smooth, traditional at heart but edged by funk, it’s begging to be showcased on an indie soundtrack. And “Die Young,” where J.R. slows down with melancholy softness, is the perfect compliment to the summer that’s surely coming. It’s been a long time since I’ve loved an album this purely, and I’m so glad to have found it now. ‘Tis truly one to keep close.

Album Review: Villagers

Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, Villagers is the critically acclaimed brainchild of thirty-something Conor J. O’Brien. Although the outfit has  been around since 2008, it’s REALLY been around since the 2010 album Becoming A Jackal became bonkers popular and jettisoned the band onto an exhaustive tour that lasted for two years.

In a 2013 interview with Neil McCormick of The Telegraph, frontman O’Brien discussed tour fatigue and his struggles as a songwriter, criticizing his post-tour work as lacking in depth. He ruminated, “I felt, in a very childish way, I had romanticized sadness, and I was using the music to wallow.” This is understandable given the fact that he was coping with a family tragedy, but it’s also a common occurrence; how often have we penned a poem or sought a song for immersion, to validate our feelings but also give them authenticity in a time of crisis? Particularly with the loss of a loved one, it’s sometimes hard to let the pain go because, in doing so, it feels as though you’re that much further from the one you lost.

His newest work, however, shows a remarkable amount of maturity–one that uses loss as an underpinning instead of as a focal point. While the overarching tenor of Darling Arithmetic is pensive and bends toward sadness, it never actually breaks under the weight. True, the album has its melancholic valleys (“No One To Blame”), but it also peaks frequently with optimism as the lyrics offer measured notes of hope. Not the kind of hope that grows blindly in a vacuum of naiveté, but one that is fought for and found, one that pays homage to and draws strength from the paths we forge together and sometimes alone. In “Courage”, the album’s opening track, O’Brien sings:

Do you really want to know about these lines on my face? Well each and every one is testament to all the mistakes I’ve had to make to find…Courage, it’s a feeling like no other, let me tell you, yeah. Courage, in harmony with something other than your ego. Courage, the sweet relief of knowing nothing comes for free.

In that same Telegraph interview, O’Brien relates how he came out of his writing slump by using synthetic instruments and experimenting with “ambient soundscapes.” Most poignantly, he notes his inspiration from Carl Sagan “to put the story of the evolution of human intelligence into a personal perspective.” This, perhaps more than any other sentence, describes his effort on Darling Arithmetic for meWhether describing a hot scary summer or chameleon dreams, the full breadth of the human experience can be found somewhere on this album if you’re receptive to looking because, in a very intimate and personal way, this album is about being part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Throughout listening I could not help but to recall the words of a favorite poet, W.H. Auden, in his poem The More Loving One, which I’ll leave you with here to chew on:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well

That, for all they care, I can go to hell,

But on earth indifference is the least

We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn

With a passion for us we could not return?

If equal affection cannot be,

Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am

Of stars that do not give a damn,

I cannot, now I see them, say

I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,

I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take me a little time.

Modest Mouse: A Singular Review

The first band to make an everlasting impression on me was Modest Mouse. They were my first: my first concert, my first band t-shirt, my first (new) vinyl. I can vividly remember the first time I heard them on mainstream radio. My ex-boyfriend and I were driving down Geary in San Francisco, and I screamed so loudly he almost veered out of the lane. We immediately pulled into the Tower Records outpost near Mel’s Diner, and I proudly bought the first CD to gain them far-reaching recognition–Good News For People Who Love Bad News.

A lot has changed since then. Different boyfriend, different car; Tower Records long since in the grave, and it’s Geary store closed to become a carpet store, and ultimately its current incarnation: a Chase bank. I don’t fervently love Modest Mouse as I once did, but this is not because I’m so effected as to dump a favorite indie band once it’s gone mainstream. Rather, the Kerouac-obsessed teenager that feel in love with them grew up, and became a 30-year-old with a more complex agenda.

Seeing them perform at First City Festival a few years back was quite the anachronistic experience as my memories met the present state of things. The venue was huge compared to the dives in which I’d formerly seen them around Los Angeles, although the crowd was just as stoned and amorous. The production was vast, with a coordinated light show and the stage populated by a million instruments, musicians, and sound techs–a far cry from the homeless guy they adopted and performed with many moons ago, and the handful of well-worn guitars that accompanied them.

In short, the music was a far cry from the raw garage rock I’d worn out in my childhood bedroom and experienced in the Los Angeles of yesterday. This, however, is the inevitable progression of things as artists mature into different states of minds and their music follows suit. When I began to part ways with Modest Mouse, I was also a far cry from that suburban Los Angeles bedroom, and moving north had matured my priorities as I immersed myself in local San Francisco music–national commodities be-damned! But Modest Mouse and I didn’t break up, we were just on a very long break.

“The Best Room”, the first single off their forthcoming album Strangers To Ourselves, has brought me back into the fold. It showcases everything I love about Modest Mouse: Brock’s digestibly intellectual lyrics and devil-may-care delivery, with all its transitional cracks; those stuccato guitar riffs that are undeniably Modest Mouse, and are perhaps the part of their music most influential on succeeding bands; and the abrupt ending that is jarring, and lingers in the silence after the song–so disrespectful to traditional songwriting, and utterly memorable.

While I don’t foresee myself playing their newest album with obsessive repetition as I did with This Is a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About, I do intend to buy it and savor it with nostalgic appreciation. Because Modest Mouse has traveled far, seen much and endured more, and come out on the other side in command of their own sound–a feat not replicated by many a 1990s wunderkind in the lonesome crowded west of popular music. And there’s definitely something to be said for that.

Thick Red Wine :: Homesick Homecoming

Mike Wojciechwoski plays DNA Lounge this Friday, 8/29/14, under the moniker THICK RED WINE with Halcyonnaire, Mild Meddle, and Portland’s The Weather Machine.

It’s a long holiday weekend. Many people are heading out of town to camp, attend weddings, or maybe they’ve already been raptured to the Playa. For those of us happy to stay in The City, might I suggest kicking off the Labor Day weekend by listening to the labors of THICK RED WINE at DNA Lounge tomorrow night?

The brainchild of San Francisco’s Mike Wojciechowski, THICK RED WINE pairs the intensity of adolescence with the reflection of grown-ass adulthood.  Taken at face value, the music is utterly enjoyable with its simple, repetitious chords and middle school nostalgia pushed through gritty, rambling vocals. As with most things in life, however, you get what you put into it and investing in the THICK RED WINE catalog unearths a depth that can be glossed over if you’re impatient. Some of my favorite moments from Wojciechowski’s last album, Never Wanted To Be Cool, come back to back with “If I Had a Shotgun” and “Never Find the Time” which speak to our generation’s paralysis in the face of seemingly limitless options that are tempered by fewer opportunities. We are eager, we are earnest and we just can’t seem to get over.

I feel this intimately, and Thomas Wolfe’s words “you can’t go home again” often rattle around my brain. Thankfully, THICK RED WINE provides an antidote to the depression Wolfe can trigger. No, we can’t go home again…but we can sure as hell remember it fondly, and we’ll always have our friends. In the last song on Never Wanted To Be Cool, Wojciechowski drops an impressive Marquis de Sade reference (brilliant) and provides a fantastic summary of his music: “I guess the moral to the story is you can’t hope to explain just what it means to be human or grow up or be sane…So I steal pennies from the dirty fountains of my checkered youth, hopin’ someday all these words I write will mean something to you.”

If this last album is any indication, I expect his forthcoming EP–Homesick–will mean much to me (this is, after all, a blog based on nostalgia), and I’m excited to announce Wojciechowski has agreed to be part of the Nostos Algos oral history project, Soundbyte. Tomorrow’s official release of “Marathon”, his first Homesick song, is hosted by Mutiny Radio and is a Bourgeois Productions joint. I will be there, and I will be in it to win it.

 

Must See: Jesus Sons

With their first full-length album in tow, Jesus Sons returns to San Francisco at Brick & Mortar this Friday.
With their first full-length album in tow, Jesus Sons returns to San Francisco at Brick & Mortar this Friday.

If you love good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll as much as this little lady, then mark your calendars: Jesus Sons plays Brick & Mortar Music Hall on Friday, June 13. Already have plans? Cancel them.

Originally formed in San Francisco, the band is fronted by Brandon Wurtz (former bassist of the Spyrals) who relocated to Los Angeles with his new band after his employer–Charlie’s Place, an SF motorcycle shop–headed for greener pastures in the southern part of the state. While this could make him persona non grata to many Bay Area die hards, he explained the move in an interivew with LA Canvas as a reaction to “the SF government and the pirates” who have radically changed the fabric of our fair city. I’m thinking not many in our musical community would argue with that assessment of the Tech Boom, but this is fodder for a separate article (and something I could talk about for days).

While many bands have embraced a vintage 60’s psych-garage sound, Brandon and the boys are the real deal–not merely emulating motorcycle culture for the coolness of it all, but instilling their music with the motorcylce sludge that pumps through their veins. Their addictive first full-length album, eponymously named, was recorded at Fuzz City in Oakland on glorious 1/4 inch reel to reel tape. The album is rowdy, the music muscular yet spiritual like a prayer thrust into the wind pumped out of a carburetor–textured with grit, and the sweet sweat of the blues.

As much as this San Franciscan is loathe to admit it, Los Angeles–with its dirty desert heat, and hundreds of paved miles–may be an ideal fit for these American journeymen. After all, Rock ‘n’ roll hungers for the heat. Luckily the highway brought them home for one more show.

 

 

 

An Optimist, A Pessimist: You Won’t in San Francisco

 

Playing The Independent this Friday is a two-person outfit called You Won’t that you will like, I promise. Well…as long as you’re into the earnest indie vibe. Hailing from Boston, this combination of bffs Josh Arnoudse on guitar/vocals and Raky Sastri on percussion produces infections acoustic folk rock that instantly caught my attention.

 

Skeptic Goodbye, the duo’s 2012 debut released by Old Flame Records, could not be better titled. Every time I push play on this album I’m transported to another place, a better place–one floating on a nostalgic accordion ebb and flow. I find it impossible not to bounce about in my chair as associative images rattle about my personal unconscious–lakeside tire swings, battered back-of-the-bar pianos, and Edison lights crisscrossed along the horizon of a winter-crisp city street. Each song seamlessly transitions into the next without losing its own unique character. Skeptic Goodbye opens with “Three Car Garage,” a precocious track that immediately catches the listener’s attention. In songs like “Old Idea,” the tempo is perfectly paired with the lyrical mood while the eclectic harmonium prevents a simple song from being simplistic. In fact, these fellas consistently call upon a creative assortment of  instruments like the melodica, the saw, and even wind chimes throughout the album. Finally, they cap the effort off with the satisfying song “Realize”, a contemplative piece filled with reverence and wonder.

 

Perhaps what I like most about the music of You Won’t is how it lends itself to relational memory, how something created by another can so easily feel like my own–so easily be the personal soundtrack that was seemingly always present yet fresh enough to incite a creative rush. In this sense, Skeptic Goodbye is both a blanket and a bombshell banishing boredom (often the root of skepticism) in a comforting cocoon. These kids have fun, they’re funny, and if we follow their lead they may just make optimists of us all.

Word on the street is that their shows have converted skeptics like NPR’s Bob Boilen, so I’m giddy with excitement to experience the album live. Hopefully you are too, and I’ll see y’all on Divisadero this weekend!

Current Obsession: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Hurray for the Riff Raff

I would argue Blues is the most important American contribution to the lexicography of music; it added a layer of complexity to Country, and beget Rock and Roll. Born from the hell of slavery and its aftermath, the Blues are weighted with the trauma of poverty and loss or, perhaps more accurately, never-having. It is true sadness seeking song for solace, and when you think of it that way the moniker of “Blues,” gives the music and its origins short shrift. I guess the “Tragic Despairs” or the “Depressions” didn’t have the same ring.

We are a nation of immigrants, a nation of blue blood mixing with the denim-coverall-DNA of the blue collar in a melting pot.* Such a mixed bag, pardon the metaphor swap, is bound to create tension, persecution, as the Haves battle the Have Nots because the beast of social democracy wills it so. This unequal distribution is why Blues came to be and why it remains relevant. The musicians who struggle somewhere in the middle (as so many of us do) and voice this in song continue to interpret this American genre in loving homage. Sometimes, for some people, the Blues just feel right; sometimes we all sing the blues in response to daily traumas, be them little or big.

Enter Hurray for the Riff Raff, the brainchild of a Alynda lee Segarra–a Puerto Rican living in New Orleans by way of the Bronx. This July, the Riff Raff signed to ATO Records which is the New York City label founded by Dave Matthews that was also smart enough to sign the Alabama Shakes. Their album My Dearest Darkest Neighbor, my current obsession, is a little bit country textualized by blues swaddled in a tradition of folky pop. It is as sumptuous as it is spare, and has the simple integrity of a Brumby rocking chair: comforting, sturdy, and American to its core. Two of my favorite tracks are actually covers that offer new perspective on classic songs, such as John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and the often-tackled traditional folk ballad “Cuckoo.”  For a 26-year-old lady to add soul to an icon, and a new angle on a tune that’s been part of the American fabric for over a century is impressive and utterly captivating. This is a woman of import, and a band worth following; here’s looking forward to more to come.

*Except that melting pot metaphor we were spoon fed in school doesn’t really fly because it implies we all simmer into a single identity, that of the American, when in actuality our demographics are more akin to a mixed salad, the collegiately preferred term, where each ethnicity adds to the flavor palette in a recognizably unique way. Cute, right? If only this were as harmonious of an existence as it sounds. The truth is that some ingredients inevitably fall to the bottom and drown in dressing never to be tasted, left behind for disposal. In an overly flippant way, that is what happens to the scores of tired, poor, and huddled masses (to borrow from Emma Lazarus and Lady Liberty) who understand Blues just by being alive.

Current Obsession: PAPA

PAPA’s much anticipated album Tender Madness finally dropped on October 8th, and I’ve spent much of this month listening and forming an opinion. As of today, the verdict is in: I’m obsessed. “If You’re My Girl, Then I’m Your Man” hits it on the head–bombastic intro settling into a love-torn confessional in which drummer Darren Weiss tells us what we want to hear. He’s our man, forget our plans.

Perhaps it’s the bias of dating a drummer, but I love a solid drummer-frontman and Weiss delivers. While this track “Put Me To Work,” and the album’s namesake “Tender Madness” are the strongest on the album, it’s a fruitful listen the whole way through and worth a purchase in total.