Terry Allen – Just Like Moby Dick (Paradise of Bachelors)
He follows his artistic muse wherever it takes him. Terry Allen is far better known as a visual artist and sculptor than a musician, but it’s cause for celebration when he returns to his music.
Arriving in Texas in the mid-seventies, everyone in the know seemed to have a copy of Allen’s debut, Juarez, even though it’s initial release had been limited to 1000 copies. Most Texas music milestones made perfect sense to me, completely congruous with the culture. Juarez was something else entirely. Who begins their recording career with a weird, violent and sex-filled concept album about four people making their way to Mexico? The follow-up, Lubbock (On Everything), Allen’s 1979 paean to a hometown he had long deserted, was equally unexpected. It blew away every preconceived notion of this dusty, conservative college town. Full of droll humor and outsized characters viewed through an artist’s prism, his songs were heartfelt and sardonic. the album would become one of the state’s most revered recordings. “I don’t wear no Stetson,” he proclaimed in “Amarillo Highway” (his only song to be widely covered), “But I’m willing to bet, son / That I’m as big a Texan as you are.”
Allen has never quite topped Lubbock. His few recordings sprinkled over the decades have stuck to the blueprint, though, mining his peculiar bent for observation. (1999’s bitterly funny Salivation is a personal favorite).
Just Like Moby Dick is Allen’s first set of new songs since 2013’s Bottom of the World, and reunites the mainstays of his Panhandle Mystery Band with newcomers like vocalist Shannon McNally and co-producer Charlie Sexton.
Now 76, Allen’s narrative style of singing can sink to a low whisper. Moby Dick is a collaborative venture – McNally backs up his vocals throughout and sings two songs on her own, one of them written by Allen’s multitalented wife Jo Harvey. The troika of the Panhandle Mystery Band – drummer Davis McClarty, steel guitarist Lloyd Maines and the wondrous Richard Bowden on violin – sound potent as ever. Sexton’s production makes it all sparkle.
But it’s Allen’s lyrical gifts that keep us coming back. Moby Dick begins with a trio of his finest songs in years. Houdini’s rueful denial of spiritualists figures in the opener (“Even though / he wanted it to be true”). “Abandonitis” compares abandonment to a disease the “doctor can’t cut away”, and suggests the suffering is universal. “Your folks are dead / or maybe just drunks”. “Get in line,” he intones.
Better yet, the poignant “Death of the Last Stripper”: “She had a boy / With some guy from Fresno,” it begins. ‘Where he is now / None of us know / She had a number / On some paper in her purse / That was the number / We tried first / But nobody answered / Every time we tried / We’re the only ones in the world / Even know she died.”
Beyond that, Moby Dick runs the gamut, with gems (and a couple of misses) peppered throughout. “American Childhood” somehow rolls teenage horniness and the “endless fucking” wars of Vietnam and Afghanistan in one suite of songs. There’s a tale about a circus rolling into the “City of the Vampires”, a somber shanty called “Pirate Jenny”, and the closer, “Sailin’ on Through”, which has the feel of a career coda.
There’s little tying the songs to the album’s jokey title, which is probably the point. Allen’s work can range from the tautness of Hemmingway or Carver all the way to the absurd and mawkish. They’re nothing like Melville’s tome, especially in their brevity. For someone who bestows his musical gifts way too infrequently, you’re always left wanting more.
– Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor
Buy and listen to Just Like Moby Dick here.
Hey Cowboy – Get In My Fanny Pack and Let’s Go (self-released)
Hey Cowboy! embraces the synth in synth-pop. There’s no guitar in the Austin-based trio, made up of Gaby Rodriguez on drums, Sydney Harding-Sloan on synths and Micah Vargas on bass. Instead, they craft dream-like landscapes reliant on lush synths and ethereal harmonies. Hey Cowboy! balances the melancholy and playful. Look no further than the title of their new album — Get in my Fanny Pack and Let’s Go — for a taste of the band’s whimsical spirit.
The album kicks off with a reimagining of the 1970 Lee Hazlewood song that’s the band’s namesake. With captivating harmonies, the trio delivers the opening “Heyyy cowboy” with a coy wink. The western motif gets another moment in the sun on “Detective Farmer Brown” with a warbly chant of “cowboy” that gives way to an insistent drum beat punctuated by shouts. On “Hello, Mr. Nasty,” lively chants of bubblegum kisses cascade between lilting ahh’s and almost punk-like shrieks.
The trio writes simple, repetitive hooks that create dizzying earworms. On “Feelin’ For,” the lyrics bleed together like a sacred spell — the words themselves may not matter much; it’s the intonation that gives them meaning. And Harding-Sloan’s vocals seem tailor-made for their atmospherics. On the standout track, “Cherry Jerry Citrus” (released on last year’s EP), her voice floats above the rhythms and rippling liquid synths. Distant half-spoken harmonies round out the trance-like effect.
Songs do tend to wander. Hey Cowboy! seems fond of switching the script within the same track, like the intensifying drum beats that kick in halfway through “Try……….die”, until washing away. “Don’t Even Know” starts off with the focus on vocals, but chirping synth notes and drums gradually build to create an otherworldly daze.
The album loses momentum in the second half — selections like “Queen Cactus” meander. But for an album that experiments with an eclectic synth sound and covers everything from ominous ‘70s sci-fi movie soundtracks to sunshiny psych, it’s a cohesive piece of work right down to its careful blending of tracks. Assuming you’re game for a journey in the titular fanny pack, Hey Cowboy! isn’t too concerned with a hasty ride into the sunset. There’s too much else worth exploring on the way there.
– Annie Lyons, KUTX Intern
Buy and listen to Get In My Fanny Pack and Let’s Go here.
Tame Impala – The Slow Rush (Interscope/Fiction)
Rarely has music been this anticipated. Currents, the Tame Impala album that made Australian Kevin Parker the world’s most famous bedroom auteur, was released nearly five years ago. A mid-career milestone, Currents was the culmination of everything Parker had been working towards – a cyclone of reverb, keys, guitars and oft-kilter club beats throbbing under Parker’s soaring falsetto. Songs like “Let It Happen”, “Eventually” and especially, “’ Cause I’m a Man” were distinct, memorable, even a bit visionary. Tame Impala’s second album, Lonerism, had already paved the road for a cult audience. Currents made it an expressway. Some collaborations, and lots of touring followed, but as time wore on, there was nothing from Parker but radio silence.
Finally, in the spring of last year, two new “teaser tracks” showed up. The first, “Patience”, hinted at an exciting new direction – it was visceral, less disembodied, and by Parker’s standards, felt almost unfinished. It’s not on the album.
The second single, “Borderline”, a thumping Tame Impala confection, deals with an awakening of sorts. After releasing the single (and performing both new songs on Saturday Night Live), Parker continued to fuss with it. The album version is denser, the vocals barely claw their way to the surface. It’s also the album’s strongest track.
The Slow Rush, which finally saw the light of day on February 17, has evidence of Parker’s obsessive mitts all over it. Fastidious doesn’t begin to cover his work habits. Writing, producing and playing every instrument, the album sounds gorgeous and expansive.
Yet, after five years in which a lot of things happened (including Parker getting married and narrowly escaping a wildfire), Rush could hardly be called a departure. It seems to pick up right where Currents left off. There are some interesting experiments – the mechanized opening track, a long suite called “Posthumous Forgiveness”, which serves as an open letter to his father. Yet neither are entirely successful. Despite the regret of “Tomorrow’s Dust”, endearingly sad-sack songs “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” or the brooding “Elephant” are absent. There’s a brighter aura among the album’s standouts – the loopy “Lost in Yesterday”, “Instant Destiny” ‘s Spector-ish pop, and the playful, pulsing “It Might Be Time”, (which manages to stay just steps ahead of Supertramp puffery).
His lyrics can veer toward platitudes, but they’re mostly about his now 33-year-old self. Other times they’re simply unintelligible. Parker is not prone to grand statements; his music is about mood. And his craft is undeniable. Parker toiled over every inch of this recording. It’s all there, the echo-laden mystery, the lush psychedelics, the same cheesy pop art cover. Yet chunks of The Low Rush pass by in a wash. It all seems all very familiar, and following the strength of his last two releases, lacking as much meat on its bones.
Parker is such a prodigious talent, it could be time for him to set sail into uncharted waters. We’ve seen what he can do in five years. Imagine the record he could knock out in two weeks.
– Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor
Buy & listen to The Slow Rush here.
Caribou – Suddenly (Merge)
By Jeff McCord
Now seven albums in (if you count the time before lawyers stopped him using the moniker Mantoba), Canadian Dan Snaith is a veteran on the electronic music front. And an outlier. Given the genre’s commercial limitations, there’s often a lot of experimentation going on. Snaith eschews the dentist drills and blunt glitches a lot of his contemporaries substitute for edge. And there are few long repetitive beats that come off feeling empty. Instead, he takes his time (Suddenly is his first Caribou album in five years, since the acclaimed Our Love) distilling his ideas into a wide range of moods, and more importantly, actual songs. Suddenly’s highlight is “Home”, with a sampled hook that won’t turn you loose (and some arranging help from Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden), but it’s hardly alone. Brimming with ideas and flavors, Suddenly, like all Caribou albums, is focused and absorbing.
Listen to Suddenly here.
Daniel Johnston – Chicago 2017 (dBpm)
By Jeff McCord
Your first thought is “he sounds bad”. Johnston is hoarse, the high notes on “Hey Joe” elude him. Billed as his ‘final tour’, this was a truncated 2017 itinerary with bands/fans like Fugazi and Built to Spill backing him up. There were plenty who thought the endeavor should have never been undertaken. But midway through this live set with Jeff Tweedy and friends as backup, it becomes obvious that Johnston is having a good time. He’s croaking his way through his classic songs with real zeal, happy to have the able backup. The album includes five rehearsal selections recorded the day before the show, including a stab at his idol John Lennon’s “I’m So Tired”. I’m sure he was. But instead of a sad postscript, the best moments here feel like more of a rally.
Buy Chicago 2017 here.
Shopping – All Or Nothing (Fat-Cat)
By Jeff McCord
Fans of this angular London post-punk trio might be surprised by Shopping’s fourth album. Rachel Agg’s barbed guitar playing, which has earned them Gang Of Four comparisons, morphs into more of an Afro-Beat squiggle. In truth, the GO4 comparison was never that accurate. Their lyrics are more about the politic of the personal, their 80’s skeletal beats more akin to the Au Pairs or ESG. Wiry and propulsive, All or Nothing is the sound of a band up against their limitations. They’re few commercial concessions other than Andrew Milk’s furious disco beats rising in the mix, which locks the trio in tight as ever. And there’s a surfeit of dance angst – “Follow Me”, “Expert Advice” Milk and Agg’s duet on “No Apologies (sort of a punk take on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”), the furious “Initiative”. But the 30 minutes of songs here are almost interchangeable. You can’t help wondering where they go from here.
Listen to All Or Nothing here.
Hank Williams – Pictures From Life’s Other Side (BMG)
In 1951, WSM, the clear channel Nashville station that brought the Grand Ole Opry show into living rooms across the country, invited one of the show’s stars, Hank Williams, to host a weekday fifteen-minute early morning program, sponsored by Mother’s Best Flour Company. Flour company sponsorships had already been vital to the careers of Milton Brown and Bob Wills among others, and King Biscuit Flour was to beaming deep blues across the south. The Opry itself is, to this day, sponsored by Martha White Flour. Mother’s Best had a simple format: Williams would generally feature a guest and play a couple of songs himself, one of them usually a sacred selection. Since the program came at the height of Williams’ fame, his numerous road commitments forced him to pre-record a lot of these programs. Fortunately, these programs were recorded straight to acetates, instead of audiotape that would surely have been reused. Still, they were largely forgotten until decades later, rescued by a keen-eyed engineer just before being tossed into the trash. Radio transcriptions, those few that have survived, can be a tough listen. Sound quality is often poor, some of it home recordings, or third or fourth generation copies. Announcers prattle on, sponsors sell, often right over the musical performances. But the Mother’s Best shows were preserved, resulting in first or second-generation copies, all remastered here. This material has been released before, at least some of it, with announcers, guests and advertising intact. Here, producer Cheryl Pawleski wisely trims it to just Williams’ performances and select bits of his studio chatter. The result is a wealth of professionally recorded tunes spread over six CDs, significantly adding to Williams’ 250 some odd MGM studio recordings. On the radio, Williams seems at ease, his asides providing a furtive glimpse of his personality. He seems to relish playing what he wants, his classic songs as well as forgotten gems, and great interpretations of others instead of just the small group of publishers dictated to him by MGM. For a man who drank himself to his grave by age 29, Williams has a reputation (deserved, especially towards the end) as a no-show drunk, but what we hear on these recordings is a consummate professional knocking out one great live take after another. Amazingly, these sessions were often recorded after the second 11 pm Saturday Opry show, so Williams and band could roll out on the endless highway. The collection also features a hardbound 272-page book of rare photographs and brief but contextual notes by Williams historian Colin Escott. Despite never drifting from his country roots, Williams stands as one of the most prolific and gifted American songwriters of any genre. These 1951 recordings reinforce the tragedy of a career cut way too short.
– Jeff McCord, KUTX Music Editor
Buy Pictures From Life’s Other Side here.