Scott Miller, Willie Nile, Fastball, Tragically Hip and More

The titles are stacking up like cordwood here in April, and rolling the weekly excess into the following posting seems less like a solution and more like stockpiling. This week I tackle new CDs from Scott Miller, Willie Nile, Fastball, Circus Devils, Sil

Apr 21, 2009 at 2:06 pm

The titles are stacking up like cordwood here in April, and rolling the weekly excess into the following posting seems less like a solution and more like stockpiling. But the physics of the situation are immutable: Too many releases too little time = overflow into next week’s blog. Enough about what can’t be covered, and onto the ones that made the cut.

Once upon a time, Scott Miller roared out of Knoxville with the V-Roys, a band that never made much of a mark on the charts but left lash marks and sweat stains on anyone who was ever fortunate enough to find themselves in a club with them. While Miller’s post V-Roys solo work hasn’t been quite as incendiary, he has gotten quite good at approximating the hair-raising, shiver-inducing antics of his former band. With his latest, For Crying Out Loud, he may have come the closest yet to the V-Roys’ Rock revival fervor.

Like most of Miller’s solo work, For Crying Out Loud shows the singer/songwriter’s stylistic versatility as it veers from Roots Pop (“Cheap Ain’t Cheap,” “Iron Gate”) to purer Country (“She’s Still Mine”) to Folk (“I’m Right Here, My Love”) to Country Blues (“Sin in Indiana,” “Let You Down”) to fully amped up Americana (“Claire Marie”). On “Heart in Harm’s Way,” Miller swings with the Country/Pub Rock joy of so much of Nick Lowe’s catalog while “Wildcat Whistle” pulses with the insistent shimmer of Chris Isaak’s moody twang Pop.

Running like a silver thread through all of it is Miller’s playfully serious (or seriously playful) lyrical sense, telling great stories or just turning a brilliant phrase (“Magnolia Hempstead could not stop/Eatin’ popcorn when she’s high on pot/She kept on chewin’ til her teeth were gone/The dentist made some out of cut limestone/You can always tell she’s been around/’Cause there’s tombstones growin’ where she spits on the ground”). There’s a hit in every radio format on For Crying Out Loud because Scott Miller is a master of every one of them.

Willie Nile launched his career three decades ago with his eponymous 1980 debut and was promptly tagged with the unenviable New Bob Dylan label and the newly minted title of New Bruce Springsteen. Over the subsequent 30 years, Nile has sporadically been a hot property but more often than not he’s been largely and unfairly ignored by the industry, resulting in long gaps between releases; 10 years between his 1981 sophomore album Golden Down and his 1991 follow-up/masterpiece Places I Have Never Been, seven years between 1999’s self-released Beautiful Wreck of the World and 2006’s magnificent Streets of New York.

Nile’s new album, House of a Thousand Guitars, signals a positive trend, coming less than three years after the acclaimed Streets of New York and hopefully indicative of a more timely release pattern. Nile typically makes big guitar albums (Streets of New York was frequently characterized as Nile’s London Calling) and, as one might imagine from its title, House of a Thousand Guitars follows Nile’s modus operandi in that regard.

From a song perspective, Nile is more troubadour than Rock star (much like Steve Forbert, another New Dylan nominee), and the songs on Thousand Guitars fit that bill as well, ranging from the contemporary social Folk balladeering of “Now That the War is Over” (written during the Vietnam conflict but updated — only slightly — to the current world situation) to the incredibly personal Rock waltz of “Touch Me,” written as a tribute to Nile’s late brother. Nile’s quieter moments are usually heralded by piano (“The Midnight Rose,” “When the Last Light Goes Out on Broadway”), but when the guitars get cranked up (“Doomsday Dance,” “Give Me Tomorrow,” “Magdalena” and the title track, a rollicking roll call of the greatest living and departed six stringers), Nile shivers and roars with a palpable and infectious passion, sounding like an amalgamation of Dylan, Springsteen and the Stones with dashes of Ian Hunter and Rodney Crowell.

Willie Nile has opened for The Who and been praised by Bono and Lucinda Williams, and if great reviews were currency, he could bail the country out of its fiscal problems with his mattress money. And even though he deserves that level of success, if I know Nile, he’s happy to have simply made a great album. Long may he continue to do that very thing.

Fastball has never fit in any comfortable pigeonholes. The Austin trio works from a foundation that could be considered Pop/Punk, but their Texas roots (or New Wave love or Power Pop chops or Beatles adoration) are likely to show through at the drop of a chord. That aspect of Fastball’s creative make-up has made their success difficult to quantify; their 1998 sophomore album, All the Pain Money Can Buy, sold over a million units, their ubiquitous single “The Way” hit Billboard’s Top Five and the band earned two Grammy nominations as a result, while their follow-up, 2000’s The Harsh Light of Day, moved less than 100,000 copies. Thankfully, Fastball has never been a band that chases trends, preferring to have an interested audience find them rather than pursuing sales by changing sonic identities.

It’s been five years since Fastball’s last album, Keep Your Wig On, but the trio doesn’t make a lot of major tweaks on their fifth album, Little White Lies. In recent years, Fastball has adopted a slightly more classic Pop approach, evident in Lies’ opening tracks, “All I Was Looking For Was You” and “Always Never,” the former sporting a Gin Blossoms energy, the latter sounding like a Pop/Punk tribute to Steely Dan. The Fastball of old comes to the fore on “The Malcontent (The Modern World),” an indictment of the current trend of shallow celebrity that features Tony Scalzo’s Elvis Costello rasp and the band’s Tex-Mex Pop flavor, a sound that pushed “The Way” to the upper reaches of the charts.

Scalzo makes like Costello again on the power ballad “How Did I Get Here?” while guitarist Miles Zuniga takes the mic for the propulsive Pop swing of “We’ll Always Have Paris” and both tap into their inner Lennon/McCartney on “She’s Got the Rain.” Fastball has proven that past success doesn’t mean a thing in the present tense, but Little White Lies bristles with all the qualities that has already put platinum on their office wall.

Circus Devils may stand as Robert Pollard’s oddest band persona, drawing on his love of ’70s Art Rock filtered, as always, through his Who/Townshend fixations. Joined in this ever shifting endeavor by longtime collaborators Tim and Todd Tobias, Circus Devils has been typical of Pollard by not being typical of Pollard. The trio’s first six albums (nearly one a year since their 2001 debut) have been connected by their disparate natures, veering crazily from Psych Pop to Blues Prog jams to Jazz Rock to quasi-epic Pop operatics, from album to album, within albums and often within songs themselves.

Gringo, the Circus Devils’ seventh album, finds Pollard and the Tobias brothers taking a more acoustic route, crafting songs that are cinematic and melodic while still treading in the artier waters of dissonance and sonic impressionism, from the Zappa/Beefheart Blues swing of “Gasoline Drinkers” to the swirling Psych Folk Pop of “Letters From a Witch” to the swelling Eno pulse of “Easy Baby” to the Townshend demoitis of “Before It Walks.” Gringo sports all of the standard and forgivable flaws of Pollard’s encyclopedic work to date, offering up moments that are hair-raisingly powerful followed by others that are disturbingly bizarre. A good many critics find that quality in Pollard’s work in general and in the Circus Devils’ output specifically to be off-putting, overlooking the fact that the unsettling feeling that crops up during a Circus Devils song is precisely what Pollard and the Tobias brothers want you to feel.

Silversun Pickups generated a lot of interest with their 2005 debut EP Pikul (which was recently reissued for Record Store Day) leading to nearly universal acclaim for their 2006 full length follow-up, Carnavas. After close to two solid years of touring, the Silver Lake, Calif., quartet took a mere month off before heading back to the studio to work on their sophomore effort, Swoon.

SSPU’s intense touring cycle was a trial by fire and it forged the band into a tight performing unit, but their long road experiences also took a psychic toll on them. The songs that subsequently spilled out of them were moodier and more expansively dark than either Pikul or Carnavas. At the same time, Swoon shows just how proficient the Pickups have become since debuting four years ago, swirling elements of Hard Rock, Prog, Glam, Metal and Indie Rock into a sonic miasma that is as mosh-inspiringly visceral as it is head-noddingly reflective.

Given frontman Brian Aubert’s throat-clawing, whisper-to-a-scream vocals and slashing guitar attack, it’s hard to avoid comparisons to Smashing Pumpkins, but the Pickups have always hewed closer to the Shoegaze shred of My Bloody Valentine, which comes through with Prog-woven fury on “Sort Of” and “Panic Switch.” “Substitution” finds the Pickups exploring subtler Indie Rock shadings, while “Catch and Release” floats along on strings and melodies that could almost pass for Ambient Pop if not for the song’s slightly menacing undercurrent. That light/dark streak is a constant dichotomy for the Silversun Pickups, like the Beach Boys embracing King Crimson, David Bowie and MBV and then singing about depression and doubt and madness with the same effervescent joy that they applied to surfing and blondes and GTOs. Three years ago, any number of publications tagged Silversun Pickups as the band to watch. With Swoon, the Pickups have become the band to catch.

It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to expect fireworks from a pairing of John Doe and the Sadies, since he’s the godfather of LA Punkiana and they’re psychedelic Canadian cowpokes with a catalog that is equally rootsy and trippy. But Country music is where the two factions intersect most solidly; Doe’s musical upbringing includes a love of the Bakersfield sound and the Sadies’ Good brothers are the scions of the first family of Canadian country music. It’s no wonder then that Country Club, their first collaboration, shimmers like a Countrypolitan dream.

With an ambitious selection of obscure cover choices and a handful of correspondingly appropriate originals, Doe and the Sadies invest Country Club with the authentic spirit of Bakersfield and Nashville in the ’60s while filtering their influences through their estimable contemporary experience. As a result, Tammy Wynette’s weepy “’Til I Get It Right” and Ray Price’s boozy “The Night Life” drift along expansively on Eric Heywood’s pedal steel and Doe’s compelling voice, while Hank Snow’s “(Now and Then) There’s a Fool Such as I” lopes along good naturedly just as co-writer Willie Nelson intended.

The fact that Doe and the Sadies are brilliant interpreters of this era of Country music is no surprise; the real treat comes when they write in the style of the songs they cover and craft a seamless blend of old and new. Doe and ex-wife Exene Cervenka’s “It Just Dawned on Me” sounds like a long lost George Jones/Tammy Wynette barnburner, hammered home by Doe’s spectacular duet with Kathleen Edwards, and the Sadies’ “Before I Wake” is a similar marvel of Country classicism. Doe and the Sadies didn’t slap a Volume 1 tag on Country Club but here’s hoping they’ve got a few more of these in them.

The Tragically Hip may be something of a cult attraction here in the lower 48, but back in home in Canada they’re a way big deal. Since launching the band two and a half decades ago and christening themselves after a sketch in Michael Nesmith’s groundbreaking Elephant Parts video, the Hip have notched some pretty impressive accomplishments, including 14 Juno Awards, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame, launching the all-Canadian “Another Roadside Attraction” touring festival and a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II. Interspersed with all that, the Hip have managed to craft one of the most solid musical catalogs in Rock; their most mediocre work measures up to many bands’ better efforts.

For their 12th studio album, We Are the Same, the Hip are at the top of the game they mastered long ago, sweeping effortlessly between bold electric and subtle acoustic arrangements. Frontman Gordon Downie is a compelling lyricist, willing and able to tackle the largest cultural, environmental and political issues or the smallest moment that takes places between two flawed humans in love and adorn it with a soundtrack as expansive as an arena and as intimate as a back alley nightclub.

When the Hip goes big (“The Struggle Has a Name,” “Honey, Please”), they exhibit the populist anthemics of Bruce Springsteen combined with the brittle elegance of the Smiths, and when they dial it back to a more subtle level, they still bristle with the casual power that Springsteen and Morrissey exude in similar circumstances. We Are the Same is the Tragically Hip at their most textured and nuanced and optimistic and an example of one of the rarest entities in all of Rock: a band that is always good, often great and every bit as enlightening as they are entertaining.

The Ettes ask and answer the musical question: What if Nancy Sinatra had walked those boots to the Punk stomping beat of The Stooges and The Ramones? She might well have sounded something like guitarist/vocalist Coco Hames, drummer Poni Silver and bassist Jem Cohen, who formed their power Punk trio five years ago when all three coincidentally moved to L.A. simultaneously. The Ettes’ debut album, 2006’s Shake the Dust, was a leap of faith; with no label and no clear plan, Hames cold-called producer Liam Watson to ask about his interest, and when he agreed the band hocked everything to head for Watson’s Toerag Studios in London. That same fantastic drive powered last year’s Look at Life Again Soon, also produced by Watson and equally hailed as the Garage Beat sound of the future.

With the Ettes’ new EP, Danger Is!, the threesome hints at a slightly different yet still blissfully heavy direction. The first two tracks, “No Home” and “Lo and Behold,” are thunderous slabs of fuzzed-out Garage Punk, reminiscent of The White Stripes and Detroit Cobras, produced to a crunchy turn by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. It’s these first two tracks that give a clue as to where the Ettes might be headed; “Subject” is a leftover from the Toerag sessions and “The Rules” and “I Heard Tell” are live recordings (there are also three music videos on the disc). Based on the frenetic slam of the EP’s first two tracks, we can only hope that the Ettes’ third full-length finds Auerbach at the controls for the next heaping helping of the trio’s monster Fuzz Punk ethic.

Alexis Harte is something of a throwback to the singer/songwriter of the ’60s, when the likes of Cat Stevens, Nick Drake, Donovan and Al Stewart were unafraid to explore a variety of directions within the context of their singular styles. On his fourth album, Big Red Sun, Harte offers plenty of sonic diversity, weaving threads of Jazz, Folk, Rock and Afro-Pop into his compelling and socially aware songs. There are moments of whispered beauty reminiscent of the sweet Jazz/Pop melancholy of the Mark Almond Band (“Windy Girl,” “For Tuesday”) and others that lean into a wind blowing down Tom Waits’ alley (“Crows,” “Gun Magnet”). From the World music polyrhythms to the Folk foundation to the lyrical examinations of the world’s myriad problems, Harte’s lush yet tasteful work on Big Red Sun should be engagingly familiar to any fan of Dave Matthews and Graceland-era Paul Simon.

If the sonically stripped-down yet emotionally expansive songs on Eulogies’ full length debut, Here Anonymous, sound vaguely familiar, you may be making a subconscious connection to frontman Peter Walker’s solo work. His first album, 2004’s Landed, featured guests like Jay Bennett and Joey Waronker, assembled by producer Joe Chicarelli who had happened on Walker’s demo and offered to record his debut. Neither Landed nor Young Gravity, Walker’s 2006 follow-up, made much of an impression with critics, who generally faulted the former for lacking personality and the latter for having too much.

Since getting together with a permanent backing band (guitarist Drew Phillips, drummer Chris Reynolds and bassist Tim Hutton, son of Three Dog Night co-frontman Danny Hutton), Walker has gone from being a singer/songwriter with accompaniment to being one-fourth of a band, which has lent a more connected quality to Eulogies than was evident in Walker’s solo work. Here Anonymous clips along at a quirky, jerky pace that suggests a hybrid of Nada Surf and Death Cab for Cutie, with touches of Semisonic’s Indie Pop appeal, but Walker and Eulogies understand how to ride the tension between their more forceful impulses and their quieter passages. “This Fine Progression” wouldn’t sound out of place on the next Modest Mouse album while Walker’s duet with Silversun Pickups’ Nikki Monninger, “Two Can Play,” lopes along on a gentle groove and the pair’s whispered vocals. After a solid period of touring, Walker and Eulogies have forged a sound on Here Anonymous that celebrates diversity without wallowing in it and finds the band standing strong as a cohesive unit.

This week’s vinyl burn is a bit of a jab at an old friend. My buddy Bill, who I’ve known since our families’ Methodist churches merged back in 1968, is an ardent collector of obscure ’70s Prog and symphonic Pop and he’s constantly trying to track down things that he heard back in the day or has subsequently heard of by way of the internet or record show recommendations.

One of Bill’s main sources of inspiration is a radio show the we listened to back when he and I went to college together for a couple of years. It was a Sunday night program on a Grand Rapids station called Music Not From Around Here and the host played nothing but import albums that were next to impossible to find in normal outlets. In fact, he routinely flew to Green Bay to buy records from an importer there. I would tape every program and make lists of the songs, eventually buying a lot of the material on vinyl when it became more accessible. Bill had borrowed my tapes and made copies at some point, and every once in awhile, he pulls out those old track lists and gets either me or our mutual friend (and my best and oldest pal) Barry to hunt down some obscurity for him. What’s funny is that Bill has a computer and could do anything that Barry or I do, but he has some primal fear of technology and prefers that we do it.

What’s funnier is the way that Bill often mangles his requests. A couple of years ago, Barry told me that Bill had asked him to look for Tucky Buzzard. The stuff that Barry had found about the early ’70s band, which had been managed and produced by Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, hadn’t really rung any bells with Bill, and I said I’d take a crack at it, but before I got too far, Barry called back and said that Bill had called with a slight clarification: Turns out he wasn’t looking for the band Tucky Buzzard, he wanted the song “Buzzard” by the band Armageddon, featuring former Yardbirds vocalist Keith Relf (in fact, Armageddon was Relf’s last official band before his tragic electrocution in 1976). That makes a slight difference. We ragged him about that endlessly, to the extent that I bought a CD compilation of the first three Tucky Buzzard albums when I found it used at Shake It. I gave it to Bill as a gag gift for Christmas, but the joke was on me, because it was actually pretty decent Prog/Psych Pop of the period. I had to find one for myself.

A few months back, I was scouting the vinyl bins in the Shake It basement and I came across the fourth Tucky Buzzard album, Allright on the Night, and I had to pick it up. By the time Allright was released in 1973, the band had mutated into more of a Boogie Rock outfit with a melodic Pop streak but they were still a fun listen. Lead vocalist Jimmy Henderson sounded like a lot of the Hard Rock Blues shouters of the period, with an occasional outburst that was at least tangentially reminiscent of Ozzy Osbourne (although in retrospect, he sounds a lot like the generational precursor to Axl Rose), particularly on the Prog Blues swagger of “All I Want is Your Love.”

At the time, Wyman’s involvement made it difficult for the band to escape the Rolling Stones association and while they never really sounded exactly like their producer/manager’s band, songs like Allright’s “Rainbow Rider” and “Last War” certainly exhibited similar elements. Tucky Buzzard wasn’t one of my fave bands as a teenager (I may have heard a song or two on the FM college station I listened to when I was in high school) and Allright on the Night is clearly not one of their best works, but it’s a good enough album for the burn pile. And besides, I’d love to see Bill’s face when he opens his package and sees yet another Tucky Buzzard addition to his collection.