The Whigs, Drive-By Truckers, Randall Bramblett, Dropkick Murphys and More

When Drive-By Truckers hit the studio early last year, the Alabama-via-Athens sextet was fresh from a couple of experiences that would have a profound effect on their next album, 'The Big To-Do.' The Truckers had been on a long road trip supporting their

Mar 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm

OK, I’ve got a couple of things to address before we go bobbing for discs in this week’s musical apple barrel.

The first is a little off my beat (again), but I feel as though my two decades of experience in the advertising realm gives me a little leeway on this. My beef is with Dunkin Donuts’ new television campaign, where a guy pulls into the DD drive-thru, orders a sack of lard rings (providing a subtext problem; the doofus orders “donuts,” which is like going into Baskin Robbins and saying, “I’d like some ice cream”) and then asks for directions to a great cup of coffee.

What? Did this boob just drop out of the sky like an American version of Mr. Bean? He might just as well be asking why his chair is surrounded by metal and is equipped with what appears to be some kind of navigational wheel. As long as we’re asking stupid questions, why dick around? Seriously, if you’re familiar enough with the concept of buying donuts from a window, it’s a safe bet you’ve been inside one of these joints, and at both ends of the spectrum, from best donut emporium to worst grease pit, there’s a pot of coffee somewhere in that establishment. In fact, it’s a safer bet that some of the worst donut shops have really good coffee; it’s their way of apologizing for the pastry you’re about to take out of their establishment, which might possess only slightly more moisture and taste than the box they’re putting them in.

Note to Dunkin Donuts: Fire your ad agency. They’re not substantially smarter than the dumbass they invented for your commercial who asks the donut girl where to get good coffee. Because the answer is not merely Dunkin Donuts … but everywhere. Every-freaking-where. It won’t be long before Starbucks builds little coffee tollbooths at every intersection in America, and then you won’t have any choice — if you want to go anywhere in any city, you’ll have to pay their mochaccino grande toll. But until then, anyplace that sells anything that's remotely related to breakfast is serving coffee.

Next up is part beef, part observation. In the April issue of Discover magazine, Jeremy Jacquot’s "Numbers" sidebar offers the enlightening factoid that Americans spent 1.3 trillion hours of their leisure time in 2008 consuming information, which works out to about 12 hours per day per person. The figures break down further: Five hours a day are focused on television, two on radio, two on the internet/other computer use, an hour for gaming, 36 minutes for print media and 27 minutes for recorded music.

Again I’m compelled to say, "What?"

You guys are spending a little over an hour of your leisure time on the two vehicles I use to make a living: listening to recorded music and talking about it in print. Obviously, some of you are checking this out online, so that increases a bit of the computer time, but it still seems pretty low to me, particularly since my livelihood depends on it. So let’s pick up the pace a little, shall we?

Come on, I’m doing my part down here in the Bunker. Sweet fancy Moses, I probably spend 27 minutes a day cracking my knuckles just preparing to listen to recorded music, during which I’m listening to recorded music. (I even have personal listening and professional listening times, but that’s another column.)

We’ve got to bring these numbers up, people. Let’s have a time telethon. All you have to donate is just an hour a day to recorded music and maybe another half hour reading about it. It’s such a small investment of time.

Let’s take a look at the tote board — tympani roll, please — man, we’ve got a long way to go.

Head over to Dunkin Donuts for a box of cinnamon twists and ask if they have any coffee; it’s going to be a long night. But you can start by reading the reviews below. Every little bit helps, well, me.

It’s not easy living up to expectation or hype, and The Whigs experienced plenty of both early on. After the Athens, Ga., trio self-recorded and independently released their 2005 debut, Give ’Em All a Big Fat Lip, Rolling Stone called them the best unsigned band in America and the next great band from R.E.M.’s hometown. The Whigs’ signing with Dave Matthews’ ATO label, and the reissue of Fat Lip vaulted them into the withering spotlight glare of sophomore expectation, which they largely handled with high profile opening slots for Kings of Leon and Drive-By Truckers and their excellent second album, 2008’s Mission Control.

With their third release, In the Dark, The Whigs have once again proven themselves equal to the task of living up to an intimidating press kit. Although this is the band's first studio effort with new bassist Tim Deaux, he's well acclimated to the band’s style and rhythm after nearly three and a half years of touring and the album is evidence of the bond the trio has forged on the road.

In the Dark is a swirling sonic vortex of everything The Whigs do brilliantly, from the Shoegaze Pop/Southern bourbon guitar Rock and perfectly dusky vocals of frontman Parker Gispert to the relentless drum thrash of Julian Dorio and his bass counterpart Deaux. “Hundred/Million” shreds like vintage My Bloody Valentine, “Black Lotus” and “Automatic” bounce and brood with the Pop power of a Supergrass/World Party summit and “Kill Me Carolyn” blazes with an intensity that equals or betters anything that Kings of Leon have marched up the charts in the past year.

The Whigs’ amazing range is best exemplified by the marriage of Pop melodicism and blisteringly heavy Rock on “Someone’s Daughter” and the Southern Soul/Pop swing of “I Don’t Even Care About the One I Love,” but the whole of In the Dark merely reinforces the belief that The Whigs might be one America’s best bands going into the new millennium’s second decade.

When Drive-By Truckers hit the studio early last year, the Alabama-via-Athens sextet was fresh from a couple of experiences that would have a profound effect on their next album. The Truckers had been on a long road trip supporting their last album, 2008’s stripped back and Country-flavored Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which had been largely written on the band’s acoustic Dirt Underneath Tour. The band had also just recently wrapped up the whirlwind sessions that produced Booker T’s Grammy-nominated Potato Hole album.

Between the relative quiet of Creation’s Dark and the jumper-cable inspiration of working with the legendary Booker T, the Truckers were ready to turn their amps up to a Spinal Tap-ish 11 and loosen some shingles on the studio roof. Thus was born the Truckers’ incendiary new album The Big To-Do.

The opening Crazy-Horse-as-Southern-rockers blast of “Daddy Learned to Fly” establishes the Truckers’ intentions on The Big To-Do with a template of janglingly blustery guitars, a delicate yet sturdy keyboard presence and a dexterous and powerful rhythm section. The subtle moments when the Truckers intermittently back off the gas pedal (“The Fourth Night of My Drinking,” the slinky “The Wig He Made Her Wear”) are brief and not all that quiet respites from the visceral jackslap of the rest of the album (“Birthday Boy,” “Drag the Lake Charlie,” “After the Scene Dies”). Even the gorgeously expansive “You Got Another,” provided by bassist Shonna Tucker, starts off like a Neil Young piano ballad as envisioned by Emmylou Harris, then veers into bolder territory by way of Jay Gonzalez’s mournful B3, the noisy triple guitar tangle of Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and John Neff and the shambling but purposeful pulse of Tucker drummer Brad Morgan.

As always, the Truckers’ sonic crash and bash is the swinging, bawdy soundtrack to some of the most cinematically evocative lyrics in Rock, from the true crime reporting of “The Wig He Made Her Wear” and the stripper’s wisdom in “Birthday Boy” to the economic realities of “This Fucking Job” and the swaggering haze of “The Fourth Night of My Drinking.” Where Creation’s Dark was subdued and spartan, The Big To-Do is brash and relentless, a continuation of the Drive-By Truckers’ trend to never do the same thing consecutively — unless, of course, you count brilliance and consistency.

Sometimes inspiration comes at you sideways. Acclaimed singer/songwriter Randall Bramblett, whose solo career stretches back to the mid-’70s and who has worked with Sea Level, Widespread Panic, Gregg Allman and a host of others, found himself at a grand piano in a studio rehearsal room while waiting to do some overdub recording. As Bramblett’s fingers absently and spontaneously found their way across the keyboard, he became entranced by the haunting, open quality of the melodies that were flowing out of his hands and into the piano.

But these songs-in-training were not alone. Over the years, he'd amassed a sizable backload of tracks that never made their way onto his band-centric solo albums and his wife had been suggesting for almost as long that these softer, subtler orphan tunes that didn’t fit his band structure might just hang together as a group on an album of their own. Bramblett’s eighth solo album, The Meantime, shows the incredible wisdom of that idea.

Bramblett sidesteps his standard swampy Southern Rock pursuits here for a quieter, jazzier style that isn’t far from Bruce Hornsby’s early work. Bramblett’s only accompaniment on The Meantime (other than the occasional horn or string arrangement) is from upright bassist Chris Enghauser and drummer Gerry Hansen, who provide a delicately powerful foundation for Bramblett’s airy piano explorations.

The things that don’t change on The Meantime are Bramblett’s smoky vocal rasp and his amazing songcraft, from the Jazz/Pop cool of his ode to disintegrating friendships on “Disconnected” to the expansive Hornsby-meets-Randy-Newman heartbreak balladry of “The Grand Scheme of Things” to the New Orleans swagger of “End of the Line.” Bramblett even dips back into his earliest catalog for a handful of songs (“One More Rose,” “Witness for Love,” “Sacred Harmony”), re-recorded in the album's piano bar atmosphere.

Randall Bramblett is sure to find his way back to his Southern Rock roots before too long, but the gorgeous outcome of The Meantime should encourage him to make his piano diversions a permanent part of his repertoire.

Gin Wigmore has traveled a pretty impressive path for someone so young. At 16, the New Zealand native lost her father to cancer; two years later, her song “Hallelujah,” one of a handful of songs she wrote to her family to focus her feelings over her father’s loss, beat 11,000 entrants from 77 countries to win the U.S.-based International Songwriting Competition and became the anchor for her gold-selling Extended Play EP in 2008. Last year, she had a featured vocal on NZ band Smashproof’s "Brother” single, which topped the charts, and recorded her just released debut full-length, Holy Smoke, with the freshly Ryan Adams-less Cardinals.

Even without the estimable talents of the Cardinals (including late bassist Chris Feinstein, who passed away last December, just months after these sessions), Wigmore is a force of nature with a soulfully dusky voice that suggests a cross between Duffy and Amy Winehouse but with the swagger and attitude of some of the great Indie Rock chicks (and a few of the guys as well). “Hey Ho” bristles with ’60s Psych/Soul energy and the sidelong sensuality of a James Bond theme while “New Revolution” emphasizes Wigmore’s brash Soul angle and “Mr. Freakshow” sounds like the best song Avril Lavigne never wrote.

Wigmore might get lumped in with the Nu Soul crowd at the outset, but that would be an unfair classification (although “Golden Ship” comes dangerously close), because she has so many more tools in her musical belt and they’re all on full display on Holy Smoke. Here’s hoping that Gin Wigmore continues her affiliation with the Cardinals and that they continue to bring out the best of her Rock persona.

The person who first considered the idea of putting peanut butter on a piece of celery couldn’t have gone into the process thinking that it would taste good. It had to be a tentative step, an experiment with no clear result in mind, a lucky accident.

Broken Bells seems to have started from a similar mindset. How many people have listened to the work of Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton and The Shins’ James Mercer and said to themselves, “Now there are two guys who should work together?" Thankfully, Danger Mouse is a serial collaborator and his chance backstage introduction to Mercer five years ago at the Roskilde festival in Denmark ultimately led the pair to mix and match their styles in the studio under the Broken Bells banner.

Although Danger Mouse is renowned for his production skills (Beck, Gorillaz), one-off projects like Dark Night of the Soul (with the late Mark Linkous and director David Lynch; Mercer actually sang on one track for the still unreleased work) and his file-trading partnership with Cee-Lo in Gnarls Barkley, he and Mercer worked together in DM’s home studio in a creative structure that was, in essence, a two-man band. As a result, Broken Bells' eponymous debut is an unlikely but clearly successful pairing of DM’s quirky and compelling sonic atmospherics and Mercer’s flawless Indie Pop instincts, as neither one overwhelms or acquiesces to the other in finding a sound that is an effective merging of their distinctive styles.

Mercer, in particular, makes some interesting adjustments in his Broken Bells persona, from a darker and less obtuse lyrical perspective to vocals that range from a Soul/Pop falsetto to a menacing baritone, neither of which has surfaced on Shins recordings. If there’s a concession here, it’s in Danger Mouse’s modus operandi, as he shelved his samplers and relied on live instrumentation. Mercer’s Pop perspective is evident on Shins-like tracks like “The High Road” and “Your Head Is on Fire,” but the sound is tweaked and intensified by DM’s psychedelic Abbey-Road-spaghetti-western-Electronica sensibilities, which inform the more experimental songs like “The Ghost Inside” and the Psych/Folktronic “October.”

While nothing can replace the crystalline beauty of a pure Shins album (even though Mercer fired keyboardist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval last year, pretty much making Mercer the primary creative Shin), Broken Bells is certainly familiar and successful enough to warrant further Danger Mouse explorations.

Although Tom McRae’s British pedigree, downcast outlook and sparse instrumentation has often earned him a yardsticking against Nick Drake, it’s only occasionally appropriate. On his four studio albums to date, McRae proves to have a more expansive sonic palette than the estimable Mr. Drake, leaking just as convincingly into the dark and atmospheric territory covered by the likes of Neil Young, Nick Cave and Tom Waits. With those kind of comparisons, McRae should be a star of cosmic proportions, but he’s clearly been undone by promotional inconsistency — each of his four albums has been for a different label.

On McRae’s fifth studio outing for his fifth label, The Alphabet of Hurricanes, he seems intent on showing every side of his creative persona, from reflective and sparse singer/songwriter to sonically sophisticated Folk/Pop provocateur to sensitive yet muscular Rock poet. Amazingly, he’s effective at all of them. A good many artists come to mind while tracking through The Alphabet of Hurricanes, particularly Ian Matthews and David Gray. All three write compelling songs with exquisitely simple melodies and explore similarly broad ranges through intriguing textures and arrangements.

Vocally, McRae bears at least a passing resemblance to superstar James Blunt, but McRae’s songs and presentation are so much richer and more varied, from the Peter Gabriel-tinged Pop thunder of “Please” and the quivering electrical hum of the Chris Whitley-fired “Me and Stetson” to the Matthews/Gray sonic mash-up of “Told My Troubles to the River” and the gorgeous and dramatic Eno-like atmospherics woven into “Summer of John Wayne.”

Regardless of the associations that skate across the frontal lobes while listening to The Alphabet of Hurricanes, it won’t take too many spins before Tom McRae’s unique lyrical phrasings and engaging musical juxtaposition of subtlety and intensity set him apart from his songwriting peer group.

Dropkick Murphys and St. Patrick’s Day are as synonymous as politics and sex scandals. The Boston-based Murphys have been tearing shit up in Beantown on St. Paddy’s Day for the past decade, regaling the faithful with an exultant take on Celtic Punk/Rock and the fist-pumping fervor of a union rally. The annual bacchanal has become so popular that Murphys fans plan vacations around attendance and come from across the country and around the world in such overwhelming numbers that the band has expanded the original show into a week of gigs.

It’s a testament to the excitement that this incredibly popular event generates that both of the Murphys’ live albums, 2002’s appropriately titled Live on St. Patrick’s Day and now Live on Lansdowne, have been recorded at the mid-March Punk-and-drunk fest. It’s easy to love these guys even if you’re not enamored of Celtic Punk; there are few bands in any genre that display as much unbridled passion and pure love for their fans as the Murphys, and Live on Lansdowne is packed to overflowing with the band’s performance energy that's reflected back at them by their dedicated and adoring audience.

At a Murphys show, you can reasonably expect to hear lots of Red Sox and Bruins boosterism and Yankees hating and plenty of dedications and singalongs. Live on Lansdowne, a compilation of the entire week of 2009 appearances, certainly doesn’t disappoint in that regard. And the Murphys are long on crowd-pleasing favorites in the set list, from the blistering indictment of “The State of Massachusetts” to the drunken love blurt of “Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced” to the anthemic “Fields of Athenry.”

The set closes with the Murphys’ recent classic, “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” the band’s collaboration with the estate of the late Woody Guthrie, the results of which were made famous when Martin Scorcese placed the song in his Oscar-winning film, The Departed. For the big finale, the Murphys invited fellow hometown heroes The Mighty Mighty Bosstones to join them onstage, an event that's more effective on the accompanying DVD included in Live on Lansdowne.

If you couldn’t make it to Boston this St. Patrick’s Day and you want to celebrate with the holiday’s most vocal proponents at your leisure, the Dropkick Murphys’ Live on Lansdowne is a no-brainer.