New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: fred gillen jr.

Fred Gillen Jr. Makes Yet Another Good Record

It’s hard to believe that Fred Gillen Jr. has been making albums for almost 20 years now. His latest, Silence of the Night is one of his best, and arguably his most tuneful, a mix of acerbically lyrical, Americana-flavored janglerock and grittier electric songs that stand up alongside Steve Earle’s louder stuff. In a style of music that’s all too often drenched in obviousness and cliche, Gillen doesn’t go there: he has a bloodhound’s nose for a catchy hook, he tells a good story and he’s never sung better than he does here. There isn’t a hint of fakeness, or affectation in his casual, intimate vocals, or for that matter in his songwriting either. Although there isn’t as much of an overtly political stance to these songs as in his past work – during the Bush regime, Gillen was one of the most insightfully enraged voices of reason around – his songs still have a penetrating social consciousness. As someone who long ago adopted Woody Guthrie’s “this guitar kills fascists” for his six-string, Gillen keeps a close eye on the world outside and its most telling details. All seventeen tracks on the album are streaming at his Bandcamp site.

The opening cut, Morphine Angel offers a somber elegy for an addict, “blinded by your own sun’s dying light” – it wouldn’t be out of place in the BoDeans catalog. Later on, he revisits that theme – it’s a familiar one in his repertoire – with a more broad appraisal of the price of addiction in a dead-end town. The album’s surprisingly bouncy title cut looks at love as “a dockside shanty, lit by Christmas lights, painted like a carnival against the endless silence of the night.” Gillen follows that with Vanity and its casual country-rock sway, a vivid cautionary tale (and good advice) for these Orwellian times.

Find a Rodeo, a country ballad, laments the loss of good songs on the radio, among other things. One of the album’s strongest tracks, the Springsteen-ish Halloween Day at the VA leaves a chilling trail of images, a litany of damage and lost hope, among them the Afghan war vet who returns home too messed up to restart his old Kiss cover band. The growling, bluesy, metaphorically-charged Black Butterflies goes back to roaring Americana rock, something akin to Will Scott relocated to the Hudson Valley.

Shotgun contrasts a catchy janglerock tune with a brooding lyric that examines the consequences of getting married too soon, followed by the powerful Walking That Line, an abortion chronicle that makes a worthy sequel to Graham Parker’s You Can’t Be Too Strong. Only Sky ponders how possible it is to make a genuine escape, followed by the nonchalant come-on ballad Lean on Me.

A couple of tracks veer toward the sentimental, but they’re not throwaways. This Old Car, complete with fuzzy dice and air freshener, makes an apt flipside to Everclear’s Thousand Dollar Car. Sappy as the lyrics are, This Town Is Our Song has an irresistibly tasty acoustic guitar hook. There’s also Dinosaur Bones, a creepy, apocalyptic voice-and-drums number as well as a tantalizingly brief, bristling twangrock instrumental and an attempt to end the album on a lighthearted note. It’s another solid chapter in the career of a songwriter who’s not unknown – his recent collaborations with Pete Seeger have received well-deserved praise – but whose work would enrich the lives of a wider audience than it probably has. Fans of John Prine, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and the rest of the Americana songwriting pantheon ought to get to know him.

Dylan Connor Releases a Catchy, Hard-Hitting New Political Pop Album

The cover shot of Dylan Connor’s new album Primitive Times shows a carful of monkeys with assault rifles. He dedicates it to Syrian freedom fighters killed in the ongoing revolution there. Which makes sense: Connor has a broader worldview than most songwriters. He’s got an easy way with a pop hook and can be a ferociously incisive wordsmith: a lot of these songs scream out for the replay button. Connor plays most of the instruments here – guitars, bass and keys – alongside Merritt Jacob’s tasteful lead guitar and Joe Izzo’s drums. His surprisingly wide-ranging vocals are nonchalant, unaffected and on-key, qualities that used to be a requirement but these days are a welcome exception to the rule.

The title track opens. It’s catchy, backbeat-driven 80s new wave pop with tersely resonant, bluesy lead guitar, layers of keys and what sounds like a drum machine:

Secret prisons for nameless crimes
Faceless enemies serving time
King doesn’t care what his people say
Great floods wash their homes away…
Countless languages, borderlines
It doesn’t take a genius to read the signs
In high rise buildings where cash is king
Corporate crooks all dance and sing
In the evolution of the modern mind…

Tattoo on Your Bones is an anthem that evokes a more lo-key Midnight Oil, a third world scenario that could be the first world someday soon:

Dry river soaked in rum
Drunk policemen
Stationed anywhere
Hopeless in the
Prayer-filled air
No buyers
When the power’s down
Dead heat hangs
His hat on the town

The poppiest of the A-list songs here, Pressure Point works a bit of a funk groove with jazzy chords and another lyrical bullseye:

You know that a watched pot never boils
Get to the point
The snake lashes out and then recoils
You thought that you could save your own ass
But all the pews are filled for midnight mass
And the prayer candles glow
Dogs play in the snow
And a voice is telling you to go

Not everything here is as lyrically oriented. A couple of tracks reach for a hazily apprehensive, distantly Beatlesque, Elliott Smith-style janglerock vibe; another is a Springsteenish plea to a girl to stay in and drink one of the world’s most ghetto beverages; there’s also an anthemic requiem for a powerpop guitarist who “Toured every dive bar on the west coast/His was the sound that cut the most.” And an awful folk-pop ditty that never should have made the cut (memo to Connor: stick with your good stuff, the record execs who might have drooled over that piece of schlock are all unemployed now). The album ends with the brooding, solo acoustic Feza Feza (Arabic for “Help, help!”), which Connor released last year as a fundraising single to help the people of Syria. Fans of literate, relevant tunesmiths who use catchy melodies to get an important message across (Mike Rimbaud, Fred Gillen Jr. and Stephan Said, to name just three) should check this guy out.