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No New Abnormal

Tag: john prine

A Big Dose of Hilarious, Sharply Lyrical, Tuneful Black Dirt Country Rock From Joe Stamm

If you’re a musician trying to build an audience, you can’t do better than Americana rocker Joe Stamm, who has one of the most sophisticated and well thought-out marketing campaigns this blog has ever encountered. There’s a catch, though…his system won’t work for you unless you have the material to back it up.

What he wants you to do when you visit his webpage is to sign up for his “online album adventure,” with a lot of freebies. So maybe you do that…and half an hour later, it hits you that you’re still there, still listening. This guy is good!

He calls his music black dirt country rock. He can be outrageously funny one moment and dead serious the next. He’s a strong singer, a hell of a storyteller and has a good sense of the kind of incident where there’s a song just waiting to be written about it. Like pretty much everybody in his line of work did before the lockdown, he made his living on the road.

When you sign up, he sends you all the stuff in a series of emails. with a lot of mini-playlists, free downloads and videos. Day one is a good introduction. It begins with a free download of High Road Home, an ambiguous and troubled workingman’s anthem (Stamm has a LOT of those). There’s more than a hint of Sam Llanas soul in the vocals, in this live duo version with low-key, purposeful acoustic lead player David Glover.

There’s also a duo version of the grimly aphoristic Crow Creek in the original A major key – which actually turns out better than the minor-key version Stamm recorded in the studio. But the centerpiece is Blame It on the Dog. It’s insanely funny and it has a trick ending. Without giving too much away, the dog is not always to blame for what’s going on here.

Later on during the “adventure” he celebrates “Busch Lights and a purple haze” – yikes – over a slow soul sway in a full band version of Bottle You Up, a salute to daydrinking. It’s also Stamm’s opportunity to pitch his line of suggestive beer-related t-shirts and such.

A little further into the “adventure” he completely flips the script with Ring of Roses, a folksy, John Prine-ish number inspired by a guy who was in hospice care, but that didn’t stop him from planning his next construction project. For freedom-loving people in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Stamm’s next gig is on Oct 10 at 10 PM at Bigs Bar at 3110 W. 12th St.

You may be wondering why on earth a New York music blog would be paying so much attention to shows in such a faraway place as South Dakota. There are actually many reasons why, which you should think about, and one of them is that there are there’s more going on musically in South Dakota than there is in New York City right now – at least as far as publicly advertised shows are concerned. And if that’s not cause for concern, somebody’s asleep at the wheel. 

Hilarious, Witheringly Insightful Heartland Americana From Chicago Farmer

Cody Diekhoff a.k.a. Chicago Farmer writes knowingly wry, often witheringly spot-on, ferociously populist blue-collar narratives set to a dynamically rousing Americana backdrop. His debut album Backenforth, IL made the shortlist of the best albums of the year here back in 2013. He titled his new one Flyover Country, just as Amanda Gardier (featured here yesterday) did with hers. First time there have ever been two albums with the same name on this page on consecutive days! Who knows, maybe that’s a meme.

This particular Flyover Country – streaming at youtube – begins with Indiana Line, a fiery, bluesy, open-tuned outlaw ballad. “I’ll be the king of roadkill, two birds at a time,” insists this rural Avon Barksdale: there’s a reason he’s so reckless moving all that weight, but it’s too good a story to spoil.

The funniest song here is 13 Beers: it’s sweet redemption for any concertgoer who’s been scammed and subjected to one indignity after another at a Ticketbastard arena. It makes you want to sing along with the ending, even if Diekhoff planned that all along.

The title track is unusually earnest for him: yeah, us East Coast snobs look down our snooty noses on Heartland America, which does all the heavy lifting and doesn’t get much in return. Trouble is, that’s a coast-to-coast problem.

The lyrically torrential eco-disaster parable Mother Nature’s Daughter is an update on Blonde on Blonde Dylan: “Mother nature’s daughter, they’ve done sold and bought her, there ain’t no more water in the well,” Diekhoff warns.

“White collar crime pays, and blue collar crime takes away,’” is the chorus in Collars, a sad waltz that brings to mind John Prine’s Hello in There thematically if not musically. Diekhoff sends a shout-out to hardworking, underpaid musicians and their equally hardworking, underpaid fans in the hillbilly boogie All in One Place and follows with Deer in the Sky, which has a little Creedence feel to it and a funny assessment of the perils of flying versus driving.

The cover of Hank Williams’ Ramblin Man has a welcome Nashville gothic sparseness. Baseball season may be in jeopardy, but the metaphors of Dirtiest Uniform are timeless. Diekhoff wraps up the album with The Village Revisited, a grim hurricane parable that’s part Creedence, part Stones. We need more guys like this who can be stone-cold serious, but just as gut-bustingly amusing.

Hauntingly Vivid Nocturnes and a Couple of Intimate May Shows from Hayes Carll

If Townes Van Zandt hadn’t drunk himself to death – or if he was born in the 80s – he’d be doing what Hayes Carll is right now. Pretty much everybody’s favorite outlaw Americana songwriter has a two-night stand coming up at Joe’s Pub on May 16 and 17 at 7:30 PM. Advance tix are $25 and as of today are not sold out, which is especially weird since he usually plays Bowery Ballroom or the Bell House when he’s here in town.

His spare, unselfconsciously haunting latest album, impeccably produced by Joe Henry, is Lovers & Leavers, streaming at Spotify. It kicks off with the aptly desolate Drive, spacious tremolo guitar and organ looming distantly over elegant, skeletally fingerpicked guitar and brushed drums. If the Highwaymens’ albums had an organic feel instead of all those cheesy sythesizers, they would have sounded like this. It’s a bittersweet lament for a restless spirit who can’t be corralled: “Burning both ends of the candle and you pretend that you don’t care.”

Sake of the Song is as much of a shout-out to any down-and-out songwriter as it is a salute to Carll’s brooding road-dog influences, from Hank Williams to Dylan and Elvis and Tom Waits, a gorgoeusly slinky Nashville gothic ballad:

Hitchhike and bus ride and rental cars,
Living rooms, coffeehouses, rundown bars
Ten thousand people all alone under the stars
All for the sake of the song

Good While It Lasted offers a bitter, more personal look at the downside of late-night barroom tunesmithing, part Waits, part Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan. That last muted cymbal hit will rip your face off.

The hushed waltz You Leave Alone is a vivid southern existentialist character study:

One conversation
One short-term destination
Can lead to a lifetime
Away from home
But no plan’s worth making
All the big dreams are taken
When you leave this world
You leave alone

Withs its lingering pedal steel and melancholy chromatics, My Friends could be John Prine, or the late-90s Jayhawks, or the Walkabouts doing their country thing. Carll brings back the subtle gospel tinges with The Love That We Need, a crushingly sardonic portrait of a marriage that’s lost its lustre. Love Don’t Let Me Down, the album’s title track more or less, has the feel of a lovelorn 60s Don Gibson ballad recast with the spacious, desolate ambience of the album’s opening cut.Likewise, Love Is So Easy is roller-rink soul done as Americana. The album winds up with an a final character study, casting a disconsolate, restless woman as a Jealous Moon. It’s no wonder why Carll likes small venues, considering how well these songs are suited to them.

Aiofe O’Donovan Brings Her Cutting-Edge, Purist Americana Tunesmithing to the Upper West

Aiofe O’Donovan is cool. The Crooked Still singer/guitarist played one of the outdoor concerts at Madison Square Park a couple of months ago and wasn’t impressed by that burger joint there with the interminably long lines – and if you’d been standing downwind in the greasy smoke wafting from the kitchen, you wouldn’t have been either. “Is the food really that good?” she asked, skeptical. A lone guy sheepishly put his his hand. “OK, if you say so,” she grinned back.

O’Donovan makes her living on the road, whether playing bluegrass classics, singing in progressive jazz icon Dave Douglas’ group, with symphony orchestras, or doing her own stuff. September’s show was mostly original material, much of it taken from her debut solo album, Fossils, and it was consistently excellent. If you missed the show – and a lot of people did – she’s making a quick swing through town, in between Crooked Still reunion shows, for a free concert at 7:30 PM on Nov 13 at the Lincoln Center Atrium. It’s not clear who’s playing when, but she’s on the bill with a solid quartet of performers: explosive New Orleans trombonist/gospel shouter Glen David Andrews; Elle King, who is sort of an Americana counterpart to Cat Power; and charming guy/girl harmony duo the Spring Standards. These shows are a neighborhood institution and fill up fast, so the earlier you get there, the better: you can probably expect about a half an hour from each act.

O’Donovan, being a runner, likes to jump around a lot onstage, and reveled in the chance to do that at the park because, as she explained, she’d been playing on a boat where that hadn’t been an option. Backed by terse upright bass, drums and lead guitar, she mixed up ballads and more upbeat numbers. As you might expect from someone in a band whose name refers to moonshine, whiskey figures into a lot of her songs, from the swaying, John Prine-influenced opening number, Oh Mama, to a jaunty country blues punctuated by a bouncy bass solo a little later on.

They followed the broodingly shuffling Thursday’s Child, fueled by Austin Nevins’ lingering, red-sunset guitar leads with a slower but similarly simmering, late-summery tune. O’Donovan sang Briar Rose with a moodily insistence as ambulance sirens passed north of the park. It was cool to watch the group mash up trad styles with electric rock energy, without turning it into cliched 70s-style dadrock, then going deep into the Appalachian catalog. And through it all O’Donovan soared, and sailed, and brought edge and bite to the songs when they asked for them, as songs do. It’s not clear if O’Donovan will have a band with her at the Lincoln Center show or not, but either way she’s a lot of fun live.

John Prine’s The Missing Years – No Longer Missing

John Prine is one of the alltime great surrealist storytellers in any style of music, in his case Americana rock. Prine’s influence is vast: you can hear echoes of his songwriting in everyone from Townes Van Zandt, to Steve Earle, to Hayes Carll and Joe Maynard. Prine is also one of the savviest businessmen in music: he was one of the first major artists to jump off the big label treadmill and go independent, way back in the 80s. These days, a large percentage of his catalog is streaming at Bandcamp, including the new reissue of his 1992 album The Missing Years. For all of you rich folks out there, Prine has a gig coming up at the Beacon on Sept 6 with Rosanne Cash.

Looking back at the album, it’s one of his stronger and funnier ones, It transcends the era when it was made: when the major label paradigm was cheesy synthesizers and drum machines, Prine was using dobro, accordion, organ, piano and multitracking the acoustic and electric guitars. To cut to the chase, what’s newsworthy is that it’s got a previously unreleased track that turns out to be one of its best songs: that it didn’t see the light of day til twenty years later is surprising. Third of July is one of several songs here that foreshadow what Bob Dylan would do nine years later on Love and Theft, a creepy, bluesy number centered around something that “concerns the years past and the shadows they cast in my path as iIwalk around it.” The mystery of what that might be is what makes the song tick. Great Rain is the darkest of the other bluesy, Dylanesque stuff here, a tasty organ solo trading with the electric guitar as it fades out. Daddy’s Little Pumpkin sounds like a rewrite of an old Piedmont blues: “If you see my baby coming, don’t tell her that her daddy’s in jail – she’d sell her little punkin to raise her daddy’s bail,” Prine deadpans. And Way Back Then wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album, a hypnotic, nocturnal reflection.

With its Richard Thompson-flavored lead guitar, the opening cut, Picture Show, makes a surreal counterpart to Phil Ochs’ James Dean of Indiana. As Prine tells it, the indians were right, “Every time the Kodak clicks, you lose a little soul.” Another Thompson-esque song, Take a Look at My Heart is a laconic cautionary tale about a real heartbreaker. With its strange litany of bawdy literary references, it’s not clear what The Sins of Memphisto is about, or who Memphisto might be, but the narrative is a lot of fun. Likewise, the long string of similes in It’s a Big Old Goofy World is classic Prine:

I know a fella, he eats like a horse
Knocks his old balls around the old golf course
You ought to see his wife, she’s a cute little bitch
She smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish

All the Best sets Prine’s brooding lyrics over gentle fingerpicking and rimshot drums with a soft accordion backdrop: “I guess that love is like a Christmas card, you decorate a tree, you throw it in the yard.” Another catchy fingerpicked tune, Everybody Wants to Feel Like You has Prine gently drawling to a self-absorbed girlfriend to”put your little foot inside of my shoe.” With its jaunty western swing and dixieland influences, I Want to be With You Always has a vintage Dan Hicks feel. Unlonely has a great tune but corny lyrics; another love song, You Got Gold has a Tex-Mex flavor; and Everything Is Cool works its way up from an ominous acoustic intro with a darkly rustic Appalachian vibe. The last of the original album tracks is a long talking blues that offers a darkly sardonic, verbose version of Jesus’ life (his “lost years,” specifically) if he’d lived today.

Chicago Farmer’s New Album Tells Some Good Stories

Cody Diekhoff’s wryly aphoristic, darkly amusing country-folk songcraft evokes icons like John Prine and Steve Earle while it fits in with the top tier of current-day Americana artists like fellow Chicagoan Joe Pug. Recorded under Diekhoff’s performing name Chicago Farmer, his new album Backenforth, IL is just out and it tells a catchy bunch of tales. In a big city, his misfit characters would be called nonconformists – in a a rural area, they’re more likely to be considered smalltime criminals, and he’s got a soft spot for them.

The opening track, Everybody in This Town is the musical standout here. It sounds like the Wallflowers backing John Prine, with a Joe Day organ break that’s beyond gorgeous, something that keyboardists will be nicking years from now. Drawling over it, Dieckhoff contemplates the rougher side of smalltown life and how everybody’s business is everybody else’s.

The next track is Working on It, a swaying honkytonk tune with some tasty dobro. A song that breaks the fourth wall might not be the first thing you would think of in country music but this one does, and it works. A stoner folk tune with bite, The Twenty Dollar Bill at first seems like it’s going to turn into a sentimental tale about missing the old folks but takes quickly an unexpected turn that’s too good to spoil here.

With its bubbling pedal steel and brisk bluegrass shuffle beat, Backenforth is another song that at first sounds a lot more happy and laid-back than it turns out to be. The swaying, all-acoustic 200 Miles Away is a mystery story, with a country-blues feel like the stuff that’s been coming out of Brooklyn lately. The best tale of all of them here is The Jon Stokes Prison Break Blues, a scampering account of a smalltime crook who busts out of jail, with some unexpected punchlines – it’s a story worthy of Woody Guthrie.

The edgiest song here, another one that brings to mind Woody Guthrie, is Who on Earth, a scathing broadside directed at holier-than-thou hypocrites:

I got a ticket for a busted headlight
It’s 11 AM, sunny and bright
Limit’s 55, I was doing 57
Now I don’t know how I’ll get into heaven

And it gets better from there. The album ends with Backseat, a jaunty country-folk shuffle. Dieckhoff gets around a lot – it’s not unrealistic to think he might hit New York one of these days, watch this space.

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.

John Prine’s Singing Mailman Delivers

John Prine is the definition of a cult artist, someone who’s constantly in demand around the world as a performer, yet has never had a radio hit in forty years on the road (Bonnie Raitt’s cover of Angel from Montgomery was the closest he ever came to one). And back in the 80s, he was one of the first artists to jump off the major label merry-go-round and go independent. This past October, his Oh Boy Records label released a tremendously good album celebrating the 40th anniversary of Prine’s first studio and live recordings. Both are included on this double disc set, The Singing Mailman Delivers, for the first time ever. Arguably, these stripped-down, completely acoustic, lo-fi takes of some of his most iconic songs are better than big-studio major label versions: you could call them definitive.

Back in 1970, after a WFMT interview with Studs Terkel, Prine asked if he could stick around the radio station and record his songs so he’d have something to send to the Library of Congress to copyright them (how times have changed, huh!). The result, recorded in mono, includes versions of Hello In There, Souvenirs, Blue Umbrella, Sam Stone (then called Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues), Illegal Smile, Paradise and Flashback Blues. Looking back, it’s amazing how intelligent, and how original, Prine’s music is. Although his Kentucky twang is a dead giveaway of his musical roots growing up – which cuts through most clearly clearly in the stripmining lament Paradise, and a brief Hank Williams medley in the live set on the second disc – he’s not really a country singer. While there’s a Dylan influence in his early writing – check out the hilarious Memphis Blues Again reference on the last verse of the titanically metaphorical anti-Vietnam War anthem The Great Compromise – what he plays isn’t really rock music. And it’s too packed with double meanings and clever jokes to fit in with the corporate singer-songwriters like James Taylor who were just starting to come out of their pods around this time. Prine is an old soul, if you believe in that stuff – he doesn’t sound all that much different now than he did back then, he was championing old people and aphoristically offering a wisdom beyond his years. To teens-era listeners, many of the references – the Readers’ Digest in the back of the dirty bookstore, the Christmas club at the bank and lines like “sweet songs don’t last too long on broken radios” are quaint, but they’re period-perfect and spot-on.

The second part of the recording is live takes from live dates later that year at the Fifth Peg in Chicago where Prine got his start with a weekly residency, accompanied only by the terse upright bass of either Bob Brostek or Norm Siegel. As you’d expect, the set comprises many of the songs from the radio station recording. Still, it’s a warmly intimate, revealing look at a songwriter whose vivid portraits typically look outward rather than inward, capturing the wry and sometimes cruel ironies of a world and an era rather than indulging in narcissism. His guitar fingerpicking and his voice are strong, his tunes are catchy and after all these years, his lyrics are no less amazing. The litany of outdoor imagery as the acid trip in Flashback Blues begins to kick in is as gruesome as it is funny, while the reverse meaning of A Good Time packs a wallop, and the slow decline of fellow Vietnam vet Sam Stone indelibly captures one generation of shellshocked veterans while foreshadowing the 55% currently drugged up and disabled in the wake of the Cheney/Rumsfeld oil grab in Iraq. From the audience reaction, it’s obvious that by this point in time, Prine had earned an enthusiastic following, the crowd singing along on the casually sarcastic hippie satire Spanish Pipedream and Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore (a prototype for the Asylum Street Spankers’ classic Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV). What a treat to be able to hear this somewhere other than myspace (where it’s streamable in its entirety if you adjust your browser to allow pop-ups).