Sarah Shook to Shake Up Askew

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers will take the stage at Askew in a few weeks, hot off their February release Nightroamer. Whether you want to call it insurgent country, outlaw country or pull out your thesaurus for all manner of other names, Shook (they/them) specializes in honky tonk with a rock ‘n’ roll edge. 

The backstory around their North Carolina upbringing is now famous to fans – a sheltered, deeply religious upbringing in which secular music wasn’t allowed. Shook, a single parent, recently found sobriety and came out as non-binary in 2020, describing themselves as “bi and queer til the cows come home.”

Celebrated for bringing an indie rock, DIY sensibility to country themes along the lines of Lucero or Lydia Loveless, Shook’s vocal delivery is non-nonsense as they sing about fractured relationships and missed chances. Nightroamer takes Shook’s sound in new directions, in some instances trading twang for more straight-ahead sonic territory. 

“The wide spectrum of genres on Nightroamer is indicative of where I was in life when we made the record, new to sobriety and going through a lot of self-discovery,” said Shook by email. 

“Been Lovin’ You Too Long” is a minor-key indie rock song with pedal steel as background texture, reminiscent of Neko Case. “I Got This” is a sickly sweet pop song with high-pitched vocals – if dressed up a little more, it may be a Billboard top 40 contender. 

“No Mistakes” and “It Doesn’t Change Anything” are more meat-and-potatoes fare – bouncy, no-nonsense honky tonk tunes. “Stranger” feels like the perfect balance, with its wistful guitar riff and backup from the pedal steel and 12-string. It even uses autotune (though tastefully!), a very far cry from the barroom rock of Shook’s previous albums. 

They noted the deeply personal “If It’s Poison,” a catchy melancholic tune with the ‘50s chord progression, as their favorite on the record. “I wrote it after escaping an abusive relationship and while navigating a new fledgling relationship,” said Shook. “There was a great deal of uncertainty those few weeks we spent joined at the hip and ultimately we didn’t end up together.  In the end it wasn’t poison, but we also didn’t get the timing right.”

“Talkin’ to myself” is an infectious rocker complete with Hammond B3 that will keep the fans happy, and “Nightroamer” brings things back to classic country melodies. 

Nightroamer was produced by Dwight Yoakam guitarist and producer Pete Anderson, who has worked with such diverse artists as the Meat Puppets and Roy Orbison. Shook noted the band managed all pre-production, and that Anderson really only added a few embellishments toward the end. They also admitted “honestly, there were a few concessions I made I wish I hadn’t.”

Shook also just finished a solo album under the name Mightmare to be released later this year, with the first single dropping in July. On this one, titled Cruel Liars, Shook handled everything – from the drum programming to the engineering – save a few bass tracks contributed by Disarmers bassist Aaron Oliva. 

As they gear up for a grueling touring run across the US and Europe, Shook admits that the road can be a rough go: “People think it’s glamorous – it’s not.  It’s very hard to consistently eat healthy food, it’s impossible to have any type of daily routine, you have zero privacy, and you miss your loved ones like mad.

“All that said, it’s honest hard work. I love my bandmates, and it makes our fans pretty damn happy when we come through their towns.”

Sarah Shook and The Disarmers are at Askew on May 19 at 8pm. Buy tickets here

It’s Been Real

I’m not one for sappy goodbyes, but I should note this will be my last music column for Motif. I’d like to thank everyone out there for reading my stuff these past eight years, as well as the folks at the magazine, especially Mike Ryan and Emily Olson. 

High Planes: Take Flight with Ghost Town

Ghost Town, High Planes’ sophomore effort, presents a collection of rootsy Americana songs with rockabilly stylings and a pop sensibility. 

Principal songwriter Christian Calderone has been playing music since high school. He started performing with first band Bellwether on eclectic bills at the Living Room along with acts like Mixylplix and Scrub Technique. After largely taking a decade off from playing to do sound, he returned with Maria Monk, featuring various members of the Brother Kite, and later started The Lincoln Tunnel.

For Calderone, these various projects are about fitting his songs into the right boxes. “Most of the time, I’m sitting around writing songs on guitar or piano – High Planes is the project more suited to acoustic songs, where Lincoln Tunnel served the more rocking material. When I eventually bought a couple synths, I started writing songs that became the music for Steady State.” [Calderone’s synth-pop act]. 

High Planes’s 2016 debut, mayday, was a straight-up bluegrass affair, featuring hefty portions of mandolin and banjo and no drums. Like a lot of art in the last few years, the current chapter of High Planes was born out of COVID-19. “When the pandemic hit and no one could play, it was a terrible, dry time,” said Calderone. 

That summer, he set up a PA and instruments in his backyard and invited some friends over for a series of socially-distanced jam sessions. The hootenanny, drop-in atmosphere birthed the material for Ghost Town. “It was this real, organic thing driven by the isolation of COVID – just a sense of, ‘Wow, now we get to play music again.’”

As the clutches of cold weather set in, Calderone took the plunge and learned the art of digital recording, tracking most of the parts himself, with vocals and additional overdubs added later with the help of Jon Downs at The Overpass. 

Since gatherings were still a no go, the band tracked much of the material in isolation – a process Calderone likened to “building the airplane mid-flight.”

“We laid down the rhythm parts and my scratch track first, then added everything layer by layer,” he said. “Most of the musicians hadn’t even heard the viola or piano parts, for example, until toward the end.”

For Ghost Town, Calderone pulled together a crew of ringers. The guitar of Frankie “Ranks” Moniz alternates between expert Tele chicken pickin’ (“Undone”) and tasteful, more subtle leads. Greg Johnson’s viola adds a pleasing texture and refinement – his finest moment is the beautiful solo in “Interstate Interior,” a jangly country tune.

The rhythm section of bassist Jeremy Sencer – Calderone’s bandmate in Bellwether – and drummer James Toomey holds things down without distracting from the tunes. Ghost Town is being released under Toomey’s Where The Living Room Used To Be imprint, and he’s also behind the area’s leading music podcast of the same name. 

But to me, it’s mainly about the vocals. Caldarone and vocalist Annie Jaehnig play off each other with Everly-style close harmonies, reminiscent of the Civil Wars or RI’s own Brown Bird

The ever-present musical kinship gives even the more humdrum tunes like “Figure 8” and “Make Believe” a lift. These “lightning in a bottle” vocal partnerships are something you really can’t fake, and High Planes uses it to full effect. 

“Season for the Ghosts” is a soaring ballad that Calderone wrote after a conversation with an empath, and “Fearless and Wasted” is a rockin’ two step.

I’m not usually one to laud the six-minute album closer (aren’t the long ones always the closers?), but one of my favorites ended up being “Orphan Songs and Dirty Hands,” in which Calderone takes stock of his life (“I used to play in a punk rock band/the songs slowed down but it’s still the same four chords”). It’s another case of super tasteful instrumentation and playing, in this case boosted by Paul Dube on accordion and Joe Lusi on harmonica.

An example of Calderone’s “always on” writing style is “Deep As Any Ocean (Ella’s Song),” which came from a melody his daughter, 8 or 9 at the time, was plunking down at the piano. “Right then, I created a chord progression on top of it, and it became a song about the depth of love you feel for your child.”

Ultimately, Calderone sees High Planes as a collective whose sound is always evolving. “I’m not a huge fan of playing by myself. I like that everyone can bring whatever they’re feeling to it – I’m in this to get inspired by the people around me.”

Ghost Town comes out on April 15. Hear it at Bandcamp.

High Plains will hold a record release show at Askew on April 29th with Allison Rose and Bank of Ireland.

I’d also be remiss not to mention the sudden passing of Nick Iddon, stalwart drummer for acts like The Quohogs, Viking Jesus, Animal Face, Ravi Shavi, and others. I can’t say I knew Nick at all, but did catch more than a few sets with him ripping it up behind the kit, and always enjoyed his energetic playing. RIP.

Nick Politelli: Examiner

Examiner, the debut release from local guitarist and songwriter Nick Politelli, is a well-crafted rock record that mixes tight hooks with experimental grooves. 

Politelli started playing music around age 20 while studying abroad in London, initially fashioning himself as a folkster “hybrid between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.” Back in his native RI, he picked up the electric guitar when he joined the band Ravi Shavi. He also joined the band Lookers as a guitarist soon after and began writing songs on the side. His first publicly released song, “Absent Minded Fool,” came out on Ravi Shavi’s Special Hazards in 2020.

For the production and recording, Politelli employed the services of a major songwriting influence: Keith Zarriello of the NYC cult favorite the Shivers. He was initially turned on to the band by Ravi Shavi bandmate Rafay Rashid, who also served as co-producer on the record. 

Examiner was recorded over two humid weekends in June of 2021 at a cabin studio not far from Woodstock, NY operated by a friend of Zarriello’s. “There was no running water, and I woke up in the mornings flicking ticks off my arm,” said Politelli.

“I immediately loved Nick’s demos, and to me it was refreshing to hear catchy rock songs after so long,” said Zarriello. “I wanted to make sure we were innovative in some way and didn’t try to copy anyone else too much. I think it’s important that rock/guitar music continues to innovate and embrace experimentalism otherwise I fear it will become pure revivalism.”

Zarriello’s influence can be felt throughout. He played many of the bass parts, as well as some live and programmed drums, and arranged the song “While We’re Still Lonely,” which previously sounded nothing like the final version. The song is built on a patchwork of simple guitar harmonies over a slow R&B groove, and Politelli noted that the close mic’d vocal lends a more vulnerable feel. 

“If there’s one element that made this EP identifiable,” said Politelli, “I’d say it’s actually the snare sound. Keith had it locked in when I arrived at the studio. I’m not sure how he discovered it, but it was perfect for the project.”

Named for his day job as a real estate title examiner, the record at times recalls ’70s New York bands like Television and the Talking Heads, and their ability to build a song from the ground up based on simple, biting guitar riffs. “Caramelize the Light,” which Politelli cites as his favorite, employs a kind of spoken word crooning. 

“Mind is Racing (all the way over in the right lane)” examines the urban sprawl, complete with local references to Newport’s Freebody Park and sweet bread. “That one originated with me staring out my old apartment window, being angry about condo development in my neighborhood,” said Politelli.

Initially he didn’t think “Mirah,” with its sparse lyrics and a repetitive groove, was even a real song. “Keith convinced me to put it on the record. I believe in it now, but I certainly didn’t then.”

My pick is “Unholy Lonely,” the pitch perfect pop song which Politelli stated was his attempt at writing a Shivers-style tune. 

Because the studio time was limited, Politelli turned to Deer Tick drummer Dennis Ryan to fill in some of the gaps. Ryan lended some additional engineering, and played some drums and bass.

For Politelli, taking the plunge into making his own music worked out. “I basically started this effort without a band –or much of anything –and relied heavily on my musical friends to help make it happen.” 

He has recently put together a band of his own, and still plays with Ravi Shavi and Lookers. 

Check out Examiner at Bandcamp

The Shang Hi Los: Kick It Like A Wicked Bad Habit

This ass-kicking debut EP from Boston supergroup The Shang Hi Los is busting down the door with both guns blazing. The band fuses power-pop melodies with a throwback yet refreshing approach.

Scene veterans Jen D’Angora (of Jenny Dee & The Deelinquents and The Dents) and Dan Kopko of Watts share fronting duties, both on vocals and guitar. Their vocal interplay takes center stage, with her Debbie Harry to his Rod Stewart – the harmonies are so hand-in-glove at times, you can’t tell who is singing the melody.

The leadoff “Sway Little Player” has an amped-up Buddy Holly vibe, with hot licks playing off of ’50s innocence. “Skipping Records” is straight T. Rex-style glam, decrying “Love is like a kick in the eye.”  

“Funeral Home Mint” is a classic rock ripper with a chorus ready-made for radio. “Stay” is on the softer end, with breezy melodies that remind me of Aimee Mann.

Chock full of bangers, Kick It Like A Wicked Bad Habit makes it hard to know what the single is supposed to be. The tunes are deftly written and feature great musical performances by all – the rhythm section consists of drummer Chuck Ferreira and bass Lee Harrington.

The sparkly studio production mixed with the stylized vocals contribute to a sticky sweet, rock musical effect that’s super addictive. And they’ve got moves lyrically, with some super memorable lines (“My heart beats 45 RPMs/When will I ever catch my REMs?”) throughout. 

Even the cover of Chicago’s well-worn “Saturday in the Park” would generate eye rolls when performed by lesser bands. Buy this album, stat!

Check out Kick It Like A Wicked Bad Habit at Bandcamp.

Mutter – Imitation Crab

For another debut release closer to home, PVD’s Mutter draws on a music school sensibility and an unconventional mix of genres. At some moments noise-jazz and at others electrified beat poetry, the album throws in everything but the kitchen sink.

The opener “Naima,” features prominent tenor sax and high-octane noodling that culminates with vocalist Molly Halpin’s wailing. “Jaundice” has got a calypso dance feel, with interesting chords that I assume have a bunch of numbers and symbols in them.

“Celebrity” turns a dreamlike waltz into frenzied punk, and the ripping guitar solo capping it off is a nice touch. The highlight for me is “Waterbody (Think of Lee),” a cocktail lounge jam with some sophisticated bass guitar and drum spotlights.

I found “Teeth” to be fairly repetitive, and the glacial, eight-minute “Transit Street Lament” loses me, despite the soulful feel and colorful vibraphone. 

Though Imitation Crab is excessive at times, Mutter has the musicianship to back it up.

Check out Imitation Crab at Bandcamp.

Ziggy Gnardust – Bite the Bullet

Ziggy Gnardust, the project of local musician and Z-Boys drummer Zigmond Coffey, is out with Bite the Bullet, the follow-up to his 2020 debut Ziggy. These days, the 90s nostalgia that saturates this album seems to be constantly in vogue, and I don’t hate it.

Maintaining a Prince-like level of ambition, Coffey capably plays all the instruments on the record. His trademark is a viscous layer of distorted, psychedelic guitars under simple melodies and repetitive riffs.

Bite the Bullet is centered around themes of catharsis and pain, and could almost be called a woe-core concept album – the tracks deal with a lost love and a plunge into sorrow and self-harm (“Noose around my neck/this life I cannot stand”).

The album stands in stark contrast to the sensory overload of Z-Boys, and is way more measured and song-based. 

The punk rock “Nothing Left” has Coffey letting loose, and “When I’m Gone” is a heavy, Dinosaur Jr. style rocker. 

My favorite, “Under the Rug,” begins with acoustic folk-punk 3/4 reminiscent of AJJ, and builds to a fever pitch (I’m a sucker for dynamics). It also nails Billy Corgan’s Siamese Dream-era Big Muff sound – objectively one of the best tones of all time.

The overly long, melodramatic “Bite the Bullet” is a bit of a slog, but for the most part, the album swings for the fences and hits the mark. 

Check out Bite the Bullet at Bandcamp

A Country Sound From the South… of Boston: A conversation with Ward Hayden

Ward Hayden and The Outliers are back in the saddle and bringing their brand of outlaw country, rockabilly, and rock ‘n’ roll to a watering hole near you. 

Hayden picked up music relatively late (24), when the songs started flowing after he received a Gibson J45 guitar as a gift. He started Girls, Guns, and Glory in 2005 as a way to have fun with friends, but made the move to Boston a few years later and decided to make the band work for real.

Hayden’s foundation is early country music, citing as influences Lefty Frizell, the yodeling of Jimmy Rodgers, and the songwriting approach of Hank Williams – simply stated yet profound. 

The name Girls, Guns, and Glory paid homage to the motifs of ‘50s cowboy westerns and the rugged exploits of Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. But eventually, the name was dragging them down and creating unintended controversy. They permanently made the switch to Ward Hayden and The Outliers in 2018. “It’s not ideal when you’ve put years into building a brand, but on the other hand it’s been nice to not offend folks before we even set foot on stage.”

Hayden doesn’t aim to avoid the issues entirely, though. The band’s latest record, 2021’s Free Country, wrestles directly with the ills of society, including political polarization and our era of negativity. 

“2016 laid bare a lot of things about the country and a lot of people. I’ve honestly never felt disappointed in people in that way before, but maybe people are disappointed with me for my opinions,” said Hayden.

“I’d Die For You” looks at the fractured American landscape (“People have become more extreme/narrowed their focus to their own beliefs”) and “Irregardless” bemoans the influence of smartphones (“You take it in ‘til you tune it out”).

“Shelly Johnson” is a Twin Peaks-themed character study about a town past its prime and a small-town waitress stuck in an abusive marriage. “Indiana” continues the country tradition of singing about (and listing off) states.  

“Middle Man,” one Hayden highlighted as a favorite, stands out for its crooning vocal and spaghetti western sound. “For me, I’d never thought much about growing older, and all my dreams were a young man’s dreams. I always wanted to cut out the middleman, and go from youth to the end. But if you live long enough you have to start facing some other realities.”

It’s not all tumbleweeds and pedal steel, and you could easily consider Free Country a rock record. Springsteen-esque heartland rockers like “Nothing To Do (For Real This Time)” and “Sometimes You Gotta Leave” have the hooks to skewer even country-averse Yankees. 

When starting, Hayden noted the band regularly faced being too country for the rock venues and too amplified for a lot of the country and folk ones. “It took a few years to start finding a home, but we’re lucky that people like Patrick Norton at The Narrows believed in the band and let us build an audience.” 

“Bad Time (To Quit Drinkin’)” is the song to win over everybody – a tightly-written tune about hangovers, regrets, and time flying by at breakneck speed. 

Free Country was made with the support of a fan-funded Kickstarter after the band’s 2020 tour was cut short between Lexington, KY and Memphis on the way to South by Southwest. “With the dates dried up we didn’t have a means to generate any income,” said Hayden. Fans responded with a “wonderful gift of generosity,” donating enough to record, mix and master the album, as well as the moral support to release it. 

The list of renowned country singers from the South Shore of Massachusetts is not a long one, and Ward admitted they do have more to prove as a country act from the Northeast. “We’ve done a lot of touring in the South, and sometimes I don’t even say we’re from Boston till later in the show once the crowd has warmed up to what we’re doing. For the most part, nobody for a second thinks we’re from New England.” 

Hayden says he’s never spent much time listening to what passes for modern country. “More power to those that have achieved success, but the type of music I make and what’s called country on the radio are similar in name only. I don’t believe that five people sitting in a room and contriving an idea of what they can use to pander to sell is art – though maybe Andy Warhol would disagree.” 

Find Ward Hayden and The Outliers’ music on Bandcamp.

What Lies in the Shadows: Live Album Review

24 years on, Purple Ivy Shadows have released their 1997 Halloween show from the storied Lounge Ax club in Chicago. The Providence-based rock band was in the midst of their biggest national tour to date back then, supporting their debut album No Less the Trees than the Stars.

Purple Ivy Shadows, formed in Virginia by principal songwriters Erik Carlson and Chris Daltry, first came to Providence after they scored a slot in a music festival put on by Ty Jesso in 1992. The band went on to forge friends and connections here, and decided to make the city home in ‘93 after a stint in New York.

Their band’s earliest incarnation played effect-heavy shoegaze and atmospheric music, but a new rhythm section helped them shape a more bare-bones sound. They recorded No Less… in the East Side studio of Small Factory’s Dave Auchenbach, and it was released by Slow River / Rykodisc.

Daltry, who spent much of the COVID lockdown going through old recordings, thought this set was a particularly good representation of the band during their six-and-a-half week tour. “It’s a raw, ‘bootleggy’ sound, but it grew on me the more I listened to it, “ Daltry said.

He has fond memories of both the show and the now-closed Lounge Ax itself, known for its unimpeachable indie rock cred.  “Being halfway across the country, to have a place that would repeatedly book us was a treat.”

As the decades pass, the edges of time can roll off. This “album as time capsule” provides a nice slice of the ‘90s, when it seemed like everything was on the table sonically. PIS’ mixed bag sound draws on genres like alt-country and grunge that swung back against an overly commercialized, slick sound. 

PIS mixes a low-fi, shaggy aesthetic with a high-brow collegiate feel, complete with literary allusions and cryptic imagery. The album opener “Sustance” is a twangy tune with the catchy refrain “Be a good soldier and shoot yourself in the foot.” “Favorite” is a groovy, bouncy one that busts into ¾ waltz timing. 

Many of the tracks are more raw and compelling than their subdued studio counterparts. “Dancefloor’s Shiny Under Junky,” is a slow rocker that builds into a frenetic, headbanger crescendo .

The setlist includes three songs that would be included on later records, including White Electric’s “Deepstep In A Baptist,” whose definitive tom hits are almost menacing (in a friendly way). 

The wild abandon and the stuttering sax and guitar solos in “Rebuilding the Ancient Statue” is a little too artsy for my taste, but I enjoyed the noisy guitar in “Until I Saw The Fish.”

There’s nothing with the makings of a radio mega-hit here — but “Pawtucket” is the best song for my money. It mimes the irregular edges of a pop song, kind of like Pavement with telecasters. 

The show was also memorable because of the lineup — the band shared the stage with buzzed-about indie bands Apples in Stereo and Helium, as well as Boston’s Syrup USA.

The band parted ways after their final release, 2002’s Field Guide. Daltry started recording songs that would eventually become The ‘Mericans first album. Carlson went on to start the electronic and ambient project Area C.

This show is one to be proud of, and Daltry noted he hopes to release more recordings in the future. “When these analog recordings sit in a box, no one can stumble upon and listen to them.” 

Find Purple Ivy Shadows’ Live At Lounge Ax Chicago 10​-​31​-​97 at Bandcamp.

Pavid Vermin: Punk Rock from the Basement

The pandemic era nightmare has had a few upsides, including a flurry of activity from those who make music at home. With his basement recording project, Pavid Vermin, Glenn Robinson makes homegrown punk rock for the masses. The fast-paced, three-chord tunes max out around two minutes and have a hard-edged yet throwback feel — think Descendents mixed with the Misfits.

Robinson doesn’t seek to stray too far from punk rock’s well-worn grooves, but he does find ways to put his own spin on things. September saw the release of Total Bummer, a split release with Phenotypes which featured the song “Rocky Point.” An ode to the carnival rides of yesteryear? No, but much better. 

It’s a song Robinson had in his back pocket since 2006 about an experience he had while working as a production assistant on The Education of Charlie Banks, the directorial debut of Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst. “One day I was driving Fred around in a minivan right by Rocky Point,” he said. “He was wearing a wig and preparing for a confrontation scene, and sort of pushing his arms out wildly, and saying like “get some,” to himself. “It took everything I had not to burst out laughing, and I wished there was someone there with me to witness this surreal moment.”

On each release, Robinson does all the recording and plays every instrument, making him the Prince of three chord punk. And sure, the arrangements are simple, but Robinson has an ear for the small stuff — a nice ascending bassline or some deftly-placed backing vocals can make all the difference.

He recently unlocked his vault to unveil a collection of odds and ends called Dumpster Diving. “Where Has Your Head Gone” is my pick of the litter, which features a doo-woop Ramones feel, and appears to be about how the Beach Boys made it work among all the dysfunction (”Mike Love was a total douche, and Brian Wilson was insane”).

After releasing two albums under his name in the mid-2010s, Robinson started Pavid Vermin as a way to strip things down and have more fun. “I found that it would be way too difficult to go back to the studio and do it the ‘right way,’” he said. “I went back to my natural state of going into the basement and not thinking too much, saying ‘let’s just write a tune, take it from point A to point B, and let the song be the song.”

Robinson has been making music since the late 90’s under different names, in groups like Unibrows, The Prozacs, and The Paranoids, mostly as a drummer — though ironically all the drums on the Pavid Vermin are programmed. 

A graphic designer by day, he also handles all of his album art, and has an Instagram account of fake vintage album cover parodies called Obscurest Vinyl

The pandemic seemed like the perfect time to realize an idea he’d had for a while: a collection of Lookout! Records artist cover songs. The album featured songs from Green Day, Operation Ivy, and Pansy Division, and proceeds went to The Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project and the FANG Community Bail Fund. What’s even cooler, he got Chris Appelgren, former Lookout! president and graphic artist to draw the cover.

If all that’s not enough, Robinson released two albums in February in 2020. One, Cutting Corners, featured all originals with familiar titles like “Come Together,” “Octopus’s Garden,” and “Oh! Darling.” He uses these titles as a canvas and reinterprets classics like “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (“she left her keys at home, and she’s really got to go”) and “Mean Mr. Mustard (“we all know how he is”).

Check out Pavid Vermin’s music on Bandcamp.

Mercury Dropping, Music Rising: Jump into this pile of shows

Darklands are a Providence/Boston based group just out with Find Peace In The Next Life, their latest LP/EP (do those labels even matter these days?). It’s a charged live set recorded at Distorted Forest Audio recording studio. 

Find Peace opens with a bang with “The Hill I Choose To Die On,” where the two chunky, downtuned guitars create a wall of sound a la My Bloody Valentine. “Spite House” brings in a catchier, emo punk sound and “Bigger People” is a bit noisier and freer-flowing.

This album has a refreshing “warts and all” approach. The vocals are a little pitchy, but I think it seems that way in part because virtually all music we hear these days is digitally done-up with a lot of studio magic.

Purchase Find Peace In The Next Life at Bandcamp.

Here are a handful of late summer/early fall shows for your consideration: 

Note that many venues locally and nationally have announced that they’re requiring the extra step of showing your proof of vaccination and/or wearing a mask. If you ask me, it’s worth the minor inconvenience to ensure everybody feels safe for the return of live music. 

Superwolves (Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Matt Sweeney), Columbus Theatre, September 3

Superwolves is a supergroup duo made up of celebrated songwriter Bonnie “Prince” Billy and guitarist Matt Sweeney. The originally titled Superwolves is the long-awaited follow-up to their 2005 electric folk masterpiece, Superwolf.

KiSSiNG KONTEST/Salem Wolves/Moodrunners/Gamma Rage, Dusk, September 4

Gamma Rage is fronted by recent Motif Music Award Winner Malyssa BellaRosa, Salem Wolves are a Boston rock band of note, and Kissing Kontest is the music of Preston Neutrino. Moodrunners impressed with their stellar debut EP earlier this year. 

Scurvy Dog Parking Lot Mega Show II, September 5

Standing in a parking lot? Will that be fun? Is it even a nice parking lot? Not particularly. But Scurvy Dog’s long running Mega Show series does pack a bunch of cool bands into the Labor Day Sunday. This year’s event features Triangle Forest, the Fatal Flaw, JUGGWORLD, Song Birds and way more.

Rhythm and Roots, Ninigret Park, Labor Day Weekend

A South County favorite returns after a year off. Heavy hitters here include British folkster Richard Thompson, American folkster John Hiatt and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. For local(ish) artists who always deliver, check out Ward Hayden & The Outliers (formerly Girls Guns & Glory), Charlie Marie and Will Evans. 

Ben Folds, Vets Auditorium, September 24

Ever the consummate performer, Ben Folds is coming to town for a solo show. This is not a situation where the lack of band is a bummer. I’ve seen him solo a few times and found the show thoroughly enjoyable. 

The Last Dropout Night: A Celebration of Jon Tierney, The Parlour (PVD), September 25 

Local songwriter “Big Jon” Tierney passed away in December 2020 and was, by all accounts, both extremely talented and very well-liked by all. This memorial performance will feature Kris Hansen, Christian Calderone, Becca Neveu, Matty O, Nate Cozzolino and more. Check Facebook for more details

Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Fete, October 6

I caught these guys on a weekend morning news show recently and found them pretty entertaining. It’s a country rock sound that’s heartworn, gritty and that kind of thing, without feeling manufactured. Their latest LP, A Few Stars Apart, dropped in June. 

Whitney, Columbus, October 30

This band kept coming up on my Spotify playlists (sorry, yes, I have surrendered to the algorithm), and I was impressed when I finally dove into their catalog of compelling, hooky chamber pop.

Ancient Offerings: Vudu Sister’s new release offers a modern twist on ancient myths

Burnt Offerings is the new release from Vudu Sister, a unique record featuring modern retellings of ancient myths in Latin and ancient Greek. With his signature gothic folk stylings, Keith J.G McCurdy eloquently spins a new take on tales as old as time. This project immediately caught my attention. Who is this hyper-educated madman? And why write lyrics in dead languages? 

McCurdy, reached by phone, says he’s always loved mythology and Tolkien. “While taking some mythology courses in the University of Rhode Island (URI) Classics department, I fell in love with Latin and Greek languages,” said McCurdy.

McCurdy’s mentor, Dr. Daniel Carpenter, encouraged students to create projects using Latin and Greek. McCurdy had the idea to write songs after trying his hand at poetry, and was awarded a grant from URI to help with the recording costs. 

The cumbersome songwriting and translation operation required a specific plan of attack for each song. “The process was a lot more mathematical than for writing a regular song,” said McCurdy. “These all began with the melody, and in some cases it made more sense to start with the Greek or Latin words first, and sometimes the English.”

Inspired by Ovid’s Heroides poems, told from the viewpoint of women in myth, the record puts the female perspective at the forefront. The subjects feel of particular significance given our society’s reckoning with the issues of sexual assault and gender inequality.

“Scelera Malorum,” or “the crimes of wicked men,” is told from the perspective of the furies in their role as arbiters of vengeance in retribution for crimes against women: “Blood the price, from lawless fire/Having been extorted, is a harsh payment/Out of sleepless hate, from reckless rage our violence.” Angela Degaitas and Rachel Rosencrantz provide backing harmonies, representing the three furies along with McCurdy.

Four out of the five songs are in Latin, with the exception of “ἡ Κλυταιμνήστρα” in Ancient Greek. In it, Clytemnestra kills her husband out of revenge for the slaying of their daughter. “On the surface, ‘Clytemnestra’ doesn’t sound all that musical, so I did this one as kind of a challenge,” said McCurdy.

“Credite Mihi” (“Believe Me”) recounts the story of Cassandra, cursed with the gift of foresight. This was my favorite of the batch, with its Eastern European lilt and catchy melody.

It should be noted that these are all McCurdy’s original songs, not recreations of ancient music. “I thought it was important to do this in a contemporary vein, and in a way that is consistent with my own style,” said McCurdy. He cites musical influences like Sicilian folk and the Greek genre rebetiko.

Much like the subject matter, the music has a classical sounding pedigree, with a string-heavy instrumentation of guitar, double bass, violin and viola. Sonically and thematically, Burnt Offerings picks up where Vudu’s 2016 Mortis Nervosa album leaves off, as that record drew from ghost stories and folk tales. 

“Flores Lecti” gives a sweet and sour effect, moving from somber 6/8 to an upbeat, almost poppy chorus. But in true downer mythological fashion, this chorus turns out to mean “I became a bride of death/Who is forever a maiden,” describing how Persephone is taken by Hades at the apex of youth and beauty.

“Amor Carmen Novercae” is a macabre waltz that is anchored by an enchanting violin. The album features excellent “hands off” production with minimal effects.

McCurdy realizes the barriers to entry with Burnt Offerings, and isn’t expecting listeners to learn Ancient Greek. “I’m well aware that it’s potentially alienating, and that a lot of people won’t go that deep into the subject matter,” he said. “There’s a hope that the songs will stand on their own melodically, and are still able to capture or evoke some of that emotion.”

Though I admit that it is more difficult to connect with music you don’t understand, I found the arranging, melodies, and all-around musicianship impressive. Even more impressive is McCurdy’s will to take on this gargantuan project and breathe new life into these age-old stories. 

Burnt Offerings, along with translations, is available for download at Bandcamp.

Optimism Rising: Modern folk to usher in a post-pandemic summer

I write this as I’m about to head off to a concert, hopefully the first of many this summer, and it finally feels like the pandemic cloud is lifting. This month, I take a look at two compelling takes on modern folk.

Will Orchard — I Reached My Hand Out

It’s been over three years since my profile of Will Orchard, then performing under the moniker LittleBoyBigHeadonBike. We spoke about his releasing music on Bandcamp at a furious pace, at times putting out songs every few days. 

Now based in Boston, he hasn’t slowed down much, making music under his own name. His sophomore release, I Reached My Hand Out, combines hi-fi production, experimental song structures, and Orchard’s frank, observational honesty. 

Orchard’s website reads: “I Reached My Hand Out documents the process of walking away from shame, learning to criticize yourself and the world with empathy, and then walking right back again.” 

Elements of dream pop and psychedelia pair well with themes of loneliness and evocative, slice-of-life lyrics. The chorus of voices behind “Alone” bolster a kind of a half spoken word song that reads like poetry:

Driving through perfect little towns/on the edge of New Hampshire, I start to speed/The moon just sat there unmoving above me/And the headlights in the jeep trailing behind, uneasily.”

I Reached My Hand Out was released by Better Company Records and produced by San Fermin’s Allen Tate, which makes sense given that band’s penchant for lush production. The album provides many sonic textures to unpack, including clarinet, piano, banjo, and choruses of layered background vocals, which at times remind me of a mix between the Killers and Bon Iver.

While the album does feature some of the expected stripped-down fingerpicking (“Hair Salon”), it goes in plenty of bold new directions. “October Hallways” and “Smoke Alarm” feature a cool take on the neo folk electronica sound perfected by Sufjan Stevens. 

After a hazy intro, “Come Into My Fog” evolves into something so upbeat and poppy to the point of being Deadlike. The song narrates profound moments of minutiae from his life: 

“I walked out of my foggy head/And got a cup of coffee downstairs/There was a cornucopia/On the kitchen table ringed with flowers.” 

“Rita,” with its evocative lyrics (“Throwing darts at the wall/With a blindfold around my heart”) and a  memorable melody, is a highlight. The album’s opus is “Over Blue Highways,” which sounds like alt-country-era Ryan Adams interspersed with the earnest acoustics of Phosphorescent.

I commend Will on this well-thought-out record. All those Bandcamp releases were leading him to some pretty ambitious, interesting material.

Find streaming info, lyrics, and more at willorchard.net.

Andrew Victor — Here, honey

On Here, honey, Westerly-based songwriter Andrew Victor mines the rich harmony in subtlety, with a sense of spacious noise and pathos. Adding to an impressive back catalogue of DIY releases, Victor wrote, performed and recorded everything on the album, and you can sense the homespun quality. 

The acoustic “Westerly” incorporates elements that are both sad and pastoral, with haunting harmonies underneath. “Meant to Be” features sparse, moody synths.

The album features more traditional songs mixed in with more sporadic instrumental interludes. “Quilcene” has an eerily familiar piano pattern, and “South Prairie” reminds me of Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire score. 

“Give Me The Open Field Now” is a futuristic groove set over a hazy whir. Though it’s not super electric, he’s got a David Gilmouresque “master of effects” thing going on throughout.

Call me a normie, but I definitely could’ve used a few more verse-chorus-verse tunes among the drony instrumentals. But all in all, worth checking out. 

Purchase Andrew Victor’s Here, honey at Bandcamp.