Posts Tagged ‘ Bloodshot Records ’

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward (Music Review)

Gone Away Backward cover

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward

Robbie Fulks held an interesting position in the early days of alt country: He was justly regarded as a genius, but never quite fit into the scene. Fulks was just a little too authentic, and could be as dismissive of elitist alt-country poseurs as he was of brainless pop country culture. In context, it’s not too surprising that he would return from a years-long semi-hiatus with an album like Gone Away Backwards. This is a set of no-frills country songs that could be mistaken for a time capsule from half a century ago. Full of slow, mournful ballads and an old man’s sensibility, it has little of the commercial appeal that was peppered through his old albums. All his past releases mixed things up with a few gimmicky songs or sarcastic attacks on tradition, but there’s no change of pace here.

That’s not to say that Gone Away Backwards is disappointing. On the contrary, it may be Fulks’ masterwork. “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” opens the album with one of the most philosophical drunkards I’ve heard in song, and the winding narration of “The Many Disguises of God” starts with a new father’s thoughts and proceeds through the world’s atrocities and sorrows. The dominant theme is that of an old man looking back at life with regret, and I hope that’s not entirely autobiographical. But the prevailing atmosphere is that of “the country”, and this album seems to be Fulks’ thesis on that oft-maligned concept. With deep lyrics and strong emotion, Fulks describes a culture that’s nothing like the one that the music industry wants to commoditize for us.

The themes of regretful life and country culture mix frequently, including “That’s Where I’m From”, the spiritual heart of the album. It sounds at first like one of those “country checklist” songs that pop stars like to sing to let you know exactly how to be like them, with lines like “that’s where I’m from, where time passes slower, that’s where I’m from, where it’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir’”. But how many songs like that would close with “some place I can’t go home to, that’s where I’m from”? The song contains a real look at the things that may make someone try to leave the culture, and faces the fact that remaining “country” in the city is a mixed blessing. In contrast to songs that say “everyone should be this way”, Fulks sees his roots as a personal thing and only wants to explain, not convert.

This album was produced by Steve Albini, and he was a perfect choice. His gift for making musicians sound “like themselves” was exactly what this stripped-down performance needed. Fulks and his music are clear and crisp, with both the skill and imperfections laid out for the world. After this, it’s difficult to listen to Fulks’ last big album, Georgia Hard, without hearing heavy-handed studio effects. In fact, Gone Away Backward is Fulks’ return to Bloodshot Records, and I can’t help but wonder if even a label like Merge was too “big” to let him do something as simple and authentic as this. I’ve expressed conflicted feelings about Bloodshot on this blog before, but their (very light) fingerprint on works like this shows how beneficial they can be.

This may not be an immediately accessible album. The complex lyrics reward multiple listens, though, and without betraying the simple hillbilly sound that Fulks has embraced. Most importantly, though, this is exactly the album that he wanted to make. Gone Away Backward is a strong vision from an underappreciated artist, and there were no compromises in its creation.

Grade: A

Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing (Music Review)

The Value of Nothing cover

Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing

The last time I reviewed one of Eddie Spaghetti’s solo albums, I suggested that he stop doing so many covers and focus on original material. Well, he wrote all the songs on The Value of Nothing, but it doesn’t help as much as I’d hoped. He partially moves away from the country style he had been using, splitting the difference with the mature rock of Get It Together, Spaghetti’s most recent record with The Supersuckers. Get It Together was an excellent, underrated album, and Spaghetti just can’t duplicate that when playing with just a couple band members and straddling the line between country and rock. If his previous solo work suffered in comparison to the classic songs he was covering, this one can’t help but be compared to Get It Together.

This certainly isn’t all bad. Most notably, “Waste of Time” is a really fun swinging country song about being a lazy slacker. “You Get To Be My Age” is a love song with an unusual perspective, and the personal nature of songs like this make it easier to overlook some of the album’s flaws. “When I Go, I’m Gone” is a quieter version of a song that originally appeared in Get It Together. It’s arguable which is better, and they’re different enough to each stand alone, though this one isn’t exactly essential given that you should already own Get It Together.

Most of the other tracks are nothing special. With the added rock element on this album, it finally makes sense to see Spaghetti on Bloodshot Records. He sounds like yet another aging rock star playing with country sounds and unafraid to experiment, but also not necessarily aware of which experiments worked. He needed someone around to point out that the accordion on “People Are Shit” makes it sound like a bad polka song, instead of another interesting love story. And “If Anyone’s Got The Balls” is a weird, misguided attempt at bragging and some mild obscenity that sounds out of place. (On the other hand, “Fuckin’ With My Head” is a mostly successful use of over-the-top swearing. This is something that The Supersuckers have done well in the past. It may not compare to highlights like “Pretty Fucked Up” from Motherfuckers Be Trippin’, but it’s a decent song.)

Disappointingly, The Value of Nothing continues Spaghetti’s recent trend of fans-only albums that even the fans will enjoy sporadically. There are some good tracks here, but overall, this is the sort of album he can only get away with because he’s capable of doing much better things.

Grade: C

 

Bloodshot Records Capsule Reviews

As with the past couple years, I like to take some time in January to review the albums I bought at Bloodshot Records’ holiday sale. (As of today, the sale is still going on, though their site doesn’t say how long it will last.)

I don’t know if I will keep doing this, though. I don’t want to wait until January to review the brand new albums (I went ahead and reviewed Justin Townes Earle’s latest right away, for example), and I may have reached my limit for older items from the Bloodshot catalog. This time, I found myself scrolling through the list of sale CDs, asking myself if I really needed another Wayne Hancock or Waco Brothers album. So I don’t know what I’ll decide next time.

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Three Country/Folk Tribute Albums

Today’s review looks at a few older tribute albums that I have. I’m interested not only in whether they are good, but what makes a tribute album worthwhile in itself.


Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows cover

Various Artists – Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows

For example, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows is a well-deserved tribute to John Prine. Its songs feature trendy-but-not-mainstream artists from the folk and country scenes, basically aiming this at the modern version of Prine’s audience. The covers are very faithful to the originals, but that actually speaks to the range and influence of those songs. Josh Ritter’s version of “Mexican Home” sounds exactly like a Josh Ritter song, and the slick country packaging of “Spanish Pipedream” is perfect for The Avett Brothers. (Justin Townes Earle’s “Far From Me” actually sounds like what Earle should be writing.) The only misfire is “Wedding Day In Funeralville”, in which Conor Oberst sounds like an eager kid begging to sit at the adults’ table.

These are excellent performances of powerful songs, but the album still can’t help but feel a bit slight. They basically are Prine’s songs, just polished up a bit for today’s audiences. But Prine’s originals hold up well, and are still well-regarded enough in the modern folk community that the people buying this have little reason not to just buy his albums. Broken Hearts is a good collection, but more in the sense of a greatest hits disc or a remastered update, not in the sense of something new.

There are tribute albums that recast the subject in a new light or bring an artist to a new audience’s attention. This doesn’t do either. Though it’s too well done to be thought of as a cash-in, it is obvious that these (very good) tracks will be forgotten before they are as old as the originals are now.

Grade: B-


Twistable, Turnable Man cover

Various Artists – Twistable, Turnable Man

Twistable, Turnable Man fills a very different role. Few people are aware that Shel Silverstein wrote songs, and many who do discover them are put off by his rough voice and joking delivery. He was a master songwriter, though, and a tribute like this is long overdue.

The performances here generally position Silverstein in the same folksy songwriter territory as Prine (he even appears here, in fact), though it has more variety than Broken Hearts did: Black Francis is a perfect choice for the exaggerated rock sleaze of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”, and Dr. Dog’s pastoral approach to “The Unicorn” captures the hippie vibe. The artists represent multiple generations, from Ray Price and Bobby Bare, Sr. to My Morning Jacket and Andrew bird. Plenty of Silverstein’s recognizable humor is here, though he came from a less ironic era, and had a surprising amount of sentimental songs as well. “The Giving Tree” and “Daddy What If” both appear here to represent that. I don’t find them worth the re-listens of Silverstein’s other work, though. (My favorite song in that vein is “Comin’ After Jinny”, but it’s not included.)

With those exceptions, there isn’t a bad song here. Even better, you have probably heard of almost none of them, even though they sound like folk classics here. The only other track that casual listeners are likely to recognize is “A Boy Named Sue”. Todd Snider does a good job with it, but Johnny Cash already sang the definitive cover. However, “The Winner” sung by Kris Kristofferson deserves its place in the pantheon right next to that song. (Seriously, you need “The Winner”. It is another humorous song about a tough brawler, and just as good as the song Cash made famous.)

Twistable, Turnable Man doesn’t just introduce Silverstein’s songs to a generation that had no idea they existed. It also makes an editorial decision to present him as a sober songwriter with the occasional joke. In reality, Silverstein had many facets, and was predominantly a counterculture prankster. Though the artist selections here are impeccable, I find myself wishing for some of today’s libertines and stoners to cover songs like “Polly In A Porny” and “I Got Stoned And I Missed It”. They wouldn’t fit in on this album, though. The style presented here is an intentional artistic decision.

The songs on Twistable, Turnable Man are great on their own terms, just like those on Broken Hearts. But this album also serves a larger purpose, both drawing attention to a little-known artist and providing its own bold take on the works. That turns the whole work into something essential.

Grade: A-


Hard-Headed Woman cover

Various Artists – Hard-Headed Woman

Song by song, Hard-Headed Woman generally doesn’t live up to the standard of quality set by the above albums. However, Wanda Jackson arguably needs a modern update more than John Prine does. Her recording career began a generation earlier, and so the songs feel a little more dated today. Also, despite being adored by her fans as the “First Lady of Rockabilly”, she’s not generally well-known. (This is less true today, since Jack White engineered Jackson’s comeback album, but she definitely deserved more recognition when this compilation was made in 2004.)

This Bloodshot Records tribute loses Jackson’s personality and doesn’t try to copy her vocal tricks, but it offers honest appreciation and modern production. Also, it avoids presenting only one of Jackson’s faces. I’m sure it would have been tempting for this label, still early in its “country-punk” days, to focus on the proto-riot-grrl of “Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad” and “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will”. But they gave equal time to her wholesome country side with, among other songs, the prayer of “One Day At A Time”.

The main problem with Hard-Headed Woman is that the best tribute albums sound like they’re coming from peers acknowledging their influences. Here, the performers are obviously still living under Jackson’s shadow. Several have since become moderately big names, including Robbie Fulks, The Asylum Street Spankers, and Wayne Hancock, but the only real star is Neko Case. (If you’re a fan of Case’s pure country days, though, her version of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is a must-have. Never mind that Jackson isn’t one of the first five people you’d associate the song with.) The bulk of the album, though, is filled out with the people best known for rounding out Bloodshot compilations: The Bottle Rockets, Rosie Flores, and others. Aside from Neko Case’s standout, though, I actually think most of the best performances here come from the lesser-known artists.

It should also be said that the Bloodshot crew seemed more willing to adapt the songs than the stars of John Prine’s tribute did: Trailer Bride’s drone gives “Fujiyama Mama” a foreign, threatening feel, and The Cornell Hurd Band provide a funkier, country trash version of “This Gun Don’t Care Who It Shoots”. It’s easy to dismiss this as a bunch of covers thrown off from a small label, but they made a lot of their own artistic choices without any real missteps.

This album is far from essential, but it’s surprisingly fun and heartfelt. Plenty of music fans today know little about Wanda Jackson, and this tribute makes an introduction to her. The original songs would work as well, but these ones document her influence in a way that isn’t obvious from the old recordings themselves. In that way, this provides a unique justification for its existence.

Grade: B-

 

Scott H. Biram – Bad Ingredients (Music Review)

Bad Ingredients cover

Scott H. Biram - Bad Ingredients

Gravel-voiced “dirty old one-man band” Scott H. Biram has mellowed out noticeably with each new album. Bad Ingredients reverses that trend, with lo-fi blues covering every sound from his early wild rock to his later ballads. In that sense, Bad Ingredients is probably the best introduction a new listener will find to Biram. For someone who is already familiar with him, on the other hand, it is the first one to seem a little underwhelming.

I want to be careful not to dismiss this too quickly, though. Even though he isn’t breaking new ground here, I expect to look back in a year or two and consider many of the songs here to be among his best. But at least now, they seem to be less interesting than I expect from Biram. The one potentially new direction I see is that songs like “Born In Jail” and “I Want My Mojo Back” are more indebted to classic blues than his past DIY efforts. It’s a subtle change, though, and those ones don’t always feel as honest and personal as his best.

Though this is his most rocking album in years, that doesn’t seem to be Biram’s strength any more. Songs like “Killed A Chicken Last Night” recall the chaotic, rambling abandon of The Dirty Old One-Man Band, but without the energy behind it. On the other hand, some great things come out of the career-spanning mix. “Victory Song”, for example, applies that chaotic rambling to a more formally-structured song with great results. If you prefer the assured rock-n-roll attitude of Graveyard Shift, you’ll find that incorporated frequently, and usually with success.

It’s probably misleading for me to imply that Biram is calm or quiet. No matter how much he mellows out, his restless, redneck blues will always be inappropriate for dates and dinner parties. For example, the album’s standout is “Broke Ass”, a song that I would unsarcastically describe as a soulful ballad, beautiful despite his rough blues-man voice. But it’s still a song about a depressed slacker and his “worn out two-dollar whore”. Even for a Bloodshot Records artist, he incorporates a lot of metal into his country/blues format. But unlike many Bloodshot artists, it feels entirely authentic, with no posturing or overreaching.

In fact, Biram is the unappreciated gem of Bloodshot’s catalog. Their performers tend to fall into two categories: Decent cover artists committed to an “alt-country” aesthetic that the rest of the underground country scene has already moved beyond, and truly skilled artists who are just passing through on their way to larger indie labels. Biram is an authentic, unique talent who follows his own muse, but has been overlooked by too many people. If you haven’t heard him before, then like I said, Bad Ingredients makes a great introduction. And if you have, what are you waiting for? Even if it’s not his most original work, it’s still a new Scott H. Biram album.

Grade: B


Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine (Music Review)

Indestructible Machine cover

Lydia Loveless - Indestructible Machine

Lydia Loveless is the new star standard-bearer for Bloodshot’s “country punk” sound, with an aggressive snarl and songs full of taunts and kiss-offs. But she is just as quick to present herself as a socially awkward alcoholic, with references to depression that seem a little too real to write off as mere songwriting. Loveless’ biggest strength is in how she merges these two sides of her personality, and presents it as a consistent, fleshed-out life. If great country singers are expected to open their lives to the audience, she has the most promising approach in the modern rebel scene. Her debut album Indestructible Machine’s greatest accomplishment is shouting out lines like “you seem like such a pussy, babe” while still claiming a place in the conservative country tradition.

However, she still has some room for improvement. The opening songs demonstrate this best, with “Bad Way To Go” being simply jarring, and “Can’t Change Me” sounding like a rock band and country singer who are about to split over creative differences. The sadder songs could stand to have slightly more nuanced singing and less projecting of her voice. But when she attempts that with the more generic-sounding “How Many Women”, it seems that she had to forget her strengths in order to slow things down.

However, even the weak songs are usually excellent vehicles for Loveless’ character, and feature snappy, personal lyrics. When everything fits together as it should, the effect is excellent: “Jesus Was a Wino” is a shit-kicking justification for alcoholism, but with a dark edge that will discourage anyone from living vicariously through her. (The hook is “if I can’t find the corkscrew, I’ll just smash it open right here on the floor”.) “Crazy” should be the template for her quieter side, presenting a downward spiral that can’t be stopped despite the narrator’s self-awareness.

Indestructible Machine is consistently enjoyable, and at least for now, Loveless’ unevenness is part of her reckless charm. Even the songs that should be better are difficult to stop listening to, and the high points are worth the price of the album. I can’t tell how or if she’ll evolve next, but I have high hopes. This might not be the best debut of the past year, but it may be the most promising.

Grade: B


Eddie Spaghetti – Sundowner (Music Review)

Sundowner cover

Eddie Spaghetti - Sundowner

Sundowner is the third solo album from Eddie Spaghetti, but his first released through Bloodshot Records. The new label doesn’t change much, though. A review of this could match the earlier albums almost word for word. His formula is a series of country covers, with just a couple originals, as always including selections from both Steve Earle and Spaghetti’s own Supersuckers.

Spaghetti is a competent but unremarkable singer, and his band matches him in that. His strength here isn’t so much in his performance, but in his excellent taste as a curator. Spanning generations of country, and even choosing a couple curveballs from the punk scene, everyone should expect to learn some new songs from this album. (Did you ever expect to hear a country cover of The Dwarves or Lee Harvey Oswald Band?) I wonder, though, if I would prefer him to devote this energy to hosting a radio show or releasing compilations. His renditions stick so close to the originals that there sometimes seems to be little purpose to them. But then, nothing about this album implies commercial calculation: From the cover picture of his wife to the closing song by his son, not to mention the rambling greeting inside, this is obviously a labor of love. (And yes, those elements appear on all his solo albums.) From that perspective, it’s easy to enjoy this. I may wish Spaghetti tried to put his own mark on these covers, but his enthusiasm for them is unmistakeable. As an ambassador between country music and the punk scene, his intended audience will get a lot out of this.

As always, the cover of his own Supersuckers song (in this case, “Marie”) fares poorly next to the classics he’s chosen, but he acquits himself well with a couple new songs. They may not be technically the best on the album, but at least there are no better versions out there to compare them to. They flesh out the album, and establish him as a creative force in his own right.

Compared to his other albums, this doesn’t hit the highs of Extra Sauce (which had all his first picks of songs to cover, and was elevated, surprisingly, by an excellent harmonica performance), but it regains the energy that Old No. 2 often lacked. I’m still holding out hope for him to release an original country album someday. He’s already proven that he has the aptitude for that, both on his own and with the Supersuckers. In the meantime, these interesting but somewhat forgettable fans-only albums do their part to flesh out the legacy of a great rock-and-roll star.

Grade: C+


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