Now Hear This: Red Collar, JKutchma, The dB’s, more!
Red Collar – Welcome Home (Tiny Engines); JKutchma and the Five Fifths – Pastoral (Last Chance Records)
If you think there’s a more threadbare shibboleth in rock’s mythology than the rock & roll-as revolution ideal, just YouTube the Nike/Beatles sneaker-revolution ad for a how-things-really-work reminder. Yet the idea refuses to burn out or fade away because every so often along comes some sonuvabitch — this time in spurs, no less — like Durham’s Jason Kutchma, punching the rock & roll clock and singing his goddamn guts out about falling in love with punk rock, being young and lost in America, and what family really means.
Kutchma’s salt of the earth songs with both Red Collar and his new country rock project, JKutchma & the Five Fifths, remind us that revolutions begin at home, and that rock can still pack a transformative punch at the personal level. Yet until these new releases, RC’s sprawling 2009 debut Pilgrim (which reworked most of an earlier EP’s songs) and Kutchma’s two live solo EPs were the only recorded evidence of the songwriter’s two sides: the Fugazi-meets-E-Street Band barroom punk, and the twangy folk messenger whose lineage winds back through Nebraska and Bob Dylan to Dustbowl Ballads. Here, Welcome Home streamlines Red Collar’s anthemic declarations without sacrificing their punk power, and the Five Fifths’ Pastoral colors Kutchma’s sparse folk in breathtaking hues of big-sky Americana.
The two records may be miles apart sonically, but they’re linked thematically and aesthetically — more proof that punk and country are a two-sided coin hammered in the same hard knocks foundry. Three years in the making, Welcome Home tells a band-as-family story with all the luggage that entails. When Pilgrim came out, the members of Red Collar — including guitarist Mike Jackson, Kutchma’s bassist wife Beth and drummer Jonathan Truesdale — left their jobs to tour America. But life intervened, from marriage and parenthood down to broken bones and home repairs. Momentum stalled.
So Kutchma hit the road on his own. It was out there, he’s said, that he learned that the search for connection begins at home. No wonder then that Welcome Home’s 10-song arc begins with a searing anthem of middle-age angst called “Orphanage” and ends with the redemptive title cut, a guitars-blazing ballad of familiar home-town signposts and acceptance. In between — in smoldering songs about leaving, seething songs about music as a way out, and desperate songs about not fading away — are the buzz-saw guitar chords, staccato counterpoints, hard-charging rhythms and shout-along choruses that define Red Collar.
But the focus here is sharper than Pilgrim, the songs generally tighter and shorter. A lot of bad shit still goes down — fathers abandon families, workers get laid off, relationships go bust and fear waits to quash your dreams at every turn — yet Red Collar’s response is direct and defiant. Seize each moment before it’s gone for good. “Why do you take pictures and not live in the moment of the image you capture?” Kutchma pleads on the thrumming rocker “Dodge K.” Survival depends on turning into the headwinds and using whatever’s at hand to forge forward anyway. Done with conviction and zeal, as it is here, it turns out rock & roll can still fill that bill.
Survival has been country’s purview from the get-go, which Pastoral reminds us: Sing your troubles out loud to take some of the bite from their sting. Charging country rocker “Teenage DMZ” links these two records with a tale of young-man angst that flowers into rockabilly redemption.
Kutchma and his new band — comprised of members of Maple Stave, Some Army and Rat Jackson — deliver the other eight songs in an impressive variety of Americana shades. There’s the shuffling resignation of the harmonica-fueled “The End of the World” to contrast with the sinister, organ-fired blues of “I’ll Survive,” where Kutchma roars against the gods and injustice; the pedal steel balladry of “Don’t It Figure Better” playing off the glistening Louvins gospel of “There’s A Light On,” another affirmation of home and family.
Pastoral closes with “I Will Not Be Broken (Nor Will I Be Denied),” a final declaration of defiance lifted aloft on lap steel and soaring harmonies. “I heard, ‘Stay down, don’t get up, boy,’” Kutchma cries, his reason the corner man to the stubborn fighter who, against all the odds and haymakers, will get up again and again until that final count. The decision, of course, will go against Kutchma and his music- making friends, just as it does for everyone in the end. But to know you gave it everything you had? Hell, what a revolutionary idea. —John Schacht
The dB’s – Falling Off the Sky (Bar/None); Jon Lindsay – Summer Wilderness Program (Bear Hearts Fox); Lilac Shadows – A Shallow Madness (Diggup Tapes)
Face it: music isn’t timeless. The so-called classics are so called because they’re avatars of an era, not because they transcend it. That’s why nostalgia’s such a feeble crutch, why reunion tours and Greatest Hits cash grabs deserve a jaundiced eye, and why the new dB’s record isn’t all that great.
Falling Off The Sky is the first dB’s record in more than 25 years, and the first to feature the band’s original quartet — co-frontmen Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple, bassist Gene Holder and drummer Will Rigby — in more than 30. Upon their formation in 1978, The dB’s already carried an impressive members-of list. Holsapple and Stamey played together in Rittenhouse Square, and Stamey and Rigby in The Sneakers. (Both bands also featured Mitch Easter, who helped produce and lent additional guitar to Falling.) As active members of an American power-pop vanguard, The dB’s and their peers helped forge the template for indie rock in the late-80s and 90s. They’re part of a scene cited as influential for R.E.M. (with whom Holsapple frequently toured) and Superchunk. The dB’s legacy is cemented. The band’s four studio albums (only two of which feature Stamey) stand up as keepsakes of the time. Jangling through strong hooks and wry lyrical twists, their classics have aged well, even as they’ve become more important for what they were than for what they are.
Falling doesn’t have that luxury. What it does have is chemistry. Stamey, Holsapple, Holder and Rigby grew up together in Winston-Salem, and despite only periodically crossing musical paths in their hiatus, the quartet recorded a tight set full of unassuming complements. Holsapple and Stamey swap the mic seamlessly. And studio embellishments — the horns on “The Wonder of Love,” for example — take a permanent backseat to the compact precision of The dB’s pop craft. Still, nothing rises beyond the level of accomplishment the band achieved decades ago; no song dares a bold new move beyond the chiming, heavily harmonic mid-tempo.
It’s telling that Stamey has said of Falling, “In some ways, this feels like the record that we could have made between our first and second albums.” Falling is most remarkable in how much it sounds as if the quarter-century interval between albums never happened. It did, though, and as time marched forward, so did a new generation of musicians who mutated the pop-rock template to their own more contemporary impulses.
One needn’t look beyond N.C. for proof.
Sam Logan, a Durham 20-something, spent his collegiate years at the helm of The Huguenots, whose power-pop re-enactment gig was bound to be remembered for its novelty, no matter how compelling its craft became. Upon that band’s dissolution last year, though, Logan eased up on the retromania for his new outfit, Lilac Shadows. On their proper debut, the eight-song A Shallow Madness EP, Logan doesn’t shed the crisp, buttoned-up pop of his former band, but infuses the jangling guitars and warm melodies with shadows of shoegaze and light-psych, and a slight electronic gloss that is purely early-aughts, even as it takes cues from a long line of shimmering pop.
As Lilac Shadows started marking its maturity with a more nuanced manipulation of moods, Charlotte’s Jon Lindsay turned his years of playing in other people’s bands (Benji Hughes and Nicole Atkins among them) into a successful solo career. The 31-year-old singer/songwriter’s second full-length, Summer Wilderness Program, is a slave to its hooks, following the timeless pop practice of using immediacy as an express route to staying power. It also builds from the strummy pop precedent of 2010’s Escape From Plaza-Midwood to encompass a bolder textural palette and a broader embrace of influences on both sides of The dB’s timeline. Here, the classic pop of the Beatles and Big Star mingles with Lemonheads alt-rock, Elliott Smith brooding and glossy blog-era indie-pop.
Meanwhile, in their true-to-form comeback,the dB’s offer solid surplus for an already storied catalog; old dogs proud to replay the same old tricks. Youth isn’t always wasted on the young.—Bryan C. Reed
Chatham County Line — Sight & Sound (Yep Roc)
Sight & Sound fulfills a long-overdue function in the Chatham County Line catalog: It documents the group’s staggering live show, four friends unplugged around an area mic playing raw, energetic bluegrass bolstered by irresistible pop hooks. This CD/LP/DVD release is packed with such highlights: The fiddle on “Wildwood” slashes with white-hot twang; “Nowhere to Sleep” is a manic assault of high-speed pickin’. Still, it isn’t as exciting as CCL originally hinted. Last winter, they indicated it would include selections from the electric half of their annual Christmas tour. These strident acoustic numbers offer no such probing of bluegrass tradition. Unfulfilled promise aside, Sight & Sound is still a sparkling collection that finds CCL solidly in their element. (JL)
Diali Cissokho & Kairaba! — Resonance (self-released)
Diali Cisshokho packed his kora and left Senegal for love. He joined his wife, a Pittsboro, N.C. native, stateside, but carried with him a long line of griot tradition. Upon finding a quartet of American musicians — guitarist John Westmoreland, bassist Jonathan Henderson (also of Midtown Dickens), and percussionists Austin McCall and Will Ridenour — Cissokho founded Kairaba!, whose name translates, tellingly, to “peace and love.” The CD’s liner notes shrink the language barrier, offering exposition of Cissokho’s calls for positive change. The music, though, needs no translation. Cissokho plays his kora with rock-like exuberance, well complemented by Westmoreland’s crisp guitar work and the polyrhythmic funk the rhythm section provides. (BR)
David Daniell & Douglas McCombs — Versions (Thrill Jockey)
New Asheville denizen and guitar alchemist David Daniell, together with Chicago post-rock veteran Doug McCombs (on electric and lap steel here), release another set of improvs generated from the same 7-hour sessions that birthed the duo’s first set, 2009’s Sycamore. With producer-wiz Bundy K. Brown (ex-Tortoise) as conductor/director, this time the results are even better. Ten-minute-plus tracks “Rialto” and “Burn After Reading” sculpt guitar lines into giant monoliths, chipped away at by electronics and occasional percussion until all that remains are ethereal textures. The skittering beats and guitar delay that open “Key Lines”’ sounds like a Four Tet/Sonic Youth mashup, but morphs into a dubby psychedelic trip on the back half. A second LP of two live performances shows how improv differs in-studio and on-stage, and how good at both this collaborative is. (JS)
Forest Tourist — Pop Reject EP (self-released)
This Charleston quartet calls its big fuzzy barre chords, carnival synths and stagger-friendly tempos “trash pop,” an accurate enough anchor. But guitarist/singer Edward Burroughs’ slacker/crooner vocals and lyrics (think Jarvis Cocker) add a tinge of sensuous danger, cajoling the songs from the trashcan (or mosh pit) into the bedroom. “Wake me before I dream/I fall in love with everything,” Burroughs sings on the slinky “I Wouldn’t Want to Wake Up,” a Deerhunter-meets-The Strokes vibe seducing the listener into soporific acquiescence. Most impressive is the eight-minute “Trash Party,” a thrumming Buzzcocks-like rocker that keeps its stamina up throughout. Oh, to be young, buzzed and in love with everything again. (JS)
Ryan Monroe — A Painting of a Painting On Fire (RCMP)
Like Sloan or Let’s Active! before him, Ryan Monroe realizes that power-pop can be more than sterile hooks and knee-jerk melody. A Painting of a Painting On Fire, the solo debut from the Band of Horses sideman, is a purposefully polychromatic collection that ranges all over the pop canon but still manages to sound unified. The title track and “Shadow in the Shade” revive Elton John’s piano-powered stadium jams with witty wordplay and sweeping choruses. Fuzz-blasted rocker “On The Beach” injects rhythmic keys into Blue Album-era Weezer, pushing the pace even as its distortion slacks back. Monroe’s passionate vocals reign in the stylistic diversity, making A Painting a cohesive collection rich with promise for the future. (JL)
No Tomorrow/Oiltanker — Split (Profane Existence)
The first word from Wilmington’s No Tomorrow since their 2010 demo is a four-letter doozy. Since then, D-beat has seen a surge, to varying degrees of success. But in terms of strict formalism, few do it as well or reap as many rewards from it as No Tomorrow does here. Riding the thin white line between Discharge’s direct-assault punk and Motörhead’s unrelenting momentum, No Tomorrow serves its five-song A-side like a sock to the gut. Even the relatively languid finisher, “Nothing Left,” feels like a red-eye blitz as it slogs through Buzzov*en sludge. Connecticut’s Oiltanker do an impressive job keeping up on the flip. Their lo-fi scuzz ups the crust quotient, but the hits don’t stick quite as hard. Score one for the Tar Heels. (BR)
Joe Norkus — EP (Trekky)
Every once in a while, a record comes along that redefines an artist by simply refining and highlighting the things that made them great. The debut solo effort from Embarrassing Fruits guitarist Joe Norkus is such an album. Norkus has always written catchy indie rock songs replete with clever wordplay and ironic detachment. But EP strips back the thick-as-Pavement distortion, allowing Norkus’ words and melodies to shine through. Guitars tangle and unravel with remarkable nuance as Norkus drops his typically mumbling delivery for a warmingly dry croon. “I’m tired of writing songs that no one will hear,” Norkus sings on the Buddy Holly-esque “Last Night.” With the right exposure, EP may well allay his concerns. (JL)
Storms OV Jupiter — Cosmic Apocalypse (Post-Echo)
Columbia duo Storms OV Jupiter debuted earlier this year with the two-song, 30-minute Dying Screams of an Exploding Star, less than three months before unleashing this sprawling hour-plus platter. The consistency is remarkable; both records are effective mood-makers, imbuing the early-synth workouts Louis and Bebe Barron used to score the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet with tense horror-movie scores of composers like John Carpenter and Italo-prog scaremongers Goblin. Cosmic Apocalypse ups the ante. Taut, repetitious phrases create an ominous atmosphere, while synth oscillations and theremin warbles graft an extra dimension of captivating weirdness. Here, Storms OV Jupiter give a fresh pulse to the retro-futurist soundscape. The sprawling suite crosses an hour in only five songs, each playing like its own vignette. It’s a shame there isn’t a film to match. (BR)
Torch Runner — Committed to the Ground (To Live A Lie/Communitas)
Torch Runner has been steadily honing its tactics over a series of short-form releases, leading to this comparatively lengthy 23-minute platter. The A-side is Torch Runner as they’ve always been, fast and feral, sprinting through dense, dark hardcore pitted by blastbeats and caked in heavy distortion. At its heaviest, the band starts to hulk up into burly grind a la Brutal Truth. This record, though, finds the band stretching its limbs — particularly on the relatively spacious B-side. Exploring Grave-worthy grime with charred smears of ringing guitar chords, half-time throbs, even some slithering solos, Committed To the Ground catches Torch Runner at the top of its game. (BR)
Toro Y Moi — June 2009 (Carpark)
The 2012 edition of June 2009 is concise; some would say more concise than it should be. While the original CD-R given that name spanned 16 tracks, the new version features only 10. Brevity is rarely the boon of reissues, and this tight collection will likely rub many completists the wrong way. But these 10 songs represent a quick, enlightening and enjoyable blast into Toro Y Moi’s not-so-distant past. Lively but insular, the album finds central member Chaz Bundick in bedroom recording mode, cobbling together fuzzy soul with sensual bass lines and impassioned lyrics about appealingly trivial love affairs. Still, there are moments — like the lush Prince-isms of “Drive South” — that predict the polish of Toro’s present. (JL)
T0W3RS — If All We Have is Time (Diggup Tapes)
“Unfocused” is not usually utilized as a positive in record reviews. But for Carrboro’s T0W3RS their lack of focus is among their greatest strengths. Their full-length debut takes the “see what sticks” approach, excitedly reappropriating anything that has seen success in the indie realm in the last half-decade. “Swimmin’” is a solo, slapbacked guitar ballad that’s equal parts Conor Oberst and M. Ward. “eee!” is a crack-catchy slice of jangling pop-rock that Best Coast fans will adore. More impressive is the way T0W3RS blend their disparate songs together. The transition from “Scout/” to “The Cardinal/The Finch” is breathtaking, building reverb-drenched piano balladry into a Beach Boys-style pocket symphony with nary a bump along the way. (JL)
Wood Ear — Steeple Vultures (Churchkey)
Wood Ear’s catchy slice of organ-fueled barroom pop, the Attractions-meet-the-Replacements cut “Leave My Walls,” may be the obvious single off this Durham outfit’s 30-minute EP, but it’s hardly the only highlight. The strength of the record is Nate Tarr’s knack for filtering a largely Southern Rock-free sound and aesthetic – indie rock – through distinctly Southern filters. The epic title track sounds like Jay Farrar fronting Built to Spill; “Wasteland” is J Mascis through Southern Rock riffage; the minor chords on “Leghold” recall Fables-era R.E.M., and so on. This is the first music from Wood Ear in six years – here’s hoping the next lull is much shorter. (JS)