As I happily noted on my personal Facebook, “American Democracy is a fragile concept that has now withstood 237 years of the best and most creative abuse Americans and their government can throw at it.” We have problems like everyone else; we are not exceptional in that. Still, I am proud to be an American.
One of those problems is the recently unearthed NSA PRISM project, which has been monitoring large swaths of the Internet under some wide interpretations of a law. The Internet Defense League has organized a massive protest against this today. I’m supporting their “Cat Signal” to protect the Internet from sweeping, unwarranted, unprecedented surveillance. Not because I don’t like America or freedom, but because I do like America and freedom. Especially the 4th amendment, which was important enough to end up fourth on the list.
All Julianna Barwick needs on “Forever” is four female vocalists and some ambient synths to create transcendent beauty. This is one of the most gorgeous tracks I’ve heard all year.
If you love James Taylor, America, and that Nashville folk sound from the ’70s, “Shed a Little Light” by Winter Mountain is going to be on your good list. You will hum and sing.
So I just found out that students from Hocking College are behind the Robbins Crossing sessions, which is A. Completely awesome and B. Completely jealousy-making for this ex-journalism undergrad. In this version, Decker (of Belle Histoire) brings her clear, emotive vocals to bear over an acoustic guitar in a historic cabin. Sweet.
I’ve been getting into electronic music a little bit more recently, but I still have the deepest part of my musical heart reserved for singer/songwriters armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar. Scott Fant fits that description perfectly, as he employs his careworn tenor over a six-string for the five tunes of Pig Iron. Fant balances precise, melodic guitarwork with a careworn voice that includes weariness but isn’t defined by it. It’s not a gruff or rough tone, but one that has nicks around the edges, as in the excellent “Worse for the Wear.” The memorable vocals are framed well by both chord strumming and fingerpicking. Fant likes to remain in folk-singer mode, but there are some worthy blues inclusions (“8 Lb. Sledge”) and even a bit of classical influence (“Restless Wind”). Fans of Joe Pug, Joe Purdy and maybe even Ray LaMontagne (although without the romantic overtones) will eat this up. Fant is a strong songwriter that should be watched closely: as they say in the draft, he’s got a lot of upside and a really high ceiling.
Christian martyrs Quirinus, Sadoth, and Ri may not be household names, but Martyr’s Prayers by The Project moves them out of the Fox’s Book of Martyrs and into the musical sphere. The album’s best moments come when the band focuses on acoustic folk treatments like lead single “Romero,” the cello-led “Becket,” and the melodically memorable “Clement.” Most of the album leans this way, but there are some louder moments in the stories of the martyrs. The dramatic “Carpus” opens with arch piano arrangement before unveiling some wailing guitar work over the despondent chords. While “Bonhoeffer” has unexpected alt-rock guitar that disrupts the flow of the album, “Sadoth” is a straight-up classic rocker that fits the character of the album much more. It fits because the “classic” tag leans into some of the folk work too, as “Ignatius” and “Ravensbruck” recall the arrangements of older folk heroes like America and Simon & Garfunkel. Martyr’s Prayers is a unique album that’s worth a listen for fans of folk and/or church history, as long as some unexpected turns don’t bother you.
Killing Kuddles was introduced to me as a rockabilly band, but some of the “abilly” edges have worn off between then and now. Odd Man Out is a five-song release that leans heavily on old-school rock’n’roll sounds for its sonic and lyrical material (“Rock & Roll Is Dead”). The guitars clang admirably, the cymbals thrash mightily, and the bass wallops. The element that most signifies any sort of country-ish vibe is Elwood Kuddles’ raspy throat, which lands between a punk sneer and a Tom Waits growl. It leans toward the former on the rapid-fire opener “Not Coming Back” and more toward the latter in the folk-punk “Dropped the Pop.”
Killing Kuddles’ old-school rock sound has some connection to modern punk rock bands like The Gaslight Anthem and Titus Andronicus: bands that adhere to an old-school idea that rock should be loud and fast and unadorned by labels. Those bands might be right; it could be that I’m doing these songs a disservice trying to categorize them. If you like rock with the amps turned up and a rebellious sneer, Odd Man Out is going to be in your wheelhouse.
I’m spending my summer in Austin, Texas, doing an internship. For the most part it has been a restful and rewarding experience, but like any other experience, it’s been lonely and frustrating at times. I’ve had The Menzingers’ world-weary but determined On the Impossible Past on repeat because I can relate with the Pennsylvania punk band’s seething frustration when appropriate. Their frustrations originally differed from mine: they’re banging their heads against regrets, the past, and what it means to be American. But as I listened to the album over and over, I found myself right there in the boat with them: How do we get over our pasts? And why are our feelings about America such a part of that process?
To the Menzingers, being American is a conflicted thing. Opener “Good Things” states their difficulties right up front:
“I’ve been closing my eyes to find
Why all good things should fall apart
Like when we would take rides in your American muscle car
I felt American for once in my life
I never felt it again”
Being American is tied up in the past, the present, and the future. The car, the experience of unbounded freedom, the slow fade-in of priorities and responsibilities; these are part of growing up, and they’re part of growing up American. Teenagerdom is awesome, and not every country’s 17-year-olds get to have it. They don’t get to ride around in cars and have petty emotional troubles and make crazy memories. When I was 17, I didn’t think about that; mine was the only reality I knew. America was the only reality I even knew of. I knew that other places were exactly like mine, because mine was the only thing I could conceive.
And that changes, the older you get. “I’ve cursed my lonely memory/with picture-perfect imagery/Maybe I’m not dying/I’m just living in decaying cities,” one of the Menzingers’ two vocalists sings in “The Obituaries.” The realization that things outside of me mattered was one of a few stark realizations I’ve had that changed everything. Looking back at the blissfully ignorant past can be a cause for shame, or wishing you knew then what you know now. And at its extremes, it can cause people to renounce “all that.” As the band proclaims in “Mexican Guitars,”
“I did what I did to get away from this
Cause everything that’s happened has left me a total wreck
And everything that I do now is meaningless
So I’m off to wander around the world for a little bit”
Since Americanism is inextricably tied up in the past, it’s inseparable from regrets. In trying to forget the regrets, it’s easy to want to renounce the youthful complicit Americanism. Maybe we could move on to a more enlightened, post-Americanized self to match a post-regrets self? (The fact that neither thing exists does not mean they are not desirable ideas.) “Gates” ties the thoughts together tighter, vocally pointing out a-MER-i-can and linking the experience of an American summer to a relationship gone wrong. Here’s the chorus: “I’m going up to your gates today/to throw my lonely soul away/I don’t need it/You can take it back.”
But as of this writing, the Menzingers are preparing for an American tour. They’re still from Scranton, PA, which now has an iconic American-ness as the location of The Office. If they go to another country, they will be noted as Americans. And no matter how conflicted our opinions are on our unasked-for economic privilege and (occasionally) undesirable cultural forebears, the tag will stick with all of us who were born or nationalized in America. We have to decide what to do with it.
Claiming American-ness, as Brett McCracken notes, “can seem gauche and vulgar” because of the rah-rah jingoism that has long been a part of American-ness. But it’s not all there is about being American. Apple pie and baseball are loved by coarse boors, the the high cultured and everyone in between. No, there is a place for us to come to terms with all that American-ness has tied up in it.
There is a meaning of America that sits outside of our political confines. It is a meaning that has an analogue in any and every country’s citizens, regardless of politics: “being American” forces us to deal with what it means to be a part of things. We are, simply, a part of things that we didn’t ask to be a part of. Do we reject the mantle? Do we change the narrative? Do we accept the idea wholesale, as it was given to us? All these things should matter to people of every country. They should matter to Americans. They matter to me. And July 4 is an appropriate time for Americans to think about these things.
In the novel Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson and and Robert Jordan, the character Perrin is faced with a similar problem. He has been thrust into leadership, and he’s spent the better part of six books rejecting that he is a leader or waffling. But a point comes where he must make a decision. His thought process at the critical junction ends up being simple: “He hadn’t asked to become a leader, but did that absolve him of the responsibility? People needed him.” And that’s it. After all the run-up, all the wondering and wandering, the choice is there for him: Am I absolved? He decides no, and goes on to lead. (And do awesome things.)
We did not ask for our American-ness, but we are stuck with its burden until we claim it or reject it. If we claim it, it can be a source of joy and pride as well as challenge–America is not without problems, and claiming American-ness doesn’t absolve you from those. (Rather, it gives you the responsibility to deal with them, in whatever station you interact with them.) Rejecting the past just means we force it away when it appears, and it will appear; rejection of the past is not an erasure of the past. The Menzingers’ title track is a slowed-down, mournful, 93-second continuation of “Good Things,” where they drunkenly crash the car into a ditch on a wintry night. “We always dreamt of having nice things,” the vocalist says to close the song, pained. Until the mind-wiping process from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds becomes real, we have to figure out our pasts and all the Americanness that goes with it at some point.
And that’s how I found myself in league with The Menzingers and the thoughts espoused on their incredible album; as I am not making too many new memories in this temporary city, I have thought a great deal about old memories and future plans. I remember times where I didn’t want to be American–but what I really meant was that I didn’t want to be dominated by materialism, which I saw as an evil and inextricable from American-ness. I see a future where I might not live in America, due to the whims of the job market. These are parts of my personality that can’t have their relationship with American-ness extracted. The Menzingers and I can’t pull apart our pasts, presents and futures from America, because this is the culture that made us. We didn’t ask to be born here, but we were; we wouldn’t have the pasts we have if we were born elsewhere.
So, on July 4, what is my stance toward America? I love it. I love it because I am who I am for growing up here. I love the life I have, and that’s due to the un-asked for opportunities I have. Do I see a bigger world now than I did when I was 17? Yes, and it’s important. I don’t see just America, and I don’t see just its good parts. I don’t take my opportunities for granted, and I want to help others have the opportunities I have. There is no need to reject the American-ness that I didn’t ask for, when it can be used for good.
I was an American, and am an American, and will be an American, because its cultural pull shaped my past and will shape my future. I embrace that. Happy Independence Day.
I’ve always enjoyed the name Pop Will Eat Itself. I’ve never heard a single song by them (although the tune “Get the Girl! Kill the Baddies!” sounds awesome), but their name has been about as prophetic as MTV’s ominous and prescient first choice of music video. Pop certainly has started eating itself. Example: I had a yelling fight with a close relation over the fact that Imogen Heap, not Jason DeRulo, wrote the hook to DeRulo’s “Whatcha Say.” It was a low point in music history for me.
But DeRulo’s thievery (thievery, I say!) is different than Ash Gray and Girls’ reinventing of pop. They’re both eating pop music, but DeRulo’s not even chewing, while Ash Gray is messing the peas and mashed potatoes on the plate before it even gets to the mouth. Okay, enough with that analogy.
Ash Gray and Girls is a pop band that sounds a little bit like all of these people: Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Garth Brooks, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, America, Neil Young, the Clash, and the B-52s. There is absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been done before. But that doesn’t matter, because Ash Gray has taken all the pieces of pop music and put them together in odd ways. “Your Gun is Out” is the Clash playing with the B-52s singing. “Rock’n’Roll Record” sounds like Heart’s “Barracuda” being played by John Cougar Mellencamp. “Fire Away” sounds like Garth Brooks fronted by Neil Young. These are all great songs.
The only thing holding these tunes together is Ash Gray’s acoustic guitar, which is almost omnipresent, and a bright tone to all of the proceedings. There are also plenty of female backup vocals (I assume these are Girls of the band name). There’s only seven songs on This Could Be a Wild Night, but each is its own adventure, from a face-melting guitar solo (“Fire Away”) to the Lou Reed impersonation that is “Rules.”
Ash Gray and Girls is the type of band that gets everyone in the bar dancing because they remind them of some other band that they usually shake their moneymaker to. Ash Gray seems to have recognized this and capitalized on it, yanking shtick after shtick and combining them into memorable songs. Ash Gray and Girls seem to have become the acoustic pop version of Girl Talk, jacking stuff from everywhere and turning it into something new and different. Highly recommended for fans of any of the gazillion bands I’ve name checked so far, plus Jason Mraz and anyone else with an acoustic guitar and a pop hook. This Could Be a Wild Night is one heck of an EP.
I’ve been following Like Clockwork for a long time. Jesse Astin, the driving force behind the band, has always had a unique vision for his songs. Sometimes this is awesome; sometimes it’s just confusing. “Oh My God!”, a new single off upcoming album These Are All Things is no different.
It is different in the fact that this is the most accessible thing I’ve ever heard Like Clockwork make: the bulk of this song is a indie-pop techno ditty, a la Postal Service. The vocals are in turns sneering and vulnerable, but always clear and confident. The song’s melodies are all clever and immediately memorable, inspiring multiple listens. The only problem is that there are some weird extra bits in the song that drag it in weird directions. I don’t say they drag it down, but with their inclusion, “Oh My God!” definitely situates itself outside the canon of “normal pop songs.”
The first fifteen seconds are distorted screaming. I kid you not. It doesn’t seem like the best intro to a pop song, and to be honest, I’m kind’ve disappointed in the intro, because it doesn’t introduce the song well. Then the pop song about paranoia comes in and sticks around for a while; then a rock song denouncing America appears. The juxtaposition holds together because he says he’s worried about living in America, as “every empire must fall, and I live in America.”
But the weirdest bit of the song comes in the last minute, which is a field recording of a guy ranting about all of us being one. It’s your garden-variety “all is one! forget countries! forget religions! just be one!” street corner ranting. In addition to it being a peculiar addition to a pop song, I can’t figure out if he’s supporting or rejecting this guy’s ideas. I think he’s supporting it, but it’s not clear.
Even though it’s a bit conflicted and a tad bit confusing, it’s a mark of a good songwriter that I can write three hundred and fifty words about one song. If Jesse Astin has more songs of this caliber or better lined up in an upcoming release, I’m very excited for that release. I recommend checking out Like Clockwork’s myspace for this track.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.