If first lines are important for setting the tone of an album, then the opening salvo from Salesman on Escalante lets you know that things aren’t going to progress in the normal fashion: “I believe the dead have to climb / up the narrow road that’s thinner than a chalk line / but they climb / like wine up my throat.” What unspools in the next 37 minutes is a hypnotic, haunting, eerie set of tunes that don’t adhere to any rules of genre or style. Escalante is its own thing, and that’s not something I get so say very often.
Opener “7×7” sets things in an ostensibly Americana/alt-country setting, with fractured but still recognizable alt-country guitar work and thrumming bass. It’s got those real wild lyics, but you can reasonably call it an alt-country song (albeit one that the Jayhawks never would have imagined). But by the second track, all genre markers are largely obliterated. “Horn” is the sort of song that seems fit for the desert: disjointed bass lines, spartan drumming, occasional dispatches of modified guitar noise, and distant sleigh bells accompany ghostly, mournful vocals for the first true taste of eerie. There is an impressive, grinding guitar bit (guitar solo?) halfway through, but it’s more like Tom Morello’s guitar solos than a surf-rock one.
Things get really wild on “Clear Cold Heaven,” which is a solo vocal piece accompanied only by unsettling clicking, buzzing, and whirring sounds. It is truly avant-garde, and more than a little creepy. (Bonus track “Bringing Upbringing” is constructed in a similar vein, but is less uncomfortable due to the mix of sounds around the vocals.) The members of Salesman know that they’ve been a bit rough on their listeners, so they close out Side A with the acoustically soothing “Spirit Jar,” a beautiful, pensive, slow, acoustic-led folk tune that’s about waking up in a spirit jar. (No rest for the eccentric.)
“Four Legs” counts as one of the more standard tracks here, a helter-skelter indie-rock track that invokes Pontiak and other swamp-lovin’ rock bands. It nears the levels of sonic aggression of Lord Buffalo, the noisy/apocalyptic alt-country band that shares members with Salesman. (“When You Face It” also cultivates this sort of deep-night, gritty-dusty groove.) “Loving Dead” also nears normalcy, opening with beautiful violin and guitar harmonics. So it’s totally possible for Salesman to make songs that adhere to genre patterns, but they just prefer to subvert them most of the time.
Escalante is a fearless, unrestrained record that makes a definite mark. It is not content to get in line with the other bands’ stuff. If you think there’s not enough alt in alt-country these days, Salesman might be on your avant-garde wavelength. Adventurous types, forge ahead!
The Music Collaborative is an extended group of friends centered around one woman (who also runs Sushi and Queso Designs). The idea is simple: e-mail all her friends and family each week for what they are listening to, then make a playlist out of it and put it on Spotify. You can access the playlists from Facebook or Spotify itself. The list is extremely diverse, with showtunes, rap, indie-rock, top 40, and classic rock all getting rep. Fun times! If you want to contribute to the mix, you can post on the Facebook wall. If you want to know what I’m listening to each week outside of stuff I cover, here’s a good way to find out. (Not a big secret, though: It’s mostly Mountain Goats songs.)
The Lightning Magazine proposes to be a quarterly counterculture magazine (printed on real paper, because who does that anymore?) that has a 20-album series associated with it. That’s a ton of music. Most notably for IC readers, old-school IC faves Pontiak are in on the thing. Here are some other people involved, listed as they styled the names:
SHINJI MASUKO (DMBQ/BOREDOMS) / CY DUNE / WOODEN WAND / PEOPLE OF THE NORTH / SAM AMIDON / CHRIS FORSYTH / WILLIAM TYLER / GREG SAUNIER (DEERHOOF) / AMERICAN CULTURE (and a bunch more). Finally, here’s a short video and description of it in their own words.
IC faves Soundsupply have teamed up with IC faves Deep Elm (as well as The Militia Group) to put out a drop that includes unsung emo heroes Brandtson’s full discography. Seriously, Brandtson and The Appleseed Cast pretty much were Deep Elm to me for a long time. You owe it to your emo-revival-loving self to check out Brandtson if you haven’t. 10 albums! 15 bucks! Totally!
Finally, I have been tapped to join the board of directors for North Carolina non-profit record label Croquet Records. This is really exciting to me, because who doesn’t want to be on a board of directors? Just kidding. I’m really pleased that I’ll be able to work with North Carolina-based singer/songwriters through this record label. (And I’ll make sure to publish any conflict of interest statements that are necessary.) The label will spring into action in 2015, so get ready for that.
Pontiak: It’s the end of the label as we know it (but don’t worry)!
No news is good news. At least that’s what it feels like in a musical climate where every press release and blog write-up is about some way that major labels, major bands, independent labels and independent bands are losing money.
But in this sea of pessimism, there are optimists. The three brothers of Pontiak (Jennings, Lain and Van) are in the minority of people who have an upbeat take on the status of the music world.
“People still want music,” Jennings says. “It’s the face of music that is changing.”
The brothers feel that this lack of attention to the changing face of music is why big record labels have suffered so greatly.
“Record labels are crumbling, really,” Jennings said. “I talked to the Director of Marketing at Sony/BMG, and he said he’s already looking at what he’s going to do next.”
But what will take the place of the large record labels when they’re gone?
“Niches for everything, that’s what’s happening,” says Lain. And the reason that niches are possible, they explained, is an economic theory entitled The Long Tail.
When heavily simplified, The Long Tail theory describes a scenario in which a large number of things selling at a small volume will eventually bring in more money than a few things selling in large volumes.
“The old model of the label is 1-2% of the catalog making up 90% of the profit,” Jennings explained. The new model is exactly backwards of the old, with 90% of the catalog bringing in 1-2% of the profit each – if not less. Thus, mass markets are not as necessary.
“If 100,000 people in the world know about us, that’s only one tenth of a percent of the population. But it’s enough to make it profitable,” Jennings said.
“Take Will Oldham. He’s a millionaire. Bright Eyes, he’s a millionaire. Most of America doesn’t know who Bright Eyes is,” Jennings said. “He’s got a family, a motorcycle and people who know about him. He’s not going for the top.”
“It’s no longer the Rolling Stones,” said Lain.
Jennings referred it back to Pontiak’s own experience of starting their own record label Fireproof Records.
“All we need is 20,000 people. If you consider all the cost of making a CD lost, then selling a CD for $10 makes you a lot of money,” Jennings said.
The Long Tail has been especially effective considering the proliferation of the internet, as consumers all over the globe are no longer subject to mass marketing to find their music. They can cut out the middle man and buy music straight from those who make it – thus, the viability of starting your own “record label,” and yet another nail in the coffin of the large record label idea.
That optimistic theory of world access is proved in mail that Pontiak gets.
“There’s a girl in Rangoon who told us that “Eyes” is her favorite song. We’re on in some bar in Rangoon and we don’t even know it,” Jennings said. “And there’s 14 or 15 year olds in Norway who play us on their Ipods.”
Even with the amount of money to be made from the vast amount of new consumers, they’re not trying to get rich. Just like the future of music is not in large record labels, it’s not in the rockstar mentality either.
“If I were able to make money off this, I wouldn’t even know what it’s like,” Van said. Jennings agrees.
“It would be a huge shift in the way I think, cause right now 20% of the stuff I do is the stuff that pays the bills,” Jennings said.
That’s just one of the huge shifts that will be taking place in people’s minds if Pontiak is correct in their assumptions about the future of music.
“People still want to see music,” Lain said. “It’s just that the interaction is changing.”
Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More. 1st. United States: Hyperion, 2006.
Label Name: Organ Grinder Records (www.organgrinderrecords.com)
Band E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hand-numbered releases reveal a lot about a band’s character. If a band is daring enough to release one, it’s proof that they believe in the desirability of their band’s product. If the number is small, you can assume the band has got a bit of an ego going on (humble bands won’t ever number their releases- they don’t want people to know how good or bad it’s going). If the number is in the hundreds (as in Pontiak’s The White Buffalo EP), the band has some serious dedication to its sound.
I hold in my hand the two-hundred and eighty-fourth copy of Pontiak’s EP. It has a total run of 300, as noted by the 284/300 lovingly written on both the CD front and the inset art. That’s an accomplishment in itself.
But you’re here to see how Pontiak sounds, so I will stop my admiration of their work ethic and start the critiquing of music. Their sound is a very low-slung, rootsy sound, drawing on low vocals, slow tempos, and unique aesthetics. I hesitate to say mellow, because even though Pontiak is not the loudest band around, they aren’t trying to put you to sleep (except on the lullaby-esque “It Takes One”). Their intensity just takes on different forms. The creepy, mournful call of “Strings Dancing” feels like a misplaced spiritual, until the band kicks in and turns it into a bluesy rocker of sorts. Nothing Pontiak does is especially categorizable into a specific genre, so when I say ‘of sorts’, I mean it bears resemblance.
The non-tempo-based intensity continues on “Night’s Daughter”, which is bass-heavy with some graveling vocals, and with “Doors to Haiti”, a neo-jazzy piece in the vein of Nick Cave and co. Closer “Ophelia” is the real treat here, as a punchy bass line and cymbal-dependent drum lines create a hectic atmosphere for the guitars and vocals to play around in. The low-key post-punk that is inadvertently created is simply astounding, and the replay value on “Ophelia” is through the roof.
The nods to folk and indie-pop are evident here, and the subtle hints of rock are visible, but for the most part, this EP is the genre of melancholia. Pontiak feels like a dark, lonely night in a cabin or a graveyard somewhere, and sometimes that’s the place you want to be.
There’s enough firepower in just the first five tracks of Pontiak’s Valley of Cats to make me want to rant and rave about it- and there are still 8 more songs to get me more excited than I already am.
Valley of Cats is such a cosmic leap in songwriting from their previous EP White Buffalo that it’s almost not even worth comparing the two. Valley of Cats focuses on intensity, either bursting forth or brooding below the surface- White Buffalo EP seemed content to plod. White Buffalo EP made me think about what genre it fell in- Valley of Cats makes it clear that Pontiak is here to rock you. If the Strokes came down from the Appalachians, the music that they would be blasting as they rode into town in their pick-ups would be the earthy yet rocking tones of Pontiak’s new album.
It’s tough to write about something this entirely good- it’s one of those albums that you turn on any song and put it at any place in the song and you’ve got a part that makes you think “oh yeah, this is a cool part!” Whether it’s the eerie minimalism of the end of “Hydrogen Fires”, the post-punk guitar and wailing choir of “Ask for Attention”, the revved up guitars of opener “Crows on the Move”, the wicked bass/drums intro to “Eyes”, or the stomping 70’s guitar and bass of the title track, every song here is awesome. If you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not- I literally used the technique I described earlier to pick the aforementioned cool sections. This album will blow your mind.
Whatever happened to Pontiak over the last year or so, it must have been significant, because it turned them into a rock machine. The astounding thing is that there are only three men in Pontiak, and they’ve completed a nearly flawless rock album- it’s innovative, it’s head-bobbing, it’s got something to yell along to, it’s got heavy songs (“Salt Flats”), it’s got light songs (“Made for the Luxury”), and it’s got to be in your collection. This is the best band I have heard about all year, and I thought I already knew about them. This is the release of the year so far, and there’s only two months left in the year. A monumental release.
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.